Friday, August 11, 2006

Naked as Nature Intended

It is, doubtless, possible to make exploding clothes. This thought came to me once I had stopped hyperventilating at the prospect of my laptop taking its chances in some aircraft hold thanks to the new veto on all cabin baggage. Here is a good summary of the state of play on how to bring down planes. Clearly we shall soon have to board naked but, perhaps, for some discreet shift or gown provided by the airline with, I imagine, a transparent chest pouch for travel documents and essential medications. One trusts it will not have an opening at the rear like hospital gowns. Then, presumably, bombs will be swallowed before boarding and detonated by contact with something like Diet Coke or, failing that, Dr Pepper.


  1. BA, this blog is about, among other things, imaginary ideas. What ifs? Allow me, thus, to pose a pretty whacky 'what if':

    'What if' Osama bin Laden turns out to be - by way of rendering forever-after (financially) unsustainable ubiqitous (ie cheap) air travel for 'the masses' - a great hero of Humanity?

    Aviation fuel burns account for a staggeringly-high 'relative-to-useful-energy-return' proportion of global greenhouse gas production. Furthermore, there is no 'alternative fuel' that can possibly provide the requisite energy-to-power/weight ratios required for heavier-than-air flight. If there is one area of 'energy profligacy' that defines the oil-burning West, then surely - sorry, BA, that should of course read 'shurely' - it is our (artificially, unsustainably?) cheap access to air travel?

    Scary 'what if' quesion, BA:

    If the 9-11/Pentagon assaults ultimately prove to have begun the process of Humanity eschewing mass heavier-than-air flight, might long-term Human Civilisation hail bin Laden as a species-saving visionary?

    Just asking.

    (PS: For those BA commenters moved to abuse me as a 'terrorist appeaser' - etc, etc, blah blah blah - allow me to warn you in advance that I have more-or-less impeccable 'war on terror' credentials to fling back in your white-feather-chucking faces. So...don't bother, eh.)

  2. Jack, thanks for reminding me of the original concept behind this blog. I have, I confess, strayed. I do think air travel is on the way out. The whole business is becoming so unpleasant, largely thanks to increased security, as well as being environmentally catastrophic. What I found weird about the people stuck at Heathrow was their acceptance and defiance - those terrorists can't win, Britain can take it, we'll still fight for our ancient, God-given right to go to Ibiza or wherever. Far more heroic to chuck the whole thing in, stay at home and think about stuff.

  3. A bomb detonated by drinking Dr Pepper? Brings a new meaning to their advertising slogan, 'Dr Pepper: What's the worst that could happen?'

    Interesting point about commercial heavier-than-air flight. If this mode of mass-transport ultimately proves to be uneconomical due to the cost of burning hydrocarbons, then perhaps lighter-than-air flight will become a viable alternative, heralding a new 'age of the airships'. To be precise, the viable alternative may be hybrid airships, which would use jet engines for assistance during take-off and landing, and would generate some aerodynamic lift, but which would generate the majority of their lift from helium buoyancy. See

    No such hybrid airship has yet been developed, but there is no current economic incentive to invest in such research. If heavier-than-air flight becomes uneconomic for commercial airlines, then hybrid airships could be 'the way forward'.

    All this, of course, is merely to consider the problem posed by fossil fuels and global warming. The threat from terrorism would obviously be just as economically damaging to commercial airships as it will be to jet-engined aircraft.

  4. Hi BA and GM, thanks for the comments, and especially the airship link, GM. I think the real 'obstacle' with lighter-than-air mass transport will prove to be speed. Matching aeroplanes and helicopters in payload, range, range of operating environments and useability is either already possible or at least scientifically and technically feasible, but aerodynamics will I think always prevent any sort of hybrid airship combining such matched capacities with matched speed, too. And speed, not 'flight' as such, is the definitive element of modern aviation.

    So again, we come back to the unmatchable mass & bulk : energy yield ratio got - like an over-eating, farting, whining brat with ADD - from the ungodly marriage of carbon fuels and the internal combustion engine. I just don't reckon this planet's array of resources (including our brains) will be able to produce another 'package' that can fit so much easily-harnessable energy into such a reliable, portable, lightweight, stable yet explosively-powerful latent form as carbon fuel in a fuel tank connected to a carbon-fuel burning engine. To transport large payloads at high speeds - whether by land, sea or air - you essentially have no engineering options but oily ones.

    So the question to ask is surely not 'What if anything will replace the heavier-than-air flying machine?' I think it's not even 'Do we really need to fly so much, anyway?' Rather, I'd say it's something like 'Do we really need to come and go everywhere so damned fast?' (And: 'In the long term is it good, or bad, or impact-neutral, for us as Humans to do so?' And: 'Is it good or bad or impact-neutral for those Humans more-or-less anchored, for whatever reason, at our transient destinations...for us to do so?' Or a kooky 'what if' of the kind with which a favorite lecturer of mine liked to prod us awake on stuffy Friday arvos: 'What if God (or Darwin or an alien, etc) introduced an uncurable and universal bio-magnetic virus that caused the Human heart to stop beating whenever its physical speed through the earth's field was detected as exceeding 20 kph...what would the world look like a few generations down the evolutionary track?')

    And so on. Rendering (in my view, anyway) the technocratic West's arrogantly-misnamed 'looming oil crunch' - as if we poor developed nations have no free will option but to keep on using more and more oil-energy (until it runs out and/or we cook the planet, natch) - more properly a debate for our top philosophers, not our top pollies, bean monkies and white coats.

    Trust the shambolic buggers to go mucking about on the farm in an existential crisis...

  5. Good stuff Jack. Hybrid airships would, indeed, be a slower form of mass transport than that provided by heavier-than-air flight. By Archimedes' principle, the buoyant force is equal to the weight of the fluid (in this case, the air) displaced, which in turn is proportional to the volume of the displaced fluid (air). Hence, the greater the volume of lighter-than-air gas carried by an airship, the greater the buoyant lift generated. To carry a payload of numerous passengers requires a significant volume of helium gas. Aerodynamic drag is proportional to frontal area, hence even a tear-drop shaped airship has a limited speed. The frontal area could be reduced by making a very long and slender airship, but if the mass is uniformly distributed along the length, this would increase the moment of polar inertia, making the airship more reluctant to change direction. In general, a long and slender airship would be less useable and less controllable.

    So hybrid airships would probably be slower. In general, if we do things slower then, ceteris paribus, we will expend less energy, hence the hybrid airship may be a good mass-transport solution for a future world which seeks to limit energy consumption.

    In fact, there are three inter-related variables here: energy, time, and information. The more information (knowledge, understanding) we have, the more efficiently we can achieve a task; i.e., we can achieve the same task by expending less energy. Thus, we can think of a particular task as being achieved in a certain time (in rough terms, at a certain speed), by expending a certain amount of energy, at a certain level of efficiency. A task can be achieved quicker if either (i) the amount of energy expended is increased, whilst the efficiency with which it is expended remains constant, or if (ii) the amount of energy expended remains constant, but the efficiency with which it is expended is increased, (or if (iii) both energy and efficiency are increased). If the priority is not to achieve a task as quickly as possible, and instead one has less energy available to consume, then one can achieve the same task with less energy if either (i) the task is achieved slower, or (ii) the energy is expended more efficiently, (or both).

    As an example of the interplay between energy, time and information, motorcar manufacturers are steadily increasing the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. In motorsport, this increased efficiency is used to make the cars go faster whilst expending the same amount of energy; in road-cars, this increased efficiency is used to make the cars expend a smaller amount of energy whilst going at the same speed.

  6. Jack, I notice the shambolic buggers link you put in your post goes to the site of my friend Roger Scruton. I'm not quite sure I see why - unless, of course, you ARE Roger Scruton.

  7. HI BA - sorry, merely intended to send a playfully ironic hyperlink compliment RS's way. Seems I've long fallen into the over-use of hyperlink irony, where everything to which I link is a reflexive counterpoint of some kind.

    The shambolic bugger is of course anything but...and 'mucking about on the farm' is likewise no such thing. IMHO Scruton is precisely the kind of leader who has the right combination of toughness, poetry and love to ride out some of the philosophical bumps ahead. James Lovelock's another you happen to know if these two farsighted men, who I think are both friends of yours, know each other? Or anything about how their philosophies on our future-prospects compare? Professor Scruton's quite radical philosophical 'project' (?) to integrate oft-awkward bedfellows such as conservation, sustainability, cerebral innovation and commercial success, all within a good-humoured framework of self-sufficiency (ie without the kook factor) and a new civilised decency (ie without the moral zealotry) is deeply attractive.

    So pardon the obtuseness, BA, I was trying to be glibly hip. Or hiply glib...either way, a fatal error as always.

  8. Not fatal at all, Jack. Lovelock and Scruton are, indeed, friends of mine but I have no evidence there is any other connection. If they have met, I don't know about it. In conventional political terms, they have little in common. However, Lovelock's idea of a bible of our civilisation - see the ending of his last book - that would transmit what we know to generations beyond the impending environmental catastrophe echoes somewhat Scruton's conservatism. Both are very English thinkers and both believe we have lost something of immense value. For both, therefore, the task of the future is the preservation of what fragments remain. They both, in different ways, have a strong belief in the land as our home.

  9. That's the crucial philosophical task of our times, I think: rendering sacred the Human relationship with land, or place, again (or as RS might put it: 'endowing [anew] our [daily lives] with the nimbus of the supernatural']...while nullifying or at least sidestepping all the sappy, sentimental and destructive tosh that tends to go with the 'back to nature' schtick. Probably playing against type - as RS and JL seem to be doing now - is the only realistic leadership path ahead: ie only an impeccable intellectual Conservative will persuade the money/power towards a healthier respect of and love for nature (here the much-maligned 'landed gentries' or their equivalents in a number of developed countries might prove of critical leadership importance to the process of salvaging things); while only an impeccable intellectual Lefty can hope to shift the obnoxiously blinkered Sparts, arties, media irony-junkies and sundry mad ideologues in a more practical and inclusive direction, too...towards accepting nukes as an power interim, for example.

    Maybe you should introduce your two friends, BA; get 'em to launch a joint travelling 'OK, here's how we save our asses, fools!' world tour. I'm only half joking,'s getting bloody hairy, and what is needed in a crisis is not endless discussion, but someone with a loud voice, a vaguely usable plan (doesn't have to be perfect, just OK) and great big lay down the necessaries.

    Better some imperfect action now than none tomorrow, and/or perfect action next year.

    PS: 'Both believe we have lost something of imenese value...' Yes. I'm not English, but watching you lot destroy the things the rest of us love and envy most about your country is almost unbearably sad...a highly nuanced discussion for another thread, another day, perhaps. It would be interesting to try to come up with a definitive list of what we all - local and foreigner - thought was a) truly defining of 'Englishness', and b) under threat or already lost, and how.

    Thanks again for the space and indulgence BA and GM. Much appreciated.

  10. And just as they decide it's safe to take laptops in the cabin, it turns out Dells explode of their own accord. You gotta larf.