We’re Running Out of Stuff

I am a regular reader of the Peak Oil Reviews that Tom Whipple writes for Resilience.org every week. The importance of oil to modern society, its function in geopolitics, and its central role in climate change make it a resource worth monitoring, if for no other reason than the fact that when we finally start running out of the stuff the world will change in utterly gut-wrenching ways.

But there are other resources that deserve similar scrutiny. While they may be less obvious than oil they are comparably important for the smooth functioning of modern society, and the world may change in pretty dramatic ways when we start running out. In recent weeks I’ve come across articles on three such resources whose supplies may be running dangerously low.

The first is David Owen’s piece in the New Yorker about how we’re running out of sand, which plays an unrecognized but critical role in building materials, glass, computers, phones, and more. In this case the problem isn’t absolute scarcity as much as the inaccessibility of the remaining sand deposits. Owen writes:

Deposits of sand, gravel, and stone can be found all over the United States, but many of them are untouchable, because they’re covered by houses, shopping malls, or protected land. Regulatory approval for new quarries is more and more difficult to obtain: people don’t want to live near big, noisy holes, even if their lives are effectively fabricated from the products of those holes. The scarcity of alternatives makes existing quarries increasingly valuable.

It’s not hard to imagine a day when the price of sand gets high enough to allow quarrying companies to buy out those houses and shopping malls and sufficiently pad the pockets of enough elected officials to clear the regulatory hurdles. Just look at what fracking companies have been able to do when oil broke $80 per barrel.

Another “we’re running out of X” piece I came across recently was this article from Ethan Siegel at Forbes about helium. A new helium scare article hits the web every year or so (here are ones from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 (this last one from Wired magazine actually makes the case that this is not such a big deal)).

Helium’s primary industrial use is as a coolant for superconducting magnets such as the ones used in MRI machines. Siegel gives a good detailed explanation for why helium is so scarce. In brief, the radioactive process that generates helium inside the earth’s crust takes hundreds of millions of years, and we’re obviously using it at a faster rate than that. Also it’s hard to contain because it floats away. Also, the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that the US national helium reserve be sold off, which has flooded the market, depressing prices, boosting consumption. Great job, guys.

While helium scarcity is worrisome, the recent discovery of a large helium reserve in Tanzania means that there’s more of the stuff out there than we know about, and that 2016 article from Wired linked above indicates that medical device companies are getting better at recycling waste helium. So maybe there’s cause for optimism.

The third resource that we’re in danger of running out of is probably the most frightening of all, even more so than oil: phosphorus. The notion of peak phosphorus has been a subject of debate (and nightmares) for at least a decade now. And as with helium it is a perennial source of hand-wringing magazine articles and fear-mongering blog posts. While the consequences of peak phosphorus are far more dire than a world without MRI machines, or even a world without gasoline, there is no consensus as to whether we are in fact running out, and at the same time  some promising work is being done on phosphorus conservation and recycling.

The event that has brought phosphorus into the news lately has less to do with the threat of scarcity than some recent findings on the historical relationship between the Earth’s phosphorus and the rise of more complex life on Earth. Back in January (I’m a little late to this) a team of earth scientists published a paper in Nature describing the results from an analysis they conducted of some 8,000 samples of sedimentary rock that once made up the bed of ancient oceans. The researchers were studying phosphorus levels over time, and the samples, which spanned 3.5 billion years, gave them a deep, longitudinal data set to study.

Their results show that phosphorus levels in ancient oceans were pretty low until about 800 million years ago, when they started to rise, possibly as a result of massive plate tectonic activity. This event coincides with a genetic change that is thought to have brought about the evolution of the planet’s first multicellular organisms (and event that all of us multicellular organisms should be immensely grateful for).

Tim Lyons, one of the scientists who co-authored the paper, quoted in Astrobiology Magazine (where I first heard of it), describes their findings this way:

“We are now in a wonderful position to unravel the captivating chicken-and-egg relationships among the evolution of life, the rise of oxygen, the shifting availability of phosphorus in the oceans, and even the possibility of episodic nitrogen limitation,” Lyons said. “My money is on the important role of plate tectonics and, 800 million years ago, the breakup of a supercontinent.

This has implications for a number of things, from geology to the search for life on other planets. For me the it is a sobering reminder of just how closely life on this planet is tethered to a scarce resource that very few people are paying much attention to.

Recent Media Consumption


  • The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow, by Gabriel Banat. This is probably the most authoritative biography of Joseph Bologne, the Franco-Guadeloupean composer, violinist and swordsman. Born of an enslaved mother and plantation-owning father on the island of Guadeloupe, Bologne’s fencing skills earned him both a place in the royal guard of King Louis XV and the royal designation Chevalier, but he made his mark on history as a composer. Banat was a professional violinist not a historian, but this is a well-researched book. There is not much in the historical record about Bologne’s life (he did not have extensive correspondences like Mozart did), and Banat relies a little too much on speculation and colorful historical episodes in late 18th century French history to fill out the narrative. But it is a very meticulously researched book and if anything it makes Bologne into an even more interesting historical figure than I had thought. His music is also very good.
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. One of the most harrowing fictional narratives of the historical American experience I’ve read. It relies on the machinery of literary fantasy and alternate history to amplify (only slightly) the lived experience of enslaved people in the United States.


  • Inside Psycho. A six-episode series on the history of the movie, Psycho. I heard about this podcast from the host of another podcast, Crimetown. It’s a bit uneven and in need of an editor but the against-all-odds story it tells of Hitchcock’s struggles to make this movie made me want to pick up a book-length biography of the director.
  • Startup Podcast two-episode series on Friendster (part 1 and part 2). Have you ever asked yourself “Whatever happened to Friendster?” Here’s your answer.
  • Joe Rogan interviews Dan Flores. I had never heard of historian Dan Flores before this interview, but now I have his books on hold at the library. Flores discusses his interest in the environment and ecology of the western United States, urban fauna, especially the foxes of Los Angeles, and the American Prarie Reserve.
  • And the Writers Is, with Benny Blanco. This is the first episode of a relatively new podcast interviewing popular songwriters. Benny Blanco is about as big a name in song writing as there is, and this interview gives an interesting glimpse into what it takes to break into this industry and how popular music is made today.
  • Exponential View with Scott Santens on UBI. I’m not familiar with Santens’s work, but this interview does a good job making the case that universal basic income is not only the morally right thing to do but that it makes economic sense.


  • The making of a prison town, by Sarah Tory at High Country News, by Sarah Tory at High Country News. A fascinating and sad report about the relationship between private prisons and down-at-heel municipalities, told through the story of a formerly detained Ghanaian asylum-seeker. Here’s a quote: “When the men asked for better food and more respect from the GEO guards, ICE officials were unreceptive. ‘You guys are refugees,’ they were told, according to Khan, ‘you can’t ask for things.'”
  • Remembering Cordwainer Smith, by Ted Gioia at The Atlantic. A good overview of Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith, one of the stranger science fiction writers in the genre. After describing some of Smith’s representative stories Gioia concludes, “In short, people who don’t like science fiction will really hate these stories.” I for one love them, but haven’t read much. I need to fix that.
  • Silicon Valley: A Reality Check, from Slatestar Codex. A contrarian view of Silicon Valley as more than just out-of-touch billionaires funding cupcake app startups. Here’s a quote: “If you’re an average well-off person, leading your average well-off life, consuming average well-off media and seeing ads targeted at the average well-off demographic, and going over to your average well-off friends’ houses and seeing their average well-off products, which are you more likely to hear about? A structured-light optical engine for cytological research? Or a juicer?” See also: Silicon Valley Rebrands Itself as Good for the Rest of America, from Nitasha Tiku at Wired.
  • Has French politics changed for good?, By Claudia Chwalisz at CAPX. “Macron did not simply rely on those who voted for François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012: he really did build a new coalition.” Very hopeful, but, as I keep hearing from every news source much depends on the legislative elections on June 11 and June 18.


Islam and Intolerance in Indonesia

It is very sad to see what is happening in Indonesia right now. The Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama,  was recently sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. Setting aside the absurd fact that blasphemy laws are still a thing in this ostensibly non-theocratic country, Ahok’s alleged blasphemy is tame, almost non-existent to the ears of someone who spent his formative years in Catholic school.

Certain Muslim groups in Jakarta opposed Ahok’s candidacy in the 2017 governor’s race on the grounds that it violates chapter 5, verse 51 of the Quran, which states:

O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.

In a speech last September Ahok referred to this line of attack against him, and acknowledged that some people would not vote for him because they have been “threatened and deceived” by this appeal to the Quran.

That’s it. That fairly mild statement, which opposition groups portrayed as a desecration of the Quran, was Ahok’s ticket to a two-year prison sentence.

As upsetting as this incident is on its own, it is just the latest and most high profile manifestation of a larger trend that has seen ultra-conservative Muslim groups exert increasing influence over Indonesian civic affairs.

Indonesia has been held up in the west as a role model of tolerance. Despite being the world’s largest Muslim nation it is not a theocratic one, at least compared to its peers in the Middle Eastern. The national doctrine of Pancailsa does not encourage widespread religious pluralism the way the US (notionally) does. Instead, it states a national preference in favor of monotheism, bans most indigenous religions, and limits national recognition to only six religions (alongside Islam is Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism). But within those six it does not place one above the other, at least in theory.

But, in fact, a number of well-organized and well-funded efforts are working diligently to elevate an extreme form of Islam to a privileged position in Indonesian law. A 2014 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide titled “Pluralism in Peril” lists out five factors driving increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia:

  1. The spread of extremist ideology, fueled and funded by sources outside Indonesia (notably Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East, and Pakistan) as well as domestic organisations, through education, preaching and the dissemination of literature through publishing pamphlets and books, DVDs and CDs, and via the internet;
  2. The inaction and at times complicity of the local, provincial and national authorities, including active complicity by senior government ministers who have made statements which contribute to intolerance;
  3. The implementation of discriminatory laws and regulations;
  4. Weakness in terms of law enforcement on the part of the police and the judiciary, in cases where religious minorities are victims in need of protection and justice;
  5. The unwillingness on the part of the majority of Indonesian Muslims, who make up over 86% of the population,13 to speak out against intolerance.

Numbers two through five are, in their own way, second order derivatives of Indonesia’s lethargic, highly corrupt civic institutions and its deeply cynical political and military elite. The first factor, however, the outside influence from Middle Eastern petro-states, is worth dwelling on.

Krithika Varagur has an excellent piece on The Atlantic’s website from this past March describing Saudi Arabia’s nearly 50-year effort to build a “deep network of Saudi influence” within Indonesia by sponsoring mosques and schools that practice their ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam called Salafism.

The primary Saudi-Salafist beachhead in Indonesia is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (aka LIPIA), which is a kind of Liberty University of Salafism, funded entirely by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Rizieq Shihab,  the founder and leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, which was one of the primary agitators behind Ahok’s blasphemy charges, received his education at LIPIA. It is not a stretch to say that the persecution of Jakarta’s Christian governor on trumped-up blasphemy charges can be traced, at least in part, to Saudi-funded Salafist groups.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to spread conservative Islam is not just limited to Indonesia; it is just the largest and most high-profile front in the Kingdom’s campaign to push the more conservative Saudi flavor of Islam in the Muslim world. Iran, the world’s dominant Shia Muslim power, is waging a similar campaign to proselytize Shia ideology worldwide (they are even in Indonesia, though not to the degree the Saudis are). Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are actively competing for converts throughout the globe in places as far flung as Senegal and Tajikistan.

This Saudi-Iranian race to pull the Muslim world into either the Sunni or Shia orbit has been described, appropriately, as a new cold war. And just as the US-Soviet cold war flared up into hot wars in Korea and Southeast Asia, there are some half dozen Saudi-Iran proxy wars taking place throughout the Middle East at the moment, many of which involve the US. In a sense, Ahok was just another victim of the aggressive evangelism of ultra-conservative Islam coming from the theocratic petro-states of the Middle East.


But there’s another element of Ahok’s story which is also worth highlighting. Ahok was the first governor of Jakarta to have Chinese ancestry.

Chinese people have been living and working in Indonesia for centuries. There is a persistent belief among non-Chinese Indonesians that the Chinese population profited off of “regular” Indonesians and hoarded their wealth. The result is a perpetual low level sense of resentment among non-Chinese Indonesians that occasionally boils over when provoked by irresponsible politicians who see the Chinese as a convenient scapegoat for the failings of the public sector. These resentments have occasionally boiled over into street violence.  The Guardian had a good piece this past November about the history of riots in Jakarta’s Chinatown neighborhood, Glodok.

Just the other day, Bachtiar Nasir, leader of the Islamist Ar-Rahman Qur’anic Learning Islamic Center, and another one of the leading voices in the anti-Ahok movement, implied in a recent interview that he is now looking to target the wealth of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population, saying that as they become wealthier “It seems they do not become more generous, more fair”. This is about as transparent an effort as you can get to push a button that has historically resulted in hatred, bloodshed, and death.

It is sad to see these strains of religious fundamentalism and ethno-nationalism gain strength in Indonesia just as we in the US are struggling with similar iterations of the same evils.  Hopefully forces of opposition and resistance in both countries can find support in each other.


Back in September of 2010 my wife and I visited Indonesia. It was my second time in the country, and it was fascinating to see how much things had changed in the six or so years since I had last visited, particularly in Jakarta. For instance, there was now a bus rapid transit (BRT) system serving downtown Jakarta that was pretty fast and efficient (Jakarta traffic is some of the worst in the world).

One evening we were taking the BRT to the Kota Tua, the core of the old city, to walk the Chicken Market bridge and get dessert at Cafe Batavia. The bus was full of very serious-looking people with signs. At Merdeka Square, home of the national monument, we saw a large mass of people flowing into the square, clearly very agitated. Our bus emptied out and the riders were absorbed into the crowd, leaving only my wife and me and maybe one or two other people on the bus. We had no idea what was going on but at no point did we, two obvious white non-Muslim westerners, feel the least bit threatened. A few minutes later we got off in the Kota, strolled across the famous bridge, and ate mousse.


(A picture I took of the Chicken Market Bridge that night, 9/4/2010)

It was only when we got home a few days later did I realize that the crowds in Merdeka Square were part of a nation-wide protest of Florida Pastor Terry Jones’s planned Quran-burning event to commemorate the September 11, 2001, attacks. I was pretty pissed. The crowd of people in that bus, and every Muslim in the entire country for that matter, had cause to hate America and Americans, all because some xenophobic hick from the most deviant state in the union managed to get global publicity for a hateful stunt.

It’s the kind of thing that, if the tables were turned and someone in, say, Bhutan had insulted Americans, it would be very hard to convince most Americans that there was anything redeeming about the Bhutanese people writ large. There would probably even be a congressman or two (probably from Florida) talking about dropping bombs on them. Any Bhutanese person who rode the subway, stopped to get gas, or stand in line at McDonald’s was liable to be on the receiving end of an ugly confrontation.

But when one American insulted nearly every Muslim on the planet, two obviously American tourists who bumbled into the middle of a public demonstration of that insult were left alone. It was almost as if Indonesians, who live in a country with state-sanctioned religions and blasphemy laws, are better able to disassociate the personal from the political in a way that the country with constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state just cannot get a handle on.

I’ve thought about that a lot in the years since that incident, wondering if Indonesians are just better at pluralism than Americans are. It’s unfortunate to see that maybe they aren’t.

Fast Radio Bursts Flying Under the Radar

Back in the summer of 2014 I distinctly remember driving through the hinterland of northern Massachusetts and hearing a news story on the radio that simply blew my mind.  It was a Sunday morning and we were listening to an NPR report (this one, in fact) about mysterious signals from outer space that had astronomers scratching their heads. These signals were of extremely short duration but very, very powerful. Astronomers called them “fast radio bursts” and put forward a range of possible explanations, ranging from pulsars, black holes and solar flares to plain old cell phone interference. But nothing seemed to fit.

This kind of thing is catnip for me. A big dramatic scientific mystery, signals from outer space, the patina of a possibility of extraterrestrial life. The moment I got home I stayed up late searching the internet for more information. Surprisingly, there was very little even in the scientific press. But it was a recently discovered phenomenon, so I figured it would take some time to capture the public’s imagination. I set a Google alert for “fast radio bursts” and got by on the occasional update on the research.

There was a flurry of stories in late 2015/early 2016 when a repeating signal was found, and another round of stories when, in January of this year, some researchers announced that they had located the source of one of these signals. Contrary to expectation, it was coming from another galaxy three billion light years away. This meant that whatever was generating these bursts (and the researchers were able to shed no light on this) was putting a ginormous amount of energy into it.

As for what is actually causing this phenomenon, the latest hypothesizing is focused on a type of neutron star called a magnetar, but other theories abound. It is genuinely exciting to have a scientific mystery of this proportion that is the focus of such a wide variety of astrophysical speculation.

Despite all this, fast radio bursts never gained much traction as a topic of mainstream scientific interest, but I still find it fascinating. So earlier this week I was very happy to see Quanta Magazine publish an excellent blow-by-blow primer by Katia Moskvitch on this phenomenon that touches on all the most recent discoveries. It conveys some sense of the excitement surrounding this very young field of research.  To give a small taste, here’s how Moskvitch describes the moment in 2015 when researchers found a burst that repeated:

The discovery was “both amazing and terrifying,” Chatterjee said — amazing, because “everyone knew that FRBs don’t repeat,” and terrifying because of the gargantuan energy required to produce even one of these bursts. Perhaps the only thing fiercer than emitting the energy of 500 million suns is doing it again.

Every now and then it is good to be reminded that it really and truly is an exciting time to be alive.

Bruce Sterling on the State of the World, 2017

More than a quarter of the year has passed and only this past week have I gotten around to reading Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s State of the World 2017 over at The Well. I’m glad I waited. Late December is so taken up with retrospective/prospective pieces that it can numb you to truly original thinking about our current moment. And Bruce Sterling has never been lacking in original thought about this or any other moment.

Sterling achieved notoriety in the science fiction scene of the early 1980’s as a leading light of the cyberpunk movement. His Shaper/Mechanist stories of 1982-1984 garnered multiple Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and his 1985 novel , Schismatrix, set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, is one of the few works of fiction I reread on the regular. He earned a reputation as a critical firebrand and literary scold as editor of the Cheap Truth fanzine, which was a manifesto of sorts for the early cyberpunk movement (the first line of the first issue accurately conveys the flavor of Sterling’s critical rhetoric: “As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands. Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”). And in 1986 he gave the larger literary world its first taste of the major voices in cyberpunk as editor of the Mirrorshades anthology.

But for all that Sterling’s fiction is something of an acquired taste, even to devoted science fiction fans. He lacks the evocative prose style and raw postindustrial aesthetic that helped catapult his compatriot, William Gibson, into literary stardom. His plots tend to move nonlinearly, chasing tangents or jumping the timeline in non-intuitive ways. The focus of his authorial gaze flits from one shiny, mind-melting thing to another.

While that may be grating in a novel (for some–I happen to love it), it makes Sterling’s non-fictional current events commentary consistently fascinating. I look to him to not only find and explain the oddball, under-the-radar stories circulating in the aphotic zones of the Internet, but to actively obsess about them. And his annual State of the World sessions with Jon Lebkowsky over at what remains of The Well are one of the best places to see that on display.

This year he begins with a lengthy and surprisingly heartfelt meditation on the death of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, who was assassinated on December 19, 2016. Although knowing nothing about the ambassador prior to his death, Sterling writes that

I felt a kind of genuine and rueful affection for the guy. As if we were on a first-name basis, and he’d slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk that presented a danger to anybody. “So, it’s come to this, has it Andrei?” I wanted to say.

Not that he is blind to the realpolitik of Russian aggression in Syria and elsewhere. But despite the gulf between Western and Russian ideologies Sterling sees Karlov’s death as the latest and most dramatic of a long line of harbingers foreshadowing the demise of the Westphalian order:

He’s got an alien value system, his activities don’t align with my interests, but somehow, I’m beyond that kind of knee-jerk irritation. Troll hot buttons rarely get to me at the dawn of 2017, I understand them as the counterfeit pennies of the modern intellectual marketplace. Karlov is dead, and I take his death “personalitically.” The personal is the political, and he’s like a freshly coffined microcosm of the trouble we share from pole to pole.

A variant of this sentiment creeps up later in the discussion regarding Vladimir Putin. Comparing him to Louis IX, Sterling writes that “Maybe the proper attitude in 2017 is not piling such emotional effort into: ‘What is this awful guy gonna do to mankind, what are his dreadful capacities,’ but ‘What if he’s not around?’”

The implications here being that the western-led world regime has relied on leaders in the periphery practicing various levels of authoritarianism as a key ingredient in global order. And in 2017 not even the dictators are safe, and the chaos that they so effectively repressed for so long is only one well-aimed bullet away from its debut on the world stage.

Elsewhere, Sterling launches into his tech-curmudgeon spiel, familiar from prior years. Google is “harebrained” and their “moonshots all miss the Moon.” Apple is “Elderly, formerly-daring, an aging diva who is transgressive in ways that nobody thinks are actually liberating.” Facebook is “bitter, toxic, creepy.” Amazon is the only major tech company Sterling thinks has any competence and even there he finds room for pessimism in Bezos’s recent entree into politics via the Washington Post.

More interesting his his take on AI. Despite being “genuinely impressed” by recent advances in deep learning, Sterling remains skeptical, largely due to their opacity:

You can’t mathematically prove that you have an accurate answer with a deep-learner. You just get cool Ouija-board hints. They strike me as a form of decadence for computer science, frankly. They have a baroque, visionary, suggestive, occultist quality when at this historical moment that’s the very last thing we need.

As someone who has been following Sterling for years, this techno-skepticism is almost cliche at this point, despite being a welcome counterweight to the prevailing tech boosterism that persists in mainstream media organs. And this point about the opacity of deep neural networks is something that the industry is starting to wring its hands about.

As scathing as he is about tech, this year Sterling reserves his harshest, most pessimistic words for the environmental movement:

If anybody thinks that standard Al Gore rationalist, scientific Blue State leftie environmentalists are destined to be the heroes of this great crisis of our civilization, well, they haven’t been entirely ineffectual, but they’ve gotta be one of the least successful mass movements ever.


… I get annoyed by the kind of febrile leftist melancholia that says, “Well, they failed to do what was obviously correct by my cogent analysis, and therefore a Dark Age looms.” It’s not that your analysis was even mistaken, it’s just that reality isn’t bound by your rationality.


There’s much more here worth reflecting on, including comparisons between the current economic crisis in China and Italian politics (“Once you’re inside Italy, you slowly realize that, though by anybody else’s standards it really is a deep and serious and chronic ‘crisis,’ by Italian standards it’s never a crisis unless they’re actively shooting each other”), thoughts about an insane recent Italian espionage case that has gotten exactly zero attention over here in the US, and speculation about the future of espionage in general.

The one part of Sterling’s remarks here that I keep turning over in my mind, and which I think deserves to be more generally discussed, is his perspective on our current fascination with dystopias in fiction and film. He writes:

Okay, I get it why dystopia is popular now, but that is a genuinely problematic sensibility. Today really WILL be over with, it’s crumbling, we’re gonna be knee-deep in the ruins of the unsustainable. However, we don’t have to get all ruin-porn about that. Even if that is our cultural sensibility, we could up our game and do it with better taste.

Scary political disaster, Nazism, Fascism – okay, a lot of people simply lived through that historic period. It didn’t last all that long. In fact it was only melodramatic creeps like Hitler who really thought it was a Thousand Year Reich that deserved to end in a totalizing scorched-earth Gotterdammerung. If you tremble all over from a prospect like that, you’re actually buying into the worldview of the problem.

Germany, Italy and Japan were all smoldering ruins in the 1940s and quite lively, prosperous, inventive places in the 1960s. Strange, but true.

Because text on The Well, god bless it, is not  threaded to make for an intuitive reading experience, I collected a condensed version of Sterling’s SOTW 2017 remarks in a Google doc viewable here.

Lessons from an Overlooked Mathematical Proof

This story about a retired mathematician proving a notoriously elusive statistical conjecture hits some really interesting themes.

Thomas Royen, a retired statistician who had worked in pharmaceuticals and academia, was brushing his teeth one morning when his brain burped out a method to prove something called Gaussian Correlation Inequality (the article has a very good general audience explanation for what exactly that is). Royen wrote up his proof, sent it to some colleagues, published it in an obscure journal no one reads, and then sat back and watched a whole lot of nothing happen for several years. Finally someone realized that Royen’s proof was in fact valid and constituted a significant achievement in the field. And next thing you know, here he is in Wired Magazine.

Apart from the fact that this happened in the first place, there are a few interesting aspects to this story that are worth dwelling on. The first is how easy it is for important developments in knowledge to get overlooked. Here is how the article describes the publication of Royen’s proof:

Proofs of obscure provenance are sometimes overlooked at first, but usually not for long: A major paper like Royen’s would normally get submitted and published somewhere like the Annals of Statistics, experts said, and then everybody would hear about it. But Royen, not having a career to advance, chose to skip the slow and often demanding peer-review process typical of top journals. He opted instead for quick publication in the Far East Journal of Theoretical Statistics, a periodical based in Allahabad, India, that was largely unknown to experts and which, on its website, rather suspiciously listed Royen as an editor. (He had agreed to join the editorial board the year before.)

With this red flag emblazoned on it, the proof continued to be ignored.

For a guy who just proved an important and intractable math problem, Royen sure seems to have gone out of his way to hide it in plain sight. There’s a wide berth between not wanting to go through the slog of peer review and publishing in an Indian journal with what sounds like single-digit readership. If Royen were twenty or thirty years younger I would wonder why he just didn’t publish his proof on Medium, or Stack Exchange, or even on Quora, which has a pretty strong math community.

But the paper was published. There it is in Volume 48 of the Far East Journal of Theoretical Statistics, right alongside papers on Bayesian Modelling of Growth Retardation among Children, Penalty Spline Estimators, and Simulated Hellinger Disparity Estimation. It’s not exactly click-bait, but it is clearly a serious academic venue.

And the Far East Journal is not entirely unread: its articles have been cited over 700 times since 2012, according to Google Scholar. (Interestingly, Royan’s is only the tenth most cited article in the Far East Journal’s history. The article with the most citations is titled “Parallel computing and Monte Carlo algorithms” by Jeffrey Rosenthal. It was published in 2000, giving it a 14-year head start.)

One way to view this is as a markets problem. The demand for theoretical statistical knowledge by savvy consumers is vastly smaller than the supply of knowledge on offer. The supply of both scholarly articles and the journals that publish them is large and the quality is uneven due to the need among academics to publish constantly. There are various curatorial functions, such as the formal curation that exists at arxiv.org and more informal method such as people simply sharing quality articles with each other over email. But collectively the curation is not robust enough to comprehensively cover the entire output across every venue and identify quality.

The market for specialized academic knowledge outside of the prestigious peer-reviewed ecosystem looks less like the New York Stock Exchange and more like the over the counter pink sheets market. You could hit it big and 100x your money, but it is far more likely that you loose your shirt.

Another part of this story that I found very interesting is the apparent simplicity of the proof. Statistician Donald Richards had been trying to find a proof for the Gaussian Correlation Conjecture for 30 years. But when he first saw Royen’s paper he said “I knew instantly that it was solved.” It is apparently an almost viscerally simple proof. Here is how the article describes it:

Any graduate student in statistics could follow the arguments, experts say. Royen said he hopes the “surprisingly simple proof … might encourage young students to use their own creativity to find new mathematical theorems,” since “a very high theoretical level is not always required.”

Just as Royen’s article was hiding in plain sight for three years before getting noticed, could it be that the proof was also hiding in plain sight for decades while statisticians dedicated to finding it looked elsewhere? If this proof was so simple why did it take so long to solve? And why did the proof come from someone so seemingly removed from the front lines of theoretical statistics research?

One possible answer is path dependency. Forty years ago a special, limited case of the conjecture was proved only for two-dimensional shapes. It was not a comprehensive proof, but it led researchers to believe that it contained the seeds for a comprehensive proof. Much work went into extending the two dimensional proof to a full proof. This turns out to have been the wrong approach, and it blinded researches to potential solutions elsewhere. Here is Loren Pitt, the mathematician responsible for the limited proof, describing this blindness:

Despite hundreds of pages of calculations leading nowhere, Pitt and other mathematicians felt certain—and took his 2-D proof as evidence—that the convex geometry framing of the GCI would lead to the general proof. “I had developed a conceptual way of thinking about this that perhaps I was overly wedded to,” Pitt said. “And what Royen did was kind of diametrically opposed to what I had in mind.”

I also wonder if there is currently a bias in favor of complex solutions, at least among academic researchers. Looking at the field it’s easy to assume that all the simple proofs have been found, and if a problem remains unsolved for as long the Gaussian Inequality Conjecture then the solution must be complex. For instance, it took mathematician Andrew Wiles over 150 pages (and his adult entire life) to prove that an+bn = cn, which is about as simple a mathematical statement as you could come up with.

The lessons I take away from this story are that simplicity is underrated, the default mode of complexity ought to be more regularly questioned, and maybe, just maybe, the truth is indeed out there, published in an obscure academic journal you’ve never heard of halfway around the world.

Recent Reading (Online)

  • Infrastructural Voodoo Doll from Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, which summarizes and expands on Manaugh’s excellent Atlantic article on the new intelligence gathering unit at LAX. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Atlantic piece, also quoted on the blog:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

  • Situational Assessment 2015 by Jordan Greenhall on Medium almost two years ago now. It is a wide lens assessment of human civilization at this moment, and makes for particularly bracing reading after the 2016 US election. A taste:

After WWII, we engineered a deep retrofit with a whole set of new technologies (the welfare state, operational planning, mass production, scientific engineering, etc.) and this worked. Wonderfully. Population exploded, lifestyle transformed. We went to the moon.

But not all was well in the State of Denmark. Our late 20th Century innovations managed to carry us through to somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. At this point we again started to see the edges of our “civilization toolkit” giving away and we made a fateful choice: stability in exchange for adaptive fitness. We doubled down. And since then, every time that the foundations started to shake, we’ve consistently chosen “more of the same.” The result is that we’ve been living in an increasingly delusional systemic environment.

At this point, it is increasingly evident that every single one of our social institutions are in what I call the “rococo stage” or the “root bound” stage: they are complex, heavy, ineffective, poorly designed and essentially impossible to change for the better. Education, healthcare, policing, legislative and regulatory decision making, wealth distribution, monetary system, etc, etc. You name it.

  • On Progress and Historical Change by Ada Palmer on Ex Urbe. This is another wide-lens look at our current moment, with a focus on the notion of progress and how change over time looks. It’s also a great exposition of Whig History, Great Forces history v. Human Agency history, and has a great description of a mock papal election Palmer conducted with her students last year that reads like an allegory for our current moment in history. Palmer is one of my favorite writers on history (she’s also pretty good at science fiction) Here is how she frames the piece:

I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’  But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real.  But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips.

  • The Real Reason Your City Has No Money from Strongtowns.org, makes a strong case against urban infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus. on the dilemma of replacing ageing infrastructure. “Thus, Lafayette has a predicament. Infrastructure was supposed to serve them. Now they serve it.”