Archive for July, 2002

Digital Immortality

Sunday, July 28th, 2002

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” — Albert Pike.

There seems to be a basic human aspiration for some level of immortality. Save for those few eccentrics who chill their bodies into Popsicles in the hopes of being defrosted in the future, many try to leave some sort of permanent mark that will live on beyond them. Perhaps this desire is only a manifestation of an even more primal urge for a life of meaning, to have one’s life make a difference. The Egyptian pharaohs were perhaps the most successful in creating tangible legacies in the form of gigantic pyramids that have endured millennia.

Most important legacies are less tangible. We influence the people in the world around us in little ways that propagate outwards for good or for ill. Good people tend improve the lives of those who surround them, while others make the lives of those around them more difficult. These influences live on past us. Children are perhaps the greatest connection to the future. How we raise and nurture our children will have measurable, noticeable, and, for those concerned about immortality, traceable effects on the future. Many of us will be a living connection between our grandparents and our grandchildren, a familial connection extending five generations.

For many, making a difference means simply being remembered. Personal likenesses, paintings or photographs, are one vehicle for extending memory. A couple of hundred years ago, likenesses were only available to the wealthy that could afford to commission paintings. Photography was not invented until the nineteenth century and it was not until the twentieth century that photography was used as a regular and common method of documenting everyday life. It is now a common family ritual at gatherings to look at old family photographs. These photographs provide a semi-permanent record and a small measure of immortality.

Does digital photography challenge this immortality? Paul Rubens of the BBC News in “No Home for Digital Pictures” argues that new digital photography offers an ephemeral illusion of permanence comprised of ghostly bits and bytes. Although less than 10% of homes currently have digital cameras, 33% percent of homes with a connection to the Internet do. The technological stragglers will soon follow. Market analysts predict that film camera sales will begin to decline in the face of digital competition by 2005. Disposable cameras may be the only niche remaining for film. Rubens is concerned about the implications of this transformation for the photographic record. For Rubens, it is a recipe for disaster.

One imagines prying open a dusty old trunk stored in an attic and uncovering those long lost photographs of great grandpa’s wedding or of the old farmstead. Enjoying these images requires no special equipment. By contrast, what happens 100 years from now when some comparable trunk is opened and our descendents discover a CD full of images? Will there be an equipment to read the CD? Will our descendents even recognize the CD as a digital storage medium? Will digital images be lost in the rapid evolution of digital storage technology?

I think not. First, the permanence of film images is overestimated. The chemical processes that make photographs possible are not permanent. Photographs do fade over time, while digital images, so long as the files remain intact, they contain the same information as they originally did. Moreover, photographs are more easily lost or discarded than those saved on a hard disk.

The easy replicability of digital files is their greatest insurance of longevity. As increasingly important data are stored on personal computers, there is greater and greater need to back up information in the face of a possible hard disk failure. It is now relatively inexpensive to purchase separate disks to act as backups. As good a solution as this may be, few of us have proven to be sufficiently disciplined to either regularly backup to alternative disks or create copies on more permanent media like tapes or CDs.

Broadband networks may solve this problem. As more and more of us have our computers online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, remote nightly backups will become possible. People will find it economic, convenient, and safe to have their important files backed up remotely on a regular basis without personal intervention. Hence, digital images will exist in at least two places, on personal hard drives and on the storage media of remote backup companies. As computers evolve, these backups will make it trivial to move data to newer systems. You purchase a new computer and download your files from the network.

Networks also make is easy to share digital images with relatives further insuring long-term image survivability. Each image file attached to an e-mail provides, in essence, another file backup.

Under these scenarios, digital images are far safer than their chemical counterparts are. Now when your house is burning down, you can run in to save the family dog instead of the family photos. All your digital data having been safely store offsite, your legacy is safe.

The Pearl Harbor and Flight 93 Memorials

Sunday, July 21st, 2002

The hulk of the battleship Arizona, sunk in a surprise attack by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941, lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Over 1000 sailors are still entombed there. Thousands of miles away, in the middle of a large non-descript field near Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001, Flight 93 was brought down in a struggle between Islamic terrorists and passengers. All 44 on board die. The crash may have prevented many more deaths on the ground if the plane had made its way to Washington, DC.

Flight 93

It has been over sixty years since the attack on Pearl Harbor and there have been many years in which to construct a formal memorial. Before embarking on the ferry that takes visitors to the memorial sitting a stride the frame of the Arizona, guests can visit a museum. The museum tells the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor and of some of the individual sailors who died. With the distance of sixty years, there is little animus toward the Japanese. Indeed, many Japanese visit the site.

The formal memorial for the victims on Flight 93 is awaiting construction. Getting to the site requires travel on small Pennsylvania roads, but one can tell one is nearing the site by the increase in the density of already ubiquitous American flags adorning homes and businesses.Presently, there is only a small parking lot that can accommodate perhaps 10 cars. There are a couple of small professionally made memorial stones. One lists all the victims killed. However, the eye is drawn to a temporary 2-meter high 5-meter long fence. To the fence visitors attach small flags, mementos, little placards of thanks, wishes for the families of the deceased, and bible verses.In many ways, the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and the crash site of Flight 93 are very similar. Not many people travel to Hawaii just to visit the Arizona Memorial or travel to Pennsylvania just to see the site of the crash. However, people seem to gravitate there. They come clad in their shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps. Despite the informality of their dress, people instinctively quiet down. No one needs to remind them. They realize they are in a sacred place deserving of respect and show it. People wander quietly around.

Flight 93 Marker

If you are afforded the opportunity, take the time to visit both sites. Over both, an American flag stands proudly above atop a flagpole. The sound of the flag fluttering in the wind masks the quiet whispers between visitors. Even more eerily, the clanking of the clasp of the rope used to raise the flag against the metal flagpole maintains a rhythmic cadence as a vigil for those who have died.

Wealth and the Environment

Sunday, July 14th, 2002

Notwithstanding Mark Twain’s solemn advice to, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please. (Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.)” allow me to dangle an illuminating graph for your consideration. The variables on the graph shown in Figure 1 require a modest amount of explanation, but the concept behind them is powerful. The graph is borrowed from The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg (Page 33). The source for the data in the graph is the World Economic Forum of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the World Bank.

Figure 1: Environmental Stability versus GDP. (From The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, Page 33.)

The horizontal axis represents per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in units of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) dollars for different countries. This is a mouthful of alliteration describing a normalized measure of per capita productive wealth production. It is a complex matter to compare wealth in different countries. The PPP dollar is an attempt to reduce this complexity to a single value. In short, regardless of what a particular product or service — a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a train ride, or a Big Mac — costs in local currency, it should cost the same in PPP dollars. PPP dollars are a best effort at measuring relative wealth in different economies using different currencies. Just think of the horizontal axis as the rate of per capita wealth generation.

The vertical axis is an environmental sustainability index. It is a combination of various measures of the environmental status including pollution of the air and water. The larger the value, the better off the country is environmentally.

There is certainly wide variability from country to country, but the implication of Figure 1 is not only clear, but also runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the age. The greater the per capita wealth of a country, the greater is the sustainability of its environment. Not only is productive capacity not inimical to a clean environment, it is positively correlated to it. Of course, correlation is not the same as causality. Nonetheless, it is clear that the large and complex web of economic, political, and social factors that contribute to high levels of economic growth are also associated with clean environments.

Figure 1 should remind those on the Right that there might be money to be made from environmental friendliness. But the Right has long recognized that all resources, including wealth are finite, and that priorities in environment must be weighed against costs.

The Left by contrast has more to learn. It has raised environmentalism to a religious sentiment in the hopes that the issue could be used as leverage to increase public supervision of the economy. Except for those of a Left-wing anti-globalization temperament whose minds have long ago been constipated by the lack of intellectual fiber, Figure 1 demonstrates that an automatic Luddite opposition to economic growth is irrational and counterproductive. Having a clean environment is an important value and it seems that one way to achieve it is to maintain a robust growing economy.

What Went Wrong

Sunday, July 7th, 2002

Sometimes a cup of coffee represents no more than a refreshment. Other times, coffee fills up more than a little cup of irony. In 1000 AD, an Arab would indulge in a cup of sweetened coffee from Ethiopia. Islamic culture introduced coffee to the world. Without its discovery, there would be no Starbucks and Seattle would be much more laid back.

By the eighteenth century, Europeans had found they could grow the “devils drink” more cheaply in its colonies than could be produced in Ethiopia. In What Went Wrong? eminent Middle Eastern authority Bernard Lewis, points out that by the eighteenth century a typical Turk or Arab would sip coffee that was imported from Dutch Java or Spanish America. For Lewis, coffee represents a metaphor for the decline in the dominance of the Islamic world. This decline and its impact on the western world is the theme of Lewis’s book.

If one visited the world at the beginning of the second millennium, the case could easily be made that the Islamic World was the most powerful, dynamic, advanced and progressive culture on the planet. The Islamic World extended into Europe from both the east and the west, controlled all of Saharan Africa and the east coast of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, east into Asia. Much of ancient Greek knowledge had been assimilated and new insights were learned in contact with the Chinese civilization.

The Islamic culture was self-confident and thus was, for its time, tolerant of other ideas and faiths. Although they would not accept attempts at proselytization, Christians were permitted and Jews prospered and occupied positions of prominence.

The Islamic powers had reason to be confident. They dominated the world militarily, eventually expelling Crusaders from Europe.

Somewhere around the time of the European Renaissance, it became apparent even to Muslims that something was changing. European science and technology was improving, largely due to imperatives of trade and exploration of the New World. The Reformation in Europe alleviated the hegemony of thought, with an emphasis on individualism.

Gradually, Europeans pushed back the geographic limits of the Islamic World, largely expelling it from Europe. As the military superiority of the West improved, Muslims found it essential to adopt Western military weapons and tactics, but felt no real necessity to incorporate large elements of Western culture. Much of the Islamic World believed it could modernize without Westernizing. Ultimately, even these efforts failed.

In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon with superior arms blasted into Egypt and quickly overcame a power at the core of the Islamic World. Ultimately, Napoleon was forced to leave, not by an Islamic power, but by another Western one. Soon much of the Islamic world would become part of the colonial empire of one or another European power.

Today, much of the Islamic world is in poverty, ruled by tyrannical and oppressive leaders, and is technologically and economically far behind the West. If it were not for Western addictions to oil and opium, there would be little of export value from the Islamic World. Muslims also cannot fail to notice that the Eastern powers, Japan and the rest of Pacific Rim, have somehow been able to embrace Western economic culture and in some cases even surpass Western powers in terms of prosperity.

Of course, as Lewis points out, the human response to this conspicuous decline is to ask “Who did this to us?”

According to Lewis, for a long time, the Islamic world blamed the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. However, this explanation is unpersuasive given that many Islamic cultural achievements came after the expulsion of the Mongols.

Many in the Islamic World blamed Western imperialism, particularly by the British and the French. However, this explanation begs the question. It was the decline of economic and military power that allowed Western imperialism to succeed.

After, the formation of a tiny Israeli state in the center of the Middle East, the Muslim world tried to blame Zionism for their humiliation. As Lewis puts it, “… it was humiliating enough to be defeated by great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was intolerable. Anti-Semitism and its image of the Jew as a scheming and evil monster provided a soothing antidote.” The Jews were to blame.

Tolerance has come full circle. For much of the last millennium the treatment of Jews in the Islamic World was far more exemplary than their treatment by Christendom. Now Jews are hated in much of the Islamic World. It is ironic that perhaps the best indicator for the success and prosperity of a society and culture may be its treatment of Jews. If this historically persistent minority is tolerated, it implies that the dominant culture is sufficiently self-confident and prosperous that it sees no threat in the acceptance of Jews. It is an unmistakable sign of decline when this tolerance is abandoned.

Most recently, some in the Islamic world have blamed Western culture, and it chief symbol, the United States for undermining Islamic religious values. Islamic fundamentalist seek to explain decline in the Islamic World, by the abandonment of traditional Islamic practices.

The true reason for the decline of Islamic civilization has been its growing calcification and refusal to recognize the importance of individual freedom necessary for a modern economic state. Interestingly it may have been the early phenomenal success of Islam that cemented it into rigid religious structures. At the outset, Islam spread quickly and relentlessly. Within a century of Mohammed, Islam extended from Spain to the Caucuses. Islam washed over other local religions like a tidal wave and immediately dominated religious and government structures. Indeed, there was no perceived difference between the civic culture and religious culture. The law was Islamic law and carried the weight of Allah’s authority.

The Christian and Jewish religious traditions arose in a culture of the oppressed. The Jews were enslaved in Egypt and the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. Mohammed was triumphant on Earth, while Christ was put to death by local government authorities. From the outset, Christians and Jews realized that the kingdoms of the Earth and religious authority were not co-extensive. In the West, secular and religious power was often allied and sometimes synonymous, but the idea of two separate spheres of authority was at least possible. After the Reformation and a series of religiously-based European wars, it became evident that some mutual distance between the state and church could provide lasting peace. Indeed, with the rise of commercial society, the question of religious affiliation diminished in importance.

The laws and institutional arrangements of man were thus accepted as largely empirically based. What worked to produce civility and prosperity was sufficient. Arrangements could be temporary and flexible according to the needs of the time. Appeals to immutable religious authority were not necessary. This emancipation of the individual and associations of individuals to seek their own goals ignited the growth in wealth and military power that has left much of the Islamic world behind.

There is nothing inherent in the Islamic faith that prevents it from embracing Western culture. The relative prosperity of Turkey is a consequence of its adoption of Western economic and cultural institutions. Nonetheless, there remains a broad sympathy in the Islamic World with the notion that freedom, particularly the freedom that separates civil from religious authority, makes Western powers debauched and self-indulgent. The ultimate fall of these powers under the weight of their own decadence, in the minds of some, will mark Islam’s return to ascendancy.

However, as Lewis concludes:

“If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination-perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some expanding superpower in the East. But if they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is theirs.”