Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is Money?

Some of the more academic chatterbox parts of the intertubes have been abuzz over Peter Graeber's 2011 book "Debt: The First 5,000 Years". I'm still waiting for this book to be returned to the library, so I can read it, but since everyone is talking about it now, the spoilers are out.

And the main gist I will take from John Quiggin's rumination about money. I enjoy Quiggin. Don't always understand him, but I enjoy him. My comment might flummox him some, as one of his goals is to make things understandable.

In any case, here's what I gather from what he gathers about the book:
"Graeber shows, convincingly enough for me, that the story conventionally told by economists, in which money emerges as a replacement for barter systems, is nonsense. In fact, as he notes this point has been made by anthropologists many times and ignored just as often. Thanks to the marvels of auto-googling, I’ve been aware for some time that my namesake, Alison Hingston Quiggin gave the definitive demonstration long ago in her ‘Survey of Primitive Money’. Graeber sharpens the point by arguing that the real source of money is as a way of specifying debts".
So, the usual definition of money as a medium of exchange, an abstracted symbol representing an exchange of material goods or commodities, is wrong. Instead, since money was, according to Graeber, created to keep track of irredeemable debt between entities both solitary and aggregated, per Quiggin:
"From now on, we can treat money primarily as a store of value, and stop worrying about how it works as a medium of exchange".
I'll get back to why I emboldened and italicized that phrase in a moment. In another region of the intertubes, one in which many, many people were asked and answered the question "What is money?", I answered with the following:
"Money is what I shall gladly do for you on Tuesday, for a hamburger today."
Meaning, of course, that I already recognize the debt portion that Graeber wants to talk about, and also the irredeemable portion as well. That's the whole frickin' point of debt, it is a promissory transaction.

For, anyone who knows the tale of Wimpy, Tuesday will never come. Let's be clear though. This is not to Wimpy gets a free lunch. He sometimes does. Sometimes he doesn't. But when he does gladly pay on Tuesday, the payment he makes for the value of the hamburger will always be less than the hamburger. What is meant is that, in all transactions, there is always an inequity. Forget all changes wrought through the internal contradictions of capitalism, the psychological warfare of mercantilism, the other weird tribal customs and superstitions surrounding social orders, the fact is, through physical scarcity or plenty, through chance and contingency, through entropy at the very least, the winding down of the universal clock itself, the value of an object, from moment to moment, will never, ever be the same.

(To throw in a dig at the ridiculous libertarians: The whole egalitarian and idealistic notion that libertarians espouse "No force or fraud" is physically impossible. Barter is, by its very nature, inequity. Profit is just another name for "force and fraud").

Getting back to that emboldened italicized phrase. Value is not classical physics. It contains no clock parts. It is not a Newtonian transaction. It cannot be connected by strings and wooden rods. The value of something is neither continuous nor continuously changing.

Consider: right at this very moment, I hold a lump of gold in my hand. I do.

It is a knuckle bone sized lump that I took out of the jewelry instructor's cabinet. (I do this from time to time, because I like the feel and heft of it, and then I put it back). This lump of inert material, probably microscopically changing as little atoms rub off onto my skin, and perhaps the occasional radioactive decay turns a rare atom of gold into iridium, but still and all it sits pretty much the same lump from human-sized moment to moment. And yet the value of the gold lump is jittering and chittering up and down and sideways like a crazy wavicle with each quote on the spot market, and nowadays, with computers, at lightning speed.

Value is spooky action at a distance. Value is quantum entanglement. Value is an absolute value of an amplitude representing a probability. And money? Nothing more than the decohrence of an entangled state.

If entanglement is grace, then money is it's fall. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Completely slipped my mind -

- I broke up a fight at the college this past Friday. Actually I prevented a fight. Probably.

I was done for the day, dropping off my timesheet at the admin building. There is a designated smoking area in a covered walkway outside of the entrance. I heard shouting as I approached, and coming around the corner, two heavyset kids engaged in a shoving and shouting match. A smoker crowd stood in the background away from them, and a small slight kid, with his eyes to the ground, was attempting to intervene, saying "Calm. Calm".

They were both dressed, actually they were all dressed, in what I am told is a now a years out-of-date gothic/punker garb, with metal studs and chains hanging on their pants and shirts. Kind of like what is pictured here, but not quite.

Both kids were getting louder, and the shoves more forceful, and so, as an employee of the college, and, wow, an official adult I guess, I had to intervene. I remember feeling very tired and put upon to have to do this bullshit, and sighing to myself "oh for christsake". But in any case, I mustered up my best drill sergeant voice, and said, with just the right volume, loud enough to startle, "HEY!".

That broke the spell on them. So I glared really intensely at them, the way I'm really good at, the way that I'm told scares most people, and followed it up with a "...don't you boys have a class to go to?"

They both instantly kind of slumped, and started whining at me about how it was his (the other guys) fault, so I ended the whole scene with a very tired, almost Nick Nolte kind of growled "Get the fuck outta here!"

And they did.

And then I went into the building just in time to watch Security hustling towards me. A kid and an older guy in uniforms, and the old guy has a holster on him. I think the only campus cop allowed to carry. The altercation must have went on long enough that someone called it in.

I said "Are you guys looking for the fight?"


"It's over with. I broke it up".

"Oh" and then, once that sunk in, "Oh sir. No. No. You let us handle that next time".

I waved my hand in invitation, "Me casa es su casa" I replied, getting a puzzled look in turn.

I invoke Rodney King quote, "Can't we all just get along?"

And the answer is, "When you compare us to the other Great Apes, Rodney? We are pretty fucking calm".

If chimps could use guns, they'd have wiped themselves out a million years ago.

So, despite appearances to the contrary, we actually do get along pretty damn well.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"We Meant Well": A Book Report

"We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" by Peter Van Buren. This book is part of a book series available through the American Empire Project.

"Better an Archduchess should be fucked than the monarchy". This summation of Habsburg diplomacy was uttered after Napoleon Bonaparte was married to Marie Louise, daughter of Francis I, Emperor of Austria. Substitute "Iraq" for "Archduchess" and "the American Empire" for "the monarchy", and you have an equal summation of the subject matter of this book, which I recommend to you.

When I first acquired this book from the library (and actually, not my first choice, but "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" by David Graeber is not due back until the 21st of March), the book had two dog-eared pages in it. When I finished reading, it had succumbed to eighteen more folded corners. I cannot possibly include all the quotations I would wish to include, so again, the best thing to do is read the book.

At a personal level, when a person endures suffering and privation, it is a hard enough portrait to experience. Multiplied by the millions, taken to the national level, it overloads our capacity to think and to feel. And so, we shut down our humanity, academize the pain, squalor and indignities into tidy geopolitical issues. This book attempts to strip away these tawdry and dishonest decorations, and attempt to provide a narrative of just how bad it can be. The treatment the people of Iraq underwent, at the hands of the US State Department is and was, for the most part, criminally incompetent. The author uses the term "disresponsible", a step beyond irresponsible, as in "should have taken the responsibility, but shucked it off. Oh, not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the risibly clueless professional caste of the elite American diplomatic 1% corps. Plenty of blame is there to be spread, in turn, down the line, through the parasitic contractor companies, to the level of the corrupt local sheiks and thugs.

This is not to say that reading this book is one long bummer, although there are some chapters that are so goddamn depressing as to make it an act of will to read to the end. The book is darkly funny, as in any building exercise, where the attempt is made to mold the vanquished in the image of the victor, the road to hell, paved with taxpayer dollars, cannot help but occasionally be deeply darkly funny. And van Buren is up to the task of finding those few elements of cynical humor, with choice bits well-represented by all four corners of Hippocratic humours: blood, phlegm, black, and yellow bile in just the right proportions.  Starting, of course, with the book title. No wry observation, when it comes to competency, could be more devastating than the term "We Meant Well". Anyone who has ever worked in an organization larger than Dunbar's Number, be it a multi-national corporation, large religious orders, or the Austro-Hungrarian Empire, will feel right at home in this book.
"In addition to the $63 billion Congress had handed us for Iraq's reconstruction, we also had some $91 billion of captured Iraqi funds (that were mostly misplaced by Coalition Provisional Authority), plus another $18 billion donated by countries like Japan and South Korea. In 2009, we had another $387 million for aid to internal refugees that piad for many reconstruction-like projects. If that was not enough, over a billion additional US dollars were spent on operating costs for the Provisional Reconstruction Teams. By comparison, the reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost, in 2010 dollars, only $32 billion and $17 billion respectively".
Despite two decades of forced privation and occasional bombings on the parts of the Bush 1 and Clinton administrations, despite the corrupt and criminal rule of Saddam and his spawn, prior to the Bush 2 invasion, unemployment numbers were estimated at around 30%, average number of slum dwellers under Saddam totaled around 20%. In 2010, unemployment numbers were at least 50%, the United Nations in 2009 estimated 57% of all Iraqis lived in slums.

I conclude, not my usual style, with a jacket blurb from someone I respect.
"Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America's Iraq War. Here is nation buidling as it looks from the inside - waste, folly, and sheer silliness included" - Andrew J. Bacevich 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"If only he'd used his powers for good-"

Baby brother is a True Crime fanatic.  I'm not sure how it entered our household, but the initiator, the spark that started the flame, had to have been the book "Bloodletters and Badmen" by Jay Robert Nash, an American encyclopedia of crime "from the Pilgrims to the present".  Baby brother had this book memorized before the age of probably ten. His appetite for the gruesome and bizarre has yet to be sated. I confess I also have a morbid curiosity towards the diabolically clever misdeeds, but my interest cannot hold a candle to his abiding obsession.

(I should note that baby bro also presented me with the Three Name Conjecture - that all successful assassins are referred to by their full name: John Wilkes Booth, James Earl Ray, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman, &c, &c. I pointed out that John Hinckley, would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, is referred to as John Hinckley Jr., and his response was "How do you know Reagan wasn't assassinated and a lookalike replaced him"? Hmmm).

In any case, we somehow started talking about Dr. John Schneeberger. He managed to avoid arrest by spoofing a DNA test of his blood by implanting surgical tubing filled with another man's blood in his arm and fooling the forensic lab technician into sampling blood from the tube instead of his own veins.

Damn, that is a diabolical genius. To which baby bro offered up the TV trope "If only he had used his powers for good, instead of evil". To which I offered that I didn't think so. That this type of cleverness could only be used for evil purposes, and if tried to be cleverly benevolent, he would utterly fail. Or more to the ironic point of the Simpsons, he would be like Mr. Montgomery Burns, who is even more evil when tries to do good.

Which brings me to news which recently caught my attention, that the equity market is completely fucked up. And if I am looking for blame, I've got to point a finger at high frequency trading (HFT). Done in time span of milliseconds, these trades, carried out by sophisticated algorithms on supercomputers, are really nothing more than a form of parasitism upon financial networks. To those not familiar with the unsavory practice, it looks a lot like an artificial insertion of a middle man, a greasy Mob transaction, wherein "shipping and handling" is done for a markup fee without any true added value occurring.It is basically a form of extortion.

It goes like this. Most HFT transactions are made to "sniff out" the demand for a specific stock. So, ehre I am an institutional buyer, noting (in human time) that a particular stock looks a 'buy' or a 'buy and hold'. People start to buy, and the price of the stock goes up. The evil opportunistic algorithms operating on supercomputers, note this, issue buy orders for the stock and then, a millisecond later, cancel the transaction. They can do this, since 'their' microseconds are 'our' seconds, thousands of transactions per second. By ordering and cancelling a stock, they can determine what maximum market price much the buyer is willing to pay, and then they buy and sell the stock to the unwitting human. The brokerage using the HFT strategy thus pockets both the brokerage fee, and the articifical profit generate through the computer churn on the market.

It's an old scam. It goes back a long time, wherein a 'club' of buyers artificially bids up the price of something by incestuously selling it at increasing values between members of the club, until finally dumping the inflated stock onto the suckers, e.g the market. Almost immediately the price drops to nothing, leaving the consumer to absorb the costs of the entire transactional clusterfuck.

Interestingly, fully 60 to 70% of all transactions done on the US market are HFT transactions. Of those transactions, more than 95% are immediately cancelled. In total, only 2% of the 20,000 brokerages account for all HFTs, according to this article. Those are the vampire squid motherfuckers sucking on the face of humanity.

The consensus suspicion of market manipulation is that HFTs were responsible for the May 6th, 2010 Flash Crash, when the market dropped some 600 points, and then rebounded  some minutes later. Market volatility is now at an all time high, as seen in this article from Zero Hedge.

The worry now is that HFTs pose continual future risks of more crashes and spikes to come. So much so, that it garnered the attention of the physics community, as seen in this article: "Study links ultrafast machine trading with risk of crash".

The authors examined the price logs of over 60 markets from 2006 through 2011. They discovered what they termed "fracture events" within the market during this period, some 18, 520 ultrafast black swan events". Given the speed at which they occur, it is impossible for human supervision to control these events, and black swans have a nasty tendency to turn into Dragon Kings.

Since the Flash Crash, the SEC has implemented circuit breakers, but many fear this is not enough. One suggestion is for the implementation of filters in traffic that would slow down opening transactions but not closing transactions, which would hinder a price collapse. Another suggestion is to keep orders exposed for a full second, to accommodate the glacially slow human reaction time. This would reduce the volume of HFT transactions, but not halt them. Still another suggestion is introduce (or rather, reintroduce) a small "Tobin tax" upon all share transactions, thus making most HFT scams unprofitable. The latter suggestion seems eminently doable, and makes the most sense.

Nevertheless, I took it upon myself to read the paper behind this article ("Financial black swans driven by ultrafast machine ecology",, if interested), and was struck with the fact that there are algorithmic ways of preventing fractures:
"Just prior to a large change, the resulting system is therefore (momentarily) largely deterministic. If left alone, it will produce a large change in a definite direction - however, it can be driven away from the impending crash or spike by increasing the strategy diversity in the following ways, listed here in order of increasing effect but also increasing assumed knowledge: (1) if little is known about the system, our earlier expressions for η < 1 predict that increasing the disorder in the initial strategy allocations by adding agents with randomly chosen strategies will reduce the scale of fluctuations toward their lower bound..."
 Okay, okay, there are two other methods listed, but the operative phrase here is insert new agents. In other words, have an computerized algorithmic army out in the transaction space, spiders, searching for unusual transactions, who, when they detect this type of scam, fuck with the HFT brokerage firm's computers.

How to do this? Well, conficker comes to mind. Ten million or so CPUs, strategically scattered throughout the globe, all of them fairly near optimal intermediate trading node locations, all running continuously in the background on their pirated PCs, ready to fuck up Wall Street's scams.

Antibodies, if you will, to be used against some particularly nasty viruses.

If not conficker, then, perhaps a botnet for the rest of us.

Now wouldn't that be cool?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why isn't String Theory considered Outsider Science?

Why aren't string theorists considered cranks. They themselves insist that if there is no empirical proof, then string theory must be considered philosophy. I think they are being overly generous in their dismissal. It should be considered outright bullshit. Wishful thinking. Voodoo.

Okay, okay, I know it's all now called M-theory. And any number of books and blogs are out there that say it is all just bullshit. You've got Peter Woit's ongoing blog: "Not Even Wrong", and his book: "Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law". You've got Lee Smolin and the Perimeter Institute investigating loop quantum gravity. Smolin has written a critical book as well: "The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next".

There is still, to this day, absolutely no empirical proof that string theory is correct, or even that it can predict anything worthwhile. The theories have produced what is known as "The Landscape", which consists of perhaps 10 to the 100th power various predicted universes 9although probably more like 10 to the 10500th power). One wag, I think one of the actual theorists, perhaps Susskind, has apocryphally been quoted that "it predicts every possible universe --- except ours". 

String theory apologists, such as Brian Green, have attempted to rationalize its failures by invoking the childish excuse that "no other theory does any better", or worse, invoke the multiverse in a bit of hand-waving to suggest that it somehow all works out.

But still there is that troubling lack of empirical evidence.

Science, at this stage of the game, consists of a foundational triad. The earliest, and still best foundation, is empiricism. If your beautiful theory contradicted by ugly facts, it's bullshit. This goes all the way back to Francis Bacon, and of anything, it separates the practitioners from the cranks. 

The second foundation is theoretical physics, which is where string theory resides. There have been many cases where theories derived "from pure thought" (as Albert Einstein once put it, and I had trouble understanding that remark until I realized he actually meant an argument built up  as the medieval scholastics did, as in "derived logically from prior inputs"). This has, in almost cases, after the fact, been every successful at explaining mysteries. But one must always, always, resort to empiricism as a verifier.

The third, most recent, and extremely promising, foundation is the Monte Carlo simulation, first automated back in the 1940s at Los Alamos, and today, built up into impressive computational models. Again, there have been successes where the mathematical theory becomes far too complicated for a general solution. But simulation seems to help. We run into (as it turns the same or similar problem theory runs into, which is, even with a watertight logical consistency, your model is only as good as the assumptions. Or in the hep parlance of today "GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out".

So again, I ask, why are string theorists not considered cranks? I'm not the only one asking this question. Margaret Wertheim, in turn, has a book out called "Physics on the Fringe", which delves into the world of Outsider Science. I've not read it, but I don't think she interviewed Brian Green. She should have.

I would note the defensive comment in the American Scholar article, by one Pavel Nadolsky, who notes that:
"Many difficult calculations that particle theorists have been doing are greatly simplified by organizing them along the lines suggested by string theory. These calculations are tested experimentally at the Large Hadron Collider and Tevatron, and the experimental data agree with what the string-inspired theoretical methods predict! In this sense, some implications of string theory are experimentally testable".
True enough Pavel, in the same sense that the explanation of the origin of the universe is not directly testable, one can only build up a evidentiary case for it, one that is mutually consistent. And, as such, the evidence for a Big Bang gets an A minus. One cannot say the same thing for string theory, which, particle colliders or no, still comes in at around a solid D, perhaps even a high F (if there is such as thing). You need a lot more evidence, Pavel!

Or, as Richard W Hamming once said "Many a theoretical physicist has gotten the right number with the wrong equation".

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

About those Kraken...

I've been preoccupied with maintenance tasks the past few days. They are mostly, in one form or another, time-consuming and mentally effortless enough to allow me time to daydream. And  I've been thinking about a little worldbuilding behind the alien Kraken I introduced a little while back. I was going to draw a picture of one, but I've found out that, not having drawn anything in ten years, my illustrating skills have eroded back to about the 6th grade.

True, some of the machine fixing and cleaning tasks required just enough mental effort to annoy me. Others led me to ponder over the ongoing mystery of how little old ladies somehow have enough strength to break shit that a gorilla can't break. Is it just cussed persistence? Carefully concealed superstrength? I don't know.

I always assume I have more time between maintenance cycles with the old farts, assuming it takes them longer to break shit. You'd figure it's the youngsters to watch out for... but no.

So, and also the metal shop had been past due in the schedule, and that proved to be most amusing. The things you find when cleaning out the machines, for example, provide me amusement. Just the fact that you can find a solid two-inch thick block of sintered powdered metals and abrasives in some of the chop saws and band saw cowlings gives a rueful indication as to how often these machines are looked after.

I found an award plaque for Buffalo Grove High School, 1976 wedged in the bottom of the disc grinder's vacuum dust chute. Well, now I know one instance of how often...

"Grey Alien" by Stephen Warde Anderson
Needs a whole lotta love
In any case, it gave me time to build up a world around these alien creatures. It's fairly difficult to come up with a convincing alien creature, given that we have kind of a limited knowledge as to what they look like. Oh, you've got the Greys. But, that's so lame. It's just a human fetus. Not very imaginative.

The story behind my kraken, which is just a big giant furry octopus, goes back to my college days. A friend of mine and I were having a stoned conversation about Intelligent Life in the Universe. His three-year-old daughter threw a stuffed toy onto the couch. It was a little plush octopus, with googly eyes and a toothy shark's grin.

I said, "Here, this is what real aliens look like. But a lot bigger. They are furry octopoids, and they are Earth's closest alien neighbors, residing 500 million light years from here".

That got a laugh, but it also stuck with me. I mean, why would aliens look terrestrial, let alone look anything like us? And why reside in our galaxy, when we had a whole universe to stage a drama in? Why, even the octopus form is familiar, symmetric, with recognizable sensory organs and familiar appendages. Not really alien. Not really not of this world.

So, I had time to build up a history around this creature, and here's what emerged. Did I say history? Fantasy.

They are originally from a world that orbited a yellow-white F-type dwarf star. (I use the past tense because it's all gone now, the star expanded into the red giant stage, and the world a crispy critter). It was actually a double world, a binary planet, with the "moon" about three quarters the mass of their home world. Which makes their "moon" bigger than he Earth. And their world, their home world, was about 1.78 times the mass of Earth, with a similar density but slightly lower metallicity. Gravity there was about 1.5 times Earth gravity. Thus the eight legs to hold them up. 

The Kraken race is perhaps a billion years older than us in terms of sapience, and life on their planet appears to have evolved faster. This may have been due to the more frequent extinction events. There are parallels to Earth's geological history. They had a space debris bombardment. They had several global glaciation events. And at least two runaway greenhouse events. It appears that whatever triggers a step forward in complexity has something to do with these catastrophes - provided things remain relatively stable afterwards. One interesting thing to note, almost all multicellular life on their world extends from one class of animals. No doubt due to a particularly rough extinction event, where their animal ancestors toughed it out in some sheltered pond or something. As such, practically every animal that existed on their world used the eight-limbed body plan. This makes us bipedal humans completely, grotesquely, disgustingly alien to them. (They considered wiping us out, but, apparently, find us all highly amusing, and so didn't. They especially love hearing stories about our "Monkey God".)

The Kraken are cannibals, or probably would be considered as such. They reproduce both sexually and asexually. There are no males or females, rather, sexual reproduction occurs with an exchanged implantation of cloned embryos, and then genetic recombination occurs in the "womb". These matings are (outside of a few aberrant religious sects) one-time only events. Family structure is "matriarchal" if you can call it that.

The asexually produced clones, clutches of them, are raised to be food. Interestingly, there is no attempt to retard sapience in the food animals, thought they are not educated. (There are pornographic and satirical stories of food animals being raised as children, but the practice has never actually occurred). Given that all animal life is superficially similar in form, I suppose the predation should come as no surprise. And given the social and family structures, it's amazing that any social coherence and cooperation occurs at all.

Oh, right, their appearance, beyond the body form. Well, they have four eyes, two forward facing binocular eyes, rather disturbingly human looking, with a sclera (white of the eye) for assisting in judging intent. They have two sideward facing eyes, and those are jet black. Two nostrils between the forward and side eyes. And a mouth that looks like a vagina dentata, if the vagina was blue, and the dentata four inch black talons. They have a row of talons on each tentacle, presumably because they were once arboreal. And their anus is well situated away from their ovipositor. And the fact ours (anuses, that is) are right next to our genitalia produces no end of jokes and nicknames for them.

Obviously, they have a sense of humor, which is arrested at about the mental and emotional human age of twelve, and the laugh consists of a snort from the nostrils, producing a thin jellied spittle.   

Alright, I called all this fantasy. Why? Because of the number assumptions made. First, the fact that they are carbon based, and water mediated. They could have been sulfur-based, liquid ammonia mediated creatures, but, given the universal abundance of the elements, my choice is a safe bet. Choosing an F-type star is a little more risky. But the star tends more towards G, and so lasts a lot longer than just a few billion years, which, I suspect is not long enough for a world. The existence of a moon is a safe bet in that it keeps the axis of rotation stable, and provides some protection from asteroid bombardment. (I have to assume a large jovian world within their solar system, but given the chaotic nature of planetary orbits, perhaps not). The huge fantasy is that we humans can handle a Kraken biosphere, and vice versa. I have to assume at least an RNA world, probably a DNA world, but the same amino acids and proteins? That's probably a big leap. And I didn't even think about whether cells are eukaryotic or not. I kind of assume an intracellular symbiosis should occur before a multicellular one, but there are so many contigencies, that this does not need to follow. Did I mention  that? I didn't.

Still the fact that humans and krakens are socializing suggests perhaps either a complete compatibility in disease organisms and allergens, which I find extremely unlikely, or that I failed to mention isolation or prophylactic procedures.

As to the Kraken technology, I've got to assume that there exists a plateau, where a diminishing return on innovation kicks in, otherwise, they'd probably ignore us as savages (not to say they don't view humans as savages). Apparently there exists some type of cultural and social similarities that allow for communication, but I figured that was all due to the Kraken, either by augmenting us, or handicapping themselves.

Okay, enough wanking for one essay.

Monday, February 13, 2012

It's Africa, Stupid

A recent article in the Economist documents African nations increasing demand for a share of the mining profit pie, through higher rents and bigger ownership stakes. Seems only fair to me. The colonial powers managed to pull a major smash and grab operation on that continent for quite some time. Indeed, some truly shameful history has gone on down there, Belgium (Congo) and Portugal (Angola) being two of the worst offenders. These two countries by no means had a monopoly on despicable behavior, but they certainly had respectable franchises on it.

Africa may not be the last frontier in terms of resource exploitation - Antarctica still awaits - but they do possess largely untapped and undeveloped mineral and energy resources. In the book "Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil", I recall reading a passage about how, during a casual geophysical exploration of the continent during the 1950s, there was rarely a drill test site that did not run into oil. There are also vast mineral deposits still untouched. As to how all of this will be developed, it is hard to say. One cannot imagine the even more precious biological resources of Africa (plants, animals, and ecologies - all disapearing at an alarming rate) remaining unaffected by this. A lot of the mineralogical treasure is due to continental drift and tectonic churn. Much of the geology consists of immensely old craton formations, which have several billion years worth of erosion to deposit any number of heavy, rare, and precious metals throughout the continent. It is estimated that, for example South Africa alone contains some $2.5 trillion worth of gold remaining in the ground, and the magma formation that holds all of this gold extends straight on up both coasts for thousands of miles. If all of the gold were extracted at once, the price of gold would plunge to pennies per ource. But, given that currently each ounce of gold extracted results in anywhere from 20-80 tons of waste materials, not to mention soil and aquifer degradation and poisoning, one wonders what the real price is.  And that's just one of major ore deposits waiting to be dug up. And then there are all the fossil fuels...

I recently read how Norway is joining into a series of development partnerships with the Republic of Tanzania. It's nice that one of the world's most fortunate countries (ranked 2nd in GDP per capita) is providing humanitarian aid, but I also can't help but think that there is a profit motive involved as well. The Norwegians realize that, despite tapping only perhaps a third of their proven North Sea oil reserves, they will eventually run out of oil. And given their near superlative knowledge of offshore extraction, they wish to export their knowledge economy to other nations. Norway is courting places like Brazil, Vietnam, Ghana, to name a few.

I probably should not be so cynical about this, though. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Small Doings at the College

There was a little bit of excitement here. I embed a video of an electrical fire that we had. An outside drain is kept free flowing during the winter with electrical heat tape. The insulation  deteriorated, and a short developed, resulting in a fire. When I opened up the studio this morning, I noticed a funny sound, and at first thought some stupid person had fallen into the dumpster and was rather nonchalantly pounding out their distress. No, it was a short in the sewer. Was I in danger filming it? Nah, I don’t think so: 

Also, a student’s clay piece, not yet bisqued, and therefore ready to be knocked over and broken, was knocked over and broken. One of the night maintenance people did this. They left a note of apology and explanation. One of my student aides read the note, and mocked the poor syntax and broken English. 
My response to her was, “Hey! HEY! Can you speak two languages? NO? You can barely write in the one. I’ve seen your phone text messages to your friends. So. Yeah. Shut up.”
Actually, the apology and explanation, from Attie the Custodian is, after a measured reread, fucking poetry, and I now share it with you:
"It's broken, when I was trying to move.
Clean on blackboard.
It was fresh, maybe.
I didn't think to broke.
It was an accident.
Sorry this inconvenient.
Or matter.
                                                                                             -- Attie, Custodian"

Poesy in prose. Fucking great. Interesting how fluency in a different language so often does that. Or even translating from one language to another can do that.

And... I cleaned up the Rockwell Delta 14" metal cutting bandsaw which probably dates back to the 16th century. BC. And has an agglomeration of metal shavings and bits and pieces to prove it, because those accumulated detritus was actually slowing the saw down!

I fed the monkeys and birds that operate it, the ones that were still alive, and threw away the mummified remains of the ones that didn't make it, plus all their shit (being careful not to breathe the dried feces lest I get a brain worm, like you do with raccoon feces).

You know, we all vastly overestimate our abilities. Some call it hubris. I call it delusion.

But you know, reading through this, I got a strong sense of deja vu, as if I had written this up before. Going back and reading some of journal entries, I can testify to the fact that I am able to crack myself up.

So, at least I can entertain myself pretty well.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Too Many Assholes

Cat Valente. Not familiar with her. A youngster. And a looker. She was a Hugo (that's an Oscar to the SF crowd) nominee for best novel "Palimpsest". She has also written a novel called "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making".

I've not read either, but I did peruse this story, and I found it interesting and engaging. Good visual imagery, and I'd say pretty clear-eyed and realistic portrayals of being human. She recognizes that we are still magical thinkers, superstitious, primitive, more rationalizing than rational, and that because of the contingencies of evolution, any attempt to make us rational species would be akin to psychic genocide. We would no longer be human. We would be... something else.

So, a fantasy writer, and currently guest blogger over a Charlie Stross's place. She recently wrote an essay involving Star Trek Deep Space Nine and made the following two observations about the Star Trek universe:
"Nobody uses social media, and nobody wastes time".
I left a comment on the second portion of her observation (which basically was "There are plenty of timewasters in Star Trek, but they all are superior beings") and it drowned without a ripple. I suspect the reason it sank under the waves so quickly is a result of the first part - being that people only pay attention to stuff in their own little worlds. Now, she does realize that Star Trek could not have foreseen -
"Twitter, email, text messages, Facebook, our blogs, Reddit, news feeds".
- and I know that, had these forms of communication been shown, they would have made for less dramatic TV. And really, that's what it is. But it is an element of folklore now. Like it or not, Star Trek is part of myths and legends now, or the modern version, or rather, the 20th century version.

However, I disagree with her conclusion as to where these supposedly new social media are taking us, which, according her:  
"We are a baby hivemind spinning our training wheels".
Maybe. Certainly possible. Or. Or. We may be witnessing the creation of a whole new crop of assholes. And rude, fatuous, and shallow assholes at that.

I'm not a big Nietzsche fan, in fact I think he suffered from softening of the brain fairly soon into this writing career, but all this new social media stuff reminds of something he wrote in "The Wanderer and his Shadow":
"Premises of the age of machines. The press, the machine, the railroad, the telegraph are the premises from which nobody has dared draw the conclusion for a thousand years".
 In other words, don't get cocky. It takes some time for the real consequences - intended or unintended - to resonate down through the ages. Why, the Victorian Internet still isn't done with us. And the fact of the matter is, this new distraction is not all that different from the old distractions that Nietzsche eyed with a hairy old eyeball.

And I do think that the new assholes - the twits that tweet, the blowhards that blog, the domesticated animals on Facebook, all pathetically desperate attention seekers - that use the new shit are not only out there, but the new shit seems to have been created by assholes. We find out that Steve Jobs was an ogre. And that Zuckerberg is psychopathic. Or at least a "backstabbing, conniving, and insensitive" asshole.  And what about Julian Assange? Isn't he pretty much of an imperious asshole?

Look I understand that history is just one string of stories about psychopaths, but can we never break the chain? What do we have to do to get the nice, smart, friendly people to come out on top? Or at least, make them the new normal. Do we need to start rewarding people to not be assholes?

I'm not the only one who is noticing this.  Corey Olds, of the Oakland Local, chalks it all up to:
"1) the easy creation of dot-com and social media enterprises by means of venture capital; 2) America’s ever-increasing neoteny--ever notice grown men or women who disgracefully retain all the behavior of children?; 3) the meltdown of any distinction between “high” and “low” culture--we live in a “degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch,” writes Fredric Jameson; and 4) the lack of insurmountable caste barriers requires the new, parvenu assholes like Zuckerberg and Denton to be forever fearful that they might slip back down whence they came and lose their imperial place".
Is there some way we can restructure this new social media to cancel this distressing trend? Isn't there some programmatic override, some parameters,  to preempt these motherfuckers? Isn't there some big red purge button for the intertubes, to, you know, shunt them all off into some digital quarantine zone, Sector A? For Asshole? Or Sector B? For Butthole?

Because it is starting to look like the same old shit all over again, but this time Cat Valente's global hive mind will just be a big giant asshole.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I spotted the NWI dialect through the crowd. There is no mistaking it. Growing up in Northwest Indiana, I'm ashamed that I speak this way, but so it is.

The dialect is a monstrous chimera, an unholy marriage of that awful countryfuck Hoosier buzz-saw-on-sheet-metal twang and the rust-patinaed Northern Cities dialect with all the vowels hammered flat by an industrial sledge.

This is pretty close to what the Kraken look like
Couple this fact - that this stranger spoke the same as I - with the fact that the number of humans in this volume of space approaches a homeopath's wet dream of ultra-dilution, then it is a startling coincidence. Couple that coincidence with the fact that the crowd around me consisted of those cute furry octopoid kind-of-cat-headed aliens that call the galaxies of the Horologium Supercluster home, and you've approached a serendipitous anomaly.

So, if you haven't figured it out by now, I am, once again in the BOAPWC  - The Best Of All Possible Worlds Convergence, and, yes, I'm sorry, there is no better acronym.

And no, I am not sipping a scientifically optimal superlarger in Sam's Pub out Hercules Way. (For those not in the know, I usually inhabit a bar stool there when I write these missives, back in Spiral City, on the world of Alterra, circling a pleasant G-type yellow dwarf star in the galaxy catalogued NGC6264, which is in the Hercules Supercluster some 450 million light years from Earth).

And what brings me nearly a billion light years away, way out here to Furry Octopoid Space? I'm sorry, Kraken Space, since they don't mind being called that? Why I'm planning to get a nail pounded in my head. It's a titanium nail. And it seems like it is time for that.

But about that Hoosier from Da Region... turns out he had just got a nail in his head, and was on his way back to Earth. Virgil was his name. Didn't catch the last name and didn't think it all that important. I'm sure he mentioned it. I asked him where he originally hailed from, and he told me Lake Station. Well, fuck me.

We didn't have much time for a conversation anyway. The Kraken have modified themselves to live on planets surrounding red dwarves, which are the most abundant of stars. And these worlds are typically low metal planets with no magnetic fields. Sometimes the Furry Octopoids modify the worlds, inject a metal core in them. Most times not. And on this particular world, not. Red dwarves are cantankerous stars, with more than your normal stellar storms and flares cropping up. We both stood out there in a city plaza, this kind of spongy gray surface surrounded by Doctor Seuss buildings, with our UV goggles on. His teeth were a sickly day-glo green and his acne scars shone white beneath his skin from flare storm. That angry little red star up there in that purple sky. Yeah, best to get inside, so he on his way to the spaceport, and me to my "medical" appointment.

I guess I should clarify the whole nail in the head thing. It's not really a nail, but it feels like it for awhile. It's some pretty sophisticated nanotechnology. And yes, they do plant it right in your head. Usually, but not always, in the left temple, but seeing I'm left-handed, for me, just behind the right ear. Go figure. The purpose of the nail is to get your mind right. Something the Furry Octopoids figured out, well, about the time of Earth's Devonian. Yes, they do have a bit of a head start on us.

The further, the closer
But you know, when the Earth scientists first opened the very first throats of the very first Everett wormholes, we really didn't much of a clue as to the practical idiosyncrasies involved. Like the fact that more distance out you cast your wormhole, the more accurate is your aim. Kind of a perverse inverse square of precision.

Those wormholes aimed a few dozens of light years out ended up all over the goddamn sky, whereas, the wormholes aimed out millions or billions of light years further ended up pretty much Nixon's nuts on target.

(Note: the diagram to the right? the equation should read: r = M * E / h-bar. I know you noticed the error. Hush now.)

It looked like a lot of expeditions and colony ventures would be lost in space and time forever, until we humans chanced upon a world full of Kraken. After a brief fumbled attempt at communication (which amounted to wild gesticulating, strange pantomimes, and shouting loudly and slowly "We come from Earth! Where the hell are we?"), our expedition scouts were seized by taloned fuzzy tentacles and held still long enough to drive nails into their heads. And our scouts suddenly, instantly, perfectly, calmly understood what the Kraken were saying.

Well, it turned out the nail to the head was more than a universal translator or telepathic facilitator. Suddenly, that evolutionary kluge we call a mind, with its deliberative (can't really call it reasoning) faculties getting cues from the cobbled-together, ancestral, reflexive portions of our minds, that tangled and frizzed up collection of cognitive dissonances, suddenly, got all straightened out and put in order. It wasn't exactly like that. Not quite exactly like that. The kluges, the clumsy and inelegant engineering of our minds and brains, were still there, its just that the nail in the skull made you recognize it. And compensate. Kind of like meditation. Or medication. But it also provided some extra computational space to supplement our prefrontal lobes so that the deliberative process has the time that, well, evolution hasn't granted us yet. I'm guessing we would have calmed down in a hundred thousand years or so, but if you get the opportunity...

Needless to say, the modified humans, the ones that had a nail in their skull, preferred the company of the Kraken, but the Kraken, or rather the one krake, said:

"No, I'm sorry. You can't hang with us. We've got important matters to attend to. But... hey, if any of your kind want to get their mind right, they can see us to get a nail driven in their head. Oh, and here is the simple mathematical trick for not getting lost in space and time. And you should be able to find all your lost expeditions with it. So, later, dudes".

So, yeah, here I am to get my mind right. You'll still be able to find me at the bar, though. When I'm out Hercules Way.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Suffer For Fashion

Back when I had a real job, there was a woman in the office who was a complete fluffhead. Just a head completely full of lint, dandelion fluff, cotton swabs, and maybe a packing peanut or two.

She went to the tanning salon every day. As a result, her skin had a strange tone to it, rather like a parboiled chicken, or something in tone that approached the hazard orange of a biohazard sign. She just didn't tan, and as a result the skin coloration was, I guess, just a permanent sunburn. She also dowsed herself with way, way, way too much perfume.

I made up a joke about her: "How come ____ looks sunburned all the time? Because her fucking perfume burns a hole in the ozone layer!"

In retrospect, it wasn't that funny, but in any case, she clearly suffered for fashion. She wanted the healthy tanned glow of an active out-of-doors lifestyle, and this was her way of doing it.  Lots of people disfigure themselves in an attempt to be more attractive.

Here's something that isn't a new technique, but it recently caught my attention. Gregg Homer of Stroma Medical has developed a laser treatment to burn all the pigment out of your iris. This irreversible process will burn your brown eyes blue. It's not approved in the US yet, and when it is, the cost will probably be around $5000 per eye, with, so far, minimal side effects and the long-term effects are unknown. Some eye doctors worry that the procedure could cause a potentially blinding condition called pigmentary glaucoma (which is known to be associated with the chronic seepage of melanin into the fluid within the eye, and how the fuck that occurs naturally I really don't want to know).

Is it really that objectionable? I mean, people disfigure themselves in worse ways. I've seen some really awful tattoos and the whole scarification thing pretty much baffles me. Or when Asians have their epicanthic fold removed to appear more Western. The eyelid surgery doesn't look right, because Asian have a round eye socket, and Westerners have an eye socket that looks more aviator sunglasses, so an Asian with this operation just looks... weird.

So yeah, there are worse things than burning your eyes with a laser. But still. You really hate your eye color that much? I mean, what are blue eyes good for?

I asked Google. Google didn't really give me a satisfactory answer, but then Its doing that a lot lately.

Still, the myth is that blue-eyed people see better in the dark. Is it true that there is a general trend for Northern peoples (some of whom have blue eyes) also have bigger brains? Maybe, but it would seem only in the occipital region, where vision is processed, but no real functionality has ever been adequately demonstrated. It's fun to think about. The idea that blue eyed people see better in the dark.

Neanderthals (and to look at my big yellow Scandinavian horse teeth, you'd suspect I've some of their genes) had a pronounced occipital bun at the back of their skulls. Anthropologists see the enlarged back of the Neanderthal skull as a counterweight to the heavy browed and jawed face. Were I to speculate, I'd say they were night or gloom hunters, which would tie in well with some bits of folklore about giants and ogres and trolls.

But blue eyes better seeing in the dark? Well, my personal experience is I have a hard time with glare. I'm told it gets worse as you get older. But I don't have a hard time with grey gloomy days. In fact, I like grey gloomy days! And if you happened to have lived in a really cold shitty grey gloomy climate for some tens of thousands of years, it kind of makes sense that people who are bummed by this would get deselected. But again, blue eyes have anything to do this? I doubt it.

Regardless, if someone is going to fuck with my eyes so that I can make a fashion statement, I think I would prefer an operation where they insert some other controllable pigmentation. You  know, some tunable pigment so that I can change my eye color at will.

But honestly, sweetie, think about that hard, because I can personally attest to the fact that brown eyes are not boring.

Friday, February 3, 2012

You Are Here

Almost three decades ago, I went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. It reminded me of the Museum of Science And Industry in Chicago, or the Deutsches Museum, which I went to daily during my week's stay in Munich. If you have any doubt that I harbor the brain of a five-year-old, these visits should utterly erase it. Not only am I a science geek, but a hands-on science geek. I guess that comes from being a primate.

The next time I was in SF, maybe two to three years later, I went again to the Exploratorium. And that time I left the gift shop with a sweatshirt that had an image of the galaxy printed on it, with an arrow pointing into a spiral arm two-thirds of the way out from galactic center that said "You Are Here". And I wore that sweatshirt unashamedly until became a ratty paint-rag. I would even, if properly jollied, sing "The Galaxy Song", and sometimes when I was wearing it.

Can you possibly think of an even more circus geek thing to do? Well, how about this. Our local stellar neighborhood, or even, the galactic neighborhood, has become rather boring and tame to me.

(I actually made a 3D model of the closest stars. I mounted the stars in their proper positions. I found different sized plastic beads to represent stars large and small. I glued together beads for the binary and trinary stellar systems. I even painted little plastic beads the correct color. And worst of all, I did not label them, as I knew the star names by heart. I was twenty-two years old when I did that. I kept that stellar diorama until well into my thirties. Sad, huh?) 

I didn't go quite so far with making a diorama of the galaxy, but give me an excuse, and I might.

Lately, I'm fascinated with the bigger picture. Here's one: This is the Local Galactic Group. As you can see, it is dominated by two giant galaxies, our Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. The Andromeda galaxy is on a collision course with our galaxy. It is scheduled to smack us about two billion years from now. I wouldn't worry overmuch about it, as the meeting will be about the same as two clouds of cigarette smoke banging into each, although the mutual gravitational pull will merge our galaxies together into a big elliptical egg. There is a chance that our Sun could be thrown clear of the whole mess, in which case, Old Sol may end up spending its doddering years drifting through intergalactic space. But fear not, we won't get too far out before it (the Sun, the planets) goes gablooey into a white dwarf.

But there is a much bigger picture. The Local Galactic Group encompasses a volume of billions of cubic light years, but the Virgo Supercluster, our larger home in the Universe contains quadrillions.

And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.

That's what she said.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Uncanny Valley

For some reason lately, I've been having these dreams that, for lack of a better term, seem to have a metaphorical draw towards class warfare. Now, I myself have about a 50/50 work experience between white and blue collar jobs. And in the dreams I'm pretty much a working class hero, with, at various times and guises, my antagonists being upper middle or ruling class assholes. And the things, these snobbish assholes who treat me with disdain in the dreams are not quite human. Not primitive subhuman, but more like, soft, squishy, chinless, pale, pudgy, and puny, dressed in gaudy country club attire. More like uncanny humanoids with Mafia-style bad taste than subhumans.

Well, surprise! The on-line magazine "The Atlantic" has a fun little article entitled "The Uncanny Valley: What Robot Theory Tells Us About Mitt Romney". I know I'm not the first to notice the metaphorical comparison. I'm not even the first to refer to him as the Romneytron 9000 (or some variation thereof). It's not really fair to call Romney a robot. Of course he's human, unless....

Unless the Mormons are actually a time-traveling conspiracy, spanning the ages to complete the total and utter subjugation of all humans throughout time. Then a case can be made for Romney the Robot. But of course that's all bullshit. I mean, if they was a time-traveling organization, we'd all be Mormons now, unless they are slowly losing the timewar... I'd have to review my temporal physics class notes...

... anyway, the article goes into more length than I would care to cover in explaining the whole Uncanny Valley theme, and Romney's apparent image problem. So you just go read that link, and I'll wait.

Done already? Fucking A! You know the one thing I notice is pretty much the whole Republican field fits somewhere on the human familiarity curve. I went ahead and borrowed the graphic from that article, and modified it to suit my observations.

So, yup, there's Romney, alternately deer-in-the-headlights while his brain processes, processes, producing some awkward behavioral output, or, yes, some genuine human emotion there, but restrained by arcane Harvard mental trainings. Almost Spock, but not as human. And no, not even that, Obama gets the Spock award, for "No where is he more desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans".

Then there's Newt Gingrich, who gets the animated bloated corpse title, and enough said on that.

Ron Paul. Can anyone find me a picture of him where his mouth doesn't look like a puckered asshole? I mean, yeah, he does have some muppet qualities, but that just makes me wonder whose hand is up his ass?

Santorum? Goddamn, that fucking Mr. Sardonicus rictus he calls a smile is just fucking creepy as hell. It's more reptilian than anything else.

So there you go. The rest of the field that dropped out or never joined? Who gives a shit. They're losers.