Friday, July 24, 2015

An interesting "effect" of an economic-banking crash

If your typical prepper-novelist was writing the real life story of Greece, they probably would have had them raping in pillaging in the streets a year ago.  Or certainly the first time someone went to an ATM machine and couldn't get their money out!
I knew some of the fallout from reading Ferfal's accounts of what happened in Argentina when they had a debt non-payment collapse.  But still, this is a wrinkle, that while obvious when you think about it, hadn't really occurred to me., 20 July 2015 (hat tip: NC)
Capital controls imposed by the Greek government are taking a heavy toll on the country's businesses, a survey showed Monday, with nearly a quarter saying they are seeking to move their headquarters abroad.
Endeavour Greece, a non-profit group that supports entrepreneurs, found that 58 percent of the 300 companies it surveyed between July 13 and July 17 reported a "significant impact on their operations caused by the limitations imposed to cross-border transactions."
"Many of these companies cannot import raw material or have access to foreign services and infrastructure," the group said in a statement, adding that 23 percent "plan to transfer their headquarters abroad for security, cash flow and stability reasons."
Of course they have to get out of the country, at least to some extent, so that they can avoid the hard cash controls.  Greece can't afford to have cash leave the country, and business can't survive without paying cash for imports.  Greek business, with Greece being geographically much closer to so many neighbors than Argentina, can probably manage to operate at least some of their business as a parallel enterprise just over the border.  Still tough, but at least you can keep some of the cash exchange outside of Greece.
On a grimmer note, one of the reasons the Germans started keeping the Jews from emigrating prior to WW2 was because they were taking too much money with them, and they were worried about a flight of capital.  The Jews often knew very well that they should go, but the Germans set the price of exit too high for most to afford.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

I guess the end is coming sooner for some folks

Well, I am going to let your imagination run wild as to the personal-apocalypse scenarios possible here.
BBC, 20 July 2015 (hat tip: NC)
Customer data has been stolen from Ashley Madison, a dating website for married people who wish to cheat on their spouse.
The hackers said they had obtained information including "all the customers' secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions".
The site's operator confirmed there had been an "intrusion" but not its extent.
One security expert said a small percentage of the site's user account data had been published online...
Ashley Madison says it operates in more than 50 countries and has 37 million users, more than a million of whom live in the UK.
It promotes its service with the tagline, "Life is short, have an affair."
The only apocalyptic novel I can recall that involved computer dating was Will McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse.  As I recall the author had done some research on these services.  But I also seem to recall that the scenario they were involved in didn't add much to the book.  This sounds like a much a scenario that could involve a lot more firepower.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The pin is near the fracking bubble?

Not everyone is aware of the huge lending support that the various fracking folks have used to push their business model.  When this type of behavior continues, even when the participants show little signs of might be in a speculative bubble.
Well now that the bubble which is China's economy has crashed, dropping the bubble driven demand for basic economic inputs (and gold too recently) we will get to see just how much of a bubble fracking is.
Asjylyn Loder, Bradley Olson, Dawn Kopecki, Bloomberg Business, 20 July 2015 (hat tip: NC)
Bank regulators have issued warnings on the risks involved in lending to U.S. drillers, threatening a cash crunch in an industry that’s more dependent than ever on other people’s money. Wall Street has been one of the biggest allies of the shale revolution, bankrolling thousands of wells from Texas to North Dakota. The question is how that will change with oil prices down by half since last year to $50.36 a barrel.
“Lenders in general are increasing pressure on oil companies either to raise more equity or do some sort of transaction to pay down their credit lines and free up extra cash,” said Jimmy Vallee, a partner in the energy mergers and acquisitions practice at law firm Paul Hastings LLP in Houston.
 This isn't really new news, but it is a data point along the continuum.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The coming chillout

The last 200 years have been had some of the most stable known periods of weather. And the reason it took so long for farming to be introduced by the hunter gatherers who inhabited the world is that the weather prior to that was too unstable allow for an agriculture-only lifestyle.
So I don't take the potential for global cooling to necessarily mean that it will mix with global warming to allow us all to live a Mediterranean lifestyle.  Likely it just means an oscillating hell.  Sort of like where our recent weather has been going.
VanWinkle's, Huff Post Science, 1 July 2015 (Hat tip: NC)
Modern technology has made us able to predict solar cycles with much greater accuracy, and Zharkova’s model predicts that solar activity will drop by more than half between 2030 and 2040. 
"In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other -- peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun. Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a ‘Maunder minimum’,” said Zharkova. 
The Maunder Minimum is the title given to periods of time when sunspots are rare. It last occurred between 1645 and 1715, when roughly 50 sunspots were recorded, as opposed to the standard 40,000. That time was marked by brutal, river-freezing temperatures in Europe and North America.
I should note that the little ice age they note was also accompanied by an increase in volcanic activity.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Exon's tabacoo company strategy

The strategy I don't think is all that old.  I think it requires both an acceptance of the scientific mindset, a market place in which you can buy scientific opinion, and a broad non-fact-checked mass media in which to broadcast your desired outcome.  Could you even do it before World War 1?

Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years
The Guardian (U.K.), 8 July 2015 (hat tip: NC)
A newly unearthed missive from Lenny Bernstein, a climate expert with the oil firm for 30 years, shows concerns over high presence of carbon dioxide in enormous gas field in south-east Asia factored into decision not to tap it
...ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm’s own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial.
 If the cigarette companies were willing to kill their customers, than Exon comes pretty close to being willing to kill, or at least injure, everyone.

My personal opinion, is that if the rather odd person, Al Gore, had not become a polarizing champion for the global warming crowd, the results might have been different.  But maybe not.  I recall William Buckley trying to get natural conservation back into the conservative ideology without a lot of success.  He had a lot more success marrying Catholicism to the conservative cause.  As I recall , the original ideas of carbon taxes came from that time period of the National Review.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The final generation

I have been reading Edward J. Watts' The Final Pagan Generation. In it tells of the lives of the last Roman pagans born before Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (312 A.D.).  He examines why this last generation, born to the traditional ways, and dominant in most positions of power, proved both unable to anticipate the imperially sponsored changes and unwilling to resist them.
At the point we are discussing here, the book has arrived at the time of Constantine's older son, Constantius's, reign (337 - 361 A.D).  He has cracked down harder on the temples, at least officially closing the urban temples so that they may not be used for 'superstitious' sacrificial acts.  So why don't the upper elite, still a majority of whom would be pagan, not object?
There was little direct criticism and no violent protests [led by pagan elites].  They had too much to lose and little sense that resistance was necessary. Constantius's political retribution touched only a few unlucky or stupid members of the elite, and his religious policies were largely ineffectual. Sacrifice continued despite Constantius's ban, temples remained open despite his injunction to the contrary, and the emperor himself even toured the (still open) temples in the city of Rome when he visited [from the new Capitol of Constantinople]  in 357. The gods remained present everywhere in forms that could be seen, heard, smelled , and touched in every city across the empire. Constantius's policies may have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat (p.89).
Note, that there is the other side of the story, why it is that Christian's actively overcame the opposition, but the question is why the Pagan's didn't do anything when they still had a chance.  Note, that it wasn't required that they wipe out the Christians.  That would have been difficult.  Simply that enough be done to keep the Emperors from feeling safe about pushing religious restrictions.  Or better yet, simply deposing Christian Emperors.
You can say it is because the Emperor had the army behind him, but that just begs the question of why an almost certainly pagan army would go along with anti-pagan policies.  The author doesn't go into the attitudes of the folks serving in the legions, but likely it is very similar to why the elites didn't do anything.
The problem is that the effective elites, and the military saw themselves as being on the winning side.  Through luck or cunning they had chosen the winning Emperor (there were usually more than one contender during any reign) and they were compensated appropriately.  Look how quickly the elected Egyptian President lasted when the military felt it's position threatened.  The Christian Emperors would not have stayed in power without support from many pagans.
So in effect, the early Christian Emperor's policies accelerated the growth of Christianity, but the Pagan majority (likely 80% of the population at the start of the period) where not sufficiently alarmed enough to take action when they could.  Constantine converted in 312, by 392 a mob of Christians are able to storm the great pagan temple, The Serapeum in Alexandria, and destroy it. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Slow decline

When discussing the slow decline of the United States, there are two inflection points that seem to come up a lot.  One is the era around 1973 with the oil crises, and the Vietnam War debt Bretten Wood gold standard crises.  These are rather obvious flashpoints.  But the 1980s also come up in a variety of economic figures, and that is what we have here.

Another Look at U.S. GDP Growth (pdf p. 6)
Jeremy Grantham, GMO Quarterly Letter, February 2014

U.S. GDP growth had a wonderfully long run on a remarkably steady 3.3% trend line, from about 1880 to 1980 (see Exhibit 2). Although admittedly nowhere near recent Chinese growth, the duration and consistency was remarkable. Annual growth of 3.3% for a hundred years will multiply your income by 26 times! But 1880 to 1980 appears, with hindsight, to have been the Golden Century. In the 20 years from 1980 to 2000 that followed the Golden Century, the growth of GDP slowed materially (and was skewed to the top 10% and 1% in a way that had not been seen for 70 years), but still the country was compounding at a solid enough 2.8% a year, a rate that in a century would still compound to 16 times. For the last 13 years, in contrast, the growth has really slowed – to only 1.4% a year, and this despite a considerable bounce-back in capacity utilization since the bottom of the financial crash in 2009. To put it into perspective, 1.4% a year turns a dollar of income in 100 years not into $26 or $16, but into $4! 

And the referenced chart:

Note that even this "slow" 1.5% growth was done during a period of increased government (at the front and back end), business, and private debt.  It is not clear how long the inflation-free version of that type of spending will be available to us.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Water Knife: A Review

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife is a near future apocalyptic novel set in the drought ridden American Southwest, with the mostly out of water Phoenix getting most of the attention.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a very popular science fiction writer who specializes  in apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic settings that extrapolate current problems into future dire results.  His young adult novels  (reviewed here) have feature global warming and bioengineering, his far future adult novels (reviewed here) feature bioengineering fiascos mixed with peak oil energy problems, and now this very near future novel deals with our current drought in the Southwest. I have already written a fair amount on his biography at my other reviews, so we will move on.
The novel is set about 5 years after the continuing Southwestern United States drought has forced the cut off of water to various cities.  The collapse is recent enough that a technically underage young lady can remember anticipating her 8th grade prom. In this storyline the winners are California and Nevada, and the losers are Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Mexico, is in even worse shape having already collapsed into an official government by drug cartels. 
I say technically underage because in Phoenix, Arizona, there is no law enforcement unless you are one of the few folks involved in self sustaining green-eco-tower or part of the truncated enforcement/government apparatus.  It is an odd hybrid economy that intentionally mimics a third world country at the edge of a war zone, complete with lawless refugee encampments.  The suburbs lay as ruins with their interiors gutted for the remnant copper in the plumbing and electrical lines.
So, as to the political winners and losers.  The winners are those who have managed to buy up, or already hold, senior water rights. They still do fracking, but now the fracking is for left over bits of underground water supply: A rather iffy, and temporary in any case, solution.  The water knife is one of the semi-mythical folks that works for the winners in insuring that their bosses get to keep the water that is their legally theirs.  Folks who would infringe on those rights are dealt with violently. As the story progresses the level of violence is starting to escalate to a higher level.
Against this background, we have a partially collapsed United States.  The drought in the Southwest and the hurricanes, and water levels rising along the coast have created huge refugee problems and under the threat of armed insurrection the United States has allowed States to set border controls to keep out the refugees.  This dynamic sets up an us against them mentality between fellow country men.  So, although we are seeing ground zero of one of the worst hit areas, you get a sense that there are a few areas (Vancouver is noted) that are still relatively happy and tranquil places to live.  There is some intimations that this tranquility is less stable than appearances indicate, but that is more hinted at than featured.
Against this background, the story revolves around a water knife, a journalist, and a young teenage refugee who stumble across a potentially very old, old in an areas where age rules, water rights.  Water rights with the apparent potential to completely turnover the current California-Vegas winners of the table.  People start dying, and it gets very violent.  Mr. Bacigalupi has never been shy about mixing in the sex and violence in his adult stories, and he is not here.  He has a very good sense of character, and his "heroes" are very flawed people, but none-the-less, a whole lot nicer than the really bad, bad guys. 
I did like the story.  It move very quickly, a page turner in a good way at times.  The characters are sympathetic, and you do find yourself rooting for them to make it through - much of the cast of characters does not. I have liked all three of the his novels that I have read, but I think this one is the most accessible to a general audience, and the one to have the most emotional impact.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
It is set in the near future and deals with extrapolations of current issues.  The issue of survivalism, and some of the problems with the current model, are noted.  How the bad guys of the future will likely operate (these aren't your stock motorcycle gangs for sure) is something that a good deal of folks should consider.  It's also noteworthy that simply being way out in the country may not be sufficient.  There are advantages (notably, charitable aid and access to the remnants of an economy) to being in the city.  Survival is helped by being able to recognize and having something to offer the winning side.  Luck helps too.  Although I didn't discuss it much, one of the main themes of the book is that being on the winning side trumps everything. Realism is a seven.
The novel is a relatively easy read.  It is thoughtful at times, and a page turner at others.  A six.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Blood of Angels: A Review

Johanna Sinsalo's The Blood of Angels (translated by: Lola Rogers) is a nea-future (~2026) story of a slow ecological collapse highlighted by the sad story of a Finish funeral director - beekeeper hobbyist - who is arranging the funeral of his only son.

Johanna Sinsalo is well known in Finland as a science fiction and fantasy writer.   She won back-to-back Atorox (Best Finish Short Story) Awards, and the Finlandia Prize for Literature twice, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2006 and nominated for a Nebula (short story) Award in 2009. This novel won the English Pen Award.

I think that my stories are always quite anchored to reality and very few people have said that they are too weird – I like to write stories that give that almost real feel and play with the idea that this particular version of the universe is somewhere very near, just behind the next corner.
That idea of a universe that is just slightly around the next corner rings very true with this novel.

The novel's plot line has our funeral director- bee keeper hobbiest, Alpo, making preperations for his only son, Areo's,  funeral.  The novel takes place over a short span of time and most of the action is retrospective.  The dead son's voice show up in a series of animal rights - ecology blog posts.  In the novel's present we have guest appearances from the industrialist grandfather, and the Alpo's ex-wife, who has married wealthy and now lives in Australia.
The little bit of strangeness comes in when Alpo finds a very hidden hole to a very quiet, serene, natural place.  What this hole is, how it works, is he crazy?; are all questions he asks of himself and explores.  It is an interesting question of how to react to an odd gift.  What to do with this little pocket world?;  If a pocket world it is?
The pocket world brings in the focus of bees as spiritual creatures.  Alpo does some internet searching:
The traditional stories of many cultures agree that bees have always been associated with life, death and above all, rebirth.
In any mythology where bees appear they're almost without exception tied to the Other Side. They're sometimes even deified. And it's not just local stories - the myth is universal.
I'm no longer surprised that in almost every folk culture bees move easily between worlds.
Virgil wrote that bees possess a divine intelligence.
The shared name for the Indian gods Vishnu, Krishna and Indra is Madhava, or the one born of nectar (And the Finnish word for nectar, mesi, is one of the oldest in the language and has its roots as far back as the Sanskrit word for honey madhu, an entymological common not only in Finnic languages but also the Greek and Anglo-Saxon world, where we find the word mead to refer to an intoxicating drink prepared from honey. (from page 89).
And drinking, along with madness, as in the Greek Dionysus, is also connected with a closeness to God.  This all ties in well with the father-as-funeral-director making preparations for the burial of his son: the obvious analogy of adult society burying our children's future.
If you think I am giving a lot away, I can assure you that this is all thematic in nature.  This is not book of physical adventure, but of emotional adventure.  There is stress in this near future world, and future in our sad fathers life.  How best to navigate all this, along with the mystery of how the son died, with the odd quiet world lying in the background is the primary story.
 So I did like this sad story.  At points there was a little peachiness, but it adds more realism than anything else because it spoken plausibly by people who would feel that way.  If the industrialist, and some of the other folks come off as a little self-focused and uncaring, it is in just the way that people acting within a market driven system should come off.  After all, the idea of the market system is that the greed of the market combines for the best balance of distribution, not that the people within it are heroic.  What happens when the market becomes as big as the world, of course,may cause things to play out a little differently.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Obviously little gateways to The Other Side, are not "realistic" in the traditional sense. They are so common in fiction that one would think otherwise, but I am not going down that rabbit hole.  But the rabbit hole (gateway, what ever) is very important to the story, but not the driver of the story.  The driver of the story is ecological collapse, with the honey bees being the main, but not only, point of focus, and how it plays out in the microcosm of people's personal lives.  You even have just a little bit of survival preparation thought through, and the aside that Californian drought exiles invading surrounding States makes for an interesting parallel with Paolo Bacigalupi's recent Water Knife. With the one noted exception it is of the real world.  So I'll call it a 5.
Readability is fairly straightforward.  As the quote above would indicate, there is a fair amount of introspection, as well as retrospective thoughts on a life past.  Reading of a father's very plausible regrets is does not make for a page turner.  Still, while there is symbolism, the story can be read and generally understood, without really thinking any of it through.  A literary 5.

What I gather is the original Finish cover

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Eastward Ho!

I am going to be busy for a few days, so I likely will see you after the 4th.  I still have a few more books I have read to post reviews on but they can wait.

Instead, I give you an apocalyptic short story by classic period science fiction writer William Tenn.

Eastward Ho! (pdf link)
A sample:
The New Jersey Turnpike had been hard on the horses. South of New Brunswick the potholes had been so deep, the scattered boulders so plentiful, that the two men had been forced to move at a slow trot, to avoid crippling their three precious animals. And, of course, this far south, farms werenonexistent; they had been able to eat nothing but the dried provisions in the saddlebags, and last night they had slept in a roadside service station, suspending their hammocks between the tilted, rusty gas pumps.
But it was still the best, the most direct route, Jerry Franklin knew. The Turnpike was a government road: its rubble was cleared semiannually.
Of course at one time the bit about the potholes might have been joked as being left overs from our current day.  I believe the JTP is in better shape these days.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Barbarian Spring: A Review

Jonas Lüscher's  Barbarian Spring (translation by: Peter Lewis) is the telling of events at a high flying group of young financier's Tunisian wedding escapades just as a financial bubble is popping.  The novel is short (132 pages) and satirical with intentionally apocalyptic overtone.
I am not sure what it means that there is an Asian two-hump camel, and not a single hump Dromedary on the cover. Is it a case of editorial ignorance, artistic license, or some sort of tweek at the audience?  I actually thought they were hills and didn't even really look that close at them when I was reading it.
Jonas Lüscher's (from (translated by Google Translate) German Wikipedia) grew up in Bern, Switzerland.  Graduating from the Munich School of Philosophy, he also wrote with Michael hamper a dissertation on the importance of narratives for the description of social complexity in the context of Richard Rorty's neopragmatism.  His novel, Barbarian Spring won the 2013 German Book Prize and Swiss Book Prize.
The story is of the mini-adventure of a small-time Swiss industrialist, Preising,  and his recent trip to Tunisia during what turns out to be a simultaneous economic collapse of Great Britain and some form of Arab Spring.  The narrator is a bit skeptical of the whole affair, and adds humorous asides at the expense of Preising As a number of folks have noted, it is a sort of "Where were you when 9-11 occurred,  when JFK was shot, etc. As an aside "Preise" in German can mean either a prize or a cost.
The whole story is slightly over the top farcical.  Not so ridiculous that you don't see where the author's point of view is coming from, but enough so that we are under no illusion that this is supposed to be the telling of a real occurrence.
The story was reasonable as a farce. Bits of it where pretty funny.  The foibles of not only the striving young financiers, but also their elders, who should presumably be a bit more sensible, does hit the target. 
But, even in a short novel it does get a little thin.  The over the top finally is a bit too ham fisted and trite to actually support the events of getting there.   Even with the poor behavior of the participants, I was more saddened by the ending than fulfilled.  What the final outcome of the Preise, our storyteller or the skeptical narrator, who both seem to be in some sort of sanatorium (?), is also a bit unclear.  What seems like a weak ending to me keeps me from recommending it.  Possibly those with a different sense of humor, or simply like the idea of the strivers getting their comeuppance will like it more.  Or maybe someone can explain that part of the story, and I will like it.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Comedic satire does not usually attempt to be particularly realistic.  So rather than start from the top and subtract, I'll simply note a few reasons (beyond the fact no elves show up) that it is not a one.  The story is accurate in showing how vulnerable folks are when the "ATM" breaks down and your in a foreign country.  As I write this, there are real stories of vacationers stuck in Greece with no money.  The Arabic Spring portion also has a nasty little twist to it.  So I will call it a high-for-satire 3.
Readability is fine.  There is obviously some double meanings spread throughout, and I likely didn't catch all of them, but it reads well enough as a straight up warning tale.  It is also short.  A bit chatty, not a page turner, we'll call it a literary 5.