NPF: TIMELY

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 29th, 2015 by Ed

As I was rushing home from work to change, pack, and start rushing to the airport to catch a flight I thought, as I often do in these situations, how recent a development in human history the concept of punctuality is. Don't worry, this isn't going to get metaphysical. I mean actual time. On a clock. The idea that the time where I am standing is the same as the time at my destination is more recent than most people imagine. Clocks have been around for ages, of course, and sundials even longer. The idea of coordinating time from place to place, though, is 132 years old. In the grand scheme of things, that isn't much. With Daylight Savings upon us this weekend it seems an appropriate time to tell one of my favorite tales.

Prior to 1883 every local jurisdiction in the United States essentially kept its own time. They were at first widely divergent, and with 19th Century developments like railroads and the telegraph they diverged less but still bore only an approximate relationship from place to place. In 1880, for example, when it was midnight in New York it was 11:55 in Philadelphia, 11:47 in Washington D.C., and 11:38 in Buffalo. This disparity had two sources. One, each locality set noon at the point at which the sun was at its highest at that specific spot on the Earth, meaning that noon was not the same at any two points. Second and more importantly, the means of keeping time and communicating among different places to coordinate simply weren't that precise.

The biggest complainants about this system, predictably, were railroads and telegraph companies. A train could arrive in St. Louis with the conductor showing official railroad time of noon while everyone in St. Louis was under the impression that it was, say, 12:45. To make things worse, each railroad was setting its own time as were other entities like banks, Western Union, city governments, churches, and so on. In short an invitation to meet someone at noon on Oct. 1 would guarantee that all parties involved would be there at something approximating noon. You had to be prepared to wait around, not to tap your watch at 12:04 and say "That's it, I'm out of here."

Time Zones were the most logical solution to the problem, and I think most people would be surprised to know that before a bunch of railroad magnates met in Chicago in 1883 to adopt a universal standard time, they not only didn't exist but were considered a crackpot idea on par with alchemy or letting women vote. After debating proposals to divide the US into either four or five time zones they ultimately adopted the Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time system we use today (with Atlantic time for the extreme eastern parts of Canada). A railroad baron named William Allen deserves the credit for the system adopted, although as early as 1870 an academic named Charles Dowd was advocating for something similar.

The big day on which every clock would move forward or backward to reflect the new temporal reality was Sunday, November 18, 1883. All United States and Canadian railroads would, on a telegraph signal from the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh at exactly noon, coordinate accordingly. Around the country people reacted with the kind of calmness with which Americans have always greeted useful changes.

No I'm just kidding, people lost their shit. Fanned by histrionic newspaper editorials and whispers of sinister forces motivating the change (let's say, I don't know, Jews) the natural tendency of our nation to resist any and all change was on full display. The power and wealth of the railroads won out in the end though. Crowds gathered around public clocks in city squares and railroad stations to see man's foolhardy attempt to control nature in the flesh. At the appointed moment, clock hands were wound a few inches forward or backward. I wasn't there, but I'm going to assume that at this point everyone made that "Is that it? I stood outside for two hours for that?" face that is equal parts embarrassment and disappointment. Nothing could be less exciting than watching the adjustment of a clock, and I suspect that at least a few people learned a valuable lesson that day about getting caught up in hysteria.

But probably not.

COST vs BENEFIT

Posted in Rants on October 28th, 2015 by Ed

Recently I overheard on public transit two twenties/thirties Frat Bro types praising Carly Fiorina's appearance. I listened for a while and thought, well, they probably wouldn't do the same thing to a male candidate, although I could just as easily picture them making path of least resistance cracks about Trump's hair or Christie's turkey waddle and girth. In the end I contributed only "If you think she looks good now, you should have seen her when she was alive" before exiting the train. Should I have asked them why they were focusing on appearance with the only woman in the GOP race or suggested that they think about her issue positions rather than superficial factors? Probably. But here's the thing. I was tired, and ultimately talking about what Carly Fiorina thinks ("thinks") is about as interesting or relevant as talking about her face.

Imagine the following set of options for how you can spend the next hour of your life. You could push a round stone the size of a minivan up a steep incline. You could run up a staircase that never ends. You could read the user manual and instructions for a selection of pop-up toasters. Or you could explain at length, point by point, why Ben Carson is insane or Carly Fiorina's ideas are not good ones.

Take your time.

I understand on an intellectual level why making cracks about the candidates' appearance or other superficial characteristics is, in the grand sense, Wrong. It makes me and anyone else who does it, by the most literal definition, a Bad Person. The reason I do it sometimes, and the reason I don't get as bent out of shape as a lot of people do when I hear someone else do it, is that there is nothing I can imagine at this point in my life and in American politics that is more tedious, more of a waste of effort, or less engaging than explaining why the "ideas" presented by these candidates are stupid. I'm going to be honest; if my options are to point out that Chris Christie looks like an unemployed pipefitter from Bayonne, NJ or to explain, point by point, why his stale, thirty year old set of Republican talking points rephrased as policy positions is wrong, I'm going to pick the former more often than not.

Think of it this way. If I devoted this space to explaining that supply side economics doesn't work, starting wars is a bad idea, or opposition to gay marriage is hypocritical, Constitutionally unjustifiable, and ignorant, how interesting would that be for you to read? In the last 15 years how many times would you estimate you've read those arguments? How many times have you made them or explained this to someone unwilling or unable to understand them? How many sentences into that post would your eyes glaze over and your mouse begin poking around for something more interesting?

It's just too much effort to continue to take these people seriously. The leading GOP candidates are an actual reality TV troll, a clinically insane man who hears voices from god, a woman whose entire resume is a series of staggering failures in the corporate world, and George W. Bush's dumber brother. There are only so many times you can say "Hey everyone, I don't think cutting taxes on the wealthy is an effective economic strategy!" or "The things these candidates say seem incorrect and outrageous most of the time!" Their barrage of stupidity and falsehoods is too constant for anyone with a normal attention span to keep shooting down for very long. We get it. I get it. You get it. These people are all goddamn insane, and the ones that aren't insane are dangerously stupid, and the ones that aren't insane or stupid are bloodless, craven sociopaths who will say anything if they think it will make morons vote for them. Pointing that out over and over again is tedious and pointless. To engage them on the merits of their "ideas" – not a single one of which is of more recent vintage than about 1990, excepting the occasional new and completely insane theory they cook up for attention in this cacophony of monkey howls – adds as much to our intellectual lives as Chris Christie fat jokes, which is to say not a goddamn thing.

CUE VIOLINS

Posted in Rants on October 26th, 2015 by Ed

I hope you have a box of tissues ready. FBI Director James Comey, speaking to an audience of law enforcement personnel and their various hangers-on, explains that violent crime is higher in 2015 than in 2014 (except in all the cities where it isn't) because of the "Ferguson Effect." Is that the way that the increased militarization and use of force by police contributes to the overall tenor of violence in areas with existing crime problems? Because I agree, that certainly is something that should concern the FBI.

Oh. It turns out that The Ferguson Effect is police being too hesitant to do their job for fear of being caught on video and becoming the next YouTube sensation.

Americans of all stripes love playing the victim, be it in their personal lives or relative to their place in society. It is just heartbreaking, though, to think of all of our heroes behind the badge being unable to operate with impunity. Isn't this the same reactionary segment of society that falls back on "If you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about" when police behavior is put to scrutiny?

That one of the nation's top law enforcement officials doesn't see a problem with police complaining about being video recorded speaks to the systemic nature of the problem. They keep telling us it's "a few bad apples" when it's clear that the problem is systemic, part of both organizational thinking and behavior. I can't get enough of people making videos of cops, because without that we'd never hear of incidents like this or we would hear about them solely from the Official Version of events.

NPF: ON WHALING AND CELEBRITY

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 23rd, 2015 by Ed

When I visited Alaska in June one of the highlights of my trip was seeing a number of large whales while visiting Seward on the Kenai peninsula. It was a total Tourist Moment and I was OK with that. The fact that humans can see whales at all today is something of a miracle; only luck and good timing allowed most of the major species to make it out of the 19th Century without being hunted to extinction.

Why was killing whales so profitable? It turns out that people don't like sitting around in the pitch dark and prefer to have their homes and community spaces lit. Despite what we might imagine, candles played a minor role in lighting homes and certainly weren't used for things like street lighting. Turn off every electrical device in your home and light a couple candles; try reading something at night this way. It doesn't work terribly well, does it? Whale oil was a substantial step up, offering the advantage not only of a brighter, steadier light but one that could be burned indoors without marking everything in the home with soot or slowly poisoning the inhabitants. With natural gas uncommon until the era of the automobile, whale oil was the gold standard. So in the 19th Century we killed a lot of whales. Like. Almost all of them. So that we could light lamps at night.

People who like animals should mark their calendars with the birthdate of a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner (May 2) who in 1846 developed a process to distill a liquid fuel from low-grade coal. It was cheap as hell to produce and burned even steadier and brighter than whale oil. For reasons unknown he named it "Kerosene", and every whale on the planet breached the surface simultaneously to say "THANKS ABE!" Whaling continued but declined.

The problem remained, however, of providing a truly bright light. Until electricity and suitable light bulbs were developed it was hard to produce anything more than, well…if you've ever used a gas lantern you know what you're dealing with. It's nice. It's better than a candle. But it's not really bright bright. Actually, brighter artificial lights could be produced but only via processes that were dangerous, difficult, expensive, or all three. The most popular was invented in 1820 by a Briton named, I shit you not, Goldsworthy Gurney and involved a small flame fed by oxygen and hydrogen directed at a lump of Calcium Oxide, aka quicklime or simply lime. Commonly called Drummond Lights (after an early developer of the process) or calcium lights, they were staggeringly bright (even by modern, electrified standards) but had to be attended at all times. They burned extremely hot and, you know, started a ton of fires. However, in applications in which they could be monitored they were quite popular. Lighthouses, for example, used them to great effect.

Another popular application was in theaters, where an extremely bright light was useful, when directed properly, in drawing attention to the featured performer on stage. And that is why to this day celebrities and other people on the receiving end of intense media attention are said to be "in the limelight."

And now you know that. It's a whale of an anecdote.

whale

MILQUETOAST

Posted in Rants on October 20th, 2015 by Ed

(Oh, why not.)

I won't pretend to be an authoritative source on the politics of countries other than the one in which I live, but like most Americans with an interest in politics I have paid some attention to the recent Canadian elections. Being friends with a bunch of Canadian Marxists doesn't hurt. Suffice it to say no one is doing cartwheels over the NDP's performance. All is not lost for the good people to the north, however. Harper and his Conservatives lost, unseated by Justin "Son of Pierre" Trudeau and his Liberal Party. I mean, the name sounds good. It's not quite what Americans would assume it is based solely on its moniker. It could generously be described as a center-left party, although in realistic (non-American) terms it is effectively a centrist party. Bill and Hillary would feel at home there, as would Tony Blair and others of the "New _____" mindset wherein "New" signifies "More like right-wing conservatives, but not as repugnant."

This will be hard to swallow for legitimate liberals or those even farther to the left, but man…that shit sells. Whatever portion of the electorate is not completely lost to the right wing noise and propaganda machine is likely to warm up to any party with a sorta-charming front man promising the weakest, least scary, least threatening to the status quo kind of liberalism. The message sounds Nice and the people delivering it don't look like bridge trolls, which is more than Tories/Republicans can say most of the time. The appeal of a sweet sounding, Liberalism Lite that takes trendy positions on issues like gay marriage and abortion while avoiding issues with sharp, nasty edges (poverty, racism, structural unemployment). And they're always eager to remind you that they're not those old fashioned "Tax & Spend Liberals" by proposing – co-opting from conservatives, really – issues like welfare reform, charter schools, or draconian cuts to social services.

Picture Hugh Grant as the foppish, effeminate fiancee of the charming working class girl, trying to fit in with her uncouth, low-class brothers by going on a hunting trip and killing a few animals. He figures if he shoots a deer they'll accept him; clearly he finds the exercise ridiculous, but he considers it necessary with no other obvious way to gain acceptance among people he looks upon with the gaze of an anthropologist. That's Jack Trudeau. That was Bill Clinton. That was Tony Blair. I don't like it any more than you do, but this shtick sells. And it's further evidence that after kicking the tires on every septuagenarian and no-name ex-Governor they can find, the Democratic Party is likely to circle back to Hillary Clinton in 2016. It's not that they think her brand of mushy centrism is great. They think she'll win, and there are enough people to whom that's all that matters to carry her through. What such campaigns lose on the far left (and it ain't much in the USA with no real leftist party to jump to) they gain in the center full of unmotivated, indistinct voters to whom the weakest tea will inevitably appeal the most.

TAKE THE "I AM AN ASSHOLE" PLEDGE

Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2015 by Ed

Perhaps you've had the good fortune to avoid seeing this column by LA Times word-vomiter Chris Erskine entitled "Millennials, you literally cannot call yourselves adults until you take this pledge." If ever the title of an opinion column foreshadowed Paul Harvey levels of smug, corn-pone "advice" reinforcing Bootstrap Mythology, this is it. I "literally" had to close the browser when I read the title to steel myself before confronting the body of it. True to form, it offered a hodgepodge of Old Man Shouting at Cloud ("I am entitled to nothing."), complaints that apply every bit as well to non-Millennials ("Just once, I will try driving without texting."), attempts at humor that make Family Circus look like a George Carlin album ("I will not consider the cilantro on my taco to be a vegetable."), cheap, tired stereotypes ("If I can't afford car insurance, I won't spend $20 a day on coffee."), and advice that nobody over 35 follows despite constantly giving it to The Youths ("I will not run up my credit cards.") On a scale of 1 to 10, this column is shit.

The author appears to believe that he is on solid intellectual footing because, as a 34 year old, he somehow "is" a millennial, whatever that term even means. The real problem is that this column, like so many opinion pieces that appeal to Common Sense or Telling It Like It Is, is just right-wing moralizing dressed up unconvincingly in a package that is supposed to speak to a broader audience.

Let me humbly propose a pledge that I'd like Mr. Erskine and anyone else with an urge to give saccharine advice to The Kids These Days to take. To be sure, there are some things about the current generation of young'ns worth criticizing; it is demonstrable, for example, that their attention spans are getting shorter and their grades are wildly inflated. But since the author didn't bother to do any research I'll play by the same rules. Whenever you're ready, take the Gin and Tacos "I Literally Cannot Call Myself a Not-Asshole Until I Take This Pledge" pledge:

  • I will not support people who want to start wars
  • I will not refuse to pay for the wars started by the people I support
  • I will demand that my employer treat me better rather than demanding that yours treat you as badly as mine
  • I will stop giving young people advice based on my experiences in 1970
  • I will not pull up the ladder after I board the lifeboat
  • I will not destroy institutions like public education that I took full advantage of
  • I will stop pining for the America of the 1950s, forgetting what it were like for women and minorities
  • I will stop using words I can't correctly define in politics
  • I am not entitled to anything that I actively want to deny anyone else
  • I will not scapegoat the poor, immigrants, or anyone else for my own unhappiness or failure
  • I will consider the possibility that I'm not funny when I tell others to learn to take a joke
  • I will not insist that problems I find inconvenient do not exist
  • I will live with an accept the consequences of the people I voted for and the economy I created
  • I will stop pretending I'm a radical because I had long hair 50 years ago before becoming middle management
  • I admit that things I say are not interesting, relevant, or true just because I say them
  • I will apologize for my part in creating the world I expect young people to succeed in
  • I will not be surprised when my children put me in a home

    When you're ready to do all that, I'll pledge that all I have to do is work harder and I'll succeed as though I live in a vacuum and not in a broken, clusterbang of an economy that previous generations created.

  • PALACE INTRIGUE

    Posted in Rants on October 18th, 2015 by Ed

    The older I get the more I appreciate the tendency of humans to want to make things more interesting than they really are. This is part of the fundamental appeal of conspiracy theories, for example. Nineteen guys with box cutters are too tame an explanation for an event of the magnitude of 9/11 so we have to spice it up with some stock spy novel machinations. The world is rarely as interesting as it is in our imaginations and we try to close the gap.

    For this and other reasons a popular rumor throughout the George W. Bush years was of family drama underlying that man's rise to the presidency. It was believed during the Reagan years that Jeb was the scion of the Bush family and George was little more than an embarrassing afterthought given a job with a baseball team to keep him busy and (hopefully) out of the way. When W sobered up, though, he quickly made his way in Texas politics and from the governor's mansion we know the rest of the story. Whisper campaigns about almost Shakespeareian levels of drama between the brothers intimated that Jeb, as The Serious One, deeply resented being passed over for his Party Boy brother. It's a neat, self-contained narrative and accordingly many people bought it. Hell, I bought it. It made perfect sense and George W's performance left little reason to doubt that his brother would indeed be more capable.

    This is all interesting now that Jeb is finally having his big moment on the national stage with no brother or father to upstage him. We get to see him in all his splendor, and he is so terrible we have to remind ourselves repeatedly that, yes, this is it and, no, he's not gonna get any better. A nation and pundit class led to believe that the secret jewel of the Bush dynasty was about to shine are scrambling to concoct excuses for what we are seeing in this election. He's terrible. He's so terrible that he can't handle the intellectual might of Donald Trump. He's more terrible than anyone could have imagined, whisper campaign about his secret greatness or not. He is, dare we even say it, worse than George W.

    It's safe to say that very few people saw that coming.

    Nothing about him is redeeming. His personality is classic "asshole neighbor / CPA" from Republican Central Casting with none of the fake Folksy Reg'lar Fella crap his brother pulled off. The ideas he puts forth are unimaginative and lightweight even by the standards of this horrendous GOP field. He has zero campaign instincts and he's forever putting his foot in his mouth ("Americans need to work harder" and "Stuff happens" in response to a mass killing, and we're still more than a year out from the election). He's not good on camera, he's not raising money appreciably better than the other candidates, and his debate performances have been embarrassing. I didn't expect him to be great. Nor did I expect him to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever as a candidate. He just seems like a dick. A guy you would go out of your way to avoid having to talk to in a social setting. The guy who only makes VP because his dad owns the company.

    If he makes any headway in this race it will be a dark omen for the GOP, as anyone voting for him would be doing so strictly as a default vote of no confidence in the rest of the field. It could happen, but he's been so amazingly bad that he might even lose his grip on that role. I'd love to tell you I saw that coming, but we're in uncharted territory of ineptitude here.

    MEN OF VALUE

    Posted in Quick Hits on October 14th, 2015 by Ed

    In a first of its kind ruling, a jury in Milwaukee found a pawn shop with a history of minimal adherence to, if not open disregard for, gun laws liable for the death and severe wounding of two men to the tune of $6 million. Unless it's a pawn shop owned by a shipping magnate the suit, which will obviously be appealed, effectively puts the place out of business. Congress recently passed a ridiculously unconstitutional law shielding gun sellers from liability suits so the verdict came as something of a surprise.

    Did I mention the two guys were cops? Yeah I guess that's important. See, when a cop dies the justice system swings into action like Thor's hammer. They matter, and the people who do them harm must be punished quickly and decisively. When people who don't matter, like black men or kindergarteners or your friends and family, are shot it's really just a tough situation in which everyone's terribly sad about what happened but really what can you do? You can't do anything except maybe have more people carrying more guns until everyone feels safe or we've all shot each other, whichever comes first.

    Given the disinclination of Congress and state legislatures to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole, requiring liability insurance for guns (as every state does for cars) may be one of the few feasible tools available to curb gun violence. Everybody knows that half-assed adherence to existing firearm laws is a problem – off-book sales at gun shows and online are remarkably common – but the problem appears insolvable. By requiring whoever is the owner of record (presumably from the most recent legal sale of the gun) to have liability insurance the number of under the table sales would plummet quickly. Nonetheless, I'm sure that as usual we will decide that since there is some conceivable way to get around an insurance requirement that is definitive proof that we shouldn't bother passing one. You know. Typical NRA logic.

    FIT THE PROFILE

    Posted in Rants on October 12th, 2015 by Ed

    A stray tale from the great Alaska adventure that I thought I had posted long ago but actually did not.

    My idea of vacation is to load a rental vehicle with camping gear and drive for weeks on end. For all practical purposes I live out of the car for that time. In short order it is full of dirty clothes, camping equipment saturated in various savory odors, half-finished or empty food containers, and anywhere from 50-100 cans of NOS depending on how long it has been since I departed. This is indescribably fun but results in certain negative externalities. One is that any police stop or border crossing becomes a very lengthy process, the latter especially. Think about it. You have a single male traveling alone in a rented vehicle with a disheveled interior and no discernible itinerary. I fit every characteristic (except for whatever variety of unofficial racial profiling is in vogue at the moment) of someone driving around in a vehicle full of drugs. Accordingly when I cross into or out of Canada I budget about 60-90 minutes for it. Even though I know that I have nothing illegal in the car, I understand and recognize why they have reason to think I might. It would do me no good whatsoever to pitch a fit. I just sit in the austere holding area (which always includes a compass…you know, to find Mecca. Because justice is colorblind.) and wait while they rifle through my possessions and check every panel on the vehicle for false compartments. It's just part of the cost of doing business.

    In Denali I met an older volunteer park employee – white haired and presumably about 70 – who got to ranting about how difficult it is for him to get across the border when he makes his annual pilgrimage from Texas to Alaska for seasonal volunteer work. Since this happens to me and I hadn't spoken to another human for a few days at the time, I engaged him in conversation. It turns out, as he explained in unwarranted detail, that he is, uh, a firearms enthusiast. The kind who spends every spare dime buying, in many cases from overseas, antique guns. He explained that since he is punctilious in following the rules of "the goddamn ATF" and "the fucking FBI" during these transactions, his fondness for firearms is a matter of record when his passport is scanned at a border crossing. I don't know if you've ever tried to drive into Canada as an American, but they *really* don't want you to bring a gun into the country. Like, they will ask you if you have any guns in the car so many times that you will begin to think it's a joke. So unsurprisingly the many foreign gun purchases that this old guy has made turned his border crossings, like mine, into long ordeals involving thorough vehicle searches.

    What I could not figure is why this surprised him or felt justified in getting so angry about it. Is it not bleedingly, even painfully obvious that his history would be cause for reasonable suspicion that he had bought a gun while in another country? He repeated over and over the point that all of his purchases were 100% legal. Well, everything I do on vacation is legal as well. But a pattern of legal actions can sometimes raise eyebrows about illegal ones. It's not illegal to travel alone, to rent a car, to camp, or to cross the border in the goddamn middle of nowhere at 2:15 AM. But when all of those are combined, a border agent who is doing his or her job will look at me and think something might be up. If I were on the other side of the bulletproof glass, I would be suspicious of me too. Yet apparently when the 2nd Amendment is involved, individuals (especially when we factor in Whiteness and Maleness) apparently expect to be above suspicion. It is somehow offensive, bordering on rage-inducing, that border officers might think that a man who owns more than a hundred guns might have guns on him or be buying or selling guns. It seems obvious to me; then again, I am not the kind of person who would be surprised that other people find me suspicious if I chose to own and talk about guns constantly.

    NPF: TECHNOBABBLE

    Posted in No Politics Friday on October 8th, 2015 by Ed

    I'm not the most optimistic person. In fact I might be in the running for the least optimistic and most cynical. I've never bought into the persistent American belief that technology will solve all of our problems if only we wait long enough and believe hard enough. An honest appraisal of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath shows that while we solved a lot of problems that plagued humanity for centuries, it also created new ones that we either can't or won't solve. We tried blind faith in the power of technology and science for a long time and it has made us cocky. "Whatever, we'll figure something out" has become our excuse for refusing to do anything that isn't convenient and preferably indulgent.

    One future technology that I do think deserves a lot of attention, though, is a fairly mundane one at a time when people are less enthusiastic than ever about pouring money into space. The advances in materials science in the last ten years have been staggering, and we might be inching closer to the capability to construct space elevators. Here's why I think that's more important than most of us realize.

    Well. First, a quick word about the technology. A space elevator is a means of putting objects into orbit without using rockets. A long (we're talking 100+ miles long) cable connecting a point on the surface of the Earth to a geosynchronous satellite and a counterweight (like a small space station) at the opposite end. Then simple mechanical means are used to move cargo up and down it, like a vertically oriented cable car. While it wouldn't make space cheap or easy in the sense of hopping on a bus, it would be vastly cheaper, easier, and more productive than moving things into orbit via rocket launch.

    People like this idea because it can increase the amount of Cool Space Shit we can do for a given amount of resources. I think it holds a ton of potential to help us stop poisoning ourselves with things like toxic and nuclear waste. We accumulate hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous waste every year and currently it's sitting around in surface holding areas until some (inevitably southern) state or nation gets desperate and poor enough to take it and bury it. Once underground, of course, it's only a matter of time until it comes back to haunt us. So when I first heard of this idea in sci-fi fiction as a kid (the idea of a space elevator has been around since the 1890s, with theoretical papers proving that the concept is feasible starting in the 1960s) it struck me as a great way to deal with some of the more aggressively lethal ways we've messed with the planet. Nuclear waste, for example, is sealed in large metal casks and then buried…or held for burial until we find a place to bury them. Instead, we could use a space elevator as a conveyor belt to take them into an orbital facility. Then, using small rockets in the absence of gravity, we point them on a trajectory to the Sun and let 'em go. They're incinerated down to the atomic level as they approach it.

    It sounds a little nuts, granted. But in practical terms, why not? Graphene, carbon nanotubes, and diamond thread filaments – all developed in the last five years – are the materials we've lacked to build a sufficiently strong tether cable. In ten or fifteen years even better, stronger materials are likely to be developed. And once the material is in orbit, it's not like we'd be polluting outer space with it. You push it on a predictable trajectory and as soon as it gets near its destination, that's that. You can't damage the Sun. Hell, you can't even get anything man made remotely close to it.

    I don't think we're going to see these tomorrow, or even in 2020. But any point in the past at which we've looked at this idea and said "It can't be done", the subsequent ten years have shown exponential advancements in the necessary materials and technology. Twenty years from now this is going to be feasible. It's an expensive way to dispose of our endless garbage, but only if you consider the price we pay for keeping it on Earth to be cheap. It might not require much money, but the hidden costs are staggering.