Book Review: “Bonfire” by Krysten Ritter

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

Bonfire is the first novel by actress and producer Krysten Ritter.  (OK, I had no idea who she is—if I have seen her shows, I didn’t know.)

Ritter is a good story teller, and here she takes advantage of the medium, working in a lot of monologue, memory, and flash backs that would be difficult to do on the screen.

The story itself is pretty tense and complicated.  A team of investigators comes to a small Indiana town, determined to dig up environmental crimes perpetrated by the multinational company that pretty much owns the town.  The protagonist, Abby, is also from the town (symbolically named ‘Barrens’), and soon sinks into the confused muck of her childhood.

I gather than Ritter is from such a small town, and the town, its people, and their history are extremely believable.  At least, on the surface.  Everybody knows everybody else, life is dumb but dull.  But there is obviously something hidden going on in Barrens.  But is it illegal chemical dumping?  Corporate corruption?  Or something else?

Abby is drawn to investigate the disappearance of a girl in her high school. This old mystery only seems more sinister the more people tell her to forget about it.  Is it connected with the present day investigation?  Is there really even a mystery, or is it just an old tragedy?

The story is well written, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it very much.

The town is pretty grim and far too close to home to be anything like fun to read about. Abby is pretty freaked out from the start (honestly, she should never have come back), so a lot of the story is a jumble of misapprehension and poor judgement on her part.  There is a lot of pain and the ultimate mysteries are grim and ugly.

At the end, I wondered, what is the actual point here?  Abby is compelled to uncover the truth from her past, despite the pain and danger she endures.  Is knowing the truth worth it?  I dunno.

  1. Krysten Ritter, Bonfire, New York, Crown Archetype, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Strange Practice” by Vivian Shaw

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Vampires and other uncanny monsters in London.  Again. The latest generation of Van Helsings (they dropped the “van” during the War).  Yawn.

Well, actually, Shaw crafts a charming story from these unpromising ingredients, which I really liked.

The “monsters” in question are mostly pretty nice, if rather angsty.  (When you are hundreds of years old, you can get tired of everything.)

Greta Helsing is a doctor, with a specialized practice serving the supernatural inhabitants of London.  Who knew that vampires et al have health problems?  Who knew that human medicine is even partly useful for those problems?

In any case, Dr. Helsing is a truly dedicated healer, deeply caring about her patients however “different” they are.  People are people, and we certainly come to worry about her and her charges.

The story unfolds as something nasty is terrorizing London, killing humans and non-humans alike.  Greta and some rather astonishing old family friends are assaulted and must track down and eliminate this supernatural peril. Along the way, she meets a variety of extremely interesting Londoners, who pull together in common cause to overcome this extremely dangerous threat.

I gather that this book garnered considerable praise when first published, which is deserved. I haven’t read Shaw before, but if this is representative, I look forward to more from her.  (Her blog is intriguing, if not completely understandable.)

  1. Vivian Shaw, Strange Practice: A Dr. Greta Helsing Novel, New York Orbit Books, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Glaciers Retreating Everywhere

Some aspects of global climate change are complicated, poorly understood, and hard to see.

But one thing is easy to see and hard to misunderstand:  the ice is melting.

This winter, NASA Earth Observatory writer Kathryn Hansen illustrated the world wide retreat of glaciers with two articles.

This week, she writes about glaciers in New Guinea [3].  It is rare to find “permanent” ice in the tropics, but there are several glaciers in New Guniea.  These are strikingly pretty in satellite images, because the ice is a vivid blue, and the soil is very red.

Data acquired over the last decades document the steady shrinking of the ice.  At the present rate, the glaciers will be completely gone in a decade or so.

The loss of the tiny amount of mountain top ice in the tropics is easy to see, but will have little global impact.

However, ice is disappearing everywhere, Greenland, Antarctica, and South America.

In the case of the South Patagonian Icefield in Chile and Argentina, Hansen says the retreat is “at a Non-glacial Pace”. [2]  This large ice field is thinning and melting rapidly.  Hansen shows on images of Hielo Patagónico Sur-12 (HPS), which has retreated half its length since 1985.

Not every glacier and ice field in Patagonia is disappearing at the same rapid rate, but it is clear that the ice is definitely disappearing.

In short, there is a consistent picture, world-wide, whether the US government believes so or not.

I’m reminded of the scene from the classic 1965 farce, The Great Race [1] (Warner Brothers, 1965).  Stranded on a melting ice berg, official denial is counselled:

The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis): [measuring the iceberg] Thirty seven inches to go.
Professor Fate (Jack Lemon): Oh, 37 inches to go. Huzzah! At the rate we’ve been melting, that’s good for about one more week!
The Great Leslie: You’d better keep it to yourself.
Professor Fate: Oh, of course I’ll keep it to myself. Until the water reaches my lower lip, and then I’m gonna mention it to SOMEBODY!


Check out NASA’s cool image comparison tool to see before and after pictures at:

New Guniea
South America

  1. Blake Edwards, The Great Race. 1965, Warner Brothers. p. 160 minutes.
  2. Kathryn Hansen, Glacial Retreat at a Non-glacial Pace, in NASA Earth Observatory. 2018.
  3. Kathryn Hansen, Glaciers in the Tropics, but Not for Long, in NASA Earth Observatory. 2018.



Space Saturday

Worm Brain Uploaded to Silicon?

Ever since the first electronic computers, we’ve been fascinated with the idea that a sufficiently accurate simulation of a nervous system could recreate the functions of a brain, and thereby recreate the mental experience of a natural brain inside a machine.  If this works, then it might be possible to “upload” our brain (consciousness?) into a machine.

This staple of science fiction hasn’t happened yet, not least because we have pretty limited understanding of how the brain works, or what you’d need to “upload”.  And, of course, this dream rests on naïve notions of “consciousness”.  (Hint: until we know the physical basis for human memory, we don’t know anything at all about the physical basis of “consciousness”.)

Neural simulations are getting a lot better, though, to the point where simulations have reproduced (at least some aspects of) the nervous system of simple organisms, including perennial favorites C. elegans (ring worms) and Drosophila (fruit flies). It would be possible to “upload” the state of a worm or fly into a computer, and closely simulate how the animal would behave.  Of course, these simple beasts have almost no “state” to speak of, so the simulations are not necessarily interesting.

This winter a research group from Technische Universität Wien report a neat study that used a detailed emulation of the C. elegans nervous system as an efficient controller for a (simulated) robot [2].

The key trick is that they selected a specific functional unit of the worm’s nervous system, the tap-withdrawal (TW) circuit.  In a worm, this circuit governs a reflex movement away from a touch to the worm’s tail. This circuit was adapted to a classical engineering problem, controlling an inverted pendulum, which involves ‘reflexively’ adjusting to deviations from vertical.  The point is that the inverse pendulum problem is very similar to the TW problem.

In real life, the worm reacts to touch – and the same neural curcuits can perform tasks in the computer. (From [1])

The study showed that this worm circuit achieves equivalent performance to other (human designed) controllers, using the highly efficient architecture naturally evolved in the worms.  Importantly, the natural neural system learned to solve the control problem without explicit programming.

This is an interesting approach not because the worm brain solved a problem that hadn’t been solved in other ways.  It is interesting because the solution is a very effective (and probably optimal) program based on a design developed through natural evolution.

The general principle would be that naturally evolved neural circuits can be the basis for designing solutions to engineering problems.

It’s not clear to me how easy this might be to apply to other, more complicated problems.  It is necessary to identify (and simulate) isolated neural circuits and their functions, and map them to problems.  In most cases, by the time we understand these mappings, we probably have efficient solutions, just like the TW – to –  inverted pendulum mapping in this study,

We’ll see what else they can do with this approach.

I also thought it was quite cool to see how well this kind of “upload” can be made to work with pretty standard, easily available software.  They didn’t need any super specialized software or equipment.  That’s pretty cool.

  1. Florian Aigner, Worm Uploaded to a Computer and Trained to Balance a Pole, in TU Wien – News. 2018.
  2. Mathias Lechner, Radu Grosu, and Ramin M. Hasani, Worm-level Control through Search-based Reinforcement Learning. arXiv, 2017.


Cognitive Dissonance, Thy Name Is Ethereum

Ethereum was awarded the designation as CryptoTulip of 2017, and no small part of that distinction was due to its on-going efforts to deal with the catastrophic results of buggy “smart contracts”.

The DAO disaster of 2016 was “fixed” via an ad hoc hard fork that had the tiny side effect of creating a second, rump Ethereum currency.  Since that time, Ethereum has done several more forks to respond to problems.  And in 2017 a little oopsie resulted in millions of dollars worth of Ether being locked in inaccessible accounts.  This goof has not yet been addressed by a hard fork or any other technical fix.

The underlying problem, of course, is that Nakamotoan cryptocurrencies are designed to be “write once”, with the ledger being a permanent, unchangeable record.  This feature is intended to prevent “the man” from rewriting history to cheat you out of your money.  (This is a key part of the Nakamotoan definition of a “trustless” system.)

Ethereum has implemented executable contracts on top of this “immutable” data, which is where a lot of the problems come from.  Software is buggy, and “smart contracts” inevitably have errors or just plain produce incorrect or unintended results, such as theft.  But there is no way to correct the unmodifiable ledger, except by violating the write-once principle, i.e., a hard fork to rewrite history.

True Nakamotoists deeply believe in the unchangeable ledger not only as an engineering design but as the logical foundation of the new, decentralized world economy.  But Ether-heads have (mostly) acquiesced to multiple ad hoc forks to work around grievous bugs, which to my mind completely trash the whole point of the Nakamotoan ledger. The CryptoTulip Award citation noted “the tremendous cognitive dissonance Ethereum has engendered”.

It is very interesting, therefore, to see current discussions proposing to regularize this recovery process [2]. The idea, of course, is to reduce the risk and delay of ad hoc fixes with a more open proposal and review process.  Unfortunately, this process publicly endorses the very practice that the ledger is supposed to preclude.

This proposal has not been uncontroversial, for many obvious reasons.

In addition to the obvious problem with the whole idea of ever rewriting the ledger, the Ethereum community is dealing with questions about how “decentralized” decision making should work.

Theoretically, anyone on the Internet can have a stake in decisions about Ethereum software and protocols.  However, in the crypto world—and “open source” in general—some people are more equal than others.  Active programmers, AKA, “developers”, have influence and often veto power over technical developments.  And operators of large mining operations have veto power in their ability to adopt or reject particular features.

In the earlier ad hoc forks, the devs decided and then implemented the fork. There was little discussion, and the only alternative was the nuclear option of continuing to use the denigrated fork—which many people did. The result was two Ethereums, further muddled by additional changes and forks.

The proposed new process requires public discussion of forks, possibly including video debates. Critics complain (with good reason) that this is likely to introduce “politicians” into the process. I would say that it also will create factions and partisan maneuvering.  It is not inconceivable that (gasp) vote buying and other corruption might arise.

In short, this public decision-making process will be openly political.  What a development. The governance of Ethereum is discovered to be political!

Politics (from Greek: πολιτικα: Polis definition “affairs of the cities”) is the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.

The explicit acknowledgement of human decision making creates a tremendous cognitive dissonance with the Nakamotoan concept of a “trustless” system, where all decisions are by “consensus”.  (In practice, “consensus” means “if you disagree, you can split off your own code”.)

But it also clashes with the core Ethereum idea of “smart contracts”, which are imagined to implement decentralized decision making with no human involvement. The entire idea of the DAO was to create an “unstoppable” enterprise, where all decisions were implemented by apolitical code.  When Ethereum forked to undo the DAO disaster, it essentially undermined the basic rationale for “smart contracts”, and for Ethereum itself.

And now, they want to have humans involved in the decision making!

The very essence of this dissonance is capture in a quote from Rachel Rose O’Leary:

For now, no further action will likely be taken on the proposal until ethereum’s process for accepting code changes, detailed in EIP-1, has been clarified.” [1]

In other words, EIP-867 is so completely inconsistent with the decision-making process it isn’t even possible to talk about it.  I guess they will continue to muddle through, ad hoc, violating the spirit of Nakamotoism.

I think that Ethereum is managing to radically “disrupt” itself and the whole concept of Nakamotoan cryptocurrency.

  1. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) Ethereum Devs Call for Public Debate on Fund Recovery. Coindesk,
  2. Dan Phifer, James Levy, and Reuben Youngblom, Standardized Ethereum Recovery Proposals (ERPs). Etherium Ethereum Improvement Proposal, 2018.
  3. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) Ethereum Developer Resigns as Code Editor Citing Legal Concerns. Coindesk,



Cryptocurrency Thursday

Too Many Dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs were extremely successful, dominating Earth for millions of years (not even counting the many more millions of years that birds have flourished), in many and glorious variants.  But we have only sketchy notions of the growth and spread of these wondrous animals.  Fossil evidence is sparse and irregular, as is geological evidence of ancient environments, so simple tabulation offers limited information about the origins and spread over time of dinosaurs.

A new study approaches this problem with a Bayesian model to infer dispersion paths for different dinosaur taxa [2].  Using recorded finds for over 600 species, they project probable geographic locations through time, constructing a “path” representing the dispersion of the species.   The model also incorporates some factors such as diet and gait, though these factors have little impact at this granularity (i.e., walking speed means little over many thousands of years).

The results show a rapid geographical dispersal (beginning in present day South America), which slowed over time.  This is consistent with the notion that dinosaurs spread out into relatively unoccupied geographical areas, until eventually they filled the globe.

The researchers tie this pattern to the rate of speciation, which follows a similar trend. This is consistent with speciation due to invasion of new and geographically isolated environments.  In contrast, later times would presumably be dominated more by sympatric speciation, i.e., competition within a (crowded) system.

Early dinosaurs moved and speciated rapidly, with both processes slowing through time.”  ([2], p. 4)

The researchers characterize this pattern as a “geographical signature of an evolutionary radiation”.  The suggest that this offers explanatory hypotheses for phenomena such as the diversity of Hadrosaur cranial decorations thought to be due to sexual selection, which would be a likely mechanism for sympatric speciation.

They also perceive the slowing rate of speciation in the Cretatceous as evidence that the radiation was ending, and the dinosaurs were in decline [1].

But by the time the asteroid struck, killing them off, they were starting to decline, as they had ran [sic] out of space on Earth.”

My own view is rather skeptical, if only because the statistics are based on such paltry data.  There were millions and millions of dinosaurs, many of them tiny, and most probably unknown in the fossil record.  For those we do have evidence for, the species identification is quite uncertain, as is the presumed taxonomic tree and behavior. However clever the model, it is based on extremely weak data.

In any case, the relationship between supposed movement and the rate of speciation is almost a tautology.  I mean, what else could possibly happen over such long time periods?  And how could these not be correlated in such a limited dataset?

I’m certainly not convinced that dinosaurs were in decline, whatever that means. Even if the rate of speciation was slowing (which I don’t think is evident), that doesn’t mean they are disappearing (which they weren’t). I suspect that if we had more evidence, we might find lots of interesting adaptation happening in the Cretaceous, though possibly not easy to see in the skeletal remains.

On a side note, I note that the BBC headline suggests that the finding is that “Dinosaurs ‘too successful for their own good’”. The actual paper doesn’t really say that, and, as far as I can tell, no one ever said that specific quote.

  1. Helen Briggs, Dinosaurs ‘too successful for their own good’, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018.
  2. Ciara O’Donovan, Andrew Meade, and Chris Venditti, Dinosaurs reveal the geographical signature of an evolutionary radiation. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2018/02/05 2018.



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