Monday, October 11, 2010

In Praise of Technology - Part 2

I changed the title of yesterday's post from the (IMO, awkward) "In Love With Technology" to "In Praise of Technology".  There's method to my madness.

For folks who get here through Google/Bing searches, talking about technology probably makes them think of things like iPods/Pads, smart phones, computers, Facebook/Twitter and other modern time wasters.  When I say this, though, I mean the whole rich infrastructure of modern western life.  Everything from indoor plumbing and excellent water treatment to commercial space launches.  Anyone who doesn't rank good public water supplies with the best of technologies has never seen cholera outbreaks, or seen children die from dehydration caused by diarrhea.  I praise it, I love it and I don't want to see it go.

Technology and energy consumption tend to go hand in hand.  I'm sure you've heard the Eco-NAZI quote that "the US consumes 25% of the world's energy but has 5% of the world's population", with the implication being that we are selfish pigs.  But energy is directly proportional to wealth, and (until the 2008 collapse) we produced roughly 25% of the world's wealth with 25% of the energy.  In any event, China is now the world's largest consumer of energy and the world's largest polluter, and I certainly don't hear any condemnation over their energy use. The simple fact is that we have a lifestyle dependent on the availability of energy to keep this wonderful infrastructure running and keep us producing.  Anything that jeopardizes that energy supply jeopardizes our life.

Most readers have heard the term "Peak oil"; if not, suffice it to say that the idea is that the absolute peak of oil production either has been or soon will be hit.  From here on, energy gets more expensive and our lifestyle is in jeopardy.  If there was a free market in oil, I'd say, "peak oil, schmeak oil - I don't care", because all that means is that as oil gets more expensive, other sources of energy will replace it; and it's not like oil hasn't been getting more expensive for the last 40 years, anyway.  Nuclear is the obvious choice for electricity production, and the shift to electric cars.  Behind that, the options raise steadily in price.  There is hope that Moore's Law applies to solar cells and that solar cells will be cheap enough to go into wide scale use within the next 10 years.  The fact that there is not a free market in oil (i.e., OPEC) means the price can do anything they can get away with.  In a free market, people will gradually shift from the more expensive energy to the cheaper one and balance the effects of peak oil automatically.  It appears to me that the administration's policies are intended to force us into paying more for oil to get us to make that shift before the market dictates it.  For either eco-NAZI or other fascist reasons. 

Readers of JWR's Survivalblog and some other survival literature tend to discuss complete collapse of civilization: The End Of The World As We Know It - TEOTWAWKI.  While there is always a possibility of a complete end, my personal belief is that won't happen.  I believe the most likely scenario is an economic collapse like Ferfal (Surviving in Argentina) describes here (I've highlighted things that I believe I've already seen in my travels): 
If lucky you’ll still live in that same house, Main Street will still be called Main Street, kids will still go to the same school, with a bit of luck and hard work you’ll keep your job… but employees may have to accept a 20% reduction in salary so as to save the company.  Your kid’s school will have fund cuts and some classes may be canceled, the infrastructure may suffer for lack of maintenance due to low funds. The school quickly looks dirty, clearly needing some paint and repairs. As time goes by Main street is full of holes and no ones patches them. Stuff at Walmart is now more expensive. Little by little the packages, cans and bottles start getting smaller (yet the price it higher than before) , you see less and less of those mega super value 50 unit packs. There’s less variety too, they no longer import or produce locally the expensive brands anymore. Too expensive to do so. Crime is getting worse too. Home invasions in towns where it had never happened before, even people getting kidnapped. As more senseless violent crime becomes more common and criminals realize that the poorly paid police, with not enough patrol cars, not enough gas and not enough manpower is just a shadow of what it once was, armed robbery slowly becomes a fact of life across America, and those that don’t want to accept it suffer the consequences.
The rise in prices and drop in package sizes is something I've already written about.  Nationally, we have already had municipalities (Oakland, CA, for example) tell their citizens that they won't pursue burglary and property theft, and an Ashtabula County, Ohio, judge told citizens to arm themselves due to a shortage of Sheriff's deputies.  

So here's a bit of future-trend prediction based on things I see coming.  Our tendency to have a "disposable society" is going to decline.  People will hold onto possessions longer, and wear them out.  A close friend from West Virginia had a great saying that sums this up:  "make it, make do, or do without".  That means a return, at least partially, to a time when more people made their own things.  On almost any weekend around town, you'd hear power tools going as guys would be making or repairing furniture or fixing their cars.  Inside, women would be making or repairing clothing.  If you don't already know: learn how to do these things.  Over the years, I've put together a pretty nice shop, with an assortment of woodworking tools, and small metalworking tools.  I have made many sets of shelves, a wall unit, and small wooden boxes.  My metalworking has largely been tools to help with other hobbies.  

There are potentially disruptive technologies coming.  The oldest is Computer Numerical Control, or CNC.  My metal working tools include a CNC metal lathe and CNC milling machine.  The tools are made by Sherline, except I rebuilt a surplus milling machine with parts from A2Z CNC.  These small machine tools can handle an item roughly the length and width of a legal pad (8 1/2 by 14") and a few inches tall.  They need to be used relatively slowly and gently compared to a full sized, full powered milling machine, but if the speed isn't imperative, you can let it work while you do other things.  The material isn't a large concern; I've milled wax, plastic, brass, aluminum, steel and titanium.  It is surprisingly entertaining to watch it make parts for you.  Of course, CNC is not restricted to metal working.  CNC Routers are very widespread, even Sears sells a CNC router made by Carvewright, and are changing the face of professional fine woodworking.

This is my small mill, capable of making extremely precise small parts.  

The next disruptive technology is 3D printing.  Commercial 3D printing is widely available, and prices are coming down.  They are probably priced where color laser printers were in about 1990; with some at $5000, and some are less, but still pretty expensive for home use.  There are home groups of open source collaborators (such as Reprap) trying to bring cost down and availability up.  3D printers are the closest things to a Star Trek replicator we have.  They can make plastic parts, which either can be used as is, glued up into larger plastic things, or which can be used to make molds for casting metal parts.  3D printers are widely used in industry, where they can make all of the parts used in a complex assembly to verify clearances.

I don't know how far off it is, but once 3D printing starts to get widespread, the days of importing cheap plastic junk from China are over.  You can print them yourself.  This has the potential to change global dynamics.

Of the two technologies, I consider CNC machining more mature and closer to most people's grasp.  They are not interchangeable, though, and some things are easier to do on a 3D printer.  The milling machine is subtractive; you start with a block of metal or plastic and cut away everything that isn't your part.  The printers are additive; they only put down the material you want.  It's easier to do hollow structures with a 3D printer. 

The technology to put tools like this into the hobbyist's shop is just another example of how widespread computing is changing everything.  Just another reason I want our technology to stay.

Edit: to fix problems with the photo, 10/11 1930 EDT

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