Patchwork Design Lab

April 17, 2010

The Law of Attraction

Filed under: System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 7:26 pm

Every year a number of magazines publish articles sporting titles such as, The Top 10 Cities in the US, or, The 10 Most Liveable Cities and Towns. Twenty years ago Austin, TX was on a list of the country’s most affordable places to live. Boulder, CO was another. Now, of course it’s another story. Over the years I’ve noticed that the names on these lists tend to change. If they didn’t, of course, such stories would gradually die out; they wouldn’t be newsworthy. They would be totally uninteresting. The fact is, though, that such stories have a permanent place both in the rags and the glossies. They have a permanent place in the imagination of anyone who is weary of the wallpaper tapestry of strip malls and thoroughfares interlaced with the cancerous topologies of the McHousing tracts. People are naturally attracted to places that actually are places, cities that have character, towns that are in some way unique. Funny, isn’t it, how being listed as one of the country’s most desirable cities is a sure way to kill its unique flavor within 5 or 10 years?

There is a dynamic at work here. It’s a process that is wholly predictable, given the basic human yearning for a place on Earth rather than a slot in a dystopian tapestry where the only thing that is nurtured is the need to consume. And what is the driving force behind this sprawling mediocritization? It is, I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the Law of Attraction.

Two score and three or four years ago Jay Forrester published a book called Urban Dynamics, which presented a dynamic model of the workings of progressive urban blight. When a city reaches a certain age and its interior infrastructure becomes increasingly in need of maintenance and repair, many of its residents fall prey to the attraction of the clean and tidy suburbs. Over time the local businesses follow them to the outskirts, which are usually “designed” by real estate developers whose only agenda is to maximize the return on their investment in acres of scrub or of corn or alfalfa fields. The inner city demographic gradually shifts toward the poverty level. As businesses flee the interior, it becomes increasingly difficult “for a guy to get a break,” as the saying goes. Crime and homelessness start sprouting like spring weeds. Vandalism and neglect accelerate the inner city’s structural decay, and crime drives away any remaining enterprise that is truly local.

Well meaning affordable housing projects exacerbate the process of decline, actually causing it to accelerate. Thinking ahead, planners build affordable housing in excess of current need. News spreads to neighboring, similarly beleaguered towns where the homeless and those with inadequate housing are attracted by the prospect of having roofs over their heads. The numbers of the poor and jobless in the inner city rise as the poor in search of a place to live pour in. The homeless continue to arrive even after the number of vacancies has shrunk to zero. Now you have the same problems of poverty, crime, and homelessness but with a larger population and even fewer economic resources than before, since most of the remaining businesses have fled the flood of cashless consumers.

This is the gist of the argument presented in Urban Dynamics, set in less formal terms.

Meanwhile the growing suburban sprawl proceeds apace. Zoning laws, written largely by land “developers” who make a better profit subdividing land into individual housing lots than they do setting aside areas for businesses and for community development, separate residential neighborhoods from commercial areas thereby eliminating any infrastructure that might support smaller-scale businesses residing within and serving local neighborhoods. High rents in the commercial zones and strip malls tend to favor corporate franchises over small local businesses, so the lion’s share of the profits generated by businesses within these “communities” emigrates to corporate accounts in major financial centers elsewhere, with a small financial tax kickback going to the local municipality. Over time municipalities tend to develop a cargo-cult mentality that is dependent on the influx of corporate largesse and even to offer tax incentives (discounts on standard kickback rates) to attract new businesses to the area.

But I digress. Let’s return to the problem of place. If you are the mayor or city manager of a town that gets its name into one of these best places articles you consider this good news. You are no doubt deservedly proud of your town, its history, and its individuality. You are glad when the article attracts visitors and happy to receive the revenue of their custom. And you hope that the article will stimulate growth, growth in the form of new businesses and new residents to broaden your tax base. And the article will do that for you. The Law of Attraction guarantees it. But the kind of thinking that you are engaged in now is not the kind of thinking that made your town unique. It is the kind of thinking that turned the American landscape into a wallpaper tapestry of repeating patterns. And the newly arrived will demand what they are used to, not realizing that what they are used to is what they were fleeing by coming to your town, drawn by the law of attraction and the hope of finding a place on Earth.
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April 15, 2010

All About Growth

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 4:47 pm

When I was growing up, there was a series of books, many of which found their way into our elementary school libraries, called the All About books. When I was in 2nd grade I discovered and became fascinated with Dinosaurs. So of course I read All About Dinorsaurs and every other book on the subject that I could get my grubby little hands on. Eventually, I exhausted the school library’s supply of such titles and, casting about in desperation, ran across another All About book: All About Early Mammals. I thumbed through the pages. Okay, I thought, they’re weird looking; some of them are almost as big as a dinosaur; I’ll give it a try. Reading the book in 3rd grade reading class, I discovered that much of our information on the subject came from fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits. As I recall, the book went into some detail about the horrors of getting stuck in the tar pits; they were a regular prehistoric abbatoir. I became so engrossed, I forgot where I was. Gazing into space, the better to picture to myself the scenes of slaughter, I happened to hear one of the girls in my class reading from the day’s lesson: “Mary and Sue went down to the beach to play in the water.” “NO!” I corrected. “They were TAR pits!” Much hilarity ensued, along with a note to the parents, etc.

The only point to this little vignette is that the All About books were never totally satisfying because they fell far short of their title’s promise. They always left me a little disappointed. I was certain there was more. Fair warning Today’s subject is big. It involves strange and monstrous behaviors. And you can be certain that there is always more.

When we think about growth in ecological terms, especially in terms of human ecology, we’re looking at the idea in two separate but interconnected dimensions: growth in population, and growth in consumption. The more individuals there are, the more food, water, shelter, jobs, and entertainment they will require. Consumption, though, can also grow along a different axis, the axis of the individual. Consumption increases with population, but the appetites of the indiviual can increase as well. It’s important, here, to mention the canonical yet very important distinction between quantity and quality when it comes to the products we consume. The very first Europeans to arrive in the “New World” found themselves somewhat dwarfed by the indigenous people. The simplified diet of the “civilized” world couldn’t compete with the nutritional variety and quality inherent in the array of offerings from which the indigenes could choose. Another interesting factoid relates to the population density of the Americas circa 1491 – 1520. To illustrate, early Spanish explorers of Florida reported that the life expectancy of a Spanish soldier landing alone on some arbitrary stretch of beach on the southern Florida coast was around 3 minutes. Apparently the natives of those parts had gotten wind of the habits and intentions of the European explorers. Apparently my childhood history texts seriously underestimated the population density of the “New World” in 1491.

The distinction between quality and quantity will become very important when we begin to consider what kind of growth might be sustainable.

In 1798 a curate of the Church of England named Thomas Malthus published a paper entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population predicting food shortages by the end of the coming 19th century. His argument was based on the idea that the demand for food would outrun the supply because population grows faster than our abilty to increase agricultural yield. The rate of population growth increases with the number of people. The more people there are the more people there are to get down to the business of reproducing. So not only does the number of people increase with each generation, but the rate at which the number of people increases with each generation increases with each generation. Increased agricultural yield, on the other hand, depended on human effort:

man is a lazy animal, who would lead a satisfied life and procreate as long as his family was well fed. However, as soon as human population would feel constraints in food supply due to increase in population, he would again work hard to provide enough for his family. This might lead to an increase in agricultural production to provide for all, but at the same time man would be back to his complacent stage, where all his needs would be fulfilled. This would start the cycle of overpopulation and food shortage, all over again.


Of course, and as always, there were food shortages for the poor and the displaced. There were food shortages caused by agricultural policy, as in the Irish Potato Famine. But the full extent of his dire predictions did not come to pass within the timeframe of his theory. So his ideas are largely ignored these days. But while his predictions were falsified, his essential insight is still with us and stubbornly refuses to go away.

In the early 20th century quite a number of people began to wonder “how long can this go on.” The Great Depression was a great catalyst for such questioning. The great depression was a great example of poverty in the midst of plenty. Of course in certain parts of the country drought worked together with poor soil management to produce the dust-bowl shortages. But by and large the US was a country rich in natural resources and economic potential. Yet people went hungry all across the land. Looking back you could say that the depression represented a crisis of distribution, a problem in the financial system. You might say that the dynamics of the system were producing the very effects that the system was “designed” for. Of course the system’s design was not entirely intentional; it was the result of myriad decisions, political and economic over many decades. Nevertheless some people began to wonder. How long can this go on? What kinds of things actully limit growth, and how can we avoid these effects so that a catastrophe of this type doesn’t happen again?

So, alright let’s get to the meat. What is this thing called growth? Growth is an increase in quantity or size over time. In can also imply development, complexification, self-organization, a process of elaboration and refinement. It can be qualitative as well as quantitative.

Let’s look at quantitative growth. The type of growth I’m interested in is what you might call steady growth. In terms of steady growth the two relevant types are linear growth and exponential growth. Linear growth is interesting because it seems to be how humans are wired to think. We are very good at extrapolating trends in a linear fashion. Of course if you think of growth you have also to think of decrease or depletion, since mathematically depletion is just growth with a negative sign. Or, as one of my favorite comic strips, Pogo, says, “If you gonna talk about life an’ everthin’ else then that everthin’ else gotta be death. Seems like that makes life a perty risky business.” News reports are full of linear extrapolations. They usually begin with phrases like, “at present rates of consumption,” and then go on to predict that a given resource will last some number of years, usually in the hundreds. Linear growth is called linear growth because if you were to make a graph of your periodic measurements, annually, quarterly, whatever, the graph would be a line. Sure, the line could have a very steep slope, indicating rapid growth. But the rate of growth would never change. The slope of a line is always the same. And because we think naturally in terms linear growth, even linear growth that you might consider to be catastrophically rapid, would never surprise us. As soon as we see the growth rate, we know that it will be constant, and we can plan or adjust accordingly. Exponential growth is anothet kettle of fish, one that no one seems to like to smell much.

The really annoying thing about exponential growth (and decay) is that the rate is constantly changing. Now that’s great if you have a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the bank collecting compound interest but more difficult if you’re trying to figure out how many lanes to add to your local bypass so that you don’t have to do it again in 3 or 4 years. Dr. Albert Bartlett’s description of this frustration is illuminating:

When I first calculated the Exponential Expiration Time (EET) of U.S. coal for a particular rate of growth of consumption, … I used my new hand-held electronic calculator, and the result was 44 years. This was so short that I suspected I had made an error in entering the problem. I repeated the calculation a couple of more times, and got the same 44 years. This convinced me that my new calculator was flawed, so I got out tables of logarithms and used pencil and paper to calculate the result, which was 44 years. Only then did I begin to realize the degree to which the lifetime of a non-renewable resource was shortened by having steady growth in the rate of consumption of the resource, and how misleading it is for leaders in business and industry to be advocating growth of rates of consumption and telling people how long the resource will last “at present rates of consumption.”


So what type of steady growth is he talking about? Because linear growth seems to be steady, since the rate is constant, equal to the slope of the line.

The Power of Two


Since I’m feeling lazy, I’m going to quote Dr. Bartlett one more time:

Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for an ancient king. As a reward for the invention the mathematician asked for the amount of wheat that would be determined by the following process: He asked the king to place 1 grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board, double this and put 2 grains on the second square, and continue this way, putting on each square twice the number of grains that were on the preceding square. …We see that on the last square one will place 2 exp(63) grains and the total number of grains on the board will then be one grain less than 2 exp(64).

How much wheat is 2 exp(64) grains? Simple arithmetic shows that it is approximately 500 times the 1976 annual worldwide harvest of wheat? This amount is probably larger than all the wheat that has been harvested by humans in the history of the earth! How did we get to this enormous number? It is simple; we started with 1 grain of wheat and we doubled it a mere 63 times!


The point he stresses is that “exponential growth is characterized by doubling, and a few doublings can lead quickly to enormous numbers.” Usually this type of growth is expressed as an annual percentage: 3% percentage annual growth in GDP, or some such. Three Percent? That ain’t shit! You might say. Well, actually, a steady annual growth rate of 3% will double the original quantity in 23 years and 4 months (give or take a couple of days). To get the approximate doubling time in this fashion, apply the rule of 70: T =(approximately) 70/r, where T is the doubling time and r is the percentage growth rate. If you want a more accurate number, do the math.

Imagine you are a healthy, reasonably well-off and respected bacterium in a nice jar of rice culture. You have a job as what passes for a city planner in bacteria culture, and there have been some rumblings among the masses concerning the dangers of overpopulation. What you don’t know is that the population is growing at a rate that causes it to double every day, at this rate the jar will be full in 30 days, and it’s now day 29. How does this look from your perspective? Well, you say, we have as much unused space as we have used in the entire history of our civilization. Therefore, you reason in your linear fashion, we can go on as we are for 29 more days. Remember, 29 days is a long time for a bacterium, think in the thousands of years range. Pretty funny, huh? The joke is on him. This is exactly how people think.

Tomorrow, back to peak oil and whatever else might be peaking.

April 14, 2010

The Empty Bathtub

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 3:32 pm

The world is complex enough, but when you add the cacophony of conflicting views and interests vying for attention and clouding every issue the noise can become so painful and distracting that to think about anything at all just seems like too much to deal with. Just let me ease on through as best I can. I have enough to deal with. There isn’t anything I can do about it anyway. Poor me. This is not the finger of accusation; it’s the litany of confession. But there is one thing I’ve found that clears the air for me. That is to stick to the basics and reason from fundamentals. It’s the way I got through school. It’s the way you learn to deal with multiple attackers in Aikido. It’s the only way I know to make sense of all this bruhaha.

One issue that has become particularly cacophonous over the past decade is the debate over what is the best policy to adopt given the looming shadow of impending resource limits. Just as concerns over pollution and sink-side limits to growth in general have coalesced around the phrase global warming and its attendant cacophony of ideological argumentation, fears about running out of this or that critical resource and their attendant ideological back-blasts have centered on the idea of peak oil. Just look at a list of blog-post-titles on the subject:

Reasonable criticisms of the idea revolve mainly, in my observation, around two points. The first criticism points to the reality of ongoing discoveries of new oil “reserves.” The second critique attacks the methodology used by “peak-oil-theorists.” Many of the arguments are contextualized in such a way as to suggest that some sort of cultish or apocalyptic psychology underlies all such theories (e.g., Mayan 2012 Peak Oil Prophecy). But such hitting-below-the-belt tactics are common and have to be overlooked in favor of evaluating the merits of the very arguments that they obfuscate. By that I mean that while it would appear that such a headline seems designed to get the reader to classify subscribers to the idea of Peak Oil with the likes of mayan-calendar-apocalypse wing nuts, we still have to read the argument charitably and, ignoring such “dirty tricks,” use it as a tool for testing our own position. Moving beyond the spin-packaging, we ask the question: are the analytical tools and methods used by the proponents of Peak Oil actually flawed?

To begin, though, I always like to refer to simple realities, basic patterns that anyone can observe, and reflect on the physical laws they illustrate. Consider the lowly bathtub. It is a simple system comprising a faucet, a basin, and a drain. Now, the water has to come from somewhere, just as the drain has a somewhere associated with it as well. But to begin, we’re going to draw a line around our bathtub system and consider source and sink to be externalities. Water flows into the basin from the faucet and flows out of the basin through the drain. If the rate of inflow from the faucet is greater than the rate of outflow through the drain, then the water level in the basin will rise. Reverse the situation and the level will drop. Stop both flows and the level will remain constant (disregarding evaporation). A simple system. If you want to a take bath, you plug the drain, turn on the faucet and let it run until the water reaches the desired level, and then shut it off.

But, of course, water is not the only thing that the basin stores. There is also heat, or more precisely, kinetic energy in the water at the molecular level. Left to its own devices a nice hot bath won’t stay nice and hot for very long. Unless you want to have to sit up every couple of minutes so you can drain some of the cold water out and replace it with fresh heat from the faucet, you’re going to have to find a way to balance the in and out flows so that the temperature of the water in the tub remains relatively constant. Let’s say that you are (a) really clever, and (b) obsessed with your daily extended period of relaxation in your nice, warm tub. So you add a control loop to your system in the form of a thermostat which triggers a system of servo-driven valves. The thermostat measures the water temperature and compares it with a preset temperature goal. Whenever the water temperature drops below the desired level, the thermostat produces a signal that triggers an electronic relay which connects the servos to their power source, causing them to open both valves and allow cold water to flow out through the drain and hot water to flow in from the faucet. When the water temperature rises to a preset high, the relay drops out, disconnects the servos, and shuts off the in and out flows. Ah…heaven. Bliss.

Talk about convenience! A person could get used to this. Acclimation is training. Whatever we get used to, we can stand more of. When this process takes us in a desired direction we call it training. When it goes the other way we call it addiction. You find yourself wanting to spend more and more time in this comfortable cocoon. One day your system fails. Maybe you have fallen asleep. You wake up in a tub full of freezing water into which cold water continues to flow. What’s wrong? Your system was fool proof. Such are the thoughts of a fool. Now it’s time to erase our imaginary system boundary and widen our focus to include the larger system of which our daily bath is just a small part. You investigate and discover that you have exceeded your water heater’s capacity. It turns out that your bath system exports heat faster than your water heater’s heating element can replace it. Obviously you need a heater with a larger reservoir. And a bigger heating element! You NEED More!!

You get the picture. This is the basic pattern we are working with. It’s a collection of dynamic interactions that incorporates living and mechanical systems along with their respective traits and foibles. In this, it is very much like an industrial economy. Our comfy bath-time was limited by the infrastructure we devised to regulate and deliver our warm water. If this process were to continue to a ridiculous extreme, it’s possible, or at least conceivable, that even with bigger and bigger water heaters, water heaters the size of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, we might eventually run out of fuel to burn. Because, as I discussed in my post on April 6th, all great truths begin as blasphemies (catchy title, huh? I stole it from George Bernard Shaw), planet Earth is physically, materially finite. No process that depends on energy and resources embodied on or within this planet can continue to grow in perpetuity. Eventually, you have to get out of the tub and get on with your day.

And now it’s time for me to get off my comfy couch and get on with mine. Tomorrow I want to talk about growth. Then we will be in a position to essay an evaluation of all this pique surrounding peak oil.

April 13, 2010

Of Sinks and Drains and Climate Chains

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 1:13 pm

The time has come, the Walrus said…

The question of the day, carried forward from yesterday’s blurb on global warming, is how do we know for certain that the greenhouse gasses that our busy, work-a-day, burning desires, ultimately, generate actually set in motion the climate shifts that appear to be taking place? What is the true chain of causation? Where does it begin? The short answer, to my way of thinking, is “who cares?” Not satisfying? Okay. I promised to talk about chains. By that I meant chains of causation, strings of interacting dynamic processes, cycles large and small, cycles nested within cycles, networks and filagrees of causal loops and chains stretching back, for all human intents and purposes, into beginningless time. Finding the Prime Culprit in all this is a bit like trying to unravel a Mandelbrot set. It’s a problem with an elaborate boundary that doesn’t resolve at any degree of magnification.

So how do we know for sure that we are the mischievous little culprits who, in our quest for heaven on earth, are busily bringing about our own undoing? Because that is the real claim. Of course it wouldn’t be difficult to make the argument that every species that goes extinct (and every species sooner or later goes extinct) participates in bringing about its own demise. Each one does this through its magnificent adaptation to particular set of rigorously difficult enviornmental constraints. Having a particular form, a particular metabolism, a particular set of skills and predispositions tied to a particular niche (or set of niches), a particular temperature range, and so on places one in a situation where ones existence depends on circumstances remaining within the set of constraints to which one has become irreversibly adapted. But we live in a world of cycles nested within cycles, cycles moving energy and material around at widely (or should I say wildly?) varying scales and magnitudes and over periods of time ranging from nanoseconds to billions of years. We like to think that the status quo is just the way things are and, really, the only way they could be. In reality, the status quo, the atmospheric balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, the average planetary temperature range, the climatic stability of different regions are all governed and maintained by dynamic cycles and chains. Just ask anyone who has ever experienced an earthquake.

And you never know when the prevailing regime of reasonably navigable fluxuations will be interrupted by some much larger energetic cycle with a period in the thousands or tens of thousands of years and simply wiped away.

There. Have I expressed adequately the degree of causal uncertainty one might justifiably entertain regarding the causes of climate change? Within this vast and byzantine labyrinth of causal linkage what possible significance could our monkeying around with a bit of fire have? Shall we talk now of straws and camels and butterfly wings? No? Get to the point? Alright. Assuming the average planetary temperature is rising, as we discussed yesterday, whether or not the primary cause of this shift is human greenhouse gas emissions or a larger natural climate cycle, it seems to me that rising greenhouse gas emissions can only contribute to this dynamic. The larger planetary dream may already have us circling the drain, or it may not. Either way, I see no reason to go out of our way to hasten the outcome.

Speaking of drains, there is another dimension to this discussion. A drain has a place; it’s usually at the bottom of some kind of sink. Assuming that it’s possible to overload the atmosphere with CO2 generated by industrial activity, and it seems likely that it is if you look at the composition of Venus’s atmosphere, then at the point where the atmospheric percentage of CO2 alters the climatic heat engines to the point where most of the local climate regimes render our measly little metabolisms inconvenient, you are looking at what ecologists and others who study system dynamics call a sink side limit. There is only so much that you can change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere before altering all the cycles–nitrogen, carbon, water–and chains, before resetting, as it were, the global thermostat.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Today.

April 12, 2010

What is This Thing Called Global Warming?

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 6:17 pm

Skepticism here in the US surrounding the subject of climate change and global warming is widespread. Phrases like “wow, record low temperatures and snowfall this year; I don’t see any global warming around here.,” have become overnight cliche’s. I’ve heard somewhat more sophisticated criticisms from a couple of friends of mine, one an environmental engineer and the other a cognitive psychologist, to the effect that “the hard scientific evidence isn’t there.” It seems to me that two very important ingredients are missing in this discussion: one, an understanding of complexity and of the nature of system dynamics modeling, and two, awareness of the importance of the principle of charity as applied to rational debate.

Let’s begin with number two. Long ago (CE 397), St. Agustine wrote an interesting little book entitled “On Christian Doctrine.” Despite its rather dogmatic sounding title, the book is really an early thesis on semiotics and hermeneutics, that is, how to translate and interpret texts, texts, in this case, of the Holy variety. In discussing the interpretation of ambiguous signs and expressions, in particular regarding whether they should be interpreted in literal or figurative terms, he proposed the The Law of Charitable Interpretation: whatever interpretation increases the feeling of charity (in his sense, the love for God and the love for your fellow humanoid types) is the correct interpretation. Whatever breeds otherwise is a misinterpretation.

To be clear, I’m not a theologian or even particularly impressed with any path or philosophy that requires strict adherence to a belief system. (I’m more impressed by the philospher Quine’s humorous take on the problems inherent in the very idea of belief, which you can find in his book Quiddities.) The point here is that the Law of Charitable Interpretation, with a more secular emphasis, has become a fundamental principle of rational debate, so much so that as a reader or listener, not to apply this law has come to be regarded as a major logical fallacy. If you want to refute someone’s position, then you have to understand and present it in its best possible light. If you want to refute someone’s argument and have your refutation actually mean anything, you must first articulate it in its strongest, most accurate terms. Not to do so is to indulge in knocking down paper tigers. In other words, you have to know and honestly represent what your opponent is actually saying. To the best of your ability.

So, what does the theory that has been dubbed global warming in the popular press actually say? To the best of my understanding, it says that different atmospheric gasses have different degrees of transparency to heat radiation. Gasses that are less transparent in this way tend to retard the radiation of heat from the Earth’s surface back into space. The atmosphere’s overall transparency to heat radiation results from the mixing of many gasses of varying degrees of heat transparency. So, one would predict that if the atmospheric percentage of gasses like methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide rises significantly, then the average surface temperature on the planet should rise to some degree. Also, though, a rise in average temperature means that more solar energy is trapped inside the atmospheric blanket. More energy in any system translates into a more active, more excited system. Such excitation translates into wider variations in atmospheric temperatures and pressures, which leads to more frequent and severe storms and a shifting of weather patterns as the system struggles to fall into a new regime that is relatively stable.

So, while the average temperature rises, you should expect to see colder winters and hotter summers in some areas, though this is just one possible way the increase in atmospheric energy might manifest. Average temperature is a statistical measure. It’s possible that you might have an average temperature, X, planetwide at the same time that a temperature of X is never measured at any particular location. Global warming would not be a smooth, linear change. The effects would vary from location to location and in different latitudes.

The rise in average temperatures affects many many processes planetwide. Here is where complexity comes into play. You can think of complexity as an attribute, a sort of descriptive parameter, that applies to systems. A system is first a conceptual construct. It is a mental model of a particular kind, a kind that attempts to represent the dynamic behavior over time of some part of the world we live in. As such, and to correct Rush Limbaugh, the complexity of a system can be measured. It can be measured because it applies not to the world, but to our conceptual model. The test of our model, as in any scientific model, lies in how closely it fits the observed behavior over time of whatever part of the world we are trying to understand. If the fit is compelling, then we can say that something like complexity as we understand it is at play here. We can also then say that the degree of this something-like-complexity is at play to somewhere-near-the-degree that it is in our model.

So what is a system? A system is a collection of entities whose behaviors affect one another and therefore feed back on themselves. These entities can be people, molecules, atoms, organisms living in your garden’s soil, markets in different parts of the world, what have you. Complexity is primarily a measure not of the number of entities, though this number does play a role, but of the number of ways in which they interact. It is a measurement that reflects the density of the connections. So a complex system has multiple causal connections, many of them in the form of circles or loops — feedback. Changes in flow rates or storage levels are reinforced by some of these loops and balanced or negated by others. The overall result cannot be predicted analytically. The best we can do is try to build a computer model that reflects the behaviors as we understand them, and then run it to see what it does.

So when we think about global warming and climate change in these terms, certain things can be predicted with some confidence; others are more difficult to nail down. For example, common sense would tell you that if the average temperature world-wide is rising, at some point you should begin to see the melting of alpine and polar glaciers. This actually is happening at what, to many, is an alarming rate. If polar ice-caps are starting to melt, then it makes sense that the permafrost above the arctic circle should also begin to melt at some point. This is occuring as well. Here’s the interesting part. This melting of glaciers and polar ice is going to affect other dynamic processes. And the predictions you come up with regarding the long-term climatic effects of global warming will depend on some degree on which processes you have in your sights. Complexity is, you know, complicated.

For example. The melting of glaciers and oceanic ice in and around Greenland is dumping large quantities of fresh water into the North Atlantic. This is likely to interfere with the pumping mechanism that maintains the Gulf Stream, which in turn is largely responsible for Europe’s temperate climate. Normally, the cold dry air of the North Atlantic increases the rate of evaporation from ocean’s surface. The water evaporates, but the salt remains. This cold, salty surface water is very heavy compared to subsurface waters, so it sinks. This heavy, sinking water is like the piston of a pump, drawing in warmer waters from the south at the surface and pushing the subsurface waters away. If this pump were to slow or come to a standstill, perhaps because the surface water is less saline, it would have a slowing effect on global warming. As the warm subtropical waters cease to travel north, glaciers begin to grow, especially in Europe where you would be likely to see the beginnings of a new ice age. More ice would increase the albedo of that part of the globe, reflecting more of the incoming solar radiation back out into space, thus reinforcing the formation of more glaciers, and so on. So in this scenario global warming sets up a compensating loop that tends to reverse, or at least moderate, the effects of global warming. Though this occurs at great environmental and economic cost to Europe and possibly North America as well. Interestingly, though, the mechanism of this compensation takes the form of a run-away positivie feedback loop that could set a new ice age into motion. Unless, of course, other dynamics come into play to balance this dynamic.

For example, there is the melting permafrost. Within the permafrost methane is trapped in the form of methane hydrates. As the frost melts the methane is released into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more opaque than carbon dioxide to heat radiation; hence it is a much more effective greenhouse gas. More heat releases more methane which contributes to the dynamic of warming leading to more heat, still more methane, and so on. A viscious cycle.

How do all these complex dynamics resolve themselves? We don’t know. But either way there is potential for great economic and environmental mischief. So we might be wise to err on the side of caution. Ah, you say, but even granted that greenhouse gasses contribute to these dynamics, how do you know that human release of greenhouse gas emissions is actually the cause of all this? Climate cycles have occurred throughout the planet’s history.

Good question. But I’ll have to talk about that tomorrow. For now, I gotta go and swing some kettlebells around.

April 11, 2010

Why I Hate Cars

Filed under: System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 2:22 pm

Okay let’s get real. How much of your income goes into getting you to the job, which has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, and back home? And did you take the job, in part, because it enabled you to buy the car that is making such a dent in your budget? And did you want a nicer car largely because of the amount of time you have to spend driving back and forth to work? No?

Okay how about this. Remember when you were a kid and could hop on your bike and ride from one side of the county to the other? Oh wait a minute! Who am I talking to? Most of you were probably born after 1975, in the era of the wholly planned, managed, and protected childhood. If you would rather go to the mall than escape into the foothills, or the woods, or the riverside then maybe you should skip over this little rant. Then again, maybe you shouldn’t.

It’s possible that you have to be a certain age to have noticed the ways in which the character of towns has changed over the last 50 years. Where once there were green alleys with apricot trees growing in them and shaded streets with houses that didn’t look like mausoleums or monuments to absent residents whose personal lives are spent mostly in transit, now there are wastelands of concrete and asphalt, glass and steel. Now there are rows and rows of residential streets with rows and rows of houses, which, at least in the town where I live, the builders didn’t even bother to insulate. Craftsmanship has gradually been replaced by mass production, cookie cutter architecture, soulless, wonderless, crapulous housing projects with no unique, local businesses: no neighborhood bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, or markets. Instead there are the strip malls and the glass-and-plastic-facade fast food outlets, which are just beyond convenient walking distance. And even though you could walk to some of them if you had to, is it really safe to do so? Were the needs of “pedestrians” taken into account at all by the town planners? Certainly not in the more recently established parts of town. Does anyone really like this shit?

Nowadays, you can’t afford not to have a car, because the bus systems in most cities are undependable, smelly, and socially stigmatized. Of course things have improved here in Albuquerque over the past few years. Now there is an express bus for which you seldom have to wait more than ten minutes. Of course, there are only three routes. So if you are going to any of four or five places, you’re sweet. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of the regular bus system or, if you bring your bike on the bus, the traffic-crazed shopper-commuters who spend their lives in hot, overpriced cars fuming in frustration at the idiot in front of them who has been daydreaming for the past 100 milliseconds since the light turned green.

All of this, I would argue, is because of the automobile. Of course other factors had to come into play to create this uniquely made-in-America type of sprawling wasteland. There was the discovery in the 1850s of “rock oil” (petroleum). There is human psychology with its complex of ape-descendant, dopamine addicted, adrenaline loving drives to seek status, trivial variety, and speed. There are economic and political ideologies crafted to promote a constantly growing need to consume. But without the automobile, all these other influences would have been forced to … well, to walk.

Seriously, it would be worth our while to think a little about the extent to which urban planning and design have been devoted to adapting our built environment to the ubiquitous presence of the automobile at the expense of the comfort and needs of human beings. An observer from another planet watching us through powerful telescopes from some distant orbit would have to conclude that the dominant life form on this planet is, what, a ’57 chevy? No, definitely an SUV.

April 10, 2010

How I Became a Runner

Filed under: Running and Related Obsessions — Lonnie @ 4:48 pm

Before starting to write this I read a bunch of how-I-became-a-runner testimonials. This taught me one important lesson. People who read how-I-became-a-runner testimonials don’t really want a lengthy scholarly analyisis of motivations and circumstances. So I’ll try to keep it brief, or at least narrative rather than analytical.

First, although I loved the book, I was not Born to Run. My right femur is longer than my left. If my weight is on my right leg, I’m 6’1″; if it’s on my left, I’m 6′ even. This places funny stresses on your left knee and right hip. So if you’re interested in an explanation of why I never took up running seriously until I was 57, there you go. Nevertheless Born to Run was the catalyst. But of course I had to be set up first.

A couple of years ago I stumbled onto a review of Louis Lebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science, now out of print (click the link to check out the price!). The review was very good (sorry I don’t have a link for it), and it left me curious; it seems that if Lebenberg is right and his experience with the Kalahari Bushmen representative of hunter/gatherer methods from way back, then distance running is an essential element of being a human. It’s something we evolved to do.

So the soil had been prepared; I was predisposed but not yet really motivated. Then one day last fall, my girlfriend came by saying she was going for a run. I invited myself along, more to have an excuse to hang out with her than from any embryonic aspiration to become a runner. We ran a couple of miles, and she told me that I ran “like an elf” (okay ,so we’re Tolkein geeks — sue us). That was the second milestone; I found that it felt good. I was already in reasonably decent shape from 20 years of steady Aikido practice and, more recently, a fairly regular routine of kettlebell workouts. So the cardio was there, but the joints were still something of an issue, hence my ginger, elf-like stride. And hence the careful sidestepping of any intent to begin a regular regime.

A couple of months after that I went to Kuwait on business for a couple of weeks. No kettlebells and nowhere to train combined with sumptuous hospitality in the form of marathon meals left me desperate to find a way to break a little sweat every day. The hotel where I was staying, the Plaza Athenee, is situated near the shoreline, so I decided to get up early every morning and go for a run along the shore. The first day was like heaven. I ran along the Persian Gulf watching the sun rise through the mist like a big orange balloon. Pausing at my chosen half-way point to watch the morning for a few minutes I met a fellow runner, Gopal, a physicist from Mumbai who is doing solar energy research at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. We talked for a while, and he gave me his card, saying, “call me if you need anything, even if it’s just a glass of water.”

I walked funny for three days after that, and it was almost a week before I attempted another run: sore hip and cramping calves. I had discovered that landing closer to the balls of my feet rather than heel-stiking is easier on my joints, but my calves weren’t yet used to the workload and decided to let me know it in no uncertain terms. After that period of adjustment, though, I was able to run every morning for the last few days, and it’s one of my favorite memories of Kuwait.

About two weeks after my return, my girlfriend went Donna Lee on me. For those of you who may not be jazz nerds, Donna Lee is a Charlie Parker tune based on the changes to “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Which is where she went: back home to Indiana. Her reasonable concern about the lack of career opportunities here in Fort Stinkin-Desert as well as her future with someone significantly older drove a wedge into our relationship and away she fled. Just before Christmas. Meanwhile work prospects dried up and the “economic downturn” rolled over New Mexico like a tardy tsunami.

Over the Christmas Weekend, I house/dog sat for a friend, which is where I found the book Born to Run. In a funk and needing a distraction, I gobbled it up. Reviews abound, so I won’t add mine to the pile. Sufficient to say that it made me want to run. It made me want to run ultramarathons. And, I guess, pathetically, it was a way to convince myself that I’m really not so old. The phrase that stuck with me was, “he’s didn’t stop running because he’s old; he’s old because he stopped running.” Into such foundations are fixed the posts around which life decisions pivot. So I started running the week after Christmas. I started running in a pair of old sport sandals, which got me some funny looks in the dead of winter. But I was convinced by the book’s argument that too much cushioning and support can contribute to knee injuries by preventing you from developing your calves, achilles tendon, and the muscles in your feet so that you can absorb more of the strike impact before it hits your knee.

Running, training for a 5k (to begin with), was a way to move forward that didn’t depend on anyone but myself. I started a run-walk program and followed it for a couple of weeks. That was interrupted by a construction job that lasted a couple of weeks and left me plenty sore and tired at the end of each day. After that I started over with the 13-week walk/run program from the Beginning Runner’s Handbook, coming in on week 3. Pretty soon, I found that running along the acequia trails down in the Bosque near the Rio Grande, watching the mountains and the sky, left me feeling relaxed and complete. Peaceful. Who needs a stinkin girlfriend? Or a job? Well, okay, a job right about now would be very welcome. And timely.

I’m on the last week of the 13-week program and running 4.5 to 5 miles on my longer run day. I’m running longer intervals with shorter walking breaks, up to 40 or 50 minutes at a time. Not bad for a 57-year-old-never-been-a-runner. I spend a little time every day pouring over marathon training regimes; I’ve even begun toying with the idea of training for a triathlon, ultimately the iron-man, of course. Do you think I may have a problem?

Hello, my name is Lonnie and I am a runner. Not looking for a sponsor, though.

April 9, 2010

The Myth of Clean Coal

Filed under: Alternative Energy — Lonnie @ 1:51 pm

Let’s not beat around the bush, clean coal is a myth. It is a myth in a couple of different senses. It is a myth in the manner of most media buzz-phrases. Its meaning is heavily nuanced. It doesn’t refer to what a cursory glance would lead you to think. It’s not that it’s a total lie or fabrication; it does refer to something, in this case an initiative in the US Department of Energy to make coal more palatable to a public with a growing awareness that personal health and environmental health cannot be separated in any way. And it refers to a bundle of methods for removing some percentage of the CO2, NOx, sulphur, arsenic, mercury, and particulates from the exhaust coming out of the smokestacks of coal burning power plants and diverting them to other waste streams. Clean Coal is also mythic in the larger sense; it plays a functional role in a system of formative ideas about the world which we accept, mostly without examination, and which provide us as members of a particular culture with a set of presuppositions which allow us to get on with our day without going through Cartesian radical doubt exercises. It supports the prevailing paradigm: the myth of progress.

The myth of clean coal supports the progressive myth in the following way. Integral to this myth is the idea that with a sufficient supply of clean energy we can continue to “grow our economy” indefinitely and that by doing so through the mechanism of a largely unregulated, “free” global market we can create a world of universal peace and abundance. Of course nowadays few would come out and put it in these terms. It’s another one of those nuanced notions, taken for granted but seldom articulated. Maybe because when you say it out loud (or put it on paper or screen) a voice seems to come out of the TV, saying “how’s that workin’ for you?”

Of course a policy of perpetual economic growth in a materially finite world is bound to run into limitations sooner or later. And there is no such thing as “clean” energy because there is no way of isolating ourselves from the systems we inhabit, and everything we do, every single act, produces waste. The second law of thermodynamics gurantees that. How’s the old ticker? Your joints feeling alright this morning? The best we can do is to find beneficial technologies, businesses, or organisms for which the wastes we generate provide nutritious feedstocks. Or, we can restrategize and redesign our communities in such a way that they are less gluttonous in their need for energy and material goods that have to be imported from elsewhere.

Coal companies are not in the business of recycling waste products in an economically and environmentally productive manner. So for them, managing the waste streams creates additional costs that contribute nothing to the bottom line. The burning of coal produces heat that can be used to generate electricity, but it also produces a number of by products that must either be developed as inputs for other industrial processes, sequestered, or else dumped into the commons. Historically, the overwhelming choice has been to release these products into the common environment, thereby exporting much of the cost of the operation to the general community while keeping the profits in-house. The campaign for clean coal looks more like a sleight of hand operation the more closely you examine it. “Look, look over here.” There is no away where we can throw this stuff, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out. If the skies are clearer, better start looking to the landfills.

April 6, 2010

all great truths begin as blasphemies

Filed under: System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 2:20 pm
Earth From a Distance

Earth From a Distance


When I was very young, before ever having seen a globe, it seemed reasonable to me that any place I could imagine must exist somewhere. When I went to first grade I saw my first globe of the Earth, and it changed my ideas about the world forever. It was immediately clear that there is only so much space on the sphere’s surface for places, and that it was quite possible that an imagined scene might very well not be found within the confines of this sphere.

This was my introduction to the idea, anathematized in modern economics, that the world we live in has physical boundaries and is, in fact, materially finite. And despite its categorization as a social science, economics, at the bottom line, is physical.

“Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossiblility,” said E. F. Schumacher. Yet every nation’s economic policy targets an annual percentage growth rate, and euphoric cornucopeans ecstatically proclaim humankind’s limitless ingenuity, predicting that rising prices will produce new resources in perpetuity. But the blasphemous truth is that you can’t increase economic activity, and therefore material consumption, in perpetuity in a world of physical constraints any more than you can continue to spend money at a rate that exceeds your income. To attempt to do so degrades the resources you depend on and impoverishes future generations.

Among the critical resources on which our lives depend, the status of energy is unique. Energy is the enabler of all the others. To grow food requires energy. To pump water out of the ground requires energy. To pump oil out of the ground in order to produce energy requires energy. It would appear, given energy’s special status among commodities, that the development of new technologies that take advantage of new energy resources would “rescue” us.

Sadly, this is not the case. Even though energy in the sense of fuel for economic activity is a precondition for mobilizing any other resource for use, it is not the only limiting factor in our litany of physical constraints. What would happen if we were to discover a virtually unlimited source of fuel? Governmental functionaries would continue to pursue policies promoting exponential growth in material consumption, thinking in this way to ensure ever-growing wealth for their constituents and promising to lift the starving masses out of poverty. Unfortunately, adding fuel to an existing engine won’t change the way the engine operates. And a system that has evolved to produce extreme disparities in wealth and well-being won’t suddenly behave differently just because new sources of wealth have been discovered.

One of the problems is the disparity between our economic definitions of value and the way value manifests in the natural world. In economic terms value is determined by ongoing market transactions, what the market will bear. Economic value is exchange value. Natural capital, on the other hand, is a function of embodied energy or intrinsic value. Natural capital increases through abundance. The more water and better soil you have the more people you can feed. Economic value increases through scarcity. If the market is flooded with diamonds, the heirloom rock you inherited from your grandmother will not demand as high a price on the open market.

This preference for scarcity is structural in the global market. In other words, the preference for scarcity sets up an incentive structure that rewards people whose activities render critical resources scarce, either legislatively, through patents and ownership, or actually, through industrial practices (clear cutting, monocropping, strip mining…) that destroy natural capital.

The point is that fueling business as usual in perpetuity, even if it were feasible, would not put the human species on a train to glory. Perpetual growth in consumption fueled by unlimited energy for growth would very quickly produce shortfalls in other areas.

For example, our current energy-intensive system of industrial agriculture destroys biodiversity and depletes topsoil at an alarming rate. In recent years farmers in the American midwest have noticed that the rising cost and declining availability of critical supplies such as phosphate and anhydrous ammonia are pushing them toward the economic margins. Plants can’t live on hydrogen fuel or pure electricity. They need minerals and water in addition to sunlight. We can see the same pattern in the industrial world. I had a conversation with a man in Hungary recently who told me of an article he had just read indicating that our rapid use of certain rare elements in TVs and computer screens would ultimately constrict the growth of that industry.

These examples represent what systems thinkers call source side limits. Limits also exist on the sink side.

Any kind of work, any physical change or action from the digging of a well to the twitching of your little finger involves energy transforming from one form into another. Any such process produces waste in the form of heat, exhaust, ashes, excrement, and so on. Living systems have evolved to recycle waste, to use it as a resource for other processes. But there is a limit to how much recycled waste natural systems can accomodate before the waste becomes toxic and begins to degrade the system itself. When this occurs you have disease, pollution, climate change, a wasteland of landfills and toxic waste dumps.

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that this aspect of the puzzle, the reality of limits on the sink-side, has been collapsed in the public discourse into arguments about whether or not climate change is real and if so whether or not it arises from human activity. It is unfortunate because it obscures the ugly little secret that is so simple and so obvious that even a five-year-old child comprehends it immediately the very first time he sees a globe of the Earth: you can’t have infinite growth of any part of the world if the world itself is finite.

Until our policies face this simple truth firmly and realistically, we are locked in a tragic struggle wherein all our efforts to improve the conditions of our lives only serve to make them worse in the long run.

April 5, 2010

Design for Sustainability

Filed under: Design for Sustainability — Lonnie @ 1:08 pm

One of my chief interests is the study and practice of permaculture. Permaculture is a methodology and a toolkit that you can use to design sustainable human habitations and settlements. Such systems are inevitably based on sustainable agriculture. The emphasis here is on design rather than technology, at least in the sense in which we usually think of technology today. Actually the permaculture toolkit is loaded with techniques based on the physical and biological sciences, but none of these is in any sense new. Also, though we permacultists, if you like, have a great deal of respect for the scientific method and its revelations, we are not inclined to wait for peer-review consensus from the scientific community before putting simple observations to good use. So, for example, no one who has ever walked barefoot on one of kona’s black-sand beaches on a hot day will seriously question the feasibility of baking a fish fillet by wrapping it in some banana leaves and burying it there for a while.

I guess I should talk some about the perspective that seems most sensible when thinking about designing for sustainability. The popular notion that some discrete technology related to energy or bioengineering will render all our economic and environmental problems, not to mention the problems of persistent war, disease, and poverty, obsolete is, to me, the stuff of infantile fantasy. Such a notion flies in the face of the laws of thermodynamics and the realities of how systems of elements in mutual interaction actually behave. Put another way, the idea doesn’t stand up in the light of the most fundamental physical laws disclosed by analytically reductive science, which laws are themselves insufficient to shed much light on the complex behaviors of systems composed of many elements whose actions affect one another and thereby feedback on themselves. To borrow a phrase from Isaac Asimov, such an idea is not even wrong. It is so far off-base that it is difficult if not impossible coming from that perspective even to have a reasonable discussion about what a sustainable human settlement might look like.

So what is a system? To quote Donella Meadows, leader of the team at MIT that produced The Limits to Growth back in the 70’s, “A system is a set of things–people, cells, molecules, or whatever–interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.” The important point here is that the behavior of the overall system arises from the arrangement of the components and their patterns of interaction more than it does from the individual properties of each component. The system’s behavior is not a summation of the actions of individual elements. In more formal terms, superposition does not apply–the system’s behavior is nonlinear.

The arrangement of components is the essence of design. Place any plant near a good-sized rock and you create a microclimate that effectively moves the plant a few degrees latitude closer to the equator. This could be desirable or not, depending on the plant and its particular needs. If the plant doesn’t like the warmer microclimate you could either rent some equipment heavy enough to move the rock, or you could plant something next to it that likes the warmer climate. Put another way, you could use a lot of money and energy to attempt to change the environment or you could design your system, your choice of plant, to fit the existing regime. Alternatively, you could plant a number of plants less adapted to the heat near the rock and select for propogation those individuals which seem to do better, thereby creating over the course of a few seasons a new cultivar of the original plant better adapted to the warmer climate.

Permaculture design is a process of negotiation, if you will, a process of mutual adaptation in which you begin with the premise that you are a part of the system that you are designing. You are not just rearranging your habitat, you are being rearranged.
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