Derek Sivers
Where Is My Flying Car? - by J Storrs Hall

Where Is My Flying Car? - by J Storrs Hall

Date read: 2021-07-13
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Incredibly ambitious and specific. Says we’d have flying cars and nanotech today, and all power should be nuclear, if not for misguided regulations.

my notes

Obtain a copy of Nanosystems, a high-end workstation, a pile of molecular simulation software, and have at it. In ten years or so of hard work you will have a much better grasp of the subject of nanotechnology, and be in position to write your own ticket as nanotech begins to show up in the real world, as anyone who had gotten into machine learning a decade ago would be positioned in the AI boom today.

Once we have machines built to atomically-precise specifications, which can in their turn build more machines to atomically-precise specifications, we will have stepped onto the same escalator that we did in digital information technology.

Our physical technology is still in what we might call the Analog Age. The only field in which we are manipulating matter digitally is biotech, where nature has led the way. But within a decade or two the bridge will be crossed. We will begin to make machines that can make absolutely anything.

The innovator’s enemies are all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly.

The great innovations that made the major quality-of-life improvements came largely before 1960: refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves, and washing machines; indoor plumbing, detergent, and deodorants; electric lights; cars, trucks, and buses; tractors and combines; fertilizer; air travel, containerized freight, the vacuum tube and the transistor; the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television.
... and they were all developed privately.
While private R&D had a positive 0.26 correlation with economic growth, government funded R&D had a negative 0.37 correlation!

Centralized funding of an intellectual elite makes it easier for cadres, cliques, and the politically skilled to gain control of a field, and they by their nature are resistant to new, outside, non-Ptolemaic ideas.

Too many young people are spending too much time in the ivory tower, instead of doing real things in the real world.
Too much education is bad for the economy, and inhibits technological innovation.

Civil servants are often no longer servants and no longer civil.

America’s median household income is now $53,000. If we had simply maintained the amount of regulation we had in 1949 since then, our income would now be $185,000 per household.

The actual benefits of regulation are almost always overestimated.

Regulators are not elected and the regulations they promulgate are not subject to any significant check or balance.
Last year Congress passed 138 laws; agencies published 2,926 new regulations. Federal courts handled about 95,000 cases. Regulatory administrative courts? A million.

Regulators: We took more than a million of the country’s most talented and motivated people and put them to work making arguments and filing briefs, against each other so their efforts mostly cancel out, instead of inventing.

FAA continues to ban supersonic flight over land in the US, with no reference to noise, even though modern technology could most likely cut sonic booms in half.
The ostensible reason, noise over ritzy Long Island suburbs, turned out to be wrong; the Concorde was quieter on approach than conventional airliners.

If we had had in 1900 the regulatory and legal environment that we have now, we would never have gotten the family car; imagine that Ford had gotten sued every time someone steered a Model T into a ditch. Alternatively, if we had kept the regulatory environment of 1950 (1930 for aircraft) throughout the rest of the century, we would have flying cars today.

Unchecked regulation destroys the learning curve, prevents innovation, protects and preserves inefficiency.

The Bomb and Mutual Assured Destruction, short-circuited the evolutionary process. It was no longer the case that a society which slid into inefficient cultural or governmental practices was likely to be promptly conquered by the baron next door.

10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth.
War served to weed out societies that “go bad.”
When discipline, imposed by the need to survive conflict, gets relaxed, societies lose their ability to cooperate.
The small polities of the medieval and Renaissance periods had to be reasonably efficient, compared to their neighbors, or be conquered and despoiled.
Unfortunately, the impulse of the Progressive Era reformers, following the visions of Wells (and others) of a “Scientific Socialism,” was to centralize and unify, because that led to visible forms of efficiency.
They didn’t realize that the competition they decried as inefficient, whether between firms or states, was the discovery procedure, the dynamic of evolution, the genetic algorithm that is the actual mainspring of innovation and progress.
It is difficult to overstate how much the American experience in World War II shaped both the culture and the institutions not only of the Postwar World (and its expectations for flying cars), but of the great stagnation and the graveyard of dreams.
The more or less individualistic and self-reliant culture of the 19th century had been winding down as the frontier filled up.
But it gave way with a bang as Americans arose “in their righteous might” to prosecute the war - under a completely centralized bureaucratic government structure.
This was not only the military but civilian production planning on an unprecedented scale.
We came into the Postwar World with the belief that such a structure worked, as it had not only won the war but left the US the pre-eminent industrial power in the world.
The economic boom of the 50s and 60s saw America increasingly adopt the model in its economy.
It was the age of the national-scale corporation, not only General Motors but General Electric, General Mills.

Ask any Boomer what was the greatest, most pivotal event of 1969. Half of us will say the Apollo 11 moon landing. The other half will say Woodstock.
Both sets, hearing the other’s opinion, will emit an honestly uncomprehending “Huh!?!?”

A central theme of science fiction was not only physical technology but social decision-making would improve, become more scientific, continue to advance along the lines that civilization had done for the past thousand years.

Ease and plenty, the lack of danger and struggle rather than their presence, engenders moral and intellectual decay.

Our fretful energy has shifted from conquering the physical world to conquering the world of other people.

Objective truth is no longer an advantage; only what you can make someone, including yourself, believe, using emotion instead of evidence.

Checking the consistency of all the facts in your mental database is expensive - why do it when it is is more advantageous not to?

We are built with an almost infinite capacity to believe things because the beliefs are advantageous for us to hold, rather than because they are even remotely related to the truth.

We developed science not so much out of a great love of truth, but because there had arisen a place and a time where it was more advantageous to know the physical facts of nature than not to.

We have major social institutions whose support comes in substantial part from virtue signalling rather than from actual useful results.
The same ones that are most afflicted by cost disease: health care, education, and environmental and safety regulation.

The two leading human causes of habitat destruction are agriculture and highways - the latter not so much by the land they take up, but by fragmenting ecosystems.

Ergophobia means a neurotic fear of doing work.

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

In the spring of 1856, Nongqawuse, a fifteen-year-old girl, heard the voices of her ancestors telling her that the Xhosa must kill all their cattle and destroy their hoes, pots, and stores of grain. Once that had been done, the very ground would burst forth with plenty, the dead would be resurrected, and the interloping Boers would be driven from their lands. Surprisingly enough, the Xhosa believed her — within months receiving the imprimatur of the king. The cattle were slaughtered. By the end of 1857 over 400,000 cattle had been killed. The Xhosa had refrained from planting for the 1856-57 growing season; there was no harvest. It is estimated that 40,000 Xhosans starved to death; that many again fled the country in search of food. By the end of 1858, three quarters of the Xhosa were gone.
When social feedback, superstition, hopes and desires, and the suppression of doubt and skepticism (faith) line up, the resulting movement can make an entire people believe and do horribly self-destructive things.

A society in which everyone believes in a god who “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” is one in which people are more to be trusted, more likely to cooperate, more likely to trade instead of fight.
What makes the difference is belief in a god who is omniscient in a certain way, who in particular knows what’s in your own mind and is always watching you.
The green religion, on the other hand, instead of enhancing people’s innate conscience, tends to degrade it, in a phenomenon called “licensing.”
People who virtue-signal by buying organic products are more likely to cheat and steal.

You can’t be trusted to ride on an airliner with a nail file. How could you be trusted driving your own 1000-horsepower flying car?

Perhaps the really fascinating question turns out to be why we ever got the family car in the first place.
The pundits of yesteryear couldn’t see it coming.
The answer is that the Industrial Revolution ran longer and stronger than people had realized possible, and increasing productivity made the car affordable to the masses.

As with many technologies, cars seem to have opposite effects when seen on different scales. Up close, a car is a tool of personal autonomy. In the large, it increases social interaction as the person with a car has a choice among 100 times more people to interact with.

How dangerous is general aviation?
The people who actually know would be my insurance company.
The price for my all-hazards airplane insurance, covering everything from hitting a sparrow on approach to crashing into someone’s house, is less than $800 per year.
In other words: comparable to car or home insurance and considerably less than medical.
The leading cause of death among active pilots is ... motorcycle accidents.

The accelerations you experience, even on a bumpy blustery day, in the airplane are not greater than you get in a car; they are just different.
The bumps you get are vertical, and of slightly higher frequency.
In a car you are subject to forces just as great, indeed greater, but typically they are sideways - starting, stopping, and turning.

Historically, the more efficiently energy has been used, the more, not less, total energy has been consumed.

The future of energy is ingenuity.
Technological progress has not run out of fruit; it has hit a glass ceiling.

Chernobyl death toll of the disaster: approximately 43 people.

The average chemical plant or oil refinery is vastly more complex than a nuclear power plant.

No event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.

If the extra nuclear generated electricity had substituted for coal and gas generation, about 9.5 million deaths and 174 Gt CO2 may have been avoided.

Everyone in the enterprise (federal and private sectors) are so risk-averse that innovation is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
In this environment, “good-enough” is the enemy of “better”.

The best way to reduce poverty is to reduce the price of energy.
Poverty is ameliorated by cheap energy.
Counting watts is a better way to measure a people’s true standard of living than counting dollars.

If we are short of energy two generations from now, it will be through our own incompetence.
We will be like Stone Age men freezing to death on top of a coal bed.

The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.

Imagine the kinds of improvements that additive manufacturing will see over the next decade or two.
The speed of big commercial machines will increase, and the cost of personal ones will come down.
Range of materials will increase. Precision will get better.
We will get closer and closer to being able to print out anything that can be manufactured today.

Your medieval counterpart would spend a year to make as much as you make in a day. The promise of nanotech is that that could happen again. Things that now take us a year’s work could be done in a day.

Of all the great improvements in know-how expected by the classic science fiction writers, competent government was the one we got the least.

People are generally terrible at unraveling complex chains of causality through the economy, and will typically blame whomever is most closely associated in the public mind with any problem.
They blame aeronautical engineers, not regulators, for the lack of flying cars.
They blame oil companies, not price controls and drilling bans, for an energy crisis.
And at least to some extent they blamed technology, not the fact that it was being suppressed, for the economic malaise of the Seventies.
That in turn called for more regulation, which suppressed more technology, in a runaway feedback loop.
People were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence.
The scare industry is completely unregulated, and its profits come at the cost of a great social externality: the pollution of knowledge with dire falsehoods.

All our electric power should be nuclear today.
Instead we got massive campaigns of fear and misinformation; a complete failure of the educational establishment; typical kitten-in-a-tree paralysis from the regulatory bureaucracy; a factor of seven increase in the cost of nuclear power; and 500 billion more tons of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The only reason for a city is to reduce the time to get from place to place.

It’s cathartic to design a dark future, sort of a "glad it didn’t happen to me" situation.
But to design a nice future is a lot more difficult.

Our current-day cities are among our poorest-performing technologies.
Psychological surveys show that people in the country or small towns are happiest, those in big cities are the least happy, with medium-sized cities in between.
Not only are people happier in the country, it’s healthier too.

Seagoing city: that’s what a cruise ship is.

Cars, trucks, and highways were clearly one of the major causes of the postwar boom. The war on cars contributed to the great stagnation.

It takes no more energy, total, to get to orbit than a 747 does dragging its bulk through the atmosphere halfway around the world - and you get to, say, Sydney, in under an hour instead of over 20.

Subsistence farming is an ecological nightmare.

A dark age is not when you’ve forgotten how do something. It’s when you’ve forgotten that you could.

There are something like 4 billion tons of uranium dissolved in the Earth’s oceans. That works out to be over 100 quadrillion watt-years of energy, enough to supply the current American 10 kW level of power to 10 billion people for 10,000 years.

Land under cultivation, (growing soy to feed cows and pigs), serves primarily as a very inefficient solar collector gathering the energy necessary to drive the rearrangement of atoms from CO2 back into hamburgers.

Back when George Washington was President, virtually everybody in America (and everywhere else in the world) had to work on a farm just to produce enough food to live. Each farmer only produced enough food for 1.1 people. But as technology improved, farmers became more efficient, and each farmer now feeds 40 people.

Each manufacturing worker in 1962 produced about $25,000 (in constant 2010 dollars) worth of output; in 2012 each worker produced $160,000 worth.

Productivity is clearly on an exponential increase.

Science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

Employees steal about $50 billion from American businesses each year, causing about a third of business bankruptcies.
Surrounding ourselves with smart, highly moral robots will improve the morality of humans.
The smarter everyone else is, the harder it is to cheat.