Anarchy in the Thirld World

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

If you are interested in the general subject of anarchy in the Third World, you may have read Robert Kaplan’s 1994 essay, The Coming Anarchy — in which, as Mencius Moldbug describes it, Kaplan berates the reader with a completely fictitious set of causes of this anarchy:

The real cause, of course, is decolonialization. The cause of that was progressivism, ie, Carlyle deficiency. Of course Kaplan’s little anarchies would not surprise Carlyle for a moment.

Moreover, as Kaplan does not tell you but Carlyle would, the anarchy is indeed coming — to you. Because every year, the border between the Third World and the First is a little more porous.
But at least most of the Third World is not an active physical danger to the lives of Americans. This cannot be said of Afghanistan, where Americans (and other Europeans, and yes, Afghans too) are dying every day for lack of Carlyle. More precisely, they are dying because America, the democratic nation, is and will always be completely incapable of doing the one thing it must do to succeed in Afghanistan, which is to rule the country.

Oh, no, you see. Americans are in Afghanistan to advise the self-governing Afghan people. Ruling is the last thing they could think of doing. America is just helping the independent government of Afghanistan, which of course it created lock, stock and barrel, to stand on its own two feet.

James Mill, John Stuart Mill’s father, had this to say about conquering India:

The two important discoveries for conquering India were, 1st: the weakness of the native armies against European discipline; 2dly, the facility of imparting that discipline to natives in the European service.

But America has no Afghans in its service, because it’s merely advising the Afghans:

As a result, Americans are running around screaming, quite ineffectually to the sight of any experienced parent or manager, at “their” Afghan soldiers, that they shouldn’t smoke hash before going on patrol. It doesn’t appear to be working.

He’s not joking.

Thus, Afghans are privileged to receive the full Orwellian force of the 21st century. They suffer the pains of not only anarchy but also civil war, for an indefinite time period in the future, for the sake of their own human rights.

Sean Bean as Lord Stark

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

George R.R. Martin reports that Sean Bean has been cast as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s pilot of A Game of Thrones:

For the movie fans out there, Sean Bean needs no introduction. I mean, what the hell, he was Boromir and he was Sharpe, he was terrific in both roles, and in a hundred other parts besides.

Apollo 11 Code Opens Up

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I always thought that the space program would be a perfect candidate for open-source code — at least now that the Cold War’s over. Imagine how many talented coders would like to play a part in Mars exploration.

It’s a little late to be useful, but the Apollo 11 Command Module code (Comanche054) and Lunar Module code (Luminary099) have been opened up. Good luck understanding any of it!

Rockets For The Red Planet

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

From his corner office at Ad Astra Rocket headquarters near Houston, Franklin R. Chang Díaz envisions his fission-powered variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket propelling a crew to Mars and back:

With a power plant similar to the ones on nuclear submarines, the plasma rocket could carry several people from Earth to Mars in 39 days, as opposed to what would be at least a 180-day journey on a chemical rocket, Chang Díaz says. The savings in food, water, air, tedium, and cosmic-ray exposure would be immense. In 2012, Ad Astra plans to test a prototype — using solar power rather than nuclear — on the International Space Station. An astronaut will spacewalk out to attach the 200-kilowatt engine, and if all goes well, it will bump the ISS into a more attractive orbit with about 5 newtons of thrust. The tests will begin to indicate whether VASIMR can figure in NASA’s grand plan to shuttle people and cargo to the moon and perhaps Mars over the next couple of decades. In particular, engineers will analyze two things: how efficiently the engine uses its electricity to produce plasma and how fast its radiator can siphon away excess heat.

His office may be in Houston, but Ad Astra’s warehouse lab is in Liberia, Costa Rica:

To test their radiator, the engineers prepare to fire the thruster. They settle into chairs at a row of desks facing a vacuum chamber the size of a school bus. Attached to one side is the business end of the apparatus: permanent magnets, a radio-frequency generator, a tank of argon gas, and the tube where they will generate the plasma before venting it into the vacuum chamber. The argon is flowing, and the magnets are powered up.

”Cinco, cuatro, tres,” Jorge Oguilve-Araya, a lead engineer, chants into a walkie-talkie. ”Dos, uno. Pulso!” The RF generator switches on and releases a torrent of RF waves into the argon stream. The gas heats up and ionizes, turning into a plasma of about 50 000 kelvin. Magnetic fields generated by the permanent magnets hold and channel the viciously hot material, protecting the thruster walls from melting on contact. A purplish light fills the vacuum chamber before fading to black.

There’s a similar setup in Houston, but with one more stage. Another antenna generates an electric field to heat the plasma to a million kelvin. When the ions’ rotation frequency matches the frequency of the field, the potential energy in the electric field changes into kinetic energy for the ions, accelerating them in a direction perpendicular to the magnetic field lines. This configuration forms a magnetic beach — waves on which the particles then surf their way out of the rocket.

The key to the VASIMR is its variable specific impulse:

Rocket engineers love the idea of variable specific impulse, because it allows a spacecraft to behave more like a race car, adjusting its acceleration at each turn around a track. Chemical rockets are fixed at a relatively low specific impulse of around 450 seconds. They need lots of propellant and can produce lots of thrust. Heading off to Mars, a chemical rocket would thrust for half an hour to escape Earth’s gravitational well and then coast the rest of the way. VASIMR, on the other hand, can run at specific impulses between 5000 and 15 000 seconds using deuterium or as low as 4000 with argon. For wandering the interplanetary voids, high specific impulse — or low thrust — is good: With highly efficient propulsion, the engine can keep firing until it reaches a high velocity, generating minimum thrust near the middle of the trip.

NASA has always wanted a nuclear rocket — and they got much closer than most people realize:

Almost immediately after the agency was formed in 1958, it began working on nuclear reactors for space, under a program known as Rover/NERVA, which stands for ”nuclear engine for rocket vehicle application.” In the spring of 1969, just before Neil Armstrong planted his boot in the Sea of Tranquility, the NERVA team finished ground testing its first complete mock-up of a nuclear reactor, the NRX-XE. The reactor went through 28 start-and-shutdown cycles at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States tested nuclear bombs.

During the 13 years of its existence, the program’s engineers built and tested 20 reactors and nearly produced a flight-qualified propulsion system. They measured thrust and vented radioactive exhaust at an isolated spot known as Jackass Flats, bordered by mountains and mesas. They demonstrated systems with half the mass of a chemical rocket and a specific impulse of about 845 seconds. They tested engines that could get a crew to Mars and back in 80 days. But before the reactors could fly, the program ended. It was the 1970s, and political pressures were marginalizing space science.

The Soviet Union kept nuclear reactors in play a bit longer. Between 1965 and 1988, it launched a series of naval satellites with small reactors on board. At least two of them failed, releasing radioactive materials and spooking politicians worldwide.

To use nuclear reactors for a trip to Mars safely, a launch vehicle would deliver a spacecraft with three inactive nuclear engines to low Earth orbit. Around 220 nautical miles up, at roughly the altitude of the International Space Station, the reactors would start up. They’d run for no more than 45 minutes, producing about 330 000 newtons of thrust and kicking the ship beyond gravity’s grip. Like a chemical rocket, the vehicle would coast most of the way to Mars and then fire its engines briefly to decelerate. The vehicle would ease into orbit and be greeted by a lander vehicle. The lander would ferry the astronauts to the surface, where the real mission would begin.

At the peak of nuclear rocket research, engineers were reaching thrust levels of almost a million newtons, well beyond what they’d need. ”We’re the only propulsion technology that I think is scaling down in size,” says Stan Borowski, an engineer pursuing nuclear thermal propulsion at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, in Sandusky, Ohio. In a typical nuclear rocket design, the fuel consists of graphite pellets mixed with particles of uranium-235 and bundled into fuel rods. Channels perforate the bundle, enabling hydrogen or helium coolant, which is also the propellant, to flow through. The nuclear reaction heats the rods and the propellant, which blasts out into space.

Apparently Americans used to have a can-do attitude.

Sumner’s One-Sentence Class Autobiography

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I wasn’t sure what Bryan Caplan meant when he said that he’d asked economists to share their class autobiographies, but Scott Sumner’s crystallized it for me:

At various times in my life I have been in all 5 quintiles of family income distribution, and yet I have always felt like I was in the same “class,” and I have never felt like my happiness had anything to do with how much income I was making.

Wriston’s Law

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

In his 1992 book, The Twilight of Sovereignty, the late Walter Wriston predicted the rise of electronic networks and their economic effects, which he summarized in what we now call Wriston’s Law:

Wriston said capital (meaning both money and ideas), when freed to travel at the speed of light, “will go where it is wanted, stay where it is well-treated.”

By applying Wriston’s Law of capital and talent flow, you can predict the fortunes of companies (and countries). All predictions about future performance must start with this most basic question: Do companies (and countries) attract money and talent, or repel it?

America’s success for most of its history owes to Wriston’s Law. Ambitious people and investment capital have always wanted to come here. America was a place where merit and investment could be rewarded — not just economically, but socially too. The rise of the American meritocracy after World War II coincided with the decline of Northeastern WASPs in America’s social hierarchies. In the early 1980s, writer Tom Wolfe predicted that Silicon Valley would usually beat Boston’s Route 128 in technology showdowns because Silicon Valley culture elevated the engineer and entrepreneur to higher social status. Thus Silicon Valley was a better magnet of talent.

Times have changed though:

On immigration, America has made it harder for educated and skilled foreigners to enter the country and become citizens. As immigration policy goes, it should be a no-brainer to hand out green cards to foreigners who get college degrees in the U.S.

As for capital, well, America’s tax burden is rapidly catching up to Europe’s. I like Europe as well as anyone — as a place to drink coffee and loaf.
Not so very long ago, America was the destination for capital and talent. Now America is just one country among many competing for these precious resources.

(Hat tip to David Foster’s Photon Courier.)

Mars Is Hard

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Wernher von Braun would be disappointed that we still haven’t landed a manned mission on Mars, but Mars is hard — and expensive:

In his novel [Project Mars], von Braun figured that a Mars expedition would cost US $2 billion — about $18 billion in today’s dollars. By 1989, NASA estimated such a trip would come to half a trillion dollars; if you correct that figure for inflation, you get the current U.S. fiscal stimulus package, give or take a hundred million.

It’s a long trip:

If going to the moon is a day hike, going to Mars is the Lewis and Clark expedition — a journey too long and too complex to carry everything that’s needed. Earth and Mars ride along in their concentric orbits, getting within striking distance of each other only for a brief window every two years. The shortest one-way trip, using conventional chemical propulsion, would take six months. If you include the time spent on Mars waiting for the two planets to move back into optimal alignment and also the trip home, the total mission would last at least two and a half years. The crew would have to endure extremes of boredom, isolation, and radiation, and they would require a vast amount of fuel and rations packed into a vessel sturdy enough to shield them from the harshness of space. Simply landing a spacecraft safely on a planet with an atmosphere and substantial gravity poses stunning challenges. And then there’s the matter of keeping the crew alive on the Martian surface.

The list of challenges is long and sobering, and it starts with propulsion:

Chemical rockets are only marginally capable of getting people to Mars and back, but the main alternative, the plasma drive, is at least a couple of decades away from the day when it’ll be ready to ferry folks to that red dot in the sky.

Even after the propulsion problem is solved, there are at least five other really big ones: cosmic rays, muscle and bone loss, psychological stress, landing on the planet, and feeding the crew for the long haul. All of those challenges are harder with chemical rockets, because a chemically fueled trip would last much longer than one with a more advanced propulsion technology.

Idealizing Slavery

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Probably the closest most Americans have come to idealizing slavery, Mencius Moldbug says, without of course knowing it, is in the good press that large Japanese corporations once got for maintaining a policy of lifetime employment:

Lifetime employment and slavery are, of course, practically synonyms, and indeed the same phenomena of reciprocal loyalty and dependency were said — repeatedly, in my memory, in the ’90s on NPR — to emerge. Right down to the company uniform and song.

He considers this a “Carlylean” bond, although a rather weird one to the Western eye.

Cardwell’s Law

Monday, July 20th, 2009

In 1993, with the world coalescing into a global village, Joel Mokyr warned of the dangers posed by Cardwell’s Law:

Trade and the exchange of ideas and knowledge are one thing, the coordination of policy, institutions, and laws quite another. In the extreme case of a world that has fully integrated its institutions and laws and is ruled by a central global government, no matter how benevolent and enlightened, economic progress would sooner or later come to an end and stagnation ensue. In part, this is simply because the gains from integration will eventually run into diminishing returns. Once we have fired all customs agents and eliminated all export subsidies, and workers and capital are free to settle wherever they maximize their returns, any additional increments would be harder and harder to achieve. But the main reason for stagnation is that in a global village the engine of economic growth would run out of fuel.

That engine is, was, and will always be technological creativity. Of course, other things are necessary for an economy to grow — capital accumulation, skills, motivation, well-functioning markets, and so on. But all other factors tend to have short-lived effects. They can increase income, but they tend to burn out after a while. Technology is the only thing that does not run into diminishing returns. There are no known limits to the human ability to control and manipulate the forces of nature.

Will globalization, assuming it defeats the surging powers of nationalism, enhance technological creativity? Again, based on past experience, the answer is ambiguous. A global village would, if its government is effective and peaceful, be a land of milk and honey. Such benefits have been realized in our own time in Western Europe and the Far East: Once Germany and France, or Japan and Korea, ceased fighting each other, they could redeploy their ingenuity from military to civilian objectives, with rather remarkable effects on living standards. The United States, which maintained peaceful coexistence among its constituent states over its history (with one major exception), is another example of this model.

Too much peaceful coexistence, however, may weaken international competitiveness and thereby dull the spur to technological creativity. Technological progress, even in civilian technology, is often made in tooth and claw. Without the pressure of competing neighboring states, societies may lose their cutting edge. Closed large empires, such as China, Russia, and the Ottoman state, though not entirely impervious to progress, could not sustain their creativity in the long run. In Western Europe, political fragmentation and the “states system” prevented such stagnation. No single European ruler ever managed to unite the entire continent under a single government. Competing political units held each other in check and guaranteed a high degree of political diversity. At different times Spaniards, Frenchmen, Germans, and Englishmen aspired to hegemonic power, but because they failed to establish a long-lasting empire, diversity and competitiveness were maintained, and creativity and innovativeness could not be suppressed.
Especially after 187O, when the major European powers became steadily less friendly toward one another, the sense of one national identity competing against another was a powerful stimulus to many of the great inventors of the time, especially in Germany. Technical advances could save the fatherland. German, British, and French engineers tried to outdo each others in steel, chemicals, and electrical engineering, knowing full well how important this knowledge was to national security. Some of Germany’s greatest inventors (Fritz Haber, the inventor of the nitrogen-fixing process, immediately comes to mind) were also ardent nationalists. Governments increasingly encouraged and subsidized research and development for national-security purposes.

The Cold War has had similar effects, and one might call this competitive creativity “the Sputnik effect”: The shocking fear that the United States might fall behind in the “competition for technology” with the Soviet Union stimulated research and development in the United States after 1957 like nothing else. Indeed, some economists have been tempted to view competition between nation-states as comparable to the healthy and cleansing competition between firms in the free market. This is a simplification, because competing firms do not start wars against each other. But it has a kernel of truth.

A stronger version of this theory relies on what I have called “Cardwell’s Law,” after the British historian Donald Cardwell. This law states essentially that every society, when left on its own, will be technologically creative for only short periods. Sooner or later the forces of conservatism, the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” the “if God had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings,” and the “not invented here so it can’t possibly work” people take over and manage through a variety of legal and institutional channels to slow down and if possible stop technological creativity altogether. Technological leaders like 17th-century Holland or early 19th-century Britain lost their edge and eventually became followers.

Many feel that the United States in 1993 is on the verge of succumbing to Cardwell’s Law. After having led the world technologically for most of this century, the United States is gradually conceding many industries, from automotive to consumer electronics, to other nations. In many ways, reading Business Week today reminds one of the British press around 1900. An urgent sense of “we are not what we used to be” permeates the writing. It is as if technological creativity is like youthful vitality: As time passes, the creative juices gradually dry up, and sclerosis sets in. Societies become increasingly risk-averse and conservative, and creative innovators are regarded as deviants and rebels.

From a global point of view, the historical process can be likened to a relay race: Each society carries a torch for a short time before it hands it on to the next bearer; but all bask in the light. As long as there is a society to hand the torch to the next one, once the current bearer has worn itself out, technological progress can continue. There is thus safety in numbers: If there are enough states whose institutions are independent of each other, a replacement is likely to be found when the institutions of a technological leader turn against innovation, as they almost inevitably will.

The exact form that technological reaction will take differs from society to society. In some cases, reactionary governments simply close economies off to the rest of the world, and an iron bureaucracy either suppresses innovation altogether or channels it in directions deemed worthy by the rulers. This happened in Tokugawa Japan, Qing China, and Communist Albania; it is happening in Myanmar (Burma) and North Korea today.

In other cases, vested interests will use violence to block progress. The Roman Emperor Tiberius is reported to have executed an inventor who claimed to have come up with unbreakable glass, out of fear for his interests in glass making. Nineteenth-century inventors often fled for their lives to escape vengeful artisans. Professional trade associations, craft guilds, and regulations ossified the production process and made it impossible to deviate from established rules. Labor unions, with some exceptions, have been traditionally hostile to machines, which they feared would take their jobs.

In our time, well-meaning environmentalists, greedy product-liability lawyers, and feather-bedding unionists are contributing to the problem. Simply put, Cardwell’s Law works because technological creativity is a delicate and fragile flower that needs just the right institutional environment to thrive. Yet in a truly dialectical manner, its very success usually destroys the environment it needs to survive.

If the global village is to consist of coordinated institutions and unified laws (and not just the free movement of goods and people between different countries), technological progress could disappear altogether from our world, because by definition there would be no one to take over once Cardwell’s Law took full effect. This has happened before: The Roman Empire, the closest the “world” ever got to a global village, was surprisingly uncreative technologically and was rescued from complete stasis only by non-citizens living outside it. Much the same can be said about the Chinese Empire in its last centuries. For its citizens, it was “the world,” and its repressive institutions encountered no outside competition. The result was that the Chinese fell rapidly behind more creative societies, and they were in for a rude awakening when the proud empire was humiliated by its defeat in the Opium Wars of the 1840s.

Galápagos Syndrome

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Japanese phones suffer from Galápagos syndrome:

Japan’s cellphones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands — fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins — explains Takeshi Natsuno, who teaches at Tokyo’s Keio University.
Yet Japan’s lack of global clout is all the more surprising because its cellphones set the pace in almost every industry innovation: e-mail capabilities in 1999, camera phones in 2000, third-generation networks in 2001, full music downloads in 2002, electronic payments in 2004 and digital TV in 2005.

Japan has 100 million users of advanced third-generation smartphones, twice the number used in the United States, a much larger market. Many Japanese rely on their phones, not a PC, for Internet access.

Indeed, Japanese makers thought they had positioned themselves to dominate the age of digital data. But Japanese cellphone makers were a little too clever. The industry turned increasingly inward. In the 1990s, they set a standard for the second-generation network that was rejected everywhere else. Carriers created fenced-in Web services, like i-Mode. Those mobile Web universes fostered huge e-commerce and content markets within Japan, but they have also increased the country’s isolation from the global market.

Then Japan quickly adopted a third-generation standard in 2001. The rest of the world dallied, essentially making Japanese phones too advanced for most markets.

At the same time, the rapid growth of Japan’s cellphone market in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave Japanese companies little incentive to market overseas. But now the market is shrinking significantly, hit by a recession and a graying economy; makers shipped 19 percent fewer handsets in 2008 and expect to ship even fewer in 2009. The industry remains fragmented, with eight cellphone makers vying for part of a market that will be less than 30 million units this year.

The queen of personal weapons

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Jeff Cooper is best known for his modern pistol technique, but he considered the rifle the queen of personal weapons:

The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles.

Cooper codified his personal ideal in the scout rifle — short (less than 1 m), light (less than 3 kg), with a forward scope and ghost ring iron sights, and shooting a .308 from a bolt action.

Carlyle and Alinsky

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

When we abandon our centrism, Mencius Moldbug argues, we see that there are only two logically consistent choices for our political beliefCarlyle and Alinsky:

What we see instead, from both the Carlylean and Alinskyist perspectives, is a monotonic slope. This is the slope of order. Order slopes up to the right: true right, which is reactionary, is always the direction of increasing order, and true left the direction of increasing disorder. It is especially valuable to have a clear definition of this polarization, which seems to have evolved independently so many times in history. David Axelrod would surely get along with the Gracchi, and Pinochet with Sulla.

Since most people do not know the Carlylean theory of order, but most do know the Alinskyist theory of disorder (I won’t be surprised if my daughter is introduced to “activism” well before kindergarten), there is an obvious temptation here. The temptation is to derive the Carlylean theory by simply reversing its equally-uncompromising Alinskyist dual. Thus, everything bad is good, and so on. For example, the ultimate act of good government is to shoot into a mob.

While this approach can be useful in an absolute emergency, I would encourage readers to at least be very careful with it. The practice of defining the Right by reversing the Left can lead one to idolize persons and practices who, in the true Carlylean cosmos, are quite unworthy. It is definitely not for the apprentice necromancer or candidate Sith Lord.

Board games are back

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Board games are back:

In 2008, board game sales climbed 23.5% to about $808 million, and they’re expected to grow more this year.

On the other hand, video game sales topped $12 billion in 2007.

The jury has heard only from the defense

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

The case of democracy, Mencius Moldbug argues, is a case in which the jury has heard only from the defense:

Year after year, generation after generation, democracy’s lawyers trot out an ever-changing dog’s breakfast of alibis, character witnesses and Harvard scientists, all singing one tune: the ironclad innocence and stellar nobility of the defendant, who is no more and no less than Gotham’s finest citizen. As for the prosecutor, his corpse has been rotting in the men’s room for years. Sometimes the bailiff, who has a ninth-grade education, a Tennessee accent and a drinking problem, picks up a few pages from his brief and reads them out of order.

But is the trial over? It is all but over. The jury is utterly sold. If they could adjourn and assign the defendant the keys to Gotham for life, they would. They are not even aware that there is a trial. They think they’re deciding whether to award a gold medal or a platinum one. But alas: the verdict of history is never, ever in.


Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Paleoconservative Samuel Francis asserted that we lived under anarcho-tyranny:

What we have in this country today, then, is both anarchy (the failure of the state to enforce the laws) and, at the same time, tyranny — the enforcement of laws by the state for oppressive purposes; the criminalization of the law-abiding and innocent through exorbitant taxation, bureaucratic regulation, the invasion of privacy, and the engineering of social institutions, such as the family and local schools; the imposition of thought control through “sensitivity training” and multiculturalist curricula, “hate crime” laws, gun-control laws that punish or disarm otherwise law-abiding citizens but have no impact on violent criminals who get guns illegally, and a vast labyrinth of other measures. In a word, anarcho-tyranny.