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

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Christmas ghost of fracking past, present, and future

Peak Oil was generally supposed to mean ever escalating prices as the demand for oil pushed oil/gas/energy exploration further into the sphere of the remote and exotic: aka nuclear power plants to steam the water to melt the tar sands sufficiently to get them to poor.

The current Chinese bubble popping asset collapse has made for an interesting example of reality conflicting with expectations.  Trying to hold both ideas at the same time gets you into cognitive dissonance territory. Holding onto two incompatible beliefs at one time.

So why the fracking boom, and the cheap gas if we are going into peak oil.

Wolf Richter, Wolf Street, 15 March 2015
The boom in US oil production will continue “to defy expectations” and wreak havoc on the price of oil until the power behind the boom dries up: money borrowed from yield-chasing investors driven to near insanity by the Fed’s interest rate repression. But that money isn’t drying up yet – except at the margins.
Companies have raked in 14% more money from high-grade bond sales so far this year than over the same period in 2014, according to LCD. And in 2014 at this time, they were 27% ahead of the same period in 2013. You get the idea. 

So the lesson would be: "In the short run financial bubbles trump the normative pricing mechanisms of supply and demand."  And holding interest rates at zero percent will go a long way toward inducing a leveraged buying boom: the leverage (borrowing) is needed to make up for the insanely low rates of return. A $1 return on a $100 investment might be worth it if you only have to put $1 of your own money down and borrow the rest.  Of course if your $100 investment's value collapses to $50 before you can get sell out, Whoops! You now just lost 50x (rather than 1/2) your capital investment. So when leveraged investments get ugly, they get real ugly.  And they are getting ugly:

Wolf Richter, Wolf Street, 4 August 2015 (hat tip: NC)
Oil plunged again on Monday, with West Texas Intermediate down over 4%. At $45.17 a barrel, it’s just a hair away from this year’s oil-bust low. During 8 weeks in a row of relentless declines, WTI had plunged 26%. July’s 21% drop was the largest monthly decline since the Financial Crisis collapse in 2008.

The idea that Iran's oil production will be legit on the global market, isn't helping.  But Mr. Richter goes on to tell a story of various investment folks throwing good money after bad.  Not really seeing the scale of the Chinese collapse for what it is, they were banking on a return to the previous pricing levels. There doubling-down on their bets kept the money flooding into the supply side of the market. So far that plan hasn't looked so good.

So what does this really mean visa vi "Peak Oil."  It means that a bunch of people have blown a lot of money, and that in the process they have developed a bunch of techniques that should not have been economically feasible at current "normative" demands for oil.  For folks sitting on the sidelines, this is not always a bad deal. It's how fiber optic networks, the airlines, and railroads all were able to expand as rapidly as they did.  The problem is that catastrophic investment collapses (bubbles popping) tend to be highly deflationary.  Market transactions become unprofitable to those holding the assets, so they tend to hold onto them as long as possible.  If it all gets cleared out, eventually normal economic activity starts at a lower, more realistic level.  It's why holding cash during a collapse has often worked very well.  Your cash is now worth more.

So the real question is: If we are going to have to pay a more realistic proportion of our wealth toward energy consumption, what level does all of this "reset" at?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Greece - Coal - Global Warming

Greece, is going apparently going ahead with building a new coal-fueled power plant.  This post is somewhat dubious of the idea:

Crises-Watch, 2 August 2015 (hat tip: NC)
In the current dismal economic setting, the construction of the new lignite power plant by Greece's Public Power Corporation constitutes a completely irrational move: the public energy utility will need to disburse 400 million euros for a project that has been proven to be economically non-viable. By insisting stubbornly on the construction of Ptolemaida V, the PPC threatens to entrap Greece in an outdated energy model, at a time when technological progress renders clean energy a cost-competitive basis for the reconstruction of the country’s production model.

The link about Greek Coal burning power plant does ignore one very important point.  Greece has indigenous sources of goal, but has to import oil, gas, and presumably the "alternative" sources the post champions. 

Accounting in 2012 for over 30 % of the country’s total primary energy supply of 37.1 Mtce, lignite is Greece’s most important indigenous energy resource, although the country does have modest oil and gas reserves. Oil accounted for approximately 45 % of the country’s primary energy supply and Greece has a large refining industry which exports oil products. Consumption of imported natural gas increased significantly until the global economic crisis hit in 2008; gas had a 15 % share in 2012. At 0.4 Mtce, hard coal imports accounted for 1.2 % of total primary energy supply in 2012. Security of supply, low extraction costs and stable prices are important reasons why lignite will maintain a strong position in the energy market. 

Not saying that makes it smart, but it presumably goes a long way toward improving their balance of payments.  If they go the route of the economic pariah, they could go all-in like the Germans did prior to WW2 and liquefy coal to make  "synthetic" fuel.

This situation exemplifies one key problem with the idea that we are going to curtail our use of carbon-based fuels.  Curtailment is for the wealthy, or possibly, if we want to pat ourselves on the back, the prepared.  But having closely read international news (mostly through the pink sheet hard copy, Financial Times) for a number of years, I can assure you, if you think the politicians of the United States are stupendously inept, you can make yourself feel a little bit better about it by a close reading of the local politics of the rest of the world.  Every last bit of economically viable carbon-based fuel is going to get burned eventually.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Shooting down drones

A Kentucky man shot down a drone with a video camera that was hovering in his back yard.  He was arrested.  There is an interesting discussion into the legalities of the issue here:  Shooting Down Drones. It is well worth the read.

I might add that in a lot of areas it would matter a lot where you are at.  In almost every municipality in North Carolina, it is illegal to discharge firearms within town limits.  The argument would have to be that the drone "threatened" the home owner, but that is a little hard to argue if it is just hovering.  Yves at Naked Capitalism I think was onto one method: "they need a magnetic pulse to fry these buggers."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Remnant: Into the Collission: A Review

P.A. Douglas' The Remnant: Into the Collision is an apocalyptic novel set during and slightly after a (anticipated) meteor shower makes the earth borderline uninhabitable.  The action follows a couple of small groups in the area of Little Rock, Arkansas.

P.A. Douglas is self described as an author of several horror novels living in Southeast Texas.  He appears to focus on apocalyptic scenarios of the somewhat fantastical variety, with this one being pitched in a more "realistic" tone.  This novel was published through Permuted Press, which specializes in fanatically themed (zombies being typical) horror-apocalypse novels.

Byron Russo is hanging out, watching the end of the world on television, when a biker type crashes through his front window and forcefully forces himself into action.  Byron will wander around town a bit and be picked up by a mixed group of folks who are looking to survive in peace.

The other story line follows a group of low level Arkansas National Guardsman who see the chaos as an excellent way to become feudal overlords specializing in rape and murder.  They are evil in the most comic bookish sort of way.

Obviously the two groups will meet up.  The different twist with this novel is that the huge burn off of vegetation has also burned off much of the worlds oxygen.  This process is sufficient to where, survivors who don't find a way to supplement the natural oxygen levels, slowly turn imbecilic.  Which sounds like a great way to get a zombie story, but that doesn't happen here.  Needless to say our two groups are the local ones who find a way to keep breathing.

And, I think that is enough of the story line.  Much of the story is the interactions of the small group of good-guy survivors, and them working out their living conditions, and (remaining) aspirations.  Because they are such an odd collection of folks, I am not sure many people will be able to relate to their personal situations, but at least it is an effort to flesh out the characters.  This is offset though by the completely over the top evil of the National Guardsmen.  They are so one-dimensional as to be boring.  They are somewhat reminiscent of pre-70s pulp novels, having that element of soft core murder-porn - lots of discussion of sex, but no graphic description, and lots of graphic violence.

For myself, I found the process to be tedious.  You are essentially waiting for the two groups to collide and to see how it all shakes out.  Who will survive?  Well you get your collision, and while it does get stretched out a little, the resolution is a lot more straightforward than one would have thought for all the buildup.  The whole process lacks a buy-in.  It all just seems too set up.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

Realism? On some levels there is a concern for food, water, and air, but not at a really detailed enough level where you think the author actually has a clue as to what would be involved.  It's a pretty common problem within the catastrophe genre.  Since you cannot have the audience just use their built in assumptions about how the world works to fill in the missing details, you have to provide a lot more information about the environment.  But most folks really aren't all that well experienced, or read, about how society works.  An author taking their television-learned life experiences and translating them into the written word is bound to get you a pretty shallow experience.  And that is what I think is happening here.  You have fuzzy television level of realism, interspersed with "character-developing" dialog.  So how 'real' is 'fuzzy real'?  I am going to call it 4.

Readability is tough. Supposedly this is an action filled adventure.  But boy is there a lot of musing and dialog breaking up the action.  I kept loosing steam and putting the book down.  It took me a long time to get this one read (a month?).  Still it is a fairly straightforward story.  Call it a 4.