Saturday, October 18, 2014

A psychopath kisses and tells

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neuroscience, psychopaths, memoirs

I find, looking back over earlier reviews, that I have a certain fascination with psychopathy and abnormal psychology in general. My prior reviews on the subject:

When a little craziness helps
Sing like a nightingale, sting like a scorpion
A pet to one, a monster to another
Broken brain, maimed mind

So how could I pass up a book by an eminent brain scientist who has discovered that he is a psychopath? He could have kept his silence, but perhaps his grandiose sense of self-worth overcame caution, so he has published The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain. Just like the process of developing a relationship with a psychopath, I found that in the earlier parts of the book the author seemed normal enough. But as the narrative continued it became evident that Dr. James Fallon is far from normal.

Just nine years ago Dr. Fallon was comparing PET brain scans of incarcerated serial killers with scans of ordinary people. For the comparison he took PET scans of a set of "normal" people: his immediate family, including himself. It was pretty clear which scans belonged to the killers, as this image demonstrates.

Front is to the left, so the Prefrontal Cortex is seen to be comparatively silent in the brain of a psychopath. This area includes our "judgment center", and a lack of function here leads to poor judgment. There is also a total blank near the center of the brain, in an emotional center that is related to caring (As the author states late in the book, he realized that, while he could understand the pain some of his behavior had caused, he truly didn't care). After studying and comparing the brain scans, he was writing up his results when he realized that he seemed to have an extra scan. There was an extra killer's brain scan, or so he thought. He had already made his analysis on each coded scan, so he asked his fellow researcher to reveal the true name for the code on each scan. The extra "killer brain" was himself. As he tells us through the course of the book, he gradually came to know that he is truly a psychopath. Not a killer, but definitely a different sort of person than he had thought himself to be. A psychopath.

Somehow, he has had a successful academic career (he is now 66 and on the verge of retirement), has been married 44 years, and has raised three children (to tell the truth, his narrative makes clear that his faithful wife did most of their raising). He is well liked by colleagues, though he royally ticks some of them off at times.

This book is not about a psychopath, it is the memoir of a psychopath. He seems to have been extraordinarily lucky: his parents and close relatives loved him and cared for him. He eventually realized that they'd known he was somehow chilly inside, but resolved to love him the best they could anyway. It worked. Of four major areas in which a psychopath differs significantly from most folks, he is most "normal" in sociability. Where a criminal psychopath is antisocial and specifically hotheaded, delinquent, and prone to lawbreaking, he is more social, levelheaded, and generally prone to obey the law (though he tends to double park whenever he thinks he'll get away with it). He almost credits his family environment for keeping him from going totally off the rails, but not quite, probably because he lacks the mental machinery to credit environment in the first place.

For all his career he felt that our behavior and character are 80% genetic, or more, and at most 20% environmental. On the nature-nurture question, where most psychologists and neuroscientists favor close to a 50-50 mix, he was avidly pro-Nature. His journey of self-discovery amounted to a series of embarrassments to such a stance. Environment and experience has had a lot more to do with his development than he could admit at first, and he reluctantly acknowledges that later in the book. However, he also comes from a long line or two of fighters, having a few psychopathic killers in his ancestry (as detailed by two cousins devoted to genealogical study). He has the genes of a killer and the parents of a saint. The mix became extraordinary!

We read of his behavior after going to college, continuing almost to today, and find a certain persistent irresponsibility. It is almost a sure thing that, when he has a scheduled engagement, such as a funeral, conference meeting, marriage or graduation, there is a large chance that he won't go at all or will arrive late. Why? Because he got a better offer in the meantime. He doesn't seem to be a drunk, but prefers a rousing drinking party to any more sedate event, particularly if he has a chance to flirt. His family has simply become accustomed to this, and learned to work around it. Not so his colleagues, and after several had called him psychopathic to his face, he could no longer just blow it off and attribute it to their disappointment and anger. These are all respected scientists of the mind, after all. When such a one uses the word "psychopath", you'd do well to listen.

Listen he did, and thus this memoir. Yes, in many ways, his stellar upbringing must have made a dent in his irresponsible nature, and his wife is remarkably tolerant. But he can be a real jerk. What saves this narrative for me and enhances its value for us all, is that he doesn't descend into any "poor me" drivel. He does his best to tell his own story, warts and all, and to explain the best he knows how what it is like to be a psychopath among a population that he once thought he belonged to, but now knows differently. It is a remarkable tour de force.

I found two sections to be of particular value. A necessary fact is that in Western society 3% of men and 1% of women are psychopaths. Early on he discusses how certain populations might favor an increase in psychopathy. In a dangerous and chaotic environment, larger numbers of women will favor marriage, or at least partnering, with men who can protect them and their children. Psychopathic men thrive in such environments, and the genetic traits that favor psychopathy will thus increase the longer the troubles continue. Regions such as Kosovo and Somalia come to mind. Since young adult women outnumber men, a certain amount of polygamy, formal or not, will also result, but any women with psychopathic traits will also be more likely to survive and so the progeny of a smaller but still significant number of female psychopaths will also be retained in the gene pool.

Secondly, he also discusses whether there is a need for psychopaths even in a very civil society, and thus evolutionary pressure to produce them in some low proportion. We certainly have little "need" for murderous psychopaths. I suppose they make excellent executioners, but we put so few "death row" inmates to death these days, executioners are hardly needed.

One friend of mine is a policeman in Chester, Pennsylvania. The murder rate there is 0.1% yearly. That is 30 in a population of 30,000. Just to the south, Wilmington, Delaware has been called the most dangerous small city in America, yet its murder rate is one-third that in Chester, or about 0.036% yearly (26 out of 72,000). Why isn't Chester named the worst? It is too small! Less than 50,000 population.

The national average murder rate is 5 per 100,000, or 0.005%. Shakespearean London had twice that, and 4-5 centuries earlier, it was another two times higher at 0.02%. Thus, while Wilmington and Chester clearly are quite murderous, in the nation as a whole murder is only a fraction of the problem it was in Colonial times and earlier.

Progress requires a certain adventurousness, and also a feeling of self-rightness coupled with a lack of caring what others think. Perhaps in a younger America we needed psychopaths such as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Col. George Custer. The kind of psychopaths we need today are more like Dr. Fallon: bold and fearless, with plenty of initiative, but at least amicable and definitely not murderous.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A French Woman's advice for the rest of us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help, beauty, health, women

Did you ever wonder who is behind the Louis Vuitton brand? The former CEO of the luxury goods corporation, originally with Clicquot, is Mireille Guiliano, who has now taken up writing in what she calls Act 3.5. Her genre is self-help health and beauty for woman, her first book was French Women Don't Get Fat, and now her fourth is French Women Don't Get Facelifts: The Secret of Aging With Style & Attitude.

I had no idea what to expect when I began to read, but I figured it would be worth a peek into the author's mind, on the principle of Know Thine Enemy. I am not sure how to characterize the result: if one could say that my wife and I represent different planets (not necessarily Venus and Mars), here we have a voice from another galaxy.

Ms Guiliano deplores the term Aging Gracefully as a cop-out. She prefers her title phrase, Aging With Style and Attitude. Sort of a "Don't back down" or "Don't rain on my parade" approach to the passage of time. After a chapter on gravity, she tackles dress, skin and face care, grooming (both hair and skin), cosmetic use, exercise (she prefers it "invisible", not to break a sweat), and rest and play. Then we find three chapters on food and nutrition; her attitude towards supplements is, if you've been paying attention to this point, your diet needs no supplementation. Three more chapters wrap up matters not otherwise dealt with.

The writing is peppered with examples among her friends and acquaintances, of women not just "of a certain age" (from forty onward), but into their 70's to 90's, who live their lives a mere 60-year-old might envy. I was reminded of my grandmother, the original "Little Old Lady From Pasadena", who might have inspired the song "Go Granny Go", still getting stopped for speeding in her last year on Earth, and usually talking her way out of a ticket. Ms Guiliano closes with an honor roll of remarkable women, from Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren to Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.

I was amazed (perhaps I should not have been) at the list of self-care tasks she brings to a "normal" day or month. A woman following her suggestions needs a remarkable memory. I'd suggest that the first order of business is, "Pick the right parents". As an oil prospector might put it, "It is better to be lucky than good." Thus, my lovely wife uses no cosmetics, and in the last couple of decades, has declined attending the salon at all; she preferred teaching me to cut her hair into the longish bob she likes, which I do about monthly. She does have a couple of creams and moisturizers from Sesha and Nivea on hand, uses sunscreen on bright days, and that is it. She believes the best skin is clean skin. When I compare that with the string of daily tasks in the "Skin and Face" chapter of the book, I wonder when a French woman has time for anything else!

Gentlemen, here is the best beauty tip for the woman in your life, unless she is a rampant feminist (in which case, she probably already divorced you anyway): tell her she is lovely. Do so early and do it often. Uplift her spirits and it will uplift all else. Happiness begets loveliness. Oh, and to make her even happier? Do your share of the housework.

Reading the book didn't unlock the feminine mystique, but left me more mystified. That is OK. God didn't put men and women together to understand one another, but to love one another. Leave the understanding business to Him…and I am not sure He is much into that anyway.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Slow and steady also wins the investing race

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing

Sometimes all it takes is one good, good man. In the realm of investing, Jack Bogle is that man, and the Bogleheads are his disciples. Three of them, including the one Jack calls "Prince of the Bogleheads", have written the first book you need to read to learn about investing: The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing, by Mel Lindauer ("Prince"), Taylor Larimore, and Michael LeBoeuf. I read the second edition, just out (the first edition was in 2006).

In 2007 I wrote about what I call the "P07 Prosperity Index" or PPI (see it here). It is simply the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) divided by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the US Population. Neither DJIA nor CPI is perfect, but these are the best we have readily available. If you look at the general trend of the DJIA after the crash of 1929, you see a general, jittery rise, with big hiccups. But the PPI shows a different story. Here is my original chart showing 1928-2001:


After the 1929 crash, which lasted until 1933, we see 5 eras:

  • 1935-1954 - A generally flat, if wavy, trend.
  • 1954-1966 - The post-war boom got under way after all the men on the GI bill got out of college and established careers.
  • 1966-1982 - The "flat market": the DJI stayed near 1,000 but inflation and a growing population meant the true value of stock investments fell to 1/3 of their original value.
  • 1982-1998 - The boom of the "Reagan Years" followed by the Dot-Com Boom, AKA the Dot-Com Bubble.
  • After 1998 - Another flat market, with a modest rise in real terms (not shown here) after the crash of 2008-9 (remember, you must divide out both inflation and population growth).

The scary thing about the years since about 2000 is that there is no safe haven. Passbook savings at a 5% annual rate could be had during my formative years, and until I was 50 years old. Now, the best-performing CDs earn about 1%. So to stay ahead of inflation, one must invest. The trouble is, even though about half of American families now own investments such as mutual funds or stock accounts, few have the slightest investment intelligence. What to do?

Bogleheads to the rescue! Jack Bogle has a short list of mottoes. The two most basic are "Keep it Simple" and "Keep Costs Low". The first 16 chapters of the book cover all the basics of investing, beginning, with getting your own house in order. That means living within your income. Otherwise, you have nothing to invest. Close the book and take care of that first.

Consumer Debt is the biggest drag on a family's finances. Do you have a running balance on your credit card(s)? The highest-paying investment you can make is to pay consumer debt down until you pay it off. You are paying 15%-20% annually. For every $1,000 of your balance, you are paying $150-$200 per year. If you have the average (Average!!) of $8,200 credit card balance, you are paying between $100 and $135 every month in interest. What could you do with another $100 or so of income?

That's right. Invest it. If we could still get 5% passbook savings, and put the $100 monthly into that, it adds up over time. In a year, you'd have just over $1,200. That $1,200 would earn another $60 every year you leave it in savings. The next year's $1,200 would do so also. In 20 years you'd have saved $24,000, but your passbook balance would be nearly $40,000. Keep on for another 20 years: savings total $48,000, but your balance is now $145,000. Compound interest has added nearly $100,000 to your investment. Do you want to retire a millionaire? Starting at age 25, save $690 monthly for 40 years in an investment that earns 5%.

Getting 5% can be hard, but it is sure easier than getting the 10% or 20% that the radio personalities talk about (but you never meet anyone who actually earns that much!). The Bogleheads can show you how to earn 5%-7% with comparative safety. Nothing is totally safe. Even passbook savings during my youth might have been lost if a bank failed. FDIC insurance started in 1934, but the insured limit was pretty low until 1980, when it rose from $20,000 to $100,000 (it is now $250,000).

A tale of two families: My wife and I had some good friends in the early 1980s, and we had very similar incomes. Let's call them Bill and Jane Spender. My wife and I had two cars, and each had cost about $1,000. We had a house with a $30,000 mortgage. The Spenders also had two cars that hadn't cost much, and bought a house, winding up with a $45,000 mortgage. Then they traded in one of their cars and bought a minivan. Its payment was more than half as much as their mortgage. So right away, their debt service costs were 2.25 times as much as ours. Not long after buying the van and making a couple of payments, Jane complained to my wife that they were barely making ends meet. She replied, "It was your choice. Your old car still worked." As you might imagine, the relationship was rather strained for a while after that. We moved away a couple of years later, and after another 10 years, went to visit them. They were living in a trailer in the woods. They still had the van, but fortunately it was now paid off. They were actually beginning to save a little money. The difference? We learned to live within our income a decade and a half before they did.

That's a lot, just on the message of the first couple of chapters. But if you attain the discipline to live on less than you earn, and save regularly, you have what it takes to invest the slow, steady way they Bogleheads recommend.

Keeping it simple: Diversify the easy way with a small number of mutual funds. Specifically no-load funds such as the majority of funds at Vanguard and Fidelity, and others found, for example, at T. Rowe Price. A mutual fund is already diversified, so get a stock index fund, a bond index fund or total bond market fund, and perhaps a little of a global or international value index fund. Just to track the DJI you have to buy 30 stocks. And what does it cost per trade at E*Trade?

Keeping costs low: This means investing in instruments that have very small management fees. Way too many folks go to a "financial adviser" and agree to have their money managed for a yearly fee of "only" 1.5% (more or less) of their account value. By the way, try asking the adviser if he or she will waive the management fee in any year that the balance has gone down. Not bloody likely! If the person agrees, you may have found an honest adviser!!! Anyway, this adviser is probably also a broker, and will invest in either stocks and bonds directly (if you've agreed to that) or in mutual funds. Either way, there is nearly always a commission paid, to the broker/adviser. Brokers never deal in no-load funds. For stocks and bonds the commission ranges from 5% for small purchases down to about 0.5% for larger ones. For most mutual funds, it is about 4%. If you are lucky, the adviser will leave things mostly alone and only make changes about once or twice a year. Every such change has its cost. The upshot? Your adviser is making from 3%-6% of your money. You might make some, and you might lose some. Your adviser can't lose!

The problem is, over any span of a few years, the performance of most advisers and other kinds of fund managers is below that of a stock index such as the DJI or S&P 500. For the past 20-30 years, the indexes yield in the 6% range, plus or minus a point depending on which 10-year span you choose. If your adviser can gain only 6%, and is taking 3% or more, that is not good for you. If you could gain the same 6% and your expenses were less than 1%, that's a huge difference in the long term.

Consider the example above. Instead of 5%, you earn only 3%; or, rather, your account earns 6% but the adviser takes half of it each year. In 20 years you have some $32,000 and in 40 about $90,500. Between what you paid the adviser, and the 3% that didn't compound, you've lost $8,000 over the first 20 years and nearly $55,000 over 40 years.

By the way, if you want to pay this adviser 3% to take care of your money for 40 years, and still retire a millionaire, what monthly amount must you save? $1,105/month, or about 1.6 times as much, just to account for the advisory fees and commissions and lost compounding. So you may not think 3% is too much, until you realize it eventually adds up to $415/month.

Here we find a little selling in the book, but I think it justified. The authors are not employees or affiliates of The Vanguard Group, which Jack Bogle started in 1976 with the first index fund. It became the first among many index funds, and has very low management cost. Its expense ratio is below half a percent. The "Admiral" version, for larger investors, has expenses below 0.2%. While the authors present examples using general indices, they also show how certain specific Vanguard funds would fit in, and they recommend them. So do I; I have had Vanguard as my major investment company for 25 years.

In the second part of the book we find strategies to get investments on track and keep them there. The discussion of portfolio rebalancing in Ch 17, "Track Your Progress and Rebalance When Necessary", made so much sense I finally decided I'd better make rebalancing a habit. I made a simple model of two Vanguard index funds since their inception late in 2001. One tracks the S&P 500 and the other tracks the "Total Bond Market". The S&P has, like the DJI, gyrated all over the place. The Bond index is much more stable, though it has had periods of loss. Over the past 13 years the stock fund's average rate of return has been about 6%, and the bond fund's return has been 4%. That includes the market crash 6 years ago, when stocks fell by 40% and even bonds fell a little.

As you might expect, a 50:50 mix of bonds and stocks fell right in the middle, about 5%. It still gyrated a lot, but much less than stocks alone. But with rebalancing, things were a little different. The gyrations were a little less while the return rose. Specifically, using a starting investment of $10,000 (what fund prospectuses always use) and rebalancing every January except the first one in 2002, with or without rebalancing there was an early dip to about $8,650 in Fall of 2002. The crash of 2008-9 dropped the "no rebalance" portfolio from $13,513 to $10,085 and the rebalanced portfolio from $13,719 to $10,265. $10,000 in the S&P by itself would be well below this, at $7,341. The power of rebalancing occurred during the early long (4y) rise followed by a long fall that took 16 months. Rebalancing in January of 2008 and 2009 shifted money from bonds to stocks even as stocks grew cheaper while bonds continued rising. During the prior 4 rebalancings, money from rising stocks had been shifted to bonds. This captured a portion of the stocks' profits. By the rebalancing of January 2010, stocks were again outpacing bonds, and the shift back toward bonds resumed. As of August 2014, the now badly unbalanced portfolio (56% stocks and 44% bonds) totaled $19,195 while the yearly rebalanced one was $20,880. The difference is $1,685. In the past 2 months both portfolios have lost about $400. The effective yearly earnings come to 5.2% for the unbalanced portfolio, and 5.7% for the rebalanced one. I think it is worth my while to make simple rebalancing adjustments once yearly for the sake of $1,700 per $10,000 invested.

That is just one useful thing I learned from the book. I also find that their recommended asset allocation for someone like me in early retirement, with perhaps 20 years to live, is half stocks and half bonds, like the portfolio I modeled, with a dollop (10% of the total) of international stocks included. My own investments are a bit bond-heavy, so I might benefit from adjusting that also.

Being financially conservative, I've been right in line with many of their recommendations, but I believe many worried investors will find a great many helpful principles within these pages. Now if only I'd had the insight to start putting away $690/month at the age of 25!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

To regain a river

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, teaching novels, ecology, watersheds, citizen science

The Brandywine River Watershed encompasses 324 square miles (840 square km) and is home to a quarter million people. I am not one of them; I live just outside the watershed, though I am in the larger composite watershed of the Delaware River. (This image is from the Delaware Watersheds site maintained by the University of Delaware)

On a few occasions my family and I have joined with other families to take a canoe trip down a few miles of the river, from the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA to Thompson's Bridge in northern DE. We were advised to avoid ingesting any of the water, and to "do" this trip only once or twice yearly, because the river is polluted. South of Thompson's Bridge, I have seen signs warning anglers not to eat any fish they catch.

Some tributaries upstream of the lower main stem of the river are in even worse shape. How can this be? Another map, from the Red Streams Blue Program, gives a clue (the main stem quality is not shown). The tributaries with fair or good water quality presently outnumber those in the worst shape. It illustrates the adage, "The solution to pollution is dilution." But that can only go so far.

The lovely book Sweet Water Hunt by Connie Nye is the first novel I have seen with a Dewey Decimal number (577.64). Ms Nye used an adventure/detective narrative to create a text in water quality monitoring that is pitched at middle school students and their teachers and parents. Young Wyatt Nystrom, his cousin and some friends, and their parents, get involved with the colorful "Dr, Flo", a UD professor, to solve a mystery found in an old tennis ball Wyatt's dog finds in the Brandywine River.

The lesson of the book is clear. Every substance that falls to the ground within a watershed eventually flows into the river, unless it is diverted or converted to something else along the way. There is much in the book about the water treatment plants in various cities and towns, particularly Wilmington, DE, where Wyatt's father works. A few times there is mention that the treatment plants expel the treated water downstream of their host cities. I wonder what would result if they were required to expel it upstream? Would they invest in even better cleansing methods? (Some European countries have such laws.)

By the time Brandywine River water reaches Wilmington, it has a history, the history of everything that has happened upstream in the watershed. It sends this "experienced" water into the Christina River, and thence into the Delaware River. This is the story of every watershed, everywhere on Earth. If the people living in a watershed do nothing to treat their wastes, the river becomes an open sewer.

I recall living in Cleveland, OH in 1961, when the Cuyahoga River was capped with 4" (100mm) of oily sludge. A few years later the sludge caught on fire and destroyed a number of bridges. At the time, Cleveland's sewer system simply fed pipes that took the waste 5 miles out into Lake Erie. The west end of the lake was effectively dead, and it wasn't safe to swim if the wind was from the north. A great deal of cleaning up has happened since!

The Red Streams Blue Program aims to continue cleanup and treatment efforts in this one small watershed. The book shows how even young children can assess the water quality in a stream, using a census of macroinvertebrates. These are insect larvae, worms and mollusks big enough to identify without magnification. They vary in sensitivity to pollution, so a simple scoring method yields a numerical result. I had an enjoyable read, and I sorta wished our son was 12 again, so we could go try out the methods.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Will we all one day need tasters?

kw: book review, nonfiction, food safety, polemics

The word "polemic" has no negative connotation for me. It refers to an attack, and where such attack is justified, a polemic can be a good thing indeed. Thus, Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can't Keep Your Food Safe…and How You Can, by Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown, is a polemic in the best tradition.

Did you ever suffer a bout of "stomach flu", with a bit of fever, diarrhea, and perhaps an upchuck or two? Did you know there is no such thing as "stomach flu"? That was food poisoning, probably of the Salmonella variety. So the real question is this: Is there anyone who has never had it? Probably not. To my observation, here in America, nearly everyone has a bit of food poisoning nearly every year. Sometimes a few times yearly.

Authors Booth and Brown have split the book into two halves of 5 chapters each. The first describes the problem, which boils down to a simple fact: Food is too cheap. Americans eat between three or four and a few dozen different food items daily. That's billions of servings. In our home, just for the two of us, there are several dozen food items in the refrigerator at any one time, and a larger number of canned and dry goods in the pantry. What would it cost to test every item for purity, or at least wholesomeness, before cooking or serving?

Of course, we don't test in our homes. We leave the testing to government or industry testers, where bulk foods are tested in big batches. Now, we don't want to pay a great deal for our food, so we go to the stores with the best prices. Those stores buy from the wholesalers and producers with the best prices. That means, wherever the food might be tested, the least costly testing regimen is chosen, within the constraints of law…maybe! A number of instances are pointed out in the book of testing being bypassed entirely to "get product in motion." The producers get away with it most of the time, but when there is an outbreak, particularly when a few (or a few dozen!) people die, there is a flurry of activity, but, strangely, hardly anyone ever goes to jail or pays a fine that makes much of a dent in their company's economics.

Also, Congress is always cutting the budget for FDA and USDA testing, so no matter what good laws we may have, we cannot afford to enforce.

The result? We must assume our food is not safe, not ever, and take our own precautions. One culprit it fresh meat, particularly chicken. It is wisest to assume that, in the few days since slaughter, even in the low temperatures of the slaughterhouse storeroom, the cooler truck, the warehouse cooler, and the cooled meat racks in the store (and assuming all of these are cooling properly), I say, we must assume that bacteria have been growing the whole time, and we must deal with that ourselves. It is up to us to learn to wash it without letting it sit in the sink, where it can pick up even more bacteria.

Oh, I bet you think your sink is germ free. Really? I wonder what a swab test would show. An episode of Mythbusters a couple of years ago demonstrated that the kitchen sponge is hundreds of times more "germy" than a toilet seat, and the dishrag a close second. Unfortunately, they didn't do a swab test of the side or bottom of any kitchen sinks.

OK, your meat is swimming in germ juice. What do you do? Wash it well, without putting it on any surface but a cleaned cutting board and the cooking vessel, then cook it well. My wife has learned how to cook chicken so it is moist and delicious, while being thoroughly cooked. I tend to overcook a little, which is at least safe, if a bit leathery.

Another culprit is salad veggies, because they are eaten raw. No matter how many bacteria exist in your meat and cooked vegetable, at least you are killing everything at high temperature. Not so in lettuce, celery, spinach, tomatoes and so forth. So the washing is even more important. Here's what we do. We have one of those spinners, a bowl that holds a rotating colander and a geared top. Lettuce gets washed with cold running water, a few leaves at a time, which are then broken in half and dropped into the colander. When it is sufficiently loaded, one of us closes the top and spins it, removing most of the water. Then the leaf pieces are further torn or cut to size, right into the salad bowl for serving. Bulkier items like carrots, we scrub with a brush (the brush goes in the dishwasher periodically) before cutting or grating. The most important item? We do all of this, and put it in the refrigerator, before beginning with the meat and other components (such as potatoes) for the main dish. That way no droplet of germy juice can make its way into the salad.

The book has more lengthy advice on food preparation and storage. The authors also say it is important to refrain from getting too crazy, too paranoid. Diligence is helpful and healthful. Fanaticism just might do harm. Of course, some folks may be used to habits so lax that the practices I might consider sensible seem fanatical to them. Maybe so. I wonder which of us has more frequent bouts of "stomach flu"?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Illustrating the value of HUMINT

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, counterintelligence, spies, terrorism, memoirs

My first exposure to Muslims was in graduate school, where many classmates were from Iran and Saudi Arabia. I guess that makes sense for a graduate program in Geology. My collecting partner the first two years was an Alaskan who had married a woman from Iran and had converted to Islam. We didn't talk much about religion, mainly because the branch of Shi'a to which he belonged was not particularly evangelical. But I did observe him and his co-religionists, as I suppose he observed me, as it was known that I led a small church. One particular event has stuck with me.

We had returned from a day in the field, and happened to meet two Iranian men in the lab. He cheerfully greeted them, "As salamu alaykum!" One remained silent, and the other, almost shamefacedly, mumbled the standard Arabic response. I am familiar with such things. Converts to a faith are typically more ardent than "old hands" who have been brought up in it. Those guys would probably defend Islam to the death, but were only glancingly observant in their daily life. They were the Islamic version of "nominal Christians".

There is another characteristic of religious conversion. After a number of years, or a decade or two, one who was converted as an adult is somewhat likely to re-convert, either to a different faith, or back to the former one. While most converts retain their new faith their whole life, a significant number do not. Having been "elsewhere" for their formative years, they are more open to different ideas.

In the case of Morten Storm, his conversion to Islam at age 20 was rapid and almost a shattering experience. He'd been quite a troublemaker, in and out of jail in his native Denmark. But he developed a conscience and became disaffected with gang life. He read about Islam in a local library book and was entranced. He plunged into his new faith, and was soon radicalized, even traveling to Yemen, both to learn Arabic and to live among the most devoted Muslims he knew of. He initially followed Salafism, which is comparatively peaceable. His progress into fully radical Islam, and later disaffection with it, to the point of working for three Western intelligence agencies, are revealed in Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, written with Paul Cruikshank and Tim Lister.

Islam is not the monolithic entity Westerners tend to see. There are "denominations" that compete strongly with one another. The competition and even hatred within Islam got to Storm's conscience, and after ten years, shortly after being questioned by an agent of the Danish intelligence agency PET, he contacted them and began a near-decade of living a double life. He tells of his association with many radical leaders in Yemen, Denmark, London and elsewhere. The core of the drama is work that led to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011.

Morten Storm had considered Awlaki a friend, in spite of his disgust with Awlaki's plans to terrorize civilians, and felt guilty over his death. He was at that time working with both the CIA and PET and MI6. The Americans drove the assassination, against the objections of the Danish and British agents. They'd promised Storm quite a reward for his work, but cut him loose right afterward, claiming they had used other channels to reach Awlaki, not him. He had the documentation to prove them wrong, but they ignored him.

I have read a number of memoirs of former CIA "overseas assets", who were all treated shabbily. The CIA has a pattern of courting an "asset" very diligently (and expensively) but later dropping the ball, leaving him dangling. Such cavalier behavior has a lot to do with the CIA's poor reputation in the spy world.

However it happened, Storm had a third conversion, so to speak. He actually made one more go at helping PET against other al Qaeda leaders who still trusted him, so much so that MI6 and the CIA regained interest. But he was warned by another "asset" that the CIA was planning to allow him to be killed along with their next target. This may or may not have been true, but he was sufficiently distrustful that he decided to get out of the spy business. That is no easy task, and his last chapter is titled "A Spy in the Cold", indicating that neither CIA nor MI6 nor PET did anything to rehabilitate him or even offer him protection.

In the epilogue, we find that he had to rehabilitate himself. Somehow, he managed. The street kid from Denmark had the street smarts to record key conversations, which probably kept the various agencies at arms' length. All the spy agencies have been remarkably slow at recognizing the power of the phone in everyone's pocket. His co-authors simply state that he now lives in "an undisclosed location". May it remain undisclosed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Keeping what we have against all odds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, scams, aging, self protection

The older we get, the more paranoia is justified. Someone really is out to get us! Here are the top 5 risk factors for getting scammed:

  1. You are older than 55, and the risk goes up every year.
  2. You think you are too smart to be scammed.
  3. You are uncertain your retirement savings will last.
  4. You are suspicious of "traditional" investments ("the Market").
  5. You frequently attend "free dinner" seminars about retirement-related subjects.
A couple of years ago AARP sponsored a new book, Outsmarting the Scam Artists: How to Protect Yourself From the Most Clever Cons by Doug Shadel. Now it is out in a large-print paperback, making it affordable and easier to read. In it we find the way a scammer tries to get us "under the ether", numbed by emotional factors and our own greed (and don't think you don't have any greed!). We also learn the process they have worked out to fleece us to the maximum extent.

A scam typically has four stages, though the last stage is not always used:
  • The Front is the initial contact. This turns a cold call into a prospect who is "qualified", that is, has told the front man of having sufficient funds. The front man is also tasked with weaseling out of us a lot of personal information, to be used in the next step.
  • The Drive persuades a prospect to "invest" or pay for some "benefit". This can be a hard sell or a soft sell, but it'll soon be hard on your bank account! It usually includes lots of grooming and flattery.
  • The Close is the actual transfer of funds.
  • The Load is a follow-up that may lead to even more, often much more, money being transferred. Typically, someone who has just invested will feel great for a few days, and so can be called again with a "new, last minute opportunity" to invest even more. This turns a fleecing into a scalping.
Some telephone boiler rooms (telephones are the weapon of choice these days. Guns and lock picks are so passé) employ enough callers to have specialists in each stage. Other callers can do it all. The process is described in detail in the first 3 chapters, and in the following 7 chapters, describing 7 major cons, each step is explained in context.

The final 3 chapters are titled, "How to Fight Fraud". The trouble is, it is like fighting the reigning heavyweight champ. You, no matter who YOU are, are out of your league. The best we can do is to cut of the Front at the earliest opportunity. Appendix A helps you assess your vulnerability to fraud. Many of the questions relate to practices that make you more likely to get a call, or more likely to answer a questionable ad (and then if you argue with the guy on the phone, he can say, "But you called me!"). If you are never in phone contact, there is no Front!

As to those 5 items above:
  1. Why are older folks targets? We usually have more money, and as we get very old, we are more likely to be lonely or fearful, and the old thinker slows down, a lot.
  2. People who don't know much about money, and are honest with themselves about that, make poor targets. Its the more educated, more sophisticated among us, particularly someone more open to "alternative investments", who are the ripest targets.
  3. If we're scared we'll run out of money, we know we have less time for money to grow because we are using it right now! So we are more open to get-rich-quick schemes. You are more likely to hit the lottery than to get rich on any scheme that starts with a phone call out of the blue.
  4. Are you fearful of "the Market"? Do you think gold, or an oil well, or investing in movie production, or windmills, or (the list is Loooooong!), can make you a mint? Boy, are you ripe for the fleecing!
  5. Because of item #4, do you go to every investment "dinner" you can get to? Your uncertainty and greed are showing. The name lists from such seminars are one of the main sources of target lists bought by boiler rooms trolling for prospects. The more "free" dinners you eat, the more calls you are going to get. Some guy with just the right formula to catch your interest just might take you right to the poor house.
So what can we do? Get on every "do not call" list you can. Several are listed in Appendix B. If your phone doesn't have Caller ID, get one that has it, and has an answering machine. If you don't recognize a phone number, don't answer. The answering machine will either induce the caller to hang up, or it'll give you breathing room to ask yourself, "Do I really want to talk about that, with a total stranger?" And those enticing but all-too-vague ads in the paper or in e-mail? Ignore, ignore, ignore. The less junk mail and spam you read, the better.

Well, if even one person hangs onto life savings, who might have been scammed, this book (and perhaps this post) will have done a good job.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The other non-repeatable phenomenon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, comedy

There is a class of phenomena, in which nearly everyone participates, but they are not amenable to scientific experiment. They are not repeatable. Sometimes a person does certain actions singly, sometimes they are done by cooperating persons acting together. Sometimes the functions of the body alone are used, sometimes other artifacts will be used. One particular person or one particular group may do certain things and others witnessing it are unmoved or uncaring. A different person or group, carrying out the same activities and perhaps using the same kinds of objects, or not, may move other persons, even a great many others, to feel strong emotions. Further, from one day to the next the response can differ significantly.

What kind of phenomena are these? Music!

Precisely the same paragraph above can be stated, aimed at a different answer: Comedy!

Or, in a broader sense, Humor!

Some 25 years ago the company where I worked sponsored "informances" by various performers. In one case we were visited by a professional clown. He was a dwarf, and an expert at all kinds of bizarre behavior and pratfalls that reliably induced us to laugh ourselves silly. Yet he spoke of his ambition to find the "lowest Comic denominator", a "formula" that would cause people to laugh regardless of cultural background. He never found it.

He knew how to make a Midwestern American audience laugh joyfully. He told of going onstage in an African country, where he walked out and promptly took a pratfall. Several people in the front row rushed onstage to make sure he was unhurt. Nobody laughed. They were horrified that their distinguished visitor might be injured.

I wonder if Peter McGraw or Joel Warner ever heard of him. Probably not. But they do mention several groups and institutes that study humor. They spent a year or so traveling the USA and the world to evaluate a theory Peter McGraw had developed of "benign violation." Dr. McGraw directs the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at U Colorado in Boulder and Mr. Warner is a writer who works out of Denver. Together they wrote The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

They began and ended their journey with sessions in comedy clubs, where Pete tried his hand at stand-up comedy. In between, in addition to obligatory visits to LA and NYC, they visited places where you'd expect life is too tragic for laughter (Tanzania and Palestine) and others where you'd think people are much too laid-back (Scandinavia) or rigid (Japan) for comedy to work well. They followed, and joined in with, a troupe of 100 clowns who go yearly to Iquitos, Peru, the most inaccessible large city, to observe how humor and comedy might ameliorate the tragic level of poverty there. They found just putting on a red nose and floppy clothes sets up both clown and observers for funny business.

What is "benign violation"? Dr. McGraw sees a comic as looking for something that violates mores or norms, and finding a way to make it less threatening, more benign. A clown's pratfall, from which he pops up unharmed and roaring with laughter, is an example. So is the "Just kidding" kind of laughter we use to deliver news that might cause mild distress. Great distress is another thing, though the authors report on the cast of Saturday Night Live who decided to carry on with the show on Saturday, September 15, 2001, just 4 days after "9-11"!

But consider a take-off on the "chicken-road" kind of joke:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To show the armadillo that it is possible.
It helps if you've been to Oklahoma or north Texas, where armadillos are the most frequent road kill. What's the violation here? The dead armadillo. And the benign part? The chicken helping out.

I am not sure every kind of humor can be fit into this model. Dr. McGraw seems able to do so, but then, this is his baby, and a scientist with a theory can be very clever indeed, getting "everything to fit".

Reading the book led me to consider the different meanings of "humor" and "comedy". "Humor" refers both to our sense that some things are funny or amusing and the quality of situations and narratives (written or spoken) that we find funny or amusing. "Comedy" is a genre of entertainment that primarily exploits humor to make an audience laugh. It is an interesting paradox that when most of us tell a joke, we frequently laugh along with those we tell it to, but when a comic makes jokes, he or she must not laugh. At least, that is the modern restriction. I remember how much fun Red Skelton got from his own jokes, and none of us felt he shouldn't laugh with us. It is also interesting that we laugh about quite a number of things that aren't really funny. It seems laughter is a great social lubricant. I know one woman who ends every single sentence with a laugh or a giggle.

Though both authors had an equal hand in writing the book, its point of view is of Joel observing Pete. It is an interesting option, and probably made for better flow of the writing than other devices for co-authors to speak to us. Joel reports that a year in search of humor has made him funnier, and Pete seems to have done a much better job with his second stand-up routine. He recognized that comics who succeed have to work at it diligently for a long time. Many people can tell jokes that have their friends in stitches, but would probably flop badly before a tough crowd at a comedy club.

But Joel seems to have found a simpler formula than trying to figure out benign violation: Go to a costume store and buy a red nose. Just putting that on seems to make it possible for you to do things you usually wouldn't dare, and for others to find them funny. Without the nose, they might instead be angry or just puzzled. Worth a try!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Manga Freud

kw: book reviews, graphic texts, psychology, history

A friend was discarding old books, so I grabbed a few. Taking a break from new releases, I first opened Freud for Beginners, written by Richard Appignanesi and illustrated by Oscar Zarate. First published in 1979 by Icon Press, it is one of a series of for Beginners books, sort of on the lines of the for Dummies series of more recent date. Except these are graphic texts, similar to Manga, as this half-page shows:

In 1979, Freud was still an iconic figure, but today nearly everything Freudian is discounted. Yet most discoveries since his time are based on his work, if only in reaction.

It doesn't take long to go through a book when the text totals a dozen pages or so. As condensed as it is, it gets the main points across, making it even more clear that Freud's writings and work tell us as much about Freud as about ourselves.

The continued work in psychology over the past century or so and also artificial intelligence for more than half a century illustrate that the human mind is far too complex to summarize in any checklist. As I've begun to realize, the differences among us are wide-ranging and profound.

If we simplify the human experience onto a single spectrum, from red to violet, any one individual's mind would occupy only a tiny bit, say from orange-red to orange-yellow, with perhaps a little splash of greenish, while another's might be all in the mid-blues and a bit of reddish, having nearly no overlap with the other. It is in our pre-human capabilities that we overlap sufficiently to be able to communicate.

The book was a fun, quick read.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

A silver spoon and then some

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, childhood, wealth

Anthony Russell isn't the first to write of growing up "catastrophically coddled" in the "monumental luxury" of an aristocratic British family (another recent example is A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle by Liza Campbell). However, having two grandmothers, who own two castles, raises the stakes a bit, particularly when the primary one is Leeds Castle, frequently referred to as the loveliest castle in England, or in the world. As he writes in Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle, Anthony Russell and his family spent most weekends there until he was ready to move out on his own.


In this panorama from Wikimedia, the original 12th Century castle is on the left, and the "modern", 17th Century and later structures are to the right. If I have figured out the author's descriptions, the more central structure is the Maiden Tower, where the maids in waiting for Catherine of Aragon were housed for the wedding of Henry VIII; it was remodeled and the author's family were moved there when a fourth child was born (Anthony was the third).

There's just a bit of "poor little rich kid" about the book, and not unjustified. He writes of "the castle way", a relic of feudal times maintained by the strong will and management skills of his maternal grandmother, Lady Baillie, whom he dubs Granny B. She had bought the castle for a bit less than a million pounds sterling in the mid 1920s (late in the Downton Abbey era, to fans of the show). That comes to about $55 million in current purchasing power. Its upkeep had been neglected since about 1800, and she quickly took that in hand, restoring its elegance.

I sometimes equate people's station in life with what they collect, and how fervently they do so. My parents and I visited two mansions in Delaware on the same day in 1997. In the morning, the Shipley Manor, and in the afternoon, Winterthur, one of the du Pont homes. Shipley Manor is a lovely, large house, once filled with artworks, though fewer remain at present, on stunning grounds with a substantial collection of plantings, a private arboretum in its day. Half of Shipley Manor would fit into one of the larger rooms of Winterthur, which Henry Francis du Pont built to house his collection of rooms from other mansions, primarily American. Rooms. He or his agents would go to a place, contract for the purchase of one or more rooms, and obtain measurements for a structure to be built to house them. The total is 175 rooms and their furnishings and artworks. At the end of the day, I said to my folks, "Now I know the difference between rich and stinking rich."

In addition to her passion for restoring and living well in Leeds, Granny B collected people. Not too many, but she had her "court" of regulars aristocrats at various levels, who tended to hang out at Leeds, or wherever she was in various seasons, plus an estate manager and a couple of advisers, and the staff of 50 or so who looked after castle affairs, the "below stairs" staff overseen by an impeccable butler.

Granny A, Lady Ampthill, was a different sort of woman. Her Irish castle was smaller, but sumptuous enough! She loved riding and fox hunts. She was just as strong willed as Granny B but had differing interests, and employed only a skeleton staff. The author admits that though visits with her were few, he'd have been better prepared for "life outside" by growing up under her care. Sadly, she and her son could only bear one another in small doses, so her grandchildren saw little of her.

In the early 1920s a scandal about the paternity of Granny A's son, the author's father, was decided favorably, though not to the liking of a younger heir. In the 1960s this heir revived the matter, which was finally decided the same as before. This emphasizes the British style of inheritance, in which the eldest son gets everything, unless there are no sons; only then can a woman inherit. Daughters and younger sons may get trust fund pensions at most. Anthony never mentions that, as the third son, the trust that supported him from age 21 was the most he could expect from his family's estate. He doesn't mention the level of support provided, but I suspect it far exceeds my Social Security!

The castle way was a combination of stiff-upper-lip stoicism amidst amazing luxury and, for the children, the clear understanding that they were to be neither seen nor heard except upon explicit invitation. Anthony and his brothers and younger sister were brought up by Nanny Penney, whom they loved at least as much as their mother. She was their constant companion and guide and mentor. Though the boys might have gained much from the mentorship of "Morg", David Margesson, the administrator for Granny B, who clearly loved the children, contact was quite limited by the castle way.

Anthony was seventeen when his older brother James died in a car accident. This incident and its aftermath pretty much bring the memoir to a close. The two closing chapters mainly serve to hint at the author's gradual success in making a life for himself since about 1970. He never mentions "intimations of mortality", and though the chapter's title is "Heaven and Hell", its focus is on his inner journey to come to terms with bereavement, a nearly silent witness to his parents' grief.

I enjoy touring castles that permit visitors. Now even more than before, I'm glad I don't live in one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lab rats of the world, unite

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, social experimentation, memoirs

George Plimpton may not have created the genre of participatory journalism, but he has certainly inspired a generation of self-experimenters. A. J. Jacobs of Esquire magazine comes close to calling himself "Plimpton Lite" early on in The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Live as an Experiment. He hasn't been clobbered by any heavyweight champions, nor "enjoyed" earning flop sweat at stand-up comedy. But during a recent year or so, he has spent periods from a day to a month

  • Impersonating his family's nanny on an online dating site (with her collaboration)
  • Outsourcing most of the busy work in his life to two companies in India (one is still on retainer)
  • Telling the truth relentlessly, including saying whatever pops into his head (with variable success, and variable amounts of risk)
  • For an evening at the Oscars, impersonating a very shy actor whom he resembles (with the actor's grateful consent)
  • Attempting to make every decision rationally, such as buying about 40 kinds of tooth paste to test them all (I'd have suggested getting an online subscription to Consumer Reports)
  • After arranging a bio article for Esquire that included nude photography, he accepted the woman's suggestion that he also be photographed nude, and his photo published with hers in the article.
  • Attempting to conduct himself as George Washington would have. This included bowing rather than shaking hands (he'd have done well to get pointers from Donald Trump)
  • Doing only one thing at a time, after learning that "multitasking" is not real; we actually do task switching, and the more frequently we do so, the more time we waste.
  • Catering to his wife's every whim (to the extent that this is possible for a guy!) He also offered his wife the chance to write the CODA to this chapter, which she accepted with gleeful alacrity!
Appendix A consists of the 110 rules that  George Washington, in early middle age, wrote out and attempted to follow. Old George had been quite a jerk when younger, cherry tree fables notwithstanding, and crafted himself into an admirable specimen, though not the demigod later writers adulated.

Appendix B defines a few dozen cognitive errors to which we all fall prey, that he compiled as he got into being Vulcanly rational. On this, it occurred to me that the makers of Star Trek were wise to make Spock only half Vulcan. It would have been impossible for any actor to behave in a totally rational Vulcan way.

My favorite cognitive bias, in full as he wrote it:
Bias Blind Spot — We fail to compensate for those biases that we're aware of. (In other words, even behavioral economists fall for biases.)
A slogan my company used for years (not recently, curiously) was "Continuous Improvement". A. J. Jacobs reports that some of these experiments affected his life and improved his marriage. For example, the month of truth-telling opened his eyes to how much he and his wife bicker about trifles. They haven't stopped bickering, but, he writes, it has reduced by about a third. Simply saying what you mean without sniping can gradually engender more trust. But he judges that saying whatever pops into your head is usually destructive. We can filter what we say without lying, and about a dozen of George Washington's rules address the same matter.

Experimentation is a good way of expanding our comfort zone. A certain amount of experiment is needed to continuously improve. The company slogan may have been about business, but we can apply it to our lives. A portion of the chorus of a song I wrote has it
We are dealt the cards, /But our own hand we play.
If this book inspires some of us to try new and better things, it will have done its job.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

When a little craziness helps

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths

What does it take to become the best of the best, in medicine, as an astronaut, … or as a killer? Do the steely resolve and immunity to distraction seen in top surgeons, for example, mean that they are psychopaths? During the first Moon landing in 1969, Neil Armstrong piloted "Eagle" to a safe landing on fumes, and his heart rate didn't waver. Was he a psychopath? In The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton writes much of "functional psychopaths", meaning people who exhibit psychopathic traits while achieving success in non-criminal endeavors.

Early in the book we find that Dr. Dutton's father was a psychopath, as was a school friend. This must have had a lot to do with his career as a psychologist. He proposes that certain psychopathic traits lead to greater success, that many top leaders in business, political, and technology are well endowed with analytical coldness coupled with devastating charm and an ability to shrug off rejection or misfortune, that are seen in our most dangerous criminals.

The traits he discusses, that work together to make a psychopath number 8, in 3 groups:

  1. Self-Centered Impulsivity, composed of Machiavellian Egocentricity, Impulsive Nonconformity, Blame Externalization, and Carefree Nonplanfulness.
  2. Fearless Dominance, composed of Social Potency, Fearlessness, and Stress Immunity.
  3. Coldheartedness
A test called the PPI determines the strength of each of these traits. Most people score 2 or 3, but of those few who score more than 5, there seems to be a rapid jump to 30 or more. If this is so, then the test has great discriminatory power. At one point he spent time with a number of men in an asylum named Broadmoor, where the most dangerous psychopaths in England are kept. For these unfortunates, all 8 "dials" are turned up to the maximum.

After a social and historical discussion of the phenomenon and its basic psychology, we are introduced to the notion of a "functional psychopath", someone who has several of these traits strongly, but has greater self control and patience. That is, they may be nonconformists, but the impulsivity is lacking and they are better planners. Is it proper to call such people psychopaths, even if the softening adjective "functional" is added?

I think not. Let us remember that "psychopath" literally means "suffering soul", and as the -path suffix is used medically, "psychopath" means "sick mind". More than any other, it is the psychopath of which people say, "He's SICK!". And "he" is usually the sick one; male psychopaths greatly outnumber female psychopaths. We need new terminology. We can also understand the 8 factors better by looking at each as the pole of a spectrum, splitting one of them, and dispensing with heated adjectives:
  • Egocentric versus Unselfish
  • Impulsive and Spontaneous versus Deliberate
  • Nonconforming versus Compliant
  • Blaming versus Taking Responsibility
  • Carefree versus Anxious
  • Socially Potent versus Socially Weak or Needy
  • Fearless versus Cautious
  • Stress-Immune versus Reactive
  • Coldhearted versus Warmhearted
Looking at these items on the left, I can see how someone who matches them all would be a formidable beast. And we think of the classic wimp as someone with a pathological excess of all the items on the right. Even Taking Responsibility can go wrong if one takes on the world's worries without the clout to do anything about any of them. These are not a complete list of personality factors. Rather, they are those expressed and combined to a troubling degree in psychopaths.

Dr. Dutton believes we would do well to learn to internalize and express the left-side traits a little more, as the situation warrants. For example, when making investment decisions, coldhearted analysis leads to better gains in nearly every case. But coldhearted treatment of your unhappy child will damage or sever the relationship. Not that a psychopath cares for relationships anyway, but the rest of us do need them.

I fully agree. I once took a business writing class. One preliminary exercise was to redraft a very badly written letter from an employee to his supervisor, requesting a change to a new supplier because of poor service by the current vendor. It wasn't hard to turn 3 pages of explainery into a one-page letter that I was pretty happy with. After a night's sleep, however, I crafted a half-page version which I also turned in, with the note, "Here's how I'd write it to a supervisor I didn't fear." The instructor made much of this in class the first day, saying it was the most effective one of them all. This experience made a big difference in the way I wrote to my bosses after that. It was a good difference for my career!

On another occasion, years later, I had a manager, my supervisor's boss, who wanted me to drop everything and take on a project for which I knew I was poorly suited. As it happened, I'd nearly died of cancer more than a year previously, enduring a grueling surgery and half a year of chemo. I went into the surgery expecting to die. I didn't, and am now a 15-year survivor. I replied to the manager's request by politely declining and suggested names of people I thought would do a better job. Her response was to call me to her office and demand that I do the project. I looked at her coldly and said, "I already died. What can you do to me?" I walked out and engineered a transfer to another manager's group. It did my career a great deal of good! As someone who usually wilts under authority, I am glad I could channel some inner steel when I needed it.

I think these are minor examples of what the author is getting at. None of us wants to become a totally sick mind, destroying and killing until we need to be locked away for life. But if we recognize that some traits which characterize a psychopath might be reachable when needed, we might become more successful while remaining healthy in mind and emotion. And you know, that "carefree nonplanfulness" bit sounds like the right equipment to take along on a vacation.

Monday, September 01, 2014

PS - About money, the experts don't know either

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, finance, justified paranoia

Time was (80 years ago), commission-free financial advisers were subjected by Federal law to the fiduciary standard: they were required to act in the best interests of their clients. Others, such as securities brokers, were not. There may be advisers today who are still subject to the fiduciary standard, but I haven't learned of a way to find any. Neither has Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. The book is a must-read if you have the slightest interest in actually retiring some day.

At present, 43% of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck (p. 228, with a reference to an article on careerbuilder.com). Unless they can greatly improve their income-vs-expense situation, retirement is pretty much impossible. Some could actually afford to save and invest, and I'll get to that in a moment. But most have to think about every purchase. They aren't wasting $5 a day on latté or espresso. They have to decide between healthier foods or cheaper, fattier processed foods; they have to scrimp for weeks so a kid can have a $10 gift to take to a birthday party. In the present (post-2007) economy, peoples' incomes are at an all time low.

There are some who could do better with better buying choices. I had the great good fortune to marry a thrifty woman. A friend of mine did not. When we were both in our mid 30's, we owned houses of similar value, and had similar mortgages. Their family income was a little more than ours. But where my wife and I each drove a car that had cost $1,000 or less (this was the 1980s), the other couple one day bought a big minivan for which they began paying more than $200/month (in today's dollars, nearly $500). They'd traded in a car of similar vintage to one of ours. Soon the wife complained to my wife that they were having a hard time paying both the mortgage and the car payment. My wife said, "It was your choice." You can imagine that put a bit of a strain on the relationship. But the picture was clear. Before the van, they could afford to save a little. They could afford the occasional maintenance on the older car. Now they stood a very real chance of losing both van and house.

What can we learn from reading Pound Foolish? Firstly, that nobody, but nobody with the title "financial advisor" is required to act in your best interest. There are some who do so, but they are rare. Secondly, that the best book about the subject is Personal Finance for Dummies by Eric Tyson, a book Ms Olen adores. I've sent for a copy of my own.

Do you have a favorite financial guru? Maybe one of the TV personalities such as Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey? Read this book, and prepare to have your ox gored. I think we can make a rule of thumb here, that the louder the voice, the more foolish the advice. Their stock in trade is not to explain how the national economic situation is affecting you and how to do as well as you can in spite of it. Rather, they blame you for your own problems. Where that might be justified, maybe you deserve a little blame. But in the main, many folks at a "financial seminar" are like the guy who was hit by a driver that ran the light, and gets scolded for stepping off the curb.

I do not use a financial adviser, though I've visited quite a few. I decided I'd prefer to have only myself to blame for investing mistakes. I had thought I was in the minority. Not so. About 65% of men who have money to invest go it alone, and nearly 55% of women. We may not make the best decisions, but we're not paying someone else a percent or two of our net worth to make equally bad decisions! Because the dirty secret of the financial advising industry is, Nobody Really Knows.

So, as you might guess, there is no segment of the industry the book ignores. All thrive, not on good advice, but on good marketing. Mr. Rich Dad, Poor Dad himself, Robert Kiyosaki, comes in for special opprobrium. His lowest cost seminars are mainly hard-sell sessions full of scare tactics to get folks to sign up for "courses" at higher prices. People Ms Olen contacted who'd attended such "courses" found them to be upwards of 70% further marketing for the really special "courses" that cost $12,000 and up, way, way up. It's sad. I really liked his book. Now I find out that "Rich Dad" was a fabrication. Depending on when you ask Kiyosaki, the man is either a composite of several rich men he knows (later in life, not as a child), or a completely imaginary character, or one of several other lame excuses for authoral indiscretion.

Here are the chief takeaways:

  • Every investment is risky. [The "safest" investments have little or no return. The days of the 5% savings bank rate are gone forever.]
  • Life happens. You can't plan for everything. [Bobbie Burns wrote, "The best-laid plans o' mice and men gang aft agley." Much earlier, in The Art of War we read, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Simply put, we plan for what we can anticipate, then there is a car crash, a fire, a divorce, an adverse lawsuit, and you can be wiped out overnight. These days, LifeLock warns that hackers are after our bank and investment accounts.]
  • The great majority of "advisers" really are out to get you, that is, your money. [Try to find one who will waive the yearly "maintenance" fee if your investments go down that year!]
Get this book. Read it. Take your lumps. Get Personal Finance for Dummies and read it. And take this proverb to bed with you until it guides every financial decision: Nothing Good Happens Fast.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A better collection I wish I'd found earlier

kw: book reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

Hmmm. I see that a week has passed. I typically finish a book quicker than that, but a 550+ page tome takes me a bit longer, even when I skip certain items. The 2014 Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses contains 70 pieces, just over half of them poetry. It was edited by Bill Henderson, who gives editorial credit to more than 200 others.

Solomon warned in Ecclesiastes, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." The wise old king would be astonished to find that the number of publishers today exceeds the number of books that existed in the 11th Century BCE. Indeed, it seems unlikely that one thousand books existed even ten centuries later, when his most famous descendant was preaching in Galilee.

Year by year I look for short story collections to be published. There are a great many, so perhaps it is not unusual that I did not earlier encounter the Pushcart collections. As I have written year after year, the quality of thought in Western literature has been on a long decline. It has gotten so I can barely tolerate five of the selections in my earlier favorite, the O. Henry Prize Stories series. This is not to say that writing skill is in decline. The collections all select skillfully written material. I frequently admire the way this or that writer can string words together, even as I deplore the item's vapidity and vacuity.

In general, I did not find this so with the Pushcart Prize volume. A welcome relief! That's why it took me a week to read. Bill Henderson and his collaborators not only gathered the most skillful writers, they found those with something to say. I reckon I read at least 400 of the nearly 560 pages of literature presented. I even read many of the poems. I am quite put off by most "free verse" (that is, non-verse), and seldom read past the first dozen lines or so. There is more genuine poetry in the best prose than in most of what passes for poetry these days. The free verse in this volume did not impress me.

Do you know the phrase, "It has no rhyme or reason"? The original proverb said "rhyme or rhythm". To break up overly-condensed prose into lines at about mid-page is not to produce poetry. It is usually to produce boredom. The only poem in this volume that has both rhyme and meter is a translation of Ballade des Pendus, originally written about 1462 by François Villon. The translation by Richard Wilbur is well crafted and very touching. While not as literal as other translations, I think it better renders Villon's thought into English idiom.

Now to the prose, the bulk of the volume, but less than half the chapters. Much is essay or reportage, and while I didn't enumerate the fiction pieces, as I recall there are about ten, and I read through half of them, including "Teen Culture" by Elizabeth Ellen. A woman and her daughter, spending time together with the daughter's friends: How can this turn out well? Somehow it does. Sort of. I've learned that, if I sit at a meal with a table of youngsters who know me, after a while I am forgotten and, as Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." This is the mom's MO, mostly, and makes for an entertaining story. I imagine it is more than a little autobiographical.

The nonfiction pieces are by their nature bits of memoir. You may remember Eric Fair, the much-reviled whistle-blower about the torture carried out by "contractors" in Middle Eastern prisons. His piece "Consequence" is flat reporting, interleaving bits of the hate mail he's received, and a few morsels of support, with his experiences at Princeton Theological Seminary. It isn't clear at the end if he finished his degree in ministry.

I made a more personal connection with "Writing & Publishing a Memoir: What the Hell Have I Done?" by Andre Dubus III. I've been urged by my brother, who has a few published books under his belt, to write an autobiography or memoir (or several), but I've hesitated. Mr. Dubus explains why. If you change names "to protect the guilty", somebody's going to recognize themselves and they may hate you for it. If you keep real names you can get sued for libel. Furthermore, I have tried longer forms of writing than these blog essays, and I find I have little endurance to maintain a story line for many pages. Even if it is my story. But another item seems to have the solution.

In "Corn Maze" by Pam Houston, we find that Pam likes things in twelves. Urged by a fellow writer to put 100 of her short pieces together as a book, she recalls thinking, "No, not a hundred, but possibly a hundred and forty-four." She also tells us that her standard answer when asked how much of her writing is autobiography is, "82%"…whether she's writing nonfiction or fiction. No matter. In a book of 300 pages, around 100 items comes out to about 3 pages each, and I think I can manage that.

Let's see. Of the 60 years I remember, I can surely come up with five or six or even seven things I'd like to record for each. When I like a book my blog post is about three pages, so I'm already tuned up to write at that level. Will it be a piece of cake? No. Some things I have to say will cause me to relive certain episodes of sturm und drang. Some folks will indeed wish I'd forgotten them. I can't let that hold me back.

There, you see, from at least one writer I learned something new about myself, something that will help me. This is why I read. The time spent getting partway through a piece and then possibly skipping the rest, time after time, is well invested when I can also come across such a gem. There's more, but I'll leave it to the lucky reader.