Tomas Vik

J. Storrs Hall - Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past



My rating: ★★★★★ (95%)

Interesting review: Where Is My Flying Car? | Bayesian Investor Blog


This is one of the most eye opening books I’ve read (the other that comes to mind is Harari’s Sapiens).

You need to take many parts with a heavy nugget of salt. When there is an ambiguous topic (e.g. radiation impact on cancer) Josh takes an authoritative stance to one extreme.

See the “Thoughts” at the end of this post for the kind of takeaways you’ll have from this book.

Key takeaways

  • Nuclear energy is over regulated, material-wise it’s so cheap that we could have no CO2 emissions and energy too cheap to measure.
  • Regulation and other centralised government factors (e.g. government funded research) stifle innovation, but it’s an opportunity cost that is hard to see (i.e. our rate of progress is 2% rather than 7% a year but it still seems like we make progress)
  • We need to understand radiation effect on people much better. It will be necessary for spaceflight anyway and it might give us cheep nuclear energy.
  • Nanotechnology is a concept that has a potential that I haven’t understood before. It could completely change how our civilisation works.

Unsorted thoughts

The author mapped 1960s predictions about technologies and shown that only the ones that don’t require high energy came true.

The energy output of the US started to stagnate around 1972, since then there weren’t any improvements in flight, space travel and so on

Nanotechnology has the potential to rebuild the whole US infrastructure (buildings, factories, roads railways) in 2 weeks

  • Typical factory will pay for itself in 25-35 years of being built, nanofactory could do that in weeks
  • Moors law would apply, there would be more efficient nanofactories built by previous generation. The software (design) would be the bottleneck.

Machiavelli Effect

  • The established ruling party is fighting change because it would affect their well being. They never identify this as the reason, they think they are doing the world the service (it’s again the incentives and self-interest that Munger is talking about)
  • Science advances funeral by funeral

  • I discovered, to my amazement, that all through history there had been resistance— and bitter, exaggerated, last-ditch resistance— to every significant technological change that had taken place on earth. Usually the resistance came from those groups who stood to lose influence, status, money as a result of the change. Although they never advanced this as their reason for resisting it. It was always the good of humanity that rested upon their hearts.

  • —Isaac Asimov
  • Cold fusion
    • Cold fusion experiments got heavily criticised by high power nuclear physicists. Hall argues that it’s because they were afraid about loosing funding/power.
    • The physicists were actively sabotaging attempts to reproduce the original experiement.

Public research funding is bad for science

  • Hall argues that public research funding is, if anything, hindering science because bureaucrats can dictate what is important for science and what isn’t.
    • All important improvements of life came before 1960s when the public research funding skyrocketed in US
      • transistors, vacuum tubes, indoor plumbing, refrigirators, cards, airplanes, electric lights
  • Failures to understand new science is now not causing only mispredictions, but actively work against it as the bureaucrats decide what research gets funding.
  • France had a massive public research funding in 1800s, but industrial revolution came from England

The number of PhDs also doesn’t correlate with quality of life imporovements.

Flying cars

  • Hill asks us to imagine the progress that could have been caused by flying cars. Similarly to what the normal car caused
    • You didn’t just take the trips that you would have walked, but faster; you took trips you never would have made at all.

    • This is really interesting thought exercise, the invention of automobile allowed for new businesses, new way of working (commute to the city), new experiences
    • The car and the network of interstate freeways in US is attributed to 30% of the economic growth in the 50’s
    • The interstate system contributed to the solid 4.1% growth up to the great stagnation
  • Hill describes how chevrolet corvair was cancelled because somebody wrote an article about how terrible its handling is
  • Again an interesting idea about how minor bad event can stere public opinion to cancel a thing Hall says that if the flying cards flew, few people would crash and die and it would cause public to turn against them. The same will be the case with autonomous cars these days.


  • The regulation sky-rocketed in 1970s
  • Federal regulation and aggregate economic growth
    • 2013 Study that says that the median US household income is $53,000 and if US maintained the amount of regulation that it had in 1949, it would be $185,000
  • FDA got power over all drugs in 1938 after a disaster when a drug killed 100 people.
    • Since then all drugs have to get regulatory approval.
    • One such drug was Sulfapyridine that could have saved 10-20k lives the winter that it was in review by FDA instead of in hospitals.
  • The direct cost of regulation in 2008 was $15k+ per household
  • Certified airplane parts are 10times more expensive than if they are not for airplane
  • There was some de-regulation of air traffic controls that increased the number of flights and hence saved lives by taking people off highways (this is a [[second order effect]])
  • Regulators are not elected. Regulation is not introduced as law is. US introduces around 20 times more new regulations than law. regulatory administrative courts handle 10 times more cases than federal courts
  • Regulation is triggered by small disasters where relatively small amount of people dies and it stops progress and sometimes it causes more deaths
  • I was always thinking how regulation brought good and improved people’s lives, but what I didn’t realise is that there was a huge improvement in people’s lives before regulation.
  • The only way for industry to start is to make a huge progress before regulation kiks in
    • Software
    • Normal cars
    • Hobby drones

Product liability

  • in 70s, lot of accidents were judged as caused by products and the companies had to pay
    • This completely destroyed the small airplane industry
  • in 70s and later many people studied law and lots of talent was wasted on court battles
  • imagine Ford getting sued every time model T crashed, there would be no cars

Author names hypothetical obstacles to flying cars

  • insurance company won’t insure new thing
  • neighbours will complain about nose and propeller close to children
  • city council worrying about property prices
  • TV reporters creating drama and scaring everyone
  • Tax assesor who will classify your lawn as airport
  • mayor who will use this for his governor campaign

Mallow’s Hierarchy

  • Hall argues that around the end of 60s, the basic physical human needs in US were satisfied and people needed the fulfilment and belonging. It’s hard to give something important to work on to everyone and people started coming up with silly unproductive virtue signalling things.
    • Hall says that we can make ourselves believe almost anything, most people would believe that they do something important and help the world.
  • Reaching of higher Mallow level is possible explanation why so many different social movements happened at the same time. Cvil rights, feminism, anti-war, sexual revolution, conservationism (nature), socialism
    • virtue signalling became more important than real-world results
  • Hall uses the term Eloi for people who have their physical needs taken care of enough that they can concern themselves with love, esteem, and self-actualization.

War as a tool for efficiency

  • Hall argues that historically, people couldn’t spend too much time on virtue signalling and activities disconnected from reality. Since the invention of atomic bomb, if a nation becomes ineffective, it can’t be defeated and taken over by another nation.
    • I’m not sure about this argument because middle-ages were ripe with war and the efficiency wasn’t too great
  • At any rate, there is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the political agenda. The spirit that “we are all in the same boat” disappears and is replaced by a “winner take all” mentality.

    • This makes sense. The less immediate danger there is, the more can people concern themselves with bullshit.
  • after WW2, the cooperative spirit fuelled the large national corporations GE, GM, …
  • However as the next generation didn’t have to fight for survival, the mentality of let’s all work for single goal broke down
  • it is ease and plenty, the lack of danger and struggle rather than their presence, that appears to engender moral and intellectual decay.

Media misinformation

  • The more you are disconnected from the event/situation, the more you are likely to believe media scare messages
    • Cancer from cell-phones - everybody has one, nobody has cancer - you don’t believe them
    • Dangers of nuclear power - I don’t live next to a power plant - I believe them

Climate change

  • The intergovernmental panel for climate change

    • The author mentions study from 2007 that says that the impact of climate change will be small
    • I read 2023 summary and the 2023 prognosis is not that good
      • Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence). There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence)

  • The author found some report that says that worst-case-scenario, climate change will cost US 2.5% GDP in 2100

    • This sounds like no longer being true
  • If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based upon faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting or distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education.”

  • —Bertrand Russell

Author makes argument that all products are becoming worse thanks to energy savings (dishwashers that don’t wash dishes, showers that drizzle)

Author describes Xhosa African nation that believed a girl “prophet” who said they should slaughter all their animals and not saw new crops. 40 000 people starved to death. Wiki source

  • In modern democratic society, the outcome of a plague meme is lack of growth, not a decline. People would notice deteriorating living conditions, but they don’t notice the lost opportunities [[Opportunity cost]]

The susceptibility to horror stories is what creates regulation and what created glass ceiling on our energy generation.

All predictions from the turn of 20th century missed a car. They were predicting how the public spaces will be great, how public transport will be great, but they didn’t anticipate the productivity increase introduced by Ford that let everyone have a car.

Author says that if we had the current cultural and regulatory environment in 1910, we would not have cars.

When US was all frontier, and people were competing with nature rather than with each other, there was low value in virtue-signalling.


  • most of the private planes in US are home-made or 40 years old and this is thanks to the safety regulations

Jevon’s paradox - the more energy-efficient your appliance gets, the more total energy you use

  • Named after William Stanley Jevons
  • It’s explained on an example with a selling tomatoes by driving to a market. If you can only go 20km with one batch of tomatoes, you will do less trips (less customers) than if you can go 40km with a batch of tomatoes for the same price

Nuclear energy

  • 747-400 flight US-AU will tak 194 tons of Jet-A fuel (2.1 GWh), that’s on average 100tons of cargo that the plane is taking. It costs $343k to buy that fuel. Uranium with the same amount of energy (100g) would cost under $10
  • Fuel Unit Price Amount/TJ $/TJ
    gasoline $3.37/gal 7,780 gal 26,000.00
    electricity $0.12/kWh 278,000 kWh 33,000.00
    natural gas $12.50/mcf 948 mcf 11,850.00
    coal (anthracite) $170/ton 91,600 lbs 7,786.00
    tritium $30,000/g 3.77 lbs 51 million
    uranium (as U2O8) $58.24/lb 0.028 lbs 1.40
    uranium (enriched) $1.63/gram 12.58 g 20.00
    thorium (oxide 99.9%) $0.20/gram 12.58 g 2.50
    boron-11 (p-B fusion) $5/gram 15 g 76.00
    lithium-7 (carbonate) $0.06/g 7.4 g 0.44
    deuterium (heavy water) $600/liter 7.8 ml 4.00
  • Fuel Unit Price Amount/TWh $/TWh
    gasoline $1.5/l 1050l $1570
  • Reserves of uranium could power the earth of 77 years, of thorium for 6500 years
  • Author says: Since thorium is found in coal in traces, the burnt coal ash contains more energy than the coal itself.
  • The problem with adopting thorium is that uranium is already too cheap.
  • All cost of nuclear energy is of regulatory complience. Fuel is negligable.
  • There is as much headroom in energy generation as in computation, but computation is not regulated.
  • Forbes article from Michael Shellenberger about how safe the nuclear power is
  • Trying to understand the impact of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident
  • The Fukushima power plant failure (marked as disaster by public) cost 0 lives due to radiation exposure.
  • Nuclear power plants cannot explode with nuclear explosion, however, thanks to media, many people would say they can (60% of Americans)
  • Energy poverty is estimated to kill 28k americans a year
  • The rules for dealing with nuclear waste are too strict. The limit for radioactivity way below the limit that would be harmful to humans.
  • Speed limit analogy

    • Josh says that radiation limits are 100 times stricter than any proven impact to human health. Imagine how expensive car transportation would be if we set speed limit to 1.3km/h
    • LNT - Linear No-Threshold Model states that radiation is dangerous in proportion to exposure with no limit on the low side. That means that people in places with high background radiation should have more cancer which Josh says is not true
      • J. Muller got Nobel Prize for demonstrating that ionizing radiation causes genetic mutation, he also authored the LNT model
      • J. Muller also argued that the effect is not dependent on timing
    • radiation dose chart
    • Picture by Randall Munroe (
  • Consider how developing countries would use clean nuclear energy if we didn’t stifle the innovation and were able to give them safe reactors.
  • The US Navy had over 6000 reactor-years of accident-free operation in 2016, it has built 526 reactor cores
  • If we had perfected nuclear energy, all the engineering effort for energy efficiency could have been spent on improving our lives
  • There is a correlation between GDP and energy use. Author argues that there is causality both ways (increase energy available => increase GDP)
  • Josh argues that green activists are opposed to energy in general, they would like to keep people with as little energy as possible so they are not transforming the earth.

Josh is thinking about quality of life as a function of production capability. If it takes an average worker in a factor a year to manufacture a car, then only rich people can afford it. If it takes them 10 days, everybody can afford it.

  • Josh used “percent of population it would take to make everyone have a flying car”
  • The productivity is increased by more energy, better machines, and better processes.

Josh is really big fan of nanotechnology. He says that nanotechnology could rebuild all US infrastructure in a few days.

Josh mentions [[Cybernetics]] in relation to how our political systems lack the feedback loops.

Key Idea: Academia and Politics are disconnected form the feedback that would make public company fail.

  • Why very seductive idea, without regulation we would have a few monopolies that mess up the environment for profit.

We don’t punish bad predictions by public persons. If someone says that in 3 years time something terrible happens, they get popularity in the moment but 3 years later nobody cares.

Josh aruges that people don’t udnerstand complex systems and blaim the closest entity for a failure

  • Aerospace engineers for lack of flyings cars (instead of regulators)
  • Pharmaceutics companies for being greedy rather than the regulators that make it expensive to make drugs

Prophets of bad news

  • Al Gore warned us in 2007 nobel prize acceptance speach that polar caps will be gone by 2014
  • Paul Ehrlich - population explosion, famine, wars


  • Only in academia and government, where nobody faces consequences for failure, do you find people who are stupid enough to believe they know what is going to happen.

    • —Eric Worrall
  • t is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.

    • —Thomas Sowell


  • Josh describes some engines including nuclear explosion propulsion
    • Interestingly he argues that radiation released by a takeoff of such a ship wouldn’t be too bad
  • Outer space is a high radiation environment. We need to find out how to deal with radiation anyway so why not to use nuclear power?

[[Complexity barrier]]

Fertile Techium Valley metaphore

  • We are creating technological understanding that’s spilling into valleys like a lake
  • Regulators create dams that completely wall of areas of understanding (nano tech, nuclear)

Second atomic age

  • nanotech and nuclear advancements will allow us to manipulate matter on atomic level
  • 4 billion tons of uranium is dissolved in the ocean, the bottom of the ocean contains 100 trillion tones, if we remove some from the ocean, the ocean floor uranium will leach back into the ocean
  • Nielson test - successor of Turing test - judge AI/robot by the number of jobs it can take over from humans
  • Josh argues that productivity is exponential and if we add nuclear and nanotech it will get hyperexponential
  • Josh argues that making moral robots will be easy because we don’t have to replicate the reptile brain that makes people immoral
  • Space pier

    • 300km long structure 100km hight accelerating projectiles in orbit making price of kg in orbit $1/kg
  • Weather control

    • release small nano “saturns” into the atmosphere, they’ll form a full cover of the earth and we can tilt them to either block or allow sunlight through, we can even focus sunlight onto power plants
  • If we have nanotech, we want the CO2 content in atmosphere to be high because everyone will have pocket printers using it to create almost any product.

The centuries-long growth in energy output (Henry Adams curve) stoped in 1970

In dynamic (growing) society people can cooperate and both come ahead. In static (stagnating) society it’s more zero-sum game.

The great stagnation is reflected in Science Fiction - from optimistic SF of early 20th century, we got to distopian SF of late 20th sentury


  • Bad news/predictions are memes that win over reality because of their high emotional impact
  • Regulation is often a knee-jerk reaction to some small incident that gets blown out of proportion
  • Nuclear power is regulated so much that it stifles innovation.
  • People are so averse to risk that it hinders progress. 174 slightly irradiated people causes 187 billion dollars expense
  • Josh says that there is no reason to hold your breath for fusion since fission is already super cheap.
  • If we get of this planet, we’ll open the frontier again. People will get free of Earth regulation and will be able to experiment with any/every technology.
  • Many wiki pages with topics form this book are highly controversial/disputed