Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mental structures that lead us astray

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, economics, errors, systems 1 and 2

On a recent episode of Star Talk, the latest offering by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic Channel, he discussed his interview with Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. At one point Penn presented this scenario:
Suppose you're a 3-foot hominid such as Lucy, and you hear a rustling in the grass. If you think about it, there are two causes: the wind, or an approaching predator. If you assume it is a predator and run, but it really was the wind, you have lost little but some energy and sweat. But if you assume it is the wind and it is a predator, you're lunch. So it is safer to assume it is a predator, because even if you are wrong, you are alive.
I would add, if you take the time to think about it and weigh the "wind or predator" question, you are probably lunch also. That is why our defensive mechanisms work so fast, moving us out of harm's way before we have thought about it.

So we have two ways of thinking, fast and slow. The fast, reactive system is tuned to keeping us alive. The slow, contemplative system is tuned to revising our model of the world and to informing the faster system how to work more accurately, in a way that keeps us up-to-date more efficiently than waiting for evolution to re-tune our reactions. Daniel Kahneman calls these System 1 and System 2 in his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Though Dr. Kahneman is a psychologist, his Nobel Prize is in Economics.

This is a good spot to emphasize that economics is about how people make choices, not just about how we use money. At several points in the book, the author mentions how psychology and economics, as disciplines, can each inform the other, though historically they are "stovepiped", with too little cross-communication.

The handful of folks who actually "follow" this blog may have wondered where I've been for more than two weeks. I have been reading this book with more than usual care. It is a big book, with the main text totaling 418 pages, but two large appendices (reprints of the seminal articles he and Adam Tversky wrote) and extensive end notes stretch that to 481. A book this big will naturally take me a while to finish. A book this good takes even longer! It has more fine ideas per pound than any other I've read in the past few years. The book is structured around three big ideas, and a host of subsidiary ideas are thus engendered. I really have space only to summarize the Big Three.

Idea 1: System 1 and System 2. These are our Reactive System and our Contemplative (or Calculative) System. System 1 in action: during our courtship, my future bride and I were walking in a park and strolled over to sit on some monkey bars. Such seating is none too secure, and I said, "Don't push me." She did push me, before I finished the sentence, and I grabbed a couple of handholds during the word "me". Her S1 was operating to focus my attention, and my S1 instantly kept me from falling. This was followed by some S2 activity: She grinned to emphasize her playful mood, and I took that in and boosted my "how lovable she is" score a notch. Human courtship, operating as it has for millennia.

  • Our S1 does the things no computer does well: recognize who or what is around us, evaluate each on a hazard/help axis, and frequently prompt us to action, all within one or two tenths of a second. 
  • Our S2 struggles to do things a computer does well: put together the puzzle of our existence and map the world around us, carry out calculations (Quick! What is 27x17?), and feed new insights back to S1. If you could do that "simple" multiplication (partial sums: 340 and 119; add to 459) in less than five seconds, your "horseback arithmetic" skills are at expert level.

I had a conversation a few years ago with a professor of philosophy. He talked a bit about his work on "formal errors of logic", such as broken syllogisms (look it up; it'll save time). I said at one point that I was quite interested in errors of informal logic. He snapped, "That isn't real philosophy," rather pettishly, I thought. His expertise was threatened by the chance the conversation would turn to an unfamiliar area, and his S1 snapped to attention to maintain dominance over me. I retained my integrity by walking off to find a more congenial conversationalist. My S2 intervened just quickly enough to prevent my S1 from answering rashly.

I was fascinated by Dr. Kahneman's reports of ways our body and mind work together. In one experiment, students were asked to work a page of simple arithmetic problems, all the while holding a pencil in their teeth so it stuck out both sides of the mouth. Another group did the same problems, but held the pencil by its eraser with their lips, so it pointed out the mouth. The first group, forced by the pencil to smile, did the problem sheet much faster and more accurately than the other group, forced by the pencil to frown. This gives credence to the adage, "Fake it 'til you make it." We smile, not only to reassure others we are with of our good intentions, but to reassure ourselves that all is, or soon will be, well. This is just one example of many.

Idea 2: Econs and Humans. Much of the theory of Economics is based on the notion of a Rational Actor. People are expected to make choices rationally, unaffected by emotional considerations. The work of Dr. Kahneman and others demonstrates that this is probably the unlikeliest foundation upon which to found a theory.  Our grandmothers knew we act without thinking, and we think—with some modicum of rationality—only when forced, even backed into a corner. Most of us pass most of the day without having one rational thought pass through our head. It is how you get to work, or back home, "on autopilot", particularly when you intended to run an errand on the way home, but arrived at your door wondering what it was you forgot.

Behavioral economist Richard Thaler calls the mythical Rational Agent an Econ, in contrast to the real agent that we all are, a Human. Econs do automatically what Humans typically cannot. I considered this analogy, which I make to distinguish faith from religion: A Religion is a checklist that you can hang on your wall. A robot could perform it all perfectly; you cannot. A Jewish friend told me of his study, in his youth, of the 611 laws in Leviticus, and how he sorted them into, "No problem", "Oh, maybe this is a bit sketchy", and "Who in his right mind would think this is possible?!?" In the wholly secular world, we are often told to "Count to ten first," but we find we've done something we can't undo before getting from one to two. A certain policeman is in the news these days, for shooting a youngster 16 times in 15 seconds, while six or seven of his colleagues were content to watch the young fellow from a step or two away and persuade him to put his little knife down and have a nice chat. Guess who belongs in quite a different line of work? And guess whose emotions take over some 10 to 100 times as quickly as more ordinary folk?

It seems every time someone designs an experiment to ferret out our rational and emotional responses to a situation, the rational mind is pretty hard to find. Later in the book, the author tells of ways to set up a situation so that we are more likely to give ourselves time for rationality, but he acknowledges that they are far from perfect. And he's been studying these things for 30+ years! What hope have we of any bit of rational behavior? Well, some hope, anyway, for we are Human after all, not Econ, and it is in our nature to hope, to try again, and sometimes to succeed a little.

Idea 3: Two Selves. Our memory, called here our Remembering Self, draws different conclusions from our experiences than our Experiencing Self does. The experiment here could not be more clear. Water colder than about 60°F hurts a little, and below 50°F it can hurt a lot, and quickly. A basin of water held at 57°F was provided, and students (nearly all experiments are done on college students! They come cheap) were asked to hold their hand in the water for 60 seconds. Then they reported how painful it was on the familiar ten point scale. After time to warm up, they were asked to repeat the experiment, but to hold their hand in the water for 90 seconds. After 60 seconds, water that was a few degrees warmer was let into the basin. Rather than report on a 1-to-10 scale, they were asked which experience was more painful. Nearly all reported that the first, shorter experience was more painful, even though they had endured a longer period of "torture" in the second experiment (It takes a few seconds for the warmer water to "take over"). The Experiencing Self may be queried during an experience and give you an accurate read on what things feel like "Right Now", but after the fact, the Remembering Self primarily remembers the last part of the experience more than all the rest. It's why we are advised to "go out with a bang"…as long as it is a favorable "bang"!

I suspect if the experiment were repeated in reverse, there would be a different outcome. I'd try this: Session 1, 60 seconds at 55°F. Session 2, 45 seconds at 60°F followed by 15 seconds as 52°F water is added. Maybe the exact temperatures would have to be tuned a little, but I am sure the Remembering Self would report the second session as more painful, even though the sum-total-torture was less. By the way, some experiments done for the Mythbusters TV program were done using a basin in which ice was floating, to hold the temperature at 32°F, and the duration was "as long as you can hold it", with a maximum of three minutes (180 sec.). Some participants held out the full three minutes, and lifted out their hand with ice sticking to the skin. So you can see that temperatures in the 50-60°F range will do no damage.

We think we are better at planning than we really are. All three of these things come together when we commit the Planning Fallacy. Chapter 23 of the book is entirely devoted to it. It is most evident in corporations that are having trouble. A new CEO will call together a team to "plan", and perhaps the plan will even be carried out to some extent. Do profits rise? Wonderful. The CEO gets a bonus. Does business remain "flat"? What a pity, the employees are defective and didn't carry out the plan as intended. Does business go down? Oh, my, "external factors" such as shifting currency ratios or a new and unexpected competitor must be to blame. Does the company tank? The CEO's "golden parachute" is activated, (s)he is booted out with a $10 million handshake, and a new CEO is brought in to repeat the process. As Yogi Berra said, "Predicting is hard, especially about the future." And Donald Rumsfeld warned us of the "Unknown unknowns", for which he was reviled, and then forgotten. Do you know anybody anywhere who strives to ferret out what "unknown unknowns" might become a factor, so as to deal with them?

One clear message of the book is that System 2 is lazy, pathologically lazy. It (we) typically accepts whatever "explanation" or "solution" is offered up in the instant that System 1 takes to perform its heuristic evaluation. Thinking is work, and we'd rather do almost anything else. And we typically do. My, it is a wonder that anything gets done!

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Rain - the most needed and least understood

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rain, natural history, cultural history

Whew! Eleven days since I last posted. It scarcely ever takes me that long to read a book. I had high hopes from Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett, and they were fulfilled in part, but it was simply tough sledding to get through it all. I suppose I am not one who ought to criticize, given the length of some of my posts, and I remember the apocryphal story of the king telling Mozart, "There were too many notes." Mozart, puzzled, replied, "Majesty, which ones should I have left out?" Nonetheless, for the number of ideas conveyed, there were too many words.

An idea new to me, that stuck with me, is that significant shifts in rainfall—climate patterns—and the rise or fall of ancient empires happened in synchrony. Too many of these coincident trends have occurred for them to be "mere coincidences". Sustained drought destroys empires. The equable climate of the past 12,000 years has been a little longer than average for the era of Pleistocene Ice Ages. On average, warm periods are about 1/8 to 1/5 as long as cold periods, and only one other Interglacial Period of the last five, over the past half million years, was as long as this one.

Stepping back a thousandfold, we find that there has been no comparably cold period as the Plio-Pleistocene (the last 5+ million year) in the last 500 million years or so. The "average" climate of the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras was tropical warmth between the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, and ice-free poles. Ms Barnett takes us back another factor of eight, to the time four billion years ago, after the "Late Bombardment", when Earth's crust had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to exist on the surface, when it is supposed that great rains continued for a few million years to fill the oceans. The Bombardment itself probably supplied a lot of the water in the form of comets, which exploded to vapor upon impact, and whose vapor hung suspended in a thick atmosphere while the molten-rock surface gradually cooled. As an aside, I suspect the great amount of atmospheric water vapor acted as a thermal blanket and kept the surface quite hot, indeed, for a much longer time than a gas-free planet would have experienced. Venus shows us what happens if it never cools off, and when the water is replaced by carbon dioxide as a thermal blanket.

Well, back to civilizations. Cities are typically found along rivers. Rivers are fed by runoff from rain in the uplands and throughout the river's watershed. Up to a point, the river nourishes the city. But many of our cities have overgrown their rivers, and overuse them to the point that the polluted river turns around like the tiger, tired of its rider, to kill the city riding atop it. Think Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River. When our family moved to Cleveland in 1961, we took a sightseeing cruise on the river, where we were told the oil atop the river was four inches thick. When it caught fire in 1969, destroying many of the variously openable bridges, that was not even the worst of its fires. Before Cleveland's "city fathers" finally got up the gumption to clean up the river and do some proper sewage control, the river had burned 13 times since the 1890's.

You could say our civilization is in the midst of either learning to preserve the natural resources on which we depend, or collapsing to a level, both population and economically, that the tiger stops biting. But in this case, the tiger includes not just the rivers, but the atmosphere and the rain it produces, the great "river of wet air" that sustains us all. The last couple of chapters dwell firmly upon our contribution to climate change.

Rain is not what we think it is. We say, "Pure as the new-fallen snow". I could not find a similar proverb about rainwater, but we think of it as very pure. It's distilled, after all. But let us not forget the atmosphere through which it falls. Air is about 0.04% carbon dioxide (now, that is; it was 0.03% when I was a child). That is enough to shift its pH from 7 (ultra-pure water) to 5.6 (very mildly acidic). What else is in the air? It depends on where it has been. These days, most places on earth are downwind of some company's smokestacks. About half of those are putting sulfur or nitrogen oxides—or both—up into the air. Add moisture to them and you have acids a lot stronger than carbon dioxide. Some of the resulting acid rain has a pH in the 2-3 range. Strong enough to wipe the lettering from marble tombstones and statues over a few decades. Strong enough to kill all fish and frogs in thousands of lakes. Acid rain led to the Clean Air act in the USA in 1970, and to similar legislation in a few other countries. The pH now is mostly in the 3-4 range, at worst. That's not good enough, though.

But sometimes rain picks up other stuff. A chapter reports on the obsession of Charles Fort with odd rainfalls. Rains colored, red, brown, green or even black. Rains of frogs or fishes. Waterspouts can explain some of these. A red rain consisting of red-colored cells or cell-like spheres sometimes fall in Kottoyam, India. Then there's yellow rain: is it "agent orange" or a mixture of pollen and bee feces? The jury is still out on that one.

There are chapters on rainmaking and forecasting. Making rain only seems to work when you don't want it to work that well: in the few instances that it seemed to work well it caused devastation, such as in Rapid City, SD in 1972. We can forecast pretty well when it comes to temperature and wind direction, but not so much for rainfall. I recall a Meteorology professor telling about getting a call from someone saying, "Hey, Doc, I have about ten inches of your 'partly cloudy' lying in my front yard."

Ms Barnett visited various places famous for lots of rain, or for very little. In North America, the extremes are Death Valley and northwestern Washington; average yearly rainfall in the one is about 4 inches, and in the other, about 130. But worldwide, it's another story. Less than a tenth of an inch in some places in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and 450-500 inches in a very few spots, such as a mountaintop in Hawaii and a few towns in northeast India, including Cherrapunji. That town once received more than 1,000 inches of rain in a single 12-month period. Of course, Ms Barnett had to go there, and was rewarded with five days of fair weather! This in the middle of the Monsoon season.

So, there was a lot of fun to be had reading the book. I got bogged down in some long stretches, and I am too compulsive a reader to skim and skip. On the whole I am glad I read it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The bird, the crab, the eggs, the blood, and the ends of the earth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, horseshoe crabs, red knots, migration, ecology, environment

For anyone who lives along Delaware Bay or the Delaware River, there are two main choices for a day at the beach or shore. The local terms are "Delaware beach" and "Jersey shore". Having sampled both, I found I love the northern beaches of Delaware the best. Beach towns and parks from Rehoboth Beach down to Fenwick Island, and on to Ocean City, MD, are great fun, but we enjoy Cape Henlopen, Delaware's northernmost Atlantic beach, the most.

Those who visit the Cape in late Spring, near the full moon in May or earliest June, can witness an amazing spectacle right out of the geologic past: the spawning of the horseshoe crabs. These trilobite-like critters, bigger than dinner plates, and little changed in bodily form for 400 million years, crawl ashore by the thousands to mate and lay eggs in the sand. Right along with them, running among them, little sandpipers called Red Knots pick and probe in the sand for the nourishing eggs. Knots are not the only egg-eating shorebirds, but at times they are the most numerous, as this photo shows.

At both Cape Henlopen and Cape May, NJ, and at many sandy beaches that line Delaware Bay, crabs lay eggs and shorebirds feed frantically. The Knots are particularly frantic. They've just crossed the western Atlantic from northeastern South America, and they have several thousand more miles to go to their Arctic breeding grounds. They have an amazing weight-gain and muscle-building metabolism that allows them to eat half their weight daily, and to double their weight, mainly by adding flight muscle and a layer of fat, in just a couple of weeks. They will lose most of that added weight flying 3,000 or more miles north by mid-June.

The Western Atlantic Flyway for Red Knots begins at Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the "uttermost part of the Earth" at the southern tip of South America. It ends at the other "uttermost part of the Earth" in northern Canada. That is, in the March-to-July time frame. Six months later, it is the same route in reverse.

Think of it: little birds that weigh only a couple of ounces, fueled by a few ounces of shellfish (on South American coasts) and horseshoe crab eggs (on North American coasts), make a journey that we bulky humans find harrowing and quite expensive (at current Coach rates, flying from Punta Arenas, Chile to Iqaluit, Canada costs $2,625 one way, with four stops to change planes). The birds do this twice yearly.

Deborah Cramer, as she writes in The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, made that trip just once, to see the Red Knot in all its habitats. The airline fares were the least of the expenses. There are no hotels near Bahia Lomas, and it takes almost as long to go that last 80 miles (130 km) from Punta Arenas by truck and boat, as it took to get to Punta Arenas from Massachusetts. She had to depend on an invitation from scientists who take advantage of an oil company's camp. Similar "camp-out" style dwellings awaited her on Southampton Island, in northern Hudson Bay, Canada. I presume she had hotels to stay in along the Delaware Bay and other mid-journey stopovers.

The book's entertaining travelogue provides one level of reading pleasure. But most importantly, it shows the interlocking lives of creatures of air and sea that actually affect human health throughout the world. Horseshoe crabs, it turns out, are a bountiful source of several benefits, and the most important is safeguarding our medicines.

Several generations ago, horseshoe crabs were harvested by the millions for bait and fertilizer. Better sources of fertilizer since the mid-1900's reduced the carnage somewhat, but by then their population was probably no more than 5% of what it had been. Their spawning runs were once legendary, with their little green eggs feeding tens to hundreds of millions of shorebirds, and still lying in heaps along the beaches. The shore birds now, seemingly abundant to our impoverished eyes, number less than a percent what they once did. Not only are there fewer crabs, they lay fewer eggs, ultimately because of a curious property of their blue blood.

Horseshoe crabs, and large arthropods in general, do not have as sophisticated an immune system as we and all mammals have. But horseshoe crabs in particular have a very sensitive clotting factor that engulfs certain bacteria, called gram negative bacilli, and deactivates the toxins they release. The metabolic products of gram negative bacteria are toxic to us, and cause fevers in even very small amounts. Their presence indicates bacterial contamination of medical products, so it is important that every IV kit, every serum, vaccine and other injectable medication be tested. Once there was a "rabbit test", but now the clotting factor in the blood of horseshoe crabs is used; it works ten times better.

Horseshoe crabs are captured, bled of about 1/3 of their blood, and returned to their native waters. A product called LAL is isolated from the blood, which is blue because rather than the iron in our kind of blood, theirs contains copper. Every time you've had a needle stuck in you for any reason, somewhere along the way the IV or hypo kit, and probably the medication also, were tested with LAL. Without it, about a third of the time the treatment itself would cause a fever lasting a day or two, and possibly a deadly reaction.

Female horseshoe crabs are bigger than their mates, so you can get more blood from them. But a crab that has been bled will be disoriented for days or weeks when she is returned to the sea, and will usually produce fewer eggs that year. A certain number are known to die before they are returned. Even more must be dying after return. A century ago, the usual sight was that each female crab was accompanied by one or sometimes two males as she came ashore to lay her eggs. Now it is common to see four to six males surrounding each female.

States such as North Carolina have banned the taking of horseshoe crabs for any reason other than this medical one. Nobody really needs them for bait any more, but some fishermen find it\\they are easier to gather than other bait fish, so there is legislative resistance to similar bans elsewhere. Researchers have devised several ways to use LAL that are from four to twenty times more efficient. But until the FDA (and similar bodies in other nations) rules upon the new tests, it is illegal to use them.

We soon may have no choice. Horseshoe crabs' numbers continue to decrease throughout the western Atlantic. A similar Asian crab species apparently cannot be used to produce LAL because of other toxins in its blood. And the birds? They are of no use to the crab. But they are of use to us. Their abundance, or scarcity, is a signal we had best not ignore. As the population of crabs declines, so does that of many species of shore bird, not just the Knots. And other populations are also affected. Large fish and seals that eat horseshoe crabs have turned in desperation to other prey, such as the famed Delaware Blue Crab. The price of Blue Crabs is increasing as a result. So it the price of your medicine, as it gets harder to gather enough crabs to meet an ever increasing demand for LAL, particularly as China Westernizes its economy and culture.

Doing something the cheapest way is not always, or even usually, the right way. Horseshoe crabs may be OK as a bait fish, but there are numerous alternatives. When the health of every human depends on them, is it permissible to use them for bait? Researchers find it hard to synthesize LAL, but it ought not be impossible. Sure, it'll cost a few millions to produce the first gram of synthetic LAL, but once the method is known, the price will drop and drop until it is cheaper than drawing blue blood from crabs. But will that price cutoff be reached because technology improves, or because crab capture and bleeding become so costly that natural LAL drives the cost of an IV kit to $1,000 and a flu shot is not $35 but $350?

And what of the birds? Will the loss of the Red Knot matter? Did the loss of the Passenger Pigeon matter? After 1914, when Martha the pigeon died, this marvelous bird species was lost forever. What else happened? At one time, they ate so many acorns and other forest nuts that there were fewer mice and other seed-eating small mammals. Now instead of millions of pigeons, we have billions more mice. One critter that inhabits mice is the "deer tick". So there are many, many more of them. Young ticks feast on mouse blood. Then they drop off and molt a time or two. Next they look for a larger host. They usually find deer, but a human will do. Then what happens? Lyme disease! Lyme disease was almost unknown before 1970. That shows that the burgeoning mouse numbers are only part of the equation. More and more suburbs being built into forests is another.

We don't know what other links are in the chain that includes Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs. It is more of a mesh, anyway, like chain mail. Life is an unending Tetris game. Blocks drop and we fend them off. So does every other species. Eventually the stack fills the box and it is "Game Over". For many species, we are part of that Tetris game, not only adding extra falling blocks, but throwing them down faster and faster. Every species lost is irretrievable. You may not see the beauty in the horseshoe crab, but to the right kind of eye, the crab and the bird have equal beauty, and they are both of great value.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

They thought they knew China - NOT

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business, business practices, entrepreneurs, memoirs

I have about all the entrepreneurial talent of a house cat. I've been in business a couple of times and managed to come away with my skin intact, but not much else. From time to time I like to read of remarkable business success. I suppose I'm looking for some secret or effective method. But I must confess, so far the value of such books to me is almost purely as entertainment.

I had a supervisor many years ago who would often speak of having a "business reason" for doing something. One day I asked her, "What is a 'business reason'?" She said, "It is something people are willing to pay you to do." Though her emphasis was on the word "something", I realize that my own business troubles arose more from the "you" part, that is, the "me" part. Maybe they'd pay "someone" to do that something, but somehow, rare it was to find someone who would pay "me" to do it. Simply put, I couldn't attract customers.

I've just read Alibaba's World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business by Porter Erisman, who was an executive with the company from 2000 to 2008. Clearly, Jack Ma, the English teacher who founded Alibaba, knows how to attract customers. His key to attracting the largest number of online customers in the world's most populous country, starting before most of them were online, has been his knowledge of the Chinese way of thinking and of doing business.

Just to give one example that I think I understand a little. Midway in the rise of Alibaba, Inc. to dominance in China's e-commerce scene, Jack Ma very deliberately took on eBay. Part of it was psychological jousting, which induced the eBay CEO, Meg Whitman, to publicly react and back the company into a corner. That also garnered lots of free publicity. But a bigger part was that eBay had simply cloned its US-based business as a China-facing portal, presumably with translated text (the book doesn't happen to mention so, but it is a logical assumption). They got some business because they were the only game in town. But Americans and Chinese think differently (I've learned that first-hand, having been very active in a church that is home to many Chinese-born Americans and their children). In particular, Americans are not just comfortable doing business at arms' length, so to speak; they practically demand it. But the Chinese want to get to know their opposite number and establish a relationship of trust before they will do business. So the Alibaba B2B sales portal made communication between buyer and seller easy, including a chat feature and easy ways of getting into face-to-face contact if they wished.

Actually, eBay does allow a buyer to contact the seller, such as for asking a question, and I've taken advantage of that. But because it isn't obvious, most people don't know it is possible. And Chat? No way, still. Considering that Alibaba is a bit over 20 years old, I think I can detect their influence in the American online marketplace. Many e-commerce sites have chat and contact features that are not just right up front, sometimes they can be pushy.

Alibaba is now bigger than eBay and Amazon combined. How big will it grow? The Chinese economy has stumbled since the book went to press, but with 1,300 million people, all rapidly climbing the learning curve of capitalist markets, China has the potential to dominate global trade. Jack Ma declares he crafted Alibaba to last 80 years, and later revised that to 102 years, so it would have a presence in three centuries. Long-term thinking is required for long-term results. He is also a creator, less of an overt competitor. He knows you cannot win a race while looking over your shoulder.

The book isn't a how-to manual. If you want to do what Jack Ma did, you have to be Jack Ma. But with most of the world's commerce passing through small (and smallish) businesses at some point or other, lots of folks have come up with a way that works for them, enough of the time, to keep them solvent. Few grow so large. Few need to. Alibaba's World is a glimpse at some of the turns in the road that led to one company that got very big, and not as fast as you might think, but fast enough.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Emily Post with a sidearm and an attitude

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice, etiquette, humor

In their efforts to avoid this or that social faux pas, our grandmothers could rely on the advice of Emily Post (and see the EP Institute), our mothers on Amy Vanderbilt, and a more recent generation on Miss Manners (the MM website). I write from the perspective of a Baby Boomer. If you are a Millennial or Gen-Xer, add a generation or two to the above. Also, even Miss Manners is getting dated; if your favorite band is more recent than Foo Fighters, where do you turn for etiquette advice?

There is a whole lot more to etiquette than table manners. And about half the country feels left out anyway: The Posts and Vanderbilts seem to be all about how to tell the salad fork from the shrimp fork, whether to wear black or white tie, and when a typed thank-you note is OK rather than a handwritten note (using a fountain pen on scented stationery). You know, stuff for effete, elitist northerners and their California wannabees. What about the real people in the real country, and especially, the South?

Hardly anybody drove in Emily Post's day. She had scant advice for chauffeurs. Advice about courtesy on-the-road has ticked along at a low level since about 1950, but nobody heard of road rage until the middle 1990's. Then, dress standards are so different now, I've never been to an event where black tie or white tie would have been de rigeur. When the DuPont Co. began allowing "casual Fridays" in the early 1990's, someone asked the boss, "Are blue jeans OK?" He said, "Yeah, as long as you wear the ones you'd wear to the barn dance, not the ones you wear in the barnyard."

Fast-forward another thirty years. Is a tie needed at a funeral? Are flip-flops OK going through TSA at the airport, or is it better to wear slip-ons? What constitutes PDA these days: hand-holding used to be verboten, but now walking along with a hand down each other's behind is almost expected. What do you say when the boss at work practically shouts all kinds of private matters into his telephone, with the door open? (I've had that one) Can you get away with unfriending someone who posts about a zillion dirty jokes every day, with the Visibility set to Public, so your friends, and their friends, see them on your news feed? Because, you know, can't people tell when they've been unfriended? (Only by looking to see if you are still on their friend list. All better?)

Celia Rivenbark to the rescue! Being a Carolinian, she has a perspective a bit different from your average Bostonian or San Franciscan. A bit? Who am I kidding? Her book is titled rude bitches make me tired; slightly profane and entirely logical answers to modern etiquette dilemmas. Does that give you a clue? I'd say the word "slightly" is an understatement.

Her answer about avoiding road rage is entirely logical. Don't engage. When your Mom warns that the other guy may have a gun (and the other gal may have one also), Ms Rivenbark writes, "In the South, because we are all, frankly, packin', this is not an entirely baseless fear…" So in her chapter on driving, she advocates courtesy in all directions: to the jerk who cut you off, or to the idiot who swoops by on the right shoulder when you have your right blinker clicking for a turn; to someone going too slow, because they may have missed a turn and are looking for a way to recover (and don't have GPS); and particularly to the police. She advocates obsequious (but not obnoxious), sweet courtesy to the police. It's gotten her a warning when a citation was what she'd earned. Courtesy in general isn't just to make things go smoother. It can extend your life.

You could put a lot of the advice in a capsule titled, "Suck it up and don't be a weenie." Some people really are rude, but more are simply clueless. Learn to tell them apart; to the one you can be rude right back and walk away, while the other may benefit from gentle, frank instruction. Most life situations shouldn't be contests. The only sure thing you'll get from engaging in a pissing contest is a lot of pee going places it shouldn't.

One thing this author is not: PC. PC is prissy. She ain't prissy. PC is for the timid. What does timidity get you? Heartburn. How about dilemmas like, "Let's all split the check evenly", when you know George is going to have a steak-and-lobster, Annette will have Chateaubriand, and you just wanted a shrimp salad and a cola. Or maybe everyone is having wine and you are a teetotaler. You need to think ahead. Be prepared to say, "I know my entree and drink will total $12, and I'll throw in a couple of bucks for the tip. Here's my $14 right now." Set it beside your plate, and when it's time to leave, leave: "Gotta go. Great lunch. The McFarland contract is awaiting my attention." Do you really need friends who can't handle that? I don't!

My favorite Q/A in the whole book comes on page 105, which I'll reproduce in its entirety. It deals with two irksome issues at once:
Question: A couple of moms in our play group have said they have no intention of immunizing their children, because they believe this can lead to all sorts of problems. What do you think?

I think your play group needs to not tell these moms where y'all are meeting next time. If they get pissy about it, just say you've renamed your little group from Mothers' Morning Out to something more catchy, some think like the Our Kids Don't Need Your Nineteenth-Century Deadly Diseases group.

If they act offended, tell them that while you respect their decision to subject their children to whooping cough, measles, and other long-dormant delights, you prefer to live in a safer, saner world where these diseases have very nearly been eradicated.
Fresh from North Carolina, where the phrase "You need a slap upside the head" was probably coined, advice that is tailor made for today's folks and today's dilemmas. Tons'o fun, too.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hedwig would approve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, owls, natural history, memoirs

I don't really know much about owls, but I know more than I did a few days ago. I just finished reading The House of Owls by Tony Angell, a fascinating mini-memoir about living with owls nesting in the yard, and a great explanation of the lives of owls in all their variety. About half the book is narrative descriptions and anecdotes about the 19 species of owl found in the United States.

Tony Angell is a premier sculptor, painter and sketcher of animals and birds, particularly owls. The book includes about 100 of his drawings. During a long career that included much work in wildlife rehabilitation, it seems he has had in hand one or more owls of every one of the 19 American species.

To many people, owls are scary, and some think they are dangerous or in competition with us for some resource or other. Not at all. Few people know that only the two or three largest owls are capable of catching your pet cat or dog, and those live in pretty remote places. The ordinary "hoot owl" you hear in the woods probably weighs no more than half a pound. The world's largest, the female Eurasian Eagle-Owl, can weigh as much as 10 lb (4.5 kg), while the largest American owl weighs no more than half that. Among large owls, males, who do most of the hunting, weigh about 70% as much as their mates. No bird can fly while carrying more than about 1/3 of its weight, so no owl is going to fly off with Fluffy or Spot in its talons.

I was fascinated with the little insect-eating owls, primarily the Elf Owl of the American southwest and western Mexico. They are about the size of a Chickadee, and weigh just over an ounce, perhaps 33 grams. These little cactus-dwellers eat mainly insects and other "bugs", including scorpions. They are one of a handful of owl species that can pounce on a scorpion and nip off its stinger before being stung. Scorpions are big and meaty, so they make a good meal, particularly if you're only about twice their size. One just has to know how to handle the prey. Imagine, you or me tackling a scorpion the size of a Chessie or a Collie!

The diet of most owls consists mainly of small mammals, such as mice, voles, and shrews for Barn Owls and others of similar size, and rats, squirrels, and young rabbits for some of the bigger owls. A wise farmer or rural gardener will encourage owls on their property. A Barn Owl or Screech Owl (Western or Eastern) needs to eat one or two mouse-size critters daily. When an owl couple has a female on the nest, the male must catch one for him, one for her, for the first 25-30 days, then add at least one per hatchling for the next 30-60 days, until the young are independent. So, during the season that the little pests are multiplying even faster than rabbits, the owls are reaping the bounty, to the tune of 10-20 daily, for a month or two, per owl family. And by late summer, however many of those young owls are still alive (many, many die before the snow flies), every owl in the neighborhood is devouring 30-60 pesky little critters monthly.

If nothing is eating the mice in your neighborhood, then what? You need to buy lots and lots of mouse traps! I don't know about you, but I don't re-use a mouse trap. You can't clean the odor of freshly-dead mouse from a snap trap, so, according to the package directions, I toss trap and mouse (or vole) into the trash. And set a new trap, because another critter will be along soon. Can you guess that no owls live in the nearby patch of woods? I've never heard them in the neighborhood.

Owls that live near our towns are all threatened or endangered. Most use cavities, usually last year's woodpecker nest, to nest in and raise their chicks. Woodpeckers don't excavate nests in living trees, only in "snags". So don't clean out all the "dead wood" from that nearby forest lot. It is far from dead, until it falls over of itself. The chapters that discuss the natural history of the 19 American owls tell what kinds of threats they face, and tell a little about how to make a more favorable space for them. Some owls will take to nest boxes, if you make the entry hole the right size. I've found, when caring for bluebird and swallow boxes on a wildlife project, that some birds will peck the opening larger. Starlings are famous for that. Sometimes squirrels will do so also. So we either replaced the front of the box every couple of years, or added a metal front to the box, thick enough metal so a squirrel or starling couldn't open up the hole any larger.

Tony Angell has such eclectic talents, drawing so well, and writing equally well, that I really envy him. The House of Owls is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The best time to read a book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, philosophy, blogs

It didn't occur to me that Freakonomics authors Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner would be writing a blog. Duh! Everyone has a blog!! So I've lost out on several years of fun and intelligent daily reading.

I got sort-of caught up by reading When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. If the title count is accurate, and they've been contributing to the blog at least a couple times weekly over ten years' time, the 132 items in this book make up about one-tenth of their blog over its history. According to Sturgeon's Principle, 90% of everything is crud (his word). So it makes sense to glean the top tenth and present that to the world. Of course, having perused the Freakonomics blog before starting this review, I'd have to say that the other 90% is pretty good crud!

So, what have we here? Without giving a total spoiler, I have to say that the blog post of the book's title is a trick. What kind of trick? Read the post, on pages 248-251. One thing too cute to conceal: robbing a bank early in the day will yield more cash, but very few banks get robbed in the morning (that tells you when it is the safest to visit your local branch). Dubner wrote in this post, "Maybe if they were able to wake up earlier and go to work, they wouldn't have to rob banks?" But that doesn't answer the title question.

As in the Freakonomics books, the authors look at things differently from most of us. An economist doesn't guess (not a good one anyway), an economist uses data and lest the conclusions draw themselves. But having presented the data, sometimes it is both fun and instructive to consider the Why of it. For example, they looked into the dangers of recreational horse riding. Not much research was required, because a report by the CDC tells us, "The rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is estimated to be higher for horseback riders than for motorcyclists and automobile racers." So possible reasons why are considered. The one that makes the most sense to me is the one they list first, that most horse riding accidents occur on private property, not on the public streets, and typically only the rider is injured. Motorcycle and drag-racing accidents are just so much more public.

Another post asks, "Is Cheating Good for Sports?" It seems so, and not only does the public simply lap up stories about doping, about taping opponents' supposedly private practices, or about balls that were under-inflated, the sports-fan public goes totally gaga over sports stars who have done wrong and 'fessed up and followed up with a lot of kiss-and-tell stories about who else is cheating. Even folks who seldom watch any games will pay attention when the news is about this or that cheating star or coach, and what happened next. We do love our soap operas.

Sometimes they post a question, and one question, "Why are we eating so much shrimp?" garnered more than a thousand responses. They then analyzed the responses to see how many people focused on the demand for shrimp and how many on the supply. An economist thinks of supply factors, such as the falling price of shrimp now that shrimp farmers have gotten a handle on their trade. Most everyone else looked at greater demand such as people getting more conscious of their health. As the post closes, there is a follow-up question: Tuna consumption is falling; is that due to changes in supply or demand? I'd have answered, "Mercury". I suppose that is a supply answer.

A troubling subject has the title, "Is the Endangered Species Act Bad for Endangered Species?" The short answer: usually Yes. Because of the public review provisions of the Act, if the EPA publishes its intention to consider listing a species, those who own the piece of forest or stream or whatever are likely to hurry up and do what they were planning to do, before the listing is effected. Thus, the potentially endangered species is more likely to become an extinct species before the EPA finishes its review.

The study of human motivation yields a never-ending fund of surprising insights. I predict that these fellows will be in business for a long while yet.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

We came from them and we are like them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

Consider the vivisection theater. Hundreds of years ago curious investigators began tying or nailing down animals such as dogs and cutting them open to see how their organs worked. But sometime in the 1700's such dissections began to be carried out in public theaters, as part of the scientific lecture circuit which had become popular as the "renaissance" and "enlightenment" eras unfolded. Some investigators, after a single such experience, forswore the practice, being horrified at the barbarities inflicted on animals whose suffering was so obvious to them. Others, claiming that only humans could truly feel pain, forged ahead. Their descendants are with us even today, still claiming that while the shot deer or elk may "feel" the arrow or bullet, it does not "suffer" because they have no existential feelings; still claiming that it is OK to put various noxious chemicals into the eyes of rabbits clamped in a frame, for the sake of learning which ones cause inflammation, all the while saying that of course the rabbit may flinch but that it is not "feeling pain", only "exhibiting a physiological response to nerve impulses"; claiming that catch-and-release does no harm to a fish, that fish can't possibly "suffer" from having a hook stabbed through a jaw or even caught in the lining of the stomach; and so it goes. I say beware of people who use "only" too frequently.

Of course, considering with what callous indifference so many humans are treated by other humans, it really seems that the ability to be "humane" is seldom to be found, and in many it is entirely lacking. Animals in general may be amoral, but humans seem to have a corner on evil and wickedness. When you think your housecat is playing with a mouse in some cruel way, think again. It is getting the mouse too tired to bite back when the cat's sensitive mouth goes in to bite the neck and kill it.

Among the "core curriculum" required of all Arts and Sciences students in the 1960's were courses in Anthropology and Archaeology and other Humanities, but nothing in a realm remotely like Animal Husbandry. Only in a Biology course was the matter of animal behavior brought up, and then primarily in a negative way. Only "observed actions" could be reported, and then in the most dry and objective of terms. To mention, even to whisper, that any animal might have any purpose, thoughts, emotions, or make decisions, was "anthropomorphism" and was a much more serious sin than mere robbery or adultery (unless it was with one of the professor's children).

I did not like this attitude from the beginning, but I didn't know what to do about it. A copy of Edward Tolman's 1932 classic, Purposive Behavior in Rats and Men, came into my hands after I graduated, in Geology not in a life science: I could hit rocks without "hurting" them. Dr. Tolman was reviled in his day. Now we know that he was nearly always right. His writing helped me grow a little more. Finally, in much more recent years, I concluded: We have been looking at this backward all along! Of course anthropomorphism is incorrect, but only because the animals we observe live in a different world than we. In those parts of our shared world, where our experiences and theirs can overlap, we and they are very similar. But it is not because "they are like us." No, no no no, it is because we are like them, because we came from them.

Take that in. Make it a motto:
We are like Them because We came from Them
Why do you have emotions? Because your ancestors had emotions. Not just your parents, but your hominid ancestors of 5 million years ago, your tiny primate ancestors of 25 million years ago, your pre-mammal ancestors of 300 million years ago, even the tiny chordates of millions of years before that had emotions.

Why can you plan? Because your ancestors could plan, all the way back to half a billion years ago. Because with careful observation, we can discern that not only to warm, fuzzy animals plan, but so do turtles, fish, worms, even insects. A tiny nematode with less than 1,000 cells in its entire body, only about one-fifth of them making up its nervous system, can plan. Nematode plans are simple, but they exist.

It has been demonstrated that noxious stimuli are just as painful for a spider as they are for you. Animals right up and down the "evolutionary scale" feel pain, fight for their lives, and either enjoy or suffer in accord with things that help or harm them. But don't take any comfort in the notion of the "evolutionary scale". It is a deceptive concept. Evolution began on Earth about four billion years ago. You are the product of four billion years of evolution. But so is a hamster, a bumblebee, a swallow, or a brook trout. There is an odd fish called a Coelacanth, the "poster child" of "living fossils." Specimens caught since they were re-discovered in 1938 look just like fossils of 65 million years ago. Prior to 1938, scientists thought they'd gone extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. No fossils of Coelacanth bones younger than 65 million years had been found. But just because they look so much like their ancestors of so long ago, don't think evolution left them behind. Many aspects of their environment in the sorta-deep ocean have remained stable, but not all, and they have continued to evolve along with everything else. It just didn't change their skeleton very much.

Three types of animal were chosen by Carl Safina, to study and to learn from, in his quest to see just how similar we and they might be: Elephants, Wolves, and Killer Whales. He has written Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Fortunately, very early in his research, he met Cynthia Moss, who works with elephants. When he asked her what the elephants might teach us about humanity, he got a gentle answer that turned his question on its head. In part, she said, "Comparing elephants to people—I don't find it helpful. I find it much more interesting trying to understand an animal as itself." (p 12).

When we look at an elephant as an elephant, what do we see? Firstly, observing a single elephant is like observing a goblet and trying to infer what the rest of the place setting might be like with its plates, flatware, and so forth. Cynthia Moss and others observe elephant families and groups of families. An elephant has a social life as rich as yours (ignoring the 478 Facebook "friends" you've never met and who have no measurable impact on your life). Elephants don't rank themselves the way most primates do. But each family group has a Matriarch, a "Mom", whose accumulated wisdom earns her immense respect from the rest. Elephants together are a lot like big cows. But life is about more than eating and drinking. They play at times, even adults, and can be quite silly. When one member has been away for some reason, they enjoy very emotional reunions.

What do they experience differently from humans? They have two voices. We are familiar with the trumpeting calls they make, at frequencies humans can hear. Those are usually for sounding some kind of alarm, or for loud greetings when another is nearby. We are not familiar with their other voice, which is pitched too low for our ears. But if you happen to stand close to an elephant who is talking to another who happens to be 100 yards away, you might feel the voice. It'll make your chest shake. Most of their communication goes on in infrasound, and without special equipment, we can't even discover what elephant "words" sound like! They have worse eyesight than we, but a better sense of smell. Their thick hides prevent them from feeling quite as keenly as we do over most of their bodies, but the tip of the trunk is as sensitive as your tongue. It is also dexterous as a thumb and finger; I've seen an elephant peel and eat a tangerine, in less than a second. That's faster than I can do it!

A lot of things "everyone knows" about elephants was learned from elephants in captivity, or in family groups devastated by the loss of all the older family members because they were poached for their large tusks. A lot of what "everyone knows" about elephants comes from anecdotes about elephants who were mourning such losses, or driven almost mindless from boredom. Mr. Safina defines consciousness as the thing that feels like something. (p 21, his emphasis) The evident feelings of elephants and other animals must cause us to move the boundary of "consciousness" way, way back into the past. Consciousness isn't a unitary item, that you have or you don't. It is a scale, a spectrum, like fainter or brighter light. An elephant or killer whale has a larger brain than any human. Perhaps there's just as much, or more, "extra gray matter" in there, and their consciousness shines brighter than ours. Until we learn their languages, we'll probably never know.

Spending a good part of a winter watching wolves in Yellowstone, Safina learned more about consciousness. Seeing how wolves cooperate to hunt elk, on one hand communicating clearly with their fellow hunters while working equally hard to deceive their prey, it is easy to see how they plan and coordinate, solving problems on the fly (unless, of course, you are an anti-anthropomorphistic professor of animal behavior). He writes again about consciousness: "People who play with a dog—or a squirrel or a rat—and then believe that the animal lacks consciousness, themselves lack a certain consciousness." (p 288)

Just because other animals don't talk in human languages, doesn't mean they can't communicate. It is interesting, how many tame and domestic animals learn some human words, sometimes dozens of hundreds!, yet we never learn any of their words, and they must resort to the crudest pantomime to communicate with us. Who is the smarter one? D'you have a pet dog? He or she can make several dozen distinct sounds. Why not learn what some of them mean? About all most of us can learn is the sound of an angry growl (but we usually confuse it with an offended growl or a play-growl) and maybe the begging whine (and there are a few kinds we don't bother to distinguish).

Wolves have social lives more like elephants than like the Akela-Alpha-led wolves that sprang from the mind (certainly not the experience) of Rudyard Kipling. You know the drill. When the Alpha misses his first kill, the other wolves kill him and a new Alpha takes his place. Actually, the Alpha female has more status than her mate. He can't have pups; she can. And when food is abundant, other females are allowed to breed, and not always with the Alpha male only. Wolves do have some habits that prevent excessive inbreeding. And a wolf misses about 80% or more of its attempted kills. It takes persistence and continual practice and exercise to bring down deer or elk frequently enough to avoid starvation. Every wolf in a pack is equivalent to an Olympic athlete. But some hunt better than others. So they take the lead in a hunt, and they share their kills. Wolves care for each other. The notion of "dog eat dog" is a human concept, not a canine or lupine one.

Before going on to the killer whales, Mr. Safina dives into seven chapters that make up a section titled "Whines and Pet Peeves", in which he eloquently and convincingly takes on seven myths about the supposed lack of consciousness and so forth among nonhuman animals. This is the most powerful section of the book. Put extra-simply: if animals didn't have a "theory of mind", if they didn't have powerful social emotions (even the so-called solitary ones like tigers), if they didn't have a way to distinguish "me" from "not me" in their own thoughts, if they couldn't plan, and several other skills we tend to think we have in a monopoly, they would quickly become extinct. Every one of them.

We can plan because trilobites and worms and clams figured that out half a billion years ago, and animals ever since have been refining it. We just have the brain power to make extra-detailed plans. One thing after another. We came from them. Thus we are like them.

Killer whales. Makes you shiver, does it? All most of us ever knew of them was that they kill baleen whales, eat the tongue and let the rest sink. Steely-eyed, remorseless killers, these killer whales, even if they have been called the more fashionable term Orcas in recent years. Now we find there isn't only one worldwide species of killer whales. There are at least five and maybe 12 to 20. Some do indeed prey on non-toothed whales. Some prey only on fish. Members of one population, currently numbering 81 (more or less; it may have changed in the past year), feed only on salmon. Some prey only on sea lions or large seals. Some live in a home range of a few dozen or a few hundred square miles. Some range much more widely, and when they pass through the home range of another group with its different diet, they ignore them, and the home group ignores the passers-by.

They are matriarchal, like elephants. It's interesting, that all the really social animal species are matriarchal, except humans. Maybe patriarchy is why we have wars. Has any country on Earth that has a female leader (President or Prime Minister), caused a war? Of course a couple have fought defensive warfare, including Margaret Thatcher. Another side thought: I've had both male and female supervisors and managers, and the females generally were better leaders.

So back to the whales. People remember the few times (probably only twice) that a killer whale in captivity has killed a human. No wild killer whale, of any of the known groups (species?) has ever killed a human, nor deliberately threatened one. Maybe when our Prince of Peace returns, Jesus will come as a whale. Just like elephants, just like wolves, just like animals in general, killer whales are gentle with everything they don't intend to eat. They are playful, They love sex. They clearly love each other. They are emotional, they have personalities: some are more shy and some more outgoing; some are more playful and some seem rather monkish or contemplative.

But whales are whales. They are not "like us". They are descended from thinking, emoting, planning, playful animals just as we are. There is no justification for granting them "human rights", because they are not human. Suppose we found ourselves needing to be granted "wolf rights" or "whale rights" in order to get along with them?

Many folks are deathly afraid of "space aliens", who "abduct" some humans, perform "experiments" on them, perhaps with a reproductive intent, and even plant mysterious machines in their bodies. Isn't that what we do throughout nature? We have done this to almost every kind of animal out there, and there is a tiny radio transmitter that can be pasted on the back of a honeybee! I think all the fear of space aliens is a form of guilty displacement: we are afraid of ourselves, not because of what we might do, but because of what we have done and are doing. Including to people. The quintessential space alien of the early Twentieth Century was Josef Mengele, who abducted people, mostly Jews and homosexuals, and did all kinds of barbaric experiments on them. Do we need to destroy in order to learn? One would hope not. But tens of thousands of scientists would say, more or less reluctantly, that we must. Sad but true.

The author's point is not some anti-human, liberal rant. Even in the "rant chapters", section three, he is hopeful that we will figure out how to preserve and conserve and live with the biosphere before we heedlessly eliminate it. But drawing his book to a close, he wrote, "For every ballerina there are thousands of soldiers." The more I learn about it, the more I think hope is all we have.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Creative Artist is a redundancy

kw: quotes, creativity, artists

Sometime in the mid-Twentieth Century, composer Dmitri Shostakovich said, "A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one." This quote was the cryptogram in yesterday's newspaper, and once I had solved it, I said to myself, "No way!"

I'll first get this out: To do art is to be human. Everyone has artistic creativity, whether in the visual arts such as painting, sculpture, photography, crafts, scrapbooks and collages, architecture or design; performance arts such as singing, dancing, acting, or playing an instrument (or several, even at once!); or language arts such as poetry, essay writing, all kinds of fiction from "mini stories" of 100 words to novels and trilogies, plus script writing for stage or screen. The terms "skill" and "art" have enormous overlap, and may be entirely synonymous.

I suppose Mr. Shostakovich was talking about his own feelings, that after completing each composition, he felt dissatisfied and impelled to immediately begin another. He must have been so seldom happy! Does the impulse to create truly stem from dissatisfaction? I think not. The natural world, including that mass of human artifice we call civilization, is filled with beauty. Of course, not all. A rundown house may have some majesty left in its structure, but is mainly an eyesore, so of course the impulse to fix it up does arise from dissatisfaction. And a scene of devastation from a flood or other disaster has lost its beauty, but we can either participate in cleaning up, or protect it while nature restores the landscape in her own way. I think of visiting Mount St. Helens a number of years ago. The result of the 1980 eruption was a moonscape, beautiful only if you prefer your scenery lifeless. After just a few years, the biosphere was rapidly restoring itself, and now it provides many a pleasant view.

Of course, some places are naturally devoid of life and yet are beautiful. The wallpaper on this computer consists of many pictures taken in national parks. One on the screen right now is a picture of water-and-wind-scupted sandstone ridges and valleys, situated in the "four corners" area in the American Southwest. Peering hard, I notice there are a few bushes clinging to rock faces, but one does not notice them amidst the scene of geological beauty. This is an area in which life is expected to be scarce. But in southern Washington, with its heavy rainfall, one would expect a thriving biosphere cloaking nearly every inch.

When we have a settled workplace, whether office, cubicle, or the cab of a delivery truck, what do we do? Don't we hang or set some things we like here and there, or even clutter it up with trinkets? Show me an office with no hint of decoration, nothing expressing the occupant, and I'll show you someone with way too much self-control, or perhaps a security super-chief who is too paranoid to allow any smidgen of personality to be known.

Some people make their living from providing art for others. Are they driven to create work after work by dissatisfaction? Each work may be perfect. But there are so many things to express! I had the tremendous pleasure to attend a performance by a talented folk songwriter. She performs others' music on occasion, but she has things to say, and says them well in her songs. I also perform folk music, but seldom perform a song I've written; it wouldn't take long, because I've written only four that I think worthy of public consumption. I get sufficient joy from performing another's work skillfully and with the warmth and affection that an audience will love. So the work of art that I produce isn't the song itself, but the audible package the audience receives. Sometimes I might be dissatisfied with a performance. Thus I continue to practice. But even if it has gone perfectly, that doesn't mean I will do it exactly that way thereafter.

My main area of visual arts is making mobiles. I don't do so frequently; it is time consuming. I typically use found objects. Light ones. Sometimes when I'm done I find the mobile satisfactory, sometimes not. I made one using feathers picked up over many years and kept in the freezer (Always freeze a feather you want to keep, to kill mites and other parasites the bird may have harbored). A feather mobile can be quite beautiful. It also gathers dust quickly and is the very devil to keep clean. So that one is satisfying in one way, but not in another. Only once have I "repeated". Many years ago I made a mobile using pine cones of different sizes, from different kinds of trees. Around 15 years ago I made another one, because the first one had been lost or destroyed; I don't recall which. But I have one photo of the older mobile, so I won't forget it. I gave away the newer one, so perhaps one day I'll make a third.

The reason an artist who is not living of his or her art continues to create is because that is what humans do. We can't stop ourselves, or if we try we go insane.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why books can be read in comfort

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, proofreading, copy editing, memoirs

As much as I occasionally lampoon an egregious typographical error, or a book that seems filled with them, I truly appreciate the careful copy editing that goes into the production of nearly everything we see in print, and books in particular. Copy editing is more than proofreading, more than the ferreting-out of errors by the author, the typesetter, or another editor. It embodies the skills needed to ensure that errors that detract are omitted or corrected, but that usages the author intended, for any reasons whatever, are faithfully retained, even if some might thin them erroneous.

By this I mean much more than the unenviable job of Mark Twain's copy editor, making sure the dialect-ridden text of Huckleberry Finn was as Twain intended it. Not only novels employ "variations" on English usage for effect. Essayists, for example, whose texts require clarity, might employ word order or punctuation in ways that do not exactly fit a journal's preferred rules of style. I've had a couple of battles with copy editors, particularly those in England: one peeve I have is that they want to move every adverb to a standard location in a verb phrase. I might write, "…they were desperately seeking to find…" and have the proof come back, "…they were seeking desperately to find…". Such usage is a hangover from Norman French. It has largely been abandoned in the American language, but is clung to by many copy editors of journals published in England. Then there is the serial comma. Do you prefer to write, "In grammar school I learned reading, writing, and arithmetic", or "…I learned reading, writing and arithmetic"? The former example uses the serial comma, and the latter example leaves it out. There are strong proponents of both usages, just as there are several opinions about the way I placed the question mark in the prior sentence.

Mary Norris has been a copy editor—and worn a few other hats—at The New Yorker since 1978. Her book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen drags the somewhat secretive vocation of the copy editor into the daylight for us all to enjoy. She broke into the field when she pointed out an error in something James Thurber had written on his office wall. He was delighted.

Writing and punctuation styles change over time. I learned to use many commas in my sentences, having been taught to "Write for someone reading aloud; show where to breathe." A copy editor set me straight about more modern usage in about 1974, and I've gradually learned to use about one-third as many commas as before. Peruse a few pages of an issue of The New Yorker from about 15 years ago, and you'll see more commas than you might in your daily newspaper. Ms Norris writes of the colorful persons found among the warrens of The New Yorker's offices, none more distinctive than Lu Burke, whose "comma shaker" was famous. It reminded her colleagues to make stylishness subservient to clarity, and not to dogmatically expunge every comma for some doctrinal reason. (Image found at a CMOS review).

Punctuation marks and the foibles of their usage seem to fill about half the book. Chapters treat of hyphens, the other three kinds of dashes (en, em, and long: – — ―), apostrophes, and semicolons as compared to colons and other designators of an author's thought changing direction or focus. In the chapter about dashes, she tells us of Emily Dickinson, who used dashes for nearly everything. A careful student of her handwritten papers could probably find six or seven lengths of dash, and it is quite likely that Dickinson had something quite definite in mind when producing any of them. And there is the question of using spaces around a dash, or not, or whether it is proper to follow a dash with a comma or other bit of punctuation (nearly never in Norris's view). –I just went back and deleted a comma after the word "never"; I still have certain instincts from the 1960's.

And what of the other half of the book? The title illustrates a pet peeve of hers, that people who might usually say, "between you and me," which is proper, tend to say, "between you and I," which is not, if they think they are speaking with someone who has a better education. Somehow, the proper usage takes on a common tinge in their mind, and is therefore suspect, as though "common usage" might be frowned upon by a person of excessive education. Just in case you were wondering, it isn't. Some common usages are certainly incorrect, but most are quite correct. And language changes over time. Today's common usages that are thought to be errors will become standard over a generation or two.

If you can find an edition of Shakespeare that retains his original orthography, you'll find it hard to read. Go back another 400-500 years, and "Old English" is really quite incomprehensible:
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod.
The letter þ is the Thorn, and is pronounced as an unvoiced "th". Its companion, the Eth (ð), is the source of the "y" used in faux-colonial signs such as "Ye old Curiosity Shoppe", where "Ye" is to be pronounced "the", with the "th" voiced. Have you figured out the two lines above? Here they are circa 1729:
Our Father, which art in heaven;
Hallowed be Thy name.
That ought to be more familiar. The punctuation of the Old English version is according to the 1729 editing of the King James text of 1611. If the Anglo-Saxons of the 12th Century punctuated the prayer at all, it is likely they used a dash or a comma. If you are familiar with the King James Bible in print today, it is the fourth edition, revised in 1729, not the 1611 version, which is almost as unreadable as Anglo-Saxon to most modern readers. Even the orthography of 1729 is looked upon by today's younger set as a nearly foreign language.

Proofreading and copy editing are a conservative enterprise. Readers are most comfortable with the kind of writing they grew up with, if not in content, at least in form. So most authors write in a style not far removed from that of their formative years, and are quite OK with a copy editor who ensures that the same style is adhered to. But some authors experiment with new forms and have new ideas and want them expressed just so. Emily Dickinson without her dashes would seem enervated; they give a breathless rush to her verse. Ms Norris uses an example handwritten by Jackie Kennedy, complete with dashes among its run-on sentences. You simply get a more intimate feel from it as compared to something shoehorned into the straitjacket of "correct usage".

So words, though their treatment takes up but half the book, are the meat, the nourishment of the mind, and the punctuation marks the bones and joints. There is even a chapter on "curse words", particularly the "f-bomb", and on a competition among certain writers at The New Yorker to see how many they could fit on a page (and say something halfway useful in the process). I was reminded of a Mythbusters episode from a few years back, in which they tested the emotional impact on the speaker of cursing loudly to alleviate pain, compared to shouting more innocuous strings of words such as "kittens, raspberries, elephants!" and so forth. Cussing worked better. There really is some utility to it!

Without saying it directly, Ms Norris confesses to a certain level of OCD. She devotes half a chapter to her love of soft #1 pencils, and her inability to achieve comfort with anything harder, such as the ubiquitous #2. She often can't enjoy something when her eye/mind keep tripping over errors. Other times she'll find it entertaining to see a large printed sign that reads "Hunters's Rest", and wonder whether the sign maker was working with a family named "Hunters", or simply covering all the bases of possessive usage.

As you might expect, the writing style is excellent, easing a reader's enjoyment of her insight, wit, and humor. It is quite enjoyable to peek behind the scenes to see that, at least at The New Yorker, a substantial series of editors and readers awaits an author's prose, to ensure that what the magazine prints is, firstly, exactly what the author intended, and secondly, as error-free as is humanly possible.The author's website for the book:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Speculation Unbound!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, scientific miscellany

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly switched off? Randall Monroe answers that question beginning on page 248 of What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Randall Monroe created the webcomic, which includes a What If? section, in which he answers questions of all kinds sent in by readers of the web site or, more recently, the book.

I can't believe I didn't stumble across this sooner. It is a step beyond the "Fermi Questions", so beloved of the young victims of Science Olympiad. Answering the really absurd questions requires a skill akin to Fermi's, who was famous for taking on a query with no more than a pencil and the back of an envelope. He is also remembered for his method of measuring the yield of the original Trinity atomic bomb. While others did whatever they were doing in their trench a mile or so from Ground Zero, he was seen busily tearing a sheet of notebook paper to small bits. A second or two after the blast was triggered, just before the shock wave hit, he tossed the handful of confetti as high as he could. After the shock hit, and it was deemed safe to exit the trench, he walked around, mapping the outline of the scattering of paper bits, did a calculation or two, and announced how many kilotons the yield had been.

So what would happen to us if the Sun switched off? Randall's take on it is mainly positive. He catalogs nine consequences, including "no need to force your children to wear sunscreen" and "better astronomy" with a quieter (and soon, nonexistent) atmosphere. Of course, his tenth consequence? "We would all freeze and die."

Interestingly, there are two ways to look at the Sun switching off. He chose to work with an immediate cessation of all energy flow from the Sun. One could also consider a sudden cessation of the fusion reactions powering the Sun. That leads to a more drawn-out scenario, because it would take a long time, hundreds of thousands of years, for the outer layers of the Sun to dim appreciably. It would take several tens of millions of years for the Sun to cool to invisibility. Perhaps that would give us the motivation to really ramp up the space program!

There was an interesting short story I read a couple decades ago, in which a young man (or so he seemed) walked into a reporter's office and informed him that the reason so few neutrinos were coming from the Sun was that Jehovah had left the place in a huff a couple thousand years ago, and being a thrifty sort, had turned off the fusion furnace. He said he was the newly-assigned deity and asked the reporter to run a provocative, cagey story that "perhaps" scientists would find a more "normal" level of neutrino activity from the Sun, starting in a few days, and to give no reason other than "informed by someone in the know". He intended to re-start the Sun. Sure enough, a week later the neutrino level rose to what the scientists had calculated it "ought to be". Of course, this was during the period that "neutrino oscillation" was being theorized, and is now the accepted reason that solar neutrino activity is observed to be 30% what was originally expected.

So, what kinds of questions get asked? Things like, "How many laser pointers do you have to point at the Moon so that we could see it?" or, "How much force power did Yoda produce (when lifting the X-wing from the swamp)?" There are also several short sections in which questions are listed but not explicitly answered; they are in the "Weird (and Worrying)" category: "What is the total nutritional value of a human body?" or, "Is there sound in space (There isn't right?)?"

Actually, that last question has an answer (so does the first: the same as a pig of the same weight). Yes, there is sound in space. Sound requires a medium in which to travel. Although the gas density in "outer space" is very low, it is never zero, anywhere. But the frequency of sound that is transmitted with little loss needs to be low enough that the wavelength is longer than the mean free path of the gas molecules as they bounce off one another. So the sounds in space, that go any useful distance, have very low frequencies. For example, in "interplanetary space", the average gas molecule travels a few meters before encountering another. The speed of sound is different at low pressure, but not by a great amount, so we can still use 300 m/s for rough calculations, and we find that a wavelength of 10m occurs at about 30 Hz. The trouble is, the sonic volume would be low, because so little gas is carrying the sound, but a sensitive microphone could detect low hum-type sounds "out there". In interstellar space, the pressure is lower, perhaps a thousand times lower, meaning that the mean free path is a thousand times as long, and frequencies higher than 0.03 Hz would not travel far. So the sounds in interstellar space would be at very low frequencies indeed. But they are there.

Rather than go on about things like using a Gatling Gun to propel a car (watch out, anyone behind!), I suggest you read the book, and check out the web site. Randall Munroe is an entertaining writer and, with a background in robotics, a deft hand at off-the-cuff mathematics (and a stable of helpful scientists' phone numbers in his Rolodex, no doubt). You'll love it.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Producing a depauperate Earth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, extinction

I collected butterflies and other insects as a child. For a couple of years, when we lived in Utah, I mainly collected locusts, the ones with colorful wings. There were many different wing color patterns. Now, fifty years later, I find that both butterflies and colorful locusts (when I visit Utah) are quite a bit scarcer. Where I live now, in the suburbs southwest of Philadelphia, I have seen more butterflies than I did for a long, long time. But nothing matches those young years in Utah and Ohio. I also recall, during high school years in Sandusky, Ohio, recording morning bird song. I wish I still had the tapes! The "morning chorus" that began half an hour before sunrise in the Spring was a rich symphony. I could recognize the calls of 6 or 8 kinds of birds, and heard several calls I didn't know, every time. There is a pretty good morning chorus here, these days, but again, it pales by comparison with what I recall. Two to three kinds of bird calls are the usual fare.

This is not just me, remembering some "golden age" that never existed. Things are dying out, lots of them. I have been hearing about a "sixth extinction" for some years now. This is the title of a sobering, well-researched book by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

What is the "normal" rate of species extinction? To jump in with the conclusion, it is probably close to one species yearly. It is closely allied to the normal rate of species turnover. That is, "extinction" can mean one of two things. Firstly, one species changes to another under the pressure of environmental change. When the two species are things like shellfish that leave good fossils, what a geologist would notice is that in rocks of a certain age, only shells of "type 1" are found, and in the next layer, only those of "type 2". An ecologist might notice that certain "recent fossils" are not found among living shellfish. I saw an example of this in Bear Lake, Idaho 60 years ago, snail shells in abundance, but a ranger told us they no longer lived in the lake; there was a different species now.

In geologic terms, the time span across a couple of millimeters of sedimentary rock might be a million years, so the speciation even could be quite gradual as seen from a human perspective. Observations of animals under selection pressure indicate that one may be replaced by another in much less than a million years: 50 to 100 years is sometimes sufficient. Many, many animal species live their life out within one year, so this represents 50-100 generations. Longer-lived creatures are a different matter. Horses, for example, can reproduce as early as two years, but have a fertile lifetime of about ten years, sometimes more. So a "horse generation" is probably about 6-8 years. A human generation is commonly thought of as 25 years, though in very early times it was probably closer to 20. Anyway, species transformation (I dislike the popular conception of "mutation") can occur in hundreds or thousands of years, to perhaps tens of thousands of years. This is synchronous extinction.

The second kind of extinction is that a species dies out when the environment changes to rapidly for it to adapt, and it is no longer suited to it. It may or may not be replaced, in ecological terms, by an unrelated (or more distantly related) species, which may have evolved about that time, or maybe not. This is asynchronous extinction. Depending on the kind of animal, a species that makes fossils is seen to last between one and ten million years, though some that we call "living fossils" are found to have lasted for tens or hundreds of millions of years. Though I wonder if a coelacanth living today could actually be bred with one somehow brought to the present from 300 million years ago; perhaps there have been a hundred synchronous extinctions along the line, as the animal changed in profound ways that did not materially affect what its fossil form would be.

"Mass Extinction" refers to the sudden disappearance of many species over a shorter period of time. A mass extinction is thought to happen because of a great and widespread change in environmental conditions. These are, of necessity, asynchronous extinctions. One thing that can utterly transform the environment worldwide, at least for a time, is the fall of an asteroid a few miles wide. An asteroid impact eliminated the dinosaurs (those that hadn't become birds already), in what is called the end-Cretaceous extinction event. There have been five major mass extinction events in the last 500 million years, and a few dozen lesser ones. Each of the "Big 5" drove at least half of all species out of existence, pretty much overnight. They mark the boundaries between geologic ages. The lesser ones were of less significance only in comparative terms, and also mark the boundaries of geologic ages or significant geologic periods.

The major ages of geologic time are called:
Mississippian + Pennsylvanian in America, Carboniferous elsewhere
Mesozoic, including Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous
Tertiary (or Paleogene)
Quaternary (or Neogene)
The Big 5 ended the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous. Other named ages and periods also ended with lesser mass extinctions.

The trouble with geologically sudden events is that, on a human scale, they may not appear sudden at all. While the dinosaur-killing asteroid changed all of Earth's environments in at most a few days, the other mass extinctions seem to have taken more time, in the range of years to centuries, and perhaps tens of millennia. On a scale that considers a thousand-year transformation as "sudden", something that takes only a century is lightning-fast.

That is what we see happening. Synchronous species turnover, and most cases of asynchronous extinction, make up the background rate. Roughly speaking, if species last on average a couple million years, and there are about a million species, then some species or other will go extinct every year or every second year. That's a ballpark estimate of background extinction. One per year or a half that. If the greatest of the Big 5, the Permian catastrophe, took 1,000 years to occur, and nearly a million species were wiped out, that is a rate 1,000 to 2,000 times greater than the background.

The chapters of the The Sixth Extinction each focus on one species, as an example of a group of related species, that are greatly reduced or already extinct. Most are known or strongly suspected to be due to human influence. The first example is a Panamanian tree toad, a "poison dart frog", that is probably already extinct. It represents amphibians in general, that are vanishing at a stunning rate. Of 6,200 species of amphibian (frogs, toads, newts, salamanders, and a couple of similar odd critters), about 1,800, or nearly 30%, are reducing in number rapidly, and at least 440, or 7%, are likely to become extinct within very few years. Just among amphibians, the extinction rate is about 100 times the background rate for all species!

One example cannot possibly be due to human influence (unless you are a strict, young-Earth creationist), the Ammonites. These spiral-shaped critters actually survived the biggest mass extinction, the one at the end of the Permian, 251 million years ago, but were wiped out later on by the end-Cretaceous event, the one that famously ended the "age of reptiles", but let some few mammals and birds (small, feathered dinosaurs) sneak through and repopulate Earth. The chapter focuses on the consequences of an Asteroid Winter, and compares it with other possible causes of mass extinctions. It sets the stage for discussing the massive environmental changes we humans are bringing about. If we are indeed the major actor in the environmental shift called Global Warming, and I think we probably are, that is but one large-scale change in worldwide habitats that we have produced, and the one most likely to kill us along with so many other species.

One chapter dwells on rain forests ("jungles"), and the species-area relationship as determined by counting the number of species to be found in various sized plots of forest. In a portion of a large forest, there is a variation of species quantity with area, which is partly statistical. But in a dissected forest, with forested plots of various sizes surrounded by barren land or farms, there is a similar relationship, though it is steeper. The species of focus for the chapter, a small tree in the genus Alzatea, is not found at all in an isolated plot if its area is below a specific number of acres. When a large forest is broken up into isolated plots, at first, the S/A relationship follows that of the original forest. But over time, species are lost, most rapidly from the smallest plots, until a steeper S/A relationship is developed. Sometimes, keeping plots from total isolation by having forested "highways" between them will preserve some species, but this is not true for all. It is like some species die out if their members cannot get far enough from the forest boundary.

Twelve chapters, twelve species plus a thirteenth, about Homo sapiens, about us. We are very likely to be the ultimate victims of the great mass extinction that we are carrying out. It is not known just how many species go extinct every year. I once read of an experiment with "tree fogging", in which researchers used insecticide fog throughout the canopy of an entire tree, and collected all the insects, particularly beetles, that fell onto sheets spread under the tree. Dozens of new species were found and described. Excitedly, they fogged a second tree. Many more new species were found. But they were sobered that most of the new species from tree #1 were not found at all on tree #2, even though they were within a hundred meters of each other. They concluded that many of those, perhaps 100 species, were endemic not just to that forest, but to that specific tree, and found nowhere else. They had made 100 species extinct in an afternoon! They canceled future experiments of that type.

It is hard to find out everything that exists without going and finding them. But when doing so destroys what you are trying to find, what good is that? I don't how to find out how fast species are going extinct, but I think it very, very likely that this human-induced mass extinction is proceeding at a rate that exceeds that of the Permian event, the biggest of the Big 5, by a large margin. I do believe this needs to be more widely known.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Faster than the wind, and perhaps he saved your life

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, scientists, safety, rocket sled experiments

There is a name you need to know: John Paul Stapp. If you have been in a car accident, it is likely that you owe your life and health to him. That is, if you were wearing a seat belt.

Step back about 70 years. World War II had just ended, and a young physician was wondering why so many military pilots were dying, when they didn't have to. During that war, getting shot down was a death sentence in one of two ways: you died when the plane crashed, or you died trying to exit the plane. After the war, ejection seats were found to be, far too frequently, tickets to oblivion. Their design was based on, at best, random guesses about the amount of stress the human body could survive, and the forces the aircraft frame could handle.

Dr. Stapp set out to gather accurate and usable data. What he did and how he did it are detailed in the first half of Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth, by Craig Ryan. The second half shows what he, and the country, did as a result.

Before the 1940s, a smattering of centrifuge experiments had established that, with training and with minimal support from a flight suit, a fighter pilot could avoid blacking out at accelerations of about 6 G's. The G is a one-gravity acceleration force. If you weigh 150 lbs (68 kg), that is the force a mattress must apply to hold you up. If you and the mattress are put in a centrifuge and spun so as to apply a 6 G acceleration, the centripetal force the mattress (and the frame holding it) must now apply to hold you is 900 lbs (408 kg). When your body weight is spread out by a mattress, if the area of your body against the mattress is about 5.4 sq ft (0.5 m²), you'll feel a pressure of about 28 lb/ft² or 136 kg/m². That comes to about 0.19 psi. Now, multiply that by six, and you'd feel almost 1.2 psi. If your normal blood pressure is 120/75 (what doctors currently recommend, but maybe yours is higher), that 120 mm translates into 2.3 psi, and the 75 mm into 1.5 psi. So you can see that sustained acceleration of 6 G's tends to draw the blood in your body towards the mattress. If you are sitting rather than lying down, it doesn't take long for an acceleration of 6 G's to pull the blood from your brain, and you black out.

At this point it is all about sustained G forces. It makes sense that you could survive larger forces if they occurred briefly and were rapidly abated. Somehow, a factor of three became dogma, so that a brief acceleration of 18 G was considered the threshold of death. Yet, common observations of people surviving falls calls this into question. One of my brothers fell 20 feet out of a tree, landed on his back on the lawn, and had the breath knocked out of him. But he got up after a minute or so and was OK. Now, a grassy lawn is softer than landing on concrete, but it doesn't have much give. The main thing keeping this from being an "instant stop" (physically impossible) was the flexibility of the body, which squishes out briefly. I calculate that my brother's body touched the ground going about 24 mph (39 kph) and stopped in a distance of about 4 inches. That works out to a stopping force of 60 G's. If instead we allow him a little more flexibility to squishing, perhaps the stopping distance was 6 inches, and he experienced 40 G's. Either number is a far cry from 18 G's.

Over about a decade, Dr. Stapp used himself as the primary experimental subject (not the only one; he also used chimpanzees and on rare occasions, another volunteer) in rocket sled experiments. The rockets would get the sled going to some high velocity, and a braking system would then stop it over a prescribed distance. Here are parameters that might describe a typical experiment:

  • Rocket acceleration: 4 G's
  • Burn time: 4.6 s
  • Burn distance: 410 m (1,340 ft)
  • Peak speed: 644 kph (400 mph)
  • Stop distance: 20.5 m (67 ft)
  • Stopping time: 0.23 sec
  • Average stop G's: 20
  • Peak stop G's: 30 (measured by camera)

Early experiments were conducted with the seat on the sled facing backward, so the subject was pressed into the seat by the stopping forces. Experiments were also conducted with the seat in various orientations, including "butt forwards", to determine the forces of an ejection seat's kick-off blast.

Later experiments were conducted with the seat facing forward, and the subject exposed first to the wind blast, and then to deceleration against the webbing holding him into the seat. Dr. Stapp used chimps to determine the edge of lethality, though it turned out that they are much, much tougher than humans, so getting the calibration right for human experiments was tricky. With humans (mostly himself), he gradually raised the G forces and observed his own feelings and had doctors note what injuries he sustained. Thus, as time went along, the design of the seat was improved to avoid points that exerted extra forces and were causing injury. Over time these design changes were implemented in pilot seats.

The final, most definitive experiment was conducted with a chase plane flying above the rocket sled, to observe and film it from above. The pilot was astounded when the sled outraced the plane, reaching a top speed of 639 mph (1,028 kph), or Mach 0.9. This earned Stapp the title of "fastest man on earth" in a ground-bound vehicle. The title stood for about 30 years. During the deceleration, though, he sat forward-facing, getting the full wind blast, and being jammed against seat restraints with a crushing 45 G's, peak, during a stop that lasted less than 1.5 seconds. He was a mess when he was helped out of the seat. His eyes looked like pools of blood; he was lucky they had stayed in his head. It took weeks for all his sight to return. He had several broken bones. Though he had the ambition to go 1,000 mph, or at least Mach 1 (about 715 mph; authorities vary), it was not to be. He had advanced to Captain, Major, and was now a Colonel, and was moved by the Air Force command to a more administrative role. His sled, named the "Sonic Wind", was retired.

What he did next is the subject of the second part of the book. Dr. Stapp had performed his experiments, often against opposition, on a shoestring. He had to scrounge and cadge for equipment and apply verbal tricks to get some semblance of permission. Such skills were even more necessary after about 1956. He had long lobbied and clamored to Air Force brass about the safety, and its lack, in fighter aircraft and also transports. One result of his nagging was that many transports in war zones had the seats for the troops facing backwards. Then they were much more likely to walk away from a crash. But even during his earlier experiments he was also lobbying for the use of seat belts in automobiles.

By 1956, about 36,000 Americans were dying every year in automobile crashes. The population was about half what it is today, so in proportion, there could now be 72,000 auto deaths yearly, but instead, there are about 33,000. It took Colonel Stapp and his allies another 14 years to bring about the changes, primarily in laws, that have, since about 1970, saved at least 800,000 lives. Over the last 17 years, some of the difference is also due to airbags, something Stapp heartily approved of; he died in 1999, the year after airbags were mandated.

During his "lobbying years", he fought resistance in both government and industry against mandatory seat belt installation and use. The auto manufacturers were a lot like the tobacco lobby of the same era, denying that their products' quality had anything to do with the deaths that were occurring. Fortunately, there were at least aftermarket seat belts available, and many members of the public didn't wait for Washington or anyone else. Over a decade's time, sufficient statistics were compiled that a growing number of lawmakers became convinced of the belts' value, and in 1968, factory-installed seat belts were required by law. I remember an ambulance EMT who said he'd never unbuckled a dead body.

I bought my first car in 1967, a 1964 VW beetle. A couple of years later I bought a set of aftermarket 3-point lap/shoulder belts and installed them. Fortunately, Europe had been ahead of the curve, and though the car didn't have belts already installed, it did have threaded mounting holes, so the installation was easy. I have used seat/shoulder belts ever since. But growing up, we did many road trips, hundreds of miles yearly, in a big station wagon with no belts, and a mattress in the "back-back" for us boys to nap on. We were lucky.

Since 1984, one after another of the U.S. states has passed laws requiring seat belt use. Compliance varies, but averages 85%. Nearly all of those 33,000 highway fatalities in recent years, has come from the 15% who don't wear seat belts. In spite of the air bag in most vehicles, they either crash around inside during a collision, or are ejected. Driving in California with my brother several years ago, we saw an SUV hit the median barrier on the freeway, and the driver burst through the side window and landed on the highway almost in front of us, on his head. One of us (I don't recall who) said, "We just saw someone die."

Two things to remember about Colonel Dr. John Paul Stapp: He risked his life, incidentally becoming the fastest man on earth, to gather safety data; then he used those data and traffic statistics to practically crowbar the United States into becoming quite a bit safer as a place to drive or fly. Craig Ryan's exciting biography brings us the man and the stories, a portrait of someone to whom you just might owe your life.