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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reading List: Blacklisting Myself

Simon, Roger L. Blacklisting Myself. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-247-9.
The author arrived in Hollywood in the tumultuous year of 1968, fired by his allegiance to the New Left and experience in the civil rights struggle in the South to bring his activism to the screen and, at the same time, driven by his ambition to make it big in the movie business. Unlike the multitudes who arrive starry-eyed in tinseltown only to be frustrated trying to “break in”, Simon succeeded, both as a screenwriter (he was nominated for an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Enemies: A Love Story and as a novelist, best known for his Moses Wine detective fiction. One of the Moses Wine novels, The Big Fix, made it to the screen, with Simon also writing the screenplay. Such has been his tangible success that the author today lives in the Hollywood Hills house once shared by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

This is in large part a memoir of a life in Hollywood, with pull-no-punches anecdotes about the celebrities and players in the industry, and the often poisonous culture of the movie business. But is also the story of the author's political evolution from the New Left through Hollywood radical chic (he used to hang with the Black Panthers) and eventual conversion to neo-conservatism which has made him a “Hollywood apostate” and which he describes on the first page of the book as “the ideological equivalent of a sex change operation”. He describes how two key events—the O. J. Simpson trial and the terrorist attacks of 2001—caused him to question assumptions he'd always taken as received wisdom and how, once he did start to think for himself instead of nodding in agreement with the monolithic leftist consensus in Hollywood, began to perceive and be appalled by the hypocrisy not only in the beliefs of his colleagues but between their lifestyles and the values they purported to champion. (While Simon has become a staunch supporter of efforts, military and other, to meet the threat of Islamic aggression and considers himself a fiscal conservative, he remains as much on the left as ever when it comes to social issues. But, as he describes, any dissent whatsoever from the Hollywood leftist consensus is enough to put one beyond the pale among the smart set, and possibly injure the career of even somebody as well-established as he.)

While never suggesting that he or anybody else has been the victim of a formal blacklist like that of suspected Communist sympathisers in the 1940s and 1950s, he does describe how those who dissent often feign support for leftist causes or simply avoid politically charged discussions to protect their careers. Simon was one of the first Hollywood figures to jump in as a blogger, and has since reinvented himself as a New Media entrepreneur, founding Pajamas Media and its associated ventures; he continues to actively blog. An early adopter of technology since the days of the Osborne 1 and CompuServe forums, he believes that new technology provides the means for an end-run around Hollywood groupthink, but by itself is insufficient (p. 177):

The answer to the problem of Hollywood for those of a more conservative or centrist bent is to go make movies of their own. Of course, to do so means finding financing and distribution. Today's technologies are making that simpler. Cameras and editing equipment cost a pittance. Distribution is at hand for the price of a URL. All that's left is the creativity. Unfortunately, that's the difficult part.

A video interview with the author is available.

Posted at 23:16 Permalink

Monday, February 23, 2009

Earth Viewer: NASA Blue Marble Next Generation Imagery Added

Iceland from 39 km above

I have just put a new version of Earth and Moon Viewer into production which adds imagery derived from the NASA Blue Marble Next Generation database, produced from images collected during 2004 by the MODIS instrument on the Terra satellite. The oceans, which are supremely uninteresting in the raw imagery, are replaced by bathymetric shading showing the ocean floor contour.

The original NASA imagery has a resolution of 500 metres per pixel. At the moment, the Earth and Moon Viewer database reduces this resolution to 1 km per pixel due to addressing limitations in the 32 bit operating system running on the server farm. When the planned update to 64 bit is complete (probably in the next two months), the resolution will be increased to the full 500 metres per pixel. The image of the Earth at night is based on data from Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites and has about one fifth the resolution of the day imagery, so close-up zooms including the night side may look crude—there are simply no higher resolution data available to my knowledge.

A major change in this update is the expansion of the colour palette. Before, day images were compressed to a palette of 1024 colours and night images to a mere 64 colours, allowing both day and night pixels to be compressed into a 16 bit composite indexed pixel. With the Blue Marble Next Generation imagery, separate day and night image databases are used, each with its own colour map with up to 65,536 colours (the night image does not require that many). This results in much more faithful colour rendition, particular in difficult areas such as shallow waters around coastlines. Click the image of Iceland above, rendered for an observer 39 km above sea level, choose other image databases, and compare for yourself.

No changes have been made to the Web interface used by applications requesting custom images, so this update should be 100% compatible with existing downstream applications. Developers of such applications should, however, evaluate the new image database option and if they deem it as gorgeous as I do, consider changing their imagery selector in the request URL to "img=NASA500m.evif" to request the Blue Marble image database.

As always, if you're interested in using high resolution Earth imagery in your own applications, you should start with the original NASA databases, as they contain more colour information than the derivatives used on this site, which have been compressed in the interest of conserving memory and expediting the rendering of custom images.

Posted at 21:38 Permalink

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reading List: Masters of the Vortex

Smith, Edward E. Masters of the Vortex. New York: Pyramid Books, [1960] 1968. ISBN 978-0-515-02230-8.
This novel is set in the Galactic Patrol universe, but is not part of the Lensman saga—the events take place an unspecified time after the conclusion of that chronicle. Galactic civilisation depends upon atomic power, but as Robert A. Heinlein (to whom this book is dedicated) observed, “Blowups Happen”, and for inexplicable reasons atomic power stations randomly erupt into deadly self-sustaining nuclear vortices, threatening to ultimately consume the planets they ravage. (Note that in the technophilic and optimistic universe of the Galactic Patrol, and the can-do society its creator inhabited, the thought that such a downside of an energy technology essential to civilisation would cause its renunciation never enters the mind.)

When a freak vortex accident kills ace nucleonicist Neal Cloud's family, he swears a personal vendetta against the vortices and vows to destroy them or be destroyed trying. This mild-mannered scientist who failed the Lensman entry examination re-invents himself as “Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster”, and in his eponymous ship flits off to rid the galaxy of the atomic plague. This is Doc Smith space opera, so you can be sure there are pirates, zwilniks, crooked politicians, blasters, space axes, and aliens of all persuasions in abundance—not to mention timeless dialogue like:

“Eureka! Good evening, folks.”
“Eureka? I hope you rot in hell, Graves…”
“This isn't Graves. Cloud. Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster, investigating…”
“Oh, Bob, the patrol!” the girl screamed.

It wouldn't be Doc Smith if it weren't prophetic, and in this book published in the year in which the Original Nixon was to lose the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, we catch a hint of a “New Nixon” as the intrepid Vortex Blaster visits the planet Nixson II on p. 77. While not as awe inspiring in scope as the Lensman novels, this is a finely crafted yarn which combines a central puzzle with many threads exploring characteristics of alien cultures (never cross an adolescent cat-woman from Vegia!), the ultimate power of human consciousness, and the eternal question never far from the mind of the main audience of science fiction: whether a nerdy brainiac can find a soulmate somewhere out there in the spacelanes.

If you're unacquainted with the Lensman universe, this is not the place to start, but once you've worked your way through, it's a delightful lagniappe to round out the epic. Unlike the Lensman series, this book remains out of print. Used copies are readily available although sometimes pricey. For those with access to the gizmo, a Kindle edition is available.

Posted at 22:52 Permalink

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gnome-o-gram: The Indispensable Man

Admitting that there's something rather odd in appointing somebody to run the Treasury Department of the United States (which includes among its responsibilities the Internal Revenue Service), a person who failed to pay his own self-employment taxes while an employee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2001–2003, despite having claimed and received reimbursements for taxes owed during his employment there, the White House spin, echoed by the legacy media, was that the nominee, Timothy Geithner, was “indispensable” to sort out the present financial crisis.

Now how, precisely, is this fellow “indispensable”? Certainly not due to experience in the creation of wealth and jobs—not a single day of his career has been spent in the productive sector of the economy. But look at his career path, and what it may portend for the economic future of the United States during his term in office. What we notice is that, indeed very rare among other candidates for the post, he has had experience at the senior management level at the IMF and a key regional Federal Reserve Bank. As Secretary of the Treasury, he will be one of the three parties at the table should the unthinkable happen and a collapse of the credit rating of U.S. sovereign debt and/or the dollar force the United States into tutelage by the IMF, as has befallen many other profligate polities who tried to print their way out of insolvency.

This experience: IMF, Fed, and Treasury may indeed make Geithner an “indispensable man” for what is likely to befall the U.S. economy in the months to come, but it should give pause to anybody with assets denominated in dollars or linked in any way to U.S. financial markets.

Other gnome-o-grams

Posted at 00:27 Permalink

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reading List: I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 1

Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, [1933–1941, 1995] 1998. ISBN 978-0-375-75378-7.
This book is simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes. His family and acquaintances dwindle as, one after another, they opt for emigration, leaving only the author and his wife still in Germany (due to lack of opportunities, but also to an inertia and sense of fatalism evident in the narrative). Slowly the author's sense of Germanness dissipates as he comes to believe that what is happening in Germany is not an aberration but somehow deeply rooted in the German character, and that Hitler embodies beliefs widespread among the population which were previously invisible before becoming so starkly manifest. Klemperer is imprisoned for eight days in 1941 for a blackout violation for which a non-Jew would have received a warning or a small fine, and his prison journal, written a few days after his release, is a matter of fact portrayal of how an encounter with the all-powerful and arbitrary state reduces the individual to a mental servitude more pernicious than physical incarceration.

I have never read any book which provides such a visceral sense of what it is like to live in a totalitarian society and how quickly all notions of justice, rights, and human dignity can evaporate when a charismatic leader is empowered by a mob in thrall to his rhetoric. Apart from the description of the persecution the author's family and acquaintances suffered themselves, he turns a keen philologist's eye on the language of the Third Reich, and observes how the corruption of the regime is reflected in the corruption of the words which make up its propaganda. Ayn Rand's fictional (although to some extent autobiographical) We the Living provides a similar sense of life under tyranny, but this is the real thing, written as events happened, with no knowledge of how it was all going to come out, and is, as a consequence, uniquely compelling. Klemperer wrote these diaries with no intention of their being published: they were, at most, the raw material for an autobiography he hoped eventually to write, so when you read these words you're perceiving how a Jew in Nazi Germany perceived life day to day, and how what historians consider epochal events in retrospect are quite naturally interpreted by those hearing of them for the first time in the light of “What does this mean for me?”

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

I will certainly read Volume 2, which covers the years 1942–1945, but probably not right away—after this powerful narrative, I'm inclined toward lighter works for a while.

Posted at 23:47 Permalink

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gnome-o-gram: All the Gold in the World

In earlier gnome-o-grams, I've discussed gold as an asset of ultimate refuge in a portfolio, and tried to visualise the trillions of U.S. dollars now seemingly being routinely voted in “bailout” and “stimulus” packages.

Now, let's try to pull these two threads together and, in the process, imagine what may happen to the price of gold should investors lose confidence in paper money and investment vehicles denominated in fiat currencies and begin a flight in earnest to the only asset which has preserved its purchasing power over millennia. The essential property of gold which makes it a long-term store of value is not its mellow yellow glow, but rather its rarity and cost to mine and refine. Unlike paper money, which can be printed at essentially no marginal cost, the amount of gold in existence is, over the short term, essentially constant, as new production in any given year is a tiny fraction of the already-mined gold.

So rare is gold that the total amount mined since the beginning of human history is just 145,000 metric tonnes. Of this, about 19%, or 27,550 tonnes, is held in the vaults of central banks around the world as gold reserves. Now let's compare the value of this gold, at current market prices, to that of the paper money being created out of hot air these days.

Gold is usually priced by the troy ounce (approximately 31.1 grams), and the price of gold at this writing was around US$890 per troy ounce. Doing the math, this is equivalent to US$28,614,164 per metric tonne, so we can immediately calculate that the value of all the gold held as reserves by all of the nations of the world amounts to US$788 billion. Or about as much as the typical bailout or stimulus bill before the U.S. Congress in the last year. The present market value of all the gold in the world, from Fort Knox to the wedding band on your finger, is just US$4.14 trillion, or around half of the bailouts and stimuli to date, with much larger sums expected in the future.

The key thing to take away from this number crunching is that at its present market price, all the gold in the world is comparable in value to the quantity of new paper money being created by politicians on a routine basis as they try to spend their way out of a debt liquidation crisis created by precisely the same policies they're proposing as its solution. And it means that if holders of all that paper money suddenly lose faith in the government pixie dust that backs it and opt for an asset which, notwithstanding its vertiginous rises and falls, has never, ever gone to zero, there isn't all that much gold to go around compared to the oceans of paper money chasing it. One might, then, expect its price to rise.

Again, recall the perspective which informs these scribblings: preservation of capital. If you own gold and there's hyperinflation, you haven't “made a killing” if your gold goes from 900 dollars an ounce to 100 billion; if the same ounce of gold still buys the same amount of goods you're interested in buying, you haven't made a profit at all, only escaped the pauperisation which befell those who placed their confidence in the politicians and their printing presses. You may, of course, in such an apocalyptic situation, end up comparatively better off than others and be in a position to acquire assets at once in a lifetime bargain prices, but the primary goal is to survive the worst, not to profit from the misfortune of others.

If you expect a rush to gold in the offing, gold and stocks of gold mining companies may be excellent vehicles for speculation, but we don't do speculation here (which is not to say that I don't indulge in it myself, for my own account).

Other gnome-o-grams

Posted at 22:52 Permalink

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reading List: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

War Department. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Oxford: Bodelian Library, [1942] 2004. ISBN 978-1-85124-085-2.
Shortly after the entry of the United States into the European war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. troops began to arrive in Britain in 1942. Although more than two years would elapse before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, an ever-increasing number of “overpaid, oversexed, and over here” American troops would establish air bases, build logistics for the eventual invasion, and provide liaison with the British command.

This little (31 page, small format) book reproduces a document originally furnished to U.S. troops embarking for Britain as seven pages of typescript. It provides a delightful look at how Americans perceived the British at the epoch, and also how they saw themselves—there's even an admonishment to soldiers of Irish ancestry not to look upon the English as their hereditary enemies, and a note that the American colloquialism “I look like a bum” means something much different in an English pub. A handy table helps Yanks puzzle out the bewildering British money.

Companion volumes were subsequently published for troops bound for Iraq (yes, in 1943!) and France; I'll get to them in due course.

Posted at 21:17 Permalink

Monday, February 2, 2009

Reading List: The Ballad of Carl Drega

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Ballad of Carl Drega. Reno: Mountain Media, 2002. ISBN 978-0-9670259-2-6.
I was about write “the author is the most prominent libertarian writing for the legacy media today”, but in fact, to my knowledge, he is the only genuine libertarian employed by a major metropolitan newspaper (the Las Vegas Review-Journal), where he writes editorials and columns, the latter syndicated to a number of other newspapers. This book, like his earlier Send In The Waco Killers, is a collection of these writings, plus letters from readers and replies, along with other commentary. This volume covers the period from 1994 through the end of 2001, and contains his columns reacting to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, which set him at odds with a number of other prominent libertarians.

Suprynowicz is not one of those go-along, get-along people L. Neil Smith describes as “nerf libertarians”. He is a hard-edged lover of individual liberty, and defends it fiercely in all of its aspects here. As much of the content of the book was written as columns to be published weekly, collected by topic rather than chronologically, it may occasionally seem repetitive if you read the whole book cover to cover. It is best enjoyed a little at a time, which is why it did not appear here until years after I started to read it. If you're a champion of liberty who is prone to hypertension, you may want to increase your blood pressure medication before reading some of the stories recounted here. The author's prognosis for individual freedom in the U.S. seems to verge upon despair; in this I concur, which is why I no longer live there, but still it's depressing for people everywhere. Chapter 9 (pp. 441–476) is a collection of the “Greatest Hits from the Mailbag”, a collection of real mail (and hilarious replies) akin to Fourmilab's own Titanium Cranium Awards.

This book is now out of print, and used copies currently sell at almost twice the original cover price.

Posted at 23:01 Permalink

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Gnome-o-gram: What to Call the Present Era?

What shall we call the present financial era, especially in the United States, where events appear to be moving most rapidly and driving the world's markets?

It's usually in retrospect that such eras are named: “The Gilded Age”, “The Roaring Twenties”, “The Great Depression”, “Les Trente Glorieuses” (in France), “The Soaring Sixties”, “Stagflation”, “The Decade of Greed”, etc. In parallel, there are names given to political initiatives concurrent with these periods such as “Progressivism”, “The New Deal”, “The Great Society”, and so on.

So what shall we call the present epoch of deleveraging or, more to the point, how will historians looking back upon it after everything has been sorted out choose to designate it?

My prediction? “Game over.”

Update: Another suggestion, for those more apocalyptically inclined: “Financial End Times”. (2009-02-06 18:39 UTC)

Posted at 23:46 Permalink