Saturday, 11 October 2014


Uni is a of work and I don't really have a one comprehensive topic to talk about. This just a lot of ideas I want to get down.

Been reading a variety of things (note read =/ agree with). The Prussian, slate star codex, poor economics, The better angels of our nature, Noahpinion, a book on Socrates (interesting guy) + others (like the war nerd). If you want to understand the current middle-east situation read the war nerd.

And I have to say there is a lot of stuff which as far as I can see in the overshoot sphere is completely ignored. Very important parts about the nature of warfare, why materialism + individualism and similar values systems are really good for societies such as ours (there is very rational and logical reason why). The reason being that for a highly diverse society (which all modern societies are), everyone can easily agree on it and understand everyone easily. Considering the normal the strife that would otherwise happen, this is a reasonable choice. None of the value systems or ideas I've seen have actually addressed this point.

A lot of problems arise as far as I can tell from (so I may be wrong about the origins) the overshoot sphere being politically and ideologically from the left more than the right while not being able to notice that some ideas are incredibly modern and the consequences of that.

To explain here is a woodcut of a Medieval execution/entertainment.

Other thoroughly modern ideas (largely enlightenment, but not completely) include our ethical treatment of animals, not physically torturing kids (tying them to hot stoves and such) and seeing war as evil/unnecessary + caused by human action. E.g towns would buy condemned criminals off each other so they'd have could entertain the citizens with some gruesome display. Besides the traditional animal sports such as cock fights and bear baiting, slowly lowering a cat into a fire was a common Parisian pastime. And so on, some animals (pigs and some special lamb) were kept in factory farming like conditions well before industrial civilization came around. Hunter-gatherers aren't much better in that regard, except they generally don't have domesticated populations (I remember an account of a tribal kid torturing a bird to death and the elders only scowling at him).

Wars were seen more as an act of the gods and an inevitable fact of life. In fact, the majority of the time war was the default diplomatic state and peace was the exemption and explicitly negotiated. This doesn't mean that the two sides were clashing with armies, more often it was just border skirmishes and raids (specifically targeting civilians). Also an important point; a lot of violence in the past was a) not recorded (especially genocides) b) fell in the space between criminal activity and wars that people pay attention to. Based on those 2 point, our view of the past is heavily biased in seeing it as peaceful  before we even get to cognitive biases (bad events are more forgotten than good). E.g the 20th century is sometimes called the genocide century, because it was perceived as a time when lots of genocide was carried out. What actually happened is that the genocides were recorded and publicized to societies that condemn genocide (not an automatic human reaction). Every recorded type of human societies has committed genocide at some point, from industrial civilizations all the way to hunter-gatherers.

Then there's the targeting of civilians in war. The majority of conflicts, civilians are targeted far more than military or other strategic targets. When they get the opportunity tribal societies will wipe out the opposing sides women and children (or kidnap) or unarmed men. Raids (whether carried out by barbarians or the knights Templar) are often ways of gaining loot and slaves, you hit civilians to get that. In a the private wars of feudalism, often the peasants would be targeted in basic economic warfare.

Put it like this, if the Israeli's were acting like most pre-modern societies "and mowing the grass", a lot more than a few thousand. They'd have killed somewhere in the range 1/2 a million or so. Honestly, if they were acting with those morals and still had the ridiculous military advantage Israel has over Gaza, everyone in Gaza would have been killed or enslave long ago. This can also be applied to the US, I mean was the last time they burnt a city to the ground and massacred (killing 50-80%) the population. Or just gone through the country side and stolen all the food to feed themselves and left the locals to starve, along with the standard looting and raping. The British were a nasty, brutal, bloodthirsty empire. They once kill 1/100 Sinhalese in response to a rebellion, along with some very oppressive laws. If the Americas approached Iraq or Afghanistan with the British ruthlessness and their incredible military capabilities, well lets just say that overpopulation wouldn't ever come up in those countries.

There is a lot of historical blindness built into the overshoot sphere. Some of it is ignoring the points above about warfare (there a lot more, but there more technical). Another is ignoring how completely the enlightenment won, along with a huge range of proposed solutions being fairly old (anarchist communes have been around since the medieval times) and not likely to work any better now.

Coupled with an infection of apocalypic-ism. An example (quoting Dimitri Orlov) "And there are two such rocks flying for it right now: one is rapid nonlinear climate change; the other is natural resource depletion." An interesting point, rapid nonlinear climate change is actually not that scientifically supported. Note the Prussian talks about it, but I've seen discussion on it, but I've seen discussions on it before. It is a possibility, but one among many and not the most likely. Also as the graph on the right shows, we're coming out of a cool period. Climate science is not the most cut and dry science and we just don't know enough.

Put it like this even through quite a bit doesn't get included (on both climate change is worse and climate change isn't that bad sides), the IPCC is the best guess around.

Another issue, minor really, is using proxies for civilization decline and such that don't actually make much sense. The most blatant example I can remember is someone saying we are obviously declining because crime, drugs, alcohol and so on exists (note not increasing, just in use). These are things that exist in every human group that has the option of engaging in them. All societies have murder, and the only reason hunter gatherers don't often steal is that stealing physical goods can be pointless to them (women are the more traditional targets). Use measurements that are a bit more complex and valid than generic age old moralistic concerns (just saying decadence is not enough, you could mean a lot) or the almost universal human trait of thinking young people are up to no good and don't display enough respect. Seriously, there are Egyptian scribbling complaining about young people drinking to much and not respecting their elders + gods, a Roman poem adds going to fast on their chariots.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Future projects

There are two engineering projects I plan on doing at some point (likely Christmas holidays) that I will post about here because they relate to overshoot.

These projects are also resume things to show what I can do. E.g I'm going to try and make models from 4 different CAD programs (AutoCAD, Solidworks, CATIA and freeCAD) just to show I can definitively use CAD software.

Also if I do it write they'll provide a good, straightforward example of systems engineering and what I do.

Project 1: The Pi-container from the physical Internet

The basic idea is a series of standardized, modular containers that fits into the physical Internet structure.

So they can fit into any transport mode (barring horse drawn wagons and similar), have inbuilt tracking mechanisms, naturally lock together and be more sustainable compared to steel shipping containers.

Important points:
  • I'm going to partly copy cargoshell, the composite material and folding aspects, different shell
  • Have refrigerated versions, likely using heat pumps and inbuilt pipes (for when in huge stacks)
  • I'm doing an intro course on embedded systems next semester, so I can do all the electronics later
  • I'll look at adding universal attachment points for unique transport mode adapters, such as aerial rope-ways or helicopters
Project 2: Peak oil compatible military ship (or transition)

Most likely a small patrol ship than anything big. Importantly, not going to worry about sails for a variety of reasons (don't know enough, mess with weapons + easy to hurt, not yet ready for military application).

Importantly I'll look Li-air batteries along with other batteries compared to biogas or biodiesel in terms of ranger, price and maintenance. The choice of fuel will depend on the ship, likely whatever the pacific islanders can most easily provide.

For the electric ship, I'll probably do a basic design for floating solar panels that can be deployed and either extend to the range of the ship or reduce battery size.

Most of the design constraints/choices will depend if I chose a standard Australian patrol boat or the ones we give to the Pacific Islanders.

This is the project I can show of systems engineering in.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Worldskills challenge + other stuff

First up, haven't been posting because Uni's a lot of work. Also read some books which made me scrap some ideas. A book on the venetian empire, world trade and other sea going activities are going to be interesting, Plagues and People, which is a very different and interesting take on history. Currently reading is the evolutionary world, some different points such as a reason to think a more centralized and regulated government might happen, and a few others.

I'm part of the new world-skills water innovation challenge. I'm not going to the competition, I'm just in the pit team helping to design the system.

One of the things I did was have a meeting with an RMIT researcher (Aidyn Mouradov) on phytoremediation, which is an interesting topic.

Anyway, heres two open access papers on the topic, specifically Duckweed and Azolla. Both are incredibly fast growing and versatile plants (compost, high protein livestock feed, fuel source, water purifiers, feed for bioplastic, etc)

Application of Aquatic Plants for the Treatment of Selenium-Rich Mining Wastewater and Production of Renewable Fuels and Petrochemicals

Dual application of duckweed and azolla plants for wastewater treatment and renewable fuels and petrochemicals production

Water Innovation Challenge
Water Innovation Challenge
Water Innovation Challenge

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Musings: part 2

Future Empires are going to be very different, the loss of  ethics, effectiveness plus changes to the maritime environment will ensure this

No matter what else you say about the American empire and the global system, there is one very important fact that is often ignored in the overshoot sphere

I'll show it in graphs

And another important graph

The first graph speaks for itself, wars are basically disappearing, unfortunately I can't find a graph which goes back earlier. However in per capita terms across all of history WW2 is the 6th deadliest war (numbers 1-5 are all pre-enlightenment) while WW1 isn't even in the top 10 so this trend has some history. And the wars we do have, like Afghanistan and Iraq, are better thought as mass policing actions than conventional wars, notice the lack of clashing armies and mass bombings. The second graph however requires a bit more analysis to truly understand the significance of the figures, it's death's per million and it is decreasing over time. While the major atrocities aren't as common anymore whole the ones that don't happen have less of an impact. Also, note that the graph above is for political violence, so the net cast includes a lot more than wars.

Today, the world's population is around 7 billion and outside of periodic spikes the annual death toll total is between 30,000 to 45,000. Or in percentage terms from 0.0004% to 0.0006% of the population per year (the largest spike killed 0.006% of the worlds population), in comparison the percentage death tolls in tribal societies is about 1% of the population dying to war every year (if that was the case now, 70,000,000 people would die from conflict alone every year, i.e. more than in all of WWII). But lets look at the death tolls from 3 sequential battles from the second Punic war that occurred in separate years. The battle of Trebia (218 BC), total death toll 30,000-37,000, the battle of Lake Trasimene (218 BC), total death toll 17,500 and lastly the battle of Cannae (216 BC), total death toll 64,200-85,700.

The lower estimates add up to 111,700 dead in 3 years, or 37,233 dead a year, which is about the current annual death toll. But that was only one campaign in the second Punic war, Rome invaded Spain to cut off Hannibal's supplies while he was in Italy (their good legions were elsewhere) and invaded Macedon when the latter sided with Carthage, burning Corinth to the ground. And there were other wars going on around the world, while the above only includes soldiers who died in battle, the civilians who died as Hannibal scoured the Italian countryside aren't included.

And the world's population was tiny back then, so as a percentage the death toll would be far higher than it is today. And if I wanted to I could look at the likely death tolls of North and South America before European contact, when the Amazon jungle didn't exist and instead the area was covered in city states (who historically fight a lot) while up to 100 million people could have been living in North America. The death tolls from the Americas could have easily been a 1 million or so a year by conflict under certain assumptions.

So, I hope that single important fact about the global system and the US empire is clear. Whatever else, they are incredibly effective as forces of peace in the world, holds high ethical standards and commits barely any atrocities by comparison to older empires.

Translation; the American empire is the hippie of empires.

Also as a side note, the people who talk about war getting easier and therefore more common don't have a clue. The statistical evidence, and this reaches back to the tribal wars of pre-civilization (admittedly through modern counterparts), is that as war becomes more deadly and easier to fight, we fight less and casualties decrease. This effect actually makes sense in game theory and psychology, we have a set level of risk (consequence x likely hood) we like to accept. Interestingly this effect is even more pronounced with drone warfare, along with decreased civilian casualties, 70-90% of drone kills are terrorist which compares nicely to WW2 in which only 33% of deaths were actual combatants. So yes drones kill innocent civilians, but does every other form of warfare, drones just kill less.

In comparison we have the British empires actions 60 years ago in the Mau Mau uprising. Here's the war nerd talking about that, Monty Python Burning Kikuyu Skit. Here's the book, Imperial Reckoning, which talks about the British response to the Mau Mau killing 32 white settlers. That response was to intern 1.5 million people in concentration camps, the entire Kikuyu ethnic group, and kill about 300,000, or 1 in 5, of them. This was also how the British dealt with the Boers, killing 25% of the civilian population via concentration camps. We could also look at the Japanese attempt at empire, WW2, where they killed at least 3 million Chinese with the Three Alls Policy (kill all, loot all, destroy all) and overall could easily have killed 10 or so million civilians. Julius Caesar bragged about killing 1,000,000 Gauls and enslaving so many (about 2,000,000) that he crashed the slave market and the Assyrians did much the same, "I flayed many withing my land and spread their skin out on the walls" (Ashurnasirpal), but in very inventive ways such as burying people alive in a pile of severed heads.

In regards to the behaviour of the US empire in regards to its atrocities, it is in no way comparable to other empires. This isn't to say that the US empire is a force of good or nice, merely far less violent and sociopathic than most empires. It, along with the global economic system, is also incredibly effective at enforcing peace and doesn't get into any of the traditional large scale wars.

It is highly unlikely that future empires will behave like this. Future empires will be brutal and not via proxies, but directly. They will also not be nearly as effective in keeping the peace and will fight far more wars because of that fact. Going into entire regions and killing thousands to millions of people isn't uncommon behaviour for empires. One, these wars will be far more closely linked to survival than the ones we currently fight (Afghanistan and Iraq aren't existential threats) so more drastic measures will make far more sense to those involved (due to the fact wars will now happen closer to home and there will again be less technological disparity). And the disruption caused by climate change and economic shocks isn't going to make areas easy to control, in addition to decreasing the resources available, and a knee jerk reaction to that is just to enact atrocities and mass killings (both works and doesn't work, but that's another discussion). Armies are likely to reverse the process of becoming professional, due to the decreasing prosperity of the world, which will increase the incentives for soldiers to commit atrocities or torture locals (like slowly roasting them, common in the 30 years war) since that's how they get loot (bonuses) and it's an easy way to gain supplies. Of course there is going to be a change of ethics and values caused by the decline, quite a lot of the old values will reappear, the ones that are fine with raiding, mass killing, the sacking of cities and such events. After all, one solution to the Food vs Fuel debate is for wars to be the decider for which countries starve. That attitudes certainly not new, the Roman republic bought a temporary end to taxation with its conquests, fuel and food is just another form of wealth, as the shipments of Egyptian grain to Rome proved.

Also on the changes likely to hit insurgency and counter-insurgency, I think a short story will do. In the American civil war Sherman encountered the first IEDs, buried artillery shells with a trigger mechanism, he managed to stop the confederates burying anymore shells by marching confederate prisoners in the front of his army. 

Another change relates to how easy sea denial will become. This article talks about that in relation to the Asia-Pacific. A navy has 2 main jobs, to deny the enemy the use of the sea (sea denial) for transport while enabling the transport of goods and troops across the sea (sea control). Before WWI if you achieved one the other was automatically achieved as well, but then subs came along. Suddenly it became extremely difficult to stop the enemy attacking friendly shipping and so sea denial and sea control became 2 separate objectives. With the advent of drones, missiles and better sensors, this division has only widened.

The age of maritime empires is ending, the days when Britain ruled the seas is over and no one can replace them. China could have its access to the sea cut off by Japan, India, Indonesia or any other power with the necessary technical know how. Their access to the world's markets, like Africa or South America isn't very militarily secure. The sheer dominance that Britain and America experienced won't exist again. Of course there are ways to mitigate this problem, but the central fact that dominance of the sea is becoming unobtainable will stay. Put it like this, the tricks the Chinese use in JMG's story "How it could happen" could just as easily be used against the Chinese, but against their civilian shipping (the traditional targets of subs after all) instead of military ships. And importantly, it doesn't take a great power to pull the trick off. Which is probably largely why countries with sufficient know-how don't fight each other, since we like having the global trade system working smoothly. The best case scenario is that China is simply constrained in what actions it can take but no one actually has to use their threats and fight some wars.

The original use of aircraft was for reconnaissance, drones (which are Vietnam war old) are cheap and could easily fulfil that role across large areas. Missiles are incredibly precise weapons, if you see a target you can hit it, though how this is achieved will likely change with peak oil. And any defence that is put onto civilian ships reduces cargo space and significantly increases cost. Now the limited date we have on ship board anti-missile defences (an Israeli-Egypt and a Russian-Georgian skirmish) indicates that modern navies can survive missile barrages if they are prepared, and being in the missiles extreme range helps, but that doesn't help civilian ships and honestly, the data is too limited to say, ultimately we don't know how contemporary naval warfare works. And sea denial is all about denying the enemy access to the seas transport routes, for economic or military purposes, or hitting civilian ships. The opponents navy can be completely ignored, as long as you can practise sea denial.

So we will likely see a return to land based empires, like Rome or Persia. The Aztec's didn't really have much in the way of ships and the Mayan city state empires acted without them as well. This means empires will be more localised (continental rather than global) and land based infrastructure will matter more. As it stands, this is a return to the more standard form of empire and the end of maritime power as a hugely decisive influence on the world.

Globalisation works a lot better than most people admit, also actual aristocrats damage economies along with traditional totalitarianism

This article has an observation that is is fairly important to understand globalisation, specifically section #5. The weakening of the middle class/economic troubles in America, Europe and here (the auto industry) is largely caused by and part of about 2,500,000,000 people being lifted out of poverty. Also the creation of a large middle class in China

Globalisation, importantly, works on a global scale. The inequality inside the first world is virtually nothing compared to the inequality between the first and third world (in the first world, clean water, safe food and basic necessities are almost guaranteed ). " It's just that we're all that rich man". And the majority of first world governments offer a safety net so that the poverty of the first world is not equivalent to the poverty of the third world. For peasants in Asia the appropriate phrase  for hundreds (if not thousands) of years was "[They're] so deep in water that a single ripple will drown them". 

Globalisation is actually working to reduce poverty and global (not local) inequality. It just can't do that without redistribution. After all, when manufacturing jobs leave for overseas, they don't disappear. importantly, sweatshop labour is actually a better deal for people in the third world than most other options (also a way out of poverty), see this. And it may not be working all that well, but it is the only thing working on this scale.

There is a list (in German) of all the different reasons given for why Rome fell, it numbers 210 different explanations. Some of them are silly, others stupid, but quite a few are perfectly plausible. The causes of complex events and trends are never very clear and the effects of overshoot are exactly like that. There will always be other explanations that could be the cause of trends that overshoot causes and vice versa. The world is not nearly clear cut enough to be otherwise. As above, globalisation provides an alternate explanation for job losses compared to overshoot, along with the decline of first world countries relative to third. And the growing richness of the third world is also a alternate explanation for oil price volatility, decreasing supply doesn't need to be brought up. These other explanations may not be nearly as good, some will be silly or stupid, but they will exist and most of them will have some existence and impact. One of the hardest parts about guessing the future is the fact that something vital will be missed, maybe it will only change a minor detail (whether city x survives or dies), something bigger but not big picture changing (area x preserves modern technology during dark age) or it could be a big picture difference (steady state vs decline). 

Another thing that is important is that we currently lack almost all the totalitarian instincts of previous societies. Here I'll be using the definition of a society that attempts to control all spheres of life.

Heretics, religious and intellectual, used to be burnt at the stake. While this practise was more a medieval christian one, the ancient pagans also practised it as evidenced by Socrates's trial,
"Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.".  For those crimes he drank hemlock and importantly that sentence was carried out by a democracy (newly established) so it was a totalitarian instinct carried by the people, not just the rulers. We may isolate or ignore intellectual heretics, but we don't exile, torture and/or kill them in various public spectacles (mind you, due to the martyr effect the former is more effective at preventing their ideology spreading, which has its own consequences).

But we don't do that anymore and freedom of religion is guaranteed in most of the first world. We don't carry out devastating religious wars, crusades or purges that kill millions of people and devastate large areas. The religious totalitarian impulses also spread into intellectualism, one specific is that curiosity is a sin. The difference isn't that these impulses don't exist anymore, here's a recent article talking about condemning curiosity (note the professor of divinity and his book) and most people think the message of Frankenstein is Science is Bad, even through the actual moral/message is different, what happened is we started being tolerant (because religious wars suck) and forcing arguments to not resort to violence as a first step, valuing order and peace. Also we went and became modern in moral and ethical issues, Chesterton and C.S Lewis are primarily modern in their stances and just happen to be Christian as well.

How Asia Works attempts to explain why different Asian countries look so different (specifically the rich North-East vs the poor South-East), South Korea is a rich modern nation, while the Philippines is poor even through it was originally far richer. The very first step that all the successful countries (Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) did was to redistribute land, placing small caps on maximum land ownership were common, to as many people as possible, note most people who farmed before this didn't own land but merely rented it (often feudal relations). The first thing this did was to rapidly increase production per hectare (but importantly not profit per hectare or production per labour unit) which had various knock on effects, such as capital generation and a better trade balance. He mentions that when Latin America was building up its industry, the middle class grew because of industrialisation, hence Latin America started consuming more meat and because Latin America's agriculture hadn't gone through sufficient improvement, this caused all the wealth generated by industrialisation to be spent on importing meat and higher quality foodstuffs.

An interesting observation is that an (almost) perfect free market was created in Japan for agriculture. There was a huge amount of producers with equal access to capital, the government provided a broad range of support (like loans for irrigation) that included marketing and information (an assumption in perfect markets is access to perfect information). This (almost) perfect free market worked as well as theory said it would, creating lots of wealth and improving the public good. But more importantly, breaking up the traditional power structures worked, and this is especially true for traditional aristocracies along with feudal structures that are similar to ones police states possess.

Related to the above, I've been doing some basic research on various NGO's that attempt to help the third world. One observation, capitalism in the broad sense actually works really well. One reason is explained in Kickstart, selling better tools rather than giving them for free ensures that the recipient will use them (80% as opposed to 30%) to become improve their income and become self-sufficient. This is more the distributism model of capitalism than corporate (not the catholic part, but the idea summed up by "The problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists"), but it's still capitalism which works well in general. And it's not particularly volatile compared to older economic forms, we forget now but famines (the closest to an economic breakdown feudal societies have) used to be incredibly common, occurring at least once every 2 generations.

We denigrate it because it isn't perfect, but one lesson of the last 200 years is that capitalism (especially coupled with democracy) in the broad sense works far better than the alternatives. "a market economy is to economics what democracy is to government: a decent, if flawed, choice among many bad alternatives." The debate should not be between the various different economic systems (communist, mercantile, guild based, feudal + manoral, capitlist, etc) but what types of capitalism work best and in what mixture. Should we encourage cooperatives like Eureka's future, that can fit into the market system we already have? what sort of government regulationis useful and how should it be implemented? What areas aren't aproppriate for private organisations (evidence points to health care and education for one, but what others)? of the various types of capatilism, what mixture makes sense and for what areas? how global should it be (relates to tariffs and such)? and so on. We already did the experiments to figure out which broad economic system works best, the goal now is to optimise and improve that system. 

Feudal systems tend to have strict controls on the movement of peasants (who made up most of the population), like police states control peoples movement. One way was through basic laws, in England a serf became free if he evaded capture for a year and a day, that restricted movement, marriage, access to work and other similar activities. The other way was through economic structures, one of the function of guilds was to limit the influx of peasants into cities (because living in a city was better than not), and to preserve the massive advantages given to nobles.

Mobility equals wealth, an example of this in practise is asylum seekers, the ones we get by boat aren't the poorest (nowhere near that) because the poorest can't afford to get on boats and are stuck in giant refugee camps or are stateless. So one way to stop movement is to destroy wealth, or stop it from accumulating in the lower classes.

Nobles consistently shaped the economic and political structures of their societies to benefit them at the expense of everyone else. Having complete legal immunity to taxation was a common perk (the Dutch didn't have that perk and they got a trading empire), which considering that nobles generally owned 60-80% of the land helps explain why governments didn't do much in civic terms until the late modern period, along with exclusive access to upper level religious, military and political (like judges, also sheriffs were nobles for this reason) positions. Most civic improvements were done by private individuals for various reasons (Rome traded political influence for civic goods), but modern history shows that isn't the best way.

One of the things people forget is that most kings, aristocrats and emperors are horrible to mediocre rulers, only a minority are actually any good (like Frederick the Great) and have the interest of those they rule at heart. They normally want to enjoy power and all the benefits it brings; which might be sleeping with lots of women (the Ottamen or Chinese harems were institutional forms of this), drinking lots of wine (one Khan made a promise to only drink one cup a day, so he built a cup the size of a large bucket) or becoming so fat that a special device has to be built to lift the monarch out of his throne. This is one of the big reasons most pre-modern civil wars are more about who rules than about freedom or political structures. Modern politics forces them to at least pretend to care about the ruled and that works a whole lot better. What's happened is a political form of the hedonic treadmill, our politicians/rulers have gotten better, but that has simply raised the standard,

Africa is likely going to be a good test of theories

Africa has some of the youngest (Kenya is only 50 years old, Egypt is 80) and least stable governments. It is also the poorest part of the world and thus the least able to cope with climate change and fossil fuel depletion. So Africa is likely going to be the first continent to get cut off from the globe and suffer most of the problems of overshoot.

Which makes Africa a good place to watch since it could easily be where quite a few events happen first. This its a a place where theories can be tested.

So how will indications that stability is approaching go?

Improvements to governance?

And then there is China's growing influence and presence in Africa along with its ongoing transport issues and natural resources.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Musings: Part one

The last post I did started out by me writing down various ideas I had, then I realised that I'd written more questions than Ideas and turned it into a post rather than a list. This is a list of ideas, not necessarily entirely coherent ones, I have and will try to turn into post's at some point.

I predict that neo-reactionary political and social ideas will increase over the next century as a form of historical delusion 

By reactionary I don't mean things like fascism, military dictatorships, the return of the gender roles from the 20th century or people becoming more religious. I mean ideas that (at least superficially) go against the Enlightenment (secularism, rationality etc) and its twin Romanticism (nationalism, will of the people etc) and at least want to superficially reverse those movements. So returning to monarchy, aristocracy, the divine right of kings, the unity of church and state and other ideas of that vein or adaptations of these.Various modern non-western ideas also count; such as sharia law, Caliphates (Islamic state lead by a combined political and religious head), Confucianism, a caste system (like India's), Venetian democracy, aristocratic republics, the old Chinese state system/Imperial hegemony are also included.

Progress has happened, all three types as described by the Archdruid have occurred. Morale progress; here tracked by murder and war death rates (note I am not in any way defining morality beyond some basics), an actual figure for medieval England is 10% of the population was murdered (30% for nobles) while the highest contemporary country on wikipedia is less than a percent (El Salvador in 1995), we don't kill nearly as many people in wars and fight barely any in comparison to almost any period of history (e.g peace on the barbarian frontiers of Rome was like an ultra violent version of the Israeli-Gaza border, evidence for this includes that only large farmsteads existed in border areas as small farms could not defend themselves) and most governments refrain from large-scale censorship, strict controls on consumption or mass murder (as in 5-10% of the population, the Albigensian Crusade killed close to 1 in 12 Frenchmen and significant numbers of people were killed in the suppression of the numerous revolts), though as recent events in the middle east have shown this is much more true of the west than the rest. Technical and economic progress are fairly obvious, the global economy is far larger than it was a few hundred years ago while there isn't any previous society that even equals our scientific/technical ability without deliberately rigging the contest. There is no point in pretending that progress didn't happen, all that does is make the future more confusing and obscure important trends.
Social progress has occurred, not necessarily in the last few decades but over centuries certainly, and as a consequence our current social systems are a lot better than previous ones; admittedly quite a few didn't exist in previous societies (I've never heard of a historical universal health care). You can argue about the why, how or desirability of these systems, which include large scale social welfare, a fully professional military with advanced logistics (nicer on civilian populations), the separation of civilian, military and religious leadership etc, but that is a historical process which happened. Compound that with other changes, like how firearms affect power relations, radios communication, the metallurgical improvements that happened before and during the Industrial revolution that had numerous consequences like allowing lots of rails for trains and previous societies are more or less unsuited for current conditions and likely future ones. Radio allows a far greater level of centralisation for no extra cost and if some form of quick VIP transport remains (aircraft or limited motor vehicles) then this affect is compounded even more, that's only one example.

A nice measure of an improved political/social systems; violent dynastic struggles and civil wars over rulers no longer exist. Given that Poland at one point had legalized civil war (one of the reasons Poland never did that well), and that these lead to large ultimately purposeless wars, this is a nice improvement. On a larger scale (war and international relations), we no longer routinely wipe out entire cities in nasty ways during war, war is incredibly rare (relatively speaking, world peace has been achieved) and the death tolls are puny in absolute numbers (50,000 a year is nothing), impressive considering the massive increase in population. An example of how things have changed; I read that about 50% of the violence in Iraq is in Baghdad, the majority of previous societies would have solved that by the simple process of annihilating the city and if that didn't work to quell Iraq, destroy some more cities. The war nerd complains that this is an era of squeamishness (note he really overstates his case and the killing of civilians), the difference between the Romans and the First world is that the Romans were ruthless and quite able to kill lots of people but didn't have that much more force than the barbarians while it would be almost trivial for the First world to annihilate the rest because of the massive force difference, but we don't like killing civilians. Israel can simply walk in and purge the Gaza strip (we're talking up to million dead), it would solve the Hamas problem but they don't.

One of the changes in recent history, one of those resilient and old changes, is that we can kill lots of people very easily. To quote this article, "Ethics, not truth, may be the first casualty of war in an age of limits." It is quite possible that in the near future the ability to kill lots of people will again meet people who are perfectly fine with using those abilities. You could have mass immigration from Africa to Europe, but if the Europeans decide to shoot back it's not really going to work. 10 million poor starving people who can't carry a lot of equipment (otherwise there not mobile) isn't going to exactly be a hard target. Of course theirs always mobility blockers (minefields) to aid in starvation or dehydration along with a highly successful Roman strategy that severly weakened warrior hordes but could (because they're slower and require more food) easily stop more civilian groups. All that is required is a return to an older mindset, an older morality and system. But that's mostly irrelavent, the groups that migrated after Romes fall weren't civilians, but hordes of between 10-100,000 warriors who normally adopted the local customs (like Christianity) and integrated themselves into the existing political structure. Mass migration on the scale of millions of civilians that displace the locals has be from Europe to elsewhere, because  the Europeans were vastly superior in technological terms.

Also democracies aren't more corrupt than aristocratic systems, it's just that corruption has a different definition now. The thinking goes that since the leaders of a democracy aren't automatically rich, it's fairly easy for the rich to corrupt them; but this ignores how much effort and laws favor the rich in older systems. Often a benefit of being a noble was not paying taxes, that's not a small matter considering that they own most of the wealth and land, and influential positions are often reserved for nobles only, which limits the possibilities for poorer people, and its especially bad as throughout most of history noble titles could be bought. Prussia went to huge lengths to preserve aristocratic land ownership such as spending fortunes, setting up noble only banks, rewriting laws, all for a single class of people, their version of the 1%; that is corruption of the system by the rich. By our standards this is an incredible level of corruption and the difference is that we see those properties as corrupt while in the societies that had them, that was an expected and reasonable situation. The reason we consider corruption common in democracies isn't because that's the situation in relation to other systems, but because we have expanded the definition of corruption.

 The cause of the rise in neo-reactionary thought is not going to be an honest assessment that older societies are better than current ones, but the same mental drive as displayed in the fox and the grapes. As decline happens, a likely response is to simply decry everything after the renaissance and beyond as evil and reject everything modern no matter its merit. There are aspects our the current civilisation that need to be ditched, but quite a lot doesn't. Like the systems that make our politicians do more than the bare minimum to stop revolts (and in a non-destructive ways),  prevent major wars which don't kill millions of civilians and create a really low murder/crime rate. Added into this will also be groups trying to 'restore' their old privileges or push their own agendas

Older societies where by and large functioning and healthy, but by current standards they all had drastic faults and flaw, especially when you look at the lives of peasants rather than simply the lives of the urban or aristocratic. They had parts that we like, but also parts that we hate and find abhorrent. Rome slaughtered and enslaved millions but provided quality infrastructure and enforced peace, the Celts were socially progressive in various areas (ex. divorce laws) but were also barbarians who would raid and sack other lands. There is no utopia in the past, nor the future.

Especially considering that past societies habits of every now and then creating quite impressive kill-counts, often not of foreigners but their own people, is quite likely to return if we adopt neo-reactionary ideas.

If people decide to revive tradition, the actual tradition is irrelevant in the face of what they think the tradition was.

As it stands, it's unlikely that an actual traditional system is going to be proposed, the legitimacy of tradition and a vague framework is more likely. This is because the idea of a political/social system is separate, but linked, from the actual system; viking mythology is similar, most of our ideas of pagan viking mythology comes from christian monk's writing centuries after the actual mythology disappeared. All the unspoken intricacies, basic ideas, assumptions and so on by and large don't exist anymore and can't be easily be brought back. Here's a minor example of different cultural assumptions; Captain Cook at one point kidnapped some islanders to learn the local sewing techniques, problem was they were male islanders and thus didn't know how to sew since to them it was women's work, while Cook went of his assumptions that sewing was more often masculine (sailors invented quite a lot of sewing).

Older societies are alien to us; they had different values, assumptions, ideas and lived in a very different world. In that light, importing even parts of older societies without drastic modifications doesn't make a lot of sense. Besides, quite a lot of the reactionary thought is going to be Utopian to some degree, which means that the negative sides of older societies are going to be downplayed; like the regular peasant revolts, regular standard revolts, rampant censorship (Elizabeth didn't censor newspapers, because she simply banned them), the power struggles and by our standards massive instability. The sword of Damocles is a good description of a king's position, always in danger of someone who wants power going about it in the traditional manner of kings, kill the incumbent and sit on his throne. And if the society was considerable unlucky, something like the An Lushan rebellion would occur (here's the death toll), through normally events like that aren't quite so bad.

And socially, most older societies (and current but foreign ones) are alien and have completely different values to us. Here's wikipedia's page on pederasty in ancient Greece, something that seems completely monstrous to us but was fine back then, they were also by our standards gay and had various social customs surrounding it (they cared if they were effeminate or manly), someone won a court case by proving that a co-plaintiff was a boy prostitute and therefore lost his citizenship. One justification for homosexuality was driven by extreme misogyny, if women are inferior to men, then a relationship with a women is inferior than that with a man. The vikings were similar, there's a saga where the hero kidnaps a pretty french couple to live with him on one of his raids, for sex basically (both the male and female), and later goes off and kills a dragon somewhere. The commonality was the association of the being in the penetrative role as masculine and the other as feminine, to be considered gay you had to be penetrated, the other guy was considered heterosexual. Slavery also varied across different cultures, a slave in Rome wasn't the same as a black one in the US and a black slave in Africa was different from one in the US while slavery in Russia slaves were better off than serfs until slavery was banned.  

Humans are mentally quite mutable, different societies can have completely different moral behaviours, ideas and such. An example of this is culture-bound syndromes, an interesting one is puppy pregnancy syndrome in which a man believes after being bitten by a dog he is now pregnant and will give birth to puppies and thus die. Also, warrior cultures are similarly alien and tend to have very different idea of manliness to what we have, here's a comic with some examples, the Spartans would also do each others hair before battle so they'd look nice after they died (warrior cultures share quite a few traits, vanity is one of them). Importing a traditional system without also changing people to be like traditional people is more or less pointless, it simply won't work.

The examples above are just snapshots of some differences, but most aspects of previous civilisations are similar in that they are different from ours. In Rome the priests and politicians were the same people (both were also elected), the Indian society that created the caste system is a very different one to today's India, in France there's was a Bishop who inherited a sword and armour with his position, quite a few monks and priests fought in medieval wars (they show up as casualties in battle), in eastern Europe there exists the last remnants of a third gender tradition. When either Jaws or Star wars (can't remember) was being shown in Japan, the producers thought they hated the movie because the audience was quite (in America that's not a good sign) but a local explained that it was a sign of respect and the audience liked the film. In Afghanistan there was an ambush of US troops and the local kids joined in, because they were bored and nothing much happens in Afghanistan villages that's exciting (why else would you have quail fights), here's an article on how westernisation, boredom and other things is affecting Somalia. If compared to other theoretical minds (actual aliens or AIs), humans have virtually no variation (e.g. we all feel joy, anger and pleasure), but we do have a large range of variables while our brains at least partly change according to the outside world.

Physical laws are invariant and inviolable; e.g. the laws of thermodynamics are always operating on everything and are never violated. Human ideas; laws, customs, thoughts, ideologies, practise, social constructs etc are not like that in any sense. One of the reasons current democracy works far better than previous incarnations is that it isn't the same as what the Greeks, Romans, Veniceans or anyone else had, which also means that the historical critiques of democracy (such as those of Thucydides) are discussing a different idea and system (some differences are minor, others significant). Physical laws are invariant and inviolable; e.g. the laws of thermodynamics are always operating on everything and are never violated. Human ideas; laws, customs, thoughts, ideologies, practise, social constructs etc are not like that in any sense. One of the reasons current democracy works far better than previous incarnations is that it isn't the same as what the Greeks, Romans, Veniceans or anyone else had, which also means that the historical critiques of democracy (such as those of Thucydides) are discussing a different idea and system (some differences are minor, others significant). Ethnicity and culture are exactly the same, at one point in time Italians weren't considered white, Italian immigrants weren't considered Australian and the idea of a (single) Italian ethnicity is also made up, my Grandmother wouldn't visit a specific supermarket because it had too much southern Italian goods, she was from the north. And in the Roman days there were lots of different ethnic groups (tribes) in Italy; Latin, Etruscan, Celts in the north, Samnites, Romans and a few others. England is the exact same, pretty much everywhere used to be incredibly diverse.

Food is another good marker. I live near Box hill, a fairly Asian area (mostly Chinese/Hong Kong or Korean) and a new fast food shop opened up that sells Korean specialities. Those specialities include twisted potato (quite nice) and a small container of fried chicken in a cup of coke-cola (the chicken is not covered in coke-cola). There's also a Hong Kong restaurant there which does a great steak with chips, while you can get any dish (Asian or not) with spaghetti. My Mom mentioned that when she was at a Chinese cooking class, the teacher told everyone not to use Chinese noodles because they were crap but instead use Spaghetti because it was better.

I'm using food here as a proxy, I could talk about other things that signify the same. I've meet Asian bogans for example, how common it is to see half Asian half White couples or the fact that I have a friend that if you speak to him over the internet he sounds like a big white bogan, but is actually a short guy who's ethnically Hong kongese. There is no perfect enforcer of human ideas and cultures, they generally aren't enforced at all. Most values have no objective counterpart in the world, ethnicity, democracy, justice, truth and so on do not exist outside human minds, and human minds are highly imperfect, flawed and filled with biases. 

It is actual impossible to import ancient cultural forms as they were, because the people who practised them and all their unspoken ideas/norms no longer exist.

Nukes are in many ways the best weapon, because you don't actually have to use them.

Physically using a nuke to create an explosion for purposes other than testing means that the relevant country has completely and utterly failed to use them properly (outside of some rare circumstances, such as those at the end of and just after WWII). In fact one way to improve a nuke is to not actually build one but convince everyone that you have, since that gets you an incredibly high return for minimal resource inputs. Of course there's the risk of being found out involved, but if you can't build a nuke, faking it is an (albiet highly risky) option.

Nukes operate entirely as diplomatic tools, threats that massively limit and constrain your opponents options (and your own in a lesser way). America is not going to be invaded by another country as long as it has nukes while India and Pakistan only bluster at each other with at most small black ops against each other (at least outside of Kashmir) because both sides nukes constrains the others. China and Japan (which has breakout capability) are exactly the same and Mad dictators don't change the equations. Mao (a mad dictator if there ever was one) when he didn't have nuclear weapons kept trying to get the Soviets to use them and allow Communism to rise from the ashes, but as soon as China got nukes that behaviour disappeared completely. The reason the cold war didn't have an all out war between the USSR and USA wasn't because of some complicated plot or fear of industrial war, but because a war would have involved nukes completely destroying both societies. Some of the population would have survived, but the government is gone and the instigators on both sides lose as nothing would have remained of either communism or western liberal democracy (which means the elites in charge are likely dead).

Anger can work in a similar fashion, though not nearly as well. The example I remember is a monkey gathering fruit. If it takes an hour to gather one fruit and you are a standard rational utility maximiser, then all I have to do is steal your fruit and hide it for 90 minutes. Since it will take less time to simply gather a new fruit than find it, that's what a rational utility maximiser does. But that equation changes if you are a being which gets angry and instead of doing the standard maximum utility choice decide to hunt me down and start stabbing. Something similar is at work in the ultimatum game, if your a utility maximiser and I know I won't be playing you again, I can simply offer 99-1 because your decision is either $1 or nothing. With a human, that doesn't work so well. On a large scale this makes human behaviour more rational than it can seem at first, but this isn't an entirely individual phenomenon. 

To work, the threat has to be believable, simply stating that "I will get angry and hunt you down if you steal my fruit" won't work if I have reason to believe it's just empty bluster. Nuclear tests are proof that a nation has a nuclear bomb, while anger is demonstrated often enough for it to be a credible threat. Evolution has a lot of solutions to basic game theory problems, like tit for tat.

And luckily for us nuclear weapons act near perfectly as deterrents while anger doesn't. It's also a large part of how the military in diplomacy works.

People are common failure points, not the methods and systems

 Medical research isn't the most rigorous, here's an article on it (first I found, there are probably better). In Predictably Irrational, the author mentions that one treatment for his full body burn was to special suit, which only made his problem worse as well as several cases of medical treatments being no better than placebo's. Drug research is similar, which honestly is not surprising given the complexity and abundance of biochemical pathways, and the massive amount of money involved doesn't help.

An example of a problem in social psychology, the Milgram experiment's data was horribly misused for, as I understand it, prestige and money. 

Somewhere in this blog is a great anecdote that I can't find about a guest lecturer talking about his experiments. My recollection of it; The guest lecturer is a surgeon who just completed a 1000 patient study to test the efficacy of a new treatment, as he's giving his speech a student asks a question and there's the following exchange;

"Did you use a control"

"You mean having half the patients not receiving the treatment"


(Shouting) "So I should have condemned half of them to die?"

"Which half?"

Here a sense of ethics and the desire to do something rather than nothing is getting in the way of properly testing the procedure. Since you have no idea whether the new technique will work, you need a comparision, which is what a control is, though having the standard treatment at the same time is also a good idea.

In this case it was ethics, as opposed to some baser motivation like money, that got in the way of proper science. A common case of science being misused for various human reasons is in how people assert intuitive notions, such as that violent video games and rape porn increasing cases of violence and rape. Now the reason for this is fairly obvious, our brains have a built in failure mode called confirmation bias that makes people ignore evidence and stick to their side. And the link can seem really obvious and intuitive, plus it fits with various moral systems, but the data doesn't fit.

At worst, violent video games (and movies) do nothing in respect to violence levels, here's study for violent movies and another for violent video games, there was a better example I saw years ago using FBI data that showed a marked decrease in youth violence as video games in general became common but this will have to do. And similar data exists for rape porn as well. Here it's basically politics and prejudiced views that are causing the problems. Note that you could easily reverse the above statements and the same point is made. As a New Scientist article once pointed out, social psychology answers look obvious in hindsight (the specific question was did rural or urban men adopt to WW2 more easily than the other, answer urban) and any stance can often be justified. 

As an aside, the obvious consequence of the above facts is that as peak oil lowers the availability of both porn and video games, if nothing is done to replace them then their societal benefits will disappear. I can think of a few possibilities; but frankly I don't know enough and the effects will be a drop of water in comparison to everything else. It's just one of those little things.

In none of these cases is the abstract idea of the scientific method at fault, but the humans who implement it and their conflicting motivations. Humans are far more commonly failure points than methods and technology. Chernobyl is as good example of that as needed, thought to be fair modern nuclear reactors are as close to foolproof as possible. Fukushima wasn't modern and the Japanese were repeatedly warned to update it, which again points to humans and conflicting motivations (money + political influence) as the failure point. To be clear, while I agree that most anti-nuclear proponents dramatically hype (to ridiculous extremes at times) the dangers of nuclear power, I still agree that nuclear power isn't that good an idea but for economic reasons. I could use other examples, but these are fairly clear, but the point is sometimes ignored in ideologies, people are imperfect and there needs to be mechanisms in place to deal with their mistakes.

In practical terms; this is the main reason I completely expect artificial societies (I think they are great idea) to be misused for ideologies in the near future. Basically instead of using any actual lessons from artificial societies, especially if they forget to add where the model breaks from reality, makes assumptions or simplifies things, will instead pimp their own special societal/political model. Especially since anything that large scale is going to be incredibly untrustworthy until far more basic models are commonplace and lessons drawn, like one in this article about corruption. Chances are the initial lessons are already going to be in use, but otherwise the idea seems sound.

It's also where a lot of social ideologies fail, not taking into account that humans are not perfect beings and will cheat, seize power, be corrupt or engage in other standard forms of moral failure. If a social system doesn't take this into account, it's not going to work and will fall prey to human behaviour. And a system doesn't just become good because it's written that it is, actual effort and mechanisms need to be in place to counteract these trends. If you want to create a non-hierarchical society, actual mechanism's need to be in place to stop hierarchies forming and energy needs to be expended as well, simply saying the society is non-hierarchical isn't anywhere near enough. And what also needs to be remembered is that formal and informal hierarchies can form, and the main difference is informal ones don't have as many checks on them.

The fault of communism is that it requires people to be something they aren't, so from the perspective of communism it's humans who failed.  However, since it's a system designed to be implemented in a human society and all plans to use it revolve around human societies, it's the flaw. And common human failings will pop up in any system, here's that concept but talking about cultishness (Every cause wants to be a cult), what matters is what the system does about it and at least mitigates the problems. To quote that article "It is sufficient that the adherents be human", there is no excuse for a social, mechanical, political system to not take at least a cursory look at how people will interact with it. And since its rather unlikely for us to be replaced by other sentients in the near future or begin drastic modifications, we don't have a choice but to accept this.