Category Archives: Uncategorized

On dangerous technologies and things

Rats and The Galaxy; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat#/media/File:Rattus_norvegicus_1.jpg and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galaxy#/media/File:NGC_4414_(NASA-med).jpg

Yet another shooting in the United States; in Europe, people have used trucks as battering rams, and plowed into crowds – all pretty horrible stuff.   The granddaddy of them all, the attacks of September 11, 2001, used passenger planes as human guided cruise missiles.  Friedman’s The Lexus and Olive Tree introduced us to the term “Super-Empowered Angry Men.”   But no matter how many laws or safety widgets are put on technology, people who are determined to cause pain and suffering will always find a way.  This has been summarized in the phrase, “The bomber will always get through.”  And although it was originally intended to mean actual aircraft used during wartime, it has been applied to terrorists as well.   One recent article mentions how terrorism has gone “low-tech.”  Technology changes the means of delivery, but not the tactic – terror.

No matter how badly technologies are abused for terror, there are some that won’t be abandoned; we don’t ban cars and trucks, even though they are used in such ways.   Likewise, as technology ramps up and gives more “bang for the buck,” these things (CRISPR is a scary one) will most likely be used in even more horrific ways.

There are a few paths to take, given this increase in personal power which can be twisted to nasty ends.  For one, some person or group of persons will do something really horrible, like release a 99.99% fatal disease with high transmission rates and long incubation times.  This would essentially make civilization collapse, and thereby removing the capability for super empowered men to exist – the problem solves itself, in a crude manner.  The other, less likely scenario, is that people won’t want to do such horrible things, because of social restrictions and cultural mores.   A possible third option is that terrorism may remain, but at such as scale that it becomes just another way of dying.

The second option might seem a bit impossible; could people willingly not want to use all means at their disposal to do horrible things?   In some ways, this has happened already – we generally don’t worry about our neighbors blowing up our cars every morning, and many decades ago, kids actually brought their hunting rifles to school, as it seems many can attest to.  A search on “kids used to bring hunting rifles to school” turns up some mind-boggling (in this day and age) stories about how routine it was to do such things.

What do you think wins out?  The collapse of civilization (stairstep or catastrophic) where these technologies can’t be used, or, does use of technologies in a deliberate, terroristic way actually cause the collapse?   The loss of cheap energy, biosphere, etc. would be the cause of the first kind of collapse.   The situation where someone deliberately uses something like an asteroid mining ship to push an asteroid into a collision course with the Earth is the second kind of collapse – the super-empowered angry man on steriods.

Both are horrible, of course; nobody sane wants to see lots of people die, and most do not want to lose their creature comforts.  If fewer people had cause to revolt, it might lessen the probability that someone would go off the rails, and the use technologies for nefarious purposes.  Unfortunately, the possibility that people will die because someone will use technologies for nasty things is still non-zero.

Let’s look at this from a mathematical angle, and borrow a bit from the astronomy world.  The Drake Equation is an argument that is used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy; it is:

{\displaystyle N=R_{*}\cdot f_{\mathrm {p} }\cdot n_{\mathrm {e} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {l} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {i} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {c} }\cdot L}

… with R, fp, etc. being terms that multiply together to figure out this estimate.  The Fermi Paradox makes you think that some of those terms are quite close to zero (or we’ve been quarantined).  No matter what your opinion on the various terms (which can vary wildly, based on your assumptions), this equation gives us some sort of ballpark figure we can mull over.   Likewise, the probability of people dying due to unnatural and human-directed causes could be estimated by some sort of ‘Cidial Drake Equation‘ (homocide or genocide; they are all about killing, hence the ‘Cidial’ – if anyone has a better or more accurate term, let me know) where:

N = R * fn * fz * fu/ fc

N= the number of people killed per time period

R = total population

fn = fraction of people such a weapon could kill

fz = fraction of people crazy or willing enough to use such a weapon per time period

fu = repeatability of the use of such technology (related to cost; a knife versus a gun)

fc = relative cost of a technology (in money, resources, time,  technological base required)

The units of N are in people killed per time period, so dimensionally, fn, fz, fu, and fc will have to be corrected for this.  The essence is still the same – the casualty rate depends on a variety of factors.

So, if a weapon costs a great deal, the chances of it being built or even used are small.  Likewise, if the weapon can’t kill many people (like a single-shot rifle vs. an automatic weapon), the number of people that could be hurt is also reduced.   The big wildcard is fz, though – the fraction of people crazy enough to do something horrible.   If fz is zero, we could be surrounded by nuclear explosives all day, and all we might have to do is tell kids not to fiddle with them.  We’d only keep them locked up so they couldn’t be set off by the curious or uneducated.  If fz was large, we’d have to worry about locking up even the butter knives, and our population would be continually at war.

Could N be zero?  If the population is small enough, perhaps yes – small communities generally don’t have the resources to build destructive weapons, and fz might be small due to social pressures.  But as R becomes large, fc might drop, and fz, even if tiny, could still lead to large values of N.

Questions:

  • What else would you add to this oddball version of the Drake Equation?
  • Such horrible calculus has been discussed in a few places, most notably, Fight Club:

    Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

    Is there something missing from this equation as well?   The ‘out of court settlement’ bit is the financial cost to the company per incident, but certainly these effects can become non-linear.  One failure is a fluke, but ten or one hundred might increase the payouts.

  • What sort of cross-correlation is there between things like R, the density of R, fc, and fz?   These variables may be interdependent.  For example, as the density of rats in a cage (or people in cities) goes up, fz might become bit larger as well.   Or would this close quarters living breed a new set of behaviours?   The fz term might go (dangerously) up for a while, until it was bred out of the population, and then it reduced.  The equation might be modified to handle both R (population) and something like resource consumption.  Do wealthy people or societies have higher values of fz?
  • The non-linearity of fz in simple models of population can cause some odd effects.  If fz is non-linear with population size or density, what happens?  What is the best way to reduce fz?   Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The New Night’s Watch

Not being one to watch the latest in televised epics (and not having access to any premium cable channels like HBO or Netflix), it was only recently that the wildly popular “Game Of Thrones” was introduced to me in more detail.  Other than knowing it existed, it really didn’t have any interest for me.  A quick Wikipedia search can bring one up to speed, thankfully, without watching hours of backstory.   The most interesting bit was that of the Night’s Watch, and a history that went back thousands of years, defending against a horrible enemy from the cold north.  Obviously, this has particular relevance to the past few notes on infrastructure and long term thinking.  Who might be inclined to take on the responsibility of defending unfriendly (even warring!) kingdoms and nations from any sort of general, existential threat?

The oath of those who belong to the watch is thus:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

Now, this seems a bit extreme (and after all, it is fictional); no crowns, glory, lands, wife, kids.  It seems even a bit more intense than the life of a Catholic priest, bishop, or pope.  You generally can’t (according to the local wiki on the topic) even resign, although there is some discussion as to whether these men are to be truly celibate.  There are some interesting elements about this group; it appears to combine elements of the French Foreign Legion (open to all comers and nationalities) and the Catholic clergy (celibacy), as well as other fabled organizations (the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword), sworn to protect something on a centuries-long or millennial-long timescale.

The existence of such organizations in societies can serve multiple roles.  Primarily, it allows for existential threats to be handled, no matter what is going on inside the regular day-to-day world.   It allows for disgruntled, disgraced, or otherwise troublesome elements in society to be removed without massive disruption, and serve some very useful purposes.  It also allows for some measure of meritocracy when none is allowed in a general society.   Unfortunately, such organizations today are more based on religion, than science.

The fact that such organizations have been proposed in fiction, and that at least one (the Catholic Church) has survived for many years is thought-provoking.   There are many existential threats that the world may need to defend against; climate change, asteroid impacts.   A real Night’s Watch might be something people might join, with enough incentive, and with enough benefits beyond those of regular life.

Questions:

  • Could we put something like this in place, to handle long term decisions about our world, especially with regard to the climate or other topics?   Could this organization be more science based, than religion based, or is religion the only sort of driver that can work?
  • How would you start such a group?
  • Who would fund or command such a group?  Where would it be based?  Antarctica seems like a likely candidate, and the untapped natural resources there could be used to finance such group.
  • The issue of an organization where members aren’t allowed offspring (but are allowed forgiveness of past crimes, debts), but are allowed to rise based on merit may be very appealing to some.  The Catholic Church comes close, but as we know, some folks aren’t celibate, and some members enjoy a great deal of personal power.  In the Game Of Thrones, the Night’s Watch used to be a mark of honor for some nobles, but has faded.  What can keep an organization from degenerating and losing its luster?
  • How many people, at whatever age, would want to join such an organization, that gave one perpetual food/clothing/shelter/training in exchange for defending a world at large?  If a society is too rich, will this inducement be too little?   People still join the clergy and become nuns, even in the modern era.
  • The Game Of Thrones is set in a fantasy world; women are not allowed to join the Night’s Watch, based on one particular incident.  The Catholic Church has it set up so that women may join convents to help the Church as whole.  Given modern technology, it could be made so both men and women who joined such an organization could never have children, and still work as equals.  Would this work?

Long term planners, Part 3

 

Desert_road_UAE.JPG

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Desert_road_UAE.JPG

The more that one muses on the problems of the world, it appears that the current way of doing things is simply not working.  And, in spite of all of our technology, we still are pretty primitive creatures.   At some point, something will have to change.  Don’t know exactly when or how,  but as someone once put it, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”

A while ago, the idea was brought up that some new sort of societal structures may need to arise to handle longer term problems which we’ve created.   Last week, the idea that the Roman Catholic Church might be institution that could handle such problems was put forward, and a commenter brought up the idea of royal families.

Long lasting royal families might have some sort of longer term world view (as they have survived!), but even their members can be brought down by scandal and the siren song of the modern world.   Even the Church (or its members) can be brought to its knees when people are too distracted from the trappings of modern life.   The trappings of modern life (smartphones, distractions, entertainment, almost infinite things to buy) can be pretty addictive.  But as time goes on, these things may fade away, just as the potential for large scale war and surveillance will go away as our technological base fades.

It may be that long term thinking and planning may just be a Darwin thing.  Those who plan longer term may survive when the technology base fades, and that sort of mentality will live on.

Questions:

  • After the fall of our “turbo” culture, and the snap back to reality, will the type of government be less important, as more people are quite literally required to “wake up” and accept the idea of a pre-1900s world for most of the citizenry?
  • Is there a year or era you would find to be a good balance of where technology, government, and society were “on the ball” and generally capable of governing themselves realistically?  Nothing will ever go back to the way it was, but what sort of post-peak society will we inhabit?  Having pockets of high-tech may sound like science fiction, but it could happen.

 

 

Long term planners, Part 2

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coats_of_arms_of_the_Holy_See_and_Vatican_City#/media/File:Coat_of_arms_of_the_Vatican_City.svg

Last week, it was noted (mostly in jest), that vampires (or some other long lived creatures) could be entities that could see the bigger picture over long time frames.  Of course, they could also be fed up with humanity, so that line of reasoning might be a trifle suspect.

All joking aside, there are long term planners out there, who can think of time frames in decades and centuries.   The city fathers of New York City, when faced with a clean water crises in the 1800s, did the very prudent thing and figured out a plan so that even today, New York City would still have some of the best potable water in the country.

There’s a good chance that vampires aren’t real, so who else might be a potential long term thinker and planner?  The image above, of course, gives it away – the Catholic Church.   For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church has been a player on the world stage, along with its tiny principality of Vatican City.   The Vatican has been politically powerful at some points, a bit in disarray in others, but it has survived, along with its far flung network of churches, priests, bishops and lay people who are committed to its survival.   That the Church would survive over the long term isn’t a new thing; the book A Canticle For Leibowitz is a classic SF story that posits that the Church might survive even a few more thousand years.

The Church, in theory, should be able to plan a bit better than most institutions and individuals.  The latest pope has commented on climate change, but with regards to the big elephant in the room (overpopulation), not much seems to have been said.  And given the Church’s position on birth control and abortion, long institutional life seems to have no distinct advantage on much long term thinking.

Questions:

  • There are other institutions (not as long-lived) that might have some good long term plans in place; who might they be?
  • Will the Catholic Church modernize, and think about the issue of overpopulation, the real root cause of our predicaments?

 

Long term planners

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Vampire#/media/File:Burne-Jones-le-Vampire.jpg

There’s a great quote that might just sum up a lot of the thinking that goes on in the peak-everything movement:

“When you’re one step ahead of the crowd you’re a genius. When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.”
— Shlomo Riskin

Certainly, a lot of us have wondered how long things can go on, given the insanity of the S&P P/E ratios, outrageously priced real estate and ever rising college tuitions.  And of course, the rising CO2 and sea levels, the death of various coral reefs around the world, and increasing average global temperatures.  For some odd reason, most people ignore these things, but that’s the way things go.  Even when things get really crazy, and smart people do incredibly stupid things, the system bumbles along.

It’s always been a wonder why so many people ignore things; at Decline of the Empire, many words have been written about the why of this.  The upshot is that (most) humans aren’t cut out for long term thinking.  But with last weeks post, a thought came to mind, especially with the great lines spoken by the two main characters of Only Lovers Left Alive (who happen to be vampires).

Although they seem to be entirely mythical creatures, it is a bit of a shame that vampires don’t exist.  Not that I’m fond of having my blood devoured, it’s just that their very existence would be the kind of long term stabilizing influence our society might need.  Yes, it sounds crazy.  But here this argument out – if beings who could exist for centuries roamed this earth, they would have a far better overview of long term trends and effects.  Only a vampire could state, “And when the cities in the South are burning, this place [Detroit] will bloom.”

This is all a bit of a fanciful argument, but beings with longer perspectives would probably care more about things that those who are here for but a moment.

Questions:

  •  A slightly more plausible situation would be the existence of a long lived group of humans, such as the Howard Families.   Could such a group exist?
  • Would vampires care about the planet, and keeping it habitable for humans?  If vampires regularly fed on humans, it would be considered good practice to keep their environment in good shape.  Since we seem to be driving a stake in the planet (pun intended), this may be another reason why vampires don’t exist.  Or, are they playing the long game, and waiting until the herd is culled a bit?

 

 

Which American city goes first?

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Domino_effect#/media/File:Wallpaper_kartu_domino.png

In keeping with the discussion of denial and infrastructure, and the recent situation in Houston, it is important to realize that yes, cities do get destroyed from time to time, and they even get abandoned.  On the abandoned places list, Pripyat (Chernobyl) is the locale most of us may be familiar with; it was a town of almost 50,000 people, and after the accident, it was abandoned wholesale.   Unlike JMG’s stairstep collapse scenarios, the abandonment of Pripyat was relatively quick, making its abandonment a great deal more stark.

The United States has a history of ghost towns from the boom-bust of 19th century gold rushes, but ghost cities would be a whole new thing, and an order of magnitude more impressive.   A Chernobyl-like event near a major city like New York (the Indian Point nuclear power plant is nearby) could necessitate the evacuation of millions of people in a very short amount of time (where would they go?), and might be seen as a fluke.    But if we put such scenarios on hold for a bit (crossing our fingers that only natural disasters, rather than direct human ones are responsible), what cities might be abandoned in bits and pieces, and when?

The quick answer might be to look at Detroit, and say, “it’s happening already!”  Yes, Detroit has had its share of lumps, and yes, the population has dwindled some, but even Detroit is still a going concern (a friend has been trying to get me to visit and start a company or something technical there for years).

An exchange in the very well done vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive had this particular conversational tidbit.  It brought a bit of a smirk, to find such intelligent discourse and dialogue, befitting beings that could have the long view of centuries:

Eve: So this is your wilderness. Detroit.

Adam: Everybody left.

Eve: What’s that? [as they drive by the huge Packard Automotive Plant]

Adam: It’s the Packard plant, where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world. Finished.

Eve: But this place will rise again.

Adam: Will it?

Eve: Yeah. There’s water here. And when the cities in the South are burning, this place will bloom.

It was an incredible exchange, and it reinforces the notion that if the 20th century was filled with wars over oil, the 21st century will be filled will wars over water.  Even though Detroit is going through tough times now, at the least, it is a hub for water transport (one of the reasons it was founded in the first place (Detroit is a major port on the Detroit River, one of the four major straits that connect the Great Lakes system to the Saint Lawrence Seaway.).  My money is on Detroit still existing, in some way, shape, or form.

Water (and fresh water in particular) will probably be a good reason why cities rise or fall in the coming years.   The “too much of a good thing isn’t great either,” principle applies here as well, so cities that are on the coast may also be candidates for which city “goes” first.   It will probably be a race between cities that are drying up (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas), and cities that are vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme storms (Miami, New York, Boston, Washington D.C.).    Cities that were built up because of cheap energy for both air conditioning and cheap travel will also have marks against them.  Cities that are in geologically sensitive areas (or have geologically sensitive architecture) could also be abandoned in quick time (San Francisco and Los Angeles are candidates here, but if the Madrid fault ever lets loose, a lot of cities in the Midwest might be goners too).   A city is more likely to be abandoned if it is predicated on tourism and flash (Las Vegas, Miami) rather than things a bit further down on Maslow’s hierarchy.

My hunch is that if any city is to be abandoned (in the sense that real estate becomes almost worthless, the tax base is eroded to nothing, and it is very difficult to survive there, few people want to run for public office, public services are almost non-existent), it will probably have most or all of these markers.   Looking at a map of the United States, a good guess is that Miami has a lot of these tell-tales:

  • Ocean levels are rising (and many high rises are just off the beach),
  • Temperatures are rising due to global warming and the heat island effect, making it more uncomfortable; you really need air conditioning to live there year round, and the older population that lives there needs air conditioning,
  • The fresh water supply is being contaminated by the ingress of salt water into the surrounding aquifer,
  • As weather patterns change, some diseases that were normally confined to the tropics may start appearing in the region,
  • One good hurricane (again, becoming stronger and more numerous due to a changing climate), and a lot of infrastructure could get destroyed, causing some of the above elements to “pile on” and make even life more miserable for its inhabitants.

Will Miami go this year, or next, or in twenty?  As Yogi Berra would say, “predictions are tough, especially about the future,” and it may be that other effects may lessen this probability.  Older people might not want to (or be able) to leave their homes in the north if transportation gets difficult, expensive, or impossible.   Phoenix and Las Vegas are up there too, needing far too much imported water, food, and electricity to survive, but Miami has the added bonus of being hit by a true force of nature.

One can bring up the example of New Orleans, but New Orleans may have been lucky.  It was hit by a storm, damaged severely, but then brought back to life by a huge influx of outside help (linemen crews came from thousands of miles away to help just rebuild the electrical grid, which was utterly destroyed).  This all before the financial crash of 2008; if that happened again, could they (or we, as a country) afford to rebuild it?

A final thought on this dark prediction business;  Billy Joel wrote “Miami 2017“, released in 1976.  He wrote about a scenario where New York was destroyed and abandoned, and many of the former New Yorkers wound up in Florida (“…Before the Mafia took over Mexico…”).   Irony of ironies; the opposite may be happen; it will be Miami that is abandoned, and New York (above the Palisades, of course) that thrives (at least for a short while).

As always – more questions:

  • Which city will go first?  Is Miami a plausible first candidate?
  • When will everyone know that that particular city is unlivable? Will it be when mail stops, emergency services are dropped, or elections stop?
  • Will any city disband voluntarily, before a real disaster hits, and depopulate in an orderly fashion?  Could a city like New York, with its vast watershed holdings in upstate New York, decide to abandon parts of the city (such as lower Manhattan) and move northwards?
  • Would we simply abandon a city due to the cost of reconstruction?  The costs of Hurricane Harvey to Houston and the surrounding areas are projected to be in the range of 160 billion or so.  How many times can a city or nation handle this?   A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money, as it has been said.
  • If one city “goes” into oblivion, how will that affect other cities?

Update:

Given the track that Hurricane Irma is taking, it might be retroactively be named ‘Hurricane Princip‘.  Yes, out of order in the naming convention (and with a gender change), but if a hurricane of that magnitude were to hit Miami, the losses (on the order of 300 billion?) could be enough to trigger ripple effects in the banking system.   Imagine if all that highly overpriced mortgage collateral were to vanish overnight.

The passion of infrastructure

tower.png

Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

Infrastructure is something that most of us seem to either look down on, ignore, or not even know too much about.   The lights go on, water flows, the bridges stay up, the Internet keeps bubbling away with cat videos, and all in all, our complex life seems to effortlessly move along… until it doesn’t.  If you are in the Houston, Texas region right now, you may be getting a graduate level degree in How Infrastructure Is Important.

For those of you who have done any camping, sailing, or roughed it in the field in the military, you know of this intimately, of course.   A single tarp in a rainstorm; access to clean water, access to good food, lighting at night, and a warm dry place to sleep aren’t trivial in those scenarios.  But then we go back to our ‘normal’ lives, and the infrastructure fades into the background quickly.

Infrastructure also covers things like organization, safety, backup plans, and a myriad of other ho-hum stuff.  This all may be a bit dry and or unexciting to people, but for those who think ahead, infrastructure is what makes or breaks a society.

When reading about things that go in a crisis, this jumped out at me:

Living near a well with a manual pump is like being in Eden.

Likewise, this tidbit:

…when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and asked for an assessment of the risks and threats that the city might face, he learned that a collapse in the water supply system was at or near the top of the list.

If you really want to be awed by how much infrastructure it takes to get water into a major city like New York, check out the story of Water Tunnel No. 3, and some of the engineering that went into it.  The pictures of what has been built hundreds of feet below the surface of NYC are quite eye-opening.

Some of us are natural infrastructure folks; we organize, plan, backup, reinforce, check – all because we know, deep down, that those things are what make our comfortable lives possible.   These things can stop at any time; however, their upkeep can require lots of money, much of which can’t be seen (until of course, something goes wrong).

It isn’t easy to think every day about hot water flowing,  how food got to a grocery store, the lights going on, or making a cellular phone call, and all the background processes that make those things possible.    Perhaps in becoming more cognizant of these things, we might be able to understand things like climate change, the impossibility of an ever expanding economy and growth on a finite planet, overpopulation, resource depletion, and other large scale, long-time constant predicaments we face.    Infrastructure requires a good deal of resources, and things like bridges and water tunnels have lifespans of one hundred plus years, so perhaps, even though we are a species that has an enormous built-in denial “feature,” it may be that understanding infrastructure could help us reckon with the big D of denial.   We need to be passionate about infrastructure.

Afterthought – regarding war, it has been said,  “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk about logistics.”   That fits in well here.   Perhaps a corollary with regards to people who think about the future is, “amateurs talk technologies, professionals talk about about infrastructure.”

Questions:

  • To the last point – might people who understand infrastructure have less denial in their lives?
  • How can we get people to be more cognizant of infrastructure, and its costs?
  • Why are some people more concerned with infrastructure, and some with the new and shiny distractions (“look, a squirrel!”)?
  • What do you think is the most important piece of infrastructure?
  • What piece of infrastructure has gotten too complicated to maintained well?
  • Which element of infrastructure is the most resilient?  The most delicate?