Symphonic Metal: A Musical Interlude

Some years back when I had my “musical awakening”, I was introduced to the term “symphonic metal.” Now I had heard symphonies.  And I had heard metal (without, in those earlier years, appreciating it).  And when I heard the term “symphonic metal” I thought it had to be remarkably pretentious.

Then I actually listened to some:

Of course, Nightwish isn’t the only symphonic metal band out there by far.

In a review of the next one the reviewer criticized Liv for “bombast” and her use of “operatic registers.” However, those were the very things I love about her vocals:

Then there’s this group:

(joined by Tarja, formerly of Nightwish here)

Epica is also not to be missed:

Some might disagree with categorizing Delain as Symphonic Metal but I’ll put them here because they are just that good:

And that, I think, is enough for this time around.

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus!

“While we live, let us live!” That’s the inscription of Lady Vivimus, the sword that Oscar Gordon used in Robert Heinlein’s book “Glory Road.

Jordan Peterson, in his “12 Rules for Life” called it (Rule 11) “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” (It makes more sense in context.)

First off, sorry about being rather spotty about updates of late.  Life, as they say, happens.

I am sitting here with a bruise on my right hip and a rather large swollen lump on my right elbow (as well as various muscle aches) because of a rather bad fall at ice skating lessons yesterday.  I actually did a pretty good Judo breakfall.  Kept my chin tucked so I didnt hit my head.  Arm out to cushion the impact to my body (which is where the elbow injury came in–“pretty good” meant that my arm was turned so the point of the elbow struck directly otherwise it would have been “perfect).  Landed turned slightly on my side, so there was plenty of “give” to soak up more impact (thus the hip bruise).

Yeah, it hurts.  And if I’d stayed off the ice and didn’t do anything as “silly” as deliberately going out onto a slippery surface with blades strapped to my feet deliberately designed not for traction but to slide I would have been safe.

People these days are entirely too concerned with “being safe”.  Now, don’t get me wrong, a reasonable level of safety is a good thing.  The problem is some people decide that only “perfect safety” is “a reasonable level”, not just for themselves but for anyone else and, thus, “it’s not safe” is taken as full and complete justification that something should be eliminated at any cost.  “If it saves just one…”

The problem, of course, is that you can’t have perfect safety.  It doesn’t exist.  And anything, absolutely anything you do–or don’t do–has some risk to it.  Also, the attempt to remove all risk takes all the living out of life.

Consider an individual who, from a very young age, lived in a sealed chamber.  No sharp edges or hard surfaces against which this individual could cut themselves or suffer a bruise, or, heaven forbid, a concussion.  Air filtered to remove all potential bacteria, viruses, even allergens.  Food carefully pureed so as to avoid even a hint of risk of choking–of exactly the quantity required to maintain the ideal weight of the individual–with the individual carefully monitored and diet adjusted to any changes to the person’s body fat remains at the ideal, healthy level.  Soft, indirect lighting (no bright spots) kept to a modest level (to avoid possible eyestrain or other damage to vision) and filtered to avoid UV or other harmful radiation.  Multiple redudancy in all the systems providing all that so that they will continue uninterrupted in the face of a failure of some part or parts until repairs can be made.

That individual would be as “safe” as it is humanely possible to make them.  Not perfectly safe (some “multiple simultaneous failures” could still happen cutting off light or air or food) but it is as close as we could get.  So, the individual would be safe.  They would also be driven mad in quite short order from such a sterile (both literally and metaphorically) environment.

People need not just “safety” but stimulus.  And more than that, they need challenge.  But that entails risk.  Even simply meeting another person and talking to them involves the risk of the transmission of airborne illness (never mind any closer contact).  And as soon as they step out of that chamber, they get exposed to a host of allergens, germs, and parasites.  There is machinery and people that can cause accidents.  The very world might strike against them with storms, volcanoes, Earthquakes, floods, landslides, and a host of natural disasters.  The skies may rain down meteors or comets.  Solar events could wipe out electricity and electronics.  The list of risks one faces cannot be eliminated.  Some can be mitigated but they cannot be completely eliminated.

And efforts to eliminate one risk will often lead to the increase in others.  Eliminate cars and the risk of auto accidents, and you don’t have a network of roads allowing emergency services to reach you quickly in an emergency.  “But what, then,” someone may ask, “did people do before cars and roads and auto accidents and air pollution?”

They died, someone.  A lot of them died.  They died because an ambulance couldn’t reach them in time.  They died because “fire fighting” was a group of whoever was handy passing buckets of water from a hand-pumped well to a burning house.  They died because the world is a dangerous place and the risks of “ubiquitous automotive travel” were still in the future and, thus, not available to reduce the risks of the then “now”.

You cannot eliminate risk.  You can only weigh risks in comparison to other risks.

One risk, however, that often gets neglected in such comparisons is the risk of removing the life from life.  People need challenge.  They need stimulus.  They need to overcome.  Not everybody has the same level of need, or find the same challenges providing the stimulus they need, but I feel fairly safe to say that everyone needs it.  If they don’t get it, they may not recognize the reason for the ennui and dissatisfaction with life that they feel, but it will be there.

Let’s go back to the injuries I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.  Yes, if I stayed off the ice, I wouldn’t have them.  I could quit and avoid the risk of fewer such future injuries.  But what would I lose in doing so?

Well, one thing would be a small amount (really, it’s tiny.  You’ll hardly miss it) of self respect.  I will go on knowing that I quit, that when things got difficult, I folded like a cheap suit. (Where in the world did that metaphor come from?  Do “cheap suits” fold more easily than those of more expensive construction?) Maybe that’s a little thing.  And maybe I could salve over the loss with the idea that I was “smart” and did the “sensible thing.” If I do a good enough patch job, I could even end up feeling good about it.

Another thing I’ll lose is the future enjoyment of skating for fun.  And that will be the greater loss there because I used to skate and I did enjoy it.  And I remember how frustrated I was at the lack of opportunity to skate more–where I lived at the time the only “ice rink” they had was an outdoor basketball court that they flooded over in winter and let freeze when the weather was cold.  Yes, it was as bad a venue as you might imagine, but it was all we had so you take what you can get.

In fact, I think that’s a part of my difficulty now.  I remember skating for fun when I was younger.  Only, now, the learned reflexes that keep me upright on the skates are gone.  I have to relearn them.  The knack of balance I once learned has to be relearned from scratch.  And now I have the greater challenges that I’m simply older.  My body is neither as flexible nor as resilient as it was before.  and building new reflexes and “knacks” is simply harder at 58 than it was at 18.  And yet, I remember being able to do that (without “remembering” in a useful way how) so frustration leads me to pushing harder than I’m ready for now.  And sometimes that leads to faster practice.  Other times, it leads to falls like yesterday’s and the attendant injuries. (And yesterday I was running on three hour’s sleep for reasons we need not go into here, so that didn’t help.)

But there is one advantage that older me has over younger me.  I understand quite well that “this too shall pass.” There is nothing keeping me from reaching my end goal of skating better than I ever did in the years between when I was 18 to 23. (Frankly, I wasn’t all that good–perfectly okay with recreational “round and round” but not much more.) And the difficulty I am having now will make the final success all the sweeter.

Besides, I have it a lot easier than these folk:

 

Money 3: The Money Supply

As I discussed before matching the money supply to economic output is a big part of what makes a healthy economy.  The problem comes with how to do that.  What goes into “the money supply” as it is meant by economists.

Part of it is simple.  Back in the era of “hard currency” (money consisting of, or at least backed by, precious metals) how much precious metal you had determined (more or less–we’ll get to that in a moment) the money supply.  However, increasing the money supply to match increases in economic output was another matter.  The world economy in the 20th century far, far outstripped any new finds of precious metals.

Even before abandoning the gold standard it became fairly common for governments to issue more currency “backed by” gold than they could redeem with the actual physical gold they had on hand.  This worked out fine so long as most people accepted the “gold certificates” and did not insist on redeeming them for physical gold.  The effect was similar to that of older cultures–where coins made of the precious metals were the currency–debasing the currency by admixture of base metals.  So long as the increase of money supply this way approximately matched growth in economic output, all was well.  But the temptation, as always, remained to increase the money supply still more leading to inflation and all the problems that causes.

Once governments went to so-called “fiat money,” that is, money backed up by no more than the “faith and credit” of the issuing agency, it became simpler.  The money supply is then simply the number of pieces of paper with elaborate printing on them combined with the number of cheap stamped metal trinkets.  Want more?  Print/stamp more.  Again, this is “more or less” the money supply.

And now, in the era of electronic banking, it’s not even that.  “Money” can be created by simply changing figures in a computer.

Most of these influences on the money supply are “top down” and controlled by whatever authority happens to be in place, generally the government.  In principle, these could be set up to create a stable, entirely predictable money supply.

However, government isn’t the only factor controlling the effective money supply.

Consider fractional reserve banking.  People, rather than stuff their money into mattresses, put their money into banks and other institutions.  The idea is that the money is safer there.  Banks can afford a lot more security than can the typical individual and in the modern age there is insurance protecting depositors against losses.  That money, however, doesn’t just sit in the bank’s vaults.  Money sitting in the vault is nothing but a cost to the bank and the bank wants to make money.  So, what the bank does is lend out some of that money, keeping only a fraction on hand (the “fractional reserve”).  From an economic standpoint, the money is serving two purposes.  People have their savings.  That’s one use.  A large chunk of this same money is also being used by others to buy houses, cars, and consumer goods, and is back in circulation working in the economy until someone else puts it back into their savings.  Like this case with the gold certificates mentioned above, this works well so long as most people leave most of their savings in the banks and you don’t have everyone trying to withdraw all their money at once (a “run” on the bank).

This has the effect of an increase in the money supply.  This one is a lot more dynamic and a lot less amenable to top-down control than simply determining how much money is printed or what credits are granted by issuing banks (i.e. the Federal Reserve).  An example of that is when you get a “panic.” When you get a run on one bank, that’s bad for the bank and its depositors (less so for the depositors in the era of deposit insurance) but when you get a run on a lot of banks or banks in genera, a “panic”, the result is that you lose this double use of the money leading to a contraction of the effective money supply.

A big factor in the Great Depression was just that–widespread bank failures causing a contraction in the effective money supply.  Normally, this would lead to deflation causing prices to plummet which would be bad for borrowers and pain caused because some things will fall faster in price than others.  However, the federal government tried to bypass part of that “correction” by shoring up one of the prices from falling–labor prices.  But by forcing labor prices to be higher than the “market clearing” price, this created a surplus–more labor available at that price than people were willing to buy at that price.  Translated into more common terms:  rampant unemployment.  And the Federal Reserve, which had been created as a result of previous bank panics to help stabilize the money supply and prevent just that, failed utterly for reasons that are more than I can really cover in this post but that I may go into later.  The interested reader could find more in Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose“.

Thus, the problem of keeping a stable money supply and avoiding the twin pitfalls of inflation and deflation is not a simple one.  In the real world, any system attempted is likely to have occasional mismatches between the money supply and economic output.  When that happens the the urge to “do something” becomes strong indeed but almost always this is an urge that should be resisted.  Left to itself, the issue will generally sort itself out, usually more quickly than if the many wrong “somethings” are done.

Better to do nothing than to do the wrong “something.”

Money 2

Yesterday I talked a bit about money, a common medium of exchange, where it came from, and why it makes economic transactions more efficient (meaning more goods and services produced for the same total expenditure of resources–which include time and effort–than if one is limited to a pure barter economy).

One of the things I mentioned was that early money consisted of small bits (whether made into coins or otherwise) of precious metals.  One of the advantages of this form of money is that it limited the supply of money keeping the value of the money high.  I have discussed why limiting the growth of the money supply is a good thing elsewhere.

One of the things that money allows that is harder to do in a barter economy is savings and investment.  It’s not entirely impossible to do those in a barter economy and I used an example in a discussion of interest previously. In that previous post I show that “interest” is justified by the fact that when one loans something, even if it is returned exactly in the condition in which it was loaned, one is still out the benefits that one could have had of it during the period of the loan.  This loss, the benefits one could accrue from the use of the lent object, is deserving of compensation and thus forms the basis of interest.

While one can save many material goods–grain storage, a shed full of pottery, duplicates of tools one might use in the future–others are more difficult.  Fresh milk and meat only keep so long, especially in the days before modern refrigeration.  Money, in addition to being convenient for also commerce, is also generally non-perishable.

Money also makes investment far more convenient.  John and his plane (from the earlier post on interest) only works because John, being a carpenter has the plane and is able to loan it to another carpenter.  If John were a baker with an extra oven and George still needed a plane, well, neither would be able to help the other.  If, however, instead of putting his extra effort into making an oven (analogous to making the plane the first time) John could instead put aside some money that could be used to purchase an oven and instead loan the money to George which George could then use to buy or rent a plane.  Even though the transaction is now one of money rather than material goods the same principle applies.  John could use the money to buy an oven to increase the capacity of his bakery.  Instead, he loans the money to George and thus is deprived of the benefit of that increased productivity.  This deserves compensation and so, George is expected to pay back not just the amount loaned, but a somewhat greater amount…interest.

The idea that money, put into others hands for use, in return for a greater amount to be returned later is a very old one–common enough in Biblical times for Jesus to use it as an example in the Parable of the Talents (a “talent” being a weight measure of gold or silver–a rather large one in fact, about 130 lbs).

This works, however, when the value of the money itself is relatively consistent.  As I describe in the blog post on inflation dramatic increases in the money supply relative to economic output cause the value of money to go down–more money is required to buy the same goods or services.  This is bad for John.  What he gets back at the end of the loan/investment is less, in terms of what he can do with the return than it would be absent the increase in money supply.  On the other hand, it’s great for George.  His goods are selling for a lot more of the money he needs to pay John back.

The flip side can also happen.  A decrease in the money supply relative to the economic output leads to an increase in the value of money–a given amount of money will buy more goods and services–deflation.  This, as it happens, is great for John (to a point–which we’ll get to momentarily).  The money he’s getting back from George (again, to a point) buys more than it would otherwise.  This is, however, bad for George.  His goods are selling for less, but he still owes John the same amount of money.  And this is where we reach the “to a point.” The deflation doesn’t have to go very far at all before George finds himself unable to pay the loan at all.  He defaults.  And John gets nothing.  Both of them are harmed by the deflation.

While people have a natural reaction to think that low prices are a good thing, it should be clear from the above that a general deflation is actually harmful and may actually be worse than a similar level of inflation.

These twin monsters, the Scylla and Charybdis of money, are why one ideally wants money supply to keep close pace with economic output.  As populations grow, as industrialization and technical innovation increases productivity, the money supply needs to grow as well.  And, so the very benefit of precious metals becomes a weakness.  The scarcity of precious metals that prevents runaway inflation also means that one might not be able to increase the supply (finding and developing new ores or shifting from other uses such as jewelry to use as currency) sufficiently to match economic growth.

The “solution” that governments have used to escape this weakness of precious metals standards has been to go to “fiat” currencies, not tied to anything except the “faith and credit” of the issuing government.  In principle, the money supply could then be adjusted to match economic output, avoiding either inflation or deflation.

In practice, however, government generally find themselves unable to resist the temptation to “solve” short term economic woes by inflating currency as “stimulus”.

Money

It’s been a while since I’ve done an economics post.  So here’s one on money.

Money has been around since its invention in Asia Minor nearly 3000 years ago (the ancient kingdom of Lydia).  The use of metals as a medium of exchange goes back even farther, to at least 5000 BC.

Money makes trade easier.  Consider a purely barter economy.  If you make something, chairs for instance, and you want something you don’t make, you have to find someone willing to trade chairs for what you want.

Suppose you wanted milk.  You could go to the guy with dairy cows or goats or whatever milk-producing animals and offer to trade a chair for milk but what if he doesn’t want any chairs. “Got all the chairs I need, thanks.” What do you do then?  Well, you could find out what the milk producer does want (ewers, say, to store the milk) and find who provides that.  So you go to the potter to see about trading a chair for an ewer that you could then trade to the milk producer for the milk you want.  But the potter doesn’t want chairs either.  So you find what he wants.  And so on until you finally get to someone who will trade for your chair.  And then you have to go down the chain, making each of the trades, until you finally get the milk that you wanted.

That’s a lot of work to get something to pour on your cereal. (And again to get the cereal on which to pour the milk.) That’s time and effort you could have spent on making more chairs to trade.

That’s where we were for much of prehistory.  This basically made trade so difficult that most people produced most of their own goods even if it weren’t the most efficient way of doing it.  Trade was limited, largely to resources of widespread applicability. (The early flint trade was simply amazing in its scope.) But somewhere along the line people figured out that a common medium of exchange made trade so much easier.  You could trade your chair to someone who needs chairs for this medium of exchange, then when you need milk, you can take the medium of exchange to the milk producer and trade for milk.

Precious metals were among the first media of exchange.  Gold and silver were easy to recognize, rare enough that modest amounts could be traded for considerable other goods, and yet easy to divide into small pieces for smaller transactions.  Weight and purity determined their value.  Weight was measured by balancing against known weights and purity by rubbing against a touchstone.  The touchstone was a piece of fine grained schist or jasper.  When a piece of gold was rubbed against it it left a streak, the color of which revealed the purity of the gold.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as gold was recognized as a medium of exchange, cheating began.  Merchants would have two sets of weights–heavy ones to use when selling for gold and light ones (although claimed to be the same weight) when buying with gold.  Everyone had to carry their own weights to check against the person with whom they are dealing to avoid such cheating.  And, of course, the use of the touchstone was mandatory.  This added a bit of extra time and effort to every transaction, never mind the arguments if weights did not agree or disputes over what the touchstone revealed.

Then, along about 600 BC the Kingdom of Lydia began taking small pieces of gold of known weight and purity and stamping them with a design, making the first coins.  People did not need to use weights nor touchstones.  They merely needed to count coins.

It was not long, however, before yet more cheating began.  People would shave bits of gold from the coins or make fake coins of lesser purity.  Nevertheless, the introduction of coinage, of money, made trade far easier.

With the increase of trade came increased specialization in production.  A potter, for instance, instead of making a wide variety of pottery so as to be able to trade with more individuals, with fewer intermediate steps, for the things he needs, could instead produce ewers to sell to a few individuals who need those vessels, trade them for money, and then use the money to trade directly for the things he needs.  And making just ewers he can get very good at their production, making more ewers in less time allowing him to trade for more money to buy the things he not only needs but wants.  This allowed for greater economic efficiency and increased prosperity of the society as a whole.

The other aspect of a common medium of trade, of money, is that it allowed separation in time between the halves of a trade.  One could trade what one produces when it is convenient or profitable to do so, then hold onto the money until one needs to make a purchase of something else.  This split in time between selling and buying, and the reserve of money between those two lead to a host of other economic activities which I’ll go into another time.

 

An Appeal

Copied from Sarah Hoyt’s page since the “reblog” button wasn’t working.  I agree with all of it.

To all my fans and friends:
I’m very careful about which gofundmes I boost. Usually only those of very close friends where I know the need is real.

Oleg is a very good friend, one who has helped me unstintingly when I was in trouble.

Furthermore, Gremlin, his cat, is more like a child or a friend or a brother of his than a “pet.” I’m not sure Oleg will be okay without Gremlin.

The bad news is Gremlin got out and got attacked and the wounds went septic. Gremlin is — quite literally — between life and death.

This is going to be very expensive — says she who once spent the 10k she’d saved for a car saving a cat’s life in similar circumstances — and freelance photographers are not great on STEADY income.

If you can at all, please help. And if you can’t help monetarily, keep Gremlin and his human pet in your thoughts/prayers.

This is the fundraiser for medical expenses.

Update:  Sad to say, Gremlin didn’t make it.  The fundraiser is no longer accepting donations.

 

Today should be a National Holiday: An Annual Tradition

I’m not kidding.

Back in the 1770’s unrest was growing in the American colonies, at least those along the Atlantic Seaboard from New Hampshire down through Georgia.  Protests over taxes imposed without the taxed having any voice in the matter, complaints about a distant monarch and legislative body making rules and laws over people to whom they are not beholden.

There had been clashes which fed that unrest, including the famous “Boston Massacre” where British troops fired into a rioting mob resulting in several deaths.  Think of it as the Kent State of the 18th century.

In an effort to quell the unrest, or at least have it be less of a threat to British officials, General Thomas Gage, Military governor of Massachusetts, under orders to take decisive action against the colonists, decided to confiscate firearms and ammunition from certain groups in the colony.  His forces marched on the night of April 18, 1775.

The colonists, forewarned of the action (the Longfellow poem, which children learn in school–or they did when I was in school–is historically inaccurate, but it sure is stirring, isn’t it?), first met the British troops at Lexington Massachusetts where John Parker, in command of the local Colonial Militia said, according to the recollection of one of the participants, “Stand your ground.  Don’t fire unless fired upon.  But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Whether Parker actually said those words, the first shot was fired.  No one knew who fired it, whether British or Colonial.  In the ensuing, brief battle the British regulars put the Colonial militia to flight.

The British then turned toward Concord.

A small unit of militia, hearing reports of firing at Lexington marched out but on spotting a British unit of about 700 while themselves only numbering about 250 they returned to Concord.  The Colonial militia departed the town across the North Bridge to a hill about a mile north of town where additional militia reinforcements continued to gather.

The British reached the town and began searching for the weapons they came to confiscate.  They found several cannon, too large to be moved quickly, and disabled them.  Other weapons and supplies had been either removed or hidden.

On seeing the smoke of the burning carriages from the cannon, the Militia began to move.  It is not my purpose here to go into detailed description of their movements but in the end the British regulars found themselves both outnumbered and outmaneuvered.  They fled, a rout that surprised the Colonial Militia as much as the British regulars.  Again, I simplify but in the end they marched back to Boston continuing to suffer casualties from what amounted to 18th century sniper fire from the surrounding brush.  The frustration of the British soldiers led them to atrocities, killing everyone they found in buildings whether they were involved in the fighting or not.

Eventually the British forces fought their way back to Boston where they were besieged by Militia forces numbering over 1500 men.

And the Revolutionary War had begun.

And so, on this day in 1775, the nascent United States took the course that would lead eventually to Independence.

And that’s why April 19 deserves to be a National Holiday on a par at least with Independence Day.  The latter was recognition of what became fact on the former.