Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Plenty of ZIP as We Mature

Blog readers who know us personally are surprised to see Vi on a zipline [click image at left for larger version]. But here is my non-athletic wife of 46 years doing just fine as she zips between trees, flying some fifty feet above the ground.

The photo is of one of the shorter of the seven zips we did in Ketchican, last week. Vi is arriving at a tree platform as our guide Katie reaches out to grab her. The second photo is of me starting a zip. You can see how far I have to go to the next tree platform.

Our zipline adventure has been the highlight of our Alaska family vacation. Two of our granddaughters and our son-in-law (their dad) accompanied us. We all had a fine time.

All of you have seen people on ziplines, but how many have actually done it?

I was amazed when Vi informed me she had signed up to join our grands on this zipline adventure. I was kind of challenged into signing up as well. Prior to and during the cruise from Vancouver Canada to Alaska, Vi continually brought up the zipline. Quite frankly, I was somewhat worried even though I am the more physically adventurous of the two of us.

As we sailed into Ketchican and debarked for the bus that would take us to Alaska Canopy Adventures [click to see more photos and info], I was very worried. First, that I would chicken out and second that Vi would have some sort of trouble.

There were seven in our group, our family plus a wonderful couple, Craig and Ann, who provided us with some great photos including the one of Vi above. We were fitted with gloves, helmets and harnesses, which turned out to be quite comfortable.

The harness fastened around the waist with loops for the legs and shoulders. The main support came up the front and connected to two pulleys, one on the bottom cable and one on the top cable. There are also two safety straps that are fastened to the cable at the tree platform or that hook to the pulley mechanism during the zip. At least one safety strap is fastened at all times.

During the zip your left hand holds the top of the pulley assembly and your right hand holds the main support (as if you were holding a microphone). We were instructed to sit with our legs raised for best aerodynamics. As we approached the target tree platform, our guide Katie would signal for us to place our right hand behind our head and gently rest it on the cable, squeezing it just enough to slow us for a nice landing. This is fine only in theory.

Both Vi and I had some bad landings and Katie really earned her pay.

The problem I had was on the first long zip, after a good ride on the short intro zip. My legs rotated to the right and I found myself going sideways. That could have affected the aerodynamics and resulted in a landing short of the target. I tried to rotate my left hand to correct the rotation, but my attempt backfired and I found myself riding backwards! (Quick, hold your left hand above your head and imagine it is on the top of the pulley assembly and your legs are rotating to the right. Which way should you rotate your hand? Well, in the excitement, I rotated it the wrong way.)

Well, here I was going full speed, but backwards, and I was unable to see the signal to put my right hand on the cable to slow down. Also, I was unsure where to safely place my hand without risking having my fingers dragged into the pulley. So I came into the target tree platform too fast and slammed into Katie who, in turn, slammed into the padding on the tree trunk. Fortunately, she has had experience with this type of landing and knew what to do to prevent any injury to either of us.

Vi had the opposite problem. When she saw Katie signal to slow down, she over-reacted and landed short of the platform. All I could see in the distance through the tree branches were her legs running in space as Katie pulled her up to the platform.

After these misadventures, both Vi and I were instructed to place our right hand over the top of our left hand on the pulley assembly (rather than in the normal "microphone" position). That helped keep our legs straight ahead during the remaining zips.

In addition to the seven zips, we also walked over a bouncy, shaky suspension bridge, repelled down 30 feet, and went down a 250 foot slide.

Here we were in a totally unfamiliar situation, flying between trees high above the ground, suspended by a pulley contraption. During the adventure, our guides were very professional and reassuring and, strangely as I think about it now, neither of us felt any fear. Yet, having done it, and enjoying having done it, I do not think I will ever do it again.

Ira Glickstein

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wittgenstein's Poker

[from Joel - Wittgenstein's Poker and Wittgenstein links and image added by Ira] This is not a book about an Austrian variation on Texas Hold'em. It's about the philosophers Popper and Wittgenstein. Has anyone read the book? It's ingeniously based upon a ten minute argument between Popper and Wittgenstein that took place at Cambridge in 1946 and during which Wittgenstein is purported to have threatened Popper with a hot poker. The authors use the controversy as a means of sketching both philosophers and the various witnesses. Expanding about this nucleus, they comment upon the entire state and history of European philosophy during the first half of the twentieth century. I haven't finished the book yet, but so far it's a good read.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Jon Stewart - An Energy-Independent Future

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

Although I don't go along with most of Jon Stewart's ideology, he can be very insightful. WATCH THE VIDEO. This is very thought-provoking!

Vi and I will be away to Seattle and Alaska for a couple weeks with limited internet access during parts of that period. We'll be visiting our Seattle daughter and son-in-law and our grandsons. Our Atlanta and Andover daughters and sons-in-law and our three granddaughters will be with us as we cruise the inside passage and visit Seward, Denali, and Fairbanks in Alaska.

Please continue to post Comments to the Blog. I would very much appreciate it if Blog Authors would use their special powers to start some new Topics. advTHANKSance!

Ira Glickstein

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Gaia Hypothesis - Three Levels of Interpretation

I posted my first Gaia Topic to this Blog back on Earth Day, April 2010.

This new Topic is based on a talk I gave to the Philosophy Club here in The Villages in Central Florida, 11 June 2010. You can download a PowerPointShow of the talk with animated slides and an audio narration Part 1 and Part 2. [Click hyperlink for the Part you want, then click on Open, wait for the file to download, then click on Allow, and crank up the volume for the audio as the slide show starts!]

In the 1960's, James Lovelock was tasked by NASA to help find signs of life on Mars. As a result of his work for NASA, he came up with what he called the Earth Feedback Hypothesis. This is the idea that the Biosphere, which is the sum of all biological life on Earth, has developed, following the accepted principles of Evolution and Natural Selection, in a way that controls the gasses in the atmosphere and moderates the temperature of Earth in a way that tends to promote life. He suggested that, if Mars or any other planet has or used to have life, it would have telltale signs in the form of certain gasses and other measureable and unique characteristics.

At the suggestion of a neighbor who happened to be a novelist, he changed the name of his theory from the Earth Feedback Hypothesis to the Gaia Hypothesis, after Gaia, the Greek Goddess of Earth.

The Gaia Hypothesis may be viewed at three different levels of interpretation, (1) Pure Science, (2) Purpose-Directed Organism, and (3) Grand Unification of Science and Religion.


Let us stick to the basics of the Earth Feedback Hypothesis and avoid any suggestion of goal-directed behavior by the Biosphere. Let us ignore any spiritual or religious meaning. At this level we have a straightforward scientific hypothesis. Namely, that standard concepts of the Origin of Life by random mixing of molecules and subsequent Evolution and Natural Selection will tend to generate feedbacks that modify the atmosphere and temperatures of the host planet in a direction that supports continuation of life on that planet.

In my talk, I discuss the well-known "Daisyworld" thought experiment where a planet is planted with light-colored daisies that grow best in warmer temperatures and dark-hued daisies that thrive in cooler temperatures. Daisyworld reacts to a warming Sun by growing more light-colored daisies that raise the albedo (reflectiveness) of the planet in a way that moderates the heating by reflecting excess Sunlight back into space. Conversely, if the Sun cools, dark daisies will become more abundant, reducing the albedo of the planet in a way that absorbs the limited heat of the Sun and thus moderates the cooling. Thus, Daisyworld acts as if it had as its purpose the preservation of life.

I make use of Douglas Hofstadter's idea (in his 1980 Pulitzer-winning book, Godel, Escher, Bach) to argue that an anthill is a complex system that may be considered an organism. Hofstadter calls it Aunt Hillary because the anthill behaves as if it had a purpose, namely the preservation of the anthill and the long-term welfare of the ants. Aunt Hillary is in a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship with anteaters. She calls one Dr. Anteater and welcomes his visits because he removes deadwood ants and generally improves the health of the anthill.

The ants are "farmers" who use cut leaves to grow the fungi they eat and "herders" of smaller insects called aphids that secrete a sweet liquid ants drink. Aunt Hillary's anthill is in competition and cooperative relationships with other anthills. They continually invade each other's territory, competing for resources. Should any anthill fail, that territory and resources would be invaded and settled by ants from other anthills.

Of course anthills and anteaters do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of the ecological system of a lake or river valley made up of a balanced set of bacteria, plants, insects, and animals that, over evolutionary time, have settled into a web-of-life and food-chain. I call this ecology Valerie. The valley ecology is complex enough to be considered an organism made up of thousands of species that are in competitive and cooperative relationships with each other and with neighboring valleys. Ecologies are continually invading each other's territory, competing for resources. Should any valley ecology fail, that territory and resources would be invaded by bacteria, insects, plants and animals from other valleys.


Once we agree that an anthill (Aunt Hillary) and a balanced ecology (Valerie) behave as if they are purpose-driven and goal-directed, we are tempted to ask if they are or may become sentient. Is Aunt Hillary the sentient Gaia of the anthill? Is Valerie the sentient Gaia of the lake valley?

The talk examines what we really mean by sentience, and what is required for a complex system to become sentient.

The only certain example of a sentient organism we can all agree on is you (and me and all the other human readers of this Blog). What makes us sentient? Well, it is the complex system of billions of neurons, biological cells that make up our brains and central nervous systems. If billions of cells, each of which is descended from single-cell bacterial life that lived independently eons ago, can be sentient by exchanging chemicals (neuro-transmitters and neuro-inhibitors to and from nearby cells) and electrical signals (pulses transmitted to and received from thousands of other cells near and far), what other complex system could be sentient?

How about billions of humans and other animals in the web-of-life? Humans have been trading ideas, food and other useful items with each other since tribal times. Thousands of years ago trade caravans transported ideas and products far and wide. We now have telephone and computer networks that interconnect nearly all humans on Earth. Could that complex system be sentient? Have we created a Gaia that is a sentient organism?


The figure below traces the development of religion and science and indicates how the Gaia Hypothesis may unite them.

What we call primitive religion begins with the idea that every tree and river and tribe has a god within it. We must supplicate ourselves before the god of the tree and thank it for granting us its fruits, and the god of the river for its water, and so on. If our tribe battles yours, and we win, it is because our tribal god is stronger than yours! This evolves into the Egyptian or Greek or Roman pantheon of gods. In the Greek system, the chief god Zeus, and the various gods of the seas, the wind, war, and so on live on Mt. Olympus and cooperate and compete as they rule over us. This evolves into the great Monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where a Universal God in Heaven is separate from His creation.

Science develops as we study the natural world. First with telescopes to bring far planets and stars closer and with microscopes to peer into the smallest corners of things. This develops into Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and the theories of Evolution, Atoms, Quantum Mechanics, and so on.

It would seem that Religion and Science are incompatible - but, there is hope!

On the RELIGION side, several hundred years ago we see the development of Unitarianism - the belief in one God AT MOST. Some of the founders of the American experiment were "Nature's God" Deists who believed that God Created the Universe and the Laws of Nature and then let it all play out on its own, with no miracles beyond that Original Creation. We also have Pantheists, such as Spinoza and Einstein (and me, your humble Blog administrator) who believe the Universe is God.

On the SCIENCE side we have James Lovelock and his Earth Feedback Hypothesis.

Put them all together and put them into a neat box and they point to the Gaia, the Goddess of the Earth!

Scientists can think of Gaia as a complex interactive system that may or may not be sentient, but who, at least, behaves as if She is sentient. Folks who are seeking a more spiritual solution can think of Gaia as a sentient, purpose-driven organism who came into being through the totally natural processes of Evolution and Natural Selection. Literal believers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other established religion can snicker a bit and thank their God for gifting at least a small bit of Faith to their benighted brothers.

Ira Glickstein

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How to Dry Clean the Money-Launderers


In 2005, $90,000 in cash was found in Congressman William J. Jefferson's (D-LA) freezer, wrapped in foil and stored in a Boca-Burger box. When that news came out, I had two questions: 1) Are vegetarians trustworthy? (Boca-Burgers are vegetarian :^), and 2) Exactly who gave him that money and what did he intend to do with it?

The Serial Numbers on some of the money found in the freezer matched bills given to an FBI informant. Despite the evidence, and the serious charges, Jefferson was re-elected in 2006. He won the Democratic primary again in 2008, but was defeated by a Republican.

In 2009, Jefferson was convicted on several counts, including conspiring to bribe a Nigerian official to aid his business ventures in Africa. However, he got off on the actual bribery charge because the money, having been seized by the FBI, did not actually get to that foreign official. Based on FBI videotapes and other evidence, the $90,000 seized was but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands he solicited while a congressman and co-chair of the caucus on Nigeria and African trade.

Wouldn't it be interesting to know where that money came from? Indeed, would it not be great if we could trace at least some of the cash money seized from drug dealers and other criminals?


A currency counter with counterfeit detection capability is shown above. Machines of this type, which cost less than $500, are routinely used by banks and companies that have to process large amounts of paper currency.

It would be relatively inexpensive to add the ability to read and record the Serial Number of each bill processed, and associate the numbers with the time, date, and location of the counting machine. Indeed, here is a Serial Number recording machine offered for sale to law-enforcement agencies.

If all regulated banks were required to add this capability to their currency counters and ATM machines, and if businesses that deal in cash were encouraged to do so as well, we would have a tidy record of the time and location of many of the bills involved in cash transactions. It would not take much more effort for the computers to also record the account numbers of the people who deposited or withdrew the cash and associate that information with the Serial Numbers as well.

The Serial Numbers on money seized in criminal investigations could be compared to the Serial Numbers on the bank and business records and that would provide the past date and location history of at least some of the bills in that bunch. If the record also included the account numbers of some of the people who handled that cash, that could help trace it and provide clues to the source of the money and perhaps the names of the individuals who would be persons of interest in the crime under investigation.

Ira Glickstein