Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Cybernetics of Black Knights

Serendipity’s a funny thing. When I started planning out this post a couple of days ago, I knew that I was going to have to pull my battered copy of Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature off the bookshelf where I keep basic texts on systems philosophy, since it’s almost impossible to talk about information in any useful way without banking off Bateson’s ideas. I didn’t have any similar intention when I checked out science reporter Charles Seife’s Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking from the local library, much less when I took a break from writing the other evening to watch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the first time since my teens.

Still, I’m not at all sure I could have chosen better, for both of these latter turned out to have plenty of relevance to the theme of this week’s post. Fifty years of failed research and a minor masterpiece of giddy British absurdity may not seem to have much to do with each other, much less with information, Gregory Bateson, or a “green wizardry” fitted to the hard limits and pressing needs of the end of the industrial age. Yet the connections are there, and the process of tracing them out will help more than a little to make sense of how information works – and also how it fails to work.

Let’s start with a few basics. Information is the third element of the triad of fundamental principles that flow through whole systems of every kind, and thus need to be understood to build viable appropriate tech systems. We have at least one huge advantage in understanding information that people a century ago didn’t have: a science of information flow in whole systems, variously called cybernetics and systems theory, that was one of the great intellectual adventures of the twentieth century and deserves much more attention than most people give it these days.

Unfortunately we also have at least one huge disadvantage in understanding information that people a century ago didn’t have, either. The practical achievements of cybernetics, especially but not only in the field of computer science, have given rise to attitudes toward information in popular culture that impose bizarre distortions on the way most people nowadays approach the subject. You can see these attitudes in an extreme form in the notion, common in some avant-garde circles, that since the amount of information available to industrial civilization is supposedly increasing at an exponential rate, and exponential curves approach infinity asymptotically in a finite time, then at some point not too far in the future, industrial humanity will know everything and achieve something like omnipotence.

I’ve pointed out several times in these essays that this faith in the so-called “singularity” is a rehash of Christian apocalyptic myth in the language of cheap science fiction, complete with a techno-Rapture into a heaven lightly redecorated to make it look like outer space. It might also make a good exhibit A in a discussion of the way that any exponential curve taken far enough results in absurdity. Still, there’s still another point here, which is that the entire notion of the singularity is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what information is and what it does.

Bateson’s work is a good place to start clearing up the mess. He defines information as “a difference that makes a difference.” This is a subtle definition, and it implies much more than it states. Notice in particular that whether a difference “makes a difference” is not an objective quality ; it depends on an observer, to whom the difference makes a difference. To make the same point in the language of philosophy, information can’t be separated from intentionality.

What is intentionality? The easiest way to understand this concept is to turn toward the nearest window. Notice that you can look through the window and see what’s beyond it, or you can look at the window and see the window itself. If you want to know what’s happening in the street outside, you look through the window; if you want to know how dirty the window glass is, you look at the window. The window presents you with the same collection of photons in either case; what turns that collection into information of one kind or another, and makes the difference between seeing the street and seeing the glass, is your intentionality.

The torrent of raw difference that deluges every human being during every waking second, in other words, is not information. That torrent is data – a Latin word that means “that which is given.” Only when we approach data with intentionality, looking for differences that make a difference, does data become information – another Latin word that means “that which puts form into something.” Data that isn’t relevant to a given intentionality, such as the dirt on a window when you’re trying to see what’s outside, has a different name, one that doesn’t come from Latin: noise.

Thus the mass production of data in which believers in the singularity place their hope of salvation can very easily have the opposite of the effect they claim for it. Information only comes into being when data is approached from within a given intentionality, so it’s nonsense to speak of it as increasing exponentially in some objective sense. Data can increase exponentially, to be sure, but this simply increases the amount of noise that has to be filtered before information can be made from it. This is particularly true in that a very large fraction of the data that’s exponentially increasing these days consists of such important material as, say, gossip about Kate Hudson’s breast implants.

The need to keep data within bounds to make getting information from it easier explains why the sense organs of living things have been shaped by evolution to restrict, often very sharply, the data they accept. Every species of animal has different information needs, and thus limits its intake of data in a different way. You’re descended from mammals that spent a long time living in trees, for example, which is why your visual system is very good at depth perception and seeing the colors that differentiate ripe from unripe fruit, and very poor at a lot of other things.

A honeybee has different needs for information, and so its senses select different data. It sees colors well up into the ultraviolet, which you can’t, because many flowers use reflectivity in the ultraviolet to signal where the nectar is, and it also sees the polarization angle of light, which you don’t, since this helps it navigate to and from the hive. You don’t “see” heat with a special organ on your face, the way a rattlesnake does, or sense electrical currents the way many fish do; around you at every moment is a world of data that you will never perceive, because your ancestors over millions of generations survived better by excluding that data, so they could extract information from the remainder, than they would have done by including it.

Human social evolution parallels biological evolution, and so it’s not surprising that much of the data processing in human societies consists of excluding most data so that useful information can emerge from the little that’s left over. This is necessary but it’s also problematic, for a set of filters that limit data to what’s useful in one historical or ecological context can screen out exactly the data that might be most useful in a different context, and the filters don’t necessarily change as fast as the context.

The history of fusion power research provides a superb example. For more than half a century now, leading scientists in the world’s industrial nations have insisted repeatedly, and inaccurately, that they were on the brink of opening the door to commercially viable fusion power. Trillions of dollars have gone down what might best be described as a collection of high-tech ratholes as the same handful of devices get rebuilt in bigger and fancier models, and result in bigger and costlier flops. They’re still at it; the money the US government alone is paying to fund the two fusion megaprojects du jour, the National Ignition Facility and the ITER, would very likely buy a solar hot water system for every residence in the United States and thus cut the country’s household energy use by around 10% at a single stroke. Instead, it’s being spent on projects that even their most enthusiastic proponents admit will only be one more inconclusive step toward fusion power.

The information that is being missed here is that fusion power isn’t a viable option. Even if sustained fusion can be done at all outside the heart of a star, and the odds of that don’t look good just now, it’s been shown beyond a doubt that the cost of building enough fusion power plants to make a difference will be so high that no nation on Earth can afford them. There are plenty of reasons why that information is being missed, but an important one is that industrial society learned a long time ago to filter out data that suggested that any given technology wasn’t going to be viable. During the last three centuries, as fossil fuel extraction sent energy per capita soaring to unparalleled heights, that was an adaptive choice; the inevitable failures – and there have been wowsers – were more than outweighed by the long shots that came off, and the steady expansion of economic wealth powered by fossil fuels made covering the costs of failures and long shots alike a minor matter.

We don’t live in that kind of world any longer. With the peak of world conventional petroleum production receding in the rear view mirror, energy per capita is contracting, not expanding. At the same time, most of the low hanging fruit in science and engineering has long since been harvested, and most of what’s left – fusion power here again is a good example – demands investment on a gargantuan scale with no certainty of payback. The assumption that innovation always pays off, and that data contradicting that belief is to be excluded, has become hopelessly maladaptive, but it remains welded in place; consider the number of people who insist that the proper response to peak oil is some massive program that would gamble the future on some technology that hasn’t yet left the drawing boards.

It’s at this point that the sound of clattering coconut hulls can be heard in the distance, for the attempt to create information out of data that won’t fit it is the essence of the absurd, and absurdity was the stock in trade of the crew of British comics who performed under the banner of Monty Python. What makes “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” so funny is the head-on collisions between intentionalities and data deliberately chosen to conflict with them; any given collision may involve the intentionality the audience has been lured into accepting, or the intentionality one of the characters is pursuing, or both at once, but in every scene, cybernetically speaking, that’s what’s happening.

Consider King Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight. The audience and Arthur both approach the scene with an intentionality borrowed from chivalric romance, in which knightly combat extracts the information of who wins and who loses out of the background data of combat. The Black Knight, by contrast, approaches the fight with an intentionality that excludes any data that would signal his defeat. No matter how many of the Black Knight’s limbs get chopped off – and by the end of the scene, he’s got four bloody stumps – he insists on his invincibility and accuses Arthur of cowardice for refusing to continue the fight. There’s some resemblance here to the community of fusion researchers, whose unchanging response to half a century of utter failure is to keep repeating that fusion power is just twenty (more) years in the future.

Doubtless believers in the singularity will be saying much the same thing fifty years from now, if there are still any believers in the singularity around then. The simple logical mistake they’re making is the same one that fusion researchers have been making for half a century; they’ve forgotten that the words “this can’t be done” also convey information, and a very important kind of information at that. Just as it’s very likely at this point that fusion research will end up discovering that fusion power won’t work on any scale smaller than a star, it’s entirely plausible that even if we did achieve infinite knowledge about the nature of the universe, what we would learn from it is that the science fiction fantasies retailed by believers in the singularity are permanently out of reach, and we simply have to grit our teeth and accept the realities of human existence after all.

All these points, even those involving Black Knights, have to be kept in mind in making sense of the flow of information through whole systems. Every system has its own intentionality, and every functional system filters the data given to it so that it can create the information it needs. Even so simple a system as a thermostat connected to a furnace has an intentionality – it “looks” at the air temperature around the thermostat, and “sees” if that temperature is low enough to justify turning the furnace on, or high enough to justify turning it off. The better the thermostat, the more completely it ignores any data that has no bearing on its intentionality; conversely, most of the faults thermostats can suffer can be understood as ways that other bits of data (for example, the insulating value of the layer of dust on the thermostat) insert themselves where they’re not wanted.

The function of the thermostat-furnace system in the larger system to which it belongs – the system of the house that it’s supposed to keep at a more or less stable temperature – is another matter, and requires a subtly different intentionality. The homeowner, whose job it is to make information out of the available data, monitors the behavior of the thermostat-furnace system and, if something goes wrong, has to figure out where the trouble is and fix it. The thermostat-furnace system’s intentionality is to turn certain ranges of air temperature, as perceived by the thermostat, into certain actions performed by the furnace; the homeowner’s intentionality is to make sure that this intentionality produces the effect that it’s supposed to produce.

One way or another, this same two-level system plays a role in every part of the green wizard’s work. It’s possible to put additional levels between the system on the spot (in the example, the thermostat-furnace system) and the human being who manages the system, but in appropriate tech it’s rarely a good option; the Jetsons fantasy of the house that runs itself is one of the things most worth jettisoning as the age of cheap energy comes to a close. Your goal in crafting systems is to come up with stable, reliable systems that will pursue their own intentionalities without your interference most of the time, while you monitor the overall output of the system and keep tabs on the very small range of data that will let you know if something has gone haywire.

That same two-level system also applies, interestingly enough, to the process of learning to become a green wizard. The material on appropriate technology I’ve asked readers to collect embodies a wealth of data; what prospective green wizards have to do, in turn, is to decide on their own intentionality toward the data they have, and begin turning it into information. This is the exercise for this week.

Here’s how it works. Go through the Master Conserver files you downloaded, and any appropriate tech books you’ve been able to collect. On a sheet of paper, or perhaps in a notebook, note down each project you encounter – for example, weatherstripping your windows, or building a solar greenhouse. Mark any of the projects you’ve already done with a check mark. Then mark each of the projects you haven’t done with one of four numbers and one of four letters:

1 – this is a project that you could do easily with the resources available to you.
2 – this is a project that you could do, though it would take some effort to get the resources.
3 – this is a project that you could do if you really had to, but it would be a serious challenge.
4 – this is a project that, for one reason or another, is out of reach for you.

A – this is a project that is immediately and obviously useful in your life and situation right now.
B – this is a project that could be useful to you given certain changes in your life and situation.
C – this is a project that might be useful if your life and situation were to change drastically.
D – this is a project that, for one reason for another, is useless or irrelevant to you.

This exercise will produce a very rough and general intentionality, to be sure, but you’ll find it tolerably easy to refine from there. Once you decide, let’s say, that weatherstripping the leaky windows of your apartment before winter arrives is a 1-A project – easy as well as immediately useful – you’ve set up an intentionality that allows you to winnow through a great deal of data and find the information you need: for example, what kinds of weatherstripping are available at the local hardware store, and which of those can you use without spending a lot of money or annoying your landlord. Once you decide that building a brand new ecovillage in the middle of nowhere is a 4-D project, equally, you can set aside data relevant to that project and pay attention to things that matter.

Of course you’re going to find 1-D and 4-A projects as well – things that are possible but irrelevant, and things that would be splendidly useful but are out of your reach. Recognizing these limits is part of the goal of the exercise; learning to focus your efforts where they will accomplish the most soonest is another part; recognizing that you’ll be going back over these lists later on, as you learn more, and potentially changing your mind about some of the rankings, is yet another. Give it a try, and see where it takes you.


Anton Tykhyy said...

> exponential curves approach infinity asymptotically in a finite time
Wrong. e^t only approaches infinity as t->∞. You are talking about "critical" solutions of the form |a-t|^-α with α>0.

Nick Vail said...

I really appreciate and love your writing, John.
Thought you might appreciate this book:
The Dharma of Natural Systems: Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, by Joanna Macy.
Keep up the great work!

DIYer said...

Darwin's Natural Selection is a process that separates noise from information. As we know, it works unevenly and misses more often than it succeeds. But given enough time, only the successful designs remain.

I would submit that one critical characteristic of information is that it tends to persist/propagate. Even in a non-biological setting, for example that thermostat: any nonfunctional prototypes were discarded, and our installed thermostat population is fashioned after the working prototype.

And, like a virus in biology or your "fusion powered future", information can sometimes propagate even when its effect is self-limiting. For example, the meme "war is good for the economy".

What we would like to do here is to model our assumptions, and extrapolate into the future so that we may select our information for utility with as few false starts as possible.

Bill Pulliam said...

Actually, I was struggling with the phrase "approach infinity asymptotically." I think an asymptote is by definition a finite number, not infinity. And you approach an asymptote at an ever diminishing rate. However close you need to get to the asymptote, there is a finite time at which you will achieve this. Exponentials approach infinity at an ever increasing rate. It is meaningless to say how "far" they are from infinity, as all finite numbers are equally far from infinity (in the same way that there are precisely as many real numbers between 0 and 1 as there are between 1 and 1,000,000 since the two sets can be mapped onto each other with complete 1:1 correspondence). For the non-mathematicians, yes, I know, that makes no sense. But infinity is by its very definition incomprehensible to common sense. Of course, exponential decay does approach zero asymptotically.

This has no bearing on your logic and your points, of course. But ya still oughta get yer terms right.

miltonics said...

There are all sorts of things approaching infinity. When they effectively reach that point they become irrelevant. Something will happen that will make them become either ubiquitous or disappear. It will happen with the singularity, information, debt, population, or anything that follows an exponential curve.

I also wish to echo your mention of the importance of intent. It makes the difference.

Alan said...

Fascinating. As a fan of Bateson, et. al, I'm going to let a few folks know about your essay, some of them believers in the singularity. You bring up some great points that I would love to see added to the debate on these important issues.

Bill Pulliam said...

OK now to the actual point...

When dealing with the real world, it is also often important how you define the boundaries of the project. Often what seems like a 3A can be decomposed into a bunch of 1s and 2s which are somewhat independent and separable. When you are confronted with a 3A type task (very useful, a whole lot of work), the only way you will likely ever get around to it is to approach it one step at a time. Otherwise you will be overwhelmed. This is part of the extraction of information from the noise. To stick with the window metaphor, you have to chose whether your intent will be to clean the window or weed the garden or prune the apple tree or paint the window casing. You can look at the weedy garden and scraggly apple tree through the dirty window with peeling paint on the casing, and just start weeping and go back to bed (or, in the case of most country boys, just go fishin'). Or you can just focus on one of the above, go get the tools, and not think about the others until you have finished the one you picked. And then go fishin'. The rest can wait 'til tomorrow.

Librarian of Hillman said...

oh! also: JMG if you like i will hereby confer upon you an honorary MLS for today's post (i help run our intern/mentor program for library students, so i think i am safe in assuming this power!)

i'd say you have this fundamental down:

Dr. Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science (1931)

1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his [or her] book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.

AND..i finally found my "rescue" books from the first assignment!

The Complete Book of Heating With Wood (1974) Larry Gay, Garden Way Publishing, Charlotte Vermont (has an ecological, conservation focus to it.)

Natural Solar Architecture: a passive primer (1978) David Wright, Sea Ranch California (kind of a comic-book intro with drawings and charts and plans, for adults! very cool looking, anyway!)

The Indoor Naturalist: observing the world of nature inside your home (1986) Gale Lawrence (sections include Kitchen Kingdoms--yogurt, mold, yeast, mildew; and Household Ecologies--fruit flies, ants, house mice, silverfish, and so on! i got this one for current personal practical reasons...for a city building, me & my neighbors have certainly got critters in here lately! i'd like to make peace with them all, in a non-toxic but effective way! if there are guys it would be safe & useful to allow or encourage, i want to know that!)

i had to finally enlist a friend with a car and go out to the 'burbs to complete this assignment! seems like everything in thrift stores in the city here must get snapped up too quick!

i recommend the Half-Priced Books chain for anyone else in the mid-Atlantic/east/rust-belt who is still having trouble...they buy used books, and they do a great job of organizing them!

Wendy said...

Well this is interesting homework as I have already started to do this. That is collect the information. I have been doing that for some time now but it is all over the place and not in any particular order. So I had decided to order it all. Make things findable when I needed something or was ready to do the next project. I was thinking to myself what was the point of collecting information without actually having any intention of using it and putting it into practice. I will now apply the number/letter system as well as I think it is an excellent idea to help me organise and use the information athered with intention.

I picked up a simple book from the library today that has some very simple ideas of building things yourself for around the house and farm. Very basic things some of them but I think they would be very useful. The book is called "Home Made - 101 easy to make things for your garden, home or farm" by Ken Braren and Roger Griffith.


Steve From Virginia said...

The best critique of 'the singularity' I have seen to date!

Ditto on fusion and similar science megaprojects; I call the 'Large Hadron Collector' the 'Large Subsidy Collector'.

All toys, just like Admirals all need battleships to ride around on ...

John Michael Greer said...

Anton, I'm just repeating the claims the way they were explained to me by enthusiastic singularity fans.

Nick, thanks for the reference! An interesting comparison; I'll have to brush up on my Buddhist theory to follow it, but it should be interesting.

DIYer, whether information persists or propagates depends on the frequency with which a given intentionality occurs within a population. The challenge, and it's a steep one, is to find a way to take a step back, and perceive one's own intentionality as information; that's what the scientific method does, when it works, and in another context that's also what meditation does.

Bill, as I said to Anton, I'm just repeating the jargon that was repeated to me. I don't claim to be a mathematician -- the sort of slide rule math needed to calculate the resonant frequency of a circuit is about the upper end of my number crunching skills -- and if you're saying that the argument made to me was nonsense, well, I promise not to faint with surprise.

Miltonics, good. That's the point I wanted to make by suggesting that every exponential curve, taken far enough, approaches absurdity.

Alan, by all means!

Bill, your crystal ball is working again, I see. Flowcharting a process to work out the order of steps comes in a future lesson.

Librarian, thank you! Er, your earlier post had more profanity in it than I was comfortable letting through; if you'd like to edit and resend, I'd be happy to post it.

Wendy, good. The letter and number system is a simple heuristic; we'll be exploring other ways of turning data into action as we go.

Steve, thank you. If I'd set out to do a thorough critique of the Singularity mythos, I'd also have referenced the law of diminishing returns, Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, just for starters. That might be an interesting project sometime, if there was a venue for it.

The "Large Subsidy Collector" is great, by the way. Maybe ITER stands for "International Trillion Euro Rathole"...

Bill Pulliam said...

The argument may or may not be nonsense; the terminology is incorrect regardless. So in your final version you might oughta either use correct terminology if you present it as your own words, or put it in quotes to make it clear that the nonsense originates not with your mind but with someone else's. Sorry, I'm being an editor here...

I gather what someone meant when they said "approach infinity asymptotically" was that given enough time it will eventually achieve any height you can imagine (the same is true for linear growth too, it just takes longer.) But exponential growth does not "approach infinity," as infinity always stays infinitely far away (unlike what happens to 1/x as x approaches zero; that really does reach infinity at a finite point).

A more mathematically correct statement might sound something like that exponential growth climbs at an ever increasing rate, or (to be cute) that its rate of acceleration is itself rapidly accelerating, or something similar, and can reach very high levels rather quickly. Just leave out "asymptote" and "infinity," neither of which applies.

Completely digressing, more fun with infinity:

There are infinitely many points on a line -- the same infinite number regardless of how long the line is. There are infinitely more points in a square than there are points on a line; the number of points in a finite square is the same as the number of points on an infinite line. There are in fact infinitely many infinities as you increase the number of dimensions you can put your points in -- each of these successive infinities is infinitely larger than the one that precedes it. But which infinity is the number of infinities?

Who said math was dull...?

And if an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, WHICH infinity are we talking about???

Librarian of Hillman said...

: )

"Librarian, thank you! Er, your earlier post had more profanity in it than I was comfortable letting through; if you'd like to edit and resend, I'd be happy to post it."

ah! well, you know the reputation that most middle-aged librarian ladies have! woops! let me make it less, um, fragrant? (and my apologies--i just come from that sort of people i guess!)


Large Man with Dead Body: Who's that then?
The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.
Large Man with Dead Body: Why?
The Dead Collector: He hasn't got *manure* all over him.

(now you had to KNOW that was going to happen! but in Green Wizard Land, the King will BE the one who knows why getting that *manure* all over him is a good idea!)

you're working in my realm this week i see, and you very clearly bring up the primary concern with modern information that hit me back in library school in '91, even before the internet really got going:

too much is just as bad as nothing...maybe even worse.

this is a major worry for the League of Doomer Librarians (a professional association i'd love to start!) setting aside all the questions of space and preservation and materials and organization...WHO is deciding WHAT to save?

the default, without any plan, is that whatever we have the MOST of, is what will be left in 50 or 100 or 500 years. so thank heavens that future historians will always be able to look back and know how Lindsay Lohan felt about doing jail time! tweet tweet twit twit!

seriously though, due to rapidly changing and often ephemeral formats, and sheer *bulk* with almost NO gate-keeper function...we are living in what will be seen as a Dark Age, even IF business-as-usual somehow continues as-is for 1000 years.

and i don't see anything likely to reverse that Information Trend.

the trouble, what the infinity/omnipotence/singularity people miss, is that *nothing* has changed as far as the human brain! there are rare folk who are cursed with noticing and trying to store EVERYTHING they encounter...usually they can't recall for 5 minutes who they are or what they were just about to do! forgetting and ignoring are even MORE vital than noticing and remembering!

BUT...*light-bulb* i see why you suggested we look to the 70's for our texts! not only is that pre-"information explosion" era, but also, the "filter" in the late 60's and most of the 70's was "set" to provide the ideal focus for our intent! nice!

less noise, more signal! part of that 60's/70s focus was on DIY, cheap, small-scale...the exact opposite of something like fusion or any other project which has a massive, top-down, controlled access-for-profit motive.

you know the assignment this week is not only an extra helpful one for your small set of Urban-Track students, i'd say it would be good therapy for anyone who is trying to grasp the realities and not get lost or overwhelmed.

the skill to look around you and *recognize* the 1A projects...that's pure gold! we need X now, we have Y on hand, so we can do z right now and that will help! i bet that pre-industrial human societies did a good job of evolutionarily selecting for exactly that trait! the MacGyver Gene?

(HA! my [original] captcha word to post this [was] "facts"!)

risa said...

This so-o-o-o-o takes me back! Bateson (and M.C. Bateson), Kuhn, et al. were my heroes.

We've used a similar ranking of the possible here, which is why we're usually in the garden or kitchen instead of cobbling together an undershot wheel with geared-down generator (it would only run half the year anyway). We did paint the roof white this year, though.

A good source of 1A project information is Earl Proulx's Yankee Home Hints: From Stains on the Rug to Squirrels in the Attic, over 1500 Ingenious Solutions to Everyday Household Problems, 1993. Much as we love the 70s manuals with their brown ink on brown paper and pen drawings of homes dug into earth banks with black-painted drums ranked behind glass south walls, Earl is who we turn to for the low-hanging fruit, such as how to insulate properly and how to know a storm window is doing its job.

phil harris said...

A different way of looking at 'knowledge' occurred to me during a privileged time when I was making official visits to 'cutting-edge' labs to help assess risks from unintended consequences arising from their genetic engineering work. As a scientist myself I was interested in their work. Invariably, the guys would explain to me what they did not know, in order to explain why they were looking, and what the 'boundary' conditions might be. After a while, I formed an image of a huge number of bubbles, (a bit like an expanding frontal cortex) each providing a surface inter-face with 'the unknown'. The trick was to realize that the 'surface with the unknown' was getting bigger. I am not Donald Rumsfeld - there is a great deal of knowledge on which to base judgment and intention, but knowledge is a tricky, if not a 'tricksy' idea. Like Bill said above, one step at a time, the rest can wait 'til tomorrow.

Cherokee Organics said...


What a great way to focus people's minds on both the task at hand and as a way to get them to stop talking about impossible projects. Excellent training for the green wizard.

Personally though, my favourite comment that I've read (quite a few times as well too!) in the comments many weeks ago was a suggestion that ham radio operators could maintain a rudimentary internet for the benefit of many! What a crazy idea and they were actually serious. It never occurred to the person suggesting the comment that a ham radio operator could get far more information across using either voice or even morse code. Not to mention that the so called "snail mail" would be an even better alternative option. If you had to choose between refrigeration facilities and the Internet I know which I'd pick.

I've said before that I'm building a low energy house myself and have had to make the kind of decisions that you mentioned as they impact every aspect of the design. Western culture has become lazy in that they apply technological solutions to simple problems. It's an addiction that you have explained very eloquently.

Take for example heat, which is a problem here over summer. What do you do? The normal solution around here is to install a split system reverse cycle air conditioner and don't worry about the rest of the house siting or structure. It is common for houses to have more than one system. You don't have to think about the problem anymore, until the energy supplies become restricted or even cut off. Or you can't pay your bill.

It would be far simpler, but much less sexy to install:
Verandahs shading the external walls
Weather stripping (stops heat entering a house as well)
Double glazing for windows
Install smaller windows than the large, thin and poorly sited windows that you see in new houses
Add tinting to your current windows
Insulation in the floor, walls and ceiling
Add heavy curtains
Use fans instead of air conditioners
Seal gaps in the walls, windows and floor
Site the house so that it makes the most of the available sunlight

There is so much that a person can do and whilst it's nice thinking about large and impossible projects that if they sucessfully proceed will allow future generations to expend even more energy per capita, they aren't going to happen anytime soon. Focus instead on getting your own patch of dirt in order!

Information does not have a life of it's own. It is as substantial as vapour and once it becomes unimportant or inaccessible it has no inherent value of it's own. It will disappear.

Incidentally and I am no expert in the matter, but California's fiscal crisis is a prelude to the end of the US empire. You cannot get something for nothing, just as you cannot borrow indefinitely with no thought as to repayments. There is a coming choice as to whether US citizens pay more tax or demand less services and subsidies. I can't see the first suggestion occurring.

Good luck!

Edde said...

Good Morning John Michael,

Hope you are enjoying this Thunder Moon, now waning.

Suggest that early on folks learn this: when enough is enough, and what "enough" looks like.

I have friends who live with this principle: I have so much to do that I can't possibly die until I've gotten at least half way through my "to do" list.

Another suggestion: life is 95% maintenance. Stuff, even useful stuff, takes WAY more time, money and energy than appears the case.

Prioritizing makes a world of sense, going fishing (riding my bicycle) is way high on MY priority list.

Best regards,

DIYer said...

Ahh. Intentionality. I see what you're getting at here, JMG.

Thought I might add a note about noise, as the ante-singularity industry in which I work has thrown a lot of silicon and research at the topic.

There are many kinds of noise. An electrical engineer would immediately think of kT noise from our old friend thermodynamics. It's pretty well characterized, and we can make definite statements about what information can and cannot be recovered from the noise of a given 'temperature'.

Other kinds of noise have a more systemic nature, as in your dirty window analogy. There's something interesting about this kind of noise: frequently more processing effort is devoted to finding the contours of this noise than to discerning the intended target of our attention. Without "thinking" about it, we are always, always filtering systemic noise.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I'll have to go hunting quotes, then. The way it was explained to me, the singularity depends on the idea that the sum total of information becomes infinite in a finite (and not too very long) time. As for angels on the head of a pin, you do know the point to the debate, I trust? It was whether the number was infinite or finite, and thus -- the point really at issue -- whether angels occupy physical space or are entirely noumenal realities. From within the intentionality of medieval scholastic philosophy, it's far from an irrelevant question.

Librarian, thank you. Please do start the League of Doomer Librarians -- a blog might be a good way to launch it; my guess, based on the number of people in the library field who've interacted with me around these issues, is that you'd get a lot more interest than you might suspect.

Risa, good. Thanks for the reference!

Phil, the "bubble" metaphor works so long as all the people you're discussing have a general intentionality in common -- in terms of the metaphor, they're all trying to observe cars on the street, even if the cars they're watching are different makes and models. It's when that's not true that information becomes a much more complex thing.

Cherokee, CW (morse code) is an astonishingly fast and effective way of conveying information; every so often there's a contest between a couple of old ham operators and a couple of kids with text messaging, to see who can get a given message across fastest and with the least distortion, and the hams win every time. It's also technically the simplest way to modulate a radio wave in order to carry information, thus sustainable even in a setting of limited tech resources. All of which is to say that you're quite right; packet radio (internet over the air) may well be a useful transitional tool, at least while used computers are available, but moving toward simpler means for information transfer, summertime cooling, etc. is the winning bet.

Edde, at the moment it's more the "Wring Out The Dripping Atmosphere" moon! Your point about simplicity -- well, my experience is that this is impossible to teach to anybody who hasn't already learned it. Most people are entranced by stuff, and always have been; Lao Tsu's comments on the subject come to mind. Which is to say that you're quite right, and it would be helpful if more people noticed that the more stuff you have, the harder you have to work to maintain, fuel, clean, etc., etc. it -- but that's apparently a hugely difficult realization for our species.

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, good. If I wanted to make this a philosophical discussion rather than a brief and practical survey of how information works, we could get deep into what Bateson calls "coding," the construction by any mindlike process of an abstract model of the universe that then functions as a surrogate of the universe. Coding is fundamentally a way of removing systemic noise, except that it also becomes a source of systemic noise on a different level -- fascinating stuff.

sebzefrog said...

"Exponential with moustache, or the trap of the metaphor"

As for several other readers the quote about exponential asymptote
pushed right on one of my buttons. After digestion, it got me thinking
about a rethorical trick that is directly relevant to the handling of
"information" discussed here: Metaphors.

Metaphors, comparisons, are very handy pedagogical tools. By offering
an image that is already known and grasped, they allow sieve useful
information out of a flux of data that would otherwise have been
overhelming. This is especially useful when the flow of data is
produced by someone trying to convey a complex piece of information.

There is a danger though: it is to mistake the metaphor for the thing
being described. Because a metaphor is by nature *not the thing*, It
will ALWAYS end up wrong.

That's where the subtle track lies. A good metaphor, is a metaphor
that works well and that is beautiful. This means that it corresponds
to a mental shape that feels comfortable. But exactly because of this,
metaphors can end up filtering every bit of data that doesn't fit with
the methaphoric image. That's when one gets entrhalled by the
methaphor. Because it is then so tempting to follow the image, that
suits so well our internal description of the world, instead of going
through the painful tedious extraction of information out of data.

Let's now build an image of the person making this quote about
exponential. He built this "exponential with moustache" picture that
gave him a good feeling about a fast and faster growth. He mixed it
with an image of what an asymptote might be. This "exponential with
moustache" ended up being a sieve that filtered out all the
mathematical "data", only keeping the "information" that suited the
internal coherence of this personal image about what an exponential is.

Take this "exponential with moustaches", apply it to sieve data about
technological progress, And voilà, as you say in the US. A beautiful
metaphor of growth of knowledge. Sadly, (I can tell now that I know
JMG won't faint), an utterly wrong one.

I don't know if this "he" created above is more than just an image,
but what I know is that I find myself falling in the metaphor trap,
and that I have seen tons of people at vulgarization conferences
swimming happily in such worlds. I find trying to find examples when
metaphor replaces rational thinking for me a very interesting
exercise. If you have time to kill waiting for the bus, give it a
try. It is fun, and a bit frightening. Because it happens much more than we think.

Few last words on an other metaphor that was poorly used in this
quote: the "Singularity". Singularity in physics is when the
matematical model used leads to nonsense. Nonsense is when the
matematical formula leads to infinity within the bounds of the system
described. Then the model breaks down.

Any law that yields a singularity should be considered carefully:
infinity won't be reached. Never. No, not "even if...".

Therefore, in between the region where the law of very fast knowledge
increase describes the world correctly, and the region where it
reaches the vertical asymptote, something *in the model* is wrong.

To conclude on that, a picture shown in The Economist, that, based on
extrapolation, shows that very soon the Earth will be covered with razor blades:

Sebzefrog at

sebzefrog said...

One book and one word

Few month ago I ran into this book:

It has an interesting story about how brain sieves out data in order to make sense of the world. It is called "The Dog Beneath the Skin".
It speaks about a man who for some period of time has a sense of smell as keen as that of a dog.
The author toys with the idea that since the man is physiologically the same during the period when he has this strong sense of smell and afterwards, it has to do with the brain only. The idea being that our brain evolved to sieve out all this sensory input, and that we need this sieving in order for us to be the kind of human we are.
Sieve out or digest it in more subtle ways than dumping it directly to the cognitive mind...

In the same context a term that I ran in years ago and found fascinating is "Umwelt"

Sebzefrog at

idiotgrrl said...

Thank you, Wizard! I had a bunch of scratch notes and notebook fragments under the heading of "Prepping and going green" and was having trouble putting them into any coherent whole. You gave me precisely the tools I needed to do so. I am going to print off your checklist right now.



Yupped said...

Thanks for another entertaining and helpful post. I’ve spent a good deal of my working life prioritizing investment/project spending in corporations. The best approach is simple, as you propose – rate every project according to level of cost/level of benefit, and then go after the low cost/high benefit initiatives. Lots of really smart people would resist that approach, though, wanting to swing for the fences, and attack the bigger projects with potentially bigger but more speculative payback.

Perhaps a gambler’s instinct? Or a certain showiness? Or the result of spending other people’s money? I don’t know. But the amount of corporate money that has been wasted on unreachable IT projects in the last 40 years has got to be staggering.

BTW, I think my favorite Monty Python lines are from The Meaning Of Life: “Well, that's the end of the film, now here's the meaning of life…Well, it's nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”. Lovely.

Alice Y. said...

Thanks for writing. I like the feeling of having found some more company on the road with you (all)! Appropriate tech, plus ecology, basic thermodynamics, and cybernetics - this revision cycle has helped me feel I'm pretty close to being able to explain to fellow scientists why I left behind the techno-arcane to try starting an urban farm. ;)

Seconding the recommendation of Joanna Macy's work if you've not come across it - her 'Work that reconnects' is an important piece of appropriate social skill - helping folks connect with each other & draw strength through feelings about the world in order to act. I did her facilitator training and have been busy the last few years finding similar-shaped resources in my own (Quaker) tradition.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Angels -- Oh of course. That's why I was accepting them as occupying no space, and asking if the number is infinite, then which infinity are we talking about??

Ok to the singularity. I suspect the concept as you just outlined it is in fact what people believe, as this would explain why they chose the word "singularity" for it. That has always confused me; now I understand it confuses me because it is just plain wrong. The idea is that information breeds its own growth, like bacteria in a culture medium or neutrons in a nuclear reactor. This autocatalytic process gives you exponential growth -- which means that if it takes the thing x seconds to double, then in the next x seconds it will double again, etc. like compound interest. Autocatalytic, exponential growth is a very common phenomenon in the universe. It does not produce singularities.

A singularity is a point on a graph where the function breaks down, usually because it shot up or down to positive or negative infinity. The classic example is the graph of the equation y = 1/x. As x approaches zero, the value of y shoots rapidly off the chart no matter how big you make the chart. reaching y=infinity at x=0. The exponential curve, in contrast is smooth and without singularities from the beginning of time until the end. You can leave your money in the bank at compound interest for as long as you like and with as high an interest rate as you can imagine, and it will never become infinite.

Singularities are exceedingly rare in the real world. The only example I can think of is the black hole, which reaches infinite density and zero volume, causing a singularity in the space-time curves. Exponential growth does lead to catastrophes, as physical or biological properties are pushed beyond tolerance limits. When the atom bomb explodes or the bacterial culture collapses, these were not singularities. The atom bomb's exponential growth in temperature reaches the point that it is so hot it blows itself and anything nearby to smitherenes. The bacterial culture's exponential growth exhausts its culture medium and accumulates so many toxic waste products that the bugs all starve and/or are poisoned to death. No singularity in either case, just an ordinary physical or biochemical breakdown.

So.. the exponential growth of information will never lead to a singularity, and anyone who claims otherwise needs to review Algebra I. It's another example of the shamefully low level of math skills even among many high-level computer/information geeks. The exponential growth of "information" (data), if not curtailed by other forces, will probably lead to an "information" (data) catastrophe -- Toeffler's information overload on a global scale. My guess is that this would be the point at which in fact no meaningful information can be extracted from the data stream because it has grown too big and too fast -- kaboom, the A-bomb explodes.

But of course something else will intervene. Exponential growth leading to kaboom is also rare in the world, since nothing exists in isolation. Other limiting factors almost always put the breaks on the process, causing smaller mishaps and little kabooms instead of one really big one. In the information case, of course, it'll doubtless be the slowdown in cheap energy and the resulting economic disruptions and downturns that will throttle back the data stream. No matter what these people think, the data boom is a subset of, not the primary driver of, the cheap-energy-fueled industrial boom.

Cathy McGuire said...

Wonderful post again, JMG! You touch on several topics that have gotten under my skin lately, as I wonder how my friends and others don’t seem to be able to figure this out– 1) why would some human want to give the computers of the “singularity” the awesome power of being the only things that knew what was going on? (I know some humans think they will become the computer, but they haven’t thought that one through enough)… it reminds me of the British show “Upstairs, Downstairs” where the rich were hopelessly dependent on their servants, and infantilized by that – I often wondered why they thought that was “superiority”. 2)The fact that more data is sweeping us daily seems to immediately suggest we have to restrict the flow or improve our filters – yet folks seem to have filtered out the critical stuff and focused on the trivial! I suspect is that they hate to dwell on their helplessness to stop 3)which is people siphoning money to pet projects that make them a healthy living (like the fusion stuff) whether or not there is an overall benefit. When I worked in hi-tech, I used to think it was nuts that the engineers were supposed to “invent” things on schedule – that is a contradiction in terms! If it’s something not invented yet, there is no guarantee that it can be – and yet they were creating timelines as if all they had to do was pluck the info from the ether.

The reverse of the info-overload is the important fact that if you don’t get the information, you can’t use it! I saw the power of the media back in the 70’s – if they didn’t report it, basically it hadn’t happened for most of the world! That has somewhat changed with the internet, but is still true – because now you have to page through tons of irrelevant info (from biased search engines) to find the useable information. I saw during the recent pandemic that many media were trying to cover “the good news” rather than the actual data, and so it was just as difficult to find out what was really going on.

I love your description of how absurdity works – I wondered why I was so drawn to it (not only the Pythons, but their radio predecessors The Goon Show,– who are on YouTube, also – and Fry/Laurie and other wonderful comedians). Now I see that I am fascinated by the collision of fact and intention, and the wonderful ability to pour nonsense into a pattern shell, revealing the silliness of the sloppy thinkers. ("It's only a flesh wound...")

Thank you for the homework assignment. I had already done that mentally – I’m always looking for ways to improve the “homestead”, but needing to holdit up to the limits of my time/energy/money. But writing it down means I don’t have to risk losing that mental work, so I’ll get right on it.

@Bill You can look at the weedy garden and scraggly apple tree through the dirty window with peeling paint on the casing, and just start weeping and go back to bed Yes – your description of chores is my daily struggle! (And you forgot to add: “spend time reading JMG and responding!) My motto is, “Every day, do a little more… and every day, you’ll get further behind!” ;-}

@DIY I would submit that one critical characteristic of information is that it tends to persist/propagate.
- what does that say about urban myths, then?

@Bill Just leave out "asymptote" and "infinity," neither of which applies. Unfortunately, I suspect that was the point of the singularists – they love the idea that suddenly their information overload will turn into something magical (not in JMG’s sense!) and “eternal” – it’s more of the religious overtones that JMG mentions… from what I read of the singularists, it is “the point” not beside the point… but then, they are spouting nonsense…

David said...

Bill's almost right, but he's assuming the distance between two points can be measured with a ruler, or by counting. Mathematicians don't like to keep things that simple.

I can say that the distance from x to infinity is 1/x - this works fine as a measure (or metric, to get technical). Then, hey presto, exponential curves do now approach infinity asymptotically.

Thanks for all your work, JMG. Energy - matter - information: I'm following it so far.

Tony said...

I've been reading David Bohm's The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory lately (give me a break; I have a degree in physics and this is what I do for fun...), and I'm struck by the similarity of what Bohm wrote about and what you're talking about in this post. As far as I know, Bohm and his collaborator (Basil J. Hiley) coined the term "active information", as opposed to "passive information", which is just the information/data distinction you are making here. He said information is that which "in-forms", also making use of the Latin etymology. In Bohm's case, he is referring to the wave/particle paradox and how there is, in fact, no paradox. The physics is too deep to go into here, but, briefly, he posited that the whole universe is wholly interconnected by a quantum field, a field whose major feature is that it conveys "active information" to particles, which then are "in-formed" by that information, meaning they act themselves (as opposed to being acted upon, as with classical fields) in response to that information.

I think the connection of the micro to the macro is fascinating.

peter4045 said...

When I think about the diminishing returns of exponentially increasing data, I think about my own field of medicine (I'm a family physician). The amount of medical knowledge and number of drugs and procedures available has been increasing exponentially over the 27 years I have been in practice, but life expectancy is falling. Why? - because we don't make the best use of basic information which we already have. Like eating healthily and taking more exercise, for example.

JP said...

I have not run the calculations for this problem, but reading this post on fusion and your last post on matter, reminded me of something I had thought about a long time ago.

Fusion doens't work. However, fission does work, althought it produces toxins.

Last week, you noted:

"A similar difficulty afflicts the delusion that we can put something completely outside the biosphere and make it stay there. Proponents of nuclear power who don’t simply dodge the issue of radioactive waste altogether treat this as a minor issue. It’s not a minor issue; it’s the most critical of half a dozen disastrous flaws in the shopworn 1950s-era fantasy of limitless nuclear power still being retailed by a minority among us. A nuclear fission reactor, any nuclear fission reactor, produces wastes so lethal they have to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years – that’s fifty times as long as all of recorded history, in case you were wondering. In theory, containing high-level nuclear waste is possible; "

I agree that this waste can't be put into the biosphere and that all matter in the biosphere runs around in circles.

However, this waste can be easily contained by placing it outside the biosphere.

I always wondered why it wasn't just loaded up into rockets and shipped off into the Sun. Or Jupiter. Or Venus. Or Alpha Centauri.

There's a whole lot of space out there that has no direct connection with the biosphere, or Earth for that matter.

In fact, you can do this with anything you don't want in the biosphere.

Note: I'm not saying it's a good idea because I have not calculated the damage to the biosphere in getting the material off the Earth, the net energy required to get the material off the Earth, or the safety issue related to whether something goes horribly wrong getting it off the Earth.

Andy Brown said...

Information doesn't persist or flourish because it's accurate or true, it persists when there is a framework to hang it in. (Information is always "constructed" and like all constructions it makes use of the scaffolding and the tools at hand - and is an expression of the desires, skills and limitations of the constructors.) The exciting thing about green wizardry is that you are trying to prepare information (as in your appropriate technology archives) that hasn't had much of a framework upon which to hang -- because it hasn't been part of either daily practice or useful knowledge for most people -- and you seem to be trying to prepare this to occupy the new frameworks of ideas and practice that will come about as this era passes.

Lamb said...

Thank you for your comments on fusion power...have been arguing this one with a "Nuclear Power Will Solve ALL the World's Problems!" friend for quite some time now.
Love how you brought Monty Python into the mix!
I just love how bringing in an unexpected *voice* can point out absurdities in an argument. (Last night was in a philosophical debate with friends and I brought in the Penthouse production of "Caligula" as an example of my point. Make a memo---bringing porn cinema into a discussion certainly startles people into looking at things from a different angle!)

John Michael Greer said...

Seb, I think the razor blade singularity is a good deal more likely than the cybernetic one! And I share you appreciation for the word "umwelt" -- the German language has an extraordinary talent for formulating certain very complex concepts in very clear ways.

Pat, you're welcome. I'll be passing on some other tools of the same kind a bit further down the road, too.

Yupped, I've seen the same temptation in the appropriate tech scene, and it normally leads to failure. Starting small and building a track record of successes is much better magic.

Alice, thanks for the re-recommendation!

Bill, exactly. What usually intervenes in the production of information from data is the law of diminishing returns; have you noticed that even with Moore's law in full tilt, the improvements in what computers can do have gone from monumental to incremental?

Cathy, very good. One of the things I'm trying to do here is alert as many people as will listen to a set of data that can be turned into very, very useful information, and help them do so while it's still available. As you say, it's hard to turn the data into information if the data isn't accessible.

David, you just went right over my head. Still, I'll take your word for it!

Tony, thanks for the reference! I'm with you; serious scientific books are excellent light reading.

Peter, that's certainly part of it. Given the number of nasty side effects caused by so many modern pharmaceuticals, though, I have to wonder how much of our declining lifespan is because of all those drugs rather than in spite of them -- though again, that's more information hidden in the noise.

JP, all it takes is one rocket packed with spent fuel rods that blows up in the atmosphere -- which will eventually happen, you know -- and you've got enough plutonium and other nasty transuranic isotopes in the atmosphere to give cancer to most of the multicellular life forms on Earth. It's a much saner idea not to produce the stuff in the first place.

Andy, excellent. You get today's gold star. Yes, that's exactly the plan -- in the language I've been using here, I'm offering an intentionality that can turn a lot of neglected data into very useful information.

cyan said...

I must say JMG, you really challenging my perceptions. I never believed that one of the few people i found on the internet who actualy talked sense would be a druid!

And, here here, on all your comments. I love science. But i love REAL science. Science based on, repeatable results, and parsimonious theories deduced from solid well confirmed observations. And solid research, with definite goals and time tables.

Not a lot of handwaving nonsense, vauge goals, no published results, no fixed theory beyond an androgenous blob of: "it has to work because this is what history is leading up to." Nor, just the endless promise, "check's in the mail", "No seriously, this time it really is ... and when you cash it all your dreams will come true."

I think it's horrible the way science is being conflated with science fiction; and dreaming has become a substitute for logic. I know why: without the 'red threat' there's no need for the funding for the boaring bread-and-butter science programs; nowdays scientists can only make a living a light entertainers; disneyfied peddlers of all your wishes come true: ie fusion. And vapid coffee table books that delight by the vacuous challenging of meaningless perceptions: ie Malcolm Gladwell's whole career.

Oh well, just one more thing that was once beautiful about civilization, but that we trashed...

Salih said...

I am following along with the suggestions for Green Wizardry as best as my time and talents allow but even so I am closer to Edde's position on what we "should", as opposed to "could," do in response to the decline of industrial civilization. I recently realized that I will not have anything like a decent retirement even if the economy were to return to double digit growth. I spent an entire year thinking through my options. I have friends who live on a self-sufficient farm so I though about that option as well but I lack their skills, a farm, and the time, money or even will to attempt anything so complicated. I finally noticed an article in an outdoor magazine that suggested that it cost $500 a month to keep the average hiker on the Appalachian Trail. I hike a lot so I looked at what it actually cost me to hike or just stay out in the wilderness; the surprising answer, assuming I can fish, set traps, and gather plants, is almost nothing. I can travel in relative ease for less than $300 a month and survive without too much suffering on well under a $100. And with my current limited skill set this is undoubtedly where I will end up. I certainly won't escape my share of suffering but I also won't have to live in urban squalor.

Bill Pulliam said...

David - you realize that you just reversed time... 1/x^t = x^-t

Didn't even need to fly backwards at the speed of light to do it, either.

Joel said...

Nature does not produce exponential curves, only logistic (sigmoid) curves.

The trouble with logistic curves is that one important parameter in modeling them cannot be determined unless you can sample that curve on both sides of its point of inflection. In that situation, say population projections of the 1970s, the only reasonable function to model with is exponential, and even those who acknowledge how misleading that is, have trouble conveying the truth. The inflection point in the global population curve seems to have occurred around 1989, so we are not seeing even an illusion of exponential growth anymore. As Stanisław Lem pointed out in The Futurological Congress, exponential population growth would eventually make the human race into a dense sphere of bodies expanding at the speed of light...then, at superluminal speeds...absurd even before the inflection point was observed.

Similarly, while it is too early to say definitively, some sources suggest that 2007 was an inflection point in the function often modeled with Moore's Law. It seems to be a coincidence that the inflection point in the total amount of petroleum that has been extracted might have occurred at very nearly the same time: cooling issues, rather than budget cuts, seem to have been the proximate cause of the (second-order) slowdown.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Yupped says BTW, I think my favorite Monty Python lines are from The Meaning Of Life: “Well, that's the end of the film, now here's the meaning of life…Well, it's nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.

Yes, it's "nothing special" - in the zen sense of that phrase, I think. And yet why is it so hard for people to do it?

The answer appears in the Central Scene of the film, in the boardroom of the Very Big Corporation of America, Inc.


Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: "The Meaning of Life" Now uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this "soul" does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?
Exec #2: Oh, Uh... people aren't wearing enough.
Exec #1: Is this true?
Exec #4: Certainly. Hat sales have increased but not pari passu, as our research...
Exec #3: [Interrupting] "Not wearing enough"? enough for what purpose?
Exec #5: Can I just ask, with reference to your second point, when you say souls don't develop because people become distracted...
[looking out window]
Exec #5: Has anyone noticed that building there before?

At this point, the Crimson Permanent Assurance firm makes its hostile take-over bid.

This scene can be viewed at tinyurl dot com slash 6qba8l

"Wearing enough hats" is being used in both a literal and a metaphorical sense in this scene. When it is said that "Hat sales have increased, but not pari passu", we must be talking about literal hats. But metaphorically, "to wear more than one hat" is to take on more than one role in a setting or organization - which would increase the opportunities for "guided self-observation" to assist in the development of the soul. This is the film's deepest explanation of how to find life's meaning.

British psychiatrist Robin Skynner, who wrote two books with John Cleese, was a member of the Gurdjieff Society. The resemblance of this scene to Gurdjieff's teaching is clear to informed observers.

Pete Porter wrote a very interesting essay, “The Case for Menippeanism: The Meaning of Life”, which begins:

Menippean movies and their literary kin are welcome friends known singly without recognizing the family resemblance. Those who have delighted in the books Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and Alice in Wonderland, or in the movies Duck Soup (McCarey, 1934), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Jones and Gilliam, 1983), and The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998) have appreciated the peculiar charms of Menippeanism. These and other Menippean works set out spectacular banquets of incongruous elements that suggest the incompetence (or whimsy) of the author as their lone constructive principle. Further scrutiny, however, reveals a commodious form that encourages such oddities: an aesthetic of parody and violating decorum, storytellers who are ridiculous, burlesques of language and learning, a fantastic setting, and the theme of the wisdom of common sense.

Which brings us back to being nice to people, taking walks, reading good books, etc.

Joel said...


Black holes don't verifiably reach infinite density, because both our definitions of length and any conceivable means of measuring it can only be applied outside the event horizon.

Another singularity (within similar limitations) is the refractive index/dielectric constant of ferroelectric materials as they approach their Curie temperature. IIRC, ceramic capacitors and some super-powerful ceramic lenses are designed to have a Curie temperature near enough to room temperature so that these values are quite high, but far enough that a transition to conductivity/opacity causes the device to suddenly fail. I wonder if EEStor banked on approaching this singularity a little closer than usual: the claims seemed true to them, but the messy tradeoffs of life caught up with them in the end.

Joel said...


You make a good point about metaphors, and I entirely agree with you about the new metaphors we create every day. I think the situation is a little more complicated in the case of old, deep, fundamental metaphors, like the one relating "more" and "up" (e.g., "stock prices went down yesterday" is figurative speech so fundamental that it tends to be regarded as literal).

I find the theoretical framework of the "conceptual metaphor" extremely helpful. You're absolutely right about the limited set of entailments that apply within a given metaphor, but we have very good systems (especially within mathematics) for correcting that sort of error.

SweaterMan said...


I think that much of the "belief" in the possibility of fusion power by the general public, is because we already do have fusion power ... it's just uncontrolled. And, as a consequence of being uncontrolled, it's of no use, except of course, in destroying things in the fireball and shock waves of a thermonuclear detonation.

But, since we already have a technology that can perform "fusion", the general layman thinks
(and is programmed to think by enthusiastic advocates) that with a few tweaks here and there, we can figure out a way to "control" this power. After all, we did it with fission, so why can't we do it with fusion?

I think people never actually sit down intentionally (as you've asked us to do this week), and consider the "this cannot be done" meme. They look at the progress that has been accomplished and are not content with that. Instead, they look for ways to further progress along the path, never stopping to consider if they are on the correct path in the first place!

Aided by scientific illiteracy, bombarded by media, and somewhat enraptured by the progress that has been made to date, our species invests a great deal of our effort in continuing the status quo BAU. I know that I certainly subscribe to the "there must be a way to make this work!" meme far more often than I stop and consider "nope, just cannot do it". In my case (Library IT Manager) much of that is job pressure (and job security ;-) but I think this is very indicative of society as a whole.

As a non-physicist I don't know whether controlled fusion can ever be made to work. I suspect not; otherwise, I would think that more progress would have been made since we first got the uncontrolled portion working almost 60 years ago. Not that we won't try though - TANSTAAFL isn't something we've been accustomed to for the last 150 years due to our reliance on (relatively) cheap energy.

Bill Pulliam said...

Joel -- it has to be remembered that the logistic curve is also a theoretical abstraction; you don't see anything but rough approximations to it in nature either. As you know (but not everyone else reading does), it begins with near-exponential growth at rate r, then asymptotically approaches a plateau at K. Real curves fir real natural processes, biological or physical, are rarely so tidy. The temperature in a critical mass of Uranium is not sigmoid, it's approximately exponential up to the point that it melts or explodes, then it suddenly goes in another direction. The population curve for an organism colonizing a new resource is more of a bell shape, near exponential growth, then an inflection point, then a maximum, then a decline that can take a whole bunch of shapes. ALL simple descriptions of natural processes are crude approximations to what we really find.

The bigger point, of course, is that trajectories of things in the future are rarely simple and easy to predict!

Doctor Westchester said...

This post really goes to the core of some of the most significant issues in getting this society to see the cliff it is at the edge of.

In the beginning (for me) there was Star Trek going places that no man had gone before (and then there was that planet of foxy green women to find).

Growing up in Houston and having in-laws (at the time) in the oil business first introduced me to the fact that nothing could quite replace petroleum.

Of course, we would eventually have nuclear fusion with its promise of near infinite energy. It is of course impolite to mention of this vaporware, as I remember, that the energy we collected would be via neutrons emitted which creates low level nuclear waste of the surrounding equipment.

Later, I attended the meeting of the American Chemical Society where the first paper on cold fusion was given. Curiously, I was kind of busy at the time and forgot to attend the seminar. After all it kind of seemed to be another polywater, which had been an earlier scientific sensation which only shown up at the limits of detectability.

Fast forward thirty years of empty promises. Recently, I was hosting a Transition table at a local major environmental festival. Helping me man the booth was a very bright high school student who was obviously very interested and active in environmental issues. To him, going to the stars was still possible and of course we will have nuclear fusion. This was the first time that I met him so I did not enlighten him to my views. If he continues to work with the Transition group, I will have to try to expose him to the information (like this blog and the information it references) that will burst his illusions. If we lose him, then we lose him. He wants to accomplish something, and he would have a much better chance to do so if he understood the true nature of what we are facing.

John Michael Greer said...

Lamb, okay, you've one-upped me with that.

Cyan, agreed. I don't think it was just the end of the cold war, though; the debasement of science goes back well into the 20th century. Me, I'd like to see more people practicing science the way it was done in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a part time avocation; if that were more common we'd be at much less risk of losing the scientific method and the more useful achievements of the last 300 years than I fear we are.

Salih, that's a very challenging path that leaves you with few options if things go wrong, and it also depends on the stability of natural ecosystems -- not something to count on just now. You might consider seeing what other skills you could learn, or already have, that would make you an asset to some existing community.

Bill, I'm just going to quietly back away from the mathematics at this point and hope that nobody gets clobbered by a stray exponential or something.

Joel, you'd be surprised how many people don't get the implications of the sigmoid function. I forget which very prominent cornucopian, a bona fide scientist at that, used to claim that the human population could continue to grow at its 1970s pace for millions of years; he was one of the guys who insisted that ingenuity is the only resource we need, and since increasing population means an increasing number of geniuses (assuming a fixed number of geniuses per capita, apparently), it didn't matter how many people there were.

Charley, it's been quite a while since I watched that film and I managed to miss the Fourth Way stuff altogether. Nice.

SweaterMan, doubtless that's true. Since technology to most people is a collection of black boxes in which miracles occur, the idea that it might not be possible to come up with a desired black box on demand is hard for many to grasp.

As a library professional, by the way, you might consider contacting Librarian of Hillman and joining the League of Doomer Librarians!

Bill, the one thing that can make trajectories in the future easier to predict is the one thing that mathematics, by its nature, leaves out: history. When a given trajectory repeats itself reliably in history, it's reasonable to use that trajectory as a model for the future even when you don't understand why the trajectory happens. Vico talked a lot about the difference between philosophy and philology -- that is, between the pursuit of abstract truth and the pursuit of historical fact -- and the ways that the two of them can be brought together to yield better understanding; there may be a post about that one of these days.

John Michael Greer said...

Doctor, at a peak oil event a couple of years ago I spent a while talking to a very articulate and intelligent young man who was convinced we could and should keep a space program going in a post-peak oil world. It's all too common to cling to the icons and incantations of our culture's religion of progress even, or rather especially, at times when it's being falsified by events. I really don't think it's something that can be corrected by reason; it's a belief as passionate as any Christian fundamentalist's faith in the Rapture, and just as impervious to the hammer-blows of reality.

billhicksmostfunny said...

I like all the big words (intentionality, singularity, asymptotically) don't get me wrong. And I like all the technical detail, if you will, explaining the terminology as well. In fact I like the whole darn thing but I must dare summarize if not for others, then for myself.

My summary regarding this post goes something like this, "people hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest."

Maybe the Black Knight didn't want to hear that he was a quadruple amputee. Ouch! Maybe BAU has much in common with the Black Knight.

Many summers ago and many summers since I had jobs cleaning windows. I have never looked at them the same since. You may never know how time and circumstance may change your perspective.

Mary said...

Good exercise. I have much of what is doable and worth doing by this winter in my head already, but it doesn't hurt to put it on paper. Actually it helps, as I like checking off "to do" lists and feeling like I've accomplished something.

In the meantime, I've already started my single biggest conservation effort of the year -- my solar hotpot has arrived, my conventional propane oven/stove is officially retired. I've experimentally cooked corn, hard-cooked eggs and london broil, all with great success. Onward and upward to entire stews and bread made with locally grown and milled flour! I estimate (again in my head) that it will pay for itself in reduced propane use within a few months. That doesn't include unexpected savings such as ease of cleaning (nothing burns on, so no heavy duty soaking, scrubbing, or any other thing).

SweaterMan said...


You wrote: a peak oil event a couple of years ago I spent a while talking to a very articulate and intelligent young man who was convinced we could and should keep a space program going in a post-peak oil world

And there's the rub, in a nutshell. As much as I want to believe in the COULD and the SHOULD, the more I am inclined to feel that we WON'T and then that we SHOUlDN'T, based on the fact that resources will be better expended here on our planet, rather than getting somewhere else.

And, I must confess, this is a downer. I mean a REAL downer. For me, it is very hard to reconcile not only the dreams of science fiction that I read as a kid - AND the flights of the astronauts that were real - with the reality that we probably just can't do that anymore (not that we've been doing it as seriously over the last 2 decades anyway).

With a peak in demographics of folks roughly my age (45) that knew in our bones we were going to the stars and the harsh realities of the youngest generations growing up without those dreams, well, it's not enough to drive you to drink, but it's definitely enough to make one morose.

No offense, but there's something sexy and new about going into outer space and colonizing planets and "boldly going where no one has gone before" versus growing a really tasty tomato or a bushel of them for the neighborhood. Maybe it's the newness of it versus a long history of agricultural work, but if I had to go get a group of youngsters fired up about something, digging a patch of earth and planting some food to eat PALES against a moon base and rocket thrusters.

I guess I'm looking for the mythology that we discarded in our jump to our technological age, but it seems to me that you can't re-use the old mythology as folks today are somewhat jaded against it, and have some cultural leanings (like mine) that look past the old ways. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places though.

Anyway, I'll keep plugging at it and I like the way you're presenting this course of action. I can't follow it all, but I feel like it's moving me and mine to a somewhat better arena. Given these challenging times, a boost in a positive direction is about the best that a community can do, and it's nice to have a group that seems committee to that.

[sigh. Still pining for the weekend trips to the Tycho Crater or Tranquility though]

And if Librarian of Hillman wants to drop a line then Hello! I'm all ears!

pasttense said...

I think it would be very useful if someone would collate everyone's list of potential green wizard projects. Then take this list and put it on one of the free polling sites (search for the terms free polling site at Google). There would be two polls--one for how easy it is to do and one for usefulness). Then we could all vote. The results would give us useful ideas on what projects to pursue.

Any volunteers?

Wordek said...

“Serendipity’s a funny thing”

Yeah..funny you should mention that.....
When you brought up Monty Python I was immediately reminded of the Goon Show which thanks to the internet led me to the “the funniest joke in the world” ( as measured by some academic and apparently purloined from the above)

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services.

He gasps, "I think my friend is dead! What can I do?".

The emergency operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's be certain he's really dead."

There is a silence, then a shot is heard.

Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?

Which led to, Spike Milligan appearing in a play called Son of Oblomov, a theatre adaptation of the Russian novel Oblomov, which is about a “superfluous nobleman” who cant even be bothered getting out of bed for the first 150 pages of the story because his life has always been so cosseted that engaging with the real world is an unbearable inconvenience.
It was a poignant moment as I realised that being in this chappies position is what we are apparently expected to have aspirations towards.

“Data that isn’t relevant to a given intentionality, such as the dirt on a window when you’re trying to see what’s outside, has a different name, one that doesn’t come from Latin: noise.”

Noise is a bit neg.. I SAY NOISE IS A BIT NEGATIVE ISNT IT?? I still prefer to call the raw stuff signal ( even though the word signal does tend to have an associated assumption of purpose which might imply an intentionality independent of the observer). I guess the real problem is that once I change noise to signal I start seeing.....

… the “Kurweilian singularity” is a possibility, though in my mind not quite in the way Kurzweil imagines it. The cautioning factor to me is that, if the universe is tending in a “direction” which is manifesting itself in our limited awareness as an increasing “something” (call it complexity or order or noise or whatever you see through your particular magic spectacles) then once biological life on earth spawns the next enhanced manifestation of this trend then what is our remaining place in the system? If we want to score a few extra millennia for planet meatNveg then perhaps the best thing we can do is to play dumb.

A bizarre speculation I know but having proposed this.....

“|a-t|^-α with α>0.” ?
“1/x^t = x^-t “ ?
You boys should probably save your Klingon talk for the next star trek convention.

“Every species of animal has different information needs, and thus limits its intake of data in a different way”
Its curious the way that so many people think of science as an purely intellectual endeavour rather than a sensual and practical endeavour. Yet Galileo had a looker, Wilson a cloud chamber, Zhang Heng had his Di Dong Yi. The difference between how Pasteur and Semmelweiss were regarded by their contemporaries really just came down to the availability of the microscope. All these devices transported existing signal from outside what the naked ape could readily perceive and into its awareness. The use of artificial or enhanced senses is the fundamental difference between practical science and the happy clappers who bang on about what the “data tells us”. Show me how well you understand the workings (and limitations) of the sensory “organs” that collect your data and I might just be persuaded to believe that you are actually on track to do something sciency.

Don Plummer said...

I would be curious to learn more about some of the historical "wowsers" (paragraph 14). My guess is we've heard about the successes--especially the "long shots that came off," but not the spectacular failures.

MyName said...

Why would you assume something that hasn't been found possible for 50 years won't be possible for infinite years? Faulty assumptions make for useless information generation.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, by all means summarize. The big words have their advantages, though -- there are things that can't be communicated clearly in monosyllables.

Mary, that's good to hear! When we get the forum up you'll have to post a link to the source of the solar hotpot you're using.

SweaterMan, understood. The end of the space age, which will very likely occur in our lifetimes, is going to be a trauma even for those of us who have more or less given up on the delusive logic underlying it. (I'm 48, and remember the Apollo 11 landing very clearly.) The thing to remember is that the mythology of space gets its power from the whole broad dynamic of the religion of progress that underlies it; the reason rockets intoxicate us is that they epitomize our collective self-image. The fact that this image is a delusion doesn't make it any less powerful.

Pasttense, I'll check with the web people working on the forum and see if we can incorporate polls in it.

Wordek, once you start suggesting that the universe is tending in a particular direction that happens to have us at its leading edge, you're engaging in mythology. If that's what you want to do, great, but please do recognize that it's mythology.

Don, a whole book could be written about them. Dirigibles are a good example of the kind that almost sort of worked; they were supposed to be the future of aviation -- find any 19th century portrayal of the future, and airship travel is part of it -- but they turned out to be floating white elephants. Ornithopters, which also had a place as the supposed future of aviation at one point, are a good example of the kind that didn't work at all.

MyName, by that logic we ought to keep trying to build perpetual motion machines. Still, I gather you missed my point, which was that even if a nuclear fusion reactor turns out to be possible, it's been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they'll be so expensive to build that no nation on earth will be able to afford them.

MisterMoose said...

Hold on a minute! Kate Hudson got breast implants?

Why wasn't I informed about this?

If there is simply too much information, no matter what kind of filtering mechanism we use, we're going to miss a lot. Some of what we miss may turn out to be important. Most of it will not.

One of the promises of the singularitarians has been that we will eventually develop AIs that can help us edit and manage the otherwise unmanageable flow of data that we seem to be drowning in. I don't think there will be enough time for any one person to know everything there is to know, although there may be enough time to learn everything that any one person really needs to know (of course, then the question becomes: who sez what we really need to know?).

So, what do we need to know? It seems we could use the 1-A to 4-D method to figure that out. Look both ways before you cross the street. Eat a balanced diet and get plenty of exercise. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is...

There is another problem: it ain't what we don't know that will hurt us; it's what we do know that ain't so. It would be nice to have all the necessary information (the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth), but we're always learning new things that contradict what we thought we knew previously. Remember the Woody Allen movie "Sleeper?" It turns out red meat really was good for us after all...

NPR recently did a piece about Alvin Toffler and "Future Shock" which was published 40 years ago. We're all so busy trying to keep up in the Red Queen's Race that it really is driving us crazy, which is why I stopped trying to pay so much attention to everything ('cause I'm already crazy enough), which is why I missed the important news about Kate Hudson's breasts. I guess that's what you get for not keeping abreast of the situation...

wylde otse said...

Intention and infinity. How does one "approach" infinity. If we set out one morning, with infinity as destination, by the time we pitch our tent for the night, we are no closer to it - by definition.
On a planet where food is in short supply for some, paradoxically it is a problem for those who are in the following:

The Wife casts a side-long glance at hubby as they step out of the air-conditioned SUV to climb up the 3 steps to their luxury home. She sees clearly that he is more than 'portly'; inspirationally sensing that it is time to turn intentionality into action...
" Honey. Lets walk around the block before we go in..."
Her husband looks at his wife with genuine constarnation, "why? We're already here!"

Mary said...

John, for anyone who is looking right now, I've included the source of my hotpot in my most recent blog at magicalthyme.blogspot...

Librarian of Hillman said...

JMG & SweaterMan:

if there is any Doomer Librarians Association, i've not yet found them.

however, the idea came to me last December after reading a post by a library colleague on LATOC about re-creating post-Peak Oil card catalogs, which you can find here:,56741.0.html.

during my work year i don't have time for a blog, but a forum would be better anyway! maybe when the Green Wizards forum gets going, we can start a thread there, and then jump off to our own and direct similar minded library types there as we encounter them?

i get my mitts on 10 to 20 MLS interns every year for two+ hours weekly, and we maintain an email group for alums of our intern program, so i'm sure i could get a few recruits there--we've been working on our "army" for a while now! the general idiocy of most library school and administrative level assumptions is very fertile soil for planting such seeds in budding professionals, in my experience!

i feel responsible to prepare them for a future that will probably be very different than the one they hear about in class. part of that future is the vital role they could take in finding and saving and making available exactly the kinds of texts we're talking about here!

our students--maybe all MLS students?--tend to be fast learners, curious, generalists, eager to share learning with anyone, and interested in becoming effective teachers as well. some of them would make excellent Green Wizards!

Librarian of Hillman said...

as usual, i've loved so many comments here!

@ mistah charley, ph.d. : the Crimson Permanent Assurance firm is one of the best short films ever! and i love how it pre-figures a lot of current "re-wilding" and related feelings! it no longer seems absurd, really (well, except for how the whole building sets sail as a pirate ship!)

@ Edde: "when enough is enough, and what "enough" looks like."

yes! that goes along with the MacGyver Gene. how much easier it should be, to change your own perceptions of what is "enough" than it is to endlessly chase after more, the way we do now.

we're always fighting *against* when life would be much easier and better if we put that same energy into understanding and accepting and working *with* what happens all by itself around us.

as well, this failing we have is also why i think we should NOT go off-planet the way we are now! so long as our goal is always to get more, we'll keep on also using "more" up until it isn't enough again, over and over. we behave like yeasts, so no matter how big the bowl is, or how many bowls we have, we'll always spill out over the top, and then choke on our own wastes, until we get past this way of seeing the world and doing things.

if i wrote rules for who gets to have space travel, one of them would be that "You Can't Leave Your Home Planet Until You Learn to Live Within Your Original System's Limits."

back on the immediate and practical, along with the suggestions last week on having a telescope, i would add a microscope and glass slides.

for DIY science, agriculture & health care, there is a huge advantage to being able to create simple slides and cultures! i have no formal training in any hard science, but years ago i worked part-time as a Vet Tech and one of the things i helped with was making slides from fecal, skin and other samples and giving them a look under the microscope, so i can definitively state that with the right text book, instructions and good pictures, it really should be possible for most anyone who cares to learn, to check for many common diseases, fungi, parasites, etc. which can be otherwise very hard to identify with certainty, in soil, food, water, and animals, pretty much in your garage.

a cheap place to start would maybe be with a "kit" sold for kids? don't know how common that is anymore, but an uncle (high school science teacher) bought me one when i was ten, and i'd think today you could find ones with enough umph to at least do the kinds of simple testing i did for that Vet job. add some old high school text books or college level 101 microbiology texts...some medical ref texts with pictures of egg/cyst stages of critters and what ailments they cause and how to combat them, something on plant pathogens, and that seems like some excellent magic to have handy! (these texts will certainly be in the Doomer Library Reference section!)

tom rainboro said...

Talk about 'data' and 'information' made me think about John Gray's book 'Straw Dogs', where he claimed that the human mind only CONSCIOUSLY (versus unconsciously) processes data at a very, very slow rate.
This must be one of my top five books of the last 10 years. A review is here but this book really polarises opinions. As far as I can make out the conclusion of the book, as far as there could possibly be one, is 'the good life is the simple life lived skilfully', which is fine by me. Anyone else read this?

Steve said...

Two thoughts. First, regarding fusion power, I remember something that I think you wrote recently to the effect "the potential energy in the gravity required to compact the mass of a star sufficient to initiate fusion exceeds by orders of magnitude the energy output from the fusion reaction." I've never seen this explained elsewhere but I accepted your statement because it makes sense on a larger scale. All the efforts to master fusion power are doomed to failure because we are trying to master the effect not the cause - gravity. I think that were we to describe the requirements of mastering fusion power as what they really are, mastering gravity, the credibility of our modern day conjurers, scientists, as it were, would fail to pass even the most ardent believer's reasonableness test. I think that it is here, scientists failure to acknowlege their own limits in the pursuit of fusion power, that I lost faith in the omnipotence of science. This resulted in much wandering in the forest looking for a new omnipotent presence to follow. It appears now that the forest is the natural state of being, using the skills of many wizards to fashion a home among all of the earth's creatures.

I forgot the second point.

Don Plummer said...

Here's a fascinating but sobering report from NPR's Morning Edition today (Saturday, July 31). Although not the article's specific intent, it certainly reflects on one of the limitations of modern, "professional," specialized science that we've been discussing here.

I'll let the report speak for itself.


MisterMoose said...

SweaterMan, Doctor Westchester, and all you other Space Cadets out there:

Enrico Fermi famously asked, "Where are they?" referring to the noticeable lack of extraterrestrials. The laws of physics and chemistry and biology show that life is almost inevitable wherever the conditions are right, and the right conditions must have occured in many, many places in a Universe of trillions of galaxies that has existed for billions of years.

Perhaps the Aliens all killed themselves shortly after they discovered how to split the atom. Maybe they survived nuclear war only to wipe themselves out with run-away nanotechnology. Maybe they all elected politicians like Barack Obama who killed their space programs in favor of social welfare programs closer to home, which prevented them from ever visiting us. Or, maybe they just overpopulated their home planets and ran out of resources, but then lived happily within their means as green wizards until the next giant asteroid impact wiped them out.

So, is Peak Oil the reason why there are no signs of life in this vast Universe? Maybe they all had a brief period of high per-capita energy use (like we have now), followed by a long era at the ox-cart and hand tool level of technology until a natural cosmic disaster (that they no longer had the technology to prevent) finished them off?

The science fiction writer Larry Niven once observed that the dinosaurs are extinct because they did not have a sufficiently advanced space program. If they'd had the necessary technology, they could have gone up and stopped that giant asteroid before it hit the Earth 65 million years ago, in which case they would still be here, and we wouldn't...

Every hundred years or so we get hit by something the size of the Tunguska event (about a hundred years ago). Every couple thousand years we get hit by something the size of the meteorite that blasted out Meteor Crater in Arizona. Every couple million years we get hit by something big enough to wipe out most of the species on the planet.

So, here is a reason why we MUST continue operating in space, even if we run out of fossil fuels down here on Earth: sooner or later some big chunk of space debris is going to smack us hard enough to wipe us out. If we are not in a position to be able to prevent this inevitable event, it's Game over.

So, doing something like mining the moon and asteroids to build solar power satellites to provide sufficient energy to keep technological civilization running even after all the fossil fuels are depleted may, in fact, be necessary for the long-term survival of the human species.

JMG: The religion of progress is not necessarily a delusion. It may, in fact, be a necessity. Otherwise, it's Game Over...

sgage said...

For a start MisterMoose, Barack Obama didn't kill the space program in favor of social welfare programs. He realized that the manned portion of that program was off the track. I believe NASA funding is going UP.

And whatever he did to/for the space program, it wasn't for social welfare programs. It was for war and corporate welfare. But you have your story already written.

David Niven is fine, but science fiction is just that, fiction. We are not going to mining the moon and the asteroids to build solar power satellites etc. Do you not understand math?

DIYer said...

@Cathy McGuire,

Urban myths are those nuggets of information, distilled by the same systemic-noise-filtering process JMG mentioned, that may or may not have any connection with, nor even a shaky foundation in, concrete reality. Whatever that is. I believe that there is a little bit of empirical science in urban myths, and that they tend to lose relevance and fade out if not supported by facts.

Unfortunately, _some_ of them are sufficiently abstract, but at the same time compelling, that they go on to be destructive political or religious memes for decades to centuries. I also think that our biological wiring (the desire to procreate and / or dominate others of our species) is a major component of the durability of such memes.

Bill Pulliam said...

Moose, Moose, Moose... relax about the asteroid. Several reasons why...

They happen on the timescale of 100s of millions of years, not a few million years.

Very very very few species last 100,000,000 years before going extinct for some other reason (sometimes they evolve into something else), regardless of the asteroids. Worrying about the asteroid is kinda like worrying you'll be killed by terrorists on your way to the grocery store -- you are so many thousands of times more likely to get killed in a car crash, just put your seatbelt on and forget the terrorists.

Mass extinctions don't ever wipe out every living thing; otherwise there would have been only one of them. General patterns include that they tend to be harder on bigger animals than smaller ones, and they tend to be harder on marine organisms than terrestrial ones. Many plants and animals in fact make it through them. Rather than sinking our dwindling resources in to an asteroid defense capability (that the odds are miniscule we'd ever need before we go extinct for some other reason), it makes more sense for people who live wherever, whenever, to make plans to survive any major cataclysm that might interrupt food supplies and such. You might think a species with the ability to improve its own food supplies, store food, use many different kinds of food, and to some extent anticipate the future, even the unlikely events, would have a better than average chance of surviving the next Big One. No spaceships required.

Besides, maintaining a space program is not possible without abundant cheap energy. We're not even gonna keep the cars running forever, how will we be flying rockets?

All religions are delusions (I am not an atheist, yet I still believe this). If you follow any religion you should be fully aware of this, lest you get caught up in the many logical and conceptual errors it will lead you to. Religions which deny that they are religions and claim to be truth are the WORST.

Bill Pulliam said...

P.S. -- let's put this bit to rest, too. Dinosaurs didn't go extinct when an asteroid hit the earth. They didn't go extinct at all. Sure, the big showy ones died off, but the small theropods survived just fine. They're still around; the world is swarming with them in fact. I had one for dinner. We call them birds. This is no longer a radical idea; it is generally accepted now among vertebrate biologists that birds are not just descended from dinosaurs, they still ARE dinosaurs.

If chickens survived the big one, maybe we can too.

Twilight said...

Regrading the dream of space travel: I'm 46 and spent a large portion of my youth with my nose in a science fiction or fantasy book. From Clarke and Asimov to Andre Norton (I loved her books - recently read a few again), it was simply obvious that we would go into space. Movies and TV too of course. I was a SciFi junkie.

But it was an illusion - or perhaps more strongly it was a lie.

We went to the moon to get there before the commies. Sputnik showed that our team was falling behind, and we had to prove we were better. Most of the technology derived from military programs. Without these things we never would have gone there - and beyond the thrill, what did we really get out of it?

I am convinced that humans are inherently attracted to large amounts of energy, even if many don't understand at all how it works. From fast horses, then cars and trains and aircraft, to giant warships, bombs and guns, most of what thrills people involves controlling large amounts of energy. Perhaps because our bodies are puny compared to other animals, but with tools and fire we were able to become compete. Regardless, space travel is partly just another example of this somewhat simplistic thrill.

It's hard to let go of though. But it's OK to hold on to a few of those great stories of the age of energy, as long as you recognize them for what they are. The unwinding will last longer than our lives anyway, and we are just the beginning of the transition - our descendants don't need to know everything we were thinking!

John Michael Greer said...

Moose, I can't think of a response that won't involve raucous puns, so we'll leave Kate and her implants for now.

Otse, I'm fond of Garrett Hardin's claim that phrases such as "X is infinite" should be translated as "I refuse to think about X."

Mary, thank you.

Librarian, somebody needs to found the League of Doomer Librarians; might as well be you and SweaterMan. As for microscope kits sold for kids, yes, they're still made; I have one, for use in my planned research into the effect of organic gardening methods on soil microorganisms. Your basic kid's microscope these days has better optics than the ones Pasteur used.

Tom, I haven't read it yet, and clearly I need to. Thanks for the reference!

Steve, I spoke sloppily in that earlier post -- the potential energy of gravitational contraction that brings a star together and ignites it isn't greater than the energy released by the star through fusion -- but massive gravity is still the only known force in the cosmos that can provide enough steady pressure focused inward toward a single point, unaffected by electrical charge, to ignite fusion. So your basic point stands.

Don, thanks for the link.

Moose, we no longer have the resources or the energy for a space program, so insisting that we have to have one is a bit like insisting that the Titanic should have had more lifeboats after the iceberg's already hit. As for Fermi's paradox, I've written about that extensively here, in case you're interested.

Sgage, I wish David Niven had written science fiction! It would have been a lot wittier than the stuff written by Larry Niven.

DIYer, human beings think with narratives as inevitably as they talk with mouths and walk with feet; urban legends are what you get when the stories your culture offers won't let you think the thoughts you want to think.

Bill, as metazoa go, we're big enough to be very much at risk in mass extinctions. The tyrannochicken rex you had for dinner last night is enough smaller to make the difference.

Twilight, down the road a bit I'm going to be talking a lot about the end of the space age, and thus of the decline and fall of science fiction -- which is what I grew up reading, too, and what I first tried to write professionally. If history's any judge, maybe a dozen SF novels by two or three writers will be remembered at all a couple of centuries from now; it's good late night conversation fodder to speculate about which ones.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Bill P: birds are not just descended from dinosaurs, they still ARE dinosaurs.
I've got dinosaurs in my backyard??? Kewl!!

@JMG: Funny you mention scifi and which books will last...I just finished re-reading Kate Wilhelm's "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" and was chilled at how accurately she pegged our current crisis (in the 70's) and how intriguing her ideas about post-collapse were... couldn't put it down. I probably got more out of it this time then when I read it back then!

Bill Pulliam said...

Yeah but 80 kg dinosaurs didn't have agriculture, food storage, irrigation, water storage, working knowledge of hydrology, etc. etc. etc. We've already vastly outperformed any other 80 kg mammal, even before the fossil fuels came along.

But are we really even seriously figuring asteroid impacts in to the equation?

Besides, the world will end this Friday evening when the Moon and Venus complete the Cardinal Grand Cross, haven't you heard?

I'll worry about down-to-earth perils, like droughts and banks. As for long-term prospects of humanity, nothing lasts forever...

TG said...

John Michael, this was another very helpful exercise. I've noticed the caulking at our back door is crumbling. That's a 1-A priority for sure.

I've also discovered one of our downtown shops stocks a few drop spindles and even sells some almost-local wool. Resilient technology is cool. It blows my mind that Viking women spun fibers for entire sails with such simple tools. I hadn't really grasped that before.

The Icelandic word for "wizard-woman" is töfrakona.

Hmmm, I am finding this green wizardry has a wonderful mimetic hook. I'm drawn to it and don't mind saying so. It's been a while since I felt this upbeat. Thanks for that.

--Tracy Glomski

MisterMoose said...

sgage: My comments about Obama and the space program were facetious. Back when I did contract work with NASA our great bete noir was Senator Proxmire and his Golden Fleece Awards. I'm sure there were people in the court of Queen Isabella who advised her to ignore that crazy Italian sailor. The point I was trying to make was that alien societies, like our own societies, may have different priorities, and Space may not necessarily be at the top of the list. Also, I understand that Obama has boosted the NASA budget and cut out programs that were destined to be nothing more than full-employment programs for engineers and managers to develop ever more studies and designs, and design changes, and... Well, we've already seen that movie with the Shuttle and Space Station.

JMG: I followed your link and went back to read several of your posts from 2007 and beyond, so I see you all have covered this territory before.

Bill Pulliam: Obviously we don't have to worry about a dinosaur-killer any time soon, but the random rogue comet that will be the human-killer could already be on its way in from the Oort Cloud, and we won't know about it until about a year before it hits. I do understand about probabilities.

A largish meteorite that causes a megaton-size explosion would tend to wake us up, I suspect. Short of the threat of an Alien Invasion, such an event might be sufficient to convince our so-called leaders to change their priorities before we run out of oil and are no longer able to respond to an even larger event further off in the future. Of course, I'm just trying to come up with justifications to support my science fiction dreams, so excuse me if I'm not quite ready to consign our species to the ash heap of history.

Actually, the more I think about it, I begin to realize that the end of our civilization is not necessarily the end of any civilization here on Earth.

So, maybe we have that big nuclear war (actually, I see India and Pakistan having a small one, but after the first hundred or so nuclear explosions, who's keeping score?), or the next big asteroid hits the earth. What's the worst that could happen? Humans go the way of the dinosaurs, and the cockroaches and rats take over, just like our little rodent ancestors were left after all the big lizards were gone. After a couple tens or hundreds of millions of years, the descendants of the rats develop intelligence and learn how to use tools. So far, so good; we've seen this movie before. But what will they use for energy?

Well, in that hundred million year stretch between the end of Human civilization and the rise of the Rats, good old Mother Nature has been covering the land with huge forests, and billions of tons of dead trees will have been buried and converted into... coal? And out in the continental shelves at the mouths of all the great rivers, more billions of tons of micro-organisms which have been flowing out to be buried in the ocean silt will have turned into... oil?

Maybe the Rats will be the ones who end up mining the asteroids (why not? In science fiction, asteroid miners are often referred to as "rock rats"). Maybe we could leave a big monolith on the Moon for them to discover a few hundred million years from now, along with a gold tablet telling them what not to do...

sgage said...


What a nice little slip-up! I wonder what kind of SF David Niven would write?

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG - the whole asteroid thing makes me wonder.. at some point are you going to talk about risk? The average person is horrible at evaluating risk and makes seriously stupid choices because of this. It seems to me that one of the Wizard's chief skills as counselor and anticipator-of-the-future is to be able to understand risk, both the likelihood of occurrence and the likely severity of unlikely events.

My favorite risk tidbit is that in September 2001 more people died in the U.S. in traffic accidents than in terrorist attacks. A doozy I heard recently is that the average american child, left unattended in the average american public place, would on average have to be left there for 750,000 years before there are even odds that child would be abducted by a stranger.

hapibeli said...

I have a pdf of McKenzie's Ten Thousand Receipts that I downloaded from somewhere?! I'm considering having the 509 pages printed. It holds titles such as; "Beekeeping", "Weights and Measures" etc., etc., and everything in between. Published in 1865 and available from Google.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Doomer Porn. Of some use or pure entertainment?

I just finished "One Second After" by William R. Forstchen. It's about what happens, over one year, when an Electomagnetic Pulse (EMP) pretty much fries all the electronics in the US. It takes place in Black Mountain, just outside Asheville, North Carolina.

It's interesting from the prospective of problems and problem solving. Our fragility of our 'just in time' inventory culture was explored at great length.

I would like to believe, as MG said in one of his books, that The Long Emergency will be more like tumbling down a hill, than falling off a cliff. But, there are always those pesky Black Swans. After one year only 20% of the original population of Black Mountain had survived. Compared to other areas of the East Coast, that was high.

Cathy McGuire said...

The front page of the NY Times today(8/1) has a video about a French medieval castle being contructed entirely using medieval tools and techniques. Pretty impressive - but it also shows the limits of our progress if/when we fall back that far! They plan on it taking 20 years.

Also in the news, the space station had a major power failure - and of course they have to drop all other plans to fix it! That reminds me of times when my big-money gadgets (including fridges, washers and computers) go on the blink, and plans get shelved while the emergency is (expensively) fixed! The more high-pricetag important gadgets I have, the higher the risk that one of them will eat my time and money... it's so much more obvious when a hoe or ax is starting to wear... lots of time to figure out how to repair or replace it! (Just another plug for simplicity.)

Jamie said...

I thought I would toss in a couple of comments. First regarding fusion.. actually the total fusion research budget for 2011 is only $348M.. less than the salary of a average government subsidized hedgefund manager and 1/68th of what we spend in the Iraqi occupation in a month. That said useful fusion would have to provide cheap electricity to keep technological civilization going.. as far as I can tell, technologies like Inertial Electrostatic Confinement are far more promising (and a lot cheaper).. I think fusion is worth pursing as long as we can because there really are no alternatives for high density energy for the long term.
I spend a fair amount of time poking people around NASA (being a spacecraft engineer) and very few in the US can answer "WHY" . why send humans to the moon,mars. Europeans at least think more about it, but outside of the science program which gets great returns, IMHO, manned space has to support energy or resources.
Do I personally think this will happen?.. Put it this way, I am raising chickens, goats, making things, learning old skills and planning a earthship or something similar... but then again I am a druid too;)

Conchscooter said...

Shrubbery! I need a shrubbery!

{clip clop clip clop exits stage left to the sound of coconuts}

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, now there's a blast from the past. I'll have to read that one again.

Bill, I wasn't specifically talking about asteroid impacts; megafauna are vulnerable to all kinds of extinction crises. As for the cardinal grand cross, well, we'll see.

Tracy, you're welcome! Do try handspinning sometime, if you haven't yet; everyone I know who's done it loves it.

Moose, I'd go even further. The end of our civilization is just the end of one more civilization; there have been quite a few, and there will doubtless be many more, even if you're just counting our species -- and of course you're right about potential replacements (though my money is on the raccoons).

Sgage, hard to tell, but I'd buy a copy the moment it came out.

Bill, the interesting thing is that human psychology follows the logic of game theory rather than that of probability when it comes to risk. According to game theory, the most successful strategy is to identify the worst possible outcome, however unlikely it might appear to be, and eliminate it as a possibility; then go on to the worst possible of the remaining outcomes, and do the same; repeat, until eventually you win by not losing. I suspect it's a good way of doing things, as it does seem to have been hardwired into human thinking by evolution.

Hapibeli, nice! I'll have to look that one up.

Lew, my "long descent" theory includes sudden downward lurches, of the sort that history features so often. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths was not a drawn-out process. That said, I've rarely found much value in doomer porn; I haven't read the book you're citing, but the dieoff rate seems very extreme for a relatively small city in the midst of a large agricultural area, at a time when electronics that aren't vulnerable to EMP (vacuum tubes, for example) are still a matter of living memory and can be found en masse in surplus stores and the basements of ham radio operators.

Cathy, and of course if the power goes down for good on a space station, everyone either leaves or dies. I prefer to live on a planet where the biosphere takes care of basic chores like producing oxygen for me.

Jamie, first, how many solar water heaters would $348 million a year buy over the next decade? Second, at what point do we finally 'fess up to the fact that fusion isn't an alternative either, and start to figure out how to get by on the resources our planet has to offer us over the long term? We've spent gargantuan amounts of money paying for fifty years of failed fusion projects, and we're no closer to a viable fusion reactor than we were in 1960; as I see it, it's long past time that we stop pretending that fusion is anything but a make-work program for physicists.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG: "I suspect it's a good way of doing things, as it does seem to have been hardwired into human thinking by evolution."

Wow, exceedingly strong disagreement here on that point. Our innate psychological tendencies may have served us well for most of our evolution, and they may serve us well again at some future point, but at the present and in the recent past many of them have been serving us EXCEEDINGLY poorly -- think of how they have directed our cultural choices on food and diet, economic and political organization, etc. etc. I am actually really shocked that you toss this statement out almost flippantly. Logic, mathematics, deduction, history, etc., serve many key functions in society, for good and for ill, and one of their most critical is to help us to determine when our innate psychological tendencies are in fact being very poor guides in our actions and choices!

SophieGale said...

Discovered that in 1917, the government created the United States School Army to teach school children how to grow Victory Gardens. The program ran till the end of WWII. There were textbooks and teachers guides published. Look for them while you are haunting the used book stores or check online.

While surfing for the USSGA I found this page of e-books including The War Garden Victorious.

Earthly Pursuits led me to Henriette's Herbal Homepage with more books on line.

And a bibliography of school gardens from Library of Congress:

Oh, and the midieval fortress is in Arkansas. Can't help wondering if they were Suzette Haden Elgin fans (Ozark Trilogy)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and all,

As to SF writers, I certainly hope that some of the work of Jack Vance survives the next century or two!

I finally received a copy of Basic Ecology in the mail and have to decide between reading John Crowley's "Engine Summer" or "Basic Ecology" which are now both lined up ready to go.

Work first, play later seems to be the order of the day though!

I spent the day planting fire retardant trees in dense groves along my property boundary. You have to love a mattock for digging in clay. It's the motivator!

I've also come to the conclusion recently that older tools seem to have a higher quality (or grade) of steel in them and have started sourcing (and using) these older tools and find that they are superior to the one's currently being offered in shops.

It was interesting because I only noticed the higher quality steel when I was using a rake which we received courtesy of my partners grandfather. No matter what we threw at it, the tool has not bent, rusted, broken etc.

Something is fishy here for sure and I'm sure a blacksmith would know the answer straight away.

Good luck!

John Michael Greer said...

Conch, the only possible response I could make to that is "Ni! Ni!"

Bill, it's not a flippant comment at all. Given a choice between two rational strategies -- one based on the theory of probability, the other based on game theory -- the fact that one of those strategies seems to have been selected for by human evolution is a relevant bit of evidence.

Since reasoning is always hostage to its presuppositions -- no logical process can prove the axioms on which it's based, after all -- a reality check from outside the whirrings of the reasoning mind is a useful thing to have. How often have supposedly rational grounds been used to dismiss some traditional piece of common sense, only to have it turn out that the common sense was right all along?

Sophie, thank you for the links! Seriously cool.

Cherokee, the steel thing's a good point. I've also got some old tools, and they're enough sturdier and more functional than new ones of the same design to put the entire idea of progress into question!

Bill Pulliam said...

"How often have supposedly rational grounds been used to dismiss some traditional piece of common sense, only to have it turn out that the common sense was right all along? "

In my experience, a lot less often than the converse, actually.

If you think I am some sort of raving rationalist fundamentalist, then you seem to have forgotten who you are talking to. In my academic days if my colleagues had any idea how much time I spent seeking advice and counsel from my "imaginary friends" they would have drummed me out of the Halls of Academe on the spot. I think you have also turned my specific point (that people's generally poor "common sense" -- i.e. emotional, psychological -- evaluations of relative risks are often off the mark my many, many, many orders of magnitude, and that this could be important for household and community decisions about what to prepare for and how to prepare for it) into a general meditation on rationality and common sense.

Our evolutionary instincts tell us to eat all the sweet and fatty foods we can get our hands on - that is not working out so well for us now. It may be a good choice at some point in the future, but it's a really bad strategy now and for some time to come, in all likelihood. Are you suggesting that it is "correct strategy" for my neighbors to be more worried about snakebites than driving drunk? Or that parents are employing good choices when they worry constantly about school shootings and stranger abductions and hardly think about their kids' diets?

There's also been an entire collection of industries for many decades whose specialty is manipulating our instinctive evolutionary strategies to make money off of us, be they processed food (obvious how thy do it) or news media keeping us glued to the screen by preying upon and enormously overstimulating our fear of and attraction to the worst-case scenario? Because of this cultural milieu most of us are running around with psyches that have been deliberately tied in knots that are neither rational nor common sense. Can you really try to make a case that our ingrained game theory instincts (evolved in a environment vastly different than the one we are in now) are the best guides here? Or are you yourself making the error of defending a broad position that sounds good argued from first principles but is not really borne out by empirical evidence? I am far more of an empiricist than a rationalist.

sgage said...


Your vehement disagreement with JMG regarding the innate psychological baggage of H.s. got me to thinking...

I think it's easy to confuse the survival of H.s. with the survival of a particular society culture. It seems we all fall prey to that confusion from time to time. In a lot of doomer writing/blogging/commenting/etc., you often see the conflation of "the end of our civilization" with "the end of humanity".

In the immortal words of the Austin Lounge Lizards, we've been through some crappy times before. And yet, here we are.

As you know as well as anyone, Evolution doesn't "care" about any particular society or culture or way of life. It doesn't even "care" if the members of a species are happy and comfortable.

Just need to keep getting enough fo the species to breeding age, and our innate psychological proclivities seem to get the job done...

Bill Pulliam said...

and a p.s....

On Game theory, not a field I am well versed in, and mostly in the arena of games that do not involve stochastic events. However, in a game that does involve random events, I find it exceedingly unlikely that the optimum strategy is independent of the probabilities of those events. If the dice are loaded so that twelves are 100 times more likely that snake-eyes, how can than NOT affect the optimal strategy?

To indulge a bit of Reductio ad absurdum... I'd guess the worst of all worst-case scenarios might be something like the sun unexpectedly and anomalously going supernova. Does this mean we should employ all our societal resources to ameliorate and eliminate this worst-case outcome before we move on to anything else? Obviously that's ridiculous, because this outcome is so unimaginably UNLIKELY. Common sense dictates that there has to be allowance for the likelihood of an event, not just its severity. Which was my whole original point -- evaluating these likelihoods.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, er, I don't think you're a raving anything, and am frankly rather baffled at the way you seem to be turning a relatively minor point into a big deal. I'm quite aware that the strategies proposed by game theory are counterintuitive for people raised in a culture that prefers to think in terms of probabilities, and of course it's easy to make any viewpoint look absurd if that's what you set out to do. If you want to disagree with the points made in von Neumann and Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, by all means; still, it looks to me as though you're mistaking one particular set of strategies (those relying on probability) with rationality as a whole, and that's hardly a constructive approach.

Sgage, that was pretty much my point, or part of it. Given that there are upper limits to the complexity of strategies that can be hardwired into a mammalian nervous system, "identify the worst case scenarios and eliminate them in order of badness" does seem to pay off better than "try to guess the probability of a negative scenario and eliminate the most probable ones first" in terms of basic evolutionary fitness.

Jim Brewster said...

@Bill: "Our evolutionary instincts tell us to eat all the sweet and fatty foods we can get our hands on - that is not working out so well for us now."

Got to pipe in on this one. You may be right about the sweets, but the more we learn about biochemistry, the more it seems that the conventional wisdom on fats and cholesterol is pretty much dead wrong, and that our great-grandparents and countless generations before them, who knew that butter and lard were good for us, were actually on to something. The problem it seems is two-fold: research results based on incomplete knowledge of the system led to faulty conclusions, and various interested parties, from the vegetable oil industry to vegetarian activists, have latched onto those conclusions and effectively pushed the research agenda and public policy. It illustrates perfectly the pitfalls of science dependent on public and private funding, and how that can distort our lenses.

Zach said...

@Bill Pulliam,

And if an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, WHICH infinity are we talking about???

Well, I'm now about 20 years past studying the mathematics of infinities, but that seems like a simple question -- given that angels are discrete individuals, wouldn't that imply that an "infinite" number of angels is a countable infinity?

"Let's see... Michael - one, Gabriel - two, Uriel makes three... oh, and little Clarissa Marie Jones's (to be born 2012) guardian angel makes 42,353,238 ... "


Zach said...

Ah yes, ye olde Sneakernet!

"Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway. —Tanenbaum, Andrew S. (1996). Computer Networks."

I suspect that there are uses for both high-bandwidth Sneakernet and low-latency packet radio in any future scenario that has a low-energy working internet.

Now that I think about it, Netflix is already working as a Sneakernet application. Hmm.


Wordek said...

Hi Cherokee
“Something is fishy here for sure and I'm sure a blacksmith would know the answer straight away.”

Something isn't fishy, or more accurately we know the breed of fish we are dealing with. Its called “planned obsolescence”. When design obsolescence made quality less important (after all your gadget is going to be replaced in 3 years anyway) it didn't take long for this to spread and manifest as quality obsolescence even in items where the design doesn't change radically over time.

I've noticed also that there also seems to be a vague correlation between high quality and tough times, (maybe because breakdowns are less likely to result in the more severe types of “inconvenience” they used to) so that now for instance if you want a cheap reliable diesel engine you dont buy an English Lister, you buy an Indian Listeroid ( Built off the original Lister designs)

(Love those old Listers in case you hadn't noticed)
We had one running the cowshed before electricity arrived (bout the same time I did) and even after then the old man had it running the washdown pump well into the '80's. Compression off, wind the flywheel until there was enough momentum and then compression on. I dont remember it ever failing to start (even with a scrawny little brat doing the winding). ;) Has some information about Listers... Try this snippet for a laugh....

"There is a documented story of an automotive engineer showing up at a state fair booth where a guy was demonstrating an oil additive. they had a motor set up where two pieces of metal rubbed together and you could see the reduced friction when their product was added. The Engineer asked the guy running the booth if he would try 'his stuff', .... new pieces of metal were installed and this mystery concoction was added. To the amazement of the Booth Operator, he couldn't apply enough pressure to the disk to slow it down! The performance of this mystery stuff was off the chart, and clearly better than the stuff he was selling.
What was it????.... Head and Shoulders Shampoo.... right out of the bottle! Loaded with Zinc to control dandruff. Should you use Head and Shoulders to lube the valve train in the Lister design?  Probably not, but it is a good case for finding something with high levels of Zinc in it. Since synthetics have much higher film strengths, it may make sense for a person to use it in this application as well."

pamouna said...

@sebzefrog & jmg:
for nonnative germanspeakers the term "umwelt" for environment might sound interesting, but with a background of (deep)ecology you´d prefer the expression
"umwelt" means the world "around" you and implies that the subject is segregated, almost isolated and degrades the rest of the multiverse as scenery for an anthropocentric show, wheras "mitwelt" means the world you are together with, being not devided from and equal and suggests that nature is not just "our" environment but has intrinsic value.
i guess most of our problems evolved exactly from this split-off!
love & peace,


Twilight said...

I'm actually enjoying the discussion of strategies, although I have no knowledge of game theory. It does seem to me that working out probabilities requires more information (a point which ties it back into the original discussion) than simply picking the thing you are most afraid of. That information may not always be available, and often not even enough to guess well. But one can always imagine and fear!

sebzefrog said...

My german is definitely not good enough to have picked this kind of
subtelty, thanks for pointing it out. The difference between the two
words is definitely good fuel for thoughts.

I don't know where it'll bring me yet, but let me share the first
steps with you: Living beings are, as a matter of fact, segregated in
some way from their environment. The first living amoeba could be
thought as defining a boundary between outside and inside.

In the context of information flow, the fact that such a flow exists
through the boundary of what defines "me" is important in my
opition. Therefore, I think that "Umwelt" and "Mitwelt" are vessels for different useful concepts.
The difference being very interesting, and related the kind of conciousness "me" has of "outside", as you pointed out.

Your point about the importance of thinking in terms of "Mitwelt" being thus in my opinion completely valid.

Now, let me put these concepts back in my head and simmer gently...

Have a nice day
Sebzefrog at

sebzefrog said...

Reading the posts, I found the somewhat heated discussion about game theory vs probabilistic approach interesting in the context of information flow.

I will (with a tang of sadness) set asside the part about evolution. It is too large a subject. Instead, I will concentrate on the sentence:" How often supposedly rational grounds been used to dismiss some traditional piece of common sense, only to have it turn out that the common sense was right all along? "
When I read it, the information that I filter out fires up alarms and automatic reactions. Recognizing that some alarms went of, and forcing myself to inaction, I read again the sentence, turning my filters off.I also bring in more relevent data, like what I think I gathered on our dear Archdruid ability to really think instead of blurping out "lieux communs".

Then, here is what I read: "How often have SUPPOSEDLY RATIONAL grounds been used to dismiss some traditional piece of COMMON SENSE, only to have it turn out that the COMMON SENSE was right all along? "

To compare to the filtered version that fired up my alarms: "How often have RATIONAL GROUNDS been used to dismiss some TRADITION, only to have it turn out that the TRADITION WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG?"

Very different indeed. Filters, metaphors, models are useful to make sense of the world, but they tend to create an internal world of their own that can shape our perception of the world very strongly.

Now, after slaying the Chimera, if I look at the idea expressed, I see two concepts: common sense, and bad thinking in a lab coat, called "supposedly rational thinking". The answer to JMG rethorical question is thus, in my opinion: often.

Conversely, I think that "RATIONAL grounds" being right when "SUPPOSEDLY common sense based on tradition" is proven wrong happens very often too.

I actually think that both points describe the same behavior. Forgive me (and correct me) if I am wrong, but I think it is some kind of magical thinking using a powerful name (Tradition or Rational) to validate a point, further thinking being a collateral damage.

In my experience this behavior relies on the use of one of those two incantations (or derived ones):

a) "We are but dwarves on the shoulders of giants."
b) "It has been scientifically proven."

Yes, I put down b) as an incantation. As a scientist, I dont' use b. I use it's rational version of b: "It has been scientifically proven by Such et al. in Journal Of Stuff 1915". The crucial difference is that this version is not a thought stopper. It is an invitation to disagree, go check, and come back proving me wrong. In the same way, a) doesn't refer to "traditionnal hides behind tradition. There are ways to refer to traditionnal common sense that don't discard further thinking.
The point in both cases being to point out that a piece of information that went through the sieve of many minds is worth consideration before being discarded.

Comming back to my first point about mental traps, wich is the main point of my post, I think that there lies one of the main tresures of science, maybe the main one. Proposing a system that helps finding and avoiding mental traps when thinking. Proposing a systematic sieve that allows to make sense out of data while offering safeguards against our own Chimera. And any time we use a capitalized "Scientifically Proven" or a "This is Tradition", we take one step away from this treasure.

Have a nice day
Sebzefrog at

Anne said...

Another apposite post. The problem with information is there is way too much out there to deal with. I have to prioritise what I read as well as what I do, in fact I have to prioritise the priorities. My eyes are bigger than my belly in terms of reading matter I can actually get through compared to what is already in the house and the ongoing additions from second-hand bookshops, Amazon etc. So for example I am still only part-way through the Ecology book as I can only manage a chapter in one go on a free evening.

I also have stuff I read to relax, mainly Science Fiction, it doesn't mean I believe implicity in the futures portrayed. I do feel that reading Sci-Fi has value in broadening one's viewpoint on a whole range of issues that do or could affect the future, so making it easier to think through where we as a society are headed. As a Sci-Fi reader I think that has contributed to my awareness of the issues compared to the majority of people around me.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Wordek,

You're right it probably is all about obsolescence.

Thanks for the comment re Lister diesel engines. I wonder whether they'd run biodiesel? I'm getting an idea of replacing my little honda 5hp 24v battery charger. The lister's look like they'll be up for a long life too.

Good luck!

Alena said...

"...information – another Latin word that means “that which puts form into something.”..

You are wizzarding with words. In-formation means in fact "something, which is put into form" (probably from singularity, by intentionality.

Sorry, my English is only enough for this not very courteous and concise comment :).

Tom said...

At Cherokee Organics

In the original design the diesel engine was designed and intended to run on straight peanut oil. A diesel engine can in theory run on vegetable oil without modifying it into Bio Diesel. The problem with most modern diesels is that their injection pumps are not robust enough to handle the higher viscosity vegetable oils. This can require preheating or modification to Bio Diesel. A lister especially an older one should run vegetable oil quite nicely.

Kevin said...

Planned obsolescence seems to me the worst thing about digital tech and modern electronics generally. It's costly to the end user, consumes more material resources and energy, generates more trash and toxins for the environment, and virtually guarantees that the related technologies will swiftly perish, leaving us ultimately feckless and phoneless.

The same misbegotten ideology applied to low-tech tools likewise generates rubbish that any right-thinking manufacturer would be ashamed of. It is an abomination.

Wordek said...

Hi Cherokee
No probs.
I got all nostalgic and started looking around. There is a listeroid distributor at Coffs Harbour ( ) who looks to be up with the play in regards to the shortcomings of the QA process used by some of the Indian manufacturers (apparently none) and setting up off grid power generators. And it does seem that you might need to learn some of the workings of your kit to get the most out of it which you probably wouldn't have to do with an integrated unit like your honda. I'll leave it to you to decide whether thats such a bad thing.

There does seem to be quite a thriving community out there experimenting with running these beasties on a variety of alternative fuels. If you lived near the gulf of mexico you could probably get one to run on sea water!

Now its my turn
Good luck! ;)

Kieran said...

Probably the strongest counter I have for the "singularity" idea is that growth curves in reality have a habit of being exponential at first, then hitting a natural limit and levelling off, to form a sigmoidal or "s" curve.

From Wikipedia:

"A logistic function or logistic curve is a common sigmoid curve, given its name in 1844 or 1845 by Pierre François Verhulst who studied it in relation to population growth. It can model the "S-shaped" curve (abbreviated S-curve) of growth of some population P. The initial stage of growth is approximately exponential; then, as saturation begins, the growth slows, and at maturity, growth stops."

auntiegrav said...

Great stuff, JMG, and just as I needed it. You've got the hot fusion just about right (too bad that nobody wants to go to the conspiracies against cold fusion by the hot fusion people).
I've been thinking on Nature as random vs Life as anti-entropy amid the quantum foam.
Intentions also are left behind as a friend with intentional tremors keeps me from allowing language that puts intention into any explanation of where matter comes from. On human intention; that is a great window analogy to use. On a more macro scale, however, "People do stuff, They have reasons for doing stuff. In that order." This is more than half the story of humanity, but we believe our minority actions (intentional ones) are the rule. In our daily choices (paint the window vs. go back to bed), we sometimes make ourselves useful. That is my answer to Everything: Net Usefulness. It answers the "information becoming particles" and it answers "how does a species survive?" Many of us would be less Net Consumptive if we just went back to bed instead of trying to build fusion reactors. Even better would be to play some music to help useful work go more smoothly.

Best regards, and thanks once more for great thinking.

mxyzptlk said...

To: JMG and Bill Pulliam

Regarding: Probability vs. Game Theory

JMG, the strategy of minimizing the maximum loss is indeed from game theory. However, it is not at all incompatible with using probability theory--I'll bet the most salient strategy that came to mind when you thought "probability" was "maximize expected value," which in its most basic form does differ from the minimax strategy.

There is a field of study called Decision Theory which covers the area of contention. It's far from complete, but there's some encouraging results showing that mutual defection isn't the only possible result for rational agents in a prisoner's dilemma: Timeless Decision Theory and Updateless Decision Theory both avert this, and have some parallels in extant theories of ethics.

Also, Thomas Schelling's 1960 classic The Strategy of Conflict opens up positive-sum games to systematic analysis, with results more applicable to the real world than Von Neumann's earlier work on games.

P.S. great dismantling of the Kurzweil-style Singularitarian's assumptions, whether they're exponential, hyperbolic, or otherwise.

P.P.S. The thesis of your Fermi post is almost an exact duplicate of an economist's paper from 9 years earlier: I'm sure it's simply due to convergent thought processes, but it might be an instructive read.

Toro Loki said...

Your Master Conserver notes do not seem to be available anymore.
Could you put up a new link for downloading them please?
Perhaps in next weeks Archdruid Report in April 2014?
I'm reading through your archives which is how I came across this.
Thank you.
T. Loki