Old-way killer


Tiny sun/Craig Medred photo

On the trail in the bright of an LED beam on Wednesday night, it dawned that the old ways in Alaska don’t just die.

They are murdered by technology.

On an individual level, those possessed of significant willpower and a sense of self-sacrifice might be able to hang on to all traditions. On a societal level, most of the old ways are destined to be buried under an evolutionary avalanche that cannot be stopped.

Nature is a powerful force for change. Nobody is dipnetting salmon from the Kenai River anymore with a net woven of spruce roots. The construction is too time-consuming.

People did that when they had to do it. They no longer have to do it, and thus it goes against nature which dictates all animals want to get fat, humans included. This is evolution’s prime directive.

Fat animals (at least until humans altered the game in some ways) always had better chances of survival than skinny animals. Biology, meanwhile, dictates all animals want to survive to pass on their genes.

And there are only two ways to get fat: Consume more calories or burn fewer calories.

Humans have taken over the world thanks to their ability to do both. All of which comes back to technological advances of all sorts.

A well-fed world

Starvation was supposed to have visited a plague on us a generation ago, but it didn’t.

“….Throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted — for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine — 1975! The form of agriculture that (the late Norman) Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths,” Gregg Easterbrook wrote in The Atlantic way back in 1997.

A winner of a Nobel Prize, Borlaug was a key player in the Green Revolution. He helped develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world’s population now depends for sustenance.

A killer of old ways, the wheat and its methods were not immediately welcome in many places.

“To Borlaug, the argument for high-yield cereal crops, inorganic fertilizers, and irrigation became irrefutable when the global population began to take off after the Second World War,” Easterbrook wrote. “But many governments of developing nations were suspicious, partly for reasons of tradition (wheat was then a foreign substance in India) and partly because contact between Western technical experts and peasant farmers might shake up feudal cultures to the discomfort of the elite classes. Meanwhile, some commentators were suggesting that it would be wrong to increase the food supply in the developing world: better to let nature do the dirty work of restraining the human population.”

But what best defines successful new technology is what works, and it is all but impossible to contain changes that make life easier or better. India today produces more wheat than it can consume.

Record production is expected in the country in 2020, Reuters reported only days ago, and “that higher production would add to India’s already swelling inventories, potentially forcing the world’s second-biggest wheat producer to ramp up procurement of the grain from farmers and provide incentives for overseas sales to support local prices.”

Seeing the light

What does wheat in India have to do with a black Alaska night lit up by technology? Everything and nothing.

Nothing in that the technology of modern agriculture is wholly different from the electronic technology driving a revolution in LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and lithium-ion batteries.

Everything in that if you design it, and if it works, change will come.

And then it will accelerate.

If you live in Alaska, where the dark season settles in this time of year and runs through February, you note this sort of change most in the evolution of lights – bike lights, head lamps, even high-efficiency indoor lighting that can shrink your electric bill.

Particularly in the outdoors, the tech shifts are noticeable because of the gap caused by those summers of the midnight sun when lights aren’t needed.

This makes lights different from, say, the iPhone which creeps forward with incremental changes that make evolution less obvious. The original iPhone is now a Model-T compared to the iPhone 11, 12, 79, 402 or whatever number it is up to now, but nobody notices.

It’s still just an iPhone.

Lights in Alaska make you notice. When an inch and a half long by inch square, two-ounce chunk of technology on your forehead turns the night of old into day, it’s hard to ignore.

When you figure that light cost less than $25 and will run for a couple hours on a single 18650 lithium-ion cell about half the size and weight of an old D-cell alkaline battery, it’s even harder to ignore.

Cheaper and better

And when you are old enough to remember lights with incandescent bulbs prone to sudden burnouts powered by heavy, four-D-cell battery backs all of which collectively cost more than four times as much as this little LED of today in 1980 or 1990 dollars, the change gets downright amazing.

Throw in the short-lived fad of HID (high-intensity-discharge) now hard to find, and it only underlines how much things have changed. – a website for mountain bikers – in December 2008 raved about a $429, 2-pound, 3-ounce, state-of-the-art HID light capable of throwing 1,850 lumens of light.

“Bottom line,” a review said, “If you want the brightest, widest, best value light, this is it.”

Flash forward to the present when the inflation-corrected cost of this light would be $513 in 2019 dollars. Today, for a about a third of that price, you can buy a NiteRider Lumina Duel 1800 of almost the same brightness and a quarter of the bulk. 

For just a few dollars more ($550 to $570), you can buy a NiteRider Pro Duel 4200 more than twice as powerful and still only about 80 percent of the weight of that old HID. The light is named for its 4,200 lumens of light output.

For comparison sake, standard, 55W car/truck bulbs have been shown to produce 850 to 1,260 lumens on high beam. Two of them would thus produce 1,700 to 2,520 lumens or  40 to 60 percent as much light as that NiteRider. 

Of course, as you might have noticed, some car lights are now brighter than those old standards, but the standards do provide a good reference point.

The cheap, Chinese headlight I was wearing while snowshoeing Wednesday night claimed a rating of 1,000 lumens. It is hard to tell how accurate that claim, but the light appeared at least as bright as the standard low beams on the family cars and truck.

Low beams have been generally measured around 900 to 1,200 lumens.

With snow brightening the trail, there was no need for the high beam on the LED, and the low beam was significantly brighter than that of any of the headlights in which considerably more money was invested back in the day.

A bunch of them were delivered to the Salvation Army last week. There is not much use for old, bulky, heavy, alkaline-battery powered lights when you have a rack of far more efficient LEDS, let alone for the carbide lamps that powered the first headlamps.

Amazingly, you can still buy a carbide light, although most of the manufacturers appear to have gone out of business, according to the Carbide Caver. 

This is the way the world works, the way the world has always worked. No one wants to continue stumbling around in the dark when they have seen the light.

Times change. Technology kills the old ways. And we all – generally and barring disaster – live a little easier day by day.

It’s easy to worry about the loss of the old ways. There are cultural values to the past, and it is good to hang onto some of those. They are the foundation of our evolution. But to think many of us can stand still in time is foolishness because we can’t do it.

We are hostages to our own success. What makes us human, all of us – black, white, Asian, Native – is the desire to make tomorrow better and easier than today, to make what works now work even better a year from now, to move relentlessly forever into the future.

To chase that bright beam always probing the dark, and it is that very thing that is destined to always kill the old ways.





















8 replies »

  1. I read this in my den and looked around. As far as I can tell the only thing that existed in its current form when I graduated from high school in 1967 is the Hon steel filing cabinet; four drawer filing cabinets haven’t changed much, but you don’t need them nearly as much any more.

    NOTHING else existed unless you count the ceramic tile on the floor and the sheetrock on the walls; even the acrylic paint didn’t exist in 1967. I’m a bit of a traditionalist so the furnishings are mostly 19th, early 20th Century stuff; dark wood and black metal. I can afford it so I have crown molding and milled casings of a traditional look, but most of it is MDF, which also didn’t exist in ’67. The walls look like plaster but they’re really plaster veneer over sheetrock, not real plaster over lathing. The flat-screen TV, computers, cordless phones, LED lighting, remote controls, electronic door locks, video doorbell, surround sound, and on, and on, not only didn’t exist in ’67, they only barely existed in the imaginations of the most futuristic thinking among us.

    In ’67, my family’s car was a ’66 Ford Fairlane with a 200 ci inline six, a three-speed automatic, and a AM-FM radio, and that was pretty much it; you had to unlock the doors yourself and wind the windows with a crank. Those cranks were the air-conditioning. It did have vent windows, which I think are a major loss to American culture, even though I don’t smoke any more. I had a ’57 Chevrolet two-door hardtop with a Powerpack 283 and a three speed manual with a Hurst shifter. I was a musician and did a little commerce in recreational substances, so I had a little money. But it too had an AM-FM radio, manual locks and crank windows. It also handled like a pig, rode like a rock, and required constant maintenance, even if you didn’t thrash it, and I thrashed it. It would go fast in a straight line though.

    Today I have two cars; a ’99 M-B ML-430 and a ’13 M-B CLS-550. Bought them both used; only trust fund babies, pro-athletes, and drug dealers buy a new Mercedes – Benz. The ML is simply a beast; it has true body on frame construction like a real truck. It has low-range and will climb a brick wall if you ask it. It rides like the truck that it is; you can run over a cigarette butt and know if it is a filter or plain. But it is a superbly competent and comfortable vehicle. It’s not that different from a ’49 Dodge PowerWagon except it has leather seats and vanity mirrors – and a superb sound system, navigation suite, and rear-view camera. It does have the now antiquated HID headlights, but I’m working on replacing them with LEDs. The CLS-550, though now six years old, is a creature from another world. The owner’s manual in paper is 274 pages and the digital manual is available to provide more detail. The electronics suite has its own 175 page manual. Fortunately, it is like a lot of fancy cameras and other electronics; you can just set it to “auto” and it just does it all for you. It has 400+ horsepower and doesn’t foul plugs. It drives as effortlessly in town traffic as my Dad’s ’66 Fairlane.

    We’ve won the lottery of life; we were born in 20th Century America.

  2. Reading this story and seeing buzz words like: “Murdered, Technology, Nobel Prize and One Way Killer”…you would think Craig was describing Obama’s NSA drone program at work in the middle East…for which he was rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
    It was just a few years ago that Ed Snowden dropped the “bomb” on American Journalism by introducing the data that showed how America is using remote video feeds to surveil the people in the Middle East who are targets of our own administration…some of these “targets” have been American Citizens who have been killed with drone strikes without a fair trial.
    “In fact, Snowden says that it was when he stumbled upon the connection between the NSA and the Drone program, that he decided to blow the whistle…
    Ed said:
    “The stuff I saw really began to disturb me.
    I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill.”
    This technology goes on today against protest by many countries in the United Nations.

    • Steve, on one hand I agree with you, Obama did kill American citizens on his Disposition Matrix (kill list) without Due Process. On the other hand, those terrorists got off way too easy. Hmm, let’s see Obama gets the Nobel “Peace” Prize and Trump, hmm, gets what?? Oh the Democrats irony..
      When I was in China (ref Craig’s article), a Chinese lady I hired pointed to a group of American tourists. She said, “oh, happy American’s, they must be rich”, attributing food from days past with happiness and wealth. I was pretty much disgusted to see more than half the group was obese slobs. One woman who looked in her early 40’s summoned a wheel chair because she was to fat to walk around. It was embarrassing. Just today I sat in a Wal-mart and again, was disgusted by the fat slobs I saw.. So, yes, let natural selection take its course.

      • Bryan,
        First off, I highly recommend reading the book Verax that I link to above.
        Much research and collaboration has gone into producing the quick read.
        Natural Selection is quite opposite to a team of analysts in Florida deciding who gets a Hellfire missile unpon their party in the middle East.
        Trump now inherited Obama’s dysfunctional drone program and should call it to a halt.
        Nearly 150 people around the world could be part of one 24 hour drone in Syria or Libya these days.
        One team launches it in Afghanistan, then another team flys it from Nevada…while a separate team provides analysis from Florida while relying in real time to Fort Mead NSA.
        Even with all these cooks in the kitchen, there are still hundreds of mistakes since the image quality is not perfect 7,000 miles away.
        Sometimes the U.S. gov pays off victims families after misguided attacks.
        This whole direction of AI, cyber warfare and defense spending gone bad needs to be reigned in.

        As for China…now that they have McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken…they too soon will grow fat and have more heart disease.
        Maybe that is your “natural selection” at work?

  3. And, this is why we have competition, and Capitalism. It’s why we have success, winning, and Exceptionalism.

    Lack (suppression) of competition is why the still-iconic Paul Ehrlich (“The Population Bomb”, 1968) was able to make a Professorial nitwit of himself, and remain protected from the consequences. Even though the follies in his claims were obvious to the average hillbilly, at the time.

    This is why Jane Fonda never recovered from the Viet Cong photo op. She could have*. But she clung to the unnatural premises behind it, instead. (*Just as Hillary Clinton could have reared up on her hind legs and insisted, “Yeah … we do need a Border, y’all”. (And other Democrats currently voice the (now famously) hillbilly-obvious.))

    Democrats not only once spoke passing hillbilly, they rose to power on it, but now ban it as hate-speech. Like Jane, they could recover…

    I once thought that the Hippies arose in the 1960s, and only gradually realized that the Era was but a high-point along a persistent tradition of … Nature-denial.

    • And think Democrats want to put this nut on the Supreme Court – Stanford Law School “professor” Pamela Karlan. Think they can recover from mental illness? They get nuttier by the day.

    • You’re right Bryan; theoretically, perhaps so. In the only reality available to us … BWAHAHA!

      That is so interesting, that both Profs. Pamela Karlan and Paul Ehrlich just happen to hale from Stanford! What an amazing coincidence! Or maybe not?

  4. One winter I worked on the slope doing seismic, I remember dry cells and the battery ran up the inside of our snowmobile suits. Lots of walking in the dark in a 16 hour day.

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