Gongol.com Archives: January 2009
Brian Gongol

January 20, 2009

Threats and Hazards Three badly-underestimated risks to humanity
What's happening in the financial markets is a mess; there's no doubt about that. But it's a mess that has the public's attention. Here are three huge risks to the modern world that aren't getting their fair share of attention:

Item We don't have enough food to survive a natural calamity. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 left behind a cloud of ash that blocked much sunlight for months and led to food shortages all over the globe. A similar eruption could happen at any time today. The population of the world was around one billion then; now, it's approaching 7 billion. We've dramatically improved food production, but we haven't improved food storage at a similar pace. World food reserves amount to only a few weeks' worth of normal consumption. If another volcanic eruption of similar magnitude were to occur today -- and it could -- then we could see a global hunger emergency on a scale never before seen nor comprehended.

Item Our computers are susceptible to catastrophic electrical attack. Virtually everything important in the world today depends upon computers. Yet, aside from the work of one member of Congress, almost no one seems to take seriously the threat of attacks on the computing infrastructure by electromagnetic pulse. In short, hostile governments and groups either already have access to or will soon possess the tools they would need to cripple most of the electronics over most of the continental United States in a single stroke. We have the capacity to create resistance to such an attack, but for the most part, nothing significant has been done. Lest the threat sound fictitious, it should be noted that NATO used special weapons in the campaign in Yugoslavia to disable the electrical system there during the late 1990s, in order to suppress the fighting power of the Milosevic regime.

Item We still don't have a real plan for containing a contagious pandemic. While avian influenza hasn't really made the leap to human-to-human transmission yet (as far as we know), the threat still exists, and people are still dying of the infection. At some time, whether it's H5N1 bird flu or something else, a disease outbreak will reach pandemic status, just like the Spanish flu of 1918. And when it happens, it will shut down many of the human systems upon which we depend, unless alternatives are put into place.

Frightening? Certainly. After all, each of the disasters in question has happened before. But these risks are surmountable, if we're willing to apply our minds, technologies, and resources to the solutions. Let's find better ways to store food -- perhaps by improving our capacity to freeze-dry food on a massive scale. Let's figure out how to protect our electronics from attack -- perhaps by making use of Faraday cages where appropriate. And let's take some of the lessons from Y2K preparations and apply them to the risk of a pandemic. These things can be done, and if we had more foresight as a species than the common goldfish, then we'd actually put our knowledge to good use.

Aviation News Much to learn from the Hudson River airliner crash
The pilot was able to retain control (even after losing two engines) in part thanks to a backup power system and (quite possibly) a set of automatic safeguards that helped ensure that the plane didn't stall. This simply heaps on more evidence that improvements in technology helped keep the accident from becoming a disaster. A well-trained, level-headed pilot and good tools combined well to create a happy ending. Most problems, really, are solved that way -- through the combined efforts of smart, quick-thinking people, and the technologies that result from the applied wisdom of the people who built them. An airplane really isn't a collection of bolts and fan blades and composite panels, so much as it's a physical representation of everything we humans have learned about flight since Bernoulli first observed the relationship between fluid pressure and fluid velocity. So long as we aren't stupid -- like those who have actively destroyed archives of knowledge in the past -- then we can expect our ability to solve problems large and small to improve with time. And it appears that the data gathered in the course of last week's airplane crash will help to improve training for pilots in the future.

Water News Wind-energy storage park gets loan from Iowa

The United States of America The best part of Inauguration Day
Once every four years, we're reminded in no uncertain terms that the United States of America doesn't have one "sovereign", like a queen or an emperor, but hundreds of millions of sovereigns, with votes and liberties. Only 46% of the world's people live in free countries, and millions still live under hereditary monarchies. Many of those monarchs wield little political power, but the fact remains that a genetic lottery is no way to assign power. And yet some goofballs even want their monarchies back. Best of all, when the people are sovereign, they're fully within their rights to make fun of their politicians.

Business and Finance Debt kills many a good idea
It was a magnificent idea to combine the Chicago Cubs with the Chicago Tribune, WGN-AM, and WGN-TV under one umbrella. But the Cubs will be exiting the umbrella of common ownership any day now, as the Chicago Tribune Company is forced to sell assets in order to pay off some of its imminent debts. Quite unfortunate. In other Cubs news, Kerry Wood has left the team with a touch of grace and class.

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