Posts tagged ‘Predictions’

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl

“The thing about science fiction is that we don’t write about THE future. Every story is about a possible future, exploring the things that MAY happen fifty, a hundred or a thousand years from now. I think the world described in Man Plus is possible, but if some events go one way rather than another we may be, equally possibly, stuck with the world written about in All the Lives He Led.”

—Frederik Pohl

Quoted in an interview with Fred and Betty at that we haven’t linked before.

Bill Gates predicts an end to  poor countries by 2035.

An optimistic Bill Gates predicts an end to poor countries by 2035. Pessimists fear the U.S. will be one before then.

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

Billionaire Bill Gates‘ recent prediction that by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world caught my eye. I can’t help wondering how much attention Mr. Gates has paid to theshrinking middle class in the United States, let alone how much understanding he has about what it’s like to be a member of a family with greatly diminished expectations, or that’s slid into poverty within the last five years.

Mr. Gates has every right to be an optimist. He’s taken great risks and, against the odds, come out a winner, at least financially. Throughout my lifetime I believed that most Americans were optimists, having faith in a better future. I’m not so sure a majority still feels that way, considering the state of the economy, our political paralysis, the proliferation of weapons in private hands in the U.S., shootings, and violence at home and abroad. For a number of reasons, we do not seem to be growing safer or more secure.

I once made a similar assumption for a story, “Standard Deviation” (originally titled “The Midler,” and dramatized for radio in Germany but never published in the U.S.). It was based on a December 1978 Analog science-fact article by John Gribbin, “Science Fiction is Too Gloomy,” which asserted that in 200 years we’d no longer have any of the problems we worried about at the time. Gribbin qualified his claim by assuring us that we’d have problems galore in 2178, they just wouldn’t be the same ones we fretted about then. All those problems would have come to a crisis and been solved, assuming the human race had survived at all.

So, for the purposes of my story, I waved the writer’s magic wand and assumed that major issues like global warming, pollution, overpopulation, food shortages and distribution, nutrition, access to education and technology, diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, all had been solved. What remained as a major problem in the story was the need all human beings seem to have to feel “special.” I might take a different tack if I were doing the story today, Although I’m still into food issues, these days I’m far more interested in feminism, human cultures, economics, politics, etc.

Pessimists worry that we won’t solve our problems and it will be the end of us, at least as we know human civilization and culture. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a comic novel, Galapagos, about human survival in a physically devolved state, wherein we had lost our big brains that had given us so many problems, and our progeny were now happily frolicking like porpoises in the water. It’s every bit as funny as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five. We have to laugh so we don’t cry.

Frederik Pohl and Dave Wolverton, 1987.

Fred with Dave Wolverton at the 1987 Writers of the Future Awards.

Over at Paleofuture, Matt Novak turned up a letter Fred wrote for a 1987 Writers of the Future time capsule. Novak writes:

“One of the predictions was from Pohl, who I contacted through email to ask about his letter to the future. There were over a dozen letters in the time capsule from people like Orson Scott Card and Isaac Asimov. But it was Pohl’s letter that really caught my eye because it hinted at a skepticism surrounding the entire practice of prediction — in particular, a reference to the work of cold readers and other charlatans who would have you believe that they can see into the future with certainty.”

After the opening of the time capsule last year, Novak asked Fred what he thought about it. Check out Paleofuture for Fred’s 2012 comments on his predictions of a quarter-century earlier. Here’s Fred’s 1987 letter:

Dear People of the Future,

In my day there were professional entertainers, and fake psychics, who specialized in telling total strangers all sorts of intimate details about themselves. The process was called *cold reading*. I’ve never done it before, but I think I can do it for you. I think I can tell you quite accurately what your lives are like as you open this time capsule.

For example, you live in a world at peace. Something like the World Court, as an arm of something like the United Nations, resolves international disputes, and has the power to enforce its decisions. For that reason, you live in a world almost without weaponry; and, because you therefore do not have to bear the crippling financial burden of paying for military establishments and hardware, all of you enjoy an average standard of living about equal to a contemporary millionaire’s. Your health is generally superb. Your life expectancy is not much less than a century. The most unpleasant and debilitating jobs (heavy industry, mining, large-scale farming) are given over to machines; most work performed by human beings is in some sense creative. The exploration of space is picking up speed, both by manned colonization and robot probes, and by vast orbiting telescopes and other instruments. Deforestation, desertification and the destruction of arable land has been halted and reversed. Pollution is controlled, and all the winds and the waters of the Earth are sweet again.

This is a very short description of your life, but it could be made even shorter. A single word can describe it: it is very close to what every previous age of mankind would call *Utopia*.

How do I know these things?

It isn’t because I’ve made a probabilistic assessment of present-day trends. Quite the contrary. All the evidence of what is going on in the world today leads to the conclusion that none of these things are going to happen, because our country, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world (and, I have always thought, the best) is bankrupting itself to recruit and train terrorists in Latin America, give arms to terrorists all over the world, develop and deploy fleets, armies and weapons systems which have no purpose except to pound any country which disagrees with us into submission. Since, unfortunately for us, the people who disagree with us have terrorists, fleets, armies and weapons systems of their own, the most plausible future scenario is all-out nuclear war.

It is therefore clear that to make the predictions above is to bet recklessly against the odds.

It’s still a good bet, though.

In fact, I don’t see how I can lose it. Anyone opening the capsule to read these lines will have to agree that my low-probability predictions pretty well describe the actual turn of events … because if the high-probability ones of mass destruction and species suicide should prevail no one is likely to be around to read them.

The blog team

waterless urinal


A simple high-school electrochemistry question for you smart ones: how do you make that excellent, but tricky, fuel for your car, hydrogen?

Simple. You start with plain old water; you dip two terminals from a battery at the ends of the tank and turn on the current. Something starts bubbling at the terminals, hydrogen at one, oxygen at the other. You can use the hydrogen to make your car go, sell the oxygen, perhaps, to the nearest hospital. It’s a great little system, the only problem being that it takes at least 1.23 volts to split the water molecule and electricity costs money.

Okay, forget the water. Let’s electrolyze a different chemical liquid, say urine.

Human urine takes only 0.37 volts to electrolyze. This cuts your power consumption down to not much more than a quarter, and the process is now economical. What makes the difference is that urine contains urea, and a molecule of urea contains four of the hydrogen atoms that constitute your electric current — twice as many as a molecule of water — and the bonds that hold the molecule together are weaker.

So, supposing you want to start building your plant for peepee power right now, where do you get your urine? You might think that that’s a silly question — nearly 7 billion humans alive on the Earth, and every one of them generating your new motor fuel for you every day — but you may have to go to some trouble to get what you need. No, you can’t just pipe your sewage into a tank and run a current through it. Sewage is contaminated with many other materials, and the worst of them for this purpose is plain old water. Any flush toilet dilutes the urine drastically, and thus also seriously dilutes the urea it contains, so much so that you might as well use plain water to begin .with.

There are various solutions to the problem of the urine collection. One was invented for us by the ancient Romans. They liked to wear white woolen garments, but those garments got dirty and couldn’t be laundered in water because they would shrink. Plain urine was fine to wash them in, though, so to provide their cleaning liquid, those old Roman dry cleaners put barrels out at street intersections, with ingratiating little signs urging those who had to go to use the barrels.

Of course, some neighborhoods might not care for that sort of public display. Fortunately, there are other options. The urine doesn’t have to come from human beings. Any large mammal will do. The particularly placid cow would be close to ideal. And how do you persuade your herd of cattle to pee in a barrel? You don’t.

There is a useful bit of minor surgery widely in use for elderly male humans whose prostate has grown so big it interferes with their urination. One end of a catheter is inserted directly through the skin into the gentleman’s bladder, the other end leads to a collection vessel of some sort. From then on the man never has to dash for a public urinal, and his own urine arrives at the electrolysis plant in a nearly pristine condition. (You save a bundle on water bills, too, since from then you never have to flush for pee.)

See how easy it is to solve some pretty big problems if you want to make the effort?

* * *

All the Lives He Led — is set partly in Pompeii, and I’ve done a lot of writing about those Romans at other times as well.

Desert (NASA photo)

Six months or so back a local outfit asked me to make some predictions about the future. That’s not my regular line of work, of course. Sf writers do not predict the future, they just speculate about what sorts of futures might come our way, but I was feeling lucky so I took a shot. “By 2050 A.D.,” I said, “the whole stretch of southwestern states from Texas through Southern California will be officially designated a desert.”

And what do you know? This Sunday’s New York Times had an interview with Richard Seagar, head analyst of Southwest weather studies at Columbus University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Asked how long he thought the Southwest drought might persist, he said, “You can’t really call it a drought. . . . You don’t say, ‘The Sahara is in drought.’ It’s a desert. If the models are right, then the Southwest will face a permanent drying out.”

Not the only place, either. The same models that show Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix at risk of becoming “ghost cities,” show the same for more distant urban places like Perth, Australia, whose city planners warn that it may be the first to go.

Want another prediction while I’m hot?

All right. By 2050 the tornado belt, which has slowly relocated closer to my own area in Northern Illinois, will inhabit Canada’s southern provinces, and you can bet on that! (Of course, you might lose.)

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley.

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at the Queens Science Fiction League, 1948.

Will Sykora, along with James Taurasi and Sam Moskowitz, were the leaders of the anti-Futurian wing of New York fandom. They had way more members than we, so on votes they had no trouble cutting us off from even things that originally had been our ideas, like the 1939 Worldcon No. 1.

Willy Ley in his natal Germany was a member of the circle of early German rocket enthusiasts, including Wernher von Braun, which were largely responsible for encouraging the research which produced the V1 and V2 flying bombs. By then, however, Ley, a confirmed anti-Nazi, had escaped to America where he became a writer on that and related subjects.

Sykora had no particular connection with Ley. They just both happened to sit at the same table, and there was somebody with a camera.

* * *

The Early PohlThe Early Asimov

The funny story about The Early Pohl:

It was the idea of some of the Doubleday editors to publish a book of the first (and generally the worst) stories ever published by a number of sf writers, including Isaac Asimov and me. As it happened, two of Isaac’s earliest stories had been collaborations with me, and he wanted to include them in The Early Asimov. So to pay me for my contribution to the work, I received a 5-percent share of the income from Isaac’s book.

The funny, if embarrassing to me, part of it:

We kept on getting royalties on these books for some time, and in every royalty period the money from my 5-percent share of Isaac’s royalties was always more than my 100-percent share of my own.

* * *

By the way and P.S:

Did you notice how trivial were the dreadful effects of technology that I was trying to worry the reader with? From jet planes, I warned of sonic boom; from cars, the corroding of stonework.

How ignorant we were even when we thought we were cutting-edge smart!

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