Back in 2001 or so, I had some interesting conversations with John Smart about "what is a life form"? He said a life form is anything that dissipates energy to maintain its internal structure, for example how our bodies burn energy from food to maintain the structure of the cells and DNA and so on. By this definition, a hurricane is a life form. Maybe it is fitting, then, that we give them names?
You can see that Rita is a smaller storm, although it is still quite big. Both photos were taken by the same satellite (NASA's Terra satellite) at the same resolution.
At the Long Now Foundation, Danny Hillis started a project to build a clock that would last 10,000 Years, to encourage long-term thinking. The disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is mostly due to failure of long-term thinking. The lack of preparedness is simply a matter that the last time a hurricane of this magnitude hit New Orleans (hurricanes Camille and Betsy) was 30 years ago. That's too long for human memory. The scientists who studied the numbers knew of the risk all along, as demonstrated by, for example, the Scientific American article, Drowning New Orleans, published before the storm.
You have to have a subscription to read the article. There is a similar article in the Houston Chronicle, originally published on Dec. 1, 2001, The foretelling of a deadly disaster in New Orleans.
At any rate, it suffices to make the point that the disaster was foreseen by scientists, even if the politicians, our society's emotional decision-making system, didn't listen. They didn't listen because these kinds of hurricanes aren't part of their day-to-day experience, so it's hard for them to take the scientific warnings seriously.
Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about the difference between "linear" and "exponential" thinking. He is getting at a similar idea: humans are bad at long-term thinking.
For another example, look at California's earthquake preparedness compared with Missouri's. San Francisco, besides the devastating 1906 quake, has had more recent quakes, like the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. Missouri got hit by a huge quake in 1812, the New Madrid quake -- but absolutely nothing since. I've heard that today, there is virtually no earthquake preparedness in Missouri compared with California.
Fundamentally, we learn from day-to-day experience. Things that happen only once in 30 or 40 years lie solidly outside our day-to-day experience. Things like the 1929 stock market crash -- we got the dot-com bubble and crash because nobody remembered 1929.
And things that lie in the future, like robotics and AI, are also outside our day-to-day experience. In our day-to-day experience change seems linear. Kurzweil's point is very much on-target. But I would go beyond what he says and say it's not just linear vs exponential, it's what we learn from daily experience vs what we can't learn that way. It's things we can learn from experience and feedback -- as our bodies and brains are evolved to do -- vs things that we can only learn by abstract scientific deduction looking at unfamiliar timeframes.
If you want to predict the future correctly, you have to learn to think in unfamiliar timeframes. We learn to think about time gradually over the course of our lifetimes. As children, seconds and minutes seem huge. A week is forever. We have little concept of anything that happened in the past -- something happening in 1800 in indistinguishable from something that happened it 500 BC. To little kids, it was all "the olden days". As we grow older, we can see how our lives fit into history, and get a more long-term perspective. This is why as kids, history is "boring" but becomes more interesting and meaningful as we grow older. That knowledge goes to predicting the future, since taking trends from the deep past and extrapolating into the future is the first step to predicting the future. The problem is that most trends fail to keep going, so you have to think about why the trends happen, and why they will or will not keep going.
And as Katrina demonstrates, failure to develop long-term thinking can result in huge surprises when the future actually arrives. Future-predicting not a purely academic exercise. It's something we all need to learn to do. Survival depends on correct prediction on all timeframes, from how the boss will react to the next thing you say, to the technology that will exist in 30 years -- not just the technology, (which we tend to focus on) but things like energy supplies, population trends, and yes, even the weather.