Cryptocurrencies, 1: What Exactly Is Bitcoin?

Everybody knows that Bitcoin is a “digital currency”. But what does that really mean, and what is Bitcoin really good for? Who developed it? Turns out, oddly, that we don’t actually know. Can you buy a pizza with it? Turns out that perhaps the most famous pizza purchase of all time was made with Bitcoin.

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The Massive SolarWinds Hack: A Work of Art

With all the uproar around the election in December, the news of the SolarWinds data breach did not get the attention it deserved. Some well-resourced foreign organization, almost certainly in Russia, succeeded in infiltrating the data systems of an astounding 18,000 or more U.S. organizations. These included major federal agencies such as the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Treasury, and other big targets like Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and Deloitte, and organizations like the California Department of State Hospitals, and Kent State University. Security watchdogs run out of adjectives (“11 out of 10”) in characterizing the magnitude of this hack.

At the same time, security experts cannot help admiring the sheer artistry of this exploit. Hackers themselves often view their codes as a work of art. According to one cybersecurity expert, “Programmers and hackers like to sign their work like artists…So they sign that code in various ways. Often, they’ll leave their initials or they’ll try to be cute and put some sort of cryptic message.” So how was this hack accomplished?

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Why Short Selling Is a Good Thing for the Stock Market and Investors Large and Small

We noted earlier the hubbub over a hive of little investors on Reddit outfoxing some big Wall Street firms who had made massive short bets on the stock of GameStop. Some of the narrative around this event has painted short selling as a secret, evil practice only available for the big guys. But none of that is true.

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Reddit GameStop Stock Bubble Deflates; Roaring Kitty Speaks; Hearings Loom

Last week we noted how a hive of millions of small, mainly young investors in the Reddit user group, r/wallstreetbets (“WSB”) targeted GME, the small, heavily shorted stock of troubled video game retailer GameStop. In a classic short squeeze, the stock price was driven up from a more or less rational price of $20 per share, to over $400.

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The GameStop Short Squeeze: Swarm of Small Investors Stings Wall Street Hedge Funds

If you think the price of a stock is going to go up, you can buy shares and wait for the price to go up, then sell the shares to someone else. This is called being “long” a stock. If it turns out that the stock price goes down and stays down, the most money you can lose is the amount you put in, since the stock price cannot go below zero.

But what if you think the stock price is going to go down instead of up? You may believe the price has run up irrationally high, or your analysis uncovers poor earnings prospects. A favorite tactic of Wall Street pros, including hedge funds, in this case is to “short” a stock.

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The Kalecki Profit Equation: Why Government Deficit Spending (Typically) MUST Boost Corporate Earnings

Some equations or relations in economics are inspired guesswork, which may or may not precisely describe the real world. There are other equations which always hold, since they are simple accounting identities. The Kalecki Profit Equation is of the latter type. It describes precisely the factors which determine corporate profits. Knowing this relation can give investors a leg up in predicting earnings.

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QE, Stock Prices, and TINA

The U.S. economy as quantified by GDP has been sputtering along in slow growth mode for a number of years. It took a huge hit in 2020 due to covid shutdowns and has not nearly recovered. But stock prices have been rocketing upwards, and this past year is no exception. Markets took a cliff-dive in March, but have since way overshot to the upside.

Here is a plot of the past five decades of U.S. GDP and of the Wilshire 5000 index, which approximates the total stock market capitalization in the U.S.:

Chart Source: St. Louis Fed, as plotted by Lyn Alden Schwartzer

These two curves have crisscrossed each other over the past five decades, but in recent years the stock market has roared to the upside. One of Warren Buffet’s favorite metrics as to whether stock are overvalued is to consider the ratio of these two quantities, i.e. the market-capitalization-to-GDP (Cap/GDP) ratio:

Source: Lyn Alden Schwartzer

The ratio is much higher than it has even been. The last time it got this high was in 2000, and that did not end well.

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The Feel of Money

The Federal Reserve System has the ability create virtual dollars with the stroke of a key. They also issue the physical bills of U.S. currency ($1, $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100). The actual manufacturing of the bills for the Fed is done by the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just print up a bunch of $100 notes yourself? Well, the feds have already thought of that, and include an ever-growing array of features to make it hard to duplicate these bills.

Counterfeiting of dollar bills has a long history. Following a distasteful experience of runaway inflation with paper money during the Revolutionary War, the U.S. remained primarily on a gold standard for most of its existence. The first major issuance of paper money was in 1862, to help finance the Civil War. Counterfeiting of these bills soon became a major problem, with up to half the dollars in circulation being phony. A primary mission of the U.S. Secret Service when it was founded in 1865 was to combat counterfeiting.

During World War II, the Nazis in “Operation Bernhard” succeeded in producing enough counterfeit British money that the U.K. had to switch production of banknotes to a different format. The work was carried out by prisoners at concentration camps. Later in the war, the prisoners were tasked with counterfeiting U.S. currency as well. Due to the security features in the dollars, this was a more complex task. Also, the prisoners realized that their chance of being killed was higher after they succeeded in devising a process for making counterfeit dollars, so they slowed the work down as much as they could.  The $100 bill has been a frequent target of more recent counterfeiters, including the British Anatasios Arnaouti  gang and (allegedly) North Korea.

Modern U.S. currency includes numerous feature which make it difficult to duplicate. Only about 1 note in 10,000 in circulation is fake. You can click this link

The Seven Denominations | U.S. Currency Education Program

to zoom in on each of the seven denominations of U.S. currency and see the current security features for each one. The more valuable bills get more sophisticated. The $100 bill has color-shifted numerals and bell image, a 3-D security ribbon with shifting images of bells and 100s, a security thread which glows under ultraviolet light, and subtle watermarks. Magnetic features are also included.

But it turns out that one of the most reliable and hard-to-duplicate features of dollars is the feel in your fingers, a result of the material they are made from and the printing process which gives a 3-D texture:

Perhaps the most difficult-to-duplicate counterfeit deterrence feature of U.S. banknotes is its unique yellow-green paper, manufactured under close security by a single U.S. firm from a mixture of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent flax. When combined with intaglio-printed images and numerals, this gives the notes a unique “feel,” which surveys have reported is the most common method of counterfeit detection by the public and bank employees.

So, if you want your own $100 bills, it looks like you will have to earn them, or wait for the next stimulus check to arrive.

The Many Faces of Molasses

It started as a simple question: can you substitute blackstrap molasses for regular molasses in a gingerbread recipe?

In order to reduce our potential exposure to Covid, we are ordering groceries online and having them delivered. Whole Foods (owned by Amazon), delivers free to Amazon Prime customers like us. In our order the other day we included molasses. We are almost out, and I wanted to make a gingerbread recipe this holiday week. The bottle that arrived yesterday along with the rest of our order says “Blackstrap Molasses”. Hmm, I wondered, what is different about blackstrap molasses and can you use it in place of the usual Grandma’s molasses that we have always had in our cupboards?

Once I get reading on a topic, it is hard to stop. It turns out there is much to know about molasses (treacle, in the U.K.). We all know it to be a sweet, flavorful ingredient in baked goods, and in savory dishes like pulled pork and baked beans. Diluted molasses is touted as a hair de-frizzer and hair mask, and there are even claims it can help combat gray hair.

However, there is a decidedly unsavory side to its past. It played a key role in fueling the triangular Atlantic slave trade in the 1700’s and early 1800s. Plantations worked by slaves in the Caribbean would ship molasses to the American colonies, where it would be converted into rum. The rum was shipped to West Africa, to pay for more people to be captured and then shipped to the Caribbean plantations to grow more sugar and make more molasses.

Not to mention the deadly “Great Molasses Flood” in Boston. On January 15, 1919, a 50-ft high storage tank of molasses ruptured, and sent a 15-ft high wall of syrup racing through the street at 35 miles an hour. It crushed and drowned anything and anyone in its path. Buildings were collapsed, and 19 people died. It has a place in the history of litigation as the birthing the modern class action lawsuit.

But I digress. Back to the difference since between types of molasses. Sugarcane is squeezed to extract cane juice. Sugar, the main desired product, starts off dissolved in the juice. The cane juice is boiled to remove water, to precipitate the solid sugar crystals. The liquid that remains after the first boiling (and the removal of the sugar from that stage) is called first or light molasses. That is what has usually been sold in U.S. grocery stores.

That first molasses is subjected to a second boiling, to extract even more sugar. The remaining liquid is called second molasses, or dark or robust molasses. From all accounts, this is pretty similar in properties to the initial light molasses, just somewhat less sweet and more flavorful. Folks say that you can substitute dark molasses for light molasses in most recipes without making a big difference.

To extract the last little bit of sugar, the second molasses is boiled even longer and hotter. After the sugar from that stage has been removed, what is left is the so-called blackstrap molasses. Obviously, this product will have less sugar and less liquid, then the light molasses, with a higher concentration of the other flavoring components. The operational question for me is: Can I take some of that blackstrap molasses and simply re-dilute it with some sugar and some water to get the equivalent of light molasses?

Internet opinion on this matter is mixed. On the one hand, there are those who answer this question in the affirmative. They say that a half cup of blackstrap molasses plus half cup of light corn syrup (or half a cup of a water plus sugar mixture) can readily be substituted for a cup of light molasses.

On the other hand I read counsel such as this:

Blackstrap molasses is what results when regular molasses is boiled down and super-concentrated, This results in bitter, salty sludge that only has a 45 percent sugar content, as opposed to the 70 percent sugar level found in both light and dark varieties of baking molasses. Spoon University warns against using blackstrap molasses as substitute for true molasses in any recipe calling for the latter due to the fact that its bitter flavor will overpower the taste of whatever you’re making.

And this :

Do not use blackstrap molasses as a substitute for light or dark molasses. It has a strong, bitter taste and isn’t very sweet. It’s more likely to wreck your recipe than help it.

But still I (being a chemical engineer by trade) wondered if this “strong, bitter” taste is merely the lack of sugar, which could be cured by replacing the missing sugar. After all, unsweetened chocolate is unpalatably bitter, but we fix that by adding sugar.

I don’t claim the final word on this, but it seems that the severe third boiling that yields the blackstrap molasses does some chemical alterations. It is not merely a matter of removing sugar. It is all well when sugar is lightly heated to form light brown caramel, but when it gets pushed too far, some bitter, dark brown compounds can form. It is not clear that merely adding sugar can undo these flavors, considering that blackstrap still contains a lot (45%) of sugar.

Conclusion: Blackstrap molasses may be fine for your BBQ sauce and as a trendy, mineral-packed low-sugar sweetener for your yoghurt and tea. But that bottle of thick black goo on my counter is going back to Whole Foods, not into my gingerbread.