Putting the life back in science fiction

Preludes to Collapse

Might as well finish up the triptych.

In my simplistic way, I figure that if we were a spacefaring species, we could build skyscrapers in places such as, oh, the Atacama desert, and a group of people could live in them for years without going outside or going insane.  These skyscrapers would be mostly greenhouses and recycling facilities, with relatively small living quarters.  Such buildings are basically spacecraft or colonies, minus the propulsion.

If we were a starfaring culture using STL ships, such buildings would also be able to ward off artillery, possibly a nuclear strike.  We’d need similar shielding to fall between the stars at high speeds.  Oh, and people could live happily inside for centuries, even while it’s getting bombed.

If we were able to do high tech sustainability, we could build something like a city-state, where a city and its farmlands were mostly self-sufficient.  Such a city wouldn’t look much like what we have now, at least in the US. Large areas within it would be dedicated to rebuilding, reworking, and recycling stuff.  The water that flowed out of it would likely be as clean as whatever flowed in, and waste from the city would feed the fields, which probably wouldn’t smell all that good as a result.

The only reason to bring this up is to provide a sort of conceptual nested Venn diagram, with starfaring cultures at the extreme center, spacefaring cultures engulfing them but still extreme, sustainable cultures engulfing both, and where we are now, with less overlap between their hypothetical space and our space than we might hope. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether high tech sustainability, let alone space colonization and starflight, are even possible. In the latter case, it makes you realize why so many SF writers put jump drives on their starships, so they can pop the action from one planet to another without dealing with the difficult problem of living in space. If there’s one underlying message, it’s that life in space depends first and foremost on long-term sustainability in extreme environments.  In other words, we have to learn to live sustainably on Earth before we can begin to hope to colonize some other planet.  If we can’t solve our problems here, we can’t hope to survive running away from them into space.

Then there’s the other side of the Venn diagram, where the preppers prepare for collapse.  Unlike the space side, they’re real, if only because we know that collapses happen and people survive, but there’s less overlap between them and current civilization than we might hope.

In its way, post-collapse culture is another type of sustainability, where there are fewer people and there’s no little or no long-distance trade, but it’s not quite as simple as most people think.

There are two issues.  One is that many people are preparing for the wrong disaster.  Many prepare for natural disasters, at least for short term survival (I do that).  Some prepare for the collapse of the US or some more paranoid future (black helicopters, laws comin’ after yer guns, and so forth).  Some special types prepare for things like a zombie apocalypse.  Rather fewer seem to prepare for climate change, and that’s a problem.

Yes, the book is still marching towards publication (soon!), but I didn’t spend much space in it telling people how to prepare for living in a changed climate.  The challenge isn’t figuring out how the climate will change (we’re closing off options as we speak).  The problem is that the climate will keep changing for hundreds of years, however it changes. There’s not one set of preparations that anyone can make that are guaranteed to work over the long term. A lot depends on luck, no matter what happens.

As the climate continues to change, people can move to follow a particular climate that they know how to live with (say weather to grow corn or wheat) while adapting to new lands.  There are problems with this–climates are averages of weather, and the weather’s getting weirder as well–so it’s not as simple as moving north every few years and planting the same crops each time, but something similar worked for the Polynesians, so why not try it?  The other alternative is that people can stay in a place that they know and deal with the weather continually changing, on the theory that, because they know their lands, they can continually adapt to whatever the climate throws their way. I suspect each strategy will work fairly well at particular places and times, but I have no idea whether one is a better strategy in general.

The other problem is that preparing for the collapse of civilization is not as simple as readopting the lifeways of our pioneer ancestors or the indigenes they displaced, because 20th and 21st Century global civilization is profoundly changing the planet.  The Old Ones were able to depend on plants and animals (like, say, passenger pigeons), that probably won’t make it past the 21st Century, given how populations of everything from ginseng to mountain sheep are dropping all over the world.  Similarly, we’re doing a pretty good job of depleting groundwater all over the world, so there will be fewer springs, oases, and streams to depend on, and rather more of them will be polluted.  A world where global civilization has collapsed will be a lot harsher, with fewer natural resources and rather more junk to sort through. It’s not necessarily unlivable, but it’s a new world, not an old one.  Survival in it depends on a mix of old and new skills.

Still, there are things we can do now to prepare, such as designing the tools and technologies our descendants will need to survive. My favorite example of this are the rocket stoves and their kin, super-efficient wood-burning stoves that are being built for the developing world. There are a huge number of similar technologies that could, and should, be developed.

In general, designing for collapse involves figuring out ways to solve problems by cleverly using local resources and less energy. Going back to the example of the rocket stoves, currently they’re built in factories and shipped worldwide. In a post collapse world they’d have to be built from scrap by village tinkers. It’s far from impossible, but we’re not thinking much about what kinds of designs can be made from repurposed stuff.  Hopefully that will change.

If we’re prepping for climate change and collapse, I hope that one way we do it is to encourage hobbyists, makers, and students to start designing post-collapse tech now. If I knew anyone who was interested, I’d encourage them to figure out things that can be built from garbage, recyclables, whatever, designs that are simple but not necessarily obvious, designs for things like medical equipment, lighting, paper, fire starters, water and soil purifiers, and so forth. They won’t necessarily be economically viable now, but now we’ve still got the time to experiment with designs, the resources to allow prototypes to fail and be refined. If we wait until things really start heating up, we won’t have these luxuries, and a lot of people will suffer as a result.

Collapse is ultimately another form of sustainability.  As I like to tell people, over the next century or so, we’ll utterly transform our civilization into something more sustainable.  Either we’ll figure out high tech sustainability using renewable energy and transform our world into high tech sustainabilistan, or we’ll harness renewable energy as the few survivors chop wood to feed our fires midst the ruins.  Either way we’ll be sustainable.  What we’re working on right now are the details about what we’re willing to endure during the transformation, how many people we can support afterwards, and what happens to the planet as a result.  Not getting to sustainability is really not an option any more.


Standardized Test Preparation
August 16, 2012, 3:52 pm
Filed under: School, standardized tests | Tags: , ,

This is off-topic for this blog, but I’m putting this out because school is about to start. It’s advice that worked for me on the PSAT, SAT, and GRE, and it’s worked for others. It also happens to be a bit cheaper than taking a test preparation class. So if you are getting ready to take a standardized test, or know someone who is, read on.

Here’s the advice, for what it’s worth:
–If you want a good vocabulary, READ, especially books that use a lot of specialized or old-fashioned vocabulary. While I liked Harry Potter as an adult, much what passes for YA literature has simple vocabulary, on the apparent assumption that kids are stupid or something. In the long ago days of my youth (the 80s), YA didn’t exist as such, so I was reading adult science fiction and fantasy by the time I was 12. I’d advise the same. Historical romances are another good source, and so is Sherlock Holmes. By all means read War and Peace if you want (or any classic literature), but writers like L. Sprague de Camp delighted in using obscure words, and I learned their meaning from context.
–If you want math skills, do math, and find ways to enjoy it. Old-fashioned skills like drafting (aka drawing things to precise scale), and old-fashioned games like table-top role playing games force you to do a lot of this.

Detecting a bit of “Use it or Lose it?” Yep. The more often you use skills, the less you lose them. Get creative in this regard, and try to find ways to have fun with the skills. This goes for college courses too. If you can get a work-study job in a lab using the skills you want to develop, you’ll do much better on tests later.

That’s the long-term prep. It’s necessary, because if you haven’t read anything other than textbooks before you take the PSAT, you’re going to suffer on the test. Recreational reading (and recreational mathematics, and recreational science) are pretty much the only way I know to get really good, at least before you get a job using these skills. You’ve got to spend hundreds of hours to really master anything, and you don’t get that in school. If you have fun with what you’ve learned, then you get hundreds of extra hours “goofing around.”

Okay, let’s assume you’ve done all this, and you’ve got a test coming up.

First, hopefully you’ve got a month or two before the test. If you just registered for a test next week, what I’m about to say won’t help as much.

In general, tests have two challenges: speed and knowledge. You need to train each of these separately. From talking to a lot of people, speed is probably a bigger problem than knowledge. Many people don’t finish the test, even though they get every question they answer right. Standardized test taking is a specialized skill, and it doesn’t have many uses outside school, so you actually do have to train for it.

Knowledge first: Here’s a hint for cutting your studying by about 70 percent. Buy a book of old tests and take one of those tests, untimed. Put aside a weekend afternoon or an evening to do this. Grade the test. What you will find is that you’re quite good at some things, and need to work on other things. To cut your study time by 70%, concentrate your review almost entirely on the areas you need to work on. Yes, you do need to review the stuff you’re good at, but don’t spend much time on it, because it will waste your time. When most people review for tests (especially the GRE), they start rereading their textbooks front to back. This is a tremendous waste of time, because usually they read the first few chapters, stop, come back a week later, read the first few chapters, stop, come back a week later…you get the idea. Focus only on the subjects you’re having trouble with instead, and use the practice tests to figure out where you are having trouble.

My trick for improving speed was to buy a book of tests and take those tests, one section per day. Usually, the tests have multiple sections (up to eight per test) and each section is supposed to take 20 or 30 minutes. At first, you won’t be able to finish the section in time. That’s okay. Finish it anyway, after noting where you got within the time limit. Afterwards grade your performance, and use it to guide your studies (Remember, only study the things you are having trouble with. If you stop having trouble with something, stop studying it and go onto something else). Note that you’re only taking about 45 minutes per day on this, 20 or 30 minutes to take the test, 10-20 minutes to grade it. Doing this regularly also helps with test anxiety, because test taking becomes a normal part of your day.

What you will likely find is that, after taking one section per day for a while (a week or two), your accuracy will peak. For me, I always missed one or two questions per section, which is what I got on the test. A bit after that, your speed will peak, to the point where you can always get a section done within the time limit. At this point, you’re ready for the test. This is why it helps to start prepping a month or two before the exam. It gives you time to get your speed up.

I realize that test taking has changed, now that many tests are computerized. Fortunately, the basics I used back in the paper test days still seem to work online. Feel free to add other hints, comments, questions, or suggestions in the comments section, and pass this on to any student you know.