Monday, August 24, 2015

Complex systems collapsing

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has posted on an interesting piece on the collapse of complex systems.

Here is her intro:

Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism, 21 August 2015

Lambert found a short article by Richard Cook that I’ve embedded at the end of the post. I strongly urge you to read it in full. It discusses how complex systems are prone to catastrophic failure, how that possibility is held at bay through a combination of redundancies and ongoing vigilance, but how, due to the impractical cost of keeping all possible points of failure fully (and even identifying them all) protected, complex systems “always run in degraded mode”. Think of the human body. No one is in perfect health. At a minimum, people are growing cancers all the time, virtually all of which recede for reasons not well understood.
The article contends that failures therefore are not the result of single causes. As Clive points out:
This is really a profound observation – things rarely fail in an out-the-blue, unimaginable, catastrophic way. Very often just such as in the MIT article the fault or faults in the system are tolerated. But if they get incrementally worse, then the ad-hoc fixes become the risk (i.e. the real risk isn’t the original fault condition, but the application of the fixes). [The] Windscale Fire Wikipedia Entry documents how a problem of core instability was a snag, but the disaster was caused by what was done to try to fix it. The plant operators kept applying the fix in ever more extreme does until the bloody thing blew up.

So at this point we are at the double quote level: I am quoting a quote. If you quote me, I guess that would be a triple quote.

In her comments, Yves, because of her politics, I think mistakes the issue of human agency in our current market-capitalist system.  I think her issue of tight-coupling is only true of some complex systems. In a cash based system, if the red paint for your wagon shows up, you can buy it somewhere else.  On the other hand if the critical widget burns up in your Porsche, it will come to a screeching halt.

In the end, there is some relevance to actions within complex systems having unintended causes.  That's a popular, and true, meme on the Republican side when it comes to government.  But it is also universally true in complex systems.  Although sometimes the repairs do blow up the system, I am going to go out on a limp and suggest that there are two broad categories that most commonly bring down complex systems, and I am going to reference societal collapse, because that is what we mostly like to talk about here.

The first is that the system is not sustainable in the long term, and is unable to change without becoming a different system.  Agricultural societies have been wiping themselves with soil depletion and over forestation for some time.  It is not clear that outside of a few localized geographies, if agriculture is a particularly sustainable technology, but we mostly don't know because the number one killer of complex societies usually collapses them first.  I put Cliodynamics, and other (possibly correct) cyclical theories in this category.

The number one killer is overpowering externalities, that are beyond the societies ability to adapt.  These are usually the typing point.  Although Tainter likes to say it is because the societies grew to complex, that is somewhat begging the question.  If weather change forces the less complex societies (the Celts) to pick up and move South and invade their more complex  neighbors (Greeks, Early Romans), than how was the complexity an issue?  If the later Imperial Rome weakens itself through constant infighting over who will succeed to being the next Emperor, how is that an issue of complexity?  The invading Germanic tribes did the same thing, and most of them (The Franks are the main exception) did not persevere in the long run either.

The argument to my mind is, are we more in a situation where we are in a non-sustainable system, or are we in a situation where the potential externalities are getting to large.  I would say we worry more about the former, because it is harder to see the latter.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Rebellious precrime

At Page 99 Test there is an interesting discusion about just what sort of training manuals should be allowed.  Although the discussion in the post is about First Amendment, Free Speech, issues, it certainly seems as if there are second amendment issues here as well.
The book examines the ways the courts deal with how-to-murder manuals as a distinct form of speech. For example, is Hitmandifferent than a mystery that provides a detailed description of the crime? Complicating this question is that a Florida housewife originally wrote Hitman as fiction. The courts have usually treated fictional works as an especially protected form of speech and not to be used against criminal defendants. In criminal cases, is reading a book like Hitman a precrime?
At one point in time, the concept of a "Right to Rebellion" was a commonly sited, if not universally accepted, concept within the framework of the Constitution.  Note, the right typically didn't come from the the Constitution itself, but Jefferson's writings in the Declaration of Independence.  Although the Declaration is not part of our government structure, there is a logic that it is still applicable as a founding document.  It is one of the arguments used to justify Southern States cessation in the run up to the Civil War.  So while a "militia" is guaranteed within the Constitution, what about the right to illegal activities in rebellion against the state?

My guess is that few of the founders would have accepted the notion of rebellion except within the context of a communal agreement to rebel.  The modern terrorist methods of "revolution", I doubt would have been acceptable to them.  

Some of the militia novels do venture into the terrorist territory.  Most are set after a government collapse, but not all of them.   So they fall into the category of precrime activity?

Goodreads Link

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The big one -earthquakes

I am reading Harry Turtledove's Supervolcano series.  I am on book two.  The super eruption it describes via the Yellowstone caldera is probably single worst natural earth-based disaster that could be said to be possible, with a percentage higher than 1, in our lifetime.

This one I think is number 2.

The Really Big One
Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, 20 July 2015 (hat tip: NC)

 When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” 
In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” 


The article is a very good, long piece, with a tone that is frighteningly even.

Route 5 - left of equals toast

The Pacific Northwest is, sadly for New Orleans, a much more important part of the country than the areas of the Gulf Coast that were hit by Katrina.  Although I don't think it would be a total collapse scenario, it would put us into similar, but more desperate, circumstances to what the West Germans all of the sudden had to absorb East Germany into their economy.  Our ability to play policeman to the world would likely be severely curtailed, if not extinguished, and as the run up to WW2 showed, having the world's superpower intentionally isolating itself can lead to huge problems.  Turtledove does this by having the Iranian's nuking (only one on the first round?) the Israelis; I think the potential problems could be a lot larger than that. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Environmental fiction list

I found a link, and then lost it.  I hate when that happens.

Some time ago, I found a list of environmental fiction (running to 2007) that had some different titles than the usual.  Not a list of apocalyptic fiction exactly, but a close cousin.

Environmental Novels: An Annotated Bibliography
Lauren Bordson, WMRC Library Intern and Laura L. Barnes, WMRC Librarian