Monday, January 30, 2006

Book / Athenian Society & Economy: A Banking Perspective

One key problem facing many who seek to reinvent the banking system is that they are only dimly acquainted with banking. Indeed many of us who work for banks also suffer this problem, because banking has become so encrusted with concepts from different eras that it's difficult to tell what is fundamental. So whilst we are attempting reinvent ourselves it might behoove us to get back to basics, which is what you get from "Athenian Society & Economy: A Banking Perspective," by Edward E. Cohen, Princeton, 1992.

Drawing on empricial evidence, Cohen presents an intensive study of Athenian banking practices during the 80 year period between the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars and the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. First he debunks the myth that there were no commercial loans, and then goes on to adduce complex banking transactions carried on with only a bag of silver coins, a book, and a table ("trapeza" in Greek, "banc(h)a" in Italian and most other languages). According to Demosthenes, a trapeza is "a business operation producing a risk-laden return from other people's money." Seeing these transactions arising in their simplest forms is very instructive, because it shows you what really matters about them.

The trapeza took deposits and made loans, some of the proceeds of which were redeposited (and reloaned), thus expanding the money supply without fiat currency. There was zero government regulation! There were no checks, as payors and payees all showed up in person. There were bills of exchange to minimize transport of coins. There were 6,000 drachmas in a talent, and (I think) 20 drachmas in a Cyzicene stater, another popular big coin. Much of the business was undisclosed, to help clients reduce taxes, escape judgements, etc. Notions of interest were different: 1% a month for landed loans, 18-100% (per voyage) for maritime loans. Etc...

I'm only part way thought it, but thought I would share this info, for all you history buffs out there.

Originally posted 23 Dec 1997

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Issue / Micro Black Holes

Q: Is it time for the precautionary principle??

- - - - -
From "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall (Harvard Physics Dept.), page 380 --

[...] "If this is the case, black holes might be produced at close to a TeV energy, and such higher-dimensional black holes would be a gateway to a better understanding of classical gravity, quantum gravity, and the shape of the universe. If the relevant energies [...] are sufficiently low, black hole production could be imminent; they could be formed at the LHC."

[NOTE: the Large Hadron Collider will go online at CERN in Switzerland in this decade.]

"The higher dimensional black holes that would form at colliders would be far smaller than the ones in the universe around us. They would be comparable in size to the very tiny extra dimensions. In case you are worried, rest assured that these small, very short-lived black holes won't pose a danger to us or our planet; they'll be gone well before they could do any damage. Black holes don't last forever: they evaporate by emitting radiation through the phenomenon known as Hawking radiation. But just as a small drop of coffee evaporates more quickly than a full cup, so the small black holes that could conceivably be produced at colliders will evaporate almost immediately. Nevertheless, if they are produced, these higher-dimensional black holes would last long enough to leave visible signs of their existence at a detector. They would have a very distinctive appearance since they would produce many more particles than you would find in ordinary particle decays, and these particles would go off in all directions."

= = = = =

Of course this raises the question -- ARE YOU SURE? Gravity at high energies and small distances is still squarely in the realm of theory. What if due to some as yet undiscovered physical principles, the evaporation rate is not as fast as predicted? Or suppose a micro black hole were to immediately encounter and absorb a hefty amount of mass, through a fortuitous series of very rapid collisions, thus bulking up and extending its life long enough to encounter yet more matter, triggering a chain reaction gravitational collapse?

According to Exit Mundi NL (see under Human->Black Hole), a likely scenario is that the micro black hole(s) would be quite tiny at first and, seeing that matter is mostly empty space, would head for the center of the Earth, hitting electrons or nuclei occasionally on the way down. Then as they gained mass, the entire Earth would be sucked in, yielding a black hole 9 mm in diameter with the same mass as the present Earth, which the Moon would continue to orbit around as before.

Acceleration due to gravity is 32 feet per second per second, and our planet's total mass does not change, so the rate of collapse is the time it would take for all our matter to fall 4,000 miles. Bottom line, in a couple of minutes everyone and everything would disappear.

Should we be demonstrating in Geneva? Lying down in front of the trucks delivering the giant electromagnets? Walking around in robes urging everyone to Repent Now, because the End is Nigh?

It would be helpful to see a set of well-reasoned analyses showing why this is NOT a problem, but so far my inquiries to theoretical physicists have gone unanswered. Perhaps the lure of all those Nobel Prizes waiting to be won is clouding their vision, but as we know they are not awarded posthumously!

Originally posted 1/18/06

Movie / Duma

Warning - potential spoilers in this review.

From the director of "The Black Stallion," the charming story of a young (white) boy and his pet cheetah in South Africa. While touching on many social issues, and probably drawing from stock wild animal footage, the film is not a documentary, but a well enough written drama about a cute little cheetah cub captured by the boy and his father, which grows up into a terrifying looking but incredibly well behaved full size pet named "Duma." (Yes, the plot is somewhat contrived, but that can be said of tons of movies.)

After the untimely death of the father, the boy and his mother move to the city, where Duma inevitably escapes, causing havoc, and the boy decides to return him (singlehandedly) to where they found him, as his father had vowed, hundreds of miles away. After his (father's) motorcycle runs out of gas, they continue alone on foot across inhospitable terrain, while his mother mounts a major search. On the way he meets a (friendly) black guy, heading back to his village from the city, and the three of them have a series of Tom Sawyer type adventures together, which include nearly being eaten by crocodiles, lions, etc., culminating in Duma's successful return to the wild, and the boy's reunion with his mother.

One gets the impression they must have used several cheetahs during filming, but the main one has some distinctive facial markings that we see all the way though.

The film is basically a piece of poetry about wild animals, and while it carries a PG rating, probably for animals getting eaten, I imagine most children would find nothing to be upset about. There is relatively little tension (social or political), other than their struggle to survive outdoors in the South African wilds.

"Duma" was saved from video release by "Variety," but is only playing in four cities, and there might have been 10 people in the audience. Talk about no distribution. That being said it holds together very well and probably gets at least a three for beauty, human interest, and overall meaning. A fun and relatively light film about wild nature and growing up, through the eyes of a young boy. Not as intense as The Black Stallion, but haunting and fulfilling nonetheless.

Movie / Match Point

Match Point
Written and directed by Woody Allen

This latest Allen film, released earlier in the UK by BBC Films and now in the US by DreamWorks, must be the one I read about a while back, in which a critic said Allen's views of the British upper class were closer to Evelyn Waugh than to modern reality. Some of the characters do resemble those in Brideshead Revisited, but it seems authentic enough, given that old money rich tend to maintain their traditional values more easily than the rest of us.

If anything this film, which gets 5 stars from the SF critics, may be the final maturation of Allen as a writer/director of serious drama. Two hours and seven minutes of intensely plotted story line and dialog regarding a poor young Irish tennis pro who marries into a wealthy family and then (more or less) ruins it all due to his lust for his friend's (ex) fiancée (Scarlett Johansson), who, although an obvious love object, gets in a lot of serious acting.

"Plot-driven rather than story-driven," as one critic commented, the movie narrates a long complex, intense story of these people's personal lives, which I can't say too much about without spoiling the ending. However in addition to the tragic operatic music Allen uses for much of the soundtrack, the ending becomes pretty apparent about 3/4 of the way through.

Although the theater was mostly full on opening weekend, this is clearly another Allen film with critical greatness and limited mass appeal. Comparisons to Ingmar Bergmann and Ibsen/Strindberg are not out of order. Many hours later I am still pondering it. The plotting and dialog writing are excellent, in the technical sense of scene beats, mounting tensions, overarching themes, emotional authenticity, etc. The directing is brisk and efficient, shot in various tony spots in London and some country estate. Allen wrote this, cast some young Brit actors, with Johansson as a box office draw, and everyone belted it out. No comedy (as such*), no ad-libbing, and no Allen-figure.

(* unless you count the Johannson character, an out-of-work American actress, blowing one audition after another, unable to get a part. :-)

I once read (on a screen writing website) that drama is the one genre that's not amenable to "high concept" because it's too much about the particular parties to the story. Match Point feels like a long, serious Broadway play. Highly recommended for those with such a taste, but otherwise you'll be dissatisfied. Or as one guy said to his date on the way out "you'd have liked 'Bullets Over Broadway.' "

The film earns its R rating, with many fairly intense sex scenes, some of the clothes-ripping variety. (As has been noted, R ratings are back, after a period in which everyone tried for PG, in hopes of selling more seats.) There is some violence, which remains off camera.

Originally published 1/7/06

Movie / King Kong (2005)

KING KING (2005)
Directed by Peter Jackson

This movie is definitely not for anyone who's afraid of heights, or has any fears of being trampled by dinosaurs, or eaten alive by a long assortment of digitally-generated creatures, many of an exotic or pre-historic nature.

It got a zero from the SF critics, but the theater was 95% full in the middle of pouring rain. (In my opinion reviewers should assign two scores, one for what they think, and another for whether the masses would enjoy it, which would often differ.)

I see this as an extended director's cut. The plot could have fit into 90 minutes, but it runs 3 hours. Almost every scene runs longer than necessary to make its point, but you just sit there, looking at one long action sequence after another, each well-enough written and/or art-directed to hold you in place. It's quite a bargain - two action films worth of viewing for the price of a single ticket (or DVD rental).

Some have commented that the film is racist. The human natives of Skull Island are portrayed as cannibal primitives with no redeeming value. In defense of the writers, from what I've read, when white folks landed on many islands, that's what happened, the natives ate and/or sacrificed them. And here their sacrifice of the white girl to the giant forest ape is a key piece of the story line.

On another level, it's the ultimate white female / black male story. Initially Kong probably plans to eat her, but after a while they bond and fall in love, and Kong saves her life numerous times, most notably by killing three large dinosaurs at once. Forget realism. After all the rough handling (which goes on and on) she should have been turned to mush. And the endless attempts by all concerned to eat her... when there were so many larger things to eat....

The film is also subtly self-referential. The main character is a self absorbed producer who's way over budget and trying to film his movie (in the 1930's) on location in the jungle, killing many of his staff in the process. We get the distinct impression that he's a stand-in for Peter Jackson himself. Also the famous writer, who has produced only 15 pages of script, is kidnapped and forced to live in a large animal cage -- surely a metaphor for how producers / studios feel about writers.

I never saw the original, so can't comment on the fidelity or lack thereof, but this will surely stand up as the Kong of Our Time, until some future director comes along with a big enough ego and budget to better it. NOTE: Dozens of people are killed, many after being trampled or tossed by the ape, but all that suffering stays off camera.

Originally Posted 12/31/05

Movie / Shopgirl

No way would I give this 5 stars, as did the SF critics -- 3 or 3-1/2 tops. It's sumptuously filmed, lots of intimate close-ups and a fair amount of sex and nudity. Many scenes are set in shadow, like a Bergman film. At times the music is too loud and busy for the quiet and somber mood on the screen. But its big problem is lack of depth. You might think this would be Steve Martin's answer to Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation," in which Murray played himself, complete with ad lib humor (and kept his hands off the girl). But it's not. Martin is playing someone else, a cold high tech millionaire who convinces himself that it's okay to basically use the younger woman (Clare Danes). Meanwhile she is practically a cipher, and it strains credulity that someone that good looking has such a limited choice of men. Two thirds of the way through I started asking myself, "what is this film about?" You know you're in trouble when it takes a voice-over (Martin's voice) at the end to explain it. There's another store clerk, a catty gold digger who the plot makes fun of, yet I found myself more drawn to her, perhaps due to her more interesting hair and makeup. The distributors knew this film woudn't play to the masses, and wisely it only ran on 2 screens, lightly attended on its opening weekend.

Originally posted October 31, 2005