Data Science, Literature, Model

Two Fallacies From ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’

Much thanks to Cody Wild for providing editing and feedback. That said, I would like to remind my readers that I deserve full credit for all errors and that all opinions expressed here are only guaranteed to be mine.

[12 minute read]

I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Dr. Cathy O’Neil and found it an enormously frustrating book. It’s not that whole book was rubbish ­– that would have made things easy. No, the real problem with this book is that the crap and the pearls were so closely mixed that I had to stare at every sentence very, very carefully in hopes of figuring out which one each was. There’s some good stuff in here. But much of Dr. O’Neil’s argumentation relies on two new (to me) fallacies. It’s these fallacies (which I’ve dubbed the Ought-Is Fallacy and the Availability Bait-and-Switch) that I want to explore today.

Ought-Is Fallacy

It’s a commonly repeated truism that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. People who’ve been around the statistics block a bit longer might echo Randall Monroe and retort that “correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there'”. Understanding why a graph like this:

In addition to this graph obviously being anchored, using it is obviously fair use.
Image Copyright The New York Times, 2017. Used here for purposes of commentary and criticism.

Is utter horsecrap [1], despite how suggestive it looks is the work of a decent education in statistics. Here correlation doesn’t imply causation. On the other hand, it’s not hard to find excellent examples where correlation really does mean causation:

This would be a risky graph to use if echo chambers didn't mean that I know literally no one who doesn't believe in global warming
Source: The National Centers for Environmental Administration. Having to spell “centre” wrong and use inferior units is a small price to pay for the fact that the American government immediately releases everything it creates into the public domain.

When trying to understand the ground truth, it’s important that you don’t confuse correlation with causation. But not every human endeavour is aimed at determining the ground truth. Some endeavours really do just need to understand which activities and results are correlated. Principal among these is insurance.

Let’s say I wanted to sell you “punched in the face” insurance. You’d pay a small premium every month and if you were ever punched in the face hard enough to require dental work, I’d pay you enough to cover it [2]. I’d probably charge you more if you were male, because men are much, much more likely to be seriously injured in an assault than women are.

I’m just interested in pricing my product. It doesn’t actually matter if being a man is causal of more assaults or just correlated with it. It doesn’t matter if men aren’t inherently more likely to assault and be assaulted compared to women (for a biological definition of “inherently”). It doesn’t matter what assault rates would be like in a society without toxic masculinity. One thing and one thing alone matters: on average, I will have to pay out more often for men. Therefore, I charge men more.

If you were to claim that because there may be nothing inherent in maleness that causes assault and being assaulted, therefore men shouldn’t have to pay more, you are making a moral argument, not an empirical one. You are also committing the ought-is fallacy. Just because your beliefs tell you that some aspect of the world should be a certain way, or that it would be more moral for the world to be a certain way, does not mean the world actually is that way or that everyone must agree to order the world as if that were true.

This doesn’t prevent you from making a moral argument that we should ignore certain correlates in certain cases in the interest of fairness, merely that you should not be making an empirical argument about what is ultimately values.

The ought-is fallacy came up literally whenever Weapons of Math Destruction talked about insurance, as well as when it talked about sentencing disparities. Here’s one example:

But as the questions continue, delving deeper into the person’s life, it’s easy to imagine how inmates from a privileged background would answer one way and those from tough inner-city streets another. Ask a criminal who grew up in comfortable suburbs about “the first time you were ever involved with the police,” and he might not have a single incident to report other than the one that brought him to prison. Young black males, by contrast, are likely to have been stopped by police dozens of times, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. A 2013 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that while black and Latino males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 40.6 percent of the stop-and-frisk checks by police. More than 90 percent of those stopped were innocent. Some of the others might have been drinking underage or carrying a joint. And unlike most rich kids, they got in trouble for it. So if early “involvement” with the police signals recidivism, poor people and racial minorities look far riskier.

Now I happen to agree with Dr. O’Neil that we should not allow race to end up playing a role in prison sentence length. There are plenty of good things to include in a sentence length: seriousness of crime, remorse, etc. I don’t think race should be one of these criteria and since the sequence of events that Dr. O’Neil mentions make this far from the default in the criminal justice system, I think doing more to ensure race stays out of sentencing is an important moral responsibility we have as a society.

But Dr. O’Neil’s empirical criticism of recidivism models is entirely off base. In this specific example, she is claiming that some characteristics that correlate with recidivism should not be used in recidivism models even though they improve the accuracy, because they are not per se causative of crime.

Because of systematic racism and discrimination in policing [3], the recidivism rate among black Americans is higher. If the only thing you care about is maximizing the prison sentence of people who are most likely to re-offend, then your model will tag black people for longer sentences. It does not matter what the “cause” of this is! Your accuracy will still be higher if you take race into account.

To say “black Americans seem to have a higher rate of recidivism, therefore we should punish them more heavily” is almost to commit the opposite fallacy, the is-ought. Instead, we should say “yes, empirically there’s a high rate of recidivism among black Americans, but this is probably caused by social factors and regardless, if we don’t want to create a population of permanently incarcerated people, with all of the vicious cycle of discrimination that this creates, we should aim for racial parity in sentencing”. This is a very strong (and I think persuasive) moral claim [4].

It certainly is more work to make a complicated moral claim that mentions the trade-offs we must make between punishment and fairness (or between what is morally right and what is expedient) than it is to make a claim that makes no reference to these subtleties. When we admit that we are sacrificing accuracy in the name of fairness, we do open up an avenue for people to attack us.

Despite this disadvantage, I think keeping our moral and empirical claims separate is very important. When you make the empirical claim that “being black isn’t causative of higher rates of recidivism, therefore the models are wrong when they rank black Americans as more likely to reoffend”, instead of the corresponding ethical claim, then you are making two mistakes. First, there’s lots of room to quibble about what “causative” even means, beyond simple genetic causation. Because you took an empirical and not ethical position, you may have to fight any future evidence to the contrary of your empirical position, even if the evidence is true; in essence, you risk becoming an enemy of the truth. If the truth becomes particularly obvious (and contrary to your claims) you risk looking risible and any gains you achieved will be at risk of reversal.

Second, I would argue that it is ridiculous to claim that universal human rights must rest on claims of genetic identicalness between all groups of people (and trying to make the empirical claim above, rather than a moral claim implicitly embraces this premise). Ashkenazi Jews are (on average) about 15 IQ points ahead of other groups. Should we give them any different moral worth because of this? I would argue no [5]. The only criteria for full moral worth as a human and all universal rights that all humans are entitled to is being human.

As genetic engineering becomes possible, it will be especially problematic to have a norm that moral worth of humans can be modified by their genetic predisposition to pro-social behaviour. Everyone, but most especially the left, which views diversity and flourishing as some of its most important projects should push back against both the is-ought and ought-is fallacies and fight for an expansive definition of universal human rights.

Availability Bait-and-Switch

Imagine someone told you the following story:

The Fair Housing Act has been an absolute disaster for my family! My brother was trying to sublet his apartment to a friend for the summer. Unfortunately, one of the fair housing inspectors caught wind of this and forced him to put up notices that it was for rent. He had to spend a week showing random people around it and some snot-nosed five-year-old broke one of his vases while he was showing that kid’s mother around. I know there were problems before, but is the Fair Housing Act really worth it if it can cause this?

Most people would say the answer to the above is “yes, it really was worth it, oh my God, what is wrong with you?”

But it’s actually hard to think that. Because you just read a long, vivid, easily imaginable example of what exactly was wrong with the current regime and a quick throw away reference to there being problems with the old way things were done. Some people might say that it’s better to at least mention that the other way of doing things had its problems too. I disagree strenuously.

When you make a throw-away reference to problems with another way of doing things, while focusing all of your descriptive effort on the problems of the current way (or vice-versa), you are committing the Availability Bait-and-Switch. And you are giving a very false illusion of balance; people will remember that you mentioned both had problems, but they will not take this away as their impression. You will have tricked your readers into thinking you gave a balanced treatment (or at least paved the way for a defence against claims that you didn’t give a balanced treatment) while doing nothing of the sort!

We are all running corrupted hardware. One of the most notable cognitive biases we have is the availability heuristic. We judge probabilities based on what we can easily recall, not on any empirical basis. If you were asked “are there more words in the average English language book that start with k, or have k as the third letter?”, you’d probably say “start with k!” [6]. In fact, words with “k” as the third letter show up more often. But these words are harder to recall and therefore much less available to your brain.

If I were to give you a bunch of very vivid examples of how algorithms can ruin your life (as Dr. O’Neil repeatedly does, most egregiously in chapters 1, 5, and 8) and then mention off-hand that human decision making also used to ruin a lot of people’s lives, you’d probably come out of our talk much more concerned with algorithms than with human decision making. This was a thing I had to deliberately fight against while reading Weapons of Math Destruction.

Because for a book about how algorithms are destroying everything, there was a remarkable paucity of data on this destruction. I cannot recall seeing any comparative analysis (backed up by statistics, not anecdotes) of the costs and benefits of human decision making and algorithmic decision making, as it applied to Dr. O’Neil’s areas of focus. The book was all the costs of one and a vague allusion to the potential costs of the other.

If you want to give your readers an accurate snapshot of the ground truth, your examples must be representative of the ground truth. If algorithms cause twice as much damage as human decision making in certain circumstances (and again, I’ve seen zero proof that this is the case) then you should interleave every two examples of algorithmic destruction with one of human pettiness. As long as you aren’t doing this, you are lying to your readers. If you’re committed to lying, perhaps for reasons of pithiness or flow, then drop the vague allusions to the costs of the other way of doing things. Make it clear you’re writing a hatchet job, instead of trying to claim epistemic virtue points for “telling both sides of the story”. At least doing things that way is honest [7].

Footnotes

[1] This is a classic example of “anchoring”, a phenomenon where you appear to have a strong correlation in a certain direction because of a single extreme point. When you have anchoring, it’s unclear how generalizable your conclusion is – as the whole direction of the fit could be the result of the single extreme point.

Here’s a toy example:

Note that the thing that makes me suspicious of anchoring here is that we have a big hole with no data and no way of knowing what sort of data goes there (it’s not likely we can randomly generate a bunch of new countries and plot their gun ownership and rate of mass shootings). If we did some more readings (ignoring the fact that in this case we can’t) and got something like this:

I would no longer be worried about anchoring. It really isn’t enough just to look at the correlation coefficient either. The image labelled “Also Not Anchored” has a marginally lower correlation coefficient than the anchored image, even though (I would argue) it is FAR more likely to represent a true positive correlation. Note also we have no way to tell that more data will necessarily give us a graph like the third. We could also get something like this:

In which we have a fairly clear trend of noisy data with an average of 2.5 irrespective of our x-value and a pair of outliers driving a slight positive correlation.

Also, the NYT graph isn’t normalized to population, which is kind of a WTF level mistake. They include another graph that is normalized later on, but the graph I show is the preview image on Facebook. I was very annoyed with the smug liberals in the comments of the NYT article, crowing about how conservatives are too stupid to understand statistics. But that’s a rant for another day…  ^

[2] I’d very quickly go out of business because of the moral hazard and adverse selection built into this product, but that isn’t germane to the example. ^

[3] Or at least, this is my guess as to the most plausible factors in the recidivism rate discrepancy. I think social factors ­– especially when social gaps are so clear and pervasive – seem much more likely than biological ones. The simplest example of the disparity in policing – and its effects – is the relative rates of being stopped by police during Stop and Frisk given above by Dr. O’Neil. ^

[4] It’s possible that variations in Monoamine oxidase A or some other gene amongst populations might make some populations more predisposed (in a biological sense) to violence or other antisocial behaviour. Given that violence and antisocial behaviour are relatively uncommon (e.g. about six in every one thousand Canadian adults are incarcerated or under community supervision on any given day), any genetic effect that increases them would both be small on a social level and lead to a relatively large skew in terms of supervised populations.

This would occur in the same way that repeat offenders tend to be about one standard deviation below median societal IQ but the correlation between IQ and crime explains very little of the variation in crime. This effect exists because crime is so rare.

It is unfortunately easy for people to take things like “Group X is 5% more likely to be violent”, and believe that people in Group X are something like 5% likely to assault them. This obviously isn’t true. Given that there are about 7.5 assaults for every 1000 Canadians each year, a population that was instead 100% Group X (with their presumed 5% higher assault rate) would see about 7.875 assaults per 1000 people, a difference of about one additional assault per 3500 people.

Unfortunately, if society took its normal course, we could expect to see Group X very overrepresented in prison. As soon as Group X gets a reputation for violence, juries would be more likely to convict, bail would be less likely, sentences might be longer (out of fear of recidivism), etc. Because many jobs (and in America, social benefits and rights) are withdrawn after you’ve been sentenced to jail, formerly incarcerated members of Group X would see fewer legal avenues to make a living. This could become even worse if even non-criminal members of Group X would denied some jobs due to fear of future criminality, leaving Group X members with few overall options but the black and grey economies and further tightening the spiral of incarceration and discrimination.

In this case, I think the moral thing to do as a society is to ignore any evidence we have about between-group differences in genetic propensities to violence. Ignoring results isn’t the same thing as pretending they are false or banning research; we aren’t fighting against truth, simply saying that some small extra predictive power into violence is not worth the social cost that Group X would face in a society that is entirely unable to productively reason about statistics.  ^

[5] Although we should be ever vigilant against people who seek to do the opposite and use genetic differences between Ashkenazi Jews and other populations as a basis for their Nazi ideology. As Hannah Arendt said, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people. It was a crime against humanity (rather than “merely” a crime against Jews) because Jews are human. ^

[6] Or at least, you would if I hadn’t warned you that I was about to talk about biases. ^

[7] My next blog post is going to be devoted to what I did like about the book, because I don’t want to commit the mistakes I’ve just railed against (and because I think there was some good stuff in the book that bears reviewing). ^

Model, Politics

The Graph Model of Conflict Resolution – Sensitivity Analysis

[10 minute read]

Last week, I used the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution to find a set of stable equilibria in the present conflict between North Korea and the USA. They were:

  • The tense status quo (s. 0)
  • An American troop withdrawal, paired with North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons (s.10)
  • All out conventional warfare on the Korean Peninsula (s. 4)
  • All out nuclear warfare on the Korean Peninsula (s. 5)

But how much can we trust these results? How much to they depend on my subjective ranking of the belligerent’s preferences? How much do they depend on the stability metrics I used?

To get a sense of this, I’m going to add another stability metric into the mix, come up with three new preference vectors, and look at how the original results change when we consider a North Korean invasion to be irreversible. After these eight new stability calculations, we’ll have nine slightly different ways of looking at the conflict; this should help us guess which equilibria are robust to my subjective choices and which might exist only because of how I framed the problem.

Alternative Stability Metrics

Previously we assessed stable states using Nash Stability and Sequential Stability. Sequential Stability allowed us to see what would happen if the decision makers were looking two moves ahead and assuming that their opponents wouldn’t “cut off the nose to spite the face” – it assumes, in essence, that people will only sanction by moving to states that they like more, not states they like less.

Maybe that’s a bad assumption dealing with Trump and Kim Jong-un. In this case, wouldn’t it be better to use Symmetric Metarationality? With Symmetric Metarationality, all sanctioning unilateral moves are on the table. Symmetric Metarationality also allows decision makers to respond to sanctioning. In effect, it lets them look three moves ahead, instead of the two allowed by Sequential Stability.

Before we see how this new metric changes things, let’s review our states, preference vectors, and stability analysis from last time.

The states are:

Click for a copyable version

Or in plain English:

State Explanation
0 Status quo
1 Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
6 US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
9 US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
13 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
14 US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion

From these states, we saw the following equilibria and unilateral improvements:

Click for copyable version

When dealing with Symmetric Metarationality, I find it very helpful to modify the chart above so that it also includes unilateral moves. After we make this change and blank out our results, we get the following:
Click for copyable version

From here, we use a simple algorithm. First, all states without unilateral improvements are Nash Stable. Next, we check each unilateral improvement in the remaining states against the opponent’s unilateral actions, then against the original actors best unilateral action from each of the resulting states. If there are no results lower than the original actor started, the move is unstable. Otherwise it’s stable by Symmetric Metarationality (and we’ll mark it with “S”). Like Sequential Stability, you can’t truly call this done until you check for states that are simultaneously sanctioned (this is often easy because simultaneous sanctioning is only a risk when both sides are unstable).

An example: There exist a unilateral improvement for America from s. 4 to s. 5. From s. 5, North Korea can move to s. 1, 13, or 9. America disprefers both s. 1 and s. 13 to s. 4 and has no moves out of them, so the threat of North Korea taking either of those actions is an effective sanction and makes s. 4 stable on the American side.

Once we repeat this for all states across both sides, we get the following:

Click for copyable version

We’ve kept all of our old equilibria and gained a new one in s. 12: “NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response”.

Previously, s. 12 wasn’t stable because North Korea preferred the status quo (s. 0) to it and the US had no UIs from the status quo. North Korea moving from s. 12 to s. 0 is sanctioned in Symmetric Metarationality by the US unilateral move from s. 0 to s. 1, which leaves North Korea with only the option of moving from s. 1 to s. 5. State 5 is dispreferred to s. 12 by North Korea, so it can’t risk leaving s. 12 for s. 0. State 12 was always Nash Stable for the US, so it becoming stable for North Korea makes it an equilibrium point.

To put this another way (and to put an example on what I said above), using Symmetric Metarationality allows us to model a world where the adversaries see each other as less rational and more spiteful. In this world. NK doesn’t trust the US to remain at s. 0 if it were to call for a truce after an invasion, so any invasion that starts doesn’t really end.

It was heartening to see all of our existing equilibria remain where they were. Note that I did all of the work in this post without knowing what the results would be and fully prepared to publish even if my initial equilibria never turned up again; that they showed up here made me somewhat relieved.

Irreversible Invasions

Previously we modelled invasions as reversible. But is this a realistic assumption? It’s very possible that the bad will from an invasion could last for quite a while, making other strategies very difficult to try out. It’s also likely that America wouldn’t just let North Korean troops give up and slink away without reprisal. If this is the case, maybe we should model a North Korean invasion as irreversible. This will mean that there can be no unilateral improvements for North Korea from s. 4, 5, or 6 to s. 0, 1, 2, 8, 9, or 10.

In practical terms, modelling an invasion as irreversible costs North Korea one unilateral improvement, from s. 4 to s. 0. Let’s see if this changes the results at all (we’re back to sequential stability):

Click for copyable version

We end up losing the simultaneous sanctioning that made s. 4 a stable state, leaving us with only three stable states: the status quo, a trade of American withdrawal for the North Korean nuclear program, and all out nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.

We’ve now tried three different ways of looking at this problem. Three equilibria (s. 0, 10, 5) showed up in all cases, one in two cases (s. 4), and one in one case (s. 12). We’re starting to get a sense for which equilibria are particularly stable and which are more liable to only pop up under certain conditions. But how will our equilibria fare when faced with a different preference vectors?

Bloodthirsty Belligerents

What if we’ve underestimated how much North Korea and the United States care about getting what they want and overestimated how much they care about looking reasonable? I’m going to try ranking the states so that North Korea always prefers invading and the US always prefers first that North Korea doesn’t invade the South and second that they have no nuclear weapons program.

This gives us the following preference vectors:

US: 8, 9, 0, 10, 13, 12, 5, 4, 1, 2, 14, 6
NK: 6, 14, 4, 12, 5, 13, 2, 0, 10, 1, 9, 8

Since we’re modelling the actors as more belligerent, let’s also assume for the purposes of these analyses that invasions are irreversible.

Here are the preferences vectors we’ll use to find equilibria:

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

Here we have only two stable states, s. 5 and 12. Both of these involve war on the Korean Peninsula; not even the status quo is stable. State 2 is at risk of simultaneous sanctioning, but the resulting states (4, 12, 5, 13) aren’t dispreferred, to s. 2 for either actor, so no simultaneous sanctioning occurs. There really are just two equilibria.

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Symmetric Metarationality gives us the exact same result. Only s. 5 and s. 12 are stable. This is suspicious, as the conflict has managed to stay in s. 0 for quite some time. If these preferences were correct, North Korea would have already invaded South Korea and been met with a nuclear response.

What if these preferences are substantially correct and both sides are more aggressive than we initially suspected, but North Korea disprefers being attacked by nuclear weapons below s. 0 and s. 10? That state of affairs is perhaps more reasonable than the blatantly suicidal North Korea we just imagined. How does a modicum of self-preservation change the results?

Nuclear Deterrence

If we’re assuming that North Korea has broadly similar preferences to our last variation, but doesn’t want to get attacked by nuclear weapons, we get the following preference vectors:

US: 8, 9, 0, 10, 13, 12, 5, 4, 1, 2, 14, 6
NK: 6, 14, 4, 12, 0, 10, 5, 13, 2, 1, 9, 8

Here are the annotated preferences vectors we’ll use to assess stability with Sequential Stability and Symmetric Metarationality. Since we’re leaving the belligerency of the United States the same, we’ll continue to view invading as an irreversible action.

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

One “minor” change – deciding that North Korea really doesn’t want to be nuked – and we again have the status quo and a negotiated settlement (in addition to two types of war) as stable equilibria. Does this hold when we’re using Symmetric Metarationality?

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Again, we have s. 0, 5, 10, and 12 as our equilibria.

As we’ve seen throughout, Symmetric Metarationality tends to give very similar answers to Sequential Stability. It’s still worth doing – it helps reassure us that our results are robust, but I hope by now you’re beginning to see why I could feel comfortable making an initial analysis based just off of just Sequential Stability.

Pacifistic People

What instead of underestimating the bloodthirstiness of our belligerents, we’ve been overestimating it? It’s entirely possible that both sides strongly disprefer all options that involve violence (and the more violence an option involves, the more they disprefer it) but talk up their position in hopes of receiving concessions. In this case, let’s give our actors these preference vectors:

US: 8, 0, 10, 2, 9, 12, 4, 5, 14, 13, 6, 1
NK: 6, 14, 2, 10, 0, 8, 4, 12, 5, 1, 9, 13

(Note that I’m only extending “peacefulness” to these two actors; I’m assuming that North Korea would happily try and annex South Korea if there was no need to fight America to do so)

There are fewer unilateral improvements in this array than in many of the previous ones.

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

This is perhaps the most surprising result we’ve seen so far. If both powers are all talk with nothing behind it and both powers know and understand this, then they’ll stick in the current high-tension equilibria or fight a war. The only stable states here are s. 0, 4, and 5. State 10, the “negotiated settlement” state is entirely absent. We’ll revisit this scenario with hypergame analysis later, to see what happens if the bluff is believed.

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Here we see more equilibria than we’ve seen in any of the other examples. States 2 (unilateral US withdrawal) and 8 (North Korea unilaterally abandoning its nuclear weapons program) make their debut and s. 0, 4, 5, 10, and 12 appear again.

Remember, Symmetric Metarationality is very risk averse; it considers not just opponents’ unilateral improvements, but all of their unilateral moves as fair game. The fact that s. 0 has unilateral moves for either side that are aggressive leaves the actors too scared to move to it, even from states that they disprefer. This explains the presence of s. 2 and s. 8 in the equilibrium for the first time; they’re here because in this model both sides are so scared of war that if they blink first, they’ll be more relieved at the end of tension than they will be annoyed at moving away from their preferences.

I think in general this is a poor assumption, which is why I tend to find Sequential Stability a more useful concept than Symmetric Metarationality. That said, I don’t think this is impossible as a state of affairs, so I’m glad that I observed it. In general, this is actually one of my favourite things about the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution: using it you can very quickly answer “what ifs”, often in ways that are easily bent to understandable narratives.

Why Sensitivity Analysis?

The cool thing about sensitivity analysis is that it shows you the equilibria a conflict can fall into and how sensitivity those equilibria are to your judgement calls. There are 12 possible states in this conflict, but only 7 of them showed up in any stability analysis at all. Within those seven, only 5 showed up more than once.

Here’s a full accounting of the states that showed up (counting our first model, there were nine possible simulations for each equilibrium to show up in):

State Explanation #
0 Status quo 7
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal 1
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses 4
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike 9
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons 1
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons 6
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response 6

Of the five that showed up more than once, four showed up more than half the time. These then are the most robust equilibria; equilibria that half of the reasonable changes we attempted couldn’t dislodge.

Note “most robust” is not necessarily equivalent to “most likely”. To get actual probabilities on outcomes, we’d have to put probabilities on the initial conditions. Even then, the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution as we’ve currently talked about it does little to explain how decision makers move between equilibria; because this scenario starts in equilibrium, it’s hard to see how it makes it to any of the other equilibria.

Hopefully I’ll be able to explain one way we can model changes in states in my next post, which will cover Hypergame Analysis – the tool we use when actors lack a perfect understanding of one another’s preferences.

Model, Politics

The Graph Model of Conflict Resolution – Introduction

[10 minute read]

Why do things happen the way they do?

Every day, there are conflicts between decision makers. These occur on the international scale (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), the provincial level (Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum anyone?) and the local level (Toronto’s bike lane kerfuffle). Conflict is inevitable. Understanding it, regrettably, is not.

The final results of many conflicts can look baffling from the outside. Why did the Soviet Union retreat in the Cuban missile crisis? Why do some laws pass and others die on the table?

The most powerful tool I have for understanding the ebb and flow of conflict is the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution (GMCR). I had the immense pleasure of learning about it under the tutelage of Professor Keith Hipel, one of its creators. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share it with you.

GMCR is done in two stages, modelling and analysis.

Modelling

To model a problem, there are four steps:

  • Select a point in time for the model
  • Make a list of the players and their options
  • Remove outcomes that don’t make sense
  • Create preference vectors for all players

The easiest way to understand this is to see it done.

Let’s look at the current nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. I wrote this on Sunday, October 29th, 2017, so that’s the point in time we’ll use. To keep things from getting truly out of hand in our first example, let’s just focus on the US and North Korea (I’ll add in South Korea and China in a later post). What options does each side have?

US:

  • Nuclear strike on North Korea
  • Withdraw troops and normalize relations
  • Status quo

North Korea:

  • Invasion of South Korea
  • Abandon nuclear program and submit to inspections
  • Status quo

I went through a few iterations here. I originally wrote the US option “Nuclear strike” as “Pre-emptive strike”. I changed it to be more general. A nuclear strike could be pre-emptive, but it also could be in response to North Korea invading South Korea.

It’s pretty easy to make a chart of all these states:

Click for a copyable version

If you treat each action that the belligerents can make as a binary variable (yes=1 or no=0), the states will have a natural ordering based off of the binary sum of the actions taken and not taken. This specific ordering isn’t mandatory – you can use any ordering scheme you want – but I find it useful.

You may also notice that “Status quo” appears nowhere on this chart. That’s an interesting consequence of how actions are represented in the GMCR. Status quo is simply neither striking nor withdrawing for the US, or neither invading nor abandoning their nuclear program for North Korea. Adding an extra row for it would just result in us having to do more work in the next step, where we remove states that can’t exist.

I’ve colour coded some of the cells to help with this step. Removing nonsensical outcomes always requires a bit of judgement. Here we aren’t removing any outcomes that are highly dispreferred. We are supposed to restrict ourselves solely to removing outcomes that seem like they could never ever happen.

To that end, I’ve highlighted all cases where America withdraws troops and strikes North Korea. I’m interpreting “withdraw” here to mean more than just withdrawing troops – I think it would mean that the US would be withdrawing all forms of protection to South Korea. Given that, it wouldn’t make sense for the US to get involved in a nuclear war with North Korea while all the while loudly proclaiming that they don’t care what happens on the Korean peninsula. Not even Nixon’s “madman” diplomacy could encompass that.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and invade South Korea. There are a number of gambits where this might make sense – for example, it might believe that if they attacked South Korea after renouncing nuclear weapons, China might back them or the US would be unable to respond with nuclear missiles. Ultimately, I think these should be left in.

Here’s the revised state-space, with the twelve remaining states:

Click for a copyable version

The next step is to figure out how each decision maker prioritizes the states. I’ve found it’s helpful at this point to tag each state with a short plain language explanation.

State Explanation
0 Status quo
1 Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
6 US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
9 US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
13 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
14 US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion

While describing these, I’ve tried to avoid talking about causality. I didn’t describe s. 5 as “North Korean invasion in response to US nuclear strike” or “US nuclear strike in response to North Korean invasion”. Both of these are valid and would depend on which states preceded s. 5.

Looking at all of these states, here’s how I think both decision makers would order them (in order of most preferred to least preferred):

US: 8, 0, 9, 10, 12, 5, 4, 13, 14, 1, 2, 6
NK: 6, 14, 2, 10, 0, 4, 12, 5, 1, 13, 8, 9

The US prefers North Korea give up its nuclear program and wants to keep protecting South Korea. Its secondary objective is to seem like a reasonable actor on the world stage – which means that it has some preference against using pre-emptive strikes or nuclear weapons on non-nuclear states.

North Korea wants to unify the Korean peninsula under its banner, protect itself against regime change, and end the sanctions its nuclear program has brought. Based on the Agreed Framework, I do think Korea would be willing to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for a normalization of relations with the US and sanctions relief.

Once we have preference vectors, we’ve modelled the problem. Now it’s time for stability analysis.

Stability

A state is stable for a player if it isn’t advantageous for the player to shift states. A state is globally stable if it is not advantageous for any player to shift states. When a player can move to a state they prefer over the current state without any input from their opponent, this is a “unilateral improvement” (UI).

There are a variety of ways we can define “advantageous”, which lead to various definitions of stability:

Nash Stability (R): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements. States that are Nash stable tend to be pretty bad; these include both sides attacking in a nuclear war or both prisoners defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma. Nash stability ignores the concept of risk; it will never move to a less preferred state in the hopes of making it to a more preferred state.

General Metarationality (GMR): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by unilateral moves by others. This tends to lead to less confusing results than Nash stability; Cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma is stable in General Metarationality. General Metarationality accepts the existence of risk, but refuses to take any.

Symmetric Metarationality (SMR): Stable if an actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by opponents’ unilateral moves after it has a chance to respond to them. This is equivalent to GMR, but with a chance to respond. Here we start to see the capacity to take on some risk.

Sequential Stability (SEQ): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by opponents’ unilateral improvements. This basically assumes fairly reasonable opponents, the type who won’t cut off their nose to spite their face. Your mileage may vary as to how appropriate this assumption is. Like SMR, this system takes on some risk.

Limited Move Stability (LS): A state is stable if after N moves and countermoves (with both sides acting optimally), there exists no improvement. This is obviously fairly risky as any assumptions you make about your opponents’ optimal actions may turn out to be wrong (or wishful thinking).

Non-myopic Stability (NM): Equivalent to Ls with N set equal to infinity. This predicts stable states where there’s no improvements after any amount of posturing and state changes, as long as both players act entirely optimally.

The two stability metrics most important to the GMCR (at least as I was taught it) are Nash Stability (denoted with r) and Sequential Stability (denoted with s). These have the advantage of being simple enough to calculate by hand while still explaining most real-world equilibria quite well.

To do stability analysis, you write out the preference vectors of both sides, along with any unilateral improvements that they can make. You then use this to decide the stability of each state for each player. If both players are stable at a state by any of the chosen stability metrics, the state overall is stable. A state can also be stable if both players have unilateral improvements from it that result in both ending up in a dispreferred state if taken simultaneously. This is called simultaneous sanctioning and is denoted with u.

The choice of stability metrics will determine which states are stable. If you only use Nash stability, you’ll get a different result than if you combine Sequential Stability and Nash Stability.

Here’s the stability analysis for this conflict (using Nash Stability and Sequential Stability):

Click for copyable version

Before talking about the outcome, I want to mention a few things.

Look at s. 9 for the US. They prefer s. 8 to s. 9 and the two differ only on a US move. Despite this, s. 8 isn’t a unilateral improvement over s. 9 for the US. This system is called the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution for a reason. States can be viewed as nodes on a directed graph, which implies that some nodes may not have a connection. Or, to put it in simpler terms, some actions can’t be taken back. Once the US has launched a nuclear strike, it cannot un-launch it.

This holds less true for abandoning a nuclear program or withdrawing troops; both of those are fairly easy to undo (as we found out after the collapse of the Agreed Framework). Invasions on the other hand are in a tricky category. They’re somewhat reversible (you can stop and pull out), but the consequences linger. Ultimately I’ll call them reversible, but note that this is debatable and the analysis could change if you change this assumption.

In a perfect world, I’d go through this exercise four or five different times, each time with different assumptions about preferences or the reversibility of certain states or with different stability metrics and see how each factor changes the results. My next blog post will go through this in detail.

The other thing to note here is the existence of simultaneous sanctioning. Both sides have a UI from s. 4; NK to s. 0 and the US to s. 5. Unfortunately, if you take these together, you get s. 1, which both sides disprefer to s. 4. This means that once a war starts the US will be hesitant to launch a nuclear strike and North Korea would be hesitant to withdraw – in case they withdrew just as a strike happened. In reality, we get around double binds like this with negotiated truces – or unilateral ultimatums (e.g. “withdraw by 08:00 tomorrow or we will use nuclear weapons”).

There are four stable equilibria in this conflict:

  • The status quo
  • A coordinated US withdrawal of troops (but not a complete withdrawal of US interest) and North Korean renouncement of nuclear weapons
  • All out conventional war on the Korean Peninsula
  • All out nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula

I don’t think these equilibria are particularly controversial. The status quo has held for a long time, which would be impossible if it wasn’t a stable equilibrium. Meanwhile, s. 10 looks kind of similar to the Iran deal, with the US removing sanctions and doing some amount of normalization in exchange for the end of Iran’s nuclear program. State 5 is the worst-case scenario that we all know is possible.

Because we’re currently in a stable state, it seems unlikely that we’ll shift to one of the other states that could exist. In actuality, there are a few ways this could happen. A third party could intervene with its own preference vectors and shake up the equilibrium. For example, China could use the threat of economic sanctions (or the threat of ending economic sanctions) to try and get North Korea and the US to come to a détente. There also could be an error in judgement on the part of one of the parties. A false alarm could quickly turn into a very real conflict. It’s also possible that one party could mistake the others preferences, leading to them taking a course of action that they incorrectly believe isn’t sanctioned.

In future posts, I plan to show how these can all be taken into account, using the GMCR framework for Third Party Intervention and Coalitional Analysis, Strength of Preferences, and Hypergame Analysis.

Even without those additions, the GMCR is a powerful tool. I encourage you to try it out for other conflicts and see what the results are. I certainly found that the best way to really understand it was to run it a few times.

Note: I know it’s hard to play around with the charts when they’re embedded as images. You can see copyable versions of them here.

Politics

Nuclear Weapons Explained Backwards

[10 minute read]

The following is the annotated speakers notes for a talk I gave on nuclear weapons today. I’d like to claim that it was a transcript, but after practicing from these notes for almost a week, I ended up giving the talk mostly ex tempore. Like I always do. 

Note: The uncredited photos were created by the US government and therefore have no copyright attached. All other images are either original (and therefore covered by the same license as the rest of the blog) or are credited and subject to the original license (normally CC-BY of some sort).

Hi I’m Zach.

This will be a backwards explanation of nuclear weapons; I don’t have time to cover it all so instead of covering the boring stuff like how fission works, I’m going to talk about the strategic realities surrounding the use of nuclear weapons.

Let’s actually do this thing like you’re a bunch of kids; I’m going to assume you’re always asking me “why?”. So at the highest level: this is a presentation about nuclear weapons.

Why am I doing this?

This got the laughs I was hoping for

Like maybe a lot of you, I’ve been worried about nuclear weapons of late. My worrying actually started in September 2016. I don’t know if you remember, but that was the first time it seemed like Trump might really win. And then I think a lot of us had to grapple with what that meant.

And the biggest question there was “could this mean the end of the world?”

I was worried about the end of the world because I knew Trump might end up with the nuclear launch codes and all I really knew about nuclear weapons was that they were really dangerous. At this point I was very much in the pop culture mode of “these are the things that end the world in blockbuster movies”.

Of course before I could really take this fear seriously, I had to think about why Trump might actually use nuclear weapons. Like I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to nuke Tuvalu just for fun.

Here’s what the payoff matrix looks like for nuclear war between major powers. Everyone is pretty happy doing nothing, although they’d be happier if they could wipe out their pesky rivals [1]. Unfortunately, their rivals want to avenge themselves if they’re going to die.

The decision-making algorithm that tells us we’re going to stick to doing nothing is General Metarationality. We know how our opponents will act in response to our actions and we avoid actions that will cause strong sanctioning. And I don’t know of any sanctions stronger than getting nuked.

This whole thing works because everyone understands it. The logic is so inescapable and the probable actions of your enemies are so obvious that the whole edifice survives, even though doing nothing isn’t technically even the Nash equilibrium.

But this is just theory. How do you ensure mutually assured destruction in practice?

That’s a question people have been asking since the 1950s. By now everyone’s agreed that there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is to stick a bunch of missiles in a desert and call it a day. The right way is to come up with three separate ways of delivering your warheads, spend billions and billions of dollars on them, and call it a day.

Here we have the three methods that everyone’s chosen – and I want to make it clear that this is arbitrary; three others would work just as well [2]. As it stands though, the conventional nuclear triad is Nuclear armed bombers, like the US B-52 or B-2, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) like the US Minuteman III, and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), like the US Trident II. The idea with this triad is that it’s impossible for an enemy to launch a first strike so devastating that they take out your whole ability to respond.

Planners are always vaguely trying to build up their capacity for a “first strike” (remember the payoff matrix before; all nuclear powers would like it best if they could win a nuclear war). The first strike idea is this pernicious thought that maybe if you nuke someone else hard enough, you’ll take out all their nukes and just win. No one has ever felt confident in their ability to pull off a first strike, which is good because if someone ever was, nuclear war would become inevitable.

But why do we care about first strikes and MAD?

Because MAD has made civilization destroying nuclear war the default form of nuclear war, at least as far as all of the non-regional nuclear powers are concerned. With respect to Trump, it means that any nuclear war he starts with China or Russia, America’s traditional nuclear adversaries, would be really bad.

Now we all know that Trump is basically in Putin’s pocket. Because of this, I wasn’t very worried about a nuclear war with Russia; I always figured that if things got heated with Russia, Trump would fold.

At the time I first did this research – remember, this was September 2016, before we found out that Xi Jinping was more than a match for Trump – I thought nuclear war with China would become a lot more likely if Trump was president. So I looked into the Chinese nuclear arsenal and there I found the question that unlocked my understanding of nuclear weapons.

China’s premier missile is the silo-based Dongfeng 5. It has a range of about 12,000km and is tipped with a 5 Mt warhead.

A brief digression: when we talk about nuclear weapons and say “ton”, “kiloton”, or “megaton”, we’re referring to the explosion that would be created by a given mass of TNT. So, the warhead on the DF5 explodes with the same force as you’d expect from 5 million tonnes of TNT. Everyone always compares yields to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hate this and think it’s stupid – for reasons I’ll get into in just one minute – but I’ll do it anyway. The DF5 releases 250 times as much energy as the 20 kt bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

Anyway, the DF5 is 5Mt. The premier missile used by the US is the Trident II. It also has a range of 12,000km, it’s launched from a ballistic missile submarine, and it is armed with eight W88 warheads, each of which has a yield of 475kt.

And this was confusing, because we generally think of the US as more advanced than China when it comes to military technology – and here it definitely is! So why does China have bigger nukes?

That’s our key question right there.

So I just told you I hate the Hiroshima comparison. Here’s why: it assumes that nuclear weapons scale linearly. Get twice the yield and you should get twice the destruction, right? But very few things in the real world are linear. Nuclear weapons certainly aren’t.

There are actually 5 or 6 ways a nuclear weapon can kill you. There’s the shockwave, which knocks over buildings. There’s the gamma ray burst, which make death inevitable even as you appear to recover. There’s the thermal radiation, which can give you third degree burns, even if you’re kilometers distant. There’s the central fireball, which rips apart everything it touches. And then there’s the neutron burst and the X-rays and all the other ionizing radiation sources.

Each of these scales differently, but all of them are sublinear. This means that as a nuclear weapon gets bigger, it gets less efficient. The number of people you kill per additional ton of yield is much higher when your yield is 20kt than when it is 5Mt.

Some of these scaling effects are really complicated because of interactions with the ground or the air, but two are simple enough that I can give you a quick explanation of how to calculate them.

When it comes to shockwave, I want you to imagine a sphere. The amount of stuff in that sphere is proportional to the radius of that sphere, r, to the third power. Energy is just the capacity to do work, in this case, move stuff. If you want to figure out the amount of stuff energy can move – say move in a city destroying shockwave – you move this equation around a bit and you end up with the cube root of energy. To double the range of the shockwave, you need eight times as much energy.

For thermal radiation, I want you to think about the surface of a sphere. The size of the surface is proportional to r to the second power. Now we have a set amount of thermal radiation at the start that gets spread evenly around the whole surface of the sphere as flux, even as the sphere grows. So, you get ten meters out and the energy is spread out one hundred times as much as it was at one metre. You multiplied the radius by ten and saw the energy go down by a factor of one hundred. This also means that if you add in 100 times as much energy, the radius with a given flux will only grow ten-fold. The destructive radius (for any given destructive radiation effect) is proportional to the square root of the initial energy.

In both these cases, this means you’re facing severe diminishing returns. The 5 Mt Chinese warhead isn’t 10x as powerful as the 475kt American bomb. It’s between 2 and 3 times more powerful.

It gets worse for the Chinese warhead. It’s error radius is 800m, about 10x the 70m error radius of the Trident II. When aimed at a specific hardened target, like say a silo or a fortification, a target that needs to be hit with a certain amount of energy, the Chinese weapon is actually between 3x to 5x less likely to damage it than the American one, even though it’s much bigger. That’s not even to mention that there are eight American warheads on each missile.

They’re on these things called Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles, or MIRVs for short. Each one can pick its own target. Add all this up and the Trident II missile is something like 24x to 40x more dangerous than the DF5, despite looking less powerful at first glance.

The Chinese warhead is big because they haven’t mastered accuracy or MIRVs. With those, size matters much less.

24x or 40x or whatever is nice and all, but why doesn’t America go for broke and pack their thing full of 5 Mt warheads too? Wouldn’t that be best?

Well that’s because space and especially weight is at a premium on a rocket. The heavier it is, the shorter its range. There’s this whole laborious process called “miniaturization” that all nuclear weapons programs have to master. You detonate your test bomb in a big fixed installation, but then you need to make it small enough that you can fit it on a missile. That’s hard.

If you look at the real experts – not the pundits on CNN, but the brilliant folks at 38North or Ploughshares – you’ll see that there’s a lot of anxiety about North Korea “miniaturizing” their nuclear weapons. Jong-un say they have. We don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not. Miniaturization is the difference between some scary seismic readings and a crater where Tokyo used to be. If North Korea can get their physics package (the nuke part of the warhead) down to 400, 500kg, then they’ll have room to put on a heat shield. Then they’ll have an ICBM.

Not a triad. So, there’s still time for a first strike. But they’re working on SLBMs. Soon, maybe in a decade, they’ll be a “real” nuclear power. That’s bad for the US. But it’s really bad for China. Right now, China is actually more at risk from North Korea than the US, according to many analysts. It’s actually gotten so bad that China has set up missile defenses between North Korea and Beijing.

These probably won’t work if push comes to shove, but that’s a story for another day.

So to summarize:

  • The major nuclear powers are China, Russia, and the USA
  • Mutually Assured Destruction is guaranteed by a nuclear triad and has kept these powers from nuking each other.
  • As long as the triad lasts, first strikes will bring massive retaliation
  • Retaliation means that you have to do a certain amount of damage to certain targets. You can achieve this with really big nukes, or really precise nukes.
  • Scaling means that 10x the yield does not bring 10x the destructive power. Conversely, accuracy gives a lot of bang for your buck. 10x accuracy means 100x or 1000x damage to a specific target.
  • Don’t use Hiroshima as a unit of measure, because people will assume that destruction is linear and overestimate how bad things will be
  • North Korea can’t do anything until they miniaturize a nuke. It’s unclear if they have yet.

If you want to learn more, either about nuclear weapons in general or North Korea’s nuclear weapon program in particular, you can go to my blog at socraticfm.com. Also Wikipedia exists.

Questions

  • In response to a question about the risk of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, I explained that this would be locally really bad, but drew the distinction between events that are bad for a localized group of people (like the Taliban nuking Karachi) and events that are bad for the human race (a MAD-level nuclear exchange between China and the US). If you’re worrying about the existential risk posed by nuclear weapons, the first is really just noise, except insofar as it can make the second more likely by increasing tensions all around.
  • In response to a question about disarmament, I talked about the New START treaty and the need to distinguish between warheads that are stored (most of them, at least for Russia and America) and warheads ready to go (1,550 for both the US and Russia, if they’re sticking to their treaty obligations). I stressed the need for further treaties like New START to slowly reduce the number of active (and therefore existentially dangerous) nuclear weapons in the arsenals of major powers.

Footnotes

[1] I was questioned pretty heavily on this pay-off matrix. Several people thought that Do Nothing should be preferred to Attack. I have two things to say to this:

  1. In an iterated game with this sort of matrix, the highest payoff comes when people cooperate the most. So while at any given point in time attacking might be preferred, once you take into account that real life is iterated, doing nothing is a better long term strategy.
  2. All of us born after the Cold War, or even born after the 60s, cannot adequately understand what it was like to live in a world where it really did seem like the Soviets might “bury us”. Faced with that kind of existential threat, a first strike seemed like an appealing option. In this globalist age, it does seem much worse to launch a first strike, especially because major powers do major mutual trade.

^

[2] If questioned here, I was going to mention carrier based bombers (France tried this for a while) and nuclear tipped cruise missiles (the US may move in this direction).  ^

Using this presentation

The slides are available here. This content, like everything else original on my blog, is covered by the CC-BY-NC-SA v4 International license. If you present this, please reference this blog and include a link. If you are a student and using this presentation is against the academic policies of your institution, I’d ask that you please refrain from plagiarizing it.

Advice, Model

A Practical Guide to Splitting The Housework

[15-minute read]

Note: This blog post is about housework and chores. If disability or mental illness makes chores difficult for you to do and having someone breezily describe it as “easy” will be bad for you, I recommend skipping it. This meant to help people who are able split chores with a partner – but historically haven’t – begin to do so. It isn’t meant to be a cudgel with which to beat people who have difficulty with chores due to ability status. If this describes you, you are not lazy or broken and your difficulties are real and valid.

So, you’ve seen the comic by Emma, or read The Second Shift (which also happens to be my favourite term for the chores and childcare that happens after or before work), or maybe someone has linked you here with a pointed note. In any case, I’m going to assume you’re reading this because you’ve realized that you don’t help your partner with much around the house, don’t share much of the management of household chores with your partner, or aren’t very good at household chores and want to get better.

This is what you’re trying to avoid. Image Copyright: Emmaclit [SOURCE], used here with the permission of the artist.
There are three main things you need to work on if you want to be able to split both the act of doing chores and the mental load of keeping track of them with your partner [1]. These are: general skills, noticing things, and keeping track of what needs to happen. It’s difficult to work on any of these in isolation. Getting better at chores will help you feel empowered to notice when they need to be done or keep track of the schedule of doing them. Doing chores whenever you notice they need to be done will give you the practice you need to get better at them.

I think it would be a confusing guide if I laid it all out as holistically as you’ll be working on everything. In the interest of making this digestible, I’ve given each of the key areas their own subsection, with an additional final section the talks about dealing with some of the issues that may arise as you and your partner negotiate and re-negotiate the second shift.

General Skills

If you honestly don’t have any housework skills at all (either because you lacked an adult to model them for you, or adults refused to model them for you because of your gender, or any other reason) you’re going to need to start by building them up. It may seem like a good idea to ask your partner for help with this task.

It might not be. If your partner is frustrated with you because they feel you aren’t pulling your weight around the house, asking them to teach you will only increase the short-term stress on them. You’ll probably expect them to respond really positively to your change of heart, but you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re instead grumbly. Teaching someone how to do something is work. Teaching you chores would mean that for a while, all chores will take them longer.

It’s possible that your expectation that your partner be thrilled that you’re helping out will clash with any annoyance they have at doing chores more slowly in order to teach you and leave both of you feeling out of sorts. You’ll be hurt that your partner isn’t appreciating your “gift” [2], while your partner might feel like it’s taken you long too long to even offer. It’s also possible that seeing you learn might convince your partner that you can’t do chores correctly, which will make them reluctant to delegate chores to you and ruin your whole enterprise before it really begins.

If it turns out your partner is a bad choice, cadge lessons from your closest friends. They don’t have to live with you and they aren’t starting from a place of frustration. For many friends, it’s definitely worth a few pointers to have someone else do the grunt-work of their chores for them. And that’s exactly the deal I suggest you make.

That said, if your relationship with your partner is one where you can talk honestly and openly (and if it isn’t, um, what are you doing?) you can cut out the guessing and just ask them what they’d prefer. Talking with your partner has a further advantage: you can ask them what chores they’d most like you to learn. I have some samples here, but if these are the chores your partner minds least (while I know at least one person who hates each of these, they also just happen to be the chores I find most tolerable), you may want to substitute them for chores your partner especially hates (like fucking sweeping, the objectively worst chore).

Cooking

Think about the type of food you (and your friends or your partner) like to eat, then go looking online for recipes that match. I’m very partial to the President’s Choice recipes website, as well as the blog Cookie and Kate, but Google is your friend here. Once you have a recipe in mind, contact your chosen teacher and ask if you can buy the ingredients [3] and make it for them. Make it clear that the meal will only happen if they teach you things like basic knife skills and how to boil water.

Repeat this process with several different friends until you can make 2-3 recipes unaided. Ideally these shouldn’t have much overlap in technique (e.g. one soup, one stir fry with rice, and one pasta dish). Once you have the basics under your belt, you should be able to pick the rest up as you go along, assuming you end up doing at least some of the cooking in your household.

Doing Dishes

There are four good reasons to learn to do the dishes:

  1. It’s easy to learn and hard to get wrong
  2. It’s an excellent way to train your ability to notice things
  3. Doing the dishes doesn’t preclude talking with people
  4. Which means that you can get a reputation as helpful simply by doing the dishes whenever someone invites you over for a meal, without sacrificing any time hanging out with your friends

You can learn to do the dishes the same way as cooking. Just ask a friend if you can come over, hangout, and do their dishes. Basically no one will say no to this. It can also be combined with learning to make food if you want to save some time.

Whenever you do dishes at home, especially if it’s part of your set of chores, you should remember that the dishes aren’t truly done until you’ve put them away. Don’t leave them in the dishwasher or drying rack for days!

Laundry

Laundry is a chore that has to be scheduled (unless you like running out of underwear), so learning it will allow you to practice that aspect of the second shift. You can learn laundry the same as you would dishes or cooking, or maybe even at the same time if are picking recipes with lots of dead time.

There are two important things to note about laundry:

  1. If you don’t want everything to be horribly wrinkled, you need to take it out of the dryer as soon as it’s done.
  2. If you are doing laundry for someone else (and especially if that person wears feminine clothes), you must ask them “is there anything in this load that can’t go in the dryer or needs to go in on delicate?”. Many things (especially hosiery) can be ruined by the wrong dryer setting, or by going in the dryer at all.

Cleaning the washroom

I’ve found that people give me an inordinate amount of credit (relative to the work involved) whenever I clean a washroom. I think this is because (oddly) most people hate cleaning the washroom. These people are mistaken. In all households where the washroom has been cleaned in the last year or so, this is one of the least gross rooms to clean.

(That said, this is one chore I wouldn’t recommend learning at the same time as you cook!)

People are very cavalier about food. Food spills rarely get cleaned up properly, leading to stickiness or mold in the kitchen. Kitchen sinks are often a disaster of old food, soggy vegetables, and clogged drains. I find it impossible to clean a kitchen without retching at least once from some food that’s gone off.

In all likelihood, this smells worse than the 3rd Circle of Hell. Image Credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr

Bathrooms, on the other hand, rarely smell all that bad (and when they do, it’s more of a faint lingering odour, as opposed to the concentrated wretchedness you might find at the back of the fridge). People are incredibly embarrassed by any spills they cause in the bathroom and try to completely clean them up. If you wear gloves and wash your hands regularly, you should rarely be grossed out cleaning the bathroom (with the exception of the shower drain, which becomes a yawning abyss as soon as anyone in the house has hair past shoulder length).

Pictured: Actually just dust; one good wipe and this will be squeaky clean. Image credit: Bart Everson on Flickr

Most people (especially people in their twenties) don’t realize all this and treat cleaning the bathroom as only marginally less heroic than cleaning up nuclear waste.

Take advantage of this fact and offer to clean your friend’s washroom if they show how to do it. You really only need to do this once or twice to get the hang of it. Then you’ll be all set to take over what’s probably your partner’s least favourite chore.

Once you’ve learned some things

You can show off your skills to your partner. If you started learning before your inability to do chores became a problem in the relationship, you were probably having your partner teach you, in which case you can skip this step. If you instead learned from friends, you need to make your partner aware that you can now do things around the home.

Ideally, you would clean a room or make a dinner and then have your partner make non-judgemental suggestions about how you could do it better. Be prepared to spot genuine conflicts of values; you might view things as clean after a quick wipe, when your partner considers them clean only after a thorough scrub. I suggest that you and your partner put some time into negotiating a combined standard if your preferences aren’t already congruent. Remember that if you haven’t been doing the chores much, you aren’t really negotiating from a position of strength. Also remember that diverging cleanliness preferences aren’t really a good reason to go back to doing nothing.

Within a month or so of starting your journey towards chores competence, you should be ready to take stuff off your partner’s plate. Note that the chores I’ve outlined above don’t represent half the housework for a typical couple (unless you do a significant amount of yard work or take over all of the cooking), so you’ll probably have to learn a few more things. Once you’ve built up goodwill from actually doing some chores, it should be fine to have your partner teach you how to do the remaining ones.

I actually recommend learning how to do every chore that gets regularly done. This allows you to do it if your partner is gone or sick (or if you ever break up). It also helps you discover which chores you don’t mind and which you despise (I’m looking at you, cleaning the kitchen). It’s probably best to split up the housework such that you and your partner spend a similar amount of time on the chores you don’t mind, in addition to trying to balance the overall amount of work.

Noticing Things

Being able to do some chores means you’ve graduated from Chores 101. In Chores 202, you should develop the ability to do chores without prompting. It’s one thing to clean the washroom when asked, or make dinner when your partner loudly declares “I’m hungry”. It’s quite another to say to your partner “hey, I think this is as messy as I ever want the bathroom to get, will it disrupt your routine if I clean it tonight?” or “hey dear, does cauliflower mac and cheese sound good for dinner at six?” and then follow through.

When you take ownership of a chore and follow through on it, your partner can begin to drop the chore from their mind. Instead of looking around the washroom every so often, thinking about when they need to tell you to clean it, they can enjoy their shits in peace; instead of reminding you to go grocery shopping as a subtle way of telling you it’s your night to cook, they can relax and assume you’ll cook something delicious.

To build up your ability to notice things, you should pick a handful of chores and internally declare them MY RESPONSIBILITY. For chores that are your responsibility, you are forbidden to think “somebody should do that”. Whenever this thought happens, replace it with “I should do that!”.

With dishes this is especially easy. Look at the sink whenever you’re in the kitchen. If you don’t have anything urgent to do and there are some dishes in the sink, immediately do them (this is especially useful while waiting for the microwave, coffee maker, or toaster). On nights when your partner is cooking, head into the kitchen midway through their meal prep and start doing any dishes they’re done with. If you time this right, almost all the dishes can be done by the time you start eating and you can keep your partner company to boot [4].

You should aim to never be asked about something that is your responsibility (outside of extenuating circumstances, like “finals week”).

It’s obviously unfair to expect one person to notice everything wrong with the house (especially if people in the house have different cleanliness preferences). Note that this applies to your partner just as much as it applies to you. Neither of you should have to notice everything! This probably requires you and your partner to talk about what wrong means to you and come to a clear consensus. You should judge the state of the house off of this consensus, not off of how it feels to you personally [5].

There’s one final step to noticing things. When your partner asks you to do something (like get out a specific dish from the dishwasher), notice what else could be done and assume that the ask was as expansive as possible. Don’t just get out a single dish. Empty the whole dishwasher. When asked to take the laundry out of the dryer, fold it and put it away too. When you do the bare minimum, you push all the rest of the work onto your partner.

Keeping Track of What Needs to Happen

This is the last thing you need to get good at if you really want to share the mental load of chores with your partner.

Almost all chores spawn meta-chores. Cooking provides a simple example; you can’t cook if you don’t pay the power bill, buy groceries, and keep your cooking surfaces relatively clean. Even less involved chores probably require the occasional shopping trip, while children spawn a truly staggering amount of secondary work (like doctor’s appointments, vaccinations, permission slips, pre-school applications, birthday party invitations to sort, and homework to look over).

You can’t truly have ownership of a chore without taking responsibility for the chores it spawns. If your partner has to ask you every week if they need to pick up more cleaning supplies at the store, you’ve done a poor job managing the meta-chores. Your partner can only really banish a chore from their head once you’ve shown a clear track record of managing the meta-chores too.

If your memory isn’t great, assistive technology can really help. Apparently virtual assistants are now good enough that saying “Okay Google, remind me to buy dryer sheets next time I’m at a store” actually works. If you don’t want to share everything you ever do with Google or Apple, a pen and paper or notes to yourself on a calendar can work just as well.

You don’t need to do everything here yourself. If your partner regularly shops or is on their way to the grocery store for something they need, it’s totally fine to ask them to grab something you need on the way. The thing you want to avoid is the sort of cascading failure (e.g. a lack of soap means that laundry isn’t done for two weeks) that promotes chores they thought would be safely done to the top of their attention.

Ultimately, responsibility for your chores means that you should be able to do it even if no one else comes and saves you. In the same way that you want to train yourself to replace “someone should do that” with “I should do that” for the physical act of the chore, you need to replace things like “someone should buy more soap” with “I need to make sure we get more soap”.

Problems Sharing the Second Shift

I got the idea to write this after a friend shared Emma’s comic on their Facebook wall. Seeing the sense of hopelessness or anxiety it gave people who hadn’t been raised to know how to do chores or recognize when they had to be done was very eye-opening for me. One common complaint among people unused to chores was that it would be very stressful for them to try and notice every time something wasn’t perfect in order to swoop in and fix it.

I think this is a very reasonable thing to worry about if you and your partner are incapable of talking about things like “what does good enough look like?” and “how can we split these up, so that neither of us has to constantly ensure absolutely everything is perfect?”. In mainstream society, there’s a tendency for couples not to talk about their preferences and instead believe that true love necessarily provides intuition into everything your partner could want.

This becomes a real disaster when everyone assumes that their own way of doing things is the only reasonable way people would want to do it. In this case, genuinely different standards end up being misinterpreted as incompetence or subtle resistance.

All this is to say: if you’re worried that you can’t do anything to your partner’s nebulous standards, the root cause of this problem might be that you have no clue what those standards are and don’t know how to talk about them, not that noticing things is inherently very stressful [6]. You should also make sure that you haven’t just ignored ten years of requests to do things to a certain standard, maybe because it was more convenient for you to ignore them?

I will say that if it feels impossible or very stressful to try and keep track of everything, this should be taken as evidence of how your partner might feel about it too. Foisting all that work onto them is a step of last resort that should only be undertaken after you’ve talked with them and made sure it isn’t just as costly for them to do all the management as it would be for you to do it.

Once you’ve overcome (or renegotiated) the stressful aspects of the second shift and taken on your share of it, it’s pretty natural to expect your partner to express a lot of gratitude. This may not necessarily happen or may not happen right away, especially if it’s taken you a very long time to start caring. “What took them so long?” is probably a more realistic response than “my hero!”.

If you feel underpraised, stop and consider how often you praise your partner for doing housework. If you already do, that’s awesome. Tell them that while this isn’t a quid pro quo, you’d be more motivated to do chores if they praised you too. If you don’t praise them, perhaps ye should give as ye expect to receive? Positive reinforcement probably will help you continue to do chores, but you and your partner may have to work through some lingering feelings before they’re quite willing to take that final step.

Footnotes:

[1] Or partners. Or roommates. Or family. Endlessly caveating for all potential relationships that can occur in shared spaces is inimical to good flow and I’m vain enough about my writing that I’m going to sacrifice some nuance in the name of readability. ^

[2] For more about how the “economy of gratitude” can intersect with chores, see pages 54, 147, and 308 of The Second Shift by Professor Arlie Russel Hochschild (eBook version).  ^

[3] Make sure to do the grocery shopping yourself, as grocery shopping is a skill all on its own. You haven’t fully appreciated just how taxing it can be until you’ve found yourself in the produce aisle, futilely scanning for an obscure vegetable and frantically Googling things like “can you use green onions instead of shallots?” or “what is the difference between scallions and shallots?”. (Learning to cook was full of onion related trauma for me) ^

[4] There is a big difference between your partner doing a chore while you relax and do other things and your partner doing a chore while you keep them company and help them with little things. If there are chores you are genuinely hopeless at that you still want to be a part of, you can help your partner out by making their life less boring and providing some company. Even people who can’t boil water without burning down the kitchen can fetch things from the fridge. ^

[5] It’s deeply unfair for people to be held to standards that they don’t know about. Having a clear conversation about chore expectations allows you and your partner to avoid the feeling that you’re being judged by capricious and mysterious standards. ^

[6] I am a bona fide expert at stressing out over little things and found a ten-minute conversation codifying the implicit assumptions my partner and I had around chores eliminated basically all of the stress I had. I now know that they find disorder much more stressful than lack of cleanliness and really appreciate me keeping things organized (I’m the opposite, so gave little thought to order), while they now know my esophageal problems make it very hard for me to eat food that is weirdly prepared (my partner is a very proficient cook with an iron gut, which sometimes leads to culinary experiments that are a bit beyond my ability to choke down; I stick to recipes).

Still, if this is very stressful for you even after a conversation, there is nothing wrong or broken about you! Be prepared to challenge your assumption that this will necessarily be stressful, but if your assumption is borne out, you should probably try something else. Maybe you can compensate for not managing the chores in other ways (perhaps by doing more of the actual work of chores)? I think splitting all aspects of chores evenly is a useful default, but each partnership needs to figure out for themselves what feels fair and achievable to them! ^

Economics, Model, Quick Fix

Regulation Revisited

Previously I described regulation as a regressive tax. It may not kill jobs per se, but it certainly shifts them towards people with university degrees, largely at the expense of those without. I’m beginning to rethink that position; I’m increasingly worried that many types of regulation are actually leading to a net loss of jobs. There remains a paucity of empirical evidence on this subject. Today I’m going to present a (I believe convincing) model of how regulations could kill jobs, but I’d like to remind everyone that models are less important than evidence and should only be the focus of discussion in situations like this, where the evidence is genuinely sparse.

Let’s assume that regulation has no first order effect on jobs. All jobs lost through regulation (and make no mistake, there will be lost jobs) are offset by different jobs in regulatory compliance or the jobs created when the compliance people spend the money they make, etc., on to infinity. So far, this is all fine and dandy.

Talking to members of the local start-up community, I reckon that many small sized hardware start-ups spend the equivalent of an engineer’s salary on regulatory compliance yearly. Instead of a hypothetical engineer (or marketer, or salesperson, etc.), they’re providing a salary to a lawyer, or a technician at the FCC, or some other mid-level bureaucrat.

No matter how well this person does their job, they aren’t creating anything of value. There’s no chance that they’ll come up with or contribute to a revolutionary new product that drives a lot of economic growth and ends up creating dozens, hundreds, or (in very rare cases) thousands of jobs. An engineer could.

There’s obviously many ways that even successful start-ups with all the engineers they need can fail to create jobs on net. They could disrupt an established industry in a way that causes layoffs at the existing participants (although it’s probably fallacious to believe that this will cause net job losses either, given the lump of labour fallacy). Also, something like 60% of start-ups fail. In the case of failure, money from wealthy investors is transferred to other people and I doubt most people care if the beneficiaries are engineers or in compliance.

But discounting all that, I think what this boils down to is: when you’re paying an engineer, there’s a chance that the engineer will invent something that increases productivity and drives productivity growth (leading to cheaper prices and maybe even new industries previously thought impossible). When you pay someone in sales or marketing, you get a chance to get your product in front of customers and see it really take off. When you’re paying for regulatory compliance, you get an often-useless stamp of approval, or have to make expensive changes because some rent-seeking corporation got spurious requirements written into the regulation.

Go on, tell me all million pages of this are necessary to protect consumers – I dare you. Image Credit: Coolcaesar on Wikimedia Commons

Or the regulatory agency catches a fatal flaw and averts a catastrophe. I’m not saying that never happens. Just that I think it’s much rarer than many people might believe. Seeing the grinding wheels of regulation firsthand has cured me of all my youthful idealistic approval for it. Sometimes consumers need to be protected from out of control profit-seeking, sure. But once you’ve been forced to actually do some regulatory compliance, you start to understand just how much regulation exists to prevent established companies from having to compete against new entrants. This makes everything more expensive and everyone but a few well-connected shareholders worse off.

Regulations has real trade-offs; there are definite goods, but also definite downsides. And now I think the downsides are even worse than I first predicted.

Model, Quick Fix

Living Beyond Your Time Means

[3 minute read]

Most of us are familiar with what it looks like when someone we know is living beyond their means. Expensive vacations, meals, or possessions pile up, accompanied by a veritable mountain of credit card debt. People fall into the horrible habit of paying one credit card off with another and get punished by punitive credit card interest rates.

If someone lives beyond their means for years, they may never be able to retire. Only frantic work keeps them just ahead of the tsunami of debt.

People living beyond their means often have a higher material standard of living then their friends. They have a nicer house, nicer cars, take nicer vacations and eat out more. But they tend to be more stressed out. Every month they have to figure out how to make ends meet.

For people who like possessions and don’t mind stress, it can be smart (albeit risky) to live beyond their means. As long as nothing happens that prevents them from working, they’ll get more of things they enjoy than they otherwise could, all at the cost of a little (to them easily ignorable) stress.

I think it’s also possible to do something like this with your time. By analogy, I call it living beyond your time means.

What does this look like?

When you’re living beyond your time means, you’re almost always overbooked. You have to hustle from event to event if you ever want to be able to do everything you’ve signed up for and your occasional failures make you seem at least a little bit flaky. It becomes very hard to schedule anything involving you. Your friends may have to take drastic action, like asking you about plans three months in advance.

There are benefits to this! Your life will almost always be interesting and you’ll quickly end up with a large network of friends. You’re less likely than most to get fear of missing out, because you miss out on so little. On Mondays, you have more stories about the weekend than anyone you work with.

There are costs to this as well. Many basic person- and space-maintenance tasks take time and time is your most precious currency. It’s more likely than not that your living space deteriorates and is never quite as clean as you’d like it to be (unless you pay someone to clean it for you). Your food situation tends to become interesting, with you as likely to eat restaurant or take-out meals as quick, weird snacks or instant meals. Home-cooked, nutritious meals can become a rare luxury.

(If you buy more time with money, you can avoid some of these pathologies, at the risk that you might live beyond your material means as well.)

And when you’re living beyond your time means, you so rarely get the feeling that all of the things you need to do are done (e.g. the plants watered, lunch for tomorrow is made, the washroom is clean, and the dishes washed) and your time is now entirely your own, with no more nagging worries at least until tomorrow. I love this feeling and couldn’t imagine living without it, but I know people who only experience it once every month or so.

(I think all new parents inevitably spend a few years living beyond their time means and often experience great relief when their kids get old enough that they no longer need to be constantly supervised. This isn’t so much a deliberate choice as it is a natural consequence of the difficulties of keeping young children fed, happy, and safe from their own destructive natures.)

Just as some people get a lot of net benefit from living beyond their financial means, some people find living beyond their time means to be net good. They love moving fast and doing interesting things and they’re quite happy to get that in exchange for a chaotic living situation and the nagging feeling that they’ve left basic tasks undone.

The purpose of this post isn’t to moralize at people who are living beyond their time means. Just because the thought of trying to do it stresses me out doesn’t mean that it isn’t really good for some people. But I do worry that there are people who are accidentally living beyond their time means and feeling very stressed out about that. If that describes you, consider this your wakeup call. I promise you that your life can still be interesting and your friends will still like you if you cut back on the activities a bit.

Politics

North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program FAQ

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita… ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” – J Robert Oppenheimer, on the reaction to the successful test of the first atomic bomb.

[30 minute read]

0. Table of Contents

1. Why?
    1.1 Why are you writing this?
    1.2 Okay, but why you in particular?
    1.3 Why is does North Korea have a nuclear program anyway?
2. What?
    2.1 What should I know about nuclear weapons to understand this crisis?
    2.2 What do we even know?
    2.3 What are your best guesses for what we don’t know?
        2.3.1 Is this weapon fusion or boosted fission?
        2.3.2 Is it miniaturized?
        2.3.3 Does the heat shield work?
        2.3.4 Can THAAD and GCM defend America (and its allies)?
3. How?
    3.1 How expensive has the program been?
    3.2 How can they get so much with so little?
    3.3 How did things get so bad?
    3.4 How many nuclear weapons does North Korea have?
    3.5 How bad would it be if North Korea used nuclear weapons?
        3.5.1 How much damage could North Korea do with an EMP?
    3.6 How do we get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program?
        3.6.1 How come China can’t make North Korea stop?
        3.6.2 How did South Africa end its nuclear weapons program?
        3.6.3 How could we convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?
    4. Footnotes

1. Why?

1.1 Why are you writing this?

Because I keep talking about it piecemeal with various people and wanted to collect everything I’ve said in one place. Because some people are more scared then they need to be and some people are more blasé than they really should be. Because I care about elevating the level of the discourse (which is often really poor). Because I’m scared that people might actually endorse some of the really terrible proposed solutions to this crisis and I want them to understand why they won’t work.

1.2 Okay, but why you in particular?

I researched nuclear weapons for two months and wrote a fifteen-thousand-word primer on the subject. Nuclear weapons are a thing I know a lot about. I covered North Korea briefly in that post, which means I already knew some of the background information for this post.

The real experts are currently busy briefing politicians and making clipped statements to the media. Therefore, it falls to verbose hobbyists like myself to try and make sense of every cryptic utterance and disseminate some of what the experts are saying more widely.

1.3 Why is does North Korea have a nuclear program anyway?

There are a lot of theories here. I’m going to walk you through my favourite. See these men?

   

Pictured: Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Both of those men once ran countries. Now they’re deposed and dead. The common factor? America. Call it imperialism. Call it empire building. Call it promoting democracy or protecting freedom. Call it exacting justice on two terrible butchers. From one perspective or another, all of those are the truth. What matters to North Korea is that these men tangled with America, they didn’t have nuclear weapons, and now they’re dead.

As far as I know (and the bloody purges at the start of his reign probably attest to this), Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to die. If he has a nuclear deterrent, he might fancy himself safe from any American led attempts at regime change and/or ending his horrific prison camp system.

You don’t have to take just my word for it though. Here’s a professor suggesting the same thing. Or you could just listen to what North Korea itself said:

The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord

2. What?

2.1 What should I know about nuclear weapons to understand this crisis?

It can be helpful to understand a bit about how nuclear weapons work before reading about using them. Here’s a very quick and slightly simplified rundown.

Nuclear weapons liberate energy from the nuclei of atoms. These can’t just be any atoms. You need the right version of the right atom to get a nuclear reaction. The ones relevant here are deuterium and tritium (forms of hydrogen with additional neutrons), plutonium-239 (commonly called “weapon grade plutonium”) and uranium-235 (“highly enriched uranium”).

There are two types of atomic reactions used in nuclear bombs. In fission weapons, plutonium or uranium atoms are split apart by the energy of a free neutron. This releases more neutrons setting in motion an unstoppable chain reaction (until the energy of it blows the fuel apart). The reaction is started by creating a critical mass. Weapon grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium are inherently unstable; at any given moment, a small number of atoms of either will be breaking apart, releasing neutrons. Get a large amount of either in one place (or compress an existing sample with explosives) and you’ll have enough neutrons to start the reaction.

Fusion is the opposite. In fusion, you slam two atoms together so hard that they merge. In fusion weapons, the fuel is a mix of deuterium and tritium (or a molecule called lithium deuteride, that turns into deuterium and tritium when exposed to neutrons). When you push these together hard enough, you get helium, energy, and a very, very energetic neutron. This neutron can then start fission reactions. In many thermonuclear weapons the true destructive power comes after these neutrons hit a very large outer shell of uranium, which then fissions very violently.

Fusion weapons are often called hydrogen bombs, because isotopes of hydrogen are used in them, or thermonuclear weapons, because high temperatures (among other things) are used to initiate the process of fusion. Not all bombs that use fusion are as destructive as “true” thermonuclear weapons (i.e. the things experts normally mean when they say “thermonuclear weapons”). It is possible to put a bit of deuterium and tritium into an “ordinary” fission bomb in order to generate some extra neutrons from fusion and speed up the chain reaction. This allows for more of the fuel to be used before it scatters itself around the landscape and increases the yield of the bomb.

Yields are commonly measured in kilotons (kt; equivalent to 1000 tons of TNT) or megatons (Mt; equivalent to 1,000,000 tons of TNT). A kiloton bomb is enough to do serious damage to a large city. A megaton bomb will utterly devastate it. Yields vary widely with design, but in general you’d expect a simple fission weapon to yield somewhere between 5 and 50 kilotons; a boosted weapon would normally yield between 25 and 150 kt; a fusion weapon can yield anywhere from 50 kilotons to 50 megatons. These ranges are just guidelines and have to do more with what is an efficient use of nuclear materials than anything else; you could make a one megaton boosted fission bomb (although that actually is the upper limit on what you can do without multi-stage fusion), but this would be very wasteful compared to creating a similarly destructive thermonuclear weapon.

Having a high yield in a small package is very important for miniaturization, the process of making a functioning atomic bomb small enough for delivery on a missile. When it comes to missiles, the smaller (and lighter) the warhead, the better. A lighter warhead allows a missile to travel further, a key requirement for countries like North Korea or America, with very distant adversaries.

If you’d like to read more about how nuclear weapons work, see my posts on the science underlying nuclear weapons and on nuclear weapon design.

2.2 What do we even know?

This is a really good question. Before I start on speculation or analysis, it’s important to talk about what we know for sure and what we can only speculate on.

Here are the facts:

  • North Korea possesses a nuclear weapons program.
  • North Korea has engaged in six known underground tests of their nuclear weapons.
  • There could be additional failed tests that we don’t know about.
  • The latest test was on September 3, 2017 and caused a quake with a magnitude between 5.7 and 6.4 on the Richter scale.
  • There doesn’t exist an exact way to transform this into a yield – all estimates of the bombs power are estimates.
  • These estimates range from 50kt to 250kt for the latest test [1].
  • North Korea successfully tested a missile in July with a range of 10,000 km (6,210 miles). This range is enough to reach the continental US and classify the missile as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). In addition, a missile tested in 2016 had a range of 12,000km (7,450 miles).
  • The United States has successfully shot down mock intermediate and medium range ballistic missile (IRBM/MRBM) in tests of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system and mock ICBMs with its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBM) anti-missile system.

Here are the serious unknowns:

  • North Korea claims to have created a fusion weapon, but there exist other (less dangerous) technologies that could have been used in their last detonation. The precise type of their latest weapon hasn’t been independently verified.
  • North Korea claims that their nuclear weapons (including this latest one) are small enough to be mounted on their missiles (i.e. successfully miniaturized). Leaked intelligence suggests some of their earlier bombs are, but it’s unclear if that applies to this latest one as well.
  • North Korea claims to have a heat shield that will allow an ICBM to survive returning from space. This hasn’t been independently verified.
  • It is unknown if US ground missile defense systems could successfully intercept an ICBM aimed at the continental United States or IRBM/MRBM aimed at US possessions or allies closer to North Korea (e.g. Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea).

2.3 What are your best guesses for what we don’t know?

Oh my. Please remember that these are guesses.

2.3.1 Is this weapon fusion or boosted fission?

We won’t know for sure if the weapon the North Koreans detonated was “merely” a boosted fission bomb or a multistage fusion bomb until isotope analysis is completed (and even then, the results could be inconclusive or unreleased). I’m unwilling to hazard a guess here because I can make a plausible case either way. On one hand, boosted fission seems likely because it’s much easier than staged thermonuclear weapons. On the other, the North Koreans previously claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb that clearly fizzled (if it indeed had a fusion stage). It doesn’t seem impossible that this failed test gave them the information necessary to make a successful multi-stage thermonuclear weapon.

I previously mentioned that testing would be necessary before any country could hope to reliably deploy multi-stage thermonuclear weapons. This is because there are a lot of unknowns in these weapons and it is hard to get them right. It’s much less surprising to see a country get their staged thermonuclear bomb right on the second try than it would be had they done it on their first.

There’s one final possibility, although it seems less likely. North Korea could have resurrected the old Sloika (layer-cake) nuclear weapon design. This is technically a thermonuclear weapon, but it requires a disproportionally (compared to its power) large mass of high explosives to work and lacks many of the desirable properties of the more conventional (staged) Teller-Ulam design (like the ability to chain as many additional stages as you’d like). The Sloika is currently regarded as a dead end in weapon development, but if the North wanted an impressive explosion to scare off the Americans and didn’t have any intent to ever put it on a rocket, it might be a good choice for them.

For what it’s worth, the United States army has chosen to treat the bomb as a thermonuclear weapon.

2.3.2 Is it miniaturized?

I don’t know. I want to believe that they haven’t successfully miniaturized this device (and that Kim Jong-un is posing with a fake in this picture). The first successful detonation of a multi-stage thermonuclear weapon required an 82-ton facility (Soviets mocked it as a “thermonuclear installation”). I find it hard to believe that in less than a year, North Korea could go from miniaturizing fission weapons to miniaturizing thermonuclear weapons, but it is possible that they have.

The recently released picture of Kim Jong-un with a “nuclear weapon” is certainly supposed to evoke a miniaturized multi-stage weapon. The distinct double humped shape (compare it to the single sphere of last year’s “disco ball of death“) suggests that there are two separate stages.

But this is a propaganda shot. Literally anything could be inside the enclosure in the pictures North Korea released (I actually think fissile material is the least likely thing to be in there, just based on how close Jong-un is to the thing; which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be identical in appearance to their actual weapons). It could be a true representation of their latest nuclear weapon designs, or it could be filled with lead. No one but Jong-un and his propagandists and senior subordinates know for sure.

Last year, North Korea claimed that a 10kt detonation was the successful test of a thermonuclear weapon capable of destroying the entire United States. We can’t trust official pronouncements about their nuclear weapons program. We can only trust the scarce scraps of hard evidence they leave.

Pictured: The scale of a 10kt explosion vs The United States of America. Not pictured: America being destroyed. Note that while the pin marking the centre of America is highly visible, the radius of destruction covers just 30­ pixels of the approximately 450,000 pixels making up America in this image.

So, in this case, I think we’re going to have to wait for more US intelligence leaks before we know either way.

2.3.3 Does the heat shield work?

It might depend on the payload. Doctor John Schilling, writing for 38 North (a North Korea focused blog run by Johns Hopkins) believes that the heat shield failed for one of the two ICBM tests this summer. He thinks that North Korea has a successfully tested a heat shield that will work with very light payloads, but has been unsuccessful building one suitable for heavier payloads (such a heatshield would need to be rather light itself).

Depending on the mass of the miniaturized North Korean bombs, they might have a heatshield suitable for striking targets on America’s east coast, or they might not be able to reach even there. It does seem likely that they can reach Hawaii or Alaska with their current proven heat shield design.

North Korea has every incentive to play down the mass of their weapons and play up the strength of their heat shield, which is what makes determining the likelihood they can successfully strike America so challenging.

2.3.4 Can THAAD and GCM defend America (and its allies)?

THAAD and GCM have both succeeded in their last few tests, but it’s unclear how closely these tests mimic reality. Unfortunately, success is relatively new for the GCM system. Previously it’s failed about as often as it has succeeded. Real missiles will probably be even harder to successfully target than the dummies it’s been tested on.

THAAD has been fairly reliable, at least in its last few tests. But it is currently only deployed to protect a few US bases in Korea. Seoul is not within its range and even if it was, THAAD wouldn’t be able to protect the South Korean capital (and its millions of inhabitants) from the conventional artillery aimed at it by North Korea. There are also THAAD launchers in Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska, giving those territories some modicum of protection.

I honestly don’t know what probability to assign to these systems making a successful interception of a North Korean missile. I think the THAAD is more likely to succeed than the GCM, but I have no hard numbers to put on either.

3. How?

North Korea’s nuclear program has existed for more than three decades. But for many people, the latest tests are the first time they’ve really sat up and taken notice. To a certain extent, this makes sense. Before Kim Jong-un took over from his father, there had only been two nuclear tests and both of them were of fairly small bombs (the first was under 2kt, the second under 5kt).

If this is the first you’re seriously hearing about the crisis, it can help to get some of the historical context.

3.1 How expensive has the program been?

That’s a hard question to answer. The total cost direct cost is possibly between $1.1 billion and $3.2 billion, but it’s really hard to put hard numbers on anything that goes on in North Korea.

In addition to whatever North Kore has actually paid for its program, there’s the indirect costs. The program has led to international sanctions, the latest round of which will cost North Korea something like a billion dollars in exports. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their economy will shrink by a billion dollars though. The economic capacity that was consumed by the exports will still exist, but it will have to be used less efficiently (and may suffer from shortages of raw materials purchased with those exports). It will become harder for North Korea to acquire anything that it itself cannot produce and it will become less able to import food in the event of a famine or poor harvest. Those are both costly.

There’s also the opportunity cost. North Korea is incredibly impoverished, such that $1-3 billion dollars represents 3.5% to 10.5% of its entire yearly economic output. Had this been invested in a more economically useful fashion (e.g. in manufacturing or mining) North Korea would probably have a higher GDP. The opportunity cost of using this money in such a wasteful way cannot help but compound – that is to say the gap between what is and what could have been will only grow larger.

Here, I think a qualitative answer is best. The nuclear program has been incredibly expensive, but also – given that it is an excellent shield against regime change – worth it, at least from the perspective of Kim John-un.

3.2 Okay, but it’s cheap compared to the $61.3 billion the US spent on nuclear weapons in 2011. How can they get so much with so little?

Really, the correct comparison is the Manhattan Project. It cost about $2 billion in the 1940s (about $20 billion today), still ten times more than the North Korean nuclear program.

I can think of two reasons for the discrepancy. First, the Manhattan Project created nuclear weapons from scratch. When the Manhattan Project started, nuclear weapons really were just a theoretical pipe dream. By demonstrating that nuclear weapons were possible, the Manhattan Program removed the theoretical question entirely.

But the Manhattan Project helped in ways beyond just demonstrating the technology was possible. Many other nuclear programs got help directly or indirectly from Manhattan Project scientists. Even the Soviet Union relied on the Manhattan Project to jump start their own nuclear weapons program (via the spy Klaus Fuchs, among others).

Of the nuclear powers, only America and India completed their nuclear programs without outside assistance, spies in other nuclear programs, or researcher exchanges. South Africa received assistance from Israel (and possibly France). Israel got assistance from France. France and the UK had scientists participate in the Manhattan Project. China got assistance from the USSR. The USSR conducted the aforementioned spying on the Manhattan Project. Pakistan received assistance from China (and possibly the United States) and in turn provided assistance to North Korea.

When China refused to provide Pakistan with missile technology, North Korea and Pakistan agreed to a swap. North Korea provided Pakistan with missiles, and Pakistan helped North Korea set up its nascent nuclear program. This assistance was no doubt invaluable. It probably helped North Korea avoid costly mistakes and dead ends.

The other reason for the cheap price tag is domestic. In America, the government cannot force scientists or labourers to work on atomic weapons and must pay a wage commensurate with each employee’s skills. The American government cannot force someone who finds atomic weapons distasteful to work on them against their will. For example, Joseph Roblatt was able to leave the Manhattan Project, even in the middle of all the paranoia stirred up by World War II.

North Koreans have none of that luxury. They work for whatever pittance the government chooses to give them and are executed or sent to prison camps if they refuse. There is no room for conscientious objectors or for negotiating on salary. Put plainly, the North Korean nuclear program is much cheaper than other nuclear programs because it is underlain with slavery and coercion.

3.3 How did things get so bad?

To rip off one of my favourite authors, “slowly, then all at once”.

There was an agreement to denuclearize North Korea signed by Clinton and Kim Jong-Il in 1994, when the North first began to make progress on its nuclear program. This agreement would have provided the North with proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants and free oil as those new power plants were constructed, as well as eventual sanctions relief and normalization of relations with the United States and South Korea. In return for this, North Korea agreed to remain bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and submit to monitoring of its nuclear sites.

But this wasn’t a fully binding treaty and congress never secured the funds (it was signed right before the first midterm election of Clinton’s presidency, where Republicans took back the house). Delays repeatedly occurred on the American side and I’m not sure that the North Koreans ever fully suspended their nuclear program. No normalization of relations occurred, no sanctions were lifted, and George W. Bush eventually cancelled the agreement. North Korea soon announced that they were again developing nuclear weapons.

By 2006, North Korea had successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Another test followed in 2009, after a brief intervening suspension of the nuclear program. Both of these weapons were weak and probably very simple.

The nuclear program rapidly accelerated after Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011. I’m of two minds about this. I’ve seen people claim that Jong-un has poured resources into the program to help prop up his standing internally, which certainly seems in keeping with his self-preservation instinct. But I also wonder if this could just be the natural result of North Korean scientists becoming more experienced and proficient in nuclear weapons production.

Either way, there have been four nuclear tests since Jong-un took power, three of them since 2016. The rapidity of these recent tests, their pairing with tests of missiles, and Trump’s bellicose response have combined to make the stand-off feel much direr than it has been at any other point in my life.

3.4 How many nuclear weapons does North Korea have? How does this compare to the US?

North Korea’s nuclear warhead count is unclear, but estimates range from 12 to 60.

There’s a big difference between prepared warheads, unassembled potential warheads in storage, and fissile material that can be used in warheads. When people estimate the number of warheads, they’re normally estimating the fissile material that the North Koreans could possess, probably assuming it’s all eventually going to active warheads. This assumption could be wrong if something other than fissile material – maybe highly technical bomb components? – is actually the limiting factor in North Korean warhead production.

The US has 1,550 active warheads [2]. These are the warheads that could be quickly deployed. The rest of its stockpile is in various states of readiness. I think some of them could be used relatively quickly (i.e. in a day or two), while others could be used only after a significant amount of refurbishment or preparation.

If North Korea has many active warheads (e.g. 60), an American first strike becomes impractical. It would be very hard to guarantee that all of them were destroyed (thereby preventing retaliatory strikes against the US or US troops in South Korea). Inactive nuclear weapons would still present a threat in the aftermath of a successful first strike, but it’s a threat that can be mitigated by sufficient damage to the chain of command or the logistic structure of the North Korean army.

Likewise, raw fissile material can be mostly neutralized as a threat by eliminating the state infrastructure necessary to turn it into finished warheads (it could still be used to create dirty bombs, but these are far less of a threat than nuclear warheads). It takes labour and speciality components to turn enriched fissile material into a reliable and functional weapon, prerequisites that are difficult to fulfill if the state that normally supplies them has collapsed.

I should also mention that very few (if any) of North Korea’s active warheads will be similar to the most recent test detonation. Many of their weapons will be relatively weak pure fission devices (similar in strength to their previous nuclear tests). Now that they have a warhead capable of ~150kt yields, they’ll certainly try and ramp up production of it (assuming that it’s at all practically useful and doesn’t weigh several tonnes), but that will take time.

Some experts seem to think that North Korea has much more access to enriched uranium than plutonium. This will further slow down their ability to build new weapons in the ~150kt range, at least if they want those weapons to be miniaturized [3].

3.5 How bad would it be if North Korea used nuclear weapons?

Bad.

The latest North Korean weapon would (if it actually had a yield of 150kt and these casualty estimates are accurate) kill almost 300,000 people in LA, 270,000 people in SF, about 550,000 people in Tokyo, or 490,000 people in Seoul. If you want to get a sense of the destruction, you can play around with it on NukeMap. For cities on the US West Coast or in Asia and Europe, use a ~150kt bomb. For the East Coast, a 5-20kt bomb is probably more realistic (if one can be delivered at all) [4].

The danger is greatest for South Korea and Japan. Their cities are much denser (so nuclear weapons are more devastating) and much closer to North Korea (making it easy for the North Koreans to deliver larger warheads on missiles). There is also less in the way of missile defenses protecting major Asian cities, making bombs aimed at them much more likely to succeed.

That said, if North Korea ever used nuclear weapons, the greatest loss of life would be inside North Korea.

Possible devastation in North Korea caused by a single American Trident II missile (assuming the MIRVed warheads can reach all these targets). View this is more of one sort of lower bound; I’m not targeting Pyongyang multiple times because the model on NukeMap cannot handle overlapping explosions (I instead targeted the eight most populous cities in North Korea). The approximately five million casualties here are almost a fifth of North Korea’s population (25 million).

Right now, there should be at least one Ohio class submarine in an undisclosed location off of the Korean peninsula [5]. Each Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, which are tipped with up to 8 W76 or W88 nuclear warheads (the yield of a W76 is 300kt, the yield of a W88 is 475kt) [6]. These missiles have a range of 11,300 km. An Ohio class submarine can strike North Korea most quickly from the Sea of Japan or the East China Sea. But in a pinch anywhere in the Northern Pacific Ocean will do.

Each Ohio class submarine can carry several times as many warheads as North Korea possesses. One Ohio-class submarine with a full complement of warheads has almost the same nuclear arsenal as France.

If an Ohio class submarine were to unleash its payload on North Korea, the country would cease to exist in any meaningful way. Every single major popular centre would be irrevocably devastated. It would be destruction unlike the world has ever seen. It would make Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like child’s play. It would be the scourging of an entire country with nuclear hellfire.

Trump’s speech, where he promised “fire and fury unlike the world has ever seen” wasn’t hyperbole. It was a statement of fact. A single US nuclear ballistic missile submarine could easily make good on his threats. A single US nuclear tipped missile could make good on his threats.

(There are 14 Ohio class submarines, by the way.)

3.5.1 I’ve heard that nuclear weapons cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). How much damage could North Korea do with this?

Like most questions about nuclear weapon damage, this depends on several factors.

First, there’s a common misconception that a normal anti-material nuclear detonation (e.g. one within a few kilometers of the ground) creates an EMP effect that can do widespread damage. This is technically true – there is a large EMP effect – but practically irrelevant because the electromagnetic pulse will only really affect areas already ravaged by the bomb. Absent the other effects, it certainly would do significant damage, but it’s hard to think of a case where the most damage to a city attacked by a nuclear weapon will come from the EMP.

For the electromagnetic pulse to be the primary effect of a nuclear weapon, you must detonate a bomb outside the atmosphere. At this altitude, there will be no direct damage to the target, but some electronics will suffer.

The strength of this electromagnetic pulse depends on the type of bomb, its altitude, and the local strength of the magnetic field (the stronger the field, the stronger the EMP). The ideal nuclear weapon for producing EMP effects is a single stage weapon that produces a greater-than-average portion of its energy output in the form of gamma radiation and does this as quickly as possible [7].

I don’t think North Korea has resources to invest in optimising for EMP effects. Development would probably require tests, which themselves require an expenditure of the government’s limited stockpile of fissile material. Since cost-effective and material-effective EMP weapons are normally single stage, North Korea would risk weakening their deterrent posture if they conducted these tests (to the US listening in with seismographs, it would look like they had regressed in their program and were failing to achieve fusion).

It also appears that most electronics, especially unplugged electronics would survive an EMP almost entirely unscathed. Computers, phones, and cars would largely be undamaged, but power lines would be heavily affected. This would be bad, but also probably not irrecoverable. A bunch of things would have to go horribly wrong for an EMP attack on America to cause more casualties than a thermonuclear attack on a large city. For this reason, I suspect North Korea’s would favour attacking population centres in any retaliatory second strike over high altitude EMP-producing bursts.

3.6 How do we get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program?

That is the most important question. President Trump likes to assert that China could get North Korea to stop. I once thought this was true, but I’ve abandoned that position as I’ve become better informed on the topic. If we give up on the idea that China can magically get North Korea to stop, it’s difficult to conceptualize North Korea giving up its weapons program. We don’t have a lot of examples of this occurring; the only singular history has to give us come from South Africa, which was briefly a nuclear power but later gave up its weapons. The parallels – both were international pariahs who felt weapons were necessary against an encroaching threat – offer perhaps the only blueprint for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

3.6.1 How come China can’t make North Korea stop?

China once saw North Korea as a buffer against American influence or aggression. North Korea was the fifth Chinese buffer zone [8] – one of the client kingdoms that surround the Han heartlands of the state. To some extent, that’s still true. North Korea does provide a buffer between American allied South Korea and China. But at this point, North Korea is also a significant threat to China’s security.

The relationship between China and North Korea has significantly deteriorated since Kim Jong-un became leader. Jang Song Thaek – the uncle that Jong-un had executed – was one of the primary conduits for diplomacy between Pyongyang and Beijing. With his death, bilateral relations are largely stalled. Apparently, China hasn’t even been able to send an envoy to North Korea in more than a year.

Even before that though, mistrust characterized the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang (on both sides). Kim Il-sung was almost executed by the Chinese communist party early in his life. Additionall disputes arose between the two countries during the Korean war and many of them haven’t been resolved since. There were even border skirmishes between the two nations in the late 1960s (I fact I didn’t know until I began researching for this section).

I don’t know why I didn’t realize this until I had it pointed out to me by 38north.org, but throughout history, client kingdom relationships have rarely been characterized by meek submission on the part of the client [9]. If you want an example of a heavily dependent ally that America cannot effectively control, look no further than Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. In addition to ignoring American requests to stop settlements, he resolutely opposed Obama, even crossing the normal red line of meddling in American domestic politics. Why should we expect China’s client states to behave any differently than America’s?

At this point, China seems to believe they’ve lost any ability to control North Korea. They responded to the latest North Korean missile test with the test of an anti-ballistic missile system  of their own. The location of this system? Between North Korea and Beijing. This is not something allies do. This isn’t even something that disinterested parties do. Pakistan and the UK both have nuclear weapons, but the US has put no effort into building missile defenses against either of them. China fears and mistrusts North Korea more than the United States fears and mistrusts Pakistan (which incidentally is also another excellent example of a rocky relationship between client and suzerain).

All of this means that a solution for the present crisis will not come only from Beijing. The engagement of Beijing is key to bringing North Korea to the table – we can’t accomplish anything without them – but we can no longer foist responsibility for North Korea onto China.

3.6.2 Why did South Africa end its nuclear weapons program?

In the 1970s South Africa was internationally isolated. It was banned from major sporting events and faced coordinated economic and military sanctions. It was fighting two separate guerilla wars and one conventional war. Thanks to intervention by Cuba and the USSR, (white) South Africans legitimately felt like they might soon be overrun by communists.

In this climate, they saw nuclear weapons as a salvation and a guarantee of independence. They could not use nuclear weapons to pacify their own people, but they thought that nuclear weapons might buy them breathing room and permanent protection from communism. For this, a token nuclear deterrent was enough – it’s unclear if their weapons were even usable, or if they intended to use the threat of them to prompt international aid if their borders were ever threatened [10].

There was good reason for the world to sanction South Africa. Its apartheid system was despicable. It conducted one of the largest forced removals of people in history. It had a government without any principled claim to legitimacy. It was at war with its neighbours and had banned all dissent from its black citizens.

Many in South Africa wanted to prop up the system indefinitely. Many knew they were complicit in a great evil, but they feared death if apartheid were ever to unravel.

Does any of this sound familiar? South Africa had the same foundational paranoia that North Korea’s Kim dynasty currently possesses.

Here’s what happened. The sanctions – especially the sports bans – took their toll, demoralizing white South Africans. The Soviet Union fell, ending communism as an existential threat. Demographics forced the government to realized that they could only fight the tide of history for so long. F.W. de Klerk negotiated peace with the Angolans, the Namibians, the Cubans, and the ANC. He secured immunity for the state actors that had propped up apartheid. Then he dismantled his country’s nuclear weapons, followed shortly by his government.

This, I think, is the blueprint we must follow for North Korea. We should follow it not because it’s particularly attractive, but because it is the only blueprint we have.

3.6.3 How could we convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?

First, the Americans and North Koreans would have to accept the current Chinese proposal, which would see North Korea pause its nuclear program and the US cancel joint military exercises with South Korea. This is actually similar in principle to the trilateral treaty that ended the conflict in Namibia and Angola. As a result of that treaty South Africa withdrew its forces, Cuba did the same, and Namibia ran democratic elections.

If there’s any backsliding or reluctance at all on the part of North Korea, then we can use some of the sticks that were particularly effective against South Africa, especially the sports ban (which seriously demoralized white South Africans). North Korea is currently allowed to compete in both the Olympics and FIFA. That should change. For as long as nuclear tests continue, all North Korean athletes should be banned from international competition. The North Korean government cares a lot about its successes in athletics (seeing them as proof of the power of juche), so taking that away from them would be a potent psychological blow.

If an American suspension of military drills fails to bring North Korea to the table, America will have strengthened its position with China at the same time as North Korea presents yet another embarrassment to Beijing. This will make it easier to coordinate even more damaging sanctions on Pyongyang. If Jong-un continues on this path, he risks well and truly alienating China, which would deeply cripple North Korea’s economy. I think at some point (e.g. if China gets pissed off enough that it threatens to stop guaranteeing North Korea against an attack), Kim Jong-un would have to blink and start bargaining with the powers arrayed against him

There are two paths that can be followed once the North freezes its nuclear program and America abandons its military drills. In the first, we can go back to where we were in the 1990s, but this time do it right. I’m personally pessimistic that this can lead to long term security, because totalitarian regimes and democracies can almost never co-exist, especially side by side. If North Korea remains under juche, some conflict with America will eventually escalate, ruin any existing deal, and lead to renewal of weapon’s research. I’m not opposed to buying time (every day where North Korea and America aren’t on a hair trigger is a day where far fewer people are at risk of dying!), but I’d also like to see this conflict settled for good.

Hence, the second path. It starts off like the first, with the world steadily upping the pressure on Kim Jong-un. But here, instead of just making this about nuclear weapons, we make it personal and we offer him a personal escape from his current situation [11]. A guaranteed life of ease may not be owning a country, but it competes favourably with being dead. The goal here would be to remove Jong-un and replace him with someone able to undertake the Korean equivalent of the Khrushchev Thaw or Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

This would go hand in hand with the negotiations following the suspension of military drills and might involve the following:

  • America removes all of its troops from South Korea
  • Kim steps down as Supreme Leader. He and all of his cronies are guaranteed a state pension for as long as they live.
  • North Korea agrees to abandon its nuclear program and accedes to the NPT and (after verification of the programs dismantling) the NSG.
  • A transitional government is put in place in North Korea. Realistically, this government will have to be heavily influenced by Beijing, but that shouldn’t rule out eventual re-unification.

I hate this plan. The only end that feels fitting for Kim Jong-un involves a firing squad.

But.

A nuclear war between North Korea and America will (at a minimum) kill millions. Every day that tensions remain this high on the peninsula risks that eventuality. The current state of uneasy paranoia is unacceptably dangerous [12]. Even a more stable stand-off, punctuated by brief periods of tensions this bad is too much of a risk.

North Koreans are not served by Kim Jong-un walking free and never facing justice. But they’re served even less by dying in a country turned into a conflagration.

I don’t know if this plan could work. I don’t know if there’s the political will. I don’t know if Trump or Jong-un can thread the needle, or walk the knife’s edge, or whatever metaphor you want to use for what would be an intensely difficult process. But I’m convinced that this plan, or something similar is the only way we can permanently de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula and remove North Korean weapons of mass destruction.

That’s the other reason I wrote this FAQ. Because I want people to have all of the context for this crisis. I want you to understand the true scope of devastation that any military response to North Korea would entail. I want you to understand that China cannot control North Korea. I want you to understand that missile defense is cold comfort. I want you to understand that we have done this before and we can do it again but that it will be hard and unsatisfying.

If you’ve made it this far, I have a favour to ask of you. Check my work. Make sure what I’ve written is correct. If I’m wrong, help me to understand this crisis even better. And if it checks out, tell other people what we know. Spread it as far as you can. Tell your friends, your coworkers. Tell your parents, your children. Help people understand what we have to do.

4. Footnotes

[1] For illustrative purposes, note that this means 175,000 to 380,000 fatalities if detonated above downtown LA or 270,000 to 760,000 fatalities if detonated above downtown Tokyo. For more on yield, see my post on nuclear weapon effects. ^

[2] If it is following the limits outlined in the New START treaty with Russia. ^

[3] It requires much more in the way of conventional explosives to compress a uranium primary than a plutonium primary. Uranium has a higher critical mass than plutonium, which has the consequence of requiring a greater initial mass or greater compression before fission can be obtained. Either way, this requires more explosives to start the thing. My understanding is that multi-stage fusion bombs are never started with gun-type primaries, making implosion a necessity and eliminating one option for making uranium weapons more explosive-efficient. If you want to efficiently miniaturize a bomb, you need to bring along as little conventional explosives as possible. It’s this need that has driven technologies like boosted fission. ^

[4] For maximum casualties, use an airburst. To see fallout, use a surface burst. Airbursts are favoured against soft targets, like cities, ports, and military bases. Ground bursts are used against hardened targets, like nuclear silos or government bunker complexes.

In large nuclear weapons (and 150kt is large by any reasonable standard), most of the fatalities come from the shockwave and thermal radiation (as opposed to the central fireball or prompt radiation exposure). When a bomb is detonated closer to the ground, there’s much less of a shockwave and fewer people are exposed to dangerous thermal radiation, but some of the soil becomes radioactive and is dispersed as dangerous fallout. ^

[5] I don’t know this for sure, because undisclosed. But I would bet several thousand dollars that one is there. ^

[6] Missiles with multiple warheads mount them on multiple independent re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. I’ve seen this verbed, as in “those missiles were MIRVed with eight warheads each”. Each re-entry vehicle can pick an independent target (within some radius of the initial target) as it re-enters the atmosphere. Hence the name.

Technically, the Trident II missiles can carry 14 MIRVed warheads, but treaties limit them to 8. Both the US and Russia are allowed (by bilateral treaty) to have up to 288 nuclear tipped sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), with up to 1152 warheads carried on those missiles (this is in addition to the maximum number of warheads allowed per missile). ^

[7] Gamma rays cause electromagnetic pulses by ionizing electrons in the upper atmosphere. These electrons circle magnetic field lines, producing a large oscillating electric and magnetic field, as well as acting as a giant coordinated synchrotron array. The gamma rays emitted from these synchrotrons cause a second, longer lasting and less intense pulse that can nonetheless damage systems weakened by the first pulse. ^

Single stage weapons more efficiently produce EMPS (compared to multi-stage weapons) because the first stage of multi-stage weapons can pre-ionize the air before gamma rays from the second stage reach it. Once air is ionized, the EMP will likely induce an opposite direction current in it, which will cancel out some of the EMP effect.

When gamma rays are produced extremely quickly (here, “quickly” really means “with little gap between production of the first and production of the last”), there is little chance for this opposite current to reduce the strength of the pulse. ^

[8] The others are Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, and Tibet. ^

[9] The reason for this is almost always domestic. While it might be better for a country as a whole to reap the benefits of a close relationship with their protector, this is often hard for the leader of a country to pull off without appearing to be a foreign puppet (which is the sort of thing that leads to losing elections or dying in a coup, depending on how political systems are set up to transfer power). Seen this way, Kim Jong-un’s domestic paranoia is one of the driving forces of his estrangement from Beijing. See also The Iron Law of Institutions. ^

[10] This isn’t without precedent. During the Yom Kippur war, Israel assembled several nuclear weapons in plain view of US intelligence gathering assets. This is thought to have contributed (although it is unclear how much) to the subsequent American decision to re-supply Israel, replenishing its material losses from the early stages of the war. ^

[11] Offering an attractive escape is key. Ratcheting up the pressure without one just makes nuclear war more likely. We’re competing here with “90% chance I get to keep running my country, 10% chance I die horribly”, or the like. If we can’t make an offer that can attractively compete with this, we should avoid squeezing Kim too tightly, just in case he reacts (apocalyptically) poorly. ^

[12] When tensions are this high, accidents can easily start nuclear wars. Accidents happen. Let’s say (and I do not particularly believe these numbers are correct, but they are illustrative) you expect one accident a year and 30% of accidents cause a nuclear war. After five years, there is an 83% chance that a nuclear war will have broken out. It’s this small but consistent chance for a horrendous death toll that I so desperately want us to avoid. ^

Literature

Book Review: The Second Shift

Fittingly enough, The Second Shift is the second book I’ve read by the famed sociologist Professor Arlie Russel Hochschild. It’s a book about the second working shift – the one that starts when people, especially parents, come home from work and find themselves confronted with a mound of chores.

I really liked this book. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read this year and I’ve regaled everyone who will listen with facts from it for the past few weeks. Now I’m taking that regaling online. I’m not going to do a full summary of it because I think a lot of its ideas have entered the cultural consciousness; it’s well known that women continue to do the majority of work at home and have less time for leisure than men and this popular comic about mental load summarizes that section of the book better than I ever could.

But even still, there’s lots of interesting anecdotes and figures to share.

(A quick note: This book focused on heterosexual couples because gay couples are much better at sharing the second shift. I’m going to use gendered language for partners that assumes heterosexual relationships throughout this post because this book talked about a problem of heterosexual relationships; specifically, it talked about a problem with how men act in heterosexual relationships.)

“Transitional” men are worse than traditional men

Professor Hochschild identifies three types of men. There are the traditional men, who believe in traditional gender roles and separate spheres for the sexes. These are the men who’d prefer to earn the money while their wives keep the house. Then there are the egalitarian men – the men who believe that men and women are equal and try (with varying amounts of success) to transfer this political principle to their personal relationships.

Then there are the transitional men. These men aren’t against women having careers, per se (like traditional men might be). Transitional man accept that women can be part of the workforce and often welcome the extra paycheque. Unfortunately, transitional men haven’t bought all the way into equality. They also believe that women should be in charge and do most of the work at home.

Transitional men were the worst sharers of chores. Seventy percent of egalitarian men shared the chores entirely. The rest did between 30% and 45% of them, an amount Professor Hochschild labelled “moderate” (none did less than 30% of the chores, labelled as “little”). Of traditional men, 22% shared entirely and 33% did little (with the balance doing a moderate amount). The transitionals? 3% shared, 10% did a moderate amount and a full 87% did little.

This seems to be because transitional men expect women to deal with a lack of time by cutting back at work. The transitional men profiled in the book tended to be emotionally supportive of the women in their lives who were caught between work and home, but most refused to support their partners by actually helping out more.

People talk about women wanting to “have it all”, with a career and motherhood. But if anyone should be accused of wanting to “have it all”, it’s these men. They wanted the extra spending money their wife brought in with her job, but weren’t prepared to support her in the chores at home. To these men, their wife being able to work was contingent on her first completing her “more important” duties in the home.

Working more can be a way to escape chores

Some couples try and have the same amount of leisure time, rather than do the same amount of chores. This allows them to balance things out if one partner works more. It also can set up bad incentives. Some of the men in this book used their long hours (and high salaries) as an excuse not to do chores at home.

When Prof. Hochschild looked at these men more closely, she discovered that they enjoyed their jobs much more than they enjoyed doing chores. It wasn’t that the jobs didn’t leave them drained – they certainly weren’t faking their need to flop down in front of the TV at the end of a day – but despite that, these men wouldn’t have chosen helping out with chores over being drained. They found work fulfilling, while chores were just a boring obligation.

The negative impacts of overtime work seem to pop up in a few studies. There’s no good reason (beyond signalling your dedication to your job) to work more than forty hours a week long-term. You simply can’t get anything more done. It’s better for your relationship (and your health!) to take some of the extra overtime you might do and spend it at home helping with chores.

Not everyone has the freedom to bring this up at work and not everyone enjoys their work. You might be stuck in a job you don’t like, a job that demands a lot of overtime to prove that you’re serious and this overtime might take a toll on you (like studies suggest it does). If you leaving that job isn’t feasible, you don’t like your job, and your partner works fewer hours or enjoys their job more, then it probably is fair for your partner to take on more of the housework. In all other cases, you probably shouldn’t use working longer hours as an excuse to do less of the housework, at least not if equality is important in your partnership.

This also applies to personal projects, even if they might increase your employability, bring in a bit of extra cash, or bring value to your community. If you’re an aspiring author and spend an hour writing each night, this shouldn’t entitle you to any lesser share of the chores. If you’re studying a subject you enjoy, you shouldn’t use night class as an excuse to shirk housework. And volunteering, while laudable, is an activity that you do. It shouldn’t entitle you to a pass on chores.

Family Myths

The most distressing tale (to me) in the whole book was the story of Nancy and Evan Holt. Nancy was an ardent feminist and egalitarian, while Evan was a transitional. Evan was happy that Nancy liked her job, but thought that the home should be primarily her responsibility. Nancy wanted Evan to share the second shift.

They clashed over this mismatch for years. Here’s what happened when Nancy tried to get Evan to share the cooking:

Nancy said the first week of the new plan went as follows. On Monday, she cooked. For Tuesday, Evan planned a meal that required shopping for a few ingredients, but on his way home he forgot to shop for them. He came home, saw nothing he could use in the refrigerator or in the cupboard, and suggested to Nancy that they go out for Chinese food. On Wednesday, Nancy cooked. On Thursday morning, Nancy reminded Evan, “Tonight it’s your turn.” That night Evan fixed hamburgers and french fries and Nancy was quick to praise him. On Friday, Nancy cooked. On Saturday, Evan forgot again.

As this pattern continued, Nancy’s reminders became sharper. The sharper they became, the more actively Evan forgot—perhaps anticipating even sharper reprimands if he resisted more directly. This cycle of passive refusal followed by disappointment and anger gradually tightened, and before long the struggle had spread to the task of doing the laundry.

Evan kept up his passive resistance for years and eventually Nancy cut back her hours at work in order to have more time for the second shift. But this was never framed as a capitulation. Instead, it coincided with the family myth that they were sharing the chores.

How? Well, they’d ‘split the house in half’. Nancy took the upstairs (cooking, cleaning, the majority of childcare) and Evan took the downstairs (fixing the car, dealing with the yard, and maintaining the house). For all that this apparently represented an even split, it wasn’t. Not only did Evan spend less time doing chores than Nancy, the chores he did gave him more freedom. It’s much easier to put off mowing the yard or some bit of home maintenance than it is to put off picking up your kid from daycare or cooking a meal.

The myth of the work being split in half allowed Nancy to feel like she hadn’t capitulated on her feminist principles, even though she had. From a certain point of view, the family myth was a useful fiction – it probably saved Nancy and Evan’s marriage. But it opened my eyes to the very real danger of allowing a convenient myth to become an unquestioned truth. It reminded me to be careful of any convenient myths and to favour data (e.g. directly comparing how much time my partner and I spend doing chores) over stories when deciding if things are fair.

Passive avoidance and making do with less

Another tactic favoured by men like Evan Holt who have little interest in helping with the second shift requires a combination of passive avoidance and making do with less. We saw the first half of this above. It was the strategy Evan used to get out of cooking. By forgetting the ingredients, he got out of the chore.

Passive avoidance allows for lazy partners to avoid chores they don’t want to do without having to have a conversation about why they’re avoiding them or if it is fair for them to. It was much easier for Evan to be berated for forgetting (a common human frailty) than for not wanting to split chores fairly, which Nancy might have taken (correctly?) to imply something about how much Evan cared about her.

On its own, this was a moderately effective way of getting out of work. To be truly effective, it had to be paired with making do with less. In the book, men who wanted their wives to do more of the cleaning claimed that their wife wanted things too clean; if it was just them, they’d clean much less often. Men who wanted to get out of cooking claimed that takeout was good enough for them. Men who were too lazy to help their wives shop for furniture claimed that they were perfectly happy in a bare house. Men who wished to get out of childcare said they were coddling the child too much and that their children should learn to be more independent.

By passively avoiding chores and then loudly claiming that the whole chore was unnecessary, men made their wives feel like asking for their help was an unreasonable imposition.

In The Second Shift, this was a highly gendered interaction. There were no women claiming that their husbands’ standards of cleanliness were too exacting. And while there’s no reason that this has to always be gendered, I suspect that as long as women are raised with more knowledge of chores (and expectations that they will be the ones to do them), this trend will continue.

The thing I find particularly unfortunate about this tactic is that it sets up a race to the bottom. Having the chores go to whomever cares the most sets up a terrible system of competitive insouciance.

While I acknowledge that it certainly is possible for partners to have very real differences in their desired level of cleanliness or in their desired calibre of meal preparation, I think it makes sense to have a strong habit of discounting those, so as to ensure a good incentive structure. As long as each partner has even one thing they care about more than the other, it should be possible for them to cultivate empathy and avoid the insidious temptation to put off chores by making do with less.

Not all chores are created equal

Even when men were splitting the chores evenly, this didn’t always translate to less work for their partners. The illustrative example here was Greg and Carol Alston. Both spent about the same amount of time working on tasks around the house, but this was driven in part by Greg taking on a variety of home improvement tasks.

Had Greg not done those, the family’s daily situation would have been the exact same. That’s not to say that this work at home wasn’t benefiting the family. It was increasing the resale value of their house and making their long-held dream of a move to the mountains and part-time work that much closer to fruition.

The Second Shift opened my eyes to the reality that some chores must get done in a household and it’s these chores on which I now want to judge sharing the second shift. It’s only these disruptive daily chores that can’t be set aside for something more important.

If Greg was exhausted, or sick, he could easily work less on the kitchen cabinets and make it up when he felt better. Carol had no such luck with her chores. Their daughter had to get fed and bathed regardless of how Carol felt.

Greg somewhat redeemed this imbalance by being entirely willing to help out with the daily chores when Carol needed him. If she was sick, he undoubtedly would have stepped in to help. This still left the burden of managing those daily chores and making sure they got done to Carol, but it offered her some buffer.

What chores are daily necessities will probably vary from couple to couple. If you and your partner are habitually neat but bad at cooking, you might decide that it is important that the house is tidied up daily, but you won’t mind if meals come from takeout.

In discussions with your partner about the second shift, it seems especially worthwhile to determine which chores you and your partner consider absolutely mandatory and ensure that in addition to balancing chores in general, you are approximately balanced here. Otherwise, the chores you do might not be lightening the load on your partner at all.

Gratitude

Despite that fact that Greg’s carpentry projects didn’t really reduce the burden on her, Carol was happy that he was doing them. For one, Greg treated her as someone with important opinions. He may have planned the projects, but he actively sought out and valued her input. In addition, by doing this, Greg was helping make one of Carol’s lifelong dreams a reality. Carol was grateful for the work that Greg was doing around the house.

Reading The Second Shift, it struck me how gratitude was the most important factor in how couples felt about how they split the chores. When one partner expected gratitude, but didn’t receive it, they felt a lot of resentment towards the other. Conversely, relationships were strengthened when one of the partners felt grateful for the things the other did by default.

This showed up in surprising places. When Nina Tanagawa started making more money than her husband Peter, he expected her to grateful that he was willing to accept it. On the other hand, when Ann Myerson started earning more than her husband Robert, he was ecstatic. He’s quoted as saying “[w]hen my wife started to earn more than I did, I thought I’d struck gold.” When furniture arrived, he was the one who waited for it, because it just made sense to him that the person making less money should take the time off work. His wife was reciprocally grateful that he wanted her to have a career and didn’t care if she made more than him. The existence of men like Peter made Ann grateful for Robert.

The worst situation was when one partner expected gratitude for something the other took for granted. When Jessica Stein cut back on work after the birth of her children, her husband Seth treated it like the natural order of the world. To Jessica, it stung. It wasn’t how she’d seen her life going. She’d thought that their careers would be treated as equally important. She expected gratitude (and perhaps equal sacrifices from Seth) in response to her sacrifice.

Seth’s “sacrifice” was working long hours for a large salary. But this wasn’t the sacrifice Jessica wanted of him. She wanted him to be present and helpful. Because of this mismatch, Jessica ended up withdrawing from her marriage and children. She spent the weekends in Seattle (she lived in the San Francisco bay area), with her old college friends. Professor Hochschild described the couple as “divorced in spirit”.

It’s all in the culture

So much of what drove gratitude was cultural. Nina felt grateful that her husband “tolerated” her higher salary because when she looked around at the other women she knew, she saw many of them married to men who wouldn’t have “tolerated” their wife making more than them.

Many of the men in Professor Hochschild’s study almost shared the second shift. They did something like 40% of the tasks around the home and with the kids. Interestingly, the wives of these men often felt like they shared (even though the men were likely to say that their wives did more). This became a sort of family myth of its own, that these men entirely shared, instead of almost entirely shared. Professor Hochschild suggests that this myth arose because when compared to other husbands, these men did so much more.

Who won conflicts about the second shift was often determined by the broader patterns of culture as well. If a husband did much more housework than the average (or was more willing to “tolerate” his wife working), then his wife was much less likely to be successful in causing him to contribute more. When compared against the reference class of “society”, many men did quite well, even though they were objectively lazy when compared to their wife.

This is a pattern I’ve observed in many relationship negotiations (both in my own life and in stories told by friends). It’s really hard to get the partner who is more willing to leave the relationship to do something they don’t want to do. In relationships that aren’t abusive or manipulative, people only do the things they freely choose. They obviously won’t freely choose to do anything that they like less than breaking up. But the very fact that breaking up will hurt them less than their partner makes it very hard for their partner to feel like they can push for changes.

In one of the two profiled couples who actually shared the second shift equally (Adrienne and Michael Sherman), their equality was brought about because Adrienne actually left Michael after his refusal to share the second shift and his insistence that his career come first. After two months, Michael called Adrienne and told her that he’d share. He loved her and didn’t feel like he could love anyone else as deeply as he loved her. She came back and they shared the housework and raising the kids. Michael surprised himself by how much he enjoyed it. He became the best father he knew and he took pride in this. But none of this would have been possible if Adrienne hadn’t been willing to leave.

While the division of the second shift is ostensibly an agreement among individuals, I don’t think the overarching problem is best addressed individually. As long as women feel like they’re getting a good deal when men almost do their fair share, many men won’t do any more. Policies – like extended, non-transferable parental leave after the birth of a child – that encourage men to spend time at home sharing the second shift are a necessary component of ending this gendered divide.

Literature, Science

Book Review: The Singularity is Near

I recently read The Singularity is Near as part of a book club and figured a few other people might benefit from hearing what I got out of it.

First – it was a useful book. I shed a lot of my skepticism of the singularity as I read it. My mindset has shifted from “a lot of this seems impossible” to “some of this seems impossible, but a lot of it is just incredibly hard engineering”. But that’s because I stuck with it – something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the structure of a book club.

I’m not sure Kurzweil is actually the right author for this message. Accelerando (by Charles Stross) covered much of the same material as Singularity, while being incredibly engaging. Kurzweil’s writing is technically fine – he can string a sentence together and he’s clear – but incredibly repetitious. If you read the introduction, the introduction of each chapter, all of Chapter 4 (in my opinion, the only consistently good part of the book proper), and his included responses to critics (the only other interesting part of the whole tome) you’ll get all the worthwhile content, while saving yourself a good ten hours of hearing the same thing over and over and over again. Control-C/Control-V may have been a cheap way for Kurzweil to pad his word count, but it’s expensive to the reader.

I have three other worries about Kurzweil as a futurist. One deals with his understanding of some of the more technical aspects of what he’s talking about, especially physics. Here’s a verbatim quote from Singularity about nuclear weapons:

Alfred Nobel discovered dynamite by probing chemical interactions of molecules. The atomic bomb, which is tens of thousands of times more powerful than dynamite, is based on nuclear interactions involving large atoms, which are much smaller scales of matter than large molecules. The hydrogen bomb, which is thousands of times more powerful than an atomic bomb, is based on interactions involving an even smaller scale: small atoms. Although this insight does not necessarily imply the existence of yet more powerful destructive chain reactions by manipulating subatomic particles, it does make the conjecture [that we can make more powerful weapons using sub-atomics physics] plausible.

This is false on several levels. First, uranium and plutonium (the fissile isotopes used in atomic bombs) are both more massive (in the sense that they contain more matter) than the nitroglycerine in dynamite. Even if fissile isotopes are smaller in one dimension, they are on the same scale as the molecules that make up high explosives. Second, the larger energy output from hydrogen bombs has nothing to do with the relative size of hydrogen vs. uranium. Long time readers will know that the majority of the destructive output of a hydrogen bomb actually comes from fission of the uranium outer shell. Hydrogen bombs (more accurately thermonuclear weapons) derive their immense power from a complicated multi-step process that liberates a lot of energy from the nuclei of atoms.

Kurzweil falling for this plausible (but entirely incorrect) explanation doesn’t speak well of his ability to correctly pick apart the plausible and true from the plausible and false in fields he is unfamiliar with. But it’s this very picking apart that is so critical for someone who wants to undertake such a general survey of science.

My second qualm emerges when Kurzweil talks about AI safety. Or rather, it arises from the lack of any substantive discussion of AI safety in a book about the singularity. As near as I can tell, Kurzweil believes that AI will emerge naturally from attempts to functionally reverse engineer the human brain. Kurzweil believes that because this AI will be essentially human, there will be no problems with value alignment.

This seems very different from the Bostromian paradigm of dangerously misaligned AI: AI with ostensibly benign goals that turn out to be inimical to human life when taken to their logical conclusion. The most common example I’ve heard for this paradigm is an industrial AI tasked with maximizing paper clip production that tiles the entire solar system with paper clips.

Kurzweil is so convinced that the first AI will be based on reverse engineering the brain that he doesn’t adequately grapple with the orthogonality thesis: the observation that intelligence and comprehensible (to humans) goals don’t need to be correlated. I see no reason to believe Kurzweil that the first super-intelligence will be based off a human. I think to believe that it would be based on a human, you’d have to assume that various university research projects will beat Google and Facebook (who aren’t trying to recreate functional human brains in silica) in the race to develop a general AI. I think that is somewhat unrealistic, especially if there are paths to general intelligence that look quite different from our brains.

Finally, I’m unhappy with how Kurzweil’s predictions are sprinkled throughout the book, vague, and don’t include confidence intervals. The only clear prediction I was able to find was Kurzweil’s infamously false assertion that by ~2010, our computers would be split up and worn with our clothing.

It would be much easier to assess Kurzweil’s accuracy as a predictor if he listed all of his predictions together in a single section, applied to them clear target dates (e.g. less vague than: “in the late 2020s”), and gave his credence (as it stands, it is hard to distinguish between things Kurzweil believes are very likely and things he views as only somewhat likely). Currently any attempts to assess Kurzweil’s accuracy are very sensitive to what you choose to view as “a prediction” and how you interpret his timing. More clarity would make this unambiguous.

Outside of Kurzweil’s personal suitability as an author and advocate (and his sagacity), I have one beef with singulatarian thought in general. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the silicon paradigm of computing will soon come to the end of its exponential growth. Switching to something like indium gallium arsenide and moving key processes to more optimized chips will buy a bit more time, but doesn’t represent a fundamental paradigm shift of the sort that gets us around the tunneling problem.

Furthermore, we’ve already began to bump up against the limit on clock speed in silicon; we can’t really run silicon chips at higher clock rates without melting them. This is unfortunate, because speed ups in clock time are much nicer than increased parallelism. Almost all programs benefit from quicker processing, while only certain programs benefit from increased parallelism. This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to things like artificial intelligence (the human brain has a very slow clock speed and massive parallelism and it’s obviously good enough to get lots done), but it does mean that some things that Kurzweil were counting on to get quicker and quicker have stalled out (the book was written just as the Dennard Scaling began to break down).

All this means that the exponential growth that is supposed to drive the singularity is about to fizzle out… maybe. Kurzweil is convinced that the slowdown in silicon will necessarily lead to a paradigm shift to something else. But I’m not sure what it will be. He talks a bit about graphene, but when I was doing my degree in nanotechnology engineering, the joke among the professors was that graphene could do anything… except make it out of the lab.

Kurzweil has an almost religious faith that there will be another paradigm shift, keeping his exponential trend going strong. And I want to be really clear that I’m not saying there won’t be. I’m just saying there might not be. There is no law of the universe that says that we have to have convenient paradigm shifts. We could get stuck with linear (or even logarithmic) incremental improvements for years, decades, or even centuries before we resume exponential growth in computing power.

It does seem like ardent belief in the singularity might attract more religiously minded atheists. Kurzweil himself believes that it is our natural destiny to turn the whole universe into computational substrate. Identifying god with the most holy and perfect (in fine medieval tradition; there’s something reminiscent of Anselm in Kurzweil’s arguments), Kurzweil believes that once every atom in the universe sings with computation, we will have created god.

I don’t believe that humanity has any grand destiny, or that the arc of history bends towards anything at all in particular. And I by no means believe that the singularity is assured, technologically or socially. But it is a beautiful vision. Human flourishing, out to the very edges of the cosmos…

Yeah, I want that too. I’m a religiously minded atheist, after all.

In both disposition and beliefs, I’m far closer to Kurzweil than his many detractors. I think “degrowth” is an insane policy that if followed, would create scores of populist demagogues. I think that the Chinese room argument is good only for identifying people who don’t think systemically. I’m also more or less in agreement that government regulations won’t be able to stop a singularity (if one is going to occur because of continuing smooth acceleration in the price performance of information technology; regulation could catch up if a slowdown between paradigm shifts gives it enough time).

I think the singularity very well might happen. And at the end of the day, the only real difference between me and Kurzweil is that “might”.

Also: I repeat myself less.