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Sandmonkey gives us a compelling rant about events up to last Thursday, and commenter Pablo at Protein Wisdom extracts a money quote:

This is a revolution without leaders. Three Million individuals choosing hope instead of fear and braving death on hourly basis to keep their dream of freedom alive.

Mikey NTH, on the same thread, differs:

Without a strong, disciplined force on the ground or nearby the destruction of an autocracy can lead to worse tyranny as the only people with that sort of discipline are usually the worst people ever – the wanna-be tyrants who are not only because they were suppressed.

In the Age of Alinsky I wonder about that, I really do.

Certainly Mikey NTH has internalized the way it’s gone, with some slight differences in detail, throughout the Twentieth Century. The Revolutionary Forces coalesce around the Great Leader, who inspires them to overthrow the Tyrant; the Great Leader then is installed as head of State, from which eminence he gradually tightens control over the people until another Revolution is incited to overthrow the Tyrant. From Lenin to Mugabe is no distance, and it is, after all, how Egypt ended up with Naguib to Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak in the first place.

But revolutions have also failed, and their failure reveals the weak spot: the Great Leader. Identify, Isolate, Target! People like Sandmonkey get tossed in jail, or worse, because the Tyrant and his goons can read ol’ Saul as well as anybody, and may well be smart enough to invent the procedure from first principles, even if they can’t condense it to aphorism. In the Standard Model, if you can prevent the Great Leader from arising in the first place the Revolution never condenses from an inchoate fog of resistance to a force capable of sweeping away the Old Regime, so you try to identify proto-Leaders, isolate them, and target them for assassination or incarceration. Sandmonkey might be such a proto-Leader, and in any case there are plenty of jail cells and bullets are cheap. If a Leader arises anyway, it becomes vital to take him out by any means necessary, because then the Revolution will disperse back into its component individuals.

Here in the U.S. the tea parties have handled this by simply not having identifiable leaders. Sarah Palin is an important inspiration for the tea parties, and so is Glen Beck, but shooting or jailing either or both of them would have no perceptible effect on the organization of the tea parties, which is dispersed to the point that when people with Führerwünsch arise, they get slapped down by the tea partiers themselves. (This is what’s really at the root of the controversy over CPAC.) The tea partiers don’t want an identifiable leader, because if one such existed he or she could be isolated and targeted. Maybe somebody should write a book about the principle.

Without knowing anything at all about Egypt other than superficial crap like pyramids, I would have to recommend something like that to the Egyptians who want change. Don’t organize using the Standard Model, with a Leader and cells and an identifiable thrust. You don’t kill an amoeba by poking it with a sharp stick. You don’t need a notochord, let alone a backbone, because they can be cut and the organism dies. You don’t want a vertebrate Movement, you want a slime mold that gradually takes over. Keep it simple, keep it fluid, keep it chaotic in the modern mathematical sense, with orbits individuals will follow as a consequence of the situation rather than pursuing a detailed Plan that can be disrupted.

In Sandmonkey’s followup he proposes something of the sort:

…start registering the protesters. Get their names, ages, addresses & districts… with such Proper citizen organization and segmentation, we’ll have the contact information and location of all the protesters that showed up, and that could be transformed into voting blocks in parliamentary districts…

Yep, that’s the way to do it, with an important addendum: no Great Leaders! Local committees need chairmen and identifiable figures to rally around, but don’t let it get farther than that. Make the organization wide, not tall; the organizing principle should be the visit to somebody’s house, the tweet, the Facebook post — the Internet can facilitate it, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. You can plot over coffee in somebody’s house just as well or better than you can using the Web, and even with curfews there’s no off switch for that procedure.

Sandmonkey also cites, without identifying them, the two hazards likely to frustrate this: impatience and reliance on the Standard Model. He exhibits the impatience himself:

Mubarak is still President, Emergency law is still in effect, the parliament hasn’t been dissolved, new elections haven’t been called for and the constitution is still that flexible document that the ruling party can change whenever they see fit.

He wants the changes right now, and that isn’t going to happen. Organizing into voting blocs of neighbors and acquaintances who can reassure one another is the right way to do it, but it won’t take visible effect for a long time.

The other protesters haven’t understood yet, but the Government does:

The participants will start complaining about the lack of direction or movement leaders. The government will start complaining that the protesters haven’t offered a single person to represent them and negotiate with the government for them…

In other words, the protesters want a Leader to make speeches and rally around, because they want Standard Model reassurance and don’t understand that that creates a weak spot. The Government, too, wants the protesters to name and rally around a Leader, because once they do, a single 7.62 round (or bribe/intimidation/threat against family) breaks the Movement into nonthreatening individual bits.

The only thing that might work is the bottom up, leaderless approach, and the real danger there is that people will give up and stop pushing — which is why the lists and low-level organization are needed. I don’t know if it will work. I’m pretty sure the classic approach won’t.

Hope, like the inspiration for this, comes from Tunisia. After all the hooraw and scrambling, I still haven’t seen the name or picture of an identifiable Tunisian Great Leader in the Press, which is as or more anxious to identify one as the Government must have been — and for the same reason: it allows them to simplify their approach because only one person or a small group need be addressed. If the Egyptian protesters can build their organizational strength without creating a Leader for the World to identify and attack, they might have a chance.

Michael Lewis tells Steven Colbert about somebody who bought twenty million nickel coins, a million dollars’ worth, from the U.S. Mint. Jeremy Taylor at TV Replay snarks, “So hotshot financial types are hoarding nickels, apparently. This can’t be a positive sign for the economy.” (h/t Reynolds)

Let’s do some arithmetic, shall we?

According to the U.S. Mint, a nickel coin is 25% nickel, the balance (75%, duh) copper, and weighs as close to exactly 5.00 grams as the Mint can get it. That’s a total of 100 million grams, which is 100,000 kilograms or 100 tonnes, containing 25 tonnes of nickel and 75 tonnes of copper. (In the video clip, Colbert remarks that “…it must weigh a ton.” Guess again, Stephen.)

In English measure, that’s 27.55778 (short) tons or 55,115.57 pounds (avoirdipois) of nickel, 82.67335 tons or 165,346.7 pounds of copper.

On the London Metal Exchange as of 22:30 GMT 5 February 2011, copper is bringing $4.5296 per pound, and nickel $12.7346 per pound. If we assume that refining costs are nil, the copper is worth $748,954.41232 and the nickel would bring $701,874.737722, for a total of $1,450,829.15; our investor’s strategy is looking pretty good; he’s already made a profit of almost half a million dollars, and prices are still going up. Of course, refining costs are not nil — the coins, being part copper and part nickel, would count as scrap to be refined, and their worth is correspondingly reduced; by how much isn’t quickly Googleable.

But — If our wise investor is an American, things look a little different. The proportions of nickel and copper in a 5¢ coin have varied over the years, because the nickel is the last American coin whose value as metal should be approximately equal to its value as money. The Mint has adjusted the mix, now more nickel and less copper, now the other way, to keep the metal value close to par. Please note that, like oil, the prices on the LME are primarily quoted in U.S. dollars — and, like the price of oil, the price of metals more nearly reflects the value of the dollar, or rather of its inverse. The investor hasn’t made any money — the not quite one-and-a-half million dollars is worth, now, what the million he paid for the coins was not long ago.

The investor isn’t turning a profit, he’s hedging against inflation, and not doing too badly at it. Primary metals like nickel and copper are used in manufacturing and industry in general, and demand for them (and therefore what people will pay for them) is trending a bit downward as the world-wide recession takes hold. Their prices don’t move fast, except for minor fluctuations, so they aren’t bad inflation or deflation hedges if you’ve got the scratch to buy enough to make it worthwhile; 100 tons is a pretty small metals holding. For those of us whose bank accounts don’t have seven or more figures before the decimal point, it isn’t possible to trade primary metals in large enough quantities to make it a useful investment.

What this does tell us, though, is that it’s time to take a tip from Argentina, or (better) from those who managed to survive the Seventies. If the price of a nickel as metal has gone up by half again, it means the price of stuff at Wal*Mart is just before doing the same, and we’d do well to stock up on stuff instead of keeping the bank account flush. The talking heads will be telling you not to do that, because if everybody does it makes the problem much, much worse — but I lived through Dick and Jimmah, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that when they aren’t making reassuring noises on teevee, those same talking heads are paddling like mad, trying to get rid of dollars and buy stuff that will be worth something after the prices spike. Effum. If you can do it, buy stuff and don’t keep money. “Every man for himself” is the rule they’ll be going by; no reason to bail them out.

Sometimes you just have to wonder WTF people are thinking. Or if they’re thinking.

SF author Jack Vance once proposed[1] the “Simíc Principle”, after the (fictional) philosopher who proposed it. The Principle doesn’t lend itself to brief aphorism, but the basic idea agrees with one of mine[3], viz., that many of our attitudes and behaviors were fixed during the tens or hundreds of millenia our ancestors lived as hunters, gatherers, and scavengers, and those attitudes and behaviors are sometimes a bad fit to a modern industrial society, which after all has only been existence for a paltry couple of centuries.

The Simíc Principle is that humans evolved in an environment which contained continual life-threatening danger, from saber-toothed tigers to volcanoes, and are therefore adapted by evolution to perform best in such an environment. It follows that a diet of sheer terror is necessary for our physical and mental health. According to Vance, Simíc proposed a dedicated corps of public servants, the Ferocifers, whose selfless mission is to severely frighten people on a regular basis, as their good health requires.

Many of the features of modern industrial society, especially some of the more annoying ones, can be explained by reference to the Simíc Principle. The modern human being, coddled in the arms of industrial production and ordered society, is remarkably safe compared to our ancestors, and thus doesn’t experience many really severe frights. It might be expected that compensatory behavior would arise, to provide the needed rush of terror. Extreme sports and carnival rides come immediately to mind as manifestations, but there are others which are perhaps less obvious. There is, for instance, procrastination, failure to take care of routine matters until the accumulated delays add up to a crisis situation. Crises are scary, and the resulting release of adrenalin and endorphins feels good because the procrastinator’s body is trying to satisfy its need for fright.

Even our more recent ancestors, living in agricultural societies that included relatively safe houses and villages (modulo the occasional Viking raid), might have suffered some degree of terror deficiency, and developed campfire stories and Faerie tales to compensate. The clear modern equivalent is the conspiracy theory. Sharing the faux news that the Trilateral Commission is coming to reduce you to servitude, or Big Pharma wants to kill your kids with mercury-laden injections, produces the frissón the body craves. Given demand, supply follows; we thus have Al Gore and a host of others scaring us silly with Tales of Global Warming, preachers terrifying their congregations with the fires of the Pit, and hosts of lesser lights supporting networks of Web pages peddling The End Of The World As We Know It, and vast numbers of people satisfy the unconscious cravings that rise from their forgotten histories by lapping it all up.

There is no group more thoroughly insulated from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than today’s Progressive “liberal”. The median individual of that group is a person who can predict with high confidence that tomorrow will be much like today, and will include shelter, warmth, adequate food and water, and a near-total lack of fangéd predators lurking to pounce. Suffering thereby from near-total Terror Deficiency, they are compelled by their chemicals (as Kurt Vonnegut would describe it) to invent things to be frightened of, or blow trivial threats up into existential ones — and do: children with toy guns are become direct threats to the life and limb of others; the very existence of a real gun is deliciously scary, and the idea that someone who disagrees with them possesses one raises hackles in a very satisfactory manner; and the tea parties, groups of individuals who not only disagree but propose to turf them out of their political power, can be blown up without difficulty into the modern-day equivalent of a full pride of lions threatening the tribe with instant destruction. Soothing them with reason and assurances doesn’t work, because their fears are produced not by external factors but by internal bodily processes beyond their control.

They aren’t nuts. They’re just following their evolutionary imperative.

[1] In a footnote[2] to one of his “Alastor Cluster” novels

[2] Some people find footnotes offputting. I think they’re charming.

[3] And is therefore obviously valid, of course.

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When I Posted

February 2011