Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ecopoiesis .. and Mars

Ecopoiesis: "the artificial creation of a sustainable ecosystem on a lifeless planet".

How not to do it

Science-fiction often contemplates beings like ourselves, but powered more efficiently by electricity or nano-nuclear-reactors. It seems curious, watching living things inefficiently stuffing themselves on seeds or carrion or cheesecake.

Yet life on Earth had to bootstrap itself from its primordial, inorganic environment. Through waves of autopoiesis, Earth's ecology got to where it is now. Imagine a conceptual, spherical membrane around the Earth, perhaps just beyond the Moon. Electromagnetic and cosmic radiation transiting this imagined membrane (plus the odd rock) is all that's necessary to drive the entire history of life on this planet.

Now consider a Mars colony. Earth's biosphere (through its human-technological component) may be up to creating a settlement on Mars. But insofar as the colony is not capable of autopoiesis, it's artificial. The Martian 'membrane' needs to be permeable to Earth-resupply for all those essential metals, solar cells, nuclear reactors, smart plastics and many, many other vital supplies.

So Elon Musk should be thinking sustainability .. does that mean Martian terraforming?

Not exactly: Mars couldn't merely replicate a Terran ecology. It needs a Martian ecology, based on what Mars could minimally be re-engineered to be. We need an engineering nudge to push Mars onto a new track, one capable of sustaining a stable, runaway process of biological autopoiesis. Ideally humans could be adapted to join that ecosystem.

How would you do that? Seems harder than launching an electric car into space. But creating a Martian magnetosphere does seem an early requirement - another Tesla business opportunity?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

"China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know" by Arthur R. Kroeber

Amazon link

This book seems the best modern survey of the Chinese economy. I was interested in whether China is still a planned economy (as Michael Roberts has argued: "Xi takes full control of China’s future") or whether it has reverted to capitalism. I also wanted to get a sense of where the modernisation campaign has got to, and the prospects for coming political change.

Kroeber's book is useful for all these questions. It's incredibly well-informed; about as well-written as any book on Chinese political economy could be; and compelling and astute in its observations. As far as I can gather, despite the remarkable growth in the capitalist sector in recent decades (the powerhouse of the economy), the 'dominant heights' of the economy are still politically controlled by the Communist Party. This includes both the SOEs and some of the larger capitalist companies, where the ownership structure is opaque.

Kroeber argues that China has reached the end of its massive extensional period of growth and is now pivoting to intensive growth, relying on worker upskilling, an enhanced service sector, a further increase in the market sector at the expense of the deadbeat SOEs and Chinese leadership in technological innovation. This process is hard to reconcile with Xi's increasingly authoritarian policies (which are themselves driven by the need to break the power of defenders of 'the old ways'). It seems that another kind of pivot will be needed in the early 2020s if growth on the new course is to be sustained.

Kroeber emphasises that China is still, in terms of GDP per head, a poor country. It will take many decades to catch up with the G7 advanced capitalist countries. This is worth remembering when encountering yet another scaremongering article about the imminent Chinese challenge to American global hegemony.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Having your pig and eating it



The Economist this week has: "Using domestic animals to make human organs".
"Take the fertilised egg of a pig. From each cell in the resulting embryo cut out a gene or genes that promote the development of the animal’s heart. Inject human stem cells from a patient who needs a new heart into the embryo and then place it into the womb of a sow. Wait nine months.

"The result is an adult pig with a heart made of human cells. The pig can be slaughtered and the heart transplanted into the patient who provided the stem cells, for whom the organ will be a genetic match."
I imagine myself recovering from such an operation, munching contentedly on a sausage roll - also sourced from my very own pig.

---

The researchers have already succeeded in mouse-rat organ-sourcing. The human-pig process has not been perfected, however.
"But these are early days. Dr Garry, whose laboratory is now producing two or three pig-human fetuses a week, is studying those fetuses to try to understand why it is that in some only one heart cell in 100,000 is human while in other fetuses the number is one in 100. If he can discover the underlying principle, then the aim of replacing pig cardiac cells entirely with human ones will have come closer."
If they can do this for hearts, what about brains? Perhaps they wouldn't bother with that final transplant. Humans get to colonise the entire biosystem .. and the vegans finally win.

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We'd obviously have a problem shoe-horning human brains into insects or smaller animals. Probably have to dispense with the sense of humour, that sort of stuff .. .

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

British military strategy in the next five years

This is a continuation from the previous post, a review of "2020: World of War" by Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson.



Back in January, I wrote a post "British military strategy will converge to Russia's" which quoted and commented on a Times article by Edward Lucas. Given the crisis afflicting the British military budget, he proposed a break from those tight ties with America, resetting to a Eurocentric posture.

He himself admitted this was pie-in-the-sky and would never be seriously considered.

If you view Europe from the perspective of the American suzerainty, it's clear why even Lucas lacked the courage of his own convictions. He knew that the UK in recent decades has always prioritized a capability to interwork with America's military - as envisioned in America's "2018 National Defense Strategy".

This 'competency-to-partner' is the basis of the much-mocked 'special-relationship' which buys access and some small leverage in Washington.

Lucas also recalls how that great proponent of autonomous European military strategy, France, rejoined NATO in 2009. Geopolitical reality finally persuaded President Nicolas Sarkozy to terminate 'go it alone' after forty-three years.

So you can forget lurid fantasies of the UK being threatened by Russia, China or invaders from the asteroid belt. The UK military has - as its major function - that of slotting into its allocated position in the US global force-structure. The UK has some freedom to configure its remaining military assets. These are targeted on nearer problems: in EMEA relating to Islamism and to domestic issues such as the intractable troubles in Northern Ireland.

---

The present crisis in military financing is entirely due to the problems of keeping up with the Americans while not at their scale (and with a much less productive economy). Yet this is the one area where the UK with its global economic interests dare not fail completely.

Well, it wouldn't be a crisis if there were an easy solution.

In my January post, I jokingly suggested we adopt the Russian doctrine of a reliance on small-scale battlefield nukes. I emphasise: that was a joke. Russia perceives itself to have a real problem of confronting superior (if badly organised) hostile forces. Small nukes wouldn't solve any British problem.

In the end, the British establishment will choose to pay to avoid being dissed and marginalised by the Americans. The global geometry of the British economy calls for no less. It will be a while coming, but taxes are going up and the defence budget will rise to the minimum they think the Americans will accept as credible. And that will include the carriers, the fast jets and that 'nuclear deterrent'.

Monday, February 19, 2018

"2020: World of War" - Paul Cornish, Kingsley Donaldson

Amazon link

This from Page 278 of "2020 World of War":
"The latter part of the twentieth century saw everything possible done to encourage globalisation and cooperation in the liberal international economic order and to exclude conflict and competition from world politics.

In the process, war was dismissed as a means of resolving disputes and particularly as a means of exerting power over, and gaining control of, weaker neighbours. This was a laudable position to adopt, in principle, but it also represented the triumph of hope over experience.

And the curious outcome was that the war/peace paradigm, which encourages a narrow, binary outlook on strategic challenges, was made even less useful by our having declared one half of it to be irrelevant.

The second ingredient in a future-proofed strategy, then, is a willingness to see international security for what it is and might become, rather than for what we might wish it to be. "
It's easy to be misled by the casual use of abstractions. To believe that the international elite is truly global, that it soars above nation states, and that contemporary war-fighting is no more than police action against juvenile actors yet to grow up and smell the coffee.

It remains the case, however, that politics dominates economics. States continue to have interests (no doubt guided by the interests of their dominant economic elites) and the world does not subsist under a single world government.

It is an American fashion today to view with something like contempt Europe's post-WW2 cultural pacifism, its underspending on defence and its ineffectual military capabilities. Yet this chiding hides a convenient truth: pacifistic Japan, under-militarised Australia and weak Europe are all locked securely in place beneath the US military umbrella. If war is politics by other means, then the US's Asian and European allies are in no shape to resist American political objectives, if push were ever to come to shove.

It is the intention of Russia, China and sections of the Middle-East (notably Iran) to resist the present American empire which creates the fault-lines in current international relations. But given the immense disparity between American military power and that of its adversaries, doctrines for traditional cold-war-style tank engagements and ICBM-duels have been augmented by a new portfolio of techniques of asymmetric warfare.

It is within this, more complex battlespace, that Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson have set their book.

---

The term 'American empire' is not generally acceptable. The Chinese communists used to accuse Britain of being 'America's running dog': that's still less acceptable, even when cleansed of its derogatory associations. But if you can't accept that America is a suzerain ("a dominant state controlling the foreign relations of a vassal state but allowing it sovereign authority in its internal affairs") your strategic analysis is bound to be flawed.

Cornish and Donaldson operate within the conventional myth that the UK has substantial foreign policy and military autonomy and this vitiates their analysis. But as we shall see, their book is mostly organised around a sequence of worst-case, illustrative scenarios and is in any event analysis-light.
1. China aims to reacquire Taiwan through a feint against Australia. It conspires with Indonesia to create a scandal around Australian rejection of overladen refugee boats. The Chinese navy hoves into view to guarantee the refugees' safety (and to intimidate the Australians). Unexpectedly, the American Seventh Fleet responds aggressively. Shots are fired ...
This is the well-rehearsed 'rising China' scenario - which is rather distant from the UK's immediate military concerns.
2. In the context of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and increased Chinese engagement with Pakistan, tensions between Pakistan and India hot up and they confront each other at the nuclear threshold.
Another well-rehearsed scenario which has marginal impact for UK military strategy.
3. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State create a seemingly-improbably alliance and foment a coup in Egypt, economically buttressed by IS's capture of Libya's oil. This scenario draws useful attention to the economic and political fragility of Egypt.

The resulting North African Caliphate is well-poised to strike at Europe amidst the thousands of refugees now fleeing across the Mediterranean. Europe's response is limp-wristed and hand-wringing; America passively observes from a distance.
The focus on Egypt's vulnerability is interesting. Europe's political disunity and military uselessness will cost it dear on issues where America's core interests are not engaged.
4. A complex act of UK terrorism (downing an airliner with a ground-to-air missile) with roots in the African-Arab conflicts in the Sahel.
The scenario, involving the covert involvement of a major UK arms manufacturer, seems far-fetched. There appear no obvious lessons except the usual acknowledgements of the difficulties of combatting small-actor terrorism sourced from distant parts.
5. An EMP cyber-attack on London is used (cleverly) to set up a Russian-controlled botnet targeting the Baltic states. This is a prelude to a Russian invasion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
A far-fetched and over-elaborate scenario for an already over-familiar narrative of Russian 'near-abroad' consolidation.
6. A model of Brexit which includes a hard border with Eire plus an independent Scotland with an all-too-porous border. Combine with a resurgence of kinetic Republicanism for a perfect storm of drug smuggling, people smuggling and bombs.
This scenario looks overblown, but simply extrapolates many issues already familiar in countries like Italy and Greece. Not an existential crisis for the British state.
7. A combination of several of the scenarios above: a conflict between China and America around an American 'freedom of the seas' operation in the South China Sea; a simultaneous Russian incursion into the Baltic states; Jihadi acquisition of hundreds of European tourists in a collapsing Tunisia and Morocco coupled with mass-migration across the Mediterranean; Islamic insurgency in Turkey. Finally, the American Imperium, backed up in a division of labour by its trusted allies, manages to partially roll-back the crisis.
A contrived exercise in wishful thinking.

And that's it. Those are the scenarios. Some things to note.

  • No scenario involves a modern state-on-state assault on the UK. At no point does Britain's nuclear deterrent (in reality a distributed component of America's nuclear deterrent) engage.

  • Large-scale, potentially existential crises revolve around Russia and China. These are areas of genuine concern, but ones where the UK has a vanishingly small autonomous role.

  • The lower-level conflicts - Islamic insurgencies, uncontrolled migrations or domestic nationalisms - are extrapolations of current problems; there are few new ideas beyond targeted 'police actions' and improved surveillance.
---

The last chapter is called 'Conclusion':
  1. Don't be a linear thinker - the certainties of the Cold War are well behind us
  2. Be realistic - as in the introductory quote above, don't fall for wishful thinking
  3. Generate a reinvigorated strategic culture and be adaptive to new threats.
Yes, this is indeed a take-home lesson worth paying good money for.

---

Next post: British military strategy in the next five years.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"The Socialist System" - János Kornai

Amazon link


'The Socialist System' presents itself as a daunting read: a 600 page, somewhat dry analysis of the detailed workings of the socialist (ie post-capitalist) system in all its aspects. Kornai was trained as a philosopher, becoming an economist and then a journalist in socialist Hungary, in the period after the second world war.

His book identifies three phases of socialism: the 'heroic' period of the revolutionary-transitional system (think 'War Communism'), the classical system of totalitarian bureaucratic control (prototypically Stalinism) and the reform period (NEP; the Gorbachev reforms). The historical order is usually (but not always) as written - with occasional reversions.

---

It is commonplace to review the political horrors of socialism: the great famines of the thirties in Russia and the Gulag, the 'Great Leap Forward' in China. But underlying such political episodes of class struggle and bureaucratic consolidation are deeper issues, those associated with the consequences of bureaucratic coordination of the economy.

Bureaucratic coordination just doesn't work that well. Kornai is forensic in considering how the dictates of forced growth (due to the regime's often-justified sense of their encirclement by more advanced and hostile capitalist states) generates aggressive, top-down 'tight plans' incapable of fulfillment even in principle.

It's simply impossible to centrally-plan a modern economy with any degree of success. All layers of the bureaucracy see it in their interests to organise outputs against static, inflexible and ignorant plan-objectives, regardless of the real needs they plainly see around them. Indeed they will be rewarded for plan-fulfillment and punished for failure.

Hoarding, shortages, poor quality goods and lack of motivation are endemic. The system works, after a fashion, but once the extensive phase of development has been achieved progress slows and the centrally-planned economy falls further behind advanced capitalist countries.

Kornai is especially good on the organic and protean nature of the bureaucracy. Industrial societies are just too interdependent: they must be coordinated. In the absence of market (price) mechanisms, top-down bureaucratic coordination is the only alternative and its daily failures lead to further bureaucratic growth. Anything which is not being centrally controlled is potentially dangerous to the achievement of the plan.

Eventually, though, something must be done. Reforms are called for. Wherever market mechanisms are introduced - in agriculture or in small business - productivity soars. Yet the market is anathema to the plan: the two organising principles cannot cohere. In one place capitalism is allowed to advance and the communist party's monopoly of power begins to falter; in another place the party strikes back and property rights begin to to look shaky causing investment collapse.

The masses are conflicted. On the one hand they welcome the lessening of repression, the chances for higher incomes in the private sector and the greater availability of higher-quality goods. On the other hand, their innate and indoctrinated sense of egalitarianism is offended by capitalism's inequities and meritocratic qualities let alone the elements of price-gouging and rip-offs attendant upon the reemergence of private property and market relations.

Nowhere does the Trotskyist model of a socialised economy under the democratic control of workers' councils get a look-in. Somehow, there's a disconnect between the operation of the economy as a whole and the specific interests of individual workers and their families. The principal-agent problem at all scales is just too overarching, too ubiquitous.

---

For a while, China has seemed a counter-example to Kornai's thesis. We are told that the Chinese Communist Party leadership has studied and learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It may be too early to say but the story on China in 2018, as growth continues to slow, suggests that Kornai's prognosis will again be proven correct.

Amazon link

If this book, rich in details and experience were made into a TV series, could it transform the illusions of western leftists who still believe a planned economy could be made to work? I was studying Kornai's book while also reading Vasily Grossman's 'Life and Fate' and it was extraordinary how Kornai's general principles were exactly replicated in the experiences of Grossman's characters.

Yet I have no illusions. The myth of the benevolent centrally-planned economy is probably written in our genes: every generation has to painfully learn better, hopefully through works such as this.

---

Let us return to the intriguing question of China. Andrew Batson writes:
"I put János Kornai’s The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism on my best books list for last year, but I’ve been slow in writing something longer about it. It’s taken some time for me to think through how to understand China in the context of his arguments.

Kornai’s book is brilliant in its diagnoses of the internal conflicts and problems of “market socialism” or “reform socialism”, in which market mechanisms are permitted but the Communist Party maintains political primacy and a large public sector. This is a still a pretty accurate definition of China’s system. There were so many moments while reading when I wanted to shout out loud in recognition: “Yes! That’s exactly how it is!”

Yet the book finally concludes that market socialism is an inherently unstable and unsustainable system that cannot last. Essentially Kornai argues that the combination of a weakened version of state intervention and the half-hearted embrace of market competition enjoys the vices of both systems and the virtues of neither.

A government that no longer truly believes in socialism cannot enforce its plans, while market forces are allowed to operate only inconsistently, so that they amplify rather than alleviate distortions. The inevitable accumulation of economic problems means that the public and officials get fed up with the system and eventually decide to jettison it entirely."
Batson then continues to the key question: So what did Kornai miss?

Skatepark rats redux

My post twelve days ago, "Skatepark rats", was intended for Environmental Health at Mendip District Council. It showed rat-runs, but I wasn't quick enough then to image any rats.

Yesterday - as I've now overcome my cold - we took a walk, returning past the skatepark. I managed to grab a picture of rat number one (below) ...


but before I could switch to video, it had vanished. Rat number two was not so shy.




On a good day, though, you can easily spot three. And they're generally far more brazen: you can get within six feet, take your time, lock gaze  .. .

Plainly no action has been taken so far to deal with our rat colony.

---

Update: (Monday 19th February):

This afternoon we received an email from Andy Price:
"I thank you for your enquiry regarding the above. Environmental Protection are currently in discussions with the land owner Somerset County Council in an effort to establish what action they can take to control the rats.

Andy Price
Licensing Enforcement &
Environmental Protection
Mendip District Council
Council Offices, Cannards Grave Road, Shepton Mallet,
Somerset, BA4 5BT"
We called Mr Price and had an interesting, if depressing discussion about the limitations on the powers of the Council given that the rat-infested area is public access (pets, small children) and that therefore aggressive baiting can't be used.

We are resigned to shouldering our way through crowds of exponentially-breeding rats for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Disrupting über-surveillance: a five point plan

Yesterday I wrote about the potential for new sensor, effector and AI technologies to create a totalitarian surveillance state (after Charles Stross). What could be done to defy such measures?

At the extremes there is, plainly, no solution. If you're thrown naked into a hardened cell, they junk the key and never visit you again .. you're going nowhere.

But real-world security systems are not like that. They're constructed of real, fallible and resource-limited components. Think of the surveillance system as a security agent, as shown below.

A functional diagram of the surveillance-enforcement system - with countermeasures

The surveillance systems are top right: cameras, microphones, pressure pads, .. whatever.

Sensor data is interpreted into symbolic form via low-level primary processing. Interpretation can be informed by feed-forward of higher-level hypotheses - as in the predictive processing model.

In a context of the system's present beliefs and goals, the perceptual world-view is acted upon by a planning system to determine the appropriate response. This is the point where humans are likely in the loop.

Finally, going down to mid-bottom of the diagram, resources are chosen and marshalled and tasked to execute the operational response: "stop and search", "arrest", "kill" .. .

Each of these modules has a possible attack point from the viewpoint of the adversary.

  1. Sensors can be physically attacked - cameras can be painted over or depowered.

  2. Interpretation can be confused: some AI vision classifiers have had problems with patterned spectacles; there are opportunities with disguises and bogus roles.

  3. Planning and resource-assembly can be disrupted by physical attacks and/or resource-intensive diversions. Or directly by an insider.

  4. The beliefs and goals of the system can be subverted: from the outside by subtle misdirection (eg use of an apparently-benign front organisation); or internally by hacking.

  5. The final execution stage can be met with misdirection, attacks or diversions.

As the surveillance and enforcement systems get ever more ubiquitous and sophisticated, the rigidities of AI transform into vulnerabilities. Absent an AGI (and they will be absent), security systems are baffled by human subtleties while human overseers flounder in alert-trivia.

Adversary cleverness, preparation and resources on the ground make for a more even contest than one might imagine.

---

You can usefully think of the security state as a vast, distributed, rather rigid and not-terribly-bright personality. An ESTJ most likely. Then consider how you might fool, or con such a person.

Most of the time this will work, but beware: eventually - if you are successful - they will put someone smart and imaginative on your case.

The security state can change its personality on a sixpence if sufficiently provoked.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Über-surveillance

Amazon link

I'm reading Charles Stross's "Empire Games", the first volume of the second Merchant Princes trilogy. We're in a 2020 New York, a world where Homeland Security has transformed America into a total surveillance state.

Hulius is a 'worldwalker', a terrorist to the American authorities, who is returning from a rendezvous with a NY agent-in-place.
"Entering the station, Hulius passed under the lenses of cameras on the staircase, of cameras fronting the ticket machines, of cameras watching the faces of everybody passing through the barriers, and, finally, of the cameras on the platform and on the subway train itself.

These cameras had just enough onboard intelligence to match faces against a database of persons of interest, and to call for help if they scored a hit. And, all unbeknownst to him, Hulius had become a person of interest. ...

Hulius was a person of interest because he'd been observed on numerous previous occasions and never identified. His face was known, his biometrics logged; but he was never associated with the same cell phone ID, or with RFID tags in an ID card (or the washing instruction labels in his clothing), or even with the same bicycle.

Hulius was a blind spot in the surveillance network's purview, like the 600-mile-per-hour moving hole in the radar reflection of a rain cloud that betrays the passage of a stealth bomber.

And as he walked toward the back of the platform for a train to Forest Hills, phones began to buzz."
This is the ultimate feature of total surveillance. If the system knows everybody, then the intruding agent need do nothing wrong, need not show any behavioural abnormalities. The systems shriek: 'there's a stranger in town!' .. and the forces of law and order begin to gather.

We're entering the age of human-level AI capabilities: competent cognitive functions which are obedient, don't get tired and are on duty 24/7. And replicable without limit, at low marginal cost. Cities, whole countries, become small villages which never sleep.

Exercise for the reader: how do you defeat a surveillance system this ubiquitous?

---

1. Get a fake Id?

But the system is tracking you minute by minute. Any anomalies or unexplained gaps flag an alert. How do you ever leave your cover and get any useful agent-work done? It would be like cheating on God.

2. Subvert the System?

Like those thriller genius-kids who can break any password in seconds on a jury-rigged Ono-Sendai deck?

3. Your answer.

Yes, that's the one I'm interested in. Here's mine.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Curious dreams

It's been a while since I've had a cold. The sore throat hit on Thursday afternoon although it lasted less than a day. By Friday afternoon I was wiped and retired to bed, where I remained for the next 24 hours. The virus makes you weary: your consciousness diminishes, you doze, you have strange, obsessional dreams.



I dreamt about weaponizing drones to drop grenades .. but that's already been done.
"Guerrillas have been using commercial drones since 2015. Islamic State (IS), one of the groups active in Syria, makes extensive use of quadcopters to drop grenades. In 2017 alone the group posted videos of over 200 attacks."
The Economist this week continues:
"Small drones are surprisingly hard targets, however. Iraqi forces in Mosul used to joke that trying to deal with an IS drone attack was like being at a wedding celebration: everyone fired their Kalashnikovs into the air with no effect.

A recent American army manual describes small drones as “very difficult to defeat using direct fire weapons”. A single rifle bullet is likely to miss. A shotgun would work, but only at close range, and would mean that squaddies had to carry around an extra weapon all the time on the off chance of a drone attack. Also, since drones are not of standard sizes, the range to one is hard to estimate.

The manual therefore suggests that rather than aiming directly at a drone, the entire squad should fire their weapons at a fixed point ahead of it, hoping to bring the craft down with a curtain of fire. The manual also advises commanders that the best course of action may be “immediate relocation of the unit to a safer location”. ...

"A similar problem applies at sea, where billion-dollar ships might have their defences overwhelmed by squadrons of cheap, jerry-built drones. The mainstay of American naval air defence is Aegis, an orchestrated arrangement of radars, computers, missiles and cannons. The short-range element of Aegis is a Dalek-like, rapid-fire cannon called Phalanx, which spits out 75 rounds a second and can shoot down incoming cruise missiles. This will not cope well with lots of small drones, though.

The navy is now upgrading Aegis’s software to handle multiple simultaneous incoming targets by scheduling bursts of fire to destroy as many members of a swarm as possible. It is doubtful, however, whether one gun could account for more than a handful of attackers coming in from all directions at once. An unclassified study suggests that it could be overwhelmed by as few as eight. [!]"
My other dreams were reminiscences of Herman Kahn's legendary "On Thermonuclear War";

Amazon link


and a similarly-chilling and brilliant "Fail-Safe", Eugene Burdick's and Harvey Wheeler's dramatic account of an American nuclear bomber squadron which is mistakenly directed to target Moscow. Due to an equipment malfunction, they can't be recalled.

It does not end well.

Amazon link

Thankfully, now I'm recovering: all those fever-dreams must surely be receding.

But .. a month ago, I wrote this spoof-ish piece arguing that due to shortfalls in conventional military provisioning, the UK will (or should) end up emulating Russia's 'small-nuke warfighting doctrine' (as memorably described in "War With Russia" by General Sir Richard Shirreff) - rather than the current MAD posture.

Well, 2017 came and went ...

Obviously this is politically unsayable by any conceivable British administration .. but then I read that the Americans plan to do exactly that - and they even have a big enough military already.

Since the Brits tend to do stuff for the Americans which they find politically difficult, some new (multi-user?) development contracts could be incoming for the MoD .. .

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Skatepark rats

There is a footpath which runs parallel to Lovers Walk from Milton Lane down to Waitrose at Whiting Way. For a while, it's had rats. Recently there's been a population explosion: a couple of days ago we saw three going to the shop, and two more returning. (We were shopping, not the rats.)

Here's the area, within the red ellipse.



It's hard to know where the rats hang out, but they retreat from the footpath into a couple of well-known little holes on the south side of the trail.

Looking SW towards the Skatepark, note the wall to the left

The small hole in the red circle is one rat-run

Looking back NE towards Milton Lane, notice the door to the right

The small hole at the bottom (circled) - that's another rat-run.

Clare has contacted Environmental Health at Mendip District Council. This is what she said:
"Today I encountered two rats on the footpath near Lovers Walk, Wells (near the Skateboard park).  On Monday I passed three rats.  I am informed that dealing with this issue is your responsibility.  If this is so ...... now is the time for action. "
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Update: finally a picture and video of the rats.

Hobbit devolution

Marginal Revolution resurrected this ancient article from Greg Cochran - a moral tale with a punchline.




Brief summary:
  • Brains can go down as well as up because: evolution.
  • Small populations accumulate rising mutational load - brains are a prime target.
  • If there's a devolved ecological niche waiting in the wings, watch out!

The Mystery of Death

Amazon link

This is chapter 49 from "Life and Fate", by Vasily Grossman.
"When a person dies, they cross over from the realm of freedom to the realm of slavery. Life is freedom, and dying is a gradual denial of freedom. Consciousness first weakens and then disappears. The life-processes - respiration, the metabolism, the circulation - continue for some time, but an irrevocable move has been made towards slavery; consciousness, the flame of freedom, has died out.

The stars have disappeared from the night sky; the Milky Way has vanished; the sun has gone out; Venus, Mars and Jupiter have been extinguished; millions of leaves have died; the wind and the oceans have faded away; flowers have lost their colour and fragrance; bread has vanished; water has vanished; even the air itself, the sometimes cool, sometimes sultry air, has vanished. The universe inside a person has ceased to exist.

This universe is astonishingly similar to the universe that exists outside people. It is astonishing similar to the universes still reflected within the skulls of millions of living people. But still more astonishing is the fact that this universe had something in it that distinguished the sound of its ocean, the smell of its flowers, the rustle of its leaves, the hues of its granite and the sadness of its autumn fields, both from those of every other universe that exists and ever has existed within people, and from those of the universe that exists eternally outside people.

What constitutes the freedom, the soul of an individual life, is its uniqueness. The reflection of the universe in someone's consciousness is the foundation of his or her power, but life only becomes happiness, is only endowed with freedom and meaning when someone exists as a whole world that has never been repeated in all eternity. Only then can they experience the joy of freedom and kindness, finding in others what they have already found in themselves."
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Our consciousness probably evolved to share experiences - a necessary function for an adaptable, flexible and competent social animal. Of course, to share experiences you first have to have them.

We are used to experiencing in consciousness the objective events of our lives: events and reflection engage in parallel. Death is anomalous. Like your own deep sleep, you don't experience it yourself, although others can. For yourself, you're never dead as such, you experience only the process of dying: that is, being alive.