Monday, November 30, 2009

A pet to one, a monster to another

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths, folklore, monsters

I don't know how a book that claims to be a comprehensive treatment of monsters (of all kinds) can go 300 pages and not even mention Mao TseDong or Josef Stalin. At least Adolf Hitler gets a cameo appearance, but he is 1/8 the murderer Mao was, and "only" half so bad as Stalin.

Entering "monster" into the Princeton WordNet search page, we find:
  • an imaginary creature usually having various human and animal parts
  • giant: someone or something that is abnormally large and powerful
  • freak: a person or animal that is markedly unusual or deformed
  • a cruel wicked and inhuman person
  • (medicine) a grossly malformed and usually nonviable fetus
In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen T. Asma discusses all these kinds of monsters and more. He categorizes them into four larger areas:
  • Ancient monsters (mostly chimeras and wild take-offs of human types such as headless men with faces in their chest)
  • Medieval Monsters, seen as divine messages
  • Scientific Monsters, including deformed fetuses and more-recently-produced chimeric creatures
  • Inner Monsters, such as mass murderers, serial killers, and the monstrous impulses that can be found in any of us.
To me it all boils down to this: we most fear what we can neither predict nor control. Lesser fears are reserved for controllable but unpredictable things, but we reserve some of our greatest dread for that which we can predict but not control, as witness all the people who shout (or whisper) "Don't go in there!" at key moments of a horror film.

I don't really have much more to say about the book. Though well enough written, it is a bit more scholarly than I'd have expected for a popular treatment. It took longer to read as a result. I already know that the real monster is in me, and under which circumstances I'd conclude "there is a fellow I'd cheerfully bump off." Those who really need such insight, however, never seem to find it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The red mill

kw: holidays, photographs

Friday (11/27/2009) we avoided "Black Friday syndrome" and slept in. Just before noontime we went on a tour of Bob's Red Mill, a whole grain miller that caters especially to health food enthusiasts and those needing a gluten-free diet. There is a special gluten-free area of the millworks. Later in the day, at lunch, we met Bob, a very personable 80-year-old. All the employees seem to be chosen for upbeat, good attitudes.

The mill uses stone wheels for most of its milling. There was a good explanation of how the wheels never touch, but are kept a tiny distance apart, depending on the fineness of the meal or flour being produced. Some grains just gum up a millstone, and these are ground using other methods such as steel wheels or cutters. Their steel-cut oats just won an international award, the "golden spurtle", at a contest held in Scotland, the land of oat enthusiasts. I've had oatmeal from those oats, and it is definitely superior.

The guide explained that we would not actually see mill wheels in action. We could see some of the mills, but they just look like large washing machines. Without their cover, the air would be filled with flour and you wouldn't see anything! But on one close to the window, we could see the grain going into the shaker or "damsel", from which it enters the millstone's center hole. The guide told us this bit of folklore:

Since mills were invented, they have had a shaker attached at the top, which feeds the grain to the stones. It is the noisiest part of the operation, and for centuries it has been called the Damsel because it chatters like a young girl. No matter where you are in a millworks, you can hear the damsel. When the hopper feeding grain runs out, the sound of the damsel changes dramatically, and the miller will say, "I have a damsel in distress" and rush to the "rescue", adding a new bag of grain to the hopper. That is the origin of the term "damsel in distress".

Near the packaging area they have a selection of antique milling machinery, including these stones and the original "Mill #1" that Bob started with. If I understand rightly, all millstones are taken from a quarry near Paris, France, which has been mined for quartzite for the stones since Roman times.

The stones wear slowly, but do need dressing and sharpening a couple times yearly. This is a much easier task now with power tools. Imagine refurbishing the surface of a stone about a meter in diameter with a hammer and chisel!

We found out that if the milling is done too fast, the bran and germ come out coarser than the white flour and can easily be separated. Slower milling produces a more homogeneous whole grain flour. Some entrepreneur, a century ago or so, made a virtue of haste and invented white flour. It is so low in nutrition (being almost entirely starch) that by the mid-1900s federal regulations were imposed requiring millers to "enrich" white bread with vitamins and minerals. One of the early white-flour separators was on display. We use only whole grain breads, as I have done for decades.

Just as the tour ended, we all were given a few souvenirs (samples of various products), and these wooden "coins" that have, on the other side, a coupon for a free cookie at the store and restaurant Bob runs just down the road. Of course we went there for lunch. We used one of our wooden coins for a cookie and I kept the other one as an added souvenir.

Turkey Day

kw: holidays, photographs

I have a few items pent up; I was loath to take time for blogging during the very short time we could be with my father. On Thanksgiving day we did what we usually do: slept in then feasted all afternoon. We'd helped get things ready the day before, but my dad's wife still did the great majority of the preparation, for which the rest of us, at least, were very thankful.
Date of photo: 11/26/2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In the air PHL to PDX

kw: travel notes, photographs

Note: click on any picture to see a 1-2 Mpx version.

I use the Philadelphia airport only once or twice a year, so every time I do the artwork in the terminal has been changed. This exhibit was an eclectic collection of art, some to be worn and some to be shown, mainly in metal and enameled metal such as this cute piece. It is about eight inches tall.

We are on our way to Oregon for Thanksgiving with my Dad and his wife of one year. We've been holiday hosts for so many years, it is good to have someone else take care of things this time! But our son's college schedule limits the length of our trip. We'll be there just two full days plus whatever time remains of today, our first travel day. Getting across country, each way takes a full day.

I learned something about the Philly airport. In the past, we've gotten there only a little over an hour before a flight, because we usually fly at 6am, a less popular time. But we were expecting a real zoo, and the last time, we were almost an hour getting through security, which made me a bit anxious. So we timed our arrival for about 3:45. That turned out to be too early! The airline staff weren't there yet and the e-ticket kiosks were not turned on yet. So we sat for half an hour: scheduled opening time is 4:15. By that time, there were a lot of people there, but still not the crowd I'd expected, so we got our bag checked right away, zipped through security, and had a full hour before boarding time.

In Chicago, we had a 2+ hour layover, which a late plane stretched into more than three hours. That gave me plenty of time to get good images of the Field Museum's Diplodocus and put together this panorama. The Field Museum uses the skeleton to advertise their store, the corner of which can be seen at lower right.

If we were willing to pay for a nonstop all the way to Portland, we could be done with the whole trip in six hours plus the two in PHL. Instead, we were 3.5 hours in O'Hare waiting for the four-hour ride to Portland. Going back, we'll have our layover in Dulles Airport (Washington, DC), then a 1-hour hop to Philadelphia. I've never used Dulles before.

In the air, the land below was under clouds until we got past Minnesota. I had a window seat and, in preference to watching the movie on a tiny screen fifteen feet away, just watched the landscape. Though I took a few pictures of the landscape, the air was hazy almost everywhere until near the end of the flight.

As we got over Oregon, I was able to see the Cascade volcanoes. This is the best of the images I took. It shows Mount Adams right in front of Mount Rainier. I boosted contrast quite a bit. We're looking sideways through fifty or more miles of blue sky, and I only partly compensated for that. I love mountains.

The last leg of our journey was an hour's ride on the light rail to where Dad could pick us up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Yes! We speak science (pow!)

kw: science, philosophy, musings

A salutary thing, Climategate. It has long been known, in a hush-hush sort of way, that any scientist taking a view even a little out of step with the "orthodox" view of climate change (AKA global warming) is in for plenty of trouble: lost funding, delayed tenure, can't get published, and so forth. Now it is known just how unethical many of those defending and establishing that orthodoxy have been.

In case anyone out there thought the Ivory Tower was a pristine setting, think again. Here is how science really gets done:
  • It starts with a view, a theory, a hypothesis that has become endorsed by most scientists.
  • A researcher somewhere notices something that doesn't seem to fit. "What's that?" is the most powerful question.
  • Further experiments yield more data, until said researcher (let's use the name Sy) is convinced this is a new phenomenon.
  • In the best case, a period of consideration – days, weeks, maybe years – ensues, with or without more experimentation, until Sy formulates a hypothesis that fits all the new facts.
  • Sy publishes.
  • Sometimes, the new hypothesis is not controversial in the least, and is gradually accepted.
  • More frequently, someone takes offense, and Sy's hypothesis is attacked.
  • Sy publishes a defense, and may set about further experimentation.
  • If any of those taking offense are in Sy's department, Sy could lose funding for those further experiments at this point.
  • Sy can always bootleg the work, robbing better-paying work on the sly (nearly universal, by the way; there is always something a researcher wants to do that "the administration" doesn't want done).
  • Sy gets more results, and publishes again, perhaps in a less-renowned journal because the first journal's editors are under pressure to quiet things down.
  • With luck, at least a few other researchers get miffed enough to do some experiments of their own. In fact, the more miffed they are, the more likely they are to bust their butts to prove Sy wrong, and in the process generate lots of data. Some of it will vindicate Sy.
  • Sometimes, everybody has to die before Sy's new hypothesis is finally either confirmed or proven inaccurate or superseded.
Albert Einstein published his explanation of the Photoelectric Effect in 1905. He received the Nobel Prize, primarily for this publication, in 1921, sixteen years later. What took so long? It was a good thing he wasn't working as a scientist at the time. Both Niels Bohr and Max Planck, the powers of the day, hated his hypothesis. They could have got him fired. It took them both a few years to be convinced of the value of his work. He was lucky they took only "a few years". He was also lucky that they and others appreciated his Relativity publication of 1905. The ambiguity protected him during those few years.

Whether the orthodox view of climate change is right or not, the evidence is still a bit weak, and scientists who ought to know better have fudged and falsified to make it look stronger. Don't think scientists are so pure. They are just as bigoted as Archie Bunker when it is their own ox that is being gored.

I happen to think that human-derived carbon dioxide is having some effect, but that it is a minor player compared to water vapor and methane. But nobody in the public eye is allowed to take a mild stance in either direction. Only overt polarization is allowed. But I like Clarke's Law: "When an honored and distinguished scientist says that such-and-such a thing is possible, he is nearly always right. When an honored and distinguished scientist says that something is impossible, he is nearly always wrong."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Old wives' tales: win a few, lose a few

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, myths, anthologies

Want to know if you really should "Feed a cold and starve a fever"? Anahad O'Connor can tell you; just e-mail him at . You may also find an answer you need in his collected articles at NY Times.

Or, you can read his new book Always Follow the Elephants: More Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In. There, in the first segment of Chapter 7, he writes that food helps both colds and fevers, particularly when the "fever" in question is influenza: Eating revs up the immune system, particularly against viruses. He doesn't mention the case when "fever" refers to malaria, and it may be malaria that the proverb refers to. I learned long ago that those who are overweight suffer more from malarial attacks than their more slender peers, which is the probable source of the saying.

Also, according to the title, if your friendly neighborhood elephant suddenly wants to head for the hills, it is a good idea to follow. Elephants can hear or feel low-frequency sounds we cannot detect, and strong "infrasound" typically precedes large storms, tsunamis and earthquakes. The many reports of animals of all kinds "going crazy" just before earthquakes indicates that most of our furry friends have low-frequency senses we don't have or don't use.

O'Connor writes the "Really?" column for the New York Times, in which he either confirms or debunks all kinds of "old wives' tales" and other myths. In the book there were a few that tickled me:
  • For a burn, use honey instead of aloe. The sap of Aloe vera will help smooth your skin, but it doesn't soothe.
  • Less stress = less acne, so tell your teenagers to chill out.
  • Also offer them a cup of tea: it is found to reduce stress, whether black, green or Oolong.
  • We know that daily aspirin in small doses (one baby size, or 80mg) is good for the heart; it turns out that a larger dose (perhaps one adult size, or 250mg) is good for the brain, making it more resistant to Alzheimer's dementia.
On the other hand, there are a few old myths that are spectacularly wrong, such as "urine on a jellyfish sting". Aside from the grossness, it just doesn't work. It make things worse. Vinegar works much better.

This book and its precursor, Never Shower in a Thunderstorm are good reference books to put alongside all those Book Club and Readers' Digest "hint" books, which contain some of the very myths O'Connor debunks.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On the kindness of a stranger

kw: local events, observations, kindness

Last evening we stopped at a market on the way home from visiting friends. In the parking lot we noticed we had a flat tire. Inside the trunk I found the spare was also flat (it is ten years old). Hoping to avoid calling AAA, I crossed the street to a nearby Sears, where I asked the service writer if anyone could come back with me to bring in the flat tire for repair or replacement. He could not interrupt anyone's work to do so; instead he lent me their battery-powered inflator. This was an act of significant trust.

I returned to the car to find that the flat tire would not hold air, but the spare would. However, I could not find the jack handle or lug wrench (I'd never looked for them). So I called AAA and took the inflator back to the man at Sears, with my thanks.

The AAA guy got me back on the road on a re-inflated spare, so I could go the next day (today) to get the punctured tire repaired. I was grateful to him, but really, he was doing what he was paid to do. I am even more grateful to the service writer for extending such trust to me just an hour short of closing time. Had I not returned the inflator, he could have been in trouble.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Get a trade, son

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, work, philosophy

From time to time I have the chance either to address a group of young people (grades 7-12), or to chat with a few who are wondering about "careers". I can summarize my remarks in two points:
  • Learn both a trade and a profession. One of them will pay off.
  • Make sure both are something you like doing; you'll be doing it for decades.
This is advice I gave myself, after developing it over quite a long time. I aimed twice at a career as a professional Geologist, and washed out both times. Fortunately, my trade of computer programming has usually paid the bills since 1968. So computer work is my "paying hobby" and Geology—really rockhounding—is my "real" hobby. I marvel at my good fortune sometimes.

My "next brother" (son #2 of 4; I am #1) went to a college that allowed one to design one's own curriculum, and finished with a BS degree in "Physics and Art History". Sometimes Physics paid the bills, but he was the proverbial struggling artist for 20+ years, then got a PhD and became an Archaeologist. He still makes a fair bit of cash illustrating books. Bro #3 is actually working his profession of Mechanical Engineer, while Bro #4 sometimes works gainfully as a Management Consultant, but usually can make a better living as a handyman and odd-job Carpenter.

I think I can say with some confidence that if computers had never been invented I'd be the poorest of the four. I don't have good mechanical or laboratory skills, so I'd probably be on some geological field team, logging mud or core for an oil drilling crew, living in a tent about half the time. Maybe I could be happy doing that, and I know folks who are. But I know I am delighted with my current trade/profession.

The computer business is a funny one. It is the youngest profession, but I've learned that much of it is not really a profession at all, in the sense that being a Physician or Lawyer are professions. Writing programs is a lot like carpentry: there is a limited set of "shapes" you can put together in a great number of ways. Two academics who consider programming as a craft or trade are Donald E. Knuth and John C. Reynolds.

Matthew B. Crawford is one who takes a broad view that coincides with my own. As he relates in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work, his PhD in Political Philosophy was not so helpful at first, in gaining him a profession that he could stomach. He worked at a "think tank" for a few months before opening a motorcycle maintenance shop.

The philosopher at his workplace. In the absence of an author photo in the book, I found this image at his website.

Though his tone and voice are quite different, I have a gut reaction to his writing that I had upon reading Eric Hoffer's writing. Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher now a quarter century dead, chose gainful employment just a bit more strenuous even than wrestling with balky 'cycles. But I have the same reaction: "Here is a guy who knows what he is about."

As I wrote a few days ago, I had a stressful day repairing my oven. But I am gratified that it is working again (and quite well), and that I know a lot more about what makes it tick. I have to admit I am not a highly skilled home maintenance man, but I am at least persistent enough to do quite a lot of home fixing.

Surprisingly, after an opening chapter that dwells a bit on the rapidly shrinking number of "Shop" classes being offered in Secondary schools, Dr. Crawford's book doesn't mention the subject again. Instead it covers, at length, the relationship between white- and blue-collar work. Both "classes" are continually being dumbed down into routine task-mongering. But you can't dumb down the repair of a carburetor, the replacement of a faucet, or the exact diameter of a machined part.

One of the radio telescopes pictured here has my name on it…or rather in it. After getting my first degree in Geology, I was in the midst of a recession and poor job market, but managed to land a job as a trainee in the machine shop at Cal Tech. I made parts for a prototype of a high-precision radio telescope, which is in use as part of this array at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. I scratched my initials into one of the aluminum panels before it was glued (scratched side down) into place as part of the curved reflecting surface.

Crawford writes of the satisfaction of getting a motorcycle that arrived on a truck back into working order, and firing it up. When we first assembled the prototype radio telescope and got it working, the satisfaction was immense. And when a computer program one has slaved at for some days, weeks or months "goes" for the first time, the high is the same.

Shop Class ends with a survey, a plea really, for a more ideal society in which jobs that have to be done "where you are" are seen as intrinsically valuable, where the genuine intellectual gifts of the skilled mechanician are not slighted in favor of those of the smooth-handed academic. In other words, it is a plea for a genuine meritocracy.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

No gut, no nose

kw: work, musings

This is a pre-review riff; I've been reading Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford. He worked for a year, between getting his MA and his PhD, as an Indexer and Abstractor. It happens that half of my work is as an Indexer and Abstractor, but in a somewhat different setting than his:
  • He worked for a company that sold the abstracts and indexes. I work for an internal unit of a corporation, producing the metadata used for searching a large corpus of technical reports and related documents.
  • He worked with both business reports (his expertise) and technical/scientific documents (way, way outside his field of expertise). I work with strictly technical and scientific documents, which are right up my alley: My expertise is in all the hard sciences plus computer science. (Yes, all as in ALL: that's why I am a polymath)
  • He wrote a fresh abstract for every document, ignoring any abstract written by its author. I place great reliance on the author's abstract, figuring he or she has some idea of the substance of the document!
  • He had a quota of 28 documents per day. I work under a loose expectation of 100-200 documents per month, but can take a full day on one complex report if needed. For some, I can complete the work in "reading time plus ten minutes".

Such work is not unlike that of Scribes, who also had deadlines and quotas. One needs a certain kind of personality to work in a Scriptorium.

By the way, the monk in this image should be facing the window, so the light would be raking the page upon which he writes. A stylus was previously used to incise faint scratches in the page to guide the lines of text and outline any illumination. You can see the lines in raking light, but they are not visible by normal illumination (and by "normal" I mean light striking the page at nearly a right angle).

Dr. Crawford writes of the subversive hi-jinks some of his fellow "knowledge workers" engaged in, things like putting ridiculous text into an abstract. They were compensated only for productivity, with no measure of "quality" defined, and the pace of the work kept them bored out of their minds. In my work environment, we get constant, often blunt, feedback about quality, because our work is immediately exposed to the entire research community.

Crawford's stories add a dimension to an ongoing debate in my workplace. Some among us expect automated methods to soon replace human indexing and abstracting. Already, many of our clients are using full text searching to find the documents they need, making little use of the indexing terms that have been applied to a quarter-million documents' metadata over the past fifty years. But for documents older than ten years, only the abstract may be automatically searched, so they are still dependent on some amount of quality abstracting.

Will the day come that abstracting can be done automatically? I use one of the best "gist" software packages around for some of my work, named Copernic. The best it can do is gather selected sentences from a document. It cannot condense those sentences into the crisp format a good abstract demands. I used Copernic to condense The Prince by Machiavelli to 10% of its size. I could then read the book at a sitting (I was already familiar with its content). This Gist of the book is not too bad (damning with faint praise, here), but it does miss a lot. Sometimes it does well, and gets the sentence with "the point", leaving out the discursive examples, but sometimes it snatches a sentence from the middle of such an example, leaving a dangling thought.

In a recent discussion about automated "knowledge work", I told a colleague that, where we have aphorisms such as "Go with your gut" or "That has to pass the smell test", we don't expect computer software to have the emotional equipment such proverbs imply. A computer has no gut, no nose. Can computers ever gain either gut or nose?

I read last year that simulation software running on a modern 2-core microprocessor can now simulate, in real time, the activity of a single neuron, or with minor simplifications, a few interacting neurons (3 or 4). That means, positing appropriate software, that a supercomputer in the building where I work, which contains 16,384 microprocessors, could just about manage to model the behavior of a flatworm, which as a few thousand neurons.

The neuron evolved a billion years ago; flatworms have been with us 600 million years or more. The human brain has ten billion neurons, and about a quarter billion of these extend into the body; the brain also contains 100 billion glia, supporting cells that modify the behavior of the neurons. The total computing capacity of all the microprocessors on earth is not yet equal to one human brain.

But before there were neurons, there was a chemical signaling system, which is present in single celled critters also. This is the basis of emotions, including our "nose" and our "gut". It is faster and more specific than the cognitive reactions of the brain. To be human is to be both intelligent and emotional, and many of the things we do without thinking, such as turn a corner without hitting the wall while walking, are still very, very hard to do in the purely cognitive way that computers work.

We understand enough about cognition to do, by brute force, some remarkable things, such as build a computer that can beat a grand master at Chess. But it is like the "general" method for working a Rubik's Cube. My son and all his friends can unscramble a Cube in about one hundred moves. But some people can look at the cube and unscramble it in 15 or fewer moves. Seven moves are all it takes to scramble a cube so that either 15 or 100 moves is needed to restore it. Cognition has its limits. I suppose an appropriate computer method could grind for a moment, then display the seven moves needed to restore a Cube, but it might use many thousands of moves in its own memory to back-calculate what those seven moves were.

Back to Indexing. Copernic and a number of similar programs can gather key terms from a document using statistical methods. But the program has no sense of "aboutness". For example, in the document base I shepherd, there may be hundreds of documents containing terms such as "rust", "oxidation", "scaling" and "corrosion". Only for one in ten has the indexing term CORROSION been applied. Only for those was it deemed that CORROSION is an important concept, that the document is in some measure "about" corrosion (and some that use "rust" are about crop diseases, so indexed thusly). For the rest, it is an incidental concept. That is why we don't call ourselves just Indexers, but Conceptual Analysts.

I think it will be a while, perhaps decades, before any software method can perform decent Conceptual Analysis.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cloudy with no chance of bolides

kw: astronomy, observations

I've stepped outside a few times since 10pm (the earliest hour one is likely to see a Leonid meteor). Cloudiness continues to increase. Currently (11pm) about 90% of the sky is covered, particularly to the southeast, where I'd want it to be the clearest.

Worse, tonight the wind seems to dictate that planes flying into PHL (the Philly airport) must go right overhead, about one per minute, and their lights ruin what night vision I might generate. Perversely, they fly right under the only big hole in the clouds, the place I have to look to see any stars at all.

2005 was the only year I've been able to see the sky well on "Leonid night", and that year was a very good show.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

PI Kitty to the rescue

kw: book reviews, animal fiction, crime fiction, mysteries

I am definitely partial to cats. Several well-known mystery book series use cats as more than props. I've noticed titles starting with Cat in or Cat on, and a color in the title, and decided to give one a try. The opening chapter of Cat in a Topaz Tango by Carole Nelson Douglas, which is in the voice of Midnight Louie, promised something a bit different.

Different in a number of ways. Much of said chapter recounts recent events in the lives of the dozen or so principals in and around this book. This pegged it as a soap opera in progress, with a handful of parallel stories more-or-less intertwined, and at most one or two reaching any conclusion in this volume. And so it proved.

But I am not one to recount plots. The author is able to make a reader care about the characters, a trait I honor by not giving much away. The central story thread is a contest titled Dancing with the Celebs, and the levels of show-must-go-on-despite-mayhem silliness know no bounds. Eight adult contestants (half-n-half male-female), and four teen girl contestants paired with members of a boy band, compete in Dancing with the Stars style, but mainly for charity. The twist here is that to vote for a dancer, an audience member must call in and donate $20 to a lost children's charity. The action mainly takes place at a hotel in Las Vegas.

Amidst all this, the central character (Louie) and his human, miss Temple Barr, go undercover with a police lieutenant and a private security officer for the hotel (who has a past with the lieutenant, being the father of her 13-year-old daughter), to catch a stalker known as the Barbie Killer. So far only dolls have met their demise, but in gruesome ways. Ms Barr wears a teen idol persona she has cultivated in prior novels and the police reps masquerade as her agents.

The contest is marred by seeming accidents that are soon seen to be sabotage and other dirty tricks. The main perpetrator (not the only one) is found to have a deep grudge against one of the dancers. Others have more complex motives.

Every three or four chapters, a chapter in a different typeface gives us events from Louie's viewpoint (closer to the ground). He and a casino cat named Topaz, who is a pretty good sidekick for this caper, have a definite paw in solving the various mysteries that present themselves, and snagging (pun intended) the perpetrator. If a cat could think at a human level, I suppose he would sound like Louie.

About as frequently, we are whisked to Zurich to keep up with the progress of a formerly major character, one Max Kinsella, stage magician and secret anti-terror agent. Throughout this book he is amnesiac after barely surviving an attempt on his life, and only slowly recovering (though well enough to bed his psychiatrist). And that brings in another thread. There is a ton of sexual tension and innuendo throughout. It seems to be expected of mystery writing, though a few writers do quite well without it.

By the end of this volume, there are a couple of happy endings, a distinctly more confining ending for a certain perpetrator, and several loose ends for the author to weave into the next in the series. This is #21, but the author is yet young.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Oven more resilient than they think

kw: local events, observations, home maintenance

Replacing a burnt-out (partially melted) oven element from a forty-year-old range is no trivial undertaking. I'll forego a blow-by-blow rant on the five hour process. Just the facts I was faced with:
  • Waste King has not made ranges for more than twenty years.
  • The "book" (no web site had the model number) at the parts place showed about 100 WK oven elements, but none was even close to the one we brought in.
  • We considered replacing the whole range, but it is 29.5 inches (75 cm) wide and all modern units are at least 30 inches (76.2 cm). The "hole" it needs to fit in is 29-5/8 inch (75.25 cm).
  • It is also 24 inches (61 cm) deep, much shallower than modern units.
  • Somebody needs to design an oven with the connections to the heating element in front. It took me two hours to get the element out.
  • The heating element is marked 240V, 2700W. Most modern heating elements are 3000W or more. The guy at the parts store warned against using a different element.
OK, on that last point: I know physics. A 2700W element at 240V will use 10.8 Amps, so its resistance (hot) needs to be 22.2 Ohms. A 3000W element will use 12.5 Amps and resist at 19.2 Ohms. More on such figures anon.

The parts store manager got me in contact with a local repairman whom he called "the McGiver of appliances". Turns out this guy is a gem. He said the oven switch had plenty of capacity to handle 12 amps or more, because it was sized to run the oven and broiler both, and the broiler has a hotter element. He said it is worth a try with an element that hooks up the same (there are a lot of those).

His shop is one of those wonders of the lost art of mix-and-match repair work. He has a few dozen old ranges on the floor, plus hundreds of other used appliances. But most of his space contains parts from discarded units. Among a few thousand oven heater elements, he chose two (of many) that would fit the connections, though they are a bit smaller than the one being replaced. Others were clearly too large. He also found one clearly marked 1800W, so we had a standard to use for checking resistance.

1800W at 240V means 7.5 Amps and 32 Ohms. His Ohmmeter showed this one was 45 Ohms, cold. That makes sense; Nichrome wire loses a little resistance when it heats up, but not so much that it runs away with itself. So now we had a factor: 45/32 = 1.4. I needed a resistance between 1.4x22.2 = 31 and 1.4x19.2 = 27 (both rounded a bit), and I would not care much if it was a little higher than 31 Ohms.

Both the "near fits" came in about 33 Ohms, so I bought them. One was cleaner than the other, so I cleaned it some more and put it in. It heats up a bit more slowly than the oven used to, because I suspect it is a 2400W element. Fine by me.

Anyone out there whose oven element melts on them: find a place with used parts, and it is likely you can locate an element that will work well and extend the life of your range. I saved myself a kitchen remodel for $30 (plus five hours of my time).

Friday, November 13, 2009

A good idea gone scratchy

kw: observations, musings, apparel

Several years ago I began cutting the labels out of my undershirts because they irritate my back. One day my wife brought home some new ones that had the label printed inside. I've been wearing some of them for a year or two.

Recently I noticed a drawback. Some of them were irritating my back even more than the old fabric labels. I felt back there, and the ink was very scratchy! Here is an image of the label printed inside the back of the shirt. If you look closely (try clicking the image for a larger version), you can see white lines through the ink. That is spots where it broke. The ink is actually rather thick. Once it breaks, it tends to curl, making lots of sharp edges. I actually developed a couple of sores where the larger letters rub.

Here is a closeup of part of the label. The breaks are quite evident (particularly on the larger version a click will show you), even in the finer type. Prior to the ink breaking, these have been very comfortable. So what did I do about it?

I now wear them inside out. I don't wear thin, light-colored shirts over them, so I don't expect anyone to notice. I wonder if anyone else does this, or is this too much of a throwaway culture for that?!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When options narrow to surviving, or not

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, disasters

I am very thankful that I have not been through any disasters. Maybe I came close a time or two; I do recall almost driving into a tornado a couple decades back. But I've had no experiences frightening enough to make me freeze, or wet myself, or faint, or whatever else it is I might do in, say, a plane crash.

Even in more mildly unsettling events, however, the way different people react can be fascinating. Once we got lost in the woods, my son and I, while walking with two other fathers and their children. The youngsters were all about ten. We'd taken a wrong turn on a path, and succumbed to the "It must be right around the bend" fallacy that keeps you going on instead of going back. I tend to be a natural leader, but once the gentleman who thought he'd been showing us where to go acknowledged he was lost, my son took over. He made the decisions, saying, "Let's try this way" and so forth. We wandered about three hours until, well after dark, we found our way to an open area someone recognized. One of the fathers remarked on how cool my son was, because the other kids couldn't keep themselves from saying things like, "Will we ever get out?". He hadn't really led us out, but the fact that he was leading meant we were kept from getting panicky.

When real disaster looms, as I read in The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why by Amanda Ripley, the body count is usually reduced if someone takes the lead. Even an inept leader is better than none, because most people in a disaster spend too much time milling about, trying to figure out what is happening. Once they realize something bad really is happening, they waste more time deciding what to gather to take with them.

Ms Ripley tells us that any shocking and frightening circumstance causes a three-step response: Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment (when any Action that one may take finally gets taken). Those who shift quickly through the first two steps are those most likely to survive, and often are those who help others to survive. Thus, most air crews have been trained, if an airplane crash-lands, to shout instructions to the passengers and hound them out of the cabin. Since most people go into a kind of passive shock that can last a long time, the no-Mr-nice-guy approach is designed to re-shock them into action, but also to give them something and someone decisive to follow so they don't just stampede.

Time and again the author marvels that in story after story told by survivors, people typically behaved very decently and quietly. Panic is actually rather rare. Sometimes that very decency makes things worse; people may try to defer to one another when they ought to be quickly making their way through the exit. The key word here is "quickly"; it doesn't have anything to do with stampeding an exit and blocking it with smashed bodies.

A key lesson about surviving is Rehearsal. It is one thing to buy those cool wire ladders you can hook to a windowsill of your second-story bedroom. It is quite another to actually use it a time or two. Only if you have done it before, will you be able to smoothly get out of your burning house. Otherwise you're likely to find that you can't figure out how to use it, and you either collapse in mid-thought, or jump out the window and crash to the ground, possibly carrying the ladder that was supposed to carry you (it is amazing what people bring with them; nobody likes to flee empty-handed!).

A large section of the concluding chapter is devoted to Rick Rescorla, the security chief who guided all but five of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's 3,000 employees out of the WTC on 9/11. He was the only security chief who was able to persuade his company to practice evacuation. Every other company lost substantial numbers. Rehearsal was the key. I am glad my company engages in evacuation drills. Though this site is nearly all 2- and 3-storey office buildings, being trapped by fire on the second or third floor is just as deadly as on the fortieth.

It takes only a few minutes to empty the building where I work, and it usually takes less than two minutes to empty an airplane. Even in the best of circumstances, it takes hours to empty a city. When the city leaders spend a few days dithering, then finally make limp-wristed declarations of imminent disaster, we wind up with a New Orleans that will never be the same (I am of the opinion that it ought to be abandoned, and should never have become a large city in the first place, but that's for another rant).

Some people seem to naturally perform better under stress. All of us can learn to do better. I live in one of the less disaster-prone areas of the U.S., but it is well for me to pre-think what I will do if we get a direct hit by a hurricane; how I might respond to being trapped by rising floodwaters if I am at a low-lying area at the wrong moment (this was particularly relevant when I lived in Houston); or how I'll react when I am awakened by a smoke alarm (yes, I do replace the batteries twice yearly). When I lived in California, my preparations had more to do with earthquakes. Those who think ahead live to think again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Heading (far) East? Get ready for a shower

kw: observations, photographs, astronomy, meteors

Gonna be in the Eastern Hemisphere a week from now? Be sure to stay up late Tuesday Night, Nov 17, into Wednesday morning. The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak with 200-500 meteoroids per hour (for someone looking straight up and not blinking), about 2145 UTC/GMT. See this NASA presentation for more details.

This image is from APOD, and is the Astronomy Picture of the Day for 11/27/2002. Taken from Spain, the image is a composite of thirty one-minute exposures (ah, what we can do with digital images now!). The shower was very good along the Atlantic seaboard of the US also, though so late it was still going as the sky lightened for dawn. I watched it for a while, then dragged my family out of bed to watch its last quarter hour until the sky lightened too much. They were sufficiently impressed to forgive me.

Sadly (for me), this year the shower's peak occurs at about 4:45 PM local time. But if the sky is clear, I'll still poke my head out just after midnight (7 hours too late) to see what remnants of the shower there may be.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wishing, as well as one can

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, spiritual practices

"If wishes were horses, all beggars would ride" underlay Noelle Oxenhandler's skepticism about wishing. In The Wishing Year: A House, a Man, my Soul—a Memoir of Fulfilled Desire, Ms Oxenhandler begins with a disaster she'd brought upon herself, one whose guilt and latent effects she bore for seven years. She begins to hope things can be better, but though she has been a practicing Buddhist for years, her moralistic upbringing makes her feel guilt about hoping, let alone wishing, for anything for herself.

I can sympathize with her in this: well-deserved depression seems to require about seven years to work itself out. It takes longer for most of us to get over what we have done to others than for troubles that came upon us.

I found it interesting to make this short journey through self-denoted New Age practice and philosophy, in which thoughts are more real than things (or at least, that is the ideal to attain). I found, as the author did, a sad juxtaposition between her gradual embrace of "active wishing" and her dying friend George's fervid embrace of Christian Science. His renunciation of medical intervention in favor of CS healing practices, or rather thoughts, may have hastened his death, but may not have: the power of our mind over our own body is well-attested, though not reliable. Her book is in part dedicated to his memory.

What was his faith but a kind of active wishing also? Nonetheless, there is a definite disjoint between CS and New Age wishing. The author was impelled by a somewhat lesser level of desperation: she was in no imminent danger of dying, after all. She just needed three things: Restoration for her soul (and a pity it is that she never once mentions Psalm 23, though she quotes other Bible passages), a home she can afford to own, and a man (she doesn't say "husband", and so far as can be told, her wished-for lover is not yet her husband).

A Pentecostal preacher I know, wiser than most, once preached, "Yes, God may heal what ails you, but you're still going to die." Ms Oxenhandler had surrounded herself with a large collection of books about wishing. She found most of them unsatisfactory, filled with very fuzzy thinking. Yet the worst of them didn't go so far as to advise wishing to live forever. Somehow, we all know that isn't in the cards (Yes, I know that expression refers to Tarot). At least by mid- to late adolescence we realize we're not here forever.

So what do we desire for the time we are here? Is it OK to wish for world peace and for a better stock portfolio also? Why is one frowned upon and not the other? Month by month the author struggles with this, through her wishing year, in which she does indeed attain her three wishes. She also gains a number of new friends, gets a trip to Hawaii partly subsidized, is able to help her mother go through a troublesome transition in living arrangements when others can't, and finds new confidence in her ability to cope with life as she finds it.

Though her wishes come true through a few surprising twists, none is totally unexpectable. It is pretty clear by the end of the book that wishing, while it seems to manipulate the world, really works its magic on the wishing one. By wishing, with strength and in detail, we focus our own minds, and are thus more prepared to recognize opportunities that typically come and go unnoticed. She tells the story of a relative who was a poor salesman; so poor that, when he was poised to ring a doorbell, would say, "Ah, she von't buy anyt'ing" and leave. Maybe a bit of active wishing would have impelled him to at least ring the bell.

Unless we are wishing for the truly unattainable, chances to help our own wishes come true arrive frequently. In another context, Louis Pasteur wrote, "Fortune favors the prepared mind." Whether we pray for our desires, or use wishing (not being the praying sort), the exercise can prepare us to see what we needed when it arrives.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A long day and low vision

kw: local events, musings

I saw a retina specialist today, about a spot in my left eye's visual field, but well off-center. I've had retinal hemorrhages in the past, so a couple months ago that was what I thought it was. They normally clear up in three weeks, but a month passed and I could still see it. So I had my regular ophthalmologist look at it. She could see it, and confirmed it is a hemorrhage, partly cleared. But she thought she also saw signs of retinal separation, so she sent me to the specialist.

Two more weeks had passed. Though I can still see the spot, the specialist had a hard time locating it. It is nearly cleared up. She could not see much that concerned her, and a special photograph doesn't show anything suspicious, but wants to wait another month and then do an angiogram. I agreed.

Today's visit took almost three hours. Afterward, the dilation of my eye lasted a further three hours, which I mostly slept off. So I've had a long nap today, but paradoxically, I'm pretty tired and will head for the sack soon after I finish this post.

I admit I had all kinds of worries about this spot. A friend lost her life to a brain tumor that started as an eye tumor, just a couple years ago. I was glad to find out nothing of the sort is involved here. I hope there's no retinal separation, but the specialist doesn't think so.

Had the spot been even more off center, I might never have seen it. It could have come and gone unnoticed. The first retinal hemorrhage I had was right over the fovea, and really messed up the vision in that eye until it dissolved. I'm told the best thing to do for this is to keep my blood pressure low. Guess I'll step up the exercise regimen!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Even freakier

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, philosophy

Yesterday when I reviewed Freakonomics, I was already halfway through its successor. Why is it that the best books go by so fast? A short while ago I finished Superfreakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The authors will again gain notoriety and fame in equal measure, particularly for the articles behind the subtitle: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. I've added their blog at NY Times to my regular reading list, and to the blog links on this page.

And why should suicide bombers buy life insurance? The company isn't going to pay off, unless one had the foresight to buy it two or more years earlier. It is to make themselves harder to profile. Fortunately, the authors purposely refrained from reporting the strongest profilers' tools.

A couple of decades ago, Lewis Thomas wrote of the three levels of medical care: Palliative (we can't do anything besides perhaps make the patient more comfortable), which is quite costly; Restorative (such as surgery or chemotherapy) that can be hideously expensive; and Preventive (vaccines, for example), which is cheap. Chapter 4 of Superfreakonomics expands this idea into many realms, including polio vaccine, of course (I was one of Dr. Salks thousands of experimental subjects, so this is dear to me), Robert McNamara and seat belts, the failed "remedy" of car seats (seat belts work as well, but you could go to jail for belting up your kid), and a simple hurricane prevention device.

That last item leads to the last chapter, about a company with the initials IV and its solutions to a number of ills, including global warming. I was particularly taken by this analysis:
  • Forty years ago we worried about global cooling.
  • Soot and smog were blocking enough sunlight to cool the climate.
  • As we (the First World) cleaned up the air, the earth warmed.
  • This was probably more due to cleaner air than to carbon dioxide.
I can extrapolate as well as the next fool. I expect the advancing economies of China and India to dirty the air again, probably on an even larger scale. The last eight years have seen a cooling amounting to a quarter of the past twenty years' warming. We may wish for a lot of global warming in about ten-twenty more years! Only after Western air-cleaning-and-remediation technologies become widespread in Asia will warming become a potential threat again.

Just by the by, carbon dioxide is not that strong as a greenhouse gas, and its effects are self-limiting. Increasing the CO2 by a factor of thirty, to a full one percent of the atmosphere, cannot raise global temperature more than 4°C (7°F). The "runaway greenhouse" of the planet Venus is due to an atmospheric pressure of sixty times that on Earth, composed of more than 80% CO2. That is 180,000 times the amount of the gas that we "enjoy".

The value of these books to me is the way of thinking, based on its premise: People respond to incentives. The incentives can vary from person to person; for example honor, dignity or social status can be a greater motivator for some people. I once read a book in which a scrupulously honest man, one who bent over backward to avoid any taint of corruption, was manipulated by someone who made him think he might be bribed to favor a certain course of action. Naturally, he overdid his zeal to avoid the bribery and was pushed to the opposite tack.

I once exchanged a series of E-mails with a new company president (I work elsewhere now), who had given a speech with the title "A Passion for Profits". I explained how, by exercising my passion for excellence, profits had always followed. His responses made it clear that, not only did he not understand people who are internally motivated, he was deeply suspicious of them, even threatened. Fortunately I was already halfway through my exit strategy to my present employer.

A final thought: where little or no money is involved, our strongest incentive is usually others' good will. This leads to: Avoid people who are adept at making you feel guilty for your virtues.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Welcoming freaky answers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, philosophy

So can you buy your way into office, or can't you? Ross Perot couldn't, nor Steve Forbes. Most recently, Hilary Clinton came close, but was outvoted by the candidate she outspent (Barack Obama) in the primary. Why? If you ask Steven Levitt, he'll tell you that Obama is simply more likable. Just as Bill Clinton was more likable than Ross Perot in 1992 and as Bob Dole was more likable than Steve Forbes in 1996.

Where does Levitt get the gall to say that? From the numbers. Specifically, from asking the numbers the right kind of question: not "Does money dominate elections?" but "Does money mean more than personality?". Teasing such an answer from the statistics for many elections was done by applying a normalizing technique. Many unsuccessful candidates have run more than one campaign, and in many cases, the same two candidates have faced one another repeatedly.

If Pol B loses to Pol A the first time they campaign against one another, it is very, very unlikely that Pol B will ever win, no matter how much money is spent by either candidate. Once the populace likes Pol A enough to elect him or her, they don't change their mind unless someone even more likable comes along, or they find out that Pol A is really not so nice as was thought. The insight sheds a little more light on the "incumbency effect".

The insight that made Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner famous and infamous in equal measure, in their 2005 book Freakonomics, was the discovery that the Roe vs Wade decision in 1973 was the principal cause of the drop in crime rates that began about twenty years later. In brief, for nearly all women, the instinct to care for a baby is so powerful that she needs a strong incentive to choose abortion. Being too young, too poor, and uneducated together often provide that incentive. As it happens, criminals are mostly those who were born to such a woman. It is just such young women who were unable to get abortions prior to 1973, primarily because of poverty. Once legalized, abortion became relatively inexpensive, and abortions subsequently prevented the birth of large numbers of unwanted children. The proportion of young people who tend to become criminals fell, and with it, crime rates fell. I am decidedly not pro-abortion, quite the contrary, but the logic is inescapable.

What I found fascinating about the book—the whole title is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything—is the notion of asking a question in a particular way to get results that otherwise remain buried in the noise. For example, they examined just those Sumo matches between a wrestler who is assured of an increased ranking and one who needs just one more win to avoid a reduced ranking. The resulting anomaly proved there is some amount of quid-pro-quo occurring.

I stumbled across just such a question more than twenty years ago, when my wife and I had begun to despair of having children. One doctor was proposing a series of painful and costly tests. A move to another state (a well-timed job offer) required getting a new doctor, and this one, within minutes of meeting my wife, noticed she had a lump on her thyroid. Getting the thyroid hormone problem fixed resulted in a pregnancy. I told this to a friend in yet another state, who is also a doctor, and he told me that one-third of "infertility" can be traced to thyroid hormone problems. It is the single biggest cause. When I asked why that isn't checked first, he told me, "It is too cheap."

I'm going to pass this along to these authors, for it is but one aspect of our health care dilemma. They have no doubt put a few other questions to the same dilemma. There has been a lot of talk in the years since most of us were pushed into HMO plans, that medical decisions need to be made by medical professionals, not by insurance company hacks. However, what we really need is that medical decisions be made for primarily medical reasons, at least from the doctors' side. If the patient must make an economic decision, that is up to the patient. To me, the goal of modifying the health care climate in this country ought to be making that economic decision less painful. I'll have to read Levitt and Dubner's next book to see if they tackle this one!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Harking back to my first driving disaster

kw: observations, musings, driving

I just had to comment on this cartoon. Sad to say, I'd already worked the Sudoku on a following page before I decided to scan the cartoon and post it. Luckily the numbers don't show too bad.

On a rainy day in 1963, I was about 15½, and my Dad would let me put the car in the garage or move it out to the driveway. My street shoes had slippery soles, and when I put my wet shoe on the brake, it slipped off onto the gas pedal. The front of the car got about three feet beyond the back of the garage before stalling.

It didn't burst through the wall like Jeremy's Dad's car here. It pushed the back wall loose from the side walls, bending it a little, and just raised it like a big garage door on a hinge. My Dad is the kind of fellow who thinks little of remodeling houses—with our help, he has moved windows or added a room or half room or roof cupola to every house we owned while I was growing up. After the nest emptied and he retired, he, without our help, added an office loft to the newest house he and Mom bought, by walling off a third of the attic and installing a stairway to it.

So, Dad and I proceeded to jack the garage's wall back into place, replacing a couple of pieces of broken siding, and I had the job or repainting the outside. I wonder what today's paper will show Jeremy doing…

Monday, November 02, 2009

A hedge halved

kw: observations, local events

The hedge project is finished, and it just about finished me off. Saturday's rain prevented work, which just gave time for my joints to stiffen up. Sunday afternoon was equable enough, so I pressed on and finished about sundown. Now I'm back at my desk job, with a gram of ibuprofen under my belt, so I don't feel too, too bad.

A hedge can be pretty, but it is sure a lot more work than a fence, which you can just paint every few years and be done with.