Friday, May 31, 2013

Is the world improving… despite our grouchy dogmas?

Poverty and violence are decreasing worldwide, at truly amazing rates. And of course - as we have seen - this fact seems anathema to grouches of both the far left and the entire right. But it does prove that the Great Program instituted by George Marshall, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and Dwight Eisenhower has been working, in a spectacular mix of good development assistance and the better half of capitalism.

I have described several times how Dr. Stephan Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, shows clearly that per capita rates of violence across the world have been plummeting (albeit with tragic unevenness) every decade since the Second World War. Even the recent, terribly unwise wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though in many ways regrettable and devastating to our U.S. economy, were nevertheless waged in a manner unlike what any other generation would have called "war," looking more like heavy-scale (sometimes fierce) SWAT team action than mass armies pounding and flattening everything in their path.

20130601_cna400But it is the fight against poverty that stands out even more. As reported in a recent Economist article, Towards the End of Poverty"In his inaugural address in 1949 Harry Truman said that “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of those people.” It has taken much longer than Truman hoped, but the world has lately been making extraordinary progress in lifting people out of extreme poverty. Between 1990 and 2010, their number fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people."

To be clear: I'm no pollyanna.  (1) These improvements are just enough to offer hope, not any excuse to let-up.  And (2) there are many areas that are not improving at a trajectory for success. Environmental worries top that list.  Nevertheless, violence and poverty are paramount, and the news in those areas is tentatively fantastic.

Why do we hear so little about this? Because amid today's callowly indignant political polarization and Phase Three of the American Civil War, good news serves the polemical interests of neither right nor left. The mania of the right is that "improvement" campaigns are manifestations of pushy do-gooder oppressors; things are rotten but that is the natural way of life and existence. Trying to "improve" people and the world is either nanny-frantic rudeness or else a commie plot.

The mania of the left is to hallucinate the most self-defeating fabulation of all. Not that we must improve… (I agree that we had better, a lot, or fail utterly)... but that chiding... and only chiding... will get us there.  That reflex, to emphasize only indignant finger-wagging, has been politically devastating, by alienating millions who naturally dislike being relentlessly guilt-tripped. Moreover it illogically and stupidly aims to motivate folks to take up progressive causes without ever admitting that earlier progressive campaigns to improve the world have actually … worked! 

Pause. Contemplate that sales pitch. Would you buy a product when those pushing it howl that it never worked? (This is why pragmatic liberals are essentially a different species from leftists.)

Feh. You can see how these right and left manias feed into each other. They are reciprocal addiction enablers. And extreme self-righteousness junkies are not the ones making a better world.  We are.

== Emissaries wanted! ==

1) Jay Lake is inviting folks who will be near Portland on June 27 to attend his "pre-mortem wake and roast, a somewhat morbid, deeply irreverent, but joyous celebration of me." Gawrsh, wish I could attend.  (And weep a little between jokes.) Volunteers wanted to proxy-me, praise a truly vivid life, and wish Jay happy trails.

2) Another METI - (Message to Extraterrestrials) - stunt appears to be underway, pushed ahead by fools who claim an arrogant right to speak for humanity, without ever discussing the issue in open debate with colleagues or the public. One group will be announcing their planned Yoohoo Shout at a news conference in New York City on June 11: 1pm at 500 Broadway (2nd fl).

For background on this vexing issue see: ShoutingCosmosShouting at the Cosmos: How SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory. Here is the shouters' rationalization: The Benefits and Harms of Beaming into Space, which is based (the Benford boys assure me) upon fallacious physics.

Out of all the members of our SETI dissidents group (arguing that there should be discussion involving top people from many fields, before small groups arrogate to go screaming into the cosmos on humanity's behalf, based on faulty assumptions) none of us are able to attend the news conference on short notice, or ask inconvenient questions. Do we have any volunteers from out there in the community? Calm sciencey types preferred!  Get in touch via comments below.

At minimum, we could learn who is funding this and who owns the telescope.

== A miscellany of fascinations… 

Are All Telephone Calls Recorded And Accessible To The US Government? Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, hinted that the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations (in the context of the Tsarnaev bombings.) Consider the implications of that blithe, offhand remark. The blogosphere went ballistic in outrage!

My reaction: and you expected… what? If they cannot do it now, they certainly will. Nothing on Earth will prevent the mighty (and I am more scared of oligarchs than civil servants) from seeing and hearing us.  We must concentrate our efforts not on trying (futilely) to blind them, but on measures that allow us (or trusted representatives of us) to sousveil and reciprocally look at the  mighty. If we cannot hide from the mighty, then let us strip them naked.

grafzeppelinSee an amazing 90 minute documentary on the Graf Zeppelin's 1929 voyage around the world. Especially fascinating is the portion about the airship's brush with death, after leaving Japan and barely surviving a Pacific typhoon, blown off course and coming  down near an uninhabited island to do repairs. (That part is 55 minutes in.)  A terrific show about olden times that (I believe) may in some ways come again!

(See my own future zeppelins! ;-)

You should know about the Cottingly fairies and other famous hoaxes!  Two little girls fooled the author of Sherlock Holmes.

And learn more about the online Museum of Hoaxes! 

Words that last: a research team has identified 23 “ultraconserved words” that have remained largely unchanged for 15,000 years, spanning not only Indo-European but several of the six other major language groups in Eurasia. Among them the root words for "hand" ("main") and "to give" ("donne").

==Mars Haiku==

MarsMavenNASA solicited "Haiku about Mars," -- to be sent aboard the MAVEN Spacecraft, to be launched late in 2013. I whipped out two Mars haiku in about a minute….  So I'll just share them with you now.

Does Mars need women?
And incidental males too?
Let's supply them soon.

Snowy Olympus
Juts into vacuum above
The oceans we'll revive.

== More Miscellany ==

FUTUREWRONGIn "The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be: Why Futurists and Pundits So Often Get It Wrong," Christian Cantrell (author of Containment) offers  a welcome reality check, or dose of cold water in the face, concerning our excessive utopian expectations from technology. 

Indeed, his comments on declining quality of air travel hit home. I expect air travel to keep getting worse, until -- fed-up -- the middle class forms mobs with torches and pirchforks to burn down the corporate jetports and chase the rich back into First Class, where they belong.  That would end our decline into misery, overnight!  But read this cogent essay.

Now come algorithms that will only let your browser come up with things that they think you'll like. My novel EARTH (1989) portrayed hackers in the 2020s deliberately tweaking this "nuremberg-ware" so that it would do the opposite.  Instead of helping people only see and hear and read what agrees with them, all saluting the same memes at the same time, the hacked relevance algorithms would let through different and provocative points of view.  Breaking folks out of the group-think "nuremberg rallies" of memic sameness.

What's the solution?  To introduce randomness into searches? Randomness won't work.  It just makes your searches less efficient.  What's needed is a small symbol showing if someone with very high reputation and credibility scores disagrees or finds fault.  You can click on the symbol, or not.  But just glimpsing the symbol, flashing over on the far right, would say "there is dissent to this; don't assume it's just given."  Of course for this to work, we need the desperately neglected cred-and-reputation system I designed.

Or take a simpler wholesome reality check. A feel-good public relations move that just might do some good… Coca-Cola has set up hyper-window vending machines in India and Pakistan that let you meet, play games or dance with folks in the other country, then toast them with Coke. I hope this isn't a one-off but that they will deploy dozens.  Also, I hope the screens are Gorilla Glass viz the inevitable hate attacks.  Clearly they must be set up in affluent and highly supervised shopping malls.  Still… what fun.

A Guardian analysis of the top 50 video games sold in 2012 found more than half contain violent content labels. One third have weapons that depict real-life firearms.

== Artistry Notes ==

I've quite enjoyed the web-comic called "Tragedy Series" by Benjamin Dewey.  Done in sepia with a Victorian-Steampunk ambiance, these little one-image postcard vignettes are lovely jolts of dark wit and sometimes even genuine irony.

ThreeBodyProblemNext year will see the english language publication of THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by the greatest sci fi author ever in China, Liu Cixin.  It takes a very dark view of METI, by the way.

I will speak more in coming months about this top-flight, truly exceptional series and its excellent translation by our own Ken Liu.  

But when you do read it, you may never think the same about "harmless" METI shouts into the cosmos.


Tim H. said...

METI might be blamed on not enough people reading science fiction, it'd be difficult to imagine someone who'd read any of Larry Niven's "Known Space" stories thinking it'd be fun to invite Kzinti.

psikeyhackr said...

How do they measure poverty?

Our economists emphasize cash flow.

It is possible to have large cash flow and negative NET WORTH.

Von said...

As of this post, any sentient civilization bent on our destruction is either on its way here at relativistic speeds, thus giving us from one second after reading this post to almost 100 years to prepare for contact, or get lost. Logic might suggest those able to communicate and move faster than light probably fear or are interested in our planet of morons with the same enthusiasm a lamborgini owner has for pogo sticks. As for METI, I would cherish the opportunity to represent. However, it is my firm belief that sending bad 1970's porn would be more informative to an alien species about humanity then a bunch of words and opinions from a secular ever.

Stephen Beres said...

However ambitious and exciting the prospect of conveying a message to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligent beings, I am rightfully humbled by my (our) lack being able to communicate with species that we share our planet with.
Even TV signals that form an ever-expanding sphere of transmmited visual information needs reception and decoding to turn them into meaningful images on the part of any potential receiver of the stream modulated signals.
This post is great in its breadth and depth, and worth a better response than spontaneous reaction I have brought to bear in the lateness of the hour.

Von said...

Given Fermi and Drake functions, and given that 200 billion stars in our galaxy likely represent a concervative 1.4 co-existing sentient civilizations, including our own, now able to broadcast and receive, and theorizing that extinct species whose machiens still functioning on the AI level are benign and non sequeter, and that there exists an additional factor for life intelligences not as we might understand, there is the very likely probability that METI, using a high powered and focused beam transmission, directed at all the stars within 10,000 light years, could broadcast "Fuck You Aliens" with no consequences what so ever. Though the AIs might beam back in 20,000 years, "Yo momma so fat when when we laser her head off, KFC gravy gonna shoot out. "

Edit_XYZ said...

"Very good question. Obviously I cannotprove all the easily accessible switches to prolong lifespan were already flicked. But I can show you why it is likely:

1) We've had 10,000 years of kingship, in which a small clade of grandparents not only lived past the normal billion heartbeats to get the human 2.5 billion, but lived in comfort and had access to the kingdom's most fecund women. For as long as the king could produce good sperm, for that long he would reproduce and those who did it longer had more kids.

2) Low-hanging means readily accessible without high tech. And believe you me those kings ordered experiments! The chinese annals are filled with tales like the First Emperor, ordering thousands experimented on to find elixers of youth. Those who lived long were interviewed and their diets etc studied. To think this did not happen with care and detail is historical contempt and bigotry.

6000 years of ascetic monasteries, and not one of them found an elixer, That sounds like using up low hanging fruit. They looked for it!

Now what WE deem low-hanging is another matter. I claim even the middle branches are bare. Some may not be and Pharma is looking hard. I hope I am wrong."

You define low-hanging as:
- diets with ingredients past civilisations could produce in significant quantities. In my opinion, that is not low hanging, it's the fruits to be found on the ground - and yes, chances are such diets don't have significant effects on longevity (that does not mean certainty, though - what were the lifestyles of those monks beyond calorie restriction, for example; etc - these were not proper scientific experiments; more like poorly aimed shots in the dark).
- kings and princelings mating with fecund women.
Perhaps you mean women from long-lived families? If this was tried (can you name examples), the children may well have been longer lived than their fathers - but not longer lived than their mothers' lineages. Another fruit laying on the ground.

All those civilisations in our past were scientifically all but illiterate by comparison to us.
To us, high tech solutions are actually becoming low-hanging fruits, whereas for them, such solutions were utterly unreachable.

"(BTW "Edit XYZ" you aren't fooling anyone.)"


Ian said...


"Our economists emphasize cash flow."

No, we really don't.

You might want to take a look at the Multidimensional Poverty Index which ignores income in dollar terms entirely in favor of measures such as years of schooling, child mortality, access to electricity and clean drinking.

Multidimensional poverty is declining in 21 of the 22 years where we can make a multi-year comparison. (It's a relatively new measure.)

Paul451 said...

[I left a reply to Jerry in the last thread, re: lifespan/etc, to avoid polluting this new thread. But to Robert's last comment I'll reply here...]

"Given that we are now able to do effective three-dimensional printing... has anyone considered examining molecular structures of existing materials to find a shape that is more efficient and increases the strength of the material?"

It's not so much "strengthening" by shape, it's that we remove material that doesn't add to the strength, so that you get the same strength for less mass.

So you want a fractal version of an "iso-truss" (google image it), where the strands in the truss are themselves iso-trusses, ad infinitum, at least down to single molecules.

It's not really a 3d printer thing, it's more molecular self-assembly.

Steve Reilly said...

The ultra-conserved words article doesn't really stand up to scrutiny:

Naum said...

Wow, lots of good stuff in this post…

On sousveillance front, relevant the recent crop of legislation prohibiting private use of drones (i.e., Texas, other local governments), this information unbalance is indeed a developing issue -- that the state will be able to fly drones about, but private individuals will not. I'm no libertarian, but that prospect is rankling to me.

Alex Tolley said...

Reputation and credibility. I haven't read about how this would be done, but I have to wonder what the criteria would be, given the differing world views of even just the US population.

Dr. Brin - can you post a link to your solution?

Alex Tolley said...

until -- fed-up -- the middle class forms mobs with torches and pirchforks to burn down the corporate jetports and chase the rich back into First Class, where they belong. That would end our decline into misery, overnight!

Really? First class travelers already avoid most of the frustrations and inconveniences of modern air travel. I think you might need to force everyone, no exceptions, to travel economy. That might get some changes made.

Alex Tolley said...

I don't see how we will ever see the likes of a zeppelin ever again, except for very niche markets.

What breaks them is economics - their cost cannot be amortized as quickly as can a fast airliner, so they will be more expensive. While I loved the image of the tethered zeppelins in "Existence", their economic logic did not make any sense to me.

It is the same logic that will make access to space affordable - reusable craft with high frequency of flights.

psikeyhackr said...

How much have America consumers lost on the depreciation of automobiles since the Cuban Missile Crisis? What have American economist said about planned obsolescence since then?

Discussing Western economic theory without including planned obsolescence is nonsense. How much poverty could have been eliminated but for that? But Demand Side Depreciation happens no matter what, but some how it does not get incorporated into the NET Domestic Product.

Ian said...

"How much have America consumers lost on the depreciation of automobiles since the Cuban Missile Crisis? What have American economist said about planned obsolescence since then?

Discussing Western economic theory without including planned obsolescence is nonsense. How much poverty could have been eliminated but for that? But Demand Side Depreciation happens no matter what, but some how it does not get incorporated into the NET Domestic Product."

Thinking that planned obsolescense has anything to to do with real poverty - defined as stuff like not having sealed floors, having school-age children not in school and not ating regularly.

Is pretty much the efintion of "First world Problems".

When th Economist talks about the end of poverty, they're talking about the edn of mass starvation not how frequently you feel obligated to upgrade your cellphone.

David Brin said...

XYZ… you carped at me for devious redefinition… and then you define away ALL of human history with a hand-wave by calling it "fruit on the ground"? Suddenly every natural food substance, every dietary or exercise or meditative or thermal or any other natural regimen is off the table as "low hanging fruit"! Exsqueeze me?

Sorry, I used the term first and blatantly it stood for things that we can easily modify without extensive design and artificiality and science. And indeed, fruit flies and mice and all those "analogues" DO have access to sudd low hanging ways to live longer. E.g. caloric restriction. When they starve a while, they put off sex and aging until a more normal pattern is available again. Duh?

Dig it, low hanging fruit means that the body already contains the modular methods for living longer that merely need to somehow be triggered. WHy in the world would such modules or processes or subroutines exist… if nature had no way to trigger them?

And even in that case, why would no human have accidentally have stumbled into them? Given that an immortal man would have huge advantages and get to pass on the mutation a LOT. Sorry, Science mayh come up with marvelous cludges and nanomachines to repair cells and all that. But that ain't "low-hanging."

David Brin said...

Alex, there are ways to build a reputation -pseudonymity service, one that should make someone a billion dollahs. Can't get anyone with money to listen. EXTREME "Low hanging fruit."

Sorry, First Class passengers don't even get complimentary memberships in the airline clubs! Service in 1st has been declining because no one rich & powerful flies that way anymore. Even if they have the Frequent Traveler ID and a special frisking line, they still face our delays and some degree of the same discomfort.

Heck I want them paying first because it helps subsidize tickets in coach!

Anyway I ain't no socialist. Let the rich get better stuff. But it should be the same KIND of stuff coming from the same pipes. That way, the pipes will be well-tended.

David Brin said...

My tethered zeppelins let you remove the weight of fuel and engines and electricity generation. That is huge. Even water and beverages can be piped up from a service coach below. The chief obstacle is developing a completely unblocked right of way all the way across the country.

The Japanese saved us from the worst planned obsolescence in the 1980s by offering consumers better stuff. That slap across the face saved US industry.

Alex Tolley said...

I'm sorry, but I still do not see the economic logic of the tethered airship. It is speed limited - 100 mph? It is susceptible to bad weather. You cannot reliably end your journey in a city center.

How is floating in the sky attached to a train, a better approach than just taking the train? The train can go faster, do point to point city center journeys, operate in almost all weather.

To me the airship for passenger travel is like taking a cruise - slow, likely to be somewhat costly, but much more civilized and should be able to offer trips that would not be possible by other means. But for the same reasons long most distance passenger journeys are no longer done with ships, I don't see the airship (tethered or free flying) making much of an impact.

So let's say aircraft travel becomes a real pain. Next choice would be taking the train. In a few years, the self driving car might be an attractive alternative to the train.

Jumper said...

Re: privacy, at present any two people who see each other in person once only, could set up a one-time pad of sufficient size, using a computer and any of several types of individualized and non-standardized algorithms, to last a lifetime of verbal/written communications.

To most people it's too much trouble.

Tim H. said...

The tethered dirigible idea does look like novelty transport, ultimate skycar? What it might look like if it happened in the near future is a limited range craft that would fly from the airport to a point on an unimpeded railroad right of way, hook up o a dirigible tow car, that could be part of a passenger, or freight train. The flight crew could relax until they reached the point where they would detach to fly independently to the airport, or if needed, detach to fly around a storm. Now, and for the next few years, it would be a more expensive way to ride a train, but a freight RR might enjoy charging for the tow.

Jerry Emanuelson said...


I left a 3-part reply to your last response to me back in the last thread.

Ian said...

How about combining tethered airships with beamed microwave or laser power to make electric aircraft viable?

Paul451 said...

Thanks Jerry. Impressive. Have you convinced any other men in your extended family to try the same test/treatment?

(Anyone interested in senescence or personal genomics, Jerry's comments are well worth reading.)

David Brin said...

If you read EXISTENCE, you'd know that 99% of the towed zeps were for cargo.

Jerry Emanuelson said...


Only one relative has gotten a genomic scan. Looking at one's raw genomic data can be pretty formidable.

A free DNA wiki called helps. You can find information about my genome on . You can also find information there about Steven Pinker's genome; but I don't think that you'll find any indication in his genome of why he wrote The Better Angels of our Nature, although his genome probably had some influence.


Tim H. said...

Conventional rail + electric delivery trucks would mostly make more sense, with the exception of delivering shipments too bulky for light delivery vehicles, or to remote locations, without resorting to major road construction or using a hydrocarbon guzzling Skycrane. Could see such tech enabling a car free community.

Robert said...

"If you read EXISTENCE, you'd know that 99% of the towed zeps were for cargo." -Dr. Brin

To be honest, Dr. Brin, unless you'd recently read "Existence" then that might have slipped by the reader. My question is this: how did they handle the problem with the multiple bridges that railroads have to go through? Nevermind the overpasses, most train bridges over rivers would likely cause problems. And of course there's the railroads that go through Colorado... and frequently go through tunnels.

It's a beautiful dream, mind you, and such concepts are at the core of science fiction (and thus the zeppelins become yet another sci-fi element to amaze readers). But the problems with it would probably cost more to compensate for than the benefits would provide. At least, in the U.S. - in other countries that don't have lots of rivers and plenty of flat land, it may be quite viable.

Rob H.

Robert said...

Addendum: I state "recently" because you mention it in one or two paragraphs. The zeppelins are a Chekhov's Gun allowing for this particular protagonist to become a heroine... and suffer (for the short term) as a consequence of her actions (even if she and that poor chap whose name eludes me paid a price in saving thousands).

Tim H. said...

I haven't read Existence recently, but a farther future , with a few more decades of free rider, oops, tax "fairness" inspired infrastructure neglect might have a lot fewer bridges to deal with. In the immediate future the tech is more like a way for the 1% to further distance themselves from the 99%.

Paul451 said...

Re: New METI attempt
"able to attend the news conference on short notice, or ask inconvenient questions. Do we have any volunteers from out there in the community? Calm sciencey types preferred!"

Or, failing that, someone willing to run in the room naked, wearing a blind-fold, waving their arms around, screaming "Look at me, look at me, I don't know what's going on, but everyone look at me! I'm special because I can make a noise, everyone Look At Me!"

Re: Cottingly fairies
"Two little girls fooled the author of Sherlock Holmes."

To be fair, while Ian Fleming was basically James Bond during WWII, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was definitely no Sherlock. Not only was he into spiritualism, not only did he believe most psychics he met, but when Harry Houdini tried to show him how the tricks worked, Doyle thought Houdini had real psychic powers, even after Houdini showed him how the trick worked.

Re: Conserved words.
I would have thought the common-word for bark would have been more onomatopoeic. Kiri/kira doesn't seem... barky enough. (The word for spit, otoh, is definitely "p'tooey".)

"But just glimpsing the symbol, flashing over on the far right,"

Oh, to be able to turn off the flashing symbols over on the far right...

Re: Hyperwindows.
"Clearly they must be set up in affluent and highly supervised shopping malls."

Hell no. The poorest places.

Re: Led Zeppelins.
My brain doesn't want to figure the forces... But does the buoyancy of carrying cargo in the Zep mean the tow vehicles can be lighter? Or does the drag/inertia mean you end up with the same mass on the tracks/roads anyway? Because if the former, then being able to carry freight-train masses on light-rail might be where the cost saving comes in.

I've wished the hyperwealthy (such as the Russian oil billionaires) would do something useful and actually order one of those hybrid air-ship yachts I see on design sites.

Ian said...

"To be fair, while Ian Fleming was basically James Bond during WWII, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was definitely no Sherlock. Not only was he into spiritualism, not only did he believe most psychics he met, but when Harry Houdini tried to show him how the tricks worked, Doyle thought Houdini had real psychic powers, even after Houdini showed him how the trick worked."

To be fair to Sir Arthur MOST of the credulity about spiritualism came after his son was killedin WWI.

He also deserves to be remembered for more noble endeavors his campaign to expose the abuses in the Belgian Congo.

Tony Fisk said...

My understanding is that Zeps main problem is bouyancy.

As I've suggested a few times before, Di Lana's initial idea of flight using evacuated spheres should be feasible with modern materials.

(Besides, the thought of levitating with a bicycle pump appeals to my sense of the whimsical! Kickstarter, anyone?)

Dirigibles have a huge surface area that could obtain some solar power, but good point about beamed transmission, Ian.

I'm not sure about the point of tethering. I will have to re-read that bit when I retrieve my loaned copy of Existence.

I can think of a myriad number of uses/roles for zeps: satellite relay, skycrane, fire fighting, all terrain 'door to door' transport, mobile home, high altitude wind/solar array...

(and I think Kitty O'sullivan Krauss was a visionary! As is this young lady.)

Someone streaking into the METI conference yelling 'HERE I AM!',...
... and getting tasered, would probably make the point.

David Brin said...

I love the idea of the attention shouting streaker (or even fully clothed) at the METI news conference!

Towed dirigibles.... = LED zeppelins??? I never made that connection!

Ian said...

I agree that Zeppelins will have huge difficulties competing with planes for the reasons Alex points out - not without either a massive increase in fuel costs or some way of delivering cargo from a Zep direct to the front door of commerical customers.

However, they can beat sea freight on speed. They probably can't meet the cost/mile of sea freight but a very large part of the total cost of freight movement is internodal transfer: moving freight from truck to train to ship and then back on the other end.

The transfer costs can be 30% or more of the total cost of intercontinental shipping.

If, say, Zeppelins can cut out one or more of those intermediate steps, they may become competitive in some areas of fast freight.

I know there have been business case studies done on fast freight ships capable of doing 30-50 knots per hour (compared with 15-25 for most current large cargo ships.)

Nothing's eventuated yet but I know that in my own business I'd find that an attractive alternative to air and current ships for some cargo.

Paul451 said...

"As I've suggested a few times before, Di Lana's initial idea of flight using evacuated spheres should be feasible with modern materials."

Helium weighs 4/29ths (14%) as much as the same volume of dry air. Hydrogen weighs 2/29ths (6%).

The only materials capable of enclosing a vacuum large enough to support the weight of the shell are only available in minute scales in labs, like graphene, or as fragments mixed with bulk materials like nanotubes. But even if mere carbon fibre was capable... Imagine if you told a currently uneconomical rail-freight company that by replacing its steel rollingstock entirely with carbon-fibre, at several hundred time the cost, you could increase their carrying capacity by a whole 14%!

atomsmith said...

> you could increase their carrying capacity by a whole 14%!

...and remove the dependence on increasingly rare Helium, or the insurance nightmare of Hydrogen.

Anonymous said...

WARNING: This is a BASIC and "why Johnny can't code" sort of comment.

My intent is not to "stir the pot" yet again to generate debate. We have done that quite a bit before and some, maybe most here, would prefer to skip it. If so, fine -- hence the WARNING at the beginning. Fair is fair.

It's just that I saw something yesterday I liked in the "BASIC/Why Johnny Can't Code" ballpark but which I believe takes a tack complementary to those taken earlier in our discussions. As far as I recall, anyway. I didn't go back and reread everything. Just went by my recollection.

Here is the snippet I found amusing enough to prompt me to post here. I'll provide the link to the whole blog post below.

Begin Quote

When I was a kid, I loved math… or, at least, I loved figuring out the algorithms behind the calculation. I learned BASIC when I was 5 or 6, so when got to middle school, and discovered that the Texas Instruments graphing calculators we were required to buy for class spoke just about the same dialect of BASIC I had learned as a kid (I first learned to code on a TI 99/4A), I was so excited. Once I could derive the algorithm from a new concept we were being taught, I could express it in code and skip the boring parts. I’ve never done well when bored.

Alas, my youthful optimism was to be dashed on the rocks of pedagogical ignorance and stupidity. First, I was told that I wouldn’t receive credit for my correct answers because I didn’t “show my work”.

On the next exam, I wrote out the source listing of each program I had used with a reference to the problems to which it had been applied (I’m pretty sure the number of GOTOs I used in those days would have made Dijkstra cry).

That’s when they usually called my mom in for a conference.

I have to give my mother credit here. We went into those meetings facing an irate math teacher discussing how I was being insolent and writing a program instead of learning the math concepts I was supposed to learn in the class. My mother's response was a deadpan "If he didn't understand the concepts, how could he write the program?"

Did I mention my mom is awesome?

End Quote

The whole blog post, in case anyone here is interested:

-- ToddR

Anonymous said...

Oh, I guess I should ATTEMPT to argue that my earlier comment was germane.

Post title was "Is the world improving ... despite our grouchy dogmas?"

At least some comments in the earlier threads re BASIC and Johnny being able to code or not struck me as "grouchy dogmas".

And in my view, opinion pieces such as the blog post I referenced suggest that the world may be improving, at least in that arena.

-- ToddR

Alex Tolley said...

@Ian - dirigibles: "However, they can beat sea freight on speed."

They could indeed, but what would their reliability be? The documentary on the Graf Zeppelin makes the issues of weather difficulties quite graphic. Does a contemporary business really want a faster, but highly interruptible transport system, or a slower, reliable one?

I recently saw a Top Gear episode where James May was flying a blimp on a relatively calm day and couldn't land it on an airfield.

Our local SF bay area airship touring company closed shop last year. Their ticket prices for a short tour were $375+, about what you pay for a round trip flight across the US. Their claim is that high helium costs proved unsustainable. I used to see the ship on clear, calm days (we get a lot of those!) but never on days with wind or rain.

I don't see freight costs being lower than aircraft given those figures.

Now I do wonder if a slow zeppelin towed by a small sub might make sense for transoceanic pleasure trips. The sub would be more efficient at making headway than air propellers and far less sensitive to wind speed and direction, the zeppelin would be immune to wave action, allowing for a smoother trip (in fair weather). The sea surface allows a wide range of routes and definitely no hazards like bridges and tunnels. What might be really cool is a very high flying zeppelin (50,000+ ft?) so that you would be in smoother stratosphere, seeing the ocean far below with a blue black sky above, yet making 30+ kph, allowing for leisurely 2 week trips across the Pacific, about the same rate as taking a cruise ship.

Robert said...

And now... Science!

A supercomputer may have created a simulation of the HIV virus which could result in a cure. Yes, this is what science can do, when properly funded. If this results in a cure for HIV (and hopefully an inexpensive one) then what will they do next, I wonder? Perhaps cure the common cold? Or even find a method of crafting a universal flu vaccine?

Not science, but still fascinating... here's a blog entry about a girl who found out that suicide hurts more than just family. The thing is? She didn't try to kill herself, and it wasn't someone she knew. Instead, it was a simple wrong number and an odd incident which ended up... well, read the article. If anyone has ever had suicidal ideation, instead of thinking of how family will react... think about one's dentist. Or one's doctor. Or a tax preparer who regularly does your taxes. Or the hair stylist who always does your hair.

We are, all of us, interconnected in ways we don't realize. And knocking a peg loose can in turn snarl other lives and cause an emptiness in people you wouldn't think of.

Back to Science! Astronomers may have found evidence of an interuniversal collision... of ripples in reality itself that are either of one collision or of several. Naturally, more study is needed to confirm this, but there may very well be proof that there IS a multiverse. And I must wonder... what happens when universes collide?

Rob H.

Ian said...


It's technically an aerostat rather than a airship but the Aeroscraft appears to have solved these problems to the satisfaction of the US military,

Tim H. said...

Something in a different direction:
Molecules photographed as they form chemical bonds.

Alfred Differ said...

Airships shouldn't amortize like airplanes. They should do so like transport ships because that is much closer to what they are and how they function.

I'm not a big fan of operating them low to the ground due to power demands for station keeping in the wind. Towing them off-loads the mass required for that, but the power still has to be applied at the airship to maintain orientation.

If an airship was capable of short-term independent flight, it could latch on to a toe in regions devoid of obstructions to save costs. If enough was saved, that would motivate clearing the spaces above tracks and finally motivate us to move tracks away from their traditional paths established in an older century. If that happens, we should renegotiate traffic priorities and snuff out a small but persistent cause of deaths in small towns, namely cars vs trains.

Paul451 said...

"I recently saw a Top Gear episode where James May was flying a blimp on a relatively calm day and couldn't land it on an airfield."

Errr, was that the one where James flew a blimp made out of a caravan? It wasn't exactly the model of the modern airship.

But this does help justify David's fictional tethered airships. Can run in any wind, or wind-direction. Assuming you have enough clearance for them to swing around. There are designs of airships that are negatively buoyant, and use hull-shape to generate lift while flying. A towed airship with an aerodynamic lifting hull would work well. Engine mass on the ground, traction to reduce the effects of wind, streamlined shape to reduce drag to increase maximum speed, control surfaces on the airship to stabilise it, lifting hull to increase cargo capacity.

Re: Vacuum airships
"...and remove the dependence on increasingly rare Helium, or the insurance nightmare of Hydrogen."

The Hindenburg was, as is often pointed out these days, painted with solid-rocket fuel. That was the primary issue, not the hydrogen. If modern materials can handle a hard vacuum, they can sure as hell safely handle unpressurised non-cryogenic hydrogen. (Not to mention newer designs that prevent the hydrogen cells from coming into contact with oxygen.)

OTOH, if you've ever witnessed a seal on a hard vacuum chamber let go, you'd understand why a vacuum airship won't insurance friendly either.

Re: Aero vacua navi.

Had a think about this. Even with modern materials, a solid shell would only be right on the edge of possible. The real world doesn't like "right on the edge of possible", real world performance will always be less. (For example, inevitable defects in manufacture.)

However, instead of a solid shell containing an open volume, it might be possible to have a "structural" material throughout the volume. That is, a material woven into an open 3d fractal lattice to retain the strength of the material while eliminating weight. Then the airtight shell would simply skin the inner structure, not also hold up against the force of the air across the entire span.

But then I realised another problem... composites hate vacuums. Even with a solid shell, the inside of the shell is exposed to a hard vacuum, resulting in outgasing and embrittlement. [My "structural volume" idea is worse. Nothing but surface area.]

["fallacious octolove" My comments have been call worse.]

Alex Tolley said...

@paul451 - I think James was flying a regular blimp. James makes some pretty crazy stuff, but a blimp out of a caravan? Whoa!

See Ian's comment about Aeroscraft. This is a different version of managing lift. They claim it isn't a hybrid, but I'm not clear about that point. It uses a double skin and changers teh volume of the helium cells to manage buoyancy. This is claimed to solve the ballast problem. In reality, this is just a newer version of technology that is around 100 years old.

I think DB's claim is that the advantage of tethered airships resides in the placement of the power and water on the ground, which mitigates a major problem with traditional airships. However I would argue that the major issue is actually economic as a result of operational constraints, when applied to mass transit alternatives. IMO, the tethered version doesn't solve that issue, but I could be wrong.

Airships, like sailing ships, are magnificent machines that seem to stir the soul. I've never heard an enthusiastic description of a cargo container ship.

The most interesting airship proposal I've read is J P Aerospace's "floating to space" proposal. I don't believe it can work, but it is an interesting "out of the box" idea.

In similar vein, Rick Cavallaro's demonstration that you can travel both downwind and upwind faster than the wind (> 2x), suggests that there are interesting transport avenues to explore that are fast, yet non-fuel using. Sometimes counterintuitive ideas real do work.

locumranch said...

Method of transport is a matter of preference, not economics, and David's dirigible idea is just as efficient & economical as our current infrastructure-dependent system of automobiles, airlines & railroads.

As a culture, we've made a number of logical errors in regard to the language of transport, confusing rapidity (speed) with efficiency, convenience with economy and desirability with necessity, even though these terms are clearly non-equivalent.

I put it to you (even though I should not have to) that 'rapidity' is inversely related to 'efficiency', that 'convenience' most often signifies the antithesis of economy (aka 'expense') and that 'needs' are finite while desires are not.

I would also argue that our society's 'need' for transport springs from our ongoing preference for centralized industrial production which is both illogical & culturally suspect in our Post-Fordist world.


matthew said...

"Method of transport is a matter of preference, not economics" is the single-most wrong statement I've heard all week. And I've watched Fox in the last 48 hours.
Economics is *always* time-driven. If I give an apple to a starving man, it is priceless. If I give an apple to the same man at a different time in their life it is worthless.
Accounting for the time factor is what is called logistics, for those that are hung up on the use of language. Logistics are the difference between universal plenty and starvation, between the Americanization of Afghanistan and the chaos of the warlords, between getting settlers to Mars and dying as a race on one single blue wet rock.
Logistics are everything. And time is the most important variable.

TheMadLibrarian said...

"Method of transport" is very significant, being situation-dependent. I live on an island with no bridges off of it. If I want to leave, I cannot drive or take a train. I might take a boat, if one is going where I need to go, but air transport will be my primary means of departure.

Transportation is always a tradeoff. As the old saying goes, you can have X fast, cheap or good -- pick two.

ckspoli: New style of urban development

Alfred Differ said...


You are being silly now. 8)

>Method of transport is a matter of preference, not economics

There is a difference? Economics is one branch of the study of human actions. Money is a proxy for delayed choice, so it is all about preferences.

>As a culture, we've made a number of logical errors in regard to the language of transport, confusing rapidity (speed) with efficiency, convenience with economy and desirability with necessity, even though these terms are clearly non-equivalent.

Utter nonsense. Cultures don't choose anything first of all. Second, we have multiple transport methods covering a range of speeds. Third, it is obvious that 'desirable' and 'necessary' are different because this is all about preference. I don't need bananas delivered to my supermarket in California shipped from Central or South America, but I do desire them to arrive and arrive fast enough to not be rotten when they arrive.

>I put it to you (even though I should not have to) that 'rapidity' is inversely related to 'efficiency', that 'convenience' most often signifies the antithesis of economy (aka 'expense') and that 'needs' are finite while desires are not.

How Orwellian of you to offer a mangling of our language. First off, efficiency is meaningless in the larger economy because there is no mechanism by which to 'economize'. Bananas arrive in the market at a particular price because demand lures them here, not because there is anything efficient about it.

>I would also argue that our society's 'need' for transport springs from our ongoing preference for centralized industrial production which is both illogical & culturally suspect in our Post-Fordist world.

Here is where you go off the deep-end. Humanity has lived in environmental niches largely defined by the cost of tranport since we first became human. The transport agent was us way back when, but we learned to make canoes, rafts and eventually larger boats. As we did, our relationship with the land, rivers, and sea changed. Our industrial world is merely more of the same with other transport options thrown into the mix.

Look at the historical centers of cultural wealth and you'll find navagable rivers and lakes. Look at traditional trade routes and you'll find rivers, sheltered coastlines, and small seas. The silk road through Asia might look like an odd exception, but look again at the trading technology used by those who traversed it. There are analogues for boats involved.

Robert said...

BTW, Dr. Brin, I'd like your opinion and that of anyone who has enough knowledge of astronomy to prove or disprove a point I'm arguing. In short, I've taken upon it to disprove people claiming that when you wish upon a star, the star's dead and so are your dreams. If we are able to make out an individual star, that means it has to be fairly close (cosmically-speaking) for us to make out that specific star. Thus we're not seeing stars millions of light years away because the stars in our own galaxy are at most a couple hundred thousand light years away... and thus in all likelihood still undergoing fusion. (I also dismissed the whole theory of a "dead" star as stars aren't alive as we define life. Thus rather than a "living" star I called it a star undergoing fusion.)

While galaxies can be millions or more light years away, we cannot make out the light of an individual star in another galaxy without the aid of a telescope. Thus if you wish upon a cluster of stars or a galaxy, you are in fact wishing upon an entire group of stars, most of which will still be undergoing fusion... and the galaxy as a whole will still be a cohesive unit.

My question is this: how far away would a galaxy be before we are no longer able to view its light without aid (from a telescope or similar instrument)? After all, if I'm disproving the "the stars are dead and so are your dreams" I should do my best to completely stomp the meme into the ground. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Robert you are right. Most of the starts we see are withing 10,000 light years. See:

Von said...

2112. Better than rep.

Von said...

Angstron observation focus data is limited by virtue of wave function. We might suggest that current observation is analogous to putting on shoes to determine their material. Only when electromagnetics are fully understood at mass gauss levels will we be able to determine Witten dimensional co extant mass law- by dimensional sensors.

LarryHart said...

The Mad Librarian:

As the old saying goes, you can have X fast, cheap or good...

And in real life, if you ask that question of your boss, the answer is inevitably "yes". In other words, a humorous way of saying "All of them, of course." I've never in my adult working life heard any answer to that question other than something that implies "All of them, of course."

Which is the example I use in order to demonstrate the fallacy of the belief that, unlike governmnent bureaucracies, private industry knows how things really work in the real world. In fact, private industry is just as credulous of "six impossible things before breakfast" as government is.

locumranch said...

Matthew and Alfred have been drinking the social kool-aid, and they've bought the whole pig in its technological poke.

In terms of transportation, the cheapest & most economical form of transportation -- our feet -- is also the most efficient @ 55% by biological models. Next, come the feet of beasts & livestock, then feet & arms augmented by wheels, wind & water, then steam, combustion & any type of modern engine, while speed in almost any form is always uneconomical, inefficient & wasteful and convenience always implies increased expense or waste.

Our social obsession with speedy inefficient transport was sold to us, marketed to us, by the same social forces which sold us on two world wars (etc), the military-industrial complex, consumerism, mandatory employment & the suburban lifestyle as attested by William H. Whyte's 'The Organization Man'.

True believers like Matthew and Alfred (and many technophiles) have it all backwards: Our technologies didn't make this world as we know it. Instead, we choose to refashion our world in order to accommodate our technologies & make them necessary.


Alfred Differ said...


Nope. You demonstrate my point by specifying a particular measure of efficiency after the discussion starts instead of before. Caloric efficiency is just one measure and it depends a great deal on what gets counted. Do we include the calories a horse eats if we don't have to provide for it because it was able to graze enough without our help or are we trying to track everything? For someone having to buy enough food to feed their horse, this matters.

Efficiency is a fuzzy term that depends upon what one optimizes. For engines in thermodynamics we use the work they do and count all input energy and work out the ratio. For someone having to finance an engine development project, though, they aren't going to care much about that unless it affects sales. They WILL care about efficient use of the money borrowed under compound interest. They will want to know the optimal path through the 'workspace' that leads to the least interest paid. They might even want nearby paths that cost more if they are sensible enough to pay attention to risks.

Once a group of people gets larger than an extended family group it is difficult to define what is optimal when it comes time to 'efficiently' use scarce resources. It isn't that the problems are difficult to solve. The problem is that people don't agree. In families it is relatively easy to define efficiency as the best use of resources that keeps everyone fed, clothed, and sheltered as much as possible. The objective is instinctive and the optimization method well honed by countless generations. In larger communities, though, that doesn't work. Who gets fed when the food is running out? My kids or yours?

Trade solves the optimization problem by sacrificing the meaning of 'efficiency'. It simply isn't defined anymore than is the difference between a duck.

Robert said...

Furthermore, the use of farm animals improved the efficiency of farms by allowing us to plow fields. Prior to that we were dependent on the land itself and thus if there was a rocky field we wouldn't be able to effective farm it.

Farm machinery further improved our efficiency by eliminating the need to constantly care for horses or steers to use in plowing fields with a machine that needs less constant care, even if the care increases in cost. Further, the use of farm machinery reduced the amount of time needed for a farm. What once took hundreds of people to do can now be done by a handful. This allowed for cities to become significant population centers and also let more people join the labor force.

If we never bothered to improve technologically we'd be hunter-gatherers with a high death rate and no real civilization. How is that better than what we have now?

Rob H., who is still hoping someone gets back to him with that astronomy question ^^;;

Alex Tolley said...

@Rob H - to answer your astronomy question more fully.

See this link to Wikipedia on magnitude. Note that magnitude 6 is about the limit for unaided human vision.

Examples: Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million ly with magnitude 3.4.
The Triangulum galaxy, M33, is about at the limit of naked eye observation, with an apparent magnitude of 5.7 with an estimated distance of between 2.3-3 million ly.
So, depending on your requirement, either DB's 10,000 ly for individual stars, or less than 3 mly for a galaxy.
I hope that answers your question as I have understood it.

Alex Tolley said...

@locumranch "Our social obsession with speedy inefficient transport was sold to us, marketed to us, by the same social forces which sold us on two world wars (etc), the military-industrial complex, consumerism, mandatory employment & the suburban lifestyle"

These same forces sold humans on using draught animals, and sailing prehistory? Who knew?

BTW, bicycling is more efficient than walking in terms of energy per unit distance traveled. Admittedly, this doesn't take into account manufacturing and making a reasonably smooth path to ride on.

locumranch said...

I agree with Alfred on a number of points (less so with Robert & Alex).

The term 'economy' is a little nebulous as it can be used to refer to either "an orderly, functional arrangement of parts (An Organized System)" with or without the accreted meaning of 'efficiency', 'frugality' or 'thrift', while the term 'efficiency' is most often used to refer to an act that is thought to be both 'economic' (above) and 'effective' in the sense of "having a desired, intended or expected effect".

However, he seems to miss my point on 'efficiency' in its entirety: An effect that's desired, intended or expected by who?

So, if he actually reads Whyte's 'The Organization Man' (a seminal sociological text), then he'll see that the concept of technological efficiency is a preferential social (rather than a logical) artifact, so much so that that social engineering (esp. the creation of Suburbia) was used to justify the expense of automotive technology, a theme that John Brunner incorporated into his 'Squares of the City'.

So, why not a future dominated by blimps, dirigibles or roller skates if it serves our social (efficient; economic) agenda??


sociotard said...

So, David, when can we expect your thoughts on the new Star Trek movie? Particularly on how it fits into your rubric of depicting healthy civilizations with competent proffesionals. I'd just say that Star Fleet Command seems less competent than the Senate in the Star Wars movies you hate so much, and I was curious about your reaction.

Robert said...

Personally I refuse to watch any Star Trek (or Star Wars) done by Abrams. I consider it a slap in the face of what Star Trek is about. We went from a story about a young man who through hard work, intelligence, charisma, and experience became one of the great starship captains of the Federation... to a Wesley Crusher Kirk who is presented a shiny starship as a prize for taking out an enemy from the future... and having to use futuristic technology to do so rather than rely on tactics and talent.

As for the descent into idiocy sequel? It's not worth considering as Star Trek at all. It's a waste of time, resources, and talent. And it was a pointless retelling of old tales... when new ones beckoned.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

I'd love to see the airships return and I think they have a place that fits in the markets witout us having to adjust social preferences. Our preferences are already there. It's just that the airships aren't.

I used to work with JP Aerospace many years ago and tried my own start-up after that. It is... difficult... to do this stuff, but more modern efforts are moving along well from what I've seen. Some folks down the road from me in Tustin are hard at work. 8)

Hayek argued that our terminology confuses us a bit because we try to use the word 'economy' to mean too many different things. He suggested using 'economy' for decision spaces where one could agree on how to economize. For larger markets he suggested 'catallaxy'. Ludwig von Mises made the distinction earlier, but I'm a bit more fond of Hayek's descriptions because he made a similar separation in the types of law we write. In a catallaxy, there are no agreed upon measures of efficiency except in the smaller groups who participate in the markets. Different preferences lead to different prices and the market sorts out winners from losers. A loser's measure of efficiency isn't necessarily invalid, but it is a poorer optimization measure.

I haven't read Whyte, so I don't have much to add on his ideas. My experience lies elsewhere. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

I really wish they had told a new story in the most recent movie. I find it disappointing when frachises reboot in order to tell the same story a different way.

I did, however, appreciate Scotty's steadfastness and the motivation he offered in his defense. That was a look back to the past Star Trek. I wish more of the characters were written that way. People from a future that suffered a WWIII really should be damn wary of militarization efforts and hyper-sensitive to the warning signs.

Tim H. said...

"Hyper sensitive to the warning signs"? If the last 99 years don't make us sufficiently sensitive to militarism, why should the federation? Memories dim, the records of atrocity gather dust, and we F⬆! again.

sociotard said...

If Starfleet isn't a military, they should probably stop holding courts martial.

In all honesty though, I thought the Trek Reboot did a good job of keeping the spirit of the old series.

1) Politics. Look at how many old episodes were thinly veiled polical commentaries. The most recent one had that.
2)I didn't mind recycling stories. The old series did that often enough, and the story was well done this time through.

Alfred Differ said...

There is a line from Q in the TNG series about 600 million dead in the war before first contact. I would think that lesson would stick awhile in reasonably accuract characterizations of human beings.

I have a friend from Germany with a strong aversion for militarism and nationalism. I wonder why? 8)

Robert said...

However, it tossed out the most important thing: meritocracy. As I said before, Kirk in the original series earned his captaincy and was not tossed into the Captain's chair as a reward for lucking out in his fight against a technologically-superior foe. When you compare original Kirk to this new upstart, the old Kirk would easily hand his younger self a massive defeat because the new Kirk lacks the experience and proper training to become the Enterprise's captain.

I'd even be willing to bet that the old Kirk, at that same age, would still be a better candidate for being a captain because he was learning under other talented captains and earning his way rather than coasting on the wave-foam of a lucky victory. A lucky victory that was partly due to future Spock assisting him, mind you.

Hell, let's take the original Kirk's cheating on the Kobayashi Maru - he reprogrammed the computer to give him a much greater reputation so that his mere presence on the starship cowed the Klingon attack so that they were open to negotiate and assist in rescuing the people on the Kobayashi Maru. New Kirk just entered a cheat code to enable God Mode and blew everything up.

This sums up the two. Old Kirk would negotiate, would look to diplomacy, and would kick butt when negotiation would not work. New Kirk goes in shooting and then asks questions.

No thank you. I find it an utter shame that there have been no Star Trek movies after Star Trek: Nemesis. And I sincerely doubt there will be.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

"Is the world improving despite our grouchy dogmas?" vs. 'Fun with Statistics'.

As Pinker clearly shows in 'The Better Angels of Our Nature', the per capita rates of violence across the world have been plummeting since WW2. Attributed to the elimination of lead by some and abortion by others, US stats on violent crime has plunged since the 1970s. Even the Economist argues that the worldwide percentage of people living in extreme poverty have fallen by almost 23% in a recent twenty year period.

But can modern society claim credit for these statistical improvements or do these so-called 'improvements' merely represent a population dependent statistical artifact?

I would argue the latter.

Historically speaking, Crime (victimization, the inclination & the ability to commit) and Extreme Poverty have always been functions of Age, affecting either the very young (parents, adolescents & young children) or the geriatric old.

Undoubtedly, industrialization and social assistance programs like food stamps, welfare, the 'dole', Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security & their foreign equivalents have ameliorated these age-dependent financial inequalities to a certain extent; however, we cannot ignore the worldwide increase in maturity due to a worldwide increase in median age:

Since the US Median Age has increased from 26 yrs in 1929 (27.7 yrs in 1965) to 37.1 yrs in 2013, I put it to you that these statistical 'improvements' (decreases) in crime, violence & poverty merely reflect the relative maturity of an aging population (median age 37.1 yrs) who no longer suffer from the hormone-fueled passions of youth, have achieved peak levels of social & financial security and are therefore less inclined to commit or suffer from the violent sins of either youth or poverty.

I also put it to you that human beings in general (the young, stupid, old & violent) have not 'improved' in any real sense beyond the statistical artifact afforded by an increasingly mature, aging, less vital and soon-to-be senescent society.

This why the best of us, our Saints, heroes, angels, are all dead. They get into much less trouble that way, 'improved' in every way.


Ian said...

This should cheer David up:

"For the first time since its inception, high-frequency trading, the bogey machine of the markets, is in retreat. According to estimates from Rosenblatt Securities, as much as two-thirds of all stock trades in the U.S. from 2008 to 2011 were executed by high-frequency firms; today it’s about half. In 2009, high-frequency traders moved about 3.25 billion shares a day. In 2012, it was 1.6 billion a day. Speed traders aren’t just trading fewer shares, they’re making less money on each trade. Average profits have fallen from about a tenth of a penny per share to a twentieth of a penny."

Alex Tolley said...

@Ian - and here is a nice follow up explaining why HFT is more about abuse than apologists claims of "more liquidity is better".

I gather the SEC may finally look into dealing with false quotes from HFT bots, although I expect industry lobbying will defang any legislation.

Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian said...

"Undoubtedly, industrialization and social assistance programs like food stamps, welfare, the 'dole', Medicaid, Medicare, Social "Security & their foreign equivalents have ameliorated these age-dependent financial inequalities to a certain extent; however, we cannot ignore the worldwide increase in maturity due to a worldwide increase in median age"

So why has violence also decreased in societies where it's the 18-25 year demographic that's been increasing?

Ian said...

All this recent talk in the media about datamining got me thinking: has anyone attempted a purely epidemiological approach to gun violence in the US?

I.E. break the country down to small groups such as census tracts and look for generally similar groups with widely divergent rates of gun violence and then look for commonalities amongst the low-violence groups.

Jumper said...

Optimum logistics depends on the current interest rates, no?

I have envisioned a fuel-scarce future (not necessary, but for the sake of the scenario) in which solar heating provides lift of airships, and the jet streams are the main determinants of airspeed. Trade would be based on where you happen to put down, as opposed to achieving an exact destination. You'd put some cargo for sale depending on what you have, and pick up cargo that happens to be for sale where you land. Very retro.

Jumper said...

Of course, I see, I am not the first:

Alex Tolley said...

@Ian - "has anyone attempted a purely epidemiological approach to gun violence in the US"

There has been resaerch into violence. You recall that study that suggested that lead was responsible, and that its removal from gasoline was a good proxy for the epidemiology of violence decline.

Current studies of gun violence is currently banned from funding by a certain political party. I've read at least one editorial in a major science magazine decrying this and suggesting we need to start doing some science on gun violence. My guess is that the studies would likely undermine the NRA position pretty clearly, and this is expected.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - cute idea, but I doubt that design would work. It would almost certainly need an insulating skin that reduces heat conduction, perhaps with aerogel? I would think that electrolyzing water to hydrogen is a better way to harness solar energy for such a vehicle.

But consider, Piccard is about to test a solar powered aircraft to circumnavigate the planet. Wouldn't that be a better way to go, rather than having a relatively poorly steerable vehicle that could end up almost anywhere?

locumranch said...

By suggesting that violence has decreased in societies where it's the 18-25 year demographic has been increasing (like Yemen & 14 other countries in Africa), Ian adds himself to a growing list of once reputable economists who appear incapable of reading an Excel spreadsheet.

UN data on World Aging (above) is even more frightening than I once believed, approaching a median age of 40-41 right now & a predicted average median age of 50-55 for Western Europe & Japan by 2050.

So, instead of a cause for celebration, I put it to you that the worldwide decline in crime, violence & poverty, the so-called 'better angels of our nature', is a cause for despair, proof positive that our maturing society is merely a senescent society whose demise is imminent.

That our society is dying, for all its technology, 'tis true, 'tis pity, and our current & increasingly exemplary behaviour is but a poor death bed consolation prize.


Ian said...

You really don;t understand what average means, do you?

Or "demographic transition".

Ian said...

Nor simple chronology since you're taking about the current demographic composition of these societies and not their composition over the period in which violence has been declining.

Ian said...

A quick illustration.

This is India's current age profile:

0-14 years: 29.3% (male 187,386,162/female 165,345,284)
15-24 years: 18.2% (male 116,019,042/female 103,660,359)
25-54 years: 40.2% (male 249,017,538/female 235,042,251)
55-64 years: 6.8% (male 41,035,270/female 40,449,880)
65 years and over: 5.6% (male 31,892,823/female 35,225,003

If the birth rate continues to decline ten as the current 0-14 cohort ages, the 18-25 cohort will grow in both absolute numbers and as a percentage even as the average age continues to increase.

Ian said...

Sorry: my source for that

Locum's error, if I had to pick just one, is the implicit assumption that the age distribution of a society is a bell curve.

It isn't.

Ian said...

Finally, wile the current level of violence in Yemen is high - it's still far lower than during North Yemen civil war of the 1960's; the British attempt to retain control of south Yemen during the same decade; the invasion of north Yemen by the south in the late 70's and early 80's and the civil war that followed unification in the 1990.

locumranch said...

Too bad Ian doesn't know what the term 'median,' means because the current Median Age in India is 25.9 years for males & 27.2 years for females (2012 est).

Although he is correct when he argues that India's 18-25 age cohort will increase in absolute # over the next few years, there will actually be a percentage decrease in the 18-25 age cohort when compared to its aging general population as demonstrated by Figure 5, 'Population Dynamics in India...', Bloom,

And, will someone please tell him that gang rape, sexual assault, extralegal brutalities, the extermination of ethnic minorities & civil war DO actually constitute 'violence' in the greater scheme of things?

Or, did Reinhart and Rogoff simply teach him to ignore inconvenient data subsets for the sake of petulant economic argument?


Ian said...

Snd again you fail to understand basic chronology.

The PAST decline in violence coincided with an increasing percentage 18-25 year olds in the Indian population.

Ian said...

Incidentally, rape, sexual violence, torture, ethnic cleaning and civil war (along with all forms of war) are declining worldwide.

Ian said...

"Part II of the Report examines changes in the incidence and severity of organized violence
around the world and finds little change in the post-Cold War trend towards fewer and less
deadly wars reported in previous Human Security Reports.
Chapter 5 shows that the deadliness of warfare has declined over the last 50 to 60 years,
and there are now significantly fewer armed conflicts around the world than during the peak
of the early 1990s. The average number of high-intensity conflicts per year—defined as conflicts
that reach 1,000 or more battle deaths in a calendar year—dropped by half from the 1980s to
the new millennium"

Ian said...

Oh and checking Locum's cite we learn that that the Myrmidon of synactic exactitude thinks "2030" and "next few years' are synonymous.

Paul451 said...

"the Myrmidon of synactic exactitude"

Ooo yer a bast'd when yer drunk, Superman.

Ian said...

syntactic - darn it.

locumranch said...

Snd (sinned?) again since Ian fails to understand basic epistemology.

A decline in "organized violence" or "warfare" does not necessarily correspond to a decline in societal violence as evidenced by an (endemic) epidemic of violence against women & ethnic minorities in the Indian subcontinent.

Furthermore, in reference to worldwide statistics, it is important to distinguish between official reports and actual occurrence when many non-western cultures do not classify and/or recognize violence against women & children as reportable violence, especially when those cultures value 'saving face' over scrupulous accuracy.

Furthermore, many statistically significant inaccuracies occur in first-world reporting due to classification difficulties as evidenced by international infant mortality, domestic violence, rape, racism, torture & homelessness rates, so much so that attempted comparisons are effectively meaningless.

To put it another way:
(1)Garbage In; Garbage Out; or (2)Statistical representations do not necessarily correspond to reality.

Ian may eventually realize these truths when he becomes a 'few' years more mature, meaning "more than one but small in number" and less than 20 as definitions of 'maturity' vary from person to person ;)


Edit_XYZ said...

locumranch, you do realise everyone can see your bias from the moon, yes?

You're fudging the data to an extent that allows only 2 viable options:
-you know your posts are non-sense and are getting some kind of kick from declaring the world garbage
-you don't know your posts are garbage, in which case the members of the most preposterous religious cult have an iron grip on reality by comparison with you

matthew said...

I'm sure that everyone will be reading this on their own, but The Guardian has released an interview with Edward Snowden, the NSA / PRISM leaker.

Ian said...

"A decline in "organized violence" or "warfare" does not necessarily correspond to a decline in societal violence as evidenced by an (endemic) epidemic of violence against women & ethnic minorities in the Indian subcontinent."

those forms of violence are also declining.

Tony Fisk said...

Snowden is a brave man. The gist of his interview in a nutshell: Here I am, NSA! Now come and get me!

Game: on...

Tim H. said...

RIP Iain M Banks

Duncan Cairncross said...

"those forms of violence are also declining."

The decline is much steeper than a cursory look at the data indicates as violence that was "normal" is now unacceptable

This change has been massive - to the extent that the only old data that is directly comparable is murder

Just read a few biographies about the allied commanders in WW2 and see the change

locumranch said...

I agree that most forms of violence appear to be decreasing, and I've suggested an alternative hypothesis to explain this trend:

The Median Age of Humanity is increasing and our societies (which have become or are becoming gerontocracies) reflect this maturation by becoming increasingly less youthful, vital, viable & rambunctious.

Now, I know that this hypothesis is a bit of a downer, reflecting a personal pessimistic bias, but my hypothesis still fits the available data better than 'a better angel' hypothesis that human beings are becoming better people.

And, unfortunately, the available data is less than perfect, corrupted by both definition & inclusion bias, leading us to conclude that human beings are becoming better & smarter which, coincidentally, is our heart's desire.

So which is it?

Are we getting smarter according to the Flynn Effect, or are we merely 'teaching the IQ test' to our offspring in a deliberate or subconscious manner?

Are we becoming better behaved & more moral, or are we simply too distracted, tired & worn out by the modern lifestyle to act out in a violent manner?

I've already told you my answers.

I'll miss Iain Banks, too.


Ian said...

"I agree that most forms of violence appear to be decreasing, and I've suggested an alternative hypothesis to explain this trend:

The Median Age of Humanity is increasing and our societies (which have become or are becoming gerontocracies) reflect this maturation by becoming increasingly less youthful, vital, viable & rambunctious."

Statisticians and demographers have looked at that hypothesis, it explains, maybe, half the observed fall in violent crime in the developed world over the past 20-30 years.

There are a bunch of other factors at work - none of which are as simplistic as changing human nature.

1. deterrence works, as societies become richer, they spend more on law enforcement which means the chances of getting caught go up.

2. Violence of all sorts is correlated with low IQ and with childhood neglect and abuse. As societies get richer they also devote more resources to child welfare and a lot of correctable causes of low IQ (like smoking and drinking during pregnancy, low birth weight and poor nutrition) become less common.

Duncan Cairncross said...

3. What is socially acceptable has changed
It used to be normal to beat up the wife n kids - now not so much

A couple of hundred years go "Cat Burning" was a great amusement

Human Nature has not changed - but human societies have

Tony Fisk said...

Professional executioners were medieval rockstars.

The 'heroic'* exploit of 617 'Dambusters' squadron during WWII would now be considered a war crime. (Indeed, war planners during the first Iraqi war were at pains to select legitimate military targets: dams were right out!)

*that was then

tyadyne? because! (that's what capcha said!)

sociotard said...

So, Dr. Brin, that new NSA data farm in Utah is coming online soon. What measures do you want to make its transparency more reciprocal?

I'm not asking for metaphors, like the restaurant one.

And don't say "wistleblower protection" because you won't get it with the Obama administration.

How do we make computerized universal wiretaps reciprocally transparent?

sociotard said...

We were just discussing this book on another forum

Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security

And you can read an excerpt here
Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'

Jumper said...

I thought this relevant, amusing, and not-so-amusing also.

Vaguely related is my recent thoughts comparing people who say "you have nothing to worry about, it's terrorists they're afrter" with a possible assertion: "So what if hackers use my compromised computer to assist them in a DOS attack, if my computer continues to function for me?"

Jacob said...

I found the Why Privacy Matters Even if ‘Nothing to Hide’ to be article to be unpersuasive. However the article is right in one aspect. When we use the term Privacy, we will often be talking about different things.

I believe that we should not harass or embarrass others when at all possible. Most examples of Anti-Transparency advocacy tends to use such an example. Its like picking a weak argument then beating it up to look spiffy.

Who can think of a good example of when its in the public interest have me photographed naked? In what reasonable scenario does it make sense to show those pictures to my neighbors?

I think we should have systems in place that try to detect criminal behavior. I think the subjects observed (myself included) should not be identified by Name, but rather by an associated Code. I think the best system involves those at a distance (non-neighbors such as people from the other coast) doing the observation. Of course, much of it should be automated. It is also critical that Civil Right’s and Watchdog Advocates be given full access along with ways to correct abuse.

Paul451 said...

"Who can think of a good example of when its in the public interest have me photographed naked?"

"Police have asked for public help to identify the man the papers are calling 'The Naked Bandit'. If you recognise him from these photos..."

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