Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

Tales from the Dugout

The Book of the Week is “Tales from the Dugout” by Mike Shannon, published in 1997. This lighthearted compilation of anecdotes mentions some of American professional baseball’s colorful characters of different eras.

It was a dirty little secret that Willie Mays deliberately wore an oversized cap so that it fell off for a more dramatic effect when he was making one of his legendary catches in the field.

In April 1991, the J. Fred Johnson minor league stadium was cleaned up after a game via crowd-sourcing of the fans, who, in compensation, had received free admission.

Earl Weaver, manager of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970’s and 1980’s, got thrown out of 91 games for arguing with the umpires. Needless to say, he was a hothead. One time, he made good on his threat to pull Orioles pitcher Rick Dempsey out of a game. Dempsey was so enraged, he threw his protective gear at Weaver in the locker room, and as their shouting match continued, got Weaver all wet when he turned on the shower.

Read the book to learn of other amusing episodes.

The Battle for Home

The Book of the Week is “The Battle For Home” by Marwa Al-Sasouni, published in 2016.

In this short ebook, the author– a Syrian female with a doctorate in architecture– describes how the architecture of Syria relates to the recent history and nature of its people, makes various generalizations about architectural concepts, and provides a little autobiographical background.

The author was born and raised in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. She discusses how it evolved differently from other cities. According to the author of this book’s foreword, the current architecture of Dubai reflects “…a bombastic and profligate fun park of petrol-dollar materialism designed on computers in London for the global rich.” Sasouni writes that if a Syrian is Sunni, Homsi, middle class, prosperous and educated– he’s told what to think, and if he conforms, he’ll be set for life.

Read the book to learn more about the “…atmosphere of laziness, dishonest competition and rampant corruption” that has taken hold of the author’s homeland of late, and how she rebelled against it.

Fu-Go

The Book of the Week is “Fu-Go” by Ross Coen, published in 2014. This book describes the precursor to modern-day drones.

During WWII, extensive research in meteorology, materials science, engineering, physics and statistics was required to send the explosives-laden hot-air balloons about 6,000 miles from Japan to America. In 1942, the Japanese began the campaign with the goals of boosting its own national morale and taking a swipe at its enemy; more specifically, to start forest fires in the Western United States, and create terror among American civilians. This would prompt America to divert its war resources to the quell the distraction. Japan lacked the funds to continue this initiative until late 1944.

The parachutes portion was made of paper from blackberry trees, and pasted together by thousands of middle school and high school girls whose education had lapsed due to the war. They performed unhealthy manual labor at a school gym and a factory. Miraculously, with significant improvement in balloon design, a few hundred of the drones landed in Washington state, Idaho, California and Montana in rural areas. There was controversy over whether to warn civilians of the danger, as this might tell the Japanese how well its campaign was working, and reveal the flaws in its system. American authorities met with the Canadian government, and pressured the media into keeping silent for a long time.

Read the book to learn whether Japan achieved its goals with this seemingly minor yet creative plan of attack.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.