The above graph is adapted from Limits to Growth, Revisited. It is not a hard and fast prediction, but rather the product of a model with 40 years of high correspondence with developments. We are, at present, at the top of the growth curves, many of which have already begun to plateau. Slopes of decline do not factor in such worst-case scenarios as widespread urban- or domestic nuclear facilities collapse consequent to economic collapse.

I've added the shading and 'crossover' circle' (coincident with 'peak everything') to indicate my best guess as to the high probablility zone for global, economic collapse, triggering the onset of TEOTWAWKI.

I fear a hard landing... no 'reboot' or 'transition' to a lower functioning economy. I urge high priority preparation now.

I've got a short glossary of terms at the bottom of this page... if you come across an unfamiliar term, please scroll down and check it out.

Information I'm including or pointing to doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it. Rather, I've found it to be stimulating and worthy of consideration. I'm sure you'll exercise your own judgement... we're nothing if not independent! 8)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

An Aspect Ratio Component to Collapse?




http://pocketnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/jenga.jpg



The bigger they come, the harder they fall.
-- Proverb



An Aspect Ratio Component to Collapse?

Over the years, I've seen a number of buildings collapse.

Some take years, slowly kneeling - like a dying elephant - before collapsing gently in place. Others stand proud - losing a bit, here and there, to wind and weather - then, one day to the next, they collapse with a roar.

It dawns on me that aspect ratio is a pretty good predictor of which it will be. Buildings which are short for their footprint ease themselves to the ground. Those which are tall for their footprint go down fast and hard. Think the Pyramids vs the Twin Towers.

If this a property of systems in general, we might wonder what aspect ratio describes our global industrial civilization?

A subsistence  farmer might be described as low aspect. Aside from a few necessities - salt and iron are often all that's needed - all necessities are provided from the footprint. In contrast, a corporate farm cannot be worked without constant supply from the outside world (machinery, fuel, fertilizer, seed, a market, etc...), and a critical failure can bring operations to a halt. I'd consider that high aspect.

Even more so in the case of cities. 

Cities are utterly dependent on the uninterrupted flow of goods, services, material and personnel from well outside its footprint. In some cases from a world away. Very high aspect in our half-urban world.

I'm just sayin'.


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tweeting the Future: Thoughts toward Launching a Meme

Book or tree of knowledge concept with an oak tree growing from
Seeding a Tree of Knowledge




Where once there was a void,
Now at least there are
Seeds of splendor,
Becalmed belief for another time.
 by Scott Hastie


Tweeting the Future: Thoughts toward Launching a Meme

Okay. So let's assume it's going down hard with a long, dark age ahead, on the order of centuries to millennia. Let's say we want to send a message to our descendants, if any. How might we send it, and what might we say?

Given that high tech media are not likely to survive, we're stuck with lower tech options:
  • Social trasmission (institutional, hermetic, tribal, ???)
  • Focused oral tradition (memorized) -- (songs, poems, stories, ???)
  • The written word (engravings, impressions, durable books, ???)
  • All of the above

In all cases, I consider it useful to think in terms of memes, ideas which are 'copied' in one or more media (including human mind and society). I'll speak of our message as a single meme, but it is more likely to be a set of memes.

A meme's success, per se, is determined by:
  • Fecundity (high rate of copies) – Tell all your friends! Tell them now! Get them to do the same!
  • Fidelity (accuracy with which it is copied) – Hi fidelity gets a message across, while low fidelity soon drifts from its intent (think the game of Rumor aka Telephone).
  • Longevity (how long the meme is able to generate copies) – We're still reading the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi.

So how might we maximize the odds? Do we send out the naked meme as a podcast and hope it takes? Do we manipulate the message for better transmission? Or even 'encapsulate' it in a vessel (a book, say), that itself contributes to transmission? Or hitch-hike on an already successful tradition? Do we establish a medium, such as a hermetic sect?

My thoughts are evolving along these lines:
  • The message should be fashioned concisely in 'scriptural', poetic language using simple, non-technical language. Prose? A poem? A song (the tune of Greensleeves is an ancient, musical meme)?
  • It should be inspirational, and at best, useful (possibly as a teaching tool or mnemonic) during transition, both currently and in the midst of a dark age.
  • It should be written in durable, portable book form, and also inscribed in stone and/or impressed in fired clay (or equivalent).
  • Publication, distribution, memorization, transmission and discussion should be encouraged from the outset.

Scriptures are a tried-and-true method for bringing a body of information through difficult times with good fidelity. They replicate through both written and focused oral traditions, and are abetted by diffuse oral traditions (e.g., schools of propagation, discussion and debate). The feeling of higher purpose associated with scripture improves fecundity and fidelity.

If it is beautifully and compellingly written, it is more likely to have high fecundity. Especially so if it is inspirational and/or useful to persons immersed in a dark age. These should be goals at the composition stage.

Concision is a virtue on all fronts... being shorter, it requires less mental and physical resources for copying (improved fecundity), and is less likely to incur copy errors (fidelity). If it is more often copied into smaller, relatively portable physical media, longevity is enhanced.

Physical media which are both durable and beautifully crafted increase longevity. Holy books which are beautifully bound and illuminated are valuable property simply as objects, protected and treasured regardless of belief in their contents. Many have survived for centuries.

So let's look at some content/format possibilities...

Richard Feynman proposed this single, ingenious sentence, which 'unfolds', under careful inquiry, to yield all of physics (with all other hard sciences implied):

...All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little apart, but repelling on being squeezed into one another.”

This sentence is deliberately NOT fashioned in compliance with current, scientific consensus in which 'Quantum fields' have supplanted 'Atomic particles'. But not-yet scientists starting from this sentence, have a good shot at figuring out quantum fields on their own, in time. The goal is not up-to-the-minute accuracy, but to provide an accessible starting point to an inquiring mind.

James Lovelock proposed a compendium in clear, unambiguous language, preserving all our knowledge, A Book for All Seasons. Obviously, this would be a BIG book.

Each has transmission liabilities.

Clearly, a tome is not concise, and loses all the advantages of concision. If we wished to transmit our modern knowledge base, memorization – or even understanding the whole – would be out of the question. Few of today's specialists can fully master more than even two fields of knowledge. What's more, the effort of composition and subsequent production would be immense, far beyond the reach of small fry.

A single sentence is more attractive, to me. It is ultra in most of the virtues; ultra-portable, transcribable, easily memorized even by the young. It's a little clunky, however. I suppose it could be written as a limerick?

All things are made out of bits
That whiz non-stop in a blitz.
Apart by a fraction,
They feel an attraction.
But push 'em together, they splits.

Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!

Here's a an attempt to mimic successful, albeit less mnemonic forms...


Thus spake St. Feynman
in the Age of Legend:

All things compose of tiny bits;
atoms dancing without cease

Faster when warmed
Slower when cooled
Heat is tempo

Near, they attract
thrust close, repel

To observe the dance
is to change the dance”

Hear ye the seed of all knowledge!
Sow, and ye shall reap.


There... some poetic license and a hint of quantum physics. An improvement on St. Liebowitz, but still not exactly catchy. Is there a poet in the house?

Wisdom is tougher nut to crack. Its more vague and koan-ish, so is harder to unfold?. Subject to contention, too. But even among religions, Feynman's approach applies. Here's Jesus of Nazareth's summary of Judaism (arranged from KJV)...

This is the first and great commandment:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul,
and with all thy mind.
And the second is like unto it;

Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets.


Guatama Bhudda may win the brevity prize, summing his teachings with “Release all attachment.” 

Point is, the concept isn't new, and we have some authorities to consult.

The problem with too much brevity is that, as a vehicle, it has low inertia. Why would a slave in the seventh year of the Warlord Vog pass this on? For that matter, would Vog or his flunkies - who might wish at least to appear wise - pass it on?

It seems to me that, for all its genius, Feynman's sentence or its variants, would have near zero fecundity. The Bhudda's may make it as one meme within an already successful meme set, but that hardly needs our help.

Even among my fellow geek friends, it gains no traction. If they've heard of it they love the idea, but none have managed to learn it by heart. They're hard pressed to remember its important features, despite that they're conversant with the principles. To someone marooned in a dark age, it would be useless and inscrutable blither. If printed on a waterproof card, it would be of better use to patch the roof.

But I think the approach is a good one.

Every line, verse or stanza – each the seed of a whole line of inquiry – would ease the task of those who follow. Each would confer useful knowledge from the very first steps along the path. And with a longer poem or shorter book, there's room to improve the hints, and build one upon the next.

I believe there is a threshold of critical mass, where mere weight of words gain enough gravitas to capture imagination, appealling at any stage of knowledge. They could gain the allure of a gnostinomikon; a book of knowledge, backed by actual science, to shame the grimoires of the past. Every mage who approached would be started on a true path.

Think what a smattering of infection theory might have done for those in a time of cholera? A few, trustworthy and select words to the wise would be invaluable. Only to read that there are miniscule, living creatures which can carry disease by contact, inhalation or ingestion... it doesn't take a medical genius to get from there to patient isolation, or to check the water supply, or to wash hands and dressings.

The scientific method itself -- our greatest invention -- can be drawn in a few words, and guide through the worlds of knowledge. (“Our greatest invention” from Lewis Dartnell). Scientific method, math and logic, physics, mechanics, chemistry, evolution, ecosystemics, economics, politics. All these in seed form.

With such a book in their hands, the great minds which inhabit all times would be put onto the scent, passing at a run the cold, blind trails of ignorance...

...on their way to Renaissance.

***


PS. There's a dark possibility to such a project. It may be that we'd be passing them a poison pill. The jury is still out on whether ours is the best of times or the worst of times. Without hard won wisdom to accompany the power this meme would carry, it might be like passing a live grenade to a baby.



Saturday, January 16, 2016

Belated Musings on Christmas vs. Predatory Capitalism

 
Mr. Potter, what makes you such a hard-skulled character? 
You have no family, no children. 
You can't begin to spend all the money you've got.
  
 

But you were always a good man of business, Jacob” faltered Scrooge.



Business!” cried the Ghost,,,. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”



-- From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickins





Belated Musings on Christmas vs. Predatory Capitalism



A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and the movie It's a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra are polemics against rampant Capitalism... that profit-before-all economic machine that commodifies everything it touches. Churns resources to garbage. Creates profit rather than wealth and moves that from the commons to the pockets of so very few.



In these classics, we see two poster-boys of Capitalism, neither of whom would seem the least reprehensible to today's 'Captains of Industry' and 'Financial Wizards'.



In Scrooge, we see a man possessing all the lauded virtues of entrepreneurial endeavor. His is thrifty, yet knows when to 'take risks'. Shrewd, but 'honest'. Punctual, and fulfilling his contracts. A 'good man of business'.



But not one whit more.



He cheats himself of love and companionship. Blinds himself to those impoverished – at least in part - by those systems of law and property which have enabled his enrichment. Scoffs at liberality (“...are there no Prisons?”). His employee – paid no more than what the market will bear – is barely scratching out a living for himself and family.



Still, his is a mere shortage of empathy and kindness; his indifference is, in a sense, passive.



The three Spirits who visit him show him a past, present and future in which his profits profit him not. Re-envisioning his role as a capitalist, he is redeemed, and the world better for it.



Potter, on the other hand, is an active perpetrator... a 'monopoly capitalist' or Robber Baron.



He is a slumlord who manipulates markets and his business environment, and undermines his competition. “Bearing down hard”, he uses financial leverage to coerce his “lazy, shiftless populace” of neighbors toward a “hard-working and thrifty working class”. Though a board member of Bailey Building and Loan, he literally steals $8,000 and frames George Bailey for malfeasance.



Yet, again with the aid of a spirit, we visit the dystopic Pottersville, a nightmare of heartless capitalism run amok. Alienation, desperation and the triumph of the market is the result of finance divorced from human values.



Both Scrooge and Potter are capitalist paragons. Intelligent, decisive, determined, and above all, successful. They issue credit by the numbers and foreclose to their own advantage, unencumbered by charitable weakness. Yet, neither – at least before his eyes are opened – is a paragon of mankind.



It's notable that, in neither story, are the Market nor even Capital themselves in question.

'Liberal' businessmen solicit Scrooge for charitable donations. The London markets are described in mouth-watering terms. The Bailey Savings and Loan (Potter's opposite) is capitalist to the core. Supply and demand are axiomatic in both.

Yet both were written to implore a return to Adam Smith's "enlightened self-interest" - the awareness that one benefits from the weal of one's neighbors, community and nation.



I've quoted the word 'liberal', here, and one might well introduce the term 'social(ist)', words much reviled at this apex of a long, bull run.



Year after year, we revisit these stories. Regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, we empathize with the same protagonists. Fan, Belle, Fizziwig, the Crachitts. The Baileys and all of Bedford Falls. We react to the same antagonists. Scrooge, with hope and gladness for his redemption. Potter, our sympathy for his paraplegia tempered by the unrepentant smallness of his soul.



There is no argument about whether Scrooge and Potter are simply misunderstood. No one would prefer Pottersville to Bedford Falls. None think Tiny Tim earned an early demise, nor that his family earned one for him. None feel that George Bailey, in the end, wasted his life.



Can we agree, beyond the Christmas season, that there is more to life than profit? May we not strive  for more humane, inclusive systems of finance?






 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Gummint, Bandits, Lone Opportunists and EROEI





I rob banks because that’s where the money is.
– Misattributed to Willie Sutton


Gummint, Bandits, Lone Opportunists and EROEI

I was picking thimbleberries, this last week, pursuant to our next batch of wine.

Thimbleberries seem unusual, in that they only ripen a few at a time. Most clusters of several berries generally only sport a single ripe one. When it falls of its own volition, is picked, succumbs to mildew or other insult… only then does the next ripen in turn.

To make a 4 gallon batch of wine, a gallon or more berries are needed. Picking too early – when only a few are ripe and they replenish slowly – is a waste of time. But a couple of weeks after the first outliers ripen, there develops a workable density, and the clusters push out a new ripe berry overnight. Focusing over a few days of passes, we can collect enough to ferment. If we wait too long, though, the good ones thin out again... they remain available for the occasional treat, but not in quantity. 

Low density output may be a thimbleberry strategy. Despite being tasty as can be, they generally take too much effort to collect en masse. It's just too much effort to support a dedicated harvest. We, birds and bears soon move on to higher yield berry species.

All this got me thinking about the post-collapse threat of a) the Gummint, and b) bandits, both of major concern to many of my fellow ‘Doomers’. To these, I add c) the Lone Opportunist.

Me? I’m not too worried about the first two, thanks to low EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested).

Gummints, bandits and we who gather thimbleberries can only thrive on a considerable net return on the energies we invest. Those who operate at a loss are not long for the world, as we know it or otherwise.

To be successful, predators require several things of their prey. Prey must be subdued with reasonably low risk to the predator. Resources taken from prey must be considerably greater than those required to acquire them. Prey populations must be sufficiently dense to support a predator. Prey must replenish their numbers (or the resources they generate) rapidly enough to support themselves and the predator.

In short, EROEI is vital to predators.

So, what are the odds that small, dispersed populations of those of us subsisting in a future backwater will attract Gummint ‘sweep-up’ operations, or support bandits? My guess is low.

The Gummint, I believe (including those foreign to my native lands), will have more important things to attempt, such as locking down strategic resources, pacifying urban centers and/or turning warlord. They will have limited resources at all levels, poor logistics and personnel issues. I’ll be surprised if they can ‘project force’ beyond their home bases, if that. Rounding up unknown numbers of hillbillies far from ‘vital interests’ is likely to be given very low priority.

Bandits are more flexible, and therefore potentially more dangerous. Yet they, too, will be focused on high-return situations. Concentrations of people or goods, high traffic routes, high value items. Historically, this has been the case, and I see no reason for it to change in a diminished future. Avoid these situations, and bandits will have neither reason to pursue us, nor the means.

The Lone Opportunist concerns me more. Someone much like ourselves, who has chosen our area, managed to survive for some time on their own, yet is willing to take advantage by force when opportunity presents. EROEI is unburdened by overheads, in this case. They aren’t making their living by predation, but see a little here and there as bonus. I see them as a positive danger.

I hope that this type will see more value in cooperation than coercion. History isn’t entirely comforting on this score. Still, if the Wild West is any example, people by and large got along. Frontier encounters between strangers appear to have been guarded (good boundaries, good manners, weapons ready) until trust grew, which it most often did. Most often warranted.

So I’m cautiously hopeful.


                                                                                                                                                                

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ruminations on SHTF Strategy

Get lost!



Not being tense but ready.
Not thinking but not dreaming.
Not being set but flexible.
Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement.
It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.

-- From Tao of  Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee


Ruminations on SHTF Strategy

Like so many Preppers over the years, we have pursued a distinct SHTF strategy. In this post, I'd like to share our thinking for your consideration.

This strategy is built around the notions that a) S will HTF, b) it's very difficult to foresee the actual conditions that will pertain when it does, and c) we may be driven off or separated from every material possession we have accumulated in its advance.

Our strategy centers around several key elements:


Subsistence Environment

We have sought out an environment in which it is possible to subsist comfortably with neolithic technologies. Were we to become separated from every material possession, it would be possible to thrive from local resources.

This underwrites all the rest with a fail-safer option... under no scenarios in which we remain free and able do we perish for lack of sustenance.

An important aspect of this area are abundant water, and wild forage, fish and game. The world is a garden, and likely to become even more so, post collapse.

By not relying on domestic plants or animals (to which we are bound from till harvest and beyond), we are less of a target for others.


Social Distance

Our chosen environment is sparsely populated, and requires both knowledge and material resources to venture beyond its sub-urban centers.

This buffers us from pandemic SHTF, initial, paroxysms of social unrest and, likely, from predator individuals or groups preying on concentrations of survivors and resources in the towns.


Mobility

 "Sailboats are the only vehicles on this planet with unlimited range." (Paraphrased from Tristan Jones).

Without access to fossil fuels, we are able to access resources, networks and safe havens across a wide range of possibilities. When a location becomes untenable, we  have a chance to shift ourselves and all we possess out of harms way or to where resources are more abundant.

If need be, we can shift out of the region, entirely, to any island or coast in any hemisphere.


Knowledge Base

Skills toward a reasonable life post-SHTF are many. We feel that their on-going acquisition not only enhances our future chances on our own terms, but increases our value should we fall into the hands of others. This seems especially true of medical skills under field conditions.


Shorter-Term Stores

We carry enough stores to see us through what seems a reasonable period to tackle post-SHTF learning curves. These especially include the demographic situation (who's left, where they are located, and what is their character), any transition left to master full subsistence, and relocation allowance should our situation seem untenable.



Longer-Term Tools

These are the material possessions -  - which can increase efficiency in meeting our needs.

Examples include our sailing vessel and gear, wood and timber working tools, weapons, food processing gear, and books of knowledge not yet mastered.

Should we become separated, while it would be inconvenient, we hope it would not be disastrous.


Live It Now

Living the strategy gives us a head start on vital learning curves.

It questions while there's time to remedy answers we don't like... How independent are we? Can we move as we like? Can we improvise? How long do particular stores last? Is our tool set adequate? What knowledge do we wish to acquire? What are our priorities?

We're perhaps fortunate that our strategy very much embodies how we would like to live, anyway. It's inexpensive, good fun, and a healthy lifestyle.

So why wait for S to HTF?


*****

Two strategies we consciously avoid:


Refugee Status

Many strategies begin and pretty much end with a Bug Out Bag (often geared for 72 hours). When SHTF, the thinking goes, we grab our BOB, pack up the car and git out o' Dodge. Went camping as a young 'un... I'll get by.

Problem is 72 hours is just the leading edge of Collapse. Roads clog. Got fuel?

Running the gauntlet of a SHTF exodus from any urban center is a daunting prospect. Dare you leave your family to scout resources or terrain? Do you have relationships with resident locals along the way? Can you protect yourself and yours from bandits? Or even desperate Mr. Jones and family, there, who got out with neither BOB nor blanket? How about a hundred of him, or a thousand?

But the burning question is, where are you going? And are you prepared to survive - much less thrive - once you get there?

Some good SHTF advice: Don't be a refugee.


Bunker Down

At the other end of the strategic spectrum - and at first glance more attractive - is the Bunker strategy. This is usually a camouflaged, fortified combination of living quarters and warehouse.

Downside is that, camouflage or no, folks have likely heard about it. When push comes to shove, it's going to have its attractions for desperate people. Not being mobile gives plenty of opportunity for figuring out the chinks in your armor. At best - by attrition, if nothing worse - the bastards can grind you down. At worst, they can burn you out and naked into the open.

Warehoused stores are finite, and have a shelf-life. Sooner or later, we've got to emerge from our walls and try our hand at gardening, hunting or forage.

It seems to us that the sheer investment in this strategy can tempt one into staying on past that moment when, as Willie Nelson says, ya gotta know when to walk away, know when to run. It's gotta be tempting to 'make a stand', rather than to retreat and regroup.

Meanwhile, once one does emerge, we'd find ourselves behind on the learning curves for how to live outside the bubble.

Theory of warfare generally equates immobility with defeat. What does that tell us?

*****

The Big, Bad Picture

Should SHTF on our national or global scale, I expect all domestics nuclear plant to go LOCA (Loss of Coolant Accident) for want of industrial level support. This means that the Northern Hemisphere is going to be heavily irradiated in short order.

Missing from our strategy is relocation to the Southern Hemisphere on the far side of the Equatorial Convergence Zone (hemispheric wind divide).

Good idea, but it means trading our present life and friends for a shot at a future life with unknown peoples, among whom we would be refugees. We'd trade a good chunk of what learning curves we've climbed to begin at the bottom.

As we age, the potential for return on such an investment is diminishing. If we had made that move as young sailors, maybe. But now?

We'll likely accept what comes here, at home.





Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Arctic: God's Watching



Hunh, SNORT! Who's to say what's 'normal'?
- Climate Change Skeptic who'd just sailed the NW Passage

NASA graphics are a good reference to fight climate change denial. Of course, sometimes you also have to counter willful blindness and or a simple failure of brain to interpret data coming in through eyes.
- Robert Scribbler


The Arctic: Slip-Sliding Away

So I'm talking with this guy off a pretty nice boat of modest size. Seems he was working his way down the west coast of Alaska after his Northwest Passage. Yes, that one. The one that claimed so many lives in their vain attempts to make the traverse across the top of the Americas.

He wasn't a trailblazer, mind you - more of a retired, upper middle management type. Took a couple of months to motor through, with no problems. Had a great trip. Skipping along a now fairly well trodden path.

"Well," says I, glibly, "I guess climate change is good for something."

Notice, I didn't even say global warming. Nevertheless, a sudden chill descended upon our conversation.

"Hmph. If you believe in that sort of thing!"

 "Um... you just completed the fabled Northwest Passage."

"So?"

"So it's been closed for all of human history. Doesn't its being open suggest that climate patterns are deviating from our epoch's norm?"

"Hunh!", he snorted, "Who's to say what's 'normal'?"

We backed away from one another, each in wary albeit civil retreat. Each of us likely thinking don't try to teach a pig to sing... won't work and it annoys the pig.

*****


Okay. I get that TEOTWAWKI is a stretch for many to swallow. That there might be Limits to Growth. That technology might not ride to the rescue forever.

But to deny that the world's climate is warming?

I mean, we have cameras in space. They take pictures, send them back and we get to see the Northwest Passage, open from one end to the other. And much, much more. This is not a matter of ideology or propaganda. This is not researchers drumming up grant funding.

Who's to say what's normal??

How about Arctic Peoples who have lived along its frozen shores - and even upon its frozen surface - since time out of mind?

Or maybe, by 'normal' he was taking a longer view? MUCH longer? Beyond the tenure of our species?

How does one reconcile a belief that the planet is not warming, with one's personal experience of open, Arctic waters?

*****

The Watchmaker Analogy runs like this:

You are traversing a wilderness, where none have gone before. You notice a strange object, lying on the ground, and you pick it up. It's a watch. It shows the correct time, it's second hand marking the beats of your heart.

Obviously, this is an artifact. It could not have grown here, being inorganic. It could not have sprung, by chance, into spontaneous existence.

We infer a Watchmaker.

By analogy, we - finding ourselves enmeshed in a world of fantastic intricacy - are to infer God.

So, when we look at the melting face of His great Artifact...




Are we to infer His pleasure?









Thursday, February 5, 2015

Failure Modes in Complex Systems

For want of a rail?


Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system.

-- J.N. Nielson's post, Complex Systems and Complex Failures



Failure Modes in Complex Systems

Systems lie along a complexity gradient ranging from simple to complex.

At the extreme simple end, we have simple machines: inclined planes, levers, pulleys and wheels with axles. The middle covers quite a spread, from windmills to sailboats to internal combustion engines to assembly lines to factories to computers. 

We don't often think of it, this way, but living organisms - including ourselves - outpace our most ambitious artifacts. These might be contenders for the extremely complex end. But no. Consider communities of these organisms, ecosystems of these communities, the geo/biosphere in its entirety, with its solar and meteoric inputs.

The global industrial economy fits in there somewhere. Less complex than the terran system as a whole. More complex than any given ecosystem.

The question I'm considering in this post is how different levels react to trauma.

Clearly, you can't take a sledge hammer to many of our artifactual machines. Bust holes in them, and they falter and fail in fairly short order. And up to a certain point, the more complex they are, the harder they fall. That sledge can take a lot of abuse. If the head mushrooms, still usable; if the handle breaks, repair or replaceable. But the computer we're hypothetically bashing? Like Bruce Lee, I could take it out with this pinkie!

Beyond a certain level of complexity, many to most systems must be resilient, robust, self-repairing, self-healing... all words those which can handle a good deal more than might appear. Most such systems are evolved, though we have begun to learn to apply them to our own creations.

But there are limits.

If the resilient mechanisms of a system are overwhelmed - or if key mechanisms fail permanently - the system goes down. Permanently.

Worse, both Complexity and Chaos Theory state that the failure of complex systems is inevitable.


Internal Failure Modes

Three general modes can bring a system down from within. I'll informally call them node, runaway and domino failure modes.

Node failure is deep doo-doo. Nodes are sub-systems upon which the function of many other aspects of system functionality depend. A node goes down, and all dependent, 'downstream' sub-systems fail with it. Worse, nodes are often inter-dependent. Failure of one node can spread to others in a process called contagion; essentially a critical case of the domino mode mentioned below.

A human health example of node failure is ventricular fibrillation. The heart, for whatever reason, begins to spasm out-of-sync, and fails to pump sufficient blood flow. If it can be brought back into sync (via defibrillation techniques), a full recovery is possible. But if not - and the heart fails permanently - all other bodily systems fail in short order for lack of blood perfusion.

The power grid is a node within a modern, industrial economy. It falters, and if not brought relatively quickly back on line, all dependent systems - banking, communications, IT, etc. - exceed their back-up arrangements and fail.

Runaway failure occurs when positive feedback - that which ramps a system into more 'extreme' states - is insufficiently damped by governance mechanisms. These counter positive feedback loops with negative feedback. This can happen even in an otherwise healthy system. Typically, a system in runaway mode will suffer increasingly wild oscillations until a vital node gives way.
 
 "Galloping Gertie" - the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which dramatically tore itself apart in 1940 - is an example of runaway failure. The process, described as "phenomenon in which several degrees of freedom of a structure become coupled in an unstable oscillation" is very hard to rule out of any complex system, whether designed or evolved. Degrees of freedom, couplings and even initial oscillations are extremely difficult to predict or detect until well underway. Complexity guarantees that.

A prediction of Peak Everything theory is that market feedback cycles will begin to oscillate wildly in post-peak environments. Supply (particularly of energy / fossil fuels) in post peak situations has plenty of room to fluctuate in response to demand. Demand, however, while driven upward by exponential growth of any market component, is coupled with forces of 'demand destruction' (loss of those willing or able to pay higher prices). Demand fluctuates more and more wildly, with production attempting to follow jerkily in its wake. Both supply and demand 'players' begin to drop from the field as market conditions exceed their ability to cope. Add in risky financial 'instruments', and the finance node is threatened. Banks begin to fail...

Domino Failure is sequential failures radiating outward from a single trigger event among dependent elements (again, even if they are otherwise functioning 'normally'). This is the "For want of a nail... ...the Kingdom was lost" mode. Failure of a small element can initiate such cascading failures. It may 'burn out', or it may take down a node (see Doo-Doo, above).

Again, the power grid is an example (see Blackout Inevitability and Electric Sustainability). In the case of the 2003 Northeast Blackout, it all began with a software bug. The sequence of events cascaded until large swathes of Canada and New England were without power.

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 is another example. The (predicted) burst of the housing bubble set dominoes falling in all directions, some foreseen and others not. Analysis continues to this day. Unfortunately, so do many of the practices which led to the crisis, and the bursting fracking bubble may well give us another shot at total disaster along similar lines.

Again, dependencies within a complex system are extremely difficult to map, much less predict. Those who correctly predict the broad outlines of disaster are typically ignored both before ('pessimists on the lunatic fringe') and after ('who knew?' and 'hindsight quarterbacks'). So it goes.



External Failure Modes

Systems can fail for 'external' reasons, as well.

Blunt trauma failure is something I hesitate to call a 'mode', though any system is susceptible to it. Here, something big and bad happens - a nuclear exchange, for example - that blows a hole in important fabric. It may be random - as from solar flare - or targeted - as in ICBMs or sabotage. Blunt trauma can activate any of the other modes, or merely destroy the system as a whole.

Running out of steam failure happens when the resources upon which a system runs fall below some necessary threshold. In particular, energy, space and material resources. Run low of any essential, and the whole thing winds down. Run out of any essential and the whole thing grinds to a halt. This type of failure follows a trajectory (curve) which can range from 'Seneca's Cliff' to the 'Staircase Descent'.


Timescales of Failure

Whether total, systemic failure is 'catastrophic' (my school) or 'catabolic' (Greer, Kunstler, et al), I suspect is a matter of the timescale over which failure is viewed.

The graph is similar. A long period of growth is followed by a relatively shorter period of decline or 'collapse' (Senaca's Cliff).

For myself, I tend to think of high to low collapse occurring within a single lifetime as both catastrophic and probable. Our current situation has been collapsing - by my estimation - for decades, now, and will accelerate to whatever bottom very soon.

Yet both means and trajectory look very similar, whether they play over a shorter or longer term. From the perspective of the individual, a lifetime is all one has. Generations may experience the long descent. Cultures may experience the rise and fall of civilizations. Our species has experienced ages - the paleo- and neo-lithic, bronze, iron, industrial and information ages.

From a long enough perspective, the rise and (presumed) fall of agricultural civilizations over roughly 10K years - is but a blip. Look close enough and any process plays out in gradual, slow-mo. Thus, whether collapse is fast or slow is a subjective matter.

Whether it plays out within our or our children's lifetimes, however, is a practical matter. One prepares for 'contractions' differently than from SHTF.

Ya lays yer money and ya takes yer chances.