“Stacked up, the Stasi’s complete files reached 125 miles. They weighed fifty tons per mile; in total, 62,500 tons.”

Tina Rosenberg:

The Stasi complex on Normannenstrasse in the Lichtenberg district consisted of 41 brown concrete buildings. In addition, the Stasi possessed 1,181 safe houses, 305 vacation homes, 98 sports facilities, and 18,000 apartments for meetings with spies. The Stasi had a budget of 4 billion East German marks. It had 97,000 full-time employees—after the army, it was East Germany’s largest employer. There were 2,171 mail readers, 1,486 phone tappers, and another 8,426 people who monitored phone conversations and radio broadcasts. In addition, there were about 110,000 active unofficial collaborators and perhaps ten times that many occasional informants. The Stasi kept files on 6 million people. There were 39 separate departments—even a department to spy on other Stasi members. A master file with a single card for each Stasi employee, collaborator, and object of surveillance stretches for more than a mile—the cards for people named Müller alone reach a hundred yards. Stacked up, the Stasi’s complete files reached 125 miles. They weighed fifty tons per mile; in total, 62,500 tons.

The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism [Amazon]

October 31, 2016  |  

“The current system of airport security all over the world represents an overreaction to the September 11, 2001, hijackings.”

Robert J. Gordon:

The current system of airport security all over the world represents an overreaction to the September 11, 2001, hijackings. There was only one weakness in the U.S. airline security system on September 11, and this was that the cockpit doors were flimsy. Within days, they were replaced by completely secure doors that nobody could break through. Although the security issue was completely solved within a week, fourteen years later billions of dollars per year of passenger time continues to be wasted in unnecessary additional security precautions. The pre-2001 security system, based on a quick walk through an X-ray machine to check for guns and metal weapons, would be enough.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War [Amazon]

June 16, 2016  |  

“The offshore world is not a bunch of independent states exercising their sovereign rights to set their laws and tax systems as they see fit.”

Nicholas Shaxson:

…the offshore world is not a bunch of independent states exercising their sovereign rights to set their laws and tax systems as they see fit. It is a set of networks of influence controlled by the world’s major powers, notably Britain, the United States, and some jurisdictions in Europe. Each network is deeply interconnected with, and warmly welcomes offshore business from, the others. Wealthy U.S. individuals and corporations use the British spiderweb extensively: Enron, for example, had 881 offshore subsidiaries before it went bust, of which 692 were in the Cayman Islands, 119 in the Turks and Caicos, 43 in Mauritius, and 8 in Bermuda, all in the British spiderweb. The United States returns the favor to wealthy British interests investing tax-free, in secrecy, via Wall Street. Not only that, but the world’s most important tax havens in their own right are not exotic palm-fringed islands but some of the world’s most powerful countries themselves.

Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens [Amazon]

“Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”

Peter H. Diamandis & Steven Kotler:

The amygdala is an almond-shaped sliver of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It’s our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant. Then our focus tightens and our fight-or-flight response turns on. Heart rate speeds up, nerves fire faster, eyes dilate for improved vision, the skin cools as blood moves toward our muscles for faster reaction times. Cognitively, our pattern-recognition system scours our memories, hunting for similar situations (to help ID the threat) and potential solutions (to help neutralize the threat). But so potent is this response that once turned on, it’s almost impossible to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.

These days, we are saturated with information. We have millions of news outlets competing for our mind share. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw “If it bleeds, it leads” works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Pick up the Washington Post and compare the number of positive to negative stories. If your experiment goes anything like mine, you’ll find that over 90 percent of the articles are pessimistic. Quite simply, good news doesn’t catch our attention. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.

NYU’s Dr. Marc Siegel, in his book False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear:

Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios. Over the past century, we Americans have dramatically reduced our risk in virtually every area of life, resulting in life spans 60 percent longer in 2000 than in 1900. Antibiotics have reduced the likelihood of dying from infections … Public health measures dictate standards for drinkable water and breathable air. Our garbage is removed quickly. We live in temperature-controlled, disease-controlled lives. And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think [Amazon]

“We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone.”

Charles Fishman:

Americans spent $21 billion on bottled water in 2009. It doesn’t seem like an astonishing sum of money – about $65 per person, $1.25 a week. But in the context of water, $21 billion is huge. Consider, for instance, what Americans spend for all the water delivered to their homes – 350 gallons per family per day, 365 days a year. The water bill comes to about $412 a year. Which means we spend $46 billion a year on all the household water we use all year long— to run the morning shower, to boil the pasta, to water the lawn. As a nation, we spend $46 billion for a year’s water, always on, whenever we need it. And we spend another $21 billion – almost half as much – for bottled water, for an amount of water that wouldn’t get us through eight hours of water use at home on any given day. But there’s an even more arresting comparison. We spend about $29 billion a year maintaining our entire water system in the United States – the drinking water treatment plants, the pump stations, the pipes in the ground, the wastewater treatment plants. So as a nation, we spend very nearly as much on water delivered in small crushable plastic bottles as we do on sustaining the entire water system of the country.

[…]

We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 8.33 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water – you have to leave empty space.) Meanwhile, of course, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us in the developed world an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, not one of which we actually need.

[…]

Bottled water is the final flowering of the old water culture. Nothing says indulgence, in fact, like paying for something you don’t need to pay for, like paying for something you don’t need. Superficially, it looks like a somewhat silly triumph for capitalism – look what really smart, creative people can do with something as utterly pedestrian as water. In fact, it’s a reminder of exactly the opposite – the market has created very persuasive solutions for water problems that don’t exist, while failing to find any solutions for real water problems.

This is old news, but still…

FIJI Water is a miniature miracle of the modern global economy – water from an aquifer on the isolated north coast of Fiji’s main island, bottled in a state-of-the-art factory that fills and packs more than a million bottles of water a day, water that then makes its way by truck, cargo container, ship, and even the Panama Canal, to the hippest clubs and restaurants in Los Angeles (5,520 miles from Fiji) and Miami Beach (7,480 miles from Fiji). Meanwhile, more than half the residents of the nation of Fiji do not themselves have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American living in Beverly Hills or Miami or Manhattan to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fijian water than it is for most people in Fiji.

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water [Amazon]

March 23, 2016  |  

“The great drama of Russia…”

Peter Pomerantsev:

…the great drama of Russia is not the “transition” between communism and capitalism, between one fervently held set of beliefs and another, but that during the final decades of the USSR no one believed in communism and yet carried on living as if they did, and now they can only create a society of simulations. For this remains the common, everyday psychology: the Ostankino producers who make news worshiping the President in the day and then switch on an opposition radio as soon as they get off work; the political technologists who morph from role to role with liquid ease – a nationalist autocrat one moment and a liberal aesthete the next; the “orthodox” oligarchs who sing hymns to Russian religious conservatism – and keep their money and families in London. All cultures have differences between “public” and “private” selves, but in Russia the contradiction can be quite extreme.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia [Amazon]

January 24, 2016  |  

“Any fool can make a fortune. It takes a man of brains to hold on to it after it is made.”

Arthur T. Vanderbilt II:

Within thirty years after the death of Commodore Vanderbilt in 1877, no member of his family was among the richest people in the United States, having been supplanted by such new titans as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, and Ford. Forty-eight years after his death, one of his direct descendants died penniless. Within seventy years of his death, the last of the great Vanderbilt mansions on Fifth Avenue had made way for modern office buildings. When 120 of the Commodore’s descendants gathered at Vanderbilt University in 1973 for the first family reunion, there was not a millionaire among them.

And:

“Any fool can make a fortune,” the Commodore had told his son William, whom he still called Billy, shortly before he died. “It takes a man of brains to hold on to it after it is made.”

Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt [Amazon]

The Case for Mars

Robert Zubrin, American rocket scientist and founder of Mars Society:

Where there is no vision, the people perish. The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. But no goal can be sustained unless it can be backed up, and not by “rationales,” but by reasons. There are real and vital reasons why we should venture to Mars. It is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering, and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world, a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity’s career as a spacefaring species with no limits to its resources or aspirations as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond. For the science, for the challenge, for the future; that’s why we should go to Mars. The only meaningful counterargument against launching a humans to Mars initiative is the assertion that we cannot do it. This claim, however, is completely false.

And:

If the human mind can understand the universe, it means that the human mind is fundamentally of the same order as the divine mind. If the human mind is of the same order as the divine mind, then everything that appeared rational to God as he constructed the universe, its “geometry,” can also be made to appear rational to the human understanding, and so if we search and think hard enough, we can find a rational explanation and underpinning for everything. This is the fundamental proposition of science.

Here’s some intergalactic capitalism to wrap it up:

…whether it’s the United States, NATO, the United Nations, or the Martian Republic, some government’s agreement is needed to give worthless terrain real estate property value. Once that is in place, however, even the undeveloped open real estate on Mars represents a tremendous source of capital to finance the initial development of Martian settlements. Sold at an average value of $20 per acre, Mars could be worth $700 billion. Should Mars be terraformed, these open land prices could be expected to grow a hundredfold, with a rough planetary land value of $70 trillion implied.

Fascinating read and very highly recommended.

The Case for Mars [Amazon]

November 18, 2015  |  

“The top 1 percent…”

Joseph E. Stiglitz:

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this has been something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Often, however, they learn it too late.

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future [Amazon]

October 16, 2015  |  

“Jews believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God.”

Sam Harris:

The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. Prior to the rise of the church, Jews became the objects of suspicion and occasional persecution for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture— that is, for the content of their own unreasonable, sectarian beliefs. The dogma of a “chosen people,” while at least implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world. Among cultures that worshiped a plurality of Gods, the later monotheism of the Jews proved indigestible. And while their explicit demonization as a people required the mad work of the Christian church, the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. As a system of beliefs, it appears among the least suited to survive in a theological state of nature. Christianity and Islam both acknowledge the sanctity of the Old Testament and offer easy conversion to their faiths. Islam honors Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as forerunners of Muhammad. Hinduism embraces almost anything in sight with its manifold arms (many Hindus, for instance, consider Jesus an avatar of Vishnu). Judaism alone finds itself surrounded by unmitigated errors. It seems little wonder, therefore, that it has drawn so much sectarian fire. Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their “freedom of belief” on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason [Amazon]

October 1, 2015  |  

“Religion was the race’s first (and worst) attempt to make sense of reality.”

Christopher Hitchens:

Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes.

How did such evil nonsense ever come to be so influential? And why are we so continually locked in combat with its violent and intolerant votaries? Well, religion was the race’s first (and worst) attempt to make sense of reality. It was the best the species could do at a time when we had no concept of physics, chemistry, biology or medicine. We did not know that we lived on a round planet, let alone that the said planet was in orbit in a minor and obscure solar system, which was also on the edge of an unimaginably vast cosmos that was exploding away from its original source of energy. We did not know that micro-organisms were so powerful and lived in our digestive systems in order to enable us to live, as well as mounting lethal attacks on us as parasites. We did not know of our close kinship with other animals. We believed that sprites, imps, demons, and djinns were hovering in the air about us. We imagined that thunder and lightning were portentous. It has taken us a long time to shrug off this heavy coat of ignorance and fear, and every time we do there are self-interested forces who want to compel us to put it back on again.

By all means let us agree that we are pattern-seeking mammals and that, owing to our restless intelligence and inquisitiveness, we will still prefer a conspiracy theory to no explanation at all. Religion was our first attempt at philosophy, just as alchemy was our first attempt at chemistry and astrology our first attempt to make sense of the movements of the heavens. I myself am a strong believer in the study of religion, first because culture and education involve a respect for tradition and for origins, and also because some of the early religious texts were among our first attempts at literature. But there is a reason why religions insist so much on strange events in the sky, as well as on less quantifiable phenomena such as dreams and visions. All of these things cater to our inborn stupidity, and our willingness to be persuaded against all the evidence that we are indeed the center of the universe and that everything is arranged with us in mind.

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever [Amazon]

September 24, 2015  |  

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Lawrence Wright’s epic account on L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of Church of Scientology was so engaging I simply couldn’t put it down.

The organization is clearly schizophrenic and paranoid, and this bizarre combination seems to be a reflection of its founder LRH. The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background, and achievements. The writings and documents in evidence additionally reflect his egoism, greed, avarice, lust for power, and vindictiveness and aggressiveness against persons perceived by him to be disloyal or hostile. At the same time it appears that he is charismatic and highly capable of motivating, organizing, controlling, manipulating , and inspiring his adherents. …Obviously, he is and has been a very complex person, and that complexity is further reflected in his alter ego, the Church of Scientology.

And..

…the purpose of a lawsuit is “to harass and discourage rather than win.” Hubbard also wrote: “If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace… Don’t ever defend. Always attack.” He added: “NEVER agree to an investigation of Scientology. ONLY agree to an investigation of the attackers.”

Thoroughly researched and so completely bananas, this is investigative reporting at it’s finest.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief [Amazon]

The Age Of Cryptocurrency

The sovereign-money system, and especially the fiat money that gives the state unchecked power to print currency as it sees fit, has arguably been the most powerful weapon in the nation-state’s arsenal. More than just generating seigniorage— the seductive idea that every dollar printed is an interest-free loan flowing from the people to the state— controlling the nation’s money has allowed governments to control the apparatus of power. With paper money they can purchase arms, launch wars, raise debt to finance those conflicts, and then demand tax payments in that same currency to repay those debts. A functioning democracy should, in theory, put limits on all that. But in reality this monetary system permits the extension of power. It funds bureaucracies and agencies whose employees put their own survival above all else.

Fascinating, no-nonsense read on how Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are impacting the world of finance, banking and global commerce. Highly recommended!

The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money Are Challenging the Global Economic Order [Amazon]

February 11, 2015  |  

Rene Daumal

Experience has proven, I told myself, that a man can reach truth neither directly nor alone; an intermediary must exist— still human in certain respects yet surpassing humanity in others. Somewhere on our Earth this superior humanity must exist, and it cannot be absolutely inaccessible. And so shouldn’t all my efforts be devoted to discovering it? Even if, in spite of my certainty, I were the victim of a monstrous illusion, I would have nothing to lose in making the effort, for in any case, without this hope, all life is meaningless.

Mount Analogue [Amazon]

November 15, 2014  |