A Night at the Opera

June 4, 2023

The Ukraine war—or special military operation, if you ask the Kremlin—is in its second year, with the Ukrainian army now revealing that the spring offensive is imminent.

Spring in that part of the world is somewhat later than the ides of March—the temperature in Moscow will still go down to single digits today—but the next weeks will be interesting, to say the least.

The Russian invasion has been a disaster by any standard—only Putin and his henchmen claim otherwise—but the most fascinating aspect of the Russian ‘special operation’ has been the use of a private army, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin’s chef.

The Wagner group, possibly named after the military call sign of its founder, Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, brings to mind the Ride of the Valkyries, of Apocalypse Now fame, and the name of Hitler’s favorite composer—how’s that for pedigree?

Utkin himself is a treasure trove of irony—he was born in the Ukraine and is a Nazi sympathizer—wonderful in a context where the Russian narrative is that the special operation in his country of birth is being conducted to eliminate Ukrainian fascisti, or Фашисты.

As an aside, if you type an Italian or German word into Google, you mainly get results in your own language—in English if you use an Anglo-Saxon version of the search engine—but if you paste the Cyrillic above, you only get Cyrillic results. The same applies to Chinese, but for Japanese, Thai, and other alphabets, less so.

Wagner has been described as a mercenary organization, but that’s incorrect—it is effectively a despot’s private army, much like private armies that have existed since the days of Xenophon. For millennia, prisoners have exchanged their jail sentence for hardship in the king’s service.

But Wagner made a name for themselves both for fighting Russia’s proxy wars with (im)plausible Kremlin deniability and through atrocities committed in the field.

A recent UN report details the massacre of five hundred people in Mali, where Wagner is active. The Russians were choppered in and, together with the Malian army, rounded up the locals—women were raped and extra-judicial execution followed.

Wagner is active in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa, stepping up to help regimes struggling with armed opposition, variously described as terrorists, insurgents, or freedom fighters—take your pick. This Russian support, replacing what Western powers once did, along with preferential grain exports and other aid, is straight out of the Soviet playbook.

The other disruptive element of the Ukraine war are the drones.

From the start of the war, President Zelensky has been pushing for air power at fever-pitch, knowing that only by opposing Russia’s control of the skies was it possible to stop the incessant bombardments—without the air, power stations and hospitals could be destroyed, civilians could be terrorized… all pages out of the Soviet manuals and the Wagner aria.

Zelensky begged. NATO and its member states, in particular the USA, demurred.

The Ukrainians set up a domestic drone industry and the results have been wildly successful. Drones are bringing the pain back to Moscow and twisting the knife—upmarket Muscovites for whom this was a television war woke up recently to the sound of UUAVs (the first U is mine) buzzing Leninsky Prospekt.

An Ukranian engineer at a secret drone factory was asked this week about the range of the planes coming out of his factory and their ability to strike the invaders. He nodded with a wry smile.

“Moscow is only seven hundred and fifty kilometers away.”

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Chip Island

May 28, 2023

For over half a century, chips have been at the core of human development—for better and for worse.

For six million years—unless you’re of the creationist persuasion—humans marveled at the forces of nature surrounding them. Early man learned, as any animal does, that the sun provides heat and light and that rivers and rain provide water.

For over three hundred millennia, Homo sapiens has played with fire—it is possible that prior hominids did so also. Animals know fire as a natural phenomenon, and are rightly wary of its consequences—only humans have tamed it, and when untamed, found ways to fight it.

Water and heat are part of our environment and of our understanding—electricity is not.

The taming of electric currents began in the XIXth century, when men like Faraday and Volta discovered the connections between chemistry and electricity—prior to their work, electricity was thought to be a property only of living beings—a mysterious ‘humor’ that led to delivery of high voltage shocks by electric eels or allowed the operation of muscles in a frog’s legs.

Devices capable of switching (turning on and off) and amplifying electricity appeared at the start of the XXth century—they were cumbersome tubes, also known as valves—the first name related to their shape, the second to their function.

Until the middle of the last century they were the only game in town when it came to electronics. They were fussy, fiddly, and prone to breakdowns, and they found their way into radios, radar systems, phone switchboards, amplifiers, and computers.

Vacuum-tube (valve) computers were pretty horrendous. The ENIAC, built in 1945, blew a valve every two days—it took 15 minutes to find the culprit. Blown valves introduced errors in calculations.

Enter William Shockley, a brilliant but unpleasant character, and the inventor of the transistor—but before that, let me tell you that tubes are alive and well—starting with the name (YouTube). Electric guitarists are much divided on the merits of tube (raises hand) versus solid state—tube amps sound ‘warmer’, microwaves still have a tube inside them called a magnetron, and NASA uses valve electronics in space because transistors are damaged by cosmic rays.

The transistor was invented at Bell Labs, a hub of innovation in the digital world—both the C programming language and UNIX were invented there—and forever changed the world.

From the 1960s onward, the US ruled the world in the manufacture of ever smaller microchips—companies like Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor, Motorola, and Intel led the charge, steered by a princely posse—Jack Kilby, Bob Noyce, Andy Grove, and Gordon Moore.

The latter is famous for Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit board will double every two years. This can be expressed mathematically as a first order differential equation (dN/dt = kN, where N is the number of transistors, t is time, and k is a constant with a value of 0.346574), and if we apply this equation starting with one transistor at year zero, by year twenty we have 1024—I’m sure this is all written somewhere on the net, but I couldn’t find it.

When The Music’s Over—Artificial Intelligence generates a song called The Roads Are Alive a la Doors.

In essence, Moore’s law states everything gets better, which makes it the opposite of Murphy’s law. Of course, this doubling cannot last forever because miniaturization cannot by definition be endless—and we are now at the scale of nanometers—but Samsung and TSMC claim we’re still on track.

That’s a damn good run, but Moore’s law leads to a second law—I would say it’s a corollary (pendantic, moi?)—that states the capital cost for fabrication plants increases exponentially. Arthur Rock and Gordon Moore formulated the law as a doubling of plant costs every four years—in 2015, a semiconductor factory might typically cost fourteen billion dollars—equivalent to the GDP of Jamaica or North Korea.

But during the psychedelic sixties, something else was going on… the US semiconductor industry was busy migrating production to the Far East. First Hong-Kong, and then Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

Local workers earned far less money, and there were no unions to worry about. And the production quality was significantly better that in the States.

Taiwan and its gigantic semiconductor foundry TSMC are the world leaders. The total industry revenue in 2020 was 85 billion dollars (data from CNBC).

This is how the world looks now. Taiwan has the lion’s share of the fabrication market, and those chips literally drive the West—which explains the delays and price hikes in automobiles due to COVID-related supply-chain disruption.

From the point of view of national security, the smartest thing Taiwan ever did was become indispensable to US semiconductor supply—the river runs deep, and not just for Western consumers either—it runs right into the Pentagon.

This is why anyone who figures Taiwan will become part of mainland China anytime soon is dead wrong.

At a time when the Middle Kingdom and the United States are battling for supremacy, the Republic of China is a key strategic interest for both.

Xi Jin Ping may claim chip island will become part of China during his time in office, but he won’t pick that big a fight with the US.

For Uncle Sam, Taiwan is as American as Tennessee.

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C’est Chaud

May 14, 2023

Joseph Fourier, a giant of mathematics and physics, first described the concept in his book ‘Théorie analytique de la chaleur‘—Analytical Theory of Heat.

Fourier, who was a contemporary of Napoleon, published his book in 1822, just over two centuries ago, and opened the door to meteorology, oceanography, earth sciences, environmental sciences…

The sun is our primary source of heat, and without it no life could exist on our planet. However, if the earth’s temperature depended only on the sun, our planet would have a temperature around thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, or zero centigrade. Mars, for instance, has a surface temperature of -85 oF—permafrost.

Temperature on the surface of the planets in our solar system. Earth is the only one where water can exist in a liquid state and a carbon-based biosphere can survive (diagram from NASA).

Uncle Joseph concluded that our atmosphere was responsible for retaining heat and making this place livable—in other words, he discovered the greenhouse effect.

Although carbon emissions—associated with carbon dioxide—are what you hear about on the news, water is the most important greenhouse gas; the evaporation of water and the formation of clouds, and the atmospheric gases, together constitute our atmosphere.

When I was growing up, I wondered why there was snow on the mountains, but rivers and forests down below. Surely, the temperature increased as you went up, as you got closer to the sun? The fact there is snow on the mountaintops, i.e. closer to the sun, was enough for me to understand something else was going on. But what?

Fourier’s greenhouse—that’s what.

Like our own bodies, the atmosphere is a finely balanced, constantly changing system—it works like a pendulum: the more you swing it out, the quicker it comes back—in biology, that’s called homeostasis, from the Greek words ‘same’ and steady’.

The two gases that mainly make up the atmosphere, nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%), are not greenhouse gases—these are in the 0.1% of ‘other gases’: in order of importance, water vapor (clouds), carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone—four of these contain oxygen, and one contains nitrogen.

So the earth’s heat budget depends on a small part of the atmosphere—if the air we breathe was largely made up of greenhouse gases, we would all suffocate, which would quickly resolve climate change.

The origin of the big five gases—there’s a sixth called chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, but since it also destroys the ozone layer, it gets weird—is diverse: water vapor is universal, the excess CO2 comes mainly from fossil fuels, methane from cattle farts, and nitrous oxide from fertilizers.

  • When you have a diversity of causes, it’s difficult to apportion blame and settle on solutions.
  • When a problem is global and the change is not immediately obvious on the street, people will not change their ways.
  • When the contributions required are unequal, particularly in light of history—European and North American deforestation, or industrial development in the West—governments will not agree.

Finally, the signal to noise ratio of climate change is very low. This allows politicians, industry, and deniers to have a field day by confusing weather and climate.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

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Believe It Or Bot

May 6, 2023

Ed Sheeran was found not guilty of plagiarism, after a total waste of tax-payer money.

I’m very happy for him—it’s bad enough he bears a resemblance to Boris Johnson. Speaking of which, diluted in the sophomoric madness of the coronation, last week also marks Tory trouncing Thursday—Sunak’s conservatives lost 48 councils and over one thousand councilors—much of the blame for that should be laid at Boris’s door.

In the midst of these fait divers, the meteoric rise of artificial intelligence is my major concern at present, as we whistle past the graveyard on Horse Guards Parade.

This seismic paradigm shift is cruising through the human race, most of whom are either scrabbling for their next meal or their next Instagram post.

I find it so worrying—and so relevant to today’s society—that as I make my final revisions to The Hourglass in the next couple of months I will work some AI into the book, which already addresses topics like self-driving vehicles and Deep Fakes. The latter have become so mainstream that you can go online and swap your face into your favorite video.

Humans struggle to deal with anything non-linear, from falling in love to coping with death—the internet in general, and AI in particular, is no exception.

Internet servers around the world. The US has a stunning 149,313,079 machines (Google probably owns half of them)—that’s one computer for every two people. China, a putative rival, has only 1,100,841 machines—one for every 1400 people.

To understand how quickly AI can—and will—surge, a few stats about the internet are useful. Domain registration has boomed in the last couple of years—during the pandemic, the curve is vertical. At present, there are over six hundred million registered domains—at an average cost of thirty bucks per year, that’s twenty billion dollars of annual revenue.

AI would not be possible without the internet—as data folks are fond of saying, the only thing better than data is more data.

We recognize that growth in AI has been slow—painfully slow—over the last decades, but what we don’t talk about is that the explosive growth we see now is closely linked to the explosion of internet infrastructure, use, social media, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Large Language Model (LLM) neural networks that form the basis of ChatGPT and its various siblings emerged in 2018, very much a consequence of the availability of “large quantities of unlabeled text”, used to define “many parameters (typically billions of weights or more)”. In other words, the internet.

I asked ChatGPT about Ed Sheeran.

is the song Thinking Out Loud a copy of Let’s Get It On (ChatGPT is like putonghua, it doesn’t need punctuation).

There have been accusations that the song “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran has similarities to “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye. In 2016, Ed Sheeran was sued for copyright infringement by the estate of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, and the case was settled out of court.

While the similarities between the two songs have been noted, it is ultimately up to a court to determine whether there was any unlawful copying or infringement of copyright. The settlement of the lawsuit suggests that there may have been some basis to the claims, but it is not a definitive conclusion.

In any case, it is not uncommon for songs to share similarities or be inspired by previous works. Music is a constantly evolving art form, and it is often the case that elements of earlier songs are incorporated into new compositions.

Jeepers (for it is he) gave me a crappy, plain-vanilla answer—not a fucking opinion!

But worse than that, the first paragraph correctly states the lawsuit was filed in 2016 but then ‘informs’ us it was settled out of court. Bollocks. And the second ends with ‘The settlement of the lawsuit suggests there may have been some basis to the claims…”

I can find no evidence of such a settlement, and the case concluded last week would suggest the matter was resolved in court.

In other words, Jeepers is a lyin’ lil’ bot. But we humans are educated to give the benefit of the doubt. So I asked old Jeeps.

“As an artificial intelligence language model, I am not capable of lying or telling the truth.”

Ah, now I like him, dis bot’s gittin’ phil-o-sophy. The reply is dangerously close to the paradox made famous by Epiminedes the Cretan: All Cretans Are liars. I think Jeepers is becoming Jeepistotle.

Some of the AI lies are extremely troublesome. This one was reported in the Washington Post.

One night last week, the law professor Jonathan Turley got a troubling email. As part of a research study, a fellow lawyer in California had asked the AI chatbot ChatGPT to generate a list of legal scholars who had sexually harassed someone. Turley’s name was on the list.

The chatbot, created by OpenAI, said Turley had made sexually suggestive comments and attempted to touch a student while on a class trip to Alaska, citing a March 2018 article in The Washington Post as the source of the information. The problem: No such article existed. There had never been a class trip to Alaska. And Turley said he’d never been accused of harassing a student.

My concern about AI rocketed when I heard an eminent AI researcher talk about the dangers of all this—resulting in an open letter signed by many concerned humans—well, 27565, so not that many.

Actually, you can add one to that, Peter Wibaux just signed up. I enjoy the irony of fighting AI with an artificial human: AH versus AI.

Will you join the fun?

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The Fifties Progression

April 29, 2023

It’s always about history—but today it’s about musical history.

I have to start off with a disclosure: I don’t own—or even listen to—any music from either Marvin Gaye or Ed Sheeran.

Please don’t hold that against me—I don’t own or listen to Mozart, Brahms, or Liszt either. In fact, my familiarity with the last two comes from the cockney rhyming slang for pissed—a bit brahms…

My knowledge of Marvin Gaye was—until now—limited to three elements: the song ‘Sexual Healing’, his Detroit, i.e. Motown, soul context, and his death; getting shot by your father is unusual even by the exalted standards of the United States.

I now know he was born Gay—no, not gay, ducks, Gay—I presume he changed his name for obvious reasons, although artists sometimes add the ‘e’ for interest: Sam Cooke was once Sam Cook, although I doubt Ed Sheeran was ever D. Sheran.

I also now know that Marvin Gaye’s hit ‘What’s Going On’ was written about someone with a brain tumor, and that—no small irony—Gay Sr. also had a brain tumor when he murdered his offspring.

Sheeran? I know even less about him, except that he is very popular and a member of the ginger fraternity—not to be confused with the Green Beards. Ed sports a ginger beard—incidentally, and here (I promise) endeth the slang, ginger beer is also cockney rhyming slang for both ‘queer’ and ‘engineer’.

My disclosure is important because I want to write about the lawsuit brought by the heirs of Ed Townsend (or D Townsnd) against Sheeran, claiming that the latter’s tune ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is copied—plagiarized—from Gaye’s song ‘Let’s Get It On’, written by Townsend.

If we can establish my lack of devotion to either party, I feel my impartiality is less open to question.

I read an article about the lawsuit in the New York Times—quite a change from reading about the death and destruction that surrounds us—and then had a look at the ‘tab’, which is guitarspeak for the words and music, for Let’s Get It On.

The tab claims the song is in Cm, but apparently not—Ebm is closer to the mark. However, the point is the chord progression follows a sequence which is at the heart of pop music—it’s one of the first I ever learned, and it consists of C – Am – F – G, or if you like your doremi, Do – Lam – Fa – Sol—now we’re gittin erudite (or just rudit).

This sequence is so well known it has a name—it’s called the Fifties Progression—I’m going to call it FP50.

Songs like ‘Stand By Me‘, originally by Ben E. King and covered by just about everyone, including John Lennon, Roy Orbison’s ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream‘, or Walking In Memphis. All use this four-chord mantra.

But wait! That’s not all, oh no… not by a long shot.

If you like music and history, then this next one’s for you—all the way from Blue Moon to Lady Gaga.

I think by now you get my drift…ers—and by the way, I own and play lots of the tunes you just heard.

The notion that because the chords are identical or similar, when you’re dealing with a four-chord progression like FP50, you are plagiarizing, is L-U-D-I-C-R-O-U-S.

In this particular case, where the melody is totally different, there’s nothing to even discuss—I’m amazed the case was not immediately dismissed, but bear in mind that an American plaintiff always has a major advantage in a U.S. court against a foreign national.

I go to YouTube all the time, mostly for education—there are amazing musicians on there and legacies are preserved for ever. It’s possible, for instance, to get a lesson from Robby Krieger, the legendary Doors guitarist, on how to play “Roadhouse Blues‘—and BTW, I love his cannabis T-shirt.

But today I want to share an analysis made by a musician called Rick Beato on the Gaye vs. Sheeran question.

I’ve watched a number of Rick’s lessons—this one, for instance, on history of guitar solos—and apart from anything else, he reminds me of Al Pacino, and the man-cave studio he holds forth from looks as dark and sinister as a Mafia hideout.

What I like most about Rick’s analysis is that he refrains from providing an opinion—although I know exactly what his opinion is. If you’ve enjoyed all the discussion so far, I recommend you listen to what Rick—and particularly the two-song comparison itself—has to say.

The comments below his YouTube video are priceless.

I think all lawyers should be sued for suing in the same sue style that other suers have sued in.

I couldn’t put it better myself.

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The Green Beard

April 23, 2023

Some years ago I read a collection of essays on ethology—the science of animal behavior—two things struck me and have stayed with me over time.

The first was the parallels between (other) animal behavior—and here we are focused on vertebrates, although insect behavior patterns are fascinating—and human behavior, and in particular behavioral economics.

In an ideal world, people would always make optimal decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit and satisfaction. In economics, rational choice theory states that when humans are presented with various options under the conditions of scarcity, they would choose the option that maximizes their individual satisfaction.

The definition above is provided by Investopedia, which goes on to explain that human behavior is sub-optimal—I guess this isn’t an ideal world.

Part of the difficulty with the definition is the concept of satisfaction.

The other part is the word ‘individual’, and that was the second point that struck me in my book.

What are the incentives for animals to cooperate? More broadly, and taking this into the human domain, to live in society?

The book defined the whole concept as altruism—an excellent word, by the way—and several eminent authors discussed the trade-offs required, and more importantly, the evolutionary edge a species might get from possessing an altruism gene.

Biologists have illustrated this with the ‘green beard‘ analogy—if you genetically have a green beard (I guess they wanted to stay away from the fracturing topic of ginger people) you will consider other greenies your kin and be more disposed to sacrifice your ‘individual satisfaction’ on their behalf; the flipside is that you will be harsher on non-greenies.

Overall, the genetic outcome of your beardie behavior would be an increase of green-bearded men, and perhaps women also, to the detriment of all other colors—at the edge, the greenies would kill non-greenies, a surefire way, if you excuse the pun, to make the world simultaneously bushier and greener.

There is no doubt that humans aggregate according to common interests, sometimes genuine, often perceived, but I personally don’t believe it is genetic; that doesn’t mean we don’t have a gene that promotes aggregation—a ‘belonging’ gene, if you like.

This brings up the concept of loners and misfits—it’s a heavy enough cross in the West, but in the East it’s a mortal sin—a society must move in one direction and its members must conform.

The consequences are often tragic: Hitler’s mass extermination of Jews—which must be restated as ‘Hitler and a vast number of other perpetrators’, just as the battle of Waterloo was not won by Wellington alone—the Belgians in the Congo, the Japanese in China, the Hutus in Rwanda, and many, many other examples.

For humans and other primates, as well as many other groups that live in herds, flocks, schools, or prides, the belong gene is not really open to question. Kin, kinfolk, kinsmen, or extended family—’Big wheels keep on turning, carry me home to see my kin‘— serves two purposes from an evolutionary point of view: kin compete, and that leads to a hierarchy in social animals; and kin cooperate, which increases ‘either direct or inclusive fitness.’

Kin are philopatric—a new word for me—and humans are an extreme example because of our elephantine memory, enshrined in books, paintings, photos, movies, and song.

We want to find our roots, visit the home of our ancestors, and far worse than that, we are often engaged in disputes or wars to regain those territories. We use guns and bombs to assert our philopatry—I suppose chefs do the same with filo pastry.

The classic tale of the scorpion and the frog—in the end, altruism is all about the prisoner’s dilemma.

What our behavioral model does not contain, either through nature or nurture, is a mechanism to make us thrive as an inclusive society and to eradicate internecine conflict.

Whether in Sudan—where a dispute between two generals has turned into a full-scale civil war and shows all signs of becoming a regional conflict that will suck in the great powers, the Ukraine war, or the forthcoming Taiwan war, the belong gene is destroying us.

Like the scorpion who drowns after stinging the frog that ferries him across the stream, we are helpless.

We belong.

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It’s the Women, Stupid!

April 16, 2023

You might think I’m on a retro-Clinton kick. Not so.

In Western Europe, people follow two wars on the news.

The first is on the eastern front, where the tragedy of the Ukraine continues to unfold—increasingly a proxy war between Russia and China, on one side, and the US and NATO, on the other.

Informed citizens bear witness to the atrocities, the Wagner Group, the internal Russian—it’s tempting to write ‘Soviet’—dynamics between Putin, Navalny (“that person”), the Siloviki, the Oligarchs, and the suffering of Ukrainians. Close your eyes and spare a thought for the little children, the elderly, the infirm… Spare another for Navalny, poisoned again, but this time in custody, for the horrors of the Russian prison system, and for those who leapt to their deaths from tenth-story prison basements.

I know this phony war is protracted—it will last as long as Putin, but perhaps Putin won’t last as long as it—and I don’t know much else.

In 1832, Carl von Clausewitz wrote that ‘Everything in war is simple, but the simple things are difficult.’

Perhaps, the most difficult will be making peace—among other things, luck will be needed—but luck itself is difficult, that’s why it’s called luck.

The second war is fought on the western front, and it is equally a war against the weak—the women, the children, the defenseless. In Europe, people watch in amazement as every week—sometimes every day—someone in the US fulfills their divine destiny by shooting a bunch of innocents in a school, a club, a mall, or a bank. The story ends predictably—either the shooter commits suicide, or the police oblige.

There’s hardly a day, it seems, that the second amendment—the right to arm bears—is not applied to massacre the helpless. In Western Europe, it has become habitual news, along with the obligatory political scandals, social upheavals, and economic crises.

And because it is rote, as well as the fact that gun ownership is so uncommon in Europe, these atrocities are seen as some form of American disease—and almost exclusively they are committed by mentally diseased people.

This is part of the argument against gun control—it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people. “A ban on assault rifles wouldn’t solve anything, anyone familiar with firearms could reload in a couple of seconds,” an employee at a hunting and fishing store in Nashville told me. His ambition was to become a state trooper.

So, what does the second amendment of The US constitution actually say?

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The capitalization is deliberate: Militia, State, Arms.

It seems obvious that if a militia is no longer necessary for the security of the free state—and might in fact be prejudicial— then the conditions for allowing people to keep and bear arms are no longer met. I would argue the right cannot be infringed if the need exists, ergo if the need does not exist, neither can the right.

That, of course, is not the view of the US Supreme Court.

All legislation adapts—often slowly—to new circumstances. That was the case for automobiles, digital media, and pretty much any part of life where there’s a paradigm shift. Given the human penchant for evil, the law must exist—if we didn’t rape, rob, and murder, lawyers would have a lot less business.

The second amendment was ratified by congress in 1791—the state-of-the-art in the firearms industry was flintlocks and muskets, and the delivery rate was four rounds per minute. A semi-automatic fires hundreds of RPM: an AK-47 does 700, and the AR-15, latest fashion for psychopathic mall murderers, can go to 1200.

If that is not a paradigm shift, what is?

But let’s take this ad absurdum: if a Starwars-style vaporizing weapon came on the market tomorrow—and I can assure you the military-industrial complex is working on a prototype right now—would that be covered by the second amendment?

Data from Statista on gender distribution of mass shooters; the events are defined as ‘a single attack in a public place in which four or more victims were killed.’ Since 1982, there have been 142 such events.

In the last forty years, men—more than fifty percent of whom were white—committed the vast majority of these atrocities. If we give the two male & female shootings one each, the numbers are 137 against 5. The stats are damning: over ninety-six percent of the killings were perpetrated by men, the majority of whom are white men.

Well, that’s easily explained—men are far more prone to mental illness than women.

Er… no.

Data from SAMHSA for 2021 suggests women have a higher rate for Any Mental Illness (AMI) than men. Young adults have the highest AMI rate.

So it’s the white guys, huh? Who knew.

Well, ladies, your path is clear. The population of the USA is divided by gender into 50.5% women and 49.5% men—it’s time to impose classic restrictions.

There’s an old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Maybe, but it’s also through his dick.

American moms, college girls, and all others who qualify:

Banning assault weapons is simple, but the simple things are difficult.

You know what to do.

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It’s The Stupid Economy!

April 8, 2023

In 1992, James Carville hung up a sign in Clinton’s campaign headquarters with three bullets—the middle one won the election against George Bush.

I think the flip side is more relevant—the economy is an artificial construct, a way for humans to get their monetary ducks in a row, and as a society we’re completely enslaved to it.

A couple of weeks back, following a pandemic and a regional European war, inflation spiked, as it always does.

After a couple of American banks collapsed and the Fed bailed them out, the business channels hosted many a pundit who railed about the sharp rise in interest rates.

Inflation is very contagious, much like the pandemic, and all central banks cool down the ‘economy’ by raising rates.

Economists love to talk about cycles, so there is a rate-rise cycle that is apparently coming to an end—wise economists predict that enough has been done to cool the economy down, and inflation will retreat. Of course, goods that are now much more expensive will not lower in price—that ship has sailed—they just won’t go up as much.

So… how long is an economic cycle? Er… how long do you want it to be?

The four-stage economic or business cycle (adapted from Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The economic cycle, or business cycle, is defined as a four-stage process—in the diagram, the cycle looks placid, predictable, and regular—mathematically, it’s a sine wave, so you could fit a simple equation to it, and from then on our life would be totally predictable.

Oh, I don’t mean like that! We’d still fall in love, fall out of love, fall ill, and—the most non-linear event of all—fall over and die, but our economic life would be predictable—as boring as the missionary position.

But the chart is kind of weird. A sine wave has an amplitude (height) and a wavelength—that’s peak to peak or trough to trough.

Night and day, or day and night.

But this diagram is a bit odd—it has two peaks and two troughs. The first block is called expansion and the last is called recovery, but they’re pretty much identical. The first part of expansion is the last part of contraction—you get the picture…

Oh, you don’t? Don’t worry, neither do they.

Let’s talk about another sine wave—one that is (almost) entirely predictable—the tide. It ebbs and floods, there’s a low tide followed by a high tide, the full moon brings the spring tides, the gibbous moon the neap—almost Shakespearean in its poetry, the waxing and waning of the moon, the slow orbit of our Earth around the sun, the Ides of March.

Joseph Fourier—a mathematical genius who was a government administrator under Napoleon—discovered a way to analyze these waves and allow humans to predict the tide. Of course, sailors could know the tide in other ways—Abraham the Astronomer provides such instruction to the captains of The India Road—but with Fourier’s genius, we were able to map the forces that drive the tide.

These forces derive mainly from the sun and the moon, and are given names such as S2 and M2, but they also come from the attraction other planets exert on Planet Earth.

If all this sounds a bit esoteric, it’s nothing compared with the attempts to comprehend and forecast economic cycles—you might as well teach a Beagle to play the blues.

The whole economic concept, as an artificial construct, is predicated on the vagaries of nature—and worse, on the vagaries of the human mind.

Yup, pandemics, wars, panics, pandemoniums, politics, fads, bads, mads, dads… you dream it, it’ll come true. The long arm of non-linearity comes in and flips the economy like a child’s toy.

After the US banks bit the bullet, the Saudi National Bank Chairman, Ammar Al Khudairy, decided to shit in the soup—he told Bloomberg that Saudia Arabia was absolutely not prepared to put more money into Credit Suisse.

In the ensuing panic, the Swiss bank hit the wall, forcing the Swiss government to orchestrate a takeover by UBS—the Swiss hosted a Sunday evening press conference, to the amazement of all cuckoo clocks in the land, led by the Swiss president in person.

The Saudis took a severe haircut. Two Sundays later they slashed oil production to cut their losses—on Monday, oil went up twenty per cent on the global markets and the stockmarket weanies scurried about like blue-assed flies.

The energy cost increase does wonders for mid-east oil producers, but it’s also very handy for one Vladimir Putin, since the Russian national budget is pegged to oil.

The rise in energy costs will fuel, if you excuse the pun, another round of price increases in everything that depends on energy costs, which is er… everything.

Like the beat beat beat of the tom tom, there goes inflation.

Also, conditions for Russia to finance its special operatsky improve significantsky.

Central banks in the US and Europe will have to rethink their termination of end-of-cycle rate hikes, as the cycle goes from monocycle to ejector-cycle.

And who knows, maybe a few more banks with skeletons in their safes will be bound for glory.

The economic cycle is non-linear—both the wavelength and amplitude are merely aspirational. Cycle duration has varied from two months to sixty-five months.

And that sine wave? It’s as fictional as the economy itself.

Here’s a tough question.

Who gets fucked?

Actually, it’s only tough because no one wants to answer it, so I will.

We do.

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The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones


March 26, 2023

Now that social media has become a weapon in the fight for world dominance between the USA and China, the gloves are off—not that folks are listening, they’re far more concerned that their favorite apps might be struck off.

The exchanges in the TikTok congressional hearings this week were of historical significance—a deluge of accusations and rebuttals that left both sides unmoved.

There is no doubt in my mind that any company registered in China—a country that nominally advocates a command economy fitting to its Marxist-Leninist roots—is beholden to government.

Just as any company in the USA that has strategic interest is beholden to its government.

Google is a good example: since 2012, it manages email for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency with 25,000 staff.

The Google Cloud is now widely used by the US government, as is AWS (Amazon Web Services). There is equally no doubt in my mind that Google and Amazon are part of the US national security infrastructure—although it will be far easier for the Chinese government to tap into data from a company registered in the Middle Kingdom than the US equivalent.

Since I think social media is a pervasive force of evil—in many ways it’s the dark side of the internet—I find it amazing that the nefarious consequences are not more obvious to users.

Boasting is part of human nature—more so when people are insecure or immature. Much of the pain on social media is self-inflicted, from drunk dicpics to humble brag.

To make things worse, there are whole essays out there telling you how to photograph your penis. Here is one of the more amusing contributions.

A dick pic is like meatloaf: It has a pretty bad rap, but when composed correctly and served consensually, it can be delicious.

So from the tool who sends his tool to the office WhatsApp group when he’s blitzed at 3 am to the girl who shares a pic of her dog and accidentally includes her vagina’s reflection in the bathroom mirror to the idiot watching porn on Zoom while sharing a work screen… they walk among us.

And then there’s third party shit—soooo predictable. The disgruntled bedmate, the high school kid showing off his girlfriend’s tits to the guys… the list is long, imaginative, cruel, and horribly persistent.

As school or college morphs into job, all this crap comes back to byte you (sorry) in the butt—the web has plenty of companies dedicated to finding out (all) about you. PC Magazine did a review of those options a couple of years ago.

If I was applying for a job, the first thing I would do is get someone I trust to contract a review, so I could find out the worst before the interview. If only I hadn’t done that stag night in Vilnius…

But the big brother stuff is what we miss out—the systematic harvesting of information by the corporations who own the apps.

The TikTok CEO is called Shou Zi Chew—his name (周受资) in pinyin is Zhōu Shòuzī—the ‘Chew’ bit is just an effort to get Americans to pronounce his family name properly.

His ‘chewing’ this week by the congressional committee was a display of politeness and rational argument from the CEO and blatant xenophobia from some committee members. Zhou was repeatedly cut off and insulted, as both Democrat and Republican lawmakers catered to their base and the elephant waltzed unhindered in the room.

Facebook—on record as saying that pre-teens are a ‘valuable but untapped audience’—gets a free pass. Likewise, Instagram, Twitter, the orangutan’s TRUTH social… it’s a long and tedious list.

TikTok is a problem, along with all the other social media platforms—if America bans TikTok, the next day TikTak, TokTik, and TukTuk will emerge, all proudly made in the USA and all selling your location, age, friends, hobbies, purchases, vibes, and vices to all comers.

Wired magazine concludes that the TikTok hearing reveals congress is the problem. I couldn’t agree more.

The US can sacrifice the sino-scapegoat all it wants, but the enemy is within. So is the solution, much like gun control.

In Europe, privacy is a four-letter word.


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The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones

Oops, I Did It Again

March 18, 2023

I wonder if some angst-filled teen will wander in here in the misguided hope that Britney Spears may be lurking in the undergrowth.

Depart, ye, be gone! For our notions are not your emotions, we come hither to reflect on the human condition that is known as greedity—a mythical monster that is half greed and half stupidity.

That’s right, this week we did it again.

The problem is ‘Oops’ doesn’t cut it—we are fully cognizant of the consequences of poor financial management, we have tools in place (but clearly not the governance) to prevent financial debacles like the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and yet… we did it again.

My novel Atmos Fear is set in the period of the Lehman Bros. collapse, and although the core of the story is about planetary change driven by technology—a slight change in the acceleration of gravity, the last physical force that remains a mystery to physicists—there is a lot in the book also about the financial world.

So, the banking system, stock market, and the wider public suddenly became aware that a California bank, which by virtue of the pandemic had grown into the sixteenth-largest US bank, was in deep shit.

The bank was special, because unlike retail banks that have many small depositors, it had relatively few, very large accounts—tech companies that piggy-backed the pandemic. Reuters mentions Roku, Buzzfeed, Alkami, and Trustpilot as examples.

That meant that the loss of confidence in the bank triggered a run by large clients—the bank’s liquidity vanished. Why did an apparently solid bank sublimate?

The immediate reason was that it could only meet the withdrawal requirements by selling assets, which were largely invested in long-term US government bonds.

Since bonds have a fixed rate of return, when inflation goes up, bond values go down. If a ten-year bond has a two percent return and you own a thousand dollars of bonds, you earn twenty bucks per year, two hundred over the decade, and at the end you get your grand back.

But you have to wait ten years.

When inflation increases, as it has been doing, companies and governments borrow money—issue bonds—with higher remuneration rates, so your 2% bond looks pretty sad.

Bonds are bought and sold like anything else and the only way you can get your money back quickly is by selling your thousand dollars of 2% bonds for less, possibly a lot less. Cinderella has morphed into the ugly duckling.

As always, time and money have an intimate relationship—and usually a non-linear one.

So here we have a perfect storm. Inflation goes up—patently obvious to anyone who pays bills—interest rates rise to control it. Bond prices go down, particularly for those with long-term maturity. Folks are saturated with pandemic domesticity—they want to travel, eat out, dance, beach, socialize, socialize, socialize, make up for all that lost time.

Closet digitalia, underwear Zoom, and virtual vicariousness have quickly lost their appeal—not overnight, but not over years either. How quickly words like confinement, quarantine, and—yes—covid, have vanished from our thoughts, words, and deeds.

US inflation between 1914 (start of the First World War) and 2022 (‘official’ end of the COVID 19 pandemic).

Firms that catered to our enforced domesticity suddenly let go thousands of employees. All that tech suddenly replaced by analog pursuits like water parks, rock concerts, and football games.

All those checks and balances put in place, the buzzwords—too big to fail, too fig to bail, yaddayaddayah…

Before the SVB collapse, Moody’s gave it an A1 rating, according to Reuters. After the bank collapsed, credit ratings were slashed to Caa2—presumably there is no C-r-a-p rating.

So, ratings agencies totally missed the boat on this one—who knew? Banking regulators also, it would seem. And this is where the greedity comes in—the sector understands these issues— they are not unknown unknowns, they are known knowns.

Since the FDIC only insures up to two hundred fifty thousand dollars per deposit, the US government came in to bail out the bank—the same day, tech shares soared on the US stock markets, a run that still has legs—sprint, ye lemmings…

The whole thing is shocking in its lack of foresight—we’re used to economic predictions based on the rear-view mirror rather than the crystal ball, but this collapse is a financial crisis—eminently predictable.

Much more interesting, but very dark, is the historical macroeconomic picture—and my articles are rooted in history.

Every time in the past hundred years that the world suffered major economic shocks, inflation sky-rocketed. You see it after the two world wars, the oil wars of the 1970s, and the recent pandemic—with a regional-cum-European-cum-world war thrown in the mix.

And after each inflation peak, there are rate hikes to control the beast, and far-reaching economic consequences as ordinary people despair of the gap between earnings and living costs.

Strikes, job losses, extreme social discontent, and civil unrest are the handmaids of despair.

Those presents plunge politicians from pedestals and promote pundits of populism.

There is much more to come.

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The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones

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