Monday, December 31, 2012

Geoffrey West on From Alpha to Omega

An excellent summary of Prof. West's research into complexity theory and the scaling laws that determine the lifetimes of both biological organisms and socioeconomic systems. I have referred to his work here to try to explain why large-scale, hierarchically organized socioeconomic systems (cities, economies, nation-states, etc.) exhibit superexponential growth, for a time, but then inevitably run out of resources, be they fossil fuels, fresh water and farmland or fresh ideas and cultural innovations, and collapse.

For those of you who are justifiably wary of mathematical models, please understand that this is different. These are not attempts to model one complex system using another complex system, such as the models used by economists and climate scientists. (The climate models are far from worthless, but they do seem to have significantly underestimated the effects of anthropogenic climate change, while the models the economists use are in fact complete garbage.) Prof. West uses simple math, which takes into account such basic elements as the dimensionality of spacetime and the fractality of networks, to make accurate predictions about the behavior of complex systems.

Incidentally, in listening to this podcast I found out that Prof. West and I both left the field of high-energy physics for the same general reason: the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider experiment, which can certainly be viewed as a collapse of a complex socioeconomic system. The project got canned as the size of its budget showed signs of approaching a singularity. From collapse to collapse, if you will—from alpha to omega.

Oh, and Happy New Year to all 19,469 of you who have visited this blog over the past month, as well the rest of my 991,615 visitors, should any of you decide to stop by.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Escape from the Merry Christmas Zone

Feng Zhu
I am not in the US at the moment, but in Russia. This means several things. First, today is not Christmas. (Christmas is on January 7th, having something to do with the Julian calendar. It is 3/4 of a day per century fast, but since it is only used for religious holidays, nobody cares.) Second, even for the Christians here, Christmas is a minor feast, far behind Easter. This is quite understandable: sure, virgin birth (not to be confused with immaculate conception, as some technical-minded reader has pointed out) is a bit of a trick, but it is nothing compared to the trick of rising from the dead after being crucified. Now that is one act you just never want to follow!

Third, the big holiday here is not Christmas but the New Year, which I much prefer. Actually, I would prefer to celebrate Winter Solstice, which is an actual observable astronomical event rather than an artificial date on an artificial calendar. That is what these holidays really were before the priests co-opted them: celebrations of light. Christmas was Winter Solstice, and Easter was Spring Equinox. And so, for once, I don't feel compelled to even pretend that Christmas exists. But since this just happens to be the 25th of December—the day many readers of this blog happen to celebrate Christmas—and since this year it happens to fall on a Tuesday—the day of the week on which I publish a blog post—today I will blog about Christmas.

In all the years I've spent living in the US, I have always felt the urge to get the hell out of the country whenever Christmas approached. This is because it is a season when Americans are "struggling to celebrate the holiday with some semblance of normalcy" (I just heard this very phrase on NPR's All Things Considered. The context is the mass murder of schoolchildren in Connecticut, but I find that it applies every year.) It is a stressful time when people rush around trying to find presents on which to deplete their meager savings (or, more likely, run up some more credit card debt) in order to maintain a commercially imposed fiction of normal family life. This often causes them to be overcome by feelings of alienation, depression and despair. As with that other great American holiday, Thanksgiving, people compensate for their misery with a bout of pathetic, self-destructive gorging.

Now, I am certainly not against celebrating, whatever it is you want to celebrate; celebrating is good. I am not even opposed to celebrating Christmas (as I mentioned, immaculate conception is quite a trick, although the Egyptian god Horus clearly did it first). But I am against celebrating this most toxic of all American holidays: the holiday of Christmasshopping. Please kill it, and in so doing celebrate your vaunted freedom of which I have heard so much but seen so little. It shouldn't be that hard: there is already a tradition of company Christmas parties, which are never held on December 25th. Now, just extend it to family Christmas parties. Hold them some time in January. Do buy some presents, if you wish, but be sure to buy them after Christmas, when the prices are lower. Use the savings to rent a hall, hire a band and have the occasion catered. Include not just the family but friends and neighbors. As for December 25th, throw a zombie party or something. Everyone loves zombies nowadays. Then maybe I'll stop trying to flee the country every Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Regularly Scheduled Programming

Horsemen of the Apocalypse
on Parade
Red Suqare, Moscow
Regular readers of this blog must have noticed by now that for the past few weeks we have been off on a bit of a tangent from the usual fare of collapse-related social and economic commentary. There are several reasons for this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Applied Anarchy Part III: The Design Phase

[Six-month update. The project is alive. To see what it looks like now, scroll down.]

[Update: There is now a reasonable bitmap font that hints of brush calligraphy; the chart and the sample below have been updated. The sample now shows stressed vowels as elongated.]

[Update: By popular demand, I included a little poem at the end, so that it's clear what text looks like, and for your deciphering pleasure. Please note that font design is yet to be done.]

If you have been following along for the last two weeks, you probably have some idea of what happens next; if not, you will need to catch up: here is a description of why English spelling a problem, and here is an explanation of what can be done about it. In short, English has the world's worst orthographic system that happens to be in common use, and it causes a great deal of damage. Just the cost of the several extra years of schooling needed to learn English spelling (much of it to no avail), together with the opportunity cost of not learning something more useful, runs into many billions of dollars a year. The economic damage caused by widespread functional illiteracy is harder to quantify.

There has been a lot of discussion since I published these two posts, along with numerous expressions of support. Several software developers who are also linguists stepped forward with offers of help. Given this level of interest, I intend to push forward with this project.

The task at hand is to create a new, better way of writing and reading English (of the General American variety)—one that is entirely regular and represents each psychologically real speech sound (phoneme) with exactly one symbol (glyph) and, unlike the current system, takes a minimal amount of time to learn for either a native speaker or a student of English. The goal is to design and write software that will provide an alternative way of rendering English text and to make it available for web sites, electronic books and electronic documents of all kinds.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Applied Anarchy

Jean Julien
A lot of people have been wondering aloud what prompted last week's diatribe against the inanity of English spelling; others found it accurate and refreshing. I suppose I should come clean about what motivated me to write it. Along the way, I also want to spell out (pardon the pun) what it is I specifically think can be achieved.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Royal Pain in the Ass

For the past couple of weeks I've been living in a strange, faraway land, far from the hurricane-flooded shores where some of the world's most feckless politicians are arguing over the best way to bail out a swimming pool of red ink using teaspoons, and where my boat is moored waiting for me. It is a land where it snows a lot, and where, right now, people can't wait for the hard freeze, at which point the skies clear, the air dries out, and the scene turns into a permanent winter wonderland—until the spring melt comes some months later. (The snow is not plowed but removed, and there are never any “snow days” for school or work.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Practice of Anarchy

In my previous three-part series on anarchy (available here, here and here) I argued, among other things, that anarchic (that is to say, non-hierarchical and self-organizing) systems are the norm in evolution and in nature and have also been the norm in human societies through much of their existence. They have a great deal to offer us as we attempt to navigate a landscape dominated by the failure of various centrally controlled, rigidly organized, explicitly codified hierarchical systems based on complex chains of command that have come to dominate human societies in recent centuries. I have also pointed out that, based on recent results from complexity theory, such hierarchical systems are collapse-prone. This is because they scale badly, increasing their metabolic cost per unit size as their size increases, which is just the opposite of how living organisms behave. This is also because, in order to continue to meet their internal maintenance requirements, they have to grow exponentially until they encounter physical limits.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

S/V Hogfish is for sale!

[UPDATE: Hogfish is under agreement as of Feb. 23, 2013. It stayed on the market all of 5 minutes. I should build a boat...]

Next week I will launch into a new series of articles about a particular brave new anarchist experiment I am thinking of launching, but in the meantime here is some housekeeping.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Meanwhie in Ireland

Last week I spent three days attending the Kilkenomics conference in sunny Kilkenny, Ireland. About an hour and a half by taxi from the Dublin Airport, Kilkenny is a smallish medieval town on a smallish non-navigable river, its skyline dominated by an impressive, gloomy castle and a few equally gloomy cathedrals of grey stone. Its narrow streets are full of mostly empty shops and pubs (the shop to pub ratio seems on the order of 3 to 1) and during daylight hours they are clogged solid with mostly empty little cars. Maybe it's because a lot of the little cars are diesels, or maybe the local brand of petrol/gasoline is heavy on aromatics, but standing in the street in Kilkenny often smells same as being downwind of a freighter. One morning, when it briefly wasn't raining, I took a walk around the town, and it could be quite lovely if it wasn't for the insane amount of street traffic and that awful damp.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Due to circumstances under control...

The time allotted to thinking deeply about the regularly scheduled blog post was consumed by Hurricane Sandy, so that's what I will write about now, just in case anyone is interested in the exotic subject of riding out hurricanes aboard sailboats at the dock. It's not as exciting as the subject of riding out hurricanes aboard sailboats at sea, but I haven't done that in a while. Nor do I wish that I have. I have a confession to make: I don't like hurricanes very much.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Limits of Language

Pawel Kuczynski
Since this is the height of the political season, I have decided that it would make sense for me to say something about politics which, of course, doesn't matter. And that, obviously, is a political statement.

Last night was the third and final round of what are commonly believed to be debates involving the two presidential candidates. What was said is not very interesting or surprising at all, except in one respect: the two contestants played their role in accordance with a certain unwritten and unexpressed rule of discourse.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Over Three Million Served

Just noticed this...
Pageviews all time history: 3,000,423

In Praise of Anarchy, Part III

Laurent Chehere
[Part I] [Part II]

Kropotkin worked within the framework of 19th century natural science, but his results are just as relevant today as they were then. Moreover, the accuracy of his insights is vindicated by the latest research into complexity theory. Geoffrey West, who was a practicing particle physicist for forty years and is now distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute, has achieved some stunning breakthroughs in complexity theory and the mathematical characterization of scaling of biological systems. Looking at animals big and small, from the tiny shrew to the gigantic blue whale, he and his collaborators were able to determine that all these animals obey a certain power law: their metabolic cost scales with their mass, and the scaling factor is less than one, meaning that the larger the animal, the more effective its resource use and, in essence, the more effective the animal—up to a certain optimum size for each animal. The growth of every animal is characterized by a bounded, sigmoidal curve: growth accelerates at first, then slows down, reaching a steady state as the animal matures.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In Praise of Anarchy, Part II

Pawel Kuczyński
[Part I]

When confronted with an increasingly despotic régime, the good people of almost any nation will cower in their homes and, once they are flushed out, will allow themselves to be herded like domesticated animals. They will gladly take orders from whoever gives them, because their worst fear is not despotism—it is anarchy. Anarchy! Are you afraid of anarchy? Or are you more afraid of hierarchy? Color me strange, but I am much more afraid of being subjected to a chain of command than of anarchy (which is a lack of hierarchy).

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Browser Issues

Update: apparently the latest IE can deal with the brokenness of Blogger. I just went through and pruned the HTML by hand for the last month's worth of posts. I hope it helps. From now on I am not trusting Blogger's "Compose" mode and will craft the HTML by hand. Sigh.

I keep hearing from people who say that the blog is not showing up in their browser, by which I think they mean the ridiculous thing that is Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Apparently, Blogger has done something that doesn't work with IE. I have tested it in Firefox, Chrome and Safari and saw no issues, and getting things to work with IE is a waste of time. So, don't use IE. It's broken.

In Praise of Anarchy, Part I

Once upon a time there lived a prince. Not a fairytale prince, but a real one, his bloodline extending back to the founder of Russia's first dynasty. It was his bad luck that his mother died when he was young and his father, a military officer who paid little attention to his children, remarried a woman who also took no interest in him or his brother. And so our prince was brought up by the peasants attached to his father's estate (he was born 20 years before Russia abolished serfdom). The peasants were the only ones who took an interest in him or showed him affection, and so he bonded with them as with his family. And so our prince became a traitor to his own class.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meanwhile in Oklahoma

Pawel Kuczyński
[This is a guest post from Bonnie.]

Here in Oklahoma what you have been predicting for some time is here already, with exception to the full brunt of the collapse. The grocery still has food, the system is still operating, but we are all essentially indigent. For example, I am now out of dishwashing liquid and running low on laundry detergent; they are right there within walking distance and cost less than six dollars for both, but I cannot purchase them. But we will find a way... I am bilingual and educated and skilled in more than one trade, but while visiting Walmart last month my children and I sat on the bench in the entry waiting for my husband and someone handed each of my children one dollar out of pity. I was devastated. We have everything we need. We're financially poor with no need for vanity. We are educated and self-sufficient and can make most everything we need, but until the majority of the population comes down to our level this ability holds no real value. All it means is that we are already running low on supplies but have no cash to reacquire them, while others still have some cash left. And this makes feel lonely.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Le Vieillard Gros

Gelii Korzhev
My doctor wants me to live to be a hundred. During a recent check-up she asked me how long I want to live, probably as a way of telling me that I should listen to her more carefully. I said eighty, because that's how long men in my family generally live (unless there is a revolution or a world war); the women live a bit longer than that. She then said that eighty used to be considered good longevity, but that one hundred is the new eighty. Well, that certainly explains all the old people I saw in her waiting room! I told her that I do not view aging as a competitive sport, and that I do not aspire to smashing any records in the longevity department. She seemed a bit confused by this response and changed the subject.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Extraenvironmentalist Episode #49: Developing Breakdown

In Extraenvironmentalist #49 we speak with Dmitry Orlov about the developing systemic breakdown threatening to destroy the global credit system. Dmitry describes his view of the mortal blow to globalized trading and discusses ideas of how society would transform after it evaporates. We ask Dmitry about those who may be best prepared for the financial system to go broke. To find out more about people prepared for a world without money, we speak with photographer Lucas Foglia [1h 19m] who tells us what it was like to capture the lives of those dropping out of society for his book A Natural Order. After we hear from the people in Lucas’ work, we play a discussion from CNBC with Marc Faber [1h 52m] where he echoes the sentiments of Dmitry and those living off the grid.

And remember: Listening to XE #49 is the perfect way to celebrate the launch of QE ∞

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 2:14:47 — 185.2MB)

Podcast (96kbps): Play in new window | Download (Duration: 2:14:59 — 92.8MB)

[Many thanks to Larry]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Suicidal Services

Members of the US military, both officers and enlisted, are dying at a record pace—not at the hands of the enemy (although revenge killings of US servicemen by aggrieved Afghanis do feature prominently) but at their own hands. Suicide rates across all the branches—Army, Navy, Air Force, even the Coast Guard—are all registering large increases. More US servicemen die at their own hands than from any other cause.

The Army's suicide rate last year stood at 24 per 100,000; this year it is higher. The rate of suicide for all American men is 19 per 100,000, which is significantly lower, is computed over the entire lifetime. Taking into account the average Army length of enlistment of just under 15 years and the US life expectancy of 78 years gives us an effective Army suicide rate of 125 per 100,000—five times the US suicide rate, and three times the national suicide rate of any country on earth.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Most Interesting Driver in the World

Barnaby Barford
Recently circumstances have conspired to make it necessary for me to drive hundreds of miles all over New England. I don't often drive. The last time I owned a car was over a decade ago, and I haven't missed it. I bicycle a lot, plus Boston's public transportation is not too awful. When I do need a car, I either use a Zipcar, or I rent one.

Driving is by far the most dangerous activity I engage in. Both government statistics and ample anecdotal evidence show that bicycling through Boston rush-hour traffic, or sailing off into the stormy North Atlantic on a small sailboat, or flying halfway around the world on a semi-regular basis, or riding buses and trains wherever I go—all of these modes of transportation are much safer than climbing behind the wheel of a car, strapping yourself down, and driving it on the highway. My engineer's mind rebels against such dangerously inferior technology. It appears that cars are mankind's second worst invention, after nuclear fission. To drive a car is to acquiesce in the suicidal stupidity of our species.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Collapse Wager

Robert Avotin
[This is a guest post from Howard. I reformulated his wager somewhat. I am not a betting man myself. I also consider those who bet against collapse to be a bad risk. But to each his own, plus I think Howard's collapse wager may have some didactic value in forcing people to think hard about collapse even as they steadfastly refuse to be disabused of erroneous notions they hold dear.]

On the evening on April 14th, 1912, was someone banished from the Titanic’s captain’s table for being so rude as to mention that the ship was sinking?

It troubles me deeply that bringing up the subject of immanent collapse is regarded as uncouth, while blithely talking about the satisfactory present and an ever-more-agreeable future is not seen as irresponsible denial. (“Forget about the lifeboats, and try some of this pheasant. It’s delicious!”)

On the Edge with Max Keiser

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hunger Insurance

[In italiano]

[Week Two of ClubOrlov summer vacation. Food prices are about to go through the roof because of the disastrous harvests. Meanwhile politicians here in the US are conjuring up ways to keep entitlements going with just two underemployed working-age people there to support each retiree. And so, it's time to recycle this post. See if you can guess what it's about.

And if you can't, then why don't you go out and take part in the Reverse French Revolution that's underway in the US. That's where revolting peasants do all they can to elect an aristocrat who will swindle them out of their savings even faster and lock up even more of them in the Bastille. And what makes these peasants so revolting is that they are all fat—from eating cake instead of bread, just as Marie Antoinette had suggested.]

I would like to sell you some hunger insurance. Are you insured against hunger? Perhaps you should be! Without this coverage, you may find it impossible to continue to afford feeding yourself and your family. With this coverage, not only will you be assured of continuing to get at least some food, but so will I. In fact, thanks to this plan, I will get to eat very, very well indeed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Corn Madness

[ClubOrlov is on a much-needed vacation this week. In the meantime, if you haven't read it already, please read this. Originally published in March of 2010 as a bit of a long shot, this turned out to be one of the most widely read pieces.]
Another guest post. Translated from the Russian by Your Humble Narrator. It's a letter sent in by one young, once optimistic Russian who finds himself marooned in some blighted Boston exurb in southern New Hampshire.

Dear Dmitry,

I hope you don't mind that this is in Russian. I think that this way I can be more completely honest. I am a relatively recent graduate of one of the many faceless post-Soviet institutions of higher learning, with a degree in philosophy. Last year I moved to the USA and married an American woman.

The question of when the modern capitalist system is going to collapse has interested me since my student years, and I have approached it from various directions: from the commonplace conspiracy theories to the serious works of Oswald Spengler and Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I still can't fathom what it is that is keeping this system going.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Revolutionary Conditions

Alex Jeffries
Travel advisory: Starting in 2013, in many parts of planet Earth there will be too little food and too much political unrest to make them pleasant destinations.

Food is about to get very expensive everywhere: farming states in the US are living through the worst drought since the Dust Bowl; in Russia and Ukraine, heat waves and drought have produced similar results, with estimates for grain production down 30-50% from last year; in India, the critical monsoon rains are already down 22%.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Interview on Voice America

The Joy of National Default

Alexander Wells

At 78 pages of scholarly, somewhat jargon-laden prose, Trade-Off: Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion by David Korowicz is not quick reading, nor is it light reading, but it is important reading. It puts a lot of definition to the concept of cascaded failure, in which financial collapse inexorably leads to political and economic collapse with no possibilities for arresting this process or even altering its course. This may seem like a terribly pessimistic message, and, indeed, it is hard to imagine that it would provoke a cheerful reaction in any sane person. But for those who feel that it is important to understand what is unfolding, Korowicz offers a large dose of realism. Still, a fair warning is called for: “Abandon all optimism all ye who enter here!”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Politics of the Unconscious

Mike Mitchell
Across the US flags are flying at half-mast in honor of the twelve people killed and 58 injured by James Holmes during the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado. Meanwhile, Norway is commemorating the 69 people shot dead by Andras Brevik at the Labor Party youth camp on Utoya Island a year ago. Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said that Brevik “brought Norwegians together in defense of democracy and tolerance.” Unlike the much higher civilian death counts coming out of places such as Afghanistan, such events never fail to shock us. We are fine with intercommunal violence, and happy to call it a “war.” In fact, the ability to kill people with impunity in remote corners of the planet makes us feel stronger and safer. But intracommunal violence shocks us, because it compromises our sense of safety.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Unlearn, Rewild

One of the least useful words in the English language is the word “wilderness.” I grew up wandering the woods, and, to me, where the road and the trail end and the animal (and human) paths begin is a point of fundamental transition: beyond this point lies something else—an older, perfectly ordinary, normal way of being, in which we are just another animal among many others. (An even more atrocious term is “unimproved land”—which is what developers call land that they haven't had a chance to bulldoze yet; “undestroyed land” seems more like it.) Perhaps a more reasonable perspective is to not call “wilderness” anything—it's just another piece of the planet—and instead find a word that applies to its opposite: human blight, perhaps? Human infestation? You get my point.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Peak Oil Oppositional Disorder: Neurosis or Psychosis?

[En français

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown to include 297 disorders, but it seems that there is always room for one more.

Richard Heinberg recently published an article that addresses various recent claims that Peak Oil is no longer a concern. His term for the phenomenon is “peak denial.” It sounds good, and dovetails nicely with Richard's overall theme of “peak everything.” It's a thoughtful piece that does a thorough job of exposing the surreal nature of the optimists' projections, and I have no issues with his argument. I do, however, have an issue with his terminology. First, since denial does not happen to be a nonrenewable resource with a characterizable depletion profile, its peak, should we detect one, is not particularly meaningful, because it could just as easily peak again tomorrow and then again next century. Second, I suspect that “denial” is no longer the right word to describe the social phenomenon we are currently observing. I think that Ugo Bardi pointed us in the right direction: in his article reacting to George Monbiot's assertion that "We were wrong about peak oil, there is enough to fry us all," Ugo characterized Monbiot's approach to Peak Oil using another word: “delusion.”

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Movement for Involuntary Complexity

Afu Chan
Year after year, the Addbusters Magazine propagandizes “Buy Nothing Day”:
On Nov 25/26th we escape the mayhem and unease of the biggest shopping day in North America and put the breaks on rabid consumerism for 24 hours. Flash mobs, consumer fasts, mall sit-ins, community events, credit card-ups, whirly-marts and jams, jams, jams!
The idea, I suppose, is the usual sort of thing: make a stand, send a message, have something to talk and write about... and then go right back to consuming. On the day after “Buy Nothing Day,” for instance, you could buy a glossy copy of Addbusters Magazine at the check-out counter at Whole Foods. Last I checked, you could do so in the more liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, but not in the more conservative Brookline, Massachusetts right across the river. The cultural battle lines are clearly drawn.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hold Your Applause! (But not for much longer)

I am hard at work on my next book, The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit, due out in print and digital from New Society Publishers next June. As you can probably imagine, financial collapse is turning out to be a bit of a doozy; I am saving it for the end. And so I decided to take a break from relentless weekly blogging, and instead to republish Hold Your Applause! in Kindle format. It's been out of print for a while now, but people keep asking me for copies, so here it is. In the introduction, it says:
...this book is not so much for you to read as it is for you to slap other people upside their fool heads with. In the coming years, you will no doubt run across countless people who will say to you things like “Nobody could have seen this coming!” or “Who could have ever imagined it would be like this?” or “Why wasn't anyone able to predict this?” That will be your cue to whip out this book, and… give it to them.

This, of course, points out a major downside of ebook readers: the little electronic devices are too fragile to be of use in hand-to-hand combat. And so you will need to hold your temper as well—just until The Five Stages comes out: I plan to make it weighty enough to thrash all cornucopian techno-triumphalist polyannishness (not to mention just plain old cluelessness) out of even the wooliest of heads.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Willful Blindness

As we read the morning headlines, we are offered one surprise after another. The 2008 economic crisis seemed to come out of nowhere. The rampant fraud at Enron and MCI caught us off guard. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was like a freak accident.

The truth is that there are very few surprise in life. Most of what’s happening, whether it’s corporate misbehavior or government coverups or relationship gone awry, are visible but we cast a blind eye to the truth. This phenomena of not seeing what’s right before our eyes is called willful blindness. We chose to ignore what we can see because we don’t want what we see to be true.

Thomas White interviews Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril, and myself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Disaster Communalism

Oleg Kulik
[This is a guest post by Keith Farnish: an edited, unpublished extract from his online book Underminers: A Practical Guide for Radical Change. It would take too long to explain precisely what Undermining is and who the Underminers are, so please recommend reading the Introduction. The whole book is free to access and redistribute.]

The following essay was triggered by dialogue between Dmitry Orlov and Keith Farnish, both of whom have a deep interest in the power of community to combat and rise above all sorts of situations. The essay attempts to show that not only is community a powerful binding force, it is also a powerful combative force against the culture that threatens to obliterate the majority of life on Earth.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Absolutely Positive

With ClubOrlov just over four years old, I am publishing a "best of" book of essays. These are 30 of the most popular articles chosen from the ones that have been published on ClubOrlov.

A lot has changed during this time; four years ago this book would have been largely about the future, but now it is largely about the present. In preparing the manuscript for publication, I haven't found anything that I would want to change or retract.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Our Brave Experiment

Pete Revonkorpi
[This is the last in the series of three posts based on the talks I gave at the first annual Age of Limits conference in Artemas, Pennsylvania.]

Exactly six years ago—a year or so before my first book was to be published—my wife and I sold our condo in a Boston suburb, liquidated most of our belongings, moved the rest either into storage or aboard Hogfish—our 32-foot sailboat—and sailed off into the North Atlantic.

This was rather brave of us, since, up to that point, our seafaring experience was limited to a weekend sail from Boston to Salem and back, which is the nautical equivalent of dangling your feet in a swimming pool. I did have some prior sailing experience: I had sailed dinghies around Boston's Charles River Basin (a smallish expanse of flat water between the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and the Longfellow Bridge). Once that became too boring, I joined Courageous Sailing Center and went on to sail somewhat larger boats, including the sporty J-22, around Boston Harbor.

The typical summer afternoon excursion involved tacking out and around the nearest harbor island on the afternoon sea breeze, anchoring somewhere for a picnic, and sloshing back on the tide and the dying breeze just as the sun was starting to set. While this doesn't sound particularly courageous, just getting out into the harbor did take courage: Courageous Sailing Center is located in a deep, winded-in pocket between two piers, and the only way to get out of it and out into the harbor it is by short-tacking through an obstacle course of moored boats.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Fragility and Collapse: Slowly at first, then all at once

Josh Keyes
[In italiano]

[En français]

This article is based on the notes from one of the talks I gave at the Age of Limits conference.

I have been predicting collapse for over five years now. My prediction is that the USA will collapse financially, economically and politically within the foreseeable future... and this hasn’t happened yet. And so, inevitably, I am asked the same question over and over again: “When?” And, inevitably, I answer that I don’t make predictions as to timing. This leaves my questioners dissatisfied, and so I thought that I should try to explain why it is that I don’t make predictions as to timing. I will also try to explain how one might go about creating such predictions, understanding full well that the result is highly subjective.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sustainable Living as Religious Observance

Alexander Levchenko
[Update: Orren Whiddon, who organized the Age of Limits conference, has contributed some comments, which I have added below.]

I have spent the last few days at a conference organized by the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania. Titled “The Age of Limits,” it was well attended and promises to be one of a series of annual conferences to address the waning of the industrial age and the social adaptation it makes necessary. This conference was quite different from all the others I have attended.

First, the venue is a campground; a beautiful one, consisting of lush meadows surrounded by an equally lush but passable forest girded on three sides by a fast-flowing creek of cold, clean water. This sanctuary is dedicated to nature spirituality, and includes a very impressive stone circle and a multitude of little shrines, altars, charms and amulets hung on trees. (Also included is an assortment of cheerful hippies skinny-dipping in the creek.) Second, spirituality was prominently featured in the presentations: the question of spiritual and emotional adaptation to fast-changing, unsettled times was very much on the agenda. Third, the campground is owned by a church; one of undefined denomination, theological bent or specific set of beliefs, but a church nevertheless. Lastly, the campground is run by a monastery that is at the heart of this church; the monks and nuns do not wear habits, do not seem to have not taken any specific vows other than those of loyalty, poverty and obedience, but in substance not too different from, say, the Benedictine Order: work is seven days a week, there is a meeting at eight sharp every morning, all meals are prepared and eaten together, and, except for insignificant personal effects, all property is shared.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In the Name of Austerity, Stimulus and Growth, Amen!

Paul Kuzhynski
Here's some food for thought. If you've been listening to the muffled and incoherent noises coming from the G8 and the surrounding political chattersphere, it's starting to sound like a prayer meeting: “In the name of Austerity, Stimulus and Growth, Amen!” And if you look at the individual leaders, what is there for them to do except pray?

Starting from the bottom, there is TheMan Who Wasn't There: the newly reinaugurated Russian president Vladimir Putin. He didn't even show up, but sent his obedient deputy Medvedev instead, who made positive noises about how wonderful the meeting was. Putin is a lonely man: he's been seen in public with his wife a total of twice over the last two years; his two daughters are living incognito somewhere in Europe, there are mobs of people outside chanting “Russia Without Putin!” over and over again, and even the VIPs present at the inauguration seemed to be half-concealing a message behind their idolatrous smiles: “Wish you weren't here, Vova!”

From Alpha to Omega Podcast

This week I am busy preparing my three talks for the Age of Limits retreat at Four Quarters, which will, in due course, be posted here in full. In the meantime, please enjoy this podcast in which I discuss, among other things, the fact that collapse is the elephant in the room, and that the various specialists are the blind men debating whether it is like a snake or a tree or a wall or a stick or a rope...

Dmitry: Uh, this is really breaking up.

Announcer: Welcome From Alpha to Omega. (main title follows)

O'Brien: (1:15) Hello, and welcome to the fifth episode of From Alpha to Omega. Today is Saturday, the 18th of May, 2012, and I'm your host, Tom O'Brien. (1:29) After a brief sojourn into the world of mathematics, philosophy, and biology, this week we return to systemic risk and economic collapse.
I am delighted to welcome to the show the high priest himself of the church of the collapsitarians, and blogger extraordinaire, Dmitry Orlov. (1:50) We will chat about the root causes of the current crisis, and what to expect and prepare for over the coming years and decades—(1:58) but first the boring stuff.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Down the Skyscraper

Ben Grasso
It was Andrew Lawrence, the inventor of the skyscraper index, who pointed out that the building of the world’s tallest buildings is a good proxy for dating the onset of major economic downturns. His index has stood the test of time; the few times when it made an incorrect prediction can be adequately explained by exceptional circumstances, such as the onset of world wars. It is now being put to the test again, and we ignore its advice at our own peril.

In “Skyscrapers and Business Cycles” Mark Thornton writes:

“The ability of the index to predict economic collapse is surprising. For example, the Panic of 1907 was presaged by the building of the Singer Building (completed in 1908) and the Metropolitan Life Building (completed in 1909). The skyscraper index also accurately predicted the Great Depression with the completion of 40 Wall Tower in 1929, the Chrysler Building in 1930, and the Empire State Building in 1931.”

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Shale Gas: The View from Russia

[En español] [En français] [In italiano]

The official shale gas story goes something like this: recent technological breakthroughs by US energy companies have made it possible to tap an abundant but previously inaccessible source of clean, environmentally friendly natural gas. This has enabled the US to become the world leader in natural gas production, overtaking Russia, and getting ready to end of Russia's gas monopoly in Europe. Moreover, this new shale gas is found in many parts of the world, and will, in due course, enable the majority of the world's countries to achieve independence from traditional gas producers. Consequently, the ability of those countries with the largest natural gas reserves—Russia and Iran—to control the market for natural gas will be reduced, along with their overall geopolitical influence.

If this were the case, then we should expect the Kremlin, along with Gazprom, to be quaking in their boots. But are they?

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Memorial Day Plans

The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of The Global Industrial Model
Friday May 25th thru Monday May 28th, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend at the beautiful Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. If you are in reasonable traveling distance of Artemas, PA, please join us.

There will be talks, workshops and moderated discussions on specific topics of interest with John Michael Greer, Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov (that's me), Gail Tverberg, Thomas Whipple and others.

Here are my talks:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Making the Internet Safe for Anarchy

[En français] [In italiano]

Suppose you wanted to achieve some significant political effect; say, prevent or stop an unjust war. You could organize gigantic demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets, shouting slogans and waving anti-war banners. You could write angry editorials in newspapers and on blogs denouncing the falseness of the casus belli. You could write and phone and email your elected and unelected representatives, asking them to put a stop to it, and they would respond that they will of course try, and by the way could you please make a campaign contribution? You could also seethe and steam and lose sleep and appetite over the disgusting thing your country is about to do or is already doing. Would that stop the war? Alas, no. How many people protested the war in Iraq? And what did that achieve? Precisely nothing.

You see, the slogan “speak truth to power” has certain limitations. The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and the fact that the people already know the truth and even make jokes about it. Those in power may appear to be persuaded or dissuaded, but only if it is to their advantage to do so. They will also sometimes choose to co-opt, and then quietly subvert, popular movements, in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of those who would otherwise oppose them. But, in general, they cannot be shifted from pursuing a course they see as advantageous by mere rhetoric from those outside their ranks. Some weaker regimes may be sensitive to embarrassment, provided the criticisms are voiced by high-profile individuals in internationally recognized positions of authority, but these same criticisms backfire when aimed at the stronger regimes, because they make those who voice them themselves appear ridiculous, engaged in something futile.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fundraising in Extremis

Chen Wenling
Catch of the Day

[日本語訳] [en français]

There are some important projects that need to be up and running starting like yesterday, because they are key to human survival. Unfortunately, they cannot be funded in the usual ways because of the warped nature of market economics and global finance, which dictates that the only goal of investing money is to make more money. The project of averting disastrous outcomes is not a money-maker, per se, and does not get funded. But shipping in millions of plastic orange Halloween pumpkins from China every year is a sure bet, and so the free market prioritizes orange plastic pumpkins above doing what is essential to keep us all alive. The invisible hand of the free market, it turns out, is attached to an invisible idiot.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Strange Logic of Dreams

Maria Rubinke
Previously I have raised the question of why it is that, given compelling evidence that action is needed, we fail to act. Are we smarter than yeast? Perhaps not. But perhaps the problem is not with our inability to act but, more importantly, with our inability to think. We pay lip service to the power of reason, but by and large we choose to inhabit a fictional realm where we use abstract symbols to point at invisible objects, which we assign to one in the same realm of consciousness. Could it be that each of us inhabits, at the very least, a separate realm of consciousness, and, more radically, many different realms, in effect dreaming several different dreams, never fully waking up from any of them?

Sigmund Freud conveyed the strange logic of dreams with the following joke:

  1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
  2. I returned it to you unbroken
  3. It was already broken when I borrowed it from you.

This “enumeration of inconsistent arguments,” writes Slavoj Žižek in his Violence, “confirms by negation what it endeavors to deny—that I returned your kettle broken.”

Here is an entirely commonplace example: the canonic list of excuses made by a child who neglected to do her homework:

1. I lost it
2. My dog ate it
3. I didn't know it was assigned

A similar triad of counterfactuals seems to recur in many long-running, seemingly insoluble political conflicts. Each counterfactual inhabits a fictional realm of its own (it can be true only in its own parallel universe). The effect of the three disjoint statements taken together is to form a cognitive wedge, which blocks all further rational thought.

Here, for example, is how Žižek casts the way radical Islamists respond to the Holocaust:

  1. The Holocaust did not happen
  2. It did happen, but the Jews deserved it
  3. The Jews did not deserve it, but they have lost the right to complain by doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them

On the other side of the great Arab-Israeli divide, we have a similar triad

  1. There is no God (Israelis are by and large atheists)
  2. We are God's chosen people; God gave Palestine to us
  3. Palestine is ours simply because centuries ago we used to lived there

Please note that I am not bringing this matter up to weigh in on the conflict, but to point out what makes it insoluble: both sides are dreaming not one but several contradictory dreams. No reconciliation is possible unless they awaken, but if they do they will have to abandon their strategic dream-positions and lose any standing they may have had to engage in negotiation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.

Closer to home, last year, we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of Occupy Wall Street, with its incoherent “demands” and a lively cacophony of voices. The occupiers demonstrated quite forcefully that they exist, and that they stand apart. It was not a political revolt, but an ontological one: “we are not you.” Thus, making specific demands would have been superfluous. The occupiers could have achieved the same (perhaps even a greater) effect by chanting something rhythmic yet free of meaning:

Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!
Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!

In response, the political chattering classes spewed forth the following triad:

  1. The Occupiers lack specific demands
  2. The Occupiers' demands are unreasonable
  3. Meeting the Occupiers' demands would not solve the problem

They were asleep, you see, and dreaming of an occupation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.

In the meantime, sweet dreams to you all!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Solo Sail Around the Americas

[Update: He won. First ever non-stop single-handed circumnavigation of the Americas. 27,077 nautical miles in 309 days, 18 hours and 38 minutes.]

In case you didn't know... Matt Rutherford is about to complete a first ever solo non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas aboard a donated 27-foot Albin-Vega. It took him about a year to get up north, navigate the Northern Passage, sail down the Pacific coast, across Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic coast. His arrival back in Annapolis is scheduled for April 21st.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Modest Health Care Proposal

Paul Scott Thomas
Edge of the World
The US Supreme Court has taken up the issue of so-called ObamaCare: the controversial plan to extend private health insurance to all citizens, with a stiff tax penalty for those who refuse to purchase private health insurance. I know something about it, since I live in Massachusetts, a state that adopted so-called RomneyCare, after Mitt Romney, who was our governor at the time, and is now running for president. ObamaCare is modeled on RomneyCare.

The Supreme Court wasted a day discussing whether the tax penalty is a tax or a penalty, a distinction that's relevant only in the context of some arcane law concerning the litigation of unjust taxes, but lost on everyone, because the penalty shows up on one's tax bill. This point was discussed ad nauseam, so I will not discuss it or any of the other issues relating to ObamaCare that everyone banters about endlessly. Instead, I will say what no-one is saying: Obamacare (and Romneycare) invalidates the notion of health insurance.

First, let's make sure that we are all clear on the concept of insurance. Insurance is generally taken to mean a promise to pay out a settlement (or coverage) in case of a certain event (fire, flood, sickness), in exchange for a recurring cost (premium) and, usually, a deductible (or self-insurance). Insurers weigh the risk of the event against the amount of the settlement. Thus, if the policy is against your spontaneous combustion, with a risk estimated as 1 chance in a billion per year, and you want to insure yourself for $1 billion, then your premium is $1 per year, plus whatever the insurance company wants to charge you for writing the policy. If, however, you are currently engulfed in flames, then the risk goes up to 100% and the premium would theoretically be $1 billion, same as the settlement, but no insurance company would ever write such a policy because the risk is too high.

Now, health insurance is a strange proposition to start with, because everyone dies, and nobody dies healthy, so most people require medical treatment at some point. (A few people spontaneously combust, I suppose. They are still none too healthy during the few seconds before they die, but that's not long enough for them to avail themselves of medical attention. But that's a very rare case.) The point is, if all houses burned down at some point, there would be no fire insurance, and if all houses flooded at some point, there would be no flood insurance. But everyone dies, and yet there is health insurance. How is that?

ObamaCare introduces the provision that health insurers are not allowed to decline insurance coverage to individuals with pre-existing health conditions. That is equivalent to mandating fire insurance for houses engulfed in flames, or flood insurance for houses slowly sinking while floating downstream. In return, insurance companies are assured that they will be able to spread the risk over the entire population, which will be coerced to purchase their product by being threatened with a stiff tax penalty.

Some coercion is certainly required for people to accept such a faulty product. My family's health insurance bill comes to nearly $15,000 a year, with a $2,500 a year deductible. That is, we have to consume more than $2,500 a year in health care before the insurance pays anything. If I am employed, then the employer has to pay 80% of the premium; if I become unemployed through no fault of my own, then the state picks up the 80% for a few months; after that, I have the option of paying even more for an individual insurance plan, or paying somewhat less for the tax penalty but then risk being bankrupted by a medical emergency.

Recently, I called my insurer to ask how much a certain elective procedure might cost. You see, under this system, the doctor bills the insurer, the ensurer “adjusts” the amount, and then I pay the adjusted amount. I wanted to know the adjusted price beforehand, but I was told that they do not give out this information. The adjustments are generated by an inscrutable computer program, which determines the numbers on the spur of the moment based on a set of formulas. Now, normally I don't do business with companies that refuse to quote a price before I place the order. That's where the tax penalty is most helpful to them: it leaves me no choice but do business with, and get robbed by, this company.

As Vladimir Nabokov once pointed out, nothing breaks the human spirit more effectively than consistent bad treatment. To this end, forcing everyone to navigate an infuriating bureaucratic maze with their very health held at ransom is quite an effective strategy. Another is to force everyone to abide a blatant falsehood, such as calling health insurance “insurance” (now preferring, I notice, the more abstract word “coverage”) whereas it is definitely not insurance at all but a tax. Yet another is to force people to make false choices, such as between Romney, author of RomneyCare, and Obama, author of ObamaCare, which are very similar. At this point, the American spirit seems very well broken, along with the economy and the political system, and I do not advise you to squander your precious energies in trying to fix the latter two. I do, however, recommend that you mend your spirit, and stop thinking it necessary to abide a falsehood: health insurance is not insurance.

What is it then? “Insurance” that everybody is forced to buy as a legal precondition of citizenship? Where the risk pool includes the entire country? Where compliance is enforced by a federal agency, the Internal Revenue Service? (But where, if one does comply, the money goes to private entities, to pay other private entities.) What is that? Why, of course, it's a private tax collection service! Under ObamaCare, medical insurance companies become private tax collectors. Now, private tax collectors are not unprecedented in the annals of empire. The Roman senate bid tax collection contracts out to publicans, with mixed results: farmers often opted to abandon their land rather than farm it and have the grain confiscated to pay taxes. But ObamaCare takes private tax collection one step further: under it, the tax collectors not only collect the taxes, but also set the level of taxation as they see fit. That is, the medical “insurance” companies are allowed determine the “health tax.”

What makes this complex scheme of private tax collection so necessary? Its benefits include maximizing health industry profits, which can be recycled as electoral campaign contributions to elected officials who then protect the prerogatives of the health industry, keeping this private tax collection scheme running smoothly. But none of these benefits have much to do with keeping the population healthy. On the other hand, it creates a massive perverse incentive to maximize health care costs, while at the same time institutionalizing a private system of public robbery.

I therefore propose that the health tax be collected 
directly by the Internal Revenue Service.

Furthermore, in absence of any competent agency within the US that could be charged with administering a public health care system, I propose that health care be directly funded by the Internal Revenue Service as well, as part of an integrated strategy for maximizing tax revenue: the “Keep American Taxpayer Healthy” plan.

The unambiguous mandate of the IRS is to maximize tax revenues. This it will do by making sure that taxpayers are healthy, so that they can earn the maximum of income and pay the maximum of income tax. It will make it a priority to provide good health care to all children, who are IRS's “seed stock”—the taxpayers of the future. It will also make sure that the health needs of the working-age population are attended to, to make sure that they continue to work, earn, and pay taxes. It will also provide palliative care to the retirees, to keep up the morale, but certainly nothing as lavish as what is available to them now. Since their tax-paying potential is negligible, keeping them alive as long as possible is not a priority from a tax revenue maximization perspective.

Not being specialists in the medical field, but realizing that basic and preventive care have the highest health care ROI and specialist care the lowest, the IRS would probably want to dramatically simplify health care delivery. Huge hospitals and medical centers, with their teams of specialists, support staff, swarms of administrators, billing departments, medical labs, intensive care units and MRI machines, are too complex for the IRS to even audit, never mind administer effectively. It is far simpler to establish neighborhood clinics, and to provide them with a fixed fee per patient per year, to spend in line with the overall mandate.

Provisions would be made for some number of specialists, probably shared between clinics, but with the understanding that, from a tax revenue perspective, specialist care reaches diminishing returns rather quickly. For instance, a triple coronary bypass is hard to justify financially, because the patient's earning potential, even after a full recovery, usually does not cover the cost of the operation.

Also, the IRS might consider actually denying health care to rich people (those with net worth over $5 million) in order for the treasury to reap the windfall from estate taxes when they die. Such people (Mitt Romney is a good example) rarely pay their fair share of tax in any case, being able to hire accountants and lawyers, who exploit every possible loophole. And so, there shouldn't be any free heart transplants for Dick or free brain transplants for George.

Having the health care system administered by the Internal Revenue Service may seem rather inhumane to you. However, I hope I have succeeded in pointing out that doing so would still work better than ObamaCare. This health care system is so bad that improving it is not any sort of challenge at all: I submit to you that even the IRS would do a better job of it.