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Archive for September, 2018

Do Civilisations Survive?

“The universe is a pretty big place,” as Carl Sagan once remarked. “If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

The Drake Equation is gradually filling out, and it’s looking good for the existence of life, the rise of intelligence, and the likely number of civilisations elsewhere in the universe.

There’s even reason to hope that some high-energy technological civilisations successfully pass through the energy-environment bottleneck that our own planetary civilisation is now entering. But not many make it through the bottleneck without suffering major losses, and quite a lot just collapse.

The Drake Equation was written by American radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate how many high-tech civilisations there were in the galaxy. It had seven factors, but they were all empty.

The first three factors, all uncertain in 1961, were: what is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy; how many of those stars have planets; and what proportion of those planets can potentially support life? We know the answers now, and they are pretty encouraging.

There’s around one new star annually, most stars have planets, and about one star in five hosts one or more planets with liquid water on the surface. That means that there are probably around a hundred billion planets in this galaxy alone that can support life, but that’s just a start.

As Douglas Adams pointed out in ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”

The Hubble telescope has revealed around a hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Total number of potentially life-supporting planets? Around 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten billion trillion).

Drake’s remaining factors are still unknown quantities. The only two that matter for Adam Frank – because all he wants to know is how many non-human civilisations have ever existed anywhere in the universe – are what fraction of potentially life-supporting planets actually do develop life; and what proportion of those planets go on to develop intelligent life.

What Adam Frank has done, in his recent book, ‘Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth’, is to point out that there must therefore have been a lot of ‘exo-civilisations’. Make your assumptions about first life and then intelligence emerging on any given planet as pessimistic as you like, and there will still be a lot.

Maybe not billions or even millions, but even if you assume that only one life-supporting planet in a million trillion ever supported a civilisation, there would have been ten thousand of them. That’s big enough for a statistical sample, and what Frank really wants to do is to crank the numbers and get a handle on how many of those civilisations would have made it through the bottleneck.

He doesn’t need to know anything specific about those unknown exo-civilisations. He only need to know that all civilisations use large amounts of energy, and that there is a strictly limited number of ways that a technologically ‘young’ civilisation like ours can access energy.

There are fossil fuels, if your planet had a Carboniferous Era, or just burning biomaterials if it didn’t. There’s hydro, wind and tides. There’s solar, geothermal and nuclear. That’s it. Using energy always produces waste, but some of these modes produce far less heat, carbon-dioxide, and toxic chemicals than others.

So put different original mixes of these energy sources into your experimental models, put in different planetary conditions as well (some planets closer to their suns, some further away), and run a few thousand of these models through your computer.

It turns out that most of the models see runaway population growth, followed at a distance by growing pressures on the planet’s environment that lowers the ‘population carrying capacity’.

At some point the alarmed population switches to lower-impact energy sources. There is still a steep die-back (up to 70 percent) in the population, but then a steady state emerges and the civilisation survives.

In other models, the planet’s people (creatures? beings?) delay switching the energy sources for too long. They all switch in the end, but the laggards still don’t make it. The population starts to fall, then appears to stabilise for a while, then rushes downward to extinction. Nobody saw that one coming, but it’s what the models are telling us.

There’s still a huge amount of research to be done in this new domain, but it’s time to ask where our own planetary civilisation falls on this spectrum of possible behaviours.

I don’t know, but this just in. Oil production is at an all-time high of 100 million barrels a day, and the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries predicts that it will reach 112 mbd in the next 20 years. That’s the wrong direction.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 8. (“The universe…space”; and “Drake’s…life”)

Another Gulf War – The First Shots?

The men who carried out Saturday’s attack on the parade in Ahvaz, in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, were well trained: four of them killed 25 people and wounded 70 others before they were shot dead. The question is whether they were trained by ‘Islamic State’, or by the backers of the low-profile Ahvaz National Resistance, which also claimed credit for the attack.

‘Islamic State’ is an independent ultra-extremist Sunni Muslim movement that kills Shias (most Iranians are Shia) on principle, so there are no big political implications if it was IS that planned the attack.

If it was the Ahvaz National Resistance, however, then these were the opening shots in the Fourth Gulf War, because the ANR is backed by Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab allies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein.

Iran is convinced that it was the latter. “It is absolutely clear to us who committed this crime… and whom they are linked to,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The small [Arab] puppet countries in the region are backed by America, and the US is provoking them and giving them the necessary capabilities.”

There is reason to suspect that this is true. The Arab countries of the Gulf are smaller and weaker than Iran, and have talked themselves into the paranoid conviction that Iran intends to destroy them, perhaps even to replace Sunni with Shia Islam. They talk of war with Iran as inevitable, and dream of drawing America into such a war to even up the odds.

President Donald Trump is also paranoid about Iran, and openly talks about overthrowing the Iranian regime. Indeed his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, boasted on Saturday that US sanctions are really hurting Iran: “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

So this could be a marriage made in heaven (or somewhere else in the supernatural world, perhaps). But first there has to be a spark, some Iranian action that gives both Trump and the Arab Gulf states a pretext for attacking Iran – for they both think in terms of attacking Iran first, not of defending against a (highly improbable) Iranian attack.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said last year that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” If they get their war, both leaders expect that most of the heavy lifting will be done by the US Air Force, but something bad has to happen on the ground first. Iran has to do something stupid.

How do you get it to do something stupid? Well, you could try supporting separatist movements in the various ethnic minority areas that ring the country: Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, Turkmen in the northeast and Baloch in the southeast. With luck, the Iranian regime will over-react and massacre enough of the separatists (and innocent bystanders) to provide the pretext for an Arab-US attack.

After Saturday’s attack in Ahvaz, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent United Arab Emirates scholar who tends to say what other people don’t dare, tweeted that the attack wasn’t really a terrorist incident at all. He pointed out that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option”, and predicted that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase.”

If that’s the Saudi/American strategy, then sooner or later they will manage to goad the Iranian regime into committing some atrocity in return, and then we’re away to the races.

It would the fourth Gulf war in less than forty years. The first was the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, in which the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the new revolutionary regime in Iran with the warm support of the United States. Up to a million people were killed, most of them Iranian, but the only direct US support was to give Saddam’s forces intelligence and targeting information for their attacks.

The second was the 1990-91 war between Iraq and most of its Arab neighbours, plus large numbers of American and other Western troops, after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The third was in 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the mistaken belief that Saddam had links with the al-Qaeda terrorists who made the 9/11 attacks and/or was working on weapons of mass destruction.

And the fourth, coming soon to a theatre quite a long distance from you, will be the US/Gulf Arab attack on Iran.

Of course, the attack in Ahvaz on Saturday could just have been another meaningless spasm of hatred by Islamic State, and not a Saudi/American initiative at all. But if not now, then soon.
To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 12-15. (“It would…Iran”)

A Second Great Recession?

Ten years ago this month the financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, triggering the 2008 Crash and the subsequent Great Recession from which the world’s economies have still not fully recovered. Will we look back on this month as the turning point when Donald Trump’s trade war with China unleashed the Second Great Recession?

In the past week the slow dribble of tariffs and counter-tariffs has rapidly grown into a full-fledged confrontation between the world’s two greatest economic powers.

In July the US imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese exports to the United States, extending them to another $16 billion of Chinese goods in August. China responded cautiously, announcing roughly comparable tariffs on $50 billion of US exports to China in August.

Trump deemed that unfair, and on Monday he slapped a 10 percent tariff on another $200 billion of Chinese exports to the US, due to go into effect at the end of this week. He warned that if China retaliated again, he would impose a similar tariff on all the rest of China’s exports, another $267 billion.

Trump also threatened to raise the rate of the tariff to 25 percent if there is no US-Chinese deal that meets US requirements by the end of the year. Did he imagine that this threat would force an autocratic regime like China’s to back down and lose face? Who knows?

The Chinese replied hard and fast, announcing on Tuesday a new tariff on all the rest of America’s exports to China, worth some $60 billion. So if Trump fulfills his threat and hits the remaining $267 billion of Chinese exports as well, by next Sunday ALL America’s imports from China and ALL China’s imports from the United States will be paying tariffs.

China, trying to lower the temperature, is keeping its tariffs on US goods down to 5 percent for the moment, but it can’t hold that line forever if the US goes on ratcheting up the ones it has imposed on China. Trump has got the trade war he was clearly itching for, and it’s a much bigger deal than his spat with the European Union or his bullying of Canada.

We’re still not talking about cataclysms here: China’s trade to the US accounts for less than a quarter of its total exports, and its exporters will still get paid for what they sell. (It’s the importer who pays the tariffs.) The same goes for US exports to China, which are only one-sixth of total American exports.

In the long run higher prices for Chinese goods in the US might damage its market share there, with negative effects on employment in China, but that’s a slow process. The same applies to potential US job losses due to declining exports to China: they won’t happen fast enough to have any impact on November’s mid-term elections in the United States.

It’s the long term that counts, and this trade war will probably not be settled for a long time. Multi-billionaire Chinese businessman Jack Ma predicts that it could last 20 years, which sounds a bit pessimistic, but as long as it lasts, it will poison relations between the world’s two greatest powers.

Trump seems to think that China’s economy is now so wobbly that the tariffs will push it over the edge, forcing it to come to the US begging for mercy. It’s true that the Chinese economy is growing very slowly, if at all: nobody believes the official figure of six or seven percent annual growth. It’s also true that the Chinese financial system is as overloaded with bad debts as American banks were in 2008.

But China is only a sham capitalist economy. If lost exports to the US trigger a financial collapse in China – an unlikely but imaginable outcome – Beijing would slam the doors closed on international capital flows, bail out the Chinese banks, and flood the domestic economy with cheap credit. In this scenario, it’s international trade that would collapse, which wouldn’t be in anybody’s interest.

Meanwhile, Xi’s regime would be stoking Chinese nationalism and blaming the United States for all the domestic misery. Indeed, Xi and the Communist Party hierarchy are coming to the conclusion that Trump’s trade war is designed to “thwart China’s rise.” There can be no compromise with the United States if that is the case.

That’s not just Chinese paranoia. There really are those around Trump (and elsewhere in Washington) who are encouraging his obsession with the American trade deficit with China for exactly that reason. Yet his obsession is completely misplaced: 85 percent of the seven million American manufacturing jobs lost since 2000 were eliminated by automation, not by trade.

This nonsense is going to go on for a long time, and everybody will end up at least slightly poorer, but it probably won’t bring on the Second Great Recession. It may, however, start the Second Cold War.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We’re…States”)

30 Minutes in Salisbury

Salisbury is a nice old English town with a fine cathedral, only an hour and a half from London by train, but it doesn’t see many Russian tourists in wintertime. It’s not as cold as Moscow, but Russians tend to prefer Mediterranean destinations for holiday breaks in early March – unless, of course, they are planning to kill somebody.

The person of interest in Salisbury was Sergei Skripal, a former member of the Russian military intelligence service who started selling information to the British in the mid-1990s and was caught and jailed by the Russians in 2004. He was pardoned and allowed to go to Britain as part of a spy swap between Western countries and Russia in 2010, and he settled in Salisbury.

On 4 March of this year, Skripal and his daughter, who was visiting from Moscow, were found semi-conscious on a bench in the street in Salisbury and taken to a hospital. They spend weeks in intensive care, and it was determined that they had been poisoned by novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that falls into the category of banned chemical weapons.

A policeman who went to Skripal’s house was also struck down by the poison, which had been sprayed on the handle of the front door, but he also recovered eventually. Three months later a Nina Ricci perfume bottle that contained leftover novichok was found in a charity bin in Salisbury, and a woman who sprayed it on her wrists died.

Britain accused Russia of sending assassins to kill Skripal and of using a banned weapon. It had no hard proof beyond the novichok, but Skripal was still helping Western intelligence agencies to understand Russian training and techniques, so Moscow had a motive.

Many people pointed out that it would have been foolish for Moscow to choose such a complicated method and risk exposure. Why didn’t it just hire a non-Russian hitman to do the job? But Moscow has done this sort of thing before: Russian agents, exotic substances, the lot.

Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the FSB secret service, got into trouble after his investigation into links between Russian mafia groups and his own organisation made him unpopular with Vladimir Putin, the FSB’s head. Litvinenko fled Russia for Britain after Putin took over the presidency in 2000.

Litvinenko remained a harsh critic of Putin, and in 2006 Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, both former FSB agents, were sent to London to kill him. CCTV images showed the killers with Litvinenko at a London hotel where they dosed his tea with a tiny amount of polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance that would not normally be spotted because it does not emit gamma rays.

That was a reasonably competent operation, exposed only by bad luck. The 2018 operation was different. CCTV images, released only last week, showed Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, two 30-something Russian ‘fitness trainers’, making a brief trip to Salisbury on 3 March, presumably to do a reconnaissance, and back to the town on the 4th to do the dirty deed.

But then it got weird. Putin publicly urged the two men to go on TV, and last Thursday they appeared on RT, a Russian international news channel, to explain their brief trip (which gave them only 54 hours in England).

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said Petrov. They especially wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral, said Boshirov: “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock….” But they looked like heavies from Central Casting, and not at all like clock-tower enthusiasts. ‘Nekulturny’ (uncultured), as the Russians say.

Why did they only spend 30 minutes in Salisbury the first time? “It was cold.” (It was 10 degrees C warmer than Moscow.) Why did they take another train down to Salisbury the next day? “We really wanted to see Old Sarum and the cathedral.” (Old Sarum is an Iron-Age hill fort near Salisbury that was closed on 4 March.)

And on 4 March one of the CCTV cameras picked them up close to Skripal’s house and far from the cathedral or any other tourist attractions.

Is Russia deliberately trolling the British government to show its contempt? Probably not, because it has tried very hard to distance itself from the crime in other international venues. Did Putin’s regime put those two highly implausible ‘tourists’ on RT because it forgot that different standards of truth prevail elsewhere? Maybe.

But the likeliest answer is that these clumsy and self-defeating actions are indicators of how far the rot in the regime has gone. Elements of the system, like the armed forces (which have performed well in Syria), retain their efficiency and discipline, but corruption and incompetence rule elsewhere.

The Salisbury debacle would not have happened eighteen years ago, when Putin’s reign was new. It suggests that the regime is a lot closer to its end than its beginning.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“A policeman…motive”)