Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Walk in the Garden of Unintended Consequences

“Blow a horse in the nose, and it will swish its tail,” goes one saying. It’s a silly one, but it captures a common thought pattern: do A to achieve B. As we grow up, we learn many such thought patterns, and as adults we expect them to continue working. We don’t necessarily know why they work. We don’t have time for complicated explanations and rationalizations; but we do know that they work. A time-saving approach is to simply try them and see. Do they still work?

And then there is a thought pattern that work at a meta-level: use any given trick too many times, and it will stop working. Blow a horse in the nose too many times, and it will will bite or kick you. “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” one might say. This is something else that we learn growing up, and it tempers our enthusiasm as adults for pushing things too far. Very interestingly, this only works at the level of the individual or the small group; as societies, we always push things too far—to the point when they stop working.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Boat for the Reluctant Sailor

A couple of days ago I conducted an interesting social experiment. I joined the largest Facebook group dedicated to sailing a cruising, and started a discussion thread about QUIDNON:

“Looking for some advice from group members. For the past two years I have been working on a boat design with two other engineers. It is a 36-foot houseboat, with private accommodations for 3 couples and 2 single people. It is also a surprisingly seaworthy and competent sailboat. We've tested a radio-controlled scale model and it sails really well. Now we are looking forward to building the first full-size hull. It's going to be a kit boat, featuring high-tech manufacturing and rapid DIY assembly. Don't hold back, what do you think?”

The results were roughly as follows:

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Venerating Stalin’s Ghost

Stalin’s Funeral
A few days ago, on May 9th, Russia celebrated the 72th anniversary of its victory in the Great Patriotic War, or, as it is known in the West, World War II. All but unnoticed in the West, this is a very big deal in Russia. All elements of the parade, the speech, the music—the iconography—are by now beautifully polished. It is a key ritual of Russia’s state cult. Its religious nature is manifested by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who, emerging from within the walls of the Kremlin standing in a classic Soviet-era limousine, makes the sign of the cross: if you are still stuck in the frame of “godless communism,” you need a rethink. Although the parade is a display of military might, unmistakable in the collection of modern military hardware that rumbles through the Red Square, the overall message is one of peace. “Russia has never been defeated, and never will be” is the overarching message. And although Russians want to be recognized for their tremendous sacrifice in pursuit of victory, they see this victory as everyone’s: everyone—even the Germans—benefited from the Soviet destruction of a perfect evil in the form of Nazi Germany’s genocidal machine.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Olduvai on the Dnepr

I have been in the collapse prediction business for over a decade now, with relatively good results overall. One aspect of predicting collapses that remains troublesome is their timing. The reason why it is troublesome is well understood: collapse is a sort of phase transition, and phase transitions are notoriously difficult to time with any precision. It is also nearly impossible to establish what has triggered any one of them. When will a raindrop of supercooled water suddenly turn into a snowflake? Only the snowflake knows. What triggered the collapse of the USSR? If you too have an opinion on the matter, please stuff it. Thank you.

Another aspect of my method that could be improved is its lack of quantitative rigor. I have been able to make a great number of fairly accurate qualitative predictions, all of them based on reasoning by analogy. For example, after observing the collapse of the USSR and its immediate aftermath, then imagining, using thought experiments, how it would map onto the collapse of the USA, I was able to formulate something I called Superpower Collapse Soup. Its key ingredients are: a severe shortfall in the production of crude oil, a large, systemic trade deficit, an oversized, bloated military budget, an outsized military incapable of victory, crippling levels of runaway debt and an entrenched, systemically corrupt political elite incapable of reform. During the decade since I came up with it, the events I have predicted have been unfolding with some precision. The USA has been steadily losing its economic and military dominance; it can no longer get its way in the world diplomatically; the last straw will be the loss of its financial stranglehold over the global economy.

It is fun and instructive to watch superpowers jostling for position and eventually collapsing, but that is just a backdrop to a far more important phenomenon that is starting to unfold with increasing speed: the waning of the industrial age. Here is another analogy: the idea that ten years from now most of the currently industrialized world will be clearly, obviously far along on the path toward deindustrialization seems just as outlandish now as the idea that the USA would rapidly lose its position as the world’s one remaining superpower seemed a decade ago when I first broached the subject.

But there is also an important difference: industrial activity is far more easily quantifiable than such matters as political and military dominance. In particular, Richard Duncan’s Olduvai theory provides a good guide to the upcoming events. Its longer name is “the transient-pulse theory of industrial civilization.” Its main idea is that the industrial age will span roughly a hundred-year period, from 1930 to 2030, with a peak somewhere near the middle. His prediction is that by 2030 industrial activity will decrease to 1930 levels.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Revenge of the Polite Men in Green

The US appears to be preparing for a nuclear first strike against Russia. It has installed ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and Romania, with the preposterous claim that they are there to protect Europe against nonexistent Iranian nuclear-tipped ICBMs. These supposedly defensive installations can also be used to launch nuclear missiles into Russia. And recently the US has placed its F-35 fighter jets in Estonia, which is just a few minutes’ flight from St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. These jets are capable of carrying nuclear payloads. Without any doubt, these steps have made nuclear war more likely, if only by accident.

There are two possible ways to view this aggressive posturing: as defensive or as offensive. Viewed as defensive measures, are they needed, and are they effective? Viewed as offensive measures, are they effective, and what will be the fallout (no pun intended)? And if the US were to engage in the extreme folly of attempting a nuclear first strike on Russia, what would be the effect of this folly, personally, on the aspiring American war criminals who would get behind such a plan? Should they be afraid—very afraid—and what precisely should they be very afraid of? Let’s take a look.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Talk in Boston

I'll give a talk and Q&A on QUIDNON at the Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, MA at 8pm on Thursday, May 4th. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Obsolete Maps, Unfamililiar Landscapes

In his recent blog post, A Matter of Mercy, James Howard Kunstler compared the common state of mind of the USA to that of an Alzheimer’s patient. Themes pop up in the news and mass media mouthpieces wax hysterical about them. Then, abruptly, their mouth music stops, and thème du jour vanishes from view. “Russian meddling” in the US presidential election made a lot of noise; and then… crickets. Moving right along, there was an alleged chemical attack in Syria (of which there is still no verifiable evidence); therefore, “Assad must pay” (by having a handful of unused 30-year-old jets blown up). Awkwardly, only about a third of the very expensive Tomahawk cruise missiles manage to reach the target (the wrong end of an airfield). Even more awkwardly, the Russians take this opportunity to show off their previously top secret electronic warfare equipment. And then the story dies (just as the US refuses to authorize an investigation into the chemical attack). And then it’s on to North Korea. And so on, endlessly.

Kunstler makes the point that the national dialogue in the US is plumbing the depths of senility: disturbing images flash across the screen; some number of supposedly well informed and right-thinking people make loud harrumphing noises about them along the lines that “something must be done,” and then… nothing! That, indeed, is what we have been observing. But what are the root causes of this serial national amnesia? Even if it looks like senility, may this be just a symptom of an entirely different national ailment? After all, not everyone in the US is senile… A much better explanation is not hard to find. Let’s delve.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ridiculously versatile

The world is full of boats that do just one thing quite well. QUIDNON is not one of them: it does a great number of things adequately and just one thing ridiculously well.

Ocean yachts are designed for ocean cruising and racing. They make poor houseboats due to lack of space. They can’t go through shallows because they have a keel. They don’t make good canal boats because their masts can’t pass under low bridges. They require a crane or a Travelift for hauling them out for maintenance. They are expensive. They are also quite slow. They can’t carry much freight.

Motor boats are sometimes big enough to make good houseboats. They are either unable to make long ocean passages because of their limited range, or they are expensive to take on ocean passages because of fuel costs. They can go faster than sailing yachts, but then their fuel consumption becomes quite ridiculous. When used as houseboats, their large engines make a poor investment. They also require a crane or a Travelift for maintenance. Some of them can carry a considerable amount of freight, but this makes them slower and increases the fuel consumption.

Houseboats are either houses built on floats or boats that can’t handle rough water. They are reasonable to live on and can be used on rivers and canals, but they can’t venture out on the ocean, never mind make ocean passages. They don’t carry freight.

Houses are great to live in—much roomier than any boat. But they do have two major shortcomings: they don’t move, and they don’t float. This is increasingly a problem: lots of houses are lost to flooding every year, and the toll will only go up as oceans rise and extreme weather events associated with climate change become more frequent. If an area where you have built a house becomes unpleasant or dangerous, you can’t just move the house but have find yourself a new dwelling.

Boats do float, but with most boats nobody particularly wants to live on them on dry land. On land, both yachts and power boats have to be put up on jacks, and then living on them is like living in a treehouse, with a long climb up a ladder just to get home. If a flood causes them to float off the jacks, they are unlikely to settle back onto them. Instead, they fall over and get damaged. Then they don’t float any more.

Houseboats generally do better on dry land than other kinds of boats. The Dutch have built some houses on barges that are designed to float up and down. When the water is low, they bicycle home; when the water is high, they row a dinghy. That’s a good idea in a country that’s mostly under water. But I haven’t heard too many stories about people living on houseboats on dry land.

QUIDNON is specifically designed to do a great number of things adequately.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Announcing: QUIDNON Crowdfunding Campaign

For the next month or so we will be trying to raise money to build the first QUIDNON. If you want to see this project realized, please consider making a contribution.

We have t-shirts, posters and books for those who donate.

And if you donate $500 or more (USD) we will do our best to deduct the amount of your donation from the price of your eventual order of the QUIDNON kit (if and when it becomes available).