Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Future projects

There are two engineering projects I plan on doing at some point (likely Christmas holidays) that I will post about here because they relate to overshoot.

These projects are also resume things to show what I can do. E.g I'm going to try and make models from 4 different CAD programs (AutoCAD, Solidworks, CATIA and freeCAD) just to show I can definitively use CAD software.

Also if I do it write they'll provide a good, straightforward example of systems engineering and what I do.

Project 1: The Pi-container from the physical Internet

The basic idea is a series of standardized, modular containers that fits into the physical Internet structure.

So they can fit into any transport mode (barring horse drawn wagons and similar), have inbuilt tracking mechanisms, naturally lock together and be more sustainable compared to steel shipping containers.

Important points:
  • I'm going to partly copy cargoshell, the composite material and folding aspects, different shell
  • Have refrigerated versions, likely using heat pumps and inbuilt pipes (for when in huge stacks)
  • I'm doing an intro course on embedded systems next semester, so I can do all the electronics later
  • I'll look at adding universal attachment points for unique transport mode adapters, such as aerial rope-ways or helicopters
Project 2: Peak oil compatible military ship (or transition)

Most likely a small patrol ship than anything big. Importantly, not going to worry about sails for a variety of reasons (don't know enough, mess with weapons + easy to hurt, not yet ready for military application).

Importantly I'll look Li-air batteries along with other batteries compared to biogas or biodiesel in terms of ranger, price and maintenance. The choice of fuel will depend on the ship, likely whatever the pacific islanders can most easily provide.

For the electric ship, I'll probably do a basic design for floating solar panels that can be deployed and either extend to the range of the ship or reduce battery size.

Most of the design constraints/choices will depend if I chose a standard Australian patrol boat or the ones we give to the Pacific Islanders.

This is the project I can show of systems engineering in.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Worldskills challenge + other stuff

First up, haven't been posting because Uni's a lot of work. Also read some books which made me scrap some ideas. A book on the venetian empire, world trade and other sea going activities are going to be interesting, Plagues and People, which is a very different and interesting take on history. Currently reading is the evolutionary world, some different points such as a reason to think a more centralized and regulated government might happen, and a few others.

I'm part of the new world-skills water innovation challenge. I'm not going to the competition, I'm just in the pit team helping to design the system.

One of the things I did was have a meeting with an RMIT researcher (Aidyn Mouradov) on phytoremediation, which is an interesting topic.

Anyway, heres two open access papers on the topic, specifically Duckweed and Azolla. Both are incredibly fast growing and versatile plants (compost, high protein livestock feed, fuel source, water purifiers, feed for bioplastic, etc)

Application of Aquatic Plants for the Treatment of Selenium-Rich Mining Wastewater and Production of Renewable Fuels and Petrochemicals

Dual application of duckweed and azolla plants for wastewater treatment and renewable fuels and petrochemicals production

Water Innovation Challenge
Water Innovation Challenge
Water Innovation Challenge

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Musings: part 2

Future Empires are going to be very different, the loss of  ethics, effectiveness plus changes to the maritime environment will ensure this

No matter what else you say about the American empire and the global system, there is one very important fact that is often ignored in the overshoot sphere

I'll show it in graphs



And another important graph

The first graph speaks for itself, wars are basically disappearing, unfortunately I can't find a graph which goes back earlier. However in per capita terms across all of history WW2 is the 6th deadliest war (numbers 1-5 are all pre-enlightenment) while WW1 isn't even in the top 10 so this trend has some history. And the wars we do have, like Afghanistan and Iraq, are better thought as mass policing actions than conventional wars, notice the lack of clashing armies and mass bombings. The second graph however requires a bit more analysis to truly understand the significance of the figures, it's death's per million and it is decreasing over time. While the major atrocities aren't as common anymore whole the ones that don't happen have less of an impact. Also, note that the graph above is for political violence, so the net cast includes a lot more than wars.

Today, the world's population is around 7 billion and outside of periodic spikes the annual death toll total is between 30,000 to 45,000. Or in percentage terms from 0.0004% to 0.0006% of the population per year (the largest spike killed 0.006% of the worlds population), in comparison the percentage death tolls in tribal societies is about 1% of the population dying to war every year (if that was the case now, 70,000,000 people would die from conflict alone every year, i.e. more than in all of WWII). But lets look at the death tolls from 3 sequential battles from the second Punic war that occurred in separate years. The battle of Trebia (218 BC), total death toll 30,000-37,000, the battle of Lake Trasimene (218 BC), total death toll 17,500 and lastly the battle of Cannae (216 BC), total death toll 64,200-85,700.

The lower estimates add up to 111,700 dead in 3 years, or 37,233 dead a year, which is about the current annual death toll. But that was only one campaign in the second Punic war, Rome invaded Spain to cut off Hannibal's supplies while he was in Italy (their good legions were elsewhere) and invaded Macedon when the latter sided with Carthage, burning Corinth to the ground. And there were other wars going on around the world, while the above only includes soldiers who died in battle, the civilians who died as Hannibal scoured the Italian countryside aren't included.

And the world's population was tiny back then, so as a percentage the death toll would be far higher than it is today. And if I wanted to I could look at the likely death tolls of North and South America before European contact, when the Amazon jungle didn't exist and instead the area was covered in city states (who historically fight a lot) while up to 100 million people could have been living in North America. The death tolls from the Americas could have easily been a 1 million or so a year by conflict under certain assumptions.

So, I hope that single important fact about the global system and the US empire is clear. Whatever else, they are incredibly effective as forces of peace in the world, holds high ethical standards and commits barely any atrocities by comparison to older empires.

Translation; the American empire is the hippie of empires.

Also as a side note, the people who talk about war getting easier and therefore more common don't have a clue. The statistical evidence, and this reaches back to the tribal wars of pre-civilization (admittedly through modern counterparts), is that as war becomes more deadly and easier to fight, we fight less and casualties decrease. This effect actually makes sense in game theory and psychology, we have a set level of risk (consequence x likely hood) we like to accept. Interestingly this effect is even more pronounced with drone warfare, along with decreased civilian casualties, 70-90% of drone kills are terrorist which compares nicely to WW2 in which only 33% of deaths were actual combatants. So yes drones kill innocent civilians, but does every other form of warfare, drones just kill less.

In comparison we have the British empires actions 60 years ago in the Mau Mau uprising. Here's the war nerd talking about that, Monty Python Burning Kikuyu Skit. Here's the book, Imperial Reckoning, which talks about the British response to the Mau Mau killing 32 white settlers. That response was to intern 1.5 million people in concentration camps, the entire Kikuyu ethnic group, and kill about 300,000, or 1 in 5, of them. This was also how the British dealt with the Boers, killing 25% of the civilian population via concentration camps. We could also look at the Japanese attempt at empire, WW2, where they killed at least 3 million Chinese with the Three Alls Policy (kill all, loot all, destroy all) and overall could easily have killed 10 or so million civilians. Julius Caesar bragged about killing 1,000,000 Gauls and enslaving so many (about 2,000,000) that he crashed the slave market and the Assyrians did much the same, "I flayed many withing my land and spread their skin out on the walls" (Ashurnasirpal), but in very inventive ways such as burying people alive in a pile of severed heads.

In regards to the behaviour of the US empire in regards to its atrocities, it is in no way comparable to other empires. This isn't to say that the US empire is a force of good or nice, merely far less violent and sociopathic than most empires. It, along with the global economic system, is also incredibly effective at enforcing peace and doesn't get into any of the traditional large scale wars.

It is highly unlikely that future empires will behave like this. Future empires will be brutal and not via proxies, but directly. They will also not be nearly as effective in keeping the peace and will fight far more wars because of that fact. Going into entire regions and killing thousands to millions of people isn't uncommon behaviour for empires. One, these wars will be far more closely linked to survival than the ones we currently fight (Afghanistan and Iraq aren't existential threats) so more drastic measures will make far more sense to those involved (due to the fact wars will now happen closer to home and there will again be less technological disparity). And the disruption caused by climate change and economic shocks isn't going to make areas easy to control, in addition to decreasing the resources available, and a knee jerk reaction to that is just to enact atrocities and mass killings (both works and doesn't work, but that's another discussion). Armies are likely to reverse the process of becoming professional, due to the decreasing prosperity of the world, which will increase the incentives for soldiers to commit atrocities or torture locals (like slowly roasting them, common in the 30 years war) since that's how they get loot (bonuses) and it's an easy way to gain supplies. Of course there is going to be a change of ethics and values caused by the decline, quite a lot of the old values will reappear, the ones that are fine with raiding, mass killing, the sacking of cities and such events. After all, one solution to the Food vs Fuel debate is for wars to be the decider for which countries starve. That attitudes certainly not new, the Roman republic bought a temporary end to taxation with its conquests, fuel and food is just another form of wealth, as the shipments of Egyptian grain to Rome proved.

Also on the changes likely to hit insurgency and counter-insurgency, I think a short story will do. In the American civil war Sherman encountered the first IEDs, buried artillery shells with a trigger mechanism, he managed to stop the confederates burying anymore shells by marching confederate prisoners in the front of his army. 

Another change relates to how easy sea denial will become. This article talks about that in relation to the Asia-Pacific. A navy has 2 main jobs, to deny the enemy the use of the sea (sea denial) for transport while enabling the transport of goods and troops across the sea (sea control). Before WWI if you achieved one the other was automatically achieved as well, but then subs came along. Suddenly it became extremely difficult to stop the enemy attacking friendly shipping and so sea denial and sea control became 2 separate objectives. With the advent of drones, missiles and better sensors, this division has only widened.

The age of maritime empires is ending, the days when Britain ruled the seas is over and no one can replace them. China could have its access to the sea cut off by Japan, India, Indonesia or any other power with the necessary technical know how. Their access to the world's markets, like Africa or South America isn't very militarily secure. The sheer dominance that Britain and America experienced won't exist again. Of course there are ways to mitigate this problem, but the central fact that dominance of the sea is becoming unobtainable will stay. Put it like this, the tricks the Chinese use in JMG's story "How it could happen" could just as easily be used against the Chinese, but against their civilian shipping (the traditional targets of subs after all) instead of military ships. And importantly, it doesn't take a great power to pull the trick off. Which is probably largely why countries with sufficient know-how don't fight each other, since we like having the global trade system working smoothly. The best case scenario is that China is simply constrained in what actions it can take but no one actually has to use their threats and fight some wars.

The original use of aircraft was for reconnaissance, drones (which are Vietnam war old) are cheap and could easily fulfil that role across large areas. Missiles are incredibly precise weapons, if you see a target you can hit it, though how this is achieved will likely change with peak oil. And any defence that is put onto civilian ships reduces cargo space and significantly increases cost. Now the limited date we have on ship board anti-missile defences (an Israeli-Egypt and a Russian-Georgian skirmish) indicates that modern navies can survive missile barrages if they are prepared, and being in the missiles extreme range helps, but that doesn't help civilian ships and honestly, the data is too limited to say, ultimately we don't know how contemporary naval warfare works. And sea denial is all about denying the enemy access to the seas transport routes, for economic or military purposes, or hitting civilian ships. The opponents navy can be completely ignored, as long as you can practise sea denial.

So we will likely see a return to land based empires, like Rome or Persia. The Aztec's didn't really have much in the way of ships and the Mayan city state empires acted without them as well. This means empires will be more localised (continental rather than global) and land based infrastructure will matter more. As it stands, this is a return to the more standard form of empire and the end of maritime power as a hugely decisive influence on the world.

Globalisation works a lot better than most people admit, also actual aristocrats damage economies along with traditional totalitarianism


This article has an observation that is is fairly important to understand globalisation, specifically section #5. The weakening of the middle class/economic troubles in America, Europe and here (the auto industry) is largely caused by and part of about 2,500,000,000 people being lifted out of poverty. Also the creation of a large middle class in China

Globalisation, importantly, works on a global scale. The inequality inside the first world is virtually nothing compared to the inequality between the first and third world (in the first world, clean water, safe food and basic necessities are almost guaranteed ). " It's just that we're all that rich man". And the majority of first world governments offer a safety net so that the poverty of the first world is not equivalent to the poverty of the third world. For peasants in Asia the appropriate phrase  for hundreds (if not thousands) of years was "[They're] so deep in water that a single ripple will drown them". 

Globalisation is actually working to reduce poverty and global (not local) inequality. It just can't do that without redistribution. After all, when manufacturing jobs leave for overseas, they don't disappear. importantly, sweatshop labour is actually a better deal for people in the third world than most other options (also a way out of poverty), see this. And it may not be working all that well, but it is the only thing working on this scale.

There is a list (in German) of all the different reasons given for why Rome fell, it numbers 210 different explanations. Some of them are silly, others stupid, but quite a few are perfectly plausible. The causes of complex events and trends are never very clear and the effects of overshoot are exactly like that. There will always be other explanations that could be the cause of trends that overshoot causes and vice versa. The world is not nearly clear cut enough to be otherwise. As above, globalisation provides an alternate explanation for job losses compared to overshoot, along with the decline of first world countries relative to third. And the growing richness of the third world is also a alternate explanation for oil price volatility, decreasing supply doesn't need to be brought up. These other explanations may not be nearly as good, some will be silly or stupid, but they will exist and most of them will have some existence and impact. One of the hardest parts about guessing the future is the fact that something vital will be missed, maybe it will only change a minor detail (whether city x survives or dies), something bigger but not big picture changing (area x preserves modern technology during dark age) or it could be a big picture difference (steady state vs decline). 

Another thing that is important is that we currently lack almost all the totalitarian instincts of previous societies. Here I'll be using the definition of a society that attempts to control all spheres of life.

Heretics, religious and intellectual, used to be burnt at the stake. While this practise was more a medieval christian one, the ancient pagans also practised it as evidenced by Socrates's trial,
"Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.".  For those crimes he drank hemlock and importantly that sentence was carried out by a democracy (newly established) so it was a totalitarian instinct carried by the people, not just the rulers. We may isolate or ignore intellectual heretics, but we don't exile, torture and/or kill them in various public spectacles (mind you, due to the martyr effect the former is more effective at preventing their ideology spreading, which has its own consequences).

But we don't do that anymore and freedom of religion is guaranteed in most of the first world. We don't carry out devastating religious wars, crusades or purges that kill millions of people and devastate large areas. The religious totalitarian impulses also spread into intellectualism, one specific is that curiosity is a sin. The difference isn't that these impulses don't exist anymore, here's a recent article talking about condemning curiosity (note the professor of divinity and his book) and most people think the message of Frankenstein is Science is Bad, even through the actual moral/message is different, what happened is we started being tolerant (because religious wars suck) and forcing arguments to not resort to violence as a first step, valuing order and peace. Also we went and became modern in moral and ethical issues, Chesterton and C.S Lewis are primarily modern in their stances and just happen to be Christian as well.

How Asia Works attempts to explain why different Asian countries look so different (specifically the rich North-East vs the poor South-East), South Korea is a rich modern nation, while the Philippines is poor even through it was originally far richer. The very first step that all the successful countries (Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) did was to redistribute land, placing small caps on maximum land ownership were common, to as many people as possible, note most people who farmed before this didn't own land but merely rented it (often feudal relations). The first thing this did was to rapidly increase production per hectare (but importantly not profit per hectare or production per labour unit) which had various knock on effects, such as capital generation and a better trade balance. He mentions that when Latin America was building up its industry, the middle class grew because of industrialisation, hence Latin America started consuming more meat and because Latin America's agriculture hadn't gone through sufficient improvement, this caused all the wealth generated by industrialisation to be spent on importing meat and higher quality foodstuffs.

An interesting observation is that an (almost) perfect free market was created in Japan for agriculture. There was a huge amount of producers with equal access to capital, the government provided a broad range of support (like loans for irrigation) that included marketing and information (an assumption in perfect markets is access to perfect information). This (almost) perfect free market worked as well as theory said it would, creating lots of wealth and improving the public good. But more importantly, breaking up the traditional power structures worked, and this is especially true for traditional aristocracies along with feudal structures that are similar to ones police states possess.

Related to the above, I've been doing some basic research on various NGO's that attempt to help the third world. One observation, capitalism in the broad sense actually works really well. One reason is explained in Kickstart, selling better tools rather than giving them for free ensures that the recipient will use them (80% as opposed to 30%) to become improve their income and become self-sufficient. This is more the distributism model of capitalism than corporate (not the catholic part, but the idea summed up by "The problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists"), but it's still capitalism which works well in general. And it's not particularly volatile compared to older economic forms, we forget now but famines (the closest to an economic breakdown feudal societies have) used to be incredibly common, occurring at least once every 2 generations.

We denigrate it because it isn't perfect, but one lesson of the last 200 years is that capitalism (especially coupled with democracy) in the broad sense works far better than the alternatives. "a market economy is to economics what democracy is to government: a decent, if flawed, choice among many bad alternatives." The debate should not be between the various different economic systems (communist, mercantile, guild based, feudal + manoral, capitlist, etc) but what types of capitalism work best and in what mixture. Should we encourage cooperatives like Eureka's future, that can fit into the market system we already have? what sort of government regulationis useful and how should it be implemented? What areas aren't aproppriate for private organisations (evidence points to health care and education for one, but what others)? of the various types of capatilism, what mixture makes sense and for what areas? how global should it be (relates to tariffs and such)? and so on. We already did the experiments to figure out which broad economic system works best, the goal now is to optimise and improve that system. 

Feudal systems tend to have strict controls on the movement of peasants (who made up most of the population), like police states control peoples movement. One way was through basic laws, in England a serf became free if he evaded capture for a year and a day, that restricted movement, marriage, access to work and other similar activities. The other way was through economic structures, one of the function of guilds was to limit the influx of peasants into cities (because living in a city was better than not), and to preserve the massive advantages given to nobles.

Mobility equals wealth, an example of this in practise is asylum seekers, the ones we get by boat aren't the poorest (nowhere near that) because the poorest can't afford to get on boats and are stuck in giant refugee camps or are stateless. So one way to stop movement is to destroy wealth, or stop it from accumulating in the lower classes.

Nobles consistently shaped the economic and political structures of their societies to benefit them at the expense of everyone else. Having complete legal immunity to taxation was a common perk (the Dutch didn't have that perk and they got a trading empire), which considering that nobles generally owned 60-80% of the land helps explain why governments didn't do much in civic terms until the late modern period, along with exclusive access to upper level religious, military and political (like judges, also sheriffs were nobles for this reason) positions. Most civic improvements were done by private individuals for various reasons (Rome traded political influence for civic goods), but modern history shows that isn't the best way.


One of the things people forget is that most kings, aristocrats and emperors are horrible to mediocre rulers, only a minority are actually any good (like Frederick the Great) and have the interest of those they rule at heart. They normally want to enjoy power and all the benefits it brings; which might be sleeping with lots of women (the Ottamen or Chinese harems were institutional forms of this), drinking lots of wine (one Khan made a promise to only drink one cup a day, so he built a cup the size of a large bucket) or becoming so fat that a special device has to be built to lift the monarch out of his throne. This is one of the big reasons most pre-modern civil wars are more about who rules than about freedom or political structures. Modern politics forces them to at least pretend to care about the ruled and that works a whole lot better. What's happened is a political form of the hedonic treadmill, our politicians/rulers have gotten better, but that has simply raised the standard,

Africa is likely going to be a good test of theories

Africa has some of the youngest (Kenya is only 50 years old, Egypt is 80) and least stable governments. It is also the poorest part of the world and thus the least able to cope with climate change and fossil fuel depletion. So Africa is likely going to be the first continent to get cut off from the globe and suffer most of the problems of overshoot.

Which makes Africa a good place to watch since it could easily be where quite a few events happen first. This its a a place where theories can be tested.

So how will indications that stability is approaching go?

Improvements to governance?

And then there is China's growing influence and presence in Africa along with its ongoing transport issues and natural resources.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Musings: Part one

The last post I did started out by me writing down various ideas I had, then I realised that I'd written more questions than Ideas and turned it into a post rather than a list. This is a list of ideas, not necessarily entirely coherent ones, I have and will try to turn into post's at some point.

I predict that neo-reactionary political and social ideas will increase over the next century as a form of historical delusion 

By reactionary I don't mean things like fascism, military dictatorships, the return of the gender roles from the 20th century or people becoming more religious. I mean ideas that (at least superficially) go against the Enlightenment (secularism, rationality etc) and its twin Romanticism (nationalism, will of the people etc) and at least want to superficially reverse those movements. So returning to monarchy, aristocracy, the divine right of kings, the unity of church and state and other ideas of that vein or adaptations of these.Various modern non-western ideas also count; such as sharia law, Caliphates (Islamic state lead by a combined political and religious head), Confucianism, a caste system (like India's), Venetian democracy, aristocratic republics, the old Chinese state system/Imperial hegemony are also included.

Progress has happened, all three types as described by the Archdruid have occurred. Morale progress; here tracked by murder and war death rates (note I am not in any way defining morality beyond some basics), an actual figure for medieval England is 10% of the population was murdered (30% for nobles) while the highest contemporary country on wikipedia is less than a percent (El Salvador in 1995), we don't kill nearly as many people in wars and fight barely any in comparison to almost any period of history (e.g peace on the barbarian frontiers of Rome was like an ultra violent version of the Israeli-Gaza border, evidence for this includes that only large farmsteads existed in border areas as small farms could not defend themselves) and most governments refrain from large-scale censorship, strict controls on consumption or mass murder (as in 5-10% of the population, the Albigensian Crusade killed close to 1 in 12 Frenchmen and significant numbers of people were killed in the suppression of the numerous revolts), though as recent events in the middle east have shown this is much more true of the west than the rest. Technical and economic progress are fairly obvious, the global economy is far larger than it was a few hundred years ago while there isn't any previous society that even equals our scientific/technical ability without deliberately rigging the contest. There is no point in pretending that progress didn't happen, all that does is make the future more confusing and obscure important trends.
 
Social progress has occurred, not necessarily in the last few decades but over centuries certainly, and as a consequence our current social systems are a lot better than previous ones; admittedly quite a few didn't exist in previous societies (I've never heard of a historical universal health care). You can argue about the why, how or desirability of these systems, which include large scale social welfare, a fully professional military with advanced logistics (nicer on civilian populations), the separation of civilian, military and religious leadership etc, but that is a historical process which happened. Compound that with other changes, like how firearms affect power relations, radios communication, the metallurgical improvements that happened before and during the Industrial revolution that had numerous consequences like allowing lots of rails for trains and previous societies are more or less unsuited for current conditions and likely future ones. Radio allows a far greater level of centralisation for no extra cost and if some form of quick VIP transport remains (aircraft or limited motor vehicles) then this affect is compounded even more, that's only one example.

A nice measure of an improved political/social systems; violent dynastic struggles and civil wars over rulers no longer exist. Given that Poland at one point had legalized civil war (one of the reasons Poland never did that well), and that these lead to large ultimately purposeless wars, this is a nice improvement. On a larger scale (war and international relations), we no longer routinely wipe out entire cities in nasty ways during war, war is incredibly rare (relatively speaking, world peace has been achieved) and the death tolls are puny in absolute numbers (50,000 a year is nothing), impressive considering the massive increase in population. An example of how things have changed; I read that about 50% of the violence in Iraq is in Baghdad, the majority of previous societies would have solved that by the simple process of annihilating the city and if that didn't work to quell Iraq, destroy some more cities. The war nerd complains that this is an era of squeamishness (note he really overstates his case and the killing of civilians), the difference between the Romans and the First world is that the Romans were ruthless and quite able to kill lots of people but didn't have that much more force than the barbarians while it would be almost trivial for the First world to annihilate the rest because of the massive force difference, but we don't like killing civilians. Israel can simply walk in and purge the Gaza strip (we're talking up to million dead), it would solve the Hamas problem but they don't.

One of the changes in recent history, one of those resilient and old changes, is that we can kill lots of people very easily. To quote this article, "Ethics, not truth, may be the first casualty of war in an age of limits." It is quite possible that in the near future the ability to kill lots of people will again meet people who are perfectly fine with using those abilities. You could have mass immigration from Africa to Europe, but if the Europeans decide to shoot back it's not really going to work. 10 million poor starving people who can't carry a lot of equipment (otherwise there not mobile) isn't going to exactly be a hard target. Of course theirs always mobility blockers (minefields) to aid in starvation or dehydration along with a highly successful Roman strategy that severly weakened warrior hordes but could (because they're slower and require more food) easily stop more civilian groups. All that is required is a return to an older mindset, an older morality and system. But that's mostly irrelavent, the groups that migrated after Romes fall weren't civilians, but hordes of between 10-100,000 warriors who normally adopted the local customs (like Christianity) and integrated themselves into the existing political structure. Mass migration on the scale of millions of civilians that displace the locals has be from Europe to elsewhere, because  the Europeans were vastly superior in technological terms.

Also democracies aren't more corrupt than aristocratic systems, it's just that corruption has a different definition now. The thinking goes that since the leaders of a democracy aren't automatically rich, it's fairly easy for the rich to corrupt them; but this ignores how much effort and laws favor the rich in older systems. Often a benefit of being a noble was not paying taxes, that's not a small matter considering that they own most of the wealth and land, and influential positions are often reserved for nobles only, which limits the possibilities for poorer people, and its especially bad as throughout most of history noble titles could be bought. Prussia went to huge lengths to preserve aristocratic land ownership such as spending fortunes, setting up noble only banks, rewriting laws, all for a single class of people, their version of the 1%; that is corruption of the system by the rich. By our standards this is an incredible level of corruption and the difference is that we see those properties as corrupt while in the societies that had them, that was an expected and reasonable situation. The reason we consider corruption common in democracies isn't because that's the situation in relation to other systems, but because we have expanded the definition of corruption.

 The cause of the rise in neo-reactionary thought is not going to be an honest assessment that older societies are better than current ones, but the same mental drive as displayed in the fox and the grapes. As decline happens, a likely response is to simply decry everything after the renaissance and beyond as evil and reject everything modern no matter its merit. There are aspects our the current civilisation that need to be ditched, but quite a lot doesn't. Like the systems that make our politicians do more than the bare minimum to stop revolts (and in a non-destructive ways),  prevent major wars which don't kill millions of civilians and create a really low murder/crime rate. Added into this will also be groups trying to 'restore' their old privileges or push their own agendas

Older societies where by and large functioning and healthy, but by current standards they all had drastic faults and flaw, especially when you look at the lives of peasants rather than simply the lives of the urban or aristocratic. They had parts that we like, but also parts that we hate and find abhorrent. Rome slaughtered and enslaved millions but provided quality infrastructure and enforced peace, the Celts were socially progressive in various areas (ex. divorce laws) but were also barbarians who would raid and sack other lands. There is no utopia in the past, nor the future.

Especially considering that past societies habits of every now and then creating quite impressive kill-counts, often not of foreigners but their own people, is quite likely to return if we adopt neo-reactionary ideas.

If people decide to revive tradition, the actual tradition is irrelevant in the face of what they think the tradition was.

As it stands, it's unlikely that an actual traditional system is going to be proposed, the legitimacy of tradition and a vague framework is more likely. This is because the idea of a political/social system is separate, but linked, from the actual system; viking mythology is similar, most of our ideas of pagan viking mythology comes from christian monk's writing centuries after the actual mythology disappeared. All the unspoken intricacies, basic ideas, assumptions and so on by and large don't exist anymore and can't be easily be brought back. Here's a minor example of different cultural assumptions; Captain Cook at one point kidnapped some islanders to learn the local sewing techniques, problem was they were male islanders and thus didn't know how to sew since to them it was women's work, while Cook went of his assumptions that sewing was more often masculine (sailors invented quite a lot of sewing).


Older societies are alien to us; they had different values, assumptions, ideas and lived in a very different world. In that light, importing even parts of older societies without drastic modifications doesn't make a lot of sense. Besides, quite a lot of the reactionary thought is going to be Utopian to some degree, which means that the negative sides of older societies are going to be downplayed; like the regular peasant revolts, regular standard revolts, rampant censorship (Elizabeth didn't censor newspapers, because she simply banned them), the power struggles and by our standards massive instability. The sword of Damocles is a good description of a king's position, always in danger of someone who wants power going about it in the traditional manner of kings, kill the incumbent and sit on his throne. And if the society was considerable unlucky, something like the An Lushan rebellion would occur (here's the death toll), through normally events like that aren't quite so bad.

And socially, most older societies (and current but foreign ones) are alien and have completely different values to us. Here's wikipedia's page on pederasty in ancient Greece, something that seems completely monstrous to us but was fine back then, they were also by our standards gay and had various social customs surrounding it (they cared if they were effeminate or manly), someone won a court case by proving that a co-plaintiff was a boy prostitute and therefore lost his citizenship. One justification for homosexuality was driven by extreme misogyny, if women are inferior to men, then a relationship with a women is inferior than that with a man. The vikings were similar, there's a saga where the hero kidnaps a pretty french couple to live with him on one of his raids, for sex basically (both the male and female), and later goes off and kills a dragon somewhere. The commonality was the association of the being in the penetrative role as masculine and the other as feminine, to be considered gay you had to be penetrated, the other guy was considered heterosexual. Slavery also varied across different cultures, a slave in Rome wasn't the same as a black one in the US and a black slave in Africa was different from one in the US while slavery in Russia slaves were better off than serfs until slavery was banned.  

Humans are mentally quite mutable, different societies can have completely different moral behaviours, ideas and such. An example of this is culture-bound syndromes, an interesting one is puppy pregnancy syndrome in which a man believes after being bitten by a dog he is now pregnant and will give birth to puppies and thus die. Also, warrior cultures are similarly alien and tend to have very different idea of manliness to what we have, here's a comic with some examples, the Spartans would also do each others hair before battle so they'd look nice after they died (warrior cultures share quite a few traits, vanity is one of them). Importing a traditional system without also changing people to be like traditional people is more or less pointless, it simply won't work.

The examples above are just snapshots of some differences, but most aspects of previous civilisations are similar in that they are different from ours. In Rome the priests and politicians were the same people (both were also elected), the Indian society that created the caste system is a very different one to today's India, in France there's was a Bishop who inherited a sword and armour with his position, quite a few monks and priests fought in medieval wars (they show up as casualties in battle), in eastern Europe there exists the last remnants of a third gender tradition. When either Jaws or Star wars (can't remember) was being shown in Japan, the producers thought they hated the movie because the audience was quite (in America that's not a good sign) but a local explained that it was a sign of respect and the audience liked the film. In Afghanistan there was an ambush of US troops and the local kids joined in, because they were bored and nothing much happens in Afghanistan villages that's exciting (why else would you have quail fights), here's an article on how westernisation, boredom and other things is affecting Somalia. If compared to other theoretical minds (actual aliens or AIs), humans have virtually no variation (e.g. we all feel joy, anger and pleasure), but we do have a large range of variables while our brains at least partly change according to the outside world.

Physical laws are invariant and inviolable; e.g. the laws of thermodynamics are always operating on everything and are never violated. Human ideas; laws, customs, thoughts, ideologies, practise, social constructs etc are not like that in any sense. One of the reasons current democracy works far better than previous incarnations is that it isn't the same as what the Greeks, Romans, Veniceans or anyone else had, which also means that the historical critiques of democracy (such as those of Thucydides) are discussing a different idea and system (some differences are minor, others significant). Physical laws are invariant and inviolable; e.g. the laws of thermodynamics are always operating on everything and are never violated. Human ideas; laws, customs, thoughts, ideologies, practise, social constructs etc are not like that in any sense. One of the reasons current democracy works far better than previous incarnations is that it isn't the same as what the Greeks, Romans, Veniceans or anyone else had, which also means that the historical critiques of democracy (such as those of Thucydides) are discussing a different idea and system (some differences are minor, others significant). Ethnicity and culture are exactly the same, at one point in time Italians weren't considered white, Italian immigrants weren't considered Australian and the idea of a (single) Italian ethnicity is also made up, my Grandmother wouldn't visit a specific supermarket because it had too much southern Italian goods, she was from the north. And in the Roman days there were lots of different ethnic groups (tribes) in Italy; Latin, Etruscan, Celts in the north, Samnites, Romans and a few others. England is the exact same, pretty much everywhere used to be incredibly diverse.

Food is another good marker. I live near Box hill, a fairly Asian area (mostly Chinese/Hong Kong or Korean) and a new fast food shop opened up that sells Korean specialities. Those specialities include twisted potato (quite nice) and a small container of fried chicken in a cup of coke-cola (the chicken is not covered in coke-cola). There's also a Hong Kong restaurant there which does a great steak with chips, while you can get any dish (Asian or not) with spaghetti. My Mom mentioned that when she was at a Chinese cooking class, the teacher told everyone not to use Chinese noodles because they were crap but instead use Spaghetti because it was better.

I'm using food here as a proxy, I could talk about other things that signify the same. I've meet Asian bogans for example, how common it is to see half Asian half White couples or the fact that I have a friend that if you speak to him over the internet he sounds like a big white bogan, but is actually a short guy who's ethnically Hong kongese. There is no perfect enforcer of human ideas and cultures, they generally aren't enforced at all. Most values have no objective counterpart in the world, ethnicity, democracy, justice, truth and so on do not exist outside human minds, and human minds are highly imperfect, flawed and filled with biases. 

It is actual impossible to import ancient cultural forms as they were, because the people who practised them and all their unspoken ideas/norms no longer exist.

Nukes are in many ways the best weapon, because you don't actually have to use them.

Physically using a nuke to create an explosion for purposes other than testing means that the relevant country has completely and utterly failed to use them properly (outside of some rare circumstances, such as those at the end of and just after WWII). In fact one way to improve a nuke is to not actually build one but convince everyone that you have, since that gets you an incredibly high return for minimal resource inputs. Of course there's the risk of being found out involved, but if you can't build a nuke, faking it is an (albiet highly risky) option.

Nukes operate entirely as diplomatic tools, threats that massively limit and constrain your opponents options (and your own in a lesser way). America is not going to be invaded by another country as long as it has nukes while India and Pakistan only bluster at each other with at most small black ops against each other (at least outside of Kashmir) because both sides nukes constrains the others. China and Japan (which has breakout capability) are exactly the same and Mad dictators don't change the equations. Mao (a mad dictator if there ever was one) when he didn't have nuclear weapons kept trying to get the Soviets to use them and allow Communism to rise from the ashes, but as soon as China got nukes that behaviour disappeared completely. The reason the cold war didn't have an all out war between the USSR and USA wasn't because of some complicated plot or fear of industrial war, but because a war would have involved nukes completely destroying both societies. Some of the population would have survived, but the government is gone and the instigators on both sides lose as nothing would have remained of either communism or western liberal democracy (which means the elites in charge are likely dead).

Anger can work in a similar fashion, though not nearly as well. The example I remember is a monkey gathering fruit. If it takes an hour to gather one fruit and you are a standard rational utility maximiser, then all I have to do is steal your fruit and hide it for 90 minutes. Since it will take less time to simply gather a new fruit than find it, that's what a rational utility maximiser does. But that equation changes if you are a being which gets angry and instead of doing the standard maximum utility choice decide to hunt me down and start stabbing. Something similar is at work in the ultimatum game, if your a utility maximiser and I know I won't be playing you again, I can simply offer 99-1 because your decision is either $1 or nothing. With a human, that doesn't work so well. On a large scale this makes human behaviour more rational than it can seem at first, but this isn't an entirely individual phenomenon. 

To work, the threat has to be believable, simply stating that "I will get angry and hunt you down if you steal my fruit" won't work if I have reason to believe it's just empty bluster. Nuclear tests are proof that a nation has a nuclear bomb, while anger is demonstrated often enough for it to be a credible threat. Evolution has a lot of solutions to basic game theory problems, like tit for tat.

And luckily for us nuclear weapons act near perfectly as deterrents while anger doesn't. It's also a large part of how the military in diplomacy works.

People are common failure points, not the methods and systems

 Medical research isn't the most rigorous, here's an article on it (first I found, there are probably better). In Predictably Irrational, the author mentions that one treatment for his full body burn was to special suit, which only made his problem worse as well as several cases of medical treatments being no better than placebo's. Drug research is similar, which honestly is not surprising given the complexity and abundance of biochemical pathways, and the massive amount of money involved doesn't help.

An example of a problem in social psychology, the Milgram experiment's data was horribly misused for, as I understand it, prestige and money. 

Somewhere in this blog is a great anecdote that I can't find about a guest lecturer talking about his experiments. My recollection of it; The guest lecturer is a surgeon who just completed a 1000 patient study to test the efficacy of a new treatment, as he's giving his speech a student asks a question and there's the following exchange;

"Did you use a control"

"You mean having half the patients not receiving the treatment"

"Yes"

(Shouting) "So I should have condemned half of them to die?"

"Which half?"

Here a sense of ethics and the desire to do something rather than nothing is getting in the way of properly testing the procedure. Since you have no idea whether the new technique will work, you need a comparision, which is what a control is, though having the standard treatment at the same time is also a good idea.

In this case it was ethics, as opposed to some baser motivation like money, that got in the way of proper science. A common case of science being misused for various human reasons is in how people assert intuitive notions, such as that violent video games and rape porn increasing cases of violence and rape. Now the reason for this is fairly obvious, our brains have a built in failure mode called confirmation bias that makes people ignore evidence and stick to their side. And the link can seem really obvious and intuitive, plus it fits with various moral systems, but the data doesn't fit.

At worst, violent video games (and movies) do nothing in respect to violence levels, here's study for violent movies and another for violent video games, there was a better example I saw years ago using FBI data that showed a marked decrease in youth violence as video games in general became common but this will have to do. And similar data exists for rape porn as well. Here it's basically politics and prejudiced views that are causing the problems. Note that you could easily reverse the above statements and the same point is made. As a New Scientist article once pointed out, social psychology answers look obvious in hindsight (the specific question was did rural or urban men adopt to WW2 more easily than the other, answer urban) and any stance can often be justified. 

As an aside, the obvious consequence of the above facts is that as peak oil lowers the availability of both porn and video games, if nothing is done to replace them then their societal benefits will disappear. I can think of a few possibilities; but frankly I don't know enough and the effects will be a drop of water in comparison to everything else. It's just one of those little things.

In none of these cases is the abstract idea of the scientific method at fault, but the humans who implement it and their conflicting motivations. Humans are far more commonly failure points than methods and technology. Chernobyl is as good example of that as needed, thought to be fair modern nuclear reactors are as close to foolproof as possible. Fukushima wasn't modern and the Japanese were repeatedly warned to update it, which again points to humans and conflicting motivations (money + political influence) as the failure point. To be clear, while I agree that most anti-nuclear proponents dramatically hype (to ridiculous extremes at times) the dangers of nuclear power, I still agree that nuclear power isn't that good an idea but for economic reasons. I could use other examples, but these are fairly clear, but the point is sometimes ignored in ideologies, people are imperfect and there needs to be mechanisms in place to deal with their mistakes.

In practical terms; this is the main reason I completely expect artificial societies (I think they are great idea) to be misused for ideologies in the near future. Basically instead of using any actual lessons from artificial societies, especially if they forget to add where the model breaks from reality, makes assumptions or simplifies things, will instead pimp their own special societal/political model. Especially since anything that large scale is going to be incredibly untrustworthy until far more basic models are commonplace and lessons drawn, like one in this article about corruption. Chances are the initial lessons are already going to be in use, but otherwise the idea seems sound.

It's also where a lot of social ideologies fail, not taking into account that humans are not perfect beings and will cheat, seize power, be corrupt or engage in other standard forms of moral failure. If a social system doesn't take this into account, it's not going to work and will fall prey to human behaviour. And a system doesn't just become good because it's written that it is, actual effort and mechanisms need to be in place to counteract these trends. If you want to create a non-hierarchical society, actual mechanism's need to be in place to stop hierarchies forming and energy needs to be expended as well, simply saying the society is non-hierarchical isn't anywhere near enough. And what also needs to be remembered is that formal and informal hierarchies can form, and the main difference is informal ones don't have as many checks on them.

The fault of communism is that it requires people to be something they aren't, so from the perspective of communism it's humans who failed.  However, since it's a system designed to be implemented in a human society and all plans to use it revolve around human societies, it's the flaw. And common human failings will pop up in any system, here's that concept but talking about cultishness (Every cause wants to be a cult), what matters is what the system does about it and at least mitigates the problems. To quote that article "It is sufficient that the adherents be human", there is no excuse for a social, mechanical, political system to not take at least a cursory look at how people will interact with it. And since its rather unlikely for us to be replaced by other sentients in the near future or begin drastic modifications, we don't have a choice but to accept this.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Key Questions

This is an initial list of key questions I think are important. I'll be creating a separate page for these and will add to it every now and then. with links to relevant blog posts, my own and others

What scale will relocalization progress to and how will it differ for different classes of goods and political systems?

Since our society is global in scale (or close enough), any change to this (short of colonizing space) will create a more local world. This is because relocalization is relative, it doesn't have a set point at which you've relocalized, all it indicates is a change in scale. And there is quite a large range of options between a global economy and one focused around a village. This also applies to political systems, there really isn't a set point at which something is local (it could be 5km or it could be 50km) because it will depend on transport methods, technologies, terrain and a host of other factors. So when someone says that the world is going to relocalize, they could mean a change of scale to anything from national, regional or village level economics unless they specify what scale they're referring to.  

So what scale economies are likely to develop?
10-100km sounds reasonable for the majority of food trading and luxury goods could easily remain globally traded. But what about manufactured goods, will they be as local as food or traded over a larger scale? on a national scale or a global scale? And what about different types of manufactured goods? 

And what about political systems?
Obviously some nations will break up, likely many in Europe and Africa, but not necessarily all. Iceland, New Zealand, some of the South American nations and maybe even Germany are good candidates for surviving (among others) completely intact. What will distinguish nations that break up from ones that don't? What will the aftermaths look like? How will sub-national politics (state or local) change? Where will democracy survive and what other sorts of political systems will exist?

And how will the scales change over time, space and with different transport systems? And how can the outcome be affected? 

How will the differing aspects of various energy sources affect overshoot and be affected by overshoot?

Oil is mainly used in transport (about 70% of oil goes to transport), coal for electricity and natural gas for electricity + heat. Renewables are turning out to be great at producing electricity and are driving electricity prices down in both Australia and Germany. The rises in retail (different from wholesale) price are due to different factors. There are going to be problems with the transition to more distributed energy sources and they'll need to be solved, but storage problems are quite solvable (playing catch up really) and the entire idea of base load power actually comes from the characteristics of fossil fuel plants, not the use of electricity. In short, fossil fuel plants have giant boilers that you don't want to let cool down, so near constant operation is wanted which has further implications (like offering cheaper prices at certain times) which affects the entire electricity system in ways that renewables don't and can eventually be phased out. Transport is a different story however, while the most efficient forms can easily use electricity, extensive infrastructure changes are necessary while the only available drop in energy source (biofuels) are a niche energy source at best. The specific characteristics of the various energy sources available are going to affect their deployment, utility and development.

So how will this play out? What will happen to the electricity grid? Will it disappear, divide into lots of micro grids, become smaller or something else? Where will industrial heat come from? Electric arc furnaces are likely to stay for steel making, but what about for sterilization and other processes? How will renewables affect the electrification of transport? How will it affect transport in general? What about other processes?

And how will it vary over time and in different areas? What can be done to change the outcome?

What is the future of new and underused transportation methods?

Airships (a hybrid of planes and blimps) are being developed by big experienced companies, like Lock-Heed martin, along with a few low energy/solar airplanes. Sailing ships are starting to come back, luckily more like windjammers than wooden hulls (see here), and some interesting ideas are appearing. Here's a few; the VindskipSkysails and Solarsails, but there are others. It's not going to take off hugely in the near future (5-20 years), but the possibilities for the mid future are there. And then there's bikes, what modern roads were originally built for and now in an electric form, so what's the likely future then for road transport and will velomobiles be involved? And if transport is largely electrified, how will people get to slightly out of the way locations and transport materials to new sites?

How will overshoot affect the development, deployment and use of these technologies? Which innovations will work and survive? What will the long-term  and secondary effects be? How will other changes affect the changes in transport? How will transport affect those changes?

And how will it vary over time and in different areas? What can be done to change the outcome?

What is the future of electronics and functions currently carried out by electronics?

Electronics are incredibly useful and ubiquitous in modern life, for very good reasons, even the third world has plenty of cell phones (Africa especially). Electric sensors are useful for a wide range of applications, electronic calculators are faster than hand calculations for equations beyond basic arithmetic (try doing 4x4 matrix calculations by hand). But a lot of functions can be carried out without electronics or by far simpler ones. Light (semaphores) can be used for rapid and long distance communication, radios themselves are rather simple (relative to laptops), slide rules and log tables can replace some calculations and indicators can be used rather than electronic pH readers. New production methods are appearing, partly an offshoot of the 3d printing boom, and that alone will change electronics.

So how will overshoot affect the spread of electronics? How will society cope with the lose of mass electronics? What will happen to the production, distribution and status of electronics? How will the replacements fare and what difference in performance will they have? What will change in communications and mass media (actually quite old)? What will replace the current forms? 

And how will it vary over time and in different areas? What can be done to change the outcome?

How will the change from optimizing labour to optimizing resources and energy affect society? 

Desert animals and plants do all they can to preserve water, one desert rat doesn't even need to drink, yet rainforest creatures for the most part don't bother conserving water. Everything is done to lighten aircraft, but wing production produces 90% swarth (excess aluminum shavings) because of this, yet I've never heard of a similar scale of concern for a ships weight. A similar difference exists for mobile and stationary batteries, the majority are designed for mobile use and most stationary ones are adapted mobile batteries, and the development of stationary batteries is something that's only happening now. In short, mature battery technologies are designed for mobile uses rather than stationary, so aren't suitable for stationary storage by that alone even through good stationary batteries are possible (size and weight isn't an issue, price is).

Economies, technologies and organisms optimize/minimize the use resources that are scarce and expensive, not those that are cheap and abundant. For the last 300 years or so, the Industrial economy has mainly optimized labour not energy and raw materials. And this has quite a few implications for EROEI, societal complexity, what's achievable and quite a lot more. 

Industrial civilization doesn't optimize around any single factor, but by price and net present value (NPV). The advantage of this is that everything is automatically weighted and value comparisons are quite easy, rather than only looking at labour or energy for improvements. Rising energy and material prices automatically change how the Industrial economy acts, the information is easy to access and in a very simple form. Material costs have been on a steady downward trend since 1800 while energy prices are fairly similar, so automatically the industrial economy is going to be relatively wasteful of those resources, they aren't valued that highly. Now to provide an example of how this process could change EROEI, first to the data; according to Wikipedia wind's EROEI is 18, in 1995 the average energy intensity of steel production was 27.9Gj/t, the lowest average was 12Gj/t (for the USA), you can reasonably get to 8Gj/t and if every technical trick (not looking at economic viability) is used it can be theoretically lowered to 2Gj/t. If those advances are taken to be the average energy reduction possible for wind turbine production then the EROEI changes from 18 to; 41.85, 62.77 and 252.1 respectively. It's unlikely to actually be those numbers (especially the last one), but chances are that renewable s EROEI will change for the better.

So what are all the implications of changing from optimizing the use of labour to the use of energy and materials? How will it interact with overshoot and the recovery period? How far can/will it go? What can be done to make the transition easier while keeping as many benefits from labour optimization as possible? 

How will this process and its benefits vary over time, space, demographics and with different energy and material resources? What can be done to change the outcome?

What will happen to long term (deep time) trends?

Over the last 10,000 years since agriculture started and civilization started, humanity has been adapting to it's new environment (like every other time our environments have changed). One adaption is lactose tolerance in 35% of the population (evolved separately in Africa and Europe) while most people can drink alcohol (which is a toxin after all). Recent and rapid evolution is happening in humanity,  causing us to be biologically different than our ancestors while making civilization not so alien to our bodies.

First, by its nature evolution cannot be stopped and it happens continuously, by this I don't mean that the alleles of a population are constantly changing, if the alleles are remaining constant it's because natural selection is causing them to be constant. All evolution is is adaption to the environment by a rather imperfect (there are big flaws in evolution as a design method, like all design methods) but elegant design methodology. And in humans this is just as trues as any other organism, we evolve and adapt to our environments, in this case civilization and the changes brought by human actions. Also, we have never been perfectly adapted to any environment or behavior set (there is no one paleo diet, but instead many) and by its nature evolution cannot make an organism perfectly adapted to an environment (it is filled with compromises, e.g longer legs are faster but lose more heat as well as legacy issues), it is by evolutions nature impossible. Here's some of evolutions flaws; evolution leaves legacy issues, e.g we hiccup because we retain some features from our fish ancestors and cannot get rid of those features without interrupting other functions, evolution cannot easily move organism to different "mountains" in the fitness landscape and outside of bacterial plasmids evolution can't take features from one branch in the evolutionary tree to another.

Secondly, evolution isn't actually a slow process that unfolds over geological time but a rapid process that can unfold over short periods of time (in some cases less than a year). It's one of the big study areas for biology now, but importantly I don't mean changing from one species to another but microevolution which differs from macroevolution only on the relevant timescale. Here's an example of rapid evolution, the threespine stickleback lost and then regained their bony amour in a few decades, a potential rapid evolution is adapting to obesity by have more brown fat (exists not as an energy store but to expend energy for warmth) to burn off excess calories. And if anything, human evolution is actually accelerating; here's john hawk talking about his research on that topic and here is a review of it after he's published his research. And I'm not even talking about epigenetics which is changes to genetic activity without changes to DNA the study of which is fairly recent and is explaining a huge range of biological problems, like the development of organisms. 

In short, while humans are not a separate species to our hunter gatherer ancestors, we are not biologically the same. We have evolved, and we will continue to evolve until the human species goes extinct in whatever way it does (including evolving into a different species). This evolution isn't big changes that completely alter the nature of being human, but they are important for day to day life. In 10,000 years humans will be biologically different. Also different areas and cultures already show differences in evolutionary pressure in certain traits (blood pressure, weight, height, age of first birth etc).

So an obvious question appears; how will humanity continue to evolve in the future? How will the variations change over time and space? How will cultural and technological changes affect human evolution? Will some future society ever start playing around with human genetic engineering on a large scale and what would the outcomes be? How will human evolution affect technology and culture?

Another deep time question set has to do with scientific and technological progress. To start this of I'm going to quote Thomas Kuhn writer of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his position on it. "That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.", quote here in the last section. The thing is, science has specific criteria by which you can judge theories and laws and you can definitively say that one scientific theory is superior to another. As he explains science (basically applied empiricism) is a problem solving method, also a predictive method and it should be judged by that criteria. Science isn't about finding the "truth" in some abstract way or finding out whats "really there" and inbuilt into the scientific method is the impossibility of it doing so, a scientific law is only one good experiment away from being disproved and the criteria of a theory is problem solving and concrete (i.e not vague) predictions. Occam's razor is the codification of this.

Also to be clear, a scientific law in no way operates like a law in human society, they just get called that for historical reasons. Scientific laws are generalizations of observed phenomena in mathematical form, they are precise and consistent with the majority of data. So the first law of thermodynamics is the generalization that energy has never been observed to either disappear or be created while the second simply states that in an isolated system (the universe is really the only one) entropy has never been observed to decrease. Scientific laws are what happens, theories are are guesses at why stuff happens and are testable while predicting specific (they can't be vague) future observations.

An interesting consequence of how science functions is that when one theory supersedes another, not a lot actually changes. A new theory or law has to predicate almost everything the old theory did, a scientific revolution doesn't actually change that much about our understanding of the material world. And those revolutions are generally slower than most people think, evolution had a long history before Charles Darwin was born, it takes a while for evidence to build up, theories to appear and actually problems have to be around. So we can reasonably predict that ideas that have routinely popped up but have never sticked and lack evidence or failed to gain acceptance, such as vitalism or various physic phenomena (which has been through everthing, including attempted military development) won't be accepted as part of science in the near or even somewhat distant future since they require a large reworking of our understanding of the natural world and quite extraordinary evidence/observations, which as the evidence doesn't exist aren't problems for science.

An example of this would be the theories of Rupert Sheldrake, his ideas are fairly vitalistic and like Hans Driesch went from inventing a vitalistic theory and then moved to parapsychology, both also ignore Methodological naturalism which is one of the important ground rules in science (a highly successful one). An interesting look at his latest book can be found here, parts; one, two, three and  four. In a few significant ways, Rupert Sheldrake is a recurrence of ideas and stances that have appeared before and could easily reappear in periodic manner and for similar reasons, such as the disenchantment of the world (here's an interesting look at that). If that's the case, then its for cultural reasons and the clashes between what people would normally think (vitalism seems right and is what children automatically think is right) and what comes out of the scientific method, which is often unintuitive. There have been, and will continue to be, attempts to make science support or disprove various spiritual/religious stances and this is a good example of scientific misuse and cultural clash. The thing is, you can practice and belief in pretty much any religion while still practicing science, there is far less of a clash than most people assume. Methodical naturalism is a working assumption, not an actual philosophical stance (that's philosophical naturalism) while most religions don't actually need science to agree with their statements on the physical world (they aren't actually literal statements). It's rather unlikely that future religions won't be compatible with science.

So what will happen to science? Also what will happen to the related, but distinct, sphere of technology and manipulating the physical worlds? After-all, in a way technological progress has happened in that sphere over the long term, steam engines wouldn't have been invented otherwise (the Romans couldn't have possibly invented them, they lacked too many ancillary technologies). What will the next big changes and revolutions (remembering that they aren't complete changes) be? How will it fit into future societies? How will the scientific method change over time?

What structures won't change as society's values change?

Simply by necessity and time, values are going to change and the societies of the future will be very different from ours in that respect simply because the world and our nature force them to be. However, societies change values as a natural process anyway, here's a discussion on that, and even societies that seem to keep to tradition often change (traditions don't actually have to be that traditional, only seem to be). And this will greatly affect how various human structures are arranged, like the prioritization system we call economics.

But instead of asking what will change, it's also important to see what won't change. After all, quite a lot we do is in response to the non-human world or is our way (most organism do this) of manipulating the environment. So there is going to be a wide range of behaviors that aren't affected by a specific societies values, well outside of the basic ones like survival and basic material needs. And the structures that do change, still have criteria to fulfill and nonhuman forces that affect them. So I don't expect this collapse/decline period to be different from previous ones in that we suddenly ditch agriculture and cities, especially since they are quite advantageous.

An example of a human structure that probably won't change is some very key parts of the military and similar institutions, like the chain of command and formation marching.  Those structure haven't appeared because society has imposed a hierarchical and team based model on armies, but because those systems work in practice better than the other options. The chain of command is the only way that orders could possibly be sent to the right people and for information to flow properly, something which isn't easy to do in combat, and allow it to be processed at the same time. In some situations you can do without them, but that's rare, and there is a variety of hierarchies, so it isn't completely set in stone. While armies don't move around on foot as often as they used do, actually marching, learning to march in formation still has benefits ignoring that armies still have to be able to move by foot. When I did officers training for St John, we had a ex drill sergeant (can't remember his actual title) teaching us and he talked about them, basically it teaches teamwork, they ability to work in a group and to keep track of where everyone is. Valuing equality and democracy hasn't affected these structures that much, other future values won't either.

 While I don't know about philosophy and logic (but they're probably similar), science also is largely independent of societies values and generates it's own.  To quote this review of Mystery of Mysteries"Ruse concludes that epistemic values have advanced markedly at the expense of the cultural values.". Put it like this, the theory of evolution is an entirely human construct in that it it only exists in human minds and artifacts. However, that misses that evolution describes what is observed in the world and how things happen, it isn't an arbitrary idea built to support some political system or religious stance (Darwin's grandfather used his evolutionary theories to justify Deism and the Whigs, but not Darwin himself). Put it like this, while aliens may not come up with the exact same scientific theories they will observe the same phenomena  (like evolution ) and have the same laws (e.g thermodynamics doesn't change just because they think differently).

Future societies may have completely different values, similar to how much opinions on homosexuality differ in history, in classical civilization it was closer to an expected behavior than anything else (the Sacred band of Thebes was an explicitly homosexual fighting unit). But human structures aren't entirely designed just around human values, but in response to the external environment.

So what parts of civilization are malleable to changes in cultural values? What doesn't change? How sensitive are the things that change to changes in values? Since some structures will have parts that are malleable and parts that aren't, how will that resolve itself?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Peak oil technical challenge report.

Peak oil Technical report: Krampus Challenge 2013

Problem – The re-communalising of cooking 

Modern industrial civilization is incredibly wealthy, not just on the societal level but also at the level of the individual. This has had significant consequences, some of which have changed society in drastic ways. One marker/consequence of this incredible wealth is that individual households have baths and kitchens, someone that is almost unheard of historically for urban societies (outside of the houses of the elite). Public baths, for example, existed until the 16th century in England before the Puritans got rid of them and are still used by many cultures today, a Korean friend used public baths here in Melbourne. Cooking & eating is still partly a communal (as in not done on an individual or family level) activity, think fast food joints, restaurants or cafes. but this is often more as a special thing than a normal activity.

Fast food is itself incredible ancient, it dates back to ancient Persia (Iran) and it existed largely because most urban people didn’t have their own kitchens, the average Roman loved fast food (Viegas 2007).  To give you an idea of how common fast food was in urban settings, for every 60 residents of Pompeii there was 1 Thermopolium (fast food joint) along with Tavernes (cafe) and Popinas (wine bar, often a breakfast of vegetable stew or wine soaked bread was served). Now, there are large differences between modern and ancient fast food, the ancient fast food was less processed while also containing less meat but they otherwise share similar criteria; cheap, quick to prepare en mass and filling. Also Street vendors are a very old tradition, one that is still strong in Asia (think Malaysian hawkers) and it has its own style of food while still sharing the same criteria. 

The food served at these places varied; Paella, curries, nuts, a pot of soup mix, stew and so on were served. Traditionally, only the rich don’t eat this food in cities (since they could afford kitchens and/or servants) and the otherwise there would be a kitchen & dining room in the apartment buildings (Bed and Board), with the owner or staff cooking food. It is only really in modern Industrial civilization that these options aren’t standard for people living in urban settings.

The economic reasons for this are fairly simple, just as its more energy efficient to heat up one large bath than lots of small ones, its more energy efficient to cook large amounts of food at once in one place than in multiple small kitchens. By doing these things communally, energy is saved, less equipment is needed, appropriate economics of scale are achieved and benefits of specialization are achieved that family or individual kitchens just don’t provide. And, importantly, fuel, a scare and precious resource, is saved which since it was commonly wood also lessens the impact of cooking on the environment. We know these systems of cooking are economically viable in low energy settings and they will be perfectly viable in the future, no matter what decline may bring.  Eating, along with a few other activities, will become a far more communal affair in the future than it currently is now. Note, I’m not referring to any specific economic or political system, communal here refers more to large groups of non-family related people eating in the same place rather than as small family units, whether its under a Roman style economy or Maoist communal kitchens.

And here is one of the many problems that will exist in the near future; how to bring this change about in the best way possible. How do we take advantage of this model of cooking while fuelling it with renewable energy? After all, most renewable energy sources produce mechanical energy (wind and hydro for example), while the main historical source of renewable heat (biomass) is likely to be scarce and large scale use of wood in the cities would lead to devastating deforestation. Where can the energy for this cooking model come from and how could it best be put to use in a sustainable manner?

Overview of a Solution - Concentrated solar power

Only a few renewable energy sources produce heat; geothermal, solar and biomass. Geothermal is impractical outside of a few scattered areas and biomass already suffers depletion problems in the third world, adding depletion problems to the first world won’t be very helpful, which leaves solar power. Since this is using heat in the 100-600oC range, kitchens are generally inside buildings and these specific kitchens will be running for the majority of their time, the system will require; solar concentrators, a heat transfer mechanism and thermal storage at a minimum in addition to the specialized cooking equipment. A few more things can be added, excess heat is available after all, and some provision for mobile vendors would be useful but the core system is enough to begin with. Importantly, this system is not like current solar cookers in that it isn’t a standalone piece of equipment, but an entire building and includes a system that is only now being incorporated into regular solar cookers, thermal storage.

Also, while I am talking about this system as a replacement for standard restaurants and eateries, that isn't the only option available. Instead the system used in some college campuses can be copied/modified. Where each floor has a small kitchen units, more for snacks or small meals, and the building has a single big kitchen area, most likely the big kitchen could be the easiest part to adapt. There are a few options in how the system could be arranged, specific districts could be built instead (like shopping districts), and that would in turn affect what technologies are used.

Solution

Requirements:

The System shall
  • Run entirely on non-biomass renewable energy 
  •  Only require backup heat sources in very unfavorable conditions 
  •  Have a backup power supply 
  •  Provide excess heat under normal operating conditions
    • If necessary during winter as well
  • Be operational in temperate areas
  • Pay for itself and provide a living for its operators 
  •  Provide any level of heat required for cooking 
  • Use less energy than conventional eateries 
  •  Able to use a variety of technologies
  • Serve as many or more people as a standard eatery 
  •  Be as technically simple as possible while still fulfilling operational needs
Core Sub-systems:

Solar concentrators

In order to get the necessary temperatures for cooking, especially at this scale, sunlight needs to be concentrated. This heat is not going to directly heat the food (as modern solar cookers do) but instead heats the fluid used in the heat transfer system. There are a variety of technologies available and it’ll depend on the buildings location and architecture which one is used. One promising project at RMIT is Micro Urban Solar integrated Collectors (MUSIC)(RMIT 2013), which aims to develop collector platforms that can be mounted on roofs and produces heat in the 100-400oC range. If this technology works out that would be a perfect option but there are other roof mounted technologies that can be used. 

Trays of parabolic mirrors are quite common in solar applications, parabolic mirrors are cheap, but Fresnel lens are being used in an MIT salt solar cooker, so Fresen Lenses are also an option. A tracking parabolic dish is also a possibility and so is a solar bowl, instead of a fixed spherical mirror with a tracking receiver, this technology is already used in a solar kitchen (Auroville, India). Scheffler reflectors are also an option and are used in quite a lot of solar cooking technologies and modified evacuated tubes could also provide hot or boiling water. 

And the solar concentrator component doesn't necessarily have to be mounted only on the roof, using a nearby open space is an option for some places, particularly rural ones. This system will be easier to implement away from city centers for the basic reason that the buildings can be wider and more land is available for sunlight harvesting. Otherwise the solar concentrators can be mounted on the roof, but sunlight could be deflected from nearby roofs or gardens (similar to how the Japanese put solar panels over fields) to increase the available sunlight. There will be a small range of technologies that work best for this application (I doubt that evacuated tubes will work), but the mixture used will depend on local conditions.

The main problem is likely to be the availability of sunlight and locations for solar collectors. Roof sharing is an option; the specific eatery could use neighboring roofs for solar collectors and the neighboring building gets free food or payment. Instead of building this solar restaurant only in one building a group of neighboring buildings could be linked up in a heat distribution network (like a microgrid) and pool their available space for sunlight collection. As it stands, architectural design would have to change to accommodate this along with construction techniques and urban planning.

Thermal storage

Most cooking isn’t done during the day (Magazine 2012), so heat is going to have to be stored. If enough heat is stored then a week or so of cloudy days won’t interrupt business. There are a variety of heat storage technologies; the most likely to be used are those that use oil, water or molten salt, though phase change materials could be used in the cooking equipment. Concrete, and some other solid materials like packed rocks, can also be used store heat, but liquid storage is likely better for this application. Thermal storage is an area in which research is still continuing, there’s a concrete thermocline method (John, Hale et al. 2013) that could turn out to be the most efficient option available, but it isn't the only developing heat storage technology out there.

The most efficient storage method is a large cylindrical tank (for liquid storage), since increasing volume decrease the surface area to volume ratio, the larger the better and this also applies for solid heat storage for the same reasons. However, for small vendors, and as a potential backup system, some form of portable heat batteries would be useful.  There would be two primary models; a small one for mobile vendors that is light enough for one person to move and a big one for stationary purposes. The big one doesn’t necessarily have to only power the eatery, it could be rented out for other uses; space heating, public baths, process heat, sterilization etc. This battery would most likely combine liquid heat storage (for lightness) and very strong insulation in order to function adequately.

However, since the bigger the thermal battery is the better it is, having shops that are close together sharing one large storage device makes a lot of sense. Another option is sharing the storage among a group of buildings or even a village/town. The main issue then is how to share the heat when the batteries are low.  

Thermal transfer system     

This is what connects all the other sub-systems together. None of the other components are actually connected to each other directly (that is an option however) and without this system a radically different architecture would be needed.  All this system has to do is move heat where it’s needed and when. Steam pipes are a good and traditional way of doing this and it’s likely the method that’ll be chosen.

If possible, this component should be powered by excess heat. Stirling engines could be used; they only produce mechanical power when enough heat is available, which is when you want the pumping done. This system could also be connected to a larger heat grid, mostly as a supplier, and this would provide benefits to surrounding heat users while adding an extra revenue stream for the eatery.

If possible, the pipes should be imbedded in heavily insulated walls and themselves be thick and heavily insulated. And if excess heat is being used to drive the system, consideration should be paid to lowering the required pumping power, there won't be much mechanical power to waste. there are two main ways of doing this (both surprisingly recent practices) are to make the pipes as straight as possible by placing the pipes before you place the equipment or making them as wide as possible to reduce friction. Also this system could be used for space heating of the eatery, small pipes that are normally closed could branch out from the central pipes and when space heating is required, while extra heat is in the pipes, they can simply be opened. It won't be highly responsive, but its an option to consider.

Cooking equipment
Since the heat is going to be delivered directly as steam, the cooking equipment will need to be specially designed. Ovens would have a surrounding cavity into which steam is pumped and a thermo-electric generator could power a fan when necessary. The rest of the equipment can be modified in similar ways; high pressure steam could be pumped underneath metal plates to heat them up, similar to how electric stoves work, coffee machines could extract the heat from the steam and the leftover heat from these processes can be used to keep things warm. It likely inadvisable to use the steam from the heat transfer system directly, so steam cookers will need a heat exchanger to swap the heat between the steam for cooking and the steam for heat transfer. 

Refrigeration unit

Refrigeration is quite useful for food storage and luckily the overall system will produce excess heat. This excess heat can be used in a vapour absorption cycle (Said, El-Shaarawi et al. 2012), or absorption refrigeration, to refrigerate. If the climate warrants it, this could also be expanded to provide cooling for the entire eatery. Absorption heat pumps are also worth looking into, along with any other similar technologies that use waste heat. Absorption refrigeration is quite an old technology and there are already designs out there that could be dropped into the system with minimal modification.

The main problem with absorption refrigeration is that ammonia is the best refrigerant for these cycles and it's toxic. This means that safety and the placement of the fridge needs to consciously looked at, so when a leak happens it causes the least harm possible and doesn't leak into the main dining area. Otherwise it's worth exploring if the refrigeration system should instead of being linked to the main system, be a physically separate system that has its own solar heat supply. Another is also how to deal with intermittency, is the fridge heavily insulated and cooled extra low so the system can deal with losing power for a few days, should it have a separate thermal battery to smooth out the heat supply or a combination of the two.

Peripheral/optional sub-systems:

Small/mobile vendors

Eateries that aren’t stationary or are too small for this system to be used are still fairly important. Whether it’s a mobile hot dog stand, a hawker cart or maybe a small store in a train station, the full system likely isn’t a viable option. That however, doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from this system. As mention above, small thermal batteries could be used to power these stalls or there could be a heat grid and specific outlets where vendors can charge their batteries.

How this is done depends greatly on the running times of the stalls and vendors. At my local train station there’s a small coffee shop that’s only open for the morning and afternoon commute, it wouldn’t require a large battery and there’s a commercial area right next door, though this example could use a small solar system. Other places would require either multiple or larger batteries, though the option of installing a small and stripped down system is there.  As it stands, these stalls would already benefit because the demand for cooking fuel is reduced by the core system and this just extends the solution slightly. Besides, the mobile vendors and small stalls would generally be able to use standard solar cookers while using thermal storage as a backup.

Thermo-electric conversion

In this situation thermo-electric generators would be better than heat engines for producing electricity, despite the low energy efficiencies (typically around 8%), however as this is converting waste heat the low efficiencies aren't that important. As it stands, adding thermo-electric generators to cooking equipment is already being done and it turns out to be very worthwhile, see the BioLite stove or Powerpot. The best things to power are going to be the LED lights, kitchen fans and possible a radio for music + ambiance. After that comes customers micro-electronics (energy sippers), small batteries and possible energy efficient computers. Small vendors would greatly benefit from this system as it reduces the need for batteries (for lights and stuff) while letting them run certain electronics cheaply or mechanical applications (fans for improved combustion for example). 

The thermo-electric generators should be placed where heat flow is already happening or where you want to slow it down, so that you don't have to create a extra heat flow which adds extra costs of its own. Basic thermo-electric generators are technologically simple, but more advanced ones are available if necessary, and that would be the first place to start. One possibility is to use 3D printed thermo-electric generators (Roch 2013) which could be quite cheap and available in quantity, but the main advantage is that they could wrap around the heat transfer pipes rather than being large blocks, which makes placement easier.

Waste Heat

The system is quite likely to generate excess and waste heat. If enough is generated, not guaranteed, then some use for it should be found. The most immediate use would be for space heating or cooling (using absorption cycles), after that comes heating water and possible using steam for cleaning or sterilization. If a district heating distribution system is available then excess heat could be pumped into it, otherwise nearby buildings could use it for certain processes. It all depends on the form the waste heat is in (steam for example), how much is available and when is it available (randomly, periodically etc). And it will be a limited resource, budgeting it carefully will be crucial.