Tolkien on real and legendary wars

Given when it was written, many people have interpreted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series as an allegory about the first or second world war. In one introduction to the books, he addresses this matter directly, denying that they are in any way allegorical. He goes on to say:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the ring would have been seized and used against Sauron. He would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed, but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time, have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into ring lore, and before long he would have made a great ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled ruler of Middle Earth. In that conflict, both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt. They would not long have survived, even as slaves.

Flash memory and storing data for the long term

I didn’t know this about flash memory:

Flash memory is really cheap. So cheap, in fact, that it’s too good to be true. In reality, all flash memory is riddled with defects — without exception. The illusion of a contiguous, reliable storage media is crafted through sophisticated error correction and bad block management functions. This is the result of a constant arms race between the engineers and mother nature; with every fabrication process shrink, memory becomes cheaper but more unreliable. Likewise, with every generation, the engineers come up with more sophisticated and complicated algorithms to compensate for mother nature’s propensity for entropy and randomness at the atomic scale.

These algorithms are too complicated and too device-specific to be run at the application or OS level, and so it turns out that every flash memory disk ships with a reasonably powerful microcontroller to run a custom set of disk abstraction algorithms. Even the diminutive microSD card contains not one, but at least two chips — a controller, and at least one flash chip (high density cards will stack multiple flash die).

It reinforces the point that we really have no technology for long-term data storage. Hard drives fail, burned CDs and DVDs likewise. Paper is enduring.

Even backup systems like Apple’s Time Machine have problems. If a file gets corrupted on your hard drive, Time Machine will start backing up corrupted copies, eventually over-writing the good ones. What’s really needed is a system that makes a hash of the files to be backed up and stores distinct copies of all modified versions. Of course, that could require a lot more storage space – especially if the files in question are something like videos being edited.

Wasteful conflict

Commenting on federal-provincial conflict, Richard Simeon provides a quote from Anthony Downs that I suspect applies at least as much to academics as to politicians:

A second effect of territorial sensitivity is that bureaus consume a great deal of time and energy in territorial struggles that create no socially useful products.

Simeon, Richard. Federal-Provincial Diplomacy. 1971.

Open thread: drilling for oil and gas in the arctic

Unfortunately, the climate-change-induced melting of the north polar icecap is making it easier to drill for oil and gas in the arctic. Large amounts of fossil fuels are expected to be found in the region, adding to the world’s already dangerously large supplies.

The enthusiasm of companies and governments to exploit unconventional sources of fossil fuels is starkly at odds with the reality that we can only control climate change if we choose not to exploit such reserves – while rapidly scaling back production of conventional oil, gas, and coal.