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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reading List: Môlon Labé

Royce, Kenneth W. Môlon Labé. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, [1997] 2004. ISBN 978-1-888766-07-3.
Legend has it that when, in 480 B.C. at Thermopylae, Emperor Xerxes I of Persia made an offer to the hopelessly outnumbered Greek defenders that they would be allowed to leave unharmed if they surrendered their weapons, King Leonidas I of Sparta responded “μολὼν λαβέ” (molōn labe!)—“Come and take them!” Ever since, this laconic phrase has been a classic (as well as classical) expression of defiance, even in the face of overwhelming enemy superiority. It took almost twenty-five centuries until an American general uttered an even more succinct reply to a demand for capitulation.

In this novel, the author, who uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, sketches a scenario as to how an island of liberty might be established within a United States which is spiraling into collectivism; authoritarian rule over a docile, disarmed, and indoctrinated population; and economic collapse. The premise is essentially that of the Free State Project, before they beclowned themselves by choosing New Hampshire as their target state. Here, Wyoming is the destination of choice, and the author documents how it meets all criteria for an electoral coup d'état by a relatively small group of dedicated “relocators” and how the established population is likely to be receptive to individual liberty oriented policies once it's demonstrated that a state can actually implement them.

Libertarians are big thinkers, but when it comes to actually doing something which requires tedious and patient toil, not so much. They love to concentrate on grand scenarios of taking over the federal government of the United States and reversing a century of usurpation of liberty, but when it comes to organising at the county level, electing school boards, sheriffs, and justices of the peace, and then working up to state legislature members, they quickly get bored and retreat into ethereal arguments about this or that theoretical detail, or dreaming about how some bolt from the blue might bring them to power nationwide. Just as Stalin rescoped the Communist project from global revolution to “socialism in one country”, this book narrows the libertarian agenda to “liberty in one state”, with the hope that its success will be the spark which causes like-minded people in adjacent states to learn from the example and adopt similar policies themselves.

This is an optimistic view of a future which plausibly could happen. Regular readers of this chronicle know that my own estimation of the prospects for the United States on its present course is bleak—that's why I left in 1991 and have not returned except for family emergencies since then. I have taken to using the oracular phrase “Think Pinochet, not Reagan” when describing the prospects for the U.S. Let me now explain what I mean by that. Many conservatives assume that the economic circumstances in the U.S. are so self-evidently dire that all that is needed is a new “great communicator” like Ronald Reagan to explain them to the electorate in plain language to begin to turn the situation around. But they forget that Reagan, notwithstanding his world-historic achievements, only slowed the growth of the federal beast on his watch and, in fact, presided over the greatest peacetime expansion of the national debt in history (although, by present-day standards, the numbers look like pocket change). Further, Reagan did nothing to arrest the “long march through the institutions” which has now resulted in near-total collectivist/statist hegemony in the legacy media, academia from kindergarten to graduate and professional education, government bureaucracies at all levels, and even management of large corporations who are dependent upon government for their prosperity.

In an environment where the tax eaters will soon, if they don't already, outnumber and outvote the taxpayers, the tipping point has arrived, and the way to bet is on a sudden and complete economic collapse due to a “debt spiral”, possibly accompanied by hyperinflation as the Federal Reserve becomes the only buyer of U.S. Treasury debt left in the market.

When the reality of twenty dollar a gallon gasoline (rising a dollar a day as the hyperinflation exponential starts to kick in, then tens, hundreds, etc.) hits home; when three and four hour waits to fill up the tank become the norm after “temporary and emergency” price controls are imposed, and those who have provided for their own retirement see the fruits of their lifetime of labour and saving wiped out in a matter of weeks by runaway inflation, people will be looking for a way out. That's when the Man on the White Horse will appear.

I do not know who he will be—in all likelihood it's somebody entirely beneath the radar at the moment. “When it's steam engine time, it steam engines.” When it's Pinochet time, it Pinochets.

I do not know how this authoritarian ruler will come to power. Given the traditions of the United States, I doubt it will be by a military coup, but rather the election of a charismatic figure as President, along with a compliant legislature willing to rubber-stamp his agenda and enact whatever “enabling acts” he requests. Think something like Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (December 2008). But afterward the agenda will be clear: “clean out” the media, educators, judiciary, and bureaucrats who are disloyal. Defund the culturally destructive apparatus of the state. Sunset all of the programs which turn self-reliant citizens into wards of the state. Adjust the institutions of democracy to weight political influence according to contribution to the commonwealth. And then, one hopes (although that's not the way to bet), retire and turn the whole mess over to a new bunch of politicians who will proceed to foul things up again, but probably sufficiently slowly there will be fifty years or so of prosperity before the need to do it all over again.

When I talk about an “American Pinochet” I'm not implying that such an outcome would involve “disappeared people” or other sequelæ of authoritarian tyranny. But it would involve, at the bare minimum, revocation of tenure at all state-supported educational institutions, review of educators, media figures, judges, and government personnel by loyalty boards empowered to fire them and force them to seek employment in the productive sector of the economy, and a comprehensive review of the actions of all government agents who may have violated the natural rights of citizens.

I do not want this to happen! For my friends in the United States who have not heeded my advice over the last 15 years to get out while they can, I can say only that this is the best case scenario I can envision given the present circumstances. You don't want to know about my darker views of the future there—really, you don't.

This novel points to a better way—an alternative which, although improbable is not impossible, in which a small cadre of lovers of liberty might create a haven which attracts like-minded people, compounding the effect and mounting a challenge to the illegitimate national government. Along with the price of admission, you'll get tutorials in the essentials of individual liberty such as main battle rifles, jury nullification, hard money, strong encryption, and the balancing act between liberty and life-affirming morality.

What more can I say? Read this book.

Posted at 23:42 Permalink

Monday, March 21, 2011

Equinoctial Orion in the Blue Sky of Twilight

orion_2011-03-21.jpg

Click image to enlarge.

The constellation Orion shines through the blue sky of twilight, captured at 18:39 UTC (19:39 local time) on 2011-03-21 from Fourmilab. The photo was taken with a Leica M9 camera with a Leica Summicron-M 35 mm ASPH. lens at f/2 and a shutter speed of 8 seconds with ISO 160 sensitivity. The sky was noticeably blue to the unaided eye; I have adjusted the contrast here to approximate its appearance. Notice how the sky subtly brightens toward the horizon.

The Summicron 35 mm ASPH. is, arguably, the finest lens of its aperture and focal length ever manufactured. In normal photographic applications it is frighteningly sharp, and it is tiny and light; it is not inexpensive, but with optics, you get what you pay for, and unlike digital camera bodies, what you paid for will, unless you abuse it, produce just as fine pictures fifty years from now. Astrophotography, with its bright point sources of stars and dark background, is exquisitely revelatory of even the slightest flaws in optics. You'd never notice it in everyday photography, but the Summicron 35 has substantial coma in the corners wide open at f/2 and, in addition, some residual colour around the distorted star images. None of these flaws are evident in this wide angle rendering of an entire constellation, which was cropped from a larger image in which the artefacts are visible only in the corners. I'm sure that if you stop down the lens a bit the quality in the corners will improve dramatically, but astronomers are always hungry for light and prone to using their light buckets at full capacity. The faster Leica lenses are worse at the larger apertures they provide.

Posted at 20:32 Permalink

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Swiss Post meets South Park

spsp_2011-03-19.jpg

Go Pigs!

Posted at 17:58 Permalink

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gnome-o-gram: The Japanese Earthquake--Financial Aftershocks?

I have hesitated writing about the financial implications of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan because the human tragedy is so much more clamant and barely appreciated since there are large areas devastated by this disaster which have not yet been reached by rescuers or reporters with the ability to uplink images.

That said, I am really worried about the financial markets next week. Japan has a public debt burden twice that of the U.S., and most of that is owed to domestic creditors. These same investors, directly or indirectly, have been buying a large amount of U.S. Treasury debt, financing the deficits run by the U.S. government. As Japan seeks to recover from this natural catastrophe, Japanese investors and institutions will seek to redeem their investments in Japanese sovereign debt to meet insurance obligations to rebuild the areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. This will naturally increase the interest rate the Japanese central bank will have to pay to roll over its debt, and this can easily lead to a “debt spiral”, where rising interest rates increase debt service expenditures, which expand budget deficits, which require more borrowing, which further reduces credit ratings and increases debt service expenditures...lather, rinse, repeat.

Everybody talks about China, but Japan plays a comparable role in financing the U.S. budget deficit. If, in the aftermath of this calamity, Japan necessarily turns inward and directs its savings toward investments in recovery from this natural disaster, then it will be far less likely to be a buyer of U.S. Treasury debt. With Japan focussing its investment on domestic recovery, demand for U.S. Treasuries will be reduced at the same time supply burgeons, and a runaway debt service spiral in U.S. sovereign debt could be a consequence.

All of the projections you see (however dire or apocalyptic) for U.S. Treasury debt generally assume an interest rate on the long bond of at most 5%. Try working those numbers assuming 8% and see what you get. Hunker down in the bunker and run them for 12% and look at how that plays out.

These unexpected interest rates and their consequences could obtain in the next two weeks should events in Japan go badly and the world's financial markets react rationally to those events.

We should further look closely at the exposure of financial institutions to insurance and reinsurance of the damages sustained in Japan. If you're the counterparty to a contract with an institution which is rendered insolvent by recent events in Japan, and you're counting on a payment at the conclusion of the contract, you can be wiped out by the failure of the institution taking the other side of the deal.

Are you prepared?

Other gnome-o-grams

Posted at 04:03 Permalink

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reading List: Deconstructing Obama

Cashill, Jack. Deconstructing Obama. New York: Threshold Editions, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-1111-3.
Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father (henceforth Dreams), proved instrumental in his rise from an obscure Chicago lawyer and activist to the national stage and eventually the presidency. Almost universally praised for its literary merit, it establishes Obama's “unique personal narrative” which is a key component of his attraction to his many supporters. Amidst the buzz of the 2008 presidential campaign, the author decided to buy a copy of Dreams as an “airplane book”, and during the flight and in the days that followed, was astonished by what he was reading. The book was not just good, it was absolutely superb—the kind of work editors dream of having land on their desk. In fact, it was so good that Cashill, a veteran author and editor who has reviewed the portfolios of hundreds of aspiring writers, found it hard to believe that a first time writer, however smart, could produce such a work on his own. In the writing craft, it is well known that almost all authors should plan to throw away their first million words or equivalently invest on the order of 10,000 hours mastering their craft before producing a publishable book-length work, no less a bestselling masterpiece like Dreams. There was no evidence for such an investment or of natural talent in any of Obama's earlier (and meagre) publications: they are filled with clichés, clumsy in phrasing, and rife with grammatical problems such as agreement of subject and verb.

Further, it was well documented that Obama had defaulted upon his first advance for the book, changed the topic, and then secured a second advance from a different publisher, then finally, after complaining of suffering from writer's block, delivering a manuscript in late 1994. At the time he was said to be writing Dreams, he had a full time job at a Chicago law firm, was teaching classes at the University of Chicago, and had an active social life. All of this caused Cashill to suspect Obama had help with the book. Now, it's by no means uncommon for books by politicians to be largely or entirely the work of ghostwriters, who may work entirely behind the scenes, leaving the attribution of authorship entirely to their employers. But when Dreams was written, Obama was not a politician, but rather a lawyer and law school instructor still burdened by student loans. It is unlikely he could have summoned the financial resources nor had the reputation to engage a ghostwriter sufficiently talented to produce Dreams. Further, if the work is not Obama's, then he is a liar, for, speaking to a group of teachers in June 2008, he said, “I've written two books. I actually wrote them myself.”

These observations set the author, who has previously undertaken literary and intellectual detective work, on the trail of the origin of Dreams. He discovers that, just at the time the miraculous manuscript appeared, Obama had begun to work with unrepentant Weather Underground domestic terrorist Bill Ayres, who had reinvented himself as an “education reformer” in Chicago. At the time, Obama's ambition was to become mayor of Chicago, an office which would allow him to steer city funds into the coffers of Ayres's organisations in repayment of his contribution to Obama's political ascendancy (not to mention the potential blackmail threat an unacknowledged ghostwriter has over a principal who claims sole authorship). In any case, Dreams not only matches contemporary works by Ayres on many metrics used to test authorship, it is rich in nautical metaphors, many expressed in the same words as in Ayres's own work. Ayres once worked as a merchant seaman; Obama's only experience at sea was bodysurfing in Hawaii.

Cashill examines Dreams in fine-grained detail, both bolstering the argument that Ayres was the principal wordsmith behind the text, and also documenting how the narrative in the book is at variance with the few well-documented facts we have about Obama's life and career. He then proceeds to speculate upon Obama's parentage, love life before he met Michelle, and other aspects of the canonical Obama story. As regards Ayres as the author of Dreams, I consider the case as not proved beyond a reasonable doubt (that would require one of the principals in the matter speaking out and producing believable documentation), but to me the case here meets the standard of preponderance of evidence. The more speculative claims are intriguing but, in my opinion, do not rise to that level.

What is beyond dispute is just how little is known about the current occupant of the Oval Office, how slim the paper trail is of his origin and career, and how little interest the legacy media have expressed in investigating these details. There are obvious and thoroughly documented discrepancies between what is known for sure about Obama and the accounts in his two memoirs, and the difference in literary style between the two is, in itself, cause to call their authorship into question. When the facts about Obama begin to come out—and they will, the only question is when—if only a fraction of what is alleged in this well-researched and -argued book is true, it will be the final undoing of any credibility still retained by the legacy media.

The Kindle edition is superbly produced, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

Posted at 23:46 Permalink

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reading List: Ministry of Space

Ellis, Warren, Chris Weston, Laura Martin, and Michael Heisler. Ministry of Space. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2004. ISBN 978-1-58240-423-3.
This comic book—errm—graphic novel—immerses the reader in an alternative history where British forces captured the German rocket team in the closing days of World War II and saw to it that the technology they developed would not fall either American or Soviet hands. Air Commodore John Dashwood, a figure with ambitions and plans which put him in the league with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, persuades Churchill to embark on an ambitious development program to extend the dominion of the British Empire outward into space.

In this timeline, all of the key “firsts” in space are British achievements, and Britain in the 1950s is not the austere and dingy grey of shrinking empire but rather where Wernher von Braun's roadmap for expansion of the human presence into space is being methodically implemented, with the economic benefits flowing into British coffers. By the start of the 21st century, Britain is the master of space, but the uppity Americans are threatening to mount a challenge to British hegemony by revealing dark secrets about the origin of the Ministry of Space unless Britain allows their “Apollo” program to go ahead.

This story works beautifully in the graphic format, and the artwork and colouring are simply luscious. If you don't stop and linger over the detail in the illustrations you'll miss a lot of the experience. The only factual error I noted is that in the scene at Peenemunde an American GI says the V-2's range was only 60 miles while, in fact, it was 200 miles. (But then, this may be deliberate, intended to show how ignorant the Americans were of the technology.) The reader experiences a possible reality not only for Britain, but for the human species had the development of space been a genuine priority like the assertion of sea power in the 19th century instead of an arena for political posturing and pork barrel spending. Exploring this history, you'll encounter a variety of jarring images and concepts which will make you think how small changes in history can have great consequences downstream.

Posted at 21:37 Permalink

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Reading List: Confessions of an Alien Hunter

Shostak, Seth. Confessions of an Alien Hunter. Washington: National Geographic, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4262-0392-3.
This book was published in 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), launched by Cocconi and Morrison's Nature paper which demonstrated that a narrowband microwave beacon transmitted by intelligent extraterrestrials would be detectable by existing and anticipated radio telescopes on Earth. In recent years, the SETI Institute has been a leader in the search for alien signals and the author, as Senior Astronomer at the Institute, a key figure in its ongoing research.

On the night of June 24th, 1997 the author, along with other researchers, were entranced by the display on their computer monitors of a signal relayed from a radio telescope in West Virginia aimed at an obscure dwarf star named YZ Ceti 12 light years from the Sun. As a faint star prone to flares, it seemed an improbable place to find an alien civilisation, but was being monitored as part of a survey of all stars within 15 light years of the Sun, regardless of type. “Candidate signals” are common in SETI: most are due to terrestrial interference, transmissions from satellites or passing aircraft, or transient problems with the instrumentation processing the signal. These can usually be quickly excluded by simple tests such as aiming the antenna away from the source, testing whether the source is moving with respect to the Earth at a rate different than that of the distant stars, or discovering that a second radio telescope in a different location is unable to confirm the signal. Due to a mechanical failure at the backup telescope, the latter test was not immediately available, but all of the other tests seemed to indicate that this was the real deal, and those observing the signal had to make the difficult decision whether to ask other observatories to suspend their regular research and independently observe the source, and/or how to announce the potential discovery to the world. All of these difficult questions were resolved when it was discovered that a small displacement of the antenna from the source, which should have caused a Gaussian fall-off in intensity, in fact changed the signal amplitude not at all. Whatever the source may have been, it could not be originating at YZ Ceti. Shortly thereafter, the signal was identified as a “side lobe” reception of the SOHO spacecraft at the Sun-Earth L1 point. Around this time, the author got a call from a reporter from the New York Times who had already heard rumours of the detection and was trawling for a scoop. So much for secrecy and rumours of cover-ups in the world of SETI! By the evidence, SETI leaks like a sieve.

This book provides an insider's view of the small but fascinating world of SETI: a collective effort which has produced nothing but negative results over half a century, yet holds the potential, with the detection of a single confirmed alien transmission, of upending our species' view of its place in the cosmos and providing hope for the long-term survival of intelligent civilisations in the universe. There is relatively little discussion of the history of SETI, which makes sense since the ongoing enterprise directly benefits from the exponential growth in the capabilities of electronics and computation, and consequentially the breadth and sensitivity of results in the last few years will continue to dwarf those of all earlier searches. Present-day searches, both in the microwave spectrum and looking for ultra-short optical pulses, are described in detail, along with the prospects for the near future, in which the Allen Telescope Array will vastly expand the capability of SETI.

The author discusses the puzzles posed by the expectation that (unless we're missing something fundamental), the window between a technological civilisation's developing the capability to perform SETI research as we presently do it and undergoing a technological singularity which will increase its intelligence and capabilities to levels humans cannot hope to comprehend may be on the order of one to two centuries. If this is the case, any extraterrestrials we contact are almost certain to be these transcendent machine intelligences, whose motivations in trying to contact beings in an ephemeral biological phase such as our own are difficult to imagine. But if such beings are common, shouldn't their cosmological masterworks be writ for all to see in the sky? Well, maybe they are! Vive l'art cosmologique!

What would be the impact of a confirmed detection of an alien transmission? The author suggests, and I tend to concur, probably a lot less than breathless authors of fiction might expect. After all, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Percival Lowell's case for an intelligent canal-building civilisation on Mars was widely accepted, and it did not cause any huge disruption to human self-perception. When I was in high school, many astronomy texts said it was likely Mars was home to lichen-like organisms which accounted for the seasonal changes observed on the planet. And as late as the landing of Viking I on Mars, which this scrivener observed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory auditorium on July 20th, 1976, the President of the United States asked from the White House whether the lander's camera would be able to photograph any Martian animals rambling around the landscape. (Yes, it would. No, it didn't—although the results of the microbial life detection experiments are still disputed.)

This book, a view from inside the contemporary SETI enterprise, is an excellent retrospective on modern SETI and look at its future prospects at the half century mark. It is an excellent complement to Paul Davies's The Eerie Silence (December 2010), which takes a broader approach to the topic, looking more deeply into the history of the field and exploring how, from the present perspective, the definition of alien intelligence and the ways in which we might detect it should be rethought based on what we've learnt in the last five decades. If I had to read only one book on the topic, I would choose the Davies book, but I don't regret reading them both.

The Kindle edition is reasonably well produced, although there are some formatting oddities, and for some reason the capital “I”s in chapter titles have dots above them. There is a completely useless “index” in which items are not linked to their references in the text.

Posted at 21:06 Permalink