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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How to Teach Math

Several years ago, I wrote a column explaining why math is an important subject. In it, I pointed out that the actual content, that is, the actual mathematical manipulations, didn't really matter.  What matters in math is the meta-concepts.

To be successful in math, you have to master an approach to the world that is inherently useful. College majors typically require mastery of a math course not because anyone cares about math, but because passing a math course is the easiest way to demonstrate mastery of the meta-concepts that everyone actually does care about.

Once you realize that math is about meta-concepts, and not about math at all, teaching math becomes really very easy.

1) Buy a math notebook.

Every frustrated math student, everyone who is poor at math, has one thing in common: they don't organize their work. They scribble numbers down all over the page without regard to sequence. If students learn ANYTHING in math, they must learn to break that habit.

So, beginning students should be actively discouraged from doing math in their heads. Yes, I know the Math-Bowl encourages this for the advanced students who compete, but it's not a good idea for beginners. Beginners need the external structure. So, buy a THICK, empty math notebook, with lots of empty pages.

2) Throw out the calculator

For basic math, they don't need it.

Calculators interrupt the student's concentration, forcing him to alternate between doing the procedure the problem requires and doing the procedure the machine requires, figuring out the correct sequence of key punches.

Calculators are mostly a distraction. No one needs a calculator until they start doing trigonometry or statistics. If they aren't doing either, then let them learn the multiplication tables.

If you think calculators should be allowed on basic math tests, then why shouldn't cell phones and internet access be allowed for reference on history or English tests? The Internet is the equivalent of a history or grammar calculator. Why bog down the student with memorization of useless dates and grammar rules when they could be doing higher-order stuff?

Now, watch the history and English teachers howl in outrage that you should suggest such a thing. Watch the math teachers smile sadly and say, "Yeah, well, welcome to our world, suckers."

3) Write down each step

The student must write down each problem as follows:
  1. On the first line, the problem itself
  2. On the second and subsequent lines, write each successive step.
  3. No more than one operation (add, subtract, multiply, divide) is permitted in any step.
  4. The answer is written at the bottom of the step sequence. 
No scribbling in side margins allowed at all. Don't allow multiple operations in any one step because beginning students get themselves confused easily. Each step does exactly one thing, that is all.

Ignore their whining. Even if a beginning student gets the answer correct, the problem is wrong if they haven't shown all their steps. Make that clear. Stand over them for a month, enforce it, and they will gain the habit. Ingraining into them this single, solitary little trick solves over half your math problems overnight.

4) A fresh sheet of paper for every problem 

Math is not an exercise in conserving paper. Be profligate. Paper costs less than half a cent a sheet. Splurge. Once they have successfully trained themselves to write out every step, you can alter this rule to allow more than one problem per page, but even then NEVER let them break a problem over two sheets of paper. Ever. No. I mean it, don't do it.

Beginning students get a feeling of accomplishment from seeing all their work laid out neatly at a glance. It feels restful, as the eye glides downhill through the gears of the problem and finally takes up its ease at the bottom of the sequence, peacefully resting upon the (correct) answer.

5) When they get stuck

First, if there is ANY sign of margin scribbling, turn the old sheet of paper face-down, start on a fresh sheet.
Do it.
If you start on the old sheet, all the old scribblings will be a distraction. The student will wander down rabbit-trails trying to figure out what went wrong with the previous procedure. Clear his mind. Start fresh. Give him the gift of new eyes and a clean slate.

Now, math teaches a lot of (seemingly) arbitrary procedures. The student has to know all the procedures and know when to apply which procedure. Both parts of this are hard, but the second part - knowing when to apply which procedure - is the hardest. So, when he gets stuck and isn't sure what to do next, here's what you do:
  • Ask him a question you are sure he can answer.
  • When he answers correctly, affirm it ("That's right."), 
  • Rinse and repeat. Ask a series of questions, each one of which you are confident he can answer.
  • Build that series of questions so as to lead him to or through the correct procedure.
  • In basic math, this question will always come up at some point: "Do you think you would add, subtract, multiply or divide?" Those are the four basic operations, and one of them is almost certainly going to be part of the path to solving the problem. 
  • The student is almost always able to weed out at least a couple of the operations. That instills self-confidence, it shows partial mastery.
  • Don't give the student the answer. 
  • Ever. 
  • Always respond with a question you know s/he can answer.
  • Once s/he has gotten the answer, point out the truth: "I didn't tell you the answer. All I did was ask questions. You KNEW all the answers. You already KNEW how to do it."
  • And the student DID know how to do it. He just needs to internalize how to ask himself the same series of questions you asked.
  • Don't point this out. 
  • Simply keep repeating this sequence with him on every problem he has, week in, week out, making sure he writes down every problem step-by-step
  • He will learn to internalize the question sequence himself. He will start asking and answering his own questions. 
  • At that point, you can go bake brownies.
  • This whole sequence only takes a couple of months to instill. 
Once this basic skill set is instilled, it is now permissible to have the student walk through the steps of a failed problem to see where the mistake was made.
  • If each step has only one operation, it will be relatively easy to see which step failed. 
  • Now the student will see the wisdom of the step-by-step process.
  • He doesn't have to re-do every problem from scratch. 
  • He can find and correct his own mistakes easily.
  • Once he realizes this, math becomes almost bearable.

6) When YOU get stuck

Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know. Let's Google it." You don't have to know everything in math. In fact, you don't have to know ANYTHING about math. Remember, math isn't about math. Math is about learning how to be
  • organized, 
  • good at documenting details, 
  • good at being detail-oriented, and 
  • good at following and trusting arbitrary procedures.
None of those skills require you to know the arbitrary procedures yourself. Even if you are no good at math, you will naturally be better at searching for the correct way to do it. Model how to search for the right way to do things. Have your student watch you as you bumble along, figuring it out.

The student thereby learns:
(1) it is ok to not know something,
(2) this is how you find out what you don't know,
(3) Searching for the right procedure takes time and that's also ok,
(3) Perseverance can be as important, or more important, than possessing knowledge.

That's all there is to teaching math.

Well, that and liberal use of Khan Academy. Yes, I have a degree in computer science, minor in math, and have taught developmental math at the college level for years, but I taught my children almost no math at all. There's no point. Khan Academy teaches the concepts as well or better than I could. I only got involved if a video was opaque (unusual) or a solution sequence unclear (also unusual).

Often-times, I would walk along through the Khan Academy solution to the problem as perplexed about the correct sequence as my child was. It's not like I remember most of the stuff I learned thirty or forty years ago. We would discover the solution together, which was rather fun.

No, the only way I have ever taught math was to follow the sequence I have described above. It works.

Is Wealth Inequality Bad?

Many people, including Pope Francis, rail against wealth inequality. From an economic perspective, it is not at all clear why. Wealth inequality actually corresponds quite well with the rising tide of affluence throughout the world. Right now, during a period of the most extreme wealth inequality between nations ever, we are also on the verge of wiping out extreme poverty. This is not a coincidence.

I have noted before that the office of the papacy does not include the requirement that the Pope be very knowledgeable of economic theory, nor that he be very intelligent in his comments on it. While the Church has a duty to serve the poor, the method by which the poor are best served is largely prudential - different people might legitimately choose different means to solve it. Wealth inequality, by itself, is not a sin so long as everyone's minimum requirements for food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care ad basic human dignity are being met. Quite frankly, all but the last of those minimum needs are being met much better today, in a time of enormous wealth inequality, then they have ever been met in the entire course of human history.

In fact, things have gotten so much physically better precisely as a result of growing wealth inequality. Wealth inequality is correlated with EVERYONE getting out of poverty.
The "trickle-down" theory of Reaganomics is a fine example of how inequalities actually help everyone. Even Ted Kennedy admitted that much. The rising tide which brings incredible wealth to the 1% ALSO lifts the 99% out of poverty. The mechanics for how it works is very straightforward.

Take laparoscopic surgery, for instance. When I was young, that was only an option for millionaires. But, as more millionaires bought the procedure, economies of scale kicked in and semi-millionaires could afford it. There were a lot more semi-millionaires than there were millionaires, so scale kicked in again, repeatedly. As cost fell, more and more people could afford it, so more and more people did it, which dropped costs still further. The increase in scale also meant the procedure became increasingly streamlined and efficient, if only so as to handle the demand better.

Today, laparoscopic surgery is standard procedure for gallbladder and appendix removal, among a host of other applications. It provides cheap out-patient surgery that simply didn't exist 50 years ago. Why? Because millionaires volunteered to act as the guinea pigs. They were the only ones who could originally afford it. As they and their extremely well-paid doctors refined the procedure, it became increasingly available to the rest of us. Today, it is so common that it doesn't merit mention.

The same thing happened with cell phones. The original radio phones and cell phones were the size of bread boxes and cost more than any average Joe could possibly afford. But millionaires needed to stay in constant contact with their businesses and with the stock market, so they bought the tech. They served as the guinea pigs. As scale increased, price dropped, efficiencies improved. Now, literally everyone in the US can afford cell phones. And not just cell phones. Today's phones are the 1960s equivalents of super-computers that fit in our pocket and put us in touch with most of humanity's combined store of knowledge. The rich people and their richly rewarded tech outfits worked out the kinks. We have all benefited.

THAT is what wealth inequality does. It allows millionaires to act as guinea pigs for new tech. If it doesn't work, they waste their money and/or die. If it DOES work, then I get the tech about fifteen years later, because by then, the cost has dropped down to where even I can afford it.

Wealth inequality is an extremely efficient way to utilize resources. If I have a new tech idea, I can either try to convince tens of thousands of middle-class people to fund my idea, at great personal risk to each of their wealth stores, OR I can convince one extremely wealthy person to fund it at minimal risk to his wealth store. It was easier to do the latter than the former. Even today, being on Shark Tank will bring you funding in literally 20 minutes, while promoting the same project on Kickstarter will take days, weeks, or months to accomplish the same level of funding. It is far easier for Elon Musk to guide a project like the Falcon Heavy or BFR to successful completion than it is for ten thousand people to agree on how to do so, and that assumes you could get the funding from that ten thousand at all.

Wealth inequality is not the problem many people make it out to be. In fact, wealth inequality has historically been the solution which has made us all fabulously wealthy by any historical standard you care to name. Because of wealth inequality, the rich are willing to serve as the experimental guinea pigs necessary to bring functioning solutions to the masses. That's not a bad thing.

We have a knee-jerk reaction against wealth accumulation because we innately see the world as a zero-sum game. And the fallen world often acts and reacts as if it were. But the whole point of Christianity is to change our world-view. A Christian understands that God's grace and power are infinite, therefore the zero-sum game view can never be correct. Insofar as we image God, we have the ability to change our world from being zero-sum to being infinitely resourceful and wealthy.

Can we create Utopia? Physically, sure. Spiritually, not a chance. We are still fallen creatures, and that will always prevent us from establishing any real paradise on earth. We are slowly solving the problem of physical poverty. It really is going to disappear, possibly in our lifetimes.

But spiritual poverty? As long as anyone in the world is not Catholic, then the world still suffers from extreme spiritual poverty. THAT is the wealth inequality which we, as Catholics, need to remedy. Fortunately, from that viewpoint, Catholics are the rich one-percent. We have infinite resources that can be delivered to the poor among us, and make them all wealthy too. As physical riches percolate out into the world, that is the only wealth inequality we really need to be concerned about.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Hepatitis C: We Pay More, Thank God

This is a popular meme floating around the Internet. Sometimes it picks India, sometimes Egypt, but the idea is the same. The US pays 84 times or 250 times or some ungodly percentage more than these lousy third world countries! Why are US citizens being gouged?

Well, to put it bluntly, US citizens are NOT being gouged. When all things are considered, those prices are all pretty fair. To begin with, let us simply accept the numbers above without argument. For this analysis, we shall add some numbers of our own.

Country  Price / pill  % of US cost Median Income  % of US Income  Hep C Prevalence 
 USA  $1000  100%    $51,700   100%   3.2 million
 Egypt  $    11      1%    $  5,680     11%   38 million
 India  $      4      0.4%    $  3,800       7%  10-15 million

So, the average American earns 10x as much as the average Egyptian and roughly fifteen time as much as the average Indian. One would think, based just on this, that the average Egyptian treatment would cost one-tenth as much. That is, it would seem the price should be $100 per pill in Egypt, for instance.

But, then we have to factor in the prevalence of the disease. Egypt has 10x as many cases of hepatitis C, India has 3-5x times as many cases of the disease. So, we have to knock down the Egyptian price by another factor of ten (due to volume) and lo! The price is pretty much correct. When you factor in both India's disease prevalence and income, even the Indian price is not that far off.

There's no reason to stop with the table above, though. Try factoring in the sub-populations that actually get infected with hepatitis C and therefor have to pay these different prices. The "disparity" becomes even more interesting.

In the United States, hepatitis C is primarily the scourge of IV drug users and, to a lesser extent, homosexuals. Homosexuals tend to be richer than the average American. They are narcissists who have no children, and who claw their way up the corporate ladder quite efficiently, that is, they tend to get paid more. Conversely, in Egypt and India, hepatitis C most adversely effects the poorest of the poor. It is the poor in these countries who are the least likely to have access to clean water.

So, let's summarize those numbers with fresh eyes. In general, American IV drug users and homosexuals are subsidizing the medical treatment of the poorest of the poor in the Third World.

Personally, I can find no reason to object to this arrangement.
Can you?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On the Absurdity of IQ Tests

My daughter read this Huffington Post story, and asked me what the big deal was about IQ tests. Here's what I told her.
What you are reading is one voice in a LONG argument that has extended for at least the last fifty years.

IQ testing unquestionably has eugenics origins. It was invented by eugenicists, administered by them and normed by them.
The whole point of IQ testing was originally to keep southern Europeans, Mexicans and Asians out of the country.

This is bad. Eugenicists are not nice people. They say that some people are more valuable than others, they support abortion, euthanasia, yada, yada, yada. It is a very ugly philosophy. Unfortunately, a lot of interesting results have come from these eugenics-inspired tests.

For instance, over the course of time, IQ has steadily risen across the board throughout every aspect of the population. No one is quite sure why this has been happening for the last century, but the suspicion is that improvements in nutrition and medicine, along with reductions in pollution (especially the removal of lead from gasoline and household paints, which greatly reduced the blood levels of lead in all populations, especially the poor) contributed quite a lot to this effect.

No matter how the tests have been "fixed", on average, Asians always score the best, whites second, Hispanics third and blacks fourth. Women always cluster close to the mean, men always scatter out so that (a) their mean is lower and (b) there are more outliers at BOTH ends of the IQ scale. This doesn't speak to any particular individual, of course, only averages.

During the 1950s and 60s, the argument was made that the IQ test was really a test of culture, not a test of IQ, so in the intervening 50 years, there have been many attempts to "fix" them so that they really do measure intelligence. The problem is, none of the "fixes" seemed to cause the various sub-populations to test the same. Some subpopulations always test smarter, other always test stupider.

No matter how the tests have been "fixed", on average, Asians always score the best, whites second, Hispanics third and blacks fourth. Women always cluster close to the mean, men always scatter out so that (a) their mean is lower and (b) there are more outliers at BOTH ends of the IQ scale. This doesn't speak to any particular individual, of course, only averages.

People who want the tests to reveal absolutely no real differences between different genetic populations always insist the tests are skewed, but they can't figure out how to fix them so that they don't produce these results. Psychologists have pretty much given up. They admit privately that there are real differences in the average IQ of various populations, but they can't say this out loud without being called "racist" or some such, so you get articles like the one you found, where people who don't like the results sob loudly for their lost cause, and psychologists shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, then state firmly that they are going out for a beer and does anyone else want them to pick up something while they are out?

The major problem with IQ tests is that they only measure the ability to engage in rational thought. They don't measure a person's happiness in life, they don't measure how happy one person makes someone else. They don't measure artistic ability, musical ability, the ability to care for or empathize with animals, other human beings, etc.

The original high-IQ society, Mensa, was envisioned to become a powerhouse of world happiness. Put all these really smart people together in a room, the reasoning went, and they would solve the world's problems. But the actual organization has never solved anyone's problems. None of the dozens of high-IQ societies that have been created since Mensa have done anything useful either. Each one seems to be a way for one smaller group of people to pretend to be superior to some other slightly larger group of people (the top 1% vs the top 0.1% vs the top 0.01% and so on).

In fact, all IQ tests seem to do is produce high-IQ societies filled with people who do really hard crossword puzzles and odd math sequences while dressing oddly. So, the whole debate is, at this point, kind of stupid. Sure, some high-IQ people do useful things, but a lot of high-IQ people really don't do anything useful, so what's the point here?

It's the modern equivalent of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: how many IQ points does it take before you actually accomplish something useful? Take Marilyn vos Savant, for instance, who has highest IQ ever recorded (note that she is female, in contradiction to the average). She hasn't done a single useful thing in her life, apart from making money off her IQ score. She hasn't invented anything, accomplished anything that helped anyone in any serious way - in terms of helping society, she has completely wasted her life. So... who really cares about IQ? What does it ultimately buy us?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Paying Tribute to America

In ancient times, any country conquered by Rome had to pay tribute to Rome. These vassal states had to spend their own resources to build up stores of grain, honey, and other trade goods in order to ship them to Rome for free, or at a greatly reduced price. This was how they acknowledge Rome's hegemony over them.

Today, countries acknowledge America's hegemony by doing the same thing. Other countries build up stores of trade goods at their own expense and ship those goods to us at a greatly reduced price, a price subsidized by foreign governments, in the hopes that we will buy those goods.

From an economic perspective, Trump's "Buy American" policy runs counter to his "Make America Great Again" policy. America proves her economic greatness when vassal countries ship us cheap goods whose manufacture has been subsidized by foreign governments. Whenever the foreign government throws government money at producing a good that will be sold in the US, that government has essentially sent us a check to help us prop up our economy. Foreign-subsidized goods that enter the US are as much free money as any cashier's check, grain shipment or oil shipment we send for cheap or free to a third-world country.

Americans frequently complain about the amount of free money we send to other governments, other countries. They almost never acknowledge that foreign-subsidized goods are free money that those foreign states send to us. Every dollar a foreign government spends to produce a good is a dollar in tax that they pay to America in exchange for the privilege of being allowed to sell to Americans. Foreign subsidies of goods are nothing more than tax dollars paid by foreign citizens, collected and paid, by foreign governments, as tribute to the United States.

Thus, forcing American government projects to "buy American" is absurd. We should be buying the least expensive material from whoever produces it. If we are lucky, foreign countries will subsidize the production of the steel, oil, etc., that we use in our projects. When we build American projects on American soil, any decent economist would much prefer the material in those projects come from companies that are subsidized by foreign governments. That's free money for us.The "trade deficit" is not a bug, it's a feature. It proves that America receives more money from vassal states than she sends out.
"It is no coincidence that the smallest American merchandise trade deficit since 1982, $74 billion in 1991, occurred during the period’s only recession."

To reiterate, foreign government subsidies of any industrial good we import is nothing more or less than a foreign country paying tribute to America. Foreign subsidies acknowledge American economic superiority. THAT is what I want. Do you want to Make America Great Again? Buy foreign goods. Make sure the world keeps paying its taxes to us.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Corporations and the American Dream

Libertarians, those political teenagers who want to have their cake and eat it too, always complain about government over-regulation and the imposition of other people's values. "We should have the right to live as we please, without government interference!" they cry. "Enough of government regulation!"

But the absurdity of their position is apparent after a moment's thought. The government "over-regulates" - what a judgemental word! Doesn't that word impose libertarian values on others, wherein some random libertarian gets to determine what counts as 'over-regulation'? And what if large corporations WANT a lot of regulations? Shouldn't it be their right to try to get those regulations in place, if they want them?

Corporations donate their executives to government and draw their executives from government. Corporations write and pay for the implementation of laws that will protect their business from competition. "Government" is just the word we use for corporations working together to protect their respective turfs. Large government and "over-regulation" is a natural result of a free market in which some people do MUCH better than others, and want to keep it that way. Has it never occurred to anyone that using words like "crony capitalism" and "over-regulation" is just as much an imposition of values on everyone as insisting on income equality is?

And this is another point that libertarians don't quite understand. Yes, it is demonstrably true that income inequality has been associated with the largest improvement of the world's general welfare in human history. In 1800, everyone was equally poor: no matter how much money you had, you still got smallpox and polio, your cattle died of rinderpest, you couldn't buy air-conditioning, antibiotics, analgesics, laparoscopic surgery, a cellphone, or a 2017 Honda Odyssey. Now, you can be in the most extreme poverty, yet you won't die of smallpox, your cattle won't die of rinderpest, and you had, as of 2017, 16 chances out of 7 billion of getting polio. You may not have direct access to air-conditioning, antibiotics or a cellphone, but you likely know someone who could gift you any of those things in a heartbeat. Income inequality is real, and it is one of the hallmarks of a much less impoverished world.

In short, it is demonstrably the case that income inequality has reduced poverty throughout the world. Income inequality arises because some people are much better at serving everyone's needs than other people are. The people who are best at serving other people's needs get physically rewarded. They are rich.

I don't have any problem with people being unequally rewarded for having unequally served people's needs - those who do it better should be better rewarded. I am perfectly fine with income inequality. But let's not pretend that "over-regulation" and "crony government" is anything other than what it is: "over-regulation" is the capitalist system working as libertarians think it should. Big government is the result of successful corporations creating favorable turf for themselves out of a shared resource (government).

According to libertarian theory, there should be nothing wrong with that, especially if it contributes to income inequality. And it will, because "over-regulation" and "cronyism" will keep out most entreprenurial upstarts, forcing those wannabees to endure poverty because they can't get past the government regulations. This allows corporations to continue to acquire massive wealth and increase the income inequality that ends up helping everyone. Just as jailers find it easier to serve prisoners if every prisoner is regimented in his own cell, so corporations find it easier to serve customers if all the customers can be trained to want the same thing and respond the same way to the same stimuli.

You own a gun, corporations pretty much own law enforcement. You have pets, corporations have customers. You allow your pets to do what they want, as long as they aren't defecating in your house or getting on the couch. Corporations allow customers to do what they want, as long as they don't compete with the corporate profits at year's end.

If corporations are "persons", and they are, then they have as much right to do what they want as you and I. If what corporations want is to regulate things so as to maximize profits, well, that's the American dream, right?

Perversion on the Liberal Left

The left lionizes homosexuality, trans-sexuals and the whole LGBTQwxyz thing but is happy to label heterosexual interactions (men chasing women or women chasing men) "perversion".

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Screaming Children: God's Blessing

Liturgy, it is said, is the life of the Church. The word itself means "work of the people." It originates in pagan Greek practice, where the wealthiest Greek citizens of a city-state would ritually donate warships, plays, public buildings and festivals to honor the city of their birth and give delight to its citizens.

Christians began using, in their own buildings, the adaptations of Jewish Temple ritual that Jesus had taught them. Christians called their ritual "liturgy" to show that it honored the City of God. The rituals that Jesus empowered with the grace of the Crucifixion were performed by Christians in order to deliver the sacraments and the divinizing grace of those sacraments to the people. This makes the people holy and thereby builds up the City of God. Just as with the pagan Greeks, the divine liturgy" was the "work of the people", but unlike the pagan Greeks, Christian liturgy actually carried divine power. In part, the divine liturgy makes up what is lacking in Christ's suffering, for the sake of the Church, just as Colossians 1:24 promised to do. By using the pagan Greek word to describe God's work in their lives, the Christians helped pagans understand the Paschal Mystery and the Body of Christ.

Jesus was both human and divine, so the liturgy is work done by human beings, but carrying divine power. The Mass is about the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, which are the four aspects of the Paschal Mystery. Each of the four aspects of the single act which is the Paschal Mystery is itself inexorably linked to one of the four reasons for Christ's Incarnation (CCC 457-460). God became man to To show us how much He loves us (Passion), To save us from our sins (Death), To give us a model of holiness (Resurrection), To divinize us (Ascension).

Thus, the Mass is always about those four actions and those four reasons.

So, what does a screaming toddler have to do with any of this?
Does the toddler make you suffer?
Ohhh.... poor you.

Does the toddler force you to die to your self-perceived facade of holiness because you suddenly find less than serene thoughts floating through your mind?
Oh... that must be terrible for you.

Does the toddler give you the opportunity to rise above your petty selfishness?

Does the toddler give you the opportunity to again climb the mountain back into the liturgy, this time with a better understanding of your own failings in charity towards others?
Why, this is most excellent!

Were there screaming children watching the condemned men process up the road to Calvary? I bet there were. Did Golgotha have a cry room? Call me a skeptic, but I doubt it.

The Mass is the life of the Church, and my life is my life before God. In both of these lives, there are screaming children, children acting out, children running up and down aisles, playing with toys instead of paying attention, children even trying (succeeding?) in running into the sanctuary during Mass. The difference between children in the life of the Church and the child in MY life, is that the child in MY life is ME.

I scream when God offers me holiness, I ignore His call, I play with toys rather than pay attention, I run up and down my every day life without thought nor care of God. That child acting out in front of me is a visual representation of ME, every day, even AFTER I have had my morning coffee. That's why so many of us hate hearing children at Mass. Those kids are way, way too much like offensive little ole' me. If I don't want my own self-perception pierced, then I damned well can't have children around showing me off to myself.

Get thee to a nunnery!
Or a cry room.

Or anywhere, really, but in front of me. This glass is not darkly enough, I can still see into it. I don't want face-to-face, I want the picture of Dorian Gray in front of me, so I can pretend it is my mirror. Let me have children about me that are fat, Sleek-headed children and such as sleep a-Mass. Yon screaming child has a lean and hungry look. He suffers too much. Such children are dangerous.

This child is ... this child is... this child is a living, breathing, sobbing tableaux of the Crucifixion, and I am really not able to face Christ crucified. Give me the quiet Mass and its quiet illusion of quiet. Take away from me this image of the bloody, snot-streaming Christ. It offends my gentle holiness.

Yes, it does.
And that's a GOOD thing.

Friday, December 15, 2017

What is a Distributed Ledger?

Ask for a description of cryptocurrencies, and the reply will always involve the phrase "it's a distributed ledger..." They say it as if you are supposed to know what it means. Who the heck does? What on earth is a distributed ledger?

The best thumbnail description I've seen is to think of an Excel spreadsheet. Lots of rows and columns, and it's good for adding numbers, right? That's a ledger - it's just a spreadsheet.  Saying it is "distributed" means that copies of the spreadsheet are held on hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of computers at the same time. Any change made to one spreadsheet is automatically replicated to all of the others. Every computer that has a copy of the spreadsheet has to process or "vote" on whether or not to accept the change.

Who can change the cells of the spreadsheet? Well, that's where "coins" come in. Think of each cell as a separate "coin". Access to the cell is granted only to the person who holds the cryptographic keys to that cell. In this analogy, the "blockchain" would just be the map of all the spreadsheet cells.

Just as a spreadsheet can hold numbers or text, and the numbers can be currency or dates or anything else, so the "coins" in the spreadsheet can hold data. Most people simply buy access to the coins, as one would buy empty real estate. You don't necessarily intend to ever build anything there, but when you buy a coin, you are expressing the bet that someone else will one day want to build something in that spreadsheet cell. So, some people build on their coins - put data or programs into the coins (cells) they hold - but most people buy coins for the same reason you buy real estate. You're betting this blockchain is going to become a bustling city, and everyone will want to build there. So, you buy some empty cells ("coins", "land," whatever you want to call it), and wait for the property values to go up.

The person who holds the cryptographic keys to a coin is the one who can stuff data or programs or whatever inside of that coin (land parcel). If you lose your keys, or your keys are stolen, then access to that particular coin is permanently lost.

You prove that you have rights to make changes to the "coin" by supplying your password. You can sell your coin to someone else without ever telling them your password. When you sell, the blockchain recognizes the transfer of ownership - you get the cash, someone else now owns the access to that spreadsheet cell or "coin" in that spreadsheet (blockchain).

Every time you want to make a change to the cell, either by putting data into it or transferring ownership, you have to pay a processing fee to all the computers that update their copy of the ledger for you. The computers that acknowledge and update their copy of the ledger are called "miners." The fee is generally magnitudes cheaper than you would pay a bank. Once enough miners agree to update their ledger, all the others than auto-update their copies as well. Generally, a transaction requires multiple "confirmations", three or six or nine or whatever, to initiate the auto-update on all the other thousands of copies.

Every change to the "coin" or cell is permanently written to the cell and visible to everyone. So, every transfer of ownership, every content addition or change, all of it is permanently recorded in the cell, impossible to erase. Everyone can see the whole history of everything that happened in that cell and to that cell, right down to the last niggling little detail. Forever.

So, if you want permanent records and don't mind them being publicly visible to everyone with access to a computer, this is a great feature. Every public record could be permanently recorded into a blockchain. Medical records could be put in a blockchain, instantly accessible by medical personnel anywhere. You might think "Good heavens! I don't want everyone to know I had my gallbladder out!" Not a problem - encrypt the data before you stuff it into the cell. Now everyone can see the encrypted data in the blockchain, but only you have the key. When you show up at the hospital, the doctors check the blockchain with the key you supply for that record, and they can see the relevant details about your gallbladder. Without the key, no one else can read the cell contents. Win-win, the record can be updated by the doctors with your permission and the payment of the very nominal processing fee to update the blockchain. These are a couple of use cases. There are many more.

Some blockchains have no upper limit to the number of cells in their spreadsheet, so new "coins aka "land" aka "spreadsheet cells" are continually created. Other blockchains have a hard upper limit - only so many coins will ever be created and that's it. Some blockchains generate new "coins" at a steady rate, a certain percentage a minute/hour/day. Other blockchains generate new "coins" according to other methods.  Some blockchains come with all the coins they will ever have already in existence when they first publish their Initial Coin Offering (ICO).

As I pointed out before, each blockchain has its own unique characteristics. How, and how many of, the new coins are generated (and how new coins are generated) affects the value of the coin. Just as there is no single agreed upon "best set" of qualities, there is no single agreed upon "best method" for coin generation. People are still figuring out what works best for which applications. All of these unknowns are why values fluctuate so steeply.

Is cryptocurrency overvalued, in a bubble? It really is impossible to tell. It should be obvious that this is a pretty new technology, a new way of thinking about how to deal with information. How useful is it? Well, that's what the market is trying to figure out. The more people think about it, the more useful it seems to be, which is why the "coins" or the "real estate value" of the various distributed ledgers are steadily increasing. Is a lot of it pure mis-calculation? Could it be that this thing is really a lot less useful than it appears? Sure.

It's a penny stock, land speculation, stock market gambling, all wrapped up in a portable package that transcends both national boundaries and national currencies. It allows anyone with a cell phone to become his own personal uninsured bank and banker. Is it safe? Probably not, but maybe it will be once we figure out what it is and how to cage it. Is it fun? Yes.