The Incredible Malleability of Gold

capitol

Two weeks ago I gave a speech to a local preparedness group about gold and silver.   I mentioned some of the properties of these metals that set them apart from other metals and make them more than just shiny pieces of metal.   Someone recorded the speech, I’ll probably post it when it surfaces.  It’s about an hour and a half, so it’s a long one.

Among one of gold’s properties is the fact that it’s so malleable, meaning it can be hammered out in to very thin sheets.  One ounce can be hammered out by a skilled goldsmith to about one square meter.    The dome of the Iowa State Capitol is covered in gold leaf and I was surprised to find out that there’s only about 100 troy ounces of gold up there (a little less than 7 pounds).   Sure, that’s a lot of gold but that’s also a lot of surface to cover.   A brick of gold small enough to hold in your hand can cover that.    Pretty amazing.

The Day After (1983)

 

I remember watching this one when I was a kid probably a year or two after the Soviet Union fell, so it’s been about 20 years.    Several scenes from this film really stuck with me over the years and it’s one that every now and then I would think about and make a point to dig up (and then forget).    Thanks to YouTube, there’s all kinds of gems like this right at our fingertips that might have been lost to history.

The Day After came out in the early 80’s, which was a fairly tense period of the Cold War.  The US and the Soviet Union reached a period of relaxed relations known as detente during the 70’s, which was shattered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.   It would be a few more years before the periods of perestroika and glasnot that ultimately saw the communist regime collapse.   In Wolverines: Reflections on Red DawnI describe the social and geopolitical situation of that period, as Red Dawn came out shortly after The Day After.

The plot follows the stories of a few different characters in and around the Kansas City area.   There’s the Dahlbergs, a farm family that lives near nuclear missile silos, Robert Oakes, a doctor from Kansas City and Airman First Class Billy McCoy, an enlisted man in the Air Force that works with nuclear missiles as well as a few other minor characters.   The first half of the film establishes the characters while allowing the situation between NATO and the USSR to develop, the middle of the film has the actual nuclear attack and the last part of the film covers the aftermath.      The premise for the war is basically the same as the Berlin blockade of 1948, but in this case it ends up in a brief ground war with tactical nuclear missile strikes in Europe followed by full scale nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union.     The film gives a fairly realistic portrayal of how nuclear war would affect the survivors.

There are some good themes in the film.   I think the most prominent one is “normalcy bias”.   Many people refused to believe that something bad could happen.   In one scene the mother of the Dahlberg family continued to bake to prepare for her daughter’s wedding which was supposed to take place the next day and make the beds, despite the imminent warnings that the missiles were coming and her husband demanding that she get into the basement.   In another scene Robert Oakes and his wife scoff at the neighbors for deciding that now was a good time to take a vacation in Guadalajara (aka “bugging out) due to the crisis in Europe.   Sounds like the neighbors made the right choice.    During the montage of the US launching her missiles, there’s one surreal clip of the missiles going off in the background as a football game takes place at Arrowhead Stadium.    In another scene, Airman McCoy is called on to duty and forced to cancel his leave despite travel arrangements he made with his wife.   She doesn’t understand the severity of the situation and takes it out on him, making it all the more difficult for McCoy.

There’s one line in the movie where a doctor with a foreign accent (presumably portraying a WWII refugee) talks with Dr. Oakes and mentions that people were leaving Kansas City.  He says “where does one go from Kansas City?”, implying that if you’re not safe in the more-or-less geographical center of the United States, where are you safe?   This was one uncomfortable reality of the Cold War.   As a nation, we were fortunate to have avoided the widespread death and destruction that happened in Europe and Asia during the 20th Century.   Had World War III panned out like it did in The Day After, we would not have been as fortunate and everybody would be affected.

Another theme in the film is the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in the case of nuclear war.    The director conveys his sentiments that we’re better off trying to reduce the possibility of nuclear war rather than preparing to deal with the consequences.   The director doesn’t seem too optimistic about the ability to effectively get things back to normal in the aftermath of a nuclear war and based on what I know, I’d have to agree.    There’s one great scene where a group of survivors are huddled around a radio listening to the President address the nation.   In the speech the president assures the American people that rebuilding is underway and praises the American people for their resolve, noting that the Soviet Union suffered similar damage and that the US didn’t surrender.  The people are extremely apathetic and cynical towards the President’s words, given the futile situation they’re in.

There’s another great scene where a group of farmers meet with a local official who explains the government’s new agricultural program with advice on how to deal with contaminated soil.   The farmers are advised to scrape off the top 6 inches of soil and start anew.  One farmer in the group calls bullshit on the government’s info and asks how they’re supposed to pull that off when they have 200 acres of cropland.  I think this is not just an example of an inept government, but one that really can’t come to the rescue in some situations but at the same time can’t say “in the event of nuclear war, you’re fucked.  Sorry.”      In another scene someone says something to the extent of “when they come to help us…” to which another character asks “when who comes from where?”, bringing up the true gravity of the situation.

One thing I liked about the movie is that it didn’t have some magical twist where someone saves the day and everything is right with the world.   I think a lot of thought and research went into the production of the film and the adage that “the people that died were the lucky ones” is probably true in the event of nuclear war.     Naturally the film had a strong disarmament slant to it and wanted to convey to the American public an image of what nuclear war would actually look like to us.    I just read the Wiki article and I didn’t realize how controversial the movie actually was (but then again, I was 2 when it came out).   Apparently it caused a lot of psychological distress to a lot of people and even Mr. Rodgers had to do a few shows on the subject to help children cope with it.   It forced the American public to really think about these issues and talk about them.   Many people viewed it as defeatist and anti-American as well, completely missing the point.

Unfortunately I think this movie has been largely written off and/or forgotten as a relic of the Cold War, despite the fact it’s a great doomsday/apocalyptic/dystopian/SHTF/TEOTWAWKI film.   I think the first reaction is to say it’s irrelevant now that the Cold War is over, but I think that could be debated.   China has a nuclear arsenal capable of launching a full-scale attack on the US and all the end of the Cold War did with Russia is put them in a slightly weaker position, although they still have a nuclear arsenal and aren’t too friendly with us.   Then there’s the “rogue states” and more importantly, non-state actors (i.e. terrorists) who are capable of pulling off some small-scale attacks.    I think there was really something to the idea that mutually assured destruction helped keep the peace, whereas there’s not the same dynamic with a terrorist group.   Either way, some kind of nuclear incident isn’t completely out of the question.     We’ve pissed a lot of people off in the world and honestly, some of the people we’ve pissed off are the kind of assholes who would do something like that.    I would say that the kind of full-scale attack as seen in this film is a lot less likely today than it was then.

I’d also like to give the movie some credit for not being over dramatic or having many failed attempts at some deep, profound lines (which is a flaw of Red Dawn).   The acting is pretty agreeable.    At any rate, I think this Cold War gem deserves revisiting from people who are into this genre.

 

Detroit: Too Big To NOT Fail

Detroit: Skid Row

I doubt anyone is surprised to hear that Detroit is in deep shit right now.    That’s been common knowledge for quite some time now, despite the perennial “Detroit is experiencing a renaissance” articles in the media.   To be fair, occasionally I do hear about some good things happening in Detroit at the neighborhood level from time to time, especially in the way of urban farming and restoring abandoned buildings.

So basically what’s happening now is that they’re finally acknowledging that the situation in Detroit is out of hand.   The city has about $14 billion in unfunded liabilities (pensions, health care benefits, etc) and about $2.3 – $2.6 billion in annual revenues, which doesn’t cover their current expenses, let alone the debts and liabilities.    It looks like the state is going to step in and suspend the powers of the Detroit City Council and the Mayor in order to try to get things straightened out.    Detroit as we know it today is a failed city.   It’s a tough pill to swallow that these kinds of places exist in the omnipotent United States of America, but that’s reality.

State of Michigan Debt Clock

The rest of Michigan isn’t doing so hot, but I assume that a lot of the state is doing better than Detroit and Flint.   The state is about 125 million in debt, representing a little over $12,000 per resident.    This article from The Economist points out that this move is going to make a lot of people angry – there’s a big cultural and political divide between Detroit and the rest of Michigan and I’m sure the anger is going to go in all different directions over this.    People from Detroit (who tend to be black and democrat) aren’t going to like the state government (currently republican) calling the shots ethe rest of the state (which is mostly white and a little more conservative-leaning) isn’t going to be thrilled with bailing Detroit out while things are tight for them as well.

In The 2012 Election and the Elephant Outside The Room I mentioned that in a short period of time I think there will be some real talk of states wanting to split up one way or another.    Detroit and Michigan might be the most likely candidate at this point, although Northern California has been whispering about parting ways with Southern California for years.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Detroit in the next few years as there probably won’t be able to pull off any magic tricks and fix Detroit’s problems.   There are some different dynamics at play, but when the subject of municipal and state debts come up, it’s often pointed out that many of the states that are in trouble right now have economies the size of European countries.    Michigan’s economy is bigger than that of Greece.   If a major city goes down and brings the state down with them, what happens then?   We don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll see in the next few years.

I’ve never even been to Detroit, so I feel kind of silly saying what’s best for Detroit, but it really sounds like Detroit’s future isn’t in “Detroit”, but rather in a series of smaller communities.   By all reports a good portion of the city is already vacant.   If you go to yahoo or google maps and look at Detroit, there’s a lot of open spaces in the residential areas of Detroit’s inner city.       When/if the city government fails, it makes sense for communities within Detroit to pick up the pieces and go at it without them.   Honestly, it would be difficult to run a municipality any worse than Detroit’s leadership already has.   That’s probably the best way to get out from underneath the unsustainable debt of that city.

Whenever I come across articles about Detroit, I always read them.   It kind of fascinates me.   It sounds like everything is already in place to start devolving into a series of smaller communities already.   Occasionally you read about “urban pioneers” from the suburbs revitalizing one little pocket of the city, an ethnic group establishing a viable section of the city or a small inner-city area getting together and cleaning house.   Everyone might be better off starting from scratch instead of trying to keep the whole shit-show going.   Nothing lasts forever, especially municipalities.

It is cool to see examples of dilapidated buildings getting restored or communities within Detroit find some reason to wake up in the morning.   As I understand it, in the 50’s Detroit was basically America’s model city with a very prosperous middle class, a ton of cultural amenities, great architecture and so forth.   Returning to those days probably isn’t in the cards, but it is possible to create vibrant communities within that patch of land.

People that like history usually have a few events or periods that they’re really into.   One of mine is the fall of Constantinople.   Reading about Constantinople before the Turkish siege sounds a lot like Detroit – most of the prosperity was gone one way or another, they were deeply in debt, crime and depravity ran wild and large tracts of the once-great city reverted into farm plots, vineyards, orchards and open space.   The city had the feeling of a series of small villages instead of one grand city.   When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II finally made it past Constantinople’s gates he was a little let down with what he actually saw in the city as it was a far cry from it’s glorious legacy.

At any rate, I’ll continue to watch the news from Detroit.   The city’s plight is nothing new, but at some point they’re going to hit a breaking point (or magically solve their problems) and there could be greater implications for the rest of the country when/if that happens.

 

Getting Started On The 2013 Gardening Season

I can’t believe it’s almost March.    We just had a big snowstorm, but the actual gardening season will probably start in a couple of weeks.

I’m still going to take part in a CSA as a bit of insurance and because we like it.  It came in handy last year when we had a pretty miserable season.
The other day I started some broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, leek, collard greens, kale, chard, St. John’s Wort and goji berry seeds.  I’m hoping by the time they’re ready to go it will be time to start some tomato and pepper seeds.    I think a good portion of my mini-orchard failed last year so I might put goji berries in the containers for the mini-dwarf trees.

I still have spinach and arugula doing pretty well in my winter garden which I’ve been harvesting here and there as well as some cilantro, dill, pac choi, carrots, beets, turnips and kale that will probably take off right away in the spring.    I planted some seeds the open spaces of my greenhouse for a few different types of lettuces, turnips, kale, mustard greens, salsify and radishes.   Hopefully those will germinate soon and get a good start this spring.

I think I’m going to end up stapling chicken wire to wooden stakes to surround my beds individually, instead of hooking it to plastic posts.   That chicken wire has taken a beating, I think attaching it in sections to wooden posts is the best option.  I was kicking around the idea of fencing the whole area off, but this way keeps it open and should keep the dogs out.  We’ll see.   Last year there were a few disasters.   I heard that red pepper flakes keep them out (or at least they only do it once), I should’ve picked some up when I was at Stringtown Grocery.

I should have my bee hives shortly to assemble and then my bees will be ready to pick up in May.    I still need to build a cage to put around the hives in order to keep my dogs at bay.

Last year we had a killer drought and I also used a ton of rabbit manure as compost.   Rabbit manure doesn’t need to be composted in order to go into a garden (unlike some other manures), but I probably over did it by essentially using it as filler material for a few new beds.  I  know a girl that has a rabbit operation with about 100 rabbits, so I brought in a truck load (literally) of it.    I think those beds should be a little more stable, especially after mixing in a ton of leaves and such.   Either way, I’ll plant brassicas there because they demand a lot of nitrogen.

One good thing about this year is that there will be no such thing as “too much” of anything.   I’ve gotten pretty good with preservation, but I also now have a good monthly outlet for bartering these kinds of things and of course other people I can share with around here.     I’m starting 27 goji berry plants right now, figuring that I’ll end up bartering a few of those off.

Hopefully this year will be much better than last year, which was kind of a bust.   I’m going to try a few new things (maybe sorghum and sunflowers), ditch a few others and actually plan things out.   I started keeping a journal, I really regret not doing that the past few years.   Sometimes I’ll plant something and then forget what I put there.    This year I’ll keep tabs of what goes where and maybe keep track of what I harvest in order to get an idea of how much food I grew this year.

Getting Home by Alex Smith

The author of this book contacted me a while back ago to send me a copy of this to review.   It took me a while to get to it due to some things going on, but I’ve finished it and thought about it a bit.

In the survival/preparedness world it’s admittedly hard sometimes to cover new ground and it’s easy to get cynical reading about these kinds of things because sometimes it does seem like it’s just reinforcing what someone else has already wrote.     I’ll admit I went into this book suspecting that it was going to be like that, but I ended up really digging this book.  “Getting Home” covers bugging out, everyday carry (EDC) and self-defense.  Smith talks about gear, mindset and tactical matters in this book.

I really liked the style of the book.   The way everything was compartmentalized made it very easy to read and digest.   He kept everything succinct, but it was still thoughtful.   I could tell that the author had put a lot of thought into the advice he’s giving instead of rehashing survivalist cliches.    It’s a short read, but I think that’s one of its strengths.   It’s down-and-dirty about dealing with or getting out of bad situations.    I liked the last chapter on common survivalist myths, which was pretty funny.

To be frank, this book is only a couple of bucks ($3.99 currently) and doesn’t take long at all to read (a little over 2000 words).   It’s a small investment for some good food for thought.

Virginia Considering A State Currency

 

We’re not immune from the consequences of human behavior,” Marshall said. “At some point there is going to be a dollar that breaks the camel’s back.”

 

The Latest Lunacy:   Virginia Considering It’s Own Currency

Virginia Advances Bill Pushing for State To Establish Its Own Currency

 

 

Today at the gym I saw a headline on FOX News about Virginia looking to come up with a state currency over fears of the dollar crashing.   Naturally this sort of thing piqued my interest and I looked it up as soon as I got home.  It looks like Robert Marshall of the Virginia House of Delegates proposed this bill, which is gaining traction.    I’m not sure if he’s explicitly calling for a gold standard or if that’s just what’s implied.   I know a handful of other states have made similar propositions in the past few years.

The author of the US News opinion piece, Susan Milligan, basically argues that we haven’t seen inflation like some other countries, so a state currency is uncalled for.   She also incorrectly states the government’s official position that inflation is only a few percentage points, which doesn’t factor in food or fuel.  She admits that there are reasons to be concerned with the strength of the dollar, but states that it’s currently the world’s dominant currency.   This is certainly true, but if there are concerns about the dollar’s future, why not have a plan B in place?  It’s easier to work something like this out when everything is running smoothly rather than trying to put the pieces together after it’s already needed.   Proactive > Reactive, Susan.

She also states that while fiscal responsibility is a worthwhile goal, a new currency is not the answer.   I think that a competing currency is as good of an answer as any.   They just had a huge debate in Washington over our deficit and the only thing they came up with is that they’re going to make some insignificant cuts to the budget sometime later down the road.   They’re still planning on that 16 trillion (and growing!) debt going away through all this economic growth that we’re all waiting for.   At this point it seems completely Pollyanna-ish to think that any kind of solution is going to come out of Washington, so why not take every opportunity to diverge ourselves from their shipwreck?   If only everyone was represented by politicians who were willing to think a few steps ahead and bring up some uncomfortable topics, we might not be in the kind of mess we’re looking at.

The currency would compete side-by-side with the US dollar in Virginia.    Because the dollar is the dominate currency of the world, I’m sure it would be dominate in Virginia as well but it would give Virginians (and anybody else, really) more choices to pick how they want to do commerce or receive compensation.      I would also suspect that a local currency would help keep a lot of Virginia’s commerce close to home and help keep money within local communities.  If no one is in to it, it will fail.   If they are, it will secede, or, uh, succeed.   Freudian slip, perhaps?

At any rate, I think the real lunacy is the idea that the dollar is invincible and that there will never come a day when we need something else.

On a side note, I think it’s kind of funny how an alternative currency like Ithaca Hours are viewed as quaint community-builders but as soon as a Republican backs a currency and/or “gold” is mentioned, it’s a wacky idea at best and a treacherous strike right at the heart of America at the worst even though they both basically work on the same idea.   Alternative currencies are in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

 

 

 

The Queen of Versailles

 

Wow.

I watched this documentary tonight.   It’s about time share mogul David Siegal and his trials and tribulations over the past few years.     It appears that they started making the documentary before the crash of 2008, when they were an extremely wealthy family that was in the process of having the largest house in the United States built.    The final cost of the house was estimated to be in the area of $100 million and was made to vaguely resemble Louis XIV’s Versailles palace in France, after getting inspiration from visiting said palace.   They named the house as “Versailles”, thus the name of the documentary.

When everything started crashing down in 2008 Westgate, Siegal’s company, lost access to the easy credit they depended on.   Revenues from timeshare payments dropped as many people around the country had a hard enough time making the payments on their own homes, let alone a share of a penthouse in Las Vegas.    Siegal’s business was built on the premise that the cash flow would keep coming in and there would always be someone willing to loan them money based on that cash flow.   When the downturn hit, Siegal was left with his dick in the wind as his assets declined in value, cash flow dropped and his debts remained the same.  He went from being on top of the world to being in an extremely precarious situation within a very short period of time.

His large family had to make some meaningful cutbacks in their household, such as cutting down their staff of maids from 19 to 2.   Over the course of the year or so they followed the family around you can see the household turn into complete disarray and the family structure break down as David Siegal spent most of his time in an office surrounded by stacks of papers trying to figure out how to get out of this mess.    I don’t demonize success and wish ill-will on people that have more than I do, but I have to admit it’s kind of funny to watch these guys completely unravel.   The hubris of this guy is unreal plus he’s in kind of a scummy line of work.

I’m not sure if I have my numbers right, but I think the family sunk about $40 million into the house and took out a mortgage on the remainder.   That $40 million bought them the land and a good portion of the structure and that’s as far as they got.   Siegal said he didn’t pay cash for it because he figured he’d keep having money flowing in and he’d rather put it into his business.   That’s generally not a bad idea, but this is certainly a case of counting chickens before they hatch.    After everything started coming apart for the guy, the bank insisted that he put the house on the market.   Finding someone willing to buy a house like that isn’t exactly an easy chore, let alone for a price anywhere near what they borrowed.  In fact, I think it’s still on the market and unfinished.

One thing that struck me throughout the documentary is how they kept insisting their their troubles were temporary and there was a way out of it.   He spent a lot of his waking hours trying to source financing.   He kept saying “all we need to do is buy some time” and he found a few ways to kick the can down the road a little bit.   His son was the VP of the company and at a certain point everybody’s pay had to be slashed (and 6,000 employees let go).   When they interviewed his son I thought it was noteworthy that he said that he had to ask his dad for money due to his low salary, which his dad declined.  He said to solve the problem he maxed out his credit cards and took out a home equity loan to get him through it.   Some people never learn…

Siegal built his business by luring in naive middle class folks in with free stays, entrance passes to Disneyland, etc. as long as they listened to the presentation.   I got the impression that they signed up just about anyone who could fog a mirror.   In one scene he rants about how the bankers were a bunch of vultures, which is kind of funny coming from the HMFIC of one of the most bullshit industries out there.   What goes around, comes around.

I just stumbled upon this on Netflix and hadn’t read anything about it, but I’m sure there’s a ton of comparisons to Citizen Kane and Xanadu out there.   I also think it’s interesting that the real Versailles pretty much sent France over the brink, just like this house did to this family (and maybe the company).   Off hand, I think I read that the palace of Versailles cost about 40% of the total GDP of France when it was built.   FWIW, tourists from all over the world now come to see the pinnacle of Gallic opulence so at least it’s giving something back now.   I’m sure the Versailles Chambre de Commerce is at least glad it’s there.    On a side note, now that it’s in my mind I bet that within 20 years Versailles will be purchased by Chinese businessmen or something like that.

I think that if future historians look back to the current economic situation, this very well could be one of the defining historical works of the time by the way it shows how well they were able to live on borrowed money and then how far they fell when they were reduced to their true assets.   I really could see future economists throwing around “Versailles” as one of those historical anecdotes like the tulip mania.   If things really go south for us, I could see this house used as an example in the future of the highest levels of economic and ecological arrogance of our time.

There are too many lessons to be learned and examples of how not to run your life in this documentary to even list.    You name it, it’s probably in there.

 

13 in 13 Update 1/26 – Espanol and Astronomy.

One of my skills to improve this year was Spanish.  Last week I went to a meet-up group of Spanish speakers and did ok.   As I expected, I did a much better job listening and comprehending than speaking.     I took a few correspondence college courses in Spanish (yeah, weird, huh?) which involved a lot of reading and writing, a bit of listening and no speaking.   Naturally my pronunciation and sentence structure was pretty rough.   I think my vocabulary is pretty good (for a novice) but I can stand to get some work on all the various tenses, getting a broader range of adjectives, transitional words and all of that.

I’ve also been listening to the Coffee Break Spanish podcast, which is great.  I’ve listened through a lot of it before but now I feel like I’ve got a real reason to learn it, so I think it’s sinking in a little better.   I’ve been flipping through a Spanish textbook and bringing a Spanish phrasebook to work with me in case I get the urge to look something up that strikes me.   The group was very helpful and I think as long as I stick to it I’ll make improvement.   Actually getting out and conversing with people face-to-face is going to be much better than any other learning aid I could come up with.

I’ve been hitting the world of dairy pretty hard as I mentioned in this post.

Lately I’ve been reading Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans which is written by Brian Fagan, an archaeologist and avid sailor.   He writes about how different societies throughout history have gone about sailing and covers some interesting things about weather patterns and navigation through astronomy.   There’s lots of things that would be of interest to people into primitive skills or students of history that wonder about the details on how they got from point A to point B.   If you think about it, heading right into the stormy ocean for an uncertain destination has to be pretty scary.   I’ve also been reading The Book of the Moon which so far is pretty cool.   It covers virtually everything about the moon from hard science, our history trying to figure it out, folklore and mythology.   I’m not that far into it, but I think I’m going to get some good out of it.   I now at least can identify all the phases of the moon.

 

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