Monday, February 25, 2013

Codex Context

It's been a while since I've talked about one of the aims of the Leibowitz Society -- to collect a comprehensive work of knowledge that can be used as a "seed" for reconstructing knowledge on the other side of a dark age. While this might seem like an odd notion -- we still have lots of libraries and books out there -- consider that collapse may not come about only because of a shortage of oil or a gradual unwinding of our economic structure. We forget sometimes that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in existence, that comets and meteors fly by regularly, and that there is a very real possibility of a global pandemic at some point in the future. How quickly would a "superbug" level our complex and intricate technological society, for example? Life After People could be Life After 98 Percent of the People Are Dead and I think the world would still look much the same. Also, there is a tendency for things to build off of each other. An economic crash could lead to war, which in turn could lead to a pandemic. 
Likewise, it may seem like an odd notion to want to preserve our knowledge. After all, we are the heirs of a long process of technological improvement and innovation, the mastery of humanity over our natural world. If we did it once, we can figure it out again, right? I don't really know the truth of that answer, though. If we had a fifty-fifty chance of advancement as a species, there's the other side of the coin which said "nuh-uh, not happening." There are also other arguments we might consider, such as potentially being the only sentient life in the universe. Ponder that one for a moment. Or, we might look at our children and decide that we would like them to be able to make some sense out of the shambles we seem to be leaving them. Perhaps a latter generation might figure out where we went wrong, and pick up where we left off, even reaching for the stars at some future point (I don't see the end of cheap oil as necessarily being the end of human progress, if we are smart -- after all, how much oil has been basically pissed away on things like Pet Rocks and Sunday drives just for the hell of it? Could we live without both of those?). If there is a collapse, then likewise, there needs to be a blueprint for rebuilding after that collapse, a body of knowledge to use as that blueprint.

Ideally, this body of knowledge would fit on a portable hard drive or DVD, and contain several thousand works of important and significance to the human race, such as books on medicine, history, drama, power generation, pick something. The key challenge and difficulty there, however, is creating a system of storage which would last for generations, as well as maintaining equipment which could read it at a future date. There is also the challenge of making sure that people would be able to understand the knowledge as well, essentially having a "living" Rosetta Stone that would be able to understand the language that it is written in, even after the common language has changed so much so as to make the original work incomprehensible. This may seem a little silly, but look at something written two or three hundred years ago, then something written six hundred years ago, then consider how long the Dark Ages lasted, in a time where collapse meant less than it would now.

The other possibility would be maintaining a large physical library of books. A decent starting point for rebuilding society's lost knowledge would probably fit on two large shelves, or maybe four or five crates, appropriately printed on acid-free paper and sealed against moisture and insects. The only problem with this approach is fits in four or five crates. While people have argued back and forth about mobility vs. permanency in various circles, the reality is that we may or may not have a choice about staying put or going someplace. We may also simply not be able to move a collection such as that to safer ground in the face of a disaster of some sort. In this case, portability is what we would need, but this would make looking back at a data-driven solution.

There is a third possibility, though. While it might not be an ideal solution, I think it would be possible to compile a work of around a thousand pages to be a guide and supplement to either of the above approaches, a mini Codex, so to speak. Each of the seven core knowledge areas (Agriculture, Engineering, Science, Medicine, Defense, Culture, Community) would have a section which would be a summation of the more basic principles of each area and would give people a starting point to work with. While some people might question the approach of a single volume and how effective it would be, remember the distinction between content and context -- while it's useful to have information to put in the "bucket," the fact that you understand there's a "bucket" there means you are far ahead of people who do not understand that. In other words, if we are aware of the existence of germs, for example, we are then at least able to begin taking precautions to deal with them during surgery and treating infection, without having a whole plan for this laid out for us, necessarily.

For those keeping track, this is also roughly the same length in pages as the average Bible. A scribe might balk at copying tens of thousands of pages of a private library, but copying a thousand pages would be doable for a person, even if it took a year or more to complete. In addition, printing something like this with a press would not be hugely difficult, compared to that multiple-volume scenario as above. It would be easy for a person to largely have a work like this studied and memorized, given enough time. Finally, a person could throw a copy or two of the Codex in with all their other stuff and take it with them, if they had to move.

The challenge is obviously trying to decide what should be included in something like this. There are plenty of options and different people may choose to organize it in different ways. Going forward, in between commentary on our steady collapse and mass civilizational insanity, I'd like to begin exploring this in detail and perhaps actually start writing the first outline of the Codex Universalis. As a starting point, maybe tackling Engineering would be a good choice. This would cover things like how to build a shelter, build a bridge, generate power, provide clean water, and so on. What do you readers think should be included in that section?

Monday, February 18, 2013


I didn't bother to watch the State of the Disunion address the other day. In an age increasingly detached from reality, to the point of wondering if most of the people live in some sort of virtual-reality matrix, most official announcements basically turn out to be meaningless. They become the equivalent of "duck and cover" drills from the 50s, with the intent of keeping people safe from a Soviet H-bomb dropped in the middle of town. If nothing else, I'm reminded of the scene from Fight Club where Brad Pitt is pointing out the logical flaws with airline safety pamphlets -- "Assume the position, calm as Hindu cows, and hit the water at 600 miles per hour." We're throwing trillions of dollars at a problem which can't be solved, an equation which can't be balanced, that being the dead economic model of overconsumption that we're living under.

Our society and culture as a whole need to start figuring out the transition. I don't know if it's that somehow we conflate changing the way we live with suggesting there's an end to our future. Do we believe that if we convert our worthless lawns to well-maintained small-scale gardens, that we hate America or something? Do we think that if we go back to how our ancestors did things, and live within walking distance of work or shopping, that we're the committing the socio-economic equivalent of "ultraviolence?" This sort of model was actually the norm before WW2, but the meme of "each person has their own suburban estate, well away from the horrible, horrible city" was carefully beaten into the collective consciousness of GIs returning home, and encouraged by a cabal of companies that had been engaged in defense work and wanted to keep things in the black.

Those of us who understand the issue keep looking for a sign that there is a "waking up" on the part of those who run things on a macro-level. Fantasies about new spending, or unproven technologies, or trying to maintain a broken model, are no more than a waste of time. These fantasies are coming at a time when the underlying linchpin, the price and availability of oil, is beginning to move into the "red zone" again. It's already been forgotten how much people freaked out when gas hit $3 a gallon -- any business that depended on moving things, which is to say every business, collectively freaked out at that point. when it hit $4 a gallon, things started to fail. The housing crisis got a lot of the blame, but no one seems to remember that 2008 was a year for record gas and oil prices, too.

Now, we're seeing an economy which really has not been moving forward, in spite of the official pronouncements on the subject. Gas prices are starting to rise again, and of course, "no one knows exactly why." In a day and age when we can communicate instantly, when we can send probes to distant planets, when we can store the Library of Congress on a single hard one knows why gas prices are rising? Could it just be that no one wants to admit the obvious, that the supply is starting to run out and nothing is taking its place? In the short term, it's like people in a town recovering from a hurricane getting the news that a new hurricane is on the way, and hoping that all of the trees and buildings which were likely to blow over have already fallen down. Unfortunately, it really doesn't work that way -- a better metaphor would be a sinkhole opening under a town, swallowing half of it, and everyone hoping that their house doesn't fall into it next.

I don't like to get into predictions, because complex systems play havoc with such things, but as a ballpark guess, I'd guess we're going to be seeing $5 a gallon average for gas for the first time in history this coming summer. What has been an already stumbling economy is going to trip and fall, big-time. And we will see another round or two of "stimulus spending" in an emergency effort to prop things up yet again. Each time this round happens, we seem to reset to a lower level of functioning, which makes sense. The key for us is to realize that, at some point, if we're not already there, we are going to be on the "wrong" side of that equation. Maybe this is the real tragedy for the "structurally unemployed," that they can't realize that their world has already changed permanently. And, if there's no hope for the individual, what hope is there for society as a whole to understand that the model built two generations ago is broken beyond repair?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Edge of Reality

I won't spend much time commenting on the news, but wanted to mention the manhunt for Christopher Dorner. The whole episode itself is surreal, something lifted from the pages of a Hollywood screenplay, not necessarily entertaining, but still capable of capturing the attention of the nation. However, the deeper meaning is lost in the media shuffle. When a society begins to fail, events like this seem to become more commonplace, as the shared reality that people operate under begins to evaporate. In other words, when truth is sufficiently lacking, anything that was fiction can become reality. While Dorner will probably wind up cornered someplace, and will either be shot down by police or end up killing himself, the fact that this episode has happened in the first place means that there is a growing gap between what we know and expect, and what we're likely to see happen down the road. What's next? The collapse of the dollar under unprecedented debt? Another gross failure of technology like Fukushima or the Deepwater Horizon disaster? A state or states declaring independence? Whatever it is, we won't see it coming, and will be not be able to respond any more effectively to it than we have a rogue ex-cop who has decided to go out in a blaze of glory.

Instead, this week I wanted to focus on a couple of more practical topics. The first is the adjustment of our attitudes toward what is coming our way. This is a crucial step and one which seems to be lost in the fascination of people with the latest bad news, and personal attempts to "tread water." While this is something which lends itself to a lot of black comedy speculation, such as a person endlessly fiddling with a TV, trying to get it to come on, when the rest of their house is lit with torches, the point remains that people are clinging to a past which is increasingly vanishing. Structural unemployment is, of course, one example of this -- people who have lost jobs that will never return. Yes, arguments are made to the effect of "We don't have buggy whip manufacturers anymore," but this misses the point that there are no substitutes for the jobs that were lost. Quite literally, being out of work at this point means potentially never being able to work in a substantive job again. There are other things, too, such as increasing prices and increasing undercertainty that we are all facing.

This question has been addressed by a number of people, though.  One article which I thought was particularly good was posted by Dave Pollard a couple of years ago, entitled Ten Things To Do When You're Feeling Hopeless. While I don't have as pessimistic a view of the world as he does, I think there are some very good points here, starting with the argument against hope. Hope itself tends to be socially-acceptable daydreaming -- we hope that we will hit the lottery, while ignoring our own overspending. We hope that we can go on vacation, while ignoring that our roof needs to be fixed. And so on. In a way, Pollard's post reminds me a little of the Zen koan of "How does one become enlightened?" Answer: "Eat your dinner, then wash your bowl." Like most koans, this one needs to be taken in context (this was the daily practice of monks, so becoming enlightened was to live as a monk), but even the literal meaning serves us -- how do we adjust to the continuing collapse of society? By taking care of ourselves, those around us, and what little things we can in fact do to endure.

The other topic was that of sustaining ourselves. While quite a few readers are already aware of the need to be multi-dimensional in planning their food production, newer people may be getting introduced to this topic and settle on having a garden as a "buffer" against the inevitable disruptions in food supply. This is a noble idea, but the reality is that while most hobby gardens will produce fresh vegetables to give away to friends and neighbors, they will not provide complete nutrition. People need protein, pure and simple. The choice is to either suppment the gardening with raising some form of meat (rabbits or chickens), or to plan for a nutritionally-complete garden.  One good write up of how to do this was done by Jonathan Knight, detailing Albie Miles' work in trying to provide a complete diet for himself through gardening alone. While not an exciting diet, it apparently was enough to provide a sustainable calorie intake and presumably leave energy for doing other tasks.

I was interested to see this topic does seem to be filtering into the mainstream. While at a hardware store the other day, in between the books on landscaping and bath remodeling, there was one on self-sufficiency. In it was very practical advice on providing water, caring for animals, shelter, etc, all with what looked like a relatively low-tech approach. Maybe most of society is still concerned with the iGadget, but at least some people are minding a little. In time, dealing with reality is going to become unavoidable as we enter a new Dark Age.


I would be interested to hear from readers about what topics they would like to see discussed in a blog post, if any. There is plenty of fertile ground out there and I expect that I've missed some things that people are curious about. Let me know via comment here and I'll get to them in a future post.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Robot Road

Many people are familiar, at least in passing with the term "Luddite." For those who aren't, Luddism was essentially a working class insurgency in 19th century Britain, which arose from dissatisfaction over skilled weavers being systematically replaced by unskilled labor using weaving machines. People would wreck machines, threaten factory owners, and even went so far as to battle with elements of the British army that were sent to suppress them. While arguments over the Luddites' motives are still debated, the consensus view generally is that the Luddites were not averse to the introduction of machines, but to the effects of the machines -- lowered wages, the inability to value labor correctly, and the impact it would have on them and their families. In other words, they feared the basic loss of ability to survive. Luddism eventually died out as the introduction of machines made it possible to more fully exploit natural resources and the economy expanded wildly for around two hundred years.

Fast forward to the modern age. There have been a few instances of discontent and grumbling about the replacement of workers in various industries by robots, but this was largely offset by the fact that people were able to find employment in other industries, such as the service industry and the technological fields, which were riding off of the accumulated capital of the last few centuries. Now, that same store of capital is slowly drying up, and the ability of people to be able to find other forms of employment are going with it. In the face of twenty to twenty-five percent real unemployment, the question of what technology has done to the labor force is beginning to be thrown around again.  This article goes into detail about what effects there have been on the labor force as we approach a sort of "mini-singularity" in terms of where we are with automation and human labor. There are some real howlers, such as the notion that everyone should graduate high school by 2020. What for? So they can be educated enough to know why they're never going to find meaningful work or anything but a survival existence? Also brought up is the idea that there should be a guaranteed minimum income for people. How does that work, as well, when we have more debt than all of human civilization's past debts put together? There are also some sobering bits, such as people dipping into their retirement to make ends meet, which is the all-too-familiar story of people clinging to the edge of the cliff by their fingertips.

The late Jane Jacobs, in her book "Dark Age Ahead," went into some detail about the idea of "cultural amnesia." Without going into much detail, the general concept was that we either "used it or losed it" (bad grammer intended) when it came to various skills and ideas. I suspect that it may be a relic of human evolution, where the "old ways" were abandoned, so we didn't waste time doing things that didn't work for us. Consider, for example, that people are suggesting that the medical field may be largely automated at some point. This isn't a crazy notion -- lots of surgery is now being done with remotely-operated machines. However, what happens to the knowledge of the medical profession? Are those ideas slowly lost as times goes on and replaced by "go see the robot." What happens when the robot isn't around? Will the idea of germ theory, for example, die out in a generation?

Where does all of this leave the average person, too? It's increasingly clear that we are going to face a divide at some point -- either be in the part of humanity that services and develops technology, or be a part of humanity that scrambles for what is left, whatever that is. Truck driver? Good luck, with rising fuel costs and the development of reliable robotic vehicles on the horizon. Teacher? Good luck, with increasingly sophisticated educational software being developed. Soldier? Drones and robots are free to train, can be deployed indefinitely, and don't cause problems for politicians by coming home in flag-draped coffins. And, for those who want to start a little niche business, how many cake decorating places, photo studios, and baristas can a largely unemployed populace support, anyway? We are either part of the mechanism of technology or we are going to be displaced by it -- there is no middle ground.

All this comes at a catch, though -- our material resources are running out, in spite of what we're told. Oil is increasingly hard to retrieve. Metals are getting more expensive as the easily-accessible stocks have long since been made into other things, or just plain used up in industrial production. People are trying to exploit the resources in space now, but will that program end before it ever gets off the ground? Are we going to have robots that run on thin air? Are they going to be powered by "cost savings?" The more advanced our production architecture becomes, the more reliant it becomes on the infrastructure to support it. Eventually, we will merge back into one humanity -- those who placed their hopes on robotics and lost out due to thermodynamic realities, and those who were displaced by robotics and just "made do." People will have a new shared interest in trying to find enough to eat and to have a roof over their head.

If nothing else, it begins to remind us that we still need to have one foot in each world -- the world where technology and magic reign, where we still tryi to find work and a means to survive in modern society, and a foot in the world where we accept regressive change, in spite of our optimism and good intentions. If we have a job that can potentially be replaced by technology, we need to understand that we may at some point be permanently out of work and need to plan for that possibility. If we work in a technological field, we probably have more a "cushion," but have to understand that it will not last forever. What replacement skills can we find for ourselves? Most of all, it's time for everyone to try and maintain the collective memory of how things were done before there was technology to make them happen -- how did we heal a broken bone before we had x-rays? How did we plant a field before there was a tractor and industrial fertilizer? As people who understand the party can't go on forever, this is our praxis and we need to remind ourselves of the importance of it, even as our technological civilization plays Icarus with the future.