Monday, March 26, 2007

Developing Countries as Eschaton Practice Grounds?

Pat Delaney's "MultiMachine" is a versatile machine tool that, according to its inventor, can be built with simple hand tools out of scavenged junk. The inventor conceives of applications in developing countries, but this sort of "intermediate technology" is EXACTLY the sort of thing that will be invaluable after an Eschaton event.
Developing countries have many parallels with post-Eschaton industrialized countries. Technologies wrangled and perfected with the Eschaton in mind could be applicable in developing countries where things like laboratory-produced penicillin are scarce and infections are rampant, and technologies meant for use in developing countries are exactly what will be needed in developing countries after an Eschaton event.
Already in my permanent post-Eschaton bibliography are Where There Is No Doctor and Where There Is No Dentist, books developed for use by medical practitioners in areas without modern medical care. I am happy to find another excellent example of crossover technology.

Monday, March 05, 2007

How Ideas Reach the Future

In preparing for an Eschaton event, it is sometimes useful to try to imagine just what the event will look like. Two possible categorizations:

  1. Instant population crash-type event (plague) versus an event that destroys systems and technologies while leaving population relatively stable in the extreme short term (well-coordinated widespread economic terrorism)

  2. Sudden event (nuclear war) versus slow reduction in standard of living resulting in generations-long collapse (what we are currently experiencing)

Leaving the first distinction for another post, I wish to address just the second for now. Many thinkers, including Chalmers Johnson and Jared Diamond, provide good evidence that we are currently sliding toward an end to our civilization of the second type - a gradual, generations-long reduction in the standard of living, accompanied by increasing chaos and decreasing availability of the benefits of civilization. In this scenario, information about rebuilding after the end of civilization would need to survive and be passed down through generations. A physical book or electronic information may not be enough to guarantee the survival of the information until it is needed.

Historically, how has complex information been preserved across generations? Very few books have survived more than two or three generations, and those that have survived have done so in successive editions, being copied and re-printed frequently. Most books printed today will not survive in any form - paper or content - beyond a few decades. The survival of printed information is also dependent on the technology of literacy in the language of printing. Research into the books that have survived may yield answers for how to preserve foundational technologies for future generations.

The amount of oral information that can be transmitted between generations is extremely limited. However, this has been the primary mode for passing information throughout human existence. Oral transmission may be a very viable way for passing foundational technologies to later generations, if the content were packaged in a way conducive to memory and re-transmittal. Of course, the form most conducive to memory and re-transmittal is the story. (See, e.g., Schank, Roger. Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York: 1990.)

I would like to reproduce an example of a story that holds technical information conducive to re-starting civilization. The story is this. During World War II at Oxford, Florey and his team were hard at work trying to isolate and purify usable penicillin. They knew, however, that at any point the Germans could invade and take over the lab. They hatched elaborate plans to evacuate and destroy the laboratory so that their research would not fall into German hands. However, the wanted to ensure that their research could continue once they reached safety. Toward this goal, they rubbed their clothes with spores of the penicillin mold they were working with - spores are very hardy and are stable for a long time if kept dry. If forced to evacuate, they would take the precious P. notatum mold with them to restart their research elsewhere. (Lax 2004, full citation in previous post.)

This memorable story contains (or at least suggests) the following information:

  1. Mold that produces penicillin is not ubiquitous, but rare, and, once located, should be preserved.

  2. Mold spores are hardy and will survive in clothing, and anywhere the mold has been, spores will probably be.

  3. Contingency planning is admirable even if the plan is never implemented.

I am interested in figuring out whether this, and stories like this, could form the germ of a transmissible set of foundational technologies (an Iliad-length "Ballad of Florey and Chain"). It is difficult to imagine a set of stories so long that they encompass every detail of every technology (see previous post for an idea of just how technical it's going to get), but they can hold key information and could even serve as coded "pointers" to physical caches of printed information, treasure hunt style.

Some Historical Problems in the Production of Useful Penicillin

Survivors of an Eschaton event may encounter many of the same problems as the historical discoverers when producing new technologies, such as penicillin. Therefore, it is useful to study creative, low-tech solutions to these problems.

Penicillin is an acid produced by some strains of the mold species now known as Penicillium chrysogenum. There has been some confusion historically surrounding this choice of name, because Fleming, the original discoverer of the antibiotic action of penicillin, used the term "penicillin" to refer to the unpurified "mold juice" produced when P. chrysogenum is grown on, say, beef broth, and Florey and later investigators applied the term "penicillin" to refer to the purified antibiotic chemical. It is important to keep these two uses straight in one's mind - injecting "mold juice" into a person would cause death by anaphylactic shock because of all the impurities in the product, whereas purified penicillin is only dangerous to those who are allergic to the substance. I will follow Lax and generally use the colloquial but very descriptive "mold juice" to refer to the unpurified product, and "penicillin" to refer to pure penicillin. At any rate, penicillin, a product of the mold P. chrysogenum, was discovered as early as 1929, but was not purified into a form useful for treating humans until 1941. Researchers encountered several problems along the way; post-Eschaton scientists may expect to encounter any of the following problems:

  1. Locating the right strain of the right mold. The mold that produces penicillin is not just any mold, but specifically the mold Penicillium chrysogenum. (The mold involved in the original research on penicillin was then known as P. notatum, which was "found in decaying hyssop in Norway" (Herrell, 1945). P. notatum has since been taxonomically merged with the species P. chrysogenum. It is an extremely variable species, and many strains have been identified and even created by mutation under UV light or X-ray. Strains vary WIDELY in their efficiency in producing penicillin.) This mold must be located, identified, cultured, and tested for penicillin production, before biological synthesis can occur. Stay tuned for next post regarding an ingenious plan devised by Florey's British research team during World War II to preserve cultures of the mold in case the Germans took over their lab.
  2. Growing large quantities of "mold juice," and/or improving the penicillin yield of the mold juice. Nearly 100 liters of mold juice were required by Florey and his collaborators to produce one day's dose of penicillin; several modifications over the years made biological production of penicillin much more efficient. (Ibid.)
  3. Extracting the penicillin from the mold juice. Florey collaborator Heatley devised a fairly ingenious way to extract pure penicillin from mold juice. The mold juice was strained through parachute silk to remove macro impurities, then shaken with ether; the penicillin would dissolve into the ether. The (heavier) water could then be drained off. Then the ether was shaken with alkaline water, and the penicillin would be back-extracted into the water. (Lax, 2004) Note that this process requires either a supply of or the ability to produce ether, a fairly volitile chemical.
  4. Stabilizing the penicillin in powder or crystal form.
In the coming days I will post separately about each problem.


Lax, Eric. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle. Henry Hold & Company, New York: 2004. (An extremely readable, fairly popular history-of-science account of the discovery and production of penicillin, from Fleming to Florey. An excellent resource for stories associated with the problems of producing penicillin; see upcoming post about stories, human memory, and the distribution of this project.)

Herrell, Wallace. Penicillin and other Antibiotic Agents. W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia: 1945. (An account of what was known about penicillin in 1945, i.e., four years after the first purification of penicillin. Very useful for historical problems.)

On Curating

Angela Sanders, a writer on perfume at nowsmellthis, provides a useful five-part definition of what it means to "curate" a collection, provided to her by an anonymous museum curator friend. The list includes five items: stewardship (protecting the items in the collection from damage and loss), research (involved in creating and updating the collection), considerations of intrinsic and relational value (the value of each piece on its own, and in relation to the rest of the collection), theme (an organizing principle to the collection), and "schmoozing" (helping the collection along by networking with possible donors and contributors). I am thankful to her for this formulation - it helps me organize my thinking about this project, which I have always understood to be a curating project, rather than, say, a normal original research project or any kind of controlled experiment. As applied to Eschaton management, the five aspects are:

  1. Stewardship: locating, organizing, protecting, and distributing in a usable format the resources necessary to rebuild after an Eschaton event
  2. Research: massive amounts of research are involved both in building the initial collection and updating this collection as new information becomes available
  3. Intrinsic and relational value: each piece (of knowledge) selected for the project must be intrinsically useful to Eschaton survivors, and must complement the other sources selected and fit in with the ethical and logistical framework established for the project
  4. Theme: to be selected, informational sources must relate to and advance the mission statement articulated for this project
  5. Schmoozing: many minds and hands are necessary for the successful implementation of this project

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ethical Foundations

In the previous post, I referred somewhat ironically to The Good. However, one of the foundational considerations to the very existence of this project is, what are the criteria for saving technologies?

In my daily life, I am surrounded by analytic philosophers, so I am accutely aware of this issue. I am not remotely qualified to propose and write ethical foundations for a project such as this, but I think there is an easy, fun answer to the central question: it's a Rawlsian original-position situation in the most literal sense. A group of people prepares, pre-Eschaton, to build a civilization after the Eschaton event; we include the technologies that would make up a society we'd want to live in. We are in the original position, not knowing what position we will occupy in post-Eschaton society (or, indeed, if we will even survive the Eschaton event). This gives us some preliminary basis for asserting that our preparations are just, no matter what those preparations are.

(The only problem with this thinking is that the bloody neo-Nazi survivalists could claim this justification for their preparations, too. One response to that argument is that the "original position" participants in the neo-Nazi case do not meet the criteria of not knowing the position they will fill post-Eschaton. Based on their plans, they'll be The Ones With The Guns. On a personal note, I hate these people - they are not dangerous now, but they could pose a major short-term security issue post-Eschaton.)

Technology Triage

Most technologies are dependent on other technologies. Tracing back each technology to each component foundational technology results in a lengthy, difficult list.

Instead, the approach I will be taking is to choose a few key foundational technologies that in my judgment are responsible for the greatest advances in The Good, such as antibiotics, vaccines, antiseptic practices, and agriculture. I will assume certain technologies can be initially "scavenged" - e.g., microscopes - and, when the post-Eschaton civilization has sufficiently developed, those technologies can be reproduced. It is simply impossible to develop all important technologies simultaneously.

My current research: developing usable penicillin with minimal technology.