Monday, September 24, 2018

When Money Stinks

Bill Mayer
The phrase “pecunia non olet” (money doesn’t stink) is said to have been coined (no pun intended) by the Roman emperor Vespasian who ruled from 69 to 79 AD. It is generally taken to mean that the value of money remains the same regardless of how it was obtained. (Well, tell that to the money-laundering squad!) Vespasian had a point: Roman money was mostly in the form of silver coins which derived their value from their silver content rather than anything else.

But even then Roman money was already starting to stink a little bit: in 64 AD emperor Nero debased the denarii by 25% by mixing in copper. This process ran its course in the 3rd century AD, by which time a typical denarius was over 50% copper. And then emperor Caracalla introduced a two-denarii coin that weighed 1.5 times as much—an additional 25% debasement. No doubt the Roman legionnaires who were charged with protecting Rome’s frontiers from the ever more numerous barbarians, and who were paid in this increasingly worthless money, thought that it did indeed stink, and acted accordingly, as did the barbarians.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

In Praise of Irresponsibility, Part I

There is no shortage of official voices exhorting us to act responsibly. Strenuous attempts are being made to make us feel responsible for the government officials we supposedly elect (by responding to a multiple-choice question which we don’t get to ask). Financial irresponsibility—in taking on too much personal debt—is vilified (while government debt shoots for the stars with no thought to repayment). Responsible parenting is held up as a great virtue forcing us to adhere to inflated safety standards that bring up generation after generation of mollycoddled nincompoops. The authorities threaten us into reporting various minor infractions by our neighbors—spying on behalf of the government, that is—ignoring the fact that legislative bloat has made it so that each person commits an average of three felonies a day. Even insurance companies get in on this moralizing game, conditioning us to think that acting responsibly will lower the insurance premiums on our mandatory insurance—but please don’t tell anyone that if your risk is low enough you are better off insuring yourself using your own savings instead of squandering them on insurance company profits. In short, to be responsible is to not think too much, because upon examination “responsibility” reduces to “do as we say and don’t ask questions.”

What is remarkable about all of these appeals to responsibility is that by and large they are being made by people who themselves range from the blithely short-sighted to outright paragons of irresponsibility, all of them far more interested in bolstering their own power and authority than in pursuing any notion of the common good. What if a case can be made that these attempts at public moralizing are strictly manipulative attempts to steer us into a cul de sac where we can be easily slaughtered or fleeced? And if so, what would constitute a properly responsible response to such hypocritical, cynical, egotistical manipulation?

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Quidnon 2.0

This boat design project started out by setting out some very ambitious requirements:

• A houseboat that makes a comfortable tiny house big enough for a family
• A competent, seaworthy sailboat, with masts that can be put up and taken down by a single-hander with the boat in the water
• A motor boat with an outboard motor for an engine that can be installed and removed easily, positioned in an engine well to prevent cavitation, collision damage and other problems with transom-mounted outboards
• Never needs a haulout: copper-surfaced bottom resists marine growth; settles upright and can be dried out and scrubbed at low tide
• Can be beached and relaunched by rolling over logs using anchor winch
• Can be assembled quickly from a kit on a beach or a riverbank by moderately skilled people
• Uses materials that are readily available almost everywhere: plywood, softwood lumber, bolts and screws, fiberglass and epoxy, galvanized mild steel, polypropylene three-strand rope
• Designed for all climates and seasons, from frigid to torrid
• Can be constructed and maintained at minimal expense

Over the past four years since I launched this project several people have made significant contributions to it: modeling, prototyping, contributing ideas and criticisms, helping spread word of it. Taking our sweet time with it has been very helpful in preventing us from building the wrong boat.

But what would be the right boat?

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Terrorism of the Absurd

In recent months the governments of Syria and Russia have stood accused by the US and the UK governments of carrying out attacks using chemical weapons and have found themselves in a rather challenging situation. The charges against them nothing short of absurd. It is very difficult, often impossible, to formulate a rational response to an absurd accusation beyond pointing out its obvious absurdity. But that’s usually not at all helpful because the contemporary Western political actors who revel in absurdity eschew the neoclassical principle of verisimilitude and ignore rational, reasoned arguments as uninteresting. This is a calculated choice: most of their audience is too bored, ill-informed and impatient to form opinions based on facts and logic but responds well to various kinds of conditioning.

Officials charged with formulating responses to Western informational warfare have been forced to acquire new skill sets inspired by théâtre de l’absurde, for many of the recently alleged terror plots bear the hallmarks of this genre: “broad comedy, often similar to vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism and the concept of the well-made play” [from Wikipedia]. In processing the recent British allegations, a particular British font of absurdist comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is proving invaluable. Here, the “Chemical Weapons Shop Sketch” and the “Dead Special Agent Sketch” are most apropos. A quick education in absurdist theory is turning out to be most useful in devising counterattacks.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Useless Information is Useless

Over the past week I’ve tried to do my helpful best to steer my readers away from ending up in a certain sad predicament: that of thinking that they know what they most certainly don’t know, or of thinking that they know that something is true whereas they most certainly don’t. And I am not happy with the results: people keep writing me to tell me that they most certainly know this or that, and how on Earth could I possibly think that they don’t? You see, they have read up on whatever it is on the internet, they watched several Youtube videos on the subject, and they discussed it with several complete or incomplete strangers on social media. Based on all of this research, they have formed an opinion, and that opinion is, according to them, the truth.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Great, Britain!

The Brits have just provided my previous article, The Truthers and The Fakers, with a tidy little case study: the very next day after I published it Theresa May’s government stepped into its role as one of the world’s premier Fakers and unleashed the next installment of fake news on the Skripal poisoning. We can use this as training material in learning how to spot and discard fakes.

The fake story that May has been pushing is that it is “highly likely” that the Kremlin ordered a hit on the former British spy Sergei Skripal (and his daughter) using a “Russian-made” chemical weapon called “Novichok.” In turn, from what we already knew, it is highly likely that this story is a complete and utter fake. As I explained in the previous article, it is not our job to establish what really happened. We would be unable to do so with any degree of certainty without gaining access to state secrets. But we don’t need to; all we need to do is establish with a reasonable degree of certainty that the British government’s story is a foolishly, incompetently concocted fabrication. Doing so will then allow us to properly classify the British press, which repeats this nonsense as fact, and the British public, which accepts it unquestioningly at face value. Then we can drop the erroneous appellation “great”—because great nations don’t act so stupidly.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Truthers and the Fakers

Can truth be said to exist? Most of us certainly like to think that it does, and, furthermore, that we actually know something about it. We tend to prioritize knowledge over ignorance, and bridle at the idea that some of what we consider to be knowledge may be false rather than true. This seems justified: compared to false knowledge, it is certainly true that ignorance is bliss. But there are few avenues of escape that are open to us when we are confronted with the notion that most of what we know for sure “just ain’t so.”

The most common avenue of escape, and also the least valid, is to indulge in a bit of ad hominem fallacy by claiming that the challenge to your treasured certainties is the wrong kind of challenge because it comes from the wrong sort of person. For example, these days, it doesn’t take much to run afoul of certain people, and to get them to label you as a “fascist racist misogynist homophobe.” Nor does it take much to cause certain other people to label you a “libtard.” And both of these groups would be only too happy to declare you to be “Putin’s troll” the moment you try to say anything vaguely positive about Russia.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Senator Masquerading as a Gas Station

John McCain is dead, and many people are celebrating whereas they should be sad. He wasn’t a friend of mankind—he was its enemy, but a really bad one. But with such grossly incompetent enemies—who needs friends?

McCain did a great deal to destroy America. He devoted his entire lifetime to American destruction. To start with, he was quite effective as a protester against America’s genocidal war on the people of Vietnam. Other Americans just marched around ineffectually, waving banners and shouting antiwar slogans, but not McCain! His own father had a lot to do with starting that war, but McCain made up for that by destroying 26 American war planes. That’s quite something! If every American flyer crashed as many planes, countless innocent lives would have been saved.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Magical Thinking as Realpolitik

There is no denying that much of what makes us human is our irrationality. Take it away, and we become bags of chemicals ruled by electrical impulses and hormones. Some of our irrationality is simply random or downright stupid, but much of it is organized around specific schemes of reality-defying magical thinking. We have learned, over time, to keep our propensity for magical thinking somewhat under control in certain areas, but it can never be eliminated entirely. Even in such technological realms as nuclear energy, we magically think that it is possible to contrive a set of operating procedures such that nothing will ever go seriously wrong, giving us important events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Suicidal Empire

There are a lot of behaviors being exhibited by those in positions of power in the US that seem disparate and odd. We watch Trump who is imposing sanctions on country after country, dreaming of eradicating his country’s structural trade deficit with the rest of the world. We watch pretty much all of US Congress falling over each other in their attempt to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Russia. People in Turkey, a key NATO country, are literally burning US dollars and smashing iPhones in a fit of pique. Confronted with a new suite of Russian and Chinese weapons systems that largely neutralize the ability of the US to dominate the world militarily, the US is setting new records in the size of its already outrageously bloated yet manifestly ineffectual defense spending. As a backdrop to this military contractor feeding frenzy, the Taliban are making steady gains in Afghanistan, now control over half the territory, and are getting ready to stamp “null and void,” in a repeat of Vietnam, on America’s longest war. A lengthening list of countries are set to ignore or compensate for US sanctions, especially sanctions against Iranian oil exports. In a signal moment, Russia’s finance minister has recently pronounced the US dollar “unreliable.” Meanwhile, US debt keeps galloping upwards, with its largest buyer being reported as a mysterious, possibly entirely nonexistent “Other.”