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May 30 / Y&U

The Itsy, Bitsy Spyder

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder

Say all you’d like about Porsche; they’re too small, they’re too similar, they’re overpriced VWs, etc., and for the most part I would agree with you. Despite the dislike many have of Porsche (please see the Cayenne and Cayman if you’d like to understand why), the fact remains that they are the quintessential sports car manufacturer. The 911, and all its incarnations, is brilliant, the Panamera is superb, and, of course, how could you not love the Boxster? Last year, however, Porsche outdid even themselves. 

James Dean catapulted himself into history (and into a tree) when he crashed his Spyder 550 in 1955. Since then, the Spyder has enjoyed a special place in pop culture. It became a dangerous, untamable beast that even the “rebel without a cause” couldn’t master. But in reality, he was the “rebel without an airbag,” and in 2010 Porsche announced they were bringing the Spyder into the 21st century.   

Now, technically, a Spyder is a convertible, and Porsche already has that angle covered well with the Boxster (hence the name of the new car, the Boxster Spyder). What makes it a Spyder then? Porsche has stripped the Boxster down, losing 176 lbs, styled it up a bit, and given super car enthusiasts what they truly want- to look cool and actually be cool while doing it.  

The weight saving measures are both clever and drastic. The soft top is all manually operated, the interior is stripped down (there aren’t even interior door handles), the gas tank is smaller, the doors are aluminum, no radio, no cup holders, and myriad bits done in carbon fiber. All this weight saving gives the 320 horse DOHC 24-valve flat-6 engine enough power to propel the Spyder 0-60 in just over 4 seconds with a (limited) top speed of 166 mph. You might think that 166 mph is a bit slow for $63,000, but in a car that’s only slightly heavier than a Labrador, that’s enough power to keep you firmly in your carbon fiber bucket seats.  

So, here at the specs: 

Engine: DOHC 24-valve flat-6, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection

Displacement: 210 cu in, 3436cc
Power (SAE net): 320 bhp @ 7200 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 273 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual

Dimensions:
Wheelbase: 95.1 in Length: 172.1 in
Width: 70.9 in Height: 50.2 in
Curb weight (C/D est): 3000–3050 lb

Performance:
Zero to 60 mph: 4.1 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 12.7 sec
Top speed (drag limited): 166 mph

Fuel Economy:
EPA city/highway driving: 19–20/26–29 mpg

Like all Porsche, the Spyder is highly customizable. Do you want a radio? You can have it. Interior door handles? Pppfffffffff, you can have it. Satellite navigation? Fine. Although, if you want all these accoutrements of civility it really begs the question why you want a Spyder at all. But despite the cup holder loving lunatics, Porsche offers a lot of other really cool options too. Ceramic brakes, paint and interior options, the works.

The Boxster has legendary handling, and from reading consumer reviews, it has only improved in the lighter, more powerful, Spyder. Car and Driver’s Jon Yanca says it best,

“…we find that the reduced weight of our six-speed-manual Spyder—at about 3000 pounds, it’s the lightest in the entire Porsche fleet—is easily apparent. The 0.8-inch lowered suspension includes shorter and stiffer springs, firmer dampers, modified front and rear anti-roll bars, and a slightly wider track, and it all combines to noticeably improve the Boxster’s already stellar handling. The car is just itching to turn in at every corner, and the steering is effortless, as if it had been engineered just for this road. Well, that impression could also be because the suspension work did lighten the steering, but the rack is quicker and even more communicative than before, allowing us to feel the pavement texture more intimately.

The Spyder can tackle 25-mph switchbacks at double that speed. The grippy seats hold you in place and the body shows no signs of pitching or rolling, yet the ride is never harsh. Traction into and out of the turns is hardly lost, with the standard mechanically locking differential enabling high exit speeds…”

The Boxster Spyder is a triumph of legendary Porsche engineering. True, it looks like all the other Porsches, but there is a certain panache to the Spyder. Like Dean, you’ll want to race it along dangerous roads at high speeds. But, oddly enough, you’ll feel just as cool taking it for a slow ride down a main city street. I mean, just look at it!

Apr 30 / Y&U

Nifty Graphs and Gas Prices

Here are some nifty graphs lovingly borrowed from Carpe Diem.

Who is the gouger?

Not only is the consumer paying mostly taxes, but so is Exxon. It works out to about a million dollars a day.

The average Illinoisan uses 412 gallons of gasoline every year and pays, on average, $.612 per gallon in taxes (state and local). Multiply that with a population of 12.9million and that’s $3,252,657,600 (not counting the many non-residents who buy gasoline here- truckers and so on).  The Illinois Transportation department budget is $79,000,000. Where does the rest of it go?

If Illinois wanted to raise $79,000,000 for the Transportation department through the excise tax on gasoline, the tax per gallon would only have to be $0.01. Gas prices State wide would be $3.49 per gallon. Talk about economic stimulation. But since government would rather shut down than cut taxes, we can count on continuing financial abuse for quite awhile.

The burden on the gasoline consumer is driven by government, not by capitalism.

Of course, there’s an even better way to tackle rising petrol costs, one that is so simple, so effective, and thats benefit is so immeadiate you’d have to be a politician to not approve of it!

A return to  hard currency; specifically Gold.

When the dollar is compared with other currencies, we can see that the law of supply and demand is not responsible for the explosion in oil prices, otherwise all currencies would inflate by the same amount. Crude is only getting much more expensive in terms of its ratio to the dollar. Notice gold at the bottom of the chart.

 

When the dollar was linked to gold, oil prices remained in lock step; low and stable. But as you can see, after Nixon officially closed the gold window in 1972, the price of oil began to climb and continues to climb. However, the ratio of the value of crude to gold has remained low and stable. We must then conclude that it is not crude that has gotten much more expensive (or it's price versus gold would also have increased) but that the dollar has lost a considerable amount of value since its annulment from gold.

 

As my bumper sticker says,

“Prices arn’t higher, the dollar is lower.”

Apr 28 / Y&U

Libertarian Doo-Doo Heads

No, you have it wrong; name-calling did not end on the playground. In the public arena it is now fashionable to caricaturize your intellectual opponents as little more than sick children, rather than scholars or fellow intellectuals. Why don’t Liberals just call Conservatives and Libertarians dookie brains? 

Liberals like to use the word diagnose instead of debate when arguing with free-market capitalists like myself. The idea that a world free of coercion and dedicated to peace and liberty appears, apparently, not only ridiculous but as the mark of a sick person. At The Economist blog, Will Wilkinson reflects on this curious phenomenon (and, while doing so, attacks Paul Krugman- a double whammy). Wilkinson writes, 

“…this sort of psychologising diagnosis of strong political conviction often serves as a cheap, supremely condescending trick for pathologising and thus dismissing those with whom we disagree…The motivating question, “What the hell is wrong with these people?” takes it for granted that there is something wrong with “these people”, and thus that disagreement with them is based not on a reasonable difference of opinions among intelligent people of good will, but rather on some sort of deep-seated defect of character or cognition in the “other” insusceptible to correction through civilised discourse…”

 That’s a mouthful, but off the top of my head I can name several people with whom this sentiment resonates. In my experience, Liberals see Conservatives (and Libertarians especially) as intellectually defunct or as adolescent. Even great Libertarian philosophers are not immune. In Ayn Rand’s Adult Onset Adolescence, Washington post contributor Michael Gerson writes, 

“…If [Ayn Rand’s] Objectivism seems familiar it’s because most people know it under another name; adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others. Rand’s achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne…”

 Unparalleled in the political debate, the idea that Conservatives are mentally impaired marks a significant turning point in modern political discourse, though not an obvious one. For decades there has been little fundamental difference in the agenda of either party.  Since Nixon, both democrats and republicans have been on a tax-borrow-spend campaign that is only now being addressed, and only superficially.

 The 2010 midterm was very exciting for many Libertarians because it represented a possible splitting of the one party system. The Tea Partiers turned out to be wet noodles about curbing government, but the tax-less-spend-less mantra is again being chanted in Washington. After 35+ years of spending increases, the idea that the budget should be smaller than the previous year is almost revolutionary. This is the root cause of the “diagnose the children” problem. Liberals can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that government is not the answer to society’s problems, and instead of seeing their opponents as “intelligent people of good will” (ww), they see them as, at best, sick people.

 That’s pretty adolescent.

(p.s. don’t tell the Rand people I called her a Libertarian)

Apr 21 / Y&U

The Cleaving of the World

Both conservatives and liberals have voiced their displeasure over the coming invasion of Libya. America is involved in two wars already and can hardly afford another. Yet the debate over NATO’s involvement in Libya is missing a key point, one that former assistant Treasury secretary and Trends Research Institute fellow Paul Craig Robertson emphasizes in two new articles released through TRI and Press TV.

In The DC/NATO Agenda and the Next Great War, Robertson exposes several key reasons for the military move against Libya that have been largely ignored by the mainstream media. According to Robertson, the rationale behind the coming invasion has less to do with human rights and more to do with halting China’s exploration in African energy markets. He writes,

“…the protests against Gaddafi…appear to have been organized by the CIA in the eastern part of Libya where the oil is [sic] and where China has substantial energy investments…Eighty percent of Libya’s oil reserves are believed to be in the Sirte Basin in eastern Libya now controlled by rebels supported by Washington…” 

In the first few days of the No-Fly-Zone, China evacuated 30,000 workers, halted thousands of construction projects and had lost a few hundred million Yuan. Robertson goes on to assert that China is not NATO’s only target. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been less and less inclined to “play ball” in the colonial efforts of the West. Since Gorbachev, each successive Federation president has been more and more resistant to Western hegemony. President Medvedev has made several trips to China in recent years, including a meeting in early April for the BRIC summit, which hopes to strengthen Chinese-Russian partnership in energy and transportation. Not surprisingly, the first topic of discussion was Libya.

 The Russians and Chinese have made no secret of their alliance against NATO. However, neither Russia nor China (both Security Council permanent members) opted to use their veto power in the debate on the UN Resolution authorizing the No-Fly-Zone. Both countries voted “present.” Robertson offers an opinion as to why, if the invasion of Libya is a move by NATO against Chinese/Russian efforts in the Middle East, neither power decided to halt the invasion. In US to Recoup Libya Oil From China he writes,

“…[The invasion of Libya is] a much greater threat to China [than Russia] because it has 50 major investment projects in eastern Libya. So the question is, why did Russia and China abstain rather than veto and block? We don’t know the answer.

Possibly the countries are thinking let the Americans get further over extended or they may not have wanted to confront them with a military or diplomatic position and have an onslaught of Western propaganda against them. We don’t know the reasons, but we know they did abstain because they did not agree with the policy and they continue to criticize it…” 

Who can blame them? In a rising tide of Western imperialism, where China and Russia make convenient enemies, it only makes sense that the “enemies of freedom” stand together in world increasingly divided East from West. Russian concerns in the Middle East mainly center on the precedent an invasion of Libya would set. Russian power is projected from only point in the Mediterranean, the naval base at Tartus, Syria. Tartus is, in fact, the only non-NATO military installation on the Mediterranean, and the Russians increasingly find themselves surrounded by Western militaries. When the attack on Libya is taken into this consideration, suddenly Russian concerns over Libya seem legitimate. Is Syria next? Roberts writes,

“…If Washington succeeds in overthrowing the Assad government in Syria, Russia would lose its Mediterranean naval base…Thus, Washington has much to gain if it can use the cloak of popular rebellion to eject both China and Russia from the Mediterranean. Rome’s mare nostrum (“our sea”) would become Washington’s mare nostrum…” 

This situation is eerily similar to one in the middle 1930s when, citing humanitarian reasons, Washington and London made covert war on Japan by blockading Japanese goods and supplying the Chinese resistance with men and matériel. Ultimately, this policy led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. NATO is applying the same strategy to Russia and China, and, given that both countries are nuclear powers, the diplomatic situation facing NATO nations is especially hairy. As Roberts puts it,

“…Washington’s quest for world hegemony is driving the world toward World War III. China is no less proud than was Japan in the 1930s and is unlikely to submit to being bullied and governed by what China regards as the decadent West. Russia’s resentment to its military encirclement is rising. Washington’s hubris may lead to a fatal miscalculation…”

Apr 19 / Y&U

The World Came Tumbling, Tumbling

I don’t think people have an appreciation for the seriousness of the current budget deficit. If they did, surely there would be protests in the street and community effigy burnings like back in the day when Americans cared about the debt and central banking (oh how I long for a good old fashioned effigy burning). People don’t care because they don’t know why it’s important to care. Few seem to grasp the relationship between public debt and the value of the dollar.

The dollar (like the yen, the euro and few hundred other currencies) is what’s known as a fiat (literally: faith) currency, it has value because the government says it has value. The value of the dollar is based on the “full faith and credit” of the United States government, and, therefore, any debt accumulation by the government must be taken into consideration when determining the true value of the dollar. Fiat currencies are vulnerable against the debt liabilities they are valued against.

In order to understand the debt crisis fully, it’s important to understand the history of indirect exchange. Along with language, money is one of the oldest artifacts of human civilization. Barter and gift giving were the first instances of direct exchange, but because barter requires a coincidence of wants, money developed as a way of exchanging products without having to satisfy the direct needs of another producer.

For example, I, as a Stone Age herdsman, have X number of surplus goats, and you, as a Stone Age arrow maker, have Y number of surplus arrows. We mutually agree to trade X for Y as that exchange benefits us both. However, if I need some arrows but you do not need any goats we are both at a loss. I must first trade my goats for barley, or whatever, something that you, the arrow producer, needs. As society grows this system becomes unwieldy as the law of scarcity, that there isn’t enough of anything to satisfy all that want it, puts a stranglehold on the barter system. So we, the Stone Age community, begin to trade all of our goods, including our labor, for a mutually valuable commodity that we all desire. This is how money developed. Initially, commodities were used as money (the sheckle, one of the oldest forms of currency, is a measure of the weight of barely) and eventually precious metals came into use in many different places. Since what is being exchanged in any transaction is value, the money, the medium of that exchange, also had to have value.

Because of their high value to weight ratio, precious metals, gold, silver, platinum etc., were used almost exclusively as money (with a few notable exceptions) until about the middle of the 20th century. Our own constitution defines the value of the dollar as approximately 1/20th the value of an ounce of gold. Money was then, and remained for many years, a receipt for gold stocks on hand. Individual banks also issued their own currencies to greater or lesser effect, but always as a receipt for gold on deposit. This cemented the dollar on something of actual, tangible, value.

Gold money also kept inflation low. Inflation is often confused with its symptoms. Inflation is not a rise in prices or a drop in wages, inflation is, simply put, a devaluation of money caused by an increase in the supply of that money. Gold, or other precious metals, has a unique quality in that over time the money becomes more valuable as gold stocks are depleted. So, what one dollar could buy you in 1776 is the same amount that $.75 could buy you in 1840. If you had saved that dollar you would experienced a net gain. This caused many people to save their money, which resulted in a massive stockpiling of capital in the middle 19th century that helped transform America from a backwoods hillbilly republic to an industrialized nation out producing the British Empire by 1890.

However, during the latter part of the 19th century, myths began to circulate that recessions were caused by wealthy “robber-barons” stockpiling gold. The solution of the progressives in Washington was to give away “free silver” which would increase the supply of coinage, thus devaluing the dollar. The idea was that rural southern debtors would see a reduction in their debts as the value of the dollar dwindled and that would, the progressives theorized, stimulate the agricultural industry and the reconstructed south.

However, the “robber-barons” of the Northeast merely increased the interest rates on the rural debtors in order to maintain their profitability in a monetary climate that was becoming more and more unstable. The progressives continued to devalue the dollar until the institution of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 (which, interestingly enough, was instituted to halt inflation by very people who caused the inflationary crisis). The FED immediately moved to distance the dollar from gold, a process that was completed in 1975 when president Nixon declared that the dollar was no longer redeemable in bullion.

The institution of the FED was a great victory for the enemies of sound money and a great defeat for the economists of the day who wrote volume after volume warning of the terrible consequences of inflationary money. Those economists, Ludwig von Mises among them, argued that if the dollar were detached from the normative standard of $20 to an ounce there would be nothing but the “full faith and credit” of the United States government to guarantee the dollar’s value. This would lead to a proportional decline in the value of the dollar as the public debt increased.

Inflation rose by a staggering 1.41% per year between 1914-1944 when the Breton Woods Convention distanced the dollar even further from gold. Inflation then increased to 2.12% per year until 1975 when Nixon officially detached gold from the dollar, citing a whole bunch of ridiculous reasons including that old scapegoat of America’s problems: the French. Since 1975 the rate of inflation has increased to 2.15% per year and continues to rise as the public debt increases. Those may seem like small numbers but when you run those numbers you’ll find that from 1914 to 2008, the dollar has lost 95% of its value.

The public debt now stands at $14 Trillion+. By 2050 the debt will be $50 Trillion+, a staggering amount that is equal to the entire net worth of the United States. The dollar has shouldered many economic woes, but the debt liability brought about by a public debt that massive will surely collapse it long before 2050. When you consider that the dollar is the reserve currency of the world, we need to focus on dramatically reducing the federal debt or face worldwide financial meltdown.

Apr 17 / Y&U

Keynes, Krugman & the Economics of Disaster

Douche upon Douche

I often find myself drawn to watching the videos from Japan over and over. I don’t know exactly what is it about the destructive power of water, but those images blow me away. What a tragic and terrible loss of life and property. Now with the reactor going all Chernobyl, the disaster is growing quite out of hand. It also seems as if the Japanese barely know where to begin.

But out from under the back porch of widespread suffering comes that old snake and villain John Maynard Keynes.  Keynes is guilty of many intellectual sins, but the most shocking to me has always been his idea that disasters are good for an economy. His idea is shockingly simple (to give you a clue to its inadequacy) and so malformed in the face of empirical data that I’m often baffled so-called “brilliant economists” turn to it.

Keynes said that all disasters have a silver lining of economic growth. He reasons that rebuilding efforts represent a net gain to the overall economy. One can often hear this idea repeated in the modern economic debate, especially after Katrina and now after the Japanese tsunami. After 9/11, super-pundit Paul Krugman wrote in his NY Times column After the Horror

 “…Ghastly as it may seem to say this, the terror attack — like the original day of infamy, which brought an end to the Great Depression — could even do some economic good…”

 I am going to temporarily ignore the idea that WWII ended the Great Depression and instead focus on the point at hand. He makes the argument that people will go out and buy lots of canned food and bottled water, which they wouldn’t have otherwise. Additionally, he argues, the rebuilding efforts would bring jobs and an influx of government money that wouldn’t have otherwise been spent. His ideas (which are really Keynes’ ideas) didn’t make any sense then, and it certainly doesn’t make any sense now when applied to the Japanese recovery. It’s just silly.

Bastiat tackled this idea long ago in his Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That which is seen and that which is unseen). In the section “The Fallacy of the Broken Window,” he explains how disaster is never good for the economy in several ways. Chiefly, when an individual or a group of individuals has to pay to replace something broken, it may be a benefit to the worker who does the replacing, but the individual of group of individuals are worse off. Bastiat writes,

 

“…It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented…”

 

If people are spending money on replacing their houses and other property, they are not spending their money on other things they would have ordinarily purchased; nor are they saving. If it were true that the rebuilding after a large-scale disaster represents a net benefit to the economy, why don’t we burn down New York or LA? Or, if we want to help the Japanese economy after the tsunami, why don’t we drop a few more atom bombs? If replacing “broken windows” represents an economic net gain, why don’t we employ groups of hooligans to go around setting things on fire and smashing car windows? Wouldn’t that be a sure way of having sustained economic growth?

Give me a break.

Apr 14 / Y&U

The End is Near! Eventually.

I was going to go to the zoo today but for whatever reason I did not. Instead I sat in my garage, drank cactus beers, smoked cigarettes and contemplated the world as ashes. There are a few ways in which the world is likely to end, I reckon, and make no mistake it will end- it must. Like breathing in and breathing out, the sun rises and the sun sets, one wakes, one sleeps- choose your metaphor, but the simple fact is at some point everything will end. I mean, in about 100 billion years, or so, the sun will consume the earth. Will human beings be around to witness the final destruction? Maybe. But spiraling into the sun is not my primary eschatological concern.

Nuclear Holocaust

 

Few people realize just how narrowly the human race escaped annihilation during the Cold War. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the so-called “Doomsday Clock” (a measurement of the amount of time it takes to launch the full arsenal of nuclear weapons after the launch codes have been authorized) was set at five minutes. 300 seconds is all that stood between the human race and almost certain destruction.

A nuclear holocaust would look something like this: after launch authorization has been given, several thousand nuclear warheads would stream up into the upper atmosphere and down to earth in various places; I would imagine distributed by population density as that would cause the most destruction. Other nuclear powers, Britain, France, China, Russia, Israel, North Korea, Iran, South Africa, Pakistan and India, would almost certainly launch their arsenals in revenge (what’s known as the “thermonuclear dilemma”), or to try and intercept some of our substantial nuclear payload (I’m imagining that we’ve just gone berserk and have just decided “to hell with it”). As massive amounts of nuclear radiation sweep the globe, human beings have a few hours to live (if exposed directly to but not incinerated by any blast) and a few months to live otherwise as residual radiation permeates well into any underground so-called “bomb proof” shelter.

“Atomic bomb” is kind of a misnomer, and it should be understood that we haven’t had any traditional “atomic weapons” in our nuclear arsenal for some time. Most people equate atomic energy with uranium isotopes; however, our WMDs now consist mainly of hydrogen/thermonuclear bombs and neutron bombs.  Hydrogen/thermonuclear bombs are technically atomic (like neutron bombs) but they use hydrogen instead of uranium as the nuclear catalyst. Instead of a massive shockwave, like those produced by uranium based atomic weapons, thermonuclear weapons focus their energy as heat. Instead of buildings and people turned to rubble, victims of thermonuclear weapons are simply incinerated.

Neutron bombs are especially dastardly. The nuclear catalyst is nickel or chromium, which allows neutrons within those atoms to escape without generating a lot of heat or shockwave (see fusion and fission). Neutron bombs are basically catastrophic releases of radiation. I think they’re actually quite clever because you can annihilate all life within a space but keep all infrastructure intact. Because of a phenomenon known as neutron flux, however, lingering radiation will remain lethal a lot longer than more conventional nuclear weapons.

The massive destruction and lingering radiation released by the widespread use of nuclear weapons is sure to kill most of us pretty quickly. If you’re lucky, you may survive the initial explosions (especially if you live in BFE) but the chances of very many of us surviving long afterwards is pretty slim. The lethality of neutron bombs and hydrogen bombs is pretty ridiculous- as much 750 times the lethality of “Fat Man” (and those are just the weapons currently declassified). If you do your math, the lethality of modern thermonuclear/neutron weapons equals about 168.75 million causalities per warhead x thousands of warheads. Couple that with the fact that growing food and hunting animals will become nearly impossible.

Our species may survive, however, though I would make an uneducated guess that roughly 95% will have perished (based on current lethality estimates, population densities and my feeling that if the pushers of the buttons really wanted to kill us all, they probably could).

First Contact

 

Aliens certainly exist. Mathematically speaking it is extremely plausible that alien civilizations exist contemporaneously with our own. Whether these extra-terrestrials have any interest in us, or the technology to communicate with us, I’m not too sure about. Would we even be able to communicate with each other? Who knows? However, if some alien species were like us enough to be able to communicate with us, and have the desire to do so, it would also make sense that they are more similar to us than we would ordinarily care to contemplate.

Far from a friendly embrace and exchange of technology and ideas, I think it’s more likely that first contact may be an unpleasant experience for the human race. I’m of the opinion that alien species that might be inclined to have anything to do with us will probably behave in a similar fashion to how we as a species have behaved when encountering other human groups- violently. Take the example of the Americas. Technologically superior white Europeans systematically exterminated the indigenous American population simply because they could, and they thought it was in their best interest. I see no reason to believe that alien species will be the benevolent “Close Encounters” kind.

Few human beings would survive I imagine, and despite how much faith H.G. Wells put into the destructive power of Earth’s microbiology, any species that is capable of manipulating time and space in order to travel unfathomable distances is likely to have some kind of antibiotics. However I could be blowing this far out of proportion. I’m doubtful there will ever be any contact between our species and other civilizations in the universe. The distances are too vast, the probability of even detecting each other too slim and the probable incompatibility of our biologies (yes I did, in fact, just make that word up) all add up to “Close Encounters of the Unlikely Kind” in my book.

However, I could be wrong. First contact could be just around the corner, and despite how pessimistic I am about the intentions of our galactic contemporaries, we may just end up becoming victims of the “Galaxyization” (another made up word) that free trade with aliens would bring. Far from being annihilated, we may end up with nothing worse than studying alien languages in schools, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with extra-terrestrial soft drink logos and having our orphans adopted by the intergalactic version of Angelina Jolie. 

Cosmic Collisions: Asteroids/Gamma Rays/Black Holes

 

Abandon all hope. One day an asteroid large enough to snuff out almost all life will hit this planet. It is unavoidable. The chances are slim that it will happen soon, but rest assured our fate is sealed. Asteroids the size of Texas float around just a few million miles from earth in a giant band. Sometimes they strike each other and ricochet in a way that puts them directly in near earth orbit. We narrowly avoid total annihilation a few times a year. It would only take an asteroid about the size of Manhattan to reduce all of civilization to cinders.

There’s really nothing we can do about it. Detecting these Extinction Level Events is difficult enough, but trying to somehow blast it out of the sky with nukes, or (my personal Hollywood favorite) sending a team of oil drillers to disintegrate it is about as impossible as a task could be. We don’t have the technology. We don’t even know where to begin to try and destroy something the size of a state. In the event of an ELE on a direct collision course I recommend the following. Get to the highest ground you can find, stock up on fresh drinking water and food, and pray. You probably won’t survive, but you may.

Asteroids are not the scariest galactic thugs hiding in the cosmic alley, however. When stars die they either go super-nova or they collapse into smaller, denser, stars that then sometimes form black holes. In a super-nova, all the intense nuclear energy of a star is released in a cataclysmic explosion. Among the many things rapidly escaping in the explosion are what are known as gamma rays. A type of radiation, gamma rays have the unpleasant aspect of being an extremely deadly type of radiation even in small doses. The amount of gamma rays escaping a star in super-nova exceeds, by a few billion times, the amount of radiation necessary to kill you. So what? Super-novas are extremely rare events and there has never been one recorded in our own galaxy. Why should we be concerned?

One of the central laws of physics is that objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force. In the vacuum of space there are few, if any, external forces to act upon anything in motion. Cosmic radiation then travels infinitely out into the universe and eventually a deadly blast of gamma ray radiation may hit the earth. Its origins were trillions of miles away and billions of years ago but let me assure you, that ancient blast has lost none of its potency.

A blast of gamma ray radiation would hit the earth with absolutely no warning. The blast may last for months. Anything on the surface during that time would be vaporized. Organic life on the planet would cease to exit. Even bacteria living deep beneath the earth’s surface would be destroyed. Nothing would escape.  Take comfort in the fact though that if the blast hits, it’s only a few minutes of unbelievable pain before your body dissolves into the atmosphere.

There is a more humane way to meet death at the hands of the cosmos, however. Black holes roam the galaxy. There is probably a giant black hole at the center of our galaxy that keeps us all together. Put simply, a black hole is a massive concentration of gravity. Even light cannot escape its pull- hence the black. Because light cannot escape a black hole they are incredibly difficult to see. In fact we only know they exist because of gravitation anomalies that are recorded surrounding blank spots in the universe. There is so much gravity in a black hole that the very fabrics of time and space shred. If you really want to trip out, look up the physics of black holes. There is, quite literally, no way to escape.

If a black hole approached earth we would have a few months warning, but there isn’t anything to be done about it. As soon as the atoms of your body can feel the pull of the black hole, each and every individual atom of your body will dematerialize- torn ashred by the massive gravitational force. Take comfort though, it’ll probably happen faster than you can perceive it, and before it happens you’ll be treated to a unique light show in the sky as the atoms in the upper atmosphere are torn apart. So drink a beer, get some tail, do whatever you have to do, because if an asteroid, black hole, of gamma ray burst is coming, we’re all screwed.

I was also going to write a bit about catastrophic climate change, but it turned into me arguing against subsidizing green energy. That’s for another time.

Apr 12 / Y&U

On the Civil War Sesquicentenial, a letter

A letter to the Belleville News-Democrat:

Dear Editor,

This year marks the Civil War sesquicentennial. Along with the Great Depression, the Civil War was the most transformative event in American history. Through the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, the war’s impact is still palpable. On the morning of April 12, 1861 the Confederate States of America fired upon Ft. Sumter, S.C. and just over four years later, more than 600,000 Americans would be dead. The south would be destroyed. The chains of bondage would be broken.

Musing on the war I am proud to be from Illinois. This is the land of Lincoln, the home of U.S. Grant, and a state that, though divided in sympathy, sacrificed all to achieve so much. I am prouder still to be from St. Clair County. They may seem distant to us now, but the men of St. Clair County were mustered into the 9th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment on April 26, 1861 for three months service. When it was realized that the war would not be over quickly, not a man among them refused to sign on for the next three years. They were attached to Gen. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and saw combat at Ft. Donaldson, Shiloh, Corinth, Kennesaw Mountain, Nickajack Creek, The Siege of Atlanta, Sherman’s March to Sea and dozens of other places.

Our brave boys of St. Clair County suffered 63% casualties at Shiloh, but because of their bravery and discipline under fire they were honored by becoming a mounted infantry unit and were praised by General Grant as one of his best regiments. In their first action in the war, the men of St. Clair County fought alongside other regiments from southern Illinois in the action at Saratoga, Kentucky. While the other regiments ran and straggled back into camp one at a time, our boys marched with flags unfurled, beautifully dressed and in line. Gen. Grant was so impressed he gave the 9th pride of place in the march to Ft. Donaldson a few months later.

It isn’t the soldiers alone who should receive our praise. The war made our community. It cemented us all together in a way we all still feel today. At home sat wives, sweethearts, sisters, brothers, daughters, fathers, and mothers who did what they could to help their loved ones return home safely. Maybe it was the good German stock they came from, or maybe it was the patriotism they felt, but the men and women of Belleville, O’Fallon, Millstadt, Freeburg, Lebanon, and beyond, sacrificed much for their brave boys in blue. Women became machinists, farmers, and made clothing by firelight. Men pooled their resources together and purchased Henry repeating rifles (not inexpensive) for their proud regiment. They held prayer services and vigils. They toasted their boys in taverns and wept together when the church bells tolled the dead- and they would die.

Only half the regiment would return in the summer of 1865. For a community drastically smaller than today, the loss of 417 men was devastating. But the communities of St. Clair County pulled together. Pride swelled within them. Their boys had not only won the war, but had distinguished themselves for bravery and constancy in battle. The men returned not only victors but also war heroes. The precursor to the V.F.W., the Grand Army of the Republic, swelled with membership from St. Clair County and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War still operated into the 1960’s.

As I drive through Belleville today, though, I am heartbroken. We have monuments to the brave veterans of WWI and WWII, monuments to the heroes of Korea and Vietnam, but few, in any, know about St. Clair County’s proud connection to the Civil War. On the 150th anniversary of the war 21 states have official commissions celebrating their Civil War veterans but, sadly, Illinois does not.

You often run stories of St. Clair County veterans of Korea, WWII, and Vietnam, use that same format and tell the people of our community about the brave boys of the 9th. After all, it is because of them, and the sacrifices of their families who loved them, that our community, our Nation, exists at all.

A portion of a painting of the Battle of Shiloh depicting the 9th Illinois

Apr 7 / Y&U

KRSNA, the self, Narasimha

 

First the story- 

Once there was a powerful asura, a terrible demon and rakshasa, named Hiranyaksha- the Goldeneyed. He was so powerful, he conquered hell, the realm of the demons, Earth, the realm of men, and Heaven, the realm of the gods. He took the earth to the bottom of the cosmic sea and the gods become very afraid. They went to Lord Vishnu, the preserver, and averting their eyes said, 

“Oh, Lord Vishnu! Vasudeva! You are the one who sleeps upon time’s eternal waters. Lord of Vasuki and Savior of the Universe, please save us from the demon king!” 

And so the Lord incarnated himself as Varaha the boar. Swimming down to the bottom of the cosmic ocean he met Hiranyaksha is combat, and after a thousand years of battle, Hiranyaksha, the Goldeneyed, was destroyed. The Earth was saved and the gods were pleased. 

Well, Hiranyaksha had a brother named Hiranyakashipu, and Hiranyakashipu swore revenge against Lord Vishnu. He climbed the highest mountain in the cosmos, Mandaracala, and there, standing on one toe, he meditated- for aeons. He gathered so much spiritual power to himself that even the very foundations of existence began to tremble beneath his awesome weight. 

The gods once again became afraid, and this time they went to Lord Brahma, the changeless creator. They said to Him, 

“Lord Brahma, heavenly divine creator, you who reside in golden splendor, the father of all things, go to Hiranyakashipu and grant him a boon. Give him whatever he wants only please, make him stop these terrible austerities!” 

So the Lord went to Hiranyakashipu and said to him, 

“Child of creation, because of the power of your meditations I will grant you a boon. Ask for whatever you would like.” 

Hiranyakashipu said, 

“Oh great and powerful Lord Brahma! O best of the granters of boons, if you will kindly grant me the boon I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any building or outside any building, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the boon that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. And give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.” 

Brahma smiled, for He knows all things, and said, “Your boon is granted.” 

Well, Hiranyakashipu wasted no time in conquering the three worlds; hell, the realm of the demons, Earth, the realm of men, and Heaven, the realm of the gods. Even mighty Indra was thrown from his palace in disgrace. 

The gods once again went to the Great God, Vishnu, and averting their eyes they said to him, 

“Oh, Lord Vishnu! Vasudeva! You are the one who sleeps upon time’s eternal waters. Lord of Vasuki and Savior of the Universe, save us from the demon king Hiranyakashipu. He swears revenge against you for killing his brother and with each breath he takes he dishonors you. Oh sweet Lord, fight and destroy him!” 

But with a voice that shatters planets, the divine Vishal, the unstoppable, replied, 

“All in good time. Hiranyakashipu will have many sons, one of whom will be devoted to Me, and when Hiranyakashipu dishonors Me through this son- then I shall have My vengeance.” 

And so it came to be that Hiranyakashipu had many sons, one of whom was named Prahlada, and Prahlada was the student of the great sage and Bhakta, Narada Muni. Narada had been the guru of Prahlada’s mother whom, after found with a idol of Lord Vishnu, had been murder by her husband, Hiranyakashipu. After that, Narada Muni, the great sage, instructed Prahlada on the ways of Bhakti, selfless devotion, and of the divine peace that is given by Lord Vishnu, the Lord of Bhakti. 

One day Hiranyakashipu sat musing in his garden and calling his son to him he said, 

“Prahlada, answer me this one question. What is the greatest power a demon possesses?” 

The demon prince replied, 

“Oh great king, my father, the greatest power possessed by anyone is devotion to Lord Vishnu. Seeing Lord Vishnu within one’s self, one sees Lord Vishnu is all things.” 

Hiranyakashipu became furious, and beat his son within an inch of his life. Throwing him back to his tutors he said to them, “You will teach him the right answers to my questions or, so help me, in three days I will kill all of you!” 

For three days Prahlada’s tutors tried to drill the right answers to his father’s questions into his head. How to love power and money, how to make the right friends, how to bed any woman he chooses, how to tell the right jokes, drive the right car, how to look at pretty paintings in museums and above all, how to hate. 

After the three days were up, Hiranyakashipu sat musing in his garden and again called his son to him saying, 

“Prahlada, answer me this one question. What is the greatest virtue a demon possesses?” 

And Prahlada said, without missing a beat, 

“Oh great king my father, the greatest virtue possessed by anyone is devotion to Lord Vishnu. Seeing Lord Vishnu within one’s self, one sees Lord Vishnu in all things.” 

Hiranyakashipu was beside himself with anger! He grabbed Prahlada by the neck and began to beat him mercilessly. He dragged him by the hair to a great pillar of his palace and said, 

“O foolish Prahlada! You have always described a supreme being other than me, a supreme being who is above everything, who is the controller of everyone, and who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is in all things, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?” 

But Prahlada said, 

“Oh great king my father, He is. He was. He will be.” 

With that the great and ferocious demon king threw Prahlada into the pillar, shattering it into a thousand pieces. And there, standing where the pillar had once been, was Lord Vishnu in the form of the Narasimha- half lion and half man, neither man nor beast! He grabbed Hiranyakashipu with one powerful hand and with the other grabbed the sun and rested it in twilight- neither day or night. He dragged Hiranyakashipu into the threshold of the palace, neither inside a building nor outside, and slammed him down in His own celestial lap, neither in the heavens nor on Earth. There he began to shred Hiranyakashipu with His claws- using no weapons. Hiranyakashipu was destroyed. 

He then gently plucked Prahlada from the floor and, placing him gingerly at His feet, said, 

“Prahlada, my beloved servant, ask me for a boon. You may have whatever you desire. If you want Moksha, enlightenment, it shall be yours. You may ask for anything.” 

But Prahlada said, 

“Oh great and heavenly Lord Vishnu! Though I desire nothing, may it be that my heart is always parted from want.” 

And so to this day, if you are very lucky, you may come across Prahlada as he wanders the world preaching the good news, 

“Seeing Lord Vishnu within one’s self, one sees Lord Vishnu in all things.”  

Now, my interpretation-

On the surface this is a typical Hindu demon slaying adventure with a simple moral: the rewards of devotion to the gods outweighs any trial. Its surface interpretation can be quite satisfying, and the story in general is very entertaining (I giggle whenever I say Hiranyakashipu). But what are the larger implications of the story, which appear in various forms throughout the Upanishads, and what can be taken away from this myth? 

For starters, it’s important to realize that the Hindu myths are really not myths at all, but complicated allegories of the spiritual life. In the Story of the Narasimha, we explore one of the central aspects of Hinduism- the Avatara. Many of the gods incarnate themselves for one purpose or another but it’s Siva/Vishnu with whom incarnation is most identified. Vishnu is the savior of the world, who comes to earth in various forms at various times to restore dharma and, thus, resolve karma. Sri Krsna, the most important Avatar (the source of Vishnu), says in the Divine Gita, 

“Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth. 

For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil, 

and for the establishment of righteousness, 

I come into being age after age.” 

In the story of the Narasimha, dharma, divine will, has been abandoned as hatred and violence flourish. Hatred and violence is the means by which dharma is abandoned. Hiranyakashipu (teeheehee) hates the world Lord Vishnu preserves, and so he’ll force upon it his own will, using violence and the perversion of yoga to accomplish that goal. 

I think its very telling that the impetus for the demon king’s “terrible austerities” is the death of his brother. He either cared very deeply for his brother or he wants to capitalize on the vacuum of power created by his brother’s absence. Either way, it is attachment that is the driving force behind Hiranyakashipu’s violence. Contrast that with the non-attachment example of Prahlada- and the benefits of both. With greed and violence Hiranyakashipu certainly did conquer the universe but it was his son, who was so unattached, who found peace and happiness- by doing the opposite of his father. Prahlada found peace by abandoning the want of it, “though my heart desires nothing…..” 

Another aspect of the story that has often intrigued me is that, from a Western perspective, it’s odd to consider demons as anything but servants of evil. Hiranyakashipu and his brother certainly fit that bill, but lets remember that Prahlada was born an asura, a rakshasa specifically, his lineage stems from other great asuras and his descendants include the demon Ravana (the enemy of Avatar-Rama) and all the asuras Sri Krsna destroyed. Lord Krsna (the transcendent Godhead, the personhood and source of Lord Vishnu) is often called the destroyer of caste, and in the story of Narasimha we get a telling example of that aspect. It doesn’t matter how you were born or how you were raised, the Lord calls all of us to righteousness, and, by accepting that call, to moksha- liberation. Nature and nurture are both irrelevant when compared with dharma. 

Unlike the examples of the other Avatara, who come to earth and do great and wondrous deeds for the benefit of all creation, the Narasimha has come to save just one disciple. This does, outwardly, seem like a deviation from the “restoring dharma” aspect of the Avatara. Lord Vishnu has come to save one disciple, not to save the world. The underlying message being that by saving just one disciple, He saves us all. This is uniquely profound when compared with the Prahlada mantra. Prahlada repeats, “seeing Lord Vishnu within one’s self, one sees Lord Vishnu is all things,” he goes on to say, when attacked about Lord Vishnu’s omnipresence, “He is, He was, He will be.” We are all connected to each other in a way inconceivable to the ego. Prahlada understood this principle because he has abandoned want, accepted divine love and focuses intently on the Lord. 

The abandonment of desire, the embrace of selfless love and a concentration on the Lord is what’s known as Bhakti Yoga, or the yoga of practice/action. Narada Muni, who is considered in some texts an Avatara in his own right, is often called the master of Bhakti, or the first Bhakta. Narada is Prahlada’s tutor and it is clear that the young asura has learned a lot. Bhakti is most associated with Lord Vishnu, coming from various Vaishnavite traditions throughout India, and through Vishnu’s famous Avatara, Sri Krsna. It is in the Bhagavad-Gita the word “Bhakti” is first used, and, it should be noted, that the Divine Lord Krsna is the personhood of Vishnu, the source- the internal self. Prahlada is a Bhakta master precisely because he has come into (at least some) knowledge of the internal divinity, Lord Krsna. 

This is, in my estimation, the central theme of the story of the Narasimha. Prahlada is completely detached from desire, loves selflessly, and is devoted to the Lord, Sri Krsna (in the form of Vishnu). It is Bhakti that saves Prahlada. Since Prahlada saw Lord Vishnu within himself (realized the internal self, Sri Krsna), he saw Lord Vishnu everywhere. Whether or not the Narasimha stepped in, then, was immaterial. The Narasimha plays His part only as a symbol for us, the receiver of the story. The Narasimha is the attention grabber saying, “pay attention to what I have done. I have incarnated myself because of the example of this Bhakta.” Within the Narasimha we do not find the central message of the story- it is within Prahlada.  

“Seeing Lord Vishnu within one’s self, one sees Lord Vishnu is all things.”“Realizing the internal self as Sri Krsna, the Lord of Bhakti, we realized the selves of all creation.” HARE KRSNA HARE KRSNA

KRSNA KRSNA HARE HARE HARE RAMA HARE RAMA

RAMA RAMA HARE HARE

Apr 3 / Y&U

A Few Links

Taking a queue from CafeHayek (and also some of their stuff), when I’m too lazy to write anything I’m just going to post some links.

Renowned GMU economist Walter Williams interview by Reason’s Nick Gillespie

The Story of the Narasimha- it helps to be a little intoxicated

Right here in our fair city. George Will gets it right when he says, “Many people go into [government] because they enjoy bossing people around.”

Rango: A Libertarian Spiritual Epic from mises daily. I’m glad someone else thinks of these things when at the movies

I usually hate Ferraris- but only because I’m upset I’ll never own one…especially the Enzo F60. In this link Jeremy Clarkson says he prefers the F40 but he’s British so disregard his opinions