01 Sept. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

How Big Is Your Planet?

A number of years ago, I read a short profile in the magazine Datamation about a certain computer whiz.  I don't remember his name and company, but among his bona fides was having studied "celestial engineering" in college.  (I'm almost certain that was the exact phrase.)  And one of his accomplishments was that he created a circuit loop between the USA and Japan that had a latency of several microseconds.  Since they never printed my letter of ridicule, and subsequent issues of the magazine ignored its message, there may be a generation of IT folks who admire this "celestial engineer" who was able to circumvent the speed of light by re-defining the properties of space-time*.  I thought of this in connection with a brief note that someone wrote with regard to my comments which appeared in the blog I stole from Andy Tobias, which in turn he got from some correspondence from me.  This note (way back at the beginning of the previous sentence, which I shall shortly have taken out and shot (along with this one)), in effect reprimanded me for driving so much, and pointed out:

“Today's remarks from Richard Factor show the seriousness of the energy problem we face. Factor no doubt thinks he’s doing his part for the environment, but he continues to drive an automobile more that 18,800 miles a year. Compared to other Americans, he may be economizing, but he still used 632 gallons of gas in a 20 month period. The environment doesn’t ‘care’ how many miles per gallon you get; it cares how much gas you burn.”  (Stephen Gilbert)

Of course he's right and wrong, but that's not the subject of this blogitem, it's only the point that made me think of it.  The subject is "How Big Is Your Planet?" as it plainly says before all these digressions, of which the final one is:  The late Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, USN, used to distribute nanoseconds to her audience.  They were a foot long, and allowed one to visualize the distance light travels in one nanosecond.

My reply to Gilbert finally does get to the point:

“Using my arguably excessive driving, Stephen Gilbert makes an important point. As he says, I ‘still used 632 gallons of gas in a 20 month period.’ But I also saved that amount simply by getting a Prius. To save most of the second 50% – the 632 gallons I did use – I would have stop going to work. (Would this wreck the economy? Not in my case!) This points up an interesting dichotomy: On the one hand, ‘Hey, Jack – this is America and I can do what I want.’ But on the other, consider that virtually every driver on the road – commuting, vacationing, delivering – is spending those minutes or hours or days WISHING HE WERE SOMEWHERE ELSE. If that doesn't DEFINE ‘senseless waste of human life’ I don't know what does. Maybe the most productive way to protect the environment is to seriously reconsider how much of this to-ing and fro-ing is really necessary. As you’ve mentioned, hybrids are wasted on those such as you who are able to work at home. Perhaps high-speed communications links, ‘telepresence’ equipment, and other innovative ways to avoid travel can be as much of a boon as is the hybrid vehicle in reducing pollution.”

In other words, I shouldn't be doing so much driving.  Neither should you, and especially neither should the evil schnurgs in their SUVs.  We should all be telecommuting; electrons weigh a lot less than vehicles.  

Back to Grace Hopper.  She carried around her nanoseconds, and they were a foot long.  She could and did carry microseconds on thousand-foot spools.  It's at least possible to carry milliseconds on million-foot spools, although the wire would have to be very thin indeed.  But what about real chunks of time?  For that you need a planet or a satellite.

If we're going to telecommute, we need to telecommunicate.  For some this is no problem.  If you sit in an office all day writing memos, making telephone calls, and corresponding by email, you know that the office is optional and you're probably already working from home, from the beach, from the Starbucks.  In fact, your geographical location need bear no relation to your work "location."  Some "workplaces" literally have no location—accountants and consultants work at their client's, may have no office at all, and can "report" to a corporate structure on the other side of the globe.

But what about the majority of workers who actually do something?  (Take that as sarcasm if you like, although I'd be the first to admit that I'm only occasionally in that category.)  If they must interact with things, and those things aren't at home, can they telecommute?  This is where our concern with nanoseconds becomes relevant.  Let's say that one is an assembly line worker.  The conveyor is going by, and the worker must insert widget A into frammis B with perfect alignment and then tighten doohickii C,D, and E with the thingumbob.  Let's also say that a robot can't do this, probably because too much hand-eye coordination coordination is required and state-of-the-art end effectors just can't cut it.  So the assembly line worker drives to work, generating CO2 and car clutter, performs his hours of striving, and returns home, thus doubling his impact on the environment.  What if the company had "waldos," the remote manipulators (virtually) invented by Heinlein, with the worker connected to them remotely by the internet or other system?  If they were sufficiently precise and the communication were fast enough, could he not do his job from home? 

I'll try to answer that in the next blogitem.  This one is getting a bit long, and I must go mete out punishment to a couple of naughty sentences.

*Lest I be accused of ignorance for the wrong reason, networks and time references across the globe can be synchronized to this standard or better.  This article implied that message traffic was going at that speed.

© 2006
Richard Factor