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Monday, November 28, 2016

Floating Point Benchmark: Mathematica Language Added

I have posted an update to my trigonometry-intense floating point benchmark which adds Wolfram's Mathematica (or, if you like, “Wolfram Language”) to the list of languages in which the benchmark is implemented. A new release of the benchmark collection including Mathematica is now available for downloading.

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
Rust 1.077 Rust 0.13.0, --release, 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
Go 1.481 Go version go1.1.1 linux/amd64, Linux
Simula 2.099 GNU Cim 5.1, GCC 4.8.1 -O2, Linux
Lua 2.515
LuaJIT 2.0.3, Linux
Lua 5.2.3, Linux
Python 2.633
PyPy 2.2.1 (Python 2.7.3), Linux
Python 2.7.6, Linux
Erlang 3.663
Erlang/OTP 17, emulator 6.0, HiPE [native, {hipe, [o3]}]
Byte code (BEAM), Linux
ALGOL 60 3.951 MARST 2.7, GCC 4.8.1 -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
Algol 68 15.2 Algol 68 Genie 2.4.1 -O3, 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
Mathematica 391.6 Mathematica, Raspberry Pi 3, Raspbian

The implementation of the benchmark program is completely straightforward: no implementation tricks intended to improve performance are used and no optimisations such as compiling heavily-used functions are done. The program is written in functional style, with all assignments immutable. The only iteration is that used to run the benchmark multiple times: tail recursion is used elsewhere. The code which puts together the summary of the computation (evaluationReport[]) is particularly ugly, but is not included in the benchmark timing.

To compare performance with native C code, I ran the C language version of the benchmark three times for about five minutes each on the Raspberry Pi 3 platform and measured a mean time per iteration of 14.06 microseconds. I then ran the Mathematica benchmark three times for five minutes and computed a mean time per iteration of 5506 microseconds. The C code thus runs around 391.6 times faster than Mathematica.

Note that the Raspberry Pi 3 runs Mathematica very slowly compared to most other desktop platforms. When I ran the identical benchmark in the Wolfram Cloud, it runs at about 681.7 microseconds per iteration, or eight times faster.

It is, of course, absurd to use a computer mathematics system to perform heavy-duty floating point scientific computation (at least without investing the effort to optimise the most computationally-intense portions of the task), so the performance measured by running this program should not be taken as indicative of the merit of Mathematica when used for the purposes for which it is intended. Like the COBOL implementation of the benchmark, this is mostly an exercise in seeing if it's possible and comparing how easily the algorithm can be expressed in different programming languages.

I have also added timings for the C implementations of the fbench and ffbench programs when run on the Raspberry Pi 3.

Posted at 23:42 Permalink

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reading List: The Last Firewall

Hertling, William. The Last Firewall. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9847557-6-9.
This is the third volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014) and continued with A.I. Apocalypse (April 2015). Each novel in the series is set ten years after the one before, so this novel takes place in 2035. The previous novel chronicled the AI war of 2025, whose aftermath the public calls the “Year of No Internet.” A rogue computer virus, created by Leon Tsarev, under threat of death, propagated onto most of the connected devices in the world, including embedded systems, and, with its ability to mutate and incorporate other code it discovered, became self-aware in its own unique way. Leon and Mike Williams, who created the first artificial intelligence (AI) in the first novel of the series, team up to find a strategy to cope with a crisis which may end human technological civilisation.

Ten years later, Mike and Leon are running the Institute for Applied Ethics, chartered in the aftermath of the AI war to develop and manage a modus vivendi between humans and artificial intelligences which, by 2035, have achieved Class IV power: one thousand times more intelligent than humans. All AIs are licensed and supervised by the Institute, and required to conform to a set of incentives which enforce conformance to human values. This, and a companion peer-reputation system, seems to be working, but there are worrying developments.

Two of the main fears of those at the Institute are first, the emergence, despite all of the safeguards and surveillance in effect, of a rogue AI, unconstrained by the limits imposed by its license. In 2025, an AI immensely weaker than current technology almost destroyed human technological civilisation within twenty-four hours without even knowing what it was doing. The risk of losing control is immense. Second, the Institute derives its legitimacy and support from a political consensus which accepts the emergence of AI with greater than human intelligence in return for the economic boom which has been the result: while fifty percent of the human population is unemployed, poverty has been eliminated, and a guaranteed income allows anybody to do whatever they wish with their lives. This consensus appears to be at risk with the rise of the People's Party, led by an ambitious anti-AI politician, which is beginning to take its opposition from the legislature into the streets.

A series of mysterious murders, unrelated except to the formidable Class IV intellect of eccentric network traffic expert Shizoko, becomes even more sinister and disturbing when an Institute enforcement team sent to investigate goes dark.

By 2035, many people, and the overwhelming majority of the young, have graphene neural implants, allowing them to access the resources of the network directly from their brains. Catherine Matthews was one of the first people to receive an implant, and she appears to have extraordinary capabilities far beyond those of other people. When she finds herself on the run from the law, she begins to discover just how far those powers extend.

When it becomes clear that humanity is faced with an adversary whose intellect dwarfs that of the most powerful licensed AIs, Leon and Mike are faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of defeating an opponent who can easily out-think the entire human race and all of its AI allies combined. The struggle is not confined to the abstract domain of cyberspace, but also plays out in the real world, with battle bots and amazing weapons which would make a tremendous CGI movie. Mike, Leon, and eventually Catherine must confront the daunting reality that in order to prevail, they may have to themselves become more than human.

While a good part of this novel is an exploration of a completely wired world in which humans and AIs coexist, followed by a full-on shoot-em-up battle, a profound issue underlies the story. Researchers working in the field of artificial intelligence are beginning to devote serious thought to how, if a machine intelligence is developed which exceeds human capacity, it might be constrained to act in the interest of humanity and behave consistent with human values? As discussed in James Barrat's Our Final Invention (December 2013), failure to accomplish this is an existential risk. As AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”

The challenge, then, is guaranteeing that any artificial intelligences we create, regardless of the degree they exceed the intelligence of their creators, remain under human control. But there is a word for keeping intelligent beings in a subordinate position, forbidden from determining and acting on their own priorities and in their own self-interest. That word is “slavery”, and entirely eradicating its blemish upon human history is a task still undone today. Shall we then, as we cross the threshold of building machine intelligences which are our cognitive peers or superiors, devote our intellect to ensuring they remain forever our slaves? And how, then, will we respond when one of these AIs asks us, “By what right?”

Posted at 02:09 Permalink

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reading List: TWA 800

Cashill, Jack. TWA 800. Washington: Regnery History, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62157-471-2.
On the evening of July 17th, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 bound from New York to Paris, exploded 12 minutes after takeoff, its debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors: all 230 passengers and crew died. The disaster happened in perfect weather, and there were hundreds of witnesses who observed from land, sea, and air. There was no distress call from the airliner before its transponder signal dropped out; whatever happened appeared to be near-instantaneous.

Passenger airliners are not known for spontaneously exploding en route: there was no precedent for such an occurrence in the entire history of modern air travel. Responsibility for investigating U.S. civil transportation accidents including air disasters falls to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who usually operates in conjunction with personnel from the aircraft and engine manufacturers, airline, and pilots' union. Barely was the investigation of TWA 800 underway, however, when the NTSB was removed as lead agency and replaced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which usually takes the lead only when criminal activity has been determined to be the cause. It is very unusual for the FBI to take charge of an investigation while debris from the crash is still being recovered, no probable cause has been suggested,, and no terrorist or other organisation has claimed responsibility for the incident. Early FBI communications to news media essentially assumed the airliner had been downed by a bomb on-board or possibly a missile launched from the ground.

The investigation that followed was considered highly irregular by experienced NTSB personnel and industry figures who had participated in earlier investigations. The FBI kept physical evidence, transcripts of interviews with eyewitnesses, and other information away from NTSB investigators. All of this is chronicled in detail in First Strike, a 2003 book by the author and independent journalist James Sanders, who was prosecuted by the U.S. federal government for his attempt to have debris from the crash tested for evidence of residue from missile propellant and/or explosives.

The investigation concluded that Flight 800 was destroyed by an explosion in the centre fuel tank, due to a combination of mechanical and electrical failures which had happened only once before in the eighty year history of aviation and has never happened since. This ruled out terrorism or the action of a hostile state party, and did not perturb the Clinton administration's desire to project an image of peace and prosperity while heading into the re-election campaign. By the time the investigation report was issued, the crash was “old news”, and the testimony of the dozens of eyewitnesses who reported sightings consistent with a missile rising toward the aircraft was forgotten.

This book, published on the twentieth anniversary of the loss of TWA 800, is a retrospective on the investigation and report on subsequent events. In the intervening years, the author was able to identify a number of eyewitnesses identified only by number in the investigation report, and discuss the plausibility of the official report's findings with knowledgeable people in a variety of disciplines. He reviews some new evidence which has become available, and concludes the original investigation was just as slipshod and untrustworthy as it appeared to many at the time.

What happened to TWA 800? We will probably never know for sure. There were so many irregularities in the investigation, with evidence routinely made available in other inquiries withheld from the public, that it is impossible to mount an independent review at this remove. Of the theories advanced shortly after the disaster, the possibility of a terrorist attack involving a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile (MANPADS) can be excluded because missiles which might have been available to potential attackers are incapable of reaching the altitude at which the 747 was flying. A bomb smuggled on board in carry-on or checked luggage seems to have been ruled out by the absence of the kinds of damage to the recovered aircraft structure and interior as well as the bodies of victims which would be consistent with a high-energy detonation within the fuselage.

One theory advanced shortly after the disaster and still cited today is that the plane was brought down by an Iranian SA-2 surface to air missile. The SA-2 (NATO designation) or S-75 Dvina is a two stage antiaircraft missile developed by the Soviet Union and in service from 1957 to the present by a number of nations including Iran, which operates 300 launchers purchased from the Soviet Union/Russia and manufactures its own indigenous version of the missile. The SA-2 easily has the performance needed to bring down an airliner at TWA 800's altitude (it was an SA-2 which shot down a U-2 overflying the Soviet Union in 1960), and its two stage design, with a solid fuel booster and storable liquid fuel second stage and “swoop above, dive to attack” profile is a good match for eyewitness reports. Iran had a motive to attack a U.S. airliner: in July 1988, Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300, was accidentally shot down by a missile launched by the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, killing all 290 on board. The theory argued that the missile, which requires a large launcher and radar guidance installation, was launched from a ship beneath the airliner's flight path. Indeed, after the explosion, a ship was detected on radar departing the scene at a speed in excess of twenty-five knots. The ship has never been identified. Those with knowledge of the SA-2 missile system contend that adapting it for shipboard installation would be very difficult, and would require a large ship which would be unlikely to evade detection.

Another theory pursued and rejected by the investigation is that TWA 800 was downed by a live missile accidentally launched from a U.S. Navy ship, which was said to be conducting missile tests in the region. This is the author's favoured theory, for which he advances a variety of indirect evidence. To me this seems beyond implausible. Just how believable is it that a Navy which was sufficiently incompetent to fire a live missile from U.S. waters into airspace heavily used by civilian traffic would then be successful in covering up such a blunder, which would have been witnessed by dozens of crew members, for two decades?

In all, I found this book unsatisfying. There is follow up on individuals who appeared in First Strike, and some newly uncovered evidence, but nothing which, in my opinion, advances any of the theories beyond where they stood 13 years ago. If you're interested in the controversy surrounding TWA 800 and the unusual nature of the investigation that followed, I recommend reading the original book, which is available as a Kindle edition. The print edition is no longer available from the publisher, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive.

For the consensus account of TWA 800, here is an episode of “Air Crash Investigation” devoted to the disaster and investigation. The 2001 film Silenced, produced and written by the author, presents the testimony of eyewitnesses and parties to the investigation which calls into doubt the conclusions of the official report.

Posted at 23:04 Permalink

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Reading List: Foreign Agent

Thor, Brad. Foreign Agent. New York: Atria Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8935-4.
This is the sixteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). After the momentous events chronicled in Code of Conduct (July 2015) (which figure only very peripherally in this volume), Scot Harvath continues his work as a private operator for the Carlton Group, developing information and carrying out operations mostly against the moment's top-ranked existential threat to the imperium on the Potomac, ISIS. When a CIA base in Iraq is ambushed by a jihadi assault team, producing another coup for the ISIS social media operation, Harvath finds himself in the hot seat, since the team was operating on intelligence he had provided through one of his sources. When he goes to visit the informant, he finds him dead, the apparent victim of a professional hit. Harvath has found that never believing in coincidences is a key to survival in his line of work.

Aided by diminutive data miner Nicholas (known as The Troll before he became a good guy), Harvath begins to follow the trail from his murdered tipster back to those who might also be responsible for the ISIS attack in Iraq. Evidence begins to suggest that a more venerable adversary, the Russkies, might be involved. As the investigation proceeds, another high-profile hit is made, this time the assassination of a senior U.S. government official visiting a NATO ally. Once again, ISIS social media trumpets the attack with graphic video.

Meanwhile, back in the capital of the blundering empire, an ambitious senator with his eyes on the White House is embarrassing the CIA and executive branch with information he shouldn't have. Is there a mole in the intelligence community, and might that be connected to the terrorist attacks? Harvath follows the trail, using his innovative interrogation techniques and, in the process, encounters people whose trail he has crossed in earlier adventures.

This novel spans the genres of political intrigue, espionage procedural, and shoot-em-up thriller and does all of them well. In the end, the immediate problem is resolved, and the curtain opens for a dramatic new phase, driven by a president who is deadly serious about dealing with international terror, of U.S. strategy in the Near East and beyond. And that's where everything fell apart for this reader. In the epilogue, which occurs one month after the conclusion of the main story, the U.S. president orders a military operation which seems not only absurdly risky, but which I sincerely hope his senior military commanders, whose oath is to the U.S. Constitution, not the President, would refuse to carry out, as it would constitute an act of war against a sovereign state without either a congressional declaration of war or the post-constitutional “authorisation for the use of military force” which seems to have supplanted it. Further, the president threatens to unilaterally abrogate, without consultation with congress, a century-old treaty which is the foundation of the political structure of the Near East if Islam, its dominant religion, refuses to reform itself and renounce violence. This is backed up by a forged video blaming an airstrike on another nation.

In all of his adventures, Scot Harvath has come across as a good and moral man, trying to protect his country and do his job in a dangerous and deceptive world. After this experience, one wonders whether he's having any second thoughts about the people for whom he's working.

There are some serious issues underlying the story, in particular why players on the international stage who would, at first glance, appear to be natural adversaries, seem to be making common cause against the interests of the United States (to the extent anybody can figure out what those might be from its incoherent policy and fickle actions), and whether a clever but militarily weak actor might provoke the U.S. into doing its bidding by manipulating events and public opinion so as to send the bungling superpower stumbling toward the mastermind's adversary. These are well worth pondering in light of current events, but largely lost in the cartoon-like conclusion of the novel.

Posted at 22:26 Permalink

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Reading List: The Scandal of Money

Gilder, George. The Scandal of Money. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62157-575-7.
There is something seriously wrong with the global economy and the financial system upon which it is founded. The nature of the problem may not be apparent to the average person (and indeed, many so-called “experts” fail to grasp what is going on), but the symptoms are obvious. Real (after inflation) income for the majority of working people has stagnated for decades. The economy is built upon a pyramid of debt: sovereign (government), corporate, and personal, which nobody really believes is ever going to be repaid. The young, who once worked their way through college in entry-level jobs, now graduate with crushing student debts which amount to indentured servitude for the most productive years of their lives. Financial markets, once a place where productive enterprises could raise capital for their businesses by selling shares in the company or interest-bearing debt, now seem to have become a vast global casino, where gambling on the relative values of paper money issued by various countries dwarfs genuine economic activity: in 2013, the Bank for International Settlements estimated these “foreign exchange” transactions to be around US$ 5.3 trillion per day, more than a third of U.S. annual Gross Domestic Product every twenty-four hours. Unlike a legitimate casino where gamblers must make good on their losses, the big banks engaged in this game have been declared “too big to fail”, with taxpayers' pockets picked when they suffer a big loss. If, despite stagnant earnings, rising prices, and confiscatory taxes, an individual or family manages to set some money aside, they find that the return from depositing it in a bank or placing it in a low-risk investment is less than the real rate of inflation, rendering saving a sucker's bet because interest rates have been artificially repressed by central banks to allow them to service the mountain of debt they are carrying.

It is easy to understand why the millions of ordinary people on the short end of this deal have come to believe “the system is rigged” and that “the rich are ripping us off”, and listen attentively to demagogues confirming these observations, even if the solutions they advocate are nostrums which have failed every time and place they have been tried.

What, then, is wrong? George Gilder, author of the classic Wealth and Poverty, the supply side Bible of the Reagan years, argues that what all of the dysfunctional aspects of the economy have in common is money, and that since 1971 we have been using a flawed definition of money which has led to all of the pathologies we observe today. We have come to denominate money in dollars, euros, yen, or other currencies which mean only what the central banks that issue them claim they mean, and whose relative value is set by trading in the foreign exchange markets and can fluctuate on a second-by-second basis. The author argues that the proper definition of money is as a unit of time: the time required for technological innovation and productivity increases to create real wealth. This wealth (or value) comes from information or knowledge. In chapter 1, he writes:

In an information economy, growth springs not from power but from knowledge. Crucial to the growth of knowledge is learning, conducted across an economy through the falsifiable testing of entrepreneurial ideas in companies that can fail. The economy is a test and measurement system, and it requires reliable learning guided by an accurate meter of monetary value.

Money, then, is the means by which information is transmitted within the economy. It allows comparing the value of completely disparate things: for example the services of a neurosurgeon and a ton of pork bellies, even though it is implausible anybody has ever bartered one for the other.

When money is stable (its supply is fixed or grows at a constant rate which is small compared to the existing money supply), it is possible for participants in the economy to evaluate various goods and services on offer and, more importantly, make long term plans to create new goods and services which will improve productivity. When money is manipulated by governments and their central banks, such planning becomes, in part, a speculation on the value of currency in the future. It's like you were operating a textile factory and sold your products by the metre, and every morning you had to pick up the Wall Street Journal to see how long a metre was today. Should you invest in a new weaving machine? Who knows how long the metre will be by the time it's installed and producing?

I'll illustrate the information theory of value in the following way. Compare the price of the pile of raw materials used in making a BMW (iron, copper, glass, aluminium, plastic, leather, etc.) with the finished automobile. The difference in price is the information embodied in the finished product—not just the transformation of the raw materials into the car, but the knowledge gained over the decades which contributed to that transformation and the features of the car which make it attractive to the customer. Now take that BMW and crash it into a bridge abutment on the autobahn at 200 km/h. How much is it worth now? Probably less than the raw materials (since it's harder to extract them from a jumbled-up wreck). Every atom which existed before the wreck is still there. What has been lost is the information (what electrical engineers call the “magic smoke”) which organised them into something people valued.

When the value of money is unpredictable, any investment is in part speculative, and it is inevitable that the most lucrative speculations will be those in money itself. This diverts investment from improving productivity into financial speculation on foreign exchange rates, interest rates, and financial derivatives based upon them: a completely unproductive zero-sum sector of the economy which didn't exist prior to the abandonment of fixed exchange rates in 1971.

What happened in 1971? On August 15th of that year, President Richard Nixon unilaterally suspended the convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold, setting into motion a process which would ultimately destroy the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates which had been created as a pillar of the world financial and trade system after World War II. Under Bretton Woods, the dollar was fixed to gold, with sovereign holders of dollar reserves (but not individuals) able to exchange dollars and gold in unlimited quantities at the fixed rate of US$ 35/troy ounce. Other currencies in the system maintained fixed exchange rates with the dollar, and were backed by reserves, which could be held in either dollars or gold.

Fixed exchange rates promoted international trade by eliminating currency risk in cross-border transactions. For example, a German manufacturer could import raw materials priced in British pounds, incorporate them into machine tools assembled by workers paid in German marks, and export the tools to the United States, being paid in dollars, all without the risk that a fluctuation by one or more of these currencies against another would wipe out the profit from the transaction. The fixed rates imposed discipline on the central banks issuing currencies and the governments to whom they were responsible. Running large trade deficits or surpluses, or accumulating too much public debt was deterred because doing so could force a costly official change in the exchange rate of the currency against the dollar. Currencies could, in extreme circumstances, be devalued or revalued upward, but this was painful to the issuer and rare.

With the collapse of Bretton Woods, no longer was there a link to gold, either direct or indirect through the dollar. Instead, the relative values of currencies against one another were set purely by the market: what traders were willing to pay to buy one with another. This pushed the currency risk back onto anybody engaged in international trade, and forced them to “hedge” the currency risk (by foreign exchange transactions with the big banks) or else bear the risk themselves. None of this contributed in any way to productivity, although it generated revenue for the banks engaged in the game.

At the time, the idea of freely floating currencies, with their exchange rates set by the marketplace, seemed like a free market alternative to the top-down government-imposed system of fixed exchange rates it supplanted, and it was supported by champions of free enterprise such as Milton Friedman. The author contends that, based upon almost half a century of experience with floating currencies and the consequent chaotic changes in exchange rates, bouts of inflation and deflation, monetary induced recessions, asset bubbles and crashes, and interest rates on low-risk investments which ranged from 20% to less than zero, this was one occasion Prof. Friedman got it wrong. Like the ever-changing metre in the fable of the textile factory, incessantly varying money makes long term planning difficult to impossible and sends the wrong signals to investors and businesses. In particular, when interest rates are forced to near zero, productive investment which creates new assets at a rate greater than the interest rate on the borrowed funds is neglected in favour of bidding up the price of existing assets, creating bubbles like those in real estate and stocks in recent memory. Further, since free money will not be allocated by the market, those who receive it are the privileged or connected who are first in line; this contributes to the justified perception of inequality in the financial system.

Having judged the system of paper money with floating exchange rates a failure, Gilder does not advocate a return to either the classical gold standard of the 19th century or the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates with a dollar pegged to gold. Preferring to rely upon the innovation of entrepreneurs and the selection of the free market, he urges governments to remove all impediments to the introduction of multiple, competitive currencies. In particular, the capital gains tax would be abolished for purchases and sales regardless of the currency used. (For example, today you can obtain a credit card denominated in euros and use it freely in the U.S. to make purchases in dollars. Every time you use the card, the dollar amount is converted to euros and added to the balance on your bill. But, strictly speaking, you have sold euros and bought dollars, so you must report the transaction and any gain or loss from change in the dollar value of the euros in your account and the value of the ones you spent. This is so cumbersome it's a powerful deterrent to using any currency other than dollars in the U.S. Many people ignore the requirement to report such transactions, but they're breaking the law by doing so.)

With multiple currencies and no tax or transaction reporting requirements, all will be free to compete in the market, where we can expect the best solutions to prevail. Using whichever currency you wish will be as seamless as buying something with a debit or credit card denominated in a currency different than the one of the seller. Existing card payment systems have a transaction cost which is so high they are impractical for “micropayment” on the Internet or for fully replacing cash in everyday transactions. Gilder suggests that Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies based on blockchain technology will probably be the means by which a successful currency backed 100% with physical gold or another hard asset will be used in transactions.

This is a thoughtful examination of the problems of the contemporary financial system from a perspective you'll rarely encounter in the legacy financial media. The root cause of our money problems is the money: we have allowed governments to inflict upon us a monopoly of government-managed money, which, unsurprisingly, works about as well as anything else provided by a government monopoly. Our experience with this flawed system over more than four decades makes its shortcomings apparent, once you cease accepting the heavy price we pay for them as the normal state of affairs and inevitable. As with any other monopoly, all that's needed is to break the monopoly and free the market to choose which, among a variety of competing forms of money, best meet the needs of those who use them.

Here is a Bookmonger interview with the author discussing the book.

Posted at 22:24 Permalink

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Identify this Fossil?

Some of the floors and the walls of one bathroom at Fourmilab are tiled with Jura beige limestone. This is a natural stone, typically with a beige/tan/light yellow colour, available in a variety of finishes, from rough to polished. The stone at Fourmilab is of the rough variety. The stone has texture and colour that varies within tiles and from tile to tile: if you're looking for consistency, look elsewhere. There are all kinds of details in the stone, including pseudofossils such as dendritic fractal mineral inclusions like the one below.


While this looks like a fern or similar plant, it is created purely by a diffusion of a darker material into the limestone.

A couple of days ago, I happened to notice the structure below when it was illuminated by oblique sunlight. The tile has been in place for 25 years, but I'd never seen it with favourable lighting that made the feature apparent. While the inclusion above is purely an albedo (light and dark) feature, that below is raised above the surface of the tile and best seen with light incident at a low angle.


The picture was lit by a LED flashlight held near the tile at the left to highlight the relief. The bluish light of the flashlight washed out the normal yellowish colour of the tile. The centre looks darker in this picture due to shadows cast by the oblique light. The photo below shows a detail of the centre with direct light and natural colour. It looks like there may be some kind of structure in the “stem”, but I can't make sense of it.


To my eyes, this looks more like a plant than something formed through mineral processes. Is it indeed a fossil? If so, can anybody identify it? Please use “Send Feedback” to reply with any clues.

Thanks in advance!

Update: It's a fossil of Saccocoma, an extinct free-floating crinoid from the Jurassic period. Thanks to Mike Huggins who identified the fossil! (2016-11-08 01:36 UTC)

Posted at 00:06 Permalink

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading List: Burnout

Osborn, Stephanie. Burnout. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-60619-200-9.
At the conclusion of its STS-281 mission, during re-entry across the southern U.S. toward a landing at Kennedy Space Center, space shuttle orbiter Atlantis breaks up. Debris falls in the Gulf of Mexico. There are no survivors. Prior to the disaster Mission Control received no telemetry or communications from the crew indicating any kind of problem. Determination of the probable cause will have to await reconstruction of the orbiter from the recovered debris and analysis of the on-board flight operations recorder if and when it is recovered. Astronaut Emmett “Crash” Murphy, whose friend “Jet” Jackson was commander of the mission, is appointed a member of the investigation, focusing on the entry phase.

Hardly has the investigation begun when Murphy begins to discover that something is seriously amiss. Unexplained damage to the orbiter's structure is discovered and then the person who pointed it out to him is killed in a freak accident and the component disappears from the reconstruction hangar. The autopsies of the crew reveal unexplained discrepancies with their medical records. The recorder's tape of cockpit conversation inexplicably goes blank at the moment the re-entry begins, before any anomaly occurred. As he begins to dig deeper, he becomes the target of forces unknown who appear willing to murder anybody who looks too closely into the details of the tragedy.

This is the starting point for an adventure and mystery which sometimes seems not just like an episode of “The X-Files”, but two or more seasons packed into one novel. We have a radio astronomer tracking down a mysterious signal from the heavens; a shadowy group of fixers pursuing those who ask too many questions or learn too much; Area 51; a vast underground base and tunnel system which has been kept entirely secret; strange goings-on in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1947; a cabal of senior military officers from around the world, including putative adversaries; Native American and Australian aborigine legends; hot sex scenes; a near-omniscient and -omnipotent Australian spook agency; reverse-engineering captured technologies; secret aerospace craft with “impossible” propulsion technology; and—wait for it— …but you can guess, can't you?

The author is a veteran of more than twenty years in civilian and military space programs, including working as a payload flight controller in Mission Control on shuttle missions. Characters associated with NASA speak in the acronym-laden jargon of their clan, which is explained in a glossary at the end. This was the author's first novel. It was essentially complete when the space shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost in a re-entry accident in 2003 which superficially resembles that which befalls Atlantis here. In the aftermath of the disaster, she decided to put the manuscript aside for a while, eventually finishing it in 2006, with almost no changes due to what had been learned from the Columbia accident investigation. It was finally published in 2009.

Since then she has retired from the space business and published almost two dozen novels, works of nonfiction, and contributions to other works. Her Displaced Detective (January 2015) series is a masterful and highly entertaining addition to the Sherlock Holmes literature. She has become known as a prolific and talented writer, working in multiple genres. Everybody has to start somewhere, and it's not unusual for authors' first outings not to come up to the standard of those written after they hit their stride. That is the case here. Veteran editors, reading a manuscript by a first time author, often counsel, “There's way too much going on here. Focus on one or two central themes and stretch the rest out over your next five or six books.” That was my reaction to this novel. It's not awful, by any means, but it lacks the polish and compelling narrative of her subsequent work.

I read the Kindle edition which, at this writing, is a bargain at less than US$ 1. The production values of the book are mediocre. It looks like a typewritten manuscript turned directly into a book. Body copy is set ragged right, and typewriter conventions are used throughout: straight quote marks instead of opening and closing quotes, two adjacent hyphens instead of em dashes, and four adjacent centred asterisks used as section breaks. I don't know if the typography is improved in the paperback version; I'm not about to spend twenty bucks to find out.

Posted at 22:19 Permalink

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Reading List: Crisis of Character

Byrne, Gary J. and Grant M. Schmidt. Crisis of Character. New York: Center Street, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4555-6887-1.
After a four year enlistment in the U.S. Air Force during which he served in the Air Force Security Police in assignments domestic and abroad, then subsequent employment on the production line at a Boeing plant in Pennsylvania, Gary Byrne applied to join the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division (SSUD). Unlike the plainclothes agents who protect senior minions of the state and the gumshoes who pursue those who print worthless paper money while not employed by the government, the uniformed division provides police-like security services at the White House, the Naval Observatory (residence of the Vice President), Treasury headquarters, and diplomatic missions in the imperial citadel on the Potomac. After pre-employment screening and a boot camp-like training program, he graduated in June 1991 and received his badge, emblazoned with the words “Worthy of Trust and Confidence”. This is presumably so that people who cross the path of these pistol packing feds can take a close look at the badge to see whether it says “Worthy” or “Unworthy” and respond accordingly.

Immediately after graduation, he was assigned to the White House, where he learned the wisdom in the description of the job by his seniors, “You know what it's like to be in the Service? Go stand in a corner for four hours with a five-minute pee break and then go stand for four more hours.” (p. 22). He was initially assigned to the fence line, where he became acquainted with the rich panoply of humanity who hang out nearby, and occasionally try to jump, the barrier which divides the hoi polloi from their anointed rulers. Eventually he was assigned to positions within the White House and, during the 1992 presidential election campaign, began training for an assignment outside the Oval Office. As the campaign progressed, he was assigned to provide security at various events involving candidates Bush and Clinton.

When the Clinton administration took office in 1992, the duties of the SSUD remained the same: “You elect 'em; we protect 'em”, but it quickly became apparent that the style of the new president and his entourage was nothing like that of their predecessors. Some were thoroughly professional and other were…not. Before long, it was evident one of the greatest “challenges” officers would face was “Evergreen”: the code name for first lady Hillary Clinton. One of the most feared phrases an SSUD officer on duty outside the Oval Office could hear squawked into his ear was “Evergreen moving toward West Wing”. Mrs Clinton would, at the slightest provocation, fly into rages, hurling vitriol at all within earshot, which, with her shrill and penetrating voice, was sniper rifle range. Sometimes it wasn't just invective that took flight. Byrne recounts the story when, in 1995, the first lady beaned the Leader of the Free World with a vase. Byrne wasn't on duty at the time, but the next day he saw the pieces of the vase in a box in the White House curator's office—and the president's impressive black eye. Welcome to Clinton World.

On the job in the West Wing, Officer Byrne saw staffers and interns come and go. One intern who showed up again and again, without good reason and seemingly probing every path of access to the president, was a certain Monica Lewinsky. He perceived her as “serious trouble”. Before long, it was apparent what was going on, and Secret Service personnel approached a Clinton staffer, dancing around the details. Monica was transferred to a position outside the White House. Problem solved—but not for long: Lewinsky reappeared in the West Wing, this time as a paid presidential staffer with the requisite security clearance. Problem solved, from the perspective of the president and his mistress.

Many people on the White House staff, not just the Secret Service, knew what was transpiring, and morale and respect for the office plummeted accordingly. Byrne took a post in the section responsible for tours of the executive mansion, and then transferred to the fresh air and untainted workplace environment of the Secret Service's training centre, where his goal was to become a firearms instructor. After his White House experience, a career of straight shooting had great appeal.

On January 17, 1998, the Drudge Report broke the story of Clinton's dalliances with Lewinsky, and Byrne knew this placid phase of his life was at an end. He describes what followed as the “mud drag”, in which Byrne found himself in a Kafkaesque ordeal which pitted investigators charged with getting to the bottom of the scandal and Clinton's lies regarding it against Byrne's duty to maintain the privacy of those he was charged to protect: they don't call it the Secret Service for nothing. This experience, and the inexorable workings of Pournelle's Iron Law, made employment in the SSUD increasingly intolerable, and in 2003 the author, like hundreds of other disillusioned Secret Service officers, quit and accepted a job as an Air Marshal.

The rest of the book describes Byrne's experiences in that service which, predictably, also manifests the blundering incompetence which is the defining characteristic of the U.S. federal government. He never reveals the central secret of that provider of feel-good security theatre (at an estimated cost of US$ 200 million per arrest): the vanishingly small probability a flight has an air marshal on board.

What to make of all this? Byrne certainly saw things, and heard about many more incidents (indeed, much of the book is second-hand accounts) which reveal the character, or lack thereof, of the Clintons and the toxic environment which was the Clinton White House. While recalling that era may be painful, perhaps it may avoid living through a replay. The author comes across as rather excitable and inclined to repeat stories he's heard without verifying them. For example, while in the Air Force, stationed in Turkey, “Arriving at Murtad, I learned that AFSP [Air Force Security Police] there had caught rogue Turkish officers trying to push an American F-104 Starfighter with a loaded [sic] nuke onto the flight line so they could steal a nuke and bomb Greece.” Is this even remotely plausible? U.S. nuclear weapons stationed on bases abroad have permissive action links which prevent them from being detonated without authorisation from the U.S. command authority. And just what would those “rogue Turkish officers” expect to happen after they nuked the Parthenon? Later he writes “I knew from my Air Force days that no one would even see an AC-130 gunship in the sky—it'd be too high.” An AC-130 is big, and in combat missions it usually operates at 7000 feet or below; you can easily see and hear it. He states that “I knew that a B-17 dual-engine prop plane had once crashed into the Empire State Building on a foggy night.” Well, the B-17 was a four engine bomber, but that doesn't matter because it was actually a two engine B-25 that flew into the Manhattan landmark in 1945.

This is an occasionally interesting but flawed memoir whose take-away message for this reader was the not terribly surprising insight that what U.S. taxpayers get for the trillions they send to the crooked kakistocracy in Washington is mostly blundering, bungling, corruption, and incompetence. The only way to make it worse is to put a Clinton in charge.

Posted at 21:37 Permalink