13-3 bright ideas

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

13.3 (Summer 2013)





This “idea box” is intended to give an airing to any sort of original insight whatever concerning how we might live better (healthier, freer, safer, more efficient, etc.)  lives in the twenty-first century.  Suggestions should be practical rather than political, though the distinction between the two can grow quite blurred.


The Urban Camper

This may be received as a facetious idea more than as a bright one… but the logic of it holds together.  Fact: we are too oil-dependent.  Fact: rush hours in major cities are a nuisance.  Fact: people who get caught in these rush hours regularly suffer from high stress and low satisfaction with life, generally speaking.
What if these problems could all be, not solved, but ameliorated in one fell swoop?  What I have in mind would be a vehicle that I will call an urban camper, or UC.  This need be very little larger than a conventional SUV, or it might well be no larger at all for a single occupant.  The driver would spend the night in the parking lot of his business or place of employ.  His UC would have a comfortable bed, a toilet, simple refrigeration and cooking amenities, and all the entertainment of the Internet.  He might drive to work on Monday morning and not return until Friday evening (although the toilet would have to be emptied somehow, of course, and fairly often unless our camper made frequent use of an available indoor facility).  The UC might be a gas-guzzler, comparatively, but the reduction in commutes and in sitting idle during traffic jams would result in a huge net reduction in fuel consumption.  The opportunities for evening socializing would be minimal, although people who hear me out generally have plenty of lewd suggestions with many a laugh.  I’m thinking of the kind of person who drags home dead tired every night and hardly sees his wife or kids during the week, even then.  This kind of person would appreciate the option, which obviously isn’t for everyone.
I’m thinking there might even be UC camps the way there are trailer parks along the open highway.  More socializing could take place, and the “wagon train” effect might produce a safer environment during the night.
One of my sounding boards believes that the UC may even be the way of the future.  Maybe people will literally live out of their vehicles without owning a home or renting an apartment.  This comment was seriously intended, and I don’t know if I approve it as an extension of the idea or not.  Possibly, if we continue along our present course as a highly mobile urban society, it’s the kind of thing that will happen whether we want it to or not.  I don’t suppose the government—at any level—would approve, as this would make us much harder to track individually and empty the royal coffers of property taxes.  Frankly, those are among the few things that most attract me to the vision of a radically UC-based society.   ~   A.D.

Ice Hotels and Glass Towers

A Canadian series called Megabuilders had a very interesting segment, I recall, about an “ice hotel” that has been built in Sweden every winter for approximately twenty years, some 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.  The engineers have to rebuild the structure each fall because it melts in the following spring, despite its extreme latitude.  The building was indeed all ice, made both from snow sprayed over a mold and from ice blocks cut with buzz-saws.  It housed somewhere from fifty to eighty guests, who paid as much as $1,000 a night to stay in this great refrigerator!
Perhaps the first thought to strike me was shock that elite Europeans have so much money to blow while so many of their chattels are out of work.  I have a feeling that heavy EU subsidies must be involved in the operation.  But my second thought was, “Well, if they can generate revenue this way, more power to them.  Maybe we can one day build hotels on Mars.”
It’s heartening, anyway, to see people being creative.  My own idea would also use climate—except that its objective is to create a very energy-efficient and durable structure rather than an extremely labor- and energy-intensive showboat that lasts just until the seasonal thaw.
This would be a small, simple dwelling in the experimental stage.  I would make it round, a tower of sorts, since much heated or cooled air is wasted in the corners of our rooms where no actual living is done.
The mechanism would work this way.  Currently, we more or less board up our houses in the winter and then let the sunshine in during the summer.  There may be something instinctive about these responses, but they make little sense nowadays from an engineering perspective.  With yesteryear’s technology, admittedly, the sealing around windows allowed so much energy to escape that the cold almost seemed to pour through glass in winter and to leak through it when our air-conditioners were turned on; and this was substantially true.
I would have a ballistic-caliber glass roof on my tower that would create a kind of greenhouse inside during the winter.  Warm air rises, and I want to keep as much of that air as possible down low as evening descends.  So I would have an adjustable ceiling close over my living space as the sun began to desert the glass roof.  The ceiling would slowly lower as the night went on, forcing the trapped heat to stay relatively close to the floor.
During the summer, the glass roof would be covered from the outside in a bright, heat-resistant tarp.  Cool air settles close to the ground, so my adjustable ceiling would start the morning at only about six feet from the floor.  (I actually like the idea of making this ceiling slightly domed so that heat or coolness could be more effectively pooled in the middle spaces where people are most apt to move around.)  As the day continued and activity in the house produced more heat, the ceiling would rise to allow that heat to escape habitation levels.  It might end up at twelve or fourteen feet by day’s end.  There could also be “sails” extended from the roof that would channel any available breeze into the house.  These could be opened manually.
The long and the short of it is that we could do a heck of a lot simply through intelligent design to create vastly more energy-efficient structures.  Instead, we remain in the “stupid” phase where we try to produce energy out of new sources like modern alchemists in order to power our old clunker of an infrastructure.  I wonder how long this stupidity will continue?   ~   G.C.