Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Blockchain Adventures

Thanks to a Pycon here in Portland, I got hooked up with some Bitcoin enthusiasts and before you know it had a bitcoin wallet with myceleum, a way to send me beer money.  I like beer and peanuts and Lucky Lab and maybe I want to buy my guests some of the same.

However, that Android suffered from a failed battery, my bitcoin public key was hard to find, and people aren't really using it for beer money these days.  They're holding onto it as a speculative asset.

Once the Android was replaced, I didn't bother recovering the empty wallet and removed all traces of the QR-code in question.  A different approach might be required.  There's always the Visa cards.

As most Fintech readers know, Bitcoin is an instance of the blockchain in action, but with the servers entering the fray competitively and not simply acting as a single centralized database, which is what the blockchain boils down to if you take away the public access.

With Bitcoin, an academic institution is free to wade in and audit all transactions, anonymously to a great extent, and never compete as a blockchain solver, or "Bitcoin miner" as they're called.  You can study the interplay of transactions as anyone might, as a passive observer and/or data scientist.

For those new to Bitcoin:  transactions pile up in the various servers, but the one that gets to put its name on the block is the one winning a roughly 10 minute competition to crack a code, per a known algorithm.  Throw more computer power at the problem, and you gain control of the books, but not in such a way that lets you change them.  You just get rewarded with more bitcoin, for being the most powerful miner.

Companies may set up blockchains inhouse, but what that really means in practice is anybody's guess. The crypto-currencies are out there trying to prove a concept, which is that these open source systems for storing and transferring value, have a bright future.  We're still in boot phase.

Friday, December 22, 2017

21st Century Adventures

We took I-285 to the Atlanta airport, a mega-hub, rather early, in case of traffic or other snafus.  Less than a week ago, this airport suffered a major power failure. We'd squeaked through a couple days ahead.  "We" in this case is myself and stepdaughter Alexia (age 38).  We were here to visit with my younger daughter (age 23) and her partner.

The Dollar rental car, a Toyota sedan, rode smoothly, had a backup camera (for backing up) and good radio.  I listened to NPR a lot of the time, to and from Birmingham.  Robert Siegal (age 70) was interviewed by Terry Gross (age 66) on Fresh Air, about his impending retirement and long career in public radio.  Much broadcast discussion of a recently passed US tax bill and haps at the UN.

We all saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi together.  Characters from the first installment are old by now.  Luke Skywalker is a craggy old guy.  I was just starting college when the first Star Wars came out.  Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, died earlier this year.

I'm reflecting on how futuristic the future is, versus taking it for granted.  Watching Westworld on the HDTV contributed to my sense of the recent past, as did my visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Ordinary people get to stage family reunions even when thousands of miles intervene.

Amtrak went off the rails near Olympia while we were gone, in a first attempt to run at higher speeds along a newly enhanced route.

We relied heavily on GPS.  I used the web to book all the reservations.  Our boarding passes came up on my Android.  We got TSA pre check, meaning less time waiting for Homeland Security to clear us for boarding.

I phoned my mom (age 88) from Birmingham.  Their WiFi is terrible.  Sounds like their provider, Frontier, is overwhelmed and under-endowed.  "They" being mom and my sister (age 56) in Whittier.

Wanderers are hosting a Solstice Party at Linus Pauling House tonight, in zip code area 97214.  I don't expect to quite make it, but I'll be close.  That's a miracle in itself.

Friday, December 15, 2017

From BestThinking

BestThinking is shuttering at the end of the year.  We've been invited to recover our postings and share them elsewhere, such as I'm doing here.

Thinking Out Loud
Posted in Technology / Programming / Python

Mining the 20th Century: 

Wittgenstein Meets Buckminster Fuller

Mar. 31, 2016 12:17 pm
Keywords: synergetics, applewhite, anthropology, wittgenstein
Classic Geodesic Dome

A goldmine of useful memes, textbook examples, blueprints for thinking, missed by most philosophers, is in the intersection of mathematics and anthropology. We tend to call this area "ethno-mathematics" by which we mean studying archaic practices from the past, such as Sumerian astronomy or Viking navigation techniques.

We don't look at contemporary coding subcultures (such as Python's) nor at "alternative mathematics" through the lens of anthropology because of the blinders we impose on that discipline, and because of the religious flavor of some mathematics.

Enter Wittgenstein, who studied and commented upon Frazer's Golden Bough, a first hat in the ring of this emerging discipline, anthropology. Wittgenstein's later philosophy may be seen as anthropology turning on its own culture, the one giving us anthropologists, to become more an investigation into the use of language and thereby more of a philosophical enterprise. Wittgenstein blends two flavors: ordinary language philosophy (which he helped found) and anthropology.

Fast forward to the end of the 1900s, and we get to the publication of another strange work of genius, Synergetics in two volumes, by R. Buckminster Fuller in collaboration with E.J. Applewhite. The latter wrote a separate tome, Cosmic Fishing, about shepherding this exotic text through Macmillan, in addition to recounting the collaboration process itself (Fuller narrated, providing prose, figures and tables, while Applewhite organized and typed). Another four volume tome called the Synergetics Dictionary was produced from Applewhite's documenting process. Both Synergetics and Synergetics Dictionary are available on-line.

How these connect, Wittgenstein's philosophical investigations, and Synergetics, is through the foundations of mathematics, an area much remarked upon by both. Specifically, Fuller develops an alternative geometrical model of 2nd and 3rd powering such that "squaring" and "cubing" would not be the appropriate verbs. We could say "triangling" and "tetrahedroning" instead. We don't of course -- speak that way -- but the fact remains that our mental pictures of 2 x 2, or 4 x 4 x 4, so ingrained, could be altered in a logic-preserving manner. We would enter the wonderland of a new and different culture, a so-called "different paradigm".

As an undergrad at Princeton, I wrote a thesis on Wittgenstein's later philosophy. I later became friends with Applewhite and started sharing my writings on this new doorway twixt Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (one of Wittgenstein's) and "explorations in the geometry of thinking" (the subtitle of Synergetics). He really liked the direction I was taking. I wish we could have collaborated more before he passed on.

My wife was diagnosed with a most virulent type of breast cancer (IBC) the day before Ed (short for Edgar) and I were to have dinner in DC. We had met several times before, at his place, at fancy restaurants, also in Portland where his wife June joined us. This meetup looked especially propitious. We had just finished a Fuller Symposium, Applewhite a speaker and now a Pycon was starting (a Python conference, a computer language) on the same GWU campus.

The phone call came through from my poor distraught wife who had just been given a death sentence by her oncologist. She had gone from zero to stage three overnight, with chemo to start immediately. I needed to drop everything and hurry home. Ed and I continued with phone conversations and emails but never got to meet again after that. Ed died on Valentine's Day in 2005. Dawn, my wife, died on St. Patrick's Day in 2007.

What's true about working in a goldmine is the payoff is premised on gold having value, as currency, as a precious metal. Without a culture around me that values these men of genius in the 1900s, and makes use of their ideas, I have only a private language to get lost in, and that's no fun. So of course I'm motivated to push these ideas into the public domain, via Youtubes or whatever media. If you follow the bread crumbs, you'll find me connecting these dots in several venues, including those frequented by Python programmers and mathematicians. In Portland, you'll find me at the boyhood home of Linus Pauling, one of Oregon's top celebs, the two-time Nobel prize winning activist chemist. A group of us, fans and friends, meet every week.

I also engage in talk of STEM and STEAM, the former being the much-hyped science-technology matrix, with the "A" then added to give the humanities more of a foothold, and typically meant to mean "Art". However I say "A is for Anthropology" and bring it back to my pet projects.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Revised Position

Regarding an improved curriculum design, with the goal of phasing in "programming", I'd bought into the common wisdom that "somewhere around algebra" or even "after algebra" was where programming first started making sense.

I'm not sure why that coupling existed in terms of suggesting programming and algebra be contemporaneous, or that "the math" must always come first.  On the contrary, kids from a very young age have an application for a coordinate system, springing from the same original source as it did in the first place: artists needing to put colors on canvas.

The algebra teacher should be forwardly thinking in terms of students already having some coding background, and building on that.  The formal introduction of "function" in its native namespace, with surjective, bijective and so forth, might then build on already familiar semantics, even coming from purely block-based languages such as MIT Scratch.  It has "define" blocks for organizing other code blocks into shared routines.

So no, I don't think waiting until after algebra makes any sense, and that's a good thing, as the status quo in my neck of the woods is quite the opposite:  kids are diving into coding long before they encounter a traditional subject called "algebra". I'm glad I don't have to fight the status quo on every front, as that gets exhausting.

The main barriers to lexical programming have to do with keyboard abilities.  Yes, we have ways to employ voice recognition and coding is not necessarily about speed, as it's not done to a metronome (not counting the company clock).  Still, faster typing means being able to keep up with one's thoughts, with "thinking in code" more fluent when not held back by slow fingers.

We have all kinds of thoughts about algebra, in terms of "rules of equality" and "finding unknowns" and we'll get to that.  However programming a computer is more like scripting a play, a stage, a theater, or a television.  It's about providing content in a structured manner, at a sustainable rate.  We like things to happen quickly where purely rote processing is concerned.  We should let kids enjoy the speed of their CPUs and GPUs long before we insist that they study these gizmos algebraically.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Meteor Man

Astronomer Doug McCarty and Dick Pugh

Dick Pugh graced Wanderers with the latest version of his meteor talk this morning.  He has polished this presentation over the years, however there are always new developments to roll into it.

Besides, good stories are worth hearing multiple times, like a favorite record album.  Remember record albums?  Dick is a world authority and former high school teacher.  His talks are engaging.

He's still an avid collector and is savvy regarding the going rates for fragments from specific debris fields.  Part of the fun of his talk is how it's peppered with mentions of obscure treasures, such as a junky old car, now worth oh so much more, now that a meteor has totalled it.

Dick gets several calls a week, average one or two a day, from people hoping what they've found is somehow valuable.  More often than not, they have a piece of Oregon basalt, a ubiquitous material that makes Oregon an especially difficult hunting ground.  The quarry (prey) and the background look so much the same.

Finding meteor fragments is so much easier in a sandy desert or in some arctic setting, where a large chunk of iron, or stone, sticks out and calls attention to itself.

Meteors come from asteroids, but also from Earth's moon and the planet Mars.  High impact events fling fragments from those bodies into space, some of which fall into Earth's gravity well.

Don and I huddled over our computers after the talk, trying to get wanderers-announce working as a Yahoo! group.  We already have wwwanderers (with three ws), which caters to those wishing to yak about issues of the day.  Of late, few are yakking.

Contrary to popular belief, meteorites are not hot to the touch, even if they were fireballs upon entering the atmosphere.  They've been coasting near absolute zero for eons and a short encounter with the Earth's atmosphere is not going to undo some billions of years of running cold.

Meteor Fragments

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Coco (movie review)

Informants, e.g. Deke, tell me this film is getting high marks from critics, though I've not read a single review.  Melody was also drawn to this film based on previews, which made it seem promising. I was not disappointed.

I'm feeling rather neuro-skeletal myself these days.  Nathaniel Bobbit and I have been talking about a Blender rigging of the skeleton by email.  Mainly it's my left knee that's demanding my attention.  I forced myself up Mt. Tabor this morning, as a diagnostic.  Yikes.  Not again tomorrow.  Where's that microwavable bean bag?  Ibuprophen, do your magic.

The idea of a family altar with ancestors depicted, took me back to the writings of Fletcher Prouty regarding Vietnam, and the hype about how Catholics were being forced south, long story. How true was that, versus how much fake news?  Lansdale was a storyteller, in the midst of wars.  Preying on Catholic fears of non-deists (e.g. "Communists") was big in those days.

Mexico is fine with the concept of an afterlife, and Disney is not afraid to embellish on the metaphysics, as Disney is no stranger to either death or mythologies, these being eternal themes.  I'm happy to have animation delve into various cultures, with expert care.  I still need to see the Polynesian scenario, my bad.

I'm not going to recount the plot.  I'm only going to underline my admiration for a cartoon World of the Dead.  Not heaven, in the sense of angels playing harps on clouds.  Far less stupid.  And there's death in that world too, that comes from being forgotten, or "garbage collected" as we say in the Python world.

Good job Pixar. I'm fine with the lack of priests and churches.  We don't need their mediation to remember the ancestors, or to explain how it all works after death (Purgatory etc.).

Speaking of Purgatory, coming down from Mt. Tabor I stopped in at Common Grounds to nurse my knee and read Harper's December issue. The journalist doing the profile of what it's like to work in refineries in the Emirates seemed a bit of a clod, but really dedicated.  I'll look for the book.  Good job on countering the myth on Middle America (another article), but it's hard to fight ingrained tropes.