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A Manual For Civilisation

I am a great fan of The Long Now Foundation, a group of people that foster long term thinking and projects within the framework of 10,000 years. They believe it counterbalances the rise in short-term thinking and planning that has arisen in the 21st century, where people can only think ahead to the next iphone model or the next election.

A great quote by Daniel Hillis is given for part of the inspiration of the foundation:

“When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.”

This clock is now being manufactured and situated in the Sierra Diablo Range west in western Texas with the prototype on display in the London Science Museum.


Another project undertaken by the Foundation consists of curating a library with the intention to hold volumes that would act as a manual for civilisation. While Long Now does not predict the downfall of all civilisation in the near future, they think it is a great premise for a collection of physical books to complement their new office and meeting space in San Francisco. They are aiming at a 3000 book limit with a breakdown of types of books given:

Image Source: The Long Now Foundation.

Mechanics and Civilisation includes technical books on how to build things and how to find and refine natural resources. In essence all of the technical know-how. Cultural Canon is a series of books believed to show the essence of human civilisation including Plato, Shakespeare and others. The Science Fiction component will consist of works of speculative merit where possible futures and big ideas are discussed. Futurism will consist of non-fiction speculations upon the future of the human race with an emphasis on our history.

The collecting has already started with suggestions being made by famous Long Now supporters such as Brian Eno, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Hugh Howey, David Brin and Bruce Sterling.

Last month I read an advance copy of Lewis Dartnell’s “The Knowledge” which aimed to be a technical manual on rebooting civilisation after collapse. I think this book would be a great addition to the Mechanics of Civilisation section.

What books would you like to be added to such a collection?

Watching a Demolition

So it’s not everyday you get to witness the demolition of a 200 metre tall smoke stack in your hometown. But today I had the privilege and it was quite a spectacle. Everyone who wasn’t at work at the time and even those at work flocked to many sites, hilltops and the mountains to watch the stack come down. I watched it from a far off vantage point, up at a look-out on the mountain escarpment.

The stack is what remains of a copper ore processing facility and was built in 1965 which was the height of industrial activity in Port Kembla, mostly dominated by a large steel plant. All throughout it’s life the region has dealt with pollution concerns. In fact, in a brilliantly naive decision, the facility was built next to a public school. The solution once awareness was greater to install toxin monitors and alarms. The generation who saw it built and who had a hand in it’s construction are still around. While most are proud of the great industrious work they did, it is hard to ignore the 40 year contribution of pollution in the region. As I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s there were constantly news articles about pollution and acid rain in the region. The surrounding region would be covered by a film of fine metallic dust high in lead and other toxins.
The plant finally closed in 2003 and the facility has remained dormant since. Application for demoltion was sought in 2010 and demolition was postponed until asbestos could be safely removed before demolition.

It was amazing that everyone was out to see the event. I heard that all the nearby beaches and coastline was full of onlookers. Even my vantage point, a small tucked away look-out, was full of other like-minded people. There were retirees, couples and families all out to see this great event.

The aspect that astounded me most is how long it took to fall. I could have sworn the initial explosion (noticed by sight) happened 4 or 5 seconds before a noticeable lean in the stack. It came down very slowly and only left a small dust plume. I was probably about 10 km away from the tower and the sounds of the explosions had a significant delay which was quite hilarious in it’s own right. A little lesson in relativity.

There were several helicopters and planes filming the event and here is footage taken by Channel 7 Sydney:

Book Review: ‘The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch’ by Lewis Dartnell

Thank you to both Netgalley and Random House UK for an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. 

If someone came up to me and said “Hi, here is an instruction manual to rebuild civilisation after collapse. You’re welcome!” guess how I’d react. There would be sarcasm and the little wizened skeptic that lives in my head would be having a field day. And I did approach this volume with an amount of skepticism. How can you boil down all of civilisation into one 250 page volume?

Being a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction I am no stranger to the thought experiment. The first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read was John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’. My older sister was assigned this novel to read in high school and complained about a stupid novel in which stupid plants come to life and kill everyone. Not ideal for a thirteen year old girl, ideal for a eleven year old boy. Ever since then I have had a soft spot for apocalyptic fiction with stand-out favourites being ‘Earth Abides’, ‘The Walking Dead’ comics and the other works of Wyndham. So I have been part of this thought experiment for a while now.

And as my education has furthered into the sciences and gone into research, my environmentalism has increased and the knowledge of human activity with respect to the stability of the climate has caused these thought experiments to become more of a possible future reality. I believe it is within the realm of possibility that civilisation as we know it could collapse during my lifetime. The more I learn, the more I realise it would not take much at all to tip the scales into a decline in drastic decline in living standards.

It’s obvious that Lewis has thought extensively on this also. But he is infinitely more talented and had set himself the task to write an instruction manual to reboot civilisation. And despite approaching this work with complete skepticism, I come out the other side amazed and completely humbled by this work and it’s author. Lewis has achieved exactly what he has set out to do. This is a work that I would want in my hands in an apocalypse. The irony being that I have read this reviewer copy as an e-book, the most inaccessible method of transmission of data in a coming apocalypse. A part of me even feels that paper might not be robust enough nor last long enough to hold this wisdom.  I’d sleep better at night knowing that this was reproduced in stone buried in a sealed crypt somewhere far from any cities.

What Lewis offers isn’t a complete set of instructions (but some methods are described in great detail), but rather an overview of differing technologies such as agriculture, food preservation, basic and advanced chemistry, communications and more with specific methods and examples of the history of certain technologies and how to reboot these technologies from scratch. And Lewis admits that reproducing the historical progression of science and technology is not the most efficient reboot scenario, and that just having certain knowledge can hopefully leapfrog past certain stages and methods. He even suggests that several technologies that were adopted were inferior to abandoned competitors in hindsight and that a new civilisation should take advantage of this hindsight.

Lewis’ writing is succinct,accurate and informative. His ability to refine a concept down to one or two sentences that manages to convey exactly how a thing works and why it does what it does is astounding. This is what all educators and science communicators strive for and it seems like he as a great talent. When he was explaining concepts that I have previously learnt I was amazed at the clarity of which he would convey the ideas. How easily can you explain how refrigerators work using the laws if thermodynamics?

What Lewis presents is truly an astounding work that actually does have the potential to achieve what it set out to do. I’d recommend this book for not only any post-apocalyptic fan, but anyone interested in science, technology and any curious person who likes to know why things work. I am now an instant fan of Lewis’ and I look forward to the publication of this book in April 2014. I’ll at least be buying a paper copy.

Book Review: ‘This Thing of Darkness’ by Harry Thompson

‘This Thing of Darkness’ tells the story of Robert FitzRoy, brilliant naval man, father of meteorology and friend of Charles Darwin.This is technically a fictional account of his life, but it really is a novel written around factual sources from FitzRoy’s logs, Darwin’s writings and other historical data. Thompson has written a magnificent character piece around this historical data.Thompson goes on to write an afterword that outlines exactly how little he embellished the story, in most instances only inventing the dialogue, and highlights a very few scenes which were entirely fabricated.

The one aspect that stood out was the quality of the dialogue. Each conversation was interesting and insightful. It was at times quite hilarious. For a book about the tragic life of FitzRoy, there are some great laughs. And we all know how hard it is to write comedy in a novel. There is a wonderful scene with the Beagle’s surgeon and a parrot that will make you laugh out loud.

This wonderful book kept me occupied during the holiday period. It was a shame it had to end. It really did tick all the boxes for a perfect novel. Lots of science, learning, history, comedy, tragedy and all told with a lot of heart. It is truly deserving of the highest marks I could give and would make it into my selected top 10 reads of all time. This is a book recommended to everyone, especially those who would like to know more about Darwin and FitzRoy without wading into dull history books.

Back in Action

Hi everyone,

Sorry to just abandon you all but I had to take off time to write my Honours thesis. It’s all done now (thank the Spaghetti Monster) so I’ll start by getting into the swing of things. There is a book review of the one solitary book I read in the last month, but it was a damn good one that managed to take my mind off iodopyridines.

Brendon