Archive for June, 2021

Biden\'s Big Ask


The much talked about the US-RF summit in Geneva came and went and yet no commentator so far has ventured to ask a very simple and very necessary question: What was Biden there to ask?

We know that the American side asked for this meeting while the Russians merely agreed, seeing in it a risk-free chance to clear the air and perhaps restore a modicum of international cooperation on key issues such as cybersecurity. Negotiating some major new agreement with the Americans was never the plan: the Russians have decided some time ago that the American side is nedogovorosposóbnaya—non-agreement-capable. If the Americans don\’t honor the treaties they have already signed, such as the intermediate-range missile treaty or the open skies treaty, what is the point of entering into more agreements with them—for them to also not honor?

On the other hand, a tête-à-tête with Putin was by no means a risk-free endeavor for Biden. The American body public has managed to paint itself into the corner of demanding that its president be \”tough on Russia\” \”Nobody was tougher on Russia than me,\” quoth Trump recently from the sidelines. Indeed, right after his confab with Putin Biden found himself confronting screechy journalists declaring him at fault for not extracting a confession from Putin for things Putin hadn\’t done. There is an entire litany of nonsense that Biden was required to recite—the Skripal and Navalny attempted murder, election meddling, hacking attacks, etc.—all unproven and therefore all nonsense—and to all of them the Russians react with a typical Russian gesture of twisting their index fingers at their temples, indicating that the ones who spout such nonsense are non compos mentis. That was a no-win situation for Biden, and yet he took the risk. What for? What was the big prize for him?

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The Technosphere chokes on a chip


The technosphere, which I defined in my 2016 book Shrinking the Technosphere as a nonhuman global emergent intelligence driven by an abstract teleology of total control, has seen its interests greatly advanced in the course of the 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic, with large parts of human populations forced to submit to control measures that made a mockery of their vaunted human rights and democratic values. This is as expected: the technosphere\’s most potent technologies are its killing technologies, and the way it goes about using them reflects its profound hatred for all living things, especially the willful and hard to control ones. But then the technosphere started to shrink—in certain locales. It is still going strong in others, but it not to early to imagine (dare I say, predict?) how it might continue shrink and what the consequences are going to be.

In my book, I described the reasons why and the methods how we should avoid becoming trapped under the inert hulk of the technosphere. I even provided a worksheet which readers could use to track their progress in freeing themselves from the technosphere\’s clutches. This was, as was to be expected, to no avail. The only how-to books in this world are cookbooks; the rest are read mainly for entertainment—first alone and, later, at cocktail parties. And the purpose of writing them is to make a bit of extra money to pay baby-sitters (at least it was in my case at the time).

To understand what seems likely to unfold, have to first delve into the technosphere\’s ontology: what does its emergent intelligence software it run on? It turns out that, seen as a network operating system, it runs partially on human brains but mostly on various microchips, with a wide assortment of optical, electromagnetic and mechanical sensors attached. Although humans still (think that) they exercise a modicum of control over the technosphere, it is the technosphere\’s natural tendency to take control away from humans even unto life-and-death decisions, as evidenced by a recent event in Libya where an unmanned military aircraft autonomously made the decision to kill someone. And exercising control requires control circuitry.

Having had successful careers as an electronics engineer and then as a software engineer, I am something of a walking, talking museum of automation technology, and can take you on a brief tour of its development. The dumbest control element is the light switch. It has no memory and it decides nothing. The next slightly less stupid control element is a toggle: it remembers whether the light is on or off and when pushed turns it off or on, respectively. This is already surprisingly far along: to build a computer, we need just a few more elements. We need a threshold switch with two buttons, which, depending on what you want, turns the light on when either button is pushed (called an \”or gate\”) or when both buttons are pushed (called an \”and gate\”). We also need a \”not\”: something that turns the light off when actuated. Finally, we need an actuator; instead of turning on a light bulb, all of these elements should be able to push each others\’ buttons. And now we are off to the races!

All of the above can be implemented out of any number of mechanical components: mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, but none of these were particularly practical for automating control functions. The advent of electric circuits made possible the use of electromechanical components, enabling the great breakthrough that was Strowger switch, patented in 1891. It replaced the human telephone switchboard operator: instead of turning a crank and saying \”Number 17, please!\” one simply turned the rotary dial, first to 1, then to 2, resulting in a click, a pause, and then 7 rapid-fire clicks (two-digit phone numbers were the limit at the time, limiting a telephone exchange to 99 subscribers).

This system went on for a surprisingly long time. In the mid-1970s I found myself in a hotel room in Italy that was equipped with a rotary-dial phone that had a dainty little padlock on the dial to prevent guests from dialing out. But I needed to make a phone call to Russia, so I tapped out the entire long-distance number on the hook. After all, the rotary dial just actuates an interrupt switch wired in sequence with the hook.

The evolution of control circuits went from electromechanical (based on solenoids and relays) to vacuum tube-based (consisting of vacuum tube switches and ferrite cores for forming memory cells) to discrete transistor-based, to early integrated circuits (a few hundred to a few thousand transistors on a chip) and eventually to modern large-scale integrated circuits, with a recent record set by Samsung\’s 1 terabyte eUFS (3D-stacked) V-NAND flash memory chip, with 2 trillion floating-gate MOSFETs (4 bits per transistor). Don\’t worry if you don\’t understand what this means; just remember that it\’s damned impressive—because it is. But therein lies the danger. The race to build more and more powerful chips may be heading toward a cliff.

At this point just about anything—cars, washing machines, water heaters, internet routers…—has control circuits on it, all of them based on microchips. In turn, these microchips are made in gigantic factories costing several billion dollars to build. Because economies of scale are only achievable by concentrating production, each microchip is generally made at just one factory. To maintain a competitive advantage, microchips are not interchangeable. In turn, every device design that includes microchips (which by now most of them do) can only be built if every single microchip it uses is available. If that is not the case, then what is required is a very expensive redesign process to replace that one chip with another one. Often this is not economically feasible, meaning that production lines are simply shut down until all of the needed components become available.

We have already had warnings. A tsunami in Japan in 2011 drove up prices for certain computer memory chips, more than half of which were produced in Japan. A flood in Thailand caused a shortage of voltage regulators, halting car production lines around the world. And now, after a year of coronavirus emergency, there is a dire shortage of chips because of shutdowns at semiconductor factories around the world. So far Covid-19 has killed 3.75 million people worldwide, which is around 0.047% of the world\’s population, adding less than 5% to the normal 0.7% annual death rate. Now that multiple vaccines are available (Russia\’s Sputnik-V alone has been approved for use in over 65 countries) and protocols in place around the world for rapidly detecting limiting the spread of any new contagions, a reprise seems unlikely.

What does seem likely (and is already observable in many places around the world) is severe economic dislocation. Coronavirus-motivated shutdowns have caused supply chain disruptions around the world, specifically in the semiconductor industry, causing many production lines to be idled. And then come the knock-on effects. Stoppages on car production lines caused new car prices to increase. In turn, this forced rental car companies to charge more. In turn, this caused many tourists to reconsider their travel plans, causing rental car revenues to plummet, causing them to buy fewer new cars when production resumes, making it more difficult for automakers to recoup their losses.

The once expected V-shaped post-coronavirus recovery has failed to materialize; instead, what we are seeing is the onset of hyperinflation. For the very highly indebted governments, mostly in the West but also elsewhere, the standard remedy of fighting inflation by cutting spending while raising interest rates is no longer available because even a slight increase in interest rates will render them unable to pay the interest on their debt except by printing even more money, further driving up inflation.

But such knock-on effects are economic and financial; the worst ones will be physical, and will manifest themselves in the inability to maintain various life support systems that control the delivery of water, electricity, fuel, food, drugs and other essentials. Over the past decades systems that were previously operated based on paper schedules and manual operations (turning valves and flipping knife switches) have become automated, making them more efficient (in a limited sense) but much more fragile.

The electronic control systems are a layer cake of technologies. At its base are servers sitting in racks inside data centers and client systems with display screens and keyboards in the control rooms. On top of that hardware run operating systems. On top of operating systems run integrated development environments used to develop process automation tools. Finally, the process automation tools allow system integrators to configure control systems by graphically dragging-and-dropping and linking system components such as actuators and sensors and define rules and configuration parameters for their operation. Knock out any bit of any layer and the entire fragile, precarious Rube Goldberg stops functioning. The inability to replace any of these components when it fails with a compatible unit—be it a single sensor, a router or a server, forces at least a part of the entire system to shut down. And if that replacement cannot be found, then it remains down.

When looking around for a first casualty of collapse, the global semiconductor industry makes a strong candidate. It is very energy-hungry and extremely capital-intensive. It relies on a steady, reliable energy supply—wind and solar won\’t cut it because of their intermittency. It relies on the availability of highest-purity crystalline silicon and rare earth elements that are sourced from just a few places in the world, the main one being China. And it requires a highly disciplined and skilled workforce. The largest exporter of integrated circuits by far is China (Hong Kong and Taiwan included) followed by South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. The US is only the first in a long list of minor players in niche markets.

It seems natural to expect that, as the market conditions affecting the semiconductor industry continue to deteriorate while the demand for critical components needed to maintain vital infrastructure systems around the world continues unabated, China will be able to exert a disproportionate influence on the availability of these components. It is quite foreseeable that the Chinese Communist Party will see the semiconductor industry as strategically important and nationalize key parts of it, fashioning it into a tool of foreign policy. The United States will, of course, pretend to be doing something about this state of affairs, making for a noisy international environment, but will not be able to prevent access to semiconductor products from becoming rationed, with China in almost complete control of the arrangements.

These arrangements are likely to be enforced by China and Russia working in tandem. China is insular by nature and can in general either trade with other cultures or absorb them. The one exception in Russia, to which China now clings like a needy girlfriend. The symbiosis is a natural one: unlike China, Russia is the opposite of insular and can digest and appropriate entire foreign civilizations. This century they are Mongols; next, Germans; then the entire Russian imperial court starts speaking French; and now English is fashionable.

As Putin famously put it, \”The borders of the Russian Federation do not end anywhere.\” Unlike China, whose military is huge but untested in battle and uninterested in power projection, the Russians are a warrior culture that prides itself on its invincibility and that has made coercion to peace its specialty. Russia excels at building and operating huge energy, transportation and materials production systems which China needs and has the vast natural resources to continue operating them for centuries. Its fossil fuels will hold up for another half a century; after that, if all goes according to plan, it will switch to burning depleted uranium using its closed nuclear cycle technology, and there are a few thousand years\’ worth of it already stockpiled.

Faced with such major difficulties, the technosphere has not given up. Without filing a change of address form, it has quietly relocated and is now busy telecommuting between Moscow and Beijing. Those frisky boys at Davos and their James Bond villain wannabe Klaus Schwab are yet to get used to this turn of events. Putin and Xi have pretty much said this to their faces at their last virtual confab, but I don\’t think that the news has quite sunk in with them yet; let\’s give it time. The Germans seem to be quicker on the uptake than the rest, having understood that without Russian natural gas they would be nothing. The Americans seem to be the slowest; at this rate, it may take forever for the penny to drop. They may go down into the gurgling void all the while exclaiming that their Atlantis is not sinking!

Please buy my latest book, The Arctic Fox Cometh.

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Interview with Kevin Lynn of the Center for Populist Urban Politics



Kevin and I take a detailed look at my latest book, The Arctic Fox Cometh.

Putin fully agrees with me

\”The United States are making sure-footed strides directly along the path of the Soviet Union.\”
It\’s been 16 years since I published my article \”Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century.\” It was based on realizations I made a decade earlier, back in 1996, upon returning to the States after observing the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Since then I have been focused on what I saw as the main causes of collapse in both the Soviet and in the American case: exorbitant debt, problems in the energy sector and unreformable political systems mired in corruption, their elites delusional in their feelings of omnipotence. And now comes a truly eerie analogy: the powder keg that detonated under the USSR was ethnic nationalism and separatism; and the powder keg that is currently detonating under the US is \”woke\” (anti-)racism: another brand of ethnic fascism but with American characteristics.

That article opened with the following paragraph:

A decade and a half ago the world went from bipolar to unipolar, because one of the poles fell apart: The S.U. is no more. The other pole – symmetrically named the U.S. – has not fallen apart – yet, but there are ominous rumblings on the horizon. The collapse of the United States seems about as unlikely now as the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed in 1985.
At the time my message was perceived as being provocative but very far from the political mainstream thinking of the time. But the world has since caught up with me. The following quotes (translation mine) are from Vladimir Putin\’s address and the currently running St. Petersburg World Economic Forum.

Мы слышим угрозы, продолжающиеся из Конгресса, еще откуда-то. Все это делается в ходе внутриполитических процессов США. Вот люди, которые это делают, они исходят, видимо, из того, что мощь, экономическая, США, военная мощь, политическая, такова, что это не страшно, что это мы переживем, они думают

We are hearing threats coming out of US Congress and elsewhere. This is happening in the course of internal political processes within the USA. The people who make these threats are assuming, it would seem, that the power of the USA, its economic, military and political power, is such that this isn\’t serious, that they will survive this. That\’s what they think.

Вы знаете, в чем проблема, я вам расскажу как бывший гражданин бывшего Советского Союза. В чем проблема империй – им кажется, что они такие могущественные, что они могут позволить себе небольшие погрешности и ошибки. Этих купим, этих напугаем, с этими договоримся, этим дадим бусы, этим погрозим военными кораблями. И это решит проблемы. Но количество проблем нарастает. Наступает момент, когда с ними уже не справиться. И Соединенные Штаты уверенной поступью, уверенной походкой, твердым шагом идут прямо по пути Советского Союза.

But I\’ll tell you what the problem is, as a former citizen of the Soviet Union. The problem of empires is that they imagine themselves to be so powerful that they can allow themselves small miscalculations and errors. Some they\’ll bribe, some they\’ll scare, some they\’ll make a deal with, some they\’ll give glass beads, some they\’ll frighten with warships—and this will fix problems. But the number of problems continues to grow. There comes a moment when they can no longer cope with them. The United States are making sure-footed strides directly along the path of the Soviet Union.

It is one thing for such thoughts to be expressed by a little-known blogger; it is quite another for them to be voiced by the long-standing leader of a world superpower at a very prestigious and well-attended international forum. Those of you who have not been paying attention, or have but see the collapse of the USA as a somewhat whimsical, futuristic notion, need to pinch themselves.

If there is anything at all that you can do to prepare, your time is short. This is not a drill.

The Arctic Fox is at your door. 

The Order of the Arctic Fox



Why the Arctic Fox?

And wherefore cometh he?

There arise occasions in the course of human affairs that cannot be properly characterized without resorting to the strongest possible language. In situations when nothing can be made to work and all has come undone the term “collapse” tends to get a lot of use, but it is too abstract and too technical to do justice to the visceral experience of the event. It comes from the Latin col-labi—to slip together—but the exclamation “Goodness gracious, we slipped together!” just doesn\’t resonate.

What one is more likely to hear is something more along the lines of “Holy shit, we are totally fucked!” or some other string of obscene expletives, and this rather spoils the solemnity of the occasion. What is called for is a way to ennoble our suffering, not to cheapen it with vulgar expressions.

The connection between the sacred (that which is holy) and the sacral (that which is related to the pelvis and its varied functions) is a most intimate one. Both derive from sacrum, which is an anatomical term: it is the triangular bone in the lower back formed from fused vertebrae and situated between the two hipbones of the pelvis. The word is a Latin translation—os sacrum—of the Greek term—hieron osteon (holy bone)—for the Ancient Greeks believed the sacrum to be the seat of the soul. There may be something to this belief: when we suddenly realize that we may be about to die and as our soul makes emergency preparations to leave the body, we tend to experience a pronounced tingling sensation centered on the sacrum. The entire pelvis also tends to become affected: the anal sphincter relaxes, sometimes resulting in something vernacularly referred to as “losing one’s shit,” and, in men, the scrotum tightens and the testicles retract.

At that point many people also involuntarily utter sacrilegious profanities (there’s sacrum again!) which freely combine references to sex, defecation, genitalia, motherhood and God. Across many languages much use is made of vulgar terms for female genitalia: they form a sacred portal through which all human (and even some divine) life enters this world, and this makes references to them particularly potent in this context.

The holy and the obscene are really one and the same; swearing is a form of prayer and the female pelvis is the altar to which we spontaneously direct our prayers when we suddenly find ourselves in extremis. One often hears that there are no atheists to be found aboard a foundering ship but a lot of cursing/praying to be heard; are these two in some sense not the same?

The need to be vivid and evocative yet polite when referring to financial, commercial, political, social and cultural collapse forces people to resort to euphemisms. One nation that has a recent and profound of experience of collapse is Russia, having lost an estimated ten million people to alcoholism, violence, emigration and despair in the wake of the collapse of the USSR during the 1990s.

Referring to collapse, the Russians tend to make references to “the white furry animal,” thereby indirectly referring to the arctic fox, Vulpes lagopus. The Russian word for it is песец (peséts). It is a polite substitute for the term пиздец (pizdéts), which is reasonably well conveyed by the English exclamation “Holy shit, we are totally fucked!” It is in turn derived from the word пизда (pizdá), which is a vulgar term for female genitalia.

Take this white fluffy animal into your heart, and you will no longer have to wanly banter about collapse; instead, you can now harness the full depth of the sacred and the profane and refer to it as “the advent of the arctic fox” or, if you want to be coy and use a euphemism, you can instead obliquely mention “a certain furry animal.” Those in the know will appreciate this bit of finesse while those who have no idea… well, what of them?

Witnesses to the advent of the arctic fox need a sacred symbol, which I am happy to provide. In keeping with the light-hearted, whimsical nature of the subject, it is a talisman that symbolizes Golgotha, with four crosses rather than the usual three. One cross is, perforce, for Jesus Christ. At the center is the symbol of Death, which Christ vanquished through His resurrection. Two more crosses are for St. Petrov and St. Boshirov, the intrepid time-traveling GRU agents who will have had been crucified together with Jesus, cleverly disguised as the two thieves. And the fourth cross is for your own good self: on it you will be crucified during the advent of the arctic fox but will, with any luck, be reborn into a new life once the arctic fox departs.


Please order your copy of The Arctic Fox Cometh, available locally wherever has a foothold (now including Australia).

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