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, 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 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

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Police in a Global Culture

English is the lingua franca of Earth. Just about anywhere you go, important information will be in English, certainly in cities where visitors are common.  It is a fact of history and sociology that cities attract people. Urbanism is a distinct culture. If you have taken a subway in Boston, you can navigate the Metro in Budapest. So, it is not surprising that the police in Athens are labeled in English. Even if you could read out "Astunomia" you would not want to mistake that for "Astronomia." Of course, few astronomers assemble in ranks with shields and batons. But why do the police in Teheran use English? 

Four policemen in riot gear with helmets, shields, batons and protective clothing.
From the Telegraph (UK)
ASTUNOMIA literally means "city management"
but is the modern Greek word for POLICE.
Police officer in military combat uniform with automatic rifle standing guard at subway entrance.
Bulgarian police at subway entrance in Sofia

Man cowers when confronted by six police officers. The word POLICE is in English on their baseball style caps.
Korean Police
 The policeman's baton is raised to strike a man with long hair. Two women run away. A man on a motorbike is live.
(but it could be anywhere)
Laissez Faire Criminology
Junk Criminology as Pseudo-Science
Shifting the Paradigm of Private Security
Employee Theft

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Future Starts Slowly

Not only was Star Wars: The Force Continues a disappointment, I spent two weeks slogging through The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling.

Previous works by Bruce Sterling shifted my paradigms. I read Islands in the Net in the early nineties while I was working for Kawasaki Robotics, so I really identified with the global corporate solidarity. The heroine was unique to the story. A lot happened to her, and she persevered through it all. Sterling created a colorful, complex mosaic of life in the early 21st century. I looked forward to it, and I enjoy living it now. He got most of it pretty right. Africa is still a problem, but showing hope. For the vagrant nationalist submarine, we have ISIS.

Image of a space satellite with two large solar panels. Below the satellite is a large letter Z.
Schizmatrix painted a different solar system future. With Earth reduced by nuclear war, the few thousands who were off-planet, in space, on the Moon, continue as best they can. They do well. The characters were memorable individuals. I took away a couple of philosophical lessons about human action in society.

Revolution is for the young. But their glorious new dawn actually blinds them to the emerging reality that is better than they expected.  The girl who sacrificed herself in an act of political desperation was forgotten. And she missed out on everything that everyone else enjoyed. Aristotle said that tradition is stronger than law and it seemed sensible to me that a single spaceship with a small crew could claim the sovereignty belonging to a nation.  I fell in love with Intersolar Kabuki. Corporations are individuals. Creating them is easy; and they live without their founders, as children do their parents.

Difference Engine, Sterling’s collaboration with William Gibson, created a believable alternate past that has become steampunk in the culture of science fiction fandom

Just past half way through The Zenith Angle, I had to go back and start over. I lost track of the action because there was none. The main characters were not memorable. Sterling wrote the story in the heat of the 9/11 attacks. The world of 2004 looks much different now. I was amused at his reference to “Web logs” as we called them briefly. Like the cyberpunk world of today viewed from 1985, nothing ages as poorly as futurism.

I never figured out who the Dot Commie was. I never understood the purpose of Jeb. Putting Tony and the hero, Dr. Derek Vandeveer, inside an experimental, remote controlled jet was folly: no one would ever do that. Tony’s treason took me completely by surprise. Van’s assault on Tony’s sales pitch inside the observatory was also ludicrous. It is one thing to hide under a table. It is another to move around, and not be seen by a dozen people, half of whom are supposed to be intelligence agents for India and China. Discovering that Nobel laureate James Cobb was a fiction was a double disappointment. He would have been really cool in real life. Worse, was the invention in the first place: you can no more make up a Nobel laureate than you can invent a different capital city for Ohio.

Halloween 2015.
"You can't fool me,
Your Highness.
You are a rebel and a traitor
to the Empire."
Star Wars was our first date, October 31, 1977. It was part of the culture of our home as a family. It was not the only aspect. We had other interests, influences, and expressions. But it was there. And we followed the story in the theaters. Our daughter had the Marvel comics. ("I don't know who you are, or where you came from, but from now on, you will do exactly as I say!") Proofreading for Bantam-Doubleday, Laurel worked on a book about the mythology of Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, and all that.  So, we went to see The Force Continues for our wedding anniversary. “What did you think?” she asked. “I am pretty sure that I saw this already,” I replied. She agreed.

Talking about it at work with another fan, the story seemed to deviate from the accepted fanfic/profic arc. Han and Leia have twins, a boy and a girl. Skywalker has a child, a daughter as I recall. So, who is Rey? The force is strong within her. The Lucasfilm trailer even hints at the family connection. How did she get left behind by either her Princess General mother or else by her Last of the Jedi father? We can only hope that another movie will answer that, but I will not call that a new hope – and I will not be in the theater to see it.


Friday, January 1, 2016

Welcome to the Future

New Year’s Day is completely arbitrary – and truly necessary and important. Various days have been the beginning of a new year. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes became May Day and Hallowe’en celebrations: planting or harvest, take your pick. The Romans formerly marked the vernal equinox, but adopted the Winter Solstice from the Egyptians. Julius Caesar made January 1 the start of the New Year. The important fact is that we denote a time to evaluate and re-evaluate, to leave the losses behind and invest in the profitable returns.

It is difficult to imagine the future. The Jetsons or the Gernsback Continuum could only be projections of the known present. Space travel had been with us since Jules Verne. No one in my childhood had predicted the consequences of understanding DNA. Now we have CRISPR therapies on the horizon. CRISPR: Clustered Regularly-Interspaced  Short Palindromic Repeats are known from prokaryotic cells - the life forms that existed before the invention of the nucleus. And who knew that cancer could be contagious? (See The Scientist here.) 
Anousha Ansari and I, May 2011
 We still have no Lunar Colony.  However, introducing speakers at a BSides computer security conference here in Austin last year, I met a lawyer who has paid for her seat on a Virgin Galactic flight.

My conservative comrades have a trope they enjoy: the good old days. They were my good old days, too. We rode our bikes till dark. We made up our own games. We accepted each other on our own terms, bullies and sissies alike. No one was diagnosed AHDH. And all that…  But they were the bad old days, too. Kids disappeared off the streets and playgrounds. Kids died of diseases.  We expected a nuclear war any day, every day.

Take one measure: automobile deaths. Today as then, give or take, about 40,000 people a year die in car crashes in America. But the population was under 200 million then, and is over 300 million now. Cars are safer, ain’t no doubt.  And we drive better, having grown up in cars in the first place. We are better adapted both as consumers and producers.

Sure, in 1965, we had computers, and we had telephones, and we had cameras – but they were not the same device… and none of them listened to you sleep to tell you when you had enjoyed the best REM cycle.
Sarah Smith and I,
January 2010.

Take another measure: I have all of my teeth – well, most of them. I gave up a molar a couple of years ago. The students at the University of Michigan Dental School assured me that they would “go to heroic lengths” (their words) to save the tooth.  “Then what? I will be 85 and back in the chair with a problem. If it will not leave me with a sagging cheek, just take it out.”  But when I was a kid no one my age now had all their own teeth. None of them could do the push-ups or sit-ups or clear the mile that I did last year to earn a fitness ribbon. (My brother has a new Dacron aorta and expects to return to running marathons -- but he always outshone me...)

Utopia has a cloudy lining.  My wife has a brand new Honda Accord. When you put on the right-hand turn signal, it speaks back the last text message from your phone. Fortunately, the Honda Accord is one of the least susceptible to outside hacking.  It could be worse. 

Speaking of “susceptible” it was in the Asimov Foundation Trilogy that the homework computer corrected the kid’s spelling. We cut that short by 23,000 years…

John Kemeny Knew: We Shall Have Computed