26 October 2017

Why manufacturing?

This came up as a tangent to an Erik Lund history-of-technology post; why worry about manufacturing?  Why is rearranging dirt more important to the economy than rearranging schedules?

(Anybody who thinks rearranging schedules is easy needs to try it with several competing sets of interests and priorities; for difficulty, the schedules might be more fundamentally so.)

Right now, we're in the early stages of the end of the world, in at least the sense that fall of the Western Roman Empire was the end of the world.

One of the things that means is that while capital creates long supply chains to maximize returns on investment, instability shortens your supply chains.  There's three ways this is certain to happen in the next five, and the next twenty, years.  ("Short term", if I don't watch what I'm saying.)

  1. We're going off oil.  We're going off fossil carbon generally.  This is going to be a combination of solar PV being flat out less expensive, dawning horror at just how bad the climate swing is going to be (see if you can get housing sale data for Florida by age and education...), and the collapse of American hegemony ("the Oil Empire maintains the stable oil markets necessary to the deployment of all that capital" and "the Oil Empire manages to keep people from effectively opposing technologies like fracking" both apply).  Does this shift the basis of naval power?  That happened in the 1950 with nuclear submarines.  It may force notice; it is very likely going to break the commercial arrangements which came in with DREADNOUGHT's continuation of the Anglo thalassocracy.
  2. Food security is going away.  Direct habitability is going away for at least places with large populations.  (Second order, "I can get food there", is a different and more general question.) This is going to do in economic predictability; the supply chains don't notice the people suffering, but do notice the lack of spending, the loss of productivity, and the shift in economic focus from what people want to what people need.  Also the inoperable ports and rail links.
  3. We're at the front edge of an age of miracles so far as capability goes; there's clinical trials of effective anti-aging treatments reported, there's meta-materials, someone will eventually figure out how to get bulk graphene.  Normally innovation is irrelevant because incumbents can keep it from getting enough capital to threaten their markets.  The historical counter examples are all either extremely prolonged (see "clocks, Europe, 1400-1800") or side effects of three enormous wars.  (Napoleonic, Great War, Hitler's/Great Patriotic/Great Pacific; incumbents willing to be less rich in preference to maybe losing in a war of annihilation.)
ALL of these things will shorten the possible supply chains.  Not because anyone wants there to be shorter supply chains and a less capable economy, particularly, but because the predictability necessary to the present arrangement isn't going to hold.  (Has stopped holding, and isn't likely to come back.  Even if everybody with significant political power does the optimal thing for the next century over the whole planet, it's not likely to come back.)

So the answer for "why is manufacturing important?" is "shorter supply chains are less capable but more resilient; to be reasonably sure you'll have all the critical stuff, you need the ability to make it locally, for someone value of locally, and remember that value of locally is significantly political".

One awkward part is that VLSI is really difficult and takes enormous supply chains.  Communications isn't a luxury, and one thing that's likely to be interesting about the next twenty years is the difficulty of keeping the incumbent communications infrastructure working as the necessary supply chain length gets unmaintainable.  Here's hoping some equivalent to direct electron lithography gets established as a viable alternative Real Soon Now.

Another awkward part is no one knows what's going on, supply-chain wise; heat pumps and window glass and autoclaves and refrigeration and tractors aren't optional as functions, and doing it with electricity and aluminium and glass instead of coal and iron and brass is obviously entirely possible but making sure all the parts of the supply chain are functioning and close enough hasn't been addressed.  It ought to be, and it ought to be with some urgency.

(I am, tangentially, all for trade and for long-distance trade; we're desperately going to need it to be a bunch of local economies rather than one global one, though, because we're not going to be able to keep a global-supply-chains one running consistently this coming century.)

So -- gotta be able to make knives and abrasives and paint and bandages and soup pots and dust masks and shoes and socks (keep thinking about just how much stuff is on the real list; artificial light should come to mind) in a couple local places by a diversity of means, or there's no resilience of supply, and we need the resiliency of supply because there's going to be no meaningful agricultural or climatic predictability for at least the next hundred years.

13 October 2017

My American cousins...

Somewhere in the machinery of your government, there's someone who was carefully chosen for being not especially empathetic, never having made any mistakes at anything their whole life, and for not considering themselves especially important.  (You can't reliably put duty and country ahead of your own personal feelings if you've especially much got personal feelings.)

They're also not that old and still in the time of life when you can be extremely fit.  It won't help with the empathy and it certainly won't help with having developed the kind of robust personal wisdom that'll help in a terrible crisis.

The best thing you can do for that person is to get Congress to take away their job, because right now their job is to follow the President around, carrying and guarding a set of nuclear launch codes.  There's a real risk the current President is going to order an unprovoked nuclear attack -- the aggressive war y'all hanged people for at Nuremberg but worse -- and at that point, that person's true duty, the thing required of them if they're to go on not having made any mistakes at anything their whole life, is to out-draw the Secret Service and shoot the President dead.

That's an unreasonable amount of heroism to ask, and y'all are the Sovereign People.  Get ahold of whatever representatives and senators you can, and tell them to  Pull The Football.

02 October 2017

Category error.

The US and gun control is a category error.

The problem isn't gun control.  Gun control is how you codify a social consensus about what firearms are appropriate.  (Which is about half of why Canada has a political issue about it; there isn't such a social consensus.  The other half is American media leakage.)

People will sometimes cite the US firearms ownership stats as evidence of a particular tendency to violence.  I think that's a misinterpretation; it's a highly price-sensitive, high volume market.  That's people using up limited disposable income for social signaling purposes, not any structurally different in social group-formation terms from having to have this year's shoes.

It's an ethnogenesis based on fear-banishing rituals.  It's got entirely divorced from facts -- one of the major costs of the Cold War was a set of facts with which people could not by-and-large deal at all, and this has been the wedge of a whole lot of refusing to admit facts -- and it's got a whole lot of fear amplification driving it for profit.  (Advertising -- just plain bad, because it's about making you more insecure, and the more insecure you are, the worse your decisions will be.)  This is why tactical is a fashion category, and why there's a thriving trade in teaching people house clearing tactics in case they get burgled.

It's also why gun control -- guaranteed to increase fear in this belief system -- won't work.  It'll become (more of an; look at what got produced in response to the Clinton assault weapons ban) an act of piety to evade any such laws.

Fixes?

Real tough, because corporates have been granted civil rights which they ought not to have.  There isn't a simple mechanism whereby you can legally break the "I can make lots of money by terrifying people" business model.  There's the whole vast "the 2nd Amendment's modern political existence supports white supremacy and only white supremacy" problem.  (Try to imagine a future in which the NRA holds picnic-and-range-day events for inner city disadvantaged youth and has a Black American gunsmithing scholarship program where the top tier awardees go to MIT in mech eng on a full ride scholarship.  Then try to imagine how to get there from here.)

I'm not clever enough to figure out how you get around the fear; I can think of some things that would do it -- lots of good jobs doing ecological restoration and infrastructure replacement, any time anyone has a functioning government -- but not how to get there.  It's just that trying for gun control fits the whole (carefully designed) apocalyptic narrative of helplessness and fear, and won't do anything good.

28 September 2017

Some remarks on goals

Various commenters are remarking that the Republican handling of Puerto Rico will surely cost them -- be an own goal -- when hundreds of thousands of them wind up living in Florida and voting Democrat.

I cannot imagine why anyone  thinks large numbers of people will be allowed to leave the island.  It's very easy to take longer insisting on proof of citizenship from someone who has lost all their possessions than it takes someone to starve to death[1]; it's even easier to insist on port control and to sharply limit who gets to leave because the facilities are absolutely required for the relief effort.  I'd expect both.

The Neocon -- and do remember that's "Neo-Confederate" as easily as "Neo-Conservative" -- response to the demographic shift has been to disenfranchise (gerrymander, onerous laws, shut polling places, outright lie about when the vote is) but also to deport and to kill; to suppress the vote through terror.  These are people who vehemently disagree with the entirety of the Reconstruction Amendments, the 19th amendment, and the 16th.  They're not going to allow non-whites to vote if they can possibly help it, and this is a case where they can easily help it.

[1] The EMT rule of three; three minutes without air, three hours with no clothes, three days with no water, three weeks with no food.  Against the water and the probable cholera and the food, we're at week one.  There's absolutely no sign of the size of logistical operation required to get the required food delivered; another week of stalling and that's about it.

11 September 2017

It's important to remember what kind of nonsense AI is

There's a lot of productive work going on with AI.  Whether or not it's enough to justify the cash being shovelled at the problem in economic terms is dubious, but let's stop for a moment.

AI as implemented has the same signal-processing, dendritic, layers-of-habit mechanisms brains do; it won't think better and it may well not think faster in any sort of general case.  (It will handle volume.)  It is absolutely heir to the precise same habitual delusions our brains get into in terms of expecting things to be like what we've already experienced because that's the limit of our imagination of the world.

So it's not actually good for solving problems.  You have to very carefully define the problem you want solved, and a whole lot of human effort has to go into detecting whether or not that's what you've created your monomaniacal savant to accomplish.  This is (relatively) easy with chess; it's pretty hopeless with anything less formalized.  (Inventing a statistical measure of your unconscious expectations is exceeding difficult.)

So why all that cash?

AI supports the delusion of useful control.

There's all sorts of essential control mechanisms in terms of feedback, but the delusion of control is that people in large numbers can be compelled to construct their desires to serve the goals of a small number of exalted persons.  This breaks down at the exalted persons; they can't do it.  AI gives them another reasons to believe they should keep trying.

(It's rather the same with politicians viewing democratic processes as a problem; democracy is a solvent for control.  Given the sharp dichotomy between success and control -- one, or the other, never both, and often neither -- solvents for control are good things.)

04 September 2017

Let's take selection seriously

Things have to get copies of themselves into the future to persist.

So how do harmful things persist?

"People are idiots" lacks explanatory power; individuals are frequently idiots, large groups of people over generational time are not.

White supremacy -- the loot-apportioning system for loot that ran out a century ago -- and hierarchical racism persist even when the people doing the persisting are paying a high economic cost to do it.  This makes absolutely no economic sense, and people have been saying so for a very long time with increasingly strong empirical support.  Doesn't make a dent.

Then two things collided in my head.  One is that the moral-supremacy faction of rationalists makes a big deal about being "less wrong".  This is, well, silly; everybody is constantly wrong, often unaware.  The utility of rationalism isn't that it makes you less wrong, it that it gives you a systemic approach to apply to your circumstances.  You might be able to figure out why you are wrong.  Why the strong emphasis on not being wrong?

Two is that the Prosperity Gospel is directly descended from the assertion that chattel slavery was a positive good and a Christian duty.  I mean, it's also a scam, but an effective, lasting scam has to tap into things people would prefer were factual.  What are people getting out of the idea that they deserve to be rich?  It's not making them rich.

And here we get to something I've been wrong about; I have thought of authoritarian structures as supporting basic primate status, so that the higher in the structure you are, the closer you are to being able to hit who you want.  But it's not; that's a special case of whatever I want is correct.  Language means the contrapositive of whatever I want is correct becomes I never have to admit error.

Authority doesn't derive from never admitting you're wrong; never admitting you're wrong signals your authority.  The thing all these diverse scams of former glories are selling (besides the impunity to assault or kill those people in fulfilment of primate status desires) is for there to be a class of people to whom you never have to admit you're wrong.  And inside the narrative habit, never having to admit you're wrong means you have authority; you have significance, and you matter.

Actively terrible insecurity management, in that it swaps the mutable psychological for the immutable material?  Absolutely.  But equally obviously a hard habit to break, and where the online troll and the anti-Clinton misogynist running a newspaper alike get their maniacal insistence on admit you are bad.  If you admit you are bad, you are admitting error, and you lose your right to authority.  Facts aren't even secondary to this process; facts are near enough irrelevant.  (The utility of confession and the very strong feelings about it during the Reformation and Counter-reformation also become obvious.  As does the utter loathing of methodological naturalism, which asserts there is no utility in authority.)

So one fix is obviously "different stories, with different constructions of legitimacy"; maybe the exercise of social power doesn't properly derive from authoritas.  A stopgap is having the structures of authority assert that whatever you want isn't correct, but that's got failure modes.

A quick enough fix?  Much trickier.

27 August 2017

Houston, we have a problem

Hurricane Katrina affected gas prices for a decade.

It looks like Harvey is set to do better; the refineries around Houston are shutting down, and pre-storm predictions had it taking a year and a half to two years to recover from "two feet" of flooding.  Given the presumed height of stop signs, they're getting twice that.  There's about as much rain as they've had still to come, per the NOAA forecasts.

How fast can Houston get a working logistical network, sufficient to allow it to feed and house its population, again?  Harvey's expected to be there until Wednesday, raining all the while.    Right now, the ship channel, the roads, the railroad, and the airport are all unusable.  Certainly there is a monumental order of operations problem waiting once the flood waters go down, and that... when does that happen?  Within three days of the rain stopping?  So not quite a week for the surveying to start to find where the roads are washed out, where the ground under the railbed is too saturated to take the load of a train, where the ship channel has silted up and needs dredging, where there is uncontaminated diesel -- if Houston puts the storage tanks in the ground, everything in them is contaminated -- and where there are working support vehicles for the airport.  And given a significant drainage basin feeding into the region, three days is likely severely optimistic.  (Plus everybody else who hasn't been rained on yet.  Many of the models have Harvey wandering back out to sea, re-intensifying, and coming ashore again.)

It looks like it will require a major effort by the USG to put a working city back where Houston now is.  This is inconsistent with the threatened default over the debt ceiling, which a significant faction of Congress wants and which Trump seems fine with if he doesn't get his border wall.  Not knowing how quickly Houston will be restored to economic function makes the time those refineries come back online even more indeterminate.  (Since nobody was planning for this much flood, the existing flood plans aren't sufficient, so there's going to be large uncertainty there, too.)

So... global recession?  Seems likely just from the storm damage; aviation fuel can increase in price, but interrupted plastic feedstock deliveries just don't happen, and that has cascade effects.  Run the price of gas up in the US and that has cascade effects, too. A month of "how bad is it?" and "is the US going to default?" in combination makes it seem certain.