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Folks, here is what is going on in The Land of Oz. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Linear Expectations In A Nonlinear World

There is much evidence that human expectations tend to be linear. Most of the time, most people expect current conditions to continue for the indefinate future. It is almost an unnatural act for a man to leave home with an umbrella on a sunny day. Call it optimism, faith in the future, or just reluctance to see the party end, there is a presumption that the environment is stable. This is why cities are built on floodplains and fault lines. A similar presumption makes a gambler double his bet or the farmer plant additional crops on reclaimed land the year after a good harvest. Wherever prosperity exists, it is natural for people to expect prosperity to continue. For this reason, much of the history of human society is a record of astonishment. Time and again, people have marginalized their affairs, rendering themselves increasingly crisis-prone. They have gone into debt, extending claims on resources to an extreme that could be supported only if current conditions where sustained uninterrupted into the future. Time and again these hope have been dissapointed. Whenever prosperity has seemed permanent, some apparently minute change---a shift in wind patterns in the upper atmosphere that altered the fall of rains and the flow of rivers, a mutation in the genetic composition of a virus or bacterium to produce a new form of pestilence for which human beings or their food stocks have no defense, or a technological twist like the addition of a stirrup to the riding gear of horses *or Y2K*---could produce astonishingly large nonlinear shifts in the organization of human society. The failure to recognize or anticipate these nonlinear transformations has been a common characteristic of almost all societies. In most time and places, the understanding of cause and effect has been too meager to allow much grasp of the dynamic processes by which societies change. Our own period would be an exception, if not for a paradigmatic blind spot---our expectations that a complex system like the economy functions on a linear basis, like a machine.

James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg, The Great Reckoning, Protect Yourself in the Coming Depression (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1993), page 254.

-- Mark (quke@ix.netcom.com), March 15, 1999



-- a (a@a.a), March 15, 1999.

There's a cold wind stirring.

-- A. Hambley (a.hambley@usa.net), March 15, 1999.

Thanks, Mark. That's a true glimpse of the "Big Picture".

-- Bingo1 (howe9@pop.shentel.net), March 15, 1999.

Awesome. True even if (especially if) Y2K is just a rehearsal for further up the road.

-- BigDog (BigDog@duffer.com), March 15, 1999.

This book was written during the mini-recession of 1991-1992. It predicted a nice, linear more of the same only worse. Apparently the authors suffered a "failure to recognize or anticipate these nonlinear transformations". Hehehe.

Be aware that any investors who took their advice, took it on the chin bigtime. Predictions of coming hard times are real easy. These guys were experts and wrote a whole book on it, complete with lots of facts and documentation. Too bad their 'depression' just happened to be the longest sustained boom in history.

I guess the facts just ain't what they used to be.

-- Flint (flintc@mindspring.com), March 15, 1999.

In response to Flint:

Fact: Mesopotamia Fell Fact: Byzantine Empire Fell Fact: Alexander of Macedon's Empire Fell Fact: Chinese Empires and Dynasties Fell Fact: Egypt Fell Fact: The Roman Empire Fell followed by the Dark Ages Fact: The Ottoman Empire Fell Fact: The Black Death wiped out 50% of Europe's population in the second plague pandemic and rocked the foundation of medieval society and civilization Fact: Feudal Japan Fell Fact: The British Empire Fell Fact: The Soviet Union Fell Fact: The Berlin Wall Fell Fact: Great cities have risen and fallen throughout history Fact: Y2K is part of the "Spiral of History" Fact: Y2K is GLOBAL Fact: The code is broken Fact: Everybody started TOO LATE Fact: There are not enough qualified resources to fix nearly enough systems (how much failure can "The System" sustain without being lethal?) Fact: Future historians will study and write about Y2K

"A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark" --Dante Y2K is that spark.

I'm sorry Flint, life is just not linear. No matter how hard you want for the good times to keep going, life styles are going to be very different than they are today come March 2000. Its been a fun decade, lots of easy money and soft living, but hard times are a coming. They always have, and always will. I have the FACTS OF HISTORY to prove it.

I recommend the following book that should offer readers some insight as to why the cascading failures that will be caused by Y2K cannot be mitigated effectively. The Logic of Failure, Recognizing and Avoiding Failure in Complex Systems by Dietrich Dorner.

-- Mark (quke@ix.netcom.com), March 15, 1999.

"This book was written during the mini-recession of 1991-1992. It predicted a nice, linear more of the same only worse. Apparently the authors suffered a "failure to recognize or anticipate these nonlinear transformations"."

Flint, the fact that he couldn't predict the future and exact type of non-linear transformations that would make it the longest standing bull market in history does in noway negate what he is saying. He is simply explaining linear vs dimentional thinking and society's tendency to think linearly.

Y2K, as with the market that went bull instead of bear, could go either way. We just haven't seen yet or able to predict which transformations could make Y2K a non-event.

-- Chris (catsy@pond.com), March 15, 1999.

Mark and Chris:

I'm not denying that all past civilizations eventually ended, nor that ours will end as well. I hardly expect an indefinite bull market. I admit I don't expect a return to hunter-gatherer on the part of a very few survivors. We won't lose our knowledge base completely.

What I'm saying is that large, complex adaptive systems aren't predictable. They are composed of countless negative and positive feedback loops, interacting with one another in dynamic and chaotic ways (chaotic in the sense of formal chaos theory).

OK, linear thinking holds that the future will be much like the present. It's not beside the point to notice that in an attempt to do 'correct' nonlinear thinking, these guys couldn't possibly have missed the boat worse than they did. Maybe their nonlinear thinking isn't so effective either? What good is nonlinear thinking if it gives you no clearer view of what's coming than linear thinking does? Being completely dead wrong is *not* a strong endorsement. The future isn't very predictable in many important ways no matter what method of prediction you subscribe to.

A couple of examples here:

1) For several (maybe 4) decades, we've attempted to build econometric models running on the most powerful supercomputer of the day. Presumably if these models comprised proper descriptions of the relationships between important economic forces, and if these forces were properly weighted, and if the proper feedback mechanisms were included, the models would make accurate predictions.

And with a lot of tweaking, we can make these models accurately describe known economic trends/events of the past. Problem is, no tweaking we've found yet permits the model to describe more than a very few such events, while completely missing all the rest. And after decades of adding more 'smarts' to these models, we've come no closer to a universal predictor -- the percentage of 'control' events properly described remains very small. And these models are nonlinear as all hell.

2) Ice cores from arctic areas make one thing very clear: past ice ages were precipitous indeed. Subtropical ages didn't gradually cool into ice ages over thousands of years -- these events happened within decades! It seems most likely that some trigger event or condition started a positive feedback loop in the Earth's climate. But we still lack any good model of how this might have happened. It just did, just like the fall of past civilizations. *Something* made the climate go Infomagic!

Finally, let me argue that facts (which we have in abundance) don't necessarily give us good hindsight. We know *what* happened in great detail. We don't understand why. Our econometric models lead to depression given a great many constellations of input. The trick is to tweak the model so that it describes the chain of events we know happened between 1929 and 1933. This turns out to be very hard in both directions -- setting up the correct input and watching the model simulate time based on those inputs (and the simulation doesn't match reality); and setting up the simulation based on what happened and deriving the correct inputs to cause that sequence (and the required inputs don't match reality).

So our facts are of limited use. Civilization X fell. Fine. What should we do differently today so as to avoid this? To answer, we need to know *why* civilization X fell. And we don't know why. We simply fall way short of being able to adequately model a complex nonlinear system of the necessary magnitude. And formal Chaos theory suggests that such a model is simply impossible to create. Chaos theory demonstrates that almost any tiny little thing can lead to almost any civilization-destroying trend or event, and we cannot know what little thing that is. We're just as accurate describing what happened as resulting from Fate or Divine Will.

So I guess the final question is, which system do you prefer to use in order to mis-guess the future?

And by the way, we're due for another ice age.

-- Flint (flintc@mindspring.com), March 16, 1999.

I agree with Flint on this. Anyone remember the books "Bankruptcy 1995", "How To Prosper In The Coming Bad Times" or "The Great Depression oF 1992"? Figgie, Ruff and Bahtra were as wrong as wrong can be, and a LOT of people bought into their prophecy. Look around, there's always one false prophet or another crying "the end is near"... well, the end hasn't come despite so many preaching it, and I doubt it will come in our lifetimes. Mind you, I still think we'll see a 7 or 8 on Y2K, but we will rebuild and prosper. It'll be rough but we'll make. Humanity's tough.

-- sparks (wireless@home.com), March 16, 1999.

Damn! This is really refreshing!

Talking about the big picture stuff.

Some of the current thinking in regards to the Fall of Rome is that "measles (allegedly killed 5000 people a day in Rome) depleted the population, hastened the desertion of many rural areas and cut the rolls of the Roman army and taxpayers. It caused at least a temporary reduction in East-West trade and, with smallpox, has formed the cornerstone of a major theory of the decline of the Roman Empire."

Read: arthur E.R. Boak, Manpower Shortages and the Fall of The Roman Empire (Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press, 1955).

Flint, Chris, et al.,

Will Y2K be like the measles, small pox, the Black Death? Will it have similar consequences for our societies (lets not forget that this a GLOBAL event)? I quoted Moggs and Davidson not in regards to economies, but as illustrative in how alot of people think. When markets take a correction, people are astoninshed. If you look back through history, there are plenty of examples where the division of labor was upset resulting in large shifts in societal organization.

How much change will Y2K bring? It is a GLOBAL event! What will be the positive and negative feedbacks. How much fault tolerance is there in our system of systems. Will it be adaptive? Or will it come to slow, grinding halt? Then what?

Most people I talk to don't think ANYTHING is going to change because of Y2K, very linear thinking indeed. Look at how an advancement in weaponry has dramatically changed balances of power throughout history. Even recently, with China buying weapons technology from King Clinton.

I think Y2K *may* present similar consequences that the measles, small pox and the Black Death did for past societies.

Historically, I have been an optimistic sort, but Y2K has changed that.

-- Mark (quke@ix.netcom.com), March 18, 1999.

I don't think it's linear at all. I think it's a sine curve.

-- Maria (anon@ymous.com), March 18, 1999.

Another explanation for the Fall of Rome, which has direct relevance to modern conditions, was ventured by Clive Ponting in "A Green History of the World." Ponting's research and inclinations lead him to understand that the Roman Civilisation over-exploited and outgrew it's resource base.

Without charcoal, it was difficult to smelt and work metal for weapons and tools. Charcoal requires copious amounts of timber and the Mediterranean basin is not all that big.

Aquaducts provided for irrigation, which allows unproductive land to be harnessed for agriculture. But, eventually, the soil salts up or gets waterlogged, thereby reducing its efficiency.

Supplimenting their declining resource base was a major impetus for Roman conquest and trade. Eventually, though, as their supply lines became untenable, nutrition and living conditions deteriorated to the point that, among other deleterious conditions, declining resistance to disease weakened their social structure.

Rome didn't fall in a day. And, barring nuclear or natural catastrophe, neither will Western (Northern, actually) civilization, but...

Y2K is only the first of a number of punches waiting for an unwary, uncaring world culture. How many blows can we absorb before we're left panting and bleeding on the mat?

Chaos Theory is a nifty, if complicated tool, for evaluating, apprehending and predicting complex systems. Like any man-made tool, it suffers it's own limitations as described by Flint. But it certainly is more inclusive and three-dimensional (or four?) than linear thinking (sinusiodal curves are still just lines, btw).

Natural systems seem to be more redundant, resilient, self-damping than man-made complex systems. A butterfly flapping its wings in Denver is not likely to contibute to a tornado in Texas because of the damping effects of the atmosphere. But tons of CO2, methane and water vapor can warm the global climate. Will it be enough to trigger the natural response which has, in the past, led to abrupt cooling and ice ages?

A point was recently made here on another thread that there must certainly be some overhead built into our information and economic systems. Redundancy and resilience, however, are inefficient economically and energetically; we tend to design it out of our systems. A cockroach running across a control relay could well bring down a major power distribution network.

So civilisations have risen and fallen throughout history, but that's only effected relatively small percentages of humanity. Natural resilience, the distribution of redundant civilations in other locales, allowed for a relatively rapid recovery from calamity, even from such devastation as the Black Plague.

Now we are organised, for all intents and purposes, into a single, world culture. We're all Romans here. And all I can hear in the background is the theme from the "Twilight Zone."


"We wait, breathlessly, for a Deus ex Machina, realizing only to late that our intelligence is a sword made of feathers and our faith but a gossamer shield for our vanity."

-- Hallyx (Hallyx@aol.com), March 18, 1999.

Hallyx, have you purchased your robes and sandals yet?

Since we are on the topic of the decline of societies and what trigger mechanism may have been the caused, I got this from Cory Hamasaki's site and think it is an excellent analysis, albeit a depressing one, of how Y2K may be the trigger for a global decline, in our lifetime. Romans we are all.

Another good book I just started reading is by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, the Fate of Human Societies.


The Artificial Platform

by Dennis Chamberland

My awareness of a potential Y2K problem dates back to 1972 in an ecology class at Oklahoma State University where I was a student. The professor was an ecology instructor, but he had his roots in the oil industry. I have never forgotten the impact of a single lecture he gave on power. He said that the human ecosystem was incredibly complex, and in 1972 (as it is today), it is built on a platform. He pointed out that the social structure sits atop this platform as a vast, interdependent web of technology that depends on a minute-to-minute power supply. Without it, the technological base that supports the social platform will collapse from its own weight. If that happens, he said, death to the individual members of that society is the immediate and is a direct cost of the failure of the society to have access to the level of power it requires to support the base.

This invites a long view of society: the social structure that we live in and depend on is actually a vast, complex, interdependent but artificial platform, held in place and completely supported by pure energy: petroleum and electrical. If that energy fails, then the platform which supports the life of so many millions can no longer be supported. The life support platform fails when the power fails because it can no longer stand under its own weight - supported by energy production and precise distribution of power. When the power fails, the platform itself fails, then the life support system itself collapses with it on a massive scale.

Ironically enough, on that same day in 1972 I went to a computer programming class where we were taught the "economy of programming" to save precious and expensive computer memory. One of those simple techniques - date short-handing - would one day threaten to prompt the very disaster the ecology professor so eloquently warned about.

Three years ago, the truths of that lecture were once again reinforced. An expert on the space program noted that exploration was an activity reserved only for stable societies. That once a social structure became unstable, all exploration ceased. He noted the Yugoslavian, Lebanese and former Soviet Union provided graphic examples of this principle. These nations went from stable, relatively productive societies to anarchy in a matter of just a few years. Beirut was once the "Paris of the Middle East" - now it is a war torn shell. Sariavio was once the fairy tale site of the winter Olympics. Now it represents only death and war. And the once powerful Soviet empire lays in economic ruins. Said the expert, "Don't believe for a moment that it cannot happen here in the United States." His ultimate point was this, 'explore now, today - for we really have no promise of a tomorrow. Yet, he also clearly implied that the platform we have built for ourselves is fragile and not to put too much confidence in its capacity to withstand attack and chaos on the invisible foundations that hold it up. Do what you are going to do and hurry up.

Over the years I have thought about the original ecology class lecture many times and have marveled over its powerful truths. It interested me so much that, along with other considerations, I made my career as a Bioengineer - linking engineering systems with living systems and the development of advanced life support systems.

As a life support system engineer, I view that technology and that web of life as an tightly woven, interdependent fabric. The examples are nearly infinite. Electrical power, food, fuel, communications - all linked together into an inseparable whole. As I visited with my nonagenarian grandmother yesterday, I saw the machine she used to sustain her life plugged into the wall - a machine that manufactures oxygen from air. Beside her were bottles of medicines, produced by highly sophisticated machines, then transported by fueled vehicles in hours to her air conditioned bedside, all guided by a maze of computers.

As I returned to my home, I looked into my pantry - richly stocked from a food distribution and agriculture system of astonishing complexity and all energized, coordinated and distributed by complex, quasi-intelligent systems - all powered from the grid. I realized that if Y2K cut the power to my grandmother's bedside, she would not live more than three or four days as the supply of bottled oxygen dwindled to nothing and her medications ran out. And in my own home, if the power failed, I and my family could hang on only a few more weeks or perhaps a month as our food supplies dropped us and our neighborhood into a condition of famine as severe as any in equatorial Africa within days. At that moment, I looked over the edge of the platform and saw how awfully far up we were and just how shaky the supports seemed to be.

I also realized anew that the power grid of the United States is comparable to the nerve impulses of our body. If a patient suffers a heart attack, and the oxygen and nutrients stop to the body - the clock to irreparable damage begins ticking immediately. Within seconds, the first cells begin to die. Within minutes, irreversible damage begins and in less than ten minutes, all hope is over - the ultimate damage is done. The nerve impulses will stop and cannot be restarted.

If there is a widespread failure to the power grid and the fossil fuel distribution network in the world and in America during Y2K, the same effect will be realized. Some of the weaker cells in the population will die almost immediately - those plugged directly into the grid. The nutrient (food) supply to the nation will stop until the restart is effected. The clock to famine begins running the very first second the power goes down. The first deaths will be triggered by the direct loss of power, but the full, terrible effects of an indirect loss of power will be felt in the succeeding weeks and months. Eventually, the nation will be so devastated, we will not be able to restart the grid at all - the patient will have died as the platform that supports him begins its swift process of self destruction.

In the final analysis, the Y2K power distribution discussion is actually reduced to this picture, after all. As my professor said so well in 1972, power IS life in America. And without it, the artificial platform built on fragile legs, and all of the supports connected together, will collapse and the nation will literally die.

As we face Y2K, we must fully understand and actually act upon such life and death issues. In America, the life we have built atop this fragile platform has many dimensions: human life, economic life, even the life of freedom depends on power production, transmission and distribution. It is my prayer that the clear understanding of this picture will lead to a redoubled effort to keep the lights on as a national strategic priority. The time to begin working on this was ten years ago. The question that we pose now is this: is it too late?

What can we do now to late to try and limit the damage so that, in the end, we may be able to restart the grid and save the life of the nation before the platform itself comes crashing down? Once it is down, we will have to reconstruct it as we did before and as nations have done before in history - over generations, sifting about in the rubble of a time irretrievably lost, with only the number of people that can be supported in a pre-industrial age.


(c) 1999 Dennis Chamberland

This article is published as part of Cory Hamasaki's DC Y2K Weather Report and may be reproduced under the same terms and conditions. All other rights reserved to the author.

-- MarktheFart (quke@ix.netcom.com), March 18, 1999.

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