05 July 2008

Looking for a job

Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution posts:
Londenio, a loyal MR reader, asks:
I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.
I hope you have an expensive gold wedding band but otherwise start off by keeping your mouth shut. Find someone who will take care of you for a few days or weeks and then look for employment in the local church. Your marginal product is quite low, even once you have learned the local language. You might think that knowing economics, or perhaps quantum mechanics, will do you some good but in reality people won't even think your jokes are funny. Even if you can prove Euler's Theorem from memory no one will understand your notation. I hope you have a strong back and an up to date smallpox vaccination.
I am reassured to discover that I am not the only person in the world who has considered this question. Actually, my version of this fantasy usually puts me in Elizabethan England, so that with a little acclimation I'd be able to speak the language.

Even in that variation, Cowan is right that most of my modern knowledge is pretty useless. The first little while, it may be a struggle just to survive, though by virtue of being a well-nourished modern it would take me weeks to starve. But if I could find my feet, I'd try to sell my services as a physician: just knowing to wash my hands and boil water makes me the greatest physician in Europe.

Plus, you'd think that a cellphone is a useless brick in the Dark Ages, but you'd be wrong. Mine has a calculator function, which means that I'd be able to create the only accurate table of logarithms, roots, and trig functions in the world before the battery runs down, the dream that enabled Babbage to get funding for his failed difference engine.

There's lots of interesting discussion of the question in Mr Cowan's comments thread, if you like that sort of thing.


thorn said...

Science fiction/fantasy has been dealing with these questions for ages, as you know. Connie Willis' "Doomsday Book" for one.

And then S.M.Stirling's "dies the fire" series looks at our world after all tech that requires an engine or batteries etc just quits all of a sudden. What skills do we have to survive? (Hint: SCA nerds are well equipped, natch).

And of course, many folks are thinking this way because of peak oil. In just a couple of generations most of us have lost what were basic skills: canning, planting, sewing, carpentry etc. Not much of a role for high-tech geeks in a low-tech world, or just a world where one needs to eat.

Hopefully geek smarts are translatable into good-sense smarts. And if not, here's someone who is teaching folks just that:

Al said...

I thought everyone worried about these things.

Just like I thought we all thought like this: http://xkcd.com/337/.

Jonathan Korman said...

I suspect there may be a gendered aspect to this.

Thorn is thinking (metaphorically and literally) about our post-petroleum future, which is actually going to happen.

Al and I are planning for important stuff like ninja attacks and time warps. I'll bet he's also done some thinking about what to do in the event of a zombie outbreak, or what he'll ask for if a djinni offers him three wishes.

Al said...

Well, I do own a couple of books related to Peak Oil and sustainable living related to it!!

I take the fifth about the zombie outbreak, ninja attacks, or meeting my doppelganger though. You forgot time loops with advice from your future self though.

Al said...

Besides, the reason for the djinii wish thing is that we spent too much time playing D&D as kids and that's an actual issue there!

thorn said...

I don't know that it is about gender. My first thought is just that you all think about stupid things, while I think about important ones! :-p

{running away, fast}

Al said...

Time travel is important! You need to be ready!

batojar said...

Heh. Me, some string, weights and a plume, and I'm the best architect in the world - my engineering kung-fu can't be beat!

d a r k c h i l d e said...

and people scoff at me for my "drop me off on the side of a mountain with only my clothes and meet me at the basecamp in a week" vacations!

then again...it *is* only a week!

Maybe its the scandinavian viking in me, but I feel a need to know how to live off of the land. What makes fire; what makes shelter; what can I eat?

That stuff *is* important. Modern convenience is just that...convenience. I'm a good boy scout! BE PREPARED!