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.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Paranoia is more justified than ever

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, privacy, data mining, cyber crime, surveillance

Whom do you fear the most? The criminals or the police? For most people it will depend on where they live. For me, living on the liberal coastlands of America, criminals are the bigger threat. However, that may not always be true.

George Orwell's 1984, which he thought was set comfortably some 36 years in his future, is now set 30 years into our past, and will be set 36 years into the past in 2020. By then its forecasts may prove all too true. The newest models of "smart televisions" and some set-top cable boxes have cameras and microphones. Many owners never turn on the devices, and most forget they are there. But these are only the tip of the iceberg of the surveillance society in which we live.

Prior to about 40 years ago, the most skilled safecracker or most wily train robber could snatch a payroll in cash. A few skilled embezzlers working at banks used "bologna slicing" methods to skim a few cents here and there from thousands of bank accounts. But as recent data-theft cases from companies such as Target show, the ubiquitous Network ("The Net", formerly called "the Internet") facilitates much broader-scale thievery, of the identities and buying (or other) habits of tens of millions at a time.

Suppose that you could be assured you'd never lose a penny to fraud or theft of any kind, yet your every move would be known and your every word recorded, even in your most intimate moments? Growing numbers of people are paying $100 or more yearly for "ID theft protection" services such as LifeLock. What would you pay to be sure neither Big Brother nor the neighborhood felon, nor even your brother-in-law, could ever see into your toilet, bedroom, or clothes closet?

It's funny. Privacy in America is a big issue in some areas, such as Abortion ("privacy" is THE core of the Roe vs Wade decision), yet is no issue at all in others, such as what you eat, whom you love, what your doctor says, or where you go on vacation. The countries of Europe have strong constitutional or legislative protections for privacy, usually giving you ownership of everything that can be recorded about you. Not so in the good ol' USA.

Privacy! Do you forget the smart phone in your pocket, with its camera and microphone that can be controlled remotely? The cameras, not only the ones in the store with all those little black hemispheres in the ceiling (or simply sitting in the open), nor the ones at red-light-violation intersections, but in places you might never think to look. All are recording 24/7, attached to near-infinite data storage devices. When was the last time you saw a news report about some crime or disaster somewhere that didn't show a few seconds of surveillance footage? And just the other day on a walk my wife and I saw one of our neighbors learning how to use a quad copter in the park down the street. Today, he is satisfied to zoom it around and do acrobatics. Does it have a camera? Probably. How long will it be before I hear it humming overhead as I work in the yard? or outside my window?

A note to the handy: a search for "homemade herf" yielded 100,000 hits just now. Might be worth a look. The device will be the size of a trash can, but can zap a drone out of the sky. Careful, though, a side lobe can zap your PC in the house and the phone in your pocket.

All this is leading up to a very handy reference book: Privacy in the Age of Big Data: Recognizing Threats, Defending Your Rights, and Protecting Your Family by Theresa M. Payton and Theodore Claypoole. Their premise is simple: technology allows ever more intrusion into our private lives, and we are doing it to ourselves. Particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, now 13 years ago, at least half of Americans feel trading away some of their rights is worth getting increased protection. The trouble is, we are getting a pig in a poke. We don't know if we are getting what we pay for, and the pig is accompanied by a wolf: what the government can see can also be seen by criminals.

I was present at some of the meetings in 1980 between Control Data Corp. and data managers for the Mormon Church, who were planning to install a 1TB data store for genealogy records. Its projected cost was $1.2 million. Considering that a big disk in those days was 500 MB, and the drive cabinet was half the size of a washing machine, the building to house the 2,000 disk drives and their A/C equipment was going to cost another quarter million. I recently got a backup disk, 2 TB for $99. The current million-dollar system would be around a tenth of an exabyte, or 100 PB (petabytes). An exabyte is a million TB.

Do you know just how big a Terabyte is? One minute of good quality MP3 audio produces about a 1MB file. 1,000 minutes (16.7 hours) takes up 1GB, and 16,700 hours of audio would fill 1TB. But lower quality audio, such as a phone call recording, can be 1/3 the size, or smaller, so a 1TB disk could hold more than 50,000 hours of telephone conversation, or 3 million minutes. That is 5.7 years of non-stop talk. Even a dedicated motormouth would be hard put to use the phone more than 2,000 minutes per month, so the disk could hold 125 years of phone use for that one person. On the other hand, uncompressed text is quite compact, and compressed text is even smaller. If you type at a "standard" rate of 40 wpm, that's 14.4 KB per hour or about 1/70 of a MB. 1TB is a million MB. That's why it is so easy to copy and store billions of e-mail messages.

In 1980, at one of the meetings mentioned above, someone from CDC joked, "If we invent a disk with infinite capacity—call it the God Disk—the Government will buy two of them." One of the Mormons deadpanned, "So would we." But a big disk is nothing without software to sort and collate it. Now that any $500 laptop can sift through huge amounts of data in a few seconds, all kinds of records become useful.

"All kinds" is amazingly comprehensive to Payton and Claypoole. Nearly everything we buy, from groceries to clothes to knickknacks to more personal items, is recorded, usually along with our identity. To keep from having a purchase tagged to you, you'd need to pay cash at the point of sale, and be among the lucky ones to buy from a store that doesn't have face recognition software running on its security cameras. Retailers love data about buying habits. So do criminals; they want to know who just bought anything expensive and comparatively portable. Government usually doesn't care, except for certain kinds of purchases. I suspect an order for 500 decks of cards, not from a casino, might get scrutiny for two reasons. Firstly, the possibility of an underground high-stakes card game. Secondly, the plastic in certain card brands can be chemically altered into a cheap plastic explosive.

How soon will it be that the store's computer system knows who you are, and your tastes, by the time you walk in the door? Maybe it knows who you are from your phone, or maybe from cameras. The rest is online and they're already tied in to it. Think you can fool the cameras with a wig or hat and dark glasses? They way you walk and other bodily motions you habitually make are harder to disguise (a one-time fakeout can be had by putting some duct tape across your back or a pebble in your shoe).

Planning to travel abroad? The authors advise, most particularly for repressive countries, that you leave your usual phone at home and take a cheap throwaway phone. Also, make no purchases using the phone! Some global companies have their expat executives take "vacations" to safer climes when they need to arrange sensitive deals or discuss important matters with HQ. If you need to carry your phone, keep it in a metal case, and turned off, when not in use, along with those credit cards and their convenient microchip. An easy alternative is an aluminized Mylar balloon, deflated and just wrapped around your electronics. Then the phone can't communicate with cell towers and the chips can't be read by someone walking by using a RFID reader. In one chilling section, though, the authors report on gadgets to read brain waves from a modest distance, say a foot or so. Will I need a foil-lined hat? Better yet would be a phony brain wave generator in my hat, a kind of jammer.

How do we use social media? I never tell my FB "friends" where I am going, only where I have been…usually! Many online retailers want to use us for free advertisements, and urge us to "share" on FB or somewhere. Some have six or more "share" options! Even if you don't share, you'll start seeing more ads for the thing you just bought, or only researched. If you do share, those ads will multiply. That's your "payment" for your "help".

Things will only progress. There is no going back. The authors close with a chapter on legislation. Here we learn that America, where "privacy" was so important to winning the abortion decision, does the least to protect privacy among so-called Democratic nations. Levels of black-market activity are lower in America than nearly anywhere else, which indicates more trust in government here. But I am not worried so much about the government of today in America. I am worried about future governments here and around the world, with a more and more nannyish attitude, or worse yet, with Sharia laws and the technology to enforce them in absolutely every case.

The trusting American people are embracing cars that know more and more about them, and report on them to the car dealer and insurance company; electronic medical records with poor security; smarter and smarter pocket computers that have phones attached, along with multiple cameras and microphones and geolocators and accelerometers and whatever is next; and cameras, cameras everywhere. The members of the freest society ever to arise are forging their own chains.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Still the Man nobody knows

kw: book reviews, historical fiction, christianity, gospel story

Just ninety years ago Bruce Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows, an effort to make Jesus Christ known as a historical figure, relevant to the Roaring Twenties. The book was still popular 35 years later when I first read it. Barton overdid the historical aspect, making Jesus "too human", to the point of downplaying his divinity nearly to extinction. A new book repeats the error: Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. This book follows their somewhat fictionalized historical accounts Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. I haven't read them, but I expect they are very well done, based on solid scholarship and research.

Their research and scholarship are quite evident in this new book. They not only trace the outlines of the Gospel story, filling in historical context, they trace the history of principal players and their ancestors, such as the Herods and of course the Jews as pertains to the ancestry of the priests and the family of Jesus. There is, however, too great a tendency to overuse Latin and Hebrew terms, to a distracting point. For example, I don't care what a Roman legionnaire called his lunch in his own language.

By the middle of the book, plenty of context has been laid for the last few months of Jesus' life. Here it becomes more evident that the authors, though professed Roman Catholics, are taking a strictly historical approach, and obscuring or denying "supernatural" elements. They go to some length at one point to show off the three Hebrew words for powers, signs, and wonders, and their Greek equivalents, then mention in a note that the word "miracle" was applied to all of these sometime after the 1100s. So what? This totally misses the point. The Gospel authors were careful with their words, and meant something different when they used a different word. They make it clear that these happenings were not legends but that each had a place in the ministry of Jesus.

One item in particular is stated thus in Killing Jesus:
…a most amazing thing happens: the Roman military officer in charge of Capernaum declares himself to be a follower of Jesus.

Jesus is astonished. (p. 143)

Here is the Bible record, from Matthew 8:5-10 (NIV)
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
I have emphasized the key words in bold. The centurion recognized that Jesus is under authority, even as he was (a better translation has it "I also am a man under authority"). As such, he will be satisfied if Jesus simply issues an order for the servant's healing, and trusts that it will be carried out. Jesus does issue the command, and the man returns to find his servant healthy. His faith was great because it saw Jesus not just as a wonder-worker, but as one under God's authority to carry out God's work.

As long as I am on a tear, let us continue. On page 167 we find, regarding the Feast of Tabernacles, "The Jews commemorate forty years of wandering in the desert…", but this in a footnote: "Sukkot, as the festival is known in Hebrew, commemorates the years of nomadic dwelling while Moses searched for the Promised Land." The Torah, from late in Exodus until Deuteronomy, makes it clear that the people were kept in the wilderness from year 3 through year 40 because of unfaithfulness after they had already been on the border of Canaan, but were afraid to enter. They knew where it was the whole time, but would not be allowed to enter until all that generation had died with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who were the only ones not afraid to enter.

On page 176 a section begins, "Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy." Is there no end to special pleading? Jesus knew what he was doing, beginning at or before he was 12 years old. One might ask, "If he knew it then, why wait another 18 years?" Because of a strict principle in Leviticus that service to God is not welcome prior to the age of 30.

On page 198, relating the scene in Bethany prior to Passion Week, there is the puzzling sentence about Mary of Bethany: "She sits at his feet and sometimes shows her respect by anointing them with perfumed oil." She anointed him once, from the head down, on that occasion only, and Jesus declared to the disciples that it was to anoint him for his burial. She, and she alone, understood his statements that the Christ was destined to die as part of God's plan. She anointed him with a pound of costly oil. After his death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had to use 100 pounds of oils and spices to prepare his body for the tomb. It is better to be early!

That is quite enough. There is a lot that the authors did get right, when it comes to downright history. The book's chapters are all dated as accurately as they can ascertain, beginning with the Slaughter of the Innocents, as Catholics call it, in Bethlehem in 5 B.C. This was indeed a few months to a year prior to the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. Jesus was two years of age when the Magi came and informed Herod they had seen his star; when they found him it was "in the house". So the ubiquitous Nativity scenes, with the Magi and shepherds together in the stable with Jesus and his parents, cannot have happened.

They appear to have used a Catholic chronology of the Passion Week, placing it in the spring of 30 A.D. Sir John Robertson showed definitively in The Coming Prince that it was two years later, based on accurate use of the way new moon was determined by the Jews.

It cannot be emphasized enough that Jesus lived in an occupied country, where suspicion of treason was rampant and punished by incredibly brutal death. The authors bring this out admirably, that the title "Son of God" had been appropriated by the Caesars, and to so identify yourself was a terrible risk. Also, the religious leaders of Israel are quick to accuse "Blasphemy!" to anyone claiming divinity. Curiously, it is never mentioned that whenever Jesus confronted a demoniac, the demon would say something like, "I know who you are, Son of God!", a move calculated to get Jesus into trouble.

I'd call the last couple of chapters a verbal parallel to Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" in its incessant drumbeat of brutality. Glad I didn't try to read them at mealtime.

While the book is very well written, and well researched, the authors seem to have done little to understand the Gospel authors. John, in particular, wrote that his record was to show that Jesus is the Son of God. For this reason he used the word "sign" twice as much as Matthew or Luke. You can pair up each Gospel with a one-word theme, and with one of the faces of the Cherubim:
  1. Matthew - King - Lion
  2. Mark - Slave - Calf or Ox
  3. Luke - Man - Man
  4. John - God - Eagle
These four faces are mentioned, in this order, for the "four living creatures", which are a manifestation of the Cherubim, in Revelation 4:7. I liken the four Gospels to portraits of Jesus from four angles. Matthew and Luke, the right and left profiles, Luke the face full on, and John from the back, recalling when Moses asked to see God, being told he could not, but would see his back only (Exodus 33:22).

It is useful to dig out historical context for the life and times of Jesus and his apostles. However, it does a disservice to discount the divine nature that Jesus was careful to conceal from the prying eyes of enemies, but revealed to his disciples and to the twelve apostles in particular.

Friday, June 27, 2014

If it looks like love...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, friendship

Animals that grow up together seem to regard one another as siblings. At any age, when unusual circumstances bring diverse animals together, ordinary enmities and predator-prey relationships are set aside. This pair of photos came from the NBC slide show "Unlikely Friends". I wonder how the retriever would react if his cheetah friend were to prey on a dachshund?

About four years ago I reviewed Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland. Knowing a good thing when she sees it, and amid clamoring from fans for "More!", she has released Unlikely Loves: 43 Heartwarming True Stories From the Animal Kingdom. The cover image shows another retriever with a leopard, clearly showing affection.

Perusing images on the Web, I noted even solitary species such as orangutans and tigers in apparently affectionate relationships with quite disparate species. Of course, in infancy every mammal is social, with its mother and littermates. Thus a photo of a Labrador retriever nursing tiger cubs is not so surprising (I saw one just moments ago). I am not sure the momma dog and the grown tigers can be quite so close a couple years later.

Even as adults, few mammals are entirely solitary. The possibility of forming emotional bonds exists in all. I noticed that most of the stories in both books begin with at least one of the animals being orphaned or otherwise traumatized. Frequently, particularly in Unlikely Loves, the other animal cares for it in a motherly way, providing the persistent physical affection any traumatized animal needs to recover fully. Such caring impulses are hard-wired in mammals and birds.

Side note: otherwise sensible, intelligent young women who "fall for" criminal, druggie, abusive low-life guys have fallen prey to these impulses, often to the point of obsession. They are also the root of "white knight syndrome" among men.

I found it interesting that one of the animals Ms Holland describes is a turtle. What started out as a tortoise seeking warmth among a litter of ten Great Dane puppies led to her developing a special affection for one of them. The tortoise gets unhappy when separated from her favorite horse-sized dog for too long. We don't think of reptiles as having any capacity for affection, but owners of pet turtles and iguanas and boas know differently.

I'll repeat what I wrote earlier. We ought not fear anthropomorphism. Anthropologists are too fussy about this. Not only does emotional understanding help us interpret animal behavior, animal behavior informs our understanding of ourselves. It is not that they are like us: WE are like THEM. We can love because all our animal ancestors loved.

The book is truly heartwarming. Like in a Disney movie, the lives of many animals begins with unspeakable tragedy but can turn out very well. We all need a little love.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Click to prosper

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, trends, technology

The title of this post may better fit an earlier book by this author, but I haven't read that one yet.

When you hear "Word of mouth," what do you think of? Is it Advertising? If so, that's the association Marc Ostrofksy wants for his book titled Word of Mouse: 101+ Trends in How We Buy, Sell, Live, Learn, Work, and Play. The title is a near-table of contents. Just add two items: Communicate and Safeguard., though the last chapter is really subtitled "Cyber Crime".

The earlier book is Get Rick Click!, and this one follows the theme, being mostly business oriented. I wonder how quickly both titles will become obsolete, as we move from 30 years of mousing to using touch, gestures, voice and, perhaps quite soon, thought patterns, to direct our devices. Who'd like to set up a pool on the first day someone's grandkid asks, "What were mouses like?", not referring to tiny mammals.

The author is relentlessly cheerful, almost frisky. Sometimes I felt the book had been written by a juvenile Labrador Retriever. But there is no mistaking his message. It may be obvious to some, but not to all: we are on the verge of cyborgification. The smart cell phone is close to the logical conclusion to which computer technology has been leading for nearly 70 years.

I remember the first time I saw children using cell phones. My wife and I were taking a walk, and saw a woman following two young girls, no older than 6, who were dashing and skipping along while each chatted with a friend on a flip phone held to her ear. I said to my wife, "In a couple decades, puberty will be marked with the installation of a device the size of a pea in the bone behind the ear. There'll be a mic in your jawbone. You'll just say, 'Hey, phone, call Allison.'" A couple decades have passed, and we're not there yet, but I've recently read a couple news articles in which "installable phones" were mentioned.

I figure the built-in phone will be necessary because anything you carry can be stolen, but an installation will not be. I haven't heard of anyone stealing the pacemaker out of someone's body, even though they cost as much as a small auto. I hold out little hope for "kill switch" technology. The only drawback to an installed phone: It'll be harder to turn all the way off. Maybe you can just cover the area where its antenna lies with foil…

I do hold out a lot of hope for increasingly clever devices to help us do pretty much anything short of stirring the soup pot or flipping an omelet (though they can show you an instructional video on it), or pluck my guitar for me, but then what's the use of muscle memory? Hmmm, now if they find a way to instantly attain muscle memory, they might have something!

Well, I'll leave it to interested readers to peruse the book. I didn't find anything like "101+ trends" listed out. Each chapter peppers you with ideas, some being trends and others being less well defined. I did happen to pause to think when he was discussing personal branding. Since retirement I've toyed with the idea of getting some really creative cards made. I'm not limited to company format any more. But a Polymath has a lot of irons in the fire, and there is too much to fit on one card. It is like the time I entered college. Though I picked a major, I really wanted to major in all the sciences. I eventually majored in four, then synergized all of them into a career writing software. This'll take further thought. I need a holographic card, that can project about a wall size display! Or—the simpler solution—several cards.

The book was plenty of fun to read, so a drawback or two I've mentioned above shouldn't deter anyone from reading it. Particular if you're looking for ideas to better use the Gigahertz processors at your fingertips, you'll likely find plenty in its pages.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 140 page ad

kw: book reviews, advertisements, stock speculating, technical products

If you have a stock broker or money manager taking care of your investments, ask this question:
"If you have two clients that seem identical, in age, sex, life goals, income level and rick tolerance, do you make the same recommendations to both?"
Any answer but, "Of course!" is cause for suspicion. Here is why. Brokers tend to hedge their bets. Suppose in an extreme case the broker makes the same recommendation to every client, and is not just wrong, but expensively wrong. There go most of the clients! The business flounders. So of course, a smart agent will tailor investments to the characteristics of clients. But if a few clients are really very, very similar, they are still likely to get differing advice.

One of the oldest "advice" scams is an either-or tree. This works best if the advisor is very good at advertising, or can afford a top-notch advertising team. We'll analyze the action in exact powers of two for simplicity:

  • Tout yourself as an expert advisor and offer to answer as many as three yes/no questions at no cost.
  • The questions must be asked one at a time, perhaps by mail or e-mail. Answers will be delivered similarly.
  • If you really do have an area of expertise, you may be able to give knowledgeable answers. Otherwise, flip a coin.
  • Suppose you started with 1,024 people willing to ask you the first three questions. If you use coin flips (I know, your thumb will get tired), you will be right about half the time. If you are truly expert you may be right more than this, but we'll stick with half for now.
  • For 128 folks, you've been right three times. For 128, you've been wrong three times. You'll certainly lose those latter 128.
  • For the rest, you've been right twice for 448 and right only once for 448. You might lose all these as future, paying clients, but maybe not. Anyway, you have at least 128 people who are quite impressed with your "expertise". (Actual numbers will vary, for statistical reasons, but using exact math makes the analysis simpler.)
  • Let's assume all the 128 happy clients are willing to start paying for answers. You introduce a sliding scale, with enough flexibility that you can charge more later on, pretty much at your "discretion". But of course what you tell them is that you charge more if the question needs further "research".
  • Three more questions later, you have 16 clients for whom your score is perfect. You may have been able to keep some of the others as well, by arguing that a wrong answer here or there is to be expected.
  • But those 16 are now your bread and butter. They will pay a lot more for questions requiring more "research" (it takes you an extra day or two to flip the coin), and be more tolerant of finding you wrong something like half the time!
Of course, if you are truly an expert, and are wrong substantially less than half the time, you'll do even better than someone relying on coin flips. The danger is believing too much in your own infallibility. Successful advisors must be quite dispassionate. That is why the ones who rake in the big bucks are total psychopaths such as Bernie Madoff, who added a pyramid scheme to his coin-flipping.

Now for the phrase that pays: Technical Analysis for stock picking is a way of hiding the coin flip amidst double-talk and jargon. The fancier the computer screen on which the "analysis" is presented, the more one can charge for the "advice".

I've been in and around the US stock market for more than 50 years. I've analyzed things nine ways from Sunday. Much technical analysis assumes a normal (Gaussian) distribution of daily moves. It is easy to plot a couple years' data for any stock you like, and see that large moves are more common than the Gaussian distribution would predict. Some have claimed that the actual distribution is a Cauchy (AKA Pareto) distribution, most notably Nick Taleb in The Black Swan. This distribution is favored by the "you can't pick it" crowd because, while it has a central tendency, it has no mean and no moments, and extra-large moves are possible at any time, that can wipe out days' worth of gains in a stroke. But the actual distribution is not quite so extreme.

For those with statistical expertise, this will be a meaningful explanation: The Cauchy distribution is a two-tailed analog of the Scale-Free distribution (log-log straight line) so beloved of chaos theorists. The real distribution is the complex square root of a Lognormal distribution. It has no name yet, and I haven't thought of a good one. Don't anybody name it after me! Anyway, it has fat tails, just not as fat as the Cauchy. For this reason, it just might be very slightly predictable, but less so than if market moves actually had a Gaussian distribution.

It isn't hard to do a sequence analysis. Download daily closing prices from your site of choice (I like into an Excel sheet. Be careful to pick a time frame of at least a year, in which the first and last closing prices are very nearly the same.

Calculate the daily moves (a simple Excel formula subtracting today from yesterday and so forth), then copy (paste values) them to the next column with a 1-day shift. Plot them in a scatter plot, or calculate a correlation coefficient. I just did this with the closing prices for McDonald's, 3/4/2013 to 3/4/2014. The chart is immediately below, and the correlation coefficient between the two columns is -0.055, or -5.5%. It requires correlations greater than 50% or less than -50% for statistical methods to make you any money. That's your simple proof that technical analysis cannot work!

The first and last closing prices were 95.07 and 95.02. However, during this time, the stock returned a 3.3% dividend. So, you could beat your head against the wall trying to make money on daily trades when a stock is going nowhere, or just hold it for a year and collect the dividend.

Into this arena I find a new book, Advanced Charting Techniques for High Probability Trading, by Joseph R. Hooper, Aaron R. Zalewski and Edwin L. Watanabe. They claim to have licked the barriers to successful technical trading, AKA timing the market. I read about a quarter into the book, and gradually realized that they were long on claims ("Many clients earn 20% or more monthly") but short on meaningful specifics.

Oh, there are plenty of specifics, but they all relate to using a software product to which you subscribe for $80/month (I got this from their web site). Now, these fellows have two sets of methods. For about a decade they have promoted and taught an option technique called "covered calls and LEAPS". They claim it earns high returns in both up and down markets. I reckon the trick is finding speculators who will buy the options on terms favorable to you. Perhaps Barnum was right, that "There is a sucker born every minute", and you just need to find these suckers.

This book adds loosely-described charting techniques that are supposed to enhance the method. I am not sure if using them means you pay more for your subscription. I couldn't find out without revealing more about myself than I was willing to. However, given my deep suspicion of all charting techniques, no matter how fancy their names, I can't give any credence. Let them say all they want about creating millionaires; how many of their clients are non-millionaires? or even non-gainers?

It became clear as I read that this was mainly a confidence-building exercise, and that the book is an advertisement for the products. Maybe this really is the cat's meow. I have yet to be convinced. But I suspect the authors make a lot more from their products than from using their own methods.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What we didn't say

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, family relations, discussions

My father never had "the talk" with me. My mother did instead. When a guy is 12, and the "extra hair" has begun to grow, it's embarrassing and intimidating! The concept, delivered with almost clinical detachment, seemed unbearably gross…I was still about 10, emotionally. However, later the knowledge thus imparted did help counteract the incredible speculations of schoolyard buddies who had a little actual information and lots of rubbish with it. But really, the "Be-Bopper" ditty passed along all the information truly needed:
Down by the river where nobody goes,
I saw a lady standing without any clothes.
Along came a Be-Bopper, swingin' a chain:
Down came the zipper, and out it came!
Three months later, she was starting to swell.
Six months later, she was fatter than hell.
Nine months later, out it came:
Three little Be-Boppers, swingin' a chain!
Details such as foreplay and so forth would have to come later.

In some families, fathers and sons do get chances to talk together. My father and I spent more time together than was common in the 1950s and we talked a lot (I believe my brothers all could report the same). Late in my college years, a friend came home with me for dinner, and remarked afterward, "Your family's table talk is at a pretty high level!" We're all rather chatty, and not much was off-limits.

The Geist family discussions seem to have steered away from "the talk" and a number of other meaningful subjects. As Bill and Willie Geist tell it, they wouldn't have it any other way. Father and son play literate ping-pong in Good Talk, Dad: The Birds and the Bees…and other Conversation we Forgot to Have. The book is really a 16-chapter mini-memoir for the two of them, a kind of comparing notes on significant events and what they mostly didn't say about them: which sports they did or did not excel at (Willie mainly excelled, his dad, not so much); how they learned to love how they hated going fishing together; what really happened to outrage a teacher, to much merriment all around; and how Willie's way into the TV world was pretty foreordained, having grown up with the living room or kitchen being transformed into a TV studio every month or so.

You can't say that Willie Geist was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. More like a silver pen in hand, or at least silver keyboard. A writer friend confessed to Bill that he'd re-type a column of Bill's "just to find out what writing that well feels like." Reading them both alternately, I find there is a little difference in voice but fully equal skill. They both write extremely well. Nature and nurture conspired to pass along Bill's way with words to his son. With Willie's children still so young, it is a little early to tell if the gift will continue, but I'm optimistic.

I don't really want to reveal more about the book. Whether you are a father or a son, or the wife or sister or mother of one, this book will crack open a window on an interesting family, maybe similar to yours, but more likely not. We're all human, but that umbrella is gigantic. And guys, don't feel too bad if you feel shorted in the father-son-bonding-talk arena. It's more usual than you think.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Best foot forward and that is about it

kw: book reviews, short stories, fiction, story reviews, anthologies

It is a chemist's daydream, to determine exactly the composition of a major trade-secret product such as Coca-Cola. For some, the daydream extends to extorting large sums from the company in return for keeping the secret. Thus it was inevitable that a chemist, one from Stanford at that, should write a story on this theme, as we find in the title story of How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship by Carl Djerassi.

The story's protagonist has determined a precise mixture of 227 ingredients that exactly mimics Classic Coke. A humorous twist or two later, he and his lawyer-wife have settled with the company for a lifetime $1million income plus 24 times that to be delivered yearly to charities of their choice. It's a great read, an enjoyable "if only" sort of story.

The other 11 stories play on the theme of one-upmanship, and I confess I was, I suppose, one-upped by nearly all, one after another. The author intended each ending to be an obvious turn against a character who had it coming (with one exception). The trouble is, it is seldom evident which character is meant, and the ending is thus quite ambiguous, at least to me. By the tenth story, "The Futurist", I had figured out that one must gather clues as if the writer were Agatha Christie. Even then the ending was deflating. I could tell which character "won" the contest, but it was not clear that the other knew he had lost. There is such a thing as too much indirection.

The last story, "The Toyota Cantos", surpasses in erudition every other short story I've read. A scholar who seems to have memorized all of Dante's Divine Comedy prepares a present for his wife, who, he has found, knows it quite as well as he. Though he hadn't noticed earlier on. The ending is more satisfying, being a win-win.

Dr. Djerassi writes skillfully, and I suppose he'll think himself very clever indeed that his thought processes usually left me baffled.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shifting advantages

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, conflict analysis

There's an old children's gospel song about David killing Goliath. Its chorus begins, "And one little stone went in the sling, and the sling went round and round, and round and round and round and round…" I forget how many rounds. Out of curiosity I learned slinging about 45 years ago, and I learned that the sling goes around once or twice, and that's it.

The sling is used two ways. For distance, you swing it vertically, usually twice, and release it at an angle about 30°. Because of wind resistance, you don't go as high as the theoretical 45°. Instead, a slung or thrown ball goes farthest when its angle upon landing is 45°, and wind resistance makes the descending angle steeper than the ascending angle. It didn't take long before I could sling a stone more than 200 meters. In ancient armies, slingers were placed behind the archers because they had greater range! But stones slung for distance are not very accurate. Slingers in the early part of a battle are used to make the opposing forces wary and keep their distance, while the archers pick them off. When they get closer, the sling is used differently.

To sling for accuracy, at a distance of 50m or less (usually 20-30m), the action is more over the head, or around the head. I am right handed. I load the stone into the pocket with my left hand and toss it left and upward. I swing with my right around in the same direction until my hand is behind and above my right shoulder, then use a throwing motion almost the same as throwing the stone without a sling, and release just after a snap of the wrist forward. At 30m I was never accurate enough to reliably hit a basketball-sized object (better than 50%, though), but friends of mine could hit it on center, within an inch or two. A slung stone of about an inch (2.5cm), weighing 20g, could be slung through the siding on a barn.

With that in mind, Goliath had no chance. David was alive because he could either kill or harass away a lion or a wolf, and had apparently done so. Goliath may have been larger than a lion, but he was not stronger than one. His height is given as 6 cubits and a span. Now, I am big, and my cubit (elbow to finger tip) is 22", or 56cm. The Phoenician cubit was probably 17"-18", or 43cm-46cm. A span is 1/5 of a cubit, so if the account is true, Goliath stood at least 8.8 feet, or 2.7m. Impressive, particularly when the ordinary Hebrew or Philistine stood about 5.5 feet or 1.7m. And! David is frequently noted as "small and ruddy". A short kid with an Irish flush.

Now, it has been asked why David picked up five stones. Was he afraid of missing, and hoping he would be quick to reload? I think rather, we read later in the books of the Kings that Goliath had four brothers: David was preparing, if needed, to take on the whole family. Goliath was a big target. He was weighed down with a lot of armor and a huge javelin, so that he needed someone to carry his shield. He was slow. David won because he chose not to fight on Goliath's terms.

And that is the theme of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. If you have to fight a giant, make sure to pick your own battleground and fight by your own rules. If the giant picks the rules, you'll lose.

On a side note, Amarillo Slim, king of the proposition wager, wrote in his memoirs of making all kinds of wagers, but only, only after he already knew how he would win. On an even more distant note, a short TV series with Shaq O'Neal titled Superman featured a series of proposition wagers. Poor Shaq wasn't as canny a negotiator as Slim was, and lost most of the bets. It was great entertainment, though. I really enjoyed the shows.

Back to Gladwell's book. He used nine main stories and several lesser ones to illustrate the various ways "underdogs and misfits" have won the day in various arenas. But that is not all there is to tell. If you want to win against seemingly impossible odds, repeat this mantra frequently:
There is no such thing as a fair fight
Think about it. How likely is it that someone will offer to fight you if he isn't pretty sure of winning? As the saying goes, don't bring a knife to a gunfight. Unless, of course, you plan to use it to cut a rope and drop a ton of bricks on the other fellow before he sees you. This brings up an equally crucial principle: Plan Ahead, or as my favorite supervisor would put it,
Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part
The book has three chapters of examples on turning your disadvantages into advantages (and the opposite for your opponent), three on the things one can learn from a difficult early life, and three on "The Limits of Power". The last section opens up a bigger sociological issue: why so many laws aren't enforced. The short answer is, you can't afford it. I heard a police captain say in a speech about traffic laws that no law can be enforced unless "natural compliance" exceeds 85%.

Something like 100,000 cars travel a certain Interstate Highway near me every day. I don't know how many highway patrol cars are on the road, but it probably doesn't exceed 100, maybe not even 25. Are there enough officers to write 15,000 tickets every day, if somehow they could catch every speeder, and "only" 15% were speeding? In my experience it takes half an hour to flag a car down and issue a speeding ticket along with whatever exhortation the officer makes. Works out to 7,500 man-hours (don't fault me for sexist language. I've only seen one female patrol officer in 20 years out here). 8 hour shifts with a half hour lunch breaks means you need 1,000 officers on duty, or 333 per shift. Not even close. The local states can't afford to hire enough officers to cope with a 15% rate of speeders, and the actual rate is 80% or higher.

Heck, on Hwy 95 approaching Baltimore from the north, where the speed limit is 55mph nearly all the traffic exceeds 70, and if I have the temerity to drive at "only" 65, I soon pick up a tailgater who honks at me. In a stretch where the limit is 65mph they really cut loose! Even when the traffic is flowing smoothly at 70-75 mph, about one car in 20 will be weaving through the pack, attempting to average over 80.

The core story of the third section is the Irish rebellions by the IRA and other groups in the 1960s and later. They finally broke the power of the British forces because there is a second meaning to "can't afford it". If strong enforcement causes authority to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public, they can't even get away with trying to enforce anti-jaywalking laws. They lack the social currency.

In an endnote on page 292 there is a very revealing table, of the % of the economy of various countries that is concealed by citizens from their government. This is everything from garage sales to under-the-table cash payments to many service workers such as home handymen, to drug dealing and organized crime. The USA has the smallest "black market", at 7.8%. The other four countries with less than 10% are Switzerland, Austria, Japan and New Zealand. At the bottom of the scale we find Greece, at 25.2%. Only one other country exceeds 20%, Italy. Greece, in particular, has a notoriously corrupt government. In the USA, the principle of "a nation of laws and not of men" is still honored to the extent that most citizens are law-abiding. Americans expect equitable treatment to a greater extent than any other people. (The report cited studied only OECD nations.) You might ask, "So why do they speed?" Traffic laws lack legitimacy to most folks.

Thus another big lesson of the book is that if the giant in question is greatly resented, it is much weaker than it appears. You can beat city hall if it is well and roundly hated. You can "speak to power" more safely if the power in question is barely hanging on to authority.

A further lesson of the third section is that winning is sometimes losing. A detailed study is presented of the California law, copied in many other states, of "three strikes and you're in for life". At first it seemed to work well, but was later seen to be worse than allowing more judicial discretion. Nearly all such laws have been repealed. It is because of the inverted-U shape of "effectiveness" for many measures. It is like the Laffer Curve used by Reagan when he argued for lower income taxes. When taxes are low, increasing them a little will increase revenues. This can continue up to a point. But when taxes get too high, those with the most to lose will find ways to circumvent the law, and revenues will decrease.

In the same way, if there is little penalty for crime, there will be a lot of crime. Increase prison sentences, and crime will decrease, if only because criminals have fewer years in their lives in which they are free to do more crimes. But at some point there is no benefit, and perhaps a detriment. Criminals don't think about penalties when they are committing a crime. The worse the penalties are, the more planning most of them do to avoid getting caught. It gets harder and harder to bring them to justice.

The book covered a lot more ground than I was expecting. This made it a fascinating read. I've also read Outliers by Gladwell, and this is perhaps even more useful. Much worth reading.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The frog leapt from the pot

kw: continued review, short stories

This covers the story I actually finished among the last five in The Best American Short Stories 2013, edited by Elizabeth Strout.

"The Wilderness" is an interior monologue by a teacher navigating the changed culture of students not so much younger than herself, though she is becoming a veteran teacher. It is but 9 pages long. It does seem that a "generation" is rather a shorter time than in the past, doesn't it? The ending is ambiguous; is she seeking acceptance from another or from herself? But then, aren't we all? By getting me to ask that question of myself, this story moved into the top ranks.