I am amazed at the negativity to my canal idea. (See prior post). Apparently it was one of my least popular ideas of all time. And that's saying a lot.

I learned from your comments that some of you believe the following things will NEVER happen:
  1. Self-driving cars (legal ones).
  2. Robot-caused unemployment. 
  3. Artificial intelligence equal to humans.
  4. Engineers solving problems that you can't.
Some of you were concerned that the water in the canals would evaporate into outer space. Someone should mention this risk to the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the world. Apparently they will be evaporating soon.

Many of you said it would be prohibitively expensive to build a canal network in the United States. But keep in mind that you start with the technology you have and you finish with the technology that you develop along the way. You would expect the first few years of canal-digging to have a high cost-per-mile. But as robots take over the hard parts, and we get smarter about how to approach the problem, costs could plummet.

Some of you wondered what happens to all of the dirt that gets displaced. How about pounding it into bricks or rammed earth at the site and using the materials to build houses and businesses along the canal route? Would that work? I have no idea. The point is that you can't assume the future is a straight line from the past. Engineers are clever cats, and they are likely to come up with canal-building solutions we don't anticipate.

Some of you said boats can never be cost-effective because water is corrosive. Yet there are plenty of functional boats that are over 50 years old. A standard house of that age is usually a tear-down. So while it is true that boat maintenance is expensive, so is house maintenance. I'm not ready to declare houseboat living of the future to be more expensive than inefficient land-based houses of the past.

Some of you say there are too many elevation changes in the United States to make it practical to build canals. That might be true, but can you rule it out without studying it?

The country is already criss-crossed with rivers that run downhill (of course) and drain to the ocean. To connect rivers west of the Mississippi, perhaps you only need one set of massive locks to get boats from the ocean to a central mountain lake. From there you could have several downhill canals to existing rivers that flow in different directions. You might need three such super-canal "hubs" that connect to existing rivers. As long as every boat can get to the ocean, everything is connected.

You would need to reengineer existing dams along the routes to accommodate boat traffic, but remember that you're simultaneously bringing in a new water supply, energy system (turbines in the canals), and energy grid. So the old dam system might benefit from an upgrade anyway.

And that water you have to pump into the locks needs to flow downhill eventually, so you recoup some of the costs using dam-style power generators.

Keep in mind that the canal costs are shared by projects that include building out the water and energy infrastructures. So that helps. And when you evaluate the cost of a project, you have to compare it to the alternatives. In this case, the alternatives might be massive droughts, massive unemployment, and a failed energy grid. So if you think the canal project is too expensive, compare that to the cost of being eaten by your starving neighbor.

Is the canal project feasible? Probably not. I'll remind you that this blog is for playing with new and often terrible ideas. But I am surprised at the knee-jerk negativity to this one. And it makes me wonder if there is a country and/or profession bias. If you hate the canal idea, can you tell us your profession and your country of residence?

[Update: Is it my cognitive bias as I look at the comments, or do Americans generally like this idea better than non-Americans? America has a strange DNA in the sense that many of us are descended from folks that at one time said some version of "You want me to cross the ocean to a hostile land, with no money and no plan? Sure. When can we start?"

I think the American mindset is to assume anything can be done and we'll figure out the details later. But I'm aware that I might be romanticizing my place of residence. Am I wrong? 


Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Author of the best graduation gift ever.


Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +7
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 4, 2014
Hi Scott!
I live in K.C. and from my viewpoint I believe Americans still have that "we'll get the job done and figure out the details later" attitude. The trouble is that corporate types tend to stiffel creativity. I work for a major telecom company and if you think outside the norm...well, you know what happens. If we get back to realizing that the customers pay the bills instead of trying to please Wall Street, things will be much better.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 2, 2014
1.Self-driving cars (legal ones). -> Already exist.
2.Robot-caused unemployment. -> Already happened.
3.Artificial intelligence equal to humans. -> Which humans?
4.Engineers solving problems that you can't. -> I majored in Art, we all have our skills.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 31, 2014

True enough, as far as it goes. But as another contributor mentioned here, what killed the economics of Britain's canals was competition from the can-do new kid on the block -- the railways. Many canals were bought up by those companies and then allowed to languish, or were filled in and replaced with rails. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_British_canal_system#Railway_competition for more on the subject.
Mar 31, 2014
During the Victorian era in the UK when we really had a 'can-do' attitude and weren't held back by lawyers suing people for daring to do anything and when managers were drawn from those who had worked their up through a comapny rather than taking a degree in mission statements, Irish immigrants helped us build a huge canal network which served to transport the nation's wealth around. Now it is only used by enthusiasts and leisure traffic.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 31, 2014

You need to read your own references.

" There is also no evidence that mobility is significantly different in the United States than it is in other countries. "

In your first reference
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 31, 2014
I do not think the technical problems would hold it back, I think the bureaucratic hurdles tied in with the graft would be too much. In the early 1900's I think it could have been done but our current system is less about results and more about enriching people at every step of the project. The problem with that is money can be made by adding more steps.

For a fun study of why red tape would kill this project (under our current government regulations) look at the California water usage/collection problems. It is comparatively simple to address most of California's water issues and they aren't doing anything.
Mar 31, 2014
Props to Scott for thinking outside of the box.

Building thousands of kms of canals doesn't happen overnight, just like building the rail lines and roads that we take for granted now. Thousands and thousands of Kms of infrastructure that helped bring enormous economic prosperity.

One other interesting idea I have read about with canals is that if seawater canals are built they can be built in a big loop (i.e. from a spot on the cost to another spot on the same coast) and designed so that the tides effectively produce a through current of water. The canal is covered with a specially designed roof so that water evaporating off the surface of the canal condenses on the underside of the roof, thereby producing tons (for a sufficiently long canal) of fresh drinking water.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 30, 2014
I think the idea of everyone living on the water is great. You could make a really expensive movie about it, and call it Waterworld, or something like that.
I'll bet it would be a blockbuster.
Mar 28, 2014

[However, contrary to most American's beliefs this is harder to do in America than in almost every other developed nation in the world. If you are American, you will probably die in the same economic class as your parents. I can back this up with data by the way:

America is literally one of the hardest countries in the world for someone to find success through hard work. ]

Your first link shows that economic mobility hasnt improved much over time, not really germain to your point. Your second link suggests that economic mobility is greater in Denmark than in the US. Thats a good start to proving your point, but thats all it is-a start.

For one thing, Denmark is just one country. For another...well, define 'success'. If success is being in the top 20% of your country then yes, I agree that success is easier for someone who was born poor to achieve in Denmark than here, but if you define success as being rich, truly rich, then I cant help thinking that were still the land of opportunity.

Or at least that you havent proven your point.
Mar 28, 2014
The can-do approach here is to figure out some way to sell this to America. The obstacles are real. And we're a society where every single person whose land you want to cross with a canal will sue. You can't do this with 51 percent approval. You need about 98 percent. So you have to sell this like a free vacation in Disney World, for everyone, every year. Glamorize it with videos of supermodels sunning on the decks of their houseboats, stopping to shop at rural canal side farmers markets, happily paying exorbitant prices for fresh corn. Pay farmers ten times what their land is worth. Promise three times more jobs at Detroit automakers when they start building America's boats - and homes. Find a new Dinah Shore to sing about seeing the USA in your Chevy home. Start rumors about teens sneaking down to the boat to have sex. Breed fresh water dolphins who will swim and play with little kids.

Get crackin!
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 27, 2014
>>For instance:
Don't forget the Chinese we have slaving away at 50 cents per hour making stuff for us, not to mention the Mexicans that do all our yard work and housekeeping (and raising our kids because we can't be bothered.)
Come work, raise a family and we'll threaten you with deportation if you get to uppity.

>>America is literally one of the hardest countries in the world for someone to find success through hard work.
Naa. Cartoonists become multi-millionaires. Guys who play baseball for a living earns millions. Our beggers earn 50 grand a year. Hurt your back at work or even spill coffee on yourself and see how easy it is to succeed. If you haven't figured it out yet, you are not paying attention.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 27, 2014
>>Long may it continue thus!

Well Said.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 27, 2014
I actualy posted already and read the comments. (Forgive typos & such for now - I'm out of town and afk.) I just now noticed the title. Don't tell an engineer he can't. He'll explained why he shouldn't. And most of are arrogant enough to run the numbers and point out why society would be better served if we picked our collective noses or were tempted to develop an alternative. And some engineers and scientists are prodigies. But most of do a quick practicallity check to decide whether an idea is a proposal or a novel plot point. You can't go to Best But or even Google or Microsoft, order 3 Teslas and a Jesus off the shelf and expect a miracle. I like your attitude, but your fans might know best when to reign it in and explore other avenues with your creativity.
Mar 27, 2014
You are romanticizing America, but that is an American trait. Most Americans don't recognize some fundamental facts about the founding of their country, choosing instead the more "can do attitude" point of view.

For instance:
- More convicts were sent to America than to Australia (forced to move)
- Nearly 2 million Irish settled in America during the potato famine. When your choice is to cross an ocean or starve to death there's not a lot of gumption involved in the decision (de facto forced to move)
- Slavery, to the tune of roughly half a million people (forced to move)

There's also the issue of economic mobility. The American dream is that anyone can be successful if they work hard enough, and that that's what makes the US special. You're an example of that. However, contrary to most American's beliefs this is harder to do in America than in almost every other developed nation in the world. If you are American, you will probably die in the same economic class as your parents. I can back this up with data by the way:

America is literally one of the hardest countries in the world for someone to find success through hard work.
Mar 27, 2014
[The Panama Canal has an essentially unlimited "high" end to draw on in the form of an ocean.]

Err...the oceans at the eastern and western ends of the Panama Canal are at sea level. The water to fill above-sea-level locks comes from Lake Gatun, an artificial reservoir purposely situated at 85 feet above sea level.
Mar 27, 2014
[ I too once thought that to operate locks you needed to pump water, but in fact in almost every canal system, the water that raises a boat to a lock at a higher level flows by gravity from that higher level. ]

True, but that only works when there IS a higher level. The Panama Canal has an essentially unlimited "high" end to draw on in the form of an ocean. A canal system, though, would have enormous amounts water at places where it does not currently exist. You wouldn't need the pumps to operate the locks, but you would need it to get the water there in the first place.
Mar 27, 2014
Saying that robot-caused unemployment is not a "can't do attitude," it's a CAN-do attitude. It's saying that humans will do what they have ALWAYS done with EVERY improvement to productivity mankind has ever invented - figure out a way to ensure that it benefits and increases the quality of life for everyone.

Your silly little make-work project is the ultimate in defeatism.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 27, 2014
p.s. engineering director, north of philadelphia, pa.

and I meant to say "aquaduct" not "canal" in my previous post. there's no need to add housing to this project, but the need to balance our water supply is obvious. Just look at the (former) desert of southern california for proof.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 27, 2014
Phantom II: I agree with what you said. And I have been a supporter of a national canal system, similar to what the Roman Empire built, for a few decades.

That said, I would like you to do the thought experiment you just carried out, but apply it to what it would cost to implement the current interstate road system in this country. How many trillions? Yet I think we can all agree that it was worth the cost, and that more importantly the cost was paid to working class people who manufactured and built it, with a tidy profit for the companies they worked for as well. Isn't that capitalism worth it in this case?

And bury the power lines while you're at it. At only $1,000,000.00 per mile it's a bargain.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 27, 2014
Let's try and keep the discussion away from whether any particular individual is or is not a 'genius' (however that might be defined). Similarly, let's not distracted by what a person's official occupation is.

We humans are defined by more than our intelligence and how we happen to make our living. Many people have had excellent ideas that are completely unrelated to the domains that others had hitherto associated them with.

Equally, many wacky or impractical notions have been cooked up in their own field by people who you might have expected would have thought of better ones; but even a wacky idea, once opened up for discussion, sometimes leads to other, excellent ideas and insights. And even if that discussion doesn't directly come up with a workable alternative way to tackle a particular problem, it can still be valuable as a way of eliminating a dud approach from consideration.

To me, the main attraction of this blog is that it features interesting IDEAS, whoever happens to have them. The fact that intelligent people of many different backgrounds and occupations all contribute to the same discussions here is a strength. It sparks cross-fertilization and new ways of thinking about things. Long may it continue thus!
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog