Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mardi Gras Doubloons Celebrate Life

Mardi Gras is the last party before Lent. In New Orleans, among other kinds of trinkets such as necklaces, the krewes of floats throw doubloons. 
From left to right: 
American Ingenuity, Atlas, Triumphs of Arts and Sciences, Love that American Money
One side announces the krewe. The other usually is in line with a theme for the year. Many of the krewes are named for pagan gods and goddesses. Many are anodized for the liturgical colors of Easter: white, gold, red, green, and purple. They also can be found in blue, etc.

Coin of the Realm, Inventions and Discoveries, The Sciences
As my username is often "Mercury" I have a lot of those, as well as his analogs, Hermes and Thoth. 
All Things Beautiful and the Krewe of Pegasus
I also have Atlases. Overall, having bought mixed lots from dealers over the years, I have assembled a box of good wishes, celebrations, and honors that are meaningful to me.  They make nice hand-outs at parties and meetings, especially among my Objectivist friends.

Industrial Medals: the Currency of Fame 
Numismatics: History as Market 
Numismatics: the Standard of Proof in Economics 
The Objective Virtues of Stamp Collecting

Monday, February 8, 2016

Green Lantern Outshines Green Hornet

The Green Lantern (2011, Martin Campbell) not only kept to the story line, it took itself seriously.  The Green Hornet (2011, Michel Gondry) failed to make use of a rich story line, and was a joke on itself. 

Movies like these are always made for the fans. Many of those - perhaps most- are established followers to some degree or other.  In addition, the producers always hope to draw upon the millions who do not know the story, and who are looking for something new. They will become the new fans for next release. 

 Of those who enjoyed Lord of the Rings, only a minority slogged through three volumes of elvish poetry and grammar, and only a minority of them read The Silmarillion.  I know for a fact that many of my conservative comrades on GaltsGulchOnline.com did not read Atlas Shrugged either before or after seeing the movies. And few who did have read The Virtue of Selfishness. 

While I knew about Kato, I did not know Lenore Case (a constant as Britt Reid’s secretary), or Michael Axford (a reporter in two movies in 1940 and 1941, now the editor, played by Edward James Olmos.)  However, Wikipedia is our common memory. That said, when I was about three, we had a Hudson Hornet and being green, I called it The Green Hornet, so I must have known the radio show. And, as a young adult, I learned that Britt Reid was a grandnephew of John Reid, the Lone Ranger.  I had some other tangential exposures to the story over the years.

When they first were on the market, I had the presence of mind to buy the Dark Knight series as gifts for my wife. But it was only a couple of years ago that I picked up on the Green Lantern and several other comics, and only because of Big Bang Theory. The library and comic stores were both big helps. So, I am not a trufan, I confess.

Not only did Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen (star and writer with Evan Goldberg) fail to make the best use of a developed narrative, they besmirched it. From radio into movies, television, and several comic publishers, the Green Hornet has had a complex career, and several incarnations. In this version, Britt Reid’s contempt for everyone around him, especially Kato, and Kato’s servility were sickening. Given the recorded history of Lenore Case since 1936, Cameron Diaz’s talent was wasted. In the year 2011, she could have come out early as the brains of the group. And she should not have needed to kick Britt in the nuts. By 2011, he should have been a better person.

The Green Lantern held true to the story, and was written and played as seriously as a comic book can be. Although Hal Jordan is a swaggering jet jockey, he is not an idiot. And he is not mean. And his serious side is evident from the first, so that when he is called upon to be heroic on an inter-galactic scale, it is believable in the context of the story.

"In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil's might,

Beware my power, Green Lantern's light !"


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Nutrients and Beer Hallmark Austin Food Culture

Fitppl is a local firm that makes plant-based “superfood” supplements.  Each measured serving of both their cocoa and blueberry and their vanilla and goji flavor powders provides 16 grams of raw, organic plant protein, at 90 calories with 2 grams of fiber and less than 1 gram of sugar. Their powders have no artificial sweeteners, so-called “natural” flavors, or stevia.  The protein superfood blends are made from oat grass, barley grass, and spirulina. They are gluten-free, of course. Seeeking always to reduce the plastic footprint, they provide a wooden scoop for measuring servings. 

They also formulate a supplement from fresh-water and salt-water algae as well as cereal grasses. It specifically delivers a mix of chlorophyll, enzymes, vitamins, and anti-oxidants.

You can find them online at fitppl.com., but they also market through some retailers. They were the January Product of the Month at Wheatsville Co-Op here in Austin.
I met Eric from the Alltech Kentucky Brewing and Distilling Company at my neighborhood Whole Foods.  
They age their beer in whiskey barrels. The flavor experience was rich and rewarding, and the alcohol level was only 8%, not much more than an over-hopped IPA.  And it tasted a lot better.  
Find them online at www.kentuckyale.com or in person at your neighborhood Whole Foods. They sell in 4-packs and singles because it is a bit pricey. Nonetheless, when you deserve a treat, it can’t be beat.

Previously on Necessary Facts

Friday, January 29, 2016

In Suspect Terrain

According to most geologists, plate tectonics explains the major features of Earth’s surface. Continental land masses floating on the magma mantel crash into each other over hundreds of millions of years. This forms mountains, and therefore valleys, of course. The mountains wear down. Their rocks are ground fine, mixed with vegetation and animal remains, and become topsoil. Several times, oscillations of glaciers moved forward and retreated, carving valleys, forming rivers and lakes, and then melting. In their reversals, they left behind huge boulders and other “exotic” materials.  Geologist Anita Harris used to believe that, also. Over the course of her career, she came to doubt that the story is so simple.  Plate tectonics has a place. It does explain some facts. It does not explain everything.

Like medieval astronomers adding epicycles to fit their ever-better measurements with astrolabes, the modern geologists posit smaller, localized land masses that bump into continents in order to explain mountain ranges and other features that would contradict plate tectonics.

I confess that my geology is weak. I do not have it in my head. I rely on websites such as this one from the University of California at Berkeley to remind me which came first, the Silurian, Ordovician, or Cambrian.

It did not detract from the book. I read through almost all of it with only a few stops.  The bigger picture is easy to perceive.

John McPhee’s biography of Anita G. Harris is also a geological travelogue through the eastern United States. Harris was born in Brooklyn. The sands of Coney Island have garnet in them. McPhee and Harris travel through the Alleghenies, down into Ohio, across into Illinois.  The book opens with an eastward journey and then treks back.  That meandering narrative has islands of detail about  Harris’s career, and her marriages to other geologists.

(You can find a list of her 32 papers in 25 years papers here.

Like Irons in the Fire, about modern cattle rustlers, and The Curve of Binding Energy, a biography of John Wheeler, In Suspect Terrain immerses the reader in McPhee’s experience of a new subject.  He is an able student, and an engaging teacher.

Geology is not easy. One of my criminal justice instructors said that cops at a crime scene do not spend enough time with dirt and glass.  So, I took a geology class. It was a “local lab” course with a lot of outside work in our own neighborhood. For the semester project, we went to a quarry and assembled collections of fossils.  (Someone gave me a trilobite. I never found one on my own.)  I thought that I would learn the local rocks and minerals like the stars in constellations. Nope. Geologists keep tons of rocks labeled in cases because of the enormous inventory of types and kinds.  You can learn the easy ones: igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary… obsidian, marble, limestone, granite, flint, … After that, you have to love categorizing and cataloguing. It is as bad as biology. Contrary to physics and mathematics, geology is a study that rewards maturity, rather than intuition. Anita Harris’s woe is the armies of young geologists lured by the Siren song of plate tectonics.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Birds of a Feather

One picture is worth 1000 words.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani asked Pope Francis 

to pray for him after Vatican talks.

Lest we forget ...

"We grew up together," said Gates, after Jobs's passing.
(Guardian UK from "Digital World" conference 2007.)
The Genius of Design
Is Physics a Science?
Fortune Cookie in Hex Code
Brian Krebs's "Spam Nation"

Saturday, January 23, 2016


Are your passwords strong enough to resist a brute force attack? Passwords are just about dead. Many systems now offer “two factor identification.” You give them your cell phone number and you have to use both a password and a code number sent to  the phone for your log in.  But passwords continue. They are easy for administrators. They are part of the common culture.

Steve Gibson has the engineer’s “knack.” (See the Dilbert video here.His company, Gibson Research Corporation (here)sells a wide range of computer security products and services. He also offers many for free. Among the freebies is Haystack: How Big is Your Haystack – and how well is your needle hidden? (here)  This utility provides a metric for measuring password security.

It is pretty easy to do yourself, if you like arithmetic. 26 upper case letters, 26 lower case, 10 digits, 33 characters (with the space) for 95 printable ASCII characters in the common set.  So, if you have an 8-character password that is 95 to the 8th power possible combinations: 6.634 times 10 to the 15th power or over 6-and-a-half quadrillion. If you could try a million guesses a second, it would take 6.5 billion seconds or just over 200 years. (60 seconds/minute * 60 minutes/hour * 24 hours/day * 365.25 days / year* 200 years =6.3 billion .)

Gibson Research makes all of that automatic. Just key in your password, and it tells you how long it would take to crack.

Cracking passwords is a routine activity for a hacker. They have tools.  At one meet-up for hackers, the speaker told us, “If you have to use brute force, you are not thinking.”  They do not type in a million guesses per second, of course. They have programs to do that. Also, most websites just do not allow that kind of traffic: you cannot do a million guesses per second. What the hackers do is break in to a site, such as Target, Home Depot, LinkedIn, or eHarmony, download all of the log files, and then, on their own time, let their software attack the data offline.

Also, hackers do not use the same computers that you and I do. They start with gaming machines because the processors in those are built for high-speed calculation. They then gang those multiple processors to create massively parallel computers.  The calculators from GRC show the likely outcome for brute force by both a “regular” computer and a “massive cracking array.”

If someone got hired today at a typical midrange American corporation, their password might just be January2016. If, like most of us, they think that are really clever, it ends with an exclamation point: January2016!  Hackers have databases of these. They start with standard dictionaries, and add to them all of the known passwords that they discover.

One common recommendation is to take the first letters of a phrase known only to you and personal only to you. My mother had naturally red hair for most of her life. She was born in 1929 and passed in 2012. So, “My mother’s red hair came from a bottle” becomes mmrhcfab19292012. According to Gibson Research, brute force guessing with a massive cracking array would take over 26 centuries.

Gioachino Rossini premiered his opera, William Tell, in 1829. “William & Tell = 1829” would take a massive parallel cracking machine about 1 million trillion centuries to guess.  However, Five + One = 27 could be done in under 1.5 million centuries.

Remember, however, that a dictionary attack will crack any common phrase.  With over 1.7 million veterans of the United States Marine Corp, someone—probably several hundred someones—has “Semper Fi” for a password. Don’t let that be you. A brute force attack would need only 39 minutes, but that is not necessary: a cracker's dictionary should have "Semper Fi" in it already.

(Above, I said that cracking passwords is a “routine activity” for a hacker. “Routine activities” is the name of theory of crime.  Attributed to sociologists Marcus Felson and Lawrence E. Cohen, routine activities theory says that crime is what criminals do, independent of such “social causes” as poverty. (See Routine Activity Theory on Wikipedia here: )


Friday, January 15, 2016

Impossible Usually is Not

Oil at $100 a barrel is “impossible” the headlines said. But I remember Tom Peters in the early 1990s warning us that we would never again see oil at $35 a barrel. And today’s dollars are even smaller than they were in 1992. In terms of 1992 purchasing power, we are living with oil at about $15 a barrel right now.
 “If true, that could also eliminate the threat of $3 a gallon gas. In an interview with the Middle East Economic Survey, an oil industry newsletter, Ali al-Naimi responded "we may not" when asked if oil markets would ever lift prices to $100 a barrel again.”  (The Middle East Economic Survey website requires a login. The news was widely reported on CNN, Reuters, CNBC, etc.)
“Impossible” is an absolute claim. Physical absolutes are primaries. As Ayn Rand pointed out in Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged whether you have your cake or eat it – or whether your neighbor eats it – is an absolute. Either-or, the excluded middle of logic, is an absolute. Whether the price of crude oil can never again be below $35 or above $100 is not an absolute. 
Casio and Texas Instrument calculators, both simple and advanced, for sale.
Calculators at Walmart cost
a fifth or a tenth of their prices
in 1976 when the dollar was
three times as large as ours.

It is pretty easy and common to create a list of statements of impossible outcomes that are now integral to our lives. No steamship could carry enough coal to cross the Atlantic. Heavier-than-air transport was a pipe dream. The world only needs five computers.

Most events and circumstances that are open to human action are objective. “Objective” means rational-empirical: at the same time both logically consistent and evidentiary to the senses. 

A better explanation, a better theory, is better logic. Cartesian geometry is an example. It does not contradict Euclidean geometry, but subsumes it under a wider set of truths. Epigenetics improved upon Darwinian evolution. Statistical mechanics completely replaced phlogiston as an explanation of “heat.” 

New discoveries  – the atom, the chromosome, distant planets, accelerating galaxies – lead to new inventions: stainless steel, Kevlar, rayon. Those are the new facts that require and validate new theories.

I forget where I read it, but it has been pointed out that physicists have no Journal of Phlogiston, but philosophers still have peer-reviewed periodicals for Aristotleanism, Platonism, and other archaic collections. Another expression is, "The news is always the same. It just happens to different people." Researching 19th century America from newspapers in order to write about numismatics, I found many stories that could be reprinted (almost) verbatim today. 

Previously on NecessaryFacts