mitigating the threat of nuclear disaster

It’s possible that these weapons prevent wars and we are all better off for them. It’s also possible that their tremendous destructive potential could cost humanity dearly. Even after a century of peace, a single nuclear war could wreak havoc on the planet.  An event of the right magnitude could render insignificant whole categories of other worries: Such as global terrorism, which in 2015 killed 32,658 people around the world.  Let’s assume that we have 100 years of mostly peace starting in 2016—in the sense that deterrence worked and there are no major country wars—but that the number who die from terrorism over the same period remains stable, then 3.27M people will have died as a result of terrorism by 2116 (it doesn’t matter whether this is a high, or low, estimate to make the point).  Assuming that in 2117 a nuclear war breaks out, and enough bombs are used to cause a nuclear winter (see here), then it’s not unreasonable to imagine the total dead around the world would be something far north of several million—some experts estimate the number could be as high as the billions.  Assuming the environmental consequences last a decade, then many more innocent humans would suffer and die as a result of famine and instability.

Estimating the possibility of a nuclear cataclysm of this magnitude is difficult to do.  What we do know is that there are 15,695 such weapons on the planet today, which is more than sufficient to render this pale blue dot uninhabitable many times over (while not all of those are operational, the important point is just how many there are, operational or not, and how unreasonable it is to have so many bombs with that level of power available for potential use at any given point in the present or future).  However, just because a nuclear strike takes place does not mean a nuclear war will break out.  For example, Russia could launch a tactical nuclear strike at an American operating base that kills several thousand, and while that may rattle the nerves of the west, it’s unlikely that we would respond by flattening Saint Petersburg (this same scenario can go either direction).  We would more than likely follow up with a show of our own, but it would be equivalent in magnitude, as a nuclear catastrophe is something even the most insane leaders are typically want to avoid—and there are tactical nukes that are much smaller than the kind I most worry about here, although the use of such bombs could weaken the global taboo against atomic weapons in general, thus increasing the chances that larger ones might be used later.

There are many different scenarios that could play out, so it’s ultimately one of the most high stakes games of risk that humans can play (actually, I would say it’s THE most high stakes game of risk).  Rather than trying to figure out the probability of the unimaginable, it would simply be better to acknowledge that it’s somewhere above the range of acceptability, since the earth is the only viable planet for humans (at least for the foreseeable future).

This is no longer a game between two players: The odds go up with each new arrival, and our friends in North Korea recently launched what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile disguised as a satellite.  Back in January they also carried out their fourth nuclear test (smaller than they claimed, but it was a real nuke nonetheless).  While some in the press have sought to dismiss the North’s antics, let us be reminded that trial and error is the name of the game (even for the United States), and with the right amount of perseverance and scientific know how, even Kim Jong-un can have what he wants:  The ability to accurately deliver those warheads to American soil. His is a country so crazy I can’t distinguish between their actual behavior and Twitter satire. That’s something worth thinking about.

The world is not going to end tomorrow, and I’m optimistic about the overall future of homo sapien sapiens.  I think that the trend lines are positive, even in spite of the fact that there are many obstacles ahead.  For most of us, we can include the threat of nuclear annihilation in that category of “terrible possibilities” that, while might happen, almost certainly won’t.  But “almost certainly” is not certainly.  And what makes nuclear weapons distinct from other unlikely worries is their potential for scalable calamity.  If a nuclear event were to take place, it wouldn’t be just your own life at risk, but your family, friends, and many billions of others around the planet, too.  To understand this is to understand how far we’ve come as a species:  With great things comes great responsibility.  Not only can we measure gravity, but we can destroy the planet.  It’s on all of us to remember that, and to ensure that we do everything possible as a species to eliminate the threat (or at least severely curtail the risk).  Happy Valentines Day.


equality is…

The ultimate goal of egalitarianism—and the western experiment in general—is to create a more just and tolerant society where humans of all backgrounds can thrive together in harmony.  This is all fine and dandy until one reflects upon what the word “equality” actually means, because without a clear definition, how are we ever to measure our progress; and for that matter, how can we even know what an ideal situation would look like to begin with?  Unfortunately, this lack of a clear definition often times results in confusion, frustration and mutual resentment between groups.  Here I’d like to explore the practical limitations to achieving equality by using thought experiments to help illustrate my point.  In a follow up post, I’ll consider ways we might be able to manage these obstacles to equality without necessarily giving up and throwing in the towel on the egalitarian dream.

Beyond “fairness”, equality in practice has multiple definitions depending on whom you ask, including but not limited to:  equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, equality of resources and moral equality (to learn more, I would recommend dusting up on the various conceptions of equality here).  Many reasonable people disagree on just what kind of equality is best for society.  And when they do agree, the next challenge is actually figuring out how to make that equality happen in a world full of difference, when difference itself is the ultimate enemy of equality.

Let’s pretend that we are public policy experts who are using a supercomputer to simulate a statistical model of two cities in order to better understand how inequality materializes.  Let’s call our two simulated cities Heatopolis and Coldas (because that’s what I’m naming them).  These two cities are essentially the same with the obvious exception that one is hot and the other is cold.  Since this is a simulation we can run it multiple times to get a better idea of the range of outcomes that might be expected as a result of just one single variable being different at the start.  

As the cities have built in “equality of opportunity”, in the sense that all the starting point variables are exactly the same—all the way down to their populations consisting of exact clones of one another—one might expect the outcomes to be relatively close, such that each city would end up with, as an example:  about the same crime statistics, about the same literacy rates, and about the same mortality rates.  However, in actuality we’d probably see anything but equality on these metrics over the average course of, say, 1000 runnings of the simulation.  In fact, we could reasonably anticipate that “equality of outcome” would be the exception rather than the rule (at least without significant “tweaks” to the system).  But why is this so?  Let’s explore some of the ways a single variable, in a dynamic system, might generate vast inequality between two cities that are otherwise exactly the same.

One area we may expect to see inequality between the two populations would be crime.  As has been well documented, heat is correlated with violence.   In a meta-analysis performed by the New York Times, they found that “higher temperatures and extreme rainfall led to increases in conflict”.  In other words, the two cities could technically be doing everything right, in terms of what needs to be done to reduce violent crime, yet still end up with large amounts of inequality between their populations in that area.  If the citizenry of Heatopolis failed to understand the effects of temperature on human behavior, they may think that something else may be at play—such as a lax police force, for example.

Another area we way may expect to see inequality materialize is on the key metric of educational attainment.  It’s important to note that this is a thought experiment only, and thus I’m not trying to prove whether temperature matters, only that it’s fairly reasonable to suspect that it does.  How might temperature matter when it comes to education?  For one, we could expect that people in colder climates, where they spend more time indoors, may also spend more time reading—and thus, studying.  There may also be physiological reasons why temperature may result in varied outcomes on learning (see here for an interesting study on this done by high schoolers).  In fact, there may be many theoretical ways temperature might impact student performance, but all it takes is for one of said theories to actually generate an inequality between the two populations to make my point.  In a real life scenario, if policy makers failed to make the connection that may theoretically exist between temperature and educational attainment, they may end up placing blame in the wrong places, such as teacher quality.

Finally, one other way we may expect inequality as a result of temperature differences alone would be mortality rates, which is a pretty decent indicator for the overall health and wellbeing of a population.  As with violence, there seems to be more evidence that temperature matters in this area.  There may be disagreement on why this is so, but for this thought experiment we are not concerned with causal mechanisms, only that there is a strong enough correlation in this area for us to reasonably conclude that inequality will result.

Above are just three possible scenarios in which we might anticipate inequality to manifest itself between the populations of Heatopolis and Coldas, but it’s theoretically possible that there may be an infinite number of variables exerting themselves on whatever is being measured.  It’s also worth noting that in these simulations, we could mimic an environment in which the cities have the exact same climate, and so long as the model is non-deterministic (as is possibly the real world, at least at the quantum level), the randomness alone would be sufficient to generate inequality.  In other words, policy makers would have to account for “random noise” if they were trying to control for the effects of policy on various outcomes.

The point of the above thought experiment is simply to demonstrate how and why the egalitarian target is always moving, and oftentimes achieving equilibrium is nearly impossible absent near authoritarian regulations.  We may see the result of this moving target already as it pertains to gender differences in educational attainment:  as girls have been given more opportunity in society, they are actually beginning to surpass boys on various important measures of group performance.  Is this bad?  No, not necessarily.  But neither is it necessarily desirable either, and while there may be a multitude of theories out there for why this is so, the fact of the matter is that it’s probably the case that the reasons are nearly unlimited, and it may be practically impossible to control for all of them.  Thus, it may just be that more equality of opportunity will necessarily result in a gender imbalance that favors girls, and society should just become comfortable with that being the new normal.  I personally do not see this as being a great injustice, so long as each gender is more or less treated equally during the educational process.

Some might argue that the goal of equality is not “outcomes”, but opportunity, or principle.  But that’s the point of this whole post, our society can barely agree upon just what the target is much less acknowledge the genuine obstacles in the way of getting there.  While in this case I’m primarily focused on equality of outcomes, creating a real life scenario whereby “equality of opportunity”—such as that which exists between Heatopolis and Coldas—actually transpires runs up against the same kind of roadblocks in the opposite direction.  Furthermore, a society that places undue emphasis on equality without recognizing these obstacles is not guaranteed to ever achieve anything more than the same old between group resentment we already have enough of in the first place.

As I mentioned above, would it benefit the population of Heatopolis if their otherwise decent teachers were all fired because policy makers failed to make the connection between temperature and student performance?  Of course not.  There is nothing “fair” or moral about such an outcome.  On the other hand, if policy makers did make the connection between temperature and student performance, they could either adjust their expectations for Heatopolis, or come up with perhaps more effective ways of educating the students to account for the heat.  However, in real world environments, where countless variables might be at play, it’s unreasonable to expect policy makers, teachers or students to control for every single one of them.  To some degree, inequality is an expected result of the unequal, ever changing universe we live in.  That’s not to say we should be satisfied with poor outcomes, but a more humble approach would certainly help.  And that, my friends, is what this blog is all about:  advocating for a dose of humility in a complex world.


iranian perspective

I am friends with an Iranian dissident who, along with her family, immigrated to Australia after the Green Revolution to be free from the authoritarian regime they so despise. She messaged me this weekend concerning the new US visa waiver overhaul, which will make it more difficult for her and her family to travel within the United States and the 38 other countries who participate in the program.

I repost to show how US domestic politics can, once translated into policy, damage our relationships with the very types of people we want to support – in the case of my friend, Iranian dissidents who normally would look to the US as an ally.

Hi Jason, Something has been bothering me in the last 2 days which I want to share with you. I want to know what you think. I have already shared the link to the news I’m going to talk about. It is about this new legislation which puts more restrictions on Iranians, or whoever has recently traveled to Iran. I can’t comprehend what US government is trying to achieve??? Currently in the whole Middle East, the only nation who don’t “hate” Americans are Iranians. By applying more restrictions on ordinary Iranians, US is creating hatred among Iranians twards Americans. I don’t believe if they have any idea about the impact of their decisions on ordinary people. Iranians are not terrorists, have never been. ISIS are not Iranian. All the major terrorrist attacks have been committed by people (countries) who are America’s “closest” allies in the Middle East. I don’t need to name them, do I? It feels terrible to be blamed for something that you don’t have any control over. These sort of actions not only don’t solve America’s security issues, but add to them by creating hatred among ordinary people who have always tried to be friends with Americans. This is exactly what Iran’s goverment want. Iran’s goverment is now happy, because people have started to realise that US is not their friend, in fact US can’t care less about them.

back to the basics

Freddie deBoer offers a more compelling, back to the basics alternative to the cultish, postmodern, identity based cesspool the American left has now become. He recognizes, appropriately, that an egalitarian movement based on the equality of race, color, religion, sex, gender and national origin will ultimately fail so long as its messaging seeks to divide based on race, color, religion, sex, gender and national origin.

A functioning, healthy left political movement would identify building a mass movement by appealing to the unconvinced as its most central, most essential goal. It would identify obscurantism, factionalism, purity signaling, and other behaviors that limit the potential numbers of the movement as counterproductive. It would limit the use of specialized vocabulary and other forms of in-group signaling. It would constantly consider how its practices and discourses actually grow or fail to grow the ranks of the movement. It would not abandon principle in the name of popularity, but it would insist that principles that inherently exclude large swaths of the human population cannot be the basis for a successful movement. It would seek to welcome, not alienate, those not already convinced.


finding balance

Should we just “”fuck nuance?

“By calling for a theory to be more comprehensive, or for an explanation to include additional dimensions, or a concept to become more flexible and multifaceted, we paradoxically end up with less clarity. We lose information by adding detail.” — Kieran Healy

This is a good point.  Nuance is messy.  I can totally see how nuance in fact can make an issue less clear, especially for the limits of the human mind.  The problem is that most issues are, in fact, extremely complex.  So while it may be so that we should be as simple as possible to not sacrifice clarity, we will also be missing out on huge swaths of the truth.  A too simple approach can be just as detrimental as one that is too complex.  There must be a balance.

setting sail for the land of nuance

The goal of this blog is to explore nuance in a modern context.  From how it’s used effectively to where it might even be counterproductive due to the time and energy that is required to fully engage the issues in a “nuanced” way.  From the standpoint of large political movements, I’d like to explore how “nuance” is possible when dealing with the “law of averages”.  Hence, as a movement grows in number, it’s members become more “average” and less likely to embrace an intellectual or nuanced position.  But can certain norms be established that at least help the “average” embrace elements of nuance (and critical thinking), even if they wouldn’t otherwise?  I’m going to consider this and look into it, but I’ll also consider the possibility that I am simply hoping for too much.

The way our societies consume information and make decisions is not conducive to nuance.  People primarily are concerned with going about their daily lives, and therefore simply do not have time to sit down and fully consider the position of all sides.  This is reasonable, and in our current age information comes fast and furious, and often times people make quick decisions based on their preconceived notions.  But if we are ever going to make the progress that is necessary to advance to a more livable world for everyone, nuance is going to be necessary.  It will be required that in order to get from here to there, our civilization, our species, must take more consideration of the issues.

I’ll be working off the assumption that the issues are, in fact, nuanced to begin with.  Therefore, I will challenge myself to look deeply into the controversies from multiple perspectives to weed out hints of “the truth”.  Here I define “truth” as something that is more or less “fact”, in the sense that it can be verified.  Although in some cases the facts won’t always be so clear, and in those situations I’ll go off good ole’ fashioned “reason” and philosophical “first principles” to guide my way.

Most importantly, if the facts change, my opinion will have to change.  That’s the “First Rule” of this blog.  However, just because the facts change does not mean I have to redefine “first principles”.  Very rarely do facts ever come into conflict with first principles, and when they do it’s usually because one has not put enough thought into how to redefine their position, without contradicting their most fundamental code of ethics.  For example, the idea that “all people are created equal” is a principled stance, and there are no facts that can override this.

transnational whistle blowing

I’m excited to have had a recent correspondence with Dr Charli Carpenter. I asked her the following question, by way of e-mail:

“I was wondering about your thoughts on the efficacy of transnational whistle blowing like we saw with Snowden and Wikileaks.

The amount of information in these leaks that was released to the public was substantial. Since we lack the tools to carefully assess whether the overall impact of these leaks was truly worth it (intended consequences + unintended consequences), should whistle blowers show more restraint in how much secret information they release for just anybody to see?

Is there really any way we can truly measure the impact of massive leaks with so much unknown in terms of how the information might get used? Simply saying they are justified because, you know, liberty, seems fairly insufficient to me. ”

She responded and said that she thought the question was interesting, and that she would love to read more on it if I had anything. Unfortunately, I do not, so i’m going to do some research and see if this is a topic worth exploring further.