Archive for December, 2017

The Sails Revisited


Based on the positive test results from the 1:12 scale model, the design of Quidnon nouveau-retro Chinese Junk sails is almost fully baked. But there are a couple more bothersome problems to solve. Junk sails are attached to the mast using parrels, which are short lines or straps running along the battens and around the mast. This generally works rather well, but produces a couple of unintended effects:

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Poverty Minus the Meaningless Numbers


Poverty is a major problem around the world, but it is not evenly distributed. Some countries, such as China and Russia, have in recent decades succeeded in raising many of their citizens out of poverty. For example, the real incomes of a majority of Russians have doubled more than once since the beginning of the century, while in China the explosive growth of cities and of manufacturing has improved the fortunes of many millions of former peasants. The result, readily observable, is enviable political stability and widespread optimism and confidence (if not satisfaction) with the overall direction.

In the meantime, in the formerly wealthy but now virtually bankrupt countries of the West, and in the United States especially, homelessness has been steadily increasing, the number of people on public assistance has been setting new records, the opioid epidemic is claiming more victims every day and major cities, such as Chicago and Baltimore, have turned into shooting galleries to such an extent that Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel has recently asked the UN to send in peacekeepers to stop what he has called “a genocide.” The result, again readily observable, is political instability and widespread dissatisfaction with the overall direction, as evidenced by such phenomena as Trump, Brexit, the electoral failure of major political parties in France, Germany, Austria and elsewhere, separatist rumblings in Spain and Italy and the manifest fecklessness of both elected national officials and the unlected EU ones in Brussels.

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Quidnon: Hull Shape Revisited

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The second post on the Quidnon blog blog, which I started almost exactly four years ago, was titled “Hull Shape” and featured the sketch shown on the left. A lot of work went into it. Concerns such as minimizing cost, maximizing ease of construction, maximizing interior living space and many others were addressed. A key feature of the design was the ability to combine the structure of the keelboard trunks with the water ballast tanks. Their position and size were based on many constraints, but the result was that water ballast alone turned out to be insufficient. Although it was more than enough to ensure stability under sail, more ballast would have to be added further aft in order for the boat to sit on its lines.

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Deplorable Consistency


Looking over the commentary over the past week, since Donald Trump made his announcement recognizing all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, one gets the sense of just how bewildered everyone is. Most analysts have been trying to see some deep meaning in this move, but their results have been poor, and I would suggest that they abandon their tea leaf reading and goat entrails gazing and instead focus on what is obvious. And what is obvious to me is that Trump’s decision is consistent with a set of traits which are not even specifically his but are generally American, and which are being ever more starkly expressed as the US enters the terminal phase of its degeneracy and decay.

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The XIII Commandments of Communities that Abide

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Over the past two Thursdays I have run two articles (1, 2) that looked back on and more or less wrapped my efforts at trying to inspire sustainable community-building efforts in the North American context, at least of the land-based variety. I am still hopeful about the possibilities of self-sufficient homesteads, and I am continuing to work on providing a different sort of context—for building mobile, floating communities—based on Quidnon—\”A Houseboat that Sails\”. There will be more on it soon. But to wrap up the theme that I launched over three years ago with the book shown on the left, here is a rather important excerpt from it.

The following list of… um… commandments has been put together by looking at lots of different communities that abide. It is not dependent on what exact kind of community it is: whether it’s patriarchal or apportions equal rights and responsibilities to both women and men, whether it’s religious or atheist, whether it’s settled, migratory or nomadic, whether it consists of farmers or carnival performers, law-abiding people or outlaws, the highly educated or the illiterate, whether it’s rigidly traditionalist or polyamorous, vegan or omnivorous…

This wide range should allow you to set aside any fears that whatever community you envision forming or joining might be excepted from following these commandments, because, given the very wide range of variations between the communities I examined, finding an exact match to what you happen to like is, first, exceedingly unlikely and, second, completely irrelevant to uncovering the common traits that underpin their success.

Their only commonality is that they all have children, bring them up, and accept them into the community as adult members. These are biological communities that function as tiny sovereign nations, not one-way social institutions where people join up and die, such as monasteries, retirement homes, hospices and suicide cults. The difference is that while the former abide—last for many generations—the latter do not. This is an empirical result, not a theoretical one, and thus very hard to argue with based on one’s ideology or taste.

The XIII Commandments of Communities That Abide

I. You Probably Shouldn\’t come together willy-nilly and form a community out of people that just happen to be hanging around, who don\’t have to do much of anything to join, and feel free to leave as soon as they get bored or it stops being fun. The community should be founded as a conscious, purposeful, overt act of secession from mainstream society, a significant historical event that is passed down through history and commemorated in song, ceremony and historical reenactment. A classic founding event is one where the founding members surrender all of their private property, making it communal, in a solemn ceremony, during which they take on new names and greet each other by their new names as brothers and sisters. The founding members should be remembered and revered for their brave and generous act. This makes the community into a self-aware, synergistic entity with a will of its own that transcends the wills of its individual members.

II. You Probably Shouldn\’t trap people within the community. Membership in the community should to be voluntary. Every member must have an iron-clad guarantee of being able to leave, no questions asked. That said, do everything you can to keep people from leaving because defections are very bad for morale. One good trick is to give people a vacation when they need it, and one good way to do that is to run an exchange program with another, similar community. There need not be an iron-clad guarantee of being able to come back and be accepted again, but this should be generally possible. Those born into the community should be given an explicit opportunity, during their teenage years, to rebel, escape, go out and see the world and sow their wild oats, and also the opportunity to come back, take the pledge, and be accepted as full members. When people behave badly, the threat of expulsion can be used, but that should be regarded as the “nuclear option.” On the other hand, you should probably have some rules for expelling people more or less automatically when they behave very, very badly indeed (though such cases should be exceedingly rare) because allowing such people to stick around is also very bad for morale.

III. You Probably Shouldn\’t carry on as if the community doesn\’t matter. The community should see itself as separate and distinct from the surrounding society. Its separatism should manifest itself in the way its members relate to members of the surrounding society: as external representatives of the community rather than as individual members. All dealings with the outside world, other than exchanging pleasantries and making conversation, should be on behalf of the community. It must not be possible for outsiders to exploit individual weaknesses or differences between members. To realize certain advantages, especially if the community is clandestine in nature, members can maintain the illusion that they are acting as individuals, but in reality they should act on behalf of the community at all times.

IV. You Probably Shouldn\’t spread out across the landscape. The community should be relatively self-contained. It cannot be virtual or only come together periodically. There has to be a geographic locus or a gathering place, with ample public space, even if it changes location from time to time. The community should be based on a communal living arrangement that provides all of the necessities. A community living in apartments scattered throughout a large city is not going to last very long; if that\’s how you have to start, then use the time you have to save money and buy land. A good, simple living arrangement, which minimizes housing costs while optimizing group cohesion and security, is to provide all adults and couples with bedrooms big enough for them and their infants, separate group bedrooms for children over a certain age, and common facilities for all other needs. This can be realized using one large building or several smaller ones.

V. You Probably Shouldn\’t allow creeping privatization. The community should pool and share all property and resources with the exception of personal effects. All money and goods coming in from the outside, including income, pensions, donations and even government handouts, should go into the common pot, from which it is allocated to common uses. Such common uses should include all the necessities: food, shelter, clothing, medicine, child care, elderly care, education, entertainment, etc. Members who become rich suddenly, through inheritance or some other means, must be given a choice: put the money in the pot, or keep it and leave the community. This pattern of communal consumption is very efficient.

VI. You Probably Shouldn\’t try to figure out what to do on your own. The community should have collective goals and needs that are made explicit. These goals and needs can only be met through collective, not individual, actions. The well-being of the community should be the result of collective action, of members working together on common projects. Also, this collective work should be largely voluntary, and members who are fed up with a certain task or a certain team should be able to raise the issue at the meeting and ask to be reassigned. It\’s great when members have brilliant new ideas on how to do things, but these have to be discussed in open meeting and expressed as initiatives to be pursued collectively.

VII. You Probably Shouldn\’t let outsiders order you around. It\’s best if the community itself is the ultimate source of authority for all of its members. It should have a universally accepted code of conduct, which is best kept unwritten and passed down orally. The ultimate recourse, above and beyond the reach of any external systems of justice or external authorities, or any individual\’s authority within the group, should be the open meeting, where everyone has the right to speak. People should only be able to speak for themselves: attempts at representation of any sort should be treated as hearsay and disregarded. You probably shouldn\’t resort to legalistic techniques such as vote-counting and vote by acclamation instead. Debate should continue until consensus is reached. To reach a consensus decision, use whatever tricks you have to in order to win over the (potentially vociferous and divisive) opposing voices, up to and including the threat of expulsion. A community that cannot reach full consensus on a key decision cannot function and should automatically split up. But this tends to be rare, because the members\’ status depends on them putting the needs of the community ahead of their own, and one of these needs happens to be the need for consensus. Decisions reached by consensus in open meeting should carry the force of law. Decisions imposed on the community from the outside should be regarded as acts of persecution, and countered with nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, evasion and, if conditions warrant, by staging an exodus. The time-tested foolproof way to avoid being subjected to outside authority is by fleeing, as a group. Oh, and you probably shouldn\’t waste your time on things like voting, trying to get elected, testifying in court, bringing lawsuits against people or institutions, or jury duty.

VIII. You Probably Shouldn\’t question the wonderful goodness of your community. Your community should have moral authority and meaning to those within it. It can\’t be a mere instrumentality or a living arrangement with no higher purpose than keeping you fed, clothed, sheltered and entertained. It shouldn\’t be treated in a utilitarian fashion. There should be an ideology, which is unquestioned, but which is interpreted to set specific goals and norms of behavior. The community shouldn\’t contradict these goals and norms in practice. It should also be able to fulfill these goals and comply with these norms, and to track and measure its success in doing so. The best ideologies are circularly defined systems where it is a good system because it is used by good people, and these people are good specifically because they use the good system. Since the ideology is never questioned, it need not be particularly logical and can be based on a mystical understanding, faith or revelation. But it can\’t be completely silly, or nobody will take it seriously.

IX. You Probably Shouldn\’t pretend that your life is more important than the life of your children and grandchildren (or other members\’ children and grandchildren if you don\’t have any of your own). If you are old and younger replacements for whatever it is you do are available, your job is primarily to help them take over and then to keep out of their way. Try to think of death as a sort of bowel movement—most days you move your bowels (if you are regular); one day your bowels move you. As a member of the community, you do not live for yourself; you live for the community—specifically, for its future generations. The main purpose of your community is to transcend the lifespans of the individual members by perpetuating its biological and cultural DNA. To this end, you probably should avoid sending your children through public education, treating it as mental poison. It has very little to do with educating, and everything to do with institutionalization. Also, if a child is forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class, that creates a split allegiance, which you should probably regard as unacceptable. If this means that your community has to expend a great deal of its resources on child care and home schooling, so be it; after providing food, shelter and clothing, it\’s the most important job there is.

X. You Probably Shouldn\’t try to use violence, because it probably won\’t work. Internally, keep your methods of social control informal: gossip, ridicule, reprimand and scorn all work really well and are very cheap. Any sort of formal control enforced through the threat of violence is very destructive of group solidarity, terrible for morale, and very expensive. You should try to enforce taboos against striking people in anger (also children and animals). Use expulsion as the ultimate recourse. When dealing with outsiders, don\’t arm yourselves beyond a few nonlethal defensive weapons, don\’t look like a threat, stay off the external authorities\’ radar as much as possible, and work to create good will among your neighbors so that they will stand up for you. Also, be sure to avoid military service. If drafted, you should probably refuse to carry weapons or use lethal force of any sort.

XI. You Probably Shouldn\’t let your community get too big. When it has grown beyond 150 adult members, it\’s time to bud off a colony. With anything more than 100 people, reaching consensus decisions in an open meeting becomes significantly more difficult and time-consuming, raising the level of frustration with the already cumbersome process of consensus-building. People start trying to get around this problem by hiding decision-making inside committees, but that is incompatible with direct democracy, in which no person can be compelled to comply with a decision to which that person did not consent (except for the decision to expel that person, but most people quit voluntarily before that point is reached). Also, 150 people is about the maximum number of people with whom most of us are able to have personal relationships. Anything more, and you end up having to deal with near-strangers, eroding trust. The best way to split a community in two halves is by drawing lots to decide which families stay and which families go. Your community should definitely stay on friendly terms with the new colony (among other things, to give your children a wider choice of mates), but it\’s probably a bad idea to think of them as still being part of your community: they are now a law unto themselves: independent and unique and under no obligation to consult you or to reach consensus with you on any question.

XII. You Probably Shouldn\’t let your community get too rich. Material gratification, luxury and lavish lifestyles are not good for your community: children will become spoiled, adults will develop expensive tastes and bad habits. If times ever change for the worse, your community will be unable to cope. This is because communities that emphasize material gratification become alienating and conflicted when they fail to provide the material goods needed to attain and maintain that level of gratification. Your community should provide a basic level of material comfort, and an absolutely outstanding level of emotional and spiritual comfort. There are many ways to burn off the extra wealth: through recruitment activities and expansion, through good works in the surrounding society, by supporting various projects, causes and initiatives and so on. You can also spend the surplus on art, music, literature, craftsmanship, etc.

XIII. You Probably Shouldn\’t let your community get too cozy with the neighbors. Always keep in mind what made you form the community to start with: the fact that the surrounding society doesn\’t work, can\’t give you what you need, and, to put in the plainest terms possible, isn\’t any good. Over time your community may become strong and successful, and gain acceptance from the surrounding society, which can, over time, become too weak and internally conflicted to offer you any resistance, never mind try to persecute you. But your community needs a bit of persecution now and again, to give it a good reason for continuing to safeguard its separateness. To this end, it helps to maintain certain practices that alienate your community from the surrounding society just a bit, not badly enough to provoke them into showing up with torches and pitchforks, but enough to make them want to remain aloof and leave you alone much of the time.

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This set of commandments is known to elicit a very wide range of reactions, most of the quite interesting, and so, if you have something to say, please don\’t hold back. I\’ll only moderate obscenities and personal attacks.

Community: The Final Chapter


If you filter out from the common, mainstream uses of the word “community” all of the obviously non-community-related ones, such as “international community” (a lame euphemism) or “community relations” (a synonym for “public relations”) or “community center” (a synonym for “neighborhood center”) pretty much all that remains is “retirement community.” There are well over two thousand of them just in the US, with close to a million residents.

In comparison, “intentional communities,” including ecovillages, monasteries, communes, survivalist retreats, kibbutzim, ashrams and so on are rather boutique, being mainly aspirational and ideological rather than practical in nature. But added together they present more or less the entire landscape of “communities” within the developed world. And all of them are degenerate cases.

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There is a lot of attention currently being paid to cryptocurrencies. On the one hand there are those who claim that their rise in value is actually a symptom that conventional, fiat currencies are crashing. This begs the question as to why precious metals aren’t skyrocketing, and the usual answer is that their prices are being manipulated using the futures market that keeps “paper” gold cheap while “physical” gold is growing scarce; at some point these manipulations will stop working and gold will shoot up to $10,000 an ounce. (Sounds good to me!) This also begs the question as to why, if fiat currencies are crashing, there isn’t much inflation at all. Even in countries that have been plagued with high inflation for decades, such as Russia, this is no longer a problem; there, inflation is now under 3%. There isn’t much inflation in the US either, provided you exclude from it all of the local extortion rackets: real estate, health care and education. (Armed robbery usually isn’t part of the basket of products and services used to compute inflation.) Hyperinflation is not hard to find (in Venezuela) but this is not commonly seen as a worldwide, systemic problem.

On the other hand there are those who think that cryptocurrencies are another type of tulip mania or South Sea bubble: just another irrationally exuberant event that will end with a resounding crash. The standard retorts are “Bah, humbug!” and “This time, it’s different!” A more thoughtful retort is that Bitcoin (and other cryptos) are works of genius, based on the innovation of the blockchain (a sort of distributed ledger where every anonymous participant gets to verify every transaction) and the “proof of work” principle by which Bitcoin is “mined” using computers. In essence, instead of putting their trust in governments (which print money) and central banks (which really print money), Bitcoin users put their trust in algorithms, which are open source and defended through lack of public acceptance of any modification that might compromise them.

Cryptocurrency fans sometimes go on to say how cryptocurrencies are all about liberty and anarchism, cutting out the middlemen—the bloodsucking bankers and governments—and allowing people to trade one on one, simply by rubbing their digital wallets together and trusting the clever algorithms to sort it out. This sounds good, until you examine some of the details.

First, bloodsucking bankers and governments are unlikely to be defeated by an algorithm, no matter how clever, because they use far less technical means to enforce their interests: security agencies, criminal investigators and prosecutors, tax auditors, courts and prisons.

Already, any use of Bitcoin is, under US tax regime, a potentially taxable transaction: if you got paid in Bitcoin and then bought something with it, and if its price went up in the meantime, then you get to pay 20% capital gains tax on the difference. With its promise of anonymity and its ability to transcend borders and circumvent fiscal and monetary authorities, Bitcoin has become a magnet for drug dealers, narcotraffickers, human traffickers, hackers/extortionists and other bad actors. If you use Bitcoin, you automatically end up on the radar of those who hunt for them.

And at a very simple level that should be easy for everyone to understand, if some government decides that Bitcoin is not its friend, it can simply ask you, nicely at first, to relinquish your cyberwallet to it. I doubt that too many of the Saudi princes that were recently disencumbered of much of their net worth while being tortured by Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh ended up playing coy with their Bitcoin stash. Remember, Bitcoin is a popular instrument of extortion, and governments are the biggest extortionists in the world.

Worse yet, if a government decides that Bitcoin is its friend, it can ask, nicely at first, that all Bitcoin transactions be disclosed to it in a timely manner, complete with the tax ID of the party at each end of every transaction. This would be a clever way for a government to shift to using digital cash without having to pay for any of it. All it would have to do is order “compliance”; Bitcoin’s developers would then have to bring their architecture into compliance or risk prosecution for noncompliance. This seems like a cheap and cost-effective way to move closer to financial totalitarianism, placing every single transaction under the government’s microscope.

Second, few people have the technical savvy to understand all the intricacies of the protocols, and as the old saying goes, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” Your digital wallet can be stolen (hacked) or become corrupted, and there is no accurate estimate of the number of Bitcoins that will never be heard from again, making the current market capitalization claims less than reliable. Any world-savvy grandmother can sew a few gold coins into the hem of a grandchild’s coat as a safeguard against unforeseen expenses; but how many grandmothers, or grandchildren, would know how to do that with crypto?

Third, there is the matter of durability and access. Gold does not rust or tarnish. It can become lost, but then it can (at least theoretically) be recovered. A digital wallet, once corrupted, cannot be recovered. A single electromagnetic discharge from a sun flare or a stratospheric nuclear explosion from one of Kim Jong Un’s rockets can wipe out a huge amount of cryptocurrency. Network outages render cryptocurrencies inaccessible. How much Bitcoin trading went on in Domenica, Barbuda or Puerto Rico after the recent hurricane? Unlike a physical pot of gold, cryptocurrency is invisible and cannot be validated without special equipment connected to the internet.

Finally, one feature of cryptocurrency is its essential uselessness as a substance. Gold can be made into wedding bands and communion chalices; it can be pounded into ultra-thin sheets that are used to guild picture frames and onion domes; it is an excellent electrical conductor used for plating contacts and for semiconductor bonding wires; a thin, transparent coating of gold produces window panes that keep out much of the infrared radiation; the list goes on and on…

Cryptocurrency has none of these useful properties. A Bitcoin is a predetermined string of digits appended with another, arbitrary string of digits, called a nonce, that has a certain “useful” property: for example, that its SHA-256 hash starts with some specific number (the SHA-256 hash is a mathematical function that turns a string of digits into another string of digits in a way that makes the original string of digits impossible to compute). Once you’ve come up with it, it is trivial to verify (most computers can compute millions of SHA-256 hashes per second), but coming up with it takes “work.” The difficulty of the work is automatically adjusted so that no Bitcoin miner can produce valid “work” faster than once every 10 minutes, on average. Currently, this “work” is taking up less than 1% of the world’s total electricity consumption, but it’s growing. Gold mining (of ores that are now below 3 parts per million gold) is a huge waste of energy too, but it produces a substance that’s actually useful.

Bitcoin’s one useful property is that at the moment numerous people around the world are willing to treat it as valuable. But what if they are all idiots? Is it your theory that lots of people can’t be idiots all at once because there’s, you know… a lot of them? That’s not a theory—that’s a hypothesis, and it’s been disproven countless times. Yes indeed, large groups of people can and sometimes do behave like idiots.

Back when I was in school I temporarily belonged to a certain hippie commune experimental government program which held an annual retreat at a summer camp. And at that retreat I, along with a friend, once ran a social experiment. We rummaged around in a janitorial closet, found a jug of some chemical or other, peeled off the label and in its place wrote “Useless Substance” in large, friendly letters. Then we placed the jug on a table, sat back and discussed it until it became the center of conversation in the room. A lot of the kids thought a jug labeled “useless substance” was pretty cool; a few (us among them) thought that it was the ultimate in stupid and had fun laughing at the rest. But a few of the cool kids thought it was cool, and most of the not-so-cool kids copied them, hoping that this would make them slightly cooler.

And it would appear that some of those kids, both the cool and the not-so-cool, grew up to contribute to the following phenomenon, which I believe lays out the issue in some detail. Over the past few days a phenomenal amount of real money has been spent on the game CryptoKitties, which allows you to invest in “virtual kittens.” The kittens are priced in Ethereum (a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency). A few kittens were sold for 50 ETH (around $23k), while the most expensive kitten so far went for 246 ETH ($113k). Prices are rising rapidly, and currently the cheapest kitten is going for $140. People are buying up kittens in order to “breed” them—to produce very “rare” kittens and sell them for even more outrageous sums. The trading is done using Ethereum “smart contracts.” Users interact with the game through their own Ethereum address, via MetaMask, a Chrome browser plug-in. Currently, 15% of all Ethereum traffic is related to the CryptoKitties game.

All of this reminded me of another, much older game. While growing up I spent quite a bit of time playing a card game called Durak, which is the Russian word for “fool.” Unlike most card games, in which the object of the game is to win, the object of Durak is to identify the loser. Cards are valued high-to-low as A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6 (all cards below six are discarded). Higher-value cards beat lower-value cards of the same suit, except for the trump suit, which is determined when cards are initially dealt out. Six cards are dealt out to each player. The next card is flipped over and identifies the trump suit (trump cards beat other trump cards of lower value and all other cards) and the rest of the deck is placed on top of it face down. The game is placed clockwise. The player who holds the lowest-value trump (to be shown to others) goes first, attacking the player on his left. If nobody has a trump, the hands are discarded and the cards are dealt again from the stack. In each turn, the attacker starts by serving a card. The defender has to beat that card using a higher-value card of the same suit, any trump card, or a higher-value trump in order to beat a trump card. The attacker can continue to serve more cards of the same values as any of those already in play, and the defender has to beat them all. If the defender fails to beat them all, he has to pick up all of the cards in play and misses a turn. If the defender succeeds, all the cards in play are discarded. After each turn, players pick up cards from the deck, clockwise starting with the attacker, until there are six in each hand, or until the deck (including the trump card at its bottom) is depleted. The game continues until there is just one “fool” left who is still holding cards. The game can result in a tie if the final attack fails and all the cards are discarded. Variants of the game include: “pitch-in”, where other players, in addition to the attacker, can lay down cards; “shift”, where the defender can shift the attack over to the next person by serving a card of the same value, thus contributing to the attack; and “partners”, where there are four players and those seated across from each other cooperate and may examine each others’ hands in order to strategize. Variations on the variants include being able to “shift” at any point during a turn rather than just at the beginning, “partners” where the partners can exchange their hands at will (though generally not in the middle of a turn), “piling on” where attackers can “pitch in” in any order rather than going clockwise, and quite a few others. Although the rules are supposed to be agreed upon prior to each game, this rarely happens; instead, somebody tries to get away with something, and then the rest of the players take a vote, generally by acclamation, as to whether that’s allowed or not. A special case is when the final, successful attack that ends the game is made using a six of trumps; the “fool” then has to wear it as a badge of dishonor.

I believe that cryptocurrencies share an important property with the game of Durak. “Mining” is not much different from picking up cards from the deck. The way each turn is played is superficially similar to the blockchain. And the person left holding some very valuable cards at the end of the game is identical to the person left holding some very valuable cryptocurrency at the end of this bout of madness. The only really notable difference is that in the game of Durak there is just one “fool” while the game of cryptocurrency is much more “scalable” because there can be arbitrarily many fools.