A hurricane is a large tropical storm involving high winds, heavy rains, large potential for damage and loss of life. A hurricane is, in the large, somewhat predictable; its path can be guessed at based on wind and topographical knowledge. A hurricane is not predictable over long periods or at small scales; the turbulence involved precludes accurate forecasting in either case.

The equations for weather prediction, even assuming they are perfectly correct, are not soluble. They are inherently unstable, chaotic; see “Chaos Theory” for more on this. Even if we had incredibly good data at the one-foot level from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the atmosphere, and all the computing power and time we needed, we could still not predict simple weather much farther out than a week, more or less. The equations just aren’t stable; having data even at the one foot level isn’t tight enough to prevent multiple outcomes from being equally possible while being very different from each other.

However, very large disturbances can be predicted somewhat, as noted above.

I will now venture to predict the outcome of the current world crises. I claim no special insight; the disturbances are so large that the general outline of the upcoming damage can be guessed at. You may want to install a storm cellar by the end of this post.

Global warming will continue. Global famine will result. Global water shortages and global floods will coexist. We are already seeing some evidence of all of these predictions coming true.

Global inequality will increase. Global unrest will increase. Global demonstrations will, eventually, all succeed or be put down with gunfire. The elite, who control the police/army, have little choice but to protect their interests in this manner. Expect unpleasant outcomes.

A hurricane grows when it passes over water, particularly warm water. Moist air generates heat which generates lift which creates an in-draft which brings in more moist air. The hurricane scavenges its surroundings into itself. It grows until denied new sources of energy.

Demonstrations grow and grow ugly when demonstrators realize they have little to lose, and are rapidly losing that. An uprising grows as it pulls in more disaffected individuals and subjects them to its own mob logic. Insurrections scavenge everything available until cut off by success or violence.

Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Greece: political uprisings.

Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Iceland: financial uprisings.

USA, Canada, and others: the beginnings of social uprisings.

This is a hurricane. It is worldwide. The social unrest will be fuelled at catastrophic levels when global warming and famine cut into these countries. Right now it is “just” a matter of money, freedom, social justice. When it is also a matter of food and water, watch out.

Andrews’ Law

There is no “they”.

Bob Andrews long ago berated me for saying something like, “they won’t allow us to do that.” There is no they. There is always some person, or some small group of persons, who make the decision, defend the bridge, discover insulin, decide to skip some testing, indulge in credit default swaps, overlook the specifications for the blowout preventer, pass stock tips, influence juries.

This in contrast to the concept that a corporation is a person, but one that cannot go to jail. A corporation is run by somebody; there is a board of directors, a president, a vice president of product testing. Somebody really is responsible for what happens. There is no they. There is a person, or a small group of persons, responsible. To find out who, invoke Lenin’s Law.

Are Corporations People?

Of course they are. They have the right of free speech, which has recently been shown to include the right to support political parties.

Of course they are not. Nobody goes to jail. Or as one wag put it, if corporations are people, lets execute the ones that kill or maim people.

What drives me utterly buggy is the fact that a corporation can be accused of malfeasance, agree to pay a fine, admit no liability or wrongdoing, and go on operating as if nothing has happened. The fine can even be charged up as a business expense.

I submit that this is one thing the 99% ‘ers should go after. In a case of corporate malfeasance, there is always somebody who made the evil decision. I submit that that person should go to jail just as a real person making a similar decision, without the trappings of being a corporate official, would go to jail.

So the real dumb question is, when will this happen? When will corporate actions be pinned on the people who actually initiate, manage, or permit them? When will a corporation, or someone from it, go to jail?

Evolutionary Traps, Tragedy of the Commons, and how “always there” becomes necessary

Warning: long, philosophical post.

The tragedy of the commons is, roughly, a village with a common green grazing area which all use respectfully, until one or a few overgraze as the cost of this is shared over all the other users. So it becomes necessary to overgraze to stay competitive. Now the commons is really overgrazed and everybody loses; and there’s no point in under-grazing since that won’t make enough difference to fix anything, and is against one’s self interest.

This generalizes to any case where self-interest gets a group into a situation that it cannot get them out of. An example is driving to work. Suppose I can get to work by bus in twenty minutes, but Dave next door drives in ten. So I buy a car, and so does everyone else in our neighbourhood. Now it takes thirty minutes to get to work by car. Going back to the bus is out of the question, that now takes forty minutes due to the extra traffic.

The fact is that a system can get itself into such a predicament, in the more general case. An evolutionary trap is one in which an organism (or a company or an economy or an ecosystem, eh?) evolves into a backwater it cannot easily evolve out of. My favourite example is the spider; apparently its throat passes through its main nerve complex, so it cannot grow larger without having a hole in its head, so to speak. As a compromise, the arachnid sucks the vital fluids of others, allowing as narrow a throat as possible. Apparently spiders with book lungs could, without this throat limitation, have become quite large. But they are in an evolutionary trap.

The marsupials are in a similar trap. The early embryo must crawl from the mother’s womb to the pouch. She does not help it. Therefore its front claws are precocial: they are well developed although the rest of the embryo is still almost a worm. The result of this seems to be that later evolution of the front limbs of marsupials just hasn’t happened. There are no cases of wings, hooves, or grasping hands, just small front feet. The marsupials are in an evolutionary trap.

Large animals who decide who gets to mate via antlers are also in an evolutionary trap: a clever elk who could reroute migration to avoid predators will get thunked out of the gene pool. Horns beats brains here.

An interesting generalization of the idea that an attribute can become a trap is the fact that almost anything that is always present can become a necessity. Parasites become obligate parasites when they give up the ability to synthesize some simple protein because they can always get it from their hosts. Mitochondria have lost many of their original genes because their host cell has decided to make the gene product for them. Evolution prunes a missing function unless that function is provided for some other way, or not necessary, in which case the function generally gets lost. Blind and pigment-less fish who live in light-less caves is an obvious example.

However even something deleterious can become essential. Human sperm must swim through a hostile acid environment. Consequently they have developed a coating that is altered by that experience. Consequently in artificial insemination, sperm must be “capacitated” by being passed through an acid environment.The difficulty has become essential.

Mitochondria behave like bacterial symbionts, which they probably descended from. They fuse and divide all the time. They have their own DNA. They have their own DNA repair system.

The mitochondria in human sperm do not do DNA repairs. This saves energy. It also allows errors to creep into the code. However the egg cell effectively deletes all the mitochondria from the sperm. Thus the competition between sperm has forced a compensatory action on the egg. Once this is done, there is no reason at all for the sperm to do DNA repair in its mitochondria. Thus the exclusion of sperm DNA is now essential.

These specific instances show how “stuff that always happens” or “stuff that always is present” becomes essential. The concept is quite general and applies to cultures, religions, economies, and ecosystems.

I can be forgiven for suggesting that countries with large volumes of drug trade violence have become dependent on this very scourge. It is part of the economy. Money buys influence in a pattern that defends itself as vigorously as the male elk defends his harem. It may not be smart, but it is the way the system works.

I can be forgiven for suggesting that economies with large inequalities have subsystems which enforce and enhance this inequality. One thing I remember from the Unabomber’s Manifesto was his claim that the current system defends, repairs, and enlarges itself. It is so well-developed that it is, in effect, its own evolutionary trap. Self-interest has got the rich into this situation, and it may not be able to get them out of it. If the growing inequality leads to its historically predictable outcome, the rich may well wish they could change that sentence to permit a more pleasant outcome for themselves.

On Passwords

We are told to change our passwords often, and to make them difficult to guess. I submit that the latter requirement also makes them difficult to remember. If I have a way of remembering the password, then someone who knows me could have a chance of guessing that password.

The amount of information in a password does vary with its complexity; see Algorithmic Information Theory (Gregory Chaitin) for details. And a more complex password takes more logic to generate.

However, I believe a solution is possible. It depends on two pieces of software. The first one generates a random password. Since this is impossible, the generator must be either kept secret, be seeded by a noise source, or have some other means of making its output unpredictable. It should be noted that a real random number generator program must (see Chaitin again) be infinitely large. Any finite program will eventually repeat, as it can only generate a finite amount of output information.

Randomness based on noise sources, such as sunspots, would work provided the source were kept secret. It turns out that the ideal case of an open source of random numbers is too predictable.

Assuming one has a random number generator, it could easily be hooked up to a program to generate text characters in any alphabet or character set. I proceed on the assumption that you can actually get assigned to you a password that is sufficiently random. This means you did not pick it out, and since it was not predictable by you, hopefully it is not predictable by anyone else either.

Now for the second piece of software. A little background may clarify what I want this program to do.

I once watched a student put the first one hundred digits of pi on a blackboard. Another student volunteered he could do the first one thousand digits. How was this possible? The digits of pi are, in a sense, quite random. They are predictable only if you know you are looking at pi. Every possible combination of every possible finite size of digit groups is guaranteed to occur in the decimal expansion of pi. Eventually, that is.

The student had a mnemonic, which was “easy” to remember, which gave the digits of pi in sequence. I suspect it was a verse or a story.

What I want is a program which, given a random password, generates a story involving each character in that password, to make it easier to remember. I would expect a user might customize the output to make it easier for her/him to recall, but the program would give a coherent first recall-generator for any given password. The program would have no ability to write anything, so it would not be able to record the input password.

The dumb question is, can anybody make or find such a program? When the digits of pi were turned into a memorable item, was this done by hand?

An even dumber question is, is any password you or I make up, guaranteed to be in some sense predictable? What do you think?

Chung-Tack’s Law

Apparently the graduating class at McGill medical school were once lined up and told that, although they would be getting an amazing number of offers, many of them financial, they should remember this rule:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is … too good to be true.

This was passed on to me by Dr. Chung-Tack.

On Pension Funds – several dumb questions

I note with interest that some pension funds will likely start a whole new process of trading risk, called lifespan swaps. In this model, a plan which has risk that its participants might live too long, can insure itself by doing a lifespan swap. If things go well for the pensioners, and thus ill for the pension, the insurance will help make up the shortfall.

I am reminded that AIG insured risky paper so it could be treated as cash, and when they needed to pony up the money, they went under.

So the dumb question is, if the insurer can make money, then aren’t the insured, overall, paying more than they need to? Individuals do this because they cannot afford to be the rare but heavy loser. Large pension funds should not have this perspective, eh? Conversely, if the insurer can not make money, they will simply go bankrupt. So it would appear that a large pension fund is either betting they lose, or betting they lose. Why would they do this?

The enthusiasm for any new kind of paper is infectious, and it also makes me sick. We cannot have carbon tax, but we may get carbon trading. We can have credit default swaps, until the paper pyramid collapses.

I note that a certain bank proudly tells its retirees that it put the maximum allowed by law into its pension plan to increase its funding.

So the dumb question here is, how did they ever get a law which limits the amount they can put in? No matter how good a year they get, they have prevented themselves from doing too much catch-up funding. Note that when the reverse is true, they are given extra years, five or ten, to sort-of plan to catch up.

Finally, another fine company proudly sent every employee an “about your company” update every year showing how they would retire, benefits, et cetera. Then they made their older employees a departure offer. At one meeting, it was asked how the company treated inflation. The answer was, historically, the pension plan has been inflated at .7 – seven tenths – of inflation. Being a recipient of this plan, I can assure you that it has never been increased, and the dental benefits are based on a dental fee guide from the year of the departure offer.

Even better, the company merged its defined benefit plan with its defined contribution plan, and somehow gave itself a four year contribution holiday, because there was surplus in the plan – due to its not being inflated, eh? When taken to court, it was judged that the company’s action in merging plans was illegal, but that it could not be undone. Since the company was in the computing business, and records must be kept for seven years, it is obvious that the old files could have been restored and the intervening transactions reprocessed. Perhaps legal opinions on what can and cannot be done in computing should not be decided by legal experts, but that is another rebuke to common sense, eh?

So here is the final dumb question. This (nameless) company appears to have lied to its employees about future pension increases, abused surpluses to increase profits at the expense of pensioners, and somewhat cooked the books to make it harder to see this in a clear court case. You’re waiting for the dumb question, and here it is:

Is this the level of integrity the employees should have expected?

Lyrics for Mairzy Doats – just for fun


figureheads need bigger heads

to feed their sweet ideas

and repeat ideas too

wouldn’t you?


figureheads rate bigger heads

to state their great ideas

and debate ideas too

wouldn’t you?


now if the words sound weird

and jumbled through my beard

a little bit mumbled, maybe mocking


sing figure heads, have bigger heads,

at least to hear them talking


figureheads breed bigger heads

in greed for deed ideas

and storied ideas too

wouldn’t you?

tune: Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats.

I usually write slightly more serious poems, but do enjoy a good laugh too. The one above is unpublished anywhere else. Enjoy.