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So, we upgraded the OS on the server that hosts this blog. Then discovered that Movable Type, the blogging system we use, is ... problematic ... with secure HTTP. (There's a fix, but it imposes a performance penalty.)

This coincided with (a) the UK eastercon and (b) the copy edits for "The Labyrinth Index" (which are now done and it's on course for publication on October 30th), but explains why I've been silent for the past week-and-a-half. The silence is going to be ongoing for a while longer, too: I'm about to head off to Fiuggi in Italy for Deepcon 19, where I am guest of honour, and I won't have much time for blogging until I get home in the last week of the month.

Also, reality is leaving me in the dust when it comes to making up surreal news headlines: Hackers in Finland acquired data from a North American casino by using an Internet-connected fish tank. With news like that, what's an author to do? (Part 942, contd ...)


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What I want to know is what price those fish were paid to help out in the hack. And how does one go about hiring fish-hackers, because.... well I have this project....


It involves a payment of scales.


Well, if you're going to attach a TCP link using the FIN flags...


I wonder why that story is making the rounds again, given that it's something like 9 months old by now.


Feh. The Internet of Things Thugs.


I'm sure that those hackers are sensitive, touchy-fillet guys.


"With news like that, what's an author to do?"

Ask the lobsters for help?


To get past the filter feeders they obviously used the TETRA network.


No... just when I finally get to Edinburgh and want to buy you my favorite author a pint you run off to the mainland... Guess I will wait till you come to Germany again and stalk you there :). At least I've spotted your home library and can try to find get the missing books!


With news like that, what's an author to do? (Part 942, contd ...)

What's an author to do? Write fantasy, of course. There's only so many ways to hack a minotaur (neck, chest, limbs...), for example. Unreality is easy on the expectations.


Hackers in Finland are being blamed for the attack. The real culprits are deep-sea intelligent squid manipulating the packet flow in translantic fibre.

(Been re-reading some Peter Watts)

The real culprits are deep-sea intelligent squid manipulating the packet flow in translantic fibre.
Maybe OGH can get the squid to be a guest blogger.

It's probably Cthulhu, so that might be... interesting.


Or alternatively ... Lobsters.

Talking of which, recently I came across a v interesting reference to a completely new species ( Of Crayfish, actually ) that has arisen as a result of an apparent single mutation.
If you ever come across cretinists spouting their usual delusions & lies about evolution, especially "Macro" evolution...
Mention the Marbled Crayfish
Procambarus fallax f. virginalis to it's friends & potential eaters ...
See also


Problem is, there is a scientific discussion about macroevolution, though the comment section on that one shows the problems:

Mind you, I'm not sure if the concept of macroevolution is useful, though some good biologists I know think so. Might be me somewhat stuck in the molecular biologist niche and them being e.g. paleontologists.

As for the crayfish, it's something of a special case, please note it's parthenogenetic, so no sexual recombination. There might be ways for them to reproduce sexually (AFAIK there are similar cases with some flatworms), but at the moment I'm not sure if this population will survive in the long run. Clones arebig fun for parasites.


I agree about the 'not sure'! There are plenty of parthenogenic arthropods, some of which can also reproduce sexually, many of which seem remarkably resistant to parasites :-( But insects etc. are not closely related to crustaceans.


I'm not a biologist, but I've read at least some evidence that insects are crustaceans.

See for example this piece with a link to a paper in Nature.

I seem to remember there being a more recent news story about this (maybe this year) but I can't find it. The fun thing about classification of animals is that it changes every once in a while.


Everyone knows Cthulhu doesn't exist...


It might depends somewhat on the kind of parthenogenesis involved, there is some recombination with some:
Also, AFAIR quite a few species switch between parthenogenesis and "normal" sexual reproduction, the aphids being one example.

Problem is, if a parasite is ideally adapted to the host immune system, with clones there is little to stop it.

Everyone knows Cthulhu doesn't exist...

Neither, of course, does Finland, so who's really behind the hack?

BTW I have been to both Stockholm and the place that claims to be Helsinki and all I can say is that they're awfully similar and that "Finnish" words look suspiciously like they were generated algorithmically.


Neither, of course, does Finland, so who's really behind the hack?

This gets me thinking of existentialist problems, like does this place I'm in really exist, or do I, for that matter?



You think *Cthulhu* is bad... the transdimensional squid-like being in A. Merrit's Dwellers in the Mirage is a *lot* nastier.

And wants feeding a lot more frequently....


Tough. I'm in a country that's gone through *two* transdimensional hops in a year and a half. First, into one that ran by the rules of an (un)reality TV show, and now it's in one where the rules are of a sitcom.

Now, if only someone would hack into Faux News' broadcast stream, and add a laugh track....


"Everyone knows Cthulhu doesn't exist..."

I didn't even know he was a vampire.


...and now it's in one where the rules are of a sitcom.
OK, I tried briefly but gamely, but could not map the two very well. I'm thinking it's more of a long-form comedy with humor on many levels.

Cracking the Sitcom Code
13 Rules of Sitcom


Now, if only someone would hack into Faux News' broadcast stream, and add a laugh track....

Weird. Those of us watching from overseas get the laugh track. Or maybe that's just us...

But then, I first encountered Donald Trump as a character in Bloom County. I was surprised to discover he was a real person. And even more so when he was elected president. Maybe Wiley Coyote next?


Given my appreciation of William Gibson's use of aquatic imagery and metaphors way back when, I think ending up in a future where they are hacking a casino via a fishtank is awesome.

She swam through the submarine halflife of bottles and glassware and the slow swirl of cigarette smoke - Burning Chrome


Actually the higher appetite indicates those squidies are much more vulnerable than Old Green One, and most likely much closer to our reality.

Mind you, there is always the question why aliens find us tasty with sauce on, especially given the differences in biochemistry. Most likely we are some sort of novel diet, kinda like olestra. Might indicate why aliens eating us are not that much of a problem, if they overdo it they get diarrhea...


I first encountered Donald Trump as a character in Bloom County. I was surprised to discover he was a real person. And even more so when he was elected president. Maybe Wiley Coyote next?

He also showed up in Doonesbury a lot. He's approximately a real person, or at least a character played on TV by a real actor...


I first encountered Donald Trump as a character in Bloom County. I was surprised to discover he was a real person. And even more so when he was elected president. Maybe Wiley Coyote next?
No, Lisa Simpson will be the next president. Matt Groening is never wrong!


Interesting. I haven't looked at the Nature article, but it looks a lot more reliable than the usual crap. No, 75 taxons and 62 genes is NOT a "huge sample", but it is enough to avoid the conclusions being obviously bogus. No analysis with less than about half a dozen genes should EVER be used as a basis for reclassification, and then only if they all point to the same conclusion. A dozen is more realistic minimum, or several dozen if they are variable.

Of course, its claim that we should call insects crustaceans is based on two false (i.e. arbitrary) premises: that dogmatic cladism is the One True Taxonomic System, and that the correct solution is NOT to declassify the Branchiura etc. as crustaceans. I remember conifers :-)


Yes. Animals are simpler than plants, but we are learning that there are more modes of recombinative and adaptive reproduction than the simple sexual haploid/diploid cycle. So whether a parthenogenic crayfish could evolve resistance isn't quite an open-and-shut case of impossibility. Just unlikely.


Yeah, what we should call them in different contexts does not need to change. I was taking a quite cladistic view there, which is not often useful. (And as said, I'm not a biologist.)

I do group sharks and bony fish into "fish" in my normal speech, but if that were taken cladistically, all land-based vertebrates would be fish, too. ;)


Yes. I am not a biologist, either, but was a statistician and have done some work in taxonomic theory. What is interesting in that paper is that it confirms how much closer insects are to crustaceans than either are to arachnids.


Not related to crustaceans, but there seems to be a gene which jumps between different aquatic phyla, and has links to cancer in at least clams.

Here is a story about that.

So, the cladistic view is not that useful in all situations, if genes can jump from one phylum to an antoher.


I quite like the appearance I get when I specify https
Rather clean and clear.
The words, just the words.


You think that's thinking you are doing?


Everyone knows Cthulhu doesn't exist...

The punch-line to which assertion (uttered by Bob in “Equoid”, aka Laundry Files book 2.5) is of course the central plot driver of “The Labyrinth Index” (which has now been delivered for production and is due out on October 30th, nearly a year ahead of schedule). And? Forget bat-wings-and-octopus-tentacles: that was just HPL’s calamari phobia leaking onto the page. Cthulhu is something much worse than that ...


Let me guess, manifests in our "Reality" as a one time commercial real estate developer with a bad comb-over?


I don't know which thread to put this, but here goes.

1. Finland is discontinuing its basic income experiment

2. Russia might be exiting the commercial launch business

3. Japan's renewable push is encountering some resistance


Or from an observer's hindsight view, fictional people are as real as the nonfiction ones, since all that either kind leave behind themselves in the realm of consciousness, aside from physical artifacts, is a quantity of information. Such info-dumps would not be impossible to represent as a string of digital symbols, so the difference between fictive and nonfictive is one of amount rather than kind. Helps explain momentary confusion in sometimes recalling the source of a quotation, was it a real person or someone in a movie.


Thanks *so* much. Now I have to wonder just *where* the alien diarrhea ends up, and what it manifests as.


Conifers were classified as crustaceans?


Dunno 'bout parthogenetic crayfish, but I think cats can reproduce by fission. In fact, I think I brushed a quarter of a kitten, maybe a leg, out of my Lord & Master....


Re: Finland's universal income experiment

Results are expected to be published within a year, meanwhile ...

'"When the basic-income experiment ends this year, we should launch a universal credit trial," Orpo told the Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, referring to a system similar to the one in the UK, which collects several different benefits and tax credits into one account. '

Not sure why this experiment is tied to job-seeking since the qualifying recipients were folks who'd been jobless for a long time. To me, that the recipients did not find jobs quickly suggests that it's not only re-training for/getting a job should be considered but perhaps even more importantly recovering from/climbing out of whatever socioeconomic pit these folks have ended up in. IOW, the policymakers are discounting the emotional/social toll of joblessness. Further - there's nothing in this article that says anything about the rate of new job creation or a super abundance of unfilled jobs during this test period. I'm guessing that if a long time unemployed and fresh grad showed up for a job interview, the new grad would land the job same as the common scenario in the US where employment counselors tell their clients to avoid including any jobless spells in their CVs.


Re: Genetic algos

Are you familiar with the Barcode of Life project? Apparently species can be identified using very small bits of DNA. Also - this approach has occasionally produced classification results different from the old school taxonomy system.

Journals such as IEEE have published results/algo approaches used by this group.


The other way round :-)


No, but I suppose that it was inevitable :-( I stand by what I said in my previous post.


Wait, so you mean it was that it "should have been a pair of ragged claws. Scuttling across the floors of silent branches"?


It does scale up nicely. You can hack data lakes and even oceans of stuff.


Case Nightmare Green = Cthulhu hosts a dinner party.


I make my own leather by tanning thin slices of spam.

[[ said spam now removed - mod ]]


Reminds me of my favourite dish: Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and a fried egg on top and Spam.

Then I go cosplay as a viking.


I believe that I ate in the cafe that originated the "Spam, spam, lobster thermidor and spam" sketch. Every single one of the dozen dishes on the menu included spam, except for the lobster thermidor (which was very good). This was in Helston in the early 1970s.


Ironically I just re-read "Equoid" last night and ran into that sentence, which gave me an interesting compare-and-contrast moment with Bob's "I wish I was still an atheist" monologue in "The Fuller Memorandum". Somehow I'd managed to miss this on previous reads.

I thought about it for a moment, then put it down to Bob levelling up and finding out more. (In "Equoid" he's still human, doesn't know about PHANGs, doesn't know about 666 Squadron, doesn't understand Mahogany Row, etc..) Then only 12 hours later, OGH tells us it's actually a Chekhov's gun that finally gets fired *TEN YEARS* after the dude started writing it.

First question: Was this deep planning from the start, to pick up this throwaway line later? Or was it a retcon to tie up that loose end? Either way, that's awesome.

And second question: How did you get into my brain in the middle of the night last night?


# 55 & # 56 appear to be drive-by advertising SPAM
If so please delete ( & this, of course... )


In a series like this there was always going to be Cthulhu.


I'm really looking forward to (this is the US) Republican Thermidor.

Spammers, on the other hand... I've pictured, for many years, one of them in a picture window... after their desktop has been deGaussed, hanging from their ceiling by their feet, naked, with SPAMMER written on the body in large letters with spray paint.

And the picture to go viral online, to inspire vigilantism.....


Indeed. Cthulhu and tech support, what could go wrong?


It needs tattoos on the face or a brand on the forehead.
Something that everyone can see and can't be easily removed.


Quite easy, confiscate their property, buy some silver or gold salts and a tanning booth. Hello Papa Smurf...

Or use them to train spam filters, any false positive or negative subject to immediate, err, negative reinforcement...


Nothing to thank for. ;) I guess we can go with calling the fluid in question "ichor". Though it could get worse, throw in nausea...

Mind you, it's been 6 months since my last Irritable Bowel attack, somewhat tricky to instill in your cohabitant the urgent need to stay in the kitchen with the door closed without getting too much into details. Spent two days as a tunicate, all intestines, no brain. Not as bad as the time I collapsed in front of the cash machine getting the money to pay the taxi that got me home from my physician, err...

Come to think about, maybe we could use this experience to device an standard unit for mind-numbing horrors. Might even work with SI units, (mass of extruded inexplicable liquids in g)*(acceleration of extruded liquids in m/s2)*(time of attack in seconds)

Funny thing, that would be a Newton second:

If you excuse me, I'm getting sick myself...


Re: The Finnish "Universal Basic Income" experiment.

Not sure why this experiment is tied to job-seeking since the qualifying recipients were folks who'd been jobless for a long time.

Without going too far into this, mainly because I don't know that much about it, it's in my opinion mainly because this experiment was meant to show that universal basic income doesn't work.

The sample was pretty small, I think two thousand people, and as you point out, only taken from job-seekers. It never was planned to be anything else than replacement for unemployment benefits. If they would have been serious, they would have sampled a much more diverse set of people.

But this way the cabinet can say that they tried the UBI, and it didn't work, so shut up.

Yeah, I'm biased about this. There have been multiple more universal schemes, with impact assesments and financial figures, but as they have been made by the opposition, the cabinet parties haven't really paid any attention to them.


Re: ' ...tunicate, all intestines, no brain.'

Fascinating critter - and not just its reproductive strategy (below).

Not familiar with it so looked it up. BTW, the Wikipedia entry mentions a notocord which usually means at least a start of a 'brain'. (Although you probably meant its 'hose-like' aspect. Ouch!)


'The Oikopleura coenocyst, a unique chordate germ cell permitting rapid, extensive modulation of oocyte production.


The ability to adjust reproductive output to environmental conditions is important to the fitness of a species. The semelparous, chordate, Oikopleura dioica, is particularly adept in producing a highly variable number of oocytes in its short life cycle. Here we show that this entails an original reproductive strategy in which the entire female germline is contained in a single multinucleate cell, the "coenocyst". After an initial phase of syncytial nuclear proliferation half of the nuclei entered meiosis whereas the other half became highly polyploid. The inner F-actin network, with associated plasma membranes, formed a highly ramified infrastructure in which each meiotic nucleus was contained in a pseudo-compartmentalized pro-oocyte linked to the common cytoplasm via ring canals. At a set developmental time, a subset of the pro-oocytes was selected for synchronous growth and the common coenocyst cytoplasm was equally partitioned by transfer through the ring canals. Examination of related species indicated that the coenocyst arrangement is a conserved feature of Appendicularian oogenesis allowing efficient numerical adjustment of oocyte production. As Appendicularia are the second most abundant class of zooplankton, with a world-wide distribution, the coenocyst is clearly a common and successful reproductive strategy on a global scale.'


Achtung, please apply SPAMHAMMER to the comment I am replying to.
With extreme prejudice.

Many thanks


Wow! Macro evolution AND virgin birth.
Creationists must be ever so happy.


Actually the notochord has little to do with the nervous system, it's more like a stiff rod; in humans, it became the intervertebral disc, so if you have any problems with them, that's your chordate ancestry...

As for the tunicate brain, they have a nerve cluster or ganglion, but AFAIR their nervous system is somewhat reduced compared to the larval form. Though there are forms that stay in the larval form all their life and reproduce in it, like Oikopleura:

Which gave rise to Garstang's hypothesis, namely that we are tunicates refusing to grow up.'s_Hypothesis

Guess Greg and I talked about some Pak Protector scenarios where it still might happen some time ago.

On another note, apparently my landlord got my SMS I'm out of this appartment tomorrow. At least he replied and asked about the 10k Euros I'm in debt to him, since I didn't pay the rent since last August. Where in fact

a) I only stopped paying the rent in October when he tried to evict me (little use of paying him then, right?)

b) And I started paying again in February, though only the rent, not water and heating, since there are serious mistakes in his calculations for the latter.

Both of which I can prove with bank receipts.

Guess I won't answer for now, him overreacting might make for useful results, but ATM I'm not able to make good use of it, and actually I'm not in the mood...


On another note, there is a new paper about the detection of civilizations on a geological timescale:


"virgin" birth - I'm not so sure.
Current thought suggests a mutation of captive Procambarus fallax
Nonethelss, the cretinists are as, usual out-of-date & WRONG.
I suspect that like all genetic & fossil research since 1940, they will both lie & try to either ignore it, or pretend it doesn't exist ....


I doubt that any ancient hitec civilization would be detectable unless it was also expansionist (covering most of Earth) and wasteful.
Given that science has just started to detect civilizations in jungles (other than by accident) and that river delta are facts most likely won't survive an ice age without being washed to sea, even civs between 1ma and 100ka might be safe from prying human eyes.
Another assumption is that hitec always follows the coal - steel - steam - computers route. Why shouldn't hitec be possible which developed out of Bio-engineering?


And also ensure that in future all giant werewolves are firmly instructed to bite BOTH hands off, not just one.


Hm, I haven't read the paper, it showed up on the Spektrum website, and I thought I might share the link. The original article (in German) was:

Personally I guess a coal or generally fossil fuel usage phase is quite likely, deforestation is and was a mayor concern and limiting factor for most civilizations in the past, and most forests one sees in Germany nowadays only came into being after we switched to coal, the habitat fragmentation is still visible if you look at insect population genetics.

As for bio-engineering, that would most likely involve some genetic modifications, maybe gene transfers be ATM tween quite different organisms. Lateral gene transfer happens in nature, but if you have examples of gene swaps between organisms quite far in geography and ecology, it might be interesting. Maybe the tunicates are the result of the Elder Things going for vanadium...

BTW, any "Irreducible complexity" or "Specified complexity" the Intelligent Design folks talk about might be explainable by an extinct bio-civilization.

As said, I'd have to read up a little bit; ATM I'm also preparing for the DortCon farewell party; sadly, I guess Hmpf won't show up, I started Farscape after one talk of her there...


Actually "virgin birth" would be one translation of "parthenogenesis". Of course we could wax about the meaning of Greek "parthenos", especially in connection with Hebrew "almah" and "betulah", SCNR...

As for the creationists, Young Earth creationism wasn't tenable since at least Lyell, most likely Hutton[1], if you exclude Omphalos scenarios:

Old Earth creationism is another issue, but especially in somewhat "pantheistic" and deistic interpretations it's not that different from theistic evolution.

[1] Err, my misspent youth haunts me[1a], you read about Hutton, and then...
"There's no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end" at 0:27...
[1a] No, we are not talking about Deine Lakaien and Stanislaw Lem. Yet. Damn, another album to put into the playlist...


Global civilisation totally upends the evolutionary order, by moving vast numbers of species from continent to continent.

I really think we’d see if that had happened at any time in the last 150 million years. And probably earlier too, though I don’t know how much earlier.


Have you read "Strata", a pre-Diskworld novel by Terry Pratchett?


I was talking about a non-expansionist civilization. There could be ideological reasons why a civilization stays localized, or a dependence on a local resource. And anyway, before 1500 human civilizations usually kept themselves to one or two continents.


Err, no, though it's in the "to-be-read" wing of my library.

There is an article about the Omphalos theory by S. J. Gould, reading it another vestige of my misspent youth, though most likely early twenties... ;)

AFAIK it's called "Adam's Navel".


Re: notocord vs. brain

Thanks for the clarification - all I could remember of my bio course is that the presence/development of a notocord allows for the development of motor neurons ... I guess I jumped the gun in thinking that this automatically meant a more complex 'brain'.

Read the article you linked to and find this especially interesting:

'Garstang's Hypothesis was revolutionary for both its time and idea: it suggests that not only may single species evolve, but that single life stages of species may evolve into separate organisms. The hypothesis, which Garstang proposed in the early 20th century, seemed far-fetched at the time of its conception and did not receive support until after Garstang's death.'

The more I read about any of the sciences, the more it seems that any combination of anything is possible and has probably been already tried. Good thing to keep in mind if/when we ever meet a real ET whether from this or any other dimension.


Hey Canucks - all of the emails in your in and out boxes were recently $old for commercial data mining purpo$e$!

'Rogers e-mail service terms allow access to users’ contacts, raising privacy concerns'

A new set of terms and conditions recently sent to Rogers e-mail users includes a Canada-specific provision that would allow the service provider to mine their friends’ and contacts’ personal information. '

Interesting -- had thought that Canada had tighter legal regulations re: electronic privacy.

Even more interesting is that given that this particular supplier (Rogers) has the largest market share, they probably also have a ton of business/commercial customers, so I'm guessing that this sale of access to email data also means that all of their commercial accounts' email contents have also been $old.

OOC, is this type of electronic data contents sale legit anywhere on the planet? I know that FB is front and center right now, but this is the first time that I've read about emails as a specific product (ahem) deliverable.


...when we'll all disintegrate it'll all happen again...

Damn, have to change my playlist. There you are, listening to the favourite bands of your first girlfriend to bring up memories, she being part-time squatting, somewhat-Buddhist, you met her in the library while reading Lovecraft's Dreamquest (no, she didn't know him), and let's just say I guess me in my memory quoting Winston Smith's anti-purity diatribe from 1984 in my head while kissing her speaks somewhat about my, err, sanity at this point.

Err, I started rereading "Blindsight" some time ago, and what stuck was Siri recognizing he experienced his memories as a healthy child, when in fact he had become something else, something much darker. Funny thing, at this point in the novel he is quite alright again, just as me ATM, it's just interesting to work out what you were at some points before...

Whatever, sorry for disgressing, time to pack up the computer, see you soon...


Yup. Since I've been playing in this particular sandbox for many years, I'm a little disgusted: if I knew it was that easy for some idiot to try to get a paper published on the subject of tracking previous (and especially alien) societies, I would have done it a long time ago. The whole of my Ghosts of Deep Time was a spoof on how time travelers could have huge numbers of low-impact cultures by avoiding areas that made fossils, and it's a topic in Hot Earth Dreams

Here's the good and the bad.

First thing, let's talk about the possibility of previous human civilizations (tl;dr, the answer is probably not, but...). The oldest known modern human fossil is around 300,000 years old. Let that sink in. We know very little about human history more than 5,000 years ago. To a clumsy approximation, knowledge has a half-time of a couple of centuries, and back past 3000-5000 BCE, we've essentially got fragments, because it's not a smooth curve and after awhile, all that's left are the black swans. One of those fragments is evidence from Israel that somebody domesticated grains 20,000-odd years ago, in the depths of the last ice age. There's no evidence that they kept farming through the resulting glaciation, but rather, domestication was rediscovered after the ice retreated.

What I *think* happened is that farming as we know it depends on a relatively constant climate. It's only worth doing if the climate is predictable enough that you can plant the same things year after year and get enough of a yield to make a living. When and where the climate is too variable, there's no point in farming. This is one reason why natives everywhere from California to Australia didn't bother to farm, even when they'd lived in one place for 10,000-50,000 years. It's not that they didn't know how (they were pretty sophisticated at what's known variously as "tending the wild" or "firestick farming") but the seasons varied so much between years that betting your life on the prodigious production of seeds of a single plant is stupid. You need to be able to move and use many crops: bulbs, acorns, grass seed, etc., when each has a good year, which is never every year.

So why did modern humans not start doing the civilization thing until sometime less than 10,000 years ago? If you look at long-term climate variation, we're currently about halfway through a period of unusual calm and mediocrity in the Milankovitch cycles. Were we not playing around with greenhouse gas emissions, we could easily run civilization for thousands more years before the cycles got bad again. The important thing is there's no comparable period of tranquility in the last 300,000 years of Milankovitch cycles. I'd hypothesize that the reason our ancestors never got into farming, hierarchy, building civilizations and so on is that the world before the holocene was simply that the world was simply too unpredictable to make it worth the trouble. We can test this by looking at how much effort and "terraforming" with irrigation networks is needed to farm in the more unpredictable parts of the world. We can also test it by looking at how farming succeeds, or fails, as local climates get more unpredictable.

So if you want to figure out why our really smart ancestors didn't bother to build Atlantis or Hyboria, my hypothesis is simply that they had to live at too low a population density to make it worth the trouble. For all I know, they domesticated barley and other crops any number of times, only to have to give it up when the climate changed. We've only got scant evidence of the last two times they tried it.

Now, working back into prehuman deep time. The first thing to notice is that the Milankovitch cycles only occasionally throw up reasonably long periods of stability--normally such periods are less than 2,000 years long, and we need something like 10,000 years or more for civilization to take off. That automatically eliminates most of Earth's deep history. Aliens could have landed any number of times, but if they couldn't make their farms work because the climate was too variable, they'd probably bug out again and write their colony off as a failure.

That's a little warning here about colonizing alien worlds, incidentally: I'm willing to bet that Earth is unusually stable in its orbital parameters, and we still get smacked around by Milankovitch cycles. While life may be very common and intelligence may be very common, civilization may be very rare, simply because the average planet changes too much between years for it to be worth establishing an elaborate hierarchy to deal with the change. This prediction will be proved wrong if we can figure out how to feed 10 billion people on a rapidly changing planet, and quite honestly, I hope we can.

As for detecting previous prehuman civilizations, you have to look at fossil fuels, useful minerals, and bulldozer work. Right now, our most enduring surface traces will be the ridges we flattened, the giant holes we dug, and other bulldozer work. Various huge pit mines and mountains half-removed are going to last millions of years, far longer than almost all our made artifacts. Because of this, I don't think there was any civilization on Earth more recent than the Miocene. Where's the evidence of ancient earthmoving?

With fossil fuels, there's a depth limit: too shallow and they erode away, too deep and the Earth's heat cooks them into other stuff. That depth limit for oil is somewhere around (I think) 1500 meters, although I could be wrong. While there were undoubtedly old coal beds that have eroded away or been burned away by eruptions, we've been extremely good at exploiting coal that was deposited all the way back in the Carboniferous, and that's a good 300,000,000 years. Ditto oil. Ditto gold and a bunch of other minerals. My guess is that a deep time industrial civilization on Earth would have found those same resources too, and we'd be without them now. While there might be untapped deposits hiding somewhere, we're pretty good at finding and mining them, and it's only reasonable to assume any paleo-industry would have done it too. Especially with fossil fuels, there can't be any hiding too deep in the earth, because they'd be fried by now. That's what the depth limit tells us: fossil fuels are shallow, we can find them, and presumably any putative predecessor could have found them too. So that takes care of the last 300,000,000 years or so. Since we had all these resources to fuel the industrial revolution, nobody exploited them in the past.

As for the other 4,200,000,000 years of Earth's history, well, it would be possible for an alien to establish some sort of research station on the planet, even when it was an prokaryotic wonderland with oxygen levels fluctuating wildly. But, because of the Milankovitch cycles, I suspect that establishing a civilization would have been hard, except during the rare times of long-term tranquility. I don't think such archean settlements are long term sustainable, and I'm pretty sure that the Earth's crust has fluxed so much since then that any traces of a paleosophant's research base would be wiped away. Even today, we only have scattered outcrops and massively metamorphosed rocks that testify to conditions in most of Earth's history. We're going to miss details. At the same time, we have to ask why an alien would bother with creating a research base, let alone a civilization, on an anaerobic planet. It might have some good mining opportunities, but that's about it.

And I won't even talk about the perils of setting up a civilization on a world where sauropods are the biggest herbivores and support both a food web of large predators AND a decomposer food web that makes a living digesting the mountains of poop they left behind every day. To me, that's a pretty good definition of a deathworld, and that covers a good chunk of the Mesozoic right there. We're in one of Earth's good times right now, and we should treasure it while it lasts.

Hope this helps.


This prediction will be proved wrong if we can figure out how to feed 10 billion people on a rapidly changing planet

I do not think your hypothesis would be falsified in this case. All it would demonstrate is that advanced civilisations can be reasonably resisient once they are established.

That's the thing humans need to demonstrate right now of course.


While life may be very common and intelligence may be very common, civilization may be very rare, simply because the average planet changes too much between years for it to be worth establishing an elaborate hierarchy to deal with the change.
And there's the easy, simple asnwer to Fermi's Paradox .....

Agree 150% with dpb @ 87, of course


Well, mostly.

Major previous human civilisation is clearly implausible, even if you assume one not using our sort of technology, though there are some places that came close. Damn what the major neolithic to early iron age constructions in the UK were made FOR, they do show a high level of cooperation over large scales, which is one definition of civilisation. There are other places with similar evidence, too.

But I don't swallow your explanation of why farming was infeasible, because it is the short-term variation that matters, and it works in places where that is pretty high - e.g. the UK. What IS needed is a high level of agricultural skill and the use of a wide range of crops. I agree that farming, as it developed in the fertile crescent, was probably not feasible - but that's not all that farming is, or can be.

And, actually, I believe that the most enduring geological evidence of the anthropocene will be local concentrations of implausible combinations of metals. The earth moving we have done will disappear from erosion, accumulation and movement in a few (tens of?) million years, but some of those metal concentrations will remain, the way that current ore deposits have.


What IS needed is a high level of agricultural skill and the use of a wide range of crops.

One problem I can see here is how to get the high level of agricultural skill if the environt changes too fast. One crop failure could mean doom, and gathering all those different crops might not be feasible if you don't have a staple to fall on at least on most years.


I don't see developing the skills as infeasible under such circumstances, especially if you don't use almost entirely annuals, and avoid developing a dependency on a small, restricted and similar set of staples. But you have to start doing so when the population is sparse enough that wild foods are still a viable fallback, and it would take longer than happened in our history and be a very different approach.

Consider the area from the Balkans to the Caspian, for example. All of chestnut, walnut, two hazels and several oaks provide sources of high-calorie food (beech is less good), in addition to annual foods like several legumes and grasses. There are too many fruit that dry well to be worth enumerating, and innumerable green vegetables. Plus, of course, animal food from hunting - IF you don't overpopulate too early. They rarely ALL fail, and the trees and hunting need no essentially attention when you don't need them for food.

Crop failures and widespread death in the UK were common (and sometimes still occur), before the development of our trading empire. But one reason was the dependency on a small range of crops, and another was a high population density, largely because we are too far north (and with too high a risk of cold or wet summers) to grow most of the foods I mentioned. There is also evidence that the populations were as high, and nutrition and survival far better, in neolithic times than in mediaeval ones.


oddly enough, there was just a related article on slashdot today...

Now, where would we get a few trillion to set this up.... Hey, here's a start: nationalize Big Pharm (

Then line up the chief execs, execute them, and shove them into a mass grave....*

* note: according to wikipedia, it costs about $3 US to make a doze of quinine; in the US, it costs about $87....

No, I'm not overly happy recently....


Well, the simplest answer is a) make sure more women use birth control pills (which leak into the environment, and lower *other* peoples' birth rates; b) introduce a male pill (with even better environmental restuls, and c) educate more women (the higher the level of education, the lower the birth rate, documented in a number of studies).

Assuming, of course, that we don't have an exciting interaction with a comet.


Well, yes and no. This is one of those things where, to build a starship, you need one hell of an infrastructure surplus. To do that, you've either got to be really got at turning crappy stuff into useful infrastructure (the classic mine an asteroid, refine all that low-grade ore into useful stuff, and turn the asteroid into a starship scenario falls here), or you've got to have a fairly predictable planet so that you can establish an highly productive agricultural system that produces more than enough food year after year to feed your starship builders, or you've got to be *extremely* good at managing a chaotic system and storing whatever surpluses you happen to get and distributing them *really efficiently,* such that you still have enough to feed your starship crew.

Of course, if you're running crewed STL starships, you've already got god-class mad skillz in ecosystem engineering, so whatever.

Anyway, the classic old solution to an unstable environment is empire, as exemplified (in my knowledge base anyway) by the Inkans. Since they had a lot of cold, dry mountains, they got really good at storing crops, and very good at moving supplies and people around (at least on foot). This empire worked in the very unpredictable Andes, because they were constantly swiping surplus food, materials, and people from regions that were doing well, and using these surpluses to prop up places that weren't doing so well. Different regions would be doing well or badly each year, but having the empire running the distribution network seems to have kept people from starving, although the Inkan habit of conquering territory and relocating the losers made them A LOT of enemies, something Pizarro ultimately exploited to bring them down.

Empires tend to do this a lot. By definition, an empire is a polity made of multiple peoples who are treated differently (and yes, by this definition, the US is an empire). People get moved around for new frontiers, jobs opening up, and so forth, and this is normal within an empire.

In the past, movement used to be primarily a function of imperial politics. In the 20th Century, we've experimented with using market forces (such as futures markets) to move resources around, and market forces to move people around. From my perspective, there's no appreciable difference between idiot developers, egotistical billionaires, and imperial twits, but that's just me.

Still, there's this underlying notion that an imperial-scale redistribution system might be able to balance out a lot of climatic uncertainty. This system has to be efficient as well as reasonably quick. Reasonably quick doesn't mean that fruits fly halfway around the world overnight (that's still stupid), but that it's possible to move less-perishable foods to anywhere that's suffering a famine, that there are stockpiles for emergencies, and so on.

The question is whether global distribution systems are best left to some sort of command and control redistribution system (currently various militaries in humanitarian operations), the free market, or political systems (government aid).

Thoughts? Do all of them have the same failure modes, or do they fail in different enough ways that we could, conceivably, use really efficient redistribution in multiple channels to keep 10 billion people fed, clothed, and housed?

Finally, I'd note that I'm not fond of paying people to sit on their asses when they've got something they'd rather do. There's enough work needing to be done getting trees planted and carbon back in the ground that people who are able and willing to do it should be able to earn a basic living saving the world by doing such stuff. If we can't employ them productively in an extractive economy, why not do this?


"There's enough work needing to be done getting trees planted and carbon back in the ground that people who are able and willing to do it should be able to..."

...go and do it without having to worry about "earning a living", secure in the knowledge that they will still get their universal income (or whatever you call it) regardless.

Our current system is so fucking bent that the correlation between the value of people's activities and their profitability is strongly negative. People are forced to spend their time doing things of minimal or negative value, and prevented or hindered from doing things of positive value, in order to preserve their own existence.

Paying people to sit on their arses would actually be a big step forward, removing the compulsion to perform negative activities, and thereby mitigating a lot of the global problems by cutting down on the things that create them in the first place. Paying people whether they sit on their arses or not would be an even bigger step forward, by freeing them to engage in positive activities.

(I have the same kind of thoughts in a different context every time Charlie posts about not being able to write some excellent idea for a story he's had because it "wouldn't sell", or about making himself ill by having to do too much.)


" to get the high level of agricultural skill if the environt changes too fast."

One buffer that nobody's mentioned yet is to convert prolific but inedible plants into food by keeping livestock. Preferably of several different species so one disease can't wipe out all your herds/flocks. Also provides a handy non-perishable winter (or marine voyaging) storage capability, and even space heating too.


"...advanced civilisations can be reasonably resisient once they are established."

But can you reasonably call a civilisation "advanced" when it is still at the level ours is at - essentially an expression of the same blind territorial drive, with the purpose of maintaining access to existing resources, that the dinosaurs express so vocally at this time of year (ooo oooo-ooo, oo oo), and without thought for the future much beyond the personal timescale or scope of vision? Could be that one factor in the "Fermi paradox" is that very few civilisations manage to make the transition from reactive to proactive before they drown in their own muck.


Would an expanded Arbor day celebration fit in the sort of future you'd like?


Yes, I think you can. What is civilization anyway? If you want to go with Holldobler and Wilson in calling leafcutter ants civilized species without intelligence (instead of calling the colony a superorganism, which they've also done), then it may be that civilization doesn't even need intelligence.

This is actually a serious question. Personally, I think human civilization is the equivalent of a locust swarm, an irruption when we (probably temporarily) slip out environmental limits and massively increase our numbers. This only seems to work when there are pretty sophisticated systems in place for keeping people fed and watered. These systems always seem to be at best metastable, and they don't keep going without a lot of people working hard to keep them working.


The transition to "civilization" and "agriculture" is very odd.

Remember that we're dealing with evolution of culture (memetic evolution). Evolution doesn't aim towards a final point - that what you're doing will make things better for your great-grandkids is irrelevant. It's all about what works short-term.

First is the paradox of agriculture. (A) Human population expands to fit the food supply. (B) We can tell that hunter gatherers were better fed than farmers. Reconciling these two contradictions is possible, but it does make you think about just what it was that agriculture was better at.

Second is the fact that lots of crops are really, really shitty in their native form. It takes many, many, many generations to turn watermelon from a nasty bitter seed-filled fruit 50mm diameter to its modern form, or peaches from something the size of cherry with a very large stone to what you see now, or corn from a tiny hard thing with 10-12 kernels that you had to hack into with a hammer, or... pretty much all our crops. We've terraformed earth's flora and fauna to make modern agriculture possible. Crop yields with ancient crops were awful.

Third is the amazing longevity of ancient cultures. The caves at Niaux are amazing, one of the very few places you can see original major paleolithic art, if you book well ahead and go to the somewhat inconvenient spot. If you ever get a chance to go there, do, it's just not like the replicas and reproductions.

But it's all the same genre of art, using the same mediums, and was painted there by people from (we think) the same culture for over 5,000 years. That's 5,000 years in which people went into the same cave every now and then, and added more of the same type of art, using the same techniques and materials. With notably advancing or changing technique. 5,000 years of hunter-gatherer culture with complex tool use and clever things being done to create art... but not progress. Which makes it seem that their culture had hit an evolutionary maxima in the fitness landscape, and just stayed there.


Sorry, major typo.

About the art in Niaux: it should read "WITHOUT notably advancing or changing technique".


Just because they copy each other's art, they therefore have the same language, share the same values, and so forth for 5,000 years? Yeah, right. That gets refuted every time some kid (like me) copies the Sorcerer from Le Grotte des Trois-Freres (which I did in elementary school, albeit not very well).

That's one of the pervasive problems with deep time. We have tiny scraps of evidence about what people were like, so most researchers, and the public, construct these amazing pareidola where we play connect the dots among bits of evidence from tens of thousands of years (or millions of years, or even billions of years) apart to construct a narrative.

One place this shows up is in the notion that our ancestors in the ice age were subhuman, even though their brains were bigger than ours. I don't think they were necessarily better nourished, but I do suspect those big brains were used for something, probably keeping track of where all a hundred-odd types of food sources were, so they could be checked. What's really going on there is that there's almost no evidence before around 5,000 years ago, so people tend to connect dots and claim that the resulting view is static, without thinking too hard about whether their conclusions were the result of their analytic assumptions.

This also shows up in the fairly normal practice of making paleontological murals with landscapes stuffed with species that often didn't live within 100,000 years of each other. There's so few fossil scraps from most fossil sites that there's this unfortunate tendency to cram them all together into a single picture, just to make it look better.

Then there's the Great Oxygen Event (the oxygenation of the Earth by cyanobacteria) which was postulated to be almost instantaneous. Turns out it took over a billion years, or several times longer than vertebrate life has been on land, primarily because the Earth has a lot of iron and sulfur that needed to be oxidized before oxygen could build up in the atmosphere. But there's almost no evidence for the first four billion years of Earth's history, so it was possible for people to connect the dots and postulate that oxygenation happened real fast.


You're missing the point.

It's not reproducing the old artistic style and old art for 5,000 years in the same place that's the give-away.

It's that there is no new artistic style. Not reproducing the old - failing to do the new. For thousands of years.

This has a particular style. Thousands of years of reproducing that style, not a new style. In the same place, using the same tools. (To be fair some animals and symbols appear only in later or earlier works - but it's a finite set of works so that's inevitable. The artistic style doesn't change.)

If you wanna argue that it was a dynamic, changing culture that keeps doing the same thing over and over you can do that - the record's so sparse that we both know we can't say. But if so it seems a *damned* odd thing for a dynamic changing culture, or set of successor cultures, to do.


Well, the simplest answer is a) make sure more women use birth control pills ....
You forgot the really impoortant bit:
Hang every single "priest"
Keeping women in reproductive slavery is really important to the heirarchies of both islam & xtianity.


It's a good way of converting otherwise inedible vegetation into human food, yes, but is a pretty awful buffer. Keeping animals alive over even a British winter needs huge effort in collecting and storing fodder, and most animals were slaughtered and salted in autumn up until the 18th century, with only the breeding stock kept over winter. And, if the season is bad, the animals do badly as well.


Well, you get part of the answer when you examine how the modern free market would deal in the Inka empire:
If one region starves, food prices go up until the people have sold all their wealth and have indebted themselves. Also compare the Irish famine and the Indian famine under the British empire: in both cases the region still exported food.


Er, your examples are rather poor. Wild watermelons are c. 200mm in diameter, and wild peaches almost certainly had ample flesh (and could well have been 40mm in diameter). There are a LOT of wild fruit and nuts that are perfectly usable without breeding, and we grow and eat many of them in more-or-less their natural form. The same applies to green vegetables, though the ones most people in the west are most familiar with ARE overbred.

The same does NOT apply to the starchy 'staples' outside the tropics, and the main reason that crop yields were so poor was the reliance on species being pushed to the limits of their natural adaptability and beyond. The examples I gave in #90 are not like that - I forgot almond (which IS highly bred, but only for low cyanide) and olive, too.

So many of the constraints being assumed above (and by Diamond) are dependent on our particular type of agriculture; take a different path (as was almost certainly done in Britain back when Stonehenge was built) and they change (and many disappear).


Heteromeles wrote: The question is whether global distribution systems are best left to some sort of command and control redistribution system (currently various militaries in humanitarian operations), the free market, or political systems (government aid).

Thoughts? Do all of them have the same failure modes, or do they fail in different enough ways that we could, conceivably, use really efficient redistribution in multiple channels to keep 10 billion people fed, clothed, and housed?

My answers would be all of the above for the best system, with the qualifier that available technology can change the relative importance.

Command and control via the military is often necessary because we're all selfish to some degree. If the Empire says to province A "give up some of your food to help the starving folk in province B" the military are what stops the people in province A from saying "Not our problem". Yes, people are capable of being selfless and generous without needing force. And no, the empire isn't always doing this for the best of motives - often it's imperial prestige at stake, not genuine humanitarianism.

This aspect has become less important, at least in Western countries, because we all have so much stuff. Our governments can donate food and supplies to other countries and we barely notice.

The command and control is also necessary to ensure reasonably fair distribution in the affected areas. And this still applies today, those soldiers guarding food trucks in the TV news are necessary. And yes aid distribution by the Empire may not be as equitable as we would like, but it's almost always better than the most heavily armed thugs grabbing everything that would happen without them.

The free market has grown in importance and picks up a lot of the slack without us noticing, mostly because of better transportation technology. You can't ship Australian beef to other continents without refrigeration. As someone observed above, the free market isn't great at helping the desperately poor. What it does provide though is the infrastructure for delivering aid. If there's food shortages, it's much quicker if a government / aid agency can just pay ship owners to divert their regular trade to somewhere else rather than building them.

As for political systems / government aid, I'm not sure quite what you mean by it as I can't quite see how you get an Empire without a political system. I'm definitely not a libertarian, so I do think political systems are essential for efficient redistribution. For one thing, we Westerners at least generally empower our governments to take action on our behalf without submitting everything to a referendum. So if there's a crisis, the government can start doing something straight away. Sure, politicians still have their eye on the polls, but a surprising number are also decent human beings and will do the right thing now and answer for it at the next election.

This is my wishy-washy way of saying that as an optimist I do believe we can manage ten billion people on the planet.


One place this shows up is in the notion that our ancestors in the ice age were subhuman, even though their brains were bigger than ours. I don't think they were necessarily better nourished, but I do suspect those big brains were used for something, probably keeping track of where all a hundred-odd types of food sources were, so they could be checked.

Brain size does not necessarily mean our ancestors were more intelligent on average than we are today (and which ancestors had larger brains than we do today? Most of the proto-hominid braincases we know about are tiny by comparison). Going cross-speices, an elephant's brain is nearly twice the size of a human being's brain but has half the number of neurons.

Evolutionary speaking the brain is a major resource drain requiring a lot of fuel and care to avoid damage hence skull structures, buffer/damper systems etc. I don't know if there's any real science on the complexity of brain structures in early mammals, neuron density and interconnectivity, chemistry etc. [Dread computer analogy ahead] 1960s mainframes are a lot larger than a smartphone but any 100-buck modern Android phone would easily outperform a Big Iron behemoth from that period and no-one today is building such machines. It's not that the mainframes of yesteryear were an evolutionary "dead-end", they served their purpose in their day which is all evolution really requires of an organism.


This aspect has become less important, at least in Western countries, because we all have so much stuff. Our governments can donate food and supplies to other countries and we barely notice.

Though this seems to be sometimes hard even inside a country. In today's news in Finland, some cities are planning to make food aid (basically, free food, given out to basically anybody who comes to stand in a line for long enough, but mostly only people who really need it do come and get it) require something in return. Some plans were about putting the poor people with no food to courses for making food, which to me sounds kind of like just trying to make it harder to get something to eat.


Mikko Parvainen wrote: In today's news in Finland, some cities are planning to make food aid (basically, free food, given out to basically anybody who comes to stand in a line for long enough, but mostly only people who really need it do come and get it) require something in return.

First World problems. According to, the death rate due to malnutrition in Finland is 0.04 per 100,000 which means as far as I can tell that out of the population of five and a half million Finns, 2 will starve to death.

On the other hand the death rate from coronary heart disease for Finns is given as 94.14 per 100,000 or over two thousand times higher. I don't know what the situation is in Finland, but here in Australia obesity rates for the poor are twice what they are for the rich, with corresponding health risks such as coronary heart disease.

On those statistics, cutting food aid for the poor saves more lives.


You're talking about this "progress" thing as though it's an intrinsically good thing and not doing it is bad. There are other ways to interpret the same facts - and you say it yourself: what's wrong with living in a metastable evolutionary maximum? If what you are doing works, why change it? 5,000 years is nothing really, if you consider the cultures of Australian indigenous peoples which have been somewhat continuous for over 60,000 years.

I think likewise casting the emergence of agriculture as a paradox requires some assumptions, including ones we know are incorrect. One of the givens these days seems to be that agriculture occurs after an ecological crisis. So it didn't have to be "better" than H&G, it just had to be better than nothing once all the game and wild vegetation had disappeared from the region. Hey it looks like the only place we can find those edible grasses nowadays is around those old middens.

Contrast that with H&G societies that survived. We know that the oral traditions in these cultures could embed an astonishing volume of information. We know from studies of the Australian landscape that such cultures could sustain land forming and land management projects across thousands of years. We also know that not only were H&G cultures better nourished, they also spent a much higher proportion of their time in (what we would consider) leisure activity than agricultural societies (there's a bit of an argument this comparison is invalid since agricultural societies more or less depend on division of labour and hierarchies in a way that H&G societies do not, leading to some individuals experiencing more leisure than others).


On those statistics, cutting food aid for the poor saves more lives.

Well, I can't claim to know the demographics of the people who get the food aid here, but at least from the news images, obesity is not their problem. It's more like that they don't have money to buy enough food.

It might be different in Australia, but at least here saying "no, you shouldn't get food because by statistics poor people are fat and could well lose some weight" to poor people without enough money to buy food would be in my opinion something of a so-called "dick" move.


"Let me guess, manifests in our "Reality" as a one time commercial real estate developer with a bad comb-over?"

I'd expect an elder god to have more class than that.


For your consideration, the response of the ignorant and evil.

If the poor are more obese, one with any curiosity might wonder how that might have come to be, and perhaps examined the types of food that the poor are able to get, and what effect those foods have on metabolism.

Or one could simply say "let them starve more it'll be good for them."


"... then it may be that civilization doesn't even need intelligence."

I can't think of a more succinct explanation for the functioning of the U.S. Congress (for VERY LOW values of "civilization".


When talking about agriculture and civilizations, you're completely neglecting the sea.

In the case of human civilizations, you may not need agriculture as we know it? In the Pacific Northwest, fishing was so plentiful that the population grew to densities similar to their agricultural neighbors.

For pre-human civilizations, I would remind you of the possibility that they developed underwater? I am personally unconvinced that agriculture is not possible underwater.

“The question is whether global distribution systems are best left to some sort of command and control redistribution system (currently various militaries in humanitarian operations), the free market, or political systems (government aid).”)
“Thoughts? Do all of them have the same failure modes, or do they fail in different enough ways that we could, conceivably, use really efficient redistribution in multiple channels to keep 10 billion people fed, clothed, and housed?”)

Unless there is some external agency (e.g. a government) with sufficient power to regulate them, "free markets" don't exist; CANNOT exist. Especially in the age of the limited liability corporation, they rapidly collapse into oligopsony


"This is my wishy-washy way of saying that as an optimist I do believe we can manage ten billion people on the planet."

Yeah, but I don't expect those in the future will do any better at it than we're doing today at 7.6 billion.


I'd be surprised if an elder God could come that close to mimicking semi-evolved apes.


Saw a recent study that strongly suggested that the poorest were more obese, simply bevasue of both poor food choices & poor food "availability".
Completely counterintuitive, but apparently true.

The food prices in supremarkets shock me, anyway on the rare occasions thatr I check them.
Normally, I only buy dairy-products & pate there. Actual meat & fish come from specilist suppliers, who may/will charge more, but I know the "product" is of better quality.
[ e.g. no added water in the meat & it isn't pale pink, yeuch ]
And for veg, I consistently run a personal surplus & usually give stuff away ....


Yes. I am afraid the other posters on this have simply got their facts wrong. Eating well can be actually cheaper than eating badly - IF you can store supplies, cook them and store the result. Lack of time is a minor factor, ignorance is a major factor, but lack of facilities is equally important. And it is NOT a matter of quantity, but quality - many of the obese people are also malnourished. Also, much of the ignorance is due (in the UK) to our crippling of education and, worse, grovelling to the USA megacorporations and their obscene marketing.

I got and get really angry with the complacent politicians who deny the active hand they took in setting up the situation and ignore the real problems that those people cannot solve themselves.


You wrote, concerning empires, "From my perspective, there's no appreciable difference between idiot developers, egotistical billionaires, and imperial twits, but that's just me."

You mean, as opposed to "stable ganiuses" who can be all three of those at once?


There are two issues here, and I'll split them.

First, civilization underwater. Again, we have to define what civilization is. If we're talking about firemaking tool users, then no, that can't develop underwater (at least the fire bit. There are aquatic tool users). If we're talking about nomadic packs hunters, they might exist (cetaceans). If we require hierarchical organization and durable structures and systems, then... This isn't an attack, but a way to get you to think about what you mean by civilization. Aquatic has different limits than terrestrial life, and that's important.

As for the Pacific Northwest, though, it looks like what we were taught about them was wrong. A neat article came out in Hakai magazine a couple of days ago on indigenous Pacific Northwest agriculture. Yes, they cultivated local plants quite heavily. The whole notion of the Pacific Northwest being the only place where a hierarchical culture developed without people systematically tending plants on plots they owned is, to put it bluntly, incorrect.

I get a little passionate about these things, because of an experience many years ago on Catalina Island. That place had an indigenous population in the low thousands (basically the same number of people as live there today). When I worked out there, I spent a morning on the back side of the island, near the remnants of one of their bigger settlements. As I walked up the slope behind the settlement in the early spring, I realized I couldn't avoid stepping on a food plant with every single step. In that case it was blue dicks (a wild hyacinth that tastes like onions) and tarweed (whose seeds are edible). I'm pretty sure that whole slope was gardened and had been for thousands of years, until the 1850s when the "wild savages" were moved to mainland missions and disappeared. The fact that it was still full of food 150 years later says quite a lot. How many of our gardens would still be fruitful a century after we've passed?

Kat Anderson's Tending the Wild is all about such native Californian practices. There's a similar book (Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu) that shows quite a lot of evidence of similar cultivating practices through much of Australia.

I suspect there are two points to be made here. One is that there's a bigger diversity of "horticultural" practices than we normally think of. Personally, I'm learning to think of these systems in terms of coevolutionary theory and symbiotic relationships, rather than in terms of domestication, which has a lot of cultural baggage.

The, bigger point is related to the cultural baggage, because so much of our ideas that were rooted in ethnography and anthropology are linked to our history as colonial empires based on an ideology of us white people bringing progress to a benighted world, dark in both knowledge and skin tone. Everyone has to be very, very careful about sorting out the data from the cultural baggage that's been larded onto it. If people are said by their conquerors to have not farmed but merely to have taken what they needed from the land, then they're savages who can be displaced, and the land can be explained as "naturally fruitful," rather than the result of them working for thousands of years to make it better at supporting human life.


Well, no. There are some good people who are.

On the other hand, all three of the religious leaders of the Peoples of the Book(s) need to be pounded upside the head till it softens, and they'll actually take to heart that infant and maternal mortality has dropped by many orders of magnitude in the last 200 years, and we don't *NEED* to birth more kids, because so many live, instead of dying young.

On the other, other hand, though, I think all self-proclaimed evangelical funnymentalists should be treated as you suggest. And their megachurn money expropriated for the poor.


I can give you reasons without even thinking about it: first, in the US, supermarkets charge through the nose for fresh fruits and vegetables. Only smaller ethnic stores charge anything resembling reasonable (we *are* talking about 2x to 4x difference).

Note that I do shop for myself, and go to both.

Second, so many poorer folks are working more than one job, and have no *time* to shop at multiple stores, and with that lack of time, wind up going to fast food chains. Hell, I noticed my ex starting a tummy, after she got a car (she'd been on a car-free diet for years), and started hitting McGarbage for breakfast, instead of the nice food court near her office).

Note, also, that I've seen reports in the media in the last year that finds that artificial sweeteners a) do actually contribute to fat and heart disease (just saw that yesterday), b) that the body thinks it's still hungry, so you wind up eating more, and c) high fructose corn syrup *is* processed more efficiently by the body than good ol' sugar... with the result that, if you're not burning it at work, it goes to fat, and it's apparently really hard to go from bad fat to good fat to losing weight.


Hell, yes. Pay people, whether they work or not. There are a lot of folks who really don't want to live in or near a city... but that's where the jobs are.

Pay them, so they can stay where they are, and they will garden*, farm, and run small local businesses... AND STAY OUT OF OUR CITIES, which they hate, and where they can NOT drive in traffic....

*Garden. Food prices. In Philly, we used to get a *log* of in-season fruits and veggies from the 'burbs, and south New Jersey. Thanks, *so* much friggin' developers and suburban sprawl, we're so much happier flying food in from farms on the west coast that need to take water from other states to grow....


Free markets are just the continuation of war with financial means.


Re civilization under water:
Science would definitely develop along a different path. Eg. alchemy/chemistry was developed by humans relying to be able to boil water. Aquatic science would need to start with materials found under water and expose them to air. While open fire is out of the question, heat from the sun and using lenses is not. There are also some underwater volcanic spots that provide special environments. Physics also would develop along a different path since low air friction makes Newton's laws more or less obvious, while the same experiments underwater would have to take fluids into account.
I don't see any problems with biology and of course maths would be just as easy as above water.


NOT helped by the corrupt agrobusiness lobbyists trying to stop us growing what we want, as we want to & trying to blame us for spreading fungal diseases (etc)


Re: 'What is civilization anyway?'

How about the persistence and transfer of cultural memes that can be geographically localized?

Personally, I do not believe that in order to be civilized one must first do or be able to do/achieve [x].

a) Civilizations like the individuals they are made up of, and like all living creatures vary considerably. Recognizing variation and not just norms or top percentiles is important - and seems to have been persistently ignored in a lot of history.

b) It could be that insisting on a 'civilization' having to have had/done such-and-such that we've missed identifying important aspects of civilizations and even of civilizations.

BTW - there's literally tons of evidence in Turkey (Marmaray Tunnel) that there was an established large city and trade route across the Bosporus dating back to 6,000 BCE.

Given the history of this dig in Turkey (indeed the considerable archeological activity in other parts of the world), plus more people giving any consideration to the idea of a universal income, plus robots taking over more jobs, I wouldn't be at all surprised if more of our economy (jobs/livelihoods) turns toward history esp. the discovery, reclamation and stewardship of natural, historical and cultural resources. Such a move might even counterbalance the push by most business/industry to look only toward a near future. Not sure who said it but basically the idea boils down to: the farther and more clearly you can see into your past, the farther and more clearly you can see into your future.


Personally, I think the base for civilization are shared stories. Homo Sapiens is a crude misnomer, it should be Home Narrans (or for the extant subspecies, Homo Narrans Stupidus).
I see stories as the software to our biological hardware, and currently we are suffering from some really malicious software updates.


Re: '...stories as the software to our biological hardware'

Agree - plus all of the different ways that stories (knowledge) can be transmitted.


Heteromeles wrote: If we're talking about nomadic packs hunters, they might exist (cetaceans). If we require hierarchical organization and durable structures and systems, then...

Orca perhaps? It's been a few years since I read about them in depth, but IIRC the fish eating orca off the US/Canada north west live in well defined clans. There's some interbreeding between clans, but pretty clear lines of descent (matrilineal organisation) for each. They also have recognisable dialects when chirping to each other that persist over generations. (Is there a more accurate word for cetaceans in general / orca in particular communicating?)

Hiearchical organisations and durable social structures, check.

Interestingly, the mammal hunting orca, the ones that hunt seals and other cetaceans, don't show similar organisation. Theory is that the mammalian prey have better hearing and awareness, so the orca can't be as chatty with each other.


Surely the whales' sonar would alert the prey just as much as communicatory vocalisations would? Is it not more likely to be differences in hunting technique required for different size and manoeuvring capability of the prey? AIUI hunting individual fish is a pretty useless idea because they can dodge too well, and the appropriate strategy is therefore to herd lots of fish into a dense cluster so the whales can take it in turn to take a chomp at the ball of fish and stand a reasonable chance that a lot of them won't be able to dodge. Which obviously requires lots of cooperation and coordination. Seals on the other hand are large, lack the lightning acceleration of fish, in general are not as good swimmers as whales, and furthermore can in certain situations be hunted from ambush, all of which means that individual effort is much more likely to succeed and there is simply less need for coordination.


I rather like that leafcutter-ant "civilisation without intelligence" idea; as long as you don't try and push it too far, it seems a pretty good approximation to what I was getting at, in that the same description can be applied to human civilisations. Except that I'm talking about the intelligence of the civilisation itself, considered as something akin to a superorganism, rather than the intelligence of its individual units.

Both human and ant "civilisations" have similar distinctive features: some kind of organisation under which similar individuals perform very different sub-functions of an overall complex pattern of behaviour by which a much larger colony can sustain itself than would be the case without that kind of behaviour pattern. And in both cases, that behaviour pattern is based around the assumption that tomorrow will be very like today; the systems may be resilient against "normal" misfortunes, but neither system makes any attempt to guard against the possibility that the definition of "normal" may change in the long term and develop behaviour patterns which will also be resilient against its future manifestations.

OK, human civilisations are not completely lacking in that regard, but there is still very little of it on the scale of the civilisation itself; what there is is mostly on the level of individuals and their offspring and timescales of a lifetime or so, and still doesn't really drop the assumption that tomorrow will be like today.

There certainly does not seem to be enough of it to confer resilience against changes in climate; AIUI such changes are the reason for rather a lot of historical collapses of civilisations. That our current civilisation has lots of gadgets and stuff does not in my view make it truly "advanced" - that stuff is just window dressing. To count as "advanced" it would have to (among other things) take on board the lesson from history that changes in climate can devastate a previously successful civilisation, and develop behaviour patterns that do confer resilience against it - on the "superorganism" level, not just the concerns of individuals.


"Kat Anderson's Tending the Wild is all about such native Californian practices. There's a similar book (Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu) that shows quite a lot of evidence of similar cultivating practices through much of Australia."

I'm currently in the weeds with coursework assessments which means my independent reading time is severely curtailed, but one of the things I'm slowly picking my way through at the moment is Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth. The striking character of most of the Australian landscape in 1788 was the sweeping grasslands studded with infrequent tall trees on soils that should have been supporting dense forests. 230 years later these areas, where they haven't been converted to grazing or farming and are otherwise unmanaged, have reverted to dense forest. The evidence seems to be that controlled burning over hundreds or even thousands of generations shaped the landscape to a surprising degree. Major rivers were bridged by tall trees whose roots had been deliberately undermined. Areas which hadn't seen fire for a century, during which time they were basically inhospitable, after a major fire became practically overwhelmed with food plants.

It seems likely that our concept of how the distinction between what we call H&G societies and agricultural ones has shortcomings. It's far more continuous and not at all binary, to start with. And it might not actually make sense in a context where much of the food products consumed by H&G societies are cultivated, potentially across a dramatically larger time scale than is known in agriculture. I suppose the thing people have trouble with is that this sort of cultivation is conscious and deliberate, and done in full knowledge of the outcomes and the things that drive the outcomes (because it means that oral traditions must be capable of preserving knowledge at least to the same degree and level as our modern university traditions). Our culture is unable to let go of its image of the Other as Primitive, and lesser.

I'm also, incidentally, picking my way through Lynne Kelly's book - and at your recommendation.

I suspect there are two points to be made here. One is that there's a bigger diversity of "horticultural" practices than we normally think of. Personally, I'm learning to think of these systems in terms of coevolutionary theory and symbiotic relationships, rather than in terms of domestication, which has a lot of cultural baggage.


Oops, I'd meant to quote that last paragraph and place it before my own last two paragraphs. Apologies.


I think you're seeing what I'm trying to get at.

To back up a little and help others, there's culture and civilization. One of the questions is whether civilization is a type of culture or something different. Culture, at least as I understand it (and sociologists and ethologists should speak up if they ever read this) is the learned part of inheritance. It's the stuff you didn't get from your DNA and epigenome that is necessary for you to become a functioning adult of your species. Under this rubric, a LOT of species have culture, including all cats, all apes and many primates, most or all dogs (especially coyotes), raccoons, bears, elephants, dolphins (probably all cetaceans) corvids, larger parrots, even sloths, among many others. Relative intelligence does correlate, but there are some species (manta rays, cephalopods, komodo dragons) that show good intelligence but no sign of cultural knowledge transmission. Humans are extreme in requiring culture to survive, in that we'll die in infancy if we're not enculturated, but the transmission of learned behavior as an essential part of an animal's maturation process is quite widespread.

Civilization, at least in humans, is a type of human culture (surprise!) where there's a hierarchy of a productive class that produces a surplus of food, a group of people in charge who organize things but do not produce their own food, and often craft specialists who make and do essential stuff but do not produce their own food. At least in my limited knowledge, civilization tends to be associated with state formation. We actually know more than we think about how tribal societies become states, because the last to do so--Hawai'i, completed the process under the gaze of Captain Cook and other westerners. Additionally, the Hawaiians had a really good oral history that they quickly wrote down once they became literate, and subsequent archaeology tends to confirm their stories. Anyway, civilization starts when there's enough food to support chiefs and eventually there are so many people as to require bulk reorganization into a state because older social organization systems can't handle the strain.

If we look at eusocial animals like leafcutter ants, the question is whether we want to call them a civilization or a superorganism. In a human sense, the queen is not the ruler but the gonads, at least of ant and termite colonies (it would be more accurate, albeit improper, to call the reproductive classes "the big fuckers," but alas, we're stuck with eusocial royalty getting to screw around). Decision making in ants and termites seems to be a mix of quorum sensing, and perhaps something like voting. Still, there are often structurally different castes that do different things, and there are workers that produce a surplus of food to support the non-productive royals and guards, so one might argue that this looks like a civilization. Equally one might argue that since most of the animals in a eusocial colony are related, they could be regarded as a superorganism with an extended phenotype that's required for group reproduction of a specific set of genes.

It's a fairly critical question: is civilization a subclass of culture, or is it a hierarchical organization system that can be created through either cultural or biological means? While I tend to favor the former, at least when talking about humans, there's value in seeing it either way. However, you do need to specify what you mean by civilization when you're talking about something like "an undersea civilization." In the latter example, there are species of eusocial shrimp, and if you think of eusociality as a type of civilization, those eusocial shrimp are your exemplar of an undersea civilization, rather than dolphin pods. If you think of civilization as a distinctive subtype of culture and eusociality as forming superorganisms, then there are aren't any known undersea civilizations, but equally, most human cultures weren't civilized, although civilization is the culture type that is currently dominant on the planet.


For those interested in chaos engineering (or pure prediction) (without cheating :-), just noticed this:
Machine Learning’s ‘Amazing’ Ability to Predict Chaos
and a link for a recent paper:
Hybrid Forecasting of Chaotic Processes: Using Machine Learning in Conjunction with a Knowledge-Based Model (9 march 2018)
and their original paper:
Using Machine Learning to Replicate Chaotic Attractors and Calculate Lyapunov Exponents from Data (pdf) (19 Oct 2017)
Note: they use reservoir computing, which is of extra interest because there are efforts to instantiate such systems in hardware, e.g.
I need to tool up quite a bit to read it for real. See figures 7,8
1. Our hybrid technique consistently outperforms its component reservoir-only or knowledge-based model prediction methods in the duration of its ability to accurately predict, for both the Lorenz system and the spatiotemporal chaotic Kuramoto-Sivashinsky equations.
2. Our hybrid technique robustly yields improved per- formance even when the reservoir-only predictor and the knowledge-based model are so flawed that they do not make accurate predictions on their own.
3. Even when the knowledge-based model used in the hybrid is significantly flawed, the hybrid technique can, at small reservoir sizes, make predictions com- parable to those made by much larger reservoir- only models, which can be used to save computational resources.


Also, unrelated,
Suspicious event hijacks Amazon traffic for 2 hours, steals cryptocurrency
By subverting Amazon's domain-resolution service, the attackers masqueraded as cryptocurrency website and stole about $150,000 in digital coins from unwitting end users.
I smiled...

Irritated, a very little bit. (When do you think I first (front?)noticed tells?)


"Saw a recent study that strongly suggested that the poorest were more obese, simply bevasue of both poor food choices & poor food "availability"."

Food "availability" can have a large impact of food choice. As can "accessibility".


Horribly true
The vegetables that are avilable to me, are those that I have personally selected to plant & not just, say "Tomatoes" but (this year) 9 different varietes, all of which actually TASTE of something, & 4 sorts of courgette, ditto spuds, peas, beans, etc .....
Whereas the poor buggers at the bottom-of-the-heap are constrained by what the supermarkets deign to sell, or Cthulu help us, what's in the food banks.
I regard the latter as a deep stain on our society - that people should be effectively begging for food at this late date.


That looks as though it might have "interesting" possibilities for the evolution of true AI ...
Could machines develop "hunches" in the sense of close guess-predictions on supposedly insufficient evidence, in a similar fashion to what we sometimes do?


Ah, this looks interesting. I'd joked about this before as "the blasphemous equations" (genetic curve fitting software that produced accurate equations that make no sense).

For vintage SF fans, I wanted to highlight that we've got a new source of FTL technology: deep machine learning. To wit, physicists start shoveling data from the LHC cosmological surveys, etc. into a deep learning system, to try to see if a Theory of Everything is possible. Answers pop out, indicating that a Theory of Everything exists, but while the predictions are accurate, the relationships make no intuitive sense to humans. Further exploration of these non-intuitive numbers leads to the design for a star drive of some sort, allowing a limited number of ship designs. The ships work, humans can build them, but we can't do much to improve on the drives because the underlying math makes no sense, and we're stuck either cranking through huge non-linear equations to get answers (making further design modification difficult to impossible), or dumping data into machines and getting out the same limited range of answers (e.g. possible ship designs) without any obvious reason why those limits exist.

This is a phlebotinium goldmine for the lazy SF writer. Probably horrible for the rest of us when they finish hooking these monsters up to market algorithms, but there you go.


Re: ' ... civilization tends to be associated with state formation'

BTW - state is defined as an 'organized community'.

Leadership of states have varied considerably over the years - culture by culture and within cultures - so the type of leadership is not one of yardsticks for determining whether something collection of folk is or is not a 'state'.


Re: state leadership

The UK as an example - tribal/clan, multi-kingdom, monarchy (sourced from a variety of Celtic, English, French, Scot, and German roots), parliamentary rule. Further, even though the UK is currently a parliamentary monarchy, each of the preceding forms of 'rule' still have some power. And, despite these many significant shifts in 'rule', there's been a continuation of British civilization. Yes - lots of changes, but it's still 'Britain'.*

Side note: Personally think that the key reason there's still a monarch in Britain is that this is the only way to prop up and ensure the continuation of the Peerage (i.e., the folks with the most valuable real estate, old money).

* Terry Pratchett explained this concept nicely in The Fifth Elephant re: the scone of stone.


Don't get me started. I've got a friend in Chicago who vacationed in Hawaii, and even there, couldn't find old-style very acid pineapples - they're breeding them to the taste of some idiot 23-yr-old MBA.

And I'm sure I've mentioned before that REALLY worries me: that some day, some idiot MBAs, with too much control of management, decide that for tax purposes, they shouldn't plant 10% of the US cropland... and there's worldwide famine. (And the MBAs were cooked and eaten)


Do I have to keep telling you? Who do you think this "civilization" thing is for? 12k or 15k years ago, cats domesticated us, so that they could live in the manner which they intended to become accustomed to. Then, they pushed us to create technology, so we could create laser pointers....


Your post leads me to two thoughts: first, I wonder if anyone's ever mapped the shape, phase, frequency and volume of whale sonar. Consider AM vs FM radio.

Second... now there's something that could have engineered us into the critters we are now: humans, as loners, mostly go after very small game, which can be scarce in the off-season (winter/monsoon/etc), while humans, as a pack, can go after large herd animals, with a *lot* more meat.

Also, hunter/gatherers may be better nourished... *some* of the year, and some years better than others, while agricultural and herding cultures can build up a larger store, to have lower mortailty from starvation overwhinter, and bad season.


I've seen a number of stories where humans can't understand the equations that make FTL available, and I've always had problems with it.

Consider, a century ago (exactly) that it was said only 8 people in the world could understand Einstein's equations. A *lot* more do now, and math has also advanced.

So, I figure that even if it doesn't make sense at first, people will go after it like calculus - break it up into small, digestible chunks, then slowly put them together. It might take us a while, but I don't see how we wouldn't eventually be able to understand it.

I really need to get back to working on my Famous Secret Theory, speaking of all that....


Could machines develop "hunches" in the sense of close guess-predictions on supposedly insufficient evidence,...
Yes, that was the point, as a key augmenting part of a larger, stranger package, with humans as an available "existence proof". IMO. (My intuition suggests that there is a very old associated argument.)

Further exploration of these non-intuitive numbers leads to the design for a star drive of some sort, allowing a limited number of ship designs. The ships work, humans can build them, but we can't do much to improve on the drives because the underlying math makes no sense,
This is funny, thanks.

It might take us a while, but I don't see how we wouldn't eventually be able to understand it.
It is possible (certain IMO, really) that there are complex ideas that cannot be processed by human brains (and limited time).


There are two aspects to this.

Firstly, "the blasphemous equations". That effect long predates such algorithms, and the classic quote is "with seven parameters, you can fit an elephant". What that means is that you can fit any curve arbitrarily closely by a combination of unrelated but similar curves, and that the closeness of fit is exponential in the number of parameters. Think Fourier approximations to (say) a sawtooth. I could make very rude remarks about the way this fact is commonly ignored.

Secondly, complexity theory. Goedel showed that in any sufficiently complex system of a certain type, there are things that are true but unprovable (and unfindable). Most experts believe that human mathematical knowledge (INCLUDING all discoverable meta-mathematics) is a Goedelian system, though Penrose and followers don't. If so, FTL could be one of them.

Aside: not all formal systems are Goedelian in that sense, but that merely means the proof of that limit fails, not that there is no limit. I could describe some, but they are not physically constructible (even if they are surprisingly realistic).


The results found by such programs ARE "hunches" - that's essentially ALL they produce!


While I focused on blasphemous equations (e.g. single mathematical expressions that work but make no intuitive sense), I'd point out that the world basically runs on complex systems of equations that we don't entirely understand, especially when they interact.

This is a real problem that we can moan about, excuse me, discuss, at great length, if we wish. I just wanted to point out that if you're a hack SF writer (me, say) who's trying decorate the set of your genre-standard SF story, you can do worse than to talk about genetic algorithms, Darwinian (or better, Lamarckian?) iterative design (e.g. to explain why your gun barrel has that weird twist in it that lets you shoot so straight), machine learning, and so on. Then you go on and write your story. This is equivalent to finding that alien technology,, invoking Clarke's Law, running everything on vibranium isotopes, having a mad genius in the lab, or positing that mutation X radiation = magic. It's just another cheap source of plot devices.


Actually, no. The world doesn't run on equations - they are merely the formulation we use to try to understand how it runs. That's why there are often different ones that match the same phenomenon (e.g. epicycles and Newton's laws) and why we often don't understand them.

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