A Potpourri of Pedantry
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This week I thought that rather than spending the entire space on one subject that I’d cover a bunch of smaller subjects I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m going to be all over the place, but hopefully within my ramblings you’ll find something interesting, frightening or appalling.
Subject 1- Electromagnetic Pulses (EMP)
Last month The Economist did a “The World If” section where they predict what the world would look like if various things happened. They had an article which examined the US if Trump were to win a second term. Another one which speculated about the effects of widespread blockchain adoption, and yet another one which imagined the Middle East if the Ottoman Empire had not collapsed. But the one I want to talk about describes the potential effects of a sufficiently strong electromagnetic pulse on the power grid of the United States. The EMP in question could come either from the Sun in the form of coronal mass ejection or from a nuclear weapon exploded high (44 miles or so) above the country. Whichever way the EMP comes it would be devastating to any electronics, including *cue ominous music* the power grid.
I was aware of the potential devastation which could be caused by a strong electromagnetic pulse, but the article provided some very interesting specifics I hadn’t encountered before. I knew an EMP would blow out transformers, I did not know that:
America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world. It typically takes a year or more to receive an ordered transformer, and that is when cranes work and lorries and locomotives can be fuelled up. Some transformers exceed 400 tonnes.
As you can probably infer from those statistics, an EMP which knocked out some significant portion of our transformers would knock out electricity across the US for a very long time. This isn’t a disaster where a month later everything’s back to normal, this is a disaster where, “Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge.” At which point “roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.”
Their description of those six months is pretty chilling (I had never thought about the people who would end up trapped in the elevators of skyscrapers) and I recommend you read the initial article, which goes on to talk about threats to the power grid beyond just EMPs. Another thing I learned was that:
Shooting up transformers at just nine critical substations could bring down America’s grid for months, according to an analysis performed in 2013 by the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
I understand that nine is more than one, so we don’t literally have a single point of failure, but the number is still much smaller than I would have expected. The article goes on to mention that the location of these substations is secret, which is something I suppose, but it’s hardly makes up for the underlying fragility of the system as a whole, which is just waiting for a shock to break it. A shock that could come any day now and which, the article makes clear, we are woefully unprepared for.
Subject 2- An example of the difference between fragility and volatility
As long as we’re on the subject of modernity and fragility, I was reading Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky (who’s appeared a lot in this space recently), when I came across the following assertion:
When dams and levees are built they reduce the frequency of floods, and thus apparently create a false sense of security, leading to reduced precautions. While building dams decreases the frequency of floods, damage per flood is afterward so much greater that average yearly damage increases.
This is a fantastic example of the difference between volatility and fragility and of the great weakness of the modern world. We have the technology to create great big barriers against risk, whether it’s building a dam, or bailing out banks, or the barrier to aggression provided by nuclear weapons. All of this reduces the volatility, and we go from having floods every 10-20 years to having no floods, at least within living memory. But, that’s all based on the dam or the government, or the nuclear deterrent never failing. If it does then the flood or the financial crisis or the war is many, many times worse, leading, as he said, to greater total damage, even if we average it across all the years.
The problem, as the book went on to say, is that rather than extrapolating the possibility of large hazards from our memory of small hazards:
Instead, past experience of small hazards seems to set a perceived upper bound on risk. A society well-protected against minor hazards takes no action against major risks, building on flood plains once the regular minor floods are eliminated. A society subject to regular minor hazards treats those minor hazards as an upper bound on the size of the risks...
Technology creates fragility. Without a power grid and reliance on electricity an EMP doesn’t inflict any damage, let alone the deaths of seven million people. In the same way, without dams you can’t have a gigantic, completely unprecedented flood, nor do people decide to build on floodplains, and when catastrophe does come I think we’ll find that a lot of the modern world is built on just such a metaphorical floodplain.
Subject 3- Overcomplicated
Recently the author of Overcomplicated, Samuel Arbesman, contacted me and said I might like his book. It did sound like something that would be interesting, and it was available as an audiobook. Which makes any given book significantly easier to “read”, so I picked it up.
I confess it was not as pessimistic as I would have liked, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the rest of you. I assume I’m on the tail end of the pessimism distribution and most people would actually prefer a little less pessimism. Despite this lack of pessimism, he did talk about some very interesting concepts.
One of the concepts Arbesman talks about is the idea that we have passed from the Enlightenment to the Entanglement. This idea was originally proposed by computer scientist, Danny Hillis. And has the distinction, which it shares with most great labels, of immediately suggesting most of the implications through the word itself, without having to know anything about the specifics. In other words, upon hearing the term you grasp the obviousness of the description at once.
But what are the specifics of The Entanglement? To begin with it contains something of a paradox. The more interconnected things get, the more specialized knowledge becomes. This is easy to see in computers where one 100,000 person company makes just the cpu and another 10,000 person company makes just the graphics cards, and another 60,000 person company puts it all together. But you can also see it in corporations, where the legal department may know very little about how to make widgets, but a lot about how to trademark them, and the financial department doesn’t care about making widgets or trademarking them, but is very aware of the tax implications having a Panamanian widget factory. In theory the CEO might know a little bit about everything, but I’m sure even then there will be large blank spots (probably centered in the IT Department).
Another trend specific to the entanglement is the need, as Arbesman points out, to move from physics thinking and biological thinking. Physics thinking is straightforward and reductionist. A certain force applied to a given mass, creates a very well defined acceleration. Biology is more messy, more entangled, and much harder to understand. Because of these difficulties people prefer the physics model. They want to assume that money will cure poverty, that increasing the amount of serotonin will cure depression and that a given input into a computer should always produce the same output. But when it comes to biological systems that’s not the case, and Arbesman makes the case that increasingly the biological model of technology is a better fit than the physics model.
On this point I couldn’t agree more, and my big disappointment was that despite mentioning fragility on many occasions he didn’t ever mention Taleb and his work in that area. Also as I mentioned I don’t think he was nearly pessimistic enough about the problems that will arise from the Entanglement, especially those stemming from the increasing narrowness of our understanding.
Subject 4- The Indo Europeans
Speaking of books I’ve been reading, I’ve also been making my way through In Search of the Indo-Europeans by J.P. Mallory. I don’t think I’d recommend it, it’s very dry and obviously geared towards an academic audience, but the underlying subject is fascinating. Enough so that I’m sure that it could be the basis of an entire post.
I decided against this, mostly because of my vague feeling that I was already wandering into one of those areas where there’s a lot of baggage. There was a sense that if I turned over too many rocks I’d end up in a discussion of Aryans and Nazis and the Master Race, which is something I’d like to avoid. But, there are many interesting bits before falling into that pit, and here, in no particular order, are a few things I thought were worth chewing on:
The book was primarily concerned with locating the home-land of the original Indo-Europeans (called Proto-Indo-Europeans in the book). Mallory’s best guess is the Pontic-Caspian region. Which is the steppe area lying to the north of the Black and Caspian Seas. I say his best guess, but there is obviously a whole group of scholars who support this hypothesis (and, presumably, a whole group who don’t).
There’s ample evidence that this was also the area where horses were first domesticated. And while the book doesn’t go into it all that much, this is very probably why the Indo-Europeans were the Indo-Europeans, and not some nameless tribe forgotten by history, not even to be remembered by archeologists.
If domesticating the horse represented the technological edge of the Indo-Europeans what did they do with those horses? To me the answer of, “conquering everything in sight” (think Huns and Mongols) seems obvious, but some people assume something less bloody. And to be fair the time frame of the expansion does spread across thousands of years.
Of course, when you’re talking about something which largely happened before recorded history, there’s very little you can say that isn’t speculative to one degree or another. But from my perspective it seems safe to say that there was some large empire. Which in, I’m sure, lots of different forms, by 2000 BC dominated the middle of Eurasia in a strip from the western border of Germany to the eastern border of Kazakhstan. Was this one empire or had it already broken into several? It’s hard to say, but either way it’s domination was so total that all original languages were lost.
By 500 BC it was obviously not a single empire, but by that point the Indo-Europeans had spread all the way from India to Ireland. The speakers of the language continued to spread until today outside of the Far East and Arabic speaking countries, essentially everyone has, as one of their official languages one language of Indo-European descent.
You can see where the next obvious question would be what makes this culture and people so unique, before you know it you’re at the edge of the pit staring down at the theory of a master race...
Subject 5- A Plethora of Hate
I guess as long as I’m alluding to the subject of Nazis, it might be time to talk about current events. I actually intend to write a longer post on this subject later, but for now I wanted to draw your attention to an insight John Michael Greer had recently, in a post called Hate is the New Sex.
If, like me, you were confused by the title, Greer’s post is making a comparison between
...the attitude, prevalent in the English-speaking world from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that sex was the root of all evil.
And the current, ubiquitous, belief that hate is the root of all evil. I hope, that this belief, and its omnipresence is obvious enough to not require me to offer any further proof. But if I do, reflect on the following points Greer makes in his post:
If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.
Greer goes on to clarify (as do I) that this does not mean that he is saying that hate is good. Hopefully we’re all wise enough to recognize that there is plenty of territory available between condemning something as absolutely bad and praising it as absolutely good.
Rather, his key point, as he lays out in the title, is to draw a comparison between the fight against immorality a century or so ago and the fight against hate now. While this comparison isn’t perfect, it at least makes some interesting predictions.
His first prediction is that there will be an enormous amount of hypocrisy and evasion, particularly along class lines. During the VIctorian Era, for example, the upper class didn’t eliminate all sex, they just railed against the kind of sex the lower classes were engaged in. And today when the two sides line up across from each other you don’t see one side that has banished all hate, while the other is full of hate, you see two sides, both full of hate, with different definitions of which sort of hate is acceptable.
Second, he predicts that “hate” will become more appealing as it becomes more taboo, and that just as the sexual revolution followed the prudery of the early 20th century, we should consider the possibility that something resembling a hate revolution will follow the current crackdown.
I have seen many people mention the hypocrisy, but I don’t see many people talking about hate becoming increasingly appealing as it becomes increasingly taboo, but I think if you look closely you’ll see that this is exactly what’s taking place.
For my own part I think I have two things to add to the discussion. First, one thing, that Greer doesn’t cover (though I doubt he disagrees with it) is the increased speed at which everything happens now vs. 100 years ago. Which is to say if hate does take a similar arc to sex I don’t think it’s going to take 100 years to play out, which means, if there is a “hate revolution” it may happen a lot sooner than we would like.
My other addition to the discussion is to examine the role of Christianity in this process. Even if someone knows nothing else about Jesus, they’ll be able to tell you that he was strongly opposed to hate in all it’s forms. I’m sure this isn’t far from the mark, but it’s interesting that when you actually look at the Gospels that by my, admittedly quick, calculations at least half of the references to hate are in reference to being hated as a sign that you’re his disciple. Something to think about...
Subject 6- Checking in on Fermi’s Paradox
I keep a pretty close eye on whatever is currently being said about the paradox (Google Alerts if you must know.) And every few months another explanation for the paradox will make the rounds.
The latest one stems from the assumption, which many people share, that eventually life will go “post-biological” as they say. Or to put it another way that eventually robots and AIs will inherit the earth. Since computers run better when it’s cold, the explanation for the paradox is that we haven’t encountered aliens because they’re aestivating. Aestivating is the inverse of hibernation, instead of going dormant while it’s cold you go dormant while it’s hot. And these aliens have gone dormant waiting for the universe to get colder, because then they’ll work better.
This isn’t the worst explanation I’ve heard for the paradox, but neither do I find it to be especially compelling. That said, it does have the benefit of being a genuinely new idea. Unlike the idea that advanced civilizations may destroy themselves, which also made the rounds again recently. An idea which has been around since the lunch table where Fermi first made his famous utterance and probably long before then.
One problem I see with the aestivation hypothesis (and I haven’t read the paper, I don’t think it’s available for free) is that every civilization is going to be under evolutionary pressure from other civilizations and in this case the artificial civilizations are competing with biological civilizations, who like the heat. So either they have to be positive that all biological civilizations are going to evolve into artificial civilizations AND be friendly. Or they should be wiping out those biological civilizations before they get too advanced. The last thing they want is a biological civilization to out compete them while they’re dormant.
In other words this explanation appears to ignore the Dark Forest hypothesis, that the universe is red in tooth and claw. Under the aestivation hypothesis not only would the game have to be non-violent, but it would have to, additionally, allow you to sit on the sidelines, not actually playing and still suffer no ill effect.
In the final analysis I think a lot of proposed explanations are like this. They address one part of the paradox, and in the process they resolve that part, but end up completely neglecting all of the other factors involved in the paradox.
That looks like all I have space for. Let me know if you enjoy this format, and if so, I’ll do it more often. Also I apologize for missing last week, I went on a long road trip and I expected to have time to write on the drive, but, that ended up being way too optimistic.
It’s not many people who can cover such a broad array of topics. And even fewer who can be wrong about all of them. If you appreciate that sort of blind confidence consider donating.