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…
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
 It probably won’t save everyone. Several of the people killed by the eruption knew the danger and elected to stay anyway.
 Eh. Maybe. The technology was already in development at this time, and it’s hard to say what patents had been filed.
Grand Theft Railroad
Grand Theft Auto is a lousy, cheating jerk of a game.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
A programming project where I set out to make a gigantic and complex world from simple data.
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
What is this silly word, why did some people get so irritated by it, and why did it fall out of use?