NPF: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 5th, 2016 by Ed

The Internet has been a part of our culture for long enough and is sufficiently well-understood that I no longer feel any sympathy for people who violate its most basic rules or social dynamics and end up being embarrassed. It is 2016. Everyone knows that if you let people vote for something online, especially in an open ended fashion, people on the internet are going to identify quickly the most ridiculous possible outcome and swarm to it. The NHL just learned this the hard way when its online voting for the All-Star game resulted in a 6'9" oaf-pugilist-Ent named John Scott, a man who has played on every team in organized hockey for about 5 minutes while possessing no skill other than throwing punches at small Canadian men, being voted Captain of the All-Star squad. This embarrassed the league inasmuch as he 1) is terrible, 2) has been cut three times already this season alone, and 3) Scott was not even in the league at the time of the game, having been demoted to his natural environment in the minors.

The same scenario unfolds every time this happens. The entity in question refuses to honor the online vote, which inevitably makes them look even worse. Waves of approbation and indignation crash over them until finally they relent, embarrassing themselves yet again by backtracking and attempting to insist that, no, really, we get the joke ha ha ha. (Hockey enthusiasts with a sense of humor shamed the league into letting Scott into the game, in which he played to the great glee of everyone involved and, to rub it in, fans voted him All-Star MVP as a write-in.)

My favorite example of this phenomenon happened a few years ago when the City of Austin allowed internet voting to choose the name of its new solid waste facility. Either they were shocking naive or they were in the mood for comedy, because when you ask the internet to name a building where human feces fills giant tanks and is chemically processed you are just begging for trouble. The winning entry – Fred Durst Center for the Performing Arts, if I recall – was ultimately vetoed by the city management. Boooooooo.

What are some other good examples?

NPF: DELUSIONS

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 29th, 2016 by Ed

Anyone who has taken an English class at the high school level probably can respond with "Moby Dick!" when hearing Herman Melville's name. Fans or English Lit major types during college can go farther and tell you about Benito Cereno, Billy Budd, and Bartleby. Melville fans will also tell you that Moby Dick received no attention during the author's lifetime save for a few viciously negative reviews and it was not until 1920 that the literary world re-discovered it and decided it is great. But if you find someone who can name the books Melville wrote that actually were successful and popular, that's rare.

Today nobody in their right mind would read Omoo or Typee, and in fact you'd have a hard time finding someone who has heard of either. They were Melville's Hits, both in the once terribly popular "high seas adventure" genre. As the titles imply, both tales were set in the South Pacific (and were based on Melville's own experiences traveling there). These books are not good. "Dated" doesn't begin to explain how irrelevant this kind of writing feels today. In its time, though, these stories about adventures in foreign and exotic lands were popular given that most readers in the 1840s were unlikely to see much if any of the world during their lives. Today there's nothing mysterious or exotic about the South Pacific, for example, because at a moment's notice you can watch videos, see pictures, or get on a surprisingly affordable (although certainly not cheap) flight to see it for yourself. Traveling around the world doesn't impress us anymore. And it takes a lot more to titillate the imaginations of modern Americans than some "natives" speaking pidgin English in an island setting. We have movies about robots punching monsters, for christ's sake.

As a kid I was (OK, I still am) fascinated by maps and globes. I'd stare at them for hours sometimes, looking at different places with strange names and wondering if I would ever be there at some point in my life. And I'm not going to lie, well into adulthood I maintained the illusion of the Pacific islands as idyllic paradises. On more than a handful of bad days I imagined myself running away to a tiny island and living on the tropical beaches. The reality is not hard to uncover, and it isn't pleasant. Most of the Pacific islands are floating slums. They're tiny, packed with people, and largely devoid of economic activity. Oh, and the planet is going to swallow most of them soon due to rising sea levels. The Times ran a piece in December that I've read probably a dozen times about the Marshall Islands, a former US possession and now not-really but-kinda-still a US possession. Look at the videos and photos with that story. That place sucks. I don't want to dwell right now on the myriad reasons the Pacific is full of slums (hint: It's basically our fault) but it's difficult to think of a better term to describe what has become of these places. Suffice it to say that the fantasy is better than reality.

The more of the world you see, the less magical any of it seems. We can't expect that other parts of the world will be frozen in time for our enjoyment and appreciation as rich Westerners, but it strikes me as particularly sad that we've exported only the absolute worst parts of America to places that were doing fine on their own before Europeans arrived. Staggering obesity, even more staggering environmental degradation (remember the guano post?), Spam, Coke, McDonald's, shitty beer, and about 75 nuclear detonations by the US and France that leave several areas uninhabitable even 50-plus years later.

It's sad that reality and the shrinking of the world in general have burst our fantasy bubble of island paradises. It's even sadder to think of what it must be like to live there now, and the changes that a 70 year old person living there today must have seen during his lifetime.

NPF: SOLID IMPRESSION

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 22nd, 2016 by Ed

Did you know that stereotypes didn't exist before 1922?

Alright, more accurately the use of the term stereotype in the sense of an oversimplified generalization about a particular type of person or thing is less than a century old. Walter Lippmann's classic text Public Opinion – read it and you'll feel like it was written last year rather than during World War I – debuted the term to the mass public. Oddly enough, though, he drops it in the text cold without introducing or defining it, leaving open the possibility that the term may already have been circulating in literate circles at the time. Alternatively he may simply have assumed that readers could understand it from context. So the follow-up question is: Where did Lippmann get it from? He certainly was a great writer. Perhaps he just made it up?

Not exactly. Stereotype was the name of a printing process invented in 1795 by a Frenchman named Firmin Didot, the son of the man who invented the Didot typeface for those of you who are into such things. Firmin coined it, as was the style of the time, by combining two Latin terms: stereo (solid) and typos (impression). Therefore in the literal sense a stereotype is a solid impression of a group of people. "Solid" in this case has no positive connotation (e.g., "a solid victory" or "do me a solid brah") but to its firmness and lack of variation. The stereotype printing process involved a means of reproducing printing plates efficiently and then using the reproduced (stereotyped) plates to print rather than the original. This allowed extremely consistent printing at a good rate of production, and Didot was very successful. In short, he pioneered a process of churning out unvarying, nearly identical copies of a single source.

I have no idea how or why Walter Lippmann was acquainted with the technical details of antiquated French printing processes. It is inarguable that the term is uniquely suited to conveying the spirit and concept of the modern use of the word.

NPF: BIRD SHIT, VOL. 2

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 24th, 2015 by Ed

(No, it's not Friday, but presumably everyone is done with or in the process of being done with this week)

So I've really kept you on the edge of your collective seat with that cliffhanger about guano, right? You're thinking nothing could possibly be more fascinating than the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and you keep waiting to be proven wrong. Get ready.

Last time we noted that guano experienced a meteoric rise from useless animal waste to valuable industrial commodity to totally depleted resource in a relatively short period of time. Many of the small islands on which it was found were essentially scraped clean by the latter part of the 20th Century and, just as a reminder, the landscape that gets left behind by guano mining is…bleak:

topside-landscape01
Looks promising

If you live on a very small island with no valuable resources and suddenly it is revealed that your island is literally made of something rich countries want, you can imagine how little restraint would be practiced in harvesting and selling it. Once it is all gone, though, you're back where you started, only worse. You have no valuable resources and now you live in an unremediated, totally cashed former strip mine. Hopefully your nation invested what it earned from resource extraction wisely, right?

That brings us to Nauru.

Leaving aside European microstates, Nauru is the smallest country on Earth. It is barely 8 square miles. Total. For comparison, Philadelphia is 134 square miles in size. Oh, and it's incredibly remote and lacking in infrastructure, so the usual "At least we have tourism!" corollary of the South Pacific does not apply. You're thousands of miles from anything, barren, impoverished, and 1/20th the size of Philadelphia's city limits; what do you do to ensure the economic future of your 10,000 citizens when a fairly large but one-time-only windfall comes your way?

If you're the government of the Nauru you establish the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust to make that money last. You also make sure that no one who has any concept of what "investing" entails is in any way involved, and those involved conceive of investing in the way a tycoon in 1920s comic books might. During the 1980s the Trust managed to lose nearly every penny the island earned by selling itself to the petrochemical industry through a string of almost comically bad investments. It financed a 1993 West End flop "Leonardo the Musical," about the painting of the Mona Lisa. It was one of the biggest financial disasters in the history of UK theater. It spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (AUD) to build Nauru House, a skyscraper in Melbourne, Australia. Eventually it was sold to real estate developers for about half of what was outstanding on the loans the Trust undertook to run it. Partially to encourage tourists to come to the island and partially to allow Nauru's elite to get off the godforsaken rock as often as possible, Air Nauru, the government-run airline, purchased a spankin' new Boeing 737. The tourists never came, as tourists do not generally enjoy going to the middle of nowhere to see nothing and stay in unelectrified concrete block houses. The plane was repossessed by debt collectors in 2004 in what I can only imagine was an awesome job for some Australian Repo Man. Media accounts pitifully underscored the situation by describing the 737 as the island's "only link with the outside world" and Air Nauru's only plane.

At this point Nauru, a poor and indebted nation, did what poor and indebted individuals often do. It turned to the gray economy. Or, you know, crime. Basically crime. It started an "economic citizenship" program of the type that were common prior to 9/11, in which a passport and citizenship were sold to any individual willing to pay $25,000 to the failing government. When that was shut down by the U.S. and Australia, Nauru became a money laundering hub for Russian and East Asian organized crime. That didn't last long, but this time Australia offered Nauru an appealing alternative: it could take millions of dirty Australian dollars to build a prison for asylum seekers. Aussies were alarmed in the 2000s by the number of (NON-WHITE ASIAN) asylum seekers attempting to enter the country, and housing them on Australian soil was considered an unacceptable option. A third nation desperate for cash and reasonably proximate to Australia presented the idea solution. Amnesty describes the detention camp as "a human rights catastrophe, a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions." About a month ago, Nauru decided to simply open the camp and let the detainees wander around the barren island as they please, which has improved conditions.

Just kidding, the detainees are getting raped a lot.

The end of the Guano Economy didn't treat anyone especially well, but nobody can claim that it treated them worse than it did Nauru. It might be the actual worst place on Earth right now, excepting Fresno.

NPF: BIRD SHIT, VOL. 1

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 3rd, 2015 by Ed

Of all the strange laws on the books in the United States my favorite is the Guano Islands Act (11 Stat. 119, enacted 18 August 1856). It states that, "Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States." Translation: if you find an uninhabited rock jutting out of the ocean containing guano (excrement of seabirds, pinnipeds, bats, and other animals with a fish-centric diet) you claim it. Not only can you claim it as your own, but it can become part of the United States.

Really.

In 1802 German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt discovered that samples of guano from the coastal regions of Peru were pretty much the ideal fertilizer for European style farming. It is absolutely loaded with nitrates, phosphates, and other things present in lesser quantities in the fertilizer (cow, pig, and human manure, euphemistically called "night soil" in Britain) used by European and American farmers at the time. Plus – and this, like the flag of Switzerland, is a big plus – it has very little odor. The fact that it could also be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder pretty much sealed the deal; everyone on Earth was scrambling to get their hands on as much shit as possible throughout the 19th Century. The Dung Boom took off in earnest around 1850, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and a population explosion in the Western world.

Some islands and coastal areas were positively choked with the suddenly valuable crud. Guano deposits over 150 feet deep were not uncommon and in some places it was right on the surface, requiring no mining. So finding and "harvesting" guano was not a problem. The problem was that industrial and agricultural demand for guano was so high that huge deposits that took thousands of years to accumulate were depleted in a matter of years. Europe and the United States went on an unchecked guano binge. For its part the Guano Islands Act led to about fifty claims, most of which are now part of other nations after the US relinquished all claims under the Act but a handful of which are still part of our country. Really. Most Americans have never heard of places like Palmyra Atoll or Kingman Reef. Sure, they're barren, incredibly remote, and uninhabited. But various Federal agencies continue to administer them as "Insular Areas" (neither states nor territories) known collectively as the US Minor Outlying Islands.

The Western lust for guano is a touchy subject in most island nations in the South Pacific, where phosphate strip mining has left visible, horrendously ugly scars on what little land they have. Independence was granted to many of those nations, former French and British Empire possessions, in the exact same year as the guano deposits where exhausted. Kiribati and Tuvalu, for example, became independent from the United Kingdom (where they were administered collectively as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) in 1979. The last commercially viable guano deposits were tapped out in 1977. What a coincidence! Colonial powers were literally the guy who borrows your car and returns it with the tank on empty.

Every nation affected by the guano boom suffers to some degree from its legacy, but in some places the consequences were worse than in others. In some places you could say without exaggeration that they border on comedy. Horrible, dark comedy. TO BE CONTINUED…

NPF: SWITCHEROO

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 27th, 2015 by Ed

Growing up in Illinois and also living in Indiana for seven years as a young adult I became familiar with the annual controversy surrounding Indiana's historical refusal to adopt Daylight Savings Time. In 2005 the state legislature finally required all counties in the state to observe DST when it was agreed that it was ridiculous to have three different time rules in place in one state. There were (and still are) 12 counties on Central Time (border counties that are part of the Louisville and Chicago metro areas, both of which are Central), a bunch of counties on Eastern time without observing DST, and the remainder of counties on Eastern time with DST. It was really stupid. Equally stupid were many of the reactions to the change. People made dire predictions about the consequences and of course when the appointed day arrived in 2006 everyone just changed their clocks and instantly forgot about it in favor of, you know, going about their day.

Changing to Daylight Savings requires very little. Imagine the clustercuss it would create if we had to make a major change like, say, switching the side of the road on which we drive. Wouldn't that be crazy?

Sweden did it. In 1967. So we can just ask them.

Brief background. In 1960 Sweden realized that there were a number of economic disadvantages with being the only continental European country with shared land borders that drove on the left. Norway and Finland, neighbors with which it shares borders, drove on the right. Furthermore since cars in Sweden were left hand drive, passing on two lane roads from the left lane was basically an act of blind faith and courage, an example of whatever "Hold my beer" is in Swedish. Most traffic systems observe the "head in the middle" rule so the driver has the best view of the oncoming traffic. That's why the left-lane driving British have their steering wheels on the right hand side and…well, almost the whole rest of the world has the opposite. I've driven without the Head-Middle rule in the US Virgin Islands, where cars have American left-hand drive but British left-lane driving, and beyond the simple unfamiliarity I can attest that it is not a great way to navigate narrow, winding roads.

In 1962 Sweden had a referendum in which switching to right-lane driving went down in flames, with nearly 90% of the public opposed. People dislike change and wildly underestimate their ability to get accustomed to something like this so public reluctance was not surprising. In a moment of Good Government 101, though, the Swedish legislature passed a law anyway, doing the right thing and disregarding the fact that it angered voters in the short run. They were also wise enough to legislate a long period of time – two full years – to prepare Swedes and the nation's physical infrastructure for the change. The date chosen was September 3, 1967 for Högertrafikomläggningen ("right hand traffic diversion"). That doesn't exactly lend itself to marketing so it was publicized as Dagen H ("H Day") which sounds much better and also had a goddamn great logo:

dagen

Overnight on Sept. 2, a Saturday evening, all road traffic in the nation was halted around 4:30 AM and required to resume in the right lane at 5:00. Big cities had longer shutdowns while workers hurriedly changed signage and repainted intersections, yet even Stockholm finished its changes in less than eight hours. For the most part, a few images of confusion aside, Swedes appear to have handled it without much consternation. Accidents actually went down, albeit briefly before returning to normal levels as more and more drivers who had avoided the roads out of fear resumed their normal driving habits.

As part of publicizing the change the government gave out thousands of pairs of gloves with a red left and green right to remind drivers of the correct traffic pattern, but it turned out that people didn't need all that much reminding. Once the change was made drivers appear to have taken to it quickly, no doubt aided by the two years of reminders and preparation. I guess we're more adaptable than we expect. Well, at least the Swedish are. I'm not sure Americans could handle something like this. In fact looking at the way we handle any kind of social, economic, or political change I'm confident that we couldn't. Then again we might surprise ourselves.

But probably not.

NPF: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 20th, 2015 by Ed

So after a million or so Facebook users saw this post I got a bit of a surge of popularity on that ubiquitous social networking platform. One of the inviolable laws of the internet is that increased exposure brings trolls. Lots of trolls. And I've learned very quickly that motivated trolls are a big problem in that format.

To be brief, if someone reports your post on Facebook you get blocked from posting for something like 72 hours. As best I can tell there is no human involvement. Someone reports your post, a text recognition algorithm or something equally insipid "reviews" it and they send you an automated message banning you for some apparently randomly chosen amount of time. This would not be so frustrating except that Facebook literally has no customer support. I don't mean they have bad support; they have none. There is no chat, no email address, no phone number, nothing. They have a Help Center online and a few forms that, once filled out, result in a terribly helpful canned "Thank you for your feedback, we will continually improve our product" message.

It dawned on me that "customer service" may exist at Facebook, but we would never know. We're Users. The advertisers and the data harvesting industry are its customers. They probably have a hotline with real, helpful humans on the other end. For its billion users there is no interaction available whatsoever. Go ahead and Google it; you can find just about anything on the internet. Anything except a person who has successfully managed to contact Facebook by phone or even by email.

If I were more than a hobbyist – say I was a cartoonist or comedian and I relied on FB as an integral part of my means of supporting myself financially – this would be a killer. I don't understand how they manage to get away with having no support staff of any kind (although the fact that I've been on FB for about seven years and this is the first time I've ever had any need to contact them suggests that they're just playing the odds well).

It's not going to take any money out of my pocket, luckily. But regardless, that's why there won't be any updates there for a few days. If I manage to find the center of the Matrix I'll let you know.

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.

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

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.