Archive for February, 2019

Why do Capitalists hate Socialism?


Do capitalists hate socialism? If you read some capitalist publications—which are pretty much all of the privately owned ones, plus all the government-financed ones unless the government happens to be a socialist government—you inevitably walk away with the thought that socialism is somehow bad. The reasons given for this vary: socialism produces inferior economic results; socialism creates moral hazards; socialism eventually fails. None of these are convincing. Capitalism is quite capable of producing inferior economic results too and, looking around the planet, does so with some regularity. Capitalism creates one single moral hazard—putting money and property ahead of people—which is greater and more socially corrosive than all of the ones created by socialism. And although socialist regimes do eventually collapse, so do all the capitalist ones because nothing lasts forever. These are clearly not the real reasons. What is the real reason?

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How Bad Can Things Possibly Get?


In my travels I sometimes revisit places where I have had some acquaintances, and it is always tempting to look them up and pay them a visit along the way even if I am quite sure that they have in the meantime degenerated to a point where they are no longer suitable as company. One of my distant relatives has always stressed the point that “Things can always be worse,” and this idea seems to have infected my mind like a brain parasite. Instead of simply accepting it as axiomatic, I have sent myself on dangerous missions just to confirm that for any negative integer n there is always an n–1. But then I am hardly alone: morbid curiosity is both common and popular. Many people like to learn about things that are really bad, and when they do they ask: “Just how bad are they?”

Some time ago my travels took me to a middling New England town that was once quite a prosperous place. It had a textile mill that provided good, steady work for everyone in the area, but since then textile production moved to Pakistan. The particular house I visited was once worker housing: the worker worked at the textile mill and provided for the whole family while his wife, perhaps along with the parents and the in-laws, stayed at home, took care of the kids and perhaps grew a bit of food. Once upon a time it was a modest but house-proud dwelling dressed up in painted clapboard and a bit of lacy trim. It fronted a tree-lined street with a park or kitchen gardens on the other side, with streetcars running along it and with stagecoaches and carriages periodically clippety-clopping past on the cobblestoned roadway.

But now this house is clad in vinyl siding and festooned with satellite dishes. It stands right at the edge of a four-lane undivided thoroughfare with a steady stream of tractor-trailers thundering past, racing between traffic lights and spewing greasy soot that gives the vinyl siding a brownish-gray patina. Some of the nearby houses have burned down, leaving behind empty lots overgrown with weeds and making the block look like a denture with some teeth knocked out. Across the road, there stretches a chain-link fence that encloses a vast expanse of semi-abandoned industrial wasteland. As I parked my rental car and approached, the house looked semi-abandoned too. The windows hadn’t been washed in decades, there was a rotting pile of the local newspaper on the porch, and the flimsy metal screen door no longer fit the frame and banged about in the breeze. The door itself was partially open, as if to declare “There is nothing inside that’s worth stealing.”

I was there to visit my old acquaintance Tom who lived there with three housemates. As had become usual in those parts, people no longer lived together as families but were thrown together higgledy-piggledy, the way young, unmarried people sometimes are the world over. But there they persist in this pseudo-juvenile state until they are ready for the morgue and the crematorium. Tom either graduated or dropped out from an art school (accounts varied) and could turn out competent artwork if given careful direction, but he disliked being told what to do. Left to his own devices, he indulged in drawing cartoons that featured grotesque caricatures of himself plodding through post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with wrecks of his old cars and wandering shadows of his former girlfriends. Needless to say, this work did not sell, and so instead Tom devoted himself wholeheartedly to drinking beer (Budweiser) and smoking cigarettes (Marlboro Lights).

One of his housemates and sometime love interest whose name I cannot possibly recall and will therefore refer to generically as “Jane” was the only one in the household who had steady work. She spent her days on the phone with deadbeat debtors whom she tried to harass into making a payment. There is plenty of that sort of work: there, like clockwork, people come of age, take out loans and go broke and an entire ecosystem of bottom-feeders specializes in picking clean their bones. Her earnings kept the entire household in beer, cigarettes and pizza. After each day of her soul-destroying work she would come home and pop enough pills to completely desensitize herself, then sit around in a stupor until bedtime.

Another housemate, George, had a vicious temperament and had been in and out of jail many times. He was permanently one parole violation away from ending up back “on the inside” and had long given up any hope of getting his driver’s license back. He had been virile and fecund and had a couple of former wives who had taken out restraining orders against him and several children whom he wasn’t allowed to see. George was an avid conversationalist and could easily be prompted to hold forth on any number of subjects, although his poor grasp of the facts and numerous delusional convictions invariably caused his narratives to become mired in internal contradictions. It was a mistake to point these contradictions out to him because in response he would engage in unflattering personal characterizations and make menacing gestures.

The last, and perhaps the strangest of the housemates, Allie, was somebody’s stepdaughter from someone’s previous marriage, but nobody seemed to know or care whose it was. She was no longer a child, but adulthood seemed to escape her entirely, and she seemed trapped in a premature old age. Permanently depressed, she would spend her days watching television or doing nothing at all. Simple biological imperatives would periodically prompt her to wander into the kitchen, in search of a slice of pizza or a can of soda, or, for related reasons, into the bathroom. Sometimes she would become manic and attempt to clean the place up, mostly by picking up objects and putting them down again, being too lazy and indecisive to do much else.

The doorbell was defunct, and so I stuck my head in and yelled “Hello! Anyone home?” This wasn’t strictly speaking a question, since where else would they be? One of them could be at the corner store buying beer and cigarettes, which was a couple of blocks away and was incongruously referred to as “the spa,” or at the pizza joint a few blocks the other way, picking up a pizza, but at least one of them was highly likely to be home at any one time. Sure enough, in response I heard a vague “Yeah!” and went in.

Just inside the door there was an assortment of odd junk. I made my way past it and walked down the corridor and into the kitchen, where Tom and Jane were seated on green plastic lawn chairs on opposite sides of a kitchen table backed by a window beyond which lay a desolate backyard. Tom was drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while Jane just sat there crossing and uncrossing her eyes. In most parts of the world when an old acquaintance makes an impromptu visit this calls for a hearty handshake, perhaps even a hug, but not in those parts. There, an indifferent “Hey, what’s up?” and a limp gesture toward the only available seat—a barstool most likely stolen from an old working-class dive just down the road—would have to do. And so I put my bag down and sat down on the barstool.

Tom spoke with an air of someone whose main priority is taking care of his addictions, with little time to spare for conversation. Between the swigs of beer, the drags on a cigarette, the coughing fits and the belches from the beer, Tom was a busy man. He only managed to squeeze out short phrases: “Went to look for work yesterday… cough-cough-cough! Found a job… drag… belch! But they wanted me to work until three… swig… and I want to start drinking by… cough… one. Cough!”

At some point I realized that George was also in the room. I didn’t notice him at first because he was sitting on the floor, in the corner, slumped against a wall and partially hidden behind a stack of empty beer bottles. His legs were oddly splayed out under him, rag doll-like, and he was hunched forward, his mouth hanging open and his gaze fixed. At first he didn’t seem to be breathing, but then I noticed that he did take sporadic breaths. Also, his eyes floated around a bit. His complexion was grayish-green. There was something seriously wrong with him, but the other two paid no attention to him at all.

“George, you look dead!” I exclaimed. “Now you’ve done it!” Tom said. Jane facepalmed. As I was trying to comprehend the nature and extent of my faux pas, George stirred to life. He started emitting an odd sound, half-shriek, half-wheeze, lumbered to his feet and started shambling toward me while clawing at the air. At this, I hopped off the barstool and ran for the hallway. By the time I reached the other end of the hallway I realized that I had left my bag back in the kitchen. It contained several important items, the most important of which was my passport, without which I wouldn’t be able to run away quite as far from there as I was intending to just then. And so I turned around.

George was shambling toward me down the hallway, still clawing at the air and still making that shrieking-wheezing noise. I had to get past him and out again. I definitely didn’t want to touch George, for fear of catching whatever it was he had. Looking around at the junk piled up next to the door I noticed a shovel, and so I grabbed it and started pushing him back into the kitchen with the blade of the shovel as gently as possible. It turned out to be surprisingly easy: every time I pushed him slightly off-balance he would recover by shuffling in the intended direction. By the time I had herded him back into the kitchen his batteries seemed to have run low and he crumpled onto the floor and splayed out prone. He wheezed and clawed weakly at the floor for a minute longer. Then a shudder shot through his body and he lay still.

“This is really bad!” said Tom. Jane still had her facepalm up but I could see that she was watching me between her fingers. Just then I looked up and saw Allie. She was standing in the hallway, gazing into the kitchen, looking as blank and indifferent as ever. What specifically happened after that is far from certain, but it certainly made my skin crawl! Perhaps some ethereal emanation departed George’s body and relocated into Allie’s—but only if you believe in that sort of thing. Then Allie spun around uncharacteristically swiftly and ran down the hallway, out the front door and into the street. There was a scream and a honk, or perhaps a honk and a scream, followed by the sound of a tractor-trailer shuddering to a halt and, finally, the hiss of air brakes being let off.

Tom stubbed out a cigarette, lit the next, got up from his lawn chair and stumbled out, with Jane plodding along in his wake. Having had quite enough of that scene, I snatched up my bag, stepped over George and followed behind at a safe distance. Outside, a few people were standing just to the right of the porch, with a tractor-trailer stopped just beyond with its blinkers on. I didn’t waste any time looking in the direction of that gathering. Instead, I turned left, got into my rental car and drove off.

Experiences such as these tend to temper one’s enthusiasm for finding out just how bad things can possibly get. That’s the case with me, at least. The axiom “Things can always get worse” is a useful one, but perhaps there needs to be some reasonable cut-off point for how bad things can get before it’s time to stop paying attention to them and move on to things that aren’t quite as bad yet. The great thing about axioms is that they never need to be experimentally tested. But there is definitely a market for nonfiction that satisfies morbid curiosity, and to write that nonfiction it is necessary to do the research.

Putin now thinks Western Elites are Swine


An article I published close to five years ago, “Putin to Western elites: Play-time is over,” turned out to be the most popular thing I’ve written so far, having garnered over 200,000 reads over the intervening years. In it I wrote about Putin’s speech at the 2014 Valdai Club conference. In that speech he defined the new rules by which Russia conducts its foreign policy: out in the open, in full public view, as a sovereign nation among other sovereign nations, asserting its national interests and demanding to be treated as an equal. Yet again, Western elites failed to listen to him. Instead of mutually beneficial cooperation they continued to speak the language of empty accusations and counterproductive yet toothless sanctions. And so, in yesterday’s address to Russia’s National Assembly Putin sounded note of complete and utter disdain and contempt for his “Western partners,” as he has usually called them. This time he called them “swine.”

The president’s annual address to the National Assembly is a rather big deal. Russia’s National Assembly is quite unlike that of, say, Venezuela, which really just consists of some obscure nonentity named Juan recording Youtube videos in his apartment. In Russia, the gathering is a who’s-who of Russian politics, including cabinet ministers, Kremlin staffers, the parliament (State Duma), regional governors, business leaders and political experts, along with a huge crowd of journalists. One thing that stood out at this year’s address was the very high level of tension in the hall: the atmosphere seemed charged with electricity.

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Death of Free Speech leads to Fascism


Freedom of speech is rather important. If people do not feel free to express their thoughts, then all they can do is endlessly repeat what has been said before, creating an echo chamber which no new understandings can ever penetrate. What they repeat may have been a tissue of lies from the outset, or it may have been true or relevant once, but will become outdated and, essentially, as good as a lie.

Lies beget ignorance. Ignorance begets fear. Fear begets hatred. And hatred begets violence. The ability to speak our minds and to listen to others—even those who are said to be our enemies—is what separates us from wild beasts. Deprive us of this right, and sure as rain we degenerate into subhumans who claw at the ground, howl at the moon and gnaw on raw human flesh… or something like that.

The practice of free speech is quite a demanding art. Just being able to make intelligible sounds with your mouth or to poke at a keyboard in a way that pleases the spell-checker makes you no more an expert practitioner of free speech than does the ability to get up from your chair and walk to the bathroom make you a ballet dancer. Free speech encompasses the expression of fact and opinion. Facts cannot be fake, or you can stand accused of libel or of spreading disinformation. Opinion cannot be incendiary, or you can stand accused of undermining public order.

To be on the safe side, free speech should not contain performatives—speech acts that seek to alter the state of the world. Calls to action, unsolicited advice, coercion, intimidation, threats, personal categorizations and the like can all reasonably be banned without hurting the exercise of free speech at all. Demagoguery—attempts to manipulate public sentiment by exploiting popular desires, fears and prejudices—is rather unhelpful, although to some extent unavoidable. Some forms of free speech should be rightfully privileged over the rest: the literary arts (both fiction and nonfiction), cinematography, music, visual and performance arts are at the top; political slogans shouted over swine-toned music at an audience of sloppy drunks are definitely near the bottom.

The quality of society is directly proportional to the quality of its exercise of free speech, and to assure high quality some form of quality control is usually called for. Governments often have to backstop this need by legislating against certain forms of speech. The older standard against incendiary speech or speech that may cause a panic—shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater—is justified as a matter of public safety. Newer standards against hate speech and discrimination are on shakier ground. They are essentially gag orders that drive the exercise of certain forms of speech underground, thereby making it harder to regulate and more dangerous. The expectation that banning “hate speech” will prevent hatred is unrealistic; nor is the expectation that haters can be compelled to do their hating in silence. Likewise, banning discriminatory speech can only suppress overt expressions of discrimination but not the behavior itself, making it more intractable, since nothing short of a lobotomy can prevent people from discriminating against those they find disagreeable.

Aside from government-provided backstops (which are blunt, inaccurate instruments) most of what provides for high-quality free speech is self-control and, to the extent that it is needed, self-censorship. Essentially, every negative form of free speech—disinformation, libel, demagoguery, manipulation, incendiary rhetoric, etc.—reduce the level of respect and trust between the speaker and the audience. Taken to an extreme, the concept of free speech itself becomes superfluous as everybody manifests their ignorance while spouting their worthless opinions without bothering to listen to anyone else—because everyone else is equally ignorant and their opinions are equally worthless and meaningless. The only thing that can prevent this backslide into worthlessness and meaninglessness is high standards of social adequacy.

But how can such high standards persist in a world of trolls and bots, of concocted false narratives endlessly blasted out at full volume, where a thought that is significantly longer than a tweet simply cannot be expressed? How can they be enforced if the modern value system requires tolerance, nondiscrimination and inclusiveness toward all—including the most miserable miscreants—lowering the price of admission to public discourse to zero? Surprisingly, it can, and it does persist: some writers find their readers and some performers find their audiences—somehow. Their numbers aren’t huge, but then, since quality is almost always inversely proportional to quantity, their small numbers don’t matter that much.

In fact, these numbers are so small that to ascribe any sort of significant agency to those who pay attention, or to those to whom they pay attention. The proper and essential function of free speech is not to somehow remake the world in one’s own image (you should consider yourself lucky if you can bring about a change in yourself, never mind make a difference in your own family or neighborhood). Its function is to keep you sane and grounded and to prevent you from cascading down through lies, ignorance, fear, hatred and violence, eventually degenerating into wild beasts who claw at the ground, howl at the moon and chew on each other…

The concocted false narratives endlessly blasted out at full volume make such work difficult. The narratives that are designed to generate a misplaced sense of agency are perhaps the most difficult veil to shred. No matter how many times I try to explain that the US is not a democracy and that it doesn’t matter who is president, these facts seem to just bounce off people’s heads. When I try to explain certain facts about technology—for instance, that wind and solar power unfortunately just don’t work and that the countries that pursue them are setting themselves up for economic disaster, but that for all of its dangers nuclear power does seem to have a very important future (although only in certain countries)—in response people demand to know whether or not I am “in favor” of nuclear power.

What a ridiculous question! That’s like you asking your flush toilet what it thinks of sewage treatment or your office chair whether it is in favor of a sedentary lifestyle. Just like the office chair and the toilet you and I, with respect to nuclear power, are not subjects but objects. If you are reading this, then you are willy-nilly in favor of nuclear power, because if the nuclear reactors were off your screen would be blank and you’d be sitting in the dark with the heat or the air conditioning not working. But that’s a false choice—simply because it isn’t on offer—any more than an office chair or a toilet can decide whether it wishes to be sat on or not.

And now there is another development that is making the exercise of free speech even more difficult: the phenomenon of “deplatforming.” Various companies, including Twitter, Facebook, PayPal, Patreon and various others, have taken it upon themselves to become arbiters of free speech and interpreters of the First Amendment. Their conceit is that their user base forms a “community” upon which they are entitled to impose “community standards.” In fact, they are privately owned for-profit companies and their clients are individuals or other companies, not communities. They may try to argue that they are publishers of some sort, and publishers are entitled to maintaining an editorial policy, but there is an unbridgeable gap between the editorial process and just typing some text and clicking “publish.” In fact, what they are attempting to do is perhaps best described as vigilante censorship. The most that they are entitled to do is refer their users for prosecution if there is reason to believe that their users have violated specific laws.

I became aware of this new “deplatforming” menace a couple of months ago, when some of my readers started abandoning Patreon after it deplatformed certain people. Prior to that my readership on Patreon had been growing nicely, but then the growth stalled. I’ll never know—and don’t really care—what was behind these decisions, since I don’t see them as legitimate. Typical parting comments from my readers were:

“You crossed the line with censorship and I cannot support this company.”

“I believe in freedom of speech. Censorship is not a virtue. Shame on you.”

“Patreon should not be a moral arbiter. You are supposed to be a payment platform.”

“This site cannot be trusted to support free speech.”

In short, Patreon’s censorship, which it disingenuously called “community standards,” was costing me money, and so I complained:

“Your editorial policy is costing me money. Since Patreon is just a paywalled blogging platform I don\’t understand why you should have an editorial policy at all. If you find that your clients are violating state or federal laws you should refer them for prosecution; if not, I honestly do not understand what gives you the reason or the right, or the legal competence, to act as interpreters of the First Amendment.”

The answer I got back was rather terse: “…we do not disclose any details surrounding creator page removals…” First, that isn’t an answer to my question. Second, it shows a remarkable degree of contempt for any sort of fairness. Secret tribunals that result in “removals,” that are based on vague, private, arbitrary rules, that refuse to disclose the basis of their decisions, that cause financial losses but refuse acknowledge them or to compensate for them… doesn’t that sound just a tiny bit fascist?

And so I set up a SubscribeStar account where I publish all the same materials as on Patreon, and to which my readers have been gradually migrating. SubscribeStar is not quite as feature-rich as Patreon (yet) and it has been banned by PayPal (not a big loss; my readers seem to hate PayPal) but it does have the advantage of being honest: it is simply a blogging platform integrated with a paywall.

Meanwhile, the “deplatforming” has only grown worse. Most recently, CNN aired a public denunciation of RT (which it accused of being Russian), and based on this denunciation Facebook saw it fit to ban RT from Soapbox, Waste-Ed, Backthen as well shut down a personal project “In The Now” by the American journalist Anissa Naouai (because she works for RT). These were projects with millions of subscribers and billions of views. CNN’s denunciation was phrased as follows: these projects influence America’s young people! The bloody Russians are at it again, contaminating “our precious bodily fluids”!

None of this has anything at all to do with Russia, or the Russian government, or Putin personally. RT is government-financed, but so is BBC (which, it has now been admitted, lied about the fake chemical attacks in Syria’s Douma, causing Trump to unleash a volley of cruise missiles on Syria, most of which, luckily, the Syrians managed to shoot down). But while the British may lie as they wish (and provoke war crimes as a result) the Russians aren’t allowed to say anything at all—because they are Russian.

To understand the rationale behind this bout of Russophobia, it is important to understand that it has nothing to do with “containing Russia” or anything of the sort (that project has already failed). Instead, Russophobia neatly serves the internal political needs of the US and other Western countries. Two trends—the gradual suppression of free speech and the gradual dehumanization of Russians—go hand in hand. Free speech can be suppressed because of “Russian trolls” and election results can be manually rearranged as needed because of “Russian meddling.”

What makes such measures necessary? The West is experiencing an entire series of crises that is beginning to form the classical pattern defined by Lenin as the revolutionary situation: the elites can no longer rule as before while their subjects can no longer live as before. Western establishment (primarily its Deep State component) is forced to confront this problem. How can it preserve its power and maintain control, all without changing course or even swapping out it deeply unpopular public-facing figureheads? It has decided to deal with this crisis by suppressing the public will. Since such suppression is incompatible with maintaining the fiction of democratic governance, democracy has got to go. That’s where the Russians come in handy: if the voters don’t vote as programmed, then an entire election can be annulled because of “Russian meddling.” “Russian trolls” and Russian “fake news” are helpful too: they offer an excuse for suppressing free speech.

Having a phantom enemy is very helpful. First, there is nothing like the fear of an external enemy to force people to rally around their ruling elites. Second, since the enemy is a phantom, there is no danger of defeat in an actual war. But there is another danger: in the process of vilifying this phantom enemy, Russians as an ethnos are being progressively dehumanized. And the problem is that dehumanizing the enemy always results in degeneracy—not of the enemy, but of the dehumanizers themselves. Inevitably, it is the dehumanizers who end up running around on all fours, howling at the moon and having each other for dinner. Lies engender ignorance; ignorance engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence. At some point a horrific crime against Russians will take place, which will baptize both the Western elites and their Untermenschen in Russian blood, tying them together with bonds of criminal complicity. (This scenario has already been tested out in Eastern Ukraine.)

Before our eyes the most reactionary and the most chauvinistic and homicidal parts of Western financial elites are transforming Western “democracy” into a model terrorist dictatorship. But it is very hard to see what they could possibly hope to achieve other than the physical destruction of their own populations—if that can be considered an achievement. Perhaps their actual achievement will be in being able to carry out this destruction without having their own populations even notice that it is happening, lost as they are in a world of delusions fashioned out of false narratives endlessly blasted at them at high volume. We should feel lucky that a few voices are still able to pierce through the Bedlam, although we don’t know for how much longer. In the meantime, take a look around. This is what fascism looks like.

Modern Russian Governance Explained


We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this translation of a very important article that describes the nature of modern Russian governance. It is written by one of Vladimir Putin’s close advisors who is a political expert of considerable stature. It has been widely (though rather toothlessly) reviled in Western press (as well wannabe-Western Russian liberal press) but without quoting the source, which I have only yesterday translated into English. The author definitely hit a nerve by demolishing the Western democratic system of “checks and scoundrels” with its illusion of choice and its ever-vigilant deep state.

Putin’s Lasting State

Vladislav Surkov
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The Future of Energy is Bright, Part III: Radiophobia


Over the past few months I have been immersing myself in nuclear technology in order to understand its implications for the future of energy. It is an important topic because the future of energy is the future of civilization: if a replacement for fossil fuel energy cannot be found, then there will be no more civilization. Going back to burning firewood will just mean that there will be no more trees either. If you think that wind generators and solar panels are the answer, these can’t be built or maintained without fossil fuels.

This is a rather difficult topic to discuss because of all the confusion sown by various “deniers”: peak oil deniers, climate change deniers, debt bomb deniers… There are also vain hopes being sown by technophiles who think that the advent of nuclear fusion is just around the corner or who dream about giant mirrors in space, the hydrogen economy or some other form of nonexistent technology. To make this topic easier to discuss, I will make certain assumptions. I will assume that nonexistent technology… doesn’t exist, so there is nothing to discuss. Please take your fusion reactors, thorium reactors, space mirrors and magic perpetual motion engines elsewhere. I am only interested in existing, proven technologies that can be scaled up.

I will also assume that fossil fuels are exceedingly abundant but too expensive and too energy-demanding to keep getting out of the ground at anything like the current rate. The vast majority of fossil fuel-producing nations are past their peak production. US shale oil and gas production is a transient money-waster, to the tune of $300 billion so far. There are a couple of dates to remember: conventional oil production peaked in 2005-6; diesel production seems to have peaked in 2017.

Lastly, I will assume that climate change is real and accelerating, is largely caused by the human burning of fossil fuels (and cow farts) and will cause tremendous death and suffering, and that this makes the continued and increasing use of fossil fuels a really dumb idea. These are the assumptions I make at the outset and there will be no further discussion of them here; if you don’t wish to accept them, then this article may not be for you.

Lots of people seem convinced that some combination of renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro and biomass—will be able to replace fossil fuels. They are wrong. Hydro is already in full use and limited. Wind and solar are intermittent and therefore need to be fully backed up by a variable on-demand energy source such as natural gas. Biomass is also in full use and needed to continue growing food, fodder and building materials. The recent surge in installed wind and solar generation capacity has been made possible by generous government subsidies and by the fact that Chinese manufacturers had been subsidizing solar panel production (they aren’t any more). Even with these subsidies, in the countries with the largest installed base of wind and solar the electricity rates have shot up considerably as a result, as has their use of natural gas.

This leaves nuclear power. It certainly is powerful: a kilogram of nuclear fuel will generate something like 14,000,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. At $0.12 per (which is the US average) the value is around $1,600,000 per kilogram of fuel which only costs $1,400 a kilo, leaving $1,598,600 for building and running the nuclear installation and the power grid. Environmental damage from nuclear power technology, even with a few meltdowns included, is considerably less than from fossil fuels. The two death tolls are simply incomparable: tens to hundreds of millions dead from fossil fuels and a few thousand from nuclear contamination and radiation exposure, most of which came from nuclear weapons testing.

To be sure, there are some serious problems with nuclear power. One is that its share of overall energy production is quite small—4%, behind hydro with 7% but far ahead of all renewables combined at 2%. Another is that a key resource—uranium—is in rather short supply and the fissionable isotope of uranium—U-235—is in even shorter supply. The US is only 11% self-sufficient in nuclear fuel and has been getting half of it from Russia, while along the east coast of the US nuclear power plants produce 40% of electricity and the electric grid cannot function without them. Yet another problem is that the technical challenges of nuclear waste handling and reprocessing have proven too much for many countries, and they simply allow spent fuel—the most dangerous byproduct of nuclear energy—to accumulate at power plants.

Finally, there is the issue of lost competence: all of the nuclear nations except three—Russia, China and South Korea—appear to have lost the ability to build new nuclear power plants. Japan’s nuclear program has been in disarray since Fukushima. The US has a hundred reactors that are aging out but just a couple of ongoing new projects with uncertain completion dates. Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear industry entirely while France’s aging reactors are not being replaced, with just three projects (one in Finland) taking a very long time and resulting in gigantic cost overruns. The UK has had a disastrous experience with privatizing its nuclear industry and has basically ended up handing it over to the French, but the future of this relationship is uncertain because of Brexit. In short, all over the West (plus Japan) the nuclear industry is in disarray or moribund. Around two-thirds of all new nuclear power projects are being executed by Russia’s Rosatom, which also processes around half of all nuclear fuel in the world and has a complete lock on certain key pieces of nuclear technology. These facts cause severe mental difficulties for the political establishment in the US and they go through painful contortions to avoid mentioning Russia in this context.

But the biggest issue with nuclear power is radiophobia. People tend to conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. They can’t tell the difference between radiation and nuclear contamination. All of the above give them the heebie-jeebies and cause them to stand around protesting holding up “No nukes!” signs. Sometimes that’s warranted; certain people lack the necessary aptitude and expertise to make safe use of nuclear technology and should resist the urge to do so. It’s just not a good idea for them; nor is handing a hand-grenade to a monkey. But there is evidence that nuclear technology can be handled safely. There is also plenty of evidence of the high deterrent value of nuclear weapons while the dangers of nuclear proliferation have not been manifested. With one very important exception (the US) nuclear weapons have only been used as defensive weapons of a peculiar sort: their proper use is for them not to be used at all. Yes, the harm potential of nuclear technology is very high, but its probability is very low, and the product of the two is orders of magnitude lower than the evident harm from burning fossil fuels.

In order to be able to intelligently discuss nuclear technology one has to have some background in physics and chemistry and at least a rudimentary understanding of national and international security, defense technology and power grids. None of this is required if the goal is to cause people to fear nuclear technology—because it is truly awesome. It is much more awesome than electricity, which most people don’t understand either. Primitive peoples have tended to think that lightning consists of lightning bolts thrown by a god in anger; supposedly non-primitive people are loath to think that this is the case, but they mostly don’t know what to think instead. (If you do, please draw me a diagram that explains how lightning is created.)

Getting zapped by lightning is scary enough, but when people hear that nuclear bombs can destroy all life on Earth (not really, but they can definitely ruin your whole day) that’s pretty much all they need to know and are now scared of all things nuclear. At least the lightning bolts are visible, while radiation mostly isn’t (you’ll start seeing sparks or snow with your eyes closed if gamma radiation is strong enough, in which case you should get the hell out of there pronto).

Most people know that radiation can give them cancer, and invisible things that can kill you are definitely the stuff of nightmares, although what gives most people cancer is not radiation but perfectly legal products of the fossil fuel industry and the chemical industry. Just think of all the chemicals you can buy at a hardware store that carry warning labels about their carcinogenic effects. Unlike carcinogenic chemicals and air pollution, radiation can also be good for you. It can cure cancer (or at least send it into remission). If you are perfectly healthy, you still need radiation—solar radiation—in order for your skin to generate vitamin D, without which your immune system will weaken, you will become lethargic and depressed, your bones will become fragile and your hair will fall out. But if you lay in the sun too long you’ll burn your skin and increase your chances of developing skin cancer.

Also, you cannot escape being exposed to radiation because it is absolutely everywhere. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and it will emit infrared photons, which are a form of electromagnetic radiation—a very nice form of radiation, nice and warm. But if a welder takes off his mask and looks at a fresh weld while it’s still glowing orange, slightly higher-energy infrared photons will give him a nasty headache. Similarly, a little bit of radiation in the 12mm wavelength—the kind used in microwave ovens—won’t do anything, but a lot of it will cook you until you are crispy. The nastiest kinds of electromagnetic radiation—shortest-wavelength and most energetic—is X-rays and gamma rays because they can cause damage to the molecules in your body. If there is too much damage then it becomes irreparable and you become horribly sick and die.

And so you see it’s all a matter of dosage. People who spend many hours a day with a cell phone clapped to their faces may have a higher likelihood of developing brain cancer (evidence is still inconclusive). But people who pick their noses all day every day probably have a higher likelihood of developing nose cancer—you haven’t thought of that, have you? It’s very helpful to know how much radiation exposure you are getting, and of what sort, because just generally fearing radiation makes you a radiophobic nutcase. Being afraid of nuclear power plants because they are radioactive is just plain stupid. If there is one place where everyone is acutely aware of radiation and its risks, it’s a nuclear power plant. In fact, you usually get a lower dose of radiation standing inside a nuclear reactor containment building with the reactor running at full power than you would spending the same amount of time standing outside under the open sky being bombarded by solar radiation and other space rays.

Nuclear science is as close as humans have come to actual real-world alchemy. Medieval alchemists searched for philosopher’s stone that could transmogrify lead into gold. Well, nuclear scientists have figured out how to transmute elements, although it turns out to be much easier to turn gold into lead than vice versa, and in either case it’s a huge waste of energy. What’s not a waste of energy is transmuting uranium into plutonium. You can take uranium containing 0.7% of the useful U-235 isotope, enrich it to 3-5% U-235, put it in a reactor, generate lots of steam and electricity, and what you get at the end is something that contains 0.7% of equally useful plutonium (plus a lot of other, nasty radioactive junk that takes a long time to cool down and become safe). And if it’s a fast neutron “breeder” reactor (which only Rosatom has managed to figure out) then the amount of plutonum you get out is a multiple of the amount of U-235 that went in.

Some fear of nuclear technology is certainly called for—not of the technology itself but of human error in making use of it. In this regard, the biggest, most dangerous human errors have been made not by nuclear engineers or technicians but by citizens who consent to being ruled by narcissistic homicidal sociopaths for whom nuclear technology offers excellent opportunities to achieve their nefarious aims and to generally strengthen their stranglehold on society by threatening nuclear attacks and by staging nuclear accidents. Since nuclear attacks are strictly suicidal moves, they never move beyond mere threats; not so with nuclear accidents.

If you look carefully, at the three largest and most famous nuclear accidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima—they look like accidents in the same sense that a person who stabs himself through the heart from the back several times over several days can be deemed a suicide. Rather, they look like meticulously planned special operations involving officials at the highest levels and designed to achieve very specific (formerly) secret aims. They share the common signature of being contrived so that the allegation of them being carried out on purpose by those whose job was to prevent them is sufficiently outrageous to make it unthinkable for the vast majority, making it possible to paint the minority who do manage to see through the deception as “conspiracy theorists” (a thought-stopper derogatory term invented for just this purpose). I will discuss these three “accidents” with regard to means, motive, opportunity and modus operandi in this Thursday’s post.

QUIDNON: Frame Joinery Redux


Although most of the problems with hull structure have already been solved, there remained one problem that stood in the way of completing the design: how to join together the frame. It consists of 4×4 softwood (fir) timbers (3.5×3.5 finished size) combined into a box structure that reinforces the bottom the deck, the bow and the transom and provides support for mast steps. After working out a design that included a dozen different steel brackets that had to be custom-fabricated at considerable expense, I realized that I don’t like it at all: too complicated and too expensive. And so, as usual, I sat back and waited for some new ideas to filter in from the ether.


RIP INF Treaty: Russia’s Victory, America’s Waterloo


On March 1, 2018 the world learned of Russia’s new weapons systems, said to be based on new physical principles. Addressing the Federal Assembly, Putin explained how they came to be: in 2002 the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At the time, the Russians declared that they will be forced to respond, and were basically told “Do whatever you want.”

And so they did, developing new weapons that no anti-ballistic missile system can ever hope to stop. The new Russian weapons include one that is already on combat duty (Kinzhal), one that is being readied for mass production (Avangard) and several that are currently being tested (Poseidon, Burevestnik, Peresvet, Sarmat). Their characteristics, briefly, are as follows:

• Kinzhal: a hypersonic air-launched cruise missile that flies at Mach 10 (7700 miles per hour) and can destroy both ground installations and ships.

• Avangard: a maneuverable hypersonic payload delivery system for intercontinental ballistic missiles that flies at better than Mach 20 (15300 miles per hour). It has a 740-mile range and can carry a nuclear charge of up to 300 kilotons.

• Poseidon: an autonomous nuclear-powered torpedo with unlimited range that can travel at a 3000-foot depth maintaining a little over 100 knots.

• Burevestnik: a nuclear-powered cruise missile that flies at around 270 miles per hour and can stay in the air for 24 hours, giving it a 6000-mile range.

• Peresvet: a mobile laser complex that can blind drones and satellites, knocking out space and aerial reconnaissance systems.

• Sarmat: a new heavy intercontinental missile that can fly arbitrary suborbital courses (such as over the South Pole) and strike arbitrary points anywhere on the planet. Because it does not follow a predictable ballistic trajectory it is impossible to intercept.

The initial Western reaction to this announcement was an eerie silence. A few people tried to convince anyone who would listen that this was all bluff and computer animation, and that these weapons systems did not really exist. (The animation was of rather low quality, one might add, probably because Russian military types couldn’t possibly imagine that slick graphics, such as what the Americans waste their money on, would make Russia any safer.) But eventually the new weapons systems were demonstrated to work and US intelligence services confirmed their existence.

Forced to react, the Americans, with the EU in tow, tried to cause public relations scandals over some unrelated matter. Such attempts are repeated with some frequency. For instance, after the putsch in the Ukraine caused Crimea to go back to Russia there was the avalanche of hysterical bad press about Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which the Americans had shot down over Ukrainian territory with the help of Ukrainian military.

Similarly, after Putin’s announcement of new weapons systems, there was an eruption of equally breathless hysterics over the alleged “Novichok” poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. A couple of Russian tourists, if you recall, were accused of poisoning Skripal by smearing some toxic gas on the doorknob of his house some time after he left it never to return. Perhaps such antics made some people feel better, but opposing new, breakthrough weapons systems by generating fake news does not an adequate response make.

Say what you will about the Russian response to the US pulling out of the ABM treaty, but it was adequate. It was made necessary by two well-known facts. First, the US is known for dropping nuclear bombs on other countries (Hiroshima, Nagasaki). It did so not in self-defense but just to send a message to the USSR that resistance would be futile (a dumb move if there ever was one). Second, the US is known to have repeatedly planned to destroy the USSR using a nuclear first strike. It was prevented from carrying it out time and again, first by a shortage of nuclear weapons, then by the development of Soviet nuclear weapons, then by the development of Soviet ICBMs.

Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” was an attempt to develop a system that would shoot down enough Soviet ICBMs to make a nuclear first strike on the USSR winnable. This work was terminated when Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December, 1987. But then when Bush Jr. pulled out of the ABM treaty in 2002 it was off to the races again. Last year Putin declared that Russia has won: the Americans can now rest assured that if they ever attack Russia the result will be their complete, guaranteed annihilation, and the Russians can rest secure in the knowledge that the US will never dare to attack them.

But that was just the prelude. The real victory happened on February 2, 2019. This day will be remembered as the day when the Russian Federation decisively defeated the United States in the battle for Eurasia—from Lisbon to Vladivostok and from Murmansk to Mumbai.

So, what did the Americans want, and what did they get instead? They wanted to renegotiate the INF treaty, revise some of the terms and expand it to include China. Announcing that the US is suspending the INF treaty, Trump said: “I hope we\’re able to get everybody in a big, beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better…” By “everybody” Trump probably meant the US, China and Russia.

Why the sudden need to include China? Because China has an entire arsenal of intermediate-range weapons with a range of 500-5500 (the ones outlawed by the INF treaty) pointed at American military bases throughout the region—in South Korea, Japan and Guam. The INF treaty made it impossible for the US to develop anything that could be deployed at these bases to point back at China.

Perhaps it was Trump’s attempt to practice his New York real-estate mogul’s “art of the deal” among nuclear superpowers, or perhaps it’s because imperial hubris has rotted the brains of just about everyone in the US establishment, but the plan for renegotiating the INF treaty was about as stupid as can be imagined:

1. Accuse Russia of violating the INF treaty based on no evidence. Ignore Russia’s efforts to demonstrate that the accusation is false.

2. Announce pull-out of the INF treaty.

3. Wait a while, then announce that the INF treaty is important and essential. Condescendingly forgive Russia and offer to sign a new treaty, but demand that it include China.

4. Wait while Russia convinces China that it should do so.

5. Sign the new treaty in Trump’s “big, beautiful room.”

So, how did it actually go? Russia instantly announced that it is also pulling out of the INF treaty. Putin ordered foreign minister Lavrov to abstain from all negotiations with the Americans in this matter. He then ordered defense minister Shoigu to build land-based platforms for Russia’s new air and ship-based missile systems—without increasing the defense budget. Putin added that these new land-based systems will only be deployed in response to the deployment of US-made intermediate-range weapons. Oh, and China announced that it is not interested in any such negotiations. Now Trump can have his “big, beautiful room” all to himself.

Why did this happen? Because of the INF treaty, for a long time Russia has had a giant gaping hole in its arsenal, specifically in the 500-5500 km range. It had air-launched X-101/102s, and eventually developed the Kalibr cruise missile, but it had rather few aircraft and ships—enough for defense, but not enough to guarantee that it could reliably destroy all of NATO. As a matter of Russia’s national security, given the permanently belligerent stance of the US, it was necessary for NATO to know that in case of a military conflict with Russia it will be completely annihilated, and that no air defense system will ever help them avoid that fate.

If you look at a map, you will find that having weapons in the 500-5500 km range fixes this problem rather nicely. Draw a circle with a 5500 km radius around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad; note that it encompasses every single NATO country, North Africa and Middle East. The IMF treaty was not necessarily a good deal for Russia even when it was first signed (remember, Gorbachev, who signed it, was a traitor) but it became a stupendously bad deal as NATO started to expand east. But Russia couldn’t pull out of it without triggering a confrontation, and it needed time to recover and rearm.

Already in 2004 Putin announced that “Russia needs a breakthrough in order to have a new generation of weapons and technology.” At the time, Americans ignored him, thinking that Russia could fall apart at any moment and that they will be able to enjoy Russian oil, gas, nuclear fuel and other strategic commodities for free forever even as the Russians themselves go extinct. They thought that even if Russia tried to resist, it would be enough to bribe some traitors—like Gorbachev or Yeltsin—and all would be well again.

Fast-forward 15 years, and is that what we have? Russia has rebuilt and rearmed. Its export industries provide for a positive trade balance even in absence of oil and gas exports. It is building three major export pipelines at the same time—to Germany, Turkey and China. It is building nuclear generating capacity around the world and owns a lion’s share of the world’s nuclear industry. The US can no longer keep the lights on without Russian nuclear fuel imports. The US has no new weapons systems with which to counter Russia’s rearmament. Yes, it talks about developing some, but all it has at this point are infinite money sinks and lots of PowerPoint presentations. It no longer has the brains to do the work, or the time, or the money.

Part of Putin’s orders upon pulling out of the INF treaty was to build land-based medium-range hypersonic missiles. That’s a new twist: not only will it be impossible to intercept them, but they will reduce NATO’s remaining time to live, should it ever attack Russia, from minutes to seconds. The new Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo was mentioned too: even if an attack on Russia succeeds, it will be a Pyrrhic one, since subsequent 100-foot nuclear-triggered tsunamis will wipe clean both coasts of the United States for hundreds of miles inland, effectively reducing the entire country to slightly radioactive wasteland.

Not only has the US lost its ability to attack, it has also lost its ability to threaten. Its main means of projecting force around the world is its navy, and Poseidon reduces it to a useless, slow-moving pile of scrap steel. It would take just a handful of Poseidons quietly shadowing each US aircraft carrier group to zero out the strategic value of the US Navy no matter where in the world it is deployed.

Without the shackles of the INF treaty, Russia will be able to fully neutralize the already obsolete and useless NATO and to absorb all of Europe into its security sphere. European politicians are quite malleable and will soon learn to appreciate the fact that good relations with Russia and China are an asset while any dependence on the US, moving forward, is a huge liability. Many of them already understand which way the wind is blowing.

It won’t be a difficult decision for Europe’s leaders to make. On the one pan of the scale there is the prospect of a peaceful and prosperous Greater Eurasia, from Lisbon to Vladivostok and from Murmansk to Mumbai, safe under Russia’s nuclear umbrella and tied together with China’s One Belt One Road.

On the other pan of the scale there is a certain obscure former colony lost in the wilds of North America, imbued with an unshakeable faith in its own exceptionalism even as it grows ever weaker, more internally conflicted and more chaotic, but still dangerous, though mostly to itself, and run by a bloviating buffoon who can’t tell the difference between a nuclear arms treaty and a real estate deal. It needs to be quietly and peacefully relegated to the outskirts of civilization, and then to the margins of history.

Trump should keep his own company in his “big, beautiful room,” and avoid doing anything anything even more tragically stupid, while saner minds quietly negotiate the terms for an honorable capitulation. The only acceptable exit strategy for the US is to quietly and peacefully surrender its positions around the world, withdraw into its own geographic footprint and refrain from meddling in the affairs of Greater Eurasia.