Monday, December 31, 2012

Geoffrey West on From Alpha to Omega

An excellent summary of Prof. West's research into complexity theory and the scaling laws that determine the lifetimes of both biological organisms and socioeconomic systems. I have referred to his work here to try to explain why large-scale, hierarchically organized socioeconomic systems (cities, economies, nation-states, etc.) exhibit superexponential growth, for a time, but then inevitably run out of resources, be they fossil fuels, fresh water and farmland or fresh ideas and cultural innovations, and collapse.

For those of you who are justifiably wary of mathematical models, please understand that this is different. These are not attempts to model one complex system using another complex system, such as the models used by economists and climate scientists. (The climate models are far from worthless, but they do seem to have significantly underestimated the effects of anthropogenic climate change, while the models the economists use are in fact complete garbage.) Prof. West uses simple math, which takes into account such basic elements as the dimensionality of spacetime and the fractality of networks, to make accurate predictions about the behavior of complex systems.

Incidentally, in listening to this podcast I found out that Prof. West and I both left the field of high-energy physics for the same general reason: the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider experiment, which can certainly be viewed as a collapse of a complex socioeconomic system. The project got canned as the size of its budget showed signs of approaching a singularity. From collapse to collapse, if you will—from alpha to omega.

Oh, and Happy New Year to all 19,469 of you who have visited this blog over the past month, as well the rest of my 991,615 visitors, should any of you decide to stop by.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Escape from the Merry Christmas Zone

Feng Zhu
I am not in the US at the moment, but in Russia. This means several things. First, today is not Christmas. (Christmas is on January 7th, having something to do with the Julian calendar. It is 3/4 of a day per century fast, but since it is only used for religious holidays, nobody cares.) Second, even for the Christians here, Christmas is a minor feast, far behind Easter. This is quite understandable: sure, virgin birth (not to be confused with immaculate conception, as some technical-minded reader has pointed out) is a bit of a trick, but it is nothing compared to the trick of rising from the dead after being crucified. Now that is one act you just never want to follow!

Third, the big holiday here is not Christmas but the New Year, which I much prefer. Actually, I would prefer to celebrate Winter Solstice, which is an actual observable astronomical event rather than an artificial date on an artificial calendar. That is what these holidays really were before the priests co-opted them: celebrations of light. Christmas was Winter Solstice, and Easter was Spring Equinox. And so, for once, I don't feel compelled to even pretend that Christmas exists. But since this just happens to be the 25th of December—the day many readers of this blog happen to celebrate Christmas—and since this year it happens to fall on a Tuesday—the day of the week on which I publish a blog post—today I will blog about Christmas.

In all the years I've spent living in the US, I have always felt the urge to get the hell out of the country whenever Christmas approached. This is because it is a season when Americans are "struggling to celebrate the holiday with some semblance of normalcy" (I just heard this very phrase on NPR's All Things Considered. The context is the mass murder of schoolchildren in Connecticut, but I find that it applies every year.) It is a stressful time when people rush around trying to find presents on which to deplete their meager savings (or, more likely, run up some more credit card debt) in order to maintain a commercially imposed fiction of normal family life. This often causes them to be overcome by feelings of alienation, depression and despair. As with that other great American holiday, Thanksgiving, people compensate for their misery with a bout of pathetic, self-destructive gorging.

Now, I am certainly not against celebrating, whatever it is you want to celebrate; celebrating is good. I am not even opposed to celebrating Christmas (as I mentioned, immaculate conception is quite a trick, although the Egyptian god Horus clearly did it first). But I am against celebrating this most toxic of all American holidays: the holiday of Christmasshopping. Please kill it, and in so doing celebrate your vaunted freedom of which I have heard so much but seen so little. It shouldn't be that hard: there is already a tradition of company Christmas parties, which are never held on December 25th. Now, just extend it to family Christmas parties. Hold them some time in January. Do buy some presents, if you wish, but be sure to buy them after Christmas, when the prices are lower. Use the savings to rent a hall, hire a band and have the occasion catered. Include not just the family but friends and neighbors. As for December 25th, throw a zombie party or something. Everyone loves zombies nowadays. Then maybe I'll stop trying to flee the country every Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Regularly Scheduled Programming

Horsemen of the Apocalypse
on Parade
Red Suqare, Moscow
Regular readers of this blog must have noticed by now that for the past few weeks we have been off on a bit of a tangent from the usual fare of collapse-related social and economic commentary. There are several reasons for this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Applied Anarchy Part III: The Design Phase

[Six-month update. The project is alive. To see what it looks like now, scroll down.]

[Update: There is now a reasonable bitmap font that hints of brush calligraphy; the chart and the sample below have been updated. The sample now shows stressed vowels as elongated.]

[Update: By popular demand, I included a little poem at the end, so that it's clear what text looks like, and for your deciphering pleasure. Please note that font design is yet to be done.]

If you have been following along for the last two weeks, you probably have some idea of what happens next; if not, you will need to catch up: here is a description of why English spelling a problem, and here is an explanation of what can be done about it. In short, English has the world's worst orthographic system that happens to be in common use, and it causes a great deal of damage. Just the cost of the several extra years of schooling needed to learn English spelling (much of it to no avail), together with the opportunity cost of not learning something more useful, runs into many billions of dollars a year. The economic damage caused by widespread functional illiteracy is harder to quantify.

There has been a lot of discussion since I published these two posts, along with numerous expressions of support. Several software developers who are also linguists stepped forward with offers of help. Given this level of interest, I intend to push forward with this project.

The task at hand is to create a new, better way of writing and reading English (of the General American variety)—one that is entirely regular and represents each psychologically real speech sound (phoneme) with exactly one symbol (glyph) and, unlike the current system, takes a minimal amount of time to learn for either a native speaker or a student of English. The goal is to design and write software that will provide an alternative way of rendering English text and to make it available for web sites, electronic books and electronic documents of all kinds.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Applied Anarchy

Jean Julien
A lot of people have been wondering aloud what prompted last week's diatribe against the inanity of English spelling; others found it accurate and refreshing. I suppose I should come clean about what motivated me to write it. Along the way, I also want to spell out (pardon the pun) what it is I specifically think can be achieved.