Saturday, February 27, 2021

Seneca and the Virus: Why does the Pandemic Grow and Decline?

 


Seneca, the Roman philosopher, knew the term "virus," that for him had the meaning of our term "poison." But of course, he had no idea that a virus, intended in the modern sense, was a microscopic creature reproducing inside host cell. He also lived in a time, the 1st century AD, when major epidemics were virtually unknown. It was only more than one century after his death that a major pandemic, the Antonine Plague, would hit the Roman Empire. 

But Seneca was a fine observer of nature and when he said that "ruin is rapid" he surely had in mind, among many other things, how fast a healthy person could be hit by a disease and die. Of course, Seneca had no mathematical tools that would allow him to propose a quantitative epidemiological theory, but his observation, that I have been calling the "Seneca Effect," remains valid. Not only people can be quickly killed by diseases, but even epidemics often follow the Seneca Curve, growing, peaking, and declining. 

Of course, the concepts of growth and collapse depend on the point of view. In many cases one man's fortune is someone else's ruin. What we see as a good thing, the end of an epidemic, is a collapse seen from the side of the virus (or bacteria, or whatever). But, then, why do epidemics flare up and then subside? It is a fascinating story that has to do with how complex systems behave. To tell it, we have to start from the beginning. 

One thing that you may have noted about the current Covid-19 pandemic is the remarkable ignorance not just of the general public about epidemiology, but also of many of the highly touted experts. Just note how many people said that the epidemic grows "exponentially." Then, they got busy extrapolating the curve to infinity, predicting hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of deaths. But, to paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, "Someone who claims that natural systems grow exponentially has to be either a madman or an economist." It just doesn't work that way!

But how does an epidemic grow, exactly? The basic shape of an epidemiological curve is "bell shaped" (yes, just like the Hubbert curve for petroleum extraction). 

The reason for this shape is easy to understand in qualitative terms. Initially, the virus (or the pathogen) has a whole population to infect, so it grows rapidly (nearly, but not exactly, exponentially). Then, as it grows, its number of targets decline. Eventually the virus can't grow any longer for lack of targets. It reaches a peak and starts declining. 

These considerations can be set in a mathematical form: it is the model called "SIR" (susceptible, infected, removed), developed already in 1927. You may be surprised to discover that the SIR equations are exactly the same that describe the growth of the oil industry and the phenomenon of "peak oil." They are also the same equations that describe the behavior of a trophic chain in a biological system. I won't go into the details, here. Let me just tell you that, with my colleagues Perissi and Lavacchi, we are preparing a paper that describes how these and other physical systems are related to each other. 

Of course, modern epidemiological models are much more complicated than the simple "bare bones" SIR model, but it is an approach that tells us what to expect. No epidemic grows forever and even if you do nothing to stop it, it will eventually fade out by itself. After all, pathogens have the same problem we have with crude oil: they are exploiting a limited resource (us).

Now, back to the Seneca Effect, we said it implies that ruin must be faster than growth. In other words, the shape of the "Seneca curve" should be something like this:
 
 
There are such cases in the history of epidemics.
 

 
Let me show you an example: the cholera epidemic that struck London in mid-19th century (data from Wikipedia Commons)
 

And here you clearly see the Seneca shape. The decline of the cholera burst was significantly faster than its growth. The data for more recent cholera epidemics show the same shape. 

Yet, that "Seneca shape" is not common in epidemics. Often, we see the opposite kind of asymmetry. Here is an example: Hepatitis A, with data taken from Wikipedia. You see how the curve declines more slowly than it grows. 

Here is another pre-Covid example: the acute respiratory syndrome of 2003 in Hong Kong. 


There is no fixed rule in these historical cases, let's just say that this asymmetric shape is rather common. So, let's go to the current pandemic, and here are some data for the first cycle of 2020. (Image from "The Economist"). Also here, the trend is clear: decline is slower than growth.

 

 
 
It is a common trend all over the world and we could call it the "Anti-Seneca" effect. But, apart from giving it a name, why this shape?

The answer is not univocal: there are several factors that may affect the shape of the curve. In this case, the easiest explanation has to do with the parameter that describes how fast infected people cease to be infected, either because they are healed or because they die. If they heal/die fast, the curve goes down fast, otherwise it is the opposite. It makes sense: cholera may kill affected people in just a few hours, if untreated. Instead, people infected by the Sars-Cov-2 may go through one or two weeks of agony before their demise. That would explain the different shape of the curves.
 
But, be careful! As I said, there are other possible explanations. For instance, if you compare Sweden with Italy, you see that the mortality curve is more asymmetric for the former. Why is that? It is hard to think that sick Swedes would take more time to die than sick Italians. More likely, it is a question of geography. The Swedish population is concentrated in the southern regions, where the pandemic hit first. It took some time for the virus to spread northward and that explains the "tail" in the mortality curve. In Italy, instead, the first pandemic wave was confined to the Northern regions, which are relatively homogeneous in terms of population. Probably, geographical effects account for the commonly observed asymmetric curve shapes of the COVID-19 epidemic in other regions of the world. 
 
With vaccinations, the SIR model shows that we should see the epidemic curves falling down fast, at least if the vaccinations are started before the peak. So far, this effect is not seen anywhere, it may be too early. As vaccinations progress, we should be able to say more on this matter.

As for everything in science, epidemiology takes a little work to be learned, a virtue that's difficult to find in the discussion on social media. Even experts in virology and diseases don't really study epidemiology, their job is to heal people, not to make mathematical models. That's the reason why the behavior of the virus is so widely misunderstood. But, as Einstein said, "The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not." Epidemiology may be subtle, but it is not impossible to understand how epidemics grow and spread.
 



Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Collapse of Rhetoric. Can Economists and Ecologists Talk to Each Other?

 

In ancient times, the standard way to deal with different opinions was found in the fine art of rhetoric. At the time of Seneca, rhetoric was perhaps the main skill of a man of culture: the capability of debating was valued and practiced. 

The use remained for a long time, even in scientific matters. At the time of Galileo Galilei, it was still the standard way to discuss. Galileo wrote his "Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo" in 1632 as a fictional dialogue among three savants. (see image above).

But rhetoric has completely gone out of fashion nowadays. Did you notice how in the media or in the socials there is no more debate? There are only insults. There has to be something deeply wrong in the way society is functioning that makes it impossible for most of us to discuss with people who don't fully agree with us. 

Nevertheless, the art of the fictional dialogue has not disappeared. Here is how it was recently interpreted by Kathy Shields, republished here with her kind permission. Note how you could see the dialog she presents as a sort of crescendo in which the protagonists, the ecologists and the economists, sort of play a musical duet that grows in tone and volume, ending with a final bang: "who put these people, (the economists) in charge?

There are many ways to describe a Seneca cycle, this is one.


A completely made up story about the history of economics and ecology

 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Honoring a Fallen Enemy: the Death of Rush Limbaugh

 

Rush Limbaugh has died at 70. Defined as "The most dangerous man in America," climate science denier, friend of Donald Trump, accused of racism and of all sorts of evil deeds. Eventually, though, a human being like all of us. 


Quomodo fabula, sic vita: non quam diu, sed quam bene acta sit, refert. (Life is like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters to Licilius.

 

Years ago, the vagaries of life led me to have a meal in a restaurant in Bucharest. There, I discovered that the cook was Italian and I had a long chat with him. One thing he told me was that he had been the personal cook of Dick Cheney, in the US. 

Yes, Dick Cheney, the man behind the "Project for a New American Century," of the attack on Iraq, of the fake story of the "weapons of mass destruction," and God knows of how many more dark and dire things we don't know about. I have no reason to doubt the story I was told: what surprised me was that he told me that Cheney was "the best employer he had ever had," kind, considerate, and he paid well. And I have no reason to doubt that, either. 

You see, I am fascinated by evil. It is a theme that goes deep into everything we do and we think. Does evil really exist? Do evil people exist?  An Italian writer of one century ago, Armando Vacca, noted how the Great War was fought with the people on both sides all thinking they were fighting for a good cause. And he asked himself the question: "who would ever want to fight an unjust war?" A related question is, "who would ever want to live an evil life?" Evil may be something more subtle than it seems to be.

Nowadays, our view of the world is dominated by the search for evil. We seem to have lost our moral compass so completely that we can see ourselves as good only if we can identify someone evil to be in contrast with. It has been like that during the past century or so. But who are these evil rulers? Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Cheney, and many others, were they really evil or just said to be evil by their enemies? About Mussolini, I looked into the matter as much as I could and I arrived at the conclusion that he was not a man who had pleasure in harming others, which is a possible definition of "evil". He was, mainly, a man whose mind had aged and who had retreated behind the mask of the Duce degli Italiani. The man had become the mask and he wore that mask all the time. He had come to believe in his own propaganda and he really thought that he was doing something good for Italy. 

So, evil is not a question of someone enjoying hurting or killing other people while satanically laughing. It is a question of the mask that every one of us wears. The very concept of "persona" is related to that of mask. It may come from the Latin verb per-sonare, literally: sounding through, referred to the masks actors wore in theatrical performances. We all go through life wearing a mask, sometimes more than one. And we often identify so much with the mask we wear that we forget what we might be without it. 

So, evil people are best detected when they are in a position where they can do much more damage than the average person. My experience of when I occasionally crossed paths with high-level people agrees with what the Italian cook I met in Bucharest told me. High-level people can be absolutely charming, it is a skill that they develop to arrive at the top. Does that mean that the powerful always lie their way upward? Not really. They just wear their mask, their persona, and that's what they become. We all do the same.

So, how about Rush Limbaugh? I must say that I never heard him speak live, but I knew who he was and how he had influenced many people. For me, he was a sort of a distant bogeyman, and I am reasonably sure I would disagree with maybe 99% of the things he was saying. But does that mean he was evil? Difficult to say, unless you happened to meet his cook. 

From what comes out of a debate he had with Peter Gleick (a climate scientist), Limbaugh doesn't come out as evil, more like the typical climate science denier.  Not a person who consciously lies, just a person who lacks the intellectual tools needed to think quantitatively. That is, your next-door neighbor. 

Roy Spencer (another climate scientist, but of the heretical kind) tells us many good things about Rush Limbaugh. One stands out:

Rush was the same person, on the air and off the air.

And so, it seems that Limbaugh, like many people whom we often consider evil, didn't see himself as evil. He would just wear his mask in the scene and at home, just like most of us do. In the end, the persona, the mask, is the same thing as our real face. 

As Seneca said, what counts in the play is how well it is acted and we cannot say that Rush Limbaugh didn't play his part well. Perhaps there will come a day when we won't need to label others as evil to think of us as good. Then, we'll be able to consider our enemies as human beings, just like us. Rest in peace, Rush.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

The End of the Megamachine: A Seneca Cliff, by any Other Name, Would Still be so Steep.


 

Our civilization seems to be acutely aware of an impending decline that nowadays is rapidly taking the shape of a collapse. It is still officially denied, but the idea is there and it appears in those corners of the memesphere where it makes an long term imprint even though it doesn't acquire the flashy and vacuous impression of the mainstream media. 

An recent entry in this section of the memesphere is "The End of the Megamachine." A book written originally in German by Fabian Scheidler, now translated into English. Not a small feat: Scheidler attempts to retrace the whole history of our civilization under the umbrella concept of the "megamachine." A giant creature that's in several ways equivalent to what another denizen of the collapse sphere, Nate Hagens, calls the "Superorganism." Perhaps these are all new generation of a species which had as ancestor the "Leviathan" imagined by Thomas Hobbes and explicitly mentioned several times in Scheidler's book. 

We may call these creatures "technological holobionts." They are complex systems formed of colonies of subsystems, holobionts in their turn, too. They are evolutionary creatures that grow by optimizing their capability of consuming food and transforming it into waste. It takes time for these entities to stabilize and, at the beginning of their evolutionary history, they may oscillate wildly, grow rapidly, and collapse rapidly. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said long ago, "the road to ruin is rapid" and it is a good description of the fate of young holobionts.

The book can be seen as a description of the life cycle of one of these giant creatures, leviathan, superorganism, or megamachine -- as you like to call it. We see it growing from a tentative start, in the late Middle Ages, then finding an unexpected source of nutritious food in the form of fossil fuels that made it not just grow, but become fat, obnoxious, and cruel. Extremely cruel.

The megamachine is just one of the biggest systems that ever appeared in the history of Earth's ecosphere. As such it has follow the trajectory that's described in the concept of the "Seneca Effect."  At the beginning, it grows slowly, but the more it grows, the faster it can grow. Now, the resources that make it grow start dwindling and the giant brute starts stumbling around in search for more. In doing that, it exhausts itself and prepares for the final fall: the steep descent called the "Seneca Cliff"

That is where we stand right now: on the edge of the cliff and, probably, we have already started sliding down. Scheidler's description of how we arrived here is both impressive and breathtaking. It was a run toward the cliff that we ran convinced that we would have been climbing up forever but, alas, that couldn't be the case and it wasn't. 

Is there life on the other side of the cliff? Of course, yes! The universe moves in cycles and it never stands still. That's also the message of "The End of the Megamachine" that concludes with a look at a possible transition. The human civilization will never be as it was before, it will be based more on collaboration than on competition and with a more constructive relation with the ecosphere. And that's not a choice, it is a requirement for the survival of humankind.

On the bed of the Moldau, the stones are churning,
The days of our rulers are ending fast.
The great don't stay great, the order is turning,
The night has twelve hours, but day comes at last.

Bertolt Brecht 




Monday, February 15, 2021

Why Science is like sex. And why the virtual version is not as good as the real one

 

Some people may think that this is the way science works: a solitary genius straining his brain in order to build a spaceship in his basement (Image: Dr. Zarkov in the "Flash Gordon" series by Alex Raymond). But science is not like that. Not at all! Science is a collective exchange of ideas that assemble themselves in the memesphere. Unfortunately, with the Covid disaster, scientists cannot get together anymore (image source)


Let me start by citing from the book by Per Bak "How Nature Works" (1996) where he describes the discovery of the phenomenon of self-organized criticality (SOC), that you probably know as the "sandpile model." 

We became obsessed with the origin of the mysterious phenomenon of 1/f noise, or more appropriately the 1/f signal that is emitted by numerous sources on earth and elsewhere in the universe. We had endless discussions in the physics coffee room, the intellectual center of Brookhaven. There was a playful atmosphere which is crucial for innovative scientific thinking. There would also one a constant stream of visitors passing through and contributing to our research by participating in the discussions, and sometime by collaborating more directly with us. Good science is fun science.

This is how one of the key concepts of the science of complex systems was born in the 1980s: in the coffee room. And it is a very general point: no coffee room, no science. You can find a similar description in Norbert Wiener's famous book, "Cybernetics" of 1948, where he describes how young and old scientists would collect around a dinner table to grill each other by a friendly but unsparing discussion. It is the same story. If you are a scientist, you know that science is collective. It is born out of discussions. The concept of serendipity doesn't exist if you are alone. 

In the US, they normally understand this point. To have good results in science, you have to let people mix together and campuses are often built with that idea in mind. But it is the way science is managed at all levels. I remember that when I was a post-doc in Berkeley, we had a Fussball table in one of the labs. Some of us had become truly proficient at the game. And, of course, the lunch seminar on Fridays was a good occasion to relax and exchange ideas.

In Europe, things were often a little more stiff and formal. In some universities where I worked, you had the student cafeteria separated from that of the staff -- not a good idea, in my opinion. And in many cases, not even staff members would mix when having lunch. In general, I found that the best universities are those that encouraged social mixing among their staff and students, those which didn't were second or third rate ones. That's not enough to demonstrate a causal relationship, but you may at least suspect it. And, if you are a scientist, you don't just suspect that. You know that.

And now? Over the years, I've seen science declining from the kind of playful search for innovation that Bak, Wiener, and others describe. Science has been bureaucratized, financialized, competitivized, and bowdlerized in all possible ways to become a pale shadow of what it used to be. There are a few superstar scientists who are forced to put out magniloquent press releases every once in a while where they explain how their most recent wonderful invention will one day solve the world's problems, maybe, and only if they keep receiving money to fool around with it. The rest, the rank and file, are running the rat race just to try to survive and can't afford to innovate. They must imitate.

The final blow to science may have been the idea of "social distancing" which destroyed everything that made science fun and interesting. Once you decide that everyone on campus is to be treated as infectious, there are no possibilities of human interactions anymore. Just to give you some idea of the situation, they closed the cafeteria of our campus and they even removed the coffee machines from the halls of the my department building, the only collective spaces that existed to enliven an otherwise grim building. Now, it is just a grim building.

Yes, I know, we have been told that this is only temporary. When the idea of "social distancing" was proposed, it was supposed to be only temporary. It was to last a few weeks, and then everything was to return as before. One year has passed, and nothing has changed. It looks like distancing will be forever. Will it? 

You mean we could use virtual meetings in science? Yeah, sure. Just like doing virtual sex. It may be fun, but I am sure it is not the same as the real thing. As Bak correctly said, good science is fun. I'd say, boring science is no science at all.

But I would like to close this post on an optimistic note. Take a look at this article by Avi Loeb and the comments on it by Chuck Pezeshki. Loeb talks about the Oumuamua asteroid, but he highlights the same problems of science that I have highlighted here: bureaucratization, lack of innovation, etc. And yet, science keeps producing innovation: the example is Loeb himself and his daring description of Oumuamua as an alien solar sail

Or, you may take a look at this recent massive book "Large Igneous Provinces" by Ernst, Dickson, and Bekker that summarizes decades of meticulous research that solved the problem of extinctions: these large igneous provinces (LIPs) create transient warming effects that bake the biosphere and kill many species. That's what doomed the dinosaurs, not an asteroid

Or how an old concept, that of "holobiont," revamped in the 1990s by Lynn Margulis, is slowly revolutionizing our understanding of the ecosphere and legitimize the once heretic concept of "Gaia." Incidentally, according to the holobiontic view of biology, sex is information sharing. And, yes, it is what I said science is (or should be)!

Science still has a lot to give to humankind, but it needs a good shakeup to get rid of the multiple bureaucratic layers that suffocate it. Maybe, the pandemic is the occasion to do just that? It could even happen, who knows? 

 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Why the Hummingbird is the Most Dangerous Animal in the World

This is a revised translation of a post that I published in Italian a couple of years ago. The concept that the Hummingbird is NOT a good example of how to deal with the problems we have is also explained in some detail in my book "Before the Collapse" (2019),

 

If you can understand French, do watch this clip that tells not only the story of the virtuous hummingbird, but how it ends. The conclusion is "if you think with a hummingbird brain, you end up screwed". (h/t Igor Giussani). (In French, hummingbird is "colibri")


Have you ever heard the story of the hummingbird and the fire? It goes like this: there is a gigantic fire raging in the forest. All the animals run for their lives, except for a hummingbird that heads towards the flames with some water in its beak. The lion sees the hummingbird and asks, "Little bird, what do you think you are doing with that drop of water?" And the hummingbird replies, "I am doing my part".

If you studied philosophy in high school, you may think that the hummingbird is a follower of Immanuel Kant and of his categorical imperative principle. Or, maybe, the hummingbird is a stoic philosopher who thinks that his own personal virtue is more important than anything else. 

Apart from philosophy, the moral of the story is often interpreted in an ecological key. That is, everyone should engage individually in good practices for the sake of the environment. Things like turning off the light before leaving the house, turning off the tap while brushing one's teeth, take short showers to save water, ride a bicycle instead of a car, separate waste with attention, and the like. Small things, just like the drop of water that the hummingbird carries in its beak against the fire. But if everyone does their part, we will achieve something.

Maybe. But I have my doubts and I think that this story is not so wise as some people understand it. Actually, I think this matter is something akin to the stuff that comes out of the back end of the male of the bovine species. More than admirable, the hummingbird seems to me a very dangerous animal. To explain why, let me tell you a little story.

Some time ago, as I walked along the street, not far from my home, I found myself immersed in a cloud of smoke. Not pleasant nor healthy, of course. Someone had thought that it was a good moment to burn a pile of clippings from their garden, generating the cloud. Apparently they didn't worry too much about the people walking in the street or the neighbors.

Is it legal to burn stuff with big smoke in the middle of an urban area? Back home, I did a little research on the Web and I found that, in Italy, yes, you can do that, but only in small quantities and according to some strict rules designed to avoid smoking out one's neighbors and passerby. So, it seemed to me appropriate to write a small post for the local discussion group, pointing out the existence of the law and inviting people to be a little more careful with burning things in their gardens.

My gosh! What had I done! In the comments I received insults of all kinds, even threats of a lawsuit. Someone even said to me, "If you say this, you must be a very unhappy person!" (true, I swear!). The curious thing was that the insults all arrived in the name of good ecological practice. Burning the cuttings, I was told, is a natural thing, the smell they make is good, the old farmers did it and so those people who were doing that are true ecologists whereas I had no title to bother anyone with my "legalistic" considerations.

Note how the people who took this position seemed to believe that their commitment to good environmental practices, caring for their gardens or whatever, puts them in a position of moral superiority over those who do not do the same. Consequently, they felt that they could afford to ignore certain laws, for example they can smoke out their neighbors by burning clippings in the garden.

We could call this attitude the "hummingbird syndrome." The fact of being virtuous in a field, gives you the right to be a sinner in another. (I think it is also a problem of Kant's categorical imperative and maybe of the whole concept of the stoic philosophy, but I am not a philosopher so let me stick to hummingbirds). In short, some people seem to think that they can save the world by small and virtuous actions, that is behaving like the humminbird of the story, dropping a little water over a giant forest fire. And having done that, they feel that they can continue polluting in other ways.

Once I got into this order of ideas, I found that I am not the first to think about this matter. Among others, Jean Baptiste Comby wrote similar considerations in his book " La question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d'un problème public"(Raisons d'agir, 2015). He does not use the term "hummingbird syndrome," but he basically says what I am saying here. 

Comby's idea is that the climate issue, and in general the ecological one, has been" depoliticized ", that is, it has been entirely transferred to the private domain of good individual practices. What happens is that the members of the upper middle classes create a little personal innocence for themselves by taking care of some details when, on the other hand, they are the ones who do the most damage to the ecosystem. A petty bourgeois morality that Cyprien Tasset rightly calls "green phariseeism ." 

Here is an exceprt from Tasset's review of the book by Comby

The fifth chapter deals with the "social paradox according to which the prescriptions of eco-citizenship symbolically benefit those who are, in practice, the least respectful of the atmosphere and ecosystems" (p. 16). Indeed, existing data on the social distribution of greenhouse gas emissions show that "the more material resources increase, the greater the propensity to deteriorate the planet" (p. 185). The cultural capital, here is inclined to "show itself to be benevolent towards ecology" and allows for symbolic profits, usually going hand in hand with economic capital, is "without real effect" positive in terms of limiting emissions (p. 186). Jean-Baptiste Comby has the merit of posing this paradox without resorting, as other sociologists sometimes allow themselves to do, to the ideologically overloaded category of "bobos" (fake ecologists) (*).

In short, in my humble opinion the hummingbird is a son of a bitch: flies over the forest, throws his droplet of water, then leaves, happy to have done its duty. And all the animals that can't fly die roasted.

Which could happen to us too if we continue like this.

(h / t Nicolas Casaux)


(*) In French, the term " bobos " indicates the "Bourgeois-Bohemes" - members of the upper middle class who like to paint themselves as caring for the environments but who pollute and consume resources much more than the average citizen.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Cassandra is Dead. Long Live Cassandra!

 

After the fall of Troy, Cassandra was taken as Agamemnon's "pallake" (concubine) and taken to Mycenae where she was killed by Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife. The destiny of prophetesses is never so bright, especially when they turn out to have been right. Something similar, although fortunately much less tragic, is happening to the Cassandra blog, censored on Facebook by the powers that be. So, I guess it is time to call it quits. But Cassandra is not dead! She will return in some form.

 

On March 2, 2011, I started the blog that I titled "Cassandra's Legacy." 10 years later, the blog had accumulated 974 posts, 332 followers, and more than 5 million visualizations (5289.929). Recently, the blog had stabilized at around 2,000-3,000 views per day.

A small blog, by all means, but I always had the sensation that it was not without an impact on the nebulous constellation of the people, high up, whom we call "the powers that be." It is a story that reminds me the legend that George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 after he had learned about peak oil. Reasonably, it can't be but a legend, but are we sure? After all, the people who take decision are not smarter than us, just way richer. And they can misunderstand things just like we all do. Of course, their blunders make much more noise.  

And so, it may well be that many things that we are seeing around us have a logic. For sure, a certain kind of message cannot be eliminated anymore simply by ignoring it. It has to be actively suppressed. And that seems to be what's happening, with censorship rampant in the social media. Even the Cassandra blog, even though not important in itself, attracted the wrath of the powers that be. It was censored on Facebook and it seems to me that it is also kept nearly invisible in the search engines. As I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra, we knew it was going to happen and it did. 

Of course, this blog could survive even while boycotted by Facebook, but when you discover that you are in the crosshairs of someone big and powerful, it is better to take notice, duck down, and take cover. It makes little sense to insist to keep an indefensible position. It is time for Cassandra to fold. 

But this is not a defeat. It is, on the contrary, a badge of honor that the PTBs noticed this blog and acted against it (O.K., maybe it was just a glitch of some complicated AI program, who knows?). In any case, closing the blog simply means recognizing that the memetic war follows the standard rules of war. It is all about movement. And that's what Cassandra is doing. It is moving. We all do. The only things that never move are the dead, and we are still very much alive! And "Cassandra's Legacy" will remain on line, although it won't be updated anymore.

I am working at renewing a blog that I had already created, called "The Seneca Trap."  It will be online soon with the name "The Seneca Effect". We'll see if it becomes another target for the PTBs!

In the meantime, I am passing to you a few paragraphs that I took from Dmitry Orlov's book "The Five Stages of Collapse." (2013) where he correctly predicted how the West was moving along a path that's taking it to follow the steps of the old Soviet Union, even in terms of censorship. Orlov describes how, at that time, people defended themselves from an obtrusive and obtuse regime. I guess we'll have to adopt the same techniques.


The Rise of Steganography

by Dmitry Orlov -- From "The Five Stages of Collapse" (2013)


I am sure that certain readers will at this point recollect schlocky American Cold War novels they wasted their time reading, or automatically conjure up secret codes and communications technologies used Financial Collapse45to play a spy vs. spy cat-and-mouse game with the KGB, while others will want to think that the KGB was sufficiently incompetent and/or demoralized to just let all that secret communication slip by (I assure you that it was not). Well, having seen how it all works in practice, I am happy to disabuse you of all such notions. The only technologies involved were spoken word and pen and paper; the good results were achieved thanks to mental fortitude and solidarity.
The technique I saw used was an instance of steganography, which “is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message, a form of security through obscurity. The word is of Greek origin and means ‘concealed writing’ from the Greek words steganos (στεγανός), meaning ‘covered or protected’, and graphei (γραφή), meaning ‘writing.’”10 There is the outer, public message, which is innocuous or insipid or annoyingly redundant (except for a few easily overlooked details); then there is the inner, private message, which can only be discerned by the intended recipient, who has prior knowledge. The key security feature is that the recipient needs to know that the message is a message at all, never mind decipher it.
My mother and my grandmother kept up a voluminous correspondence augmented by regular telephone conversations. They discussed everything from the weather to their reading to what they ate for break-fast. They also seemed to be curiously obsessed with pieces of porcelain: which tea set was a present from whom, who would have liked it, who had owned a similar one at one time or another, from whom they may have purchased it and how much they may have paid for it, how many cups were cracked or broken, whether they could be repaired, who was the clumsy one and broke a cup, who had been particularly skillful at gluing together a broken cup so that it is now as good as new and so on and so forth, all seemingly innocent prattle between two dotty women reminiscing about sentimental bits of bric-à-brac—but for someone in the know, laden with secret meanings. Cups were thousands of dollars. Tea sets were tens of thousands. Cracked cups were expenses incurred. Broken cups were deals that had fallen through. Any persons mentioned were not referred to by full name but by informal diminutives and endearments and referenced not to actual places and times but to private, shared memories. But there were also passages of general interest, such as soup or cake recipes, sometimes supplied with a passing comment addressed directly to the KGB censor, such as “Others who are reading this might find this interesting as well.” Who could possibly suspect secret, nefarious, conspiratorial intent in some-one so seemingly guileless? Not even the KGB!

 

 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Dealing With Collapse: The Seneca Strategy

This post was originally published on "Cassandra's Legacy



The ruins of the Egyptian Pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large building to collapse in history (*). The collapse of large structures is part of a fascinating field of study that we may call "Collapsology." I already wrote a book on this subject, titled "The Seneca Effect" (Springer and Oekom 2017), available in English and in German. Now, I am writing a second book with Springer which expands and goes more in depth into the matter with the idea of being a "collapse manual" dedicated to how to understand, manage, and even profit from collapses. It should be titled "The Seneca Strategy" and it will be available in 2019. 


About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius noting that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid". It looks obvious, but it was one of those observations that turn out to be not obvious at all if you go in some depth into their meaning. Do you remember the story of Newton's apple? Everyone knows that apples fall from trees, isn't it obvious? Yes, but it was the start of a chain of thoughts that led Isaac Newton to devise something that was not at all obvious: the law of universal gravitation. It is the same thing for Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." Everyone knows that it is true, think of a house of cards. But why is it like this?

Seneca's observation - which I dubbed "The Seneca Effect" (or the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Collapse") is one of the key elements we need to understanding the developments of what we now call the "science of complexity." In the space of a few decades, starting since the 1960s, the development of digital computing has allowed us to tackle problems that, at the time of Newton (not to mention those of Seneca), could not be studied except in a very approximate way.

Using system dynamics, network science, agent-based modeling, and more, this new science has allowed us to penetrate a world that in a certain sense was familiar to us: the world of real things that are born, grow, and sometimes collapse in a ruinous way. The basic ideas in the behavior of complex systems are always the same, especially when dealing with collapses: complex systems are complex because they are dominated by the mechanism we call "feedback." Because of feedback effects, a large structure may collapse when just one of the elements that compose them fails. That may lead to the failure of the elements that surround it. These, in turn, cause the failure of other elements of the system, and so it goes. The result is what we call an "avalanche" and, as Seneca said, "ruin is rapid". 

One question I am often asked about system science is, "can we use it to predict the future?" Alas, there is a small problem with this question: we cannot have exact data on the future because the future doesn't exist (yet). But that doesn't mean that we can try to understand the future. After all, what is the future if not a fan of possibilities that we ourselves may decide to turn into reality? Seneca himself would probably have agreed with this concept: he was deeply involved in the Stoic philosophy. As a good Stoic, he knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society. He himself experienced a "rapid ruin" when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, accused him of treason and ordered him to commit suicide. Seneca had no other choice but to comply. 

So, we can use mathematical models to describe the Seneca Effect, but they are mainly a quantification of ancient wisdom. It is not a question of predicting the future, it is a question of understanding it. And we can use the models to understand that the ecosystem in which we live is not a supermarket from which we can take what we need - and without even having to pay. It is a complex system, subject to the Seneca Collapse. And since we are also part of the ecosystem, when the ecosystem collapses, we collapse, too. Even a stoic like Seneca would have said that if we have a chance to avoid the climate collapse, we should try.

All these things, and many more, I put them together in the book published in 2017 that I titled "The Seneca Effect." Now I am writing another book that should be called "The Seneca Strategy" -- it should be published by Springer in 2019. This second book is more a "collapse manual" that can be used to manage collapses: that is, it explains how to avoid being destroyed by collapses, how to minimize damage, and even how to profit from collapses (hint: have your enemies collapse first!). What I said in my first book remains valid: collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe!




_____________________________


(*) Of course, the collapse of the Meidum Pyramid was an inside job. Look at how the building crumbled: would you believe that it collapsed vertically, all in a symmetric heap? No way. And the witnesses of the collapse say that it fell as rapidly as an apple falls from a tree - which is just impossible. So, it was an inside job devised by Pharaoh Sneferu who had his acolytes strategically placing explosive charges within the pyramid. The Pharaoh wanted the pyramid to crumble so that he could accuse the King of Nubya of having thrown it down by having a charioteer throw his horses against the building at full speed. A classic false flag operation.



 





Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Seneca Effect: What It Is and Why It Is Important For Us



by Ugo Bardi

About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius noting that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid". It was an apparently obvious observation, but one of those observations that turns out to be not obvious at all if you just think a little about it.

For example, do you remember Newton's apple? Everyone knows that apples fall from the trees, but it took Newton to get out of this well-known thing something that was not at all obvious: the law of universal gravitation. It is the same thing for Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." Everyone knows that it is true, think of a house of cards. But why is it like this?

It turns out that Seneca's observation - which I dubbed "The Seneca Effect" (or the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Collapse") is one of the key elements we need to understanding the developments of what we now call the "science of complexity." In the space of a few decades, starting since the 60s of the twentieth century, the development of digital computing has allowed us to tackle problems that, at the time of Newton (not to mention those of Seneca) could not be studied except in a very approximate way.

This new science has allowed us to penetrate a world that in a certain sense was familiar to us: the world of real things that are born, grow, and sometimes collapse in a ruinous way. But it was also a world that once upon a time scientists, accustomed to describing everything with equations, found it difficult to understand and which - in practice - ignored. But there are no equations for certain natural phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, or even for seemingly simple things like the bursting of a balloon. Nor are there any equations for phenomena such as the collapse of the empires, the collapse of the stock market, the disappearance of political parties, and many other things.

All these things, and many more, I put them together in my book that I titled "The Seneca Effect" in honor of the ancient Roman philosopher. It is a story that I tell starting from an example that, in the book, I call "the mother of all collapses," that of the Roman Empire. But in the book I talk about many things: the breaking of objects, the collapse of buildings, the frequency of earthquakes, the war, the financial markets, mass extinctions and many other things. The basic thesis is that all these phenomena have a lot in common: the mechanism of the collapse happens when the system is dominated by the mechanism we call "feedback."


That is, systems may collapse when just one of the elements that compose them fails. That may lead to the failure of the elements that surround it. These, in turn, cause the failure of other elements of the system, and so it goes. The result is what we call an "avalanche" and, as Seneca said, "ruin is rapid". It is a feature of the systems we call "networks", which have undergone a very rapid development of studies in this regard. 

So, I wrote an entire book on the subject that you may find interesting. But one question I am often asked about this book is, "can we use it to predict the future?" The answer is, in the words of Mark Twain, that predictions are always difficult, especially when they have to do with the future. What is the future if not a bundle of possibilities that we ourselves decide whether to turn into reality or not? The future can not be predicted, one can only be prepared for the future. 

Seneca himself would probably have agreed with this concept: he was deeply involved in the Stoic philosophy. As a good Stoic, he knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society. He himself experienced a "rapid ruin" when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, accused him of treason and ordered him to commit sucide. Seneca had no other choice but to comply. 

We can use mathematical models to describe the "Seneca Effect," but they are mainly a quantification of ancient wisdom. It is not a question of predicting the future, it is a question of understanding it. And we can use the models to understand that the ecosystem in which we live is not a supermarket from which we can take what we need - and without even having to pay. It is a complex system, subject to the Seneca Collapse. And since we are also part of the ecosystem, when the ecosystem collapses, we collapse, too. Even a stoic like Seneca would have said that if we can try to avoid climate collapse and other environmental disasters, we must try. 


The book, "The Seneca Effect" is available in English and in German

 





Thursday, March 1, 2018

The "Seneca Effect" Published




Springer: The Frontiers Collection

The Seneca Effect

Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid

Authors: Bardi, Ugo

Presents wisdom from an ancient Roman Philosopher that you can use today. Explains why technological progress may not prevent societal collapse. Provides a true systems perspective on the widespread phenomenon of collapse. Highlights principles to help us manage, rather than be managed by, the greatest challenges of our times.
My new book, "The Seneca Effect" is now available, you can find it on the Springer site, or on Amazon and other on-line sellers. Excuse me if I define it as "monumental" but, really, it has been a lot of work and the book contains a lot of things, mainly explained on the basis of system dynamics. It goes from the crumbling of pyramids, the breakdown of everyday things, all the way to social and economic collapses, including famines wars and assorted catastrophes. Yet, it is not a catastrophistic book. It is just that catastrophes exist and we have to deal with them. And, if nothing old ever disappeared, nothing new could come.

One thing I have to explain about this book is the relatively high price. This is part of Springer's policies; they are not mainstream publishers and they have different pricing policies. And, as you probably know, authors have little to say on this subject, although I think I managed to convince Springer to price this book at relatively low levels for their standards. Don't think I hadn't tried mainstream publishers but, apparently, books about collapse are a no-no with publishers, right now. Nobody wants to mention the subject and maybe there are good reasons.....  (in ancient times, they said, "name the devil and the devil is here")

Also, I can send you a flyer for a 20% discount; just write me at ugo.bardi(thing-a-magig)unifi.it (valid until Oct 07, 2017). If it is still too expensive for you, if you follow the Cassandra blog or the Seneca blog, there are many things you can learn about system dynamics and collapses. It is truly a fascinating subject!

______________________________________________________________________

Here is a description of the book that you can find on the Springer site


The essence of this book can be found in a line written by the ancient Roman Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca: "Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid". This sentence summarizes the features of the phenomenon that we call "collapse," which is typically sudden and often unexpected, like the proverbial "house of cards." But why are such collapses so common, and what generates them? Several books have been published on the subject, including the well known "Collapse" by Jared Diamond (2005), "The collapse of complex societies" by Joseph Tainter (1998) and "The Tipping Point," by Malcom Gladwell (2000). Why The Seneca Effect?

This book is an ambitious attempt to pull these various strands together by describing collapse from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint. The reader will discover how collapse is a collective phenomenon that occurs in what we call today "complex systems," with a special emphasis on system dynamics and the concept of "feedback." From this foundation, Bardi applies the theory to real-world systems, from the mechanics of fracture and the collapse of large structures to financial collapses, famines and population collapses, the fall of entire civilizations, and the most dreadful collapse we can imagine: that of the planetary ecosystem generated by overexploitation and climate change. The final objective of the book is to describe a conclusion that the ancient stoic philosophers had already discovered long ago, but that modern system science has rediscovered today. If you want to avoid collapse you need to embrace change, not fight it. Neither a book about doom and gloom nor a cornucopianist's dream, The Seneca Effect goes to the heart of the challenges that we are facing today, helping us to manage our future rather than be managed by it.