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Monday, January 27, 2014

Reading List: The Money Bubble

Turk, James and John Rubino. The Money Bubble. Unknown: DollarCollapse Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-62217-034-0.
It is famously difficult to perceive when you're living through a financial bubble. Whenever a bubble is expanding, regardless of its nature, people with a short time horizon, particularly those riding the bubble without experience of previous boom/bust cycles, not only assume it will continue to expand forever, they will find no shortage of financial gurus to assure them that what, to an outsider appears a completely unsustainable aberration is, in fact, “the new normal”.

It used to be that bubbles would occur only around once in a human generation. This meant that those caught up in them would be experiencing one for the first time and discount the warnings of geezers who were fleeced the last time around. But in our happening world the pace of things accelerates, and in the last 20 years we have seen three successive bubbles, each segueing directly into the next:

  • The Internet/NASDAQ bubble
  • The real estate bubble
  • The bond market bubble

The last bubble is still underway, although the first cracks in its expansion have begun to appear at this writing.

The authors argue that these serial bubbles are the consequence of a grand underlying bubble which has been underway for decades: the money bubble—the creation out of thin air of currency by central banks, causing more and more money to chase whatever assets happen to be in fashion at the moment, thus resulting in bubble after bubble until the money bubble finally pops.

Although it can be psychologically difficult to diagnose a bubble from the inside, if we step back to the abstract level of charts, it isn't all that hard. Whenever you see an exponential curve climbing to the sky, it's not only a safe bet but a sure thing that it won't continue to do so forever. Now, it may go on much longer than you might imagine: as John Maynard Keynes said, “Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent”—but not forever. Let's look at a chart of the M2 money stock (one of the measures of the supply of money denominated in U.S. dollars) from 1959 through the end of 2013 (click the chart to see data updated through the present date).


You will rarely see a more perfect exponential growth curve than this: if you re-plot it on a semi-log axis, the fit to a straight line is remarkable.

Ever since the creation of the Federal Reserve System in the United States in 1913, and especially since the link between the U.S. dollar and gold was severed in 1971, all of the world's principal trading currencies have been fiat money: paper or book-entry money without any intrinsic value, created by a government who enforces its use through legal tender laws. Since governments are the modern incarnation of the bands of thieves and murderers who have afflicted humans ever since our origin in Africa, it is to be expected that once such a band obtains the power to create money which it can coerce its subjects to use they will quickly abuse that power to loot their subjects and enrich themselves, as least as long as they can keep the game going. In the end, it is inevitable that people will wise up to the scam, and that the paper money will be valuable only as scratchy toilet paper. So it has been long before the advent of proper toilet paper.

In this book the authors recount the sorry history of paper money and debt-fuelled bubbles and examine possible scenarios as the present unsustainable system inevitably comes to an end. It is very difficult to forecast what will happen: we appear to be heading for what Ludwig von Mises called a “crack-up boom”. This is where, as he wrote, “the masses wake up”, and things go all nonlinear. The preconditions for this are already in place, but there is no way to know when it will dawn upon a substantial fraction of the population that their savings have been looted, their retirement deferred until death, their children indentured to a lifetime of debt, and their nation destined to become a stratified society with a small fraction of super-wealthy in their gated communities and a mass of impoverished people, disarmed, dumbed down by design, and kept in line by control of their means to communicate, travel, and organise. It is difficult to make predictions beyond that point, as many disruptive things can happen as a society approaches it. This is not an environment in which one can make investment decisions as one would have in the heady days of the 1950s.

And yet, one must—at least people who have managed to save for their retirement and to provide their children a hand up in this increasingly difficult world. The authors, drawing upon historical parallels in previous money and debt bubbles, suggest what asset classes to avoid, which are most likely to ride out the coming turbulence and, for the adventure-seeking with some money left over to take a flyer, a number of speculations which may perform well as the money bubble pops. Remember that in a financial smash-up almost everybody loses: it is difficult in a time of chaos, when assets previously thought risk-free or safe are fluctuating wildly, just to preserve your purchasing power. In such times those who lose the least are the relative winners, and are in the best position when emerging from the hard times to acquire assets at bargain basement prices which will be the foundation of their family fortune as the financial system is reconstituted upon a foundation of sound money.

This book focusses on the history of money and debt bubbles, the invariants from those experiences which can guide us as the present madness ends, and provides guidelines for making the most (or avoiding the worst) of what is to come. If you're looking for “Untold Riches from the Coming Collapse”, this isn't your book. These are very conservative recommendations about what to do and what to avoid, and a few suggestions for speculations, but the focus is on preservation of one's hard-earned capital through what promises to be a very turbulent era.

In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers from the print edition which are useless since the Kindle edition does not include page numbers.

Posted at 21:10 Permalink

Friday, January 24, 2014

Magnetic iPhone 5s

magphone_2014-01-24.jpg Here is a party trick / bar bet / nerdly entertainment for folks who have an iPhone 5s (I don't know if it works for other models; it does not work with an iPhone 4). Ask “Do you know about the app that turns your iPhone into a magnet?” When people express doubt, fire up some application (the compass makes for great patter), do some mumbo-jumbo on the screen, then put a paper clip on the table, place the bottom right corner of the back of the phone (as viewed from the front) over the paper clip, and the phone will pick it up. You can also hold the phone vertically as shown above and stick the paper clip to the corner of the phone's back.

Of course, this works regardless of what app you're running, whether the phone is on or off, and when the phone is both off and on the charger. But you can have more fun if you don't give this away at the start.

I have no idea why the iPhone 5s is magnetic in that corner. The magnetism is weak and diffuse enough it's probably not a risk to magnetic stripes on credit cards, but I'll keep my iPhone away from them just in case.

Posted at 21:45 Permalink

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reading List: Roosevelt's Road To Russia

Crocker, George N. Roosevelt's Road To Russia. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, [1959] 2010. ISBN 978-1-163-82408-5.
Before Barack Obama, there was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unless you lived through the era, imbibed its history from parents or grandparents, or have read dissenting works which have survived rounds of deaccessions by libraries, it is hard to grasp just how visceral the animus was against Roosevelt by traditional, constitutional, and free-market conservatives. Roosevelt seized control of the economy, extended the tentacles of the state into all kinds of relations between individuals, subdued the judiciary and bent it to his will, manipulated a largely supine media which, with a few exceptions, became his cheering section, and created programs which made large sectors of the population directly dependent upon the federal government and thus a reliable constituency for expanding its power. He had the audacity to stand for re-election an unprecedented three times, and each time the American people gave him the nod.

But, as many old-timers, even those who were opponents of Roosevelt at the time and appalled by what the centralised super-state he set into motion has become, grudgingly say, “He won the war.” Well, yes, by the time he died in office on April 12, 1945, Germany was close to defeat; Japan was encircled, cut off from the resources needed to continue the war, and being devastated by attacks from the air; the war was sure to be won by the Allies. But how did the U.S. find itself in the war in the first place, how did Roosevelt's policies during the war affect its conduct, and what consequences did they have for the post-war world?

These are the questions explored in this book, which I suppose contemporary readers would term a “paleoconservative” revisionist account of the epoch, published just 14 years after the end of the war. The work is mainly an account of Roosevelt's personal diplomacy during meetings with Churchill or in the Big Three conferences with Churchill and Stalin. The picture of Roosevelt which emerges is remarkably consistent with what Churchill expressed in deepest confidence to those closest to him which I summarised in my review of The Last Lion, Vol. 3 (January 2013) as “a lightweight, ill-informed and not particularly engaged in military affairs and blind to the geopolitical consequences of the Red Army's occupying eastern and central Europe at war's end.” The events chronicled here and Roosevelt's part in them is also very much the same as described in Freedom Betrayed (June 2012), which former president Herbert Hoover worked on from shortly after Pearl Harbor until his death in 1964, but which was not published until 2011.

While Churchill was constrained in what he could say by the necessity of maintaining Britain's alliance with the U.S., and Hoover adopts a more scholarly tone, the present volume voices the outrage over Roosevelt's strutting on the international stage, thinking “personal diplomacy” could “bring around ‘Uncle Joe’ ”, condemning huge numbers of military personnel and civilians on both the Allied and Axis sides to death by blurting out “unconditional surrender” without any consultation with his staff or Allies, approving the genocidal Morgenthau Plan to de-industrialise defeated Germany, and, discarding the high principles of his own Atlantic Charter, delivering millions of Europeans into communist tyranny and condoning one of the largest episodes of ethnic cleansing in human history.

What is remarkable is how difficult it is to come across an account of this period which evokes the author's passion, shared with many of his time, of how the bumblings of a naïve, incompetent, and narcissistic chief executive had led directly to so much avoidable tragedy on a global scale. Apart from Hoover's book, finally published more than half a century after this account, there are few works accessible to the general reader which present the view that the tragic outcome of World War II was in large part preventable, and that Roosevelt and his advisers were responsible, in large part, for what happened.

Perhaps there are parallels in this account of wickedness triumphing through cluelessness for our present era.

This edition is a facsimile reprint of the original edition published by Henry Regnery Company in 1959.

Posted at 22:50 Permalink

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reading List: Microlaunchers

Pooley, Charles and Ed LeBouthillier. Microlaunchers. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4912-8111-6.
Many fields of engineering are subject to scaling laws: as you make something bigger or smaller various trade-offs occur, and the properties of materials, cost, or other design constraints set limits on the largest and smallest practical designs. Rockets for launching payloads into Earth orbit and beyond tend to scale well as you increase their size. Because of the cube-square law, the volume of propellant a tank holds increases as the cube of the size while the weight of the tank goes as the square (actually a bit faster since a larger tank will require more robust walls, but for a rough approximation calling it the square will do). Viable rockets can get very big indeed: the Sea Dragon, although never built, is considered a workable design. With a length of 150 metres and 23 metres in diameter, it would have more than ten times the first stage thrust of a Saturn V and place 550 metric tons into low Earth orbit.

What about the other end of the scale? How small could a space launcher be, what technologies might be used in it, and what would it cost? Would it be possible to scale a launcher down so that small groups of individuals, from hobbyists to college class projects, could launch their own spacecraft? These are the questions explored in this fascinating and technically thorough book. Little practical work has been done to explore these questions. The smallest launcher to place a satellite in orbit was the Japanese Lambda 4S with a mass of 9400 kg and length of 16.5 metres. The U.S. Vanguard rocket had a mass of 10,050 kg and length of 23 metres. These are, though small compared to the workhorse launchers of today, still big, heavy machines, far beyond the capabilities of small groups of people, and sufficiently dangerous if something goes wrong that they require launch sites in unpopulated regions.

The scale of launchers has traditionally been driven by the mass of the payload they carry to space. Early launchers carried satellites with crude 1950s electronics, while many of their successors were derived from ballistic missiles sized to deliver heavy nuclear warheads. But today, CubeSats have demonstrated that useful work can be done by spacecraft with a volume of one litre and mass of 1.33 kg or less, and the PhoneSat project holds out the hope of functional spacecraft comparable in weight to a mobile telephone. While to date these small satellites have flown as piggy-back payloads on other launches, the availability of dedicated launchers sized for them would increase the number of launch opportunities and provide access to trajectories unavailable in piggy-back opportunities.

Just because launchers have tended to grow over time doesn't mean that's the only way to go. In the 1950s and '60s many people expected computers to continue their trend of getting bigger and bigger to the point where there were a limited number of “computer utilities” with vast machines which customers accessed over the telecommunication network. But then came the minicomputer and microcomputer revolutions and today the computing power in personal computers and mobile devices dwarfs that of all supercomputers combined. What would it take technologically to spark a similar revolution in space launchers?

With the smallest successful launchers to date having a mass of around 10 tonnes, the authors choose two weight budgets: 1000 kg on the high end and 100 kg as the low. They divide these budgets into allocations for payload, tankage, engines, fuel, etc. based upon the experience of existing sounding rockets, then explore what technologies exist which might enable such a vehicle to achieve orbital or escape velocity. The 100 kg launcher is a huge technological leap from anything with which we have experience and probably could be built, if at all, only after having gained experience from earlier generations of light launchers. But then the current state of the art in microchip fabrication would have seemed like science fiction to researchers in the early days of integrated circuits and it took decades of experience and generation after generation of chips and many technological innovations to arrive where we are today. Consequently, most of the book focuses on a three stage launcher with the 1000 kg mass budget, capable of placing a payload of between 150 and 200 grams on an Earth escape trajectory.

The book does not spare the rigour. The reader is introduced to the rocket equation, formulæ for aerodynamic drag, the standard atmosphere, optimisation of mixture ratios, combustion chamber pressure and size, nozzle expansion ratios, and a multitude of other details which make the difference between success and failure. Scaling to the size envisioned here without expensive and exotic materials and technologies requires out of the box thinking, and there is plenty on display here, including using beverage cans for upper stage propellant tanks.

A 1000 kg space launcher appears to be entirely feasible. The question is whether it can be done without the budget of hundreds of millions of dollars and years of development it would certainly take were the problem assigned to an aerospace prime contractor. The authors hold out the hope that it can be done, and observe that hobbyists and small groups can begin working independently on components: engines, tank systems, guidance and navigation, and so on, and then share their work precisely as open source software developers do so successfully today.

This is a field where prizes may work very well to encourage development of the required technologies. A philanthropist might offer, say, a prize of a million dollars for launching a 150 gram communicating payload onto an Earth escape trajectory, and a series of smaller prizes for engines which met the requirements for the various stages, flight-weight tankage and stage structures, etc. That way teams with expertise in various areas could work toward the individual prizes without having to take on the all-up integration required for the complete vehicle.

This is a well-researched and hopeful look at a technological direction few have thought about. The book is well written and includes all of the equations and data an aspiring rocket engineer will need to get started. The text is marred by a number of typographical errors (I counted two dozen) but only one trivial factual error. Although other references are mentioned in the text, a bibliography of works for those interested in exploring further would be a valuable addition. There is no index.

Posted at 23:22 Permalink

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle updated, EPUB releases begin

Now that all 25 of the public domain Tom Swift novels have been posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection, I am returning to the earlier novels, which I began to post in 2005, upgrading them to use the more modern typography of those I've done in the last few years. The first to be upgraded is the first novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle. A number of typographical errors which slipped through the original production process have been corrected, and Unicode text entities are used for special characters such as single and double quotes and dashes.

Concurrent with the posting of this updated edition, I have added EPUB editions of sixteen of the Tom Swift novels. EPUB documents may be read with a wide variety of reading devices and applications, including Apple's iBooks and the Barnes & Noble Nook. I will post EPUBs of the remaining nine novels as I revise and update them.

The EPUB editions are created automatically from XHTML Web documents by a special purpose utility. (It is only useful for books in the format of these novels; I am therefore not posting the source code as it wouldn't be useful for other documents.) It is possible to automatically convert EPUB format to the .mobi format used by the Amazon Kindle, but when I convert these documents (with three different tools, none of which reports an error in conversion), the table of contents does not appear, at least on the Kindle application for the iPad. (Oddly, the table of contents displays just fine when the .mobi file is opened in the Calibre desktop reader application.) I am deferring posting .mobi editions of these books until this mystery is resolved.

Posted at 00:03 Permalink

Friday, January 3, 2014

Reading List: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

Faulks, Sebastian. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. London: Hutchinson, 2013. ISBN 978-0-09-195404-8.
As a fan of P. G. Wodehouse ever since I started reading his work in the 1970s, and having read every single Jeeves and Wooster story, it was with some trepidation that I picked up this novel, the first Jeeves and Wooster story since Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, published in 1974, a year before Wodehouse's death. This book, published with the permission of the Wodehouse estate, is described by the author as a tribute to P. G. Wodehouse which he hopes will encourage readers to discover the work of the master.

The author notes that, while remaining true to the characters of Jeeves and Wooster and the ambience of the stories, he did not attempt to mimic Wodehouse's style. Notwithstanding, to this reader, the result is so close to that of Wodehouse that if you dropped it into a Wodehouse collection unlabelled, I suspect few readers would find anything discordant. Faulks's Jeeves seems to use more jaw-breaking words than I recall Wodehouse's, but that's about it. Apart from Jeeves and Wooster, none of the regular characters who populate Wodehouse's stories appear on stage here. We hear of members of the Drones, the terrifying Aunt Agatha, and others, and mentions of previous episodes involving them, but all of the other dramatis personæ are new.

On holiday in the south of France, Bertie Wooster makes the acquaintance of Georgiana Meadowes, a copy editor for a London publisher having escaped the metropolis to finish marking up a manuscript. Bertie is immediately smitten, being impressed by Georgiana's beauty, brains, and wit, albeit less so with her driving (“To say she drove in the French fashion would be to cast a slur on those fine people.”). Upon his return to London, Bertie soon reads that Georgiana has become engaged to a travel writer she mentioned her family urging her to marry. Meanwhile, one of Bertie's best friends, “Woody” Beeching, confides his own problem with the fairer sex. His fiancée has broken off the engagement because her parents, the Hackwoods, need their daughter to marry into wealth to save the family seat, at risk of being sold. Before long, Bertie discovers that the matrimonial plans of Georgiana and Woody are linked in a subtle but inflexible way, and that a delicate hand, acting with nuance, will be needed to assure all ends well.

Evidently, a job crying out for the attention of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster! Into the fray Jeeves and Wooster go, and before long a quintessentially Wodehousean series of impostures, misadventures, misdirections, eccentric characters, disasters at the dinner table, and carefully crafted stratagems gone horribly awry ensue. If you are not acquainted with that game which the English, not being a very spiritual people, invented to give them some idea of eternity (G. B. Shaw), you may want to review the rules before reading chapter 7.

Doubtless some Wodehouse fans will consider any author's bringing Jeeves and Wooster back to life a sacrilege, but this fan simply relished the opportunity to meet them again in a new adventure which is entirely consistent with the Wodehouse canon and characters. I would have been dismayed had this been a parody or some “transgressive” despoilation of the innocent world these characters inhabit. Instead we have a thoroughly enjoyable romp in which the prodigious brain of Jeeves once again saves the day.

The U.K. edition is linked above. U.S. and worldwide Kindle editions are available.

Posted at 01:33 Permalink