Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Nuclear Solution

When, in the middle of a card game, you realize that you are about to lose your farm, your shirt and your first-born son, you may decide to go for the “nuclear option”: kicking over the card table while reaching for your revolver. Outcomes will vary, but they are by and large preferable to the one you foresee: one of extreme humiliation and poverty. You might be slow in reaching for it and die a painful but quick death from multiple gunshot wounds. You might be the quickest and either kill or disarm your opponents. Or your opponents might run for the exits, leaving you to pick up the money off the floor. The first of these outcomes may seem less than appealing; but supposing your fancy yourself well-armed and quick on the draw, and your opponents to be cowards, you may be able to persuade yourself that this is your best bet. As for worst-case scenarios, one possibility is that your foes will shoot the revolver out of your hand before you get a chance to fire, put a bullet in your gut, take your money, laugh at you, lock you in a woodshed and leave you to die slowly.

This situation is not too dissimilar to the one in which the US currently finds itself. Frankly, I would prefer to write on other subjects, but what is happening right now on our one and only planet is that there is a certain rather large and still influential country that is in the process of rapidly losing its collective mind. Having studied and observed the US over the past 40-odd years, and now observing it from a safe distance of nearly 8000 km, at the moment I can think of no more important subject to discuss, although I hope to get back to subjects more pleasant, peaceful and closer to home sometime soon.

In this I am hardly alone: much of the rest of the world is wide awake to the dangers of this situation, is busy discussing the threat it poses to them, and is devising ways of countering it. Meanwhile, much of the population of the US has become so inured to the violence that has been committed in their name—some 60 countries invaded, occupied, bombed, sanctioned, “regime-changed” or otherwise meddled with in recent history—that most Americans are no longer able to perceive how the situation has shifted from one favoring them to one favoring no-one in particular—but definitely not them.

How is the situation allegorically sketched out above not too dissimilar to the one in which the US currently finds itself? Allow me to enumerate the ways.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Danger of Being Taken Seriously

Suppose you are having Napoleon Bonaparte and Jesus Christ over for tea. Napoleon keeps talking about world conquest while Jesus Christ looks on quizzically. Once Napoleon finally shuts up Jesus Christ holds forth interminably on how the real kingdom is His, is not in this world but the next, and how it shall have no end. Which of them, if any, should you agree with? These are powerful men with big egos; any faux pas on your part may result in your treasured custom Alice in Wonderland tea set, delicately hand-painted by the skilled ladies of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, getting smashed to bits. Challenge any one of them, and he will turn on you; bolster the claims of one against the other, and one will turn on the other. Quite a conundrum!

Here are some helpful tips: [2259 words]

Saturday, August 05, 2017

QUIDNON: The Self-Sufficient Haulout

A self-sufficient sailor needs to be able to get his boat in and out of the water either with minimal assistance or entirely unassisted.

This need arises in a variety of situations, both common and less so:

1. To deal with maintenance and emergencies.

1.A. To redo the bottom paint and to make emergency repairs that cannot be done with the boat in the water. With Quidnon, the list of such emergencies is much smaller with most boats. There is no engine shaft, cutlass bearing or propeller; these are integral to the outboard engine, which is easy to pull out for servicing. There are no through-hulls below the water line; raw water intakes for the ballast tanks are via siphons. The bottom is surfaced with roofing copper that lasts longer the useful lifetime of the boat. The sides below the waterline need to be scrubbed and painted periodically, but this can be done with the boat drying out at low tide. Marine growth on the bottom, which cannot be reached while the boat is drying out, simply gets crushed and ground off against the sand or gravel and falls off. Still, there are situations when a haulout is needed for maintenance.

2.B. To get out of the water if a hurricane or a typhoon is bearing down on you. The easiest thing to do is to run Quidnon into the shallows in a sheltered spot and to run long lines out to surrounding rocks and trees. But an even better option is to haul it clear of the water first. While other yachts are busy hunting around for a hurricane hole (a sheltered spot with enough water to get in and out without running aground) or wait in line at a boatyard or a marina for an (expensive) emergency haulout, the captain of a Quidnon has plenty of options.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Laughing Gas War

Viktor Bogorad
There are many ways to kill one’s enemies: nuke them, bomb them with conventional weapons, make them fight each other in a civil war, starve them out using blockades and sanctions, undermine their economies through market manipulation and so on. Or, failing all that, you can try to make them bust a gut laughing. Previous attempts by the US to destroy Russia have failed. The use of nukes against Russia would reliably result in the US becoming annihilated in about 30 minutes. Conventional weapons wouldn’t make much of a difference unless the US staged a land invasion, and invading Russia has always been and remains to this day an act of suicidal stupidity. American attempts at isolating Russia internationally have failed. Sanctions imposed on Russia have caused little damage the Russian economy, which is continuing to boom. With no other options left, it would appear that the Washingtonians have decided to resort to the one and only trick still available to them: to resort to antics that might make Russia collapse from laughing too hard.

The Washingtonians’ clown act involves pretending, in all seriousness, that they are going to stop Russia from supplying Europe with natural gas and to take over this market themselves, which they plan to supply with their liquefied natural gas exports obtained through fracking. (Conventional natural gas resources in the US have peaked and shale gas obtainable through fracking is all that is left.)

Importing liquefied gas across oceans via tankers when the same product is available on the same continent via pipelines is a dumb idea on every level: cost, risk, reliability, technological complexity and, last but not least, energy efficiency because shipping gas is a waste of energy. Undaunted, the US Congress has just ignited an intercontinental gas war by imposing new sanctions on Russia and, incidentally, on any European company eager to ensure Europe’s energy security by working together with Russia’s energy sector. The US is also spending close to $50 billion to convert its existing liquefied natural gas import terminals to export terminals, and has approved plans for over 40 new export terminals and capacity improvements to existing ones.

The Russians, who make it their business to understand the natural gas industry, find this plan laughable. To be sure, not all Russians are laughing. First, there is a large number of Russians—especially those whose job is to “protect the Motherland”—who lack any discernible sense of humor, especially when it comes to threats emanating from the US. The latest Washingtonian shenanigans may add some amount of condescension and derision to their innate suspicion and mistrust, but we shouldn’t expect them to even crack a smile. Second, there are Russia’s forlorn pro-Western liberals who have never achieved much of anything politically, but at least they got to clean up on Western grant money while being coached by American diplomats and NGOs on ways to overthrow Putin. They are now plumbing the depths of despair. Lastly, there are all the Americaphobes among the general Russian population, who are forever talking up the American threat to democracy and world peace. It is hard for them to get their point across when everyone is so busy laughing at the ridiculous noise emanating from Washington.

What’s so funny? The humor of this situation needs to be explained carefully because it lies buried under a dense mass of technical details of which American politicians and Western mass media seem blissfully unaware. As usual, explaining a joke often renders it unfunny in the laugh-out-loud sense, but it can remain funny in the sense appreciated by professionals in the field of comedy who are able to declare that something is indeed funny while remaining perfectly serious. If you are an energy business nerd and have the time and the inclination to peruse a detailed and decidedly unfunny analysis of the situation, you should read this excellent article by Arthur Berman. If you are neither an energy business nerd nor a professional comedian and just want to get the joke, then read on. [2652 words]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Great American Health Care Non-Debate

A friend of mine who lives in South Carolina was admitted to a hospital with cholecystitis (inflamed gallbladder). Her condition was severe enough that the ER physicians recommended immediate surgery. Tests showed her to be anemic, and so she was given an IV prior to surgery. In the process, she was asked what sort of health insurance she has, and she was foolish enough to actually answer the question instead of saying something like “I feel too sick to handle paperwork.” She has no health insurance because there are no options available in her state that would be affordable to her. She was discharged and out on the street a few minutes later with a prescription for a pain medication that is available without a prescription. She has been in intermittent pain ever since. If her gallbladder bursts, she will die. If she dies, her three children will become wards of the state, costing the state many times what her gallbladder surgery would have cost. You may feel free to conclude that South Carolina is run by idiots, but as we shall see the problem is much bigger than that.

Meanwhile, a mere half a planet away, another friend of mine got caught up in a street fight somewhere in Russia and ended up with a concussion and a broken bone. He was checked into a local hospital, where he convalesced for two weeks. He was provided with all the necessary treatments, including radiology, minor surgery, a cast for the broken bone, pain control medication, a regular change of bedclothes, three meals a day, TV time and internet access. He is not a Russian citizen and his knowledge of Russian is fragmentary, so the doctors and the nurses got to practice their English. He had an expired foreign passport with an expired Ukrainian (long story) tourist visa but nobody cared. He had no health insurance of any kind but nobody batted an eye. Upon discharge he was made to pay 8500 rubles (around 150 US dollars) which he did quite happily.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

“Facts on the Ground”

It is a sad fact that people in the West, and in the US especially, are presently living in a world that is bereft of actual news about what goes on in many parts of the world, especially the active conflict zones, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya. What they do hear is often based not on facts but on ideology, which is endlessly spouted by officials and think tanks in Washington. For instance, in Syria, Bashar al Assad, the Russians and the Iranians are said to be destroying the country and the Turks, the Kurds and various rebels supported by Saudi Arabia are attempting to “liberate” it whereas in fact Syrian government forces, aided by Russia and Iran, are liberating Syria from terrorists, including ISIS, which are supported by the Turks, Saudi Arabia and the US, and are doing quite a good job of it.

But perhaps nowhere is this ideological bias more blatant and obvious than in the treatment Russia receives in American mass media. Obama claimed that the Russian economy is “in tatters” because of Western sanctions; Senator John McCain is famously quoted as saying that Russia is “a gas station masquerading as a country”; and mass media echoes these fancies. But what if this “just ain’t so”? It is one thing to view a certain place through a certain lens, giving it a slightly misleading hue; it is another to suffer a psychotic break with reality and let wishful thinking, quite uncontaminated by any facts, serve as one’s guide.

Last week I flew back to St. Petersburg, Russia, after a five-year absence. As usual, it has turned out to be insightful to catch a periodic glimpse of a very familiar place. I grew up in St. Petersburg and have visited it seven times over the past 28 years. Catching periodic snapshots of a place allows one to see just the changes. This may not matter so much for places that don’t undergo drastic change; for example, over the same period, Washington or New York have hardly changed at all, their essential character remaining largely the same. But over this same period St. Petersburg, along with the rest of Russia, has been on a tare: it has undergone a total transformation from a stagnant backwater to a depressed hollowed-out shell to a thriving and vibrant place and a prime tourist destination.

To listen to and accept talk of “shreds” and “gas stations” is to choose to inhabit some parallel universe run by people who are willfully ignorant or psychotic and deluded or hell-bent on misleading everyone. And so plenty of people in the West, and in the US especially, are walking around with an assortment of fanciful notions in their heads: that Russians drink more than anyone (actually, that would be the Lithuanians); are the most depressed and suicidal (that would be the Latvians); or choose flee their country in greatest numbers (the Estonians). Or they think that Russia is an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship that sustains itself solely through oil exports (Saudi Arabia); or that it is hell-bent on world domination (that would be the United States).

On my previous visits, I have caught very different glimpses of St. Petersburg. In 1989 I saw pretty much the old USSR except for a lot of talk—it was the “glasnost” period—much of which later turned out to be not quite accurate. In 1990 I saw the old order teetering on the brink, empty shelves in government shops and the economy nearing a standstill. In 1993 I observed many signs of social collapse, with most people living in abject poverty and middle-class, educated people digging around in the garbage or trying to sell their belongings at flea markets to buy food. In 1995 and 1996 I saw a land in the grip of ethnic mafias, with goods sold from locked metal booths erected in city squares and on vacant lots. In 2013 I saw a city that has made a full recovery, with a vibrant economy, close to full employment and a people cautiously optimistic about their prospects. And so what did I observe this year, 2017, after several years of Western sanctions? Is it a place “in tatters,” as Obama would have it, or something else entirely? [2608 words]

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Trump Trolls America

A remarkable meeting took place last week—the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin—and I would be remiss not to comment on it. In viewing videos of the meeting (the few snippets shot during the brief seconds when journalists were allowed to stampede into the room, pushing and shoving) it became clear to me that these two people connected quite well, finding in each other an intelligent and sympathetic interlocutor. Many people would find this characterization strange. It is common to see in Putin an inscrutable, cryptically menacing cipher, and in Trump a chaotic, bloviating buffoon. In a sense, they are right, but only on the surface. That surface, in the case of Putin and in the case of Trump, consists of a carefully synthesized public persona honed over many iterations and practice runs. For each of them, it has been conditioned by the specifics of Russia and the US, respectively: what the people there respond to well, what they expect and what they are capable of. The specifics of their public personae and what conditioned them are interesting in their own right. But what’s really important is what lies beneath them… [2240 words]

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Nature’s Conquest of Man

Simon Norfolk
For a little over four centuries now, starting in the 1600s, the dominant narrative in the West has been “Man’s Conquest of Nature.” From there it spread around the globe as “Man” (in a rather specific sense of various gentlemen and their servants) vanquished all who stood before him. And even now, as the West enters its senescence, torn apart by internal conflicts, failing demographically, overrun by migrants from a wide assortment of failed states and courting environmental disaster at a planetary scale, it remains the steadfast belief of victims of public education around the world that “the purpose of nature is to serve man.”

This belief is at odds with nature because, as it turns out, in the natural scheme of things the function of man is to be eaten, and of a lucky few to accidentally become fossilized. These days many of us are turned into ash, to save space—a wasteful process, biologically speaking—but normally, if disposed of underground our destiny is to feed the worms, the bugs, and other decomposers, while if left to rot on the surface the crows, the vultures, the rats and various other scavengers are only too happy to oblige.

Put into proper perspective, eating us up isn’t even that big a task. Fed through a compactor and stacked in 1-ton cubic blocks, all of humanity would fit into a cube a bit less than 1 kilometer on the side. Spread evenly over the entire surface of the Earth, we would form a film barely 1 micron thick—undetectable without special equipment and short work for the planet’s microscopic biota. Compare that to the thick microbial mats which gave rise to the crude oil deposits which we are currently burning through at breakneck speed: the average human burns through eight times his body weight in crude oil every year.

It is the crude oil, along with coal, natural gas and uranium, that multiply our puny power to a point where the results of our activity become visible from outer space over large stretches of the planet’s surface. Crunching the numbers, it turns out that burning crude oil allows us to multiply our physical, endosomatic energy by roughly a factor of 44,000,000. Add in coal, natural gas and uranium, and you get roughly a hundred-thousand-times amplification of our puny physical powers. It is this that has enabled man’s recent, and short-lived “conquest of nature.” Without fossil fuels the best exosomatic energy we can harness is a team of two horses, oxen, water buffalo or what have you. Any more than that becomes hard for a single human to handle. The horses and other large ruminants multiply our power by a factor of 15 or so. But that, if you think really hard, is plenty.

It is known that the hundred-thousand-times fossil-fuel-based amplification of our meager physical powers is going to dwindle over time, leaving us with a couple of horses to fall back on—if we are lucky. Going from hundred-thousand-fold to fifteen-fold is surely going to come as a shock for some people, causing them to claim that this will spell the end of human civilization. Others claim that human civilization is doomed because burning roughly half of all the recoverable fossil fuels in just a couple of centuries has destabilized the climate. As if that’s not enough, Prof. Guy McPherson boldly predicts that humans will be extinct by January 1, 2026 (which falls on a Wednesday). And at the extreme far end of the spectrum of luminaries spouting dire predictions we find Prof. Stephen Hawking. Listening to the radio, I recently heard him proclaim, in his vintage robotic voice, that Trump opting out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change may end up making Earth resemble Venus, with lava fields and rains of sulphuric acid. He said that we better get cracking on building space colonies if we want to survive.

I vehemently disagree with pretty much all of the above. To find out where I stand, and, more importantly, to figure out where you stand, please continue reading... [2266 words]

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Embarrassing Times

At this point, I am finding the task of commenting on what is happening to the United States less than enjoyable. The whole thing has become an embarrassment.

Having spent many years living and working in the US, I justifiably feel implicated in what it does. Once upon a time its many crimes—bombing, invading, destroying and undermining countries around the world, poisoning the environment, promoting every sort of injustice for the sake of short-term profits—made me angry. It was the anger of youth, borne of the unfounded, optimistic conviction that it is possible to effect change by voicing one’s negative opinions. I am not so young any more, and have become dead certain that no amount of political involvement on my part (or yours, for that matter) would change anything at all, and so what I have been feeling for years now is not anger but sadness.

More recently this sadness has been overlaid with a sense of embarrassment, which has most recently become quite acute. It is one thing to rail against evil—a heroic, youthful stance—and quite another to feel self-consciously awkward in the presence of extreme stupidity. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that of the Americans—at least of those I see around me and hear and read in the press and the blogs—virtually none seem quite capable of experiencing or manifesting embarrassment about the sad state of their country. Perhaps my ability to feel embarrassed by the actions (and inactions) of those around me comes from some place else—an import that fails to thrive on the thin, toxified soil of American public life. The feelings that do thrive here are increasingly vicious: buckets of vitriol are being hurled across the political divide. The fact that this divide is nothing more than an artificial means of gaming a political system that has completely failed in its ability to express the popular will, or to harness it for any useful purpose, only serves to increase the embarrassment.

The ability to feel embarrassment is key to any possible new beginning, be it for a person, a group or a society as a whole. Allow me to explain…

Continue reading…

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Are humans even necessary?

What a terrible question to even ask! Of course, we are necessary: it is the function of the universe to serve our needs and wants, isn’t it? Isn’t that the point of everything—to provide for our well-being and security? Well, that’s one way to look at it, and it is based on a certain assumption: that humans are in control. But humans have been steadily relinquishing control to machines for a couple of centuries now, and by now the vast majority of us is unable to comprehend, never mind control, the machines on which our survival depends in all of their awesome complexity. A few highly placed specialists can still get at the levers that control some of the machines, but their function has been reduced to serving the needs of the machines themselves, not human needs. The assumption that humans are still in control is starting to seem outlandish.

The next assumption to question is that the machines serve human needs and wants. Yes, there is still plenty of evidence that they do, for quite a lot of people, and in the more stable and prosperous societies most of the people are provided for in some manner. But there has been a marked tendency for societies around the world to become less stable and less prosperous over time, as resources are depleted and the environment degrades. The typical solution to that has been the imposition of austerity, which deprioritizes human needs over those of the machines—industrial, commercial and financial—which must continue functioning in order for the rich to continue to get richer. Perhaps the situation where the machines serve human needs is a transient one? Perhaps most humans are just a legacy cost, to be eliminated in the next round of cost-cutting?

To be sure, the machines would still be required to serve the needs of the billionaires, and the millionaires who serve them. But as for the rest of humanity, perhaps at this point it is just an unnecessary burden from the machines’ point of view? Indeed, it would appear that many different efforts are underway to whittle away at this burden. Let us take a trip down memory lane, to see where we came from, and then try to catch a glimpse of where we might be headed.

Continue reading… [2524 words]