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Friday, January 19, 2018

Review: The Chalon Heads (Brock & Kolla, #4)

One interesting little thing is that the title of the print book is ..a Kathy and Brock mystery while the title of the Kindle book is a much more feminist ...Brock and Kolla mystery.  

Brock is DCI Brock and Kathy/Kolla is his Sergeant Kathy Kolla. This particular one of the series will be of especial interest to philatelists. A very wealthy man, and supposed expert on the Chalon Heads, a series of valuable stamps, has had his wife kidnapped nd the demand is an extremely valuable Canada 12 Penny Black. When her head appears at the end of the lane, things start to get serious.  

I thought the book got off to a slow start but then became much more interesting as it morphed into charges of fraud against Brock and an investigation into stamp forgeries.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Daniel Ellsberg and Doomsday

The principle behind MAD, mutually assured destruction, is that each side must believe that if they launch a nuclear attack, the other side will retaliate and both sides will be obliterated. Whether that scenario has prevented a world war since WWII is up for debate, but I think most people have generally bought into the idea that the presence of nuclear weapons has been a useful deterrence. Daniel Ellsberg's second volume of his memoirs discusses the truly mind-boggling discussions held at the RAND Corporation during the fifties, sixties and seventies, on how, why, and when nuclear weapons should be used.*  Ellsberg notes the debate is not so clearcut:

“The declared official rationale for such a system,” Ellsberg writes, “has always been primarily the supposed need to deter—or if necessary respond to—an aggressive Russian nuclear first strike against the United States. That widely believed public rationale is a deliberate deception. Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations. The nature, scale, and posture of our strategic nuclear forces has always been shaped by the requirements of quite different purposes: to attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strike against the USSR or Russia. This capability is, in particular, intended to strengthen the credibility of U.S. threats to initiate limited nuclear attacks, or escalate them—U.S. threats of ‘first use’—to prevail in regional, initially non-nuclear conflicts involving Soviet or Russian forces or their allies.”

Some of the stunning revelations are that the assumptions made behind these calculations may have been completely false. While we were assuming the offensive intent of the Soviets and that they had thousands of missiles, in reality they were obsessed with defense and had only four(!) ICBMs, all clustered at one location and liquid fueled, which meant it took quite a while to fire them up. Riven by bureaucratic envy and power struggles, the discussions and decisions promulgated in their reports often were influenced more by loyalty to one service or another rather than any rational view of nuclear weapons use. 

Discussions of Trump's mental instability lead inevitably to concerns about the accidental use of nuclear weapons that would be ruinous. Apparently the "my button is bigger than your button" threat is not new if less scatological. [Trump seems to have the not atypical obsession with genitalia size but most men aren't quite so public in their concerns.) It was used by other presidents in efforts to manipulate other countries. Nixon also used the threat of nuclear weapons as has Trump. 

Another interesting observation Ellsberg makes is that the truism that "everything leaks in Washington is just not true." There are so many categories of super-secret documents and information that we only learn about decades later, often thanks to people like Ellsberg who were in a position to work with and know the material.

His time at RAND was an intellectual paradise. There was an enormous mental energy with lots of "hands-off debate." But, Ellsberg has concluded that looking back over sixty years that if security were the goal then they were wrong all the time. They were all, knowing the facts, willing to risk a one in chance risk of nuclear war that they knew would kill hundreds of millions.

And accidents and unforeseen events happen. We have learned from McNamara's autobiography, In Retrospect,** that Kennedy and the U.S. military had the wrong information. The Soviets had 42,000 men in Cuba, not 7,000. They also did not know that there were hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons that Cuban officers had been authorized to use had the U.S. invaded. If another American reconnaissance plane had been shot at or Cuba had been invaded by U.S. military, or if Soviet submarines had decided to retaliate with nuclear weapons after being attacked by U.S. warships with practice depth charges (the Soviets didn't know they were not real.) 

We came very, very close. And now our "very stable genius" has called for the production of more nukes.

BTW. If you have not yet seen The Post, Spielberg's exceptional movie about the Washington Post's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers after the injunction against the New York Times, run and go see it. Amazing performances by Hanks and Streep. If you want more information about Ellsberg and his role, see

*The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg




Bitcoin, Blockchains, and Boomcoin

Cryptocurrencies can be more than a little confusing. The New York Review of Books (January 18th, 2018,

) reviews three books that attempt to bring them all into some perspective. There were some truly astonishing pieces of information. The most remarkable is the enormous amount of energy used in date "mining." "Mining is the process of using computer power to solve an algorithm -- guessing a number preceded by the correct number of zeros between zero and 4.294,967,296 -- which then gains the user a bitcoin. It used to be individual users could do that at home, but now that individual bitcoins (they don't exist physically, only virtually in the digital world) continue to spiral in value thanks to the speculative bubble, and because speed is so much more important, huge supercomputer farms are now employed to work on the puzzle. It takes trillions of guesses and a substantial amount of energy. One such conglomerate estimates energy costs for each bitcoin generate cost 90-95% of each.  

"By one estimate, the power consumption of bitcoin mining now exceeds that of Ireland and is growing so exponentially that it will surpass that of the entire United States by July 2019" Sites are located in areas where energy is cheap, Iceland being a favorite, especially after Iceland's decision to build a series of dams for hydroelectric generation leading to a surplus of energy there. "According to David Gerard—whose new book, Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain, is a sober riposte to all the upbeat forecasts about cryptocurrency like the Tapscotts’—“By the end of 2016,” a single mining facility in China was using “over half the estimated power used by all of Google’s data centres worldwide at the time.” 

That's simply extraordinary and obviously, it seems to me, unsupportable, if not catastrophic. The way exchanges attempt to recover these costs is through fees, now approaching $20 per transaction. That would make purchasing things rather expensive, I would think. And you thought costs per check were expensive. 

The use of blockchains, however, as a way to store and validate information is truly fascinating and shows promise. How they would be financially supported is more problematic as entrepreneurs use crowd-sourcing to fund other forms of cryptocurrencies and devices that essentially don't exist. "According to the website CoinDesk, as of this fall, more than $3.5 billion has been invested in ICOs, almost all of it in 2017, with close to $3 billion pouring in between June and the end of October. “It’s kind of like when you are a little kid and you know you are getting away with something,” an investment analyst named Chris Burniske told Popper. “It’s not going to last forever, but it’s fun in the interim. The space is giddy right now.” 

Now that banks and financial institutions have entered the field I suspect the environment will change drastically and blockchains will be used as a secure and inexpensive way to conduct business. The impact on middle managers may be enormous as the need for them disappears. "Whereas most technologies tend to automate workers on the periphery doing menial tasks,” the Tapscotts quote Buterin saying, “blockchain automates away the center. Instead of putting the taxi driver out of a job, blockchain puts Uber out of a job and lets the taxi drivers work with the customer directly.”  

One of the most attractive parts of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology is its anonymity, yet that has also proved to be the downfall of some of the more corrupt. "The FBI was able to catch Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind of Silk Road—the multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise he operated on the dark web through which users could exchange drugs and guns and stolen goods for bitcoin—because after seizing his computer, they were able to link him to the bitcoin wallets where he stored his earnings. They then used the ledger to trace his entire transaction history."

Sooner or later, someone will realize the emperor has no clothes.



Tuesday, January 09, 2018


On the Statue of Liberty a striking phrase has brought hope to millions of immigrants:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

In 2001, following a terrible earthquake in El Salvador, thousands of Salvadorans were given special visas to come live in the United States. By all accounts, some 15 years later, they have become model citizens, had children and made new lives. The Trump administration would now send those people back to a country from which they fled. Their children, born in the United States would have to go along or remain behind.

In 2014, Secretary of State Clinton defended the decision to deport children from Honduras who had been sent on dangerous journeys by their parents in order to find a better life in the United States. Most found their way to relatives already living in the states. Other children, having grown up in the United States and knowing no other country, but who happen to be the children of undocumented people, now risk being returned to the country of their parents even though they identify as Americans, have never known any other country, and loved this country. All have in common that they were made a promise (DACA) they could stay.

It is argued that these people should have gotten in line and done the paperwork like our ancestors. That there were no lines and barely any paperwork then is hardly considered.

Have we as Americans lost all our humanity? These are precisely the kinds of people we need, hard-working, loyal (many have served in the armed forces), solid taxpayers. Instead of the solace promised by the Statue of Liberty, we kick them out, no doubt a sure way to build a wonderful relationship with them in the future. They have become political pawns in an immoral game of chicken between two political parties who have abandoned the principles of the Statue. This is not a partisan problem; both parties have jettisoned compassion. Shame on us.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Review: Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly

Certainly an ironic title as Bosch recognizes only one kind of truth: his. Connelly books are always good (well except the one where Bosch goes to Hong Kong, which was really stupid, and this book is no exception, especially as his step-brother makes an appearance defending Hieronymus (what an inspired name for a detective) from charges of malfeasance that threaten to ruin his career and life. I find Bosch to be a distasteful character, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, overly righteous, but with the exception noted above the books are all good, especially the legal ones featuring Mickey Holler.