Archive for March, 2020

The Clay Machine Gun


“…[M]any thousands of years ago, long before Buddha Dīpankara and Buddha Shakyamuni came into the world, there lived Buddha Anāgāma. He didn’t waste time on explanations and just pointed at things with the pinkie of his left hand. Immediately their true nature was revealed. He would point at a mountain, and it would disappear. He would point at a river, and it too would vanish. It’s a long story, but the way it ended was this: he pointed his left pinkie at himself, and vanished. All that was left of him was his left pinkie, which his students hid in a lump of clay. The clay machine gun is that very lump of clay with the Buddha’s pinkie inside. A very long time ago there lived a man in India who tried to turn this lump of clay into the most terrible weapon on earth. But as soon as he drilled a hole in the clay, the pinkie pointed at him, and he vanished. Since then the pinkie has been kept in a locked chest and moved from place to place until it was lost in one of the Mongolian lamaseries…”

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CBRN: Surviving Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Events


The English-language edition of this very important book by Piero San Giorgio and Chris Millenium has just been released. Below is the preface to it, which I was happy to provide. Please spread the word of this book far and wide. It is a book that can save many lives.

We live in a dangerous world, and it is constantly being made even more dangerous by technological developments, many of which bring with them unintended consequences which technology is often powerless to remedy. It is made even more dangerous by our inability to sense the dangers: our senses are poorly adapted to detecting chemical contaminants, and we are utterly helpless when it comes to sensing radioactivity or radioactive contamination. As far as the threat of microscopic pathogens, the ability of our immune systems to fight them off has been compromised, paradoxically, by good hygiene and the use of antibacterial soaps and antibiotics.

These dangers are multiplied by other risks our world faces, now and in the future. The continued safety of a great many of our industrial technologies—the ones that handle radioactive, toxic and virulent substances and organisms—rests on the presupposition of continued social stability. In the case of long-lived radionuclides such as uranium and plutonium, the period of social stability that would be required to keep them secure and isolated from the environment needs to span thousands of years, yet history teaches us that human civilizations don\’t ever last that long. When a civilization collapses, what normally follows is a dark age, during which populations crash, learning and even basic literacy become rare, population centers are abandoned and the few survivors discover for themselves how to subsist at a much more primitive level that does not include high technology.

When will this happen? Well, don\’t look now, but we are living through a time when nation-states are becoming defunct at an ever-increasing rate, when millions of refugees are roaming the planet, and when the financial systems that underpin the continued existence of the entire project of global industrial civilization are in such a state of disrepair that central banks are forced to resort to truly bizarre tricks, such as the imposition of negative interest rates coupled with boundless emission of money. What cannot continue forever generally doesn\’t, and we should not ignore the distinct possibility that we or our children will have to live through a period of great uncertainty, confusion and chaos.

But whatever should happen, all of us wish to lead happy, healthy, sane, fulfilling lives, and wish the same for our children. None of this will be possible unless we have peace of mind. But knowing that the prospects for our continued well-being are uncertain, we are filled with anxiety. Some of this anxiety results from learned helplessness and willful ignorance: we have been trained to trust the experts with ensuring our well-being and not try to second-guess them too much. But where will these experts be if the cities succumb to mob rule and become too unsafe to go near? To overcome our anxiety, we need to learn what the risks are, and be prepared to address them.

This book describes those risks which we are the least able to address using our commonsense, our perceptions and our instincts. They are the domain of technical experts, and without some special know-how and some specialized equipment we are completely helpless before them. Never mind being able to address them, in most cases we are not even able to detect their presence! But by working through this book, and by making a small investment in safety and detection equipment—which may be too much for a family, but is quite possible at the scale of even a small community—we can conquer our anxiety and regain the ability to lead fulfilling lives.

The threats are many, but perhaps the largest threat of all is simple human panic. When people are falling ill and nobody knows the reason, society can fall apart quite suddenly. But panic can be prevented if a few people have the information and can tell the others what is happening and what they should do or not do. You too can become one of these few people.

And so, don\’t panic—read this book!

Bat-eating Troglodytes of Wuhan


[Warning: Anyone who makes racist remarks about bat-eating troglodytes shall be banned.]

The year was 2040, and the global coronavirus pandemic was in its 20th year. A young couple was on a date, walking together. They did not hold hands, embrace or kiss but maintained a distance of at least one meter between them and wore eye protection and face masks, as prescribed by law. It had been a long time since they were able to meet, because one or the other of them had a cough, or sniffles—a seasonal allergy, or perhaps a slight cold—and such symptoms made it necessary for them to exist in complete seclusion, their food and other necessities delivered by robots. Pale and weak after their lengthy period of isolation, they strolled and squinted in the bright sunlight, in the recently sanitized, secure space of the promenade, in full view of security cameras, and listened to the shrill high-pitched squeaks emitted by a loudspeaker system that were intended to scare away bats. They were at all times being chaperoned by AI software which sounded an alarm whenever they came too close to each other or, God forbid, actually touched.

The young couple had something important to discuss: they wanted to marry and have children, but were unsure if they could ever raise enough money for the lab tests on the sperm samples (to rule out viral contamination) and the artificial insemination procedure, made necessary by the prohibition against any direct, unsupervised sharing of bodily fluids. There was also the fear that the lab tests would produce a false positive or discover real viral contamination—an event that could result in them being committed to solitary confinement in a hospital that would last for as long as it took for them to be certified virus-free.

They were both young—born just as the pandemic hit. Having known no other life, they considered their situation and this way of living perfectly normal. What they had been taught about life before the pandemic filled them with horror: How could people have been so careless?—touching, not wearing face masks, walking close together, sharing bodily fluids… Clearly, they thought, given such recklessness, a pandemic is exactly what such people deserved! They were glad to be living in a more enlightened age.

To add to the horror, they knew that such recklessly unsanitary people still existed! Jokingly referred to as “the bat-eating troglodytes of Wuhan,” they dwelled outside the high concrete walls that surrounded the relatively coronavirus-free compounds, where they grew food and raised pigs and chickens. Since such activities inevitably exposed them to numerous potentially dangerous pathogens that are found in nature, they were considered highly contaminating, and all direct physical contact with them was strictly forbidden.

In spite of all these restrictions, it could be said that this young couple was happy, the way young couples in love often are regardless of various vicissitudes. But this couple was particularly happy because all of these precautions made them feel perfectly safe and protected. There were, however, some worrisome questions that cast a long shadow on their bliss. They did not dare to voice them, first because they were so uncomfortable that voicing them would instantly make their relationship awkward; and second because, if overheard by other people, they would consider even raising such questions to be something like a thought crime.

“What if the dreaded coronavirus didn’t actually exist? Or what if it had existed 20 years earlier, but had since burned itself out? Or what if the virus was still around but was no longer dangerous to anyone except the extremely sick, who would die anyway? What if there was no longer any real danger to motivate maintaining all of these various restrictions and precautions. What if they stayed in effect out of an increasingly irrational phobia that had become so ingrained that a wide range of compulsive behaviors and rituals became necessary to avoid triggering it? What if their obsession with hygiene was itself an illness?”

It would have been hard to tell whether the bat-eating troglodytes who dwelled outside the high-security perimeter were any happier. Their lives were shortened by lack of hygiene and good medical care, and once in a while some of them got wiped out, together with their flocks and herds, when a particularly virulent swine flu or avian flu would make a periodic appearance. On the plus side, it was unlikely that they spent much time or effort engaged in a wide range of compulsive behaviors to avoid contagion, or obsessing over whether such compulsive behaviors were justified.

The last constituency whose happiness we must perforce consider is, of course, the viruses. It is certain that our young couple and their cohort, what with their slavish adherence to extra-good hygiene, made viruses quite miserable, perhaps driving some of them to outright extinction. The troglodytes, on the other hand, probably made the viruses quite happy: instead of exterminating them, they naturally worked out a convivial arrangement with them. After all, what makes viruses happy is same as what makes all living things happy: being able to be fruitful and multiply. Making people feel too sick to go out in public is not really on strategy for a virus, although making people want to go out in public but cough and sneeze periodically is an excellent idea for a virus that wants to spread its progeny far and wide. Making people seriously ill, never mind killing them, is something that only the rudest, most undisciplined viruses do, usually because they are new at it, having recently made a jump from animals to humans. Luckily, viruses are reformable: we punish them by quarantining the sick and reward them by letting the healthy mix their bodily fluids.

This story is based on a plot for a film which Karen Shakhnazarov, head of Mosfilm studio, proposed last night, in an offhand, half-joking way, during a live television appearance on Vladimir Solovyov’s late night comedy program “What the fuck is wrong with the Ukrainians?” My preferred genre for telling Shakhnazarov’s proposed story would be as a musical comedy. Which role would you prefer to play? One of the young lovers, perhaps? The tension from the not being able to touch, setting off an alarm whenever they come any closer than one meter, would be delicious! Or would you prefer to join the merry troupe of troglodytes with their lively pantomime pigs and chickens coughing and sneezing up a storm? Or perhaps a more suitable role for you would be as one of the viruses? You would get to wear a corona (crown), sing in a chorus and also get to perform in one or two memorable song-and-dance numbers.

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Since I\’ve been asked (repeatedly) to comment on this topic, I will, but since I am not a public health expert I will keep it short and stick to what I know for certain.

As of this morning there have been 93 cases of individuals with COVID-19; five of them have recovered; 109939 individuals have been tested out of a total population of 145 million. That\’s 0.00006% of the population infected out of 0.075% tested. Most of those who have become infected with it experienced mild flu-like symptoms, or none at all. Zero patients have died.

The response has been quite thorough, with the goal of preventing an epidemic. Schools and many public venues are closed. Border crossings are closed. Citizens being repatriated from COVID-19 affected countries on charter flights all land at a single high-security airport terminal and are being tested and quarantined. Everyone affected who cannot work is given automatic paid sick leave. That\’s in Russia.

Overall, what people need to understand is that for most of them getting infected with this particular coronavirus (which is one out of many in circulation) would be a nonevent. This one is present in bats (which don\’t get sick from it) and was most likely spread to humans through accidental contact with bat guano.

Based on the experience in China, which has by now largely conquered this epidemic, some people—especially the elderly, the chronically ill and those who smoke—may develop shortness of breath, in which case putting them on oxygen can help. Out of these, some develop complications such as respiratory failure and sepsis and die within hours (without treatment) or days (with treatment). In them the virus impairs the immune response within the lungs, which then become infected with bacteria and/or fungi that are normally present elsewhere within their bodies or within their environment. Placing such patients in intensive care is a desperate measure that doesn\’t necessarily save them.

Of course, if you happen to live in a country that was about to collapse anyway, this coronavirus could very easily do it in, but so could any other cough or sneeze. The first stage of collapse, out of a total of five stages, is called…


Oh, and in case you are wondering, running out and stocking up on toilet paper in response to a coronavirus threat is a symptom of an entirely different disease which can very well turn out to be fatal. Most curiously, it seems to affect the cerebral cortex via the rectum.

When the Pot Boils Over


[Quando a panela ferve]

“A watched pot never boils,” an old saying goes. But does a watched empire never collapse? Hardly! All empires collapse eventually—no exceptions. Once an empire starts heading toward collapse, the watching can take quite a bit of time, especially if no new, rising empire is ready to take over. The event to watch for is when one collapse-related event immediately triggers the next, and the next. This tells us that a self-reinforcing collapse feedback loop has taken shape and that the process of collapse is picking up momentum—no longer driven by long-term trends but by an internal logic of its own, although certainly helped along by external shocks, some more significant than others.

A particularly significant shock to the system arrived just last week, on March 6, 2020. The system in question is the petrodollar system which has allowed the US to suck resources out of the rest of the world, keeping itself fed, clothed and fueled up simply by issuing debt. Why specifically focus of oil? In his excellent report “Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective” Simon Michaux writes: “Today, approximately 90% of the supply chain of all industrially manufactured products depend on the availability of oil-derived products, or oil-derived services.” Without oil nothing gets made and nothing moves. But oil is a finite, nonrenewable resource, and that’s the Achilles’ heel of an empire built primarily on controlling the international market for crude oil by issuing debt.

What happened last Friday is that the Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak declined to extend Russia’s agreement with OPEC, in effect since November 30, 2016, to limit production, keeping the price of oil from crashing while allowing shale oil producers in the US to increase production and, theoretically, take market share away from OPEC and Russia… except that neither OPEC nor Russia have enough spare capacity to significantly increase their market share in any case. This agreement will remain in effect until the end of March, and in response oil futures crashed immediately following the announcement, with the Brent benchmark currently priced at just $36.87/barrel, whereas at the end of last year it stood at nearly $70/barrel. Leading the way, Saudi Arabia announced that it is doing away with all voluntary constraints on production while granting discounts to its most important customers. Why do Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s decisions indicate the beginning of the end of the petrodollar? The answer to this question is well in hand but isn’t particularly widely known—yet—and, given how reticent and bashful Western media has become in divulging unwelcome news, perhaps never will be.

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