Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Third Discovery

Can anyone doubt that the printing press is one of the top 5 most important discoveries of all time? Before the printing press, books were a scarce item, and so was the knowledge they contained. After the invention of the printing press, books, knowledge and literacy spread. The modern world would not exist without the printing press. And from a religious point of view, the printing press made the Reformation inevitable.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Second Discovery

Before the invention of the harness, animals could potentially be used for transportation, but not much else. The reason is simple; when you tie a rope around a horse's neck, the harder he pulls the less he breathes. With the invention of the harness, which distributes the weight on the shoulders, mankind's ability to do work was no longer limited by his own muscles. The invention of the stirrup made riding easier (and armed combat possible) and the invention of the yoke meant you could use several animals together, but the invention of the harness was one of the fundamental discoveries for humanity.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The First Discovery

Crop rotation makes for sustainable agriculture. Without it land loses the ability to sustain a population. The Romans understood crop rotation, but practiced a two field rotation. One field was used and the other was fallow. As a result, 50% of their agricultural land was producing food. In the Middle Ages three field crop rotation was discovered. By planting different types of crops in cycles, two thirds of the land was producing food while one third was fallow. This resulted in 32% more food being grown on the same amount of land. As such three field crop rotation makes my list of one of the top five.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Inventions and Discoveries

What are the 5 most important inventions and discoveries of the last 2000 years? By "important" I mean inventions and discoveries which changed society in a dramatic way. Tomorrow I post my first choice...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The Law of Unintended Consequences is best demonstrated when philosophical liberals decide to solve problems through legislation. Liberals like legislation. It lets them control others for causes that the liberals themselves feel good about. Legislative solutions are simple; you need only get a law passed rather than changing public opinion. It produces concrete changes, which the liberals can point to and also feel good about. And it lets liberals have an emotional catharsis of rage towards anyone who opposes their legislative agenda. Unfortunately there are unintended consequences to mucking about with complex systems.

Complex systems are... complex. It is difficult to understand the full range of interactions in complex systems. We are just starting to learn this about nature. Biological systems are complex, and the way they interrelate can cause problems when we interfere. For example, if there is a particularly difficult winter, we might be tempted to feed wild deer. But this has an effect on the number of predators who survive the winter.

Yes, we're starting to understand this about nature. But unfortunately liberals will never understand this about economics. Passing laws to regulate the economy is simple, and appeals to liberals. But the economy is a complex system, and if you muck about with it there are consequences. And it gets even worse when you mix social interactions with the economy.

A case in point is ethanol. Liberals felt it was good for the environment to include ethanol in gasoline. But not content to let people make environmentally responsible decisions for themselves, liberals convinced themselves that the best thing to do was to legislate 10% ethanol in gasoline. Which let the liberal feel good about themselves. And then unintended consequences took over. Today, 30% of North American corn production is going towards producing ethanol. Instead of feeding human beings. Which means the prices go up. And not everyone can afford to pay, which means a lot of people are worried about hunger on a worldwide basis (and yes, there are other crops and other issues which are affecting the prices of those crops).

So what's the answer? Repeal the laws that create the problem? No, that's not the liberal way. The liberal way is to pass more laws, with more government control. Which sounds reasonable and compassionate, until the next time the law of unintended consequences strikes.

Something clicked

Something clicked today. Remember during the last American Presidential election and the "Swift Boats Vets" ads on TV? I downloaded one of those ads a couple of years ago. It is a powerful ad, panning across a bunch of men who are middle aged and older. The script tells us that these men were not war criminals (as John Kerry would have alleged) but are community leaders, business men, pastors, fathers and grandfathers. What struck me about the ad was when it panned across one older gentleman. He wasn't tall of stature, but if you looked closely you could see around his neck a blue ribbon with some tiny white stars. The Medal of Honor. It's one of those medals that you usually don't get to wear, though by tradition your next of kin does get to wear (because most men who win it do not survive their heroics). Also by tradition, when a man is wearing the Medal of Honor, he receives salutes from General Officers rather than giving the salute, even if the Medal winner is a lowly private. It's that kind of medal, and one of the men in the ad was wearing it. Today I found out who that man was.

Colonel George "Bud" Day enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during World War Two. Though he was only 17 years of age, and though he was only 116 pounds, he convinced the Marines to take him. He became a Marine Corps aviator. Then he became a jet pilot, and fought in Korea. And then Vietnam. His specialty was as a "Wild Weasel", encouraging SAM batteries to fire at him, evading the missile and then attacking the SAM battery. It was the most dangerous job that any pilot could have. And on his 67th mission he was shot down over Vietnam. For 3 weeks he evaded the NV Army and walked south. And then with freedom almost in view he was captured. He spent 5 years as a POW in the "Hanoi Hilton", one of the most notorious prison camps. Despite repeated torture he became a leader among the prisoners. And finally, after the war was over he was released, thinner, but not broken. Upon coming home he must have heard about John Kerry. And it's not too hard to imagine that he was disgusted by Kerry's "testimony". And so when Kerry ran for the highest office in America, it was payback time.

Yes, a very powerful ad. The ad didn't identify Bud Day, but the Medal spoke volumes. And those who do know the whole story know the ad was even more powerful than they first realized.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I've just discovered Google Reader...

... and life will never be the same again.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Fifth Book

My fifth and final choice is the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it is a 2600 page volume of scientific tables. It has taken centuries to compile this information. And while the layman might not be interested in the melting point of lead or the density of sodium chloride, the information in this book will help a civilization accelerate the process of scientific discovery.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rejected Choices for the Fifth Book

The last choice is a tough one. An atlas might be useful, though a lot of that information would be available in the encyclopedia. A textbook on optics would give them help in making microscopes and telescopes. A book on art might enrich their civilization (just knowledge of perspective alone would be an important advance). A text on trigonometry would be very helpful. Likewise a general textbook on science, or a textbook specifically on chemistry would give a civilization an incredible boost. Perhaps something on musical theory? All good choices, but none of these are my fifth and final choice.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Fourth Book

As a Christian I believe theology is vitally important, and many of the theological ideas we understand today have taken intelligent believers hundreds and even thousands of years to figure out. Hence my fourth choice is a good textbook on theology. My personal choice would be Wayne Grudem's “Systematic Theology” or if I was allowed a set of books rather than a single volume, Norman Geisler's 4 volume set.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Third Book

Making the jump from a feudal subsistence agriculture to a modern economy is huge, and the foundational work that made this happen in Western Civilization is Adam Smith's “Wealth of Nations”. Note that I am currently reading this one, so I only know it by reputation.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Second Book

The next book is not a classic on some important subject. It is not a foundational book. It's just a book which will provide technological information on a ton of different inventions. This book is “The New Way Things Work” by David Macaulay. From a jet engine to sewing machines, this book will provide a civilization with hundreds of technical ideas. Note that it doesn't explain how to create these devices in complete detail, but if you understand that something is possible and understand the basics of how it will work, you should be able to figure out the rest.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The First Book

A textbook on calculus. Calculus is not something that is immediately obvious, but it is an incredibly powerful tool for mathematics, the sciences and even social sciences. So a textbook on calculus definitely makes my list.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

More on Books

OK, I asked what 5 books you would give to a future civilization to try to give them a boost out of the middle ages. Before discussing my choices, I'll mention some books I wouldn't choose.

First, I wouldn't choose a book on history. Now for someone who thinks history is important that might be a controversial decision. But here is my reasoning. This is a society that is basically unconnected with our own, which makes a book on history less valuable. Now I didn't say valueless. I said less valuable. An example is the way books on ancient Greece and Rome are of value in understanding Western civilization, while books on ancient China are of less value in understanding Western civilization.

Second, I wouldn't include a Bible concordance. This is something that can be generated through mere effort (considerable effort, but just effort divorced from creativity). I'm more interested in books that explain creative jumps.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Imagine that there is some future civilization. It is at a pre-industrial stage, perhaps where Western Europe was at around the year 1500. If you could give 5 books to that civilization, what would they be? Assume they have a Bible, an Encyclopedia Britannica, an Oxford English Dictionary and Grays Anatomy.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Another Great Line

I've been reading "The Saint's Everlasting Rest" as a devotional. Now to be honest, I'm not much into devotional books. I have a hard time entering into the enjoyment of another person's devotional thoughts. But "Rest" is an old book, which means it has weathered the passing of time, is not caught up in today's fads, and still retains its value. So here's another great line:

We must add, that this rest contains a sweet and constant action of all the powers of the soul
and body in this enjoyment of God. It is not the rest of a stone, which ceaseth from all motion when it attains the centre. This body shall be so changed, that it shall no more be flesh and blood, which cannot inherit the kingdom of God; but a spiritual body. We sow not that body which shall be, but God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. If grace makes a Christian differ so much from what he was, as to say, I am not the man I was; how much more will glory make us differ! As much as a body spiritual, above the sun in glory, exceeds these frail, noisome, diseased bodies of flesh, so far shall our senses exceed those we now possess. Doubtless, as God advances our senses, and enlarges our capacity, so will he advance the happiness of those senses, and fill up, with himself, all that capacity.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Using Time Wisely

I was waiting for a meeting to start, so I was doing some reading on my Palm from Richard Baxter's "The Saints Everlasting Rest". It is a deep book, and not one that can be read quickly. One has to think through it and almost... to feel what has been written. Look at this quote and enjoy it:

When I know so little of God, I cannot much know what it is to enjoy him. If I know so little of spirits, how little of the Father of spirits, or the state of my own soul, when advanced to the enjoyment of him! I stand and look upon a heap of ants, and see them all at one view: they know not me, my being, nature, or thoughts, though I am their fellow-creature: how little then, must we know of the great Creator, though he, with one view, clearly beholds us all! A glimpse, the saints behold as in a glass, which makes us capable of some poor, dark apprehensions of what we shall behold in glory. If I should tell a worldling what the holiness and spiritual joys of the saints on earth are, he cannot know; for grace cannot be clearly known without grace; how much less could he conceive it, should I tell him of this glory! But to the saints I may be somewhat more encouraged to speak, for grace gives them a dark knowledge and slight taste of glory.