Wednesday, May 31, 2006

That old Climate may be pretty nimble...

kw: book reviews, climatology, history, anthropology

One of my brothers, a Mayan archaeologist, was interviewed for the Discovery Channel a couple years ago. He told of the destruction of the forest around Palenque because the Mayans used huge quantities of charcoal to make stucco. All their buildings are plastered with several inches of stucco, perhaps as insulation.

Among more than a hundred theories about the destruction of the Mayan civilization some 1100 years ago, regional drying and crop failures are a prominent part of many. Regional or global climate shifts have been proposed only recently.

Among the many factors one may list, we must take account of a major dry period in all of Mesoamerica from about 750 AD to about 950 AD. Civilizations are defined by their mass effort to mitigate the effects of bad periods. They stave off droughts and other disasters, even ones that may last a few years, as the U.S. survived—though with much suffering—the dust bowl years of the 1930s, and as Joseph's Egypt was able to survive a 7-year famine around 1900 BC (with divine forewarning).

No civilization has survived a 200-year drought, though the Mayans came close: the Mayan collapse occurred in three phases beginning in 760 (about ten years into the drought) and ending about 910. Had they hung in there for another generation or two, they'd be a major civilization today.

The details needed to pin down such stories are found in abundance in The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations by Eugene Linden. Note carefully, the word "Civilizations". This book does not forecast "the destruction of civilization", but reports on the destruction of a number of civilizations in the past, and points out the environmental and climatological influences that coincide with them. While one coincidence does not imply causality, many coincidences of the same type make a strong case.

Author Linden presents his material as a case, with opening arguments, presentation of evidence, cross-examination and rebuttal, and closing arguments. This format leads to some rather dry reading. Fortunately, much of the book is well and stirringly written, and he makes a good case.

It is a puzzle that, as an increasing majority of scientists agree that climate can change rapidly and violently, has done so in the past, and appears to be on the verge of doing so in our lifetimes, public and media complacency—even denial—are at an all-time high. To most people, "long term planning" means at most five years. Most retirement advisers work with a horizon of thirty to forty years. Futurists, even my favorite, Bruce Sterling, write about the next fifty years with great frequency, scarcely about longer periods. Few folks can think in terms of something global in scope and multi-generation in effect. We need stories with more immediacy.

So, I really like these articles about poison ivy: Global warming may aid poison ivy and CBC News: Poison ivy itchier when carbon dioxide levels increase. Even if we freeze CO2 production at current levels, the atmospheric content will rise from the current level of about 370 ppm (0.037%) to 570 ppm (0.057%) by 2050. At that level, poison ivy in an experimental forest with extra CO2 gas in the air was found to grow 150% faster each year, compared to plants grown without the extra CO2, and they contained 150% more urushiol, of a more toxic variety.

Let's work this out: 150% faster means for each pound of poison ivy in Forest A, Forest B produces 2.5 pounds; 150% more urushiol means each pound of leaves contains 2.5 times as much of the stuff. Put it together, and Forest B has 2.5x2.5 = 6.25 times as much urushiol production per acre! And the icing on the cake? Urushiol is a mix of oils of varying toxicity. Forest B urushiol has a larger proportion of the worst oils.

In Japan, this might be considered a good thing, because they use urushiol to make the lacquer for lacquerware (the lacquer isn't toxic), and to paint all those lovely temples and palaces. For the rest of us, forest burning anywhere will create six times as much toxic smoke. My wife has caught bad rashes from dried leaf bits blowing around. More CO2 means an itchier future. That hits home with me more than an extra meter of ocean water.

"The Winds of Change" sounds an alert. The author is not being alarmist. He is frustrated at our case of galloping apathy. Perhaps, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, to keep a car that is getting bogged down off one side of the road from falling further, it is necessary to plant oneself firmly on the other side with a tow truck, and pull HARD.

It is now known to everyone who cares to look, that past climate changes have been abrupt and violent. The "Little Ice Age" of the 14th-18th Centuries was less violent than most, yet it caused widespread misery, appalling death rates, indirectly fostered staggering epidemics, and changed Western society permanently...another century and the Renaissance would have died aborning. Dare we neglect signs that the climate is about to make a major switch?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Kneeling a Mortal Sin?

kw: opinion, faith, spiritual practices

I heard this morning that the Pope recently left it to Bishops whether to continue the practice of kneeling during mass. This is apparently a result of questioning the practice as being due to feudal influences in the medieval church.

It is a bit older than that... In Isaiah, God says, "every knee shall bow to me...", which Paul quotes in Romans. Paul also wrote to the Ephesians, "...I bow my knees unto the Father...".

If kneeling to pray is a mortal sin, it has always been so, and if it was not a mortal sin in the past, it is not one now, nor ever shall be. The real influence is some folks being influenced by The DaVinci Code, which we must remember is a work of fiction (and pretty poorly researched fiction, at that).

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Big Brother in your pocket, your shoes, your car's tires, your shirt's designer label...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, surveillance, smart tags

In the keywords, I almost wrote "nonfiction...sadly". There is no fiction in the book. There is a bit of extrapolation, very close-in, sure-thing extrapolation: car going 100, already missed a turn, ten feet from impact with a fire hydrant...conclusion, we're going to get wet and somebody's headed for a major ER visit.

Catherine Albrecht, founder of CASPIAN, and Liz McIntyre, CASPIAN's communications director, sound alarmist in their new book SPYCHIPS. Full title of the book: SPYCHIPS: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID, and CASPIAN stands for "Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering". Only, it ain't just supermarkets, folks.

They only sound alarmist. Compared with the magnitude—and current reality—of the threat, they are mild-mannered, harmless kittens. Fortunately, they aren't that harmless, and have forced major corporations to back down from plans to implement spy-chipping endeavors...for the present.

What is the threat? Let's take it a step at a time.

What is a spychip? There are two kinds. The cheap variety are little passive transponders: when a radio signal of the right frequency, and strong enough, is present, they take power from it and broadcast on a very close frequency their ID code, and perhaps other information...perhaps lots of other information. The more expensive variety are active transponders. They contain a battery. The most familiar are highway toll transponders, such as EZ-Pass in the Northeast US. They can respond to a weaker signal; they broadcast a stronger signal with their ID code, and probably other information as well.

Passive chips, depending on frequency and efficiency, can be "read" at distances from a few inches to two or three feet. Active chips can be read much farther, from ten feet or so to a mile or more.

Such chips can be little. The chips themselves are the size of a sand grain or smaller. Their antenna makes them larger. The low-frequency ones, like my company badge that opens the door to my office building, are the size of a credit card. The ones that work in the UHF band (off the end of the TV channels) can me half an inch long, and no wider than the wire to your IPod earphone.

Scenario one: Are you a Texan? Got a TranStar toll transponder? Like those discounts? Houston gets a lot for the discount it offers you. Ever notice, on the highways around Houston, there is a sign bridge every four or five miles...even where you'd think none is needed? Every car passing under those signs is recorded, using its TranStar. That explains why the TranStar needs replacement every year or two; the battery is getting a lot more use than you bargained for! This isn't fiction; it is happening now.

Scenario two: Since mid-2005, did you buy any Levi's in Mexico? So far, it is just one store, but you just might find a chip inside one of the labels...drop this search string into Google for more details: +frontline +levi +mexico +rfid .
Chips that can hide behind the alligator label on your designer shirt can be read from a foot away or so, just far enough that every store in the mall _could_ have a reader in the doorway, and thus be alerted to the presence of that shirt. Point-of-sale information, which the stores can all buy cheaply, will attach your name (or the name of whoever gave you the shirt for your birthday!).

I have "loyalty" cards for several local grocery stores. At the moment, they are all bar-coded, and contain no chips (I've checked). But whenever I use one during a purchase, the receipt is very diligent to print how much I've saved in the current year by using the card. It's dollars and cents, folks! My stores know everything my family has eaten, for years already. All they have to do is collate their datebases. As an expert in that field, I know how easy this is.

Within a couple years I expect these grocers to issue replacement cards, that offer "added benefits." They won't mention that the benefits are all on their own side! They'll have chips. At that point, my family and I will be faced with a decision: How badly do we value the privacy of our eating habits? Are we ready to return to paying cash for everything? Are we willing to go to the trouble to create a false identity with which to set up the "loyalty" account? (child's play, by the way)

How long will it be before we come under pressure to have chips implanted in our bodies? The story will be about public safety, but the real reason will be surveillance. Big Brother in your armpit, or up your butt, or somewhere...

Most of us are descended from patriots who threw a few thousand dollars' worth of tea into Boston harbor over a tax raise. How many of us are willing to revolt over a technology that will with total certainty lead to 24/7, minute-by-minute recording of our lives? Oh, it will be gradual, but it will be relentless.

You know, I've only touched on a few points from the book, and I'm already boiling again. I have a story from history we would all do well to heed.

John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, wrote of a dream in which he conversed with the Devil. Satan said, "I'll get you, you know." John stalwartly replied, "You can't. I'll fight you at every turn." The Devil said, "Oh, I don't need to fight. I'll be very gentle, and gain you very gradually, like a mother lulling her infant to sleep."

Let us remember that governments and corporations live longer than we do. They can afford enormous patience. Freedom can't be retained on autopilot. The battles must be fought again and again.

See these web sites for more information, and some ideas you can put into practice: (CASPIAN) and .

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Is the universe big enough for more than one god?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, deification, super powers

In the Mormon doctrine of deification (theosis or exaltation), as commonly understood, some of the really, really good folks become gods in their own right, and are given (or make for themselves) private universes in which to rule. I don't know whether Robert Reed is a Mormon, but deification is the premise of Sister Alice. Though such divinity is achieved by technology—a technology a few million years more advanced than our own—it results in beings that can, and do, destroy stars and galaxies.

Something I have yet to see in an SF novel is a clear indication of the huge energies involved in relativistic travel. Say you are satisfied to poke along at half the speed of light. To accelerate a ton of material to 0.5c requires at least the total annihilation of about a quarter-ton of mass. If you can't do total annihilation, by using antimatter for example, then, considering that hydrogen fusion uses up 4% of the mass, you need the output of a fusion generator burning five tons of hydrogen to long as you don't carry the generator with you! Want speedier? Going 0.99c requires 7 tons of total annihilation, or the conversion of 140 tons of hydrogen. You can get pretty close to light speed if you can manage to gather the total output of the Sun for a year or two, with perfect efficiency of propulsion.

OK, you endow a bunch of people (a thousand families, in Reed's novel) with technologies that allow them to manipulate power on such a scale. Now what? You get a bunch of demigods, and a handful of genuine gods. What do they do? They realize the universe isn't big enough; any one of them can boil the galaxy away on a whim. Thus far, they've exercized sufficient self control (for the past several million years, anyway) and the galaxy is intact. So, they set about making another universe. They become creators. Some of them, at least, will be able to have a private universe to play around with.

Reed's writing is called "high concept" by some reviewers, and I guess they mean it for praise. As I understand it, high concept means you can summarize the story in a sentence, and the execution relies on dressing it up with sufficient twists of plot to make the result less than obvious. High concept stories usually sacrifice character development for literate agility. Fortunately, Reed is better than that, and the five novellas that string the story together have sufficient scope for his characters to breathe a little.

The novel is galactic in scope, even intergalactic (there is no good adjective for a scope that includes a couple of galaxies of the Local Group). The term I prefer for the genre is Universal Saga, and its best early purveyor was Olaf Stapleton.

I plan to read more of Robert Reed's books (he has ten to date).

Monday, May 22, 2006

People as they oughta be...perhaps

kw: book reviews, fantasy, paranormal powers, otherness

Few are the tales I re-read. Fewer still the ones I re-enjoy time and time again. Zenna Henderson's "People" stories are among those elite few. Many think them too sentimental, even mawkish. They suit me perfectly, perhaps because I'm a very sentimental bloke myself. Others decry the open piety of the People, which is often contrasted to narrow, bitter fundamentalism...but not always: where the People encounter "earthlings" of genuine piety, they are welcomed as people of faith.

Considering that most "christian" religion consists of wholly unbiblical sentimentality (who hasn't heard, "Oh, a loving God would never do that!"?), and that fundamentalism is typically insecurity in disguise, it is no surprise that publishers prefer writers who never mention religion. It is almost true that "rational Christian" is an oxymoron...almost.

Zenna Henderson's People seem to me like Mormons without the polygamy, but with super powers, which they wisely keep in check. They are unfailingly reserved, unwilling to inflict their difference on an unknowing populace, and even less willing to become subject to curious (tending to hostile) scrutiny. As she came from a Mormon background (see the Wikipedia biography), this makes sense.

The 2005 printing of Ingathering: The Complete People Stories returns these classic tales to print after a generation. Paranormal powers—telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, levitation—are the most common fantasy element of otherwise "science fiction" stories.

The growing field of universal saga SF, which deals in epic, mythic-scale story lines and ultra-technological (though largely undescribed) toolkits, commonly "explains" superpowers via the high-tech kit. Ms Henderson's People have powers that aren't explained at any level, they just are.

To use an analogy, most fish sense sound and vibration, and a very few create sounds they use for echolocation, like bats; only toothed whales also use sound as a powerful weapon. To a fish, the sonic stun beam of a dolphin must seem like a super power. To the dolphin, it's a useful hunting weapon, normal as can be.

The root of all of Henderson's stories, of the People and otherwise, is coping with being different, whether as an individual or as a social minority. Her last People story, "Katie-Mary's Trip," faces People differences with the Hippie counterculture (which she consistently misspells "hippy"); two "different" groups are thus contrasted. To me, the effort fails in this case. She couldn't get inside the hippie mind, as she could both the People mind and that of their persecutors (These last bear a singular resemblance to those who persecuted the Mormons in the 1840s).

The rest of her stories succeed, often wildly. They take the "aliens among us" theme from the angle of the alien, trying to live unnoticed in a very different world. There are more ways to tackle this notion than you might at first imagine. Setting aside "bridging material," there are seventeen stories in this collection. Sixteen at least are gems.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

De-Disneyfying the "King of the Wild Frontier"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, history

How many legends circle around to meet their model in his lifetime? He never figured out how to spend within his means, partly because he so seldom had any; he had way too many kids (9) on little or no income; he was elected three times to Congress, but wholly ineffectual as a legislator. Yet he was an enormously popular public speaker; a spectacular marksman and hunter (nearly no 21st Century person will ever see in their lifetimes as many deer, bears, and wild turkeys as he killed in a single year); he published three books, two of embarrassingly poor quality and one that is still a classic; and it is accurately said that David Crockett was the first genuine American Celebrity, the most popular man of his generation. It is also pertinent to observe that, had he lived through the Alamo slaughter, he'd likely be mostly forgotten today. Like Samson, he became greater in death than in life.

To me and my schoolmates and siblings, Fess Parker was "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." We all had "coonskin" (dyed rabbit skin) hats. We sang the song. We went to Disney's Frontierland in Anaheim.

Buddy Levy has slogged through a huge mass of material, in particular cross-checking and corroborating the things Crocket wrote about himself, and has produced a powerful biography, American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett. Crockett was not only a champion woodsman, hunter, and orator, he was a champion spinner of tall tales. More than a few are found in his "autobiography."

How to encompass a character whose fame barely fits the continent?
Historians have tried! Tens of thousands of pages in hundreds of books and thousands of learned articles...with the total growing daily. Fortunately, Author Levy has boiled it down for us. The portrait that emerges is a man of nearly incurable optimism, who suffered frequent reverses of fortune, a series of spectacular rises followed by equally stupendous descents.

He was a sore loser, but not the kind to hold long grudges; given to pushing ahead even harder than before. He embodied his motto: "Always be sure you are right, then Go Ahead!" Trouble is, he seldom had a good take on what was right, or perhaps among the various "rights" he had to choose from, he typically chose the most contrary.

I've read some pretty hefty chunks of Crockett's prose (and of course I know it was edited by his friend Thos. Chilton), and no historian can match the style. I nonetheless find Levy's writing quite readable anyway, quite a bit better than most histories. Good research, well presented.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Just how many people really need "high-def" music?

kw: opinion, music, digital music

In the recent CNET article
Syncing high-def music with digital generation, Staff writer Greg Sandoval reports on efforts to distribute lossless music, challenging the "terrible sound" of mp3 files at 128 Kbps.

My experience with mp3 files isn't that clear. Yes, there's a lot of junk out there, whether purchased, ripped, or pirated. But I know few people who can hear the difference between an mp3 at 128K and the CD from which it came. I am a musician, and only in the most exacting situation, in a room with superior acoustics and using exceptional equipment, can I hear the "details" that certain audiophiles make so much of.

The difference in enjoyment is too small to warrant the trouble, for me. I suspect this is so for all but a few people that I consider overly picky.

I grew up with vinyl, and a CD track played on almost any player is superior to vinyl on equipment costing a BMW or two. An mp3 file played with my computer or an iPod is still better than the best vinyl.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Living the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, christian faith, spirituality

About a hundred years ago, God began moving among young Chinese, many with a British or American missionary upbringing. Some, like Henry Nee (later Watchman Nee), were from third or fourth-generation Christian families. Once they began to follow Christ as teenagers and young adults, they asked, as young Christians do everywhere, "Why are there so many competing 'churches'?" and "Why are God's people so inert?"

Nee and his coworkers, primarily Witness Lee by the late 1930s, were used of God to recover a church life and practice that was nearly unknown among Western Christians, and remains very little known today. The local church life, based on oneness in any locality, on the indwelling Spirit of Christ, and on the vital actions of every member, produce a revolution among Christians in China and throughout the Far East since the 1920s, and in America and Western Europe since the 1950s.

Historically, the difficulty with retaining the freshness of any move of God centers on the lukewarmness that enters with the third or fourth generation. The first generation can often gain their children in large numbers, but the generations following gradually lose the first love, and the sad history of Ephesus is repeated: God warned them in "Second Ephesians", found in Revelation 2, that they were at risk of losing the lampstand, the testimony. God's testimony requires love. Ephesus did lose their testimony, and the city exists no longer.

I entered the local church life in 1972, and have since participated in the second, third, and fourth generations of its expression in the United States. That fourth generation is embodied in the grandchildren of my generation, and their condition is very sad. Fresh love for the Lord is very scarce. They find "church" boring. We are at risk of becoming just another denomination.

We once thought we would be the generation that saw the Lord's return. Now we are not so sure. I have sometimes asked myself and others, "If the Lord sets us aside and turns to others, what will it look like, and how will we know?" Privately (and now publicly, since you are reading this), I believe that from our side it looks like what we see around us in the local churches I know. There are wonderful things happening in a few localities, and there is much joy among us who have known one another for so many years, but we see the darkness falling.

From others' side, what it looks like just may be the experiences presented by Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical. These people are at a stage similar to the young Chinese brothers in the 1920s, and the church life I experienced in the 1970s in California. At that same time, however, there was a lot of activity called at the time "The Jesus Movement," which came to nothing. I hope these folks do better than that.

When I got the book, I didn't notice the Zondervan imprint. I wasn't actually expecting a Christian testimony, it was just strange enough to be my "wild card" book this time around. What I got was a breath of fresh air. People of God everywhere are casting deadness aside and trying out the dangerous freshess of living what they see in Acts and the Epistles. God likes that.

Oh, I could quibble with some of the author's interpretations. I'll just mention one, because this understanding and the vision that accompanied it were largely responsible for the turn I made in 1972. Most believers think the parables in Matthew about the mustard tree and about the leaven in the dough are positive, something to do with the growth of the faith. The saints in L.A. helped me see, by showing me the mustard on the hillsides, and its use as a salad herb, that the great tree grows contrary to its nature. The "fowls" nesting in it represent evil things coming in as a result. Thus, this parable and the one following, of the leaven, predict the damage the so-called Church will do as it grows in power rather than life. The evil birds and the sinful rebellion and pride (leaven) contaminate the testimony of Christ (the gentle herb and the fine flour). This is important to me, but God can use someone regardless how they interpret these particular parables.

Author Claiborne and his companions in Christ are, as my companions and I did thirty years ago, "being the church" and "doing the church". Read the book, then read more at the simple way. If you dare, visit the Kensington area of Philadelphia and see for yourself.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Psychic kitty strikes again (Cat Who #28)

kw: book reviews, mysteries, cats

I haven't kept track, but I've read nearly all the Cat Who mysteries by Lilian Jackson Braun. The latest is The Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell. When I got this book I did a little digging, and found that Ms Braun wrote the first one just forty years ago. It seems she published three in quick succession, made quite a name for herself, then spent almost thirty years as a newspaper columnist and editor ("Good Living" section for Detroit Free Press) before writing another. The lastest is the 28th!

For anyone who hasn't yet enjoyed Koko and his rich owner, start with "The Cat Who Could Read Backwards", then go to a website such as The Unofficial Lilian Jackson Braun Fan Club so you can read them in sequence. The early ones, in particular, hang together better when read in order.

Premise: a discouraged journalist in middle age, a man of striking appearance and sympathetic mien, gets a couple of Siamese cats, quite reluctantly. His rich aunt dies and leaves it all to him, if he will live five years (generously provided for in the trust fund) in the little town of Pickax, county seat of Moose County, "four hundred miles north of everywhere." Each book contains a murder or two that he solves, or helps to solve, aided more-or-less subtly by the male Siamese, Koko. Koko does catlike things, things like pushing books onto the floor, tearing up photos, or just looking at someone fixedly, that put ideas into his "owner's" head.

With a murder or two to be solved per book (three in this one), one might imagine a small place like Pickaxe would soon be depopulated. The author must share the concern, for she imports many of the victims from nearby towns or from among tourists. Since the books cover a span in Koko's life of about eight years (so far), the rate of about four murders per year would make it less popular as a tourist haven, I would think.

No matter. Pickaxe, Moose County, Lockmaster, Brrr, and the surrounding locales are charming, most of the books' characters are gracious—or at least have a heart of gold under their eccentricities—, so that there is plenty to enjoy. These are not blood-and-gore mysteries. The murders are verly lightly drawn. The focus is instead on their solution via cat-ESP or whatever, and upon the details of small town life that produce the books' lovely ambience.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ancient and old gods and heroes

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, contemporary mythology, poetry

"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" —Euripides.

I think we're all a little mad. Why else the intoxicating pull of tales of gods, demons and heroes; of titans and mad tyrants; of deals made with—or without—the Devil? It makes me think of Mao's aphorism on the Dragon: "You pray for the True Dragon to come/When the True Dragon comes, you don't like it" (my own translation of his overly-stylized Chinese).

Sonya Taaffe writes in Singing Innocence and Experience of modern lives colliding with the mythology of Greek and Jew. Orpheus, dismembered now a trilennium, sings still of Euridike; the Devil keeps a hard school (moreso than Franklin's "nature") and still takes the hindmost; a golem, Pinocchio-like, wonders about being human; a unicorn must still submit to an Innocent...but what if the hunters don't accompany her, and he moves in?

I'm reminded of a song by Terri Gibbs:

"Somebody's knockin', should I let him in?
Lord, it's the Devil, would you look at him!
I've heard about him, but I never dreamed
He'd have blue eyes and blue jeans..."

Ms Taaffe's summers on the dissected Maine coast, so like the island-studded Aegean, engendered a unique voice for the seacoast setting of most of her stories. I used to wonder why Greece and Rome had such similar mythologies (I once learned quite a long table of name correspondences: Zeus=Jove, Hera=Juno, Hermes=Mercury...). How the Greek island and seacoast culture could spawn myths so similar to those of the malarial, miasmal swamps that surrounded the "seven hills." Certainly the Norse myths suited their landscape, as the Hebrew myths and Kabbalah did theirs.

Then I learned that their old stories descended, through the Etruscans, from family legends of the exploits of Nimrod, his mother/consort Semiramis, and their offspring. The more I learn of mythologies in any culture, the themes are the same, and devolve to a single principle: Ask yourself, "If I had the power of a god, what would I do?" Answer: you'd behave very childishly, as do the gods of every myth system, and godlike emperors and dictators everywhere. Responsible behavior is found in myths only among mortals, and is darn rare even there.

So it is with the author's immortals the the mortals who encounter them. Capricious, amoral (or better, nonmoral), unheeding, planless. If you have forever, can deadlines (and how apt the term is!) matter? The mortals in such stories are young, young enough to think they'll live forever, which attitude I recognize in every teen (and all too many alleged adults) I know.

The themes are ageless, nothing new under the sun, as Solomon was not the first to note. The modern twist is often arresting, but what makes these stories and poems compelling is the style, the use of language, of a classicist learning to breathe new life into old themes. She succeeds.

Battle of the Sexes: males 1, females 0, children 0

kw: opinion, sociology, parental responsibility

Yesterday (Monday, 5/8/2006), on the Michael Smerconish show on WPHT 1210 in Philadelphia, some new laws were debated. Recently Florida, following 16 other States, introduced a law absolving men from child support for children who are not their biological offspring.

Michael debated in favor of the law and his guest, a woman whose name I can't recall, debated in favor of current law, that a man is responsible for a child he has been raising, regardless who is the biological father.

I won't get into the debate. Rather, I noted that the debate was a perfect sociological vignette: for women, the welfare of a child trumps everything, while for a man, personal interest is paramount.

If people were lions, there would be no stepfathers: the female's new mate would eat, kill, or drive off her existing offspring. When a new lion cub is born, the male can tell by smelling if it is his, and if it isn't he eats it. Other species exhibit similar behavior.

Humans are social animals. Thus, it is (usually) safe for a new mother to hand her infant around in a group, to be cooed and admired by each in turn. It is also (usually) safe for a single mother to marry.

Why the "usually"? Some men are more like lions than are some women. The "fairy tales" of evil stepparents are based on grim reality. Grim but, fortunately, rather rare.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

What are we doing to some of the Best among us?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, police work, detectives, sociology

In rare cases, I will overlook ugliness and vulgarity. The fact is, street people are frequently ugly and vulgar, particularly criminals; detectives work mainly with street criminals; to learn something of their lives, I must look (peek) unflinching into the world they inhabit. Street Stories: The World of Police Detectives by Robert Jackall makes police detectives the subject of sociological scrutiny. "The Professor" spent several years in their world: in the "houses" of several New York City precincts, alongside them in their work, studying the files and archives, and probably making a bit of a nuisance of himself, as sociologists must do.

The bottom line for me (as it seems to be for Jackall): the bosses and their political machinations are frequently a bigger danger to society than the "criminals". Sure, some cops go bad, some whole departments go bad. At times, policital machines have suborned entire police systems. But most police and most police detectives are dedicated though jaded, honest but cynical, and incorruptible in the midst of vast corruption and venality.

As I read of their work, I found myself asking, "How can we do this to them? What are we turning these good men and women into?" Consider this list, from Chapter 5, "Squad Work", of the events in a typical four-day duty tour by a Transit policeman during the early 1990s:

  • One armed robbery by a single suspect seeking cash
  • Two or three robberies by groups of suspects taking sneakers, earrings, and other accessories
  • Three token booth robberies

And in a typical four-day tour "aboveground" by a Midtown North squad detective during the same years:

  • Two assaults on homosexual "johns"
  • A handful of tourists conned by flim-flam artists
  • Extortion for "protection" in a local bar by huge men with gravelly voices
  • A corpse in a flophouse
  • A knife slashing outside a trendy nightclub

Further uptown in Manhattan, a detective in the 34th precinct might encounter, in a four-day duty tour:

  • Two aggravated gun assaults
  • One armed extortion
  • A knife-wielding derelict
  • A bookie, "shaken down" of his receipts
  • Someone jumping from the Geo. Washington Bridge, who may have driven over from Kentucky to do so
  • One drug-related killing

For each of these three examples, multiply by the sixty tours in a it any wonder police detectives are tired, jaded, cynical about human nature? How many of us witness a single armed robbery in a lifetime? See a corpse anywhere but the open casket at a funeral? Meet up with any of the darker denizens of the streets, of any size or voice quality? When my parents were in their early seventies, they were followed home from a restaurant and confronted by a young man with a gun as they opened the garage and got their mail. Mom threw the mail at him and they both screamed and shouted at him. They are lucky he panicked and fled... The only such event in two long lives.

The later chapters of the book open another window on the political and "legal" wrangling and ambiguities that detectives confront once they have "solved" a crime (and 50% is a very good record). I didn't get a good idea how many cases are solved on the street only to be lost in the office or courtroom, but it seems to be substantial. I don't have any trace of an idea what to do about it, either. People say "The justice system is broken." Well, sort of, except there really isn't enough of a system to break. If we could apply systems thinking to justice and criminality...worth a thought (by people capable of thinking; getting elected removes all though from the brain).

Author Jackall, "the Professor" to the detectives he followed, has done us all a service, if we will heed it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sandblasting your Senses

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, poetry, illustrations

The book jacket blurb from the Seattle Times reads, "When Margaret Atwood is good, she's very good. And when she's barbed, she's better." So I can't say I wasn't warned.

Atwood's little book The Tent is touted as an essay collection, and it mostly is. A few chapters are poems in free verse. I read these little pieces at odd moments while reading other books. Whether she's rebuking photographers of all ilk as papparazzi, looking at orphans from a round half-dozen viewpoints (except their own...), or recasting old fairy tales to comment on society and politics, she has her stompin' boots on.

Perhaps she's working at filling the shoes of Dorothy Parker—though reading between the lines, Atwood's done better at love. Or perhaps, instead, those of Alice (Roosevelt) Longwood, of the famed pillow reading, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit be me." Her illustrations are an odd cross between Egyptian temple art and Dr. Seuss.

Her voluminous prior writing, both fiction and nonfiction, covers quite a spectrum, and can be warm or dry, bitter or humorous, so this little volume may simply be, as the last line in the book reads, "...the right thing to do on the darkest day of the year."

The man who would be prophet dare not miss.

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, demographics, forecasting

This book took a week to read, and a couple days to think over. In The Next Great Bubble Boom: How to Profit from the Greatest Boom in History: 2005-2009, written in 2002, Harry S. Dent, Jr. forecasts a boom in the last half of the decade, followed by a significant recession, or even a depression, of about 14 years' duration. He rides on his credentials as the one who forecast the economic ride we had in the 1990s.

So is he right this time? Or is it as Churchill said, "Even a fool is right sometimes." Author Dent's main thrust is the demographic changes that America and much of the world will go through as the Baby Boom generation finishes its climb to the peak of economic power, then goes into retirement, followed by the smaller, and thus less powerful, echo boom, the X generation.

I am certain there will be a significant impact. Whether the reduction in the need for goods and services will be greater or less than the reduction of workers available is another question. In other words, we know demand is going to reduce, probably from 2010 until the early 2020s. Will the job market shrink more than the working population, leading to rampant unemployment? Will the working population instead contract the more rapidly, leading to a surplus of job and business opportunity?

The demographics are pretty clear. There are many studies of the expected population trajectory for most countries, and of the economic rise and decline of typical individuals as they age into the work force, buy houses, raise families, retire, and "fade away." The use we make of such data requires a more rigorous mathematical basis than it receives at the hands of economic forecasters.

For example, the author shows that for the average American, spending is the greatest around age 42. Then he takes the birth curve of the 1940s to 1960s, projects forward 42 years, and shows it as an economic projection. However, that curve has a rather broad peak, and is skewed: rapid rise, slower fall with aging.

To properly combine a spending curve with a changing population curve, the proper mathematical tool is convolution, AKA cross-correlation. Only a convolution of spending with age, and the numbers at each age over time, will properly predict an economic trajectory.

An extremely simplified model shows the principle. This chart shows a population bubble: an otherwise steady birthrate of 10 (thousands, millions, whatever) per time period (years, decades...), rises to 25, then drops again to 10. We'll call this the Birth Function.

This second chart shows economic effectiveness (on whatever scale you'd prefer to measure it) as it rises then falls with age. Supposing these time periods are decades: earning "enough to care about" begins in the 20s, rises to a peak in the 50s, then falls to "too little to care about" in the 80s...on average. We can call this the Spend Function.

You may of course get more complicated schemes, with differing trajectories (and impact levels!) for rich, middle, and poor "classes." Regardless, the homogeneous economics-with-age Spend Function function is convolved with the Birth Function to produce our result:

This chart shows that the convolution is not as sharply peaked as the two functions that produced it. The time scale is different also; this Economic Impact Function covers about an amount of time equal to the width of the Birth Function and the width of the Spend Function.

The Birth function and Spend Function both fall from a peak to the baseline (10 in the first case, zero in the second) in three time periods. Their total width is the same, six periods.

The total width of the Economic Impact Function, the convolution, is twelve time periods. However, because it is more 'curvy', it really has a significant difference only over about eight time periods, so the fall from the peak to the effective end covers about four periods.

Now, given the many other factors that affect a national market over various periods of time, there is a lot of noise masking any signal we'd like to discern. Specifically, if the month-to-month variation in a market signal is a few percent (10% is common for the DJIA, for example, from any month to the next), it can take a long time to pick out a long-term trend.

Thus, we may expect the US economy to turn downward around the end of 2009, and it very well may. However, it may have market peaks and valleys that make it hard to determine the fall has really begun for several months. Major market slides take a couple years to work out. Only in retrospect can we say, "The downturn was such-and-such a date."

Harry Dent's book is interesting, informative, and gave me a lot to think about. I like his ideas, though I think the analyses view some noise as though it were a signal. That's where I'd put Elliott Waves, on which Dent spends a chapter. Bottom line: the Boomers and the Echo Boom can be expected to make the world economy ring like a bell for about a century to come. When you expect a downturn, how do you prepare? Best way known: start a business that caters to those you expect to have money anyway.

My grandfather, once a salesman, later a piano tuner, began renting and leasing used and repaired pianos in the 1930s. He figured almost anyone would go for having a piano if it only cost them a dollar or two a month. Everyone needs entertainment, and radios then cost a lot. He was right, and continuing piano rental receipts provided my grandparents a very comfortable retirement, including two vacation homes.

Harry Dent makes me think. I like that.