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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

SubMarie's: Preliminary Comparison Tasting

In the description of my attempts to reproduce Marie's Blue Cheese salad dressing, I mentioned that, to date, I had been guided only by my memory of the original; I hoped to be able to make a direct comparison of my recipe with the bottled product eventually, but an opportunity to do so had not yet presented itself.

From my recent trip to the U.S. (here are a few, rather odd, pictures), I was able to bring back two bottles of the Real Stuff: one of the original “Chunky” recipe and one of the “Super”, which contains (according to the package) 25% more blue cheese. I made up a batch of my “current best practice” recipe, let it age a couple of days to allow the flavours to meld, and compared them, initially by tasting small quantities directly from the bottle (or dish), and then on iceberg lettuce.

Initial evaluation? First of all, I have new respect for the experts who do comparison tasting of recipes. The power of suggestion is great in the human brain, especially in the deeper, more visceral parts associated with taste and smell. Just as one can persuade oneself that an audio clip is almost anything at all, the perception of flavour is strongly influenced by expectations, and the difficulty of comparison is magnified further in “chunky” recipes where each taste differs from the next. But still, one must judge, so here's a tip of the tongue report. In retrospect, I had underestimated how “mayonnaise-ey” the original Marie's recipe is. My approximation is much closer to the “Super” recipe, which I had never tasted before this comparison, than to the original which I gobbled regularly so many years ago. The difference between my recipe and the Marie's Super (to the limited extent of my discernment), is that the French Roquefort cheese I used is more strongly flavoured and more salty than the provenance-unspecified blue cheese used in the Marie's product. The difference is subtle: it's much more obvious when tasting the dressing directly than when served on a salad, and the distinction is more evident when the bit you're tasting contains a chunk of the undiluted blue cheese, not just the sauce. The whole-grain mustard I'm using appears to be ground more coarsely than the mustard flour and bran in Marie's, which gives the concoction a slightly speckled appearance kind of like Breyers vanilla ice cream, if you remember that (good grief—it appears to still exist; who'd have guessed?), and a very slightly “crunchy” texture. I don't find this at all objectionable, but if you do, substituting finely ground mustard powder should do the trick.

Where do we go from here? Well, for those of us who simply want a recipe for great blue cheese dressing, I consider the problem solved. Having the three to compare side by side, I consider the “Super” Marie's recipe better than the original “Chunky” I tried to reproduce, and the difference between that and my recipe barely distinguishable in a direct comparison and entirely negligible when served on a real salad or as a dip for crudités. Still, I am an engineer, and attention to detail summons me back to the laboratory or, in this case, the kitchen.

The first obvious thing in the taste testing is that the blue cheese used in Marie's is substantially less strongly flavoured and less salty than the Roquefort I used, which can result in ambiguous results in taste testing of chunky recipes until you discover that the integrated taste of a spoonful depends on how many chunks of the straight cheese made it into your mouth. This is something which one can address only by changing the blue cheese in the recipe. I have laid in a supply of different kinds of blue cheese readily available in Central Europe, and I will taste them and try different recipes based upon them according to my evaluation of their similarity to the blue cheese used in the Marie's recipe.

Second, I will develop a “watered-down” or, more accurately, “mayonnaised-up” recipe which attempts to better approximate the original Marie's recipe. As these experiments progress, I'll report results here and eventually add the resulting recipes developed for variants to the SubMarie's page. For regular use chez Fourmilab, however, I'll almost certainly stick with the current recommended recipe.

Posted at 22:27 Permalink

Monday, May 29, 2006

Reading List: The Language Police

Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 0-375-41482-7.
One thing which strikes me, having been outside the United States for fifteen years, is just how dumb people in the U.S. are, particularly those 35 years and younger. By “dumb” I don't mean unintelligent: although there is a genetic component to intelligence, evolution doesn't work quickly enough to make much difference in a generation or two, and there's no evidence for selective breeding for stupidity in any case. No, they are dumb in the sense of being almost entirely ignorant of the literary and cultural heritage upon which their society is founded, and know next to nothing about the history of their own country and the world. Further, and even more disturbing, they don't seem to know how to think. Rational thinking is a skill one learns by practise, and these people never seem to have worked through the intellectual exercises to acquire it, and hence have never discovered the quiet joy of solving problems and figuring things out. (Of course, I am talking in broad generalisations here. In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. there are many, many exceptions, to be sure. But the overall impression of the younger population, exceptions apart, comes across to me as dumb.)

You may choose to attribute this estimation to the jaundiced disdain for young'uns so common among balding geezers like me. But the funny thing is, I observe this only in people who grew up the U.S. I don't perceive anything similar in those raised in continental Europe or Asia. (I'm not so sure about the U.K., and my experience with people from South America and Africa is insufficient to form any conclusions.) Further, this seems to be a relatively new phenomenon; I don't recall perceiving anything like the present level of dumbness among contemporaries when I was in the 20–35 age bracket. If you doubt my estimation of the knowledge and reasoning skills of younger people in the U.S., just cast a glance at the highest moderated comments on one of the online discussion boards such as Slashdot, and bear in mind when doing so that these are the technological élite, not the fat middle of the bell curve. Here is an independent view of younger people in the U.S. which comes to much the same conclusion as I.

What could possibly account for this? Well, it may not be the entire answer, but an important clue is provided by this stunning book by an historian and professor of education at New York University, which documents the exclusion of essentially the entire body of Western culture from the primary and secondary school curriculum starting in around 1970, and the rewriting of history to exclude anything perceived as controversial by any pressure group motivated to involve itself in the textbook and curriculum adoption process, which is described in detail. Apart from a few egregious cases which have come to the attention of the media, this process has happened almost entirely out of the public eye, and an entire generation has now been educated, if you can call it that, with content-free material chosen to meet bizarre criteria of “diversity” and avoid offending anybody. How bad is it? So bad that the president of a textbook company, when asked in 1998 by members of the committee charged with developing a national reading test proposed by President Clinton, why the reading passages chosen contained nothing drawn from classic literature or myth, replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased.” So long, Shakespeare; heave-ho Homer! It's no wonder the author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student discovered so many of his students at a top-tier university had scarcely read a single book before arriving in his classroom: their public school experience had taught them that reading is tedious and books contain only boring, homogenised pablum utterly disconnected from the real world they experience through popular culture and their everyday life.

The author brings no perceptible political bias or agenda to the topic. Indeed, she documents how the ideologues of the right and left form a highly effective pincer movement which squeezes out the content and intellectual stimulation from the material taught in schools, and thus educates those who pass through them that learning is boring, reading is dull, and history is all settled, devoid of controversy, and that every event in the past should be interpreted according to the fashionable beliefs of the present day. The exquisite irony is this is said to be done in the interest of “diversity” when, in fact, the inevitable consequence is the bowdlerisation of the common intellectual heritage into mediocre, boring, and indistinguishable pap. It is also interesting to observe that the fundamental principles upon which the champions of this “diversity” base their arguments—that one's ethnic group identity determines how an individual thinks and learns; that one cannot and should not try to transcend that group identity; that a member of a group can learn only from material featuring members of their own group, ideally written by a group member—are, in fact, identical to those believed by the most vicious of racists. Both reject individualism and the belief that any person, if blessed with the requisite talent and fired by ambition and the willingness to work assiduously toward the goal, can achieve anything at all in a free society.

Instead, we see things like this document, promulgated by the public school system of Seattle, Washington (whose motto is “Academic Achievement for Every Student in Every School”), which provides “Definitions of Racism” in six different categories. (Interesting—the Seattle Public Schools seem to have taken this document down—wonder why? However, you can still view a copy I cached just in case that might happen.) Under “Cultural Racism” we learn that “having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, [and] defining one form of English as standard” constitutes “cultural racism”. Some formula for “Academic Achievement for Every Student”, don't you think? (Reading The Language Police is quite enlightening in parsing details such as those in the drawing which appears to the right of the first paragraph of this document. It shows a group of people running a foot race [exercise: good]. Of the four people whose heads are shown, one is a Caucasian female [check], another is an African American male [check], a third is an Hispanic man [check—although the bias and sensitivity guidelines of two major textbook companies (p. 191) would fault this picture because, stereotypically, the man has a moustache], and an older [check] Caucasian male [older people must always be shown as active; never sitting on the porch in a rocking chair]. Two additional figures are shown with their heads lopped off: one an African American woman and the other what appears to be a light-skinned male. Where's the Asian?) Now, this may seem ridiculous, but every major U.S. textbook publisher these days compiles rigorous statistics on the racial and gender mix of both text and illustrations in their books, and adjusts them to precisely conform to percentages from the U.S. census. Intellectual content appears to receive no such scrutiny.

A thirty page appendix provides a list of words, phrases, and concepts banned from U.S. textbooks, including the delightful list (p. 196) of Foods which May Not Be Mentioned in California, including pickles and tea. A second appendix of the same length provides a wonderful list of recommendations of classic literature for study from grades three through ten. Home schoolers will find this a bounty of worthwhile literature to enrich their kids' education and inculcate the love of reading, and it's not a bad place to start for adults who have been deprived of this common literary heritage in their own schooling. A paperback edition is now available.

Posted at 21:58 Permalink

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Global Consciousness Project: Preliminary Results from the Indonesian Earthquake

Roger Nelson has just posted preliminary results for the behaviour of the Global Consciousness Project network during the May 27th earthquake in Indonesia. The plot at the bottom of the page shows the variance of the global network of random event generators for the eight hour period beginning one hour before the earthquake (red line). The blue line shows the deviation corresponding to a chance probability of 0.05. The observed cumulative deviation had a chi-square value of 29439 on 28800 degrees of freedom, yielding a chance probability of 0.0041 and z score of 2.645, which should be, based on empirical measures of the actual variance of the generators, reduced by about 5% to z=2.513. For details on the raw data from the network and how it is normalised and processed into these reports, please see the GCP Data document. Note the suggestion of a “precursor effect” in the hour prior to the earthquake—this has been seen before in GCP results for other earthquakes: interesting, isn't it? Please see the complete summary of results for other events dating back to 1998.

Make of these results what you will; I have no interest in discussing or debating these matters in E-mail. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the development of the data collection and analysis software for this project and host two of the random event generator sites at Fourmilab.)

Posted at 13:08 Permalink

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Three Topical Kipling Poems

I recently made a trip to the United States. This was only my second visit there since 2001, and the first which required taking domestic airline flights. The experience was educational, in the sense that driving nails into your head teaches you that it's unwise. I was “selected” for “SSSS” screening on every domestic flight. I'm sure the bumper sticker had nothing to do with it; that would impute an utterly unwarranted competence to this waning hegemon.

The ordeal brought to mind, and motivated me to finally get around to post in electronic editions, the following poems by Rudyard Kipling which, despite having been written between 87 and 107 years ago, seem more evocative of the current scene than what one reads in the legacy media.

Why post new editions of public domain electronic texts which are available all over the Web? Because I prefer standards-compliant editions formatted my way, and when I link to them I don't have to worry about the links breaking when some other site disappears. All things are ultimately evanescent, and some day my site shall undoubtedly also vanish, but at when it does, at least the documents here will all go together when they go.

Posted at 17:47 Permalink

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reading List: Cryptonomicon

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. New York: Perennial, 1999. ISBN 0-380-78862-4.
I've found that I rarely enjoy, and consequently am disinclined to pick up, these huge, fat, square works of fiction cranked out by contemporary super scribblers such as Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling. In each case, the author started out and made their name crafting intricately constructed, tightly plotted page-turners, but later on succumbed to a kind of mid-career spread which yields flabby doorstop novels that give you hand cramps if you read them in bed and contain more filler than thriller. My hypothesis is that when a talented author is getting started, their initial books receive the close attention of a professional editor and benefit from the discipline imposed by an individual whose job is to flense the flab from a manuscript. But when an author becomes highly successful—a “property” who can be relied upon to crank out best-seller after best-seller, it becomes harder for an editor to restrain an author's proclivity to bloat and bloviation. (This is not to say that all authors are so prone, but some certainly are.) I mean, how would you feel giving Tom Clancy advice on the art of crafting thrillers, even though Executive Orders could easily have been cut by a third and would probably have been a better novel at half the size.

This is why, despite my having tremendously enjoyed his earlier Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon sat on my shelf for almost four years before I decided to take it with me on a trip and give it a try. Hey, even later Tom Clancy can be enjoyed as “airplane” books as long as they fit in your carry-on bag! While ageing on the shelf, this book was one of the most frequently recommended by visitors to my reading list page, and friends to whom I mentioned my hesitation to dive into the book unanimously said, “You really ought to read it.” Well, I've finished it, so now I'm in a position to tell you, “You really ought to read it.” This is simply one of the best modern novels I have read in years.

The book is thick, but that's because the story is deep and sprawling and requires a large canvas. Stretching over six decades and three generations, and melding genera as disparate as military history, cryptography, mathematics and computing, business and economics, international finance, privacy and individualism versus the snooper state and intrusive taxation, personal eccentricity and humour, telecommunications policy and technology, civil and military engineering, computers and programming, the hacker and cypherpunk culture, and personal empowerment as a way of avoiding repetition of the tragedies of the twentieth century, the story defies classification into any neat category. It is not science fiction, because all of the technologies exist (or plausibly could have existed—well, maybe not the Galvanick Lucipher [p. 234; all page citations are to the trade paperback edition linked above. I'd usually cite by chapter, but they aren't numbered and there is no table of contents]—in the epoch in which they appear). Some call it a “techno thriller”, but it isn't really a compelling page-turner in that sense; this is a book you want to savour over a period of time, watching the story lines evolve and weave together over the decades, and thinking about the ideas which underlie the plot line.

The breadth of the topics which figure in this story requires encyclopedic knowledge. which the author demonstrates while making it look effortless, never like he's showing off. Stephenson writes with the kind of universal expertise for which Isaac Asimov was famed, but he's a better writer than the Good Doctor, and that's saying something. Every few pages you come across a gem such as the following (p. 207), which is the funniest paragraph I've read in many a year.

He was born Graf Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Otto Friedrich von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, but changed his name to Nigel St. John Gloamthorpby, a.k.a. Lord Woadmire, in 1914. In his photograph, he looks every inch a von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, and he is free of the cranial geometry problem so evident in the older portraits. Lord Woadmire is not related to the original ducal line of Qwghlm, the Moore family (Anglicized from the Qwghlmian clan name Mnyhrrgh) which had been terminated in 1888 by a spectacularly improbable combination of schistosomiasis, suicide, long-festering Crimean war wounds, ball lightning, flawed cannon, falls from horses, improperly canned oysters, and rogue waves.
On p. 352 we find one of the most lucid and concise explanations I've ever read of why it far more difficult to escape the grasp of now-obsolete technologies than most technologists may wish.
(This is simply because the old technology is universally understood by those who need to understand it, and it works well, and all kinds of electronic and software technology has been built and tested to work within that framework, and why mess with success, especially when your profit margins are so small that they can only be detected by using techniques from quantum mechanics, and any glitches vis-à-vis compatibility with old stuff will send your company straight into the toilet.)
In two sentences on p. 564, he lays out the essentials of the original concept for Autodesk, which I failed to convey (providentially, in retrospect) to almost every venture capitalist in Silicon Valley in thousands more words and endless, tedious meetings.
“ … But whenever a business plan first makes contact with the actual market—the real world—suddenly all kinds of stuff becomes clear. You may have envisioned half a dozen potential markets for your product, but as soon as you open your doors, one just explodes from the pack and becomes so instantly important that good business sense dictates that you abandon the others and concentrate all your efforts.”
And how many New York Times Best-Sellers contain working source code (p, 480) for a Perl program?

A 1168 page mass market paperback edition is now available, but given the unwieldiness of such an edition, how much you're likely to thumb through it to refresh your memory on little details as you read it, the likelihood you'll end up reading it more than once, and the relatively small difference in price, the trade paperback cited at the top may be the better buy. Readers interested in the cryptographic technology and culture which figure in the book will find additional information in the author's Cryptonomicon cypher-FAQ.

Posted at 17:23 Permalink

Sunday, May 21, 2006

GCC: "error: extra qualification" Torpedo for C++ Programs in 4.1

Less than a day had elapsed since the release of ETSET 3.2 before it was torpedoed by a fanatical “purity of essence” enhancement foisted onto software developers worldwide by the C++ cabal at the GCC project. In every version of GCC from the get-go through 4.0, code like the following:
    class struggle {
         void struggle::propaganda(void) {
compiled without so much as a warning, even in persnickety “-Wall” mode. But that was then, and this is now, and while the nugatory class qualification on "struggle::propaganda" is redundant since it's an in-line declaration within the class, it would seem to be just an example of specifying something you aren't required to in the interest of documentation—for example, when looking at a listing of a very long class declaration it reminds you of the name of the enclosing class.

If you enter a search for:

    gcc "error: extra qualification" 
into your favourite search engine, you'll find hundreds (more than 650, from the results I got) of messages documenting Open Source software projects which have been blown away by this “enhancement” of GCC—for what good? Some suggest that this has something to with namespaces in C++: perhaps some obscure incompatibility between the use of qualifiers for class names and namespaces requires blowing away decades of carefully-maintained code. But, should that be the case, it is simply more evidence that C++ has become a legacy language, like COBOL, in which we are obliged to maintain existing code and link to libraries, but which has become demonstrably unsuitable for new software development.

Now, when this particular torpedo strikes your vessel beneath the waterline minutes before (or, worse, after) a delivery milestone, it's easy to remedy: simply remove the class qualifier from the inline function declaration: write “void propaganda(void)” instead of “void struggle::propaganda(void)”. But, when doing so, ask yourself that question so appropriate when dealing with figures in authority with fierce principles but scarce responsibility for the consequences of their actions, “Why, precisely, are we doing this?”.

Posted at 00:49 Permalink

Friday, May 19, 2006

ETSET Version 3.2 Posted

Version 3.2 of ETSET, which translates electronic texts written in human readable form into LaTeX (and thence to PostScript and PDF, if you wish), HTML (either single document or individual chapters with navigation links), or Palm Markup Language (PML) to produce eReader books which can be read on a variety of handheld platforms, is now available.

Version 3.2 extends support for XHTML generation, including a new “--strict” option which generates XHTML 1.0 (Strict DTD) with all presentation specified using CSS 2.1. JavaScript is used to work around the banishment of the “target=” attribute from “<a>” tags in the interest of purity of body, soul, and spirit, but this only affects multiple file HTML output for documents with footnotes and, should JavaScript be unavailable or disabled, the only consequence will be footnotes opening in the same window as the document containing them, with recourse to the “Back” button permitting return to the original passage. The “--unicode” option may be specified to generate XHTML Unicode text entities for special characters such as opening and closing quotation marks, ellipses, and dashes.

As a test and demonstration of the new version of ETSET, I have re-generated the on-line HTML edition of Tom Swift in the City of Gold in Strict mode (which you're welcome to verify for yourself) with Unicode special characters. As time permits, I will similarly upgrade HTML editions of other electronic texts on the site.

ETSET is a C++/STL program written using the Literate Programming methodology in the CWEB System; the source code and complete documentation (both user-level and internal) may be read online (PDF file).

Posted at 20:59 Permalink

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Windows XP: "DPI Setting" Gotcha

On the rare occasions I've booted Windows XP on my Dell “laptop” development machine in order to test new Web pages with Microsoft Internet Explorer, I've noticed that even when the pages were rendered properly by the browser, embedded raster images looked, to be polite, like refried puke: apparently scaled up by some kind of crude algorithm with obvious artefacts on all edges. Since other, more competently implemented, browsers displayed these pages correctly, I filed this in the “that's odd—gotta look into that someday” category and got on with the job at hand.

Today, I decided to take the flying leap into the unknown and installed the Beta 2 pre-release of Internet Explorer 7 (version 7.0.5346.5 to be precise). After the to-be-expected illegal memory reference crash in the installer, power cycle after being unable to launch the task manager to kill the looping installer, re-install, and the obligatory reboot thereafter (I suppose I shouldn't complain—the morons at Adobe required three reboots to install their momentous Adobe Reader 7.0.7 update!), I discovered that the latest and greatest version of Explorer had the same crappy display of raster images, and decided to dig deeper into the matter.

Here, side by side, is the Fourmilab logo as displayed in the title frame of The Hacker's Diet by Mozilla Firefox (left) and Internet Explorer 7.0 (right):


Now, what's obvious from this, apart from how pathetic the Explorer image looks, is that it's bigger than the one displayed by Firefox. In fact, examination of the image on screen reveals that while Firefox has displayed the image pixel-for-pixel on the screen, Explorer has crudely embiggened it to 125% of its original size. What could account for that?

Microsoft Windows contains as much unwritten lore as that memorised by a 33° Mason or a fully paid-up initiate of selfosophy. But, unlike these cults, the hidden Windows wisdom changes with every “service pack”, so any investment you make in learning it is a wasting asset. In this case, the secret is buried in the Control Panel (assuming you have selected the “Classic” view, which actually permits you to see all the options, as opposed to navigating through categories chosen by marmosets shooting craps with icosahedral nerd dice), under “Display / Settings / Advanced / DPI Settings”, where you can choose either “Normal Size” or “Large Size” display. If you choose “Normal”, then images are displayed (by applications which pay attention to this setting) pixel-for-pixel on the screen. But if you should select “Large”, then they are crudely scaled up, looking like the site you're viewing was designed by some kid at a “k12” site closer to the letter than the double digit discharge conduit.

Now, if this were some arcane setting you could select only by navigating through an “Advanced” button it would be an obscure footnote but, Microsoft, in their wisdom, have chosen to automatically enable this mode on systems where they deem the display size too small for how many dots the screen may happen to have. This means that dozens of millions of people with laptops and high-resolution screens will only see graphics properly displayed if they change this obscure setting and/or abandon Explorer in favour of a better browser.

Posted at 01:49 Permalink

Monday, May 15, 2006

CSI: South Park

Ignore the headlines—they'll only depress you anyway! Far wiser to tune it all out, mind one's own business, and concentrate on something really important, like figuring out the lyrics to the final song in the 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut!

Living in a “quiet, little, etc.” mountain town myself, I've tried to puzzle out all of the adjectives in that catchy tune and remain stumped by several. The Web, as usual, offers a wealth of suggestions, all inconsistent. Let's pin it down, shall we? In CSI: South Park I've broken down the passage into word-sized chunks (which you can either play on-line, if your browser understands links to .wav audio files, or download in MP3 or .wav format to play offline), with suggestions for the various words from transcriptions on the Web. As responses from bat-eared readers arrive, I'll add a tabulation of votes for various interpretations of each word.

Thanks in advance for contributing to this momentous intellectual undertaking!

Posted at 00:07 Permalink

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Glass in the Garden Posted

I've been a fan of alien flora even before I read Parallel Botany back in 1977, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit an exhibition of Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis on May 1st, 2006. I've posted Glass in the Garden, a collection of photographs of the exhibition along with a few obligatory shots of the Gateway Arch. All of these photos were taken with a Sony DSC-T1 digital camera; the on-line JPEG files contain EXIF tags with details of each exposure (the date and time in these tags are Central European Summer Time, which is seven hours ahead of local time in St. Louis).

Posted at 16:22 Permalink

Friday, May 12, 2006

Les Quatre Saisons: QuickTime and iPod Editions Now Available

Les Quatre Saisons, the one year time-lapse movie recently released in Windows Media (.avi) format, is now also available in Apple QuickTime encoding, both full resolution and scaled down for the iPod video gizmo; the latter edition, with images resampled to 320×220 pixels, is only a 6.6 Mb download, and can be used to preview the film before undertaking the 35 Mb download of the full edition. Although scaled and encoded as a .m4v file for the iPod, it will play just fine on any regular QuickTime-compatible player, including MPlayer on Linux.

After exhausting just about every alternative I could think of (some of which seem to work just fine for other folks), I gave in and bought the USD30 Apple QuickTime 7 Pro upgrade for WIndows XP (which is simply a registration key you enter in the free QuickTime player to unlock the “Pro” features) and created the QuickTime editions from the original PNG frames and wav soundtrack, using the default H.264 video and AAC 128 Kb audio CODECs.

Posted at 15:12 Permalink

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tom Swift in the City of Gold Now Online

The eleventh episode in the Tom Swift saga, Tom Swift in the City of Gold, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library archive. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available. This novel, originally published in 1912, is the first in which Eradicate Sampson (but not his balky mule Boomerang) joins the plucky adventurers in the expedition, so there is even more dialect sure to offend those politically correct deep thinkers who believe that censorship is the royal road to “diversity”.

Posted at 22:34 Permalink

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Reading List: Empire of Debt

Bonner, William and Addison Wiggin. Empire of Debt. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. ISBN 0-471-73902-2.
To make any sense in the long term, an investment strategy needs to be informed by a “macro macro” view of the global economic landscape and the grand-scale trends which shape it, as well as a fine sense for nonsense: the bubbles, manias, and unsustainable situations which seduce otherwise sane investors into doing crazy things which will inevitably end badly, although nobody can ever be sure precisely when. This is the perspective the authors provide in this wise, entertaining, and often laugh-out-loud funny book. If you're looking for tips on what stocks or funds to buy or sell, look elsewhere; the focus here is on the emergence in the twentieth century of the United States as a global economic and military hegemon, and the bizarre economic foundations of this most curious empire. The analysis of the current scene is grounded in a historical survey of empires and a recounting of how the United States became one.

The business of empire has been conducted more or less the same way all around the globe over millennia. An imperial power provides a more or less peaceful zone to vassal states, a large, reasonably open market in which they can buy and sell their goods, safe transport for goods and people within the imperial limes, and a common currency, system of weights and measures, and other lubricants of efficient commerce. In return, vassal states finance the empire through tribute: either explicit, or indirectly through taxes, tariffs, troop levies, and other imperial exactions. Now, history is littered with the wreckage of empires (more than fifty are listed on p. 49), which have failed in the time-proven ways, but this kind of traditional empire at least has the advantage that it is profitable—the imperial power is compensated for its services (whether welcome or appreciated by the subjects or not) by the tribute it collects from them, which may be invested in further expanding the empire.

The American empire, however, is unique in all of human history for being funded not by tribute but by debt. The emergence of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, severed from the gold standard or any other measure of actual value, has permitted the U.S. to build a global military presence and domestic consumer society by borrowing the funds from other countries (notably, at the present time, China and Japan), who benefit (at least in the commercial sense) from the empire. Unlike tribute, the debt remains on the balance sheet as an exponentially growing liability which must eventually either be repaid or repudiated. In this environment, international trade has become a system in which (p. 221) “One nation buys things that it cannot afford and doesn't need with money it doesn't have. Another sells on credit to people who already cannot pay and then builds more factories to increase output.” Nobody knows how long the game can go on, but when it ends, it is certain to end badly.

An empire which has largely ceased to produce stuff for its citizens, whose principal export has become paper money (to the tune of about two billion dollars per day at this writing), will inevitably succumb to speculative binges. No sooner had the dot.com mania of the late 1990s collapsed than the residential real estate bubble began to inflate, with houses bought with interest-only mortgages considered “investments” which are “flipped” in a matter of months, and equity extracted by further assumption of debt used to fund current consumption. This contemporary collective delusion is well documented, with perspectives on how it may end.

The entire book is written in an “always on” ironic style, with a fine sense for the absurdities which are taken for wisdom and the charlatans and nincompoops who peddle them to the general public in the legacy media. Some may consider the authors' approach as insufficiently serious for a discussion of an oncoming global financial train wreck but, as they note on p. 76, “There is nothing quite so amusing as watching another man make a fool of himself. That is what makes history so entertaining.” Once you get your head out of the 24 hour news cycle and the political blogs and take the long view, the economic and geopolitical folly chronicled here is intensely entertaining, and the understanding of it imparted in this book is valuable in developing a strategy to avoid its inevitable tragic consequences.

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