Whatever foresight is, it’s not 20/20…

(originally written Jan 3, 2012.  Part of my Great Upload of 2013.)

Come December’s end, the nervy among us like to review what they got right in the past year. The nervier like to predict what’ll happen in the New Year. Ever the blithe contrarian, I figured I’d visit the Ghost of Predictions Past and see where I got things wrong.**  :)

I do this taking comfort that Great Men, like me, make mistakes sometimes. (Oh, it was tempting to “forget” those commas…!)

Take the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius — he almost ruined his reputation as an enlightened philosopher-king when, fed up with a particularly quarrelsome ethnic group, he set out to exterminate the… Germans. (Ha! Betcha didn’t see that coming! :) )  Historians also dock him points for leaving the Empire to his sadistic son Commodus, whose death the lightly-factual chopumentary “Gladiator” got wrong. Among many, many other things, Joaquin Phoenix should’ve died in his sleep. Strangled by a bodyguard, sure, but in his sleep none the less. ;)

Probably my biggest mistake in 2011 was thinking the Fukushima nuclear disaster wouldn’t be as catastrophically epic as it became. While there are no directly attributed deaths*, it’s estimated that the clean-up will take decades — at great cost of time, money, and confidence in Japanese public and private institutions. In conceitedly thinking that a serious nuclear accident would never happen “here” in the First World, I overestimated human knowledge and underestimated human nature. We do have a genius for corruption and corner-cutting…!

Overestimating human knowledge

A back-in-the-day Canadian example of overestimating human knowledge is that of the Dryden Chemical Company, which was responsible for an outbreak of mercury poisoning among the Grassy Narrows First Nation. The company made chlorine to bleach paper, using mercury in the reactors. Tonnes of mercury made their way into the lake over the years, probably with an engineering justification to the effect of “well, methylmercury is the bad stuff, but we’re dumping inorganic mercury, which is safe enough to drink. So it’s not ideal, but there’s no real problem”.

Not being biologists, the engineers would not have realized that some shellfish metabolize safe inorganic mercury into unsafe methylmercury — meaning that any mercury dumped in the lake became unsafe mercury, in short order. And remember, that’s just the techno-hubris of forty years ago; we’ve since moved on to bigger things!

Underestimating human nature

A recent American example of underestimating human nature is that of Monsanto’s Bt corn, engineered to produce an insecticide toxic to the corn rootworm, but harmless to most other species. Apparently rootworms are developing resistance to the insecticide faster than expected — in part because farmers aren’t following the recommended usage instructions. (I bet they don’t decrumb their toasters every six months, either.)

The rootworms will become resistant to the insecticide anyways (because the only rootworms having rootworm babies will be the Bt-tolerant ones) — it’s just that the rootworms are ahead of schedule because the engineering solution didn’t accommodate enough end-user misuse.  A definite lesson for us technically-minded folks.

Up next!  (maybe)

Next time: more Klippensteinian hubris, as we look at rising oil production!  Falling gold prices!  (Both temporary, I’m sure. ;) )

Or maybe I abandon this thread and muse about more interesting going-forward stuff, like the probability that activist groups will soon follow the example of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (beefed-up radio-controlled model airplanes with decent cameras) to monitor their opponents.  Which also makes it likely that corporate interests will soon do the same every time there’s a protest.  Now, if I could just find a stock whose business plan consists of renting aerial drones to all parties…  ;)

————-

* A couple anti-nuclear campaigners (Mangano and Sherman) recently came out with a calculation that there were 14,000 excess deaths in the US in the weeks after the disaster, but they put the data through enough Cirque-du-Soleil contortions to earn a PhD in BS.  And not for the first time; in the summer, they’d alleged baby deaths in the US Pacific Northwest spiked after the meltdown…  conveniently ignoring data showing that death rates were even higher three months before the accident.  Which doesn’t exactly add credibility to reality-based concerns about the effect of persistent, low-level radiation exposure.

** alas, unlike conversations, my mailouts are checkable…  :)

Dilbert Jan 3 2012

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