Friday, August 31, 2007

The P07 Indices of Investment and Prosperity

kw: opinion, finance, population, investing

One investment guru I listen to is Peter Lynch. In One Up on Wall Street, published in 1989, he wrote (I paraphrase) that in the thirteen decades since the financial markets were founded, stocks outperformed bonds in every decade except 1921-1930. Therefore, he reasoned, don't "diversify" by buying both stocks and bonds; a long-term investor ought to diversify into different kinds of stocks.

As it happens, it is a little hard to find out just what "different kinds" of stocks there are. Of a dozen or so indexes out there, the only one that significantly differs from the others, long-term, is the EAFE index of "world non-US" stocks. I have found it better to diversify by looking for mutual funds having differing stated strategies, as found in their prospectuses ("prospectus" is Latin, but irregular, or I'd pluralize it "prospecti").

However, as an aside for the purposes of this post, I've had a long, hard look at the Dow Jones Industrials index (Symbol ^DJI in Yahoo Finance). This chart, from Wikipedia, shows the index from 1901 onwards, on a logarithmic scale (so you can see the first 60 years above the axis).

(Click on any image to see a larger version)The biggest visible feature is the 1929 crash, which actually took four years to play out. The single biggest drawback to this image is that each datum is in current dollars. Thus the following image is the DJI divided by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The downloadable data I was able to get dates from October 1928, when the DJI was finally settled on thirty stocks.

After 1934, we see five generation-long trends:
  • 1934-1950 – A "flat" market, with lazy swings in a 2:1 range. This is what pink noise looks like. These are the Roosevelt-Truman post-Depression years.
  • 1950-1966 – A rising trend with more structure. The intervention in Viet Nam began early in this period, but was unknown to most. The Eisenhower highway system and other infrastructure creation set the stage for "the good life" that ended during the Johnson adminstration.
  • 1966-1982 – Dividing by the CPI shows that these "flat" years were actually a slow market fall of magnitude equal to the 1929 crash. Johnson, Nixon, and Carter each failed in his own way to reverse the slide. America was now alert to Viet Nam, and prosperous enough to focus more on the war than on the economy. The somewhat structured look continued; it was during 1950-1980 that the concept of a "business cycle" was developed. Such cycles vanished after 1984 (just when you think you've figured it out...).
  • 1982-1999 – A strong rising trend, interrupted briefly in late 1987, with the sharpest (i.e. quickest) downturn ever. Reagan prosperity, which the policies of Bush "41" and Clinton could not reverse. Note the "cycles" are absent. This is now white noise.
  • 1999 and later – A 3-year downturn and a 5-year recovery. Is this a return to 1932, or even 1966? No way to know. The Baby Boom generation is getting ready to retire, so their (our) narcissism will drive everything.
What do we make of it? I call this the P07 Investment Index, because it shows when it has been favorable and unfavorable to invest in stocks. Had you owned a lot of stock in 1966, by 1982 your portfolio's dollar value would have been just about the same, and you might have reaped dividends, but its real value became a third of what it had been.

Now, if somebody could have foreseen the strong upticks in 1967, 1970-1, and 1975-6, they could have made enough to stay closer to par, or perhaps show a minor profit. Back to Peter Lynch. He managed the Magellan Fund from 1977 to 1990. He had enough success prior to 1982 to stay on board, and after that, only an idiot could have lost money managing a mutual fund...and many idiots did! This era spawned the rise of index funds. Today an index fund is considered more of a hedge than as a way to make buckets of bucks.

There are two other factors to consider about the DJI. The increasing popularity of mutual funds after 1980 greatly increased the amount of money invested in the markets. There was also a great increase in population, which required more "stuff", and that drives an economy all by itself. I can't easily quantify the popularity factor, but I can get population figures. The following chart shows the US population and the DJI/CPI together.

Without further comment, let us divide these two. The following chart shows DJI/(CPI*Pop), scaled by taking the population in millions into my Investment Index. The result I call my Prosperity Index.

Why do I call it a Prosperity Index? It is a rough measure of the total value of the 30 DJI companies per capita, normalized to inflation. It is quite revealing. We've had three major "good times" periods since 1900: the 19-teens-20s, the 1950-60s, and the early 21st Century, since about 1985.

What does this mean for an investor? There are two relevant factors. From 1950-1966, the Depression-era, now prosperous, parents of the Baby Boom generation spent gobs of money raising their kids and sending them to college. Huge numbers of new schools, colleges and universities were built during this time. Then the combination of Viet Nam's second phase (overspending and increased inflation) and the bad feelings (especially anti-establishment) of that era made everyone over-cautious, and actually reduced, for the first time in history, most people's economic focus. Money wasn't the only bottom line for a generation, and it showed.

After 1982, many Boomers had become the establishment, and began spending gobs of money, not only on their kids, but on their "lifestyles." I don't recall ever hearing the term "lifestyle" when I was young.

Now, although the "Bush years" have been America's most prosperous period in history, there is an increasing "feel bad" atmosphere and huge numbers equate the Iraq war with the Viet Nam war, though the analogy is atrocious.

My father had the bad luck to spend his 40s and 50s trying to invest profitably, in a time when it wasn't possible. Had he known what would happen from 1966-1982, he'd have bought land. I had the good luck to invest profitably when it was easy to do so. I think I need to reconsider my strategy. 2007 looks too much like 1966 for my comfort. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Elephants, angels, butterbeasts, and gypsies

kw: book reviews, story reviews, anthologies, science fiction

There is something about the established masters of the SF genre; their work gets harder to classify as time passes. I count Mike Resnick as one of the my great enjoyment. His current collection, New Dreams for Old, ranges the universe of ideas much wider than most space operas range all of space. These twenty stories seem to belong to twenty different dimensions:
  • Robots Don't Cry – Love and loyalty in a completely different take on the theme of "Bicentennial Man".
  • The Elephants on Neptune – Turning the tables in a BIG way...surreal!
  • Travels With My Cats – The excitement of many fans may mean little, but the devotion of one can mean everything.
  • A Princess of Earth – If you believe as firmly as John Carter believes, can you go where he has gone? (AG motivated, see below)
  • Down Memory Lane – When your beloved is taken to another realm, how will you follow? (AG)
  • The Chinese Sandman – Outwitting competing demigods (A Mallory series story).
  • Guardian Angel – Outwitting competing gajillionaires. Holmes would have approved.
  • Old MacDonald Had a Farm – What if the cow were newly-created...and could talk?
  • The Amorous Broom – A pure romp (Mallory again).
  • Hothouse Flowers – Will we one day all outlive our minds? (AG)
  • His Award-Winning Science Fiction Story – A whack at existential absurdism.
  • For I Have Touched the Sky – The saddest story in the volume: when aspiration and ability are incompatible with one's culture.
  • Unsafe at Any Speed – Applying the laws of physics and OSHA to Superman.
  • the Pale Thin God – Just why is Jesus the highest God?
  • Mwalimu in the Squared Circle – Alternate history: what if Nyerere had taken up Idi Amin's offer of a boxing match?
  • Here's Looking at You, Kid – I must confess I didn't get it; it seems to be Rick of "Casablanca" in a "Ground Hog Day" loop.
  • The Burning Spear at Twilight – Alternate history: Kenyatta escapes from jail to lead the Kikuyu.
  • The Kemosabee – What does that word really mean...if Tonto's people really are of the "lost tribes"?
  • The 43 Antarean Dynasties – Rumination on Egyptian guides to the Valley of the Kings.
  • Keepsakes – Should we feel sorry for those who cannot feel? And should we be willing to sacrifice on their behalf?

The three stories marked AG are my code for the Aging Generation, which is my own, of which Mike is a somewhat older member. He's of retirement age, and I'm nearly there. We both have decades-old marriages. These three stories probe the feelings begotten of contemplating the future..."What if (s)he ..." The second and third of these touched me most deeply, because senile dementia (maybe Alzheimer's) runs in my family. My earliest memories are of leading my grandfather like a puppy; he couldn't find his way around the block. Much later (3+ years ago) my mother's long decline ended mercifully when inoperable cancer took her at age 81. Isn't it sad that a horror like cancer could be called "merciful"? I've nearly died of cancer myself, and it is nooooooo picnic!! Pragmatically, I suppose I'm next.

Amazingly, though every story in this volume is a sad story (and not a few are real tearjerkers, to me at least), all but one are very humorous. Being currently on a bipolar downswing, I responded most strongly to the sad side, yet I sometimes laughed; good, solid belly laughs. Laughing through the tears is the best medicine for those "over the hill but not yet under it" years. Thanks, Mike.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Beauty to one can terrify another

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, history

This image is a Calabi-Yao Manifold, one of many. The image itself is pretty, and to some, the math behind it is beautiful. To most of us, the math is incomprehensible, and perhaps most of us would not recognize it as mathematics were it presented in any form other than such an image.

Ian Stewart, a professor of mathematics, has written Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry, and a monochrome version of this image graces page 253. It seems this is a projection onto the page of some aspect of a 6-dimensional analogue of a torus; I suppose 6-D creatures could get these at Dunkin' or Krispy-Kreme.

The book is a historical survey of the continual extension of the concept of symmetry to higher and higher abstractions. However, symmetry as most of us understand it is left behind about a quarter of the way through the book. Because of a background in crystallography, via mineralogy, I suppose I have a bit more of a concept of symmetry than most blokes, but it is a stretch for me simply to understand most of the book in a mostly foggy way.

This is not to say that Dr. Stewart does not explain himself well. His writing is excellent, and a great value of the book is that it tells the stories, not just of some math concepts, but of the people who developed them.

The chapters have charming titles such as "The Luckless Revolutionary" or "The Drunken Vandal" (the first is Galois, who introduced the concept of a Group to mathematics, forever changing the discipline—or set of deeply nested disciplines—; the second is Hamilton, who had a flash of insight while walking, and promptly carved it into the nearest bridge. I didn't get exposed to Galois groups while in school, but 4-dimensional "Hamiltonian Tensors" had a lot to do with me flunking out of Physics—and taking up Geology—as a Senior).

Though I call myself a working mathematician, I must confess that I am really an algorithmicist. If I can figure out the steps behind an operation, I can either perform it analytically or program it digitally. I tend toward the latter...

The author, beginning with the Babylonian solution of quadratic equations (!- this bane of Algebra 101 students is truly 3,000 years old !!), goes through step after step in the development of mathematical concepts, showing how each either solves a problem of symmetry posed at a "lower" level, or introduces a new kind of symmetry needed for progressing to the next step.

It is really a tour de force, and I really wish I had a better background for understanding it all. Though I think the title is a bit hyperbolic, I know why it is there, and Stewart's explanations helped me gain a little more understanding, not necessarily of the beauty of all these incomprehensible beasts, but of the soul of a mathematician who finds them beautiful.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Let the united of mind unite

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, modes of thought, business

I make mobiles from time to time. One (see below) consists of nine open, inversely stellated polyhedra on wires and strings, so they rotate and revolve in the breeze from the ventilation system. The polyhedra exemplify extreme mathematical rigor. So does the careful layout of the wires' lengths so that no two shapes can ever collide. They are painted bright colors, and the colors plus the shifting relationships among them exemplify nondeterminism, holism, and beauty.

This mobile came to mind as I was reading the second chapter of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink. Personally, I think the subtitle undermines the author's message, so I hope it was forced upon him by an editor, and is not his own choice.

The appropriate message is conveyed by the main title: a whole mind. The mental landscape of Western culture has increasingly polarized itself into the camps of the linear, bottom-line thinkers that run our corporations and governments, and of intuitive, excellence-driven artists of all kinds.

It has been my observation that scientists and other highly technical people have a strong affinity for the arts and tend to prefer excellence to more "bottom-line" orientation. Their love of beauty and high performance trumps their love of money. On the other hand, those who rise high in management typically find it hard to manage people who are not driven by money, and are suspicious of them.

Thus, it is refreshing to find that Sidney Harman, in Mind Your Own Business, has written that he disdains hiring MBAs, saying, "Get me some poets as managers." Harman made his millions as a top executive by following his own advice (This is also comforting to this father of a college-bound son who has recently expressed the aspiration to become a poet!).

Dan Pink points out that linearly technical work such as computer programming, accounting, and law clerkship have become commodities. Many corporations (including the one I work for) outsource most such tasks, either to specialty contract firms or to overseas contractor "tanks"...I've called them "mental Maquiladoras", but an equivalent term in Hindi or Chinese would serve better. In fact, some companies have set up research facilities in China, where research scientists can live well on a tenth or less what an American researcher expects to earn.

The author uses the terms L-directed and R-directed to refer to modes of though that are characteristic of the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. These are more accurate than "left-brain" or "right-brain". I'll shorten them to LD and RD.

LD thinking has led to great material abundance in the Western world and those parts of Asia and Africa that have embraced Western ways, at least partially. A major element has been increasing automation of production. Today, most of the welding of auto frames and bodies, for example, is done by graceful robotic arms. Seeing them in action is enthralling.

The great expansion of Western-style education, particularly in India and China, has produced huge numbers of well-educated LD thinkers, who are accustomed to a level of affluence their parents simply goggle at, but which can be had in their home countries for much, much less than in Europe or North America. The LD mind has become a commodity.

These three factors—Abundance, Automation, and Asia—have put us in the midst of a sea change. To me, the key factor is Automation. More and more formerly "mental" tasks are being automated. Among my work acquaintances, I number a group that performs legal discovery using automated searching. Litigation costs are thus dropping fast. Other friends at several small companies composed of Indians from Hyderabad (their office language is Telegu) are making a bundle doing the meta-programming for a decision-support system that writes the programs automatically.

But what is going on here? The legal discovery searching software is directed by lists of terms and words proposed by the lawyers, turned into "synonym rings" and other conceptual terms by the search team. This is an RD activity; not only is there no software to perform it, it is unlikely that such software could ever be developed. It isn't "linear enough" to write a program to do so. Also, when my Telegu-speaking friends prepare the meta-programs that drive the program-writing software, they are doing RD tasks. It still takes a human to have the idea and to design a solution. And those humans need a fundamental understanding of the LD stuff to do their RD stuff well.

This is what A Whole New Mind is really about. Pink focuses on "six senses" that he consides essential to future productive work: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Together, these form, in my mind, the "alternative bottom line" that is required for 21st Century firms to prosper. Each "sense" elaborates into a chapter, including a section of resources for expanding our skills in each.

RD skills, by themselves, reside in a brain hemisphere that is illiterate, innumerate, and simultaneous (it cannot understand sequence). The opposite hemisphere, by contrast, cannot recognize faces or the expressions on them, cannot "get" a joke, and is easily derailed by every fork in the path. In one place, Pink writes, "...yin always needs yang." His LD education is showing; he ought to have written, "yin and yang require one another".

Back to my mobile. The shapes slowly spin and grandly swoop past one another. Though their motions are mathematically "chaotic," they are constrained. Together, the rigid shapes and their fluid relationships produce a wholeness and beauty that far exceeds that of the shapes "on the shelf."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Flawed heroes of Twentieth Century entymology

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, insects, collecting, naturalists, biographies, autobiographies

Two memories from my childhood hint at the range, just of size, found in the family Ichneumonidae, the largest family of parasitic wasps.

This poor hornworm, such as I find on my tomato plants, is the victim of a tiny wasp no more than 3mm long (about 1/8 inch). She inserted one egg into the caterpillar's body. In a feat of self-cloning that puts to shame our practice of "embryo splitting" to produce eight calves from one egg, as many as 700 larvae resulted, eating first the hornworm's fat reserves, then emitting a hormone that causes it to crawl high on the plant, then finishing off its insides before burrowing out to form pupae in the little cocoons seen in this image.

This painting, which shows the "giant ichneumon" better than any photo I could find. The artist, Caroline Bochud, has copies of the painting for sale here.

I saw many of these on the Box elder trees during the years we lived in Utah. They are huge, about 7cm long (almost 3 inches), with a "stinger" (ovipositor) longer yet. I usually saw one in the midst of "drilling" into the tree. If I watched patiently, it would drill deeper and deeper, perhaps using more than half the ovipositor, pause, then gradually pull free. It all took half an hour or so. I learned later that this scary little lady had located a grub eating in the wood, perhaps 5cm (2") deep. She has excellent hearing. She then drilled and deposited one egg into the tunnel nearby. The larva hatches almost immediately and burrows into the grub. Sometime the following Spring, the young wasp would burrow out of the tree. Fascinating and yucky!

Ichneumoninae is the second largest subfamily of ichneumons, and includes the tiny parasite of the hornworm, but not the giant. All subfamily members parasitize caterpillars of the moths and butterflies. Most are small, around one or two centimeters long. As it turns out, very many of the known species of this subfamily, primarily those of Europe and Asia, were described by one unusual man, Gerd Heinrich, who labored forty years to get his life's work into print. Altogether, he described more than 1,500 species and subspecies, and the Zoologische Staatssammlung München has produced an on-line index to his work.

The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology by Bernd Heinrich—Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Vermont—is a biography of Gerd, the father, and the autobiography of the author, the son.

In every family where a stong-willed, obsessively focused father raises an equally powerful son, the dynamic relationship results in a son fighting, seemingly for his life, to outstrip the trap of his father's character. This is particularly true where there is much to deplore. Yet it is equally true that the son repeats most of the father's history, both successes and mistakes, though there are glaring areas of oppositeness. This comes out in spades in Snoring Bird

Oppositeness first: Gerd fought in two world wars, on the German side, and was proud of his military heritage (though his WW2 service was a matter of self-preservation, not loyalty); Bernd began as a loyalist, volunteering to enlist during the Vietnam War, but was 4-F, "unfit for service" due to a bad back, and later became a pacifist.

A milder contrast: Gerd worked with academics, but was not one himself, and could not have been one by temperament. Bernd is an academic with a distinguished scientific career only now approaching a close after forty years.

Similarities: Both did their life's work with insects, specifically Hymenoptera, Gerd with parasitic wasps, and Bernd mainly with bees. Both collected throughout the world. Both were primarily naturalists, though the son is more of an experimenter. Both became very attached to rural homesteads, Gerd to Borowke (now in Poland) and Bernd to a farmstead in Maine. Both are exceptionally stubborn and brook no argument. Both were singularly focused on their scientific passion, to the neglect of their families.

This last point is particularly painful to read. Both men had no trouble attracting women, and both seemingly without remorse discarded relationships, or forced one woman to accept another, almost on a whim. They tended to fall in lust (they only thought it love) on sight. Neither ever learned that love is a decision...but few men really do.

And what is the "snoring bird"? In 1931 Gerd was sent by investors to Celebes (a large Indonesian island) collect a specific bird of which only one specimen was known. After more than a year, during which he also collected new specimens of Wallace's Rail, nearly as rare, he heard a new sound, like a large man snoring. Creeping up, he saw it was the target bird, so he shot it. While there, he collected hundreds of insects, mostly Ichneumons, and also many, many other birds and small mammals. He had his wife along, and her sister (his preferred bedmate). His wife had become an excellent taxonomist. The skins were sold for added finances.

Many of his expeditions were like this. He was usually sent to find birds or shrews or whatever, but collected wasps as he went. He also took one, two, or three women along. Once only he took Bernd, who spent a year in Africa in between his first and second years at UCLA. (You must read for yourself who Bernd's mother is. She is now the surviving "Mrs. Heinrich"). Once many of the holotype specimens he collected and described were ensconced in various institutions, and his work in print, his fame gradually was made. He's be gratified to see the ZSM web site.

Bernd's fame was made by being the man to show how bumblebees can fly. He first found that hawk moths (like the one which hatches from the hornworm that escapes wasply attention) have warm flight muscles, as warm as 42ºC (108ºF), and that they keep a constant temperature during flight by shunting more or less blood through the abdomen, their "radiator". Bumblebees were found to "shiver" to warm their flight muscles before flying, and to use similar blood shunting depending on air and sunlight temperatures. This work was presented to a public audience in Scientific American in 1988, an issue I remember reading.

Two men, more similar than different, who made their mark on 20th Century biology. This book portrays them, warts and all. Not exactly heroes to emulate, not all cautionary tale: two men who did science the best they knew how.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Do car alarms simply cry wolf?

kw: opinion, alarms, security

Just now I receieved an E-mail from a colleague with the following content:

Put your car keys beside your bed at night.

If you hear a noise outside your home or someone trying to get in your house, just press the panic button for your car.

The alarm will be set off, and the horn will continue to sound until either you turn it off or the car battery dies.

This tip came from a neighborhood watch coordinator.

Next time you come home for the night and you start to put your keys away, think of this: It's a security alarm system that you probably already have and requires no installation. Test it.

My first thought was, "Only if you have really nosy neighbors."

I ask you, what do you do when you hear a car alarm go off? Do you do what I do? I may glance over if it is nearby, but I usually ignore it.

Car alarms "false" so frequently that most people have probably never heard one go off for a "real" reason, but we all hear one hooting away every week or two. For this reason, the only "security system" I use is "The Club".

If I were to hear a car alarm go off late at night at a nearby house, I might look, but probably only after ten to thirty minutes. Perhaps that means I need to start a Neighborhood Watch; if we are all primed to do so, we'll at least look out the window.

The primary "home security" system I use is forethought. I picked a neighborhood from which the 911 people had never had a call. It is something almost never done: when moving, talk to the police before talking to the Realtor!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Aging gracelessly

kw: book reviews, autobiographies, aging

Google "nora ephron" and you'll get nearly 700,000 hits, and more than 10,000 image hits. Nora Ephron has lived her life in public, so there's nothing I need to say. I picked up the book because I recognized her name from hearing a few of her audio essays on NPR.

I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman ought perhaps to have a minor subtitle change: ...Being an Aging Woman. Perhaps. Or ...Being a Woman of a Certain Age. This collection of essays that reveal her inner life, the one not lived in public—or the one that she's doing her best to hide from public view—are by turns witty and devastatingly frank.

Move Erma Bombeck from Dayton, Ohio to Manhattan (and resurrect her; she passed away in 1996...and she still has 1.3 million Google hits), add a few hard edges and about 220 volts of vanity, and you have Ms Ephron.

The author writes primarily of the toll gravity and time exact, particularly about her efforts to minimize them, even as she brutally exposes what she sees in the mirror...when she can bring herself to look. As she writes, "Denial can be a way of life."

But she also writes about habits, habits of thought and habits of action. She writes about divorce as though one were expected to pull one off every ten years or so. She writes about disorganization and the kind of purse required to at least contain (some of) it. Eventually, it is all seen as a diatribe over failed dreams.

I've had dreams die. Several times. I recommend Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst. It is more for women than for men, yet it helped me a lot (the men in my family tend to think like women least compared to the average "man"). Why would I say this? I came away from reading Neck, at one sitting, with this impression: It is the modern equivalent of Ecclesiastes—"Vanity of vanity, all is vanity."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Blinding 1, shy 4, blue Wednesday

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, savant syndrome, autobiographies

You might find it frustrating to speak with Daniel Tammet. He has a hard time looking you in the eye...though not as hard as in the past. He doesn't do "small talk" well. He is likely to launch into a monologue about his interests. If too many people crowd around and it gets noisy, he is likely to clap his hands over his ears and leave.

This isn't about just a guy being a guy. Daniel is an autistic savant: as he describes it, he has Asperger's Syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism. A small number of autistic people are savants. It seems the mental real estate not being used for sociality is taken up instead with prodigious memory, and great mathematical and logical abilities. Many are "instant calendar calculators", and can tell you the day of the week of your birth, or any date you care to choose, over spans of hundreds or thousands of years.

I have three friends with Asperger's, so I know what it is like to get to know one. But none of my friends is a savant, though one comes close: he can talk endlessly about weather, is up-to-date on the current forecasts for the whole area, and has a powerful memory for weather phenomena, particularly cloud forms, which he loves to watch and describe. The only time I could get a word in edgewise with him was when I began to describe my experiences with the more powerful thunderstorms of the US Midwest, of tornadoes, and of half-pound hailstones.

I also have met a few autistic people, and my instant diagnosis of the difference with Asperger's is this: Someone with Asperger's Syndrome can look you in the eye. Autistic people can't, not even a glance. Most autistic people don't recognize eyes anyway.

Daniel Tammet's short autobiography (he's only 27, after all), Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, details the progress of his life from the inside. He takes pains to describe his feelings as he grew up, learned to interact with people—over a very long time—and gradually became relatively independent in a way beyond the reach of most people on the "autistic spectrum".

He is a synesthete: numbers have colors, shapes, sounds, and feels to him, as do many words. He particularly likes prime numbers, which he experiences as very spiky. This is unusual, because otherwise he greatly prefers more rounded shapes, the circle being his favorite. He visualizes sequences of numbers or of digits as a wiggly line or landscape silhouette. This characteristic enabled him to memorize, and recite, more than 22,500 digits of π (pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter), for a fund-raiser for Britain's National Society for Epilepsy.

Though over spans longer than a half hour or so, he easily gets distracted, he has great focus when he desires. This plus his memory skills enables him to quickly learn languages. He is fluent in a dozen, including Icelandic, which he learned in one week, at the behest of a British TV channel, which had also arranged for him to meet Kim Peek, the savant who inspired the autistic character in the movie Rain Man. He had previously learned Spanish in a week with books borrowed from a friend, who was learning the language at a more usual pace.

His unusual abilities and synesthesia remind me of Hélène Grimaud (I reviewed Wild Harmonies earlier this year). Mlle Grimaud is the classical pianist who experiences music as colors, practices piano only to keep her skills up but practices concert pieces by mental visualization, and lives with a pack of wolves she cares for. She is a musical savant, and her self-disclosure convinces me she is also somewhere along the autistic spectrum.

Daniel is gay, and relates his gradual development in this area as simply and as frankly as he does everything. If you saw Rain Man, you might recall a scene with the autistic man and a woman friend of his brother's in an elevator, where she persuades him to kiss her. She asks, "What was it like?" and his reply is, "Wet." Again from my limited knowledge of a few such people, it seems a characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome that sexual distinctions are beneath notice, just as humans (such as siblings and parents) seem to be just furniture that moves to a fully autistic person. The oldest of my three friends with AS claims to be gay, but only by inclination or attraction, for he is much too shy to form any relationship. He says he finds men "less complicated" than women, and he dislikes complexity.

As he approaches his late Twenties, the author has a relatively successful life. He has a partner, who helps shield him from an overly-complex world, though he has shown that he can usually manage pretty well. He has created a web-based education service, and is thus productive in a way that Kim Peek and many others with AS or autism can seldom be. I do recall, however, seeing an autistic, albino man, in the Metro in Washington, DC. His accessories made it clear that he worked as a software developer. He was listening to an IPod, which showed he'd learned how to keep the noisy world at bay. Noise is often the most troublesome stimulus to autistic people. Such example are heartening.

Perhaps over time, we'll get more memoirs from Mr. Tammet. I'd find it interesting to learn how he develops over the years. Meanwhile, he occasionally contributes to his Optimnem blog.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Geared-up Universe

kw: book reviews, fantasy, alternate history

From the author's picture, I'd expect to find him driving a flower-painted VW microbus. The Portland home address fit right in. But we find him frequenting the halls of the wordsmiths, and rapidly rising therein.

Mainspring is Jay Lake's third novel, the first to come to my notice. I see from his web site that he also wrote Trial of Flowers a few years ago. I've seen it at the library, but didn't look at it; the publisher, Nightshade, specializes in fiction darker than I care to read. He is also expecting to publish Stemwinder in 2008, which I expect to be a sequel to Mainspring.

Take Isaac Newton's speculation of God as a divine clockmaker, who created the Universe as a complex mechanism that now runs on its own, and William Paley's divine watchmaker (the first creationist argument from design, and forerunner to "intelligent" design apologetics). Mix in medieval fantasies of monstrous varietal 'people', and you have a milieu fit for Lake's tale of a clockmaker's apprentice charged by an angel to rewind the mainspring of the world.

It is early in the reign of Victoria, and one need only look to the heavens to see the handiwork of God. Not just in the planets and the stars, but in the brass ring gear within which the world revolves. One may at times also see the moon's own brass gearing. But things are subtly going out of whack, and young Hethor Jacques is charged to find the Key Perilous and set them right.

What follows is a classic, chiastic Quest narrative. I did not take notes to determine if the chiasma is perfect, but it is close. Half the book is taken up with the youngster making his way, helped by a seeming hidden fraternity linked by the password "albino toucan", to the Equator (or perhaps the Ecliptic; it is not stated), where a hundred-mile ridge supports the mighty ring gear that meshes with the cosmic ring. A mighty click at midnight establishes the beginning of each day. It can be heard worldwide, and when one is atop the ridge, it is literally deafening.

The second half of the book draws our apprentice ever closer to the South Pole, where he will find the gears that drive the world. He is helped here by a hairy species of men, self-called the 'correct people'. At the beginning and end of each half, Hethor must overcome the resistance of powerful adversaries.

The charm of a chiastic structure is that it mirrors the experience of walking a labyrinth. You first enter, making turn after turn to reach the center. From the center you return, making each turn in reverse order. A vast number of stories use plot formulae that follow either a 3-turn or 7-turn labyrinth. Most take you to the center, resolve the problem that was initially set, then jump you back to final peace (or a tickler for a sequel) in a closing chapter or an epilogue. Fewer use a complete in-and-out sequence.

Though the story has two linear elements (northern North America to the equatorial Gear to the South Pole; and the young man's coming of age with women, in much too much detail for my taste), the chiasma ties everything together, and in the epilogue, Hethor Jacques is in a southern mirror of his former northern home, but amongst friends, finally.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Roanoke repeated

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space colonies, space aliens

Is it possible for political double- and triple-dealing to get so convoluted that everybody gets lost in the weeds? Cynically speaking, perhaps it happens all the time, and is our only saving grace. If you want to follow the plot of The Last Colony in a more-than-cursory way, you're going to need a score sheet. But I prefer to read each twist as a new event with its attendant problem to be solved, and revel in that.

Having read only one other book by John Scalzi (reviewed in May 2007), I find that 2-3 new plot twists per chapter (16 chapters inhabit the current book) and multitudes of alien races are simply stock in trade for him.

The plot of The Last Colony is an onion of at least six layers, or possibly a Matruchka doll. Peeling too deep for you would be spoilure, so a couple will do: The first layer vanishes very early, when the 2,500 or so settlers for a new colony find themselves on the wrong planet, and are forced to live without using any wireless devices. A contingent of Mennonites and a hold full of "obsolete" farming equipment lead the way to an old-fashioned new life. It seems the colony must be kept secret. Later we see why: a new coalition of alien species is destroying all new colonies by non-coalition members. But the next layer to peel off—once the colonists, against all odds, avert destruction—reveals that they are now considered better off dead, by everyone except themselves.

The colony's name, Roanoke, gives some of this away to anyone who knows some history. It seems, in a number of places, the author has paid good attention to history.

The hero/heroine/heroine family at the center of things, a 90-year-old man in a 20-year-old body (his third), his 16-year old wife (created adult, so she appears 30-ish), and their 15-year-old adopted daughter, one after another, accomplish the seeming impossible. It helps that the daughter is an object of worship to an entire planet of powerful aliens...but not as much as you might imagine; that'd be much too simple.

The 90/20 man, John Perry, seems adept at making friends of enemies, and skilled at avoiding making enemies in the first place. In that, I find him very unlike just about everyone I know! While two or three other major characters are pragmatic enough to make friends as needed, even with former foes, Perry is uniquely uncalculating about that, though uniquely calculating otherwise.

He is the moral man unstained, if you will, who proves the proverb "You can't cheat an honest man." His nearest counterpart is Hiram Yoder, leader of the Mennonites, a truly Christian man without a trace of the weakness that most folks associate with meekness. (NOTE: meekness requires the greatest strength)

Another thing about Scalzi. As I recall, he had a scene in Android's Dream that brought me to tears. This book has two. Good thing I had the door closed when I was reading.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

An astro-columnist on the rise

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, collections

Some of my favorite writers are (and have been for decades) working (or retired) scientists who write periodically for various publications. I cut my reading teeth on "Mathematical Games" by Martin Gardner and "The Amateur Scientist" by C. L. Stong in Scientific American, to which I've subscribed since about 1960. Later favorites included Stephen Jay Gould's "This View of Life" in Natural Science and Jerry Pournelle's various "Chaos Manor" columns in computer periodicals (I mainly read Byte). I'd have read Carl Sagan had he had a column; novels were more his style. I didn't subscribe to New England Journal of Medicine, but I read Lewis Thomas's collections of essays whenever they hit print.

Up and coming: Neil deGrasse Tyson. I read The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist before starting this blog. Looking at his web site I note that he has seven titles in print. Now that I have read Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries it seems I have five to go.

Dr. Tyson directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He writes the "Universe" column for Natural History, and the book is a collection of 42 of these essays. He grouped the essays under seven sections:
  • The Nature of Knowledge
  • The Knowledge of Nature
  • Ways and Means of Nature
  • The Meaning of Life
  • When the Universe Turns Bad
  • Science and Culture
  • Science and God
As it is a scientific work, the book sports not only a bibliography but also two indices, one of Names and one of Subjects. The Subject Index is one of the more detailed I've seen for a book this size.

The author has a Puckish sense of humor, as one can see from the names of the first two sections. He tends to end the odd paragraph or section with a twist, such as the end of his discussion of the future of the Sun:
"..the Sun will swell...Earth descends, sinking nearer and nearer to the center...Shortly thereafter, the Sun will cease all nuclear fusion; lose its tenuous, gaseous envelope containing Earth's scattered atoms; and expose its dead central core.

"But not to worry. We will surely go extinct for some other reason long before this scneario unfolds."
In the essay "On Being Baffled" he produced a one-liner, and quoted another, that I quickly put on a poster for my office door:
  • Bafflement drives discovery
  • Feynman: "...figuring out the laws of Physics is like observing a chess game without knowing the rules in advance."
There is also this, from "Things People Say":
"Consider the following declarations. the North Star is the brightest...The Sun is a yellow star. What goes up must come down...In space there is no gravity...Total eclipses are rare. [I elided three other items.]

"Every statement in the above paragraph is false."
He goes on to explain each misconception. His explanations not only make sense, they challenge us to observe simple things to back them up, observations anybody could make but very few ever do.

Love it! He has a way to go to attain the graceful style of Gould (if he wants to), but he is already a mature, enjoyable writer of great scope.

I must mention a couple errata, which I'll pass along to him, hopefully in time for the paperback edition.

Writing of Copernicus: "Copernicus nonetheless maintained perfectly circular orbits, unaware of their mismatch with reality." Partly true. Copernicus used epicycles as Ptolemy had. His system just didn't need as many.

Writing of the plasma channel formed briefly by lightning, a plasma. He's been discussing astrophysical plasmas at temperatures of millions of degrees again. He attributes similar temperatures to the lightning. Lightning channel temperatures do not exceed 30,000 K (55,000ºF). Plenty hot, anyway.

Minor stuff, really. Now, time to track down some more of his books...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Can anyone be evil? - prologue

kw: opinion, human nature

I recently saw a book that intrigued me, but I tabled the notion of getting it for the time being: The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. Dr. Zimbardo's fame began in the 1970s with the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Briefly, a class of college students was divided into "prisoners" and "guards", and the plan was to observe behavior over several weeks. The experiment was stopped after just a few days. The "guards" had all become sadistic thugs and the "prisoners" were emotionally broken. The author's work and current results are found at

I've thought about this phenomenon on and off for more than thirty years, relating it to the "good Germans" of the 1930s and 1940s—and the death camps—; to the killing fields of Cambodia; to the My Lai massacre. Recalling the very many Biblical injunctions to "think not more highly of ourselves than we ought to think", to "seek the lowly", that "pride comes before a fall", that a certain malign church leader "loved pre-eminence", and so forth, I concluded that the very act of thinking oneself better than others inclines one to evil. It fosters all kinds of abuse.

I am sure many know the Bible verse, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." Note that it is the love not the money that is the problem. But I would say, summarizing not only Biblical exhortations, but similar words in every religion: To desire or attain pre-eminence is the main root of evil.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The beginnings of canopy science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, trees

In a post in May (Scientists that can write?) I reviewed a collection of essays and single chapters by a number of scientists who write well indeed. The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston was one such chapter extract. The chapter was a fair sample of the book's excellence of writing and storytelling.

Steve Sillett's first ascent of a redwood was far from auspicious. He really ought to have died. He and a friend jumped from the top of a 70-footer to grab a small branch on the trunk of a 300-footer. Such "epicormic" branches are usually weakly attached. This one was strong enough to hold the two of them, though it also harbored a wasp nest. They free-climbed the rough bark cliff to a stronger branch and ascended to the tree's crown. Preston doesn't mention how they got back down, but I assume they managed to jump back to the smaller tree, garnering a few more stings along the way. The things 19-year-olds do! His life exemplifies the cynical definition of "expert": someone who has gotten away with really risky stuff more often than you have.

From such a beginning, Sillett grew to become a major figure in canopy research in the tallest forests. Ironically, after learning arborist rope techniques, and experimenting to adapt them to trees reaching nearly 400 feet, he is very finicky about safety with his colleagues, including Preston, who caught the tall tree bug after an interview with Sillett, went to an arborist school in Atlanta, and practically forced himself upon the scientist.

Though (now Dr.) Sillett is the central (human) figure of the book, the author includes brief developmental biographies of a number of prominent tall tree researchers, some that have used cranes and dirigibles, and others who also use ropework.

But the real heroes are the trees. The tallest redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are probably the tallest trees on earth today. The tallest currently known is 379 feet (115.5 m) tall. But some "mountain ash" (Eucalyptus regnans) in Australia are nearly as tall, and there were reports in the early 20th Century of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees that measured 400 feet (122 m) after felling...though exaggeration is likely. All these species grow in temperate rain forests, and are more than twice as tall as all but a very few tropical trees.

Whatever the species, the crown of a tall tree begins at about half the tree's total height. Few branches, if any, are found on the first hundred to 150 feet of a 300-foot tree. Just getting a drawline over the first substantial branch of such a tree requires a good eye with a crossbow, and several to many attempts. The crown itself is a maze of branches, vertical shoots off the branches that are often the size of "ordinary" trees, and a fractal structure that makes the crown seem a forest all in itself. Indeed, Sillett's wife got lost in a crown once, tied herself to a branch, and radioed her husband for help. He was no more than fifty feet away, but took twenty minutes to find her.

Such a crown is an ecosystem, one that is now thought to contain more than half the total subaerial species on the planet. The catalog of species that are either endemic to tree crowns or rare elsewhere grows daily, including lichens, mosses, liverworts, many kinds of insects and mites, that all compete for space with more familiar species such as huckleberry and other epiphytes. Some large crowns host entire small forests of shorter tree species.

As one who had to send my kid up a 20-foot ladder to install a rope swing a few years ago, I must admire these folks from a least 300 feet! They are learning what such ecosystems have to offer, as such forests are becoming vanishingly rare.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Planet of the lizardi

kw: book reviews, science fiction

I read three opening chapters of Planet Torn Asunder by K.J. Wolf, set it aside for an hour, then the closing two chapters and epilogue.

Portraying an alien race or two "from the inside", and visiting humans from the alien viewpoint, has been done a few times, though here it is done fairly well. The plot could have been culled from the life of any of several Roman, Byzantine, or Chinese emperors who eliminated parents to secure power, then crusaded his way to imperial poverty.

The unique element I noted is a serious attempt to meld high technology and culture, including starfaring craft, with a crocodilian metabolism. These wise, emotional reptiles spend a lot of time on warmed "soothing stones" and dash indoors at sunset to avoid stupefaction by the cold. Yet they can stand upright when needed and created tools and a civilization.

The diverse lizard races with names visibly related to Anole, Gecko, Skink, and so forth, just don't work for me. If you've listened to recordings of whale song (not just humpbacks, but fin, blue, and sperm whales and others), it's easy to realize that if "Humpback" is a language, each of the other cetacean utterances differs from all the others by as great a gulf as each differs from any human language. Geckos and Anoles are as different, genetically, as humans and dolphins.

The story could have held me if it were written in a less obviously juvenile tone. It reminded me of stories from "Boys Life" when I was a Scout. However, let me offer credit where it is due: I've found even short stories too demanding, and have yet to finish one...let alone novels. I can write reams of nonfiction, but it takes another level of imagination to sustain an interior world through a long writing project.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Earth and sea exchange rings

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, oceanography, coral reefs, atolls

I've never seen living coral outside an aquarium. I suppose it's a lack I ought to make up, while it is still possible. If her book is any guide, Julia Whitty lives to dive, and her books and documentary productions simply provide the means to keep doing so. The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific is her paean to a few atolls she loves, a lyric introduction to their natural history, a window into the lives of their human residents, and a warning of how rapidly we are losing them.

I marvel at the author's writing style. The forty chapters about three favorite atolls, lyrics to their charm, the ocean's power, and their denizens' amazing diversity, segue cleanly between observation and education (of the reader).

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to determine that the atolls are not a favored place for the self-indulgent, for those who like their air conditioned and their windows screened...or shut. At a place like Rangiroa one pays US$500 daily for hot days, warm and sticky nights, and sort-of effectual mosquito netting when there is breeze enough to stand to use it. You may as well dive, and by that I mean SCUBA, so you can get deeper than the warm-to-sweltering surface layer, particularly in the lagoon. And you'll pay plenty for the boat ride out and back.

There is plenty to see underwater, and there are books and films galore about it all. I found myself most charmed the human stories and the natural history lessons. People are described mainly by what they are doing and saying: minds revealed by actions. There is a bit of authorial wonder and immersion in a scene here or there, but more about what this fish, that shrimp, or those polyps over there are doing, why and how they do it, and what this or that person does when the author has to be ashore.

How one woman urges her amphibious youngsters to swim over to whales in a lagoon (knowing they can't swim that far) while fishing with a hand line for her dinner. How a large fish visits dozens of "cleaning stations" daily, relaxing under the ministrations of one kind of parasite-removal specialist after another, almost forgetting to eat. The sight of fish patiently waiting in line for a cleaner shrimp...except the big one that comes by and jumps ahead in line. The moray eel, as big as the author, or bigger, that like to follow her around the lagoon like a puppy, though she (the eel) is probably the elder.

Though the beauty, wonder, and awe of reefs, and atolls in particular, fill the book, the warnings increase, page by page, of losses and destruction. Whether the warming of tropical oceans over the past few decades is related to our use of CO2 or not, it is clear that present-day reefs are being stressed by temperatures greater than they can bear, and few are capable of adapting quickly enough.

The insults known to be our fault are the use of dredging, poison and explosions to fish both for food and for aquarium specimens; reefs buried in silt offshore of new agriculture in areas where it'll have to be abandoned soon, to meager profits, but too late for the reef to recover; nutrient-driven blooms that kill coral and stimulate algal mats in their place; a measured rise in sea level that has already reduced the habitable part of atoll-bound Tuvalu by a quarter, and is increasing...and no nation has agreed to take the residents as refugees should the atolls vanish beneath the waves, as they are likely to do while half the people alive now are still living.

The book is not a polemic, but it contains one, with good justification. I suppose it's time to learn to dive. Good diving spots are vanishing about as fast as the years in my expected longevity.