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.

C. K. Raju: Genius or Crank (Part 1)

Euclid's first proposition

Euclid’s first proposition

Lately I have been amusing myself by working through Euclid’s Elements. Despite studying mathematics in university, teaching it in high school and occasionally using it in my software-soaked day job I never got around to reading Euclid.

Euclid is routinely lionized as the wellspring of axiomatic mathematics. Before The Elements mathematicians were clearly out of control!  They were running around developing useful methods, (counting, fractions, roots),  and — gasp — making unjustified assertions!

Fortunately, The Elements put an end to all that and ushered in the endless age of rigorous axiomatic mathematics. I admire mathematical rigor but my tiny brain can only take so much of it before an all-pervading fog of befuddlement sets in. When I’m all fogged up there are only a few options:

  1. Reread and rework until the fog clears.
  2. Press on and review later.
  3. Give up and abase self.
  4. Take a break.

I’m a lazy S.O.B. so option (4), take a break, comes up more often than it should.  One of my favorite ways to  break away from mathematics is to read about it’s long history.  While tracing the history of The Elements I came across the writings of C. K. Raju.

C. K. Raju has written a fascinating book: (the) Cultural Foundations of Mathematics: The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE. Raju’s book is a bit hard to get your hands on.  It’s not on Amazon but you can use World Cat to find a copy near you.

Raju’s thesis consist of these major points:

  1. Significant portions of the calculus developed in India long before Newton and Leibniz and Indian methods, particularly series expansions, came into Europe via 16th century Jesuit missionaries.
  2. European notions of rigorous mathematical proof evolved from the needs of  the Catholic Church to convert Muslims with impressive iron-clad logical arguments.  The old baffle them with bullshit tactic.  Raju claims this theological attitude worked it’s way into mathematics and resulted in the bizarre western view that deduction is superior to observation, experience and induction.
  3. The ultimate source of eastern secular knowledge, (mostly Arab and Indian), was systematically suppressed and “Hellenized” by the Catholic Church.  The church claimed  all the “good stuff” in Arab texts originated with the ancient Greeks and had been merely preserved by Arab copycats. It just wouldn’t do to credit hated, (remember the crusades),  enemies for their good ideas.
  4. Insisting on rigorous proof when teaching mathematics, especially to children, is sterile and stupid.

All of this reads like a mathematical Dan Brown novel and oddly the Catholic Church is once again the villain.  I was enjoying Raju’s account until this passage about Kepler:

Why, after all, was Tycho so secretive about his papers, not even allowing his trusted assistant Kepler to see them?  In any case, on Tycho’s sudden death, Kepler obtained not just Tycho’s observations but also the rest of his papers which contained the underlying theory. Being inclined towards heliocentrism, Kepler transformed Nilakantha’s “Tychonic” orbits to a heliocentric frame (a simple transformation). This made Nilakantha’s variable epicycles come out as ellipses. Being a professional astrologer, Kepler was good at making up stories, and he made up the story about how he had arrived at his results using Tycho’s data.

In other words Kepler is a fraud and he ripped off one of the major discoveries in astronomy, the elliptical orbits of planets, from Indian astronomers. It’s one thing to spin plausible stories about how parts of calculus may have seeped into Europe from unacknowledged sources it’s another thing to posthumously accuse someone of fraud.

What would it take to make Raju’s case?  How about some hard evidence! What about Tycho’s secret papers, do any of these documents survive and do they contain references to Nilakantha?   Now that would be a smoking gun.  Of course we don’t know of any such papers but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Proof by conspiracy is a very powerful inference rule — 9/11 troofers and ufologists swear by it!  What about the claim that the transformation from Nilakantha’s variable epicycle Earth centered system to a Sun centered elliptical orbit system is “a simple transformation.”   I rather doubt it’s as simple as claimed and even if the transformation was, to use the most abused word in mathematics — trivial, it still misses the point.  The major shift was to abandon all pretense of Earth centered systems no matter how mathematically sophisticated!  Before Kepler astronomers and mathematicians, in many cultures, toyed with the idea that planets orbit the sun.  After Kepler everyone had to grow up.  Planets do orbit the sun deal with it!

And it was precisely how Newton dealt with it that made calculus something worth fighting over.  Newton’s unprecedented and monumental proof that elliptical orbits are a mathematical consequence of the inverse square law of gravity is the dividing line between modern and early science.   Nothing like it had ever been done before and even today physics and mathematics students are given to chanting we are not worthy when presented with this brilliant argument. Without Newton’s use of the calculus nobody but a few anal mathematicians would give a rat’s ass about who invented calculus.

In a later post I will argue that Raju discounts the importance of independent and coequal mathematical discovery in his account.

This Herodotus is a Hoot!

Yesterday, while driving to the mall with my wife, I launched into a lecture on why the iPad and it’s Kindle’ly kindred will never replace books.  As you are reading this on a 21st century blog you can infer that I am not a technophobic Luddite.  Devices like the Kindle are another way to read and for many purposes, (textbooks anyone), such gadgets will be better than traditional books.  But, and this is one big butt-ugly but, when it comes to the book as a objet d’art the iPad is to a book like a bumper sticker is to the Sistine Chapel.

If you don’t see this I feel sorry for you; you have never read a real book.  It’s not your fault,  publishing,  like everything in this sad sorry world,  is subject to Sturgeon’s Law:  “Ninety percent of everything is crap!”  Most of the books you find on the shelves of big-box book stores are essentially paper turds  — the more current the topic, the more Oprah’ey the content, the greater the likelihood of turdhood.  Paper turds can be  great books.  In fact there is a thriving  niche industry that specializes in reissuing great classics as low-cost paper turds.  Here the medium is definitely not the message.

The Landmark Herodotus

The Landmark Herodotus

Most of the time we are drowning in a sea of paper turds but every now and then a book appears that literally restores your faith in mankind: The Landmark Herodotus is such a book.  The instant I opened the cover I knew I was dealing with something special.  Book design is a subtle art, when executed at the highest level on the best source material it can produce jaw-dropping results.  The design of The Landmark Herodotus is simply the best annotation scheme I have ever seen.  Somehow the editors have managed to include thousands of marginal notes, footnotes and elegant place maps that simultaneously elucidate the original and stay out-of-the-way.  I was completely taken by the end of the front matter.

My reactions are hardly unique. Panagiotis Polichronakis wrote in his we are not worthy review:

It’s a rude thing, the march of history. It disabuses us, and we must gracefully acquiesce. Every single aspect of The Landmark Herodotus – most certainly including the translation at the heart of it – is superior to anything else that’s ever been produced on behalf of the author.

So this is not only a good translation — it’s the best ever!  For a book that has been in circulation for over 2,400 years that’s a pretty extravagant claim but it’s probably true.

Last night I was sucked into Herodotus and managed to pull myself away at 3:00 am after reading the story of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus’s story offers up a tasty morsel.  Astyages, Cyrus’s grandfather, dreamed of a vine growing from his daughter’s genitals that grew to cover all of Asia.  Now that’s a bush!  Alarmed Astyages told his Magi about his dream and they told him that he would be deposed by a grandchild:  like duh!  Being the kingly king he was Astyages resolved to off any of his daughter’s offspring.  In time Mandane, Astyages daughter, bore a son named Cyrus.  Astyages charged his right hand man Harpagos with the task of terminating Cyrus.  Harpagos wanted to obey his king but he wussed out when he saw Cyrus’s cute little innocent baby eyes. He couldn’t kill Cyrus so he did what all government bureaucrats do when faced with a tough choice: he delegated.  Harpagos gave Cyrus to the herdsman Mitradates and told him to expose the child and bring back the body so he could be sure the kid was kaput. Mitradates knew he was Median toast if he didn’t obey.  He took Cyrus home to his pregnant wife and told her we are so screwed if we don’t kill Cyrus. Fortunately for Mitradates, his wife and Cyrus she had given birth while Mitradates was away.  Unfortunately,  for her baby,  it was a stillborn.  Mitradates’s wife suggested swapping her stillborn with baby Cyrus and raising Cyrus as their own son.  In this way Cyrus survived and grew up as the son of herdsman.

Despite this clever ruse Astyages eventually learned the truth about Cyrus and how his trusted man Harpagos had disobeyed him.  But Astyages was cool about being betrayed.  He forgave Harpagos and remarked that Cyrus, being alive and all, would need some playmates.  Astyages then told Harpagos why don’t you go home and tell your own boy to come over and keep Cyrus company.  He also invited Harpagos to diner.  When Harpagos’s son arrived Astyages had him killed, chopped up and boiled.  When Harpagos arrived for diner Astyages served him chunks of his own son.  Harpagos gulped his meat down.  Astyages asked Harpagos  if the meat was to his liking and added that if wanted more just look in this pot.  Harpagos looked in the pot and saw the boiled head, hands and feet of his son.

Stop me if you have heard this family diner story before.  Shakespeare severed up a version in Titus Andronicus,  South Park took a stab at it with Scott Tenorman Must Die  and Jeffery Dahmer seems to have confused this story with a recipe but,  no matter how you like your history served, The Landmark Herodotus is a magnificent hooting feast of a book.