Digital Coelacanth


Ah, the coelacanth.  Thought to be extinct for over 60+ million years, it was rediscovered in 1938.  There is a note in the Wikipedia entry that it may have evolved somewhat, but very slowly, because evolutionary pressures have been relatively light.   Still, it is the classic representative of the “living fossil” trope.  After getting a “new” flip (feature) phone (replacing an old one that was going wonky), it was interesting to muse on what other technologies are essentially “living fossils,” in this age of turbocharged, electronic (r)evolutionary change.  Yes, my personal telecommunications needs are still being met by a feature phone.  There are a few reasons this is done, and a quick search turns up a few articles, ranging from the humorous to matter-of-fact to the serious.    A feature phone, in this day and age, is essentially a ‘digital coelacanth’, still evolving, but still retaining the basic layout of its ancestors.   If you were to hand a modern feature phone to someone twenty years ago, they’d probably be able to figure it out (although the ‘browser’ option might confuse a few folks).

From a computer perspective, very little seems to not change; Windows 3.1 is a distant memory, as are a host of other operating systems.  The one computer operating system that has any relation to its ancestors, and that might be consider a living fossil (yet still evolving!) is the wide variety of Unix-like systems that are in use.   The Unix philosophy isn’t for everyone, but it seems to have done well in creating systems that work, and that people don’t have to relearn every N years when a new version comes out.   Many of the commands that have worked in the past still work, and much of the the intellectual framework is still the same.

A few folks still keep a calculator on their desk; a classic Casio FX-260 Solar, for example, has no batteries, and runs on solar power.  Although these features can be found on many smartphones, having computational capability, and only computational capability in a device can be useful.  For example, when on the phone, you don’t have to switch apps when talking to someone, and the calculator itself is cheap enough to be used in situations where an expensive smartphone might be destroyed.   In a laboratory or workshop, using a smart phone is great… until someone puts a soldering iron on it, or accidentally breaks it with a piece of nearby heavy equipment.

As much flack one can get for having these “coelacanthic” devices (a feature phone, a standalone calculator, a GPS for the car, a digital camera, a computer with a flavor of the Unix operating system), having your digital life spread out can also be a benefit.  When someone hacks a smartphone, they hack an entire person’s life.  Yes, these phones do have security measures, but when those measures are bypassed, a great many personal details can be released, as many a celebrity has found out.   By “air gapping” your devices, you can prevent, or at least slow down, some of the disasters that can happen in the modern digital world.   In some ways, this is a Unix philosophy applied to technology in general – everything should do one thing really well, and that’s it.  Now, of course, there may be situations where having a ‘Swiss army knife’ of a smart phone is desirable, but putting too much faith in once piece of technology is always a bit dicey.


  • What other digital “coelecanthinc” things come to mind?
  • Are there times when going forward makes perfect sense?  After all, very few of us use slide rules (although it is a good idea to know how to use one).   Learning these old technologies (from slide rules to sextants) that are hundreds, instead of mere decades old certainly makes your more cognizant of the underlying mathematics.
  • What is the metric or decision point for going with any new digital or other type of technology, instead of staying with the old ones?
  • Although not digital or electronic, many transportation modes are still being used, and still quite old, from sailboats to bicycles.  Both have evolved considerably over the years, with new materials and technologies, but people still do ride “beaters” and wooden sailboats.   When do we consider technologies “coelecanthinc”? When we think they are obsolete, but still used by a small minority?

Thoughtstoppers and Thoughtstarters

(For those of you don’t know – Aretha Franklin sang “Think“)

A rare intra-week post on something important.

JMG just put up an post about “thoughtstoppers” that everyone should definitely read.  Not only was JMG in top form, the comments that followed put a good light on the topic of what can stop people from engaging in good thinking and logical argument.  There were lots of catchphrases that made the list of “thoughtstoppers”.

JMG’s definition of a thoughtstopper is this:

A thoughtstopper is exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

This post has been ricocheting in my mind a bit, what about the converse?   Analog Science Fiction and Fact used to have tag lines at the beginning and end of stories; some were pretty good thoughtstarters.   What causes people to actually think?  What are some ‘thoughtstarters’?

Some that I think have worked in the past:

  • Whenever I meet someone with strong views, I like to ask, “Who is your best critic?” or “Who is on the other side of the argument that you respect the most?”   When asking JMG about his best critic, for example, he picked Ugo Bardi, no slouch himself.
  • Cui bono? (Who benefits?) is a good one; who benefits from a line of argument, or an action?
  • Politically, this can translate to my favorite during presidential elections; not “Who do you want to win?”, but “Who would you want to be running, on both sides of the aisle?”
  • “What is the most important thing to you?” or “What is the most important thing in your life?”  Once you have this question answered, you can possibly start to sort where people are starting from in a discussion, or at least start to see if their worldview is somewhat self-consistent.   Nobody is perfect, of course, but I think this question can at least bring some honest questioning of one’s actions.  It’s a tough question, especially when you ask it of yourself.
  • Replacing ‘is’ by ‘it appears’; it lessens the authority of a statement, and lets the listener know that you might have perceptual limitations.  Someone gave me the example of a ball that is green on one side, and red on the other; it appears green to me, red to you, and a mixture to someone else, depending on their location.  And if they are colorblind (or blind to visible light!) it appears even more differently.

Some of this stuff isn’t easy to fight; we tend to say things like “This volume of this box is one cubic foot,” rather than “This box appears to have a volume of one cubic foot,” when we think things are self evident, and that may bleed over into things that have a gray area.

Thinking on this topic may keep you on your toes for a while!

Questions (as always):

  • What are your own “thoughtstarters”?
  • Can you ever keep “thoughtstoppers” out of your speech, writing, and thoughts?
  • How does one keep the “thoughtstoppers” at bay?



On reducing fz in the Cidial Drake Equation

Last week, the Cidial Drake Equation was introduced.   It is analogous to the astronomical Drake Equation, in it tries to figure out how many lives might be lost to terrorism.   The same sort of equation(s) could be used to model how many lives were lost to things like disease.  The equation is postulated like this:

N = R * fn * fz * fu/ fc

N= the number of people killed per time period

R = total population

fn = fraction of people such a weapon could kill

fz = fraction of people crazy or willing enough to use such a weapon per time period

fu = repeatability of the use of such technology (related to cost; a knife versus a gun)

fc = relative cost of a technology (in money, resources, time,  technological base required)

The units of N are in people killed per time period, so dimensionally, fn, fz, fu, and fc will have to be corrected for this.  The essence is still the same – the casualty rate depends on a variety of factors.

The big question is how to reduce N, the number of people killed per time period.  If our technological base declines, fc might increase, and so might R.  But for now, if we assume our current modern world, how would we reduce fz, the only human element in the equation we might be able to change?

A lot depends on how fz behaves, with the rest of the factors in the equation. If fz goes up non-linearly with respect to R, unless R decreases, deaths will increase until a feedback loop kicks in, and reduces R.   The fz term may be dependent on a host of other factors (including technology itself, which might make people more crazy).   So in order to reduce fz, we’d have to ask what makes people go off and become terrorists.

This is a bit out of my wheelhouse, but a quick search does turn up quite a few people who have thought about this very thing.   It is one thing to stop terrorists, but it is another stop terrorism, or the causes of it.

There’s somewhere (a search can’t find the source on short notice…) a program where the solution was to “marry the terrorists off,” and get them settled down (a lot of young men with nothing to live for don’t make for a stable society).   This makes a heck of a lot of sense.   If you know anyone with a small child, they are generally too preoccupied and tired to do  destructive things.   Yes, there are terrorists who have children and wives.  But the upshot seems to be obvious – get people to care about something (family, community) in a constructive manner, rather than in a defensive one.

If fz is due to R, a reduction in population could also help, even if our technological base remains the same.  One crude commenter made the simple suggestion, “Everybody f***s everybody else,” so that through intermarriage and smearing of our very physical characteristics, we wouldn’t want to kill our (literal) brothers and sisters (or at least cousins).

Trying to solve the root cause of a problem, rather than throwing technology, money, and misguided effort is a lot harder, but in the end, it’s a lot better, of course.


  • How would you reduce fz?
  • What other problems have root causes which are easy to see, but difficult to combat?
  • Perhaps fz will never be zero.  Perhaps we should use the word ‘predicament’ instead of ‘problem’, with regard to terrorism?
  • In the end, will this all matter?  Should we even care about fz? In a resource constrained world, fc may go way, way up, so that N is low, no matter what the rest of the terms are.  People may be too busy surviving.




On dangerous technologies and things

Rats and The Galaxy; and

Yet another shooting in the United States; in Europe, people have used trucks as battering rams, and plowed into crowds – all pretty horrible stuff.   The granddaddy of them all, the attacks of September 11, 2001, used passenger planes as human guided cruise missiles.  Friedman’s The Lexus and Olive Tree introduced us to the term “Super-Empowered Angry Men.”   But no matter how many laws or safety widgets are put on technology, people who are determined to cause pain and suffering will always find a way.  This has been summarized in the phrase, “The bomber will always get through.”  And although it was originally intended to mean actual aircraft used during wartime, it has been applied to terrorists as well.   One recent article mentions how terrorism has gone “low-tech.”  Technology changes the means of delivery, but not the tactic – terror.

No matter how badly technologies are abused for terror, there are some that won’t be abandoned; we don’t ban cars and trucks, even though they are used in such ways.   Likewise, as technology ramps up and gives more “bang for the buck,” these things (CRISPR is a scary one) will most likely be used in even more horrific ways.

There are a few paths to take, given this increase in personal power which can be twisted to nasty ends.  For one, some person or group of persons will do something really horrible, like release a 99.99% fatal disease with high transmission rates and long incubation times.  This would essentially make civilization collapse, and thereby removing the capability for super empowered men to exist – the problem solves itself, in a crude manner.  The other, less likely scenario, is that people won’t want to do such horrible things, because of social restrictions and cultural mores.   A possible third option is that terrorism may remain, but at such as scale that it becomes just another way of dying.

The second option might seem a bit impossible; could people willingly not want to use all means at their disposal to do horrible things?   In some ways, this has happened already – we generally don’t worry about our neighbors blowing up our cars every morning, and many decades ago, kids actually brought their hunting rifles to school, as it seems many can attest to.  A search on “kids used to bring hunting rifles to school” turns up some mind-boggling (in this day and age) stories about how routine it was to do such things.

What do you think wins out?  The collapse of civilization (stairstep or catastrophic) where these technologies can’t be used, or, does use of technologies in a deliberate, terroristic way actually cause the collapse?   The loss of cheap energy, biosphere, etc. would be the cause of the first kind of collapse.   The situation where someone deliberately uses something like an asteroid mining ship to push an asteroid into a collision course with the Earth is the second kind of collapse – the super-empowered angry man on steriods.

Both are horrible, of course; nobody sane wants to see lots of people die, and most do not want to lose their creature comforts.  If fewer people had cause to revolt, it might lessen the probability that someone would go off the rails, and the use technologies for nefarious purposes.  Unfortunately, the possibility that people will die because someone will use technologies for nasty things is still non-zero.

Let’s look at this from a mathematical angle, and borrow a bit from the astronomy world.  The Drake Equation is an argument that is used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy; it is:

{\displaystyle N=R_{*}\cdot f_{\mathrm {p} }\cdot n_{\mathrm {e} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {l} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {i} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {c} }\cdot L}

… with R, fp, etc. being terms that multiply together to figure out this estimate.  The Fermi Paradox makes you think that some of those terms are quite close to zero (or we’ve been quarantined).  No matter what your opinion on the various terms (which can vary wildly, based on your assumptions), this equation gives us some sort of ballpark figure we can mull over.   Likewise, the probability of people dying due to unnatural and human-directed causes could be estimated by some sort of ‘Cidial Drake Equation‘ (homocide or genocide; they are all about killing, hence the ‘Cidial’ – if anyone has a better or more accurate term, let me know) where:

N = R * fn * fz * fu/ fc

N= the number of people killed per time period

R = total population

fn = fraction of people such a weapon could kill

fz = fraction of people crazy or willing enough to use such a weapon per time period

fu = repeatability of the use of such technology (related to cost; a knife versus a gun)

fc = relative cost of a technology (in money, resources, time,  technological base required)

The units of N are in people killed per time period, so dimensionally, fn, fz, fu, and fc will have to be corrected for this.  The essence is still the same – the casualty rate depends on a variety of factors.

So, if a weapon costs a great deal, the chances of it being built or even used are small.  Likewise, if the weapon can’t kill many people (like a single-shot rifle vs. an automatic weapon), the number of people that could be hurt is also reduced.   The big wildcard is fz, though – the fraction of people crazy enough to do something horrible.   If fz is zero, we could be surrounded by nuclear explosives all day, and all we might have to do is tell kids not to fiddle with them.  We’d only keep them locked up so they couldn’t be set off by the curious or uneducated.  If fz was large, we’d have to worry about locking up even the butter knives, and our population would be continually at war.

Could N be zero?  If the population is small enough, perhaps yes – small communities generally don’t have the resources to build destructive weapons, and fz might be small due to social pressures.  But as R becomes large, fc might drop, and fz, even if tiny, could still lead to large values of N.


  • What else would you add to this oddball version of the Drake Equation?
  • Such horrible calculus has been discussed in a few places, most notably, Fight Club:

    Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

    Is there something missing from this equation as well?   The ‘out of court settlement’ bit is the financial cost to the company per incident, but certainly these effects can become non-linear.  One failure is a fluke, but ten or one hundred might increase the payouts.

  • What sort of cross-correlation is there between things like R, the density of R, fc, and fz?   These variables may be interdependent.  For example, as the density of rats in a cage (or people in cities) goes up, fz might become bit larger as well.   Or would this close quarters living breed a new set of behaviours?   The fz term might go (dangerously) up for a while, until it was bred out of the population, and then it reduced.  The equation might be modified to handle both R (population) and something like resource consumption.  Do wealthy people or societies have higher values of fz?
  • The non-linearity of fz in simple models of population can cause some odd effects.  If fz is non-linear with population size or density, what happens?  What is the best way to reduce fz?   Stay tuned.







The New Night’s Watch

Not being one to watch the latest in televised epics (and not having access to any premium cable channels like HBO or Netflix), it was only recently that the wildly popular “Game Of Thrones” was introduced to me in more detail.  Other than knowing it existed, it really didn’t have any interest for me.  A quick Wikipedia search can bring one up to speed, thankfully, without watching hours of backstory.   The most interesting bit was that of the Night’s Watch, and a history that went back thousands of years, defending against a horrible enemy from the cold north.  Obviously, this has particular relevance to the past few notes on infrastructure and long term thinking.  Who might be inclined to take on the responsibility of defending unfriendly (even warring!) kingdoms and nations from any sort of general, existential threat?

The oath of those who belong to the watch is thus:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

Now, this seems a bit extreme (and after all, it is fictional); no crowns, glory, lands, wife, kids.  It seems even a bit more intense than the life of a Catholic priest, bishop, or pope.  You generally can’t (according to the local wiki on the topic) even resign, although there is some discussion as to whether these men are to be truly celibate.  There are some interesting elements about this group; it appears to combine elements of the French Foreign Legion (open to all comers and nationalities) and the Catholic clergy (celibacy), as well as other fabled organizations (the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword), sworn to protect something on a centuries-long or millennial-long timescale.

The existence of such organizations in societies can serve multiple roles.  Primarily, it allows for existential threats to be handled, no matter what is going on inside the regular day-to-day world.   It allows for disgruntled, disgraced, or otherwise troublesome elements in society to be removed without massive disruption, and serve some very useful purposes.  It also allows for some measure of meritocracy when none is allowed in a general society.   Unfortunately, such organizations today are more based on religion, than science.

The fact that such organizations have been proposed in fiction, and that at least one (the Catholic Church) has survived for many years is thought-provoking.   There are many existential threats that the world may need to defend against; climate change, asteroid impacts.   A real Night’s Watch might be something people might join, with enough incentive, and with enough benefits beyond those of regular life.


  • Could we put something like this in place, to handle long term decisions about our world, especially with regard to the climate or other topics?   Could this organization be more science based, than religion based, or is religion the only sort of driver that can work?
  • How would you start such a group?
  • Who would fund or command such a group?  Where would it be based?  Antarctica seems like a likely candidate, and the untapped natural resources there could be used to finance such group.
  • The issue of an organization where members aren’t allowed offspring (but are allowed forgiveness of past crimes, debts), but are allowed to rise based on merit may be very appealing to some.  The Catholic Church comes close, but as we know, some folks aren’t celibate, and some members enjoy a great deal of personal power.  In the Game Of Thrones, the Night’s Watch used to be a mark of honor for some nobles, but has faded.  What can keep an organization from degenerating and losing its luster?
  • How many people, at whatever age, would want to join such an organization, that gave one perpetual food/clothing/shelter/training in exchange for defending a world at large?  If a society is too rich, will this inducement be too little?   People still join the clergy and become nuns, even in the modern era.
  • The Game Of Thrones is set in a fantasy world; women are not allowed to join the Night’s Watch, based on one particular incident.  The Catholic Church has it set up so that women may join convents to help the Church as whole.  Given modern technology, it could be made so both men and women who joined such an organization could never have children, and still work as equals.  Would this work?

Long term planners, Part 3



The more that one muses on the problems of the world, it appears that the current way of doing things is simply not working.  And, in spite of all of our technology, we still are pretty primitive creatures.   At some point, something will have to change.  Don’t know exactly when or how,  but as someone once put it, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”

A while ago, the idea was brought up that some new sort of societal structures may need to arise to handle longer term problems which we’ve created.   Last week, the idea that the Roman Catholic Church might be institution that could handle such problems was put forward, and a commenter brought up the idea of royal families.

Long lasting royal families might have some sort of longer term world view (as they have survived!), but even their members can be brought down by scandal and the siren song of the modern world.   Even the Church (or its members) can be brought to its knees when people are too distracted from the trappings of modern life.   The trappings of modern life (smartphones, distractions, entertainment, almost infinite things to buy) can be pretty addictive.  But as time goes on, these things may fade away, just as the potential for large scale war and surveillance will go away as our technological base fades.

It may be that long term thinking and planning may just be a Darwin thing.  Those who plan longer term may survive when the technology base fades, and that sort of mentality will live on.


  • After the fall of our “turbo” culture, and the snap back to reality, will the type of government be less important, as more people are quite literally required to “wake up” and accept the idea of a pre-1900s world for most of the citizenry?
  • Is there a year or era you would find to be a good balance of where technology, government, and society were “on the ball” and generally capable of governing themselves realistically?  Nothing will ever go back to the way it was, but what sort of post-peak society will we inhabit?  Having pockets of high-tech may sound like science fiction, but it could happen.



Long term planners, Part 2

Last week, it was noted (mostly in jest), that vampires (or some other long lived creatures) could be entities that could see the bigger picture over long time frames.  Of course, they could also be fed up with humanity, so that line of reasoning might be a trifle suspect.

All joking aside, there are long term planners out there, who can think of time frames in decades and centuries.   The city fathers of New York City, when faced with a clean water crises in the 1800s, did the very prudent thing and figured out a plan so that even today, New York City would still have some of the best potable water in the country.

There’s a good chance that vampires aren’t real, so who else might be a potential long term thinker and planner?  The image above, of course, gives it away – the Catholic Church.   For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church has been a player on the world stage, along with its tiny principality of Vatican City.   The Vatican has been politically powerful at some points, a bit in disarray in others, but it has survived, along with its far flung network of churches, priests, bishops and lay people who are committed to its survival.   That the Church would survive over the long term isn’t a new thing; the book A Canticle For Leibowitz is a classic SF story that posits that the Church might survive even a few more thousand years.

The Church, in theory, should be able to plan a bit better than most institutions and individuals.  The latest pope has commented on climate change, but with regards to the big elephant in the room (overpopulation), not much seems to have been said.  And given the Church’s position on birth control and abortion, long institutional life seems to have no distinct advantage on much long term thinking.


  • There are other institutions (not as long-lived) that might have some good long term plans in place; who might they be?
  • Will the Catholic Church modernize, and think about the issue of overpopulation, the real root cause of our predicaments?