Weekend performances

This past weekend Chris and I had a couple of performances that needed some preparation—and we like that, it gives us an excuse to spend some evenings learning new songs and sharpening up some of the old ones. Back when we started playing together we practiced fairly steadily, whether or not  a performance was looming. That helped us build up our repertoire and get our playing skills to a respectable level, but it also ate mightily into our free time and risked burnout.

These days there is more ebb and flow. Sometimes we’ll go for a month or more without practicing, just showing up for the easier performances like our weekly date at the Bread of Life Cafe or a set at a local church or lodge. (And there’s some deliberateness to that as well, since it’s good to be able to play at a moment’s notice with no special preparation.) And sometimes, like in July, we’ll spend about half our evenings for two or three weeks to get ready for a particular show.

Friday we drove to Abingdon, Virginia to play at the Virginia Highlands Festival, a two-week arts/crafts/music fair that is pretty popular. The festival didn’t officially open until Saturday, but the Crooked Road organization arranged for a show in the event tent that featured the Dixie Bee-Liners, a local group that is just experiencing some much-deserved recognition on the charts and on XM Radio. They were polished and very much in the contemporary bluegrass pocket, great stage presence, very personable; we liked them a lot, and hope they hold it together long enough to enjoy some success.

Chris and I were there to back up Ron Short for his program of coal mining songs, which opened the show. It’s the twelfth time in the past twelve months, and things really do improve with practice. Ron was telling us about a band that deliberately played a long stretch of time at Silver Dollar City, multiple sets per day for a couple of weeks, and came back home tight and polished. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to devote ourselves to something so concentrated, but it would be fun to try.

Sunday we were back at the Pickin in the Park program at Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Virginia. Five years ago Chris and I made our first public appearance at this open mic, and for three years we were regulars until our move to Kentucky put an end to that. But we did manage to get back last year, and this year they asked us to be featured performers, which meant we played a thirty-minute set rather than the usual three songs. It was a real treat for us. There were lots of familiar faces in the audience, and it really is a pleasant venue, a nice amphitheater with a good sound system.

After the program I dropped Chris off at Ron Short’s house, where he will be staying for the week while he is teaching fiddle class at Ron’s mountain music school. I’ll pick him up Friday afternoon in time to be back at the Bread of Life Cafe for Friday evening’s performance.

One-take Sunday afternoon

Chris and I have been learning some new songs, so we spent some time this afternoon making some reference recordings. We were only good for forty minutes or so, because it’s 95 degrees out today and we don’t run the air conditioning these days and we had to shut off the fan for the duration of the recording. But here are the songs we got done. Note that I decided not to downsample these files, so they run 3-4Mb each (1Mb per minute). And there are some flubs—words, notes, and at one point Chris dropped his pick.

Blue Diamond Mine

Coal Town Saturday Night

Forsaken Lover


The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore

Tramp on the Street

Troublesome Waters

Book notes: Overshoot, by William Catton

I recommend William Catton’s Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change not so much because of the facts it brings to light—probably you’re familiar with just about all of them—or because of Catton’s specific interpretation of them, but because of the analytical concepts that Catton introduces. Most of them are simple and obvious (after they’ve been pointed out, anyway), but taken together they make it clear that the standard pat answers that both liberal and conservative Christians give to questions about ecological crisis are not good enough.

Catton’s terms are so important to his argument that he has put a mini-glossary on the cover of his book, and provided a more complete one in the back of the book. Here are the central definitions, from which you can pretty much reconstruct Catton’s understanding of how the world works.

  • Carrying capacity: the maximum population of a given species which a particular habitat can support indefinitely (under specified technology and organization, in the case of the human species).

  • Phantom carrying capacity: illusory or extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a life form or a way of life; that portion of a population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable.

  • Temporary carrying capacity: combination of actual and phantom carrying capacity; the population that a habitat can support for a short time only (until the supply of some exhaustible resource runs out which the species depends on).

  • Carrying capacity deficit (surplus): the condition wherein the permanent ability of a given habitat to support a given form of life falls short of (exceeds) the quantity of that form already in existence.

  • Drawdown: method of extending carrying capacity, an inherently temporary expedient by which life opportunities for a species are temporarily increased by extracting from the environment for use by that species a significant fraction of an accumulated resource that is not being replaced as fast as it its drawn down.

  • Takeover: method of extended carrying capacity which increases opportunities for one species by reducing opportunities for competing species.

  • Ghost acreage: the additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply that net portion of the food or fuel it uses but does not obtain from contemporary growth of organisms within its borders—e.g. from net imports of agricultural products, from oceanic fisheries, from fossil fuels.

  • Overshoot: the condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat.

  • Age of Exuberance: the centuries of growth and progress that followed the sudden enlargement of habitat available to Europeans as a result of voyages of discovery; a period of expansion when a species takes exuberant advantage of the abundant opportunities in an eminently suitable but previously inaccessible habitat.

  • Myth of limitlessness: the belief (more implicit than explicit, perhaps) that the world’s resources are sufficient to support any conceivable human population engaged in any conceivable way of life for any conceivable duration; derivatively, the belief that a given resource is inexhaustible or that substitutes can always be found.

  • Cornucopian paradigm: a view of past and future human progress that disregards the carrying capacity concept, pays no attention to the finiteness of the world or to differences between takeover and drawdown, and accepts uncritically the myth of limitlessness.

  • Cargoism: faith that technological progress will stave off major institutional change, even in a post-exuberant world; the equivalent among people of industrial nations to the cargo cults of the Melanesian islanders.

Given these terms, here is how my thinking about ecology runs after reading Catton’s book:

  • For any given mixture of technologies and cultures, there is a maximum population that the Earth can sustain.

  • That maximum can be increased (or decreased, I suppose) by a change in either technologies (e.g. plant cultivation, mettalurgy, tools, firearms) or cultures.

  • When the population grows past the sustainable maximum, such overshoot can be maintained for some finite amount of time through either takeover (e.g. discovery of the New World) or drawdown (e.g. turning fossil fuel into food).

  • Civilizations large (e.g. Europe) and small (e.g. Easter island) have crashed after a period of overshoot; twice in the last millennium the population of Europe declined after a crash.

  • Contrary to popular belief, technological innovation has rarely come to the rescue and saved us from the effects of overshoot; rather, the innovation tends to come first (e.g. plant cultivation, mettalurgy, tools, firearms), increasing carrying capacity, which is then slowly soaked up by population growth.

  • The huge growth in population over the past two hundred years correlates pretty closely to our ability and willingness to draw down finite resources (settling the New World, turning fossil fuel into food).

  • The resources we have been taking over or drawing down show signs of nearing exhaustion (peak oil, no more land to bring into agricultural production)

  • Some of the technological innovations that promised to increasing carrying capacity have backfired (industrial agriculture, the green revolution, biofuels); most of the rest are speculative, and their practicality has yet to be demonstrated.

  • Once takeover and drawdown are no longer possible, population will be forced within actual carrying capacity, which may or may not exceed the current population of the Earth.

And given all that, I’m still looking for a thoughtful Christian answer to this question: is it ever wise to put bounds on our fruitfulness that God hasn’t put there himself?

Book Notes: The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer

Recently we’ve made heavy use of interlibrary loan at our little local library. Partly because it’s easy—our pastor’s wife is in charge of it, and she’ll even drop the books off to us at church or when she is passing by. And partly because there are a lot of books that we’d like to take a look at once; sometimes we’re trying to decide whether to buy a copy, and sometimes we know we won’t want to own one. Example: Hungry Planet, the book of gorgeous pictures showing how families around the world eat. It was great fun to look at and very thought-provoking, but not a book we’d be likely to revisit often.

I requested a copy of David Hackett Fischer’s The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History through interlibrary loan because I didn’t expect it to be that interesting, but I still wanted to learn something about how prices have varied over the last millennium. It turned out to be much better than I expected. I’m still not sure I want to own a copy, but it’s tempting.

One thing I like about the book is that although it is very fat (550 pages), the body of the text runs only half that, about 250 pages, and some of that is occupied by charts and graphs. The rest is taken up by fifty pages of appendices looking at specific topics in more detail, fifty pages of notes, and 150 pages (!) of annotated bibliography covering primary and secondary sources. Almost like a DVD with lots and lots of extras. Fischer’s point is a straightforward one, and he manages to demonstrate how it holds true over the course of 800 years of history while still keeping things readable. I found myself skimming the text quickly, making mental note of the more intriguing facts he used to make his case, knowing it would be easy to come back and read more closely about a particular stretch of time if I wanted to.

Fischer’s point is roughly this: prices in history seem to follow a pattern in which a long stretch of stability (which he calls an equilibrium) is followed by a long stretch of instability (which he calls a revolution). During the revolution real wages drop, i.e. the gap between wages and prices increases, until the disparity can no longer be endured and some crisis restores equilibrium. He does not call this alternation a cycle, because there are too many differences between the successive stages to call it a strict pattern; rather he calls them “waves,” and invokes Mark Twain’s observation that although history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme.

Decent price and wage data begin in the 1100s, and here is how Fischer maps out the waves (each bullet gets a chapter):

First Wave

  • The medieval price revolution, 1180-1350
  • The crisis of the fourteenth century, 1300-1400
  • The equilibrium of the Renaissance, 1400-1470

Second Wave

  • The price revolution of the sixteenth century, 1470-1590
  • The crisis of the seventeenth century, 1590-1660
  • The equilibrium of the Enlightenment, 1660-1730

Third Wave

  • The price revolution of the eighteenth century, 1730-1789
  • The revolutionary crisis, 1789-1820
  • The equilibrium of the Victorian era, 1820-1896

Fourth Wave

  • The price revolution of the twentieth century, 1896-
  • Our troubled times

Even in this breakdown of events there are interesting things to consider, e.g. that each equilibrium was considered a golden era. In fact, one of Fischer’s claims is that during an equilibrium people get fat, happy, and optimistic enough about the future to begin increasing the sizes of their families, leading to demand which begins to outstrip supply, leading to a growing disparity between wages and prices, leading to a crisis. (Fischer also claims that the data do not support the monetarist claim that expansion of the money supply is the primary cause of rising prices, but instead that it is a response to rising prices.)

I recommend a quick read of the body of Fischer’s book to get a solid understanding of both how good things can be when they are good, and how bad things can get when they are bad. The earlier crises were really, really bad for most of the population; one point in favor of global trade is that it has tended to mitigate the levels of misery that are experienced during a crisis. Fischer gives the example of one town where grain prices had soared to four times the equilibrium level, while in another town not too far away (but far enough that there was no trade between them) prices had actually dropped below the equilibrium level because of a bountiful harvest.

It might also be good if some full-quiver proponent would consider Fischer’s claim that increasing family size regularly leads to demand outstripping supply, leading in turn to crisis. Are no bounds to be placed on our fruitfulness outside of the ones that God puts in place Himself?

Book notes: Reinventing Collapse, by Dmitri Orlov

I’ve tried to avoid writing about the the unfolding economic crisis because I’m sure what I wrote would be misunderstood. My fascination with current troubles and possible explanations for them could too easily be seen as cheering for disaster. But I’m not eager for the economy to head south, something that would cause my family roughly as much pain as any other. And I’m agnostic as to when such a thing will happen, or if it will happen at all. Many other crises, several in my lifetime, have been averted (or at least delayed) by events and trends I would never have predicted at the time. So I won’t be disappointed if this turns out to be one more rough patch on the way to calmer waters; I’ll be surprised, but pleasantly.

So why study this crisis so closely? Because it is severely testing our cherished assumptions about how to structure a society, some of which have never been tested before. For many years we’ve sown the wind by setting mechanisms into motion whose long-term effects were a mystery to us; and now as the whirlwind is reaped, we have a rare opportunity to discern which of those assumptions were prudent and wise, and which were just plain foolish, which many certainly were. It may be that God chooses to spare us the full brunt of our foolishness by stepping in to mitigate its effects—but even so our foolishness will remain just as foolish, and ought to be acknowledged and avoided in the future regardless of the extent of God’s mercy toward us this time.

Dmitri Orlov has much the same outlook in his own study of economic collapse. Here’s one of the blurbs for his book Reinventing Collapse:

Orlov’s Russian perspective on the American collapse is valuable not just for its predictions, but for its attitude: economic collapse is not an unthinkable horror, but a routine and fascinating part of history, and if you find yourself in one you should look around.

In his introduction, Orlov explains his project this way:

I am not an expert or a scholar or an activist. I am more of an eyewitness. I watched the Soviet Union collapse and this has given me the necessary insights to describe what the American collapse will look like. It has been a couple of years since I started writing on the subject of economic collapse as it occurred in the Soviet Union and as it is likely to occur here in the United States. Thus far, I remain reasonably content with my predictions: all the pieces of the collapse scenario I imagined are lining up, slowly but surely. […]

Let us imagine that collapsing a modern military-industrial superpower is like making soup: chop up some ingredients, apply heat and stir. The ingredients I like to put in my superpower collapse soup are: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget and ballooning foreign debt. […] It took a couple of decades for the United States to catch up [to the Soviet Union], but now all the ingredients are in the pot and starting to simmer.

Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty! My soup-based method of predicting superpower collapse may not please a scholar or an expert or an activist (as I mentioned, I am none of these) but it is probably rigorous enough to adequately warn and equip an innocent bystander. I am not too interested in constructing rigorous scientific models and producing forecasts. Nor do I wish to set agendas, promote reforms or take part in protests. Try to form a picture in your mind: it is a superpower, it is huge, it is powerful, and it is going to come crashing down. You or me trying to do something about it would have the same effect as you or me wiggling our toes at a tsunami. Nor do I wish to force my opinions on you, so please form your own. But I do want to guide your imagination by providing a lot of real world detail about an actual economic collapse that has recently transpired, along with some honest, apples-to-apples, oranges-to-oranges comparisons between the United States and the Soviet Union, to serve as a foundation for setting some commonsense expectations and making your own plans, separately from the happy toe-wiggling masses.

People generally find it hard to act on knowledge that contradicts their everyday experience. The experience must come first, even if it is second-hand; hence all the support groups for people who want to change their lives or their habits. There are plenty of books on subjects similar to this one, complete with tables of figures, charts, graphs and diagrams, that argue for or against this or that thesis, initiative or proposal. This, I hope you will be happy to find, is not one of them. My goal is to take various important aspects of the Soviet post-collapse experience and to recast them in an American context, allowing you to imagine what will become of your surroundings, your situation, and your options. I hope to add a lot of detail to what, I would hazard to guess, is currently something of a white spot on your cognitive map.

And as the book unfolds Orlov provides many, many such helpful details. More important, though he approaches the matter with a rare objectivity, a lighthearted cynicism that helps the reader clear his head of conventional wisdom and take a fresh look at why events unfold as they do. For example, he points out repeatedly how the Soviet Union’s inability to provide its people with cheap, reliable consumer goods turned out to be a blessing because it forced the people to rely on their own resources to create and maintain tools, gardens, and such; Westerners, on the other hand, have been rendered relatively helpless by cheap, easily available goods that meet any and every need, and will be hard pressed to meet those needs when such goods evaporate.

Although this is a review of Orlov’s book, the first thing you’ll want to know is that the book is mostly a compilation of these internet writings:

Actually, my favorite of these pieces, Our Village, barely makes an appearance in the book. It describes post-collapse life in a Russian village, Soykino, where Orlov’s family owns property. Even if you have no interest in Orlov’s overall project, this essay is worth a look. It ends with a simple passage that will warm an agrarian heart:

Natasha and I are very happy that Soykino exists, and that our family owns a house there. Simple and humble as it is, it has much to offer: community, nature, shelter, and food.

As I mentioned, the collapse of the Soviet economy was barely detectable in Soykino. Reasoning by analogy, if some of the more pessimistic (or, as more and more of us think, realistic) predictions come true, and the developed portions of the United States become completely dysfunctional, much more so than they are presently, a village such as Soykino, if one existed, would remain similarly unaffected. And if you owned a house t
here, you could live there, and be unaffected as well.

Upon arriving, you would no doubt have to explain to the other residents what happened: “You see, the economy collapsed, and now there is nothing more for me to do out there.” And they would say: “No! Really? That’s a pretty big thing, isn’t it?” And you would say: “Huge! Could you please pass the pickled mushrooms?”

Jobs come, jobs go

Forbes magazine has gathered information about job growth and disappearance from 2006 to 2007, i.e. mostly prior to the current economic crisis. Unfortunately, they buried most of the information in a cumbersome slide show, so I’ve pulled it out and summarized it here.

Top 20 growing jobs 2006 to 2007

  1. Roustabouts, Oil and Gas (54,200), up 31%, mean wage $30,480
  2. Aircraft Structure, Surfaces (34,410), Rigging and Systems Assemblers, up 24%, mean wage $44,180
  3. Service Unit Operators, Oil, Gas and Mining (30,440), up 20%, mean wage $45,560
  4. Counselors, Miscellaneous (28,900), up 19%, mean wage $40,710
  5. Security and Fire Alarm Systems Installers (60,700), up 17%, mean wage $37,290
  6. Non-specialist Education, Training and Library Workers (98,790), up 17%, mean wage $36,950
  7. Financial Analysts (228,300), up 16%, mean wage $81,700
  8. Assemblers and Fabricators, Miscellaneous (330,940), up 14%, mean wage $32,700
  9. Physicians and Surgeons, Miscellaneous (237,400), up 14%, mean wage $155,150
  10. Logisticians (90,340), up 14%, mean wage $66,240
  11. Producers and Directors (72,390), up 13%, mean wage $77,070
  12. Locomotive Engineers (41,760), up 13%, mean wage $63,180
  13. Financial Specialists, Miscellaneous (136,570), up 13%, mean wage $61,760
  14. Multi-media Artists and Animators (29,440), up 12%, mean wage $61,010
  15. Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists (87,440), up 12%, mean wage $74,160
  16. Manicurists and Pedicurists (52,730), up 11%, mean wage $22,020
  17. Home Health Aides (834,580), up 11%, mean wage $20,850
  18. Non-specialist Transportation Workers (46,720), up 11%, mean wage $34,330
  19. Non-specialist Service Industry Sales Representatives (556,430), up 11%, mean wage $57,480
  20. Personal Financial Advisors (132,460), up 11%, mean wage $89,220

Top 20 disappearing jobs 2006 to 2007

  1. Sewing Machine Operators (200,340), down 9%, mean wage $21,080
  2. Home Appliance Repairers (39,130), down 9%, mean wage $35,200
  3. Engine and Other Machine Assemblers (41,100), down 9%, mean wage $33,260
  4. Conveyor Operators and Tenders (45,580), down 9%, mean wage $29,020
  5. Milling and Planing Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders, Metal and Plastic (26,430), down 9%, mean wage $33,100
  6. Cutters and Trimmers, Hand (26,180), down 9%, mean wage $25,480
  7. Word Processors and Typists (139,420), down 9%, mean wage $31,580
  8. Chemical Plant and System Operators (48,030), down 9%, mean wage $50,950
  9. Farm workers, Farm and Ranch Animals (43,120), down 10%, mean wage $21,860
  10. Compensation and Benefits Managers (41,780), down 10%, mean wage $88,400
  11. Graders and Sorters, Agricultural Products (40,770), down 11%, mean wage $19,590
  12. Drilling and Boring Machine Tool Setters, Operators and Tenders, Metal and Plastic (37,680), down 11%, mean wage $32,050
  13. Semiconductor Processors (36,690), down 12%, mean wage $34,820
  14. Forest and Conservation Technicians (26,900), down 12%, mean wage $35,770
  15. Tax Examiners, Collectors and Revenue Agents (65,750), down 13%, mean wage $51,510
  16. Actors (44,860), down 14%, mean wage $49,730
  17. Textile Knitting and Weaving Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders (33,400), down 14%, mean wage $24,960
  18. Material Moving Workers, Miscellaneous (43,840), down 16%, mean wage $33,170
  19. Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners, Miscellaneous (44,350), down 17%, mean wage $80,980
  20. Entertainers and Performers, Sports and Related Workers, Miscellaneous (32,040), down 46%, mean wage $31,550