Monday, August 29, 2011

To Prep or Not to Prep?

The posts which have received the most comments on the blog have been centered around "prepping" and the speed at which we expect collapse to occur, if we expect it to occur at all.  Prepping has long been a staple of the idea of personal survival, even if it hasn't always occurred in the framework of a breakdown of modern civilization.  After all, what's a root cellar but a means of putting food aside for when it might not be available in the future?  Prepping, itself, is just a modern, reasonable, interpretation of "storing up for winter," expect that we're storing up for when there's nothing left on grocery shelves and never will be left again.

The attitudes around it, either favoring prepping, or dismissing it, seem to really reflect our own personal views of how we think the course of civilization is most likely to proceed.  Logically, this makes a lot of sense.  If we think that we'll see a gradual decline, why would we spend a lot of time and effort on acquiring supplies that would likely never get used, when we could still obtain what we needed?  Likewise, if we expect that the bottom could fall out from things overnight, we would want to have all we would potentially need because we would think that we could not acquire it again. 

Logic tends to point to this being the safer route.  The assumption has always been the collapse of industrial civilization through attrition of resources as being the most likely form of collapse, to the point where looking at anything else becomes somewhat "heretical."  The idea of a gradually decreasing slope on a curve of resource availability and industrial activity is just there to keep people from getting too nervous about the contraction.  The reality is that a best-fit isn't going to reflect what is most likely to happen -- a chaotic curve of fits and starts as we see pockets of collapse appear, followed by desperate human activity to try to restore some sense of normalcy (the "bailouts" in the past few years as evidence of this).  For a casual observer, that would be a blip on the radar, but for the person living through a food riot, it would be very real.

Collapse through de-industrialization would proceed in fits and starts, but what about a more sudden and profound sort of collapse?  A pandemic, resulting from the bird flu or somesuch, would be devastating and would quickly spell the end for our complex systems as people would not be able to maintain them.  War of some sort is always a spectre waiting in the wings.  The poles shifting, pick something.  If we look at things from a mathematical perspective, the odds that there will be a civilization-ending event are almost certain, given enough time.

In the end, I think a reasonable case can be made for erring on the side of having more goods set aside, than not.  In a sense, this is a companion to Pascal's wager -- instead of dealing with the existence of God, we're dealing with the possibility of collapse.  Does it make more sense to prepare for a collapse that may not come within our lifetime or does it make more sense to assume it won't occur and then be left with only hoping that it doesn't?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Like Minds

It's been nearly a year since I started this blog, and a number of things have become abundantly clear.  One thing is that there is a growing sense among people that things really aren't headed in the right direction.  It may be from environmental concerns, too many promises made by governments with shaky finance, or just a gut feeling that we are entering a time when various unseen factors begin to create a complex pattern which will bring civilization to its knees.  Another is that people are looking for information and motivation, anything which will help them both prepare and also to come to grips with what seems inevitable at this point (revolutions, war, famine, pick something).  However, the last is the fact that some people have also gone down the same road that the Leibowitz Society has, that of understanding that there is much valuable information which needs to be saved and preserved. 

Added to the resources links are a couple of items that people may not have looked at before, the Ozymandius Society and the Long Now Foundation.  The contrast between the two ideas could not be more different.  The Ozymanidus Society would like to preserve some record of the apex of human knowledge, going out probably far beyond the lifespan of our species.  I've had a few discussions with the gentleman who has initiated that project and it's interesting to see where our ideas both intersect and diverge. 

The Long Now Foundation is a completely different effort.  Instead of being one highly intelligent person, it is a gathering of highly intelligent people, among them one Neal Stephenson, whose novel Anathem has been some of the inspiration of the Leibowitz Society.  Their idea is to take a long-term view with regard to human thought, to create a body of thought which lasts beyond the few milliseconds that our information-saturated minds seem to be able to retain any pattern.  While the idea of a dark age is implicit in their work, it is a dark age of the mind and human cognition, not a physical one which involved the collapse of human society.
But, in both cases, there is still the idea that we need to save our thinking, our knowledge, our ideas.  The Leibowitz Society sits somewhere between these two extremes, recognizing on one hand that the pace of events in human civilization, the "black swans" so to speak, are aligning so quickly now that there isn't a lot of hope of stemming a collapse.  On the other hand, there is the idea that we can and should preserve knowledge and ideas for a future age, as well as for their own sake. 

While part of the "mission" of the Leibowitz Society is to collect and preserve knowledge, we need to step back a minute from storing books and trying to figure out what would be of value, and instead just think for ourselves for a time.  What ideas catch our interest?  What theory or insight has been valuable in our lives and would be of value to others?  Is it psychology?  Philosophy?  Applied mathematics?  I would be interested in hearing from people who have rejected the "fast food" of modern pop culture and begun to explore the pathways of their own mind.  This, I think, is where we begin to see that we are not alone, that we are indeed part of a common vision of letting our knowledge outlive ourselves.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Expiration Dates

The idea of long-term planning in prepardness is something which doesn't get a lot of play in the real world setting.  People seem to expect that a crisis will last a year or two, then we'll dust off, pick up the pieces, and drive down to pick up a pizza.  Or something like that.  The coda on every piece of fiction written by a survivalist seems to show the surviving protagonists relaxing, with the lights back on in a family setting that is almost reminescent of the ideal of the fifties. 

In contrast, the more mainstream post-apocalyptic fiction tends to look toward the opposite view, especially cinematic fiction.  Looking at the world of Mad Max, it's clear that there is going to be no quick and easy recovery in that setting.  Other films like Cyborg, Steel Dawn, and The Ultimate Warrior, all seem to show the same idea, that a world which has taken centuries, if not millenia, to assemble itself in a certain way, falls apart, then the crash is going to be as loud as the ascent was spectacular. 

Of the two views, I think the long-term collapse view is far more realistic.  When Rome (the ancient era equivalent of America) collapsed, it took over a thousand years for Europe to reassemble itself in any form that even began to rival what the Roman Empire had been at its height.  Therefore, part of the "mission" of the Leibowitz Society is to encourage long-term survival planning, not on the order of a month, a year, or even a decade. 

Modern "prepping" seems to operate with the mindset that if enough things are put to the side, there will be no problems.  Firearms and ammunition are always on the list, but what happens when the firearm is still around, but the 3-4 cases of ammunition stored up don't work as intended any longer?  What about the several pairs of shoes with soles that crack from depolymerization and the socks that don't stay up because they were made with elastic and no other provision to keep them in place?

Realistically speaking, it seems reasonable that the model for where human industry will settle at will be somewhere prior to the dawn of the industrial age.  In other words, if it existed, or could be done, in the late 1700s, it's probably fair to say it will be possible after the collapse.  So, with regard to firearms, black powder flintlocks seem likely to be around, but modern ammunition will probably not be likely to be produced.  There are some areas, such as medicine, that will at least benefit from modern knowledge (no more bleeding with leeches), even if not all the technology (x-rays) are available.  One of the most striking things will likely be the "flattening" of society and labor, as high-tech agriculture is replaced by sweat and toil. 

I drew up the following list as an intellectual exercise to try to figure out how long things would last following a complete collapse, based on general expiration dates.  Obviously, it's not complete, and these are just rough estimates.  But, it's interesting to still think this through in terms of a generational exercise.  If we accept the core principle behind the Leibowitz Society -- long term storage of knowledge -- then we also should accept the idea that the preparations we've made for ourselves to get through the coming collapse are also likely to be used by our descendants, and we should plan accordingly for them, too.

2 years:
Canned foods, medicines, seeds

5 years:
Gasoline, diesel, kerosene
Batteries (dry and wet cell, lipo)
Non-leather shoes
Pens and ink

20 years:
Modern roofs, acidic paper

20-40 years:
Ammunition, preserved foods

50 years:
Metal tools

100 years:
Wooden furniture, wine, distilled liquor, firearms

While not inclusive, it would be interesting to hear of examples of people setting things aside for the long term, or if they can think of prepping supplies which don't have long shelf lives and or will be used up quickly and people will have to find substitutes for them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London's Burning

On September 7th, 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed London after a smattering of RAF attacks on Berlin.  Particularly excited by this turn of events was Hermann Goering, who telegrammed his wife Emmy and bragged "I've sent my bombers to London!  London's burning!"  The irony, of course, was that the shift by the Luftwaffe to the bombing of London provided a respite to RAF Fighter Command that was essentially on the ropes by that point in time, running short on aircraft and especially short on pilots.  Now, 71 years later after Germany failed to destroy England's defenses, London is once more on fire, but this time her own people are doing the deed.

There may be a handful of surviving RAF pilots who are now asking themselves just why they flung their Hurricanes and Spitfires into the sky against the Messerschmidts and Heinkels, if the end result was going to be angry mobs burning down shops, houses, and businesses.  Did they suspect that the nation of England might well be destroyed by the barbarians from within? 

There doesn't seem to necessarily be an easy way to categorize the riots.  Nativists would try to point to immigration or race as being the source of the problem, but there were plenty of pictures of Anglo-Saxon looking folking swinging heavy objects at police cars or being dragged off by riot cops.  Marxists, on the other side of the fence, would try to blame lack of economic opportunity, but can a convincing case be made when a Sony distribution facility was targeted and looted?  (I tend to doubt that anyone is going to put "The Internationale" on their stolen iPods)

It goes without saying that there won't be any shortage of opinions on the cause of these riots (and other ones around the world).  I don't think it's unlikely that we'll begin seeing the same sort of thing start to occur in America, either.  However, one explanation lies in complexity theory, the branch of mathematics which deals with spontaneous organization of patterns.  In short, complexity theory notes that patterns can arise where they didn't previously exist, generally caused by energy entering a semi-closed system.  An example of this is a neon sign -- neon gas just sits in the tube until electricity is applied, when the molecules begin to glow.  An even better example is a spontaneous traffic jam -- for no real reason, cars begin slowing en masse, until traffic slows to a crawl.  Just as quickly, it can dissipate, the road becoming clear once more, without anyone really knowing the cause.  Yet another example is the action of acts defending their colony or digging a nest.

While we see the effect of destabilizing industrial society in the riots, complex systems also seem to exist at a higher level in places like Washington.  A poster commented here a couple of weeks ago about the debt crisis solving itself, if the government would simply quit spending.  We look at the "debt ceiling deal," and ask just how each party can support something so meaningless, claim some victory, blame the other side, and kick the can down the road.  On top of that, we ask how someone like Alan Greenspan can just say that the printing presses can keep running, or Bernake can just float a trial balloon about QE3?  The answer is that our system of leadership has taken on a particularly rigid and chaotic pattern after years of energy inputs in the form of lobbying, power grabs over budgeting, and everything else that goes with fighting over the spoils in a late-state empire. 

The pattern which has emerged is very much like that traffic jam -- nothing is going anywhere and no one really knows why, even though there's no wreck on the road, no construction to channel the traffic down to one lane.  Nothing moves, nothing changes, it just keeps plodding on to the inevitable point where it collapses into chaos, once there is no more energy to feed into the system.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The New Tets

In early 1968, the Vietnamese communists launched a surprise offensive against the American and South Vietnamese forces, which aimed at seizing control of various strategically important areas, as well as triggering an uprising against a politically dubious South Vietnamese government.  The offensive, from a military standpoint, was a failure, being soundly defeated by the American and South Vietnamese militaries and badly weakening the North Vietnamese/Vietcong forces for a period of time.  However, from a political standpoint, it was a rousing success, for the perception in America was that, in spite of the power of the American military, and demonstrating success in terms of controlling the battlefield, the communist forces were resilient enough to withstand everything that had been thrown against them and continue the fight, despite predictions from government representatives that the war was being won.  Ultimately, the view began to shift that victory in the war was not possible.

Like the Tet Offensive, two events happened toward the end of last week which have the power to permanently alter the public perception of the American empire and cost it the lifeblood which sustains it -- the confidence of the American people.

The first is the death 30 Americans (and 8 Afghans), in a "rocket attack" on a CH-47 transport helicopter during a raid in a Taliban-controlled area in Afghanistan.  In many ways, this attack is a symbolic throwback to the Tet Offensive in 1968.  While only involving one chopper and a small number of deaths, it very much echoes the events in Vietnam where the public had been confident about the strategy of the American military and there was a perception that the communist forces had suffered so many defeats that it was only a matter of time before they were rendered useless as a military force.  Likewise, with Afghanistan, the American public has been told for years that the Taliban was effectively defeated as a functioning military force, that the death of bin Laden was a major turning point, and it's only a matter of time before things are wrapped up and the troops could come home. 

The loss of these lives is another reminder that the war is far from over, that the Taliban can still continue to fight.  In both Vietnam, and in Afghanistan, the nature of the wars themselves is that victory is almost impossible to achieve -- it would come only when there was no one willing to pick up a rifle and go fight the Americans.  And, like McNamara after Tet, Leon Panetta has come under pressure to explain the "credibility gap" between what the public has been told and the reality of the war.

The other earthshaking event for the American empire is the downgrading of the credit rating of the United States, or how confident people can be they'll get their money back if they lend it to America.  Like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the struggle to turn the recession/depression around and get back to something like the boom years of the late 90s, or at least contain the damage, has been an ongoing effort, one in which the American public was told that we have turned the corner, that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  However, all the economic reports and anecdotes have been pointing in the other direction and Moody's has finally just said what everyone who has been paying attention already knew -- that the staggering American debt was beginning to endanger the economy to the point where investment in the nation was beginning to become risky.

The United States has had a AAA rating for almost a hundred years, since 1917.  Now, it is AA+ and will likely drop to AA once it is seen that the government is still unable to make singificant progress on tackling the debt and deficit problem.  Likewise, the Chinese bond rating agency has re-rated America from A+ to A.  The response to these has ranged from the tepid (Greenspan saying "we can print more money") to the profound (China saying "the dollar is finished).  Nowhere in this is anything which can even begin to be calming to the average person in America who is now wondering if they will have anything of worth at all in the bank when they retire, or even when they go to the grocery next week. 

Nations are allowed a catastrophe or two from time to time, as the citizens have a shared common culture and outlook, but empires like American aren't afforded these luxuries.  People support an empire only as long as it is "winning," and look to desert it when it isn't.  The Soviet Empire appeared to begin down the path of disintegration in earnest when its military might was questioned after not being able to win Afghanistan, and the incompetence of the Soviet management of domestic affairs took another shot after Chernobyl.  A few years later, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist as a political entity.  Have the "New Tets" created the momentum to push America down the same path?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Crash, Bang, Boom

I didn't check the news between about 7 in the morning and just a little while ago...and was reminded of exactly how fast the economy can start to implode again, much along the lines of what happened back in fall 2008, when I went to lunch and came back to see a five hundred point drop.  The stock market is down around five percent, oil is down below 90 dollars a barrel (signaling that people believe that demand is going to drop off shortly, due to the failing economy), etc. 

The big difference between then and now is that I think there's a sea change in attitudes toward the economy and recovery, and not for the better.  In 2008, Barack Obama was elected partly because people saw some sign of hope with a change in party at the White House.  This followed on the heels of a massive bailout package which started triggered the deficits north of a trillion dollars.  People believed for much of 2009 and 2010 that recovery was still possible, that all the measures taken by the Fed and the government would bear some sort of fruit, that green shoots were coming up all over the place.


The debt discussion and the tacit admission that there is no political will in Washington to even begin to take any serious steps to address seem to have been the last straw, the American version of the Argentinian government admitting at the end of 2001 that there was no way to deal with the debt, that the problem had gone too far and there was nothing to do but watch the barn burn down. 

People are still going to raise the rallying cry that the crisis can be overcome, that we can come to terms with the debt and deal effectively with it, save the economy, and so on.  Hope is a good thing and we can't live without it, but there's also a time to be realistic and understand that a storm is coming.  Whether or not this is going to be the last high point on the roller coaster before the big 200 foot drop, or we're going to see more ups and downs, it has to be clear that we're not going to return to "normal" again, maybe not in our lifetimes or our children's lifetimes, that the figurative lights are going out across America, and the industrial world, maybe for good. 

While people make think it's getting too late in the game to prepare for what's going to happen down the road, especially folks who are coming to the realization that things are getting ugly, the truth is that anything in the way of preparation may be helpful.  The position of the Leibowitz Society has generally been that the most likely collapse scenario is one of the relatively gradual decline (in other words, you'll definitely see it coming and not have to run from a horde of zombies), but that the decline isn't going to be linear.  In other words, there are going to be peaks and valleys of stability and instability on the way down.  Instabilities might well cause situations, for example, where electrical power is lost for a time or store shelves get emptied in a buying panic.  In times like this, it will be absolutely critical to be as self-reliant as possible, where "conventional" prepping will be invaluable.  I picked up a book recently, called "The Prepper's Pocket Guide" with an eye toward reviewing it for people who were new to the idea of prepping and long-term survival.  While it's not as comprehensive as a lot of other works, it's a very good entry-level work and has a lot of useful information for people who are new to the subject or just looking for a one-stop information source to flip through on a regular basis.  Recommended.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


When most people think of surviving for the long term, they focus on sensible areas, like how to produce food, how to take care of medical problems, self-defense, etc.  However, one area which is often neglected, at least from my experience, is entertainment.  While people are wise to concentrate on the fundamentals of survival, they fail to remember that they are not going to want to work non-stop in the fields or the workshop and might want to find some entertainment to break the monotony. 

There are obviously a number of forms of entertainment available, such as music, sports, art, but gaming is a time-honored way of passing the time.  Games of various sorts go back millenia, to ancient Rome, Babylon, India and Japan, to name a few.  In the modern age, whole websites are devoted to board gaming (such as Board Game Geek) and there is almost an endless variation of those games.  Out of all the games available, the one that still seems to stand out is chess.

Chess, over all other games, has a few advantages:

1. The rules are easy to learn and haven't changed in several hundred years.  There's no "house rules" under most circumstances. 

2. The rules are easy to learn, fitting maybe on one sheet of paper, making it very easy to learn, but taking a lifetime to master.

3. The playing components are simple to make, durable and minimal.  32 pieces and a board can be made out of crude wood, clay, etc.  It's portable and easy to store.  Cards are complicated to make and wear out with regular use.  True-rolling dice are difficult to make.

4. The language of chess is universal, as it's all math and symbols.  Anyone can play a game with anyone else without speaking a common language.

5. There is, for the average person, enough depth in the game that they can never really grasp all the fundamentals of it.

If you've never really played chess before, I encourage you to give it a try.  If you've played a few times and gotten shelled by your opponent, go find a few books which can give you drills and problems designed to help you get a handle on enjoying the game.  Even while we are still living in our modern information-age society, there is a level of enjoyment in playing a game of chess that you won't find in more (superficially) sophisticated forms of entertainment.