NBC forced me to have these thoughts

Curse them and their Olympic advertising:

  • Does Visa really think this “only card accepted at the Olympics” business is a good idea? How many people hear that boast and think “Oh shit! Good thing I went with Visa — I’d hate to have to visit an ATM four years from now, maybe.” My guess: fewer than the number that realize that Visa has taken their money and spent it on a) making other companies’ customers’ lives slightly less convenient and b) getting Morgan Freeman to relay that accomplishment to us.
  • Kath and Kim. Maybe you’ll be funny! You’ve got Selma Blair on your cast, and if someone’s good enough for Hellboy she’s good enough for me. But it’s pathetically clear that you really, really want us to think you’re like Arrested Development, sort of. And the shadow of Molly Shannon looms. I fear you, and for you.

there is no better battery

Ryan and I have been going back and forth in his comments about the likelihood of carsharing services going electric. I think it’s unlikely because they’d have to spend too much time charging; he thinks they’re a good candidate for early rollout of the charging infrastructure necessary for such a switch. Most recently he said:

In practice, this could be achieved incrementally. Tweak business models over a ten year period through which you slowly switch from gas engines to plug-in hybrids to all electric, over which period, presumably, battery technology slowly improves. Needn’t be done all at once.

I think this is a point that’s worth making here and at some length: “presum[ing that] battery technology improves” is setting yourself up for failure.

In truth, there have only been a few noteworthy improvements in battery tech during Ryan and my lifetimes: longer-lived NiCd and NiMH batteries; some improvement in alkaline batteries; and the popularization of lithium batteries. But look closer and you’ll realize that most of these aren’t actually battery innovations, per se: they’re benefits of the microprocessor revolution. Cheap, smart charging circuitry allowed us to avoid memory effects; to balance load across cells; and to monitor lithium cells’ temperature and voltage as they charge so that they don’t catch fire (well… usually), thereby finally making lithium a viable option for consumer electronics. Those are all important developments, but at this point we’ve wrung about as much as we can out of charging our batteries more cleverly.

None of this has done much to improve the fundamental energy storage densities of the underlying chemistries. These have been known for a long time now, and nothing is going to change them — nor are there any more promising elements like lithium waiting to be tamed (well, none that aren’t radioactive, anyway). The glacial pace of improvement in battery technology really can’t be overemphasized. The lead-acid battery was developed in 1859, for pete’s sake. It’s really heavy relative to the energy it stores, can produce explosive fumes if overcharged, and sometimes requires the addition of distilled water. Yet it’s still the best battery technology we have for supplying the high current necessary to turn over an engine. A century and a half and we haven’t come up with anything better!

It may seem like batteries have improved dramatically — consider the lifespan of an iPod Nano versus a portable cassette player. But this is misleading. In fact it’s a byproduct of more energy-efficient technologies. Which isn’t to dismiss energy effiency! But electric motors are already extremely efficient. And when it comes to vehicles, we’re unfortunately dealing with hard physical limits related to how much energy it takes to move a car. So long as we’re committed to EVs being able to perform like and drive safely near gasoline-powered cars, we will find ourselves with less room for improvement than people would like to think.

I don’t mean to be a downer, but it’s difficult to overstate what a serious problem this is, or for how long it’s been one. Hydrocarbons are an unbelievably efficient way to store energy when compared to electrochemical cells, and I seriously doubt anything will change that. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong. But smart people have been working on the battery problem for decades and decades, propelled by the lure of the financial bonanza that a breakthrough would represent. And while they’ve made impressive improvements, none come anywhere close to competing with gasoline’s energy density. We’re still an order of magnitude away.

Now of course there are always fuel cells. And nanotech’s vast surface areas may deliver unexpected breakthroughs. But a bet that counts on a better battery is still a very, very bad wager.

it’s authenticity day at Manifest Density

Spencer’s right: I shouldn’t get myself tangled up in questions of potato chip birthrights. Perhaps my intemperate comments were motivated by jealousy. After all, it’s not like you can buy Utz Chili Half Smoke Chips. The Crab Chip belongs to Baltimore; maybe I only think I don’t want it because I know it can never truly be mine.

But the point of that post stands! On Friday night, thanks to Ficke and Becks’ generous snack-procurement, I had some Crab Chips back to back with Carolina Style BBQ Chips. I may have underestimated the Crab Chip, but Carolina BBQ remains the superior snack food.

more of one thing doesn’t mean less of another

Emily Gould, whose name I continue to be unable to read without thinking of evil alien parasites, has an article in Technology Review, of all places, in which she continues her new career as a professional haver of mixed feelings about the internet.

Specifically, she’s talking about Clay Shirky’s book, which she characterizes more or less fairly as a triumph of internet triumphalism — one that’s impressive, of course, but which ignores (of course) the ineffable something or other that we’re all losing in this topsy-turvy world.

Like an expatriate who reads every new novel that’s set in her homeland, I read books about the Internet to remember the time I spent working and living there, to contrast my memories with the authors’ impressions and see how well they hold up. In Shirky’s descriptions of the way new Web-based social tools are restructuring businesses, communities, and relationships, I recognize familiar scenery. He knows what he’s talking about–he’s lived there too. You get the sense, though, that he’s somehow managed to avoid walking down any dark alleys, or staring too long at any piles of fetid garbage.

To make her case she invokes Walter Benjamin’s famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which I probably should already be familiar with but in fact just read this morning.

Shirky even believes that technology is creating and enabling “love”; when he talks about the hundreds of thousands of people who are collaboratively building Wikipedia, he says they “love one another in its context.” He fails to mention–or maybe he fails to notice–that the “love” and “freedom” he describes don’t mean quite what they did back when our meat acquaintances outnumbered our Facebook “friends.”


Maybe, in the same way that Benjamin says the difference between “follow[ing] with the eye, while resting on a summer afternoon, a mountain range on the horizon” and experiencing that same mountain range at a remove (imagine a picture postcard) makes it harder to appreciate the real thing (“Gosh, this mountain is beautiful! Just like a postcard!”), social-media technologies are creating simulacra of social connection, facsimiles of friendship. By ignoring that difference, as Shirky mostly does, we keep moving heedlessly toward a future where the basic human social activities that these new technologies are modeled on–talking, being introduced to new people by friends–are threatened.

But Gould is simplifying what Benjamin actually says. His essay’s most relevant portions concern the changing nature of art in the face of technology that can reproduce it. And yes, he says that something is lost:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.


[...]


One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

This isn’t just wistfulness, though. Sure, Benjamin notes with sadness the loss of opportunities for considering art on its own terms, rather than the mass-production-enabled use of it as grist for the culture’s neverending cocktail party chatter. But he also notes aura’s exclusivity and the elitism that’s only possible through scarcity. He’s not bemoaning the decline of aura, per se, just observing it. Dude’s a Marxist — the democratization afforded by reproduction and the “emancipa[tion of] the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” is right up his alley.

So here’s where Gould gets it wrong. Yes, there is something missing from online interactions. But that’s not some privileged insight about the nature of our new, electronic world — it’s the most basic one. Worse, it’s a dead end. Noting the validity of holisticism is fine, but the only place you can go from there is mysticism, and that’s no use to anybody.

Gould thinks Shirky is a callow idealist, but he’s not. He’s just noting the incredible bounty that technology can afford us while politely declining to complain about the places where it falls short.

Not only is Gould preoccupied with the latter, she’s blind to the former. And hey, I can relate. Digital technology has its own Benjaminian aura, you know — excitement born of novelty, and exclusivity, and revolutionary rhetoric. Once that novelty wears off, though, things can start to look kind of drab. I mean, it’s exciting that the world has collaboratively built an encyclopedia! But it is an encyclopedia. And the idea of an encyclopedia — a comprehensive reference document written without passion or position — is actually kind of boring. The same holds for social communication and our lofty rhetoric about the triumph of a world where information can flow freely. Once you’re done patting yourself on the back you need to start paying attention to what people are actually saying. And that’s hard. Sometimes it’s even boring.

It’s depressing when you realize how much of your excitement about a thing was tied up in its aura; to find out that superficial considerations formed the basis of your enthusiasm. I struggle with this myself: I’m overcome with contempt at every useless, vowel-less internet startup I see, its founders desperate to think of themselves as brilliant revolutionaries despite no one — least of all them — actually caring a whit about what they say they’re trying to do. But that contempt is motivated in no small part by feeling the exact same ignoble impulse.

But this is my own failing, and, I suspect, Gould’s. It doesn’t make any less important those advances, the ones we thought we believed in. It just means that we overstated their importance in the first place, or exaggerated our level of interest in them as we fell in love with their aura. Either way it was self-flattery, and we have only ourselves to blame.