Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Flunking The Coronavirus Test

With all the ink being spilled over the topic of SARS-Cov-19 and COVID-19 and its various ramifications and effects, you might think that there is little to add. However, I am yet to see an article on the coronavirus as a test—not in the sense of a test for the presence of the virus or antibodies to it, but it as a test of us, as individuals, families, communities and entire nations. Already we see its effects range from relatively benign to unmitigated disaster. As always, to blame the test for one’s failure to pass it is to invite laughter at one’s own expense.

Those likely to flunk a test may prefer to refuse to take it. But refusing to take the coronavirus test is hardly an option. According to many epidemiologists, around 80% of the world’s population will eventually be exposed to this virus. A Machiavellian prince ruling over a primitive society that doesn’t have even a rudimentary public health care system could simply ignore it. Then, based on the presently available, inconclusive numbers, somewhere around 4% of the population will die, but the majority of them will be either old, sick or both. The prince would welcome this, thinking that old and sick people are a burden, so good riddance! He might even try to make some political hay out of the situation: since the virus has a foreign source, those it infects are also somehow foreign, or foreign-influenced, and therefore traitors who deserve this affliction as a sort of supernatural punishment. Referring to SARS-CoV-19 as “the Chinese virus” is very much along these lines.

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Clay Machine Gun

“…[M]any thousands of years ago, long before Buddha Dīpankara and Buddha Shakyamuni came into the world, there lived Buddha Anāgāma. He didn’t waste time on explanations and just pointed at things with the pinkie of his left hand. Immediately their true nature was revealed. He would point at a mountain, and it would disappear. He would point at a river, and it too would vanish. It’s a long story, but the way it ended was this: he pointed his left pinkie at himself, and vanished. All that was left of him was his left pinkie, which his students hid in a lump of clay. The clay machine gun is that very lump of clay with the Buddha’s pinkie inside. A very long time ago there lived a man in India who tried to turn this lump of clay into the most terrible weapon on earth. But as soon as he drilled a hole in the clay, the pinkie pointed at him, and he vanished. Since then the pinkie has been kept in a locked chest and moved from place to place until it was lost in one of the Mongolian lamaseries…”

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CBRN: Surviving Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Events

The English-language edition of this very important book by Piero San Giorgio and Chris Millenium has just been released. Below is the preface to it, which I was happy to provide. Please spread the word of this book far and wide. It is a book that can save many lives.

We live in a dangerous world, and it is constantly being made even more dangerous by technological developments, many of which bring with them unintended consequences which technology is often powerless to remedy. It is made even more dangerous by our inability to sense the dangers: our senses are poorly adapted to detecting chemical contaminants, and we are utterly helpless when it comes to sensing radioactivity or radioactive contamination. As far as the threat of microscopic pathogens, the ability of our immune systems to fight them off has been compromised, paradoxically, by good hygiene and the use of antibacterial soaps and antibiotics.

These dangers are multiplied by other risks our world faces, now and in the future. The continued safety of a great many of our industrial technologies—the ones that handle radioactive, toxic and virulent substances and organisms—rests on the presupposition of continued social stability. In the case of long-lived radionuclides such as uranium and plutonium, the period of social stability that would be required to keep them secure and isolated from the environment needs to span thousands of years, yet history teaches us that human civilizations don't ever last that long. When a civilization collapses, what normally follows is a dark age, during which populations crash, learning and even basic literacy become rare, population centers are abandoned and the few survivors discover for themselves how to subsist at a much more primitive level that does not include high technology.

When will this happen? Well, don't look now, but we are living through a time when nation-states are becoming defunct at an ever-increasing rate, when millions of refugees are roaming the planet, and when the financial systems that underpin the continued existence of the entire project of global industrial civilization are in such a state of disrepair that central banks are forced to resort to truly bizarre tricks, such as the imposition of negative interest rates coupled with boundless emission of money. What cannot continue forever generally doesn't, and we should not ignore the distinct possibility that we or our children will have to live through a period of great uncertainty, confusion and chaos.

But whatever should happen, all of us wish to lead happy, healthy, sane, fulfilling lives, and wish the same for our children. None of this will be possible unless we have peace of mind. But knowing that the prospects for our continued well-being are uncertain, we are filled with anxiety. Some of this anxiety results from learned helplessness and willful ignorance: we have been trained to trust the experts with ensuring our well-being and not try to second-guess them too much. But where will these experts be if the cities succumb to mob rule and become too unsafe to go near? To overcome our anxiety, we need to learn what the risks are, and be prepared to address them.

This book describes those risks which we are the least able to address using our commonsense, our perceptions and our instincts. They are the domain of technical experts, and without some special know-how and some specialized equipment we are completely helpless before them. Never mind being able to address them, in most cases we are not even able to detect their presence! But by working through this book, and by making a small investment in safety and detection equipment—which may be too much for a family, but is quite possible at the scale of even a small community—we can conquer our anxiety and regain the ability to lead fulfilling lives.

The threats are many, but perhaps the largest threat of all is simple human panic. When people are falling ill and nobody knows the reason, society can fall apart quite suddenly. But panic can be prevented if a few people have the information and can tell the others what is happening and what they should do or not do. You too can become one of these few people.

And so, don't panic—read this book!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bat-eating Troglodytes of Wuhan

[Warning: Anyone who makes racist remarks about bat-eating troglodytes shall be banned.]

The year was 2040, and the global coronavirus pandemic was in its 20th year. A young couple was on a date, walking together. They did not hold hands, embrace or kiss but maintained a distance of at least one meter between them and wore eye protection and face masks, as prescribed by law. It had been a long time since they were able to meet, because one or the other of them had a cough, or sniffles—a seasonal allergy, or perhaps a slight cold—and such symptoms made it necessary for them to exist in complete seclusion, their food and other necessities delivered by robots. Pale and weak after their lengthy period of isolation, they strolled and squinted in the bright sunlight, in the recently sanitized, secure space of the promenade, in full view of security cameras, and listened to the shrill high-pitched squeaks emitted by a loudspeaker system that were intended to scare away bats. They were at all times being chaperoned by AI software which sounded an alarm whenever they came too close to each other or, God forbid, actually touched.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


Since I've been asked (repeatedly) to comment on this topic, I will, but since I am not a public health expert I will keep it short and stick to what I know for certain.

As of this morning there have been 93 cases of individuals with COVID-19; five of them have recovered; 109939 individuals have been tested out of a total population of 145 million. That's 0.00006% of the population infected out of 0.075% tested. Most of those who have become infected with it experienced mild flu-like symptoms, or none at all. Zero patients have died.

The response has been quite thorough, with the goal of preventing an epidemic. Schools and many public venues are closed. Border crossings are closed. Citizens being repatriated from COVID-19 affected countries on charter flights all land at a single high-security airport terminal and are being tested and quarantined. Everyone affected who cannot work is given automatic paid sick leave. That's in Russia.

Overall, what people need to understand is that for most of them getting infected with this particular coronavirus (which is one out of many in circulation) would be a nonevent. This one is present in bats (which don't get sick from it) and was most likely spread to humans through accidental contact with bat guano.

Based on the experience in China, which has by now largely conquered this epidemic, some people—especially the elderly, the chronically ill and those who smoke—may develop shortness of breath, in which case putting them on oxygen can help. Out of these, some develop complications such as respiratory failure and sepsis and die within hours (without treatment) or days (with treatment). In them the virus impairs the immune response within the lungs, which then become infected with bacteria and/or fungi that are normally present elsewhere within their bodies or within their environment. Placing such patients in intensive care is a desperate measure that doesn't necessarily save them.

Of course, if you happen to live in a country that was about to collapse anyway, this coronavirus could very easily do it in, but so could any other cough or sneeze. The first stage of collapse, out of a total of five stages, is called...


Oh, and in case you are wondering, running out and stocking up on toilet paper in response to a coronavirus threat is a symptom of an entirely different disease which can very well turn out to be fatal. Most curiously, it seems to affect the cerebral cortex via the rectum.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When the Pot Boils Over

[Quando a panela ferve]

“A watched pot never boils,” an old saying goes. But does a watched empire never collapse? Hardly! All empires collapse eventually—no exceptions. Once an empire starts heading toward collapse, the watching can take quite a bit of time, especially if no new, rising empire is ready to take over. The event to watch for is when one collapse-related event immediately triggers the next, and the next. This tells us that a self-reinforcing collapse feedback loop has taken shape and that the process of collapse is picking up momentum—no longer driven by long-term trends but by an internal logic of its own, although certainly helped along by external shocks, some more significant than others.

A particularly significant shock to the system arrived just last week, on March 6, 2020. The system in question is the petrodollar system which has allowed the US to suck resources out of the rest of the world, keeping itself fed, clothed and fueled up simply by issuing debt. Why specifically focus of oil? In his excellent report “Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective” Simon Michaux writes: “Today, approximately 90% of the supply chain of all industrially manufactured products depend on the availability of oil-derived products, or oil-derived services.” Without oil nothing gets made and nothing moves. But oil is a finite, nonrenewable resource, and that’s the Achilles’ heel of an empire built primarily on controlling the international market for crude oil by issuing debt.

What happened last Friday is that the Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak declined to extend Russia’s agreement with OPEC, in effect since November 30, 2016, to limit production, keeping the price of oil from crashing while allowing shale oil producers in the US to increase production and, theoretically, take market share away from OPEC and Russia… except that neither OPEC nor Russia have enough spare capacity to significantly increase their market share in any case. This agreement will remain in effect until the end of March, and in response oil futures crashed immediately following the announcement, with the Brent benchmark currently priced at just $36.87/barrel, whereas at the end of last year it stood at nearly $70/barrel. Leading the way, Saudi Arabia announced that it is doing away with all voluntary constraints on production while granting discounts to its most important customers. Why do Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s decisions indicate the beginning of the end of the petrodollar? The answer to this question is well in hand but isn’t particularly widely known—yet—and, given how reticent and bashful Western media has become in divulging unwelcome news, perhaps never will be.

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Custom Hardware

A couple of months into the second decade of the 21st century a coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the planet causing tourism and commerce to shrivel up and crashing financial markets (which have been long overdue for a crash in any case). Soon supply line disruptions will cause assembly lines around the world to grind to a halt for lack of parts. As the pandemic runs its course, it is likely to sweep away an entire cohort of elderly smokers. Meanwhile, Americans are getting ready to choose between a capitalist who doesn’t know how to make capitalism work for the masses and a socialist who doesn’t know how to make socialism work for anyone. In such times, what is a collapse-oriented blogger to do?

First things first: eat a hearty bowl of borscht loaded with shredded beef, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and some chopped scallion, dill and garlic and served with rye bread. And once that’s done, it is time to attend to some long-neglected sailboat design tasks.

Three years ago I bravely published a post titled “The Final Sheeting Arrangement.” I was filled with optimism at the time. After much experimentation I had discovered a simple way to keep Quidnon’s Junk sails sheeted perfectly flat. I had tested it out on a 1:12 scale model and verified that it worked very well indeed. But soon after I published it my friend and very experienced Junk rig operator Dave Zeiger blew my boat straight out of the water by pointing out a major problem with my design: it would not keep the sails anywhere near flat once they have been reefed. I accepted his critique with equanimity and, since I had no solution to offer, kept quiet about it for three years, during which, luckily, not a single person endeavored to build a single Quidnon, and so this unsolved problem hasn’t hurt anyone.

But now I believe I have finally found a solution. With this problem solved, the Quidnon project can finally move past the head-scratching phase and on to the next phase, which will involve grinding out a large number of mechanical drawings, assembly diagrams and other documentation without which no boat can ever get built. Here, then, is my plan, which I will call “The Final-Final Sheeting Arrangement.”

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Friday, February 21, 2020

The Global Warming Apocalyptic Cult

[Note: this article is much longer than my usual—almost 8000 words. I have been working assiduously on it for over a month, and that explains why my postings have been so sparse lately. It’s behind a firewall because I don’t want any trouble from cult members.]

Do you want to save the planet? Do you feel that this requires everyone to stop burning fossil fuels, and does doing so necessarily involve paving the land with solar panels and lining the beaches and the mountain ridges with giant wind generators? How about putting a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and taxing people for the carbon dioxide they emit? Do you believe that “99.9% of climate scientists agree...” logically implies that they are necessarily right? And what makes you think that humans are capable of saving planets when they can’t even figure out what to do with their garbage?

If this sort of thinking triggers you and causes you to imagine that I am some sort of “climate change denialist,” then, unless you are emotionally fragile and prone to hysterical fits, you should still make an effort and continue reading, because you may have, through no fault of your own, have found yourself inducted into the Global Warming Apocalyptic Cult. The first step in freeing yourself from the clutches of an apocalyptic cult is realizing that you are an apocalyptic cult member. Part of the process involves learning how the cult functions: where the cult gets its power; why people fall into its clutches and, perhaps most importantly, who is paying for it and who is getting rich from it. Having your illusions shattered may be painful at first, but you are sure to feel better later—unless you immediately find something equally beyond your control to worry about and get busy with that.

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Saturday, February 08, 2020

A Most Convenient Virus

I prefer to write on things I know about, but once in a while an opportunity presents itself for me to comment on some aspect of widespread mistrust and confusion while resting on a solid foundation of my professional curiosity. This is the case of the 2019-nCoV novel coronavirus. A lot of the elements of the coronavirus story just don’t add up, and that’s what I want to explore. At the outset, I want to make it clear that I am no expert on these matters. Is 2019-nCoV a genetically engineered biological weapon or is it a naturally evolved strain of a virus that is endemic in China’s bat population? This we don’t know, but it is interesting to look at the plausibility of each of these scenarios and also to consider whether what we are observing could be a combination of a little of each.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Peak Free Oil

Back in my halcyon days of youth I went to some anti-war demonstrations, not to protest against the first Gulf War, since I could already see that such protest would turn out to be futile, but to pick up women. Sure, I shouted “No war for oil!” as loud as I could, but that was just my mating call. Even in those salad days of yore I was already smart enough to know that “No war for oil!” was a spectacularly stupid thing for us to be shouting. “We want to die!” would have been equally dumb. What would North Americans, with their own reserves badly depleted, but with their car-dependent suburban sprawl still sprawling, do without oil stolen from some unlucky country? Crawl slowly toward the nearest gas station and expire from exhaustion along the way? But we aren’t dead just yet, so let’s crawl back down the memory lane and see how this situation came about, then crawl back to see where we are today.

Once upon a time the USA was a remarkably oily nation, with prolific oil wells such as the renowned Spindletop in East Texas. Juvenile USAnians competed against each other on who could burn the most rubber while getting the shittiest gas mileage. I caught the tail end of that failed experiment: my first car was a monstrous, hulking land yacht: a ’68 Chevrolet Caprice. In 1970 a phenomenon called Peak Oil arrived in the US, oil production fell and drastic steps became necessary. One of them was to convert from a “take our dollars or our gold” scheme to a “take our dollars or else” scheme: if you don’t like dollars, we also have bombs. Another was to start going directly after the oil wherever in the world it is found and trying to take it without paying for it. But all things, good and bad, must come to an end eventually, and free oil is no exception. In fact, what we may be witnessing at the moment is a phenomenon I wish to call Peak Free Oil.

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Life After Putin

Two days ago Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address before the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, and since then I have received a flurry of emails and comments from people asking me to explain what he meant. I don’t want to make assumptions about the depth of your interest in Russian affairs, and so, to save you time, let me start by providing a very short executive summary: Putin will step down as president after his current term, which will end in 2024 unless an early election is held, but the system he has put in place will stay in place. Essentially, life after Putin will be more Putin under a different name. If that’s all you care about, you can stop reading now.

To delve deeper, we need to draw a distinction between Putin the man and the system of governance he has built over the past 20 years. There is always plenty to complain about, but overall it has been quite effective. During Putin’s period in power, Russia has solved the problems of separatism and domestic terrorism, reigned in the predatory oligarchy, paid off virtually all of its foreign debts including ones it inherited from the USSR, grew its economy by a factor of six (vs. China’s five and USA’s one), regained Crimea (which had been part of Russia since 1783), rebuilt its armed forces to a point where international security is no longer a major concern, and achieved an overall level of societal well-being that is unparalleled in all of Russian history.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

New Decade, New Rules

[Nueva década, nuevas reglas]
Decadal boundaries are arbitrary things untethered to any physical phenomena other than the usual boring changing of the seasons. But just two weeks into the new decade the atmosphere seems different from the past decade, and it has been difficult for me just to keep up with the sweeping changes that are taking place, never mind analyze them. Yet write I must, because not only is the mass media completely useless at best and harmful at worst, but also even the more enlightened and independent-minded commentators seem mired in paradigms that are out of date and reliant on invalidated political and economic assumptions. This prompts me to step into the breach and try to set things straight.

Here is a quick list of what’s new so far this decade:

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Donnie Walks off the Reservation

Until now, Donnie Trump, Putin’s man in Washington, has been more or less doing as he has been told. Since he is due to be reelected later this year, now is a good time to evaluate his performance so far, and I am sure that his Kremlin report card shows his overall grade as “acceptable.” Here are some of his most notable achievements, listed in no particular order:

• He has steered trade negotiations with China into a cul de sac where the Chinese basically do whatever they want while the US pays them ever more for the privilege of importing their products. So far, his “art of the deal” has only driven up Chinese imports, along with the trade deficit, and there is no reason to think that this will change.

• He has pushed the already wobbly Federal Reserve into another cul de sac: it can’t raise interest rates without bankrupting lots of US companies and crashing the stock market, and it can’t lower them without triggering a bond crisis and crashing the US dollar.

• His erratic pronouncements on the uselessness of NATO have turned them into a self-fulfilling prophesy, to a point where Turkey is now a NATO member in name only while the Ukraine, which has stupidly written the goal of NATO membership directly into its constitution, is now reduced to crying over spilled ink.

• He has cleverly used the Syrian Kurds to demonstrate to the world the value of US friendship by throwing them under Syrian tanks at a moment’s notice while giving them the option to surrender to the dread Syrian dictator Bashar Assad (which they did).

• He has cleverly subverted his own slogan “Make America Great Again,” reinterpreting “America” to just mean “the stock market”—which is indeed great, at the moment, but can become not at all great moments after somebody somewhere flips the wrong switch.

• He has masterfully played to the ancient horrors that haunt the US constitution, driving a wedge between the liberal and populous Blue states and the mostly empty conservative Red ones, where the Reds get the Senate, the Executive and the Supreme Court, the popular vote be damned, while the Blues get the consolation prize of a madhouse House of Representatives.

• And throughout, Donnie has been able to maintain plausible deniability, like a good Russian agent should, causing his political enemies to make fools of themselves and develop aneurisms while passing toothless impeachment resolutions.

Given this legacy of success, Donnie can easily coast to reelection, then sit pretty for another four years, watching the country burn, tweeting sporadically to clean up on insider trading (legal if you are Prezz) and playing plenty of golf.

But lately there has been trouble in paradise.

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Friday, January 03, 2020

Predictions for the 2020s

While many commentators see it fit to publish their predictions for the year ahead, I find a single year to be too fine-grained for any meaningful forecast. For me, plus or minus five years is about the right size of the error bars to place on any prediction with regard to timing, making it possible to time any major change to within a couple of decades. And it just so happens that another decade has gone by since I published my last set of predictions for the United States in the 2010s and it is therefore time to come up with a new set, for the 2020s.

My last set of predictions worked out moderately well. Although in some cases the process has not run its course, the trends are all unmistakable and the processes I outlined should be expected to continue and in some cases to run to completion within the new decade. But this time around I will attempt to make more specific predictions.