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Tech Q&A

David Orr

Describe your latest project.
Latest Projects: Am presently (1) working with a coalition of groups to stop mountaintop removal, a coal mining technique in Appalachia that has already leveled 456 mountains across 1.5 million acres; (2) working with another group to assemble a plan for the new administration in 2009 to stop climate change; (3) writing another book on the challenges of sustainability; (4) and most importantly, I work as a high level advisor on multiple and incredibly important projects to my three grandchildren ages 1-7.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
The question invites a pretentious response like: "The joy of language... The poetry of words... The pleasure of crafting ideas mixed with the perhaps na?ve belief that better ideas wrapped in the right words might actually improve the human prospect." But the reality is that writers probably don't write much worth reading without the voltage of angst, anger, grievance, financial need, and editors bitching about deadlines. And I plead guilty to all of the above.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I had pretty good teachers, but none stands out as very influential. But I did grow up in a home that placed a high value on reading. My parents often took us to used book stores and bought us whatever books we wanted to read. I also had access to a small college library which was like being the proverbial monkey in a banana forest.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
Geeks being those weird kids in high school that were billionaires by age forty or guys working at the 7-11 midnight to nine shift... I failed at both ends.

Chess or video games?
Neither. Too damn Type A and restless to sit long enough for chess and have never played a video game in my life. Nor do I plan to do so in the next life.

What do you do for relaxation?
Relax. Mostly by reading, travel, sports, and grandchildren.

What's your favorite blog right now?
Being of the H. D. Thoreau persuasion, this here fossil does not do blogs unless forced, because blogs are mostly full of ill-informed, unresearched, half-assed gossip, and life is short.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
John Adams.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
After The Little Engine That Could and the Hardy Boys I took on The Last of the Mohicans, Bruce Lancaster on the Revolutionary War, Bruce Catton on the Civil War, and such stuff.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I'd bet that the hands down winner in a public poll would be the internet or some computerized widget or other. I'm inclined otherwise. If you'd said how people's lives might be improved, however, we might define improvement as slowing the clockspeed of our lives back to a decent pace, increasing the conviviality of our relationships, improving the prospects of our children, raising the standards of our poetry and writing, and improving our intelligence or at least slowing the rate by which we are being dumbed down... then other answers become possible. And maybe technology beyond the level of (and here the reader can pick a year) has not improved our lives in an unambiguous way or anyway at all. So, here are my candidates for ways to improve the state of humanity: front porches around a village green; bricks or other heavy objects hurled at high velocity through a television screen; public parks and libraries full of bright-eyed kids; evenings spent reading good books bought from Powell's; well-prepared meals for the entire family consisting of locally produced food; a great national train system; prosperous neighborhoods; thriving rural towns; cities that are places of civility and culture; local baseball leagues for all ages; and things that contribute little or nothing to global warming. Nothing on this list is particularly technological and that will probably qualify me as a luddite — a group which had an incredible batting average. But we have this odd faith that gadgets will improve our lives, and it is a form of fundamentalism as stupid as any other form of fundamentalism.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Ben Franklin, the coolest, smartest, and wisest of the founder guys.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
My best subject was recess. My worst? All of the rest.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Scratch my back? Write witty and brilliant responses to questionnaires like this one?

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you?ve ever visited and what made it great.
Like blogs, I don't do museums except under duress, although for different reasons. I do walk around Civil War battlefields and similarly demented activities.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
The question invites all kinds of gee-whiz words like "amazing," "incredible," etc. But the reality ahead given what is now known about climate change, species loss, population growth, global poverty, terrorism — all interconnected — is that we will be in the midst of what will appear to any posterity we have as the final hour of civilization or our finest hour... when Homo sapiens finally got its act together. We can debate the width of the thread, but the science is clear that we hang by a slender thread. And by the end of my three score and ten or four score years whatever, the bloom will have worn off our technology but we will be more dependent on it than ever. Kurzweil's "singularity" will feel like a roller-coaster ride on steroids.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
We probably do for another ten minutes, but our once-insurmountable lead is vanishing. Ten years out we'll come in eighth, and ten years later twentieth. The Bushies and all of their accomplices will have succeeded in making the USA a declining third world country with no public transport, no good public schools, libraries, or postal service, filthy water, and an uncountable underclass. We will have, however, the world's finest assortment of high-security gated communities where the heirs protected by the termination of the death tax and their tax free status will ponder the similarities between our descent and that of the Roman Empire, blaming both on Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Unless, that is they are tossed into well-deserved purgatory and consigned to sweep streets, rake leaves in national forests, and fill blackboards with sentences like "I will never again start an unnecessary war for a lie and wage it with no competence whatsoever."

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