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Sid Meier's Civilization, doom, and Cosmic Variance

It's remarkable how diametrically opposite conclusions may be reached by various people when they look at the very same data. Sean Carroll talks about Sid Meier's Civilization I-V, a famous series of computer games

Dismal Global Equilibria
and the message they're telling us about the future. He concludes that the year 3991 AD is a hell inhabited by a triplet of starving civilizations fighting for the remaining square feet of grasslands in amid the last melting glaciers, endless wars, and suffering.

Humans will need to leave the Earth, we're assured. The Washington Post tells us that Rio+20 in next week will have to agree that everyone must become a vegetarian. Alternatively, we have to create a sustainable society. Holy cow. I have played Civilization quite passionately as an undergrad and my conclusions were completely but completely different! And by the way, James Lovelock of the Gaia fame already sees the future and energy industry very differently, too. See two wonderful interviews organized by Leo Hickman for the Guardian: fracking rules, shale gas is good, greens less so.




My greatest experience was the encounter with CivDOS, CivWin, and Civ II. You shouldn't imagine that freshman Lumo would be playing it for years. But during a semester in 1993 or so, I spent many hours with it for at least 30 different days. One night session with my friend was a memorable event.

The computer lab in the basement of the school canteen (next to our hostels) would be closing at midnight. The doorkeeper would only allow the people to get out at 1:00 am, then 2:00 am, and then every hour. We got stuck at midnight, determined to stop playing by 1:00 am. That didn't work so our plan was moved to 2:00 am. Then it was moved at 3:00 am but by mathematical induction, we already felt that the new plan was less trustworthy than what we thought about the previous one. To make the story short, we suddenly saw the rising Sun around 7:00 am and we had to go to have some breakfast.

I wasn't tired at all, went to play volleyball (which I was very bad at, of course: our coach advised me not to register again because I was screwing their games), and only at the end of the volleyball classes, I felt extremely tired, ready to sleep for 15-20 hours. ;-) Games may be addictive but it's not a really deadly experience.



Just to be sure, I am able to run Civilization for DOS – through DOSbox – as well as Civilization for Windows 3.1 on my Windows 7. Just Civilization 2 doesn't work because it seems to be the only 32-bit program in the world that my 64-bit PC cannot swallow. But Civilization Alpha Centauri does work again and just to have an idea how the visual details have improved over the two decades, I downloaded the Civilization V demo a month ago. The video above shows someone playing Civilization V.

But let me return to the point – and to Civilization II that I have also played for many hours. My impression was that the beginning of the game, when you're a chieftain who hasn't really mastered the environment and who may be beaten by random savages that appear somewhere from the darkness of an unknown land – was frustrating. But as you map your continent(s), discover various technologies, and once you became able to build many things, the game just become pleasant and relaxing.

The scientific and technological progress is a totally cool thing. It's a pleasure to see how you can build railways and move your vehicles across the continent in one turn, instead of the muddy and slows methods to move at the beginning. Things become even better if you can send airplanes to your enemies – and if you can nuke them. You are very afraid of doing so at the beginning: nuclear weapons are almost a taboo. But the game correctly teaches you that it is just another tool, and a very effective one, and the pollution caused by the blast may be pretty much cleaned. Things just work.

I found it pleasant when my civilization became sufficiently dominant and the world just behaved (and kept on improving) in the way that looked satisfactory. You shouldn't think I was too good in playing the game but it was a relaxing activity that modestly and pleasantly stimulated one's brain activity – but not too much. If the other folks are destroying you too quickly or too brutally, then you're just playing too difficult a level. Unless your goal is to do something really difficult, ambitious, and energy-consuming, you should switch back to a chieftain (an easier level) or whatever is more appropriate – and then the game is fun.

The video below has additional parts and the guy talks about playing Civilization II. Carroll talks about the same version and I have played this one, too.



If you still don't know what the game is, then I apologize. It's a strategic game that takes place on a grid (originally square grid but it was replaced by a hexagonal network in the fifth Civilization). Each place of the grid may be controlled by one civilization and may host military units or cities – that are able to use resources in some vicinity of a particular shape – and/or various kinds of landscape. You're building cities, cities build units and products and wonders of the world and your scientists are inventing new technologies that depend on previous technologies – you may choose what your research focuses on and how much money you're paying for research or military and how much money you leave to the citizens – and allow you to build new kinds of city improvements, products, and military units.

It's enough for a description, I hope.

Again, my point is that the life becomes much more pleasant from pretty much all viewpoints as you and your civilization are getting more technologically (and politically) potent. The tree of the discoveries is a rather accurate caricature of the history of our own science and technology; when you play the game, you spend a lot of time by revisiting the actual history of the mankind.

But the game also contains some "foreseeable" wonders of the future, including a flight to a different star's planetary system, and some "unnamed future discoveries". It's very realistic and conveys the right spirit about the progress, I believe (although I know that some conservatives criticized the game as a communist propagandistic conspiracy: I don't follow this criticism, can you help me?). By the way, I forgot to say that your empire may be a dictatorship, kingdom, republic, democracy, or communist state etc. As you go towards democracy, many peaceful things become more effective but the hippie bastards in the Parliament often overrule your decision when you need to attack some foreign bastards.

That's why it's often very useful to switch to a more dictatorial system which is more effective when it comes to conflicts.

Sustainability is complete rubbish

All these random factoids about the game and my experience with it was only written as a background for something more important and it is the following. Superficial environmentalist doomsayers including Sean Carroll are completely missing the point when they insist on the "sustainability" of the progress or the evolution of the world near the "equilibrium" which is really the same thing expressed in less ideologically tainted words.

As the Civilization games correctly teach you, there's never any long-lived equilibrium as long as your society is alive and kicking. A life near the equilibrium would mean stagnation – a softer form of death. What you actually see during the whole playing is a skyrocketing population, increasing number of cities, strength of the cities, density of improvements in the cities, constant development of new ideas, new technologies, qualitatively new forms of the government, new ways to store people, fill their souls, and many other things. The progress is both qualitative and quantitative, both extensive and intensive, and it has many forms that keep on changing.

It's probably wrong to think about the year 3991 AD in terms of the amount of fossil fuels that will be consumed. Chances are that the consumption will be low; some of the fossil fuels may still be useful and they will perhaps be artificially produced out of other forms of energy that will be generated more centrally. Many things may happen. The fact that you get a scary world if you extrapolate current technologies, currently relevant resources, and current trends to the year 3991 AD shouldn't be surprising. The extrapolation is qualitatively wrong because the "physical resources" that will be determining the GDP in the year 3991 AD will be substantially different than the current ones.

Every combination of a resource and trend that leads to demonstrably scary conclusions in the year 3991 AD simply means that the trend will indeed slow down, stop, or the resource will become almost totally irrelevant, indeed. But that doesn't mean that the mankind will be in trouble. It just means that it will use different resources and methods or much smaller amounts of the known resources to stay alive and to entertain itself. It means that it makes no sense to try to plan (or invest) 2,000 years into the future simply because we have no idea about the conditions in the year 3991 AD.

Late Michael Crichton described the nonsensical character of the doomsaying extrapolations (and any prophesies of details about the distant future in general) very nicely in his talk Aliens Cause Global Warming. Among many other wise things, he said:
... Look: If I was selling stock in a company that I told you would be profitable in 2100, would you buy it? Or would you think the idea was so crazy that it must be a scam?

Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit?

Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses? But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport.

And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. ...
I think these are very true words. If someone claims that the year 3991 AD – or even the year 2100 is enough – will be in trouble just because he applies the current technologies, current expectations about the importance of things, trends, and everything else and extrapolates them to a completely different era, it shows his breathtaking arrogance, unbelievable naivety i.e. extraordinarily superficial reasoning, or both. It's just not possible for a sharp person to think in this way.

When you talk about technologies, approximately 100-200 years is a period after which "almost everything" becomes qualitatively different than before. Just to be sure, certain things about the humans, their thinking, and the economy don't qualitatively change in 100 years and some of them not even in 1,000 years. But almost all the technical details do. And it's only the technical details that may be used to predict bad conditions. That's why these predictions for the year 3991 AD or even 2100 AD are nonsensical. That's why people who want to plan carbon emissions up to the year 2050 if not 2100 are unhinged loons and psychopaths. Stalinists suffered (I use the past tense because I hesitate to admit that these people – in Syriza – will win the Sunday elections in Greece again) from a shocking degree of megalomania but they only dared to plan the society for 5 years. The plans were almost never fulfilled, anyway. And it was just 5 years, not 50, 100, or 2,000 years.

The progress of the mankind in the long run can't be measured by the weight of coal we will be able to burn – although other leftists did this things at various point, too. Even if you replace the coal by anything else, e.g. solar panels that we will install, you can't get a sensible method to measure the progress in the very long run. In the very long run, it's pretty much guaranteed that some truly qualitative changes will take place and the progress may be measured by the number of these qualitative changes. Certain things we pay for will become so cheap that they will be for free. The payments will shift elsewhere.

But the amount of coal or number of solar panels may only be interesting in a small local neighborhood of our lives in the spacetime. In this neighborhood, the progress may be expressed in terms of these quantities. But in completely different corners of the spacetime – a landscape of possible civilizations – the linearization from the previous sentence becomes totally inadequate. One must use totally different degrees of freedom to talk about the life of the civilization in a distant future and about its economy (yes, I am referring to a rather close analogy with effective field theories that may describe the conditions around various minima in the string-theoretical landscape: each vacuum produces a different effective field theory).

It's amazing that some people don't understand how their interests – and even their whole lives and certain value systems rooted in the latest environmentalist fads – are provincial, transitory, subjective, and downright worthless from the viewpoint of the eternity. I've been stunned many times when I was interacting with various people of this kind.

Take Alexander Ač. He's OK, a de facto conflict-free guy. But holy crap, he is bug nutty, bat shit crazy, if I borrow the words from Penn and Teller. He must know that his predictions of quantities related to his doom – that he sees everywhere – or his predictions of the oil prices or anything else are changing by 70 percent in average in every 3 months or so. A sane and at least marginally humble person would be able to estimate the timescale after which his expectations cease to have any relevance. Yes, the time scale is of order 3 months. But folks like Alexander Ač who are not only unable to estimate things more than 3 months into the future but who don't really understand their own age are still self-confident enough to preach about the duties and urgent needs in the year 2050, 2100, or 3991 AD.

It's an explosive combination of ignorance and stupidity on one side and arrogance and megalomania on the other side that one would expect among the Islamic fundamentalists only. But he would be wrong. Many people who are walking on our streets may be the same if not worse. After all, people in all nations are pretty much the same, whether they're Arabs or half-Czechs half-Slovaks or anything else. So this shared DNA of the humans must manifest itself in the weirdest kinds of stupidity in every nation, too. Much like human and technological progress, human stupidity may exponentially grow without any limitations.

You're invited to try the DISQUS 2012 comments – which have just replaced the old Blogger.com built-in slow comments – instead of the Echo comments.

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reader Alejandro Rivero said...

Civilization was not written to play into the future. Basically it was a mix of Empire, a VAX-780 game already ported to Mac in the eighties, and Civilization from Avalon Hill. The VAX game incorporated the basic exploration, discovery and production mechanism in a supossedly XXth century scenario, and the AH game brought the "civilization cards" and technological progress mechanism, but it was supposed to stop at Roman times. THe futuristic cards were probably introduced to try to show some difference with AH and to get at least up to the XXth century and the original Empire game (btw, there is some other famous old series with the same name, not to be confused with this one).


reader Virgil said...

I came across your article after following the sudden craze about the so called Eternal War and it felt good to see some concepts I had daydreamed about in a vague way over the years suddenly appearing in writing in a random blog post.


However, I would think twice before labeling people who refuse to acknowledge their insignificance as idiots. Denial and delusions serve as a valuable tools that can override some of the most difficult emotional and mental problems that plague all sentient humans. This is evidenced by the durability and spread of religion. In fact, even the smartest, most rational individual lives in a sophisticated web of self-deception that affects their perception of reality at all moments. You could even say that being delusional is a rational choice since it offers many benefits and in a lot of situations many less drawbacks than you'd think.


This brings me to my second point. The idea that the planet is in trouble and that we are running out of resources is an excellent way to boost research. The technological progress that will no doubt change our entire outlook can't happen by magic. We got from horseshit to oil and electricity because people panicked or got excited by some ideological trend and grasped at any straws they could find, eventually getting to a breakthrough. In other words, we need the impetus of irrationality to get anywhere. The people who are currently whining about sustainability will inspire the scientists of tomorrow who will revolutionize energy production, minds who might have otherwise been drawn to entirely different fields.


TL;DR We need the self confidence and enthusiasm derived from the delusion that our lives have meaning to be productive. It is from these vast stores of mental energy that life-changing discoveries are made and successfully implemented.


Just my two cents


reader Virgil said...

I came across your article after following the sudden craze about the so called Eternal War and it felt good to see some concepts I had daydreamed about in a vague way over the years suddenly appearing in writing in a random blog post.


However, I would think twice before labeling people who refuse to acknowledge their insignificance as idiots. Denial and delusions serve as a valuable tools that can override some of the most difficult emotional and mental problems that plague all sentient humans. This is evidenced by the durability and spread of religion. In fact, even the smartest, most rational individual lives in a sophisticated web of self-deception that affects their perception of reality at all moments. You could even say that being delusional is a rational choice since it offers many benefits and in a lot of situations many less drawbacks than you'd think.


This brings me to my second point. The idea that the planet is in trouble and that we are running out of resources is an excellent way to boost research. The technological progress that will no doubt change our entire outlook can't happen by magic. We got from horseshit to oil and electricity because people panicked or got excited by some ideological trend and grasped at any straws they could find, eventually getting to a breakthrough. In other words, we need the impetus of irrationality to get anywhere. The people who are currently whining about sustainability will inspire the scientists of tomorrow who will revolutionize energy production, minds who might have otherwise been drawn to entirely different fields.


TL;DR We need the self confidence and enthusiasm derived from the delusion that our lives have meaning to be productive. It is from these vast stores of mental energy that life-changing discoveries are made and successfully implemented.

PS Sorry about the double post, I had some Disqus issues


reader HowardW said...

With my browser (IE 8), the comments appear in a dull gray color on a dark green background, which provides insufficient contrast. I can only read the comments with great difficulty, or by highlighting them. [The main post is white on dark green, easy to read despite the smaller font size.] Is it possible to change the color of comments?


reader Christopher Simmons said...

Sustainability is sort of nonsensical anyway when one considers the second law of thermodynamics. Nothing is really "sustainable" because it's statistically impossible for any macroscopic process to occur without entropy production. Even the sun will run out in a few billion years. Then again, I might just be being overly pedantic.


reader Oxo said...

And all you say limo the reason I don't go to cosmic variance and longer.


reader Vojta said...

"Just one more turn and I will go sleep"..everyone who played Civilization knows this :) I played a lot all of Civilizations and I think Civ 4 plus both expansions is best and most balanced one. Civ 5 was a little bit different and I didnt like it that much. By the way if I am not mistaken in Alpha centauri there is possibility to research superstring theory, isnt it?


reader James Mayeau said...

It's the proverbial X-Box 360 climate model being promoted by alarmists as evidence.


Hope this gets a wide exposure.


reader Casper said...

I wouldn't want to postulate technological advances 4000 years into the future for fear of breaking some physical law or other and getting a rap over the knuckles, but there are many possible advances which could radically affect human civilization even without this constraint.
Take genetics for example. No doubt a lot of modern medical science is dross, but 4000 years of evolution would weed out a lot of this. It could well be possible by that time that humans would be able to re-engineer their bodily vehicles into all sorts of strange permutations in order to better match their self-identity.
Extrapolating from current trends, I would assume that by 4000AD for example, gay professional couples could well be the majority of the population. There would be a huge demand for gay reproductive rights I would imagine. This could be accommodated by making appropriate genetic changes to the male anatomy.
Whiter looking indigenous people could engineer themselves to look darker, spineless weaklings like myself could give themselves an Arnold Schwartzenegger makeover. The possibilities are endless.
Although things may look bad at the moment, one should always be positive about the future in the long run. My advice to the young is that, even if it sucks, reality is always a lot more fruitful than a computer game.


reader YeOldeMoptop said...

I can't figure out what the problem is. Honestly. If technology ends due to lack of resources, we go back to living like we did for 100s of thousands of years, or we go extinct, as we are doomed to do in any even, since our star has a limited lifespan and our planet has a history of killing off lifeform paradigms.


reader YeOldeMoptop said...

Hmm.


reader Shannon said...

Funny that my last comment using Echo was about dead ends, isn't it ? ;-)


reader Luboš Motl said...

Cute ;-). I may enable the Echo comments once the import is done but in that case, all the Echo comments posted since now would be true dead ends that disappear without trace on October 1st - because the fixing of the holes in the XML file etc. costs many many hours of CPU time, not to speak about bio time, and it's been kind of enough.


I've tried to post the first testing package of 73,842 Echo comments in 3,900+ threads into a testing account. For an hour tonight or so, I plan to switch the DISQUS here to the testing account and look for widespread enough errors that may be fixed sufficiently simply.


Added URLs, with two exceptions, plus author names and titles and js-kit.com/blog inserted images from the comment (redirected to dropbox) is where I end. I am not able to find out how to make the identity of authors from Echo more comprehensible to DISQUS so that DISQUS users could overtake - and avatarize - their previous Echo comments so this will probably not be done.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Testing whether one may post comments from mobile ?m=1 version of this blog and whether they appear on DISQUS.


reader Jeff Condon said...

A civilization geek eh? I taught myself to program at a very young age just to play games. There are few games which I have played more thoroughly than civiliztion Alpha Cenaturi.

Looks like blog war. I get University!


reader Luboš Motl said...

Don't be afraid to post messages here, in the DISQUS 2012 comments. Many types of authentication, including a completely anonymous one, are possible.

It seems that you may always edit your comments you posted previously.

Regular posters belonging to the natural TRF community will be gradually included to the white list. Otherwise I will probably keep the default pre-moderation.


reader scooby said...

First!


Sorry couldn't help it 8) - feel free to delete this comment Lubos.


reader Peppermint said...

It's amazing how fission went from being discovered in 1938 to powering France in the '80s, but it's pretty much the endgame of electricity generation. Perhaps future cars will carry ammonia tanks and fuel cells (it should be possible to produce ammonia for cheaper than the equivalent price of gasoline), but as you pointed out earlier airplanes will probably never be able to get off of carbon-based fuels.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Peppermint, I think that the biofuel hysteria shows that even your claim isn't necessarily correct. In the future, people may artificially grow fuels to power ordinary airplanes we know today. And those "generalized crops" needed for that won't necessarily have to occupy place on the surface of Earth. They may be in space or underground, irradiated by light produced from fusion energy, or whatever.


I don't have any realistic plan to make it reality in 30 years but I don't have to because when we talk about the depletion of fossil fuels, we're talking about 200 years in the future. The number 200 in the previous sentence was recently increased due to the shale oil and tar sands findings etc.


But who would want to manage 200-years-old airplanes in 2300? In the long future, those things are completely irrelevant much like a hypothetical sea level rise by a few meters in a few centuries. People just move to new vehicles and new houses which are built on places where they withstand expected change for the period comparable with their natural useful lifetime. And if something is historically valuable, they just build a wall against the sea level rise around it. In the same way, they always find some normal fuels to power it if they needed. But the bulk of the life occurs with recent technologies and those in the far future aren't subject to naive calculations based on the present.


reader Lorenzo the Magnificient said...

Civilisation II is the only version worth playing. The later versions are rubbish. Lorenzo the Magnificient.


reader Luboš Motl said...

test depth...


reader Peter F. said...

Here's progress! ;}


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Frederick, laws of physics are almost certainly constant not only in time, for billions of years, but even across the multiverse. But they don't imply any problems of the environmentalist kind. For example, the maximum information that may be squeezed into the volume of the size of Earth is 10^{85} bits – it's the holographic bound. There is really no other strict physical limit on the amount of information in a region. All other limits are associated with particular technological solutions, and they are therefore of an engineering character and therefore probably transitory.


I just want to say that it is complete nonsense that there is a physics limit that would prevent the Earth from hosting 10 billion people or even 100 billion people or whatever and similar comments apply to many other quantities of this kind analogous to the population. And I could talk about limits on many other quantities besides the information mentioned in the previous paragraph - such as the energy per year that may be produced on Earth, and so on. The actual physics limits are often dozens of orders of magnitude away from the current values. They are completely inconsequential.


So as the knowledge of physics increases, we can determine limits more accurately than before, indeed. The only problem is that the result of this progress confirms none of the environmentalist doomsaying delusions. The more we know about physics, the more we know that the environmentalists are deluded antiscientific mental cripples. The more we know physics, the more we realize that "more accurate limits" actually means greater and less consequential limits, not smaller ones "behind the corner"!

I don't think you are necessarily arrogant. You are just making totally invalid guesses about what the result of an actual advanced scientific research on a question says.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Haha, good to share something.


Yup, there's superstring theory over there but the tree around it s a bit bizarre:


http://strategywiki.org/wiki/Sid_Meier%27s_Alpha_Centauri/Technology_tree#Superstring_Theory



Prerequisites are nonlinear mathematics and cyberethics – what the fuck – and it allows you to build monopole magnets and chaos gun. Obviously, they didn't quite know what the theory was or they needed to pretend it was more practical.