Saturday, September 10, 2022

Bold ideas for Planet Earth (Mostly science!)

Okay, I generally put aside most space and astronomy stuff for their own category. But I do have to say that while I am nototiously critical of the SLS/Artemis moondoggle, I do hope the three SLS monstrosities we've largely paid for will eventually work well, so we can get as much as 5% of our money's worth. And a useless-silly footprint stunt. Then - Heinlein-willing - commercial launch will consign the wretched thing to obsolescence and history and NASA can go back to the real business of grownups, way farther out. 

Oh, yes. The Large Hadron Collider is back up and upgraded, discovering tetra and even pent-quark particles. Some think there are now enough of these particles to begin grouping them together, like the chemical elements in the periodic table. That is an essential first step towards creating a theory and set of rules governing exotic mass.

== Saving Earth through geo-engineering? ==

One newly proposed method for addressing climate change involves sequestering plant waste CROPS: Crops Residue Oceanic Permanent Sequestration (competing for an X-Prize for carbon removal) envisions reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide by bundling agricultural waste into half-ton cubes and disposing of them in the deep ocean, below the thermocline - in extremely cold water, where their carbon will be undisturbed for millennia. This should be substantially less expensive than attempting to remove carbon dioxide by industrial processes. And the odds of it being politically acceptable are...

Other concepts being explored: The idea of using sun-shields to block maybe 1% of incoming sunlight – and perhaps even more of the UV – has a new proposed method… blowing giant bubbles. Intriguing and it may come to that. But still very expensive and it only works until something happens out there and it stops.

Gregory Benford and some others prefer that far-cheaper prospect of aerosols spread in the upper atmosphere that reflect light back into space. On paper and in the lab, they are short-lived and harmless. But again, any time you stop, all benefits are lost.

Much more effective across millions of years would be my method to enlarge (gradually) Earth’s orbit. Decidedly easy for some future civ to do… maybe even our g-g-g-kids, since it only requires 1000x the might of this already mighty civilization!  See my video Lift the Earth! as well as the numbers behind the idea.

But I have long favored another approach that appears to be a win-win, all around! From“When smoke from the 2019–2020 Australian wildfires billowed across the Southern Ocean, the iron-rich particles it deposited on the ocean triggered an algae bloom bigger than Australia—and it had a rapid and prolonged impact on the Southern Ocean's marine ecosystem and its carbon cycle.” … 

“The phytoplankton bloom outlasted the wildfires by almost half a year. Phytoplankton blooms don't usually survive longer than a few weeks, so the duration of this bloom was astounding and has rarely been observed before on such time scales.”

Read the article. The hope is that ocean fertilization into strong currents (not contricted zones like the Black Sea, Med and Caribbean) can lead to plankton, then krill, then burgeoning of whale population back to pre-indistrial levels, which some believe could make the fertilization cycle persistent with their... well... whale... poop.

Which segués kinda naturally into our final geoengineering project and the most-necessady!

Peecycling! Not urinating while on a bike! No, it’s giving urine back to nature along (especially) with the rare phosphorus (P!) that otherwise gets flushed to sea. In 99% of humans, pee is perfectly harmless when cycled through dirt and foliage or flowers, and recycling it may even be required, someday, as I depict in the future, in Existence.

Again... P (Phosphorus) will be the next scarcity, far more than oil ever was. Time to be thinking about it, before the King of Morrocco owns the world. Do see Existence.

== Our bio future ==

Scientists in Sweden have created a liquid that can absorb solar energy and store it as a thermal fuel for as long as 18 years. The fluid works like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, sunlight goes in and heat comes out when it's needed. It appears to be about Hydrogen plus Methane, but looking into it.  

Artificial photosynthesis can produce food without sunshine: A two-step electrocatalytic process can convert carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into acetate, the form of the main component of vinegar. Food-producing organisms then consume acetate in the dark to grow. ‘Combined with solar panels to generate the electricity to power the electrocatalysis, this hybrid organic-inorganic system could increase the conversion efficiency of sunlight into food, up to 18 times more efficient for some foods.’ Feed such a system CO2 directly from major producers like cement factories and the phase two reactors get nutrients from agricultural runoff. Very similar to current prototype systems using algae and sunlight.

Experiments showed that a wide range of food-producing organisms can be grown in the dark directly on the acetate-rich electrolyzer output, including green algae, yeast, and fungal mycelium that produce mushrooms. Producing algae with this technology is approximately fourfold more energy efficient than growing it photosynthetically. Yeast production is about 18-fold more energy efficient than how it is typically cultivated using sugar extracted from corn.” And "Using artificial photosynthesis approaches to produce food could be a paradigm shift for how we feed people.” 

== Interesting research ==

The rate of developing Alzheimer's was lowest among those who consistently received the flu vaccine every year, a very large study says. Though people who received at least one influenza vaccine were 40% less likely than their non-vaccinated peers to develop Alzheimer's disease over the course of four years.  "Since there is evidence that several vaccines may protect from Alzheimer's disease, we are thinking that it isn't a specific effect of the flu vaccine."

Like the new ‘miracle” cancer treatment etc., I am not betting the farm on preliminary results!  Still… track this…. Alas, it bodes poorly for Trumpist America.

New research turns the idea of heat-loving dinosaurs on its head: It presents the first physical evidence that Triassic dinosaur species, which were a minor group largely relegated to the polar regions at the time, regularly endured freezing conditions there. Hence when a sudden ice age swept the planet at the begin of the Jurassic, the cold tolerant and feathered dinosaurs swept in too.

Unusual superconductivity observed in twisted trilayer graphene: "While superconductors have been around for a long time, a remarkably new feature in twisted graphene bilayers and trilayers is that superconductivity in these materials can be turned on simply through the application of a voltage on a nearby electrode…"

And so we move onward. A spectacular scientific civilization! Whose fact-based professions are truly the groups who are vastly more-hated upon than all the races and genders. Wager me on that and let's compare actual amounts of time spent in direct dissing, on Fox. We're on the same side!

The side of a future with some hope.


Jon S. said...

And the odds of it being politically acceptable are...

"You want to throw your garbage into our oceans!" And then we're stuck again trying to explain a (not terribly) complex solution to people who think in bumper stickers.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
The "miracle" was IMHO simply a case of synergy

Other civilisations all had parts of the puzzle - the Dutch and then the Anglo/Scots were simply lucky enough to have all of the requirements

Each part was just as important
Cheap Iron/steel
Basic maths and science

Once all of the parts came together......

Tim H. said...

Agree on the importance of phosphorus, but when I saw "Peecycling" my first thought was the late Gordon Baxter's somewhat notorious column in Car & Driver "Relief at Seventy". Guys, don't try this.

Tim H. said...

Another "Pee" reference, "Terry Pratchett's "King of the golden river".

Dwight Williams said...

Now if the vaccinations can be linked to slowing down progression of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia in those already diagnosed...but is anyone looking at that proposal yet?

scidata said...

Immune systems learn (evolve). If there's any silver lining to the COVID nightmare, it's that there is now much wider knowledge and appreciation of that fact. Shades of WAR OF THE WORLDS.

GMT -5 8032 said...

Prof. Brin, is that "miracle" cancer therapy the one discussed in this NPR report?

My dad got his MD in 1931; and spent much of his life treating cancer patients. Dad was convinced that immunotherapy was the best (but not the only) hope. He spent 6 years practicing medicine in Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines before WW2. He treated many cancer patients during his time there and was amazed at the effectiveness of folk remedies. He believed that this was due to the placebo effect and the power of belief. He believed that doctors need to be more than just technicians looking for scientific remedies for diseases; he felt that doctors needed to focus on patient emotional and physical comfort.

But he also believed that we had to study as many approaches as possible. He hated how medical research became tribal and that the different camps believed that THEIR field was the one, true approach to cure cancer. Idiots. Rather than accept that each approach could add to the successful treatment, they insisted that their approach was the only valid approach and that all others be defunded.

Don Gisselbeck said...

Fun fact, bicycle mechanics hate working on the bikes of serious triathletes. If you've spent thousands of dollars and hours for a race why would you stop in the middle?

Every time I pee in the mountains, I remember that I am performing a primary large mammal function, transporting minerals.

David Brin said...

Duncan vastly more important than all of those factors were:

- some degree of social mobility
- some law-based protection from abuse of power
- some freedom to criticise and to compete

and in Britain's case and the US ... relative safety from invasion and hence low standing armies near populations.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin
Those three were also nessesary - but not sufficient

All of the requirements needed to be there for the "miracle" to happen

David Brin said...

LH you glazed past my main point which was that the Roberts Doctrine that makes the biggest difference is his passive (hands off) defense of gerrymandering. Which violates the 14th & other amendments by depriving citizens of a meaningful vote for/against their own state legislators.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

LH you glazed past my main point which was that the Roberts Doctrine that makes the biggest difference is his passive (hands off) defense of gerrymandering

I don't disagree; I was just clarifying the right-wing argument I've heard regarding state legislatures not being bound by their own state rules.

To your point, I believe Roberts once said straight out that if (Wisconsin) voters are unhappy with gerrymandering, their remedy is at the ballot box. I don't know if he was being intentionally ironic or if he really didn't understand the irony of that statement.

Larry Hart said...

For example...

What does it mean for a state legislature to "direct" anything. In most states, that requires a majority vote in both houses. However, in Nebraska, they only have one house. The exact conditions by which a legislature "directs" anything is authorized in the state constitution. By what mechanism other than those established by the state constitution and subsequent laws can a legislature be said to "direct" anything?

I am sure that if even a Republican legislature (say Wisconsin) balks at overturning an election in the Republican candidate's favor, they would come up with a new rationalization, such as "If the speaker of that legislature on his own chooses a different winner than the one authorized by the body as a whole, he has that right because he was duly elected by the members of that legislature to speak for them." Thus, they'll claim a state legislature "directs" whatever that speaker says it does. If the speaker is Republican, of course.

Alfred Differ said...


Point at anything physical and I'm inclined to say "I think the Chinese had that long before Europe." For many of them I'd say Rome had them too. Things like money go way, way back.

You want to argue that they came together. I'm countering that by saying they came together elsewhere first and the world didn't become explosively rich. Certain people did. The elite in empires because filthy rich. On average, the peasants didn't even when all the physical pieces where there.

I'd phrase the additional things the Dutch had and English copied imperfectly a little different than David's list, but the same idea holds.

- Dignity was assigned to the attempt and not just the success.
- People were more liberated than usual, thus allowed to try innovations that might make them richer or leave them destitute.

I don't think it was so much that people had law-based protection from abuses of power. It was closer to the idea that powerful people were too weak to stop it. Relative strengths between social classes do not remain constant. During the decades leading to the conflict that causes the birth of the Dutch Republic, noblemen who ruled them tried to break from Spain. Many were killed for it leaving a power vacuum in places that took too long for Spain to fill. Since the bourgeoisie in Amsterdam didn't want done to them what happened to Antwerp, they stepped into that vacuum sporting a different outlook on what can possibly work on the battlefield.

Being relatively safe from invasion helps a bit, but the Dutch were too on the fact that they spent a great deal on a fleet that could deter aggressive neighbors AND they had a giant reserve bank that moved debt markets. No one messed with the Dutch until after England stole their empire. Well… the English did… but they did it by copying (imperfectly) the Dutch and willingly issuing bond debt to finance it all.

What happened to the Dutch happened mostly at the hand of people who copied and improved on the social change without realizing they were doing so. By the time Napoleon came through, the Dutch mercantilists had been outcompeted by English tradesmen who weren't so much into mercantile protections/rigidity. They adapted what the Dutch were doing socially and wound up proving it worked even better. Well… some of the English. Lots of Scots too. Mostly people who had no opportunity to own land and get into politics.

Alfred Differ said...

My first guess with a correlation between avoiding Alzheimer's and the influenza vaccines is people who take the time to get vaccinated probably receive more medical attention. Alzheimer's appears to be an auto-immune response, so spotting inflammatory disorders early (and acting) might be a decent explanation.

Another could be that giving the immune system something to do (influenza vaccine responses would count) might be enough to avoid immune response misfires in some of us. If this was the case, there should be a correlation between those who don't get Alzheimer's and those who get sick other documented ways. I suspect we don't keep enough statistics to test this, though.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
The Chinese had steel and Iron - in small quantities at costs that only the very rich could afford
The same with tools

A rich person having the resources to own an expensive tool is completely different to a world where any skilled labourer had access to tools and materials

Having a few drips of the

Cheap Iron/steel
Basic maths and science

Was not enough
Having large amounts of the above WAS enough

Alfred Differ said...

The Great Enrichment began noticeably before cheap iron/steel showed up in sufficient quantities to meet your description.

Basically, the entire Industrial Revolution came after the Great Enrichment started. One or two centuries after depending on where you lived.

The only 'new tools' appearing at the right time involved the ways in which the Dutch imagined the world to be a little different from what most others thought. Between their ways of tolerating religions variations (some of them) to market experimentation (some of them), they were a little freer than the people around them.

By today's standards, they weren't that free. By historical, feudal standards, they tolerated astonishing amounts of liberty and granted dignity to people way outside the aristocracy. In all other ways, they weren't unusual.

reason said...

Alfred, Duncan - don't forget one VERY important innovation - the JOINT STOCK company!

scidata said...

If you give a bacterial culture more food and space (wealth), it grows and becomes more robust. What exactly is in dispute here?

locumranch said...

Jumping to conclusions seems to be the community standard here.

There's Scidata who attempts to generalize between giving 'a bacterial culture more food and space' (leading to more growth & robustness) with higher human organisms, as if he's never heard of the competitive exclusion principle or the behavioral sink.

There's Alfred who relies on proxies to support his Dutch economic miracle argument, even though he still can't explain the exact nature of said great 'deus ex machina' enrichment.

There's Dwight who hopes that the Influenza Vaccine can reduce Alzheimer risk as the UTHealth Houston study suggests, even if this is true in a bad way, as ZERO studies correlate the flu vaccine with an increase in life expectancy & a few even correlate it with a life expectancy decrease.

That last bit is worth of repeating:

The flu vaccine DOES NOT appear to increase life expectancy. What vaccination does do, however, is reduce the risk of ICU admission by 26% & the risk of flu-based death by 30% among adult HOSPITALIZED patients whose life expectancy is shit anyway.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time" would be a fitting epitaph for our spectacular civilization, since most of our solutions end up creating even bigger problems down the road, just as sure as chemotherapy causes secondary cancers, our miraculous fossil fuel driven economy causes climate change & our culture routinely robs from Peter to pay Paul.

And, speaking of great enrichment, there's a POS vehicle parked outside my place right now that was worth USD $2000 three years ago but is now worth over $7000 at today's prices -- a value increase of over 300% !! -- leading me to brag about my current state of 'enrichment' to random passerbys.


David Brin said...

While Chinese civilization is only 1000 years younger than Egypt & Sumeria, in general, it was fractured and multi ethnic till the 1st Emperor unified... and crushed... all variety and established the han as dominant. About a century after Alexander the Great.

The preceding 5 kingdoms period - much less homogeneous - was arguably the most creative time.

scidata said...

Hah! Being criticized by locum for not giving humanity the deference it deserves, then referencing animal studies that don't either.

Alfred Differ said...


I actually can explain what I think happened among the Dutch. I personally think McCloskey did a better job than I can, but I don't mind trying.

Such an explanation is premature, though, if we first fail to agree that something unique happened. Proxies are always used when trying to measure things we can' measure directly and are always open to arguments showing that they don't measure what someone thinks they do. That's why it's useful to get those arguments out of the way.

As for the actual cause, I invoke no magic, mutations, or gods from the machine. Dutch commoners did something unusual at a time when their aristocratic overlords were weak enough they couldn't stop it. English commoners copied the Dutch a few generations later… likely due to envy of Dutch riches.


Getting you to agree that something unique happened about that time isn't a trap. We shall likely disagree on what caused it. However, agreement on the unique event is my actual objective here because it explains why some of us view this civilization as exceptional.

Agreement on an underlying cause isn't required and focusing too much on that is like religious people arguing over exactly when baptism is supposed to occur. I don't care if we agree as long as we recognize some of what we have in common.

Alfred Differ said...


The dispute is over how we did something a bacterial culture can't do short of mutation and speciation.

Our population growth in Europe's early 18th century can be tracked to some nice weather, but enrichment among the Dutch started before that and spread across Europe as if was something that could be caught like a disease. Mutations do such things if they confer a significant advantage on those who have them, but humans didn't mutate significantly on a genetic level in that period. Our life cycle is too long for genetics to explain much.

We did do something culturally, though. The Dutch began to set aside feudalism in a way the aristocrats failed to stop. Unruly English and Scots copied and adapted the techniques at a time when British aristocracy was historically weak.

The mutation was cultural.

scidata said...

I think there's some confusion about my confusion (to mangle a great line from Kierkegaard). Staggering positive-sum leaps seem like a given. Even in bacteria, there's HGT and other processes. I just don't get the 'everything cancels out' thinking that one hears way too often these days, much less so in CB happily.

Larry Hart said...


Staggering positive-sum leaps seem like a given.

We just recently discussed how every trade--unless there is fraud involved--must involve at least the expectation that both sides gain from it. I have a hard time understanding the thought process which concludes that every transaction has a winner and a loser. If that were the case, no one would ever trade at all unless he thought he was always the one fleecing a sucker, and he'd at least have to wonder why all those suckers kept on trading.

Then again, people apparently believed for millennia that heavier-than-air flight was impossible, despite the existence of birds and bats.

Alfred Differ said...

"Everything cancels out" or "balances out" is actually a great first-order approximation. Through most of human history it seemed to be one of the dominant rules. The other one was cyclic history. Seasons come and go, right?

Thing is... humans aren't very good at noticing secular trends that take ages. A 1,500 year doubling rate for our population (which we didn't document anyway) wasn't easy to spot. Slow growth of a peasant's real income consumed by surviving children is easily missed or treated as 'balance in nature'.

This is our host's #2 or #3 Fermi Paradox explanation. A slow secular trend that involves early agriculture (animal husbandry) that destroys the fertility of cultivated lands leaving an intelligent species trapped at low population levels. We certainly could have gone this way. Might yet.


I don't fault anyone who misses these secular trends, but when they suddenly become fast enough to be noticed... it takes a special kind of obstinacy to ignore them. Few here at CB do this, though. Instead we debate what caused what. 8)

Alfred Differ said...


Winners and losers in a trade come from a perception illusion. If you feel like you lost, the other guy must have one. Right?

When the bid/ask spread is done right, both traders often walk away feeling like they lost something. No one is happy.

1. If I'm a seller, I didn't get what I wanted. I had to settle for a little less. Doesn't that mean the buyer beat me to some degree?

2. If I'm a buyer, I didn't get what I wanted at my preferred price. I had to pay a bit more. Doesn't that mean...

You'll see this plainly in barter transactions. Watch people in flea markets as the haggle. Custom usually demands the seller complain about how the buyer wants to rob them of their ability to feed their children. The buyer usually has similar complaints but also disses the product and its quality.

It's still there in price-listed transactions. You don't have to buy a burger from this place when another nearby offers something similar for less. Hagglers will make those options explicit in the bazaar, but they still exist in our standard retail shops. They go unsaid.


Another unusual thing about this civilization that goes mostly unsaid is how few of us know how to barter. That says a great deal about our wealth. Peasants worry about pennies and there aren't many peasants left in the world.

Larry Hart said...

Finally taking notice...

Third, and potentially most important, is the fate of the Republican “election deniers” who are candidates for offices, such as governor or secretary of state, in which they would be in a position in 2024 to control or influence vote tabulations and certifications. Such candidates have asserted — against all evidence — that the 2020 election was stolen. They clearly intend to steal it back, if necessary, to elect Trump or, for that matter, any other Republican. Their potential capacity to do so constitutes the gravest danger to American democracy in the history of our republic. The 2022 elections are a gateway that must be firmly shut.

One can only hope that the current Congress gets its act together and reforms the electoral-vote-counting process so as to minimize opportunities for shenanigans. Further, it becomes clearer every day that Joe Biden is right, and that electing Democrats this cycle isn't just about advancing a particular political agenda, it's about saving the democracy.

Larry Hart said...

A NY Times columnist recognizes that "Economists ought to read more science-fiction"

One reason economists should read more science fiction is that sci-fi opens the mind to other ways the world could be. That’s valuable in general, but sci-fi is especially useful for economists, because it often delves into topics that occupy them, pushing those ideas to their logical extremes.

For example: What if money went away? What if corporations became more powerful than governments? How would we reorganize society if no one needed to work?

This isn’t idle speculation. Strange things happen far more often than we like to think. Reading sci-fi sensitizes us to the possibility of radical change. Society needs such sensitivity in economists, among others. The 9/11 commission wrote in Chapter 11 of its report that it is “crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”

He does acknowledge Paul Krugman...

My colleague Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate economist, is famous in sci-fi circles for a paper he wrote in 1978 as a struggling assistant professor, “The Theory of Interstellar Trade,” in which he considered how transporting goods close to the speed of light might affect interest rates on those goods. Throwing shade on others in his profession, Krugman wrote: “It should be noted that, while the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.”

scidata said...

Larry Hart: He does acknowledge Paul Krugman

Being a fan of Lynn Margulis, I'm of the opinion that academia rushes right past vast treasures in their haste to chase shiny bobbles. Galactic Asimovian psychohistory is one example. One day, probably long after we're gone, people will dig up such treasures from Bayes, Laplace, Asimov, Krugman, Brin, and to a much, much lesser degree, even yours truly. Let's just hope it's not Antikythera-level antiquity by then :)

Tim H. said...

An interesting title to see a science fiction author discuss economics is "Neptune's Children", Charles Stross.

locumranch said...

That our current civilization is 'exceptional', Alfred & I are in complete agreement, and our only dispute is what Alfred means by the term 'exceptional' in this circumstance.

Does the above term 'exceptional' signify (1) "unusually good; outstanding", or (2) "aberrant; deviating widely from the norm", or something more neologistic like (3) "abnormality & deviance now equal a praiseworthy new norm" ??

The third option, that "abnormality & deviance EQUAL normality", is literally insane, yet this is essentially the same WEIRD argument that Dr. Brin makes every time he refers to the 6000 year feudal norm as 'failure mode' while asserting that his post-enlightenment 'exception' is now 'normal' as far as he's concerned.

Just say so if enlightenment mode is a matter of personal preference because YOUR PREFERENCE is something I can accept & work with, as long as you (in turn) accept & work with the personal preferences of me & mine, but don't bullshit me about how your value-laden subjective reality equals some sort of revealed quasi-religious objective truth that everyone else must accept.


Alan Brooks said...

LoCum, let’s say our value-laden subjective reality = revealed quasi-religious objective truth.
Wouldn’t you then remove quasi and truth? And wouldn’t such include yourself as well?
Majority rule for neo-confederates I talk to is defined as white majority rule. Which means communicating (lack thereof) at cross-purposes.

gregory byshenk said...

David Brin said...
Criminy, ‘dirtnapper” thinks the Ardennes offensive was a Nazi victory!

I may be mistaken, but I think you misread. It seems to me that 'dirtnapninja' is likening the Ukrainians to the Germans in this analogy. That is, the current 'offensive' in relation to that in the Ardennes.

I think the analogy is not a particularly good one (though I also have no idea of the state of matériel on either side at the present, nor of the ability of either side to bring additional forces to bear), but that it is not so painfully stupid as you suggest.

Unknown said...

Tim H,

"Neptune's Children" concentrates on economics but emphasizes that a great crime is at the heart of the great fortune the characters are fighting over. Of course, there are also mermaids and privateer/insurance adjuster spacefaring bats. Stross is one of the few SF authors who both understand capitalism and aren't really happy with its side effects - please note that in the novel, actual meatbag humans are extinct, but we've transmitted our pathologies to our cybernetic progeny. This is so likely that it is depressing.


Tim H. said...

Not quite extinct, one of the groups was dedicated to de-extincting humans, and had some success. Meats had to be mostly re-created at habitable destinations, being too fragile to do well on a star ship. See Charlie's "Canned apes don't travel well".

Unknown said...

Dr. Brin,

There is at least one good analogy between the Ardennes ('44) and Kharkiv ('22) offensives:
The Bulge was timed to allow an offensive without air superiority, assuming correctly that bad weather would allow both concentration of force without detection and operation without air interference.

"The month of September...experiences increasing cloud cover...." this may have hampered satellite data collection.

It's still a shock to me that the RU air force does not control the skies over Ukraine, though I now have a better idea where the money went instead. Surprised that more air force logistics commanders haven't fallen out of upper story windows onto cups of polonium tea.


Larry Hart said...

gregory byshenk:

Criminy, ‘dirtnapper” thinks the Ardennes offensive was a Nazi victory!

I may be mistaken, but I think you misread. It seems to me that 'dirtnapninja' is likening the Ukrainians to the Germans in this analogy. That is, the current 'offensive' in relation to that in the Ardennes.

I read dirtnap's post the same way--that the Ukrainian offensive will fail the way the Nazis ultimately did. I don't particularly think current events are bearing that out, though.

Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

Majority rule for neo-confederates I talk to is defined as white majority rule. Which means communicating (lack thereof) at cross-purposes

Yes, to me, majority rule means the most votes wins. To them, it means that only "the majority", i.e., white Christians, get to vote. And therefore, that they must retain "the majority" by any means necessary.

reason said...

What the hell is happening in Russia? I'm hearing lots of rumours, and there are a few definite oddities.

David Brin said...

GB: “I may be mistaken, but I think you misread. It seems to me that 'dirtnapninja' is likening the Ukrainians to the Germans in this analogy. That is, the current 'offensive' in relation to that in the Ardennes.”

Other than the fact that it was a surprise attack that took a lot of territory and prisoner and MIGHT go wrong, the Ardennes parallel is just weird. Things that stood out as Ardennes traits:

Absolute dependence upon bad weather persisting
Context of plummeting industrial strength and manpower and supplies with very little time left
A specific fantasy goal (Antwerp) of huge importance, but almost zero achievability
Robbing one front to commit to several attacks that most top generals knew to be doomed.

There are almost zero overlaps with the Ukrainian broad front strategy in good conditions taking advantage of their huge superiority in infantry to spread things out so that RF artillery numbers don’t matter at all.

Paradoctor said...

Larry Hart, 8:01 AM:
The 9/11 commission wrote in Chapter 11 of its report that it is “crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”

Say what?! Bureaucratizing imagination?

What's next? Burning wooden iron on a wet flame to produce bright darkness and cold heat?

You found that in the 9/11 Commission report? And not, say, on the Onion? Or in an old issue of Mad Magazine?

"Routinizing and bureaucratizing the exercise of imagination": how very imaginative of them! But that's too improbable to be science fiction. Maybe it'll work as satirical fantasy. Imagine, if you please, the Department of Imagination. Staffed, no doubt, by dragons and unicorns. But no, dragons and unicorns are too plausible.

Fittingly, "chapter 11" refers to bankruptcy.

Larry Hart said...


You found that in the 9/11 Commission report? And not, say, on the Onion? Or in an old issue of Mad Magazine?

Well, I didn't find it. The writer of that NY Times op-ed found it.

And his point is that even the everyday workings of economics in particular and government in general should involve a certain leeway for imagining possibilities. In fact, that it should not be left to a secluded and marginalized "Department of Imagination" that no one else pays attention to.

Alfred Differ said...


That our current civilization is 'exceptional', Alfred & I are in complete agreement, and our only dispute is…

Okay. With that behind us, let us discuss the disputed turf.

In my not even remotely humble opinion, I think the exceptional nature of this civilization is "unusually good; outstanding". I feel strongly enough about that I'm inclined to defend to the death what I think led to it. I get that others can reasonably see it different or feel less passion about it… and I'm not inclined (automatically) to judge them for that. Preferences are what they are and not really open to debate. That doesn't mean I won't judge them, it just won't be automatically done based on perception differences. I'll look for actions and then judge.

In defense of "outstanding", though, I can offer objective facts in support of my subjective preferences. The simplest of these is a current measure of average real income. The proxy I was using before to detect "exceptional" in the 17th and 18th centuries (early Enlightenment era) also speaks to what is happening right now.

If you imagine yourself as a subsistence farmer (most humans after the ice melted were) and tried to measure all sources of income and expense that are never monetized, you can work out a rough approximation for real income and real expense per day. If you collect eggs from the henhouse, that's income because you would have to pay someone else to do it if you didn't. If you cook food for the family, more income for the same reason. If you weed the field, more income… same reason. All of these come with expenses too since we don't do anything without having to expend resources. Focus on the income side and imagine we arbitrarily assign a monetary value to it. I'll pick three silver dollars as my example. The actual number doesn't matter because I'll use it as the denominator in a ratio while trying to compare modern people to historical subsistence farmers.

Most humans born after the ice melted back were peasants living on this subsistence income. Their expenses almost matched their income. Tiny surpluses might accrue, but they were easily consumed by the occasional extra surviving child. Children eventually contribute income to the farming family, though, so tiny surpluses were a moderate defense against plague and famine.

The objective fact worthy of an "outstanding" description today is there are almost no subsistence farmers left on Earth. Expenses they face daily have gone up, but incomes have too. In fact, incomes have grown more. Empire cities generally saw a 2-3x multiplication of real incomes for those living nearby. Dutch Republic commoners saw something closer to 4-5x. The average person alive today sees about 16x while the average US resident sees about 100x before anyone makes an accounting for quality improvement. Add quality in and USians see closer to 300x.

The peasant class is being wiped from the face of the Earth not by war, plague, or famine, but by enrichment and an invitation to join the bourgeoisie. Tell me that's not "unusually good; outstanding". 8)

Paradoctor said...

Exceptionality is an accomplishment, or a stroke of luck. Exceptionalism is the sin of pride. There's nothing less exceptional than exceptionalism.

Paradoctor said...

Larry Hart:
I agree that bureaucracies should have leeway for imagining possibilities. But there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, and a lot of not good 'twixt the 'is' and the 'should'.

You're right that the Department of Imagination would be secluded, marginalized, and ignored. Hmm... this has potential. Maybe the DOI would be where everyone who has reached his level of incompetence is sideways-promoted to?

David Brin said...

I am less cynical about "The 9/11 commission wrote in Chapter 11 of its report that it is “crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”

I think it's cute and could have positive effects.

Alfred Differ said...


The third option [snip] is literally insane, yet this is essentially the same WEIRD argument that Dr. Brin makes every time he refers to the 6000 year feudal norm as 'failure mode' while asserting that his post-enlightenment 'exception' is now 'normal' as far as he's concerned.

I want to single this out as it's own post to avoid having it lost in the middle of a possible dispute over what I believe to be an objective fact. (The 16x improvement of real income for the average person alive today.)

I think you are misunderstanding David. The feudal norm IS a failure mode relative to what is occurring today. If we had never broken out of it, we would not think so… but we did… so we do.

During the feudal era, subsistence farmers saw no real income growth. Tiny surpluses were consumed in the manner Malthusians know all too well. Famines arrived about once or twice a generation and plagues were common enough to keep expected lifespans at or below 40 years and child mortality (<5 yo) at around 40-50%. Those statistics absolutely suck by modern standards, but they were just good enough for our population to double about every 1500 years filling the land where we could.

After the feudal era, subsistence farmers saw real growth income that eventually grew so damn fast women couldn't have children fast enough to consume surpluses in the Malthusian manner. Child mortality has plummeted along with maternal mortality while expected lifespans have almost doubled.

In the feudal era, no one thought this possible short of Divine intervention… yet here we are with a world population nearing 8 gigapersons and obesity is more of a problem than starvation. We are rapidly entering a world where anyone on Earth can communicate with anyone else on Earth any damn time they want. Oh… and a lot of educational material is now free for any who want it.

Feudal mode IS a failure because we know it to be one… now.

scidata said...

Re: bureaucratizing imagination

Like the '10th Man Rule' as depicted in the movie WORLD WAR Z. The common wisdom is that imagination is greater* than science. Counter-intuitively, the opposite is true.

* meaning more correct or profound. Nope. Examples are the constellations, attributing agency to natural phenomena, and the rampant pattern-seeking of the human mind. Ranging from the gentle meanderings of Spinoza and Einstein, to the full-on delusion of Francis Collins.

duncan cairncross said...


You miss the steady increase in wealth in most of human history

Iron as an example moved from the Roman era when iron nails were treated as "treasure" to more and more iron being used by normal peasants
We can see this in the various militaries - more and more iron then steel was used
China was for a number of reasons well behind Europe in the general distribution of iron and steel

There was a huge massive increase in the availability of iron and steel after the industrial revolution had started but the initial stages were in a situation where iron and steel were a lot more common an a lot "cheaper" than in any other previous civilisation

We think of the middle ages as a time of stagnation - but that is not true
Civilisation and the tools of men continued to advance - in a decent lifetime even the peasants would see changes
The reason that we don't see this is that the written record fails in this period!!
But the advances continue

David Brin said...

The spectacular successes of Enlightenment Civ by all metrics (including some negative) compared to ALL feudalist regimes from gilgamesh to Stalin, combined is not the main issue.

The most crucial point is that leader castes may no longer declare 'truths' ex-cathedra that just happen to suit the interests of a self-serving inherited aristocracy. There was almost no correlation between that habit and good governance. A test result that -after 6000 years - is overwhelming proof that we need something else.

Until we make smarter entities who can explain what we do not now see, I'll fight for what made things much better -- competitive reciprocal accountability in arenas tuned to minimize cheating and maximize positive sum outcomes from competition...

... the c- word that lefties seem to dumb ever to claim as their own, even theough they are now the heirs of Adam Smith...

... and the c-word that righties are too hypocritical/evil to admit they have betrayed utterly in favor of abasement before new waves of cheatin lords.

Don Gisselbeck said...

Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn Townsend White makes a strong case for the inventions of the plowshare, the stirrup, the crank, and a non-choking horse collar for the rapid advancement of society.

Unknown said...


Got to disagree with
"During the feudal era, subsistence farmers saw no real income growth."

and go with Duncan. Metal tools (as well as weapons and armor) became more prevalent at lower social levels, a result of increased iron availability. Increased harnessing of water and wind provided nonhuman power supplies. Animal breeding produced larger, stronger breeds. It wasn't just castles that got larger and more durable - peasant houses improved, too. Social stability generally improved, allowing more trade = more reliable food supplies during crop failures,

As an aside, slavery slowly ended across most of western europe.

Incremental improvements are still improvements.


Alfred Differ said...

Duncan and Pappenheimer,

I think it is important to distinguish between real income and accumulated wealth.

I agree that income growth was seen in empire cities and provincial capitals. Those surplus did turn into other things besides surviving children.

Subsistence farmers produced tiny surpluses that could accumulate, but often took the usual Malthusian turn. Not always, though, so wealth stored in the farmhouse as robust structure or something besides a dirt floor did happen. That's wealth, though. Not real incomes.

On average, local lords and priests were pretty good at siphoning excess real income from the peasants. Pretty good, but not perfect. Add a few lords who recognized the connection between peasants with dirt floors and peasant rebellions and you can explain away some of the infrastructure improvements too.


As for slavery, it diminished when the economic return no longer favored it. It's not really gone except in market segments where the ROI doesn't work.

Alfred Differ said...

Don Gisselbeck,

Add to that list the chimney, improved millstones, and a few other things. There's no doubt improvements occurred across centuries, but they did not alter the Malthusian equilibrium value of a peasant's real income.

Those improvements showed up as additional wealth (surplus stored as some kind of asset) and not as multiplicative improvements on daily income.

Let me offer an example in modern numbers. The median wage for labor in the US in 2020 was around $67,500. Imagine a world where inflation did not change the value of a dollar (or do inflation adjustments) and ask yourself what it would be like here if 10 years later the median wage was $202,500. Don't inflate the dollars to get to that value because that wouldn't be a 'real income' improvement. Imagine 'something happening' that we couldn't directly see, but we'd know off it because everything would be changing around us.

That's what was happening to the Dutch... while they were at war with a European Great Power. That's what happened to the English and then Scots. It took longer than 10 years for them, but it was still pretty fast.

These changes CAN be real fast. Look at some of the economies of nations in south-east Asia. They went from post-war trauma to modernity in a generation. Look at South Korea. Look just about anywhere they decided to adopt (or adapt) what The West was doing. Where they did, the peasantry emptied out into the cities and those who stayed on the farms saw real income improvements too.

Alfred Differ said...


Locumranch has been kind enough to read and kibitz on a partitioned argument regarding Enlightenment Civ. At the moment, the part being chewed on involves measures of improvement.

The partitioning goes like this.

1. Did something exceptional happen? (By any definition of 'exceptional.'

2. Is the exceptional thing 'good'?

3. What caused or facilitates the exceptional thing?

Locumranch agreed to the first point and now we are knocking about the second one. No doubt the result will be "Yes in some ways... no in others." I'll be going after an average 'thumb up or down' decision.

AFTER that we might get to a point where your position doesn't seen so alien to him. Maybe. He could still disagree on things around point #3, but at least we'd have some common ground with #1, #2.

duncan cairncross said...


Civilisation changed - slow improvements - slower than the Malthusian "trap" - but still slowly speeding up

UNTIL the total of possible changes hit the take off point - which was when ALL of the required enabling steps had been reached

At that point the changes increased speed - leaving the Malthusian "trap" in the dust

This did NOT occur with any previous civilisation as they simply did NOT have all of the enabling features in place

Alfred Differ said...


I won't have any issue with that until you try to define "all required enabling steps".

1. Most everything the Dutch had could be found in earlier civilizations.

2. Not everything from other civilizations could be found among the Dutch.

3. Cultures who imitated the Dutch caught the contagion without all of the Dutch practices being copied precisely.

I put to you the notion that the social changes were likely more important than the physical tools. In other words, there weren't all that many 'required enabling steps'.

a. Some of what we think was required might actually be effect instead of cause. Inserting a late start date for the Great Enrichment is likely to cause this exact confusion.

b. There is an historical bias for crediting Europeans with ideas that showed up in China long before. Even joint-stock companies go back that far.

Anyway... I'm not really trying to argue for an exact description of how it happened right now. The point I'm driving for with locumranch is that the exception thing also happens to be a good thing from a peasant's perspective. (Not so much from an aristocratic perspective.)

Darrell E said...

The discussion between Alfred and Duncan (and others) reminds me of the "nature vs nurture" wars. Good discussion. I would guess that, analogous to genetic vs environment, that there was a complicated and synergistic relationship between social changes and physical tools / technology that eventually led to the take off point. At various time and places through history technology instigated social change and social change instigated technological advancement. I think it's genuinely hard to say which was the most important because they are so dependent on each other. Perhaps the final puzzle piece was certain social changes, but then someone could argue, pretty convincingly, that those social changes were made possible by technological advances. An underlying cause.

Shorter, seems to me both Alfred and Duncan are right, and I've got no idea which is righter. There's no doubt in my mind that certain ideas (the Enlightenment) were the spark that led to the take off point, and I've also no doubts that the take off could not have occurred without the level of technology that existed at that time. An egalitarian confederation of hunter-gatherers or early iron age farmers may have been relatively free of violence and generally fair for everyone, but they would still have all been poor. At least by the standards that today's experts use to evaluate how wealth has changed over human history. It doesn't seem plausible that they could have achieved the something like 400% increase in average wealth in 250 years that actually occurred more recently in our history. Actually, if I recall correctly it happened in an even shorter time frame than that because it did take some time to get the ball rolling after Enlightenment ideas began to spread.

Taking a moment to look at some graphs that 400% from memory may be too pessimistic. In the 195 years from 1820 to 2015 extreme poverty worldwide crashed from about 90% of the population to about 10% while over the same period the Gross World Product went from less than a trillion to about 110 trillion.

scidata said...

Socio-economic analysis and prediction are indeed interesting. Of course those were only the first two of the psychohistory triplet.

Robert said...

We think of the middle ages as a time of stagnation - but that is not true

A few decades ago I read part of a late-medieval agricultural manual written by a steward. (Can't remember his name now, just that he was English.) What struck me was that when describing improvements that should be made he exhorted readers not to take his word for it, but to try it for themselves so they could see that he was telling the truth.

I don't know enough about late-medieval history to know if that was a common rhetorical technique, but it certainly seemed a very modern way of thinking. "Cultivate one field the traditional way, and one according to what I tell you, and see for yourself which is better." (Roughly speaking — can't remember exact words.)

David Brin said...

Darrell, many iron age farmer cultures had sophisticated structures that took on major projects. The Western European henge builders and later Celtic druids. las, thei projects did not create patterns of growing, positive sum outcomes but instead priests ordered stones piled in patterns that contributed no accumulation of methods or knowledge.

Interesting anecdote Robert.

Larry Hart said...

I don't typically find Ross Douthat's conservative arguments compelling, but he's the first person I've seen other than myself noticing the point in the long parenthetical of his second paragraph:

In addition to granting new political hope to Democrats, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has clarified the ground of public argument about abortion. As abortion-rights supporters have pressed their sudden political momentum, three pro-choice arguments have loomed particularly large: an argument about abortion in life-threatening circumstances; an argument about the unique physical costs of pregnancy in general; and an argument for the virtues of the Roe-era cultural status quo.

Each merits its own analysis, so this will be the first of a series of columns taking each in turn. (Notably, none are really arguments about the question of when life, personhood or human rights begin; they all tend to present reasons that, even if the unborn child did have a moral claim on us, some other interest necessarily overrides it. So I’ll try to address them on those terms rather than just rehashing the debate about whether unborn human beings are also human persons.)

locumranch said...

Alfred & I agree that some exceptional (in the sense of 'usually good') but undefined thing happened to initiate the Great Enrichment.

We also agree that this 'thing' was also exceptional in sense of 'being unique & deviating from a previously established feudal norm'.

Citing certain proxies like relative wealth, farming & child survival, Alfred argues that this enrichment was driven by markets & socioeconomic theory, whereas I counter that these proxies are so soft, so relative & so multifactorial as to be false indicators as to the cause of an enrichment which coincided with the end of a Little Ice Age, a human population recovery following a massive die-off and the beginning of our oil & coal-based Industrial Age.

It is this reliance on false proxies leads to a plethora of false, unreliable & easily disprovable conclusions:

(1) Our wealth accumulation proxy falsely suggests a measure of economic immunity from further economic downturns & adverse occurrence, even though we are not 80 years out from our last significant downturn;

(2) Our declining farming population proxy falsely suggests that we've escaped the Malthusian Trap, even though the slightest supply chain disruption (as we see in the Ukraine) promises food shortages, famine & market failure; and

(3) Our increased child survival proxy could easily change overnight, assuming a shortage of those oil & coal-based fuels on which our global civilization, our industries & all those other proxies are entirely dependent.

My objection to the third option, the one which asserts that the word 'exceptional' means that the 'Abnormal is the (new) Normal', is a rejection of the Orwellian Linguistic Fallacy which is so prevalent today, as a 'not-thing' cannot be said to be equal to a 'thing', just as 'not-Normal' cannot be said to equal 'Normal'.

In this sense, I do not misunderstand David who argues that the Feudal Norm (which has prevailed for over 6000 years) is somehow ABNORMAL, as compared to his WEIRD post-enlightenment reference point which, statistically speaking, is clearly abnormal, aberrant & deviant.

It is a given that many many people, including Dr. Brin, prefer their WEIRD society over the feudal society that came before, but this their personal preference does not alter statistical reality or invalidate the Law of Averages.

Bonus Question:

If we choose to define our global civilization in terms of 'Positive Sum' interactions, and our global civilization & all its accomplishments are ENTIRELY DEPENDENT on our oil & coal-based Industrial Age, then can one conclude that all of our so-called 'Positive Sum' interactions are oil & coal-based and therefore 'Zero Sum' when one factors in climate change & environmental degradation?


Larry Hart said...


In this sense, I do not misunderstand David who argues that the Feudal Norm (which has prevailed for over 6000 years) is somehow ABNORMAL, as compared to his WEIRD post-enlightenment reference point which, statistically speaking, is clearly abnormal, aberrant & deviant.

I don't think Alfred or Dr Brin argue that feudalism is abnormal in the sense of atypical. They and I argue that the modern aberration is preferable in that it produces better outcomes.

If we choose to define our global civilization in terms of 'Positive Sum' interactions, and our global civilization & all its accomplishments are ENTIRELY DEPENDENT on our oil & coal-based Industrial Age, then can one conclude that all of our so-called 'Positive Sum' interactions are oil & coal-based and therefore 'Zero Sum' when one factors in climate change & environmental degradation?

We'll probably know soon. But to the extent that climate change and environmental degradation count on the bad side of the ledger, remember that today's feudalists are the ones working hard to make sure those things are not mitigated.

The Enlightenment may have caused the ozone hole, but it also helped fix the problem. The ones who are insisting that the problem not be fixed are the oligarchs and authoritarians.

You also seem to be willfully ignoring Alfred's point that the Dutch and British miracles happened centuries before the industrial revolution, which itself predated widespread use of oil and natural gas.

David Brin said...

Little mentioned is a very telling shift in WHEN we face calls for energy saving by the public. It used to be noon-to-6pm, because that was when businesses and schools and homes peaked demand.

Now it is 4pm to 10pm, because that is when solar farms lose sunlight.

The inmplications are huge.

Alan Brooks said...

Naturally, LoCum invokes Orwell.
When in doubt, trot Orwell out.
As LoCum is a polymath, may I ask his opinion re Ukraine? In the interest of peace & prosperity, should Ukrainian civilians cease attacking Russian missiles with their bodies and buildings?
Should Ukraine sign over Crimea to Russia, so that it can be used for permanent RF forward bases?

locumranch said...

Motivated by the smug certitude of my critics, I return the favor, as it took only a few minutes of googling to PROVE that Alfred's Dutch Economic Miracle (The Dutch Golden Age) was an early Industrial Age development powered by fossil fuel use.

I hinted about this missing non-cultural ingredient earlier by quipping about how our enlightenment civilization 'robs from PETER to pay Paul', but you missed it so I will spell it out for you:

It was PEAT.

Peat was the fuel that powered the Dutch economic miracle. It was used to turn seawater into salt, refine sugar, preserve foodstuffs, cure pottery, bake bricks, heat homes, purify liquids and turn the Dutch into an early industrial powerhouse & Europe's main trading hub.

It happened in the Netherlands because Only the Netherlands, of all European countries, came to supplement its soil dependent energy resources with the large-scale exploitation of its peat stock. In this way it succeeded in breaking through the development limit.

Even so, Peat was not the only fossil fuel used during the second millenium AD in Europe. Coal mining started in the thirteenth century in England, Wales and what is now the French speaking part of Belgium. All over Europe, coal quickly became a wanted fuel for specific industrial processes, particularly for blacksmithing and lime manufacturing.

Large-scale coal mining started in the 1400s. In 1430, between 1,600 and 2,000 people worked in the coal industry in Liège (present-day Belgium). From the 1500s onwards, coal was used on an ever increasing scale in London, which was then one of the most populated cities in Europe. There, coal was used industrially, but more often in households for heating and cooking.

That human progress tends towards incrementalism rather sudden leaps, Duncan, Don_G & Pappenheimer tried to make this point politely.

The implications are huge, insomuch as almost every Positive Sum & Enlightenment Era improvement involves burning something combustible in order to immediately liberate & squander stored chemical energy for immediate human use.

And, assuming that we studiously ignore any short term, long term or negative consequences of our many destructive actions, we can always describe these many actions as Positive Sum and Win-Win.


@Alan_B: I could answer your question about the Ukraine, but Milton beat me to it when he expressed a preference for heavenly servitude over hellish self-rule. Would you cast your lot with devil, you belligerent neocon, you? And, whether for or against, what does that decision make you?

Alan Brooks said...

You’re not suggesting that Ukrainian—or any other—servitude to Russia would be in any manner paradise? Or are you referring to turning the other cheek? Love our enemies? Fight fire with love? Because, say, Russia possesses some missiles capable of traveling 20x farther than Ukrainian’s rockets, such indicates that resistance to the Special Operation [mind you, not war] is futile?
In the name of Christ, Ukraine must cease being so, so...bolshie...and surrender? Perhaps so The Prophecies may be fulfilled? What does my decision make me? Confused.
Confused as to what it is you are getting at. You think we are out to Get you? No, but if you wish to hold the feet of other bloggers to the fire, you must be held accountable also. You don’t blog here to share the peace that passes all understanding, do you?
Explain yourself; don’t be so...bolshie.

Larry Hart said...


but Milton beat me to it when he expressed a preference for heavenly servitude over hellish self-rule.


Didn't his character express the opposite preference?

Khan Noonien Singh certainly read him that way.

Larry Hart said...

@Alan Brooks,

Upon further review--and I can't claim to be inside loc's head,so caveat emptor--I'm thinking his "preference for heavenly servitude" was meant as a counterpoint to your "cease attacking Russian missiles with their bodies and buildings", answering intentional irony with intentional irony. Which might therefore imply a pro-Ukrainian sentiment.

It's never easy to tell with that guy.

Paradoctor said...

It's a conundrum when an author's main villain states an opinion. Is that the author's way of refuting it? "Look who says it"? Or is it the author's way of saying what he (and the audience) really thinks? It doesn't help when Big Bad, and Big Bad's home, is better described than the Good Guys. In Milton and Dante's work, Hell is much more vivid and convincing than Heaven.

Paradoctor said...

Hey loc, which one are you calling the Devil? Zelinskyy or Putin?

Larry Hart said...


It's a conundrum when an author's main villain states an opinion. Is that the author's way of refuting it? "Look who says it"? Or is it the author's way of saying what he (and the audience) really thinks?

I've never read the original Milton, so I only know the "better to rule in Hell..." like from hearing it quoted elsewhere. I've always presumed--possibly erroneously--that the author's intent was to explain a possibly-theretofore-inexplicable question of "Why the f*** would anyone be the Devil in the first place?"

In that context, I take Lucifer's expressed preference as genuine. He can't stand to subvert his own will to that of another, even if that Other is God. There are analogues on both sides of the American political aisle--among them, the Trumpers who can't abide having reality explained to them by experts, and the anti-Trumpers who won't bow to the will of Dear Leader.

Alan Brooks said...

Am nonplussed with LoCum’s answer. But Everyman to the devil his own way.

Larry Hart said...

I can never what someone means when they say they are "nonplussed". Are you extremely surprised, or not surprised at all.

The dictionary seems to accept both definitions.

Alfred Differ said...


I actually have a few proxies to use, so don't get too hooked on one and think I'm using it everywhere. The population explosion is ONE proxy used to detect an unusual event, but isn't much use in explain what caused the event. Child mortality is another proxy useful for showing where surplus income got spent, but doesn't say much about what caused the surplus income.

You are right to be concerned about misapplying proxies. Just because X happens around time T doesn't mean X explains an event at T. It might… or might not. Analysis and a curious mind is required.

I'll get to the proxy I use to explain the actual cause soon, but first let us address the usual narratives people try to avoid cultural explanations.

Your peat paper is getting a little old, but it falls into a broad category of explanations all having to do with energy resources. Coal in Britain is another example people trot out to explain so-called miraculous income growth in Britain. These explanations sound good, but they tend to fail when numerically analyzed. They DO add to incomes, but they don't multiply them. A few percentage points of improvement is what most analysis papers show when the thing to be explained (the Great Enrichment) was closer to 200%.

Your peat paper is from the mid-70's when a lot of analysis had yet to be done. Try something from the 21st century and you'll run into the counter-arguments.

It's not that peat didn't contribute, though. It's that it didn't contribute much to the observed multiplication. As a explanation, it is also vulnerable to being mislabeled as a cause when it was more likely an effect. After all, that peat was in the ground for ages. Why wasn't it used earlier?

If you want a peek at the sources I'm relying upon, check out Deirdre McCloskey. She obviously takes the side of a social change causing the enrichment, but she lays out her arguments and sources enabling you to pick at them.

"Bourgeois Dignity" is the book that summarizes them all. It's not the kind of book you read from end to end, though. I did and I don't recommend it. Many of the counter-arguments use the same basic approach, so it's best read as a collection of essays. British coal shows up in #22. Thrift in #14. Slaves in #26. There are a couple dozen of them.


The broader 'energy uses' category includes coal and wind, but not wood since much of the European forest was depleted by then. A big success from the North Carolina colony was access to pine that could be turned into pitch used to protect the hulls of deep sea going ships. The British Navy made good use of this for a while.

Alfred Differ said...

As for the Malthusian Trap, it got shredded. We can put it back together if we want, though. If we choose to walk away from what caused the Great Enrichment, we'd see a few billion deaths and those people wouldn't go quietly. No doubt the starving masses would tear down any and every possible cause of their misery.

So... let's not.

In terms of our pre-industry tech, the world might support about half a billion of us. We'd probably keep some of the agri-knowledge we've gained, but the tools would fade away without industry.

We are far outside this Malthusian limit right now with a majority of us living in cities dependent on farms. It is worth noting, however, that the farmers providing for our cities are no longer subsistence peasants. Far from it. Their real incomes are far too high for that. The percentage of us who fit the historical description for subsistence farmer is now down around 10%... and dropping.

Alan Brooks said...

I don’t know what to think. If the Enlightenment had never occurred, it appears climate change wouldn’t have emerged— people would have killed off so many of each other in continuous religious wars.
As for Ukraine, I don’t say LoCum is mistaken; Russia might (or might not) be looking out for its national interest. But if so, Russia’s national interest isn’t our national interest, nor Ukraine’s.
Again: nonplussed. But imo it is only proper that the West should send military aid to Ukraine.

David Brin said...

Criminy. I'll not discuss climate denialist blather about 'other causes' till I see one of them explain ocean acidification.

Human generated CO2 is the only possible explanation, hence they ALWAYS change the subject. Which means they are cultist liars and all the rest is cult masturbation.

Alfred Differ said...

Absent Enlightenment Civ, we'd probably be falling back into a glacial period right now. Not completely just yet, but generally colder.

We've pulled A LOT of fossil carbon out of the ground.

I don't think religious wars would have continued for long, though. People inclined to do that are maladapted. On average, it's the folks who don't do that who have a few more kids.

That doesn't mean genocides would stop, though. It's just that we would rationalize them any which way that worked.

Alan Brooks said...

At any rate, the Baltics, Sweden, Finland, etc, want Russia at bay; and the majority of Ukrainians wish Russian troops to leave—Now. Thus the West aiding Ukraine is right on both counts.
Seems LoCum is advocating a Gandhi-like approach: let Russia rule most of Ukraine, and Ukrainians can be passive resistors. But Russia isn’t Britain.

Larry Hart said...

Alfred Differ:

No doubt the starving masses would tear down any and every possible cause of their misery.

So... let's not.

Replace "starving masses" with "aggrieved masses", and I'd say we're seeing that already.

Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

Again: nonplussed.

You still didn't see my point, which is that "I'm nonplussed" has an equal chance of meaning two opposite things: "I'm shocked and surprised" or "Sadly, I'm not surprised at all."

So I can't tell if you're startled that loc might actually be rooting for Russia, or if you always sorta suspected he would be. And that's irrespective of whether he really is or not.

Larry Hart said...

From Google:

Learn to pronounce
(of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.
"he would be completely nonplussed and embarrassed at the idea"
(of a person) not disconcerted; unperturbed.

Definiton 2) is the opposite of definition 1).

Larry Hart said...

Recently, Kailee Lingo DeSpain, who said that in the past she was “your quintessential pro-life Texan,” told CNN about having to leave the state for an abortion after finding out that her fetus had heart, lung, brain, kidney and genetic defects and “would either be stillborn or die within minutes of birth.” How, asked DeSpain, “could you be so cruel as to pass a law that you know will hurt women and that you know will cause babies to be born in pain?”

I'm sorry, but doesn't that read like "How could you possibly be as cruel as I was willing to be five minutes ago until I became the one on the receiving end?"

Alfred Differ said...



Fair point. I tend to mean meaning #2 when I use it.
If I want to imply surprise, I say 'surprised'.

But when it comes to starving masses, you ain't seen nothin' yet. These are just angry white boys and girls upset at the browning and educating of America. Tough cookies.

Alfred Differ said...

umm... on the post topic...

I just love seeing new stuff come out about superconductors that shakes up theory. First time I learned about Cooper pairs, I got to see just how much quantum theories upended how we thought about materials. It's not just the wave/particle duality. It's "what is a thing" uncertainty. What exactly IS an electron? Well... theory doesn't really say except by what they can do.

The Standard Model is wonderfully accurate, but I strongly suspect we've made a stupid assumption at the bottom of it all. Something fundamental like assuming the Earth is at the center of the universe. Something big like that. Alternate models of superconductivity don't require that something be that wrong, but it sure smells like it to me.

Cari Burstein said...

Larry wrote:
I'm sorry, but doesn't that read like "How could you possibly be as cruel as I was willing to be five minutes ago until I became the one on the receiving end?"

To be fair, I read the more detailed article about that woman, and she has apparently supported abortion rights since 2016, when she experienced her first miscarriage and claims she first understood how dangerous pregnancy can be. It's pretty typical that people often have opinions on things that change when they have experiences that make them actually think through the implications more seriously. I suspect most people whose think of themselves as pro-life probably when asked specifically about the types of scenarios raised in that article would say those should be exceptions. Then there's people who are just assholes- looking at you Lindsey!

One of the tricky bits about living in a democracy (or something vaguely approaching it) is that a lot of the people who vote are just not going to take the time or effort to actually learn the details of most things that they form opinions on. We all do it to some extent- nobody is going to be an expert on all topics, and you can either choose to have no opinion on the topic, adopt the opinion of someone you trust, or form your own opinion based on the limited amount of data you stumble across when it's not something you are invested enough in to do any serious research.

A key element of an informed citizen is not necessarily having an informed detailed opinion on every issue, but being open to re-evaluating your opinions based on limited data when confronted with new data. It's not at all surprising that most people will not re-evaluate opinions absorbed from their families, friends and community until faced with a real-life situation that conflicts with those opinions.

I save my big complaints about these kinds of "it happened to me" conversions for the politicians themselves pushing and writing these policies. They don't have the excuse of it not being their job.

Unknown said...

One of the things Molly Ivins, one of the best Texans that ever cracked wise, wrote that struck me as notable was that liberals tended to be able to put themselves in others' place and feel their pain and need, while conservatives* often only care about what happened to them and their nearest...thus the phenomenon of many staunch conservative politicians who become single-issue liberals without changing any other stance. "I'll vote with the liberals on gay marriage because my out son or daughter needs to be happy."


*I'm not sure how many "conservatives" are left these days. They mainly sound like radical reactionaries.

locumranch said...

I've been way too talky so I'll be taking an extended sabbatical, but before I go I'd like to clarify the takeaway message from the Dutch Economic Miracle.

Progressive doctrine has causality all backwards.

Whereas Dr. Brin, Alfred and most progressives insist that equity, equality, tolerance, social justice & a fair-flat-open playing field LEAD TO (and allow for the formation of) new technologies & abundant energy, it is abundant energy & new technologies that LEAD TO (and allow for the formation of) equity, equality, tolerance, social justice & a fair-flat-open playing field.

P = abundant energy & new technologies
Q = equality, social justice & a fair-flat-open playing field

P leads to Q but Q does not lead to P, the simple why of this being that Q requires a substantial energy input whereas P is available energy.

It's all about energy. Always has been, always will be. We never actually 'defeated' the Malthusian Trap. Instead, we held it at bay by throwing energy at it, and we routinely budget upwards of 30% of the world's fossil fuel expenditures for fertilizer & mechanized agriculture because Malthus wins if we don't.

And, what of Deirdre McCloskey, optimist & progressive, according to her own website?

She's selling MORE bass ackwards causality by arguing that The modern world was made by a slow-motion revolution in ethical convictions, but not (under any circumstance) by the peat, gas, oil & energy that we burned to feed, clothe, shelter & create a modern world that made purely non-utilitarian ethical considerations like fairness & social justice possible.

In regard to the Ukrainian question, it was Milton's Lucifer who displayed arrogance, willfulness & disobedience by declaring that it is 'Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven'.

What I'm saying here is that there are no good answers for Ukraine, just a choice of evils between submission & the temporary loss of self versus defiance & the permanent loss of self, the former option which assumes Putin's mortality and the latter option which assumes Ukrainian mortality.

The Ukrainians have already made their choice, for better or worse, and a better question would be 'Should the West be complicit in a potential Ukrainian Pyrrhic Victory against a foe who (when pressed) could easily reduce the Ukraine to radioactive slag?'.

I know what my answer would be but, then again, I also assume that discretion is the better part of valour.

I wonder how Dr. Brin would describe 'arrogance, willfulness & disobedience'. Would he describe them as good, bad or in more relative terms? And, more importantly, would his opinion change depending on whether he was one giving orders or receiving orders?

Alan Brooks said...

What good would Ukraine be to Russia if it were to be reduced to radioactive slag? And radioactive fallout can be blown to the east as well as to the west.

scidata said...

Alfred Differ: The Standard Model is wonderfully accurate, but I strongly suspect we've made a stupid assumption at the bottom of it all.

Me too (that should worry you :)
It's suspiciously accurate. Like getting definitions and axioms mixed up. Like saying that mathematics is the language of god because 2+2=4 is verified to dozens of decimal places.

Alfred Differ said...


Evidence doesn't back you up.

All that peat was in the ground since long ago. It wasn't used in large quantities because no one needed it. Why? Small demand... until suddenly it wasn't small anymore. Why?

Peat is easier to dig up and use than coal... yet it remained on the ground until something ELSE happened.

Evidence shows energy matters, but not enough to get 200% real income growth over a short timespan. Energy arguments supporting rapid income growth DO begin to work in the late 19th century, though.

Don't run away. Back up your position with numbers. If you succeed, you'll take down a significant belief branch among economists.

Alfred Differ said...


Me too (that should worry you :)

Worried? Ha!

A well described theory of physics might be difficult to use as a predictive model by the untrained, but the explanatory narrative is not out of reach. Seriously. If it can't be explained through analogies it isn't very good as a theory.

I used to teach. It takes hard work from our side to get things across to students. It takes hard work from their side too. What it doesn't take to understand already established theories is genius. Just sweat and maybe lots of it.


I always get a chuckle out of arguments that rely on 2+2=4. Not that long ago we believed that four right angles had to add to a full circle. Turns out we make a huge assumption about geometry when we do and challenging it doesn't destroy geometry's consistency.

Is arithmetic similarly vulnerable? Turns out... yes.

Larry Hart said...

Cari Burstein:

To be fair, I read the more detailed article about that woman, and she has apparently supported abortion rights since 2016, when she experienced her first miscarriage and claims she first understood how dangerous pregnancy can be. It's pretty typical that people often have opinions on things that change when they have experiences that make them actually think through the implications more seriously

I took particular issue with her "How could you possibly be so cruel?", as if she wasn't willing to hold the same position before she was personally on the receiving end. Sorta like Homer Simpson's "This would be funnier if they were laughing at someone who wasn't me."

But with that in mind, sure, it's better to welcome a convert to the good side rather than keep shaming them into the belief that their only home is the bad side.

I save my big complaints about these kinds of "it happened to me" conversions for the politicians themselves pushing and writing these policies. They don't have the excuse of it not being their job.

Media pundits as well. When Rush Limbaugh's oxycontin issues became public, I would have had a lot more respect for the guy if he had declared that he now understands better how someone can become addicted and skirt the law for his next fix. But instead, he continued to double down on castigating other drug abusers, only treating his own case as a special one which had no bearing on anything else. I've got no sympathy for that, and I'm glad the m--f--er is dead.

Larry Hart said...


thus the phenomenon of many staunch conservative politicians who become single-issue liberals without changing any other stance. "I'll vote with the liberals on gay marriage because my out son or daughter needs to be happy."

Or Clarence Thomas, noting that the absence of the Constitutional right to privacy makes it possible to outlaw contraception, gay marriage, and gay sex, but conveniently leaves out any mention of miscegenation, even though Loving vs Virginia* was decided on the exact same basis.

* And if life was fiction, could one come up with a better symbolic name for a case involving sex and marriage? Love vs virginity?

reason said...

I'm sorry to point this out, but recent event have made it clear that the "justice" system is a joke. Maybe it has always been this way, but now it obvious. It seems rich powerful people can't be prosecuted for serious crimes in the United States.

Larry Hart said...


It seems rich powerful people can't be prosecuted for serious crimes in the United States.

Well some can. Jeffrey Epstein and Ken Lay come to mind.

They do seem to have a tendency to mysteriously die in prison, though.

reason said...

Only when their power was past tense.

Alan Brooks said...

The Limbaughs creed is Do as I say not as I do. They can back it up with scripture:
‘When you become saved, you’re above the Law’.
They’ve got it covered.

Alfred Differ said...

Justice has never truly been blind. We idealize her that way, but it's best thought of as a work-in-progress.

We are getting better at it, though. When she isn't blind, it's galling. But... we are getting better at exposing the cockroaches.

"Blind-folded" Justicia is actually a relatively new concept. It would be great if we could just snap our fingers and make it so, but Justice as a virtue is a group effort. Effort as in sweat.

David Brin said...

New blog posted. I may not be joining discussion for a while. On a week-long trip for speeches about the future and NIAC meetings.

I am sure you'll carry on nicely. (be nice!)