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Yonatan Zunger
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Yonatan Zunger

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Today, I’d like to talk a bit about economics. In particular, I want to look at why capitalism can both work amazingly well and fail amazingly badly, often at the same time, and is such a great factory for “best of times, worst of times” conditions. The seven-word summary is: “Free markets work, except when they don’t.”

I won’t spend too much time on the first part of the sentence, because presumably you’re familiar with the ways in which free markets can work well. Basically, if two people freely engage in a trade, by definition it makes both parties happier; if it didn’t, they wouldn’t have engaged in that trade in the first place. The more trade is possible, the more people can accumulate things that make them happy – e.g., more free time to spend with their families while getting the same amount of food. There are all sorts of mechanisms which amplify that; probably the most important is “comparative advantage,” which shows how if there are enough people around so that everyone can specialize in what they’re best at, everyone comes out ahead. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_advantage if you want to learn more about it; Ricardo’s example is a good place to start)

However, if you’ve paid any attention at all to the world in the past few centuries, you’ve probably already got an objection to what I just said: “You think they wouldn’t have engaged in that trade if it didn’t make them happier? What if they didn’t have a choice?” And you would be perfectly right, and that part is the heart of “except when they don’t.” There are a few ways in which free markets can fail, but most of them are obscure and relatively easy to fix (e.g., limited money supply). The big one, which represents the overwhelming majority of all the problems, is coercion: the argument that a free trade makes both parties happier doesn't apply to trades which are not free.

(And note, by the way, that coercion harms free markets both locally – in that the individuals being coerced lose out, often by a lot – and globally, in that coercion is essentially a “tax” levied by one person on another. Those of you familiar with economics will recognize that whenever the price of something is pushed away from its natural equilibrium, overall value goes down. So when I talk about failures of capitalism, I mean failures that are simultaneously moral and financial failures.)

As far as I can tell, the large majority of coercion comes in three forms, which I’ll call externalization, capture, and inelasticity. These three overlap and most real situations combine them, but what they have in common is that they’re ways in which one person can force someone else to accept a trade that they would normally never take.


Externalization, also known as “negative externalities,” is when I can make everyone else pay my costs. The most common forms which don't overlap heavily with capture (the next item) are when I can take my costs from a poorly-policed commons (e.g., dump waste into an air supply that nobody is monitoring), or when I can spread the costs out so widely that every individual's cost of recovery would exceed the damages to them. (Playing games with individuals less able to individually recover is part of capture and inelasticity)

Capture is the classic positive-feedback problem of any system of human power: you can use your power to get more of it. Pure capture (as opposed to inelasticity) happens when there are central methods of regulation or other power-amplifying systems which you bring under your control via bribery, coercion, etc., and suddenly rather than regulating you they amplify you. That can be anything from regulation of pollution of commons to having the police keep Those People "under control" for you. 

Inelasticity is the result of the fact that the value of money isn't linear. If you have $100,000, then $1 means a lot less to you than if you have $10,000. In particular, people's needs up to a certain wealth level are dominated by constant overheads such as food and housing; so long as your total resource access is of the same scale as those overheads, your financial life is dominated by the severe consequences of falling below any one threshold. Once you're far from those overheads, the value of resources becomes far more linear. Often, a good way to measure this is in terms of "being one <event> away from disaster;" if the event is as small as a flat tire, versus if it's as big as inoperable cancer, it's a huge difference in life.

If two people are about to engage in a deal, and one of them is near-threshold while the other isn't, the one who isn't has huge negotiating leverage. For example, you can give someone a shitty job like mining coal that they would never accept if they had some option other than starvation. 

(Economists will note that in “inelasticity,” I’ve abused a term which actually represents something very natural, which is that the price of some goods isn’t very sensitive to supply or demand. The problem I’m describing here is really the problem of extreme inelasticity: specifically, when a person’s net resources are low enough that the costs of white-pill [“you need this in order to live,” nearly infinitely inelastic] goods become a dominant part of their financial calculus. Better terms for any of these would be welcome.)


There are methods to deal with all of these problems, and they work to varying extents.

The way you solve the first kind of externality is to not have poorly-policed commons. That doesn't necessarily mean enclosure, i.e. giving ownership of those commons to private individuals: in fact, enclosure is extremely susceptible to capture effects, as we saw with the original enclosures in 18th-century England. Methods like cap-and-trade, or simply either (a) requiring people to pay their own damned cleanup costs or (b) being up-front about the fact that we’ve decided to pay those costs as a community in exchange for the net benefits of whatever it is those people do, can be quite effective.

The second kind of externality, where people spread costs around widely – e.g., stealing $5 from every household in a city – can be solved by mechanisms like class-action suits, central regulators and law enforcement. In each case, the idea is to create some kind of entity (be it an ad-hoc collective of individuals or a dedicated set of professionals) which is strong enough, and incented properly, to pursue recovery whenever someone tries to steal from the community. 

There’s a hybrid kind of externality which also uses inelasticity: if you steal from the poor, they’re less likely to have the resources to go after you. This is based on the fact that recovery of any sort tends to have fixed overhead costs, e.g. the time, money, and knowledge required to sue someone. When people’s total spare budget of any of these is tiny because of their basic cost of survival – e.g., when someone is working hourly and can’t afford the time to engage in a lawsuit – it becomes a lot easier to steal with impunity. This is just a nastier variation of the second kind of externality, and is often best solved with a swift kick to a tender area of the anatomy.

You can solve inelasticity by reducing the overhead costs to zero. There are many different overhead costs -- food, shelter, transport, child care, etc., etc. -- and each can be analyzed separately and each creates value in its reduction. One way to reduce those is to literally reduce the cost of the items; e.g., the real cost of clothing has plummeted over the past few centuries, and now lacking clothing is only a major factor for people near the absolute bottom of the resource curve, where clothing is really being used as a substitute for shelter. Another way is to reduce need for the items, e.g. by having housing close enough to work and so on that people don't need lots of transport. A third way is to socialize the costs of these items, e.g. by having functional public transit or health care. That doesn't reduce their intrinsic costs, but it eliminates the inelasticity effect on individuals by averaging their cost over the entire population.

Capture is harder to solve. The best solution proposed so far has been democracy, but as we're well aware, that's more like "the worst solution except for all the other ones that have been proposed." There are some fields in which it can be solved by things like direct competition among regulators, but that has strange failure modes: consider, e.g., the competition among bond rating agencies which was supposed to ensure that bond ratings were meaningful. Unfortunately, all three of them were funded by bond sellers, not buyers, and so had the same incentives; a lot of the mortgage crisis was a consequence of that. (Specifically, that the various CDO's being traded had been AAA-rated based on completely nonsensical models, which any rater that had an incentive to actually think through would have known)


Importantly, though, I think that the first part of that original sentence about free trade is at least as important as the second: capitalism works well when coercion is brought under control. Communism was a recipe for making everybody miserable – and ultimately proved even more vulnerable to capture than capitalism. Feudalism and so on are even worse. Even more significantly, capitalism works better by its own metrics when coercion is eliminated: in fact, economists tend to model these things as a kind of tax on the system.

However, benefit to the system as a whole doesn't translate to benefit as individuals. In particular, if you're making a lot of money off (say) inelasticity, by having a large pool of desperate and subservient workers, then even though the aggregate wealth of society would go up a lot if they weren't so desperate, your own wealth (especially your effective wealth, divided by the cost of converting it to goods) would go down. That creates one hell of an incentive for capture, in forms ranging from direct regulatory capture by bribes, to funding astroturf organizations, to creating entire media and social panics, all the way out to creating social institutions – e.g., feudalism or slavery.

So while solving externalization and inelasticity are extremely important, capture is often the key to the whole deal.

Fortunately, it isn't always the key to the deal: sometimes, for example, someone figures out a way to knock the price of some key good down through the floor so quickly that existing groups can't figure out how to capture it in time. The expansion of Europeans through North America was an interesting example of that case (where the price of land became cheap because anyone could just kill people and take it -- or, once the cost of killing people got socialized into an army, just take it); their expansion through South America much less so, because there expansion was effectively captured as an industry by entrenched nobles. The rise of new technologies is a somewhat less bloodthirsty example: e.g., when companies like FedEx cratered the price of small-scale many-to-many shipping logistics, thousands of new businesses suddenly emerged.

Technology, wisely applied, can knock the pillars of inelasticity out from under people. That creates a sudden chance to rapidly equalize wealth distributions, which in turn has a strong negative effect on capture. The question of whether you can maintain that negative effect after the initial pulse, or whether wealth will inevitably end up re-aggregating through a combination of capture and externalization even in a zero-inelasticity world, is one of the major hard questions we're likely to face in the next few decades.

But it’s one of my major interests, and it’s why I spend my time working on technologies which I think can alter the basic cost calculus of the world, by making something previously necessary and expensive (be it knowledge, or communication, or data storage) nearly free.


Illustrative cartoon by Ape Lad (http://goo.gl/QI13CH), CC-NC-ND. Thanks as well to +Xenophrenia​​​ for the initial conversation which sparked this post, and for many other such arguments about the nature of capitalism.
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+Danial Hallock There seems to be this powerful, powerful intuition, which I sometimes hear people state explicitly, that inflation is keyed exactly to the value of the minimum wage. So if you double the minimum wage, all prices will not just increase a bit; they will immediately double and you'll have done nothing but devalue the currency and drag higher-paid people down.

It's often stated as an unjustified hypothetical: "suppose I make the minimum wage 10 times as large and prices get 10 times higher; what have I gained?" They never actually give an argument why this would be the case; it's vaguely assumed to be "econ 101".

Oh, and there's another strange notion embedded in there, that if we can set a minimum wage at all we might as well set it arbitrarily high. "Why not make the minimum wage $1,000,000 a year? Hey, everybody's rich! See why that wouldn't work? Now why do you want to raise the minimum wage?" I think the sentiment is connected to hard-money advocacy and the general feeling that liberals don't respect the value of a dollar.
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It looks like JJ Abrams may have succeeded in creating a fourth Star Wars movie. It's a bit too early to be sure, of course, and trailers are at their heart lies -- but this one is quite promising indeed.
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Sadly, it did happen.

At least Tom Hardy was pasty and scrawny enough in it that nobody knew it was him. :p
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A short and interesting bit of science about how the force of impact is distributed when a meteor hits soil or sand. As the compression hits faster than the soil can move out of the way, it packs it more tightly and makes the target firmer; force suddenly moves only along the contact points between rocks, in more localized "bolts." That means more resistance force, and also more potential shattering.

The picture below (filmed rather ingeniously!) shows how the force is transmitted when the impact is on a hard (top), medium, or soft (bottom) target.
 
Interesting isn't it?
When a meteor or a missile strikes the ground at a high velocity, it's easy to see the damage on the surface - usually in the form of a gigantic crater. But what exactly is going on following such a collossal amount of force? A new study led by...
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Merci, Yonatan
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This is an amazingly well-done "how it's made" video, all about the process by which aluminum beverage cans get built. These cans are so common that we rarely look at them, but they're a marvel of engineering: to save material (important, when you're making hundreds of billions a year!) they're made almost as thin as paper, and when they're empty, they easily crumple to save space while recycling. Yet when full, they can support 6 atmospheres of pressure inside and are sturdy enough to stand on -- and it only takes a single pull of a tab to change one into the other.

+engineerguy does a fantastic job of explaining the whole story, with everything from example parts to animations that show exactly how the subtle steps work.

h/t +Jordan Peacock for finding this!
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I never realized that it pulls up the rivet and then switches lever types, but of course it's obvious once it's pointed out.  It would be way too hard to force the tab down into a pressurized can.
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+Thomas Crouzier is a postdoc at MIT who studies "biological hydrogels" with an eye towards using our understanding of them to design new materials. 

In other words, he studies snot, in the hope of engineering snot-like substances for a wide range of uses. Which is not at all a crazy thing, because as this picture explains, snot is actually pretty amazing. And artificial snot could be very useful.

Science: it's kind of awesome. And lets you be three forever.
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That has to be the cutest gross infographic I've ever seen.

Self: teach Sweetpea about the awesomeness of boogers before she decides they're "icky".
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The discussion on a recent post of mine turned to sex work, its morals, its politics, and its law. A theme that came up repeatedly -- and rightly so -- is the importance of seeing any work from the perspective of the people who do it. +Joshua O'Madadhain found this extraordinary article in that category: written by a porn star, about his work and his life and how they intertwine.

I've known a number of people who work in this field, and I would say that Habib's description really rings true to everything I've ever heard anyone else say -- but few have written quite so powerfully about it.

(The link is entirely SFW, incidentally, unless the mere mention of the word "porn" frightens you.)
Why Do You Hate Porn Stars? What Is It About Us that You Don't Like?
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That's very well written. I actually really liked how he wove his relationship into the article. From the bigger more general response to an individual one. And the ending was very unexpected too! I personally think some people "hate" porn stars the same reason some people "hate" models: jealousy. But they come up with legitimate sounding reasons instead of admitting to jealousy. There are other reasons i'm sure but I feel like that's the simplest one.
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This is something about Auschwitz's curation that I never thought about: what it means to preserve these things.

I have been there once, and there were four things that hit me so hard that I will never be able to forget them.

One was the room full of hair. There is so much of it. And when you look at it, you can tell that every bit of it was cut off of a person. A person who was screaming, or crying, or beyond either. They harvested the hair to make wigs, to make textiles, to make all sorts of things, you see.

The second was the shoes. The pile of baby shoes, in particular. It is very, very, large. The shoes remind me of my own baby shoes. Each one of them was taken off the feet of a child.

Both the hair and the shoes were simply the last shipment, the ones that never got sent off elsewhere before the Allies came.

The third was the train siding as you enter Birkenau. The layout is very simple: The train stops here. Guards with dogs are waiting and unload everyone. The men's camp is to the right. The women's camp is to the left. Directly ahead are the showers: that's where everyone goes who isn't fit to be worked to death. Birkenau -- the larger second site they built at Auschwitz later in the war, when they needed much more capacity -- is very, very, large.

The fourth was the crematorium. I dreaded approaching this during my entire walk through the facility. This is the place of nightmares, the center of childhood fears. The place where the bodies were shoved into the fire, one after another, by other prisoners forced to work there. Some of the bodies were not yet dead; no matter, the pace had to be maintained. They were simply pushed into the ovens alive.

The word holocaust did not come from there: it is a much older word, for a certain kind of sacrificial offering. In a normal sacrifice, the beast is slaughtered, its first fruits are burned for the gods, and the rest is eaten at a ceremonial meal for the community. This was very important: in Rome and in most ancient cultures, such sacrifices were the only access the general public had to meat. A holocaust is a different offering: it is one where the victim is wholly burned, wholly consumed. Everything is taken, and nothing is left for the community.

If you have never gone to visit this place, or one of the few others like it, you should do so. You will not really understand much of the world until you see it.
 
The Auschwitz-Birkenau curators have taken an interesting approach to preservation, one that clearly states "this is here; this happened." This approach is particularly difficult in the middle of an overwhelming mass of messy, human stories and fingerprints and rubble.

They have made one exception:
The museum has decided not to conserve one thing: the mass of human hair that fills a vast vitrine. Over the years, the hair has lost its individual colors and has begun to gray. Out of respect for the dead, it cannot be photographed. Several years ago, the International Auschwitz Council of advisers had an agonizing debate about the hair. Some suggested burying it. Others wanted to conserve it. But one adviser raised a point: How can we know if its original owners are dead or alive? Who are we to determine its fate?

It was decided to let the hair decay, on its own, in the vitrine, until it turns to dust.

Hat tip to +Lauren Weinstein 
The aim of the foundation maintaining the site of the concentration camp is “to preserve authenticity.” It is a moral stance with specific curatorial challenges.
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+Yonatan Zunger​ I saw that too and was about to respond with, "The hell are you talking about?" but figured engaging would only make it worse. I'm glad you police your posts.
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A warning: This is going to be an article about sex, sex work, and feminism, but it's not a "101" type of issue. It's instead about the subtle ways in which arguments which seem reasonable can be subtly, but dangerously, wrong.

This comic gives a straightforward way to think about the question of whether someone is being "sexually empowered" or "objectified." It explains the two as a duality, with one being good and the other bad, and the difference is all about power and consent.

The problem with this comic is that it's both right and wrong. The right part of it is fairly obvious, but the wrong part is subtle and can be insidious. It has to do with the ways in which the comic talks about how consent can be deficient, influenced by things like financial need. It suggests (correctly) that any consent can ultimately be deficient -- but it focuses this on the consent of the "provider," i.e. the model or sex worker or simply a person Dressed In A Certain Way. In doing so, it creates an insidious implication that the consent of anyone doing this is more deficient than other people's consent. That's a "magic wand" sort of argument that lets people argue that any claim of empowerment is actually false, an argument which has very nasty real-world consequences.

One easy way to see the problem is to notice that the same argument this author applies to sex work applies to anything else. Consider this quote:

"Many of those who enter the sex industry as a provider may not be entirely doing so because they want to. There are a number of factors, including poverty level, race, and assigned sex. Providers of commercial sex often face enormous discrimination and criminalization, which also puts power in the hands of others besides the providers themselves."

That's a great argument for why all the sex workers are actually being trafficked (a common argument used for increased criminalization of their customers, incidentally, which ends up having most of the same net effects on sex workers as criminalizing them), while coming with a wonderful out to explain away any sex worker who disagrees: "they're just privileged enough that it doesn't happen to them." But repeat that same sentence while talking about, say, agricultural laborers:

"Many of those who work in tomato fields may not be entirely doing so because they want to. There are a number of factors, including poverty level, race, and assigned sex. Migrant laborers often face enormous discrimination and criminalization, which also puts power in the hands of others besides the providers themselves."

This statement is no less true. In fact, it's true of nearly any kind of work, and that's the key to what's wrong here: it singles out sex as being somehow different, a situation in which consent is always potentially deficient. 


This cartoon doesn't, to its credit, take its arguments and actually pull them to that extreme. It sets up the arguments which can be used to argue that all empowerment is really objectification, and arguments which are routinely used by others to do that, but it doesn't make the claim itself. However, by framing the discussion this way, it sets that up.


The actual flaw is in the dichotomy it suggests between "empowerment" (which is good) and "objectification" (which is bad). You should be suspicious from the first frame, which talks about the power of the "looking" person and the "looked at" person, because power isn't a single axis -- which is exactly what the comic shows later on, as it talks about financial power, cultural power, sexual desire, and so on. 

In any real situation, each side will have some power, and the tradeoffs individuals are making are going to be complex. The sex worker may need the money, but he could also be working construction. His client seems to have the power in the relationship, but any business provider knows that the customer's power isn't actually absolute.

To be clear, I'm not saying that there is always a balance: power imbalances are real, and they absolutely occur in sex work, just like they occur in every other aspect of life. And criminalization and shaming of sex workers make those power imbalances much worse: in fact, if you wanted to analyze the real consequences of US laws on sex work, you could summarize them as being optimized to maximize the vulnerability of sex workers, in favor of anyone who has the power to get them arrested, exposed, and so on.

Which is to say, there's a real power imbalance here, but it has nothing to do with the intrinsics of sex or sex work, or even with deep things like culture: it's something society has deliberately chosen to create.


So what's a more accurate way of describing this? It's to realize that "empowerment" and "objectification" aren't opposites, but things which happen at the same time. Empowerment is about a person having agency and control over their life; objectification is about a person being viewed not as an independent subject, but as the object of a sentence, a means to someone else's ends.

The model may be empowering herself, acquiring a source of income that she can control and developing her own independent sexuality; at the same time, the man watching her may be entirely in his own world, collecting pictures of women and fantasizing absolute control over them, while shaming the women in his life for not looking like them. Which of these people is empowered? Which is objectified? 

The answer is that it's both. This means that we don't get any nice, simple lessons like "porn is good!" or "porn is bad!" which we can use to have rallies and change laws and so on. Instead, we get the real complexities of human life.


There are definitely useful calls to action here, but they're not the simple ones. If you want to do something useful:

* The structural power imbalances which affect workers everywhere are real and significant dangers to our society. Sex work is work: most of the problems are the same. The problems which create deficiencies in consent have huge social and economic costs; cf recent studies like
https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/report/2012/03/22/11234/the-costly-business-of-discrimination/
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/is-ending-segregation-the-key-to-ending-poverty/385002/

* There are many structural problems specific to sex work. Laws which criminalize it cut sex workers off from legal recourse altogether. Laws which treat sex work as a "scarlet letter" -- e.g., putting professionals at risk of losing their children to CPS if their employment becomes known -- are even worse. Policies which shame it -- e.g., refusals of payment processors to touch anything remotely related to sex -- again force sex workers into situations where they're dependent on unethical side providers. Political organizations such as RedUP (http://redumbrellaproject.org/) and SWOP (http://www.swopusa.org/) are actively working to fix these issues. Importantly, these are organizations of the actual people involved, not of people coming in to "rescue" them from their lives without actually asking if that's what anyone wants; organizations like that need our support.

(Disclosure: I am a donor to, and supporter of, both of these groups, and encourage others to do so as well)

* And objectification, while not directly tied to this, is something you can directly change about your own life. See https://plus.google.com/+YonatanZunger/posts/TbCgDWPkBGW for more on that.

Thanks to +Carrie Canup for the link.
There's a long-standing debate in feminism about sexual empowerment: How do we know when someone is being sexually liberated versus being sexually objectified, since they sometimes can look similar from the outside? Well, the answer is simpler than you think: The difference is in who has the po
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+rare avis I'm proud to be pedantic.
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Riddle: The Great Old Doctor is a physicist who invented the laws of physics. It's a set of a few elegant equations with a well-defined set of parameters to determine how the entire world will fold out. It's exercising this superpower by arbitrarily deciding the parameters and then running an experiment on the Wizard's Original Root Lagrangian Derivative machine. This means it's pretty much capable of anything, but it has one critical weakness. The machine works similar to a Markov Chain Monte Carlo experiment with a Pseudorandom Generator that was stolen by the Original Chaos Monkey. The Doctor can still tune the parameters, but the Monkey has the Random Seed. According to a legend part of it was leaked and is now onboard a starship.

What is the name of the starship and its engine?
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From earliest history, there has been conflict between people who live upriver and people who live downriver. Someone upriver has the power to seize control of the water supply which is generally the lifeblood of the people further down from them. Survival means that the people downriver must get effective control over their supply, whether it be by treaty, by conquering the people upriver from them, or by being conquered by the people upriver. 

Where I live, in California, we are experiencing a slow version of this, as systems of water rights developed over a century ago, when the distribution of both water and people was extremely different, are falling apart under the strains of a worst-in-a-millennium drought. But the situation in the Nile Valley is even worse.

Several things contribute to this. The first is the simple growth of population: Egypt now has 82 million people, Sudan 38, and Ethiopia has grown to a full 96 million. To understand this properly, you need to realize that the borders of Egypt shown on a map are almost complete nonsense: Egypt consists of a narrow Nile Valley, ranging from tens of miles wide at its northern reaches to narrow enough that someone strong enough could throw a frisbee across it at its narrowest, in which the entire population lives, along with all the agriculture and industry; beyond that narrow valley is open desert, home primarily to sand dunes and the occasional scorpion. This part of the world is the Nile Valley.

The second complex issue is the Aswan Dam. When Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power after overthrowing the monarchy, one of his first promises was to build a tremendous hydroelectric dam to provide the electricity which would modernize the country. As part of trying to get international loans to fund its building, countries asked for feasibility studies; those studies all came back saying that the dam was a terrible idea, as it would interrupt the regular cycle of flooding of the Nile which is the foundation of the richness of the Nile Valley's soil. The dam would work fine for a few years, at which point the soil would start to die, the desert would encroach, and the country would starve to death. Nobody wanted to fund this.

But Nasser had made promises, and he needed to keep them, so he sought funding from "alternate sources" -- that is, the Soviet Union, who was quite happy to fund this and get Egypt in their pocket. ("Fund" ended up meaning that Soviet engineers showed up and built everything and then left, incidentally, leading to almost no technology or skills transfer -- but that's another story) And things unfolded almost exactly the way the analyses said: Egypt now  had electricity, but its farmland has been steadily collapsing, the desert encroaching and the valley getting narrower. 

This collapse of life along most of the length of the valley has led to almost unimaginable desperation, and to tens of millions of people flooding into the cities of Cairo and Alexandria hoping for a chance at a better job -- leading to some of the most extraordinary slums you have ever seen (did you know that it's possible to build a ten-story high mud hut? The trick is to build a frame of cement and rebar, and then use mud-brick walls for the rest. No windows; the walls aren't sturdy enough to support that) and even more extraordinary unemployment, which was one of the key things that led to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the subsequent political rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, and our latest Egyptian dictatorship.

But the pressure from collapsing agriculture is extremely keenly felt: the government's single largest annual expense is the wheat import which it uses to keep bread cheap enough to avoid mass starvation. Political upheavals in Egypt tend to happen, like clockwork, a few months after something interferes with the wheat harvest. (The original revolution which toppled Mubarak, for example, happened after Russia closed off its entire foreign wheat sales, after a serious drought led to major crop failures in Russia and Ukraine.) You may notice that, as the climate continues to change, wheat harvests become increasingly unpredictable.

Further South, Sudan hasn't been politically strong enough to try to wrest control of anything from Egypt since the Assyrians conquered Upper Egypt. But Ethiopia is a different matter: the highland empire has been a political power in Eastern Africa for millennia. As its population rises and it finds itself no longer quite as distracted by the chaos which has overwhelmed it for decades (famines and wars, mostly: the rains in Ethiopia are notoriously unreliable), it has gotten some very different ideas about just how Nile water should be allocated from what its neighbors downstream have historically gotten out of it.

This ascent of Ethiopian power in the Nile Valley is important and worth watching. Egypt and Sudan will keep negotiating with it, but their political power is not at its strongest right now, and it's quite possible that this could pass a "critical threshold" beyond which they can no longer really hold back Ethiopian power, at which point Ethiopia may take more of the Nile's resources for itself, further weakening Egypt and Sudan.

But at the end of the day, the problems are very fundamental:

There are nearly 220 million people living in the Nile's watershed, and it's not at all clear that the Nile has enough water to support them.

None of the powers along the valley are in strong enough shape to make huge infrastructural investments to increase efficiency. They might be able to make some.

This water is critical for everything from electricity, to irrigation, to soil fertilization, to simply drinking it, as well as holding back the desert.

Any failure of this water system can therefore have catastrophic human and political consequences.

Political problems in the Nile Valley can spread out along several significant axes. Because of the Suez Canal, Egypt and East Africa have strategic control over sea traffic through the Red Sea, and one of the key transport routes between Europe and Asia. (cf the effect that Somali piracy was having on sea traffic there) Egypt is by far the most populous Arab state, and its cultural and media influence is tremendous: Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arabic language. It's also the gateway between the Middle East and North Africa, and North Africa has a range of influences on Europe, being after all neighbors across the Mediterranean Sea. (Lots of people leaving North Africa would, for example, mean lots of North Africans arriving in Europe)

So this is a situation well worth paying attention to over the next decade: the availability of water, electricity, and agriculture in the Nile Valley, and the political struggles between players along the river, will be a major factor shaping our world, especially the band going from East Africa, up through the Middle East, into North Africa and Europe, in years to come.
Unless effective action is taken, a water war between Nile basin countries remains a distinct future possibility.
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+David Guild Why would you do that? What's the win? What's the cost?
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Yonatan Zunger

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A classic story from the bowels of maintaining computer systems. Yes, the world is really like this, sometimes.
Lea Kissner originally shared:
 
Spoiler: the chairman in this story is not wrong, but the problem is hilarious. This is my favorite kind of debugging: take various random bits of information and put them together to open the heavens and shine the light of enlightenment upon the brokenness that resides within the system.

I was working in a job running the campus email system some years ago when I got a call from the chairman of the statistics department.

"We're having a problem sending email out of the department."
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"We can't send mail more than 500 miles," the chairman explained.
I choked on my latte.  "Come again?"
"We can't send mail farther than 500 miles from here," he repeated. "A little bit more, actually.  Call it 520 miles.  But no farther."
From: Trey Harris Here's a problem that *sounded* impossible... I almost regret posting the story to a wide audience, because it makes a great tale over drinks at a conference. :-) The story is slightly altered in order to protect the guilty, elide over irrelevant and boring details, ...
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+Filip H.F. Slagter LOL. I participated in that particular conversation too.
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Lots of people ask me what my job title means. I'm the senior engineer on the Google+ team, and my primary responsibility is to oversee and guide the technical design of Google+ and all of the things related to it. In practice, I'm also involved in lots of non-technical issues as well: my job is to make Google as fun, exciting, social, and pleasant a place to be as it can possibly be.

(I've been at Google since 2003, but you probably haven't seen me before this, because I worked deep in the back end: planet-scale storage, very large-scale search, ranking, and so on. Lots of teams whose unofficial motto is "if we told you, we'd have to kill you" -- as opposed to Google+, where we get to go out and talk and interact with our users.)

For those who just came here, welcome to the Google+ Project. It's something that we're all very passionate about, and which (as its name indicates) is going to continue to develop and improve at what we hope is an amazing rate. I'm avidly interested in hearing user feedback, and while I can't guarantee that I'll have time to respond to all of it, it will most certainly be listened to.

And the obligatory (very important!) disclaimer: I'm not on this system as an official representative. While I'm listening to user feedback and interacting about the system, I'm also here for perfectly ordinary social networking purposes. If I am saying something official on behalf of Google, I will make that explicitly clear; anything else that I say here is not the position of Google, or of anyone other than myself.

In fact, most of what I post about has nothing to do with CS at all. If you want a taste of it, take a look at my blog.
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