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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Plague and breaking points

The world has seen some horrific plagues in the past. Most of us are familiar with the Black Death of 14 Century Europe. It was also in Asia and parts of Africa, but western history is Eurocentric. Records of the plague are pretty good, including a lot of first person sources. It's estimated that between 30 – 50 percent of the population died.

There were a number of chaotic years when everything pretty much fell apart: government, religion, and society in general. Amazingly, after the plague had passed the survivors got back on their feet quickly. There were a lot of changes in society. How could there not be? However, in short order there was a functioning society. People did not revert to a hunter/gatherer existence.

Contrast that to the situation in the New World. There are estimates that up to 90 percent of the population of North and South American was decimated by disease. Complex societies did not survive intact. There weren't enough people left to keep them running. Life got a whole lot simpler.

So we know that civilization can probably sustain 50 percent losses without totally falling apart. 90 percent is too much. Somewhere between 50 and 90 percent is the breaking point. It's probably not a hard and fast number as there are a lot of variables. I'm just guessing, but I bet it's a fairly narrow range.

The plague years in the Old World were well documented. In the Americas the record is sparse and mostly from the viewpoint of the invaders. Whole civilizations vanished with barely a trace.

One can't but help wonder how resilient our own civilization would be to dramatic population loss.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Big data's diminishing returns

Have you ever read novels from over 100 years ago? Notice how often people were afraid something embarrassing would become public? People would commit murder to hide the fact that they were homosexual, had an illegitimate child, or any number of little secrets from their past. The only way these novels have any tension about people's secrets is if we can put ourselves in a 19th century mindset.

Okay, so there are still plenty of people alive today with a 19th century mindset. Every year there are a lot fewer of them. On the flip side, every year we have young people who are growing up with no sense of privacy. Everything they do is on social media -including all the dumb things they do. Maybe especially the dumb things they do. They joke about doing things a Victorian would have paid blackmail money to keep hidden.

So what happens when these young people become old enough and interested in public office? Embarrassing things from their past? No big deal. Everyone has embarrassing things from their past. It may actually be suspect if someone does not have skeletons in their closet. It won't be normal.

There are two groups interesting in all that data: governments and business. Governments, by their nature, don't trust the public and want to get the goods on them. Business wants to know all about someone so they can sell to them -or to do things like deny credit to people with bad medical histories. That's just creepy.

So what has the government found out? They've discovered that a lot of people hate them, so the government spooks are feeling pretty unloved. They also want to discover dark things about folks. That only works as long as people care to keep those things hidden. Will the younger generations even care? Blackmail doesn't work when no one gives a darn.

Right now businesses are very excited by the promise of big data. Every tiny bit of information about someone has market value. Past performance is a good indicator of future actions. That works as long as everyone is safely in their ruts. Big data is only predictive for fairly short periods of time in a relatively stable society. When things upset the status quo, all old data goes out the window.

Now there are big data geeks who think they know how people will behave in stressful life changing situations. They may even have a small track record. Fine, but wait until truly disruptive things knock people out of their routine -repetitively. It could be anything from war, plague, a comet strike to a new religion suddenly catching fire. Mix and match for even more confusion.

Then you have the people on the web with a number of personas totally divorced from their real selves. No one on the 'net knows for sure if you are even male or female. Then there are folks who think it's fun to game the system by feeding erroneous data into the mix. In a world where no data is deleted, the bad data pollutes the stream forever. Go ahead, Google for things that you have no interest in at all. It's fun, like throwing a tiny monkey wrench into the system.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home on the range

I used to have a shooting range right across the street from my house. Very convenient and safe too. That is until a developer put in a road and sold house lots. A house was built directly behind my shooting range. It was a fair ways off, but in the interest of safety the range was discontinued.

Dad had a hunting camp off in the woods with a nice little range. Too bad he sold the camp when he moved to Florida. So much for that.

For a while I used to shoot about a mile down the road in an abandoned wood yard. The land company allowed people to shoot there. That is until the area was turned into ATV parking.

Local clubs manage shooting ranges, but they charge money. There are some old sand pits where free shooting is allowed, so that's been an option for me.

However, a buddy of mine of who lives in Maine found a range roughly halfway between his place and mine in New Hampshire. It's a free private range that's open to the public. Sunday I drove on over to meet him at the range for some shooting. I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoy target shooting.

Later some other folks joined us at the range. It's always nice to look at other people's guns and to show off one's own. One thing that's changed is that now I have people compliment me on my ammunition. Years ago I stocked up as I suspected prices to go up in the future. It's now the future. There's some types of ammunition that are still very hard to get -at any price.

Sadly, when we got the range it was a mess. There were old broken target stands and piles of junk all over the place. Four large trash barrels were available for trash, but hadn't been used. Those of us at the range that day pitched in and cleaned it up. It only takes a few thoughtless people to ruin a good thing for everyone else. Nice free shooting ranges are hard to come by. I'd hate to see this one closed to the public.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Stumbling into war

So now the United States is a war with Syria. No, really. That's what happens when one country conducts military operations within the borders of another country. Dropping bombs counts. Any member of Congress could invoke the War Powers Act, but that would require taking a stand and having a backbone. We all know for sure they are all invertebrates, as strange subspecies of humanity.

Countries have stumbled into war before. How have they turned out? WWI comes to mind. Few expected it to get as large as it did, last as long, or kill so many people. Assassinate just one guy and one thing leads to another and before you know it the trenches run with blood.

Less known than WWI was the Crimean War. In many way it was precursor to WWI: diplomacy gone wrong, underestimation of the length and severity. Heck, it even had trench warfare. There were lessons about that type of fighting that were quickly forgotten before WWI. At least it settled the problems in the Crimea for all time. No? Guess that was a waste too.

The United States half heartedly stumbled into war in 1812. Yeah, Americans like to forget that one. Canada kicked our collective butts, the White House was burned down, New England seriously looked at seceding from the US. The biggest US victory was the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after the war was officially over. In the end the peace treaty just restored the status quo.

So now we are stumbling into a wider Middle East war. Do we blame the Obama administration? Should we go back to the Bush years when the US invaded Iraq by lying about weapons of mass destruction? Historians can point to the mess that the colonial powers created when they established many of those countries with little regard for ethnicity, religion or even natural boundaries.

Am I an alarmist? Maybe. After all, nobody expects events in Syria to get out of hand -like they did in just about every conflict in the area.

Don't get me wrong. By all accounts the Islamic State dudes are bad news. Something probably should be done about them. Maybe, just maybe, we should look into the events that lead to the conditions that spawn such groups. Then maybe we can stop doing those things. Crazy talk, I know.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Helicopter and Sailboat parents

Recently I had the pleasure of watching Maidentrip, the story of Laura Dekker, a 13 year old girl who wanted to sail around the world alone. It's available on Netflix streaming.

She was living in Denmark and the government didn't want to let her go. There was a 10 month legal battle in which the government tried to take legal custody away from her father. (It's all about protecting the children, right?) She won her case and left on a two year journey to sail around the world.

So there she was, a 14 year old girl on a 38 foot sailboat. There were no support ships. A handful of times family members flew out to visit her in various ports. It was a good story. Kids normally mature a lot between 14 and 16. Now imagine how a young person would mature during those years while sailing around the world. From the movie it was clear Laura was a kid who knew exactly what she wanted to do and had mastered the skills to do it.

Contrast that to children who were raised by helicopter parents. A kid with parents like that never get to make any important decisions alone. Can you imagine them weighing the merits of the different paths through the Indian Ocean? The northern route has better weather but the possibility of pirates. The southern route doesn't have pirates, or anything else except possibly really bad weather and giant seas. Thanks to cell phones helicopter parents stay in constant contact even through the college years, ready swoop in at the least hint of trouble.

Thank goodness I grew up before helicopter parents were a normal thing. While I didn't get to sail around the world at 14, my parents let me do a lot. I got to take open canoes through class III rapids alone. I went backpacking and camping without adults. I even went off hunting on my own. While it wasn't technically legal until I was 16, my dad allowed me to go We'd leave the hunting camp at dawn, and head off into different directions. We wouldn't see each other until after dark. That was hunting “with” dad. By the time I was 16 I had my own hunting license and could go totally alone.

My dad grew up a lot wilder than I did. He learned to be self reliant and saw the value in it. I probably would have had even more freedom as a kid, but my mom was pretty freaked out as it was.

So I feel a bit sorry for those kids who grew up with parents ever ready to smooth the way. At some point they will have to deal with life on their own and they lack the experience.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Float test

Here's the Ooze Goose at the boat ramp. It looks out place on the trailer for my Oday 19. Good thing I live close to the launch site.

Originally I had the less than brilliant idea of moving the boat using my canoe portage wheels. The Goose is 3 times the weight of my canoe, so the wheels were not up to the task.

Plan B, always have a plan B, was to use the Oday trailer. Some scrap lumber made a pretty decent ramp. The trailer winch pulled the boat right on up. A couple of times I had to lever it straight as the boat barely fits on the trailer runners.

Once in place ropes and straps held it in place. Most of the trip to the ramp was at 15 mph with a top speed of 30. I had a horror thought of it bouncing off the trailer and rolling down the road. No problems, so that was a relief. It's a good thing I paid attention in Boy Scouts when they taught knot tying. If I do decided to use this trailer to transport the Goose any distance some modifications would be in order. Side boards to hold it on would be good and the big white guideposts would have to go.

I had a nice row around the lake. The boat has a very shallow draft and is quite stable for a boat its length. Now my efforts go towards building the sailing rig. I may even install it down to the beach rather than bring the boat back up to the house.

Too bad I was alone and there was no one to take photos of me on the lake.


Friday, September 26, 2014

More boaty bits

My in-laws live about 2000 miles away. I get along with them just fine. When they lived closer and we saw them more often, I still got along with them. In fact, I'm looking forward to visiting them in Texas sometime this coming winter.

Last time we visited my father-in-law gave me a lot of marine stuff. It pleases me to be able to use some of the bits on my boat project. Today I installed some cleats and an old compass. The compass is old enough that it was built in Chicago, not some city in the Orient. I like the look of the old equipment and it's all still perfectly functional.

The port holes are actually clear deck plates, installed so that they can be unscrewed from the inside. All you can see from the outside is the wood ring that holds the no-see-um screen in place.

Tomorrow, if all goes well, I'll put a set of oars on it and take it for a spin around the lake. Then it's back to building the sailing rig.

Somehow I've also got to find time to modify an old utility trailer and turn it into a boat trailer. It's a fair bit to do, but I've been blessed with good weather.