What’s the opposite of Transcendence?

johnny-depp-transcendenceSerious science fiction is a demanding cinematic genre; that’s why you see so little of it!  Most of what passes for science fiction is out-and-out comic fantasy. In the last year only three marginally serious science fiction films made it to wide release:  Catching Fire, Divergent and Transcendence.  Sadly, they’re all pretty awful and Transcendence is the biggest letdown of the three. Here’s why.

Transcendence is another riff on real AI.  Even though we live in a world of talking cell phones and computer Jeopardy champions a sizeable cohort of AI deniers claim machines will never think.  The best answer I’ve heard to this came from a young woman who noted that, “I am a machine and I think.”  Well I am thinking machine too and until there are serious scientific or mathematical arguments demonstrating that minds cannot, even in principle, be simulated by computations, assuming intelligence is algorithmic remains our best working hypothesis. Transcendence gets all this right. None of the characters in Transcendence go on about whether real AI is possible. Even the fearful anti-AI faction takes it as a given; it’s what they are afraid of.

If intelligence is algorithmic then it follows that we are nothing more than programs trapped in messy hardware. Separating hardware and software is one of the glories of our age.  We take it for granted that if we change the software we change the machine. The other day I killed off my old WinXP laptop and then resurrected it as a Mint Linux device. The hardware is the same but the machine is very different. We cannot do this with brains — yet.  The software that makes you, you, is regrettably entwined with the hardware that runs you. Nature has evolved better intellectual property protection than a division of parasitic IP lawyers. One of the great challenges of our age is breaking down nature’s intellectual property protection and reading out the software in brains. Transcendence also gets all this right. The best part of the film involves uploading a dying Will Caster, (Johnny Depp), into a bank of quantum computers. [1]

Up until Will goes live on his quantum cores Transcendence is a fine film. I kept pinching myself thinking: they’re not screwing it up or dumbing it down. This might be great.  Then my hopes were crushed. Before Will went all quantum supercomputery he gave a TED’ish talk pointing out that when real AI arrives it will have more raw intellectual capacity than all human brains combined.  When transcendent beings emerge in stories the plot often goes straight to pot. This is not a new artistic problem. It’s so common in science fiction that I even have a name for it: the superior being problem.

Depicting superior beings poses fundamental problems for feeble brained naked ape authors. Look at what a moron God is in the first few books of the Bible. Scores of fine science fiction novels have been trashed by trying to imagine what truly superior beings would think and do. The only approach that works is oblique. You can suggest the workings of superior minds. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic example of doing this right, but for reasons that escape me, many authors take on the inner life of superior minds only to show their own rather mediocre ones. Transcendence didn’t even make an honest effort to deal with the superior being problem. What a disappointment. Instead of enjoying new ideas I spent the rest of Transcendence wondering why our transcendent protagonist was such a dolt. Not really the transcendent experience I was looking for.

[1] The jury is out on the feasibility of practical quantum computers. If quantum computers can be made to work they will solve certain classes of problems faster than conventional machines but, and this is a big but, they will not expand the notion of what’s computable. It’s rather amazing that what’s computable has not expanded since Turning’s great theorems of the 1930’s.

Ukraine takeaway: Don’t give up your Nukes

What’s the one sentence takeaway from the unfolding Ukraine mess? Don’t give up your nukes!  It’s unlikely that any of this would be happening if Ukraine had retained their nuclear weapons instead of turning them in for the magic beans of “international guarantees.”  It would be interesting to review the anti-nuke sales pitches made to Ukrainian officials; I’m guessing large undisclosed deposits were made to key bank accounts because such stupidity is hard to reconcile otherwise.

Nuclear weapons are so icky and evil that enlightened beings pine for a nuke free world. Why?  Because the world before nukes was just so peachy wonderful!  Surely you remember that awesome world, great states only marched off to world wars every generation or so. The strong never rolled over the weak, and we all lived in peace and prosperity. OK, I’m being sarcastic about peace and prosperity, but consider this, since the advent of nuclear weapons, there have been no, great state vs. great state, major wars. [1] The simple truth is: nuclear weapons have done more for world peace than all the naïve treaties, peace conferences and marches ever held.

War, despite the propaganda to the contrary, is a fundamentally rational undertaking. There’s a famous line in the movie Patton. While watching a long line of trucks and armored vehicles roll over Sicilian countryside the great general declares that all human achievements pale in comparison to war.  Before getting your peacenik panties in an indigent bloodstained bunch think about what this means.  It’s an irrefutable historical fact that humans have invested enormous amounts of time and energy planning and executing wars. Some wars are accidental but most are planned, and here’s the surprisingly bit, many of the plans make perfect business sense. If you can crush an opponent and advance your interests with acceptable losses what’s going to stop you:  international law, naïve new age dolts, human decency, the UN?  How about nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons have pushed losses beyond acceptable and that is the only reason great states have not directly engaged in the last seventy years.

Unfortunately, the old world of a few nuclear states and a naïve non-proliferation treaty is unwinding. It was pretty frayed before the Ukraine crisis but now it’s dead. Any state that depends on a nuclear armed ally coming their rescue is reconsidering. Can Japan depend on the US to back it up in a conflict with China? What about Australia?  Even Canada has to wonder if anyone has their back in the arctic. In the years ahead we are going to see a rash of new nuclear powers.  I doubt these new powers will be stupid enough to detonate bombs in the open. Most will follow the Israeli model: acquire the ability but never officially disclose it. I suspect Iran is already a member of this club simply because US intelligence, (don’t make me laugh), says otherwise. The world is going to get a lot more scary but don’t worry you can only die – in excruciating pain — once.


[1] There have been dozens of great state vs. small state and hundreds of small state vs. smaller state wars but no nuclear powers, even relatively crazy ones like Pakistan and India, have come to nuclear blows. I predict that when Iran shows nuclear instead of nuking Israel it will suddenly find reasons not to.  There’s nothing like immediate annihilation to clear the mind.

Pussydent Hildabeast

My blood moon photography didn’t turn out because I didn’t. Come midnight fatigue, familiarity and spotty weather conspired to send this exhausted W2 drone [1] to bed.  It’s just as well; if you’re not doing consider sleeping.  In six months I’ll get another shot at photographing a blood moon. For the nonce, I’ll muse on menstrual moon madness. Exactly what Earth shaking event does this terrible tetrad foretell?

Some cry Ukraine
I say are you insane

Others holler
The demise of the dollar

Moon free bleeding
We're not needing

Someone on the Internet
Is wrong

But now, in the blood moon discharge, it’s clear a fate worse than community organizers awaits a pummeled public.  Behold, Pussydent Hildabeast, [2] a rough nagging crone, her “hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Soon we’ll beg

To let
The dogs of war out

[1] W2 is a basic IRS tax form in the United State. I calculate my taxes by hand. I sometimes do the arithmetic on paper just to increase the pain and rage. Taxation should hurt and in my case it does. Taxes are by far the largest “line item” in my budget, but what the heck, lesbians on welfare need free birth control.

[2] A Pussydent is a metaphorically ball-less president and a Hildabeast is Hillary Clinton.

Blood Morons

Here we go again; literal lunatics are, for the zillionth time, announcing the end of the world.  What’s going to do us in this time?  Would you believe the next four lunar eclipses?  Starting tonight, an unusual, but not rare, sequence of four lunar eclipses begins.  Some religious loons are claiming this so-called eclipse tetrad is a sign of the end times. Oh, if it were only so.  Imagine a world cleansed of imbeciles! Unfortunately, as Fred Espenak notes on his highly regarded eclipse pages, there is nothing unusual about this sequence of eclipses.  In the last five thousand years we’ve had 142 eclipse tetrads.  That’s about one world ending every thirty-five years.  Look around people; we’re still here.

It astounds me that there is still a market for such nonsense. Astrology, and that’s all this blood moon rubbish is, has been completely, totally, absolutely and utterly debunked. On this the science really is settled! But, when have we ever let science get in the way of a good marketing opportunity, and world endings are well — world ending — sales opportunities.  Get your end times before they’re gone!  Running astronomical scams is easy because large swaths of the public cannot reliably answer basic questions like: does the Sun go around the Earth?  Maintaining such levels of ignorance must be exhausting.

You might want to pull your head out of your blood moron ass long enough to observe tonight’s total lunar eclipse. It starts around midnight here in St. Louis with totality commencing around 2:00 am. I’ll be out there, St. Louis weather permitting, shooting eclipse tracks.  With proper framing eclipse tracks make neat pictures. If what I have in mind pans out it will constitute my next post.

Cosmos Reboot

Cosmos_spacetime_odyssey_titlecardI am enjoying Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos. So far it’s as good as the early 1980′s Sagan original. Popularizing science is a thankless task. Successful stars like Tyson and Sagan will earn nothing but envy and scorn from their peers. They’ll be derided as dilettantes and panderers whoring out science for demeaning public fame and filthy capitalist lucre.  “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Such trollish antics are hardly surprising.  Watching the success of the undeserving drives men (and bitches) mad and academics, despite being a tad smarter than the average bear, are not exempt.

The snarky back-biting of resentful peers is understandable and I’m sure people like Sagan and Tyson eventually come to see it as a laurel. Yes, Cosmos is dumbing down General Relativity, glossing over the fine points of the Standard Model and ignoring many of the complications of DNA/RNA replication but what the Hell do you expect? Nature is a complicated beast and human beings are slightly evolved naked apes. Most of us can barely walk and chew let alone ponder the formal mathematics of renormalization. Cosmos will not to turn people into Nobel candidates but it might teach them enough to think twice about bowing to lunacies like: the Earth is six thousand years old, there was a global flood in recent times, dowsing works, unidentified lights in the sky are alien spaceships, vaccinations cause autism, bigfoot is crapping in backyards, evolution is wrong, global warming is going to kill us all and prophecy is real.

Science is hard on nonsense but only if it engages. The biggest mistake you can make is ceding the battlefield to your enemies. Recently Bill Nye took a lot of heat for debating a creationist. In silly lefty circles talking to these people only elevates them. They felt Nye was making a big mistake by sharing the stage with a young earther, but then lefties have always been more comfortable with outright suppression, libelous slander and five-minute hates. Shut up they explained! Winning an argument on pure intellectual merit reeks of white male privilege and decent liberal airheads just don’t go there. Now I’m more of a crush your enemies, “drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of the women,” type of guy. So I’m glad people like Nye, Tyson and Sagan suit up and slay nitwits.

And, when it came to slaying nitwits, Sagan was in a rarefied class. He debunked Mars facer’s, Velikovsky enthusiasts, UFO fanatics and more with characteristic style. Twenty years later his arguments still hold up. Sagan’s adherence to the skeptic’s creed, it’s not the skeptic’s job to prove an assertion false, it’s the proponent’s job to make its case, infuriated opponents and delighted “drive them before you” hard-asses like myself. This all happened before the Internet was widely available so I didn’t see how deeply Sagan got under idiot skin until he died in 1996.

By 1996 the web had spread everywhere you could make a phone call. I was using 56K BAUD dial-up then and for someone who started with 300 BAUD acoustic modems it seemed like a golden age. The day that Sagan died I remember thinking “it will be interesting to read the public’s eulogies.”  I logged on expecting human decency only to find, for the first time, Internet trolls. Large numbers of vicious cretins hated Sagan and actively celebrated his death. The morbidly religious imagined a sodomized Sagan roasting in Hell for the crime of atheism while scores of UFO dolts reiterated the very fallacies Sagan had debunked: the feeble-minded love proof by repetition.  I wasn’t shocked, I don’t do shock, but I was surprised. The tone was everything we’ve come to expect and love in modern unhinged troll-dom. I downgraded my already low opinion of mankind.

As nasty as Sagan’s death celebrations were I consoled myself with the fact that we’re not burned alive for entertaining unpopular cosmologies. It wasn’t always so as Cosmos attests. Left unchecked the omnipresent goons among us would love to grind Orwell’s boot in our faces forever.  Part of what holds them at bay is science and its ambassadors like Tyson and Sagan. So thanks Neil, and please continue ignoring your academic trolls.

Review: Into the Wild

intothewildAnyone contemplating a “return to nature” would be well advised to read Into the Wild first. This gripping little book investigates the last journey of Christopher McCandless: a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilds north of Denali in the early 1990’s with the intention of living off the land. He was woefully under-equipped, both materially and mentally, and in less than four months he starved to death.

People fall into two camps when hearing Chris’s tale. There is the “too stupid or crazy to live camp” and the “we understand what he was trying to do camp.”  Like the author, Jon Krakauer, I’m in the more sympathetic camp. We’ve all imagined putting civilization’s bullshit behind us and getting back to a more primal way of life. The human animal evolved in the wild.  For over a hundred thousand years we roved the Earth in small nomadic groups of hunter gatherers: civilization is a recent invention and our inner animal is not entirely OK with it.

Chris’s desire to experience raw unfiltered nature is universal. When I was Chris’s age I took off on long solo backpacking trips. I wasn’t acting out Thoreau’esque desires to embrace nature; I just couldn’t always find a partner. On one of my trips I got lost in the Canadian Rockies and decided to follow a river down a mountain. It was a mistake and I eventually came to an impassable roaring cataract. For a few minutes I felt a bit of what Chris endured when the Teklakania, a river he had easily crossed in early spring, had swollen into a raging torrent that trapped him in the Alaskan backwoods. If you live by a river you know they are ever-changing beasts. I am not sure Chris understood this and it cost him his life. I didn’t cross my river and Chris wisely chose not to cross his:  freezing water and fast currents kill the best swimmers. I spent a day backtracking and eventually found the trail I left. Chris wasn’t so lucky.  A month after the Teklakania blocked his return from the wilds Chris was dead from starvation.

Chris wasn’t ready for his trip and given his superior intelligence I am pretty sure he knew it, but he didn’t care and it’s hard to understand why. When people embark on new, potentially fatal, endeavors they either prepare or don’t realize they should!  There are many amusing stories of clueless dolts getting way in over their teeny tiny heads and paying dearly. Hubris, it’s not just for ancient Greek heroes; it kills every single day. Part of training for anything is admitting you don’t know Jack, and, if you’re putting your sorry ass on the line, getting some pointers from people who do! Any good diving, climbing, or kayaking course will quickly drive home the point that mommy nature is one big capacious ass kicking bitch that will crush you without a femtosecond of remorse. Training addresses the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” by giving us opportunities to recognize dangerous situations while we still have some control over events.

Chris thought he was preparing for his Alaskan adventure. He talked to hunters about stalking game and meat preservation. He studied botany monographs of edible wild plants. He told people who picked him up while hitchhiking to Alaska what he was up to and patiently answered their many warnings and objections. The one thing Chris did not do was spend time with someone who had real Alaskan backwoods experience.  This amazing omission rendered his other conscientious preparations delusional and dangerous.  Chris’s notes, recovered from the margins and blank spaces of books he carried, tell how he slowly learned that he could not wander the land at will. Summer off-trail hiking north of 60th is usually a muddy, boggy, bug infested, energy draining slog. They detail his frustrations trying to smoke a moose carcass. He didn’t try the air drying method. Finally, they show that near the end he understood his peril and bravely faced it without self-pity.

To me Chris’s biggest mistake was not walking into the Alaskan bush but rejecting his parents, particularly his father. This colored his entire approach to authority figures and made it very difficult for him to seek out and profit from the experience of others.  Our hunter gather ancestors worked together to survive. They depended on and learned from each other. They knew that rejecting your clan and wandering alone was extremely dangerous.  Well guess what, a hundred thousand years later, it still is! The next time you think about fleeing into the wild keep Chris in mind it might just save your behind.

Review: The Creature from Jekyll Island

jekyllislandIn 2008 whatever residual trust I had in American democratic institutions was irrevocably shattered by the larcenous and criminal bank bailout. If you recall the bailout, the infamous “crap sandwich”, was overwhelmingly opposed by the public, initially rejected by Congress, but stuffed down our throats anyway. The sky was falling! The banks had to be saved or the world would end. At the time I knew the failure of half a dozen of world’s largest banks would be a disaster – for bankers – and many innocent bystanders, but it was hardly world ending. Asteroids weren’t falling, super volcanoes weren’t erupting, nukes weren’t detonating, in the worst case we would have a short sharp, parasite cleansing, depression followed by the growth of new financial institutions. This is exactly what happened – in Iceland: the only country that refused to bail out their banks. The reward for poor judgment, bad planning and mendacious behavior should be failure. Of course that is not what happened. That ultimate get out of jail free institution, The Federal Reserve, kicked into high gear and rescued a host of institutions that should no longer be with us. It was a complete undemocratic travesty.

I thought the 2008 bailout was an exception; that the entire outrageous chain of events was pulled out of the asses – of asses – on the fly. Edward Griffin’s “crazy” history of the Federal Reserve, written more than a decade before 2008, clearly shows that the only exceptional thing about 2008 was scale.  The Federal Reserve has been saving banker’s butts for a century. As long as we have, fiat currency, fractional reserve banking and central banks like the Federal Reserve we’ll have, massive government debts, never-ending inflation, (money creation), and the relentless insidious transfer of the costs of bank screwups to an unsuspecting and stupid public. This is the way the system is supposed to work! Griffin’s footnotes make it clear this was completely understood by the originators of the Federal Reserve over a century ago. In short, the “Jekyll island creature” has pulled off the biggest bank job in history.

Most of The Creature from Jekyll Island recounts the fascinating history of central banking in the United States with entertaining asides into the longer history of money. For millennia “money” was largely precious metals: Gold and Silver.  There are good, very long-standing historical reasons,  for this. Even today, given the choice between a pile of paper dollars and the equivalent amount of Gold, most of us would still take the Gold. You would think something that has functioned for five thousand years as global money would be good enough for central bankers but Gold, in the duplicitous language of bankers and their economist fanboys, is insufficiently elastic. What this means is that Gold cannot be created and destroyed by banker will alone.  Barbaric old unreactive Gold, forged in the collision of neutron stars, and unevenly dispersed in the interstellar medium, is just too damn hard to acquire and use as money. What’s needed is something that can be “poofed” into being on demand.

On course the problem with poofed, or fiat, money is getting poor dumb suckers to accept it. That’s where the legal tender laws come in.  Central bankers are only one side of the bailout ballet. The bankers need the power of the state, with its ability to imprison and execute anyone that balks at taking colored paper for Gold, or gets the silly idea that they can print some colored paper themselves, to really work the fiat magic. In return the state gets preferential access to newly created, tax levy free, funds to piss away on vote-buying boondoggles. It’s a great system for bankers, politicians and their many blood sucking ticks. It’s a shame the rest of us get inflation raped paying for it.

Griffin ends his book with two flights of conspiratorial lunacy: one pessimistic and the other realistic. If you’re wondering, Griffen holds there is no optimistic scenario. We’re in for a world of economic butt-hurt when the creature dies. The pessimistic scenario is basically 1984 central banker style and the realistic outlines the economic disruptions required to return to a silver based dollar. Griffin is a better historian than a science-fiction writer and Jekyll would be a better book without the last two chapters.

Finally, I disagree that there is no optimistic scenario, but I can forgive Griffin for not seeing one twenty years ago. In 1994 there were no new ideas about money: just the same old fiat crap served up on plastic credit cards. In 2014 we have Bitcoin. I hold that the ideas in Bitcoin are the first genuine monetary innovations in many decades. The Bitcoin network demonstrates how a “nonpoofed” form of sound money can work without governments or central bankers. Economists are fond of quoting Gresham’s law: “Bad money drives out good.”  With ideas it’s the exact opposite: “Good ideas drive out bad.” Let’s hope the exceedingly bad Federal Reserve idea succumbs to better ideas like Bitcoin as soon as possible.

The Singularity is Not Near Enough

Here’s a little Google project. Search for life extension technologies and start reading comments about what people think about living five hundred or a thousand years? Some are completely in favor of the idea but you’ll find legions of naysayers that are deeply disturbed that the “natural order” of things will soon radically change.  Objections run the entire predictable gamut. The religious go on about how this is not part of God’s plan. How would they know? Marxists and bitter lefties complain that only the rich will be able to afford life extension. It never occurs to them that such technologies might be cheap. How many of you thought you would be carrying inexpensive 64 bit super computers in your pockets twenty years ago? Environmentalists whine about how this will increase one’s lifetime Carbon footprint — seriously — and start mumbling about abuses to Gaia. Paranoid and suspicious types boldly assert that “the government” will use access to life extension to “control us” and pollute our pure bodily fluids.  It seems more people want to live short ordinary lives than long extraordinary ones.

Personally I don’t have a problem with life extension.  I’m in the Woody Allen camp. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”  Not dying, ever, is a mighty big order. If you place any credence on current Big Bang cosmologies it looks like the entire universe is mortal. In a mere 10100  years the universe might be completely dark with a temperature that is physically indistinguishable from absolute zero. All the stars, galaxies, black holes and unstable elementary particles will have long since decayed. You might find a free electron every few million light years or so if you’re lucky. Such a universe is beyond dead as far as sentient beings are concerned. Religious end-times are for pussyfied wimps, metrosexual girly-men and fat feminists. Plausible universal end states are vastly more terrifying that any Last Judgment or Ragnarök. I don’t expect life extension to produce lifetimes of 10100 years; I would be happy if we eke out a few millennia. There are thousands of trees, deep-sea corals, and freaking sponges that are many thousands of years old?  If a sponge can hack a thousand years I really don’t think I’ll have a problem.

My one serious objection to human life extension is simple. Most of us are dumber than fence posts and even the intelligent have brains infested with patently stupid ideas that deserve immediate and total deletion. Most of us aren’t worth preserving until next week let alone the year 3000. I don’t exempt myself from this harsh judgment. I’ve always assumed that if I can understand something it’s inherently trivial; that if I can do something it’s no big deal; that if I can hack it cannot really hurt. Yet I am constantly amazed at how many cannot meet my pitifully low standards. Do you really want to be surrounded by your grunting, ignorant naked ape neighbors for a thousand years?  It’s hard to make a more cogent argument for mortality. I know what you’re thinking. “That’s not fair; people learn and change.” Oh, if it were only so. I know people who have never changed their minds about anything. They are the true walking dead; after the mind goes the body is just pus and who wants to extend the life of pus?

Greatly extending the lives of horribly flawed and limited people will only perpetuate our screwed up world. Minds do not change, they die. If Caesar was still up and about we would probably still be throwing people to the lions, worshipping Greco-Roman sky fairies and marching off to war every spring. We have to get a lot smarter to use thousand-year lifetimes. Fortunately the singularity is coming.

Ray Kurzweil has absorbed lots of abuse. His book, The Singularity is Near, has been mocked as rapture for nerds. My own view is that his thesis is sound but his timeline is whacked. I don’t think the singularity, the emergence of superior trans-human intelligence, will happen in my lifetime. I doubt it will happen in the 21st century but it’s almost inevitable in the 22nd  and 23rd.  We are entering an end-time of sorts. Standard Homo sapiens will, in a few short centuries, be extinct.[1] We will either be eliminated by trans-humans as a dangerous pest species [2] or we will voluntarily become trans-human ourselves. I agree with Kurzweil that we cannot predict how truly superior beings will live but I’m willing to bet my Bitcoin stash that they will outlive sponges! The singularity is not near enough.

[1] This is why I don’t worry about Global Warming.

[2] They may keep a few of us around like we keep grizzlies in national parks.

Bitcoin is a Perfect Protest

VbitcoinThe most intelligent comment I have read about Bitcoin is that it’s a perfect protest. Bitcoin went live in 2009 shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. The 2008 crisis was a defining moment. Prior to that date I believed that the US government, despite its obvious warts, short comings and long checkered history was still partly accountable to the electorate.  I didn’t buy the widespread cynical notion that modern elections are largely meaningless dog and pony shows that help sell the illusion that the people are in charge. I seriously thought there were important differences between Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It’s embarrassing to confess such naivety.

Before 2008 I was a good little cog in the machine: obediently paying my taxes and being a productive member of society. I was a chump: a silly stupid chump, but lucky for me, the “crap sandwich” bank bailout cured my naivety. Despite being overwhelmingly rejected by the public and initially rejected by Congress the crap sandwich was forced down our throats and all three presidential contenders voted for it.  When push came to shove there were no significant differences between liberal democrats and conservative republicans, both groups lined up to betray and indebt the public and we’ve been suffering, and will continue to suffer, the consequences for years to come.

The 2008 financial crisis, and the comical US election that followed it, taught me some important lessons:

  1. If none of the above is not on the ballot the election is fraudulent. The political systems in the countries I have lived in depend on presenting limited, and frankly insulting choices, to the electorate. If anyone is going to seriously argue that Barak Obama and John McCain were the best that a country of three hundred million souls could offer then we are lost. If I was lost in the woods with Obama and McCain I wouldn’t take a millisecond of direction from either and might consider getting rid of them on the spot to improve my chances of survival. A candidate must be better than nothing, and if nothing is superior to the highly gamed political selections put forward then nothing should be on the ballot! I will return to this theme in future posts. The next time you cast a ballot look for none of the above. If none of the above is not present the election is illegitimate and you are being used to put a stamp of public approval on what’s very probably a vacuous choice.
  2. You can tell we’re dealing with a real issue when the ruling class closes ranks. Our idiotic media maelstrom is inconsequential noise that is best ignored.  Will a society with gay marriage manage their finances better than a society without gay marriage?  Will free birth control pills for sluts impact trade balances? Will crosses on public lands constrain money creation?  Does the size of Kim Kardashian’s ass moderate capital controls?  Get in the habit of asking such questions. If the question is absurd, or if the answer doesn’t matter, it’s a distraction.  On the other hand if you see alleged ideological enemies coming together to promote a critical common good beware! In 2008 the flamboyant cosmetic differences between liberals and conservatives vanished removing even the illusion of choice. To bailout, or not bailout, was a real issue and with real issues there is no choice. We’ve recently witnessed rank closing on Edward Snowden. Again, both left-wing democrats and right-wing republicans lined up to declare Snowden a traitor and praise the glories of our NSA surveillance state. Clearly public privacy is another real issue and with real issues there is no choice.
  3. Human beings cannot be trusted with money creation.  The 2008 bank bailout was outrageous for two primary reasons. It lavishly rewarded bad behavior and it created money to do it. Money creation is convoluted; many argue that commercial banks create the bulk of money through loans, others claim the Federal Reserve creates money when buying government bonds and treasuries. The food chain is twisted but nobody disputes that at the base of the chain money is created out of nothing. Everything boils down to ledger entries made by sanctioned authorities. There is no mining, there is no collateral, there’s nothing but an invisible yoke that’s eventually placed on the public’s head. The invisible yoke has briefly shown itself in the fiery debt limit fights about the full faith and credit of the United States. What the hell is the full faith and credit of the United States? It’s nothing more than a promise that the government will somehow extract the means to make payments to that long forgotten ledger entry. If the public fully understood that their labor is balanced against nothing they would refuse to pay and the entire system would collapse. The system is such a perfect scam it’s hard not to admire it. Oh, it will eventually collapse; fiat money always goes to zero, but in the meanwhile it affords unlimited fiscal flexibility to the ruling class. Who gets to create money is a real issue and once again there is no choice about real issues.

There has been a lot of nonsense written about Bitcoin but one thing is clear it serves as a brilliant financial foil so I am not surprised to see recent worldwide efforts to suppress it. The most frightening thing about Bitcoin is that it gets people asking questions about money. For example:

  1. Exactly what is money?  Every crank has their own definition of money. What amuses me is that both Gold cranks and fiat cranks have lambasted Bitcoin for being arbitrary and made up. One of the best retorts to this confused drivel notes that Bitcoin is to “real money” like the Flying Spaghetti Monster is to “real religion.” Everyone sees the Flying Spaghetti Monster is made up, but – oddly – nobody can mount rational arguments explaining why it’s more made up than the “real thing.” Bitcoin is capable of playing the role of money, so in proper contexts it is money.
  2. Why do banking authorities have exclusive money creation rights? The historic rationale was to prevent counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is irresistible to anyone in a position to do it. By giving money creation rights to select authorities and using deadly force on counterfeiters governments could claim they were protecting the “currency of the realm.” It is many orders of magnitude more difficult to counterfeit Bitcoins than US dollars or any national currency. To counterfeit a Bitcoin you have to break a hard cryptographic hash.  Technology has rendered the rationale for central money creation authorities obsolete.
  3. Should money be created without limit from nothing? Now that monetary creation restraints, historically ties to gold, no longer exist the only limit on creating money out of nothing is the stupidity of the public. How much debt can you get poor dumb suckers to accept before they rebel? Bitcoins are not created out of nothing. The mining process validates the public ledger, the Blockchain, and insures that nobody is counterfeiting coins or double spending. Mined coins are a reward for valuable network services. Additionally, there is no central creation authority. Competing miners create Bitcoins all over the world. This system is not without fault and Bitcoin variants are exploring technical improvements but the Bitcoin creation process is essentially a mathematically secured network phenomenon and it is much harder to corrupt than bribing a few central bankers.
  4. Why do authorities maintain the right to confiscate private funds? A Bitcoin feature that is particularly disturbing to authorities is that it’s not difficult to prevent even powerful entities from seizing coins. A coin cannot be moved or spent unless you get its private key. If you do not know the private key a Bitcoin will just sit in the Blockchain taunting goons that covet it. In a Bitcoin economy it will be difficult to garnish wages, block money transfers and seize assets. How will the state survive?
  5. Why must fees be levied when moving money across national borders? The public has never accepted this little rape. How many of us have lied to custom officials when asked about how much cash we’re carrying?  I’m guessing a fair fraction of all travelers. We all know it’s none of their damn business but being good little cogs we bend over and submit to state sodomy. Bitcoin penetrates borders with the same ease that custom authorities conduct cavity searches. Go ahead cut off coin movement! All you have to do is turn off the Internet, commander all USB ports, block old fashioned paper mail and learn how to read people’s minds. Any information storage and transmission device, including the human brain, can be used to move coins. Go fuck yourself customs. One day money will be free to move without your permission or consent!

Obviously we cannot have too many people asking such questions. Mathematically sound, open source, publicly validated and distributed real money like Bitcoin must be ridiculed, harassed and stopped. Left unchecked it will cauterize an important component of state power: arbitrary money creation rights.  By providing an elegant mathematical model of how a world without central banking and national currencies might function Bitcoin is a perfect protest: a good idea that our corrupt “leaders” cannot honestly answer.

John L. Dobson R.I.P.

At tonight’s meeting of the St. Louis Astronomical Society I learned of John Dobson’s recent death. John Dobson was widely known as the inventor of the homemade “Dobsonian” telescope and the co-founder of the Sidewalk Astronomers: perhaps the most famous and effective amateur astronomy outreach group in modern times. “Big Dob” light buckets are a staple at star parties around the world and most of them derive from John’s original designs. John lived a long life and touched many people including myself.

I briefly met John at a star party in central Texas in the late 1990’s. I cannot remember exactly where we were but it was about two hundred miles west of Fort Worth and was one of the best “dark sky” sites within easy driving distance of the Fort Worth Dallas light pollution wasteland.[1]  Amateur astronomers abhor, detest, loathe and constantly rage, rage against — street lights. When I see the sky sodomized by one ill placed security light or a hideous blinking radio tower I have to suppress Homeric, (Simpson), urges to kill. Light Pollution is an assault on one of the most beautiful things the human eye can behold, a glorious night sky, and most people are completely and utterly oblivious to it.

Because our central Texas star party was far from the maddening crowds, just the way hard-core dark sky connoisseurs  like it,  there weren’t very many people present and most in attendance where armed with state of the art telescopic gadgetry. This did not quite suit John. I remember he remarked that this was an “astronomer’s gathering.” Meaning this was a gathering for people who already knew the majesty of night sky. It was John’s passion to introduce neophytes to the that glory and judging by the accolades coming in from people who caught the astronomy bug at one of John’s sidewalk star parties it’s a passion that will outlive him.

John felt it was vitally important for people to see, with their own eyes, the craters of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, sunspots, the Andromeda galaxy and thousands of other sky wonders. He apparently never tired of watching someone look through a telescope for the first time and until tonight I must confess I didn’t really appreciate just how crucial such “first lights” are.  As I drove home I started thinking about my top astronomical experiences and soon realized they are some of my top experiences — period. Here’s my top ten “first lights” in no particular order. Only the last stands above the  others.

1. First look at the moon through a telescopeRedwash Utah, United States. When I was in grade school my parents got me a 60mm Tasco refractor. It was a simple, and surprisingly good, little telescope. I’ve talked to many amateur astronomers over the years and many fondly remember getting started with a 60mm Tasco. Shortly after I got that telescope I set it up and waited for the sky to darken. The moon was not full when it rose; I didn’t care. I lined up the scope, fiddled with the focus, and then suddenly, the moon’s craters appeared: the sharpness and clarity almost hurt. I’ve been hooked on amateur astronomy ever since. In retrospect the moon’s craters made a bigger impression on me than my first kiss. I don’t remember my first kiss, but I’ll never forget my first telescopic glimpse of the moon. John never tired of introducing strangers to the moon.

2. Seeing the crescent of Venus for the first time: Redwash Utah, United States. It took me awhile to learn how to properly focus my telescope. The moon was easy but for some reason I never got Venus dialed in until one evening when I turned the knob far enough to condense the unfocused blob of Venus into a sharp little crescent. It was mind-blowing. The seeing on the high Uintah plateau was superb. I have seldom seen Venus so steady, sharp and clear. I felt like Galileo — hell for a brief instant I was Galileo!  John loved showing off the bright planets. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, even Mars and Mercury are all easily visible from the middle of light polluted cities.  Sidewalk Astronomers turned these ancient wanderers into modern celebrities.

3. Seeing Jupiter and its four Galilean moons: Agha Jari Iran. Shortly after getting my first refractor my family moved to Iran. I lugged my little telescope half way around the world. The telescope was my hand baggage. In those days airlines were more tolerant of large carry-ons and being a kid I enjoyed extra latitude.  After we settled in Agha Jari I set up the telescope in our front yard. I wanted to check out a bright star that was hanging about twenty degrees above the hills to the southwest. I knew that looking at stars in the 60mm was, with the exception of binaries, kind of dull. Stars appear as points of light in even the largest of telescopes. Only in modern times, by using long baseline interferometry, has it become possible to resolve details on distant stars.  Not expecting much I aimed the scope at the bright star and focused. Suddenly a new “solar system” sprang into view. I could see a tiny ball surrounded by four bright spots. For a few moments I thought I might be seeing something new. How could people have missed this? Then I realized it was Jupiter. Big J is still my favorite planet.  In John’s Big Dobs Jupiter is a super-planet. You can easily see four or more atmospheric bands, shadows of major moons and the Great Red Spot. Even better, it’s all visible from city sidewalks.

4. Catching Halley’s Comet: Edmonton Alberta Canada. Once you catch the observer’s bug it never really leaves you. It may go dormant but something always wakes it up. The return of Halley’s Comet roused my inner observer. Halley’s Comet is the most famous of all comets. It takes roughly one human lifetime for it to complete its orbit so catching Halley’s Comet is something most of us will only do once. The last time Halley’s Comet zoomed by in 1910 it put on a spectacular show. Astronomers warned that the 1986 passing would be “disappointing.” The comet was further away than it was in 1910. They were right but I was still delighted by what I saw. It was a freezing -30C Edmonton winter night when we drove to the city’s southern outskirts to see the comet. Despite the blistering cold dozens of people were parking along the road and getting out of their cars to look for the comet. I knew exactly where to look and it only took me a few seconds to find the fuzzy ball known as Halley’s Comet. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was historically satisfying. John spent a lot of time educating people about what they would see in the sky. If you understand, even the faintest of objects can thrill.

5. All sky aurora Edmonton Alberta Canada.  Amateur astronomers have mixed feelings about auroras. Amateurs that live in aurora zones, Canadians, Norwegians, Argentines and others often bitch about “natural light pollution” until they witness a full-blown all sky aurora.  It was another cold Edmonton winter night and I was up late watching the idiot box when a local news alert interrupted programming to report an impressive aurora was underway. Northern lights in Edmonton are common and seldom newsworthy. I had to see what the fuss was about so I bundled up, stepped outside and was immediately transfixed. Auroras are usually silent slithering green sheens. Tonight the sky was blazing green, then red, hinting at purple, then back to green, red again, rippling and roaring, from the north to south, east and west: all ablaze. I had never seen a display of such magnitude. Giant auroras are not only beautiful they can shut down power grids.  I love it: natural light pollution shutting down man-made light pollution. I don’t know if John saw great auroras but I know he would have loved them.

6. Comet Bennett near Canmore Alberta Canada. I wasn’t looking for Bennett’s Comet when I saw it. I was driving back to Calgary from Vancouver with friends. We made a road side stop in the Canadian Rockies near Canmore to relieve ourselves. I trudged out into the snow, unzipped my fly,  looked up and saw, just above the dark jagged outline of the mountains, the most exquisite comet. I wasn’t sure what it was. It was so striking that we stopped peeing and admired it. I remember saying, “It looks exactly like the comets you see in textbooks.” I was right.  That passing of Bennett’s Comet was canonical. I’ve seen some great comets since Bennett: Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake were both spectacular but unexpected Bennett is still my favorite. John often reminded people that you don’t always need a telescope: just keep looking up.

7. Total Eclipse of the Moon: Tamale Ghana Africa. I taught mathematics for two years in a northern Ghanaian boarding school after graduating from university. The best total lunar eclipse I have ever seen occurred during my Ghanaian years. I reckoned the eclipse would be a great teaching opportunity for my students.  The school had and old telescope; it was a small reflector that a previous teacher had donated. The scope didn’t have an eye piece so we adapted a microscope eye piece. It worked better than expected.  On the night of the eclipse we set up the scope on a second story veranda with a nice southern view. Lunar eclipses are leisurely events. It takes a long time for the Earth’s shadow to cover the moon. Before the eclipse began students started peaking at the moon through the telescope. Many of them where as delighted as I was with my first telescopic glimpse of the moon. I remember some of the older, and cooler, students had to reign in their obvious excitement. As the Earth’s shadow touched the moon people in small villages around the school started pounding drums. As the shadow crept further and further the drumming got louder and louder and bonfires started popping up all around the school.  I didn’t expect this reaction. It was the best damn star party I’ve ever attended. The eclipse was a good one too. At totality the moon was a deep dark blood-red.  John took advantage of eclipses, nature’s astronomical advertising, to show even more people the greatest show off earth.

8. Annular Solar Eclipse: Syracuse New York United States. 1994 was the year of Shoemaker–Levy 9: the fragmented comet that smashed into Jupiter with such awesome energy that it blinded sensors on large telescopes and left massive bruises that could be seen in small telescopes. Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a rare major event. We were lucky to see such an impact in our lifetimes, but the 1994 event that sticks in my head was the annular eclipse of that year. Annular eclipses are, according to eclipse snobs, failed total eclipses. The moon is too far away to precisely match the angular size the sun so at totality an annular looks like perfect super bright ring in the sky.  It’s a rare celestial event that fits into your work day but the 1994 annular eclipse did just that. Totality occurred during lunch hour and many of my coworkers and strangers on Syracuse sidewalks paused to look through eclipse shades and welding glass at the one ring to bind them all. It was Dobsonian sidewalk astronomy at its finest.

9. Glimpsing the Gegenschein: Grand Teton National Park, United States.  Seeing the gegenschein requires very dark and clear skies. The tiniest hint of light pollution will wash it out. I’d been observing for years before I saw it. I was south of Yellowstone Park looking directly north. There are no large cities directly north of Yellowstone for hundreds of miles and the park is blissfully black. At 3:00am I noticed a slight glowing that steady increased in brightness. Seeing was superb. I could see 7th magnitude stars with averted naked eye vision. I was alone, in the cold, in the dark. Not John’s style but this was a personal first. Sometimes the sky is all you need.

10. Total Solar Eclipse: Zambia Africa. Total solar eclipses are beyond awesome. They utterly wowed our ancient ancestors and still blow away the most jaded and media saturated people today. You have to put yourself in the moon’s shadow and give yourself to the spectacle. It’s worth spending thousands of dollars and going to the ends of the Earth to stand in the moon’s shadow. Of all the wonderful and spectacular things I have seen I’d rate my first total solar eclipse above them all. Of all the planets, moons and other bodies in our solar system only the Earth enjoys pure total solar eclipses. By some freak cosmic accident the moon and sun are almost exactly the same angular size in our sky. It’s only when I’m standing in the moon’s shadow, during a total solar eclipse that I don’t mind being trapped on Earth.

Looking over my list it’s pretty clear that John Dobson had the right idea. The things that stuck were first glances through telescopes and watching special things in the sky with my own eyes. I have spent many long nights tracking objects down in telescopes but after a few years such “serious” sessions blend together. It’s those fleeting first lights that dig in and change how you feel. John Dobson changed how many people feel about the sky. Nice work John.

[1] The best dark sky sites in Texas are in the Davis Mountains near the McDonald Observatory. The Texas Star Party is held nearby every year.