On apocalypse clocks.

On apocalypse clocks.

The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.

I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.

But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.

These numbers don’t mean much to me.

I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.

Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.

So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.

A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.

#

An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.

An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.

Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.

The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.

But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.

#

Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.

Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!

Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?

The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.

#

In Timefulness, geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes:

Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.

But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.

And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.

Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?

#

Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.

And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?

I wanted to fix the clock.

#

The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.

Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.

Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.

Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.

Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.

By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.

And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.

Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.

The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).

Humans appeared 1 minute ago.

#

So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.

Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.

But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.

So many stories could fit into that span of time.

#

It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.

Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.

Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.

But it needn’t be us.

The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.

We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.

We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.

We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.

Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.

Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.

For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.

We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.

So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.

We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.

Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.

Gps-304842.svg

When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?

Paperclip-01_(xndr)

A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”

#

While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass.  I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep.  A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me.  Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.

Around midnight, I gave up.  I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room.  I quickly fell asleep.

I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home.  Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful.  And a whole lot of people have to do it.

But that’s not why I was outside.  I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like.  She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now.  She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.

Fewer blinding headlights, though.

ice_age_fauna_of_northern_spain_-_mauricio_anton

And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves.  More birds.  More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability.  During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.

Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct.  Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure.  Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.

Donald Trump Trump Alzheimers Warning DementiaOur civilization might fall.  So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button.  A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die.  Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead.  Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too.  Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.

These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness.  When we fall, we might fall hard.

CaptureOther cultures have.  The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.

And, of course, the Neanderthals.  Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.

But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals.  I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power.  What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar.  Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.

It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites.  But they can.  From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes.  And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart.  This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.

sapiens_neanderthal_comparison

Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate.  Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.

Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred.  Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.

nytmag
This was a great recent read.

People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes.  People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression.  Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too.  Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.

The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist.  We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising.  After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant.  So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other “symbolic” behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.

Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in.  But that’s okay.  Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.

The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though.  For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism.  Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.

We also know that, although both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens consumed a mix of meats and vegetables, Homo sapiens ate many small species.  Squirrels, rats, and the like.  Neanderthals, however, seem to have eaten exclusively large animals.  This is particularly striking because Homo sapiens often obtained more calories from the meat of small animals than large game.  The Neanderthal, with their superior eyesight, would’ve been better at spotting these critters than Homo sapiens were.

hvalsey_churchSo I imagined a religious taboo.  Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health.  Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland.  Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.

It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation.  And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self.  In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.

If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate.  She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.

squirrel_posingAt times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes!  And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.

But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.

The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault.  After all, the climate was changing.  Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period.  Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears.  Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…

But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier.  The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter.  There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.

And yet.  We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures.  We can be better than our genes.