Technology

Who among us with even a wisp of steampunk in our soul does not love the idea of an airship renaissance? Airships are beautiful and majestic, and modern hybrid airship designs are extraordinarily capable. They far transcend inappropriate fears of Hindenberg-like disaster. No wonder some enthusiasts foresee a coming day when airships will again fly in great numbers as replacements for some fixed-wing aircraft, as new vehicles for air cargo transport, and as floating luxury liners.

Unfortunately, for reasons I explored in a series of posts back in 2011, I’m skeptical of this glorious airship resurgence. Hybrid airships work but to triumph on those terms, they need to make practical, economic sense and be better than the transportation alternatives. I’m not convinced that’s true for most of the listed applications. (The important exception is for luxury cruising: any business that’s built on rich people’s willingness to pay top dollar for great experiences can defy some of the usual constraints.)

Start with my Txchnologist story “Lead Zeppelin: Can Airships Overcome Past Disasters and Rise Again?“, then continue with my Gleaming Retort posts “Does Global Warming Help the Case for Airships?” and “Zeppelin Disappointments, Airship Woes.”

In celebration of the Mars rover Curiosity’s fantastic first year of operations, here’s a look back at a series of posts I did on the unusual, risky, but successful sky crane technology used to deliver the robot to the surface of the Red Planet. In “NASA’s sky crane over Mars” for SmartPlanet, I discussed how the sky crane maneuver would work and why such an unorthodox way of landing was necessary. “Satisfying Curiosity: preparing for the Mars landing” was a primer on that same subject I wrote for PLOS BLOGS just before the descent, including a review of where Curiosity would go and what exactly it would be doing to explore the planet. And in “Why the sky crane isn’t the future for Mars landings,” I offer an opinion about why we’re not likely to see many repeat performances by that technology even though it performed beautifully. (Nothing I’ve heard since publishing that piece has given me reason to reconsider.)

Everyone who has thought about industrially driven climate change has at some point, however briefly, wondered why we can’t solve the problem by pulling the unwanted carbon dioxide back out of the air. Surely, if burning fossil fuels can blast so much extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some other act of chemistry on an equally gargantuan scale ought to be able to recapture the gas.

That’s the possibility I explore in a pair of columns for SmartPlanet. “Why not scrub CO2 from the sky?” reviews several ideas for using innovative materials to recapture carbon dioxide released by industrial processes and then safely cache it where it can’t contribute to climate change—in theory. “Throwing rocks at CO2” looks at the related concept of using naturally occurring minerals to accelerate the removal of CO2 from the air.

3D printing might seem poised to realize the replicator economy of Star Trek: at virtually the touch of a button, people could have printers whip up anything they might desire. But even if the technology of 3D printing continues to evolve rapidly, there are important limitations on how thoroughly it will replace good old fashioned manufacturing.

Read more about it in my story for Txchnologist, “3D Printing and the Replicator Economy.”

Methane hydrates, the astonishing “ice that burns,” seem to represent a hugely abundant energy source that could help power the global economy as it shifts away from dirtier coal and oil. They could make some countries energy independent, and might even be able to help counter global warming. That is, the hydrates could become all of those things if engineers and scientists can develop a cost-competitive way to use them.

Read more about it in my story for Txchnologist, “The Ice That Burns: Are Methane Hydrates the Next Big Resource?

Just yesterday, Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff’s article “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” was officially posted on Wired.com. In it, they argue that the rise of apps for smartphones and iPads, RSS feeds, proprietary platforms like the Xbox and so on signal the end of the Web as the center of most people’s online lives. In many ways, it argues loosely for a vindication of Wired‘s notorious “PUSH!” cover story from 1997, which also argued for the end of browsers’ relevance.

But honestly, between Alexis Madrigal’s beautiful rebuttal at TheAtlantic.com, Rob Beschizza’s devastating graphics on Boing Boing (reworking Anderson and Wolff’s own choice of data), and other quick rebuttals springing up, has any ambitious piece of Internet-related punditry died a faster, more ignominious death? It seems as though the plausibility of this idea has been drained away even before issues of the paper magazine could have reached subscribers.

I don’t think Anderson and Wolff’s argument is entirely without merit, but the somewhat more nuanced version of it that seems more resilient is one that Farhad Manjoo endorsed in a couple of columns for Slate early this year, “Computers Should Be More Like Toasters” and “I Love the iPad” (both concurrent with the debut of Apple’s iPad, which I don’t see as even remotely coincidental). Manjoo was arguing for a simpler, more appliance-level interface for computers rather than the death of something as rich and vital as the Web still is. In effect, unlike Anderson and Wolff, Manjoo avoided the trap of arguing for the historically disproven “zero sum game” model of newer technologies driving older ones to extinction, which Madrigal debunks. Even if interfaces and operating systems become more app-like, the browser-mediated Web may continue to be a crucial part of most users’ lives.

There’s no reason to think the Web as we know it won’t eventually die; most things do. And apps seem destined to play a more ubiquitous role in all our lives for some time to come; terrific. It seems doubtful those two propositions are causally linked, however.

Update (added 8/21): Far more sophisticated discussion of the points raised in the Wired article, including additional smart rebuttals, is available in this series of exchanges between Chris Anderson, Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle—served up by Wired.com itself, to its credit.