Thursday, 27 December 2012

Shadow Banks, Shadow Economies

Like it or not, currency systems have long been part of civilization. The types of currency range from gold and silver coins to fiat paper bills to digital, decentralized algorithms. What a proper currency allows an individual to do is have a common method for acquiring the services of goods and services. Barter systems were out-competed by currency in the richest countries, although barter returns after disasters and in the informal economy.

Even the most basic barter system allows one to engage in economic activity. Thus, price discovery, or the ability to accurately determine the cost of a product or service, is a precondition for a vibrant economy. Instead, high frequency trading, short sales, and interest rate rigging reduce the foundation of capitalism to a rigged carnival game. This process has been ongoing for decades, and is unlikely to change, no matter what legislation gets passed (as loopholes can be added). Legal gray areas are often not a bug, but a feature of new laws.

In thriving economies, ecosystems, political, and agricultural systems, diversity is a sign of life. Thriving economies allow for plenty of competition, coexistence of large and small. Although some entities out-compete others, others can arise to fill the void. Thriving ecosystems, such as a forest or jungle, have more types of species than a lawn or parking lot. Thriving democracies have a variety of parties. While some parties may become the most common mainstream ones, it is not impossible for other groups to get elected. An agricultural situation with several types of crops (and multiple species of each) means that a drought or pest is unlikely to destroy all of them.

Instead, we face monoculture in all areas. Markets are rigged to benefit a few big firms. Ecosystems are disrupted at even the microscopic level. Electoral districts are gerrymandered to benefit parties and incumbents. Factory farming has replaced conventional farming as a source of food production. The problem with monoculture is that catastrophic failures become all the larger, as they are inherently brittle.

As these systems fail, others arise outside of the existing legal and political framework. This "black market," informal economic sector is today called System D, as discussed before. As things are banned by increasingly corrupt governments, System D is poised to grow. Furthermore, System D itself is the future of many "legit" firms. The "shadow banking" system comprises the majority of the world's currency reserves, existing in legal limbo in offshore accounts. Somehow, multiple times the planet's GDP in debt was wasted and frittered into this black hole. As something new arises, Ragnarok style, the darkness will turn into the new system.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Supervillainy of Christmas

The modern Christmas tradition started as consumer goods became increasingly cheap, so that each year became a boost to the economy. A month before Christmas in the US, the Friday after Thanksgiving became known as "Black Friday" due to stores going from "red" debt to "black" growth. While there are amusing takes on Christmas consumerism, I will talk on other aspects.

Christmas, however, existed long before then. It originated from a number of pagan and heathen Winter Solace-based celebrations around Europe. One was the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a drunken festival. Another was the Norse Yule. In the Norse celebration, the chief god Odin (appearing as an old man with a beard and red outfit) would fly around hunting monsters in his Wild Hunt. Children left out their stockings with carrots inside for Odin's horse Sleipnir, in hopes the All-Father would leave them gifts.

When Christianity spread, missionaries would adopt local symbols, customs, and traditions to "convert" the locals. Witness Odin becoming Saint Nick. Often times, the best way to assimilate a conquered people is co-opting their own traditions. The current incarnation of Christmas, for instance, has become synonymous with gifts, snow, and Santa Claus around the world. From Spanish colonization of the New World to Christians sending armed missionaries to convert at sword-point in the Dark Ages to countless other instances, Christmas itself has potential for supervillainy. Just imagine a world ruled by Santa, perhaps getting in touch with his Norse roots.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Democratizing Defense

 “If you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, it is certain that you will create a despotic government to be your master. The wise despot, therefore, maintains among his subjects a popular sense that they are helpless and ineffectual.” -Frank Herbert

Most of human history can be recorded as an oligarchy run by a small few. This may have its roots in early settlements, where a warlord of some sort provides protection in exchange for the labor of others. This arrangement is known as feudalism, and isn't a good model for those on the bottom. However, this stagnant structure was prone to catastrophic upheaval, often brought about by a change in technology. Either the warlords use them to solidify their control, someone else out-competes them (often instituting a larger model of "feudalism" in the process of empire-building), or the technology gives the peons more power to demand rights and bargaining conditions (thus forming the basis of citizenship).

The feudal arrangement only lasts as long as people feel secure under the status quo. When the balance of power is tilted in the citizens' favor, this leads to good things. The English peasants skilled with the longbow, for instance, are one reason the Magna Carta was signed into law, starting a tradition/social contract that was only recently revoked.

Warfare has become increasingly complex and specialized over the industrial revolution, meaning that an militia of musket-wielding farmers was no longer in the same league as a professional military. Muskets gave way to repeating rifles and the machine guns and assault rifles. Personal transport expanded from a soldier's own feet to motorized cavalry and mechanized infantry. To compete against a professional army in a conventional war without a similarly equipped army of your own became an increasingly suicidal endeavor. And even if you had an army, you had to constantly spend money to stay ahead. This Red Queen hypothesis meant that even a healthy lead in military tech could be maintained only by increasing amounts of funding.

Of course, plenty of forces lack the technologies, personnel, and gear to fight a conventional war. That is the reason for the rise of guerrilla tactics in brushfire conflicts across the world. The successful guerrilla does not try to kill or drive out the enemy, but instead cause them to overreact and overextend themselves. If a cheap $10 bomb causes $10000 worth of damage, that's a huge "return on investment." The overwhelming complexity of modern infrastructure is likewise at fault, presenting a "target rich environment." Such is the cold calculations of 4th Gen Warfare.

We are "fortunate" enough to witness the hollowing out of governments over recent decades. However, despite what you may think, individuals are not powerless. There are methods of fighting back that involve no violence, no sabotage, and are perfectly legal (for now). The kleptocrats (government or corporate brands are merely the same thing now) want to you be afraid of everything: guns, scientists, terrorists, your own shadows, while the things worth being concerned with are outright ignored (or worse). The methods they use are "security theater," a sort of pantomime routine to try to preemptively subdue unrest.

The battle of the 21st century is to build up  "open source" solutions against centralized incompetence and corruption. There is a philosophical background to such a strategy. If attacked politically/economically/physically (as can happen to anything truly new, potentially threatening, or successful), there should be a deterrent to such an attack. Lawyers are the current weapon of choice, as lawsuits and public relations battles can make/break political careers and stock prices. There is also opportunities for political judo/jujitsu, such as using an enemy's threats to sue against them.

Nukes and "weapons of mass destruction" may serve in a similar role for nation states. During the Cold War, "Mutually Assured Destruction" kept the missiles in their silos and troops on the borders. Likewise, there is the ancient Chinese philosopher, Mo Zi. A sort of forerunner to rationalists and consequentialis, the Mohists focused on defense and making warfare uneconomical. This was one method, they envisioned, for forming fraternity and brotherhood among mankind.

To accomplish this, they spread knowledge of defensive engineering, machines to break sieges (as in counter an enemy's siege engines), and generally make war too costly. The economics of guerrilla warfare likewise scale towards the guerrillas or "insurgency" (whether armed or not). Protestors demanding a dictator stand down can bring out riot cops and soldiers, but the operating costs of the riot control outweigh starving citizens with nothing to lose. What happens from there is up in the air.

There is another topic I would like to touch in, in the wake of recent tragedies in the US and China. The mass shooting in CT and the school stabbing in China presented examples of the pathetic, deranged behavior of spree killers. While laws may prevent these demented individuals from acquiring weapons through legal channels, those so inclined will still find a way. There's a few cases of individuals using legal weapons to stop spree killings. I hold that all have a right to self defense utilizing lethal force if required.

I believe the motivations behind spree killers may often be stress, a perverse desire for attention, and feelings of desperation. A missing social safety net (which has been thoroughly gutted) can prevent individuals from getting the mental health help they need. (Also, crime and weapons-related deaths may be significantly reduced if the Drug War was ended, but that's another topic.) Renaming those pathetic killers as "Idiot #6" or "Moron #32" may also dissuade those seeking infamy.

Regardless of motivations, I am highly skeptical of any political efforts arising from tragedies. Politicians will ride a tsunami of blood to prominence whenever they can, from the PATRIOT Act rammed through Congress after 9/11 to other ill-advised bills. Firearms and weapons bans, even if they pass, are likely to be ignored by such idiots, and the ease of manufacturing firearms will not go away anytime soon. The lethality of firearms also cuts the other way, with even the elderly and disabled able to employ them against a would be mass murderer. Spree killers are a statistical outlier in firearms deaths in the USA, as even drug gangs come in second being shot by the police.

I believe that self defense starts with oneself. Self protection, whether by weapon or martial art, is the last ditch effort if all others fail. Self defense is a variety of techniques one can use to prevent harm to oneself and one's body. Chief among them is common sense: be aware of your surroundings, don't walk into the bad parts of town at night, travel in groups, tell friends where you are going, and so on. Another one is that if you encounter such a situation where you are attacked, flee. Even if you have a weapon. Always assume your enemy has a better weapon and more skill with it, and he's got friends with weapons on the way. This is why "duty to retreat" makes sense tactically as well as legally. A method of self protection, whether a concealed pistol or krav maga, is for when running fails. This is one reason I practice parkour in addition to martial arts and shooting.

Knowledge, in the form of common sense and training, is the basis for a democratizing self defense. The protagonists of "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson create an online database on waging defensive warfare and the like. In an upcoming novel of mine, a character trains in the fictional discipline of EAST (Evasion-Assault Survival Training), a combination of parkour, krav maga/combatives, and combat shooting for when firearms are available. In the setting, it was developed by a group of Mohist-inspired martial artists and military vets. They post instructions and strategy online, free for all.

While one cannot always defend oneself in the manner one envisions (if ever), having skills and equipment and not using it is better that not having it at all. A smart self-defender will not go into a back alley and call out every shady character for a fist fight. That's behavior more worthy of a Darwin award than anything else. As the interests of the social/economic elite and general public begin to differ, we'll have to start doing more stuff on our own. So best get used to it now.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Return to Space

No supervillain blog would be complete without touching on space travel. While humanity took baby steps to the moon and sent a few robots across the Solar System, the end of the Cold War saw a decline in government-funded interest in space flight in favor of financial speculation. Despite the international economic corruption tumor, some billionaires and firms have good plans.

Elon Musk, for instance, wants to build a city on Mars. Advancement of 3D printing and similar technologies means that on-site manufacturing (e.g. sending robots to build a colony before people show up) are one thing that's improved since humanity's last trip into the void. Others have also announced a return to the moon. Some of the people involved were involved in the Apollo program, so they have experienced individuals there.

Whether these efforts will get off the ground, or be dragged down by a society increasingly wracked with collapsing infrastructure and poverty, remains to be seen. I wish them luck. We've spent far too long wasting our non-renewable resources on suburban sprawl and financial fraud. Let's get back up there. Our species depends on it. Besides, what evil overlord can resist a lunar death ray?