Monday, March 21, 2011

The Ninth Legion

A number of readers are probably familiar with the novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliffe, and the movie, The Eagle, based on her work which is being released in a few days.  In short, it deals with the disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion in the north of Britain. 

While historians have kicked around theories about what happened to the Ninth, the most likely one is that it was destroyed in fighting against the northern Britons.  In turn, the Emperor Hadrian came to Britain to survey the situation, resulting in a realization that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to subdue the Britons, and resulting in construction of Hadrian's Wall.

This event was important in two respects.  The first was that it showed that there was to be a high-water mark for what Romans could control in Britain (the Antonine Wall proved to be overreach and was abandoned after twenty years).  The second was that there was a recognition in general that there was a limit to what could be achieved through the force of Roman arms.

There is always a temptation to compare modern events to historical ones, to try to achieve some understanding of the present course based on the past.  Sometimes the comparisons are valid, sometimes they are similar in appearance only.  The sudden Western intervention in Libya is one of those events.

There is a belief that Rome's wars were solely wars of expansion and conquest.  The reality is that most of Rome's wars were seen by the Romans at the time as being wars to try to establish security.  While, yes, slaves and gold were nice benefits to military victory, the more important thing was making sure that a raging horde of Samnites or Celts didn't come knocking on the frontier. 

Likewise, we're in a position where we're waging perpetual war for perpetual security, but in this case, it's about oil security, not physical security.  Without territory, Rome could not maintain its stability.  Without oil, we cannot maintain our economic stability.  Libya's military is not a threat to ours -- Libya is simply in the middle of a small civil war.  The problem from the perspective of the West is that oil facilities are usually destroyed, along with other infrastructure, as people fight over these valuable assets.  In return, oil output from nations engaged in civil war drops dramatically.  This ultimately leads to economic damage to the industrial world. 

The problem, in the long term, is that we are getting overextended.  We cannot close the debt gap and we have no real serious discussion about trying to get spending under control.  At some point, this is going to catch up to us, but it's also questionable if we even have a choice but to try to stabilize the Middle East. 

Interesting times away...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Meltdowns and Buffers

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan is shaping up to be one of those events that no one knows the true extent of until it's well in the rear view mirror.  Going from a death toll of a hundred or so, into the tens of thousands now, with no one really sure of what the real toll is, confusion over the actual state of nuclear plants in Japan, if they've melted down or not, store shelves emptying, etc. 

The Middle East is still in turmoil, although the disaster in Japan and short attention spans have pushed it off the front pages for the moment.  However, tensions are still high in many places there and it doesn't seem like it would take much for things to get out of hand quickly again, especially now that the reformers in Egypt are not satisfied with the choices they're being given and want to move to a more civilianized government.  The lid is still on Saudi unrest, but once people have the idea of self-determination in their minds, it's hard to get rid of.
In the United States (and in Europe), there is the question of where the economy is going.  In spite of some items of good news.  Rising oil prices have a good chance of crippling whatever recovery is currently going on and leaving a large portion of the American population ever less certain of their future.

 In chemistry, a "buffer" is any substance which tries to keep a system at a certain state, such as a pH buffer which will prevent acidity in a solution from rising or falling below a certain value.  However, at some point, the buffer can't adjust for what's being put into the solution and the nature of the solution will dramatically change almost immediately (going from neutral to very acidic, for example). With nuclear reactors, the various control mechanisms which keep the reaction from running out of control serve the same function.

What we seem to be seeing now is a test of our modern industrial civilization's ability to "buffer" events.  We have various reserves and institutions which are designed to provide precisely this function, but they can only work so long and go so far.  Japanese society, for example, was able to cope with an economic crisis in the early 90s, but can it deal with the physical, economic and social damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami?  The Middle East has long been kept in a statis by Cold War legacy politics and a conservative religion and mindset, yet those controls are no longer able to keep events in check -- which way will things go once that buffer is gone?  And, in America, we've been able to deal with the economic events so far, including spikes in oil prices, but at what point are we going to see the systems we've built to handle these shocks give way?  Already, some politicians are calling for the strategic oil reserve (a fool's errand) to help control oil prices.  What's going to be next on the horizon as we sink into the next dip of the recession?

Ultimately, what this points to, from a perspective of collapse, is that we really have no way of knowing how long what we've built can hold out against unforeseen events.  We can maintain things for so long, but like the buoyancy of a boat that is suddenly overwhelmed  from flooding, we're not going to know it until it's too late, even though we've seen it coming from a long way off.  We need to make sure we're prepared and able to cope with events as they occur, and when they overwhelm our civilization's ability to deal with them effectively.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Black Swans Flying

So, I got up this morning and looked at the news -- a major earthquake in Japan, 8.9 magnitude, tsunami warning, tsunami damage, all the "good" stuff that no one wants to see happen.  The latest is that Hawaii is under a tsunami warning, with no one sure of how big it will be when it hits.  Obviously, the thoughts, and prayers or well-wishes, of the world are with the people in the Pacific Rim. 

Most people are familiar with "Black Swan Theory," wherein there are major turning points of history that no one could've predicted or expected, a "Black Swan" event.  We seem now to be in a time when we're seeing one event after another -- the manmade ones of Middle East civil war and the crash of 2008, now the various extremes of the natural world, from poor crop yields from strange weather, and strong earthquakes. 

Japan, of course, is used to its position of being a modern nation on a seismically active island.  Still, it is sobering to see the damage caused and read about the deaths in a place we always think of as being an orderly, efficient and well-run sort of place.  Things, of course, will return to normal sooner or later, or so we would expect.

However, human society is a complex series of systems, social, religious, political, economic, and so on, and this earthquake is coming at an unstable time.  When energy is injected into a complex system, strange and unpredictable things may happen.   Just as we didn't expect that the triggering event for the next dip of the multi-dip recession would be caused by a Tunisian fruit seller who had lost his fruit cart, then his will to live, we may not yet see what the real effect of this event is, either, for some time.  How bad will the economic fallout be?  Will a political crisis somewhere be caused by this, which will spiral out of control like the Middle East has?  Will this be another triggering event of the total collapse of modern industrial civilization?

In the meantime, we can only watch and see what happens, prepare and take information in as it becomes available, and help the best we can, either financially or physically. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bare Knuckled

I've talked a little bit here about firearms and a little about knives.  I think, for the average person preparing for the coming collapse, there is a "holy triad" of self-defense, the handgun, the knife and the bare hand.  And, all three of those things suffer from inaccurate, though popular, perceptions.  The handgun is assumed to either be deadly or difficult for anyone to shoot correctly (hint:  practice!), the knife is assumed to either be a lightsaber to your enemy or very dangerous to yourself (hint: train!) and the bare hand is either the equivalent of a wet noodle or a virtual sledgehammer.  The problem is that most people don't spend much time studying these things, because they're really not part of our daily lives (yet) and so we basically tend to run on what we hear from other people (some of whom should know better) who're equally ill-informed. 

The reason for considering these three things as being staples of self-defense is simple.  The handgun is very portable and concealable, meaning that it won't attract attention or cause alarm where a rifle might, plus it's handy when you're engaged in some other activity (driving, walking around with your hands full, etc).  Knives are also easily concealable, very effective at close range, easily made from a wide variety of improvised materials and also useful as tools.  Finally, bare hands are never taken away from your (unless you're injured or maimed) and are faster to deploy than anything else.  I once had a discussion with a person who had a carry permit, with the person of the opinion that it wasn't necessary to know any martial arts if someone had a gun.  My response was that in close quarters, it may be difficult or impossible to draw, if you're surprised, your arm is trapped, etc.  Krav Maga, for example, recognizes this as being a possible situation and stresses practicing pushing back an attacker before readying a weapon.  Martial arts also allows for a less than lethal response, something not open for people who're relying on a handgun or knife to stop a fight.  I once broke up a fight between two people in the workplace, that would've ended with at least one of the two people badly injured or dead, using a basic karate technique (use your own discretion if you're ever in the same situation!).  In fact, the utility of martial arts is recognized by most major militaries and has been an area of focused improvement in the Marine Corps, , the IDF, the Russian armed forces, etc.

The other point is that most of us are not soldiers, or training to be soldiers, so all the "models" that traditional survivalists have relied on, such as being heavily armed and living in a bunker, are not exactly correct.  While it's a good idea to be ready for serious emergencies, the reality is that most of us are going to be busy trying to deal with daily life as the world around us collapses. 

If you're not convinced that leaning how to fight unarmed is worth your time, I'd suggest reading up on what other people have to say on the subject.  For those who think it's a good idea and are looking for more information, there are plenty of sources to consult, along with a lot of disinformation.  For my part, I've studied nearly a dozen different forms of martial arts, along with doing a considerable amount of reading and discussion with other people about martial arts, what works, what doesn't, etc.  Even with all that, I won't bother passing myself off as a "guru" and trying to claim that one style is superior to another.  However, I can offer some insights.

The first is that there is a huge difference between styles which are dedicated to sport and to self-defense.  Ones which emphasize self-defense focus on putting another person out of action as quickly as possibly, usually by attacking vital areas or doing other things which are considered "unsporting."  By contrast, sport forms are dedicated to competition and conditioning.  Sometimes, the two overlap, though it's not common.  This isn't to say that a sport martial art is useless for defense, but that it's just not what it's intended for.  Judo, tae kwon do, etc, are generally considered to be sporting styles.  Styles which rely on a large number of kicks or intricate manuevers are also less practical, as are styles which rely heavily on physical conditioning or grappling.  While "submission" fighting can be impressive -- and mixed martial arts fighters are in very good shape -- ending up on the ground is very dangerous, especially if you're outnumbered.  For example, if you're fighting two people, and try to grapple with one, you're defenseless against the other.  It also makes escape harder.

Second, if it's a good style, you'll be able to learn quickly the basics of what you need to defend yourself in a few training sessions.  This doesn't mean that you don't have a lot of things to practice and perfect (muscle memory takes time to "set"), but that what you've learned right off the bat will be immediately useful.  I made the mistake once of studying an art where I was told -- after the first session -- that it wasn't until the later ranks that I'd learn self-defense techniques.  The only point of that approach is to milk the students for money.
(I'll take a quick sidebar here and say that it's important to know the kind of instructor and school you're dealing with, if you're going to pay for lessons -- there are people who teach the "flavor of the month" other words, the guy last week who was teaching Tae Kwon Do might be teaching Krav Maga this week...also, watch out for people who are more interested in talking about contracts and payment plans than their art -- the best school is one where you plunk down cash up front and if you come or not, that's your business!)

Third, you don't have to be a star athelete to do martial arts.  While it's obviously helpful to be in condition, the fact is that any practice is better than nothing and may make the difference between life and death (stats have shown that people who do not passively accept violent attack are more likely to escape without serious injury).  Doing martial arts themselves may actually lead people to work on improving their physical condition, for that matter.

Last, there are numerous styles to choose from to suit everyone's tastes, though most similar styles are similar due to biomechanics.  For example, I was surprised to be flipping through an article about George Silver, an English "fencing master" of the 1600s.  He included techniques in his unarmed section that was a knife-edge hand to the bridge of the nose, an identical technique to what you'd see in a karate dojo!  This means that if you're not able to study what you like, you might be able to find something similar to it.  For speed of learning and practicality, I think Krav Maga is probably the best bet for most people.  It was designed with rapid learning in mind and doesn't contain much "fluff." 

I don't think we should expect to -- or worry about -- having to engage in a constant hand-to-hand battle for survival like in The Ultimate Warrior or Steel Dawn.  I do think that we're going to need to be reasonably prepared to take care of ourselves, and being able to defend ourselves without weapons is part of this preparation.  After all, the best way to avoid trouble is to be ready for it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Beck and Fall

Most readers are at least aware, in passing, of Glenn Beck and his programs and books.  He has a radio show, a number of books published, and a weekday program on Fox news.  Having gone from a self-described alcoholic and drug user, to being one of the country's leading political pundits, is quite an accomplishment, regardless of what anyone thinks of his opinions and views.  Much of his show consists of talking about conspiracies between various groups of people, strategies to intentionally collapse the nation so warmed-over 60s-style Frankfurt school radicalism can take over (although most of the disciples of that viewpoint have moved on to enjoying their own slice of the pie -- being a revolutionary seems to be like being a professional lottery player...not worth the effort unless you win the whole enchilada).  Now and then, he takes a token shot at the Right and George Bush, before putting more pictures on a blackboard and drawing lines between them.

Over the last few days, there's been a trial bubble floated about Mr. Beck leaving Fox, based on a number of factors, including declining ratings and a veering away from the "mainstream conservative" politics that Fox generally represents, and leaning toward more of a populist form of conservatism.  If anything, it means he'll probably abandon a medium which really hasn't been as friendly to political commentators as one might've expected (see the experiences of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage on TV), and will return to radio and print, which is where the "alternative" news media got started and where people like him seem to thrive best. 

Why the meteoric rise and the almost-as-meteroric fall?  The real problem, I suspect, is not with the man, the means of the medium, but the message.  People would like to be able to scapegoat one group or another for the problems of the nation -- unions, Christians, patriots, liberals, Muslims, pick something -- but the problems we face are ones we've all had a hand in creating.  Support massive defense spending for "security?"  Well, guess what, a large share of the national debt is yours.  Support massive social spending for "compassion?"  Ditto.  A conspiracy's not a conspiracy any longer if it's out in the open and everyone knows about it.  Even the banksters have to feel a little uncomfortable in those quiet evening hours, when they wonder if they're diversified enough to survive the fall of the dollar or if a mob with torches and weedwackers will show up outside their Hampton mansions. 

On a deep level, I think that everyone knows that we're in serious trouble now and that there's no easy way out of it, if any way is possible at all.  Talking about conspiracies now is like talking about it being cloudy out when there's a hurricane raging overhead.  It's not as much fun to engage in "what if" games when the problem is right in your face and you're wondering if you can get out of the way of the falling pieces or if you'll be caught up in the debris as well. 

At least Mr. Beck has probably gotten some people to reevaluate their lives and start thinking about a post-collapse future, so his time on the air has probably not been for nothing.  Sadly, the rest of his time -- looking for hidden groups of people to blame for what's coming our way -- has been nothing but a distraction and an escape from the reality of why we're really where we're at. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Arabian Nights

Most people are already aware that Arab world (and possibly beyond, into Persia and China) is being rocked by a series of revolutions.  While there are some superficial differences between what is happened in the various nations (civil war in Libya, for example), the overall theme is similar from one nation to another -- throwing off dictators, in nations with great disparities of wealth, which have generally stayed in power due to foreign support and/or the ability to buy off their security machines through sales of oil.  Interestingly, that combination applies especially to Saudi Arabia. 

In some ways, what we're seeing is a replay of the European Revolutions of 1848, where the spark started in one nation (France) and spread across an entire culture (Europe).  Right now, while these events are still going on, it's really hard to say what is going to be the long term effect on the world.  Certainly, these nations have been ripe for some sort of serious reforms to take place for a long time now. 

However, the problem is that these events are occurring at a time when the world is already unstable and is still trying to find it's way out of the "small" crash of 2008 (small, because most institutions are still functional).  While there have been some signs of recovery, rising oil prices are invariably going to put a brake on that recovery as people and businesses start putting more money toward fuel costs.  Giving that $5 a gallon gas may already be in the works by summer, if not sooner, the ripple effect from the revolutions can't be denied.

There's also the question of how the West can ever hope to establish effective relations with the Arab world on the other side of all this.  Anyone who takes power at this point is going to be replacing Western-backed leaders and will be reluctant to mend fences with the West, or take aid from the West, due to being seen as no different from the people they're replacing.  Part of the post-WW2 strategy for America has been to try to control events and outcomes as much as possible in the Middle East, not much different from the Romans trying to make sure no one in Germania looked South with a gimlet eye. 

In truth, the ability of the West to control these events is probably in question, anyway.  America is dead broke and European is facing its own financial difficulties.  People might be tempted to say that the Chinese will be the real winners here, but they are also having their own issues, including holding a massive amount of U.S. debt of questionable worth.  From the Western perspective, the good news is that the oil still has to flow.  The bad news is that if we see the plunge of the dollar, the oil is going to flow to nations which still have a halfway stable currency. 

It's too soon to tell what the upshot of all this will be, but next few months look to be very "interesting."

Thursday, March 3, 2011


As the readers of this blog know, I've been away for a while, but now I'm back.  Thank you for the inquiries and compliments that many of you've sent in my absence and I feel both bad for making you send them and glad that you did.

Over the years that I've studied how civilizations collapse (and personal survival long before that), I've run into a lot of people who have inexplicable faith in the future.  They look at the past, see that there have been many problems which have come up, then looked at the solutions to those problems, then look at the future, assuming that the past is our guide.  In truth, we are entering new territory -- the point in time where we have absolutely no model for a mismanaged and overextended civilization, outside of how Rome fell.  People cannot contemplate the end of things, either of their own lives, or the "world" which has been built for them and which they in turn have built on. 

When we have the "balls" to point out to them that "Hey, your false idols are going to topple sooner or later, probably sooner," they have mixed reactions, from looking at us like we're a little nuts, to downright hostility to question the worldview which they have put so much faith into.  And, in truth, there are a few maladjusted "doom junkies" who, for deep psychological reasons, would love to see billions die off and humanity collapse back into the paleolithic for a long downhill slide.  But, for the rest of us, we live in the same space that enthusiastic optimists do...we go to the same places, have the same kinds of friends, like the same kind of food.  The only real difference is that we have taken a look at the future, with an unbiased eye, and know there's no way to escape the coming storm.  We're not happy about the way things are turning out, how the optimism of the 1950s has turned into the denial of 2011. 

This is not an easy thing to deal with.  Sometimes, we just have to take a breath, go smell the roses for a while, waste time in a hobby or other form of distraction.  We look at the abyss, but the abyss definitely looks back at us.  All the time.  For those of us who write publicly about these topics, who spent hours thinking about the collapse of modern civilization, poring over every last scrap of relevant information and item of bad news, it's even more painful to keep going and writing on the subject.  The truth is, when people call us"doom and gloom" for speaking the truth, we all too well know what a price there is to pay for going down this road of inquiry in the first place.  It gets hard to enjoy modern life, when you know it's getting late in the day and there's a cold, hard rain coming.  Not just modern life, with the bells and whistles, but everything.  Sometimes, we have to walk away for a little while, but we come back stronger than before, with more resolve, because we know that we can at least reach a few people who will take this to heart.

Not that I've ever cared much critics, and not that I would ever quit writing because someone got mad because I suggested that all they take for granted today will likely be gone in a few years -- to quote Austin Collins -- "It's easier to offend you than to hold my breath for days."  Instead, if I ever quit again, it's because I need to take a break and rediscover why I'm here and why I do what I do.  In the meantime, there's plenty of material to write about, including the battle over unions and what it really means in America, to the collapse of regimes in the middle east (bonus points to anyone who thinks that civil war in oil-producing regions is going to hose our economy once more), to personal preparedness.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for being real out there, not people lying to yourselves.