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Posted on Sat. Jan. 19, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

ALARMS AND DIVERSIONS FOR THE THINKING PERSON

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“Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. We should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened – but which, if they occurred, could cause such world-wide devastation that even once would be too often.

“Much has been written about possible ecological shocks triggered by the collective impact of a growing and more demanding world population on the biosphere, and about the social and political tensions stemming from scarcity of resources or climate change. But even more worrying are the downsides of powerful new technologies: cyber-, bio-, and nano-. We're entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger a societal breakdown with such extreme suddenness that palliative government actions would be overwhelmed.

“Some would dismiss these concerns as an exaggerated Jeremiad: After all, human societies have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes and pestilence. But these human-induced threats are different: They are newly emergent, so we have a limited timebase for exposure to them and can't be so sanguine that we would survive them for long – nor about the ability of governments to cope if disaster strikes. And of course we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that even more powerful future technologies could do.

“The 'anthropocene' era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, there were several occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward nuclear Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation. Those who lived anxiously through the Cuba crisis would have been not merely anxious but paralytically scared had they realized just how close the world then was to catastrophe. Only later did we learn that President Kennedy assessed the odds of nuclear war, at one stage, as 'somewhere between one in three and even.' And only when he was long-retired did Robert MacNamara state frankly that '[w]e came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war without realizing it.' ”

From “2013: What should we be worried about?” at edge.org

A quiz

How many U.S. presidents have been an only child?

Wisdom of the ages

“You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.”– Lou Holtz

Current wisdom

““A tough fight to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives: Winning it required the president to make a lot of unsavory deals that had nothing to do with the big issue. ... I wouldn't know anything about that.” – Former President Bill Clinton in introducing the film “Lincoln.”

Quiz answer

Not a single one.

Snob words

filch (FILtch), v. – to steal (especially something of small value); pilfer, as in: “The editorial writer was not amused when the politician filched his parking spot.” Origin unknown.

Today in history

On this date in 1903, a new bicycle race was announced – the Tour de France.

Now you know

The inner ear is the only sense organ to develop fully before birth. It reaches its adult size by the middle of pregnancy.


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