Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Water Risks- the corporate response

Trillium Asset Management is a 900 million dollar fund management company that specializes in environmentally sustainable investments.  While they have an obvious green sensibility, their primary concern is money.  And you can talk all the high-rhetoric that y want, people get really serious when their money is concerned.  Jonas Krons, the fund manager, is the person being quoted.


Peter S. Green, Bloomberg, 10 January 2011 (hat tip nc).

"We're not talking about charity here," says Kron. "These are investors seeking to have the company address the risks in its supply chain." …With the world’s population expected to grow to 10 billion by the end of the century from 7 billion today, and the need for fresh water increasing twice as fast as a larger middle class emerges in the developing world, the competition for scarce water resources is unprecedented.

Siting a battle that Coke got into in Kerela State of India, who shut down their plant for using too much water.  Coke was able to prevail in court, siting an ongoing drought as the source of problems.

Coca-Cola Inc. has been collecting data on water [stress] for years, and its models can predict water stress in some basins through the year 2095… But the Kerala case prompted the company to rethink its water strategy and factor in local farmers, towns, nearby factories and local government leaders. "We lost the public perception battle," says Coke spokeswoman Lisa Manley. Now the company requires every one of its plants to assess its water risk, share that information with the local community and create a water protection plan…

As the Aqueduct maps come on line, Coke hopes its data will help ease the global water crunch. “When companies look at water resource management or community water partnerships most of them relegate that to Corporate Social Responsibility, more of window dressing,” says Rozza. “So when a big brand says I am having a hard time making the business case to my company to think about water, we can say we’ve done it before and here’s how.”

It is interesting, at least to me, that while the environmentalist tend to paint businesses as the bad guys, and sometimes they are, that businesses want to succeed in any future world as well.  So while some (Smucker’s) ignore the problem, others (Coke) plan ahead.  So businesses can also be part of the cure.   A somewhat related example that comes to mind is the crises management skills of the various big box stores, such as Wal-mart, Home Depot, and Lowes.  They do so much of a better job than the government at keeping up with what is where, that NORCOM puts the placement of big box stores on their disaster response maps.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Some of us must go

Well it shouldn't be a surprise, we all know it to be true.  What is surprising is that it has taken this long for a new outlet to come out and state the case forthright.

Obviously, reactions from the public will be mixed, put the early comments sound encouraging.



Staff Writer, The Onion, 26 January 2012, Issue 48-04

"I personally would rather live, but taking the long view, I can see how ensuring the survival of humanity is best," said Norwich, CT resident and father of three Jason Atkins. "I guess if we were to do it over again, it would make sense to do a better job conserving the earth's finite resources."

"Hopefully, the people who remain on the planet will use the mass slaughter of their friends and loved ones as an incentive to be more responsible going forward," he added.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dying Dutch Churches

Dutchman Helps to Liquidate Dying Dutch Churches
Benjamin D├╝rr, Der Spiegel, 22 December 2011 (Hat tip: MR).

A drastic exodus from the church is underway in the Netherlands. With two churches shuttered each week, one man has become the country's top advisor on how to repurpose the once holy buildings. Some are demolished, while others find new life as mosques, stores and even recreation centers…

Some 4,400 church buildings remain in the Netherlands. But each week, around two close their doors forever. This mainly affects the Catholics, who will be forced to offload half of their churches in the coming years.

For years the number of faithful has been declining. The trend has swept across all of Western Europe, with churches forced to close in France and Belgium too. But in the Netherlands, Christianity's retreat from society has been particularly drastic. The Protestant Church alone loses some 60,000 members each year. At this rate, it will cease to exist there by 2050, church officials say.

I have always taken the de-churching of Europe to be a combination of disgust at Church behavior and involvement in 19th century and early 20th century politics, and the competition from the social-progressive ideology.  I suppose you could add the numerous competing alternatives in entertainment that take up peoples time. No doubt that is a simplification at best.

In any case, the collapse of the churches continues.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Periodic psycho killers

They are trying to model the periodic frequency with which serial killers strike.

Stochhastic modeling of a serial killer (pdf)
M.v. Simkin and V.P. Royschowdhury (hat tip: NC)



We analyze the time pattern of the activity of a serial killer, who during twelve years had murdered 53 people. The plot of the cumulative number of murders as a function of time is of “Devil’s staircase” type. The distribution of the intervals between murders (step length) follows a power law with the exponent of 1.4. We propose a model according to which the serial killer commits murders when neuronal excitation in his brain exceeds certain threshold. We model this neural activity as a branching process, which in turn is approximated by a random walk. As the distribution of the random walk return times is a power law with the exponent 1.5, the distribution of the inter-murder intervals is thus explained. We confirm analytical results by numerical simulation.


They do not that a delay has to be built into the cycle, as the killer generally takes time to plot and plan once the necessary level of homicidal urges are reached.  The killer then goes on a killing spree until the urges are satisfied.


I have my doubts that you will bring this down to a predictive level specific enough to individuals that it would be useful to the police.


I also suspect that most of the “serial” killers, never get serialized because they are caught.  The notorious killers we know of are the ones that through some combination, of caution, skill, and (probably mostly) luck are able to keep going at it for some time.
However, as one commentator noted, using statistical methods is far better than using the hocus pocus of behavioral profiling.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Catching the Five Waves of Declinism

I saw a nice review of Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Madlebaum’s That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back

Note that the first four waves were:

1.      Sputnik Shock in 1957 as the United States lost the first leg of the space race

2.      Vietnam quagmire and malaise

3.      Jimmy Carter’s inflationary malaise

4.      The rise of Nippon Inc.

Which leaves us our latest wave, the debt bubble implosion.

Josef Joffe, The American Interest, January/February 2012

Friedman and Mandelbaum underline the broader ramifications of this debt run-up. This millstone will hang on the neck of the United States for decades, unless... To drive the depressing point home, and to relate America’s astronomic debt to its shrinking power abroad, Mandelbaum and Friedman offer one of the funniest lines in the book. It comes from a member of President Obama’s Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, who quips that China had better not invade Taiwan because, if the United States rode to the rescue, “we would now have to borrow the money from China to do it.”

n the 1958 film Touch of Evil, the authors relate, the bad guy played by Orson Welles stumbles into a brothel where Marlene Dietrich works as a fortuneteller. “Read my future for me”, Welles asks. She replies: “You haven’t got any. Your future is all used up.” Shall this be the fate of Lincoln’s “last best hope on Earth?”

Per the review, the apparent proscription to this fifth wave of declinism  is to address the deficit, cut entitlements, raise taxes, invest in education and infrastructure, and reduce oil addiction.  All of which is to be accomplished by having a third party candidate force these issues to the forefront.  Even if the candidate did not win, the two major parties would be forced to co opt at least some of the solutions to avoid losing their base.

I am dubious.  Paying off the deficit (reduce present spending), raise taxes (in theory spending neutral, but shifts money away from individual voters), investing in education (spending on a notoriously low productivity portion of the economy, and spending on infrastructure (very long term payback period) will all make little immediate difference, or reduce current spending.  Note, that it does not address the enormous lump of debt amassed by your general public. In other words people will have to be poorer in real terms for possible long term future gain.  That does not sound very American to me.

The only one of the declinism waves that we got out of clean, was the Sputnik one.  Of course there have been arguments that Apollo was its own sort of bubble, and that the failure to replace the shuttle program is the last bit of air wheezing out of the balloon.

The Vietnam debt bubble is a precursor to the 1970s oil crises, and started the inflationary spiral.  We got into the inflationary spiral as a way to deal with the debt, and then when Volcker squeezed the currency to get inflation under control; we went into a debt splurge to get out of the recession. So you can argue that today’s huge bubble tidal is the ripple that started with Vietnam.

The jury is still out on the Peak Oil portion of Carter’s Malaise, and the inflationary part of the Malaise we covered two paragraphs ago.

Japan (and the Soviet Union} blew themselves up – as IMO the Chinese are getting set to do right now.

All of which indicates that much as it took the British Empire to go from it s peak (1880? 1904?) to its downfall (1956), you would expect the same of the an even more powerful country like the United States.  Even the Titanic had time to rearrange its deck chairs.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Struggle to See the Crises

It is interesting that a piece that illustrates how hard it was to predict the coming economic crises in Europe in 1931 was posted on Pearl Harbor Day.

Expect the unexpected 
R.A., The Economist, 7 December 2011

LOTS of people are currently trying very hard to figure out what's going to happen within the global economy over the next 1, 2, 5, and 10 years. It seems like the sort of thing one ought to be able to manage if one tries hard enough. It is, however, an impossible task ...

The article than goes on to note a number of quotes from the period which indicate just how unaware people were of the looming disaster ahead.  Both the of the worldwide extension of the Great Depression through the collapse of the Austrian economy with the  Credit-Anstalt bank.

Our opening editorial in the first edition of 1931 was a rumination on the trials of the 1920s, in which we wish our readers a "Happy New Decade":
We do not despair. We believe the world to be saner, both politically and economically, than ten years ago...The tasks before us are as formidable as at any time in our history. But our capacity to perform them is undiminished, if we will only use it. Our national advantages remain; the character of our people has not changed; the march of science is playing into our hands...Believing this, it is with good heart and confidence that we wish our readers a "happy new decade."
In a note in the issue of February 21, The Economist comments on the failure of a coalition of radical parties to take control of the Reichstag through parliamentary procedure:
The withdrawal of the National Socialists from the Reichstag is patently a sign of weakness...The gesture of withdrawal would only have had point if it could have been followed up by direct revolutionary action, but there is not the remotest question of that. What Herr Hitler failed to do in 1923 cannot even be attempted now...

All this does not mean that the tide of National Socialism has subsided...Everything, of course, will depend upon the course of business, which seems recently to have shown some signs of improvement.
It is often impossible to recognise the moments on which history hinges when they arrive. Tucked inside the issue of May 16th, in a note titled simply, "The Credit-Anstalt", The Economist writes:
Fortunately, it is already clear that the difficulties of the Credit-Anstalt are already being taken successfully in hand, and the very frank and reassuring statement issued this week should go a long way to dispel doubts...
The Credit-Anstalt situation has a lot of similarities to the current problems that Europe is having with the potential sovereign debt defaults.

This brings us to our current situation, and an interesting post by John Michael Greer:

What Peak Oil Looks Like
John Michael Greer, Arch Druid Report, 7 December 2011.

There are times when the unraveling of a civilization stands out in sharp relief, but more often that process makes itself seen only in the sort of scattered facts and figures that take a sharp eye to notice and assemble into a meaningful picture. How often, I wonder, did the prefects of imperial Rome look up from the daily business of mustering legions and collecting tribute to notice the crumbling of the foundations on which their whole society rested?

Nowadays, certainly, that broader vision is hard to find. It’s symptomatic that in the last few weeks I’ve fielded a fair number of emails insisting that the peak oil theory—of course it’s not a theory at all; it’s a hard fact that the extraction of a finite oil supply in the ground will sooner or later reach a peak and begin to decline—has been rendered obsolete by the latest flurry of enthusiastic claims about shale oil and the like. Enthusiastic claims about the latest hot new oil prospect are hardly new, and indeed they’ve been central to cornucopian rhetoric since M. King Hubbert’s time. A decade ago, it was the Caspian Sea oilfields that were being invoked as supposedly conclusive evidence that a peak in global conventional petroleum production wouldn’t arrive in our lifetimes. Compare the grand claims made for the Caspian fields back then, and the trickle of production that actually resulted from those fields, and you get a useful reality check on the equally sweeping claims now being made for the Bakken shale, but that’s not a comparison many people want to make just now.
 
On the other side of the energy spectrum, those who insist that we can power some equivalent of our present industrial system on sun, wind, and other diffuse renewable sources have been equally vocal, and those of us who raise reasonable doubts about that insistence can count on being castigated as “doomers.”
I have posted on numerous occasions about a variety of relatively unknown empires, civilizations, and cultures that were at one time of considerable (at least regional) importance.  Some of them are so obscure know that we do not even know their name.  In one case (which I have not posted on yet) the only record that I know for the demise of one large European farming community is pollen records (weeds replace agricultural pollens).

Unless they occur through conquest (analogous today to a major nuclear war) the greater collapse periods that we have a record for took some time.  There was often complaints about the good old days, but generally people did not seem think the whole show was going to fall apart.  The Western Roman Empire held on forever.  It was not until the Vandals took their African grain producing areas  439 AD that they finally gave up the ghost completely.  Even then there was enough of Rome left for it to be worth the Vandals time to sack the city 16 years later in 455.

The pattern seems to be for their to be periodic big stair steps down with people adjusting to the new level before they hit the next step.  To the extent that we may need to take some readjustments down the road we can only hope for such a gradual outcome. 

It is fairly obvious that the speed of history has increased drastically since the industrial revolution, and the world has never had anything like the current wide spread possession of nuclear weapons that faces us today.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The return of bad food?

When people think of returning to a period of simpler less complicated times, they often seem to imagine some bucolic rural setting with people enjoying the fruits of their harvest.  A return to the 19th century.


So maybe we should look at 19th century food: English food to be exact.


We will start with an older Paul Krugman editorial about modern English food


Paul Krugman, MIT (hat tip: MR)


For someone who remembers the old days, the food is the most startling thing about modern England. English food used to be deservedly famous for its awfulness--greasy fish and chips, gelatinous pork pies, and dishwater coffee.


And what was the starting point of this awful food?  Victorian England.


A good guess is that the country's early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients.


Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse-drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn't need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips).



A History of English Food, Clarrisa Dickson Wright

Victorian street food was a huge industry. In the north you would find tripe sellers; I remember the one in Dewsbury market that sold nine different varieties of tripe, including penis and udder (which is remarkably like pease pudding). Another popular street food was pea soup with, according to where you lived, either pig’s trotters or bits of ham chopped up into it. Peas boiled in the pod and served with butter were similarly popular. Stalls known in my youth as whelk stalls also sprang up, selling jellied eels, whelks, winkles and prawns, all by the pint or the half-pint. You could splash a bit of vinegar on them and eat them at the stall or take them home with you.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cathrate Guns

The Clathrate Gun is back in its holster for a moment.  The Cathrate Gun is the popular name for the theory that a warming of the oceans waters will excelerate the release of the methane gas that is trapped at the ocean bottoms, and cause a super acceleration of global warming.  Given that methane, molecule for molecule, has at least 20 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide, it’s important to get a handle on whether these are new releases, the first foretaste of some great outburst from thawing sea-bed stores of the gas, or simply a longstanding phenomenon newly observed.
Siberian shelf methane emissions not tied to modern warming
Colin Shultz, American Geophysical Union Vol 92, No 49, Pager 464, 6 December 2011 (Hat Tip: Andrew Revkin, NYT)
Eight thousand years ago, a rising sea inundated the vast permafrost regions off the northern coast of Siberia. Comprising the modern east Siberian shelf, the region holds enormous quantities of methane hydrates bottled up in remnant subterranean permafrost zones that are, in turn, trapped beneath the ocean waters.
Forecasting the expected future permafrost thaw, the authors found that even under the most extreme climatic scenario tested this thawed soil growth will not exceed 10 meters by 2100 or 50 meters by the turn of the next millennium. The authors note that the bulk of the methane stores in the east Siberian shelf are trapped roughly 200 meters below the seafloor, indicating that the recent methane emissions observations were likely not connected to the modest modern permafrost thaw. Instead, they suggest that the current methane emissions are the result of the permafrost's still adjusting to its new aquatic conditions, even after 8000 years.

So the results are somewhat positive.  Yes the gas is being released.  It’s just been going on for some time, and is not greatly effective by current warming trends.  According to Revkin’s NYT piece, there is no evidence for increased methane emissions in the last 20 years.
John Barnes in his Mother of Storms covers this scenario with the release being caused by a tactical nuclear strike in the North Pacific.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Turning Japanese: virtual girlfriend edition

The title refers to a song  (video -funny bad) that was popular back when the world looked like it was going to be conquered by the Japanese Economic Juggernaut of the 1980s.

Roland Kelts, The Guardian (U.K.), 27 December 2011

It's not easy being a young man in Japan today. Every few months sees the release of a new set of figures, stats and stories trumpeting the same meme: today's Japanese men are unmanly – and worse, they don't seem bothered by it.

Tagged in the domestic media over the past few years as hikikomori (socially withdrawn boys), soshoku danshi (grass-eating/herbivore men, uninterested in meat, fleshly sex and physical or workplace competition), or just generally feckless, Japan's Y-chromosomed youth today elicit shrugs of "why?", followed by heaving sighs of disappointment from their postwar elders and members of the opposite sex…. In the most recent government study, published at the end of last month, the percentage of unmarried men spiked 9.2 points from five years ago. More telling: 61% of those unwed men reported not having a girlfriend, and 45% said they couldn't care less about finding one.

The theory?

Japanese women have become stronger socially and economically at the very same time that Japanese men have become more mole-ish and fully absorbed in virtual worlds, satiated by the very technological wizardry their forebears foisted upon them, and even preferring it to reality. "I don't like real women," one bloke superciliously sniffed on Japan's 2channel, the world's largest and most active internet bulletin board site. "They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend."
The net result:

Virtual girlfriends became a sensation last summer, when Japanese game-maker Konami released its second-generation of its popular Love Plus, called, aptly, Love Plus +, for the Nintendo DS gaming system. Konami skillfully arranged for an otherwise deadbeat beach resort town called Atami to host a Love Plus + holiday weekend. Players were invited to tote their virtual girlfriends, via the gaming console, to the actual resort town to cavort for a weekend in romantic bliss. The promotion was absurdly successful, with local resort operators reporting that it was their best weekend in decades…

There are other thoughts on the matter:

"Maybe we're just advanced human beings," says a Japanese friend of mine over dinner this week in Tokyo, who won't let me use her real name. She is an attractive, 40-something editor at one of Japan's premier fashion magazines, and she is still single. "Maybe," she adds, "we've learned how to service ourselves."

What would be my theory?

Well first the article notes that the Japanese economy has been rather stagnant for some time.  It also notes that the virtual girlfriends are not the norm, and not even within the mainstream.

I would put it down to (at least) two points.  One is that modern culture is increasingly atomizing.  Since I am typing this at a computer at home, rather than being out with people (granted it is 5:30am as I type this) it is probably a generally valid point.  In the past, I have worked to get younger people involved in volunteer service organizations.  While I have found young adults interested in helping people, the idea of having to regularly go and meet with people, if it did not involve an entertainment venue, seemed strange to them.  If they went someplace, they expected it to be entertaining or to be entertained.

However, I think the stronger point is that from the guys’ perspective, girlfriends and to a lesser extent friends in general,  are expensive.  Even if they pay their own way, you have to go to some sort of restaurant, movie, event, etcetera.  Your typical friendship in the modern world involves at least some sort of expense.

In the stagnant economy that is Japan’s, the unemployed or underemployed cannot easily afford any sort of involved friendships.  When I was younger, I lived in an area that had very little money.  I had very little money, and my friends had very little money.  There were a variety of methods to cope with the lack money, with roommates/housemates being one of the more popular ones.  Social gatherings were generally at someone’s home, and it was bring your own food and beverage.  The hostess of the event, who did have to pay out a little extra, was compensated by getting inexpensive baby sitting services from her collection of friends.  There was some dating by the single group members, both within and outside of the group, but the general effort was much lower than would be expected.  Nobody had much money to do anything.

So I think the young Japanese males ,with their virtual girlfriends, are going the route of lest expense, within an increasingly atomized society.  Their economy has been in a downturn for a lot longer than ours, so they are further along the curve.  Given that we in the United States have had virtual lifestyle games and virtual pets for some time, I don’t think we are in a position to point too many fingers.

I wonder if they are also virtual scientists (from here)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Flushing manufacturing down the toilet

This is just a quick little blurb.

Staff, Modern Material Handling, 17 January 2012.

The United States lost 28 percent of its high-technology manufacturing jobs over the last decade, as the nation’s rapidly shrinking lead in science and technology in the global marketplace was accompanied by a toll on U.S. high-tech jobs, according to a new study released today by the National Science Board (NSB), the policy making body for the National Science Foundation.

One of the most dramatic signs of this trend was the loss of 687,000 high-technology manufacturing jobs since 2000….

On top of the lost manufacturing employment, U.S. multinational corporations are rapidly expanding their R&D jobs overseas. From 1994–2004, U.S. firms established R&D jobs abroad at a relatively slow annual rate of 3 percent, increasing the share of their R&D employment overseas from 14 percent to 16 percent. But according to preliminary figures,in the five years after that (2004–2009, the number of new R&D jobs overseas took off, growing to 27 percent of all R&D jobs at these U.S. firms. Since 2004, about 85 percent of R&D employment growth in U.S. multinational corporations has been abroad.

It is not because we are losing our technical edge.  It is all about wage arbitrage, and to some degree moving closer to your purchasers.   Science jobs in the United States have some of the lowest pay per education ratios: almost as bad as social workers, and architects.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Debunking Handbook

The Debunking Handbook
From the good people at Sceptical Science with a hat tip to Bloggingheads.

 
A common misconception about myths is the notion that removing its influence is as simple as packing more information into people’s heads. This approach assumes that public misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is more information - in science communication, it’s known as the “information deficit model”. But that model is wrong: people don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.

It goes over such obstacles as:


1.      Familiarity Backfire Effect
 

2.      Overkill Backfire Effect
 

3.      Worldview Backfire Effect


And of course concludes with what works. It is only 9 colorful pages, so it is worth taking a look.  But if you don’t, I just want it to be known that I am not really trying very hard to convince you.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Processed Dying

The end of life process that makes up the ends of many of our lives, I find a little odd.  That an enormous number of us end our lives camped out in numerous large senior facilities of various service levels and quality just seems a little odd to me.
Peter Walman, Bloomberg, 6 December 2011 (hat tip: The Browser)

Janet Stubbs was grateful when the nursing home recommended hospice care for her aunt Midge. Although Stubbs knew her aunt wasn’t dying, the offer of free, Medicare-paid hospice visits from a nurse and chaplain, plus an extra weekly bath, was too good to pass up.

Stubbs didn’t know that her aunt, Doris Midge Appling, was admitted to Hospice Care of Kansas during the company’s “Summer Sizzle” promotion drive, which paid employees as much as $100 a head for referrals, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Stubbs also said she had no clue that the nursing home doctor who referred her aunt for hospice moonlighted as medical director for the hospice company…

The rise of for-profit hospice care since 2000 has helped drive a 60 percent increase in the average time patients spend in hospice, to 86 days in 2009, according to Medpac. The average stay of the 10 percent of patients who remained in hospice the longest soared 71 percent to 240 days.

That means at least 110,000 patients weren’t facing imminent death when they were admitted -- although doctors said they were. To qualify for Medicare hospice coverage, patients must have a prognosis of six months or less to live, certified by two doctors.

Given the title of this blog, I thought I should at least make a note of the issue. I have to say though, the article does not make any note of ill treatment by the not-dying terminally ill. The scandal seems to be more one of finding the niche of care that the government pays the most for relative to costs. Since the hospice care was usually relatively short term, the cost accountants did not sweat the cost. Some of the hospice inhabitants were likely coming from hospitals (rather than nursing homes) that would have been truly expensive.

To my mind it is more illustrative of the human-industrial processing plant that makes up a significant portion of our economy. We have a processing procedure for our schooling, and at the end for twilight years. If you find yourself in prison, you will pretty much have scored the royal flush of human processing. All very Pink Floyd.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Infinite copying and random creation

Mark Pagel has an interesting discussion (link at quote) about just how innovative are we really. His argument is that we are extremely good copiers, but not particularly innovative. And that as our numbers increase along with our communication abilities, that what evolution we go through (genetic or cultural) will tend to decrease our individual and group innovation.

His point is that at the group level, we may no longer be very good at innovating our way out of difficulties. I mean if the typical family vacation is either Disney World, or (less money) Myrtle Beach and not a whole lot else, just how creative are we? (Mea Culpa: I have family in Myrtle Beach so it is a default location, but we are not the only ones who visit there).  How often do we go off on truly creative vacations?

I am going to further prove his point by cutting and pasting portions of the piece below.  I could also cut and paste from Taleb, who also discusses somewhat similar points.

Mark Pagel, Edge.org, 15 December 2011 (Hat tip: NC)

So there's something really very special about this new species, humans, that arose and invented this new kind of evolution, based on ideas. And so it's useful for us to ask, what is it about humans that distinguishes them? It must have been a tiny genetic difference between us and the Neanderthals because, as I said, we're so closely related to them genetically, a tiny genetic difference that had a vast cultural potential.

That difference is something that anthropologists and archaeologists call social learning. It's a very difficult concept to define, but when we talk about it, all of us humans know what it means. And it seems to be the case that only humans have the capacity to learn complex new or novel behaviors, simply by watching and imitating others. And there seems to be a second component to it, which is that we seem to be able to get inside the minds of other people who are doing things in front of us, and understand why it is they're doing those things. These two things together, we call social learning.
          .....................................................................................................

You can see where I'm going. As our societies get larger and larger, there's no need, in fact, there's even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. And so, a real worry is that our capacity for social learning, which is responsible for all of our cumulative cultural adaptation, all of the things we see around us in our everyday lives, has actually promoted a species that isn't so good at innovation. It allows us to reflect on ourselves a little bit and say, maybe we're not as creative and as imaginative and as innovative as we thought we were, but extraordinarily good at copying and following.

If we apply this to our everyday lives and we ask ourselves, do we know the answers to the most important questions in our lives? Should you buy a particular house? What mortgage product should you have? Should you buy a particular car? Who should you marry? What sort of job should you take? What kind of activities should you do? What kind of holidays should you take? We don't know the answers to most of those things. And if we really were the deeply intelligent and imaginative and innovative species that we thought we were, we might know the answers to those things.
          ...............................................................................................

And I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn't even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have.

Karl Popper famously said the way we differ from other animals is that our hypotheses die in our stead; rather than going out and actually having to try out things, and maybe dying as a result, we can test out ideas in our minds. But what I want to suggest is that the generative process itself might be pretty close to random.
Note that Pinker’s recent book (here, and here2) discussing our declining violence very much fits within his theory. For myself, I think that like other one-answer fits all theories, it greatly overstates its case. It does not explain very well the small knots of creativity that seem to grow in little clusters in time and place.

But I think it is very much point on with regards to patting ourselves on the back for our cleverness. Although copying is its own form of cleverness, but it is not very likely to get us out of the various predicaments that come with having 7 billion people on the planet.

The other point that I like, is that it highlights how our big leaps often come from a very small unanticipated discovery or idea. To some degree, I think that there is a fractal quality to the phenomena: it has a similar pattern throughout the various levels of organization to which we belong. One person comes up with the great idea at work of church and everyone runs with it. One medical researcher discovers a fungus that eats up bacteria, and everyone runs with it.  In the case of medicine, we discussed the random nature of many of its discoveries.

To the extent that a group is able to innovate, I don’t think it is exactly random (the innovations may be random, but the adoption is not). I think it is clear that some organizations are more adaptive than others. Because of the consensus issue, one would suspect that organizations with more stakeholders (democracies, theocracies) would be less innovative (for good and bad) than organizations where only a few people have to make up their mind. Obviously groups that have a surplus in which can experiment, will be a little bolder than groups that do not.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I beat the Bid D.  But just barely. The test is here at Cops and Soldiers.


I don't want to give away the clues, so maybe I will tell some of them in the comments latter.  But it is not easy.  I suspect most people who are not soldiers, or don't work around the police, will be below 50%.

Gray World

As Bruce Krasting is telling us the world of gray will soon be upon us.  And since we know he can do fancy things with the pictures in his posts he must be a sharp guy.
The material in question is Titanium Dioxide (TiO2).  As he notes:

Bruce Krasting, 23 November 2011 (hat tip: NC)
[E]verything that you look at that is white has this stuff in it. From pills to food to paper to paint, if it’s white, it’s T”…

So look forward to gray toilette paper/toothpaste. Newspapers too. Paint will get much more expensive, meaning we’ll paint less; our white houses (and White House) will get gray with age.

The reason we are going gray is because the world supply of Titanium Dioxide is getting tight.  It is one of those “rare” materials that everyone uses, and is not all that uncommon in nature – being made in a nasty smelly process from white beach sand – that we just cannot get enough of.  On average we (the world) uses 2 pounds per person per year.  We in the U.S. max out at 9 pounds each, and though demand is growing the Chinese are currently using 1 pound each.
The price of 7 billion consumers on the planet.
Prices are going through the roof; up 38% this year. The raw material, rutile, has seen its price rise by a whopping 77%. Demand is projected to increase another 50% in 2012 (Link). The price has nowhere to go but up.

So if the price is going up, likely we will be using less of the stuff.  Thus everything is turning gray.
On the plus side, the stuff is not exactly cost free.   Krasting notes the research of Bendicte Trouiller at UCLA:
Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow
Andrew Schneider, AOL News, ~May 2010, via OMSJ,

Consuming the nano-titanium dioxide was damaging or destroying the rats' DNA and chromosomes. The biological havoc continued as she repeated the studies again and again. It was a significant finding: The degrees of DNA damage and genetic instability can be "linked to all the big killers of man, namely cancer, heart disease, neurological disease and aging.
Some of these conserns go back decades with Lee, Trochimowicz & Reinhardt's Pulmonary Response of Rats Exposed to Titanium Dioxide by Inhalation for Two Years " (1985).  But with noted mixed results in later studies. This recent worrisome study is the nano-tech gray goo version.  That will make you feel either safer or very much not safer.

So at the cost of going gray, maybe we will live a little longer.  Or maybe without nice white lines to keep us on the correct side of the road....

Bendicte Trouiller

Monday, January 16, 2012

Return of the White Plague

Referring to the victim’s loss of skin color, one of Tuberculosis’s (TB) nicknames was the white plague.  It was also known as consumption because of the way it would slowly eat away at a persons health.  We had a discussion about theis almost exactly a year ago.

Katherine Rowland, Nature, 13 January 2012 (hat tip: NC).

Physicians in India have identified a form of incurable tuberculosis there, raising further concerns over increasing drug resistance to the disease1. Although reports call this latest form a “new entity”, researchers suggest that it is instead another development in a long-standing problem.

The discovery makes India the third country in which a completely drug-resistant form of the disease has emerged, following cases documented in Italy in 2007 and Iran in 2009.

White Plague is also the name of an apocalyptic pandemic novel by Frank Herbert novel that he came out with right after he wrote the Dune.  While the reviews are somewhat mixed on that novel,  unfortuantely reality sometimes catches up with fiction. 
In this case the spread of the deady strain of cholera was not intentional, but that is not of much help to the victems.
Matthew Mosk, Brian Ross, and Rym Momtaz, ABC News (via Yahoo), 12 January, 2012 (Hat tip: NC).
Compelling new scientific evidence suggests United Nations peacekeepers have carried a virulent strain of cholera -- a super bug -- into the Western Hemisphere for the first time.
The vicious form of cholera has already killed 7,000 people in Haiti, where it surfaced in a remote village in October 2010. Leading researchers from Harvard Medical School and elsewhere told ABC News that, despite UN denials, there is now a mountain of evidence suggesting the strain originated in Nepal, and was carried to Haiti by Nepalese soldiers who came to Haiti to serve as UN peacekeepers after the earthquake that ravaged the country on Jan. 12, 2010 -- two years ago today. Haiti had never seen a case of cholera until the arrival of the peacekeepers, who allegedly failed to maintain sanitary conditions at their base.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Founders Loss

The study I am siting below is showing how modern languages, much like genetic diversity are prone to a founder effect.  Their constituent parts become simpler as you move away from the original pool of origination.  I view this as both a phenomena of space, but also potentially time.
By Gautam Naik , Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011
The world's 6,000 or so modern languages may have all descended from a single ancestral tongue spoken by early African humans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, a new study suggests.
Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of the study, found that the first migrating populations leaving Africa laid the groundwork for all the world's cultures by taking their single language with them—the mother of all mother tongues.
"It was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of," Dr. Atkinson said.
About 50,000 years ago—the exact timeline is debated—there was a sudden and marked shift in how modern humans behaved. They began to create cave art and bone artifacts and developed far more sophisticated hunting tools. Many experts argue that this unusual spurt in creative activity was likely caused by a key innovation: complex language, which enabled abstract thought. The work done by Dr. Atkinson supports this notion. 
Early migrants from Africa probably had to battle significant odds. A founder effect on a breakaway human population tends to reduce its size, genetic complexity and fitness. A similar effect could have limited "the size and cultural complexity of societies at the vanguard of the human expansion" out of Africa, the paper notes.
Palomar Community College Website (likely orphaned course material)
In many species, there have been catastrophic periods caused by rapid dramatic changes in natural selection, during which most individuals died without passing on their genes. The few survivors of these evolutionary "bottlenecks" then were reproductively very successful, resulting in large populations in subsequent generations. The consequence of this bottleneck effect is the extraordinary reduction in genetic diversity of a species since most variability is lost at the time of the bottleneck.

Bottlenecking also occurs at times in human populations as a result of major epidemics and catastrophic storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. An example of this occurred on the small Micronesian island of Pinegelap in the Western Pacific. In 1775, a typhoon killed at least 90% of its people, thereby eliminating most of the genetic variation. One of the 20 survivors was a man named Nahnmwarki Mwanenised. He had achromatopsia, a very rare genetically inherited recessive eye condition that causes total color blindness and extreme sensitivity to light. Six generations later, nearly 5% of the island's population had achromatopsia. All of those who had it were descendants of Nahnmwarki Mwanenised. By comparison, only 1 in 33,000 people in the United States have it. Not only did the Pinegleapese experience a dramatically reduced genetic diversity as a result of the 18th century storm, but unfortunately that surviving gene pool contained the genes for achromatopsia, making this an example of both the bottlenecking effect and the founder principle.

Jared Diamon in his book Collapse, noted that small isolated groups were at risk when they fell below a certain threshold.  The North American Natives were not only at risk to disease because they had been separated from Europe-Asia for so long.  But the immunities that they were able to culturally carry along (generally from Mother to child) would have been limited by the founder effect.  The smaller the population, the smaller the amount of cultural memory that is allowed.   As an example, the typical American may know to much about how to work and operate a modern town or city, but as a group we can do a reasonably good job at it.  If a group of modern day Americans "survived" some sort of cataclysm (lets say one of those popularly novelize influenza pandemics) how actual skill would remain within the group to run anything much beyond a small company (60 person) organization?
I suspect that this problem is one of the contributors, beyond the death and devastation, to the depth of the some of the past cultural collapses.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review Round Up 3

This is our third review roundup.  It includes the books that have been previously reviewed, and starts at the bottom with the earliest reviews.
I was going to add a Survivalist tag, to distinguish the hard core us-against-the-collapsing-world novels, from the more generally dystopian fare, but it is actually a hard criterion to peg down.  You either have too few books to make it worth the effort, or too many.  Everyone knows that Rawles’ Survivor series would fit the bill, but what about tales of urban survival, or bureaucratic survival, where people are surviving on their pluck and wits?  What about Susan Pfeffer’s stories where the family just lays low and stays out of the way?
Review Roundup
Author
Review Link
Type
Disaster
Real
Read
AP
PO
5
7
Joe Nobody
AP
EC, NP
7
6
AP
N, NP, EC
4
5
Vivi Andrew
PA, R
D
5
7
C
PO, GW
7
5
AP
W, EC
1
2
Andrez Bergen
PO
EC, GW
2
2
Jim Crace
C
D, GW
3
5
David Crawford
AP
E
7
4
C
D
2
5
AP
NP
5
4
AP
NN, NP
3
2
AP
N
5
6
AP
NN, NP
3
3
AP
EC
4
4
N. Stephenson
NoA
-
5
5
Sigrid Nunez
AP, L
D
3
4
Robert Edric
AP, L
GW,EC
6
3
John Grit
AP
D
7
7
Cape,  Buckner
AP
PO, EC
6
6
PA
PO, NP
7
7
Ervin Sim
PO, SF
G
3
3
Guy Salvidge
AP
GW, EC
6
6
I Sniper
Stephen Hunter
NoA
-
6
7
Will McIntosh
AP, SF
B, PO, EC, GW
5
6
Kurt Cobb
NoA
-
5
5
Ardath Mayhar
AP
N
5
5
C, SF, YA
PO, GW, B
4
6
Honey Brown
AP
D
7
7
AP, L
EC, D
6
7
C, SF
PO, GW, B
4
7
C, SF
GW, PO, NP
4
6
PA
GW
5
6
Crmc McCarthy
PA
PD
6
6
Nathan Poell
AP, PA
W
5
5
Stphn Pressfield
NoA
-
7
6
Chris Sullins
AP, M
EC, NP
7
4
Jean Hegland
AP, L
EC
7
5
AP
PO, GW
5
4
Jack Womack
AP, L
EC
5
4
AP
GW
5
5
Richard Michaels
AP
N
7
2
Alex Scarrow
AP
PO, NP
7
7
Terry DeHart
AP
N,E
6
4
Carla Buckley
AP
D
7
6
Louis L’Amour
NoA
-
6
5
Neil Strauss
NoA
-
-
6
AP, M
EC
7
4
AP, YA
M, V
6
5
AP, YA
M, V
7
6
AP, YA
M, V
7
6
AP
N
7
5
Philip Revene
C
EC
5
5
PA, SF
W
4
3
AP
PD
5
5







Reviewed Earlier






Thomas Park
AP
EC, NP
5
4
AP
GW
5
5
Michael S. Turnlund
AP
EC, NP
5
3
Nova
AP
EC
6
5
PA
GW
3
4
AP
D
7
6
B.T. Post
AP
EC, GW, NP
6
5
Michelle Widgen
AP, L
PO, GW
7
7







Partial Reviews






Doris Lessing
AP, L
EC
5
4
Wm R. Forstchen.
AP
E
6
4

The explanations are at the bottom, but let me reinforce that that Realism (Real)and Readability(Real) are not intended to be qualitative, they are meant as descriptive.  The Scale is 1 to 7 with 7 being high, and thus 4 is the mid-point. 
If you look at the Retrieved From the Future (at the top), its 5 in realism/grittiness means that it is more realistic than typical.  The problems within the book are those that real people might face.  If people actually worry about supplies, and keep track of their provisions, that would tend to be a pretty gritty book.  The type of collapse scenario is not generally factored in unless it is an ongoing issue (such as with Walker Percy’s Love In the Ruins).
Retrieved From the Future has a seven readability.  This means that it is a fairly straightforward, painless book to read.  It is in no way a comment on its relative literary merits.  In fact the “Literary (L) “ notation was added under “Type” because literary works are often a bit tough to read for the inexperience and I wanted to signal that type of difficulty, from that of a long, dull read.  You will note, that of the recently reviewed works both Love In the Ruins, and Tobacco Stained Mountain Goar, both difficult reads, were given “L” notations.
If you want to know which books I liked, you will have to go to the review link.  Usually the paragraph  where I note my enjoyment level is about three from the bottom - particularly as I became more standardized in review format with the later


Type:
AP = Apocalypse in Progress
PO = Post Apocalypse
C = Collapsed- The agency of collapse is mostly past
M= Militia Element
SF= Elements advanced enough to be unfamiliar to us today
L= Literary (think low on action, lots of talking)
YA= Young Adult
NoA= Not Apocalyptic
R = Romance
Disaster
N= Nuclear
E= EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse)
D= Pandemic Disease
PD= Plant Disease
B= Biotechnology
PO= Peak Oil
NP= Nefarious plotters trying to bring the world down
EC= Economic Collapse (other than peak oil)
NN= Nanotechnology
V= Volcano
M= Meteor or Comet strike
GW= Global Warming
W= Weird Science
G= God or supernatural forces
Real
Realistic in tone - is it trying to portray an expected future.
7 = yes this will happen 4= barely possible1 = strong elements of fantasy
In most cases, where the effect is not ongoing, I am not factoring in unlikely disaster types.
Read
Readability = is it a fun or at least easy book to read.
7 = classic4= somewhat enjoyable 1= challenging; literary works often tend toward the challenging.
Note that you will enjoy a "4" if it is your type of book, but probably hate it if not.