Archive for August, 2018

A Senator Masquerading as a Gas Station


John McCain is dead, and many people are celebrating whereas they should be sad. He wasn’t a friend of mankind—he was its enemy, but a really bad one. But with such grossly incompetent enemies—who needs friends?

McCain did a great deal to destroy America. He devoted his entire lifetime to American destruction. To start with, he was quite effective as a protester against America’s genocidal war on the people of Vietnam. Other Americans just marched around ineffectually, waving banners and shouting antiwar slogans, but not McCain! His own father had a lot to do with starting that war, but McCain made up for that by destroying 26 American war planes. That’s quite something! If every American flyer crashed as many planes, countless innocent lives would have been saved.

Of course, he could have done even better—and he did try. He almost managed to destroy the US aircraft carrier Forrestal by setting it ablaze. To top off his illustrious military career, he surrendered to the enemy and spent five years in a Vietnamese prison. This made him a hero—in Americans’ eyes only, while the rest of the world saw in him a murderer of Vietnamese children.

His “martyrdom” as a POW helped pave his way to a political career, first in Congress, then in the Senate. During his obscenely long career in national politics, McCain did what he could to make American “democracy” look like a complete joke and to hasten America’s collapse. This, by the way, wasn’t a tall order: American “democracy” had long been a cesspool—a playground for lobbyists and political technologists based on a fully gerrymandered system of fake elections. But he did his thing, and is therefore twice the hero.

Defecating into the cesspool of American politics doesn’t alter its chemistry much, but McCain pushed the limits here as well. If only he and the native genius that is Sara Palin had won the Presidency! This surely would have hastened American collapse by quite a substantial amount, bringing his life’s work to fruition. This was perhaps his greatest failing: he turned out to be a traitor to his own friends and a faithful servant to his political enemies. He shut down his electoral campaign two weeks before the election. Then he did whatever he could to kiss up to Obama and helped wreck the repeal of Obamacare. McCain deserves to have a gigantic sausage-shaped obelisk erected in his honor, made of the same lumpy, brown material that he was so full of throughout his political career.

Internationally, McCain was a stellar performer when it came to meddling in the affairs of other nations, often in ways that helped undermine America’s standing in the world. Whenever he visited a foreign country, the likelihood of civil war breaking out there went up by a notch, sometimes by two. He always had a warm place in his heart for terrorists—be they Ukrainian neo-Nazis or the homicidal maniacs of the Islamic Caliphate (a.k.a. ISIS). He managed to perform in spite of not being very smart: in 2013 he published an article on the website, thinking that it was Russia’s main newspaper (which was at that point two decades defunct).

He was one of the prime architects of the Ukrainian government’s “anti-terrorist operation” against its own citizens in the east of the country. His actions helped assure American defeat and Syrian victory in Syria and set the Ukrainian government he had helped install in 2014 on a course for self-destruction. Russia owes him a debt of gratitude for its reunification with Crimea after its two lost decades in the Ukrainian wilderness. He was also a champion of America’s own self-destruction through national bankruptcy, always being in favor of its profligate, fantastically corrupt and otherwise ineffectual defense spending.

His crowning achievement was his successful push for anti-Russian sanctions. They made it very difficult for Russian government officials to appear serious and resist the urge to say “May we have some more sanctions, please?” Thanks to these sanctions, Russia has moved rapidly toward achieving food security and has become one of the world’s major agricultural exporters; it has achieved or will soon achieve complete self-sufficiency in defense and in many other industrial sectors; and it is quite far along in making itself independent of the US dollar and of Western finance.

The effect of the sanctions in simultaneously driving down both the ruble and the Russian stock market has allowed the Russian government to sell dollars high and to buy up Russian industrial stocks low, effectively re-nationalizing Russian industry at bargain-basement prices, shifting the share of its government ownership from around 16% to at least 65% while squeezing out Western financial interests. The profits that would have otherwise been pocketed by Western investors are now flooding into the Russian treasury, to be spent on health, education, housing, roads and bridges and so on. McCain, you socialist you!

McCain also had a wonderful talent for being not just wrong but exactly wrong, as in the exact opposite of right. He called Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.” That was great for Russia, because Russia was at the time a country masquerading as a gas station, to buy itself the time it needed to rebuild and rearm. Now that it has done so, the mask can come off, and Russia is most grateful to McCain for having given it plenty of cover just at the time when it most needed it.

It is a sad moment now that McCain’s untimely demise has sent him off to an eternity in Hell, because he didn’t get to finish his life’s work: destroying the United States. Nevertheless, we should call it a job well done, for the course on which he helped set the country is now unalterable. Even if he is replaced in his Senate seat by someone actually competent and able to act in his nation’s interest, this won’t alter its course by much, and certainly will not reverse it. Let us now observe a minute of silence in honor of John McCain, for upon his passing the American Collapse Party has lost a true leader.

Magical Thinking as Realpolitik


There is no denying that much of what makes us human is our irrationality. Take it away, and we become bags of chemicals ruled by electrical impulses and hormones. Some of our irrationality is simply random or downright stupid, but much of it is organized around specific schemes of reality-defying magical thinking. We have learned, over time, to keep our propensity for magical thinking somewhat under control in certain areas, but it can never be eliminated entirely. Even in such technological realms as nuclear energy, we magically think that it is possible to contrive a set of operating procedures such that nothing will ever go seriously wrong, giving us important events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.


The Suicidal Empire


There are a lot of behaviors being exhibited by those in positions of power in the US that seem disparate and odd. We watch Trump who is imposing sanctions on country after country, dreaming of eradicating his country’s structural trade deficit with the rest of the world. We watch pretty much all of US Congress falling over each other in their attempt to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Russia. People in Turkey, a key NATO country, are literally burning US dollars and smashing iPhones in a fit of pique. Confronted with a new suite of Russian and Chinese weapons systems that largely neutralize the ability of the US to dominate the world militarily, the US is setting new records in the size of its already outrageously bloated yet manifestly ineffectual defense spending. As a backdrop to this military contractor feeding frenzy, the Taliban are making steady gains in Afghanistan, now control over half the territory, and are getting ready to stamp “null and void,” in a repeat of Vietnam, on America’s longest war. A lengthening list of countries are set to ignore or compensate for US sanctions, especially sanctions against Iranian oil exports. In a signal moment, Russia’s finance minister has recently pronounced the US dollar “unreliable.” Meanwhile, US debt keeps galloping upwards, with its largest buyer being reported as a mysterious, possibly entirely nonexistent “Other.”

Although these may seem like manifestations of many different trends in the world, I believe that a case can be made that these are all one thing: the US—the world’s imperial overlord—standing on a ledge and threatening to jump, while its imperial vassals—too many to mention—are standing down below and shouting “Please, don’t jump!” To be sure, most of them would be perfectly happy to watch the overlord plummet and jelly up the sidewalk. But here is the key point: if this were to happen today, it would cause unacceptable levels of political and economic collateral damage around the world. Does this mean that the US is indispensable? No, of course not, nobody is. But dispensing with it will take time and energy, and while that process runs its course the rest of the world is forced to keep it on life support no matter how counterproductive, stupid and demeaning that feels.

What the world needs to do, as quickly as possible, is to dismantle the imperial center, which is in Washington politically and militarily and in New York and London financially, while somehow salvaging the principle of empire. “What?!” you might exclaim, “Isn’t imperialism evil.” Well, sure it is, whatever, but empires make possible efficient, specialized production and efficient, unhindered trade over large distances. Empires do all sorts of evil things—up to and including genocide—but they also provide a level playing field and a method for preventing petty grievances from escalating into tribal conflicts.

The Roman Empire, then Byzantium, then the Tatar/Mongol Golden Horde, then the Ottoman Sublime Porte all provided these two essential services—unhindered trade and security—in exchange for some amount of constant rapine and plunder and a few memorable incidents of genocide. The Tatar/Mongol Empire was by far the most streamlined: it simply demanded “yarlyk”—tribute—and smashed anyone who attempted to rise above a level at which they were easy to smash. The American empire is a bit more nuanced: it uses the US dollar as a weapon for periodically expropriating savings from around the world by exporting inflation while annihilating anyone who tries to wiggle out from under the US dollar system.

All empires follow a certain trajectory. Over time they become corrupt, decadent and enfeebled, and then they collapse. When they collapse, there are two ways to go. One is to slog through a millennium-long dark age—as Western Europe did after the Western Roman Empire collapsed. Another is for a different empire, or a cooperating set of empires, to take over, as happened after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. You may think that a third way exists: of small nations cooperating sweetly and collaborating successfully on international infrastructure projects that serve the common good. Such a scheme may be possible, but I tend to take a jaundiced view of our simian natures.

We come equipped with MonkeyBrain 2.0, which has some very useful built-in functions for imperialism, along with some ancillary support for nationalism and organized religion. These we can rely on; everything else would be either a repeat of a failed experiment or an untested innovation. Sure, let’s innovate, but innovation takes time and resources, and those are the exact two things that are currently lacking. What we have in permanent surplus is revolutionaries: if they have their way, look out for a Reign of Terror, followed by the rise of a Bonaparte. That’s what happens every time.

Lest you think that the US isn’t an empire—a collapsing one—consider the following. The US defense budget is larger than that of the next ten countries combined, yet the US can’t prevail even in militarily puny Afghanistan. (That’s because much of its defense budget is trivially stolen.) The US has something like a thousand military bases, essentially garrisoning the entire planet, but to unknown effect. It claims the entire planet as its dominion: no matter where you go, you still have to pay US income taxes and are still subject to US laws. It controls and manipulates governments in numerous countries around the world, always aiming to turn them into satrapies governed from the US embassy compound, but with results that range from unprofitable to embarrassing to lethal. It is now failing at virtually all of these things, threatening the entire planet with its untimely demise.

What we are observing, at every level, is a sort of blackmail: “Do as we say, or no more empire for you!” The US dollar will vanish, international trade will stop and a dark age will descend, forcing everyone to toil in the dirt for a millennium while mired in futile, interminable conflicts with neighboring tribes. None of the old methods of maintaining imperial dominance are working; all that remains is the threat of falling down and leaving a huge mess for the rest of the world to deal with. The rest of the world is now tasked with rapidly creating a situation where the US empire can be dealt a coup de grâce safely, without causing any collateral damage—and that’s a huge task, so everyone is forced to play for time.

There is a lot of military posturing and there are political provocations happening all the time, but these are sideshows that are becoming an unaffordable luxury: there is nothing to be won through these methods and plenty to be lost. Essentially, all the arguments are over money. There is a lot of money to be lost. The total trade surplus of the BRICS countries with the West (US+EU, essentially) is over a trillion dollars a year. SCO—another grouping of non-Western countries—comes up with almost the same numbers. That’s the amount of products these countries produce for which they currently have no internal market. Should the West evaporate overnight, nobody will buy these products. Russia alone had a 2017 trade surplus of $116 billion, and in 2018 so far it grew by 28.5%. China alone, in its trade just with the US, generated $275 billion in surplus. Throw in another $16 billion for its trade with the EU.

Those are big numbers, but they are nowhere near enough if the project is to build a turnkey global empire to replace US+EU in a timely manner. Also, there are no takers. Russia is rather happy to have shed its former Soviet dependents and is currently invested in building a multilateral, international system of governance based on international institutions such as SCO, BRICS and EAEU. Numerous other countries are very interested in joining together in such organizations: most recently, Turkey has expressed interest in turning BRICS into BRICTS. Essentially, all of the post-colonial nations around the world are now forced to trade away some measure of their recently won independence, essentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The job vacancy of Supreme Global Overlord is unlikely to attract any qualified candidates.

What everyone seems to want is a humble, low-budget, cooperative global empire, without all of the corruption and with a lot less life-threatening militarism. It will take time to build, and the resources to build it can only come from one place: from gradually bleeding US+EU dry. In order to do this, the wheels of international commerce must continue to spin. But this is exactly what all of the new tariffs and sanctions, the saber-rattling and the political provocations, are attempting to prevent: a ship laden with soya is now doing circles in the Pacific off the coast of China; steel I-beams are rusting at the dock in Turkey…

But it is doubtful that these attempts will work. The EU has been too slow in recognizing just how pernicious its dependence on Washington has become, and will take even more time to find ways to free itself, but the process has clearly started. For its part, Washington runs on money, and since its current antics will tend to make money grow scarce even faster than it otherwise would, those who stand to lose the most will make the Washingtonians feel their pain and will force a change of course. As a result, everyone will be pushing in the same direction: toward a slow, steady, controllable imperial collapse. All we can hope for is that the rest of the world manages to come together and build at least the scaffolding of a functional imperial replacement in time to avoid collapsing into a new post-imperial dark age.

When Truth Becomes the Enemy


In recent times, people around the world, especially in Russia, have been surprised to discover that Americans appear to have lost their minds. For more than a year, ever since the last presidential elections, they have been waxing hysterical over some sort of horrible Russian meddling. At first, it was supposed to be an effort to influence the outcome of the election. After an interminable investigation failed to yield any evidence, the charge was reformulated more vaguely: as interference in the American democratic process. They couldn’t explain what that means, but it sure sounded serious! And then they couldn’t substantiate any of these claims either. Time to reformat the charge again, this time claiming that “the Russians” (the term now used as a sort of racist epithet) are exploiting social media to incite violence or unrest in the US. They can’t be serious! Or can they?


Censoring Alex Jones


Something happened recently that made me feel like a bit of an endangered species. A set of transnational internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple and several others, all synchronously removed content belonging to, which is run by Alex Jones. Such synchronicity is a sure sign of conspiracy—something that Alex Jones harps on a lot.

I once appeared on a radio show run by Alex Jones, and he did manage to boil down what I had to say to “the USA is going to collapse like the USSR did,” which is pretty good, considering how poorly we managed to connect, having so little in common. He is a conservative and a libertarian whereas I think that conservatives don’t exist in the US. What have they “conserved” lately—other than the right to bear small arms? As far as libertarianism, I consider proper historical libertarianism as a strain of socialism while its American cooptation is just plain funny: these ones remain libertarian only until they need the services of an ambulance or a fire engine, at which point they turn socialist. To boot, American libertarians like Ayn Rand, who to me was a relentlessly bad writer full of faulty thinking. However, I find her useful as a litmus test for mediocre minds.

Moreover, Jones is political while I remain convinced that national politics in the US is a waste of time. It has been statistically proven that the US is not a democracy: popular will has precisely zero effect on public policy. It doesn’t matter who is president; the difference is a matter of style. Trump is a bull in a China shop while Clinton would have been a deer in the headlights. The result is the same: the US is bankrupt and its empire is over.

There is also the mismatch of genre between Jones and me. I am first of all an experimenter and an essayist, and to me personal experience and literary form are vitally important, while Jones is light on research and happy to work with hearsay, and is rather hackneyed and repetitive, but has the right instincts for a rabble-rouser. He harkens from a long American tradition of itinerant preachers spouting jeremiads, thumping the bible and hurling fire and brimstone. His content is secular, but his rhetorical techniques are revivalist. He is preachy, screechy and emotional. There is some carnival cryer in his cultural makeup as well, and he is not above peddling some survivalist/prepper snake oil

That said, we share certain important similarities. Neither of us is part of the official narrative that is endlessly being hammered home by US mass media with increasingly poor results. Thinking Americans are just not gullible enough any more. Jones has exploited this gullibility shortfall in the general public for all it’s worth by going after every conspiracy theory out there, while I am just like you—gullible. Sure, a few Arab tourists armed with box cutters destroyed three steel skyscrapers by flying two aluminum planes into them. Do your own math, but that’s just 2/3 of a plane per skyscraper—ought to be enough, right? Jet fuel, which burns at 800° to 1500°F, melted steel columns. (Steel melts at 2750°F.) Two aluminum cans packed with kerosene, meat and luggage destroyed three steel structures. I find this explanation perfectly satisfactory; do you? If you need to know more, it’s easy to find out, but don’t wait on me because, being so gullible, I am perfectly satisfied.

Jones and I are also different in that he is hugely popular whereas I am popular enough for me and generally lacking in worldly ambition. I enjoy writing, my readers enjoy what I write, and everyone is happy except the kids, because while I am writing I am not playing with them. But Jones is becoming huge—popular enough to displace mass media, which is continuously losing mind share. In part, that is its own fault: how long do they think they can they go on flogging the dead horses of “Russian collusion” and “Russian meddling” before people start shaking their heads and walking away? In part, the verbal diarrhea that we hear on CNN or read on is intended as a smokescreen because the truth has become toxic to the interests of those who are in charge mass media in the US. I will delve into this subject further on Thursday. The political decision to censor Jones was a sign of desperation: the verbal diarrhea is not working, and so it’s time for Plan B, which is simply to scream “Shut up!” as loudly as possible.

Due to his huge and burgeoning popularity (which these latest attacks on him have actually served to enhance) Jones is a huge target, whereas I am but a tiny one. Still, first they came for Alex Jones, and then they may very well come for me, and so the time to start paying attention and pushing back is now. These internet entities—Google, Facebook, Apple, Google Podcast, Spotify, iHeartRadio, MailChimp, Disqus, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest and several others—have no more right to censor him than does your phone company to screen your calls for you or to determine whose number you should be allowed to dial. What was done to Jones was blatantly illegal under both US and international law, and while these companies don’t have much to fear in the US, where they are politically protected, they have a great deal more to fear internationally.

Jones did not, as far as anyone can tell, violate the terms of use of any of these internet services, yet they shut him down. In the public discussions that preceded this event, including in the US Congress, terms such as “hate speech” and “inciting violence” were thrown about. These terms are defined sufficiently vaguely to make them useful for arbitrarily throwing at one’s enemies while one’s friends are granted full immunity, all in an entirely context-free, fact-free manner. For example, two years ago on PBS the following exchange took place between the former acting CIA director Michael Morell and Charlie Rose:

Morell: “We need to make the Russians pay a price in Syria.”
Rose: “We make them pay the price by killing Russians?”
Morell: “Yeah.”

The context and the facts are: the Russians were in Syria by official invitation from the internationally recognized Syrian government to defeat terrorists and foreign mercenaries and to reestablish Syria’s control over its sovereign territory. The US forces weren’t doing much of anything helpful in Syria, but whatever it was, it was illegal: they were an invading force. And here is Morrell proposing that we kill Russian troops who are fighting terrorists, just to send a message. If that’s not “inciting violence,” it is really difficult to imagine what would be. And yet a full two years after this outrage PBS remains on the air; what gives?

Spurious claims of “hate speech” and “inciting violence” aside, what happened is that an order to shut down Jones was issued from Washington, DC. In response an impressively large group of transnational internet companies saluted and marched off to carry out the order, thereby making it perfectly obvious who they work for. And that is likely to become a big problem for them.

First, these transnational companies are allowed to provide services around the world based on international law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends the right to freedom of opinion and expression: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Jones should sue the US and the companies that censored him in the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg, France and seek redress both against entities within the US government which issued the illegal order (to be ferreted out in the course of discovery) and against the transnational companies that carried it out.

Second, these transnational companies operate around the world based on local law which in many cases prevents them from acting as agents of foreign governments without first registering as such. If Google and Facebook execute orders issued by the US government, then they are acting not as businesses but as clandestine representatives of a foreign power. Being recognized as such would significantly curtail these companies’ international reach, growth potential and valuations.

And since Google, Facebook and Apple are public companies committed to the pursuit of shareholder value, it would be time for their shareholders to get involved and replace the management teams. After all, what would be more profitable for them: illegally conspiring with the US government while becoming pariahs and losing the world market, or scrupulously maintaining arm’s-length relationships with all governments while working to uphold international law? There is still the opportunity for them to defuse the whole situation: call it a mistake, restore the services, compensate Jones for lost revenue and promise to never do it again.

The Coolest Substance on Earth


It is August, and the northern hemisphere is engulfed in flames. A major conflagration in Greece caused major damage and loss of life; Portugal is ablaze once again; there are uncontained wildfires in Ontario, California and elsewhere. In France, four nuclear reactors have been forced to shut down due to high heat and low water (they are cooled by river water). In a number of regions, entire harvests of cash crops are being lost to droughts. Throughout Europe, tourists are wading into fountains in a futile attempt to keep cool. Many places in Europe, which is experiencing the longest heatwave in 45 years, have broken their all-time temperature records, while overall 2018 is slated to become the fourth hottest year on record.

Under such circumstances, there is only one thing for me to do. I want to do what I can to help everyone cool down. To this end, here is an article about a very cool substance, which I hope will make you feel cool—in more ways than one!

The very cool substance I want to discuss is ice. It is a huge subject, and some aspects of it get more discussion than others. In particular, Arctic sea ice, glaciers, especially those in Greenland and Antarctica, and icebergs get a lot of coverage while numerous other sorts of ice, especially those that form on canals, rivers and lakes and along shorelines, hardly get discussed at all. And the topic I find most interesting is that of the challenges and opportunities provided by watery landscapes that are either partially or completely ice-bound.

As far as us carbon-based life forms are concerned, the most important substance on Earth is water: it is what allows life to exist. The centrality of water in our lives is reflected in the Celsius temperature scale that’s used everywhere in the world except for Bahamas, Belize, Cayman Islands, Liberia, Palau and some other backward states which still use Fahrenheit. 0ºC is the freezing point of (fresh) water, 100ºC is its boiling point (at sea level). For an entirely unknown reason, Fahrenheit sets these at 32ºF and 212ºF. We live at 36.6ºC while most life happens between 0ºC and 41ºC—the temperature at which proteins start to break down. Luckily, over most of the planet, temperatures fluctuate between –40ºC and +40ºC, and us warm-blooded, large-bodied organisms can generally thrive within this entire range, its lower extreme by shivering and its upper extreme by sweating.

The fact that large swathes of the planet’s surface straddle the 0ºC boundary between liquid and solid water demands some specific adaptations, which become increasingly important the further north we move. While in the temperate zones ice and snow are usually regarded as little more than nuisances, in the north they provide numerous amenities. Here are a few of them.

• Snow as insulation for shelter and for crops
• Snow and ice as roadway for skis, skates and sleds (which can be wind-driven)
• Ice as road surface for transportation
• Summer refrigeration—by harvesting ice in wintertime and packing it in hay or sawdust
• Source of fresh water where liquid water is salty or brackish
• Springtime irrigation—by trapping snow during winter
• Winter dockage for boats and ships—to ice shelves, where the shoreline is boggy or shallow
• Summer leads in shore ice provide sheltered access to deepwater for small boats
• Partial dry dock for ships, created by freezing ships in place, then sawing out ice around the parts that need maintenance, such as rudders and props
• Surface of sea ice as a source of sea salt
• Ice as construction material for temporary rafts or barges

To make good use of snow and ice, it is essential to understand their properties and their lifecycle. Although 0ºC is the highest temperature at which ice and snow can persist for arbitrary periods of time, they do not form at that temperature but at a lower one. The essential ingredients for ice formation are supercooled water and either turbulence or impurities. Perfectly pure water in a glass container shielded from vibration can be gradually supercooled to –20ºC. But if you then drop in a particle of ice or a grain of sand, ice will start to form around it rather suddenly, and go on forming until the entire volume of water has turned to ice, at which point the glass vessel will explode. If you supercool a bucket of water to just –0.1ºC and drop in a particle, it will form a few kilograms of ice, but then ice formation will stop once the heat of crystallization raises the temperature of the water to 0ºC.

Salt water ice is a rather different substance than fresh water ice. To start with, it forms at a lower temperature, depending on the water’s salinity. Ocean water, with its typical salinity of around 3.5%, will start to freeze at around –1.01ºC. Salt water ice is a composite: ice crystals force out the salt into vertical capillaries that contain liquid brine, which then drains down, raising the salinity of the water at the lower surface of the ice (where ice forms), in turn further lowering the temperature at which it freezes.

Sea ice slowly loses its salt over time, and multiyear pack ice (which is less and less prevalent due to global warming) is almost entirely salt-free. Under the usual set of circumstances, the brine, as it drains down, leaves behind hollow tubes that riddle the ice. In the springtime, these tubes fill with meltwater, which quickly undermines the structure of the ice, making it treacherous. It may look perfectly thick and solid, but is in fact completely rotten from within, full of liquid water, and will crumble to slush as soon as you step on it. But if water and air temperatures are low enough, the hollow tubes may gradually “heal” by filling up with solid ice. In the process, salt gets squeezed to the surface, coating it in a thin layer of brine.

The simplest process of ice formation can be seen in surface ice on clear, calm, fresh water on a lake or a pond. It starts with crystals of ice that form below the surface, then float up and grow into ice needles. These are typically 2–3 cm in length, 0.5–1 cm in width and only 0.5–1 mm in thickness. The needles are made up of interlocked flat hexagonal ice crystals—the shape most easily seen on frosted-over window-glass. For mysterious reasons, ice crystals refuse to form ideal honeycombs and instead grow in fractal patterns. The ice then starts growing thicker by adding more flat layers of needles at the bottom. These then interlock by forming crystalline prisms and pyramids. This type of ice is called glass ice, and it is just one of many other kinds.

Surface ice can set up rather quickly, because the process starts with supercooled water, but once the heat of crystallization warms it to 0ºC the process slows down. Even if the air temperature above the ice is mostly negative, the layer of ice acts to insulate the water from the air. As the ice grows thicker, it further and further restricts the heat flow from its bottom surface to its top surface. Ice thickness can be looked up on a chart: the inputs are initial ice thickness (determined by drilling out and measuring a core sample) and the degree-days since (add up average daily temperatures). If the degree-days number is positive, the ice will grow thinner; if negative—thicker. The overall curve is a parabola, owing to the insulating ability of the ice, which increases with thickness.

Snow tends to complicate this picture. If snow starts falling after the surface ice sets up, it will not affect the planar crystalline structure of the ice needles. At first, it may accelerate ice formation, because the snowflakes are often significantly colder than the air at the surface of the ice and can absorb the heat of crystallization. Thereafter, the snow will slow down the process of ice formation because it is an excellent insulating material. The surface of the snow can be cooled to as little as -40ºC while the ice below remains barely below 0ºC, largely trapping the heat of crystallization below the ice. At that point, the thickness of the ice asymptotically approaches its maximum.

If snow starts falling before glass ice has a chance to set up, the result is different. Each individual snowflake is a planar, hexagonal ice crystal, similar in its fractal structure to the ice needles that form on the surface of the water, but symmetric, since it crystallizes out of a water droplet falling through the air. It is the perfect nucleation point to start ice formation. But the orientation in which it falls into the water is arbitrary, resulting in a mad jumble of ice crystals rather than in interlocking flat sheets of ice. This jumble becomes more and more chaotic as it grows, resulting in grainy ice that is almost entirely opaque and somewhat weaker.

Fast-moving streams sometimes freeze not from the surface, where water flows smoothly, but from the bottom, where obstacles create turbulence and stirred-up sediment provides nucleation points. Ice crystals first form on objects embedded in the bottom—most readily on heat-conducting materials such as on metal or stone, and not at all on thermal insulators such as wood or plastic. A row of steel rebar driven into the bottom across a stream and protruding above its surface will form an ice dam.

Bottom ice tends to be amorphous and spongelike, and often incorporates a lot of silt and sunken organic matter that weighs it down. After a sufficiently large chunk of ice has formed, it may detach from the bottom and float to the surface, where it will start to form surface ice. But large chunks of ice may also adhere to the bottom for long periods of time, then float up suddenly, creating hazards to navigation. Once surface ice forms, bottom ice formation will typically stop. This is because the surface ice will serve as a layer of insulation, preventing the heat of crystallization of bottom ice from escaping to the atmosphere.

Once surface ice reaches 5 cm in thickness it may be safe enough to walk on, although this is not for the feint of heart: the ice will flex under your feet. The sheet of ice is at once fragile, and will shatter if struck, but will also flex under a temporary vertical load, and will slowly submerge under a more permanent one. Sea ice, formed on salt water, is somewhat weaker then freshwater ice, but is also more flexible. As ice forms along a shore, it is often possible to see waves reach the edge of the ice sheet and then cause it to undulate as they travel under the ice toward the shore, gradually decreasing in height.

Once ice thickness reaches 10 cm, it becomes useable as a road surface. For this purpose, it needs to be cleared of snow. But this brings up a problem. If the top surface of the ice is exposed to the cold air, it is at air temperature, while its bottom surface is at around 0ºC. But if it is covered with snow, the temperature gradient across the ice is much smaller. As snow is removed, the temperature gradient increases, the ice closer to the surface shrinks as it cools, and cracks appear on the surface of the ice. These cracks do not go all the way through the ice, but they may under load. Cracks across the path of travel are less dangerous than the ones that run along it; the latter can open up like a zipper under a moving load.

The width of the “channel” to be cleared of snow is generally 40-50 meters wide. If any cracks appear, especially lengthwise ones, and especially ones that are 5 cm wide or more, they need to be repaired by filling them with water. If the ice road is to put to heavy use, then it may make sense to build up the ice thickness to half a meter by watering it. At 0.5 meters, the ice thickness is generally considered sufficient for most transportation purposes. Then courses across the ice can be plotted and marked (fir boughs frozen to the surface make good markers) and automotive traffic can be sent through.

There are certain traffic rules that must be obeyed. First, the loads have to be tightly regulated based on the temperature, thickness and composition of the ice. For example, sea ice with salinity of 0.4-0.6%, 40 cm thick and without cracks will safely hold up 5 tonnes at -2ºC and 6 tonnes at -8ºC. If it were freshwater ice, it would hold up 12 and 16 tonnes, respectively. And if the sea ice were opaque rather than transparent (because it formed out of snow) then the load numbers would be halved.

Second, strict speed limit rules need to be obeyed, both for minimum and maximum speeds. There can be no passing, and traffic has to spaced out by 3 minutes or so. Passing can create intersecting waves that have local amplitudes in excess of what the ice can sustain without cracking. You might think it a good idea to pull right up to a stranded vehicle and offer help, but you must stop something like 20 meters away from it and walk the distance because the ice may not bear twice the load. Maximum speeds are determined based on conditions, but are generally around 20 km/h. Parallel tracks (in same or opposite directions) must be spaced 150-200 meters apart. In spite of all possible safety precautions, ice roads become treacherous as springtime approaches and temperatures rise.

Although ice and snow have some measure of immunity to increasing sunlight, being as good a sunlight reflector as open water is a sunlight absorber, there are some nuances. Just a day with surface air temperature above 0ºC is enough to cause the top surface of the snow to melt, then refreeze, forming a transparent crust. The melting causes the air pollution that has accumulated on the surface of the snow—be it from dust blown in from faraway arid regions, automotive exhaust or soot from coal burning—all of them being heavier than snow, to sink down into it.

And now we have a sort of local greenhouse effect: a transparent, glass-like layer above a darker, pigmented substrate to catch the sunlight to accumulate the heat and conduct it to the ice below. The snow may still look normal, but if it’s crusted over then it may be sitting on a layer of slush rather than hard ice and the ice road, though still appearing serviceable, may turn out to be surrounded by not much more than water.

Since ice roads are far more economical than any other conceivable roadbuilding experiment, there is usually a great deal of economic pressure to keep them open for as long as possible—and that’s usually a bit longer than would be perfectly safe. But at some point the cost of vehicles falling through the ice and of then rescuing the people exceeds the economic benefit of keeping them running, and the ice road must be closed to traffic. In all, the subject is complicated and technical enough to demand a higher level of organization than just letting people get out on the ice.

The ability of ice to provide roads where there aren’t any, and where any roadbuilding experiment beyond bulldozing through a simple dirt track (impassable much of the year) would be subeconomic, becomes first very valuable, then absolutely essential as one moves further north toward the Arctic.

Equally important is the ability of ice—shore ice, which forms as a skirt around islands—to provide dockage where there are no deepwater harbors and no dockage facilities of any sort.

A ship simply punches a channel through the ice, and vehicles can travel to it over the ice from settlements on land to load and unload cargoes, deliver mail, and take on and discharge passengers. The only investments needed to make this dockage facility operational are those needed to construct and maintain a relatively short ice road.

Ice and snow—ice that is smooth and hard, snow that is not too deep—have a myriad of uses. But many of their manifestations are either a nuisance, downright dangerous, or simply useless. They can also be quite beautiful.

When snow freezes upon contact with waves, it can be rolled into balls of sludge ice that is viscous, relatively uncompressible, completely unstable and therefore impassable: a no-go zone for anything other than an intrepid explorer wearing a float suit. (These are waterproof overalls that incorporate both flotation and insulation throughout, making it very difficult to get wet enough or cold enough.)

Another useless but curious manifestation is pancake ice: chunks of ice that wave action causes to rub against each other and form into consistent round or oval shapes.

Wave action can cause solid, clear ice to break apart into ragged chunks called nilas. It is particularly dangerous to boats, especially fiberglass boats, because its edges are hard and sharp, and can scrape and cut through hulls.

Most boat hulls are very badly suited to moving through waters that have any amount of ice in them because they are made to cut through water. A sharp, nearly vertical stem at the bow is the exact opposite of what’s needed to deal with ice because the ice is quite incompressible in the horizontal direction. What’s needed is an icebreaker bow, which is designed to move over the ice, cracking off and submerging it piece by piece, then sweeping the pieces aside.

Here is an older Russian icebreaker that, judging from the scars on its bow, has clearly seen a lot of action. Ships of this type have been essential in keeping the northern sea routes open.

Icebreaker technology has moved on since then. Here’s one of Russia’s latest, “50 Years of Victory”.

And the last step in the evolution has made the icebreaker unnecessary. Here is the liquefied natural gas tanker “Christophe de Margerie”, which delivers LNG from Russia’s newest Arctic city, Sabetta, to places around the world (the very first shipment was to Boston). It is an LNG tanker and an icebreaker rolled into one.

It’s easy to understand how most people see ice merely as a nuisance. But the further north you move, the more you realize how useful these solid forms of water really are. There, ice and snow are not dreaded but celebrated: at first snowfall, Russian schoolchildren become jubilant and can’t be stopped from running outside to throw snowballs and build snowmen.

Where ice is in forms that are of no conceivable benefit to anyone, they are often beautiful to explore and to contemplate.

Clearly, there is much more to say on this subject, but I hope that what I have said will help you appreciate just how cool a substance ice is, and will make you feel cooler for knowing it—in more ways than one.

A Retreat into Bad Poetry


It\’s been over two weeks since Putin talked to Trump in Helsinki, and the hubbub around this meeting has died down somewhat, making it possible to put together some thoughts on what on Earth that all was. Obviously, there was a lot for these two heads of state to discuss, just to keep the international situation from spinning out of control, and perhaps they did. And, equally obviously, the one thing that these two couldn’t have possibly done is prevent the political situation within the US from spinning out of control.


Unspelled version:

A retrIt Hntu PVT pGetrh

Hts PHn GFd tU MIks sHns pUthn tOkt tU trBmp Hn RelsHNki, + Y RBPbP arWnT YHs mIthN RVS TXT TWn sBmMot, mCkhN Ht pOshPl tU pQt tqKEYd sBm yOts On MOt On Dy YVt Ol MOS. OPFhuslh, YEd MOS A lOt fOr YIS tU RETS OF stCt tU ThskBs, JBst tU kIp Y hntdnVznal shjuCzon frOm spHnhN Wt OF kontrGl, + pdRVps YC THT. +, IkMalh OPFhuslh, Y MBn yHN YVt YIS tU kQTnt RVF pOshPlh TBn HS preFEnt Y polHthkl shjuCzon MhYHn Y LU-Es frOm spHnhN Wt OF kontrGl.

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Y amErhkan mITia riVkzon MOS MXTlh ThskBst Hn rBzan mITia, + MOS kOmonlh refDT tU VS “RhstHrha.” PBt X yHNk YVt YHs kvrvkterhSCzon mHseS Y pOLnt. LEs, LU kQT metafOrhklh refD tU MOt RVS PHn RVpenhN LUShN tDmS POrgT frOm sxkOloJh Or sxkXatrh, PBt X TGnt yHNk YVt YHs rIalh VTS klVrhth. MOt LUs HS A TxaKnGshs Hf Ht kVnt PI fOlgT Bp MHY yEraph Or trItment? Hf YEd MOS Y poshPHlhth OF mEn Hn MXt sLUts rBnhN Ontu Y sEt Vt sI-En-En Or Em-Es-En-PI-sI, MIlThN shrHnJeS + strCtJvkets, YEn, zQd, kOl Ht “RhstHrha” Or “sxkGshs” Or MotEFd LU lXk. PBt Y proPaPHlhth OF YVt RVpenhN HS SIrg. mOr tU Y pOLnt, YIS nOt-kMXt-JDnalhsts RU lXk yrGhN kwntdfVkjualS arWnT vkLUST trBmp OF trISon MhYWt sG mBj VS POYdhN tU KUKl “trISon,” Hn MHj kCs YC MQT RVF ThskBFdT YVt Y tDm TBSnt vplX + trX tU LUS A THfdent MBn. YC mXt RVF trXT plBKhN Hn “ThslOLalth,” PBt YEn, bpOn rIThN Bp On Y jCn OF komVnT MhYHn Y eKSEkLuthF PrVnj, YC MQT RVF ThskBFdT YVt Y rekMXdment OF remCnhN lOLal flGS Bp frOm Y Ef-PI-X tU Y pbEShTent, nOt TWn. YC MQT RVF PHn fOrst tU MDk TWn Y lHst, Ol Y MC tU “skEpthshSm,” MHj HS MOt Ht Vkjualh MOS.

sxkglOJhkl mEtaforS vsXT, MOt MOS Ht YVt pgSEst (vnBYd mEtafor) mVs mITia Hn Y LU-Es tU kOl trBmp A “trCtd”? MI RVF olrETh estVPlhzt YVt YHs spIj MOSnt VkzonaPl (TLU tU lIKl lhmhtCzonS On Y mInhN OF Y tDm “trISon”). Ht konsHsteT OF eFOkathF LEt nonsEnshkal frCSeS + sEntenseS, EnTleslh repIteT MHY KrCt Vfekt. Hf pOlhthks HS tCken tU mIn Y pdsLUt OF Y pOshPl, YEn Ht THTnt IFen kMOlhfx VS polHthkl spIj. mOr Or lEs PX prOses OF elhmhnCzon, MI Ar fOrst tU koNklUT YVt Ht MOS… pGetrh. nOt KQT pGetrh, mXnT LU, PBt sBmyhN mOr vlON Y lXnS OF FGKon pGetrh VS TeskrXPT PX TBKlas VTamS: Y sOrt OF pGetrh YVt, MEn resXteT, kOSeS OTiens mEmPdS tU nO YEd lHmS Of Or tU ekspXd OF hntDnal REmoraJhN. kompEd, fOr eKSVmpl, JOn mbkCn’s “nG prXd pbEShTent / RVS EFd vPCst RhmsElf mOr vPJEktlh / PefOr A tXrant!” tU VTamS’ prostEtnhk FGKon JTlts: “X zVl rEnT YI / Hn Y KOPdMorts / MHY mX PlDKlkrbnjon!” PBt X yHNk YVt Ht MOS trBmp YVt stArteT YHs pGetrh slVm, MHY YHs PHt OF MDT sVlvT: “pbEShTent pUthn sES Ht’s nOt rBza. / X TGnt sI Enh rISon MX Ht MQT PI…” RI YEn fvsIzuslh kdEkteT Ht tU “X TGnt sI Enh rISon MX Ht MQTnt PI…” YIS lXnS Ar MDYh OF VTamS’ pGet lOreat KrBnyos Y flVjulent.

MOt RVS prOmpteT YHs amErhkan retnIt Hntu PVT pGetrh? pdRVps Ht RVS sBmyhN tU TU MHY Y rialhSCzon YVt Y LU-Es HS nG lONKd TOmhnant Or priEmhnent Hn Y MDlT, Hn Enh sEns Vt Ol. YHs rialhSCzon mBst PI sbprEst PX Ol mInS pOshPl, fOr sBj yOts Ar sHmplh nOt vlWT MhYHn Y mCnstrim OF Y MDlT’s Gnlh eksEpzonalhst nCzon. pGemS Ar RElpfql RHd Hn YVt YC RVF nG trUy FVlLu. LU kVn nG mOr ThspLUt A pGem YVn LU kVn kMEsjn Y MDTS OF Y nVznal Vnyem. (“nG, Wd flVK MOSnt stHl YEd!”) pGemS sHmplh Ar, + Hf LU kMEsjn YEd FdVshth, YEn LU Ar vKEnst pGetrh htsElf. sCm MHY Y rBza mETlhN/kolUZon/RVkhN nVrvthF: Ht JBst HS. sChN YVt Ht HSnt HS JBst lXk sChN YVt mErh THTnt RVF A lHtl lVm.

X MHl lIF LU MHY sBm FGKon pGetrh OF mX Gn. olmGst A TEkcT vKG, Vt Y EnT OF 2009, X rGt Bp sBm preTHkzonS fOr Y nEkst TEkcT. MBn OF mX preTHkzonS, + MBn PX MHj X stHl stVnT, MOS YVt Y amErhkanS, bnCPl tU mOTdct YEd Vpetxts Hn Y fCs OF rVThkllh OltdT sDkbmstvnseS, MHl

konsLUm YemsElFS Hntu oPlHFhon
VS sG mEnh ThsemPWelT LEt stHl rVFenus zArks
EnTleslh KOrJhN YemsElFS
On YEd Gn PHlghN EntrclS.