Ultima Thule

‘Thule’ is an ancient Greek word meaning a far northern place. Historians have considered such locales as the Shetland Islands or coastal Norway as the source of the idea. Prince Valiant, Hal Foster’s famous comic-strip hero, is from Thule. The United States Air Force has a base in Greenland (at 76°31′52″N) less than a thousand miles from the North Pole called Thule. The Romans added the modifier ‘Ultima’ (the last or final) and gave us the modern expression meaning “the furthest reaches of the world.”

Nit-picking Latinists will tell you to say OOL-tim-uh tuh-HOO-lay but modern English speakers will likely stick with ULL-tim-uh THOO-lee. In classical Latin you say all the letters (tuh-HOO), you don’t smush the “t” and the “h” together, something inimical to our native tongue. But Cicero (KICK-air-oh) and Caesar (KYE-sar) aren’t around to correct our speech so we can say SIS-er-oh and SEE-zer if we want.

NASA just released their best composite photograph of the farthest object ever explored, a hunk of rock in the Kuiper Belt they’ve dubbed Ultima Thule:


They say it is like a flattened pancake attached to a dented walnut. The Kuiper Belt is a massive circumstellar disk of material that lies outside the orbit of Neptune and extends about two billion miles beyond that. Neptune is 30 AU from the Sun and the Kuiper Belt reaches another 20 AU further. An AU is an Astronomical Unit, that is, the approximate distance of the Earth to the Sun (93 million miles). The Earth is 1 AU from the Sun. Ultima Thule is 44 AU or about 4.1 billion miles away.

When distances are this vast it becomes appropriate to talk about them indirectly in terms of time. The fastest phenomena we know about is light. Light travels 186,000 miles per second, and thus a light-hour is about 670 million miles, a light-day about 16 billion miles, and a light-year almost six trillion miles. Our nearest stellar neighbor other than the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light-years (25 trillion miles) away. ‘Proxima’ is Latin for “closest.”

Ultima Thule is 6.1 light-hours from Earth. The spaceship that photographed it was traveling about 32,000 miles per hour and got within 4,000 miles of the object on the first of this year. New Horizons was launched in 2006! That is an extraordinary feat of navigation. A signal from New Horizons, because of the distance, takes 6.1 hours to return to Earth. A “light-hour” or a “light-year” is really a distance measure, not a time measure. You may remember from high school that distance is rate times time, so the rate (186,000 miles per second) multiplied by time (a second, an hour, or a year) gives you a distance.

And this is the lesson of Ultima Thule. It is really, really, really far away. And in between here and there is a whole lot of nothing. Actually there is a lot of stuff, but weird stuff like solar winds, electromagnetic fields, dark energy, cosmic rays, and whatnot. Not the normal stuff we think of like rocks and water and air. And the other lesson of Ultima Thule is there is not much to it as its diameter is only 18 miles. By comparison the dwarf planet Pluto (New Horizons’ original mission goal) is 1447 miles across.

I’m really impressed by the NASA scientists, engineers, and technicians who pulled off this marvel of exploration. What a journey! Those are moving targets, you know, and the launch pad—Earth—is moving, too. I remember during the heyday of the moon flights critics would often say something like “we can put a man on the moon but we can’t solve world hunger.” Well, yeah. Launching a rocket is mostly an engineering problem. World hunger, poverty, pollution, the exploitation and victimization of persons, the impacts of climate change—the list goes on—are not so amenable to analysis. Those are much more multi-faceted things and touch on the un-quantifiable: human nature, politics, nationalism, philosophy, religion, sociology, history, etc. Economists do an awful lot of math but I’m still suspicious of any field that comes up with half a dozen different reasons for the same damn thing. What we learn to do in one field doesn’t necessarily transfer to another.

But I do think the big problems like how to build a free, just, sustainable world for all of humanity can be attacked even if they can’t be solved in the mathematical sense of the word. Differential equations only have to be approximated to be useful, for example. So solutions don’t have to be comprehensive, they can focus on little pieces at a time, and they can evolve as we learn more. The important thing is to make the effort and not be daunted by the scope of the task. After all we have no place nearby to go to, and the places we can get to aren’t exactly hospitable. I do think we will find life on Mars, but it will not be anything we can relate to, something more like a virus, a mold, or a chemosynthetic hydrothermal vent creature. It will be a opportunity for wonder and excitement, but we’ll still be stuck living here, so in the meantime we ought to do right by our home.

On Bullshit

I came across something called the “bullshit asymmetry principle” on Andrew Gelman’s blog. I don’t understand a lot of stuff there as he is a math whiz at Columbia (professor of statistics) and the discussions are rather advanced. But THIS topic I can wrap my brain around!

The bullshit asymmetry principle is also known as Bandolini’s law and goes like this:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude* bigger than to produce it.

I tend to believe this. The truth is often hard to find. And it is often boring. Or, at least, it contradicts your beliefs or your hopes. The truth occupies a smaller space than the rest of the the stuff out there. There are lots of ways to be wrong. There a few paths that lead to the truth.

And what is the path to the truth? Being wrong! The mistakes, false leads, and dead ends are the signposts that keep you on the path. In science people have to publish their work and let it be ripped apart by other scientists. It’s the essence of the process—you have to find out what’s wrong in order to make it better. But even science suffers from bullshit. People of all stripes are prone to vanity, self-promotion, and stubbornness. Those are good hooks to hang your bullshit hat on.

So how do you counter bullshit? It’s hard, because you have to play the skeptic and go on the offensive. No one likes a whiner, nit-picker, or cynic. Bullshitters know to get their stuff out first because any claim can be made plausible enough to accept conditionally. Most folks take things as true first, then think about them later. That puts the debunker at a disadvantage, time-wise, and then puts them in the position of having to attack, which alienates the bullshitter’s audience.

Perhaps the best weapon against bullshit is more bullshit. That is, if the bullshitter cares not about the truth, why should his or her critic? Fight bullshit with better bullshit! I suppose that’s ultimately self-defeating. The amount of truth in the world is small enough, adding more layers of bullshit won’t help.

If you make a claim, it seems to me, the burden ought to be on you to test the claim and provide some support for it. But it doesn’t work that way. Bullshitters make claims that seem valid, or claims that are stupid but sufficiently intriguing to keep folks interested, but don’t do the legwork. They don’t provide what a reasonable person might consider proof. They leave it to the contrarian to do all the grunt-level stuff. Bullshit just has to feel right, it doesn’t have to be subject to a test. It is a lot easier to mold the world to fit my world view than it is to change my world view when the world intrudes with ugly truths!




*An order of magnitude, in science, is a ten-fold difference. 500 is an order of magnitude larger than 50.

Meteor Man

My favorite winter activity is weather dependent in the extreme. We like to say “if it snows, we goes” and that tells you there is always that big “if” about snowing. It doesn’t always snow. Sometimes we get nothing for days. Even weeks. And if we do get something it is mixed with rain or falls in the wrong spots. Mostly not enough of the damn stuff falls.

“Meteor” is Greek in origin and means “lofty places” and thus is the root for words about atmospheric phenomena. Just ask any meteorologist. All of us who like to ski spend the winter with weather reports. I find myself looking at graphs and willing them to change, turn that 6″ into 10″ and that one foot into two feet.

It’s weird. I used to just ski. Then I learned how to ski in the powder: the soft, freshly-fallen stuff, and the deeper the better. Now I’m a snob. I want the good snow every time. For years I skied on the groomed runs like a normal person before I ventured “off-piste” as we North Americans like to say. Piste is French for a groomed slope, so when you venture off the tracks you are off-piste.

Most of the time you get nothing close to the ideal. People who live near the big world-class resorts in Utah and Colorado, for example, get a lot more opportunities, so I imagine they get the primo stuff more often. But out here in the fringes we are more at the mercy of the snow gods. Alta, near Salt Lake City, averages 500″ of snow in a season and the 2600-acre resort spans elevations from 8500 to 11000 feet. My local mountain gets half the snow in one-tenth the space and the summit is just over 7500 feet above sea level.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I love my little local spot. And there’s another one close by, too. Small-time, small-town skiing has great charms. I can drive for less than an hour and be on the chairlift, for one. Lines and crowds, when they happen, are predictable and manageable, for another. I’ve had the good fortune to ski some fancy places and had some great adventures. But the most fun is when it is close to home and I’ve had my fair share of epic days right here in my back yard.

This obsession with forecasts is a little funny. I’m not out there sniffing the breeze, checking my trick knee and saying “by golly, it’ll snow tomorrow” or anything like that. I love to look at the sky but it isn’t much help. I use the National Weather Service website most of the time! Weather forecasting is a tough business because, well, it’s hard, and people only remember when it’s wrong. They get it right a lot, but that’s like background noise. The blown predictions are the ones that stick with you.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be getting my internet feeds (like this one) and scanning the satellite pictures and whatnot and hoping to see the big numbers and the magic words like “powder alert.” The thing is there are a lot of powder-hounds out there and they flock to the big, famous places. They come out of the woodwork here locally as well, and it can be discouraging to see a hillside tracked out before you have loaded on the chairlift, but it never gets to the Carmaggedon status you see in Tahoe. One of these days I’m going to stay at a place where you don’t have to get in a vehicle, you just step outside of your lodging in your gear and you get a lift ride right to the slopes.

Looking ahead, there’s some promising snow activity predicted for this coming weekend:

ski forecasts

The meteorology-types will be updating things of course and those nice little blue bumps could become big stacks or empty nothings between now and then. Mother Nature will make the call and if she starts shouting I’ll be ready.

Happy New Year (and think snow)!


A startup called Berkeley Brewing Science is using a gene-editing tool knows as CRISPR-Cas9 to make hoppy beer without hops. Hops are very cool, I grow a few varieties in my back yard. They are beautiful plants, bines actually, not vines, as they climb by twining and not by suckers. Commercially the male plants are ruthlessly excluded from production in order to prevent the females from being fertilized. Like sinsemilla pot, the fruits (called cones) become laden with the desired essential oils and are then harvested, dried, and processed. My plants came from rhizomes and most cultivars of hops (Humulus lupulus) are clones and are propagated vegetatively, much like cannabis.

So why make beer without hops? For one, hops are thirsty. It is estimated that 100 billion liters (100 GL) of water are needed annually for the U.S. crop. For perspective, the harbor at Sydney in Australia holds about 500 GL of water. In fact, that amount, 500 Gigaliters, is known as a “sydharb” (thank you Wolfram Alpha). And people think Austin Sendek‘s “hella-” prefix (as in the Earth has a mass of six hellagrams) is silly.

Imagine doing something environmentally friendly like reducing water use with a technology that greens love to hate, gene-editing! Certainly that is not the only reason to make beer without hops. The main reason, I expect, is to increase the brewer’s control over the product. Hops introduce a lot of variability and even the small craft brewers want consistent flavors even if they aren’t as paranoid as those who oversee something like Budweiser.

One of the features of modern life is increased quality control. The drugs we buy today at the pharmacy are cleaner and purer than drugs have ever been. Our food supply is far more predictable and much safer than ever before. Even the recent E. coil—Romaine lettuce scare affected only a few dozen people in a nation of 340 million. And it was unusual in that the CDC could NOT trace the source of the infection. Usually they can track that stuff down. We are so spoiled by quality control that we reject pharmaceuticals in favor of “natural herbs” and we crave “authentic” and “local” foods instead of mass-produced ones. This despite no evidence that the modern stuff is unhealthier and the “retro” stuff is healthier. If you slap a picture of a farmer in overalls next to a happy cow on your cheese package people will pay extra.

An article in Nature Communications (Industrial brewing yeast engineered for the production of primary flavor determinants in hopped beer by CM Denby, RA Li, et. al.,) has this wonderful line:

While historic consumer trepidation towards genetically engineered foods is of concern for widespread adoption, the general increase in consumer acceptance of such foods when tied to increased sustainability is encouraging.

I’d say cost and taste matter more, but this works, too. The beer produced in the study quoted above apparently compared favorably to hoppy commercial beers like Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA. But taster panels, even trained ones, display a lot of variation so we’ll see what happens with actual beer consumers. I expect they’ll be quaffing pints of the stuff sooner than they’ll realize. I’ve no problem with such beers, no one says you actually have to use hops. If you think about it, the malt already contains the precursors of the chemicals that create hop flavors! The gene-editing allows the new yeast to activate bio-synthesis pathways to produce geraniol and linalool which are naturally-occurring terpene alcohols present in many, many aromatic fruits, flowers, and other plant parts.

The researchers used gene sequences from basil (Ocimum basilicum) and a mint (Mentha citrata) to engineer a brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to produce more of the desired geraniol and linalool during fermentation, enough for tasters to perceive as hop flavors in the finished beer. Obviously hops themselves are more complex than just these two molecules, and create, presumably, a broader taste palate. But this kind of application is only just beginning and I expect that brewers will have a much larger yeast toolkit very soon. As a homebrewer I have access to at least three dozen commercial-grade yeast strains in both liquid and powder form for a relatively low cost where there were only a handful thirty years ago, and nowhere near the quality.

I blogged about CRISPR a while ago (you say “crisper” just like it looks) and I’m pretty much squarely in the camp of the GMO-enthusiasts. I’ve no fear of Dr. Frankenstein. There’s a fellow recently who claims he’s made CRISPR-modified babies although some don’t believe him. Regardless, it is a chilling thought. Few would be opposed to gene editing that helped a baby overcome a birth defect and thrive rather than suffer. But such things are hard to draw boundaries around, and the general feeling is that experimenting on humans is at least ethically dubious, if not entirely barbaric. We are facing those questions now as bioengineering is mainstream stuff, not science fiction. The boundary lines will blur quickly when take-home GMO kits are available at Rite-Aid, and I don’t think that’s as far away as we want to believe.

In the meantime I hope the folks at Berkeley Brewing Science can cook up a homebrewer’s version of their no-hops-needed yeast. I’d love to try it.

The Autumnal Bookshelf

We are enjoying a spectacular fall here in our little nook in the State of Jefferson. The temperature drops at night, flirting with frost, but the afternoons are still warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. The colors, albeit our limited Western versions, have been out for weeks and show no sign of abating. The riding has been sublime. Our local trail haven is hardly used and we have it mostly to ourselves on our twice-weekly mountain bike jaunts, a bunch hearty and (we hope) hardy oldsters fighting off old age. It’s shoveling sand on the beach, but it’s fun and good for us.

My mind needs the workout as well. I should say my mind-body nexus craves multiple inputs. I need to wheeze from over-exertion and reel from trippy fictions in at least equal measure. Just about everything I read is fiction and I define fiction as anything without footnotes. I love a good history tome and I expect lots of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Otherwise it is just bullshit. It might be interesting, well-written bullshit, but still bullshit. I figure if you are going to all that trouble to make bullshit then quit faking it and call it fiction.

In the mail coming any day is the second volume (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke) of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals by Per Wahlöö and Maj Söwall. That completes my collection. These are from late-60s to mid-70s Sweden and have a taut, just-the-facts-ma’am style. The laconic protagonist tosses in a bit of wry humor, but he’s mostly a grim fellow doing a grim fellow’s job, that of chasing down murderers. Equally grim, but in an entirely different vein, are John le Carré’s spy thrillers. Found one I didn’t have (Our Kind of Traitor, 2010) and polished it off. He’s getting crankier in his later years but he’s just as sharp and entertaining. The Cold War was grist for his mill for a long time, now he’s more interested in rogue financiers, Russian mobsters, and Englishmen who sell out their country while serving it.

One of my all-time favorite books was recently returned to me and so I had to re-read it. Nothing can prepare you for Jack Womack, but Elvissey (1993) is probably his most accessible creation. It is part of a six-novel series about a near-future corporate-dominated dystopian America, but that’s just the setting. Womack’s voice is unique and his characters use a peculiar argot coupled with syntactic inversions that are both funny and unsettling. It reminds you a little of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange but is its own thing. The novel can be read alone or as part of the larger work. Another writer with a great ear is Mark Twain and I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after I finished Elvissey. It had been decades since I’d opened it and it was a lot of fun. Both novels concern themselves with the American South, with ante-bellum Missouri the focus for Twain, an alternate-past post-WWII Mississippi for Womack.

Awaiting consumption is Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics (1953). He’s always good for a brisk descent into hell, but unlike le Carré his hells are confined to small towns and lonely places. The globe-trotters in le Carré could just as easily be playing tennis in Antigua as they could be listening to wiretaps in Berlin. Thompson’s lead players are losers and psychopaths, le Carré’s are professionals and renaissance men; but both love grifters and con artists.

There aren’t many novels about the Korean War and I came across Pat Frank’s Hold Back the Night which was made into a movie with John Payne in 1956. I also picked up Frank’s Forbidden Area, also from 1956. Much of the fiction from this era is short, compact, and suspenseful, qualities I appreciate. There are many outstanding novelists working today but I find the trend toward longer and larger books less appealing. If you can’t say it in under three hundred pages you are probably trying too hard.

Speaking of contemporary stuff, I also just finished Gold Fame Citrus (2015) from Clare Vaye Watkins. It’s what they call “cli-fi” these days, short for “climate fiction” which assumes global warming catastrophe scenarios come true. In this case a perfectly plausible massive drought sweeps across the American Southwest as well as most of California and Nevada. A compelling story and good characters kept me engaged despite the overtly literary indulgences peppered throughout the narrative. This is one of the things I prefer about straight genre fiction—fewer opportunities for folderol and jibber-jabber. Editors were more slash-prone back in the day, it seems, now they are more encouraging and accepting. I like to read a lot of books and I get worn out if they take too long. Short & sweet and cut-to-the-chase is more my style.

Also on the soon-to-be-read shelf are another cli-fi, this one from Paolo Bacigalupi called The Water Knife, and Paula Hawkins‘ neo-noir The Girl on the Train which was made into a movie with Emily Blunt. Both were published in 2015.

So—what’s on your autumnal bookshelf?

It Explains Everything!

We got an insert in our local paper last Friday. We don’t subscribe, but pick it up at the supermarket while shopping. It was a full-color, two-sided, information-dense, letter-sized advertisement. What was being advertised was not a product. It was much better.

It explained everything.

It was certainly less predictable than a religious tract. And certainly much more sophisticated than the lowest of the low, the political mailers. This stuff was not only equally serious but at least as plausible.

Bible enthusiasts provide good reading material, it is usually logically sound if you accept the basic (absurd) premises. The stuff from your government representatives is laughably simplistic, and the voter propaganda on propositions is borderline dangerous. This fellow—and it appears to be one fellow—focuses on stuff you can really see.

Contrails. Or, I should say, chemtrails. You know, the stuff that the big ol’ jet airliners spew out. Condensation is of course a natural consequence of combustion. Just check your breath on a cold day, that’s the combustion of last night’s enchiladas. And there’s no doubt that burning fossil fuels makes air pollution. So it is safe to say that the air transport sector is responsible for spewing bad stuff into the atmosphere. Hey, join the club. We the people do our best to spew bad stuff into the atmosphere every day, what with our impossible energy demands. All those trips in the car, all that hot water and A/C and everything else. Air pollution is like farting, we all do it.

Seems this fellow who shared his wisdom with us via the newspaper insert is concerned that contrails/chemtrails aren’t just air pollution from jets. They are a deliberate government geo-engineering plan to change the earth’s climate. From the insert:

Covert global climate engineering programs are wreaking havoc with Earth’s life support systems and human health . . .

Our noble leaders and other power elites have, for decades, used the jets criss-crossing our skies to dump particular chemicals into the air in order to mess with the weather. The goal, it seems, is to cause catastrophic global warming in order to, and this part I’m not sure about, subjugate the citizenry under the guise of saving it. Natural disasters are the perfect time for the government to move in and take over. Evacuations, in particular, are great opportunities to seize control.

At least that’s what it seems, reading this stuff over. It is all very science-y and ties in lots of environmental issues that appeal to people all over the political spectrum, everything from carcinogens in the water and honeybee die-offs to severe droughts and catastrophic forest fires.

In order to have a workable conspiracy theory you have to have nuggets of truth. We’ve all seen the jets overhead spewing their exhausts. Since most of us probably don’t think about jet exhaust, having someone come along and break it down for us is very appealing. Everybody likes a good explanation. I used to provide explanations for a living, I understand their appeal. Life is complicated and when you think about more global issues, like ecological disasters, it is easy to feel despair and helplessness. Having it all tied together with a clear set of reasons is nice. Global warming aka climate change is a popular topic these days and to present it as the result of a high-level conspiracy is brilliant. Humans are indeed responsible for global warming, just not the way the scientists say! Scientists, lately, have about as much credibility as the mainstream media. One consequence of the internet is that now everyone is an expert and has their own soapbox. Or at least you can find one to better suit you if you don’t like what you are currently hearing!

Here’s more:

Any and all entities/individuals that are in any way associated with the illegal geoengineering operations must be fully exposed. Once exposed, all such entities/individuals must be held legally and morally accountable for their part in the climate engineering atrocities.

Moral outrage is very appealing as well. Our ideologies give us plenty of stuff to get pissed off about. If you want to gather people to your cause then get their dander up about something. I also like the smug, we-are-all-in-the-know-here attitude. All the stupid people out there, the drones going about their daily lives, are too zombied-out to be properly angry about the “atrocities” going on around them. But we here at fill-in-the-blank will keep you informed with THE TRUTH.

In the end it is all about THE TRUTH. We all want it. We all seek it. The trouble with science is that it can only provide truths with a lowercase-t and not Truth with the reassuring gravitas of an uppercase-T, let alone the screaming fury of ALL CAPS.

I’m not sure what this fellow gets out of his propaganda. I suppose it is rude of me to call it that. He probably believes it with a religious fervor. And you can’t really argue with that kind of thing. I don’t have religious fervor so I can’t really say how it feels or what it’s like. I imagine it gives you an authenticity that is hard to fake. That’s the flip side, the guy could be a complete fake, the whole geo-engineering kerfuffle a giant con. But confidence games are generally money-making schemes. I don’t see a lot of money-making potential here. Sure, he sells books and DVDs but that’s actually a hard way to get rich. There’s a lot of competition out there. And there are no ads on his website, but there is a donate button.

In a capitalist economy lots of things are for sale. Even supposedly non-profit enterprises like churches and charities are in the sales business. This fellow is another in the great American tradition of salesmen. From the tragic Willy Loman to the comic Cal Worthington salesmen are part-and-parcel of our Constitutionally-protected pursuit of happiness. Now I’m not buying what he’s selling, mind you, but it’s way more fun than the usual stuff like the hardware store ads.

Trust and Mistrust

In a capitalist economy everything is for sale. Love, for example. Possibly your very soul. So it is no surprise that trust is also for sale. We have to buy trust in order to perform beneficial economic transactions. Buyers and sellers, in any commerce beyond the lemonade stand, depend on “trusted” third parties to protect their interests. Banks, credit card companies, PayPal—you get the idea. Buying a house, for example, requires multiple layers of trust-protection: agents, escrow and title companies, lending institutions, inspectors, etc. Imagine what multi-billion dollar corporate-level transactions must require in terms of security and protection from fraud.

The problem with these third parties should be obvious to anyone who lived through 2008. Our most esteemed financial, banking, and accounting firms LIED to millions of investors about the value of their products and services. The result? A crash in wealth that hammered the bottom-dwellers in our social pyramid disproportionately. The “trust” so important in “trusted” third parties was eroded, perhaps for good. The problem of course is that there is no alternative. We have to have these institutions so that we can have commerce and we can pass our money around in transactions so that we can earn our livelihoods and pay our bills and buy our goods and services.

The other problem is one of centralization. A smaller and smaller number of entities increasingly have oversight over larger and larger concentrations of wealth. Any breach, via outside parties or (most likely) via internal corruption will impact everyone within that organization’s reach. That’s a lot of businesses, big and small, and a lot of people, rich and not-so-rich.  We saw that happen in 2008.

So it pays to be mistrustful. But since we need trust to continue our commerce, what’s to be done? Technology, perhaps, is providing a solution path. Computer science has long been fascinated by problems such as “double-spending.” How do you make sure that a digital transaction (like a credit card payment) is done only once, or, that once done, can’t be un-done or re-done? The dishonest buyer would like to buy something but then defraud the seller by reversing or withholding payment. The dishonest seller would like to defraud the buyer by a double-charge for the good or service or withhold such things entirely yet still receive payment.

Enter the blockchain. In this model, trust emerges via cryptography and a peer-to-peer network. Mistrust is taken as the modus operandi. Since we all mistrust each other, the only way to generate trust is to have an entirely open transaction ledger. Everyone can see that transactions are occurring and everyone can verify that such transactions are legitimate.

The first leg of such an apparatus is the cryptography part. We can encrypt our transactions so that we have privacy. After all, we don’t want everyone to know what our transactions are, just that they occurred and were accepted in the ledger as valid. Think about stock tickers: they tell us that shares were bought and sold and for what prices but not who did the buying and selling. Also, the transactions get lumped together into blocks, which are then encrypted, as well as stamped with date and time tags. As blocks get created, they are linked into chains, which are validated by their length and chronology. The longest chain is the newest version of the ledger, and the honest users of the network default to that version.

The second leg is the peer-to-peer or distributed computer network. Instead of a central authority, there is a majority consensus of users. If more nodes on the network containing the blockchain are honest, and follow the protocols to add transactions to the blocks and blocks to the chain, the result will be an honest, up-to-date, distributed shared ledger. In order for the dishonest nodes to compromise the network there would have to be a majority of dishonest nodes. As the blockchain is built, and tagged with time and date stamps as well as the digital “signatures” validating the encrypted information, it gets harder and harder to defraud. Each encrypted block requires significant computing resources to “crack” the code, and once cracked puts a break in the chain. The entire blockchain would then have to be rebuilt from the beginning. Thus the nodes (i.e., users) on the network can “see” the invalid blocks and reject that copy of the blockchain. The crooks would constantly be playing catch-up as the distributed nature of the blockchain means that the newest, longest version will always be the accepted one.

I know my half-assed description will make the computer scientists howl, and perhaps make my readers skip ahead, but it’s the best I can do so far. I’m still trying to wrap my head around these concepts.

What I find intriguing is this “wisdom of the crowds” approach. Instead of relying on gatekeepers, which is what our financial institutions have become, we rely on our individual self-interest. We are motivated by self-protection as we want to be able to do commerce with strangers over the internet. So we participate in the distributed ledger by hosting it on our computers and interacting with it according to the established schemes for performing the transactions. Note that one does not have to have the entire blockchain (think of it like a database) in memory, just the “headers” of the blocks, or the identifying labels. It’s like knowing you have a legitimate copy of today’s paper by checking the date and skimming a few headlines (I’d be checking the baseball scores!). You don’t have to have the whole paper or scan the articles.

Bitcoin is the most famous application of the blockchain. Users are rewarded with a digital currency, the bitcoin, for performing what are chain maintenance tasks. They check the blocks using “proof-of-work” algorithms that verify that they are tagged properly and in the chain in the proper sequence. Perhaps to have nodes join the network there would have to be some kind of transaction fee to provide additional motivation so that users would stay involved and continue to host the information.

Like any technology, hype precedes the reality, and we don’t know what’s to become of blockchains. But it seems likely to me that such things will be used for everything from storing your medical records to facilitating the oil futures market. Groups of mutually mistrustful people will want to do commerce together without the need to purchase oversight from a third party. It’s a very libertarian notion. Maybe we don’t need to be more trustworthy, we just need to recognize our basic lack of trustworthiness, and use high-tech “peer pressure” to keep us more honest than usual. Not a very idealized view of social interaction, but maybe one closer to our nature.