Friday, September 25, 2009

Common sense thoughts about Global Warming

There's quite a bit of crap thinking about Global Warming going on. I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts.

1. The worst case scenario

Almost everyone agrees that oil is the results of lots of dead plants being heated and pressurized underground for a long period of time. I'm sure there are complications in there, but those are the basics.

So, what can we expect the world would look like, if all that oil is returned to the atmosphere?

We already know: It'll look largely like the world before the dinosaurs. Take a look at this map of the Early Devonian period.

It's kind of hard to judge how much land is actually under water - it looks like it's about 1/4 - 1/3 of the present land mass.

That's pretty much the worst case.

A few things to note: the climate back then was quite conducive to life. The most life-intensive areas in the world are the continental shelves - those would be enormous compared to nowadays. Additionally, there should be quite a bit of rainfall - enough to grow all the plants necessary to make the oil, not to mention support all of the dinosaurs.

As far as diversity of life, if the worst case scenario happened and the sea levels rose that much, most of the large animals (not under human care) would probably die out. Large animals generally have long life-spans and hence slow evolutionary cycles. Also, most animals which live in highly specialized niches or depend on complex interactions between many different species will probably have a difficult time surviving.

Warmer temperatures will favor cold-blooded animals over mammals.

2. Carbon Sequestration

I hear about this one all the time. We need to develop the technology to sequester carbon.

Well, we already have it. It's been around for far longer than humans have been alive.

It's call plants.

Plants are essentially composed of solid atmosphere. By dry weight they are about 50% carbon (depending on the relative concentration of lignins and cellulose) - significantly more concentrated than carbon dioxide's 15.8%.

The interesting thing is that we, as a nation, have already been engaging in carbon sequestration at a massive scale. In New York's Fresh Kills landfill alone, there is roughly 10 million tons of carbon (not carbon dioxide, carbon) being stored in the form of paper.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A brief primer on money

In a barter based economic system, there are generally two quite difficult problems to solve. These problems are generally known as something along the lines of "coincidence of wants" and "store of value".

Coincidence of wants is the n^2 problem. Briefly, in a barter economy there are O(n^2) exchange rates where n is the number of goods in the economy. If one of those goods is used as money (everything is traded into and out of that good), the number of exchange rates drops to O(n). This tends to reduce the problem of market thinness where markets function poorly due to a lack of participants.

Store of value is just that - people generally want to store the "value" of the stuff they create, both through time and space. It is difficult for a dairy farmer to sell 1000 gallons of milk a year from now, across the country. It is much easier to sell the milk locally and travel across the country at the appropriate time and to the appropriate place with cash in hand.

To solve both of these problems, money should generally be small, durable, value dense (both in terms of volume and weight) and resistant to inflation.

Monday, May 25, 2009

On Power: Politics and Legitimacy

One interesting thing about politics is that there are political theories which closely "identify" with the types of power I identified earlier.

Generally speaking, conservatism identifies with military power, classical liberalism identifies with economic power and progressivism identifies with intellectual power.

What does identify mean? There are three parts. Forms of power that are blow the form that the political ideology identifies with are considered illegitimate. They are not to be used. There are generally a few exceptions - lower level power is legitimately used when it is used to counteract another use of that same type of power. For classical liberals, most recognize self defense as a valid use of military power (force) - both individually and nationally. Most progressives think it is morally just to donate to charity.

In general, the political ideologies see the fruit of the power they align with to be the core strength of society. Conservatives look to the strength of the military as a key sign of national greatness. Classical liberals look at economic output as the indicator of strength. Progressives generally see intellectual output as well as the compliance of society to the directives of the smartest as the true strength of society.

Lastly, forms of power above the one identified with by an ideology are seen to be too flimsy to be relied upon. Conservatives tend towards mercantilism because they see the military aspect of trade whereas progressives tend towards mercantilism out of a tactical alliance with unions. Intellectual power is generally not even considered real by either conservatives of classical liberals.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Power: Types

This is the first in a series of posts about the way I understand power works.

First off, a definition - power is the ability to influence the behavior of other people. Essentially, it is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do.

Historically, there have been three sorts of power, which I'm going to call military, economic and intellectual.

Military power is the power to coerce - it is the power to get people to do something by threatening them with harm if they don't comply.
Economic power is the power to cajole - it is the power to get people to do something by enticing them with benefits if they comply.
Intellectual power is the power to convince - it is the power to get people to do something by convincing them that said action is in their best interest.

Military power is the most stable form of power. All animals, whether they live in societies or not use military power to get what they want. Even in modern human society, military power is prevalent.

One of the interesting things about military power is that it acts as a sort of base for the other two sorts of power. In order for economic or intellectual power to form in any sort of concerted manner, there has to be sufficient military power for a level of stability to develop.

Economic power is the power to cajole. It is the power to get people to do something by offering them a reward if they do it. Economic power always co-exists with military power to some extent. In a war band, the relationships between members can be thought of as a sort of informal economic power. To expand on the point, most people, when they think of economics, think of what I'm going to call formal economic power - the trading of goods for money or vise versa. Informal economic power is generally contained within inter-personal relationships, making it difficult to analyze; this does not make it any less real. Imagine it as a network of favors, debts and constructive alliances between people which are rarely explicitly spoken of, but are very real none the less.

Economic power has become immense of late for very good reasons. In a situation where the exercise of military power is strongly curtailed, economic power becomes ascendant, simply because the exercise of economic power is always positive sum. Additionally, as wealth - the currency of economic power - accretes, generally a part of it ends up being capital, which increases the efficiency with which economic power is generated. This ends up being a virtuous cycle, whereby economic power in a system increases at an exponential rate.

This presents a problem, however - a large amount of economic power in the form of wealth is easily capturable via military power. As the amount of wealth grows, the more desirable a target it becomes for predations from the militarily powerful.

Intellectual power is the power to convince. Intellectual power is the power to get people to do something by convincing them that doing that thing is actually in their own best interest. Intellectual power has also always co-existed with military and economic power. In the old days, it was almost exclusively restricted to religion. Indeed, there is a reason why religious systems that incorporated a solid set of ethics out competed religious systems that didn't - ethics is essentially primitive form of game theory - and it works. If people lived for thousands or even hundreds of years, perhaps ethics wouldn't be such a big deal. However, given the current relatively short life time most people enjoy, ethics has historically been quite important - allowing people to converge quickly towards Nash equilibrium strategies.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that most times, when people attempt to use intellectual power, they use the language of ethics. A classic example is A Theory of Justice which. as Mencius Moldbug points out, has absolutely nothing to do with the correct application of the law. Other examples abound - finding more is left as an exercise to the reader.

Intellectual power depends on a stable economic system. Without a stable economic system, there is generally no surplus from which people seeking economic power can take a cut. Generally it is quite difficult to think of complex theories of human interaction while mining coal or harvesting wheat. This means that intellectual power is also indirectly dependent on a stable military power base.

While I only identify three methods of gaining power, I freely admit that there might be some that I have yet to discover (or that simply do not exist without the requisite technological advances). If other forms of power do exist, though, they should be readily discoverable: people who can get others to do their bidding tend not to stay in the shadows for too long.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The carrying capacity of the Earth

In talk about environmentalism, the term carrying capacity in relation to the earth often comes up.

While I don't think anyone has a firm grasp on the theoretical carrying capacity of the Earth, I can get within one or two orders of magnitude.

Fundamentally, the earth's carrying capacity (assuming the goal is to maximize the quantity of human life) is governed by three things: oxygen in the atmosphere, availability of fresh water and availability of appropriately nutritious food. Fresh water isn't particularly a problem - people are (with sufficient wealth) already extremely good at creating filtration systems capable of eliminating fresh water as a limiting factor for growth.

The oxygen issue is actually not as much of a problem as it might seem - the optimal diet for humans is photosynthesizers, as such a diet most efficiently conveys the sun's energy into human bodies. I am optimistic that said food source could be tuned sufficiently so that the sun's energy striking the earth would be the limiting factor in human carrying capacity.

To get an idea of what the earth is capable, imagine all life as we know it stripped away from the surface of the earth, which is flattened and filled in, and covered in a constant surface of 10 meter deep algae grow tanks, which are consumed for food.

While this solution ignores the earth's core as an energy source, it is probably within a few orders of magnitude of the maximum number of people who could possibly be supported on the planet.

Obviously, we are no where close to such a situation. Given humanity's fractious past, it is unlike that we will ever approach such a state.

Update: I am not suggesting that this would be a particular enjoyable experience for most of the people involved. It is merely an exercise that attempts to introduce at least a modicum of rigor to the issue.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Quote of the Day

I feel like the dad coming in on career day and the day[sic - should be dad] before me was a spy. Fuck
- Virgle Kent

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The gift of the classical liberals

In history, there have been largely three theories about how to distribute wealth, generally associated with political movements.

The first theory (chronologically) is the conservative theory. This theory says that the people who should control wealth are those who are the strongest militarily. This is a very stable solution, but it doesn't really work all that well - it generally keeps societies at their Malthusian limit; people who are strong militarily are generally much better at taking wealth from others (a negative sum game) than creating it (a positive sum game). There are very few people who believe in this theory, and those that do are generally in charge of very poor countries.

The second theory is the classical liberal theory. This theory says that the people who should control wealth are those who are the best at making new wealth. This actually works out really well - giving lots of wealth to people who are really good at making wealth tends to result in them making... even more wealth.

The third theory is the progressive theory. This theory says that the people who should control wealth are those who are the smartest. On its face, this actually sounds like a good idea. In practice, being smart doesn't mean that one is good at increasing the amount of wealth in the world - it typically means that one is deeply concerned with displaying how smart one is. There is a pretty deep problem with this theory, and that is that historically, people have only started to believe in the progressive theory after lots of time on the classical liberal theory. What ends up happening is that either another culture takes over, or the nation consumes more than it produces until there is nothing left and then it moves back over to the conservative theory, after a great deal of pain and suffering.

While the conservative theory is attractive in its stability, it is the classical liberal theory which truly deserves to shine - it is far and away the best way (that we know of) to increase the welfare of a nation.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Beattitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
-- Matthew 5:3-10

Progressives: Doing God's work since 1517.

It really is amazing how Christian progressives are - although they seem to not be content with inheriting the Kingdom of God in death - they want to create the Kingdom here on earth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whither China's Surplus

Just read a post at Broken Symmetry called Famous Last Words.

This is a typical doom-and-gloom piece about how China will overtake the US in x years with its GDP growth or, in this case, its reserve (growth implied) as evidence.

I just don't buy it anymore. China's $2.2 Trillion in reserves could, with multiplier effects, have meant $6.6 Trillion for China's citizens - or about $6600 per person, almost 43 times the poverty level.

Instead we are supposed to worry that China... could do exactly that some day in the future? Except that we just learned a very painful and obvious lesson - if you start selling debt in bulk, the market price of that debt plummets. I have no idea what the price of US Treasuries would tumble to if China tried to sell off its debt in short order, but I would not be surprised if $2.2 Trillion turned into $1.5 Trillion quite quickly (remember, there are only $833 Billion in existence as of today).

The only real reason I can see for the current Chinese policy is one that is domestically focused. Specifically, my guess is that the Chinese don't want China to turn into a liberal democracy (there are already signs that it is moving in that direction). The Chinese are probably afraid that a wealthy populace will start demanding things like right and equal treatment under the law... and before you know it, they'll be Canada. So instead, China is sucking the country dry to subsidize their manufacturing sector and relying on US demand to fuel their supply.

Which means that the growth China has had is Chinese manufacturers taking over the US and European markets, but they simply can't grow faster than the US and Europe after a while, because there is little organic Chinese demand for goods, do to Chinese poverty.

I'd love to hear a plausible alternative explanation, but so far, that's the only one that makes sense to me.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Zoo of Conservatives

Jim Kalb lists many (all?) of the common types of conservatives in the United States in What Conservatism?. He does an excellent job of summarizing the philosophical and practical backgrounds of each kind of conservative.