climate

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Book review: Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, by Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy.

This book is moderately addictive softcore version of outrage porn. Only small portions of the book attempt to describe how to recognize valuable warnings and ignore the rest. Large parts of the book seem written mainly to tell us which of the people portrayed in the book we should be outraged at, and which we should praise.

Normally I wouldn’t get around to finishing and reviewing a book containing this little information value, but this one was entertaining enough that I couldn’t stop.

The authors show above-average competence at selecting which warnings to investigate, but don’t convince me that they articulated how they accomplished that.

I’ll start with warnings on which I have the most expertise. I’ll focus a majority of my review on their advice for deciding which warnings matter, even though that may give the false impression that much of the book is about such advice.
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Book review: Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe, by David Denkenberger and Joshua M. Pearce.

I have very mixed feelings about this book.

It discusses some moderately unlikely risks – scenarios where most crops fail worldwide for several years, due to inadequate sunlight.

It’s hard to feel emotionally satisfied about a tolerable but uncomfortable response to disasters, when ideally we’d prevent those disasters in the first place. And the disasters seem sufficiently improbable that I don’t feel comfortable thinking frequently about them. But we don’t yet have a foolproof way of preventing catastrophic climate changes, and there are things we can do to survive them. So logic tells me that we ought to devote a few resources to preparing.

The authors sketch a set of strategies which could conceivably ensure that nobody starves (Wikipedia has a good summary). There might even be a bit of room for mistakes, but not much.

The book focuses on the technical problems, with the hope that others will solve the political problems. This makes some sense, as the feasibility of various political solutions is very different if the best political strategy saves 95% of people than if it saves 30%.

It’s a bit disturbing that this seems to be the most expert analysis available for these scenarios – the authors appear fairly competent, but seem to have done less research than I expect from a technical book. They may have made the right choice to publish early, in order to attract more support. I’m mainly disturbed by what the lack of expertise says about societal competence.

The book leaves me with lots of uncertainty about how hard it is to improve on the meager preparations that have been done so far.

For example, I expect there are a moderate number of people who know something about rapidly scaling up mushroom production. Are they already capable of handling the needed changes? Or are drastically different preparations needed? It’s hard for me to tell without developing significant expertise in growing mushrooms.

There’s probably an urgent need for a bit more preparation for extracting nutrition from ordinary leaves. In particular, I expect it to matter what kinds of leaves to use. The book mostly talks of leaves from trees, but careless people in my area might include poison hemlock leaves, with disastrous results. A small amount of advance preparation should be able to cause large reductions in this kind of mistake.

Another simple preparation that’s needed is a better awareness of where to look in a crisis. The news media in particular ought to be able to quickly find this kind of information even when they’re overwhelmed with problems.

I’m guessing that a few hundred thousand dollars of additional effort in this area would have high expected value, with strongly diminishing returns after that. I’ve donated a small amount to ALLFED, and I encourage you to donate a little bit as well.

Book review: Seasteading, by Joe Quirk, with Patri Friedman.

Seasteading is an interesting idea. Alas, Quirk’s approach is not quirky enough to do justice to the unusual advantages of seasteading.

The book’s style is too much like a newspaper. Rather than focus on the main advantages of seasteading, it focuses on the concerns of the average person, and on how seasteading might affect them. It quotes interesting people extensively, while being vague about whether the authors are just reporting that those people have ideas, or whether the authors have checked that the ideas are correct. Many of the ideas seem rather fishy.

I suspect that seasteading’s biggest need now is businessmen and/or VCs who can start cruise-ship-sized projects. Yet the book seems aimed more at creating broad, shallow support among ordinary readers than it is at inspiring competent entrepreneurs.
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This post is about the combined effects of cheap solar energy, batteries, and robocars.

Peak oil is coming soon, and will be at least as important as peak whale oil; probably more like peak horse.

First I noticed a good article on the future of fossil fuels by Colby Davis. Then I noticed a report on robocars by Rethinkx, which has some fairly strong arguments that Colby underestimates the speed of change. In particular, Colby describes “reasonable assumptions” as implying “Electric vehicles would make up a third of the market by 2035 and half by 2040”, whereas RethinkX convinced me to expect a 2035 market share of more like 99%.

tl;dr: electric robocars run by Uber-like companies will be cheap enough that you’ll have trouble giving away a car bought today. Uber’s prices will be less than your obsolete car’s costs of fuel, maintainance, and insurance.

As I was writing this post, a Chinese official talked about banning gas-based cars “in the near future” (timing not yet decided). If only I had bought shares in a lithium mining company before that news.

energy costs

Solar costs have dropped at a Moore’s law-like rate. See Swanson’s law.
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Book review: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, by Kevin N. Laland.

This book is a mostly good complement to Henrich’s The Secret of our Success. The two books provide different, but strongly overlapping, perspectives on how cultural transmission of information played a key role in the evolution of human intelligence.

The first half of the book describes the importance of copying behavior in many animals.

I was a bit surprised that animals as simple as fruit flies are able to copy some behaviors of other fruit flies. Laland provides good evidence that a wide variety of species have evolved some ability to copy behavior, and that ability is strongly connected to the benefits of acquiring knowledge from others and the costs of alternative ways of acquiring that knowledge.

Yet I was also surprised that the value of copying is strongly limited by the low reliability with which behavior is copied, except with humans. Laland makes plausible claims that the need for high-fidelity copying of behavior was an important driving force behind the evolution of bigger and more sophisticated brains.

Laland claims that humans have a unique ability to teach, and that teaching is an important adaptation. He means teaching in a much broader sense than we see in schooling – he includes basic stuff that could have preceded language, such as a parent directing a child’s attention to things that the child ought to learn. This seems like a good extension to Henrich’s ideas.

The most interesting chapter theorizes about the origin of human language. Laland’s theory that language evolved for teaching provides maybe a bit stronger selection pressure than other theories, but he doesn’t provide much reason to reject competing theories.

Laland presents seven criteria for a good explanation of the evolution of language. But these criteria look somewhat biased toward his theory.

Laland’s first two criteria are that language should have been initially honest and cooperative. He implies that it must have been more honest and cooperative than modern language use is, but he isn’t as clear about that as I would like. Those two criteria seem designed as arguments against the theory that language evolved to impress potential mates. The mate-selection theory involves plenty of competition, and presumably a fair amount of deception. But better communicators do convey important evidence about the quality of their genes, even if they’re engaging in some deception. That seems sufficient to drive the evolution of language via mate-selection pressures.

Laland’s theory seems to provide a somewhat better explanation of when language evolved than most other theories do, so I’m inclined to treat it as one of the top theories. But I don’t expect any consensus on this topic anytime soon.

The book’s final four chapters seemed much less interesting. I recommend skipping them.

Henrich’s book emphasized evidence that humans are pretty similar to other apes. Laland emphasizes ways in which humans are unique (language and teaching ability). I didn’t notice any cases where they directly contradicted each other, but it’s a bit disturbing that they left quite different impressions while saying mostly appropriate things.

Henrich claimed that increasing climate variability created increased rewards for the fast adaptation that culture enabled. Laland disagrees, saying that cultural change itself is a more plausible explanation for the kind of environmental change that incentivized faster adaptation. My intuition says that Laland’s conclusion is correct, but he seems a bit overconfident about it.

Overall, Laland’s book is less comprehensive and less impressive than Henrich’s book, but is still good enough to be in my top ten list of books on the evolution of intelligence.

Update on 2017-08-18: I just read another theory about the evolution of language which directly contradicts Laland’s claim that early language needed to be honest and cooperative. Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language claims that an important role of initial human vocal flexibility was to deceive other species.

Discussions asking whether “Snowball Earth” triggered animal evolution (see the bottom half of that page) suggest increasing evidence that the Snowball Earth hypothesis may explain an important part of why spacefaring civilizations seem rare.

photosynthetic organisms are limited by nutrients, most often nitrogen or phosphorous

the glaciations led to high phosphorous concentrations, which led to high productivity, which led to high oxygen in the oceans and atmosphere, which allowed for animal evolution to be triggered and thus the rise of the metazoans.

This seems quite speculative, but if true it might mean that our planet needed a snowball earth effect for complex life to evolve, but also needed that snowball earth period to be followed by hundreds of millions of years without another snowball earth period that would wipe out complex life. It’s easy to imagine that the conditions needed to produce one snowball earth effect make it very unusual for the planet to escape repeated snowball earth events for as long as it did, thus explaining more of the Fermi paradox than seemed previously possible.

Rob Freitas has a good report analyzing how to use molecular nanotechnology to return atmospheric CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels by about 2060 or 2070.

My only complaint is that his attempt to estimate the equivalent of Moore’s Law for photovoltaics looks too optimistic, as it puts too much weight on the 2006-2008 trend, which was influenced by an abnormal rise in energy prices. If the y-axis on that graph were logarithmic instead of linear, it would be easier to visualize the lower long-term trend.

(HT Brian Wang).

The Global Catastrophic Risks conference last Friday was a mix of good and bad talks.
By far the most provocative was Josh‘s talk about “the Weather Machine”. This would consist of small (under 1 cm) balloons made of material a few atoms thick (i.e. needed nanotechnology that won’t be available for a couple of decades) filled with hydrogen and having a mirror in the equatorial plane. They would have enough communications and orientation control to be individually pointed wherever the entity in charge of them wants. They would float 20 miles above the earth’s surface and form a nearly continuous layer surrounding the planet.
This machine would have a few orders of magnitude more power over atmospheric temperatures to compensate for the warming caused by greenhouse gasses this century, although it would only be a partial solution to the waste heat farther in the future that Freitas worries about in his discussion of the global hypsithermal limit.
The military implications make me wish it won’t be possible to make it as powerful as Josh claims. If 10 percent of the mirrors target one location, it would be difficult for anyone in the target area to survive. I suspect defensive mirrors would be of some use, but there would still be serious heating of the atmosphere near the mirrors. Josh claims that it could be designed with a deadman switch that would cause a snowball earth effect if the entity in charge were destroyed, but it’s not obvious why the balloons couldn’t be destroyed in that scenario. Later in the weekend Chris Hibbert raised concerns about how secure it would be against unauthorized people hacking into it, and I wasn’t reassured by Josh’s answer.

James Hughes gave a talk advocating world government. I was disappointed with his inability to imagine that that would result in power becoming too centralized. Nick Bostrom’s discussions of this subject are much more thoughtful.

Alan Goldstein gave a talk about the A-Prize and defining a concept called the carbon barrier to distinguish biological from non-biological life. Josh pointed out that as stated all life fit Goldstein’s definition of biological (since any information can be encoded in DNA). Goldstein modified his definition to avoid that, and then other people mentioned reports such as this which imply that humans don’t fall within Goldstein’s definition of biological due to inheritance of information through means other than DNA. Goldstein seemed unable to understand that objection.

Book review: Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom, and Milan Cirkovic.
This is a relatively comprehensive collection of thoughtful essays about the risks of a major catastrophe (mainly those that would kill a billion or more people).
Probably the most important chapter is the one on risks associated with AI, since few people attempting to create an AI seem to understand the possibilities it describes. It makes some implausible claims about the speed with which an AI could take over the world, but the argument they are used to support only requires that a first-mover advantage be important, and that is only weakly dependent on assumptions about that speed with which AI will improve.
The risks of a large fraction of humanity being killed by a super-volcano is apparently higher than the risk from asteroids, but volcanoes have more of a limit on their maximum size, so they appear to pose less risk of human extinction.
The risks of asteroids and comets can’t be handled as well as I thought by early detection, because some dark comets can’t be detected with current technology until it’s way too late. It seems we ought to start thinking about better detection systems, which would probably require large improvements in the cost-effectiveness of space-based telescopes or other sensors.
Many of the volcano and asteroid deaths would be due to crop failures from cold weather. Since mid-ocean temperatures are more stable that land temperatures, ocean based aquaculture would help mitigate this risk.
The climate change chapter seems much more objective and credible than what I’ve previously read on the subject, but is technical enough that it won’t be widely read, and it won’t satisfy anyone who is looking for arguments to justify their favorite policy. The best part is a list of possible instabilities which appear unlikely but which aren’t understood well enough to evaluate with any confidence.
The chapter on plagues mentions one surprising risk – better sanitation made polio more dangerous by altering the age at which it infected people. If I’d written the chapter, I’d have mentioned Ewald’s analysis of how human behavior influences the evolution of strains which are more or less virulent.
There’s good news about nuclear proliferation which has been under-reported – a fair number of countries have abandoned nuclear weapons programs, and a few have given up nuclear weapons. So if there’s any trend, it’s toward fewer countries trying to build them, and a stable number of countries possessing them. The bad news is we don’t know whether nanotechnology will change that by drastically reducing the effort needed to build them.
The chapter on totalitarianism discusses some uncomfortable tradeoffs between the benefits of some sort of world government and the harm that such government might cause. One interesting claim:

totalitarian regimes are less likely to foresee disasters, but are in some ways better-equipped to deal with disasters that they take seriously.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) has introduced a bill to create prizes for carbon sequestration:

This is how it would work. There would be four different levels of prizes. The first level award would go to the public or private entity that could first demonstrate a design for a successful technology that could remove and permanently sequester greenhouse gases. Second, there would be a prize for a lab scale demonstration project of the technology that accomplishes the same thing. Third, there would be an award for demonstrating the technology to remove and permanently sequester greenhouse gases that is operational at a larger, working model scale. Finally, there would be an award for whoever could demonstrate the technology to remove and permanently sequester greenhouse gases on a commercially viable scale.

It sounds like many important details would be decided by a federal commission. The prizes could have many of the promises and drawbacks of Virgin Earth Challenge.
The first three levels of the prizes appear to create incentives to create designs with little regard for commercial feasibility. If those prizes are large, they might end up rewarding technologies that are too expensive to be worth using. Small prizes might have little trouble with this due to inventors not wanting to spend much money to win the prizes, but I’d still have concerns about inventors paying little attention to reliability and maintenance costs. The fourth level appears more promising.
Bureaucrats are likely to put more effort into clarifying prize rules that the Virgin Earth group did. But it’s unclear whether any approaches that a government agency is likely to recommend will do a decent job of translating the “commercially viable” goal into a clear enough set of rules that inventors will be able to predict how the prizes will be awarded.
My advice for the commission, should it be created, is that it tie the prizes to actual amounts of carbon removed from the atmosphere over some pre-specified period, or to estimates of those amounts derived from a prediction market.
(HT Jim Manzi).