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Shooting The Sun And The Steel Box Ronald Lairchild (February 11th, 2006)

A man named James Burke once made a show called Connections (produced by the BBC). Connections was dedicated to technology and the perils of relying too heavily on technology and the pitfalls we as a race create for ourselves when we complicate our lives by putting technology ahead of self reliance. The story of technology is of course a story of an ever expanding new
things, and of course many of these new things replace old things, which perhaps we had better kept on hand just in case.

Keeping things on hand is perhaps an unpleasant idea in a world that has now found itself awash in third hand CRT monitors, obsolete cell phones, and countless polymer doodads that come from the copious late night television infomercials. A modern human rarely questions why they have to buy the same movie or album over and over and over again as each industry relentlessly change formats; in the garbage are huge piles of tape decks, VCRs, 8mm reel
to reel projectors, and record players. In among this detritus are some very interesting items and one of them is the sextant.

A sextant is “a measuring instrument used to measure the angle of elevation of a celestial object above the horizon. Making this measurement is known as sighting the object or taking a sight. The angle, and the time when it was measured, are used to calculate a position line on a nautical or aeronautical chart.” (1) With a sextant you can use the position of the sun to fine your latitude; this is called “shooting the sun”. Sailors in the “wooden ship era” used sextants to naiviagate thoughout the worlds seas and oceans, and this makes it an ancient device by everyday standards. A sextant uses no power, burns no oil, depleats no batteries, and uses nothing more
than a mirror and shaped steal. There are dozens of devices just like the sextant lining the landfills of the world. Ow many are still in use today? I once knew a man named Ken who had been an officer in the British Navy during World War Two. He said that when he was invited onto a modern warship some of the officeres he dined with didn’t even know what a sextant was! How
would such a warship navigate and fight without its GPS? Would there be anyone on board able to navigate without Windows XP?

People who have seen the movie 28 Days later know that while the biggest killer was the infected psycopaths running though the worlds cities, the second biggest killer was technological breakdown. When the power went out, everything stopped working. The few people who remianed uninfected were left alive in a world that for all intents and purposed ceased to function. Few people are aware of how relant they are on technologies like fossil fules;
few people realize that while they may be enjoying something that isn’t nessacarly directly connected to the fossil fule industry, most things are indirectly connected to such industrys through a complicated network that includes such factors as the global economy and other forms of power production. As nations become part of the global village they become less and less self relant and more relant on other nations. These nations can only be reached using a system that in an emergency is itself unsustainable. While international trade is excellent on paper and does bring many forms of wealth, in the end we forget as a culture that in the end absoultely nothing
last forever.

Returing to the show Connections; James Burke often used elevators as a metaphore. Elevators are the proverbial “steel box”. When we enter an elevator we surrender ourselves both to its lift mechanisms and to its safety mechanisms. In order to function in any high rise finacial district
one cannot affort to have a fear of hights, and thus millions of people all over the world get into steel boxes every day without a single thought as to how these boxes work or what they will do if for any moment their pertecular steel box ceases to function correctly. During the 2003 North American Blackout over 50 Million people were left without power, and thousands of those were trapped in their own steel boxes without water or bathrooms. It took the firefighters of New York had to free people from the elevators of over 800 highrise buildings.

What will happen when the world’s own steel box stops working? When fuel reaches ten times its price overnight people won’t be able to carpool their way out of the problem. Our sextant? Will the streets of Manhattan once again ring with the sound of hooves as suited buisnessmen and women take the 5pm cart Grand Central Station so they can take the train back to the suburbs. Who will be the first to try to shoot the sun from inside a steel box?

By: Ronald Lairchild

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