Archive for November, 2013

Catastrophe Theory

November 28, 2013

There is a sub-branch of the study of dynamic systems called Catastrophy Theory. Despite the name, it doesn’t deal with earthquakes and tsunamis. Instead, it deals with situations in which perturbed dynamic systems don’t revert when the perturbation is reversed (OK, yes, earthquakes and tsunamis can do that). Raising the price of public transport might well trigger a drop in ridership. Returning the price to the original value might not cause ridership to return to its previous high.

Similarly, Chaos Theory talks about basins of attraction. A chaotic system will tend to move unpredictably within one region, or basin, but if it stumbles upon the right path it might well flip over into a different basin, whereupon it will start moving unpredictably within that one. Attempting to retrace the steps most likely won’t return you to the previous basin because of, you know, chaos. One of the concerns about climate change is that we might drive the Earth’s climate into a new basin of attraction, one that is stable, but inimical to human civilization.

Both of these have some of the attributes of a one-way function. Chaos Theory because finding your way back is so hard, Catastrophe Theory because retracing your steps brings you somewhere else. Think of being on the edge of an overhanging cliff. If you walk towards the cliff long enough, you fall over the edge. If you turn around, once you hit bottom, and walk back the way you came, you don’t end up on top of the cliff, you end up underneath the overhang. Returning to the top requires that you walk the long way around.

Getting hit by a modest sized asteroid is like that. Or a comet.

Over on Next Big Future is a chart showing the threat posed by various sizes of asteroids, should they hit the Earth. Imperial College, London, has a handy calculator, plus a 2.5MB pdf document, providing a little more detail. The ICL simulator is quite a bit more sanguine than is NBF. Their description of a 500m diameter asteroid impact reads like a largish nuclear warhead strike, while NBF considers it a civilization-ending event. Let’s agree that nobody is sure how big of an asteroid strike is needed to cause civilization to collapse, and that we can only guess at the likelihood of that happening within the lifetime of our current civilization. That’s not the problem.

The problem is this. Modern civilization is a one-time event. If it goes away, it isn’t coming back.

Think of what a civilization-ending impact might be like. If a sufficiently large asteroid (or comet) hits in the Pacific Ocean — the most likely event — everything on the Pacific Rim disappears in the super-tsunami. Or maybe it lands in Siberia (the last two did), so we get world-wide firestorms. Wheatever happens, the materials thrown into the atmosphere will likely give us two or five or ten years of nuclear winter. Everybody starves. Well, everybody in First World Europe and Asia and North America. Equatorial peoples are the most likely to survive. Even if there are enclaves in the First World, they’re not likely to include a particularly wide range of technology skills — they’ll be tinkerers, not engineers. I’m not going to go into detail because that’s not what I want to discuss. I’m assuming an impact big enough to destroy all but a fraction of modern civilization while allowing a biggish chunk of humanity to survive. How big of a rock is that? You decide. You want more detail? Read Niven and Pournelle‘s 1977 book Lucifer’s Hammer, then turn it up to eleven.

The question is, what happens when the majority of the survivors of a global catastrophe get knocked back to at best an early 18th Century mode of existence (and at worst an early 8th Century mode), mitigated by a dwindling cache of manufactured goods and a vague memory of what is possible? It took us 250 years to go from the technology of colonial America to our current 21st Century position. Can we do it again? In 250 years? Not likely.

You see, modern civilization is energy intensive. Cheap energy intensive. Which means petrochemicals. The reason it’s so hard for us to give up our oil dependency is that oil is the only resource that checks all the boxes for energy density, transportability, and so forth — here’s a pair of comparison tables from Do The Math.

More to the point, the movement from a society dependent on 18th Century technology to one that wears 21st Century technology on its wrist requires an enormous amount of energy. So, solar panels can provide energy, but where do we get the energy to go from steam engines to a wafer fab for solar cells? Access to today’s coal resources requires the ability to dig tunnels a thousand feet beneath the ground, or to remove the top thousand feet off a mountain. Most of today’s sources of oil now require high-tech methods to access and process them. Can you spell deep ocean drilling? Hydraulic fracturing? Cyclic steam stimulationCombustion overhead gravity drainage? The few remaining sources of post-impact easy oil are likely to be used up heating the homes and powering the cars of third-world locals, until those resources are also gone. I’d be off on a rant about the last peasants using the last of the oil, if I weren’t pretty sure that at the same time the last Americans and last Europeans weren’t burning the last books, to keep from freezing.

This is not even a rant about our using all the pre-impact oil. That’s a sunk cost. We thought we had good reasons for doing what we did, at the time we did it, and now we are where we are. This is a warning that we only get one shot at creating a viable space-based civilization, one that’s independent of planetary resources, and dispersed enough to keep us safe from the real dinosaur-killer rocks that are out there. I’m not the first to raise this issue. I think that Niven and Pournelle actually did that, thirty or forty years ago. I’m just taking advantage of recent events to casually drop the idea into our Thanksgiving dinner conversations.


November 28, 2013

Here it is Thanksgiving morning, so why not do something Thanksgivingish for breakfast? We found an unopened jar of Dickenson’s Premium Cranberry Relish at the back of the cupboard, and it was only a year past its sell-by date. Since I’m pretty sure that the only reason today’s chemo-processed foods get mould on them is that it grows on the dust that collects after they’re opened, I figured it would be OK. If you want to know what it tastes like, think of it this way: when they say cranberry relish, what they really mean is chunky style cranberry sauce, plus various festive additions.

We didn’t have any turkey broth (this being pre-, not post- turkeyprep), so I used a field expedient: 200ml of chicken broth, then enough beef broth to bring it up to one cup. Doesn’t taste like turkey, but it tastes like a more robust chicken, so that’s OK.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, one cup of broth, big sloppy dinner teaspoon of cranberry relish, no salt.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the potato when you take it off the stove..

Results: Very good. I’d say this is going to be a holiday staple, except I notice that the first thing listed on the ingredients is high fructose corn syrup, and then they list cranberries.

Rating: *****

Diffie and The Troll

November 26, 2013

Not a rock band.

Whitfield Diffie is something of a legend in the public key crypto field — best described as an obscure corner of an otherwise arcane art form. Recently, he was brought down to West Texas to testify as an expert witness in a patent trial: Newegg vs patent troll TQP Development. TQPD was claiming that Newegg violated their patents on combining SSL with the RC4 cipher. As in any patent trial, much of the discussion revolves around prior art, in this case of public key encryption, and whether or not the patent was a valid one. My take on this whole game is that the US Patent Office examiners are incompetent bureaucrats, mostly concerned with getting their quotas filled, and so the only real examination of patents these days is in court.

There ensued a soon-to-be-classic exchange, which appears in almost every word cloud in the blogosphere this week:

“We’ve heard a good bit in this courtroom about public key encryption,” said Albright. “Are you familiar with that?”

“Yes, I am,” said Diffie, in what surely qualified as the biggest understatement of the trial.

“And how is it that you’re familiar with public key encryption?”

“I invented it.”

Diffie’s testimony was so powerful that Newegg rested its case, without calling a witness on potential damages. That, as it turned out, was a bad idea, since the troll-friendly folks of Marshall, Texas (who have turned exploiting our broken patent system into a cottage industry), decided that the patent was good, and Newegg had infringed it, to the tune of $2.3million. Newegg is, of course, appealing.

But that’s not what makes this case interesting to me. What makes the case interesting is what’s revealed by TQPD’s attempts to discredit Diffie. They raised the issue that he didn’t really invent public key encryption in 1976, that the invention was made by Ellis and Williamson between 1969 and 1975. Diffie countered that their work was circulated in a secret memo in GCHQ (the UK equivalent of NSA), and that nothing was made public until after Diffie’s presentation at a world-wide conference. I draw two conclusions from this:

1. NSA and GCHQ are no friend of the Internet. They are willing to keep techniques hidden for almost a decade, techniques that, when independently invented, turned out to be critical for the development of Internet commerce. Corollary: Nothing that NSA and GCHQ says about the Internet can be trusted.

2. As with most things in the software field, when the right time comes, a problem and its solution will be in the air, floating around, discussed in universities and tech companies around the world. If not Ellis, then Diffie. If not Diffie, then someone else (who didn’t know what to do with it and sold it to TQPD). Corollary: The idea of awarding a patent for the solution to a problem that is obvious to the skilled practitioner, once that problem comes into focus, is ludicrous.

Oatmeal Brie

November 21, 2013

There are many reasons to want to celebrate — an unexpected raise, birth of a child (someone else’s), escape from a parking ticket — and one wants to think ahead about what sort of celebratory breakfast might be appropriate. In our house, the proximate occasion was the arrival of a substantial wheel of brie, thus serving as both celebratory reason and celebratory breakfast in one. It was a real wheel, not one of those assemblages of tinfoil triangles. Of course, we ate most of it in the traditional fashion — on dainty saltines with glasses of Late Harvest Riesling in our other hands. A few moments of celebration, and then off to work. When we got down to the end of the wheel (an interesting philosophical concept in itself), I Spirited Away the last of it to have with oatmeal.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, one cup of chicken broth, one-quarter cup of brie, chunked.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Stir in the brie when the timer goes, and add the potato when you take it off the stove.

Results: Outstanding. Just the thing to serve guests the morning of a wine and cheese wedding, preferably one involving redwoods. Put the brie in late early enough that it melts, but not so late early that it fondues.

Rating: *****

TL;DR — Anime I never finished, Fall 2013

November 16, 2013

Two more anime slide off my radar. Neither are bad, as such, just not compelling.

Gallilei Donna (Galileo’s Girls): Three greatN granddaughters of Galileo are pursued across a frozen and dying Europe by ruthless energy barons, duplicitous Italian police, and ultra-fashionable sky pirates, while they search for clues to his inheritance, whatever that is. The writers appear to have read too many Dan Brown novels and have taken the art form to heart — plot holes, contrived discoveries, hidden meanings and all. I can put up with a lot of anime logic, but there are limits. I lasted five episodes, primarily to watch the flying goldfish mecha.

Gingitsune (Silver Fox): He’s a ten foot tall invisible fox in flowing priestly robes, she’s a middle-school priest-descendent shrine-maiden, and the only one at the shrine who can see him. Started out as a slice of life program about their relationship; tried to add drama with a depressed and rebellious teen-age boy (is there any other kind), who is also a priest-descendent (forced to leave his shrine for excessive slouching or something) and has his own invisible fox, said fox being an immature, scared, bratty chit of an 80-year-old. I didn’t drop it so much as I wandered off and left it laying somewhere.

Scotch Oats

November 14, 2013

Continuing my intermittent, not to say, erratic, survey of hard liquors in oatmeal, I decided to try Scotch whisky, because why not? I used beef broth to give the Scotch flavor something to play off against. The Scotch was a non-vintage Cutty Sark. We don’t make that much we should buy something in a velvet bag, but we don’t buy that much that we should go out and stock up on Auld Scunner.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, one cup of beef broth, two tablespoons of Scotch, salt.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the Scotch at the start and the potato when you take it off the stove..

Results: Extremely meh. The Scotch is tastable, but adds nothing to the dish. I ended up mixing in some shredded cheese. I’m beginning to have my doubts about this whole boozyoats thing.

Rating: *****

On being over-patrioted

November 11, 2013

1. Fourth of July
2. Memorial Day
3. Patriots Day
4. Veterans Day
5. Thanksgiving
6. Presidents Day

All days on which we celebrate the Americans we’ve managed to kill in recent wars (2, 4), or praise God for his foresight in signing-on with such an obviously successful nation (1, 5), or disseminate propaganda on how it’s our patriotic duty to obey the government (3), or buy linens (6). To those of us who grew up in post-WWII America, served in her mid-century wars, and held what really was a bulwark of freedom against the Soviet Union, today’s government-sponsored, MSM-supported patriotism is a distorted, fun-house-mirror projection of what we served for.

Back in the 60’s, as I recall, there was a Senate hearing on some non-DoD budget topic, basic science research, support for the arts — memory fails, as does the Internet. At one point, a Senator asked a witness about what contribution his program would make to the defense of the nation. The response was “It’s part of what makes it worth defending”. One could make the same response when asked what enforcing all these Constitutional restrictions on DHS and NSA will contribute to the defense of America. We have come to a sorry state of affairs, when Germany feels it has to chastise us for failing Democracy, for abandoning good government in favor of power-grabbing paranoia and fear.

As Der Spiegel (The Mirror) editorial says, we’re losing the bedrock reasons for supporting patriotism in America. At one point, patriotism meant taking up arms to free our country from colonial exploiters. At one time it meant leaving our ploughs in the field and going off to defend America and the world against evil that was not only real, but effective. Now, it means joining the ranks of our huddled masses, yearning to be safe.

I like to use patriotic dates like this as an occasion for commenting on the state of the nation and the moral standing of our politicians, but I’m not going to comment on every day listed for every year that rolls around — there’s too many of them, the evil remains banal, and one can only remain mad for so long.

Green Thumb Up My Nose

November 11, 2013

Garden Report for 131111

This may be the last GTUMN of the agricultural year. Most of this year’s harvest is gone. There’s some tomatoes left, a Delicata, and the two pumpkins. Since it’s a long weekend, we may work on some pumpkin soup.

There was a bit of a disaster in the container lettuce this week — a plague of caterpillar. I have two containers (the 30″x6″x6″ kind) one of which has a mix of fairly mature greens, and the other filled with immature Iceberg lettuce. For some reason, Iceberg is hard to get to head in the home garden, and I don’t even try because it makes for excellent green leafies, like Buttercrunch. Both containers have been outside in the nature until the weather got frosty. The other night I brought them inside and stacked them side by side. Next morning, the iceberg had been ravaged. Nothing left but stems and pieces. This made me quite cross, so I waited until dark and crept back into the sun-room with a large knife, to find a three-inch long caterpillar crawling around the devastation, looking for another snack. Evidently, he’d hidden in the older foliage and came out at night to cross over and eat the young stuff.

Needless to say, after a certain amount of shrieking and stabbing (think Hitchcock and Psycho, only with more dirt and less water), the various ‘pillar parts were deposited in various corners of the yard. I don’t think the remnants of the lettuce are salvageable, but a packet of mustard seeds just arrived (thanks Deb) and I have faith they’ll be worth putting under grow lamps.

There’s about 40 smallish tomatoes left, all ripe and some getting over-ripe. What I’ve decided is that pretty much any tomato, no matter how green, will ripen up if left in a warm place. The warmest place near the kitchen is our living room floor, because it’s directly over the gas furnace in the basement. We keep the house at 66-70F most of the winter, but a newspaper-covered box on the floor stays at 72-74F. Using that approach, all of our tomato harvest has ripened, and we didn’t lose any tomatoes that went from green to rot.

I spent the tail end of the weekend moving the last of the municipal soil into the two large cavities left in the no-longer-Keyhole Gardens. The hole part is there, just not the key part. This will make it easier to move crops around as part of my Medieval three field rotation. The plan for next year is:  Section 1: greens and chard ; Section 2: tomatoes and squash; Section 3: Brassica.

Speaking of chard, on a whim, on Sunday, I went out and planted a packet of last season’s chard. I’ll be buying a new one in the Spring, so this is a good way to use it up. We’re forecast for reasonably warm weather (and possibly a mild winter), and I’ll cover the area with plastic until they germinate, and we’ll just see what happens. Last year’s crop had remnant chard poking up through the snow in March. So, maybe this isn’t the last GTUMN until Spring.

Happy Armistice Day. Go hug a Tommie.

Oatmeal Bay

November 7, 2013

Old Bay is a commercial spice mix that’s about 25% salt, with the rest being celery, pepper (red & black), mustard, and other spices. The dominant taste is peppery, with celery overtones.  I tried it two ways. First, with about five shakes through the shaker holes, and second, a measured teaspoon. The first was too bland. The second was too peppery. Adding cheese helped. I’m cutting back for the recipe

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, one cup of beef broth, 1/4 to 1/2 measured teaspoon of Old Bay* spice, fat pinch of shredded cheese.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the potato when you take it off the stove..

Results: As I said, peppery. The full teaspoon version wasn’t inedible by any means, and there’r folks who would like it. The cheese can be any variety you like. Mine was a yellow cheddar.

Rating: *****

*Note: for the purpose of this recipe, Old Spice is not an acceptable substitute.

Green Thumb Up My Nose

November 3, 2013

Garden Report for 131104

The traditional Sunday night windstorm came on Saturday night. Seattle got hit hard, but we only had gusts to 40kts and didn’t lose power.

I’m doing some rework on the garden. I found the traditional keyhole notch doesn’t help me very much on these larger beds, it takes away a surprising amount of space, and it gets in the way of my drip hoses.

Traditional keyhole takes up too much room

Traditional keyhole takes up too much room

I decided the best thing to do was pull all the decorative blocks and make it a straight shot across. To my surprise, I found I had seven decorative blocks, plus a buried two-hole cinderblock, plus two half-blocks in the wall to help create the space. I replaced those with two new cinderblocks, and re-used the old one. One drawback was the 18″ step up to get onto the garden wall, so I used three of the decorative blocks as an external step. Think of it as an Inverted KeyHole Garden (IKHG, pronounced just the way it’s spelled).

Suitable step, plus lots of new room

Suitable step, plus lots of new room

I made an interesting discovery when looking at the post-block-void. All those phone books had indeed turned to soil.

How will I check the Yellow Pages now?

How will I check the Yellow Pages now?

We call this side of the house Hop End

We call this side of the house Hop End

I’ve done two of the KHG sections (I know, but I’m a traditionalist), and will probably do two more next week, or next Spring. Right now, I have to work on getting the decorative blocks laid over on the South side of the house, to extend my hops garden.

A final note. Here’s what MJ did with the buttercup squash. Squash soup from our garden with decorative lettuce from our garden, with more decorative sour cream and bacon from our fridge.

Hot soup for a cold day

Hot soup for a cold day