Thursday, November 20, 2014

Decrying a Florida tourists seldom see

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemic, newspaper columns, essay collections

Carl Hiaasen is a journalist and columnist for the Miami Herald, and has been for quite some time. A hundred or so of his columns from the past ten years have been gathered by his editor Diane Stevenson into his new book Dance of the Reptiles. You might think the title is about alligators, but a piece of wisdom from my mother came to mind within a few pages of starting the book: Many years ago I was leaving to hike alone up Mt. Lowe, which is accessed through the old Groucho Marx estate in upper Altadena. She expressed worry for my safety, and I said, "I know how to avoid rattlesnakes." She said, "I know, but I'm worried about rattle-people!" The Reptiles of the book are public officials in Florida.

Alice Longworth Roosevelt is said to have carried a cushion embroidered with the words, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit here by me." She'd have been delighted by a visit from Mr. Hiaasen, at least for a while. He is a skilled storyteller, and the writing itself kept me going for quite a while, maybe a third of the book. After that it became a slog. I just don't have an appetite for quite so much mad-dog, polemical journalism.

I understand his frustration. I moved here to the Mid-Atlantic area (I'm kinda south-west of Philadelphia) about 20 years ago. I sure didn't stay here because of the political climate. Within 2 years of our marriage, we moved from California to a Western state, and we've lived in the West or Midwest ever since. A couple of months after our move, our son entered first grade, so I began attending PTA and School Board meetings. What a shock! The PTA was OK, though I was sitting next to a corrupt politician who soon became a senator. My personal take on his voting record is that he has exactly opposite values to mine. I score him a perfect Zero, at least until yesterday, when he actually voted in favor of the XL Pipeline!! (Not that it did any good…)

School Board was another matter. Every member was on the take. The President was big into construction, and it was no coincidence that plans were brought forward time and again, either to demolish building A so a new school could be built somewhere else, or to change the school year in such a way as would necessitate big (and costly) amounts of remodeling of about half the buildings. I got the notion one day that a well-placed bomb at one of their closed door meetings (the usual kind) would do the human race a whole lot of good. Once I realized I had begun thinking that was a really good idea, I quit attending.

I really don't know what to say about the book. It is ancient wisdom that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I think it'd need a dozen more pens of the quality this author shows, to make much of a dent in Florida's public service industry. If you hanker for a really comprehensive catalog of the ways politics go bad, and you used to think New Jersey politics were the worst this country has to offer, read this book, or as much of it as you can without being awakened with the heebie-jeebies!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Biology gives you a brain - Life turns it into a mind

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, predictions, brain, mind

The title is a quote from Jeffrey Eugenides, and succinctly expresses my understanding of the mind. A longer exposition on the mind and its possible futures is found in The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku. Dr. Kaku, a physicist whose specialty is string theory, is well known to those who watch the Science and Discovery Network cable channels. He is always willing to provide a series of provocative and quotable sound bites on scientific subjects.

In The Future of the Mind he first explores what the mind is, particularly the conscious mind, and defines consciousness in his own unique way. I like his approach:
Human consciousness … creates a model of the world and then simulates it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future. This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal. (p 46)
I would only add: goals can be both innate (hunger or reproduction) and derived (the engineering steps needed to construct a bridge, even though the bridge is part of a larger, innate goal). The reference to feedback loops harks back to an earlier discussion of levels of consciousness.
  • Level 0: Stationary organisms or mechanisms that react to one or a very few feedback loops in a few parameters. The lowest possible consciousness is that of a thermostat, which he defines as Level 0:1 because it reacts to one parameter, Temperature. Plants react to Light, Gravity, Temperature, Moisture and perhaps a few Mineral Concentrations, and could be characterized as Level 0:n where n is about 10.
  • Level 1: Motile creatures (and perhaps some mechanisms) that can thus react to changes in space and location, particularly animals with a central nervous system such as fishes and reptiles.
  • Level 2: Social animals, particularly those that express a theory of mind and are thus reacting to the possible or probable intentions of their fellows and other animals such as predators or their prey. The number of feedback loops that Dr. Kaku might enumerate here grows into the hundreds or thousands.
  • Level 3: Future consciousness, which may or may not be among the capabilities of some nonhuman animals, but is a characteristic of human consciousness. Planning for the future, particularly with multiple contingencies, and not as an instinctual reaction, is the hallmark of this Level.
It occurs to me that Level 3 is an iffy business. Most people plan only when they have no alternative, and often do so badly. I suspect that we are pretty new at this. It may have been achieved less than 100,000 years ago. Dr. K doesn't mention the "when" of Level 3.

At this point I must note a puzzling item, an apparent error. In his student years, the author experimented with Sodium-22 (Na-22), an isotope that emits positrons. He then mentions, in two places (pp 5, 26), that Na-22 is used for taking PET (positron emission tomography) scans of brain activity. Not really. Wafers containing a tiny amount of either Na-22 or Ge-68 are used as "spot markers", stuck on the outside of the body to provide orientation markers, typically for organs other than the brain, which has such a distinctive shape that markers are usually not used. Brain scanning in particular uses Fluorine-18 in a glucose analog (fluorodeoxyglucose or FDG); glucose concentrates in active areas of the brain, and FDG with it. The positrons detected in the scanner "light up" these active areas on the scans.

F-18 has the virtue of a very short half life of 110 minutes and must be generated in a reactor possessed by the imaging facility just before use. Na-22 and Ge-68 have half lives of 2.6 years and 8.9 months, respectively. Also, neither can be used to produce a glucose analog. Even if they could, to achieve a similar level of positron emission, much larger amounts would have to be used, which would continue to emit at that level for many months or years. Thus F-18 is thousands of times safer in the body than the other two.

Onward. Leading up to the multilevel model of consciousness, I find this statement:
Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear. (p 36)
This leads later to a discussion of whether machine consciousness can become self-aware. A recent article in Wired by Kevin Kelly discusses Artificial Intelligence as an emerging "cloud service", a scalable on-demand service already being used, for example, by face recognition modules in programs such as Picasa and Photo Gallery. Kelly particularly notes that consciousness seems to need an element of chance to make it work. If this is so, conscious intelligence is inherently less than 100% reliable, so that future AI offerings may need to be certified as "Non-Conscious". Thus his view of machine intelligence is as something supplementary to the "natural" consciousness we experience, and is best kept unaware.

Dr. Kaku believes just the opposite, and discusses at length the possibility of machine self-awareness, and the possibility that we will be replaced by machines. The word "robot" is bandied about, with little acknowledgement that the word has two very distinct, very different uses in science fiction versus industry.

Industrial robots are actually better described either as Waldoes—based on "Waldo" by Robert A. Heinlein in 1942—if they are directly human-controlled (this includes drones), or as programmable actuators when they are controlled by a program running in a connected computer. Thus they are a logical extension of NC (numerically controlled) machining.

Autonomous robots as described by Isaac Asimov in I, Robot and all his later "Robot" books and stories, whether subject to his "Three Laws of Robotics" or not, are still decades in the future, if indeed they can be realized as self-contained entities at all. Current state-of-the art autonomous robotic mechanisms, such as the car from Stanford that finally won the DARPA self-driving competition in 2005, are barely at the threshold of Level 1 consciousness. Their "planning" capabilities are pre-programmed, an analog of animal instinct, and limited to finding a way to specific GPS coordinates.

Moore's Law states that the number of devices on a computer chip tend to double about every 18 months. It is a trend Dr. Gordon Moore observed, but has become a self-fulfilling prophecy driven by the profit motive. Several related trends include the power requirements of a certain amount of processing speed: watts per gigaflop (GFLOP, where FLOP means FLoating-point OPerations; per second is implied) seem to fall by about half every two years. This allows us to make a prediction, based on the assumption that Moore's Law will continue to hold for a long enough period. Today's fastest computer system has processing speed and memory capacity very similar to the human brain, but consumes 9,000,000 watts, including air conditioning. The brain maxes out at 20-25 watts. Nine million divided by 25 is 360,000, or 2 to the 18.5 power. That implies at least 37 years before human-level AI can be run with 25 watts.

Moore's Law is already in trouble, however. The fastest computer chips today run at about the same speed as those of about 10 years ago. Greater total power in a "CPU chip" for your PC is achieved by putting multiple processors on the chip. That is why they are now called "multicore" CPU chips. The computer I am using has a 4-core CPU. Commercial chips top out at 16 cores (as of late 2014), and the Watson supercomputer has thousands of these wired together.

I don't hold out much hope for "quantum computers" (qC's). The hype about these devices is beyond incredible. Their operation requires maintaining coherence among some number of quanta, typically electrons or ions held in some kind of magnetic trap, and being able to decohere them in sequence for readout into ordinary, electronic devices. Holding coherence longer than a small fraction of a second is comparable to balancing a pencil on its point. I suspect that the ancillary machinery needed for maintaining coherence and, even worse, manipulating it quantum-by-quantum for readout, will grow exponentially with the length of time coherence is needed, and the number of quanta in use. I don't anticipate a qC to be able to crack AES-256 encryption anytime this century, if ever.

I find the middle of the book most useful. Dr. Kaku discusses mechanically enhancing our smarts. This is actually what we do all the time with the academic technologies, beginning with the emergence of writing a few thousand years ago. While we still ought to teach times tables to our youngsters (gigantic groan from the grandkids), calculators in our phones and watches ensure that we make fewer arithmetical blunders. In 1958 "The Feeling of Power" by Asimov was published, in which mental arithmetic is rediscovered after decades during which all calculation was done using small devices (in 1958 the "desk calculator" was a bit bigger than a portable typewriter). These days we use Google or Bing or DuckDuckGo to find stuff we're not quite sure we remember, or don't know in the first place. Siri and other voice apps on our phones make this process simpler than ever. This enhances our useful smarts.

I am not sure most of us will ever need the invasive devices he describes, such as nanowire hookups to our hippocampus and other areas that mediate memory. The mind is tough to tinker with mechanically. TMS (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation), using a magnetic coil outside the skull, can briefly inhibit certain functions. It has been used to make a person a temporary psychopath, by zapping the brain area where caring resides, and to briefly release savant capabilities, by shutting down an area of the brain that is inactive in autistic savants. But TMS does not add capabilities, it only releases inhibitions placed upon some functions in ordinary brains. Why would you want to be a psychopath, anyway? Ask Neil Armstrong, who needed totally uncaring, steely resolve to land the Lunar Module in 1969. Not all psychopaths are criminals. Maybe future lunar missions (or even commercial airliners) will include a TMS device to shut down distracting anxiety in a pilot during landing.

Supposing we learn to read out and implant memories, even to create or erase them at will. Sometimes this could be a very good thing. I define neuroses as "out of date defense mechanisms". The person or situation that hurt someone is gone forever, but they still react to certain stimuli in embarrassing or disabling ways. When a neurosis is based on a well defined, focal experience, psychologists call it an Engram, and erasing engrams might be a very useful future use of mind technology. Other than that, leave my memories alone!

But memory is slippery, and specific incidents don't just make a kind of diary record in some spot in the brain. Dr. Kaku describes well how shortcut/thumbnail images go one place, emotional memories another, smells elsewhere and so forth. Recalling a memory means gathering all these bits back together for replay through some part of the frontal lobe (and relevant spots throughout the brain) so you can relive the incident. But we edit our memories, emphasizing certain items at the expense of others that we gradually forget entirely. This makes "truth serums" unreliable, as discussed in a mind control chapter.

Dr. Kaku discusses the possibility that we might merge with our electronic offspring, once it is to our benefit to do so. This simply expands the notion of "prosthesis" to the brain. Certain modern "artificial legs" actually perform better than the original for specific tasks. Just ask the "blade runner" (and it is unfortunate that he is now a felon; I don't think it likely he knowingly killed the girl but he couldn't convince a jury of that). He wasn't nearly such a fast runner before he got springy metal feet. But he'd need differently designed prostheses to play football (soccer in America).

As I have mentioned many times in earlier posts, I made a 40-year career out of writing software that worked with people, taking advantage of what people to well and leaving to the machine the tasks that people do poorly. A mechanical brain excels at detecting differences. There are amusing puzzles such as "find 10 things that are different between these two pictures". Sometimes, one of the pictures is a mirror image, which to me actually makes it easier. Something that takes experienced puzzle solvers 5-10 minutes would be solved by a computer with a webcam in a second or less. It might also highlight several hundred or thousand tiny errors that arise from printing ink interacting with the fibers in the paper, something few humans would be able to notice without using a microscope. A "wetware" brain excels at detecting similarities. That is why we can see camels or fish in a cloudy sky, or recognize someone from seeing only the edge of a face turned mostly away.

Only in the past week, I noticed that Picasa is picking out faces that are in profile, something it couldn't do before. But it is still flagging a percent or so of things that are clearly not a human face. However, its ability to find 90+% of the faces in my photos really speeds up face tagging. If I give it time after loading a new batch of pix, it gathers suggestions for many of the faces from my library of identifications of about 700 friends in multiple images. This is an example of useful AI: it isn't as good as I am, and doesn't need to be. It just needs to do most of the work and leave it to me for refinement. But I would not want to leave it to the Picasa face-recognizer to guide a drone on a kill mission. Not when it mistakes so many other Asian women for my wife!

A minor error seen in passing on p 255: The fastest supercomputer at the time of writing could perform about 20 PFLOPs (P = Peta), which is explained as 20 trillion; it is actually 20 quadrillion. A trillion FLOPS is a TFLOP (T=Tera).

And, oh dear, another: comets in the Oort cloud are described on p 289 as lying "motionless in empty space". Even at distances up to a light year, these comets move at speeds in the range of at least 100 m/s in orbit about the Sun. Compared to the Earth zipping along at nearly 30 km/s, or even Pluto, averaging about 5 km/s, that is quite slow, but far from "motionless". Autobahn speeds top out near 90 m/s.

Dr. Kaku excels in speculation, which means he is frequently mistaken as his expectations are overtaken by actual events. However, only those who have the courage to predict have the chance of sometimes being right. While the single-processor version of Moore's law was played out about the year 2000, multicore chips and continuing experiments with vertical-transistor chips continue a somewhat more modest trend. Will we ever achieve the 20 PFLOP-at-20-watt processor needed to equal a brain in both speed and power required, and also in volume (2L or less)? Moore's law might suggest the 37-year timeline I figured above, but we can't really know until we try.

And I don't think duplicating human consciousness is a worthy goal anyway. Much better is producing machinery with sufficient computing power to enrich everyone's lives at affordable cost. This matches the old Japanese supercomputer project which had as one goal, achieving Cray-1 capability (100 MFLOPs) in a $2,000 PC by 1995. This goal was achieved. The computer I am using now, which I built, is 100 times that fast, and the parts cost $800. I want machines to continue what they do best: complement and supplement our abilities. I think Dr. Kaku would agree, in spite of his excited, blue-sky forecasts.

The Appendix is titled "Quantum Consciousness?". It is likely that "free will" and full consciousness require quantum uncertainty. Here I am in full agreement. There is quite a discussion of the "Cat in a box" proposed by Schrödinger. Based on a carefully set-up radioactive detector that has exactly a 50% chance of triggering the release of poison gas to kill the cat in the next hour, we are asked, at precisely the one hour point, "Do you think the cat is dead or alive?". Much is made of the meaning of the Observer, in the Copenhagen Interpretation favored by Niels Bohr and most physicists, and other interpretations. No mention is made of the fact that the cat is also an observer! In fact, the results of many experiments that are intended to "prove" these things show that photographic emulsions, CCD detectors and other devices are also observers! They record the "collapsed wave function" phenomena, whether or not a human is present. I think nobody suggests that the image on a piece of film, developed in automatic machinery, does not truly appear until a human actually turns on a light and looks at it.

I think I am repeating something I wrote elsewhere to say this: a beam of light passing through a vacuum is affected by everything it passes, at any distance whatever. Of course, if you pass it through a small hole you'll get a diffraction pattern. The edge of the hole is the "observer" that leads to the scattering of the photons into a more divergent beam. But even a 1mm diameter laser beam, if it passes through a 1 meter aperture, will make a different pattern on a distant film than it would if the aperture were 2 m across. It will also differ if the aperture is square vs round. The existence of "things" in the universe provides an infinite number of "observers", contributing to the collapse of the wave function—if indeed that is what actually happens—for every quantum event everywhere.

Thus, the author's conclusion is apt. We must know ourselves better, not only to enhance or even duplicate our abilities, but to develop tools that work with us in better and better ways, in more and more useful realms of experience.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

If you think your pet is crazy, you may be right

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, psychology

Our 4-year-old house cat has never been outside on her own. She leaves the house only when we take her to the veterinarian, in her carry-case. Now, you might think a 1600 square foot house with a full basement and a sun porch would be lots of space. After all, she's a lot smaller than we are. But an "outdoor cat" typically roams an area of a few acres, so her world is small. She certainly has more energy than she can expend while kept inside, so she's bored a lot of the time. The condition of our carpet attests to her need to stretch and scratch, a diversionary activity because she can't roam far. And she does something I haven't seen any of our other cats do (I grew up with cats): sometimes she rests with her chin on the floor. She isn't asleep. Her eyes are open but she doesn't move a muscle. It is usually something dogs do when they're bored. She's bored.

After reading Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, by Laurel Braitman, I realized we are pretty lucky. At least our poor kitty is not psychotic. She doesn't pull out her hair, nor circle or pace like a caged tiger, nor upchuck her food and eat it again, nor demonically attack us out of nowhere. That pacing tiger in the zoo? It or its ancestors had a natural territory measured in dozens of square miles. It has energy to match. What else can it do?

Human insight: Energetic people of all ages need an outlet. For some, it is extreme sports, long hikes (One of my cousins likes to take a 2- to 4-hour hike in the desert. Daily), jogging or aerobics classes. For others it may be joyriding stolen cars, dealing drugs, doing drugs, or other "antisocial" activities. My outlet during my teens and early 20's was splitting logs with an ax. There's nothing quite like setting up a 14-inch-diameter cut of Lodgepole pine when it is -10°F, and popping it in half with a single whack. Several easy splits later it is in 6-8 pieces, ready to burn. Half an hour, half a cord, and I'd be ready to sit still and do my homework. We burned a lot of wood those years!

In humans or animals, "misbehavior" has a reason. Of course, the roots of behavior are a mix of personality and pathology. Some people just seem born to be criminal, and I've written before of the psychopathic young person I knew from age 7, who seemed unable to think of anything legal to take up his time. I reckon animal personalities are similarly variable. There's a room we never let our cat enter. In this room, and this room only, she will seem peaceable for a while, but then get a wild look in her eyes and climb the drapes. We have drapes in other rooms that she ignores.

Ms Braitman began her journey of discovery because of her suicidal dog (I consider purebred dogs to be maniacs in the making anyway). She had a Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver who clawed through a window frame, pushed aside an A/C unit and jumped from a fifth-floor window onto concrete. The poor dog was too tough to die just from that. Many vet bills later, he was home, but not for long. While still on the mend, he chewed up another window frame and swallowed enough wood to thoroughly twist up his intestines. He had to be euthanized. The Bernese Mountain Dog is a remarkably stable dog for a purebred. But Oliver had a poor life before the author and her husband agreed to care for him, and came to love him, in spite of his extreme anxiety. Suicide, human or animal, doesn't just come out of nowhere.

In her long quest to discover how nonhuman animals, mainly mammals and birds, suffer mental illness, the author traveled the world and spoke with many experts of many kinds. She is an opponent of the existence of zoos, declaring that once you know what to look for, you cannot see a single animal in a zoo that has normal psychology. She seems to have spent quite a bit of time in Thailand with elephants and their mahouts. The stories are remarkable, both of the normal ones and the abnormal. If a working elephant (few wild ones are left in Thailand) is well matched with a sympathetic mahout, the two become like loving siblings. One kind of trouble comes if an elephant, always a very social animal, is a bit overly anxious, and the mahout is hoping to marry. Jealousy can cause distress, destruction or murder. Another kind is a personality mismatch. Some "trouble elephants" have done much better when paired with a different man (hardly any mahouts are female).

Although an element of the author's purpose has been to illuminate human mental suffering, in reality the book provides a wide-ranging survey of mental illness in animals and the efforts of owners and veterinarians, sometimes helpful and sometimes tragically comical, to alleviate it. Fun fact: the normal dose of Prozac for a 50-pound dog is enough to make you sleep for a week, if you wake at all.

So at a circus, or the zoo, if you see an elephant in a small space, standing still and swaying a little back and forth, in her mind she's striding down a forest trail, enjoying the sights and smells she is denied in her tiny enclosure, and for an elephant an acre it tiny. Most captives endure much less.

I find it remarkable that so many animals, in homes, corrals, zoos, nature parks and so forth, do as well as they do. If you were my pet house cat, would you stay sane?

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Stats are out to get you

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, statistics, logical fallacies

I reckon there are a few hundred books with subjects similar to the classic How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff. They are really self-help aimed at helping us resist arguments made using flawed, or fraudulent, statistics. Now I find a book aimed at those who might use statistics to make an argument, to avoid fooling themselves: Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie With Statistics by Gary Smith.

As I began to read, I remember thinking, "He ought to title it Nonstandard Deviations", but I soon realized that proper statistical thinking is so rare, even among scientific writers, that the deviations the book presents are indeed standard practice. It is trouble enough that cynical marketers and politicos are using statistics fraudulently to deceive us; the larger problem is how many different ways proponents can lie to themselves!

The key chapter is #2: "Garbage In, Gospel Out". Although there are 16 more chapters exposing at least as many errors of statistical logic, and a great summary titled "When to Be Persuaded and When to Be Skeptical", those 16 chapters show all the common ways of using numbers to create nonsense. Several are based on faulty assumptions about trends.

We live in a world with two kinds of time. We are embedded in the cycles of the seasons: days, weeks, months, years, decades and centuries. Every day the sun rises, crosses the sky, and sets (unless you live in the high Arctic or on Antarctica). Every year the seasons come and go in sequence. Our most basic, gut-level experience of time is cyclic. But we also have linear time. Plant a tree and it grows taller every year. Some trees keep that up for a thousand years or more. We see continual population growth in most countries and in the whole world (Germany, France and a few other countries have reducing populations, but we don't think about that much). We have ancestors in the past, going all the way back to Noah or Adam or whatever progenitor we believe in; we also expect to have descendants going pretty much forever into the future, or at least "until Kingdom come".

We are less familiar with linear time, though, and tend to think linear trends can continue without limit. The key to unlocking this quandary is to realize that time itself is linear, but things that happen in time have a beginning and an end, and typically rise and fall in between. An evangelical "young-Earth" Christian believes in a strictly limited span of time, beginning about 6,000 years ago, maybe as much as 10,000 years, and ending within the next hundred or so. A purely agnostic scientist who knows cosmology believes time, or at least the current phase of phenomena in time, began 13.8 billion years ago, but there are a few hundred competing theories about when or whether it will end. Nonetheless, the end of life on Earth is pretty well understood to be a billion years from now, because the Sun is slowly heating up, and the end of the Earth itself will follow 3-4 billion years later, when the planet is crisped and perhaps evaporated by the Sun's red giant phase.

A few billion years is plenty of time enough for some trends to go along and go along for a long, long time. The human population of Earth has been steadily increasing for at least the last 50,000-70,000 years. The hope of many "zero population growth" advocates is that human population will stabilize within the coming 50-100 years, and even begin to shrink. However, if you want to start a business that requires population growth to continue, and you're satisfied with a run of 20-40 years, go for it. It'll take at least that long for growth to slow to the point you'd have a hard time keeping the business going. But the usual business cycle is about 6 years. Plan on some kind of downturn in the next few years. If you survive that into the next cycle, you just might keep that business going until your kids are grown.

The author exhorts us, again and again, to think. The motto of IBM used to be "THINK". Statistical reasoning doesn't come naturally, even for statisticians. He uses humorous stories of "experts" who ran afoul of their own wishful thinking. It takes a lot of data to prove a statistical inference. A key concept of statistics is "significance". Scientific journals are filled with articles that employ statistical tests and declare that some finding is "significant to the x% level". That "x%" is typically 95%, which is frequently stated as 0.95. That means that there is at least a 95% chance that the "significant" finding is true. But there's a 5% chance that it is not true.

Let's suppose that every scientific experiment resulted in a publication telling the results. Further, let's suppose that only one in ten reported "significant" results. Think a minute: why do scientists use statistics? It is because they don't get a clear-cut result. If using widget A was always lots better than using widget B, statistics would not be needed. The article could be very short: "In 100 trials, widget A always did a better job than widget B". Then you'd question whether the scientist were sane: after about 10 trials, you can stop already! That depends on just how much A was better.

More typically, there is overlap. Suppose that some scoring method showed that A is better 64% of the time. If that was 64 out of 100, it is probably a significant result, but if it was 16 out of 25, you could be in trouble with the law of small numbers. This is analogous to flipping a coin 25 times to see if it is a fair coin. You get 16 heads. How likely is that? Many people think there ought to be a nearly exact even split, either 12 or 13 heads. Here is how to analyze it:

  • For 25 coin flips, there are 33,554,432 possible outcomes, from all heads to all tails, but in 33,554,430 out of 33,554,432 cases, it'll be some mix. 
  • An outcome of 12 heads occurs 5,200,300 different ways, as does an outcome of 13 heads. Together they total 30.1% of all outcomes. That is, intuition is correct less than 1/3 of the time!
  • An outcome of exactly 16 heads occurs 2,042,875 different ways. Thus, the chance you'll get 16 heads is 6.1%. 
  • There is thus a 6.1% probability that this outcome indicates there is no difference between the two widgets. The result is not sufficiently "significant".

This analysis was done using Pascal's Triangle, and there is plenty of software out there that can do such an analysis. You just have to know enough to set it up. By the way, if this were the result of 50 trials, with 32 heads, you'd have a different conclusion. Firstly, getting exactly 32 heads in 50 throws occurs 1.6% of the time. You could also say that getting at least 64% occurs 3.2% of the time by chance alone. Thus, the "significance level" is 96.8%, which is better than 95%, so there is support to say that widget A is actually better than widget B.

This is not a lock. Remember, I posited a world in which every result is published, whether favorable or unfavorable to the initial conjecture. Do you think negative results are published? Nearly never!! So in a world of "publish everything", if 1/10th report "significant" results, some of those are likely to be due to chance alone. Perhaps one in 20, or 2 of the original 100 articles. But in the real world, the proportion may be quite a bit higher. It is certain to be at least 1 in 20.

OK, that's a long-winded excursion into just one item that struck my fancy. As in most endeavors, there is a very short list of ways to do it right, and a near-infinite number of ways to go wrong. That's why we need to expose our ideas to a great variety of folks with different backgrounds and viewpoints. Many times, though, the proponent(s) of an idea will circulate only among those who think alike.

It is also shown that wanting a certain result is the most powerful enemy of truth. I recall an old story of someone seeking a simple answer, because he didn't know how to figure it for himself. He got a variety of answers from people he knew, until he asked a political lobbyist, who responded, "What do you want it to be?" Well, that joke may be more political than statistical, but it is sobering. No matter how much we may want this or that to be true, the actual case is the actual case, the truth is the truth, and will outlive you and your most heartfelt desire.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

We should ask John Lehr about this

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dieting, self help, paleo diet theory

I've read and heard snippets about a "Paleo Diet", so I figured it is time to look into it. I read Your Personal Paleo Code: The 3-Step Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Stay Fit and Healthy for Life, by Chris Kresser. The thesis of this diet and self help movement is that we evolved for a million years or so eating a certain way, but in the past 10,000 years or so the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution have changed the kinds of foods we eat, and we aren't well fitted to the "modern diet".

Perhaps you've heard of the "no white stuff" diet: no bread or dairy, but eat lots of meats, fowl and fish, and all the fruits and greens you can stand. It seems to be a spinoff of the low/no-carbohydrate Atkins Diet. That is largely where the first section of the book is going.

The author tells us that hunter-gatherer peoples are healthier than we are, and that our ancestors were healthier still. We read that the grain-based diet in all agricultural societies is to blame for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Thus we need to eat more like our pre-agriculture ancestors.

It isn't really that simple, because, he explains, there was no single all-encompassing diet in the paleolithic era, which ended about 12,000 years ago. Those dwelling inland would eat quite different foods than seacoast peoples—who ate much more fish and shellfish—and the Arctic diet was about 90% blubber, as it still is.

He does point out that life expectancy at birth was about 22 years in 10,000 BC, but goes on to say that it fell to about 19 years a few thousand years later, based on archaeological studies primarily in the "Fertile Crescent", or Mesopotamia. I personally attribute that to a great increase in violence as people lived in groups larger than the typical gatherer group of 50-150 souls.

This is a bigger evolutionary adjustment: For millions of years, few members of any species in the genus Homo encountered non-relatives on any frequent basis. If they did, a fight to the death was the ordinary result. This is still true in parts of Papua New Guinea and Amazonia. Once agriculture came along, people began to live in larger and larger groups, and reflexes that were appropriate on the savannas became a problem. We are still learning to get along with strangers, and we're probably evolving more "civil" attributes. In most of the "civilized world", people are able to go about their daily activities without attempting to kill every stranger they see, because that would mean attacking nearly everyone encountered! This is attested by the steadily declining murder rate, documented pretty well for at least 1,000 years. I have written before that in Shakespearean England the murder rate was at least 10 times what it is in modern cities, and 100 times the rate in more rural areas.

Mr. Kresser does write that certain evolutionary changes have occurred as a result of agriculture; things such as tolerance for lactose and gluten. I don't know how many Cro-Magnons would have suffered celiac symptoms from eating wheat (or proto-wheat), but among modern populations of European origin, the rate of gluten intolerance is about 0.75% (1 in 133). Even among Asians, who are famously lactose intolerant, about one in three can drink milk, my wife included.

We really don't know whether any elderly Cro-Magnons had heart attacks, strokes, or cancer. I suspect "old" was closer to 40 than to 70, so they didn't usually live long enough to get "chronic" conditions. As I have also written in earlier posts, human evolution continues at a good clip. Wisdom teeth are on their way out, and another century or two could see a precipitous drop in rates of celiac disease and lactose intolerance, and possibly diabetes as well.

Anyway, for those who'd like to eat Paleo, this book is probably the best resource. The author is quite an enthusiast, but I would not call him a nutcase or fanatic. He is reasonable and persuasive. The second part of the book is advice about learning the kinds of foods you tolerate well, and the third is about building a life around your new/old (very old!) diet. He takes better account of human nature than authors of self-help books typically do, so his advice will be better followed by comparison. He also strongly stresses the need for more motion by all of us who are not professional athletes. I think all that walking has more to do with hunter-gatherer health than more or less meat or starch in their diet.

If I wanted to try the Part 1 diet, I'd find it hard to give up the starches I love: whole wheat bread and pasta, for example (My wife and I can both cook up a mean pot of spaghetti sauce or Stroganoff, though we tend to use ground turkey instead of beef). But I'd probably enjoy adding more steak or roast into my diet, compared to our present diet of chicken and fish, with only occasional beef or pork. Oh, and cheese! A Sunday evening favorite just before, or during, a "couch potato session" beginning with America's Funniest Videos, is a couple slices of bread topped with 6mm of cheese and microwaved; and I put cheese in any meat sandwich. A little tinkering around with his advice about macronutrient balance shows that my best calorie balance is 50% carbohydrate, 20% protein, and 30% fat. That's close to the way I eat now (whew!).

I began reading in a skeptical frame of mind, and came away with quite an appreciation for the author's insights into diet and activity (it's a better-received word than "exercise"). It is particularly appropriate that we learn to eat things that make us feel better hours or a day or two later, in preference to what might taste the best at the moment.

P.S. John Lehr? My favorite among the Geico caveman actors.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stuff from old pipes

kw: home maintenance, do it yourself, diy, faucets, photographs

We are living in a house as old as we are, built before 1950. About a year after we moved in (when the house was a mere 50 years old) one of the faucets began failing. It took a lot of looking (there was no Amazon nor E-bay yet) to find a replacement. Nearly all modern faucets have a 4" (100 mm) spacing between the hot and cold inlets, but this was 8" (200 mm), and the sink is a style called Shelf Front. Now the Chicago Faucet Co. sells them on the Web, as this image from their online catalog shows.

The red arrow points to the metal, threaded ring that holds the aerator, upon which today's tale depends. An aerator is a bit more complex than most folks realize. It has a small orifice that limits the flow and a sinuous path for the water to follow to a screen. There is a tiny gap that lets air enter above the screen, and the air-water mix that exits the screen flows more gently than a purely water stream.

The orifice in the aerator's top is 1/16" (1.6 mm) in diameter and the innards have some holes even smaller, before you get to the 5-mesh screen, with 0.3 mm holes. As you may imagine, any sediment that gets into the water pipes will be screened out in the aerator, at least the larger particles. That is why it is made to be disassembled, but I wonder how many people ever take one apart to clean it. They are not costly, so I reckon most folks just replace an aerator that starts "acting funny".

"Acting funny" is indeed what we encountered this morning, when the sound changed and water began flowing out rather irregularly. So I grabbed a pair of pliers and began.

A pair of ordinary pliers is all you need for this. They have two settings, so use the wider setting. Grab the aerator ring and rotate clockwise. Once it is loosened, it ought to unscrew with fingertip pressure. This picture of the aerator in its ring, with the gasket still in place, was taken at a later stage in the process, which I'll get to soon. When I initially removed it, the large chunks were not there and the orifice was clear.

What I did after that was just turn on the water—not all the way, as it ran quite fast!—and hold the aerator, still in the ring, upside down and spray it. A lot of small bits of grit came out. This image shows them. I sprayed into the sink with the stopper closed, and wiped them out with a tissue after slowly draining the sink. Their brownish color shows they are composed mainly of iron minerals. These minerals form naturally inside the pipe, particularly on the hot side, if the water is somewhat hard.

A couple of bits, one dark and the other shiny, are magnetic, so they probably come from wear inside the faucet. The image has been scaled to match the magnification of the one just above. As you can see, the larger chunks could just barely fit through the 1.6 mm orifice.

After collecting the grit, I ran the water full blast from the hot side first. A lot of things came out, and in larger sizes. The faster flow without the restricting orifice mobilized junk that had been collecting for years, probably at a turn in the pipe. This image shows them.

I collected that grit, then ran the cold side, full on. A lot less grit came out, as this image shows. I thought I was finished, so I put the aerator back in. I tested by running the water, and after just a few seconds the aerator hiccuped and began spraying even more unevenly.

When I removed it again, the result was as you see in the large image above, with two large pieces of grit clogging the orifice, and I was sure, lots more inside. I guess I hadn't let the hot water run long enough.

This time I took the aerator out of the ring and took it apart. The next image shows it after cleaning. The little part on the right had grit in nearly all the little square holes along its edge. Its other side holds the blue plate with the 1.6 mm orifice. The body with the screen is the blue thing at top, and the black ring on the left is the seal gasket. A ring that holds in the inner piece is at bottom. The metal ring that holds all this and screws onto the faucet is not shown.

Getting these parts clean was the trickiest part, but just involved some fiddly work with a toothpick.

This is the final harvest of grit. The pieces that were stuck in the orifice are at the bottom.

The whole job took an hour, about as long as I've been writing this post! Is a little part like this worth an hour of my time? It would take at least an hour to go to a hardware or plumbing store and get one, and I'd be paying a couple dollars besides. I was brought up hearing a number of frugal New England proverbs, including
Use it Up
Wear it Out
Make it Do or
Do Without
By the way, here is my setup for taking photos of small items. For all but one photo I used a +10 Macro add-on lens (100 mm focal length). For the photo of the four parts together I used a +4 Closeup add-on lens (250 mm focal length). The camera that the lenses fit has a close focus distance of 1.2 m.

The background is a black paper divider from a notebook. The translucent plate is the lid of a small butter tub. The two blue light sources are "work lights" with 24 LED's each, that I got at Harbor Freight. They have a magnet on the back, so I store them on the side of the refrigerator. I used folded bits of paper to tilt them slightly for better light. For larger-scale work I'll make a sheet metal holder that can point them more robustly, but for now this works great.

Be a harder target

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self defense, hacking, stalking

I thought I was getting a book about defense against hacking, but found something quite different, and quite salutary. Cyber Self-Defense: Expert Advice to Avoid Online Predators, Identity Theft, and Cyberbullying, by Alexis Moore and Laurie J Edwards presents help to avoid or escape the ten most common kinds of predators, all of whom are prone to becoming stalkers, and these days, all of whom find it easier and easier to track their victims online.

I really don't want to give predators who may read this post any ideas, so let me just say that if you find yourself being abused or stalked by an abuser (all predators are also abusers), you need one of two things:

  1. If you can, make yourself an unattractive target. Predators get their kicks from getting a reaction, and failing to react, as excruciatingly hard as that may be, will often induce them to turn attention elsewhere. However, sometimes this enrages the person, and then you need to get out. Don't try to fight back, because you could get killed.
  2. Get professional help. Can't afford it? The book contains an appendix full of resources, many of them mostly subsidized or free, including Survivors in Action (SIA), which author Alexis Moore started after barely surviving an abusive relationship followed by years of cyberstalking and "remote control abuse".
The best defense is avoiding trouble in the first place. Don't present yourself online – or anywhere! – as the kind of person an abuser is looking for. You only think you can handle yourself. Overconfidence is as dangerous as acting the put-upon low-self-esteem victim. The old proverb, "Flattery will get you nowhere" is so untrue. A predator knows flattery opens nearly every door. It is so darn hard to be immune to flattery! That is why every society with any longevity favors either long courtships or arranged marriages (and the breakdown of such practices is the principal reason American society is on the wane, and might become extinct).

In every relationship, there is a pursuer, and a pursued one. If you are being pursued by a flattering, attentive suitor, it is so exciting! Try this, when asked to "meet privately": Suggest the person visit you and your parents and perhaps all your siblings, for a nice evening of conversation, over a favorite table game or jigsaw puzzle. You can learn a lot from someone by watching how they play cards or Scrabble or work a puzzle. You may also find that the person becomes noticeably cooler, and maybe cuts off or winds down the "relationship". That's OK, good riddance!

Of course, it may be that your abuser is a parent, sibling, grandparent or other close relative. If so, get the hell out. Go several states away. If there is no trustworthy friend or relative, call SIA or another service in the book for help. Change all your passwords and your phone number. Go, Go, GO! If possible, that part of your life must be over.

Bottom line: if you are the least bit attractive, paranoia is a very sane attitude. Oh, and if you have any passwords less than 10 characters long, or you let anyone look over your shoulder when you log in, you're asking for trouble.

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 reviews, 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.