“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
I recently received a request to do a video discussing the technological idiosyncrasies of my novel, As I Walk These Broken Roads.1 One of the major themes of the book is people’s inabilities to think laterally, or to follow logic to its inevitable conclusion. “How is it that you can have good quality ales in a city, and yet they lack the technology to repair motorcycles? The two work off of very similar foundations.” That’s true (I assume; I know nothing about brewing – yet!), but that’s also the point. The post-war apocalyptic world is populated by people who lack curiosity; sure, they might have skills that can be easily transferred to motorcycle repair, building maintenance, electrical grid setup, you name it – but they’d rather rely on exhaustive, brute force to accomplish tasks then spend five minutes thinking of a new solution.
As a friend of mine pointed out, the novel is actually set in the present day.
Case in point: all of the excitement over Wireless Power Transfer. That is, technology that powers your Smart™ Devices without cables! The future is now! Give us billions of dollars, investors! We’re going to revolutionize how the world works!
Only one problem: the whole thing is a crock.
“Does this break the laws of physics? Is it unsafe? The answer is no, the technology does not break the laws of physics…”
~Meredith Perry, CEO of uBeam
It might not break the laws of physics, but that doesn’t make it feasible.
A little bit of my background: one of the many qualifications I received in the military was “Radio Operator” (a course taught by people who – I eventually realized – actually thought that higher frequencies of communication travelled at a greater height off the ground); through this I managed to land a gig working for Bell Mobility’s RF Engineering department; a low-level tech job, but I made the most out of it, sucking up information like a sponge, and using my free time (that is, whenever the computer was processing a simulation) to read through Wikipedia articles, to help understand what was going on with the network, dBs, attenuation, et cetera, et cetera.
Through that, I got a job setting up repeater stations out in the bush; building local internet networks, wired and wireless, and eventually into audio manipulation and film making through my YouTube channel – which shares many of the same properties as RF; in fact, uBeam is designing a device to use ultrasound instead of RF to power the devices. Waves are waves, after all – that is, until they aren’t.
That said – I barely understand the stuff. There’s a whole level to it that’s beyond my ken, and I’d need to really brush up on my calculus before I could do anything useful. I might be able to boost your internet signal with some sheet metal – but beyond that I’m a complete dunce.
But even I know enough to say that this is all a pipe dream. It’s a parlour trick; a prank that Tesla pulled with some lamps. It’s nifty, and cool, and oh-so-shiny – but it’s a stupid way to run your local grid.²
As for why it’s a stupid idea – let’s start by discussing decibels (in a very quick and dirty manner).
Decibels are a logarithmic measurement; that is, they go up by factors of ten. They are not linear – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… – rather, each threshold of measurement increases as 1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000, et cetera. The decibel is a measurement used to describe that; with things like RF (aka the ‘brightness’ of a transmitter – RF is just light that’s too long and big for our eyes to see) and sound, if you have event A and B, where B sounds or looks to be twice as loud/bright as A, it is actually carrying 10x as much energy.
Most things are logarithmic in nature; they show discrete changes by factors of ten (or two, or three – the point is the factoring, as opposed to the linear, we use ten because it’s the base of our numbering system). Think population: 70, Hamlet; 700, Village; 7000, Town; 70,000, City; 70,000, Big City; and so forth. A city has twice as many services as a town, but it requires ten times the population. Now think about speed; 1 m/s, walking; 3m/s, running; 30 m/s, driving in a car. Each one feels like a single step up on the scale, but it requires a massively higher commitment of energy.
Next, let’s consider what causes this with RF – the inverse-square law:
Source: Wikipedia Commons
I think that image sums it up nicely; the further away you get from a light source (or a radio antenna), the less energy you receive. The difference between sniping a target at 100 versus 200 yards isn’t twice as hard – it’s four times as hard.
Now imagine that S is your power transmitter, and your device is one of the squares at 3r; the other 8 squares are nothing but wasted energy, being broadcast into the aether.
Are you starting to see why this technology is a joke? Why it’s stage magic? Why it pales in comparison to what we currently have? Lithium-ion batteries contain a tremendous amount of power (though I still prefer gasoline), and to try and charge them by remote would result in massive waste – and not just massive waste! Whether you’re using ultrasound or RF, you also get a tremendous amount of heat at the source.
There’s been more than one RF technician that got cooked by invisible beams coming from a radar dish.
We might very well see ‘charging pads’ in the near future, where you toss your phone onto a ‘hot plate’ instead of plugging it in (though even a plugged-in mobile device still has some manoeuvrability); we might even see some fancy installs for cars, automatically charging your phone whenever you’re driving; but the promise of “Charge anywhere, everywhere!” is utterly absurd.
It’s the equivalent of using tanks of compressed air to jet your car down the highway. Physically impossible? Not at all. Practical? Hardly.
So that’s why this annoys me on the scientific, rational, engineering level. I’ll admit, I tend to be a bit choleric – even a bit assburgs and fedora-tipping – when it comes to pseudoscience and bad design. I know how little I know (any Engineers out there, feel free to correct my bastardizations in the comments), and I can’t stand being lectured by somebody who thinks that “Missing Time” proves that faster-than-light isn’t a physical impossibility.
But that’s not what’s really disturbing about this whole fiasco; what’s truly worrisome is how everybody’s falling for it.
Clint Westwood, over at Single Dude Travel, covers the massive amount of… what? Corruption? Idiocy? …behind the current focus on Women! In! Tech! Every few months it seems as if a new woman CEO of some amazing, revolutionary tech firm – who seldom has an education in the specific technology at hand, but who manages to hire talented male engineers once she’s raised the capital – gets exposed as being a paper tiger, with no product, and no possibility of every bringing something feasible to the marketplace.
Part of this is the ridiculous focus we have on Feminism, and on attempting to get Women! In! Tech! despite the fact that very few women are interested in hashing out these sorts of problems (and those who are, never needed the encouragement in the first place). But far more concerning to me is the broader strokes. The profound ignorance of basic physical principles – principles that can likewise be applied to the humanities, to warfare, to the basic common sense of fixing your car – and the predominance of psychopaths and cheap exploiters in our civilization.
Westwood links to a blog by one of the engineers who worked at uBeam and it’s a profound read (I want to write the guy some fan mail, and bemoan my own difficulties in entrepreneurship). Whenever I complain about the terrible design of Blackberry, of Windows, of the Twitter App, of Facebook shooting itself in the foot by censoring information, and requiring 30% of your processing power just to run a chat window – this is what’s behind it.
Technological, moral, strategic, rational, common sense ignorance!
Feminism is just one head of the hydra. We’re a civilization of dullards, who are out of touch with reality and God. That’s why we have this garbage everywhere.
It almost makes you look forward to the upcoming cascade failure.
1. You should never ask an author to talk about his own work. It’s like asking a porn addict to masturbate in public – he’s far too happy to do so. You have been warned.
2. When I’m talking about Wireless Power Transfer, I’m specifically excluding Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower; that was utterly unrelated from the sort of power transfer that we’re talking about, it relied upon ionization of the atmosphere relative to the earth to provide an ‘invisible power grid’ that could be tapped into by anyone, anywhere. Presumably you’d tap into it with something akin to a lighting rod, and through that – power everything in your house via copper cables.