Creative Destruction – Cedar Sanderson

Creative Destruction – Cedar Sanderson


I was introduced to this term this week when I was invited to create a presentation for a panel of this title. I’d never heard it before, and didn’t know precisely what it was all about, but the summary I was given sparked my imagination.

What can destructive forces create? What can they precipitate from the solution, sparking the coalescence of something new, and sometimes unpredictable, from human civilization catalyzed with tragedy?

I began my presentation with the Black Death in Europe. It’s the little things in life; that kill us and change our world. Fleas, in this case, carrying a disease between rats and humans. The numbers are soft, but estimates range around 25 million deaths from that epidemic, during the time it raged hotly over the continent, and many hundreds of thousands more in the centuries after. However, in the wake of all the death and destruction, there was change.

It is arguable that the Black Death led to the fall of serfdom, as labor was no longer readily and cheaply available – there simply weren’t enough bodies left standing. The plague led to the fall of the Roman Catholic Empire as it was, and the rise of Protestantism. And in a burst of pure creativity of the Arts, the Black Death led to the Renaissance, Shakespeare, and the glory that was that movement in art and literature.

But it was not the first time the plague had touched Western Civilization. Around 600 ad, the Justinian plague had struck, felling what was left of the Roman Empire, and establishing the course of the initial burst of European world domination. Both pandemics were much, much later confirmed to have the same originator, Yersinia pestis. It is the microscopic things.

There’s a song, which I can’t remember all the lyrics to (and I don’t know who performs it) but this much I recall: War! What is it good for?

The answer is deeply complex. I will leave the political and social considerations aside to talk about the benefits to medicine. Indeed, most modern medicine has been altered in some way by battlefield hospital needs. But during the Crimean War, death skyrocketed. Not from wounds received in battle, but disease. Florence Nightingale, who most people think of as the Mother of Nursing, was also responsible for mothering another field of medicine as she plotted when and why men were dying, and ferreted out the correlations and causations. It was war that led Florence Nightingale to leave her comfortable home and give birth to Epidemiology.

But a virus can also end a war. World War I, or the Great War, might have dragged on and on into the Eternal War, had not the influenza pandemic of 1918 taken all the wind out of the warring nation’s sails with the deaths of millions of relatively young and healthy people. And in an example of how telling the truth can sometimes get you in trouble: Spain was initially blamed for the pandemic, because they were a neutral nation, and their reporters were allowed to talk about the sickness, unlike those of France, Germany, and the US.

And enduring myth – one that is still taught in schools, is that disease helped conquer the ‘New World’ (in reality, an old one, just like buying a used car, you still call it the New Car) as the European explorers brought previously unknown diseases with them to the shores. The reality is that the Incas fell to a vastly inferior Spanish force because they had been racked with a ten-year drought, and a plague epidemic. Many other diseases were endemic to the region, and famine was Death’s stalking-horse long before Europe got involved.

In return for the new diseases, the trade went both ways. Europeans took home many new and interesting things from the ‘New World’ including foodstuffs. Sometime later, after the aristos with their financial interest in marketing the new foods made potatoes popular (Marie Antoinette, in an effort to popularize the potato, wore potato flowers in her hair), the inevitable happened. Overreliance on one crop, and that crop was struck down with a plant epidemic – the potato blight. Back to the ‘New World’ only now it was starving, desperate men and women, serving terms of indenturement that was virtually slavery, sold into servitude by the failure of a food crop.

We rarely consider what would happen should a viroid (a plant virus) get loose and strike down one of the ‘staff of life’ foodstuffs that virtually the entire world depends on. The Staff of Life was almost kicked out from under us once, when wheat rust threatened to diminish the food produced by the US and shipped globally. Only through the efforts of a small team including Norman Borlaug (the Father of the Green Revolution), a process that took fourteen years, was wheat bred into a more resistant variety and stopped the threat of the rust. Borlaug went on to help countries like Pakistan and India develop their agriculture to the point of self-sufficiency, and that came from the threatened ruin of wheat rust.

I ended by talking about telomeres. The heterochromatic caps that protect the tips of our chromosomes, they do not replicate because they are so compressed, and as they wear away with age, we slowly self-destruct. Yet in that destruction, is there not also creativity? Would we be so driven to write, to create art, to live with passion, if we knew we had more time? In our own destruction, we create new life, and know that life is good, and will endure.

145 responses to “Creative Destruction – Cedar Sanderson

  1. There’s a song, which I can’t remember all the lyrics to (and I don’t know who performs it) but this much I recall: War! What is it good for?

    The song was War (very late 1960s) — performed by Edwin Starr:

    • Thank you:) I’m dreadful about remembering who did what (or why) when it comes to music. Makes finding songs again difficult!

    • What is it good for?

      Dealing with oitbreaks of muderous fascism.

      Exposing the planning failures of self-styled Top Men.

      Reminding bumptious polities that trade really is preferable to conquest …. Especially since comquest can go both ways.

    • Curt Thomson

      The lyrics were written by Leo Tolstoy, based on research by Dr. Elaine Benes, SUNY Manhattan.

    • “‘War, Nobby. Huh! What’s it good for?’ he said.
      ‘Dunno, sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?’
      ‘Absol- Well, okay.’
      ‘Defending yourself from a totalitarian aggressor?’
      ‘All right, I’ll grant you that, but -’
      ‘Saving civilization against a horde of -’
      ‘It doesn’t do any good in the long run is what I’m saying, Nobby, if you’d listen for five seconds together,’ said Fred Colon sharply.
      ‘Yeah, but in the long run what does, sarge?’”

    • WAR?
      I thought it was ‘WARTS!’
      This changes everything….

    • RealityObserver

      The one with traction was vocalized by the Temptations.

      (That’s Google-fu. All that came to my mind at first was that – worst *ever* – episode of Xena with a very pregnant Lucy Lawless bouncing all over the place…)

      • The Temptations’s version appeared on the Psychedelic Shack album, and was never released as a single. Edwin Starr’s version was released as a single which made it to number one position on the charts of pop singles in the US and three in the US R&B singles.

    • William O. B'Livion

      And Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

  2. We rarely consider what would happen should a viroid (a plant virus) get loose and strike down one of the ‘staff of life’ foodstuffs that virtually the entire world depends on.

    May I recommend No Blade of Grass by John Christopher?

    • I will look that up, thank you!

    • and Earth Abides for thoughts on catastrophic disease and population pressure. Humans fight back in ways no other organism can. Results are a mixed bag but always educational.

      • . Humans fight back in ways no other organism can. Results are a mixed bag but always educational.

        Somehow I missed the first part of that paragraph, and read this as a summary of life on Earth.

        Pretty accurate. 😀

        (Of course, the options for other species are move or die, so….)

    • Are there any serious diseases that infect all of the cereal crops? Between wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, etc. there are plenty of substitutes available for food if one crop were to collapse. Short term would probably suck, and there would certainly be substantial changes in diet, but I don’t think it would be catastrophic for the species.

      • No Blade of Grass has the premise of a disease that attacks all grasses, which makes up the cereals. This is what gives the creepy feeling behind monoculture: each variety of potato, or apple, or pear, or other such are essentially clones. You can grow all of the above from seed, but they’re genetically unstable, so there’s no telling what kind of potato or fruit you’ll get. So what happened with potatoes in Europe was a disease that struck one variety, but that variety was planted everywhere. A similar situation exists right now with bananas.

        • The big problem in Europe was that most of the calories produced were sold for cash for the landlords, while the workers themselves subsisted on potatoes, which have the highest calorie/acre yield.

          Our modern food economy is far more diverse. We may lose specific cultivars – indeed, that’s already happened with bananas – but there are others.

        • The situation exists for the second times for bananas. The song “Yes we have no Bananas” originated during the first blight.

          • I’ve heard that’s why artificial banana flavor doesn’t really taste like bananas. It was developed when the old cultivar was popular and the task was slightly different.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      The movie Interstellar, too.

  3. Check

  4. And, if you write post apocalyptic stuff, all your creation is based on hypothetical destruction. 😀

  5. The Other Sean

    I thought it was a great panel. You and the other panelists did a great job converying different aspects of how desctuction is sometimes a necessary precursor to creation. It’s a shame there was only an hour for it – it felt like it could have gone on for two or three hours, with all the information and examples people wanted to bring up.

    • Thanks! I was under the impression it WAS a two-hour panel, that’s what we were told in email. But it’s just as well it wasn’t, I was pretty tired at that point. And it was nice to meet you in person this weekend.

      • The Other Sean

        It was nice meeting you, too. And it was nice seeing so many other from this blog at Millennicon this past weekend.

        Now for the irony. The panel ended shortly after 11 PM because monster movies were scheduled to be shown. Of those who’d proposed monster movies the showing of the movies, or pushed for the showing of the movies, or said they were psyched for the movies, or supplied the monster movies, precisely none actually showed up to watch the movies. I’d have rather you and David Burkhead had more time than shown a bunch of movies nobody actually showed up for.

  6. In his brilliant series Connections James Burke (I believe in the fourth episode Faith in Numbers) noted that as a result of the Black Plague there were far fewer people to do work and so others ways to get work done became more cost effective. This resulted in the development and use of mechanical devices. At the same time there was far more discarded clothes available. That this brought down the price of ‘rag’ and that subsequently reduced the price of paper, making it more affordable. These two factors helped make the printing revolution possible.

    • Yeah. Gutenberg gets too much of the credit. As long as the first step in making a book is to calculate how many ewes you need to breed, books aren’t going to be cheap.

    • I think the first panelist brought up the cheaper paper due to the discarded clothing. I had never considered that.

      I felt sorry for David Burkhead, he got shortchanged for his presentation. I think that first panelist took over half of the time. Of course, Cedar said above that it was supposed to be two hours, so that could be why.

    • Reading this, my first thought was James “bl**dy” Burke.

  7. Wars have always furthered the practice of medicine, either by forcing new techniques or simply by providing a huge field to test ideas developed elsewhere. From battle field surgeries in the ACW doctors developed a great new understanding of the relationship between sepsis cleanliness and post surgical survival rates. WWII hosted strides in trauma treatment particularly burn trauma experienced by naval pilots on the carrier fleet in the Pacific. Trauma treatment made further strides during Vietnam, and even more today in the Iraq and Afganistan conflicts along with advances in prosthetics and psychological treatment of PTSD.
    Certainly always a hell of a price to pay, but seems like no advancement comes without some costs.

    • After being bitten by a bull dog my Momma developed gangreen. It was during WWII. She was likely the first civilian recipient of a skin graft.

  8. This is like the old Hee Haw. routine “That’s bad/No that’s good.” Sometimes even the bad can have positive aspects eventually. Though it pretty much sucks to live through those times . . .

    • Isn’t there a Bible verse about that? Something like “No evil but that good comes of it”?

      • “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose. ” Romans 8:28

  9. Creative-destruction is a term that has been around with Engineers, probably since the days of Blacksmiths.
    I think of it as a ying-yang sort of boundry. The first act of creation was when God announced ‘Fiat lux’. Left unsaid was what happened to all that dark chaos that was there before.
    In some instances, it is a known and controlled thing. Think crash testing cars to make them safer. This of course, opens the discussion of AGW as the ‘destruction’ of climate. Like the Black Death, might not something better emerge?
    I believe it is the nature of man, who often unwittingly destroy, but invariably pick up the pieces and make something better. After 6 years of fundamentally destroying America, it is all we can hope for.
    P.S. I apparently want my dentist to create me a new crown, that is why the pecan cluster shreaded my existing tooth this AM.

    • Didn’t Edison say something about a good junk pile being an inventor’s greatest resource?

    • Oooh! That reminds me of where I heard something about that verse I was trying to remember above– one of the readings this weekend was about how unless a grain of wheat dies, it will never bear fruit.

      When you make steel, you lose the iron and carbon.

      So “creative destruction” is just the flip side of “opportunity cost”?

      • In the absolute sense, yes. I think steel has chromium as well, not to mention digging holes in the ground for mining. Turning swords into plowshares (or the other way around), as well as Jerry’s comment about junk piles probably fit the spirit of creative destruction better.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          There are a lot of kinds of steel. Just working with the iron-carbon system, at room temperature, the mixes can be classified as wrought iron, cast iron, and steel. Steel alloys have an iron and carbon content that qualifies as a steel, plus a wide variety of optional additives.

  10. It might be good to think of war like a medical procedure. We’d consider a man who goes around cutting off limbs a monster, but a doctor who does the same to save someone from gangrene a hero.

    • And likewise, the death penalty is the immune system of the body politic. It may target those cells / people it shouldn’t, or fail to target those cells / people it should, but eliminating the immune system is an excellent way to kill a person / society.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Well, strictly speaking, a secure enough prison could serve the same end. It is just ours isn’t, and Obama has fairly conclusively proven it.

  11. Oooh, interesting– I didn’t know the CDC classified anything as simply “Plague.”

    • (I searched for the scientific name, curious what it was called in common use.)

    • We are safe from the plague as long as we keep plenty of cats around. I always thought it was the Bubonic Plague… ‘Black Death’ being optional.

      • Being generally healthier helps a lot, too.

        The NPR link from the “much later confirmed” part says they are bubonic, but that’s rather a description of the symptoms rather than the proper name. (like how “stomach flu” describes basic symptoms, rather than stating “I had the flu virus in my tummy”)

        • It is a bacteria as well. Much easier than those flu and ebola viruses are to kill. Although I doubt a modern cat could handle a medievial rat too well. The rat would probably outweigh the cat 2 to 1.

          • Depends on the cat. Those around here could – and have, but not to the point of death – handle Jack Russell Terrier sized dogs.

      • The Black Death was a specific outbreak of it.

  12. …Dear Lord, you mean to tell me that someone read that stuff about “nobody ever got sick and everyone lived a long time” and didn’t instantly identify it as myth-making? What did they need, a flashing neon “once upon a time, when rabbits spoke like men and the unicorns would walk with us”?

  13. One notes that the Nazis’ Hunger Plan was behind the identification of gluten as the culprit in celiac disease. (Our first post-war shipment of food! Quick! Rush to the hospital! Give all the patients in the celiac ward (who had been recovering on the lousy wartime diet) a good solid meal!. . . . and watch them all relapse horribly.)

  14. Creative destruction is familiar to me as an economic term. Funny enough, it seems to have originated from the marxists and been enthusiastically adopted (with a different usage) by the free marketers.

  15. I’ve often wonder if the phoenix of mythology was meant to be taken as a literal thing or an analogy. Possibly both, I guess. The bottom line, for me, is that it is often necessary to destroy in order to create. This can be in a literal sense (Cutting down a tree destroys it, but the lumber from the tree can be used to build a house) or figurative (A political system does not exist to be destroyed in a literal, physical sense, but if not for the fall of Tsarist Russia and the execution of the royal family we wouldn’t have been stuck with the Soviet Union) but the fact remains that destruction can often be a positive when viewed with a different perspective years later.

  16. War has a long history, from hunter-gatherer bands clashing over territory, to the bands of brigands that became governments in agricultural societies — smoothing over famines and taking a cut to defend against other warrior bands. War was a small expense when it meant just the warrior class fighting over land. Then came total war, with the productive value of the land and industrial plant destroyed — our Civil War pioneered this with Sherman’s march to the sea. War became a game that almost everyone lost, so expensive that its value in clearing out the deadwood of inefficient and ineffectual regimes wasn’t worth it.

    You could say the advent of MAD and the Cold War made the world safe for bad governments — an African satrapy could play off the powers and grab aid larger than the country’s GDP to store away in Swiss bank accounts. So evolution moved to different spheres. In democracies, the sclerosis involves parasitic classes (farmers, favored businesses, civil service employees..) grabbing a greater share and using their blocking power to prevent reform.

    Creative destruction requires the sweeping away of complexified, bureaucratic old ways so that the new ways can grow. The only reason Silicon Valley grew was because the industries it disrupted didn’t catch on until it was too late to have the microcomputer guys regulated into submission.

  17. I’ll have to dig and see if I can find the paper again, but a paleontologist did a paper a while back on ecological recovery time after mass extinctions vs. more minor ones. And what they discovered was that the more massive the extiction, the more rapid the recovery (on the order of 10 million years faster for things like the K/T extinction.) They defined ‘recovery’ as reaching the same level of species diversification.

  18. The reason we don’t have high speed wireless internet everywhere is because of the already sunk costs of providing a twisted pair of copper conductors everywhere.

    • William O. B'Livion

      The places where we have the densest copper plants are the places where we also have the fastest wireless speeds. The places where we have wide open spaces (except interstate highways) are where you have the lowest speeds, and for (mostly) the same reasons.

      There just aren’t enough subscribers per mile in Wyoming to make either copper plant or highspeed wireless worthwhile, however Congress mandated that those areas be served with *copper* and paid the phone companies Cost Plus, so Ma Bell planted the cable (or drug it overhead). The market mandates (in the sense that being able to claim some nines of coverage is a requirement for a “national” cell carrier) that there is *some* form of coverage almost everywhere someone might like to make a call, but *a* call is all that is required, not 4G speeds.

      • Return of the investment is perhaps a better term than “worthwhile.” This is influenced by planned rate of return on investment and maintenance.

        Do you have a reference to this copper requirement? I ask because I know of one telephone company that went fiber, and of telecom companies that installed fiber in anticipation of growth.

        • William O. B'Livion

          I was using “copper” to mean to Plain Old Telephone Service, aka “POTS”.

          That was the deal with Ma Bell back in the day–they got a national monopoly on Long Distance, but they had to serve “everyone”. They were allowed to price business service higher to subsidize the connection of rural communities and rural phone systems (often built by localized co-ops).

          • But they didn’t have to serve them well. I know my grandparents AR farm was still on a party line in 1985 or so. IIRC, it was the last party line in the state to get replaced.

            • And it was the late 1980s when my parents were moved off a party line. They also weren’t on Bell, so that can’t be laid at their doorsteps.

              For that matter, they didn’t have local telephone until the late 1950s. So it was that they rigged up their own phone to an elderly neighbor about half a mile away so she could call them if she needed help.

          • Yet Bell wasn’t – and isn’t – the only long distance carrier. Today there are even no-name carriers used by local telephone companies, which can have interesting effects when trouble shooting.

            • William O. B'Livion

              It was until the 1970s. In fact AT&T owned most of the local phone companies too.

              And yes, there were areas that were poorly served, again because the call volume did not justify the costs.

      • A higher tower with a more powerful signal could cover a lot more area, making high rural towers a good investment. But, the U.S. government has regulated cell tower signals to a very low strength signal. When my son was going to school near the Canadian border we had to call AT&T once a month to have the roaming charges taken off the bill. The signals from the further away Canadian towers would swamp the signal from the closer U.S. towers. Google is experimenting with balloons for internet service. A relative handful of very high towers would likely be more reliable.

        • 50 well placed 10 mile high towers could blanket CONUS with line of sight signals.

          • Maybe. I don’t know–if we want cell service right now we go stand in the middle of the road. Satellite TV or internet is not available because there are mountains in the way. Yeah, we’re in an odd angle, not quite N/S in our valley with a big old peak to the south and a nice big bend to the north, but my experience is that anyone relying on GPS or cell navigation services starts swerving all over the road at a particular location, and we and the neighbors have a good laugh every time someone suggests that driver-less cars are a feasible thing.
            The thing is, our valley’s not all that deep. There are steeper and deeper valleys around. You could probably get 95% of the population with your towers, but the others, they’ll still be tucked away in odd holes where line of sight isn’t going to happen. Be an interesting thing to see a model of, that’s for sure. We get three hours less of sun than folks twenty minutes away on the plain get, and if we’d put the house a hundred feet down, on the bank of the creek, we’d get even less (and we’d have to pay flood insurance).

            • You can always tell a flatlander by how they think line-of-sight is always a circle.

            • Repeater antenna on the nearest ridgeline. Actually, I talked to an antenna company about that. If our local school set up a wi-fi hotspot on their roof, a proper directional antenna could establish reliable communication from 10 miles away. All the local municipal facilities and community buildings have cable running by. The firehall, school, townhall, DPW garage, 6 churches, American Legion. If they each did that, the people living 1.1 miles from the cable line could get internet. Heck, I’d even be willing to pay for it. No one in town is more then 3 miles away from a potential wi-fi hotspot.

          • William O. B'Livion

            You do know why it’s called “cellular”, right?

        • William O. B'Livion

          That’s not going to work nearly as well as you think, especially in the mountain regions.

  19. There’s a reason sooooo many of the God’s and Goddesses of Creation in other pantheons were also of destruction. Pelee being a prime example.

    (and box check-marked for comments, now that the insanity of moving has died down enough for me to be able to keep up and read.)

  20. The disease vector was not completely one-way. There’s a good argument that syphilis originated in the New World, since that particular constellation of symptoms did not appear until after 1492, and seemed to radiate from Spanish ports.

  21. William O. B'Livion

    >Back to the ‘New World’ only now it was starving, desperate men
    >and women, serving terms of indenturement that was virtually
    >slavery, sold into servitude by the failure of a food crop.

    It wasn’t virtual slavery. The British considered the Irish no better than animals and *did* ship many off to slavery. There is some debate (and I haven’t cared to dig) as to whether this was chattel slavery like in the US, or just involuntary transportation with forced indentured servitude on the other side.

    And it wasn’t just the failure of the food crop, the transportation was in place before that, and was originally targeted at politicals.

    And finally it wasn’t a failure of the food crop that caused the famine, it was british policies that forbade the import of certain classes of foodstuffs (don’t recall the details), which was ended about a year into the famine (when it finally got to the floor of Parliment).

    • Heck, slaves were treated better than some indentured servants because slaves cost cash, while indentured servants were a money loser – just as you got them trained and domesticated, they left. (Yes, some of my ancestors came to the colonies as indentured servants. From Ulster.)

      • Or employees. When loading a barge, they had slaves throwing down bales to the Irishmen, who could fall over and drown with no one caring.

    • The Corn Laws, a series of tariffs on the importation of grain that kept prices artificially high (anyone who claims 19th century Britain was capitalist is ignorant of the history and/or economic theory). The tenant farmers couldn’t afford to buy the grain they were growing, and they couldn’t keep it to eat, it was their rent. Things weren’t too bad as long as the family could set aside a little plot for potatoes, but when the potatoes started going bad…

      • Ehh, it was capitalism, of a sort–mercantilist capitalism.

        • That’s capitalism like sixties screwing round was free love.

        • That’s a bit like calling China communist capitalist. Mercantilism is a completely different economic system that has nothing to do with capitalism.

        • William O. B'Livion

          No, it wasn’t.

          Capitalism is now the world works. Every other -ism is an attempt to twist reality to favor a few people.

      • There has never been a 100% free market in the history of mankind.

        • Never is a very long time. Og the Caveman regulated his exchange of skins based on who gave the best deal in spear points.

          • Until the band head told him that “whoever gives the best deal on spearpoints” doesn’t include the one who won’t let the band head mate with his sister.

        • Which is why people who say that capitalism is a proven failure automatically go into the “moron” category

      • Of course, for over a millennia, most of Europe’s slaves came from Eastern Europe.

        From the Slavs.

  22. MadRocketSci

    Ehh, I wouldn’t press the analogy too far. It feels like the broken window fallacy writ as large as possible.

    The difference between creative destruction, where something new springs up in place of the old, and destructive destruction, where all that’s left is a smouldering wasteland has more to do with the people who do the creating than the people who do the destroying.

    I ended by talking about telomeres. The heterochromatic caps that protect the tips of our chromosomes, they do not replicate because they are so compressed, and as they wear away with age, we slowly self-destruct. Yet in that destruction, is there not also creativity? Would we be so driven to write, to create art, to live with passion, if we knew we had more time? In our own destruction, we create new life, and know that life is good, and will endure.

    I’m also still rather anti-death. Sure it’s natural. A lot of things are natural that are horrifying. If death is good, then why is the reward promised by practically every religion some sort of eternal life? If death is not good, then the only thing stopping us from ending it is that we don’t know how to fix it yet. (Yes, there are many fates I would consider worse than death, but I hope someday it won’t happen against our will.)

    Trees, lobsters, and tortoises are pretty much immortal. Even things like certain species of parrots are absurdly long lived. Hopefully one of these generations, man will be also.

    • Trees, lobsters, and tortoises are pretty much immortal. Even things like certain species of parrots are absurdly long lived.

      Well, not trees so much. It’s true that there are some species that live for thousands of years, there are many others that don’t live more than a few decades.

      • Golden example: Lombardi poplars.
        They’re awesome windbreaks, because they grow so fast– but about 50 years in, they start rotting on the inside, and eventually collapse on themselves one way or another.

        • Silver Maples – live about 20-25 years. Fast growing trees tend to not live long.

          • Birches and pines don’t do too long either.

            Indeed, I was reading a western once where the heroine cited a land mark — a stand of birches — and I was thinking that description came from years before. Succession might well have eliminated it by that point.

            • Russia has old birch forests.

              • Ah, but is that because there are old birches in them? Or because whatever marginal environment they live in keeps out the trees that normally move in? (Birches, pines, aspens, etc. being notorious for growing rapidly in the wake of forest fires, until slower growing ones that can tolerate shade as saplings take over.)

            • About those birches – maybe. I was going through original surveys looking for historical information, when it occurred to me this was also a dandy survey of original flora, for they noted the type of tree blazed at the corner. A casual comparison with 200 year-old survey maps showed no changes in the type of trees. Granted they weren’t the original trees, but there were still pines where they noted pines, and post oaks where they noted post oaks, and so on.

              I don’t know the life span of a pine, but I’ve seen photos of old-growth pines nearly six feet in diameter, judging from the cross-cut saw in the photo.

              BTW, old pines can become resinous, and be called “heart” pine or “lighter wood” or “fat lighter.” The stuff is incredibly resistant to bugs, and a surveyor claimed to still come across century or more heart pine markers. The problem is that they burn incredibly hot and fast, which is bad for any old homes built of the stuff.

              I really need to talk to my father about the old blaze system for marking property lines. All I can remember is you blazed the side of the tree facing the line, and if a tree was on the line you blazed both sides, Three hacks, I think it was. It has been years since I’ve seen one.

              • It really depends on the variety of pine. The oldest living tree (over 6,000 years) is a pine, but I can’t remember the name of it.

                The area where I grew up had several huge old Oak trees, but they all died over the last 50 years or so. According to my father, they all were around 500 years old.

                • Bristlecone pine, which grows in the upper Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada. Scrubby, twisted-looking things.

              • I don’t know the life span of a pine, but I’ve seen photos of old-growth pines nearly six feet in diameter, judging from the cross-cut saw in the photo.

                Too many factors– I’m pretty sure species matters, but there’s also how much water, when, and the stress factors. There’s a tree down the road from where I sit right now that’s at least five feet wide, and it can’t be more than 100 years old (based on the buildings in the area); on the other hand, the wall next to me has a pine panel that’s got about 75 growth rings in six inches.

          • The silver maples in my parents’ yard are over 50 years old, and only one has died. (Bad windstorm.)

            • Yes. My parents transplanted one from the woods when they married, and it’s still going strong.

    • The key idea behind creative destruction in the economic sense is that companies that fail free up resources for companies that can more efficiently meet consumer demand.

      One way to identify an economic illiterate is if they think the bailout of Chrysler (either one) was a good idea. Yes, if the company had gone under a lot of workers would have lost their jobs, but it wouldn’t have done much to the demand for cars. The surviving car companies would have to have expanded production to meet their increased market share, so some of those displaced workers would have gotten new jobs. But the surviving companies would have been more efficient, so cars would have been cheaper. By bailing out Chrysler the government enriched the shareholders and workers of one company at the expense of everybody. And don’t even think about the GM bailout. There are some days I hope that the next President’s inaugural address consists of “Everything the last guy ever said was shit. He is a deeply unserious child. Let’s get to work cleaning up his mess.”

  23. On the other hand, in Eastern and Central Europe, population crashes led to serfdom (or the reintroduction of serfdom) and the loss of individual rights such as freedom of motion (could change residences at will) and the free peasantry vanished in Hungary and a few other places. I have a few suspicions why the difference, but it’s interesting to look at the differences.

  24. I think that most of the comments on creative destruction here have things the wrong way around. says:

    “Creative destruction is a process through which something new brings about the demise of whatever existed before it. ”

    The term is usually credited to the influential economist Joseph Schumpter, who developed his ideas on the subject from the writings of Marx. He seemed to think that while it could have beneficial results, it would create instability that would eventually doom capitalism. I think the jury is still out on that.

    To reiterate, first comes the creation, then comes the destruction. The new displaces the old.

    • Like in new publishing.

    • This is basically “Apple destroyed DEC/IBM/…” which is arguable, though both IBM adn DEC were true pioneers, so who did they destroy? Punch card reader manufacturers? Wait, that’s IBM too.

      And if IBM had been smart, somewhere in the 1980s they would have bought Apple and Microsoft. We likely would not have Smartphones, and we’d be stuck at Windows 95 level still for lack of competition, but for IBM it would have been the smart move.

      This is why, though I admire the company, I don’t think Tesla is going to destroy GM. Most likely when Elon decides to concentrate on going to Mars he’ll sell Tesla off to Toyota, or Ford, or even GM, and if it’s GM they will dumb it down and kill it off, because that’s what GM is good at – well, that and getting the biggest bailout.

      • William O. B'Livion

        Nah, wouldn’t have worked–there were a LOT of small computer manufacturers in the world and IBM was (at the time) a company that presumed high margins–this is how Compaq was able to clone their BIOS and significantly undercut them. In the late 80s Microsoft as “big”, and most software ran there, but you had things like DR Dos which was about 95% compatible and ran on the same hardware etc. It would even run early versions of Windows (pre-95) at least as well as MS Dos.

        IBM still would have had it’s lunch eaten *in that market*.

        But what IBM did was it realized that it really wasn’t a hardware company, it was a *service* company that sold hardware, and that is what’s allowed it to keep innovating.

        There’s been quite a few “also rans” in that field–Commodore/Amiga, and Apollo and Kaypro to name three that had a go at it.

        • The original IBM PC was a bit “fuzzy” license-wise, as was the XT and AT. This allowed the introduction of clones, AKA “Rice Rockets.” IBM was a business company, and saw their computer as a business computer, so graphics were monochrome, usually green. But that fuzzy license allowed add-ons, like the Hercules graphics card, and tape back-ups, which meant you could customize the things. Try that with an Apple, and you’d get your hand slapped – and there was some hand slapping going on. IIRC, Apple was not happy with a short Mac clone series that appeared in Computer Shopper back when it was the size of a city telephone book.

          It was a combination of that fuzziness and a killer app – Lotus 1-2-3, that made the IBM PC take off. There was a good bit of stumbling by everyone in those days – IBM would introduce a computer with a wireless keyboard, and Microsoft tried to crack the spreadsheet market. But that combination of fuzziness and IBM compatible microcomputers is what cut into everyone else’s marketshare. And since you could run other things on your business PC, why buy another?

          Later IBM tried to close the barn door with Microchannel. The problem was that licensing required a fee to be paid on previously manufactured clones, and that didn’t go over so well. A competing architecture, EISA, was introduced by manufacturers. In the end, neither Microchannel or EISA dominated.

          What’s interesting is that had IBM held an iron lock on PC licenses and owned all the software, we never would have had PC Clones or add-ons, and the entire microcomputer market might have remained dominated by Apple, Commodore, Tandy, and others. And if the market had remained fractured, would the personal computing revolution happened at all?

          • Hmm… While my memory may be bad on the subject, I think you’re missing a distinction between “clones” and “compatibles”. The clones were not IBM compatible, but were proprietary machines made on a similar architecture. It was after the rise of the clones that IBM released the licensing on the hardware architecture and allowed the compatibles to be born, leading to the proliferation of the PC over Apple.

            • Um . . . I don’t remember that. Part of the “fun” of Rice Rockets was they may or may not be 100% compatible. Most of the time the problem was in the peripherals, like the video card. So it was in 1986 that I had to do a test on what software ran and what wouldn’t on a friend’s clone that he bought for Christmas. This was the days when Lotus 1-2-3 “hid” a directory with licensing information and called it copy protection.

              Another part of the “fun” was that even big-name computers that were supposed to be compatible had their little quirks. The HP Vectra, an AT clone, had it’s own graphic GUI that you tabbed through.

              I remember RadioShack had a computer built on the 80186, which was not compatible with the 80286 at all. Almost bit on it, and was glad I didn’t.

      • There is always an error in the established tech. Look, ebooks aren’t destroying traditional publishing. That was suicide
        Um… maybe I’ll write that for tomorrow MGC

        • That yields definition of this phenomenon that I like: When people take advantage of the convergence of new technologies and business-suicide-level blunders by established competitors to succeed, business historians will call that “Creative Destruction.”

  25. The first thing I think of when I hear “creative destruction” is that creating something destroys all of the unchosen potentials. Every yes includes innumerable noes. Sure, we can be Japanese and just rewrite cannon as a matter of policy, but if there is a canvas and we apply red paint, we didn’t apply blue or green or black paint… at least not where the red paint is. When the airlock opens and my heroine walks through it, all of the other possible characters have just poofed out of existence and now it’s just her.

  26. I have high hopes for indie publishing, and music too. There are too many gatekeepers in these and other fields.

    Apple was never even competing with DEC or IBM. I worked on VAXen in the 80’s and Silicon Graphics workstations in the 90’s. Technically, they were fantastic to work on, but both companies were aiming for a very profitable niche market that got swallowed up by the rapidly evolving capabilities of commodity PCs. I think it would be fair to classify DEC and SGI as victims of creative destruction, but Apple didn’t have much to do with it.

    Tesla technology is impressive, but their most innovative aspect is how they sell cars direct to buyer. I’m sure that traditional automakers would like to make that go away.

    • “I’m sure that traditional automakers would like to make that go away.”

      They’re working on it.

  27. And if IBM ruled the computing universe, we’d be running OS/2 🙂

  28. tis an ill wind indeed, that blows no good

  29. “But it was not the first time the plague had touched Western Civilization. Around 600 ad, the Justinian plague had struck, felling what was left of the Roman Empire, and establishing the course of the initial burst of European world domination. Both pandemics were much, much later confirmed to have the same originator, Yersinia pestis. It is the microscopic things.”

    And it didn’t just hammer the Byzantines. The great rival of the Byzantines at the time was the Sassanid Persian Dynasty. Both empires had been involved in an exhausting series of military campaigns, and the Shah, Khosrau II, was assassinated and replaced by one of his sons in 628. That son didn’t survive the end of the year. He became a victim of the plague that killed half the population of Western Persia that year. Following his death, a series of civil wars engulfed the empire, as various members of the ruling family took the throne (more than one wasn’t even a teenager when their “rule” began), and then were removed soon after.

    And in 636, the Arabs invaded.

    There were a series of calamities that hit, one right after the other. So it’s hard to definitively say whether or not the plague made the difference. But it’s quite possible that without it, Islam would be nothing but a footnote in history.