Review: Into the Wild

intothewildAnyone contemplating a “return to nature” would be well advised to read Into the Wild first. This gripping little book investigates the last journey of Christopher McCandless: a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilds north of Denali in the early 1990’s with the intention of living off the land. He was woefully under-equipped, both materially and mentally, and in less than four months he starved to death.

People fall into two camps when hearing Chris’s tale. There is the “too stupid or crazy to live camp” and the “we understand what he was trying to do camp.”  Like the author, Jon Krakauer, I’m in the more sympathetic camp. We’ve all imagined putting civilization’s bullshit behind us and getting back to a more primal way of life. The human animal evolved in the wild.  For over a hundred thousand years we roved the Earth in small nomadic groups of hunter gatherers: civilization is a recent invention and our inner animal is not entirely OK with it.

Chris’s desire to experience raw unfiltered nature is universal. When I was Chris’s age I took off on long solo backpacking trips. I wasn’t acting out Thoreau’esque desires to embrace nature; I just couldn’t always find a partner. On one of my trips I got lost in the Canadian Rockies and decided to follow a river down a mountain. It was a mistake and I eventually came to an impassable roaring cataract. For a few minutes I felt a bit of what Chris endured when the Teklakania, a river he had easily crossed in early spring, had swollen into a raging torrent that trapped him in the Alaskan backwoods. If you live by a river you know they are ever-changing beasts. I am not sure Chris understood this and it cost him his life. I didn’t cross my river and Chris wisely chose not to cross his:  freezing water and fast currents kill the best swimmers. I spent a day backtracking and eventually found the trail I left. Chris wasn’t so lucky.  A month after the Teklakania blocked his return from the wilds Chris was dead from starvation.

Chris wasn’t ready for his trip and given his superior intelligence I am pretty sure he knew it, but he didn’t care and it’s hard to understand why. When people embark on new, potentially fatal, endeavors they either prepare or don’t realize they should!  There are many amusing stories of clueless dolts getting way in over their teeny tiny heads and paying dearly. Hubris, it’s not just for ancient Greek heroes; it kills every single day. Part of training for anything is admitting you don’t know Jack, and, if you’re putting your sorry ass on the line, getting some pointers from people who do! Any good diving, climbing, or kayaking course will quickly drive home the point that mommy nature is one big capricious ass kicking bitch that will crush you without a femtosecond of remorse. Training addresses the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” by giving us opportunities to recognize dangerous situations while we still have some control over events.

Chris thought he was preparing for his Alaskan adventure. He talked to hunters about stalking game and meat preservation. He studied botany monographs of edible wild plants. He told people who picked him up while hitchhiking to Alaska what he was up to and patiently answered their many warnings and objections. The one thing Chris did not do was spend time with someone who had real Alaskan backwoods experience.  This amazing omission rendered his other conscientious preparations delusional and dangerous.  Chris’s notes, recovered from the margins and blank spaces of books he carried, tell how he slowly learned that he could not wander the land at will. Summer off-trail hiking north of 60th is usually a muddy, boggy, bug infested, energy draining slog. They detail his frustrations trying to smoke a moose carcass. He didn’t try the air drying method. Finally, they show that near the end he understood his peril and bravely faced it without self-pity.

To me Chris’s biggest mistake was not walking into the Alaskan bush but rejecting his parents, particularly his father. This colored his entire approach to authority figures and made it very difficult for him to seek out and profit from the experience of others.  Our hunter gather ancestors worked together to survive. They depended on and learned from each other. They knew that rejecting your clan and wandering alone was extremely dangerous.  Well guess what, a hundred thousand years later, it still is! The next time you think about fleeing into the wild keep Chris in mind it might just save your behind.

Review: The Creature from Jekyll Island

jekyllislandIn 2008 whatever residual trust I had in American democratic institutions was irrevocably shattered by the larcenous and criminal bank bailout. If you recall the bailout, the infamous “crap sandwich”, was overwhelmingly opposed by the public, initially rejected by Congress, but stuffed down our throats anyway. The sky was falling! The banks had to be saved or the world would end. At the time I knew the failure of half a dozen of world’s largest banks would be a disaster – for bankers – and many innocent bystanders, but it was hardly world ending. Asteroids weren’t falling, super volcanoes weren’t erupting, nukes weren’t detonating, in the worst case we would have a short sharp, parasite cleansing, depression followed by the growth of new financial institutions. This is exactly what happened – in Iceland: the only country that refused to bail out their banks. The reward for poor judgment, bad planning and mendacious behavior should be failure. Of course that is not what happened. That ultimate get out of jail free institution, The Federal Reserve, kicked into high gear and rescued a host of institutions that should no longer be with us. It was a complete undemocratic travesty.

I thought the 2008 bailout was an exception; that the entire outrageous chain of events was pulled out of the asses – of asses – on the fly. Edward Griffin’s “crazy” history of the Federal Reserve, written more than a decade before 2008, clearly shows that the only exceptional thing about 2008 was scale.  The Federal Reserve has been saving banker’s butts for a century. As long as we have, fiat currency, fractional reserve banking and central banks like the Federal Reserve we’ll have, massive government debts, never-ending inflation, (money creation), and the relentless insidious transfer of the costs of bank screwups to an unsuspecting and stupid public. This is the way the system is supposed to work! Griffin’s footnotes make it clear this was completely understood by the originators of the Federal Reserve over a century ago. In short, the “Jekyll island creature” has pulled off the biggest bank job in history.

Most of The Creature from Jekyll Island recounts the fascinating history of central banking in the United States with entertaining asides into the longer history of money. For millennia “money” was largely precious metals: Gold and Silver.  There are good, very long-standing historical reasons,  for this. Even today, given the choice between a pile of paper dollars and the equivalent amount of Gold, most of us would still take the Gold. You would think something that has functioned for five thousand years as global money would be good enough for central bankers but Gold, in the duplicitous language of bankers and their economist fanboys, is insufficiently elastic. What this means is that Gold cannot be created and destroyed by banker will alone.  Barbaric old unreactive Gold, forged in the collision of neutron stars, and unevenly dispersed in the interstellar medium, is just too damn hard to acquire and use as money. What’s needed is something that can be “poofed” into being on demand.

On course the problem with poofed, or fiat, money is getting poor dumb suckers to accept it. That’s where the legal tender laws come in.  Central bankers are only one side of the bailout ballet. The bankers need the power of the state, with its ability to imprison and execute anyone that balks at taking colored paper for Gold, or gets the silly idea that they can print some colored paper themselves, to really work the fiat magic. In return the state gets preferential access to newly created, tax levy free, funds to piss away on vote-buying boondoggles. It’s a great system for bankers, politicians and their many blood sucking ticks. It’s a shame the rest of us get inflation raped paying for it.

Griffin ends his book with two flights of conspiratorial lunacy: one pessimistic and the other realistic. If you’re wondering, Griffen holds there is no optimistic scenario. We’re in for a world of economic butt-hurt when the creature dies. The pessimistic scenario is basically 1984 central banker style and the realistic outlines the economic disruptions required to return to a silver based dollar. Griffin is a better historian than a science-fiction writer and Jekyll would be a better book without the last two chapters.

Finally, I disagree that there is no optimistic scenario, but I can forgive Griffin for not seeing one twenty years ago. In 1994 there were no new ideas about money: just the same old fiat crap served up on plastic credit cards. In 2014 we have Bitcoin. I hold that the ideas in Bitcoin are the first genuine monetary innovations in many decades. The Bitcoin network demonstrates how a “nonpoofed” form of sound money can work without governments or central bankers. Economists are fond of quoting Gresham’s law: “Bad money drives out good.”  With ideas it’s the exact opposite: “Good ideas drive out bad.” Let’s hope the exceedingly bad Federal Reserve idea succumbs to better ideas like Bitcoin as soon as possible.

Review: The Signal and the Noise

signal-and-noise-coverThere is nothing like being right to make an impression. After calling the majority of congressional districts in the 2012 US election Nate Silver enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. Before his election prediction I was only dimly aware of Nate Silver. I knew he worked for the New York Times, but that’s no longer an indicator of excellence or even sanity. Heck, even Nobel Prizes no longer guarantee excellence or sanity. Obama, vain narcissist that he is, was embarrassed by the dolts on the Nobel Peace Prize committee that confused existence for accomplishment.

It wasn’t Silver’s employer that led me to his book; it was his stint as a serious poker player that told me he wasn’t a standard NYT brain-dead progressive. Progressives do not bet with their own money! They bet with other people’s money. Anyone that puts their money where their mouth is is worth a hearing and Silver is worth a hearing

The Signal and the Noise is a series of essays about making predictions. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that some fields suffer poor, dare I say idiotic, predictors. Economists and partisan policy wonks are among the worst. Silver’s statistics show many of these people are clueless ideologues or cynical liars. They’re not even reliable contra-indicators. If only Nancy Pelosi, that Botox saturated crone, was consistently wrong, rather than randomly moronic, we might profit from her emissions.

As bad as some predictors are it’s not all bleak. Meteorologists have dramatically improved their forecasts. A few decades ago it was anyone’s guess where hurricanes would hit land. Now it’s possible to forecast landfalls within a hundred miles two days in advance. The weather service called Katrina before it hit New Orleans. It’s too bad so many ignored the warning.

One of the best sections in The Signal and the Noise deals with the dangers of “over-fitting”, over-fitting occurs when a model ends up modeling noise instead of signal. Over-fitting is an egregious statistical error but human beings are evolved over-fitters. If you “predict” the wind is shaking a bush and it’s a tiger you’re cat food. If you predict a tiger is shaking a bush and it’s the wind you have a bad hair day. Evolution favors the latter. If life is short, nasty and brutish, it pays to over-fit immediate dangers. This is not the case when over-fitting tells you something is highly unlikely when it isn’t.

Silver makes a good case for the Fukushima nuclear disaster going down in history as a classic case of the dangers of over-fitting. Earthquakes are currently unpredictable. Silver goes over the history of earthquake prediction and it’s sobering. Forecasts made by 21st century geophysicists, armed with petaflop supercomputers, are only marginally better than simple historical means. This is a tough scientific problem made orders of magnitude harder by the difficulty of collecting data. We cannot directly measure stresses twenty kilometers underground. Hence the data feeding earthquake models are at best approximate and incomplete. This is unfortunate because models based on sketchy data are essentially conspiracy theories without black helicopters. You won’t find many geophysicists making short-term Vegas bets on the output of their earthquake models.


Power law fit of earthquake intensity – click for details.

This doesn’t mean that earthquakes are random or lack order. Earthquakes are remarkably orderly over geological timescales. They eerily fit a power-law distribution. This excellent fit makes it possible to pick any point on the Earth and compute an earthquake probability.  Such probabilities were computed for the seas near Fukushima but the earthquake model used was over-fitted and it dramatically underestimated the likelihood of magnitude 9 earthquakes. The Fukushima model had been “tweaked” to echo the fact that rare magnitude 9 earthquakes had not been observed near Japan in centuries. Instead of following a nice linear log-log plot the Fukushima plot was “bent” and the bend led to the assumption that it wasn’t necessary to plan for  magnitude 9 earthquakes and potentially huge tsunamis. Here model over-fitting led to seawall over-topping. This is not your average stats 101 screw-up.

Looking back it’s easy to see where people went wrong. Maybe evil crony capitalists, bent on saving a few yen on concrete, conspired to sabotage earthquake models before submitting low ball Fukushima seawall bids. Doesn’t Lex Luthor do this every other day? Here it’s not necessary to invoke super-villains, good old fashioned short-term thinking, fortified with professional hubris, is all that’s required. Silver makes it abundantly clear that prediction, “especially about the future”, is hard but not necessarily hopeless. This is an excellent book for both lovers and haters of statistics.

The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus’s Absurd Prototype

the-myth-of-sisyphus-coverIn 1942, with World II raging, readers of The Myth of Sisyphus could easily identify with Camus’s absurd man. Not only is man absurd he has reduced his entire world to absurdity. Now, seventy-plus years later, Sisyphus readers are more likely to politely yawn and wonder what the fuss is about. Camus’s themes are not trivial or obvious but we, denizens of the early 21st century, are thoroughly habituated to them. Absurd is now beyond mainstream; how else can one explain facile growths like Facebook. Just like homosexuals kidnapped the word “gay” and changed its meaning Camus abducted “absurd” and changed its meaning. The old “absurd”, synonymous with ridiculous, nonsensical, ludicrous and preposterous, becomes, in Camus’s hands, something few would call absurd. But, part of a great writer’s job description is changing the meaning of words, and it’s easy to see why the best of us have become absurd men.

Camus’s absurd man is a thoroughly honorable creature. He respects reason and wants to understand all things. This is beyond his reach but he doesn’t claim it’s impossible, only that his own limits make it personally impossible. Perhaps you’ve vainly argued with scientific illiterates that assert evolution is wrong because they cannot see how it could work. If I don’t understand it then it cannot be understood. Absurd men recognize, but do not generalize, their limitations. Absurd men also see that in the long run absolutely nothing matters. In a thousand years all but the greatest of us will be forgotten, in a million years even the greatest will be forgotten, in a billion years only precision instruments will detect our remains and in a trillion years it will be like we never existed. Many red dwarf stars will still be shining long after every microscopic trace of humanity has disappeared. This is an inescapable scientific truth. It’s a terrifying banality that is often ignored or wrapped up in sky fairy nonsense. Yet, the absurd man faces cosmic futility without flinching or whining.

Instead of being crushed by a vast, difficult to comprehend, cosmos the absurd man soldiers on. He doesn’t curl up, go on food stamps, or complain about lurid Koch brother conspiracies. He gives a middle finger to his fate and then does what he can. Up yours universe: this is Camus’s revolt and, in our time, it’s a universal sentiment. This part of being absurd is easily faked; every brain-dead rapper and air-headed celebrity sports up-yours-airs, but absurd men do not play at revolt! They do their best to create without delusions and what idiot would claim celebrities are free of delusions? Many like to think cathedral masons were honoring god. Even in the Middle Ages this was delusional. Most were simply earning a living: if a pile of well-shaped rocks pleased god who knew or cared. Besides, in a geological blink, the same cathedral stones will weather to mud. Camus is very clear: absurd creation is self-consciously ephemeral.

Camus started The Myth of Sisyphus with what’s become his most famous line:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.

This is one exam question we all face. Cowards run and hide; they turn the knob to eleven and pop sweet — there’s an app for that — distractions. The religious create elaborate fantasies and declare war. Pure rationalists drag in Spinoza’s objects that long to persist in their being. They don’t commit suicide because that’s not part of their program. Ironically, only Camus’s absurd answer is remotely satisfying. In our lingo:  man-up, stop whining, pull your weight, don’t take crap, expect nothing, use your head and create. Any modern libertarian would approve.

sisyphus-rocking-itWhen casting the prototypical absurd man Camus brilliantly chose Sisyphus. Sisyphus put death in chains, claiming immortality for men, but vindictive and jealous gods freed death and condemned Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill only to watch it crash down and roll it up again, and again — forever. This sounds awful but Camus saw Sisyphus’s fate as a blessing. Life sucks when you’re pushing your rock up the hill but when it rolls down you get a break. While climbing down Sisyphus has time to think, to absurdly create, and unlike poor doomed mortals, Sisyphus gets an eternity of breaks. This is an absurdly happy fate.

Books to Ignore

My superpower is indifference. Indifference is the soporific that lets my inner beast nap in peace. Without it I would have long since turned into a murdering psychopath, but I remain calm, rational, nearly ethereal, as I proudly ignore the unhinged idiocy of my fellow human beings. I prize my detachment, my don’t-give-a-shit-ness, my lordly disdain, and I work hard to maintain it. Today I’m sharing one of my, how to resist pummeling the morons around you, secrets. Here it is: don’t read rubbish.

Now, don’t fire up your book Barbie; that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m asking you to upgrade your standards and scoot past toxic aisles in your favorite book store. Ignorable books are legion and they’re relatively easy to identify. The following rules have served me well.

  1. Do not read biographies of living people. There are few, if any, definitive biographies of the living for the simple reason that they’re almost impossible to write without triggering crippling law suits. Historical figures, and their entire sycophantic bottom-feeding cohort, must be long dead before anything approaching perspective is possible. So put down that Prince of Wales or, don’t make me puke, Ted Turner, biography. They’re trash, worse than pornography, at least porn facilitates release.
  2. Do not read autobiographies. Autobiographical fiction, and it always is, is akin to masturbating in public. Only one person is going to enjoy it. Everything I said about biographies goes double for autobiographies. We know you’re misleading, omitting, embellishing, polishing, fabricating, composting and just plain lying. If you’re one of the rare true worthies, say a Fields Medalist, a hard science Nobel winner, a Caesar, or a Mark Twain then go ahead and indulge yourself. Your scribbling’s will show future generations that bullshit is the only human universal.
  3. Do not read hyphenated anything. Only mediocre twaddle preens as black-history, feminist-politics, gay-literature, Indian-mathematics, lesbian-drama or aboriginal-stories; the good stuff is known as history, politics, literature, mathematics, drama and stories.
  4. Skip anything with “New Age” in its title, preamble, introduction, appendices or footnotes. Virtually everything written about new age beliefs, medicine, philosophy and so on is complete and utter garbage. This dreck is for feeble, magical-thinking, childish minds. I genuinely pity the purveyors and swallowers of new-age bilge; they’re sad silly people: come the zombie apocalypse the Deepak Copra’s of the world are starters.
  5. Eschew political diatribes written solely to exploit current events. The political diatribe, or insta-history, like autobiographical fiction, may let readers in the future relive our self-deceptions, but we don’t live in the future. Most of these books emit a foul, cash in on my 15 minutes of fame, stench. I weep for the trees that died to print this crap.
  6. Ignore books that rehash thoroughly debunked cover-ups and conspiracies. 9/11 was not an inside job, there are no miracle cancer cures, Bigfoot does not exist, the pyramids were not built by aliens, dowsing is crap, Oswald shot Kennedy, and the world did not end on December 21, 2012. Being a hard-ass skeptic clears entire drivel laden bookshelves.
  7. Do not read diet books. You are not going to learn anything you don’t already know. We know why we’re fat. We eat too much and move to little. It’s really that simple. Get off you’re stupid obese ass and stop wasting your money on diet books.
  8. Do not read computer books with high screen-shot densities. As a programmer I am constantly pawing through computer books and it pains me to report that vast swathes of this technical genre are awful. Stop printing one damn screen shot after another. It’s not helping.
  9. Ignore how to get rich books. Get rich whores are worse than insta-history whores and often far more damaging to the pocketbooks of gullible readers.
  10. Give any book sharing Steve Job’s secrets a wide berth. The necrophages writing this tripe are stunted little animals. Let’s feed on the dead, rich, white guy. Maybe if we eat his soul we’ll get rich too.

See that wasn’t so bad. With these ten rules you, shrink big-box bookstores to manageable dimensions, speed up online searching, and cut your exposure to rage fomenting mental pollution.  I must warn you that there are exceptions my rules and it delights me  when I find them. If you can point to books that break my rules please drop a note. I enjoy being wrong; it’s an opportunity to learn something and it’s a rare experience.

Blurb: Nick Lomb’s Transit of Venus

Nick Lomb’s Transit of Venus 1631 to the Present is the best illustrated astronomy book for general readers since Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer’s The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide.  Everything about Lomb’s book from its eye seizing cover, rarely seen historic photographs and charming well researched commentary is first class. Transit is the type of work you steal[1] from and frankly, there is no better endorsement than that.  I’m not the only reader to reach this conclusion check out this and this and this.

When prowling our few remaining bookstores I often skip illustrated works. Usually they’re dumbed-down rehashes of familiar material but, in Transit’s case, I learned something on my first randomly browsed page. The chapter introduction for Venus of the South Seas reads:

Sometimes scientific expeditions have unintended consequences. The desirability of observing the 1769 transit from the South Seas began a chain of events that would lead to the founding of the colony of New South Wales by the British in January 1788. In effect, modern Australia owes its existence to a celestial event.

How about that history haters. I knew why astronomers cared about transits of Venus. In 1677 Edmond Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame, described a method for calculating the astronomical unit from transit of Venus timings. Venus is close enough to the Earth that its track over the Sun differs for widely separated terrestrial observers. This is the familiar parallax effect.  From this small difference you can determine the astronomical unit and if you know the astronomical unit Kepler’s third law tells you the distance of every planet in the solar system.  This was a huge payoff for 17th, 18th and early 19th century astronomers. This is what got Cook out in the Pacific. It’s a great story and Lomb’s telling is the best you will find.

[1] I’ve picked up a few page design ideas.

Mike Brown Punts Pluto

As a longtime amateur astronomer I appreciate good science writing and Mike Brown’s little book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a wonderful example of the genre. When Pluto was tossed from the pantheon of planets I didn’t care. I knew that in previous centuries, when asteroids were first discovered, that they were briefly counted as planets. Eventually asteroids lost their planet status; there were too many of them and they were all dinky compared to real planets. Brown notes this bit of astronomical history by pointing to 19th century textbooks with high planet counts. The same holds for Pluto, Eris, Sedna, Quaoar and all the other known baby ice balls that make up the Kuiper belt. Real planets are massive enough to clear their orbits of crap. By this standard Mars barely qualifies and Pluto does not.

The emotional hysterics that greeted Pluto’s demise are still playing out. Some reviews posted here castigate Brown in terms rightly applied to suicide bombers and Obama voters. When Pluto bulks up and starts bullying its neighbors like all manly planets do we’ll talk until then I’d advise the puerile Pluto partisans to plumb up their pie holes otherwise we’ll have to toss you in the crank bin with the creationists and cold fusion nitwits.

cross posted on Goodreads.