Thursday, August 28, 2008

Time and time and time again

kw: book reviews, future fantasy, space fantasy

For me, Olaf Stapledon has held the record for extended epics. His Last and First Men and Star Maker imagine billions of years into the future. I classify them as Science Fantasy because their speculations are grounded in natural and social sciences. Other authors, such as James Blish in Cities in Flight, imagination various scenarios of the end of the Universe, usually into or through the "big crunch" that would accompany the "big bang" for a closed Universe, some tens of billions of years in its future.

The City at the End of Time by Greg Bear is of another order altogether. Apparently based upon a flat cosmology, or perhaps the acceleratingly open cosmology that is now fashionable, it links a time in the near future with one that is a hundred trillion years away (that is an American trillion, a million million). There is a hint of social science here, but the ESP-ish methods of the protagonists and the immensely godlike aspects of other beings puts this book, for me, in the Future Fantasy category.

Rather than detail the plot of a story of near-impossible questing, I find a few ideas to be of interest:
  • Final Sin replacing Original Sin,
  • Text as the ultimate Observer, and Memory its Preserver,
  • Chaos as an engineered quality, and
  • Cats (Schrödinger's, or others'?) as ultimate Judges of
  • A (perhaps) intelligent Black Hole-ish something called the Typhon (a thinly-disguised temporal typhoon), the enemy of time and order.
I could have mentioned Malleable Time, but it is much-used in many guises by others. I do find the "breeds", very like intelligent chimps, and perhaps akin to Homo habilis, to be amusing attempts by far-future demigods to reproduce ourselves from poorly-remembered histories.

I found myself wondering, as I neared the end of the book's 476 pages, if it could not have been told in half the space. Greg Bear's prose can be compelling, even breathtaking. Yet it frequently dragged for me. Epic stories need not require epic endurance of a reader.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mt Rainier on our trip

kw: vacations, mountains

Mount Rainier dominates the skylines of Northwest Washington state, the more so because atmospheric refraction lifts it as much as a quarter degree above its geometrical aspect. It also rises more than 4 km (13,200 ft) above the surrounding terrain. This makes it number 21 on the list of "most prominent" mountains of the world.

When we first saw it, its peak was cloud-capped. This image is our second view; the first was just a hint. We approached from the South on Hwy 12 via Randle and Packwood. Much of the road beyond this point is amongst ridges and foothills that hide the mountain until you get inside Mt. Rainier National Park and pass the southern switchback on Stevens Canyon Road. But the whole area is so scenic, forested and dotted with lakes and reservoirs, that the drive seemed to go by quickly.

About halfway from that southernmost switchback to the turnoff to Paradise, one passes the Reflection Ponds. As my wife said, these views are postcard-perfect.

We got the chance to talk to various people as we stopped here and there for more photos. All said this was a rare day. One fellow said this was the first time he didn't have to wait for the occasional five-second opening in overcast. We feel very fortunate. It was quite a contrast to the day we first arrived in the area, when we drove all the way from Seattle to Portland in a series of rainstorms.

I am told that when Rainier has a cloud cap, that the top is being lashed by a snowstorm. It is hard to imagine such violence occurring in plain view on a seemingly peaceful day.

We had an early dinner (5:30PM) at Paradise Inn. It is pricey: we found only two entrees on the menu that were less than $20. But how many folks can claim to have dined in Paradise?

There is a small hill at the end of the parking lot from which this postcard-perfect picture was shot. Do click on the image to see a 1Mpx version...the 6Mpx original is breathtaking!

At Paradise you are right on the flank of the mountain. Mt. Rainier is cusp-shaped rather than domed, so it appears craggy even when you are right on it. I've been on a number of mountains that hide their upper reaches from their lower slopes. This is a much more viewer-friendly mountain!

After leaving the park at Longmire, we drove past Elbe, where we could see some of the cars of the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad. Sad to say, it was closed that day, or we'd have splurged for the train ride.

Further on, just after sundown at Eatonville, we caught this last glimpse of the mountain in alpenglow. The air distance from Eatonfille to the peak is about 40 km (25 mi), yet it looks almost the same from Seattle, twice as far away. What an amazing mountain, and an amazing day!

Just how do I want to feel right now?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, emotions

It took Lynn Toler about six years to write My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius. I'm surprised she finished it at all. She has had remarkable success, becoming a lawyer, a judge, and now star of TV's "Divorce Court". Yet as she details in the book, she was raised, to use an expression heard on the program, "in a tornado". It is a conundrum, to what extent her chaotic surroundings helped, and to what extent they may have helped.

Her certain anchor through it all was her mother, who usually could navigate the rough waters of Lynn's father's moods, but got herself and the kids out of the way whenever needed. He was a genuine maniac, someone who could be a brilliant lawyer in his day job, but who came totally unglued—either drunk or unhinged—after hours. Whereas my experience of bipolar disorder is primarily moderate depression with occasional mania, he was nearly always manic with very rare lows. Yet he was not bad by nature. Lynn's mother told her, "It's not always about the right decision, Lynn. Sometimes it's just a matter of picking which set of problems you want to solve...You can work with a good man who has bad habits because he wants to do the right thing. But a man with no character doesn't give a damn and you can't do anything with that." (p 43)

There is only so much a mother can do, so Lynn had to develop excellent emotional management skills for herself as a matter of survival. She has, she confesses, a very timid, anxious nature, so the strength she developed is doubly remarkable. I find it most remarkable that she could distill from her mother's raising a total of 43 "rules". Each chapter has a few that are pertinent to its own stories, and the rules are summarized in an appendix.

Knowing that most people can't take away more than three points, however, I think these three items can go a long way toward helping any of us:

  • Her first rule is the Smith & Wesson Test: If someone held a gun to your head, could you stop? If so, the emotion you are feeling is a choice and you can learn to control it. This underlies everything else in the book.
  • Under 28: Increase your nonsense threshold, "...small things only bother small people." (p 122) My son and his friends sometimes say, "Chill out" or "Get used to it." Many of the things that get under our skin aren't really worth the bother.
  • In a later chapter, prior to trotting out a couple of rules, she asks us to consider, "If I had to explain my attitude to a five-year-old, how silly would I feel?"
But a practical point I realized as I read about the many faces of anger shown here (for this is at its root a book of anger management): When I begin to feel angry, it is best to say aloud, "I am afraid" and then state my fear. Anger always begins with fear. I'm just beginning to practice this, so stay tuned, and I'll report on its effectiveness. And you, while you are at it, get a copy of My Mother's Rules and copy the appendix to re-read as needed. Maybe we can all chill out just a bit more.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Waterfall Fun on our trip

kw: vacations, waterfalls

The hiatus in postings between August 19 and 24 I was out of touch, staying at hotels whose much-touted wideband service didn't work. We were having too much fun to care. My family and I flew to Oregon the 20th to attend a family wedding. The pix below were from a run up the Columbia Gorge on the Waterfall route, the Historic Columbia Gorge Highway. We went with my brother and his family.

Of seven waterfalls along the route, we saw five, from Latourelle to Multnomah, the two prettiest. First we stopped at Crown Point to see the view from the Vista House, a seven-sided structure built by WPA workers during the early FDR administration. From here you can look up and down the lower Gorge.

This image is of the lower half of Latourelle Falls, with a couple to the lower right, for some idea of scale. They were attempting to go behind the falls, which is very possible, but you get drenched. The spray you can see at the base of the falls is driven sideways by a strong air blast entrained by the falling water, so anyone getting closer than a hundred feet or so soon gets a thorough soaking.

Of more interest to me are the "crystals" of columnar basalt that form the cliff. Columnar basalt is a characteristic rock of the Columbia Gorge and all the area. Huge flows of lava filled the area a few million years ago. Where the cooling lava was in contact with water, it cooled in a way that caused it to crack along the sides of hexagonal columns. The further from the lava-water contact surface, the more the columns begin to turn and even twist, as you can see right above the couple (you'll spot them better if you first click on the image to see a larger version).

Examples of columnar basalt with larger columns are the Devil's Postpile National Monument in California and the Giant's Causeway in Ireland. In the Columbia Plateau and Gorge, the scale you see in this image is more the rule.

Multnomah Falls is the tallest. The upper section, at 542 feet, is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. There is a footpath to the bridge; the two people at the right end of the bridge are my son and his cousin. After taking the picture, I hiked that far myself, then went further about halfway to the top of the falls. Since I don't find waterfalls that interesting from the top, the halfway point was far enough!

Each waterfall we visited got us a little wetter. I am glad we were in a rental car! At least we didn't get muddy. I probably stayed the farthest from the falls, to avoid too many water spots on my camera lenses, but I still got pretty thoroughly sprayed.

Had we had more time, we'd have gone on to the other two waterfalls and seen more of the gorge. As it was, we judged the time just right, arriving back in Portland in time to dress and arrive a few minutes before the wedding began.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

You just THINK you want to remember everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memory studies

Early in her book Jill Price quotes William James: "If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing." Along with Bart Davis she has written The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science, her memoir of growing into her memory of events—"autobiographical memory"—, which is complete from about age fourteen.

Imagine being able to recall and not only remember but relive your favorite memories...but being subject, most of the time to continuous, unrelenting, automatic, uncontrollable recall of memories good and bad, happy and traumatic, mundane and thrilling and scary and...everything! As Mrs. Price tells us, the way her memory works has mostly been a great problem. It is frequently debilitating.

She is no genius, nor a type of savant, those semi-fortunate folks that can quickly memorize phone books or long lists of numbers. Her memory for such things is no better than most, and perhaps a bit below par. She can't learn languages with extra facility, or remember a long chain of chemical reactions, nor the name list for a large wedding. She remembers the events of the day, every day, plus events reported to her or seen on TV or in a newspaper.

Give her a date, and she'll tell you what happened. Usually it is along the lines of "Hung out with friends [she can name them]; shopped at the Mall but didn't buy the shoes; saw the episode of 'Friends' on TV where [she'll mentions what one character did that was special];..." and perhaps one or two more items. If some world event made the news, she can tell you. Mention the event, and she'll tell you the date and day of the week.

As it happened, when she was first tested by a doctor, the event he chose to ask her about first had been recorded wrong in the book he used. She corrected him, and he had the presence of mind to double-check other references until he had the event and the date right. That was when he began to believe her, and a number of other "hits" convinced him she was just as unusual as she had claimed to be. When she contacted him, she was hoping to find that she isn't all THAT unusual, but studies for the past eight years have shown that she is unique.

I come from a family for whom good memory is not a given. Most descendants of my maternal grandfather's mother suffer senile dementia, probably Alzheimer's Syndrome, after about age seventy at the latest. Some begin to experience impairment from their forties but do not become debilitated until much later. So I find the lines of research that Jill Price's memory has initiated very hopeful. She has apparently not developed the "filter" that people normally have, that selects a few significant memories to retain and numbs or eliminates the rest. Once the normal mode of memory elimination is discovered, perhaps the abnormal modes thereof will be determined and something can be done to help those of us who lose too much, to keep it longer.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Learnings from a compressed life

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, pets

It's a little book, even in the large print edition, and one-third pictures, so it was about a two-hour read. But Good Dog. Stay. by Anna Quindlen is worth more than a couple hours' thought. Ms Quindlen's books belong in the "help yourself be better" category. This book is a more personal reflection on her own growth over the fifteen years of her Labrador Retriever's life, and particularly his aging and death.

Fifteen years is about 20% longer than most Labs live, so by the time old Beau (for Beauregard) was ready to go, he was an elder of elders, a centenarian in dog years. The short lesson of the book is simple: dogs are still dogs, and much of what we think about what they think is projection. For people, I understand that hearing usually persists the longest. For a dog, it is the nose.

In clear-headed love, the author and the family didn't delay too long when it was time. I, too have observed a few animal deaths, and it is true that they know when it is time, and resent being "held over". The Quindlens set a date, had the veterinarian present, and praised the old dog into a triumphant passing.

Dogs are dogs, and people are people. I think our fear of death is because we know way, way too much. When God said, "The day you eat of it [the tree of knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die", more than anything, He was saying that the knowledge of death results in a fear of death, which can make life into a living death. Now we need God to help us escape such fear, to live life while it may be lived, and, like our faithful and less knowledgeable friends, embrace the end when, as it must, it comes.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Green means everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, evolutionary theory, plants

In 1980 Plate Tectonic theory was sufficiently established to be accepted dogma (as it still is) but new enough that great uncertainties surrounded nearly every major hypothesis. One entire course was devoted to studying when plate motions began and how plate tectonics might have evolved through time. As I recall, the fact that radioactive heating of the earth was six times greater than now, some four billion years ago, was never mentioned.

However, it is a smaller incident that comes to mind today. In a follow-on course I happened to remark that the existence of life, that is the actions of the biosphere, must have had a great effect on the rates of weathering and sedimentation, and may have actually multiplied the rate at which the continents accumulated. The professor objected to this point strongly, and the debate led, over time, to my receiving a B in the course rather than my customary A. This was but one of two Geology courses for which I did not receive the top mark while in graduate school.

As it happens, for more than half the history of life on earth, the biosphere has consisted primarily of bacteria. But by two billion years ago (and perhaps still at one billion), though the oceans were bluish-green with cyanobacteria, the visible color of Earth's continents was still the grayish brown of completely inorganic soils. How things have changed!

Algae of many colors must have brightened up coastal margins, but it was only with the evolution of true plants that living beings came ashore and began to colonize the land. The green-on-blue look of Earth today, shown here in a GOES-8 image from NASA, illustrates that more than 95% of the biomass is now plant life. In The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History author David Beerling explains the part plant life has played, primarily over the past half billion years, and argues for a greater understanding of plants as one of the great driving forces of planetary evolution.

Plants harvest sunlight and so form the basis of all non-bacterial life on earth. So imagine a planet without them, and perforce, without any animals either. Oh, there are perhaps stromatolites in the ocean shallows, and similar bacterial mats in pools and streams of fresh water. But the land surface is no different from that of Mars: brown or reddish-brown, sandy and dusty, or gritty-muddy on a rainy day (as Mars's land would be if it would ever rain there). The cloudiness of the skies might be quite different...I can't say just how. But there would be probably ten to twenty times as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and at most one-third of the oxygen seen today. This bacterial world would be much, much different.

However, I would make one change to the book's title: ...How Plants Determined Earth's History. This is not too strong an expression. For most of the past half billion years, particularly since the evolution of leaves about 450 million years ago, plants have covered much of the land, greatly increasing weathering rates with organic acids, yet holding soils so that bulk erosion rates decreased even as chemical erosion increased.

Carbon dioxide has been successively drawn down, though not at a steady rate. Rates of volcanism are a primary driver of CO2 production, and particularly during the Carboniferous and Permian, this fertilizing gas was produced at much greater rates than at present. In addition, plant remains were being incorporated into sediments at unprecedented rates, which led on the one hand to the Coal Measures, and on the other to a much greater level of Oxygen in the atmosphere, and thus to a higher atmospheric pressure.

Various studies have confirmed that oxygen, which today forms one-fifth of the air, was greater than one-third some 300 million years ago. The nitrogen amount was the same, so this thicker, energy-rich air supported an age of gigantic insects, such as the three-foot wing span dragonfly Meganeura. A gigantic mass extinction episode 250 million years ago nearly eliminated the biosphere, and put an end to the era of big bugs.

200 million years later, the continents were differently configured, and various factors combined to add "extra" greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and ozone to the lower atmosphere, multiplying the effect of a rising amount of carbon dioxide. This "Eocene optimum" (optimum for who? I wonder) produced alligators in arctic and antarctic areas, and tropical forests that, paradoxically, had to survive months-long winter darkness, but not winter cold. The average temperature of the planet was 18°C greater than today, primarily because of greater polar warmth.

Finally, the evolution of C4 grasses, which use a more effective type of photosynthesis, led eight million years ago to the spread of savannas in place of dry land forests, and into some semi-arid areas that could not be forested. The author does not mention this, but I wonder if the spread of savannas led to certain chimp-like apes finding it beneficial to stand upright, so they could see over the grasses. Chimps today live in the forest, where there aren't tall grasses to overtop; they would gain little advantage by standing up. Is Grass a parent of Humanity?

And a final question: Is the current series of Ice Ages fundamentally a result of the great draw-down of carbon dioxide that began eight million years ago, and if so, will it continue until the Sun heats up enough to overcome it? Our "global warming" fears ought to center not on the gases we emit, but on the Sun on which we depend.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The beauty of fitness

kw: opinion, personal experience, exercise

Watching the Olympics broadcasts reminded me that nobody can really be ugly who takes care of himself or herself (I'm excluding accidents and deformities here, but even the most stomach-lurching deformity is, to me, along a different dimension than 'beauty-ugliness'). I've felt rather ugly for years, but recently things have changed. Why? I began to get more regular exercise, with results that surprised me.

The portly guy you see feeding ducks in my profile picture—which is more than ten years in the past—settled out by the mid-fifties to 230 lbs (105 kg) at a height of six feet (1.82 m). I was on cholesterol medicine, but not to lower it...I have too little HDL, the "good cholesterol". I am someone who really enjoys a good feed, but the cholesterol medicine, Tricor, made me famished all the time. I was afraid of ballooning even more.

Finally my doctor nagged me enough to make me get off my duff. I knew I could make by blood chemistry better, at the very least, by doing a little exercise. Almost on a dare, about five years ago I walked two miles daily for three months. My blood fats dropped in half and my blood pressure also went down. But it didn't take me long to resume a lifestyle quite a bit more sedentary than average.

Two years ago my wife began going almost daily to an aerobics class at the YMCA. A year ago I said to her, "Sign us both up for full membership. I need to have an incentive (that high monthly dues) to go exercise." I took their beginners' free personal training session to establish a baseline. But I soon established a routine that suits my history. For example, I used to cycle a lot, so I chose a cycle machine rather than an elliptical. I'm not coordinated enough (polio is part of the problem) to work one. They have two types, and I like the one that is more like a recumbent bicycle; I'm rather tired of the racing style of bike, too hard on the back and the knees.

I also began using various weight machines once or twice weekly. At age sixty, it takes a day or two longer to recover from strength training soreness, so the youth's 3-5 times/week regimen is out of the question. Mostly I use a back machine and an abs machine, but I also do upper body workouts at least weekly. I do unweighted squats for my legs, in addition to what the cycle machine does for them.

OK, so what is the outcome? I had blood test results a couple weeks ago at a checkup that amazed me:
  • Triglycerides (fat in the blood) started at ~300. Tricor had lowered the number to ~150. Now it is 80.
  • HDL started at 25 (50+ is best). Tricor raised that number to 35. Exercise without Tricor resulted (so far) in 38. My LDL stayed the same throughout at about 80 (90 or less is best.)
  • My liver enzymes were better. Formerly one was "marginal", indicating minor liver damage and a "fatty liver".
I need to add that I also added a lot of Omega-3 to my diet, which the doctor thinks is partly responsible for some of these results. And what else improved? Well:
  • My weight is steady at 210 lbs (94 kb).
  • I don't puff after a flight of stairs.
  • I used to struggle off the mattress each morning (pathetic!). Now I can sit right up.
  • I can walk rapidly and still talk, so fitness walks with my wife are more enjoyable.
We're still working on walking more times weekly, but the YMCA exercises are doing us both a lot of good.

Such a report needs goals. Mine are modest:
  • Keep it up.
  • Bring walking up to 4-5x weekly.
  • Eat slightly smaller dinners—without changing breakfast and lunch.
  • Aim for a nice, round 200 lbs.
  • Get more sleep (hard to get more than 5h/night at the moment).
I'll see how all this works out over the coming year. Back-to-school week is a good time to reflect and to plan for the year to come.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Et tu, tutor?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, languages, latin

Vos specto hoc candide.
Latin mortuus lingua est.
Is primo caedo Romanorum.
Hic me caudes est.

Latin's a dead language,
It's plain enough to see:
First it killed the Romans
And now it's killing me!

I am one of those nerdy guys who actually liked Latin, though I had only one year's instruction in ninth grade. Thereafter I learned French, one of Latin's direct descendants. I think Latin class was the first time I saw someone in love with a subject. The teacher was one of the older women on the faculty, one much feared by us all. Yet when she was speaking Latin to us, particularly quoting a classical author, she was animated, joyful, and seemed half her age.

(Two years later I briefly dated her daughter, and found her a most hospitable homemaker. She'd had the daughter rather late in life, so I sympathize quite much with her, now being over sixty with a teenage son!)

Her instruction took fairly well. My grandmother visited just after the school year ended, and when she found I'd had a year of Latin, gave me a quick drill of a couple of verb conjugations...and pronounced me "satisfactory." She'd taught young Okies the classics in a one-room schoolhouse prior to 1915. She said, wistfully, "I had to teach those farm boys a little Greek, also. I wonder if it did any of them any good."

So I could not pass up Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life by Harry Mount, journalist and former Latin tutor. Harry Mount is not the stereotypical dry, string-bean, eccentric tutor—oh, he's eccentric all right, but seems a congenial pub comrade nonetheless! He makes no bones that the book is a bit of a Latin text, but he's doing his best to un-dessicate (from de sicco, "nearly dried out") the subject; so he alternates pedagogical chapters with cultural notes, both ancient (Cato's Carthago delenda est: "Carthage must be destroyed") and modern (A toga-clad John Belushi), and a lovely chapter extolling his Latin instructors and tutors. And in no other Latin text do we have this to illustrate the Latin diminutive (using the -ulus ending):
Hunc homunculum mirabilem habemus, qui quotidie venit ut uxoris caput terat.

We've got this marvelous little man who comes in daily to massage my wife's head.
One side statement he makes vindicated a thought I'd had: The Latin language rules seemed so rigid and often arbitrary. Surely the people in the street didn't speak the way Horace or Tacitus wrote...did they? No, they did not. Part of the reason Latin is so "deadly dead" is that nearly nobody who could write every wrote any "street Latin." So the closest we can come to hearing Latin spoken colloquially is by listening to Italian, which has changed the least...say a lover's quarrel, or a shopper haggling with a grocer, or a taxi driver's monologue.

Because the mass of written Classical Latin was poetic, the "poet's license" produced a plethora (a direct Latin word from a root meaning "fullness") of expressions you'd never hear in spoken prose. So Latin has become something more like Fortran: inflexible and with a nearly endless grammar (though nothing like the French language, which has something like 48 tense/mood combinations in a full conjugation, each with six parts).

The closing chapter is a bit of an elegy to the impending death of Latin instruction. The language seems likely to die out completely. Nearly nobody, not even in England, the former bastion of classical studies, is taught even a smattering of Latin, and classical Greek is effectively vanished.

I confess I did nearly none of the exercises found throughout the book. I've got just enough Latin to lightly edit an InterTran translation of the little ditty above, and to puzzle my way through parts of my old copy of Winnie ille pu. It has been forty-plus years, after all. But it does increase my enjoyment of language to know a bit of where my words come from.

English is full of little Latinate expressions (quid pro quo; tempus fugit; habeas corpus) and about a third of our modern English vocabulary derives directly from either Latin or Norman French, which was closer to Latin that to modern French. Another third derives from Greek (or from Latin words that started as Greek words), and the rest is from Germanic languages such as Anglo-Saxon (I say "the rest" but there is almost a "fourth third" of English that comes from dozens or hundreds of the world's languages...we are great borrowers).

Robin Williams taught us all Carpe Diem! Gathering up another classical allusion or two is the least a fellow can do.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Like everybody only more so

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology

A woman who has borderline personality disorder (BPD) writes, "...borderline behavior and feelings are just bizarre exaggerations of normal behavior and feelings." This statement closes Part 1 of Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger. I obtained the book because of a recommendation in Evil Genes (see my review), which presents a study of many Machiavellian monsters such as Stalin, Hitler, and Idi Amin, considering them some kind of combination of a Borderline personality and Psychopath.

Upon reading Eggshells I realized that, whatever you may say about Stalin et. al., BPD is not the main cause. The key element is this: People with BPD (often called BPs by Mason and Kreger) are driven by a sense of wrongness and fear of abandonment. Their more bizarre behaviors stem from frantic attempts to avoid loss. The striking thing about Machiavellian manipulators (MMs, not M&Ms!) is that they so often feel they are right, even that there is no possibility that they could be wrong. If someone accuses a MM of wrong, and the MM has the power, murder or estrangement follows swiftly. A BP might injure or kill another in the heat of a rage, but not as a policy measure.

Eggshells is a valuable self-help manual. The authors explain BP behavior to non-BPs so they can gain a positive empathy for them, and they offer practical advice, particularly about setting limits, to help a non-BP restore his or her own self-confidence and maintain a more appropriate relationship...or none at all if needed. The principal appendix restates the cause of BPD discussed in the text, imbalance of neurotransmitters, and outlines effective medications and therapies that have helped in many cases. BPD is not necessarily a life sentence to instability and agony.

The best weapon against being sucked into a mutually needy and agonizing relationship with a BP is to have a strong sense of self and to be able to set limits in a confident, matter-of-fact way. But if you are such a person, a BP won't likely be drawn to you anyway. They seem to have a strong social detector of just the right kind of victim. So for me, the value here is to be able to guide friends who might have a beloved BP to first help themselves, and then help their friend, spouse, child or parent.

BPs are one category of persons who tend to overreact. To anyone who overreacts to "hot button" stimuli, repeat this as your mantra: "Do only half". Should you succeed in reducing your reactions by half, keep the mantra up and reduce by half again. Really! Don't fear losing all your emotions. You can't ever become an unfeeling statue, but you can become a more likable person. Less is more.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Phinal Phantasy?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, adolescence, video games

When I was a teen, we had a fireplace that we used a lot. It became my job to chop and split the wood. I soon found that going out and whacking big chunks of logs was a great way to blow off steam. So much so, that when I went away to college, I soon tracked down a Christian youth center with a big woodpile, and got permission to "help" split the wood. There is something very satisfying about setting up a slice of a 24-inch diameter log and splitting it with one blow.

Is there a moral difference between splitting wood to defuse my frustrations, and running a computer game in which the object is to messily destroy insectile enemies from Betelgeuse? How about if the "enemies" are human...?

There is a story I've read, an obvious setup, in which the "hero" visits two stalls at an amusement arcade. One, which he encounters first but passes by with disgust, is a shooting gallery in which the targets are beautiful young women. Who knows why they are willing to die, but they egg on all passers-by to try their luck (and aim). No, he goes instead to the nearby "True Love" attraction, where he experiences a 3-day "honeymoon" with a lovely woman. At its end, he is still smitten, but of course, the "ride" is finished and he cannot buy more time. It is explained to him that, yes, the young woman's love for him was real, as real as can be, but it was chemically induced, and just now she is experiencing true love with another. Our heartbroken hero must leave; as he does so, he passes back by the shooting gallery. When he sees it, he goes in and says, "Line 'em up!".

Sorry to anyone who finds the story ruined for them should they encounter it in a 40-year-old anthology. But...doesn't the story resonate just a bit? Doesn't it tap genuine reactions? As strait-laced as I am, I found myself nodding in guilty agreement at the end of the story.

Yet in recent days, I've forbidden my son from bringing into our Halo or any other video game "in which you gain points by hurting or killing people." Am I wrong?

When I began to read Grand Theft Childhood I expected a slam against video gaming that suited my prejudices. I soon realized the title is ironic. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games (and What Parents Can Do) by Lawrence Kutner, PhD and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, looks deep under the surface of the current controversy about video gaming, and presents the results of a study they have recently concluded with their conclusions.

It is clear that the field needs careful study. As they write, "In the course of our research, we ran across a lot of muddle-headed thinking, misuse of scientific data and political posturing on the part of people from all points of view." (p. 2) They took the refreshing step of actually asking kids and parents about what they do and what they think. No simulated electrical shocks, no air horns, and no lie-detector wiring here. Dialog, interviews, and questionnaires are their favored tools. And of course, lots and lots of reading.

Here I find fault: though they quote from a number of sources, the book lacks a bibliography. They do have more than a hundred references scattered among their end-notes, but I find this practice makes it more frustrating for anyone who wants to pursue further research on one's own. Even at the cost of more published pages, a scholarly, if popularly-written, book needs a well-ordered bibliography.

Their conclusions may surprise you. The primary one that sticks with me is that, while there seem to be a very few public scandals such as school shootings, in which you could point some blame at video gaming, the much greater risk many children face is violence in their own home. Poverty and abuse still rank as the most accurate "leading indicators" of violence by teens.

Yet I found myself wondering if the authors weren't bending over backward a bit too far to avoid the "correlation means causation" fallacy. There is a table on page 101 that shows the following: Of children (mainly middle school age) who played less than 2 hours of video games weekly, 4% or less were "classified as bullies", but of those who played more than 6 hours weekly, 10% or more were bullies. The table actually has seven categories, and a very clear trend. The table, and a companion table showing similar ranking by days per week, is also introduced by statements that refer to earlier material showing that M-rated gaming is strongly correlated with bullying. Now, after a bit of discussion, the next section heading, on page 103, is "Are Aggressive Kids More Likely to Play Violent Games?"

Much later in the book the question is asked in a similar way, and referenced by this quote by U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly: "...researchers in this field have not eliminated the most obvious alternative explanation: aggressive individuals may themselves be attracted to violent video games." (p. 203) These are two of a number of instances, and the point raised is valid. However, the question is not resolved by the authors' research, and in their conclusion they state, "We don't know if playing M-rated games inspires some kids to act that way, if acting that way inspires kids to play M-rated games or if something else is going on." (p. 223)

Thus, the most crucial question about video gaming—does gaming lead to violence or are violent people more drawn to gaming?—is left unanswered. I have to conclude, based only on my own experience, is, probably both, in some measure. Particularly because counter-examples abound. Some of the most heinous young criminals don't play video games at all...which fact alone makes them very abnormal! What I can glean from the book includes:
  • Virtually destroying interplanetary slugs and spiders does help some kids work off aggressive and frustrated feelings safely.
  • Video gaming is a much more social pastime than most parents realize.
  • Loneliness and angst are part of adolescence, whether video games are involved or not.
  • This generation is less violent, overall, than most prior generations.
  • Parents ought to learn to play the games, and to play them with their kids.
And maybe that last item would go a long way toward alleviating parents' worries.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

On Earth's failure to obey our predictions

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, global warming, policy

It is quite a paradox. After the decade of the 1990s, in which each year was "one of the five hottest of the past century!", the first decade of the 21st Century has been disappointingly cool. A recalculation of some data indicated that 2007 may—just maybe—have been ever-so-slightly hotter than 1998, but 2008 is on track to be the "least warm" year so far since about 1992.

Climate gurus of all stripes are predicting that 2009 will be warmer. Will they have better success with their predictions than Jeanne Dixon, the famously inaccurate 'psychic' of my youth? She made a comfortable living from being right only a quarter of the time.

Climate modelers and other researchers are faced with the fact that climate is in continual flux for many reasons, most of which we are wholly ignorant. Milankovich cycles that span tens of thousands of years, Bond events of unknown cause that span a thousand or two (most recently the Medieval Optimum followed by the Little Ice Age), shorter cycles perhaps mediated by the 22-year Sunspot cycle, and trends both shorter and much longer than any of these that may relate to varying fluxes of cosmic rays: these are things we know a little about, but how many influences are as yet wholly unknown?

To those who'll react, "Isn't the Sunspot cycle 11 years?": one 11-year series has the Sun's magnetic field aligned the same direction as Earth's, while the following series it is in the opposite direction. The effects of solar flares on earth systems during a "same" series differ from flares during an "opposed" series.

My observation of the climate change debate for more than forty years is that as the (emotional) heat increases the light vanishes. I despair of pundits from any "side" of this many-faceted debate showing any reasoned restraint in my lifetime. But perhaps there is a ray of hope. Nigel Lawson (Lord Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer), safely ensconced in retirement, strives to inject a rational note with his little book An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.

There is no sense pulling punches. Let's begin with his conclusion:
"...a lurch into protectionism, and a rolling back of globalization, would do far more damage to the world economy, and in particular to living standards in developing countries, than could conceivably result from the projected continuation of global warming...[It] is clear that the would-be saviors of the planet are, in practice, the enemies of poverty reduction in the developing world." (p. 106)
Though he has more than one central point, I think this is the most telling: The IPCC reports of recent years are based on various projections of the economic progress of developed and developing nations. The "hotter" cases, those that predict greater greenhouse heating of earth, are based on greater economic growth, and the "cooler" cases are based on various amounts of throttling of economic growth. Thus, the IPCC "worst case" scenario predicts that people in the developed nations will be 2.5-3 times better off 100 years from now than their great-grandparents (us) are today; for the developing nations, the figure is between 8 and 10. Their intermediate cases are based on people being perhaps "only" 75% as well off—and require cutting back our own prosperity a similar amount. So our efforts to reduce the greenhouse heating experienced by our unbelievably rich great-grandchildren entail rolling back twenty or more years of economic progress!

Looked at carefully, the IPCC predictions for the least warming ("best case") require reducing not just growth, but actually contracting the economic structure of all countries, so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%. Think about that. It is, effectively, a rollback of Western lifestyles to the those of the 1920s or earlier, certainly before any kind of air conditioning became widespread and before most people traveled by auto rather than carriage or tram. It requires China and India, home to almost half of humanity, to halt their progress in its tracks. Precisely how likely are these things? My conclusion: ZERO.

Lord Lawson take a look at the very real reports of heat-related deaths during those hotter years in the 1990s. In one year, 2,000 people, mostly elderly, died in France. News reports that year failed to mention that the prior winter, 20,000 people, mostly elderly, died due to the cold...and that was a bit less than usual. Is the point clear? Winter is still a bigger killer than summer. At what point will they become equivalent? Perhaps that is the optimum temperature!

For those who worry that heating will truly get out of hand, the author introduces us to a few folks in the relatively new field of Geoengineering. They are working on methods to cool the planet, whether we reduce CO2 emissions or not. Certain aerosols, for example, result in significant cooling without harming the Ozone layer (a worry that still comes up at times). So, fire a few million tons thereof into the stratosphere! With research, and luck, maybe they'll come up with something more effective and more benign than the sulfates that volcanoes routinely spread, but which come down as acids over a few years' time.

We find buried in the IPCC reports the prediction that warming is bad for some and good for others. They even phase it: a degree or two seems to do more good than harm, while four or five degrees (Celsius, of course) is expected to be mostly bad. Lawson writes, " it really plausible that there is an ideal average world temperature, which by some happy chance has recently been visited on us, from which small departures in either direction would spell disaster?" (p. 27). I don't think so either.

The age of Dinosaurs, which ended 65 million years ago, experienced CO2 levels four or five times today's level, and global average temperatures as much as 18°C (32°F) greater than today. That doesn't mean the tropics baked at 50+°C, but that the poles were almost as warm as the tropics, which were only slightly warmer than they are today. All computer climate models predict 5 or more degrees of warming in the Arctic and Antarctic for each degree of equatorial warming. Canada, Siberia, and southern South America will likely be the grain belt of such a future!

Secondary threats such as rising sea level are much touted. Yet they aren't really panning out. Even the IPCC's worst case predicts at most a fifth of a meter (roughly a cubit, or 1.5 feet) of sea level rise by 2100, and then only if a goodly portion of Greenland's ice cap melts. That ice is receding a bit at the edges, but its center is thickening! Perhaps that is why, in thirty years, the sea level at the Maldives has not risen, but fallen slightly! (See N. Morner et al 2004, 'New perspectives for the future of the Maldives', Global and Planetary Change, v40, Jan 2004, pp. 177-182.)

I've been particularly bemused by the idea of carbon trading. What can it accomplish? When Al Gore pays a "carbon offset" to get a few hundred trees planted somewhere so he can feel OK about having a huge mansion and fly about in a private jet, is anything genuine actually happening? Lawson thinks not, saying, "[Buying carbon offsets] resembles nothing so much as the sale of indulgences by the medieval church." (p. 78).

He prefers we do things that might really help. Geoengineering is one possibility. Another is to learn all the climatic influences so we can make our computer models actually meaningful. Today's state of the art is miserable: "The earth's climate is determined by hugely complex systems, many aspects of which are not at all well understood. Reliable prediction is impossible." (p. 91). He favors greatly increasing research spending to bolster our understanding in hopes that this "miserable" situation will be better in the future. Yet we must remember that climate is the quintessential chaotic system. Doing something twice in a row won't always produce the same results. Too much depends on what else happened between time one and time two.

So I am heartened by his effort, but it is bittersweet. His appeal will only resonate with those who really don't need it, and be ignored by those who do.