Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Financing a Revolution

Louis Kossuth (1802-1894) spent his life in politics, working for Hungarian independence. He participated in nationalist, liberal reform movements. Hungarian aristocrats formed a national diet in 1825; and Kossuth served as secretary to one of the ministers.  After the diet was dissolved, Kossuth published his own accounts of their sessions and eventually was arrested. 

 EGY FORINT  (One florin)
Central vignette in neo-classical style shows hero with sword and spear 
standing over slain monarch.  
Legend around on buckled leather belts: 
(For Freedom / For God / For Home ) 
Left vignette – Three Graces. 
Right vignette – goddess with pen, scroll resting on column; 
anvil, machinery on ground.
Signed lower right by Louis Kossuth 
in Hungarian, Kossuth Lajos: family name first)
At left exergue: Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Co., Phila.
Legend in Hungarian in engraver’s script reads from left of central vignette 
and continues to right of center.

Ezem pénzjegy álladalmi es egy ezüst forint huszas gyanánt 
nevszerinti értéke által biztositatiki 
minden magyar közpenztar vagy is három 
elfolgadtatik’s teljes a közallomány

 "This note will be redeemed for one silver florin 
in sets of 20 
after three subscriptions have been paid into 
and been accepted by the Hungarian people’s treasury.”

The note has the fabric of other American "wildcat" banknotes of the era.  It is tissue-thin, yet tough, printed on one side only.  The firm Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Co., is known for its banknotes and its US Government postage stamps. These notes were issued as 1- 2- and 5-Forint.  The fives are common.  My 1-forint is the only example that I have seen. I have never seen a 2.  You can find them all on eBay, including uncut sheets.  (I bought mine on a bourse floor from an ANA-member dealer.) They never circulated. They easily fit within the "cinderellas" of failed states.  They are not rare, only that some kinds are more commonly available.  As I understand the story, these were sold in America for dollars to raise money for the next revolution which never happened. 

After the failure of the 1848 revolutions, Louis Kossuth escaped via the Ottoman Empire to France. He then went to the UK before coming to the USA in December 1851.  Here he was treated like Lafayette, given parades, having towns named for him.  He met Abraham Lincoln in Springfield.  However, he fell into diplomatic embarrassments and returned to the UK ahead of more serious problems.  Speaking to a German-American club in favor of the election of Franklin Pierce in the 1852 election was a blunder. (See the XYZ Affair.)  Conspiring with American military officers to overthrow the government in Haiti was far beyond any limits. 

It was also typical of Kossuth.  In 1851, he was aboard an American ship, the USS Mississippi from Turkey, in France, when he insisted on speaking to a public gathering.  French president (not yet emperor) Louis Bonaparte forbade it. Kossuth spoke anyway, and in so doing violated the neutrality of his American hosts.  He was put off the Mississippi at Gibraltar

Louis Kossuth was an aristocrat and a Hungarian. He had no sympathies with those outside his class and few with the other ethnic groups within the Hungarian domain.  Other revolutionaries found him impossible to work with.  On the plus side, during his imprisonment 1837-1840 he taught himself English by reading Shakespeare.  When he visited the UK in 1851, even his political enemies were impressed with his speeches.

He is considered a national hero.  Only King Stephen ranks higher.  Kossuth has been honored on several series of coins and notes since Hungary’s complete independence from Austria following World War One. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ma Kiley: Railroad Telegrapher

Thomas C. Jepsen’s biography, Ma Kiley: the Life of a Railroad Telegrapher (Texas Western Press, University of Texas at El Paso, 1997) comes from Mattie Kuhn’s autobiography, “The Bug and I: Parts 1-4,” Railroad Magazine, April-June 1950.  Jepsen took his lead from the narrative and tracked down the records that substantiated the story.  Just as we have usernames, so did telegraphers; and Mattie Kuhn called herself Ma Kiley for 40 years, actually some years after she began working.  Her first message was on the death of Queen Victoria, January 22, 1901.  She had learned to send and receive some months before, desperate to earn a living after leaving the first of several husbands.

By that time, women were a visible minority, first in railroading (from 1832), then in telegraphy (from 1846).  Jepsen’s introduction and his annotations to Mattie Kuhn’s story provide footnotes to sources.  At the end of the book, he cites Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New (1989) to substantiate some of the parallels between women in telegraphy and women in computing. The computer is, after all, only a prodigious telegraph; and the roots of ASCII are in Morse Code.

When not a boomer pounding brass, Kuhn also waited tables, drew water, and even sold life insurance.  She knew nothing but hard work and hard fortune when not making money as a telegrapher, though she did break down and cry when another telegrapher bought her dinner and a train ticket; and slipped five dollars into a magazine - as much a gesture of camaraderie as any deference to her womanhood. Usually, she rode free: her pins for the Commercial Telegraphers Union of American and the Order of Railroad Telegraphers were her pass. 

They were different lines of work.  Railroads were 20 years slow in figuring out that they could manage and control trains with the only thing that traveled faster.  In addition, commodities brokers, hotels, banks, and many other enterprises also needed telegraphers.  Mattie Kuhn worked for both.  So, she belonged to both unions. 

The telephone impacted telegraphy but did not finally make it obsolete until 1940.  The telegraph was generally more reliable when accuracy and precision were at a premium. Paper tapes for recording messages went out of common use in the 1850s, but still were installed when legal issues demanded a recording.  Compared to that, a telephone call was mere hearsay.

Mattie Kuhn worked until 1942.  Encouraged by a published author she met, she spent eleven days typing up her narrative. She sent her story to Railroad Magazine, as did many veterans.  The age of steam was passing.  The telegraph was gone.  “I can find no one who speaks my language,” she wrote.  It is not known when Mattie Kuhn taught herself to type.  Telegraphers owned their own typewriters, as they owned their own “bugs” - Vibroplex sending and receiving keys.  

The telegraph and the typewriter were both machines that liberated women by rewarding their intelligence while granting no privilege to men’s strength.  The first female telegrapher was Sarah G. Begley in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1846.  Elizabeth Cogley was the first woman employed as a railroad telegrapher, in 1852, for  the Ohio and Atlantic Telegraph Company. (Railroads and commercial companies found a hand-in-glove relationship with the railroads providing rights-of-way, and telegraph companies providing operators who also worked as station clerks.)

Typically, women were paid less, on the assumption that they would soon marry, though this seems statistically not at all true.  Mattie Kuhn eventually demanded and got the wages she wanted wherever she worked, but that was based on a long string of references for both railroad and commercial offices – and her own strength of character.  She was willing to walk away from a deal she did not like.  The telegraph was the medium by which operators sent out inquiries, just as software developers use the Internet.  Like today’s programmers, telegraphers also had to know hardware.  Mattie Kuhn passed ad hoc examinations in the wiring of switchboards, the maintenance of circuits and batteries, and the proper grounding of her own direct current device.

She never recovered from the death of her second child.  She left him at an orphanage, apparently with money for his care, but she returned to find him unconscious from fever and he never woke up.  It was a long time before she could cry. 

She herself missed three months of work because of typhoid fever.  Suffering from appendicitis, she was given an array of concoctions before paying for her own transportation and surgery. 

The book runs 138 pages, notes and all.  It is dense with feeling, insight, and expression. 


Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Code Book

In the University of Texas library stacks, looking for the early history of word processors, I was in the Zs and discovered that my book on codes and ciphers was actually checked out.  It took three editions to get it right.  The first 3000 years were easy enough to understand. I wrote programs in Basic that transposed and substituted right up through the Playfair and Vigenere ciphers.  RSA was a tough nut to crack; and I finally just cut-and-pasted one of their own graphics and quoted their own abstract. 
 As the IBM-PC finally overtook the TRS-80, other amateur cryptographers published more complete books of programs for personal computers.  By 1993 or so, with Phil Zimmermann's PGP becoming common in sig lines and footers, applied personal cryptography sped light years past high school algebra in Basic. PGP is now part of the Symantec suite. 

This week, news about more of Edward Snowden's leaks revealed that RSA (now an EMC label) took $10 million from the NSA and installed weaknesses to allow backdoors to its encryption.

Codes and ciphers are about more than sending secret messages, though there is that.  When the first public key cryptosystems were being publicized in the 1970s, authentication was a suggested application.  How do you validate a digital signature?  If you have the answer to the public key question, then you must hold the authenticating string. Although the first Diffie-Hellman knapsack system was later exposed for weaknesses, the problem itself and the algorithms for instantiating it remain as possible platforms. Others have been invented since.

Whether or not you rely on cryptography, and independent of which (if any) system(s) you choose, codes and ciphers are in and of your daily world. They make credit card transactions and cellphone handshaking possible.  They allow the efficient compression of messages. In fact, the common zip command on your computer is one way to encipher any message. It is easy to break, but the message is no longer in plaintext. Many other simple systems are available.  No better or worse than the Yale or Schlage lock on your front door, they do stop all honest people and many who are not.

Of all the secret messages from World War II, many remain unbroken because the need is gone. Those ciphers have kept their secrets. 

Of all the "unbreakable" codes, the one-time pad and the dictionary code remain easy and effective.

Basic: Turing's Truth
Patterns in Pi
Open Secrets
BSides Austin 2013
Visualizing Complex Data

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Newtonmas 2013

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, 'Let Newton be'  and all was light.
Alexander Pope

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, the year that Galileo died.  For most people, Newton is famous for his Three Laws of Motion.  Beyond that, those with additional education know him for creating the Calculus to prove his theories of celestial and terrestrial mechanics. In addition Newton invented the reflecting telescope as a result of his experiments with light.  And he also proved the general case for the Binomial Theorem (“Pascal's Triangle”). He served in Parliament, representing Cambridge, where he had been a professor of mathematics.  He served as president of the Royal Society of scientists. Few people except numismatists know him to have been the Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint for thirty years.  He had himself sworn as a justice of the peace so that he could pursue and prosecute counterfeiters.  Any one of those achievements would have made him important to us today. That he accomplished all of that - and more - set Sir Isaac Newton apart even from the geniuses and polymaths recorded by history.

Newton's Reflecting Telescope
 Newton’s colleagues called him fearful, cautious, suspicious, insidious, ambitious, excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction. Even his relatives and his true friends were modest in their praise of Newton. Physically sound in his life, he died at 84. He had lost only one tooth, still had much of his hair, and read without glasses. Yet, he was a hypochondriac, suffering from illnesses and diseases that he treated with medicines he made for himself.

Yr humble servant Ic Newton
The Cambridge Digital Library, Newton’s Papers.

The full story of Newton’s tenure at the Mint is told in Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson.  Professor Levenson’s narratives in this book have the inclusive force of videos.  He puts you on the teeming streets of London, inside the sweat and smoke of the Mint, down the dank alleys and into the rowdy, bawdy taverns where criminals swap and wager.

The First Newtonmas?
 “Celebration of Newtonmas can be traced back to 1890. An 1892 issue of Nature records it thus (on page 459): 
At Christmas 1890, or Newtonmas 248, for the first time, the members of the Newtonkai, or Newton Association, met in the Physical Laboratory of the Imperial University, to hear each other talk, to distribute appropriate gifts, and to lengthen out the small hours with laughter and good cheer. The Society has no President : a portrait of the august Sir Isaac Newton presides over the scene.” (http://jdebp.eu./FGA/newtonmas.html)
In 1982-1984 I was recording “Community Commentaries” for WKAR-AM/FM in East Lansing.  One holiday season, I built up the imagery of a little boy born in a small village across the sea who would grow up to bring light to the world.  When I quoted the poet's eulogy, I emphasized the word Pope - and then announced that Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, the same year that Galileo died.  Since then, over the years, I have sent out Newtonmas cards to my friends.  I also posted Newtonmas greetings to Usenet newsgroups for numismatics and physics. 

Middlesex 1793 Half Penny Token
"Payable in London Bristol & Lancaster"
Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society has been celebrating Newtonmas for about 25 years.  Richard Dawkins touted Newtonmas in 2007. Blogging for the New York Times on December 23, 2008, Olivia Judson suggested that we capitalize on the change in calendars since Newton’s birth.  When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the United Kingdom and its colonies in 1752, Newton’s birthday moved from December 25 to January 4.  Pointing to the fact that Christmas runs until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, Judson suggested celebrating Newtonmas for ten days.  In 2009, Newtonmas was a scene in The Big Bang Theory.
"The Maternal Congruence"
December 14, 2009


Sunday, December 15, 2013


Democritus of Abdera posited the existence of atoms. Aristotle accurately described the embryology of the chick.  Aristarchus put the sun at the center of the planetary system.  Yet nothing like “science” existed before the Renaissance. When Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth by comparing shadows at noon on the summer solstice, remarkable as it was, and enduring as it would prove to be, his work was singular: neither a test, nor a disproof; neither a challenge, nor an argument.  It simply was.  But what was it?

St. Martin's Press, 2008.
 Nicholas Nicastro wrote five historical novels (three of them set in ancient times) before taking on this thin biography.  The life and works of Eratosthenes are mostly lost to us, destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandria and smaller collections across the world were looted and their  books burned as Hellenistic civilization collapsed. What we know about him is second-hand from Strabo, Polybius, the 10th century Suda, and similar sources.  Nicastro reconstructs as much as seemed relevant to the story here: how and why the librarian of Alexandria computed the size of the Earth as one element in his general geography.  In fact, Eratosthenes invented the word geography.

The Hellenistic world was very much like our own time: held in tension by science and superstition, commerce and war, ecumenism and parochialism.  Nicastro spans all of that because the known facts of the life and works of Eratosthenes are so few.  Much of the book is given over to calculations in various ancient stade measures (whence the modern "stadium").  Like many other technical reads for large audiences, the end notes are not keyed within the text.  Keep a bookmark there so that you can flip back and forth. 

Coin from Cyrene c. 480-435.
3.34 gr.  1.5 cm.
Zeus Ammon / Silphium.
Eratosthenes came from Cyrene, a city in what is today Libya near what is today Benghazi.  He studied philosophy in Athens before being appointed to the Great Library by Ptolemy III Euergetes.  Nicastro underscores the fact that contrary to our common opinions today, Athens was not a home to learning and philosophy until after its Golden Age and eventual downfall in the Peloponnesian Wars. Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Socrates all had been tried for impiety.  Nicastro also argues that Eratosthenes probably did not travel to Siwa (Aswan) to see the sun overhead.  He might have sent an underling from the Museum to do that.  A single fragment letter from Archimedes to Eratosthenes suggests a long correspondence between the two.  

But Eratosthenes was more than a geometer.  Just as most of Newton’s writings were not about physics, so, too, did Eratosthenes mostly write on grammar, poetry, and history.  That was apparently the attraction for Nicastro. “[He] received a BA in English from Cornell University (1985), an MFA in filmmaking from New York University (1991), an M.A. in archaeology and a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell (1996 and 2003).” (Wikipedia).  It takes one to know one.

Indian English: Totally Legend Like Anything
Profits and Benefits in Learning a Foreign Language

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Stand Up and Be Counted

Electronic voting makes election fraud even easier. Here in Travis County, no audit trail exists. The process of voting leaves no physical traces.  Moreover, no "red team" or "capture the flag" tests have been conducted. Instead, county clerk Dana DeBeauvoir repeatedly insists that adhering to good specifications removes the need for security tests. This is a logical outcome of the secret ballot. The secret ballot is called the "Australian ballot" because Australia was settled by criminals who did not trust each other.  That can be a bedrock foundation for social structures of laissez faire and laissez passer individualism. But in America, it is different. When you know that your rights will be respected by your neighbors, you can voice an unpopular opinion. 

Massachusetts still has open town meetings.  And they are serious about it.
Selected Case Law
District Attorney for the Northern District v. Wayland School Committee, 455 Mass. 561 (2009). "Prior to conducting an open meeting, the school committee commenced a private e-mail exchange in order to deliberate the superintendent's professional competence. This violated the letter and spirit of the open meeting law. Governmental bodies may not circumvent the requirements of the open meeting law by conducting deliberations via private messages, whether electronically, in person, over the telephone, or in any other form." -- http://www.lawlib.state.ma.us/subject/about/openmeeting.html
An open vote is also easier to audit because everyone present can see the tally.  Of course, that works best in a village of a few thousand where a few hundred show up and a few dozen actually lead the process.  With about 700,000 people in the average Congressional district, open voting would be held in stadiums. But that is workable, given some new social norms.  Certainly, for local matters, every community has several venues that can serve a few hundred people.

If the concept were extended to juries, they would be held liable for wrongful convictions. The history of innocent people released from prison by DNA evidence suggests that right now about 80,000 innocent people are incarcerated.  For most crimes, DNA is not an issue.  Williamson County, Texas, prosecutor Ken Anderson was given ten days in jail, fined $500, and agreed to resign from the bar, for his wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, charged with killing his wife 25 years ago. (KVUE News here.) Back then, Anderson stood before the jury, with tears running down his face in grief for the victim, though he knew that he had been withholding exculpatory evidence. Of course, the jury bought it, also, allowing themselves to be swayed despite a lack of any physical evidence or eye-witness testimony.  As the innocent man served 25 years in prison, it seems fitting that the jury should be awarded the same consequences.  We know from the basics of criminology that very few perpetrators suddenly commit a causeless heinous act. While we all make mistakes, the fact is that for about 20% of us, crime is a lifestyle.  When considering the prosecutor's actions, it makes sense to review all of his cases and investigate his lifetime career for hidden crimes.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Shrugging the Stigma of Success

Returning to his alma mater at the University of Texas, Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute spoke to a packed lecture room at the McCombs School of Business. Contrasting Bill Gates with LeBron James and Mother Teresa, he said that we accept huge salaries for sports heroes because we can conceptualize what they do.  “We all shoot baskets, and we know how bad we are at it.” Public opinion is that corporate officers do not deserve their rewards because few people actually operate businesses.  Moreover, our culture has a dominant morality of altruism; and business is all about self-interest.  

 Yaron Brook holds a B.S. in civil engineering, 
an MBA, and a Ph.D. 
His biography is on Wikipedia
He is president of the Ayn Rand Institute
He then engaged the audience to identify the virtues required by the marketplace.  Hard work, honesty, discipline, persistence, long-range thinking, and justice were offered; and he expanded on each. He summed them up with the virtue of passion. “Business is all about self-interest,” he said. In the popular mind, Brook said, the worst thing about Bill Gates is that he enjoys charity. “We would prefer that he give it all away, live in a tent, and if he could bleed a little, that would be perfect.”  On the other hand, Mother Teresa is considered moral not only because her work was for others, but also because she did not enjoy it.  Brook also identified guilt as a dominant motivator for charity. 

Pointing to the Occupy movement, he agreed with their condemnation of crony capitalism. However, he drew from the earlier discussion to point out that few people can conceptualize what investment bankers do. We shoot baskets, so we understand LeBron James. We own computers, so we “get” Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  In order to appreciate investment capitalism, “people must be conceptual and must think about it right.”  He added that in the hierarchy of production, bankers are responsible for the greatest range of value creation.

Brook urged the UT business majors to reject the morality of selflessness and to adopt a philosophy of self-interest, egoism, rationality, productivity, and achievement.

During the Q&A he cited The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman.  Brook identified education as the only way to reverse the trend of statism and decline.  He asked his audience to think ahead to the year 2050. “It’s going to take a generation or two or three.”


Sunday, December 1, 2013


It is not surprising that we share 98.9% of our genome with chimpanzees.  It is challenging to consider that we have about the same number of genes as mice and fish; but we have far fewer genes than plants.  It is a high school science experiment to extract DNA from strawberries. Rather than a double helix, their DNA is wrapped in a quadruple helix. Obviously, the chromosomes and genes are only part of the picture.

Every time we see two things which are genetically identical, but which aren't the same, we're seeing epigenetics in action.” – Nessa Carey.

Epigenetics is often presented as a new frontier in biology. In fact, the word originated in the 1940s; and the first book came out a decade later. Following Crick and Watson, science was focused on the chromosomes, and then on the genes.  The Human Genome Project was declared to be successful and the equivalent of Project Apollo, both for the complexity of the task and for its promise for our future.  Enter into your Web browser the phrase “scientists find gene for” and it would seem that we are living on the Moon.

  • The Epigenetics of Birds by C. H. Waddington (Cambridge University Press, 1952), reviewed by: J. T. Marshall in Bios, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1953), p. 59.
  • Epigenetics. A Treatise on Theoretical Biology by Soren Lovtrup (Wiley, 1974), reviewed by Clifford Grobstein in The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), p. 439.
Ghost in Your Genes: PBS Nova (BBC 2006; WGBH 2007, 2008) delivers graphic evidence that genetics is not heredity.  Identical twins raised in the same home diverge, one developing autism.  Twin sisters discover that one has cancer, but the other does not.  The town of Överkalix in northern Sweden provided a paradigmatic story of the effects of environment on heredity as grandparents who had suffered starvation passed the consequences not to their children, but to their grandchildren – depending on the sex of the ancestor and the sex of the descendant. 

The same differentiation was shown in the twins Jenna and Bridget. Bridget’s autism is associated with a genetic deletion in Chromosome 15 - the ubiquitin-protein ligase E3A (UBE3A) gene (Mayo Clinic here).  It is called Angelman Syndrome. However, the same deletion is also associated with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a form of obesity.  The outcome depends on whether the X-chromosome carrying it is inherited from the mother or from the father.  The chromosomes and genes themselves are identical in both cases; the expressions are markedly different.

“The route from genes to morphological characters is convoluted and, in many aspects, still escapes us. This is the reason why we have no hypothesis or model yet of the sequential steps of the development of an organ. There is no evidence that any part of the genome (a gene or a number of genes) codes or determines steps for developing a brain, a heart, or even a strand of hair. It is true that genes or genetic networks are involved or responsible for developing such characters, but their involvement is not linear: a number of different types of cells have to be differentiated and arranged in specific spatial patterns in order to form the organ. But both cell differentiation (Christopher and Helin, 2010) and dedifferentiation (return of cells to pluripotency) (Takahashi and Yamanaka, 2006), as well as activation of gene regulatory networks (Cabej, 2010, pp. 23-24, 39-80), are epigenetically rather than genetically determined. -  Building the Most Complex Structure on Earth: An Epigenetic Narrative of Development and Evolution of Animals by Nelson R. Cabej (Elsevier, 2013, pg 67.)

As depicted in the PBS Nova production, the Överkalix study revealed an array of distinctions laid over the chromosomal inheritances.  Diabetes, early death, or longer life in the descendants depended on whether the affected ancestor was male or female. Whether the ancestor was within the womb or out also effected contrasting outcomes. Exactly when during gestation the event occurred also effected a different result.  

Wikipedia has a bit more to say. “The Överkalix study was a study conducted on the physiological effects of various environmental factors on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. The study was conducted utilizing historical records, including harvests and food prices, in Överkalix, a small isolated municipality in northeast Sweden. The study was of 303 probands, 164 men and 139 women, born in 1890, 1905, or 1920, and their 1,818 parents and grandparents. 44 were still alive in 1995 when mortality follow-up stopped. Mortality risk ratios (RR) on children and grandchildren were determined based on available food supply, as indicated by historical data. Among the sex-specific effects noted; a greater body mass index (BMI) at 9 years in sons, but not daughters, of fathers who began smoking early. The paternal grandfather's food supply was only linked to the mortality RR of grandsons and not granddaughters. The paternal grandmother's food supply was only associated with the granddaughters' mortality risk ratio.  … The father's poor food supply and the mother's good food supply were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular death.”

In The Epigenetics Revolution (Columbia University Press, 2012), virologist Nessa Carey tells a similar story from the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1945.  “If a mother was well-fed around the time of conception and malnourished only for the last few months of the pregnancy, her baby was likely to be born small. If, on the other hand, the mother suffered malnutrition for the first three months of the pregnancy only (because the baby was conceived towards the end of this terrible episode), but then was well-fed, she was likely to have a baby with normal body weight. … The babies who were born small stayed small all their lives, with lower obesity rates than the general population. For forty or more years, these people had access to as much food as they wanted, and yet their bodies never got over the early period of malnutrition. …  Even more unexpectedly, the children whose mothers had been malnourished only early in the pregnancy had higher obesity rates than normal.” (pp 3-4). And this tendency to overweight was inherited in the grandchildren (pg. 102).

Nessa Carey has a virology PhD from the University of Edinburgh. She worked for five years at the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Lab in London. (Her website is here.) In this book, she carries the analogy of a Shakespeare play. The text of Romeo and Juliet is the same for everyone. Almost every cell of your body has exactly the same chromosomes. (Red blood cells and sex cells are exceptions.)  But you do not grow teeth in your eyes. The director’s comments, distributed with the script, provide more information. Methylation and histone deacetylations change the expressions of genes. Moreover, actors write notes in pencil or attach Post-its.  We smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and ingest insecticides and herbicides. They affect us, of course, but it seems likely that they also affect our grandchildren.

These facts, should have been the clues to scientists that the chromosomes, the genes, DNA and RNA must be directed by other agents. Otherwise, as Carey says several times, you would grow teeth in your eyes.  By analogy to the exploration of space, a series of giant steps over centuries allowed us to plot the orbits of the planets correctly.  The work of Darwin, Mendel, Crick and Watson, the human genome project, all provided the shoulders of giants for today's research. Epigenetic medicine may be the equivalent of the Lunar colony.

Disruptive Diagnostics and the Business of Science

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Freedom in an Unfree World

Government regulations, taxes, international crises, burning issues, social restrictions … You can feel enclosed by despair. Harry Browne’s 1973 classic How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World explores fifteen common traps that people allow to limit their personal freedom. Browne (1933–2006) was the Libertarian Party candidate for President in 1996 and 2000. He made his name in 1970 with How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation. Browne followed that with other books on investment strategy, and eventually on political theory. Like many libertarians, he was influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand.

Browne follows the hierarchy of philosophy, getting to politics by way of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
I bought it in 1973; and 
got it autographed in 1995.

The first snare is the Identity Trap. Things have identities and so do people. We generally do well enough with physical reality. Our personal problems are another matter. Browne delineates two aspects of the Identity Trap: “(1) believing that you should be someone other than yourself; and (2) the assumption that others would do things in the way you would.” Browne also juxtaposes the Intellectual and Emotional Traps. Morality becomes a trap for people who accept some given universal or absolute system without investigating what morality is and why they need it and then discovering and developing their own.

Forty years after the publication of this book, with sales of over 50 books by and about Ayn Rand at 40 million copies, it is easy enough to find self-interested people. Millions of them still feel trapped by government, by regulations, taxes, and burning issues. They seek solutions in political groups, protests, and campaigns to find freedom by denouncing oppression. It cannot work. Browne demonstrates better ways for you to find freedom for yourself by untangling yourself from the Government Trap, Group Trap, the Utopia Trap, the Burning Issues Trap, and the Rights Trap. Identify the true costs and potential benefits of your previous investments in people and society and you can get out of the box of false certainty.

In Part II, Browne suggests ways to gain freedom from government, bad relationships (including a bad marriage), family problems, financial insecurity, and exploitation on the economic treadmill.

In Part III, he ties the arguments together to outline the steps that you can take to make your life what you want, according to your own morality.

The book is easy to read. It is plain and conversational. The insights are deep, cogent, and prescient. For all the headline news, not much has changed in forty years, except perhaps that life has gotten better, a claim that finds no resonance with those who are trapped by taxes, regulations, bureaucracies, an invasion of illegal aliens, unwarranted searches by unconstitutional agencies engaged in shakedowns and shoot-ups, to say nothing of the immanent collapse of civilization whether or not Iran gains atomic weapons. But that is why this book was written. Anyone who wants to discover their self-interest and live their own life will find this book to be time well invested with a man who knew a lot about investments.


Friday, November 22, 2013

City Air Makes You Free

The city is literally civilization.  Cities - not nations or American “states” - are the engines of creation and progress. Geniuses can be born anywhere; but they come to the city. Farming is everyone’s bread and butter, but cities buy their foods from all the farms in the world. Agriculture was invented in the first cities as a consequence of division of labor in an industrial society. While dressed as a federal union of disparate states, the American republic is culturally a very large city. 
  • The City by Max Weber (Translated and edited by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth), Collier Books, 1962.
  • The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1969.

Chase Tower left and Comerica right in Austin
Max Weber investigated the fundamental sociology of the city, given that cities have different origins. Some began as armed camps, others as markets, production centers, consumption centers, or extensions of the household of the strongest local warlord.  However established, the essential function of the successful city is to be a marketplace.

Today, we accept the plurality of cultures in a modern city, but it was a radical idea that you could disassociate from your family and form new bonds with co-workers and customers in guilds and the fraternities, regardless of their own ethnic origins.  Cities always have attracted distant people.  Athens prospered because of the metics, free Greeks from other cities, but forever non-citizens within Athens. 

In the Middle Ages, if you could evade your manor lord for a year within the city walls, you were free.  On the other hand, everyone was expected to contribute to the defense of the city.  Men who work for a living have no time for training, so the city depended on firearms for protection: easy to use and devastating against an attacker.

Also in the ancient city and paradigmatic to the medieval city, political power rested within an elected council.  Democracy and urbanism are intimately related.  Also in the medieval city, women were enfranchised. The city erased previous classes, patrician and plebian, granted that it created new statuses. While some of them were heritable, most were not.

Reading Weber through modern eyes, it is easy to find all of those elements and many others within the society of the United States of America.  We are literally a bourgeois (burgher) society, a nation of cities. That is also the underlying thesis in Jane Jacobs’s The Economy of Cities. 

Frost Tower
Her major premise is that groups of hunters came together at fixed sites which became permanent trading settlements. Division of labor was an inevitable consequence.  From that, agriculture and herding became distinct occupations. This created the crossbred hybrids that we associate with the agricultural revolution.  Gardening requires land and soon farmers moved outside the cities.  Jacobs marshals her evidence and concludes the first chapter with an easy challenge.  Today, electricity is critical to the city and the largest electrical production factories are found in rural areas. In some distant future wrong-thinking archaeologists might conclude that electricity was invented on farms and exported as surplus to cities.  In fact we know that plows, tractors, fertilizers, everything that a farms needs is produced in cities. Jacobs argues that this has always been true.

Moving forward, she explains how complex divisions of labor come from new work invented to supplement existing products and services. She discusses the industries of Birmingham, England, contrasting them with Manchester.  To frame her presentation, she begins with the brassiere.  Invented by Ida Rosenthal, it epitomized the commerce of the city. First, it was a secondary product: as a dressmaker, Rosenthal was searching for a specific solution. Then, it became an independent product according to division of labor; and it spawned subsidiary industries in metal fasteners needed for production. Most subtly, the Maidenform Bra did not meet the needs of Ida Rosenthal’s clients: they would have preferred to keep their dressmaker, rather than have her abandon them for a new enterprise. 

Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions, that is the story of the city.

Cities enjoy explosive growth when many different kinds of enterprises come together in one place. Some succeed; many fail.  The creation of new work is the engine that pumps life into the city. Let its economy become dependent on a single industry and contraction, recession, and depression cannot be avoided.  Any city that enjoys and encourages an uncontrolled riot of many disparate economic activities will survive and thrive.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Neal Adams at Dragons Lair

Neal Adams was in town for Comic Con, signing his art at our favorite comics and fantasy store Dragons Lair.  If you are not a fan of comics, then you do not know the radical and innovative work that Adams brought to the industry.  It is enough to say that of all the great artists of the Silver Age, he worked as an independent contractor to both Marvel and DC. See Wikipedia here.

I bought an autographed print of this for my wife 
who, as a systems security professional, 
is a fan of Batman.

Neal Adams explains the pricing
to fans at Dragons Lair
in Austin, November 20, 2013