Monday, October 31, 2016

The book burners

     One of the first things the Nazis did when they seized power in Germany was to burn the books.

     Radical Islam has a similar aversion to books, along with anything else they believe remotely threatens their twisted fundamentalist view of spiritualism and morality. 

     In January, 2013, fifteen jihadists stormed into the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government library in Mali, carried 4,200 centuries-old manuscripts—on physics, math, medicine, logic, and chemistry—into the tiled courtyard and contemptuously threw them onto a pile, doused them with gasoline, and burned them to holy ashes, destroying in minutes the laborious works of Timbuktu’s greatest scientists.

     Months earlier scholar Abdel Haidara, who had helped establish 45 libraries across Timbuktu, had seen the outrage coming and taken steps to at least mitigate it.  He’d raised a million dollars from sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation and the Dutch National Lottery organization and Kickstarter, and had recruited a quiet secret army of his own.  Their dangerous sole mission was to save thousands upon thousands of books from the determined al-Qaeda destroyers.

     Haidara had secreted 377,000 precious volumes in safe houses around Timbuktu in 700 purchased footlockers, chests, and even steel barrels, but he no longer felt that was enough.  He decided his covert army would smuggle them all to the better protected capital of Bamako.  Using cunning and stealth and bribery, and working often by night, Haidara and his army set out to transport as many volumes as possible south, by river boat and truck and even taxi, past hostile jihadists and venal military patrols and marauding bandits.  Some of the couriers, many of them teenagers, were detained and interrogated and threatened at checkpoints, but in the end they managed to carry out the mission.  They lost not a single manuscript.

     Much knowledge has these days been stored away electronically, of course.  But that in no way diminishes the incalculable treasure that includes the finest works of mankind still stored away as books on every aspect of human endeavor and achievement in repositories around the planet. 

     And in many countries, outside the grim reach of the jihadists—who themselves can boast of no enduring achievements whatsoever to benefit humankind—that treasure remains accessible free to anyone through our network of libraries.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Those clever casinos

     In the 1970s Vegas and Atlantic City were the only two gambling Meccas in the U.S.  Today there are 1,400 casinos scattered over 40 states, many of these money-rakers located on native-American lands.  Their reported income in ’14 was $66 billion from 101 million visitors.  (It’s a cash business, notorious for skimming, book-cooking, and for grossly under-reporting.)

     The allure for visitors is simple: Potential riches with no work involved.  And it’s all cleverly promoted with glittery tinsel and euphemisms.  They’re called resorts, for example, and what they offer is only innocent gaming, not gambling. 

     The psychology is far more complex.  If you’re winning you don’t want to quit.  If you’re losing you’ll keep gambling trying to win back the losses.  People who come away having lost money are reluctant to admit it to family and friends, which works to the casinos’ advantage.  Inside the casinos there are no clocks and no windows.  Players are comfortably insulated against the outside world.  There are enticing photos of a relative few big winners on the wall.  Each time a slot pays off, no matter how little the amount, bells sound and lights flash and coins clatter loudly into trays, creating the illusion that players are winning much of the time.  Players are made to feel welcome with everything from inexpensive food and drink and accommodations to pleasant lighting and comfy seating and live entertainment.

     But the reality is that the odds always heavily favor the casinos.  So they’re not really gambling at all, and the more a player tries to win—the longer a person plays—the more that player is likely to lose.  The overwhelmingly vast majority do lose.

     Few visitors ever question where the billions must come from to create and sustain such lavish surroundings.  That money can only come from those thousands upon thousands of losers, of course.

     And the casinos prey not only on pampered high rollers, but more often also on those least able to afford the losses.  So rents and car payments and other bills go unpaid in order to feed that ephemeral dazzling atmosphere and those insatiable tables and those glitzy machines—and the anonymous wealthy people in the shadows behind them.

     I don’t treat casinos kindly in my fiction.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Ten noted writers on money (and success):

“Fortune sides with him who dares.”—Virgil

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.”—Benjamin Franklin

“Empty pockets never held anyone back.  Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
Noman Vincent Peale

“Many people take no care of their money till they come nearly to the end of it, and others do just the same with their time.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.  Don’t make money your goal.”—Maya Angelou

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Thomas Edison

“Money often costs too much.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do.  When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.”—Julia Cameron

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”—Yogi Berra


Monday, October 3, 2016

BIG data 

A bit is a basic unit of binary information, having one of only two values.  Could be yes or no, on or off, plus or minus.  In digital computing, communication, and storage, it’s either 0 or 1.  One byte is 8 bits.  A kilobyte is about a thousand bytes.  A megabyte is about a million bytes—the length of an average novel.  A gigabyte is roughly a billion bytes.  My computer has 10 gigs of storage capacity, which I have not come close to using in the four years since I bought it.  A common smartphone, of course, processes that much data a month easily.

A terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes, or about the same information stored in a large public library or on 1,600 regular CDs.

A petabyte is 1,024 terabytes.  Put that much content on CDs and it would create a stack 878 feet tall (223,000 discs).  It is 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes.

There’s a telescope under construction near La Serena in Chile (been there), called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will automatically collect fifteen terabytes of data PER NIGHT.  During its first decade it will amass 54,750 terabytes, or 53.5 petabytes.  That’s enough to fill stacked Blue-ray discs to a height of 15,750 feet.  An incredibly rich tower of data.  In that time its instruments will capture 40 billion objects in fine detail (its camera alone has 3.2 billion pixels), map the structure and evolution of our Milky Way Galaxy, count asteroids, explore transient events like supernovae, and create a stop-motion movie of much of the celestial sphere.  It will vastly increase our knowledge of this universe we live in.

We have other telescopes around the planet and in space that are constantly gathering ever more refined data, as well.

In astronomy, as increasingly in other scientific disciplines, the task has rapidly evolved from collecting enough data to draw meaningful conclusions, to being able to efficiently mine the fantastic avalanche of raw data now streaming in for the priceless knowledge certainly veined therein.

The years ahead will be exciting.