Thursday, December 18, 2014

America Surrenders to North Korea

We do not let our own government prevent the expression of ideas.  To surrender to North Korea over The Interview is to give up everything important about America.  The general lack of outrage in this country is a sad commentary on how far we have slid since September 11, 2001. 

In 1735, New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger criticized colonial governor William Cosby.  Cosby sought an indictment for libel, but the grand jury refused to indict.  So, the governor turned the attorney general who did bring charges.  The petit jury took ten minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

The Interview is a comedy. Even if it were serious, it would make no difference in the issues.   The world stood behind Salman Rushdie  in 1988 when the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, as Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa for his execution.  The book, Satanic Verses, was banned in countries with significant Muslim populations.  If The Interview is banned in North Korea, not much can be done.  But the world at large – and the American political press in general – seems unconcerned about the consequences of letting North Korea be the lodestar of our moral compass.
Kim Jong Un is the target,
but these guys are always funnier.
My Fellow Americans was a 1996 comedy – with two deaths – in which the vice president of the United Sates attempts to kill two ex-presidents.   Wag the Dog was a 1997 dark comedy where a Hollywood producer creates a phony war to help the  president deflect the nation’s attention from his sexual indiscretion with an underage girl visiting the White House.  Truth and fiction can be difficult to differentiate; but if it is perfectly acceptable to make a comedy about American presidents – and it is – how can the First Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea be above ridicule? 

Here is one gauge of how unclear the general thinking is on this.  On December 17, CNN afternoon anchor Brook Baldwin interviewed Kurt Loder from Reason magazine and CNN’s own media critic, Brian Stelter.  Loder was clear and consistent, of course.  Baldwin and Stelter sort of thought that maybe this could be kind of inappropriate to make a movie about killing “a world leader.”  Reason’s Kurt Loder pointed out that whether the story’s plot is appropriate is totally irrelevant. 

Six months ago, North Korea called the movie “an act of war" (CBC here, for example). The press release supposedly came from an unnamed source within the government of North Korea, cited in an official communiqué first by Agence France-Presse.  That was quoted by news channels in Canada and Australia, and by Yahoo news and Huffington Post, on June 25, 2014.  Not much was said in mainstream media. Not much (if anything) came from the conservative or liberal political media (except HuffPo).  As Sony Pictures, the major movie theater chains, and the American people and our government all compromised the basic principles of our political constitution, then North Korea won this war,

Congress should show this film – and link arms to sing “God Bless America” after the credits roll.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Awesome Austin Foods at the Wheatsville Co-op

Handcrafted food delivers more than the ingredients.  The ineffable qualities of passion, care, intensity, and self-actualization are the charms that release satisfactions beyond mere flavors.

Robert brews a cup of Third Coast Coffee
“Our shop is tucked away in the Tejas Business Park on S Congress Avenue, a half mile south of Hwy 71. We invite people to come try coffees, tour the shop, and buy some beans for home use. While we’re not a coffee shop, we’ve always got coffee brewed for tasting. We’ve also always got a selection of coffee roasted for pickup, or if you know exactly what you’d like, you can call ahead to request it. We’ll roast it on our next shift and set it aside for you.”  

Third Coast offers a dozen roasts and blends including the Kerbey Lane House Blend popular with Austinites at all five restaurant locations. 

Austin Gelato Company is owned and operated by partners and proud Texans Alan Gwinner and Stephanie Ray. Refugees from the corporate world, they learned the art of making genuine Italian gelato from a genuine Italian gelato master, Stefano Tarquinio of Rome’s renowned Al Settimo Gelo gelateria. Alan and Stephanie handcraft their gelato and sorbetto treats the authentic Italian way, with no shortcuts, mixes, additives or anything that’s just plain unnatural.”

“We never use pre-made mixes, additives or artificial flavors and we locally source whenever possible. For example, our low-temperature pasteurized, non-homogenized milk comes from a family-owned dairy just up the road (I-35, to be exact). The hard-working bees of Austin's own Good Flow produce our wildflower honey. Our organic, fair trade-certified sugar comes from Wholesome Sweeteners, headquartered in Sugar Land, Texas. Our pecans are from Swift River Pecans, on the banks of the San Marcos River. And the coffee in our Espress-Oh! is freshly roasted by our friends at Kuxtal Coffee and Tea, in the Hill Country west of Austin.”

Erin is half the team at Yellowbird. They make Habenero (regular and hot), Serrano, and Jalapeño versions.  

They win awards. The Austin Chronicle granted them a “Special Variety” honor in 2013. On October 14 of this year, Yahoo’s Dan Gentile called them one of the sauces “that could dethrone Sriracha.” 

In addition to Wheatsville, they garnered placement at Royal Blue, an upscale convenience store with several locations in downtown Austin.  They also wholesale to consumers.  

SRSLY (Seriously) Chocolate is available in several flavors.
At SRSLY chocolate, We start with dried, fermented cacao beans from the Conacado cooperative in the Dominican Republic.. …  After harvest, the cacao pods are fermented. This crucial step begins to develop the chemical compounds that we perceive as chocolate flavor. …  Upon arrival, the beans are inspected and graded before roasting. Roasting is a crucial step in cacao's journey to chocolate. A "low and slow" approach is taken by us to properly tease out the bean's flavor.

Available in Austin, Dallas, and San Marcos,
and now in Tallahassee
at Bread & Roses and New Leaf co-operatives.

They are happy to fill wholesale orders by mail

Saturday, December 13, 2014

100,000 Page Views

This blog earned its 100,000th page view on December 10.  The Google metrics are somewhat questionable. I read through all of the numbers provided individually and found many more that were popular, but not listed.  Also, it is hard to understand why so many hits come from France, the Ukraine, Russia, China, and Malaysia.  Perhaps hackers automatically probe all blogs looking for weaknesses.
Many of my Objectivist comrades visit, as I post out-takes, or cross-link articles from here to Rebirth of Reason, Objectivist Living, and the very popular Galt's Gulch Online.  Unfortunately, from what I can tell by the metrics, they seldom have read more than the target link, even though most of the articles here close with "Also on Necessary Facts" (sometimes "Previously on Necessary Facts").  I also get some traffic from Michael "wintercow" Rizzo, professor of economics at the University of Rochester (New York), who writes the Unbroken Window blog. A few more viewers come in via Organizations & Markets.

Although "Alongside Night" jumped to first place this year, historically, the top post had been "What (if anything) did Dorothy Learn?" The conclusion to the famous 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz still leaves people around the world wanting to know.

The other subject of perhaps truly wider appeal that did not make even the top 30 this year was "Firefly: Fact and Value Aboard Serenity."  A libertarian friend recommended the series on the Objectivist Living discussion board.  I found it favorably reviewed on the Atlas Society website.  I got the disks from the library; and we both enjoyed the series. My ex enlightened me about Joss Whedon. From there, I found more works, such as his Astronishing X-Men issues; and I understood why the "Serenity" page won so many looks.  (We just watched Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer last month.)

I created the Score by dividing the Days into the Views. I figured that about One per Day was good.


Personally, I have my own favorites.
  • Newton versus the Counterfeiter  (This version of my book review was rejected by the Ohio State University Law Journal because I missed their cut-off for timeliness. The ANA granted me a Heath Literary Award for my biography of Newton's tenure as warden and master of the British Royal Mint.  So, when Thomas Levenson's book came out, I was enthusiastic and placed several book reviews.)
  • The Big Whimper of Modern Philosophy   A group of academic philosophers spin essays based on popular television shows. As a fan of "Big Bang Theory" I believe that it was over their heads.
  • Sergei Magnitsky  His death (murder, actually) was a brief news story and generated some bills in Congress.  It was one of many rocks in the road of Russian foreign relations.
  • Laissez-faire Criminology   Asking rhetorical questions while praising sleeping policemen.
  • Visualizing Complex Data and Knowledge Maps  These related essays display some of the many ways to organize information.
Over all, topics on this blog ride a wide range because it is my alternative to paid work.  As a technical writer, I enjoy delivering information about products and services to the clients and customers of those who hire me.  Here, I write for myself.  Many of the posts fall under a few rubrics.
  • Numismatics: The Standard of Proof in Economics, Informing Economics, Money as Speech and Press,… 
  • Graphic design and typography: Creative Genius, Art & Copy, Start the Presses, … and others…
  • Astronomy, Physics, Biotech; the History and Philosophy of Science: Seeing in the Dark, Monsters from the Id, Science in the Middle Ages, Misconduct in Research
  • Criminology: The Fallacy of Fingerprinting, Shifting the Paradigm of Private Security, Security in the 21st Century, Integrating Criminologies, Minimizing the Likelihood of Bad Cops, Junk Science in the Courtroom
  • Nerd Nation: Big Bang Theory, Numb3rs and NCIS;  Educating the Gifted, Where All the Children are Above Average; Liberal Education and Sociology; the Dragon's Lair store here in Austin.
  • Cities: Megacities, City Air Makes You Free, etc.
  • Austin culture and foods
Some necessarily cross the demarcations. John Jay Ford and William Sheldon perpetrated their crimes within the field of numismatics. Similarly, misconduct in laboratory procedure is one of the causes of false convictions. So, I have a different site, entirely, CSI:Flint (2011) which I created for a "Super Science Friday" session for middle schoolers visiting the University of Michigan.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Every endeavor has its great names. This is a book that "everyone" in astronomy knows. Despite having been published in 1979, this set never loses its importance. In astronomy far more facts are added than are subtracted (poor Pluto). Burnham's Celestial Handbook: An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System by Robert Burnham, Jr., New York: Dover Publications (1966, 1978) has not been updated because it did not need to be.

The book began as a 3-ring binder that Robert Burnham made for himself while working at the Lowell Observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona. His interest was in "deep sky objects": stars, clusters, nebulae, galaxies. He assembled his data from the standard references in the observatory library, as well as from other sources. He organized it for himself alphabetically by constellation. Volume 1 runs "Andromeda Through Cetus"; Volume 2 is "Chameleon Through Orion"; Volume 3 is "Pavo Through Vulpecula".

Hercules is a rich area of the sky. The descriptions run 46 pages, including double stars, multiple stars, variable stars, and then clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. The chapter closes with a lengthy descriptive summary of the facts about each of the stars in the constellation. Moreover, Burnham includes both the (brief) mythological story and the (longer) historical aside with pictures of ancient Greek coins depicting the hero. Again, all of this was intended for himself. It now serves us all.

Like any good discovery, the three-volume set offers more. It begins with what is essentially a 90-page class in Astronomy 101, covering the general layout of the universe and our place in it, as well as a basic table of objects. Burnham of course includes a dense array of facts, though much of the presentation delivers adjectives about the astounding, terrifying, and strange nature of the unearthly universe.

Perhaps the only paradigmatic addition to our general store of knowledge has been the discovery of more stars with planets. In Burnham's day only Barnard's Star offered that potential, an investigation beyond most amateurs, even today. (Barnard's Star is only 3.8 light years away but a red dwarf of +9 visible magnitude; you can see it with a telescope, but you will not see the planets, which arguably are not there after all…)
[I wrote this in three installments on the International Astronomy Forum. There, Pikaia commented: “I have all three volumes which I have owned for a long time, and I enjoyed reading them. Unfortunately he had an unhappy life.  Robert Burnham, Jr. - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. ]
Burnham's tables give the Right Ascension and Declination for the interesting objects (binaries and multiples; variables; clusters, nebulae, and galaxies). So, you can set your 'scope by him. This is more than rhapsody, though he does speak poetically and dramatically. Also, as mentioned, he drew upon the Lowell Observatory library and other sources. Volume I gives the key to the tables. Sigma Σ is for F. G. W. Struve the Struve Double Star Catalog. Arg is for F. Argelander.  In all, Burnham references 21 catalogs, including those compiled by Kuiper and John Herschel. Δ (Delta) is for J. Dunlop; and lowercase beta β is for S. W. Burnham (the other Burnham).

He explains his special notation for Right Ascension and Declination (Epoch 1950 of course):
22115s2119 = RA 22h 11.5m; Dec -21 deg 19 min.
06078n4844 = RA 6 h 07.8m; Dec +48 deg 44 min.

The "Terms, Symbols, and Abbreviations" to explain the Tables runs four pages.

He catalogs the Nebulae by NGC (New General Catalog) but also relies on the Messier list. Burnham developed an interesting and useful symbology for Galactic Star Cluster (open dotted circle), globular cluster (circle with cross, like the old astrological sign for Earth), and so on.

In addition, he notes which clusters are loose and irregular ( C ), loose clusters (D), moderately concentrated (E), fairly well compressed (F) and rich and compact (G). All of that and more runs another two pages in Volume I.

Burnham provides several indexes in Volume 3. First is a numerical list of Messier Objects 1 through 104, giving the NGC number, common name or constellation, and the page number. (The three volumes are paginated sequentially.)

Next are two lists, the 35 Brightest Stars and the 25 Nearest Stars, though six of the latter are not mentioned in the books. The index of Brightest Stars gives their common names, Bayer Designation - Sirius is α Canis Majoris; Kaus Australis is ε Sagittari - Magnitude, Spectral class, and page number. The table of nearest stars lists them by their most usual designation - Proxima Centauri, Wolf 359, etc. It also gives their Constellation, Distance, Magnitude, Proper Motion (in seconds of arc per thousand years, Mu") Position Angle (PA), location (RA and Dec) and page number in the volumes.

Next is a Bibliography separated into General Stellar Data, Double Stars, Variable Stars, Star Clusters, Nebulae, and Galaxies. The Bibliography closes with Observer's Handbooks, and General History and Astronomical Lore.

The volumes are in alphabetical order by constellation, Andromeda through Vulpecula. Nonetheless, they are indexed at the back, giving their page numbers, as well well the Norton's Atlas Chart number, and the Skalnate-Pleso Atlas Chart number. Next is a list with page numbers of about 170 stars and other objects by their common names: Achernar, …, Eagle Nebula, …, North Star, … Sword of Orion, …, X-Ray Sources, … (The list of White Dwarf stars is on page 417.)

The work closes with an Index of General Topics, and an Index to Tables of Data.

In short, what you have in these three volumes is the twenty year diary (1958 forward) and professional research notebook of a working astronomer who was passionate about Deep Sky Objects.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Brian Krebs’ Spam Nation

Computer security journalist Brian Krebs ("Krebs on Security" here) signed books at Barnes & Noble in Austin on November 24.  Spam Nation is really about two nations: Russia and the United States.  Two criminal organizations dedicated to online spam and botnets, perhaps the largest in the world, work(ed) from Russia, targeting Americans. 

Brian Krebs started his presentation by acknowledging the four years he spent on the project.  He then thanked his publisher, editor, and associated researchers, and the cyber-crooks.  Both of them denied that they were engaged in criminal activity; and both have threatened to sue. 

It starts with spam, offers for Viagra, Gucci, and other big name products, especially pharmaceuticals and designer fashions.  The offers themselves are real enough, in that, apparently, millions of people are taking fake drugs and carrying fake handbags. 

About fifty security professionals attended.
However, attached to the offer is malicious software that takes control of your computer. Your computer becomes a zombie following their orders to infect more computers.  These networks of robots (“botnets”) flood the Internet with new viruses.  According to Krebs, the typical life cycle is 12 to 24 hours. As new creations, the programs successfully challenge anti-virus software such as Kaspersky and McAfee.

Eventually, the two criminals turned on each other.  They provided Russian law enforcement (and Krebs) with millions of stolen records.  One of them, Pavel Vreblevsky even got himself appointed to a commission to investigate computer crime.  (I note that in that, he was like William Chaloner and John J. Ford, who also played both sides of the game.)
When asked about security tools, Krebs replied that good procedures are the best protection.  Rather than trying to keep people out of your network, you need to focus on finding them once they get in.  Rather than spending money, sometimes millions of dollars, on tools that no one actually uses, it is better to hire good people to really use the tools your company now has. 

Krebs said to keep your personal and professional lives separate.  He recommended partitioning your operations with different computers on different services for different tasks. Have different VPNs (virtual private networks). Use layers of security.

Asked about the threat of a catastrophic attack on our information infrastructure, Krebs said that it is not in the interests of these criminals to harm our economy.  They want us to buy from them.  Disrupting commerce is unproductive.  Krebs suggested that a catastrophic event will come from a Wargames scenario where “some kid in his mom’s basement who will see a big red button and has no social understanding.”


Monday, November 24, 2014

Newton verus the Counterfeiter

Intended for a general readership, this book rests on an extraordinary foundation of careful scholarship.  Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
Thomas Levenson teaches science journalism at MIT. He has been granted special recognition for his Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentaries. Among those is a Westinghouse award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which he shared with co-producer Paula Apsell, for the 1992 PBS “Nova” presentation, Eclipse of the Century. In 2005, the National Academies honored Levenson with a Communications Award for his PBS mini-series production, “Origins: Back to the Beginning,” about evidence for the ontology of life. He knows science; and he knows how to present its difficult facts and complex theories.
            This lively historical narrative of criminology and jurisprudence animates Sir Isaac Newton’s career as a detective and prosecutor. Levenson delivers to print the videographer’s impact of sight and sound. Levenson introduces us to Newton in a series of establishing shots, pan-and-zoom vignettes that sketch and detail the events spotlighting the intellectual and emotional development of the man easily nominated as the greatest scientist. You walk down the alleys and into the pubs where Sir Isaac Newton investigated crimes against the British Royal Mint which he served as warden and master.
            Levenson opens the book by outlining Newton’s intellectual and emotional development. Complementing his work in mathematics, astronomy and optics, Newton also experimented with alchemy, performing purifications and alloys of metals. Emotionally, Newton’s isolation was rooted in self-abnegation. The hint of a homosexual dalliance comes as an instantaneous action, the lifelong reaction to which only distanced his social relations to ethereal planes. You could get no closer to Newton the man than you could to the Man in the Moon. Thus, this combination of unflinching pursuit of difficult theoretical and empirical truths, bulwarked by a stellar disregard for other people’s feelings made Newton the perfect prosecutor.
Newton portrait
by Enoch Seemar 1726

            The counterfeiter, William Chaloner, was Newton’s opposite. A runaway apprentice whose first lawful skill was making nails, Chaloner found London to be a probabilistic cloud of moral relativity whose potentials suited his self-indulgence. For William Chaloner, counterfeiting coins was only one craft in a wider enterprise. In the language of the day, Chaloner called his swindles “funning”. He funned the Mint with counterfeit coins, and the Bank of England with fake paper, both bank notes and drafts. When his counterfeit notes were discovered, he turned informant, not only avoiding prosecution and prison, but being granted £200 in reward. Accused by informants of counterfeiting, Chaloner won the first courtroom skirmish, humiliating Newton. Consequently, Chaloner erroneously considered himself Newton’s equal; and his complex, long-range plans were but moves in a game designed to give him access to the Mint in order to coin for his own profit.

            Before Newton, the posts of warden and master were only sinecures for the favored who then further stocked their own larders at public expense. They were not exceptions. Married to sisters, the master smelter and the assay master were brothers-in-law, living beyond the limits of their official salaries, inferentially guilty of conspiring to pass debased silver into the official coining operation. The vector that impelled Newton’s trajectory was the sale of dies from the Mint to counterfeiters on the outside.
            Whether Newton’s career as a detective and prosecutor is “unknown” is putative. While most readers here probably know of his Three Laws of Motion, his work at the British Royal Mint is less often taught. Biographer David Berlinksi (Newton’s Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World, New York: The Free Press, 2000) called Newton’s tenure at the mint uninteresting. Numismatists, who study the forms and uses of money, feel differently. 

Levenson acknowledges the works of Sir John Craig. Craig’s book, Newton at the Mint (Cambridge, 1946) is catalogued by the libraries of both the American Numismatic Society and the American Numismatic Association. Levenson also cites two other Craig monographs, "Isaac Newton—Crime Investigator", Nature 182, 149-52; and Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters, 18 Notes and Records of the Royal Society 2, 136-45 (1963). When I proposed a review of the Levenson book to the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, editor Wayne Homren shot back: “How does it compare to Craig?” Levenson draws on the same sources as Craig: Newton’s papers, the mint archives, court records, a biography of Chaloner, Chaloner’s own petitions and letters. Where numismatist John Craig presented the facts, videographer Thomas Levenson brings them to life.
Merchant Token 1791 Middlesex
1penny; size larger than
US quarter dollar.

            Nonetheless, graphical animation can be dangerous. Of Newton’s meeting in a pub with an informant, Levenson says, “The detective swallowed his irritation.” (P. x.) Did he?  Was that recorded?  “For Newton’s part, this first encounter with Chaloner did not register very deeply.” (P. 157.) The storyteller’s power depends on many such inferences and inventions. The salient question is: Does the poetic license that is extended to creative non-fiction jeopardize the truth? 
            Of course, we have the compiled confessions of the accused and the accusations of informers whom Newton interrogated. Yet, those folios are decidedly incomplete. We know that many were burned. To explain why official records were destroyed, Levenson leaves the main narrative to establish a historical context for the use of torture in interrogation, a subject of some immediacy to us. Newton could not resort to extreme methods, but the actual tactics are lost because the documents were burned according to the reports of Sir Isaac Newton’s secretary.
            Whether William Chaloner was factually guilty may never be known. It is accepted that William Chaloner did not get a fair trial. “Chaloner was sentenced to death, very fairly on his record, unjudicially on the evidence …” (Craig, 1963; P. 143.) Levenson concurs. William Chaloner was accused of crimes committed in London. “And yet Chaloner faced charges brought by a Middlesex grand jury, being heard by a Middlesex trial jury. How could such a court, Chaloner asked, address crimes committed outside its jurisdiction?.” (P. 231.)
            Our modern experience with wrongful convictions throws a harsh light on the testimonies of jailhouse snitches, casting shadows of doubt. Yet, those informants were the only source of Newton’s evidence against Chaloner. Prima facie evidence is easy to accept. Chaloner probably was guilty, but certainly did not get a fair trial by modern standards. Moreover, our sociological context also condemns much else of that time and place. We do not horribly execute counterfeiters. Chaloner was drawn and quartered.

            As a casual read, the book can be enjoyed in a couple of hours. No reference numbers or inline citations encumber the text. The Notes are all in the back with concordance by page number and key words. Some readers will find profitable cause to linger there and reflect.