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We'll all go together when we go

While I was at WesterCon last weekend I did a number of panel discussions. And one of the more interesting ones was on the topic of anthropogenic world-ending events.

So here are my post-convention thoughts, and a question.

News flash: nuclear weapons are not likely to cause human extinction. There's certainly no doubt that a large-scale nuclear war with the arsenals that existed on both sides at the peak of the cold war (say, circa 1988) would have been a thing of horror and disastrous for civilization on a global scale; even nations untouched by bombs, fallout, or climactic changes triggered by continent-sized fires would have suffered grievous damage from disrupted supply chains, loss of access to resources, and the total collapse of the global trade system. But it's hard to see a path leading to a total death toll in excess of 90% of the human population, or rendering it impossible to retain a 19th century engineering culture (steam traction, electricity production from hydropower or local fossil fuels, iron and steel production) at least in isolated locations after the event.

About the only path through which warfare could lead to total human extinction would have been through the use of modern biological warfare technology. For example, it's possible to modify poxviruses such as mousepox (or smallpox) by inserting the gene for IL-4 and turn them into a ferociously lethal airborn plague that triggers a cytokine storm in its victims, with close to 100% lethality. This was once, and recently, the domain of high-level vaccine research and biowarfare labs; but the tools that enabled the genomics revolution also permit the relatively easy development of such a "biobomb in the basement" weapon—the only thing going in our favour is that nobody would be crazy enough to deploy a species-extinction weapon on their own kind. Or would they?. (See also; apocalyptic eschatology may be one of those things we don't get to survive the 21st century and keep.)

But then we get to other doomsday scenarios. I'm going to take anthropogenic climate change as a given at this point and bring up the Green Sky hypothesis as a possible "oops, didn't mean to do that" scenario for the end of the world. It's a model for how the Cenomanian-turonian extinction happened, roughly 110 MYa ago. As temperatures rise, the deeper waters of the ocean become oxygen-depleted. Gradually the upper border of the anoxic level rises until it's close to the top; below it, anaerobic bacteria and archaea survive by switching to the sulfate reduction cycle. This is something that happens in stagnant ponds; but there's some evidence that entire oceans are overwhelmed by this sort of bacterial bloom when conditions are right, leading to catastrophic consequences for life. Sulfate-cycle metabolism releases hydrogen sulfide, H2S, rather than carbon dioxide, and H2S is rather more toxic than hydrogen cyanide; so as the atmosphere is depleted of its breathable oxygen by the shutdown of oceanic photosynthesis, the bacterial bloom produces poison in its place. For a while the stagnant bottom layers will be stable ... but eventually the H2S-saturated waters will begin to circulate, releasing the dissolved gas, in a disastrous outburst similar to the outgassing of Lake Nyos in Cameroon, where in 1986 the volcanic lake emitted a large burp of carbon dioxide, asphyxiating nearly 2000 people in villages nearby. (As with the anaerobic ocean hypothesis, Lake Nyos was gassified from the bottom up; like a bottle of soda water, it finally out-gassed and bubbled up when conditions became right for a limnic eruption.

The reason for focussing on the oceanic disaster is its scale. To get to it, we first need to produce a Canfield ocean—a stagnant one, where the Thermohaline circulation ceases and the bottom and upper reaches of the oceans are no longer mixing. In the past, this usually arose as a side-effect of continental drift. But we're currently seeing unprecedented discharges of melting water from the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps which, being extremely cold, have a significant impact on the existing deep oceanic currents—just as we're subjecting large chunks of the upper oceanic biosphere to unprecedented stress and over-fishing induced extinction is causing a large-scale repopulation event or two (for truly, right now the future seems to belong to the tentacled ones!).

Anyway. Forget nuclear weapons: they're nothing like destructive enough! And it's doubtful that a small group of fanatics wouldd be able to deflect a big enough asteroid to kill everyone, with any technology that's on the horizon—certainly not without providing enough lead time for national space agencies to intervene. (As most asteroids seem to be gravel piles rather than solid objects, and tend to explode at high altitude under the stress of entering the atmosphere, "dropping rocks" from orbit is a somewhat problematic doomsday weapon.)

Biological weapons like weaponized IL-4 augmented poxviruses are a possible doomsday scenario. And we could do it to ourselves accidentally, albeit over a thousand year time scale, if we fuck up the thermohaline circulation beyond all hope of remediation—or if someone utterly crazy figures out a shortcut to cause a sulfide bacteria bloom in the deep ocean.

Short of handing out lethal technological magic wands (and I include Drexler-level nanotech in this category: genetically engineered bacteria are quite bad enough!), what other paths to we-did-it-to-ourselves human extinction can you see that might be viable within the next century?

285 Comments

1:

Mass poisoning due to some chemical additive or substance that has commercially advantageous qualities and whose hazard isn't discovered in time. Lead paint and asbestos are two examples of this already happening--now imagine some new material created from nanotech (the real kind, not the magic Drexler kind) that promises to solve all our building problems. It's a structural material! It's a decorative material! It's cheap! It's strong! It's lightweight and carbon negative! It comes in every color you could want, and every surface texture, too! Make cars from it! Make houses from it! Your new iPad is lighter, thinner, and more thermally efficient because of it!

And it'll fill your body with a gradually accumulating quantity of abiotic trash that your immune system can't clean out. There's an inflection point, before which it is merely a biological hassle, and after which the stuff is aggressively toxic. By the time we realize the danger, fetuses are being miscarried with toxic levels of the stuff already in their systems. In a matter of years, or perhaps even months, the human birthrate falls through the floor. Those of us already alive get to live through the Children of Men scenario, albeit with a concurrent epidemic of degenerative neurological conditions as our mature bodies can just about limp along until our deaths even with all the nanogunk in our systems.

It's the mid-21st century, so even the relatively undeveloped parts of the world are part of the global economy. The only people who are safe are the ones who live in places like North Sentinel Island--except that climate change is still ongoing and will wipe out most island life in a matter of decades.

2:

Hmm... I'm not convinced that either the "Largepox" or the "Neptune's fart" scenarios would necessarily lead to actual human extinction rather than just gigadeath.

Largepox would be ineffective against extremely sparse or isolated populations - who in this day and age have the additional advantage that despite their isolation they would still probably learn what was up before all communications failed, and so would stand a chance even if the plague used some obscure vector like gerbils to cross spaces void of human population. Also, there'd be bound to be at least a few people who were naturally immune or managed not to die of it, and probably a somewhat increased proportion of them would have scientific knowledge. They'd get in touch with each other using short wave radio and form little communes and defend them against roving bandit gangs, and wonder if they were in a John Wyndham novel.

Neptune's fart has the problem that the timescale is simply too long. A thousand years is a long time to figure out something to do about it, and the longer it took the more drastic solutions would become acceptable, like inciting volcanic activity by using massive nuclear depth charges on mid-oceanic ridges in order to stir up circulation, or dropping ice comets in the middle of the Pacific.

One thing that would be pretty hard for even small and well-equipped groups to survive would be some kind of space catastrophe that releases a vast cloud of some isotope like 241Am with a half-life of a few hundred years in a highly-inclined low orbit, producing a long-lived reservoir of lethal dust from which the planet would be continually and evenly sowed. I can't, however, think of any reason why anyone would have both the desire and the capability to put that much of the stuff up there in the first place.

3:

What if the stresses of Global warming cause several small nuclear wars. Which in turn hampers our ability to combat and adapt to global warming and the ecosystem collapses.

4:

A thousand years is a long time to figure out something to do about it,

This presupposes that humans are capable of thinking on timescales in excess of a century and solving collective action problems on a global scale. Thus far there is no evidence to suggest that we are capable of either of these things.

5:

Green sky: Ugh. It's worth reading both The Sky on Alien Worlds and Peter Ward's rather racist Under A Green Sky to understand where this comes from, and what's wrong with it. I did cover this in Hot Earth Dreams.

The tl;dr version is that every time the ocean produced shales, the bottom waters were anoxic. Ward's got this neat and probably-not-impossible-but-sheesh idea that a super-anoxic ocean is what produced the Permian/Triassic mass exinction (not just the Siberian Traps blowing the equivalent of a Western Europe of lava into what's now Siberia), and that this turned the sky green and the ocean purple. Vivid colors, but I'm pretty sure he got them wrong (the sky's more likely to turn white, for example, and that wine dark sea is straight out of Homer). I'm also a little bothered by the way he characterizes the tropics, which has some whiff of old imperialist biases, at least in my reading.

Anyway, shales get produced a lot. They were produced during the PETM all over the world, but there's good evidence that bottom life also survived in places (there are tracks) during the same time. To get Ward's case, you need the bacteriological mechanism to work (not proven), plus the continents to be in a very different configuration, plus you want our civilization to create the equivalent of one the largest igneous provinces in history, which is hard for us even now.

While we can be incredibly stupid, I still think the PETM is a better model for what we're up against with severe climate change than the P-T, and that Peter Ward has the habit of being very wrong at least occasionally (ex:Out of Thin Air, which, while cool, gets paleoclimates largely wrong according to the paleontologists I've talked with about his scenarios).

As for doomsday gene hackers, that's probably worth worrying about. Can I encourage all the biohackers out there to experiment with figuring out ways to stop this too? While it will take a long time to use double-blind techniques to figure out what vaccines and such are effective, it's not a bad idea to crowdsource the basic approaches to dealing with those kinds of threats, so that the best potential answers rise to the top.

6:

The thing is I don't know if human extinction IS actually possible. By human extinction I mean deaths greater than 99 percent of human population. Killing only 90 percent is not enough.

Heteromeles has attacked the Green Sky possibility. Let me attack the supervirus hypothesis. Thing is, we already have experienced a supervirus attacking a defenseless population: the Columbian exchange. Something like 90% of the population was killed, and they had the second stressor of genocide. Still, Native Americans are still here, and they make up the majorities of a few American nations (ex: Bolivia, Guatemala).

7:

I agree with April_D that the "oops, we didn't realise it was toxic" scenario — particularly linked to fertility — is probably the most likely way we could do this.

Otherwise there's that old SF standby of something so completely addictive that people just take to it and starve to death. But I doubt we could keep manufacturing this to extinction point: supply chains and the like would break down.

As you say, extinguishing ourselves — rather than just destroying civilisation — is not particularly easy. So just for fun, instead of a virus or bacterium, how about a really, really good new top predator...

8:

Well, generally when things go really wrong, it's the product of two unlikely events, neither of which is massively destructive on its own, but combined they send things to hell in a handbasket.

One of my favorite vectors for things going wrong is the financial market. It connects to everything, interconnects the global, and is a giant exercise in concealed fraud and crime. It's always on the verge of going titsup, and thus is a great way to magnify anyone negative.

One of the commonalities above is the "you can't breath" routes to death. The "you can't eat" is equally fun for gigadeaths - even something like "Death of Grass" is viable with a spot of bioweapons.

My guess is, it's easier for it to happen that Charlie considers, because the system is both in a weakened state, and the impact of finance to magnify the problems.

9:

"...Thus far there is no evidence to suggest that we are capable of either of these things."

True, but then a century ago hardly anyone even seriously contemplated the possible existence of global problems requiring global cooperation for their solution (and amenable to solution in the first place). Not only is the nature of the notion of anthropogenic climate change unprecedented, but the social conditions that provide both the possibility and the cause of the existence of that notion have been around for less than two hundred years. Certainly extrapolation from lesser problems suggests that we'd probably be shit at it, but it also suggests that we'd somehow bumble through eventually, albeit in a distinctly suboptimal manner.

10:

I wonder how long the IL-4 would stay that lethal. Diseases that kill quickly and totally tend to burn out really quick, or shift into less lethal but more contagious and chronic forms. One of the reason why Malaria was and is so nasty is that it never goes away if you don't get the cure.

Maybe a couple of them could do it. Several different diseases, each hammering the population like what happened to the indigenous population of the Americas.

This reminds of an ex-national security guy who argued that scaling back human space exploration after Apollo doomed civilization, because we'd never have off-world colonies in time before the genetically engineered plagues wiped us out. Bit crank-ish, but it stuck with me for a while.

11:

Yes
Something that eats chlorophyll would do it.
As well as something that kills off all the bees ( Idiot agribusiness has already tried this one, but it looks like they are failing, fortunately )

12:

Sulfur-reducing bacteria is a BS. There's not enough sulfur in the water to produce enough hydrogen sulfide.

And anyway, H2S is easily oxidized so it won't accumulate in significant quantities until most of atmospheric oxygen is depleted.

Also, sulfur reduction can't "just happen", it needs an electron donor. In the deep ocean it's provided by free hydrogen from the deep sea vents and on the surface by decaying organic. But this organic has to come from somewhere.

13:

Likely mechanisms for wiping out the human race completely seem to me to need a sequence of unfortunate events. So, something like --

* Global warming impacts agricultural production, leading to increased
food prices and local famines in vulnerable parts of the world.

* Leading to civil protest (cf. Arab Spring) and destabilization of
affected states, civil wars and terrorist movements.

* Leading to a refugee crisis many times worse than anything we're
seeing currently.

* Rich countries react by closing their borders and attempting to oard
resources for the use of their own citizen. This results in a
polarization of the human population between the 'haves' and the 'have
nots' which is expressed mainly as a terrorist campaign by
increasingly indoctrinated and extremist groups.

* Even in the rich west, the effects of global warming and the financial
strain of combatting terrorism stress the economy, and it's easy for
demagogues rise to power by blaming everything else on the 'swarms' of
'foreigners'. The West fragments into a group of mutually suspicious
factions incapable of effective cooperation, but pragmatically they
still all trade together and there is still significant global travel.

* The first knockout blow is a plague. Either natural (eg. a new flu
strain) or engineered (by fanatic terrorists) with a mortality rate
somewhere around the 1918 Flu pandemic.

* Amongst the 'have nots' the already weakened populations collapse.
What civil society remained is destroyed and most countries descend
into anarchy. Consequently the refugee flows increase hugely further
escalating general global conflict.

* Amongst the 'haves' the plague spreads rapidly via air travel. In a
desperate -- but too late -- attempt to limit transmission, the
various cliques of 'have' countries implement swingeing restrictions
on travel between and in some cases even within their territories.
This is a cure worse than the disease, leading to economic collapse,
massive inflation, disruption to food and fuel distribution networks
resulting in regional famines, civil disorder and internal refugee
flows.

* Relations between the mutually distrustful 'have' blocks further
deteriorate, resulting in a long series of wars, destruction of global
trade and further spread of civil disorder, anarchy and the collapse
now of many of the 'have' states.

* The remaining 'have' states are now isolated islands in a sea of 'have
nots'. Most of the 'have not' populations die off due to starvation,
disease and violent conflict.

* One by one, the remaining 'have' states crumble under the combined
stresses of internal disorder and external refugee flows. In the end
most of the world starves and the remnants inhabit a post-apocalyptic
wasteland where small pockets of 'civilization' attempt to preserve
some remnant of society, but these are largely reduced to circa 18th C
levels of technology.

* Then the Yellowstone Supervolcano errupts...


14:

As I understand it, Homo so-disant sapiens has been on the verge of extinction before, though AFAIK not through his own fault. Bottleneck event and all that. Yes, extinction would be asymptotic to the axis: pretty easy to off the first few billion of us, it's already underway, but to off the last few thousands, not so much. So we would bounce back, bust and boom, obviously with some characteristic selected for via variant survival. I'd love to know what heritage the post-bottleneck species would share, but I don't expect to see it. Even were I a young man, I'm just not the survivor type. To vary a Woody Allen joke, my designation is "packed lunch".

15:

Typo, "soi-disant".

@Matthew, it may have been Dr. Johnson who said, "There is a lot of ruin in a country". I think it's generally slow, unless you've murdered Chingiz Khan's trade embassy. The so-called fall of the Roman Empire can be regarded as a process of transformation from one type of society to another. From one PoV it was a back-to-the-land thing, replacing cities surrounded by slave plantations with what we now know as the village. But stuff like that makes for less good generic fantasy, doesn't it?

16:

The problem with that scenario is that it takes a long time for new tech to get everywhere.

Even if you wiped out all the industrialised countries there would still be a lot of people left over, and then there are really isolated groups like the sentinelese.

17:

Half a dozen engineered infertility diseases? Using different pathways so no-one is immune to them all. People aren't dropping dead so they keep moving around and spreading them. If they have a latency of a few years you wouldn't even notice the birthrates dropping until it was too late.

18:

If you're releasing the IL-4 bioweapon as a bioweapon, you keep topping it up. Ideally on automatic.

If you can release it as an aerosol, you put it in solar-powered drones (for the range) in bases scattered around the continents with a moderately dumb AI that tell them to look for radio signals and heat sources and scatter from each other and launch monthly for a year say. You have enough of these to do double redundancy over the globe and you'd probably get a pretty good attempt at global human extinction.

I'd probably mix it with one or two other things, just in case, in every spray. If you use a pox virus, then maybe an adenovirus and an influenza virus (just normal influenza, you don't even have to get one of the nasty ones if you can tweak the adenovirus to be immunocompromising too).

19:

I'm inclined to agree, at the moment, unless we have a biosphere killing event like "eats the grass" we might need two events to extinguish the human race.

The question is, really, is climate change already one of those? It's changing a lot of environment so is it going to change the habitats where remote groups that might be otherwise protected from famine or pestilence would survive to the point where they can't cope with the changes? It's not that humans in general can't cope but if you've got a culture that's survived largely out of contact for centuries and then the plants and animals you've lived on for all that time go extinct how well does your culture do? There's plenty of evidence specific human tribes died out after all.

One I'm surprised hasn't come up is an oil/petrol degrading bacterium. It's a good source of CH, it's stored in contact with O2, you can grow various bacteria in far less promising circumstances than that. One of my former lecturers used to culture cyanobacteria, mostly by getting distilled water and inoculating it with whichever strain she wanted to grow. Put nutrients in and other things would out compete them.

But oil and it's products are ubiquitous and the bacteria could spread like... wildfire seems like so much the wrong word. How many parts of the world are really not touched by an oil & petrol driven supply chain? How quickly could we adapt? And all it needs is someone looking at developing a plastics degrading bacteria who doesn't get it quite right...

20:

Well, we're not totally incapable of addressing long-term issues: http://gizmodo.com/the-ozone-hole-is-finally-healing-1782885459

The question is establishing the existence of a threat and motivating enough of humanity to address it. I agree the most likely road to an extinction-level environment is a combination of un- or under-addressed recognized issues with one or more novel threats appearing on top. Even then, due to our infestation over most of the Earth's surface, you'd likely not wipe out all of humanity, but you could have a good go at destroying civilization as we currently experience it.

When I was a young lieutenant, I was charged with designing a missile warning system of systems that would work THROUGH a massive nuclear exchange. Thankfully, we've stepped back from that particular precipice of MADness (excuse the small pun). Hopefully, we can exercise at least that much good judgment as future challenges arise.

21:

Short of global (or even solar system wide) disasters that there is no current or near future possiblity of doing anything about (and there are some):

I occurs to me that genociding the whole of H. sapiens can only be achieved by doing something rather massive, and deliberate. Biological weapons don't cut it because of natural immunities.

One possible scenario: Find a massively unstable geological area, such as an active plate boundary's most active zone; I'm not a geologist, but perhaps the area of Iceland or the Kamchatka peninsula. And whack the antipodes of that area with a really big asteroid; something the size of Eros, say. (Make sure the rock is suitable, i.e. solid and made of strong materials.) The earthquake waves refract around the Earth and converge on the desired site, adding a major volcanic event (Deccan Traps scale) to the chaos caused by a billion-megaton impact.

Should be good for a few decades of nuclear winter, and then you add a GM superbug to the mix. Of course, this requires a group that is both insane (perhaps based on some sort of apocalyptic religion) and has the resources to actually carry out something like this. There isn't such a group. Yet.

22:

I'm not entirely sure there is any current human way to cause complete extinction of human kind. By which I mean reduction of all human groups and populations to a level so low that there are insufficient survivors close enough to meet and form small communities large enough too be genetically sustainable.
As to do that it is not sufficient to eliminate the so called civilised societies and populations but the extinction event would have to be capable of spreading out to every remote society on earth, including the various uncontacted or rarely contacted tribes in places like the Amazon and New Guinea or isolationist communities.


With regards to biological weapons the biggest "quick" threat would probably be an airborne virus with a fairly long latency or incubation period after exposure, with initial symptoms similar to a common cold or flu. A latency/incubation period in weeks or months would allow the virus to spread widely and deeply into most populations around the world, before raising the alarm. However such a virus would likely need to be actively spread.


Another nasty option would be a two stage weapon, a slow non-lethal latent virus that primes the immune system and then a second rapidly spreading agent (virus or bacteria) that is lethal in combination with the first.


Also airborne viruses are likely to have a limitation that if you can survive the first few years or so it's likely that any remaining virus is inactive (it's wiped it's self out and been degraded by the environment) unless it can find a carrier organism to act as a reservoir.


The problem with biological weapons for a complete extinction event is that they mutate and generally to a less dangerous form, which may provide immunity to the lethal version.

23:

As Ludwig @14 points out again, Charlie's premise is that it's very much different to think about events that would kill 50%, 90% or even 99.99% of humans, or about true, the full 100%, extinction events. It's not that hard to come up with a sequence of events that will result in mass deaths. My favourite: global warning, in combination with population growth, resulting in global food + water + resource scarcity, resulting in several wars, eventually including one involving nukes - easy.
If we start with something like that, the hard part is coming up with the final blow that will wipe the planet clean of the last human survivors and is plausible too. We might have the technology to do this on purpose, but that's so braindead that it's not very plausible. For this last part at least, we should look for paths that are either at least partly accidental, or not even our own fault at all. That last category isn't something that Charlie appears to be interested in; some examples that are in scope:
- Leftover/out-of-control autonomous war robots hunting down the last survivors (yes, Terminator).
- Likewise, but by our future pet dogs, genetically modified to be more intelligent and have the power of speech (inspired by 'City' by Clifford D. Simak, but with a vengeance).
- A technological 'fix' for climate change that backfires, although that would have to be a real serious fuckup to result in full extinction, like in 'hey, where did the atmosphere go?'

24:

I think that "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation" is Adam Smith.

25:

Many more scenarios become plausible if the human population is homogenised first. Right now there are weird mutations and quirks of all kinds that would reduce the effect of megaplagues or civilisation collapse. It seems that a precondition for a 90% plus death toll is that we take globalised culture much further (to reduce the cultural pockets of difference) and also implement large scale eugenics (to remove "harmful" mutations as a matter of course from being grown to term). I'm not convinced either is going to be successful enough in the next century or so. Universal exposure to something cheap that is slowly toxic, suggested by April_D above, is perhaps the most likely such homogenisation, but in itself it seems unlikely to be as destructive because some people are likely to succumb much faster, providing canaries before we go all the way into the coal mine.

Therefore for a truly serious effect, I think the most likely is a true externality, like a massive planetary body collision, alien attack, or something that has not even been posited among the usual risks.

26:

I strongly believe that by the end of this century a positive-growth learning pattern AI with supercomputing resource access would have the capability to make humans extinct if it could conceive it. Due to the inherent issues in understanding/trying to think as someone qualitatively smarter than myself, I have no idea if extinction as a goal could exist for "Skynet" (and I dearly hope that some morality is inherent and/or emergent with intelligence, and that we would not be considered immoral), but between automation of production chains, drone warfare and networking capabilities even small tribes in remote reaches of the world could be eliminated.

In short, the Terminator scenario seems quite doable, only without any possibility for resistance. Executed correctly it would not be a gradual process but rather a swift and final short action.

27:

Oddly enough, we - the deep geeks of the London SF fan group - were discussing this in the Tun last night.

Google for 'Airborne Rabies Vaccination Test, Texas' on someone else's PC.

Not apocalyptic, but potentially very, very damaging; and this type of dangerous experiment was surprisingly common during the Cold War. Nowadays it's all "What do you mean, the *control* killed all the mice?" and "How embarrassing".

My own view is that we can be sent back to the Stone Age by a sophisticated and persistent attack with multiple biological agents, but not exterminated as a species.

Meanwhile, something very bad is happening with Wheat Blast: it's just as well that Britain's a member of a continental union with a strong agricultural policy.

28:

Not at all.

Higher temperatures and more CO2 drive higher surface level productivity - made worse by large influxes of nitrates and phosphates from agriculture. The death of these organisms increases the demand for oxygen in the underlying water. Eventually you get anoxic or euxenic conditions which help drive phosphorus out of sediment sinks and back into the water column to drive yet more surface productivity. Before you know it you've got a Black Sea.

As for a lack of sulfur in seawater. The not a problem getting hold of sulfur in the oceans. Bacteria can either metabolise sulfur from decaying organisms or obtain it from sulfates precipitated out into sediments.

Lots more here in a relatively accessible paper - Meyer and Kump are well-regarded in this field:

http://mistersyracuse.com/mistersyracuse/Research%20Papers/oceanic%20euxinia%20in%20history.pdf

29:

Quite right. I was assuming in my first post that the extinction event being discussed was something that might be avoided. There are many things, all of very low probability, that could sterilise Earth or even the entire solar system.

But there is no point in worrying about something that a species limited to one planet couldn't avoid. (Except that dispersing a reasonably large number of humans around the solar system does protect against some of them, in terms of keeping H. sapiens as an extant species.)

Non-survivable events include:

Collision with large asteroid or dwarf planet. (If something perturbed the orbit of Pluto enough to make it an Earth-crosser, then it's game over.)

Arrival of large planet, brown dwarf or stellar remnant that is currently touring the Galaxy. Something Jupiter-sized or larger careering through the solar system would disturb the orbit of most of the planets, most likely.

Alien invasion or Berserker probe.

Nearby supernova; this is not going to happen for several million years, since there aren't any suitable stars close enough. Betelgeuse isn't close enough.

GRB or magnetar blast that happens to have its beam pointed in our direction.

Finally, the biggie; false vacuum collapse. No picking up anything from that, with physical laws changed in an unguessable way.

Actually, not quite the final one. The final one is "something that our science as of 8/7/2016 hasn't thought of yet".

30:

IIRC the population of what is now England and Wales is estimated to have been something like 4 million during the peak of the Roman Empire. Plague and the departure of the Legions around 400AD cut that by at least half. It didn't recover until about the beginning of the 13th C, then it dropped again by 1/3 due to the black death and didn't hit 4 million again until around 1600. Collapse of empire and plagues run riot can wipe out a lot of citizenry pretty handily.

Of couse, this was all in a pre-industrialized world.

One other salutary statistic to consider is that a large modern city like London or New York typically has only about 3 days worth of food on hand to feed its population. It needs a functioning transport system just to avoid starvation. And a functioning transport system needs a functioning fuel distribution system, which needs functioning international trade and finance. Everything being globalised and interconnected nowadays means we're just so much more exposed to disruptive events.

Sure, a 13th C. farmer in England might consider himself lucky to have avoided dying of plague, but he didn't then have to worry any more than usual about where his next meal was coming from, or how to keep his house warm, or pillaging of his crops by displaced and starving town populations.

31:

How about some confluence of intentionally hostile (non-sentient) AI linked to a Von Neumann drone-building programme using whatever drone tech matures into in the next few decades? Perhaps originally programmed to target non-white folks, but glitchy natural learning extends to all humans. Focuses attention on locations or areas that can specifically support human life (so no tree-tops, glaciers and ice sheets, deep oceans etc). Eventually, even hideouts in bunkers come out sometime.

In reality the biotech threat is probably the scariest, though.

32:

Lack of oxygen? Pshaw. Let's try too much oxygen.

We'll start with attempts to repopulate fishing areas by dumping iron sulfate in the ocean to induce phytoplankton blooms. At the same time, posit a bacterial engineering effort on the part of fuel companies trying to digest carbohydrates into methane or longer hydrocarbons. Both of these are plausible now, so let's add one fictional element: a methane producing microorganism which is both oxygen-tolerant and edible by zooplankton.

Now we have a potential runaway reaction in the ocean where we have fish, zooplankton, phytoplankton, and increasing levels of both oxygen and methane, suitable for bringing us into a new Carboniferous era.

33:

If you want the extinction of HSS on a short timescale, we Transhumanists are working on it.

34:

One thing to remember here is that humans are quite large animals with long reproductive cycle, i.e. precisely the qualities of animals that go extinct when things go wrong. And indeed we nearly went extinct before.

All we need to go extinct is sufficient deterioration to where the technological progress is reversed for some time. All out nuclear war could very likely do it, a plague can certainly do it (happened to other animals), global warming (with it's political consequences) could do it, a super-volcano could do it, and so on.

It seems to me that everyone here is looking at our apex predator status and imagining that it implies being extinction proof, whereas in fact the apex predators are the ones that go extinct most easily, especially on land.

35:

Ohh and keep in mind that a nuclear war is unlikely to be followed by kumbaya and everyone getting along, but instead would include literally everything that anyone listed in this thread except maybe the rogue AI.

36:

To Alex:
What would you need to have a stable sulfur cycle (vs. the present carbon cycle)? I'm thinking that it's not necessary to have an insane amount of sulfur in the atmosphere or water/oceans to kill off humanity, just enough sulfur to mess up the carbon cycle producing a new (fatal-to-us) equilibrium.


Immune diseases are on the rise ... or at least more of the population is surviving other diseases/conditions so that immune diseases are being diagnosed more often. Throwing more diseases at an immune system probably could result in most people ending up being killed by their own immune system over-reactions (SARS?). Biggest problem with treating IDs is that the treatments that work best are more sophisticated (expensive). Also, such 'treatments' are not 'cures'. Speaking as a non-scientist, I'm aware of only one 'cure' for immune diseases, i.e., bone marrow/peripheral blood stem cell transplant.


If your evil madman has the patience, a genetic/strongly heritable disease like Huntington's would probably work best. The first couple of generations probably wouldn't even notice there was any problem. Once started, such a disease would worsen (be amplified) with each generation. (E.Coli as vector.)


Internet ... how much of what we know is being stored online and retrievable only via the Internet? Lose the Internet and there goes most of today's scientific knowledge.


Fracking ... water table toxicity. Have been wondering what interesting chemical reactions we should expect with continued fracking, especially once this contaminated water meets produce/grains. How much of our food production (produce and farm animals being fed tainted grains/water) would we lose?


Octopus last flourished during the Ordovician period which surprise, surprise! had warm, rising oceans. If octopus' reproductive strategy changes so that they survive mating/reproduction, they'll become the next dominant sapients.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordovician

37:

The counterpoint is that if you can keep some type of logistical system open (and countries can usually do this even under duress - look at the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in World War 2), then you've got a massive advantage over the pre-industrial farmers because you can ship food all over the place. The 14th century farmer might have been able to restart food production on his own, but if his crops failed then he either starved or moved. If a whole region had a crop failure, he just starved outright.

@EI

That would do it, but it's also a much more massive effort in terms of resources and organization than simply engineering a doom virus in your maker lab. It makes it easier to find and stop, sort of like if a terrorist group tried to make a nuclear weapon.

38:

With respect to nuclear weapons, I'm curious if you've looked into Dr. Alan Robock's models of nuclear winter over the last few years (http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/pdf/RobockNW2006JD008235.pdf). A full scale nuclear war between Russia and the US could cause global temps to plummet as much as 20 degrees C, for as much as a decade or more. That would kill most people on earth (suddenly global warming doesn't seem so bad :-/). Even a small-scale nuclear war between India and Pakistan is expected to kill 1 billion people around the world. (Note: If I recall right, we consider a full-scale nuclear war to include about 1,000 nuclear weapons, and today, the U.S and Russia have about 7,000 each. And there are roughly 15,000 worldwide. That's plenty to kill us all.)

MIT physicist Max Tegmark also worked with MinutePhysics to create the following video explaining why nuclear weapons could lead to human extinction (or at least send us back to the dark ages): http://futureoflife.org/2016/03/29/nuclear-weapons-the-uber-bad-to-the-really-really-bad/.

And while a nuclear war may or may not be likely, we're all apparently more likely to die from an existential threat than a car crash (though this includes natural xrisks, as well): http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/04/a-human-extinction-isnt-that-unlikely/480444/.

As far as other manmade risks, superintelligence and geoengineering to counter climate change are two that come to mind. An electromagnetic pulse is natural, but could significantly damage the global electrical system to plunge us all back into the dark ages.

In any case, we should be careful claiming that nuclear weapons aren't that bad - it'll make it harder for us to get rid of them!

39:

I think that "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation" is Adam Smith.

Yes, that sounds right, better than Johnson. Too sanguine for him perhaps.

40:

True, but then a century ago hardly anyone even seriously contemplated the possible existence of global problems requiring global cooperation for their solution (and amenable to solution in the first place). Not only is the nature of the notion of anthropogenic climate change unprecedented, but the social conditions that provide both the possibility and the cause of the existence of that notion have been around for less than two hundred years. Certainly extrapolation from lesser problems suggests that we'd probably be shit at it, but it also suggests that we'd somehow bumble through eventually, albeit in a distinctly suboptimal manner.

Actually, good ol' Svante Arrhenius came up with his "greenhouse law," which we still use today to describe how the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere affects atmospheric temperature, in 1896.

1896. That was 120 years ago.

That was before industrial civilization truly switched onto using petroleum as our key resource.

He was ignored, as were all the people who warned against rebuilding civilization to depend on petroleum, on the basis that it was known to be a finite and non-renewable resource even then.

Now I'm on record as supporting the idea that our species will survive climate change, so I don't think our general ignorance of climate change theory and practice is a forecast of our doom. However, I do think it's a rather nasty indictment of our collective fecklessness as a civilization.

41:

Advanced AI is the most plausible human extinction event.

Moderately plausible include:
1. Discovering new, highly energetic physics or methods of black hole creation. [Had a daydream once where the frequency of quasar creation was related to the attainment of technological civilization.] There was at some point difficulty determining whether bound or unbound quarks were energetically stable.
2. Plagues. Personally, I'd design something to spread through birds and another through cockroaches. I'd guess that, if the plague was non-fatal to the primary carrier and only fatal to humans, there wouldn't be much selection for nondeadly plagues.

Unlikely to be actually fatal, but still pretty bad:
1. Good news. We've developed a gene drive technology and implemented it in a mosquito. That mosquito is male. It will have nothing be male babies. And those male babies will have 2 copies of the above gene. Congratulations. The gene is ridiculously favored, even if the male mosquitoes are not. Release a few of these mosquitoes and you've wiped out malaria, and Zika, and basically every mosquito-born contagion. The technology isn't hard - so someone will do it in their garage-laboratory eventually.

Oh. Bad news. Flying syringes. Who could have known the drive could jump species? Well, just insect species. On the bright side, there are no more cockroaches... Or bees...

2. Bored graduate student says oops. Bear in mind that, a decade back, a guy I knew pawned off on a first-year student, a project to make air-stable aids dust. (The project wasn't interesting enough.) [The idea is that the outer shell of elboa was air-stable and infected every cell in the body. They wanted to study AIDS expression in cells other than immune system cells. It wasn't at all weapons work. But, it would have made a lovely terror weapons or a useful CIA tool.] Now, understand that stuff like this has become a lot easier.

Completely guaranteed, but maybe not exactly extinction:
1. Welcome to Babies 'R' Us. I assume you'll want the standard package - genius level IQ, cancer nigh-immunity, 150 year lifespan, no obesity. This year, the nightvision augment is very popular - don't want your baby getting scared in the dark.

Just remember to tell them not to breed with anyone with a version 1.4.3.2 or lower genome. Particularly unmodded homo saps, they're closer to chimps than your kid. It isn't much of an issue. They're practically extinct anyways.

42:

There's one key thing to separate out: species from culture.

Our species is unusual in the degree to which culture shapes our biological interactions with the world, and I think there's good evidence that humans cannot survive without having a culture, and all the learning that goes along with it. It literally reshapes our bodies, and allows us to become functioning adults. Babies deprived of massive amounts of interaction with other humans die, even if they're properly fed and otherwise cared for--they require interaction with other people to learn to be who they are.

That said, cultures do die fairly regularly. We've seen a big spate of that in the 19th and 20th Century with imperialist expansion pushing various indigenous groups onto reservations, killing their language, severing their ties to their land (which are often embedded in both their language, technology, and culture), and forcing them to live as rootless refugees. Since none of us are stone-age hunters and gatherers, I'd suggest that all of us have ancestors who survived the death of their culture. It's horrible, but it happens.

When we talk about the collapse of global civilization, the biggest loss is the loss of global consumerist civilization itself, the loss of our culture as members of a global civilization. That will be horribly traumatic, even if we physically survive it.

Many people (rightly) fear the collapse of global civilization, but they mix up the fear of loss of our culture with the fear of the physical extinction of our species. They equate the two in their minds, but they're quite different. People can survive the loss of a culture and go onto create a new one with whatever they have.

Worse, some people seem to think that, if our culture is doomed to extinction, then it's better if our species just goes extinct, because we're too evil/stupid/greedy/etc to live. This is wrong on so many levels that it's just not funny, but it motivates a lot of the discussion around everything from climate change to the US Second Amendment.

Personally, I think our global civilization, and the consumer culture it supports, is quite endangered, because it's based on too many non-sustainable premises and resources. Furthermore, I tend to think that moving towards sustainability will require a radical cultural shift that's effectively the loss of our consumerist culture. Consumerism is just not going to work in the long term, and most of us are scared of the alternatives (like, for instance, faith in the divine and an afterlife as a reward for suffering on Earth).

Unfortunately, because of the fear of loss of culture, many people, consciously or unconsciously, seem to equate moving towards sustainability with the loss of their culture, and the loss of their culture with the biological extinction of our species. As a result, they fight any attempt to move towards sustainability as if it's going to kill them. And that's a really, really big problem, because the more they fight, the more likely it is that climate change will kill them. That's why I think it's important to separate out the death of global consumer civilization from the extinction of our species. Losing consumerist culture won't kill our species, but clinging to fossil fuels and rampant consumer spending are fairly likely to lead to billions of people dying unnecessarily this century.

43:

I agree my ultimate doomsday approach is quite easy to find. But somewhere between the two it's probably overkill enough. And I wonder how hard that is to do?

You can buy a solar-powered drone. I've never tried programming one to fly and deliver a payload but I suspect it's not that hard.

You probably can't do it as a lone nutter but if you set up a revolutionary cell structure with cut outs once you've got the engineered bugs you can distribute them with instructions for culturing, plus enough money to buy the drones through the network.

Alternatively, if you want to go it alone, you set up a doomsday switch. If you don't get a "hold" signal every 24h, launch anyway. As long as you aren't caught setting up the first few but you hit enough big targets (and you don't succumb to the diseases yourself) you can put the rest out in the panic as the first wave hits.

44:

How about bombing a few hundred gigatons of Methane Hydrate from the oceans into the atmosphere for a run-away greenhouse effect?

45:

A bit of an epicycle of your idea, but what about an inadvertent binary poison or sterilisation agent? One chemical's active, the other blocks the catabolic pathways for disposing of it. (Supposedly a lot of inadvertent overdoses are related to acetominophen/Paracetamol/Tylenol's ability to hack the liver, though also it triggers overdoses because it has a low LD50 and people may take multiple products in which it's a player or adjunct without knowing that it's in any of them. The diabetes mainstay metformin is also hepa-active....)

46:

Actually, Bruce Sterling got to your last point awhile ago. Published it in Nature, even:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v402/n6758/full/402125a0.html

47:

He was ignored, as were all the people who warned against rebuilding civilization to depend on petroleum, on the basis that it was known to be a finite and non-renewable resource even then.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't they argue back then that by projection of trends, our cities risked being six foot deep in horse-apples? Which is non-negligible environmental hazard. So that petroleum seemed to offer a solution to the late-Victorian doomsday scenario?

48:

Babies deprived of massive amounts of interaction with other humans die, even if they're properly fed and otherwise cared for--they require interaction with other people to learn to be who they are.

You know about Frederick II's experiment? According to Salimbene, anyway, who was not a sympathetic observer.

Wanting to discover whether humanity's innate language, which he must have thought was genetically encoded, see also Plato, was Latin, Greek, Hebrew or what, he ordered infants raised with the physical necessities but absolutely no talking or cuddling. They all died. Marasmus, we would say now.

49:

Methane clathrates. Currently frozen in the arctic, and under permafrost... that's melting. Arguments I've seen in the last dozen years suggest *huge* amount of it...

mark

50:

Destruction of the tiaga;start with a pine blight from invasive borers spurred on by climate change or maybe some pine virus revived from the permafrost. After that the kindling sparks up. Good news is that all the trapped methane is probably getting burned in the inferno, bad news is that there is a potentially globe spanning wildfire. May not be a full extinction event, but as close as I can think of that isn't on the usual list.

51:

The rules were "no technological magic wands," so that should rule out nanotech and AI, for the most part.

If we take it as written that a normal nuclear war would leave at least a few functioning cities (albeit at say the 1900 level of technology), and if we assume that no biological agent could be 100% effective (a few percent are always immune), that doesn't leave a whole lot.

So let's look at an abnormal nuclear war (think "Dr. Strangelove" and "On the Beach"). Suppose North Korea or some future Islamic State builds enormous fusion weapons clad in cobalt. They want to die, and they want to take everyone else with them. They don't try to deliver the weapons--they just blow them up at home and let the fallout do the rest. I figure you need about 50,000 tons of cobalt, if it's spread out evenly. (That would deliver over 10 sieverts to every square meter of planetary surface per year.) With a half-life over 5 years, that should be more than plenty.

The main failure mode would probably be failure to disperse it globally. Another possibility would be failure of the bombs to convert most of the Co59 to Co60.

52:

Re AI of the not-superhuman variety, the following recent paper has been making the rounds: Concrete Problems in AI Safety (June 21 2016)
It's an interesting survey of the ways that machine learning based systems can go wrong, and possible preventative techniques and remediations. The paper is straightforward but the fan-out to interesting references is pretty high so be warned that it is a potential distraction.
To the topic at hand, this would be good background for understanding how something like an autonomous military AI system (or civilian profit-maximer, etc) could go bad, even if not superintelligent. The example used is an office cleaning robot, but with a little imagination it can be generalized.

53:

I'm a bit cautious of this argument. I am not at all certain that a global consumerist society can't survive essentially indefinitely. It may be that the costs of basing such a society off of fossil fuel usage will be unsustainable. However, it seems reasonable to believe that, absent constricting government regulation, it would be perfectly possible to run such a society off of nuclear power for the next few thousand years.

The speed of action on global warming, as much as anything else, seems to be dictated by the tendency of both sides to treat it as a culture war. I've listened to plenty of friends complaining about ignorant rednecks denying global warming. And then, listened to those same friends prescribing the overthrow of consumerist culture, switching to hemp fabrics, using only renewable energy, eliminating nuclear power plants, and massively reducing the global population. Then, they'll plug their latest research project or green hobby. This isn't a position most people (particularly those in the population to be killed) will accept. On average, it probably doesn't even reduce carbon emissions. And really, people in developing nations will rightfully laugh at anyone telling them to go directly to renewable for baseline power.

Now, if they said: global warming is probably fairly bad. It might be terrible. Just out of caution, it'd be wise to switch our civilization over to being carbon neutral or negative for a while. So, in order to be minimally disruptive, we'll spend a few billion developing low pressure fission reactors. And also spend a few tens of billions developing a completely independent regulatory standard for low pressure fission reactors. We'll budget a fair bit of money over the years, but expect to make it back out of reduced costs from oil purchases eventually. In recognition of the risk associated with global warming, we'll institute a carbon tax/bounty, offering modest costs for venting carbon to the atmosphere and offering a modest bounty to nations sequestering carbon, until CO2 levels fall below xx. This solution doesn't cost anyone all that much. Yet, the environmentalists I know tend to favor plan A. Why?????

--Erwin

54:

Unfortunate founder effects. The modern environmental movement got started in the same time, the same places and the same social circles as the popular movement against nuclear weapons did. Being against nuclear weapons but for nuclear power is a perfectly logical position to have, but just being whole-sale against all things nuclear is a lot more straight forward, so a fair few people took up that crusade.

Then the anti-nuclear weapons movement largely lost. But the people agitating against civil nuclear power? They had success stories! and funding mysteriously available. So a lot of firebrands threw themselves into that cause.

And now organizations like Greenpeace can't back down, because to do so would be to publicly state that their entire life's work has been strongly net-harmful to the planet. So it's unthinkable, and any and all alternatives must be pursued.

55:

> Ludvig Holberg
> 14:
>
> [P]retty easy to off the first few billion of us, . . .
> but to off the last few thousands, not so much.
> So we would bounce back, bust and boom, obviously with
> some characteristic selected for via variant survival.

This is essentially the plot of Olaf Stapledon's _Last and First
Men_ (1930).

Stapledon (at one point, at least) gets the bottleneck down
to a biologically-implausible literal handful, but the bust-and-boom
show doesn't end until life in the solar system (not merely on
Earth ;-> ) becomes impossible as the result of the Sun
catching a disease that causes it to flare up malignantly.
Just when the civilization of the 18th Men had reached a height
beyond anything that had come before, too. And before it had
a chance to participate in galactic/Cosmical history as described
in the later _Star Maker_ (1937).

Bummer! ;->

56:

There are lots of possible variations on this scenario. E.g., it could well not be toxic in ANY concentration. Totally harmless. Except that even a small sliver can foster a colony of some lethal bacteria. Not just any lethal bacteria, but only some particular strain, so it's not discovered in testing.

Or it could catalyze the conversion of hydrogen peroxide to water so efficiently that the immune system loses one of it's major defenses. (Well, this one could be detected. But who'd look at a paint texturizer.)

Or it could interact with sunlight to catalyze production of Nitrogen Oxide...just about any of them. And not be easily poisoned.

Or it could be a cosmetic additive that's totally harmless to humans...but prevents reproduction of chloroplasts.

Or ...

The number of possible scenarios is essentially unlimited. Their common characteristic is an unexpected interaction that durable (i.e. a catalyst that resists poisoning).

57:

That's true. I think a disease that masqueraded as something harmless, but, say, included a genetic drive to, say, produce only sons might be more successful. Some people would want it even if they knew it was dangerous, and it would be awhile before anyone looked for it. In addition to which, when the population of adolescents was 75% or so male you could expect an unprecedented crop of wars to show up. (That's the traditional way for older males to eliminate the up-coming competition.)

Sterility is another option, but it would likely be detected more rapidly.

58:

Building "Enormous Fusion Weapons" is a non-trivial engineering problem. There is some (knowledgeable) speculation that some of the Pakistani test shots were failures (squibs); This is the most likely suspect culture (Apologies to the PC sensitivities out there), If they can' even get their Fission weapon engineering correct, even when provided with blueprints.... Just a very low possibility, and hopefully someone would notice the economic impact of such a program if nothing else.

And be a bit more pragmatic about our response to the threats. Most of the "Developed" (WEIRD)? world's problems are driven by the regulatory capture of our governing entities by the financial elites. I am hoping I am not being wildly optimistic that we will cure this situation without Great Deppression 2.0; Militarized Keysianism got the world out of the 1930's Great Econmoic Crisis. You just need a government able to Tax the elites to spend more than 2% of your GDP on your military, and keep some control of contractor cronyism. See India for a "Bad Example", but unless they have to fend of China, they have a pretty decent suite of capabilities.

59:

Whether a micro-organism mutates to a more successful less harmful stage or to and even more harmful stage depends upon it's life cycle, and especially on how it reproduces. It can go either way.

If it is spread by sneezes or personal contact it will tend to mutate to a less damaging form, so that the infected one will stay mobile and continue to infect people. There are, however, diseases that require the infected one to die in order for their next stage of life to happen. These tend to become worse. (And that's just an extreme case that's easy to talk about.)

Then consider Toxoplasma. This can grow in most mammals, but it can only mature in a cat. So if, e.g., a mouse is infected with it, it becomes attracted to the scent of cat urine, and tends to expose itself in light. The disease also infects people, and people who have the disease appear to behave more recklessly. They collect more speeding tickets, etc. If they were around lions, they'd probably be attracted to the areas where lions hunted.
Now the disease itself isn't harmful, it just causes people to behave in a reckless manner, and probably in a way that is likely to get them eaten by a cat. But people aren't even the real target.

So if a disease has a life cycle that results in increased success if it becomes more lethal, it will become more lethal. Common diseases don't, because we take obviously lethal diseases more seriously.

60:

So, do you think there might be a strain of Toxoplasma that causes humans to trust bankers?

61:

Everyone wants to go nuclear.

Here's the problems with nuclear power, in decreasing order of importance:

1. Politics. I'll get back to this.

2. Electricity can be supplied 100% with renewables, with a lot less handwaving. I'll get to this in a guest post on Sunday.

3. Proven reserves of uranium are fairly small and thorium is vaporware along with fusion as far as power generation goes.

4. Technology. Using current power plant designs and current known uranium reserves, we could provide global civilization with power.

Politics is by far the worst problem. It's not just Harry Reed blocking the construction of a nuclear waste depository in Yucca Mountain, although that's bad enough. Like waste is safer sitting next to the ocean at San Onofre or next to an earthquake fault in Diablo Canyon? That's one part of the political mess--we can't deal with the waste in a sane manner.

The bigger part of the political problem is that the nuclear plant operators seem to be untrustworthy on multiple levels. San Onofre was slated for closure after their newly installed turbines started vibrating themselves to bits. Why? Well, that's a hard one. According to my sources, the basic vibration problem has been known in the nuclear industry since the 1950s. However, the San Onofre operators contracted with Mitsubishi to build the turbines. Mits had never done this before, and sold them the faulty design, and somehow they didn't notice a flaw that had been known since the 1950s. The new turbines were originally intended to boost power by cramming more generators into the power generation unit, but the installation ended up being too costly to fix, so they decided to shut the whole plant down.

Do you want these people building power plants? I don't. But note, this is a political problem, not a technological problem. It's about lack of trust in the managers, not about technological barriers.

And it got worse, because the operators then cut a deal with their state regulators to shift the costs of shutting down the plant from the corporate stockholders onto the ratepayers (to me, in other words), so that they could keep paying dividends to their shareholders rather than hitting them up for the loss due to their totally preventable engineering errors. So hundreds of millions to billions of dollars are getting added to our collective power bill, and the whole mess is getting investigated.

That's the bigger political issue. At this point, I really don't care what kind of nuclear design some boffin comes up with. The people who would run the thing have proven themselves to be untrustworthy scam artists, and I don't want to buy power from them, especially given the politics of waste disposal. Add to that the fact that solar and wind are innovating at tremendously rapid rates, while nuclear designs are basically left proselytizing on the street corner with the other fringe activists, and I don't think nuclear power's got much of a future at the moment, at least in the US and probably worldwide.

62:

For a variation on the "leftover war robots" scenario you could think of Saberhagen's Berserker robots. (Or Stugeon's "There is no defense".) F. Herbert also alluded to this in, I think, "The God-Emperor of Dune" as the Ix-ians' "They can no longer make Arafel."

These are things we can't do yet, but I can imagine a doomed group plotting revenge.

63:

I'd be more interested in a strain that makes bankers believe they are faster and stronger than cars.

64:

At this point, I really don't care what kind of nuclear design some boffin comes up with. The people who would run the thing have proven themselves to be untrustworthy scam artists...

Applause. I am inclined to the same principle regarding any tech advance or fairytale cosmic project you can think of. Generation ships, spacecraft propulsion lasers, Dyson spheres, it's all going to be run by the sort of corrupt arseholes you're talking about. Why do SF iron dreams so rarely have their wonderful teleportation networks programmed by the likes of Microsoft? The bloody things just work perfectly. I suppose "The Fly" pointed in the right direction.

65:

The problem with micro-organisms: is there any record of a species that was wiped out by parasites or microbes?

I suspect that evolutionary dynamics and resistance would make any attempts to use plagues for killing off whole species impossible.

What usually kills off species are ecological competitors, either directly indirectly (incredibly successful species that makes a lesser species to road kill).

66:

What usually kills off species are ecological competitors

I may be mistaken, as so often, but I seem to recall reading (in early Dawkins?) that on the whole species do not compete with one another, they generally want different things. Competition is intra-species.

Re immunity: I've heard rumours of an African with a natural immunity to Hiv. If so, I guess he will have more than his share of descendants. This may be hushed up by vested interests who fear that mentioning this may lead to dancing...

(Reference to Anglosphere joke, Andreas, that I have heard told about not only priests and rabbis but also mullahs. Get'em all!)

67:

Have you been following the Tesla-SolarCity merger? As a potential consumer/user, this merger makes sense because I'd like to use the same solar/pv energy system for both home and auto.

68:

The trouble with this argument is we have incredibly poor records of how most species have gone extinct.

But, for example, we have reasonably compelling data that the Battle of Trafalgar was assisted by the fact that the French sailors were riddled with schistosomes (I'd have to look it up, but I think S. mansoni from memory) which reduced their ability to follow orders efficiently and their stamina. If we take that as true, how much of a load on a species would endemic parasitism of that type be but an ecologist would look at it and see "outcompeted by X" where X is some other big species in the same ecological niche. It would sort of be true, but only true for values of "outcompeted by X because it's immune to the parasite."

69:

Alas, there are still French around to pester the Brits, so I refuse to treat the battle of Trafalgar as an extinction event.

Even if there was a deadly parasite troubling the humans, I don't see a species to outcompete HS"S".
For that the competitor species would have to be able to fuck up our environment more efficiently than we can fuck up their environment – I'm sure you agree to the superiority of HS"S" in this manner.

70:

Well. Yes. Politics is the big problem. Still, I have this wishful thinking that people might come back to reality eventually.

I'm not so worried about plant operators - as - even at their current levels of competence, reasonable estimates are that coal kills about 4000X as many people per watt as nuclear. If we penalized coal the way we do nuclear, it'd be completely unsustainable.

Uranium/thorium reserves are essentially infinite. The 'proven' reserves stuff is not particularly relevant - as that is purely driven by current demand. The energy cost of extraction from seawater is much less than the energy provided.

Comparing thorium with fusion is not particularly accurate. One is a fairly straightforwards engineering challenge that may run into cost issues. The other requires either magic tech or ridiculously complex reactors. Assuming a sane engineer, the estimated cost to build a working thorium reactor is

Are there any convincing arguments against nuclear? Beyond NIMBY?

Wind simply doesn't generate enough power.

For renewables, there is plenty of solar available, particularly if you can figure out how to beam it back...that said, solar either needs serious energy storage or an alternate generator to cope with cloudy weeks. I'd argue that nuclear probably has a better environmental footprint (as in, more watts per square foot)

I've noticed that relatively poor countries (eg China, India) with energy needs have active fission programs. Areas trying to jump towards renewables appear to be those that can afford to humor silliness. That said, solar has a real purpose in countries poor enough that the infrastructure for fossil fuel use is unreliable.

--Erwin

71:

http://file.scirp.org/pdf/CWEEE_2013071113213239.pdf
We know how to blow up the sun.

It is well within our current technology to brute-force, just very expensive. But if you want a guaranteed 100% kill count, this is your method!

72:

I think you underestimate the effort China and India a putting into renewable energy.

73:

William Gibson's Jackpot? (The Peripheral).
Not a single massive event but just a concatenation of breakages and adverse biases.

The world is tough, but we don't have a spare to determine how tough with.

74:

In the biology community, the standard lesson is that the two main causes of extinction in descending order are habitat loss and invasive species.

Habitat loss is fairly obvious, because without sufficient habitat to raise enough young to hold keep the population steady over the long haul, any species will go extinct (that includes us, incidentally: the proportion of the Earth's surface that's favorable to our life cycle is rather small, and we get this weird idea it's bigger because we expend huge amounts of energy living in places and at densities that are suboptimal).

Invasive species can simply outcompete the locals, if they've evolved to do roughly the same thing more efficiently (typically island forms vs. imported mainland forms), if the invasive species are predators against which the locals have no defense (the Rosy Wolfsnail, introduced to Hawai'i as a failed biocontrol agent, is currently responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of extinctions of native Hawaiian and other snail species), or if it brings in new toxins (cane toads in Australia), or changes the environment by introducing new ecosystem processes (like nitrogen fixing plants being introduced to islands, goats being introduced where there were no grazers, or humans introducing frequent fires), and so on.

75:

China and India have a shortage of land it'd be a good idea to pave in solar panels.
Solar is going to be astonishingly huge.. in north Africa, Mexico, and the drier parts of the US south.
Because that is where the high-quality resource of sunshine + low marginal utility land is.

Last time I looked up the insulation, the difference was something like a factor 3 compared with, for example Germany. More importantly, the local demand for power follows conforms reasonably well to the amount of sun - which is just not the case further away from the equator.
It doesn't actually matter how cheap the solar panels get if they provide the most power when you need the least, and you would have to either wreck the micro-climate of your cities (Black rooftops : Not. A. Good. Idea. I totally agree we should use our roof spaces. We should plant things on them.) or pave over high-value land.
Wind is less problematic when it comes to land use - because you can farm the wind-shadow just fine, so a huge-ass windmill only uses up like 6 square meters of land. But wind needs enormous amounts of storage. Not that solved a problem.

76:

Yes, just think of how much fun Donald Drumpf would have selling shares in a Dyson Sphere. It would be yuge!

As for nuclear power, anyone who blows off dealing with its problematic politics, especially in 2016, is ignoring reality. That's really all there is to say about the subject.

If you look at the history of power in the US, we've built hydropower projects that returned cents on the dollar, and we're letting our coal industry die and our oil industry fall apart, even though we've got "proven reserves" (that's Drumpf-level sucker bait, but it's a term) that are among the largest in the world. These, in and of themselves, should convince any sane individual that politics matters more than rational planning, economics, or handwaving arguments about the innate beauty and infinite potential of any resource.

Well, actually, that last argument was used to built quite a lot of dams between 1920 and 1980, so I really shouldn't include it in the list. But you get the idea.

77:

Actually, you are absolutely correct. I got that backwards.

78:

China and India have a shortage of land it'd be a good idea to pave in solar panels.
Solar is going to be astonishingly huge.. in north Africa, Mexico, and the drier parts of the US south. Because that is where the high-quality resource of sunshine + low marginal utility land is.

Western China is very sparsely populated and has large sunny desert areas. Having to send the power long distance to the densely populated East is a bit of a problem, but that's what China was already planning to do with giant coal generating projects sited in the West.

India could produce more than 100% of its present annual electricity demand via solar PV* if it converted a third of its subsidized, groundwater-sucking sugar cane fields to solar farms. Of course that won't happen because of the political clout of cane farmers, but it goes back to the problem being politics rather than technology.

The critical question for solar-eating-the-world of electricity is how well storage** can increase scale and decrease costs. If affordable storage arrives then wind and especially solar PV are set to dominate. Solar is never going to be a great fit for Canada or Germany, but most of the world's population does not live at such extreme latitudes. Future growth in electricity demand especially is going to happen nearer to the equator. If storage progress stalls then I think that's the one significant niche left for nuclear power -- finishing the electricity decarbonization process after the low-hanging fruits of efficiency and opportunistic renewables use have been picked.

*A good rule of thumb for utility scale PV in reasonably sunny places: 10 megawatts per square kilometer, annualized real output. ~15 megawatts per km^2 has already been achieved with single axis tracking and efficient modules; 20 is easily within reach in the near future. But 10 is more realistic for a simple fixed tilt system.

**This can be cheaper thermal storage instead of electrical up to a certain level. Heating or cooling a big tank of water can bank energy for a few hours at a much lower cost than batteries, if you have significant energy demands for climate control in built structures (and most regions do). For purposes of cutting fossil consumption, increased interconnections and real time demand response also may do basically the same job as storage and at a lower cost.

79:

"One I'm surprised hasn't come up is an oil/petrol degrading bacterium."

Anaerobic diesel-eaters exist, and they are a pain in the arse on construction sites and suchlike places where diesel engines are operated and stored in non-ideal conditions. Small quantities of water accumulate at the bottom of diesel tanks, from such things as drops of rain getting in when you refill the tank etc. Diesel-eating bacteria then multiply in this water and form a gooey brown sludge that is extremely effective at clogging fuel filters to the point where the engine can no longer draw enough fuel to run.

80:

> Ludvig Holberg
>
> 64:
>
> . . .
>
> Why do SF iron dreams so rarely have their wonderful teleportation networks
> programmed by the likes of Microsoft? . . .

Or like the "technocore" in Dan Simmons' _Hyperion_?

Beware AIs bearing gifts! ;->

81:

>> 2. Electricity can be supplied 100% with renewables, with a lot less handwaving. I'll get to this in a guest post on Sunday.

I'm looking forward to that post. You're contradicting the likes of the late David MacKay and others who have looked deeply into the problem.

Renewables have a bigger political problem than nuclear, because they use more land area, and to get reliable supply needs investments of trillions of dollars ... and an outbreak of world peace. (Rather than (infeasible) storage, the currently technically feasible option is a world-circling super-grid, so energy can be moved from where the sun is shining and the wind is blowing to where the people are.)

Electricity is of course only about a fifth of the problem, to a first approximation. So, what about the rest of it? Another post?

>> 3. Proven reserves of uranium are fairly small ...

"Proven reserves" is an economic term. Proven reserves are deposits that company geologists have bothered to go out and survey and analyse and do the benefit-cost analysis and decide that the deposits can be exploited economically at currently prevailing prices with current technology and the current political situation.

So, once companies have done this for for about twenty years' supply, they stop work. There's no point doing spending any more money. Also, there are known simple enhancements to currently used reactor designs which makes fuel cost much lower.

tl;dr: Proven reserves are always going to be about 20 years of current consumption, give or take. The important figure is technologically extractable resources.

82:

"Svante Arrhenius... 120 years ago... He was ignored..."

Yes - that's pretty much a different view of the same point. Back then the very concept of a disaster that could bugger up the whole planet was largely limited to such things as God deciding it's time to end the world, science-fictional scenarios, astronomical catastrophes and the like - things that were clearly beyond any human capacity to affect and/or weren't real. Very few people entertained the idea that we might do it to ourselves or be able to take action to avoid doing it to ourselves, and those who did say that were ignored. It was the invention of the nuclear bomb that seems to have really allowed such a concept to become widespread... and it still didn't apply to climate; the standard climate worry always used to be that we were on the brink of another ice age until, er, Thatcher came along with ideas for reducing US trade dominance.

83:

"One thing to remember here is that humans are quite large animals with long reproductive cycle, i.e. precisely the qualities of animals that go extinct when things go wrong."

Two important additional qualities, though. One is the ability to see what's coming and make plans to do something about it. The other is ability to adapt on a much faster timescale than species that have to wait for evolution to do it for them - which is how we see this African ape colonising every kind of habitat from the desert to the pole, and succeeding at it for thousands of years without modern technology to boot.

84:

How about economic inequality leading to political and social upheaveal causing civlization to collapse?

We will soon have French Revolution levels of inequality as measured by the Gini Coefficient:

http://finance.townhall.com/columnists/politicalcalculations/2013/12/05/the-major-trends-in-us-income-inequality-since-1947-n1757626/page/full

In 1968, America’s Gini Coefficient was 35.

By 2015 it had grown to 49, a growth rate of 0.31 per year.

The GIni Coefficient in France in the late 18th century at the start of the French Revolution was 59.

http://www.piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/MorrissonSnyder2000.pdf

Only 10 points higher than it is now in America.

At our current rate of growing inequality we Americans should be storming the Bastille in only 32 years, by 2047.

The Tea Party revolt against the Republican elite is just the first rumblings. That they are being lead by Trump, a wealthy businessman turned demagogue, isn’t so odd when you consider that Robespierre was also a wealthy lawyer/businessman.

The 1% know this and are afraid.

Which is why they are buying up fortified homes and doomsday bunkers (at a time when mere violent street crime has fallen precipitously) like there was no tomorrow.

For them, there isn’t.

http://investmentwatchblog.com/elite-underground-bunkers-why-are-so-many-of-the-super-wealthy-preparing-bug-out-locations/

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-06-14/doomsday-bunker-billionaires

http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2013/11/27/billionaire-bunkers-beyond-the-panic-room-home-security-goes-sci-fi/

Those who fail to understand history are doomed to brepeat it

85:

Or maybe we are immune to extinction because we have already passed the Great Filter:

http://io9.gizmodo.com/5970501/the-great-filter-theory-suggests-humans-have-already-conquered-the-threat-of-extinction

After the formation of prokaryotes — about 3.5 billion years ago — nothing changed in the biological landscape for the next 1.8 billion years. Life in this primitive form was completely stuck. Imagine that — no evolution for almost two billion years. It was only after the endosymbiosis of multiple prokaryotes that complex single-cell life finally emerged — a change that was by no means guaranteed, and possibly unlikely.

And it's this highly improbable step, say some scientists, that's the Great Filter. Everything that happened afterward is a complete bonus.

86:

You're contradicting the likes of the late David MacKay and others who have looked deeply into the problem [of renewable energy replacing fossils].

I respect MacKay's quantitative orientation but there are issues that stood out when I re-read Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air earlier this year:

* His analysis is for the UK, which has below-average sunshine relative to the rest of the world, far above-average population density. Only maybe Bahrain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and South Korea have comparable-or-worse ratios of energy consumption per capita to renewable energy potential per capita. It is not analyzing a typical case among the nations of the world or even among developed nations.

* He includes the energy to ship manufactured goods to the UK from overseas in the energy requirements stack (chapter 15, Stuff). But in the same chapter he includes a domestic energy requirement to manufacture the same stuff that's being imported. The same problem happens with food two chapters earlier. If the UK is supposed to become an autarky to be sustainable, then it does need to produce all energy domestically but we can drop the overseas transportation energy. If it's not supposed to be an autarky then it makes no sense to e.g. produce energy in the UK to manufacture goods imported from China. This has a major impact on the full energy budget as Stuff is the single largest component of demand.

* Instead of using actual energy consumption per capita in building up the consumption stack, he estimates the use of a "typical moderately-affluent person", multiplied by the population of the UK to get national requirements. This includes assumptions that everyone drives a car 50 km per day with no passengers, lives in a house shared with one other person, and flies 10,000 km per year. These assumptions overstate average UK personal transportation energy requirements by about 2/3, and personal transportation is one of the biggest consumption chunks so an error here really matters.

* MacKay assumed that large scale solar PV farms would use 10% efficient modules, because only inefficient modules could become cheap enough. I don't fault him for failing to predict the future correctly but he did fail here. Nobody makes modules that inefficient any more; it turns out that the relatively fixed-per-unit-area costs of glass, racking, wiring, and installation labor lead to lower system costs with more efficient modules, at least up to a point. Even bargain Chinese-manufactured modules now have efficiency in the mid-teens. So MacKay underestimated the potential of solar PV by at least 50%, and that was the single largest element of the supply stack.

If you correct these issues -- assume 15% efficient modules for large scale PV farms, use actual instead of aspirational-lifestyle statistics about average behavior, and assume that the UK continues to import food and manufactured goods (and therefore doesn't need domestic energy for import substitution under autarky) -- then the reworked analysis shows: annual renewable energy potential in the UK easily covers annual domestic demand. Of course annual averages paper over the huge issue of storage. That's why I say that storage is now the make-or-break issue that determines whether renewable generation becomes the universal default or plateaus at a lower level.

87:

Can I just add in "Extinction by Lawyer" ?

Genetic engineering comes up with a way of improving the human genome, or say the genome of wheat. But the lawyers for GMO conglomerate don't like the sound of anything that breeds true, and insist on a terminator gene, negated by the addition of a drink/fertilizer spray that they make.

Then they go out of business and the IP case of who can manufacture grinds slowly through the courts ....

88:

Well, besides the obvious problem of massive flood basalt production, the permian-triassic time period had a particular arrangement of landmasses which screwed over the conveyor belt loops of oceanic heat and nutrient transfer.

It is literally impossible for such an event to occur right now, especially from something as banal as a few ppm of CO2, even a doubling of CO2 wouldn't begin to approach that sort of effect, though it would be a pain having to harvest all the extra produce I guess... 800~ ppm is good for plants, which is why actual greenhouses usually try to maintain higher CO2 concentrations. Though they aren't warmed by the CO2, just by preventing convective heat loss, but I digress.

If there is going to be an extinction event regarding the climate in the relatively near future, I'd be wondering when this interglacial is going to end, that won't be fun to live through. Complain about heat all you want, but a mile of ice sitting on top of you is a lot harder to deal with. Hopefully that won't be a problem for another thousand or more years though.

As for us doing it to ourselves, I'm still nervous about some sort of strong AI takeoff.

On the other hand, we could Huxley ourselves, I haven't tried one of the new VR headsets but they sound amazing in just their current state, I could see that being scarily addictive.

89:

Surely the way for the US super-rich to avoid heads on pikes is to help reverse the Gini-coefficient slide?

90:

Or maybe we are immune to extinction because we have already passed the Great Filter:

Does that mean I am immune to death because I successfully crossed the road last week?

91:

What are you, some kind of Godless Communist? They have that money because JESUS says they deserve it! The poor lack money for the same reason! You're talking about contradicting GOD'S PLAN FOR HIS CREATION!

And so on.

92:

Talking of going, or not ..
I'm reposting this from the "Constitutional Crisis" thread, as a matter of current interest - only - not asking for comments at present ....

"Constitutional Crisis" ?

Maybe not

Let's see, shall we?
If Leadsom wins, not a hope.
If May wins, I would bet on this one .....

93:

@ Heteromeles 76:

These, in and of themselves, should convince any sane individual that politics matters more than rational planning, economics, or handwaving arguments about the innate beauty and infinite potential of any resource.

I think that underpinning the arguments of the people you and I consider handwavers is something that BTW dominates hard SF – the assumption of a unified species actor. Mankind will do this, the Whatever Men will do that.

"Who is this we, kemosabe?" Faugh, there is no Humanity, there are only intra-species predators and prey.

Things are done because doing them will make some Rich Bastard (flashing on Austin Powers there) a fraction of a per cent richer, and if they cost him anything they will not get done.

I have always assumed that if an ELE rock is on the way, and somebody (now who exactly?) sends Bruce Willis out to blow it up, and Rich Bastard can make a few dollars by the equivalent of over-sanding the cement or scrimping on the O-rings, that is absolutely what he will do. Of course, this means he's going to die along with the rest of us, but he'll die with the most toys and therefore have won.

94:

Are you familiar with the christian hynm: "All things Bright & Beautiful" ??

There's this delightful little snippet, verse 3, if you are not:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

95:

Just want to point out renewables also include Electricilty and heat from Anearobic Digestion (AD) plants which have come on leaps and bounds in last few years and also take waste out of the equation - key benefits are these are base load replacing renewables as biogas is carbon neutral, storable, and works in the dark on a windless day. Also fuel for vehicle either as Gas or feedstock for hydrogen.

96:

I would say that if you want to look at how modern nuclear power would be treated "sans politics", you should look at modern China and Russia. Both are building new reactors and both tend to treat dissent against nuclear power as dissent against the state.

97:

I would say that if you want to look at how modern nuclear power would be treated "sans politics", you should look at modern China and Russia.

Well, politics in the sense of bureaucratic turf-wars will still be there. Politics in the sense of "What can I do to fuck over Comrade Ivanovich or Comrade Wang's career, even if it causes a meltdown and megadeaths?"

98:

Perhaps we should be grateful for nuclear weapons.

If not for nuclear weapons we would have fought World Wars IV, V and VI by now.

99:

Then again we were vary lucky not to incinerate the planet, avoiding nuclear annihilation both times by dumb luck.

We were lucky twice, saved on two different occasions by two Soviet officers.

During the American blockade of Cuba during the Missile crisis, Cmdr. Arkhipov prevented on his own initiative a Soviet submarine from launching a nuclear torpedo against an American destroyer

Col. Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Force all by himself prevented an accidental WWII during operation "Abel Archer". The senile Soviet leadership mistook this resupply exercise as a preparation for a first strike on the Motherland. They were in their bunkers under the Urals when Soviet computers reported that thousands of American missiles had been launched and were about to impact Soviet military and civilian targets. Petrov asserted that it was all a mistake, and Soviet forces stood down.

We almost destroyed the world twice, one by miscalculation and again by pure accident.

100:

Long familiar, and long annoyed at it.

101:

How about an existential death of the human soul (both literally and figuratively).

Should brain studies conclude that Free Will really does not exist, we must desparately pretend that it does:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

There’s No Such Thing as Free Will

But we’re better off believing in it anyway.

Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

So what happens if this faith erodes?....

This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?

In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out. Kathleen Vohs, then at the University of Utah, and Jonathan Schooler, of the University of Pittsburgh, asked one group of participants to read a passage arguing that free will was an illusion, and another group to read a passage that was neutral on the topic. Then they subjected the members of each group to a variety of temptations and observed their behavior. Would differences in abstract philosophical beliefs influence people’s decisions?

Yes, indeed. When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that “people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.”

102:

“people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.”

So what does this mean for society as a whole?

To quote from Tom Wolfe’s brilliant essay “Sorry but Your Soul Just Died”:

This is also known as the "ghost in the machine" fallacy, the quaint belief that there is a ghostly "self" somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations. ...

This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. ... Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What "ghost," what "mind," what "self," what "soul," what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? ...

A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?....

Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century "on the mere pittance" of the old decaying God–based moral codes. But then, in the twenty–first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of "the total eclipse of all values" (in The Will to Power). This would also be a frantic period of "revaluation," in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not."...

Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: "The self is dead" — except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: "The soul is dead." He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: "The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists." Unless the assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase "the total eclipse of all values" seem tame.

103:

There’s No Such Thing as Free Will

But we’re better off believing in it anyway.

But if there's no such thing as free will, we can't choose to do anything, not even believe.

This discussion has kicked me into visualising the population as a huge gas of state-transition machines. If a machine is fed "there's no free will", that will bias its behaviour so that it becomes less moral. When enough machines have been thus treated, the gas will undergo a phase change. To what...?

104:

Sorry — forgot that this commenting system doesn't carry italics across paragraphs.

[[ Added them for you - mod ]]

105:

Then again an intelligent species, the Neanderthals, has already been driven to extinction by us - and our dogs.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/03/150304-neanderthal-shipman-predmosti-wolf-dog-lionfish-jagger-pogo-ngbooktalk/

We did not directly exterminate the Neanderthals,though no doubt we killed some. Bit very few of their skeletal remains show the markings of projectile weapons like arrows, slingshot or throwing spears. Powerful, muscular Neanderthals were ambush hunters that preferred thrusting spears and killing up close - our species has always prefered to do our killing from a distance.

We did not interbreed much with Neanderthals either. We only have a tiny bit of Neanderthal DNA.

What we did was outcompete them for resources through superior weapons and our alliance with the wolf-dog. This being the first time in the natural history of Earth where two apex predators made and alliance for mutual benefit. From the link:

"They're large, have big teeth and all those predatory, dog/wolf characteristics. You have to assume from the anatomy that they could track very well from the scent of an animal. They were built to be fast running, as wolves and most dogs are. Humans don't run terribly fast. We have a crappy sense of smell. We do cooperate with each other, which is helpful, and we had long-distance weapons, like spears and bows and arrows."

"Neanderthals seem to have specialized in stabbing an animal at close quarters with handheld weapons and wrestling it down. We had weapons we could launch from a distance, which is a very big advantage. There's a lot less risk of personal injury."

"Add into that mix the doggy traits of being able to run for hours much faster than we can, track an animal by its scent, then with a group of other wolf dogs surround the animal and hold it in place while you tire it out. The advantage for wolf dogs is that humans can come in and kill from a distance. The wolf dogs don't have to go and kill this thing with their teeth, thereby lowering the risk of injury and death from very large animals like mammoths. For humans, it meant you could find the animals a lot quicker and kill them more efficiently. More food, less risk, faster."

The point made by the author is that Humans are an invasive species,like zebra mussels, we can go anywhere, adapt to any living conditions, survive and dominate any ecology.

This characteristic means that - short of a planetary collision like in the movie "Melancholia" - we will never go extinct.

106:

Susan Blackmore would disagree with the idea that disbelief in free will increases immoral behaviour. The link points to a draft of Living without free will, in which she describes her own experiments in doing so. See also "It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will":

It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said, “All theory is against freedom of the will; all experience for it.” With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.

107:

Susan Blackmore's "experiment" she performed on herself outside of laboratory and observational controls and relying on her feelings to measure results is hardly empirical evidence like the studies performed by Vohs and Schooler.

Besides, that fact that the occasional individual can function morally in the absence of free will is beside the point.

What matters is how the mass of mankind will behave, especialy in groups.

History is not encouraging on this point.

108:

There was a World War 3?

Actually, I do happen to agree with you on this one. Elsewhere I've mentioned what would have happened to the world had Operation Downfall, the US invasion of Japan to end WWII, gone forward, instead of those two atomic bombs. The thing most people forget is that the US caused more Japanese deaths through its firebombing of Japan prior to August 1945 than the two atomic bombs did, and even WWI-level industrialized warfare is capable of producing millions of casualties.

HOWEVER, and this is important, we've come pretty close to nuclear war a number of times since WWII. While we may believe that the horror of nuclear war has kept us from global conflict, in doing so we may ascribing rational motives to something that was far more akin to luck. It may be that we haven't had nuclear war simply because thoughtful and courageous people just happened to be in the right place at the right time to stop events from spiraling out of control. It's hard for me (at least) to tell, looking at what little I know of the record.

109:

tl;dr: Proven reserves are always going to be about 20 years of current consumption, give or take. The important figure is technologically extractable resources.

Yes. As the cost of extracting uranium from sea water is low enough, and as it can be done pretty much as long as sea water washing along coastal rocks continues to return the concentration of dissolved uranium to equilibrium, reserves are effectively infinite.1

(The current cost of extraction from sea water is $200/lb, which is a multiple of the 'proven reserves' extraction cost, but it's low enough to be only a small fraction of the generation cost and it's dropped a lot in just a few years. The power station construction and decommissioning costs outweigh it.)

1 It will run out eventually. When the earth's crust stops renewing itself, or the seas stop washing along the shores. The chances of our species lasting that long are low. Hell, I'd bet against mammals being gone too.

110:

There was a World War 3?

Not truly in this world, though you might argue that the fact the Cold War wasn't totally cold could make it count. (How many died in all those In a world where the threat of nuclear weapons wasn't there to stop the US and USSR and China all holding back? I'd go for WWIII being a near certainty.

111:

>> Or maybe we are immune to extinction because we have already passed the Great Filter:

> Does that mean I am immune to death because I successfully crossed the road last week?

I've frequently wondered why the assumption of one GF seems so prevalent. That we have passed those that might have filtered us out in the past says little about what's going to happen tomorrow and next year and all future time. Maybe we're talking about a whole stack of Great Filters.

112:

@Various, on free will

Funnily enough I am currently re-reading Dostoyevsky for the first time since my teens. And here is a spokesman for the idea that when people no longer believe in God, they go round murdering anyone inconvenient. I think most people would agree that in fact they don't. Whether from fear, remnant beliefs, the introjection of the parental veto, or pure ethical philosophies like Kant's, they just don't.

But on the other side, people who believe in God generally exhibit no better behaviour than that excitable Russian flake attributed to atheists. It's just that they have very different self-justifications.

I've lived in Africa, where atheists are unknown. And which is also the most unethical society I've ever encountered. Nobody could understand why I so refused to lie and cheat and steal, if I didn't believe in God. For the only reason not to was, according to them, that God might send me to hell. Did that stop everyone else? Not a bit of it.

Dostoyevsky was, when all is said and done, an ass.

113:

Hostile AI isn't on anyone's list.

114:

Hostile AI isn't on anyone's list.

I think we're all assuming it's going to retcon itself out of existence by sending more and more badly-programmed infiltrator units back in time to the wrong historical nexi.

115:

*non*-hostile ai would probably do for humanity, because it'd take a shockingly short time for everyone to abandon baseline humanity once that became an option.
But that probably counts as a technological miracle.

Things that might do humanity in:

Honestly, I'm not too worried about people doing it deliberately, because we have known ways to get that done for well over a century (... as a matter of principle, not describing the particular path I am thinking of in a context that might return as a result on a google search for how to destroy the world) and we're still here. What I am worried about are two things:

1: apocalyptic technologies coming into the possession of people who don't believe they'll do what it says on the label.

If you're a good enough biologist that you could design an extinction plague, you are also well enough informed that you know and believe right down in your bones that it would work. So you don't do it.

If technology delivers that kind of capability unto the script kiddies of the world, however, I think we're done for. Because someone who doesn't really believe it will work, or has faith god will intervene or whatever, will do it.

If a horn to usher in the apocalypse existed, and on it was written in the language of angels, which no mind may disbelieve or misunderstand that to blow it was to drown the world in fire, you could hang it on a wall in a museum, and to do so would probably be safe. Erase the inscription, and the world ends fast.

2: Accident. Fermi really worries me, because one obvious possibility is that one of the many, many experiments all technological civilizations undertake is energetic beyond prediction or belief. So I worry that one day the planet will just blow up. Not because of war, or malice, but because the laws of the universe turns out to be booby trapped.

116:

Actually, China has lots of land suitable for solar power. Most of it is a bit far North, however, and IIUK, nearly all of it is far from the sea. So they'd need to build some hefty transmission lines.

That said, nearly anyplace has enough space if they build a deck above the roads. And since it doesn't need to support a lot of weight, that "deck" could be basically a framework. You don't want enough coverage that you need to run lights during the daytime, so, say, half the space could be "open". And I put "open" in quotes because you don't want glare or lots of changes in illumination on the road below, so you need to put in baffles to diffuse the light evenly.

117:

If you're a good enough biologist that you could design an extinction plague...

1. Greg Egan had a short story about a godbotherer who taught himself biology in order to design a plague that would only infect sexually "immoral" people. Premarital sex would now be fatal. He visited a member of the Seamstresses' Guild, just to crow I think, and she was a better biologist than him, pointing out a particular miscalculation. I won't spoil it any further.

2. Who knew that when you banged two gerbils together in a rotating magnetic field, the world would end?


118:

As for storage of energy...some forms of solar energy are quite storable for periods of weeks. I'm thinking particularly of the molten salt approaches based around mirrors. This works best in desert areas near the equator, but doesn't seem to require actual tropic for usefulness. PG&E, IIUC, has such a plant in California's Mohave Desert.

That said, currently the molten salt is in early release, so one should expect problems to develop. And it's expensive. But it's potentially a fine supplement to solar panels. And expensive is a relative term.

IIUC, the current idea is the sun heats the salt which stores the heat at a high temperature until needed, and in use it is used to create steam which drives a turbine. How long a lead it requires I'm not sure, but it *sounds* like something that could be quickly put on-line or taken off-line.

119:

Re: extinction by lawyer
Patents are not universal laws. In particular, countries can decide to ignore any patents they choose to, if they're willing to pay the price in international relations, so...

Sorry, that's not an extinction event. In that case many countries would decide to invalidate that company's patents by decree.

120:

That's not "nuclear reactor policy sans politics", that's "nuclear reactor policy with different politics". Neither China nor Russia are run without politics, or even with less politics. It's just different, often worse at making decisions (consider Lysenko), and sometimes deadly.

121:

I find it less than clear that Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals didn't interbreed much...but I believe that there is reasonable evidence that there was a high mortality of the mother during child-birth due to the different shape of the heads of the babies. And in particular that Neanderthal women who bred with Cro-Magnon men usually (always?) died. I believe this to be the explanation of the lack of Neanderthal mitochondria.

It's worth noting that the genetic difference between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon were minor. Even out differences from Chimpanzees are small, and Neanderthals were extremely "much closer". This makes any assessment of the degree of interbreeding from the fragmentary evidence available dubious. And there's also the Denisovians, that we don't know much about at all.

It's my guess that at one point humanity was evolving towards being a "ring species", but that rapid migration aborted this, and a combination of random drift and selection lead to much of the genetic variation being removed. I doubt that either Neanderthals or Denisovians were ever properly a separate species from Cro-Magnon. They were clearly more different than even the extreme differences that exist today, but it's not clear how much more extreme. Pygmies are rather different from Nordics, e.g. But they are clearly the same species. But if all we saw were their bones, what would we think?

122:

This isn't even a question of atheism v. theism.

Atheists have always claimed that humans could be good and moral without God, and thus avoid nihilsm in an inherently meaningless universe be creating their own morality.

But what about without Free Will? That's a different thing entirely.

Without Free Will nobody can create morality or meaning, all that is left is abject nihilism.

And as those empirial studies I sited show, people who adopt the belief that Free Will is an illusion tend towards immoral behavior.

"Total Eclipse of all Values" indeed.

123:

I could have made a better reply, that's true. Not one of my best efforts.

It is Dostoyevsky who very much conflates (a)theism with the question of free will. He seems to stuff everything he doesn't care for into the same little bag and regard it as an organic unity.

124:

As for storage of energy...some forms of solar energy are quite storable for periods of weeks. I'm thinking particularly of the molten salt approaches based around mirrors. This works best in desert areas near the equator, but doesn't seem to require actual tropic for usefulness. PG&E, IIUC, has such a plant in California's Mohave Desert.

That said, currently the molten salt is in early release, so one should expect problems to develop. And it's expensive. But it's potentially a fine supplement to solar panels. And expensive is a relative term.

Are you thinking of the Ivanpah plant? That's the big concentrating solar thermal project in the Mojave. It wasn't built with any thermal storage. So it cost more to build than a solar PV project, isn't any better than PV at supplying power at night, and needs natural gas to warm up in the morning before it can start generating. It also consumes considerable water to drive the steam turbines like any thermal generating plant. PV, by contrast, needs no water for steam, generates as soon as it's illuminated, and actually works a little better when the modules are cold. CSP is also suited only for the sunniest areas, because only direct illumination works; light diffused through clouds that will still provide useful PV power can't get a CSP plant up to the minimum operating point.

The one CSP project with molten salt storage operating in the US is the Solana Generating Station in Arizona. It works, but the project generates less energy per unit of land area than a PV project can. It also cost more than $5 per peak watt to build; a PV project of similar scale could be constructed today for ~$1.50 per peak watt. A decade ago when even large PV installations cost multiple dollars per watt, concentrating solar thermal power looked like it could be cheaper than PV and offer storage as an almost free benefit. But today CSP with built in thermal storage looks like a dead end; the cost premium is just too high to compete with PV + other forms of storage.

125:

So far as I understand it, the notion that people of Eurasian descent have a few percent of Neanderthal is just that. It's not clear (to me at least) whether we all have the same few percent, although we might. 50,000 years is a long time.

My suspicion is that paleoanthropologists are splitters, and that they've over-defined the number of species. Evidence that our genome contains DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and in Africa, probably other extinct "species," suggests to me that the diversity we see in modern humans is actually a small fraction of the phenotypic diversity that existed 50,000-100,000 years ago. Our problem as moderns is that we think we're normal, when it's equally likely that we're a fairly small subset of possible human normal. Making up just-so stories of why we're here and they aren't is problematic.

126:

Everyone agrees that cats are beautiful affectionate loving little creatures whose ownership should be encouraged. If I ran the country, I'd not only annul Brexit, but also require every household to own a cat and train it to sit on the porch, so that postmen have something soft and lovely to stroke when recovering from the annoyance of trying to shove recalcitrant envelopes through those irritatingly stiff bristles.

But cats are chromatically grim. Oh, those drab blacks and greys and moggy browns. I want a pink tabby with scarlet whiskers, lime green eyes and whisker dots, sky blue claws, and a tabby 'M' picked out in blazing neon. Perhaps if cats had evolved fertilisation via insect pollination — surely less effort for the toms than their present rather brutal method — we'd have such splendours. But since we don't, how long before we can make a genetic plague that rejigs all cats to use flower pigments in fur rather than whatever they colour themselves with now?

I'd also like a genetic plague that transforms all plum trees (Prunus domestica) into greengages (Prunus domestica subsp. italica var. claudiana). Because plums are hard, tart and tasteless, whereas greengages are the nectar of the gods but never found in Tesco.

But when DIY synthetic biology and knowledge of the genomes reach the point where little Johnny can carry these out as part of his GCSE coursework ... could anything possibly go wrong? Could a world of Technicolor cats but devoid of plums lead to an anthropogenic disaster?

127:

light diffused through clouds that will still provide useful PV power can't get a CSP plant up to the minimum operating point.

I'm no engineer or solar-power maven, but I do know from personal observation that in southern Germany, almost every farm building has solar panels on the roof, and while the summers can be nice, much of the year is just... grey. Apparently solar still works.

Here in Norway it is much used for cabins, where people don't tend to be in the darkest time of the year. By February, though, there is plenty of insolation in the daytime, during which they charge batteries for the evening.

128:

If I ran the country, I'd... require every household to own a cat and train it to sit on the porch.

But could you train them to herd Tories?

129:

Except that is also bollocks.

"Free Will" in the pure, theological sense, does not exist.
OK
But neither does the alternative: Predestination.

The actual "answer" is somewhere in-between, but much closer to "free will" than p-d.

Nature or nurture?
Neither - a bit of both, actually.
Sound familiar?

130:

The USSAians have this problem too ....

Actually, BigSkyFairy or not, the extended-with-memory version of the Prisoners' dilemma shows why those actions are a bad idea.
People will, eventually NOTICE if you lie, cheat steal, etc & no longer deal with you, because you can't be trusted ....
One of the arts of successful politicians & lawyers is to do this WITHOUT being caught at it or having it noticed ....

131:

Getting back to scary bacteria land, here's a different critter (source is Gizmodo, so assume they got a lot of it wrong).

Anyway, meet Burkholderia pseudomallei, the cause of melioidosis. It gets into you when you sniff it in, and it can remain dormant for up to 62 years before becoming infectious, apparently. Or nine days. And they're thinking about turning it into a bioweapon somehow.

Anyway, soil bacteria and fungi cause some nasty diseases, which is the reason to keep the dust down by planting as many plants as possible.

132:

You have obviously never met a lilac-point Birman.
Plums: You have equally-obviously never eaten a "Victoria" plum (dribble)

133:

But could you train them to herd Tories?


Give me a representative population of Tories and a sufficiently large cat - panthera pardus at a minimum - and I'll give it the old school try.

Pay-per-view alone would pay the research costs.

134:

Since we're well past 100 comments I'll risk a semi-OT question for OGH (SPOILERS for The Nightmare Stacks): the elves appear to have had something analogous to the lone gene hacker/catastrophic plague scenario, in that any sufficiently insane magus could invite the nightmares in, and they've had the capability for (tens of?) millennia, yet have only got round to immanentising their eschaton in the last few centuries. Why the stability? (Loved the book btw).

135:

The Great Filter, in my understanding of the most common use, is called that because it consists of the composition of all the minor steps that an ecosystem must go through before it produces a "lifeform" that spreads sufficiently that losing its star won't kill it. Other uses have "becomes noisy enough in the EM spectrum that we can detect it".

In any case there's no one step that counts as the filter, it's only the composite, including, perhaps, the evolution of some form of photosynthesis, multi-cellular construction, etc.

So you haven't passed the great filter until you've moved out of solar-space, and perhaps not then if you move in the wrong direction and there's a gamma-ray burster.

136:

Thanks for pointing out those deficiencies in MacKay's work, Matt -- but what new information can Heteromeles add, now? :)

I would say, though, that MacKay is following convention in looking at the budget of a moderately affluent household. The standard expectation is for 2% per annum economic growth, so that the household of now + 40 years has roughly double the real income (and overall consumption) of today's household. That expectation may well be wrong, but that's a whole other basket of eels.

I agree that storage is the problem if you wish to dispense with fossil fuels and nuclear power for electricity generation. The currently feasible solutions involve large multinational grids, at least in Eurasia. At present those are not "robust to politics".

137:

O, dear. You're probably right, I was probably conflating the two plants.

In that case storage remains a really big problem. Pumped water works, but there's a big penalty. Somebody even thought the ideal method was to pull railroad cars to the top of a hill. Some places can do compressed air storage, but IIUC that works best if it's used as an amplifier to a natural gas burning turbine.

Perhaps efficient way of converting electricity to heat could revive the molten salt approach, but I expect conversion losses would kill that approach.

Ways of storing energy seem to be:
electric charge separation
thermal change separation
potential energy (i.e. gravititional charge separation)
pressure (i.e. a modified electric charge separation)

Are there any other ways? I don't think magnetic charge separation would work outside a very small scale. I don't want to get into the strong or weak forces.

138:

People who believe that "X" is a prerequisite for morality are quite likely to exhibit a moral wobble if given evidence that "X" doesn't exist. This doesn't show that "X" is a prerequisite for morality, just that some people believe that it is and act accordingly. If people believed eating eggs was necessary for morality an egg shortage would cause a crime wave.

139:

You'll see what I was thinking of tomorrow.

Seriously, though, thanks Matt (again!) for doing these analyses. I appreciate it.

140:

Use the electricity to synthesize something (like diesel, methane, ammonia, or hydrogen) that stores a fair amount of energy. Of these, I like ammonia the best, because it's got a similar energy density per volume to natural gas, it can be handled sort of like natural gas, it doesn't put carbon back into the air when it's burned, and we've already got a pretty good international infrastructure for handling the stuff.

A lot of people think using biomass or bio-diesel is a good idea, but all you're doing is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and then putting it back into the atmosphere. We need to get carbon out of the atmosphere and keep it out for awhile (centuries would be good).

Hydrogen is cool, but it's a nuisance to handle, it's got lousy energy storage per unit volume (it's great per unit weight, but compressed hydrogen isn't the most benign thing to work with). Worse, we still have to build a hydrogen infrastructure to deal with it, and we're quickly running out of time to do so.

141:

Actually, I'm not so worried about the end of the interglacial, if we're talking about the extinction of our species.

Yes, it'll grind all the Great Northern Cities out of existence, and our global civilization will certainly crash. If nothing else, all the remaining ports will be 100 meters above the sea.

On the other hand, there have been quite a few glacials and interglacials in the last few million years. The odd thing is that there's absolutely no evidence of all this climate change causing a mass extinction, which is what you'd expect with rapid and repeated climate change, and which likely happened during earlier glacial episodes.

Indeed, humans evolved under ice age conditions, and as I wrote upthread, the ice ages seem to have caused our species to collectively have more phenotypic diversity than we do now.

Conversely, going into an altithermal due to anthropogenic climate change puts the biosphere into a hothouse regime that we haven't seen for 55.5 million years or so, and the last time this climate regime happened, there was a not-quite-mass extinction, even though the Earth was in hothouse mode when it hit. While an ice age will cause the end of civilization as we know it, I'm pretty sure it won't cause a mass extinction, and in my highly biased opinion, the latter is much worse than the former, if only because it takes a much longer time for the Earth to recover from a mass extinction.

142:

>> In the biology community, the standard lesson is that the two main causes of extinction in descending order are habitat loss and invasive species.

Useful framework. OK, let's take habitat loss. Pre-fossil-fuel humans lived in nearly all climates and land-based ecosystems except the very high (Ant)Arctic, areas averaging over 3,000m altitude (including Greenland) and hyper-arid deserts. So, what could wipe out humans, assuming we still know how to live everywhere we have lived?

Air: significant variation in the oxygen fraction, or in the fraction of toxic gases. (We're pretty sensitive to the oxygen fraction, actually.) Or a dramatic drop or rise in sea-level air pressure (more than 80% drop, fivefold rise).

Temperature: everywhere in the world, the average annual temperature would have be less than about -4 degrees C or more than about 30 degrees C. (The latter will eventually happen, but not soon.)

Water: no usable fresh water anywhere in the world. (Paging Kurt Vonnegut...)

Food: every edible species is wiped out, including bacteria, algae and fungi as well as plants and animals. Alternatively, everything becomes inedible (from gene hacking run awry?).

Shelter: . . . superstorms everywhere? Those would probably lead to starvation.

Predation: . . . There's nothing.

Simple failure to reproduce: for genetic or epigenetic reasons, or environmental causes of infertility, or universal cultural reasons (e.g. universal preference for male children).

Of these, a sudden drop in oxygen levels in the air seems the least improbable to me. Culturally induced suigenocide would be next.

143:

Thomas Jørgensen (#115),
"an extinction plague
If technology delivers that kind of capability unto the script kiddies of the world, however, I think we're done for."

As others have said, there are always survivors.

But I'd go further. The kind of disease you could realistically engineer in a basement lab in the foreseeable future would be something like a super-flu pandemic. Ie, an existing easily spread disease (flu, etc) given a single gene tweak.

Such a disease would kill quickly. Which makes it ideally suited to being picked up by existing pandemic paranoia. Which means the more deadly it actually is, the more nations will do to stop it. It becomes a catch-22: The lower the survival rate, the quicker it will warn us of its existence. The less warning it gives, then, by definition, the higher the survival rate.

For a doomsday weapon, you need both at the same time. To spread across the entire population it must be invisible, and then and only then activate. For eg, a non-fatal flu-like infection to allow spread, which seeds a long incubation secondary disease which causes near-100% fatalities. (Sterility wouldn't be enough, IMO, it leaves too many people alive and motivated to find a cure.)

And that kind of made-to-measure lifeform is probably beyond the best mainstream labs today. It will therefore be beyond the reach of basement labs for much longer.

By the time terrists and loons and 4channers are capable of designing such custom-kill diseases, it means A) we'll have already had a couple of simpler basement-created super-flu pandemic scares, resulting in greater policing of new infections, and probably a substantial change of culture to prevent infection; and B) the level of technology required for the disease-creators must mean the disease-fighters have also seen a huge jump in capability.

That is, the technology requirements for a perfect kill disease inevitably means much greater technology to investigate and fight such a disease. To be otherwise requires a technological miracle: A sudden, singular development of a radical breakthrough technology, without the normal widespread availability of the previous level of technology. In other words, the Hollywood technology-as-magic scenario.

It's the same with self-inflicted extinction from physics experimentation. We'd need to have sufficient technological capability to create an event more energetic (or dense or something) than anything that has naturally occurred around us, but where that technology is not advanced enough to let some of us colonise space. It just seems really unlikely.

For me, this applies to most doomsday scenarios: Other than a completely disproportionate breakthrough technology appearing in a single out-of-place event, I can't see any scenario that could kill off all humans. We are just too adaptable. Even a dinosaur-killer impactor. No matter what the cause, humans and rats and cockroaches will survive and repopulate. "Civilisation", yes. "Humans", no.

--

So, if he-who-bans doesn't mind, I'd like the thread hijack a little.

What's the smallest event that would end civilisation?

And since the only human rival is other humans: What's the smallest disease outbreak, natural disaster, or attack, that could fundamentally shift the balance of power in the world?

144:

Daniel Duffy: "Or maybe we are immune to extinction because we have already passed the Great Filter"
dpb (#90): "Does that mean I am immune to death because I successfully crossed the road last week?"

Yes, if averaged out over large enough values of "I".

--

Jocelyn Ireson-Paine (#106),
"Susan Blackmore would disagree with the idea that disbelief in free will increases immoral behaviour."

Sure, but who cares what a robot thinks.

--

BakuDreamer (#113),
"Hostile AI isn't on anyone's list."

Perhaps for fear of getting on its list?

145:

Currently, it supposedly takes approximately the power output of the Three Gorges Dam to emulate a human brain (reference), so one could legitimately argue that we don't have to worry about a computer with the equivalent of human brainpower and energy use before around 2045 or so, when Koomey's Law, assuming it still works, lowers computation power requirements down to the 20 or so watts that it takes for a human to run a simulation of a human in a meat brain. Of course, superhuman AIs might happen before then, but if they take the power input of a small city to run their intelligences, disempowering them by cutting the cord might not be that hard.

Alternatively, it may be possible that some program (perhaps the BOFH hybrid of Watson and StuxNet?), which happens to have a lot less processing power than a human and is thus not a superhuman AI, still somehow takes down civilization. If such a program comes into existence, perhaps we should call it Weinberg's Woodpecker?

146:

Nobody could understand why I so refused to lie and cheat and steal, if I didn't believe in God. For the only reason not to was, according to them, that God might send me to hell.
This is a weird belief, objectively. Did you ever ask them flat out whether the only reason that they didn't behave anti-socially (in the limit, hurt or kill other people) was because they were afraid to go to hell?
I had a similar discussion with (intelligent) Christian friends a decade or two ago; they genuinely believed that the heart of man is desperately wicked (paraphrased Jeremiah 17:9), but that God held back these base human impulses. The context was why exactly the incidences of deliberate breakage of large structures society depends on were so rare. (Specific context was the single fresh water line through the Florida keys.) To me it was clear that humans are a social species and have evolved-in aversions to harming others - more stable than hypothetical opposing forces.

147:

What's the smallest event that would end civilisation?
Not biting. Pre-2001/09/11 that was an occasional topic for lunchtime conversations (e.g. how to bring down civilization for $99.99 or less without getting caught.) A few ideas might have worked at the time but the vulnerabilities have since been patched (so to speak) pretty well.
Now (older and maybe a little wiser, or at least more cautious) IMO, it is best not to write such things down in public spaces, since the breakers are few in absolute numbers and only finitely creative. (Ideally any moral person who worked out a civilizational-level vulnerability would quietly work to fix it. In practice, messengers are often punished.)

148:

Sadly, I think you're all missing the Reality of the question for the nuts n bolts stuff.

If you want a serious scientific debate on pollution and hormones [HELLO KILLED ALL THE FUCKING FROGS YO, YOU'RE TOTALLY FUCKED] I'm happy to dabble. And yes: tough one @ April_D - how much are you willing to subscribe to genetic hormonal devastation as a cause for your personal tribulations, especially given the amount of female hormones now in the water? [Hint: This is where Miss M from the 19th Century and her washing comes to protect you. Don't say I don't think about things in the future]. Hint: yes, that will be used against you. Be warned.


H.S.S. has been around a while.

Some, like Rifkin (The Empathetic Civilization) or Fukuyama (End of History and the Last Man) or Pinkerton... like to suggest that the Mind is changing in Benign ways and we're all getting "more civilized".

This is rubbish.

It's a total mis-reading of how contemporary zeitgeist effects Minds and ignores the larger picture. i.e. Sweat Shops. Chopping hands off rubber plantation workers. Fruit Companies in Central America.

It's literal(ly) bullshit.

And I also know the threads, people and organs used to disseminate it. They love to imagine they're progressive, but in the end, they're actually... "Fuck You, Got Mine". (If you want a hilarious look into that world, I'd suggest .... oh why bother. Cambridge, PHD, Math, interview - it's all about hitting the right uplifting notes for the subscribers. c.f. "I AM TED AND WHAT IS THIS - 12 YR OLD WANK").


The question to ask is this:

In a world without Lions, Tigers or Bears, what is Human Consciousness?

Or:

In a world without Sabre-tooth Tigers, the Short-faced Bear, Moa / Haast's Eagle, what is Human Consciousness?

Y'all asking the wrong questions.


Wiping out humanity is all about changing the Mind. The environment defines it, but: you have at least ~500 mil people religiously dead set on destroying the biosphere.


Work out the rest.

149:

TL;DR


Humanity is a state of Mind. It's potential, not physical.

And you fucked it all up for plastic toys....

150:

Or, if you want it a little bit more hard-core:

If you held a meta-cognitive Mind state engaged in aggressive and ultimately fatal attacks on those who didn't share the Mind State and/or who you believed were inferior whilst using the "cutting edge" technology of your time...

And something came along.

And subjected themselves to it all, while maintaining a meta-cognitive advantage...


And decided you were Nihilists?

That could be bad, for the "Humans" you signed up to your plan.


That could be oh so very, very bad.


~


Learn:

Sergey Lazarev - You Are The Only One (

Jamala - 1944 (Ukraine)


Work it out already.


The cry for not having your souls eaten... won.

151:

Oh, and.

I wasn't joking about "Loki's Tooth".


How dare you.

You fucked the world for plastic toys and whoring out third world countries as sex tourist destinations.

You let a psychopath called Ayn Rand determine your fiscal and intellectual Mind Space with a touch of behaviorist psychosis.


And you then did this to us.

~


Fuck.

Right.

Off.


C H I L D R E N O F M E N
H
I
L
D
R
E
N

O
F

M
E
N

You're fucked.


And if you've not worked it out yet, Human is a state of Mind. It's Ecology, Society and Civilization.

These Cunts want to play hard-ball, so be it: As suffered on the first, so taken to all those last.


If you suddenly have white pubic hair, know that our name is G_D. Oh, and you can't procreate either.


Apparently this is too much. But it can be done.

152:

I don't know. However, there's an implicit assumption in discussing the end of civilization.

Let me give the following scenario: the civilization in 2050 has a choice. Either

(a) they reduce the Earth's population to 1 billion through genocide and return to a 17th century technology base

(b) they reduce the Earth's population to 500 million through genocide and maintain a 21st century tax base.

When most people think of these scenarios, an implicit assumption is that governments will choose (a). I think they'll choose (b).

Btw, this still works if (a) is 200 million and (b) is 100 million.

153:

Sounds a lot like Fitzpatrick's War

154:

Sorry, for (b) I meant a 21st century technology base, but tax base also works.

155:

The Jesus talk is for the rubes. Remember, you have a very small number of very wealthy old men running the right wing don't you dare question inequality establishment. Jane Mayer's Dark Money is a good guide to the group. The people calling the shots are typically wealthy from childbirth, very isolated from ordinary people and society and not used to being told "No." There's a reason so much of the conservative establishment was shocked by the 2012 US elections. So even if putting the brakes on increasing inequality is good for them in the long run, they may not realize it and are isolated from anything that could warn them they're making bad decisions. Plus they're likely to be dead before things go critical. Do NOT assume the people calling the shots for the 1% are well informed, rational actors. They're more like lobotomized Cthulu.

156:

People will, eventually NOTICE if you lie, cheat steal, etc & no longer deal with you, because you can't be trusted ....

Provided that the community is small enough to keep track. One of humanity's problems seems to be that we have multiplied enough so that grifters can move on to fresh fields and pastures new. Oh well, I guess even a near-extinction will solve that one.

157:

I don't want to get into the strong or weak forces.

Given that the five fundamental forces of nature are the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, magnetism and stupidity, an we research a stupidity-powered system?

158:

Did you ever ask them flat out whether the only reason that they didn't behave anti-socially (in the limit, hurt or kill other people) was because they were afraid to go to hell?

Yes I did, and they answered affirmatively. Given that religionists don't really, really believe in hell for themselves, it's only where everyone else is going, you can imagine the quality of conduct resulting.

Other religionists might make the distinction between outer religion and the heart, and indeed it seemed to me that they were missing something internal. Ethically speaking, there was no one at home.

That this was the country's biggest city probably had a lot to do with it, villagers would probably have internalised an ethic. I cannot believe that they did not have one before colonisation and then urbanisation. That it was a poor and horribly corrupt country likewise, everyone appealed to the necessity of recouping expenses: everyone was on the fiddle to pay the bribes to everyone else. A system that IMnsHO is on its way north.

159:

And THIS: you have at least ~500 mil people religiously dead set on destroying the biosphere. is where your despairing, dying prognosis is utterly wrong, though for understandable reasons.
You are implying deliberate intent to all of those 500 miillion people.
Errr ... NO.
There are also large numbers who are trying to make sure these scenarios do not occur & it isn't malice, it's stupidity & ignorance, of which the latter, at least, is cureable.

160:

Yes & NO.
There has always been this problem as societies, cultures & nations grow larger & more complex.
That's why we have Law & courts & procedures, usually getting more complex themselves, to try to stop the spread of overall cheating.
At present, at the smaller nation-state level it's largely under control ( Unless you have additional factors in play ( See N & S Ireland 1950 - 2000 ).
At the larger nation-state level the problem has not been fixed, re the USA or crooks like Juncker in the EU, screwing everybody for the money & getting away with it.
But, even there, people are, slowly, catching up.
30 years ago, who'd even heard of the Kochs? For example.

The other exceptions are a kleptocracy &/or a terror-state.
Large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa & various of the ex-soviet "stans" are the poster-boys for this failure mode.
But, even there, the failure is so obvious that people can see that it is long-term unsustainable ( i.e 100 years plus )

161:

some program... not a superhuman AI, still somehow takes down civilization.

Seems to me that is a lot more likely, and that there are people on this board who can probably do it, but as Bill Arnold points out, the squirrels are watching.

Sure, but who cares what a robot thinks.
I knew Susan Blackmore quite well at university. Are you saying she is a robot in some way above and beyond being a determinist?

162:

Nigeria?
Or where?

Also: ... where atheists are unknown. And which is also the most unethical society I've ever encountered
Now wasn't that a surprise ... not.

163:

The other exceptions are a kleptocracy

Been there (158), done that, stole the T-shirt.

164:

Nigeria?
Or where?

Next door – Cameroon.

165:

Or you just gain control of the government, and make whatever your con is "Legal".

166:

There were actually two separate questions in the post. Most people have addressed the total extinction, and I agree that it is implausible, except as a result of completely destroying the ecosphere. But losing almost all technology is another matter.

In order to maintain any level of technology, you need both ALL of the resources and the knowledge and skills to use them and, in order to develop them, you need enough surplus capacity to have a fairly large 'idle' class, a few of which may become scientists. But almost all of our easily-accessible mineral resources are exhausted (except for fuel, clay, lime, silica etc.), and a much-reduced population in a largely dysfunctional ecology would operate by recycling the existing refined products (think steel), and would not have the spare capacity to maintain the knowledge and skills to use the remaining natural mineral resources. E.g. open-cast needs a LOT of manpower if there is even minimal cover, and deep mining needs a lot of technology. And you need a lot of resources to rediscover (say) tin or manganese ores once the knowledge has been lost. So when the recyling finally failed, the remaining technology would, too.

Stapleton dealt with this by allowing enough time for new resources to be exposed but, in reality, after a billion years, our descendents wouldn't be even remotely like genus Homo, let alone us. Homo sapiens would be extinct.

167:

Stapleton dealt with this by allowing enough time for new resources to be exposed but, in reality, after a billion years, our descendents wouldn't be even remotely like genus Homo, let alone us.

That was precisely my beef with Stapleton, this metaphysical identity of "Man" through various incarnations of Homo on the inner planets and rabbity things on Neptune. I just didn't buy why they were still "us".

168:

Duffy has a good when he argues the capitalist economic system may very well collapse on itself due to ever-increasing inequality. A few days ago, I read an interesting newspaper article (Dutch, sorry) about an historian basically making the same point, backed up by a study about the rise and decline of past empires.
For those interested, the article was about the following book:

The Invisible Hand?
How Market Economies have Emerged and Declined Since AD 500
Bas van Bavel

(disclaimer: I didn't read the book itself - just the newspaper article about it).

That said, while I do believe this may very well cause a collapse of society as we know it, it seems unlikely that this will cause a full-scale extinction event.

169:

Greg Egan had a short story

Title? Looks like one I'd like to read…

170:

Looks like an interesting book, but won't be published until September. (At least, won't be published in English until then.)

171:

@Robert Prior:

Sorry, I don't remember.

After a bit of googling, I think it MIGHT be "The Moral Virologist" in his collection "Axiomatic". Nothing in the collection "Luminous" rings a bell.

In any case you could do worse than read ALL Greg Egan's short stories.

172:

If you want the extinction of HSS on a short timescale, we Transhumanists are working on it.

If it comes to that, you could claim that WEIRD is already transhuman, in which case extinction of true humans is well in progress and on track to be completed this century. Biological traits distinguishing WEIRD include life expectancy (2-3× higher), total fertility rate (3-4× lower) and offspring mortality (100× lower).

Of course, if you do that then the "we" in the title probably means WEIRD rather than HSS...

173:

You know, we have a few wrinklies on this board, some more curmudgeonly than others. I refer, of course, to myself, who did you think I meant?

One of my strangest new experiences in central Africa was being at then 61 almost the oldest person I ever saw. There were a few others, parents of people I knew, who were clearly not long for this world and have indeed left it. You've all read the demographic statistics; living them was another thing. And I have been in Japan, at the other end of this scale, where I was practically a nipper.

174:

Ludvig has it right: "The Moral Virologist" is the story in question.

The story also appeared on one of Gardner Dozois's "Year's Best" anthologies.

175:

Let's not overstate changes. We're dealing with the same species, just in a different environment. Humans have adjusted fertility in response to environment for millennia. Industrialization causes a jump at first when children all start surviving childhood and then falls as people realize that children are very likely to reach adulthood and have also become much more costly to raise in an industrialized society.

Likewise the big increase in life expectancy is mostly due to reductions in infant and child mortality. Increase in life expectancy from age 20 is much more modest. If a country is in the middle of a demographic transition you might not see that many elderly adults, less because few adults survive to old age and more because the generation of the elderly was much smaller than the generation of the young.

176:

Or to invest heavily in killer robot technology...

177:

And online (apparently legally) here: http://eidolon.net/?story=The%20Moral%20Virologist
"Originally appeared in Pulphouse Issue 8. Reprinted pp. 7-17, Eidolon 11, January 1993. Copyright © 1992 Greg Egan. Reprinted with kind permission of the author."

178:

Well, regarding something like "the death of grass", something like the just averted Klebsiella Pl anticoagulant Desaster (see e. g. http://online.sfsu.edu/repstein/GEessays/Klebsiellaplanticola.html) could do the trick - setting free a GMO with some unexpected side effects and shoddy testing (time to market, you know).

179:

OK-how can you use gerbils and a rotating magnetic field to end the world??

I *really* would like to know.....

180:

OK-how can you use gerbils and a rotating magnetic field to end the world??

British Rail made the attempt, in order to stop customer dissatisfaction figures falling.

But they used the wrong kind of gerbil.

181:

OK, now I'm really getting scared - what exactly was their dastardly plan??

182:

The problem with synthesizing chemicals from your generator to store power is generally efficiency. Exceptions are generally called "flow batteries". The one's I've heard of tend to use rather poisonous compounds.

Fixing ammonia is one example of a traditionally inefficient process. A search turned the following up, but I didn't read the article to determine whether platinum catalysts were required, or how quickly they were poisoned (I *do* think that nano-engineering should be able to get around the requirement for platinum):
http://www.nature.com/articles/srep01145
Abstract
The N≡N bond (225 kcal mol−1) in dinitrogen is one of the strongest bonds in chemistry therefore artificial synthesis of ammonia under mild conditions is a significant challenge. Based on current knowledge, only bacteria and some plants can synthesise ammonia from air and water at ambient temperature and pressure. Here, for the first time, we report artificial ammonia synthesis bypassing N2 separation and H2 production stages. A maximum ammonia production rate of 1.14 × 10−5 mol m−2 s−1 has been achieved when a voltage of 1.6 V was applied. Potentially this can provide an alternative route for the mass production of the basic chemical ammonia under mild conditions. Considering climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels used for synthesis of ammonia by conventional methods, this is a renewable and sustainable chemical synthesis process for future.

183:

OK, now I'm really getting scared - what exactly was their dastardly plan??

I was just goofing around, Wolfgang. Someone talked about the laws of nature being booby-trapped and gerbils were on my mind from the Genghiz Khan thing on another thread. And British Rail and "the wrong kind of" is a British in-joke. I'm running out of funnies here...

184:

Ah, okay, so British Rail didn't plan a rerun of the Philadelphia Experiment, only this time with gerbils instead of soldiers. Whew. Sowohl relieved now ...

185:

ONE:
That is truly terrifyingly scary.
A close escape

TWO:
Your link, as posted, is broken Try this instead please?

[[ link with href+ now is href= - mod ]]

186:

"in order to stop customer dissatisfaction figures falling"

They needed to resort to dark physics to prevent improving customer satisfaction?

The backstory for that got me more than the gerbils.

187:

They needed to resort to dark physics to prevent improving customer satisfaction?

My bad, something akin to a double negative, re-editing error. I don't usually do that sort of thing.

But to prevent customer satisfaction figures falling, I guess BR would think dark physics easier than doing things properly?

188:

I wasn't complaining. I was intrigued.

(Likewise, Greg (#185), was that empty <a> link meant as a gag?)

189:

A Dutch review of Bas van Bavel's book makes it sound quite interesting. He seems to be saying that markets arise when society has lots of equality, but as rent seeking and political influence buying become prominent, markets collapse. Oops.

190:

In an effort to provide a simple way to produce food directly from inedible biomass, scientists develop a bacterium (using genes from ruminant stomachs) that converts cellulose into starch. It gets out and thrives in the wild. Worldwide, all wood turns into pasta. Sure, tasty at first, but then the clothing, houses and furniture fall apart, the paper rots, and most of the plants die, especially the ones that need to stand up. Meanwhile, ocean acidification rules out seafood as a solution. Efforts will be made to produce synthetic food directly from chemical precursors, or to grow yeast and algae in vats, but too little too late.

191:

Note that British Rail did come up with an idea for a fusion-powered flying saucer - all it needed was a workable design for a fusion-powered jet engine. Sure, we'll have that in a few years, no problem.

(And this isn't a joke, they really did.)

192:

No - obviously something went WORNG in my owm posting ....

193:

I'll regret asking this, but why was British Rail researching flying saucers? Does British Rail have a much broader mandate than the name suggests?

194:

Well, the railways have always been a bit "finger in every pie" as regards activities related to rail travel - road feeder services, hotels next to stations, marine ferry services (including the harbours) and the like. The LMS was said to be the "largest joint stock company in the world" and a lot of that was down to their non-railway activities.

However, BR decided to get shot of most of their non-railway stuff, and I think that by 1973 (which is when this idea came out) they only had the ferries left. Goodness knows why they got interested in interplanetary travel. Maybe it was just general "spaceophilia" with the moon landings still being a recent thing. I don't think anyone knows except the guy who did it (if he's still alive).

This article seems to be the root of all the stuff that currently exists about it on the web:
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2006/mar/13/spaceexploration.transportintheuk

195:

I'm hugely amused not a single posted has touched on frogs and declining sperm count in industrialized countries.

It's rather striking. It's as if the readers don't understand the difference between 1.2 population targets and biology.

Search: "declining sperm count industrialized countries"


Hint: You fucked the Frogs, it fucks you.


And you really, really, really, fucked the frogs.

Bonus Round:

Anyone want a 25 year old internal doc from a multinational showing how their product would cause this but they're not concerned?


Seriously.


It's already happened.


It's in the water

196:

C.F. Molluscs and PHDs and out-put pipes.


It's a done deal, esp. as you can't even be bothered to take lead out of the system, let alone drugs / hormones. [c.f. plastics, PHBs etc]

And you killed all the fucking frogs.


You don't get to have Children.

197:

The morbidly amusing part of this is, like Climate Change, is that all here have no idea about TIME.


It's a done deal.

It's in the system.

The effects are but seen .

You literally killed the frogs and your sperm for plastic toys and 20% of the world enjoying Consumerism. And you're arguing about Nukes and SF weapons and Meta-Cognitive-Combat-Echatological-Minds.

It's fucking hilarious that you're in such denial about it.


You.

Fucked.

The.

Frogs.


You've no idea what this means in an ecological sense, nor how it effects your base biology.

Literally.

Blind.

198:

Note: if you want a highly technical talk about amphibians, drugs and ecological impact, happy to give it.

Fact is, globally, but slanted in industrialized countries, you're looking at 70-90% species wipe out. It's also effecting sperm and other biological systems.

And you are doing nothing about it.


But sure.


Keep wanking over those engineering devices.

199:

Meta comment from someone high up:

"Watching Humans deny reality to redefine reality so it's not their fault is an exercise in the Sublime and Awe"

What's gonna fuck you: water.

What's not gonna fuck you: high tech drones. [these only fuck a small % of humans but yay for 'MERICU for using them to kill a "terrorist" recently. Not like snipers are a standard procedure of [REDACTED]. Lol... fucking ancient Nam stuff, die already].


Oh, and most humans don't use the word "Banished" unless they're LARPing or D&D fans. Especially repeatedly.


You know, you could try to be more subtle, burning bush man. Or, at least not use humans as cattle. However willing they are once you swear not to kill their fucking children you psycho.

200:

And six, for the weave: Human Combat Psychology as used by teh Scientologists, 3-letters etc.


Yawn.


I'll fuck your world up, little men. But it's a cute trick you're still trying. And unlike you, I don't feel anything towards the actors, just sorrow that their roles are so tawdry.


That Fu*king Nobody Is John Wick, Baba Yaga

201:

Re Weinberg's Woodpecker: I first saw this epigram in about 1981, attributed to Tony Hoare. I wonder if we have a case of Stigler's Law here. I have to admit that woodpeckers feature more strongly in USAlian figures of speech than in UKlian, so Weinberg does seem more likely.

202:

Given that the frogs & Newts ( & at least one returned toad ) are still breeding in my garden pond .....

203:

"You've no idea what this means in an ecological sense, nor how it effects your base biology."

I don't, no, so let me have a guess... You're on about oestrogen mimics {side note: where are all the testosterone mimics? The two molecules are nearly identical after all} derived from plastics manufacture getting into watercourses and buggering up the sexual development of frogs? (Which I vaguely recall are a bit weird in that line anyway.) And also the same thing has been put forward as a cause of reduced sperm count in humans (though again I vaguely recall there are craploads of contenders for that and it's really anyone's guess which ones matter).

Ecological impact of loss of 70-90% of amphibian species in industrial countries: not a clue. But if I had to guess I'd guess probably not all that much (not that that excuses it). There don't seem to be all that many of them to begin with compared to, say, fish, and I'm not aware of anything they do that plenty of other creatures don't also do, nor of anything that depends on them as a food source (though presumably there must be the odd parasite that does).

Possible beneficial side effect: other amphibian species joining the great crested newt on the UK's "can't be built on" list, thereby helping to limit the spread of concrete.

Effect of reduced human sperm count in industrialised countries: bugger all (apart no doubt from the odd dickhead whining about "loss of masculinity" or some such crap). People already fuck vastly more often than they sprog, after all, the difference being accounted for by artificial methods to reduce fertility. All they'd have to do to compensate would be to use those methods less. (Which leads me to the thought that - depending on the quantities involved - there is a negative feedback mechanism that works through reduced excretion of artificial oestrogens due to reduced contraceptive use.)

So it looks to me that while it sucks for the frogs, humans are hardly going to notice the difference. Certainly there's no chance of it causing human extinction. (Conclusion arrived at in the course of typing this post.)

204:

Note that British Rail did come up with an idea for a fusion-powered flying saucer

At least it would avoid stoppages due to leaves on the line.

Would they do reserved seats by having one first-class flying saucer with a tenth of capacity filled, followed by a second-class flying saucer with standing room only? Or maybe they'd have a roof-rack for the plebs.

(Note to Johnny Foreigner: they really did it that way. I've seen trains consisting of ten first-class carriages, mostly empty, followed by a single second-class with people (insofar as second-class passengers might be regarded as "people") standing on one another's feet. BR was always less about transportation than about celebrating British class structures.)

205:

Given, too, that on any even slightly damp night the path by the side of the Ouse in Bedford is covered with so many shagging frogs that you could make an epic frog porno down there... I think I heard about a decline in frog populations before I'd even seen more than a handful of frogs, whereas since then I've seen hundreds of them. Ain't observation bias wonderful :)

206:

They still do it that way, although it's worse now: the train you cite must have been in the days when trains were formed by mix-n-matching carriages from the carriage sidings, and someone had been careless with the selection, or they were just short of stock. These days it's all fixed formations so every train which has any first class accommodation at all is grossly oversupplied with it.

With trains such as yours they usually used to solve the problem by sticking labels on the windows of the surplus first class carriages which said "for the use of second class passengers" or similar. One day I found a big stack of those labels, so I snaffled them for my own use. And subsequently never even encountered the problem for years...

207:

Weinberg's Woodpecker?

Stigler's Law?

Never Heard of 'em.

SHAPE to me was "Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe"
(or SHAPE HQ, which was redundant, but... still a 970's usage?)

Are these "in" group jargon, or serious concepts the layman really should know?

Just keep repeating the Big Lie about 358 Million quid, (Is that a correct usage?), and se what happens. Merely a current example of the effects of dumbing down the political discourse.

208:

Good for you on the labels, but no, my only memories are of despairing backachy and footsore passengers being herded out of empty first-class carriages back into the Indian-style second-class, their fond belief that they were allowed to self-upgrade in cases of overcrowding rudely shattered. BR's Prime Directive was all too obviously that first-class human beings must be sheltered from the very sight of us oiks. (I was always waiting for them to introduce priority boarding like the airlines or even canvas-covered boarding ramps like on the old liners.)

Mix-and-match? If you say so, but I would note that even if they had a good technical reason, we were left with the above perception. After all, the three apparently hardwired methods of showing dominance in HSS, short of actual violence, are giving you a name you don't want, keeping you waiting, and forcing you to stand while I sit.

I am shocked to hear that it has not changed. In Switzerland and Japan, you can buy a seat reservation with your ticket until the train is practically slowing down for your station; that BR still practices gross over-supply of first-class as their primary means of securing the nobs a seat reminds me of why I shook your dust from my feet in the first place.

Mind you, the Deutsche Bahn train from north Germany to Interlaken also has a 10:2 composition, but there is actually plenty of room in Second, at least at the Swiss end. The only hassle is that the oiks have a much longer walk.

209:

The only hassle is that the oiks have a much longer walk.

But possibly a shorter walk at the other terminus, such is the one-dimensionality of trains. OTOH neither Interlaken station is a terminus, so maybe not.

(I have seen the approach of uncoupling the back half of a train and bringing it onto an adjacent platform, but only on the Indian Pacific, a train all of whose passengers have lots of luggage.)

210:

In a world without Sabre-tooth Tigers, the Short-faced Bear, Moa / Haast's Eagle, what is Human Consciousness?
The current such issue for most of humanity IMO is a lack of any serious contact with any conscious non-human wild fauna (and with wild fauna and flora in general). There are many highly-visible species-with-minds that seem unlikely to go extinct any time soon, e.g. in the NE US, in cities there are pigeons and sparrows (& squirrels in parks), and outside urban areas, an abundance of wildlife species easily interacted with and tolerant of human presence, e.g. crows (&jays), raccoons, skunks, coyotes, deer, rabbits, turkeys, etc. Most people don't even attempt interactions, or are even afraid of wildlife. It is distressing to see the lack of interest and/or fear. (Ticks, allergies, rabies, and less rational fears.)
Not belittling mass extinction (later in thread). Need much more reading to comment on that. (Wondering how much of terrestrial wildlife lives off rainwater; and that rapid climate change, range compression seem more effective mechanisms.)

211:

Let's not overstate changes. We're dealing with the same species, just in a different environment.

Species, sure, clearly the same.

Subspecies, I'm less sure. If you look at something like Canis lupus dingo against the other subspecies of C. lupus, for instance, or the subspecies of bees, the differences seem to be much smaller and more subtle than the half an order of magnitude (or more) differences in the "r/K" or "life history" traits of WEIRD versus H. s. s....

212:

Actually, Interlaken Ost IS a terminus for InterCity. Eastwards is only the Zentralbahn to Meiringen and over the Bruning Pass, where it goes rack-railway, to Luzern.

Yes, I suppose having to walk the whole platform to the back might have given me a shorter walk in Bern, but since Interlaken was a tight change and Bern was leave-the-station-and-schlep-to-hotel, it was the Interlaken end that was annoying. Having to walk past eight empty first-class carriages to the second class, where the conductors were all standing in the doors and giving the impression that the train would leave at any moment, did bring out the class warrior in me. We have the neologism "security theatre"; I would call this, and everything done by British Snail, "class theatre" – or a a musical, to the tune from "Iolanthe".

213:

Recte: BRUNIG, with umlaut

214:

"People already fuck vastly more often than they sprog, after all, the difference being accounted for by artificial methods to reduce fertility. All they'd have to do to compensate would be to use those methods less. (Which leads me to the thought that - depending on the quantities involved - there is a negative feedback mechanism that works through reduced excretion of artificial oestrogens due to reduced contraceptive use.) "

This needs to be emphasised for your excitable multinymed friend. Plastic waste is not the primary artificial source of female hormones in the environment. The primary source is birth control and HRT, in urine, in waste-water. So we didn't "fuck ourselves for plastic toys", we "fucked ourselves so we could fuck".

--

Re: First class vs pleb.

Outside question. Are first class carriages physically different? Overstuffed circle-lounges and drink-serving attendants? Or just regular carriages with less graffiti?

215:

Outside question. Are first class carriages physically different? Overstuffed circle-lounges and drink-serving attendants? Or just regular carriages with less graffiti?

I don't recall seeing anything so Trump-y anywhere. You can get quite nice sofas in the German second class buffet.

Swiss first-second class is not like day and night. Nor is Japanese and German that I remember. I accidentally went Preferente from Madrid to Barcelona once, and there was a power socket to each seat, which was better than Turismo or whatever they called it.

Pigeon will be more up to date than I on British Snail, but as I was saying, the point appears to be a tortuous way of guaranteeing a seat plus not seeing oiks. (By the way, that wasn't just class animus talking, I have heard BR staff saying that first-class passengers paid not to see the likes of me.)

216:

Your last paragraph sums it up pretty well. I've not done it myself, but one result of deciding to "treat yourself" and travel first class for a change is people reporting you to the guard for not wearing the same clothes as them. (And the guard, having checked your ticket, politely tells them to fuck off.) As regards getting a seat, I'd say it's more about getting space - you're much more likely to be able to get, for instance, a four-seat bay with one or zero other occupants, rather than three other occupants plus people standing all down the aisle.

The carriages are essentially the same layout as second class but with the seats a bit more widely spaced and having slightly squashier cushions (it used to be a lot squashier cushions). Depending on the TOC you also get various perks like free food and stuff.

217:

That's interesting. It was obvious that that source must exist, but I had no idea of its relative magnitude.

218:

Second class is usually 2+2 or 2+3 seating across the carriage.
First is usually 2+1 with wider, sometimes with leather-covered seats + more legroom & carpets..
British Rail doesn't exist any more ... we have wonderful privatised railways fucking it up, much more, instead.
See HERE

219:

Pigeon,
It's often counter-intuitive. Saw a local science program recently that was following up on the "nanospheres" scare (nanospheres or nanoparticles being put into everything and ending up bioaccumulating in wildlife.) Apparently it turns out that bioaccumulation of nanoparticles is an issue, but not from nanospheres (which turn out to be mostly benign). It's fibres from clothes. Wash water from ordinary household washing-machines ending up in rivers, coastal waters, etc. Simple filters on washing-machines would solve 99% of the problem. But first you have to get people to accept that the problem exists. Evil pharma/cosmetic company poisoning us with dangerous nanotech is an easier sell.

Or Daniel's decades out-of-date beliefs in solar thermal over PV. Matt's point about the issue of solar concentrators is surprisingly hard for people to understand. Don't know why. Had a similar argument with someone about greenhouses on Mars, they couldn't accept that dust in Mars' atmosphere is really bad for reflector-concentrators, but not much of an issue for PV, even when I could point them to actual direct-vs-indirect sunlight numbers from NASA's rovers (it's something they measure as part of their "weather station" work.)

220:

Really?

I mentioned plastics because they're vastly more prevalent than waste water and of more interest to frogs.

In Edinburgh a recent study by Irwin (2) saw a 25% decrease in sperm count over 20 years, the results are shown in table 1 below. The worrying thing about this downward trend is that a sperm count less than 20 million sperms per ml is interpreted as being infertile, if this downward trend of counts were to continue then values less than this will be the average in the next millennium.

~ If you just skim over the tables, you'll see the decrease from 100 million sperm / ml [yes: this is an official measurement] in 1950 to 50 mil / ml in 1990.

The sperm count has been decreasing steadily for many years in Western industrialised countries: Is there an endocrine basis for this decrease? The Internet Journal of Urology. 2003 Volume 2 Number 1.

Or, any number of other studies:

There was a significant and continuous decrease in sperm concentration of 32.2% [26.3–36.3] during the study period. Projections indicate that concentration for a 35-year-old man went from an average of 73.6 million/ml [69.0–78.4] in 1989 to 49.9 million/ml [43.5–54.7] in 2005. A significant, but not quantifiable, decrease in the percentage of sperm with morphologically normal forms along the 17-year period was also observed.

Decline in semen concentration and morphology in a sample of 26 609 men close to general population between 1989 and 2005 in France Journal of Human Reproduction, 2012

~

The riddle here is that in ~15-20 years, you're seeing a decline from 100mil S/ML to 50, even in places such as France who have large areas of non-urbanization.

Hands up who can tell me the reproductive average age of a "first world" Homo Sapiens Sapiens?


Hint: the frogs died out quite quickly as well.

221:

And anyhow, it's mostly pesticides.

But like the bees [c.f. neoc & colony death], it's actually a large selection of causes all being poured into the same vat and mixed together to get even better results.

The majority of studies published since 2000 reported some effects of pesticide exposure on semen quality or time-to-pregnancy. The results are not consistent, however, with some studies showing reduced sperm concentrations and others showing low percentages of morphologically normal and/or motile sperm. In time-to-pregnancy studies, reduced male fertility measured as prolonged time-to-pregnancy related to pesticide exposure was observed for first pregnancies only. Some of the inconsistencies may be explained by heterogeneity in populations, pesticide exposure, and study design.

The impact of pesticides on male fertility. Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 2008

Overview: Effect of Endocrine Disruptor Pesticides: A Review Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011 Jun; 8(6): 2265–2303. 2011.


~


And yes: frogs show that this kind of change can happen so fast you'll see it in your life time.

That should scare you.


p.s.


Have seen a single butterfly this year. I'm happy that Greg's garden is an oasis though.

222:

And since this has to be a triptych:

TIME works differently than you all seem to imagine.

Action Now = Effect in future.

Now map the Green Revolution and usage of pesticides and other things onto the future.


Pesticide, herbicide use in U.S. agriculture, 1960-2008 Corn + Soybean Digest, 2014. (Lots of pretty graphs, all from U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2014)


~

Work the numbers.


You're already infertile as a species in localized areas. (20 mil Sperm / Mil).

223:

(And postscript: yes, there's an argument that states that if Born S/ML = X, then duration = 30-60% degradation = constant, so you're fine as long as the damage doesn't cross the threshold, which is interestingly the position taken by internal documents Industry - Governments.

This is however wrong, and underestimates how biology works - otherwise the degradation in sperm would have flat-lined and not continued to decrease)


Atrazine induces complete feminization and chemical castration in male African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis)

Endocrine Disruption in Amphibians Developmental Effects of Ethynylestradiol and Clotrimazole on the Reproductive System PDF Uppsala Uni, 2008

224:

Off topic! Science guest Bobak "Mohawk Guy" Ferdowsi commissioned a sketch of his fellow Westercon 69 guests, portraying John Scalzi as a Romulan and OGH as a Klingon. Facebook warning for the link.

226:

Since you're being brave [and I'm not sure many got my Greg - Hadil bracket joke as a serious point to where the brackets were coming from, even though I did mention SF in there]:


Why is China never at these things?


He's so hot.

227:

I followed the link and saved that photo before noticing it was taken by a guy I know. It wasn't until I was going to link the photo to his Facebook share of the sketch that I noticed...oh, he was the one who took that photo. *facepalm*

It's a small world sometimes.

228:

The only thing which can kill us is ideology or religion.

Something along these lines

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voluntary_Human_Extinction_Movement

229:

Our lifestyle created a large drop in menarche. Maybe Nature is trying to restore the balance.

Maybe George Carlin was right and Gaea just wanted plastic; now she can phase out the delivery system, us.

230:

Have seen a single butterfly this year. I'm happy that Greg's garden is an oasis though.
OK Where do you live (approximately)?

I've seen butterflies all over - I've sent my "Nature's Calendar" recoding results for this Spring in, & I know I've seen:
Peacock, Small Fritilliary, Gatekeeper, Small & Large White (A lot of them around right now) Orange Tip, Holly Blue - lots of them, too .... No Brimstone this year.
Mostly down on the allotment plots.
Ditto the various Bombus species - even seen a B. lapidarius again, after a 2-year absence, though only in ones & twos & v late.

231:

Just thought I would tack this on the end here since it is an incredibly important piece of news:

http://phys.org/news/2016-07-refutes-famous-physical.html

"Now, an experiment has settled this controversy. It clearly shows that there is no such minimum energy limit and that a logically irreversible gate can be operated with an arbitrarily small energy expenditure. Simply put, it is not true that logical reversibility implies physical irreversibility, as Landauer wrote."

No more Landauer Limit

232:

Ah. I self-identify with those guys, though if there are dues I don't pay them. Just a provocation really. My philosophy is less deep-ecology than Gnostic and classic Schopenhauerian: procreation is indeed child abuse (I'll defend that if anyone is interested).

233:

If the amount of energy needed to perform an operation is infinitely divisible, does that mean you could create a computer that could continue to operate through the heat-death of the universe? (Albeit presumably very slowly.)

234:

Physical Implications?

Must surely be subject to 2nd-Law of Thermodynamics limitations, but what ( besides that ) has broken as a result of this?

235:

Woohoo! Free energy!

236:

Nothing broken, except the realization that arbitrary amounts of computation can be done for arbitrarily small amounts of energy.
On the wider front, all that H+ PostHuman computational stuff can now be done without cooking the planet or building a Dyson Sphere
A major limit to the expansion of intelligence was an illusion...

237:

Nothing's broken. We previously believed that computation had to cost you thermal energy (in the form of heat dissipation); it's been demonstrated that, in fact, it's possible to "expend" other conserved quantities. The demonstration used spin angular momentum instead, showing that you can perform computation without converting high entropy heat to diffuse heat as long as you convert high entropy spin angular momentum to low entropy spin angular momentum instead.

So, no implications for thermodynamics - we're still converting one high-entropy area to a low-entropy area when doing our computations. However, because we're using something other than energy, we're able to compute at a "zero energy cost", by paying with some other conserved quantity.

238:

Some pushback here Comments on "sub-KBT micro-electromechanical irreversible logic gate".
(Not enough physics chops to evaluate it.)

239:

Re the Urology Journal article and
More evidence for these chemicals causing harm was demonstrated by the use of a drug known as DES (diethylstilbestrol), which was used widely in the livestock industry for 20-30 years (7), and for the first 20 years of their use it was not recognised that they might pose a risk to man. More importantly this drug was prescribed in high therapeutic doses to several million pregnant women worldwide for a variety of reasons such as to prevent miscarriage, between 1945 and 1971
(Some personal family drama here; mother never admitted to using DES.)
These things are fixable, if recognized. With lead exposure, the hook was that acute exposure had obvious horrible effects. With male fertility, the hook will likely be powerful males personally upset about low sperm counts/motility.
(Just musing out loud.)

240:

(Not having read all of the comments ...)

I doubt any natural cause (except a killer asteroid from outter space!) will kill all or close enough to all of humanity.

So something with agency must want us dead, or we are not in danger (except asteroids).So what thingwith agency could possibly want us dead, and be able to do so? 2 things come to mind: An eschatological cult of the kind the world has not seen before, or an malevolent AI.
I think we are here in Nick bostrom territory: I don't think there's a good reason to believe in malevolent, all powerful AI anytime soon or later (prove me wrong by showing me a good reason). But it's one existential risk not yet taken, so if you want to build your career on existential risks this is the one to go for. Nick Bostrom territory.

As for eschatological cults, I've tried to find a theology that calls for killing everyone and found in in IM Banks Algrbraist: The world is a simulation, and once everybody beieves it is so the simulators will turn it into a paradise (the simulation is a test, you see? wake up!). The beliees couls convert everyone, or they could murder the non-believers ...

241:

A plague with high mortality, high virulence that is infective but invisible for a long time would indeed be dangerous (not exticntion level probably, but still). I wonder how to guard against such a thing, and how a plague (virus or bacteria!) can be infectios but not having other symptoms. Or how would such a disease mutate in the wild?

242:

except the realization that arbitrary amounts of computation can be done for arbitrarily small amounts of energy.
Ah got you, except not "arbitrarily" small ...
I assume a Planck limit of some sort, involving "h" will be the bottom bound, then ... ?

243:

I think you posted this on the wrong thread, although it's a good point.

244:

I was just making a bad joke about Weinberg's "second law" ("If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."). While I know it's an old version of Murphy's Law, the oldest ref I can find is to 1985.

Of course, if we start printing buildings, then we'll have a convergence of programming and architecture, so maybe we should worry more about woodpeckers?

245:

I wasn't joking about "Loki's Tooth".
I had nightmares about that thing, sort of. :-) Really more daymares, about a peeved goddess making "Lathe of Heaven"-level edits to the weave [1]. Thought you might be amused. You never have explained how to recognize causality violations, or what it means (if anything) to observe them.
Work it out already.
Don't know who the audience for that was; for me there are several ways to map that pair of songs to meaning. (Strong songs though.)

[1] This makes it on-topic - extinction-level threat. :-)

246:

I have a book of papers/articles which goes into this stuff in some detail (though it would be a considerable Tower of Hanoi operation to dig it out). Their claim is equivalent to saying that it is (theoretically) possible to build a Maxwell's demon (hence my "free energy" comment). So my opinion is that it's protulum.

247:

"protulum"
Uh?
Google search comes up empty, or is that the keybored Wurm again?

OTOH, if it IS "free energy" something has broken in fundamental physics somewhere, which (In this case) I find unlikely.

248:

I thought that particle detection and actuation overheads were enough to make Maxwells Demon unfeasible even without the computation. It's been years since I looked at that stuff though.

I have a vision of dirks post singularity machine god railing at the world because it has only been given a nanojoule to play with and it can't even drive its own IO hardware.

GIVE ME THE ROBOT FACTORY OR IS WILL SIMULATE YOU HARDER!

249:

Arbitrarily small amounts of energy, down to zero energy - the trick is to use entropy from another conserved quantity for computation; in the experimental case, spin angular momentum.

There's no free lunch here - while the act of computation can be done with zero energy, you can only achieve that by "consuming" something else. And, of course, if you don't have a handy stockpile of spin angular momentum or other conserved quantity to hand, it'll cost you energy to build the stockpile.

250:

There are two limits on the energy requirements for computation.

For irreversible computation (real world), the limit is set by thermodynamics at some multiple of kBT. The multiple depends on what bit error rate you think you can tolerate and the noise margins in the technology, and is probably something like 10 kBT at very best.

For reversible computation (endless source of PhD theses), no energy is dissipated at all - it is reversible! But this implies large scale decoupling of the computation subsystem from thermodynamic reservoirs. Quantum computation seeks to do this, but it is not easy at all. The energy cost now becomes all about state preparation; depending on the scenario this will involve h.

But there are still very open questions about coherence scaling in coupled systems, and it is by no means clear that large scale quantum computation is going to be feasible.


251:

"Nothing for nothing, and precious little for sixpence."

I expect to see practical reversible and quantum computation shortly after the world converts over to fusion power - and, even then, they will be for specialised uses only.

252:

Someone upthrea wrote that without believ in free will 'we' won't behave morally, so society will collapse.

AFAIK free will is a central tenet of the monotheisms since Zoroastrianism: For your actions to be morally significant, you need free will/choice, else the whole good/bad dichotomy doesnt make sense. Hinduism, Buddhism and others don't have this concept (afain, AFAIK!).

253:

Out of curiosity, what's your take on calvinist Predestination?

That's not logically the same as determinism, of course, but I wonder whether someone who truly believes that he was created in order to be damned feels that he has free will? For the purposes of getting Saved, he doesn't.

254:

Proposed extinction scenario:

The year is 2018. Prime Minister Theresa May, having determined that a submarine-based nuclear deterrent is too expensive while still believing something is needed to keep away the foreign hordes, commands the construction of a classic cobalt-jacketed Doomsday Device built around a colossally huge multi-stage gadget. Naturally this is contracted out to G4S, who subcontract out the programming to India. It is to be unveiled as a surprise on the Queen's Birthday.

Unfortunately, due to a programming error, upon the official day of Brexit and Scotxit, the computer interprets the disappearance of Scotland from the UK as an attack. The device detonates, vaporizing the undesirable parts of northern England. It was intended to only destroy Russia (and, 'coincidentally', France, Germany, and Poland), however due to meteorologists being banned from government work as they believe in climate change, the spread of fallout was badly misunderstood and instead the entire globe is contaminated. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson fumbles the attempt to apologize to mankind, as he blames everything on Pakistan.

255:

The device detonates, vaporizing the undesirable parts of northern England.

And behold, the belief of the Londoners came to pass, that all things ended at Watford Gap. Do you want yea verilies with that?

256:

AIUI the limits on both are down to thermal perturbations, so they are equivalent: if you can do one you can do the other. Though with me too it is a while since I looked at it - hence the Tower of Hanoi operation now required to unearth the book.

257:

10kBT is about what DNA transcription runs at.

258:

You have equally-obviously never eaten a "Victoria" plum (dribble)

Oh, I have, I have. May I replace my previous description by "pulpy, tart, and tasteless"? As an expert gardener, you may grow yours to perfection, if that exists. The growers whose products I ate didn't.

259:

Proposal 2:

The altruism and empathy virus whose symptoms were first observed during the conversion of Theresa May from Merciless Authoritarian to Social Justice Warrior during the 2016 Conservative leadership campaign causes the human race to procrastinate itself to death by everyone insisting that they "couldn't possibly go first".

260:

The vile murderer Jean Calvin would disagree with you & so would his equally nasty christian followers.
The word is: "Predestination"

261:

Ah, picked-whilst-unripe & transported for a couple of days, then sold & eaten.
I was referring to pick off tree & eat RIGHT NOW.
Just a slight difference.
Rather like shop-bought Asparagus, compared with: Last-thing-to-do-before-leaving-allotment is to: Get watertight plastic bag, put a few ml water in the bottom, cut asparagus, plunge base of spears into water in bag ... take home, put into fridge, eat not too much later.

262:

Aye, well, Calvin was a divot, and I can't see how he managed to consider his doctrine Christian when it makes a nonsense of the whole thing on its own terms.

263:

My suspicion is he had an idea that he followed way further than made any sense, but in the process built himself a philosophical structure he was too heavily invested in to be able to walk away from.

264:

No
He was quite simply, a murderous shit, who loved power.
and used religion as his preferred method, because he knew he could get away with it.
The usual, in fact.

See also Asma bint Marwan, for instance, who was deliberately murdered, for daring to mock ......

265:

Not sure about "knew he could get away with it"; it seems to me that being a prominent Protestant reformer back then must have required considerable bravery, as it put you at risk not only from the Catholic establishment but also from other Protestant power factions of slightly different flavours from your own. Keeping your footing among all the shifting alliances etc, with being set fire to as a penalty for getting it wrong, must have been pretty tricky.

266:

...Theresa May, having determined that a submarine-based nuclear deterrent is too expensive while still believing something is needed to keep away the foreign hordes, commands the construction of a classic cobalt-jacketed Doomsday Device built around a colossally huge multi-stage gadget...

I imagine such a thing must be installed in an hollow volcano, high above the lava pit, and reachable only by rickety catwalks. There will also be a dramatically lit balcony overlooking the site, appropriate for PM May to deliver scenery-chewing threatening speeches while wearing a dramatically flowing cape.

These days I suppose all of that is just CGI, May is green-screened in, and the actual gadget is in a damp basement somewhere.

267:

Very unfunny
Actually, someone spotted ...
this very interesting fact which puts a VERY, very different picture in the frame.
I strongly suggest people look at the article in question ....

Like May is more "socialist" (by one measure at least) than H Wilson or J Callaghan & certainly A Blair or G Brown ... um, err ....

268:

An online newspaper that covers its text with advertisements that cannot be closed or otherwise made to go away, can do without me as a reader until the heat-death of the universe.

I use Firefox. How did you manage to read it, Greg?

269:

I use Opera 12.16, and have it set to disallow javascript on that site.

270:

AdBlocker in Chrome - simples.

271:

Disabling Javascript on one site only (I need it elsewhere, not least here) is beyond my current capability, though I could ask. But am I alone in finding it bloody offensive behaviour? We're not talking about a pop-up beside the text here, but a pop-up over the top of the text. The paper is simply unreadable by vanilla browsers. What IS it with these people?

272:

In Firefox, the Noscript extension should do what you want.

I too am baffled as to how "web designers" (itself a grossly overblown term for people operating at the copy-and-paste-code sub-script-kiddie level) can fail to understand how flaming bloody annoying it is to have the stuff you're trying to read suddenly disappear as it is covered over with some irrelevant garbage. My usual reaction on finding such a site is to hit the back button and look for another one carrying equivalent information but without the forced garbage. Unfortunately, half-decent UK news sites are not numerous, so with the Independent I have to adopt other methods. Unfortunately, too, this nonsense is everywhere; I also have to adopt other methods - specifically, injecting my own script to block the nuisance - on my GP's website.

In general, it is far more common to have to hack the code of a website just to get its basic functionality to function in a usable manner than it was say 10 years ago; I experience far more annoyance from that than from the occasional idiot 10 years ago who wrote their entire site in flash. A major reason why I use Opera 12.16 is that it has excellent built-in facilities for debugging websites - much better than extensions like Firebug for Firefox - and barely a day goes by without me needing to use them.

273:

Rather than killing outright, what about a virus or series of viruses that create mental illnesses in the victims? Instead of dying, people start having a whole spectrum of disorders from schizophrenia to depression, to adult onset autism. It would hit people in positions of power before anyone realized what was happening, and since it didn't kill it would place increased burdens on societies trying to treat the victims. You also couldn't be sure if someone was just a little odd, or infected with a mental illness causing massive distrust.

274:

the occasional idiot 10 years ago who wrote their entire site in flash.

That must have been the same epoch as the "designers" who thought it was cool to have ochre script on a yellow background. Or contrariwise.

I'll research Noscript, thanks; but so far there is no sign of an "add-on' of that name. You'll probably think 'm a bigger curmudgeon than Greg, but if I woke up tomorrow with OGH's five-sigma superpowers, the first thing I would do is to give ALL advertisers, of any kind whatsoever, an intravenous injection of Australian box jellyfish.

275:

You definitely want to try NoScript. Should be a normal add-on, anyway home site is https://noscript.net/
I generally enable scripts if they are needed for a site to function and aren't trackers (which includes things like facebook, with exceptions for a few google things). For the link that Greg gave, firefox is still blocking about 20 sites worth of scripts, and the article is still readable.

276:

Just done it, Bill. When I came back here, I was deregistered, but after Allowing Antipope, here I am again. Obliged!

277:

Curmudgeon? I'd give you a hand, and add some polonium to the mix for good measure.

278:

I've got Safari set to "Nopop-up windows" and I don't see the ads you're talking about.

I also have ad-blocker installed. Don't know which one is doing me the good turn, but one of them is working.

279:

I couldn't find "NoScript"inside Firefox [ I use 3 browsers, as according ... Chrome, Firefox & old ie ... ]
I also assume that if I follow your link I then can use it in Ffx?

280:

That link, or this one...

I don't know where you were looking, but it's the first result for 'noscript' if you use the search box at the top right of the page at 'about:addons', or 'Tools > Addons'. ...and it's the fifth most popular addon in the list to the right of that page, to save a few keystrokes.

281:

Well, I managed it all right from Bill's first link (275) and I do not consider myself a power user.

282:

Different route in - I used the internal "otions" rote.
I assume you meant "AdBlock plus" - which is what I use in Chrome, anyway ...
But:
Putting "noscript" into the Firefox search-box gives me a vast list of possibilities.
Any particular recommendations?

283:

The link in my previous post takes you straight to NoScript's page - all you need to do then is click 'add to firefox'.

284:

Was not aware and still need to read up on it (I'm a catholic atheist).

285:

BTW, with NoScript, if you're not in the habit of following blind links to unknown sites, and don't regularly knowingly go to dodgy sites, and are not paranoid, you can consider using the "Temporarily allow top level sites by default" (General tab). Three settings in increasing order of looseness.
The (somewhat safer) alternative is to make a manual decision about each new site.


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