Friday, September 23, 2005

The Collapse of Civilizations.

The Collapse of Civilizations.

I am indebted to N.K.Sandars ( “The Sea Peoples “ , ISBN 0 500 02085 X ) for her insight that large civilizations collapse from inhibitions to recovery . They obviously handled disasters and invasions before . A large civilization ( in her case the Bronze-Age civilization , encompassing Europe , North Africa , Egypt and the Middle-East) or the Roman civilization is a tough beastie and cannot be brought to its knees by a single factor .

A simple , measurable definition of Civilization .

First , we have to know what we are talking about .

Define a Civilization as the way an entity or entities produces and stores surpluses .

These surpluses follow the hierarchy : Air , Food , Water , Shelter (inclusive of clothes) and Art .

(Art is the Curiosity element , which includes monuments , literature , recreational war , games , religion , courting-behaviour , etc . These are all anti-boredom , leisure-consumption activities and constructions . This is because any neuronal-net will evolve to handle peak-challenges , but degrade optimally-learned feedback weights in the troughs . Since peaks are infrequent , successful civilizations have evolved to spend most of their time on Art , Play , Games , etc . This raises the interesting question of whether ants , squirrels ,etc have anti-boredom activities : ie Art . Courting-behaviour seems a prime candidate for anti-boredom activity like intelligence and humour .)

Human Civilizations .

We can then classify human civilizations by the way they produce or store surpluses : hunter-gatherer , agricultural , pastural , nomad-herder , with sub-classes like stone-age , bronze-age , iron-age , steam-age , electronic-age , pottery-ages , literary-ages , film-ages , etc , etc . The sub-divisions are endless and satisfy the anti-boredom criteria .

The Career of a Civilization :

1. The Rising Civilization :

A random fluctuation (usually organizational) makes a certain group better at generating surpluses . People flock in . The successful society has a way of incorporating them (this is possible due to the genetic conformity of humans (cf Toba)) .

Manufacture and export is vigorous . People want to belong to this new way of doing things , no matter what their initial status .

This progresses in a positive-feedback exponential fashion until certain negative-feedback elements become more-and-more important .

2. The Plateau Civilization .

The flies in the ointment : the negative-feedback factors :

2.1 Malthus

The population will expand to the limit of the resources . This takes some time , especially since civilized humans with some store of value (ie money) and a fairly stable political system optimizes on the grand-children instead of their direct children.

The surplus-per-person falls .

The very rich get much richer . The poor get even poorer . (Power-Law distribution.) A Middle Class forms , becomes important for a while ,then is squeezed smaller and smaller as surplus per population falls with rising population . See also factors below .

2.2 Diminishing Returns.

A quiet killer . Also known as the Rising cost of Marginal Returns .

Simply put , the easiest and cheapest things get done first . Subsequent things become harder and more expensive . (The classic example is the modern motor-car : in real terms , it costs about 100 times as much as Ford’s old Model T , but is no faster in traffic and cannot be repaired by the owner . Software shows the same tendency : expensive extra features are never used by most users , but has to be paid for . )

It is a real killer , because the marginal cost can be driven to a point where it is higher than the cost at an earlier point . The overhang creates a collapse pressure .

This has already happened in a large commercial system : the Concorde . If the time-cost of travel to the airports are factored in , the marginal gain in flight-time was not worth the cost . It took only one disaster to collapse the supersonic commercial market . Compare this to more robust tourist systems .

2.3 Relative Competitive Advantage.

The long-term killer .

It basically means that some things are cheaper to make elsewhere . If transport is cheap enough , these items can be imported and sold cheaper than they can be manufactured locally . (Globalization is the present term , but it has happened many times before .) The local artisans , manufacturers and peasants are pushed down into the unemployed class . The former pool of sturdy potential soldiers become a festering sore of embittered unemployed , kept pacified by a client-makework political system , the dole and the arena . (Present equivalents are party-politics , the dole , TV )

A classical example is the peasant wheat growers in the old Roman-Republic competing against cheap Egyptian wheat . The peasants and their children had no choice but to become professional soldiers . The state’s armed forces then essentially consisted of mercenaries paid by the state . The same thing happened to the other Roman manufacturing classes . The Roman corn-dole evolved as a consequence of Globalization . But this undercut the very basis of Roman power ,which was citizen soldiers . The result was that they had to induct foreign mercenaries into the Roman legions .

Simply put , the Roman upper classes could not trust soldiers drawn from their underclasses .

Question : Whatever happened to the Roman Mob? Answer : they all became slaves .

The Collapse.

The same scenario above played out in the late Bronze-age civilization . (circa 12 00 BC).

The rich used the trade-network to import cheaper manufactured articles , probably of superior quality initially , as well as food . This displaced their own artisan and upper peasant class (ie middle class) into penury . The rich used mercenaries from the outlying territories to keep the situation under control .The foreign manufacturers became more civilized and raised their prices . The profit-margin shrank . A random disaster made it impossible to pay the mercenaries . The system was stretched taut due to the decreased profit-margins . The mercenary commanders then allied with whoever offered them the best deal . The trade system broke down . Ship captains of food-ships refused to sail without some security from pirates and especially , a surety that they will be paid .

The surpluses (especially food) vanished . The food production areas were not going to produce anything without payment . Besides , the general collapse would have unleashed the locusts on them as well .

But the overpopulated areas were not going to lie down and die . The only way they could survive was by taking from somebody else . The previous nobles had the advantage of experience in organization and had some capital . The result was the Peoples of the Sea .

The resulting mess of semi-organised reivers washed back-and-forth from the Ukraine till Egypt . Egypt was the final nut , since this was where all the cheap food came from . Remessus III defeated them in detail , first the land lot , then the sea-lot . They were like locusts , not even making an effort to make a living . Taking and taking .

This happened very quickly . Remember : “Three meals away from revolution” and “One salary cheque away from the street . “ Once the mercenary commander was convinced that he could not feed or pay his troops , he would immediately switch to the alliance that promised at least a short-term possibility of this .

The relevance today.

The general principle is that people do not think that they will be better off belonging to a particular civilization . Ask the poor of New Orleans , who were left to die . Or the innumerable dead in China or the old USSR .

So will the whole shebang collapse in a welter war and grimaces ?

The truth is that most of the planet’s population is bored . Just look at history or at individual’s life courses . It is chaotic right down to what your teen-age daughter wants for breakfast .

Large-scale patterns are observable , but nobody pays them any attention . They are mostly artifacts , in any case .

So , it is pointless to try and project a course of events that is bland . Maximum drama and heart-wrenching emotions are the course . (Surplus of Art)

Humans do not want repetition . The thirst for drama and art is so strong that it even supersedes survival .

Complete systemic collapse is interesting , but partial collapse is even more interesting . Skating on the edges of chaos .

So , you can look forward to interesting times , but not complete annihilation .


Not the result I wanted


Thursday, September 15, 2005

Whatever happened to William what’s-his-name?

Whatever happened to William what’s-his-name?

After his lucky win in 1066 at Hastings , ruthless suppression of revolts through a scorched-earth policy around 1069-1070 at York and buying off King Swein of Denmark , he considered England reasonably secure from internal and external threats.

He spent the rest of his life fighting for his Home : the duchy of Normandy . England was considered and treated as a conquered cash-cow . (Something like his descendants thought of India )

He was a near-perfect Machiavellian Prince : ruling through fear and respect , distilling the ruling class to clients and close family . His only lapse was that he could not bring himself to kill his eldest legitimate , rebellious son (Robert Curthose) .

He had a long sick-bed , then death-bed , attended by the “best physicians and priests” . The fear and respect vanished upon his death . He was embalmed and shipped to Caen for burial . The state of his respect then can be judged by the fact that his sepulchre was too small for him ( he was about 5 feet 10 inches tall , but very corpulent at the end (kings are never fat.) ) . The bearers also dropped him , “breaking him” according to current accounts . No attempt was made by his successors to counteract the various spins put about by his erstwhile enemies . His grave was despoiled by Calvinists in the sixteenth century . A new monument was vandalized by French revolutionaries in 1793 . Today only a commemorative slab in the abbey at Caen remains . He would have been amused.

An interesting aside was that his long-time wife Matilde was only four feet tall . (Her bones were disinterred in 1968 ) . They must have made an odd couple . She was the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders and he was the very able , but illegitimate , Duke of Normandy , something like the Prince of Pirates . He married her despite the opposition of Pope Leo IX and his liege-lord king Henry I of France : not a good career move for an ambitious princeling . He reputedly remained faithful their whole married life (she died before him) .
Their oldest son (Robert Curthose) was her favourite . She supported him even when he was in armed rebellion against her husband . Such was William’s love for her that he forgave both . On his deathbed (having a suitable time for remorse ) he forgave Robert and made him Duke of Normandy , but not King of England .

What If William did not win at Hastings ?

William’s attack was a typical Norman strategy . Keep up aggressive pressure and rapidly exploit any lucky break . The lucky break at Hastings was that all three Godwin brothers were killed in the battle . ( The King and his two brothers) .

Plan A for William was that his attack would be inconclusive and Harold would pay him to go away (like William did with King Swein of Denmark in 1070) .

When all three brothers were killed , the Saxons broke . The battle was lost , but the war was then lost because there was nobody of sufficient stature to rally the troops and the country . William’s speed , ruthlessness and tactics ( motte-and-bailey castles) prevented any rallying until the rebellion of 1068-1070 .

The very fact that William went to great trouble to bring across cavalry shows that he felt that the main probability favoured a standoff . Battles were decided by infantry , but even a modest cavalry force could prevent a rout if the enemy was deficient in cavalry (like the Saxons were). William had a fall-back to his ships and castle at Pevensey .

England then soaked up 10 000 aggressive and greedy Normans .

If William was forced to return to Normandy , he would still have been saddled with problem of about 10 000 aggressive Normans . Guess where they would go ? The way had been paved by the conquest of Sicily and Southern Italy by the Guiscard family of Normandy . Bohemund Guiscard went on to conquer Antioch during the First Crusade . Imagine 10 000 more like them .

What would the world look like now ?
What if William withdrew to Normandy and all those really aggro Normans went to the Middle East ?

Normans acculturate very quickly . A Norman Caliphate stretching from Constantinople to China is the likeliest solution . Semitic hysteria and Norman cold-bloodedness would make a formidable combination .

The only serious challenge would have been from the Mongols .
The Western response to centuries of light-cavalry attacks was numerous fortifications with a few heavy cavalry in each . Light-cavalry (like the Mongols) usually win by getting inside the decision-loop of their enemies . This presupposes that their enemy obligingly masses . A few big fortified cities counts as massing .

The key is the advantage of fortified defense over offense . (In the siege of Malta about 8 000 knights held out against about 70 000 elite Ottoman troops .)

A successful ratio is about 1 defender for every 10 attackers .

What is the Western defense to enemies who do not stand still but can sting ? :
It is Independent defensive positions with a heavy smallish offensive punch which are NOT co-ordinated on a large scale.

Ie Numerous small Castles with a few knights and each having an independent ruler .
They will sit tight , but a few neighbours might combine to hit a tempting target .

If 300 000 Mongols attacked say 1 000 independent neighbouring castles , each with about 20 heavy cavalry , the Mongols will lose .
If they try to reduce each castle in detail , they will be nibbled to death by heavy-cavalry attacks from neighbouring supporting castles . Siege machinery would make the Mongols vulnerable to fixed-point attacks . There are not enough Mongols to attack on a broad front .

There are always more agriculturists than pastoralists .
It is a numbers game as long as the castles do not try to unify . If the castles do not unify , their attacks are random and the Mongols cannot get inside their decision-loop , because there isn’t one .

Has this happened before?

Yes .

The collapse of the late Bronze-age civilizations around the Mediterranean .(circa 1200 BC) Refer to the best study on the collapse of civilization I have come across :
“The Sea Peoples” by N.K. Sandars (it was dedicated to Sheila and John Campbell – is this by any chance the John Campbell of Analog fame ? )In any case , the arguments in the book have a distinctly Cambellian flavour .

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was similar , but not as bad .

See Alfred the Great’s system of burghs .




Insurance , Over-population and AIDS

Insurance , Over-population and AIDS
Without a reliable store of value , the only way to ensure for old age is to have as many children in the hope that some will look after their parents .

The prudent person thus has as many children as possible .

Gold can be stolen , cattle can die , children can be ungrateful .

How can a prudent man ensure that a part of the extra wealth of his good years can be reliably saved for his old age ?

Enter the Insurance Company .

Birthrates fall when reliable financial institutions are introduced , since children change from an asset to liability .

Furthermore , extra longevity insured by having money for expensive medical care in old age postpones and decreases inheritances to the children . In Europe this effect can be seen in the increased number of children staying with the parents (previously they would have inherited the house) and fewer children , as family money is used for medical old-age expenses instead of babies .

Chart Sanlam’s growth against Afrikaner family size . Every endowment policy to age 60 or 65 is actually resources taken from present children to future parent (as well as a vote of no-confidence in the children . (Justified by the burgeoning of old-age homes and retirement villages.))

Inalienability :
This is a major point , since no parent can really say “No” to child dying of AIDS . It might break their hearts , but they must be able to say that their savings are locked up and outside their control .

What African clients want is reliable payment on proof of identity and inalienability .

Typical products would be
Endowment policies to age 60 or 65 or pensions after age 55 tied to the JSE Xchange trade market in gold . Each rand buys the customer a fixed amount of gold guaranteed by the JSE . No interest . No admin after purchase until redemption . Rates published in the newspapers . Absolute minimum admin.
Commission , expenses and profits 3% - 5 % .
Maturity only on the maturity date (not death) . The heirs might claim after maturity .
It is like a bearer bond with limited term payable on proof of identity .

Tell it straight . For the man who likes surety for his old age . Nobody can touch it except him or his heirs before the due date .
(Things in Africa do not get much surer than the JSE and RSA .)

Secondary markets:
It is tempting to set up loan and surrender markets , but this invalidates the principle of inalienability , especially taking AIDS and other pandemics into consideration .
Also , the expense is damnable .

The client must be absolutely assured that only he or his legal heirs can get the money
And only after the term has expired .
Informal secondary markets will spring up (ref trades in bearer bonds) , but this does not concern the original assurer.

One would think that the lower-birthrate effect would be slow , but lower-income parents are terrified of being cast away by their children (ref funeral policies) . They would rather pay premiums on a policy than have more children . Contraceptive methods always seemed available if enough people really wanted it . White Afrikaner birthrates in RSA dropped dramatically between 1920 and 1950 , pari-passu with the growth of Sanlam .

It will happen in Africa .

But the first ones will get the cream of the pent-up demand .