Monthly Archives: October 2018

Built to last

Frith-Sphinx; public domain

After Hurricane Michael, there was only one house on Mexico Beach, Florida that barely got touched.  The full story, for those of who don’t know it,  is here.  The upshot is that someone built a house far in excess of what was required, and it was one of the few to survive the storm.  While showing that it can be done, a house like that cost double the amount of money for a comparable house.  And as much as the house survived this incredible storm, it was built in an area that will be soon experiencing sea level rise, like the rest of the region, and no house can survive the rising ocean (except, perhaps, a houseboat).

Building something to last like that takes resources, and yes, it can be done. However, building something to last can be useless, if it is surrounded by other things that don’t, or if it requires lots of inputs to keep it timeless (or at the very least, looking timeless).  Classic cars remind me of this. Yes, you can keep a fifty year old car in pristine condition, but it takes a great deal of work, a good source of parts,  a nice garage, and again – a hefty budget.

Even if something lasts, then what? If your house survives a catastrophic hurricane, what about your neighbors, infrastructure, supply chains, and so on?   When people in higher altitude places (say, a mere 50 to 100 feet above sea level) in a suburban coastal area say they’ll be fine when sea level rises, they are generally forgetting about all the rest of the infrastructure (from airports, to the city downtown at sea level, to the transit system) will be gone.  In the above example of the car – a pristine car is useless without fuel, good roads, and places to go.

A thought here, about all of this – If we have to make things that last, what not make them ideas?


  • What is built to last in our world these days?   Are these questions being asked?  The Long Now Foundation is building a 10,000 year clock with these questions in mind.
  • What things should be built to last?  Libraries come to mind as things that should last a good long time.  What else?
  • What ideas do you want to last?

Can’t keep a good man down

Hot-air-balloon – G-BZBK  – CC BY-SA 3.0

Over at Decline of Empire, Dave Cohen is still writing, in spite of his earlier comments to the contrary.  This is good.  As noted in a post made here, what is written, won’t change anything.   We are, most likely, going to see a damn rocky road, and few will see the end of it.   Dave has a link to Doug Stanhope’s bit, for a darkly humorous version of things, and how people ignore data.

Will humans survive?  My bet is yeah, some will (it might be very, very few, however).  And although Dave’s writing (and most of everyone else’s who is on the ‘net) may disappear, the observations are important.  Someone is going to look over the wreckage of this world at some time in the future.   Some of that commentary may survive. A quick search (how we’ll miss that), turned up this bit on reddit, (“Did writers in Ancient Rome ever ponder about the decline of the empire as writers in the modern era do now?”), and it looks like there were folks who saw their own collapse coming.

There’s a great deal to study in what Dave has written; the bit about tribes is telling.  Maybe, in some future world, we’ll realize this stuff about our true humanity, and plan accordingly.

The cycle continues.


  • There are others who write unpleasant truths about ourselves, our world, and our predicament.  Who are they?
  • What keeps you going in these crazy times?





Moot points, in both directions


The narrow window; when t is inside this range, we anguish; when outside, things are moot…

Yesterday, James Kunstler wrote a stinging essay Lost In Space , expounding on his view of the various gender topics that have been brought to the forefront of our national discussion. The discussion was lively, with folks bringing up biology,  identity, and all topics pertinent.  When issues like gender fluidity come up, the issue of changing one’s gender naturally follows.  My take on that particular element was this:

A lot of this may be moot in the Long Emergency, as surgery, hormones, resources will be limited. Biological technology does seem to be moving at a fast pace, however, and if it does become possible for people to alter their cells at a genetic level while the lights are still on, then we’ll have an even more interesting set of discussions.

This moot point isn’t just the folks who want to change their gender.   In my world, and perhaps in yours, there are folks with diseases like diabetes, thyroid conditions, and high cholesterol who will simply curl up and die if this civilization collapses to something like a pre-1900 society.   The first gender reassignment (or gender confirmation, depending on your take on things) happened in 1931, and wasn’t quite successful;  a more lasting outcome more in the public eye came out in the early 1950s, with Christine Jorgensen‘s transition. Our society had plenty of resources then, and folks who wanted to have these procedures (although difficult to get), could still get them. Things got easier as time went on, and as procedures and hormones became more refined.  Whether you are for or against them, the big key is that society had the resources to allow these pursuits to be realized, and to be realized for many people.   In some cases, insurance and/or the government has paid for these procedures.  What becomes of these pursuits when resource and supply chains break down?  If there a limited number of industrial chemical and biological plants in operation, will they be dedicated to hormones, or to antibiotics?   When operating rooms and anesthesia are in limited supply, will societies be performing complex surgeries of these kinds?  It isn’t hard to guess what will happen.

What about the improbable (but possible) converse?  If it becomes possible for people to edit their own genome, and create virtual X or Y chromosomes, what will happen then?  Right now, we are at a cusp; the technology exists to perform these reassignments in a mechanical and chemical way (surgery and hormones) at a cost that is somewhat prohibitive, but not outrageously impossible for individuals or society to handle.  What if the technology exists to make people’s original gender impossible to detect without a brain scan?   What if a person wanted to remove all traces of gender from their bodies (M to null, F to null, instead of MtoF, or FtoM)? What if brain/head transplants could be realistically done?  What if the technology becomes so cheap and simple that you can change your body for a weekend?  There are a few science fiction stories (and movies) that have run with these themes. As unlikely as they seem now, let’s not forget that most of us now have incredibly cheap computing power in our pockets that would have seemed impossible thirty or forty years ago.  With technologies like CRISPR, biological body hacking may be a reality, and these discussions may seem quaint in twenty years.

There are a few phrases to keep in mind when discussing these sorts of topics, especially in our own chaotic times.  Some are obvious, but still should be mentioned:

  • Ethics changes with technology (one of Niven’s Laws).
  • Energy drives our civilization, technology is a byproduct.
  • You can’t get something for nothing.
  • If something is unsustainable, it can’t be sustained.
  • Physical differences and issues can/may be minimized/eliminated/modified/changed/amplified with technology (gender, strength, height, eyesight, hearing, mobility).
  • We overestimate technology in the short term, and underestimate it in the long term.

If there’s one more comment to add here (my general viewpoint being that we won’t have a techno-cornucopian future) it’s that when things get tough, many of these issues may be tossed aside, as most of us will be worrying about food, physical security, and the rest of the items at the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid.

What do you think?   Is this gender issue stuff (and the concern about it) a transient phenomenon due to a particular time when technology and energy are barely sufficient enough to do these feats?  One hundred years ago, these questions were academic.   One hundred years in the future, they may be also be academic in the same way (in a world bereft of resources to do these things), or they may be irrelevant, due technologies we can’t even conceive of yet.




What do you/will you miss?


Flag of JMG’s Lakeland Republic, from Retrotopia; own work

Last week, the issue of lead and its analogues were brought forward.  The list of reasons why a civilization can collapse can be long (see Tainter and Diamond, naturally).  When they go, its members lose some pretty nifty comforts, but also miss some of civilization’s problems.

On one side of ledger, we might lose antibiotics, birth control, cheap energy, domesticated animals/pet, electronic communications, fire brigades, geosynchronous satellite communication and GPS, houses that are heated in winter and cool in summer, icemakers and indoor plumbing,  jaunts to far away destinations, cheap candy,  laundry, money that is easily transferred and held safe, cheap optics and eyeglasses, search engines, tooth care (dentistry), zoos; the list is long (trying for a bit of an alphabetical list, but not all of these things will go at the same time, or degrade in any sort of uniform manner).

Likewise, we’ll lose some pollution (but gain in others), onerous regulations and taxes from far flung locales, reality television and celebrity news, food made with corn syrup, and commutes to jobs where you sit in a box and look at screens all day.

What will you miss, on both sides of the ledger?  If it was possible to throttle back on “civilization” just a wee bit, what sort of tradeoffs would you make?  Would you dial back life to a 1960s level of technology?   Or want to go earlier?   JMG made a world where these elements could live side by side in Retrotopia.   Where would you be inclined to live?



Lead and its analogs


Astrological symbol for Saturn, and lead; in public domain.

A quick thought today –

In the past, there have been some who have suggested lead is one of the reasons that the Roman Empire fell.  This, of course, has been challenged.   There does seem to be a correspondence between the centuries long decline of Rome and our own world; debasing of the currency, military overextension, and of course, environmental factors.

What is the equivalent of lead poisoning in our own society?  Yes, we’ve gotten rid of leaded gasoline, and it may have some interesting good beneficial effects (a reduction in violent crime, for example).   High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) might be one candidate; something known to be bad (the Romans knew lead was bad for you, as others claim high fructose corn syrup isn’t great for you), but still being ubiquitously used.  Pesticides, too much screen time; there are other candidates for what is helping cause our power dive into the salt flats of history.   Which modern chemical or ubiquitously known problem agent seems to match the madness-inducing powers of lead?

Food for thought.  Would a ban on HFCS have similar effects as banning leaded gasoline?