A recent Radio EcoShock interview of Ajit Varki on the topic of denial really hit home. A commenter chimed in with the notion of ‘willful blindness’, discussed by Margaret Heffernan. This, coupled with the commentary over at Decline of The Empire, for me, puts a few more nails in the coffin regarding our species.
All of these bad traits seem to stem from our biology, and it looks like there is no way out. Technological solutions won’t work (anything from solar energy to Star Trek-style replicators), because our human nature will take over, and we’ll wind up where we are today.
One option, as noted by more than a few folks, is that we’ll just go extinct, as countless other species have done over the billions of years. The option of survival seems pretty slim; John Michael Greer (now posting at Ecosophia.net) posited a bunch of new species will rise and fall in the next ten billion years, and that seems to be the most likely scenario.
The only other scenario that might be considered is that we do the evolution ourselves, but that would require a good deal of rewiring. We might not even be the same species; going from homo sapiens to homo X, where the X is Latin for awareness, conscientiousness, or self-honesty; homo cogitantium; homo honestam (help me out here on the Latin, folks – online translations seem a bit fishy…).
- Is this possible, or just another wish for a techno-fix?
- Might the surviving humans in JMG’s story be essentially a new species? Would those survivors just be “random” survivors (just lucky), or, would they have a “no blindness” gene somewhere down in their core DNA?
- Can a species achieve the same sort of technological base we have without willful blindness? Does it even matter?
It’s been an interesting week. Perhaps even crazy:
Bitcoin surged to new highs; saber rattling between North Korea and the rest of the world got a bit louder; white supremacists (this, in the year 2017!) had a rally where someone died. The President seemed to take far too long to come out against the violence. Transgender military folks are suing the President.
Yes, this wasn’t a week of a 9/11-style attack, the start of a shooting war, a natural disaster. Yet it seems things that might be reported in the Onion not so long ago are seemingly in our regular news feeds and papers.
- Has the world always been this crazy? What percentage of news stories do you hear and wonder, “Is this a prank/joke?”
- What sort of news would, “knock your socks off,” rather than have you yawn and go back to sleep?
- If you showed the headlines of today to someone thirty years ago, how much would they think was true or not?
Nothing much interesting to talk about this week. Some interesting podcasts to listen to; a list should be made shortly.
Still going through people’s stuff who have passed; it’s amazing how much one person can accumulate.
Last week, a note was made of decaying electronics and things in general. Nothing seems to last, especially high tech devices. About the longest pieces of high tech hardware have been running continuously that come to mind are the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 (since the mid seventies). There might be an old tube radio that still runs (perhaps a century old), or even that strange battery (running since 1840), but nothing so high tech as those probes comes to mind. There has been some discussion of this in a few places; one interesting discussion is here.
How to design things for a long time is something the ancients did pretty well; the pyramids still stand, and a few aqueducts from Roman times (built with concrete that wasn’t reinforced with iron or steel bars) are operational. Right now, the Long Now Foundation is building the Clock of the Long Now, designed to run for 10,000 years. It it mostly mechanical, with some ingenious ways of keeping time.
The upshot of all of this is that when (almost wrote ‘if’ there…) civilization does fall, a great deal of infrastructure will start to fall apart, and at some point, we probably won’t be able to do things like make fancy new computers, hard drives, light bulbs, or even LEDs. Much of our digital information may be lost, unless it is kept on things like the HD-Rosetta , a fascinating piece of storage technology that should be getting a bit more press.
What will be left, are things that have been designed to last.
- What, in our modern world, has been made to last? Most civil engineering projects have lifetimes of 100 years, at best.
- The Clock of the Long Now has a nifty binary mechanism it it; could we build a simple calculator that would be workable for the next 10,000 years, using similar principles?
- Could any “regular” electronics last for that long?
- What would you preserve on an HD-Rosetta?
- What information would we want to last 10,000 years?
Going through some old stuff for a few folks that have passed away recently, as well as some of my own old equipment and things, it was interesting to observe a few key elements:
- Some things last,
- Some things don’t,
- Money was spent on some things that were never, ever, used,
- Failures could be due to one simple part breaking, and not being able to replace that one element,
- The more complicated, the less likely it was operational.
The fact that some things last and some things don’t is obvious. There is a bit of survivorship bias, of course – the old “they don’t make them like they used to,” is somewhat of a trope, but even accounting for survivorship bias, a good deal of many modern things have surprisingly short lifetimes, due to basic materials such as plastics and rubber not surviving heating/cooling cycles, humidity/dryness, and so on. In going through some old things, any device that was electrical seemed to be almost worthless, as insulation and plastic stopped having their original design features. insulation cracks; foam disintegrates.
Things that last are generally simple, and way over designed. Sure that can make them more expensive at the time, but in the long run, they work. In the modern world, overdesign is generally an engineering no-no, but when time scales are longer, overdesign seems like an obvious choice (this is seen in Roman aqueduct design).
Since our modern world is built on electrical and electronics elements, that’s the interesting bit that we might want to focus on. The digital dark age may be here a lot sooner than we think, if the machines that can’t be fixed or found aren’t there.
- What is your oldest working piece of equipment? Has it survived due to simplicity, good design, over design, or simple preventative care?
- What is the oldest piece of working electronics you have or use?
- How long should electrical and electronics machinery last, anyway?
- How do you handle the possibility of a digital dark age?
I’m tempted to think that in spite of the Information Age, and the availability of information to be available at practically any time, people have truly lost the ability to remember the past. And of course, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
In a recent New York Times article, the question of whether the Rockaways would survive another major storm/hurricane was brought up.
In a classic Janet Yellen/Irving Fisher moment, Mayor de Blasio was quoted:
“This boardwalk is planted firmly, and it will withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at it,” Mayor de Blasio said on a windy Friday in May.
Sigh. The 1938 hurricane that hit the area was a category 3, way before climate change started to rear its ugly head. The probability of category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting NYC is very, very small but Sandy was still on the low end of hurricane strength (category 2 Hurricane Sandy became extratropical before moving inland in southern New Jersey). The fact that a category 3 storm did hit the area (in 1938, when hardly anything was on Long Island) is proof enough that de Blasio’s statement ignores reality. Let’s not forget that yes, sea levels are rising, and at some point a combination of storm and sea level rise might make Sandy look like a summer thunderstorm.
In doing a bit of research for this article, this popped up (dated October 26, 2012):
Hurricane Sandy hit the NYC area only a few days afterwards.
- Are there any cultures that haven’t forgotten the past?
- What other Janet Yellen/Irving Fisher/de Blasio statements have your heard lately?
- How long until NYC or any other major American city is abandoned?
- Which will be the first to go? Miami? New Orleans? Or will there always be holdouts? Some sort of Fukushima or Chernobyl event might clear a city.
OK, we’ll all perish (no one gets out of here alive), but there are really interesting sign posts on the way to our general demise. Forget about climate change for a minute; this one is the courtesy of the computer world, which is encapsulated in the “Underhanded C Contest.”
In this devilishly (!) clever contest, a human programmer is tasked with doing something “underhanded” but at the same time, looking “innocent” and unable to be picked up by even more serious study/analysis. Perhaps, with enough analysis, you’d find the glitch, but these little programming “bon mots” are frighteningly clever, and are probably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to backdoors, both accidental and planned.
Because computers have become hideously complex, most of the time, we don’t have the time to manually verify everything ourselves. We rely on computer tools and compilers to check things out; and if those tools don’t catch devious tricks and errors, we can be in a world of hurt.
Some of the underhanded things done in this contest have been:
- “Fingerprinting” images that aren’t supposed to be fingerprinted
- Making some computer operating systems look bad
- Fiddling with file encryption, so a small portion of files aren’t really encrypted
- Messing with a luggage tracking system
- Spoofing a hypothetical nuclear weapons monitoring program
Yes, these were all theoretical exercises, but they really opened my eyes as to how complex and sneaky some folks can be in both coming up with interesting problems, *and* how to sneakily perform the required tasks. The website notes it is “The official perfectly innocent web page for law-abiding good guys,” and the FAQ makes some good points about why this kind of stuff is important.
For me, the larger view is that when these sorts of technologies can’t even be checked by humans, or even the tools that they’ve built to check them, and that’s where we start to seriously lose control. These ideas and contests are probably the tip of the iceberg.
- What other technologies have this sort of glitch? Could (or has?) an airplane (or spacecraft) designer come up with a subtle flaw (shades of Rogue One) that would make something incredibly vulnerable?
- Is this a problem or a predicament? Is a solution possible, or is it too complex?
- Could we go “backwards” and deal with simpler computers?