A series of (food)tubes

Paul Raven @ 07-12-2010

One of the biggest infrastructural components of a developed nation is the transportation network that moves food around the place… trucks and lorries, trains, that sort of thing, all pollution-heavy technologies that cost a lot of money to run. So what could we replace that food delivery network with? How about… a series of tubes. No, SRSLY:

Imagine a 1,500 kilometer underground FoodTubes ring circling the UK. The packet-switched-style network would connect all major food producers and retailers via 3,000 kilos of smart grid controlled air pressure pipe. The Foodtubes capsules, spaced one meter apart, will race about in gangs of 300 or so at 100kph. As many as 900,000 will be in circulation at any given moment, either zipping around beneath London and Liverpool or being loaded and unloaded at freight dockets.

“Really fast food,” Foodtubes literature calls the concept, with big payoffs for the economy and environment. “Inefficient food transport costs the Earth,” another presentation insists. Huge quantities of diesel are burned to move food trucks—17 billion for each 25 million UK homes, which represents eight percent of all the carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere.

“In contrast, we transport 180 times more weight of water than food every day (150 litres/person) in pipelines, with little pollution and no traffic jams,” the project notes. “Multiply by 5 to get the totals for the 120 million USA households.”

Add to that the traffic relieving removal of huge trucks from UK roads. 200,000 of them could be replaced by 17,000 kilos of pipelines and capsules, the group estimates, saving the country 40 million tons of CO2 each year, and the world perhaps as much as four billion if the idea was adopted globally.

That’s got to be the most Jetsons-esque bit of speculative technology I’ve seen in a long while. The FoodTubes people seem pretty confident that the actual technology side is plausible, but are also well aware that “[t]he freight industry is deeply entrenched at every level of government and commerce”. No kidding… which leads me to suspect that, plausible or not, FoodTubes is unlikely to get off the drawing board any time soon.

Cyberwar that actually deserves the name

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2010

After a few years of grandstanding and chest-thumping about the dangers of cyberwar from the military complexes of the West, especially the US, we finally see something that actually looks like a covert act of digital warfare initiated at nation-state level (as opposed to the petty vandalism and independent street-gang-equivalent activity that has been heretofore labelled as cyberwar). And you know what? It might well have been the US military establishment that did it.

The story in question is the Stuxnet computer worm, which you’ve probably read about somewhere already. But just in case you’ve not, here’s the skinny: Stuxnet takes advantage of four different security holes in Microsoft Windows (which is far from out of the ordinary; if you’re gonna rob houses, go for the ones with no locks on the doors), which means it can spread very fast; it’s controlled and upgraded in a decentralised peer-to-peer fashion (also not new, as we saw the same thing in the big botnet worms of recent times), and has the added ability to jump onto removable media (thumb drives) to expand the infection vectors.

So far, so geeky. The weird bit is what Stuxnet actually does. Rather than setting up spam email farms or harvesting credit card numbers (the traditional remunerative ends of such software), it targets a very specific type of embedded industrial control software developed by Siemens… software that, according to Wired, is “installed in pipelines, nuclear plants, utility companies and manufacturing facilities to manage operations.” Furthermore, the configuration suggests a very specific sort of installation was the intended target, and that sabotage thereof was the intent; a German researcher theorises (admittedly without much in the way of evidence) that one of Iran’s nuclear plants was the target, and that the US or Israel are the likely nation-states-of-origin. It’s a sad thing to admit, but that’s all too believable a theory… which is doubtless why it’s getting so many mentions. Read, and read widely:

Of course, plausibility isn’t probability; perhaps Stuxnet was developed by a rival company wishing to discredit the safety of Siemens’ systems*. The web enables industrial espionage, so why not industrial sabotage? But it seems an odd angle to take; deft marketing does just as effective a job of discrediting market-leading tech without engaging in criminal activity, and a black-ops hacking project would be an odd way to spend an R&D budget that would be better spent on, y’know, building a better mousetrap. Sabotage is a political act, ideological warfare… and that’s a nation-state game, not a corporate one.

It’ll be interesting to see what more we hear about Stuxnet, if anything, but I suspect it marks the start of a new chapter of geopolitics and technologised warfare.

[ * The fact that said systems run on Windows machines should be indictment enough, to be honest. ]

Stuff the jetpacks, where’s my moving pedway?

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2010

Is the moving sidewalk an sf-nal idea whose time has come? Tom Vanderbilt at Slate asks whether urban transportation networks could be significantly improved by making the walkways of the city move like the ones at the airport [via SlashDot].

It’s actually a much older idea than Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll”:

The moving walkway, of course, is a firmly entrenched and familiar transportation technology, but it has been largely limited to controlled (and typically transportation-related) environments, like airports, train stations, or theme parks. Its history unspools further back than you might imagine. As Paul Collins has written, the first moving sidewalks were unveiled at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition (where they could shuttle 31,680 passengers per hour), again at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, and seemed well on their way to conquering cities like New York. As Collins writes, Max Schmidt, the creator of the Chicago walkway, “proposed a flurry of similar projects around Manhattan—running down Broadway, along Wall Street, over the Williamsburg Bridge and across 23rd and 34th Street. To Schmidt, the advantages of the moving walkway were so compelling that he was convinced they would supplant some subways rather than supplement them. By 1909, he was pushing a massive $70 million scheme that would provide Manhattan with a network of subterranean moving sidewalks.”

Vanderbilt draws no solid conclusions, but much of the material he mentions suggests that there are enough downsides to the idea to make it counterproductive. For my money, urban centres with hugely reduced motor vehicle traffic could simply build wider walkways (and more cycle paths), which would make pedestrian movement not only faster but safer and more enjoyable…

… yeah, yeah, I know, I’m such a utopian.

Serendipitous and contextually relevant bonus material: Shareable has just republished Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story “Falling”, which starts with a man standing on a moving walkway in a future Frankfurt. Short, sweet and a little bit visionary.

Cisco’s City-in-a-Box for the Asian expansion

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Most urban environments have accreted gradually over decades and centuries, but the changing economies of the Far East demand modern city infrastructure for millions of people where none existed before, and fast. Enter Cisco Systems, the network hardware people, and their new ‘product’: an off-the-shelf city suitable for a million fully-wired inhabitants [via @BLDGBLOG].

Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to purchase their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.


It’s easy to see why Cisco is intoxicated with the possibilities: According to a study by investment bank CIBC World Markets, governments are expected to spend $35 trillion in public works projects during the next 20 years. In Songdo alone, Cisco sold 20,000 units of its advanced video conferencing system called Telepresence – a billion-dollar order – almost before the ink had dried on the contract, said developer Stan Gale, the chief visionary of the project.

“Everything will be connected – buildings, cars, energy – everything,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Bangalore-based chief globalization officer. “This is the tipping point. When we start building cities with technology in the infrastructure, it’s beyond my imagination what that will enable.”

Environmental efficiency and digital infrastructure can only be good things to include in a from-scratch city, but one can’t help but wonder if these places will suffer from the same coldness and lack of character that Brutalist urban planning scattered across Europe in the post-war years. The designed environment is an old, old concept in architecture, but it’s one that has never really delivered on its utopian promises.

But given the migrant magnetism of urban areas in Asia (and the Global South, as well, where Cisco’s cities may well find another place to call home), we can expect a rapid accretion of undesigned and emergent occupation and use to crop up in the interstices, in the spaces in between. How long will that take? How successfully will the designed city (and its ecosystem of law enforcement and local government) resist (or embrace) such end-user hacking? Lots of fresh data for psychogeographers coming down the pipeline…

Gizmo landscapes, gonzo worldbuilding

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2010

Here’s an interesting thought experiment which feels science fictional to me – not science fictional in the “making things up about the future” sense, but in the “teasing the bigger picture out of smaller things” sense. Rob Holmes of mammoth invites us to think about the infrastructural landscapes that support a single use of a consumer-level technological artefact; his Zeitgeist-friendly example is, naturally, some web browsing done on an iPhone somewhere in Brooklyn [via MetaFilter].

The iPhone, however, is not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production, as Banham acknowledges all such objects have always been, but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.  Even acknowledging this, though, and realizing that its operative value comes from its ability to tap those data ecologies and attendant socially-constituted bodies of knowledge, it is still possible to miss the landscapes that it produces. Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.

His preliminary examples include the mines that supply the rare semiconductor elements used in chips and touchscreens, the factory megacomplexes where they’re designed and built, the server farms that prop up the internet that the phone connects to, and the transciever arrays that provide the last wireless step in that connection. The point is plain: there’s a whole lot of stuff behind the gadgets in our pockets and satchels that we don’t really think about when we use them.

This is very much like “systems thinking, which I imagine most of Futurismic‘s readers are already familiar with (because you all seem pretty clued up on the science and tech side of things), but which is, as far as I can tell, a fairly uncommon mindset in the population at large (a fact exploited to the fullest by politicians, among others).

But it struck me that it’s also rather like the worldbuilding that informs science fiction: the iPhone is the story, and infrastructure is the imagined world in which it’s set. In both examples, the end user doesn’t need to know anything about the infrastructure, and will probably actively resist being told about it (infodump!). In both examples, that will to ignorance allows the writer/manufacturer a lot of leeway with the infrastructure: so long as thing works, who cares how it works?

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure where I’m going with this, or even if it’s going anywhere at all*. But it gave me a brain-chime, so I’m throwing it out here by way of recording the thought, and to see if any of you can pick up the ball and run with it. Any ideas?

[ * I started writing this post immediately after a post-lunch triple espresso; make of that what you will. ]

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