Camp Century

The Story So Far

Ten years ago, it felt like everyone had their own blog. Some of these were pretty shallow affairs, while others offered a such a steady stream of mostly long form work that you wondered how their authors had time to hold down an actual job. Of course, for some of them their blog became their job, which I suspect managed to be simultaneously awesome and anxiety-inducing for the lucky few who found themselves in that space.

And then came Myspace and Facebook and Twitter, and we all got older and settled down and started wanting bougie things like decent beds and health care and a way to start paying off our student loans. And so now we post short links and photos of our vacations on our social network of choice, and that as they say is that.

But I miss the old days. Over the last five years “writing” has meant comments on friend’s Facebook walls and terse proposals for work, and I feel like some muscle has atrophied in my mind. It’s not just that I think my writing has suffered; I feel that I can’t think as carefully as I used to either.

And I hear that email newsletters are a thing now.

Five Futures is an experiment. I want to see if I have enough discipline to write something thematic and vaguely analytical every week. I want to see if this whole “thinking about the future thing” is something I’m actually any good at (and something that I actually want to do), and if it is I want to start building up a portfolio of sorts. But most importantly, I want to start exercising that muscle again.

So, with that introduction, let’s consider some futures from the past week.

Whale Tales

The Earth is full of complex societies, each with its own language and culture. Some of these are human, but many (most?) are not. Every now and then we get a glimpse of this complexity, and it’s often at once both beautiful…

Hundreds of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) swam to and fro, their huge bodies elegantly twirling and twisting through the water as they socialized. Bumping, jostling, and rubbing themselves against one another, they were exuberantly tactile, their behavior appeared almost euphoric. I felt like a gatecrasher at a wedding, so obvious was their delight in each other’s company.

As my eyes took in this secret spectacle, my ears were assaulted by a cacophony of excited whale chatter. Creaking and crackling, clicks, buzzes, and pops permeated the water as the whales pinged one another with sound. Pulsating rhythms pregnant with meaning penetrated my body. I “felt” the connection between the congregated cetaceans as powerfully as I heard it.

…and utterly alien…

Watching carefully, I noticed that two other activities added to the commotion: sloughing of skin and defecation. Like other whales, sperm whales shed skin on a regular basis. This may be a mechanism to reduce the risk of infection and to rid the animals of external parasites. As the whales rubbed against one another, the physical contact dislodged flakes, sometimes entire sheets, of skin, which floated in the water like a blizzard of translucent dandruff.

Group defecation also seemed to play a prominent role. When a dozen or more whales defecated simultaneously, it created a cloud of poop that engulfed the ensemble, obscuring them from view and turning the seawater into an oily soup.

So that’s what sperm whales do when they get together. This is all fascinating (and visually incredible), but it’s easy to write this off as “weird things animals do”.

What’s harder to write off is humpback whales undertaking a multi-decade, global campaign that appears to be designed to frustrate orca hunts. It’s certainly possible to ascribe this sort of behavior to the sort of mindless rationality we like to project onto non-humans these days…

Orcas have been witnessed hunting humpback whale calves in much the same way that they hunt gray whale calves. So, by proactively foiling orca hunts, perhaps the humpbacks are hoping to make them think twice about messing with their own calves.

Explanations like this feel lacking though, especially given the world-wide nature of the humpbacks’ behavior. In any human context we’d call this sort of thing “cultural”, and probably “coordinated”.

One War, Two Bows

Six months ago, Bruce Schneier highlighted a paper exploring the adoption of longbows vs. crossbows at the end of the European Middle Ages.

For over a century the longbow reigned as undisputed king of medieval European missile weapons. Yet only England used the longbow as a mainstay in its military arsenal; France and Scotland clung to the technologically inferior crossbow. This longbow puzzle has perplexed historians for decades. We resolve it by developing a theory of institutionally constrained technology adoption. Unlike the crossbow, the longbow was cheap and easy to make and required rulers who adopted the weapon to train large numbers of citizens in its use. These features enabled usurping nobles whose rulers adopted the longbow to potentially organize effective rebellions against them. Rulers choosing between missile technologies thus confronted a trade-off with respect to internal and external security. England alone in late medieval Europe was sufficiently politically stable to allow its rulers the first-best technology option. In France and Scotland political instability prevailed, constraining rulers in these nations to the crossbow.

The paper itself is short (the PDF’s 33 pages, but the formatting places remarkably little text on each page) and very readable (there’s four pages of algebra-level mathematics in the middle, but if you’re at all math-phobic it’s possible to skip over these without loosing very much). The authors frame the problem of longbow adoption in terms of trade-offs motivated by institutional constraints, but another way to look at the problem is as an example of historical path dependence, where previous decisions by a set of historic actors (in this case, the social and legal conventions constraining the English, French, and Scottish kings and nobility) limit their ability to navigate other, seemingly unrelated, problems (the adoption of a particular military technology).

Politics is Petty

Its easy to let the concept of path dependence lull one into an unthinking acceptance of historical determinism. The antidote to this is to remember that history is made of people, and people often make important decisions for the pettiest of reasons.

Much has been written over the last two weeks about Wikileaks’ release of internal DNC emails and the likelihood that Russian intelligence was ultimately behind the dump. A lot of this discussion essentially posits that Wikileaks has become the passive tool of Putin’s, but this neglects both the US’s own role in destroying Wikileaks’ capacity to handle large data dumps like this in a “journalistic” fashion and Julian Assange’s very personal vendetta against Clinton for her role in this.

Most of the discussion about the where and whyfor of the leak assumes it is all about Russia’s interest (assuming, of course, that this was a Russian state hack). But consider why Wikileaks might want to leak in this way and at this time.

Hillary was, of course, Secretary of State when Wikileaks leaked the State department cables and pushed aggressively for Chelsea Manning’s prosecution (as Charlie Savage wrote in a piece published just before I finished this, this is a point Assange made when he discussed the emails 6 weeks ago). She has, since then, been found to treat information claimed to be far more sensitive in careless fashion (as has the State Department generally).

Very importantly, State worked closely with DOJ as it investigated Wikileaks. There is very good reason to believe that as part of that investigation, DOJ mapped out Wikileaks’ supporters and, possibly, financial contributors - that is, precisely the kind of people, to the DNC, that Wikileaks just doxxed. That’s arguably a violation of Section 215, which includes First Amendment protections.

(The Intercept has a similar take on the situation. Assange appears to be increasingly motivated by (and vulnerable to) his hostility towards the US government. Living in a closet for four years will do that to someone. The more interesting story here though is how the current situation resembles nothing so much as a layer cake of irrational animosity: The US for Russia, Russia for the US, Obama for Wikileaks, Assange for Clinton, Sanders supporters for the Democratic Party machine… Any one of which was pretty justifiable when it started, but all of which appear to have spiraled beyond the control of any one participant.

Out of such animal passions is history made.

Breaking Norms

If you live in the US, then your media diet is probably dominated right now by the upcoming presidential election. Which is kind of odd, actually, given how lopsided the entire affair is. Now, I’m no fan of Clinton, but there is absolutely, positively, no conceivable world in which she doesn’t win. So this entire election season should be pretty uninteresting, except that the Republican party’s strategy over the last fifty years has been to carefully cultivate ethnic animosity, and their presidential candidate seems to be just fine with moving that animosity from theory into practice.

Trump has no use for norms. He violates them at will, from relatively trivial transgressions such as his personal attacks on other presidential candidates (“Little Marco,” “low-energy” Jeb), to the worrying ones such as his habit of spreading conspiracy theories (e.g., the charge that Ted Cruz’s father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy), to the serious ones such as his calls for religious tests, his tolerance of white supremacists, and his exploitation (and occasional use) of explicit racism.

Trump’s contempt for norms has only gotten worse in the past few days, as he reacts to the Democratic National Convention - and his subsequent collapse in the polls - with rage and anger. And on Monday, he crossed one of the brightest lines in American politics, the one that deals directly with our tradition of peaceful transfer of power.

“I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said to a crowd in Columbus, Ohio. He followed up on this in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.”

Bouie goes on to note just how profound an erosion of democratic norms this represents. While US politicians have occasionally questioned the legitimacy of elections,

[t]his world we’re in, in which a major party campaign maligns the election as rigged well before the fact and promises a proverbial “bloodbath” in the event of defeat, is a new one.

Do I expect that Trump’s prophecy will come to pass? No, if just because his followers are unorganized, and Trump himself appears to have little interest in providing them with the structure that would be necessary to make good on his threats. But Trump himself is at this point less worrying than who may come after him. As Sarah Kendzior notes, Trump’s campaign is laying the groundwork for

…a charismatic successor [who] will come along … [and] … maintain Trump’s political positions but behave in a more emotionally controlled way. This successor would presumably run for office, as Trump did, but learn from Trump’s mistakes and gain a broader base of support. Given that part of Trump’s appeal rests on an “anti-establishment” persona, this individual will likely not come from within the GOP, but from the fringe movements that Trump has helped push closer to the mainstream. It could be Donald Trump Jr, who could ride the wave of the Trump brand. Or it could be a popular and polished white supremacist, someone like Matthew Heimbach, who has attracted a large following with more explicitly racist rhetoric than Trump’s. Whoever it is will likely be younger than Trump and will tap into the youthful and bigoted “alt-right,” which has supported Trump throughout his campaign.

Rather than being America’s Mussolini, Trump may simply be That Which Comes Before.

The Future Hates Us Already

Speaking of horrible things, the globe is warming, the Arctic is thawing, and that means we’re starting to find out just how much the ice and permafrost were protecting us from. If you thought that zombie anthrax was bad, just wait until old military bases start to thaw out of the ice and slide into the ocean.

When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.

But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner - possibly even by the end of this century - posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.

And we’re really talking about radioactive and highly toxic waste here. Camp Century was powered by a nuclear reactor, and while the US government was good enough to disassemble that when they closed up shop, they left behind just about everything else: “[B]uildings and railways, to tanks of diesel fuel, radioactive coolant, and likely an unknown amount of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).”

We can’t actually clean up Camp Century now, because it’s covered by too much ice. And it’s not like it will be easy to clean up once it does thaw out a bit more - a thawing ice sheet is a treacherous place.

It seems darkly appropriate that Camp Century’s name so appropriately matches the timescale for its cleanup.


And with that we’ve reached the end of Five Futures’ freshman outing.

Until next time.