Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More problems for nuclear power leadership

China is not the only big nuclear likely feeling a little uncomfortable.  As we shall see, it is not always easy being a Oligarch.

In Quiet Part of Russia, Putin's Party Loses Steam
Ellen Barry, New York Times, 26 November 2011.

ARSENYEVO, Russia - It was a grim-faced crowd that gathered last week at the Palace of Culture in this village, making its way past decrepit housing blocks, broken streetlights and a statue of Lenin.

The governor had driven in from the regional capital, and detachments of pretty girls in blue smocks were handing out flags for United Russia, the party that serves as an extension of the Kremlin's power.

But the villagers were not in a holiday mood. They wanted to complain - about unresponsive local officials, corruption, alcoholism, decaying housing and the hopelessness that is sending young people away. "You know what we need?" said one woman as she waited in line for sausage. "A monument to dead factories."

United Russia can no longer count on voters in places like Tula, an industrial region about 120 miles south of Moscow where many residents say that their quality of life has stopped rising. This lagging support is an unsettling prospect for the government - even though United Russia will almost certainly dominate parliamentary elections on Dec. 4. With competition all but eliminated, Russia's political system depends heavily on its leaders' popularity to provide legitimacy. As winter settles in, that no longer feels assured.
 Tula is about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Moscow.  Tostoy was born and lived in its suburbs.  You can get a very nice guide to show you around the place.

Last time around the ruling party got 60% of Tula's vote, recent polling shows that around 40% is more likely in the upcoming election.  In total, they are looking at loosing almost 1/5th of their seats (60 of 315) in Parliment.

Tula, Russia- I believe this may be Tolstoy's estate

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nuclear War Flash Point heating up

Small little incidents can get out of hand. Often the incidence are a pretext, the stated rather than the actual cause. The United States for one regularly starts its wars on the basis of a pretext that is later seen to have been greatly overstated. But a freely delivered pretext can be useful to those who want to start a conflict.

Although not widely known, China has fought border wars with both India, and Vietnam in modern times: India a total of 3 times, with the latest being in 1987, and Vietnam once in 1979.

Simon Denyer, Washington Post, 26 November 2011 (ht: Big Picture).

NEW DELHI — It was billed as a new assertiveness, when India’s usually meek Prime Minister Manmohan Singh supposedly looked his Chinese counterpart in the eye at a summit in Bali last weekend and defended his country’s “commercial” right to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

Coming just after India and Vietnam agreed to jointly explore two ocean blocks just off the fiercely contested Spratly Islands, Singh’s stance in Bali prompted a frosty response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The Chinese Communist Party newspaper put it… bluntly in an editorial last month, , accusing India and Vietnam of “reckless attempts in confronting China” and warning that Indian society was unprepared for a “fierce conflict” with China on the issue.

Both countries fear encirclement. The Chinese fear encirclement by the Western Democracies and their allies, Russia and its allies (traditionally Vietnam), and India. And India fears being surrounded by China and its Pakistani allies.

You potentially have five nuclear armed countries in the area: The United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. I am presuming that France, Britain, and North Korea, all with interests in the area would not get involved. United States planned naval bases in Singapore, and Marine bases in Australia make it less certain that it will not find itself drawn into the conflict.

China has been updating (wisely to my mind) their nuclear weapons capabilities, and its extensive use of tunnel networks makes it very difficult that a first strike can be assured.  Fortunatley they also have a No First Use (NFU) policy which hopefully would keep some of the other nervous trigger fingers off the red button.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Russia's 2014 collapse

Delyagin: United Russia will collapse in 2014:  Europe later
Neva 24, 9 November 2011 (Hat tip: Smart Economy)

Economist and political scientist Mikhail Delyagin, director of Moscow Institute of Globalization, said in an interview with a Russian news agency, Neva-24, when, in his view, Russia will be destroyed:

Definitely not in 2012. Social tensions will start to rise in the fall of 2012, but they will not cause the change of power yet. The most likely date is 2014 or later. This state has a very large margin.

The problem  is that many people in Russia believe that the essence of the state is their personal enrichment. This is a difficult diagnosis. A deadly one.

Mikhail Delyagin
The Russians seem to have a real fondness for conspiracy theories, and impending collapse.  Given that they have an ex=KBG guy in charge much of the time, and the fact that they have has a recent...collapse, it is hard to really blame them.

But you just have to love that picture.  He is either just a little crazy, or....maybe he is just worried like we should be?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

War on self-medicating drugs

Deringolade has been commenting, in an inclusive sort of way, on the citizens of our country being overweight. And the Wall Street Journal has been discussing the downside to our being the mostly heavily self medicating culture that has ever existed.  Tom my mind, they are both signs of an unhappy people.  But at the moment we will concentrate on the self-medicating portion of the issue.

In the last decade deaths from painkillers has quadrupled. Granted there has always been a fair amount of people, intentionally or otherwise, injuring themselves by taking too many aspirin, Tylenol, or Ibuprofen. But the number of deaths is now very close to the number of people who die in automobile accidents.

Timothy W. Martin, Wall Street Journal, 2 November 2011

Annual deaths from painkillers now surpass those from heroin and cocaine combined, and have pushed the overall death toll from drugs above deaths from motor-vehicle crashes in some states, said R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy, on Tuesday. "Prescription-drug abuse is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem," he said.

Prescription and illicit drugs caused some 36,450 deaths in 2008, while 39,973 people died that year in motor-vehicle crashes, the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., though the number is stable rather than growing.

All told, about 12 million Americans aged 12 or older, or one in 20 people, reported nonmedical use of painkillers last year, the CDC said.

These deaths are coming from the new brands of very effective, and very powerful new drugs. Some of these drills are obtained through fraud, but many are supplied through pill mills:

Enough painkillers were prescribed last year to medicate every American adult around the clock for a month, the CDC said. "Right now, the system is awash in opioids—dangerous drugs that got people hooked and keep them hooked," CDC Director Thomas Frieden said.

The article noted that 3% of the doctors account for 62% of the prescriptions: I don’t think we are talking about Chemo-Clinics here either.

Moving along to another popular method of self-medication, the methamphetamine (meth) -lab has appears to be making a resurgence.

As someone who likes his pseudoephedrine for allergy purposes, I am well aware of the restrictions put in place to limit the purchase quantities. Apparently you can get enough active ingredients from one box of medicine to self-medicate yourself if you set up a micro-tiny meth-lab

Ana Campoy, Wall Street Journal, 2 November 2011
Undermanned Police Play Whack-A-Mole Hunting Down Soda-Bottle Outfits

In Christiansburg, Va., the police department is paying thousands of dollars to clean up toxic labs. Police in Tulsa, Okla., have handled 15% more meth-lab busts so far this year than all of last year, at a time when the department is down some 70 officers. Nationally, incidents related to meth production rose above 11,000 last year, after falling sharply to around 6,000 in 2007, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"They're small, they're mobile, they're easy to hide," said Cpl. Mike Griffin of the Tulsa Police Department. "As long as pseudoephedrine is available, they're going to keep growing."...But as they chase after one-pot labs, police fear they are neglecting bigger drug-dealing operations involving global cartels and other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

Meth is some nasty stuff. Not much doubt about that. But what we have here is people going to the drug store, buying their product legally, making and taking the drug themselves.

Pseudoephedrine is about $7 dollars a package. Some of the people are likely criminals, but based on the overall demand for illegal drugs, it is obvious that most people support their habit through some sort of legal means of obtaining money. That is why drug sweeps that focus on the end-users tend to be unpopular: you sweep up too many blue collar and white collar types.

So of course they want to make the drugs only available through prescription. That will restrict demand up to a point, but -as was noted in the above discussion on pain killers- this tends to bring the illegal drug world into the legal medical care world.

The “law enforcement” sources for the article are being willfully obtuse. They know full well that when the restrictions on over-the-counter medicines was first put in place, the big beneficiary was the Mexican drug cartels. They have been able to buy Pseudoephedrine in bulk from the orient and set up mini-factories to supply the demand.

We are obviously as a collective-whole a miserable group of people. We medicate our misery away- often using a miserable concoction of chemicals. And then we throw some of those miserable people in jail. The primary beneficiary seems to be our expanding militarized police force.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dry cut grass: the end of ranchers and the Comanche

As they say: “Mares eat oats, and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy”.

But mostly “hay is for horses”. “Hey” being an acceptable alternative to “hello” in portions of the Southern United States, but not when shouted across a room to get someones attention: “Hey John! Come over here”.

Now that we are past our faux-grammatical interlude, we discuss the animal feed shortage in Texas.

Manny Fernandex, New York Times (via Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette)1 November 2011

In a typical year, hay can be a kind of agricultural afterthought, a humdrum staple of country life that is as plentiful as it is affordable. But the historic drought that has devastated much of Texas has transformed these simple bales of dried grass into some of the most sought-after goods in the state. The worst one-year drought in Texas history has produced a statewide hay shortage that has more than doubled the price of large round and small square bales, forcing many ranchers to sell or even abandon all of their cattle and horses because they cannot afford to feed them.

The owner of Master Made Feeds outside Dallas has been paying a 5 percent finder's fee to anyone who can help him locate hay. One man used his tractor to bale the hay growing on a highway median one recent afternoon in South Texas, providing him with a free though unlawful supply. Much of the hay that people have been buying lately is not Texas hay - it comes from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska and other states, adding transportation costs to already stiff prices. One rancher in Bronte, Tex., sends a driver about 600 miles once a week to and from Oklahoma to load up on hay, spending $600 per trip in fuel and driver costs alone…

Some believe that state officials have failed to do enough.

About 4,400 people have signed online petitions on calling for Mr. Perry to use the National Guard or state resources to bring hay to Texas.

There are a number of odd historical connections that can be connected to the lack of animal feed.  The most obvious is that of the Comanche population collapse in the 19th century. This collapse came about from a combination of factors.  There was a drought that began in 1845 that is essentially the very tail end of what is known as the little ice age.  In addition, their very success as a plains empire caused them to over-expand beyond the long term carrying capacity of the land.  Their horse herds, the primary signifier of wealth in their mobile completely nomadic culture, over grazed the grasslands that one of their primary sources of food, the buffalo, also survived on.  Since they did not store hay in any meaningful way for the winter, the choke point was at wintering grounds where uneaten grasses could still be obtained by the herds.

Slaves and horses were the central trade items for the Comanche. The thriving horse business was the basis for the Comanche empire's prosperity, but it also caused its demise. The huge horse herds raised by the Comanche were competing for food with other species, which reduced the bison population.

Eventually, there were too many Indians and too little food. The ecological foundation for the Comanche lifestyle collapsed. When the Comanche were drawn into conflict with U.S. Army in the 1860s, only a fraction of the previously large nation remained.  From Helsinki University Bulletin, 4th Quarter 2009.

We can also connect the Texan’s problems less directly to our discussion of the early agricultural revolution in England that helped promote the excavation and increased use of coal for heating and made the increased supplies of coal available for driving the steam engines: which were developed to ease production (flooding) issues with coal mining.  We discussed this earlier revolution at It will be worse than you think.

The linkage here is in the energy cost of fodder for animals.  I think a lot of people realize that using high value animal feed has an energy cost attached to it.  But I don’t think people realize how much hay it takes to feed a cow.

Stretching Hay Supplies to Help Get Through the Winter
Warren Gill,  Cattle Today, Archive 1999.

A cow can eat 25 to 30 pounds of hay a day and waste a couple of more pounds. This adds up to 27 to 32 pounds per day per cow. Allow about half this amount for weanling calves and about three‑quarters for yearlings. Plan to feed until April 1. If feeding hay from November 1 until April 1, this is five months! This could easily total 4,000 to 4,800 pounds, or 2 to 2.4 tons, of hay fed per cow. Estimate hay available. Large round bales often do not weigh as much as producers think. It is typical for so ­called thousand pound bales to weigh eight hundred pounds or less. Plus, bales stored outside on the ground may easily lose 20 to 30 percent. Even covered bales can lose 10 to 15 percent, if a portion of the bales are in contact with the ground. If storage conditions are not ideal and bale weights are suspect, adjust to obtain more realistic estimates. Example with 10 cows: Allow 4,000 lbs. per cow or 40,000 total lb. Bales weighed 925 lb. in June, but lost 15 percent in storage, and now weigh 761 lb. Divide 40,000 by 761 to see that it may take 52 to 53 bales to feed 10 cows.
In terms of cows/cattle per acre, we will switch temporarily to the more efficient longhorn cattle:
Yes longhorns are different. They will eat more low quality browse then other breeds, therefore allowing about 20% more Longhorns on the same pasture as other breeds. Your local soil conservation district representative can give local grazing suggestions. This all depends on what part of the country you live in and how well your field is maintained and how much supplemental feed you are willing to give. For instance, in parts of Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky where there is 40-50 inches of rainfall each year and strong soil, you could figure 4-6 acres per cow per year without much supplemental feed. However, if you live in Utah or Arizona, it would be drastically more. Some places in Utah figure 640 acres per cow per year.
All of this goes a long way toward explaining why historically the herding of large animals such as cows and horses was done on relatively dry grasslands where the herds could be moved around with ease.   Otherwise you are either going to have to bring in additional feed for the animals, or if you are in wetter areas, you are going replace valuable fertile acreage with cows. What allows for “in-place” facilities is “harvesting” within the nearby area with short fossil-fuel driven hauls of feed.  Presumably if we had sailboats, and inexpensive labor, we could we could move the feed longer distances and still have it be economical.

Everyone needs food.  Although some of the big Agricultural giants maybe at the point where they are getting some monopolistic returns, most of the business is very low margin with a lot of competitors.  What makes the low margins work is that you turn those many small profit margin items so quickly that it builds up to a substantial return at the end of the year.
But what keeps the margin low is that there is a plentiful supply to meet market demand.  This low margin – abundance of supply is obvious from the fact that the Texans cannot afford to bring in dried grass (hay) to feed their animals.  One hiccup, the cost of dry grass, makes the system unworkable:  something the Comanche might have been able to relate to.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Holiday Posting

I am avoiding  holiday posts this year.  I stretched the idea so far last year I thought it would be best to quit while I was ahead; or at least not too far behind.  If you want some of that you could look at The Story of First Survivalist's In-laws (true story). original artwork in Thanksgiving Story with a play on Taleb's Turkey Story,   Saint Nicholas and the..............................Cannibal (sort of true story)

Anyway I thought this piece by William Bradford written in 1623 was interesting (Hat tip: MR).  He is explaining why they abandoned a communist economy.

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 120--21

All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Ilegalizing water purifiers

Federal agents say 88-year-old Saratoga man's invention is being used by meth labs
Sean Webby, Mercury News, 14 November 2011 (hat tip:  NC)

Eighty-eight-year-old retired metallurgist Bob Wallace is a self-described tinkerer, but he hardly thinks of himself as the Thomas Edison of the illegal drug world.

He has nothing to hide. His product is packaged by hand in a cluttered Saratoga garage. It's stored in a garden shed in the backyard. The whole operation is guarded by an aged, congenial dog named Buddy.

But federal and state drug enforcement agents are coming down hard on Wallace's humble homemade solution, which he concocted to help backpackers purify water.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and state regulators say druggies can use the single ingredient in his "Polar Pure" water purifier -- iodine -- to make crystal meth.

Note that he has been selling these water purifiers since 1983, and that his two big spikes in sales were at the Y2k Scare, and after the recent Japanese reactor meltdown.  He sold 1,200 of his purifiers at $6.50 after the last event with one bottle being able to disinfect 2,000 quarts of water.  But neither episode has noted connections to meth-labe production.  But once authorities become obsessed with a "threat" there is really no stopping them.

In 2007 the DEA passed a regulation requiring a $1,200 fee, and a host of paperwork requirements.  His ignoring these requirements is what has brought on his current legal battles.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tainter's Collapse: Currency Version

I saw an interesting (partial) review of James Rickard's  Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis  at Marginal Revolution; from which I lifted this excerpt:
In sum, Chaisson shows how highly complex systems such as civilizations require exponentially greater energy inputs to grow, while Tainter shows how those civilizations come to produce negative outputs in exchange for the inputs and eventually collapse. Money serves as an input-output measure applicable to a Chaisson model because it is a form of stored energy. Capital and currency markets are powerful complex systems nested within the larger Tainter model of civilization. As society becomes more complex, it requires exponentially greater amounts of money for support. At some point productivity and taxation can no longer sustain society, and elites attempt to cheat the input process with credit, leverage, debasement and other forms of pseudomoney that facilitate rent seeking over production. These methods work for a brief period before the illusion of debt-fueled pseudogrowth is overtaken by the reality of lost wealth amid growing income inequality.

I think Chaisson refers to the expansionary evolving civilization prognosticator, Eric Chaisson (example of his work), of whom I am not particularly familiar.

Tainter, is of course, Joseph Tainter writer of The Collapse of Complex Societies, every doomer's (except mine) favorite collapse author.

Any book with an economic slant that mentions Tainter would definitely get my attention.  When I read the kindle excerpt he was discussing wargaming out various future scenarios with a variety of other expert types of in a semi-official capacity.  So of course I was hooked.  As James Turk at Kitco Commentator's Corner noted:

The book is split into three parts, with the first part being almost surreal because it reads more like a novel than non-fiction. It details Rickards’ participation in an exercise at the Warfare Analysis Laboratory near Washington D.C. This group is one of the Defense Department’s leading venues for war games and strategic planning, but in a first-ever event, the game in which Rickards joined was not a war-fighting simulation. Rather, several dozen people from the military, academic and intelligence communities fought a global financial war using currencies and capital markets to support national interests. Rickard and two colleagues were invited to give the simulation some real-world, Wall Street expertise about markets, which they certainly did. 
Note that the book has already start a Twitter War between Rickard's and Nouriel Roubini.  Roubini seems to have lost:  mostly because he is a jerk.  For the record,  the idea that Gold was the key factor in the bubble collapse is a bit suspect.  The announcer talking about the credit bubble of World War 1, the consumption lending  bubble of the 1920s gives much better core reasons.  Combined with manufacturing productivity advances to help keep consumer (versus asset) inflation low, and you complete the necessary ingredients.  Ingredients which were present in much of our own fiasco:  replace WW1 with Vietnam, and productivity with the Chinese Entry into the free trade economy.  I am not a Gold Bug only because I don't think it works:  but I also don't think anything works all the time as a currency, so I don't think the Gold Bugs are any more wrong than the monaterists.

I am not sure if I will get to the book right away though.  I am slowly going through China Tidal Wave: A Novel a very interesting collapse novel written from a Chinese perspective: but not a fast read.  Early in the going there is an environmentalist who espouses focusing society on beauty rather than material- as their is no upper limit to beauty.  I am not sure yet if he is a good guy or bad guy though.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Transition Town Collapse

Transition Voice had an excellent interview with John Michael Greer.  I give them credit because to some degree he is not telling them what they want to here, and they posted it without a lot of whining.

Transition plans and meetings a waste of time, says Greer
Erik Currin, Transition Voice, 21 November 2011.

Somebody had to try it, but it doesn’t seem to be working so far. By and large, Transition has fallen into the standard model of contemporary activism—that is, it’s given rise to small groups on the margins of society, pursuing their projects as if the rest of the world was watching, which it isn’t. It’s indicative that in Totnes, one of the two towns on the planet that has actually finished crafting a Transition Plan, only around 5% of the local population took part in the process at any level. Even that level of public involvement appears far beyond the reach of most US Transition groups.

Note this quote is only part of the first answer to the first question.  He particularly takes issue with he consensual approach to governance: a methodology I believe comes from the communist-anarchist movement. There are of course other models for affecting change:
  • Charismatic leadership driven organizations (cult of personality)
  • Government top down
  • Revolution by disaffected elites
  • Revolution by the masses (peasant revolt, urban bread riots)
  • Commerce driven enterprises (specialized "gated" communities)
  • Civic clubs
  • Individual effort (prepping or survivalism would be the analogous example here)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

End of Retirement

This is fairly common reaction to people not having enough money to retire on. 

"I will work until I drop!"

Well lets think about this for a minute.  Think about where you work, or if you work on you own, some organization that you are familiar with.  Think about all the people that work there.  Not the one or two of them that you always go to to get things done, but ALL OF THEM.

Think about the typical energy level and initiative level of them at their current age.   Now add twenty, or thirty, or forty-years (as needed) of aches and pains and sitting on the couch watching Jersey Shore, or some other such similar entertainment.

Now also consider that technology is starting to starting even the young and vibrant (if we can stretch the terms to include our current youth) workers into the 21st century version of the plow horse.

Who exactly do they think will hire them?

Elizabeth Ody, Bloomberg, 16 November 2011 (Hat tip: Big Picture)

“Eighty is the new 65,” Joseph Ready, executive vice president of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement & Trust, said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York before the survey was released today. “It’s a real sea change.”

About 74 percent expect to work in retirement, according to the survey, with about 39 percent working because they’ll need to and 35 percent because they want to. And 25 percent of those surveyed said they expect they’ll need to work until at least age 80 because they don’t have sufficient savings.

“People are starting to move toward understanding the different levers of what they’re going to have to do to make it in retirement,” Ready said.
Maybe Congress will pass a law forcing all retail store to hire all available candidates over 65 year of age as greeters.  So as you go into your Wal-Mart to pick up your $30 tube of toothpaste, you will get requiste 44 greetings.

My struggles with Blogger pretty much tell me I a turning into a fossil, and I am not even close to 65.  Who in their right mind think that TYPICAL people are going to be useful for anything when they are 70.  By mathematical necessity half of them are already below average within their cohort.

Note: Blogger has decided to behave better tonight.....Nice blogger,  nice blogger.

As a post script:  Six Bears (probably looking at the same originating article) has an interesting take on the same subject he put his to press first and has some interesting examples.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Apocalyptic Wizard of Oz

I am (obviously) more into books than movies, but I did think this one (for trailer go to link) was interesting.  A lot of tense interpersonal moments in a post apocalyptic road trip.

Wizard of OZ goes apocalyptic in 5 SHELLS

Sort of why I put Quiet Earth on my blog list:  need to keep up with all the media choices while we still have them? LOL

5 Shells

Death notes of Platonic Love

There is more to Plato’s dialogs than meets the eyes.  In fact you must also use your ears (ht MR from here).

Plato, you may recall , is famous for his Allegory of the Cave in the Republic (Wikipedia).

In the dialogue, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. 

Jay Kennedy of the University of Manchester has added some nuances to what we understand of Plato,  making the following claims- a musical claim:

[E]ach dialogue was divided into twelve parts. At each twelfth, i.e., at 1/12, 2/12, etc., Plato inserted passages to mark the notes of a musical scale. This regular structure resembles a known Greek scale. According to Greek musical theory, some notes in such a scale are harmonious (if they form a small whole number ratio with the twelfth note) and the others are dissonant or neutral. Plato's symbolic passages are correlated with the relative values of the musical notes. At more harmonious notes, Plato has passages about virtue, the forms, beauty, etc.; at the more dissonant notes, there are passages about vice, negation, shame, etc. This correlation is one kind of strong evidence that the structure is a musical scale.

This musical structure can be studied rigorously because it is so regular. Subsequent work will show that other symbols are used to embed Pythagorean doctrines in the surface narratives. It is surprising that Plato could deploy an elaborate symbolic scheme without disturbing the surface narratives of the dialogues, but in this respect he does not differ from other allegorical writers like Dante or Spenser.

Note that this actually has some impact on how you interpret certain passages.  Plato has often been thought of as a proponent of non-sexual love affairs.  It is where the term Platonic Love came from.

However, Professor Kennedy’s most recent work shows this not to be the case:

In the Symposium- Plato’s great play about love and sex – cheap attempts to trade sex for profit or favor sit above dissonant notes in the musical scale showing Plato’s disapproval.  But passages about erotic passion born of an abiding love for another’s soul sit on top of some of the most harmonic notes, meaning he accepted sex as part of true love.

There is some discussion about a book that is to help decode Plato’s work but they apparently are not yet available.  There are some PDFs that can be found.  One introduction,  Plato’s Forms, Pythagorean Mathematics, and Stichometry, and some sample chapters The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues.
Illustration from Professor Kennedy's Website

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Absolute limits: running out of stuff

Robin Hanson is an economist at George Mason University who likes to push the bounds of discourse.  At times he finds a useful hammer, and all our problems become nails.  But we all tend have our favorite overworked tools – mine is a battery drill.

He is the origination point of my old cannibalism posts. Not too many economists will address the economics of cannibalism.

Here he addresses the limits of growth.  But rather than complain about the impracticalities of exponential growth, he goes directly to the heart of the matter.  When you run of stuff – all the stuff in the galaxy to be exact – you cannot have growth.

Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias, 16 October 2011.

Once upon a time, down on the farm, ordinary lives had few options. Only a few neighbors were available as friends or lovers, only a few careers were possible, and most careers had rather predictable daily schedules… By contrast, cities, travel, and even war offered many exciting possibilities. Fiction celebrated these things, and fiction itself offered even more possible experiences…

[E]ndless expanding possibility seems central to our modern view. We all “know” that new techs expand our possibilities, and an endless series of new techs lie ahead, each more unpredictable than the last. Science fiction emphasizes a blizzard of strange futures, from which most folks take the lesson that the future is so unpredictable that there is little point thinking about it. Most think we can’t even count on basic physics, as new paradigms could change everything…

But in the long run, this faith in endless possibility is completely wrong…

Yes, our physics isn’t the last word, for but for most practical purposes it is damn close. New physics will only make a difference in incredibly unusual cases. Our understanding of basic economics is also hardly the last word, but we still understand enough for it to give useful insights into future societies.

In an earlier post of his, he further elaborated:

Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias, 28 September 2011

Per-capita wealth has only been rising lately because income has grown faster than population. But if income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.

Note that to some degree you can argue that there are more possibilities than there are discreet units.  That is why there are more stock mutual funds than there are actual types of stocks to purchase- although not more than there are actual shares of stocks.

But at the point where your model requires a larger growth factor than there are atoms in the galaxy, you are likely starting to run into problems.  And if you are saying – “We will go to other galaxies – he has thought of that. The short answer- if there was not a hard limit on inter-galactic travel, the aliens would already be here.  He answers some (foolish in my mind) critics in an enjoyably esoteric piece – here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupying Assumptions

Now that the Occupiers are temporarily unoccupied, I thought I would bring up an interesting piece from The Christian Science Monitor: an online publication.

The Christian Science Monitor, a periodical that was founded on the principal of non-sensationalist journalism has an interesting piece on the demographics of the Occupy Wall Street Crowd in Zuccotti Park in New York City.  While they are not the only “occupy” movement, they are the group closest to Wall Street.

Gloria Goodale, Christian Science Monitor, 1 November 2011 (Hat tip: NC).

·         60 percent voted for Obama

·         73 percent disapprove of Obama’s job performance

·         97 percent disapprove of congress’ performance

·         42  percent will for the Democratic candidate in their U.S. House District

·         Less than 2% will vote for the Republican candidate in their U.S. House District

·         78% think the economy has gotten worse

·         75% view the Tea Party unfavorably

·         The average age is 33

The article then discusses financing.

Another somewhat surprising aspect of the movement regards its financing. According to the online pay site, its donation numbers show that the overwhelming online support comes from “average, middle-class donors,” says chief executive officer Bill Clerico.
 “The vast majority of those giving have incomes in the $50,000 to $100,000 range,” he says. The median donation amount is $22, while the average rises to $60, which shows that there are a few “very large donations sending the average amount higher,” adds Mr. Clerico. To date, his company has processed more than $325,000 in donations to Occupy Wall Street.

They did not make note of a large group of homeless people within the crowds.  Given the heavy play made of this issue at the partisan (the other way) Fox News, one wonders if this isn’t at least in part a “tempest in a teapot” issue.

If I were to characterize them, I would call them relatively young democrat leaning swing voters.  Thirty-three does not sound particularly old, but with all the advance degrees and internships needed to get going in the high-pay atmosphere of New York City, a lot of these people have spent a lot of time working toward high paying positions only to be disappointed.  A typical Lawyer isn’t even going to get their first real job until they are 27.

The income distribution of donors indicates that most of them are college educated with a leaning toward advanced degrees.  I imagine that a number of them fit the profile of the small donors that contributed to Obama’s first presidential campaign, but are holding back now.

The commonality with the Tea Party, besides the overlap with the anti-corporate bailout meme, to my mind is that you have the enfranchised middle class demonstrating for its own perceived benefit.   The older Tea Party did not want to disband Social Security payments, and the younger Occupiers want student debt relief.  Note that both of these items are transfer payments:  Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme after three years of payment, and debt relief is going to go against government (tax payer) backed loans.

Given the emphasis on benefits, both groups appear to be under the impression that we can continue to have the expansionary (mathematically challenged) compounding growth economics that have held sway for the very short period of time known as the industrial revolution.  They view the machine as temporarily broken, rather than being permanently out (or starved) of fuel.

Maybe they are correct.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ghost town America growing

We have had a number of discussions about the plight of small town America. However, in a few areas the small towns are not dying out. They are either maintaining their numbers, or actually growing. What is unsettling to some of the residents though is that the group that is expanding is Hispanic immigrants.

Hispanics Reviving Faded Towns on the Plains
Steve Hebert, New York Times, 14 November 2011

ULYSSES, Kan. - Change can be unsettling in a small town. But not long ago in this quiet farming community, with its familiar skyline of grain elevators and church steeples, the owner of a new restaurant decided to acknowledge the community's diversity by adding some less traditional items to her menu. Cheeseburgers. French fries. Chicken-fried steak.

"American food," the restaurant owner, Luz Gonzalez, calls it. And she signaled her move by giving her Mexican restaurant a distinctly American name: "The Down-Town Restaurant."

In the case of Ulysses, the town featured in the article, half of its 6,160 person population is Hispanic.

The big change in the area is that they are pushing out of the larger towns, and expanding into the smaller communities.  This is not too surprising.  Many of the Hispanic immegrants come from small towns themselves and are more comfortable in that environment.  North Carolina, which is a State full of small towns with relatively few cities, has experienced exactly the same phenomina.  I suspect the big difference is that North Carolina started with so much larger of an overall population that it the cultural shift is not as large.

The U.S. population would be aging and dwindling if it were not for immigration.  Since the immigrants are younger, it is natural that they are going to slowly replace the earlier population groups.  After all, how many native Dutch (German) speakers are there in the Bronx?

There is of course hostility in some quarters, but as time goes on people do tend to get used to each other.  As the Mayor of Ulysses noted:

"At first every community, including Ulysses, was very unwelcoming, but a lot of that was because we wanted to hold on so tight to what we were," he said. "In the last five years, we've really seen that they're here, they're staying, they're part of the community. We've kind of gotten used to each other."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Back to the land

Following is a very worthwhile post from Freakonomics.

Although not clearly addressed in the post, it is again bringing into focus the difference between what is efficient and what is sustainable.  They are not the same thing.  Sustainable production of any sort should have built in redundancies that will tend to mitigate against maximizing output.

Local production is all about having lots of litte (redundant) sources of supply so that you are not putting all your eggs in one basket - so to speak.  I think that is an extremely worthwhile goal, but I also think we should stop kiddding ourselves into thinking there is no cost associated with it.

One possible trade off they did not seem to mention was to add more labor into the equation to trade off against lower inputs in other areas.  I suspect that this can be done.  If I had to point at an example I would suggest that the various small homestead farms (see all my blog links) probably have more output per area than the mass production facilities.   But they are not likely to be people efficient compared to the factory-food producers.  Some of the early agrarian societies produced a lot of food, they just didn't produce a lot of net food:  the people farming it ate it all up.

So one way to support our large population might be form more of us to go back to the land.  If food had more labor inputs involved the increased cost of food would certainly be an imputes to at least more urban gardening.  Of course going back to the land with an aging population is not easy.

The Inefficiency of Local Food
Steve Secton Freakonomics 14 November 2011 (hat tip: Big Picture)

Two members of Congress earlier this month introduced legislation advancing a food reform movement promising to help resolve the great environmental and nutritional problems of the early 21st century. The intent is to remake the agricultural landscape to look more like it did decades ago. But unless the most basic laws of economics cease to hold, the smallholder farming future envisioned by the local farming movement could jeopardize natural habitat and climate change mitigation efforts, while also endangering a tenuous and temporary victory in the battle against human hunger...

In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat and worsen environmental pollution.

In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat and worsen environmental pollution.

(blogger is being uncooperative: thus the unusual quote format above)

As a secondary note, the blog post mentions that it is not particularly clear that local production is particularly green.  To the extent that green is equated with the efficient use of resources, that is a reasonable point.

Of course Wired has an article on this little guy (gal?) that might help as well:

Agricultural Droid (see article)