My 70’s Suitcase Contents

By Shamus
on Aug 29, 2017
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Column

If you missed the previous entries: Two weeks ago I proposed a thought experiment where we talked about what we would put in a suitcase for the people of 40 years ago. Then last week I outlined who I’d send it to, how I’d motivate them to share their discovery, and how I’d package the data. This is a very loose summary and you really should read those earlier entries before reading this one.

A note: In the previous entries I said I wasn’t going to talk “politics”. Some people found this ambiguous. I thought it was clear from context that I was talking specifically about American partisan politics, but some people went with the more formal definition. And yes, using the rigid definition the entire suitcase is political because the whole thing contains information that will be used to make political decisions. However, my immediate concern was to rip the red / blue labels off of everything to make the information more palatable to people all over the political spectrum. The issues will get politicized later by the people of 1977, but I’m not going to endorse one group or the other even if I personally favor one over the other. In the end, I don’t care which party acts on this stuff, as long as they act.

I know I made a big deal about how hard it would be to stuff the suitcase full of scientific data, but that was just to illustrate the tradeoff between size and accessibility. In truth the limiting factor here isn’t cubic volume or storage formats, but time. My time. If I’m working alone then there’s only so much time I can put into this. I still need to earn a living and I can’t spend years of my life on this thing.

How long does it take to track down a study, convert it from barbaric PDF to (say) HTML, and then track down all the studies it cites and do the same for them? How long will it take me to figure out what studies are most important? Remember I also need to check and see if a given study is in dispute, or has been disproven. Doing this kind of research across multiple domains for 40 years worth of progress would be an immense task.

I’m just a guy. Maybe a friend can help out, but one of the parameters of the exercise is that I don’t have access to any special resources. I’ve gotta do this myself, by hand, one study at a time. At this rate, it could take me months to fill even a single DVD with “studies”.

And like I said last week, I don’t think the scientific stuff is the most important stuff. Science is cool, but you can save a lot more lives with (say) warnings about natural disasters, diseases, and famines. For me the science stuff is just the icing.

Before we talk about the contents, we need to talk about…

Chaos Theory

Easy on the wing-flapping there, buddy! You trying to cause a hurricane?

Easy on the wing-flapping there, buddy! You trying to cause a hurricane?

Regardless of what you put in that suitcase, you’re going to be making massive changes to the timeline. Even if the suitcase only contains a single VHS tape with a nothing but a Rickroll on it, it’s still going to wipe a lot of people you know out of the timeline. This change is so severe that you’ll probably decide you don’t want to send the suitcase at all. (Which is why I always imagine it as an alternate timeline that doesn’t alter my present. I don’t want to erase my own kids from existence!)

If Red Forman takes this particular Monday morning off of his job so he can dig through my 70’s suitcase, then it represents a very small change to his personal timeline. He didn’t go out and drive his car today. Big deal, right? But his absence will knock his colleagues – and other commuters – off of their original path for the day.

These very small changes will be compounded when you take into account the messy business of human procreation. Let’s say that Bob Citizen was originally stuck behind Red Forman at a traffic light today. Thanks to my meddling, Red Forman isn’t there, so Bob manages to slip through just before the light turned red. He gets home to his wife a minute and a half sooner. His entire evening will be similar, but slightly off. He’ll probably eat the same dinner, watch the same TV show, and go to bed at the same time, but his evening will be as different as any two of your Monday evenings. Similar, but not identical.

So then Bob and his wife go to bed and do like married couples do. Only, in this slightly altered timeline the exact timing of this encounter will be different. Maybe they conceive a kid when they originally didn’t. Maybe they fail to conceive a kid when they originally did. Or maybe they conceived a kid in both timelines. However – and here is where things get messy – the typical guy puts out somewhere around 350 million sperm. What are the odds that the exact same sperm will reach the egg in both timelines? It’s probably about the same as the odds of winning the lottery twice in a row.

Therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Citizen will have different children. These children will have different interests and make different friends, thus altering the paths of still more people. Other people will be knocked off of their original timeline, which changes the outcome of more conceptions, and so on. And remember, this is just one guy. Red Forman’s day off probably knocked a lot of his friends and coworkers off of their path. They’re all going to be creating subtle new ripples that will change more babies.

Basically, if you interfere with the past in any way then you’re going to erase every single person born less than 39 years ago and replace them with a different set of randomly chosen human beings. I can think of a lot of under-39 people I really like that I don’t want to erase, so make peace with this idea before moving on.

Also, those of you who were planning on sending sports almanacs, stock market data, or lottery numbers should probably look for something else. Those will be accurate for a time, but sooner or later those slight changes to the life of Bob Citizen will hit someone else, which will hit someone else, and so on. Eventually everyone is ten seconds early or two minutes late. Everyone makes slightly different chitchat, spills their coffee at different times, and generally makes changes to even more timelines. Those changes will propagate outwards until they bump into the lottery officials and athletes, and the chaotic outcomes of their actions will begin to change. This will happen sooner if your suitcase makes the news and people start talking about it.

Enough digressions Shamus! Just pack the suitcase already!

Fine, here’s what I’m sending…

Stage 1

An old microfiche machine. I can`t believe I forgot these things existed.

An old microfiche machine. I can`t believe I forgot these things existed.

This is the stuff that should be immediately accessible and comprehensible to the people of 1977. The raw data is on paper. If you’ll let me steal an ideal from the comments, I’ll include a microfiche backup and a suggestion the two be kept at different locations. (I really want them to see this stuff!) I’m not going to waste space on cassette tapes. Stage 1 is designed so that even if something goes horribly wrong and nobody can decipher the latter stages, the most crucial information will still be readily available. Sure, paper is bulky but it’s easy to read, relatively easy to copy, and this is really the only stage that matters.

Most of this is life-or-death type stuff, which I’ll share in as much detail as I can manage. I’ll print out as much stuff from Wikipedia as I can, including main articles and also supporting articles where needed. For the really big complex topics I might even resort to throwing one or two books into the suitcase. I realize this is horribly inefficient in terms of space, but some of these things have large body counts and global consequences, and that’s a lot more important than giving them another Game Boy to play with.

The precise location of the wreck of the Titanic. Before its re-discovery on September of 1985, the world really did think that the Titanic was lost forever, an unsolved mystery for the ages. Providing 1977 with the location (and details about what the condition of the wreck is) offers yet more proof that this package is from the future, more data to excite the public, and provides information of genuine scientific value.

The details of the Hyatt Regency Collapse in 1981, which killed 114 people and injured 216. This one is just to save some lives. It’s also a good illustration of how dangerous it is to go mucking about with history. As a result of the disaster, many reforms were made in the area of engineering to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. If the disaster is averted, maybe those reforms won’t be enacted and maybe there will be some larger disaster down the road. Still, it doesn’t feel right to let 114 die so that engineering can be reformed. Send the data, show the problem, and leave it to the engineers of 1977 to work it out. There’s always hope that they will be able to enact the same reforms without suffering the losses we did. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of this exercise? To let them learn from our mistakes?

Stop putting asbestos into things! I’d include a warning about how dangerous it is to use, but ALSO a warning on how dangerous it is to remove. Fun fact: My wife’s high school removed their asbestos insulation back in the mid 1980s. It was supposed to be done over summer vacation, but the project ran long and they were still working on it when school started. Over the next decade, three different teachers died of cancer. (It was not a big school.) A similar thing happened at the even smaller rural school where my father-in-law taught, although I think they only had two deaths over the next decade. You can’t prove that the asbestos removal caused the deaths, and even if you could it doesn’t matter. These are some broke-ass school districts, so even if someone wanted to sue, there isn’t anything to be gained by doing so. It would be really great if our new timeline could avoid stupid tragedies like this.

Details of the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Again, this might save some lives. It also might change the course of USA energy policy, since we got really shy of nuke power after Three Mile Island. Again, I don’t know what the consequences will be, but the best I can do is give them the knowledge and trust them to do the best they can.

Major space exploration mishaps: Challenger, Mars Climate Orbiter, Columbia, etc. This will save both lives and space-money. Maybe it will also get NASA to fully transition away from imperial units.

Information on the AIDS epidemic. A lot of lives could be saved if we could get the word out sooner. We didn’t figure out that this autoimmune problem was a retrovirus until 1983. Beyond that, it took us a bit longer to work out what worked and what didn’t in terms of prevention. Even then, there was a lot of confusion and misinformation over who was at risk and who wasn’t. Since the first victims were overwhelmingly gay men and IV drug users, it was thought that those were the only people susceptible to it. (If a straight man got it, people would just assume he was a closeted gay or former “junkie” who’d picked up the disease in secret and didn’t want to own up to it.) With the right information, we might be able to straighten all that out much sooner and convince people to start wearing condoms and give up the heroin. Given how ferociously the disease spread in those early years, getting the word out sooner might shave a million or so people off the global infection statistics in the western world.

I have no idea what anyone can do about the epidemic in Africa, but I’d warn them about that too.

The 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. I’m a bit nervous of telling them, about this one.

On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early warning system of the Soviet Union reported the launch of multiple USAF Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were correctly identified as a false alarm by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack based on erroneous data on the United States and its NATO allies, which would have probably resulted in immediate escalation of the cold-war stalemate to a full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.

Really, this single event should sink our entire project. There’s no way I’d want to roll those dice again. If Stanislav isn’t at work that day, maybe we get nuclear war. I really don’t want to send this suitcase. Yes, I can save a million or so lives with this information and medicine, but that’s not really worth risking the lives of potentially billions.

However, if we have to send this suitcase for the purposes of fulfilling our involuntary hypothetical mandate, then I guess it’s best to include this information. Unless the Soviets see it as a ruse or a smokescreen for the purposes of launching a REAL attack, in which case they’ll be MORE likely to…

Ah, screw it. Moving on…

Information on the Mt. Saint Helens eruption on 8:32:17 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980. Having the earthquake predicted to the day ought to build confidence in the value and authenticity of of the suitcase, and it might save 57 livesIt probably won’t save everyone. Several of the people killed by the eruption knew the danger and elected to stay anyway..

Information on the major serial killers from the 1970s until now. This one is tricky. On one hand, you don’t want some Minority Report style thing where you’re condemning people for crimes they haven’t committed yet. I’d urge my Red Forman to get these profiles into the hands of the FBI rather than making them public. If they begin their killing spree, the authorities ought to be able to zero in on them sooner.

Smoking Kills. The people of 1977 knew this already, so there’s not a lot to be gained from over-doing this one. The trick in kicking America’s cigarette habit was less about medical science and more about cultural change. That takes time. Still, a little more data might help.

Warnings against antibiotic overuse.

It’s the carbs and calories that make you fat, not the fat! Go back to eating butter. It’s actually better for you than margarine! Don’t go through the low-fat food craze. It was stupid and we got super-fat anyway.

Information on major hurricane and earthquake disasters around the world. This would include their timing, their damages, their death toll, and their aftermath. However, this one gets a bit tricky. Once again we run into chaos theory.

Back in 1992-ish someone explained chaos theory to me like this: “A butterfly beats its wings in China, and later you get rain in San Francisco instead of LA.” This is a terrible analogy, because it requires you to already understand the concept before you can follow the analogy. In 1992 I was offended at how stupid this sounded, because I knew full well that it would take a phenominal amount of energy to PUSH a storm to a different city, and I knew that a butterfly doesn’t have that kind of power output.

A far better and easier to follow analogy is this video from Minute Earth on the formation of rivers and how the position of a single muskrat burrow can eventually lead to dramatic changes in the position of a river downstream. The key ingredient missing from the butterfly analogy is time. It’s not the the butterfly beats its wings and diverts the course of a storm tomorrow. It’s that this minor perturbation plays out over the scale of years, until it creates some change on a scale visible to humans.

The thing is, I don’t know how long it takes for things like this to impact massive systems like weather. Like I said above, our re-write of history is going to result in different people who live different lives. How long does it take for that human activity to begin visibly impacting global weather patterns? Months? Decades? Folks have been slugging it out over this in the comments, but I don’t know what current chaos theory states. I don’t even know if there’s a consensus on this. But even if there is, I think it’s best to err on the side of assuming maximum chaos. State up front that their weather will eventually differ from ours. They might learn a bit about weather and chaos theory!

Maybe they won’t have a hurricane “Katrina”. Maybe their weather patterns will match ours perfectly. Still, it’s better to include the data than not. Also, even if “Katrina” doesn’t hit at the same time, there’s a lot New Orleans could do to make itself less vulnerable to hurricanes. Maybe a description of the devastation will entice them to invest in some better infrastructure.

The last 40 years of detailed weather data. Uh, I get the impression this might be a hot-button topic so soon after Hurricane Harvey. I don’t want people to take offense if I’m being too alarmist, or not alarmist enough, or they don’t like the particular way I’m framing the data, or whatever. So let’s just acknowledge that I’m going to put a bunch of information in here and move on.

The last 40 years of War on Drugs and War on Terror: These topics are incredibly complex and I don’t pretend to understand either of them in enough detail that I’d want to be in charge of solving them. So I’ll keep the data nice and clinical. What we did, what it cost, what the result was. It’s entirely possible they’ll make mostly the same general policy choices again, but more info is better. This might actually be too big to fit into Stage 1. Since it’s not time-sensitive, I might shove it on denser media for Stage 2. I dunno. I’m not going to count the pages and calculate cubic volume to figure it out right now.

The Y2K Problem: Your code will live longer than you think. Plan ahead. Also, try not to have an absurd panic about it. Here’s what we did, what it cost, and what the result was.

HTML Specifications & Standards I probably won’t bother with CSS. HTML was the “killer app” of the internet. Moreover, they’re going to need the HTML to read all the science stuff I’m leaving for them in Stage 2.

Compact disc specifications. This is a good format. It will be even better for them, since it will be unencumbered by patentsEh. Maybe. The technology was already in development at this time, and it’s hard to say what patents had been filed.. They’ll need to master this format in order to read the stuff I’ve got for them in…

Stage 2

What, ANOTHER disk filled with "Never Gonna Give You Up"? The people of the future must really love this song!

What, ANOTHER disk filled with "Never Gonna Give You Up"? The people of the future must really love this song!

As we move on from paper and microfiche to a denser format, we run into the problem of bridging the data format gap between ourselves and the recipients. In the last entry, Abnaxis posted a comment that shows it’s not nearly as hard as I expected, provided you know what you’re doing. His ideas would certainly be better than what I’ve outlined here, but it seemed like cheating to change my answer to “I would have Abnaxis solve the problem for me.” So we’re going with my original plan, which is a stack of paper for the critical stuff and optical media for everything else.

It’s true, it won’t be easy for them to move the data off of these CDs to one of their own computers. But all of this stuff is optional. None of this is life-threatening. Honestly, the stuff in Stage 1 was the real payload. I actually WANT them to have to work for Stage 2. I want them to stay focused on that Stage 1 stuff for a few years, and if I put Stage 2 in a more accommodating format then it might overshadow the most important stuff. Even before the internet, news was capricious and driven by novelty, and the stuff in Stage 2 is going to be pretty dang novel.

When possible I’ll rip e-books to HTML. When a good book isn’t available, I’ll use Wikipedia.

All of the important published papers in mathematics, geology, biology, physics, astronomy, botany, etc. This will take a LONG time. I think some people in the comments have been underestimating what a massive undertaking something like this would be. Being a layman, I’m sure I’m going to miss a lot of important stuff. I mean, just figuring out what is the “most important stuff” in a field outside my domain is a huge project. I’m willing to bet that among experts this would be a hot topic for debate. But I’ll do what I can.

Ergonomics and user interface design. Input mice exist in 1977. Sort of. There ought to be some books on the evolution of UI design over the years. Just rip that to HTML and burn it to a CD.

The design of “IBM Compatible” machines over the years. They don’t have to follow the spec, but this might be useful and help them to plan ahead.

Best practices for security. Various encryption methods, hashing algorithms, security techniques, the social engineering aspect of hacking, and a history of our hilarious security blunders. There are lots of really good books on this topic so hopefully I can get an e-book version and just rip them to HTML. Fingers crossed.

Advice to cable companies In the USA, cable companies spent the entire 80s laying expensive one-way cables all over the country to deliver cable television. Just as they were finally finishing up the job, the internet appeared and all of those cables became obsolete. I’m not super-thrilled with helping out cable companies since they are assholes and I’d love to orchestrate their downfall as punishment for their decades-long jackassery. But this is the right thing to do and might make the internet available to home users a little sooner.

And so on: Domain names. Patent trolls. VR. Automotive safety features like airbags and anti-lock brakes. New battery technology. Flatscreen technologies. USB specification. Medical procedures. Wi-Fi specs. Anti-glare surfaces. Noise-cancellation headphones. Electric cars. Drones. Machine learning. Self-driving cars. I’ll just kitchen-sink everything. The stuff I’m sending won’t necessarily let them jump ahead 40 years, but it will be useful and help them avoid wasting resources on technologies that aren’t ready yet. (Like trying to make electric cars before batteries are good enough, or trying to make VR happen while still using CRT displays.)

And of course there will be a few movies mixed in with the science just to keep them digging. I’d include broad crowd-pleasers like the Marvel movies, but I’d also include some more high art cerebral titles, such as Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.

Stage 3

I’m putting this stuff on DVDs. Yes, memory sticks are WAY more compact. But DVDs are more similar to compact disks and so this technological leap will be easier for them to make. Moreover, they will then have a great patent-free storage format for HD movies. Again, I want them to have to work to access this stuff. This is the most frivolous stage of all but also the one with the biggest pop-culture payload. I really don’t want this stuff dominating the headlines until the earlier stuff has been digested.

All the NASA data I can download. Mars. Pluto. Jupiter. Venus. Images. Video. Surface scans. Everything I can get from Hubble and our other important telescopes.

All of the movies from the previous stages, except now in 16:9 HD. This will present some interesting things for them to fight over. At this level of quality, the movies would be good enough to show in a theater. Even if a movie enters the public domain, I’m sure someone will try to screen them in theaters or sell them on whatever home video format is popular at the time. And that’s fine. You’re allowed to do that with public domain stuff. But once money starts changing hands, I’m willing to bet studio lawyers and people mentioned in the credits of these movies will try to demand they should get a cut of these films. Marvel may try to claim control over movies featuring their characters. That’s fine. It’s a stupid fight, but it’s not any worse than the ridiculous legal shenanigans of our timeline. There will always be people willing to fight over money and there will always be lawyers willing to help them do it. I can’t solve that with a suitcase.

A collection of educational and cultural videos from YouTube. I’d start with this one.

This is actually how this project “bothered” me for the last month or so. I’d be enjoying a YouTube video when the thought would pop into my mind, “This would be a really good addition to the 70s Suitcase!” I couldn’t stop trying to see the video through the eyes of some pre-internet viewer and trying to imagine how they might interpret the memes, lingo, references to videogames, accents, and controversies of our time. I’d make a mental note to include the video I was watching, then realize I’d just made a mental note to do something in a hypothetical situation that will never happen, then realize I’d just zoned out and missed the last 15 seconds of the video and I needed to rewind.

Bonus Items

I`m not sure how smart it is to inflict Angry Birds on 1977.

I`m not sure how smart it is to inflict Angry Birds on 1977.

There’s no point in leaving any empty space. Once I’m exhausted burning CDs and DVDs and I’m ready to get on with my life, I’ll pack everything into the suitcase and see how much room is left. The rest of the space gets filled with future toys: Nintendo DS and a few carts. A handful of used smartphones. My kindle. Our old laptop. I’ll throw the full text of Wikipedia on the hard drive (58GB) and leave it to them to figure out how to get it. The allies broke Enigma, so I’m sure some enterprising group of MIT students will solve this before 1995.

If there’s still space left over, I’ll hit the flea market and see what gadgets I can find. To them, the difference between a 2008 and 2017 device is very small. To me, it’s a difference between $5 and $500. So there’s no reason to spend all my money on the latest gear.

So that’s my plan. I think we can agree this is a weird scenario, there are too many unknowns, the risks far outweigh the benefits, it would be a huge pain in the ass to pull off, and you’d never know how it turned out. All in all, a rotten scenario. I don’t know why I daydream about this sort of thing and not, I dunno, being Captain America or just flying around like Superman.

Anyway. I hope you enjoyed thinking about it, because I’m finally enjoying NOT thinking about it.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] It probably won’t save everyone. Several of the people killed by the eruption knew the danger and elected to stay anyway.

[2] Eh. Maybe. The technology was already in development at this time, and it’s hard to say what patents had been filed.


A Hundred!20202015Many comments. 175, if you're a stickler

From the Archives:

  1. Da Mage says:

    Since you mention sending back data about VR, and since it is my research area. VR did exist in `1977, it was just super experimental, basic and had roots in military simulators. It’s not that didn’t know how to do it, they just knew they didn’t have the technology for it, that’s what killed VR in the late 90s, they knew how it should work, they just couldn’t make the hardware to make it work.

    As a side note, it is much like VR, phong shading (which was the standard for much of the 2000’s video games) was invented in 1970. They knew how to do things long before they were really possible.

    • Tizzy says:

      Knew how to do stuff before the technology was ready might as well be the name the1970s. There are always people like that at any moment, but the 70s might be when the density was the highest.

      In the same way, the 1980s might be the time when the people having the technologies could see what societal changes were possible, if only widespread adoption was to occur.

  2. Radagast says:

    You should probably toss in one or two blu-rays and one or two UHD blu-rays just to keep them interested in the technological progression of optical media.

    And just for giggles, throw in the biggest USB flash drive you can put your hands on, just so when they’re so thrilled at figuring out how to use it they can see how far they have to go when they see how much storage is on there!

    Curiosity is an amazing motivator, but in the 1632 series books by Eric Flint he notes that the people back then weren’t stupid, they just didn’t know what was or wasn’t possible. Show them something was possible (like SCUBA or airplanes) and they’ll figure out a way to make it happen – maybe not even the way it happened in the normal timeline!

    • Tizzy says:

      Indeed, people from 1977 weren’t stupid. :-)
      If your only goal was to kickstart their scientific and technological knowledge, then your main concern would be to respect their time. You don’t want to throw too much at them, just enough to steer them in the right direction. Because ultimately they have to figure things out for themselves, make the knowledge their own. There’s only so much you can outright hand out.

      Also, our technology is full of oddities and sub-optimal choices. Hand them too much of that over and you’re not giving them the chance to avoid some of our less productive choices.

      • Felblood says:

        For this reason, my junk lappy that I send back will contain one of those 16-in-one card readers that came on every computer in 2011.

        The only card that fits it will already be inside, and it will be and SD adapter for a mini SD card, with a mini SD to Micro SD adapter inside. Inside that will be a 512GB Micro SC card full of every 80s or later movie about time paradoxes, that I can pirate in a week, and the source for every weird fork of GNU I can find.

        It’s great technology, but anyone smart enough to replicate it won’t be able to resist improving on it, in this context.

    • Blackbird71 says:

      Forget the Blu-Rays; send them HD DVDs, and forever change the course of optical media development!

      Hey, what’s the fun in sending stuff to the past if you can’t throw in a little twist here and there?

    • Paul Spooner says:

      I agree that sending modern artifacts in addition to data could be really helpful. Once you see a working implementation of a technology, it’s often much easier to optimize the design. Unburdened by existing infrastructure and equipment, the other timeline might very well come up with better standards.

      If nothing else, the 5.5×2.5 mm concentric adapter for 12v DC (pretty common now, and standard on motorcycles), and USB (A and B-Micro) for 5v DC and data would hopefully bypass the connector/voltage purgatory we’re still struggling to emerge from. You’d need a slower clock-speed version for the slower computers of the day, but I’m sure they would be able to de-strapolate a USB0 standard from USB1, 2, and 3. And including a few USB flash drives seems like just the incentive to adopt the standard.

  3. Droid says:

    Since you mention it: wasn’t margarine basically semi-edible plastic back in those days?

  4. Tizzy says:

    The time component in the Butterfly Effect is not that important. Yes, the effect is not immediate, that would make no sense. But systems that are sensitive to initial conditions see their trajectories diverge exponentially fast, so you don’t need to wait that long.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      You have to if the change is orders of magnitude smaller than the system.For example,try adding 2^n every second to 10^100000000,where n is the number of seconds since you start.Youll have to wait for at least a year before you start noticing meaningful changes in the original number.And a single human compared to the global weather is even smaller than that.

      • Droid says:

        You’re vastly underestimating what a ridiculously huge number 10^100000000 is.

        The number of particles in the observable universe is thought to be around 3 x 10^80. That’s it. So, how many orders of magnitude larger is that number? 99.999.920! We know of about 60-62 orders of magnitude of length in this universe, from the Planck length to the diameter of the obs. universe.
        Even if you were to take the exponential route and said: (3 x 10^80)^x=10^100,000,000, you would wind up with x=1.5 x 10^1,242,589. That means if you were to arrange all the particles in the observable universe next to each other, then cubed the particles by adding particles to the side and above this line until you have a (filled) cube with the same side lengths as you started with, the number of particles would have only gone up to about 2 x 10^240. You would have to repeat that process 12 more times to get to 10^100,000,000. And that whole “lining up and cubing” stuff is ridiculously inflating any number, a lot faster than even exponential growth.

        In summary: No, a single human compared to the global weather is markedly larger than that. Say it’s as little as 1 : 3 x 10^80, from before (still way too much). That means 2^n (n in seconds) would overtake 3 x 10^80 after 267 seconds, or about 4 and a half minutes.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          We arent talking about the number of particles here though,we are talking about their interactions.Two particles can interact in many ways more than just sit around next to each other.But even if we boil down their interaction to just being left or right of one another on a straight line,that would be a factorial function,making the arrangement of all the particles in the universe into (10^80)!,which is waaay bigger than the 10^100000000 I used initially.

          If we were talking about just the number of particles,then the changes time travel would introduce would not grow exponentially,but quatricaly at most(n^4).

          • Droid says:

            What are you even talking about? n^4, because of four dimensions? That’s not at all how dynamical systems work! You cannot just make up maths on the spot!

            And for (3 x 10^80)!: that is the number of ways you can arrange all the particles in the universe on a line. That has nothing to do with physical interactions. No particle is just going to jump to the Andromeda galaxy “because physics”. My calculation from before was just there to show you how stupidly over-the-top 10^100,000,000 is.

            I chose 3 x 10^80 not because I thought it was the correct figure to use there, but because it is way, way over the top and even then does not come near the figure you produced.

            The whole methaphor of the butterfly effect is extremely watered down principles of dynamical systems, but does not translate well. It was supposed to mean “weather may sometimes be stable, but sometimes so unstable that even changing only the 20th significant digit (20 digits after the leading non-zero digit) can change the outcome of a calculation only a day or week in advance”.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              What are you even talking about? n^4, because of four dimensions? That’s not at all how dynamical systems work!

              Dont blame me,you were the one who decided that the dynamical system be boiled down to the simple number of particles,instead of the number of states they can end up in due to their interactions.

              My calculation from before was just there to show you how stupidly over-the-top 10^100,000,000 is.

              But its not.I chose permutations because its a simple function to write and its a number thats also vastly smaller than the number of interactions between particles in the earths atmosphere.And you dont really need all the particles in the universe for n! to have more than 100 million digits.The permutations of the molecules of water in a single drop is more than enough for that.

              It was supposed to mean “weather may sometimes be stable, but sometimes so unstable that even changing only the 20th significant digit (20 digits after the leading non-zero digit) can change the outcome of a calculation only a day or week in advance”.

              And the problem with this is that people take it to mean that ANY change of the 20th significant digit MUST change the whole system in a significant manner,and MUST do so in just a couple of years.Which is frankly ridiculous.Even more so because a single human just existing is not going to influence even the 40th significant digit,let alone 20th.Only given a huge amount of time can a human traveling to the past influence the earth in a significant fashion,unless they do something large(like blow up a dam,or kill hitler).

              • djw says:

                The number of particles and the number of interactions between them is largely a moot question, because if you are modeling weather based on the action of the individual particles then you are doing it wrong!.

                It is usually possible to characterize the properties of an assortment of particles with a few thermodynamic quantities (temperature, pressure, volume, et cetera). The fact that temperature and pressure are different in different places, as well as the fact that the energy inputs to the system change them at different rates in different places DOES mean that the system is still chaotic.

                But its nowhere near as difficult to model as you would imply by trying to figure out what all of the individual particles are doing. Our best computers couldn’t even handle that problem for a tiny air filled box, let alone an entire weather system (and although weather prediction is very difficult, it is not impossible).

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  because if you are modeling weather based on the action of the individual particles then you are doing it wrong!

                  No,because differential equations are exactly that:A (somewhat) rough model of individual particles represented as a function of easier to manipulate broader values.Temperature is just an approximation of the average speed of all of the particles,and pressure is an approximation of the average impact they have on the surface where the pressure is measured.Its not true that measuring every particles individual properties in order to get the bigger picture is wrong,its that its impractical* and impossible with the current technology.

                  But its nowhere near as difficult to model as you would imply by trying to figure out what all of the individual particles are doing.

                  Im not saying that its difficult to model,Im saying that the influence of a single human existing where they shouldnt exist is not enough to affect global weather in any significant fashion in mere 40 years simply because a single human is so small compared to the global weather.

                  Nearly identical starting points can result in radically different final outcomes because the systems evolve through paths that diverge from each other early on.

                  Yes,CAN.Not MUST.The smaller the difference between starting positions,the greater the chances that the final outcomes are identical.And while some systems are more susceptible to small changes than others(a hurricane is more fragile than a volcano),that doesnt mean that all small changes MUST radically influence them.

                  *The precision you would get wouldnt be that much greater for any practical purposes.

                  • djw says:

                    Tracking every particle is probably impossible with any technology, future or otherwise. “Impractical” understates the problem dramatically.

                    I’ll go ahead and admit that I don’t have an intuition for how likely a radical divergence in outcomes is as a function of changes in initial conditions. Since I know that it is *possible* to predict weather outcomes (with some error) 24-48 hours in advance it is clear that small differences don’t always lead to surprise tsunami’s, at least.

              • djw says:

                The point of chaos theory is that you are modeling reality as the solution of a differential equation (or, more likely a coupled set of differential equations).

                An individual human, or a butterfly, or a whatever, does not need to push the air from LA to SF by themselves in order to modify weather. All that needs to happen is that a small change in the initial conditions result in a radically different solution to the differential equation.

                Nearly identical starting points can result in radically different final outcomes because the systems evolve through paths that diverge from each other early on.

              • Droid says:

                “Dont blame me,you were the one who decided that the dynamical system be boiled down to the simple number of particles,”

                No, I wasn’t. I brought up the number of particles in the universe, solely because it’s a large number. I know 99.999% of those particles aren’t going to affect the weather on Earth. I know the weather is not modeled as a system of individual particles. Again, I brought it up because it’s vast! All I used it for was to use a number that would not be disputed as an upper bound.

                ” ‘My calculation from before was just there to show you how stupidly over-the-top 10^100,000,000 is.’

                But its not.I chose permutations because its a simple function to write and its a number thats also vastly smaller than the number of interactions between particles in the earths atmosphere.And you dont really need all the particles in the universe for n! to have more than 100 million digits.The permutations of the molecules of water in a single drop is more than enough for that.”

                I’m with you on this.

                “And the problem with this is that people take it to mean that ANY change of the 20th significant digit MUST change the whole system in a significant manner,and MUST do so in just a couple of years.Which is frankly ridiculous.Even more so because a single human just existing is not going to influence even the 40th significant digit,let alone 20th.Only given a huge amount of time can a human traveling to the past influence the earth in a significant fashion,unless they do something large(like blow up a dam,or kill hitler).”

                See, from how I see it right now, you’re going from saying some extreme is clearly wrong (which it is, as far as I know) to saying the other extreme must be clearly right. Not every change is going to produce a “butterfly effect”, but with the information you have, you cannot say it’s impossible that Shamus’ particular suitcase could do so. Maybe Steve Wozniak has an engineer or construction worker stuck in traffic behind him (to use Shamus’s example), and if that guy manages to get to work a minute or so sooner, he might cause (or prevent, if you prefer) an accident that leads to a massive delay in the construction of a skyscraper, a wind park, a dam, or anything else that majorly impacts local wind/river patterns.

                Even in this contrived scenario, it’s unlikely that anything major happens with the weather. But from there on, it would be at least a clearly measurable difference that could start something major.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  The social changes Shamus describes are far more likely,like Paul Spooner described below.I have nothing against that.And I also agree that a single person can change the weather of the world*.What I disagree with is the proposition I saw numerous times that sending data about hurricanes and floods would become useless within a year or two.Its a possibility that a single time traveler could influence the global weather so quickly,but a really really remote one.Unless their objective is to do such a thing,that is.

                  *I mean that guy who introduced CFCs to the public most definitely influenced the weather a lot.

                  • Droid says:

                    I’ll have to apologize to you, then. I was rushing to wrong conclusions, and used an inappropriate tone.

                    And I really have to start heeding my own advice…

                    • djw says:

                      Its really easy to do on the internet. The lack of facial expressions makes it pretty much inevitable.

                  • Pete_Volmen says:

                    Its a possibility that a single time traveler could influence the global weather so quickly,but a really really remote one.Unless their objective is to do such a thing,that is.

                    With The Suitcase we’re not dealing with a single traveler here, however. We’re dealing with a massive datadump. The data will most likely change what factories are run how much for goods that can be made better/cheaper than they otherwise would, or even new types of goods. This means less (or more) greenhouse gasses, for example. Better tech for cars would reduce emissions. the wonders and harm of plastic would mean less bakelite stuff, but many places working on making more modern plastics instead. Much of this would affect weather patterns.

                    Knowing the damage our fossil fuels (and ye gods, coal) cause might mean we’ll look into different power plants. Knowing the benefits (and dangers) of various types of nuclear plants might mean more (and more effective/modern) plants get made. Just as good, knowing how to make better solar panels might mean we’re at solar powered plants much sooner. This cumulatively will massively influence the weather.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      Yes,the rate of climate change would be altered.But that is still a really lengthy process that takes decades,not a couple of years.And thats assuming you actually can influence the whole world to change their emissions in a significant fashion in a short time.Your natural disaster predictions would be accurate for at least 10 years if you manage to improve the worlds tech quickly.20-30 years is what Id expect before any of those predictions got wrong.

    • Paul Spooner says:

      The butterfly effect does take time to propagate, and it’s only exponential for initiation limited systems like global social interaction. For the weather it’s linear.

      The propagation speed is based on the nature of the phenomena you’re trying to measure. Taking weather as an example, the phenomena is atmospheric turbulence, which propagates around 10 mph. To influence (not necessarily change!) the weather on the other side of the planet would take roughly two months, give or take. It’s not going to happen overnight.

      Shamus’ procreation example holds for individuals, and he’s correct in asserting that, since humans communicate at roughly the speed of light (even in 1977), the chaos propagation will be effectively instantaneous for every person on earth. That leaves us with initiation limitations (the delay between stimulus and action) which is extremely difficult to model, so let’s say a few hours. How much difference this will make is down to how much you attribute to people’s free will, character, habits, etc. All that doesn’t merit discussion, I bring it up to establish a couple hours estimate for chaotic social divergence.

      The bigger point is that any chaotic system on the planet that doesn’t interact directly with humans will at least interact with the weather. So we have global timeline divergence (in chaotic systems) of somewhere between two hours and two months.

      Stock market activity will probably diverge nearer the lower bound. Tectonic and volcanic activity might outlast the upper bound, but probably not by much, especially as they propagate at the speed of sound. But that’s just chaotic systems. All likelihood is the suitcase won’t cause people to start working 10 day weeks instead of 7. Even though the work week is a social construct, it’s quite stable.

      And even chaotic systems behave within predictable bounds. The butterfly effect isn’t going to make hurricanes in Antarctica, or cause the stock market to crash out of nowhere. If it was generally going to happen before, it will still happen; The timing and location might be different is all.

  5. The_Hansard says:

    Shamus weather data will be helpful in dodging the CFC (Ozone layer hole) issue completely. So its still enormously worthwhile to include that stuff

  6. Awetugiw says:

    As a scientist, I must say that your idea of converting papers from PDF to HTML sounds like a pretty bad plan. These days several journals have HTML versions of their papers available in addition to the PDF versions, and they are invariably awful. And the HTML versions of these papers are not even pure HTML, they include many elements of the paper as images or using Mathjax.

    If you convert papers to HTML, you will spend a lot of time and end up with papers that are much harder to read than the originals.

    Now that is not to say that you absolutely have to include them as PDF files. You could use another format, as long as that format specifies exactly where things go on a page. Maybe DVI would be good, although I don’t know whether automated conversion from PDF to DVI is feasible.

    Whichever format you choose, it won’t exist back in 1977, so you will have to include the specification. Both DVI and PS were developed pretty shortly afterwards, however, so the 1977 people should be able to pick it up pretty easily. (Especially if you tell them to involve the creators of the format, such as Fuchs and Knuth in the DVI case.)

    As for obtaining papers: this is indeed a non-trivial problem. The easiest way to gain access is probably to find an organization with access to repositories like JSTOR. Personally getting access is probably going to be hard, but you should be able to find an accomplice who does. But even then, these services don’t take kindly to their papers being downloaded en masse, as the trial of Aaron Swartz (sadly) shows. Sci-Hub is in some ways an easier alternative, but it is still much smaller than the official repositories.

    • Shamus says:

      Now that I think of it, we could just turn the papers into images. That should preserve the visuals with 100% fidelity. The GIF spec is pretty straightforward, it’s fast enough for the computers of the day, and 256 colors should be enough for the vast majority of data. While that might be kind of bulky, we’re talking about filling DVDs. You can fit a LOT of images on a DVD.

      • Awetugiw says:

        I do think that would be an improvement over HTML, yes. The only downside that I can think of, apart from size*, is searchability. A format where the image can be annotated with the plain text would be nice.

        (Or, considering that the papers you send back can contain a lot of computer science and AI material, you can send them the techniques necessary to do text recognition on the image files you sent them. Not the most convenient way to do it, but it’s fine to make the recipients work a bit for their information.)

        *Regarding size: there are probably some 75 million scientific papers, in total. This means sending all of them back is hard, but within the realms of possibility. That would make it a lot easier to decide which papers to send. GIFs on DVDs is probably not quite efficient enough to send everything, though.

        • Abnaxis says:

          Me: “Hey, I’m installing this big technical system according to a set of specs. I should put the specs into the website so the the customer can refer to them later.”

          Me: “Huh. Their front-end is using some bizarre Netbeans Java monstrosity with no built-in PDF plug-in. Maybe I can convert the specs into an image first…?”

          Me: “Wow, where did that week go? Holy shit this is way harder than it should be, and the result is borderline unreadable…”

          Seriously, trying to convert documents into jpgs is…well, it’s doable, but it took me a really long time to work out the exact voodoo you need to do to get all the formats converted without aliasing or unsharping the thing into unreadability, especially if there are vector-based diagrams in the thing. That could just be because it’s not really in my wheelhouse, though.

        • Awetugiw says:

          I have thought about it some more, and I think that while it is technically possible (in the proposed scenario, that is) to send back a substantial part of our current scientific knowledge, it may be better to send only the highlights.

          The moment you send back the suitcase, you instantly create the field of “future historian”. If you include specialized information (such as scientific papers), you also create the more specialized “future historian of <>”.

          This is in itself not bad. Given people the highlights of future science might even create a burst of interest in science. But if you include hundreds of thousands or even millions of papers, then for the foreseeable future, it is primarily the future historians that are going to make exciting new discoveries. Running experiments will just not be able to compete with searching the future files for discoveries.

          This is likely to result in young people choosing a career in future history, as opposed to doing new research. The loss of expertise this causes could easily set science back more than the papers set it forward.

          Much safer then to send only the highlights, so that all discoveries from the suitcase can be made in pretty short time. That way,, you can help them out without displacing the 1977 scientists.

      • djw says:

        You know, another problem with the vast library of science papers is that MOST of them are crap that somebody published in a hurry so that they could get tenure, or another grant so that they can keep their grad students, or make Full Professor (and get the nice raise that comes with the title), et cetera.

        Setting Red up to sift through the chaff to find a nugget or two of real science might not be the best way to go about it. You probably need to let him know which papers are actually worth reading, but deciding that is not a particularly easy thing to do.

        I suppose that you could send out survey questions to a bunch of scientists and ask them what the 10 most important papers in their field are (or 20, or 100, or whatever) and then pass that info along. That sounds like a huge hassle though.

  7. Ani-kun says:

    “It’s the carbs and calories that make you fat, not the fat! Go back to eating butter. It’s actually better for you than margarine! Don’t go through the low-fat food craze. It was stupid and we got super-fat anyway.”

    Finally, someone who gets it. Congrats on having your eyes opened, Shamus :) Get the crap out of your diet (especially anything white: potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, sugar) and you won’t have to worry about your health or weight, because the human body looks after/regulates itself as long as you’re not constantly poisoning it. You also won’t get diabetes, and will probably have a clearer head (carbs cause foggy head syndrome AND are addictive), and more energy, and won’t need to eat constantly because fat actually sates you, fast carbs don’t.

    Now onto the nuclear bit. The big problem you face here is that the government ‘doesn’t care’. They want nuclear energy for one reason: material for nuclear weapons. Sure, there’s the usual hand wringing and apologies when something goes wrong, but then it’s back to business as usual. So let’s talk quickly about how LFTR.

    In the 60s, the American government/military got the bright idea to develop an atomic bomber, which would be capable of staying airborne ‘indefinitely’. Putting aside how stupid the idea is, this led to the clever fellas at the Oak Ridge Laboratories in Tennessee being given the job of making a reactor small enough to fit on a strategic bomber.

    What they came up with was a liquid form of nuclear they called LFTR (Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor), which was utterly revolutionary. It was efficient (in the 90th percentile range, compared to the 0.5-1.0% efficiency range of conventional reactors we use now, no that’s not a joke), completely safe (passively so, it doesn’t require active cooling like conventional), and ran at MUCH higher temperatures (600C+ compared to 400 for conventional) allowing for gas turbines to be used instead of water.

    The tech also had other benefits in addition to simply being hugely efficient, compact, and safe. For one, there’s a particular decay chain of radioactive isotopes that doesn’t occur naturally, but which happens using LFTR. This particular chain includes an isotope that can be targeted at ‘specific’ cancer cells to create a smart bomb that destroys only those cells but leaves the surrounding tissue/cells intact. LFTR’s high operating temperatures and vast amounts of power also mean you can generate effectively unlimited synthetic fuels, which would kill our dependency on foreign (especially Middle Eastern countries who want us dead) oil.

    There are other things (worldwide LFTR roll-out would fix the energy problems of the whole planet in perpetuity, plus paving the way to ‘fusion’!), but these are the biggies for the here and now. So why don’t we use this tech? Simple: it’s incredibly difficult and dangerous to the point of being near-impossible to create the materials required for nuclear weapons using LFTR (which is another good reason to use it!).

    In the end, the gov/military nixed the project in favour of what we now know as conventional nuclear simply because they wanted nukes during the cold war and didn’t care about providing unlimited energy for the plebs. Then a certain dumbass president (Carter) came along and decided it’d be a good idea to ban the reprocessing of nuclear waste, which just further cemented LFTR’s demise (because LFTR continually re-burns its materials, AND could use existing nuclear waste stocks to fuel new reactors, thereby getting rid of yet another problem over time).

    The only reason this amazing technology was ever invented was because of the ridiculous demands of the American military in wanting a nuclear bomber. If we were to switch to using it today, we could decommission EVERY current reactor, all coal plants, and would need precisely ZERO so-called green technologies (which aren’t green at all, but that’s a discussion for another time) like solar or wind.

    But you’d have to repeal the reprocessing ban (at least in America), and for your thought experiment’s purposes, you’d have to convince the government that Russia won’t nuke them into oblivion (which as you’ve already covered, might change due to the time-lines altering) and that LFTR is the way to go… and if you know anything of the American government over the last 50 years, you know that’s going to be REALLY hard to the point of impossibility, no matter how compelling the arguments.

    tl;dr – humanity is stupid :( Incidentally, we could roll LFTR out right now if we wanted. China, India, and Indonesia have all been doing so for years already, and who do you think we’re going to end up buying that tech from if we don’t get ahead of them? Yeah. How comfy are you with the idea of using CHINESE nuclear tech, given their track record?

    For example, the vast majority of cheap Chinese phone makes now ship from the factory with preinstalled malware that steals all a user’s personal details and spies on everything they do online:

    https://www.cyberscoop.com/android-malware-china-huawei-zte-kryptowire-blu-products/
    http://www.wired.co.uk/article/android-phones-hiding-pre-installed-malware
    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/android-malware-phones-infected-samsung-galalaxy-s7-nexus-5x-models-before-sale-a7626726.html
    https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/kryptowire-adups-news/

    Something to think about ‘before’ we hit a point where we’re buying nuclear tech from them. So… yeah, this is a seriously knotty problem and not one I’m convinced could be fixed with a time-travelling suitcase, alas.

    • Commento says:

      There are only 10 or so countries that have nuclear weapons, out of more than 200. Atleast a third of them are very wealthy, industrialised and technologically developed. If this technology is so perfect and we’ve known about it for sixty years, why did none of them persue it? They clearly weren’t interested in making atomic bombs and so didn’t need enriched uranium?

      • Veylon says:

        A combination of cultural dislike for things “Nuclear” and the Not Invented Here syndrome. There’s also the bureaucratic risk of putting your name on something new: it’s safer for one’s career to sign off on yet another coal plant than some fancy new thing. If the former blows up and kills people, you can hide in amongst all the other people who approved other coal plants. If the latter brews up – or even just fails to live up to the hype – you’re personally responsible. We also don’t allow private companies to experiment willy-nilly with nuclear stuff, so there’s no possibility of an Elon Musk analogue becoming enchanted with LFTS and trying it out on their own.

        All that’s even if LFTS is as amazing as it’s proponents say it is. It might only be pretty good.

        • Chris Serson says:

          The fact that the original reason for developing this sort of reactor was completely bonkers cannot be understated. Why would anyone want to come up with a new reactor design if they already had one that worked as well as they thought possible?
          It was actually the U.S.A.F. who commissioned the project in the hopes of building a nuclear bomber, as was already mentioned. The design of the LTFR came about because the original light water reactor design was extremely heavy, as it required containment and safety measures to maintain 300-400 degree water in a liquid state.
          Apparently no one else in the world was crazy enough to want a nuclear powered aircraft, probably because they didn’t also want to drop bombs; or maybe because the world quickly moved towards ICBMs and didn’t really need bombers anymore?

          Also, the work was completely buried. The papers and specs for the reactor were only rediscovered in the past decade or so (I’m unsure of the actual date, but it’s pretty recent).
          Since then, almost every country HAS been pursing this technology, including China.
          The U.S. is about the only country that isn’t, but we’re 40 years behind on developing the technology.
          Funny thing is, the original reactor experiment was shut down in the early 70s, so if we could include that info in the suitcase, they could just grab the original scientists and get the project running again pretty quickly!

    • Penn says:

      This seems to have a good overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor
      Long list of advantages and drawbacks, and it says it’s being investigated.

    • Agammamon says:

      Now onto the nuclear bit. The big problem you face here is that the government ‘doesn’t care’. They want nuclear energy for one reason: material for nuclear weapons.

      The problem here is that this is incorrect. The government has spent a yuge amount of effort and treasure to discourage/prevent breeder reactors from proliferating. Almost all (like all but a tiny handful) of nuclear reactors *around the world* are not capable of producing material for nuclear weapons.

      That’s been true from about 5 minutes after someone realized that the neat little breeder reactor they just built that will ‘make more fuel than it consumes’ posed a massive diversion problem.

      As for the atomic bomber – they never solved the shielding problem (and the LFTR doesn’t solve that) but *aside from that*, there were already several existing designs that werre suitable for use in an aircraft. Which is why Project Pluto came about.

      You should check out the list of disadvantages for that design on the wiki page – which includes ‘questionable economics’. Meaning that its iffy right now if they can make one that will make money.

  8. Dreadjaws says:

    “A collection of educational and cultural videos from YouTube. I’d start with this one.

    I fully thought it was going to be a rick rolling.

    Anyway, yeah, that explanation of Chaos Theory is the classic but problematic. It’s nicely noted in Jurassic Park. When Ian Malcom says more or less the same thing, almost word by word, to Ellie Satler, and the entire thing just flies over his head, which she makes a point to notice. Then Malcom recognizes he’s going too fast and provides a more detailed explanation.

    • King Marth says:

      The thing that bugs me about that scene is that he uses a drop of water rolling down your hand as an example (due to the specific placement of skin, hairs, and how your hand is held, the precise path of the drop is hard to expect)… but then immediately asks where the second drop will fall, concluding it’s just as hard to tell. Well, it’s going to follow the moistened path of the first drop, of course! There’s some chance to break off due to moving your hand, but the “attractor” part of “chaotic attractor” is important – slight changes in initial conditions make a huge impact precisely because those initial near-random decisions set into motion feedback loops that change future events.

    • “This video contains content from SME, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”

  9. Chad Mercer says:

    Correction: “I’d just made a mental note to do something in a hypothetical…”

  10. Redrock says:

    I feel that there should be a mention somewhere that the Internet basically devolves into cat videos and whining by around 2010. That would change the whole idea of future for the poor sods of the 70s. The Neuromancer probably never gets written. Which might be worse than triggering a nuclear war, depending on who you ask.

  11. Lazlo says:

    While you’re telling them about Y2K, don’t forget to mention that using 64 bits for time_t might seem excessive, the people of 2038 will be *really* thankful.

  12. MichaelG says:

    Copyrights/patents aside, I’m not all that happy about sending works of art back. Some of these directors/writers will already have been born. How would you feel if someone suddenly started publishing your future work? It would be as if someone stole it right out of your head!

  13. Mintskittle says:

    I don’t think gathering all the material you want for the suitcase would be too hard for someone in your position, as you have a sizeable following of pretty intelligent people. You could farm out the acquisition of the relevant data to those interested in helping fill your suitcase.

  14. MichaelG says:

    I have to say that I reject the premise of this entire experiment! I’m guessing a lot of you younger folks think the last 40 years have been horrible and it would be great to try again. And techies impressed with recent progress think it would be even better if it happened faster.

    I was born in 1958, and when I was in elementary school, we still had “air raid drills” in case the bombs started falling. The cold war ended as well as it possibly could have, and far better than anyone expected. No one thought the Soviet Union could fall apart without launching a strike somewhere.

    AIDS was preventable, and perhaps things like the Rwanda genocide could have been avoided with foreknowledge, but all in all, the last 40 years went as well as you could expect.

    And as for technical progress, we had a huge electronics industry frantic to increase chip density and speed just to say that “Moore’s Law” still held — doubling processor speed every 18 months! How much faster do you think it could have gone?

    So no, don’t send the suitcase to 1977. The risks outweigh the benefits.

    But is there another year you could pick? A time advanced enough to benefit from some of our tech, and willing to change history? I’d pick 1913.

    They have radios, so they will understand enough electronics. Show them in detail how to build a transistor. It will be an instant hit and you’ll have pocket radios in 1920 instead of 1960. With a bit more work, they can do a low resolution printed circuit. You’ll have 1970-equivalent computers by 1930. That bit of tech alone will cause a industrial revolution, and it will distract them from developing nuclear weapons.

    As for changing history, put in your warnings about earthquakes (weather is probably too unstable) but mostly put in documents about World War I. Everyone of the day will be horrified. There were no victors and the death toll was staggering. Without WWI, there would have been no WWII, and history would be very different. And as for saving lives, the estimates are that the two wars together killed over 100 million people. Prevent that, and you are really doing something worthwhile!

    • Paul Spooner says:

      Good insight! Throw in something about over-leveraging the stock market to avoid the Great Depression, and the roaring twenties could still be going strong!

    • Michael: While I agree progress over the last forty years has been amazing and we live in the best period of human history, I think you’ve bridged the gap from that insight to a sort of Leibnizian nonsense that this is the best possible world. The Rwandan genocide, for example, wasn’t a footnote, and it wasn’t the only genocide. Even if you only mitigated Darfur, Rwanda and Yugoslavia, to say nothing of possibly blunting the rise of Putin and the oligarchs, you could stop countless conflicts and famines.

      After all, as you yourself note, information in density doesn’t change the world. We have information now that people ignore, from the spherical nature of the Earth on. (Avoiding the rest for politics reasons). What does are institutions. And while I don’t think ours are anywhere near perfect, I think that a lot of good human beings can do a lot of good with information.

      • MichaelG says:

        Perhaps because of my age, I think the risk of a nuclear exchange outweighs any benefits you might engineer. Plus, if the Soviet Union knew in 1977 what their future held, they’d do something about it. Probably not something good.

        I don’t think this is the best of all possible worlds!

        • Miguk says:

          On the other hand, if we had known ahead of time that the Soviet Union would collapse on its own, we could have made a lot better choices in the ’80s. Slash defense budgets for weapons that won’t even be ready until the ’90s. Stop coddling dictators in countries that we know won’t fall to communism. And we could have gotten a headstart on preparing for the post-Cold War world, not just blundering into it and figuring it out as we went along.

          • djw says:

            Honestly, I think that the spending on weapons would continue unabated. The cold war was *in part* a boondoggle that justified sending loads of cash to the military industrial complex, and the people on the receiving end of that cash would not give it up without a (political) fight.

            The war on terror is the modern incarnation of this nonsense.

          • Redrock says:

            Well, the Soviet Union didn’t collapse on its own, the arms race and the forced military spending played a part, but it was mostly the sharp rise and even sharper decline of oil prices in the late 70s and early 80s. Which, in turn, were mostly caused by external factors such as the Yom Kippur War, the Iran revolution and the increase in american oil production. All in all, any noticeable change in american foreign policy might mean many more years of the Soviet Union and perhaps, eventually, a reformation similar to what happened in China, all the while maintaining the soviet government.

            That said, I still think that the threat of a nuclear exchange is largely overblown. Neither the USA nor the USSR were at any point that suicidal, not since the Cuban missile crisis. It was mostly fearmongering on both sides.

            • djw says:

              We are probably in more danger of nuclear war NOW (via North Korea) than at any time during the cold war. Even that depends on whether the Kim family is really insane, or just pretending to be insane to extort money from the world.

              • MichaelG says:

                During the cold war, both the U.S. and Soviets had hundreds of nukes targeted and ready to launch. North Korea has perhaps a few missiles, with no guarantee of actually hitting their targets. And considering the civilian casualties, would we even reply with a nuke, or just carpet bomb all their installations near the border, then try to occupy the country?

                So there’s really no comparison.

                • djw says:

                  Well, the outcome of a war with the Soviets would have been far more devastating than a war with North Korea would be. My claim is that the likelihood of a nuclear war with North Korea is a lot higher. Once Stalin died the people in charge of the Soviet Union were pretty rational.

                  • Redrock says:

                    Even Stalin wasn’t really into duking it out with the US. He liked terrorizing his own people way, way more. I’m pretty sure that if not for the atomic bombings of Japan the Soviet union would have gotten its nukes way later.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          To quote Sting, I think the Russians love their children too (in fact, I know they do).
          I think the cold war could have ended a lot better for Russia. The reason that Germany did so well after WW2 was that the allies decided not to make them pay (beyond losing the war badly, of course), but to try and let them establish a stable democratic government, and to help them do it.
          With Russia, things went a bit different. Mostly because too many people in the western hemisphere believed they had somehow “won” the cold war, and now they could do to Russia whatever they wanted. Which they did. Which led to the collective Russian self-esteem to sink fairly low, which led to a counter-movement, which led to the current situation where there’s again a feeling of resentment between Russia and “the West”.

          I’m very certain that there’s a possible time line that diverges in 1990, where Russia is doing really well and is an equal partner among all the democratic nations. I mean, a bunch of eastern European countries came out pretty well, and with the benefit of hindisght, I’m sure that could have gone a lot better.

          Granted, that’s all only my own interpretation (hope I haven’t made any Russians angry…), but I’m pretty sure there were several people in Russian politics, as there were in the US or elsewhere, who were genuinely concerned about their country’s future, as there were people on all sides who were only concerned with their own career. Which is why whatever information you supply would have to be public. If everyone knows that B will follow from A, then it changes the debate, and it changes the ability for any actor to do A. It wouldn’t be for me to say what consequences to draw, but it is safe to say that the reason we all live is because there were sensible people on both sides of the curtain, and we’d be giving those sensible people a few powerful arguments.

          • djw says:

            When I was a grad student in the 90’s one of my office mates was a Russian grad student from Vladivostok. He thought that Gorbachev basically betrayed the Russian people, and he was NOT a fan of perestroika.

            I really have no idea how typical his point of view was among his countrymen at the time.

            • CoyoteSans says:

              Everything I’ve read on the subject tells me Gorbachev and Yeltsin are pariahs in the Russian consciousness to this very day, entirely because they are seen as responsible for what happened to the Soviet Union in the late 80s and Russia in general in the 90s.

              I strongly believe a typical, ordinary modern day Russian citizen sending back the suitcase would make it their primary objective to prevent the Russian state’s troubles in that time period.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            As a citizen of an ex socialist country that collapsed just like the soviet union,I can tell you that the problem is not in how the outsiders viewed the collapsed union,but how the parts of the union behaved while they were together.

            Those countries that are prospering now are the ones that were using the unions funds to boost their infrastructure,while giving back as little as they could.Those that were hit the most by the collapse are the ones that used all their funds to help their “brethren” become as prosperous as the whole union was presenting itself as being,while thinking that their infrastructure was good enough and didnt need a boost.

    • djw says:

      Ugh, I wanted to delete an edit to my response to your comment, but ended up killing the whole thing.

      In summary, I don’t actually think that you could stop WWI that way. It might not happen exactly as it did in our history, but there were to many problems in the continent to stop it altogether.

      Instability in the Austria-Hungarian empire and the Balkans.
      Instability in the Ottoman Empire and the middle east.
      Germany is still stuck between France and Russia (and really paranoid about it).
      The British would continue to meddle in everything.

      I’m sure that I am missing something, but I don’t see that mix remaining stable. Even if it does just turn into a bunch of small wars in the Balkans and the Middle East as the Austrians and Ottomans disintegrate you would still get a massive death toll (maybe even larger, since you would get many small wars over a larger time period).

      • MichaelG says:

        I don’t know enough history to argue with you on this. I’m just saying if there was ever a war absolutely everyone regretted afterwards, that had huge consequences for the future, it was that one. You’d have to hope people are rational enough to avoid something like that if they had evidence right in front of them.

        • djw says:

          The American Civil War and the Crimean War had already demonstrated that modern weapons could create grisly death tolls. I worry that if you send back details of WWI you will just give the German’s an incentive to re-write the Schlieffen plan and “make sure it works” this time.

          Although… German victory in WWI might defuse some of the nastier aspects of WWII. Impossible to know for sure, I guess.

          As an aside, you don’t get Poland as an independent nation without WWI (it was swallowed by its neighbors in the late 1700’s). Independance was certainly a development that was favored by the Polish people, so I am not sure how much regret they felt about WWI (granted, there was lots of death and destruction on the Eastern front, so they may have regretted that).

          • MichaelG says:

            I read something years ago that speculated that if only the U.S. had stayed out of WWI, a compromise would have been reached in 1916 or so. All sides were worn out, and it was only the American forces that allowed the war to continue. I don’t know how valid this is.

            And I think there was a strong anti-war sentiment in the U.S. in 1913, so perhaps a bit of information could at least have kept the U.S. out.

            • djw says:

              That certainly sounds plausible. Hard to know for sure though. Someday perhaps we will have enough computing power to run accurate historical simulations, and that would be a really interesting one to check.

              • Droid says:

                Unfortunately, the complete information of how the world looked in 1914 is irredeemably lost (I think the law of ever-increasing entropy alone proves that), so I fear “accurate historical simulations” that are as dependable as actually somehow looking at another timeline diverging from ours is as clearly impossible as the horrible “zoom and enhance” thing people are mocking as the Hollywood magic it is.

                • djw says:

                  You only need the exact state in 1913 if you want to replicate what happened in our timeline identically. Obviously you won’t be able to do that.

                  What I had in mind was more along the lines of running a bunch of similar starting points forward so that we could observe the possible range of outcomes.

                • Abnaxis says:

                  This actually gets at MY real beef about the layman’s explanations about chaos theory–it always leaves the impression that if we just knew everything about everything, we could predict the future.

                  That’s not how it works. The reason why chaotic systems is chaotic is because they are unstable–slight errors in the variables underlying the system translate into vast swings in what you predict will happen

                  This is a problem because we are dealing with Dynamical Systems–math talk for “we have an equation for the rate of change of X, but we can’t actually solve this equation to find X in the future.”

                  This is what simulations are for. Whenever you run a simulation, it always (basically) boils down to “right now my state is X, and the rate at which X is changing is Y. Based on that, I’m going to extrapolate and say that Z seconds from now X will change to THIS new value.”

                  Note the word: extrapolate. As in, make an educated guess. As in, here be an source of error that can never be fully eliminated (throwing more cycles at the problem will reduce it, but it never goes away). This is why “time matters” as Shamus put it–more time means more extrapolation means more accrual of error.

                  The upshot of all of this is that even if you manage to gather every single relevant piece of information about whatever you’re trying to simulate, if it’s chaotic enough the info won’t do you any good. No amount of butterfly wing data will let you predict that hurricane, nor will complete knowledge of the location and orientation of every muskrat burrow let you perfectly predict the path of the river.

                  Butterfly wings and muskrats are used as analogs for “minor errors that have large propagating effects,” but what the analogy is missing is the fact the errors are unavoidably baked into the algorithms you’re using regardless of the information available to you right now.

                  • Droid says:

                    I think I’m misunderstanding you here, so please read this as me showing my view on things instead of me throwing facts around:

                    I don’t think that was what Edward Lorenz had in mind when he first used the term “butterfly effect”. I actually wrote my Bachelor thesis on the numerical computation of periodic orbits (in dynamical systems), with the Lorenz system (or “Lorenz attractor”) as an example system. It seems what Lorenz meant, according to a monograph by Hairer, Wanner and Norsett, is that a chaotic system is any inherently unstable system like his Lorenz system that was extracted from meteorology and then simplified, and was used as a counterexample to the notion that “with presice enough information, we could predict the weather as far into the future as we want to”.
                    We can, in fact, integrate along a path in unstable systems like the Lorenz system, for a while, it’s just that the longer we integrate and the lower our order of consistency, the faster we lose precision. Since every point of data we will ever retrieve will always only have finite precision, that means there will always come a point where we will reach 0 digits of precision, or in other terms, the answer to “where are we after a bajillion seconds?” is “whatever, somewhere.”

                    So perfect information would certainly be great. Not “we’re going to simulate a whole new reality”-great, but at least “natural twenty with disadvantage”-great.

                    • MichaelG says:

                      The example I use for chaos theory is the Mandelbrot set. The value at any given point is the number of iterations you can do before it escapes the limit. The input is just the x-y coordinates. The formula is dead simple.

                      But instead of being stable and predictable like you’d naively expect, that pattern you see shows that even variations in the 20th decimal place can change the value drastically. And as far as you zoom in, there is all kinds of unpredictable structure.

                      I don’t actually know how to think about that situation. It’s just arithmetic — integers expressed as fractions will do fine. No irrational values like PI. You are only using multiplication and addition. A tiny number of logical rules will define everything you need. But you get all of this structure. It comes out of the nature of integers and arithmetic somehow.

                      Carl Sagan wrote a book “Contact”, where people get a message from aliens, build a probe and go for a visit. The scientists ask the aliens what they find “numinous” or mysterious about the universe. The aliens tell them to expand PI to a few more million digits and you’ll find a pattern there (a digitized drawing of a circle), followed by a message that even they can’t decrypt. The signature of the creator in other words.

                      When the book came out, a friend told me he thought the concept was mind-blowing and wished it were true. I pointed at the Mandelbrot set and said “well, there you go. No reason for all that to come out of playing with integers.”

                    • Abnaxis says:

                      I’m not saying it’s necessarily Lorenz’s fault that the misunderstanding is there. “Butterfly effect” has a certain allure to it that has given the analogy a life of its own.

                      Before I learned anything about what a Lorenz system is, I was exposed to the whole “butterfly effect” analogy and it was explained as if the problem is a lack of information about the initial conditions, which gives the impression that if we just knew everything to infinite precision right now, we could predict the future with perfect accuracy.

                      That’s not how the math works, which is what I was trying to explain in layman’s terms above (so trying to avoid math-jargon like “consistency” or “integration” or “orbit”). I’m trying to get across that it doesn’t matter how perfect you know the state of the world right now, for some value of “a while later” (depending on how many millennia you want to run calculations) you can’t predict the future with great accuracy when you’re working with chaotic systems.

                    • djw says:

                      If you start your sim in 1913 then you don’t need to simulate more than 5 or 6 years to get an answer to the question: How often does a stalemate emerge in WWI conditional on America remaining neutral?

                      Whether you could ever put together a simulation with enough detail and then run it long enough to find out is another issue entirely, but I was never suggesting that we predict the implications for the 2016 presidential election if WWI never happens (for instance).

                    • Droid says:

                      To Abnaxis: Sorry, I should really not answer to comments this late, after an exhausting day. Thanks for staying polite even after I misread half your comment.

                      So, to sum it up: Accurate history simulations are impossible because:
                      – we do not have and will never have an accurate starting point
                      – even if we had one, we’d need an at least passable model of reality, including a model of specific humans and their decision making, which seems unreachable enough on its own, but what then kills the whole idea is that given these two extremely implausible premises
                      – we would still have trouble analysing for how long our simulation would remain accurate, not even if our model and starting point were both perfect.

                      I wrote only about the first one in my initial comment because I think that is the most unrealistic for us to reach. So, I claimed:
                      Not Perfect Information ==> No Alternate History Simulation,
                      but never:
                      Perfect Information ==> Alternate History Simulation.

                      I can understand why you brought it up, though. I just need to be right because I’m a mathematician, dammit! ;-)

                    • djw says:

                      When we run simulations of the weather, we don’t bother to accurately model every drop of rain. These simulations give us predictions that are useful (not perfect!) several days into the future.

                      I really don’t think a simulation of world history from 1913 to 1920 would need to simulate every individual exactly. You could probably sketch out some rough decision trees for some of the relevant actors along with an econ sim and a military sim and just see what happens. Sort of like running Crusader Kings without player input.

                      Obviously that does not give you any information about what happens to individuals, but it does give a rough sense of some possible things that could happen, sort of like when a weatherman tells you there is a 20% chance of rain tomorrow.

                    • Droid says:

                      And you only have to run Crusader Kings without player input to see the flaw in this: When running this simulation 1000 times, and then seeing what’s the most likely outcome, we will have found the result that, e.g., the Mongols or their successor states and the Aztecs both hold about 40% of the playable area most of the time. This clearly points to how ridiculously off the simulation is, because the outcomes are not only influenced by the data we put in, but also by the model we use. We could of course change the model around a lot, but what exactly determines when it’s good and when it’s bad?

                    • djw says:

                      Crusader Kings is using present day technology to run time over hundreds of years. I am well aware that it gives bonkers results if you watch it over the course of several decades.

                      Using “future tech” with code written by super-human AI over just a few years will likely give better results. It will *still* diverge into silliness eventually, but I don’t think that you can just write it off by citing the obviously goofy outcomes from Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis.

                      Although… since we only have the one history to look back on, you can’t really exclude “Mongols conquer Europe 40% of the time” as a reasonable prediction.

                      The Aztec scenario is just an (optional) silly twist they added for fun.

                      ______________________
                      The question of “when is it good and when is it bad?” is a pretty good one.

                      Spittballing: I would say that if you run your code for a bunch of segments of history then the things that actually did happen should also happen in the code some reasonable amount of the time. If every real outcome is a 1 in a million in your code then there is probably something wrong.

                    • Abnaxis says:

                      I might be speaking out of turn, but I can just see Droid biting his lip trying to figure how to explain that there is a LOT of theory and math behind not only what is good from a “what algorithm can you use?” standpoint but also what is good from a “how ugly is the thing I’m trying to simulate?” standpoint.

                      You say you don’t need to simulate every individual, but what really determines that is the underlying dynamic model and the potential for a single individual to radically change outcomes. For example, what happens if Gavrilo Princip fucks up and fails to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand? What happens if despite your warnings he manages to do it anyway? How do you determine his chances of success without simulating every individual that might have caught him, or every individual those individuals are connected to? For that matter, how fine-grain do you set your time resolution so you can properly simulate the entire assassination plot without missing something important happening?

                      It doesn’t matter how big you build your computer, these are Hard problems that people have been banging their heads against literally for centuries. The computational resources basically explode beyond even what quantum computing could do for you for a surprisingly coarse resolution, and the whole issue with chaotic systems is that a coarse resolution doesn’t cut it for long-time simulations (which it definitely is, if your end time is measured in years).

                      Just because you can sit down and write and equation for something, doesn’t make it easy. The Lorenz Attractor Droid alluded to earlier looks SUPER simple on paper, but the best you can do for a solution is “somewhere in this general area” after not-very-long simulations.

                    • Droid says:

                      “You cannot exclude “Mongols conquer Europe 40% of the time” as a reasonable prediction.”

                      See, that’s what I meant. There is no reason to exclude it, but there’s no reason to include it, either. It never happened, and I can come up with fantasy scenarios on my own, no superhuman AI needed.
                      It’s that on the one hand, you’re being logical and say that “you cannot exclude it as a reasonable prediction” (which is a pretty weak statement, but true, like “You cannot exclude there being a teapot in orbit closer to the Sun than Mercury” or whatever it was), whereas on the other hand, you implicitly assume that the simulations you run will give you insight into what situations were possible and which ones were impossible.
                      But there is no way to judge that! You’re going to reject anything that suddenly and inexplicably turns into a “everyone was a wizard all along” story and the like, sure, but what if the simulation tells you that out of 100,000 simulations, it found 34 that were at least remotely similar to real history? How do you interpret that? Are we a Special Snowflake History that is very unlikely to happen at all, but since unlikely events sporadically do occur, sometimes, we get lucky (or unlucky?). Or do you tweak the simulation until it gives you the outcome you know from history at least, say, 50% of the time? What if the first simulation was right, and you’re just massively overfitting the model to the data you have?

                      Not to mention that is still suffering from the fact that any model needs a good starting point to make predictions of the future, and many, many things about the past are just lost, irrevocably, to time. Perhaps we are completely misinterpreting Nicholas II’s reasons for why he wanted to pursue a policy of Panslavism?
                      No one knows what the relevant actors really thought, and we have only their one performance, so to speak. But they were people like us, with complex webs of interests, duties, rights, friends, ambitions and rivalries. And I know: You said “decision trees” as a way around that. But that’s not going to work. Decision trees work when you have the data available to estimate the real weights that factored into a decision. But since we do not know how Emperor Wilhelm or King George would have reacted to anything except real history, there is no way to get these weights. All the exercise of that simulation would just shift the guesswork into the numbers used in the decision trees. (which is one of the reasons the AI is so goofy in Crusader Kings, as well: they make decisions acording to numbers the developers felt looked good instead of … well, anything of substance, really).
                      In a way, saying 10000 people will act a certain way is a lot simpler than saying one person will act a certain way, simply because large numbers are your friend in statistics, and one-off cases can burn your model to the ground if you assume them to be the norm when they are the exception, or vice-versa.

                    • djw says:

                      Maybe I am misreading you, but your argument seems to be: knowledge is impossible because we can’t be 100% sure about anything…

                    • Droid says:

                      I’m saying thinking we can impersonate other people (even by proxy) is impossible if we have hardly any information what they were like except the show they gave to the public and perhaps their chronicler.

                      My argument is more that knowledge is impossible because we can’t be 10% sure about anything.

                    • djw says:

                      Note that I am not 100% certain that this sort of thing is possible myself. The idea developed fairly organically from a different conversation. I just don’t think that anything I have read here tonight renders it impossible.

                      If your code is “portable” to multiple different periods of history then you could test it out on several of them. Its likely that our timeline had highly improbable outcomes in SOME cases, but not in all of them. We should get the 1 in a million outcome *roughly* one time in a million.

                      Another test would be to actually start it running to predict the actual future, and then wait and see how close it is. You can hardly bake that in to the code. That’s probably one of the main reasons to write the sim in the first place, in any case.

                      Even with these checks there will be some uncertainty about whether you are looking at something realistic, or something that contains nonsense. But that’s pretty much a description of every single belief about reality that we ever have. We do the best we can and face up to the fact that we might still be wrong.

                    • djw says:

                      Also slightly tipsy from wine with dinner, so if I sounded strident in the last two comments please excuse me.

                    • djw says:

                      Also, I made extensive use of Monte Carlo simulations in my ph.d thesis, so I am aware of some of the uses and limitations of simulations.

            • Boobah says:

              I read something years ago that speculated that if only the U.S. had stayed out of WWI, a compromise would have been reached in 1916 or so. All sides were worn out, and it was only the American forces that allowed the war to continue. I don’t know how valid this is.

              Not very. In 1916 there was a reasonable chance that the US wasn’t going to enter the war; in fact, one of Woodrow Wilson’s campaign promises/reminders was that he’d kept the country out of the war and, if reelected in 1916, would make sure it stayed out.

              The US didn’t declare war until early 1917 (go go campaign promises!), and there weren’t any US formations fighting in Europe until the following year.

              On the other hand, a case might be made that they meant preventing the US from selling arms before it entered the war; because the Royal Navy had (with some very minor exceptions) uncontested control of the Atlantic’s surface, that effectively meant the US was only selling to the Entente, and as British and French treasuries emptied, often on credit.

          • djw says:

            You know, my initial assessment of the plan to “prevent WWI” might have been overly harsh. It is possible that the Germans would re-work the Shlieffen plan and make it work…

            But I think it might also be possible that they would be so worried by their track record in the two World War’s that they would instead embark on an EU like program 60 years early. Getting Russia on board might not be too hard, since the outcome for the Russian leadership of WWI was pretty grim.

            • djw says:

              Also, the Czar and the Kaiser were cousins, so maybe they could work things out in a good old fashioned family argument instead.

              Edit: actually, the Czar’s wife was Wilhelm’s cousin. Still, get them together over turkey (dinner) and let them yell at each other like proper in-laws.

              • Droid says:

                The EU started because Central Europe had comparatively good economies, but no single country was really competitive because of its size. Germany would not want to be economically bound to Russia in 1914, especially when they were less than amicable with both France (revanchism) and GB (naval race) whereas Russia had pacts with both of them.

                And the fact that they were cousins was more of a curiosity than real diplomatic advantage. Both of them were also cousins (and brought up together with) King George, going so far as *gasp* calling each other by their nicknames in official letters! But that doesn’t mean that any of them saw much reason to cooperate beyond what seemed practical to them at the time.

                And Wilhelm especially was prone to give in to impulsive behaviour, and those impulses were rarely long-term, economic or rational in nature.

                • djw says:

                  I’m not saying they would start THE European Union. I think rather that they *might* embark on a project of alliances designed to prevent war and tie the countries together, given the revelation that in an alternate timeline they lost both big wars that they started.

                  Honestly, its hard to know one way or another what would happen, but the potential of an alliance project rather than two world wars probably favors a suitcase project to stop the war.

        • Droid says:

          You say that as if there hadn’t been any horribly fatal wars before. Germany at least should have very well known the dangers of fighting a pan-European war on multiple fronts, as almost 300 years before WWI, a war broke out that would decimate the German population to a level that made people at the time fear North German could possibly simply die out as a culture from too many casualties.
          Seeing as what would eventually become Prussia and then Germany were among the ones with the highest death toll (Mecklenburg and Pomerania had cities that lost 80% of their population), and no one really won the Thirty Years’ War in the end, it’s doubtful “all-out war is so horrible and nobody gains anything from it” was elucidating to anyone in 1914. It’s not that the people in charge thought war was great or anything, in fact, at least the Austrian citizens of Vienna thought that “in this civilized time, war is a thing of the past” (not counting wars in uncivilized nations, obviously; so pretty much anything that was not a European Great Power). The war didn’t start because people thought it was prudent, or going to be easy (even though they sold the war that way in propaganda), or even going to make them come out of it stronger than they were before.
          It’s that pretty much all involved parties thought that war was inevitable.
          – Austro-Hungary thought it was the only way to save face after sending the ultimatum that the Serbians wanted to negotiate on.
          – Germany thought there was absolutely going to be a war between them and France/Russia eventually anyways, so better now than later, when better infrastructure in Russia would not allow them to carry out their horrible Schlieffen plan, (and the German Emperor at the time, stubborn and naiive as he was, told the Austrians he would support them on any course of action they decided to take).
          – Serbia thought they would rather bet on the Russian threat making the Austrians complacent than just rolling over and letting their just recently gained independence be tread upon (and, admittedly, they were being very reasonable already with what they sent as an answer to the ultimatum).
          – Russia saw their guarantee of Serbian independence (as part of their policy of “protecting all slavs”, Panslavism) as binding to join the war. Not joining would set a precedent that the Russian protection and their sphere of influence can be intruded without ramifications. Also, the Austrians really could have just accepted the concessions the Serbians were willing to make, from the Russian point of view.
          – France only had the choice between cowering to the German ultimatum to essentially “Stay out of this, it’s none of your business!” or to go to war with their rival that had humiliated them some decades ago. Again, the only choice that would let them save face.
          – And finally, Great Britain joined because Germany invaded Belgium, which was being guaranteed by GB. Again, they would lose face if they just let the Germans invade their sphere of influence.

          Some other nations were more pragmatical in their decision to join either side, like Bulgaria (“screw Serbia, we’ll fight them”), Romania (“I really want a slice of Bulgaria”), Japan (“Those German trading colonies and archipelagos are going to be a nice addition to our colonies”), … Dishonourable mentions to Italy, whose treaty with both Germany and Austro-Hungary explicitly forbade them to join a war against any other member, but did so anyways.

          Wow, now I know how Shamus feels when one of his answers to a comment grows to a full article…

          • MichaelG says:

            Well, if you think “war is inevitable”, then is there any point in communicating with the past at all? Even if you warned 1977 about AIDS, would they do anything about it, or just let prejudice keep them from caring?

            Not much point in thinking about communicating with the past if you assume people are all a*holes.

            Personally, I think politicians can change their positions in record time if they find it in their interest to do so. So I wouldn’t assume these treaty commitments or face saving efforts are unchangeable.

            • djw says:

              Actually, I think that your original goal (get transistor development started several decades early) was laudable. It was diverting WWI that I thought impractical.

              Note that there are other wars that might be easier to stop. Showing the world what happened in Rwanda might get more peacekeeping forces on the ground and might save close to a million lives, for instance.

            • Droid says:

              I don’t think war in general is inevitable. The people responsible for WWI all thought so. And many of them risked their career and much of their country’s territory and population when they joined. Remember, this was less than 100 years after the nationalistic revolutions and formation of the German and Italian nations. People nowadays tend to think that war casualties in general are a horrible thing and losing 15% of your population to a war is terrifying. Back then, nationalistic pride was so strong and widespread that a lot of fanatics could have seen losing even 35% of your population as hefty, but necessary “for a higher cause” if it helped your nation gain/keep power/show their supremacy. The obvious exception here were Austria and the Ottoman Empire who both suppressed nationalistic tendencies wherever they could, but even they knew that war would be very costly, as their multinational empires were a powderkeg only waiting for a spark to explode.

              • Redrock says:

                I think that the main impact of WW I wasn’t so much the loss of life, but rather the loss of the European culture and civilization. A certain …. refinement, for lack of a better word, was lost in that war. Not to mention, it was WW I that led to the Russian revolution and to the eventual rise of the Third Reich, and in general opened the door for 20th century totalitarian regimes. So yeah, preventing WW I is a worthy goal, no argument there.

                • djw says:

                  Personally, I think the loss of life was the single most important feature of the war.

                  Monarchy was likely on its way out anyway, so one way or another the culture of Europe was going to change. If they had managed the wholesale cultural change without the wholesale slaughter it would have probably led to better outcomes.

                  • Redrock says:

                    I think that without WWI most monarchies would have turned into contitutional monarchies with parliamentary democracies without devolving into totalitarian regimes like fascist Italy, nazi Germany or communist Russia. Before the revolution Russia was headed for a working constitutional monarchy. Without the crushing defeat in WW I the Nazi rise becomes impossible. And without the Third Reich and the Soviet Union it’s a whole new world.

  15. Two points.

    First, I might be an inveterate optimist and goody-goody, but I agree totally that it’s better to give people information and trust how it plays out. Some bad will happen from this suitcase but I think we can be sure a lot more good will happen, even at very subtle levels.

    Second, I think it’s totally reasonable to go to the comments section. For all we know an alien race told you that you could use this hypothetical to send a suitcase back. This is part of your real life information network.

  16. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    I’m still unclear why we aren’t sending back a laptop with a bunch of external hard drives. Put a note on it saying “push this button.”

    The computer comes on, they have the GUI interface. Maybe have a video welcome autoplay the first time it opens.

    Include a power cord.

    They had electricity in 1977. Send a second laptop they can disassemble and look at.

    On the content itself, I don’t have strong feelings except I’m curious why AIDS is the disease to cure out of all the possibilities. It isn’t the most deadly disease, not even in Africa. WHO Lists it as number 6, after several forms of heart and cardiovascular disease and then waterborne diarrhoeal diseases (Cholera, I’m guessing). Is it the development of the antiviral therapies? At least throw in some plans for modern water purification systems.

    • evilmrhenry says:

      Problem with the laptop is only one person can use it at a time. I suggested including an ethernet port and a switch; other people suggested mass RS232 ports, but you want a team of people to be investigating.

      As for AIDS, for a while, we didn’t know what was causing it, or how to prevent it. This means that a few sentences given to the right person could drastically cut the death toll.

      • MichaelG says:

        The bigger problem with a laptop is that reverse engineering it is going to be impossible. So you take it apart. It’s made with multilayer circuit boards you can’t make. The chips are generations more dense than you can make. The software requires hardware you can’t make.

        It’s just a big tease!

        • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

          So include instructions on the laptop.

          The “only one person at a time” problem seems more pressing to me, but I guess I don’t image expecting the 1970s recipient to run out to the library to make mimiographs, either.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            There are printers small enough that you can send them together with the laptop.Tell them to print everything once,then copy from those papers.Put the information required for them to replicate that printer as soon as they can,and include as much spare parts as you can fit.

            I share your bafflement with why we arent doing this.Theres no need to send any proof that this is from the future,because as soon as you turn on the machine youll know that this tech is out of this world.Theres no need to think of what to print and what not to print,because the only things you need to put on paper are how to switch the machine on,how to use the mouse and how to print the first page.Everything else you can store in neat folders labeled with the order in which they should access them.

            The only problem I see with this is the really remote possibility of the lap top failing to boot properly for the first time.

    • djw says:

      I think people already knew how to deal with Cholera in 1977. Just don’t mix your sewage with your water source. Any locations that have a problem with that probably need help with infrastructure that a suitcase from the future will be unable to provide.

      On the other hand, cardiovascular disease is something that we don’t really have a cure for even now, so you couldn’t really send one back in a suitcase.

  17. silver Harloe says:

    “because I’m finally enjoying NOT thinking about it.”
    except for the hundreds of comments you’ll get in the next few days that you have to moderate :)

  18. evilmrhenry says:

    Again, I’m going for a laptop, ethernet switch to hook up 1970’s computers, and an extremely large external hard drive for information transfer.

    Only pieces of paper are a short introduction, a setup guide for the laptop, and an introduction to the GUI.

    The rest of the suitcase is filled with technology samples. This includes batteries, cellphones, LED flashlights, CDs, solar panels, SD cards, and anything else that’s small and interesting. If at all possible, I’ll also include a few backup copies of the information on the laptop, just in case something happens.

    As for the information on the laptop:
    Introduction: This is going to be the only part written by me. It includes what items have been included, what information I feel is important and should be given priority attention, (upcoming disasters, mostly) how to hook up more computers, and so on.

    File formats: I am going to try to automatically convert as much stuff to plain text+grayscale bmp images as possible, but that’s not going to always work. The original documents will also be present if converted.

    Everything else is going to be whatever easily-accessible information dumps I can find. I’ll be looking for:
    Wikipedia
    Any scientific papers I can get
    Open Source Software, and compilers
    Patents
    Circuit diagrams of chips
    Anything else that appears to be of scientific use, with a focus on plain text rather than videos or what not, because any 1970’s computers hooked up need the ability to access things or else they’ll be stuck with one screen.

    I don’t really see a use for media/art in here, other than possibly a few examples to show off what’s possible. Even aside from the copyright issues, it comes from a completely different context, which means all it has going for it is pretty pictures.

    Hmmm. I wonder if I could hook up a 1977 printer to the laptop. This seems like a good way to export data, and could actually export pdf files properly. I think this is possible, but I don’t have the knowledge needed for this, so I’d be stuck making things easier, and sending specs back for the 1977 side to connect to.

  19. Mousazz says:

    We didn’t figure out that this autoimmune problem with a retrovirus until 1983.

    You accidentally a verb again. Most likely requires a “this is an autoimmune”, although the sentence still sounds weird.

  20. djw says:

    Nutritional Advice

    Advice about what to eat seems to go in cycles, and I think that it is really hard to separate the current trendiness from real good advice.

    “Don’t eat margarine” is *probably* good advice, and it is at least easy to follow, since butter tastes better, but I would be reticent to put to many other nutritional tidbits in the suitcase, because most of the things we claim about food NOW are probably also wrong.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      The best nutritional advice is the one that everyone always ignores:Every human is different and they metabolize food differently.You should never try something that worked for others in the hopes that it will work for you,because chances are that it wont.You need to tailor your diet and exercise to what benefits your body the most,even if it would be bad for other people.

    • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      Maybe include a copy of Ionnidas’ “Most published research findings are false.”

      We could jumpstart the replication and data analysis conversations by 30 years.

  21. Richard says:

    One correction – DVDs can’t store an HD film, PAL/NTSC SD is as good as they get.
    (One can of course trade resolution for framerate, or only put a single short on it)

    The LaserDisc first went on sale in 1978 – yes, several years before the CD – and they were on public display in museums as “future tech” in 1979.
    At that time they managed up to 1 hour of NTSC SD. Don’t think they did PAL until much later.

    So not only is an optical disc not a surprise, and there were almost certainly multiple key patents that had been granted by 1977. Somebody may even think Forman has stolen trade secrets.

    CPU and RAM are the real limitations though. Playing DVD video requires that you have sufficient CPU and RAM to decode very compressed (MPEG) video – I think it only really became possible in the early 90s. (MPEG 1 was published in 1993)

    • MichaelG says:

      I actually had a LaserDisk player. Compared to what came later, it was so bad it’s funny. Disks one foot across that held 30 minutes of TV-resolution image. It took several seconds to spin up, and whirred the whole time you watched it.

    • INH5 says:

      One correction – DVDs can’t store an HD film, PAL/NTSC SD is as good as they get.

      That’s if you want the DVD to play on a DVD player. If you’re just burning data, you can burn a video file in whatever format you want. And even if you’re not willing to split a movie across multiple discs, there are many codecs that can store a feature length 1080p movie at ~9 gigabytes (assuming that you’re using dual-layer DVDs) with pretty good video quality.

      • Sure you could use any codec, but no computer would be powerful enough to decode it for a decade or longer. People (including Shamus) take codecs and compression for granted.

        A 1977 computer (assuming some programmer had the specs for h265) might be able to display 1 frame per day if lucky downscaled to whatever monitor resolution they have at the time.

        • INH5 says:

          Yeah, the only way I can think of to reliably send video back would be to export the frames as images in a simple format and the audio as a separate uncompressed file. If all else fails, I’m sure that someone in 1977 could figure how to print the images and audio tracks onto filmstock. The obvious downside of this approach is that it would require a huge amount of data, especially for a feature length HD movie.

          Do you think 1977 computers would be able to handle data compression like that used in .zip files?

          • Jabrwock says:

            As long as the compression method is described in the documentation, then it’s just a matter of time. Even an older processor can uncompress the data, it just takes time.

  22. bubba0077 says:

    Going back to the recipient, how about Sir Tim Berners-Lee? Still old enough to be a recipient (22 in ’77) and we know that he will release stuff patent- and royalty-free. Seems like an even better choice than Woz.

  23. Echo Tango says:

    Shamus, you say that batteries weren’t good enough for electric cars in the past, but you can get a lot of use out of lead acid (and it’s still the cheapest). The battery problem isn’t really with the batteries, but with our use of one car for a person’s every need. You can’t go on road trips or haul heavy loads with lead batteries, but short and medium commutes to work and back are possible. This would work for homes with multiple cars, like for example if Dad has a normal gas truck, Mom’s got the minivan for road trips, and Teenager has an electric for going to and from school in the same city.

    • evilmrhenry says:

      Lead-acid looks like 1/8th of the energy density of good electric car batteries. It was certainly possible, and a few people did have electric cars back then, but that’s still the “overgrown golf cart” era, where you had to have as light of a car as possible in order to make things work, and still only had something that was suitable for in-town use.

      • Echo Tango says:

        We’re still sending technology back in time, though, and improving lead batteries is easier than fast-forwarding other more recent battery types. They were already manufacturing lead batteries for normal vehicles back then – lithium rechargeable batteries didn’t start being manufactured for consumer goods untol about the…early- or mid-2000s?

        Also, the three main USA car companies all had electric cars in the 90s, which they scrapped. If we’re trying to make the alternate timeline a better place, we could stop the cancellation, or push that whole project some years sooner.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      The problem with lead-acid batteries is not in how much you could drive on them,but how long they take to recharge and how quickly they would deteriorate if used like this.

      • Echo Tango says:

        They can be charged overnight (or close enough), similarly to lithium batteries in modern cars. You also don’t want normal lead batteries, but deep-cycle ones like are used in golf carts. That kind last long enough to be useful in electric vehicles. (On the order of > 5-ish years.)

  24. Tektotherriggen says:

    I’d add in a list of astronomical phenomena, like supernovae and the Shoemaker-Levy comet (that hit Jupiter). These are very precisely “predictable” without any fear that your suitcase will disrupt them, and thus will be excellent proof. It will also allow astronomers to have telescopes waiting to see them from the start, rather than racing to pick up the afterglow.

    • Pretty good idea. Unlike certain butterfly effects on earth it’s unlikely the suit case would cause ripples in time that would affect a supernova.

      Other things like showing the schedule of eclipses down to the second would also be helpful.

      • Jabrwock says:

        Eclipses, not so much, they are easy to calculate. But things like SL-9, and other extra-planetary stuff that hasn’t been detected by 1977 would be useful, because it (although perhaps stuff that is to occur in the early 80’s rather than 90’s) is easily detectable once it approaches or occurs.

        • Solar flare info would be rather useful too. I forgot about that earlier. THey can mess up electronics and satellites.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Better yet,you can send back specs about ways to shield electronics.Satellites already require specialized equipment that isnt made en masse,so incorporating advanced materials into those wouldnt increase their cost significantly.And anything that can help make the space around earth less like a junk yard is a good thing.

      • wswordsmen says:

        Anything more than 40 Light years away it would be physically impossible for it to affect anything. Physics as we know it doesn’t let it happen. Every supernova we have ever seen has been much further away than that.

        • silver Harloe says:

          Good thing, too, because even at 30 ly distance, a supernova would likely be a mass extinction event for Earth. You really want to be at least 50 ly away from a supernova, probably closer to 100.

  25. Daemian Lucifer says:

    What,no zune?How could you not include such a seminal piece of equipment in the suitcase?

  26. Crimson Dragoon says:

    I know this is nit-picking over probably the least important thing you chose to include, but I feel like Scott Pilgrim would be a poor choice. While I do like the movie and comic, it’s “video games as a metaphor for life” theme would be lost on a society that wouldn’t understand any of the video game lingo, references, or tropes the movie bases itself upon. It may was well be written in an alien language for all the people of 1977 are concerned.

    Avengers, on the other hand, is a rather good choice. While not nearly as deep, there’s nothing technological-wise that people of the 70’s couldn’t comprehend (other than the Galaga joke, maybe) and all the characters already existed in the comics by this point.

    • djw says:

      Galaga was released in 1981. Its graphics were pretty advanced compared to Astroids, which (OMG) was released in 1979.

      I am really surprised by that 1979 release date for Asteroids. For the past 40-ish years I’ve been carrying around a “memory” of seeing Asteroids at a Pizza joint when I was 7 (in 1977). Apparently that memory is a lie. Or Wikipedia is wrong.

      Even Space Invaders was a 1978 release. These people are going to have a hard time getting classic video game references.

      Stick with Pong.

      • Shamus says:

        I have this EXACT same problem! I could SWEAR I saw an Asteroids machine much sooner than ’79. And Space Invaders was 78?! I could swear I saw a table version of that in a Pizza Hut a couple of years before that point.

        Childhood memories are strange.

        • djw says:

          Now that I think about it, the memory of seeing Asteroids at a Pizza joint had a fairly dreamlike quality to it. I know it was the seventies though, because everybody was smoking.

          I actually had some other fairly vivid childhood memories of doing physically impossible things (such as scaling sheer brick walls) that I later concluded must have just been dreams. Maybe this was too.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Do you also remember that the name of the book was berenstein bears?If so,you could be in the wrong universe.

          • Paul Spooner says:

            I remember reading the book title as a child and trying to correct my Mom about the obvious pronunciation. “It should be Stain! Not Steen!” but apparently she had heard that the correct pronunciation was “steen” and told me that names aren’t always written how they are said, so I went with it. It’s easier to say anyhow.

          • djw says:

            To be honest, even after reading the article you linked, I still have difficulty seeing “stain” rather than “stein” even when I am looking straight at the correctly spelled word.

    • Shamus says:

      It was a joke. SPvstW would be a horrible choice. I mean, almost nothing in the movie would make sense to them.

      * The videogame metaphors would be completely opaque.
      * Gay Marcus the Roommate would be interpreted COMPLETELY differently.
      * Nobody would understand the music. Is Sex Bob-omb supposed to be good, or trash? Are we supposed to see them through the eyes of Knives Chau?
      * Jokes or situations revolving around the use of mobile phones would make no sense, since they don’t understand what phones can and can’t do.
      * Everything revolving around Lucas Lee will be confusing. The skateboard lingo, a skate company, the Michael Bay cinematic reference. For example, they will probably assume a “grind” is a made-up thingy (like the flying kung-fu) and not a trick skaters do IRL.
      * What the hell is a Vegan? Okay the movie says what it is, but then says Todd went to “Vegan Academy”. Is that a real thing? Is that like a parochial school of the future?
      * Marcus’ lame-ass computer won’t look like a leftover from the 90s, it will look like a magical future machine. It even talks! This guy must be really smart and rich!
      * Roxy – Ramona’s lesbian ex – will be very confusing or misunderstood.

      And so on…

      No, I think really broad, timeless stuff like Avengers and Incredibles would be a better choice. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would also be good for cultural contrast, although I don’t personally care for it. Rogue One or Force Awakens would be good in the sense of “Hey look it’s ancient Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, and look how good our special FX are!” But as others have said, that would be pretty unfair to George Lucas and would spoil the mystery and magic of the original trilogy.

      • MilesDryden says:

        Wallace, not Marcus.

        Also, they wouldn’t know who Chris Evans or Brandon Routh are so those casting gags would go over their heads.

        And I’m suddenly realizing just how dated the comics/movie are going to be in just another couple years when they’ve been out for a full decade. And now I feel old. Thanks, Shamus.

  27. Oliver Edleston says:

    Bucking the seeming trend in the comment threads of going full technology with the suitcase, my choice of suitcase recipient would be Norman Borlaug.

    Contents of the suitcase would be:
    – An introductory letter (and maybe VHS) introducing the other contents of the case and urging swifter expansion of his existing work into Africa; crucially before large campaigns against his efforts kick off in earnest in the early 80s. With a modest estimate of having saved “only” 1 billion lives worldwide, how much more could be achieved with earlier alleviation of starvation in Africa?
    – Paper copies of published research from the year 1978 onwards in the field of agricultural production.
    – Seeds. Lots of seeds. As many seeds as physically possible of the most modern strains of high-yield crops for growth in challenging climates.

    I think that is a world-changing enough choice for me. Ideally the alternate world would start to realise the true challenges of maximum population sustainability earlier than in our timeline and adjust accordingly (super optimistic I know).

  28. Pax says:

    Holy cow, but could you imagine watching a movie, certified as being from the future, staring a decades older version of you? What does that even do to your brain?

  29. BenD says:

    I keep coming back to this. (THANKS A LOT SHAMUS)

    I think the biggest struggle for my suitcase is translation, because I have no desire to send my suitcase to anyone in the Western world. I thiiiink I want to send low tech but relatively recent methods for disease prevention and water purification; AIDS information, management and treatment; and a few notes about the impacts of climate change and deforestation (not to try to effect change, but to encourage plans for coping) to someone in subSaharan Africa. And I probably want to choose some small village leader or someone similarly humble of position, which means much of my time and money on this end will go to translation and/or transcribing to audio format depending on what’s going to be most accessible to a person I know nothing much about because, if I’m lucky, history has recorded their name and vitals and not much else.

    So I’m still working on it. But that’s the starting point I keep coming back to. Is it possible that my suitcase has no effect whatsoever? Yes. But I like the risk/reward ratio here way better than sending nuke data and high tech to people in the most developed parts of the world.

  30. Chris Serson says:

    In the USA, cable companies spent the entire 80s laying expensive one-way cables all over the country to deliver cable television.

    I have a problem with this statement. There is nothing one-way about the cables. If there were, then the advent of the internet would have required everyone to completely rewire their homes, and that did not need to happen.
    In fact, some people actually had boxes that would allow them to send signals back to their cable companies. My friend’s family had one that tracked what they watched and periodically asked them survey-style questions about their viewing habits. Admittedly, this was in the early-to-mid 90s, but definitely prior to the internet being publicly available in any form outside of dial-up.

    Cable companies faced quite a few problems with bringing in high-speed internet.
    1. They obviously did need to upgrade certain aspects of their infrastructure, like adding switches; but there was no need to upgrade the actual wires.
    2. Analog TV channels were sent as uncompressed signals and took up a lot of bandwidth. In comparison, once cable companies went digital and started using MPEG-2, they could fit up to 4 regular resolution channels in the same space as 1 analog channel. With the recent switch to MPEG-4 compression, they can now fit about 2 HD channels in that same space.
    Because they have tons of older customers who aren’t willing or able to upgrade, it took a very long time for many cable companies to free up the frequency ranges to actually dedicate for internet bandwidth. I worked for a Canadian company for a few years, and we only managed to finally eliminate Analog TV entirely in the last 3-4 years! That freed up a ton of bandwidth for use with the internet that wasn’t previously available.
    3. When the internet initially launched into the public sphere, the average person wasn’t really using that much bandwidth. Most content was text or small images. The advent of video streaming services like Youtube and Netflix caused a huge problem for ISPs because internet usage exploded in a very short period of time. The company I worked for was still dealing with this explosion when I started working for them about 7 years ago. It resulted in network saturation for thousands (probably millions in the US) of customers, meaning excrutiatingly slow speeds during peak hours until the service nodes could be upgraded and new nodes added.
    4. The average internet user also used to be strictly a consumer. They may have been downloading a fair bit, but they uploaded virtually nothing in comparison. Thus, the DOCSIS standard used in cable modems literally provides for about 1/10th the bandwidth for upload as for download (I’m not sure, but I don’t think this is an issue with ADSL, although telephone companies had their own trials and tribulations). The advent of cloud computing and streaming technologies came as quickly, if not moreso, as the Youtube/Netflix explosion and caught a lot of ISPs by surprise. It also came quickly on the heels of the previous round of upgrades, with the upgrades at the company I worked for ending perhaps only 2-3 years ago. How could a company which probably plans millions of dollars worth of upgrades a decade or more in advance possibly predict the rise of Netflix and the cloud?

    So, I guess the best advice you could give to cable companies would be to force all of your customers off Analog as quickly as possible and plan for high up- and downstream usage on their networks.

  31. Kestrellius says:

    This scenario has gone in my “novels I’m going to write at some point” portfolio. I hope you don’t mind.

  32. Steve C says:

    Which is why I always imagine it as an alternate timeline that doesn’t alter my present.

    That undoes the entire point of the thought experiment for me. If it is an alternate timeline that doesn’t affect my own timeline then it doesn’t matter. I mean that in a Rick and Morty, “If everything is infinite, then nothing matters” kind of way. In the context of our present being unaffected, creating an alternate timeline literally creates an alternate universe. I can’t care about other universes for the same rationale used in every SciFi that deals with universe hoping.

  33. Andrzej says:

    Sending information regarding technology-related disasters sounds like a horrible idea. Yes, you save some lifes, but the general public will be against pursuing technological branches that are SURE to be dangerous (like nuclear power or space exploragion) and halt progress in many areas for for knows how long.

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