Thursday, August 21, 2014

A burr under the PC blanket

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, sociology, behavior

To date, Nicholas Wade has written three seminal books, which I have read in reverse order. I first read his most recent, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which I reviewed July 30, then The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, reviewed August 12. Now I have in hand Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, published in 2006. His books in general criticize or expose academic mischief. These three take a more nuanced approach. While Wade is openly critical of the anti-recent-evolution stance of nearly all scientists who study human history and prehistory, he primarily presents data, draws logical conclusions, and engages the reader to think it through.

The premise underlying all three books is that human evolution continues apace. Anthropologists and others have from the beginning operated under the conceit that human evolution stopped about 50,000 years ago with the worldwide spread of "behaviorally modern humans", often called Cro-Magnon, but these days usually called Archaic Humans. This in spite of the facts that a typical archaic human was more heavily built than most moderns, and that the AH's were foragers (like chimps and bonobos are today), not even having the social organization of modern hunter-gatherers, let alone using settled dwellings. If there exist any AH's today, no matter how "behaviorally modern" they may be, they are probably being kept in prisons or hospitals for the criminally insane.

We are more gracile—having more slender bones and less muscle—than AH's. It took them, both in Africa and in the wider world a few hundred of them invaded around 50,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years to become hunter-gatherers, and another 5,000-10,000 years to begin to live in at least semi-permanent settlements. Only then, perhaps by accident, did cultivation of grains and domestication of certain animals produce an agricultural economy. I had not read before that people began to live in settlements several millennia before the agricultural revolution that began about 9,500 years ago. Only in the Americas was the order apparently reversed, with the domestication of maize preceding city-building, and that some 5,000 years later than in Eurasia and Africa.

Chapter 12, "Evolution", summarizes points made earlier in the book and adds a few pieces of evidence that we continue to evolve at about the same clip as large animals in general. These items include:

  • Defenses against malaria, including sickle cell anemia and thalassemia and a few other independently evolved modifications of hemoglobin, plus metabolic chain modifications such as G6PD, all of which evolved in the last 5,000 years or so.
  • The change from light skin, as in chimps and bonobos, to dark skin presumably came about when humans lost most hair hundreds of thousands of years ago. After a small group left Africa, most entered more northerly climes, and had less need for sun protection, plus in the most northerly, the need to make more vitamin D from what sun there was. This led to lighter skins. The situation is complicated by the last cold phases of the ice age between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago, when pale-skinned northerners would have been forced southward, only to return northward about the start of the Holocene, variously put somewhere around 10,000-11,500 years ago. The genes that favor pale skin in Eurasians are different from those in the Chinese and other East Asians.
  • Genes that affect brain size, one protective from microcephaly and another that affects the style of neural connections, arose 37,000 and 6,000 years ago, respectively.
  • Adult lactose tolerance arose about 5,000 years ago, in at least three different ways in different places.
  • Very few AH's got impacted wisdom teeth. Compare the situation today! The average modern male Euro-American lower jaw is a centimeter shorter than the average male AH lower jaw.

Such conclusions have led to criticism from academia. Curiously, having dipped into the literature some eight years after the fact, I find nearly no countering factual arguments, and mostly ad hominem attacks and circular reasoning. But things like malaria or light skin or wisdom teeth are one thing. The way we think and behave is sacred ground! Wade storms in where angels might fear to tread. But he is no fool.

It is becoming ever more clear that the human brain is no tabula rasa, on which culture can be written freely regardless of one's ancestry. Noam Chomsky and others have shown that infants have a "grammar engine" that enables them to learn language very easily. This definitely evolved well prior to 50,000 years ago, and improved communication may have been the salient factor that allowed a small band to invade eastward against probably opposition by Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. Other newly found innate skills are reported frequently. Wade contends that the modern ability to trust strangers rather than kill them on sight (or slink away to prepare an ambush) required genetic changes to our brains. Trusting was totally outside the scope of AH's. Trade is not seen between bands of apes, and is not yet universal among modern hunter gatherer tribes.

The mental adaptations needed to survive or thrive in settlements that have social order rather than total egalitarian organization are at least partly genetic. The puzzle to me is, wherever such mutations first arose, how did they spread throughout the human species? Wade mentions parallel, convergent evolution, but I am not so sure.

Bands of foragers and later, hunter gatherers, were and are so warlike that 30% of males die by the spear. That may work out to a yearly death rate due to fighting in the 1% range, but consider if the city of Philadelphia had a 1% murder rate: 15,000 per year (of half that if only males frequently kill). Compare that to around 200 yearly over the past decade. But a less murderous people are unlikely to spread into the territory of their violent cousins. This puzzle remains, but the modern fact of very low (comparative) violence.

The human species not only domesticated wolves, goats and other critters, they domesticated themselves. I am reminded of a scene from Demolition Man (1993), in which Wesley Snipes commits a bit of mayhem, and a dazed police officer says, "We're policemen. We aren't used to this level of violence". The actors other than Stallone and Snipes were chosen to be slender and inoffensive, as if they'd evolved further along the track of gracilization that has been going on for 50,000 years.

In a telling statement, Wade writes
There is no reason to suppose that human nature ceased to evolve at some finishing post in the distant past or to assume, as do some evolutionary psychologists, that people are struggling to function in modern societies with Stone Age minds. Genomes adapt to current circumstances or perish; the human genome is unlikely to be an exception. (p. 278)
I find a curious dichotomy in the past decade's debate over our failed nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most pundits predicted failure, stating that the region's peoples didn't think in terms favorable to American-style capitalism and representative democracy. "They are tribal peoples, it doesn't make sense to them." They were right. Some commentators even implied that peoples such as the Afghans can't think in these terms. Though this further implies that their brains work differently, they'd be aghast if this were pointed out. But if our genetics reflects our heritage, including adaptations to all of the past environment including culture, then it follows that the kinds of thoughts we are able to think is affected, if not delimited, by our ancestry.

Had Wade written only Before the Dawn he'd have been in sufficient hot water with academia. But he took Chapter 9, "Race", and part of Chapter 8, "Sociality", particularly the section on Evolution of Religion, and expanded them into the two later books. Now he is being attacked not only by evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists, but also the Civil Rights establishment—and the PC world in general—and many Christians (Jews, Moslems and most others mainly greeted The Faith Instinct with a yawn).

Face it, folks. There is no dichotomy between "man" and "nature". We are part of nature. We continue to evolve, both in body and in mind. Isn't it now a tenet of psychology that we are not body plus mind, but a body-mind, that the mind is a product of the body? The brain is part of the body, and evolves also. It must have required a significant change in how human brains work in order to allow people to settle down in communities larger than about 150, and a further, equally significant change to yield a 100-fold reduction in lethal violence over the past 20,000 years or so. Even the infamous Yanomamo of Brazil, murderous as they are, have a lower violent death rate than the typical group of AH's. Isn't that a good thing?

Is there a family anywhere that is composed of adoptees from radically different cultural heritages, but all were adopted as infants? This would constitute a small, natural experiment. To what extent would the infants, once grown to adolescence and adulthood, become comfortable in their adopted culture? I mean totally comfortable. Were such a family in suburban Minnesota, for example, would they all become productive taxpayers and voters? Would things such as the rule of law ("…a nation of laws and not of men.") make for them the kind of visceral sense it does to Euro-Americans? Maybe and maybe not. If Wade's thesis is correct, there would be a differing response to Western institutions depending on genetic heritage.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The modern shamans

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, alternative medicine

TMTOWTDI – There's more than one way to do it – is the mantra of computer programmers and engineers. It applies to most things in life. We can call this "Principle 1", or P1.

There are few ways to succeed but many ways to fail. Let's call this "Principle 2", or P2.

But, a big but, TOOBWTDI – There's only one best way to do it. The trouble is, folks disagree on that one way. I'd like to call this "Principle 3" (P3), and the caveat, "3a" (P3a).

Thus we come to that nice, stealthy word "alternative". If P1 applies, you have alternatives. Therefore, suppose someone complains to you of pain. Anything from a paper cut to diabetic neuropathy to bone cancer. What are the alternatives?

  1. OTC painkillers such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, or Naproxen.
  2. Prescription painkillers such as Hydrocodone, Morphine, or (in Europe) Heroin.
  3. The age-old remedy of a quart of whiskey.
  4. A stiff bonk on the head.
  5. Death.
All these have their uses and all have side effects. Alternative #1 helps only low-level pain. For #3, a second quart may be needed to induce total unconsciousness. #5 is unethical and usually illegal, unless you are Dr. Kevorkian. #4 is also unethical, and the ensuing concussion causes pain of its own later on.

Depending on whom you ask, there are further alternatives, including acupuncture and distraction such as the "laugh therapy" that helped Norm Cousins, and me, endure chemotherapy. There are also homeopathy, coffee enemas and other kinds of "detox" procedures, and a really incredible list of nostrums promoted by everyone from your Aunt Tillie to the quack-of-the-month using back-page ads.

In America and the West generally, doctors are no longer the knights in shining armor we imagined right after WW2. Like all science, medical knowledge grows by stages, so it is necessarily limited. We are a long way from Dr. McCoy and his Tricorder, curing almost anything putting the Tricorder next to someone's forehead or over their chest and calling their name. When a doctor must admit helplessness, patients don't like it. Particularly the Boomer generation. This pampered, overindulged, self-indulgent generation simply won't take NO for an answer, so they look for "alternatives".

Practitioners of "Alternative Medicine" have stepped into the gap. In fact, they have opened the gap and driven through in a locomotive. They rely on P1 and say they have P3, but there are so many different ones, we come up against P3a. Thus the new book by Paul A. Offit, MD: Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. He doesn't start with a definition, but gets there eventually, so I'll save you the suspense:
If a medical treatment is effective it is Medicine. If a so-called alternative—something not being done by MD's—is effective, it is also Medicine. If it is not effective, it is not medicine, alternative or otherwise. Thus there is no "alternative medicine". If it works, it is medicine.
Do note that the book's subtitle says, "Sense and Nonsense". In Chapter 4, "Fifty-One Thousand New Supplements", a number of popular treatments are discussed:
  • Ginkgo for dementia.
  • St. John's Wort for depression.
  • Garlic to lower cholesterol.
  • Saw Palmetto for enlarged prostate.
  • Milk Thistle for liver problems.
  • †Chondroitin and Glucosamine for joint pain.
  • Echinacea for colds.
† I take these, and I'll discuss it a bit later.

None of these 7 is effective. All have been tested and none stood up. Four more items were mentioned that do have some benefit:
  • Omega-3 supplements do improve heart and vascular health, and perhaps brain health. However, too much is not better, and can lead to prolonged bleeding from minor injuries, or even stroke. (†I have to find out how much "too much" is).
  • Calcium for bone health in older women, and probably older men.
  • Vitamin D (specifically D3) works with Calcium for bone health. Here also, too much is harmful, more than 3,000 units or so.
  • Folic Acid (Vitamin B9) prevents many birth defects during pregnancy.
Medical testing is either A-B or A-P. An A-B test compares a new substance "A" against the standard substance "B". For example, a new painkiller might be tested against aspirin if its target use is headaches or sprain soreness, or against morphine if its target use is postoperative pain or terminal cancer pain management. A-P tests compare a substance to a placebo, a "sugar pill". This brings up an interesting matter, discussed in Chapter 11, "The Remarkably Powerful, Highly Underrated Placebo Response".

Placebos! The name comes from a Latin phrase meaning "I please you". Doctors and their shamanic forebears have been handing out pills or potions "to please the patient" for at least 5,000 years. They well know that if a doctor at least does something, a patient will feel better for that reason alone. This was thought to be a purely psychological trick until endorphins were discovered. The first endorphin was so named because it was called "endogenous morphine". These chemicals, produced in the brain, bind to receptors that reduce the feeling of pain, and can nearly eliminate it. Morphine binds to the same receptor, hence it reduces pain.

If you trust and like your doctor, being given a pill will in itself prime you for an endorphin release whenever you take the pill, and it will reduce pain, sometimes by quite a lot. Thus, to say that this or that "alternative remedy" is no better than a placebo can mean one of two things. Firstly, it may simply be another placebo, one that may have been a little more complicated to make than the standard coated sugar pill. Secondly, it may actually be effective, whether or not the placebo response is involved.

Medical test results are stated in a form such as "Caused a 50% reduction in symptoms for 75% of patients." If it is being compared to a placebo, and it is further stated, "…no more effective than the placebo", that means for the condition being tested (Migraine, perhaps), a placebo also had a significant effect for 75%, and not for the other 25%. At the risk of doubling testing costs, and they are already staggeringly high!, I'd recommend an A-P-P-A test, where during a second period of time, the patients were switched, and the differences noted for each patient. Then you focus on those patients who did not respond to the placebo, but did respond to the test substance. You may have found something that is genuinely effective for some 25% of the population, and it may be worth finding out why these but not the others were helped.

Not everyone is the same. Optometrists have always known this. My glasses would not work for your eyes. In Optometry, nearly every prescription differs from the others. (Actually, given the granularity in correction parameters, there are probably only about 50,000 unique eyeglass prescriptions, per eye.)

†So now I'll tell you why I still take Glucosamine and Chondroitin. I had a rotator cuff injury nearly 25 years ago. This runs in my family. My father has had both cuffs put back together with nylon straps. I decided to avoid surgery, and just babied the shoulder. Within a few months it was mostly better, but a lingering soreness remained for about 10 years. Then I began to take G+C. The response was slow. After 3 months the soreness began to get better and after a year it was much better. I tried stopping the supplement, and soreness began to return, so I returned to using it, and still do. I judge that is much too slow to be a classic placebo response. Something is doing me good.

Now for the other † symbol. I take a lot of Omega-3 supplement. Years ago a doctor prescribed Lovaza, and recommended I take at least 2 pills daily, primarily for heart health. I have very low cholesterol, around 120 for total, but also very low HDL, typically about 32. The doctor had first prescribed Tricor to raise HDL, and after a couple of years, it reached 38. I also gained 20 pounds in those years. He wanted me to reach an HDL of 40 at the very least, and 50 if possible (my wife's HDL is 60). One better thing the Tricor had done was lower my blood fats from 300 to below 150. So, the Lovaza is supposed to to keep them down also. It did, but it is very expensive. I found that I could get the same DHA and EPA found in 2 Lovaza pills by taking 5 of the 1.2g pills from Walgreen's or BJ's. That is what I do. It costs a lot less, and I don't mind occasional fishy aftertaste. Also, after I stopped taking Tricor I lost 15 pounds.

By the way, I was briefly involved with a project at DuPont to produce EPA from yeast. They market the stuff now. I'm waiting for a similar supplement for DHA. Anyway, they had some highly purified EPA. It has a strong fishy smell all by itself. If you're taking Omega-3 supplements that include EPA (and they'd better, it is the truly essential one), the fishy smell can't be removed, no matter what the manufacturer says. And if they put an "enteric coating" on it so it won't dissolve in the stomach, the pill is very likely to run right through your system unchanged, and you'll see it after a bowel movement, if you care to look. I use pills without special coatings, just ordinary gelatin. Five per day, or 6 grams.

I've skipped over a lot that the book discusses. There is a very enlightening history of quackery and medicine growing together in America. Then the history of regulation including creation of the FDA shows how certain loopholes have been built into the laws because of intense lobbying by people who make a killing from "alternative" treatments. As I wrote above, medicine is medicine, and if something is effective, doctors ought to use it. If it is not, they ought to say why.

All this quackery goes on because people won't accept limits to our knowledge. The medical profession is a work in progress. I am alive today because of 21st Century medicine, including being poisoned with 5FU, a nerve gas from WW1 that happens to be a great chemotherapy agent against colon cancer. And, in my experience, 5FU is the most effective anti-depressant I've ever had (I don't take any AD's now, but I've tried a few). By the way, if you're ever tempted to use Laetrile, the effective agent, if there is one, is the cyanide found in the pits of all stone fruits and in other fruit seeds also. When I eat an apple, core and all, chewing the seeds, I get a bit of cyanide. There is more to "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" than just the anti-constipation properties of apple peel! But Laetrile is concentrated to the point that many folks who take it are damaged by the larger amount of cyanide. You'd do better and be safer eating a peach or apricot, cracking open the seed (use pliers not your teeth), and eating the soft pit inside. No more than one or two per day! But really, if you have cancer, see an oncologist. They aren't out to purposely harm you, really truly!

Dr. Offit's presentation is the most balanced and clear I've seen. His approach is common-sense and sensible. Whether the person who recommends a nostrum is a doctor, a "practitioner" of some alternative or other, or your cousin Joe, ask, "How do you know?" They need to know because you need to know. Had this book cited a study showing harm caused by the G+C I'm taking, I'd stop using them. We all ought to remember that MD's and DO's at least take the Hippocratic Oath, and promise to "do no harm." The purveyors of "alternatives" have not taken that oath.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Genetic religion?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, religion, faith, sociology

After reading Nicholas Wade's most recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, two weeks ago, I decided to read a couple of his earlier books. The first to come to hand is The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, published in 2009. I have quite mixed feelings about the former book, and as an ardent Christian, I find this book even more unsettling, but I expected that. Regardless, it discusses matters of which we dare not be ignorant.

When I was very young, I recall my mother saying that the beginning of the second verse in Genesis wasn't connected to the end of the first verse, leaving a gap for geology to happen. She was a rock hound, and knew enough geology to understand that the Earth must be much, much older than the 6,000 years deduced by Ussher and others from adding up the "begats" in the Old Testament. I've done a similar exercise out of curiosity, and it is rather tricky to string the right genealogies together. Interestingly, Paul wrote that we shouldn't waste time studying "endless genealogies" (1 Tim 1:4, and a similar statement in Titus 3:9). I reckon he was on to something.

Thus, I have long held that the Bible is not intended as a text in natural history. As Cardinal Baronius said to Galileo, "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." But even among Christians who accept the conclusions of science, and biology in particular, and even if they accept evolution, they are uncomfortable with human evolution. Even more so, that the brain continues to evolve, and rare is the scholar of Humanities or Anthropology who willingly accepts that some proportion of human behavior is genetic. Theist or atheist, scholars almost uniformly deny that any substantial level of evolution is now going on, particularly as relates to human behavior.

Our deepest and most powerful impulses are the spiritual. Gospel preachers sometimes say that no animal has religion, "only we do". They say you never find a dog worshiping—to which some wags respond, dogs don't believe in supernatural gods because they live with their gods: Us. Every culture and every civilization has a characteristic religious practice. In The Faith Instinct, Wade traces the genetic tendency to practice religion to something that must have developed prior to the expansion of physically modern humans out of Africa some 50,000 years ago (most anthropologists would say, 70,000). This is because religious practice is universal.

Sure, among the most affluent nations we find rising numbers of atheists and agnostics, and in the last 2-3 generations a growing level of "evangelical atheism" (I find it laughable that these "hot" atheists are so extremely religious in their atheism! They are as touchy and insecure as the most priggish Puritan.). Less affluent countries don't have atheists. If only for naturalistic reasons, when life is bad, people need something beyond themselves to keep going on going on.

The basic thesis is simple. Early human groups endured frequent warfare (there never were any "noble savages). Groups of early people who danced and sang together were more socially cohesive, and more likely to win the next battle. We see in tribal groups today pre-battle dances. I liken them to pre-game pep rallies at schools and colleges. People who think they are so sophisticated go to an arena for a ball game and behave like a warrior tribe roaring themselves into a frenzy. The post-game rioting and looting that sometimes occur stand in for the battles among tribal folk.

Social cohesion may not be enough to regulate an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society between battles. Revered ancestors that morphed over time into various kinds of gods provided a supernatural check on misbehavior. If you think a god is watching, you are less likely to sin. This instinct is so ingrained that many stores take advantage of it by having lots of mirrors on the walls, and pictures of smiling faces in places you might not expect, such as in or near changing rooms in the clothing department. Experiments have shown that just having pictures showing eyes near the communal coffee urn in an office break room reduces the amount of coffee taken without plunking the expected couple of quarters into the nearby jar. Such an instinct would favor a group that didn't have to kill so many miscreants, because most people were behaving well due to fear of the gods.

Where did the modern, more cerebral religions of the developed world come from? Wade writes that agriculture and village life, then city life, required something different from tribal dance- and song-fests. Just as an economic hierarchy developed to regulate trade and distribution of goods, so a religious hierarchy developed, a priesthood that gradually monopolized religious practice. The development of writing that paralleled agriculture also facilitated religion, allowing the commandments and rituals to be codified.

Near the end of the book, Wade discusses the work of Samuel Huntington, who wrote articles and a book titled The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington identifies seven world civilizations of the present day:
  • Western, including Europe and the USA
  • Confucian, in China
  • Japanese, though some would argue Japan is merging into the West
  • Islamic
  • Hindu, in India primarily
  • Slavic-Orthodox, in Russia and parts of former SSR's
  • Latin America
Huntington wrote, "The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations." (I contend that WW3 began in 1992, and is sort of sputtering along at present.) Huntington analyzed these seven, and for Western civilization he lists eight defining characteristics:
  • Greek and Roman legacy
  • Western Christianity in two branches, Roman Catholic and Protestant
  • Languages derived from Latin, German and Greek
  • Separation of church and state
  • Rule of law
  • Social pluralism
  • Representative governing bodies
  • Tradition of individual rights and liberties
(These lists are on page 272) Why, in particular, do the Russians seem so similar to Westerners, yet are so at odds with the West (particularly with Putin in charge, but don't blame it all on him)? Of these 8, only a deep historical legacy is familiar, but theirs came through Byzantium, not Rome and Athens. Their Orthodox religion has been split, most vehemently, from Roman Catholicism for over 950 years. Then there is Islam, for which the church IS the state, and shar'ia law is considered divinely inspired, not legislated; they have none of the other 7 characteristics either.

Here Wade enters into deeper waters than just religions and their differences. To belong to a civilization is to have a certain kind of identity. One's comfort or discomfort with one's civilization affects one's progeny, and thus is a factor in natural selection. These matters led to the later book I refer to above.

How is a Christian to think of all this? Is there a genuine God? Is the Old Testament really the cobbled-together scheming of a self-appointed priesthood among the Hebrews in Babylon? Wade refers to this conclusion of the "higher critics" of the early 1800s rather uncritically. Most of their "findings" have since been discredited. For example, in the 1820s they could disparage references to the Hittites, but a generation later, the Hittites were found to be real. These critics claimed that the Hebrews didn't conquer Canaan, but were home-grown in Canaan. Yet there are historical records of somebody coming to Egypt for a couple of generations, then leaving under mysterious circumstances. The Egyptians themselves destroyed most records of the matter, possibly from embarrassment.

And is the New Testament as late-dated as higher critics suppose? For example, were the first 3 Gospels written before or after 70AD? Christian scholarship places Mark first, as a collection of Peter's sermons, released before 60AD, then both Matthew and Luke just a few years later. Only John came after 70AD, possibly as late as 95AD. And was the theology attributed to Paul a distortion of the message of Jesus? He could not have been warmly received by the church in Jerusalem if that were so. His differences with James were not about Jesus's message, but about whether a Jew should continue to practice the Jewish religion after converting to Christ.

To a Christian, the choice is stark. Either the Bible is divinely inspired, or it is nonsense. Evidence of editing is no problem: copyists make errors, and God can guide a later scribe to reverse the error. The Spirit's inspiration took place at many levels. Certain sentences uttered by Satan are included, one chapter of Daniel was written by Nebuchadnezzar, and the whole book of Ecclesiastes is the maundering of an aging Solomon in a time of deep depression. In particular, it is not wise to use any verse of Ecclesiastes as a proof text. You have to compare it to Song of Songs to see why God allowed it into His Word.

To a Christian who understands and accepts evolution, human life and nature show traces of divine intervention, even in our genetics. Why should God not intervene in a delicate way, to steer human development towards His own ends? No matter how many books are written on the subject, atheists will say man created gods in our image, and theists will say the gods or God made us in the divine image. Faith is deeper than just religious practice. It really depends, do you believe what you believe because of what you were taught to practice, or do you do what you do because of your faith?

Nicholas Wade takes a relentlessly biological view of human affairs. For that, he does a great service. Like it or not, he reaches logical conclusions from the available evidence.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

I am almost ready to hire this guy

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing, retirement planning

Ric Edelman is heard on the local radio station, sometimes advertising and sometimes hosting a talk show about investing. His advice and approach seem sensible to me, so I was glad to run across his book The Truth About Retirement Plans and IRAs. His advice compares well with that from Peter Lynch in a book he wrote just after retiring from managing the Magellan Fund. Both make the point that long-term, stocks perform better than any other investment (except perhaps high-end real estate, if you have billions to invest).

Based on the Lynch book, I invested heavily in stock funds while I had a 401(k) available, then reallocated as I neared retirement. It turns out, I'd have done the same had this book been available 30 years ago! The difference is, Ric Edelman advises investing in everything available to the small investor. Here is an asset allocation model generated by the "GPS" tool at

Count 'em up: 18 asset classes, plus Cash. I ran the tool several times, for both myself and my father, in his 90s. This model is for someone about 10 years before retirement with a pretty good tolerance for risk. If you add the international bonds to the "International" category, which is for stocks, global exposure is 18%, a surprisingly aggressive stance. And although he mentions gold or precious metals a few times in passing, I see none in this model, nor any discussion in the book. I suspect that is due to their double risk: gold went from $1,800/ozT a couple of years ago to $1,200 early this year, and is creeping back up at best. In real terms gold has yet to reach values it had during the Reagan presidency. Such fluctuations are risk type 1. The second type of risk is, you either pay for a custodian to guard it, or you take custody and risk being robbed. If anyone is paying attention (someone usually is), you are vulnerable when it is in your possession, before you get to your safe deposit box.

Back to the model. Non-bond non-cash totals 65%, about right for someone about 55. There is a joke hidden in the GPS. To answer one question, you have to choose one of 5 levels of risk, from zero to a scary graphic of zigging up and zagging down. If you choose the zero-risk tab, you are admonished that risk is never zero, and if you really have no tolerance for risk, you're on the wrong planet (that's how I'd word it; Edelman's webmaster is more tactful). So there are really 4 levels of risk tolerance. Then there is another question that evaluates the same trait in a different way, a few about objectives, your age and how much you'll be allocating, and you get your model.

The book has three parts. The first 7 chapters discuss retirement plans in all their variety, with frequent exhortations to take full advantage of any plan you're offered. In fact, if you don't at least have a 401(k) with some amount of company matching (AKA free money), he recommends changing employers. Of course it is also a good idea to fund your IRA every year also. Chapter 5 is titled "How to Save for Retirement When You Think You Can't Afford it". In a sidebar he mentions a study that found people making less than $13,000/yr spend about 9% of their income on lottery tickets. That's more than $90/month. For everyone who didn't win the lottery, it is lost money. If you have a way to put $90 into a passive stock fund, that is, an index fund tied to S&P 500 for example, after 40 years you'll have invested more than $43,000 and it'll be worth $200,000 to $300,000. That is the slow way to win the lottery!

He writes a lot about compound earnings. A halfway decent bond fund earns 4%/yr. Depending on market fluctuation, the index stock fund will gain 7%-10%. Let's pick 7% to be conservative. The first $90 you invest will grow to $1,350 in 40 years. Ninety dollars invested for 20 years will grow to $348. Each $90 investment grows for a different period, but they all add up to more than $260,000 over the total 40 years. Compare that to the lottery. One in 1,000 tickets wins a few hundred bucks in a "pick 3", one in 10,000 wins a few thousand dollars in a "pick 4", and one ticket in 100 million (or more) wins the millions at Powerball or a similar game. Everyone else has simply put a few bucks into a piece of paper they can throw away. This is why the lottery is called "a tax on people who can't do math."

The second section of the book consists of 5 chapters that discuss all the investment options (but as I wrote above, precious metals are not discussed only mentioned in passing). The 18 asset classes in the GPS model are all mutual funds or ETF's. Edelman doesn't recommend buying individual stocks or directly owning T-bills or other bonds. He has unearthed a marvelous principle for picking a fund: go for the lowest Expense Ratio, and of course, one with no "loads" (A load is the commission paid to the broker who sells you the fund. It is typically 4%, and some funds add another load when you sell, though it is a lower percent). The expense ratio is a management fee for choosing and trading the stocks or bonds or whatever. A study by Morningstar found that the performance of a mutual fund was better, the lower its expense ratio. Actively managed stock funds have ER's of 1% or more, averaging 1.4%. Bond funds may be lower, but usually exceed 0.7%. If a stock fund's basic performance is 8%, but you pay the manager 1.4%, your real performance is 6.6%. A passively managed (index) fund typically has an ER of 0.15% or less. One of those I own is at 0.05%. That is because these are easy to manage, and the fund company doesn't have to hire a highly-hyped "power manager". And they perform better. Even if my fund were to earn "only" 7.5% (it earns more), if I only pay 0.05%, the rest, 7.45%, is mine, and grows compounded!

Ah, compounding. It has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Over 40 years, $1,000 that earns 6.6% will become $12,891. But at 7.45%, it will become $17,711. That active, "higher returns" fund actually costs $4,820 per $1,000 you originally invested!!

OK, once you get to the third section, you have the meat of the book, 14 "best way" chapters that cover every situation leading up to retirement, living in retirement, how to (financially) handle life events such as divorce, and the best way to care for your heirs, should you see fit to leave something for them. I touched on a few items he covers in the discussion above, so I won't belabor. The 14 "best ways" are truly comprehensive, and of course, he advises seeking his services to get into more detail about your particular situation.

If you have no other book of such advice, or even if you have several, be sure to get this one and read it all. Even if you think you know everything in the first two parts, read them anyway, for the grounding, and to get used to the author's writing style: breezy, cheerful, and relentlessly right on the money!

Friday, August 01, 2014

The quest to know the unknowable

kw: book reviews, mysteries, history, conspiracies

A certain style of "documentary", be it in video or print, is exemplified by NASA's Unexplained Files on the Science Channel. The commentator gravely reports a series of observations and raises questions, interspersed with comments in sound bites from various scientists and other investigators. I'll give them a little credit: sometimes the last word goes to someone with a credible explanation that mostly removes excessive mystery. But we are usually left with a series of possibly unrelated facts and suppositions, all intended to indicate alien involvement.

I took up Brad Meltzer's latest book with a bit of trepidation, expecting something similar, but I was intrigued. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, written with Keith Ferrell. Barring the first chapter, the reporting is balanced and the author offers a common-sense appraisal of the evidence. I haven't seen the show Brad Meltzer's Decoded on the History Channel, but it might be worth a look.

The book starts with a chapter about John Wilkes Booth, and whether he actually survived into the early 1900s after a look-alike was killed by Union soldiers. This story has more bizarre twists than Byzantine history, and ends with a mummy that might have been Booth, put on display for a few decades, then disappearing in the 1970s.

The last chapter is a separate top-10 rundown regarding the assassination of John Kennedy. It must have been hard to pick 10 items to cover. A quick look in Amazon shows nearly 8,000 books on the subject, with a current publication rate of about one new book every day. If you read as fast as I do, you'd have to spend 3-4 hours daily just to read the newest books as fast as they are printed! If someone has a comprehensive "Kennedy Assassination" library, just the books cost about a quarter million dollars. The chapter closes with an insightful comment that what this all primarily reveals is the depth of our anxieties.

That is true of conspiracies in general. You know the sacrilegious joke on Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil…because I'm the toughest, meanest SOB in the valley." Unless you are Rambo, a certain amount of paranoia is justified, because "everybody" may not be out to get you, but there is a good chance that somebody is! Particularly now that thousands of new computer viruses appear weekly and the hard-core crackers have hardware that can decode 350 billion passwords every second. It is amazing that most of us are still sane. Our biggest fear? An amorphous "THEY", a combination of "The Government" (all governments from a town council right up to the Fed) and "Big Business", including the company you work for. Even Google, with its slogan "Don't Be Evil" is suspected these days.

The ten subjects of the book:

  • John Wilkes Booth's possible survival
  • Confederate gold "mislaid" in 1865
  • The Georgia Guidestones: warning or threat?
  • Who was Dan Cooper (AKA DB Cooper)?
  • The missing cornerstones of the White House and the Capitol Building (spoiler: The author thinks they are in place, with later construction concealing them from view)
  • The spear that pierced Jesus; any of 3
  • Was Leonardo Da Vinci a prophet?
  • Does any gold remain in Fort Knox?
  • UFO's, Roswell, and Area 51
  • JFK Assassination: is there truth among the hype?
They are numbered in countdown order, from 10 to 1. Each chapter includes a dossier of replica documents intended to lend credence to the discussion.

Number 8 intrigues me. The Georgia Guidestones are a small Stonehenge bearing inscriptions in 8 languages, built in 1980 at a cost of a half million dollars. The first of ten statements is "Maintain humanity under 500 million in perpetual balance with nature." The rest are comparatively innocuous.

This map shows areas that will be "safe" in an expected cataclysm. Atlanta, Georgia is in the middle of the eastern safe zone. The map legend states that the purple areas will mostly be submerged. They happen to contain about 80% of America's population. When one finds out that the stones were designed and paid for by a Rosicrucian, people's antennae go up. The "500 million" statement is considered a threat. But to me (the author doesn't mention it this way), the word "maintain" is the key: after the disaster, the population of Earth will be half a billion or less, and people would do well to maintain it at that level.

Most of the chapter explores what the author and his team can find out about Rosicrucians. You'll still see advertisements touting "secret knowledge" in the backs of some cheap magazines, and that's about all most people know. As it happens, there is little to know. People like secrets, and some are drawn to "secret societies" such as the Freemasons or the Rose-and-Cross. Their "studies" bear a lot of resemblance to the Unexplained Files shows. Raising lots of questions about occult possibilities, but offering no answers.

I was also interested in item #4, about Leonardo. It all hinges on an insert missing from page 1,033 of a collection of his writings called the Codex Atlanticus. That insert has been found to be this portrait, apparently a self-portrait. From an artist's point of view, he had to use two mirrors to see himself from this angle, with the benefit that it would not be a "mirror image" of the left side of his head because of the second reflection. This is facetiously called a portrait of the artist as a young man. Young enough to have little or no white hair, perhaps, but I see a man of 40-50 years of age here.

So are Leonardo's writings in that Codex a prophecy, or worried speculations? Much is made of his many "inventions", ideas he sketched out but very seldom tried to actually build. Many have sparked further work by others and led to actual devices, such as the anemometer, parachute and helicopter (after a lot of further work!). Others, such as what some call his SCUBA, would not have worked. The SCUBA was actually an over-designed snorkel; the leather air bladder was a flotation device, not a pressurized breathing tank.

Like all "natural philosophers" of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Europe, such as Newton a century or so later, Leonardo speculated about religion and philosophy as much as about science and technology. The Codex Atlanticus is more about such humanities studies than about science, and its frequently gloomy tone reflects his pessimism about human nature, a pessimism that led him to "cripple" most of his weapon designs so that contemporary engineers would be unable to build a working prototype. So his message to all generations is simple: Don't be afraid to dream big dreams, but be careful to whom you confide them.

P.S. About Leonardo's mirror writing. He was left-handed, but that wasn't much the point. Try this with a chalk board or whiteboard: take a writing instrument in each hand, and write with both hands, outward from a center point if you are right-handed, towards it if left-handed. You'll find it rather easy to write backwards with your opposite hand! With practice, if you are right-handed, you can write backwards with pencil or pen on paper with your left hand, in a mirror image of your usual handwriting style (or lack of it). A left-handed person will be able to write backwards with the right hand. That's probably what he did.

The book was fun and interesting to read. In a few chapters, such as the one about the "Spear of Destiny", we read that the real problem isn't whether some artifact has magical powers, but that unscrupulous people are diligently striving to find it and take advantage of the power. This team is genuinely interested in the truth, and the speculations are always wrapped up for a final analysis that makes more sense than I'd expected. I was intrigued that Meltzer includes blurbs and pictures of his team members but not of himself. Here is an image from his web site.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A book few will like but cannot refute

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, population genetics, racism, cultural evolution

The suffix "-ism" has taken on a connotation of misuse of power, primarily in the words ageism, sexism, and most particularly, racism. We need a new suffix to denote recognition of differences without making a value judgment. The "feminist revolution" went as far as it could on the fable that male-female differences were negligible. To some extent, women were enabled to enter and succeed in formerly male-only or male-dominated trades and professions. There is still a ways to go. However, today I observe greater sex distinctions than were seen 50 years ago. Sexism in the workplace has diminished but not vanished. Perhaps one day it shall. But, may it never be that we lose, vive la différence!

I'll forego discussing ageism and get right to the point of the book on review: Races exist, not just because of skin color, but as seen in skeletal and soft-tissue anatomy and even in social attitudes. The book is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade. He is, apparently, not beholden to an academic institution, so he has little to lose by exploring a subject no professional academic dares to touch. He writes, "Social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value." (p9)

I have said for many years that I am no racist, but that I am a culturist. I may need to find a new term, because by "culturism" I mean the understanding that some cultures or subcultures are better adapted than others to their social and economic environment. I do not mean that particular cultures are of lower intrinsic value, but I do mean that cultural practices that worked well in one milieu will be detrimental in another. In particular, about half the land area of Earth is dominated by so-called "Western culture", based in technology, entrepreneurship, and high education. Members of a culture that does not highly value education and the rule of law will not thrive in the West, even though they might live quite well in another place.

The social sciences are dominated by the notion that human evolution stopped somewhere between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. Wade has gathered evidence that, as he puts it, "…human evolution has been recent, copious and regional."

  • Recent: Wisdom teeth and lower backs. Articles on the history of wisdom teeth speak in terms of millions of years, but in fact, a jawbone 1,000 years old is more likely to have room for the third molars than most modern jawbones, at least among Europeans. I still have my wisdom teeth, but the proportion of Euro-Americans that need them removed increases with every generation. Further, we are still gradually evolving our ability to get through life without permanent damage to our spines. We are in general more lightly constructed than an ancestor of 5,000 years ago. This is called the "Gracilization" of modern humans. It certainly isn't cultural!
  • Copious: Genome studies. Some 12% of our genes show evidence of evolution in the past millennium, and some in the past few generations. By adulthood every one of us carries 50-100 mutations that did not originate with our parents. About a thousandth of our body is gonadal tissue, so every 10-20 generations a random mutation will be passed on to our offspring. Looked at another way, about one in 10-20 children born carries a mutation from a parent, not found in that parent's parents, and about one child in a few hundred inherits mutations that occurred in both parents. This is an important factor in genetic drift, as these new genetic changes spread through a population.
  • Regional: Reproductive limitations. In spite of strenuous efforts by anti-racists, interracial marriage is still rare. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, I myself and another friend, both of us Caucasian men, are married to Asian women. Another couple is an African-born married to an African-American of mixed ancestry. Everyone else is married strictly within their own race. A low level of intermarriage means that genetic drift moves in different directions in different populations, simply by chance.
Here is the crux of the matter: Do the genetic variations among human populations, so long isolated from one another and not much blended even in this modern, cosmopolitan generation, affect psychology, specifically mental abilities and attitudes? In the past few decades various studies that showed differences between races in IQ were subject to vilification from everyone except a few supremacist crazies. Standard IQ tests such as Stanford-Binet, and the SAT when normed as an IQ test, are normed to Euro-Americans with the average (mean) defined as 100 and a standard deviation (a factor of variation) as 15. On such IQ tests, the group average for Asians is 105-110, and for Africans and African-Americans it is about 90. This makes me wonder, what if a group of scholars in Kenya and Nigeria and other major African countries produced and normed an aptitude test based on their peoples' practices and ways of living? Would it then be the Euros who would score around 90…or lower? Where would Asians score?

Here is where racial origin has a practical effect. The IQ tests used in the West measure one's ability to handle Western technological concepts and, to a certain extent, social concepts. There is a subculture in America called "poor white trash", which denigrates "extra" education beyond "the three R's". These are the kids that beat up and harass the "teacher's pets" and other "nerdy" kids that get good grades. I have seen no IQ results focused on members of this subculture. I'll predict a group IQ in the 80s, if such a study is ever done. Does that mean I think them genetically inferior? No, they do well in a culture in which I would do badly! If they cared to produce a "TQ" test, how would middle-class Euro-Americans score?

Because of the touchy nature of race in America, half of Wade's book explores history and genetics to pin down an appropriate understanding of race in a genetic context. One study to which he refers, by Gregory Clark, shows homicide rates in England from about 1200 AD to the modern era. A Medieval male was 30 times as likely to be murdered as a Renaissance male, and the homicide rate dropped another factor of 10 between 1800 AD and today. News media in Philadelphia decry an "Epidemic of Homicide", citing about 200 yearly murders in a city of 1.5 million. Imagine if the year were 1800 AD and there were 2,000, or in 1300 AD, if there were 40,000-50,000 murders each year! I did not know of this before, and I find it amazing.

These levels of violence all occurred in settled environments, what we'd call "civilization". In purely tribal societies murderous violence is the norm upon meeting a stranger. Such a meeting may result in an immediate fight to the death, but if the two men speak dialects of a common language, they may first discuss their relatives, to determine if they are related and thus not obligated to kill each other. In tribal cultures that still exist, homicide rates are in the 10% range! It is hard for a young man to grow old enough to raise children.

Wade follows Clark and others to describe four factors that enable Western society with its large cities: trust (leading to nonviolence), literacy, thrift, and patience. He explores to what extent these have a genetic basis. Certain enzymes and hormones they produce can greatly affect trust and the propensity to violence, for example. The trust-demoting and violence-promoting version of the underlying genes are found with greater frequency among violent offenders in prisons, and also among those few members of tribal cultures that have been studied. There is the famous "marshmallow test" that determines the level of self-control young children have: They are promised more marshmallows in 15 minutes if they can let one marshmallow sit untouched in their presence while left alone. Follow-up studies show that the kids who wait for the bigger treat do better in school and in their occupations in later life.

Where would the opposite tendency be a benefit? In a starvation economy such as the one described by Malthus in the early 1800s, that so influenced Charles Darwin as he pondered natural selection. When times are good, small differences in many traits make little difference. But when the grain runs out before the next harvest, very small differences in endurance mean that some will live and some will die, and the tiny differences that allowed survival will be amplified in the next generation(s). In such an environment, characteristic of much of humanity prior to the Industrial Revolution (and still the rule in much of the "developing world"), deferring gratification may kill you. The fact that high levels of deferred gratification are possible indicates a genetic shift in just 200-300 years, at least in the West.

Are genes destiny? The visible differences among the five major races (Caucasian, African, East Asian, Australian, and Native American) are not caused by single genes "for" skin color, for example. Each characteristic is underlain by several to several tens of genes, and a small difference in all of them is needed to make skin a radically different color or shape the skull in a way an anatomist can recognize. Greater or lesser levels of trust also result from multiple genes. So too do at least some of the social attitudes that hold Western democracies together.

The increasing prevalence of foreign adoptions by American couples is setting up a natural experiment. The U.S. spent about a trillion dollars to drive certain tribal groups out of power in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried to install Western-style democracies. Such nation-building efforts were wasted. Will children born of Iraqi or Afghan parents, adopted and raised in America, understand the institutions of our Republic, and thrive here? A few days ago I met two Kurdish men who now live in America, and run a small limousine service. I wonder how Kurdish-born Americans would do in a company like Sears or DuPont or Chase Bank? These men came here as adults. Would young Kurds brought here as infants and raised here have the same propensity to run a small company rather than work for a boss? Is it possible that they simply cannot understand a non-Tribal economy and polity?

That is the tough point for people to swallow. Our brains are part of our bodies. If our bodies are evolving, so also are our brains, meaning that the way we think is an evolutionary product. Culture cannot go beyond the thoughts that the brain finds possible. By further analogy: I happen to think mathematically. Most people don't. Thus I thrived as a computer programmer, a scarce profession. This is not some fluke: one of my brothers has worked as a programmer for NASA, and another is a mechanical engineer, requiring formidable computer skills. Both our parents had engineering skills. All us boys can think mathematically. Most people can't. The book raises the question, what social thoughts can various people think, or not?

Genes are not destiny, but certain combinations of many genes may open some doors and, if not shut others outright, at least hold them half-closed such that extra effort is required to pass through. Ask all the white guys who have fought Mike Tyson or George Foreman, and a string of other black heavyweight boxers, if there isn't something special about certain kinds of big black guys!

Then we find those perennial super-achievers, the Jews. One person in 500 is Jewish. In the first decade of this Century, one in 3 Nobel Prize winners is Jewish. How can this be? Is the newborn brain truly a blank slate? Other cultural groups have hectoring mothers, and strongly push their kids' education. Tiger Mothers come to mind, but how many Tiger Cubs have Nobel Prizes? There is a clue in the Bible: God demanded universal literacy of the people of Israel. They were to read the Torah to their children daily, and raise the children to read it to their offspring. No other people on earth came close to full literacy prior to about 200 years ago. This had to have affected the genetic makeup of the Jews, particularly in those genes that make literacy easier. As Wade points out, Jewish kids who couldn't make the grade tended to leave for Gentile cultures where their literacy was still advantageous, making them bigger frogs in little ponds. Over millennia, this focused scholarship abilities into the remaining Jewish population.

One can not escape a crucial conclusion: "Rich countries have non-tribal, trust-based economies and favorable institutions [principally that even rulers are subject to law —my note]. Poor countries are those that have not fully escaped from tribalism and labor under extractive institutions that reflect their limited radius of trust." (p 196) The "escape" of the West from tribalism was not foreordained. A fortuitous rise in population coincided with great increases in productivity due to the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, beginning about 300 years ago. Europe including England already had a long history of settled life, though it was sidelined by feudalism for hundreds of years, yet at the same time this fostered a culture of rule-keeping, which I consider an amalgam of the self-control-mediated traits above (principally patience and trust).

To definitively prove the genetic contribution to such trends would take generations, if indeed such studies are ever undertaken—they would be violently opposed by the liberal establishment. I find it strange that the atheistic, amoral establishment agrees wholeheartedly with most Evangelical Christian leaders who proclaim that human evolution is not going on. They differ only in whether they believe it occurred in the distant past. No matter. The migrations of humanity that began 50-70,000 years ago led to five mutually isolated populations. Prior to the Age of Exploration that began a mere 500 years ago, each developed institutions that bear certain resemblances, but also striking differences. European Caucasians, by the luck of the draw, had the right mental equipment to take advantage of a shift in climate and a series of technical breakthroughs. In spite of centuries of trade between Caucasians and Asians, European technology is readily adopted by Chinese and others in the East, yet they add to it only slightly. Perhaps this is the cause of the intense efforts by the Chinese government to hack into Western computer systems and steal industrial secrets.

Humans continue to evolve, including our brains. Perhaps it will take a really pervasive spate of intermarriage to produce the non-racial species that sociologists fantasize already exists.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A good reference for safely getting over the hill

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, aging gracefully, elder care

My father, now in his nineties, says from time to time, "Don't get old." Only once have I replied, "It beats the alternative." And I notice he is not interested in the alternative, though he is hardheaded enough to plan well for his demise, whenever it may come. He lives in an "Independent Living Hotel", where he has a small suite and all meals and weekly housekeeping, for a set fee. In particular, he also has a Living Will and Advance Directive. I've heard from a few sources that these documents need to be revisited every few years. At age 70, someone might say, "Oh, I'd never want to live 'that way'", referring to some adverse condition of aging, particularly at a great age. At 75 or 80, they may have a different take on it, and at 90, it is surprising what someone will live with, just to keep on living.

I am not my father's primary caretaker, though I'm willing. He lives clear across the country, and the last time I went there, total travel time, door to door, was 14 hours. Not conducive to a pop-in visit to help him balance his checkbook or roust him out for a quick lunch together. Fortunately, he is a church-goer, and has a social network there (though they aren't much for the quick lunch), and he has occasional hired help for a few things; the list is expected to grow with time. Organizations such as Visiting Angels are a good first step for finding such help.

With these things in mind, I was eager to read a recent book by a couple who specialize in elder care matters: How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement by Mary A. Languirand and Robert F. Bornstein (both append PhD). I was not disappointed. Drs. Languirand and Bornstein are about ten years younger than I, some 5-10 years short of retirement themselves, though if they are vigorous, they could follow many who delay retirement by a decade or so. They have sufficient experience that they cover literally all the bases. The book has two sections, "Making it Work" and "Making it Count", each of five chapters, though by page count, the second section is about 25% longer.

It all begins with "Money Matters", as it ought to. While it can be said that the three requirements for retiring successfully are money, money and money, the actual key is one's attitude towards money. Actor and comic Jackie Gleason is famous for saying, "Those who say money can't buy happiness don't know where to shop." Sadly, he didn't either, and you could describe his life as a long misery punctuated by brief pleasure binges. A more normal life is one of general contentment, with both happy and unhappy times, with the resilience to recover from the bad and savor the good. But this is nearly impossible if you're broke.

Here is my secret to having enough money in retirement: Knowing that a company pension plus Social Security usually total about half of one's earnings at career's end, my wife and I lived on half our income. After paying taxes, we saved the rest, mainly in 401k and IRA. Thus, the 50% drop in income after retirement was no shock, and when inflation eats into the buying power, we'll begin needing the deferred accounts, but they are likely to last…unless we both live to 120!

I realize that many folks are living on the edge already and cutting back to half their income is not feasible. All I can say is, save what you can. Maybe you only save "for a rainy day", or to afford "something special". Just consider this: once you retire, the rainy days have arrived, and you're now "special". Save what you can. Many larger companies have eliminated pension plans but the better ones have instituted an "enhanced 401k" to ease the pain. Take full advantage of that!

Well, money matters indeed, but the second chapter introduces the authors' framework of Access, Opportunities, and Services. Access: take a look at your home. If you were confined to a wheelchair or scooter, could you get out the door and to the driveway? If not, perhaps you've heard the old term "shut-in", referring to an oldster who can't get out. Now you'd be one of them. Opportunities refer to, if you can get out, what can you do, particularly after you quit driving? Suburban life is elder-unfriendly, once you lose your drivers' license. My father gave up driving about 6 years ago, in his late 80s. He misses driving more than anything else! Whenever I visit, we're out all the time; he has a lot of pent-up "out there" to satisfy. Services really come to this: if you can afford it, you can have full assisted living or even skilled nursing care in your home. If not, it is well to live in an area where such services are most affordable or are subsidized.

Thus we come to an interesting point: to "age in place" you may need a different place. It need not be an elder facility or nursing home, and in fact this book is about avoiding those. But your "place" needs to be somewhere with available and affordable opportunities and services. My father once analyzed hotel living. An independent living facility can cost from $60-$120/day ($1,800-$3,600/month), meals included, depending on location. A hotel with a good free breakfast—one like La Quinta with a short-order cook on hand in the morning—costs about $100/day, and a canny individual can take a bagel or two along to put in the mini-fridge for lunch, leaving only dinner to be bought. Further, a long-term resident can usually negotiate a lower daily rate, getting total costs down below $3,000/month.

The other three chapters in this section deal with home safety, transportation and health needs. The second section is equally practical, but deals with the elements of happiness. This begins with health, of mind, body and spirit. My mother and her father were afflicted with Alzheimer's Dementia, as were other ancestors including a great-great grandmother whose photo has the "Alzheimer's look". My mother took it badly, and was frequently depressed. Her younger sister chose a better way, saying, "If I'm going to go crazy, I may as well enjoy it!", and she did. There is a cleverness about even deeply demented people that allows them to mess with your mind if they like, and to get joy out of life, even if they have forgotten why this or that sibling or child is special to them.

The body's aging changes are equally variable. I've learned that most people, in America at least, in this age of antibiotics and other amazing medicines, have a "health span" that falls short of their life span by as much as a decade. Setting aside those who die untimely, physical ability can be maintained at quite a high level until one begins a declining period of a few years' length. Even more, our intellectual and mental health, in the absence of dementia, can continue to improve until nearly the end. There are a number of studies of IQ versus age. They all seem to show a decline after age 40 or 50. However, if the data are refigured for years until death rather than simple age, a different picture emerges: IQ usually increases up until the physical decline of one's last 3-10 years. It is best, then, to take steps ahead of time to push the health span out and minimize the length of the decline. Another book I read many years ago, Biomarkers by Evans et al, has useful advice in this regard.

Unlike contemporary and pop psychology, these authors recognize the reality of the human spirit, and the chapter "Healthy Spirit" addresses our need for faith. It is a simple fact that people of faith tend to have longer and happier lives. Whether you think it is simply the extra social dimension, or intervention by God, it lends weight to "statistical theology". I recall reading that in the U.S. Census of 1940 (maybe 1930), there was a "bump", an unusual number of men over age 80. Someone studied the data, and reported that the "extras" were retired Protestant evangelists who'd been active during a "Great Awakening" revival period of the late 19th Century. God takes care of those who take care of His interests. But for us more ordinary folk, churchgoing adds more good years to life than the time spent in church, making it a great investment.

The last two chapters are the most social in nature. As our abilities wane, it is important to increase our social network. Also, as long as we are able, helping others will improve our well-being, and if we are financially able, it is worthwhile to consider charities or causes to support. The Apostle Paul wrote that it is better to give than to receive. I can say from experience, it is definitely better to be in a position to give, and not need to receive. It can be embarrassing to receive! But near the very end, receiving with grace is a skill it is well to learn. We'll feel better about it if we feel the balance is strongly in our favor already.

The appendices include resources, worksheets and checklists. This is a good reference to have on hand.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mao, recycled

kw: book reviews, science fiction, environmentalism, political fiction

Many, many years ago I read Dune by Frank Herbert. I think I read part of another one, perhaps Children of Dune. I ignored all the rest of the series, whether by the original author or by his son Brian and a couple of co-authors. I liked the sweeping saga of Dune but I didn't care for the sequels.

Brian Herbert is at least as accomplished as his father, and has in recent years branched beyond the Dune realm, first with the Hellhole trilogy, written with Kevin J. Anderson, and now on his own with The Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma. Where Hellhole can be thought of as a sideways extension of the Dune milieu, Little Green Book breaks new ground. Set about 50 years in the future, it posits an Earth quite different from what we know, but based on certain trends.

Of course, Chairman Rahma is a conscious mirror of Chairman Mao, as the two little books are mirror images. Where most consider Mao Zedong to be unequivocally evil, Herbert goes to some length to present Rahma as a man with a conscience, striving to "save the planet", and in a position with the power to do it. As I have written many times, the Devil doesn't know he is evil, and neither did Mao. Little Green Book lays bare the soul of an unknowingly evil man trying his mightiest to do good. Another similarity is the incessant womanizing that characterized Mao, and drives certain plot lines of this book.

Herbert writes of compellingly complex characters. Even the "good guy", Joss Stuart, is a rounded person, not a flat smiley face who cannot fail. The ending gets rather saccharine, but I can tell where the author is trying to go.

An anti-corporate revolution in the 2040s brought Rahma Popol to power in North and South America, where he as instituted a Green Revolution. Now, two decades down the road, most Americans of both continents have been gathered in Human Reservations and land not needed for agriculture to support a primarily vegan populace is being restored to some semblance of its natural condition. A substantial reduction in population because of civil war has "helped" in this regard, as have further reductions from "recycling" of millions of dissidents, or even tens of millions.

Here is where it gets interesting. The technology of recycling now-unused cities and industrial sites is based on "dark energy". Let's be clear, this bears no resemblance to the dark energy of cosmology, which theorists claim is causing acceleration of cosmic expansion. Herbert's dark energy powers cannon-like machines called Splitters, that break most or all chemical bonds in materials, yielding a blackish goo. Then a different kind of machine can re-form this into a basic soil in which seeds are sown to quickly regenerate a landscape. In later parts of the book, dark energy looks like a ropy or thready substance that emits darkness the way a glowing or fluorescent substance emits light.

Mention is also made of "gravity generators", with no particular technology stated, but dark energy is implied. It reminds me of a novel I read decades ago in which gravity was harnessed much as magnetism and electricity, yielding electro-gravitic and magneto-gravitic tools, with seemingly magical powers. Other technologies and some kind of super-battery are hinted at but not explained. That's OK, Herbert's aim is to follow the emotional progress of Joss Stuart and Rahma Popol (We are told his name is a pseudonym at one point, but never told who he was before), particularly after Joss is transformed by an accident with dark energy into some kind of triple hybrid. Thereafter he can use dark energy directly.

One very interesting application of splitter and re-former technology is machines called voleers that create "vanishing tunnels". They can travel through solid rock at speeds in the 400 mph (700 kph) range, and have obvious military applications. But a great many possible story lines are cut short by a technological disaster that leads to the unusual ending I mentioned. It seems Joss-type hybrids are to be the new humans. I won't spoil things further. I had to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than usual, and greatly enjoyed the story as a result.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

If not us, then who?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, national politics, conservatism

Here are a few facts, well known to social and behavioral scientists:
  • Children from two-parent families who live in communities where the two-parent family is the norm have a much higher chance of succeeding. [34]
  • Three factors of success: graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and wait until you are married to have children. Only 8% of those who do all three end up in poverty. [66]
  • Strong families are churchgoing families; families of faith have stronger marriages and healthier families, and family members experience much lower levels of crime, addiction and depression. [102]
The numbers in brackets are page numbers where these matters are discussed, and referenced in endnotes, in the book Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works by Rick Santorum. All three of the factors listed above are related to self control. I would add a fourth factor, not mentioned explicitly by Senator Santorum: although the national divorce rate is about 50% for first marriages, the majority of those unstable marriages are for couples whose "courtship" was unusual from the perspective of American families of the 1950s. That is, if a couple marries too quickly, or begins a sexual relationship before marriage, or even before getting to know one another well at all, the chance of divorce exceeds 80%.

Self control. It means a lot. During 50 years in the workforce, I worked for several major corporations. One would think, since the "sexual revolution" of the 1970s ("the 60s" began in 1968), that companies would not care any more about the extracurricular activities of their employees. To a certain extent, major companies pay less attention to people's living arrangements and dating habits than in the past. But if a couple (gay or straight) has so little self control that they carry on an affair in the office, both are summarily fired. This is true in every company I've worked for, even today, in our "ultra-modern" 21st Century. Why is this? Company leaders know that people with poor self control are poor employees. Furthermore, affairs carried on at work typically involve at least one person who is married to someone else, and such affairs very frequently result in messy divorces that distract everyone involved for months. They simply aren't worth their pay.

But Rick Santorum's concern is more far-reaching than how companies deal with employee misbehavior. The political leaders of the United States of America have taken the national polity far to the left, and in a social direction that makes both Democrats and Republicans uneasy. Genuine conservatism has all but vanished on the political scene. To my observation, the leadership of the Republican party is now to the left of the politics and policies of John F. Kennedy, who was considered a leftist radical by the Republican party of the 1960s.

Senator Santorum ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012, eventually losing to Mitt Romney. Although Romney was greatly favored by party leaders, he could not inspire the conservative populace. If "Santorum Republicans" and a few others who sat out the election had voted, Romney would have won. I gritted my teeth and voted for Romney, feeling he could not be as bad as Obama. I also recall the 2008 election, where I also gritted my teeth and voted for McCain. Both elections were not won by the Democrats; they were lost by the Republicans. I felt like I had, years ago in the classroom, trying mightily to induce certain students to pass the course. Those to whom I finally "awarded" an F grade had made it clear that that was what they wanted more than anything else…so that is what they got. I have wondered if Republican party leaders threw those elections on purpose.

In the meantime, success and happiness have been redefined. The White House loudly brags of a "recovery" that sure doesn't feel like a recovery to most people. Beginning in 2008, a few million jobs were lost. Since then, a few million jobs have been created. These numbers are said to match, but there are just a couple little things: Firstly, in 2008 there were 304 million Americans, and today there are 318 million. At least 2/3 of the added 14 million, some 9 million or more, are eligible to work. Those added folks who got jobs are matched by others who formerly had jobs, lost them and haven't found another. Secondly, what kinds of jobs? Few of the jobs added since 2008 can support a family, or even half of what a family needs, and many, perhaps most, are part-time. The true measure of recovery is the inflation-and-population-adjusted salary budget increase of companies over the past 6 years. By that measure, we have a less than half a recovery.

The most conservative commentators, such as the "Big 3" of radio, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, state that President Obama and those working with him are consciously making America into a totally government-dependent society. If that is actually true, these statists are the most evil of their generation. But I am not sure it is so conscious; as with other similar matters, I ask, "Does the Devil know that he is evil?" The Devil of the Christian Bible disagrees with Almighty God about how the Universe ought to be run. He thinks he is a pretty good guy, certainly better able to whip things into shape than "the other guy" who happened to create it all.

But, whatever the intent, or conscious plan, I have learned a few important things about "controlling" people, whether abusive husbands or boss-zillas or statist politicians:

  • Some people firmly believe that they cannot be wrong. Such people never sincerely apologize for anything (many are unable to apologize: never, ever).
  • Such people usually believe that others cannot know what is good for them, and cannot be trusted to decide for themselves what kind of work to do, what kind of friends to have, or what might make them happy.
  • Such people see nothing wrong with coercion, as long as they do the coercing.

This is the definition of an evil person. By these criteria, nearly every person holding national public office is evil. But look within: we all have the impulse to control others. Do we have the self control to allow others to make their own choices? Only when the choices of others will result in imminent damage should we intervene.

Back to re-definition. The founding documents of the USA seek to promote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Today, when people hear "happiness" they think "pleasure". There is quite a difference. Happiness is the enjoyment of good, and requires a moral context. Happiness is a long-term condition of those who seek it rightly. The normal condition of a successful human is long-term happiness punctuated by short-term pleasure or displeasure in response to immediate events. Pleasure is a temporary emotion brought on by doing something enjoyable, however that might be defined, including immoral or amoral things. Pleasure in immorality cannot result in happiness, because the conscience is defiled.

The words "morality" and "values" are denigrated in today's society. This has greatly damaged our society. Poor self control, undermined morality, and lack of values make people weak, and make a nation weak. Senator Santorum's message is that, in spite of so many damaging trends, this country is still filled with people who strive to do good work, to have a good family, to earn an honest living and raise successful children. Regardless of party membership, these are America's conservatives. If America is to recover from its present malaise, these are the people who will raise it up. They will raise up America by how they work, how they vote, and how they worship. These are the people he is writing about and writing to.

God bless America…nobody else can.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A manager's manager

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business management, creativity, film industry

I had quite a variety of supervisors and managers in nearly 50 years on the job. A very few were both incompetent and unlikable, but most were at least sufficiently likable to be tolerable, while a very few were excellent in both ways. The big puzzle is those who were very enjoyable as friends, but quite out of their depth as managers. Fortunately I outlasted all of them, and my last manager was one of the best: just as technically skilled as I, very likable, and very skilled with people. (And to those who say "a manager is a manager" and think someone with no technical skills can manage technical people, I say a big "B***SH**!!")

A prime function of managers is to be an umbrella. All too often they are instead the primary source of the "rainfall" that stifles those who work for them. I was once given a few people to supervise, to see if I had management potential. It didn't take long for me to find I was quite poor at all those things I wished a manager or supervisor to do well, so I backed out of that track and returned to a purely technical career. I did, however, learn to manage my managers, a necessary skill for most technical people.

Over the years I have read a number of "leadership" books. A quick look at my bookshelf reveals The Peter Principle by Peter and Hull; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey; Who Moved My Cheese? by Johnson; Leading the Revolution by Hamel; Managing From the Heart by Bracey, Rosenblum, Sanford and Trueblood; Where Have All the Woolly Mammoths Gone by Frost, and Mitchell's translation of Tao Te Ching.

Better than all of them by far is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. While Ed Catmull has formidable technical expertise, he shines as a leader. He is presently president of three studios, Pixar Animation, Disney Animation, and DisneyToon. That's three pretty big hats for a man pushing 70.

He writes that the book is not a memoir, nor a history of Pixar and his career, but a travelogue of his development as a manager who continually strove to manage creative people in a way that unleashed their potential. In the introduction he concludes, "…managers must loosen controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust…clear the path…and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear." (p. xvi)

It hasn't been easy. The book is organized around the four stages of his own growth, with the titles

  • Getting Started
  • Protecting the New
  • Building and Sustaining
  • Testing What We Know
A key understanding is that what is working today may not work in the future; not all measures that incorporate a small group into a powerful working unit are effective in a larger setting—but some are!; and that something that works well may still be better replaced by something that works even better.

All my career, particularly at the company from which I retired after about 30 years, I heard the slogan "Continuous Improvement". Usually, that is what it remained, a slogan. Only in rare instances could a "leader" accept a suggestion for something that might truly be an improvement. Idea after idea died a-borning. Whether the idea killer was "Not Invented Here" syndrome or simply the blazing glare of early scrutiny, the usual reactions to new ideas strongly dissuaded creative people from expressing themselves.

As you might guess, I most strongly identify with the second principle. You know the expression, "A face only a mother could love"? (It goes for fathers also.) This is our son two days after he was born. He already looked a lot better than he had the first day. But this is nothing like he looks now!! This illustrates what Catmull calls the Ugly Baby principle.

A new idea may not need 15-20 years of feeding, cleaning and training, but in the film industry at least, it takes a couple of years to work out a lot of "ugly" and create beauty in its place. As I read, I was astonished at the changes that were made to some iconic Pixar films, such as Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. If the descriptions of these projects in their early stages are at all accurate, a too-early production of any of them would have been truly ugly. Or, at the least, simply bombed in the box office, leaving puzzled and disgruntled audiences wondering why they paid to see it.

From the time Steve Jobs bought Pixar in 1985 until he died in 2011, Pixar Animation Studios grew from less than 50 employees to more than 1,100. A theme that runs through the book could be called "growing pains." It is the focus of the third section, which opens with the chapter "Broadening our View". Just as a skyscraper needs a wider foundation than a bungalow, the large enterprise of the new Century needed to extend its breadth of experience. Among 8 lessons described in this chapter, "Learning to See" impressed me most. At a certain point, Catmull and his team decided to train all new hires—not just animators—to use the Pixar software. Thus was born Pixar University, which really took off once they began to teach art.

Contrary to folklore, we really do use all of our brain, we just use various parts at different times (full engagement of every neuron might produce a meltdown under the 500 watts produced). We use our visual cortex, 30% of the entire cortex, every instant that our eyes are open. Still, we do not see everything. Have you seen the basketball-gorilla video? Asked to count how many times people in white jerseys throw a basketball amongst a group of 10, very few notice when someone in a gorilla suit passes through the midst. Further, Catmull notes research that shows more than half of what we "see" is constructed in our brain by hints picked up in our peripheral vision while we are looking at any scene.

A recently popular video shows a rocky forest trail with signs that warn, "Beware of Migrating Snakes", bearing a picture of a coiled rattlesnake. Hidden cameras show most people jumping or backing away from random pieces of branch on or near the path. Had they not been prompted by the warning sign, they'd have seen the branches for what they were immediately.

Drawing requires the artist to set aside the brain's filling-in so as to draw what is really there. Interestingly, people in Pixar who did well in the drawing classes became better at their work, whatever it was.

Regardless of the size of a creative enterprise, the prime enemy is fear. Catmull and his co-leaders have given huge amounts of energy, thought and time to producing an environment that can "uncouple fear and failure" (p. 123). All our lives we are punished for failure, so of course we fear to fail. Only the most stubborn among us can overcome fear and endure a series of failures on the way to a success. Abe Lincoln failed in business four times, and Colonel Sanders went broke seven times. Aren't we all glad they tried one more time? Pixar leadership recognized that they could not rely on a tiny few stubborn people to have all the ideas and push them to fruition. They needed a culture of embracing (but not encouraging!) failure as a necessary part of the process of creation.

Back to the Ugly Baby. A newborn may look ugly to some, and it will be years before its habits are socially acceptable. But that is no reason to destroy the baby. Just as a human child is a learning machine, a properly constituted team can be a creation machine. I think of Ed de Bono's "thinking hats" methods. He also recognized that at the early stages the Black Hat (criticism) had to be excluded from discussions of new ideas. A Pixar film is typically a 4-year project. It may be 3 of those years before the beauty begins to overtake the ugliness.

Film-making is storytelling. Viewers need to identify with the key character(s), or no amount of technical brilliance will help. A skilled cabinet maker uses various tools such as saws and sanders. In my hands, saw cuts are at best "sorta straight" and I have to be careful with the sander, not to sand right through the veneer. But in the hands of a true craftsman, various bits of material are transformed into a beautiful piece of furniture. Yet the piece must be properly designed. A friend recently had his kitchen remodeled. A measurement error led to a space the refrigerator would not fit into. It is a beautiful kitchen, but a big section needed re-work, which cost less than scrapping the fridge and buying a new one.

In any creative enterprise something analogous to such a "measurement error" is all to frequent. In cabinetmaking, the usual waste ratio is around 50%. In film-making, it may exceed 90%. We need to expect similar levels of "waste" in human affairs also. Management, like creation, is full of hidden and unknown factors. In one place, Catmull writes, "If you don't try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead" (p. 169), and "A large portion of what we manage can't be measured, and not realizing this has unintended consequences" (p. 219, his emphasis). In the latter quote he is reacting to the popular phrase, "You can't manage what you can't measure". It is a damaging falsehood. Measurement is engineering. Human affairs are not engineering problems to be solved with a computer (I almost wrote "slide rule". Showing my age). That's why we call business leaders "managers" not "engineers". You can't engineer something that has a heart.

Ed Catmull has a heart. A big one. He had heart enough to manage his long-term boss, Steve Jobs. He may be second only to Steve Job's wife Lauren in his years of contact with him. In the closing chapter of the book he seeks to portray a Steve Jobs freed from the pages of popular journalism, where he is either lauded as a peerless genius or vilified as an inhumane jerk. Yes, he was a genius. He was also a jerk. But he was not only these things. He could grow, and he did. The tasty stories of Steve Jobs berating others in public are from 'way back. To his end, he could be challenging; he was prone to toss out an outrageous notion so he could gauge people's reactions. If you were thin-skinned, it was best to stay under his radar, or go elsewhere. While in the early Pixar days, Ed Catmull mandated that Steve Jobs not attend some creative meetings, years later he was a more welcome presence, not because he had "mellowed", but because he'd grown to see the value of the principles under which Pixar operated, and learned the tolerance for ambiguity and failure that underlay its success.

If I could go back and do it all again, I'd demand to take with me the memory of this book so I could seek out and work for people like Ed Catmull.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Hard boiled, curry flavored

kw: book reviews, mystery, short stories, asian theme

I thought a bit before I started reading Singapore Noir, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. I like a well-written mystery, and this collection promised good writing, but just as a hammer can be used either to build or to destroy, good writing alone is no guarantee of a worthwhile reading experience.

Of the 14 stories, 11 are murder mysteries, although one is from the point of view of the victim and thus is no "mystery" at all, just noir drama. One is ambiguous, probably involves a murder, but is more about a curse based on native magic and another relates a disappearance that just might have been a killing. The one that is clearly not about murder searingly exposes class envy and cross-cultural love (or something like it, to use the Editor's phrase). Is it a surprise that I skimmed many of these, preferring not to have my nose rubbed in the grime of ugly things?

The last story of the collection deserves mention, the one story that made me unreservedly glad I'd read it. "Murder on Orchard Road" by Nury Vittachi does involve a murder, a very ingenious one. A chronically overworked Feng Shui master finds himself juggling overlapping events amidst high drama while solving the murder almost as an afterthought. Very clever and very well done.

Singapore is an odd place, sometimes called "Disneyland with a death penalty." If the vision of these authors is clear, one can see why.