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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading List: Graveyard Special

Lileks, James. Graveyard Special. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2012. ASIN B00962GFES.
This novel, set in the Dinkytown neighbourhood of Minneapolis, adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus, in 1980, is narrated in the first person by Robert (not Bob) Thompson, an art history major at the university, experiencing the metropolis after having grown up in a small town in the north of the state. Robert is supporting his lavish lifestyle (a second floor room in a rooming house in Dinkytown with the U of M hockey team living downstairs) by working nights at Mama B's Trattoria, an Italian/American restaurant with a light beer and wine bar, the Grotto, downstairs. His life and career at the “Trat” and “Grot” are an immersion in the culture of 1980, and a memoir typical of millions in university at the epoch until a cook at the Trat is shot dead by a bullet which came through the window from outside, with no apparent motive or clue as to the shooter's identity.

Then Robert begins to notice things: curious connections between people, suggestions of drug deals, ambiguous evidence of wire taps, radical politics, suspicions of people being informants, and a strange propensity for people he encounters meeting with apparently random violence. As he tries to make sense of all of this, he encounters hard-boiled cops, an immigrant teacher from the Soviet Union who speaks crystalline wisdom in fractured English, and a reporter for the student newspaper with whom he is instantly smitten. The complexity and ambiguity spiral ever upward until you begin to suspect, as Robert does in chapter 30, “You never get all the answers. I suppose that's the lesson.”

Do you get all the answers? Well, read the novel and find out for yourself—I doubt you'll regret doing so. Heck, how many mystery novels have an action scene involving a Zamboni? As you'd expect from the author's work, the writing is artful and evocative, even when describing something as peripheral to the plot as turning off an Asteroids video game after closing time in the Grot.

I yanked the cord and the world of triangular spaceships and monochromatic death-rocks collapsed to a single white point. The universe was supposed to end like that, if there was enough mass and matter or something. It expands until gravity hauls everything back in; the collapse accelerates until everything that was once scattered higgily-jiggity over eternity is now summed up in a tiny white infinitely dense dot, which explodes anew into another Big Bang, another universe, another iteration of existence with its own rules, a place where perhaps Carter got a second term and Rod Stewart did not decide to embrace disco.

I would read this novel straight through, cover-to-cover. There are many characters who interact in complicated ways, and if you set it aside due to other distractions and pick it up later, you may have to do some backtracking to get back into things. There are a few copy editing errors (I noted 7), but they don't distract from the story.

At this writing, this book is available only as a Kindle e-book; a paperback edition is expected in the near future. Here are the author's comments on the occasion of the book's publication. This is the first in what James Lileks intends to be a series of between three and five novels, all set in Minneapolis in different eras, with common threads tying them together. I eagerly await the next.

Posted at 22:31 Permalink

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reading List: Why I Left Goldman Sachs

Smith, Greg. Why I Left Goldman Sachs. New York: Grand Central, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4555-2747-2.
When Greg Smith graduated from Stanford in 2001, he knew precisely what career he wished to pursue and where—high stakes Wall Street finance at the firm at the tip of the pyramid: Goldman Sachs. His native talent and people skills had landed him first an internship and then an entry-level position at the firm, where he sought to master the often arcane details of the financial products with which he dealt and develop relationships with the clients with whom he interacted on a daily basis.

Goldman Sachs was founded in 1869, and rapidly established itself as one of the leading investment banks, market makers, and money managers, catering to large corporations, institutions, governments, and wealthy individual clients. While most financial companies had transformed themselves from partnerships to publicly-traded corporations, Goldman Sachs did not take this step until 1999. Remaining a partnership was part of the aura of the old Goldman: as with a private Swiss bank, partners bore unlimited personal liability for the actions of the firm, and clients were thereby reassured that the advice they received was in their own best interest.

When the author joined Goldman, the original partnership culture remained strong, and he quickly learned that to advance in the firm it was important to be perceived as a “culture keeper”—one steeped in the culture and transmitting it to new hires. But then the serial financial crises of the first decade of the 21st century began to hammer the firm: the collapse of the technology bubble, the housing boom and bust, and the sovereign debt crisis. These eroded the traditional sources of Goldman's income, and created an incentive for the firm to seek “elephant trades” which would book in excess of US$ 1 million in commissions and fees for the firm from a single transaction. Since the traditional business of buying and selling securities on behalf of a client and pocketing a commission or bid-ask spread was highly competitive (indeed, the kinds of high-roller clients who do business with Goldman could see the bids and offers in the market on their own screen before they placed an order), the elephant hunters were motivated to peddle “structured products”: exotic financial derivatives which the typical client lacked the resources to independently value, and were opaque to valuation by other than the string theorist manqués who invented them. In doing this business, Goldman transformed itself from a broker executing transactions on behalf of a client into a vendor, selling products to counterparties, who took the other side of the transaction. Now, there's nothing wrong with dealing with a counterparty: when you walk onto a used car lot with a wad of money (artfully concealed) in your pocket and the need for a ride, you're aware that the guy who walks up to greet you is your counterparty—the more you pay, the more he benefits, and the less valuable a car he manages to sell you, the better it is for him. But you knew that, going in, and you negotiate accordingly (or if you don't, you end up, as I did, with a 1966 MGB). Many Goldman Sachs customers, with relationships going back decades, had been used to their sales representatives being interested in their clients' investment strategy and recommending products consistent with it and providing excellent execution on trades. I had been a Goldman Sachs customer since 1985, first in San Francisco and then in Zürich, and this had been my experience until the late 2000s: consummate professionalism.

Greg Smith documents the erosion of the Goldman culture in New York, but when he accepted a transfer to the London office, there was a culture shock equivalent to dropping your goldfish into a bowl of Clorox. In London, routine commission (or agency) business generating fees around US$ 50,000 was disdained, and clients interested in such trades were rudely turned away. Clients were routinely referred to as “muppets”, and exploiting their naïveté was a cause for back-slapping and booking revenues to the firm (and bonuses for those who foisted toxic financial trash onto the customers).

Finally, in early 2012, the author said, “enough is enough” and published an op-ed in the New York Times summarising the indictment of the firm and Wall Street which is fully fleshed out here. In the book, the author uses the tired phrase “speaking truth to power”, but in fact power could not be more vulnerable to truth: at the heart of most customer relationships with Goldman Sachs was the assumption that the firm valued the client relationship above all, and would act in the client's interest to further the long-term relationship. Once clients began to perceive that they were mocked as “muppets” who could be looted by selling them opaque derivatives or unloading upon them whatever the proprietary trading desk wanted to dump, this relationship changed forever. Nobody will ever do business with Goldman Sachs again without looking at them as an adversary, not an advisor or advocate. Greg Smith was a witness to the transformation which caused this change, and this book is essential reading for anybody managing funds north of seven digits.

As it happens, I was a customer of Goldman Sachs throughout the period of Mr Smith's employment, and I can completely confirm his reportage of the dysfunction in the London branch. I captured an hour of pure comedy gold in Goldman Sachs Meets a Muppet when two Masters of the Universe who had parachuted into Zürich from London tried to educate me upon the management of my money. I closed my account a few days later.

Posted at 23:12 Permalink

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reading List: Founders

Rawles, James Wesley. Founders. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7282-7.
This novel is the third in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008) and continued with Survivors (January 2012). These books are not a conventional trilogy, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. Many of the same characters appear in the volumes, but different episodes in their lives are described. This installment extends the story beyond the end of the previous books (taking into account the last chapter, well beyond), but most of the story occurs in the years surrounding the Crunch. In an introductory note, the author says the books can be read in any order, but I think the reader will miss a great deal if this is the first one read—most of the characters who appear here have an extensive back-story in the previous books, and you'll miss much of what motivates them and how they found themselves in their present circumstances if you start here.

Like the earlier novels, this is part thriller and part survival tutorial. I found the two components less well integrated here than before. The author seems prone to launching into a litany of survival gear and tactics, not to mention veering off into minutiæ of Christian doctrine, leaving the story and characters on hold. For example, in chapter 20:

The gear inside the field station CONEX included a pair of R-390A HF receivers, two Sherwood SE-3 synchronous detectors, four hardwired demodulators, a half dozen multiband scanners, several digital audio recorders, two spectrum analyzers, and seven laptop computers that were loaded with demodulators, digital recorders, and decryption/encryption software.

Does this really move the plot along? Is anybody other than a wealthy oilman likely to be able to put together such a rig for signal intelligence and traffic analysis? And if not, why do we need to know all of this, as opposed to simply describing it as a “radio monitoring post”? This is not a cherry-picked example; there are numerous other indulgences in gear geekdom.

The novel covers the epic journey, largely on foot, of Ken and Terry Layton from apocalyptic Crunch Chicago, where they waited too late to get out of Dodge toward the retreat their group had prepared in the American redoubt, and the development and exploits of an insurgency against the so-called “Provisional Government” headquartered in Fort Knox, Kentucky, which is a thinly-disguised front for subjugation of the U.S. to the United Nations and looting the population. (“Meet the new boss—same as the old boss!”) Other subplots update us on the lives of characters we've met before, and provide a view of how individuals and groups try to self-organise back into a lawful and moral civil society while crawling from the wreckage of corruption and afflicted by locusts with weapons.

We don't do stars on reviews here at Fourmilab—I'm a word guy—but I do occasionally indulge in sports metaphors. I consider the first two novels home runs: if you're remotely interested in the potential of societal collapse and the steps prudent people can take to protect themselves and those close to them from its sequelæ, they are must-reads. Let's call this novel a solid double bouncing between the left and centre fielders. If you've read the first two books, you'll certainly want to read this one. If you haven't, don't start here, but begin at the beginning. This novel winds up the story, but it does so in an abrupt way which I found somewhat unconvincing—it seemed like the author was approaching a word limit and had to close it out in however sketchy a manner.

There are a few quibbles, but aren't there always?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 8 we're told that Malmstrom Air Force Base had a large inventory of JP-4 fuel. But this fuel, a 50–50 blend of kerosene and gasoline, was phased out by the U.S. Air Force in 1996 in favour of the less hazardous JP-8. It is unlikely that at least 16 years later an Air Force base would still have JP-4 in storage.
  • In chapter 11 we hear of the “UN's new headquarters in Brussels”. But, if the UN headquarters in New York had been destroyed, isn't is much more likely that the UN would fall back on the existing European headquarters in Geneva?
  • In chapter 17, Ken is “given a small bottle of flat black lacquer and a tiny brush from Durward's collection…”. But Durward was the farmer with whose family they passed the previous winter. I think either Carl or Graham was intended here.
  • In “President” Hutchings's speech in chapter 19, he states that more than 65 million people were killed by an influenza pandemic that swept the East and continues, “Without antibiotics available, the disease ran rampant until there were no more hosts to attack in the heavily populated regions.” Influenza is a viral disease, against which antibiotics are completely ineffectual. Of course, this may have been intended to highlight the cluelessness of Hutchings and how glibly the Provisional Government lied to its subjects.
  • In the glossary, CB radio is defined as a “VHF broadcasting band”. The citizens' band in the U.S. is in the 27 MHz range, which is considered in the HF band, and is not a broadcast service.
Spoilers end here.  

So, read the first two, and if you like them, by all means get this one. But don't start here.

Posted at 23:07 Permalink

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading List: Instant

Bonanos, Christopher. Instant. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61689-085-8.
The second half of the twentieth century in the developed world was, in many ways, the age of immediate gratification, and no invention was as iconic of the epoch as the Polaroid instant photograph. No longer did people have to wait until a roll of film was full, take it to the drug store to be sent off to a photo lab, and then, a week or so later, see whether the irreplaceable pictures of their child's first birthday came out or were forever lost. With the introduction of Edwin Land's first Polaroid camera in 1948, only a minute elapsed between the click of the shutter and peeling off a completely developed black and white (well, initially, sepia and white, but that was fixed within two years) print. If the picture wasn't satisfactory, another shot could be taken on the spot, and pictures of special events could be immediately shared with others present—in a way, the Polaroid print was the original visual social medium: Flickr in the Fifties.

This book chronicles the history of Polaroid, which is inseparable from the life of its exceptional founder, CEO, and technological visionary, Edwin Land. Land, like other, more recent founders of technological empires, was a college drop-out (the tedium simply repelled him), whose instinct drove him to create products which other, more sensible, people considered impossible, for markets which did not exist, fulfilling needs which future customers did not remotely perceive they had, and then continuing to dazzle them with ever more amazing achievements. Polaroid in its heyday was the descendent of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park invention factory and the ancestor of Apple under Steve Jobs—a place where crazy, world-transforming ideas bubbled up and were groomed into products with a huge profit margin.

Although his technical knowledge was both broad and deep, and he spent most of his life in the laboratory or supervising research and product development, Edwin Land was anything but a nerd: he was deeply versed in the fine arts and literature, and assembled a large collection of photography (both instant and conventional) along with his 535 patents. He cultivated relationships with artists ranging from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol and involved them in the design and evolution of Polaroid's products. Land considered basic research part of Polaroid's mission, and viewed his work on human colour perception as his most important achievement: he told a reporter in 1959, “Photography…that is something I do for a living.”

Although Polaroid produced a wide (indeed, almost bewildering) variety of cameras and film which progressed from peel-off monochrome to professional large-format positive/negative sheets to colour to all-in-one colour film packs for the SX-70 and its successors, which miraculously developed in broad daylight after being spit out by the camera, it remained, to a large extent, a one product company—entirely identified with instant photography. And, it was not only a one product company (something with which this scrivener has some acquaintance), but a one genius company, where the entire technical direction and product strategy resided in the braincase of a single individual. This has its risks, and when the stock was flying high there was no shortage of sceptical analysts on Wall Street who pointed them out.

And then slowly, painfully, it all fell back to Earth. In 1977, Land's long-time dream of instant motion pictures was launched on the market as Polavision. The company had expended years and on the order of half a billion dollars in developing a system which produced three minute silent movies which were grainy and murky. This was launched just at the time video cassette recorders were coming onto the market, which could record and replay full television programs with sound, using inexpensive tapes which could be re-recorded. Polavision sales were dismal, and the product was discontinued two years later. In 1976, Kodak launched their own instant camera line, which cut into Polaroid's sales and set off a patent litigation battle which would last more than fourteen years and cause Polaroid to focus on the past and defending its market share rather than innovation.

Now that everybody has instant photography in the form of digital cameras and mobile telephones, all without the need of miracle chemistry, breakthrough optics, or costly film packs, you might conclude that Polaroid, like Kodak, was done in by digital. The reality is somewhat more complicated. What undermined Polaroid's business model was not digital photography, which emerged only after the company was already steep in decline, but the advent of the one hour minilab and inexpensive, highly automated, and small point-and-shoot 35 mm cameras. When the choice was between waiting a week or so for your pictures or seeing them right away, Polaroid had an edge, but when you could shoot a roll of film, drop it at the minilab in the mall when you went to do your shopping, and pick up the prints before you went home, the distinction wasn't so great. Further, the quality of prints from 35 mm film on photographic paper was dramatically better; the prints were larger; and you could order additional copies or enlargements from the negatives. Large, heavy, and clunky cameras that only took 10 pictures from an expensive film pack began to look decreasingly attractive compared to pocketable 35 mm cameras that, at least for the snapshot market, nailed focus and exposure almost every time you pushed the button.

The story of Polaroid is also one of how a company can be trapped by its business model. Polaroid's laboratories produced one of the first prototypes of a digital camera. But management wasn't interested because everybody knew that revenue came from selling film, not cameras, and a digital camera didn't use film. At the same time, Polaroid was working on a pioneering inkjet photo printer, which management disdained because it didn't produce output they considered of photographic quality. Imagine how things might have been different had somebody said, “Look, it's not as good as a photographic print—yet—but it's good enough for most of our snapshot customers, and we can replace our film revenue with sales of ink and branded paper.” But nobody said that. The Polaroid microelectronics laboratory was closed in 1993, with the assets sold to MIT and the inkjet project was terminated—those working on it went off to found the premier large-format inkjet company.

In addition to the meticulously documented history, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom regarding how companies and technologies succeed and fail. In addition, this is a gorgeous book, with numerous colour illustrations (expandable and scrollable in the Kindle edition). My only quibble is that in the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text; everything else is properly linked.

Special thanks to James Lileks for recommending this book (part 2).

Posted at 23:51 Permalink

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reading List: A Thread Across the Ocean

Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. ISBN 978-0-06-052446-3.
There are inventions, and there are meta-inventions. Many things were invented in the 19th century which contributed to the wealth of the present-day developed world, but there were also concepts which emerged in that era of “anything is possible” ferment which cast even longer shadows. One of the most important is entrepreneurship—the ability of a visionary who sees beyond the horizon of the conventional wisdom to assemble the technical know-how, the financial capital, the managers and labourers to do the work, while keeping all of the balls in the air and fending off the horrific setbacks that any breakthrough technology will necessarily encounter as it matures.

Cyrus W. Field may not have been the first entrepreneur in the modern mold, but he was without doubt one of the greatest. Having started with almost no financial resources and then made his fortune in the manufacture of paper, he turned his attention to telegraphy. Why, in the mid-19th century, should news and information between the Old World and the New move only as fast as sailing ships could convey it, while the telegraph could flash information across continents in seconds? Why, indeed?—Field took a proposal to lay a submarine cable from Newfoundland to the United States to cut two days off the transatlantic latency of around two weeks to its logical limit: a cable across the entire Atlantic which could relay information in seconds, linking the continents together in a web of information which was, if low bandwidth, almost instantaneous compared to dispatches carried on ships.

Field knew next to nothing about electricity, manufacturing of insulated cables thousands of miles long, paying-out mechanisms to lay them on the seabed, or the navigational challenges in carrying a cable from one continent to another. But he was supremely confident that success in the endeavour would enrich those who accomplished it beyond their dreams of avarice, and persuasive in enlisting in the effort not only wealthy backers to pay the bills but also technological savants including Samuel F. B. Morse and William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), who invented the mirror galvanometer which made the submarine cable viable.

When you try to do something audacious which has never been attempted before, however great the promise, you shouldn't expect to succeed the first time, or the second, or the third…. Indeed, the history of transatlantic cable was one of frustration, dashed hopes, lost investments, derision in the popular press—until it worked. Then it was the wonder of the age. So it has been and shall always be with entrepreneurship.

Today, gigabytes per second flow beneath the oceans through the tubes. Unless you're in continental Eurasia, it's likely these bits reached you through one of them. It all had to start somewhere, and this is the chronicle of how that came to be. This may have been the first time it became evident there was a time value to information: that the news, financial quotes, and messages delivered in minutes instead of weeks were much more valuable than those which arrived long after the fact.

It is also interesting that the laying of the first successful transatlantic cable was almost entirely a British operation. While the American Cyrus Field was the promoter, almost all of the capital, the ships, the manufacture of the cable, and the scientific and engineering expertise in its production and deployment was British.

Posted at 23:43 Permalink

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading List: Down with Power

Smith, L. Neil. Down with Power. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61242-055-4.
In the first chapter of this superb book, the author quotes Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert”, describing himself as being “a libertarian minus the crazy stuff”, and then proceeds to ask precisely what is crazy about adopting a strict interpretation of the Zero Aggression Principle:

A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being for any reason whatever; nor will a libertarian advocate the initiation of force, or delegate it to anyone else.

Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim. (p. 20)

The subsequent chapters sort out the details of what this principle implies for contentious issues such as war powers; torture; money and legal tender laws; abortion; firearms and other weapons; “animal rights”; climate change (I do not use scare quotes on this because climate change is real and has always happened and always will—it is the hysteria over anthropogenic contributions to an eternally fluctuating process driven mostly by the Sun which is a hoax); taxation; national defence; prohibition in all of its pernicious manifestations; separation of marriage, science, and medicine from the state; immigration; intellectual property; and much more. Smith's viewpoint on these questions is largely informed by Robert LeFevre, whose wisdom he had the good fortune to imbibe at week-long seminar in 1972. (I encountered LeFevre just once, at a libertarian gathering in Marin County, California [believe it or not, such things exist, or at least existed] around 1983, and it was this experience that transformed me from a “nerf libertarian” who was prone to exclaiming “Oh, come on!” whilst reading Rothbard to the flinty variety who would go on to author the Evil Empires bumper sticker.) Sadly, Bob LeFevre is no longer with us, but if you wish to be inoculated with the burning fever of liberty which drove him and inspired those who heard him speak, this book is as close as you can come today to meeting him in person. The naïve often confuse libertarians with conservatives: to be sure, libertarians often wish to impede “progressives” whose agenda amounts to progress toward serfdom and wish, at the least, for a roll-back of the intrusions upon individual liberty which were the hallmark of the twentieth century. But genuine libertarianism, not the nerf variety, is a deeply radical doctrine which calls into question the whole leader/follower, master/slave, sovereign/subject, and state/citizen structure which has characterised human civilisation ever since hominids learned to talk and the most glib of them became politicians (“Put meat at feet of Glub and Glub give you much good stuff”).

And here is where I both quibble with and enthusiastically endorse the author's agenda. The quibble is that I fear that our species, formed by thousands of generations of hunter/gatherer and agricultural experience, has adapted, like other primates, to a social structure in which most individuals delegate decision making and even entrust their lives to “leaders” chosen by criteria deeply wired into our biology and not remotely adapted to the challenges we face today and in the future. (Hey, it could be worse: peacocks select for the most overdone tail—it's probably a blessing nakes don't have tails—imagine trying to fit them all into a joint session of Congress.) The endorsement is that I don't think it's possible to separate the spirit of individualism which is at the heart of libertarianism from the frontier. There were many things which contributed to the first American war of secession and the independent republics which emerged from it, but I believe their unique nature was in substantial part due to the fact that they were marginal settlements on the edge of an unexplored and hostile continent, where many families were entirely on their own and on the front lines, confronted by the vicissitudes of nature and crafty enemies.

Thomas Jefferson worried that as the population of cities grew compared to that of the countryside, the ethos of self-sufficiency would be eroded and be supplanted by dependency, and that this corruption and reliance upon authority founded, at its deepest level, upon the initiation of force, would subvert the morality upon which self-government must ultimately rely. In my one encounter with Robert LeFevre, he disdained the idea that “maybe if we could just get back to the Constitution” everything would be fine. Nonsense, he said: to a substantial degree the Constitution is the problem—after all, look at how it's been “interpreted” to permit all of the absurd abrogations of individual liberty and natural law since its dubious adoption in 1789. And here, I think the author may put a bit too much focus on documents (which can, have been, and forever will be) twisted by lawyers into things they never were meant to say, and too little on the frontier.

What follows is both a deeply pessimistic and unboundedly optimistic view of the human and transhuman prospect. I hope I don't lose you in the loop-the-loop. Humans, as presently constituted, have wired-in baggage which renders most of us vulnerable to glib forms of persuasion by “leaders” (who are simply those more talented than others in persuasion). The more densely humans are packed, and the greater the communication bandwidth available to them (in particular, one to many media), the more vulnerable they are to such “leadership”. Individual liberty emerges in frontier societies: those where each person and each family must be self-sufficient, without any back-up other than their relations to neighbours, but with an unlimited upside in expanding the human presence into new territory. The old America was a frontier society; the new America is a constrained society, turning inward upon itself and devouring its best to appease its worst.

So, I'm not sure this or that amendment to a document which is largely ignored will restore liberty in an environment where a near-majority of the electorate receive net benefits from the minority who pay most of the taxes. The situation in the United States, and on Earth, may well be irreversible. But the human and posthuman destiny is much, much larger than that. Perhaps we don't need a revision of governance documents as much as the opening of a frontier. Then people will be able to escape the stranglehold where seven eighths of all of their work is confiscated by the thugs who oppress them and instead use all of their sapient facilities to their own ends. As a sage author once said:

Freedom, immortality, and the stars!

Works for me. Free people expand at a rate which asymptotically approaches the speed of light. Coercive government and bureaucracy grow logarithmically, constrained by their own internal dissipation. We win; they lose.

In the Kindle edition the index is just a list of page numbers. Since the Kindle edition includes real page numbers, you can type in the number from the index, but that's not as convenient as when index citations are linked directly to references in the text.

Posted at 23:45 Permalink

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Floating Point Benchmark: Forth Language Added

I have posted an update to my trigonometry-intense floating point benchmark which adds Forth to the list of languages in which the benchmark is implemented. A new release of the benchmark collection including Forth is now available for downloading.

The Forth benchmark was developed using Gforth 0.7.0. Care was taken to use only ANS Forth in the implementation; the following word sets are used in the program:

Editing of floating point numbers is done with a stripped-down version of the fpout17 library linked on the Gforth Links to Forth programs page. The author of this program is identified only as “Ed”, and the source code indicates it is in the public domain. I have stripped out all functionality not required by the benchmark and changed some names to avoid redefinition warnings in some Forth systems. Ed, if I knew who you were, I'd buy you a beer—this code saved me a great deal of tedious work.

The relative performance of the various language implementations (with C taken as 1) is as follows. All language implementations of the benchmark listed below produced identical results to the last (11th) decimal place.

Language Relative
C 1 GCC 3.2.3 -O3, Linux
Visual Basic .NET 0.866 All optimisations, Windows XP
FORTRAN 1.008 GNU Fortran (g77) 3.2.3 -O3, Linux
Pascal 1.027
Free Pascal 2.2.0 -O3, Linux
GNU Pascal 2.1 (GCC 2.95.2) -O3, Linux
Java 1.121 Sun JDK 1.5.0_04-b05, Linux
Visual Basic 6 1.132 All optimisations, Windows XP
Haskell 1.223 GHC 7.4.1-O2 -funbox-strict-fields, Linux
Ada 1.401 GNAT/GCC 3.4.4 -O3, Linux
Lisp 7.41
GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Compiled, Linux
GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Interpreted
Smalltalk 7.59 GNU Smalltalk 2.3.5, Linux
Forth 9.92 Gforth 0.7.0, Linux
COBOL 12.5
Micro Focus Visual COBOL 2010, Windows 7
Fixed decimal instead of computational-2
Python 17.6 Python 2.3.3 -OO, Linux
Perl 23.6 Perl v5.8.0, Linux
Ruby 26.1 Ruby 1.8.3, Linux
JavaScript 27.6
Opera 8.0, Linux
Internet Explorer 6.0.2900, Windows XP
Mozilla Firefox 1.0.6, Linux
QBasic 148.3 MS-DOS QBasic 1.1, Windows XP Console

The performance compared to native C code is consistent with my experience with ATLAST more than two decades ago. There, I saw a speed penalty of a Forth-like language of between a factor of 5 and 8 compared to C code, whereas here it's around a factor of 10. But much has changed since then: optimisation of C code is much better, and we've moved from 16 bit segmented architectures to flat address spaces where native code has additional advantages compared to threaded code.

I also ran the benchmark under an evaluation version of Forth, Inc.'s SwiftForth system. I do not report results in the table above because the output differed in the last decimal place due to apparent problems in rounding floating point numbers for display. (I did not investigate this—the problem may be an incompatibility in the floating point output editing code I used.) If you wish to repeat this experiment, you'll need to un-comment the indicated statements at the top of fbench.fs and adjust the path for including the floating point library to where it is installed on your system. SwiftForth ran the benchmark around 14% slower than Gforth.

Please bear in mind that very few people do this kind of scientific computation in Forth—it is mostly used for device control and embedded software applications. Indeed, floating point came late to Forth, with fixed-point being the rule for most of the language's history. Consequently, this benchmark isn't remotely representative of the performance of most of the things people do in Forth. It is what it is—a benchmark more than thirty years old which was uncanny in its ability to determine how fast AutoCAD would run on a machine back in the day. Thinking about re-implementing AutoCAD in Forth?

    ?crazy IF

Posted at 21:52 Permalink

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reversing Myopia

I have just posted a new document, Reversing Myopia, about my experience between 2000 and the present in wearing reading glasses most of the time and its effect on the progression of myopia I'd previously experienced. This is an anecdotal report by a single individual and should be evaluated along with other evidence. And, as Thomas Sowell observed, “correlation does not imply causation” is not only one of the first things economists learn, but also one of the first things they forget.

Posted at 21:18 Permalink