[LEAPSECS] Tinkering with stuff until it becomes too complex to understand

Daniel R. Tobias dan at tobias.name
Tue Feb 1 08:56:48 EST 2011

Why is it that humankind has the irresistable impulse to make things
more complex and abstract until hardly anybody can understand them?

Things usually start out so simple a 5-year-old can understand them,
then progress to the point that it takes an advanced degree in a
specialized subject to even hope to understand some narrow portion of
the complexities.

We did it with the concept of money. In the beginning there was
barter (I trade you three beaver pelts for that cow), something that
any kid who trades Pokemon cards can understand. Then we moved to
gold/silver/bronze coins, then paper money (originally redeemable in
precious metals, but eventually turned into an abstract entity of its
own), then things like checks and drafts and bonds that were
redeemable in paper money (but eventually multiplied to an extent
that there was more money represented by those things than there
actually existed paper money to cash them all out if their owners
actually tried to do that), then electronic exchanges where no paper
of any sort was needed... finally reaching the state of affairs when
things like mortgages were bundled into complex securities that were
traded in convoluted ways... and, oops, something went wrong
somewhere and we had a world financial crisis.

Time is another one of those things. First people counted days,
something anybody can do. Then they tried to correlate them with
seasons and moon phases, which got more complicated. Subdividing
days could be done with sundials (tough luck on cloudy days), or
eventually various sorts of mechanical clocks that had to be
constantly reset as they driffted away from the sun. But in theory
the day was divided into 24 hours, of 60 minutes, of 60 seconds; any
kid can still easily learn that... until the scientists had the
brilliant idea of redefining the second based on atomic clocks,
causing it to get unmoored from the sun and necessitate all the
complications this list talks about.

== Dan ==
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