Monday, July 9, 2018

The Queen and the Philosopher: War, Money, and Metals in Roman Britain

  We know very little about Queen Boudica of the Iceni (20 AD (?) - 61 AD) and most of what we know is probably deformed by Roman propaganda. But we may still be able to put together the main elements of her story and how it was that she almost threw the mighty Roman Legions out of Britain. Above, a fantasy interpretation of the Celtic Queen from "" (this post was inspired by a note of Mireille Martini)

You probably know the story of Queen Boudica. Tall, strong, and terrible, she was the embodiment of the fierce warrioress who fought - bravely but unsuccessfully - to defend her people from the oppression of an evil empire, that the Romans. It all happened during the reign of Emperor Nero, 2nd century AD.

As usual, the passage of time has turned these events into legends, deformed by the lens of propaganda. But maybe we can still discern the reasons for Boudica's rebellion and learn something relevant for our times. As it often happens in history, to understand why something happens, you only need to follow the money.  In this particular case, it is curious that the money that triggered the war may have been provided by no one else than Lucius Annaeus Seneca, yes, the Stoic philosopher. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

First of all, why were the Romans in Britain at the time of Queen Boudica? Simple: because of the British mineral resources. Britain had a long story of mining that went back to the Bronze Age and to even earlier times. The British mines could provide copper, tin, iron, lead, and even precious metals: gold and silver. These were all vital resources for the Roman Empire, which used precious metals for coinage and all sort of metals for its various technologies.

The Romans already set foot in Britain at the time of Julius Caesar, in 55 BC. They set up a full-fledged invasion only in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius. But even before invading, according to  Strabo's Geography, there was a brisk commercial network that connected Rome to Britain, with Britain exporting metals and importing luxury goods of all sorts, silk, olive oil, food, slaves, and more.

This story tells us a lot about how the Romans managed their empire. Their expansion was not simply a question of a blitzkrieg war machine. Invading a foreign kingdom was preceded by a long period of cultural and commercial assimilation and it was attempted only when it could provide a financial profit. That required a certain degree of economic development of the regions being assimilated. It didn't work with the Germans, who had no mines and only a relatively primitive economy. And they were also a tough military force, able to defeat even the mighty Roman war machine - they did that at Teutoburg, in 9 AD. So, the Romans shifted their attention to the wealthier and metal-rich Britain. It worked: the invasion of 43 AD was relatively easy in military terms. Afterward, the mines increased their production by means of Roman technology, commerce boomed, new Roman settlements were built, and Britain started being romanized.

But something went badly wrong in 60 AD, when the Romans suddenly faced a major rebellion of the Iceni people living in Eastern England, led by their redoubtable queen, Boudica. At the end of this post, you can read the details of the story as we know it, told by Jason Porath in a light-hearted style. Summarizing, when Boudica's husband, King Prasutagus, died, the Romans intervened, seized his lands, had his widow flogged, and his daughters raped. The queen was not amused and the rebellion started with all the associated atrocities. Eventually, the Romans managed to get the upper hand and Boudica killed herself.

But what made the Romans behave in a way that was nearly sure to spark a rebellion? Maybe it was just their lust for power, but there is a detail told by Dio Cassius (vol VIII, Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.2) that can help us understanding what happened. Cassius says that Seneca (yes, he was a philosopher, but also a rich man) had lent to the Iceni a large sum of money and that the Iceni were unable to return it. That suggests that the key of the story was money.

According to Dio Cassius, we are talking of 40 million sesterces. What kind of money is that? It is not so easy for us to visualize this sum, but we know that in those times a Roman legionary was paid nine hundred sestertii per annum. So, 40 million sesterces could pay some 50 thousand troops for a year - a large military force for the time. From this and other data, we could say - roughly, very roughly - that the value of a sesterce was of the order of 50 dollars. So, 40 million sesterces could be compared to some two billion dollars today. Clearly, we are discussing of a large sum for a small economy such as that of the Iceni tribe had to be.

We don't know what King Prasotagus had in mind to do with that money, but we know that something went wrong. Dio Cassius faults Seneca himself for having precipitated the rebellion by insisting to have his money back. That Seneca did that out of personal greed seems to be unlikely, as discussed by Grimal. Cassius was writing more than a century after the events he was describing and he may have wanted to cast Seneca in a bad light for ideological reasons. But that's just a detail. What matters is that the Iceni (or, better said, the Iceni elite) defaulted on a large debt they had with the Romans.

In ancient times, defaulting on one's debt was a serious crime and the early Roman laws punished it by having the debtor drawn and quartered. In Imperial times, there were considerably more lenient laws - but these laws very valid only for Roman citizens and Boudica was not one. In this light, flogging doesn't sound like an exaggerated punishment for defaulting on a large debt. Even the rape of her daughters was not something really unusual as a punishment for non-Roman citizens in those times. In any case, it is likely that the Romans didn't do what they did because they enjoyed torturing and raping women -- they used the default as an excuse to seize the Iceni kingdom. We can't even exclude that the loan was engineered from the beginning with the idea of annexing the kingdom to the Roman Empire.

At this point, the Iceni elite had little choice: either lose everything or rebel against the largest military power of their time. Neither looked like a good choice, but they chose the one that turned out to be truly disastrous.

All that happened afterward was already written in the book of destiny - the archeological records tell us of cities burned to the ground, confirming the reports of the Roman historians of initial Iceni victories. Standard propaganda techniques probably caused the Roman historians to exaggerate the atrocities performed by the Iceni, just as the number of their fighters. Even Boudica herself was portraited as a larger-than-life heroine, but we can't even be completely sure that she actually existed. In any case, the revolt was bound to fail, and it did. In a few centuries, Boudica was forgotten by her own people. The Roman Empire faded, but the Roman influence on British customs and language remains visible to this day (even though the ghost of the old queen may be pleased by the Brexit!).

What's most interesting in this story is the light it sheds on the inner workings of Empires. We tend to think that Empires exist because of their mighty armies - which is true, in part - but armies are not everything and in any case the soldiers must be paid. Empires exist because they can control money, (or capital if you prefer). That's the real tool that builds empires: No money - no empire! 

And that takes us to the current empire, the one we call the "American Empire" or "the "Western Empire." It does have mighty armies but, really, the grip it has on the world is all based on money. Without the mighty dollar, it is hard to think that the large military and commercial network we call "globalization" could exist.

So, can we think of a modern equivalent of the Iceni rebellion? Surely we can: think of the end of the Soviet Union. It was brought down in 1991 not by military means but by financial ones. The debt the Soviet Union had with the West is estimated at US$ 70 billion, in relative terms probably not far from the 40 million sesterces the Iceni owed to the Romans. Unable to repay this debt, the Soviet elites had only two choices: dissolve or fight. They made an attempt to fight with the "August Putsch" in 1991, but it rapidly fizzled out. There was no chance for the Soviet Communists to make a mistake similar to the one Queen Boudica made, that is starting a full-fledged military rebellion against a much more powerful enemy. That was good for everybody on this planet since the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads which might have been used in desperation. Fortunately, history doesn't always repeat itself!

But, if history doesn't repeat itself, at least it rhymes and the ability of the Western Empire to use financial means to bring countries into submission is well documented. Another, more recent, case, is that of Greece: again a nation that couldn't give back the money it owed to the imperial powers. For a short moment, in 2015, it looked like the Greeks had decided to rebel against the empire - although that would have been only a purely financial rebellion - no march on Brussels was planned! In the end, the Greek elites chose to submit. The punishment for the Greek citizens has been harsh but, at least, their country was not bombed and destroyed, as it happens rather often nowadays, when the Imperial Powers that Be become angry.

But for how long will the Western Empire remain powerful? Just like for the Roman Empire, its destiny seems to be a cycle of growth and decline - and the decline may have already started as shown by the failure of the attempt of bankrupting the heir of the Soviet Union, Russia (again, fortunately for everybody, because Russia has nuclear weapons). The globalized empire seems to be getting weaker and weaker every day. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, only time will tell.

A note added after publication: there are some curious coincidences in this story. Seneca was probably the most powerful man of the empire from ca AD 54 to 62, almost an emperor himself while Nero was still very young. It is during this period that the story of the loan to King Prasotagus took place and, then, the rebellion of Queen Boudica started in AD 60. It is reported that Nero was so upset by the initial successes of the Iceni that he seriously considered ordering the legions to abandon Britain. So, let's see what we know: Seneca makes a big mistake, Nero is very angry because of that and, a few years later, he orders Seneca to commit suicide (AD 65) with the accusation of treason. Maybe. Or maybe it was Boudica's ghost who took her posthumous revenge on Seneca!


Jason Porath -

. . .  the Romans, at the apex of their arrogance, set into action an outrageously poor set of decisions. Try to spot where things go off the rails:
  • They did not recognize Boudica’s claim to the throne because she was a woman.
  • They laid claim to all of the late king’s money.
  • Also to a ton of Iceni land.
  • And said that some money they’d given the late king was a loan, due back (with interest) immediately.
  • They then publicly flogged Boudica.
  • And raped her two daughters.
You can probably tell at this point that the rest of this story isn’t going to go well for the Romans.

The amazing thing is, this was totally in line with the (local) Romans’ line of stupid moves! When Boudica subsequently raised a mob and began marching on the nearby town of Camulodunum (essentially a veterans retirement home), several other Roman blunders came to light:
  • Camulodunum had dismantled its own defenses so more people could build houses.
  • They’d been overtaxing all the neighboring Britons, mostly because they could.
  • All the collected money had gone to building a fancy temple, which was effectively a giant middle finger to their subjugated neighbors.
  • Lastly, when the Romans got word that some rowdy barbarian lady was acting up, they laughed and sent 200 soldiers to scare her off. The 120,000 men she’d gathered laughed back and killed everyone in the city.
Fun science fact: if you apply a sustained fire to an entire Roman city, you can turn it into a molten pile of sickly red clay.
Fun science fact: if you apply a sustained fire to an entire Roman city, you can turn it into a molten pile of sickly red clay. This fact comes to us courtesy of Boudica, warrior scientist of the first century, and the 6-inch-thick layer of detritus that is current-day Camulodunum. She repeated her experiment with two other cities, including Londinium, the precursor to London. 

Along the way, her army, which had at this point become a roaming 230,000-man block party, killed an armed Roman legion, around 70,000 civilians, and became Rome’s worst nightmare. In order to understand how terrifying this was for Rome, one should understand some specifics of Boudica’s uprising:
  • They cut off the breasts of Roman noblewomen, sewed them to their mouths, and hung the bodies or mounted them on spears.
  • The Iceni decapitated people as a matter of religious principle. They’d embalm the heads of their enemies and mount them on chariots. The rest were thrown into rivers (and are still occasionally found to this day).
  • Rome was huge to the point of unwieldy at this point. Stories of an untrained mob wiping out veterans left and right raised the spectre of uprisings happening everywhere.
  • “Moreover,” a prominent Roman historian wrote, “all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”
Unfortunately, Boudica’s success had largely been predicated on surprise, and did not last long. When they went up against entrenched Roman soldiers, the Iceni fell apart. A mere 15,000 Romans were able to rout Boudica’s massive army, killing 80,000 in the process. So sure had the Boudican mob been of their victory that they’d brought their families out to the battlefield in wagons – wagons that later pinned them in from retreating.

Her methods are almost directly equivalent to tribal headhunters and religious extremists, but she’s held up as a vengeful heroine instead of deranged villain.

Boudica’s final fate is unknown. Some suppose she swallowed poison, and others that she was killed in battle. Her story was all but forgotten for centuries, until the rediscovery of documents from Roman historians. After that, she became a national hero of Britain in short order, soon appearing in textbooks, statues, and movies.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Overpopulation Problem? What Overpopulation Problem?

Some people seem to be horrified at the sight of these images. For me, it is more a sensation of melancholy. These masses of people can exist only for a brief moment in the history of humankind. Overpopulation is a problem that will solve itself rather quickly although, unfortunately, not without pain.

I keep reading more and more comments about overpopulation on the social media. It is not just an impression: the trend of increasing interest in population matters is visible in Google Trends. Still weak, but it is there.

It is puzzling how the question is returning. It had disappeared from the media after it had been popular in the 1970s, at the time of the first "The Limits to Growth" study. At that time, there were less than 4 billion people and that was viewed as a huge problem. Then, somehow, it became unfashionable to mention overpopulation, just as it became unfashionable to consider "The Limits to Growth" as anything more than a completely wrong study written by people not smarter than Chicken Little (it wasn't the case).

Now, with twice as many people - 7.6 billion humans - we see a return of the idea that - really - there may be a little problem of overpopulation. Humans are so many that they are appropriating a larger and larger fraction of the ecosystem. That means less and less space for other species which are, indeed, fast disappearing. When you read that, in a not too remote future, the only large animal left on the Earth will be the cow, well, that makes you think.

A specific streak of the discussion is that overpopulation is not just a problem, it is "the" problem. If we could reduce the number of humans, it is said, then all the other problems, pollution, global warming, resource depletion, would all become automatically much more manageable - if not completely solved. This opinion is often accompanied by statements that the reduction must be accomplished by fair and nonviolent means: voluntary birth control only. That doesn't prevent some people from accusing the "Greens" or the "global elites" of planning the extermination of most of humankind. Others see an evil plot in the growing population, accusing the powers that be - governments, religious organizations, the Illuminati, the gnomes of Zurich, or whatever - to be engaged in a global conspiracy aimed at hiding the dangers of overpopulation.

Personally, I am not too worried about human overpopulation, nor about these pretended evil conspiracies. Not that I think that there aren't too many people around. The point, I think, is that if today overpopulation is a problem, and it is, it will solve itself rather quickly (although not without pain). No need for evil elites plotting extermination, nor of well-intentioned activists teaching the poor how to use condoms. The system itself will cause the human population to collapse.

The current 7.6 billion people on the Earth are alive in a very special moment of human history. It had never happened before and it is unlikely that it will happen again the foreseeable future. So many people are alive today because there exists a sophisticated and incredibly complex system engaged in keeping them alive. The stupendous transportation system that carries food all over the world is powered by fossil energy and controlled by the financial and political system we call the "globalization." As long as fossil energy and globalization exist, people will be fed and population may continue growing.

But for how long? The whole system is under heavy strain because of depletion and pollution. Natural resources are more and more costly to produce while fighting pollution - also in the form of global warming - is becoming more and more expensive. A new major financial collapse will be sufficient to disrupt the transportation chain which ships food it all over the planet. Without this system, the food will rot where it is produced and the people at the other end of the chain will starve. It will be the Seneca Cliff of the whole system, including the human population.

There are other factors which may also work in the direction of reducing the human population. Think how interesting are the 400+ million tons of human flesh existing today for predators such as viruses, bacteria, and assorted parasites - we are their prey and we are rapidly becoming an abundant and easy prey. And there are more possibilities, from reduced fertility caused by heavy metal pollution to the old-fashioned, but always effective, large-scale wars. (1)

Recently, I published a paper on the Journal of Population and Sustainability where I looked for some historical examples of how populations (not just human ones) crashed down in the past. I found more than one reason that can lead to an abrupt collapse. An especially poignant example is that of the horse population in the US. It experienced a fast when the horses went down from some 27 million in 1920 to about 3 million in 1960. No one called for the extermination of horses but they had lost their economic value - replaced by machines -  and so they were not cared for anymore and not even allowed to reproduce. And that was the Seneca Cliff for horses.

Why not a similar cliff ahead for humans? They, too, have lost their economic value, being replaced by machines. You say that humans are not horses? Sure, but think about something: who decided the fate of horses? And who decides the fate of humans? You get my point, I guess. With humans rapidly becoming technologically obsolete, there would be no need to wait for an energy cliff to bring down civilization as a whole before seeing their numbers radically curtailed.

So, you may like to read my paper in the Journal of Population and Sustainability.

(1) I know that Paul Ehrlich cried wolf too early about population collapse, in 1968. Sure, that means population will keep growing forever, right?

(2) To explain this point, the fate of horses in the US 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Betrayal of a Nation. How the Kiribati People Will be Left to Drown

Anote's Ark is a film by Matthieu Rytz describing the plight of the Kiribati islands, threatened by the rising sea level. 


Anote's Ark is a beautiful movie that follows the fight of Kiribati's president, Anote's Tong, on behalf of his people, trying to save them from the rising sea. The movie succeeds in telling the story and in making its case without preaching or pleading. But it hides the last phase of the story: the betrayal of an entire nation, taking place right now.

It is just a hint at the end of the movie: a line of text appearing on the screen, stating that the new Kiribati President, elected in 2016, has been reversing the policies of his predecessor. Nothing more is said but, if you look at the story on the Web, you see that it is true. For instance, we read on CBS news of November 2017, that the new government,
. . . proclaims the goal of promoting tourism by attracting foreign investors to develop "5-star eco-friendly resorts that would promote world-class diving, fishing and surfing experiences" on currently uninhabited islands. It says the nation's 20-year plan "has an ambitious aim to transform Kiribati into the Dubai or Singapore of the Pacific." 
And the new president Taneti Maamau, says that,

". . . we don't believe that Kiribati will sink like the Titanic ship. Our country, our beautiful lands, are created by the hands of God."
We all know that "whom the gods would destroy they first make mad" which seems to be describing the situation in the Kiribati islands. But we also know that there is method in some madnesses, and this may be one of those cases.

I already noted the case of the government of the Maldives, which went through the same policy U-turn as in Kiribati - that is from trying to save the islands to turning them into world-class tourist resorts. I titled my piece as "Those whom the Gods would destroy, they drive toward the Seneca Cliff" noting that,
Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain. So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain. What we are seeing, therefore, is a game in which someone will be left holding the short end of the dynamite stick. When the elites of the Maldives will have left for higher grounds, the poor will be stuck there. For them, the Seneca Cliff ends underwater.
Exactly the same thing seems to be going on with the Kiribati islands. You don't have to be especially smart to understand that the rest of the world will not do anything to help the islanders. They will be left to drown while the people of the "developed" world will keep driving their SUVs. But, for those Kiribati people who have bank accounts on dry land, the road to salvation is clear.

It is, in the end, a new manifestation of what I called "The Camper's Dilemma." It is what happens when betrayal is judged to pay more than collaboration. In this case, overt betrayal is often preceded by a phase of active deception - it is something that governments are masters at doing with their citizens (as I argued for the case of Italy during ww2).

The cases of small islands are not isolated, only more evident than others. Look at what Donald Trump is doing: he downplays climate change in favor of economic development, just what the Kiribati's and Maldives' governments are doing. If the US elites have decided that there is no hope to save everyone, the logical thing for them is to move into "cheating mode" and let most people die not just by sea level rise, but by starvation, sickness, and other consequences of climate change. That gives them the time to prepare, accumulating resources for the coming emergency.

If this interpretation is correct, the elites of most of the developed world will soon follow suit in the denial of climate change. We have just to wait and see.

Note 1: The Kiribati islands, just like the Maldives, are coral islands. That gives them a certain resilience. They can cope with modest rises, but that's not enough fo the kind of changes that we are expecting 

Note 2: For a fictionalized version of this post, see "The True Story of the Fall of Troy"

Note 3: I don't mean that the elites of the world tend to get together in smoke-filled rooms where they discuss the grand plan for the extermination of the poor. I mean that there is a certain logic in a certain kind of actions and that this logic may even be followed without consciously realizing that. In other words, H.E. president Maamau may be sincerely convinced that God will save the Kiribati Islands

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Trump Takes Italy by Storm: the Rise of Matteo Salvini and of the Italian Right

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian League and Minister of the Interior since June 2018. During the past few weeks, he has gained political prominence in Italy by adopting Trump's style and policies. Here, you see him together with the slogan "Italians First."

During the past few weeks, we have seen a true political revolution in Italy. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian League, has successfully exploited his new position of Minister of the Interior to gain personal prominence. The M5s movement had won the elections, this year, but it has been emarginated to a secondary role, while Salvini acts and looks like if he were the real Prime Minister. If new elections were held now in Italy, Salvini and the League would win hands down

All politics is, after all, about blame shifting. So, political success means simply finding someone to blame. Matteo Salvini was successful by adopting the same style and content that made the political fortune of Donald Trump. Both Trump and Salvini found a good target to blame with immigrants and foreigners in general. Both used harsh language, insults, callousness, and plain racism. Both found that the more shrill and violent their utterances were, the more they were approved by the public. It took a remarkably small effort to convince a large majority of Italians that all their troubles are caused by immigrants and, in particular, by the Roma people (less than the 0.2% of the Italian population). Salvini also capitalized on demonizing the Euro and the European Union, although he can't afford (so far) to exaggerate with insults and threats in that field. In any case, right now, it seems that 72% of Italians approve Salvini's actions
For everything that happens there is a reason and there has to be a reason for the outburst of hate and of racism in Italy. It has to do, probably, with the return of nation-states as protagonists in the world power game and with the ongoing disgregation of the American Empire. 

After the end of WW2, the European Union took the role of an agent of the American Empire to keep the European states under control. But the EU itself had to be kept under control, least it could become another empire that could have challenged the American supremacy. So, the EU wasn't allowed to develop an army, nor all the paraphernalia that would have turned it into a recognizable state, from an official language to a decent flag. It was an exercise in political acrobatics and it is remarkable that it worked reasonably well for more than half a century. 

But, today, the EU is weakened by the economic crisis and probably fatally wounded by the loss of Britain. All Empires tend to collapse in times of economic hardships, an even more likely outcome for a entity, the EU, which was a failed empire from the beginning. So, the old states are rising again - a trend that we see also outside Europe. Even in the US, Donald Trump is busy at turning the American Empire back into a nation-state. That changes many things, not necessarily for good.

Normally, empires are not racist and they don't engage in ethnical cleansing. They cannot afford that, since they are composed of heterogeneous entities which may need to be kept together by force. That makes Empires expensive: one of their characteristic is the large and costly military apparatus they are forced to maintain. Excessive military expenses is the most common cause of the collapse of empires. It happened to the Ancient Romans, just as it happened to the Soviet Union. And it is happening right now to the American Empire. It just can't survive for long without the influx of cheap energy and resources that created it.

Nation-states, instead, are relatively homogeneous entities in linguistic and ethnical terms, less likely to fragment in smaller pieces. What they need in terms of military force may be just a militia able to put down or exterminate ethnical or ideological minorities. That makes them less expensive and more resilient than empires. They can survive the economic hardships that shattered the most powerful empires in the world's history.

Nation-states often generate great enthusiasm among their citizens, but they are far from being benign entities. Their ethnical and linguistical homogeneity may be more a dream than reality and their survival may need to be propped up a poisonous mix of aggressive nationalism, hate, and racism directed against foreigners. It was one of the methods used in Italy by Mussolini's government in the 1920s and 30s, so it is not surprising that Mr. Salvini's government (formally known as Conte's government) is using the same methods today. As we know, hate and racism may not remain confined to insults.

And here we stand. The message that the current economic hardship is the result of resource depletion and of the negative effects of ecosystem disruption didn't pass, and maybe it never will. At this point, accusing Salvini or Trump of "populism" or of "racism" is not going to stop the trend. It is clear that their methods work wonderfully well. The skunk is out of the bag and we don't have to wait for long before other leaders will follow their example. A new round of ethnical cleansing in Western Europe, if not the start of a new European war, may be a plausible scenario for a non-remote future

But nothing is unavoidable. With enormous changes going on worldwide, with the ecosystem collapsing, with natural resources dwindling, with the human population still expanding, we may be rather facing a Seneca Collapse that will make short work of the European nation-states, just as the current crisis is destroying the American Empire. The future is never like the past and the only thing we are sure about it is that we cannot be sure of anything.


Monday, June 18, 2018

The Impossible Battle against Fake News: The Horse Manure Crisis in London

Illustration and initial text from a recent post on WUWT

Sometimes, I have this horrible feeling that the battle against fake news and propaganda is just impossible to win. The latest example is an article appeared on the unnamable WUWT blog, which repeats the story that someone in 1894 "predicted" that 9 feet of horse manure would soon accumulate in the street of London. And, of course, since that didn't happen, we are free forever and ever from any and every possible kind of catastrophe.

Let me repeat it, this is a legend. I wrote that two years ago on the Cassandra blog: nobody ever wrote such a thing on "The Times" nor anywhere else. People keep repeating what they hear from other people and keep thinking that sheer volume means truth. It is pure invention, fake news.

What I found most bewildering is how slick it is the report on WUWT - note how subtly they link an article with the words "but fake". It is a recent article by Rose Wild where she says exactly what I said in my 2016 article: There never was such a headline on The Times.

But the WUWT author, Larry Kummer, never states that explicitly. The hurried reader will surely think that the term "but fake" refers not to the existence of the 1894 article, but to its wrong predictions. This is reinforced by the sentence "accurately describing the views of the time." It is hard to think that a non-existing article could be accurate about anything. Slick, indeed.

You would think that people have had enough of propaganda after having been duped so many times on so many issues but, no, propaganda continues to exist and thrive. Actually, it seems to be increasing in volume and importance. Maybe it is part of the way the universe works. Maybe the universe itself has been created as a giant propaganda machine to convince the Gods that the Ragnarok will never come and that Odin will never be eaten by the wolf Fenrir. Who knows? Maybe we are all the dream of a sleeping God who is having a nightmare.

Note: there are hundreds of thousands of Web pages reporting the story of the "Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894" as if it were a historical fact - If there are any which say it is a hoax, they are extremely difficult to find.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

In Memory of David Lafarga Santorromán

I met David Lafarga only twice, at the two meetings on oil depletion held in Barbastro, in Spain, a few years ago. It was enough for me to be impressed by his dedication, his competency, and his friendly attitude. It was a shock for me to hear of his untimely death, this month. I leave to Antonio Turiel - who knew him better than me - to write a memorial for him on Cassandra's Legacy. The text below is Google-translated (with some retouches of mine) from the original in Spanish published on Turiel's blog "The Oil Crash." 

Rest in peace, friend and colleague David.

by Antonio Turiel Martinez

Perhaps some people will be surprised to learn that two of the most important meetings (and with good international presence) on the issue of the depletion of fossil fuels that have taken place in Spain have been held in Barbastro (the First International Congress in May 2011 and the Second International Congress in October 2014). Despite its undeniable charm, the capital of the Somontano region is quite far from the main urban centers of Spain and does not occupy a position too central in modern communications networks. That in this place two editions and of great quality of these meetings have been celebrated, doing much necessary publicity of the problem of peak oil, is the result of the eff(ort of many dedicated and conscientious people who work in the UNED
(Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia); and among them there has been one who stood out for the quality of the work, his commitment and his human qualities: David Lafarga Santorromán. 

I met David in early 2011, when he was organizing the first congress. At that time The Oil Crash was a blog of minor importance (did not add up to 100,000 page views) and my dissemination activity still had a very modest impact. Nevertheless, David found me and asked me to give a presentation on petroleum liquids. I was very interested in the subject, and thanks to the bibliographic search that I did at that time I was able to write a few related articles.I did not meet David in person until I arrived in Barbastro, in May. He was a young man (he was or at least appeared to be then in his thirties), tall, good-looking, athletic, always polite, and always friendly but with that closeness and familiarity so Aragonese, and above all a frank and honest person. David was the factotum of the meeting, the person who had devised the whole structure, a cultured person and very well aware of what was involved there; and even more, very aware of the seriousness of what was being talked about. A man who, with his personal commitment, the support of his superiors and the complicity of his colleagues had managed to move forward a congress of this magnitude. And he made the most of the occasion, getting UNED and even TVE (Televisión Española) to do several interviews with the attendees. 

During the days of the congress, especially after each session or at the end of the day in a more relaxed atmosphere, I had the opportunity to talk at length with David. When I left Barbastro, I promised to keep in touch and meet again when the occasion permitted.A year later, I returned to Barbastro, again invited by David. On that occasion, I gave a plenary lecture. I was by then a little better known (within the marginal that is this world of peak oil). Again, David took full advantage of my visit and also, being a much smaller event, we had more time to discuss personal issues during dinner. I think it was then that he told me about his serious illness, fortunately overcome at the time; but how it had forced him to make important changes in his life. He explained it with simplicity and naturalness, with that smile of a bit of a rascal that he had. David 2.0, he said. We toasted to that. 

We saw each other again in the vortex that was the congress of 2014. On that occasion, David entrusted me with the inaugural talk, an honor considering who the speakers were. With my colleagues from the CSIC, we worked with David to write the conclusions of the congress. David, as always, was kind and correct, focused and close. I could not see then the shadow that loomed over him. 

A few months ago, I contacted him. I had had no news and I feared the worst. I decided to write him an email with the excuse of asking if there would be a new edition of the world-renowned Barbastro congress. Always kind, he answered me, and with the simplicity of a good man he told me that the disease had returned. He wrote positive sentences about his future prospects, but it was clear between the lines that this time he faced an enormous problem.Almost a week ago he wrote an emotional farewell on his Facebook profile. He knew they were about to administer terminal sedation to him, and he wanted to take advantage of his last hours of lucidity to leave us a message that sums up very well the kind of person David was:
"Dear friends, my star fades out very fast, I never thought I would write something like this in FB but these days I received so much and so good that I dare to do it to tell you that today I will try to be available for a last hug to anyone who wants to come to the hospital. I love you and thank you all for being part of my life and making it so full in spite of its brevity."
I could have called him, but I was not able to. I almost can't even write this.On June 8, David lost his last game, and he left us alone here for our disgrace.

Rest in peace. Goodbye, friend David.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Climate Change as a Game of Russian Roulette

Ugo Bardi speaks at an event on climate change in Florence, on May 25th, 2018. Obviously, what I am holding is a toy, not a real gun. I was discussing guns as a metaphor for our penchant for doing dangerous things without exactly knowing what we are doing - for instance injecting large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. With climate, we are playing a dangerous Russian Roulette game involving the whole of humankind (photo courtesy, Ilaria Perissi). 

In a science fiction story I read years ago, the protagonists live in the future and have forgotten what guns are. Then, someone finds a still working handgun and starts playing with it. As you may imagine, the results are tragic.

Now, let's make a small exercise in epistemology. Suppose that you are one of the characters of that sci-fi story. You have never seen a gun before and you would like to understand what it is and what it does. Basically, there are two ways of approaching the question: the scientific/reductionist way and the Bayesian/evolutionary way. Let me explain these concepts.

The scientific/reductionist way. You dismantle the unknown object and try to build a model of its inner workings. You note the mechanical system that makes a metal hammer hit on the chambers of a spinning drum. One of these chambers contains a brass cylinder partly filled with a mixture of chemicals that you can analyze. You find that the mechanical stress generated by the hammer may ignite the chemicals, producing high-pressure gases which might push an ogival chunk of some 100 g of lead through the front barrel at a speed of the order of 300 m/s. If you align the barrel with a human head, the effects of the chunk of lead passing through the brain would be hard to simulate, but they might involve serious damage. You conclude that it is, most likely, a weapon.

The Bayesian/evolutionary way. You examine the gun and try to build a probability estimate based on empirical tests. You note a small lever at the bottom and proceed to pull, noting that it generates a clicking sound. You pull it a few more times: nothing happens as long as the hammer doesn't hit the loaded drum chamber (which you don't know about since you didn't dismantle the gun). Then, you conclude that it is probably a musical instrument.

The difference in this approach shows mostly if you use the gun to play the Russian Roulette (*) with one bullet in a six-chambers drum. Then, after five "clicks" the frequentist would tell you, "pull the trigger one more time and you are dead." But the Bayesian would say (**), "since you tried five times and nothing happened, then you are reasonably safe if you try once more."

Of course, these two viewpoints are extreme, there are plenty of intermediate ways to approach a problem, but they indicate how difficult it may be to deal with something unknown. And that's the big, big trouble with climate change. It is gigantic, enormous, complicated, and most likely dangerous. But we are like the characters of the science fiction story of the unknown gun: we have no direct past experience to rely upon. Without disparaging the Bayesian method, surely helpful in many cases, it may be a suicidal approach to use when dealing with something dangerous for which you have insufficient statistical data. That's the case of the Russian Roulette and also of climate change.

There follows the question: do people think Bayesian of Frequentist? It is a controversial subject but, personally, I'd say that it makes sense to say that most people think Bayesian. That may be the reason why humankind has such a cavalier attitude toward the danger of climate change. The statistics we have on climate for the recent past don't tell us anything about the possibility of a true catastrophe. So, we might be tempted use a Bayesian approach to conclude that we have no reason to be worried - and the more time goes by without catastrophes occurring, the more this conclusion seems to be reinforced. After all, haven't we pulled the trigger of this thing you call "gun" already five times? It has to be harmless.

Of course, the scientific/reductionist approach tells us otherwise when the climate system is analyzed and modelized. It tells us that the change may be extremely destructive - actually catastrophic. But that approach seems to be reserved for a small fraction of the population trained in the scientific method. There follows that humankind is playing the Russian roulette with the Earth's climate. And that might well end the way a Russian Roulette game must eventually end.

(*) During the past two decades, the number of suicides in the US has increased by some 25% and the most common method was using firearms. A peculiar form of suicide consists in playing the game of the Russian Roulette. There are no worldwide statistics but 10 years of records in Kentucky alone reveal 24 cases of people who killed themselves in this way. Clearly, it is not a form of mass entertainment, but it does happen. It is hard to say what goes on in the mind of the people who engage in this kind of game, but likely it has to do with the fascination we feel for guns. Nobody knows exactly how many small firearms exist in the world, but the number could be more than half a billion. In the US, there is about one gun per person although, of course, they are not evenly distributed. Some people take guns as true objects of worship and some seem to believe in the existence of a Gun God requiring human sacrifices - that may be the ultimate reason why some people play the Russian Roulette.

From the paper by Lisa Shields. "In one situation, a 22-year-old African American man used a 0.22 caliber revolver in a game with a friend. Each participant pulled the trigger on 2 occasions; the victim discharged the fatal bullet on his third attempt. The decedent was a university student, a member of the varsity football team, and was studying electrical engineering with a 3.0 GPA. Blood and urine toxicology screens yielded no ethanol or other drugs. In another circumstance, a 46-year-old divorced white man employed as a custodian engaged in Russian roulette with his “drinking buddy,” a male friend suffering from cancer. After placing 2 shells in a .38 special, the victim died with the first pull of the trigger. Four of the victims had pulled the trigger at least 3 times before their fatality. A 19-year-old white man significantly increased the likelihood of a Russian roulette fatality. He had a history of depression with a previous commitment at a mental hospital and several previous suicide attempts. Playing a variation of traditional Russian roulette with his brother and 2 friends, the victim placed 5 live rounds in the cylinder, leaving one empty chamber, of a .357 Traus revolver. He spun the cylinder, put the gun to his right temple, and pulled the trigger. <..> The decedent had played Russian roulette on 2 occasions in the previous several weeks, each time placing only one live round in the cylinder." 

(**) A formal statement of Bayes' theorem is:

In the problem of the Russian Roulette, X= you pull the trigger and A= you die

P(A|X) is what we want to estimate: what is the probability that you die when pulling the trigger? P(X|A) is the probability that when you die it is because you pulled the trigger. We may take it as equal to one, neglecting the occasional heart attacks that might strike the player before they pull the trigger. For the P(A)/P(X) term, we need statistical data but it is obvious that, in a limited number of attempts, as long as the player is alive, the more times they pull the trigger, the larger P(X) becomes and hence P(A|X) becomes smaller. Then, of course, for a large number of players (and a large number of deaths), the Bayesian analysis will converge to the reductionist results: n*3.5 attempts are needed in order to kill n people, assuming that the drum contains six chambers and one bullet. The problem is that the Russian Roulette doesn't allow a large number of attempts when played by a single person (or by a single planet in the form of a climate catastrophe).

See also this article on freakonometrics


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)