Monthly Archives: May 2016

Skin, Swans, and Success


It is rare that you get something good in a graduation speech.  Many a time, they are the basic “you are the future” and “things are tough, but you will figure them out” sorts of warm and fuzzy that most parents and alumni like to hear.  Not really anything new, or imaginative is said, and if the speech is given by a politician, it most likely will have a slant towards something going on the world or government, without much of *real* big picture view that is needed.

A recent graduation speech by Nassim Taleb is the kind of speech everyone needs to hear at their commencement.  Nassim Taleb is a brilliant and iconoclastic polymath/scholar/former trader/statistician/economist who calls BS on stuff he think is wrong, and who is a no nonsense sort of thinker.  He is probably most famous for the black swan theory (laid out in a book), which explains a lot of the craziness in our financial markets.

The speech is great, for it lays out some critical things in life.   Two of the items the short speech that really hit a note:

  1. Have skin in the game – don’t bet on things/get involved when your decision doesn’t affect you.  For this reason, commenting publicly on things where you don’t have any skin in the game is not recommended.
  2. Defining success in this world; this piece was the most important.

The first point is good, because it says that without skin in the game, the capability of you to care about decisions you are not involved personally with declines rapidly.   This can be applied to a great deal in modern America; how many people making decisions are actually affected by what they do or say?  Very few, and it shows in the level of quality decision making that happens.

The second point might be something that might be said in other standard commencement speeches, but Taleb cuts to the chase, and goes to the root of being successful:

For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.

For many of us, trudging along in the modern world, who may see us as unsuccessful (since we aren’t rich or famous), this bit is well worth remembering.

Although it might be too late for a planet with 7+ billion people on it to continue supporting such a number, a perspective like this is still very much important.  It also ties in with Guy McPherson’s “live a life of excellence” – do not live out the majority of your remaining life not doing something you are not passionate about, and are not proud of.


Why America Failed – An honest assessment



Morris Berman wrote Why America Failed in 2012, and if you have been reading this space and others, not too much should surprise you.  America has failed; he just spells it out in detail.

A few points that he brings up (common to those pointing out such things)  hustling and voracious capitalism have done quite a number on us, and we will more likely than not go out with a whimper, and not a bang. But the most important element he brings up is “False comfort is an indecent thing to peddle,” and true to form he doesn’t try to do this.  He alludes to this in this three tragic acts (which essentially sums up his own book):

Act I: “The Steamroller,”

Act II: “The Steamroller Destroys the Opposition,”

Act III: “Eventually the Steamroller Self-Destructs.”

It is simply not possible for Act Three to be “The Steamroller Has an Identity Crisis but Emerges New and Improved.”

I wasn’t the first to find this one of the key points in the book, but it really rings true.  In some ways, this is like many who are considered ‘doomers’; he is one who is willing to say that we don’t have a problem, but a predicament.  There are no real solutions, only “least worse” decisions to be made.  You can drive into a wall, over a cliff, or into a river, but you can’t just apply the brakes, stop the car, and safely walk away.

It may be late to the party, but Mr. Berman’s blog is on the roll to the lower right; check it out.

It takes all kinds


(Every tool in the toolbox; attribution at link)

Just a few days ago, an interesting article at Common Dreams was published.   It was on a friendship between a man who was blind and a man who had no arms, who got together and planted trees (quite a lot of them, in fact).  It referred to some earlier video and an article.  Yeah, it was heartwarming; if they had a puppy that followed them around, it would have probably made you get choked up a bit.  Thankfully, there were no puppies.  The article was short and to the point, but did end with a bit of classic hopium, “Humanity may yet prevail.” Perhaps this is not a surprise, coming from a site named Common Dreams.

This kind of reporting, although it does make you realize some people are trying, and trying hard, still leans a bit too much towards the classic ‘humanity will win’ box, which is far from certain.  What strikes me as the most important thing here is that whether or not we will survive (and with almost certainty, far fewer of us will be on the planet in one hundred years), cooperation will be required going forward, no matter what the endgame outcome.

One of the disturbing things about our culture is that many have bought into the idea that Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is what rules, when in actuality, cooperation is what makes things happen in the long run.  As mentioned to someone recently, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel in a group.”   Even Darwin didn’t believe in social Darwinism, or anything like it, as many have noted. This is something that has been commented on in this blog (regarding maker spaces) but can be extended to many other human endeavors.  One issue that has arisen for many of us engineer/science-types is that we tend to think that Technology/Engineering/Science will save our skins, whereas it might not take any technology at all, but a better understanding of some of the softer sciences (sociology, psychology).

Yes, we will still want and need to use technology of some sort to ameliorate and perhaps stave off a total collapse of this civilization/culture, but in the end, we will need the knowledge of human interaction and some of those fuzzier subjects in order not to repeat the same mistakes being made now. It may be apocryphal, but the quote by Albert Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” hits the nail on the head.  It will take all kinds of thinking going forward, and we are going to have to use “every tool in our toolbox” to handle the coming dilemmas.

Tricky Business

Image-Tacoma Narrows Bridge1.gif

The poster child for resonance (well, not exactly), the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  Even your physics teachers can pass on erroneous information!  See below for more…

In a conversation this week with a friend discussing the craziness of our world, they brought up something that shocked me a bit, and given that my reading on the topic of wild and crazy futures is broad, it surprised me even more.  The implications are pretty staggering, because it is one of those things that shows how out of control things can get when you start fiddling with things on a large enough scale.

The issue is at hand is the Bay of Fundy, and the possibility of extracting energy from the large variations in the tides there.   The Bay of Fundy lies on the East Coast of Canada, and tides there can typically range up to 15 meters, and have even gone higher than that.  A bit of research into why the tides are this way shows that they are based on tidal resonance. Resonance is what you use when you push someone on a swing (or kick with your feet) to get to large oscillations (motion).    In that conversation, my esteemed investigator into troubled futures mentioned that by tapping the Bay of Fundy, we might actually stop the resonance from happening, and make the entire project worthless.  In trying to validate that claim, however, another more troubling possibility came about.

A seemingly obscure paper, by McMillan and Lickley in the undergraduate SIAM journal (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics), in its inaugural issue a few years ago (2008) points out a serious issue in trying to tap the power of the Bay of Fundy. The upshot of trying to tap the tides is that it might generate a lot of power, but at the same time, it might also start to radically affect the tides in the surrounding region.  As far away as Boston, tides could be raised by at least 15 cm, and even if only a fraction of the power of the Bay of Fundy was realized (2.5 to 6.9 GW or so; note that an average nuclear plant puts out 800 MW (0.8 GW), and the largest tidal renewable energy project in Scotland is scheduled for 400 MW (0.4 GW) ). Now, this may not seem a great deal, but a 15 cm rise in tides is huge.  Given that ocean levels are rising at 3.2 mm/year (0.32 cm/year), this would be like having a time machine catapult us 45+ years into the future as soon as this system was activated.   According to the paper, if a barrier for extracting power was put across the Minas Passage, that change in tidal height in Boston (and other places) could be as large as 45 cm.

The original paper is in a journal based on the work of undergraduates, but the critical elements (discussed below) are still being promulgated. Also, just because the work was done by undergrads, doesn’t necessarily diminish the validity of the work.  The work is still reviewed by practitioners in the field, and so these results shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

The classic case of resonance gone wild that comes to mind for most technically minded folks, shown in many civil and mechanical engineering classes around the world, is the Tacoma Bridge failure, which was captured in film (and never fails to bring many an engineer to tears on seeing it).   Alas, it wasn’t resonance (vortex shedding wasn’t the culprit), but “the failure of the bridge was related to a wind-driven amplification of the torsional oscillation.”  This is an important technical detail for those of us who care about such things, but the end result was that amplification of a natural phenomenon, via a man made structure, caused a catastrophe.

Now, things have come a long way since the 1930s when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built, and as a result, modern bridges go through a far more rigorous design process.  But the end issue still remains – sometimes, we don’t catch all the bugs in a physical system, and sometimes, these errors and influences are not linear, but can cause non-linear and far reaching effects.

This interesting research topic has far ranging implications, both with respect to renewable energy, and with respect to other large scale engineering projects that might be used to ameliorate the injection of CO2 into the atmosphere.   We have already seen what fracking can do to create earthquakes; the Three Gorges Dam is another large scale project that is causing tremors, and may be another huge disaster in the making.

Who knows what sort of effects a large scale windfarm, solar power station, or other project may cause?   This isn’t to say, “stop all (large) renewable projects!”, but it does bring up an issue of unintended consequences that seem to be ignored in our world all too often.   Non-linearities and positive feedbacks do exist, and we ignore them at our peril.

Questions for this week:

  • The other elephant in the room regarding large projects is that of geoengineering.  Forget about clean energy projects, just trying to replace fossil fuels with large scale renewable energy sources; what happens when we try to cool the earth, or sequester large amounts of CO2 in the earth?  One wrong move could cause massive problems, and is a good reason for treading very carefully in this area.
  • If Canada gets mad at us, do you think they’d ever build a dam across the Minas Passage to flood Boston?   There is a concept called ‘asymmetric warfare’, where a smaller force goes against a much larger one.   Perhaps these non-linearity effects will be harnessed by some “bad actors” for not so good purposes.
  • What other environmental and energy projects with good intentions have caused massive problems (besides the obvious nuclear projects such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima…)?







M_. President



Tough to believe, but in a little over six months, the citizens of the United States of America (the ones who vote, that is) will decide on a new president.   Well, the Electoral College will decide that (in actuality), but in theory, the will o’ the people will be heard through them, and someone will be at the helm again.

Over at the Archdruid’s lair, he’s made a good case that we’ll see Mr. Trump become president, rather than Ms. Clinton (or Mr. Sanders).   For some folks, this seems incredible (“Who would vote for such a person?” is the usual refrain), but if you ask around, and take a look at the turnout for the primaries, Mr. Trump is generating large turnouts.  There have even been a few articles on how people like Trump, but won’t admit it.

From this vantage point, whether we have a Mr. or Madame President won’t make much of a difference, if they continue the policies of the previous N administrations.  Mr. Trump, in spite of all his negatives, is one person who might challenge the status quo (like his alternate ego Bernie Sanders), and at least challenge the ‘business as usual’ (BAU) model that has existed.   Some folks have suggested (even those on the left) that voting for him will be a good thing, since it will drive the system off a cliff , and Bring On The Revolution.   But (if the same article is correct, and a bit of searching seems to check with this), Mr. Trump doesn’t believe climate change is real.

It seems, whether we get a Mr. or Madame or Ms. President, it really won’t matter much.   We will still be upon a trajectory that believes ‘more growth is better’.  If we stop illegal immigration, or easy access to guns, or overseas misadventures, or make every car in America run on electricity, we’ll still be in the same pickle.    We are not willing to address the root cause of the problem – a runaway industrial civilization.

Both President Carter (“All of us must learn to not waste energy…”) and ironically President Bush (“We are addicted to oil,”) told some unvarnished truths.   But the big one – we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet – seems to evade all of our political leaders.   The upshot – yeah, we are in trouble.

The Everpresent Questions:

  • Which president has told the most truth to the population?
  • Can you imagine a president saying any truths that aren’t part of the Flatland worldview?
  • During war (a one where all average Americans are affected), things get dire; will it take a war for a president to say these truths, or will that just drive the truth away even further?
  • The everpresent question – who do you want to run for president, and why (even if they aren’t a candidate)?