Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Orange Revolution

Today, on my customary Saturday stroll to the library, I was surprised to see orange flowers dominating the flower beds. This oranging was no mere coincidence. Rather, it struck me as clear evidence of unconscious social coordination. Deep sociological forces had influenced the color selection of groups as disparate as the Denver Light Rail Board, Wal-Mart, several apartment complexes, and a dozen private homeowners. I took this as a hopeful trend. Orange is a warm, joyful color. Among color psychologists (a semi-scientific bunch amply represented on the Internet), orange is often associated with sociability and enthusiasm, although it is sometimes derided by the stuffy and self-important as being a frivolous color. I like orange and always find myself cheered and uplifted when I observe an orange flower.

So, let a hundred orange flowers bloom!

(Note: I do not intend any analogies with the Maoist Hundred Flowers Campaign and subsequent crackdown on Chinese intellectuals in the 1950s.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Collapse of Complex Societies

I'm told that some people, those susceptible to morbid fascinations, delight in a delicious shiver of fear caused by reading horror stories. Not me. I take pains to steer clear of the horror genre. However, I confess my own fascination with a related genre: archaeology.

I just finished reading Joseph A. Tainter's 1988 shiver-inducing The Collapse of Complex Societies, a doleful tome with a surprise twist. Tainter starts with four foundational concepts in developing his thesis that societies become vulnerable to collapse as additional societal complexity produces less and less marginal benefit. He writes:

"Four concepts lead to understanding collapse, the first three of which are the underpinnings of the fourth. These are:

1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns."

Tainter supports his thesis with examples of declining marginal returns (as observed in 1988) in agriculture and resource production, sociopolitical control and specialization, and medicine.

Oh, one could make the counter argument that recent advances in computing and communications continue to provide a lot of productivity bang for the research buck; but, all in all, Tainter seems to be on firm ground here. And Tainter's comments about sociopolitical organizations seemed especially apt:

"Sociopolitical organizations constantly encounter problems that require increased investment merely to preserve the status quo. This investment comes in such forms as increasing size of bureaucracies, increasing specialization of bureaucracies, cumulative organization solutions, increasing costs of legitimizing activities, and increasing costs of internal control and external defense. All of these must be borne by levying greater costs on the support population, often to no increased advantage. As the number and costliness of organization investments increase, the proportion of a society's budget available for investment in future economic growth must decline."

Very simply put, societies increase in complexity to solve ever more difficult problems, and this complexity becomes increasingly costly over time. At some point, the complexity produces nearly as many headaches as the problems it is intended to solve.

To illustrate his thesis, Tainter takes the reader through a careful analysis of the Roman Empire and its progression of declining marginal returns. Rome got off to a promising start in the third century B.C. There were many rich lands to conquer. But the early joys of pillaging led to the later aggravations of bureaucracy. As Tainter writes:

"Once the accumulated surpluses of conquered nations have been appropriated, a conqueror must thereafter incur costs to administer, garrison, and defend the province. And when the accumulated surpluses have been spent, this must be paid for out of yearly income. Costs rise and benefits decline. For a one-time infusion of wealth from each conquered province, Rome had to undertake administrative and military responsibilities that lasted centuries. For Rome, the costs of administering some provinces (such as Spain and Macedonia) exceeded their revenues. And although he was probably exaggerating, Cicero complained in 66 B.C. that, of all Roman conquests, only Asia yielded a surplus."

In the book's final chapter, Tainter summarized the two factors that make a society liable to collapse:

"First, as the marginal return on investment in complexity declines, a society invests ever more heavily in a strategy that yields proportionately less. Excess productive capacity and accumulated surpluses may be allocated to current operating needs."

"Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity an overall less attractive strategy, so that parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. When the marginal cost of investment in complexity becomes noticeably too high, various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away."

Here, at the end the book, I expected Tainter to conclude with a jeremiad concerning America and its increasingly complex society. I expected the usual comparisons between America's current challenges and the Western Roman Empire's final throes. However, wily Professor Tainter fooled me. The first 213 pages of his book were just an elaborate, scholarly set up for three pages of surprise twist, starting with this zinger:

"Collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse; for if any national government disintegrates, its population and territory will be absorbed by some other."

Tainter's punch line:

"Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner."

A slow-motion, universal collapse. Doomed nations, like exhausted prisoners on a chain gang, stumbling and dragging each other down.

Feel that shiver of fear?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Living in the living room

For the past two days my living room was a recording studio, cluttered with microphones and cords and recording electronics, resounding with soaring vocals supported by the bright, clean notes of acoustic guitar and fiddle, a room by turns a roadhouse for honkytonk blues and a chapel for love songs, a room that was a sweatshop of the arts, figuratively in terms of the concentrated artistic effort and literally in terms of the heat (the air conditioner was shut off to prevent fan noise from marring the recordings), a sanctuary for free creative expression, with neither fans nor critics present to inhibit the music making (at night I discreetly betook myself to the basement to watch 1940s film noir movies on muted volume) -- in short, for the past two days my living room was a place where a lot of living went on.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Victim of the Surveillance State

I am writing this blog entry in a troubled mood of hot outrage and cold paranoia.

Today I opened a letter from the City of Aurora and found that Aurora was accusing me of the crime of "Failure to Obey Signal Light." Aurora asserted that I had run a light that had been red for 0.3 seconds. The letter provided a link to evidence on the Aurora surveillance website, which displayed crime scene photographs and a video, all allegedly taken by robot surveillance cameras (the pride of Aurora's new revenue generation technology).

Analyzing the images, I instantly had suspicions that the evidence had been doctored. Yes, the photographs were taken at a time and a location consistent with my usual morning travel to work. And yes, it was clearly my old Volvo and its license plate shown in the photographs taken from the rear. However, a photograph taken from the front, a close-up view of the driver, was a forgery, a clever cut-and-paste job. The fellow behind the wheel resembled me, down to the details of my glasses and my faded WalMart-brand shirt; but the forger had made a subtle Photoshop error and had inserted a stretched image of my face into the photograph, making me look fatter and older than in real life.

I plan to pay the traffic fine without protest. When you live in a surveillance state, it's best to keep Big Brother from knowing you are wise to his deceptions.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Home, Home on the Rocket Range

This morning I witnessed the maiden flight of a friend's rocket.

The Northern Colorado Rocketry Club was hosting a weekend launch fest, and rocketeers flocked to the remote prairie launch site at the Pawnee National Grassland to blast holes in the sky. Most of the rockets were skinny little things, mere overgrown darts.

My friend's rocket, won at a charity auction, was a comparative behemoth. After assembly, it looked like this.

The man who had donated the rocket for the auction arrived to make sure the launch went smoothly. Last week he had shown my friend how to mix the chemicals for the solid fuel motors. Now the man had come to tutor my friend on rocket assembly.

They set up a work table (shown below) and got busy. At the upper right you can see the purple nose cone and a small portion of the green fabric of the main parachute. To the left of these is the metal housing for the rocket motors. Next to the housing are two cylindrical rocket motors, a short one on its end and a long one beside it, each consisting of dark propellant wrapped in tan cardboard. A hole runs down the center of the motor, permitting uniform combustion along the motor's entire length. This center hole is a clever refinement that never occurred to me when I was making crude gunpowder rockets (structurally equivalent to leaky pipe bombs) during my elementary school days back in Iowa. The tangle of cord is the line for the drogue parachute.

The drogue parachute is deployed as the rocket reaches apogee. ('Apogee' is derived from the Greek words signifying the farthest point off the Earth, the point where the awe-struck observer exclaims "Gee, that's really high!") Unfurled, the gold and purple drogue was about the size of a newspaper page.

After the drogue and its cord were stowed in the rocket, it was time to pack the motor. First the long motor was gently stuffed into its metal housing.

Then the housing was inserted into the rocket.

Finally, the nozzle, a black metal fixture shaped like a stack of three hollow hockey pucks, was clamped into the very bottom of the rocket.

The rocket was now launch ready.

My friend slid the rocket onto its guide pole on the pad. He hooked up the ignition wires.

Mission Control huddled to determine who got to push the launch button.

The crowd went silent. Every eye was on the pad. Mission Control said, "Ready on the pad. We have continuity. Three! Two! One!"

Owing to sluggish reflexes, I missed snapping the photograph of the rocket's ascent. The picture shows the portion of sky that the rocket has just passed through.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Time Travel Plans

Lately I have been thinking of myself as a time machine. Though not a particularly versatile time machine, I admit. I lack a reverse gear; and my forward travel is limited to the standard rate of time, rather like a log raft drifting down the Mississippi River. All the same, I am happy to be making steady progress toward my desired temporal destinations. Here is a small sampling of my itinerary.

Dec 21, 2012 - End date of the Mayan Calendar
I wish to visit this date and see the conclusion of the current 5125-year-long cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar. Various people (sensationalists, mostly) have predicted a global cataclysm. I plan to arrive at the solstice and see if the cataclysm occurs.

2020 - China's fragmenting and decline
George Friedman, whose STRATFOR company provides analysis and forecasting of the geopolitical scene, has predicted that by 2020 China will have clearly failed to integrate its dynamic economy with its third-world political and banking structures. The era of Chinese unraveling should provide a fascinating stop on my time tour.

2022 - Peak rate of US retirement
The baby boomers had their peak birthrate in 1957. Therefore, their retirement rate should peak 65 years later in 2022. I will be in my early 70s and will have a personal interest in the demographic situation.

April 13, 2029 - First approach by the killer asteroid Apophis
The 25-million ton, 820 foot-wide asteroid 9942 Apophis, named after the Egyptian god of darkness and destruction, will whiz by the Earth in 2029. The asteroid should get extensive news coverage (especially if it foils the astronomers' calculations and actually hits the Earth). This promises to be a rewarding spectacle for the weary time traveler. If Apophis misses the target, it will get another toss in 2036.

2029 - Successful reverse engineering of the human brain
Ray Kurzweil, brilliant inventor and sometime crackpot concerning health issues, has predicted that all aspects of the human brain - including emotions, curiosity, and personality quirks - will have been understood and simulated by 2029. I plan to show up in 2029 and see how all this pans out. Perhaps I can purchase a companion for my declining years, either a perky but scatter-brained model from Microsoft or else an elegant but snooty model from Apple.

2035 - Flight of an all-electric airliner
The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) plans to have an airliner powered by lithium-ion batteries by 2035. It will be well worth the extensive time travel to see this exciting technology, even if the time machine (i.e., my own self) is getting a bit rickety by then. How wonderful to buzz through the clouds on an electric plane!

2042 - Non-Hispanic whites become a minority of the US population
With decades of increasing Hispanic immigration in store for the US, the non-Hispanic whites (my crowd) will dip below 50% by 2042, never to regain majority status. If I pace myself, I may be able to stretch out my time travel long enough to visit this tumultuous era. By then it should be easy to get first-rate corn tortillas in grocery stores.