Monday, August 17, 2015

International Tensions: Russia, China and Putin!

== Russia rattling sabers. ==

Talk of war? Major war in Europe? This long and very detailed article examines the ways that Russia’s contretemps with NATO and the US and the West could spiral out of control, via many of the same psychological  and strategic miscalculations that tumbled the planet – 100 years ago – into the First World War.  

Take some examples of alarming signs. In recent months, NATO reported unusually large movements of Russian fighter jets looping around Europe, including several airspace violations in the Baltics. This month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia planned to increase bomber flights in the Gulf of Mexico. And Sweden conducted an extensive search for a submarine in its waters that local media said was believed to be Russian. 

Another report: “Russia is provoking Finland, repeatedly guiding military planes into Finnish airspace and deploying submarines and helicopters to chase after Finnish research vessels in international waters. The incidents are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior that has radiated across Europe but that has been especially unnerving for countries such as Finland that live outside the protective bubble of NATO.”

“In May, Finland's defense ministry sent letters to 900,000 citizens — one-sixth of the population — telling them to prepare for conscription in case of a "crisis situation." Lithuania has reinstituted military conscription. Poland, in June, appointed a general who would take over as military commander in case of war. Though Western publics remain blissfully unaware, and Western leaders divided, many of the people tasked with securing Europe are treating conflict as more likely. In late April, NATO and other Western officials gathered in Estonia, a former Soviet republic and NATO member on Russia's border that Western analysts most worry could become ground zero for a major war with Russia.”

And… Repeated Russian warnings that it would go to war to defend its perceived interests in Ukraine, potentially even nuclear war, are dismissed in most Western capitals as bluffing, mere rhetoric. Western leaders view these threats through Western eyes, in which impoverished Ukraine would never be worth risking a major war. In Russian eyes, Ukraine looks much more important: an extension of Russian heritage that is sacrosanct and, as the final remaining component of the empire, a strategic loss that would unacceptably weaken Russian strength and thus Russian security.’

== The Putin Fixation ==

And there you see the crux. While Fox News and the Murdochians engage in their cult of Putin adulation, calling the Russian President a strong alpha male and brilliant chess player, in fact, our worrisome possibility is the diametric opposite, the kind of miscalculation that comes from steep decline, as every aspect of Russian life, from the economy to birthrates to the ruble to lifespans to the braindrain, spirals ever-downward.

(Though as an aside, at these exchange rates, this might be a good time for that tourism jaunt to the Hermitage.)

One factor that the authors of this fascinating piece left out is China, which has begun to bankroll Moscow in order to gradually counter-balance western influence and power.  The creation of a Great Eurasia is now discussed widely, as Russian military technology combines with Chinese industrial and economic strength. On paper, this may seem a great deal for two powers who share an antipathy toward western notions of democratic pluralism and law, under a unipolar American Pax.  But there are aspects seldom mentioned –

-- such as the small matter of the largest territory on Earth, Siberia.  Claimed and owned by Russia, but resource rich and tantalizingly close to more than a billion cramped Han Chinese.  Who are already investing in that region, big time, and slipping tens of thousands of workers and businessmen and innocent professionals across the border, every year – whose presence someday might offer exactly the expatriate population “to be protected” that Putin now uses as an excuse to bully Estonia. 

To which one has to wonder.  Has Vladimir Putin already sold Siberia, either secretly or implicitly, to Beijing?  Or is he truly so focused westward that he has no thoughts of the east? 

But perspective is never seen on cable news… or any news, for that matter. What about Putin's "master chess player" moves in Crimea, the Donbas and Georgia? Please? These consist entirely of nibbles-back of crusts -- where Russian speakers predominate -- from the biggest geopolitical setback any Russian leader has overseen since the Mongol invasions ... the complete loss from the Russian sphere of influence of Ukraine.

He might have hoped that (perhaps with some subtle help) the Ukrainian economy would tank and Ukrainians might elect another Yanukovich.  Now? They would fight and shiver and freeze before they'll ever again kowtow to Moscow.  The breach is permanent… or will last generations. Ukrainians are guaranteed never, ever again to allow a Russian-loving Yanukovich back into power. So much for subtle chess.

== Then why does Fox News adore Putin? ==

Look, I will give Vladimir Putin his due.  He reduced the chaos of the Yeltsin years (though not street or organized crime.) I was impressed by his maneuver, a few years back, to have his protege, Medvedev, serve one term as president, in order that Putin could obey the constitutional ban on three consecutive terms… an obstacle that most strongmen would solve by simply command-amending the Constitution.  Indeed, that piece of political theater may have done the notion of Russian civil society some long-term symbolic (if potemkin) good.  Though the destruction of non-governmental media and conversion of provincial governorships from elected to appointed status showed Putin’s true intentions.

None of this matters to the Fox-Limbaugh-Beck spin machine over here, though. “Sure he’s a tyrant,” they all admit. “But if only our own leaders were as savvy, dynamic and strong!” The Russian president is portrayed as a latter-day Peter the Great, out-maneuvering our politicians with a brilliant combination of forceful determination, agility and macho ruthlessness. As with all-things-Fox, I have to scratch my head and ask — “are there viewers who actually nod their heads and swallow this stuff?”

That kind of admiration would be disturbing enough, on so many levels.  For one thing, it reflects the Confederacy’s 200 year love affair with authoritarian oligarchy, stretching back to when the British Crown got most of its tory support in the 1770s South. The same theme continued through the Gone-With-The-Wind era of slave lords like “Marse Robert” E. Lee, all the way to Citizens United and the way today’s right-wing spin machine pours adulation on the “job creator” caste — who create no jobs.

And the caudillo-yearning propaganda for Caesar figures, spun out in every single tale by Orson Scott Card. Adulation of feudalism just seems to be part of confederate DNA, helping to explain the endless recurrence of America’s ongoing Civil War. 

In fact, we do not need strongmen or lords.  We need the thing that’s ridiculed and downplayed every night by Fox (and also by some radicals on the very extreme left.)  We need calm-negotiation. We need politics. And respect for facts and science. We need citizenship.

== And yet, I suspect Putin may have depths… even a plan… after all ==

Oh, it’s not the "plan" that Fox-fools credit to him. The truth is exposed starkly via this article in MONEY. “Things in Russia are going from bad to worse.”

Across the last two decades, almost no effort has been made to reform the underlying Russian economy so that it might leverage high technology startups out of its highly educated populace. Putting aside the lucrative business of skuyllduggerous internet activity, that economy relies almost solely on an obsolescing fossil fuel industry. Capital flight has reached the level of an arterial gusher. Any trace of entrepreneurialism is pounced upon and gobbled up by oligarchs, backed by organized crime.

What the article in Money leaves out is far more disturbing. Russian men are drinking themselves to death and Russian women have stopped having babies with them. (Russia’s population has declined by almost 7 million in the last 19 years, to 142 million. UN estimates are that it may shrink by about a third in the next 40 years.) The brain drain is almost a tsunami as smart people are fleeing the country as fast as they can.  Russia had to buy its aircraft carriers from France. (A deal canceled after Crimea.) It has lost every spaceprobe it sent to Mars and has not innovated in space in decades.

And yet…

And yet I look at him. It’s blatant to everyone how fiercely intelligent the man is.

 Now add in the fact that he has stated openly that the collapse of the old Soviet Union – that gave him his big break and chance for power - was the “greatest tragedy” for Russians, for slavs… and possibly for humanity. The greatest tragedy ever.

Consider that he saw how George H.W. Bush (senior) – easily the worst U.S. president of the 20th Century, connived with Boris Yeltsin to hand the entire Russian economy over to crooks and oligarchs, cheating the people of everything.  Ponder how this consolidated all economic power and all state enterprises into the hands of just a few.

Now (and here’s a test of your education) put all that into the context of Marxist theory … if any of you have ever read any, which I doubt. But it was what Putin suckled as a youth.

Now add one science fiction level theory.  No… hypothesis.  No, not even that. A what-if.

What if – I wonder – what-if Vladimir Putin is what he has always been? 
The same thing that he started out as? 
What if he is utterly… sincere?

I have laid the pieces to the puzzle before you.  They are there. All of them. Enough of them. Any of you could figure it out. You are smart enough.

Just very badly educated and ill-read.


Tony Fisk said...

Another interesting development (and possibly related to Russia's economic woes)
Saudi Arabia May Go Broke (Basically, the Saudis cranked up production to the max back in February. This article thinks it is a failing attempt to undercut the US fracking industry. Others suspect it is a last-gasp fire sale while oil is still worth something. Either way, the effect on the Global Oil Price* would not be helping Russia.)

*Ooh! That acronym. Who knew?

locumranch said...

The parallels between 21st century post-USSR Russia and post-Versailles-Treaty Weimar Germany are extreme.

In both cases, their collapse was followed by a hyperinflationary period that undermined the stability of their economy, wiping out the personal savings of the middle class, spurring massive unemployment, increasing social unrest and destabilizing their fragile republics. Efforts of the western powers to further marginalize these nations undermined and isolated its democratic leaders and underscored the need to restore post-national prestige through remilitarization and expansion.

Very soon, many citizens forgot that they had applauded the fall of their authoritarian leaders, had initially welcomed parliamentary democratic reform, and had rejoiced at the armistice. They recalled only that the Left—Socialists, Communists and others (traitors all in common imagination)—had surrendered national honor to a disgraceful peace when no foreign armies had even set foot on national soil. This Dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back legend) was initiated and fanned by retired wartime military leaders, who, well aware that their nation could no longer wage war, had advised their leaders to sue for peace. It helped to further discredit post-nationalist liberal circles who felt most committed to maintain their newborn fragile democratic experiment.

The difficulties imposed by social and economic unrest in the wake of their collapse, in addition to onerous peacetime tariffs and embargoes, and the raw fear of the potential for an extra-national takeover, undermined pluralistic democratic solutions. They also increased public longing for more authoritarian direction. Similar conditions benefited rightwing authoritarian and totalitarian systems in all aspects of Europe as well, beginning with the largest socioeconomic losers, raising levels of tolerance for and acquiescence in violent discrimination against national minorities throughout the region and leading to disillusionment with international and national politics and a sense of distrust in political leaders and government officials permeated the consciousness of an emotionally exhausted public.

All of these social and economic events were accompanied by an increasing reliance on the short-term solution of deficit social spending, supported by the printing & issuance of exaggerated amounts of paper money (a practice that currently goes by the name of quantitative easing) which was also associated with an increase in pacifist sentiment, pronounced isolationist tendencies and finally financial collapse within the United States.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it, mostly because we've been here before, the only difference being that our current scenario has been aggravated by a growing US & pan-global reliance on quantitative easing, the same approach that lead directly to the previous episode of financial collapse, hyper-nationalism, authoritarianism and internecine conflict.

Sleep well.

David Brin said...

Tony I have a blog upcoming that relates John Mauldin's appraisal of the oil situation. Essentially the Saudis hugely miscalculated. The US oil industry is experiencing technological change at a rate faster than Moore's Law, with increases in efficient extraction skyrocketing to the point that $40/bb price is "no problem." One area where the left was as crzay as the right was "peak oil" which appears now to be an utter chimera.

But it is a blessing that oil stayed above 90$ for a decade. That gave solar a chance to develop to the point where now it is self-sustaining and accelerating with a moore's law of its own. Despite insane right wing screeches that solar was a "pipedream."

As long as solar and other sustainables are developing fast, then it is a win win for cheap methane to displace coal and middle eastern oil. Though even methane must fade away if we are to ultimately save the planet.

I do know this. If we elect a republican he will go back to sabotaging all research. Obstructing solar and sustainables, and (except for Trump) doing everything in his power to cater to Saudi whims and needs and wishes.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi David
I disagree on "peak oil"
Hubbert was right all the way down the line
Every oil source follows his curve
As he predicted new technology would push the peak outwards but still following the same curve
The new fracking technologies show an even faster depletion curve so even if some (very optimistic) estimates of the cost are correct we are only talking about a decade or two before we are back looking at the peak

I am very skeptical about "$40/bb price is "no problem.""
I suspect that $40 is more than the "variable cost" but much much less than the total cost including the very fast depreciation of the actual field and all of that equipment that will become useless once that field is effectively empty
So pumping an existing "fracked" field makes sense (otherwise you get nothing)
but fracking more fields to maintain output when the existing fields fail in a couple of years is not happening at $40/bb

On that thought - how much does it cost to "put it all back to what it was"?
With mines the companies make money from the ore and the taxpayers then foot the bill to fix things like toxic tailings and rusting equipment
What will happen with all of these "fracked" oilfields?
Will the oil companies take all of their rubbish away and fix any issues or will they leave all that to the taxpayer as usual

Tony Fisk said...

I do know this. If we elect a republican he will go back to sabotaging all research. Obstructing solar and sustainables, and (except for Trump) doing everything in his power to cater to Saudi whims and needs and wishes.

Tony Abbott, in a nutshell.

mollytherealdeal said...

Dear David,

I disagree about Peak Oil too.

Those who first advocated this idea were non-partisan scientists who felt worried about difficulties in increasing cheap oil production, because a healthy world economy relies on cheap oil exponentially rising in use. Marion King Hubbert, David Goodstein, and Colin J. Campbell seem non-partisan. When oil becomes expensive, there tends to be political then military problems.

Even though there are left wing Peak Oil advocates who recommend conservation because of climate change concerns, there are right wingers who want to accelerate building more coal to liquid plants to prevent severe problems from oil shortages,even though that method of creating fuel could increase the carbon foot by several hundred percent.

I am in favor of solar power. My family leases solar panels which has reduced our electric bills even though we really don't let climate change alter our behavior. Solar creates electricity, not the liquid fuel world transportation needs (98%). The world has about 800 million cars. Several thousand electric vehicles being produced each year is not likely to be a dent in oil consumption anytime soon. Also, how about trains, ships, and jet planes? How can those function without a cheap liquid fuel?

It is unfortunate that so many conservatives are closed minded about renewable energy which they dismiss as something that only exists because of liberal subsidies. However, if we take all the renewable and nuclear power, those are not going to power a transportation system of our industrial civilization.

Peak Oil is not a concern now because gasoline is at a moderately elevated price in the US. When it rises again, the chimera will reappear.

Daniel Duffy said...

"The same theme continued through the Gone-With-The-Wind era of slave lords like “Marse Robert” E. Lee"

Robert E. Lee freed his slaves stting "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil."

Midboss57 said...

I miss the 90s. In hindsight it was a nice time. Ten whole years where the West didn't have some sort of major threat facing it. It was kind of hilarious seeing the media digging the bottom of the barrel for some big danger to scare us with. Millennium Bug, that was the best they could come with.

During those times, Russia was supposed to be Germany 2.0, a former enemy who we defeated and would become our new best buddy. (seriously, sometimes I wonder if world leaders think geopolitics work like magical girl shows where blowing someone up is the best way of befriending them)The EU was supposed to be on its way to become a new superpower to act as a balance between the US's hyper capitalism and China's authoritarianism.

But well, once again proving that they can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, our powers that be completely and utterly messed up the after cold war. Result 1: 9/11, Result 2: Putin, Result 3: ISIS, Result 4: Greece.

I have to ask this, is there any enemy to the West for the last century that wasn't created by our leader's greed and incompetence ? This is a serious question because I can't think of any. I'm just dreading to think what enemies our next blunder will create.

Daniel Duffy said...

Russia is unimportant, nothing but "Zaire with permafrost":

Over the past decade Russia's population has been shrinking by almost a million a year, owing to a plummeting birth rate and a rising number of deaths from alcoholism and violence. Predictions are astonishingly grave: the country could lose a third of its population (now 146 million) by the middle of the century. This does not factor in new scourges—tuberculosis and HIV, in particular, which have been spreading exponentially since 1998. As its population shrinks, Russia will find itself less and less able to face demographic challenges from China. Overpopulation is pushing the Chinese into the Russian Far East—a trend that at present benefits Russia by bringing it trade and small-scale investment but that could someday lead to ethnically based separatism.

Daniel Duffy said...

Those who believe in "peak oil" underestimate human ingenuity:

That belief lies partially in re-fracking - giving oil shale deposits a second blast of water, chemicals and sand - to get more oil out of depleted or under-performing wells. The process could be up to two-thirds cheaper than drilling a new well, which is an alluring possibility for cash-strapped U.S. producers who are straining to keep operational costs down and drilling operations intact.

Daniel Duffy said...


And the ground won't be the only source of oil:

One such novel feedstock is raw sewage. Sewage sludge has a high lipid content, making it a potential (and cheap) source of fossil fuel. Most of the sludge’s lipids are produced by the bacteria living in the sludge. South Korean researchers have found a method that converts lipids to biodiesel at high yield and low cost. As a result, sewage can yield more lipids than soybeans while costing less to produce. The process is a non-catalytic method and involves heating with methanol. In this process, heat drives the reaction at 380°C (716°F), rather than a catalyst. To increase contact time between the lipids the reaction occurs in a porous material such as activated alumina that traps the reactants together. Adding carbon dioxide improves the yield, converting 98% of the lipids into biodiesel....

However, a newly developing process, hydrothermal liquefaction, can transform 2/3 of the algae into bio-oil that does not need special mixing or handling, and do so in less than an hour. Initial estimates predict that this process would allow the sale of algae derived biodiesel for as little as $2 a gallon (currently it goes for about $10 a gallon). The technology utilizes what is essentially a large pressure cooker. This new type of pressure cooker is designed to replace costly steps like drying the algae before processing with a more streamlined approach. As a result, all phases of production become much cheaper. The system can also extract oil efficiently from a wide variety of algae grown in various locales. The process starts with a mixture of 20% algae and 80% water by weight. The mixture is fed continuously though a long tube at 660°F and 3,000 psi pressure for 30 minutes while being stirred. This breaks down the algae completely into oil at a rate of 100 pounds of algae yielding 53 pounds of a bio-oil, which is similar chemically to light, sweet crude. Efficient heat recovery systems improve process efficiency. The process also yields valuable byproducts, which can be used to form natural gas and make fertilizer....

Scientists at Tulane University have discovered the first known strain of bacteria, TU-103, which produces biobutanol (which can be used as a replacement for gasoline) directly from cellulose. TU-103 (discovered in zebra feces) is the only known butanol-producing strain that can grow and produce butanol in an aerobic environment. Oxygen kills other butanol-producing bacteria, and not having to produce butanol in an isolated anaerobic tank will greatly reduce production costs. It will also allow for the mass conversion of the bulk of our solid waste (like old newsprint) into fuel that does not increase levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere....

Lastly, scientists at the University of Georgia are working on a near magical process that can create biofuel directly from thin air. One of the great benefits of using biofuel is that fact that it is largely carbon neutral. The biological processes and bacterial metabolisms used to create ethanol, biodiesel, algae oil, etc. extract carbon dioxide from the air while creating fuel. Later, burning the fuel releases approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide, making the use of biofuel potentially “carbon neutral.” So how is this new process different than photosynthesis, when plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar that are later extracted to ferment fuels like ethanol? This new discovery allows for the direct production of oils from a microorganism (pyrococcus furiosus) discovered in the super heated waters of a geothermal vent on the bottom of the ocean. A genetically modified version of this organism can feed directly off carbon dioxide at much lower temperatures while directly producing fuel oil and other useful chemicals.

Getting oil out of the ground will soon be as obsolete as getting it from whales

Daniel Duffy said...

You want to break oligarchs like the Koch Bros, Putin, the Saudi Royal family and Nigerian kleptocrats?

Make oil as cheap and plentiful as possible from as many sources as possible.

Daniel Duffy said...

Getting back to Rusia, it will be lucky if it doesn't fall apart after Putin, forcing America to retrieve its nukes for safe keeping:

"There will not be an uprising against Moscow, but Moscow's withering ability to support and control the Russian Federation will leave a vacuum," Stratfor warns. "What will exist in this vacuum will be the individual fragments of the Russian Federation."

Sanctions, declining oil prices, a plunging ruble, rising military expenses, and increasing internal discord will weaken the hold of Russia's central government over the world's largest country. Russia won't officially split into multiple countries, but Moscow's power may loosen to the point that Russia will effectively become a string of semi-autonomous regions that might not even get along with one another.

"We expect Moscow's authority to weaken substantially, leading to the formal and informal fragmentation of Russia" the report states, adding that "It is unlikely that the Russian Federation will survive in its current form."

Russia's nuclear weapons infrastructure is decentralized and spread across a vast geographic area. If the political disintegration Stratfor predicts ever happens, it means that weapons, uranium stocks, and delivery systems could end up exposed in what will suddenly become the world's most dangerous power vacuum.

The breakout of Russia's nuclear weapons stockpile will be "the greatest crisis of the next decade," according to Stratfor.

And the US will have to figure out what to do about it, even if it means dispatching ground troops to secure loose weapons, materials, and delivery systems.

"Washington is the only power able to address the issue, but it will not be able to seize control of the vast numbers of sites militarily and guarantee that no missile is fired in the process," the Decade Forecast states. "The United States will either have to invent a military solution that is difficult to conceive of now, accept the threat of rogue launches, or try to create a stable and economically viable government in the regions involved to neutralize the missiles over time."

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin, what you said about oil technology (The US oil industry is experiencing technological change at a rate faster than Moore's Law) might not be such a good thing. I know Systems Theory has been around for a long time, but its applicability to a huge number of phenomena still holds (though with modification, but that's how science goes). Computer technology can change at a fast rate without any danger because it is positive sum - it depends on clever, educated people becoming increasingly clever and catalyzing each other's cleverness. Oil is a very different situation, as it is a limited resource. Its exploitation is negative sum, even if extraction technology might give the appearance of being positive sum. Accelerating technology suggests that the feedback loop is in danger of collapsing. There will come a point where no technology, however clever, will be able to continue to provide oil.

What I am hoping is that we have reached peak denial, and can get the renewable loop going in earnest.

Joel Greenwood said...

The Koch brothers own refineries - cheap oil is to their benefit. They also have their fingers in other pies (like the Oil Sands) to diversify their business hence their support of Keystone XL even though they're getting cheaper oil from Alberta without the pipeline.

Until we give up cars that run gasoline, the Koch bros are here to stay.

Daniel Duffy said...

There are still a lot of technical problems that need to be overcome before we do away with gasoline fueled car.

It is their energy density that makes traditional fossil fuels so useful. Gasoline and diesel, for example, have an energy density of approximately 46 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg). By comparison, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery has an energy density of only 0.4 to 0.9 MJ/kg. Advanced lithium-air batteries under development for electrical vehicles have a potential energy density of 9.0 MJ/kg. Clearly, chemical energy storage is significantly more efficient.

It is not a conspiracy of the oil companies that is preventing the wide spread and rapid adoption of EVs.

It's a conspiracy of physics.

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

"There will not be an uprising against Moscow, but Moscow's withering ability to support and control the Russian Federation will leave a vacuum," Stratfor warns. "What will exist in this vacuum will be the individual fragments of the Russian Federation."

Sounds a lot like Asimov's original Foundation trilogy.

Deuxglass said...

>Now (and here’s a test of your education) put all that into the context of Marxist theory … if any of you have ever read any, which I doubt. But it was what Putin suckled as a youth.

By the time Putin was young Communism had already been seen as a failure by a good part of the people in the Soviet Union which was why it suddenly fell apart in 1991. Not many believed any more. Putin’s real education came from his time in the KGB and was much more pro-Russian than pro-Communist. His reference to the fall of the USSR being catastrophic refers to the loss of Russian power and not to the demise of Communism. Nothing he has done points to a return to Communism but just about all he has done points to a return of totalitarianism which in his eyes is a necessary condition to return Russia to greatness.

But let’s say he is a closet Communist and put it into the Marxist context. In that case he would have to transform Russian society back to what it was. Eliminating free elections is a good start and he has done that. Then he has to establish camps in which to put the dissidents. The next part is trickier in that he has to reintroduce collectivism by nationalizing the big companies first and then on down. To do all this you need something else that’s very important. People have to believe in something that would motivate them to extraordinary efforts to effect this transformation. Communism is discredited in Russia so that wouldn’t work. What could work is using Russian patriotism which has strong and deep roots. Putin could use that by making the Russian people believe that their very survival depends on “working together” getting them to enthusiastically accept a return to collectivism by the backdoor. It would not be called Communism but something else resulting in close to the same thing.

>Now add one science fiction level theory. No… hypothesis. No, not even that. A what-if.

But what if the Russians make a breakthrough in a cheap, easy and thorough mind control technique. In this case all bets are off.

Tacitus2 said...

A side comment on oil. Where I hang my hat there is a lot of mining of the special sand used for fracking. This has been a bit controversial but that's another matter.

Recently I heard that significant quantities of the stuff are being shipped to Saudi Arabia, where it can be used to treat/jumpstart/rejuvenate old, tired wells.

The issue of actual Saudi oil reserves has been shrouded in mystery for a long time. Maybe it is more than people think.

Yes, it appears that American capitalism is alive and well. We actually are selling sand to the Saudis!*

*caveat, this is "something I heard" and while I consider the source reliable you can find only faint hints of anything public along these lines. Might be nonsense.

David Brin said...

Daniel D my comment on Marse Robert had nothing… if you read closely … to do with his ownership of slaves. He was still called that by his troops and still treated as a feudal lord. By men who fought for his caste, against their own class interests.

I know some of the algae innovators. Of course that is the win-win.

Molly & Duncan I too want rapid advance in solar etc. But it will NOT defeat coal or OPEC. Not for 10-20 years. Meanwhile, it is best to shatter the grip that the Kochs and Saudis have on our politics while driving coal into bankruptcy and replacing coal and Middle Eastern oil with local methane, that fires up US manufacturing and jobs. And above all prevent Republicans from sabotaging the rise of sustainables.

Midboss now you know why I deem George HW Bush Sr to be the worst US president of the 20th Century, who snatched and vastly expanded defeat out of the jaws of a huge victory. His “experts” crafted the Russia of today and made the catastrophe that is Iraq and the Levant.

Anonymous said...

$40/bb is "no problem"? That's not what I'm hearing from Texan oil regular Mike over on peakoilbarrel. Something about a job at the local Dairy Queen. He also seems to have some specific concerns wrt the physical practicalities of shale oil extraction; others on that site have covered the brutal decline rates on shale in detail (the red queen running syndrome). Peak oil was back in 2005, by the way, pretty much when Hubbert predicted it. So too shall the tight oil craze peak and decline, though I'll go out on a limb and predict that financial types might have reason to make maudlin noises about that industry (implicit is the rattle of the collection cup).

David Brin said...

Deuxglass thanks for the cogent thoughts on the actual topic of this posting!

Stratfor underestimates the Russian capacity for suffering. But if Siberia goes to the Chinese, then Russians might rise up. My own, crackpot What-if is that Putin is STILL a Marxist and he recognizes that 100 oligarchs owning the means of production is exactly the last phase before proletarian take-over.

In fact, I give odds against my scenario, because if it were true, Putin would be strengthening Russian labor unions. Or would he? As I said, I raise some What-ifs NOT because I believe they are probable… but because they are plausible-but-never-discussed.

What’s clear is that the Chinese Marxists now utterly reject Lenin’s idea to skip the Capitalist Consolidation phase. Marx said capitalists are needed and Xi and his comrades now believe it. The question is whether they still believe this phase will lead to communism. Again, it seems unlikely that they are sincere. But they might be.

Paul, we need renewables and efficiency as fast as possible. Hear any argument from me? But there WILL be a transition. Better if King Coal, King Saud and King Rupert weren’t influencing it. Cheap methane does all that while strengthening the US economy enough to ease fear-driven politics.

atomsmith said...

The declining demographics of Russia aren't as bad as some make it out to be. E.g. see here for some analysis.

Jumper said...

I suspect Putin believes political theories are for losers, and that power follows different rules altogether. I think he's basically a mafioso.
A friend once told me how she lived in a building occupied by a mafia don, and he literally took care of people in the building, doing such things as paying rent for an old lady who couldn't afford it on her pension when the rents were raised, spread groceries around, etc. She told me he bought loyalty, and that she herself had been "bought:" she felt he wasn't that bad a guy.
That's all a politician - or a mafioso - needs to know.

Anonymous said...

I see Putin as being more of a wannabe Emperor than Marxist hero. His former wife gave him only daughters and I would not be surprised if his cute, young mistress (a former Olympic rhythmic gymnast) has born him a son or two. He might think that if he can beat the West and regain imperial glory for the Rooskies, then they will let him start a new Tsarist dynasty.

Alfred Differ said...

I don't think Stratfor underestimates the Russian willingness to suffer. They've talked about the 'Russian tragedy' a few times. They point out that they have people and resources and could do great things, but they won't because they don't believe they will. They believe they will be beset by their neighbors and history backs them up. They are an example of a culture that has most of what it needs except a defensible border in which it can reside confidently while devoting resources toward their future. In the US, we have many of the same things, but we are blessed with that difficult border. We don't know war here except those we've brought upon ourselves. It makes a huge difference.

As for Russia's immediate troubles, it is August. What should we expect? August is a difficult month for them.

...and as for Siberia, Russia won't sell it until it is already lost to them. It would be as spectacular a failure as the demise of the USSR in '91. They WILL lose Siberia, but I suspect that is about a generation away. China can't take it right now without a huge financial risk and they already have enough trouble in that regard. If their finances hold up, the clock is ticking, though.

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin, I'm not disagreeing with you. Bouncing off what Daniel Duffy wrote, the energy density of methane is 5 - 10 KJ higher than gasoline, which would suggest it might have a greater fuel efficiency. It's not that methane is a bad choice of a transition fuel, as it burns cleaner than every other fossil fuel. I don't know how easy it is to convert cars to methane, but I see LNG cars often enough to point to the possibility of it replacing gasoline for transportation. The problem with that idea is replacing the gasoline infrastructure with LNG infrastructure. But that's off the subject. My point about systems theory is that when you see change happening that quickly, it is usually an indication that the loop is about to collapse. In this case it would be resource depletion, which is quite common in human history. I have no clue how long our estimated methane reserves are good for, but they are finite either way.

Someone brought up Rollerball in the last thread, a movie I barely remember seeing. I may be remembering wrong, but did they have their future set up where most people drove electric cars but emergency vehicles were gas powered? An idea might be to move us toward more electric vehicles for most uses but permit gas and/or methane for emergency vehicles, military use and probably industrial purposes that need the greater power. I drive a hybrid (though not a Prius - too rich for my blood) and I get annoyed when I see people driving around in enormous trucks when it is clear the only use they have for all that power is to stroke their enormous egos.

Daniel Duffy said...

Paul SB "I don't know how easy it is to convert cars to methane, but I see LNG cars often enough to point to the possibility of it replacing gasoline for transportation. "

We converted an entire fleet of equipment and trucks at a local landfill to compressed natural gas (CNG). we found that after factory modifications were expensive but it was relatively cheap to produce CNG trucks at the factory even as special orders:

By comparison, natural gas is 80% cheaper than oil on an energy equivalent basis. As noted by the American Enterprise Institute: “In February [2013] oil was selling for an average of $95.32 per barrel, and natural gas was selling for $3.34 per million Btu. At a multiple of 5.8 times to equal the same amount of energy produced by a barrel of oil, natural gas was selling for the equivalent of only $19.38 per barrel.” And according to Autoblog, “Thanks to the precipitous drop in prices for compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid propane (LPG), fleets can save a fortune by switching over to these fuels. OEMs such as Freightliner and Thomas Built Bus have jumped into the market. International now offers the Transtar Class 8 semi … that runs on CNG. … A fleet can save well over $150,000 in fuel costs over the six-year life of a truck. For fleets that run their per-mile operating costs to the penny, this is a financial windfall.”

There are advantages and disadvantages to using CNG:

But in the past decade there has emerged a viable third option: CNG. At 20,000 to 22,000 Btu per pound, 5.7 pounds of natural gas has the same energy density as one gallon of gasoline. This amount of energy is referred to as a “gasoline gallon equivalent,” or GGE. A similar rating is diesel gallon equivalent, or DGE. CNG tanks are typically designed for a service pressure of 3,600 psi (250 bar). One GGE of natural gas has a density of 0.0417 to 0.0447 per cubic foot at sea level.

Using the gas law, the equivalent GGE at 3,600 psi is approximately 0.517 cubic feet or 3.87 gallons. Therefore, a CNG tank with an interior volume of 20 gallons would hold the energy equivalent of 5 to 6 gallons of gasoline. So in practice, CNG vehicles will have shorter driving ranges verses other vehicles with similar size fuel tanks, operating weights, and engines. But CNG costs less than either diesel or gasoline, burns more efficiently, produces less greenhouse gases, and results in longer engine life. CNG vehicles are therefore a good fit for long-service, high-mileage truck fleets that operate within a limited radius but make repeated return trips to central refueling stations. CNG costs up to $1.50 less per DGE, and projections call for this favorable cost trend to extend well into the future. This translates to annual fuel cost savings (natural gas versus diesel) of up to $15,000 per truck (

Most of the methane used by the waste industry is extracted from landfill gas (LFG, about 50% methane, 50% CO2 and trace amounts of VOCs and SVOCs) and anaerobic digesters.

Compared to battery operated EVs, CNG vehicles are far superior. In terms of both energy density and not having to handle worn out batteries (even the best rechargeable battery will wear out over time and end up as hazwaste) CNG is the better choice.

IMHO, instead of plugging our EVs into the socket when we get home at night, we should have CNG vehicle that tap into our natural gas pipelines.

Daniel Duffy said...

As for China taking over Siberia - or dominating the world - China is also going down the demographic drain. The population projections are so bad they are desperately trying to switch to a two-baby poliy. But they are already too late:

They believe that China's current total fertility rate is 1.4, which well below the generational replacement level of 2.1, has been very close to the internationally recognized "low fertility trap 1.3 "as soon as possible from a single two children to the full liberalization of two-child policy transition.

In the early 1970s, birthrates in China were 4.77 per cent. By 2011 the figure had fallen to 1.64 per cent, forcing the government to deal with a combination of a rapidly aging population, a shallow labor pool and an imbalance between the sexes.

China now has the world’s biggest yet most rapidly aging population. By 2050, China will have nearly 440million over-60s, according to UN estimates.

China's labor pool of 16 to 59-year-olds has been dropping since 2012, and this has coincided with a downturn in economic growth and a rise in unemployment.

Of all the advanced industrial nations, only America has a high enough birth rate and the ability to accept immigrants to ensure that it has a bright future. Everyone else including China are demographically speaking "dead men walking".

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin, I would like come back to Putin implementing his long-term communist plan.

Let’s assume again that he is a real, dedicated believer but at the same time he is very intelligent with a good grasp of why it failed the first time around. This time he wants to make it right. The essential problem with communism is that it makes everyone, except for those at the very top, very poor. They are all equal in poverty and that creates unrest and dissatisfaction. The solution obviously is to make everyone wealthy and not just middle-class wealthy but filthy-rich multi-billionaire wealthy. People that rich generally do not start revolutions. Putin, being very well-read and intelligent spends a lot of time surfing the net on many subjects so he is well-aware of advances in robotics, AI and other scientific topics. He is also aware of the Singularity idea. He knows that if you put all that together you have the potential to form a true classless society, one in which everyone is equally filthy-rich. Robots will do all the work from mining to house-help. AI will do all of the coordinating. Humans would just oversee working maybe a day a week leaving them plenty of time to enjoy their wealth. Many will become scientists exploring new frontiers because after all communism encourages science. It sounds like paradise and it is but there a glaring problem, a huge barrier that can undo it all. There is no way the Earth can provide this type of wealth to over 7 billion people. There are just not enough resources. Putin, being a student of history and a Russian, has a solution. Taking Lenin and Stalin as examples all he has to do is to get rid of the extra 95% who are keeping true Communism for happening. This 95% are useless since robots do the work and AI organizes the economy. On top of it they take up space better used for the vast estates of the rich who by the way are very ecological-minded and want to live in pure, pristine nature. We know Putin loves wild animals and the environment because of all the photos taken of him riding horses, hugging bears ect. So Putin gets rid of the 95% (I will leave you as to the method). The Golden Age opens. People have the wealth to do whatever they whenever they want. They live long and rich lives. True Communism has been achieved!

One last thing. A few of the 95% escape and live in the wild in small, dispersed bands. This is intolerable and cannot be allowed. They must be hunted down but how? Human, especially desperate ones are very adaptable. You need a robot that can run, jump and climb like a feral human. Fortunately back in 2015 DARPA gave a grant to Google-owned Boston Dynamics and gave the solution to the feral-human problem.

Here is the video:

Duncan Cairncross said...

CNG vehicles

It's easy to convert a diesel to natural gas
BUT (there is always a but) you get much lower power density
So a 300Hp engine is only good for 200Hp

There is a way around that - you use a small amount of diesel as an ignition source and inject the gas charge through special injectors
You also normally store the "natural gas" as a liquid (to get around the range issue)

It's good stuff - but not a simple conversion - unless you can put up with low power and low range

As far as car's are concerned EV's are going to win - simple as that
Trucks are a bit different but in about 10 years we will see electric long range trucks

To the comments about aging populations and the worsening ratio of workers to retirees
Yes that is true -
But at the same time you are reducing the number of people too young to work,
The studies I have seen make it about a wash
Spend more on the old, less on the young
The "money" required per worker stays about the same

Has the tired old - we can't all be rich - taking resources from the rich make them poor without helping the poor
Ignoring the fact that the "rich" have so much that simply spreading it about a bit more evenly would make almost everybody much better off

Duncan Cairncross said...

Trying to add a photo - see if this works

Laurent Weppe said...

"The essential problem with communism is that it makes everyone, except for those at the very top, very poor"

East Germany GDP per capita in 1990 was 9.700 dollars, nearly equal to Spain's per capita GDP at the time, larger than Ireland's or Israel's, much larger than Taiwan, twice as big as South Korea's. Lots of resources hoarded by the ruling class or wasted on bloated militaries and surveillance systems, and as a result shortages were rather common, but even taking this into account, communist regimes still had de facto middle-classes who were far from being poor.

I lived in Hungary during the late 90s, and met plenty of people who, despite not belonging to the ruling-class under Kadar became measurably poorer when the regime and economy changed: something that wouldn't have been the case if "everyone had been very poor" under the previous regime.

The reason Western Europe's large welfare state's remained virtually unchallenged outside of the UK until the 90s was that most european right-wing politicians were keenly aware that without generous welfare policies, members of the Eastern European working classes would eventually become wealthier than their western counterparts, making the prospect of a communist revolution/dekulakization of Western Europe very alluring for the western Hoi Polloi. So they didn't try to dismantle the welfare regimes imagined by social-democrats, which ensured that the western european model remained more attractive than vengeful revolution, which in the end made a fuckton more to undermine the Soviet Empire than Reagan's bluster and gifts to the military-industrial complex.

Sure, with no democratic oversight, no free press, and incestuous bordering on sclerosed mechanisms of elite renewal, Soviet-style governments were fated to sooner or later devolve into parasitic bureaucratic systems similar to those displayed by every decadent Chinese dynasty (or the current North-Korean regime), but the process was not immediate.

Anonymous said...

Daniel Duffy

Lee freed slaves as executor of the Custis estate. Their emancipation was required by the last will and testament of George Washington Custis, Lee's father-in-law, and he delayed freeing them as long as possible.

Deuxglass said...

Duncan Cairncross

If you remember, in Dr. Brin's article, he asked for science fiction scenarios in which Putin is a true communist and has a plan to bring it back. What I wrote is just a story outline and that's it. My ideas on Putin are completely different.

Jumper said...

Once again I'll recommend a system of personal transportation powered by a live electrified rail - known as a "busbar" in industry, or cables which power light rail such as the commuter light rail in my city. With smart cars and the "octopus arm" car cable recently demonstrated, it's got to be easy to have a car that unfolds an arm to clamp on to a power strip alongside a roadway. Smaller batteries could be used. I suppose trucks and even heavy freight trains could use similar power. I wouldn't be surprised to see in the future freight trains which simply stop at night (solar power with long-distance DC transmission) and start again in the morning. It's certainly better than a complete breakdown in transportation!

Also, I read the Wikipedia article on Russian foreign relations last night. It's informative.
The researcher might also try plugging in various countries for more specific articles in the form of "Russian-Japanese relations." As the example:

raito said...


I go further than that. Use rails entirely. It's far, far easier to have a self-driving vehicle on rails than it is when it's completely unconstrained. There are many advantages to this. Unfortunately, it's extremely disruptive in several ways.

David Brin said...

Deuxglass your scenario is scary! And it is the plot driver for the truly awful recent flick KINGSMEN.

But we know that there is a kind of super-richness that is not as resource intensive. Putting everyone in high density city living in really nice apartments can be done at lower resource use than beverly hills billionaires.

David Brin said...

The new trailer for "The Martian..." I'm actually starting to believe (more hope) that Hollywood didn't screw this up ...

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Jumper
You don't need contact to transfer electrical power, a lot of machinery in industry is now powered by non contact induction "rails"
I attended a talk a few years ago by an engineering prof from Auckland where he was discussing chargers that would be under the floor of your garage
The geometry of the coils was important and I think he was working at 20kHz but that resulted in a system that was not too sensitive to alignment and would work with a 200mm air gap

He was also working on a road that charged the vehicles as they drove on it
The biggest issue with that was making it robust enough so it was not damaged by heavy trucks

David Brin said...




Alfred Differ said...

Heh. Two points about the Putin scenario.

1. To get a Singularity event, you need the golden age to occur first before the die off. They don't happen without a large population driving the advancements. Put the cart before the horse in the story and one is writing fantasy instead of science fiction.

2. I suspect the 95% would be better put to use AS the robots. [V. Vinge's Focus]

I'd also add that the moguls best situated to pull this off are in the US and its trading partners, not in Russia. For the sake of the story, then, Putin would be the decoy so the opposing forces reveal themselves against the wrong target.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,

I am glad you found my scenario interesting. It definitely is scary but so is Putin if he really is a communist. I do want to make it absolutely clear that I am against a world like the one I described. I got the idea while watching Elysium where the super-rich lived in an orbiting Beverly Hills while the underclass lived on the Earth in dire poverty and what was this underclass doing? They were making robots whose principle use was to repress this same underclass! Surely if you have the technical means to put Beverly Hills into orbit then you have the means to have robots and AI make whatever you want and if this is true then the mass of humanity is of no use to the super rich hence the idea that a communist evil dictator who is also an extreme psychopath would find it better just to eliminate them.

As you said having the super-rich live in high-density cities would be more efficient of resources but the main characteristics of the super-rich is that their life-style is very resource intensive. It is in fact an objective. If you have it then flaunt it. In the present many live in cities but they all have vast country estates so they prefer having the best of both worlds. By the way I have nothing against the super-rich, I wouldn’t mind being one myself. Some hyper-environmentalists tell me that the population of the Earth should go down to only 100 million (they conveniently don’t mention how). At that level, with robotics and AI I would guess that a world consisting of only the super-rich would be possible. Please let me reiterate that I am not advocating such a society but only using it in the Putin as a communist scenario.

Alfred Differ,
I see it as science fiction and not fantasy. Obviously we do not yet have the technical means to do the scenario today so Putin couldn’t do it but let’s look 100 years into the future and in that case a disciple of Putin could put it in place. The super-rich would still use some humans but not to make things but rather to use as house servants. It would be seen as vulgar to have your drinks served by a robot so there would still be an underclass albeit a much smaller one.

You are right that this scenario fits better with the US and other developed countries rather than in Russia. However I can see where Putin gives the world’s super-rich the idea and the blueprint to put it into practice. It may already be happening for all we know!! Let’s hope that Br. Brin’s Transparent Society comes soon.

Douglas Fenton said...

P.S. The idea of a conspiracy of the super-rich came from your book "Existence" which I bought as soon as it came out and loved.

Douglas Fenton said...

P.S. The idea of a conspiracy of the super-rich came from your book "Existence" which I bought as soon as it came out and loved.