In Re “Alas, Brave New Babylon”

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Commenting on the latest Bracken work, a reader notes:

I just found the time to breeze through “Alas, Brave New Babylon”. That suggested something to pass along to you.

Several years ago, my son…took a class called Chaos and Complexity. I got interested, read his textbooks, and a bunch more books on the subject.

We’ve long know that there are complex systems all around us – weather, the power grid, ecosystems, the human body, the stock market, and many more. We’ve never had a way to study complex system dynamics until the advent of the Internet. Since the Internet, those who study complexity have learned some interesting things, including what is unknowable.

Those who study complexity speak of an analogy, the Sand Table Game. This is called a game because it is a thought experiment, run under artificial rules. It works like this:

Imagine a table, say a 4 X 8 foot sheet of plywood, sitting on sawhorses. Imagine you rig a device to trickle grains of sand from four feet above the table, onto the center of the table. You watch to see what happens.

The first grains of sand will hit the table and bounce around in random fashion. Eventually, the grains will come to occupy the center surface of the table. Falling grains will hit and dislodge other grains. The sandpile will grow. As the sand pile grows, once in a while one grain will dislodge a bunch of other grains and cause a sluff on one area of the sand pile. The sides of the sandpile will grow steeper and the top taller.

Eventually, one falling grain of sand will cause a cascading, catastrophic rearrangement of the entire sandpile. Eventually and ALWAYS.

This catastrophic rearrangement, the thinkers say, always happens in every complex system. It’s one of the characteristics of complex systems. It is impossible to predict which grain of sand will cause this catastrophe – only that it WILL happen, eventually, with every complex system.

Think, for example, of the Archduke Ferdinand’s driver taking a wrong turn in Sarajevo, a wrong turn that coincidentally placed the Archduke in the path of an assassin’s bullet, triggering, probably, two world wars.

Back to the sandpile analogy. Although it’s impossible to know exactly which random grain of sand will cause the catastrophic rearrangement of the sandpile, we can observe the growing potential for disaster as the sides of the sandpile get steeper and the top gets higher.

As you express in “Alas, Brave New Babylon”, I see the sandpiles of our economic, social and technical complex systems getting very steep and tall.

11 responses to “In Re “Alas, Brave New Babylon”

  1. That sent chills down my spine.

  2. Add US cruise missiles raining down in Syria as one big ol’ chunk o’ sand as well. We live in interesting times.

  3. While we might not be able to predict which grain of sand will be “the one”, the ancient Egyptians designed and built their great pyramids to specific angles after discovering through trial and error that sand will only pile and stones will only stack up to a particular [repeatable] steepness before collapsing.

    My gut keeps telling me that our whole technological system has reached the point where the slope gets slippery enough to slide right out from under us at any moment.

  4. The steepest viable angle of the sand pile is known as “the angle of repose” if anyone cares. Another phenomenon in play here is the “Theory of Dissipative Structures”. Simply, any organized system at its inception accounts for all relevant known data. As time passes, new data appears, some of which fits the existing system and some of which does not. Fits, no problem. Doesn’t fit, creates stress, or “perturbation”, which to a point is absorbed; however, when it reaches critical mass, the whole system comes apart, then reorganizes to include the new data that didn’t fit. Time passes, new data appears… Now consider: when the US was created life moved at horse and buggy speed, and the “doubling rate” of knowledge was measured in decades, if not centuries. Today life moves at nearly the speed of light, and the doubling rate of knowledge (new data) is measured in months. Interesting times, indeed…

  5. Obama understands all this. That’s why he is – on behalf of Israel – attempting to break the Shia Crescent at its weakest link – Syria – and so cut off Iranian arms now going to the Hezbollah fighters in S. Lebanon…selfsame who gave Israel a bloody nose during the ’06 border war. Israel would prefer a direct US attack on Iran itself, but that’s too dangerous. Might collapse the sand-pile.

    • Oh, for Christ’s sake! Why can’t you Nazi’s just understand that you’re in the wrong place.

      The vast majority of us here find that shit not only ignorant, but replulsive. Surely you guys got your own sites. Do us a favor and retire to them.

      Or, educate yourself. As a start, may I recommend “The Making of America” by Cleon Skousen. I must warn you though that it is a textbook. As in school. They use it at Heritage I think.

      Tell you what. If you will buy it and actually read the fucking thing I will reimburse you. You’ll have to pass a test of course. And it will have some questions on the influence of the Old Testament Jews on our Founders. You will have to describe the proposed seal for the United States by Jefferson and Franklin. Should be a real shocker for you.

      What do you say white boy?

  6. Pingback: WRSA: Complex Systems Always Eventually Unravel

  7. So we all should tell the leeches to go Pack Sand. Count me in!

  8. Thank you, Stuka Pilot, for once again coming to the rescue. The Jews did it. What a relief. Your insight is something else.

  9. Yeah…the Joooooos did it. I shoulda known.