The Big Picture

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2008 by njmalhq

My last post, titled Quadrillions and Quadrillions, grapled with the magnitudes of the extremely large amounts of money that is dominating the pre-election buz.  Continuing my attempt to put humongous quantities of cash in proper perspective, I have created a couple of to-scale google earth images.  The first one shows a gigantic green bubble against the Portland, Oregon skyline, representing a pile of half a quadrillion 1 dollar bills.  This, readers will recall, is the reported amount of the dangerous and unstable money bubble at risk in the global financial scam that is the derivatives market.   The second image shows a red dome of 1 trillion dollars, the amount of the so called bailout, contrasted against the half quadrillion.  For the full glory of the images, click on them to enlarge to a higher resolution.  And, please, feel free to freak out.

Half Quadrillion Dollar Bubble

Half Quadrillion Dollar Bubble

Half Quarillion and Trillion

Half Quadrillion (in green) vs One Trillion (in red)

Quadrillions and Quadrillions

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2008 by njmalhq

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Carl Sagan.  It appears that the last month before the next election will be dominated by talks of some very large numbers.  Within weeks numerical magnitudes in public discourse have grown from billions, to trillions to quadrillions.  I was reminded of Sagan’s last book,  Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, which opened with contemplations on very large numbers, and the big questions that come with them.  I am sure if he was still around and saw the enormous digits being plastered across the news channels, he would have had something intelligent to say about them.

He might have criticized the lack of any attempt to clarify the magnitude of these numbers.  The biggest number that has been thrown around so far is half a quadrillion ($513 trillion to be precise).  Apparently it is the size of the speculative-economy hole dug by the private financial system, which the administration and congress are trying to fill with another very large but much smaller number, the so called $700 billion bailout (or is it $1.2 trillion?).  But how big are these numbers really?  By the way they are written, with their zeroes stripped off, one could mistake them for something much smaller.  Like the monthly wages of an under-the-table immigrant worker in some unknown currency.

What does half a quadrillion really look like?  Let us write it in its un-abbreviated form, the way the numbers we usually deal with in our daily lives are written down:


Looks bigger than half quadrillion, or even 500 trillion.  But the gut response is still a little weak. Is that a soul sapping number, or merely a foot flattening one?  Sure enough the zeroes have made it appear larger, but by only a little.  Visually it seems only about 5 times bigger than 500 trillion.  There is an illusion here that results from exponential increase rendered linearly.  Adding a zero to a number makes its visual appearance grow by a unit, while its magnitude grows by a factor of 10.

To better appreciate the enormity of this number, it will have to be unfolded further.  Maybe into something more concrete, so we can visualize it.  I am writing this on a computer screen, so what better rendition than the smallest elements that make up the screen?  The tiny point of light that is called the pixel.  How big would a screen with half a quadrillion pixels be?

Without the bezel, my screen is 13.5 inches wide.  There are 1024 pixels across.  I’ll keep the calculations simple, and assume the pixels are square.  Dividing 13.5 by 1024 gives 0.013 inches.  So each pixel is about 0.013 pixels high and wide, or 0.00017 square inches, or 0.0000012 square feet.  So the screen would have an area of 500,000,000,000,000 * 0.0000012 , which is 600,000,000 square feet.

That is one huge screen.  How huge?  About 24,495 feet wide by 24,495 feet tall.  I went up Kilimanjaro, took me 6 days to get up there, and that gigantic mountain is just over 19,000 feet high.  The tallest building in Portland, one that is ironically named after a financial institution, is only 546 feet tall.  And remember, these are pixels, not dollars.

Dollars are thinner than the height of our pixel, but are much bigger on the sides.  I’ll avoid writing down the calculations.  Assuming the sources on the physical size of the dollar bill are accurate, the side of a cube of half a quadrillion dollars would be about 3000 feet.  That would be 6 times taller than the Wells Fargo Center, Portland’s tallest building, and little over half a mile wide and deep.  Laid out in a single row, it would circumscribe the entire planet to a height of about 10,000 feet. Now that is a veritable mountain of cash!

500 trillion dollars.  Enough to line the pockets of every living human being with about 100,000 dollars each.  The end of poverty as we know it.  There are after all only 5 billion of us.  Or, how about establishing human settlement on mars?  My guess is an entire martian nation can be erected with ease with that much money.  I won’t do the calculations on that.  Interstellar space travel is a little easier to estimate.  In his TV series Cosmos, Sagan mentioned  Project Orion and Project Daedalus.  I haven’t been able to find cost estimate numbers on the latter, but the former has a an upper estimate of $24 billion somewhere.  That would be a fleet of 21,000 Orion spaceships dispatched in every direction.

So who’s got them, all those quadrillions and quadrillions of dollars?  I am sure there is a thing or two we can do with them.

Democracy for Dummies

Posted in Democracy with tags , , , , on October 1, 2008 by njmalhq

Yet another thread originates from a Portland bus ride.  Yesterday I had to suffer a rather loud and obnoxious, semi-literate, twang-belching redneck with a giant cross around his neck attempting to publicly broadcast his opinion about the so called bailout.  At some point, very predictably, he held up his cross and Mr. Jesus barged into the soliloquy.  Come November this bus rider is going to vote, one can count on it.  Well, I thought to myself, thank you democracy for giving every moron a voice.

For the last half decade I have been struggling with the rise of Platonic sentiments in my political inclinations.  As my respect for democracy has dwindled and disappeared, I have often found myself espousing bits and pieces of the old philosopher’s position on the subject.   When I got home last night I tried to find some quick refresher material.  I immediately ran into an excerpt from  Jorn K. Bramann’s book Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies.  It is an excellent introduction to Plato’s criticism of democracy as the lowly form of government that it is. A position that I am firmly committing to henceforth.

Nutty Pyramids

Posted in Skepticism with tags , , on September 29, 2008 by njmalhq

I was riding the bus the other day when I overheard a conversation about the mysteries and wonders of pyramids.  I hadn’t thought about pyramids in a while.  Don’t even remember the last time I did.  They’ve faded quite far into the background noise of insane and stupid things that fill the popular discourse.  The bus conversation started triggering old memories.

Pyramids have a special significance to me.  They were my introduction to the world of pseudo scientific mumbo jumbo.  What a thorough introduction it was!  I must have been 11 or 12 at the time.  Someone lent me a copy of a book, the name of which I have long forgotten (I do remember Erich von Daniken was referenced repeatedly), on all one could possibly want to know or do with pyramids.  Everything, from conspiracy material on the decapitated pyramid of the Great Seal of the USA to sharpening of the razors to connections with Reich’s Orgone energy to effects on Kirilan Photography and much much more.  I remember all this because I actually tried to verify some of the claims.  Pyramids appeared in my life around the same time science did.  I was really beginning to get into it in school, all that stuff about experimentation and verification.  A few dozen cardboard pyramids, multiple expeditions to secretly swap blades in dad’s shaving set (I wonder if that’s why he switched to electric soon thereafter), and crystals and pendulums and months of my life later, my efforts yielded no discernible evidence.  I blamed it on the inefficacy of my preteen scientific skills, and shelved the book.

But so much for nostalgia, let us return to the bus conversation that started this blog entry.  One of the key elements of the conversation had to do with the mystery of the similarities between the Egyptian and the Meso-American pyramids.  Thousand’s of miles apart with a huge ocean in between, how can it be that the two independent civilizations produced such similar structures.  I think that is Von Daniken’s argument.  Civilization seeding space aliens (or Predators actually) are just around the corner, although in the particular conversation they were never explicitly mentioned.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the tune from the Outer Limits playing faintly.  I wish I had it on my phone, I would have played it out loud.

Or perhaps I should have barged in on their conversation, and told them about another mystery surrounding the pyramids that they are probably unaware of.  At the time I ran into that book I mentioned above I was in Nigeria, back when the Naira was worth a lot more than it is now.  My allowance consisted of two 25 kobo coins. Each coin has the picture of a small triangle, which is actually a pyramid.  A peanut pyramid to be exact.

Nigerian Peanut Pyramids on Kobo Coin

Nigerian 25 Kobo Coin

First a little lesson in history.  We learned about the Peanut Pyramids (aka Groundnut Pyramids) in elementary school.  They are now artefacts of a bygone era, from a time when the country actually produced agricultural goods in significant quantities. Peanuts, or groundnuts as they are known there, are farmed in the north of the country.  All the export facilities are in the south, where the ports are.  The transport system has always been abbysmally inadequate, even back then when the trains worked.  The farmers of the north would produce more peanuts than could be transported to the ports within the harvest season, so a massive warehousing problem emerged.  Someone came up with the ingenious idea of simply stacking sacks of peanuts outdoor, since harvest time is dry anyway.  In the shape of pyramids.

Pictures of the pyramids, especially ones giving an idea of the scale are quite hard to come by on the net.  I found an article in Britannica that had reference to them.  The best I could find for posting here is the image on the back of a 1 Naira note.

Nigerian Peanut Pyramids on One Naira Note

Nigerian Peanut Pyramids on One Naira Note

Appearance of pyramids has a tendency to invoke mysteries, wonders, allegations and speculations from the new-age inclined.  No reason the same don’t apply to Nigerian pyramids.  How did they build them?  Why did they build them?  Why are they aligned (take note of the pyramids in the background in the picture on the Naira note)? Why the same shape as in Egypt and South America?  Space Aliens!?

If I had the chance to talk to my fellow bus riders, I would ask them to Imagine building a multi-story tall stack of peanut bags. There are no cranes, no pulleys, no scafolding, no mechanical aids of any kind.  Nothing but manual labor, just like in ancient Egypt and Meso America. They would have to start from the bottom, and build their way up. They could use a ladder I suppose, but they should think about the implications first.  A ladder isn’t that hard to build, still it isn’t free.  The cost would add up since multiple ladders will be needed.  Climbing a ladder takes time, so the operation will slow down considerably.  And, the accident rate will increase too.  Given all these constraints, what stacking shape would they use?

Inundative Kookery

Posted in Skepticism with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2008 by njmalhq

This video got pushed to my mailbox today. What annoying mumbo-jumbo!  Annoying not only on account of its content, but also because I really don’t know how to deal with it.  I could just ignore it, but that is also irritating because it amounts to surrendering before the forces of ignorance and charlatanry.  On the other hand addressing something like this in a practical and effective manner is near impossible.  The first insurmountable task is to wade through it all.  In this case, the commitment is worth a whole hour and half of one’s precious life.  Then, if one is still alive after drowning in so much garbage, it gets really hard.

David Wilcock, who claims to be reincarnation of Edgar Cayce, is a master practitioner of the art of inundative kookery.  The way that works is that the victim is assaulted with hundreds upon hundreds of unrelated and arbitrary “facts.”  An average person has neither the expertise nor the time to really deal with the sheer volume in totality.  As a result, all judgments, skeptical or otherwise, are necessarily limited in scope.  But believers are at an “advantage” here.  Skeptical position can be easily discounted on the simpleminded grounds that the skeptic didn’t address or ingest all of the claims.  Somehow, it is very difficult for the common believer to deduce pattern of ignorance from representative examples.  It is disheartening to see how uncommon basic inductive reasoning skills are.  The challenge of disproof gets even more daunting if some of the facts are technically factual, the only problem being that they are combined in inappropriate, fallacious manner.  For example, if a person makes use of 100 facts, and then makes a claim that they are somehow tied to each other (often without actually spelling out the exact connection), the skeptic has to resolve 9,900 (100×99) interactions and disprove every one of them.  Otherwise the skeptic is discounted as being biased, readily dismissive, or working for “them.”  Its a lose-lose situation.

Actually, what am I saying!  Wilcock loses nothing, not even sleep.  There is an online store, and a subscription section on his site.  1 yr subscription to his “Readings Download area” costs $72.00.  There is a movie being touted as well.  What The Bleep Do We Know made over $10 million in the theaters (see article in Washington Post).  Public gullibility hasn’t improved any since then, so Wilcock’s movie will probably do at least just as well.  Flim-flam is very lucrative.  ARGH!

Simplicity Works

Posted in Simplicity with tags on August 21, 2008 by njmalhq

In Portland, Oregon where I live, the new bike boxes are being introduced.   The move is being hailed by many, but I have my doubts.  Bicyclist safety has certainly been a real issue.  Cars seem to crash into bicycles every few days.  But does the solution have to involve introducing even greater complexity into the traffic system? Simplicity can be surprisingly effective.