Archive for April, 2017

Ask Me Anything on Reddit


A wide-ranging Q&A on Reddit\’s Collapse sub-reddit.

Talk in Boston


I\’ll give a talk and Q&A on QUIDNON at the Artisan\’s Asylum in Somerville, MA at 8pm on Thursday, May 4th. Hope to see you there.

Obsolete Maps, Unfamililiar Landscapes


In his recent blog post, A Matter of Mercy, James Howard Kunstler compared the common state of mind of the USA to that of an Alzheimer’s patient. Themes pop up in the news and mass media mouthpieces wax hysterical about them. Then, abruptly, their mouth music stops, and thème du jour vanishes from view. “Russian meddling” in the US presidential election made a lot of noise; and then… crickets. Moving right along, there was an alleged chemical attack in Syria (of which there is still no verifiable evidence); therefore, “Assad must pay” (by having a handful of unused 30-year-old jets blown up). Awkwardly, only about a third of the very expensive Tomahawk cruise missiles manage to reach the target (the wrong end of an airfield). Even more awkwardly, the Russians take this opportunity to show off their previously top secret electronic warfare equipment. And then the story dies (just as the US refuses to authorize an investigation into the chemical attack). And then it’s on to North Korea. And so on, endlessly.

Kunstler makes the point that the national dialogue in the US is plumbing the depths of senility: disturbing images flash across the screen; some number of supposedly well informed and right-thinking people make loud harrumphing noises about them along the lines that “something must be done,” and then… nothing! That, indeed, is what we have been observing. But what are the root causes of this serial national amnesia? Even if it looks like senility, may this be just a symptom of an entirely different national ailment? After all, not everyone in the US is senile… A much better explanation is not hard to find. Let’s delve.

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Ridiculously versatile


The world is full of boats that do just one thing quite well. QUIDNON is not one of them: it does a great number of things adequately and just one thing ridiculously well.

Ocean yachts are designed for ocean cruising and racing. They make poor houseboats due to lack of space. They can’t go through shallows because they have a keel. They don’t make good canal boats because their masts can’t pass under low bridges. They require a crane or a Travelift for hauling them out for maintenance. They are expensive. They are also quite slow. They can’t carry much freight.

Motor boats are sometimes big enough to make good houseboats. They are either unable to make long ocean passages because of their limited range, or they are expensive to take on ocean passages because of fuel costs. They can go faster than sailing yachts, but then their fuel consumption becomes quite ridiculous. When used as houseboats, their large engines make a poor investment. They also require a crane or a Travelift for maintenance. Some of them can carry a considerable amount of freight, but this makes them slower and increases the fuel consumption.

Houseboats are either houses built on floats or boats that can’t handle rough water. They are reasonable to live on and can be used on rivers and canals, but they can’t venture out on the ocean, never mind make ocean passages. They don’t carry freight.

Houses are great to live in—much roomier than any boat. But they do have two major shortcomings: they don’t move, and they don’t float. This is increasingly a problem: lots of houses are lost to flooding every year, and the toll will only go up as oceans rise and extreme weather events associated with climate change become more frequent. If an area where you have built a house becomes unpleasant or dangerous, you can’t just move the house but have find yourself a new dwelling.

Boats do float, but with most boats nobody particularly wants to live on them on dry land. On land, both yachts and power boats have to be put up on jacks, and then living on them is like living in a treehouse, with a long climb up a ladder just to get home. If a flood causes them to float off the jacks, they are unlikely to settle back onto them. Instead, they fall over and get damaged. Then they don’t float any more.

Houseboats generally do better on dry land than other kinds of boats. The Dutch have built some houses on barges that are designed to float up and down. When the water is low, they bicycle home; when the water is high, they row a dinghy. That’s a good idea in a country that’s mostly under water. But I haven’t heard too many stories about people living on houseboats on dry land.

QUIDNON is specifically designed to do a great number of things adequately.

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Announcing: QUIDNON Crowdfunding Campaign


For the next month or so we will be trying to raise money to build the first QUIDNON. If you want to see this project realized, please consider making a contribution.

We have t-shirts, posters and books for those who donate.

And if you donate $500 or more (USD) we will do our best to deduct the amount of your donation from the price of your eventual order of the QUIDNON kit (if and when it becomes available).

The Mystery of American Violence


In a recent article, Paul Craig Roberts examined the violence unleashed on the world by a succession of recent US presidential administrations. Most of these acts were either partly or entirely illegal under international law, and all of them without exception were initiated with bogus justifications. Roberts concludes that “Washington is a collection of morons, people stupid below the meaning of ‘stupid’.” Yet he himself sounds dumbfounded: “What is the reason for all the death and destruction and the flooding of the West with refugees from the West’s naked violence? We don’t know.” The only rationale he can find is that “…violence is what America is. There is nothing else there. Violence is the heart of America.”

Undeniably, there is a lot of truth to that. But what is missing in his analysis is explanatory depth and predictive ability: what are the underlying mechanisms that make this violence inevitable, and what has recently exacerbated this tendency toward gratuitous violence, leading Trump to risk a possibly suicidal confrontation with heavily armed and fortified, and quite possibly nuclear-armed North Korea? The charge of stupidity certainly stings, but while even very smart people often have trouble following the thinking of other very smart people, a stupid person is more or less an open book. If the hive mind of Washington is indeed perfectly stupid, any smart and experienced person, such as Roberts, should be able to predict its every stubbed toe, rake to the forehead and pratfall. And yet, says he, “We don’t know.”

Clearly, there is something else going on—something lurking beneath the deceptively idiotic surface of New York Times/Washington Post/CNN “fake news” coverage, beyond exasperated presidential tweets and unrelated to asinine White House press conferences. There must be some hidden force driving America’s lurch toward self-defeating violence and, no, it’s not Putin’s “hackers” or “trolls.” We could waste a great deal of time looking in vain for a secretive yet rationally self-interested actor, be it “the swamp,” the “deep state,” Wall Street, the military-industrial complex or a cabal of globalist bankers. For all of the above, the upside from a surge in violence and instability is tiny (remember, the US government is $20 trillion in the hole, pensions are woefully underfunded, infrastructure is falling apart, Obamacare is rigged to blow, economic growth is dead, yadda-yadda). On the other hand, the downside—of a humiliating military defeat—is huge, and possibly fatal to everyone who relies on and profits from the status quo. Let’s keep in mind that the US military is the most expensive in the world, but also one of the most impotent. It’s been 15 years and it still hasn’t been able to pacify Afghanistan. The only “facts on the ground” it is reliably able to create are humanitarian disasters. And now this teetering pile of obsolete military junk commanded by pampered incompetents is steaming toward North Korea… Let’s even bother looking for a rational explanation.

I have developed a theory that nicely accounts for these facts. Since in the current fraught political atmosphere some might regard my appraisal of the situation as incendiary or seditious, it will remain hidden behind a paywall. Rest assured that I am not attempting to exercise my right to public free speech, should any still exist. You have to pay for it, it is private, and it is being offered in confidence. Your payment of at least $1 is a contract for the conveyance of private information intended for your eyes only.

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Groundhog Day in Syria


When listening to people you shouldn’t necessarily trust (because, for instance, they are known to be liars) it is very important to try to assess whether or not they are lying. And so it is with the representatives of the US government and their counterparts in the EU: they have lied about a great many things in the past; are they lying about Syria now? They lied about the Gulf of Tonkin and used these lies to start the Vietnam war. They lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and used that to justify the invasion of Iraq. They lied about humanitarian disasters in Kosovo and in Libya, and used these to dismember Serbia and to destroy Libya. And so a good, conservative starting point is to assume that the Americans are lying, then search for evidence that would indicate that this time they might be telling the truth. Let’s take a close look.

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QUIDNON: A Guided Tour


There are lots of exciting developments for this project. First, we are zeroing in on the design, putting the finishing touches on various pieces. Second, we are about to announce the crowdfunding campaign to the world, so stay tuned.

In this post I will provide a look at all the more important elements of the design by presenting and narrating detailed views of the 3D model.

We start our tour underwater, as a scuba diver would, approaching a floating QUIDNON from below.

The hull is shown as translucent, to allow you to see the very substantial internal structure. The two keelboards and the two rudder blades hang down at a 10º angle, which is optimal for when the hull is heeled, since a hull this wide (16 feet) isn\’t going to heel more than about 10º.

The circles on the keelboards (and the rudder blades further aft) are where plates of led ballast will be embedded in the plywood sandwich. The extra weight is enough to oppose the buoyancy of the blades, allowing them to drift down when sailing slowly, but keeping them light enough so that they can bounce off the bottom in the shallows without suffering damage. When sailing fast, downhaul lines keep the keelboards and the rudder blades down against the resistance of the water rushing past. The downhauls are secured using autorelease cam cleats that pop open if a keelboard or a rudder blade encounters something solid. The skipper would then wake up and do an emergency 180º turn, or look at the depth sounder, shrug, and re-tighten and re-secure the downhaul that just popped.

Along the chines between the sides and the bottom are chine runners. They are designed to provide lateral resistance when sailing through shallows, with the keelboards raised, or bouncing along the bottom ineffectually. This feature allows QUIDNON to tack through a shallow spot that only has around 2 feet of water and also allows it to sail off the wind with the keelboards raised, decreasing drag.

The propeller from the outboard engine, in its inboard outboard well, is visible further aft. The engine moves up and down on a track, and can be raised while sailing, to further reduce drag.

Floating gently toward the transom, we notice an interesting recess in the bottom just forward of the engine well. That is where the solid ballast is hung. It is externally mounted, so that it can be dropped before hauling out on a beach, then winched into place once afloat again. It consists of a cement block with steel scrap embedded in it. It\’s got an eye for attaching a line in its center and 4 pieces of threaded rod—one in each corner. To mount it in place, somebody has to dive down and tie a line to the eye, then stick that eye through a hole in the center of the chain locker, which is right above where the ballast block goes and right below the cockpit. The block is then pulled into position using a comealong. Once in position, the 4 pieces of threaded rod poke through openings in the bottom of the chain locker and secured using nuts.

Finally, we reach the transom, which is going to have a swim step and a boarding ladder, but they aren\’t shown because we aren\’t done designing them yet. Note that the bottom is slightly flared as it reaches the transom. This is to provide clearance for the rudder assembly, which is tilted 10º. Also note the recess in the center of the transom, which is to keep the stream of water from the propeller from hitting the transom. For those interested in QUIDNON trivia, the horizontal panel right above that recess is officially called \”the taint.\”

The rudder posts (pipes, actually) are bent forward slightly, so that the pivot point of the rudder blades is forward of their axis. This is done so that it is possible to adjust the angle of the rudder blades so that the steering is as close to completely neutral as you like, to provide fingertip steering, and to keep the autopilot from wasting energy. Most rudders pivot around their leading edge, or close to it, and take a lot of power to deflect. Some people find that sort of steering \”sporty.\” But what works best is when rudder blades are adjusted so that they trail in the water if allowed to move freely but can be deflected with hardly any effort at all.

Climbing aboard using the imaginary swim step and boarding ladder, we see the cockpit populated by two creepy mannequins (they are very useful for figuring out ergonomics, but we are looking for better-looking ones). The seated mannequin is holding onto an imaginary tiller. Yes, QUIDNON uses tiller steering instead of wheel steering, for the following reasons:

1. Whether wheel or tiller, hand-steering is rarely done, because most of the steering is done by autopilot. I generally turn on autopilot seconds after casting off and turn it off again seconds before anchoring or docking. But a wheel clutters up the cockpit the entire time, while the tiller can be folded away when it isn\’t being used.

2. When you do have to hand-steer it is usually when docking or casting off, and what you want is a tiller anyway, so that you can freely swing it from side to side, instead of having to spin the wheel.

3. Most of the reason to use a wheel is that it allows for a lot of leverage. But who needs leverage when you have neutral steering? The only time you won\’t have neutral steering on QUIDNON is when you are in the shallows and the rudder blades are kicking up, but then you should slow the heck down immediately. And if you are moving slowly you don\’t need amplification anyway.

4. If you find that you need to hand-steer for a long time—if the autopilot dies, or if you need to hand-steer because you are ghosting to windward in a fickle breeze and the \”sail to wind\” function isn\’t working—then what you want is a tiler, not a wheel. With a wheel, there is just one steering position: standing behind the wheel. With a tiller, you can sit, stand, recline, use your feet, use your hips, tuck the tiller extension under your armpit or rig something up using bungee cords and a line tied to one of the sheets.

Here are the details of QUIDNON\’s steering linkage. Rudder arms and the tie-rod that connects them are shown in purple. The tie-rod is slightly shorter than the distance between the rudder posts. This is called Ackermann geometry, and allows the boat to efficiently pivot around the keelboards without generating drag, because the rudder blade closer to the center of the circle is deflected farther than the other. Along the centerline is the tiller, connected to one of the rudder arms using a diagonal linkage which allows a certain amount of amplification, to limit the swing range of the tiller to the confines of the cockpit. The tiller is a telescoping tiller that consists of a housing, the tiller itself, and the tiller extension.

Below the steering linkage is the equipment chase. QUIDNON\’s aft section consists of 2 aft cabins, and between them is a wedge-shaped space taken up by everything that doesn\’t belong in the cabin. Working from the transom forward, the rearmost section houses the gas tank and two 20-lb. propane cylinders. Forward of that is the engine well. Forward of the engine well, we have the solid ballast block at the bottom, the chain locker above it, and the cockpit well above that.

Here is another view of the cockpit. Note that there are lots of places to sit: down below, with your feet in the cockpit well; up above, on the raised lazarettes, with your feet on the seats, and inside the dodger if the weather is nasty. And you can hand-steer using the tiller extension no matter where you sit.

But you will probably be spending most of the time down below in the cabin, which is accessed using the companionway hatch and the companionway ladder.

This ladder is built right into the structure of the boat and is much more comfortable to use than most companionway ladders found on sailboats of this size. It is also much more than the ladder. At the bottom it has a footwear locker. Next, behind the first step, is a row of plumbing valves. Above it is a row of switches that control various pumps and alarms. Above it is the AC 110V/220Vcontrol panel, for shore power. And above that is the DC 12V control panel. This is a very convenient place to put all this stuff, from every angle.

To port and to starboard aft of the companionway ladder are the two aft cabins. Each has a double berth and a table, and is suitable for a couple. The aft cabins have doors, which aren\’t shown, because we haven\’t designed them yet.

Forward of the aft cabin on the port side is the heads, which has a full-size shower stall and can also be used as a sauna. We are trying to design other things into it: a bathtub, a washbasin big enough to bathe infants are both on the list. It will contain a stove that will work either on solid fuel (wood, charcoal) or propane, heat water and provide warm air that will be circulated throughout the cabin by injecting it under the cabin sole.

On the starboard side, across from the heads is the galley, which I won\’t show you because we are not done designing it yet. It will include all the usual stuff: a sink, a propane range and a fridge, but it will also include a stove, similar to the one in the heads, that will boil water and can be configured to be used for cooking, baking or smoking.

Forward of the galley and the heads is the salon, occupied by some more creepy mannequins. It is large enough to throw dinner parties for up to a dozen people. Above the drop-leaf table there is a large hatch, so that the space is very well lit. There is plenty of storage space behind the backs and under the seats of the settees.

To port and to starboard of the salon are the two pilot berths. They are large enough to sleep one adult, a couple who are intimate and as many as 4 children. They have a sliding door, which allows some amount of privacy. Here is another view of the pilot berth, this time looking forward.

The pipe you see is used to route uphaul and downhaul lines from the keelboard to the deck, and from there to the cockpit.

Below the pilot berths are the ballast tanks, filled with seawater. Freshwater is stored in bladders that float within the ballast tanks. Since seawater, even if strained, contains some number of living organisms who will take up residence inside the tanks, consume nutrients and oxygen and then die, periodically these tanks will need cleaning out. This is done by draining them one tank at a time, then climbing inside and scrubbing them down. Here is a mannequin bravely going where no mannequin has gone before.

And here is the view from the pilot berth looking forward toward the U-berth. Most sailboats of this size has V-berths: awkward, wedge-shaped spaces that offer the best place to sleep in spite of having too little room in the leg area and not enough headroom. Since QUIDNON\’s bow is not V-shaped but U-shaped, it has a U-berth instead.

We haven\’t quite worked out what to do with it yet, but the space definitely has potential. For example, it can be set up with sliding doors and used as a master bedroom, at which point QUIDNON becomes capable of housing 3 couples and their children. Here is a view of the salon looking from the U-berth.

Finally, here is a top view of the entire cabin. As you see, QUIDNON can house an awful lot of creepy mannequins! (Prompting one wit to declare that it may be suitable as a slave ship.) But here is the really important point: this is an awful lot of boat in a 36-foot package.

The Demiurge and the Banality of Evil


During my recent book tour to promote my book Shrinking the Technosphere there were several occasions when I found myself hard-pressed to answer a simple question: “But what is the technosphere, really?” Calling it is an “emergent intelligence” sounds highly intellectual but doesn’t answer the question of what physical entity, if any, possesses that intelligence. Saying that it is a generalized property of human minds bolstered by such things as internet servers and robots again misses the mark: how can a property have an agenda—which is to pursue an abstract teleology of infinite growth and total control? At one point I ventured that the technosphere could be conceived of as a spirit, and that its influence on the human minds it holds captive could be characterized as a sort of demonic possession.

Let’s keep in mind that however we choose to characterize it, be it as “emergent intelligence” or as “demonic possession,” we are still completely reliant on metaphors. And since one metaphor may very well be worth another, it seems worthwhile to ask which metaphor happens to be more effective and accurate. This is bound to vary by audience: those who are cerebral, agnostic and try to find out about the world by reading nonfiction (and perhaps science fiction) probably find the term “emergent intelligence” more palatable than “demonic possession” while those who feel their way through life might think that things invisible are all of one nature whether they sound scientific or unscientific.

And so, following on the last post, which explored the confines of what is known about “the guy who created the universe” in this one we test the limits of what can be achieved by considering the technosphere as a demiurge. We will again do our best to adhere to anaphatic theology, which relies on what can be observed and reasoned about rather than on the creative outputs of revelation, prophesy, imagination, wild fancy or plain old lunacy.

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