Digging into the New Boring Company


Recently, Elon Musk's Boring Company and its ideas were featured as part of his TED talk this month. They are visualized on this brief video.  Already, a critic has surfaced, decrying impracticality.  Such is the nature of disruptive ideas, like modern electric cars: innovation sparks institutions of the status quo to reject change, especially if it reduces cost through automation or a dramatic increase in efficiency.  Quite plainly, the ideas of this company do both.

Road Systems
Presently, cities spend tax dollars on large, complicated road systems.  Generally speaking, no one is particularly enamoured with massive freeway interchanges except the companies that amass hundreds of millions of dollars to build them.  Although marvels in bridge-work, they tend not to stand up to earthquakes very well, such as has happened in San Francisco and Northridge, CA.  They can even collapse due to poor engineering or maintenance, as was the case with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Interstate 35 over the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis. 

Roads are also exposed to the elements and suffer from water doing all kinds of things to the traction and passage of friction-based travel.  Additionally, water plus wild yet seasonal temperature fluctuations create potholes and buckled roads, when combined with friction-based travel.  Tremendous civic spending and industry have built up around maintaining the surface of a road.  Sometimes, that gets disastrously complicated, as was the case with the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis.  Because it passes over St. Anthony Falls, it was the first bridge to have built-in road de-icing.  Unfortunately, that meant a system was built to hold and disperse corrosive salt compounds, which weakens iron-based bridge elements.  While in the middle of "resurfacing" (the concrete slabs for driving were being replaced), engineering failed, and the bridge suffered from:
  • Wild temperature (and humidity) fluctuations in the summer
  • A recent spill of the de-icing compound
  • Heavy rush-hour traffic on a fraction of available lanes
  • Imbalanced weight distribution while the slabs were being rebuilt
  • Constant moisture from the falls
People died because road maintenance got too complicated. 

Mass Transit
The idea of mass transit is great.  The execution leaves something to be desired, variably.  Transit vehicles are designed to collect passengers at predetermined locations, wait a period of time before departing (so those approaching don't fall running to catch the ride), and continue on its route, typically stopping at every predetermined point. The larger the transit vehicle, the more likely it stops, and rail or subway transit will always stop at every stop.  This increases the number of passengers per vehicle, but many other factors also increase. 

Railway mass transit has a fixed rate of travel, with light rail averaging 19 miles an hour or slower, which can easily be beaten with an electric skateboard.  When you factor in waiting for transit to arrive, plus getting down to where it is, this figure drops futher.  With a bus system, you end up with speeds below a Segway at 12mph and its 25 mile range. 

One of the most unsavory topics of mass transit is the unspoken one: personal safety from others.  Transit police are an added cost and they are an avoidable deterrent for determined, organized troublemakers.  Quite simply, those who can afford not to use mass transit frequently hire a ride or own and drive a vehicle outright.  In some countries, wealthy individuals own a vehicle and employ a chauffeur. 

Safety, shorter travel time, and privacy are often at the core of why mass transit is disregarded.  Additionally, reliability, flexible travel times (such as late nights and weekends), cleanliness, and cargo are other factors that discount against mass transit. 

The Idea as Presented
The Boring Company captured several ideas in the featured video vignette, as it relates to transit.  This spells them out as shown. 

Multi-purpose : different vehicle classes are shown entering the tunnels and onto the skate, namely a passenger vehicle and a public transit van. Subway tunnels are designed only for one type of vehicle. 

Surface accessibility :  access to the tunnel network is through a surface-level elevator onto the skate directly.  This eliminates complex, underground queueing spaces entirely.  Also, vagabonds will not use transit stations as a refuge from the elements.

Controlled access : existing subway systems are entered on foot.  Automated physical access simplifies physical security issues to an automated system.  For subways, there is typically no tunnel door to prevent accidental falls onto the track, littering, or the accumulation of pestilence, as vermin will not find a smooth, vertical shaft behind a sealed, computer-controlled door to be a navigable route to a habitat. 

Automation : coupled with controlled access, a fully-automated system, instead of operator-controlled rail cars, allows for tighter queueing of vehicles and creates an on-demand model for the transit corridor, whether for individual vehicles or a public transit van.  When combined with the skates, this eliminates accidents due to operator error, which claim many lives quickly and tragically.  This also allows for greater top speeds and tighter corridor spacing between vehicles.

Skate vehicles : adding to the reasons above, skate vehicles are a rail approach minus the passenger space and ingress requirements.  Put simply, if the skate can be accessed, the transit corridor can be used.  The skates, as automated carriers, travel at speeds allowable by computing efficiency and engineering specification.  They also can benefit from improved durability on the contact surface versus tires on pavement, or even pursue magnetic hover technology, as was suggested through later mention of the Hyperloop possibility.

Underground : well-built underground tunnels are sealed to water and to the weather, with constant temperatures.  Turning a tunnel into a major transit corridor saves significant maintenance costs, and frees up land for other purposes.  Freeway interchanges take up drastic amounts of land, and the peripheral of that land requires maintenance for litter, vegetation management, and roadkills.  Such problems do not exist in a sealed, underground tunnel.  Likewise, earthquakes will not topple a tunnel like the freeway overpasses and bridges mentioned earlier.  No transit tunnels in Los Angeles or San Francisco have collapsed, and the earthquake wasn't even felt underground, or has there been tunnel damage from earthquakes.  Perhaps the most obvious about underground is scalability, as tunnels do not require complexity to stack deeper as growth develops.

Water-tight : something of a side-effect of having an underground tunnel is that a water-tight tunnel is also an air-tight tunnel.  This means that the Hyperloop, a low-pressure (not quite a vacuum) tunnel can afford higher speeds at lower noise and energy costs due to air resistance.  This would require some thought put into the skate design, for breathing purposes. 

Smaller diameter : many engineering challenges are greatly simplified with smaller diameter tunnels.  A typical subway tunnel is 24 feet in diameter.  The 12-foot diameter tunnel requires less complexity to seal, is more durable, and can be drilled faster. Smaller volume requires less lighting as well.

Silent : underground tunnels do not make noise or vibration.  At a modest depth, even the drilling of the tunnels is imperceptible to the most sensitive equipment and forms of life.  Most subway noise people detect are through open air, underground transit stations, which echo up to the street.

Non-polluting : unlike modern road systems, an electrified, underground transit corridor will not produce deadly toxins released in high concentration throughout the countryside and the urban areas, as is common with combustion engines at high speeds or in heavy traffic.

Digging Deeper
Although a multitude of benefits listed above are immediately obvious, at this point, I freely share my own, accompanying ideas which are less obvious.  

In keeping with the present day, where we are between the age of the internet and the age of robotics/AI, I assume a greater degree of connectivity as a community.  As such, the expectation is that participants of this transit corridor will want an interface to it.  That interface can be built into vehicles or into mobile devices in the case of the transit van demonstrated in the video.  The immediate purpose of the computing interface is to gain access (and pay for) the use of the transit corridor.  When tied to the vehicle itself, corridor ownership can levy appropriate fees based on the mass of the vehicle.  In days where politicians are struggling to come up with an equivalent "gas tax" for electric vehicles, and no system seems to be without imperfection, a computerized, usage-based approach.   This eliminates the need for transponders, patrols, cameras, and stopping to make change or drop coins.  Further, the concept of skipped toll booths does not turn into an imperfect machine vision process to read license plates on fast-moving vehicles in all weather conditions.  This reduces systems complexity and eliminates jobs, patrol duties for law enforcement, and considerable equipment capital. 

Less obvious is the multi-use approach to these skates.  Presently, long haul freight is often a driver and a cargo in an enclosed shipping container.  Moving to an enclosed skate model in a tunnel means that the driver can be eliminated, as all road hazards are obsolete on a rail system.  A smart skate can also weigh the loaded container, apply appropriate weight-based fees, and determine if the load is appropriate for the transit corridor, as well as the complex mathematical calculations to determine acceleration and braking requirements.  Moving freight underground improves its safety from road hazards, both as an impact to freight transit and as a hazard to other vehicles in a freely driven road environment.  The computerization, rail, and isolation also allows for superior speeds, and Hyperloop technology would allow those speeds to surpass air freight. 

Coupled with the on-demand aspect of the transit van mentioned above is the rival concept of a hired driver.  Presently, vehicle owners are driving their cars in an on-demand capacity, waiting for fares, using an application, and doing their best.  It is a good way to make some extra cash, or in more dedicated individuals, a living.  However, the skill of being a driver is nearing extinction.  Owning a vehicle that is rented out and drives automatically is one expected future.  Given that a transit van is focused on producing a safe, comfortable environment for passengers, and the prior concerns about mass transit, the network for the transit corridor can be extended to the transit van.  If one passenger requires all the space in the van, for cargo, safety, or privacy, that can be selected when the transit van is hired.  This allows the network for the transit corridor to become a free market for enterprising transit van owners, or even mixed, light-duty scenarios and delivery services.  Where certain jobs are eliminated, new business opportunities are created. 

These same tunnels can be shrunk further.  A six-foot diameter tunnel can service most parcel and distributor delivery, even refuse and  recycling services.  In urban environments, delivery trucks often park where they can, blocking traffic and creating considerable street noise.  With a different configuration, business loading docks can be replaced with indoor loading areas, reducing building footprint and better controlling building access. Like with the transit van, what was once a delivery enterprise of driver and vehicle services can become fleet management of cargo capsules.  

End of the Line
In countries like Japan, where the population curve is bulged at retirement age, automation and future technology will be most welcome.  In other countries like United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, where prominent income has an appetite for the future, the same welcome also exists. 

Nations that embrace status quo and job security (also known as stagnancy), will fall behind.  The efficiencies of future technologies will be resisted by the status quo.  To what degree the future can be resisted is determined by the zealotry that drives it.  Will terrorists attempt to load devastating bombs into this new transit corridor?  The fools will overlook underground nuclear weapons testing as being safely done in deep tunnels.  The more anticipated antagony is from those who have power and intend to keep it.  Elected and appointed officials who last until the end of their term in office.  Your greatest power to influence the timeline for this future is through voting, speaking up, and spending your money. 

This is the beginning, the inspired kernel of an idea.  Although the Boring Company is building on concepts as old as the Thames Tunnel of 1865, we live in an interconnected time where ideas are far more accelerated and woven into a synergy of collective thought. 


Air Traveler's Cross Words

I conjured this puzzle my last plane trip.  The guy next to me was upset that the one in the magazine was all used up for every seat, so I made it for him.  Feel free to print out a few copies for your neighbours.  Image is scaled in the blog.


The Violence of our Culture

A new associate of mine posted an article about the record-breaking gun violence in Chicago over Independence Day weekend, 2014. 50 deaths in a weekend. Horrendous! 
Just remember one tenet of government: laws don't prevent crime, they categorize action as crime and enable punishment. Even if gun ownership itself became a crime, criminals would still have and use guns as part of their business, and the absence of civil ownership as a deterrent may lead to emboldening their crime (i.e., if a criminal knows only law enforcement is armed, then with an illegal weapon, that criminal could proceed unabated without fear of retaliation, kind of like if N. Korea was the only country in the world with a nuclear arsenal). This bloodshed is indeed mental, but it's more a statement about the kind of people who exist in Chicago, a statement about our culture. 
 In my view on things, criminal law doesn't improve culture, it restricts liberty. Changing culture is more important than changing laws. So how do you change culture? Connectedness, trust, respect, courtesy, compassion. How do you imbue that upon the violent masses of Chicago, gun-toting or otherwise?
What occurs here is a culture, a breeding cycle between monsters and victims. Untreated, the victims turn their hurt outward and become monstrous, themselves. Sure, they justify, but this mad cadence of actions continues. As most often is the case, it is an element of behaviour that starts in families. 

To address the cause of monstrous action and broken hearts is far and above the duty of civil entities, but it is indeed the responsibility of those among us who deign the title of citizens. Therefore, we must love those monstrous individuals, show them compassion, but guide them to a point of health. Relegating our duty as a community to the officers of the peace, the appointed governors, that is turning away from our dysfunction as a people. When this city or this nation or this race can unite and show the heart few are bold enough to wear, then indeed our problems are over. Until then, more "obvious" laws and more law enforcement is a symptom of the loveless anathema of our earthy existence, on the road to an inhuman dystopia of impulse, selfishness, and cold, crowded isolation.


The Age of Robotics

Some time before the war with the Taliban, which was resplendent with drone aircraft, I felt and said clearly to a handful of people that the age following the Information Age would be the Age of Robotics.  I remember being told things that it would be the Age of Energy or the Nuclear Renaissance, but I didn't buy into that conclusion.  Perhaps I saw one too many movies.  Perhaps my copy of the IJCAI proceedings told me what mankind was planning in my lifetime.

Today, I caught this article about robotic prison surveillance in South Korea:
Prison Sentry Drones

Humans no longer have to work so hard to take care of other humans, or we need fewer humans because we trust robots to do simple things. Should we trust robots with human lives?

We've learned they can kill us when they are not supposed to do so:

Robotic Killing Spree

We have also learned they can turn unexpectedly after they have been trusted enough to take into war:

Robot Turns on Own Forces

But they can also do things that few of us can do, regardless of the number of SUVs on the road:

Offroad Robot Rally

Do we trust them with our lives?  Is it wise to trivialize the safety and welfare of prisoners to anything less than a human?  At some point, some community or culture will make the argument that financial cost or perceived effectiveness is superior to the human element prerequisite.  I have been told that the Joint Strike Fighter is the last manned USAF combat fighter to be built for a long time.  The future has been drones for a long time for aircraft.  At some point, a robotic system can endure forces that a human cannot.

Is the argument that robots will rise up on their own and take control?  No.  The argument is that we will slowly sit down on our own and give it to them.  I perceive a "Luddite" response in the future, where robots become so much in control that some will rise up and destroy the robots, not that the robots were ever provoking conflict.  That will be our war, as always: a rebellion against oppression.

I remember the first time I ever experienced a robot in a work setting.  Its name was Zelda, and it was following a UV-visible stripe on the carpet, to deliver mail to the different mail rooms at Highmark Blue Cross in Harrisburg, PA.  I was also told by my deceased co-worker, Bill Weninger, that such robots were at other places as well, such as Toro headquarters.

Robots never regard life as precious nor fear death.  Our entire existence is about decisions we make in life, and robots are the first things that make decisions about life without implicit concern for it, even though, ostensibly, South Korea has these aims.  My expectation of their system is that the bored inmates will entertain themselves, perhaps to tactical advantage, by distracting robots (and the guards who overly trust the robots) to commit illegal acts without supervision.  The evil of humanity will find a way to abuse an automaton, just like so many Americans have found a way to abuse the police, who have occasionally behaved within a set of parameters and have stopped thinking for themselves by "just following the rules."

The positive and negative that comes with robotics will mirror the positive and negative in humanity, and likely, for a time, amplify it.  It is fine excited about the future, but it is wiser to contemplate it first.


To the Blind Man: The Ocean

For as much as you do not feel the still air around you everywhere you
walk, the ocean resists you with every movement, even when it is
still. Its power is so great that it will knock a man from his feet
in an instant, and drag him beneath its endless, crushing might, and
express both the air from his lungs, and the life from his body. The
ocean will, when it meets the land, crack a stone, topple a wall, and
sink a mighty ship with many chambers. The ocean moves endlessly,
both in great strength and great patience, but always in circles. It
waits for us at the end of the land. It is, for man, another world,
and we can but cower, cling fast to its tops, and pray that it does
not drag us into its immeasurable depths. To stand at the ocean's
shore is to stand at the border of a mighty kingdom. The sand beneath
your feet reminds you of the power of the ocean's kingdom, its ability
to our world of land to utterly destroy it, and yet its borders, it
cannot rise much above the height of a tiny berm or dune. The ocean
borders the sky and is there quite flat. The earth walls it in with
even the most modest of heights. And yet for all its terrors, the
ocean gives us its waters as the life-bringing rain. Storms build
across the ocean, and its endless waters are drawn up into a third
kingdom, the sky, to form great clouds and bring upon us rain and
wind. The breath of the ocean brings mist and salt, always damp,
always cool, and sometimes incomparably cold. The voice of the ocean
is a whisper and a roar, either with its murmurs across fine sand or
its clapping against the rock. It moves with great and formless hands
against the shore to pound out its endless rhythm, both loud and soft.
With the nadir of the moon, it rises slowly over the day sometimes to
a height of several feet, always moving, and at the zenith, it
retreats under the invisible forces of gravity, to subdue it to its
depths. At the land, it forms mighty walls, always on approach across
its tops, sometimes smooth, sometimes rough, and it surrenders into a
crash of harmless foam. In its midst, when men float precariously
upon its surface, these walls are subdued and roll onwards in their
fight with the kingdom of the land. A boat rises and falls upon its
surface, sometimes tossed when the rolls of the ocean become confused
and stirred by the storms of the sky. The men of the earth who live
at its borders both love and fear the kingdom ocean. Some work above
it, some play at its borders, but none belong to it.


Mister Mistrust

President Barack said with a smile:
"Your problems are solved, please wait a while!"
Tax-payers, dollars and change
draw his goals within range.
Patriots: betwixt ears gleams his guile.


Gray Burdens

When are choices burdensome? During or beyond the event? Every choice, once made, that follows into the mind can come with a certain regret. The recklessness of a choice is sometimes evident by the constant pursuit of never-sufficient affirmations from devoted supporters. What is this mechanism of regret? Do you listen to yours often? Any choice that cannot be cheerfully shared with someone you know to be innocent and careful is a difficult one to be sure. Was it the right choice?

As humans, we perpetually make mistakes, fail, and wish things would have turned out differently. The grief of this reality is when we decide to collapse upon a decision that has passed, and surrender to a mistake instead of rise from it. Rarely, decisions can be un-made, due to the chronological nature of choices. You can't, for example, un-fire someone from their job. The decision, although reversible in Human Resources, is not reversible in the minds of others. The simple encouragement of repentance, however, is that these matters can be put behind us. We can grow beyond our mistakes.

But what about uncertain situations? What does it mean to struggle with determining whether a decision should be regretful? This is a burden over gray areas. Eventually, with enough introspect, nothing is gray. There may be benefits and shortcomings to a decision from several different perspectives, providing opposing, black-and-white evaluations over several areas of consideration. However, the vital aspect of whether something is truly burdensome is whether it impacts your spiritual existence negatively. By seeking this one test of evaluation, every other aspect of a choice, whether mostly black or mostly white, can be resolved to a single, supreme evaluating perspective.

For all your gray burdens, find the single strand that must be black or white, and weave your future with God across it.