May 21, 2012 7 Comments
The track of yesterday’s annular eclipse crossed just north of here, and for the first time in my life I was in a place with guaranteed clear skies, so I went to the Grand Canyon to look at it.
Artificial Life in real life
April 16, 2012 37 Comments
I just wound up my cuckoo clock and it got me thinking.
A few weeks ago my friend’s 13 year-old son came to stay with me for a couple of weeks and he was quite interested in my cuckoo clock (a gift from his mother, as it happens). He’d never seen a mechanical clock before.
Partly I think he was intrigued by the roughness of it – the fact that it only kept good time if you fiddled around with the length of the pendulum and adjusted it for the changing seasons. It amused him that you had to wind it up twice a day and if you pulled gently on the weight it would run faster. It was neat, he thought, how good the 3D interface was – you could almost believe it really was a little wooden cuckoo that poked its head out of the door every half hour.
But it made me sad, because he could see that here was a device that did something purely because one bit pushed on another bit. It excited him in a nebulous, yearning sort of way, as if somehow he was getting a tantalizing glimpse into some Great Truth that had hitherto been denied him by the education system.
And in a way he was. He knew nothing about clockwork. How could he? How often does a child bump up against an escapement mechanism these days? How is he or she to discover the relationship between cogs and multiplication? It’s all gone.
Or rather it’s all still there but we can no longer see it.
I love our digital age. I love the fact that a television is now a computer that merely simulates a television. I love gesture-driven interfaces and I love CPUs that run at microwave frequencies. But then I was able to know how it all works. I can still see in my mind the clockwork principles from whence these miracles arise, even though I can no longer see the cogs.
As a young boy I took locks and clocks to pieces, because that’s what was available. I found out why they went wrong when I clumsily broke some part or another, and often when they’d gone wrong I could put them right again. Sometimes I could put them together in new ways to do new things.
In my teens I graduated to old TV sets and ex-military radio receivers. My dad built me a shortwave radio with an 80-foot aerial, a single valve (vacuum tube), and a 90-volt battery (yes, 90 volts!). I could see the glow of the heater and feel its warmth. Unlike clocks and watches, which oscillate a few times per second, this was dealing with oscillations in the thousands and millions of times per second but it was still concrete enough to be within my ken. I could still sense what it was doing and how it did it, because I could take what I knew about clocks and relate it to what was going on in this glowing glass bottle and its associated capacitors (which themselves were nothing but rolls of paper and foil). The reactance in its tank circuit was a pendulum in my mind; the rectifying diode was a ratchet.
But all this has gone. There are no governors, no escapements, no gear ratios. The closest most children can get to direct contact with mechanical principles these days is a bicycle. If they ever go outside. Technology has become magic again.
Is it any wonder so many people believe nonsense nowadays? Is it any wonder people can’t grasp the true age of the earth, don’t understand climate change, can’t fix their cars when they go wrong? We’ve taken away all the things that allow us to understand our world. It has all become abstract and hidden.
When I sit here typing things on my PC, my mind still knows what is really happening inside the machine in terms of bits bumping into other bits. It’s not a mystery. I’m in control of it; it’s not in control of me. But this is in large part because I used to be able to take clocks to pieces. This is because I used to ride on steam trains. This is because I’ve poisoned myself, electrocuted myself and shortened my life by playing around with forces of nature that are now secreted away in mute plastic packages, beyond reach.
My whole conceptual framework is founded on concepts that I can see in my mind’s eye because I’ve felt them with my own hands. Mechanics provided me with the keys to unlock the natural world. Ratchets and levers and coils and damping and thrashing and flows and regulators are the building blocks of my understanding of the entire world. Without those I would understand very little.
What chance has a child, these days? What chance even their parents?
As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But today that’s virtually ALL technology. What is it like to know how to use your X-Box but not have a clue what is going on inside it? You can take it apart, but what good does that do? You can stare at a CPLD or an MCU all you like, but nothing ever moves.
People cope. People live fruitful and interesting lives. But is it really any surprise that so many of us believe bizarre ideas? One arrangement of brass gizmos looks much like another if you don’t realize that one of them is an escapement – one of the greatest inventions of mankind. So why wouldn’t one “theory” of the creation of the earth look much like another? Who can separate creationist claptrap from the beautiful theory of evolution if they just look like different arrangements of arbitrary ideas? Who can understand that global warming sometimes means really cold winters if they have no underlying grasp of dynamics? It took until the 17th Century before William Harvey was able to elucidate the circulation of the blood in terms of pumps and pipes, but if nobody knows any more how a pump works, what use is this metaphor today?
I don’t know what we do about this. Perhaps I’m fretting about nothing – it’s perfectly normal for people, once they reach a certain frail age, to lament the loss of skills that their generation cherished. We still have brilliant young computer engineers, so someone’s getting a proper conceptual development somehow, even if they don’t get exposed to clockwork any more. But nevertheless, I think the lack of transparency in modern technology may have significant consequences for our conceptual development that we haven’t yet begun to unravel.
Time will tell, or at least it will if I remember to wind the clock.
February 4, 2012 12 Comments
One of the many things I adore about rock is the way it offers such a joyous sense of perspective. When I realize what a tiny blip in geological history I am, most of my troubles start to look pretty pathetic. After all, even the entire history of mankind will one day be reduced to a small brown stain in a few cliff faces. And yet, at the very same time, rocks make me feel wonderfully connected to everything that is and ever was, and I become acutely aware of the meaningful part I play in this huge and beautiful story. It’s quite paradoxical.
The other day I needed to go out for a walk to do some thinking about the brain, so I decided to stroll along the Lake Mary Fault, a few miles from my apartment. Lake Mary lies in a Graben – a block of the earth’s crust that has slumped downwards between two faults. The fault line itself is pretty dull to look at and yet, as my mother often used to reassure me, looks aren’t everything:
Actually, the other side of the lake – the Anderson Mesa fault – looks rather more dramatic, but the point is that Lake Mary is on a pretty big chunk of rock that’s slipped down between two cracks. For much of geological history, the land that is now Arizona was being squished together like a concertina by unbelievable tectonic forces. That’s why the rocks beneath my feet contain fossil sea shells when I’m actually 7,000 feet above sea level. Back in Permian times these rocks were forming on the sea bed, but since then the entire Colorado Plateau has been lifted up by at least a mile and a half, as the oceanic crust of what’s now the Pacific inexorably buried itself under the continent like a cat trying to hide under a rug. The majestic Rocky Mountains owe their existence to such squishing but, as it turned out, this was merely a petulant phase this part of the planet was going through. In more recent times, relatively speaking, the forces acting on Arizona have been in the opposite direction, pulling the state apart again like books slumping on a giant bookshelf after nature took away the bookends. The Lake Mary Graben is one of the smaller pieces of evidence for this stretching.
So anyway, I was merrily wandering along this fault-line and I suddenly remembered that local geologists are predicting a significant earthquake on this fault, sometime in the next decade or two. I whipped out my trusty iPhone and looked to see how much the fault is actually moving (there’s an app for everything these days). I admit I was kind of hoping the earthquake might happen that morning, since I was in the perfect place to watch it. The answer, though, much to my disappointment, was that the fault is currently slipping by no more than 0.2mm per year.
0.2mm? That’s not even as thick as my fingernail! Admittedly, if we are expecting a magnitude 6.9 earthquake soon then there must be a lot of pent-up energy waiting to be released, and in a photo below you can see some blistered rock along the Anderson Mesa fault that gives a hint of this tension. But 0.2mm is pathetic! It occurred to me that I’d have to wait five years just to see a single millimetre of movement.
Come to that, it means there’s only been a centimetre of slip in my entire lifetime. Less than the width of a fingertip.
Five hundred long years ago, back in 1512, when Martin Luther was receiving his doctorate and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was first being shown to the public, the lake was thus a mere ten centimetres higher than it is today. In order to get to a whole metre of slip – the distance from my outstretched fingertip to my nose, I’d have to go back, not five hundred but five thousand years, to when Stonehenge was being built and the Bronze Age was just getting underway. Multiplying by ten once more takes us back to a time long before the last glaciation, when the first people were just begininng to wander into North America from Siberia and a small asteroid the size of a parking lot was hurtling towards the planet, intent on creating Meteor Crater, which is not very far from Lake Mary. All of this happened just ten metres of fault movement ago; the height of a house.
Standing there on the shore of the lake, looking up to the top of Anderson Mesa, where I often go running, I suddenly felt rather small. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, the land I was currently standing on was all the way up THERE. Having huffed and puffed my way up that hill at this altitude I can tell you that it’s a great deal more than ten metres to the top, so we’re talking about many times greater than 50,000 years of movement.
Of course extrapolating from today’s 0.2mm per year any further than a metre is pretty silly. It’s like saying “if present trends continue, that tree will be ten miles tall by the end of the millennium.” Present trends rarely do actually continue, and that’s certainly true for earthquake faults. But just to keep the metaphor running, let’s multiply by ten yet another time. Now we have a hundred metres of hypothetical fault movement, which is about the distance the crust under Lake Mary has actually slumped since the earth around here first cracked. This takes us back half a million years into the past. At 0.2mm per year to create a hundred metres of movement this seems such a crazy long time ago, but half a million years is only yesterday in geological terms. In fact it used to be called the Recent Epoch. That’s like, last Tuesday!
Our increasingly absurd fault analogy will give us a kilometre of earth movement after five million years. That takes us to the beginning of the Pliocene. If we were to go back in a handy time machine, life wouldn’t look all that unusual. There would be Mastodons instead of elephants, but camels and armadillos looked pretty much the same then as they do today, and it wouldn’t be all that long before Australopithecines were wandering around Africa, tantalisingly leaving their bones behind to perplex future anthropologists. A kilometre of vertical movement along the fault isn’t actually possible at Lake Mary but it’s not at all unreasonable for faults in general. Many faults in Arizona have more than a kilometre of throw. Don’t forget that Lake Mary is itself two kilometres above the sea in which its bedrock originally formed and there was probably a good deal more rock above this point before it eroded.
Multiply by ten one more time and we reach back to fifty million years ago and a completely hypothetical ten kilometres of crustal movement – about the distance between here and the post office, traveling at a rate not much greater than the size of the period at the end of this sentence each year. Pause here for a moment and just think about that last sentence. Imagine someone setting out to post a letter and yet, a whole year later, their car has only moved by the width of a full stop. But after all these powers of ten we still haven’t even got back as far as the last possible moment in which to see dinosaurs (if you don’t count chickens).
It’s in the nature of powers of ten that they rise pretty rapidly, so including another power of ten actually skips most of the interesting stuff and lands us right in the middle of the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago. I was once lucky enough to stand on the famous Burgess Shale in British Columbia and hold in my hand some of the freaky alien animals that lived during this period but whose descendents never made it to our time. Of course, I couldn’t have stood near Lake Mary and done the same thing, since the rocks on which the lake now rests wouldn’t form for another 250,000,000 years.
One final power of ten and we get back to five billion years. Now we’re talking serious time. The earth didn’t even exist yet and nor did our sun. According to some scientists, we only have another five billion years left before the universe ends, so I guess I’d better stop with this fanciful analogy while I still have time. But my point is, a fault that slips one puny fifth of a millimetre per year really brought it home to me how astoundingly ancient this planet is. Some days I feel really old, but heck, my entire lifetime accounts for just a finger’s width of movement along the Lake Mary fault. And that’s considered “active.”
The general point I wanted to make is that standing on any old lump of rock, as long as you have some idea what you’re actually looking at, really puts life into perspective. In a way it makes me feel very, very, very small. The forces that shaped Lake Mary and raised the Permian sea bed over a mile into the air, and the fact that the fossil sea shells I picked up that morning last drew breath a quarter of a billion years before human beings were even thought of, puts me right in my place.
And yet I don’t feel at all bad about feeling small. Quite the opposite, in fact. Geology also makes me feel intimately connected with the earth and its great story. There’s an unbroken thread that connects me personally to every other living thing on earth today, and to everything that has ever lived on this planet. We are all related; all the same family. And I’m today’s representative of one fine strand of that beautiful unbroken thread. Rocks enable me to feel this. No man-made thing, no religion, could ever, ever do that.
A few days before my Lake Mary stroll, I’d been hiking on a mountainside among bright red rocks that formed in an ancient desert during the Triassic period. The Triassic actually contains a very boring collection of rocks, but for very interesting reasons. There aren’t many fossils in them, partly because all the continents on earth were joined into one giant supercontinent at the time, whose interior was a blistering hot desert, but more interestingly because the junction between the Permian and Triassic periods marks a truly massive extinction event, during which up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species were wiped out, never to be seen again. There aren’t many fossils in the Triassic because life on earth had been almost competely destroyed and it took millions of years for it to crawl back from the brink.
But in these Technicolor red rocks that I was hiking on, I came across some thin white bands. These turned out, on closer examination, to be evaporites from the bed of an ancient, dried up lake. And in the chunks of friable white rock I found some thin, tendril-like grooves and some tiny black dots. With a hand-lens I could see that the dots were the same thing as the tendrils, just seen in cross section as they disappeared into the rock. They were black because they still contained their original carbon. I was looking at tiny plant roots, a quarter of a billion years old.
I sat down on this ancient lake bed and held these frail remains in my hand. The owners of these tiny roots had once clung desperately to life on a hostile desert lake shore and maybe even had to contend with early dinosaurs trampling all over them and crushing their leaves (they had no flowers, since flowering plants hadn’t yet evolved). Perhaps the one I was holding had only lived a year. The local earthquake faults might only have shifted by a fingernail’s thickness before this vegetation succumbed to the summer heat and left its delicate root fibres behind in the salty, preservative mud for all eternity. But nevertheless we had shared this beautiful planet, this little plant and me. We were both lucky enough to have had our moment in the sun. It had its moment two and a half million centuries ago, and here was I, two extinctions later, in the same warm Arizona sunlight, having mine.
I held my delicate fellow earthling in my hand and we communed.
November 8, 2011 72 Comments
Today, the citizens of Mississippi are voting to decide whether a fertilized egg should legally be considered a person. The polls are apparently pretty evenly balanced.
I’ve heard all sorts of discussion on this topic, and on the rare occasions it manages to rise above the level of shouting and name calling, it seems to come to rest instead on the usual cop-out argument of any US political debate: the question of whether such a law is “constitutional” or not.
Huh? I’m sorry? What about the question of whether it makes any fucking sense or not?
I don’t think I’ve heard a single person discuss the biology of the issue. Not one. It’s like it doesn’t matter. I suppose I can understand that (in the sort of way that one might “understand” why a drunk falls into puddles) from the perspective of the Religious Right, for whom the question is presumably theological, not biological. I suppose they have some vague and unsubstantiated feeling that conception is the moment at which God inserts a soul into the cell, and hence from that moment on it’s as much a person as you and I.
But come on! Fertilization is just the moment at which a haploid sperm injects another 23 molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid into an egg cell, returning its complement to the normal 46 molecules so that it can resume dividing. The mechanism for this is really amazing, but it’s not magic. No souls are involved, just chemistry. Where is the “person” in 23 strands of polymer? Or indeed 46?
The sperm cells have half the normal DNA, but they developed from cells that had a full complement, just as a fertilized egg does. So does that mean the billions of spermatogonia in my testes are people too? Those born with Down Syndrome have an extra chromosome 21, does this make them superhuman? Or is it the truth of the matter that this is all just based on some ignorant, ancient belief that men “bestow life” on an egg, which women simply carry in their bellies while it grows up?
It’s not even reasonable to say that fertilization is the “moment at which a cell becomes committed to growing into a human.” Every point before that is equally precipitate: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t fertilize an egg until you have one, and the switch inside a stem cell that commits it to produce an egg cell rather than any other kind of cell is just as defining a moment. The vast majority of unfertilized egg cells never go on to produce babies, but then neither do the majority of fertilized ones. There’s really no defining point of being; it’s all just a gradual process of becoming.
Clearly an unfertilized egg is not a person, which is quite a relief, given that every woman of child-bearing age would thus be guilty of murder once a month. A sperm had better not be a person either, or I’m guilty of wiping out more people per day than all the wars in history put together. At the same time, an eighteen year-old clearly IS a person. Killing teenagers often seems pretty desirable but despite the temptation I imagine most of us would consider it wrong. So we have a process, at one end of which something is not a person while at the other end it is. If letting a sperm cell die is not murder but bumping off a teenager is, then how do we decide when and under what conditions we handle the legal, ethical and moral transition from the one state to the other?
This is an incredibly difficult question and we REALLY ought to be having a proper grown-up, thoughtful debate about it. But instead we’re treated to simplistic, hysterical dogma from both sides. It won’t be long before we know how to grow one of my cheek cells into another human being. Does that make my body a hundred trillion people? We already know that identical twins are two people borne from a single egg cell, so when is a fertilized egg cell one person and when is it two? How is Mississippi law proposing to untangle that one?
Only the ignorant would think that the moment of fertilization is the “point” at which a cell becomes a person, or even a sensible place to draw an otherwise arbitrary line. The quality of debate is shocking. Meanwhile, every day, EITHER people really are getting murdered in their thousands because women are having abortions at some specified stage of pregnancy OR women (not to mention their partners and perhaps the children themselves) are having their lives needlessly ruined by being prevented from having one. The problem isn’t going away and it isn’t going to get any simpler. We urgently need to find the right answers, but are we even asking the right questions?
What does it MEAN to murder someone? What does it mean to have the right to live? Did the skin cells I rubbed off my foot this morning when I put my socks on deserve a right to live? Perhaps “life” is the wrong question. Perhaps a group of living cells’ collective rights depend on whether they KNOW they’re alive? Perhaps they collectively have to be able to suffer, to have plans and hopes that get thwarted, before killing them becomes wrong. But what does it mean to know? What does it mean to suffer? What is consciousness? What is it like to be an embryo? A baby? A three year-old? An octogenarian with Alzheimers? What is it that murder takes away and from whom or what can it be taken? Is “killing” a three month-old embryo worse than killing a three year-old cow in order to make hamburgers? How do we know?
We really should have answers for this stuff by now. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, for heaven’s sake. But not only do we not know the answers, we barely even understand or take the trouble to think clearly about the questions. Meanwhile, people are walking into voting booths in Mississippi today (and doubtless in many other states in the near future, regardless of what happens in MS today), to make a judgement call that will or will not outlaw all forms of abortion, the morning after pill and many forms of contraception. On the basis of what? Religious dogma that can’t even call on scripture for meaningful comment? Gut feeling? Personal bias? Sympathy for babies? Sympathy for women? Misogyny? Guesswork?
Seriously, ON THE BASIS OF WHAT?
October 19, 2011 15 Comments
I love it when serendipity brings me the answer to a question that hasn’t even been asked yet. It happens to me all the time. Yesterday Vegard sent me a great video about our lack of intuition about exponential functions and how that relates to the energy crisis and the population explosion. Then this morning John asked me a question in connection with an apparently unrelated but deeply shocking thing I posted on Facebook about the Spanish Catholic church having stolen 300,000 newborn babies, telling the parents they had died and then selling them into adoption. Serendipitously, I think the former nicely illustrates part of the answer to John’s question, which was stimulated by the latter, so I decided to write a post on it.
I hope John doesn’t mind if I quote his (partially rhetorical) question in full, because it’s interesting:
I also bring attention to the recent London riots – the English government finding it necessary to offer free “parenting lessons…” What are the root causes of such going on? Why would the planet’s most intelligent inhabitants happily stray from time-honoured behaviour that is widely known and demonstrated to be “good and sensible”, building nations and bringing progress, safety and wealth? Why do humans derail themselves when they know better? From where come the flies in the ointment? I would be interested in YOUR take! best John
First some caveats: John is a conservative and I’m a liberal – we don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, most notably religion. But we argue fairly and earnestly (not to mention heatedly!) and we both try with honesty to get to the bottom of things. So it’s a bit unfair of me to stand up on my soapbox like this alone. If John violently disagrees with me and opts to comment then please look for that below. Fair’s fair.
The other thing is, my answer isn’t really an answer to John’s specific question, more an answer to why I think questions of this sort understandably seem to many people to be worth asking. Such questions lie at the very heart of conservatism. The crux of the whole conservative world view is, “why break with tradition?” To a conservative, the fabric of modern society is crumbling – the old, sure ways are being lost, and radical, revolutionary changes are wrecking everything. Conservatism is a counter-revolutionary philosophy. That may not be everyone’s conscious, deliberate view of what it’s all about, but nevertheless it’s fundamental to the psychology and philosophy of conservatism – hence the name.
And a lot of other very influential philosophies then hang from this one. The “old, sure ways” in question were once those of the monarchic, top-down, stratified society that existed before the French Revolution. That’s where the terms “left wing” and “right wing” originated and that’s the legacy of debate and division that fueled the development of the United States constitution. Today’s conservatism (and indeed liberalism, although from the opposite wing) inherits much of the ideology that stemmed from those revolutionary days, and as a consequence, conservatism isn’t just about conserving the old ways whatever they may be; it’s about conserving certain deeply held beliefs about what is right and good for society, especially the concept of hierarchy. It’s why conservatives tend to be religious (in an Old Testament sort of way); because they feel that we need a moral compass from on high. Conservatives believe in the need for the rule of law, including moral law, and see rebellion and “mob rule” as a breakdown of society. They also tend to see inequality as a necessary factor in society, for various and rather subtle reasons. Egalitarianism is the province of liberals, not conservatives, and what we see as fairness and compassion, conservatives tend to see as encouraging laziness, removing hard-working people’s right to a reward, and so on. The two sides look at the same things in radically different ways. These feelings we each have are deeply, deeply ingrained in our respective psyches.
I’ve written before about the possibility that this is something really innate to the human mind; that perhaps we inherited both the chimapanzee-like dominance hierarchy, and the bonobo lassez faire, make-love-not-war behaviours from our common ancestor. But John’s excellent question is not so much about “why this, not that?”; it’s more about “why now?”. And here’s my suggestion for part of the answer to that. I appreciate it’s not the whole answer by any means, but I think it’s relevant.
I think the assumption that is innate to conservatism – indeed essential to it – is that things worked okay in the past, so what’s all this nonsense about revolution? The conventional liberal response to that would be “it was never alright in the past; only alright for some.” But that’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that things are very often “alright in the past” and then cease to be alright, yet nothing has to change for that to happen.
This is where the excellent lecture that Vegard sent me comes in. I recommend you watch it, because it’s beautifully presented and interesting from its own perspective as regards resources and population, but it’s an hour long, so here’s the meat of it:
The lecturer is Albert Bartlett, and his central thesis is that we humans are really, really crap at understanding exponential growth. He says, for example, that we don’t bat an eyelid at the news that something is growing by 7% per year – 7% seems like nothing. And then we read in the papers that “crime has doubled in a decade” and we freak out. But 7% per year is the same thing as doubling in a decade!
7% per year doesn’t mean something grows by 7% of the original value every year, of course; it means it grows by that much of the previous value. If you plot the curve of such steady growth, you find that it climbs really gently for ages but then starts to accelerate until it suddenly skyrockets heavenward. Face one way and it’s basically flat; face the other and you’re looking at a brick wall. And yet it’s just steady growth. A town that had 1,000 inhabitants in 1900 and grows at 7% per annum will have 2,000 inhabitants by 1910, 4,000 by 1920 and so on. By the year 2010 the population will be over a million. By 2050 it would be 16 million.
Bartlett then goes on to give us the shocking bottom line: during each doubling time (each decade, for 7% per annum growth), the change in any single decade is larger than all of the decades up to that point added together. You can see how counterintuitive that makes things when you think about a situation like this: Suppose we’ve been using coal for 150 years, at a growth rate of 7%. By the year 2010 we find we’ve only used up half of all the coal that exists. Half the coal is gone after 150 years but the other half remains, so we’re doing okay, right? The rest probably won’t last another 150 years but we needn’t worry for ages yet, surely? Except it will all be gone by 2020! It took us 150 years to use up half of it, but only ten more to use up the other half. That just doesn’t feel right, and so we don’t notice, or don’t believe what the figures tell us. By the time it starts to dawn on us, it’s one minute to midnight and we’re screwed. Who would have thought that starting to worry about energy conservation when we still have half of our resources left is potentially too late for us to do anything about it? But it’s true. Even if we find out there’s twice as much coal under the ground as we thought, it makes damn all difference.
And this, I think, has something to do with John’s question. At two levels.
If we’re tracking up an exponential curve, then sticking to our “good old ways” really doesn’t seem like a problem. Until the curve starts to skyrocket. When we look backwards we see everything has continued pretty much as normal and stayed pretty stable, but when we look forwards we see an explosion just ahead of us. I can see how that looks frightening (as it should) and why it seems like things were going great but now they’re going wrong. Yet nothing actually has to alter for this to be the case; it’s just a natural consequence of steady change. I think society has now reached such a point on a number of axes at once. It’s not that the natural world order is being threatened by Bolshevic revolutionaries who want to screw up the happy times of the past, despite what people like Glen Beck believe. It’s that the “happy times of the past” have led, inexorably and inevitably, to a time where those practices and mores have ceased to work. Nay, caused a disaster. Nothing has to go wrong or be destabilized for that to happen – it’s just exponential growth.
But what, exactly, is growing? Well, as Professor Bartlett points out, population is a major factor in this. The ways we used to live worked just fine when the human population was low, but it has been growing steadily since forever, and it’s now one minute to midnight. Our population is skyrocketing and such a growth is completely and utterly unsustainable. It will not be sustained, whether we like it or not, and we’ve left it too late to put it right gently. The old ways simply cannot and will not work. Revolutions of many kinds – political, military, social and technological – are absolutely inevitable, and in very short order. We live in interesting times, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that the “good old days” are useless to us now. We can never recover them and we’re fools to try to hang onto them. Do the math.
But there’s also another sense in which conservatism versus liberalism hits up against exponential change, and that’s capitalism. Conservatives are pretty uniformly advocates of capitalism, especially the resistance to regulation. Liberals tend to have mixed views on capitalism in general, but tend to favor regulation as a means towards egalitarian ideals.
The thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t follow the central theory of economics, as elucidated in the steady growth days of the early twentieth century. Back in those days, when the curves were still fairly flat, it was hard to distinguish between two contradictory models for how economic systems work, and we picked the wrong one.
A fundamental assumption in many economic models is that of the law of decreasing returns. Things tend to balance themselves out. Negative feedback rules. If you own a mine and do really well at first, you’ll eventually mine out the lode and profits will start to fall again as extraction becomes more difficult and expensive. Decreasing returns. If people don’t like your product or your corporate practices, or workers don’t like their work environment, the customers will fade away and finding workers will get harder. Or so it was claimed.
But that was pretty naive, because the universe is stuffed full of both negative AND positive feedback. Indeed the universe IS the effects of combining negative and positive feedback (but that’s a long story!). Positive feedback follows the law of increasing returns: To he that hath is given more. And the law of increasing returns is fundamental to capitalism, whether we like it or not.
Back in the days when people went west in search of gold, diminishing returns tended to hold sway. You’d stake your claim, work hard, extract your glinting reward and feel good. But gradually the cost and effort of extraction would make that reward smaller and smaller, and eventually the claim would be worked out. Those who didn’t see that coming often ended up destitute. But although that seems like negative feedback – a resistance to change that brings things back towards the status quo – it’s actually positive feedback. And like all positive feedback loops, there’s a null point. If you remain below the null point, all the forces pull you down and down. If you don’t have enough gold to make ends meet, you can’t hire labor or buy decent tools and your ability to capitalize on your claim falters and fades. But you just have to be lucky enough to get over the hump; over the null point; to find things change very rapidly in the other direction. If your gold seam is just good enough, you can make a profit and invest that profit in workers to do the digging. And then maybe buy a second mine, which, if you’re still lucky, doubles your profits. So then you can buy a fourth, and an eighth, and a sixteenth…
The people who get rich in an unrestrained capitalist system need skill and hard work as well as luck, but the reward is not proportionate to skill or effort. A billionaire is not a million times more industrious than someone whose entire assets run to a thousand dollars. It’s simply that the billionaire managed to cross to the positive side of the null point, while the pauper didn’t make it. In such a system, all other factors being equal, two people who start out almost but not quite identically, can experience radically different outcomes. Capitalism, due to positive feedback, is a watershed. If I stand on a hill a few miles from here and pee towards the west, it’ll end up in the Pacific; if I pee to the right, it’ll end up in the Atlantic. Massive change from tiny differences.
Unrestrained capitalism is inherently like this. Those that hath, get given more, while those that hath not, lose everything. There’s actually a well of negative feedback in the middle of the curve, which keeps many of us relatively stable and stuck in the middle, but that’s getting too complex for this post. The thing is, everyone is entitled to a reward for their hard work and diligence, but because of positive feedback both the reward and the punishment tend to be way out of proportion. In fact it’s very, very easy, due to nothing more than random noise, for someone who’s more industrious and skilled, especially if they also happen to have scruples, decency and compassion for their fellows, to end up in the gutter through no fault of their own, while people who hardly deserve it go on to garner enormous wealth.
Without negative feedback, for instance in the form of a welfare safety net at the lower end and progressive taxation to damp out spiralling wealth at the higher end, such an explosion of inequity is ABSOLUTELY inevitable. But it won’t seem like a problem at first. Not even for a long time. The curve rises only gently for most of its history. But one day it will start to take off and skyrocket, and we passed that day some time ago. When over a third of the wealth belongs to only 1% of the population, and the bottom 40% of the people have to make do with less than 1% of the total wealth spread between them, we know we’ve stepped over the edge. At that point – the point we have reached now – massive change to the fundamental fabric is inevitable, because the present rate of change from “business as usual” is unsustainable.
Much the same is true when it comes to raping the earth of its resources. Capitalism is a system of increasing returns, but those increasing returns come at an increasing cost. The more successful a company becomes or the more successful an economy becomes, the faster it extracts resources. Yes, diminishing returns will set in eventually, when all the resources have gone or become too diffuse to extract. But the “to him that hath is given more” property of unregulated commerce ensures that this rate of change takes us by surprise. We might think we were doing great with the “old ways” up to now and with a bit of diligence we still have a long way to go, but in reality it’s one minute to midnight. Watch Albert Bartlett’s lecture to see how giant corporations (via naive journalists and crooked politicians) contrived to capitalize on their success by lobbying and marketing the idea that we have more than enough coal and oil to last us hundreds of years. And then remember that we only believe such things because we’re so easily fooled by exponential growth. 150 years to use up half the coal; 10 years to use up the other half…
So it seems to me that “the good old ways” that conservatives wish we could hang on to or return to are what created the coming revolution. It’s inevitable that looking backwards gives us the view that we were comfortable and doing just fine, while looking forwards fills us with fear. It’s a natural consequence of our human inability to understand exponential change. But when you add to this the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating, in large part because of the positive feedback and spiralling of inequity inherent in the very worldview that seems to those of a reactionary bent to have worked so well for us up to now, then an explosion is not just inevitable but imminent.
How that explosion plays out is an unknown, but the reasons behind it are pretty clear. The kids occupying Wall Street and other cities seem to be pissed off about any number of different things and it’s easy to say they’re unfocused and just into rebellion and demonstrations for the hell of it. But it doesn’t really matter what they actually say; it doesn’t even help to feel smug if they lose their current admirable level of cool and end up being violent; the truth is, their existence was inevitable and the underlying reasons for their disenchantment with the good old days were an event just waiting to happen. It’s written in the curve. Disenchanted people do bad things sometimes, and revolutions do fracture society. But at the same time, there never was a golden age, and the “tried and trusted” ways of the past are at least in need of rethinking from the ground up. The rule of law can only go so far, so I hope people don’t rely on it for so long that it needs to hold back a tidal wave.
And the old ways caused this, albeit unintentionally; they cannot possibly be the solution to it. We have to have change in the fabric of society, and we can either opt for managed change or we can wait until one second to midnight and suffer the consequences (if that time has not already passed). It’s not only wrong that so much wealth is locked up in so few coffers while the number of poor and suffering is increasing exponentially; it’s totally unsustainable.
My thanks to John and Vegard for the stimulation!
October 5, 2011 16 Comments
Just an idle thought:
I’m watching Wall Street being occupied, and became fascinated by the degree to which the Media and assorted right-wing morons are glibly disparaging the Wall Street protestors for “not having any coherent demands.” That in itself is just pathetic, since we all know what their demands are and why they’re not something that can be written on a bumper sticker.
But it made me think: What a powerful and terrifying prospect that could be, if you genuinely have something to feel guilty about: For people to gather in numbers, look you in the face and then not tell you what their demands are.
Imagine a bunch of people walked up your driveway today and just stood there, staring at you impassively through the window. Imagine they kept doing that, day and night, without a word. Every time you walk into a room, there’s someone with their face pressed up against the glass, looking at you and giving nothing away. How long would it be before you started searching your conscience? Frankly, I’d probably be offering them all my money and admitting to crimes I’d never even committed within minutes! But if I HAD committed crimes, or even willingly gone to work and done a mundane job in the financial sector, knowing that there was a little uneasiness in my gut about the ethics of it but not being willing enough to rock the boat or suffer the consequences of resigning, then I think I’d probably be quaking in my shoes. Before long I’d be suggesting my OWN concessions to make them go away. And who better to figure out how to put the mess right?
Of course the major flaw with this kind of reasoning is that I do actually have a conscience, and a sense of empathy, and most of the people responsible for the current scandal in America and around the Western world don’t. It’s their most characteristic feature by far. Maybe if you are completely clueless (or simply don’t give a s**t) about what is going on inside other people’s minds and how they feel, then being faced with thousands of impassive faces, looking at you accusingly and making no demands of you whatsoever, would merely cause you to shrug and say “why should I care?” before going about your business. Unfortunately, such a psychopathic mindset is the primary qualification for being the sort of person who is causing all the trouble, whether on the inside of Wall Street’s towers or on the outside cheering it on. But if there’s even a glimmer of empathy inside the brains of these people then staring blankly at them and waiting for THEM to do something is probably a damned good way to unnerve them, I’d have thought.
Incidentally, a few years ago I bizarrely found myself lying on my front lawn, head to head with a journalist called Jon Ronson. We were lying head to head for a magazine photo and shortly after that he made me climb a tree, but I’ve really no idea why a journalist like Jon in particular would be sent to interview an artifical intelligence researcher. Unless it was to uncover what a bunch of kooks we all are. Anyway, a while back I was driving through the Arizona desert listening to NPR and a voice came on that I recognized. It was Jon, talking about a book he’d written about psychopaths. After our encounter on the lawn, I was glad to note that I wasn’t in it. But if you’re looking for some light but insightful reading about a kind of mind that (being a reader of my blog) you are most unlikely to own yourself but may be uncomfortably aware that you share a planet with, then I thoroughly recommend it. It’s called The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry.
P.S. How ironic that Steve Jobs died today. This is an iPhone-fuelled revolution, for sure.