Archive for September, 2013

Thoughts in a Paris square:

Thursday, September 26th, 2013
Wall from 1200

Wall from 1200

In a part of Paris I like, there’s a wall from about the year 1200. In truth, it is only a part of a wall; 40 feet long and maybe 20 feet high.

Near it is a story about the wall in French which I was able to partially read. It tells that when the French King, Philippe Auguste (1165-1223), left to go on one of the Crusades, he had the locals build this wall to protect themselves until he returned.

Apparently, the center of what needed protecting was there at that spot then. Though now, the remains of the wall lie deep within the city almost forgotten, except for the sign on a side street next to it where it is jammed between newer buildings.

Newer is, of course, relative. Just now, I’m sitting in the Delmas Cafe a few blocks away having a coffee and writing this. Just across from me is a building which says it was built in 1748. It’s an ancient looking thing from before the French Revolution. And yet, it is over 500 years newer than the wall. And the building is, itself, over 265 years old now. Don’t get me started; there are Roman ruins here in Paris that I’ve admired, and reverently touched the stones of, that are almost 1000 years older than the wall.

Truly, every thimble-full of dirt under our feet here contains the memories and experiences of men and women beyond counting.

This bit of wall from 1200 is on Rue Clovis between Rue Descartes and Rue du Cardinale Lemoine and not too far from the inestimable and quaint Rue Mouffetard. The latter, which is much beloved by tourists, is a narrow walking street filled with interesting shops and pubs.

1748 building

1748 building

I’m sitting in this small square we ‘discovered’ at Rue Mouffetard and Rue Blainville having a coffee and ruminating on my time in Paris.

Just now, some tradesmen are working on the 1748 building and pulling what looks like very old beams out of it. Apparently, someone is having its interior reworked. Hard to tell how old such beams would be. I doubt that they would hail from 1748 but it would be interesting to know their age.

When the wall was built and the King went off to try and wrest control of the Holy Land away from Mohammed’s people, the Americas were untouched save for a few transient Viking villages in New Foundland.

Fenimore’s Mohicans still walked their ancient forest trails; never having dreamed of the white-man or of tuberculosis.

The Central and South American civilizations, with all their alien (from our POV) ways, still flourished and the history that they were evolving was still all theirs.

Deep in the Amazon, vast tracts had been cleared and a charcoal dependent form of agriculture was underway. All of which vanished thoroughly after the European’s maladies swept the Americas. They vanished so well that for a long time, no one believes there had been anything there in the deep Amazon; so quickly did the jungle claim it all back.

We are a species of unintended consequences. Indeed, all of evolution is a dance of unintended consequences; other than the drive to proceed while there yet is energy.


The ancestors of these faces I see passing here were mostly here when the wall was built 800 years

The author's lair

The author’s lair

ago. Genetics doesn’t change that much. It swirls into slightly different combinations of forehead and cheek, but it is all here.

You can see that the beauty in women and the strength in men was celebrated in their issue And Paris has a lot of all; beauty, strength and issue.

When the building and the wall were built, a few people held the power and, for the rest, life was an often brutal business lived quickly and with little understanding; save what the church purported to explain.

I look at the faces here and try to see them as the workmen erecting the building then. And I gaze on the women and try to see them as the servant girls or as the wives of peasants and workers.

Occasionally, a face passes me here; haughty imbued with the power of money and self-possession. And I can see them here as well, then. Wearing fine silks and sleeves,. Sure of their God-given right to dominate


Left behind

Left behind

We’ve come such a long way in the years since the wall and the building went up. But we are still creatures of unintentional consequences; we always have been.

We’ve banished the darkness and fear of diseases not understood. And, though we still die, most of us know now, why and how. And we’ve saved ourselves, for the moment with antibiotics and surgeries, from those dark dreams and we live to see longer lives. But, on yet longer scales, we have also unintentionally enabled the increasing promulgate of genes of lesser and lesser fitness into the pools from which our future will be drawn.

We’ve conquered nature in that no other species can, in the remotest sense, stand against us.

We’ve worked out the division of labor for the greater good and most of us no longer hunt the food we eat nor build the homes we live in. Now, some grow, some build, some supervise and others organize. And all this has raised our standard of living and freed us to have more leisure and more children with less early mortality.

The armies went forth, the armadas went forth, the colonists and the colonizers went forth. And almost without impediment, we’ve nearly filled the world in a few short centuries. All we needed were a few enabling technologies because the drive to go forth was always there in our deep natures.

Technologies do not sleep. Technology begets technology and the increasing leverage, born of the more efficient division of labor, grows stronger for us with each iteration.

As we approach the full point of the world, we are moving faster all the time. There are more of us every moment. We communicate faster, we travel faster, we can make more and we can consume more.

The royal ‘we’ has no idea of what we are doing. Most of us are just lost in the dream of our current life. Our lives are before us and we live them. It’s no one’s fault that the rain forests in Indonesia are vanishing along with the Orangutans.

No one intended any of this. Nature and evolution intend nothing. Energy evaporates down gradients and little creatures arise in the backwash. All the philosophers and saints dancing on the heads of pins are not a pimple on the ass of this simple reality.


So, the morning’s given way to the afternoon as I’ve sat here in the square, watching. The sun that once shone on Mesopotamia shines on me here. And the one that shone on the stones of this earth before the first little creatures crawled from the sea; that very sun shines on me here as well.

The building from 1748 across the square is ignoring me. And the waiter here at the cafe is only marginally better. The royal ‘we’ swirls around me. I intuit in them dreams of youth, of money, of love and a hundred other things in the mix of passing faces.

The simple stones in the building’s wall have been here in the square longer than any of them have been alive; but every face is the center of its own dream.

The “time past and time future” that Eliot mentioned are not here for them. They inhabit the “time now and the time mine” and everything else lies frozen and nearly unseen for them.

No Orangutan calls pierce the square around them.

Credit Card Fraud

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Credit Card Fraud

That’s what’s on my mind today.

As in it has happened to me.

Actually, this is the second time this year (once in the U.S. and once here in France) and both had similar aspects which I should learn from. And you too, as well, after I share them with you.


I found a 98 Euro charge I didn’t recognize on my HSBC card today. I called HSBC and they told me that there were several others that were declined and there were yet others there that been charged that hadn’t yet had time to make it to my account transactions listing on-line. Yow!

The card was cancelled ASAP and I’ll have to go through some hassles to get refunded; but I will in the end. After I go to the police station here in Paris and file a report, then I’m to send that into HSBC.

The bank folks tell me that this sort of thing can happen when you pay with you card and you let them carry the card off away from your sight to ring up the bill and bring you a receipt.

They are not charging you extra in the back room. They are writing down your C/C number *and* the three digit code on the back. Because, often, they can make purchases over the Internet with just these bits of information.

So, the moral of the story is never let them carry your card away. Have them bring the swipe machine to you or follow them to where it is. Watch that no one copies the three digit code on the back.

I’m a wiser man now.


The most depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

“It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.”

– Makes sense to me.  So many decisions I see being made in our world seem so inexplicable.   As Paul Simon wrote in his song, “The Boxer”:

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Educating monkeys

Say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, or reason can provide the tools that people need in order to make good decisions.

Yale law school professor Dan Kahan’s new research paper is called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” but for me a better title is the headline on science writer Chris Mooney’s  piece about it in Grist:  “Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math.”

Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly.  His conclusion, in Mooney’s words: partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

For years my go-to source for downer studies of how our hard-wiring makes democracy hopeless has been  Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.

Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?

The answer, basically,  is no.  When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.

– More:
– Thanks to Gus H. for a correction to my Boxer quote.

A Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013


– Highly interesting article making the rounds.   Could open up an entirely new Physics.   Space and time may no longer be prime-time players.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Beyond making calculations easier or possibly leading the way to quantum gravity, the discovery of the amplituhedron could cause an even more profound shift, Arkani-Hamed said. That is, giving up space and time as fundamental constituents of nature and figuring out how the Big Bang and cosmological evolution of the universe arose out of pure geometry.

“In a sense, we would see that change arises from the structure of the object,” he said. “But it’s not from the object changing. The object is basically timeless.”

– To the article:


Tiles, the NSA and your iPhone – it’s a changing world

Monday, September 16th, 2013

“The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.”  from ProPublica

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As someone who thinks of himself as a futurist, I tend to keep my eyes peeled for patterns and connections which can, possibly, indicate something about our future.

There are two things going on now which I think are going to conjunct and increase the penetration into our personal lives of the nascent police states that most western democracies are steadily becoming.

The first thing

Is already visibly in motion.  That is the efforts of the American NSA to penetrate everyone and everything in the name of national security; as revealed by Edward Snowden’s documents.

It is now open knowledge that the NSA has broken most of the cryptology that we’ve depended on to keep our personal information safe from prying eyes.

This would include your computer passwords.


And any files you store in encrypted form.  And any files you send.  And any files you receive in encrypted form.

And, if they have access to your computer passwords, then they have full access to all your files and all your stored e-mail.

If they have all of that, then what do you have?

Bupkis – you don’t have much that’s yours, if they want it.

The criminal hackers of the world would be overjoyed to have that sort of access.   If they did, your computers would be full of malware, trojans and key loggers before you could blink.

I suppose we can just hope that the folks in the NSA that have access to this sort of power are using it exclusively for the public good.

The second thing

Has only just recently come into play.   These are the little devices called “Tilesthat you may have seen advertised.  They’ve been sold on-line now for a few months and the first deliveries are scheduled for winter 2013/2014.  I bought one recently for $18.95 USD out of curiosity.


Tiles help you find things.  They are about an inch square, made of white plastic, about 1/8 of an inch thick and they have a small hole on one corner so you can tie or attach them to things.  You can also stick them onto things with two-sided adhesive.

They have a non-replaceable battery in them that runs for about a year and they communicate back and forth via the Bluetooth short-range radio.   They come with an application program that runs on your iPhone and the program can help you find  one of your Tiles if you’ve lost it and whatever it is attached to like your keys, or your backpack or whatever.

If, for example, you’ve lost your keys, you fire up the Tile application program and ask it to locate the Tile attached to your keys.

If you are within about 50 to 150 feet or so of your keys (the range varies with terrain), the application program will show you on your iPhone where the Tile (and your keys) are … out in the garage.

Ah!  And then you remember that you laid them down on the work bench when your phone rang as you were getting the groceries out of your car.

One more thing about Tiles.  If you really lose something, like your motorcycle is missing through theft, and you were thoughtful enough to have had a Tile attached to it, you can contact the Tile people and they will put out an alert on that Tile.

Once a Tile has an alert on it, any iPhone in the world running the Tile application program that passes with 50 to 150 feet or so of your sought-after Tile, will silently send a message to the Tile people indicating that it ‘saw’ your Tile and provide the GPS location where it was.

The person carrying the iPhone running the Tile application program that located your Tile won’t even know any of this happened.

So, where ever folks are wandering around with the Tile application program on their iPhones, a quiet and constant search is being made all the time for lost Tiles (and whatever’s attached to them).

So, how does this link to the NSA and future developments?

Well, it goes like this.

The first thing to realize is that the NSA folks are certainly smarter than the average bear.  They could, and probably already have, made something very much like the Tile.  Something that’s a lot smaller, harder to detect, has better range, longer battery life and etc.  Let’s call these special NSA versions NSATiles.

The second thing to recognize is that the NSA already has the technology to break and enter into virtually any computer they want to; including our iPhones.

So, if they wish to, they can populate most of the world’s iPhones with a sweet little bit of hidden software that none of us would know about that does just what the Tile application program does; except for NSA’s purposes.

Mmm. Perhaps, I’m not thinking this through clearly?

Why should they need to insert new clandestine software into our iPhones from the outside?

The recent news from Edward Snowden has also revealed that the NSA has, under national security laws, forced some of the major software companies in the US to install ‘backdoors‘ into their software so the NSA can go in and look at what it wants to even while users of that software think their privacy is secure.   Moreover, the NSA has enjoined these companies to say nothing of this; again under the threat of national security laws.

So, why couldn’t the NSA have pressured Apple to add NSATile detection and reporting software?  They’ve done a lot of this sort of thing already.  And, Apple couldn’t warn us without breaking the law.

In short, there’s no reason why the NSA cannot use our millions iPhone devices to clandestinely scan the world for NSATiles that the NSA is interested in tracking.

And, when your iPhone sees such an NSATile, it will silently “phone home”  to the NSA and report it along with its GPS coordinates.  Nice, eh?

So, we will be an entire world of folks wandering around with iPhones doing the NSA’s bidding and looking for anyone or anything that the NSA wants to track geographically.  Terrorists, demonstrators, spies, packages, books, animals, us … you name it.

And all of us doing NSA’s bidding unknowingly.

Will this happen?

The real question, I think, given that capabilities described already exist, is why wouldn’t it be happening now?   After all, knowledge is power and this is government we’re talking here.

In a related development

There’s a parallel development involving very similar technology, see this article which I just encountered today by coincidence.

It is about something called iBeacon which is part of Apple’s newly released iOS 7 software.

This new iBeacon technology will be coming to a shopping center near you soon and it’s going to be talking to your iPhone as you walk by the stores.  It’s going to be trying to sell  you things.