Wednesday, February 24, 2016
The concept of "Seneca Collapse" is supposed to be applied mainly to socio-economic systems. Here, however, I would like to discuss it in the framework of the 9/11 attacks in New York and of the related legend of the "controlled demolition". Image above from xkcd (licensed under creative commons).
In 2004, I attended the 4th ASPO conference on peak oil, in Berlin, and there I met Michael Ruppert (yes, that Ruppert!). Among other things, Ruppert told me that some CIA agents he personally knew were attending the conference. Later on, the same day, someone whom I had never met before introduced himself and chatted with me for a while. He told me of something that I had never heard before. It was about the 9/11 attacks in New York. It has been proven, he told me, that the towers didn't collapse because they were hit by the planes. No, it was a controlled demolition: explosives were detonated inside the towers in order to make them collapse. It was an inside job! After that conference, I never heard from him again.
More than one decade after that conference, I still wonder about all this. Was it true, as Ruppert had told me, that there were CIA agents attending? And the person who had told me the story of the controlled demolition, who was he? Was he one of those agents engaged in "planting" an absurd story with a group of people known for their somewhat conspiratorial theories? I can't say, of course, but let me tell you that I am paranoid enough that I can't discount the idea that Ruppert was perfectly right.
One thing that I can say from these recollections of mine is that the legend of the "controlled demolition" of the Twin Towers was being diffused in 2004. This is an interesting point in itself; because it is not clear where the legend originated from. Some data seem to point out that it was proposed for the first time just the day of the attack, but it didn't go viral until 2005-2006. Today, it remains one of the weirdest and - in a certain sense - most fascinating legends among those that pullulate in the Web, where it nicely competes with equivalent ones, such as the "chemtrails" idea (and note how Randall Munroe masterfully mixed the two things together in the image, above).
The controlled demolition legend shows how difficult it is for us to understand collapse. In engineering, smart people have been making the same mistakes over and over, assuming that a structure was safe when it was not; unable to understand how easily things break. Even today, when we should know enough about the theory of fracture, things keep crashing and breaking all the time; taking us by surprise. It was, probably, this surprise that led some people who were watching the collapse of the towers on Sept 11, 2001 to think that it wasn't possible that the fall was "natural". Someone, they thought, must have been masterminding the whole event, pushing the buttons that detonated the explosives with the incredible precision necessary to cause the buildings to fall at exactly the speed that things reach when they fall freely.
But engineering is a good playground for learning about things that collapse all of a sudden, and the collapse of the twin towers was nothing exceptional. You may see it as one more case of a "Seneca Collapse" - a term that we can apply to engineering just as to the collapse of civilizations. We can understand it as part of the general rule that things are built slowly, but tend to collapse rapidly.
Despite being so patently absurd, the theory of the "controlled demolition" maintains an incredible traction as a meme residing in the Web. It is because it is not just about engineering; it is part of a general trend and it involves much more than a poor understanding of the engineering of fracture. There is one more collapse behind that of the twin towers: the collapse of trust in governments. I have discussed in a previous post of mine how this collapse of trust may have been generated by the brazen lies we were told about the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq in 2003, but it seems to be a necessary result of the trajectory of a collapsing civilization. Lies generate more lies until truth disappears, buried underneath. The "lie curve" can't be exactly measured and so I can't say if it has the typical shape of the "Seneca Curve". But we can say that, from the early years of the 21st century, it was a landslide: conspiracies started being seen everywhere and everything that had an even vaguely defined as an "official" truth generated a counter-interpretation based on the idea that the government was lying to us: chemtrails, peak oil, fake lunar landings, and all the rest.
The problem is that the fact that a theory is wrong doesn't make another theory right: after all, there is only one truth, but lies are many. And we cannot even say that all "conspiracy theories" are wrong by definition (conspiracies do exist!). So, where is the truth? It is somewhere, buried under a gigantic mass of lies as thick as the debris of the collapse of the Twin Towers. And we may never be able to dig it out.
Friday, February 5, 2016
The concept of "Seneca Collapse" has been discussed by "Zero Hedge" where Tyler Durden reproduced an article previous appeared on Charles Hugh Smith's site. Smith says:
I propose that the Global Recession of 2016 will trace the Seneca Cliff as described by Ugo Bardi. ... I think a strong case can be made that the global financial/economic system is primed for a ride down the Seneca Cliff.
This makes a lot of sense. In the hierarchy of complex systems, the financial system is, indeed, one of those most easily prone to collapse. Many biological and social systems have built-in systems to manage emergencies and counter the external perturbations that may send the system off balance. In biological systems, we have, for instance, the immune system; in the social systems we have the army, the firemen, and others. But the financial system has none, at least none that is built in the system. Actually, it may be argued that the world's financial system is purposefully built in order to be unstable, even though external entities - governments - may try to stabilize it.
Of course, the application of the Seneca phenomenon to the financial system is somewhat different from the model I developed. A better model for financial collapse could be developed, probably, starting from the punctuated collapse model of complex networks developed by Bak et al. But, in the end, it is the same phenomenon: the rapid collapse of complex systems is a property of connected networks; where the breakdown of one or more links may generate a cascade of broken links that brings the system down to a lower complexity state. In my model, there are only three nodes in the network, but that's enough to generate a rapid collapse.
But what are these models for? The concept of the Seneca collapse applied to the financial system is not so much a tool for predicting something. We know that financial collapses have already happened in the past and we won't be surprised if they will happen again in the future. Models are, instead, a framework for understanding the reasons of collapse. The main message, in this case, is that most complex systems are fragile and tend to collapse, unless there exists something that operates in order to stabilize them. And a problem of conventional economics, as Smith notes, is that:
Conventional economists are entirely blind to system fragility. There is no ready Keynesian Cargo Cult econometric formula that measures systemic fragility, so it simply doesn't exist within conventional economics.
Is it a problem? Maybe not so much, at least in the long run. Fragile systems collapse and disappear, resilient ones tend to survive and take over. It has always been like that, it is called natural selection. Eventually, by trial and error we'll learn how to manage complex systems. It won't be painless but, on the other hand, no one ever said life was fair. Just eventful.