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weather chaos

I've been thinking about writing this for a few days now, maybe more than a week, and for some reason I never get around to it. I start writing down a primer for chaotic dynamical systems and then I think that it will be too much and not very interesting for most people ... but anyway, here are some thoughts.

The recent harsh cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere has lead to some global-warming naysayers to use this as "proof" that global warming is not happening.

Right.

The problem is that global warming will not simply make the Earth "warmer." By raising the temperature, several things happen. For example, glaciers start to melt (which is happening now at an alarming rate) and the cold water not only raises water levels but affects warm currents that are vital to preserving elements of global climate (a big factor is reducing the salinity --and thus the density--of the water, others are that the increased temperatures affect wind patterns which a;sp play a role in determining ocean currents). This could for example slow down or shutdown key oceanic streams such as the Gulf Stream. The imbalance created by the higher temperatures and changes in ocean currents would create extreme weather patterns all over the globe: superstorms on some parts, droughts on others, floods, and so on.

Global warming is, then, a misnomer. In our MTV-3-seconds-a-news-clip culture we probably need a new phrase to describe what global warming does. "Weather chaos" is pretty accurate, but it doesn't have the 'zing' I think.

Additionally, these changes reinforce each other, bigger storms pour even more rain on the oceans, which affects the water even further, just as the winds start behaving in more violent and uncommon patterns. The increased cloud cover brought on by increased temperatures also feeds the greenhouse effect, trapping heat and increasing the temperatures even more, making the climate even more unstable. In the end, we might not see it coming. Dynamical systems have a way of shifting directions dramatically and without warning.

None of this is 100% certain of course. But what ever is? The real question is not "are we sure this could happen?" but "What can we do to stop it from happening if possible?" Assuming it happens, once it starts there will be no turning back, no quick fixes. The weather will be out of control, and we can kiss our precious little all-singing all-dancing civilization goodbye.

All of this is a long prelude to say that I simply don't understand what is the problem in getting some action behind trying to curtail emissions, etc. I can't understand at all why some people argue that trying to cut back on CO2 emissions would "hit the bottom line". What happens when there's no bottom line to hit anymore? Why, why, why is it that western societies, that are so conscious of "health care" seem to worry little when a disaster of massive proportions maybe not too far ahead? Only because it's 20, 30, 100 years into the future? We can all hope that these scenarios are indeed wrong. But the evidence is piling up to the contrary. And if they happen to be right... what then? Will we just limit ourselves to pouting and moaning about it? This is potentially catastrophic as few things are, and not taking it more seriously seems to me a massive folly.

What comes to mind is a paragraph from Richard Preston's The Hot Zone:

In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species.
In Preston's book it is related to the emergence of new viral threats, but it might as well apply in this case.

Now, as it happens, the other day when I saw The Return of the King I also saw the trailer for The Day After Tomorrow which is basically, from what I can see, about this scenario. One good thing about the movie is that it might increase awareness; the bad thing is that people might say "oh, it's just a movie" and since it's from the director of Independence Day reach the conclusion that this is as likely destroying an invading alien race by infecting the Alien's mother ship using an Apple Powerbook with software written in about a day. What is a;sp weird is that the first thing you hear (on the trailer at least) is that "Meteorologists are at a loss to explain what is causing this weather". This is complete crap of course. We will know. We will know that the delicate balance of the Earth's atmosphere has been broken, and that a new balance has to be found, and it will most likely come in the form of another Ice Age.

Maybe for the first time in history we have primitive knowledge that enables us to see this problem coming and take action (and yes, that same knowledge creates technology that is likely, in fact, to be exacerbating something that would have happened naturally anyway, or even creating it artifically). But instead of taking action we are sitting comfortably arguing about it. Even in a strict analysis "by the numbers" it seems to me that the potential cost (investment in cleaner technologies, paying for more serious research on the topic, intergovernmental cooperation on the matter) would be insignificant compared to the consequences.

Sorry if this seems a bit depressing. I'm just venting a little. I do hope that we'll turn around. Humans. You never know what we're going to do next!

Categories: science
Posted by diego on January 26, 2004 at 11:42 PM

the impact of the macintosh

On my entry about the Mac's 20th birthday there were a couple of comments that are interesting enough to echo here.

First, Chris posted a link to the 1984 commercial (thanks Chris!).

Second, Doug posted a long comment that I'll quote verbatim before replying:

As I recall, the '1984' commercial did not have much impact. It was advertising a product that most viewers had never heard of, but failed to introduce the product or suggest any of its benefits. The commercial was never run again.

Also, the Mac wasn't really that 'innovative'. It didn't have much of anything that the Apple Lisa didn't have... except that the Mac was at least somewhat affordable.

Finally, I would note that the 1984 Macintosh was generally considered to be a flop. Sales were abysmal when compared with the then-ancient Apple ][ -- it had taken 74 days for the Mac to sell its first 50K units, but when the IIc was introduced a few months later, Apple sold 50K of them in 7 hours. Worse, Mac sales were miniscule when compared with the IBM PC. The Macintosh failed to stop Apple's decline from #1 microcomputer maker to tiny niche player. The 9" black-and-white low-res screen and undersized keyboard marked it as a rich man's toy.

It was the introduction of the Mac II in '87, with available 13" 640x480 color display and a real keyboard, that finally gave Apple a system that was attractive to professionals.

What Doug says is all true. However, I disagree with his implied conclusion (that the Mac, or the launch even, weren't as important as they were).

Specifically on the points Doug mentions. The Lisa was about one third of the price of a Xerox Star. The Mac was one-fifth to one-fourth of the price of the Lisa. The Mac-to-Lisa jump was done in part due to hardware advances, but more importantly, due to top-notch engineering. Price matters. Also, the Mac improved on the Lisa in several aspects and to a degree it was an independent project that was running in parallel and that Jobs took over when the Lisa project started to sink under its own weight.

Regarding sales, well, the first Mac was in part underpowered (a year later the addition of a hard drive among other things made the product a much better proposition, and it sold accordingly), which hurt its sales. But at the heart of the difference in sales there's also the "Apple factor": not licensing the OS, using proprietary components, pushing for very high margins, etc., which had a big effect IMO.

As far as the impact of the 1984 commercial is concerned, I would just ask how many other commercials for computers are still known to the level that one is, and leave it at that.

Finally, if we start comparing things on the basis of what had already been proposed or developed to a degree (but not seriously marketed) before a product was launched, then the Lisa wasn't really that 'innovative' either because it borrowed a large number of concepts from the Xerox Star (which in turn borrowed from Engelbart's work), as I mentioned in the entry. There's a big differecence between doing something for a tiny audience or playing with it in a lab and designing it so you can manufacture hundreds of thousands of units a year of it. We could also argue (for example) that as crucial as the Mac II was the Laser Printer and PageMaker, which made the idea of "desktop publishing" a reality.

The original Mac planted the seeds for what was to come, and the Mac II and everything after it, on all other sides of the aisle (yes, for example, Windows), resembles to a large degree what was in that "rich man's toy" as Doug describes it.

A "desktop". Icons. Mouse. Graphical filesystem navigation. Applications running inside windows. Menus. Bit-mapped graphics. The idea of a common "Look and Feel", established through published guidelines (this one is fading now though, what with our modern skinnable apps and such :)). An API (The Toolbox) for developing apps against it, with high-level OS services. Most of these things existed before it, but the original Mac had it all, and in some respects it was several years ahead of its time (we all talk about computers as "appliances" now given the right context, but Jobs always saw the Mac as that, a machine that could sit comfortable in any living room without looking out of place).

What is sad is that we haven't really moved too far beyond those basic ideas, particularly since many of them were not designed for the massive amounts of information we deal with today (say, the number of files on our hard drives) and so in some sense some ideas have been as much a problem as a solution. But that's how it played out.

The impact of the Mac is therefore, in my opinion, difficult to underestimate. It defined what computers should be rather than bringing up a fancier version of what they were. And that's what's important, I think.

Update: [via Peter] Andy Hertzfeld's Folklore page dedicated to the early days of building the Macintosh. Very, very cool.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on January 26, 2004 at 12:08 PM

apple: beyond the mac

An News.com article that looks at the past and present of Apple and how its recent move into "digital lifestyle" products might play out. Interesting read.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on January 26, 2004 at 12:25 AM

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