Sunday, December 01, 2019

Ruins

Lots of people like to visit ruins. I'm one.

Someone put part of their life into building those walls, and others into living there, and these relics are a connection to those lives. Perhaps even haunted by them--though I never noticed any ghosts.

There's mystery if we don't know the people who lived there, and old memories if we do.

We can fill the missing space with our own imagination, without any inconveniences like odors or beggars or unfriendly guards. What would they have been like? Can we tell what they loved from what remains?

We see the power of nature overwhelming human effort--which is either humbling or grand depending on how you feel about nature. (Or it's a testimony to high speed lead and high explosive--depends on the ruin.)

There's a reminder that sometimes something lasts past ourselves, even if it isn't the whole. We don't always get to choose which things are going to last.

We get a sense of how little our plans mean in the big picture. We do tend to take ourselves rather seriously, don't we?

They remind us of our own mortality and the failure of all our plans. It doesn't hurt (Ecclesiastes suggests we make it a priority) to remember that we're going to die.

They remind us that our own lives--right now--are generally ruins already, fragments of what ought to and might have been.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Fresnel X-rays

You've all seen an ordinary magnifying glass--it looks like a section of a glass sphere, maybe flat on one side, or maybe with both sides curved. Since all the bending of light happens at the surface, what happens if you cut out the excess and just use hundreds or thousands of little (disjoint) sections? Augustin-Jean Fresnel thought of it, and developed the lenses that bear his name. His thought was for lighthouses to be more powerful by capturing and focussing more of the light, and it worked very well. There's graininess in the image you get when using these things, but that's the price you pay for compactness.

How do you focus X-rays? They can be scattered in coherent ways by crystals--suppose you used little slices of crystals tilted at increasing angles and stacked in rings?

Turns out somebody else thought of the idea first. The Laue lens uses crystals in concentric rings. You can get pretty decent focus, too: 8.4nm × 6.8nm .

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Greed

The sermon today used the parable of the rich fool to discuss greed. "Build bigger barns"... I was measuring the old 6x6 bookcase I built O(33) years ago and wondering where I would put the books displaced by the shelf redesign.

Possessions aren't just things, of course. We can collect experiences, or knowledge. Those are all good things too. I've not been one to try all sorts of new experiences unless they are somehow integrated into my life (and don't unduly risk said life or involve heights). Adventures? "Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" I loved walking the jungle as a kid, though, and wandering is still a joy, albeit sometimes knee-limited and mosquito-haunted. Knowledge, though--yes, I've been pretty greedy for that. Luckily it isn't a limited resource--nobody loses if I gain.

I wonder--how many of these things are paying returns for the God who entrusted them to me? "Love, joy, peace, patience etc..." I try to distill what I've learned and explain, and point people to useful or interesting things, but I'm not sure the ROI has been that large.

A giant scam

BBC has an interesting story about OneCoin--how it started out as a blockchain currency without a blockchain, got hyped by a multilevel marketer, and is still selling despite the disappearance of the founder.
Bjercke would get an apartment and a car - and an attractive annual salary of about £250,000.

"I was thinking: 'What is my job going to be? What are the things that I'm going to have to do for this company?'" he recalls.

"And he said: 'Well, first of all, they need a blockchain. They don't have a blockchain today.'

"I said: 'What? You told me it was a cryptocurrency company.'"

The agent replied that this was correct. It was a cryptocurrency company, and it had been running for a while - but it didn't have a blockchain. "So we need you to build a blockchain," he went on.

and then

In May 2015, already a very successful MLM seller, Igor Alberts was invited to a OneCoin event in Dubai, where he met lots of people, all apparently making fortunes with this new currency. Dr Ruja herself made a powerful impression too, with her "princess's dresses" and her vision of a financial revolution. Igor returned with a new mission - and gave new instructions to all the salespeople in his downline: stop whatever you're doing, and start selling OneCoin. "We gathered the teams together and we started to work like crazy," he says. "We made in our first month almost €90,000 out of nothing. Bang!"

After Ruja disappeared, people started trying to track the money

I went to see Oliver Bullough, an expert on what he calls Moneyland - the shadowy parallel world where criminals and the super-rich hide their wealth. The problem, he explains, is that following the money isn't as easy as it sounds, because criminals structure their companies and bank accounts in such a way that their assets seem to disappear. "They still exist", he says, in his garden near the village of Hay-on-Wye. "You can still use them to buy things, you can still use them to buy political influence and nice houses and yachts. But when it comes to someone trying to find them - whether that's a journalist or a police officer - they are invisible."

...

Ruja bought a very large property in central Sofia. Technically it was owned by a company called One Property. One Property was owned by another company called Risk Ltd. Risk Ltd was owned by Ruja, but was then transferred to some unnamed Panamanians, but it was still managed by another company called Peragon. And Peragon was owned by another company called Artefix, which was owned by Ruja's mother, Veska. And then in 2017, the ownership of Artefix was sold to an unknown man in his 20s.

...

I show his results to Bullough, who immediately notices how many British companies there are. "British companies are the companies of choice," he comments. "They're very easy to set up and they look legitimate."

...

"This is supposed to mean that you can no longer use a British company to hide behind," he says, as he scrolls down the page. "Oh, hey presto, they haven't filed a person with significant control. That's illegal… That is an anonymous shell company, as anonymous as anything that you can buy anywhere in the Seychelles or Nevis or the Marshall Islands or Vanuatu."

So much for following the money. In an interconnected global economy, assets can simply vanish, and you end up chasing shadows.

And there are some hints that some Eastern European crime mobs got involved too. And several billions went astray--and not just from first-world investors. It turns out that multi-level marketing reaches all the way to poor farmers in Uganda.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Mansoul

I assume everybody here has read The Pilgrim's Progress. If not, go do it. And read the second part, which is in here, partway down. Search for "CHRISTIANA is here". The Christian's Progress describes the individual's journey, and part two is more of the journey together with others.

The second best allegory in English, after Pilgrim's Progress, is acclaimed to be The Holy War>, aka Mansoul, aka much longer titles--also by Bunyan.

The type of story is much different, of course, but it is still good reading. And worth thinking about. As Kipling noted, some things don't change much

The craft that we call modern,
  The crimes that we call new,
John Bunyan had 'em typed and filed
  In Sixteen Eighty-two.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Tame fear

In comments on a recent post, AVI wrote "courage involved embracing reality not adding in risks."

Which points to an interesting (to me) question I hadn't started researching properly yet. Pick rich countries in history. How many of them developed something like the roller coaster--an amusement that provides a safe experience of fear?

Maybe the Roman animal show counts--in theory the tiger could leap up into the stands, though I doubt they ever did.

And maybe ghost stories are related, though I don't know if other cultures treated them the same way we do. I suspect they were often more for warning than amusement--they certainly don't read like entertainment to me.

It's no trick to find people (mostly young men) engaging in risky behavior--a Maasai lad isn't a man until he kills a lion. But the danger is real, and is the point--it isn't safe.

Nothing comes to mind. Are we the only culture to provide tame fear?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Devil in the details

In the story about new monetary policy of the Central Bank of Liberia you find these two comments:
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for a cash based economy to contribute on a cash based. the sooner we put that in the back of our minds and look for options using electronic works, using other digital financial tools, increasing the numbers of ATMs and increasing the numbers of points of sales, the better it becomes for all of us,” he said.

and

“Whenever we go the bank, they give us tear (torn) money. And when we want our money, they will say system down. It should not be like that. The system should not be down for us because when we go there to deposit our money, they can’t (never) tell us system down. This system down English (talk, excuses) is not doing well for the marketers. Let the system be up for us this holiday season,” she said.

Universal electronic transactions when the bank's systems are either down or lied about? That has got to inspire confidence.

One little change was that for the month of December, they are suspending the 25% policy--25% of all remittences into Liberia have to be converted into Liberian dollars, but for December you can keep your hard currency. A little something for their 25'th.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Census

I skimmed the first part of a story in the paper this morning noting that there were partisan differences in how the census should be performed in towns with prisons: count the prisoners with the town where they happen to be living, or with the town they were taken from to go to prison? Or if they have no fixed address, then what?

I get it that the prison towns want the population count, since state funding often flows on the basis of population. And since crime is higher in the large urban areas, that means the political clout of the already powerful cities becomes even greater. On the other hand, the place that is likely to need the additional funding is the town the prisoner came from--where there may be dependents without support, for example. The prisoners don't contribute much wear and tear on the roads, or use the schools much. And the prisoner's home town could probably use a little help after the damage the criminal did.

Hmm. If there's no home or other fixed address, then sure, stick the count in the prison town. Otherwise, put the count in their home town. It's probably too complicated to keep 2 census counts--one of nominal residents and one of voters.

I wonder which party that aligns me with? I should go read the rest of the story to find out. Democrat.

Another argument for homeschooling

In an effort to keep students who fail early in their high school careers from falling completely out of school, ninth-grade teachers at Madison's West High School are planning to give classroom grades of no lower than 40%, eliminate extra credit and allow up to 90% credit for late work in required classes.

"mean no assignment could receive less than 40%, regardless of whether it is completed. A 40% would still result in a failing grade"

The alleged motive is that a super-F (i.e. a 0%) is almost impossible to recover from, while a 40% you can, at least in theory, make up for. The fact that they plan to get rid of extra credit tells me that isn't anywhere near the whole story.

This is sympathetic magic: if you get a grade of 40%, you must have learned 40% of the material, right? And no extra credit means nobody gets to be outstanding, so nobody gets embarrassed by being outclassed.

"In Memphis, though, the use of grading floors was banned by the superintendent in 2017 after an investigation found the practice was used to make unwarranted grade changes."

Del Underbakke seems to have some common sense: "a grading floor could result in moving under-prepared students through ninth grade. By definition, at-risk students may require more than four years to complete high school." On the other side, I have to conclude that Boran and Hernandez care more about "equity" than educating students.

So long as the grade is a measure of what the student is learning, use it. If you want to experiment with retaking tests or other approaches, fine--the goal is supposed to be that the students learn--but please don't give up trying to figure out if the student is actually learning.

I wonder how much of the recent educational innovation is driven by fear of being accused of bias.

Singing from pain

Years ago I carpooled with a woman who worked for the State. Now and then we'd pick up her daughter, who was due to be married shortly. Her favorite song on the radio was "Sweet Dreams" (Eurythmics). I kept my opinions to myself, but could not help wondering what kind of marriage this was going to turn out to be. I hoped they weren't secretly wanting to abuse each other... or openly either.

The song isn't good by any stretch, but I didn't want to include it among the evil ones because it seemed to me more like a cry of despair more than anything else. Job 6:26 seems apropos (at least the NASB translation) "The words of one in despair belong to the wind" Unless they insist on despair, I cut a little slack.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Power centers

It may not be an official founding document of the USA as the Constitution is, but the Declaration of Independence lurks behind the institutions to remind our legislators, judges, and governors that the framework which their power comes from can be revised at the people's displeasure.

Of course the last couple of times this was tried there was a war, with the losers forcibly constrained to stay with the country, or mostly emigrating to what became Canada and Louisiana.

Similar principles were applied in a slightly different field. When economies of scale made is profitable for business owners to systematically squeeze their workers, many of them did. For a long time governments sided with private power, but eventually unions succeeded and grew to have political power of their own. I'm not concerned with subsequent history, but with noting that there's precedent for collective efforts to oppose private oppression, and against alliances between the government and private firms. It took a while, with some violence along the way, but for a while we achieved a balance of powers (both sides need each other). (The industrial union adversarial model is problematic for public-sector workers--the result is inevitably adversarial, inescapably political, and as experience shows, often becomes a Praetorian Guard.)

One route for dealing with oppressive private firms, frequently tried elsewhere, has been to put the government in control of the private firms--with predictably miserable results.

Our federal government is not attempting censorship, or harassment and firing of people high officials disagree with. Private firms are, and are attempting to enforce conformity with their socio-political views. But since they're private, the Constitution says nothing about them. That does not mean they are not power centers. They are.

Curiously enough, even totalitarian governments don't actually need to do this sort of thing themselves. The real power wasn't vested in the official channels or the Soviet constitution.

You can take a light-hearted view of the system we are being constrained to live under, but we are concentrating a great deal of political and social power in the hands of a few people who answer to nobody I know of. Given how frequently firms ignore the empirical "go woke go broke" rule, I wonder if they are even answerable to shareholders anymore.

I wonder how this is going to evolve. I don't want the government taking sides--that almost always turns out badly. And, as we saw before with industrial labor unions, collective action will probably be prosecuted as "restraint of trade." And there will, as always, be some nasty characters on both sides. This time, though, the power of the controllers is much more far-reaching--you can't just leave town and find another job elsewhere.

I'm afraid I don't have good answers or compromises in my back pocket. We're told "just create your own competitor," but that's not very practical. Boycotts? Hard to do, as Dr. Boli points out. AVI has a thought.

Every society has ways of trying to ensure conformity. That's not objectionable by itself--but the unaccountable imbalance of power is.

I was reading about Innocent III yesterday. Who knows, maybe the church will become a secular power center again. That's not a pleasant prospect.

Friday, November 15, 2019

All over the map

Middle Daughter spent a year studying abroad in Senegal. One of the things she noticed was that the American and Senegalese students both bought the same kind of sandals, but the Americans wore through theirs much more rapidly. She attributed this to a difference in walking stride--the Senegalese women tended to walk with the foot more flat, so that it landed more on the ball, or even evenly, while Americans tended to hit heel first.

Since knee problems have been a live issue in our home, I wondered if one's stride had something to do with stress on one's knees.

The first question is epidemiological: Is cartilage deterioration more common here than there? Unfortunately that's not easy to answer, thanks to radically different health care systems and reporting. The rate of meniscus repairs will be a lot lower there, no matter the relative need.

So, off to sports medicine. You name it, somebody claims it. Heel-first is 6% more energy efficient, and early hominid footprints tell us they did it too. Ground force vs time plots are distinguishable, but the curves don't show (for me, anyway) a true winner. Runners run using the front of their feet because the angle of a runner's body wrt the ground demands it.

Barefoot is better. Or maybe it doesn't make any difference. Or it depends on the footwear.

You'd think intuitively that the stress on your knee would be less when your foot flexes with impact rather than when you strike hard with your heel. But it seems that the heel pad cushions the blow well enough to make it pretty much a wash. Unless it doesn't. Running is good for your joints, possibly simply because it keeps you leaner and stronger. (Apples to apples comparisons are hard here.)

Combing out the folks who want to sell you something or make a name for themselves, and just looking at the studies, is taking more time than I thought it would.

I think I'll try to take a walk using a different stride and see how it feels. I predict "awkward." Maybe it's all cultural, and all a wash--just so you don't overdo or underdo things.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

POSHA

"To take advantage of the opportunities provided by built-in sensors, the Pre-Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued new mandates for cell phone apps and for voice messages in cars."

Social Media App: "You have been reading Facebook for 30 minutes. Did you forget the brownies?"

Car: "Look at oncoming traffic instead of your date's tanktop."

Car: "Despite what you hear, the children in back are not murdalizing each other. However, you are about to run a stop sign."

Music App: "You play a mean air guitar, but did you notice that two men have been following you for three blocks?"

Ebook: "Before we start the next chapter of Treasure Island, finish your algebra homework."

Nuclear bombing

I knew that the Japanese recognized the weapon immediately.

I hadn't heard that their intelligence was adept enough that they knew about the Trinity test, and knew that and when B29s of a special task force were coming. Both times.

Assuming this documentary is true, of course... I speak no Japanese and am not expert on their WWII history. (As far as I know this could be the product of the Japanese equivalent of The History Channel.)

It might be simply the usual hindsight, where the one guy turns out to be right after all.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Patterns

Consider the sequence
  • 0
  • 1
  • 0.1
  • 1.1
  • 0.01
  • 1.01
  • 0.11
  • 1.11
  • 0.001
  • ...etc...

The pattern is easy to see and extrapolate.

What's the most compact way you can describe this?

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Interesting take on "Pious"


Whereas under the Merovingians a monastery might be considered a royal monastery if it enjoyed special privileges from the kinds and queens, in the Carolingian era the giving of gifts went the other way: monasteries were expected to make gifts to the kings. This expectation was spelled out at Aachen in 819, when Louis the Pious ordered twenty-five Frankish monasteries to give him dona--an order also extended to dozens more monasteries in the Midi and east of the Rhine. For each Louis indicated whether each owed him dona, dona plus military service, or merely prayers for the royal family. Even here it was clear: those prayers were owed, not just something the monks were glad to offer.

The military service was indeed expected not just of monasteries but of bishoprics. A generation later Hincmar or Reims tried to justify churches' property holdings--which he recognized was contrary to the New Testament account of early Christians getting rid of all their possessions--in part by noting that Frankish churches were obligated to provide military service to the state. This obligation cost a church, he estimated, a fifth of its income to pay for its soldiers, because they were not given a stipend "from public resources." Such military service seemed perfectly normal to Hincmar; it was what the Carolingians required.

Things have been worse from time to time.

How did it start?

"A Merovingian king was concerned about the "illegal attacks by evil men" on
a monastery and placed it under the protection of his mayor of the palace, sub mundeburde del defnsione. ... The concept that mayors of the palace would exercise such "protection" was immediately taken up, even without an illegal attack by evil men."