What’s the Last Useful Technology That Humans Have Invented?

Here’s a cool story about studying super accurate Medieval sailing maps: “The Mapmakers Mystery.” The article is about portolan charts made in the 12th and 13th Centuries, and about how they’re still usable today, if you only need to know specific information about getting around in a particular region. I admit that I don’t understand all the angles and math and magnetic vs. true north explanations in the article, but it’s more important to me as a recognition that progress is a myth; if we can use maps made 800 years ago, then surely we passed the threshold of developing actually useful technology long, long ago. Since then, “progress” has just been re-creating the same stuff over and over again, and collectively pretending that it’s been new.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but the opposite is probably closer to the truth: any sufficiently useful technology is so simple and helpful that even though everyone clearly knows it’s not magic, it can be recycled in each new era and still be taken for novel. I mean, ask yourself how many inventions—even the “cutting-edge” ones of today—are basically just wheels.

And indeed, any actually useful technology will resurface no matter the culture or means of production available. Modern preventative medicine is, in the ultimate analysis, a continuation of foraging for edible plants. Yes, surgery is also incredibly useful, but isn’t a technology that doesn’t require a global oil-based infrastructure more elegant, more sustainable, and more, um, advanced?

Liberty for Security

I keep seeing this Benjamin Franklin quote, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” or its concise variant, ”Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither”—usually on a bumper sticker (next to the Gadsden flag) on some pickup truck.

It’s surprising (but maybe it shouldn’t be) how a quote from a Founding Father can be asserted as if it’s an obvious fact without the slightest unpacking of what it’s actually saying. I think if someone is about to harm or kill you, and you waive some kind of right—like, say, by locking yourself in your house, thereby restricting your freedom to move about—in order to achieve temporary safety, then you not only don’t deserve to be unsafe, i.e. harmed or killed, but rather you deserve the temporary safety you bargained for. Even if you can never leave your house again, isn’t it better then walking outside and getting murdered?

I know that the quote is supposed to be some kind of Second Amendment bedrock, and I am at the same time open to entertaining the idea that it’s possibly better to have an unsafe society than to have an overly restricted one (that’s why kids don’t play outside anymore, which is in my estimation a categorically awful thing), but should it be true (without demonstration, no less) that if someone wants to restrict gun ownership, they deserve to be shot? Isn’t that the opposite of what they deserve?

Yes, if society becomes too padded, the overprotection often causes more problems than it solves (see: War on Drugs), but if someone wants to give up some freedom to be safer, I think the worst we can say about them is that they haven’t thought through the endgame. Surely, they don’t deserve to be restricted and simultaneously unsafe—and to wish that upon someone just seems cruel, if not egomaniacal.

Thinking about the quote even for a further two seconds should also force one to think about all the times throughout human history when people have done just that—sacrificed liberty for security—and have been shown in hindsight to have been right to do so. In fact, what ostensibly is a military, if not a cohesive group of individuals who have sacrificed personal liberty for the protection of themselves or others?

There Are No Poor Economists

Know thy enemy, as the saying goes. Or, similarly, to avoid the kind of criticism that Christopher Hitchens used to readily employ against people ignorant of his vantage (“You give me the awful impression, I hate to have to say it, of someone who hasn’t read any of the arguments against your position ever”), I sometimes read The Telegraph online. And to go even further, sometimes I read about pro-capitalist, liberal icons, just for funsies.

Here’s a short article about a book about John Maynard Keynes: Universal Man. (He’s not a friend of the contemporary Conservatives, it must be pointed out. But then again, who is?)

The piece is all pretty ho-hum—except for this one little snippet, tucked in the middle with such frivolity that, indeed, the nonchalant manner in which it is attempted to be passed off is precisely what makes it so telling (talk about burying the lede):

“Keynes’s liberalism prevented him from fighting but he was re-recruited to the Treasury to try to help Britain pay for the war.”

His liberalism prevented him from fighting in WWI, eh.

Must be nice.

It’s probably one of the most cited criticisms of what we call “civilization”—especially since the Industrial Revolution—that under its necessary drive towards oligarchy, people have no local control; people go to war (or to work) because of decisions made in rooms far removed, and while an ideological game of Risk plays out among the super-elite, everyone else is either fighting to survive or killing other people who are fighting to survive. In a variation on this theme, it’s telling that there are no poor economists.

This Is What I Want Instead of a Burial

I came across this post from Orion about a nearby field where, apparently, donated cadavers are put out to decompose, in order to study how vultures and other animals eat them. As the author describes: “Another way of saying this is that if you travel for long enough on a dirt road just outside of San Marcos, and if you are able to get through the double security gates, what you will find amid the grasses and trees and occasional longhorn, is a field of human bodies in varying states of decay.”

The purposes for studying such a thing are mostly for the sake of law enforcement and forensics, but the science is just as cool without mentioning the trappings, and it’s sad to realize that it’s something of a special honor in today’s world to be able to give back to your ecosystem in death—rather than, say, poison groundwater with embalming fluid.

How do I sign up?

Mary Oliver Interview

Here’s a cool podcast interview with poet Mary Oliver. It’s long, but a good listen, especially over some coffee on a Saturday morning. It’s a little “woo” in places, but overall it’s insightful. She talks about a rough childhood, and how walking in the woods saved her life.

In the interview they quote “I Go Down to the Shore”:

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Lovely, isn’t it?

In my poems section I have included “Hawk,” which is also a goodie.