Friday, February 20, 2015

Too Much Magic

Low tech, FTW
Even those convinced the technological world is dying can't seem to let it go:
We’re likely to lose many of the books printed on acidic paper between 1850 and most of the 20th century within decades. For the last twenty years, many books and journals have been printed on non-acidic paper and put on microfiche.  Both can last for centuries if kept at an ideal temperature and humidity.  But that isn’t permanent enough...

If it is possible to etch words into metallic or other extremely durable substances, we ought to do it, not only for the coming dark ages, but to enable some knowledge to survive through future climate changes.

After all, we once put a disk on a space probe to explain humanity to potential aliens, why can’t we do that for our descendants?
We can, but that doesn't save it from being a really stupid idea.

Imagine, if you will, mankind passing through a 500-year dark age featuring not only the end of fossil fuels, but global warming climate change of such magnitude that Al Gore himself must change his rather sizable skivvies. World populations are reduced by 90%, individual lifespans by 50%. Agriculture, while it allows people to survive brutal winters, also makes them targets of ubiquitous bands of hairy horsemen, and is thus hidden where it is not outright eschewed. There is not a single bus, train, tram, car, or computer running, and has not been for centuries. In short, the year 2491 looks a lot more like 1491 in New York than it does 1991.  On Summer Solstice of that year, a wandering tribe of hunter gatherers, their asses painted blue in the most noble pagan tradition, discovers somewhere near Lake Erie a metallic strongbox containing a half dozen late 20th-century academic journals printed on rolled sheets of aluminum.

What good could such a preservation of knowledge possibly do them?

The first likelihood is that they would not be able to read it anyway. The average college student today, even after $150,000 worth of education, cannot read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English, much less Bede or Caesar in Latin. And dark ages are not known for their universal literacy.  But even if they could read it, how much value could these hairy horsemen possibly get from a technical treatise filled with 21st century, politically-correct academic jargon?  Such 'knowledge' as preserved by us would likely avail the future nothing.*

Here's a better idea: we should rediscover how to make paper and ink and the block printing press using low technology, and pass our knowledge on that way.

Books don't have to last 500 years: they need only last long enough to share their contents with lots of people and to be copied. The proof is that despite the fact that books have never lasted 500 years, we possess the 3500-year-old book of Genesis today.  Far better to have 20 generations of Common Sense block-printed on sheep skin than to save a single copy stamped into copper that no one will ever read.**  Passing books by hand - people writing them and printing them and binding them and trading them - assures that the people living in the 'dark ages' can actually profit from their contents.

But there's a second reason why relying on the ephemeral is in this case wiser than relying on the permanent: we don't know what knowledge will prove useful in 500 years. Gauging by history, we humans don't even know what will be valuable in 50.  So who should decide what is worthy of saving?  I propose that it's the very people for whom such knowledge will prove a lifesaver. Since we cannot do it, our children should be the ones who jettison forever the riffraff of our modern, narcissistic culture-circus.

As the author sagely notes, we cannot save everything, nor should we. But based on how humans collectively act here in post-modernism's dotage, we are far more likely to preserve what strikes our fancy and strokes our ego than anything actually useful to our descendants. We would surely save Vonnegut, because his work so masterfully distills the essence of our generation. Those in a future dark age, like those in the last one, will preserve Aristotle.

Considering ourselves in any sense the saviors of society a half a millennium in the future may be a very Boomer way to see the world. But that doesn't make it desirable, feasible, or wise.  It's not our job to preserve knowledge for people 5 centuries into the future. Rather it's our charge to pass wisdom and ability to those 20 years in the future, from which the next transfer becomes their responsibility.

* Just as 99% of it avails us nothing. And we're the ones writing it.

** I'm not sure some future discoverer would not a) turn it into an idol or b) pound it into a necklace, anyway.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Treasure in the oddest places

Bricks. We has them.
I wrote last August about paying attention to the resource opportunities around you:
As I drive the back roads, I see natural gas wells bobbing up and down among the cattle.  I see limestone quarries beside the highways. The cobblestone back streets tell me that many nearby cities once hosted clay brick-making operations. So that potential at least still exists. Perhaps your area has gravel, sand, sandstone, oil, timber, granite, iron.  Whatever it was it can possibly be again, so pay attention to it.
I am utterly guilty of ignoring my own advice. It's not that I don't know where the resources are in my county.  I actually didn't know where the resources were on my own property.

Literally 100 yards from the kitchen where I'm typing stands - mostly - my wood barn.  It's not a barn made of wood but rather a squat, square brick building that until the day before yesterday protected my woodpile. After serving the better part of a century as a shop, chicken house, and who knows what else, its roof has partially fallen in and recently its walls have started to bow to the point that I'm less concerned about it being airtight than I am about it remaining upright.  So I asked a neighbor of mine who is presently looking for work to knock it down and haul it away.*

I assumed that it was made of the same crappy blocks that I have in abundance here: light, thin, and with more hole than brick. They are crap, and I have piles of them lying about. The building is similarly a piece of crap. Why would it not be made of them?

However, when the first wall came down I discovered that it was actually built of recycled, 19th century street brick.  In fact, it's built of two layers of such brick, each piece properly inscribed as quality bricks are, plastered together with a cheap-ass cement that chips off cleanly when you whack it and sometimes when you don't.

One can find these particular decorative bricks for sale in town for about a buck apiece.  I now have literally thousands of them** and will spend a significant number of hours this spring and summer recovering capital that can be applied to a building project or three to be named later***.

The point here is not that I'm luckier than I am clueless, but that opportunities to accumulate capital are everywhere. And they will still be there, no matter what happens, for those who can see potential in the bowed walls of an old, neglected chicken barn when everyone else sees only decay and collapse.

* cash, like fences, makes good neighbors.
** the 'haul it away' part of the job has been cancelled.
*** I've always wanted a coal-fired bread oven.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

So what if you're wrong?

JQ wonders via email if I'm talking my book:
What if you're wrong? You say certain trends can't continue much longer but what if they do?  What if the dollar keeps getting stronger and oil keeps getting cheaper and more plentiful? What if interest rates really can be held at zero? How long until you go broke betting wrong?
It goes on, but you get the idea. While I'm tempted to show my math and reiterate why such things can't go on forever, it's actually a good question, for two reasons.

Firstly, there are lot of people on the internet who just talk their book.  Hard to believe, right? They sell stock, so they assert stocks will always go up.* Others bought tons and tons of gold and desperately promote any sign of hyperinflation.  Their talk often seems an attempt to convince others (and themselves) that they made wise investment choices even as the market goes against them. Others have made a very public bet and their reputation (and income) demands they stick with it. I might be one of them, or all three.

Secondly, I've been wrong about so many things and over so long a period** that the idea that I'm wrong about present trends is not outside the realm of possibility.  Maybe not even outside the realm of probability.

So here's my answer: if I'm wrong about all this stuff, and if everything is awesome, I'll
  • Continue to live a life of luxury enjoyed by fewer than 1% of people who have ever lived.
  • Drive my car anywhere I want to go and not give the cost a second thought.
  • Buy foreign wines for pennies a bottle.  I'm rather fond of Chilean cabernets, but I like Bordeaux as well.
  • Work a job I love for 20 more years and retire on a fully-funded pension that will last me 30 or 40 years, until I die of old age.
  • Make my kids rich the next day.
  • Continue to do what I like to do. I'll make jellies and fruit wines and grow a garden and pour bullets.  I'll continue working on this idea of toy molded zinc soldiers I've been kicking around. I'll refurbish handloading dies and I'll plant some nut trees***.
In short, if nothing bad ever happens again, I'll continue to live a blissfully happy life. While I think many things are going wrong and are about to go more wronger****, I have not bet the farm on that happening. Instead I have paid off the farm and am perfectly content to live on it the rest of my days. I have no need to bet at all.

Lots of people make the assumption that the doomsayer wants all the bad things he warns about to happen.  Maybe some do, I don't know.  But in most cases that's as silly an accusation as saying the proof your daughter wants you to get lung cancer is that she warns you about your smoking.  She warns you about smoking because she wants you to live, not because she looks forward to the day that, while you gasp for breath between dirty sheets in some forlorn VA hospital, she can say "I told you so."

* They may or may not own stocks, but they profit from the fact of stocks going up anyway.
** After all, I've been married 30 years. And to the same woman at that.
*** six of them should arrive this week.
**** it was a word on Veggie Tales, anyway.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

In praise of pennies

Zinc cents, FTL
In which I disagree with Senpai:
Question: I would like some information on saving coins. I have been going through my coins and want some clarity on what to save. ... should I be saving nickels and quarters from 2000 to present also? ... – D.D.
To which James Wesley Rawles responds:
... I DO NOT recommend saving any post -1964 quarters! They each only have about 3.7 cents worth of copper. 
And frankly, pennies are not worth the time to sort, unless you have a sorting machine.

You should save ALL nickels, since they each have about 5 cents worth of copper and nickel, and that value will likely rise...
Of course, I would not bother with a post unless I disagreed with someone who knows far more than I.  Still, at the risk of sounding a fool, I would flip JWR's advice on its head: yeah, save your nickels, but make an effort to sort your pennies into pre-1982 and post-1982 groups, by hand.*

Such an effort sounds like a pain in the ass, and it is, but here are the reasons to prioritize pennies above nickels:
  • Nickels are easy.  They take literally no effort to save.
  • You can't process nickel in your home foundry.
  • Each pre-1982 1-cent contains 40% of the copper of a 5-cent nickel.**
  • You really don't bring home that many pennies in any given day.
  • You waste an incredible amount of time in your day.
That last one is really the issue.  You can make the argument that sorting pennies takes a lot of time for relatively little benefit, and that if you instead spent that time splitting atoms or panning gold, you'd make a lot more money.  I don't disagree with your astute application of the very definition of Opportunity Cost.  But you're really not spending 7-10pm most weeknights splitting atoms, are you?

I am always amazed at the number of my coworkers -- professionals, white-collar, whatever you wish to call them -- who know everything there is to know about Game of Thrones or The Office or (God forbid)  The Kardashians.  They expect me to know those details as well. That I can't name 3 Kardashians is irrelevant.  That we Americans collectivity waste so much time watching more Kardashians than that is not.

So we're not really comparing coin-sorting time with working time, but comparing coin-sorting time with TV time, wasted time. And we have that and to spare. The average American watches 5 hours of TV a day, 34 hours a week. He has no right to complain that an hour sorting pennies is wasted.

And how hard is it to sort pennies while watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo? It's not hard, and the end result of that minimal effort over weeks and months and hopefully years is a shitpot of 95% copper pennies. A shitpot of bronze. A shitpot of an asset that, unlike your retirement plan, is not simultaneously the liability of someone who is likely to default.

If you really want to accumulate assets, realize that so long as that, like most Americans, you waste an incredible amount of time, there is no sense in despising low-return activities.  Such activities will not stroke your ego, I'll admit.  But over time, they may save your ass.

You have to decide which is more important.

* This, of course, leaves 1982 cents. But that is a problem which will solve itself given sufficient experience holding cents on fingers.
** They are not, as JWR asserts, 100% copper pennies. But they are 95% copper, and as such are much better fitted to re-use than nickel coins.