Monday, March 12, 2018

Poems are her bread and butter

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, poetry

The title was enough: Poetry Will Save Your Life, by Joan Bialosky. I like poetry, though more in a now-and-then kind of way. Breading her memoir, we find that for Ms Bialosky, poems are her life. Not only is she a poet and author, someone who manages to craft a living from her craft; she finds sustenance and guidance in the poems she has gathered.

I imagine that she has collected a great many of others' poems over the past five or six decades. How she culled 43 special ones around which to weave her own coming of age story, only she knows. She likes poems that rhyme and those that don't; poems with rhythmic structure and poems that seem structureless (maybe she sees structure I cannot fathom). Her taste is wide-ranging, from the famous (such as Robert Frost or R.L. Stevenson) to the scarcely known (Li-Young Lee or Yehuda Amichai), at least to me.

I don't know what to say beyond that. I have a very few, very special poems that I treasure, but I'll keep them to myself here. Did they save my life? I don't know; we all have our own elixir, can we but find it. Simply this: I enjoyed the book.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

We can't lie to Google

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, data mining, data analysis, big data

There is a very interesting and useful tool available from Google, Google Trends. It provides a taste of Big Data (or Data Mining) to all of us. It tracks search terms (all of them) that have been entered in the Google search box for the last 14 years. It charts their relative popularity. Here is an example:

This is just the top of a page of charts related to these searches. There are breakouts by region and certain subtopics or related searches. Just from this chart we can see three things:
  1. While on average the Grand Canyon is the most popular of the three, the relative popularity of these three National Parks varies over time (this chart shows 5 years).
  2. All three parks' popularity varies with the season. I presume that in springtime and early summer, people are planning vacations.
  3. Each park had a spike of interest in a narrow time frame. I'll leave it to you to figure out which event triggered which spike. (Hint: high wire; seismicity; sesquicentennial)
Here is a clue to the value of meta-analysis made available by a tool like this: people search for what interest or concerns them, and there is nothing to be gained by lying about it. They really want to know. Thus, a result like this is more telling:

Here, seasonality of weight loss searches is quite evident. My impulsive analysis: a big spike in January is related to this most common New Year's Resolution, followed by sustained interest until mid-summer, then a slacking off as people enter first vacation season and then the holiday season, and have other things on their minds. Also, it is clear that many more people are worried about their weight than about smoking (and I may not have used the most common search term about this; GTrends is very literal and there are lots of ways people ask questions. But I could have searched for Topics instead).

Just out of curiosity I removed the weight loss portion. This amplified the remaining "stop smoking" result, and it is had no seasonality.

The little arrow at center-right in the diagrams shows that you can download the data (I haven't tried it) for analysis using Excel. This allows you to compare a great many search terms or topics, to winkle out all the variations, and sum them up for a general picture, or parse them by country or region or whatever. Note that if you mix topics and search terms, they are measured on different scales, because a topic gathers many search terms.

I'll refrain from going on and on, for this is a book review, after all. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, introduces the new things that are being done because we have enormous data sets available, and even the more because certain of them (such as Google searches) give more truthful information than "traditional" methods of social study such as surveys.

Have you ever lied to a survey taker, or on an online survey? Many folks do. Voter polls are notorious for inaccuracies, particularly during hotly-contested elections, such as the recent circus featuring Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Nearly every poll was dramatically wrong, nearly every time. Why? This is more than just bad poll question design (which is all too frequently done on purpose), this is a case that many of those who were going to vote one way either said, "I don't know for sure" or flat-out lied to the pollster. Consider someone who answers the telephone at work, and it is a poll taker. They aren't supposed to call workplaces, but they frequently do anyway (where else you gonna find people at midday? And with so many folks declining to even answer a phone at dinner time...). The office worker agrees to a "quick poll", and soon enough the big question comes, "Who do you prefer in the Presidential election?" This person is a closet Republican in New York City or San Francisco, and knows she'll be overheard by co-workers, with whom she never, ever talks politics. How do you expect her to answer? In those cities, you can lose your job over your Presidential preference.

The author of Everybody Lies shows a number of ways that he and others gather data from Google searches (he calls them his favorite data set), from Facebook likes, and a from number of other data collections about our behavior online. He also places emphasis on what he calls New Data, data we didn't have available before. Online behavior traces are one kind of New Data, but the concept is not new. For example, in 1854 Doctor John Snow mapped every death from cholera for the year in the Soho area of London, hundreds of them. That counts as Big Data for the 1850's! His dot map, shown here, helped him pinpoint a specific water pump as the source of the cholera epidemic; it was a pump on Broad Street, just above and right of center in this map (the dark bar there shows nearly 20 deaths in a single multi-family house). This was both Big Data and New Data for the time.

Getting back to November 2017: People who didn't get nearly as much press as the daily pollsters, but who were looking at "sentiment analysis" of internet searches, were saying, "Not so fast..." but were generally ignored. But it was they who were right. That is because, while we can lie to Google,
we don't because what is the point? We search for what we really want to know. And if someone wanted to mess with Google's search results database, and skew what it reports, it would take a huge effort, even by spambot standards. Even bot-masters have better things to do with their time!

There are some arenas in which we do lie, even to our computers. Facebook is an example. We post mostly positive stuff. We also primarily like to see positive stuff. In fact, when we see too much negative material in our newsfeeds, many of us either block or unfriend the purveyor thereof. So we tell our Facebook "friends" about what is going well with us, and we ask Google about what bothers us.

A number of fascinating and unexpected results show up. For example, would you expect a larger proportion of sports stars to come from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds, or from poor or working-poor backgrounds? Many people think that desperation to escape the ghetto drives talented kids to excel so they can actually get out. Analysis of the history of every professional sports figure counters that expectation. Most successful professionals in baseball, basketball, etc. come from middle-class backgrounds. One major factor: There are a whole lot more middle-class people than poor people in America. But even in proportion, the percentage of middle-class youngsters who excel in sports is greater than the percentage of poorer kids. We could go into a lot of possible reasons why, but it's a side point here. Truly great players like LeBron James, who was raised by a poor single mother, are the exception.

Late in the book the ethics of data mining arise. Many people are a little creeped out to learn that a trend analysis can reveal so much about them. Meanwhile, CEO's of retail companies are drooling over the same data, trying to figure out how best to induce us to part with our cash. One aspect is A/B testing. It isn't hard for the programmers at Google or Facebook to write code that, for example, puts a bluer "click here" button on an ad sent to everyone from a certain set of web servers, and a purpler button to everyone else. Which one gets a greater proportion of clicks? Do the words "click here" or "try it" or "join up" work best? When billions of ads are being shown, a 1% advantage comes to thousands or millions of potential sales. Ethical or not, that cat is out of the bag. There is no putting it back. We simply need to stiffen our own backbone of ad resistance if we wish to avoid being manipulated.

A fun side note. I am learning to use Incognito Mode and Duck Duck Go searching when I want to research something to buy. Otherwise Google and Facebook and just about everyone else spends the next month or three sending me ads related to something I already bought (or decided not to buy). When they get better connected to the retailers, so they know I bought it and probably won't buy another, and when they get better connected to Amazon's database of "people who bought this also bought these", it is likely that my ad resistance will become a lot harder to maintain! They'll have a pretty good idea what I want next, before I know I want it.

That is the world we live in. Teach your children well. Maybe they'll become more canny and cautious Web users than we have been.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Investing - what Buffett can do and you cannot

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing, short biographies, letters

Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, is legendary for parlaying a modest fortune into billions, primarily by investing. He is considered a genius at stock picking. Warren Buffet's Ground Rules: Words of Wisdom from the Partnership Letters of the World's Greatest Investor, by Jeremy C. Miller, tells the real story, at least about the first 13 years, the BPL years.

Probably the impression most people have is that Buffett was somehow prescient, and could time the market. The reality is much more prosaic. Ground Rules is about half large extracts from the Partnership Letters that Buffett wrote to his partners (initially three family members), from 1956 to 1969; and about half Miller's analysis, a valuable asset in its own right.

Buffett's style of active investment management bore (and bears) no resemblance to that of the managers of the roughly 2,000 funds of the "Growth" variety, and even of most of the 1,500 or so "Value" funds, let alone all the other categories. He was an early Value investor, but Value has a different meaning nowadays.

After working in the investment field on his own and for Benjamin Graham, the "father of Value investing", he set up Buffett Partnership Ltd., with his own money and that of a few relatives. When Graham retired, Buffett already had savings of about $175,000 (more than $1.5 million in today's dollars). BPL was set up with about $100,000, having the stated goal to beat the performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 10% yearly. In those 13 years he never had a down year, and usually beat the Dow by much more than 10%. He had parlayed the $100,000, plus other funds added as partners were added, into about $50 million (in 1970 dollars; more than $300 million in today's dollars). How?

Buffett had learned deep value investing from Ben Graham. His motto was, "You don't buy stock, you buy the business." That is, even owning one share, you should think like someone running the business. He developed his own ideas upon that foundation, so that he soon had three kinds of investments in the BPL partnerships:

  • General – Graham-style value stocks: with much research, companies were found whose total stock value was less than the raw asset value of liquidating the company. Stock of companies with management who had a reasonable chance of keeping the business from foundering could be purchased with almost total certainty that the stock value would increase, probably by a great amount. Such "low hanging fruit" are very rarely to be found today, nor at nearly any time since about 1970. Buffett liked a stock to not grow fast, at first, giving him time to buy a lot of it, a little at a time so as not to stir up market activity around it. Later he split this category into two based on size, particularly once BPL had much greater funding. Most General stocks represent small companies, and a million-dollar investment could buy the whole company, or totally skew the market for it.
  • Workouts – Arbitrage opportunities in today's lingo: companies in trouble, or with more cash and idle capital assets on hand than the value of all shares of stock. He would obtain a large amount (10-20%) of a small company's stock, giving him leverage (and often a seat on the Board), so that he could influence company operations. He would influence, or force, company management to get rid of unprofitable operations and concentrate capital where it could do more good, both in a business sense and a financial sense. Sometimes he was vilified in the press, much as T. Boone Pickens was a generation ago, and Nelson Peltz has been in recent years. With no more than a couple of exceptions, he avoided eliminating jobs in large numbers, even at the cost of a few more percentage points in a stock's value. I don't think either Pickens or Peltz ever cared one whit how many jobs they eliminated.
  • Controls – Ownership of more than 40%, and of course more than 50%, of a company's stock would give Buffett total control of operations. His last Control was Berkshire Hathaway, which he still controls. 

Does any of this sound like "timing the market"? Buffett repeatedly expressed his disdain for the very thought, and claimed he had no interest in market timing. He preferred stocks that were independent of market movements, and chose Generals in particular for this characteristic. This took a lot of research, in an era without electronic research tools.

So, whichever sort of investment one plans to make (most of us will find Workouts and Controls out of our reach!), these simple steps must be adhered to:

  • Set a goal toward which you are willing to work, hard.
  • Research, research, and research some more to locate publicly-traded companies that offer a great chance to meet that goal. This minimizes risk.
  • Follow a disciplined plan to obtain an appropriate amount of the stock (this can take months or even years).
  • When the goal is met, sell, perhaps as gradually as you bought in. The whole process is likely to take several years. Buffett didn't care for any time horizon shorter than 3-5 years.

Doing so sounds simple, but is emotionally impossible for more than about one person in a million. Buffett had an emotional detachment from the decisions he made that just might be unique. He also had the business acumen to successfully arbitrage or control a company he had bought. It is one thing to understand what he did. It is another to do any part of it. That is why there are so few investment billionaires.

This reminds me, in a sideways way, of something Art Linkletter said when he was interviewed late in his life. He was asked how he had such success interviewing children for his show "Art Linkletter's House Party" (I was in the audience once, at age 8, but wasn't called up on stage to talk with him). He said, "I can tell you my secret, but you can't do it. The kids have to know you are at the same mental level." Ground Rules tells you Buffett's secrets. Bet you can't do it.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Free money for all — Not!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, socialism, welfare

It was reported in passing in a National Geographic article that people in some Third World country were being paid an ordinary daily wage for working to clear the way for a road. The work was being funded privately, and the on-site managers decided to "do their bit" to improve the lot of the local people. They raised their daily pay by 35%. Four days later hardly anyone showed up to work. It took a lot of questioning to find out the reason: The workers had been very pleased and surprised to get about another third of a day's pay every day. At the end of three days, they had the money they used to earn in four days. Their daily needs had not changed, so they took the day off! The few who had showed up to work were mostly the local drunks who had used their extra cash to go an a roaring bender and needed the ready money.

This story came to mind the minute I saw the title of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. In a book of 247 pages plus an enormous number of notes (another 74 pages), they seek to convince a primarily American audience of the necessity for, efficacy of, and liberty to result from implementation of an unconditional national income, to be distributed by dividing around one quarter of a country's GDP amongst all the citizens and legal residents of this country. It would be paid for by eliminating nearly all social welfare programs, which it would replace.

Here's the nuts and bolts for Americans. U.S. GDP per capita in 2016 was about $52,200, so a quarter of that is $13,050 or a little under $1,100 monthly, to be paid to everyone from babies to billionaires. The total U.S. GDP was $18.7 Trillion that year. Non-"entitlement" social programs cost about $1 Trillion (both Federal and state spending); Social Security was slightly less, nearly $900 Billion; and Medicare spending is pushing $750 Billion. These total more than $2.6 Trillion, or 14% of GDP. On the face of it, if all three segments of the U.S. "social safety net" were replaced by a basic income program, the total cost would be $4.6 Trillion, and we'd need an increase in taxes sufficient to generate another 9% of the GDP.

The math gets a little trickier at this point, because the basic income would not be taxed. If that is all you received, you would pay no income taxes. But all earned income anyone received would need to be taxed at about 12% above whatever is needed to fund other programs such as the military, infrastructure projects, the running of government itself, and so forth. Some savings would be realized because of one huge fact: There would be no means test. That is, everyone would get a check for about $1,100 monthly, from the homeless woman sleeping under the bridge to Warren Buffet, tax free. Then, whoever earned "their own money" above that would pay taxes on it. Perhaps some progressive taxation method would be used, but to be clear, some kind of tax would be needed to gather the required $4.7 Trillion. But—here is the savings item—there would be no need to employ some large number of people to check if people are working, or are looking for work, and to run all the other intrusive mechanisms needed to run programs such as Unemployment Insurance or AFDC. I wonder how many officers they'll need to employ to make sure people don't keep getting checks after they die! The authors hardly mention the impact of fraud, nor how to make a person's basic income unstealable.

The authors do their best to tout the added freedom experienced by someone who has a guaranteed, if modest, stipend. Someone working a dead-end job could afford to find more congenial work, even if it pays less. Many other examples are described. But here is the question to ask yourself: Would you keep working if you could afford to "live the leisure life"? How many would prefer to spend their days fishing, surfing, hunting, beach combing, painting, sculpting, composing, and other pastimes that many wage earners dream of doing full time if they could? Would enough people desire to work, at jobs sufficiently well compensated, to support all the "preferentially unemployed"?

Were such a program initiated tomorrow, I suspect that people now in the early-to-middle years of a career, who are used to working and who have developed a kind of identification with their work, would tend to keep working because that is what they know how to do. What would their children do? The story in the first paragraph is my guess. It is not without reason that one passage in the Bible exhorts, "If anyone is unwilling to work, let him not eat." We are not as "good" as we'd like to think we are.

I don't remember the author, nor an exact quote, but I recall reading that once a large segment of the population figures out how to extract largesse from the public purse, the downfall of the republic is unavoidable. In the U.S.A., that point was probably reached during the Johnson administration with the "War on Poverty", and for 50 years the downhill slide has continued almost unabated. The authors of Basic Income have a European viewpoint, and are accustomed to a lot more Socialism than U.S. citizens in general. I think we ought to just sit back and wait for some country or group of nations actually implements a basic income program, then give it a generation and see in what form the collapse comes…but be sure, collapse is certain.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Getting well plus cabin fever equals fixing a chair

kw: photo essays, home maintenance, repairs, diy

I was sick with a bad cough and recurring fever for about a week, the longest bout of "cold" I can remember. I needed lots of "horizontal time" in bed. A visit to the doctor three days ago brought the cheery news that I had a sinus infection and middle ear infection tagging along, which bought me antibiotics and steroids. Oh Joy! By yesterday morning I had too much energy to sleep all day, but I was still coughing too much for public consumption, so I took apart a wobbly dining room chair and re-glued it. Just for fun, here is the process.

Disclaimer: I am no pro, as you'll easily see. But I've done this enough over the years to be able to get it done in a couple of hours (of my work time, not total time) instead of several days. The glue I use is Titebond II Premium Wood Glue. All these photos are either 800 or 1024 pixels in the long dimension. Click on a photo to see it that size. (There are two pairs that I montaged.)

1) The seat (bottom right, upside down) attaches with 4 screws. The corners of the main frame have 8 more screws holding 4 corner braces. I started by removing all those.

2) Then I used the tip of a chisel to pry open joints that were loose, starting at the front of the chair.

All the pegs holding the joints were firmly glued at one end and loose at the other, except for the two holding the lower brace (the "H" shape at upper right), which was solidly together. At top left are the two front legs; below them the sides and front of the seat support frame. The three bits scattered inside the "H" are corner braces. One corner brace was very firmly attached on one side and I left it alone.

3) This closeup shows that the first gluing needs to be done to close cracks in the structural members. I started by applying some force to open the cracks a little more and then taking a finger-ful of glue and rubbing it into each crack. Then it is ready to clamp and wipe clean.
This shows a joint in the clamp, with glue being squeezed out, ready to wipe up. If the clamp must press onto a crack that will leak glue, I pre-squeeze it by hand and wipe what I can, and use wax paper between the piece and the clamp. The next two photos show various clamps and a vise holding these pieces while they dry. It takes about an hour. With the metal C-clamp I use pine wood blocks to protect the work piece.

4) Once all three seat frame were solid, I assembled the two side supports to the chair back, and also added the "H" strut. This entailed putting glue on all the pieces for one side at a time. In the case of the glue for the corner braces, I was careful not to get glue in the screw holes, so in the future the screws can be removed. After spreading the glue, I tightened the screws and those were set. I looked along them from the side to be sure they were lined up.

For the "H" brace, I just spread glue on the mating surfaces and the pins and pressed them into place, also sighting to get it square.
5) I assembled the front next, the front legs and the front seat support. There was a little wrinkle in getting the legs on, which I'll get into in a moment. But first, I was clamping them with a furniture clamp when one of the legs twisted and cracks opened in its top. So I put glue in the cracks and used the vise to hold that while all the joints dried. I made sure the legs were parallel. Note the blocks of wood in the vise, holding the leg being clamped. Pine blocks are softer than oak so they won't bruise the wood or mar the finish (though that is pretty beat up already from decades of use).
6) Once the front assembly was set, I put glue on all remaining joints and pressed it into place. Then I put the chair on the floor and used a furniture clamp to clamp the seat support, and a rope, looped four times, to clamp at the bottom to hold the "H" brace and provide added support while everything dried. I used a section of floor that I already know is flat so I could press down the chair every-which-way so it would not rock when it was finished.

7) Now to the wrinkle I mentioned. In one end of the front assembly there was glue at the bottom of the holes the pegs go into, that held them back from seating fully. Yeah, I know they came out of there, but wood can subtly shift, and in the two pictures below the one on the left shows a gap that I could not close. Trying to close it caused the cracks in the leg I mentioned in step 5.

I made thin shims by splitting veneer from scraps of paneling and glued them into place all around to fill the gaps and strengthen the joint.

8) Finally, I glued the corner braces and screwed them into place. And now, voila! The finished chair, ready for the seat to be screwed on.

Another week of Russian spider activity

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Just for the record: somebody/ies in Russia has kicked up blog scanning for about a week now.

Friday, February 09, 2018

I guess it is boring in Russia just now

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

The net spiders sourced in Russia have been quite for about a year. Over the past day or so, they've ramped up again. During the calm, this blog had few readers, 40 or so daily. Now I see that just in the 7:00 am hour today (7:00 pm in Novisibirsk), there were 90 hits. It's too bad this doesn't indicate actual popularity.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Some random members of family Orthalicidae

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

I have been in the midst of inventory of terrestrial snails of a large family that is popular with shell collectors, the Orthalicidae. The family is named for the genus Orthalicus, but the family contains numerous species in many genera. In recent years taxonomy professionals have split certain genera out into new families. But we tend to call all these species "Orthalicids". Today I just present a few that I ran across recently, showing some of the breadth of attractive shell forms in these families. Each image is followed by a caption.
These are two species in the genus Placostylus, P. scarabus (Albers, 1854) and P. seemani (Dohrn, 1861). They are found on the islands of the south Pacific: the former in New Caledonia and the latter in Fiji. These island nations are about 850 miles apart (~1,350 km), so there is little natural opportunity for these species to encounter one another. The Fijian shells are visibly narrower than the Caledonian.
These are two more species of Placostylus, P. strangei (Pfeiffer, 1858) and P. stutchburyi (Pfeiffer, 1860). Both are found on the Solomon Islands. The third row consists of five lots of shells that have been identified as Placostylus, but no species is yet assigned. I am particularly intrigued by the one shell with aperture showing, that is bright orange inside.

This closeup shows one lot of P. scarabus. I purposely turned one shell to show the aperture, which shows a pale orange inside, less prominent than the one in the former picture. This also shows the variety of coloration to be seen in a single species, from quite mottled and brownish to smoothly creamy.

I turned two of these shells, of the more distantly related species Auris melastoma (Swainson, 1820), to show the nearly black interior. "Melastoma" means "black mouth". These inhabit Brazil.

Finally, this is a closeup into the plastic box containing one lot of Berendtia taylori (Pfeiffer, 1861). These are from a little closer to home, for us Americans at least: on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. I wanted a closeup of these, to show the fine ridges that cover the shells. You can also see a relic of museum practice in three of the shells: Munroe Walton had written his own number inside the apertures, and these have been crossed out and the DMNH catalog number written there.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Yeah, somebody is looking - should you care?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, privacy, surveys

At a very early age we learn that the things people like and dislike differ. We learn that what some approve, others disapprove. When we find that what we like—any object, food, behavior, hobby, or whatever—is disliked or disapproved by someone who is powerful, or by large numbers of others we must spend time with, we begin to keep secrets. I remember, in second grade, excitedly telling a classmate of something I saw while watching The Mickey Mouse Club on TV. He said, scornfully, "That's for two-year-olds!" After that I never disclosed that I continued to watch the show.

I didn't have that episode in mind when I began to read Privacy: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Leslie P. Francis and John G. Francis (Nowhere in the book could I find why the subtitle is trademarked). I was simply interested in the subject, one so very popular today. Once I dug in, I found the ride rather difficult. Why?

The authors write well, but the subject is difficult. It is also so broad and all-pervasive that no treatise containing a mere 100,000 words can do more than touch on its many facets. Thus the book is composed of a few paragraphs each about some 130 topics, grouped into 10 chapters. It is actually a pretty good ontology of the subject to two levels. But it is a resource or reference, and don't think it is intended to be read through. So I treated it as such, reading the opening section of each chapter, and then dipping into topics that most interested me. My interests are rather broad, so I still read through a lot of the book, but this is my disclaimer that I did not read every word.

The older I become, the more I realize how exceedingly diverse the human race is. I suspect that for  every choice I make, were I to broadcast it on FaceBook and invite comment, someone would object or blame or scold me for it. In America, at least (and how often do I consider whether it is really OK to write "America" to mean the United States of America, rather than using "The U.S" or some other locution and thus avoid slighting the other 20 or 21 nations that constitute The Americas?), the climate of Political Correctness that has been a-building for some 50 years makes us all paranoid about "offending" a nation full of hair-triggered people.

A side note here, folks: Political Correctness has become a pervasive form of Censorship, and all the idiots out there who moan or scream, "Oh, I am so offended!" a few dozen times a day really need to find a more productive hobby, and grow a useful thickness of skin. So there.

OK, I'm back. Given the current cultural climate, a strong dose of paranoia is entirely justified. You can get shot at for honking your horn at the wrong time. Nobody accepts an apology if they think they can wring out an abject apology or even get you fired. American culture as it now stands constitutes an assault on the privacy of our own thoughts.

The subject of the novel 1984 was pervasive surveillance by the State. These days, that is just the beginning of our worries. My computer-jock colleagues and I used to joke that, if a company like Seagate were to develop a hard disk with infinite capacity, the government would order two of them. To me and my colleagues in the 1980's, a disk drive holding a few hundred Mbytes was a big (and costly) device. Now for $50 I can get a pocket-size Tbyte or two (and I have an "old" 2-Tbyte drive; it is as big as the book I just read). The big data center the NSA keeps in the Utah desert has a capacity of millions of Tbytes (the unit is called an Exabyte, or Xbyte). But it is not just the government. Data-hungry commercial enterprises store similar quantities of data…about us. About you and me, their customers (or critics, or whatever we are to them). George Orwell might be astonished, or he might say, "Why didn't I think of that?" And just you wait: Moore's Law for storage devices isn't slowing down yet, so a pocket Xbyte for $50 or so is probably just a few years away. And with network speeds pushing Gbyte/sec speeds and beyond, plus cameras everywhere, just everywhere, we live in a social surveillance environment. The primary difference between you and me, and the big actors—governments and large corporations—is that they can afford to employ programmers to write software to actually sort, scan, and analyze these massive data stores and create useful intelligence.

Is privacy dead? The authors, the Francises, don't think so. But many aspects of privacy are indeed dead. They are about to get deader. Some things are still humorous. If I neglect to go into InPrivate mode when I search for products and product reviews, or when I buy what I've researched, I'll see ads for such products appearing in all kinds of places for the following several months, in spite of the fact that I already bought it. But I fully expect the day to come that Google and FaceBook and everybody will know I bought it, and the ads will instead target follow-ons. If I begin using cooking or recipe web sites a lot, will the sudden up-tick trigger ads for cookware and blenders and spatulas and toaster ovens? Maybe. And after a couple more years, "they" will likely know I am thinking about upgrading my kitchen range before I even begin my research.

What is there, in your life, that you most keenly desire to be known to nobody, but nobody, except perhaps your partner? What if your pattern of purchases—even if you never, ever buy anything online—reveals your deepest secret to "somebody" whom you'd rather didn't know it? Or, if not purchases, just the streets you drive down or walk along, tracked by the phone in your pocket? What if the traces of DNA you leave on the paper from the table in the doctor's exam room lead to a pre-diagnosis of an embarrassing or dangerous condition you didn't know you were prone to having? … but that information somehow made it to your insurance company before you even knew it? Will technology eventually make it an almost all-revealing act to simply walk through a certain doorway while breathing? Yet you have no idea which doorway it might be? The current trend in DNA sequencing can be projected to the point where doing a total genome sequence will cost a dollar. Then what? Do you really want to know you might not have the same Y chromosome as your "father"? Or your…son?

The last chapter, the final 10 vignettes of the book, consider privacy and democracy. How much secrecy is required for a democracy to function? Conversely, how much transparency is also required? (Would it change your vote to learn that a certain political candidate has a large collection of antique torture devices? or reads 2-3 romance novels every single week (or writes one every 2 months)? or never buys meat, preferring to shoot it personally? or has raw eggs for breakfast every day? or is a total Vegan? Come up with your own list.) We have had a society that functioned, oh, reasonably well, having a certain mix of privacy and transparency. That mix is being forcibly shifted. Like it or not, more transparency is in our future. And the PC culture is accompanied by a trend that asks, "If you are so hell-bent on privacy, what're you trying to hide?"

I, for one, am glad that I have reached curmudgeonhood and will not likely live long enough to see, for example, the $1 genome sequence. There is a point beyond which we can no longer adapt. I am an introvert, with no more than the average amount of paranoia (so I tell myself - 😁!). I'd hate to be pushed until I "go postal" just because of societal nosiness. It is not entirely out of the question, folks. How about you?

So hey, that was a bunch of good riffs from a book that does no more than discuss a hundred-odd questions we will find ourselves asking more and more in the years ahead. Read it only if you can withstand a boost to your paranoia quotient!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Need a daily dose of dirt?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, health, colon health, microbiome, therapies

RePOOPulation — What a lovely word! Coined by Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe of the University of Guelph in Canada, it is one culmination of the research outlined in a new book by Drs. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta: Let Them Eat Dirt: How Microbes Can Make Your Child Healthier. For that matter, this implies that our inner bugs can help or harm us at any stage of life. Dr. Vercoe grows bacterial populations in "fermenters" (they make for a smelly building), for use in helping patients restore a healthy inner "farm" of bacteria and other microbes.

I grew up when a certain proverb was popular: "They can't grow up right without eating a peck of dirt." Considering how dirty and messy kids could get in the 1950's, '40's and earlier, a peck might just be the beginning (it's about 15 pounds, or a 2-gallon volume). Rightly understood, the parallel maxim "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" didn't refer to never getting dirty, but to washing well, particularly before meals.

Let Them Eat Dirt is a book of advice, but so well written that I didn't mind. And while it is about raising children, actually it is about raising a good (meaning virtuous!) crop of the hundreds or thousands of microbes that populate the gut of everyone. Even kids such as the "bubble boy" are not microbe-free, they are just being extremely well protected from pathogenic ones.

For all you germophobes out there: Experiments with germ-free mice (GF mice) show that animals with no internal nor external population of microbes are fatter, shorter-lived, and more prone to all the chronic diseases that seem to characterize our "clean" Western social system, such as asthma and diabetes.
Definition: microbiome. "a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment and especially the collection of microorganisms living in or on the human body. Your body is home to about 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes, collectively known as your microbiome." [Merriam-Webster]
The book's chapters take us through all the stages of a child's life, beginning with the various ways a newborn's microbiome is formed, nurtured, and possibly damaged and restored. (Antibiotics effectively carpet-bomb our microbiome. Being nursed at the breast helps build a baby's microbiome, and at least partially restores the microbiome if the baby had to have antibiotics as an infant.) A baby born vaginally ingests its mother's vaginal and fecal microbes. All the cuddling, kissing, and even pre-chewing food a mother does for her baby continually adds to the microbes that colonize her baby's gut. Don't think that is icky! Unless the mother is desperately ill, that is very, very good. Later on, letting a kid play outside, including the inevitable dirty-hand-in-mouth. (The book's cover shows a grinning boy with really dirty hands, but a spotless face. Ironic!)

The book also outlines research that shows the relationship between many diseases that were formerly very rare or unknown but are now common, at least in the "advanced" societies of the industrialized countries. Not only allergies, asthma and type 2 diabetes, but many cases of autism produce a microbiome with a genetic signature that can be detected by analysis of the bugs found in the feces. With what is known now, many chronic diseases can be diagnosed by analyzing a stool sample. Although this presently costs more than more traditional diagnostic methods, that could change very soon. In fact, it may soon be possible to mail off a stool sample and get back a list of the diseases a person either has now or is prone to getting, plus suggestions how to change one's microbiome so as to forestall them. That's probiotics at a whole new level!

Whatever stage of life you may be, whether or not you'll be raising children soon…whatever. This book is well worth the read, and even taking notes for later reference. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

It grabs you where you live

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, addictions, technology

When I saw the book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter, the verse 1 Corinthians 16:15 came to mind. It speaks of a certain family that "have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints". At least, that is how the King James Version and two others translate the word εταξαν, a form of τασσω, which in the First Century meant "to set, appoint or ordain", but has lost that meaning in the centuries since. Becoming curious about the English usage of the King James era (early 1600's), I found that "addiction" referred mainly to fascination and devotion. Thus many English versions of the verse use either "set" or "devoted". The term was neither positive nor negative prior to the mid-1800's

Addiction has a much stronger and more focused meaning today. To be addicted is to be in the grip of a compulsion or obsession that harms one, or may eventually kill. Since the early 1900's or a little earlier, "addiction" has referred to a compulsion to use substances such as cocaine. As author Adam Alter tells us, there was quite a struggle in the later Twentieth Century among psychiatrists and psychologists about whether to recognize "behavioral addictions". But the modern phenomena—from binge-watching of TV episodes to online game playing, online gambling, twelve- to 24-hour FaceBook sessions and even "checking in" so compulsively that people walk into fountains, manholes and lampposts—have convinced nearly all that behavioral addiction is real and can be really, really bad.

Note the phrase above, "…or may eventually kill." I do not mean just the shortening of life due to bad health from being a "couch potato" or "FB zombie". Suicides have resulted, not just from being trolled online, but from despair over falling behind the social media rat race.

In a fascinating busman's tour through history, we find that addictive tendencies are with us for very good reasons: our distant ancestors did not become ancestors by ignoring the siren call of pleasurable experiences. In pre-agricultural days, over most of the Earth, eating everything that tasted good kept you alive, and getting all the sex you had opportunity to obtain gave you a chance at having descendants. Also, our ancestors traveled, and the dopamine-fueled thrill of seeing what is over the next ridge motivated many of them to seek new pastures and far horizons. Those who traveled the farthest may have been subject to extra risks, but the chance to populate a new and empty landscape was a benefit not to be ignored.

Our tendencies to fall prey to obsessions, compulsions, and addictions are a direct result of the tens of thousands, even millions of years, that humans lived with scarcity. Now about half the human race lives with relative abundance. What happens then? We overdo it; we overdo it big time.

The author describes many behavioral hooks that turn a potentially enjoyable experience into a compelling one. Unsteady rewards are a big, big factor. Even as Pavlov learned, once a dog has learned to associate receiving food with the ringing of a bell, it will salivate when the bell rings, whether food is given or not. But if food is given roughly every third time, the dog will salivate more and more. Rats given the chance to push a bar to get a food pellet will do so, of course. But if pushing the bar doesn't always yield a pellet, they will push the bar again and again, gathering pellets far beyond their need to eat them. Uncertainty is a big hook.

The most addicting games are those that you win about 1/3 of the time. If you win every time, you get bored. If you win less than 1/10 of the time, you look for a "better" game. This is just one example. Apparently, the most addicting computer game to come along, at least up to the time the book was written, is World of Warcraft. The second-most is probably League of Legends, which my son plays more than he should…though so far it hasn't affected his work enough to cut into his income. I hope that day doesn't come, but for many others it has come already (Cue a stereotypical video of a jobless Millennial who lives in the parents' basement and plays games all day).

So, can we do anything about this? Friends of ours despaired of even slowing down their daughter's FaceBook addiction. Her grades suffered badly. She almost dropped out of college. Nobody knows quite what happened, but she somehow developed a backbone, and a level of resistance, so that her grades improved, she graduated, and now has a responsible job. I don't know how much she may still read her News Feed on FB but I don't see a lot of posts from her. There are other folks—well, I just shake my head. I wonder how they have time to put one or two or three dozen posts in their News Feed every single day. Maybe we just have to let people outgrow it. Pity those who never do.

At the end of Irresistible the author discusses one "thing" (I can't think of another word) that seems to make positive use of the hooks that draw us in: Gamification. This is adding an element of fun into otherwise mundane, boring or unpleasant tasks. In the modern era, technological hooks can be used to trigger our compulsions, just enough, but breaks or "units" are inserted so we won't binge out. The FitBit is a potential gamification of exercise, but it doesn't have any checks, so some people damage their health trying to achieve ever-increasing goals. It needs some work.

But even without FitBit and its kin, overdoing it is a risk. I used to exercise a lot, including certain body-mass strengthening routines, and began keeping records. As it happens, that might have been a mistake. Or, at least, I ought to have obtained a buddy or coach to help me keep track and not ramp up my routines too fast. One day I did too many dips and pulled a muscle in my chest. It took five months to heal (I was about 40; were I younger it might have taken only a month or two). By then, the cycle was broken, and since then I primarily walk. There was no FitBit involved, nor have I ever owned one.

I am also reminded of Zooniverse, with more than 70 somewhat gamified "citizen science" projects. There aren't even any bells and whistles, just accumulating numbers of tiny projects completed, but that is enough that millions of people (myself included) enjoy sorting galaxies, counting penguins, or transcribing hand-written museum labels. Without a few little hooks in the projects, it is actually deadly dull work!

I consider the matter unfinished. We don't yet know how to cope with behavioral addictions. As the author writes, we are in the foothills of addictive technology. But not everyone is equally prone to addiction, whether to substances or behaviors. Perhaps Darwinism will run its course, and a future generation will consist mostly of people who are largely immune to the allure of the Like button.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Is evidence-based medicine dead?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, medical research, critiques

Research incentives are messed up, big time. So much so that Sturgeon's Law of fiction writing applies, doubled: when someone protested to him about the presentations at a science fiction convention, that 90% of it was crud, he replied, "90% of everything is crud!" When people's careers are on the line, when jobs, promotion, tenure and salary all depend on "Publish or Perish", virtue vanishes. Young, idealistic researchers become jaded, cynical cheaters. One medical author has written that as much as 99% of published medical research is valueless or even damaging. Another wrote,
"One must not underestimate the ingenuity of humans to invent new ways to deceive themselves."
This quote is found on page 192 of Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions by Richard Harris. Author Harris admits that his title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, because rigor mortis literally means the stiffness of a corpse, while "rigor" also means strictness in carrying out a procedure. While it might be more accurate to title the book Mortis Rigoris (the death of rigor) or Mortuus est Rigor (rigor has died), it wouldn't resonate with doctors and others of us who know Latin.

More accurately, however, while experimental rigor is neglected more than adhered to, and may be on the ropes, it isn't quite dead yet. The ten chapters in Rigor Mortis illustrate and document every major aspect of medical research, from experimental design (The "gold standard" of the double-blind trial is nearly always compromised to save expenses, and frequently foregone entirely) to animal studies (Suppose you were told that a certain medicine was tested exclusively on women pregnant in their first trimester, of ages between 22 and 25, all from a specific ethnic group in Scandinavia? That's the analogy to a typical mouse study) to statistical analysis (The p-test is dramatically misleading, and we'll get into that one anon).

Have you ever heard of the "desk drawer file"? It is a lot like a Roach Motel; experiments with "negative results" check in, and are never checked out. Some of the few honest researchers left in the field are agitating for a requirement that every study funded with tax dollars be published, no matter what the outcome. The good news: transparency. The bad news: a ten- to 100-fold increase in the number of papers published. There is already an overwhelming deluge of publication! Gack!!

We need look no further than this to validate Sturgeon's Law. Consider the much-overused p-test, or p-value. You take a bunch of numbers, grind the formula (found in every statistical software package out there, including Excel), and out pops a number. Is it smaller than 0.05? Publish! That number gets inverted into "95% statistical probability that the result shown is not due to chance." Hmm. But what is it due to? Sunspots? Batch effects (perform run 1, clean equipment, perform run 2; do they differ because of the cleaning?)? Something you would never think of in your wildest dreams (all too frequently, yes)? But just suppose all those "95% chance it's right, 5% it's wrong" papers actually do have the "correct" cause and effect. How many experiments went to the "desk drawer" since the last time you published? 5, 10, 20, 100? The average is (wait for it) about 20! So, ignoring the desk drawer, five out of 100 publications must be reporting a chance association or correlation. Add the desk drawer factor of 20, and now at least half of them are reporting a correlation due to chance. Just by the way, it is amazing that the vast majority of studies that report a p-value have a number just under 0.05: "Dig around until you get a p-value you like, then stop looking."

Add in other factors, all detailed in Rigor Mortis, and there is little chance that more than a tiny fraction of published research results will stand the test of time. And that is a problem. A little time? That is OK. If a lot of further research and even development and marketing are based on a faulty result, and it takes "medical science" 5, 10, 20 years or more to find and correct the mistake, how many people die or suffer needlessly?

Is there a way out of it? Only partially. Transparency is part of the answer. But bureaucrats are lazy, so even with a law on the books that all studies funded by NIH must publish all results, for example, it is poorly enforced. There are a lot of partial answers out there. Here is my answer: We must live with what we have now, while things are possibly getting better, but today is today. When I must choose a new doctor or specialist, I inspect the waiting room, and later the visitation room. How many drug company trinkets can I find (pens, calendars, note pads, posters, and many more)? The fewer the better. My current doctor's rooms don't have anything with a logo on it. That's a great start; it means the doctor has better-than-usual resistance to high-pressure sales. Such a doctor is more likely to make a decision on medical grounds. Secondly, who do I actually see? Curiously, I prefer to be seen by a PA or NP, rather than a DO or MD. They haven't had all their good sense educated out of them yet. In my experience they are also a lot more willing to answer questions and do so more meaningfully. Also, I do ask a lot of questions, because a brusque doctor is likely to be impatient in the operating room also. In medicine, patience isn't just a virtue, it is a necessity! There is more, but if you aren't doing these things, start there.

What else can you or I do? Educate yourself. Not from medical journals, but from summary materials on things that are known to work. WebMD and Healthline are just the beginning. Don't limit your reading to a single source. When offered a "new" drug, always ask, "Is there an older one that works well enough, perhaps with fewer side effects?" There are always side effects. Some you can live with, some you can't. Do avoid, desperately, a drug that needs another drug to deal with side effects. My wife takes a statin drug for high cholesterol. She was originally prescribed the strongest one, and even taking a tiny dose, had troubling side effects. Her "undrugged" total cholesterol is 240, but that drug is best used for folks in the 400+ range. She demanded a weaker one, and even then, splits the pill in thirds. She has no noticeable side effects, and her "drugged" total cholesterol is about 160. Good enough!

I've learned to tell a doctor, "I am not a patient. I am a customer. You and I will collaborate. I will never cede my right to make decisions, except during anesthesia that we have agreed upon together." Call it an intelligence test. For the doctor. Occasionally a doctor fails it, and then I get another doctor. When needed, I make a doctor aware how skeptical I am of the "evidence" presented in modern journals.

Rigor Mortis is scary. Is it right? Sadly, yes, it is more right than the average published medical study. But don't let that drive you to the amorphous world of "alternative medicine", at least not wholesale. Allopathic medicine has produced amazing health in most Americans and others in the First World. For a generation or so medical research has gone astray. Will it return? Maybe. Until it does, we must be our own best doctors.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Sleep, beautiful sleep

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sleep

What a way to start the year! with a book about sleep. Michael McGirr, a former Jesuit priest, and a victim of sleep apnea, writes about sleep and sleeplessness from a few unique perspectives in his book Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep. I read the book hoping to re-connect with this lost art, but found instead a travelogue, a book of "what" but not "how".

There is no table of contents and I didn't count as I went, but I reckon there are upwards of a dozen chapters. Each is titled by a time and a year (or a few related years), thusly:



in which chapter he writes of his diagnosis of sleep apnea and the invention of the CPAP machine, and about his marriage to Jenny who loved him anyway (this after he left the Jesuit order), or



riffing on Jacob son of Isaac, one of history's celebrated sleepers, he of the dream of angels on a ladder, but one who nonetheless complained to his father-in-law,
… by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes.
He writes of Edison, who was too busy inventing to sleep; of Florence Nightingale, who slept little but spent some 3/4 of her life directing matters worldwide from her bed; and of coffee and its use to ward off sleep, so much so that Balzac, who fueled his amazing literary output with sixty cups of coffee daily, died of caffeine poisoning at age 51. Balzac might have lived a lot longer on half the coffee, and while writing less daily, his total production might have been even greater.

I am reminded of Alfréd Rényi, who said, "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems," a quote usually attributed to Paul Erdős, and tangentially of Leonardo da Vinci, who is said to have kept to a regimen of three hours and 40 minutes of work followed by a 20-minute nap, day in and day out (that comes to two hours in each 24-hour period). I read about one man who tried working on this schedule and did so for a few years, but then gave it up because he ran out of things to keep him busy. I guess to keep Leonardo's schedule you have to have Leonardo's creativity. I wish McGirr had included these also in his travelogue of sleep and its variations, but he did not.

Regardless, his own studies of sleep, restful or not, led him in many directions, including into those antonyms of caffeine, the various sleep-inducing drugs, from Benadryl® to Ambien® and beyond. During a hospital stay, a nurse gave me two Benadryl®, which worked well. My father used a prescription sleep aid that turned out to be a double dose of diphenhydramine in one pill; the exact equivalent of taking two Benadryl®, but a lot more costly. But the more recent drugs induce sleep by messing with the normal sleep cycle, which can put you into a deep sleep without the total sleep paralysis needed to keep you from acting out your dreams. Lots of sleepwalking (and sleep driving, etc.) incidents are known, some with fatal results.

In the last chapter, he writes that reading in bed can help us drowse, but only if we are reading off of printed paper. The reflected light from a page with dark ink does not inhibit melatonin production. The light from a computer of phone screen has a different quality, and does so interfere.

Overstress is a primary enemy of sleep. We need a certain amount of stress to keep life interesting, but overwhelming, chronic stress just burns us out. Some folks respond with depression and may take to their beds, sleeping much or most of the day. Most of us have trouble getting to sleep, wake too early, and feel tired much of the time. While a few chapters of Snooze address chronic insomnia, a broader affliction is that many of us get some sleep each night, but never seem to get enough. Many, many of us have an experience like mine.

During the last ten or so years of employment at DuPont, I seldom slept more than four hours nightly. For some of that time, I was also on one or another medication to address my bipolarity, but they didn't do much so I learned to cope with it unmedicated. During those medicated periods, I usually napped up to two hours daily, so you could say I had six hours of sleep, but not in one installment. However, without medication with a sleep-promoting side effect, four hours was it. No naps. I had work I enjoyed a lot, a congenial boss (the last 8 of the 10 years), and even told my boss I might work until I was 75. But when the company declared a retirement incentive, I retired at age 66.

After retirement, two important things happened. Within a few weeks, I was sleeping 6-7 hours nightly, and over about half that first year I lost 15 pounds. I remember looking back one day, and saying to myself, "I didn't realize the level of stress I was under!" I had also been using a lot of "cold caffeine" (Pepsi Max), up to a liter daily.

Now that four more years have passed and I am over 70, I get 5-7 hours of sleep, and if I wake early I simply get up, read my Bible a while, have breakfast, then have a morning nap for another hour or two. There aren't a lot of conclusions to draw from that. I am thankful that, though I snore some nights (not all), I don't have apnea; I have part time work that keeps some structure in my life, but is incredibly less stressful than any job I had before; I practically eliminated caffeine, using caffeinated cola only for driving alertness on road trips.

You'll have to look elsewhere for advice and information on how to sleep longer and better. For an enjoyable survey of how humans have been sleeping, or not, Snooze is the book for you.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Through space and time with a different mind

kw: book reviews, science fiction, multiple genres

I read through most of this book on an airplane from Phoenix to Philadelphia. Sometimes when I fly I work puzzles the whole time in the air, first whatever is in the airline's magazine, then in a puzzle book. I like the books with a great variety of different kinds of puzzles, not just crosswords or Sudoku. This time I began to read right after push-back, and read pretty steadily through most of the flight.

Do you remember Apple's "Think Different" motto of about 20 years ago? They were criticized for not using "Differently", but the word was not intended as an adverb; it was a noun: "Think [things that are] Different". When I first saw it I recalled the century-old NCR/IBM motto "Think". But that one meant "Think [because nobody else is doing it]".

Well, Hugh Howey thinks Different. Though he has published more than 20 novels and novellas, and a passel of short stories, reading the collection Machine Learning was my first exposure to him. I'll make sure it is not the last.

The volume contains short stories and at least one novella made up of short story-length vignettes, in a few SciFi genres. The author supplied endnotes about the stories, of what he was thinking at the time. He'll think inside a character: What is going through the mind of a truly bug-eyed, tentacled alien in a force bent on attacking Earth? ("Second Suicide"); he takes a riff on his friend Kevin Kelly's statement, that when a machine first becomes self-aware, the first thing it will do is hide ("Glitch"); he considers the consequences of love between human and robot (Algorithms of Love and Hate, a 3-story sequence). This last reminded me a little of The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov, but with a very different take on societal reactions. Finally, "Peace in Amber" is the author's memoir of going through 9/11 in the actual shadow of the twin towers (until they fell), interspersed with a truly weird alien zoo story. Based on his endnotes, I think the zoo story was needed to "spread out" the memoir so he could handle the flood of emotions.

The word "gripping" comes to mind. Read the book and see what word it evokes in you.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Take Tyson's tour

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, astrophysics, popular treatments

What's not to like about Neil deGrasse Tyson? He has become the public face of science today. I love his updated Cosmos series. I have privately studied astrophysics and cosmology enough that perhaps I could have passed by his new book, but I couldn't pass by the enjoyable way he treats his subject. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is well worth anyone's time, whether you know anything about the subject or not...particularly if not!

This is a rather small book, on purpose. Dr. Tyson knows that today's young adults want everything fast, they want it now, and they want it without fuss. If anyone can deliver up a basic survey of astrophysics and cosmology that meets these requirements, he can. He does so in 12 chapters.

When I think of astrophysics, I think mostly of stellar interiors, but there is much more to it than that. Clearly, from the flow of the book, astrophysics includes cosmology in its purview; probably 2/3 of the books content is cosmological. But he really does cover all the bases, from the reasons for roundness (gravity wins), to the shapes of galaxies (the tug-of-war between gravity and angular momentum), and to the reasons for modern cosmological theory to include both "dark matter" and "dark energy". Chapters 5 and 6 present these mysteries as well as I have ever seen, and explain why they seem to be required for the universe to work the way we observe it working.

I had the great pleasure to encounter a professional cosmologist on an airplane flight four days ago, and we had the chance to talk a little (he wasn't in my row, so our time was limited by physical endurance of turning heads rather sharply). I asked him a question I'd have asked Tyson if I had the chance, "If a unified quantum theory requires a quantum of gravity, how can a graviton get out of a black hole so as to interact with the rest of the universe? What is the emitting surface for a graviton?" He admitted that he hadn't thought of that before. After we talked a while of other things, then broke off for a while, he nudged me, saying, "Consider this. A black hole has three qualities: gravity, angular momentum, and electric charge, right?" I agreed. He continued, "The electric charge is carried by virtual photons, the bosons of electromagnetic force. Real photons cannot escape a black hole; that is why it is black. But the electric charge remains in effect anyway. Thus, the virtual photons do escape—and return to—the black hole to keep the electric charge in place." I thanked him for providing a marvelous "hole" in my considerations of gravitons and black holes. I suspect this is the same answer Tyson would give. Now, upon further thought, I wonder if the electric charge is held within the black hole, or remains attached somehow to the event horizon. From there (or very slightly above it), even real photons could escape if needed. But if virtual photons can indeed escape a black hole, then virtual gravitons could also.

This matter doesn't enter into the book. What does enter in, is how all the pieces fit together. Tyson gives us plenty of food for thought. One of my favorites is playing a numbers game with molecules and time. Here is my version of "Whose air are we breathing?":

Part 1
  • The air above 1 cm² of Earth weighs 1 kg.
  • The average molecular weight of air is about 29.
  • Thus each kg of air contains about 34.5 gm-moles.
  • 1 gm-mole contains 6.02x1023 molecules (or atoms) of any substance.
  • That comes to just over 2x1025 air molecules above each cm².
  • The surface area of Earth is 510 million km² or 5.1x1018 cm².
  • Thus the atmosphere contains a bit more than 1044 molecules.
Part 2
  • Our total lung capacity is around 6 liters (with a rather wide range).
  • Our "tidal" capacity, the amount we usually take in with each breath, is about a half liter.
  • That is about 0.022 gm-moles, or 1.3x1022 molecules.
  • An average person breathes about 23,000 times daily, when not exercising a lot, or about 8.4 million breaths yearly.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte lived 64 years.
  • In a 60-year span, the number of breaths would come to about 500 million.
  • All those breaths add up to 6.6x1030 air molecules.
Part 3
  • All the air that Napoleon breathed amounts to 1/15 trillionth of the atmosphere.
  • 1/15 trillionth of one tidal breath is 880 million air molecules.
Conclusion: Every breath you breathe contains nearly one billion of the air molecules once breathed by Napoleon…or by anyone else who has lived at least 60 years! Tyson didn't go into all this gory detail. He names a couple of the figures in a two-sentence riff on the subject. I just went through the figures to work it out for myself, and to share it here.

A particular aim of Dr. Tyson in everything he writes, and says in his programs, is to impress us with the power of the scientific method. We don't learn "how the world works" by guessing. We observe, make tentative conclusions based on observations, argue with others about it, eventually turn the conclusions into a hypothesis that we can test, and then repeat as needed. Now, in cosmology, a "test" would take billions of years. This isn't chemistry, for which you can mix a few things in a jar and take a measurement in a matter of seconds or minutes. Neither is it biology; we have no cosmological Gregor Mendel, crossbreeding stars as though they were peas. But we can work out the math and see how it squares with the things we see.

In science, more than in any other endeavor, "No man is an island." No woman either. The popular trope of the loner in a stained lab coat making a major discovery is simply unknown to real science. Even a few centuries ago, when chemistry was emerging from alchemy and astronomy was emerging from astrology, a "lonely genius" was really a highly social being, surrounded by helpers, colleagues, opponents, and many others. The quintessential scientific loner, Isaac Newton, spent much more time discussing his findings and theories with members of the Royal Society, including friends, "frienemies", and enemies, than he did carrying out observations or even thinking out his theories. Without a helpful gadfly-friend to prod him, he'd never have finished writing his Principia. So although Newton was famously anti-social, he still had to interact socially for his science to have usefulness and meaning. But that's the beauty of science. It is our great, collaborative enterprise of looking back at the Universe that birthed us, to see how it was done, and a great many more things of interest also.

This isn't a textbook. It provides not an education in the subject but a vision of what astrophysics is. If you treat it sort of like a textbook, and write down ideas that interest you as you go along, you'll gather fodder for any further studies you might wish to carry out. That's the kind of thing I've done all my life.