Saturday, March 30, 2013

Archer Garrett's latest book released

Just an FYI to you folks that are interested in Archer Garrett's work.  I reviewed his Western Front book a little while back, and he has now released his latest book in the series, the Nine of the North (NotN).  As the fourth book in the Western Front universe, it picks up where Kratocracy left off.   He has posted free chapters at his Blog.
There is definitely some prepping, and collapsing going on here, but the part of the blurb where it is noted-
tentacles of darkness have inevitably traveled across the Atlantic and are now tightening their grip on the American republic.
- sounds maybe a bit more like a militia-style fiction than I prefer.  But that is me, I know a lot of people love that type of writing, and with Rawles seeming to have jumped the shark, other sources must be found. So I am passing on the information.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Collapsing Phoenix

This is the best catastrophe piece I have read in an ostensibly non-apocalyptic venue for some time.  There is a longish introduction that notes the comparison to one of collapsed empire pieces, Chaco Canyon.

Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs
William DeBuys, as part of a Tomgram Piece, 14 March 2013
If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.
Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.
In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?
This is just the introduction, there is too much fine collapsing apocalyptic visionary logic of the real world type, for me to get too much into the details.  I have heard some similar tales about Tucson, but I gather Phoenix is deeper in the weeds.
Note that this Phoenix also once had a much wetter climate.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Collapsed Empires: Tuʻi Tonga Empire

We continue on with our Pacific Ocean themed collapsed empires.  Lest you thing these were rare one-offs, today's empire was in existence at the same time as the Nan Madol empire we covered yesterday.  They were neighbors.  Neighbors in the Pacific Ocean distance sense of being only 4,250 km (2,640 miles) apart.

This empire, also has a new contemporary edge, as it was adopted into Civilization V the computer game of conquest, as one of the possible contenders to world domination.  One presumes their special skill in the game is long distance voyaging.
Per Wikipedia, the "Tuʻi Tonga Empire" or "Tongan Empire" in Oceania are descriptions sometimes given to Tongan expansionism and projected hegemony dating back to 950AD, but at its peak during the period 1200–1500.
The Wikipedia editors also rather shrillishly notes that we don't have a lot of evidence of one continuous dynasty ruling through this period.  As with a lot of these collapsed empires, outside of the ruins, and a few ancestral tales, we often know very little at all. 

The largest architectural remains are the relatively numerous Langi (from the official site):
The construction of the massive tombs, or langi, was a way to demonstrate the spiritual and political power of the Tu’i Tonga. 
Langi's are platforms of earth with a stepped pyramid effect supported by carefully placed retaining walls. One of several stone vaults was built under the flat top of the structure which covered with smooth black volcanic stones of equal size called kilikili. A dwelling structure was then built over the grave to protect it.
Some of the stones used to make the Langi are believed to have come from 'Uvea (current day Wallis Island) and Futuna. Songs and stories recall when double-hulled canoes (lomi peau) bridged with spacious decks travelled across the seas and brought back the large stone slabs. Some of the other materials used were limestone taken from the reefs and transported across land using large wooden skids and manually towed by rope. 
Large numbers of workers were needed to construct the Langi, as some stones measure up to 18 feet in length. Evidence still remains of the ancient quarries across Tonga where large basalt axes were used to hew the stones.
As with a number of other cultures, what we mostly know about them is  their few solid stone made structures.  It is important to remember that much of the detailed information we have of the Romans was preserved by groups of monks copying their documents.  No copying monks: not much history:  Just ask the Phoenicians.

The Langi Paepae 'o Tele'a (possibly the foundation of some sort of burriel mound?)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Collapsed Empires: Nan Madol-Pohnpei

I have occasionally posted on collapsed empires and societies beyond the usual Maya, Southwest Indian, Roman groups that are beat to death by the usual collapse suspects  (Tainter and company).  Too much is extrapolated from too few data points.  I try to pick the lesser known one because people don't realize how many, and how far flung they are.  There are empires that were noted a number of times in ancient texts, that are so badly lost to time that archaeologists still argue which ruins belong to them.  It's as if people in 2,000 years were arguing about which set of ruins was Washington DC, and which ones are London.

Well we will go to a new area for us.  The Pacific Ocean.  Ocean had a number of geographically enormous empires.  The populations were small by necessity, but the geographic spread of the central empirical influence was huge.

Nan Madol-Pohnpei was a smallish pacific island empire.  It is Northeast of Papua New Guinia (2,200km), north and east of Australia (slightly over 4,000km from Brisbane).  As part of Micronesia, the inhabitants are, I gather, a related group to the Polynesians.
And they had an empire.  An empire we know a little about because they left some very impressive remains behind, and because there were some stories told by their surviving ancestors.  But we don't know for sure how long it lasted (could be as early as 100 A.D. to somewhere close to 1700), and we don't know how they built the only ancient city situated on a coral reef.

Nan Madol-Pohnpei
Nan Madol reportedly was the ceremonial and political seat of the Sau Deleur dynasty which united Pohnpei's estimated 25,000 people in late prehistoric times.Oral history as well as archaeological evidence substantiate Nan Madol's position as the island's preeminent political and religious center up until the A.D. 1500s when the centralized system collapsed.
Today Nan Madol forms an archaeological district covering more than 18 sq. km and includes the stone architecture built up on a coral reef flat along the shore of Temwen Island (Nan Madol Central), several other artificial islets, and the adjacent Pohnpei main island coastline.The site core with its stone walls encloses an area approximately 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide and it contains nearly 100 artificial islets--stone and coral fill platforms--bordered by tidal canals.It estimated that between 500,000 and 750,000 metric tons of building material were transported from varying distances into the site...
Nan Madol: The City Built on Coral Reefs
Christopher Pala, Smithsonian Magazine, 3 November 2009
Nan Madol is composed of 92 artificial islands spread over 200 acres abutting Pohnpei’s mangrove-covered shore. Most of it was built from the 13th to the 17th centuries by the Saudeleurs, descendants of two brothers of unknown provenance who founded a religious community in the sixth century focused on the adoration of the sea. On their third attempt to build their political, religious and residential center, they settled on this patch of coral flats. They and their successors brought from the other side of the island columns of black lava rock up to 20 feet long that are naturally pentagonal or hexagonal and straight. They used them in a log cabin formation to build outer walls as well as foundations filled in with lumps of coral to create elevated platforms where traditional thatched structures were used as lodgings. Even with all the sunshine in the world washing over the thick green jungle and aquamarine water beyond, the unadorned black architecture is intimidating. 
Besides the elegance of the walls and platforms, there is no carving, no art – nothing except legend to remember the people, called the Saudeleur, who ruled the island for more than a millennium. They were deeply religious and sometimes cruel, and modern Pohnpeians view the ruins as a sacred and scary place where spirits own the night.
The famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft apparently used Nan Madol as part of his inspiration for the sunken R'lyeh where Cthulhu sleeps.

Thumbnail from slide show at Smithsonian link.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Honey not so sweet

Or rather than not being sweet enough, we should say "honey that isn't all honey".

Not surprisingly with food adulteration cases, the Chinese are involved in the mix.

Mark Lallanilla, Live Science via Business Insider, 20 March 2012 (hat tip: NC)
Food-safety experts have found that much of the honey sold in the United States isn't actually honey, but a concoction of corn or rice syrup, malt sweeteners or "jiggery" (cheap, unrefined sugar), plus a small amount of genuine honey, according to Wired UK
Worse, some honey — much of which is imported from Asia — has been found to contain toxins like lead and other heavy metals, as well as drugs like chloramphenicol, an antibiotic, according to a Department of Justice news release
This international "honey-laundering" scandal has now resulted in a Justice Department indictment of two U.S. companies and the charging of five people with selling mislabeled honey that also contained chloramphenicol.Honey Solutions of Baytown, Texas, and Groeb Farms of Onsted, Mich., have agreed to pay millions of dollars in fines and implement corporate compliance measures following a lengthy Justice Department investigation.
They are lucky it was the Feds going after them.  In North Carolina, a food producer who adulterated his “Glutton Free” received an 8-year sentence.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The death of psychology

 A lot of experimental psychology assumes that the basic drives and needs of humans is on some level universal.  We all eat, we all sleep, most of us eventually have some sort of family.
But when a psychologist goes off to the deep rain forest and gives those same standard test that much of modern behavioral research is based on, the results came back very different than the norm.
Mark McGinnis, Pacific Standard, 25 February 2013 (hat tip: Big Picture)
The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?
The piece goes on to note that (surprise, surprise) cultural differences are a much mare basic divider of human attitudes, and than the post-war academia had been willing to accept.  The difficulty with this finding is that it my very well lead to believe that some cultures are inherently "superior" to others.
And in fact, as they went further on, they eventually came to the conclusion that the worst group that you could choose to find out about "universal" attitudes and perceptions was Western European derived society.  Their eventual conclusion:

The Weirdest People in the World (pdf)
Joseph Henrich, Unversity of British Columbia, 5 March 2009
Broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on narrow samples from Western societies are regularly published. Are such species‐generalizing claims justified? This review suggests not only substantial variability in experimental results across populations in basic domains, but that standard subjects are unusual compared with the rest of the species—outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, spatial reasoning, moral reasoning, thinking‐styles, and self‐concepts. This suggests (1) caution in addressing questions of human nature from this slice of humanity, and (2) that understanding human psychology will require broader subject pools.
For myself, I think the Western Culture has an awful lot of advantages.  But given that we are the first to collectively act in a way that would blow up the world in one big nuclear holocaust, and seem to despoil much of the natural world in an effort to keep our current economic paradigm going, I am not sure if "the best" is an automatic assumption.  Weird, I think actually fits pretty well.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Everyone leaves town

So when the going gets tough, how long do people stick it out.  The following discussion is based around the Hurricane Sandy + global warming issue, but could be extended to any number of scenarios where the danger has a reasonable time frame of recurring.

Can We Predict When People Will Abandon the Jersey Shore?
David Levitan, Discover magazine, 20 March 2013 (no hat tip)

Diamond City, North Carolina, is not actually a city, in that no one actually lives there. People did live there, though, back in 1899. That was when a major hurricane hit the community, on a small barrier island near Cape Hatteras. Homes were destroyed, animals were killed, and graves were uncovered or washed away in the storm according to a conservation group in the area. By 1902, all 500 residents in Diamond City had picked up and left.
The people there didn’t have computer climate models, or rapidly rising seas, or any understanding of increasing storm vulnerability; they just had a desire not to deal with what they assumed would be a constant problem. That problem, of course, is one that anyone living on the East Coast is confronting, especially with the waters of Hurricane Sandy still slowly receding from our coastal consciousness. The question is, when should people in New Jersey, Long Island, Maryland, and elsewhere start thinking about leaving behind their own versions of Diamond City?...
Straw that breaks the camel’s back
McNamara says that locales are particularly vulnerable to desertion if the economics aren’t good to begin with. “Right before [a major] storm the financial returns on their investment are just barely overwhelming the costs of being there, but then the storm comes,” McNamara says. “That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Presently the model paints a general picture, but the researchers are working on adapting it for use in specific communities, essentially predicting when certain coastal property has negative value and the residents simply get up and leave. In general, though? Sea level rise of 10 mm per year could send some of America’s coastal residents running inside of 50 years from now.
It goes on to note that government disaster aid tends to extend the amount of damage that people are willing to accept in their exposed positions.
Note that this is a huge issue further south.  North Carolina, Florida, and the Gulf Coast States in particular have seen a lot of expensive damage over the last few years, and are some of the most frequent direct landfall hits for major hurricanes- North Carolina sticks out further into the Atlantic than South Carolina or Georgia.  That the coastline is a popular retirement destination still boggles my mind.   When I was younger, I always figured that the large homes near the shore in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (leveled by Hurricane Hugo) were the second homes of very wealthy people.  It never occurred to me that someone whose earning years were behind them would risk most of their nest egg in such an exposed location.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Chinese Solar Bust

Solar is getting to be more affordable.  A lot more affordable really.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, it is because the government pushed the industry so hard with easy money that they have far more manufacturing capacity than can be kept productive in an anemic world economy.

This has already had its effect on suppliers outside of China.

From late last year:

Lights Out For China’s Solar Power Industry?
James Parker, The Diplomat, 8 December 2012
...the Chinese drive has been painful to say the least, with bankruptcies already hitting Q-cells and Solon in Germany and Solyndra and Evergreen Solar in the U.S. Trade tensions in the solar sector have inevitably increased, with both the EU and the U.S. bringing cases against China for dumping and unfair subsidies, which include underpriced financing, back home.
And this was already having extreme problems at home in China:
The other result is that LDK, Suntech, Yingli and other Chinese firms are all on the verge of bankruptcy. During the boom years, they borrowed heavily to fund their investments. Now that prices have collapsed in the face of over-supply, Chinese PV firms are effectively incapable of paying back funds.
Well the chickens have come home to roost.

The Chinese bond market has had a suspicious lack of defaults.  Nobody is ever allowed to go bankrupt.  But one gathers that  the numbers are starting to get to large.  And the following piece notes that the Chinese Government wants to consolidate the industry.

On the Brink? China’s Solar Industry Debt Drama
James Parker, The Diplomat, 19 March 2013 (hat tip: Big Picture)
China’s solar industry might soon provide our first modern case study of a company defaulting in China’s bond market, however. Three large solar companies in China—Suntech, Chaori and LDK Solar— are all struggling to meet their debt obligations.
One of the first signs of this was a press statement that Chaori Solar Energy Science & Technology Co. released last month, which warned that it might not be able to make a bond interest payment that was due on March 7th. The press statement further warned that its losses for 2012 may have topped RMB1 billion (U.S. $176 million), a predicament that evidently had caused enough liquidity problems to prompt the release of the statement in the first place. After failing to repay some of its bank loans and creditors, however, Chaori was miraculously bailed out on March 3rd by China Securities Depository & Clearing. Still, its RMB1 billion bond is due by 2017.
Suntech may not prove so lucky in covering the U.S. $541 million of debt repayment that was due on March 15th. The company announced last week that it has convinced 60 percent of the bondholders holding notes due on March 15th to give the company a two month reprieve on the payments. Still, this has resulted in a Partial default on March 16th, opening the way for the other 40 percent of bondholders to begin litigation against the company in U.S. courts.
 I know some people who were working on setting up some solar farms.  Last time I spoke with them Sun Tech was the equipment provider.  They sold slices of the solar farm with the idea that they would keep up the facility (taking a management fee of course) for something like 20 years.  I suspect that their job just got a lot more difficult.  A lot of consumer side electrical utility installation (generators for instance) can install equipment relatively easily: much of it is almost plug and play.  But the servicing side of the equation is very thin.  The pushed down front end prices mean that serious repair work can get to half of the cost of the new hardware pretty quickly.   But unlike a when your toaster oven fires, there is a significant labor cost involved to simply tossing the old, and replacing with new.  If you bought a nice size, in-place, for your home, do you really want to buy a new motor every time a gasket seal goes out?  Obviously, the large commercial/industrial facilities can find a way to make it work.  But the big advantage of solar, is that you can make it so small and decentralized.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sweet retirement

The 401k method of funding personal retirements has been noted for some time as not working very well.   The matching funds that a company provides can be nice, but the fees are often extremely high. The limits to the amount of money that you can put into an IRA (generally around $5,000 a year) are too be more than a bonus amount, and generally require a booming investment market to make the tax reductions worth the withdrawl headaches.
So when the Wall Street Journal has an article saying that workers don't have enough money to retire on, it's not exactly shocking news.
Kelly Greene and Vipal Monga, Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2013
Fifty-seven percent of U.S. workers surveyed reported less than $25,000 in total household savings and investments excluding their homes, according to a report to be released Tuesday by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Only 49% reported having so little money saved in 2008.
The survey also found that 28% of Americans have no confidence they will have enough money to retire comfortably—the highest level in the study's 23-year history.
What I find most discomforting is not that 57% of workers have less than 25,000 in total household savings, but that only 28% have no confidence in being able to retire comfortably.  It is not particularly helpful that as retirees have become more Republican - I guess you could call it the Reagan Cohort - the Democrats have been more willing to take shots at Social Security payments.  It is not the sacred cow that it once was.  Given the size of the baby boom bubble retiring, it propably never could be.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Downsizing our youth and preperations

Our youth may not be getting trimmer waistlines, but they are getting trimmer bank accounts.

Younger Generations Lag Parents in Wealth-Building
Annie Lowrey, New York Times, 14 March 2013 (hat tip MR)
A new study from the Urban Institute finds that Ms. Brady and her peers up to roughly age 40 have accrued less wealth than their parents did at the same age, even as the average wealth of Americans has doubled over the last quarter-century.
Because wealth compounds over long periods of time — a dollar saved 10 years ago is worth much more than a dollar saved today — young adults probably face less secure futures for decades down the road, and even shakier retirements....
A broad range of economic factors has conspired to suppress wealth-building for younger American workers; the trend predates the Great Recession. Younger Americans are facing stagnant pay — the median income, when adjusted for inflation, has declined since its 1999 peak — as well as a housing collapse and soaring student loan debt.

Note that averages tend to overemphasise the input of oversized outliers, like Bill Gates, and the rest of the 1%.

The article is focusing on younger people, but they are not the only ones being hammered

The Changing Wealth of Americans (pdf)
Eugene Steuerle, Signe-Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, and Sisi Zhang, The Urban Institute, March 2013 (hat tip: above noted article)
Today, those in Gen X and Gen Y have accumulated less wealth than their parents did at that age over a quartercentury ago. Their average wealth in 2010 was 7 percent below that of those in their 20s and 30s in 1983. Even before the Great Recession, younger Americans were on a strikingly different trajectory.
The article is focusing on younger people, but they are not the only ones being hammered.  Most of the blue collar work force, and the new black middle class, have not been doing particularly well.  The main difference is that the youth are (hopefully) going to live longer with the the new reality if it continues (hopefully not).

It is also of note for those who like the idea of preparing for future "downturns."   Studies of "preparedness" folks have generally put them predominantly in the "some college" category - a very common category for the blue collar types (the "some" is generally some type of trade-based, or skill-based education) who are getting hammered.  Trying to build a personal safety net is difficult when your own economic situation is becoming more difficult.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The new Soylent

Rob Rhinehart (blog site), a young software engineer, got tire off all the time he was spent forced to prepare and eat food, when he could be doing more interesting things.  So he has developed a new orderless beige mix that he has named Soylent.

This Man Thinks He Never Has to Eat Again
Monica Heisey,, 13 March 2013 (hat tip: MR)
 I wasn't sure if he was trolling at first because that's the name of a wafer made out of human flesh and fed to the masses in the seminal 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green, but then I read the extensive post on Rob's blog about how he came to make the stuff, and I started to believe he was serious. Soylent contains all the nutritive components of a balanced diet but just a third of the calories and none of the toxins or cancer-causing stuff you'd usually find in your lunch of processed foods. Despite the fact that it looks a bit like vomit, Soylent supposedly has the potential to change the entire world's relationship with food, so I spoke to Rob to find out how.
So what’s in Soylent, exactly?
Everything the body needs—that we know of, anyway—vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like essential amino acids, carbohydrates, and fat. For the fat, I just use olive oil and add fish oil. The carbs are an oligosaccharide, which is like sugar, but the molecules are longer, meaning it takes longer to metabolize and gives you a steady flow of energy for a longer period of time rather than a sugar rush from something like fructose or table sugar. I also add some nonessentials like antioxidants and probiotics and lately have been experimenting with nootropics.
And that tastes good?
It tastes very good. I haven't got tired of the taste in six weeks. It's a very "complete" sensation, more sweet than anything. Eating to me is a leisure activity, like going to the movies, but I don't want to go to the movies three times a day.
Well it certainly sounds like it would be a more compact form of sustenance.  I am not sure what the shelf would be.

If I had to take a guess, his life growing up was not about happy family suppers around the dinner table.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unexpected Changes

From AskReddit:
Q:  If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?
A: I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.  I sue it to look at pictures of cats, and get in arguments with strangers.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Why bankers don't get arrested

The title of the following piece is a little confusing.  It is Mary Jo White, who is our beloved President's idea of a good idea for who should run the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), who actually made the revelations.  Ms. Sherod was doing the (on target) questioning.

Senator Sherrod Brown Drops a Bombshell in Mary Jo White’s Hearing
Pam Martins, Wall Street on Parade, 13 March 2013 (hat tip: NC)
Americans learned for the first time on March 6 of this year that the highest law enforcement agent in our country, Attorney General Eric Holder, weighs economic interests when deciding whether to enforce our Nation’s laws against criminal wrongdoers like the too-big-to-fail banks.
The spectacle of warped law enforcement grew worse today during the Senate Banking confirmation hearing of Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under questioning by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), White admitted that even the economy of a foreign country – like Japan – is taken into consideration before bringing a criminal indictment in the U.S. Even worse, White was forced to admit that while working for the U.S. Department of Justice as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (from 1993 to 2002), she considered it appropriate to speak with Larry Summers (a Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration) to weigh the economic impact of bringing an indictment.
The excellent piece goes on to site the verbatim questions and answers.
Of course this type of things happens all the time.  The bank that forecloses on the wrong folks, and guts someones property, doesn't have to worry about criminal proceedings after all.  To some extent there is an (unfortunate at times) deference to those with power, money, or prestige.  But to make it part of the formal process is just a little twisted.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Coming Famine

Some discussions on a recent book by Julian Cribb on the coming famine.  Which also happens to be the title of the book (U.K.)he released in 2010.

First part of an interview:

What Happens When the Food Runs Out?
Wendy Syfret,, January 2013 (hat tip: Wit's End)
[Wendy Syfret:] Is the food crisis the most immediate threat to humanity?
[Julian Cribb:] It’s quite simply the biggest threat to humanity. You can argue what is the most urgent threat, but if we can’t successfully feed 10 billion people we’re all in a lot of trouble, and the GFC and even climate change are going to look very much like secondary issues.
Cities rely entirely on a river of trucks that come in every night to restock the shops. If there is a big fuel crisis or a war, you’re going to see cities of 10 or 20 million people starving.
So what are we talking about? Cities becoming giant, starving prisons?
In the next 20 or 30 years we'll witness one or more of the mega cities actually starving. We’ve all got smart phones, you will actually see this happening on TV. We know what happens when a city starves, because it happened towards the end of World War II in Eastern Europe. I think the world is in for a big shock because we haven’t prepared ourselves. Our cities are not sustainable in terms of their food supply. They’re unready for their food supply to be cut off.
Are you referring to any cities in particular?
No they’re all equally at risk, they're all equally prodigal in their waste of resources. They throw away half their food and all their water. Nearly all cities in the world are extremely dangerously designed. The people who live in them have no idea what a narrow thread their survival actually hangs on. There is bound to be an accident sooner or later and a city, or cities will run short of food. And then people will see some pretty graphic things happening.
Here we have a recent paper put out by his group.  In this paper
The Coming Famine: risks and solutions for global food security (pdf)
Julian Cribb & Assoc., Discussion Paper, 2010 (hat tip:
Most of us have by now heard the forecast there will be 9.2 billion people in the world of 2050. But current projections suggest human numbers will not stop there – but will keep on climbing, to at least 11.4 billion, by the mid 2060s.
Equally, the world economy will continue to grow – and China, India and other advancing economies will require more protein food. Thus, global demand for food will more than double over the coming half‐century, as we add another 4.7 billion people. By then we will eat around 600 quadrillion calories a day, which is the equivalent of feeding 14 billion people at today’s nutritional levels.
The central issue in the human destiny in the coming half century is not climate change or the global financial crisis. It is whether humanity can achieve and sustain such an enormous harvest.

And this gets to my primary point of contention with many of the peak-this, and peak-that discussions.  In the end its peak-peaple, or maybe slightly modified to peak-consumption-by-people.  In the end though, if you get enough people, lowering some peoples consumption only gets you so far.

While I think the food issue has some of the closest linkages, its as secondary to the true peak-concern as that whole host of other problems that start with "peak-".

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Energy crises Britain

The impetus for the immediate concern are new anti-pollution laws that are shutting down a number of coal fired electrical plants.  That Britain has been beyond the point of "peak coal" since around 1920 is not discussed.

Britain 'on the brink' of energy crisis, warns regulator
Rowena Mason, The Telegraph (U.K.), 19 February 2013 (hat tip: NC)
The UK would face “the horror” of greater reliance on gas just as its cost on world markets was expected to rise, he said.
The average household energy bill is more than £1,400 following a series of increases in the past six months. Prices have risen by almost a fifth in the past four years. Mr Buchanan told the BBC that nuclear power, many wind farms and clean coal technology would not be available until after 2020.
“So we’ll lean on gas and gas will account for about 60 per cent of our power station needs instead of 30 per cent as it does today,” he said
The usual complaints center on the government waiting too long to do something.  Of course, here in North Carolina, we are thinking about rolling back any incentives to alternative energy.  Some delusional freshman Republicans idea of free market thinking- as if you would find a real, non-incentivized free market anywhere.  That would be like free market banking.  That a number of North Carolina companies are on the cutting edge of some of this technology is also apparently beside the point.
British Peak Coal (from here)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Slavery in modern practise

Slavery, using the more expansive definition, is still with us.
But what it actually entails is not always well defined.
Quentin Hardy, New York Times, 6 March 2013 (hat tip: Economist's View) Note: sorry about the odd formatting here.  I just can't seem to get the bugs out.

The lifetime profit on a brickmaking slave in Brazil is $8,700, and $2,000 in India. Sexual slavery brings the slave’s owner $18,000 over the slave’s working life in Thailand, and $49,000 in Los Angeles.
While slavery is illegal across the globe, the SumAll Foundation noted, there are 27 million slaves worldwide, more than in 1860, when there were 25 million. Most are held in bonded servitude, particularly after taking loans they could not repay. Slaves cost slightly more now, with a median price of $140, compared with $134 per human then. Debt slaves cost on average $60; trafficked sex slaves cost $1,910... 
On average today, a person is a slave for six years, after which the person usually escapes, repays the debts holding them, or dies. Most of the world’s slaves are in South Asia. 
Fishing appears to be the most common occupation of child slaves — practiced this way in Cambodia, Ghana, Uganda, Indonesia, the Philippines and Peru. In Madagascar, children are enslaved to gather stones.
The various pricing differences are no doubt issues of supply, demand, risks, and costs.  Bodies are plentiful, suitably healthy or attractive bodies are not.
I doubt many are getting out by escaping.  The typical problem for slaves is that they have no place to escape to.  A lot of what you are seeing is debt peonage, where people are working off their own, or their families debts.  So long as their is a plentiful supply of workers, there is no particular reason to keep people forever.  Working people hard, with a mutual understanding that there is a set time limit with good behavior is a low cost incentive.
Child work laws in the United States changed when the factory floor became too complicated for children to work.  There was almost no success in curbing the practise until it was generally felt that education was the better societal investment.  Although there were some partial successes, the Fair Labor Standard Act was not passed until 1938.

Monday, March 11, 2013


One problem I think many people have when looking at events going forward is having an assuredness about the correctness of their thinking and the solidity of the foundations of their belief system.  In general most people are so tied into a very localized, situational understanding of the world, that it is very difficult them to extrapolate outside of the system.

So if you look at changes beyond our current here and now, people are lost at sea.

This of course is why people look to the philosophers.  To find a deeper meaning to our place in the world.

The problem is that while the Nihilists  may have been fended off for the moment, Wittgenstein has not.

Was Wittgenstein Right?
Paul Horwich, New York Times Opinion, 3 March 2013 (hat tip: NC)
The singular achievement of the controversial early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was to have discerned the true nature of Western philosophy — what is special about its problems, where they come from, how they should and should not be addressed, and what can and cannot be accomplished by grappling with them. The uniquely insightful answers provided to these meta-questions are what give his treatments of specific issues within the subject — concerning language, experience, knowledge, mathematics, art and religion among them — a power of illumination that cannot be found in the work of others.
A reminder of philosophy’s embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.
Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.
If [we think otherwise], then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.
As Wittgenstein put it in the “The Blue Book”:
Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.

I am not overly enamored with taking this concept too far.  I don't think science is meaningless, I just think it is very hard to derive higher truths from it.  You can figure out how to make things work in peculiar ways, but it won't tell you if its a good idea.  Which

Friday, March 8, 2013

The chicken drones come home to roost

I pulled this long quote, from an even longer, blistering, piece on the upcoming 10th Anniversary of W.Bush's invasion of Iraq at TomDispatch.  The noteworthy point of the piece is that beyond going into the foolishness of two administrations, and our cultures inability to win its battles, little less wars, it critizes our lack of critical thinking. In this case our inability to realize when we have lost. 

I pulled this part of the article aside because it takes place so late in the day, and thus cannot be viewed as early in the learning curve.  Michael Lind somewhere around 2006, was noting that he realized that we had no clue, and had lost the peace when our anti-insurgency campaign involved using the Air Force to bomb Iraq train stations.  In the brilliance of our time, Lind, who is clearly a militarist and deeply admires the German Czar, has been labeled as an extreme liberal because of his attacks on Bush's, and our military's inept policies.  That someone who supports the German Czar, is published in Salon says something for our day's odd political discourse.

As a note, the General Ray Odierno below was first made notable in the 2006 book Fiasco, for his inept heavy handed methods with the Iraq populace that did so much to help welcome the Talaban into the arms of preciously secularist Sunni Arabs.  He became famous when troops under his command captured Saddam Hussein.  I have never figured out what the bases for his repeated promotions were, other than he does not seems to be able avoid the  public embarrassments that McChrystal or "All In" Petraeus spectacularly accomplished.

Mission Unaccomplished: Why the Invasion of Iraq Was the Single Worst Foreign Policy Decision in American History ; Peter Van Buren, Tom, 7 March 2013 (no ht); links in original.
By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere...
[T]he U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or... um... grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn't a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America's rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care...
Note that we re-elected Bush after the first round of this fiasco, and it was not much of an issue in the Obama's re-election.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lost farm and ranch land

We are going to need to feed 10 billion people with less land.

Texas and Montana Lost 3.7 Million Acres of “Land in Farms” Last Year
K. McDonald, Big Picture Agriculture, 26 February 2013 (hat tip: Early Warning)
In 2012, 3 million fewer acres were farmed, to total 914 million acres. That net number is a result of losses of 4.1 million acres in some states and gains of 1.1 million acres in other states. The states which gained farmland acres were Georgia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia...
There are 2.2 million farms in the U.S. The USDA’s definition of a farm is “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year”.
The total number of farms decreased by 11,630 last year and the average farm size increased by 1 acre, to 421 acres...
Farms with cattle operations decreased by 1 percent in 2012, and those with milk cows decreased 3 percent. Hog, sheep, and goat operations all decreased by 1 percent.
Texas led the losses in state acreage farmed at a whopping 2 million acres lost, due to their drought conditions and cattle ranching. Montana was next with a loss of 1.7 million acres, also attributed to cattle ranching.

Note that water, because most processes need so much of it, is one of the more difficult items to transport unless you have gravity on your side.  You occasionally see the post apocalyptic story where people are paying as much for water as for gasoline.  It just isn't going to happen.  You just need too much of the stuff to make that work.  If the Southwest were to become a New Sahara, people would simply move somewhere else.  If borders started to intervene, than there might be some fighting.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Popular revolutions -aren't

The revived discussion of the Revolutionary War founders of the United States, has brought about a some discussion of potential revolutions today.
One problem at a lot of looks at revolutionary movements is that they tend to take a retrospective fix on movements that are successful.
But most movements aren't successful.  They don't even get to the stage where street protests, or armed resistance threaten the existing regime.
Most rebellions are unpopular, and fail.

Early Stage Rebellions Are Never Safe, Comfortable or Popular
Chris Hedges, Truthout, 25 February 2012 (hat tip: NC)
The White Rose has been lionized by postwar Germans—one of its members, Alexander Schmorell, was made a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church last year, and squares and schools in Germany are named for the resisters—but in the BBC interview Furst-Ramdohr curtly dismissed the adulation of the group.
“At the time, they’d have had us all executed,” she said in speaking of most Germans’ hatred of resisters during the war.
Although history has vindicated resistance groups such as the White Rose and plotters such as von dem Bussche, they were desperately alone, reviled by the wider public and forced to defy the law, their oaths of national allegiance, and public opinion. The resisters, once exposed, were condemned in vitriolic terms by most of the German public, and their lopsided trials were state-choreographed lynchings. Von dem Bussche said that even after the war he was spat upon as he walked down a city street. He and those like him who made a moral choice to physically defy evil teach us something extremely important about rebellion. It is, when it begins, not safe, comfortable or popular. Those rare individuals who have the moral and physical courage to resist must accept that they will be pariahs. They must live outside the law. And they must be prepared to be condemned.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Last Man Standing: A Review

Davide Longo's The Last Man Standing (translation by Silvester Mazzarella) (Amazon U.K.) is a slow-burn apocalypse-in-progress set in Northern Italy somewhere around 2025.  At the start of the story we are seeing a general economic collapse, that reads like a slightly more extreme version of what is going on in Greece today.  Month by month the situation becomes far more serious.

Davide Longo (bio from here) was born in Carmognola, Italy (1971),  graduated with
honours in Language and Literature (majoring in Cinematography) and attended the Masters Course for narrative technique at the Holden School of Turin where he graduated winning a Scholarship for
Merit. Since 1999 he has been a teacher at Holden School of Turin (the famous Baricco school).

In 2001 his historical novel Un Mattino a Irgalem was published by Marcos y Marcos, winning the Premio Grinzane for best first novel and the Via Po Award.Longo's second novel Il Mangiatore di Pietre received wonderful critical acclaim and won the Premio Città di Bergamo and the Premio Viadana.  Besides novels, Longo writes books for children, short stories and articles and his texts are also used in musical and theatre productions. writes a variety of articles for publication, children's books, and novels.  The Last Man Standing is his third novel for adults.
The story starts off with a disgraced author-professor, who has returned to his childhood home (unnamed) after a scandal with a young student, on an excursion to collect up some valuable olive oil from a nearby city.  Travel is getting difficult, and the rule of law is breaking down in degrees, if not completely collapsing just yet.  Currency is holding is still holding some of its value.

What makes this novel exceptional is the way that it takes you step by step through a very slow, but none-the-less very complete, collapse.  The narrative viewpoint is strictly through the eyes of the disgraced author.  Although his situation in the countryside is not too bad at first, small troubles start turning into larger troubles.  As our "hero" takes various courses of action, they are sometimes successful.  But when you have to roll-the-dice for too many successes in a row, the inevitable mistakes are made.  Sometimes, it is innocent or helpful strangers who pay the price, sometimes it is his loved one.  The book does an excellent job of portraying the lack reliable information, the uneveness of the setting, the highly variable reactions of otherwise civilized people.

The time frame does not move far enough into the future, and the causes of the collapse are not so severe as to become like McCarthey's The Road, but there is some of that flavor at the end.  The Road, but with a twist.  Relatively late in the book, while taken captive by some feral youths, he is thrown into a wagon-jail cell.  A jail cell that happens to be a circus wagon, and that he is sharing with the slightly worn, and battered, but still very much alive elephant.  Although the elephant is very much out of place in a collapsed Italy, it does have the advantage that it can eat unprocessed greenery.  He and the elephant eventually continue on their way with the various crew of family and friends that have clung together in desperation.

Even with the whimsy, and symbolism, of the elephant, the author is far more thoughtful about what happens in a collapse than most.  Gangs of youths, and gangs of ex-military men, are a severe problem.  As time goes on, even the military units that try and hold together run out of food and fuel and melt away.  The violent gangs prey on those who cannot muster sufficient defenses, but it is lifestyle with a relatively short expiration date.  Most towns become ruins, but a handful, particularly those with old fortifications, are able to barricade themselves, and apparently grow enough food, to keep themselves a going concern.  The collapse is complete, but it is obvious that it will not be eternal.

I enjoyed the book very much.  Within the very narrow category of realistic apocalypse-in-progress, it has few rivals for literary merit.  I have never made a top ten, or top five type list for the type, but I would certainly consider including it in that category.

We come to our two descriptive ratings: Realism and Readability: 1 to 7; 4 is the mid-point, 7 is high.

Realism is fairly easy.  It starts out at the incredibly mundane level.  A disgraced writer-professor, trying to scrounge up some increasingly difficult food commodities for the village he lives in, and slowly unwinds from there.  It pays closer attention to the logistics, and problems of countryside survival in a collapse than is typically seen.   It is a 7.

Readability is also fairly straightforward.  The language and writing style (via translation) are excellent.  It is not a page turner, and with an author as the protagonist there is some navel gazing, but it does move along fairly well.  It is a literary 6.