Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Are we dumbing ourselves down?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, automation, surveys, critiques

Six years ago Historian George Dyson wrote on, "What if the cost of machines that think is people who don't?", summarizing an article by Nicholas Carr. Writing about 60 years earlier, in "The Feeling of Power" Isaac Asimov presented a future in which small calculating devices had so usurped arithmetical abilities, that a man who rediscovers paper-and-pencil methods of addition and subtraction is a phenomenon (Strangely, I haven't been able to find a date for this story).

Nicholas Carr has continued to think and write about automation and its effects on us. His recent book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us explores mainly the uglier side of current trends in technology. The best quote in the book is, "How far from the world do we want to retreat?" (p. 137)

Every person will have a unique answer to this question. For people like me, the answer would be, "Very far indeed, for long stretches of time, but with the option to return to full engagement at times and for durations of my choosing." For most of my life I have been more comfortable with machines than with people. Yet I need human contact…just not on the constant basis required by extroverts.

Technology is ancient and continuing: Stone tools as old as 3-4 million years; the successive technologies after Stone of Bronze, Iron, Steam and now Electronics; pocket computers we call "phones" for which making calls is now a minor function. The first time I saw a cell phone in use, some 15 years ago, there were two girls about 7 years old, running together through a park, each talking on a phone to someone else. (Note to self. Try making most calls while walking or jogging. Might be a good way to shed that next 5 pounds or so.) I recall predicting that during my lifetime, our "phone" would be installed in the mastoid bone at puberty and be entirely voice operated. Little wire to a microphone embedded in our jaw somewhere, and software filtering to subtract out the effects of flesh-to-bone conduction of our voice.

I am no slouch when it comes to computer use. I've been what was once called a Power User since the 1960s, when computers were too big to fit in most bedrooms. The motto of the Elephant Club: Don't Trust a Computer You Can See Over. Except today, a new club—the Power Tower Club?—might need a new motto: Don't Trust a Computer Smaller Than a Toaster Oven. Sure, my wife and I have a laptop, but my favorite workstation is a tower 18" tall (46 cm) with a pair of screens that gives me about a meter-wide view into cyberspace. For some of the work I do, that much screen real estate is essential. But do you know what one of my favorite activities is? A few times monthly I am a Historical Interpreter at Hagley Museum, in the Machine Shop, demonstrating machine tools (lathes, drill presses, mills, etc.) from the 1860s and 1870s, powered by a water mill in Brandywine Creek.

I wonder, though, if some machine workers of the early 1800s thought it was somehow "cheating" to use a power tool, when they were perfectly capable of making parts using hand tools. Probably not! Particularly for machine work, one needs a peculiar combination of intelligence and patience. I often point out to museum visitors that cutting the teeth on a medium-sized gear (5" thick and a foot in diameter; about 120 mm and 300+ mm) took a week in the 1870s. You set up a machine with eye and hand. You monitor the machine by ear; by the end of apprenticeship a machinist knows the changes in cutting sound that herald trouble on the way. So you need the brains to set the right index for a 17- or 19-tooth gear on a 40:1 indexing attachment, and the patience to listen for trouble for the next 60 working hours of your life…with resetting of the cut and rotation of the piece about 4 times per hour. Fast-forward to the modern era: Such a gear, if needed today, could be produced in a few minutes using electromachining, or in about an hour on a more conventional NC mill. Those old-time machinists would drool!

In many areas we are going through a transition, and Mr. Carr points out several of importance. The airline industry was among the first to automate wayfinding and autopilot aircraft control. If needed, any modern jetliner, and many smaller planes, are capable of taking off, flying themselves, and landing, without the pilot doing a thing. The trouble is, machines break, thunderstorms and solar flares disrupt communications and sometimes damage equipment, and because no program is totally bug-free, a rare combination of factors puts the autopilot's program into a confused state. In all these cases, the "fail safe" provisions immediately turn control over to the pilot. A few times, this has caused crashes, typically with the loss of everyone on board.

This brings to mind another principle that seems to be lost on modern engineers and programmers, "fail soft". Is it really appropriate for all the software to totally cut out so instantly? If the plane is at all still capable of level flight, the autopilot needs to alert the pilot(s) while keeping the plane on some standard course, giving the humans time to get their brain in gear. There may still be cases such as the "standard course" being straight into a mountainside (and I am reminded of the crash of a small plane in Malaysia in 1991, that effectively decapitated the Conoco corporation), but further development of "standard course" back-up routines ought to take care of that.

Such issues multiply when we come to the driverless car. It sounds seductive. Plot your course on a GPS navigator, press "GO" and take a nap, or play cards, or read or whatever. But the "lanes" in which an airplane "drives" are a few miles wide. Highways lanes are 12 feet (3.66 m) or less. For most of a plane flight, course corrections are few and may be hours apart. On the road, course corrections can occur minute-by-minute and even second-by-second. I have read a time or two about auto-driving "road trains", made up of dozens of autos on a superhighway at superspeed, inches apart to take advantage of drafting. Now suppose a solar magnetic storm disables half a dozen GPS satellites, the road-side "driving aid" equipment being relied upon by the cars, and perhaps some of the electronics in the cars. What is the "fail soft" scenario? Is one even possible??

We are in transition, all right. Casualties of all kinds are one price of progress. YouTube abounds with videos of people so engrossed in texting as they walk that they walk into fountains, manholes, lampposts and each other. We can expect the phones to become even smarter, so they would be on the lookout for such events. Maybe blare, "Look up, dope!", and make a red, flashing screen as such incidents approach. Smart phone technology is not yet complete, nor even appropriate for human use. It's why I use a flip phone that can call and make texts. Period.

In a late chapter Mr. Carr writes of the young Robert Frost and his poems about scythe work. The scythe is an extraordinary instrument. Using one creates muscle tone around your rib cage that no other exercise can match. Learn to use a scythe properly, and use it frequently, and you'll never have back problems. It exemplifies the kind of work that keeps a fellow close to the earth. Even as we try to re-educate America for a supposed post-manufacturing economy, there are huge numbers of jobs that remain very, very hands-on. A company may outsource its call center, computer programming, and database management to drones in India or China. You can't outsource construction, electrical work, plumbing and paving, nor landscaping or even repairing (and washing!) your car. Yeah, I know most New Yorkers just look puzzled when asked by a tourist where to buy gas…like they'd know! But deep in the bowels of the city are track workers and subway car maintenance folks that they'd suddenly feel a great need for if there were a month-long strike.

I have major mixed feelings about automated medicine, though. In certain cases, the Caduceus program has been able to make quick diagnoses where medical experts were baffled. But in others it has been embarrassingly off the mark. In medicine as in many other areas, the term "robotic" is being misused, most notably with the Da Vinci Robot for precision surgery. Let us reserve the term "robot" for autonomous devices such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner. The Da Vinci device is actually a tele-operated "Waldo" with vision magnification and down-scaled, feedback-enhanced motions so a surgeon can operate on something half an inch across while feeling like the object is the size of a basketball. I was once trained on a soldering Waldo used for attaching leads to integrated circuits. It worked at 25x, so a millimeter looked and felt like an inch. It greatly simplified the job. By the way, "Waldo" comes from an old story (1942!) by Robert Heinlein, where the concept was first made public.

Do I want a doctor to cede control in an operation to a robot? Probably not. Diagnosis? Not without human review. Only humans have a sense of what is sensible! How about prescribing? Ditto. I prefer the physician to not only make the decision, albeit aided by the computer system, but also to discuss it with me, because in teaching me how and why he chose a certain medication or treatment, he's rethinking it in a way that is useful to him and may cause him to realize something extra he might at first have missed (Feminists out there, I'd have used "she" and "her" if I had a female physician). "Thinking out loud" is often the most useful kind.

Artificial intelligence, once it gets on a par with us as a conversationalist, will still be quite different from us, so it could provide a very useful function: serving as a "straight man" to our musings, asking questions no human would think to ask, and adding a powerful level of synergy. A very neglected area of ergonomics has been to determine what tasks humans will always do better than machinery, and which tasks should be at the top of the list for turning over to machines. The various Zooniverse projects, citizen science at its best, primarily take advantage of our superior visual abilities. We can recognize the difference between spiral and elliptical galaxies at a glance; or different kinds of beetles; or see that a certain black-and-white blob is a rock and its shadow rather than a penguin.

Some might see The Glass Cage as a Luddite polemic. Not at all. Mr. Carr points out that we are a technological species. We can't live without it. Even the prototypical "cave man" was no naked savage killing prey with teeth and fingernails. The tool kit of Paleozoic people included dozens of tools that require skill to produce but reduce either the effort or the danger of doing the work. I, for one, am glad of today's technologies. I am equally glad that I can pick and choose which to use and which to ignore. Looking around the room I am writing in, I see several thousand objects, nearly all artifacts. Only the insect collection and a few shelves of mineral and fossil specimens are not technologically produced (though I used technology to mount and display them!).

Physically we are more "gracile" (that is, thinner and weaker) than the Cro-Magnons of just 20,000 years ago. They are called "modern" in an anthropological sense, but the technologies they inherited from their ancestors, and added to in following millennia, resulted in a modern civilization in which we don't need the great strength they required for day-to-day living. Our teeth are a little smaller, and as our jaws shorten, most of us need our wisdom teeth removed. All this results from technology. Will this age of intelligent machines cause our brains to atrophy? It's not likely. Our descendants will probably think differently than we do, just as we think differently than our grandparents who mostly grew up without radio, television, airplanes or automobiles.

I'm thinking of my own grandparents, here, all of whom were born in the late 1800s. I know most millennials are of an age to be my own grandchildren. We got our first television when I was 8 years old. Black and white, in a console the size of a divan. Our phone was on a party line. The most local of calls were made by clicking the button 1, 2, 3, or 4 times. "In-exchange" calls needed only 4 or 5 digits. All long distance calls went through an operator. So the change in the "thought world" of today's young adults is as different from mine as mine is from my own grandparents. It is another side of progress. So the book is more of a call to enter the future thoughtfully. We are creating it, after all.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chemistry for those who don't know any

kw: education, chemistry, basics

Think of a scientist and what do you see in your mind's eye? Probably someone in a white coat mixing chemicals. Chemistry is the bane of humanities majors everywhere, because you have to take Chem 1 with a (barely) passing grade to get on with your major. (Those with a sharp eye will note that the cylinder being poured from is about to dump all its contents at once!)

So let's knock out a few basic concepts to jump-start your education. First the ultra-quick version:
Chemistry studies how atoms share or exchange electrons. Of roughly 100 kinds of atoms, a few—twelve, to be exact—have one or two "loose" electrons that are easy to strip off, while another twelve have room for one or two more, and will easily plunder those loose electrons. Some others can either gain or lose three, four, or even five electrons. The rest typically share electrons. Chemistry is learning all the ways this can happen, and which elements behave in which fashion.
For more, read on. We begin with Electrons.


Electrons are particles that make up the outer "skin" and "flesh" of atoms. What we usually mean when we say "chemistry" is properly "electron chemistry". There is also nucleon chemistry, plus other subdisciplines such as crystal chemistry and organic chemistry. The odd thing is, you first have to know a little about nucleon chemistry to get a framework to learn electron chemistry.

Nucleons and Elements

Perhaps you have heard that there are 92 "natural" elements, or maybe, as I wrote above, that there are "about 100 elements". There are actually 90 elements called "naturally occurring". That is because, although the heaviest natural element is Uranium, #92, the elements numbered 43 and 61 are not found in nature, for reasons we'll soon get into.

Nucleons are the particles that make up the nucleus: Protons and Neutrons. The number of protons in a nucleus determine what element it belongs to. For a nucleus to be stable (and the "what for" about this is a major subject of nucleon chemistry) there need to be neutrons present also. Only one element has no neutrons in its nucleus, Hydrogen. An atom of hydrogen, the simplest and lightest element, has one proton and one electron, and nothing more. Every other kind of nucleus has at least one neutron, and with only one exception, the number of neutrons is at least as large as the number of protons.

The main item of nucleon chemistry that you must know is that the Atomic Number is the number of Protons. The term Atomic Number is used everywhere. It is also extremely useful to understand that radioactivity expresses the tendency for certain combinations of protons and neutrons to break apart in one way or another. A very few kinds of "unstable" nuclei are nearly stable and last for millions or billions of years. Uranium is one of these.

Nuclei of elements #43 (Technetium) and #61 (Promethium) are always unstable, in every variety, no matter how many or how few neutrons are in there with the protons. In this case, "unstable" means having a half-life short enough that every single atom of these elements that may have existed billions of years ago when Earth was formed, has decayed. Half-life is another very useful term, though mainly in nucleon chemistry. For a bunch of any specific, unstable kind of nucleus, the half-life is the time it takes for half of them to decay. Lots of uranium (originally produced when big stars blew up billions of years ago) is still here because its half-life is about 4.7 billion years.

The fundamental tool for understanding electron chemistry is a table in order of Atomic Number, that is arranged according to how electrons pack together in each kind of element: the Periodic Table.

Periodic Table

Get ready for it! I am about to explain this monstrosity:

The columns are arranged the way they are because elements in a column have similar chemical behavior. Down the left side, for example, the six elements Li, Na, K, Rb, Cs, and Fr all have similar chemical behavior because the outermost electron is "loose" and easily lost to more acquisitive elements. Hydrogen is special; though it can both lose and gain an electron, it also participates in a third kind of sharing bond we'll describe later.

Each row represents an electron shell, which fills from left to right. The rightmost column, topped by Helium (element #2) contains all the elements with a completely filled shell. This is the group of elements with the easiest chemistry: They don't participate in chemical reactions! But right next to them we find F, Cl, Br, I, At, and the "artificial" element currently called Uus (Un-Un-Septium, a fake Latin term for 117). They all have an outermost shell that is nearly filled, but is ready to grab an electron from another element that has a "loose" one available.

The rows are different lengths because the shells have different capacities. It takes some learning in quantum physics to comprehend what electrons are doing (as much as that may be possible!). Here is the simple explanation:
  • Electrons come in pairs.
  • The first shell is filled by a single pair, thus Helium has a filled shell. This filled shell is the core of all heavier elements.
  • The shells of all elements other than Hydrogen and Helium have sub-shells.
  • The sub-shells were discovered by spectroscopy, and are called, for historical reasons, s, p, d, and f.
  • Sub-shells increase by odd numbers of electron pairs:
    • p has 3, so s+p = 4 pairs or 8 electrons.
    • d has 5, so s+p+d = 9 pairs or 18 electrons.
    • f has 7, so s+p+d+f = 16 pairs or 32 electrons.
  • Shells 2 and 3 have s+p only; 4 and 5 also have d (thus the lower-middle block); and 6 and 7 also have f (shown as the extra stuff below the main table).
  • The placement of the rows shows that the d sub-shell fills before the p sub-shell, and the f sub-shell fills before d.
Note that the number of electron pairs in a completed shell is a square number: 1, 4, 9, 16. The next square would be 25, though no elements currently existing make any attack on that shell.

All the elements from 93 to 118 have been produced in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. With element #118, the seventh shell is filled, so once elements #119 and greater are produced, an eighth shell will begin to fill. This is expected to have a new sub-shell, usually called g. It can contain 9 electron pairs. It is likely that the g sub-shell will begin to be filled with element #121, but we will only know this for sure if element #121, or a heavier one, has a long enough half-life so the electron arrangement can be studied before the whole sample decays away.


When one atom takes control of the loose electron given up by a different atom, or when atoms share electrons, we talk of a chemical bond. To discuss this, a version of the Periodic Table with different highlighting will be helpful:

You know that term "alkali"? It refers to substances that neutralize acids. The two columns of elements at the left, in lavender and blue coloring, are called the Alkali Metals (lavender) and the Alkaline Earth Metals (blue). The ones with an odd atomic number have one loose electron, and the even ones have two loose electrons. They participate in compounds that tend to be alkaline; in some cases, the compounds are so caustic they will remove your skin.

Now, at the far right, as I mentioned above, the elements in the last column do not combine chemically with others. A few very extreme experiments have been done to force them into unstable chemical compounds. We call them the Noble Gases. They, and four other elements in which the lettering is dark green colored, are gases at "room temperature", defined for chemists as 25°C or 77°F.

The elements in the next column, with beige coloring, are called Halogens. "Halogen" is from the Latin word for "salt". They like to glom onto loose electrons. Any of these reacted with hydrogen will form a strong acid, but when paired with one of the Alkali Metals or an Alkali Earth Metal, they form stable salts. Two of them are usually gases, one is a liquid (Br, with dark blue letters), and the rest are solids. They are a major part of a group also called Non-Metals.

Hydrogen plus the other elements in orange coloring are the rest of the Non-Metals. In element form, solidified at low temperature in the case of Nitrogen and Oxygen, they are insulating solids that look like soft ceramics. While Oxygen and those below it tend to snatch two loose electrons whenever possible, they also participate in the sharing bond I mentioned earlier.

The elements with brown coloring are called Semi-Metals. In element form, they are semiconductors, and one in particular, Si or Silicon, forms the basis for most electronic circuits. The lime green colored elements are Metals that are either semiconductors by themselves, or form semiconductors when alloyed with Semi-Metals.

All the rest of the elements in the main part of the table are colored light yellow, and are Metals. The top row of them, from Scandium to Zinc, are the Transition Metals. "Transition" refers to their similar chemistry. They all have a filled s sub-shell and an empty p sub-shell, and from 1 to 10 electrons in the d sub-shell, which is "hidden" beneath the filled s sub-shell. However, those two outermost electrons can act as loose electrons to combine with Non-Metals or Oxygen, and frequently one of the d electrons will also do so. Thus, they have more complicated chemistry than those to the extreme right or left. The three pale yellow rows below behave a lot like the Transition Metals, but it is harder and harder to get them to react. In particular, Platinum and Gold (Pt and Au) are very resistant to participating in chemical activity, as are the elements directly beneath them, though those are radioactively unstable and are very short-lived.

The Transition Metals are useful to living things in various amounts, usually quite small amounts. Even Iron (Fe), the most abundant metal in our bodies, is present as 4-6 grams in an adult human, or less than 1/100 of a percent. The heavier metals are called "heavy metals", particularly in medicine, because they are all toxic. Lead (Pb) is the most familiar toxic metal.

Ionic Bonds

The shift of one or more electrons between strong "electron donors" such as Li or Ca, and "electron acceptors" such as Se or Cl, produces an Ionic Bond. This kind of bond is strong in the pure solid, but is pulled apart in water to dissolve salts such as LiCl, CaBr2, or MgSe. However, salts with S or Se are poorly soluble compared to salts with Halogen elements "on the right". In water solution, the elements that have lost electrons are + ions, and those that have accepted electrons are - ions.

Covalent Bonds

Electron sharing in which two atoms form a strong bond to fill their outermost shell produces mainly insoluble compounds held together by Covalent Bonds. The Non-Metals, when in elemental form, usually exist as paired atoms sharing one or more electrons. The simplest example is ordinary Hydrogen:

Here the electrons are shown as dots. The shared electrons satisfy the s sub-shell of both atoms.

Most elements can participate in covalent bonds. The most versatile is Carbon, which has 4 outer electrons, and thus room for 4 more. It prefers to share a covalent bond in 4 directions. This makes it the most versatile in its chemistry, and a huge discipline, Organic Chemistry, is the study of carbon chemistry. Where a chemist who studies inorganic chemistry will become familiar with thousands or tens of thousands of chemical compounds, the number of organic compounds so far known exceeds 50 million.

The Take-Away

So, what do you really need to know to be ready for Chem 1? Or, just to be at least glancingly familiar with the subject? Chemistry is about the ways atoms transfer or share electrons. The outer electron shell of an atom can have between 1 and 8 electrons. The more promiscuous atoms, mainly Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulfur and Oxygen, induce the other elements to form complex molecules. In the absence of these four, most compounds are simple and easier to study.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wisdom is not automatic

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, thinking, psychology

In his late 90's, Art Linkletter was asked the secret of his success interviewing children, most famously on his long-running TV program Art Linkletter's House Party. He said, "It's simple, but you probably can't do it: they must know that you are on the same intellectual level." With this gentle dig at himself he revealed that connecting with anyone is to reflect them. He knew he was just a big kid, and the kids could tell.

On a similar note, if someone could ask Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, or even the author Arthur Conan Doyle, what was the secret of his deductive abilities, I imagine him replying, "It's simple, but you probably can't do it: you must exclude no possibility without a reason to do so."

We are, by habit, quick to close doors and slow to open them. Our everyday language is full of door-closing phrases:
"I can't do that."
"This must be so."
"Why would you think that?"
"That is impossible."
"It won't work."
In the film The Help I found it extremely touching when the nanny holds a small girl and repeats to her, "You is good, You is Kind…" and so forth, and the girl trustingly repeats with her, "I am good, I am kind…" How can this fail to establish a helpful basis for the girl's character?

At this moment, I am less concerned with the things we tell our children than with what we tell ourselves. "What you think is what you get" could be a mantra for Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Having grown up hearing the Holmes stories read aloud by her father (and a great many other good books, she hints here and there), Ms Konnikova in eight chapters, jam-packed with examples and exhortations, shows us how to re-form our ways of thinking, and problem-solving in particular.

You and I may never need to solve a crime or find a kidnapped prince. We may never cross wits with a purblind and misguided police inspector. But our lives are full of conundrums big and small that a bit of Holmes-style thinking can help us resolve. It is more than just "thinking outside the box," though that is helpful; first we must know what the box is!

Throughout the book the author uses the analogy of an attic. In what state is our memory? Certainly, it contains thousands of things, but how are they stored? We're not talking psychobiology here but mental discipline. Continuing the analogy of an attic, or even better, a vast warehouse, how are its contents arranged? Is everything in piles like in the house of a hoarder, such that you can barely squeeze your way hither and yon to find things? Perhaps things are in boxes, but are things grouped with similar things or just jumbled together, box by box by myriads of boxes? Is anything labeled?

I think of interior views of the shelves in M5 on Mythbusters, such as this image. Jamie and Adam didn't rise to the top of the special-effects field by being sloppy curators of their "stuff". The boxes, bins and jars may exhibit a wondrous diversity of their own, but they are sorted alphabetically. I reckon that beats trying to sort them functionally; Jamie would need a taxonomy of function, and there would inevitably be an "Other" category that would soon grow out of control. Better this way. (But note in the bottom row that "Small Pumps" is misplaced. Would you sort that with S or P? Who knows how it got between T and U!)

Anyway, key #1 to Sherlock Holmes's method is having a mental attic with much of the "stuff" labeled and sorted. He is able to quickly retrieve what he needs.

This doesn't happen by accident. I suppose it will always be true that most of what we take in and retain (and we retain a very small percentage) is quickly strewn helter-skelter, and there is little we can do about that. It is probably one function of sleep to sort through recent new memories and nudge them this way and that into some sort of order. You and I may not consciously be good curators of our memories, but some amount of curation is carried out anyway. We must be thankful for that. But we are all different, and if that curation is too sloppy, we are called "scatterbrained" at best, and probably other, less flattering terms behind our backs.

But we read in Mastermind of observing with intention, of taking in what is most likely to be useful, then curating that properly. Like many others, I collect a number of things. My stamp collection is, for the most part, labeled and sorted. My minerals, not so much. I have a rather small number of minerals on display, a somewhat larger amount stored in boxes, but it is more of an accumulation than a collection. Then the books! There are a few thousand, and I have certain subsets well arranged in special places. The rest simply line the shelves of three rooms. One friend has at least this system: all his books are arranged by the color of the spine, so his main library is a rainbow. Another, now deceased, had a true library, with a Dewey Decimal notation in white ink on every book, and a card catalog in the corner. Now that is a collection!

A second key is the extent to which we allow our emotions free reign. In the Holmes stories, Dr. Watson is a kind of Everyman. He represents nearly all of us, jumping to a premature conclusion and then falling in love with it, which makes it quite impossible to proceed in any useful way. Let us remember the maxim that I foisted on Dr. Bell in my imagination: "Exclude no possibility without a reason to do so." Holmes is a master of the creative back-step. When formulating hypotheses he quite automatically pulls back to take in a wider view and be sure he is excluding nothing that might be useful. He (usually) did not allow his fondness for a neat explanation to deter him from discerning other explanations. Thus, when the first "neat" explanation is found wanting, he would have further avenues to explore. Watson-style thinking far too often confronts us with a blank wall and empty pockets.

Some people are openers, some are closers. Both are needed. More rare are those who can both open and close with equal ability. I am referring to opening up more and more possibilities in the early stages of a project or puzzle, followed by closing off one possibility after another as each is proved impossible or unfeasible, to drive to an appropriate conclusion. Holmes's most familiar dictum is, "When you have excluded everything that is impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." And suppose you have excluded everything you could think of? Time for more opening exercises. Conan Doyle has Holmes make a few mistakes, and they tend to be in this category: closing off possibilities too early or not thinking of them in the first place. If every avenue is blocked, back off and look for others. Oh, how loath we are to retrace our steps! Yet sometimes that is most necessary.

Later in the book Ms Konnikova dwells on the value of getting away. Holmes will sometimes simply go elsewhere for a day, or he might spend an hour playing violin (Einstein did so also, to world-changing effect!). Conscious mental effort is not always, or even usually, the most effective. I built a nearly 40-year career writing scientific software on the following practice: At the end of a period working, I'd focus on the most troubling puzzle (usually some algorithm that was hard to code) and deliberately arrange all the pertinent facts and parameters in my mind (closing my eyes lets me "write" on a mental "screen"), then sort of say, "Away with you, now" as I push it to "somewhere else" in my mind and go do something else. I might get something to eat, or talk to someone or, if it is late in the day, go home and sleep. I frequently awoke at 3 AM or so with a neat package on my mental doorstep, so I would write it all down, in earlier days, or log in and code it all out on the spot in later years.

Here and there in the book we find suggestions for exercising the mind, and it is easy to get overwhelmed and think, "Oh, it is all too much for me." Everything is too much for us if taken all at once. Remember how to eat an elephant: one forkful at a time…and it helps to have a large room full of chest freezers! We can do any number of things to improve the arrangement of our mental attic, to distance ourselves from over-fondness for first ideas, and to improve our skepticism for overly simple solutions. One thing at a time. Pick one, any one, and have a go at it. It is like learning to juggle, which nearly everyone can do with about 3 months of daily practice. It doesn't come in a single day. And once learned, it has to be continued by juggling at least once or twice a week, or the skill diminishes. No matter at what stage we are, we can improve. And that is what this author is telling us. In place of the door-closing statements above, let us tell ourselves,
"I can do that."
"There must be a solution somewhere."
"Why should this not be so?"
"It had to happen somehow."
"If a question is never asked, the answer is always NO. Ask!"

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Owls are cats with wings

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, pets, memoirs, owls

In the early 1980s, on one particular day on the road from London to Kent, a driver who was paying attention might have seen another driver with an owl perched on his shoulder. The owl's name was Mumble, and the driver's, Martin Windrow.

For 15 years, Windrow shared his flat, and later a home in Sussex, with the Tawny Owl he'd obtained with the help of his brother. He writes of those years together in The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living With a Tawny Owl. For this rather lonely young writer and editor, Mumble was a godsend. His brother had persuaded him to try caring for an owl, but a first attempt, with a less congenial species, was humiliating and blessedly brief. If a Tawny Owl is similar to an affectionate tabby, this first owl was more like a fiery Siamese, the kind who either ignores or hates everything you do. Fortunately, he was willing to try again.

When he was introduced to Mumble, egg-raised for the purpose, not wild-caught, it was love at first sight for both. It had to be; as he describes it, living with Mumble was like being a single parent with an infant who never grows beyond a year or two yet becomes an adult in certain ways.

I was particularly taken when he described pet owls as "like cats with wings". Cats I can relate to. However, where a typical house cat might weigh 5 to 12 lbs (2.2 - 5.4 kg), this species of owl weighs at most 1.8 lbs (0.8 kg). But its talons compare to the claws of an Ocelot, so if you encounter even a small owl and it goes for your face, you're in real trouble!

All Mumble ever did with Windrow's face was nuzzle, and a bit of nibbling of his beard, in a similar fashion to her own feather-preening. In fact, Mumble liked what the author calls "necking" on nearly a daily basis.

A few chapters in the book outline the natural history of Tawny Owls, Strix aluco, but most relate the experiences of owl and man carrying on a life together. Mumble was somewhat sociable with others his first year, just as a human child is. After that, she became a one-man owl, and it was not safe to allow others into her presence. Everyone other than Martin Windrow was an intruder in her territory, and even the comparatively gentle Tawny species defends territory quite fiercely! Fortunately, with proper introduction and assimilation, he was able to persuade Mumble to accept one friend's caretaking while he was away once for more than a week.

Her life ended prematurely when someone, probably a misguided and misinformed "environmentalist", entered her outdoor aviary. From evidence on the scene, she apparently took a fierce whack at the intruder before dying of a heart attack. Windrow found her unmarked body in the open enclosure upon returning home. He sincerely hopes she marked the fool for life, and I heartily agree.

The "Caesar" of the title was a bust of Germanicus Caesar, and her bust-sitting is mentioned once in the text. I suppose it makes for a spiffier title, but her favorite perch was the top of the kitchen door. Not great title material.

I guess I'd describe this as a very comfortable book. Just the right book to read on chilly winter evenings.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The seductive power of mathematics

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, mathematical thinking

We are nearly two weeks into the new year, and this is my first post of the year. It is not because the book was extra-hard to read, but that the year itself has begun extra-busy! Actually, though the book was long (437 pp + 15 pp notes), I spent less time reading it than many shorter ones because math is of great interest to me.

More than 2/3 of those who read that first paragraph will respond, "But not to me", and be tempted to stop right there. I hope you will continue anyway, because the author's design is to show how we all use mathematical thinking and can benefit from a better acquaintance with it. Theoretical mathematician Jordan Ellenberg has written How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

Contrary to popular thought, Mathematics isn't mainly about numbers. If you break the word down it means "The Studies of Learning". Note the "s" on "mathematics" and on "studies". The field has hundreds of branches, thus where an American would, in our streamlined way, speak of "math", the English speak of "maths". Being American, I'll go the American way. Only two of the many disciplines under the "math" umbrella explicitly involve numbers.

For most of us, our introduction to math began with arithmetic and the "plus table" and "times table". Though even grade schoolers are now permitted to use calculators in class, it is useful to know how to do simple sums and multiplications in one's head. At the very least, when you punch in some numbers and get a result, you are more likely to detect a punching-in error if your mind is at least estimating the result in the background.

The second numerical branch of math is Number Theory, which deals with properties of whole numbers. A big sub-field is Prime numbers, which we will return to later on. But most people who might read this have been exposed to additional branches.

At least in Western and Westernized societies, facility in basic arithmetic was needed to advance through Plane Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Analytical Geometry (sometimes just called Charting), and Calculus. Before the early 1960s Calculus was not introduced to high school students, but the teacher of my senior class in Analytical Geometry was one of the first to finish the school year with a few weeks of instruction in basic Calculus. Now at least half a year is taught to most high school seniors.

So if you had all those courses, think back: most of the work was learning to use certain symbols and sets of symbols in a consistent way. Working out problems using numbers was less important than the proper use of those symbols. That's why the teacher kept harping on "Show Your Work!". Also, particularly in Geometry, formal proof methods were introduced, primarily because visual proofs are easier to comprehend than the symbolic proofs that are the stock in trade of "higher math" (that is, stuff for college juniors and beyond, and only in technical disciplines).

Most of us shudder at that word, "proof". Few understand it. It takes a certain kind of mind to construct a useful proof. My brother, a working mathematician for some years, whose name I shall call Rick, had two friends at college; call them Tom and Harry. They all took some rather gnarly "higher math" courses together, and did lots of formal proofs. Another friend described them thus:
"Send Tom into a room with a mysterious machine in it having several large gears, a big flywheel and other bulky items of unknown import. He is requested to make its wheel turn. By putting a shoulder to the largest gear and pushing very hard, he is able to make it turn, slowly. He leaves and Rick enters. He noses around a bit and finds, behind the machine, a crank with a long handle. Fitting the handle into a convenient socket, he is able to turn the wheel more easily. He leaves and Harry enters. He looks around further, sees the crank, but keeps looking until he finds a button. He presses the button and a motor somewhere makes it all run."
"Pushing the right button" represents concocting a useful proof. I like visual proofs, and you can see one that proves the Pythagorean Theorem here. Remember the Pythagorean Theorem? It pertains to a right triangle, one for which one angle measures 90°. If the two sides that meet at that right angle have lengths represented by a and b, their relationship to the third side, of length c is c² = a² + b². In words, we say that the sum of the squares of the lengths of the two legs of a right triangle equal the square of the length of the hypotenuse (the third side). Pythagorean triples are sets of three whole numbers that can be used to produce a right triangle, such as 3, 4, 5 (3²=9, 4²=16, 5²=25, and 25=9+16). Try with 5, 12, 13 and 8, 15, 17.

So if math isn't primarily about numbers, it sure uses them a lot. But the power of most branches of math lies not in the use of numbers, but in the core concept of math: Operators. To illustrate, when we learn the Plus Table, we are actually learning to use an operator, the +, the addition operator. With a little more thought and practice, we also learn the operator, the subtraction operator. Similarly, the Times Table helps us learn the ×, the multiplication operator, and later the ÷, or division operator. Even later we learn the exponentiation operator, which has several symbols, but the ² is the special one for squaring (multiplying a number by itself). And, we soon learn the , the square root operator, and allied symbols for taking other roots. And on and on it goes. In the middle of learning Algebra, we learn of Polynomials, and how the + and and × seem to attain superpowers to add and subtract and multiply these groups of many symbols, as though they were unitary in themselves. Calculus adds further superpowers, while adding a further set of operators. Sure, these operators work on numbers, but that is baby steps compared to the symbols and sets of symbols (and so forth) that they also work on.

Very few have a mind like Harry's. Most of us don't need one, just as most of us don't need to be an automobile mechanic to be able to drive a car. However, a certain amount of mechanical smarts can make us a better driver. Dr. Ellenberg's notion is to make us a little better at thinking in operational terms, like a mathematician. Then we might be "less wrong" about many things. And the title provides a clue to the author's aim. The kind of mathematical thinking that underlies most of the examples is Statistical thinking.

The book has five sections. First is Linearity. The most amusing example is found in its third chapter, "Everyone is Obese". A soberly-written article came out a few years ago that can be summarized thus:

  • In about 1972 half of Americans had a BMI of 25 or greater. (Body Mass Index over 25 is "overweight" and beyond 30 is classified as "obese", at least in government literature)
  • Twenty years later, the number of overweight Americans was 60%.
  • By 2008 just under 75% had a BMI of 25 or more.
  • At this rate, all Americans will be overweight by 2048.

If you chart these three points and project a straight line through them, it will cross 100% at 2048. But do you see the fault in this reasoning? Firstly, the "line" one wants to project isn't very straight. The percent of overweight first goes up 10 points in 20 years, then another 15 points in 16 years. Do get from 2008 onward, do you project the next 25 points (100% - 75%) over 50 years, or closer to 25 years? The authors of the study projected an average of the two shorter-term rates and got there in 40 years. But why didn't they say, "Well, the rate of obesity increase has nearly doubled more recently. Maybe it will continue to speed up, and double again. Then the (now curved) line will hit 100% in just 12-13 more years, and we'll all by fat by 2020."

The real case is that, while many people are prone to gaining more weight as their prosperity increases, it isn't so for everyone. I seem to be like the majority, easily gaining weight; my wife is not, and has weighed between 98 and 108 pounds for the whole 40+ years I have known her. And she never diets. If my wife and I are still around in 2048 (we'll be over 100), I am pretty certain that she, at least, will not be obese. My BMI stays around 28-29, and is more likely to go down than up as I exceed the age of 85 or so. And our very fit son, who will almost certainly be alive in 2048, is very, very unlikely ever to have a BMI greater than 24.

The Earth is round, but we treat it as flat for most everyday uses. Straight lines serve us well. But look at a survey of Sections in the central plains. A Section is a square mile, very hearly. On a perfectly flat Earth, every Section would have exactly 640 acres. But on U.S. Geodetic Survey maps you'll see a correction every six miles further north you go. Only the southern row of Sections has something close to the full 640 acres. The northern row of a 6-by-6 Section Township has Sections with about 639 acres, because the curvature of the Earth has drawn together the meridians used to lay out the survey, by five feet near 40°N.

The takeaway point of the first section: Very few phenomena in nature proceed in a straight line forever. Keep that as a maxim in your mental bag of tricks.

The second section is titled "Inference". Here is the largest mass of material related to proofs. But it is presented in a much more entertaining way than you'd find in a college math course (or even your Middle School Geometry class). He begins with the legendary Baltimore stock broker, something I call the Binary Scam.

You get a piece of junk mail (these days, spam e-mail) with the bold statement, "Using my special stock evaluation system I predict Apple stock will rise tomorrow." The next day, Apple's stock price indeed rises, and soon another missive arrives: "See it at work. The stock will rise again the next day." It does so, and a third message now predicts a drop, which indeed happens. After a couple of weeks— and the messages now include a "Click here to invest" button—the fellow has been right ten times out of ten. You are ready to invest!!

What don't you know? You don't know that the first message went to more than 100,000,000 people. Half of them got a message saying the stock would go, not up, but down! Those 50 million or so never got the second message, but half of those who did, got one saying the opposite of the one you received. And so it goes. After 10 "predictions", the field has been cut by a factor of about 1,000. (Strictly speaking, by exactly 1,024, the tenth power of two). This leaves 100,000 or so people who tend to think this guy has a system that really, really works. If even 1% of them invest with him, that could be millions of dollars. And on day 11 he might just be in Switzerland or somewhere with those millions, and a "dead" address with no forwarding.

There is a variation of this, in which, even though half the people on day 5 got a "prediction" that "failed", they get a special message: "As you can see, nothing is perfect, but I think you will be pleased when the system continues to produce a high rate of correct calls." Guess what? Our psychology is such that a larger number of those folks will invest!

Inference is all about doing your best to gather more information, and when you have done so, remembering what Donald Rumsfeld said (I paraphrase), that we make decisions based on what we know, and try to take account of what we don't know, which is in two parts: the Known Unknowns and the Unknown Unknowns. The more "wonderful" an opportunity seems, the more likely it is that the unknown unknowns are so much bigger than what you know and what you know you don't know, that you are at best guessing while wearing a blindfold.

He closes the section with a cogent explanation of Bayesian Inference, which is quite a bit different from ordinary statistical thinking. Though it is more powerful than the kind of inference used in a typical scientific journal article, it takes a different kind of thinking, and I confess I can't use it numerically without having a text open to guide me. This is evidently true of scientists in general.

I promised a return to prime numbers. The first several prime numbers are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, and 29. Prime numbers have no divisors, no factors (1 doesn't count). You can see that 4 of the first 7 natural numbers are primes. Then they start to thin out: 4 of the next 12, then 2 of the next 10. Something called the Prime Number Theorem states that the number of prime numbers, P, less than some large number N, is equal or less than N/ln(N), where ln refers to the Natural Logarithm. Look it up if it interests you. Here we can test it with the 10,000th prime number, 104,729. P=10,000 and N=104,729. N/ln(N)=9060.28 and some more digits. The millionth prime is 15,485,863, and the calculation on these numbers yields 935,394 (and some decimals), about 6.5% lower than a million. For really big numbers, the theoretical number gets quite close.

What the Prime Number Theorem tells us is that prime numbers thin out steadily, and somewhat predictably, the further out we go on the number line. But they never die away completely. There may not be a high density of primes between 100 quadrillion and 101 quadrillion, but there are still a lot of them, roughly 25 trillion. However, this is very thin indeed, with only one number out of 40 being a prime at this level, on average.

Why should this be useful? Prime numbers are at the core of modern encryption, which is used by your bank to send a secure message or payment to another bank whenever you make a credit card transaction or write a check. Your password is also encrypted. The encryption method uses a long number made up of two or more long prime numbers. The rarity of long primes means there are lots of long numbers to choose from, that are hard for a computer program to figure out whether they are prime or not, and what their factors are. 101 quadrillion is only an 18-digit number, and your bank is using numbers of 85 digits or longer. Just cracking an 18-digit "composite number" (in the industry this means a long number with only two prime factors of roughly equal size) requires doing several million divisions. Today's computers can do that in a few seconds. But an 85-digit composite? No machine yet built can determine its factors in less than a few billion years. And when machines get millions of times faster? We'll just go to 200- or 400-digit encryption.

Well, there are three sections of the book to go. "Expectation" is about using probability methods to figure out how likely something is. The weather forecaster uses an expectation method to say that the chance of rain tomorrow is 40%. But particularly for weather, expectation is not like it is when rolling dice or playing roulette. If a 6-sided die is make properly (most are pretty close), each number will come up 1/6 of the time if you roll it many times. Of course, if you make only 12 trials, you are very likely to find three instances of a particular number and only one or none of another. The 1-out-of-6 expectation starts to get accurate only for a few hundred rolls at least. And here is a key point. If you roll a 2. How likely is it that the next roll will be a 2? The same as the first time, 1 out of 6. But we don't think that way, which leads to all kinds of grief at the craps table! We think a 2 is less likely than it was the first time. Not so.

In weather, expectation works a bit differently. Weather systems are not usually solid lines of rain clouds, but storm cells with space between. If an advancing storm front is made up of storms 3 miles wide with 2 miles between them on average, then the 60% chance of rain really means there is a 100% chance of rain over 60% of the area. (Dr. Ellenberg doesn't state it this way. This is my example)

There is a very entertaining chapter on the lottery, and how certain lotteries can be beaten. But don't expect a how-to on getting rich at your state's expense. When a lottery is ill-conceived enough to be beaten, you still might have to fill out half a million lottery tickets to take advantage of the odd statistics, and thus risk half a million to a million dollars in the process. And there is always a chance that every one of those tickets will be a loser, even though if you play that lottery several times you are certain to come out ahead. There are easier ways to make a buck, for certain! Being the Baltimore stock broker, for example, if you don't mind exile at some point. But lotteries can be thought of primarily as entertainment for imaginative people, and as a tax on folks who can't do math. The state takes 30%-40%, so they only pay out 60-70 cents on each dollar taken in.

Fourth is "Regression", and this word has two meanings. One is a formal process of figuring out the best line to cast through a set of points that are correlated, but not perfectly so. One chapter talks about this kind of regression, but the main point in this section is that extraordinary results are usually not followed by more extraordinary results. The classic example is adult height in a family. Suppose a couple are both extra-tall; the man may be 6'-4" and the woman a 6-footer. Average heights in America are 5'-10" for men and 5'-4" for women. Knowing only this, if the couple has four children, when they are grown, do you expect all four to be extra-tall? While there is some chance that at least one boy might exceed the father's height, it is most likely that the four will be taller than average, but not extremely tall. Conversely, if a man and woman are very short, their children will also probably be shorter than average, but it is unlikely that they will be even shorter than their parents.

This is called Regression to the Mean. Human height is partly driven by genetics, but also partly by dietary factors, and partly by chance such as getting a disease that stunts growth, or conversely over-stimulates the pituitary leading to extreme height. There are numerous factors that influence height, and they are more likely to average against one another than cause additive extreme results. It is the same for sports performance. A basketball player who usually hits 55% of his free throws may hit his first 3. Does that mean he is likely to have a 100% season? Nope. There's that straight line again. We actually see that most ball players do better in the first half of a season than the second half, from a combination of tiredness and injuries coming in later on. Yet a few players will "rise through the months". Bookmakers make a lot of money from bettors who don't think through these things. In fact, a great principle is stated in a chapter on gambling: If you find gambling exciting, you're going about it wrong. Those who do best at gambling actually gamble the least. They find ways to make the largest number of sure bets and the fewest number of risky bets. You might want to read a book by Amarillo Slim on the subject before your next casino visit.

The final section is "Existence". Pundits predict a lot of things. It turns out, and clear numerical examples demonstrate, that such things as "public opinion" seldom exist. Voting seems a straightforward matter. It is, when there are only two candidates in a race, or only a yes/no question to be decided. Add a third choice, and it all goes out the window. Some lawmakers were wise enough to require a run-off election where no candidate gets a clear majority in a race with 3 or more. But even this doesn't guarantee you'll really get "the people's choice", and several entertaining examples, some historical and some theoretical, show what that means. Suffice it to say that, like the 3-body problem in astronomy—which is unsolvable!—3-way political races are impossible to craft into a perfect system. Just ask Al Gore…

The "power of mathematical thinking" is at its root a call to back off and think more broadly than a subject at first appears. For example, recall the tall family mentioned above. Suppose I told you an additional fact, that both the man and his wife were the tallest of several siblings, and the only one in each family who was taller than their parents? Would that change your estimate of their children's heights? If it would, you are thinking in a more Bayesian way, which isn't a bad thing at all!

And I find that I've written so much without looking at a single one of the pages I'd dog-eared. I like it when an article flows. Good way to start the year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In the thrall of a two-faced god

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, science and politics, history of science, radiation, short biographies

This post's title is taken from the last chapter of The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson. Nelson chronicles the discovery of radiation and radioisotopes, and development of various radioactive products, that began in the late 1800's. He carries through to the present day, in which more than 400 nuclear power stations produce about 1/7th of electricity worldwide, hundreds of radioactive isotopes are known and dozens are used for various medical and industrial purposes, yet several major power plant failures and the problem of accumulating waste from nuclear power plants has led to overweening public fear of anything related to the word "radiation".

Thus, I have observed that the "epic rise" and "dramatic fall" refer to public perception. Prior to 1945, radiation was extremely popular. Lying in a pool of radioactive water was supposed to be therapeutic. Even in 1960, when I was given a half-ounce of "yellowcake" (pure U3O8) powder in a gelatin capsule on a field trip to a Uranium processing plant, it was considered rather benign, and such "pills" were suitable gifts to a troop of Boy Scouts. Public hysteria had yet to set in. Trips to Las Vegas to see A-bomb tests were still popular, and would remain so until 1963. Even then, the end of air-blast testing was a result of a treaty with the USSR, not from public protest in America.

Nuclear waste became an issue primarily in America, because of a set of rather odd laws that prohibited reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear power plants. This is done as a matter of routine in Europe.

A side note for those who need it: Induced fission of Uranium or Plutonium results in "fission products". When a large nucleus is split because it has absorbed a neutron, it leaves behind two fragments (sometimes three) whose mass totals the original mass, minus the mass of two or more neutrons released during the fission event. It is kind of like a drop of water splitting into two smaller drops plus a few tiny droplets. These fission fragments are usually radioactive isotopes, typically with several excess neutrons, so they tend to decay quickly by beta decay, which converts neutrons to protons and balances the nucleus better. Several such decays will result in a stable nucleus. The trouble comes because some of the "quick" decays actually occur over months or years. These longer-lived isotopes accumulate in spent fuel from reactors, and as a result, it stays "hot" for thousands of years. Chemical processing can easily separate out these waste products, leaving purified Uranium or Plutonium, whichever "fuel" was first used. Purified Uranium is called "depleted Uranium" because the power-making isotope has been greatly reduced or eliminated. This stuff makes great bullets for snipers, being almost twice as dense as lead. Reprocessed Plutonium can be returned to the reactor as fresh fuel. Also note that reactors that use enriched Uranium are designed quite differently from those using Plutonium.

In the late 1970's there was a great debate going on about the safety of storing nuclear power plant waste. I was at a public event where a nuclear power industry representative described the materials. He said that the spent fuel from a certain kind of plant would be in a canister that looks a lot like a 50-gallon oil drum, but that it would initially be producing 10,000 watts of heat from the decay of fission fragments. This would decline to 5,000 watts over several hundred years, then be quite steady for thousands of years thereafter. I stood and asked, "May I obtain one or two to heat my crawl space in winter?"

Back to the book. The historical sketches and mini-biographies are invaluable. Dr. Roentgen, the Curies, Fermi, Oppenheimer and so many others are brought to life as rounded personalities in a way I have not read elsewhere. The glacially slow tragedies that prematurely ended the lives of nearly all early students of radioactivity are heartbreaking. It took much, much too long for scientists to realize that the energetic particles released by these isotopes were displacing electrons or atoms from their places throughout any material they passed through, including their own bodies. Such displacement did damage that frequently resulted in cancer or, at higher levels, radiation toxicity and even rather rapid death at the highest levels. A further note on isotopes:

An isotope is a form of an element characterized by a specific number of neutrons in the nucleus. Thus, all atoms of Oxygen have 8 protons in the nucleus, but the number of neutrons ranges from 4 to 18, giving them atomic masses of 12 to 26. The "usual" isotope of Oxygen, O-16, has 8 neutrons. Very small amounts of O-17 and O-18, with 9 and 10 neutrons, exist naturally. All other Oxygen isotopes are short-lived and only exist because of reactions in a nuclear reactor, and usually only when a scientist's purpose is to create them. The most stable of these reactor-created isotopes of Oxygen is O-15, with a half life of about 2 minutes.

The book's 17 chapters are in 4 sections. The first covers the early years up to 1938 or '39, and the second, the development of induced fission and the Manhattan Project that led to both Uranium and Plutonium bombs. One of each was dropped on Japan in 1945, and I can't help wondering if this was as much for experimental reasons as military. The third section covers the cold war, and the fourth, the early spread and more recent fallback of nuclear power generation and the power plant disasters that led to its fall from grace.

I was surprised to find out (I should not have been) that the meltdown at Chernobyl was only one of at least 10 or 12, and became known because it was close enough to international borders that its fallout plume was easily detected in other countries. The others had been successfully kept secret, even though one or two may have exceeded Chernobyl in total radioactive materials released and environmental damage.

The most difficult chapter to read through was the one on Fukushima ("Blessed Island" in Japanese). It is the best documented of the "big three" of the world's imagination, the other two being Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The narrative exposes the monumental stupidity of the "designers" and "engineers" (they do not truly deserve those titles), who chose a reactor design known to be flawed; who chose to put it on a coastline prone to tsunamis and against clear warnings by geologists, and also in one of the more earthquake-prone parts of Japan—which is more earthquake-prone as a country than almost any other—; who chose to place the backup generators for the cooling system in basements that were at or below sea level; and then the host of errors that were made in operational safety measures during the weeks and months prior to the disaster. Actually, this was a series of linked disasters that played out over half a year's time, and in some measure they are still being played out.

But just as I was sure the author would inveigh against continuing use of nuclear power, he produced a string of facts such as:

  • The total death toll from nuclear power plant meltdowns, so far as is known, is 33,000 or less. This compares with 15,000 deaths over 30 years in the coal mining industry worldwide, and 20,000 in the petroleum industry.
  • The atomic bombs dropped on Japan killed roughly 200,000-250,000 within the first half year (half of those in the first minutes). An equal number were killed by the tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean. Roughly twice this many die yearly in America alone from smoking-related cancer and heart disease.
  • A dam failure in China in 1975 killed 171,000.
  • On a per-megawatt-hour basis, fossil fuels are 18 times as deadly as nuclear fuels.

This is why Nelson calls "Radiance", the totality of industries and products of radioactive elements and isotopes, the two-faced god, like Janus. To moderns, the apt analogy is a two-edged sword. One daren't touch it anywhere but the handle! Yet public opinion is so strong, and the ignorance of scientific principles so profound in both public and political spheres, that atomic energy is effectively dead in America and a number of other "developed" countries, at least for the next generation or two.

Here is some final food for thought I came across as I considered this post:

This illustration went around and around the Web after it was published late in 2011. It shows the excess radiation exposure people are expected to receive by living in the various Japanese prefectures. The red-toned one is Fukushima Prefecture, and the exposure is 0.25-0.50 µSv/h. That unit needs explaining:
Unit: µSv/h - micro-Sieverts/hour. Radiation toxicity begins to make itself evident above a total dose of about 500 mSv (500,000 µSv), or half a Sievert, and more severe affects appear after 1 Sievert. About one person in 18 is expected to develop cancer if exposed to 1 Sv total over an extended period—for example, 115 µSv/h for one year.
It is hardly risky to spend much time even in Fukushima Prefecture. Lifetime exposure under an excess dose of 0.50 µSv/h would be about 2/3 of a Sievert. However, there are a few focal areas near the destroyed power plant in which you'd be very sick after spending no more than a few hours. If you want the thrill of visiting a nuclear wilderness, though, nothing beats taking a "nuclear tourism" tour of the Chernobyl area, where one can look into lands that are said to be too radioactive for people to live, but where wildlife flourishes without human interference, and one can even take a short walk over ground that cannot, by law, be built upon for at least 10,000 years.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

How do we restore appropriate doctoring?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, ethics, doctors, memoirs

In all the various stories I have gathered of troubles I have had with or about medical doctors over the years, the problem has always been competence, not ethics. If the experiences Dr. Sandeep Jauhar has described are truly typical, it seems I've been quite lucky. His new book is Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician. The main title is a reflexive jest, because he was the one "doctored", or taught, through his experiences. He got an attitude adjustment, and not one that I would applaud.

General Norman Schwarzkopf said (I paraphrase), "Hardly anyone goes to work daily expecting to do a bad job." In the same way, very few begin a medical career intending to do harm or to get rich off the poor. In his former book Intern Dr.Jauhar described his trials after completing medical school and entering residency. There, he was the abused one, and he harks back to those days a few times in Doctored, when he meets residents and interns who callously take advantage of new ways of doing things, going home at the end of a shift, regardless what is happening, seemingly without caring a whit for the patient being handed off to the next shift's physician. While he never saw one stand up in the midst of CPR because "it was time to go home", but it almost came to that.

To become a family doctor these days is the fastest way to get into practicing on one's own, but it still takes a good while: four years of medical school and at least two years of residency, and perhaps a year or two of fellowship. At the earliest, a newly minted family physician can begin practice, whether privately or with an organization, by age 28 or 29. Dr. Jauhar is a cardiologist. The residency was longer—I am not sure whether he did one or two—and he performed a few years of fellowships before being hired as the attending cardiologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center at age 36. This accords with the experience of a family friend who also got free of his "education" at age 36 and is now in practice as an orthopedic surgeon.

When you are pushing 40 and have a quarter-million in education loans to pay off, it's hard to make ends meet, even if your pay is well above the national median of $52,000. The book covers a period of about eight years, just the right span of age for most of us to get around to having a midlife crisis. Dr. Jauhar didn't really have time for a midlife crisis. He had a career to jump-start, and soon found the jumper cables were badly frayed. We read a lot about his wife's increasing distress as their savings dwindle after one child is born, and then when another is on the way.

Urged, berated, and nearly bludgeoned by his wife and by circumstance, he began to work part time for another doctor who is in private practice. He soon learned that is it all about business. He didn't have the heart, or the right way of thinking, to do well in business. Ask a doctor why there are so many tests ordered these days, and why nearly everyone gets the same tests regardless how sick they are. The standard answer you'll get is likely to be something about "defensive medicine", the need to "cover all the bases" to avoid litigation. The answer you won't hear is that the insurance companies pay better for some tests than others, and it is the high-dollar ones that are the most overused. Dr. Jauhar found himself "doing scut work for peanuts", to use a phrase he doesn't use, but that I've heard from others. Though he could now make ends meet, he felt he was beginning to lose his soul, helping a doctor game the system and get rich at the expense of the American public.

Make no mistake about it, we all pay for unethical medicine. Most of Medicare is paid for by a payroll tax, and its losses are covered out of the general Federal budget, from taxes we all pay. Insurance companies are not in business to subsidize health care, and must indeed make a profit, so premiums increase and increase to cover the actual costs they incur. Don't pay any mind to a few blind guides who boast that American medicine is the best in the world. Yes, there are a few areas in which treatments in America are the most effective, but in general we pay more than twice as much per capita as in any other developed nation for the thirtieth or fortieth best medical system.

The book is in three parts, titled "Ambition", "Asperity", and "Adjustment". In the end, he adjusted. That, I find rather sad. He got doctored all right. I remember once remarking that a good subtitle to the musical Grease would be "The corrupting of Goody Two-Shoes." Here, I cannot say Dr. Jauhar has been corrupted, not quite, but he has to admit there is a stain on his soul. The incentives built into moderm American medicine, which will be only partly relieved and otherwise exacerbated by the Affordable Care Act (AKA "Obamacare"), practically force a doctor to defraud the system to make a living, and yield incredible riches to those most adept at doing so.

I recall the "traditional" insurance plans called "Major Medical." Patients were expected to pay out of pocket for all the ordinary stuff: doctor visits or office visits (in a day when the doctor visited you a third of the time), and most pills or shots. If you needed something less ordinary such as setting a bone, or sutures, or an operation, the Plan paid 80%, and rates were such that most middle-class Americans could afford their 20%, maybe with a little short-term loan. Now that insurance plans purport to "cover everything" (It's not true, but that's what they advertise), where is the incentive for anyone to economize? When everyone pays thousands and thousands yearly for their medical plan, they feel entitled to go to the doctor for every little thing, and they're OK with the doctor ordering dozens of tests of all sorts, because "the Plan will pay for it". The next year, premiums go up, and the few who are wise realize that once "the Plan" has paid, it has to get the money back, and premiums are its only source of income.

Our system isn't just broken, it is devastated. Dr. Jauhar doesn't have much in the way of solutions to offer. I do. Vote with your feet. Get your "ordinary doctoring" from a local physician. If you need something major, assuming you're capable of travel, go to India or England or somewhere else with one of those 30-40 medical systems that outperforms ours, where you'll pay less at full price, including your travel costs, than you would for the "Co-pay" demanded by the hospital here. Medical tourism is on the increase, for good reason. If enough of us do so, the American medical system will respond to the only force mighty enough to change it: Competition.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

More on the immense difference between religion and faith

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, christology, catholic theology

There is a lovely video I saw earlier today in a FaceBook post: an elderly Jewish woman named Fell singing hymns ("Jesus Loves Me" for example) to a severely demented woman, and really, really connecting with her. How many Christians know a single Jewish song of the faith, and could connect with someone of a different faith so deeply and genuinely? Mrs. Fell truly embodies something Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I have become all things to all people."

Many years ago I read The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton, first published in 1924. As a young person searching for an identity, I found some insight in it, about the humanity of Jesus. But I was ultimately unsatisfied, and when I later found faith in Jesus Christ, I realized how shallow the presentation was, leaving the deity of Jesus almost unmentioned. One thing of value stayed with me: the understanding that Jesus was a Jew, and lived and worked almost entirely as a faithful Jew. His message, as he told a Lebanese (Syrophoenician) woman on a rare visit to Lebanon, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." Yet, when she answered wisely, he granted her request (healing for her daughter), indicating that what those "sheep" discard could be obtained by others.

The passage just mentioned, found in Matthew 15, is one of several showing that Jesus knew His rejection by most Jews would be followed by a more successful spreading among non-Jews. This is largely played out in Acts of the Apostles. Before the time the Jewish-Christian testimony in Jerusalem and Judea was practically exterminated by the Romans after 68 AD, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews, the Jerusalem-centered branch of the church was a distinct minority.

I approached with only moderate expectation Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age by James Carroll. I did not expect it to be a work of profound faith, and that expectation was confirmed. It didn't take long to recognize that the viewpoint is Roman Catholic. Later it comes out that Mr. Carroll is a former priest, but is now married and a university professor. That is OK, I haven't found works of Catholic theology to be accessible to any but extremely over-educated readers, so I was glad to find a more readable presentation.

I am not sure the author's theological stance is so clearly within that of the Catholic Church. Where he goes to great lengths to explain away the so-called miracles in the New Testament (and he'd probably do so with Old Testament stories as well, were they in the purview of his writing), I am pretty sure the Church's more official position is that Jesus did indeed work miracles. He writes again and again of exploring and examining the divinity of Jesus; in the end, he takes the position, if I understand him aright, that Jesus is counted divine only in retrospect, and neither thought of himself as God nor said so to others. I wonder what he makes of  John 8:24, where Jesus, after being asked where his Father is, finishes a long reply by saying, "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins." Or that, when he was speaking to the disciples before going to the Garden of Gethsemane (John 14:9), and Philip asked him to show them the Father: "Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (All quotes are from NIV)

One mystery of Christology is to understand when Jesus obtained what is called his "pre-Incarnation knowledge". In Mr. Carroll's view, there never was any. Instead, he speculates quite wildly about Jesus as a disaffected and unemployed young man of Galilee chafing under the economic strictures caused by Roman occupation and taxation, becoming a disciple of his cousin John (the baptist) and remaining so for perhaps a decade. Jesus eventually reacts against the asceticism of John and embraces a more public life, preaching to the dispossessed. I find that harder to believe than the goofy story "Bel and the Dragon", found in Catholic Bibles, but not Protestant ones. I guess if the Apocrypha have found their way into your world view, your imagination is rather unfettered. (For the uninitiated, the Dragon story is about Daniel in Babylon, defeating a fire-breathing dragon by throwing a helmet full of water into its mouth and down its throat, causing a steam explosion.)

While reading, I marked a couple dozen places on which I thought I ought to comment. But I have little taste for detailed debate. I will instead take up two important items.

Firstly, Mr. Carroll's fundamental premise is that the four Gospels are "wartime literature", with the three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) written in the 70-80 AD time frame, and John written by 90 AD. I believe they were indeed produced during a period of growing warmaking and warmongering, but a decade or so earlier. He writes several times that "all scholars" agree on these late dates, but he overstates his case rather dramatically. Maybe all Catholic scholars late-date the Gospels, but I doubt it. And even some non-Catholic scholars do so, but primarily those who follow the "higher critics" whose fundamental premise is that the Scriptures are purely human products, and treat them as literature and literature only. Such "historical criticism" of Biblical texts was initially condemned by the Vatican (Leo XIII) in 1893, but later somewhat welcomed (Pius XII in 1943).

Those who don't have a hidden agenda to deny and denigrate the Bible's inspiration understand that the Synoptic Gospels were produced between about 55 and 65 AD; perhaps as late as 66 or 67. Certainly within the lifetimes of those we consider their authors. The late-dating historical critics simply cannot believe that Jesus foretold the fall of the Temple 35-40 years before the fact. Instead they posit that all the Gospel authors put these words in Jesus' mouth, even as they were writing about a Jerusalem that they saw being destroyed around them (or "just over there") in 70 AD. Historical critics go to great lengths to deny God's existence, and particularly Jesus's deity. I say "deity" rather than "divinity". Divinity is a quality; deity is the being of the Person.

So the fundamental issue is whether God inspired the writings we call the Bible, and how detailed His inspiration was. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:13), "This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words." He claims verbal inspiration for what he spoke and wrote. Later in the same book, he discusses marriage and differentiates between God's commands and his own opinion, then discusses the choice of lifelong chastity, beginning, "I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy" (7:25), yet ending, "I think that I also have the Spirit of God." (7:40)

We know that there are all sorts of things in the Bible that we can't count as God's words, not directly at any rate. Certain words of Satan are recorded, such as his accusation of Job. One chapter of Daniel was the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar, and the entire book of Ecclesiastes is written from a despairing, depressed, fully human viewpoint. Yet Ecclesiastes is followed by Song of Songs. How amazing, an aging Solomon could write both "vanity of vanities" and "the song of songs". What happened in between? He got back into contact with God! Note: the Shulammite is Solomon writing in a female voice of his ecstatic experience of God as his lover. Guys out there, you think you are male? Maybe a real he-man?!? Wait until you meet the Source of Maleness, dude! ...and God is also the Source of Femaleness, as the title El-Shaddai attests ("shad" is Hebrew for breast). I state my understanding of inspiration thus: The Bible tells us what God wants it to tell us. How He accomplished its production is up to Him.

And, has the text of the Bible been edited? Boy, and how! So what? Cannot God inspire an editor just as effectively as an author? For example, where did the author of Genesis get his material? While I believe it really was Moses, he must have used source writings to compose the Torah. The beasts of burden used by Abraham and Jacob and their servants are called camels in Genesis, yet historically we know that camels were introduced much later, perhaps even after the time of Moses. Abraham and Jacob would have used donkeys. Clearly, either Moses or a later editor updated the text to use a desert beast that had become more familiar. Maybe it was Samuel.

Historical critics late-date the Old Testament books by centuries, not just a decade or two as they do with the Gospels and some Epistles. For a long time it was not known how to counter their arguments. No texts of Old Testament books were known older than Tenth Century AD. After 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the dates back to around 160 BC. Then, more recently, fragments dating back to the 700s and 800s BC have been found, mainly in ancient mezuzahs. Naturally, it would be helpful if larger texts were found dating to the times of David and before. If such materials exist, God is still keeping them hidden.

The book most enthusiastically late-dated is Daniel. The young Daniel is supposed to have been taken captive to Babylon in about 586 BC, and lived until the year before Cyrus allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem 70 years later. Many critics pooh-pooh this, and presume it was written during the time of the Maccabees, in about 160 BC. No matter when it was written, it contains a prophecy that is detailed enough to check. This was done by Sir Robert Anderson, who wrote The Coming Prince more than a century ago, in which he demonstrates that the period called "69 weeks" in Daniel began when a certain decree was issued in 445 BC and ended on Palm Sunday, the only day before the crucifixion that Jesus was proclaimed the Messiah. The length of that period comes to 69x7x360 days, or 173,880 days, exactly. If the book of Daniel predicted that period with such exactitude, then it is much more likely that it was written during and near the end of Daniel's life, in Babylon. Those who cannot believe God's word contains genuine predictions would have to late-date Daniel to some time after the year 32 AD to make their case convincing. They'd be laughed out of seminary!

Are the Gospels equally inspired? Faith says Yes. Mr. Carroll states at one point that what is most important is not faith but faithfulness. This is clearly in accord with Catholic teaching going back to the Fifth Century, that we are saved only by our own works. Jesus the Redeemer is never mentioned in Christ Actually. The title comes from something written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer's beliefs stretch the faith of Jesus a little, those of Carroll stretch it beyond recognition. Aquinas wrote that we must imitate Christ, and this subject informs the last full chapter of the book. This is not Biblical faith. We are told repeatedly by the apostles, particularly Paul, that believers are indwelt by Christ. In his resurrected condition, this is possible. Carroll will admit no bodily resurrection, neither of Jesus nor of anyone else.

In spite of my deep disaffection, I find certain value in the book. We need to be reminded of the Jewishness of Jesus. He did not hate the Jewish leaders, but wept over their intransigence. Yet Mr. Carroll goes too far, proposing that the Gospels are anti-Jewish screeds written later in the Roman-Jewish wars. Anti-Jew they are not, but anti-false-religion they most certainly are, because Jesus was anti-false-religion.

The Gospel of Matthew has been said to have the subject, "Christ versus Religion", and that of John, "Religion versus Christ." Yet, these writers made clear repeatedly that the religion being promulgated by the Pharisees and scribes and other leaders of First-Century Israel was far, far from the religious practice taught by Moses and Samuel and Ezra. And those who are sometimes called "Jews" in Acts, who were following Paul around and trying to undo his work, were a rival faction of what I call "Judaizers" among the Christians, probably based in Jerusalem, where James later told Paul, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law." So zealous for the law, they had nearly forgotten the freedom from over-interpretation of the law into which Jesus had called them. They occasioned the downfall of Paul, politically speaking. Let us remember, though, that the crowd that had been whipped up into crying, "Crucify him, crucify him!" was the same crowd that received the first gospel preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost, 7 weeks later, and 3,000 of them, now redeemed and forgiven and baptized, formed the nucleus of the church in Jerusalem. God first reached out to those who'd been duped into calling for His demise.

So here is the list, according to this former Catholic priest:
  • No deity, just a kind of after-the-fact divinity conferred by our adoration.
  • No miracles (a repeated statement: "He could not"!), which John called "signs".
  • No resurrection.
Yet, as the writers of the New Testament make clear, without these there is no salvation. Jesus said to those who didn't believe in him, "You will indeed die in your sins."

The Jesus Christ that Mr. Carroll writes of is not the Jesus Christ in whom I believe. Not even close. If he is a Christian, then I'd be ashamed to call myself a Christian. But if I am a child of God, then unless he repents, Mr. Carroll is destined to perish.

Monday, December 08, 2014

It really, really IS who you know!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, sociability, relationships

Do you want to live longer and better, be healthier and smarter? For about 3/4 of us, a truly holistic doctor would prescribe, "Join another group or two; spend more time with people you enjoy and love; get out more." Who would such a prescription not help? Those who already have strong, vibrant social networks. The rest of us would be well advised to develop them. Clue: a vibrant social group is not to be found in virtual space or on your computer or phone. Human faces work better than Skype, much better, infinitely better.

Humans really are social animals, though the extent of our sociability varies. For reasons yet to be ferreted out, all the genes that either strengthen or weaken social tendencies seem to be carried in all of us, but are differently expressed in every individual. How else to explain my family: my wife and I are both very introverted, yet our son is powerfully extroverted (or extraverted, as Carl Jung originally spelled the term); my father is an extrovert, my mother was more reserved, but very sociable, and my siblings and I seem to cover the spectrum (I am the most introverted).

It is becoming better known that married men, in particular, live 10-15 years longer than single or divorced men. The effect is not as strong for women, who tend to have better social lives than men even when they are introverts. Also, having a "partner" is not the same as having a married spouse, and confers no extra longevity benefit. It seems far too many married men have such poor social lives that their wives are their only close confidants (because "men don't talk about those things").

While reading The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter" by Susan Pinker, I suddenly remembered the play Our Town. Nearly all I can recall is when the narrator looks out and says, "…one day you look at the gray-haired woman at your side and realize the two of you have shared 50,000 meals…" Of many things Ms Pinker repeats throughout the book, sharing mealtimes, during which you actually converse, rather than grunting over the morning paper or whatever, and particularly starting in infancy, foretells how healthy and successful you are likely to be all your life.

50,000 meals. You know I always have to figure things out. Thornton Wilder must have been thinking mainly of farm families, in which the farmer returns home for mealtimes. Three meals a day works out to nearly 1,100 yearly, so 50,000 meals is a bit over 45 years. Even in 1938 when the play was written, an American couple who'd survived their childhoods, and were starting a life together by age 20 or 22, could expect 45-50 years together.

What of today, when most American couples see each other mainly at dinnertime? There's no way to accumulate 50,000 mealtimes together. For example, my wife and I have been married just 40 years. Nearly all that time, we shared 10-11 meals per week, depending on whether one of us slept through the other eating breakfast on a weekend morning. Throw in a couple weeks of vacation or staycation, with 21 meals together each of those weeks, and it comes to about 565 meals together yearly, or more than 22,600, but way less than Thornton Wilder's calculation. Now in retirement, we average about 18 weekly, and we're happier and more relaxed (not having bosses is also a big help!).

The book begins with stories of a couple of breast cancer survivors, and the social settings both enjoyed, that helped them cope with the sudden and extended disruption of their lives. They are contrasted with people who have little or no social support, and the studies that have shown they are much, much more likely to die shortly after diagnosis, even with aggressive treatment.

The second chapter probes an area of Sicily in which intense social support is the norm, and in which the number of 100-year-olds is 3-4 times what you'd expect. This is a well-attested matter, compared to earlier reports of extreme eldership in parts of Russia, where it was found that young men in Tsarist Russia had taken their dead fathers' identities to avoid military service, or in certain parts of Japan, where the dead had been reported as living for decades so their families could get government support payments (similar to one kind of Social Security fraud). In these villages, everyone truly knows everyone, and they care for one another with rare intensity.

Not everyone can handle the kind of ardent sociality the central Sicilians find normal. I wonder how introverts fare in those villages. But even introverts need at least a few close friends. The quintessential loner of our time, the Unabomber, who took great care to be as unknown as possible, was eventually discovered through his brother. Having "nearly no contact" did not equate to having none at all.

A major theme of the book is that our gadgets are no substitute for friends. Even though we might have tons of online "friends" through FaceBook or something similar, there isn't any health benefit to keeping up with all their Updates or Tweets. Nor are there any intellectual benefits. Rather, quite the opposite. Without going back over all the chapters about the effects of electronic gadgetry on children, I think it is safe to state this conclusion:
Both children and adults learn much, much better from the tutelage of a skilled teacher, than from any combination of laptops, smart phone apps, and other electronic substitutes, including MOOC's. (My conclusion; the author's is lengthier and more specific)
That is why families with the money to do so are putting their children into private schools that have demonstrably great teachers. There is much debate recently about the re-segregation of our schools. In a country where many more blacks are poor in comparison to whites, this is a visible matter. Stand outside a private school and count how many kids of each color exit at the end of the day. I have an idea: for every two children in a private school, offer free tuition to a minority child, and sufficient support by counselors to ensure a realistic chance at success. You'd also need to train the rest of the kids in kindness toward the free kids, or the school will internally segregate.

I suppose it started with the Boob Tube. TV has been around almost exactly as long as I have. Once considered a great "babysitter", the TV set has been exposed for what it is, a kind of "empty calories for the mind" machine. Too many of us are as inactive and "obese" mentally as physically (Think of obesity as a principle: mass without muscle. Apply that to your mind. Not a pretty picture).

It is too bad the word "friend" wasn't trademarked and made unavailable before FaceBook took it over. A "FB Friend" is not usually a friend. The default term ought to be "acquaintance". In the past few years the FB folks have made available some categories, such as "acquaintances", "close friends" (AKA your actual friends you're likely to meet face-to-face), and "relatives". Only an actual, physical friend can take you to the store when your battery's dead—and call AAA for you because so is your cell phone—, or give you a foot massage, meet you for a coffee or soda (I don't drink beer), and care for your cat when you're away for a couple of days. Ms Pinker makes a strong case that those who spend the most time online spend the least time with real people, and are thus the loneliest. And they'll often tell you that.

There is the Dunbar Number, named for Robin Dunbar of Oxford: 150. That is the number of strong relationships humans can effectively manage. Even then, not all will be equally strong. I think of a very social fellow in Bible history, king David. During his vagrant days, on the run from king Saul, he had about 400 men who followed him. Still, there were "the 30" and "the 3", and a second "3 who did not attain to the first 3". "The 3" seem to have each managed around 130 of the men, with the help of about 10 of "the 30", and possibly one each of the other "3" as a lieutenant. Let's compare with typical numbers of "FB Friends".

I have 146 "FB Friends". OF those, 23 are children of church friends (a "church kid" category), 12 are former colleagues from work (with a FB "smart tag" of the company name), 14 are "relatives", and 12 I count as "close friends" in that FB category. My closest friend other than my wife, a man I typically eat with at least weekly, does not use FB, though one of his sons is in the "church kid" group. Of the 146, 133 allow viewing their friends and my "Friends" page lists them, so it was easy to grab the statistics. Here is a bar chart of their "FB Friend" quantities:

By doubling the size of each category to get the next, I made this a Lognormal analysis. The result is skewed to the heavy end. Note that Dunbar's Number would be in the first of the three bars of about 30 members. The Median is 317, and the rather great number of folks with 1,000 or more "FB Friends" is startling. They must spend a good part of their day scanning their News Feed!

It would not be hard for me to double or triple my numbers. But I am selective whom I "friend". My sociable son, not so much. He has over 600.

I also looked at the face tags in Picasa, where I have about 25,000 photos tagged. Of 738 tags, not all are true names. Some are various kinds of "I don't know" designation, such as "unknown female second cousin" or "Bill in the Rock Club"; there are exactly 100 of these at present. I have 14 groups, such as "HS Friend of Son" (maybe 200 or so kids I'll leave him to sort out later if he chooses) or "Relatives of so-and-so" (several faces from old family reunion pix, say, in 1914). There are 51 various kinds of distant acquaintance, such as President Bush, photographed at long distance from a speech venue, or various people whose face and name I know but we've never met and will likely never meet, possibly because they're dead (Antoine Lavoisier is one of these). And there are 7  such as "baby Tom" or "young Tom" for a few children in the family that I wanted Picasa to be able to better recognize at various ages. That leaves 566 distinct persons that I either know well now, or have in the recent past. Not bad for the family introvert!

This is not just an entertaining book to read, it is a scholarly work, and the endnotes constitute an extra chapters' worth of fascinating reading material in addition to the many, many references. An example: From a note on page 314 about breastfeeding, the author points out that the claims for various health benefits of breastfeeding overlap in a significant way the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and face-to-face interaction between mother and baby. (I find it amazing that less than half of American women breastfeed at all, only half of those keep it up for 3 months, and very few last even 6 months. Much of the blame goes to companies with policies that disallow even unpaid leave for child care longer than 9 weeks. I am so glad my wife was able to nurse our son a full year.)

So, feeling a bit lonely? Nobody's going to come to you. Turn off the video game and find a compatible church or hobby club (My atheist brother belongs to a choir, and this season they are of course practicing the Hallelujah Chorus). Then, every chance you get to meet with one of your groups of pals, turn off the cell phone. It won't help you live longer, but they will.