The author is a prominent American social critic, blogger, and podcaster, and one of our all-time favorite pessimists. We carry his articles regularly on RI. His writing on Russia-gate has been highly entertaining.
He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed ‘The Dystopians’ in an excellent 2009 profile, along with the brilliant Dmitry Orlov, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.
You can find his popular fiction and novels on this subject, here. To get a sense of how entertaining he is, watch this 2004 TED talk about the cruel misery of American urban design – it is one of the most-viewed on TED. Here is a recent audio interview with him which gives a good overview of his work.
If you like his work, please consider supporting him on Patreon.
I had a fellow on my latest podcast, released Sunday, who insists that the world population will crash 90-plus percent from the current 7.6 billion to 600 million by the end of this century. Jack Alpert heads an outfit called the Stanford Knowledge Integration Lab (SKIL) which he started at Stanford University in 1978 and now runs as a private research foundation. Alpert is primarily an engineer.
At 600 million, the living standard in the USA would be on a level with the post-Roman peasantry of Fifth century Europe, but without the charm, since many of the planet’s linked systems — soils, oceans, climate, mineral resources — will be in much greater disarray than was the case 1,500 years ago. Anyway, that state-of-life may be a way-station so something more dire. Alpert’s optimal case would be a world human population of 50 million, deployed in three “city-states,” in the Pacific Northwest, the Uruguay / Paraguay border region, and China, that could support something close to today’s living standards for a tiny population, along with science and advanced technology, run on hydropower. The rest of world, he says, would just go back to nature, or what’s left of it. Alpert’s project aims to engineer a path to that optimal outcome.
I hadn’t encountered quite such an extreme view of the future before, except for some fictional exercises like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Alpert, too, sees cannibalism as one likely byproduct of the journey ahead.) Obviously, my own venture into the fictionalized future of the World Made by Hand books depicted a much kinder and gentler re-set to life at the circa-1800 level of living, at least in the USA. Apparently, I’m a sentimental softie.
Both of us are at odds with the more generic techno-optimists who are waiting patiently for miracle rescue remedies like cold fusion while enjoying re-runs of The Big Bang Theory. (Alpert doesn’t completely rule out as-yet-undeveloped energy sources, though he acknowledges that they’re a low-percentage prospect.) We do agree with basic premise that the energy supply is mainly what supports the way we live now, and that it shows every evidence of entering a deep and destabilizing decline that will halt the activities necessary to keep our networks of dynamic systems running.
A question of interest to many readers is how soon or how rapid the unraveling of these systems might be. When civilizations crumble, it tends to fast-track. The Roman empire seems to be an exception, but in many ways it was far more resilient than ours, being a sort of advanced Flintstones economy, with even its giant-scale activities (e.g. building the Coliseum) being accomplished by human-powered work. In any case, the outfit really fell apart steadily after the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 AD).
The Romans had their own version of a financialized economy: they simply devalued their coins by mixing in less and less silver at the mint, so they could pretend to pay for the same luxuries they had grown accustomed to as resources stretched thin. Our financialized economy — like everything else we do — operates at levels of complexity so baffling that even its supposed managers at the central banks are flying blind through fogs of debt, deception, and moral hazard. When that vessel of pretense slams into a mountain top, the effects are likely to be quick and lethal to the economies on the ground below.
In our time, the most recent crash of a major socioeconomic system was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. Of course, it happened against the backdrop of a global system that was still revving pretty well outside the USSR, and that softened the blow. Ultimately, the Russians still had plenty of oil to sell, which allowed them to re-set well above the Fifth Century peasant level of existence. At least for now. The Soviet Union collapsed because it was a thoroughly dishonest system that ran on pretense and coercion. Apparently, the US Intel Community completely missed the signs that political collapse was underway.
They seem to be pretty clueless about the fate of the USA these days, too. If you consider the preoccupations of two very recent Intel chiefs — John Brennan of CIA and James Clapper, DNI — who now inveigh full-time on CNN as avatars of the Deep State against the wicked Golden Golem of Greatness.
Personally, I expect our collapse to be as sudden and unexpected as the USSR’s, but probably bloodier because there’s simply more stuff just lying around to fight over.
Of course, I expect the collapse to express itself first in banking, finance, and markets — being so deeply faith-based and so subject to simple failures of faith. But it will become political and social soon enough, maybe all-at once. And when it happens in the USA, it will spread through the financial systems the whole world round.
Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted sunken treasure | USA
The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.
Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”
At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.
The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.
The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.
“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”
The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.
In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.
Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.
These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.
The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.
Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”
Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”
The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”
Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.
After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.
While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”
Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.
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Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword off coast of Israel
Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.
On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.
It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.
“Oh yes, he was surprised and happy,” said Jacob Sharvit, the director of the marine archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Katzin said he would give the sword to Sharvit’s agency, but he wanted just one thing: a photo with the shell-encrusted weapon.
The recent discovery was welcomed in a country that takes immense pride in its history and has a law requiring that any artifacts found must be returned to the nation. The sword was among several artifacts discovered by Katzin, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not want the discovery to be about him. He also found stone anchors and pottery fragments that date back hundreds of years. But nothing was more impressive than the sword, which Sharvit described as “extremely rare.”
All of the items were found in the same 1,000-square-foot site. The authority has been aware of the location since June, after a storm shifted the sand. Still, finding artifacts remains elusive because of the movement of the sand.
“It’s normal to find swords in bad condition, but this one was found under the water – and under the water, it was preserved in very good condition,” Sharvit said Monday. “It’s the first time that we found a beautiful sword like this.”
The water off the Carmel coast remains the same temperature year-round, which helped preserve the iron in the sword. Because the iron was oxidizsed, shells and other marine organisms stuck onto it like glue, Sharvit said. The discovery of ancient artifacts has increased as diving has grown in popularity in Israel, he said.
In the Second Crusade, the Muslim forces defeated Western crusaders at Damascus, said Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London. The sword would have been expensive to make at the time and viewed as a status symbol, Holloway said. It makes sense that it was found in the sea, he said, because many battles were waged near beaches, where Christian soldiers landed and were sometimes attacked by Muslim forces.
“It could have been from a knight who fell in the sea or lost it in a fight at sea,” he said. When Katzin found it, he said he was afraid it would be stolen or buried beneath shifting sand, according to a statement from the authority. The general director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escosido, praised Katzin because “every ancient artifact that is found helps us piece together the historical puzzle of the Land of Israel.” Katzin was given a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.
During the Third Crusade, King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart of England), and the holy Roman emperor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), set out to retake Jerusalem. Saladin, the ruler of an area covering modern Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had conquered it in 1187, said John Cotts, a professor of medieval history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
At the time, Pope Gregory VIII tried to inspire Western Christians through “great emotional language” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, but ultimately the Muslim army maintained control of the city, Cotts said. “Traditionally, the definition of a knight is someone on horseback who engaged in mounted warfare,” Cotts said. It is possible that the sword belonged to one of them, and has survived for nine centuries, Sharvit said. After the sword is studied and cleaned, it will be placed in one of the country’s museums, Sharvit said. He would not disclose how much it could sell for, he said, because in his opinion, it was “priceless.” “Every artifact we find is always a really great feeling,” he said. But this one “is very, very special.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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