Monday, May 18, 2015

A look back at our origins


We are the first human civilization to remove our envisioned "golden age" from an imagined-nostalgic past and instead plant that better-than-the-present era (tentatively) in a potential future.

The irony? We can only achieve that great accomplishment if we learn as much as possible, about where we came from.  How we (species, society, individual) came about. What parts of our heritage must be overcome, and what hidden, potential gifts have yet to be realized, or even discovered.

Exploring all of this is exciting stuff. And so, in honor of a newly minted Physical Anthropologist we happen to know, let's start as deep in time as possible.....

...like how about a newly discovered missing link between prokaryotes and eukaryotes? Amazing. Of the three major super-domains of cellular life on Earth – bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes (which include metazoan, multi-celled organisms, like us), it now appears that we are more closely related to the archaea, which were discovered as a separate clade not so long ago and were at-first thought to be a relic corner of life’s diversity. This sure puts Greg Bear’s weird novel VITALS in a new light. 

== Galaxies and deadly rhythms! ==

Did Dark Matter Doom the Dinosaurs? “We know there’s a lot of dark matter in the Milky Way, and it’s possible dark matter isn’t evenly distributed but occurs in dense clumps. Maybe our solar system passes through clumps of it periodically." If those clumps are dense enough to wreak havoc, they could knock comets loose and cause collisions...

... or else maybe heat Earth’s interior and cause massive volcanic eruptions?  Or somehow set loose all sorts of other species-obliterating disasters. That’s the premise behind a recent paper by New York University geologist Michael R. Rampino.

Back in 1984 I had an article in ANALOG that calculated a different hypothesis to explain a 26 to 30 million year extinction cycle . What if such a recurring pattern were caused not by the Earth passing through the galactic disk, but by something  'lapping" us, as it orbits, farther in toward Galactic center?  The article was "The Deadly Thing at 2.4 Kiloparsecs," Analog's most popular science bit, that year. Almost any extinction cycle  might correlate with some Lapping Object, which might sear a swathe of devastation on its way around the galaxy, wreaking some degree of havoc, each time it sweeps past our solar system.

I mention this to suggest that there are many potential ways to get galactic time scales in cycles of extinctions.

Speaking of mass extinction events… O-o-okay... folks at CERN now say they might make micro-black holes after all.  And there's nothing to worry about!  In fact, my logical side is not worried.  

But still... I described one potential outcome... in EARTH.

== Becoming Human ==

Do tools make man? Pushing our origins back even further...the world's oldest stone tools have been found in Kenya: stone flakes and anvils found off the shores of Lake Turkana date back more than 3.3 million years ago -- half a million years before the appearance of our genus Homo.

Another re-assessment of our ancient family tree comes from a partial jawbone discovered in Ethiopia, radiometrically dating to nearly 2.8 million years ago -- which makes it the oldest known fossil of our genus Homo. 

How has biology shaped humanity? How did humans rise to dominance on planet earth? In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari tracks the evolution of homo sapiens from the Paleolithic to modern-day, charting three major upheavals...

the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and most recently, the scientific revolution, that shaped the trajectory of humanity and human civilization -- covering some of the same ideas as Jared Diamond's 1999 classic book, Guns, Germs and Steel. See an extensive review of Sapiens in the Wall Street Journal.

== Bottlenecks of Evolution ==

Indeed, genetics has shed light on what may have been “bottlenecks” in human evolution.  One of them, purported to have been 70,000 years ago, might have reduced the population of human ancestors under 10,000 and threatened extinction. 

Now, another bottleneck is proposed that might have occurred as recently at 8,000 years ago, while early agriculturalists were preparing to leap into urban life. By studying Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA, scientists are able to deduce the numbers of female and male ancestors a population has. It's always more female, which is consistent also with mammals, in general. Not all males get to breed.  But the normal human ratio is about 1.3 female breeders-to-one male. Apparently is was much bigger disparity, during a period around 8000 years ago. Explanations range from a sudden advantage to certain kinds of males to some sort of weird virus that only affected males across the whole globe, just before large villages formed towns.

Or did agriculture itself, often requiring brutally hard physical labor, play a role? Might the "taming" of human males, making them suitable for denser living, have had some weird side effects? Will we ever know? See: A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture.

Another look at a leap for human evolution: Did humans -- and their dogs -- help drive Neanderthals to extinction? See this explored in The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, by Pat Shipman. 

More evidence for 'recent' human interbreeding with Neanderthals: Genetic analysis 40,000-year old jaw from Romania revealed that 5 to 11% of this ancient European man's DNA was Neanderthal -- indicating that he must have had a Neanderthal ancestor in the previous four to six generations. 

Insight into the darker side of the human past: Paleolithic remains show cannibalistic habits of our ancestors -- at sites in England dating back about 15,000 years ago.

== even weirder ==

Marshall Brain’s new book “The Second Intelligent Species: How Humans Will Become as Irrelevant as Cockroaches” wins a prize for telegraphing its point in the title, alone!  

It explores how the future will unfold as the second intelligent species – Artificial Intelligence (AI) -- emerges.  Well, well.  

We are getting plenty of folks taking up extreme apocalyptic or utopian views of all this.  But I just don’t think that way.

Where are we headed? Looking ahead: The Atlantic Council has reprinted my brief future projection: The Avalon Missions: Race for the Stars.

== Mickey points the way? ==

Disney is “betting a billion dollars on a magical wrist band.” A new ticketing method that will let each member of your family get personalized treatment from the instant you enter the park, always welcomed into the correct line, walking out of stores with merchandise paid for without visiting a cashier, ordering food before arriving at a restaurant and sitting at any table, knowing the food will arrive….

…And if someone doesn’t add this to my predictions registry wiki, then I don’t have fans anymore! 

Read this chapter from EXISTENCE --- The Shelter of Tradition -- set at the Shanghai World of Disney and the Monkey King, in the year 2045.  And tell me Disney shouldn’t at least give me a nice family pass. Only the date was wrong.  

Stuff catches up with science fiction faster and faster.

63 comments:

Laurent Weppe said...

Dinosaurs? What about the Permian-Triassic extinction? Perhaps Dark Matter didn't doom the Dinosaurs but allowed them to rise in the first place.

Daniel Duffy said...

The argument over whether we wiped out the Neanderthal or interbred with them misses the point: the two are not mutually exclusive.

Genghiz Khan is supposedly the ancestor of half of Asia. And he did a lot of exterminating.

Alfred Differ said...

from previous thread:

I was kinda busy the last couple days. I just want to put my vote in for Kiln People done as a mystery series. It shouldn't be all that expensive since they've already worked out the make-up techniques. There are plenty of opportunities for comedy too. Who wouldn't believe the Kardashians already have the tech set up at home. Modern air-brushed make-up has such a glazed look to it. 8)

Treebeard said...

Well if there’s a race for the stars, we’re all losing. 43 years after the last human went past LEO, any “100 year starship program” started in 1972 would be, shall we say, rather behind schedule. As for “war in space”, that sounds like another escapist fantasy. The war on earth seems far more pressing, particularly now that the soldiers of the Caliphate are still advancing in the face of the Federation’s superior technology.

“Stuff catches up to SF faster and faster” strikes me as straight propaganda. How many of the fundamental, world-changing technologies envisioned in science fiction have come to fruition over the last 50 or 60 years? Where’s the fusion-powered Jupiter missions? The weather control machines? The space elevators? The Mars colonies? Wristbands that give me customized service at Disneyland? Be still my beating heart! That’s right up there with seeing attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion!

Laurent Weppe said...

* "the soldiers of the Caliphate are still advancing in the face of the Federation’s superior technology."

You mean, the thuggish mob against which the Western World has, so far committed only a minuscule fraction of its firepower because among other things its currents leaders are smarter than the previous ones and don't want to be perceived as colonialist invaders and/or backer of notoriously corrupt kleptocracies?

Frankly, this "Existential threat" mental masturbation that citizens of powerful polities love to indulge in is really starting to piss me off: Daesh is ruining lives in its immediate neighborhood, but it will never have the manpower, economic depth and straight up military might to actualy threaten a Western civilization which, less we forget, has the means to commit genocides on a whim: We are the dangerous beast barely kept in check by a set of very recent ethical values putting an emphasis on restraint and rejection of the vendetta logic.

Jumper said...

"a Neanderthal ancestor in the previous four to six generations." Or a fairly isolated but not small tribe that have been 1/16 Neanderthal for 40 generations...

On being late with space travel, New York was settled a lot later than San Salvador, and turned out okay, for a while anyway.

Tony Fisk said...

Being 'late with space travel' implies that we've fallen behind rather than consolidated on an early sprint.

Whatever you think of the utility of the Orion spacecraft, the thing that is particularly telling, to me, is the confident manner in which the recent test flight was conducted.

Treebeard said...

Daesh is ruining lives in its immediate neighborhood, but it will never have the manpower, economic depth and straight up military might to actualy threaten a Western civilization.

Never is a long time. I'm sure Romans were saying similar things about the barbarians on the periphery of the empire in the later years. If ISIS takes Saudi Arabia it becomes a pretty serious menace, and potentially the leader of a billion+ people. Don't make the mistake of judging things purely materialistically. You also have to look at motivation, will to power and myth, and on those scores we’re starting to look like a somewhat spent civilization to me.

Look around: it seems even the clever people would rather have wifi and lattes in their human habitrails and be minded by the techno-progressive corporate nanny-state than do anything as discomforting and barbaric as race for the stars. I actually think the ISIS dudes may have a better shot at a Galactic Caliphate than we have of a Federation, because they still do have those vital elements of motivation, will to power and myth. Or look at what the Nazis who built NASA, or Communists in Russia, who also had those elements, achieved in space. Can liberal late capitalism do anything that great, or is it optimized for engineering wristbands that give us personalized service at theme parks and prog-themed lattes at coffee shops? Where is a spirit of greatness today anywhere on the political spectrum? Where is the spiritual potency needed to race for the stars today? I just don’t see it.

So sorry Dr. Brin, but I think feminist Gaian space fantasies are precisely the wrong approach. You need to get the ambitious young men, the empire-builders, back on board and inspired, or they may start defecting to projects like the Caliphate. Do you understand?

Alfred Differ said...

Stars: We have only fallen behind with respect to space travel if one thinks things are so desperate that we have to scatter our seeds blindly out toward the stars. What we’ve done is taken a step back from than kind of low probability lunacy and let the traders take a crack at it. Traders migrate when there is an advantage to be gained, but they keep the parts of their market together and intact enough to make use of an advantage. We are doing just fine, thank you very much.

Caliphate: The West won’t be the group to beat them. We will grind away at them for years, but they will remain until the immediate neighbors tire of the grind enough to offer potential recruits an alternate ideology that is attractive enough to displace the first. Outside efforts are seen as crusades and won’t succeed. The best we can do is to contain the damage. A solution must be perceived as authentic for it to work. Islamism emerged as a rejection of western secularism which came about as part of our rejection of the Ancient Regime. They need their own version of secularism that fits their religious ethos. When they find a way, this problem will go away but the transition might be bloody as was ours.

Alfred Differ said...

I like the idea of displacing the Industrial Revolution with the Scientific Revolution for clear historical markers of cognitive change. There was clear evidence of a population explosion underway before we industrialized that must be explained in causal terms. The book I'm reading now about the history of the Enlightenment as an idea points to the first wave of 'globalization' that we think of as colonization in the 18th century as the cause. Markets in Europe exploded and in a pre-industrial society where wealth translates quickly into babies who survive to have their own, you have an easily understood fuse/explosive combination. The link between Science and Engineering made that globalization possible and the Markets motivated it.

The defenders of the Ancient Regime really, really, really screwed up. 8)

Jumper said...

http://www.amazon.com/Cathedral-Forge-Waterwheel-Technology-Invention/dp/0060925817

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages

I recommend this to everyone, including Treebeard (because you'll like it). It's an easy but fascinating read, the thesis being "dark ages? They weren't dark, they were very interesting technologically."

Paul SB said...

Let's try for a moment to imagine that the explanatory methods of the early 19th Century have been replaced since then and think re-evaluate the assumption that the differences between one society and another or one time period or another are determined by a some supposed spirit of greatness verses the supposed lazy-minded slouch of the nanny state.

In 1986 a high school social studies class was learning about basic demographics and one group of students graphed the population of Rwanda on the same graph with its carrying capacity. The two lines intersected somewhere in the mid-1990s, and the students predicted there would be a serious disaster there before the end of the decade. One of the students worked on the high school newspaper and printed the graph, but like most high school assignments it was quickly forgotten. When the genocide began in 1993 the press mostly talked about ethnic hatred, politics and the assassination that triggered the conflict, but somebody remembered that from high school.

Wealthy elites and political power brokers have always focused on what we "believe," but this naive sort of superstructural determinism was shown a long time ago to naïve at best, most often an attempt to distract people from the more fundamental causes of social issues, which more often are directly related to infrastructural and structural factors. "Belief" is rarely more than just an excuse. Were the Hutu and Tutsis killing each other because they just hated each other, and ethnic/tribal brutality is somehow a "natural" part of manly, spirited human nature? Or could it be that when people started to find that they did not have enough food to feed their children, they were much more likely to steal from a different ethnic group than their own and make post hoc justifications for their thievery? Is Daesh recruiting huge numbers of followers because their religion teaches them hate, or could there maybe be a connection here to drought, irrigation and climate change?

The kind of "Mein Kampf" level superstructural explanations that we hear from right-wing propagandists that depend on "ideology" to explain everything that disgusts them is nothing more than grade AA horseshit, plain and simple.

Best ;)

Tim H. said...

Paul SB, in short prosperous people do a better job of concealing the monster. Under stress, self control may falter and reveal the feral. This suggests a lot of policy of the last generation needs to be rethought, not to mention which SF dreams we should wish to be realized.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: I’m not interested in defending the Grade AA stuff from the right, but ‘belief’ is present in your HS social studies class example too. The notion that ‘carrying capacity’ makes sense in our world is a belief and I’ve pointed out an issue with it already. You have to halt market innovations (no black swans) before I’ll begin to believe there might be an objective concept here.

If you want to get back toward something objective I think there IS an economic path forward. I’ve seen it used by people who look at the actions of nations in terms of geopolitics. Rwanda wasn’t a nation at the time. It was a state composed of more than one nation. If the Hutu and Tutsis are modeled as nations competing for the same resources, one is squarely in the realm of geopolitics. That realm has yet another set of beliefs, but the explanatory narratives have the advantage of being somewhat testable.

I saw an example of this approach applied to events in Moldova a few years ago. One visitor was describing the grinding poverty he could see around him and the dissonance between this and the fact that some of the young adults had very expensive shoes and clothes. One might immediately jump to the notion that there is a great deal of inequality present, but he noticed a much more glaring inequality than the financial one. There were MANY more men present than women in some of the city scenes he visited and it was the women who were better dressed. The men who did appear to have expensive clothes associated closely with the women who were better off. One doesn’t have to invent nonsense explanations to ask the basic question ‘Where are the other women?’, right? He didn’t even have to ask them. Once he saw the imbalance and expensive clothes, he could deduce the rest about a market driven by remittances. Some women ‘innovated’ there way out of poverty and that information speaks very loudly about what the nations in and around Moldova are doing.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

this chapter from EXISTENCE --- The Shelter of Tradition -- set at the Shanghai World of Disney and the Monkey King, in the year 2045. And tell me Disney shouldn’t at least give me a nice family pass. Only the date was wrong.


You're too hard on yourself. The technology could still be in use in 2045. Nothing in the story hinted that it was brand new that year.

David Brin said...

I'm busy traveling. But I did want to ask who the snarky but cogent fellow is who has hijacked treebeard's handle. Who are you, and what have you done with treebeard?

Alex Tolley said...

" or could there maybe be a connection here to drought, irrigation and climate change?"

There are enough published papers that show a link between Middle East violence and droughts. However in addition to these natural factors, water is also being used as a weapon too, by actors damaging water supplies and sanitation.

It doesn't take much to see this played out in small scale elsewhere. The water shortage in parts of Buenos Aires had residents quickly start fighting neighbors over water allocations. In CA we already have "fighting" as some neighbors are reporting others for wasting water and the wealthy in LA's Bel Air are being targeted for excessive water use and failing to allow their lush gardens to dry.

Alfred Differ said...

The fight over water us in southern CA doesn't line up well with what they do in the cradle of civilization. We might not all like each other here, but we Californians tend to self-identify as Americans if asked. We are part of the same nation and that makes this an internal squabble. What goes on in the Middle East isn't internal. We lump them all under one regional label, but that's not how they see themselves. Their nations are quite a bit smaller and unable to kill each other off, though some have come close.

Paul SB said...

Alex, everything you said here is right - I was being facetious.

Alfred, you are assuming that K is a single, unchanging number, but I have explained (more than once) that humans have the ability to change K through technological innovation - something we have been doing since H. habilis. That does not mean, however, that human societies will always succeed in expanding K faster than their population growth. Numerous societies have overshot K then crashed dramatically, only to find that they had done so much environmental damage to their land that K for future generations is much lower (as when deforestation leads to desertification by cutting out transpiration). Black swans and markets are not a problem for carrying capacity because every demographer and every ecologist knows that humans can (but do not always) change K. This is such a basic concept I am required to teach it in high school.

Saying that K is a belief is like saying that the capacity of the cup of ice water on my nightstand is a belief. It is 12 ounces. The difference is that K is much more difficult to measure. In fact, it is only ever estimated because it is multivariate, and as with all things ecological, we can never be too sure we have all the variables. Your Moldavian remittences example is interesting, but it doesn't disprove K, it only shows that you are falling to account for the entire resource catchment area. The fact that a simple graph of rising population versus falling K (caused by environmental damage concomitant with agricultural intensification) accurately predicted the genocide to within a year is pretty good evidence of the usefulness of the concept.

Anyway, the point of the example was to demonstrate that more often than not things happen in human societies for infrastructural reasons - the beliefs are invented after the fact to justify things that were done for reasons that might seem less noble to a meaning-seeking animal. Does Daesh have a "better" ideology that will better motivate them to conquer first the world and then space? Are they more highly motivated by hate to achieve than "feminist Gaian space fantasies"? Utter rot! No one has an absolute need to conquer outer space in the same sense that starving people in a drought-stricken land have to conquer their neighbors. There are people in our society who have that "spirit of greatness" and are working at it. Maybe it's not the majority, and the political is working hard against innovators in favor of the favored few, but that spirit is there, it's trying, and in societies where not so many people are struggling just to survive, people have the time and capacity to innovate. Daesh isn't going to reach for the stars, they are too busy reaching for women. If they ever succeed in building their Caliphate they will stagnate like every other feudal oligarchy. And as Dr. Brin has pointed out time and time again, people like treebeard wouldn't even be allowed to speak his thoughts in a place like that. He denigrates the very culture that made him possible.

Daniel Duffy said...

ISIS is just one front in the Islamic civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.

Islam is having its own "30 Years War" like the one Christianity had between Catholics and Protestants.

Alex Tolley said...

Alex, everything you said here is right - I was being facetious.

I know. My intention was to back up your statement. Poor communication on my part.

Alex Tolley said...

humans have the ability to change K through technological innovation

As we are seeing in California and the western states right now with water, a population limiting resource. California has fairly fully exploited both its renewable water and is using up "fossil" water at a rapid rate.

Water recycling, desalination and better farming methods (e.g. drip irrigation) and crop choice (abandon rice and alfalfa) are examples of technology innovation that increase the utility per unit water and therefore would raise the carrying capacity.

OTOH, stopping groundwater extraction would reduce K in the short term, albeit move us closer to a sustainable K in the longer term.

Water is just one resource impacting K, but in desert areas like California and the Middle East it is one of the key resources. As the drought continues and the water delivered by the Colorado river drops, it will be very interesting to see how that impact plays out. I gather Arizona will suffer the most due to the water allocation rules.





Paul SB said...

Hi Alex,

Without things like tone-of-voice, proxemics, posture & gesture, it can get hard to tell. Emoticons just don't compare to face-to-face human interaction. Though one advantage to communication by blog is that if someone says something you don't understand you can look it up before you respond, so you look less stupid :) or :( or perhaps : /, or perhaps not if you look it up and still get it wrong, or are too lazy to look it up.

We as a species are in a huge transition period. It might be useful to compare our times to the Neolithic, when we transitioned to agriculture. We had just come out of an ice age (I remember those times well ... shudder!) but it wasn't all good. The climate was drying out and our nomadic ancestors had to try something different. Lunate blades used to harvest cereals were a technology that raised the carrying capacity at that time. No doubt there were Neolithic hunters who watched those newly-minted farmers toil in their fields and rolled their eyes, crying to the heavens "What is this world coming to?" and complaining that people are becoming weak girly-men and have lost touch with their spirituality. But farming kept them from starving.

Farming also made it possible for them to get much more food than hunting, so they could have more babies and raise the population along with the carrying capacity. But there was a price for it: the foods produced by traditional farming are poor quality, high calorie foods that give little nutrition. So the trade off was more children but with poorer health and shorter lifespan.

The transition we are going though today is similar. Our population exceeded the capacity of traditional farming by the end of the Baby Boom. Without chemical fertilizers, which make nutritionally poorer crops, we would have a huge die-off. Genetic engineering is creating better crops with more nutrition and more of it, by splicing in genes that make crops more resistant to drought, frost, saline soils, etc. But huge numbers of people are fighting these advances tooth and nail, completely ignorant of the fact that without them we are going to experience a huge Malthusian catastrophe.

Daniel, I like your 30 Year's War comparison. Most people on this side of planet are abysmally ignorant of the ugly side of Christian history. Way back in the 16th Century it brought us technological horrors like The Hellburner of Antwerp. Imagine what horrors await in the aftermath of our current troubles with our current technologies?

Jonathan S. said...

"[I]n short prosperous people do a better job of concealing the monster. Under stress, self control may falter and reveal the feral."

Or, to quote Quark (from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Siege of AR-558"):

"Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They're a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people... will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don't believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes."

Andy said...

Dark matter Photino Birds anyone?

Alex Tolley said...

@Andy - nice Baxter reference.

The problem I see with dark matter causing extinction events is that it only has a gravitational effect. So why invoke dark matter when we have plenty of matter in stars or dust clouds that could do the same thing?

There are so many theories about why the major extinction events seem to exhibit a ~60my periodicity. Some sort of astronomical event creating impactors does seem to be involved, but what exactly is unknown. Fun to speculate, but hopefully we will eventually discover the cause.

We are going through another extinction event today, right on cue, yet the cause is human expansion, not some astronomical event. Maybe we will get that too as a coup de grace.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: I’m not arguing that K is a belief. I’m pointing out that its use as a prediction tool for humans is a mirage. There are too many variables and too little evidence to describe the initial conditions of a modeling attempt when it comes to humans. We are economic beings, so there is a fundamental limit on the usefulness of K as a prediction tool for us.

Rather than pontificate, though, I’ll suggest we test this stuff like with your HS example for Rwanda. Make some predictions. Put the kids to work learning about carrying capacities for a variety of animals and include us. Put the predictions up as wagers and let’s see how the bookie settles with respect to the point/odds spread.

Carrying capacity for humans IS useful when one is looking backwards in time. Much more information is available by then, but ex post facto narratives aren’t effective prediction theories in a solution space with a huge number of variables. My objection is to its use for us ex ante. I’ll put money behind my attitude too and learn from the embarrassment if I prove to be incorrect. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

I would have sniffed impolitely at the notion of dark matter being involved in extinctions a few weeks ago, but I was reading an article about unusual positron densities inside thunderstorms and gamma ray fluxes involved with lightening yesterday. Now I’m inclined to scratch my head and wonder. While I strongly suspect dark matter is unnecessary for a good explanatory narrative, my skepticism is mildly subdued.

We used to wonder about binary companions for Sol before we started to get a decent IR map of the sky. Remember the Nemesis concept? The variant I learned as a student had a 26 million year, very eccentric orbit. Searching phase space for possible candidates was a long term goal until IR astronomy became cheaper… and then suddenly it got real cheap real fast. The research path was blown away by negative evidence seemingly overnight. 8)

Alex Tolley said...

But huge numbers of people are fighting these advances tooth and nail, completely ignorant of the fact that without them we are going to experience a huge Malthusian catastrophe.

I suspect many of these folks want that Malthusian die off to get back to a population size commensurate with a lower K that is supportable without technology, which these people see as brittle, prone to failure, and unsustainable in the long term. (as long as they aren't doing the dying).

If we ignore the massive die off's to get to either world, we have on one side a lowish population world of "natural" food production, simpler technology looking a little like KSR's "Pacific Edge", and the other view is for a higher population, mostly city dwellers, with high technology and highly engineered food production, some in factories.

Both are equally valid outcomes. My issue with the former is how we could transition to it without mass starvation as it implies we have already exceeded the K allowed by that model.
My other problem with it is that this almost romantic "back to nature" living while superficially attractive, might be quite restrictive in terms of social opportunities, and much of what I want to happen relies more on a functioning hi-tech model.

Linda said...

The two things necessary for civilization to succeed are communication and water.

A note on California agriculture: The water falls in places other than the fields and is transported to the fields. When storms hit the fields directly, crops are destroyed.

Alex Tolley said...

David talking on "Future War" (starts about 14 minutes in).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCJ-V--L6As

Alfred Differ said...

mmm... People who want that Malthusian die off are probably guilty of believing in a golden age in our past.

Honestly, even if that was a golden age, I don't see a way to get back there without so much blood in the streets as to make the Reign of Terror look like children at play. We've got weapons now they didn't have. If we start down that path, we will probably overshoot the goal and wind up with just a few million survivors who can't maintain the skills needed for that golden age. It will take time to recover and those people will probably be more focused on survival than the niceties that would lead to a soft landing at the golden plateau.

Hysteresis probably applies.

Jumper said...

"People who want a die-off" are monsters. As long as they are wanting, one would think they'd want something else. Or maybe it's "welcome a die-off." Oh, how they relish hearing their cousins are dead. Grandpa died from lack of insulin. But by golly, they survived! Yee ha!
It's all the zombie movies. Zombies here, there, everywhere. It's important to the malignant sector of the plutocracy that the public be de-humanized.
And now it's Daredevil, where a brutal beating is scheduled, like clockwork, every 13 minutes, so the viewer watches a human smashed repeatedly and realistically with a 10 lb. metal bar. Repeated skull smashing. That's the ticket!

Paul SB said...

Alex, most of the anti-GMO loonies are liberals who have a strong (and mostly justified) distrust of big business. That's the clarion cry that gets their limbic systems going - Big Brother Incorporated wants to poison you. These people, while foolish, are not the same people who are drooling for an apocalypse. Those ones are so right of center even the Tea Party is uncomfortable with them. Those are the Timothy McVey/Rural Militia types. The former will destroy us through their naivete, the latter through deliberate malice. Both think that the world would be a so much better place if everyone converted to their way of thinking, but either way will bring unintended consequences neither will be able to live with.

On dark matter causing extinction, dark matter is dark because we know so little about it. It may only seem to have gravitational effects because that is all we can detect with our current technology. That makes speculating ... well ... more than a little speculative.

Alfred, I would happily take up your wager, except that the school year is nearly over and if I gave my students another project now they would freak, go popcorn head and I would end up with a lot more Fs. However, I am writing myself a note to try this next year and stapling it to my forehead. K is difficult to estimate, but if a high school class in 1986 could successfully predict a disaster nearly a decade later, it can't be that hard. Getting the population figures is easy, but I haven't tried hunting down carrying capacity estimates. If the information is available on the net this would make a good project for my students - but the staples get a little uncomfortable and they start to rust after showering.

Linda, your note on CA agriculture brings up a serious concern. The climate transition we are in tends to intensify extremes, which would mean that our farms and ranches will be struck by alternating droughts and damaging storms, with less and less normal rainfall in between. This is probably the case elsewhere besides CA.

Jumper, I like your comments about monsters and zombie movies, but I am sure those monsters are mostly older people who grew up watching post-apocalypse survival movies like "Damnation Alley." The zombie movies are the equivalent for the younger generations.

Paul SB said...

In all this talk, talk, talk I forgot to say congrats to the newly-minted physical anthropologist! It wasn't my chosen sub-field, but I have a lot of respect for the contributions they have made to understanding that very odd species called h. sapiens. Hopefully she will be moving on to a stimulating next stage...

And on a completely different tangent, I wonder if any of us spent the weekend reviewing our old B.B. King collections. 89 is an enviable age. It seems like if a musician can make it past the wild early days, a life in music might have some health benefits that promote longevity.

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Laurent Weppe said...

*"Alex, most of the anti-GMO loonies are liberals who have a strong (and mostly justified) distrust of big business. That's the clarion cry that gets their limbic systems going - Big Brother Incorporated wants to poison you"

Many left wing critics of GMOs are not claiming that Big Brother Incorporated wants to poison people, they are claiming, rightly, that monopolistic-rent seeking GMO companies will unwittingly drastically reduce our foodstuff biodiversity (very bad in the long-term), are deliberately trying to turn farmers into renters (bad from the get-go) and are overselling the merits of their products' long-term efficiency, disingenuously pretending that their tinkered crops are the magic bullet that defeated darwinian evolution (a clear case of false advertising).

They still get thrown in the same bag than the luddite loonies.

Alex Tolley said...

I think we can assume the 12:57 comment is spam:

translation of sender:
"the traditional way to gain weight children"

translation of comment:
"thanks for the information of interest"

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB. To be fair I have only read blogs posts or comments by people who want to see a die off. I have never met any. I have met and talked with those who advocate a global economy that would require a die off, however they do tend to ignore the consequences of their desired goal. Charitably I would say that they simply don't see (or want to see the consequences). Uncharitably it can be considered an "ends justifies the means" ideology.

Back in 1970's England, I was taking to someone who wanted to live in a self sufficient "farm", off the grid, with solar thermal roof panels (all the rage then). he thought that was the ideal way for everyone to live. But he just couldn't seem to understand that only a small number of people could do that in England because of lack of space, and who would make any of the technology he wanted.

OTOH, I'm not unsympathetic to the concern of "luddites" about what happens if we just keep enabling higher K through higher tech. What happens with energy/water/[pick your resource] shortages/failures? These are going to happen and it isn't clear to me how resilient we are. For example, our tight, lowest cost, supply chains have resulted in cities with only an average of 3 days food supply. Allow what is in a refrigerator and pantry, and people would be out of food in a week. Looking at the US emergency response to local disasters, e.g. Katrina, and I do not like the brittleness that was evident, and the "mitigating" actions undertaken. Imagine that on a larger scale. I'd like to see less techo-optimism and more planning in depth for robustness.

@Laurent - agree 100%. The new TPP agreement being fast tracked will likely facilitate GMO crops and prevent sovereign banning. Given the NAFTA rules win by meat packers to eliminate country of origin labels, I can see this being used to prevent state mandated GMO labeling too. A couple of years ago the AAAS supported anti GMO labeling on the grounds of causing fear amongst consumers (a science organization wanting to remove transparency of information!). Obviously that translates to "lost profits". Ergo, GMO labeling is a legitimate trade complaint that should bypass sovereign law.
All I can see is that the costs of information will have to be borne by NGOs and retail stores (and passed to consumers). I think there may well be a "careful what you wish for" backlash as consumer groups end up providing information that suppliers will claim is misleading, but will damage them more than they expected. The horse meat (labeled as beef) scandal in the EU hurt some British food brands and grocery chains. In the US, DNA barcoding has exposed some sushi restaurants cheating (wittingly or unwittingly) and this inevitably damages reputations. In the US a lot of people (including myself) will not buy vegetables originated from China. If country of origin labels are banned, and some group says "X vegetable sold at Y store is from Z country" (whether true or not), is going to cause a problem for supplier of X and retailer Y. And the reverse halo effect could mean a reputational encompassing of other products.

Alex Tolley said...

To follow up on labeling. My hope is that attempts by some suppliers to demand that don't label country of origin (or GMO content) will result in other suppliers engaging in voluntary labeling to dissociate themselves and to distinguish their product. We see that with "dolphin safe" canned tuna labels, sustainable forestry lumber, fair trade coffee, etc, etc.

This is one area where technology can help. Whether a simple smartphone app or AR glasses, any product, labeled or not can be attached to information about its supply history. I would love to have an easy to app that has this sort of information and more, to provide quick, dashboard information on country or origin, CO2 footprint, water footprint, known contaminants (e.g. mercury levels in the fish), advisability of consumption (endangered stocks), corporate behavior, etc. You could even tailor the info request for hot issues of the day, to allow boycotts of companies, country of origin, to increase the effective pressure via hitting sales and profits.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: Fair enough. I've been out of school so long I forgot what 'May' means. Next time then. In the mean time, I'll kibitz about K's usefulness ex ante and we'll see if we can find points of contention that might help refine predictions enough to make them clearly resolvable.

I wasn't sure who the newly minted physical anthropologist was, but the pronoun helped. I think I get it now. Congrats to her. Time to accomplish greatness by adding even more new stuff to the body of knowledge. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

Traditionally speaking, weren't European farmers usually renters? The nobles owned the land and the farming families either leased it long term or were owned themselves (serfs) and worked it that way. There aren't many farmers left (in the US anyway) and we will be automating them all out of jobs soon enough. What is the harm in capturing them again? It's not like we can force them to be serfs or force them into long term leases. They'll leave their line of work a little earlier than the automation would force from them, right? Where is the harm in that?

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: I’ve heard that resilience concern before and not just by our host. I’ve also heard the solution to it. James Burke went on about it in Connections. That was kinda the whole point of the series. In the last episode he showed how we can deal with it. I didn’t understand that message at the time, but it is pretty obvious we’ve been doing exactly what he suggested we do to avoid the Luddite and Business as Usual paths. The tight supply chains and the just-in-time processes for food delivery look scary, but they aren’t all that dangerous if you look for the signs Burke pointed to that would help protect us. David points in essentially the same direction. We have to pay attention and look for fragility. We have to expect breaks (and leaks as with PII) and plan for robustness. We have to assume robust processes will eventually get pushed to the breaking point someday by some terrible black swan and plan for anti-fragile learning processes to pick up the pieces. Although Taleb would probably cringe at this statement, it’s been almost 40 years since Connections came out and grid blackouts are pretty rare, starvations have been beaten, and we learn from our screw-ups as with Katrina. Aren’t we doing something right as evidenced by the last 40 years?

Burke caught a touch of lunacy with his concerns in Connections, but you can see in later series that he had managed to cure himself of it. The one from the mid-80’s shows that cure. We aren’t the same people anymore. The Universe changes every time we redefine a big enough bit of it. So do we.

Laurent Weppe said...

* "The nobles owned the land and the farming families either leased it long term or were owned themselves (serfs) and worked it that way"

And there's a reason why european peasants tried -several time- to exterminate the nobility of land owners: this system was breeding inept sybarites faster than it was breeding the efficient stewards needed to fix the consequences of their sloth and incompetence.

Alex Tolley said...

Alfred - can you take a quick look at the episodes and point me to the one you are referring to in terms of robustness. It isn't obvious to me which I should look at.


Connections episodes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connections_%28TV_series%29#Episodes

TDTUC episodes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_the_Universe_Changed#Episodes

As a counter factual to us increasing robustness, I point to the 2008 financial meltdown. Maybe those financial AIs that DB talks about did it malevolently to sabotage us ;)

I would hope we are get smarter and building more robust systems, but I would want to see proof of that. I am not encouraged by the slow removal of government agency involvement to act as a check and balance to corporate interests, but let's see some data for various economic areas. The only one that seems clearly better is airlines. They suck in terms of passenger travel, but there is no denying that safety is getting better and better in that industry.

Alex Tolley said...

this system was breeding inept sybarites faster than it was breeding the efficient stewards needed to fix the consequences of their sloth and incompetence.

Hinted at more than a few times in the tv soap (OK drama) "Downton Abbey", as late as the 1920's where the series currently is.

raito said...

'notoriously corrupt kleptocracies' except their own.

Treebeard, what you need is a place where the nerd who get off on solving problems can congregate with enough resources, like NASA was in the '60s. Oh wait, look who is powering what space research is going on at the moment in the US...

As far as the labeling thing went, I howled with laughter (and disappointment). They said it was rejected because it put some countries at a disadvantage? Any labeling of origin does that, because it allows the buyer to make a decision. And decisions sometimes go the other way.

Alfred, so you mean that Doyle was right? (The Poison Band)

And on the previous topic, if I were to do a Norse Gods movie, it would probably be made from Edmond Hamilton's excellent 'A Yank At Valhalla'.

Alex Tolley said...

OT. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-20/the-10-hedge-fund-supercomputer-that-s-sweeping-wall-street

A $10 computer for doing Wall Street AI. I think the title is misleading other than to say this is now getting cheap. But look at the chart of VC money going into AI. Yikes.

from the article:

"Five years ago, the sort of programming involved in McKee’s 1-trillion-point dense matrix would have taken months of coding and $1 million-plus of hardware. Now McKee simply logs onto Amazon Web Services to name his price for computing capacity and sets his code loose. Out of a loft in the Flatiron District in Manhattan, he works on what he calls “coffee time.” His goal is to make every model -- no matter how much data are involved - - compute in the time it takes him to putter to his office kitchen, brew a Nespresso Caramelito, and walk back to his desk."

I suspect the $10 is the cost of doing that large, but short ML run. Maybe what he spends per month. In any case, it is trivially cheap to find interesting relationships that might be profitable tradable.

Alfred Differ said...

@Laurent Weppe: They tried many times and eventually succeeded.

My thoughts on this aren’t exactly pleasant. If we suspect people are trying to rebuild the Ancient Regime, shouldn’t we let them try in a way such that they fall into our honeypot traps? Go ahead and try to control the food supply and force us to comply. Don’t mind that some of us are sharpening our blades and watching for the people most tempted to try this old trick. Wouldn’t it be useful to us if they out themselves in an industry of our choosing? In an industry that we’ve managed to remove all the potential serfs from in advance? In an industry with assets that can’t possibly prevent us from watching with all of our cameras and microphones? If they don’t try to make themselves into new lords and ladies, so be it. We get massive economies of scale and a food supply that will take up a shrinking footprint on the Earth as we head toward a technologically managed food supply. If they do try, though, they are picking the one thing we are most likely to riot over without delay. If they are reliant on technology to run it all, they are in serious trouble on that day.

If you don’t think we can’t castrate them when the day comes, I can understand a reluctance to let them capture agriculture. I think you underestimate us, though.

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: The last episode of Connections is the one that addresses the question ‘Where do we go from here?’ If you haven’t seen them in a while, though, it’s worth watching them all again… especially the first one addressing the fragility of our assumptions about how we would survive in a non-technology world. The first one hammers home the idea that we wouldn’t. Survive that is. The next eight show the point he makes in the first one about the high degree of connectivity between the parts of our knowledge that leads to modern technologies. Along the way he points out just how unplanned it all is. I know it would take a while to watch the whole thing again, but without that perspective, you won’t see just how much the tone of the series is about precisely the worries you described. Without that context, the last one doesn’t work.

As for Connections II and III, you get to see more of the knowledge web described in the first series, but without the worry about the future. By the time he finishes the third series you should be able to see his worry from the first one is completely, utterly gone. Did he forget along the way? Did he manage to convince himself not to worry as he got older? I doubt it. The last line from the last episode in the third series makes it pretty clear.

As for TDTUC episodes, I’m going to suggest watching the whole thing. That series doesn’t address your worry until the very last episode in the last few minutes, but the context of the earlier shows is necessary for the last one to have meaning. Each of the first nine episodes shows how western civilization keeps redefining Truth and in doing that redefining ourselves. Once it was good to burn women thought to be witches. Once it was acceptable to consider how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. Once it was thought the Sun went around the Earth. Not so anymore.

The real clincher for TDTUC comes in the last episode where he spends half the time talking about other cultures that don’t do what western civilization does. He shows how they don’t follow the Greek view about Change. This was in 1985. Watch it in the proper context now, though, and you’ll realize those cultures have largely SURRENDERED to us. We’ve won and they ARE changing. Finally, if that last scene with him holding the microchip doesn’t bring you to tears, you don’t get what the series is about. From the perspective of 1985, that final scene was the new worry for Burke. It should be obvious which way the world developed from among the options he listed.

Alex Tolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - I'd better reserve some weekends... :)

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: Think of them as therapy sessions for excessive worrying. They work for me every time. 8)

Laurent Weppe said...

* "If we suspect people are trying to rebuild the Ancient Regime, shouldn’t we let them try in a way such that they fall into our honeypot traps? [...] If you don’t think we can’t castrate them when the day comes, I can understand a reluctance to let them capture agriculture. I think you underestimate us, though."

The problem is not that I think people are incapable of winning against would-be aristocrats: I hold as self-evident that the non-sociopathic majority being conflict averse, it will take time and a lot of abuse before it gets pissed enough to start an organized all-out revolt against the ruling-class. By then, parasitic lordlings will have driven my country into the mud, while the unavoidable violent uprising which will eventually happen will create opportunities for the new Stalin/Napoleon/Duvalier/Baghdadi to rise.

I'd rather live in a political system with the mean to twist the rent-seekers & trust-fund-kids' arms and force them to behave rather than suffer through another iteration of the Cycle of Empires.

LarryHart said...

Johnathan S:

Or, to quote Quark (from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Siege of AR-558"):

"Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They're a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people... will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don't believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes."


And as I've said before, that's the best argument in favor of a strong social safety net. Making sure one's neighbors are not cold, hungry, and despearte is not just an act of altruism--it's good self-defense.

Tony Fisk said...

...Keeping one's neighbours sweet and Maslowed up is a good cue for the most recent comic from 'Zen Pencils':
A Meditation from Marcus Aurelius

David Brin said...

Amen Laurent & Tony etc. The experiment in mild but relentlessly forward-expansive revolution began in 1775 and has continued each generation. Our problem is that the last mid-scale reset - under FDR - was so successful that my entire generation grew up and lived a lifespan thinking class was "over."

Alfred Differ said...

@Laurent Weppe: Fair enough. Maybe my nation is a little bigger and can afford to use a shallow cycling as a method for culling them?

It's just that I don't expect the processes we put in place to divide them and keep them down to work perfectly. Robustness in those processes is necessary, but so are plans for their failure. Sometimes an anti-fragile process is better than a robust one, but I don't doubt they are a bit more scary to live through.

Alfred Differ said...

side note: (In case anyone needs a different perspective on the news compared to the overly emotional stuff normally dished up for us)

The folks at Stratfor are pointing out that recent gains by the Islamic State in Iraq are actually signs of weakness and not strength. They argue that they are fighting a multi-front battle in two countries and have to appear successful to make up for the fact that they cannot win a war of attrition. The evidence for the desperation is most easily visible in Syria where they appear to be using child soldiers. Since their opponents CAN afford to fight a war of attrition, it would be a mistake to fall for their intended illusion of strength.

Laurent Weppe said...

* "The folks at Stratfor are pointing out that recent gains by the Islamic State in Iraq are actually signs of weakness and not strength"

What's Daesh latest victory? They took Palmyra.
Who held Palmyra? The Assad regime.
Wanna know an interesting factoid about the Assad regime? Yes?
The Assad regime is so broke that it can't buy enough ammunitions to supply its troops and hasn't paid its militia nor its shabiha mercenary shock troops for four months.
Conquest is easy when your enemy is a failed despotate on its death throes.

Paul SB said...

Laurent, you wrote (some time ago - I've been busy...)

"Many left wing critics of GMOs are not claiming that Big Brother Incorporated wants to poison people, they are claiming, rightly, that monopolistic-rent seeking GMO companies will unwittingly drastically reduce our foodstuff biodiversity"

I have to assume that the loonies you talk to are on a different continent than the ones I hear from. The lefty loonies here don't even seem to know what biodiversity means, much less being concerned about the other issues you raised. The ones here seem to be mostly concerned with any supposed side-effects from GMOs, including the unsubstantiated rumor that genetic modification somehow causes cancer.

Having said that, though, I have to add that I have met far, far fewer left-wing loonies in California than I was led to believe would be here. But then, I was also told that if I moved to California it would be sunny every day, I would meet all sorts of crazy celebrities, and there would be a drive-by shooting on every corner. I have been here for 15 years and seen a whole lot of clouds, not one celebrity (unless you count our host) and have only seen one drive-by shooting.

Larry, I love the practicality of your words. The right-wing nut jobs I have known have always tended to dismiss the suggestion that helping our fellow human beings is pie-in-the-sky impractical nonsense that inevitably break the treasury and ruin the nation. They don't see that helping others saves the treasury when you factor in the high cost of social strife.

Alex, the people I have known who look forward to a huge die off of human population are not even as decent as the people you describe. Put simply, they are the kind of people who hate anyone who is not just like them, they relish the thought of killing personally, and want divine retribution against all those who do not belong to their own tribe.

Dr. Brin, I just started listening to a book on CD called "Small Wonder" by Barbara Kingsolver. I have only heard the first essay, while trapped on the highway, but already the author has hit on some of the same themes you show an interest in. I can't say much more, since I have only read (heard, really) the first chapter. She starts out with a true story about a lost 16-month old boy who was found days later in a cave being suckled by a bear, drawing a comparison between this instinctive act of kindness and the epidemic of anger that seems to be sweeping our world.

Tony, at first I was annoyed that the cartoonist had to go with the typical comic book hyperbole - dude with superpowers fighting zombies - but then I realized how symbolic it was and started to like it. I haven't read Marcus Aurelius since I was an undergrad, so it was a nice reminder, not only of Aurelius but of the fascinating commonalities between the deeper thoughts of people in widely separated parts of the world. Good stuff, and thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

Re Asteroid Day....

Hand out a tiny paper cocktail umbrella with a business card.

"If we don't plan ahead against an eventual asteroid strike, when the time comes, you can hold this umbrella over you head as your only protection."

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