Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Of Swans and Turkeys


On Monday I was on Equal Time Radio with Carl Etnier, WDEV, Waterbury, Vermont. The other guest was the technological optimist William Halal, author of Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Transformation of Business and Society. Halal claims to be able predict the future of industrial civilization by talking to experts in different technology fields and then putting all of their predictions about their own fields together as a single map of things to come.

My immediate reaction was along the lines of "Of course experts in any given field like to think that their field has a bright future!" and only later did it occur to me to put him in the context of Nassim Taleb's work, allowing me to formulate a better response.

Taleb is known for introducing us to black swans (reality-altering observations that invalidate earlier conventional wisdom) but another animal he should be rightly famous for is the Christmas turkey. Taleb says that asking an economist to predict the future is like asking the Christmas turkey what's for dinner on Christmas: based on its entire lifetime of experience, the turkey expects to be fed on Christmas, not to be eaten. As far as the turkey is concerned, Christmas is a black swan-type event.

But yesterday it occurred to me that this analogy extends to all professionals, and certainly to technologists and scientists: when asked about the future of, say, nanotubes, or nuclear fusion, or genetic engineering, they will predict that it's bright, and continue to say so until the day their grants are canceled, their salaried positions eliminated, and their labs shut down for political and macroeconomic reasons they are ill-equipped to try to comprehend.

This is precisely what happened during the demise of Soviet science the early 1990s: one moment there was a great scientific establishment boldly predicting a bright future for itself, and the next moment you had experts in holography making little religious holograms to sell at outdoor flea markets in order to buy food, aerospace metallurgists reinventing the straight razor to get a decent shave because disposable razors had disappeared, graduate students dropping their research projects and going off to make some money doing manual labor, and the entire faculty at once trying to find a visiting faculty position abroad.

And so it seems to me safe to conclude that the future of your specific field of scientific or technological endeavor depends first and foremost on your ability to continue drawing a salary and receive funding, which, in turn, depends on a long list of things, with the viability of the particular field of endeavor somewhere near the bottom of that list. When asking an expert for an expert opinion, that expert is forced make assumptions about a multitude of factors that lie outside the expert's narrow field of expertise. The most important assumption is that there is continuity in the surrounding environment - physical, social, and economic: the turkey's assumption about getting fed tomorrow based on it being fed every day.

Given what is happening all around us - be it physical resource constraints, climate upheaval, or unsustainable social tends - that assumption is highly questionable. With this basic assumption invalidated, an expert's expertise regarding the future is no more impressive than the expertise of a Christmas turkey regarding Christmas.

62 comments:

Sublime Oblivion said...

This is a very good point Dmitri and one that is too frequently ignored.

Scientific funding is going to be one of the first things dropped. Leaders are going to be overwhelmed by more immediate demands from constituencies such as consumers (who can vote them out of office / overthrow them), the security forces (to maintain social order and defend it from outside aggressors in a collapsing world), other elite factions (so that they don't mount a coup against them), etc. Even though technology is one of the most important things we can do to ensure long-term sustainability, it will be one of the first things to be cut (fundamental research, anyway - applied research will continue for a while, particularly military).

Of course Russia was isolated in its collapse and so buffered up by the outside world technology did not digress. That is a real possibility in a large-scale global collapse, however, as happened at the end of the Roman empire.

Anonymous said...

Great observations! I think it is helpful to think of occupations as analogous to biological speciation (or pseudospeciation) where human roles in a complex society are differentiated into occupational niches. The expert must think they're right, lest their role in the ecosystem be jeopardized.

Anonymous said...

Dmitry, your observations are right on the money. I remember when Russians would show up at my university department in the US, sometimes eminent people literally begging for some sort of position. Their stories are, or should be, cautionary tales. This story is not very well known in the US, outside of academic circles. People literally leaving with only a suitcase (and the knowledge they carried, which was considerable but not immediately convertible into money or food).

On the optimism of technologists, I have concluded that Lewis Mumford had it right on technology. For many decades he was the curmudgeon pointing out that governing a country and being a specialist in technology are not the same thing, that the latter should not usurp the role of the former... but to no avail.

I would like to think that old Mumford would be smiling a sad smile today, while saying fuckit just like the rest of the population.

A sad fact is that everything that is happening was written up in detail by somebody, it was published and it was read and it was reviewed, and in some cases it was discussed and in many cases actually taught in schools!

The Orwell Problem rears again. You can have intellectual comprehension yet act in a way that is totally contrary to intellect and totally contrary to your own interests.

I believe politicians and leaders not only thrive on the Orwell Principle but are very often dupes themselves.

How else to explain Obama's straight-faced mention of "clean coal" in yesterday's function? What if the guy actually believes in that because some technologist told him so, assured him? It is a scary thought.

Bilbo said...

Another great observation by Kollapnik! I've talked to many physics professionals who should understand thermodynamics and exponential growth well enough to comprehend the nature of what lies ahead. Yet almost all of them remain like a deer frozen in the headlights and unable to do anything to address the troubles ahead. It is all the epitome of the Upton Sinclair quote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

Frankly it has caused me to lose great faith in academia and our educational system in general.

Logan said...

As a physics student, I'm often asked what my "plan after graduating" is. I usually say (truthfully) that I'm studying because I simply seek knowledge for its own sake. This can be somewhat awkward, given the diploma-mill mentality of 95% of people. But it's less awkward than saying "I don't think there will be any jobs in two years."

* * *

...aerospace metallurgists reinventing the straight razor to get a decent shave because disposable razors had disappeared...

Really? Awesome!

Anonymous said...

"As a physics student, I'm often asked what my "plan after graduating" is. I usually say (truthfully) that I'm studying because I simply seek knowledge for its own sake. This can be somewhat awkward, given the diploma-mill mentality of 95% of people. But it's less awkward than saying "I don't think there will be any jobs in two years."

As a young person, you should be optimistic, think positively. Save your energies for positive things, like surviving and helping others survive. In thirty or forty years you will need to rely on the reservoir you're collecting now, and it would be better for you if it had positive content.

Just two cents from a guy speaking from experience...

Peter Dodson said...

I attended a presentation last night by some wind experts - they all argued that wind could save the world, all we needed to do was build them. They glossed over (and by this I mean didn't even come close to mentioning) every single major issue with wind production, whether it be the lack of a good battery to store it or the environmental affects of erecting massive turbines over huge areas. Plus, they all argued that hydro would work in unison with wind - they all seemed to think that damming rivers and destroying traditional habitats makes an energy clean.

Point being that I agree Dmitry - experts need their technologies future to be bright, regardless of the draw backs. Why be an expert in something that has no future?

Anonymous said...

Another stimulating broadcast by philosophical analyst Stephan Molyneux on the crisis, the collapse and boondoggles:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iCRNBGQU00

Rob said...

In the 1990s I met some of these guys standing on streetcorners in Brighton Beach, being Street Musicians. Or hitchhiking.

So. What countries can one get citizenship in today, that will still take Americans? I've tried En Zed for a few years now, but can't score high enough on their 'points' system.

So far nobody's mentioned emigration, although some guest posts have come from folks who have already gotten the heck out.

Anonymous said...

"So far nobody's mentioned emigration, although some guest posts have come from folks who have already gotten the heck out."

There has been quiet emigration for some time now. It started being noticeable when the first election was stolen and nobody said or did anything about it. That was a bad sign for some people. Then, after 2004, it resumed pace and it has been accelerating. Not mass migration, but noticeable.

If there were mass migration of Americans, it would have to be somewhere where there are lots of jobs... and good luck with that in the current situation. But if life is cheap somewhere and you have some savings, you could do it.

Have you thought of South Africa? And of course, if you have relatives somewhere outside the US, you should explore that. That is a huge asset.

Anonymous said...

Historians of technology have known and preached the problems of belief in technological progressivism for a couple of generations now. Sadly it leads so many bright people to trust blindly in a better future, and the rest of the population to passively accept what they say...

Michael Dawson said...

Speaking of Christmas turkeys, President Obama says this is going to be another "American century."

fallout11 said...

As an aerospace metallurgist (oddly enough) I now suddenly and clearly know what my future holds! Thank you Mr. Orlov.

Winter said...

It's not just the scientists/technologists that can't see past their own noses. I've been lurking at several economics and stock market forums. These people see a wonderful and bright future--once we get past this little hiccup of a depression. They can't see anything in geopolitical terms, they have no idea about sustainability. Global climate change (if it exists) is an opportunity to cash in and so is Peak Oil (which may be a hoax to keep prices high--in their minds anyways).

It's really like walking around a turkey farm on Christmas Eve. There's a sense that something is in the air, but it sure isn't change and it sure isn't collapse. At least not a long term change or collapse.

It's kinda painful to watch.

Anonymous said...

In tune with the humorous vein in this darkening age, I heard a priceless one on a financial program:

"There isn't a capital problem, there is a funding problem."

[in relation to the insolvent banks.]

This one deserves to be a classic, like Bill Clinton's definition of "sexual relations".

Anonymous said...

Changing the subject: I am a farmer. I recently invested in 1 ton of salt. I can make kimchi and saurkraut for my whole community for a while that way. Thats a good way to preserve vegetables (vitamins) through the winter without heat. Other things to hoard: long underwear, dental floss, boots, bolts of denim, a still. Our local constable is a bit deranged (a vietnam vet). But I've made friends with him. This is my life. For most people this must seem depressing. It's gonna be amazing to see how quickly people drop that emotional response in the face of reality. I wish you all amazement in the face of reality unfolding in all of its unpredictability.

Anonymous said...

"This is my life. For most people this must seem depressing. It's gonna be amazing to see how quickly people drop that emotional response in the face of reality. I wish you all amazement in the face of reality unfolding in all of its unpredictability."

Farmer, your response to the situation is sane, you're doing what you need to do. As to people dropping their automated responses, I see encouraging signs. For example, I overheard a conversation in which three upper-middles in this area were arranging to barter hair-cutting for chid-care and something else I can't remember.

The main thing that Americans will have to drop is "embarrassment", a silly concept. Once that's gone, Americans are active people, they are not going to give up easily. Take practically any European country: in the last 100 years, they have gone through incredibly bad times, including wars, hunger, huge unemployment, in some cases long dictatorships, mass emigration, and so forth. But they survived. The same goes for much of the so-called third world.

None of the above denies the obvious collapse of a way of life due to finiteness and bad design of living places, methods of agricultural production, the trouble with cities, etc. But there are many ways to live. A hard pill to swallow? Maybe. But not necessarily lethal.

One positive consequence of the collapse may be that people start deriving pride from what they do themselves and not from being placed on some scale that has been calibrated by the system, and that is often used to shame people (if they "don't make it"). We may see a whole class of people who were consider losers emerge as leaders, as people who can do what needs to be done. People who aren't embarrassed to do it.

Anonymous said...

Back in the days of glasnost, we had visitors from our sister city in U.S.S.R. most of them physicians touring our hospitals to admire the MRI machines and other state-of-the-art technology.

What impressed them most was the supermarket. They practically wept to see the shelves stocked full with such a wide variety and very little waiting in line. That was one early inkling lost upon many. Will it come full circle, do ya think?

Anonymous said...

BTW, nice island. I was looking at one longingly myself just the other day.

Bridget said...

Asking economists about what to do to remedy the present economic situation... reminds me about the kind of advice you usually get from surgeons.

subgenius said...

@ Winter

I have been frequenting a few economy/political blogs and have tried quite a few times to bring the ideas of sustainability/peak resources/climate change to the discussion.

You probably know how successful I have been.

das monde said...

When I read Taleb's "Black Swan", one inconsistency was a bit annoying: "Theoreticians" are ridiculed a lot while "practitioners" praised, but the core Black Swan (aka Turkey) problem is rather of the practical empirical approach. The turkey is fooled because it relies on every day's practical experience of being well fed, not eaten. The conclusion of nice life tomorrow is theoretical only in as much as the plain empirical approach is theoretical. A more sophisticated turkey, able to miss some recent chick buddies and to see fresh meat in the kitchen regularly, may some to some suspicions and theories... that might "save" her with an action ;-)

Pretty much of reasonable doom-saying is nothing but application of some "theorical" thinking, despite all rosy empirical data. Like Malthus, you may start to wonder how people will live when population will reach billions; or you may get suspect of apparent imbalances in world's financial flows. But of course, predicting things just from speculation, without repetitive data, is very hard. You may probably be right eventually, as your suspected restrictions would break through some time - but your timing will typically be ridiculously wrong.

The point is, you can be importantly wrong if you avoid any "theorizing". Surviving a civilization collapse may actually require individuals or societies to hit right (or adequate) theories, while waiting for enough empirical evidence may take too long to have a chance.

Wrong academic predictions surely happen often, and it is easy to make fun of that. But, say, accuracy of technology predictions usually has trivial consequences on your life. Inventors often are the people that are wrong most of the time - but they score big those singular times when they are right. That is enviable (and "deserving" ridicule) way of life. The concern of scientists serving their own grant opportunities is overblown - if they would only care so much about money flows as an average stock trader or politician.

And by the way, economists and politicians are much more dangerous to believe. Their record of promises and self-serving prediction record is terrible and with hard consequences - but typically they are allowed to wash their hands clean. Do you think no one of the influential politicians or bankers could not predict the current financial crisis? Foreseeing consequences of these bubbles is not a rocket science - but spreading this knowledge was not an obligation. Chances are good that this boom-and-bust episode was enhanced by compelling you to rationalize only by following the merry empirical data and ignoring "theoretical" possibilities.

Rob said...

'And by the way, economists and politicians are much more dangerous to believe. Their record of promises and self-serving prediction record is terrible and with hard consequences...'

Check out Henry George (henrygeorge.org). Henry was both an economist and a (humane) politician, and predicted these crises to a T.

Not that any of this helps when your hard earned money has been looted. Hopefully as the mainstream economists are discredited or lined up against a brick wall (just kidding, but if a truncated FUSA turns ultra-religious, watch out for purges and keep your head down), some of the more intelligent of the theorists who were marginalised in the official textbooks, will come to light.

I really want to build a new and just society, somehow. Not just live in rags in some new medaeval fiefdom controlled by threat of violence. And importantly, not reviving the status quo that caused the collapase in the first place.

Drew Austin said...

I thought Taleb's point was not that empirical data is useful for prediction, but rather that many events--Black Swans--are fundamentally unpredictable using either approach. Taleb's book contains theories, after all.

His advice is not to base expectations on past experience, but to live so that you're not exceedingly vulnerable to the events you didn't expect.

I believe Dmitry has made the point that you can organize your life so that you'll be alright even if collapse doesn't happen the way you envision (and it probably won't).

Rob said...

Hiya Drew.

Point taken. I don't know; but I can take a few educated guesses based on my local conditions.

I do not consider the current crisis a 'Black Swan'. Personally I've been expecting it since Reagan got into office. Then I learned that it is the cyclical land boom/bust. It's the Black Swans that can and do aggravate the cycle. I don't think any of you folks would disagree that we are spiralling out of the bottom of a cycle... as to the cause, I'll leave that to those who know ;)

The word, 'Taleb' is Arabic, I believe, for 'Student'.

Drew Austin said...

Rob,

I agree, that's an interesting way of looking at it.

To your point about Black Swans aggravating the cycle: It seems like government-sponsored boondoggles will be the most visible Black Swans in a time like this, when everyone already expects the worst.

Anonymous said...

To my mind, the question is not whether some "theory of everything" will explain this deterministically (but only backwards in time!) but whether a few principles can be identified for practical action. For that, history is useful.

All empires have sought cheap labor, if possible slave labor. Sometimes they have found it abroad, in their conquests and colonies, sometimes at home.

The US may be in its second "at home" phase. Globalization was the constant search for slaves all over the world, this time with a real worldwide reach. But substantially the same thing was done before by other empires, within the global reaches they had then.

This process we're seeing, the Orlov collapse, does not really have many new economic features, except for the worldwide reach of the global network of exploitation.

It was also expected. If not, what was the reason for radically changing the personal bankruptcy laws a few years ago, when things seemed (to the public) to be going strong?

The veil over this pretty basic situation of exploitation was, unfortunately, mixed in with cant about personal virtue, exaltation of nationalistic ways of life, and, last but not least, extreme fear. A paranoid population won't think straight, not for a while.

The biggest proponent of the bankruptcy changes: Joe Biden. So, if you're having trouble, just call Biden. He will save you!

Tom Michaluk said...

I just finally listened to the interview, and the differences between the two 'visions' was pretty remarkable! I can truly relate to your pondering of "what planet am I living on?" when having to contemplate perspectives that have such massive 'blind spots' in their logic. How anyone exactly plans of powering this globalized economy in the coming decades is never seriously considered.

Once ships are coming to North America from Asia by sail, I highly doubt they'll be full of iPhones and XBOXs...

Anonymous said...

"Once ships are coming to North America from Asia by sail, I highly doubt they'll be full of iPhones and XBOXs..."

They will function as galleons, to collect interest payments from here and to bring some Chinese tourists who want a tour of the Old Economy.

Anonymous said...

What a boondoggle, "green business is going to get us out of trouble"! This guy understands nothing. If this guy offers you some good deals on "carbon credits", stay away.

RebelFarmer said...

It looks like the "Orlov Community" is growing. It would be really helpful if everyone would use a "handle" besides anonymous so we can get to know each other and respond to specific comments.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Emigrate? If it began after election 2000, where did the emigrees go? In my region we have thousands of recent British transplants who assure us Europe is far worse--where would we find better conditions? We may be forced to stand and fight, to keep things on the rails.

Anonymous said...

The number of people who read Orlev, is about 10 times the number of people who comment.

If you look at the number of people who work, collect, earn and save, money and wealth it's quite significant. Compare the number of people who work, collect, and save food. Because you can eat food. Everything else the other you can kill your kids.

Patrick said...

Hey, if you haven't read "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal" by Joel Salatin, you ought to, it made me think a lot about what's going to happen with food production globally, in some parts more than others.

On the other hand I think that a lot of researchers and scientists in the USA will either be leaving the country for more liquid climes, or they'll hide under umbrellas of private capital and try to achieve a profitable situation in a flattened economy. I think the electric supply and the internet will continue to exist in a more speckled net, and as long as that's true then the playing field for IT and science-based enterprises in a globalized economy will still exist. You just need some amount of local food production capacity in a good ratio with pop. density.

In other words, all science will not shut down. Lots of good research and lots of bullshit research will be smothered out, but on the other hand those who want to control the edge on technology will be able to buy these people/companies/IP ect. at distressed prices.

localstorm said...

That's very common mistake of the most of economists: they really think, that they can predict future. Many of them are trying to predict when the certain economy will grow again and so on. I think someone will guess this moment abd after this he or she will be so proud of that. But it's possible to be just a fortune, not an accurate calculation :)

Sebastian Ronin said...

Technological determinism, much like consumerism, is an ideology. They will not go down easily.

Re the so-called "green economy" its proposed implementation would be an attempt to bastardize the second law of thermodynamics, which we know is an impossibility. Quite simply: we can't get there from here.

To wherever it is we are going, the transition stage, i.e. the current century, is going to deliver much, much hurt.

Anonymous said...

"Re the so-called "green economy" its proposed implementation would be an attempt to bastardize the second law of thermodynamics, which we know is an impossibility. Quite simply: we can't get there from here."

I wouldn't be surprised if those guys thought that the second law of thermodynamics was as loose as the so-called "law of supply and demand"... or the "laws of the free market".

I agree with you the attempt will be made. They're already busy creating markets in imaginary "carbon credits".

Rob said...

Sebastian wrote, "To wherever it is we are going, the transition stage, i.e. the current century, is going to deliver much, much hurt."

In high school I read Teilhard de Chardin's 'Future of Man' and 'Phenomenon of Man' and all of his letters from China, which said the same. There were few people around willing to listen. The official intellectuals were set for the Reagan Bubble and too interested in partying, and the Roman Church forced Chardin to shut up.

The only real Canon of my growing-up years was the Holy Cocktail Napkin of 1974, upon which the Laffer Curve was inscribed, in the presence of Saint Dick of the Undisclosed Location.

More: http://www.moviewavs.com/php/sounds/?id=bst&media=WAVS&type=Movies&movie=Monty_Python&quote=mp13.txt&file=mp13.wav

DANIEL said...

Dmitry,

Thank you for this. A voice so clear amidst this muddle.

Daniel

Sebastian Ronin said...

Anonymous @ 4:33 PM, re the Green economy and your comment, "I agree with you the attempt will be made. They're already busy creating markets in imaginary 'carbon credits'."

IMO, one of the better takes on the so-called "Green economy" is that by Eric Janzen in the Harper's article, "The next bubble: Priming the markets for tomorrow's big crash." From the article, Mr. Janzen writes:

"There is one industry that fits the bill (i.e. candidate for the next bubble): alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water. Indeed, the next bubble is already being branded. Wired magazine, returning to its roots in boosterism, put ethanol on the cover of its October 2007 issue, advising its readers to forget oil; NBC had a 'Green Week' in November 2007, with themed shows beating away at an ecological message and Al Gore making a guest appearance on the sitcom 30 Rock. Improbably, Gore threatens to become the poster boy for the new new new economy: he has joined the legendary venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which assisted at the births of Amazon.com and Google, to oversee the 'climate change solutions group,' thus providing a massive dose of Nobel Prize–winning credibility that will be most useful when its first alternative-energy investments are taken public before a credulous mob. Other ventures—Lazard Capital Markets, Generation Investment Management, Nth Power, EnerTech Capital, and Battery Ventures—are funding an array of startups working on improvements to solar cells, to biofuels production, to batteries, to 'energy management' software, and so on."

To read the full article: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/02/0081908

The mainstream political parties and interests can be somewhat forgiven for jumping on the Green bandwagon. They smell an opportunity, they go for it, package it in such way as to be most acceptable to the NAmerican public.

In the process, NAmerican Green parties have been co-opted and philosophically gutted. Their own shift towards liberal hand-wringing over the past decade or so doesn't help. Historically, their opportunity has passed them by. They are now redundant, passe, dinosaurs upon a Post-Peak Oil horizon and the challenges and hardships that are latent within. With all due respect, the opportunism of Cynthia McKinney to find an appropriate vehicle to further her political agenda (a la Ralph Nader) will come to naught.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Harper's reference, excellent article.

On:

"In the process, NAmerican Green parties have been co-opted and philosophically gutted. Their own shift towards liberal hand-wringing over the past decade or so doesn't help. Historically, their opportunity has passed them by."

An outsider party that is not able to strike the fear of god (figuratively) into the structures of power is laughable. The Green Party is today in an even worse situation than unions: no teeth, it scares nobody, therefore it has no power and no representation.

Were the Greens able to paralyze the country or at least one state, if they so wanted, they would gain some power and therefore some influence. Having good ideas is not enough, never has been.

As to political careers where nobody votes for you, they seem to have even less of a future than the hydrogen economy.

Sebastian Ronin said...

Anonymous @ 9:34 re, "Were the Greens able to paralyze the country or at least one state, if they so wanted, they would gain some power and therefore some influence. Having good ideas is not enough, never has been."

Nail on the head, hit! I'm not certain about the implications of "paralyze" but certainly if you're open to "grabbing a beach head" as an analogy, then I believe we're poking along similar paths.

As one who resigned in 1986 from the first Green party founded in North America and from its Executive (waste of time and futility), I have been anticipating the current crisis for some time. It is an opportune moment to go mining for and approach hard core bioregionalists.

Having attended the Third North American Secessionist Convention in Manchester, NH this past November, three things became very clear:

1./ Delegate coordination and support, and media coverage of the secessionist movement were drastically weak and counter-productive relative to the pending conditions of empire collapse;

2./ Events were quickly far out-stripping and out-distancing the philosophical positioning of the movement and its ability to be representative of those events;

3./ The existing organizational structure to effectively coordinate the NAmerican secessionist movement was terribly lacking and, by virtue of a haphazard organizational initiative, was sadly undemocratic.

None of these observations is meant in any way to denigrate from the work invested by individuals and secessionist organizations over the past three years to kick-start the NAmerican secessionist dialogue. At any given time, we do what we can with the resources at-hand. However, there comes a time at the early stages of the life-cycle of any organization and/or movement when it is necessary to claw one's way up to the next level. That time has arrived.

As a sub-item of the first point above, i.e. lack of delegate coordination and support, it was also apparent that the secessionist movement was not well-represented by two major demographics: Peak Oilers and disillusioned, bioregional Greens, to both of which secession is practically an automatic fit.

Two other events have come into play since the Third North American Secessionist Convention. The first is, of course, the wild-fire flourishing of the States' Rights movement in the United States. The second event is the assertive, secessionist re-positioning of both the federal Bloc Quebecois and the provincial Parti Quebecois in Canada.

Taking the above conditions into consideration and after initial dialogue with other secessionists, it has been decided to bring into play a Steering Committee to pull together the inaugural meeting of the North American Secessionist Congress in Columbus, OH on October 16-18, 2009. The status of this proposed historic event is still "tentative." However, work is underway by the Steering Committee to firstly solidify its own legitimacy and then to probe for and determine support for holding the Columbus meeting.

Please feel free to check in every now and then to either my Blogger or WordPress blogs see how things are going as we prepare to trudge towards Columbus.

Nickname unavailable said...

Reminds me of how it was to work at Nortel. One day we had bright futures in an ever expanding market for telecom.

Next day we're stacking groceries in the convenience store. In my case, I was a support engineer at a call centre. With an actual engineering degree.

One would assume that geniuses from one generation are encouraged to hop over to the next. No, when a new technology comes out HR thinks they need new technologists.

Wayne said...

This is very interesting because I have always had a deep-seated skepticism of the techno-optimistic future scenarios I hear about so much from my fellow tech geeks and futurists -- but my skepticism hasn't been so much that the technologies won't get invented, but that they would get invented but would fail to produce the paradise that the techno-optimists expect. In other words, imagine a future where nanotechnology is invented and works, and artificial intelligence is invented and works, yet nanotechnology fails to produce life extension/immortality, and artificial intelligence fails to produce a world where no one needs a job, etc etc. The most obviously flaw in the techno-optimist thinking is that people will be able to pay for all these wondrous inventions. And that's only the most obvious way things can go wrong.

Anonymous said...

Sebastian:

"Nail on the head, hit! I'm not certain about the implications of "paralyze" but certainly if you're open to "grabbing a beach head" as an analogy, then I believe we're poking along similar paths."

Paralyze, or the ability to paralyze, means acquiring such power, locally, that at some point you can say: look, we're the bosses here, get out. We do what we want.

If things get bad enough, this is what is going to happen, except it may not be the Greens who quietly acquire the power.

This phenomenon has happened in every single collapsing empire. In the Mediterranean, the Roman guys who settled places by the sea and on the fertile strip around it got to a point where they were self-sufficient, had their own trade (oil, wine, salted fish, garum) and the Empire way back home didn't even know about it. These settlers had in fact acquired power. They could not and would not be controlled.

I believe this will happen out of the current situation. I'd rather it be ecologically inclined and peaceful people and not, say, drug mafias or deranged racist groups that acquired the power.

Sebastian Ronin said...

Anonymous @ 6:01, re "Paralyze, or the ability to paralyze, means acquiring such power, locally, that at some point you can say: look, we're the bosses here, get out. We do what we want."

I tend to agree with you, but that type of political discipline is likely one generation removed. Don't forget, we are at the apex of a liberal era/epoch. The degree of hurt is usually a good motivator to alter behaviour. One generation up puts things in around 2030, which is when I believe the real shit will hit the fan anyway.

Re "I'd rather it be ecologically inclined and peaceful people and not, say, drug mafias or deranged racist groups that acquired the power."

Right now in the secessionist movement everyone is on best diplomatic behaviour to recognize and honour cultural and political diversities. The best example is New England and Cascadian liberals sharing a convention room with Southern Christians. So far, so good. But you're right. What happens if organized crime targets a region and muscles in with paid for Blackwater types (or whatever it is they're now called)? Will a local militia have the necessary muscle to push back?

These are truly shattering, historic times in which we live. What an honour and privilege it is to be here at these opening stages.

Anonymous said...

"This is very interesting because I have always had a deep-seated skepticism of the techno-optimistic future scenarios I hear about so much from my fellow tech geeks and futurists -- but my skepticism hasn't been so much that the technologies won't get invented, but that they would get invented but would fail to produce the paradise that the techno-optimists expect. In other words, imagine a future where nanotechnology is invented and works, and artificial intelligence is invented and works, yet nanotechnology fails to produce life extension/immortality, and artificial intelligence fails to produce a world where no one needs a job, etc etc. The most obviously flaw in the techno-optimist thinking is that people will be able to pay for all these wondrous inventions. And that's only the most obvious way things can go wrong."

What you are describing, the dreamed scenario I mean, sounds a lot like what Ray Kurzweil has been promoting and writing about. A future where nobody has to work? LOL. Who will produce the food, who will build the houses, etc. etc.? Besides, working seems to be a normal human activity, even a need. Of course, working and working for wages are not the same thing. But who will guarantee the sustenance of everybody? God?

It amazes me that Kurzweil, who is a very smart guy, can say such nonsense. It is as if he had no sense of history. If on one side of the scale you put a futurist and on the other you put history AND physical reality (i.e., limitations, finiteness, etc.), who do you think is going to win? I am betting on history.

The problem with people like Kurzweil and their followers (everybody, essentially, at least in the US) is that they don't understand that wishes are not reality and also, importantly, they don't understand the need for a concept of "enough", what Schumacher called "adequatio". All living systems have such a concept except, lately, humans!

Anonymous said...

"Right now in the secessionist movement everyone is on best diplomatic behaviour to recognize and honour cultural and political diversities. The best example is New England and Cascadian liberals sharing a convention room with Southern Christians."

I have a feeling that the South is going to play a central role in all of this. One reason is that Southerners have not been totally tamed into fearful cowards, as most of the rest of the country has. The second is that the South has resources (fertile land and coast) to modestly go its own way. The third is that they already did it, for reasons that had to do with slavery but also with many other things. It is foolish to dismiss Southerners as merely backward people with hardcore religious beliefs. The fact that many of them have refused to be molded is actually a very encouraging sign.

New England has some similarities but the ideology is quite different. Still, there is common cause.

das monde said...

Kurzweil (and other similar utopians) are ignoring social realities. But in principle, they are right: why won't technology allows us all have more comfortable and leisurely lives? This does not have to go to "no-work-whatsoever" extremes, and a lot of slick technology does pamper us (especially teens) already. But the life of a middle class family is getting more stressed because of the pressure to compete for better housing, education and what not. Why people have to work primitive jobs for longer hours, and still stay poor? The economic crisis alone will drive half of the population into despair. What is preventing us all to have more good time with less pressing worries (such as rent payments) with more technology?

Anonymous said...

Das Monde asks:

"Kurzweil (and other similar utopians) are ignoring social realities. But in principle, they are right: why won't technology allows us all have more comfortable and leisurely lives? This does not have to go to "no-work-whatsoever" extremes, and a lot of slick technology does pamper us (especially teens) already."

The short answer is: because economics is a zero sum game. For you or me to be pampered, somebody else has to suffer. There has never been a time when this was not so. I consider it to be an immutable law.

There are also other considerations. Technology can reach a point of diminishing returns. For example, you can have a car capable of making 200 mph but the real traffic moves at 5 mph. The flashy and powerful car does not make you go faster nor does it provide you more comfort. Likewise, if a computer makes you waste hours and hours, it is not making you more productive.

The question of comfort has another question underlying it: what is enough comfort? The Kurzweil scenarios are predicated on the idea that it is never enough.

It does not surprise me that he wants to live forever, as he has said in all seriousness. Imagine all the comforts that he would be missing by dying!

If I remember correctly, this immortality wish was written about by some German author a long time ago...

Lastly, the limitations that resources put on technology should be obvious. The idea that you can circumvent those resource limitations is patently false.

This is only a partial answer. I am sure others will take up your interesting question and touch upon other aspects.

Jaime M. De Zubeldia said...

Dmitri hits on a most fundamental problem (evident in a few of the above comments). The 'turkey mentality' syndrome (shall we call it TMS?) is not only apparent with experts discussing the future of their technological field. This fundamental problem of the 'turkey mentality', and the ignoring of assumptions, extends to every individual with the mindset that basic resources and support systems are somehow inexhaustible. In my observations, the general population seems to lack the capacity to quantify the energy (in all forms) required to invent, produce, distribute, and maintain our technological "miracles". Critical assumptions are routinely ignored. Unless our energy resources are used to create truly generative systems that create more energy there will always be a growing deficit in energy (whether measured in GDP, dollars, gallons per mile, or btu's), and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

The general population is now undergoing a rude awakening to reality: that their lives and professions are utterly and entirely dependent on degenerative systems that have no future. The most basic of which, and the one I take the most interest in, is regional and individual food security. Other technological and creative endeavors have no future without this basic need being met first. Yet, we tend to believe that it will always be there as Dmitri has said. That someone fed us yesterday, and so therefore, we will obviously be fed tomorrow.

This thought is mirrored also at my blog, "Farming The Desert", but honestly there's little spare time for blogging when you're life is consumed by relearning essential skills like growing some of your own food. And this is the point of the blog; it's an isolated study of a few individual's quest to transition towards a respectable powering down of an unsustainable lifestyle that still requires cash money to keep it going - the lettuce seedlings and chickens could care less about the mortgage, and neither will last much longer than a day or so without water.

Jaime M. De Zubeldia said...

I would whole heartedly like to agree with Mr. Ronin,

"Re the so-called "green economy" its proposed implementation would be an attempt to bastardize the second law of thermodynamics, which we know is an impossibility. Quite simply: we can't get there from here."

A study of the patterns in ecological systems reveals that function follows form. If our current patterns of land distribution, transportation, energy use, food production, and socio-economic values are unsustainable, then what are the odds that a sustainable system can retrofit this existing system? "Quite simply: we can't get there from here."

Essentially we need a do-over in a now energy-poor world.

Rob said...

Jaime M. De Zubeldia wrote:

"If our current patterns of land distribution, transportation, energy use, food production, and socio-economic values are unsustainable, then what are the odds that a sustainable system can retrofit this existing system? "

Would "in a pig's eye' sum it up? Excluding the Black Swan, of course. Funny that, whenever I run into Objectivists, they also seem committed to the status quo; it's like they haven't even read 'Atlas Shrugged'. I shrug as well. And produce as little economic value as possible.

My research indicates an 18-year land cycle. Given some technological breakthrough, and some partial recovery with reduced but patched-up expectations, folks will say that Dmitry Orlov failed to see the Black Swan, and they will fuggedabout Collapse. Only to find in 2026, that the land cycle has come around again, the US has no more borrowing power to restart the speculative cycle, and our chicken coops have not been built, the edible mushrooms and flora not identified.

Anonymous said...

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29504880/

Anonymous said...

The gossip media is slowly coming around to reality. The world "collapse" is beginning to be heard even from people whose main job is chitchat about personalities and such.

As to the breakup predicted by the Kremlin expert, it is not new as a hypothesis. For example, cf. the writings of Dmitry Orlov...

In fact, a lot of this is quite clearly stated in Kunstler's book _The Geography of Nowhere_, from 1993. It's a university textbook!

When you have it in a standard textbook and people pay no attention, you know there is a disconnect.

And long before Kunstler, and sorry to repeat myself, Schumacher and Ivan Illich pointed out what would happen to the type of complex, hyperorganized society that the US was in the seventies and is now (but much worse now, of course).

It is easy to call somebody a doomsayer but it you can't refute their facts and their reasoning, it is foolish to do so.

Actually, there is an even older book, today not very well known, called _The Technological Society_ by philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul. He is something of a sourpuss but he laid out the important questions and, unfortunately, his observations remain as true as they were when he wrote the book, many decades ago.

The way to ignore such lucid analyses was always to say: but there will be yet another technological advance that will increase productivity so much that we will all be richer, etc. In fact, such an argument is still made (cf. Kurzweil and many others). Obviusly, the argument is wrong.

To my mind, the most interesting and positive aspect of the collapse will be the abandonment of complexity. I suspect that the complexity of a system like the US system drives people into neurosis and craziness.

I read a study that said that Americans spend far more time paying bills that having sex or cooking. How about that for a real dystopia?

Peace.

Sebastian Ronin said...

Anonymous @ 2:58:

Igor Panarin and his hypothesis for U.S. implosion first broke last November and then the story was picked up by the WSJ on December 29. What is popping my antennae is the "legs" that the story is being given by the corporate media. First the WSJ and now MSNBC. Makes one wonder, yes?

Re books that predate Panarin, a classic within the secessionist community is Leopold Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations" published in 1957...the same year that M. King Hubbert gave his famous address predicting the U.S. peak year for 1971.

Rob said...

'I read a study that said that Americans spend far more time paying bills that having sex or cooking.'

That hit home. I'm trying to finish up my taxes, and even though I had a day at home with the missus and junior in school, felt like I had to work the taxes.

'The world "collapse" is beginning to be heard...'

Even the front page of the Economist a couple of weeks ago sported 'The Collapse of Manufacturing'. The C-word is turning up everywhere.

But I think literature is a window into the human psyche; particularly speculative literature (science fiction). Robert Heinlein wrote in several novels since 1955 of a collapse; in particular a theocracy imposed by a Huckabee-type character called The Prophet who is elected as president in 2012, no further elections needed. Most science fiction writers who envision starships also envision some kind of collapse occurring after the end of the 20th Century. Even Star Trek, by gum. I think this is relevant.

Anonymous said...

"Re books that predate Panarin, a classic within the secessionist community is Leopold Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations" published in 1957...the same year that M. King Hubbert gave his famous address predicting the U.S. peak year for 1971."

Indeed, though Kohr was mainly concerned with communities of the right size, rather than resources, etc. He had great intuition, and on that intuition he has been proven right.

In a sense, Kohr was totally defeated by the creation of the European Union (the idea that Ortega y Gassett proposed in The Rebellion of the Masses). Exacty the opposite of the localism that Kohr proposed.

Yet, yet... we don't know how things are going to play out. In the Balkans, the tendency has been in the direction of breakup. Scotland and Wales may well decide to go their own way. The nations of Spain, too, especially Catalonia and the Basque country.

Too early to tell whether Kohr will turn out to be right. Being right was not his point though; he was interested in the creation of actual local communities, independently of what regime they're under.

Sebastian Ronin said...

Anonymous @ 4:05, re "Indeed, though Kohr was mainly concerned with communities of the right size, rather than resources, etc. He had great intuition, and on that intuition he has been proven right."

A fact that even many secessionists miss in their reading of Kohr is that the "right" geographical size was of secondary importance. Kohr's primary factor re "right" size had to do with population size. In a nutshell, he argued that at a certain size of population a society develops an inhuman capacity and cannot help but go fascist. All in all, working from an anarchist position only (minus any Systems Theory, thermodynamics, etc.) he did pretty good.

In this world of Post-Peak Oil realpolitik the various projections for die-off numbers would seem to reinforce Kohr's major thesis. There are some hard, difficult and nasty truths that will need to be confronted and dealt with. Our liberal epoch dwindles to a close.

Anonymous said...

"A fact that even many secessionists miss in their reading of Kohr is that the "right" geographical size was of secondary importance. Kohr's primary factor re "right" size had to do with population size. In a nutshell, he argued that at a certain size of population a society develops an inhuman capacity and cannot help but go fascist."

Yes, definitely, his size is population size. He proposed subdividing into units as size grew.

Schumacher wrote about some of the same topics.

In the US, population is not even discussed, it is the big elephant in the room. There is always the shadow of eugenics (understandably, given the awful history). However, if you don't have a good subdivision into essentially self-sufficient units, you end up with... this.

Brian Botta said...

Wizard's First Rule: "People will believe a lie because they either fear it to be true or because they want it to be true. People are stupid."

It isn't necessary to think very hard about how that applies to the US and the herd mentality there. Unfortunately, there are no political solutions left at this point: there are only personal solutions.

I chose to move out of the US back when it was only wealthy retirees who wanted more than the US would provide. They were the only ones with enough time on their hands to think, and they had memories long enough to remember when they had a lot more liberty in the good ole US of A. After looking around, many of them chose to become expats. I was an absolute oddball moving abroad with my wife and small children.

Moving abroad takes time and requires both some amount of liquid capital and the ability to adapt and change, but considering the current state of the world, moving out of the US offers a significant advantage: those who become expats are making a proactive move. The US is going to undergo drastic changes that will require an enormous amount of adaptation on the part of the people who wish to survive. Moving abroad requires a huge adaptation, but the difference is that one chooses to make this adaptation- it isn't thrust upon you... and that makes a huge difference. I know many people who can choose to take on a difficult project and rise to the challenges that come along, but these same people are seemingly helpless when similar challenges are thrust upon them by the vagaries of life.

There are places in the world that won't suffer nearly as much as the US. My personal solution was to pack up the family and leave, because the difference between an immigrant and a refugee is the choices available to them and the assets they were able to leave with. Besides- one never knows how long the door will be open to leave...

Paul Becke said...

das monde, I believe Taleb explicitly stated somewhere in The Black Swan that he wasn't rubbishing inductive reasoning, from first principles, in favour of wholesale concentration on empirical, deductive reasoning.

His point, I believe, was that there is a particular danger in inductive reasoning when performed by professional academics, who have been all too ready to accept the intellectual straight-jacket required by Academe.

Such people, unlike himself, Dmitri and a minority of others, soon abandoned the pristine integrity of the child who wants to know the truth about things instinctively, in favour of jumping through hoops to get on, to acquire wealth and status. Normal enough and even commendable in significant regards on one level, though the latter generally is.

Dmitri was a science student, and one of Nassim's fields of study was mathematics, so both could see the meretricious nature of most studies in the Arts, if not in principle, in practice.

Fashions of literary criticism, for example, such as T S Eliot as the paragon of critics of Shakespeare's works - when he and his pal, Ezra Pound, were patently egregiously pusillanimous, and could never even approach Shakespeare's personal mindset.
Of course, the pseudo-sciences, such as economics and psychology are little better than literary studies in that regard.

Today, particularly, the integrity of historians and even scientists is under siege, since, in the former case, the publishing corporations would tend to be far right-wing, while in the latter case, the large corporations increasingly monopolise the funding of research.

Dmitri and Nassim, however, have opted for their minds to close on the truth, not to buy from the highest bidder. This "ornery", bloody-minded, "unreasonable"(!) mindset has enabled them both to see that discursive reflection on truth absolutely requires to be anchored in and continually modified by their personal observations and experience; eclectic, if not encyclopaedic.

Our assumptions are built in this way, and is a key component of our life's work. In the pseudo- and non-scientific spheres, there is often a price to pay for such integrity.

Galbraith was relatively marginalised by his peer-group, and Taleb to his evidently extreme irritation(!) has not been awarded a Nobel prize! There is a nerdy streak in him, as is inevitable in all cerebral individuals be they never so rambunctious, tear-away intellectuals, at the same time. Not even tennis can't countervail against it! It goes with the territory.

The key is wanting to know truth for its own sake, rather than for career advancement. J K Galbraith is another stellar thinker in much the same mould. Google his quotes and the more general ones, might have been written by Dmitri or Taleb.