Monday, March 25, 2013

Wax Fires

Not just one fire today, but two! Let me explain.

It's been a shitty day for me. I've to burn out wax from the student's ceramic investment shells. This occurs in an old Alpine gas kiln. The previous lab tech made a hole in the floor of the kin to recover melted wax. Directly underneath, on the floor is a metal tray filled with water to collect the molten wax.

After the fire
This is the kiln here:

I should note that this kiln had a roof fall on it, and ten inches x 40 x 30 foot (that's one thousand cubic feet) of roof water run through it. Didn't even faze it. They dried it out and fired it right up.

So, I'm in a hurry to get the wax burnt out. Long story short, I throw in a bunch of ceramic shell before it has properly cooled down, and cranked the heat.

It's a gamble. I've done it before. I've done it and had a wax fire underneath. Most of the time, my coping strategy for this is to get on my hands and knees and stare underneath the kiln at the fire, with a fire extinguisher next to me, and hope it goes out.

On two prior occasions (years apart, as I've been teaching the class for six years now), the fire didn't go out, and I would have to use the fire extinguisher. Just a couple of spritzes, not the whole canister.

So this time, it didn't go out. It got pretty big, actually. The whole kiln was covered in fire. I had to use the whole extinguisher. oops. And then another.

I really, had I the presence of mind, should have grabbed my camera and filmed it. Ah, but I was a little busy. And honestly, being on the floor was the best option, as you could not see for the black smoke surrounding.

And, then, an hour later I did it all over again. Two bad gambles in one day.

The leavings of the cleanup
It's amazing that we don't get more complaints or visits from the fire department, but apparently our portion of the building engulfed in acrid black smoke gains only slight notice.

I make light of this, only because I don't have much of a choice. The cleanup took a few hours. Scraping wax and dry chemicals off surfaces around the kiln. And I got a tickly throat from the smoke from the burned petroleum wax and extinguisher chemicals, which I'm sure is no good for me. But there you go.

Clearly, the older I get, the more stupid I become.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Damaged Goods

I completed one prepped mechanicule shadow box. Remember in biology class, they had the prepared slides? Maybe you're too young for that. I don't know if they still do that. I remember getting prepped slides in a microscope kit I had as a child. I also had a chemistry set. You could buy the most dangerous chemicals at the dry goods store. Anyway...

That's what I was thinking of when I created this shadow box of a mechanicule. Cast glass, with an aluminum frame, in a formal wooden box:

Here's the deal. In the process of putting this box together, I dropped the cast glass piece. It shattered on the upper left corner, and a wedge of the bottom right corner broke clean. I was so angry, I couldn't curse properly. I sounded like "Shi-shuh-, fa-fe-fuh- Ga-gi-ga na- ki- gi- a- guh-". I was that angry.

Porcelain and Bronze Pendants
I only managed to do that to the Old Man maybe twice in my life. Yeah, that angry.

One of my student aides was in the room, absolutely petrified. I finally managed "GET OUT!". I think maybe I sobbed for about a second, and then carefully picked up all the pieces I could find. The shattered corner was a wash. The rest I managed to glue together. But I cant' sell this piece now. It's damaged goods.

Oh, maybe I can, but I have to point out that the glass is broken.

Other than that, I got all the Kickstarter rewards pretty much done.
I know the frame looks crooked. It isn't!

All I have to do is set up the banking deposit thingie with Amazon, put together a video, and I can gewt my proposal over to Kickstarter. What did I say it would be ready? End of Feburary? By St. Paddy's Day? Hmm. Maybe shoot for Memorial Day?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Followup on "Deadbeats"

The BBC has put out a story indicating that the reason Neanderthals are extinct is because they had large eyes like the paintings of large-eyed children I remember seeing in my dentist's office when I was a child. The Just-So story we are told is, because Neanderthals needed larger eyes for to see in the dim, dark conditions of Europe, this resulted in their brains requiring more space for visual processing and less for reasoning and mental gymnastics. Whereas we Hobo Sapiens, evolving under the bright skies of Africa, just out-thunk the Neanderthals and they fell over and died.
Destined For

Am I the only one that thinks this theory is retarded?

Here's my proposal. My very first essay on blogger was devoted to Neanderthals. It was my contention (still is) that a lot of our oral folk traditions are based on true events. And so all of the those stories about gods versus demons or gods versus titans were our telling of struggles between our species and other human species. So, all those giants and ogres, and elves, and goblins, and fairies, and vampires, and werewolves, were all species that we Homo Sapiens in our infinite wisdom, killed off.

So, Neanderthals did have big eyes, and a large portion at the back of their skulls to process visual data, called the 'occipital bun'. And the reason they had these big eyes and a large visual cortex was for seeing in the dark. Neanderthals were creatures of the night. Our folk tales speak of them, as bogeymen, the monster under the bed, the things that go bump in the night. They came out at night to hunt, and, if they could, they'd hunt for human flesh.

So, naturally us daytime monsters had to get rid of those nighttime monsters, and there you go. Certainly as plausible as the other just-so story.

But that's not entirely what I want to talk about, although it is indirectly related. I've been considering a little world-building problem involving my occasional exploration into science fiction called the Convergence.

Short version, humanity has sparsely colonized the universe via wormhole conduits, meaning no spaceships, no spaceports, no spacefaring infrastructure, and doing it all with what amounts to late 1970s technology (nothing to sneeze at when you consider North Korea built a nuclear bomb with 1930s technology). So, these wormholes are fickle things, and for the longest time passage through one amounted to a one-way trip with no return. It was only, say, twenty years after the first foray that humans learned the trick of return trips to Earth. As a result, there's a lot of lost colonies out there in the cosmos, some of which would never be heard from again. And there's the problem involving colonization.

So, let's say you've got this big hole. It's just a big hole. If you want, it's a hole in the sky. On the other side of this big hole is whole new world, lush and green and filled with fresh air, sunshine and animals and clean water and absolutely no people. The hole is going to stay open for a short time, and while it's open, you can go back and forth. But eventually the hole will close and will never reappear again. You know this. You know if go through and stay, you will be stuck in this new world for good.

What do you take with? Oh, one other restriction is you are confined to, say nothing more advanced than 1985 technology.

Well, here's my thinking. You walk into this new world, you'll want to have an idea of what your base technology will be. In other words, you don't come over expecting to use internal combustion engines, since you don't where the oil is, you don't know when you'll have refineries built, you don't have any of the chemical and electrical infrastructure. Similarly, you probably don't bring coal-fire locomotives over. So, in my view, you start out with a base technology of around, say, 1820 or so. You've got high pressure steam engines that burn wood. You've got a lot of spare parts for that. Oh sure, you bring as many modern amenities and appliances and generators and fuel and airplanes and satellite launching rockets and computers as you can shove through the hole, and use as it long as it all lasts. You may have mini-factories stashed in 40 foot shipping containers. You've got a shitload of books. And skilled people. And food. And seeds. And... what else? In other words, this becomes a prepper problem. The world falls apart. How to rebuild it?

Because, you figure, no matter how much shit you shove through the hole, you just can't support a modern world.

One thing you'd really to like to have, and don't, would be robots. But then you get to thinking, you know what makes a really good robot, if you don't mind caring and feeding and cleaning up after it? Animals. Domesticated animals. And you know what makes the best robots of all? Slaves.

And so we are presented with an ethical problem. Do we allow for indentured servitude? Chattel slavery? Is this a good way to start a colonization effort?

What was the point regarding Nation of Deadbeats? Well, it turns out the commonality is colonization. And reading through American history, what you find is the entire colonizing effort was completely subsidized. Don't buy all this libertarian bullshit about rugged individuals carving out their spot in a barren wilderness with their own two hands. Didn't happen. There was a concerted effort to get everyone else to do the work for them. Indentured servants. save labor, cheap labor, zombies, robots, robot zombies, it didn't matter. That was just one long free ride for Anglo-Americans. Don't let anyone bullshit you about that.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Report: A Nation of Deadbeats

A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters by Scott Reynolds Nelson is a narrative of the larger panics and depressions that have occurred from Revolutionary Times to the Great Depression, and good descriptor of all the events is "Same shit, different day".

I'd have to agree with this Seattle Times reviewer  (I would also suggest that Tyler Cowen's one line review of the book is appropriately succinct: "We have hardly ever had a well-functioning banking system") that the book is fascinating and unfocused. I don't see how, given the author's intent, that it could be otherwise. If ever there was an economic sector in need of nationalization, it's the financial sector. If any other industry was run like the banks, the operators would not only be shit-canned, they'd be facing significant prison time. That fact that Wall Street is not in jail pretty much tells you how reality is here in the Western world, and as we find out from Mr. Nelson's book, it has ever been thus.

To strengthen my point, I suggest you read the last two chapters first, and in fact, read the very last chapter first - Here Be Dragons: What's Wrong with How Historians and Economists have Written About Financial Panics.
"Much of the crisis literature in the past fifty years has come from economic historians who, following Milton Friedman, begin as neo-classical economists but quickly adopt an Austrian-school attitude toward crises: that the state is to blame... I'm not convinced that state institutions are to blame for any of the crises (1792 - 1929) I've described here, with the possible exception of 1893. And in that crisis one could argue quite convincingly that private corruption of federal officeholders in the elimination of the sugar tariff caused the panic".
I've never understood why anyone could not find Friedman and the Chicago School neo-classical economic system riddled with unrealistic and irrational assumptions surrounding self-interested rational players and efficient markets when panic selling, panic buying and manic/depressive forms of leverage and margin calls exist on a daily basis. For any intelligent adult to move from that unsupportable position, already batshit crazy, to the bugfuck craziness of the Austrian school is, to me, to enter furthest reaches of the dangerously stupid. But that's just me:
"The other Friedman cul-de-sac is the obsession with the money supply. He and his followers miss the fact that crises are and always have been crises in productive assets - the promises in the trunk. Those promises allow banks to function. Friedman's argument about the money supply's being the most important variable works only if we sharply divide "money" (expressed as a non-appreciating asset) from "appreciating assets". But as the Federal Reserve wold have told you when it gave up trying to measure the money supply in the 1980s, there were so many competing non-moneys and semi-moneys that it found it was chasing a chimera. Money is not really measurable, and it comes into Friedman's analysis to explain events that have bubbled out of control long before he gets to them."    
More simply put, government has always been the convenient scapegoat for the torch and pitchfork crowd, as it - unlike privatized frauds and charlatans - has nowhere to hide. Banksters, on the other hand, have almost always been able to distract the rubes and make a clean getaway. Hey, crime pays. In this book, you get to meet some of the business criminal parasitic vampire assholes responsible. You also get to see the consequences - both intended (Glass-Steagal) and unintended (the Civil War) that result. And also other consequences, like the Mormon church, juke boxes, Moby Dick, etc.

My take: Anyone who has studied American history beyond the 4th grade level (this excludes most Mormons and Glenn Beck) realizes that:

  1. the United States of America has only recently, as in only the past one hundred years, been an important world power
  2. the Founding Fathers were not saints, and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were not not handed to them personally by God Almighty
  3. it is by the fact that we as a nation were willing to rob, cheat, steal, murder, rape, and enslave that we are in the materially fortunate position we are in today, and
  4. it's true that any other nation would have done the same thing, but that's still a child's excuse for explaining away all evil deeds committed by all of our brilliant but viciously brutal evil deed doers in defense of "Freedumb!"
  5. "FREEDUMB!", that libertarian vision of walking around with a big old stinky load in the back of one's pants, and not only not caring, but actually being proud of that load, has only very recently been extended from white male property owners to a limited form of universality.

These are all things you must keep in mind as you read the book. You must realize - with Americans -that you are dealing with ignorant, dumb, mean-spirited, shit-covered animals living on the subsidies of the British Empire. They are also serving as the fibrous tendril ends of a Lovecraftian horror of an extraction network known as the British Empire, and the pulsing brain of this nightmare superorganism is the Bank of England - at least up until 1914.

To illustrate, consider what the planter George Mason recalled to Patrick Henry (soon after the end of Revolutionary War) an "absurd question" that one of his constituents asked:
"If we are now to pay the Debts due to British merchants, what have we been fighting for all this while?" Mason was appalled."
Well, of course one must settle one's debts! (Unless, of course, you happen to be a southern planter who can't settle and so welch on their payments, as Mason's descendants were later to do during the panic of 1837. When they invented a whole new word to justify welching on one's wagers, called "repudiation" in 1841 and refused to pay British banks. English capitalists with very long memories would remember this word when Confederate agents came humbly calling, hats in hands, for war loans a decade later).

"Between 1776 and 1783, many American promises were made, but few were paid. After the Treaty of  Paris in 1783, as courts reopened, state began collecting taxes. Creditors, from soldiers who had served to merchants from New York to Liverpool, began to demand repayment. Many private debtors resisted. Between 1783 and 1786, states were in tumult over back taxes, unpaid personal debts, and land foreclosures. Armed insurrections against repossessions and property liquidations bubbled up in the western arts of Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The turmoil made the national government seem all the more ineffective. By 1787, in order to "insure domestic tranquility", their representatives convened to draft a new constitution to strengthen the central government. Debt was the foremost problem. States were forced to surrender their unsettled land to Congress. This new and more powerful Congress consolidated state and federal debt under a national bank, which in turn restructured the debts through the rock-solid institutions of the Baring Brothers of London, and the House of Rothschild.   
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton knew that basing a currency upon gold or silver (what he called "dead stock" as it earned nothing when it traveled from one bank to another) was nothing compared to trust. Yes, trust, as in a solid reputation. In 1791, Hamilton got his wish when Congress chartered the Bank of the United States. Simple goodwill did not get the bill passed; half of the congressmen who voted for the measure also got preferred access to the initial public offering of bank stock. Needless to say, stockholders in the bank had a much easier time of securing loans as well".

So, think about that friends. 2nd amendment there to protect stalwart citizens against the tyranny of government? Or, more likely, to have a ready militia available when those fucking ingrate hinterland deadbeats not only won't pay their loan-shark bills, but get all upitty and in your face about it.

Consider... Well, here, I'll pull out a $20, and look at who is on there, and it is, lo and behold, Andrew Jackson. As far as assholes go, he ranks way up there. What's Jackson famous for? The Indian Removal Act. Trail of Tears? The destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, and the resulting panic of 1837? The resulting ascension of the Whig Party? The trashing of the White House at his inauguration? No, Nelson makes a pretty good argument that Jackson was Captain Ahab in his novel Moby Dick.

Although, let's face it, Jackson cottoned (pun intended) to the real asshole power in America, the Southern planter. Here are the notes I scribbled about that:
Panic of 1837. Cotton gin makes green seed cotton profitable. Cotton the first collateralized debt obligation with English banks. Filibrustering (privately organized territory grabs , eg. theft) for SW territory lands. Filibuster armies invade Red Stick territories in Northern Miss and Alabama. (Small government, weak enough not to stop our hare-brained filibuster army schemes to get free land, but not so weak the federal army can't rescue them when they get into trouble). Jackass Andrew Jackson forces through Indian Removal Act. Trail of Tears. Cotton bubble. Slave bubble. Price of cotton slumps. English banks demand their monies. Repudiation, a new word coined by Southern Governors meaning "F you, we won't pay our bills". England remembers the South's credit history later during the War Between the States. Finances the Union.
Hey, while I'm at it, since it is eventually related, here's my scribblings on the Panics of 1857, 1873, 1893:
Panic of 1857. Competing visions of where America should be heading (sound familiar?). Railroads and indentured European servants are winning over the Slave Empire in the territory of Kansas. Slave Empire fucks things up with the revised Swamp Act to get even. Congress 1858 session considers two stimulus packages. The Northern plutocrat controlled Republican party favored spending on western railroads, agricultural colleges, land for settlers. The southern aristocracy dominated Democrats favored annexing Cuba so that more slaves would be available to Deep South states, lowering the price of slaves and allowing poor white to live the dream of cotton farming.

1873. America exports cheap food to Europe. Europe exports cheap people back.

1893. The Sugar Trust fucks everything up for everyone.
In summary, and completely unrelated, Nelson (like Obama) suggests that America is not a deadbeat nation... but we are a nation of deadbeats. All the supposed worry expressed by so-called deficit hawks over the national debt is completely unfounded and tragically misplaced. The Federal government has always - will always - pay its debts. It is the states, cities, counties, municipalities, corporations, and people who welch on their bets. Currently, the federal government owes a measly $16 trillion to its creditors (mainly the American people). Corporate and private debt, on the other hand, currently total some $38 trillion, with around $17 trillion of that in corporate/financial debt (ignoring the $600 trillion in the unsupervised derivatives market).

Debt is, after all, a two-sided beast with one side promising something in the future, and the other side betting that they keep the promise. The problem is, it isn't always the side doing the promising that is the problem.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Snow Days

The college closed down at 11:00 am yesterday. The policy is, if the region is expected to receive 7 inches or more of snow, the college closes. This is the third Tuesday in a row that the college has closed down early.

We received nine inches of snow yesterday. The previous Tuesday snow was not quite 7 inches, but they closed down at 2:30pm. The subsequent student escape and horrific traffic jams, complaints and bad press caused the college to close down early this time around.

I had the place to myself, worked until 6pm, got a lot of my own work done, had no problems with the roads getting home, and, honestly, I could handle about six more of these kinds of snow days with no distractions and annoyances.

Now, let's see if I've got the pattern down. Two years ago, we had blizzards. A year ago at this time we  had a scary twelve day stretch of 80 degrees. Now this year we have no snow throughout the winter, and then late snows that gets us back into normal precipitation for the season. Word is that the eastern Midwest has pretty much made up for the 2012 summer drought, and a bumper corn crop is expected this year.

This is reminds of a quote I heard about sub-Saharan Africa "We don't have seasons anymore. We just have drought and flood".

Well, those are seasons, I guess. I think that's where we in North America are headed as well. Except we will have freeze, thaw, flood, and drought.

Welcome to the new normal.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Kickstarter Rewards So Far

I've not done a very good job of essay writing these past two months. It's almost as if an alternate me is standing in a control booth and making that "stretch" motion with his fingers, advising me to pad out the performance while the next act gets ready. You know, real life getting in the way and all that.

But I've also been working on the Kickstarter rewards. Still working out the cost/reward structure and missing the end of February deadline, but getting closer.

Tentatively at the $25 level, is a porcelain pendant (I believe so far, 35 of them completed), and at the $50 dollar level, a bronze pendant (4 completed, with perhaps 25 in total):
About 1 /12" in size

Tentatively at the $100 level (may go higher) a bronze framed cast glass wall or table piece (only 3 available):
about 3" x 4" in size

That's it so far. Will continue cranking out more.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fermi Problems

Driving in to work, I notice at a red light the car in front of me has snow slowly sliding off the trunk. The snow patch will, before it slides completely off, break. Question, how far can the snow patch slide off the end of the trunk before it breaks? This is a Fermi problem. You want other examples? How many piano tuners are there in the city of Chicago? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-pop? Things like that.

Before the age of twenty-five, I wouldn't even know how to formulate the problem. That was, as I recall, my biggest frustration in physics class. I could do the math just fine, once I knew the equation. It was figuring out what the equation was, what the terms were, that drove me buggy. So, with the snow problem the things to worry about without actually having any hard data would be, the tensile strength of slush, the total cross-section of the patch, the total area of the patch, frictional coefficient of a wet hood, angle of descent, constant of gravity, weight of slush. Things like that. I won't work it out, but that was the kind stuff I could not even begin to get straight. And then, maybe around the age of twenty-seven, that all got easy. 

What happened? Well, I figure, like a yeasty rising loaf, my prefrontal lobes finally hit the front edge of my brain pan. My brain had matured. About fucking time. And too late to affect my shitty grade in physics class.

So, in that great chain of being that is our technology and culture (the two are synonymous), thinking about source networks for stuff and people, I wonder, as a Fermi Problem, just how far back do we have to go? I mean, when you consider it, if the Big Bang was really something from nothing, do we have to go that far back for your toothbrush or trombone?

If not, then what? What about the most basic sources of the source resources? Clearly, one could start with supernovae, to get elements beyond iron, but do we need to go that far back? And is that really a concern? After all, given existence, time, space, and hydrogen, it should be easy to trend out to star formation, heavy elements, planets, blah.

So, when do things get interesting? Not to say that a lifeless universe isn't interesting, but, hey, when it comes to technology, credit where credit is due, and the materials we use that are of non-biological origin are pretty much limited to the Stone Age. Things like granite, and flint, and that's about it, I suppose. But everything else ultimately has a biological culprit behind. Yes, even iron and precious metals. Ore from banded iron deposits is there due to oxygen (or lack thereof), and oxygen in our atmosphere is clearly of biological origin. Why, even metals such as gold and silver are concentrated in the crust due to a series of actions involving tectonic plate movements and subduction. The invagination of Earth's mantle with materials like water, carbon, calcium: things that act as a flux to make thing slippery down there, is all attributable to life - so far as we know. (There is suggestion of tectonic actions on Venus and Mercury, but, honestly , not likely).

So, it looks like we need to go back to the First Singularity - organic life. And see, that takes us back to the Hadean, when things are very hazy indeed. But come on, now? Really? We have to go back four billion years to get the true cost of a candy bar? And if we count the origin of life as the first singularity (in other words, trying to trend from just non-biological processes without counting on the game changer called life = all bets are off), what the subsequent singularities?

Honestly, probably the really big game changer has got to be the Eukaryotic Revolution, or as I call it, the age of acquisitions. Basically, with the advent of internal commensalism, you've got what amounts to free R&D, what with the design-build-test cycle considerably enhanced, shortened, and (ah-ha-hah) the first bug built in as a feature. And perhaps the first of example of rapid prototyping and open source (perhaps). Regardless, through hindsight, the arrival of multicellular creatures and metazoans and then visible animals and plants was almost a foregone conclusion.

This is all more than mere partnership. This is a case of mutual surrender, a form of trust and the sharing of paired weaknesses that is unprecedented. It is a form of exposing the belly a billion years before the metaphor could actually even occur. This is what the term community is about.

But I digress, we are still some eight hundred million years before present. Do we really need to go back that far in the resource chain? I kind of think yes, but give me a few days to decide.