The Rule of Three, the Allure of Seven

In Eliezer Judkowsy’s fan fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the politically astute wizard Lucius Malfoy reveals to his heir, Draco, “the Rule of Three, which was that any plot which required more than three different things to happen would never work in real life.” Draco’s stern but supportive father then, “further explained that since only a fool would attempt a plot that was as complicated as possible, the real limit was two.”

There are lots of Rules of Three, but Judkowsky, a very inventive writer known in fanfiction as Less Wrong, probably invented this one about evil plots. Still it makes sense that the more complicated a plot, or conspiracy, the less likely that it will succeed. And in some cases success requires that the plot never become common knowledge, so the more conspirators necessary, the lower the chances of secrecy.

Complication involves more than the number of steps, of course. I used to rehearse plays where dozens of actors performed thousands of lines and hundreds of stage directions on cue every night with nary a stumble. Sometimes we had an orchestra for singing and dancing, too. Theatre is a sort of a conspiracy to influence the audience, and everyone in a production is deathly afraid of falling short at that effort. Over the course of rehearsals, we become a highly invested conspiracy-of-the-willing.

So some conspiracies-of-the-willing are easy to believe. In his Xanth novels, Piers Anthony wrote about the Adult Conspiracy in which adults concealed the truth about sex from children. In certain circles we talk about oil company hacks like Daniel Yergin as if they were part of a conspiracy to deny energy depletion, and in other circles we talk similarly about Senator James Inhofe and climate change. Clearly the mainstream media is carefully managing the release of information to benefit a de facto oligarchy. But that sort of conspiracy is vastly different from the type where men in black suits are responsible for everything that happens.

These MIB conspiracies are seductive, except that to be successful they become so intricate as to beggar belief. For years Rush Limbaugh ran the rumor that the Clintons had arranged the death of their former colleague and aide, Vince Foster. His listeners wanted to believe anything bad about the Clintons. Many people follow stories about UFOs, chemtrails, Obama’s birth certificate and the like because, well, “the truth is out there.”

In the non-fiction world, we often look to Occam’s Razor to distinguish between conspiracies that might be true and conspiracies that we want to be true. John Michael Greer recently reminded his readers of his book, The UFO Phenomenon, where he argues that most UFO sightings seemed to correspond with the Air Force testing new equipment.

A few days ago, Dmitry Orlov reposted an article by Paul Craig Roberts, called 9/11 After 13 years. Roberts’ article is a litany of suspicions and conspiracy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center, the framing of Osama bin Laden, the anthrax letters and the Patriot Act legislation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the reported killing of bin Laden. Roberts claims that the Seal Team that pretended to kill an already dead bin Laden were all sent to their deaths soon afterwards, but someone claiming to be ‘the Shooter’ was interviewed by Esquire last year about his crummy retirement package.

I happened to also run across Roberts as a coauthor of what Econbrowser’s Menzie Chinn calls, The Stupidest Paragraph in Perhaps the Stupidest Article Ever Written. Several economists have taken that article to task. and many have criticized coauthor John Williams of Shadow Government Statistics. Shadowstats was a pet website of Matt Savinar, who used to run Life After the Oil Crash before he shut that down to start North Bay Astrology.

As World Trade Center Building #7 was not struck by a jet, and thus was not supplied with a potent accelerant, its unchecked burning, structural failure and collapse has become a focal point of 911 conspiracy theories. One video of the ultimate collapse of the 47 story WTC 7 looks strikingly similar to videos of controlled demolition, leading many to conclude that it could only be a controlled demolition.

I commented at Club Orlov that in the CNN video that Roberts cited, architect Richard Gage speaks about the many WTC 7 columns that failed, but never addresses the very unusual transfer and cantilever structure supporting the lower floors of WTC 7 over the Consolidated Edison power station. I am not an engineer but I at least understand that WTC 7 was not a redundant structure with a forest of axially-bearing columns. Such a structure is much more resistant to cascading failure than cantilevered columns or columns resting on transfer beams, themselves resting on a few frames.

I also noted that from a non-technical viewpoint, taking down WTC 1 & 2 – the famous Twin Towers – was the visceral image the hijackers wanted, and was seen around the world. There certainly was a conspiracy to damage the towers, and I suspect Saudi Arabia provided funding. But what reward, I asked, justified the risk of smuggling thermite explosives into the relatively obscure WTC 7? And if taking down WTC 7 made sense, why did they not take down the taller building at 3 World Financial Center, or that entire neighboring complex as well?

Is the theory that conspirators knew that substantial debris would hit WTC 7 and cause fires, and that they knew the fire fighters would have no water, so they could demolish it with impunity? Or is the theory that conspirators were so dumb that they planned to take down a building that may have been completely undamaged had the debris fallen somewhere else?

The only answer I got – from another commenter – was bluster and the logical fallacy of Shifting the Burden of Proof.

As I see it three different things happened: intelligence briefings were ignored, flight crews were overcome by fanatics and jets were flown into three out of four targets. And that would be hard to believe if it hadn’t happened. To believe that countless more actors were involved smuggling and installing thermite and detonators in three enormous buildings invokes the Razor if not the Rule of Three.

I’m not claiming that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz wouldn’t do something like that; I simply don’t believe they were competent enough to conceive of it, pull it off and keep it a secret. They clearly took advantage of it, though. Whether bin Laden was really behind it or not is another matter. Whether he was really killed in Pakistan is another matter, too. Either of those could have been faked.

We in the Peak Oil community frequently cite Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies. We talk about collapse as the logical extension of energy depletion, not the result of a conspiracy. We talk about Climate Change as the logical result of the runaway release of carbon, not chemtrails. So why do we need to resort to conspiracy theories to explain one event in which citizens of an oil-rich region push back against an oil-based empire?

At the Age of Limits conference, John Michael Greer reiterated his opinion that believing in an impending apocalypse is a mark of hubris, a desire to feel that we are so special that the world will end with us. I feel the same way about conspiracy theories. We like to feel that a conspiracy is out to get us because it is easier than realizing that the world is ridiculously complex and that while we may be in the way of larger forces, we are practically insignificant to them.


I’m going to forego discussing the failure of the recent US wars manifesting in the provocative beheadings by ISIS/ISIL, the tensions between NATO and Russia manifesting in Ukraine, and racial profiling by police manifesting almost everywhere to discuss the important issue of celebrity nude photos. Zbigniew Brzeziński called such issues tittytainment:

Brzezinski suggested that “tittytainment,” a mix of physical and psychological methods, be used to control people’s frustration and predictable protests. He then explained the term as being a portmanteau fused from titty and entertainment, alluding to the sleeping and lethargic effect that is produced when a baby is breastfed.

A lot of VIPs – very important pundits – are searching for just the right tone in discussing the hacking and releasing of intimate selfies taken by various performers and their lovers. For some (as in this youtube of Jon Stewart taking down Mika Brzeziński) the answer is – and always will be – abstinence. If you don’t want people to see you with a penis in your eye, well then don’t pose with a penis in your eye. Others say that anyone should be able to pose with a penis in their eye, and have confidence that only the person that owns the penis will ever see the photo. 

I am reminded of a time when I felt violated. A much younger version of myself was living in an apartment, but had just taken a job a few hundred miles away. I packed my bags and left them in the car, then took a nap before the drive. When I got up, someone had smashed my side window and taken all my stuff.

It was certainly a theft, but the police told me that it was not a safe neighborhood, and that I should never leave stuff in the car unattended. I still felt like a victim, but kind of a naive victim. I still believe that no one should break my window and take my stuff out of my car, but I learned that you cannot leave valuable stuff in the car or someone is likely to steal it. And then you’ll have to drive all night with cold air rushing in where your window used to be.

So I suppose that’s how I feel about celebrity nude photos. No one should hack into the cloud and take your intimate pictures – but the chances are that if you do take photos of yourself naked and/or having sex, someone is likely to get their hands on them and post them. Then you’ll have to explain to everyone why a penis was in your eye.

Can Big Chem Meet Green Building Standards?

Several weeks ago, I attended a brief talk by a green building consultant. Before the talk, I might have called him a LEED consultant, but in his remarks he made it clear that he was not tied to the USGBC’s rating system. He noted that “LEED-lovers” had concerns about Green Globes, but he expressed just as much willingness to consult based on the plastics-friendly rating system as on LEED.

I had wondered whether LEED consultants would find the prospect of the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC) – which is ideally to be evaluated by local code officials – to be a threat to their business model, and as confirmation, he had very little good to say about the IgCC.

But now I am reading that the ICC, ASHRAE, AIA & USGBC have signed an agreement to develop a joint ANSI standard based on both LEED and the IgCC. Leading Building Industry Groups Agree to Streamline Green Building Tool Coordination and Development:

Washington, D.C. — (Aug. 21, 2014) — The International Code Council (ICC), ASHRAE, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announce the signing of a memorandum to collaborate on the development of Standard 189.1, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and the LEED green building program.

The unprecedented cooperation aims to create a comprehensive framework for jurisdictions looking to implement and adopt green building regulations and codes and/or provide incentives for voluntary leadership programs such as LEED.

Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter asks whether this signals the end of the plastics wars:

Big Chem has been relentless and had racked up a string of victories, but the USGBC was not without its successes. Just last week they inked a deal with four other organizations to collaborate on the development of the International Green Construction Code.

Now, the USGBC and the ACC are actually setting up a committee to work together, with the USGBC issuing a press release with the surprising title U.S. Green Building Council and the American Chemistry Council to Work Together to Advance LEED.

Alter’s question is whether ‘science-based’ means the sort of science we see from Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Ag, where studies are commissioned to prove what needs to be proved, or whether materials will still have to meet stringent tests like those found in Cradle-to-Cradle certification.

We Are Not Worthy

Dmitry Orlov discusses the Ukraine conflict and the US empire in part one of a Collapse Cafe audio interview. I find Dmitry’s general bashing of the Ukrainian people disquieting because one of my humblest, hardest-working friends in high school was of Ukrainian extraction. Also, I don’t tend to think Putin is quite as masterful as all that, but I do agree that the US is floundering in international politics. The discussion also ranges into energy and financial policy.

In part two, Dmitry reminded me of a few things I had meant to blog about. After listening to Albert Bates’ A Short History of the Ecovillage and Dmitry’s Communities That Abide at the Age of Limits conference, I told Albert that I couldn’t imagine many modern Americans subsuming their personal freedoms to actually live in the sort of communities he and Dmitry were describing. Bates was long associated with The Farm, an ecovillage in Tennessee, and observed that KMO had lived at the Farm for years even though he was a libertarian. Later I looked at the Age of Limits brochure wherein KMO describes himself as, “a recovering libertarian and Singularitarian.”

I have no idea where KMO falls on the spectrum, but as I just posted, Pew Research tells us that many self-described libertarians don’t always support the official dogma of that political philosophy. Singularitarianism is a brand of Futurism inspired by creative people like Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky. I knew about Kurzweil from his synthesizer and voice recognition work, and I know of Yudkowsky as ‘Less Wrong’ – the author of the only fanfiction I know that improves upon the original: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Many of us pine away for the next chapter of hpmor, and one fan actually arranged for the author to take some time at the beach and write more chapters. Along with his Machine Intelligence Research Institute, Yudkowsky is busy leveraging his hpmor fanbase into creation of a Center for Applied Rationality.

So that’s a funny correlation to me.

In my After What Seemed Like an Age wrapup, I noted that most attendees didn’t seem to fit the mold of the Abiding groups that Dmitry was describing. In 2013, feminists challenged the patriarchal aspects of those communities. In 2014, some attendees challenged the sort of home-schooling practiced by Amish and Roma, and others plaintively inquired if there would be room for LGBT folk in these communities.

At about sixteen minutes into the second Collapse Cafe Q&A session, Dmitry says that he has come to the conclusion that Americans do not seem at all suited to the sorts of communities that he feels will abide:

“… people from this culture, from English-speaking North American culture … find it quite distasteful because it turns out that there isn’t much of an emphasis on individual rights, there isn’t much of an emphasis on individual property. There isn’t much of an idea that you ever become independent of your family. There isn’t the idea of individual initiative. And those are all basically non-negotiable parts of the living arrangements for people from this culture. That’s like asking them to become somebody else. Y’know the formative experiences of their youth prevent them from being sufficiently malleable to take on these completely new and different ways of existing. And so I don’t know how useful my lessons are because these people basically aren’t able to go through the painful personal transformation that will be required.”

I gather that Dmitry and Albert have adjusted to living in several different nations, including third world South America, but I frankly have a hard time seeing even them making such a transformation. Being prepared for changes, though, is worth pursuing.

You Might Be a Libertarian

Or you might only think you are. Back in the 90s, one of my colleagues – a very likeable guy – described his libertarianism in a way that made it seem very reasonable. On the internet however, I run across self-described libertarians who sound more like conservatives that want to legalize pot. According to the Pew Research Center’s, In search of libertarians, there are a wide variety of folk who think they are libertarian, but probably couldn’t reconcile many of their beliefs with Ayn Rand:

The question of whether libertarianism is gaining public support has received increased attention, with talk of a Rand Paul run for president and a recent New York Times magazine story asking if the “Libertarian Moment” has finally arrived. But if it has, there are still many Americans who do not have a clear sense of what “libertarian” means, and our surveys find that, on many issues, the views among people who call themselves libertarian do not differ much from those of the overall public.

About one-in-ten Americans (11%) describe themselves as libertarian and know what the term means. …

… Self-described libertarians tend to be modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions, but few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions on the role of government, foreign policy and social issues.

There’s a quiz at the end which will assign you to an -ism. I got solid liberal.

The Effluenza Defense

I ran across a very brief discussion, Seriously?, of the Ferguson situation on Scott Adams’ blog. Adams was initially upset by reports of the police manhandling and arresting the press, but retracted his comments and reassured commenters that:

“I assumed the shooting itself would turn out to be justified, and it seems to be heading that way.”

Ethan Couch – a teenager who was given 10 years’ probation for drunkenly driving into and killing four pedestrians – is known for the affluenza defense. An expert psychology witness testified that a lifetime of being coddled by his parents led Couch towards irresponsible behavior. It wasn’t his fault – the way he was raised, he was bound to do something wrong.

What we are seeing in the case of Officer Darren Wilson is the effluenza defense. Wilson, and all police that kill citizens, are overwhelmingly excused by those who believe that the victims have it coming. It wasn’t the officer’s fault – the way that most poor people are raised, they are bound to do something deserving of a justified shooting.


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