Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Silver is really unpopular

So says my anecdotal evidence.

In China, where silver sells for about four times the world price, it is no surprise that it is unpopular. I tried to give silver jewellery to a girlfriend there--she didn't want it. There was more acceptance of the charming notion of providing a silver spoon as a gift for a baby, as the Chinese do believe that silver draws the toxins out of foods.

I became interested in silver in about 1998, and originally bought it from a local coin shop. Looking for other sources, I found the local United Church held sales in the spring and fall, and jewellery was one of the main topics. Back in those days, nobody was interested in silver, and I bought a lot of old jewellery and the occasional silver spoon, and even a few candlesticks, all at good prices. Some of the jewellery I bought there were listed among my wife's favourite pieces, including an antique piece from Republican times in China, which included a secret pocket for secreting opium.

By around 2004, it began to get more difficult to buy used silver. Groups of young men began to show up at the church sales, aggressively buying up all the silver (and occasionally berating the bemused old ladies administering the sale for not lowering prices when the silver price began to fall). So by about 2006, I had stopped looking for silver at the church sale, and just bought used CDs, games for the kids, and baked goods.

I had been in China for the past few years, but was around for the church sale last week. I decided to see if anything was available in the jewellery section. And there were very few people there, mainly old women, and nobody was interested in the silver. I ended up buying something for my daughter. So this is a more anecdotal evidence of a general lack of interest in silver.

Monday, October 15, 2018


This song has been buzzing around in my ear lately.

I'm not sure where this has come from, as it seems to be more of a spring song than an autumn one.

But for the past four years, I have spent autumn and winter in China. And come to think of it, I have spent very little time of any autumn in Canada since about 2007--so maybe it is a response to seeing the autumn colours of Canada for the first time in a long time.

In China, you mostly get yellows. Before China, I spent a lot of time in West Africa, and you get some colour changes in some trees during the dry season, but mostly there is no change

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The new New Age

Anthropocene is a movie which appeared in the Toronto Film Festival this year. It has since gone on to appear in a few cinemas hereabouts.

It is a visually striking film. But if you are already familiar with its message, it is a little slow.

The movie trailer is unfair to the gentleman from Hong Kong who owns the ivory shop. All of the ivory depicted in his segment in his store is fossil ivory, something made clear in the film, but not the trailer. I went to one such shop when I visited Hong Kong--if you want a carved tusk, you can have one for about the price of a house.

I first encountered the term "Anthropocene" as a proposed name for a new geological epoch--one in which the forces modifying the earth's surface are dominated by human activities--in 1987 or 1988, in an issue of Geology. I only remember the time because it was when I was in Newfoundland, and looking back casually through recent publications only shows more recent references.

The original article was very short, and as I recall, attracted a firestorm of responses in the form of letters to the editor. Most of these suggested alternative names to this epoch, ranging from "Neocene" and "Cenocene" (often accompanied by dry, pedantic discussions about why one name was superior to another), but there was one clever wag who proposed we call this new epoch the "Shouldhavecene". Yes, we should have.

Anthropocene seems to have won out, or at least it has the upper hand.

Thirty years ago the world was a different place. At the time the first article appeared, it seemed like a joke, this idea that humans could dominate the surface features of the planet. Part of this is a kind of blindness. Grow up in cities surrounded by farms and this landscape seems like the most natural in the world. Add to this Canada's managed forests, some tourism commercials, and it was easy to think that nearly the entire country was untouched wilderness.

Onwards in the theme of human impacts on the world. Yesterday we had the second (annual?) Progressive Mine Forum, held in the MaRS Discovery District, which is a sort of breeding tank for tech industries. It covered numerous themes related to modernizing the industry, from mechanization, reducing fossil fuel usage, "green" mining, battery metals, and so forth.

Quote of the day: "You know who likes big trucks? Ten-year-old boys and mining engineers." I think that was Nathan Stubina of McEwen Mining.

Interesting idea of the day: Just as Uber is the largest taxi company in the world (which owns no taxis) and Airbnb is the largest hotel chain in the world (which owns no hotels), might there arise a large mining company that owns no mines? The speaker, George Hemingway of The Stratalis Group mentioned that Apple is proposing to use only recycled material in their products. What if they do the recycling? What if they became so good at it that they begin to supply recycled material to everyone else. Apple (or any other large tech company) has a huge advantage over traditional mining companies--they have no trouble attracting financing to projects with no projected return.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mathematics and the Search for Perfection: the Inner Meaning of Tron

The problem with philosophy in mathematics is that it is no longer part of the high school curriculum (at least not here in Ontario). It used to be, but in the last reorganization of the curriculum, it was sadly removed.

Most of us don't get to study this in university either. Most science majors are directed into some form of applied math (frequently calculus, the Bane of Geologists*; otherwise statistics). Consequently, most don't think about the differences between scientific reasoning and that of the mathematical kind. I know I never used to.

Scientific reasoning is inductive; meaning that whatever truths there are in the Universe have to be inferred from observations. You never know if your perception of the truth is accurate, however, all you can say about it is that it appears to be consistent with observations.

Mathematical reasoning is different because mathematics is a human construct. A system of mathematics is composed of a few true statements and a set of rules (rules of inference) for transforming those few true statements (axioms) into other true statements (theorems). The rules are chosen carefully so that the statements which sprout from them are true, provided they were seeded with truths.

But we get to decide what rules to apply. We don't always have to agree; but like playing a game, if we change the rules, we change the game. That doesn't mean that other games are less enjoyable than the one we normally play.

For Euclidean geometry, one of the axioms states that given a line and a point not on the line, there is only one line parallel to the first which passes through the point. However, if you want to play a game where there are no parallel lines, then you are pursuing elliptic geometry. Or if you prefer to have more than one parallel line, in which case you are pursuing hyperbolic geometry. Arguing about which one is true is meaningless.

What defines a great mathematical system? Well, first of all, it should be consistent--meaning that as long as you apply the rules of inference to a true statement, only true statements result. In other words, all provable statements are true.

Secondly, we would like the system to be complete, meaning that it is possible to prove all true statements. In other words, all true statements are provable.

Both of these criteria have different meanings, despite their similarity. A major goal for mathematicians has been to develop a system which is both consistent and complete, and in their Principia Mathematica, Whitehead and Russell believed they had accomplished this.

Consistency is easy--the key is that the rules of inference tend to be simple (e.g., if a = b, then a + c = b + c). But completeness is really difficult. Can we know every true statement? Can we know they are all true?

Consider Fermat's last theorem. First proposed (as far as we know) in 1637, it was not successfully proven until 1994. So for over 350 years, the truth of this theorem was unknown (it was then called Fermat's Conjecture). Once it was proven, we knew it was true. Prior to its proof, it was also a true statement, but we didn't know it was true. There may be other true statements out there that remain unproven. There are probably other conjectures which may be false, but our inability to prove them is not enough, by itself, to know that they are false.

So completeness is a very difficult hurdle to cross.

Spoiler alert--this discussion was rendered moot by Godel, who in 1931 showed that all non-trivial mathematical systems are either incomplete or inconsistent. We normally insist on consistency--the price is completeness. There are always unprovable truths.

Which brings us to Tron: Legacy (2010). There may be some spoilers ahead.

In this film, we have the character Flynn, who is the Creator of a virtual universe, his creation (Clu), his son (Sam), and his apprentice (Quorra). It's an old story--the one about the creation turning on his creator. Flynn has been seeking to create a 'perfect universe'; unfortunately, what is meant by perfect is not adequately described. Flynn does reference freedom and openness a lot.

The essential conflict in the story is between Flynn and his creation. Through flashbacks, we learn that as Flynn is building the virtual world, something unexpected happens. A new group of programs, isomorphic algorithms ('Isos') appears. When asked how they appeared, Flynn says, "They manifested . . . the conditions were right and they just appeared."

We might say that the Isos were emergent properties of the system. But here Flynn and Clu disagree about the meaning of their appearance. Both regard these as unexpected phenomena in their 'perfect' system. But Flynn looked at them in a positive manner, unexpectedly emerging from a system he imagined he'd controlled. From the lyrical way he describes them, we can see that he believed they represent a key to life and creation--manifestations of a blinding truth, which was inexplicable within the rules of the system. The beauty of this unexpected creation brings Flynn to the realization that there are states better than perfection.

Clu, by contrast, only sees the Isos as inconsistencies. Unfortunately, there is no positive spin you can put on an inconsistency in a system. It means a complete tear-down is necessary. And of course, the inconsistencies have to go.

Even worse, Clu sees that his Creator had become corrupted by these inconsistencies, having declared his intentions to protect them. So not only must the Isos be destroyed, but Flynn has to go to.

Flynn and his buddy Tron, moments before Clu stages his coup

Clu: "Do you still want me to create the perfect system?"

Flynn: "Yeah . . ."

And the coup begins. Flynn escapes into exile within the digital world, while Clu destroys the Isos and remakes the world into his image of perfection.

Flynn struggles to regain control of the world, but it turns out the more he fights, the stronger Clu becomes. He realizes his only hope is to do nothing. Clu is thus free to remake the world, but is unable to find Flynn, who therefore remains a potential threat, somewhere at the edge of the world. A kind of stalemate ensues, which Clu tries to break by introducing another piece to the board--luring Sam into the virtual world.

This is where the movie starts--we see Sam's attempts to understand the new world in which he has unexpectedly arrived. Facing death by gladiatorial combat, Sam is rescued by Quorra, and reunited with his father.

The remainder of the film is a fairly linear storyline that eventually brings Flynn and Clu back together again, and for a moment it looks as if some sort of reconciliation may be possible. But Flynn, as a human, has been able to add to his understanding, which is why he can so easily abandon his quest for perfection. Clu, the construct, is frozen at the level of understanding that Flynn had when he created him--and he simply cannot abandon his pursuit of perfection. The final resolution is somewhat devastating, although Sam and Quorra are transmitted to the real world.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

* While in grad school I used to occasionally ask acquaintances why they studied geology as opposed to, say, engineering or chemistry, and a very common answer was, "Because I couldn't pass calculus". I loved the stuff, but then I was actually a geophysicist.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Arctic sea ice minimum 2018

We are near the Arctic sea-ice minimum for 2018, which is projected to be 4.6 million square km

This gives us another point on our 2-d phase space projection. There is actually very little change from last year. I still only see two main areas of Lyapunov stability, although its possible there was a separate solution prior to the mid-1980s, when the system was confined to a much smaller region of phase space.

If the hypothesis of human activity on climate is correct, then we might interpret the first significant change as having happened around 1980, when the system expanded into a greater area of phase space. In colloquial terms, we would say that the variability of the system increased markedly.

Increased variability is potentially one of the markers of human influence on climate. If so, then the first irreversible change we see in our data occurred around 1980. The next one happened shortly after 2000 when the system migrated from one area of Lyapunov stability to another.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Crises in confidence

Today we revisit the graph of US "confidence" through time, a concept formerly discussed here.

The confidence ratio is the ratio of the face value of US debt divided by the value of the US gold holdings. As always, we are assuming that the US holds all the gold it claims to. Estimated debt for 2018 comes from here, historical debt is from here, and the average gold price for 2018 up to the end of August from kitco.com. I don't have the record of original gold holdings, which actually changed in the early part of this graph, and adding such information would improve the pre-1960 portion of the graph.

The reason I call this confidence is that the higher the ratio, the more confidence is required in the country for its currency to hold value.

Even though this measure is economic, I think its value is affected strongly by non-economic factors. One obvious example is the peak of confidence observed in 2001. After that peak, the ratio declines sharply, suggesting a loss of confidence in the US. The destruction of the World Trade Centre and damage to the Pentagon (and America's irrational reactions) contributed mightily to this loss in confidence, in my view.

The earlier decline in confidence, starting in the 1960s was probably related to the closing of the gold window, but may have been exacerbated by oil shocks, the impeachment of Nixon, and the withdrawal from Viet Nam.

Jim Sinclair, of jsmineset.com, has long had a thesis that the confidence ratio graphed above will eventually return to 1:1. This would imply a much higher price for gold--about 60x the current price if you believe that US holds all that it claimes; higher if you don't. The $174,000 question is about timing--Sinclair says it is now.

What triggers are there in the geopolitical sphere like those in 1970? Apart from the usual economic difficulties, America does face the possible impeachment of its president, and to be nearing defeat in Syria; both of which are similar to political issues in the early '70s.

Once confidence is lost, it can take a long time to be restored. Plan accordingly.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A sample of pagodas in Shijiazhuang

On my way to the kidney hospital in the spring, my train stopped at Shijiazhuang, a provincial capitol. From the window of the train I could see a large complex under construction.

I had thought someone might be building a new Orthodox cathedral, but it's probably a mall.

Twenty minutes of my life wasted walking to it.

Next step was to find a bus (or a series of buses) to get to Zhengding County, which I had identified as a principal tourism objective. As it was an important religious site for over a thousand years, there are numerous temples and pagodas in the area.

Handy reference map

The area appears to be surrounded by a wall with ramparts. The bus passes through a gate on the south wall, where I disembarked . . .

. . . directly across the street from the Hua Pagoda. My immediate impression was that this tower, built during the Tang Dynasty, was inspired by Hindu temples, although the repeated motifs on the pagoda wall were definitely Chinese.

Leaving the pagoda grounds, the next pagoda appears about 300 m to the north, surrounded by temple buildings.

According to Wikipedia, this is the Chengling Pagoda, in the Linji temple. There was no English documentation anywhere on site, but there was a large photoboard commemorating the 1150th anniversary of the pagoda's construction (apparently last year).

As this was the site of the founding of one of the birthplaces of Chan Buddhism, it is a popular site for pilgrims.

Further north, you enter a town, which is disappointingly ordinary. Then, in the middle of town, there is this recently constructed gate.

A little to the north and west is the Xumi Pagoda, which reminds me somewhat of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.

At one time the site also boasted a bell tower and large halls. Recently, some of the supports for the original hall were recovered onsite, and these have been erected to give you  a sense of its size. Additionally, a large earth dragon was found nearby and brought to the site--this probably at one time carried a stone tablet that would have been several metres tall.

Solar observatory on Xumi Pagoda grounds

The last pagoda that I reached was near the centre of town, and is called the Lingxiao pagoda. It was originally built in the Tang Dynasty but was remodeled extensively during the Song Dynasty

Pagoda grounds across a public square

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Something big is brewing

I have used the product of the gold price and the US dollar index as a metric for the profitability of (most) gold companies. I divide the product by 100 to end up with a convenient number.

Conventional thinking would have it that gold goes up when the US dollar goes down. If that were the case, this graph would consist of a straight horizontal line. Increases in this product represent times when non-US gold miners make more money. If the US dollar rises, and gold remains constant, the mining company outside the US with expenses in local currency benefits, arguably more than they would by a rise in the gold price, which is often accompanied by special windfall taxes.

As seen in other posts, the long-term trend over the past ten years has been a rise in both the gold price and the US dollar. But there is a lot of noise.

Today's chart is a simple look at the level of gold price x USDX since the beginning of 2012.

It looks to me like a setup for a big move, perhaps up by 400 points, which would bring the index close to 1600. For the record, the previous all-time high was 1448.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Changping District of Beijing

The Ming tombs in the Changping region all look alike. They have a similar layout and are characterized by the same general motifs and colour schemes.

Drain pipe on the Changling tomb grounds

Soul tower at Changling

If there's a tomb, there must be treasure. And there was, rather a lot of it, piled up and buried in a mound, now covered with trees.

Gold ingots

Gold cufflinks. The swastika has been an important symbol in 
eastern religions for thousands of years.

Endpieces for pillows

A short ways up the road (to me, this is out of town, but the city buses still run out this far), there is another tomb. I'm too lazy to look up its name now. It was closed to the public, but there were some workmen on the site, so maybe it is being prepared for public exposure.

The town closest to the hospital has a tomb of its own--the Qingling tomb. It is not open to the public, but many of its features are quite close to the main road.

Approach to the Qingling tomb

Qingling tomb and its soul tower

Just past the Qingling tomb on the way to the hospital is a small walled town. Didn't look too busy or touristy.

Mealtimes in the hospital are on a rigid schedule, and I could see I was going to miss lunch. It wasn't a bad thing really--it seemed that the only spice the cooks in the kitchen knew was salt. So I ate lunch in the village--but the food wasn't any better.

I may have mentioned there were a lot of foreigners in the hospital. When I returned, they were in the midst of a mini-exercise session, similar to the mass tai chi sessions that take place in workplaces all over China. As I went to the elevator, I met a foreigner. I said hello, he responded, "Salaam Alaikum". I know this, I thought, but I had to think really hard to remember something that was at least close to the expected reply. He asked if I were a Muslim. I told him I was not. And then he didn't want to talk any more.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Changping District kidney specialist hospital

Late last month I checked in to a specialist hospital in the Changping District of Beijing, to see if I would be able to undergo treatment later this year.

To say it was a challenge finding the hospital would be an understatement. I had been given Chinese-language instructions on how to reach the hospital so that I could direct a taxi once I reached the Changping District, which is more than 50 kim from the city centre. Fortunately, the area is easily reached by subway (although it is a long trip with a number of transfers), and the trip took no more than about an hour.

Unfortunately, the taxi driver could not understand the directions. I think it is because the directions take you a long way out of town. I had underestimated how much farther I had to travel once I reached Changping, not realizing that it was a good twenty minute drive if there was no traffic, heading up the highway through the Ming tombs (which go on for 20 km or so). We had not even reached the first of the tombs when the driver was ready to give up, apparently alarmed at driving out of the city (or at least into an area where there might not be any return fares). It took some cajoling on the part of the hospital to convince him to drive on--a location share on wechat helped as well. And so I arrived.

It is a large facility in a very nice setting. Or in the middle of nowhere. Which wasn't too much of a problem for me, because at least I have ways of getting around. But this hospital has a large contingent of foreign patients, most of whom had that wild-eyed look that comes of too long a period in captivity. I found them hard to talk to. As far as I could tell, none of them ever left the compound, and most of them had been there for some weeks.

The evening I arrived, I wandered about the grounds a little bit. There was a small fountain and a few trees, where most of the patients sat when outside, and a few trails around the grounds that went up into the hills, but none of the inmates went very far. I didn't go far either, but that was mainly because my red blood cell count is so low I find climbing even modest hills and short staircases troublesome.

So when I first arrived, I had this brief, wild idea I would climb these hills. But just walking on the path around the hospital was already too much for me.

This is a private hospital, and it supplies very little. It's up to you to provide your own towels, toilet paper (luckily I had brought these), and of course meals are extra as well. And the cost of the various testing was by far the most I've spent on medical tests on China, although they were far more thorough than testing elsewhere. I did doubt whether it was all necessary.

While waiting for results, the staff advised me to stay on the hospital grounds. I asked them if I had to, to which they replied I was free to wander around outside, but it was dangerous because of the highway traffic. I decided to take my chances. I crossed the street, and was surprised when a city bus drove past on the way toward the city. I used the Chinese mapping app on my phone to find the bus route to the Ming tombs, and found that it would be rather easy to get there, although the buses didn't run all that frequently. I located the nearest bus stop on the app and walked toward it, but when I got there, there was no obvious bus stop. It was no more than 100 m from the front gate of the hospital, and I had the sneaking suspicion that the lack of markings was deliberate.

My suspicions were shortly confirmed somewhat when a local villager approached and asked me if the bus had been by. At least I think that's what he asked. I told him I didn't know, and he stood beside an unmarked utility pole waiting. I went back to the hospital shop to get water, and see how my results were going. I hadn't completely decided to go to the Ming tombs, but after about half an hour I decided I would at least go to the Ming tombs scenic area, which was about halfway to the city. I walked back out to the bus stop, and the villager was still waiting--and just then the bus came, showing me that the unmarked utility pole was the bus stop. I managed to catch the bus and luckily had a lot of change, because the fare was 4 yuan (about $0.80), by far the most I've paid for a bus fare in China.

The bus passed through a number of villages on its way into the city, and I noticed a number of other features that would be worth seeing in addition to the scenic area. We passed three or four tomb sites along the highway until we reached the scenic area, which happened to be the Changling tomb, which is actually the best-preserved tomb and one of only three open to the public.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Forbidden City gold and silver, part 1

All those years in China, and I only went to Beijing for part of two days. One day was spent on the Great Wall, at Jinshanling. The other was spent fighting my way through the crowds at the Forbidden City.

It was a fight. Within minutes of entering, I was separated from my travelling companions, by the surging crowd, and only found one of them about an hour later by chance as I was deciding where to look next. We played WeChat tag, and managed to get together at the exit.

The Forbidden City was a palace that expanded greatly during the Qing Dynasty. The wealth of the place was truly amazing, even after the KMT sacked the place before retreating to Taiwan with the spoils. What they left behind is still impressive.

One of the thrones

The entire complex has been converted into a series of museums organized by topic. Like most Chinese tourist spots, there are ample opportunities to get dressed up in period costume and pose at different spots in the palace complex. 

The two best museums to see are the treasures museum and the clock museum. Bandwidth here in Ghana is a little limited, so I'll only show pictures of some chintzy stuff today, and save the good stuff for later.

Silver candlesticks

Chamberpot with silver and gold inlay

Various articles with gold or silver inlay

Silver axle endpiece for chariot

Wine vessel with gold and silver inlay

Most of these artifacts are older pieces, dating from the Han Dynasty and the Warring States period. None of these are in the main treasure museum, but are scattered in some of the others, along with a lot of bronze pieces and weapons (so many weapons).

Saturday, February 24, 2018


Arrived in Ghana a couple of days ago. Getting used to the heat. Here are some shots of the Sahara from the plane.

The sandy, sandy sea