Saturday, May 26, 2007

Yucca Mountain

Before I begin, I want to ask, does anyone else remember GWB promising to review and probably thwart the Yucca mountain installation during his first and/or second campaign(s)?

Anyway (via), I got to thinking about this problem of warning the people of the distant future (say 40,000 years from now, as the radioactive waste is expected to be toxic for like 100,000 years) about the terrible mess beneath their feet. The proposal right now, as I understand it, is to seed the area with angry-ish-looking conical monoliths inscribed with warnings in the six official UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) along with several "information center" monuments which have more detailed explanations of things like dating via star positions and such. There's lots of use of the international symbol for radiation hazard. I have some comments/proposals.

First of all, the languages they've selected are kind of arbitrary. There are more than a billion Indians in the world at this moment--that's a sixth of the world's population--so we should probably expect there to a commensurably large number of people descended from Indians or who speak a language descended from an Indian language. Why are Hindi and/or Urdu not included? Meanwhile, there are about 300 million French speakers worldwide. Also, if we're taking Russian as somehow a reference for Future Slavic, it would be appropriate to remember that many Slavic languages are not rendered in Cyrillic, and the world is saturated with Latin keyboards--if Slavic survives for 5,000 years, I'm guessing it won't be in Cyrillic. Really, if we want our languages to be decipherable to people in the distant future, we should really start seeding the world with Rosetta stones (not on paper and not in electronic media) and documentation of language changes every 20 years or something for as long as our civilization holds together. I would say the Catholic Church and other longlived religious instituitions are the most reasonable conduits for this, as they/we build lots of stony permanent structures all over the world and are known to have a bit of staying power. There's also the problem of really saturating the world with this information, so that my great^n grand-niece is at least aware that such knowledge exists in the world.

The next two issues have to do with the problem that "hermeneutic transparency" is a property of an interpretation, not an interpreted text. Honestly, I think this an insurmountable problem, and we have no hope helping future peoples to avoid this danger other than telling them explicitly what the danger (see above). We'd be better off trying to preserve a way for them to access Wikipedia (in some form) than trying to mark the site itself in any more or less spectacular way. (On the other hand, just making the site hard to inhabit would probably be enough to limit the damage; if the first few settlers or explorers die of a horrible pestilence, it would probably be a better warning than anything else we could provide. But, I don't know how you could do that for thousands of years)

Second, I don't see that vaguely phallic monolith's are a great way to go. Sitting next to phallic-looking things is time-honored fertility magic. Sitting 2000 feet above the sealed waste vault is probably not an issue, but it would certainly take the edge off the "Danger: Horrible Pestilence Here" message. Third, looking at this of message goals troubles me. I can imagine "myself" looking at such a monument and thinking, "This is a monument about the worst battle/thing that ever happened by this civilization's hand; we'd better investigate, so we don't do the same thing." In any case, we have no reason to think that our exhortations of danger will hold any water with future peoples. The ancient Egyptians, for example, probably believed that the gods and various curses would keep their tombs relatively safe (if not the treasures, then at least the bodies), but maliciously or not, we certainly do not respect that belief now. We may think that we're a rational and powerful society, but so does every other society. Why should we expect future peoples to take our beliefs as factually true, whether or not they are, in fact, true?

Well, at least, I can say that it's nice that "serious people" can address problems on timescales of hundreds and thousands of years. As a not-very-serious person who has thought about this a little bit, though, I'm pretty sure that all we can really do is try preserve some of things we know--enough and in such a way that the really-clever people of those civilization could start at least where we were in, say, the 1950s.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The joy of counting

For anyone who's counting, $95 billion dollars amounts to a $30,000 bonus for every single teacher (elementary, middle and secondary school) in the United States, with some left over for about 150,000 new hires.

Oh, but we already spent that money on killing brown people.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


If you cause my daemon to be a spider, I will cut you.