Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency, The Future of Money, Paul Vigna & Micheal J. Casey

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I found this a useful book to read, though a lot of it is names mainly of people working in the USA. For example, you read, page 246, Gavin Andresen opened the door to his threadbare office, located in a nondescript building above a Dunkin’ Donuts in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There must be a name for this kind of writing. However, don’t let that put you off reading the book as it has many fascinating insights.

The book uses bitcoin, created by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008/9 (the name may be a pseudonym, no one knows who the real person is), as its main focus. The aim was to provide a trusted system that is not centrally controlled based on blockchain cryptography. The appeal initially is to the libertarian, keep government out of the way, people. The system is given a simple explanation though not enough to satisfy the mathematically inclined. I am working on such an intermediate explanation but it is trickier than I thought at first.

One insight is the power of the open-source coding community. After a vulnerability in the bitcoin system allowed the theft of a lot of bitcoins, especially from one exchange, Mt. Gox, that ended bankrupt, that same Andresen and the small informal team who manage the updates of the core code had to resolve the problem: But something positive had emerged as well. … in the end the open-source set up served bitcoin’s software well … legions of talented coders in the community contributed thoughts and coding solutions, and they stress-tested the core team’s work.

A second insight is how important cryptocurrency could become for those excluded from the traditional banking system. Because there is no central back account, and the blockchain can be accessed through an app on a smart phone, and the transaction costs are minimal compared to traditional banking, many poor people could store value and transact business who had no chance before. The book starts with Afghan women signed up to a venture who have, in principle, control of their own bitcoin account.

A third insight is that the underlying technology, blockchain, can be used to provide a trusted store without a central authority for many other things such as property deeds and contracts. Big institutions are already exploiting that.

The book has a good index and notes that reference original material for those who want to know more detail.

A Rush for Renewables

I have been using this phrase for about a year in talking to people and in newspaper comments. I want to counter that Dash for Gas. We have the possibility of a new sustainable economy where everyone can participate.

  1. Start a nation-wide project to insulate all buildings and make all new building zero-carbon. This will employ people all over the country and many people with little skill can be trained to do this work. This is really investment with a long term return in reduced power needs, better health, and a trained work force. Probably there will be a reduction in crime as well. During this process we will find people who can be trained further for ever more skilled jobs. As people in each area of the country earn more, there will be more to spend locally and new businesses will be able to grow in every town. This could start tomorrow if we made the investment. The return on investment is near immediate.
  2. I am in favour of nuclear (fission) power but this is contentious for many people and we need to regain the country’s pre-eminence in nuclear technology in order to develop new safe designs (which do exist). This is a long term project and we need to work on other zero-carbon technologies now.
    So, let’s go full ahead on solar. Solar power is clearly the future for at least the next 100 million years, after which we may need a rethink. Although people think of Britain as cloudy with short winter days, there is still enough solar energy input to power the needs of the country especially if we make energy use more effective, efficient.
  3. When solar and wind power are mentioned there are immediate objections that it is cyclical and we need power at night and in winter. This is the next issue to address. First we need to see that many things that we might want to do can also be cyclic. I cannot predict how societies will develop in the long term but, taking some evolution of how things are now, an example would be people driving to a place of work. If this used an electric car, that vehicle could be charged while parked during the day. Although there is flooding in the UK, we will also get drought and desalination of sea water could address that, being done during the daytime when solar power is at its peak. Manufacturing could be done during the day time though only in some industries. We need to be smart and flexible about how we optimize the resource just as we were before before the industrial revolution. Of course we can store energy, and that is already done for electricity to cope with surge demand by pumping water to a high reservoir and releasing it to drive a turbine generating electricity when there is a sudden peak in demand. There is a role for this mechanical storage. However, we should also be developing chemical storage as in batteries.
  4. Research and development of chemical storage technologies. This is high-tech investment. If we are to trade with other countries we need something to sell, and best to support what the world needs into the future. This research will cover hydrogen storage, fuel cells and evolution of current battery technology. I imagine that there will be a lot of distributed solar PV and therefore distributed battery storage; each building with solar PV would have its own battery storage pack. An advantage of this is that we will have a very robust and resilient power network with no big points of failure.
  5. These are not jobs that can be outsourced; insulation and solar PV installation will provide work for people in the UK for many years, and there will be ongoing maintenance and upgrades for ever. The work is distributed all over the country. We can innovate as well as anyone and make sure that there is a focus on best methods for the UK as well as looking to develop products for sustainable living globally. Each region of the world will need its own local expertise. Other new ventures will spin off from this. For example, with plentiful solar power we could do vertical farming where we grow fruits and vegetables in tall buildings using solar powered lighting in which we can make optimal use of water and control pests without pesticides. Whole new industries that we have not thought of will come into being.

Sibelius

My Music, My Drinking & Me
A novel by Caroline J Sinclair

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This is a delightful attempt to create the memoirs of Jean Sibelius. The author says she has lived in Finland and researched the letters and diaries of Sibelius as well as work by others on Sibelius in order to create something that Sibelius might have written himself had he the inclination to do so (in a way he did in his diaries). The facts are there, as well as an appendix that gives micro-biographies of the children of Sibelius and his wife Aino. In 240 pages one gets a good overview of the life and its struggles. The facts are a framework on which to weave the emotional state of Sibelius at various times of his life, and of course this is invention that goes beyond what a standard biography would do. I had not realised that Sibelius was so feckless with drink and debt problems that he left others to deal with; he seems very selfish in places as when he leaves his wife to deal with a child who it seems will die, though in the end recovers. My image of him was formed from the music and the photos of him in later life looking ferocious and stolid; I always imagined a rock of a man. I am curious about the suggestion that he did not want his Finnish music to become Finnish-Nationalism music. One difficulty in reading is that the memoir switches from what Sibelius was thinking to conversations in which Sibelius stammers and pauses, so not really a memoir. Yet, it is a gripping read that makes one want to know more about the life.

BrainChains

BrainChains: Discover your brain, to unleash its full potential in a hyperconnected, multitasking world – by Theo Compernolle

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Brain Chains are habits that keep our minds and talents locked up so that we do not think deeply or creatively.

This book of over 500 pages I found repetitive and sometimes tiresome but I kept reading. However, it did change the way I spend my day; maybe the repetition was needed for that.
There is a very neat simplification of brain function: reflex brain, reflecting brain, and archiving brain.

The reflex brain takes over when there is an emergency or when we use deeply learned skills, it does not work things out.

The reflecting brain is the conscious working and learning and evaluating function but cannot think about more than one thing at a time.

The archiving brain takes over when the reflecting brain is unoccupied, as during sleep, to store and tie together newly learned information and integrate that with what is already known.

The main point of the book is that we cannot reflect on multiple things at the same time, we can switch tasks but there is a big loss of time and accuracy in too much task switching. Also, we need down-time otherwise stuff does not get archived and integrated, so the time spent taking in ideas is wasted.

The main concern is that in the current electronically networked world we are too easily tempted to multitask ourselves into inefficiency by wrong use of the gadgets and services. We can seem to be very busy and important but our achievements are trivial with mistakes.

The big example in the book is using a mobile phone while driving. Theo rightly says this is dangerous and wrong. I have always thought the same and never use a phone as driver of a moving car, but while at the desk I had fallen into bad ways.

It is not that I did not know that I was wasting time checking emails too often and wandering into reading articles but I needed a big reminder of how stupid this is. This book did it for me; I confirm that I now get more useful things done with less stress and more spare time.

Another useful tip he mentions, which I knew anyway but never really used, is to plan the main jobs for a day the evening before. We all have lists but they can be overwhelming if looked at in the morning; one then agonizes and oscillates over which task to start on. So I look at my list the previous evening and choose three items that I then write on paper to rest on my desk. I have to decide within 10 minutes so no time to agonize. Next day I start on the first one. Of course there will be interruptions and other urgent things that come up but after dealing with any such one drops back to the small list. Some items on the list may take days and need to be broken into day sized pieces so that there is an end point each day.

I recommend reading this book.

Harry’s Last Stand

Harry Smith was 91 when he published this book. Born in 1923 he lived in poverty in the Yorkshire towns of Barnsley and Bradford. He experienced an older sister dying of tuberculosis and his father dying of destitution after a mining accident left him unable to get another job. He joined the RAF during WWII and experienced the security of a job, the camaraderie of working us others to achieve something important whilst seeing the horror of warfare. He  notes how he hated all Germans when he arrived in Holland and saw the starving children who reminded him of his own childhood destitution, but turned from that hatred when he arrived in Germany and again saw  starving children. At a time when it was forbidden to fraternize with the enemy he had a secret relationship with a German woman he met amid the destruction of Hamburg whom he later married when that became legal again in 1946. All the details of his early life give us insight into what a country is like without ‘society’. He witnessed the transformation brought about by the welfare state created by the Labour government post 1945 with the National Health Service and workers’ rights and unemployment support.

Harry emphasizes that people today cannot know what it is like without this real big-society state-organized mutual support. He despairs that the current government is in the process of taking this down. He makes a plea that, like him, people argue for keeping it and vote for keeping it. This is not against change, but for change to help the majority.

I found the book inspiring.

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Cholesterol disinformation

I read this report Statins could help reduce women’s risk of breast cancer.

I don’t in anyway criticize doing the study; this is what big data sets are good at, they give hints about what to investigate. But the spin on it is disgraceful, although those doing the study say that there is a lot more specific work to do before asserting that high cholesterol leads to increased breast cancer. However, I worry that the companies manufacturing statins will be on to this and will say that although the assertion is not certain yet why take the risk when you can take the safe statins.

I thought that I would like to give a short explanation of what the cholesterol test means. Can I write something in less than 500 words without confusing jargon to clarify how I interpret this research? I find the disinformation on cholesterol outrageous. The outline is not too difficult for people to grasp but I think that this obscuring of fact has been allowed to persist because it gets people onto statins. It was the same with tobacco.

Statins inhibit a precursor of cholesterol as well as of various steroids like sex & stress hormones. Cholesterol sulphate is converted to Vitamin D3 in the skin by sunlight, which is another thing most people in the UK are deficient in. An irony here is that vitamin D is believed to be important in preventing breast cancer; look up Dr Cedric Garland who has done many studies of vitamin D deficiency and disease. Vitamin D deficiency also correlates with development of diabetes; look up Dr Frank Garland (deceased brother of Cedric) on this. There is a good story about the serendipitous nature of scientific insight related to a lecture on the geographical distribution of cancer rates that the brothers attended in 1974. I have been following their work for some years.

In the study I assume that the standard cholesterol blood test was used. This measures total cholesterol in a sample and the bit in the so called HDL. Then the HDL bit is subtracted from the total to give so called LDL cholesterol. The reason for doing this is that it is easy (low cost) to separate the HDL for measurement. LDL is often labelled “bad-cholesterol” quite wrongly. It cannot be bad in itself because it transports fats and cholesterol to where they are needed and we need a lot of fat and cholesterol to be healthy and function. What are these HDL & LDL? They are lipoproteins (High Density & Low Density) that themselves contain cholesterol as a component (which is why they are measured). They are wrappers for fats because fats are not soluble in water and therefore not in blood either. The outside of these lipoproteins attracts water and so dissolve in blood and can be transported with contents via the blood stream to where it is needed; this is like canals were used for the transport of goods; the lipoprotein is the barge. LDL transports its cargo to cells that need the cargo, HDL picks up cargo not used or doscarded and returns it for disposal or reprocessing. The size of the lipoprotein particle depends on the contents. Saturated fats end up in large size lipoproteins. Where is the killer? – it’s sugar – the fructose in sugar is converted by the liver into a kind of fat that ends up in small size lipoproteins. These small LDL, often labelled vLDL are the potential bad ones. So the standard cholesterol test does not distinguish the vLDL from the big LDL. If high cholesterol is correlated as in the report, I suggest that it is eating too much sugar that is the real problem. Sugar is also a great food for cancer cells. People who eat comfort foods with lots of sugar are likely to be stressed, which in itself lowers immune response and may lead to cancers growing that would otherwise have been destroyed.

In all studies of this kind I ask: was there a proper measure of LDL factions, and what other things are people eating (a very difficult thing to know with useful exactness)?

The only unfamiliar jargon word may be lipoprotein. Just as barges are made of steel and wood an brass etc, lipoproteins are made mostly of proteins and fats (lipids) and cholesterol which is a steroid.

 

 

The Energy of Nations

Jeremy Leggett has three threads in this book [ISBN 978-0-415-85782-2]: Peak oil, global warming and unregulated capitalism.
The text swaps from giving an overview of the development of understanding of of the three threads (that will be familiar to anyone who is concerned about climate change and our casino economics) and records of meetings he has attended with government and business leaders where climate change has been marginalized and the issue of peak oil denied.

Jeremy is geologist turned solar entrepreneur, and is a big proponent of solar power. Although I agree that we should invest in solar power and passive insulation & cooling, I am a proponent of nuclear power that he is against. Although solar photovoltaic panels seem benign (though see Solar projects placed along ‘Pacific Flyway’ major migration paths are burning wings of birds) storage may have big environmental problems.

Jeremy’s view is that there will be an oil crash that will then focus thought onto renewable energy technologies. That means a lot of suffering first.

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The comments on meetings are his recollection and were not transcribed from recordings, but do follow the pattern of those we experience ourselves or read about from other commentators.

Here are a few quotes from the book:

page 114. “As we file out of Number Ten, it strikes me that watching Cameron and Osborne in action has been like reviewing a certain kind of undergraduate project. I saw many of these in my days as an academic. Bright and enthusiastic students, usually from public schools, who are good at talking, but who haven’t really done much preparation work at all.” [Meeting in November 2010]

page 213. ” … a study by a team from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley demonstrates that wind, water and solar technologies could provide 100% of the world’s energy as soon as 2030. This could be done, crucially, without mobilising any one technology any faster than technologies have already been mobilised historically”

page 214. “What is the cost of re-engineering the global energy system to low- or zero-carbon?  The first point to make is that the cost is going to be viewed through different lenses after the oil crash.  … As for energy efficiency, and its ability to force-amplify renewables and renewable fuels, the guru of that discipline Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute team were arguing compellingly that it was cheaper to save a barrel of oil than to produce it as long ago as 2004 ”

It’s sad that we can’t get on with it now. We could start immediately with building regulations for passive housing and training builders and installers, which would give worthwhile jobs for people throughout the country and the payback would start immediately in terms of lower costs, more comfort and diminishing reliance of imports for energy (not forgetting a skilled and happier workforce).

 

Mental ambiguity

Sometimes one sees something on the ground that looks special, only to find on checking that someone has discarded a candy wrapper. Another example is the crafted pictures that can be interpreted in two ways, as very different portraits.

I had a similar sense of ambiguity in seeing this sign. This is verbal meaning ambiguity, partly a result of the plate being the same design as other street signs in the area. The two possibilities overlap like the superposition of quantum states. In the shadows is also the question of what is private anymore?

Private Lane
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Climate change, opinion change

This is not so much climate modelling as climate fact:

Provisional Statement on Status of Climate in 2013: Continuing high temperatures globally and many climate extremes worldwide

At last it seems people in a place one least it expected are accepting facts:

Majority of red-state Americans believe climate change is real, study shows

Here are the Texas results:

Public Opinion on Global Warming in Texas: 2013

I always wondered about the inconsistency of the global warming skeptics in criticizing the measurements of warming trends by many climate scientists but still using the measurements, published by these same scientists, that seemed to show there was a ‘pause’ in surface temperature rise. It seems that the pause is itself an an artifact of the way measurements were interpolated, though it was never a pause anyway but just a lower rate of increase.

Global Warming Since 1997 Underestimated by Half

What this emphasizes is that trends over short time-periods, like 10 to 20 years, are not reliable indicators of long term trends.

HS2

I thought this was an excellent analysis:

HS2 … the high-speed train route with the same old staggering fares

I am not affected by HS2: I would not be living near it, I don’t commute, and I don’t pay much tax any more. For me it just seems the wrong priority. We need well insulated homes for people. Workmen on normal wages build them. People on the same normal wages should be able to buy them. At the same time the current mess of a dis-integrated rail system should be fixed before moving on – the East Coast train operating company seems a successful model to build on. Really, let’s work first on a properly integrated transport system. Both of these would mean lots of work distributed all over the country. Let’s start training people now; there is years of useful work. Isn’t that the main need – jobs for the many? When all these workers start improving their local economies, other businesses will be tempted to move into those areas creating more local jobs and diversification especially as local commutes to work will become pleasanter. We should be commuting less and using 21st century electronic technology rather than 19th century transport.