Talking to Terrorists

TalkingToTerroristsA government should engage with any terrorist group that has a viable following. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s necessary and ultimately, inevitable. This sums up the point Jonathan Powell is making. And he would know. Mr Powell spent his life talking to the Irish Republicans as a secret British negotiator.

The point Jonathan wants to make, is that in the end, governments always end up talking to terrorists. It’s not that they want to, it’s that in the end, talking is the only way terror stops. Governments need to learn how to do it right. And soon. One problem is that governments always insist they will never negotiate with terrorists. The problem with this stance, is that they give up the institutional skill of negotiation with them. And when in the end they do negotiate, as they must, they have to learn how all over again. This book is a series of lessons on how to conduct negotiations with terrorists, written by  the man, who knows how, and has dedicated the rest of his career to working to end armed conflict.

Governments initially always believe that the security apparatus can stamp out terrorism. With more policing, more laws, and more encroachment on civil rights, they attempt to ‘take a hard line’. This inevitably fails. And often makes the situations worse by creating more terrorists. Jonathan argues that policing is necessary. Murder is murder. And new laws are not usually needed. Pressure must be kept up to ensure that terrorists are uncomfortable and marginalized enough that they will negotiate. But when this happens, the onus in the government to negotiate.

The books quotes fascinating studies about how terrorist conflicts end. And it’s only in rare, rare circumstances that they are militarily defeated. More often, they eventually end up being part of the political system. Acknowledging this early could lead to thousands of lives saved around the world. Let’s hope this lesson as not been lost on Western governments during it’s War on ISIL. Eventually, we will need to talk.


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Fall Of The Roman Empire

FallOfTheRomanEmpireBefore this book, I really didn’t know much about life in, or collapse of the Roman Empire. To be honest, while I knew the Empire existed around the time of Christ, I had no idea that the empire lasted another 400 years after that. It’s incredible that the empire existed for over 600 years! Compared to modern (British, American) empires, it’s crazy to think how long this one existed.

While life in the Roman Empire was certainly difficult, it existed largely by assimilating people. A conquered city could expect to pay ‘tribute’ or taxes or what ever the settlement agreed upon, but would also receive full Roman citizenship. This often provided allowances of grain, wine, and protection. Within a generation, while maintaining some regional historical background, they were Roman. A nation within a nation.

This book focuses on the external reasons for the final collapse. The other talks about other internal factors that are usually cited in other books, but makes his case that the dominant reason for the collapse was external. First, over expansion. By 300 AD the Romans have conquered all the profitable territory in the region. Taking new cities yielded great glory for a commander seeking to move to the senate or even the ‘purple robe’, but it often left the Empire responsible for cities that were unable to contribute to the wealth of the Roman Empire. These new territories lay further and further away (present day Germany  and the UK are examples) from the profitable Roman Mediterranean territory.

The beginning of the end for the Roman Empire was the incursion of Roman territories by refugees. The Goths had been chased west by the Huns. The Goths (a Germanic tribe) were fleeing the murderous Huns whose origins are still strangely unknown. The Huns could be from Mongol, Chinese, origins, although it is also possible they from per-existing eastern tribes.

The Romans and Goths had met before in various battles, but when the Romans encountered the Goth refugees on the banks of the Danube, they at first them to encamp across the river. Eventually they were unable to provide food for the refugees, which led the Goths to migrate from their ‘refugee camps’ to the cities of Western Rome.When the cities refused to provide food and eventually attempted to associnate the Gothic leader, the Goths, battled west into the Roman Empire. The Vandals (another Germanic tribe) also followed and in the ensuring 100 years, they each took many of the Roman strongholds. The Huns followed and the Roman Empire was carved up into tribal nations. Sadly most of the Germanic tribes and certainly the Huns lacked writing skills. This meant that although they could conquer a nation, they couldn’t run it. The term Vandalize comes from this fact.



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What Money Can’t Buy

WhatMoneyCantBuyThis should be mandatory reading. There is simply no other way to say this. This books follows up on Michael Sandel’s book Justice which is also incredible.

This book explores the issues of prostitution, choice, and what is fair. Even simple examples like ‘Express lines at Disneyland’ lead to questions about fair delivery of health services. I thought a lot about this book lately as the owner of the Ottawa Senators Hockey team appealed to the public to save his life by donating a liver. Within a day he had received his organ, despite his questionable Canadian credentials (he likely doesn’t pay taxes as a Canadian). Should the wealthy be able to buy their way up the organ donar list? Should they be able to buy access to doctors sooner? Or do we as humans all share access to our countries health resources?

In a town in the US, an organization paid drug addicted women to be sterilized. How is this legal? Is it moral? The question ultimately comes down to choice. If a person chose this freely, most of us would agree it is a valid transaction. But is every agreed upon transaction valid? Does agreement make a transaction valid? In one example courts overruled an agreed upon transaction between an elderly widow a plumber charging outrageous rates. The found that the transaction, although agreed upon, was not lawful.

A speeding ticket a someone rich, is just a fee – a small price to be paid for the right to speed. For most people it is a fee, designed to stop speeding. In some countries, traffic tickets have been set according to a persons income so that tickets don’t give some the right to speed, while punishing only those who can afford it. Hasn’t this now become the issue with pollution credits? Won’t this become the issue with a carbon tax? Doesn’t this just give the wealthy (corporations) the ability to pay to pollute? Doesn’t everyone have a shared responsibility to our environment?

These are just a few of the topics from this amazing book. It’s time for a reread. Obviously I’ve forgotten way too many of the incredible examples.


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Those Angry Days

Those Angry Days

Those Angry Days

This was an excellent book. I’ll get around to writing more one day. Short version, I didn’t realize how reluctant America was enter WWII. I had no idea that isolationist held such sway.

As a pilot an already inclined to respect Charles Lindbergh, I was shocked to learn about his negative side. It’s incredible the lengths he went to to keep America out of WWII. Which would be a respectable goal if it was for the right reasons. That said, Charles sympathized with the Nazi party to a dangerous extent.

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The Locust Effect

The Locust Effect

The Locust Effect

Although I read a fair bit on economic development, I tend to stay away from books that detail in too great a depth the actual plight of the poor. I know it’s bad, but somehow reading about the details doesn’t seem to help. I’m aware it’s bad, but what overall can be done? That’s why this book was on my “maybe list” for a while – before I read it. Now it’s on my essential reads list.

Put shortly this book explains why economic development will never really help until the basic justice and proper policing is established. Seems obvious – how does a micro loan to a woman trying to set up a food both help if gangsters keep steeling her cart? How does economic development help some one sold as a sex slave? The aid that is given will just end up stolen until proper Rule of Law is established. Seems simple enough.

What I didn’t realize is how bad the Rule of Law actually is in many countries. This book outlines how millions of people live basically outside the protection of law. From police forces that don’t really consider rape a crime, to police that take bribes, to courts with no paper and few judges: there are a huge number of ways for a justice system to get bottlenecked. In many countries proper land titles don’t exist – so when a gang decides they want your house, the can often just take it. In this context, what do we expect to happen with economic development aid?

The best example the author gives is a truck his farmer grandfather had. It had a motor and a frame and was lying deserted in a  field. It hadn’t run in years but you could look at it and identify parts. The developing world legal system is just the same, you could say you have a truck, but it wouldn’t be what anyone that is familiar with the function of a truck would mean when you ask “Do you have a truck?”.

I was startled to learn that in absolute terms there are more slaves now than during the the slave trade system of the 18th Century – and it exists in countries considered to be developing nicely – namely India and Brazil.

The optimism comes from the fact that many countries including France, the US and the UK once had corrupt and incompetent police forces. And in more modern times, Georgia once voted near the bottom of the bucket in corruption recently (1990’s) fired all of their traffic cops to root out the problem – and is now seen as a leader in fighting corruption.

In short, we in the western world, often argue about the limits of government, but the one thing nearly everyone agrees upon is that the government is there to protect. We would not consider healthcare, education or welfare funding unless we felt our legal system basically worked. The same needs to be made true everywhere.

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That Used To Be US


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The End of Growth

The End of GrowthCould economic growth actually end? The environmental study “Limits to Growth”, published in the 1970’s, was the result of the digitally modeled inventory of the world’s resources and depletion rates. At that time Limits to Growth suggested that sometime after 2020 world economic growth would slow or even stop as environmental hard limits were reached. The books was revised each decade and the conclusions remained pretty fixed – growth would end. This book, “The End of Growth” explores the possibility that limits to growth might exists and that we might now be bumping up against such limits.

Economists rarely recognize limits to growth since economists believe that resource substitution and ingenuity will always prevail thus opening up new frontiers for future growth. This gives me warm fuzzy feeling but the evidence for it has some huge gaps. More on this later.

Limits to growth recognizes resource substitution and points out the problems with “peak oil” theory, primarily, resource substitution (eg. switching from whale oil to mineral oil) rarely occurs because resources run out. The world still had whales when we switched from whale oil, we switched because whale oil became expensive as supply ran short. The same is already happening with crude oil. We are not running out of crude (and likely never will), we have run out of CHEAP crude and likely will never find more. (Richard Mueller points this out in his book “Energy for Future Presidents” to be reviewed soon). While the world is constantly finding more oil, we are finding it in hard to reach – say expensive, locations. The same is happening with coal, uranium, iron ore, rock phosphate (necessary for plant growth) and more. In most of Europe mines with high quality hard coal have already been exhausted and now lesser brown coal (lignite) is being mined. Already Europe has turned to coal imports. China has tons of coal, but again the easy stuff has already been removed and currently coal is mined hundreds of feet underground and transported hundreds of miles to market. All of this resource exhaustion means diminishing rates of return. Rates that will likely never recover.

To cover the worlds energy needs, countries will turn to more and more desperate measures: deeper drilling, offshore drilling, artic drilling, biofuels, nuclear, etc. Accidents like Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima will become more common as energy costs rise and growth is pushed into marginal regions.

While energy depletion is the primary cause of the projected “end of growth”, politics, environmental degradation, and debt overhang will contribute. In the end it comes down to the simple question of how can 6 billion plus people prosper in a sustainable way.

On the political front America spends more on military spending than the rest of the world combined! Most of this is financed by borrowing. With a shrinking middle class in America who will be left to pay this debt? Already this debt represents a sizeable chunk of the governments budget – money that can no longer be used to finance the innovation required to address increasingly complex societal problems (climate change, energy, etc). Until government recognizes that limits to growth exist, the problems will worsen.

This book ties in very well with the theories described in “Our Finite World“. Our Finite World is a blog done by the actuary mathematician researcher Gail Tverberg. In her blog Gail argues that increasing costs of energy will slow growth, until demand for energy drops, prices fall, which causes increased oil consumption which increases price, which collapses demand, ad infinitum;  one big cycle of downward growth. The problem isn’t that we are running out of energy, it’s that our economy is built upon cheap energy.

Why have economic textbook theories of growth missed this? Because all economics textbooks were written in the same epoch or era – the era of cheap energy. The industrial age has been an age of unprecedented cheap energy, but just because the last 250 years were this way is no reason to assume that this will continue.

This leads me to my current read “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. Collapse is really a study of other economies before the era of cheap energy. It may be the most reliable prediction of our future once our energy is no longer cheap.

Returning to this book “The End of Growth”, the question becomes “Has growth already ended?”.  A closer look at our current state seems to imply that grown has been dead since at least 1998. Real household earning haven’t increased in the past decade and in some cases countries, average real personal incomes have fallen since the Regan era. Unemployment is rising and once environmental degradation is taken into account (a true cost) it seems likely that we have not seen real growth for quite some time.

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The Quest

TheQuestThe fight for energy that we see going on now has been going on for centuries. And this book is an amazing summary of the key historical events.

From the first oil wells, the to Russian natural gas pipeline fights, to shale gas, and tight oil this book covers the fight for fortunes that have been ongoing since the industrial revolution.

Daniel Yergin argues energy and oil have always been running out and always been rediscovered. Technological change from the ability to liquify natural gas, to the ability to drill offshore has saved the day each time we thought a resource was scarce.

A sad point from this book is the fact that the world probably has more oil than we could ever use. If we got even close to using half the worlds known hydrocarbons, we would surly end up in massive trouble with Mother Nature. This basically means that some resources are going to need to be left buried – which ones will remain so depends on technology, economics and political will.

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Energy Monitoring

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on my energy monitoring. It’s taken a fair bit of updating but it’s now stable and working well. I am using an emonTx to monitor the energy being used at my rental building and at my place.  The two current CT’s measure each side of the 240 volt system and I get a graph that updates every 5 seconds.

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 6.29.45 PM

I’m also using it to monitor the temperature and by placing one in a vent near my furnace I can see when ever it comes on. I was originally logging the Temps to COSM, or Pachube or what ever they call themScreen Shot 2014-01-07 at 6.30.11 PMself now, but I’m now centralizing my data to my own emonCMS server. The group at does a great job of keeping it pretty up to date. I then use Prowl to have alerts (temp falls too low) sent to my iPhone.



In my living room I have an emonLCD which display my current power usage and logs my room temperature. It’s one of those things that you walk by all the time during the day and ignore, but when you glance at it, I’m reminded to watch my energy consumption. It’s a nice subtle way of training my awareness and behavior.

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