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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Empires are not about economic exploitation of periphery by the core

Pacificats Floris by Pacificat Ragdolls from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

I recently discovered a fun blog "A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry", and it's been very enjoyable reading, but one of the posts is so wrong I need to write a rebuttal.

The author in Why Are There No Empires in Age of Empires? comes up with the following thesis:

An empire is a state where the core ruling population exercises control and extracts resources from a periphery which is composed of people other than the core group (linguistically/culturally/ethnically/religiously distinct). So an empire is a state where one set of people (the core) extract resources (typically by force) from another set of people (the periphery).

And so...

And that's how we know that "United States" is really a Puerto Rican Empire, as Puerto Rico is sure sucking up vastly greater flow of resources than it's ever getting back. The ruling Puerto Rican elite is literally not even paying income tax like those exploited mainlanders!

The so called "Russia" is really Great Chechen Empire, they sneakily conquered it by losing the war.

The so called "China" is really Greater Tibetan Empire.

The "United Kingdom" is really Scottish Empire, just look at all the money they're extracting from England!

And the earlier so called "British" Empire was really ran by the Americans - the exploited Brits were paying 10x as much in tax per capita than the ruling Americans.

And during Scramble for Africa, Africans managed to colonize Europe, as sure as hell average European was paying for all that elite map painting, and didn't benefit in any way whatsoever.

And so on.

This is all nonsense

If you look at any actual empires, especially recently, the overwhelming pattern is that burden of maintaining the empire - in terms of both money and manpower - falls disproportionately on core population, and peripheral populations are mostly expected to not cause trouble, and are otherwise net economic drain.

Exceptions happen, and occasionally core areas find some place extremely exploitable, but they're just that - rare exceptions. Like in 1700s' French colonial empire, tiny Guadeloupe was somehow economically worth far more than a quarter of North American continent.

Most of the time, those peripheral taxes are far less than core population pays, and far less than costs of holding those places in the Empire.

Foreign elites

There's a distinct and far more common situation where foreigners conquer some place, displace local elite, and rule as a dynasty or nobility over far more numerous locals.

This would actually fit in the original definition, except as a general rule the conquerors move to their conquered lands, so it feels a bit silly to talk about "Norman Empire" which lost Normandy rather quicky, or "Manchu Empire", which was absolutely ruled from within China, and is generally labelled "China" in history books, or such.

Exceptions proving the rule

Perhaps if one keeps looking, it's possible to find some "empires" where core successfully and sustainably extracts resources from periphery, especially in more ancient times.

Roman Empire is actually halfway there, as it managed to exploit places like Greece and Egypt pretty damn well, but even Romans admitted that their periphery like Britain were a net drain. Eventually the ruling center of Roman Empire moved to its richest province, and the usual pattern was restored.

In any case, such exceptional cases cannot possibly be used as definition of an empire.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Mechs vs Tanks

Miisa by andymiccone from flickr (PUBLIC-DOMAIN)

Sci-fi and anime loves mechs, but there's a widespread belief that mechs are just absolute trash idea, and tanks are superior in every way.

Here's example of such claims: part one, part two.

This is completely wrong.

Cube Square Law

Part of the problem is conflating the idea of a mech, with the idea of a giant mech. Mechs can come in all sizes.

And in fact military is already actively researching mechs! Just among many such projects - DARPA's TALOS project is an bulletproof, weaponized, AI-enhanced exoskeleton - basically a small mech.

It might take a few decades before such mechs become deployed by actual armed forced, but it's ridiculous to call something crazy when prototypes have been in development for years now.

Weapons vs Armor

History of warfare is an endless race between weapons and armor, with either being on top at different times.

During the Middle Ages, armor was king, and a fully armored knight was nearly invulnerable to whatever peasants could throw at them. But just a few short centuries later, no amount of armor humanly possible to carry could stop a musket bullet, so weapons were king, and armor got abandoned completely. Ironically the Peak Armor era was time when armor was already on verge of obsolescence, but it was easier to double down on old strategy instead of rethinking everything.

When tanks were introduced, a big reason they were quite successful was protection offered by their armor. Common infantry weapons just couldn't do anything to them, but of course that didn't last long.

As weapons got better, tank armor got heavier, and fast. First tanks to see combat in World War I had 12mm of armor.

By end of World War II, armor reached 250mm. To still be functional, it had to have far more compact shape.

It wasn't really possible to keep increasing the weight, and modern tanks aren't really much heavier than WW2 tanks, but using advanced materials to increase protection, the race between weapons and armor continued for a while longer.

Passive vs Active Protection

Right now it looks like the weapons are getting ahead. Armor is by no means useless, but in 2006 Lebanon War, Iranian anti-tank guided missiles were able to penetrate the most modern tanks just fine.

Weapons keep getting better, and it doesn't seem like armor has much space left to improve.

All militaries can see that, and they're equipping their tanks and other vehicles with active protection systems, which attempt to shoot down incoming missiles before they hit.

It's tempting to think that active protection is just another phase in evolution of tanks, but that's just wrong.

Tanks are the form they are because that's the only way to have thick armor while keeping weight reasonable.

Active protection has no such limitations. It doesn't matter if you install it on a tank, a light vehicle, or for that matter on an exoskeleton.

If active protection ends up being the winner, then mechs work just as well as tanks. And then liberated from just one form factor, we'll likely see a wide variety of different shapes of military vehicles - some might still look like current tanks, but others might very well look like mechs of various sizes, or something completely different.

And if active protection ends up being a big loser? Then giant mechs make no sense, but then neither do tanks.

Power Considerations

Another issues with mechs of all sizes is difficulty providing enough power and energy storage for them. Right now tanks are just more efficient, and mechs and exoskeletons are not very practical.

Fortunately for mechs, battery and engine technology is improving at very rapid pace, so it's entirely reasonable to expect this issue will go away soon.

There are even ways to recharge from air or space without any physical contact.

Future Prediction

In our world, it's very likely that exoskeletons will become widespread over next few decades, just like drones before them.

It's also very likely that active protection systems will increasingly become main protection. This will likely mean future tanks becoming lighter, as all that heavy armor just won't matter all that much. Wider variety of (mostly autonomous) military vehicles will come into widespread use, with very few relying on heavy armor, and most on active protection, stealth, or just being really cheap and expendable like most types of current drones.

Giant mechs? That's more farfetched for now, but if we have this discussion in a few decades, at time when most armies consist of exoskeleton-clad infantry supported by drone swarms, this really won't sound that far outside realm of possibility.

So if even our world is on verge of having mechs, it's just ridiculous to think there's no place for them in any sci-fi world, where technologies might have developed along different lines, and trade-offs are different?

The "tanks are always superior" crowd is going to sound just as ridiculous as believers in eternal superiority of heavily armored cavalry were a few centuries ago.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Prediction Markets were Batshit Insane this Election

. by Runs With Scissors from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

The elections are over. The biggest loser are the prediction markets.

As I'm writing this, Arizona has already been called for Biden. And PredictIt has it as 30% chance of Trump.

Trump has no mathematically possible way of winning. PredictIt has it him at 20%.

I talked shit about 538, and I was absolutely right, but even they in the end had Trump at just 10%. Models I'd consider more reasonable like The Economist's had Trump at 3%. Prediction markets had him at completely batshit insane 40%.

And as votes started coming, when Trump did a tiny bit better than expected (but at no point was anywhere near having any chance of winning), Trump peaked at completely ridiculous 72%! It was known long in advantage that election day vote will be a lot more Republican than mail in vote, and states were clear how much of each kind outstanding there is. Prediction markets completely missed that, and had Trump as a favourite just because Republicans mostly went there in person while Democrats mostly sent their votes by mail, and it was too hard for them to understand.

Everything I said turned out to be right. If polls were right, elections would have been very easy Biden victory, and the "normal polling error" benefiting Biden would turn them into a Reagan style landslide.

But not only that - "normal polling error" towards Trump, would still mean easy Biden victory. Even unusually high polling error - what we had this year - didn't bring Trump particularly close to competitive territory. Everything that possible could go right for Republicans were perfectly for them - and Trump lost anyway, because his chances were nonexistent.

Polls weren't great, but they were fine. They predicted Biden to win by about +8%. By the time counting will end, he'll end up closer to +4 or +5%. We won't know for a while, as California takes forever to count their votes, so popular votes always ends up more Democratic than it seems on election day.

It turns out Trump was indeed closer in tipping point states, so Electoral College gave me a few points, but it never managed to overcome that kind of lead. There's no reason to predict which party will be at an advantage in 2024.

Real markets work because they're dominated by sophisticated institutional investors, whose job it is to figure things out, and whose predictions are tested every day. We hoped that small prediction markets dominated by small scale amateurs tested once every 4 years would be just as good, but it turns out they failed utterly.

I'm definitely disappointed as for a while it seemed that we might get great rationalist tool for very little money. It turns out it takes more than that.

EDIT: It's November 13th now, Trump lost nearly two weeks ago, every state has been called long ago, most betting sites paid out on Biden (including one where I bet), and Trump is still 12% on PredictIt. Some people must really hate their own money.