Elon Musk wants to turn the daily commute into a ride in a steel coffin propelled through a rail gun powered by an air hockey table. Join me, for a moment, and consider this thought: You hop in a water slide outside Oakland, hurtle yourself at almost 800 miles per hour in the dark, and emerge in LA’s Echo Park around 30 minutes later.
This is the Hyperloop, the near-future mass transit system dreamed up by Musk in the hours he’s not trying to get into space or build a better electric car. If he draws up plans for an advanced deep sea sub in the next two years Musk will be 3/5 of the way towards creating his own Thunderbirds team.
It’s easy to make fun of the idea, mostly because it sounds like a hot ticket to the kind of organ-liquifying death promised in pulp magazines. It was also cause for all of us to remember one of the best Simpson episodes of all time. I couldn’t fight that urge myself.
But stop and listen to Musk talk about the mechanics behind the Hyperloop:
The air skis in the pod would have a thin row of magnets—you don’t need much. The linear motor would electromagnetically accelerate the pod. It would be just below where the skis are. It just creates an electromagnetic pulse that travels along the tube and pushes the pod to that initial velocity of 800 miles per hour.
Let’s break that down to the components: Air skis. Magnets. Linear motor. Electromagnetic pulse. Elevated tubes sending human-filled bullets hurtling through a 900 mile chamber, just to make it easier to visit family, commute to work, or mix things up for date night.
I don’t know about you but, I had one thought: SHIT YEAH SCIENCE.
I can’t say for certain whether I’d want to ride in the Hyperloop right now. But the project is the perfect kind of sci-fi experimentation and imagination fuel that makes me stupid with anticipation. It’s a crazy scheme for the public good wrapped in science: Let’s take the technology of tomorrow and use it to fix…mass transit. There is nothing sexy about mass transit, and yet Musk has an obsession with finding better ways for humans to get where they need to go, or where they want to explore. He is a ridiculously rich guy whose overriding thought — other than “how do I stay rich” — is what can science do today to make tomorrow better?
Obviously this could be an exaggeration of the inner-workings of Elon Musk’s mind. But consider the fact that Musk wants to employ untested technology and white board concepts on the physics of what should work to make all the small and unconsidered parts of life easier, if not more fantastic. The Hyperloop has all the appeal of science fiction porn today, but it (or something close) will be mundane tomorrow. The time will come when you will curse the TSA droids for holding up your line because you were hoping to get at least one drink at the terminal bar before catching the next Hyperloop. ( I didn’t want to pay $18 for that shitty Loop station margarita anyway…)
Crazy ideas are how we point ourselves toward a future we can’t figure out right now. And if someone with a bank balance that would make Midas blush wants to cover some costs, all the better. In Musk’s case, he’s a definite maybe in that category. While he’s thrown cash after Space X and the Tesla, he’s not as committed to the Hyperloop. He’s put the plans out into the wild and said, “I’m somewhat tempted to make at least a demonstration prototype.” Translation: "If I’ve got a spare $6 - $10 billion lying around and I’ve had a few glasses of Shiraz during my down time on the yacht, I’ll probably knock out some more concrete designs for this thing."
The whims of a mad billionaire inventor are not the only barriers in the Hyperloop’s path: Land, permitting, the mood of politicians, and some as of yet unyielding laws of physics, are just a few of the potential problems. History has provided a wealth of examples of the challenges of making high-speed rail a reality.
And of course there’s Musk himself. As loudly as I may be singing his praises, I’m not an officer in the Elon Musk Pep Squad. My default expectation of him is set on “rich egotistical jackass.” Among other press highlights, his handling of Model S road test story with The New York Times was beyond ridiculous.
But even then, that same brashness that threatened to overshadow the Model S came from pride and belief in an idea, as much as ego. If he seems fired up, maybe it’s because he believes in it so strongly. And that’s what we need more of. Dammit people, I’m selfish. I don’t just want Hyperloops, I want hoverboards. And Fantasticars. And transporters. But not androids, because that’s just asking for a bloody uprising.
We’re told necessity is the mother of invention. But so are insane ideas that people tell you have no chance of working. Big schemes like the Hyperloop, even if they don’t succeed, are the kind of grand scale challenge that pushes humanity forward. Maybe Musk’s boom tube won’t get built, or maybe it will and won’t succeed. Maybe we’ll have hyperloops in every major city in 20 years. Either way, what he does now can spark ideas in the minds of a whole new generation of inventors. Somewhere, right now, a little boy or girl frustrated with the limitations of their Legos is getting ready to show up Elon Musk. We need more of that.
I could spend hours fighting Pal. This baffles people, mostly because I have at least 6 feet and 240 pounds on my dog. But Pal required a lot of attention, sometimes it was pills, other times his teeth needed brushing. Yes, his teeth needed brushing. What Pal lacked in size and reach he gained in a psychological edge. When you know your opponent is worried about inadvertently snapping you in half, you’ve already won. And so Pal and I would fight for hours. I would yell and cuss. He would screech and scowl. On the living room floor, on the couch, in the room far enough away from the neighbors to stop them from calling the police because of the wailing. On and on. If you can imagine a silverback gorilla trying to give a Tic-Tac to an indifferent teacup pig, you’ve got the right idea.
The fights became been more frequent in the last four months. Once Pal got diagnosed with cancer, specifically a soft tissue sarcoma that caused a tumor to grow in his jaw, that meant a pretty aggressive pharmaceutical diet each day. The drugs could only do so much, but I knew, after years of cartoonishly drawn-out battles, that Pal would not go quietly. He really didn’t do anything quietly.
I like to call Pal a “tough old bastard.” He was basically a tiny Walter Mattheau, albeit with four legs and a tail, and minus one mustache. The default for Pal? Surly. Because when you are a dog smaller than most cats, with little appreciable fur, a diminished desire to make friends, and a snaggle tooth grin, you should probably have an attitude.
So Pal did not play, or do tricks. He did not like to be touched, or looked at. More often than not we had to tell people “don’t worry if he yelps when you touch him, he’s a little sensitive.” In other words, Pal did things according to a set of rules that were largely known only to him. He had different ways of showing affection. If he liked you he might sniff your eyeball. If he was fond of you he might try to hump your forearm (small dogs gotta be strategic when they get busy). If he liked you enough he would get close and promptly nuzzle his head in your chest. But the most love and gratitude he could show? Pal would hop in your lap, jump up, throw his paws on either side of your neck and go in for a hug. It was a terribly cute gesture for a surly little dog that did not care for cuteness.
As much as Pal and I fought, I knew he liked me well enough. He had a funny way of sleeping, laying in our bed, head on a pillow with the rest of his body under a blanket. He thought he was people that way. But I knew Pal cared, or at least didn’t actively despise me at times, when he would switch up his nighttime routine. With enough whining, shifting and annoyed glances, Pal would get me to raise my arm just enough so that he could nest his head in my arm pit.
If he hated people, which is open for debate, he was bad at showing it. Here’s the thing that scared him the most, more than trips to the vet or losing more teeth: Not having someone to hang out on the couch with. If Pal had a factory setting, it would be sleeping on the couch. And god help him if he was going to sit there by himself. You have never heard a dog cry so loud and long as he would to get someone to chillbro with him. He would get visibly anxious and develop a special kind of tiny fidgety tick, and the pacing and whining wouldn’t stop if you were busy working, cleaning, or cooking. The sleep was his religion, and the couch was the only church he knew. He was ardent in his faith: Pal could get lost on the couch, sleeping with a blanket over his head for hours. Lazy Sundays, thunderstorms, even parties. This is a dog that weighed less than 12 pounds, would be comfortable in a bread box, and he had at least six blankets that were expressly “his.”
Basically Pal was the world’s most eccentric roommate. He ate our food, put us out so he could sleep, didn’t pay rent, and occassionally peed on things. He could be a jerk. There were times when he was a stubborn pain in the ass who didn’t communicate well, who was stingy with his affections and sometimes seemed to prefer the company of himself to the tedium of others. Maybe the reason I called him names, and got so frustrated all those fights, is because he reminded me of someone: myself.