Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Life and Death of Memes: Vegan Vs. Macrobiotic



This 2009 book by Lierre Keith is a fascinating reflection on how ideology permeates people's eating habits. Ideology, then, is based on memes and that's a new and developing field of science. 


John Michael Greer (the Archdruid) tells the whole story of the great cycle of the macrobiotic and vegan diets. The macrobiotic movement started in the 1970 and peaked sometimes in the 1980-1990s. Greer himself tried to follow the rules of the macrobiotic diet and he reports an experience similar to that told by Lierre Keith in her book "The Vegetarian Myth" with a Vegan diet. Both Greer and Keith suffered serious health problems with these diets until they finally decided to abandon them - and then felt much better!

The question of diets can be utilized to illustrate how memes propagate in the global mindsphere. Data from "Google Ngrams" provide the number of times that a word is used in books. It can be used to quantify Greer's claim that Veganism somehow supplanted Macrobioticism in a memetic cycle that covered a few decades. It is true: here are the data:



You can see how the "macrobiotic" meme went through a classic memetic trajectory, virally infecting the consciousness space of a fraction of humankind. Then, it lost potency and started fading. These data are up to 2008, if you use Google Trends to measure how many times the term "macrobiotic" was searched for in the Web, you see that it is in terminal decline from 2004.

If "macrobiotic" is a dying meme, that's not true for "vegan" which is still showing growth in both Google Ngrams and Google Trends, the latter showing the number of times that a term is searched for in the Web. Here are the Google Trends data:


So, veganism is still alive and kicking, but it is hard to say for how long. Most likely, it will follow the same cycle of the macrobiotic meme, peaking and declining in the coming decades. This is not so much related to whether one diet is better than another, or whether either or both diets bring benefits to the people following them. It is the hard law of memes - they have a life of their own and a limited existence time (*).

Still, the fact that there is so much interest in diets tells us something. What we eat is not just a question of survival - even though in Italy we have a saying that goes as "what doesn't kill you, fattens you." (**). Rather, what we eat is a cultural, political, and religious statement. Not for nothing, most of the world's religions tell to their followers that God worries about the details of what His sons and daughters eat or do not eat.

Today, many people perceive that the world's food industry is operating on the basis of a new kind of religion: the religion of growth. Granted, the growth of food production has been successful in eliminating the major famines that plagued the world up to a few decades ago. But the food industry's approach to feeding the world is, literally, a "scorched earth" strategy. It destroys the soil, kills everything, razes forests, destroys the fisheries, fills the planet with chemicals and more. In the West, the result is the obesity epidemics and plenty of health problem.

So, following a diet such as the Vegan one is mainly a political - perhaps religious - statement. A statement that many people feel like they need to make in order to fight the way they are treated by the food powers that be. We'll see more of this in the future and it wouldn't be surprising if a new diet-based religion will arise one day.

In the end, food and diets illustrate how difficult it is for humans to understand (let alone manage) complex systems. The human metabolic system is hugely complex and it becomes coupled to the chemistry and the biological activity of food, just as it is interlaced with political and economic questions about the opportunity of using more and more precious resources in order to produce certain kinds of food. The result is a giant confusion of different opinions that may veer all the way to physical attacking people who don't share the same way of thinking about diets. It happened during the 1st century AD and in more recent times it happened to Lierre Keith, attacked by vegan fanatics.

Memetics doesn' tell us how to manage complex systems, but it allows us to have some idea of how memes diffuse and fight each other in the human memesphere. So far, we can at least say that dieting memes grow and die as virtual viral entities, apparently independently of whether they are beneficial to people or not. Maybe one day we'll learn how to do better. 



(*) We (myself, Ilaria Perissi, and Sara Falsini) have a paper that provides a theoretical assessment of these cycles. It is accepted for publication on "Kybernetes". If you like to have a preprint, write to me or to Ilaria at ilariaperissi(thingeything)gmail.com or Sara Falsini (sara.falsini(thingery)unifi.it)

(**) Quello che non ammazza, ingrassa

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Keep on trucking? No, Keep on Platooning!


The concept of "platooning" involves electronically connected trucks running close to each other. It is a much more innovative idea than that of self-driven private cars and it has the potential of revolutionizing road transport by drastically reducing costs. (image from scania.com).



Self-driving cars (or "automated vehicles," AVs) are all the rage in the debate. In most cases, we have a lot of hype and little evidence but it is also true that such cars are not impossible. So, what can we say about this idea?

I often say that technological progress is subjected to the golden rule that it generates more problems than it solves. So, not surprisingly, the way AVs are normally proposed today they would solve no important existing problem but would bring new ones. In most cases, you are told that you'll still own a car, use it for commuting, take your family to a vacation - the only difference with AVs is that you are relieved of the drudgery of having to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But a recent study reports that, under equivalent conditions of owning a driverless car, people tend to log in more miles and keep their cars circling around rather than bothering about finding a parking space. Not exactly the way to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.


But there is a different application of AVs which may qualify as a true technological breakthrough. It is "platooning." (Image from The Business Times). At first sight, it doesn't look like a big innovation. Trucks running close to each other? Didn't that already exist under the name of "trailers"?

But there is a breakthrough here, and it is a big one. First of all, platooning doesn't need the massive complication of a completely self-driving car. A platoon of trucks is still supposed to be controlled by humans - what is needed for platooning are sensors and actuators coupled with some computing control. Then, of course, you need safety tricks to ensure that a "de-platooned" truck doesn't run awry, but that should not be a problem. Platooning is one of those "sweet" technologies that need only existing subsystems to function.

Then, the advantages. A minor one is that a platooned truck has a lower aerodynamic resistance. But this is peanuts in comparison to the real advantage of the scheme: saving on the cost of personnel. The platooned trucks simply do what the first truck does, there is no need for every truck to have a driver. So, connect two trucks together and you halve the number of drivers needed. Connect three or more, and you proportionally reduce the cost of the human drivers.

Now, according to a recent study of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the cost of drivers represents 40% of the total transportation cost per mile (p. 24 of the report). You see how big the change could be just in terms of reducing the number of drivers.

But there is more. Right now, there is no interest in slowing down trucks in order to save fuel because the cost of drivers rises proportionally to the number of hours traveled. But for platooning it makes sense to slow down the whole train and reduce fuel costs. Slower trucks also bring fewer accidents and consequently lower insurance costs. Slower speeds also allow using smaller engines and simpler technologies. And that would also reduce the need for maintenance of roads and bridges. All these effects come together in bringing costs down.

So, platooning is a big innovation. But it must be seen in light of the evolution of the whole society. Alice Friedemann has argued in her book "When Trucks Stop Running" that trucks are a critical element of the way modern society function. Will we have sufficient resources to keep trucks running in the future, platooning or not?

Surely, a complete societal collapse generated by resource depletion or runaway climate change would necessarily ensure that the transportation system would collapse, too. But platooning could make trucking much more resilient. If trucking were to use less energy, trucks could be made to run on electric power provided by batteries or by overhead wires. Current rubber tires are made from petroleum but if the trucks slow down we won't need so much rubber as we do today and rubber synthesized from biological sources could do the job. The same is true for the asphalt of roads: slower trucks would place a lower strain on road surfaces and we might go back to "Macadamized" roads.

So, platooning is an innovation that we shouldn't ignore. And, as usual, it will have important impacts - not necessarily good. Substantially lowering the cost of road transport will make it more competitive in comparison to rail. This could further marginalize the already marginal role of railroads in freight transportation. Then, nothing prevents from platooning also buses or other kinds of vehicles, also reducing transportation costs. That might mean the end of railroads, except for high-speed trains where road vehicles can't compete.

But the truly major effect of platooning is on employment. In the US alone, there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers. Trucking is the most popular medium-skill jobs still available in most of the industrialized world. Platooning may create millions of unemployed drivers. How society will react to that is hard to say, but the shock is likely to be felt.

As usual, we move into the future driven by enthusiasm and by the idea that better technologies automatically mean better life. Platooning is just one of the new technologies which may lead us to some direction that we might not have wanted to take. But we will.




(h/t Arthur Keller)

Friday, February 9, 2018

The world as a canvas: Vincent Van Gogh's models of the world




An intriguing post by Ilaria Perissi on her blog "boundaries" where she examines in depth the relation of painting and modeling - the latter in the modern sense of using mathematical tools to describe the behavior of complex systems. She goes in depth into describing how Vincent Van Gogh and how his paintings can be seen as models of the world. An excerpt from her post is below, but do read the whole thing; it is fascinating!




The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system – Jay Forrester (1971).

Could these sentences represent also a painting process? Is a painter a sort of modeler?  Following the rational of previous words, most of the painters are interested in reporting an image of the world and the paintings are just models of that images, including both the material world as well as the rapresentation of feelings and situations; they are not models of the whole world, but of a set of selected concepts and relationships used to represent a real material system, which could be a landscape, a still life, a portrait, a situation or event, as wars, battles, a sunset or a ‘starry night’, ‘potatoes eaters’  and representation of feelings as in the painting 'Sorrowing Old Man' or 'Two lovers'.

 

 Rread the whole post at Ilaria Perissi's "Boundaries"

Monday, February 5, 2018

What if we could REALLY convince the public that climate change is a threat?


 

Maybe one day some really gigantic-awful-horrible-monstrous-humungous climate related disaster will hit us. And that, at that moment, people will stop playing the boiling frog and will be forced to admit that climate change is real and we have to do something about that. 

Unfortunately, plenty of gigantic-horrible-etc. disasters have already hit us, but the public doesn't seem to have taken notice. But never mind, we might be hit by the really big one. And, if it happens, do you think people will come to the scientists and tell them "we are so sorry, now we understand you were right all along"?

I have the impression that it will be rather something like what you see in the clip, below. It will be something like what the woman says, "God is going to destroy this Earth and there is nothing you silly scientists can do about that with all your scientific blah-blah."

And I have this terrible feeling that she may be right.


Video from "Ars Technica")


Friday, February 2, 2018

How Big a Disaster Can Climate Change Be?



Above, you can see an image from the paper by Marsicek et al., just appeared on Nature. It shows a reconstruction from pollen records of the temperatures of the past 10,000 year or so, the "Holocene," for North America and Europe. Note the black squares, showing how fast temperatures have been growing during the past 50 years or so.

As all reconstructions of the past, this one has to be taken with some caution, but it fits well with the various "hockey sticks" that research continues to produce despite the attempts to discredit both the science and the scientists who work in this field. So, we can assume these results to be reasonably reliable. Then, we can note a few interesting things.

1. What we call "civilization" arose and continued to exist during a period of relatively constant temperatures, that is, during the past 5000 years or so. During this period, the oscillations in the graph are never more than about half a degree. That's probably not a coincidence. Agriculture and civilization come together and it is unlikely that agriculture could have been developed for wildly oscillating temperatures and rapidly varying climates

2. Civilizations seem to grow and collapse because of internal factors - the fall of empires doesn't seem to be correlated to climate change. For instance, you can look in the graph for the data corresponding to the fall of the Roman Empire, between 2000 and 1500 years ago. Temperatures are flat, at most cooling a little. It is a point that I already made on the basis of another set of data specific for the region occupied by the Roman Empire. These more detailed data show a cooling period in Europe, but after the fall of the Empire. 

3. Some relatively intense oscillations in the curve appear at about 3000 years bp, which corresponds to the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilization. This might support the interpretation by Eric Cline who sees climate as a concause of the collapse. Maybe, but can a whole civilization collapse abruptly as the result of a temperature change of just a couple of tenths of degrees? Personally, I tend to think the opposite. That is, the modest temperature change of the Late Bronze Age has been triggered by the collapse of the Mediterranean civilization of that time. 

4. Note how some much touted events of the past - for instance the "Medieval Warm Period" - appear as just minor perturbations in the curve. Overall, it seems that the effect of human activity on climate has been marginal until the age of fossil fuels.

5. According to Ruddiman, the relative stability of the past 8000 years or so is the result of the release of greenhouse gases produced by human agriculture. This is the phenomenon which prevented the earth system to return to a new ice age. It is possible, but it seems to me at least unlikely that a system can be stabilized by two opposite strong perturbations (the other one is the effect of the Milankovitch oscillations)

6. There is no obvious correlation of this long term trend with what we know of the Sun's output. There has been a lot of speculation that the past temperature oscillations have been related to variations of the Sun's output -- the "Maunder Minimum" is an example of that. But if these variations have an effect, it is truly minimal. It can only be within the oscillations of the curve which don't exceed a few tenths of degree.

7. The increase in temperatures during the past 50 years or so has been simply stunning. In a sense, these sudden temperature changes are not unusual in the earth's history (the problem for biological species is to survive them). But, in this case, it is so fast that it has probably no equals in the whole geological history of the planet. It is a disaster ongoing. Will civilization survive? Will humankind survive? Will anything alive today survive? Who can say?


But don't worry: we all know that this paper is part of the great conspiracy of the 97% of the world's climate scientists. Fortunately, they have been debunked by a group of brave internet trolls, helped by friendly fossil fuel lobbyists. 




The paper cited here is behind a paywall. If you have no access to it, write to me (ugo.bardi(twiggyingthing)unifi.it) and I'll send you a copy.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Donald Trump: the Evil Monster



Sorry about this a little rant of mine. And sorry also for the click-baiting title. I promise that from now on I won't publish more posts about Trump (not too many, at least) (Image source)



When I publish something about Donald Trump, I usually face criticism. People tell me that they don't expect posts about Trump in this blog -- it is off topic. And comparing Trump to Emperor Hadrian - as I did - seems to make some people angry. Maybe they are right, but I suspect that they say so in part because I am not usually describing Trump an evil monster (apart from the title of this post, to be intended as a clickbaiter!).

To tell you frankly, I find Trump not a monster, and not evil, either. He is a fascinating phenomenon, the result of factors well worth trying to understand. No matter how outrageous, nasty, politically incorrect, insulting, sexist, racist, and more, Trump is successful. And there are reasons for this success. Look at what he said about climate change.

From "The Independent."
"There is a cooling, and there’s a heating. I mean, look, it used to not be climate change, it used to be global warming. That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place.”

“The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records. They’re at a record level.”

If you read this blog, you are probably the kind of person who knows that what Trump says is completely wrong. But think of any discussion you could have with some "normal" person, not a scientist. These are exactly the arguments that you would face. And you would have a hard time in convincing them that these statements conflict with facts.

That's the way the discussion is - it is not science, it is politics. And politics has different rules: it is not based on facts but on trust. You can't convince people that climate change is real with facts. You can only convince them if they trust you. And those people who mistrust science will never be convinced.

Trump, instead, follows the rules of politics: he puts himself in the role of the ordinary guy who is not a scientist. And he speaks the way an ordinary guy would speak. He gains trust because he speaks like the people he speaks to. That's why he is successful.

We'll never win this battle if we don't understand this point. Not that scientists can (nor should) transform themselves into politicians, but we need to rebuild the trust in science. That can be done, but it takes time and effort and, in particular, recognizing that if this trust was lost is, in large part, our fault (I mean, of the scientists).

Maybe this man is a genius, maybe an evil genius, maybe a numbskull who found himself by chance in the right place at the right time. I have no idea. But, as I said, he is an (evil) genius. We'll see how this story evolves.





Sunday, January 28, 2018

Donald Trump: Wise Emperor or Condemned to Damnatio Memoriae?




About one year ago, shortly before the US elections, I published a post on Cassandra's Legacy where I wondered what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would look like if they were Roman Emperors. I reasoned that the Roman Empire of the 1st and 2nd Century AD was facing many of the same problems which the American Empire is facing nowadays: declining resources, excessive costs, overextended military apparatus, and others. I concluded that Hillary Clinton might have resembled Emperor Trajan, who embarked on a difficult and ultimately self-defeating military attempt to expand the empire. Trump, instead, might have looked like Emperor Hadrian, Trajan's successor, who took the opposite path: stopping all wars of expansion and consolidating the Empire within its borders.

One year after Trump's election, it seems that my interpretation was correct. Trump is doing more or less what Hadrian did some 2.000 before him. Apart from not having engaged in new wars, Trump's tax plan has a very transparent purpose, that of decoupling the US from the globalized economic system. (an interesting discussion on this point is provided by Dr. D. on "The Automatic Earth"). That may not be so apparent by listening to what Trump says, but the insults, the threats, and the outrageous behavior are mainly noise that masks the direction in which the Trump administration is trying to move - and it is like steering a transatlantic liner. It is slow.

In short, Trump is engaged in reversing the grand plan that the Neocons had devised in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time, the idea of a US-led World Empire seemed feasible and the plan was explicitly laid out in the "Project for a New American Century" published in 1996. It included such details as a "New Pearl Harbor" needed to provide the propaganda justification for the enterprise. It seemed to work, for a while, but the plan soon bogged down. It was just too expensive.

The Romans abandoned the idea of a World Empire at some moment during the 2nd century AD. The modern Americans may not have abandoned it completely and, if Trump is taking the role of Hadrian, the future may bring new equivalents of Trajan in Washington. But that would change little. All empires go through the same cycle of growth and decline - it is the hard law of the Seneca Cliff. Even Hadrian, as wise as he was supposed to be, couldn't save the Roman Empire. At best, he managed to keep it alive a little longer.

So, should we think of Trump as a wise emperor? In a certain sense, yes, but we can't forget his responsibility in setting back the last-ditch attempts of stopping the ongoing climate disaster. So, in the future (if there will be one for humankind), Trump may rather be subjected to the ritual called the "damnatio memoriae" which the Romans reserved to bad emperors after their death. That was the case of Emperor Nero, said to have burned the city of Rome. Trump could be accused of having done much worse than that.



From "Cassandra's Legacy", November 6, 2016

Which Roman Emperor Would Donald Trump Be?

By Ugo Bardi



Comparing Donald Trump to Emperor Hadrian (76 – 138 CE) may seem ludicrous after that Marguerite Yourcenar presented Hadrian to us as a wise and enlightened emperor in her book "Memoirs of Hadrian". Yet, Hadrian found himself facing problems similar to those that all US presidents face nowadays. And some of Hadrian's solutions were not so different than those that Donald Trump is proposing today; for instance, building a wall to keep the Barbarians out. 


All empires in history have gone through similar trajectories: rapid expansion at the beginning, then stasis, then decline and collapse. That was the trajectory of the Roman Empire and there is no reason why the modern empire that we call "Globalization" would follow a different one. It seems clear that the Global Empire has reached its limits and it is poised for a decline in the future.

So, we find ourselves in the conditions that the Roman Empire faced during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The turning point for the Romans may have been the battle of Teutoburg, 7 CE, where three Roman legions were annihilated by a band of German barbarians. That was a signal that something wasn't working so well any longer with the Empire. The cost of wars had simply become too much for an Empire that was short of resources and had reached its practical limits to expansion. Then, the Emperors faced a dilemma: keep an aggressive stance and try to continue the expansion or retrench and defend what the Empire already had?  

Different emperors gave different answers to the question. Most of them were prudent; engaging only in cautious and limited conquests. But some were ambitious; the best example being Emperor Trajan (53 – 117) who embarked on a difficult campaign against Dacia with the objective of gaining control of the gold mines in the region. The campaign was a success in military terms, but it was extremely expensive and it badly strained the finances of the Empire. Trajan's successor, Hadrian, hastened to stop all attempts of expansion, to retreat from areas that were not defendable, and to sign peace treaties with the traditional enemies of the Roman Empire. His legacy includes Hadrian's wall, a fortified line that defended the Roman territories in Britannia from the Northern peoples. He also built and reinforced other defensive lines that would become the standard defense element for the Roman Empire. Hadrian may have been a wise emperor, but it is dubious that the walls were a good idea, and their costs may well have bankrupted the Empire in the long run.

Now, fast forward to our time: the next Global Emperor may be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Both will face the same problem: defending the vast Global Empire has become terribly expensive in a phase of diminishing resources and with the threat of climate change looming. Trump seems to have understood, at least in part, that some limits have been reached. His foreign policy is non-interventionist. It also includes a reduction of the financing for NATO and negotiates with Russia. It is not unlike Hadrian's policy of retrenchment and, like Hadrian, Trump plans a defensive wall at the borders. Just as for Hadrian's fortifications, the wisdom of this idea is at least dubious. 

Conversely, Trump's adversary, Hillary Clinton, has been much more aggressive in the past as secretary of state and she will probably maintain that stance as president. If Clinton were a Roman Emperor, she would look more like Trajan in her attitudes, or perhaps like Germanicus, a Roman general and candidate emperor who led the legions into a dangerous military adventure in Germania in 15-16 CE, until a more cautious emperor (Tiberius) recalled him and probably got rid of him by poisoning. Where will President Clinton lead the Global Legions? As the Romans learned, victory is never guaranteed but it is always expensive. And excessive military expenses are, normally, what takes empires to their doom. 

Whatever it happens with the upcoming elections in the US, squandering our remaining resources in new wars or in defensive walls will not be a good idea. In addition to resource depletion, we are facing a problem that the Roman Empire didn't face: that of rapid climate change that may do to us much more damage than any Barbarian army did to the Romans. Neither Trump nor Clinton seem to have understood this point.

Will we ever find a wise Emperor who will lead us to fight against the real threat, that of climate change? The future will tell. 

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017