Monthly Archives: February 2018

On fences and tradition

Picket_fence_simple (Public Domain)

An interesting confluence of comments has arisen.  Last week, the commenter Cassandra, brought up this point:

“Good fences make good neighbours.”

In the article referred to last week, it was mentioned that John F. Kennedy made the comment,

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

Recently, someone else in my personal sphere made the comment:

“Traditions are solutions to problems we’ve forgotten.”

Small pieces, but taken all together, they reminded me that the sweeping away of boundaries and traditions, while tempting, can lead to lots of trouble.   Rituals, certain kinds of clothing and decorations, songs and foods may seem extraneous and trite, but they can give people signposts on how they can interact with others.   Some traditions may even seem a bit odd or silly, but somewhere, they may have had a good and valid reason for existence.

Fences don’t have to be huge affairs or constructs; they can be simple things to delineate who is responsible for what, and let people know that some places are off limits for certain behaviors.   Likewise, traditions can be psychological fences that can help cue people on how to relate to one another in sometimes difficult situations.  Take the simple introduction, “Hello, how are you?” with the response, “Fine, thanks.”   The words are simple, but they can be said in many different ways.  By having a standard set of words or phrases, we can gage someones emotional state, even though they may not want to initially engage with you.

Some traditions have been updated; we can throw birdseed instead of rice at a wedding, or we can wear a colorful tie at a funeral instead of wearing all black.   Some traditions, are of course, absolutely barbaric – FGM comes to mind, and getting rid of them is a good idea.


  • What traditions do we absolutely keep?  Which ones do we absolutely get rid of?   We sometimes modify traditions; which ones would you modify?
  • Some traditions have been with us for a long time (i.e., fences of all sorts).  Fences have utilitarian uses, like keeping animals away from crops, or keeping people away from high voltage lines.   Fences might be also a reminder of how our society has a lot to do with ownership of things and land.
  • We’ve introduced relatively new “traditions” in era of cheap energy (flying away for honeymoons, the European road trip for college students, lots of presents at the holidays), but many of them will be swept away as cheap energy vanishes. Which ones might we bring into the world to handle our new predicaments of reduced energy, environment, and economy?
  • Some traditions or prescribed behaviors may even seem a bit odd or silly, but somewhere, they may have had a good and valid reason for existence.    The “no pork or shellfish” rule for Jews and Muslims comes to mind; any others that seem silly or random, but have real usefulness?



The rat problem


Another school shooting, and yes, the same arguments will be brought out.   One friend passed this on: ; the upshot from the article is that the Left is responsible, not the Right.  In a few days, I’m sure a friend from the Left will forward me an article that the Right/NRA/Trump is the reason these things are happening.

There are a host of reasons on why these things happen, and there may be a nugget of truth in every one of them; these don’t need to be trotted out here.   There may be darker reasons, that folks on the left or right may not like to consider, and that might have a far larger influence.   Part of the reason we may be having these troubles may be biological, and rooted in things that either political party has no real control over.

There are two points that might be considered:

1) We have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet by a large extent due to our use of cheap fossil fuels; we are overcrowded.  Talking about overpopulation is sometimes ‘an elephant in the room,’ but it needs to be addressed.   There’s a good free book online (with some classic quotes about overpopulation) by here.   Overpopulation (and overconsumption) can cause serious glitches in societies.

2) With the ubiquity of social media and smart phones, we have eliminated private space. There is little to no space for contemplation, and the outside culture (which usually plays to the lowest common denominator) can have too much sway over our development.

Comparing the behavior of mice/rats and people may not be perfect, but with both being social animals, studies which look at the overcrowding of organisms show some eerie similarities.  A quick search on ‘mouse/rat overcrowding experiment’ turns up many articles, including these:

The original thought was that it was “obviously” the overcrowding, but from reading a bit further down in the texts, it could be that private space/time is what makes for better societies.  It is very difficult to get those things when you are overcrowded; but as one of the articles points out, populations with the same density can have different outcomes if they are set up differently.

One the the key quotes in the second article was “Moral decay resulted “not from density, but from excessive social interaction.”  “Moral decay” seems too strong a word, but the concept that excessive social interaction might cause sub-optimal behaviors doesn’t seem too far fetched.  As far as “moral decay” goes, if someone claims that homosexuality and promiscuity are effects of overcrowding, that would seem a very large stretch.   Homosexuality has been with us for a very, very long time, and promiscuity may be a result of technological changes (one of Niven’s Laws is “Ethics changes with technology.”), rather than overcrowding.  Excessive social interaction seems like a good description of what we’ve got now, especially with smart phones in everyone’s pocket.

The concept of shooting up a school, would seem to be a new thing, but a quick search on a history of school shootings does turn up incidents from as early as the 1700s.

Wikipedia has this plot, showing school shootings as a function of date:

US Census data doesn’t exist in 1760; using the school shootings data from Wikipedia, and dividing by US population during the time periods for which we do have US Census data, this plot emerges:


(Own work, CC-SA)

There are a host of questions on this below; it was a bit of an eye-opener.

Someone made an observation to me many years ago (paraphrasing here):

When we were young, we came home from school on a Friday afternoon, and went back on Monday morning.  In the intervening time, we were in the company of our families and neighbors, not subjected to the onslaught of whatever culture was out there.

Perhaps high speed Internet, social media, and smart phones aren’t the best for society, or at least for those who haven’t matured.   This doesn’t mean more background checks are a good thing or bad thing, nor does it mean concealed carry by everyone, everywhere, anytime is a good thing or bad thing.  Folks all along the political spectrum may wish to solve this plague by their own pet methods, but we may need to look deeper.   There’s an old skit from Saturday Night Live, with Steve Martin (Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber) that might be of use here.   After losing a patient from excessive bloodletting, he says with authority:

You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.

Perhaps we need some new ideas in handling this scourge, and we may be a long way off from knowing why people go off the rails.  If someone is mentally ill, or is motivated enough, practically any energy dense technology controlled by a single individual or small group can be used as a devastating weapon.  As noted in a previous post on stopping terrorism, we generally don’t have to worry about people blowing up our cars every morning.  Stopping this at the source seems the more logical solution.  “Solutions” that appear to work for a short while eventually won’t, and we’ll be left with the root causes (whatever they are) that will continue to cause damage and societal rot.


  • The thesis that overcrowding/social media/too much socialization could be a cause of these behaviors – could this theory be valid?  How could you test this?
  • A recent post suggested marrying off potential terrorists; could there be a similar program for troubled youth?  Not so much marrying them off (a bit early for teens) but getting them involved in helping others, and being part of a community?   Even when you have a strange community of people, you still have a community, and that alone might help anyone who is in distress.
  • How does someone “go off the rails” like Nikolas Cruz?  It appears people did try to intervene, on multiple occasions, but still he was not stopped.
  • Were school shootings/violence in the 1800s a serious issue? Did they really bottom out in 1940-1950, on a per-capita basis? Has this issue really been rising since 1940-1950? And why is this an issue now?  Perhaps instead of using total population, this should be school-going population.  In looking at the details of the shootings, some of them were not perpetrated by students, but by adults, so this may skew this very simple five-minute back-of-the-envelope plot.  The amount of violence in schools on a per-capita basis, even in the 1800s, was shocking.  If someone has a better analysis, or knows where to find one, please let me know.  This is one place where we could use a good social science statistician and researcher.
  • As mentioned above, excessive social interaction seems like a good description of what we’ve got now, especially with smart phones in everyone’s pocket, and the ubiquity of social media.  Even some folks at Facebook have said that it has been made deliberately addictive.  Is this a possible contributor to having people go “off the rails?”



Day Zero For Cape Town


A “simple” glass of water (CC-BY)

In a post last year, the question was asked, “Which American city goes first?”  In retrospect, this might have been asked with a slightly broader view; “Which First World/”modern” city goes first?”

It looks like we may have a “winner”, in Cape Town, South Africa.  It is projected that the taps might stop running in April, perhaps May of this year.   The list of other cities that might go is impressive, both in America and elsewhere.

It appears that we are very close to a “when the taps close,” versus an “if the taps close” moment.   Given that Cape Town is a regional capital, and has a population of about 400K, with a metro region of over 3 million persons, it seems unlikely that the city will completely empty out.

Water is at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.  You don’t have much of a great life without it.


  • This is stuff that anyone paying attention has known about for a while, but when will this start to hit the mainstream? When will it start to impact business and personal decisions to move for work or retirement, so much so that these cities start to empty, even before resource limitations hit?
  • When will real estate prices start to suffer in these cities?
  • Are you hearing whispers in the corporate hallways, or by your friends, about resource issues being a factor in relocation or business decisions?
  • There are a few lists of ghost towns; could Cape Town ever join this list, or just simply become a fraction of its normal size?  What might that fraction be?
  • Are there any other cities that will just shrink, due to location, politics or sheer size and ‘importance’?   If the city of Cape Town lost 90% of its population, there might be enough water for the remaining 10%, but could the city function as a city?  Could you even call it a city anymore? Would it become like a Chinese ghost city?  Any one of a dozen things might destroy a city, but short of a war, nuclear or biological accident, some folks may always stay behind.





Loyalty and competency in The Long Emergency


The Godfather wedding photo; stick figure version (own work, CC-BY); here for the high-resolution real versions

In watching “The Godfather” this week, the issue of loyalty to a group (family or nation) arises naturally.   Who should you be loyal to?  How much loyalty do you give to a group?  The permutations of questions are extensive. For sure, if one is disloyal in that particular world, you are at best useless, and most likely dangerous, and you must be eliminated.  Pretty harsh stuff.

Many news outlets have reported on the President’s ‘obsession with loyalty,’ over  competence.   Whether it was appointments to the Federal Reserve, or asking people for loyalty pledges, the President demands utmost loyalty from his subordinates and advisors.   All of us understand that having loyal friends and confidants is critical.   If loyalty supersedes competency, however, you wind up with a serious mess on your hands, as anything from a government to a business will fail, because incompetence is a fast way to wreck any sort of system.

As much as people may claim they want competence, without loyalty, you will always wonder if the person who you are working with/partnering with is going to “knife you in the kidneys” one day.  If you’ve ever been in that situation, either personally or professionally, you know how awful that feeling can be.   Having questionable trust in someone you need for technical, financial, or political reasons can have you sleeping with “one eye open,” and that is not a very pleasant way to run your life.   It is this point “The Godfather” (and its cinematic and televised offshoots) hammer home, time and time again.    Ironically, it was this line:

“We are all honorable men here, we do not have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers.”

that was said in “The Godfather” by a not-so-honorable Don.   Real trust and loyalty can be rare.

Loyalty isn’t always friendship (you can be loyal to a boss, but not necessarily friends with them), but it shares a similar core of trust, and trustworthy behavior.  The case for being loyal does make sense, because you do want people “watching your back,” and not jumping ship when things get difficult.  Perhaps what is really wanted (and needed) is people to be loyal to you and to your vision.    With regards to competency,  if you know you aren’t up to handling a specific task, and you are loyal enough to someone, the best move is to admit that non-competence, and continue to give support in whatever way you can.

When it comes to trust and loyalty in the modern world of contracts, laws, lawyers and the courts, things are a bit different.   When we value uber-competency above all else, we have to rely on the use of contracts and laws to substitute for trust.  Contracts, supported by the courts and laws, codify  “trusted” relationships in excruciating detail, and, if the contract is written a certain way, that trust might be only one-way, or tilted in favor of one party or another.    This isn’t a great way to live either, as very few people are equipped to handle pages of legal minutiae and terminology (ever tried reading your EULA?).    Needed societal elements like “trust” and “loyalty” are micromanaged by obscure and alien language.   Some folks have parodied this to an extreme, of course.

All of this legal complexity is expensive.  Teaching  and certifying lawyers, archiving extensive records, keeping courts open, having legal teams the time and means to warp and finesse the meanings of any series of words – much of it can be superfluous in a world where excess resources aren’t available.   A great deal of energy is needed to keep the briefs flying back and forth, and to support a class of people who don’t produce, fix, or maintain the actual infrastructure of life.   In the Long Emergency, courts and the legal process may be severely hampered by a lack of resources, and only the gravest of crimes and issues might be taken up.   People can be loyal to their region or nation (even Michael Corleone volunteered for the Marine Corps), but it is critical that these institutions “do the right thing” and maintain order and deliver true and fair justice.  If institutions such as the legal system can’t do this, people may naturally start to trust those most local to them.

The Godfather is filled with notable quotes; this is another one that sums up an important lesson in a world that may not have the resources to enforce contracts that make up for the trust that you would normally place in family, friends, and community:

Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that.

“The Godfather” is a pipe-dream fiction, as noted by many.  But the parts about family, friendship, and loyalty are not.   Yes, we do need competent people to build the roads, tend to the sick, teach the young, and do all the ‘real world’ stuff a basic society needs.    Yet it is far easier to teach those things, and to teach competence in a particular field, than to teach trust and loyalty.


  • How do you handle loyal and trustworthy folks, who aren’t technically competent for what you need them to do?
  • What happens when you find yourself not technically competent in a situation, but know you are trustworthy and loyal to a cause, person or group?
  • How do you think these issues will change in the Long Emergency?
  • Do you think you can count on your friends and family in the Long Emergency?
  • What legal niceties will go first as things start to “get difficult”?   A look towards countries currently in difficult situations may provide a clue here.
  • In the “World Made By Hand” series, the legal is system is almost non-existent; how accurate do you think this is?  Legal systems and courts still functioned in the mid-1800s; will we go back to that sort of environment instead?