Friday, August 31, 2007

Overshoot and Crash - U.S. Empire and the Middle East

It is a well known phenomena in the study of nature that when a system grows beyond a sustainable level, it will eventually decline. And the farther it overshoots that sustainable level, the more dramatic the decline, or in some cases "crash" will eventually be. One of the best illustrations of this is a population of animals that grows beyond what the local food supply can support. The population will eventually decline to more sustainable levels, and the greater the population overshoot, the more dramatic the die-off will be.

This brings us to the history of empires. They inevitably grow to overshoot what the base can sustain in terms of economic and human costs, followed by a decline. Whether they gradually shrink to more sustainable levels, or dramatically crash to a shadow of their former selves depends on how far they overshoot their sustainable level, and how long they manage to deny reality before starting to make the necessary draw backs.

In the case of the American empire, we now have over 700 military bases in other countries around the world. With the cost of the Iraq war likely to exceed $1 trillion, it seems likely that we have significantly overshot what we can sustain and are headed for a decline from our current state. Whether this will be a gradual orderly roll-back or a more dramatic crash depends on whether we continue with a policy of attempting to militarily dominate the world, or realize the folly of this effort and start to change our approach. Unfortunately, it looks like we may be on a path to push our military overcommitment even farther beyond the limits of sustainability. Consider the following news from the experts at Informed Comment Global Affairs

"...[from Cheney's 2002 speech referring to the campaign to drum up support for the Iraq war beginning in Sept 2002] After all "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." Today I received a message from a friend who has excellent connections in Washington and whose information has often been prescient. According to this report, as in 2002, the rollout will start after Labor Day, with a big kickoff on September 11. My friend had spoken to someone in one of the leading neo-conservative institutions. He summarized what he was told this way:

They [the source's institution] have "instructions" (yes, that was the word used) from the Office of the Vice-President to roll out a campaign for war with Iran in the week after Labor Day; it will be coordinated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox, and the usual suspects. It will be heavy sustained assault on the airwaves, designed to knock public sentiment into a position from which a war can be maintained. Evidently they don't think they'll ever get majority support for this--they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is "plenty."

If you don't look forward to ruinous future for America, it's hard to think of a scarier scenario for the final months of the Cheney/Bush administration.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Where Will Major Water Shortages Hit the US First?

As our population and consumption rates continue to grow, we are face shortage of a number of natural resources within the next decade or two. Oil is one of the most talked about, as I mentioned elsewhere, but one that may cause major problems even sooner is water. Oil can be economically shipped from the other side of the world, and there are alternatives to oil for many of its present uses. These things are not true for water.

The area of America that will face severe water shortages first is in the south west. A recent report described the situation as follows:

The news coming from the Southern Nevada Water Authority Thursday about the valley's future water supply is worrisome. Unless we act quickly, there will be no water for hundreds of thousands of Las Vegas Valley residents in just three years…SNWA data shows drought conditions getting worse, not better

The article goes on to describe costly project needed to bring in water to Las Vegas from elsewhere, as well as stating the need for some more conservation. Nowhere does it mention the obvious fact here – it does not make sense to construct a large city in the middle of the desert where there are very limited water supplies. This is yet another good example demonstrating that normal market forces are not good at making long term plans for dealing with limited resources. More on that in a future append.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Another Report that we have already passed “Peak Oil”

According to a recent report ( details at )

The world output of oil actually already peaked in May 2005 at 74.2 million barrels a day, says Matthew Simmons, chairman of Houston-based Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm for the energy industry…. Since then, production has fallen about 1 million barrels a day (MB/D). If that trend continues, the results for the world economy will be “so real, so devastating” that peak oil concerns will overwhelm slower-moving global warming in grabbing world attention.

Last Tuesday, the price of oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange set a record, rising as high as $78.40. That exceeded the previous high of $77.03 set in July 2006 at the onset of Israel’s war in Lebanon.

Oil shortages, warns Simmons, could lead to war.

"Could lead to war??" How about "Have already lead to war." The desire to have large permanent military bases in the Middle East to exercise more long term control over that area was likely one of the key motivating factors for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. I'm afraid that armed conflict over oil will be part of mankind's fate for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Noisy Restaurant

Humans have a great ability to pick out a conversation and understand it in a noisy environment, such as at a restaurant or a party. Computer speech recognition is gradually getting this ability too. I recently read about a new development in computer speech recognition that allows it to listen to multiple conversations in a noisy environment and actually understand what was happening in each of those multiple conversations. Why not? Once it can understand one conversation in a noisy environment, it makes sense that duplicating some hardware should allow it to understand multiple conversations.

This brings some interesting situations to mind. Imagine a robot waitress (waiter? what's the correct term for something without a gender - waitred?) taking orders at a table. Instead of taking turns giving their order, each person could speak up simultaneously and announce their orders all at the same time. It would take some getting used to, but it's fun to think about.

That leads to the question of what other capabilities such a robot waitress could have that don't necessarily mimic human capabilities exactly. For example, arms that are more flexible and extendable with additional joints for placing food dishes directly in front of people on crowded tables. How about the ability to see in all directions (360 degrees) at the same time to better keep track of all the customers at different tables? No need to limit it to two eyes. Science fiction films too often portray robots with physical characteristics similar to humans, but that just shows a lack of imagination.

Addendum: Here's an even stranger one that might be a little hard to grasp at first - there's no need for each of the robot waitresses to have a "separate mind". They could all share the same mind, linked to their bodies by radio communication. Then you can grab the attention of any robot waitress walking by, and they will be able to respond to you with exactly the same familiarity as the original physical robot that greeted you when you first sat down.