Archive for November, 2012

A Royal Pain in the Ass


For the past couple of weeks I\’ve been living in a strange, faraway land, far from the hurricane-flooded shores where some of the world\’s most feckless politicians are arguing over the best way to bail out a swimming pool of red ink using teaspoons, and where my boat is moored waiting for me. It is a land where it snows a lot, and where, right now, people can\’t wait for the hard freeze, at which point the skies clear, the air dries out, and the scene turns into a permanent winter wonderland—until the spring melt comes some months later. (The snow is not plowed but removed, and there are never any “snow days” for school or work.)
It is a land renowned for its awesome bureaucracy, where each citizen is expected to be able to complete multiple lengthy forms that resemble essay tests, in cursive longhand, which the fearsome bureaucrats refuse to accept if they contain as much as a single correction, deletion or error in grammar, orthography or punctuation. And it doesn\’t stop with the bureaucrats: nobody wants to make an error in speaking, for fear that children will point and laugh at them. Speaking of the children, they go from reading level 0 to reading level 99 rather swiftly and unnoticeably. It starts with them learning the letters on letter blocks and sounding them out in exchange for lollies and such (in this language, you see, all the letters but two make specific speech sounds). Then they learn to put these letters/sounds together to pronounce syllables. Then the penny drops and they start reading—the whole language, every word of it, more or less correctly. They learn new words either by hearing them or by reading them—it doesn\’t matter which. In their world, the terms “reading level” and “functional illiteracy” are unheard of, and the term “illiteracy” is mostly used metaphorically, as a synonym for “inadequacy,” as in “You stacked that firewood illiterately.” The catalogue copy for their 3rd grade text book reads: “Mother Tongue, Third Gradefeatures works by classic and contemporary native and foreign writers. Familiarity with these works will connect the child to the world of literature, teach him to love and understand the book, expand his horizons…” By the time they are 12 they are done being trained in the cursive longhand, the grammar, the orthography and the punctuation. It works: my favorite reading when I was 10 was The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov; when I was 12 it was War and Peace by Tolstoy. By then I had already devoured Le Comte de Monte Christo by Dumas and lots of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mark Twain, who are all considered children\’s authors. This is not to brag; I was something of a laggard compared to many.

Back in that faraway exotic land where my boat is bobbing listlessly waiting for its owner, things are not so happy with regard to basic literacy. According to a recent report, “high school students today are reading books intended for children with reading levels far below those appropriate for teens.” A compilation of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school shows that the average reading level of that list is 5.3—barely above the fifth grade. I couldn\’t find a handy definition of fifth-grade reading level, but a desultory scan of the paltry offerings did not turn up anything War and Peace-like. “A fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship,” writes Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The unenviable conclusion is that American high schools produce functional illiterates.

But, you know, so what? If they can\’t read, then maybe they can just play video games instead. After all, if they do learn to read, they may end up in college, and then end up mired in debt, still with no good job prospects. (Of course I am being facetious.) But it gets worse. It turns out that functional illiterates constitute 70% of the prisoners in state and federal prisons (that\’s 70% of the world\’s largest per capita prison population, larger even than the population of the Soviet Gulags at the height of Stalin\’s purges). It turns out that 85% of juvenile offenders are classified as functionally or marginally illiterate, that 43% of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and that over 42 million American adults can’t read at all. Beyond the mere inability to read and write lies the vast wasteland of psychological damage littered with dysfunctional coping mechanisms that spontaneously develop as a result of living in a society that requires literacy but is unable to provide for it.

What is the difference? Why is it that Russian children, even the lazier ones, breeze along from letter blocks to War and Peace without having to sacrifice any valuable snowball-tossing time, while American children, and their teachers, struggle mightily but fail to succeed? The answer is obvious: it is the fault of the fucking English! Not the long-suffering English people, mind you, but of the aristocratic ponces and twits who have lorded over them for centuries, and who are responsible for contriving and perpetuating the ridiculous thing called the English “spelling system.” I put it in quotes, because, although spells have something to do with it—evil ones, cast long ago, yet to be broken—it is definitely not any sort of system. It cannot be taught as a system (it has over 91 major patterns, 80 of which are undermined by numerous exceptions) and in practice it cannot be learned except through rote memorization, which takes something like ten years. And that is just too damn long!

Thus, this is not an American problem; the situation is much the same throughout the English-speaking world. There are at least two million functionally illiterate adults in England and Wales alone. “In my opinion, the irrationality of the English spelling system is an important factor, among a great number, contributing to the high level of reading failure and illiteracy in English-speaking countries. I am very concerned at the lack of recognition of this fact in educational circles… if our spelling were reformed so that allwords were spelt according to a regular system, reasonably phonetic in character, anyone, child or adult, could become completely literate, able to spell correctly as well as to read, within a few months. Compare this with the years it now takes.” writes Marjorie Chaplin who spent a career teaching English literacy skills.

How did this situation come about? Back to the British upper-class ponces and twits: they never intended hoi polloito be literate, and especially not the part of hoi polloi that do not even know what hoi polloi stands for (it doesn\’t matter what it stands for, really). Literacy was for the upper classes, the ones with the free time and the money to put their children into special schools where useless Greek and useless Latin were drummed into their heads, after which useless English spelling probably seemed like a walk in the park. These are the people who thought it unwise to teach sailors navigation, since they might then find it more perspicacious to mutiny than to take orders from ponces and twits. The same attitudes carried over to the Colonies, where it was forbidden to teach Negroes how to read and write, or to use Arabic numerals and arithmetic (Roman numerals were considered safe, since they are almost impossible to calculate with, but allowed slave carpenters to scribe numbers on planks for ease of assembly). The English spelling non-system was not designed for universal literacy; it was contrived specifically to make universal literacy impossible. We are now struggling along with something that was intended to be taught to Little Lord Fauntleroy by his personal governess while strolling about the manicured gardens, not something that can be imparted quickly and efficiently to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It is, to put it simply, just wrong.

When the Russians embraced the concept of universal literacy (in the wake of the revolution of 1917) they yanked five redundant letters from the Russian alphabet and decreed that Russian be written more or less the way it\’s spoken, without references to Latin, Greek or that bane of Russian schoolchildren up to that point, the horrible artificial language called Old Church Slavonic. And they did achieve universal literacy in spite of many of the previously literate people (aristocratic ponces and twits included) going into exile or getting killed, a civil war, a world war and a few other accidents and complications.

In the meantime, English orthography has remained the haphazard, nonsensical, idiosyncratic waste of everyone\’s time it has always been. But it is quite possible to write English phonetically and so the problem of putting the entirety of the English spelling system to a well-deserved death is strictly a political issue whose solution would be especially applauded by the many millions of people who have to learn English as a second or third or fourth language. While English spelling continues to reign, forcing millions of people to endure years of rote memorization, it produces the additional side-effect of inadvertent acculturation to specifically English ways of thinking: because of the time it takes to learn, students of English learn not only the language but also subliminally absorb its cultural clichés, many of which have barely shifted since the days when English was the imperial tongue. Perhaps it is time to invent a new English writing system, which has exactly one symbol to represent each psychologically significant, lexically differentiating phoneme (there are, it turns out, only 32 of them, across all the major dialects). English is, after all, a simple little language that just happens to have a big dictionary. The two reasons it caught on so well as the lingua franca across the world are its extreme grammatical, phonological and morphological simplicity compared to all of its international competitors, and its international vocabulary. With 80% of its vocabulary specifically French, and quite a bit of the rest international, it is really just “French made simple.” It\’s a sort of baby-babble, great for scat singing (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah!”) that comes with a fat dictionary full of big foreign words nobody seems to know how to write or to pronounce, never mind figure out quite what they mean. Yes, it has the strange retroflex approximant ‘r’ (the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for which is [ɻ], its queer shape a testament to its strangeness) but that too can be taken to be a charming little infantile speech impediment. Yes, it has some of the world\’s most fearsome consonant clusters (the word “strengths” is one syllable—but that too is just the sound of a baby spitting up).

Beyond that, most of the trouble with English comes from its lingering post-imperial smell and its refusal to let go of the abominable spelling non-system in favor of something that a linguist might design on a day off and that can be learned fully while attending a single adult education course at a neighborhood community center. It is highly recommended that this alternative English orthography start out by not flouting the alphabetic principle, according to which exactly one symbol (letter) unambiguously represents exactly one sound (phoneme) of the language. The current English orthography flouts the alphabetic principle for arbitrarily large values of “flout”: for about a century now a debate has been raging in the US as to whether students should be taught that letters represent sounds—or not! If that isn\’t sad, what is? In other parts of the English-speaking world, “phonics” has been accepted as the superior approach, but even there adult functional illiteracy rates are the shame of the developed world.

While at it, let\’s give up on the Latin alphabet; it\’s the 21stcentury, and Latin is still dead. The medieval monks who preserved it for posterity, and tried to apply it to English, clearly didn\’t know what they were doing. The Latin alphabet is missing 10 letters that English needs (two vowels and eight consonants). Other European languages have since upgraded their alphabets, but English is still proudly muddling along with Latin 1.0 Beta. Plus, those monks laid a trap for dyslexics; to see what I mean, stand on your head and try to read this: “bdbpdpqbqdpdpqbdbdq.Even the mildest case dyslexia is further exacerbated by English spelling. One letter stands for multiple phonemes and multiple letters stand for one phoneme, what is phonologically the same word can be written in different ways (“ewe,” “yew” and “you” are indistinguishable in speech but, as with any homonym, would conjure up different images even if all three were written identically). Different words can be written identically (“moped” vs “moped” and “tear” vs. “tear,” depending on whether there are wheels or liquids involved—and this does in fact cause damage to comprehension). Same letter combinations can represent many different sounds—“enough,” “plough,” “though”, “through”—and that is, technically speaking, just a bug.

Now that all text is electronic and the question of how to render it on the screen or on the printed page is strictly a question of software, somebody really ought to do something about it: “break the spell,” as it were, and leave the evil old spelling system in the dust. For those who will need to decipher a passage from an obscure old book, a smartphone app can be provided: snap a picture of a page full of Crazy Old Gibberish, and a second or so later a perfectly legible version flashes up on the screen. At the very least, start providing English spelling with legible, sensibly written subtitles, as an accessibility requirement. We take care of the deaf, the blind and the wheelchair-bound; why not the dyslexics? The lack of a sensible, phonologically accurate English orthography is, in software terms, just a missing feature.

Of all the big problems we face, the problem of impossible-to-write language is one we can strike off the list—literally, with a stroke of a pen.

Update: A reader sent this in, and it sums things up very nicely. It echoes what Nabokov once said: that nothing breaks the human spirit better than consistently bad treatment. Having to submit to English spelling is just such treatment.

Thank you for taking a hunch I\’ve had for a long time—that some property of the English language brings domination and inequality to follow wherever it goes—and putting some flesh on it. I would add that the extensive time spent learning and consistently obeying a set of arbitrary, relentlessly inconsistent rules conditions a mind to more easily accept sets of arbitrary, relentlessly inconsistent rules outside of language, and, further, makes that mind seemingly less able to deal in principles, cause-and-effect relationships, especially higher-order ones, and ambiguity.

Update: From a Scottish reader: recite this! Don\’t think about it, go as quickly as you can and see how many times you trip up. It\’s your native language, your birthright, isn\’t it?

The Practice of Anarchy


In my previous three-part series on anarchy (available here, hereand here) I argued, among other things, that anarchic (that is to say, non-hierarchical and self-organizing) systems are the norm in evolution and in nature and have also been the norm in human societies through much of their existence. They have a great deal to offer us as we attempt to navigate a landscape dominated by the failure of various centrally controlled, rigidly organized, explicitly codified hierarchical systems based on complex chains of command that have come to dominate human societies in recent centuries. I have also pointed out that, based on recent results from complexity theory, such hierarchical systems are collapse-prone. This is because they scale badly, increasing their metabolic cost per unit size as their size increases, which is just the opposite of how living organisms behave. This is also because, in order to continue to meet their internal maintenance requirements, they have to grow exponentially until they encounter physical limits.

But, as some astute readers have pointed out, what are we to do with all this excellent information? We live in a hierarchically structured society whose sometimes oppressive but always ever-present top-down authority we cannot escape. With many generations of people having become used to hearing anarchists vilified as terrorists, communist revolutionaries and having been conditioned to accept anarchy as a synonym for chaos and mayhem, any attempt at advocating anarchism as a political program is bound to go nowhere. We may be able to accept that anarchy is the way of nature, but we must also accept that it is no longer (at least for the time being) the way of human nature—or, if you like, not the way of man—or at least not the way of “the man”—the one who pays us a little something if we are helpful to him and orders us to be beat up or locked up if we are not. The advocate of anarchy is at best an amusing disembodied voice on the Internet (who must be dong something or other more practical to please the hierarchy in order to be able to afford the free time and the Internet connection). At worst, the compulsion to advocate anarchism as a program of political reform is a sign of mental illness.

Yes, the advocate of anarchist revolution is a sad sort of imbecile, but this is not to say that the theory that underpins anarchism is without any practical applications. It is just that such applications have nothing at all to do with politics. Just as anarchist thinking has at its source the scientific observation of nature, so must its applications to contemporary society start by observing the constructive role that anarchy normally plays within contemporary society, and then look for ways to extend it. Are there any examples of that? Yes, indeed there are. Whenever an existing hierarchically organized system becomes sufficiently ossified and dysfunctional to give an obvious edge to an improvised, anarchic, perhaps initially inferior alternative, there is a possibility that such an alternative will materialize out of nowhere, spread virally, become dominant, and then, in turn, become hierarchical and ossified. Let\’s list some obvious examples.

The Protestant revolution is an obvious one. Once the Catholic church—a hierarchical organization par excellence, though built on top of the wreckage of anarchic early Christianity—became sufficiently corrupt and obnoxious, putting up toll booths before the gates of heaven and so forth, a variety of new self-selected religious leaders led a revolt, providing viable, though rather primitive, alternatives, which then took over in many parts of the world, and eventually sprouted their own hierarchical structures thanks to the efforts of Luther. The Russian revolution is another one: once the general senility and obsolescence of the Czarist ancien régime became compounded by its failed effort durng World War I to a point where it could no longer quell bread riots, a variety of new self-selected political leaders stepped into the breach and provided an alternative, until it, again, sprouted a hierarchical organization of its own thanks to the efforts of Lenin. Seventy years later the stiff and morbid hierarchy into which it evolved was also tipped into the dustbin. More recently, when the first efforts at trade liberalization provided advantages of economies of scale, as well as labor and jurisdictional arbitrage, with which national enterprises could not compete, the trend became unstoppable, until there is now a single transnational business environment which is beyond any one nation\’s control. If history is any guide (as it sometimes is) the inevitable result will be that a dangerously centralized global economic bureaucracy, conceived in an effort to control the forces of chaos globalization has unleashed, will briefly attempt to dominate the scene before crumbling into dust under its own weight.

Equally significant (and somewhat less fraught) examples of anarchy in action can be found in the area of computer technology. There was a time when computers made by different manufacturers came with their own different and incompatible operating systems. The manufacturers liked this state of affairs, in spite of the fact that it greatly inconvenienced the users, because it created lock-in: switching from one manufacturer to another involved expensive and time-consuming rewriting of software. Then it just happened that two minds at Bell Labs dreamt up a very simple and primitive operating system called Unix (its very name was initially a joke) which was written in a language called C that ran on a lot of different computers—and virally took over the world. Then Unix became a commercial product, instantly going from anarchical and free to hierarchical and expensive. But anarchy triumphed again when it was rewritten, through various efforts, in a way that pried it away from grubby corporate hands. A big role in all this was played by self-selected leaders. Richard Stallman\’s GNU project (the acronym stands for “GNU is Not Unix”) created gcc, a free C compiler, and rewrote a great many Unix utilities to be free as well. Linux Torvalds, a graduate student in Finland, didn\’t like the Windows system that his university-provided PC was running (he thought it was crap) and so he wrote the Linux operating system that leveraged GNU, creating a Unix variant that initially ran on PCs, but now runs inside a great many devices, from Android smartphones to WiFi routers to the Google search engine to virtually all of the world\’s supercomputers. Eventually even Apple Computer saw the light, and its OS/X is a Unix variant. Unix is now ubiquitous, and the last non-Unix holdout is Microsoft, which is now clearly a dinosaur and sinking fast, while Linux-based Google and Unix-based Apple are eating its lunch. It started out as a joke and then went viral and took over: score one for anarchy.

There are many other such examples from many fields, but the pattern should already be clear: when a hierarchical organization—be it a church, a government or a corporation—creates a structural impediment, and when a solution is found to circumvent a that structural impediment, even if it is just a quick and dirty one, a leader self-selects to create that alternative. If the effort is a success and the alternative takes root and becomes rampant, in due course it gives rise to a hierarchical organization of its own. In an effort to expand and consolidate its control over the newly created domain, that organization then sets its sights on crafting a new set of structural impediments. But in due course the deathly touch of hierarchy takes its toll, and then the cycle repeats. There doesn\’t seem to be a lot that can be done to break the cycle, although there is a way to stretch it out by placing the new invention in the public domain (in software, this is done via the General Public License and a few others) or by declaring it an open, public standard. This has the effect of negating, or at least reducing, the undue influence of any one corporate entity, and this is almost always helpful because, first, corporations tend to be short-lived entities, and their influence shortens the lifetime of the invention, and second, corporations pursue profit by any means, such as by working against the interests others. But any significant invention is bound, over time, to come under the control of industry consortia, standards bodies, government regulators and other hierarchical entities, which eventually kill it. They may kill it with diligence or with neglect, but kill it they do, because in order for something to live forever and evolve freely it has to be organized anarchically, and that is a form of organization of which hierarchical organizations happen to be incapable.

I hope that this makes it clear what the practice of anarchism looks like. First of all, someone must lead; not seek a leadership position, not attempt to take charge or seize control, but simply go right ahead and start doing what needs to be done without asking anyone\’s permission. The goal is to create a viable alternative of which others can avail themselves freely. But in order for this to succeed, the target must be chosen well: a significant structural impediment that can be circumvented with finite effort. Working either entirely by yourself (in secret if need be) or with a few informal helpers, to craft a quick and dirty solution that nevertheless embodies the right set of concepts to scale up and take over is quite a feat, and few people are capable of it, but it is nevertheless something that happens quite a lot.

The best targets are ones that can be circumvented through individual or small group effort, with minimal start-up costs and where the alternative can spread virally. And the worst? Well, they generally require proposing a package of reforms, organizing politically, engaging in group planning activities, lobbying government and so forth. As Peter Kropotkin put it over a century ago, “It\’s about time we learned that such is the fate of all revolutionary laws: they are enacted only once they have become the established practice.” So, start practicing!

S/V Hogfish is for sale!


[UPDATE: Hogfish is under agreement as of Feb. 23, 2013. It stayed on the market all of 5 minutes. I should build a boat…]

Next week I will launch into a new series of articles about a particular brave new anarchist experiment I am thinking of launching, but in the meantime here is some housekeeping.

No, we haven\’t given up on living aboard, but we did buy a bigger boat, a Pearson 365. The new boat\’s name is Prince Kropotkin. Our family has grown and Hogfish is simply too small for us. And so, Hogfish is going to some other yet-to-be-identified happy Hogfish owner.

If you have ever wanted to own a shoal draft ocean-capable cruising boat that\’s set up for living aboard in northerly climates, here\’s your chance and, as you probably already know, it probably won\’t come around any time soon. I haven\’t listed Hogfish for sale yet. I think the least I can do for my readers is give them the first shot at it.

Here is a write-up on it, and here are two photo albums, one that contains photos of the interior and the exterior which I took last week and another—of Hogfish modeled by our photogenic (and photobombing) cat.

If you are specifically interested in buying Hogfish and have questions, would like to look at it, or would like to make an offer, please contact me directly at dmitry dоt orlov at gmail dоt com; if you have something more general to say, post a comment.

Meanwhie in Ireland


Last week I spent three days attending the Kilkenomics conference in sunny Kilkenny, Ireland. About an hour and a half by taxi from the Dublin Airport, Kilkenny is a smallish medieval town on a smallish non-navigable river, its skyline dominated by an impressive, gloomy castle and a few equally gloomy cathedrals of grey stone. Its narrow streets are full of mostly empty shops and pubs (the shop to pub ratio seems on the order of 3 to 1) and during daylight hours they are clogged solid with mostly empty little cars. Maybe it\’s because a lot of the little cars are diesels, or maybe the local brand of petrol/gasoline is heavy on aromatics, but standing in the street in Kilkenny often smells same as being downwind of a freighter. One morning, when it briefly wasn\’t raining, I took a walk around the town, and it could be quite lovely if it wasn\’t for the insane amount of street traffic and that awful damp.

Kilkenny is the home of the Smithwicks brewery (whose product I happen to like) and tends to crush other counties in the national sport of hurling. It also has one of the tidiest Gypsy camps I\’ve ever seen (in Ireland the Romani are known as “Travelers”) with actual council-built housing and plenty of pasture for their horses. Kilkenny is also home to a number of festivals: there is a comedy festival and a foreign film festival, and the wildly successful Kilkenomics conference which it was my privilege to attend. The concept behind this conference is quite a stroke of genius: get economists and comedians together. The economists are mostly a dull lot who are either spouting philosophical theory in tones that brook no argument, or spouting statistics with a “don\’t you know” sort of look, and, most significantly, most of the news they have for us is enough to make a grown man weep. And why exactly would grown men want to pay conference registration fees to sit there and weep? That is where the comedians come in: they make us laugh, so that we forget to cry. And this they certainly did, paraphrasing the economists\’ dour pronouncements in ways that made the audience laugh. One particular paraphrase stuck in my mind: there was in attendance one Constantin Gurdjieff—a swarthy and bombastic Muscovite who happens to be a distant relative of the great early 20th century mystic with the same rare surname (he spells it differently: Frankenstein, Fronkensteen—whatever). He held forth at length in a booming Rocky and Bullwinkle accent, only to be swiftly paraphrased as “Kill zem all!”

My contribution amounted to sitting in on three panels, in the course of which I realized that I am more of a comedian than an economist. Now, I don\’t have any formal training or credentials as an economist, and thank God for that, because, on the one hand, I have lost count of the trades in which I\’ve worked quite successfully without a license and, on the other, why would I ever want to waste my time on such a hopeless discipline? What do you call an economist who makes predictions about the future? Wrong. Comedy, on the other hand, is much more of a science: comedians can accurately predict what will make the audience laugh. I actually said that at the conference, and the audience actually did laugh. I rest my case. I also gave a talk on the subject of my book, Reinventing Collapse, which got a few laughs and left the audience in an upbeat mood, quite possibly because, compared to the other talks, my message was quite upbeat. Because, to be perfectly honest, the overarching meta-question that was continuously asked at this conference, and sometimes answered in the affirmative, was: “Are we fooked?” The headline on page 6 of the Irish Independent from 3 November read “Economists warn euro will be extinct in 10 years.” The article goes on to quote the retired American bank regulator Bill Black, who said, before a packed hotel ballroom: “The euro is the biggest threat to peace and prosperity in Europe in modern times.”

Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts forced me to miss the few talks that focused on success stories—one on Iceland, and another on informal economies. I did get to see Charles Eisenstein speaking about gift, barter and informal economies in a tiny and packed room in the back of a pub where I was sandwiched against the door with Max Keiser. Charles is very upbeat and is something of an inspirational speaker on the whole informal economy thing. Then Charles and I rushed to a different hole in the wall (one actually called “The Hole in the Wall”) where we battled the indomitable Constantin “Kill ze kommies!” Gurdjieff over the role of left-wing politics on a panel on “Economics for People who Hate Capitalism.” There was quite a number of such people in attendance, and I am afraid they walked away disappointed. I did manage to spell out some basics, such as, if you want to have dealings with people you don\’t trust, you need to make room for government/mafia (and even Constantin conceded that the two are essentially the same). I also managed to say a few words about the biggest Communist institution in America, if not the world, which is the US Armed Forces. I didn\’t get a chance to talk about the second biggest, which is the American Ivy League. We disagreed about the recent successes of the Latin American progressives; I happen to like some of them, while Constantin wanted to, you know… None of us had a single good thing to say about Karl Marx. The poor fellow was mired in useless German metaphysics (dialectical materialism my foot!) plus he was all about distributing the fruits of industrial wage labor equitably, and where is that state-run industrialist vision now? I felt sorry for the lads trying to flog copies of “Socialist Worker” outside the venue, but we were hungry and it was late.

The overall political mood of the gathering was hard to gauge. There was a lot of despair over the fecklessness of the Irish politicians in the face of pressure from Europe (“Why is Ireland bailing out Germany? Are we insane?”) as well as over the strange Irish compulsion to hurt themselves by specifically refusing to investigate financial fraud—in a national referendum, no less! There was a lot of indignation over being treated as Europe\’s “special child” and a palpable resentment of Angela Merkel. She will be burned in effigy if she keeps at it like that. The more I talked to people, the more I started to feel in my bones that what\’s happening in Greece, Italy and Spain will eventually happen even in conservative and cautious Ireland: the EU is coming politically unstuck. There will be plenty of work for economic comedians, and the Kilkenomics conference should continue to do well.