Kaigun: Steampunk Chapter 7

Making Steam

Andrei Michal found Sergei's dried up little corpse rolled in blankets, only a little mouse-eaten. He looked satisfied, as though he'd died on a full stomach with all the kids married and next year's barley crop safely in the ground. Andrei hoped it was true, but he doubted it.  He couldn't spent too much time worrying about that though, because of the wonderful machine!  After running back, shouting to wake everyone up and tell them about the body, and the museum, and the things he'd seen, he had mostly been shushed. They dragged out the old curator ("because nobody wants to sleep with a dead man") and mostly went back to sleep. One of the girls, Anjin, seemed a little bit interested in all the little books and the shiny control panels, and Dmitri was roused enough to at least look around, though he found the aircraft more interesting.

Not Andrei. He knew what he was looking at was just right, just modern enough to be potent, just archaic enough to be operable in the current sorry state of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Those fancy fighter jets would never fly again, never even find the exotic fuel for their finicky bellies, or a pilot with training to know which button to push but this thing, this "Sovietski Kaigun," this was obvious in the same way a blunt instrument advertised it's purpose. A rolling fire-powered monster intended to fight old wars against moldering foes no longer ominous, it could be run by a starving band of villagers, he knew it.

"And this," thought Andrei Michal, patting the 14 foot long steam rifle, "this is obvious too. It is a chicken gun."

Andrei curled up not so far from where he'd found the old curator, and fell asleep alternately wondering how to awaken the somnolent Kaigun, and imagining the stupendous pot of soup he would make afterwards. Where would they get enough onions?

The next day, there was some interest, peaking after Dmitri happened across the wine cache, and tapering rapidly thereafter as people, despite the best intent to ration, drank rather more than they should  on empty bellies, and after so many weeks without any liquor to stay in practice.  Still, Russian peasants (and they now thought of themselves as that, though only privately) are nothing if not good drinkers, and by late afternoon, an earnest if raucous committee deigned to stand around the Kaigun, poking at levers, smearing the protective red grease, and thumbing the manuals.  Everyone considered the monster, a museum piece after all, to be surely disabled, and if by imperceptible means, well, it was plainly complicated enough to have had a key valve removed, concrete poured in some essential plumbing, or a critical cotter pin pulled, even if nonesuch could be found by a band of mere vagabonds.

Then Anjin found the precise accountant's inventory of projectiles, and it's obvious discrepancy,  and then tiny scratches around the otherwise factory-perfect muzzle of the starboard rifle, itself elevated a couple of degrees out of it's caging mechanism, and someone noticed the Kaigun was aimed bodily at two wide rolling hangar doors, padlocked and rusting now. Every attitude changed.

Outside, beyond the doors, across a road and a dilapidated park was an ancient sculpture, Soviet in style, abstract and curved, welded steel evoking the flag's hammer and sickle.  ...with a two foot hole blown through the sickle's decimeter blade as though by some monstrous torch. Nothing much could be found of the supposed "bolt" but standing in the notch of a collapsed cinderblock wall another 20 meters beyond the sculpture, one could look back, through the melted hole and watch the hangar door rolling slowly open (the locks having been opened with keys from the curator's breast pocket) and unveiling the rifle's maw as it did.

Now, people were interested, galvanized.  Plans were laid, Andrei congratulated, more wine drunk, vengeance plotted, threats trumpeted into the sunset, Andrei carried around the museum in triumph, dancing, even and yet more drinking and then sleep with headaches sure to follow.

Cosmology & Einstein

First, here's the link to my first post, talking about time vs speed of light. THE Horizon.
Next, here are some neat facts.
 Here's the spreadsheet of cool facts from Brian Cox's lecture right before they found Higgs. That lecture had in it the following.  First, everything's either the standard model or relativity and we can't tie them together yet. Then a divergence into the universe, introducing  the Hubble constant, which is 1/13.4billion yrs, so that's roughly when everything was simultaneously here, i.e. the age of the universe. It's derived from known brightness of some supernovae. (distance) and red shifts (velocity) of everything we see.  Assuming the redshift of the CMB is on that line, it's 13.4 billion years old.  BTW, CMB is uwave frequency now, was literally red at first.  After H0, Cox talked about particles. up,down, neutrino, electron being all you need. Two more columns of heavier versions, then photon & other force carriers.  Nothing for gravity. Higgs field posited, the particle being very heavy & thus requiring high energy to make.  After the switch to gravity & Einstein, he noted the light clock & Lorentz contraction as a consequence.

Well, that's just a lot of notes from the show.  Then I started reading about relativity a bit, simultaneity & constancy of c.  The first question is, what about a light-speed game of ping-pong, where the table is aligned with the velocity?  The metaphor's imperfect (air hockey would be better) because there's no hypotenuse here. Instead just imagine the balls going straight back and forth. In the light clock meanwhile, photons go up and down between mirrors, perpendicular to v,"tick, tock."  Onboard a speeding train, let's say the clock (tic,toc) and the game (ping pong) are perfectly synchronized, one second travel each way for both the pendulum and pingpong ball. That's my view aboard the train.  What about to you, standing by the tracks?

I've got 3 things to discuss and quite difficult without pictures but here goes...

First, the standard light clock explanation. To you, the clock photons travel a diagonal, the hypotenuse of a triangle. (For ease of computation, say v =c/2 and a light-second's worth of distance is d, henceforward.) That lets you calculate, based on the root(5)* distance traveled after a tick and a tock, "the clocks on that train must be running slow if they think that's a second!"  From the ratio of sqrt(5) to 2 you calculate the ratio of time slowing aboard the train.
{*This last is wrong, t' = t/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2), says many sources. I didn't immediately see my error, but it calculates to 15%, not 12% so I'll use that below. Update: wikipedia clarifies the answer, which is that the base leg is shortened because it's t', the quicker-ticking observer's clock from which frame we make this measurement, while the beat that determines the distance traveled is at the slower moving clock rate. Anyway, it complicates the algebra slightly.}

Second, the train has to shrink. That's because the pingpong and the clock are synchronized. The forward travelling pingpong ball also takes 1 sec (onboard time) and being synchronized, 1.15sec,  observer time to cross the table one way, from "ping" to "pong" so to speak. Unlike the pendulum, those ping-pong photons will not travel the whole hypotenuse so to stay synchronized with the "tic-toc" of the clock the vehicle must stretch or shrink along the velocity direction so that the pingpong ball hits the paddle just at the "tock."  With v = c/2 the numbers work out nicely. In a second's time, the ball travels the distance of the table, but the train has meanwhile moved half a second ahead.  It will take two seconds for a photon to hit the second paddle, one to cross the table, and one more to catch up to the train. Only, it will actually be 2x 1.15sec since we're working in observer time where I've already noted the train clock is running ~15% slow. Whoops, a paradox! ...it can't take that long because it's got to stay synchronized with the clock! It's got to get there in just one (dilated) second. This is why Einstein (or Lorentz) said the train has to shrink.  From the observer's perspective, we calculate the unknown distance from known time and speeds, yielding that the length of the squished table  d(squished) = (c-v)*1.118 which tells us the train has to shrink to just 18% more than half it's "real" (at-rest) length. Ok, fine.  Mind bending, but I get it.

Now my third observation stumped me: it seems sure the return of the ping-pong ball back across the table will happen in an instant, since the train, and the "ping" paddle aboard it, is rushing forward to meet it. Remember the essence of this experiment is that the balls (being photons) travel at c w.r.t. all observers. Now the observer sees relative velocity between ball and paddle of 3c/2, and distance ~d/2, so elapsed t will be ~d/3c, or just 1/3 sec! (approximation 'cause I'm temporarily leaving out the 15% time dilation for easier calculating)  How's that gonna synchronize with the tick-tock? Last night talking with Miles I convinced myself it was a consequence of the time when I make the observations, which time is itself obviously subject to lightspeed delays.  Now, I'm just confused again. However, check this out:

In the second it takes from ping to pong, the train moves half a light second (d/2) down the tracks and so it will take an extra half second for the "pong" to reach us. Along the way, the second "ping" is added because after all the report of pong is a photon and the ball is just as fast, so "ppionngg" will arrive all at once. Since I know the train's moving I expect each successive second's data to arrive an extra half second late. All together I hear ppionngg every 2.3 seconds, one sec for travel time of the ball, + one second's further train "entfernung" (distancing itself from me); so I guess it does all work out.

Last Thursday! ...and Other Abbreviations

This is just a place to collect cool abbreviations for arguments & whatnot. In cases where I've left out a reference it usually means I was just too lazy to add the link to wikipedia.

WAP, SAP The weak and strong anthropic principle, basically the universe has to be pretty special to have been friendly to human life. Strong version includes the mass of the universe, strength of gravity, all the other natural constants that make the universe "just so." There's Douglas Adams' beautiful comeback of the living puddle that wonderingly remarks how the universe fits it perfecty, "in fact it fits me staggeringly well."  (Then the sun comes out and the puddle's custom designed universe inexplicably erases it's very reason for being: how could that BE?!)  Neil Tyson answers this by talking about how much of the universe is actually hostile: stars sleeting radiation and vacuum and giant planets of frozen poison gas and so forth, but that seems more over-dramatic than on point.

Explosion, or ECQ is short for Latin: "ex contradictione quodlibet," meaning, "from contradiction, everything follows." Meaning the moon is made of cheese, etc. Chaos.  It's a neat and logical argument that you can prove anything, if you let yourself begin with A and ~A.

FOL: First Order Logic constrains the domain of functional operations. This is tidy, avoids Russell's Paradox, implies his "types"?

HOL: Higher Order Logic allows recursion, at the expense of precluding mathematical completeness (see Goedel).

Hard Problem of consciousness is explaining why we have qualia. I think this is the same as asking "what am I?" meaning my sensation of self, vs just a bag of biological parts. Is this a, or maybe the non trivial example of emergence.

Laplace's Demon: is determinism, writ large. By knowing every particle's speed and position, the history could be predicted, forward and back through time.  (No relation to Maxwell's demon, who reverses entropy by opening the thermos lid only when efficacious. (He works up a sweat though, so it's ok.))

Last Thursday(ism) is the assertion, common to creationists and solipsism, that "the earth's not really 6e9 years old, God put all those dinosaur bones there last Thursday" ...and similar invulnerable statements.

NST: (Cantor's) Naive Set Theory: any definable group is a set.

Russell's Paradox:  The list of all lists that do not list themselves.  You could make such a list, but whether adding itself to the contents or not, the title's untrue either way.  BR's solution is to require the domain of f(x)  be specified before f can be defined.  By choosing x (and closing out the the membership) ahead of f, f is precluded as an argument. This led to Russell to hierarchies of sets, none including itself. It seems (to me) to preclude recursion.  That seems silly. Obviously recursion works, but maybe it's not guaranteed to?  This is said to be related to Goedel's incompleteness theorem & Cantor's diagonal proof. Turing, in the paper describing his famous machine intelligence test, makes reference to Goedel in describing a limit to computer behavior, saying it could not answer of its brethren, "Will this computer ever answer yes to any question?"  I can't quite reason through that one.  The interesting point is that the seemingly trivial "BS" sentence "this is false." has been related by plenty of luminaries to Goedel's incompleteness theorem.  ...so it's perhaps oversimplified, but not bullshit.

Turtles, all the way down.  Hawkins popularizing somebody else popularizing William James making fun of early mystical arguments about the earth's place in the universe.  Infinite regress or VIR (V for vicious) in DFW's lingo.

Cantor's Diagonal Proof:  A function is defined that lets you create a new row in a matrix of integers (letters, reals, etc), however big the matrix is already. (The function is to make the new row of the above diagonal, with each element altered: incremented, negated or what-have you.)

V: Von Neuman Universe is the class of heriditary, well founded sets.

Help, I've fallen in a rat hole!

With a double Americano and a philosophy podcast, I have had an introduction to paraconsistent logic. That, unfortunately, is exactly what it sounds like, either of the dictionary meanings "near" or "contrary" working just fine.

There was a discussion of logics, meaning multiple different schemas for understaning things logically, an implication that living within "one true logic" was a small minded way of living in a gated community where nasty complicated ideas were just carefully excluded so they wouldn't have to be faced.  An analogy, poorly executed IMO, to various geometries (each individually consistent with it's axioms, I say) and various physics was made (Re: various physics, I feel there's just one, although there exist heirarchical layers of approximations, useful in greater degree as restrictions such as "for  v << c" apply.) Poorly executed because the same limitations were not acknowledged in logic. Wikipedia does describe paraconsistent logics as a weaker subset rather than something entirely different, an idea that appeals to me.

Are these guys nuts, or am I?  I know that I have a weakness, feel the seductive pull of the crazy, and I want to dive into these roiled waters & see where the waterfall goes. I know it's cool to be consistent  and everything, so I'm embarrassed to like these word games. Often, I've felt they were nothing more, but today in the early dark, I'm not so sure...  Hence the cry for help.

Kantor's work on infinity was cited in support of the need for paraconsistent logic, and the canonical example, the Lie Paradox, (the statement inside these parens is a lie) was ponderously explaned, like it was a computer program being iterated* and then cutely expanded into something different as follows: "this statement is either False, or Neither-true-nor-false." That's the "revenge paradox" cute not just for the name but because it is at least consistent to say that the statement is neither. I feel that the statement is just a wrapper within which the nut of the problem is hidden: is "neither T nor F" maybe nonsense?  I think maybe so, in statements of fact.

*I like "iterated" here. That has saved me from the rabbit hole in the past, and may yet let me jumar my way out of it this time, too.  In computer programming, we have very clear true (1) and false (0). Data and control systems make great use of self referential mathematics: that's the idea of feedback, signals (or ideas) looping around and affecting themselves. Coerced inexorably into what I call "reality" so they can be useful and implemented on rational things like computers, the programs simply throw an error if you try to code up a Lie Paradox, and I understand self referential math to involve either (a) a distinction in time, meaning the discrete interval prior to this one, the one after, and so forth (parenthetically the formal discrete time mathematics of  F(z)) or (b) a derivative, meaning no instantaneous change but instead a rate, i.e. the Laplace transform.  Those are a couple of pretty robust branches of math, which which I'm acquainted, and in which simultaneity of trud & false is just disallowed.  The philosophers would say I've restricted my domain the the consistent one where things make sense for my pea brain. The podcast calls Wittgenstein's "inadequate diet of examples" humorously to bear, & it's certianly true: maybe I've just been living on a flat earth model so long that I intuitively grant premises that should be picked at more carefully.

The Fed is acting.  Just look at this plot. Never mind understanding it at first, just look.  That's what the Fed owns.  The big picture is "something's up!" I'm trying to understand what, in more detail.

First of all, there's a companion liability picture.  That one, (they're both on wikipedia's Fed. Budget page)  matches, so assets = liabilities.  The new matching liabilities that paid for these things are owed exclusively to the Treasury and preponderantly to depository institutions. The Fed bought bad debt from big banks, with what money I'm not sure.

Here's how you make money, Romney style:

You start with a little seed money, and a company you're going to buy for collateral,
...you get a company sized loan,
...pay the old CEO some hush money (get the $ from the loan)
...and pocket a big chunk of the money (34% is what they like).

The company you see is responsible for the loan: they have the new loan payments to make.

Then for a while, you get to play CEO, do some firing, close some plants, see if you can make it go!

The company meanwhile has taken all the risk, and it's a body blow. They have a $100 loan to service, and $50 worth of capital.  (or maybe it's $100 million: the numbers are just representative.) Suppose they just try to pay it off: they're $50 short! Thus the net outcome is a new debt for the company to make payments on, all of which was essentially awarded as a bonus to the new owners.

It's so immoral, it's almost psychopathic.

This was the plot of the 80's movie, "Pretty Woman."

Econ: half baked, so far. Stay tuned.

Economics heats up in an election year. Here are MY thoughts.

(1) I believe the Fed is mostly a good thing, the gold standard is silly. Gold's a commodity like anything else, and pegging money to it creates volatility: a bad thing. It's just playing craps.  What's the ideal money? One where prices are fixed: $1 for a hamburger, now and forever.  That's oversimplistic of course, we should use some average (eg Consumer Price Index) but you get the picture. The way to do that is to adjust the money supply.  For instance, money supply has to grow if the economy does, lest all the new people making all the additional hamburgers cause deflation!

The Fed goes beyond "pure" constancy, seeking a moderate (2%) inflation. It's important to note inflation is under control.  I don't mean that in the sense of "it's low" but in the sense of literally responsive to stimulus in ways we understand and can affect. That's what a control "system" is and arguably the US inflation control system operates pretty well.  We could argue all day about what the inflation rate Ought to be, and we should, but that's another topic.

Note the Fed can control inflation without impact on US Government debt.  No one has to issue  a T-bill for the Fed to buy one.  Heck right now (QE3) they're buying ordinary assets: home loans. No debt is being created, just adjustment of the money supply.

One thing I'm ignorant of and interested in is the Fed motivations. What creates and ensures their altruism? Under what pressures are they to do the right thing and can those pressures become overweening? For instance, a lot of those mortgages they're buying under QE2 are going to turn out to be bad debts and the Fed will lose money on this deal. What are the consequences of losing money when you can just print more?  None is my simpleton's answer. If somebody can offer a more nuanced explanation I'd like to hear it.

One thing that will surely happen is that the banks, like Katrina victims with a fat insurance check in their pockets, will go right back and build more houses with potentially unchanged risk aversion. That safety net aspect of selecting (possibly distressed) mortgage assets seems a questionable choice to me. If we're stepping away from t-bills, how about buying up windmill farms, or public schools or something else we really want to encourage?

(2) Gini  The Gini coefficient is a measure of income concentration and the US trend is pretty bad and getting worse: look at our cohort: we're in a dead heat with China, aiming to overtake Mexico any minute.

Mitigating this grim fact somewhat is our ageing population, which demographic skews the answers as they retire but (unlike worse off countries) live on. I'd like to see a Gini coefficient calculated based on wealth instead of income. Of course, it's a big internet, and so here it is!  You can sort the list with a click and find the US is the WORST except for Namibia, Zimbabwe and Switzerland, though we have the highest per capita wealth except for city-states Hong Kong, Luxemburg. (It's $143k, if you care, but those are jiggered currency trying to normalize across all currencies.) In the US, you can see below that the wealth gini exhibits much larger disparity than the income gini.

I'm opposed to this oligarchy and thus in favor of high inheritance tax. I agree you should get to benefit from the fruits of your labor, but maybe not your parents'! You should get what you deserve not what They did eh? This explodes the hypocrisy of many.  A similar argument leads me to capital gains taxes. (A sense of fairness says, you don't labor for your capital gains.) Perhaps most importantly, I feel tax policy is the lever to control Gini Coefficient, just as Fed monetary policy is the lever to control inflation. We should argue about Gini, just like inflation, and then act positively to affect it. Right now the concentration is high and increasing, so the tax code should be more progressive. This seems pretty cut and dried to me.


This is about 2/3 of the hops.  It's the second year and they grew great. No aphid problem this year (I used a fertilizer treatment Jack recommended) but I did have a bunch of tiny caterpillars, that ate perhaps 15% of the leaves.   This'll be enough for a batch though, so now all I need is a barley farm...


Airplane from last spring. Idea is to have roll and yaw coupled correctly with the same command. It's like a ventral rudder, but doesn't get scraped off when you land.

GhostwrittenGhostwritten by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So cruising along in this book, somewhere near the end of the beginning, thinking, "hey, it's kinda like #9 dream" only more disjoint & hard to follow when, SUDDENLY, he blew my mind and tied everything together.

...so cool. It's too much to ask that this twist isn't spoiled often in the reviews, so be careful how much you read online. I recommend against reading even the book jacket. Instead, just go get it.

Oh BTW an epic movie on Cloud Atlas is coming (has somebody mentioned that already).  It seems frankly too big to succeed, but I'll be sure to go.


Whew, 2/3 now and enjoying a burst of joy at the individual moves Mitchell makes. I want to say there's something very special about these books, but there's a middle missing.  I don't much miss it, but it isn't there.  It's plot of some kind.  There's plenty of action but no particular thread of continuity.  Not because Mitchell can't do it though. In fact, hiding behind the kaleidoscope is a Grand Strategy. It will all be revealed to hang together at once at the end, in a giant rogue wave of coherence. Along the way, you can see the web of cables gathering: it will be Check and Mate in one move after a midgame of mindless (seeming!) wandering. If he were a girl he'd have only a regular body, but the mind of a tiger and perfect skin. If he were a musician, it would be a grand symphony and each individual note played perfectly buy with only a barely perceptible melody.  Which brings me to the notes.

Lots of sentences are individually quotable.  I'll give you one, here, where the present story's hero Marco has just encountered a conceited, biddable, beddable woman in a London falafel shop. The sentences are individually beautiful, sad, or maybe laugh out loud funny.  They're so good that it would be possible to read the book over a year's time, just ingesting a page or two to adore the prose.

So you can enjoy Mitchell with a microscope or a telescope.  Right in front of your nose at normal magnification, in the mid-game, perhaps it's just ok, but each separate story is still interesting.   This is what Italo Calvino was trying to do.

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Election time, when we all think about economics.
I've posted on Tribal Economy before & this is an amplification of that idea.

The thing is, I want to tell you that I've found this miraculous elixir of prosperity. It's potent, it's everywhere, it's abundant.  Not infinite, no, but there's enough to go around.  It's oil, stored sunlight.  You can light the darkness. You can turn it into plastic, melt rocks to make iron, and maybe best of all, power tractors made from iron and grow a hundred times (I'm sure it's more than that) the crops you could otherwise.

So we have a largess, an inheritance, a trust fund to guarantee our leisure.  If you accept that homo sapiens is a viable species, that we could build huts and dig for potatoes and worms, bring down the occasional buffalo, then we're well enough equipped to survive.  With the great power amplifier that is energy (whether oil, solar, nuclear or wind, animal) coupled to our talents, we're sure to live easier than hunter-gatherers.

Olde Tyme economic policy held that there "should" be full employment because of this.  I can produce more than I need, so my production lifts us all, and why wouldn't we want that: some equitable arrangement is surely possible.  Keynes said it's a complex dynamic system and can get stuck in miserly caution where the positive feedback of productivity needs a kick-start.  (Hayek said, "watch out it's too complicated so don't meddle.") So where do we come down on the argument?  This year's election is sometimes cast as a referendum on that question.  I think it's a little different; it's not about a kick start.

I say the essential point is whether somebody, anybody, wants me to work or not. Of course that want is expressed indirectly through desire for what I could produce.  Well, what about satiety?  What if nobody wants anything.  Somebody's already running the tractor so we've got 99 slackers and the farmer ain't one.  So what is the problem? We started with me wanting work. Presumably I'm no just dedicated to watercolors because I'm not part of the tractor deal.  Maybe a few guys have formed a tractor collective and they won't share the fruits of their labor:  "We've got 5 of us, that's enough to drive this thing full time, so go looking elsewhere."

But what will they do with 95 unneeded rations?  That's none of your beeswax. "Store it up for the kids, maybe.  Or make likker, or iPhones, who knows?  We'll think of something and the point is, it's ours."

So ownership has altered situation on the ground hugely away from the mathematical average. Plainly it's a critical factor.  Before you all jump to the conclusion that I'm gonna go all commie on you, I'll say I agree the guys who built and drive the tractor need to get something for it, to motivate them to do that work. We can't all lay in the hammock or nobody eats. I get that. However, if they get it all, all the crops, then I'll still be a hunter-gatherer, elevated only very slightly by virtue of sometimes selling them a bit of pottery in exchange for a rare fine dinner.  Alternately, we could ALL work, just as hard as we used to farm, and create more value for everyone, but if just a few have all the wealth, and are sated, then the elixir of prosperity's bottled up and can't get out into the economy.

This is my nutshell argument for high capital taxes. Not capital gains, well those too, sure, but capital itself is what I'm after, perhaps through the mechanism of inheritance tax. We need to reward work, but we also need to get value out there, coursing through the economy. Our presupposition of ownership is just that, a premise.  It doesn't have any natural reason to be the baseline. "Check your premise" is a phrase bandied glibly: I'll adopt it.

In an age long gone when power flowed from the strength of your arm, it was awarded blindly by genetics, perhaps unjust but ephemeral as life. In an age of property ascendant, power is similarly unjust but indefatigable.  Even I at first said "law" there instead of "property," falling prey myself to the pervasive bias that property is a God given right.  I say this part of the constitution is too strong. We need to engineer enough turmoil into the system to make it possible for anyone to climb the mountain, and untenable to stand casually there forever without toil.

So I don't want a kick start, a jolt, an encouragement, a troubled asset relief program.  I want a fundamental change in the angle of repose that controls how steeply wealth can be piled. I think that can be found in IP law, capital gains and inheritance taxes.  We need to turn those knobs, a little, and for a long time.  That will control the system to a new and more broadly joyful setpoint.
I need to write more. Looking back I remember being frightened with Miles in the car, afraid he was very sick, I have so much political frustration, making beer with Bernardo, watching William run the mile, my job change. These are all things worthy of at least a note or something!  I got started on the topic thinking of a hut trip and some of the pictures people took, and the ephemeral and fading nature those pictures seem to have on Facebook, a site I simultaneously don't even like much, and yet have become dependent upon to archive my very life!  So that's triggered some scrapbooking gene, no doubt temporarily.

For this summer at least, the singular item going unrecorded so far, is pain. OTOH I expect everybody "gets" to suffer their own probably substantial dose of emotional and physical pain. So I won't dwell on this: it's not special or remarkable. Putting up with it as everybody does is something between heroic and just plain old necessary, or maybe both at the same time. I'll try not to be too whiny...

Anyway, this post is mostly a note to self to write more. Not that it'll be here, but in a journal or something.  I'll try to keep this blog more sporadic, & hopefully thus less irrelevant, than a diary.

FFT(just about everything)

Listening to Brad Osgood on Fourier Series, and kinda reading at the notes.
In the first lecture, his main point was that periodicity comes from the circle (eg sin, cos) and that frequency and wavelength have reciprocal relationship.  Right away, I'm challenged by the limited formatting that exists (or that I know how to apply) to this blog.  In no time I'm going to need integrals, and Mathcad beckons.  Maybe I can get the ideas down in English!  That's more challenging but might make me understand better.

In the notes, there's a concept of the series of functions periodic on an interval, and finding a coefficient as an integral of the product of exp(n*i*pi) across the interval.  The why is cool: first, the deal is that all periodic functions can be made from a sum of sines & cosines (with integer frequency multiples) and if you multiply that sum by the negative frequency component you're interested in, it isolates one coefficient because for that term, the exponent of e adds to zero and so the e terms cancel and c drops out of the integral. Meanwhile, integrating each of the other terms across the interval yields zero every time. That's the orthogonality of the set of functions I think.  I'm happy with that description! On to the second lecture.  It seems easy so far but I'm getting the value from the notes, and when I dropped in in the middle of the class I was lost, so I'm taking this more ponderous approach, for now.

Second lecture: "periodicity."  It's very tempting to complain about his lecture and chalkboard style!  Maybe, people in glass houses... "Here's a secred of the universe, comin' your way."  Now, that's a joke that deserves a laugh, but he got nothing.

Functions with limited time frame of interest can be matched over that interval only, and you just pretend it was periodic, repeating just that interval.  Sin(2pi*t) has period = 1. That restriction is useful for analysis. Model generic signals by using 2pi*n*t. Over that one period, you can stuff in many frequencies in harmonics of the "base" (longest) signal.  Remember frequency w (omega) = 2pi*n.  Sum a bunch of these and period is still 1 - it's limited by the lowest frequency being represented. Besides different frequencies, we can modify amplitudes and phase of each term, to model different signals.  What about frequency 2pi*1.5? That's not an integral multiple, not periodic over the interval 1, probably not legal to use.

Writing them down, he noted sin(2pi*k*t + p) = sin(2pik)cos(p) + cos(2pik)sin(p).  (p's the phase).  I mention it because in thinking about the angle sum formula, I realized how complex numbers can be used to derive this formula.  Think of p as the rotation angle in a direction cosine matrix. So we have sin(A+p) and the A part is spinning vector and the p is the fixed phase offset of the sin wave out of the real plane. Our question is "what part of this imaginary wave projects on the real axis, and for the answer you just multiply the signal by the DCM. QED. Back to Osgood's point, the fixed values, sin(p) & cos(p) can be thought of as coefficients, and then an arbitrary function is made of sines and cosines with various coefficients and the phase of the net wave is buried in those coefficients, instead of explicitly calling out a phase angle, and using only sine.

Complex notation:  csubk* exp(i*2pi*k*t + p) is the way to write it in complex form. To get coefficients c, isolate them again (as noted from the notes before) using the trick of multiplying the whole sum by the MINUS frequency of the coefficient you want. All the rest of the terms will sum to zero.

Boring Archive of Notes on Philosophy Podcasts

This is strictly a memory aid for me.  I'm going to write these up after listening to philosophy podcasts. So, for those few of you paying attention to this blog, it's probably best to go away & wait for the next post. This one's mostly just for me.

What Mary knew is a famous thought experiment.  Australian Frank Jackson invented this to defend against materialists. (...who believe that only things that exist are physical.)  Someone (Mary) who knew everything, but never had an experience of a fat red tomato, or perhaps a black & white limitation in their vision. However smart she is, analytically maybe knowing everything, won't she, upon being cured, suddenly feel she's learned something special and different? The word "qualia" describes the "feely side" of red that she would be now more vividly experiencing.  I felt this was basically empty of meaning, and maybe so does Jackson, because sometime after making this famous argument, he changed his mind and became a materialist after all.

Consequentialism:  This theorizes we should act to produce the best consequences, ie the end justifies the means. Seems like utilitarianism, but Pettit says it's different only in the definition of utility: what yardstick is used to measure the good.  There's a broad and meaningless argument about what "the goods" are.  Non-consequentialism has more inflexible moral absolutes: "no kicking of puppies," for instance.  What if the best outcome requires you to do that? Could you lose your integrity thereby?  Famous example by Williams, sets us up with a scenario about to execute natives: but we could kill one to save 10, should you do it? Consequentialism says of course, shoot the one.  Another objection is that maybe you as an agent should Never be required to treat other people "as means."  Wild west example: sheriff stops the riot by scapegoat someone, hang the innocent, quell the population & save lives.  These objections suggest there is value in living a life of character, even at some cost.  Maybe the greater integrity has value exceeding even the very lives that would be saved by unfeeling consequentialist acts in those scenarios. So say absolutists.  Another approach might ask, would not morality and honesty, ubiquitously applied by all, yield good?  Perhaps, but that tack, if you take it, would be consequentialism! (choosing for the good.) A great example is Kant's case of the wild eyed axeman at your door, asking after your friend Flynn, who's lolling right over there in a hammock. Do you tell the truth because you're fundamentally in favor of doing so? "Flynn's right over there," may well get him killed!  Red lights go on... (that's still consequentialism) Kant would have answered effectively, "Fiat justitia ruat caelum"  This is just a counterexample where consequentialism makes sense. What about the other heartless ones?  He's for them.  How about torturing someone to find where the bomb's buried?  That's ok, but you should have to be tried for it afterwards.  After that he gets fuzzy.

Unity of Value is Ronald Dworkin's thesis that pluralism is wrong. Pluralism posits that different values are necessarily in tension, eg freedom vs respect (Consider, "freedom for the pike is death for the minnows!"). The whole thing seemed half thought. Anybody who says "the way in which" too often  is probably full of baloney.  One phrase I particularly disliked boiled down to, "If you make your argument, somebody who disagrees is of course not going to believe you."  (Isn't the point of engaging in argument to potentially change your mind: his presumption of lack of openness makes  the whole field worthwhile.)

Airplanes for CU!

Feedback from the class, some good: "Amazing lectures!" and... "Prof Krebs is great.  He does a great job of connecting the dots and gives is an intuitive understanding of what's going on, more than just writing down equations.  I have learned more in this class than any other class combined ."

...and some bad: "...doesn't explain what's the point in lectures, doesn't provide any context to what he's talking about. Does zero examples."  and "I don't like the disorganization.  I think it would be helpful if he came to class with a written out lesson plan rather than in his head."

Overall, there are stronger emotions behind the negative comments than the good, and more of them, too. :(

There is no mogul: ...the ontology of Outhouse.

In a cherished conversation with Miles, I once claimed you could ski bumps blind just by feeling the first one. The rest follow naturally, from the rhythm of the universe, the giant fft that is us all (or wavelets, if you like!).

The best quote from the matrix  has to be the kid breaking out, "Do not try to bend the spoon — that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon." Once mentioning the matrix, we cannot continue without reviewing Carl Sagan's apple pie. (and of course the musical rap cover.)

This post offers some notes on Ontology.

Here, we are going deep into Meinong's Jungle, wherein prowl pegasii and unicorns, which must subsist in some sense since we can talk about them.  This is Meinong's Gegenstandstheorie. Apparently, there are many levels of "real," if you think about it hard enough.

Oh my God, WTF is happening here? This blog has gone crazy!  Well, yes, sort of, but there is some scrap of coherence here, I think...  It all started when a student asked, "what is i, anyway?"  I was stumped, and I pretty much still am, but here is my answer anyway.  Obviously it's a complicated one, but, here goes!

First, let's get rid of the obvious canonical answer: i = sqrt(-1), but you knew that.

Now, what do we make of this?  Well, there is at least some major utility to it, eh?  Never minding whether or not i is an actual part of reality, I mean.  It's a nice tool, like a number line, or a bubble level: helps you figure things out. Sort of like saying "my very educated mother just served us nine *pies," it's a construct you can use whether or not it has any meaning grounded in reality.
(* Sorry, Pluto's not a planet.  Don't blame me, take it up with this guy.)

Let's look at some of the utility we get from i.  For one, consider helical antennas!  They make circularly polarized radiation and that is really neat. I once worked on a satellite that used those. That tubular structure in the picture is a multi-element quadrifilar helix.  The polar coordinate representation of exp(i*theta) is a visual model for all kinds of oscillatory phenomena, including the motion of airplanes.

Here's another example of something you can do with i. You can take the cube root of 1!  What, you're not impressed?  How many cube roots do you think there are?  (Hint:  thew sqrt of 4 = +/-2, right?  Why should it make sense to have two square roots and only one cube root?) Actually plain old +1 does have three cube roots (as it should) and they are 1 and  -1/2 +/- sqrt(3)i/2.  You don't want i just to get the root of -1, you want it even for mundane cube roots of plain old positive numbers!

Renee Descartes disagreed. He found i a lamentable necessity and saddled it with the pejorative "imaginary" label, but that, we'll see isn't really fair.

** ToDo: Put something intelligent here in the middle... ***

So the answer takes us full circle, back to the spoon only rephrased like this:  "Do not ask if there really are imaginary numbers. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: the real numbers are all imaginary."

Holding The Bubble

Some days I go through life unconscious. Such days are indulgences, involving exercise, reading, food or music.  By "unconscious" is meant just letting the day happen without thinking too much about what's next. A summer hike in the mountains is one good example. Sunshine, the crack of a rock against another, a feathery misty rain I remember once, a sandwich & friends: these things make life somehow seem easy.  It's not hard to make recreational excursions graceful.

Other days, the world seems out to get you. Bad sleep, a hectic commute, an argumentative meeting; these are all minor stressors.  Concern about making payroll, paying for college, medical  worries, those long range planning activities are bigger issues.  It's a good goal to get through these things "gracefully."

Gracefully? That sounds crazy doesn't it?  I'm more of a straight-ahead person than a dancer so grace generally isn't my thing, but the word isn't entirely inappropriate.

Work is another story entirely. At some basic level, companies fight for survival. There are fights within companies too, or at least various agendas, some of them helpful and some just destructive.  I feel it's my job to create a bubble of safety and happiness, for my family, around my friends, and at work too.  That is meant to be a sunny place where people can feel they don't need their guard up.  Inside the bubble you can do your best work, you don't have to be on guard against enemies, your blood pressure can ease down.

I've realized I have even tried to make my office that way.. I mean the operation here as a whole, but my physical space too. It makes me feel good to be there & hopefully others too. Work ought to be a refuge of sorts from the big bad world.

The classroom's also a bubble. The kids don't realize it at first, but they're safe there. I'm trying to make them smarter, not fail them.  It takes a while for that to sink in.  I had an evaluation done, video taken, surveys tabulated.  The teacher said they're being hypnotized, they're not taking notes.  I need to engage them, break the spell they're under.  That's double edged! I'm glad they're in a trance in our little tribal meetings but of course they need to take notes.  Anyway, you get the point.

Sometimes though, it's work to hold the bubble up. Like an overcast of thick wet newspaper slurry wants to smack it down and I have to press back to keep the little sunny sphere open. It's tiring. I don't know how big a bubble I can hold open, how much longer.  Plus, it's cold out. We all need to help keep it going: it's a kind of magic, and it needs us.

Strange thoughts, eh?

Science Friday, speech decoding

On Science Friday Ira had one of his occasional fantastic guests. He was exploring the brain, recording and playing back words.  On the radio, you'd hear the actual spoken word, then you'd hear the consequent brainwave. It was intelligible, barely.  While the research was really cool, on reflection it didn't seem so strange that there's an electrical signal running around in your head that sounds like "chair" when I say "chair."

Then I started to think, "what will it sound like as they go deeper in?"

Following the signal chain from that word to the muscle commands that make you sit down, I'm expecting a more and more pulse-like burst of signal, less of a chair, and more of a databit.  What are the internal symbolic representations of words, the things with meaning?  Are they still vaguely "chair-sounding?" Or are they structurally encoded, just a data bit, but WHICH data bit, which networks activated that matter.

Writing it now it still sounds prosaic but I was really enthralled at the time. Maybe worth a listen.

Diamond vs Tainter

@Adam: I'm also very interested in the Tainter/Diamond comparison.

Diamond sez Tainter sez "how could you not anticipate a problem & fix it?" It's a fair assessment of some quotes from The Collapse of Complex Societies. (I linked my review.)
From that conundrum Tainter goes on to describe a dynamic (this oft mis-used word fits precisely here)wherein the society enjoys a benefit of technological progress, grows to consume the benefits, & thereby becomes irrevocably committed to it.  Tainter adds that more technology, our only solution (eg to world hunger) may actually not work because of diminishing returns.

This is a fancy way of saying "didn't see it coming"  so when Diamond cites that cause, he's agreeing with Tainter. Diamond divides and enumerates while Tainter tries to understand why. Both are forms of analysis, but not equally good. Diamond is exceedingly thorough, but fundamentally shallow. While both latch on to human self interest as impediment to doing the right thing, Diamond has only "didn't see it coming" and "tragedy of the commons" for rationale, though he takes a dozen pages to say it. Maybe I should say he takes 500 pages to say it! Tainter’s cause is far more nuanced, and complex enough to be the rationale for not foreseeing or effectively mitigating a problem, even if you wanted to.

Tainter’s approach is so tricky that he himself cannot explain it succinctly and instead has to spend much of the book illustrating the problem, carving away around the edges to indirectly describe it’s core. Thus, I’m sorely challenged to pack it in a nutshell! Here’s a try...

Tainter draws an arc of diminishing returns from technological investment that eventually flattens out entirely and then slopes downward!  How could this be?  Adam, I think you’ll like my answer that it’s essentially because of externalities. The accurate cost/benefit analysis in determining whether to buy the latest fertilizer is miscomputed by the farmer because the numerator is misquoted to him in the form of an incomplete accounting behind the price tag. Somewhere the last island of bat guano is being strip mined to make that cheap fertilizer, which lets Iowa support a larger population which intrinsically requires the higher crop yield. The people have to eat. The tractor has to eat. The people move off the farm and build iPods and strip mining machinery Then one day the fertilizer runs out.  Not so different from the last tree on easter island, but you can more easily see how it could sneak up on you. It's just the tragedy of the commons again, made indirect, far away and invisible.

Tainter would probably amplify on my example by describing interconnected webs of dependency, more fragile and less obvious than the fertilizer one. Have you heard Greenspan’s stump speech about the latte? (worth googling) A latte for a couple bucks is a triumph of technological society. Not so long ago, only royalty could aspire to such a concoction and now we all can, but it’s supporting infrastructure is not robust to challenge.   A big steel boat is efficient, but fragile. Put a hole in your wooden dinghy and at least it will still float and you with it.  

Why do we go over the cliff?  Why can’t we retrench to sustainable levels when something complicated gives way? Why are crisis and collapse required?  


When more children are born in Greenland and more outfield flayed to make their houses. You could go back, but some of those children would have to starve. I think Tainter would say the technology itself comprises the momentum, not just the bellies, but I can’t quite defend that part.  Can’t I un-commit to technology?

You can’t just rescale us without a nonlinearity.  There's this thing, the "back side" of the power curve.  There's a minimum drag point, fly faster or slower and you need MORE thrust.  Fly a little slower, add a little thrust, do that for a bit and you're in a tough spot because now it's unstable: if the thrust drops even just a little you can't get back to the normal linear range but instead will slow down until the nonlinearity: stall.  There's a solution in the airplane example just as there is in real life, but it's painful: you have to give in to the inevitable, dive and lose altitude (lose luxury, sacrifice population) to slide down to a sustainable situation.  This is a pretty good analogy, and the Lift-Drag curves even match Tainter's curves in the book.  

Maybe Tainter is wrong about a crystalline web or a house of cards: these are compelling images but are they apt?  What if the rubber supply for my espresso machine’s gasket fails? An alternative silicon gasket can get designed and produced in no time. Hell I’ve already got one. (a spare, actually. I can’t survive an espresso interruption, and after these doomsday books, I’ve taken steps.) Maybe our web of interdependence is resilient like a spiderweb, not fragile like ice, and surely it’s organic and self healing in the sense of trying to grow new bonds where there’s a need. Technology is our religion, a groundless belief that some nerd will invent a new kind of fertilizer and we’ll all be fine.  Even this example isn’t notional. Goog the story of the “Haber Process,”  wherein a smart boy invents a machine to make bat guano.  So maybe Tainter is wrong. Maybe this time. But that machine of Habers? It makes bat guano out of oil.

I like Diamond’s points, a lot. I agree with him.  But I never read a book before and said “duh” so many times.   Analysis by dissection is a tool but it’s too ponderous and just cutting stuff up into little bits doesn’t ADD anything. Tainter made me think & I’m still thinking.


School is going well, teaching "ASEN3128" at CU.

I'm writing this mostly for myself, so apologies if you're a reader and find this post boring. Somehow writing for publication makes this seem easier than just scribbling it down somewhere. Or maybe it's because it's so easy, I don't know.

Anyway, I am developing a...

Lecture Style or Pattern

It has several parts: First there's a review. This is just repeating what happened in the last lecture.
Second, a hook.  To get them interested, calmed down, and foreshadowing the day's topic.  Sometimes I use the hook as part of the summary so I guess I'm not rigorous about it pertaining to the new material.
Next of course is the body of the lecture. There are lots of sub-topics here. Last is the crescendo. It's supposed to be a surprise opening up a new area to think about. Some examples will clarify.

Lecture 1: Hook: picture of an airplane window: nothing seems to be happening. It is as if there is no motion, and this is balance, this is trim. Course outline.  Discuss longitudinal trim, CMa and CMq and CMde. The many dichotomies of this course: trim vs perturbations. s vs z, Laplace vs integration, TF vs SS, Block Diagram Algebra vs Matrix notation, roots vs bode, decay vs oscillatory, Euler vs Quat. Numerical simulation of low pass, and hints of chaos. Of course these were discrete simulations, F(z), but we didn't touch on that much.

Lecture 2: The review was the stability derivatives & dichotomies. Hook was the chaos simulation, showing how its nonlinearity makes it insoluble. Direction Cosines, and the network diagram method of deriving them instantly. Crescendo: Quaternion is that one vector which is unchanged by a DCM. Stability Axes

Lecture 3: Hook = Close your eyes and imagine you're on a beach, running for the frisbee. Invert the scene with a rolling dive.  Here the hook was actually part of the review of DCM.  Meat was roll subsidence and stability axes. Stability derivatives with units of 1/t, and normalizations to get there. Introduction to block diagrams. Introduction to [A]x = sx as an eigenvalue problem: find eigenvalues of [sI-A]=0

Lecture 4: Hook = throwing tennis ball. Experts just catch it. Experts can guess the right answer. We will guess the answer is exp(at) or exp(st). Metapor for a match, which is a useful tool that separates us from the animals. We need to be good match (Laplace method) users.  Body of the class to discuss roll subsidence from two perspectives: Laplace method (d/dt --> s, crack the poly, then "just know" the pattern from roots to dynamics) and formal integration of the differential equation (much harder) required an integrating factor, integration by parts, homogeneous and particular solutions. Showed the root::dynamics correlations, speed for real roots, frequency & damping for imag ones.  The crescendo was discussing rolling a tennis ball across the floor: it would go forever. That was a *very* slow/large/long time constant, zero in fact. 1/(s+a) with a going to 0.  We did NOT get to Laplace Transforms, which is another method, requiring convolution and inverse-Laplace{F(s)}.  We did not get into numerical simulation but we certainly will.

Lecture 5: Bigger review 'since quiz next time. Homework review: what does a matrix [Cib] do to an eigenvector? Nothning; lambda was 1. How about a matrix [A] (multiply, to attenuate, but not to change). The bulk of the lecture will be on stability derivatives, and more trim, lateral this time.

Lecture 6: Quiz.

Lecture 7: Laplace transforms: computing some.  1, t, exp(at) sin?, L{f(t)}Using Lspecifically convolution of impulse response with step. LPF (something you might do explicitly in code)

Lecture 8: Pitch Short Period. Weathervane without a wing. Surprise, q integrates to give alpha (as well as theta). Without a wing that's clear.  It's a demonstration of Euler's equation, too. Full EOM (pitch)

Lecture 9: Rocket is not am inverted pendulum. Aircraft is not a pendulum. The force does not produce a feedback that changes the orientation & hence the force, as it does in the pendulum.

I need to do this for office hours a little bit too, because there's the one-on-one Q&A which is ineffective, but maybe necessary if students are afraid / embarrassed.  Just general Q&A about the homework is a good forum to explore confusions, but I'd like it if that were classroom-wide

Review of "Collapse"

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or SucceedCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jared Diamond starts off with one star and an uphill battle since I thought GG&S was shameless profiteering from a pamphlet sized idea. That's prejudice for ya, folks! Don't worry though, my convictions are just as ductile as they are forceful. I'll be happy to eat these words later, like always.

Ok it's later...

I have warmed to Diamond's presentation somewhat, though I still think it a flaw to expand this idea to 500 page format. Lots of the details are fun if you're not in a hurry so I was going to let that cricicism go until late in the book we were treated to a comprehensive list of every baseball player from the Dominican Republic ever to make it in the big leagues. To no useful end, it is surely superfluous to add? Really, Jared? This book requires more skimming than anything, ever.

Tainter's Collapse is a great foil for this book. Here, I'd like to consider Greenland only, just as a case study, sort of comparing Tainter & Diamond's themes. While Diamond describes a panoply of factors and their various interactions, the short story is: they starved to death. My question is why the settlements collapsed catastrophically instead of finding a lower equilibrium within the carrying capacity of their environment?

As with Tainter, "control systems" provide an interesting insight that instability requires some kind of net "bad" feedback in order to run away out of control. Development of such instability is abetted by delays and momentum. There are fancy terms for these that I'll eschew, but you can imagine the effects of delay in noticing the trees are running out: you get "surprised" by a challenging problem. The basic question is how, in the face of diminishing returns on (technological) investment, population doesn't level off instead of collapsing? In microcosm of Greenland, I think Diamond makes a pretty good case for a terminal crisis.

In some good expansion years, population could rise while an insidious debt is being incurred, "flaying the outfield" for sod homes faster than it can be renewed, clear cutting timber, and raising sheep and cows that further degrade the turf. The population, their homes, their animals all represent the momentum needed to carry the economic balance between the Vikings and their environment from "challenging" over into "desperate." I describe it as "momentum" because you NEED those animals for cheese & meat, turf is NEEDED for fodder and homes, and so these are commitments from which you can't easily turn aside if the grass runs out. So, in the space of a couple of bad years, maybe precipitated by an atypical snowstorm, a crisis arises, the stock get gobbled and everybody dies.

Why did the Greenland Norse not see trouble coming and reduce their demands on the environment? Did they have no foresight at all? Here's a three part answer to that.

(a) tragedy of the commons (selfishness trumps global foresight),

(b) foresight's actually difficult to come by. (hey does America operate on a balanced budget, reducing the debt in "sunny" years? We STILL have no foresight, or at least don't act on it.) and

(c) well, no actually they really didn't see it coming: they didn't understand carrying capacity or soil erosion & so would have more vague ideas of impending environmental crisis.

He titled the book "how societies CHOOSE to fail or succeed," but I don't think it was all that conscious a choice.

Another thesis one could explore in this book is: "Religion takes the cheese, even if everybody starves." This is perhaps a more understandable root of the Mayans' more prolonged wilting, and draws attention to the joining of church and state. It's not religion per-se but the chiefs, which two groups in those days were nearly indistinguishable, that ruled, and continued to demand fealty shiny trinkets and big stone houses whatever the cost.

Last and scariest, what if it's (drum roll) CHAOS?! Not to go all Jurassic park on you, but we certainly don't understand all the ways life interacts and it's not written in stone anywhere that things are guaranteed to come out ok or behave in stable fashion. Maybe societies collapse for reasons that are essentially ineffable, or at least so complex and nonlinearly coupled as makes no difference. It's certainly possible the Norse didn't see it coming. The Easter Islanders? That's harder to excuse, isn't it? Chopping down the last tree and all. I'm tempted to blame them for a Onceler-ian selfishness & failure to cooperate; tragedy of the commons sort of collapse.

For us, for all of modern 21st century society, arguably doomed to stand or fall together, maybe it's gonna be Chaos (and chaos, too) since we can't so far agree on what the problems are and what to do about them.

But I am working hard to find some cohesion, some theme. Diamond makes no such attempt, beyond listing five factors which go beyond pedantic: warfare, trade, environment, I can't even be bothered to enumerate them. Environmental mismanagement is surely the core idea, though he won't quite come out and say it that clearly. Indeed his fifth cornerstone is actually made of three more minicornerstones, and they themselves vague and broad enough to support many fractal recursions thereupon, as "fleas hath smaller fleas... and so on ad-infinitum." Sigh.

A closing note, Tainter said something about us ALL not being able to collapse together as a unit, because he felt you had to collapse in relationship to something. So if human society is now one big monolith, then we can't formally undergo a collapse by Tainter's definition. (Interesting. I need to go back and reread that bit.) Yet, Diamond's cautionary tales of history surely seem to suggest something bad may happen. Let's just call it "severe, comprehensive involuntary lifestyle retrenchment. heh.

Last, to be unambiguous: this book deserves 3 stars for being thought provoking, not for itself containing cogent thoughts. Instead it's a compendium of factors. As for synthesis, Diamond just leaves us hanging in a maelstrom of minutae.

View all my reviews

Tribal Economy

Just listened to NPR's Planet Money on "the Past and Future of American Manufacturing."  It was quite a distressing podcast lamenting the loss of manufacturing jobs, wondering how good but unskilled laborers would fare in the future where manufacturing is about finesse and programming, not stamina.  The host, right after being told he would never be hired to program NC milling machines, wondered how the show's protagonist, a hard working aggressive young mom named Matty, could ever get uptrained.  The fearful conclusion was she wouldn't.

It's ironic how Adam Davidson worried about Matty's future, right after being told he himself also had no chance at that job either. I don't think getting everybody "trained up" to operate an NC mill is either needed or practical. We really do need only 1/100 as many combine drivers as scythe swingers. What an astounding efficiency gain! As they poignantly illustrated, there's tragedy here, because the machines have CREATED value, so overall life for everyone should be easier,, not tougher. Nor do I believe is it as simple as, "well there're are more of us now so the times are just as tough as ever."  Here's an illustrative fable.


Thor paused, sweating.  His log was the biggest and he was in front, but he didn't need to rest.  The stop was because Ting the chief had just showed up on the crest of the next rise leading 4 of those strange new animals, "horses."  What would happen now?

The tribe was half way through their annual migration. Each year, the women built travois' and hauled the family's tent and few goods some 200 miles from the rich timberlands up north down to the arid grasslands.  The men hauled timber.  These logs were prized material to make bows & tentstakes among the hunter gatherer tribes of the south, and they'd trade food and furs that made the trip a productive annual event for the Ting tribe.  Some rich chiefs even had astounding "tents" made entirely of tree slabs stacked close, to keep out every whisper of icy wind.  They were luxuriously comfortable: the demand for the tribe's product seemed limitless.

Now old Ting had horses. He was even riding one.

"Thor," he said, looking down at his strongest haulsman while the others came up , variously puffing or wheezing according to their exertions and the ambition of their load, "things are gonna change around here."

"How, lord Ting?"

"We've got horses now.  We don't need all you men pulling.  A horse can haul as much as 3 men, and feeds itself along the way, so your job ends right here, on this hilltop.  From now on, your wife will ride, you can pull her travois with the tent on it."

"I can go twice as fast pulling that little thing.  Who'll keep up with me?"

"Well," Ting said, "the horses will be heavily loaded, so we won't go faster, but instead we'll just have more logs to sell.  If you get too far ahead each day, maybe you can do a little fishing, or nap.  Whatever."

~ ~ So, that's how it COULD have gone.  But as you know, on that day Ting instead left most of his tribe to fend for themselves. He had a horse and that made him rich and put the rest of the tribe out of business.  That pretty much set the pattern for the rest of history.

Why doesn't the largess of our technological advance translate into a more idyllic lifestyle for everyone?  

It's easy to do the "energy balance" and see that tools, animals, machines and oil have each multiplied our ability to get things done. These should have the effect increasing the potential leisure and comfort, supporting a greater population, or some combination of those. That we always choose option #2 seems like a problem in our programming.

Even if we preferred leisure over consumption, there is still a problem of distribution.Everyone needs to benefit from the technological improvement, but ownership tends to concentrate, as the return on investment allows Ting (and nobody else) to buy another horse. Would stock ownership allow the little guy to buy a small piece of the technology? Why hasn't that worked.?

If ancient Norse beer technology advancements doubled yield, why couldn't everyone just have two?  It seems a simple calculation, but maybe it's the problem as well. First of all, everybody has to increase their consumption to keep full employment or, in the case of items with intrinsically limited demand (ok so not beer, but there must be something...) the technological advancement, whether the horse or the automated brewery, brings a reduction in employment as a nominal consequence.

 The benefit is the commodity price drops thanks to lower labor, but what's the laborer supposed to do?  You obviously can't put the reduced price genie back in the bottle, nor is dragging logs by hand any longer a viable livlihood. You can't compete with a horse just as John Henry couldn't compete with a steam hammer. Is a requirement for growth the consequence of advancement?  Cold bloodedly, in the absence of consumption growth, starvation will eventually balance the labor market to the need. More hopefully though, assuming constant GDP (same number of logs dragged) a pair of hands has been idled, that's potential to create more wealth for us all to share. That's if we can gracefully repurpose and retask the displaced individuals, but why not?  Humans are flexible creatures. Maybe now Thor will carve totem poles the plainsmen can afford to buy since logs are cheaper. This is growth.Is there a problem?  Well, maybe. Another stable balance would involve MORE plainsmen consuming all the logs that could be supplied even with horses. Everybody's still pulling for all they're worth.  Subsistence, only more of it. This scenario need only arise if we wastefully expend every technological windfall in the name of more human mass until (see Collapse of Complex Societies) we are dependent on all the latest gizmos just to get by. Problematically, it seems the natural outcome.

Good day brewing yesterday. Hoping for a pilsner. It came out very strong: O.G. 1.059!