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Saw on Twitter:

If you want to find the history and book nerds in a room, just say, “It’s a shame about the Library at Alexandria.” The noises of anguish that erupt will ALWAYS give them away.

To be honest, on those occasions, I do make noises of anguish, but for reasons opposite to what most folks imagine them to be.

I once intended to write an essay about the truth of the loss of the Great Library, but then Tim O’Neill went and did so. I heartily urge all readers to peruse O’Neill’s work, and be relieved of the idea that there is anything enlightened about being upset about the Library.

There was a time in this country, not so long ago, when the structure of generations made sense. To wit:

Elderly people were veterans of the Second World War, and their wives. From the tumult of their youth and the prosperity of their prime, they enjoyed the serenity of the golden Autumn of their years.

Middle-aged people had made the Nineteen-Sixties. Grappling with consequences of that era’s hedonism, they at the same time attempted to uphold its ideals while raising families and coming to responsibility.

Young people were those who grew up in the shadow of the Sixties, dealing with the wreckage of the new freedoms yet attempting to live out the promise that went before them.

This was a most vibrant arrangement, rich in sociological and narrative promise, and it bore much fruit for the republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the television program “Twin Peaks”, to give two examples.

But recently, it has come to my attention that the situation has changed.

Now, increasingly, Elderly people are those of Sixties, leading to, for instance, the spectacle of septuagenarian rock stars shuffling on stage in a grotesque parody of their salad days. Meanwhile their children have been forced into Middle Age, burdening them with responsibilities for which they were in no way adequately prepared.

Whereas the World War II generation is, by and large, deceased.

I don’t know when this change occurred. I don’t know who authorized it. I certainly wasn’t consulted. nor was anyone I know. Frankly, the entire situation is a disgrace, and it has gone on long enough. I intend to lodge a complaint. Manifestos and petitions must be pursued. I demand redress of grievance. Let no mistake be made: the country will be restored to the state it should be, and all made well again.

This morning in conversation arose the Waste Isolation Pilot Program dilemma. Given that this lethal radioactive material has to remain isolated for ten thousand years, how do you create a nonverbal warning sharp enough and strong enough to convince the humans of ten centuries hence not to disturb it for any reason?

Ten thousand years is longer than the earliest aspects of agricultural civilization. We have not a single symbol or concept in common with the humans of that era. How can we communicate across such a vast gap? Many greatly ingenious and talented people have made proposals. Eventually one will be chosen.

And we will never know what happens.

It’s ten thousand years in the future. There is no plausible chance that we or anyone with anything in common with us will last to see how this endeavor plays out. It’s not even a question of “history will tell,” because by that point history won’t be history.

We can spin as many scenarios as we like, with as much detail and variety as we want. But we will never receive an answer. It is beyond us. The wall is impenetrable, and always will be.

[I’m not one for alternate histories. I think there are no ifs. But I’m not oblivious to the attractions of the genre, and, after recent thoughts on Jimmy Carter, visions of what might have been flitted through my mind.]

Election Day 1976: after a grueling primary and a difficult election, Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, sweeps to victory, bringing with him a cohort of new Republican congressmen. In his victory address, he promises to restore America’s power and moral standing. Read More

The political revolutions of the 18th century were not unprecedented. Though their ideas went against the general stream of thirteen centuries of Western political thought, they had examples. The American Revolution could and did appeal to the Dutch and English Revolutions, the French to the American, and all of these looked backward to Republican Rome, Pre-monarchic Israel, and democratic Athens.

But then new things appeared. Locomotives that could pull great loads across land at speeds exceeding twenty miles an hour. Ships that ignored wind and current. Devices that harnessed that bizarre new substance, electricity, to transmit human speech across continental distances in an instant.

There were no examples for any of these. They were Strange. And from them, the Strangeness has never stopped.

From the invention of the telegraph and photography, media and communications technology proceeded so quickly that future historians may see them not as separate technologies, but as different phases in the development of one thing.

and

Until the Unprecedented Era, technology and natural philosophy were separate. When gunpowder was developed, it was because it worked, not because anyone realized that sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate could be combined to produce an explosive (as opposed to nitroglycerin, which was developed from chemistry). When medieval peasants spread marl on their fields, they didn’t know they were returning calcium and magnesium to the soil. They had no idea what was happening. They just knew it increased yields.

Which doesn’t mean that a natural philosopher, if asked, would not have come up with an explanation of why it increased yields. Great men of learning, with long forked beards and impressive academic robes, did not get to their status by shrugging their shoulders and mumbling “I dunno.” If anyone ever inquired, they would have had long and elegant theories, rife with Aristotle and Plato. And if any other natural philosophers had been within earshot, they probably would have produced their own theories, leading to extensive and erudite debate.

And they all would have been wrong. Just because you have an explanation–even an impressive explanation–doesn’t mean that explanation has the slightest connection to reality.