No More Frontiers

This will be part one of an ongoing series I want to write so I can flush out a more complete idea I’ve been kicking around lately. Hopefully, if all the parts congeal, I’ll have enough for a whole essay. Do people still write those for fun, or did that go out with the 19th century?

One of my favorite things on the internet is google maps. It’s a bit conflicting, because I don’t like google, but I love maps. I’ve always loved maps. I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old, I got this simple atlas in the mail for some reason. I would bring it to school and just sit there during our reading period just looking at it. I don’t know what the appeal was. The maps were very simple (nothing like the modern day google equivalents); they had major cities marked with relative population sizes, major mountains, and most water ways and bodies of water were marked. I always had a good imagination, so maybe it was just about imagining all these places, as though somehow the act of seeing their positions among everything else made them more real than just colored polygons on a page.

Now, with google maps, I tend to do the same thing, only on a scale my 12 year old self could never have imagined. Instead of 2D polygons, I can see an actual satellite photo of just about any square mile I want. A road in North America? I can probably view street level photos of it. Terrain? I know exactly how that river basin ties in with the surrounding land. But it’s not the technology, or what I can see that strikes me. It’s the places on the map to which I tend to (almost subconsciously) find myself panning and zooming. Every time I go on one of my map adventures, it’s the same places, or at least the same types of places. It wasn’t until recently that I even really thought about the bigger picture, or what might be the draw of those particular places on the map. Even now, I have a hard time putting it into words despite having the deep internal sense of what it is.

In college, I created a project for a class on neoplatonism (esoteric name, interesting class). I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I do remember it was pretty open, and projects from other people were all over the map (no pun intended). My project consisted of photos I had dug up from a very specific set of places on my map adventures. One I remember was of a small old church, built on the rocky wasteland of South Georgia Island. It’s a small island in the far south Atlantic, ESE of Argentina and the Falklands. When I found it, I thought it was so odd (and kind of amazing) that anyone would build anything there. No one lives there any more, but at some time, someone must have lived there. Someone found this island, nearly in Antarctic waters, presumably while on some oceanic journey and thought to set up a settlement there.

So a one-off island in the middle of the ocean doesn’t really make a trend, but I’ve found dozens of places like this, and I’m sure I could (or maybe I will) find many more. Not all are abandoned like South Georgia, but they all illicit that, “who found this? Why did they build something there? What was that like?” type of wonderment in me. I’ve come to realize that it is that vague attribute, subjective as it may be, that ties all these places together. Another of my favorite geographical areas is the Hudson Bay, northern Quebec and Labrador. I find the same things there: An ostensibly inhospitable environment dotted with settlements, many of which (still settled or not) are relatively old. They were frontiers of exploration for someone at one time. Be it the native peoples who first spread out there, or the European explorers who followed centuries later. Neither group had any idea what was there. They had to risk everything to find it and experience it.

Are there any more of those frontiers today?

*sigh*…youtube

I like to watch videos on youtube. Mostly I enjoy experimenters, people building stuff. It gives me ideas sometimes, but mostly I just like to see what other people are doing. I don’t know what the reason is, but a lot of people seem like they couldn’t be bothered to spend 5 minutes googling something before talking out of their ass about it. I see this over and over again. People not understanding volts, amps, or basic mechanics, or any number of other things. These things aren’t hard. I guess the saving grace is that they’re experimenting or building or whatever, but how far do you think you’re going to get if you don’t understand the basic principles?

One of my favorites is watts. A watt is a really simple concept. It’s power, or more specifically, a unit of power. It’s a construct that describes in one numeric term, a combination of factors (volts and amps) in a system. But a lot of people don’t seem to understand what it is, or more accurately, what it doesn’t describe. In talking about complete solar systems for instance (ones complete with a battery of some kind), people will often refer only to “how many watts” the system can deliver, and what sorts of devices could be powered. Well, that information is meaningful, and it isn’t. Saying that a hair dryer takes 1100 watts is just telling you how much power it needs. And a hair dryer, or light bulb (or any resistive load really) are pretty simple. So I could concede “how many watts” might be kind of useful there. But what you’re really describing is the instantaneous amount of power that can be delivered. You’ve say NOTHING about for how long. If you had a perfect little AA alkaline battery, with very little internal resistance (or a capacitor), it could theoretically run that hair dryer. Obviously, we know that isn’t true, but the “how many watts” answer could say it was possible. It would “run” for fractions of a second probably, but who cares? That’s not what you asked. Watt hours on the other hand IS meaningful. It’s very meaningful. A laptop battery will usually have a label listing its capacity in watt hours. Even cell phone batteries will usually list their capacity in amp hours (which could be translated into a variety of watt hour figures, given certain circumstances). But for a little googling, and god forbid…reading, people could avoid these silly misunderstandings. It boggles my mind. Do you want to understand something, or do you just want to fuck around? Fucking around is fine, you might learn some things, but you’re not putting it on any kind of foundation, and honestly, it could be dangerous.

Another one I saw recently that drove me nuts was people claiming they could build “gravity engines” or generators. The basic principle behind this is to use a mass weight, pulling down on a geared mechanism that changes the slow rotation of the falling mass into a fast rotation. People were claiming this could be used to run electrical generators. I never saw one of those in action (of course). One person had simply built a small fan attached to the fast rotating gear. Fair enough. That’s about the best you can expect from something like this. It’s a really neat concept, don’t get me wrong, but all these people are not understanding torque. Sure, that little gear my be spinning at 4000 RPMs, and sure, you could put some magnets on it and throw some coils next to it. But as soon as you start drawing ANY kind of load through those coils, it’s probably going to stop. This is the same reason it’s crazy hard to pedal slowly in the highest gear of a bicycle. Sure, if there was no road resistance, you could pedal the wheel extremely fast in that gear, but there’s very little torque behind it. I’m not sure if it’s the same term, or if generators use a different term for it, but in electric motors, there’s a concept of back EMF, or electro-motive force. Basically the idea that a motor spinning is also “generating” a current in the opposite direction of the current driving the motor. With coils under load and the low torque spinning disc, the effect is analogous. If you kept the load light, and the mechanism very strong, and used a heavy enough mass, you could probably engineer some usable power out of it. But to claim “oh look at that rapidly spinning gear!” as though there was this abundance of power to be harvested there is just delusional.

Now I don’t want to discourage people from experimenting and trying crazy things. Please do! That’s how I started. But I realized you will get too far off the path of reality if you don’t understand the basics. You absolutely don’t need to understand all the details, and in fact, it’s probably better you don’t, so you’re not discouraged from thinking outside the box. But understanding the basics will help you call bullshit on that no-torque generator, or the 1000 watt power system that can only put that kind of power out for 15 minutes. The internet is here for you. There are countless people out there who love the stuff you love, and want nothing more than for you to really understand how it works.