Monday, December 31, 2012

Fiscal gentle slide

kw: politics, economics

I say, let the Fiscal Cliff happen. Then maybe (barely) the legislators and our paper-tiger President will be motivated enough to pass some tax laws, and perhaps even some spending cut laws, because they can always make the retroactive. Right?

This charade is actually going to go on for another 364 days, at the very least.

Anybody that voted for an incumbent: This is all YOUR DAMN FAULT.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The cat at my feet

kw: animals, pets

This afternoon our son asked me when we might get a dog. I haven't had a dog since I was 13. I had three dogs in a row, in four years, and each was run over by a car and killed before I'd had it six months. My wife grew up with a dog, but doesn't seem particularly taken with them either. We do like cats, but just one at a time. We presently have (or are the territory and food supply of) a 3-year-old, rather aloof Calico.

I wrote yesterday about pets, triggered by reading the book The $60,000 Dog by Lauren Slater. I remembered all the cats I grew up with. I have to set my mind to it to remember the dogs. I continue to wonder if we can understand animal feelings. Consider this:

When I was ages 7 to 12, we lived on the edge of a suburb, next to rural fields. We had several cats, and seldom had one "fixed". On three occasions, a young female had her kittens in my bed, at my feet. The time in the middle (I was 11), I was sleeping in a sleeping bag in the "tree house" (a play house on 8-foot stilts our father had built). I awoke with warmth at my feet: the mother cat nursing six kittens. When her time came to deliver, she climbed up into the tree house and burrowed to the foot of my sleeping bag, ignoring my brothers who were sleeping nearby. Can a house cat feel trust? I have three reasons to think they can.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lovely tales of loving animals

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, pets, memoirs

I nearly wrote in the title, "…of animal love," but realized that would not be accurate. What do we know of animal emotions? Does a young pet follow a boy because it likes him, or because it is imprinted? Does a cat—or raccoon—rub its chin on your leg out of affection, or to mark you as territory? We had one cat for 18 years, who seemed very affectionate. She liked to climb onto my chest in the bed at night, and fall asleep there. Fortunately, it was only after she died that I had to begin sleeping on my side to mitigate sleep apnea. But our present cat, obtained as a kitten ten years after the other one died, seems not to have the affection organ. She accepts petting a little bit, but steadfastly refuses to sit on a lap, and will only tolerate being picked up and held for about five seconds, before struggling and growling.

So maybe the first cat did feel some affection…unless it was simply that I was the warmest thing in the house on a winter's night! But there is no doubting the love that we feel. My wife is different with our cat than at any other time, talking to her and sitting beside her chosen bed cushion, where the regal cat permits herself to be petted for a time, before slowly rising and striding off, just a few steps. When she has "recovered" from the petting, she may settle back on the cushion for some more petting.

Lauren Slater came to a love of animals slowly, not out of her own nature, but from lack of opportunity. In the seven long stories in her book The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals she tells first of her childhood in a dysfunctional family in the Jewish neighborhood in Maine that was called a Golden Ghetto. The gift of a bicycle at age nine allowed her to explore over that summer, further and further from home. She learned to lure fox cubs from their den with nuts and candy, though she didn't get the chance to touch one. She brought home a fallen egg, uncracked, and with her parents' help tried to incubate it, but instead it mummified. Later, she spent a few weeks at a horse ranch "summer camp", learning more about people than about animals, but surprising herself with the intense bond young girls often have for horses, even as she knew inside she would outgrow it (and she did).

The dog of the title, Lila, is one of two she bought early in her marriage to Benjamin, who professed to love animals only in proportion to how good a stew they made. Ever the engineer, at one point he calculated that the dog had cost $60,000, including a factor for Lauren's time spent walking Lila and her brother Musashi. The breed is Shiba Inu (my wife says it is just "Shiba", because Inu is Japanese for "dog".) My doctor would count the time cost in the opposite way. He says, "If your dog is overweight, you need more exercise," and says we must count the extra years of life added by loving a dog, which at the very least can lower blood pressure by 20mm or more. Benjamin apparently knew nothing of this. Yet in time, he came to think of Lila as "our dog", not just "your dog".

Portions of the stories sound like synesthesia, and maybe they are. The author is trying to convey truths that are beyond words. Our animals open us up to different worlds than the one we know. We cannot inhabit that oh-so-different-yet-similar mind, but, somehow, we and they communicate. Pets learn to respond appropriately to quite a few of our words; we learn at least a few of theirs: the particular "Meow!" that means hunger rather than wanting the door opened, or a certain "play face" on a face deemed "unexpressive" by vaunted, yet ignorant, experts.

We all have animal stories, many of which we may marvel at, thinking or saying just how much like us the animal is. The reality is, we are so much like them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

To pray on behalf of...

kw: intercession

A friend helped me understand a Bible passage I have had difficulty carrying out. It is 1 Timothy 2:1-2
"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (NIV 1984)
 My conundrum? How to "pray for" a President with whom I disagree about everything, a congress (both houses) that seems bent on destroying everything that makes this nation great and good, and officials whose chief interest is lining their own pockets at public expense? My friend said, simply, that the word "for" in this passage is better translated "on behalf of". At first, that seems the same. Then I understood.

To intercede on behalf of someone is to pray what he or she would pray, if they only would, or could. I had earlier come to partial terms with these verses, by praying that no matter what this or that "authority" desired, God would have His way, according to His purpose. This is good, but not good enough. I see now the need to pray the way Lincoln was said to pray at every turn, for the guidance to lead aright and the wisdom to carry out the right and good; to pray what our leaders, whoever they may be, and whatever they may believe, ought to pray: for insight, wisdom, strength and mercy in God's sight; to see what is right and to choose the right.

This is not to pray about this or that kind of policy. Policy is tactical, for carrying out strategic goals. This is to pray that the strategy would be right and even Godly, perhaps without any of them realizing God is behind it. This is to pray as though you were the President, or the Speaker, or any other office holder, and pray as God leads you to pray on their behalf, to pray what they are not praying. In most cases, they are not praying at all anyway. Let all who are praying people, raise up the standard of our prayer, and pray the neglected prayers of our public officials.

Monday, December 24, 2012

How to rewrite endlessly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, writing, editing

Several years ago a retiring colleague gave me several books she didn't intend to take home. Now I am going through the same process myself. I decided to read one of these hand-me-downs that looked interesting: How to Write So People Can Understand You by Robert S. Burger (1914-1998). Beginning in 1958, he taught a course on concise writing for more than thirty years, to a great many of America's largest corporations. He focused on saying the most with the fewest words, without seeming choppy or overly terse. The first edition of his book was published in 1969; mine is the second edition of 1971. It was not reprinted, but a few used copies are found from time to time at Amazon.

The content of the book is simply the content of Mr. Burger's writing course. In 29 chapters—after 4 short chapters of introductory material—he discusses and demonstrates 39 "agents" of bad writing. His experimental subject is the "Sloane Report". The "Stage 1" version is about 2¼ pages of typescript, with 75 numbered, double-spaced lines. At Stage 7 it fits on a half page, though now the paragraphs are single-spaced. Nonetheless, there are but 21 lines.

I have taken several business writing classes. I recall one for which we were given a bad example and asked, prior to the first class session, to try to improve it. I went through the standard sort of editing processes I had learned before, and wrote a version I thought was pretty good. After a couple of days, I wasn't so happy with it. I tackled it again. I turned in both rewrites, with a note: "The second version is what I would write if I weren't afraid of the recipient." It was clear, bold, frank, almost terse, and made the point that needed making, with sufficient backup. It earned praise from the instructor, who said to all the class that the primary "disease" we need to overcome as writers is fear of the reader's reaction.

As I compare the various Stages of the Sloane Report, I find that the 7th stage is indeed frank and fearless, in great contrast to the 1st. It makes me wonder, what if Sloane had been handed back the report with, "Fit this on half a page, and make it clear!"? Would it match Burger's version?

I found the book quite interesting, but as I read I began to be bothered. Could anyone other than Burger really go through all this Sturm und Drang over a single, 2-page report? Were Mr. Burger alive to ask, I am sure he would say he could boil it down in an hour, or perhaps half an hour. True, but could anyone else? Unlikely. But perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt: I am sure those who take this course do not go through a 39-step or even 29-step process with all their reports afterward. Like any other complex task, in editing we learn to recognize a collection of errors and correct them all at once. After taking a course like this, a student would have picked up at least several of the ideas and be able to apply them. Over time, the skill would grow.

However, I find it telling that the book has been out of print for forty years. The writing book I keep on my desk, and continue to refer to, is "the little book": The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. I also have a PDF of the original 1918 edition of Elements that I read through once to see what White changed after Strunk's death. White improved it. Strunk had his idiosyncrasies, but his 105-page book remains in print. The short collection of maxims under the heading "Omit Needless Words" encapsulates the spirit of all the 39 "agents" in Burger's book. "The little book" is, quite simply, not overwhelming. How to Write is overwhelming.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

My favorite Bach prelude

kw: classical music, scores

I am not as deft as I would like to be on piano, so I appreciate music that is very pretty but doesn't require Olympic-level finger gymnastics. The Preludes in Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach are favorites of mine. My ultimate favorite is the first one, the C Major, because it is so algorithmical I was able to condense the 4-page score to a single sheet:

This image (click for full size) is a 300 dpi GIF, if you wish to download and print it. It is derived from a 600 dpi scan that I'll e-mail anyone for the asking (the GIF is 4.4 MBytes). Since I moderate comments, you can safely send an e-mail address as a comment; I can then send you the file and discard the comment (unless you want it published as a comment to this post; just say so).

For those not familiar with this piece, the chord in each "measure" of measures 1-32 represents 16 sixteenth-notes, to be played at a rock-steady tempo, usually so slowly listeners might think they are quarter-notes. The left hand plays the two lower notes, lower then upper, followed by two runs through the three higher notes, in upward sequence, and then those 8 notes are repeated. Pedal to sustain the whole of each measure. Measures 33 and 34 are played as shown, with the left hand playing the two notes, followed by the right hand playing the next 14 notes. Measure 35 is a 5-note chord, held a full measure.The challenge comes from the dynamics. It is hard to play p and pp at a slow tempo, and the very gradual crescendos and diminuendos take more attention than the notes do.

This prelude is very delicate. It has been used as the background for a well known "Ave Maria". When I practice it, I sometimes go quickly, or at all kinds of tempi. But it truly is the loveliest at 2 or 3 notes per second, or slower.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's the money, stupid!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, economists, textbooks

It weighs about a kilogram and contains 104 chapters in 331 pages (plus apparatus): The Economics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, edited by Niall Kishtainy and written with six other contributors. It is a great reference book, if used with a few caveats in mind.

Firstly, it is best to read through once. Then keep it handy to browse as needed. The ideas presented are in historical order, beginning with Aristotle's promotion of private property and ending with Charles Goodheart's analysis of the boom and bust cycle as it is mirrored, and typically forecast, by the housing market. A key element of the apparatus is the Directory of persons, 2-3 column inches about 37 of the most important figures in historical and contemporary Economics. The "Key Thinker" behind each chapter is usually also limned in a mini-biography of 200-300 words.

Secondly, the ideas are presented with very little value judgment, though with some indication of their level of controversy. It took me a while to determine that many of them contradict one another. For example, many influential economic ideas have been based on the consumer or investor as a rational being, while more recent work in the psychology of economic decision-making makes it clear that nearly any pronouncement with the word "Efficient" in it is incorrect, and possibly disastrously wrong.

An example of this is the excessively random nature of stock market valuations. I say "excessive" because most economists define "random" to mean that the expected variations follow a "Normal" or "Gaussian" distribution. In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb claims that these variations follow a Cauchy distribution, in which the probability of extreme events is much, much greater than you would expect from a Normal distribution. Thus, the 1929 crash, in which the entire market lost half its value in a single day. Based on the variation seen over the prior several decades, you would expect a 50% variation to have a probability of once per several million years, and a 25% variation—remember 1987?—to occur once in many thousands of years. But 1987-1929 is only 58 years.

My own analysis does not support a Cauchy distribution, but it does indicate a "fat tailed" distribution somewhat closer to Cauchy than Gauss. Based on realistic analysis, the 35% drop over a few weeks in 2009 (22 years after 1987) should have been no surprise. But it caught everybody who wasn't simply lucky. Investors expect Normal randomness, but can't deal with excessive randomness.

I like how the book is laid out. Most chapters, and many "in between" essays, are introduced with cool clip art. This item illustrates "The Last Worker Adds Less to Output Than the First," first analyzed by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in 1767. This maxim applies to many assembly-line operations, but not, for example, to the work of teams. In extreme cases, if any team member is missing, the work cannot proceed at all.

Every chapter is introduced by a gray section outlining the progress of ideas surrounding the key idea by the key thinker. The layouts often include capsule flowcharts that illustrate how a concept was derived (You'll need to click on this image to be able to read any of it). And this example also shows a capsule biography of Léon Walras (1834-1910), who studied the stability of free markets.

The book is worth having around to review and compare and contrast the various ideas. Modern economic trends are quite different from those that held sway even in the recent past, but they owe a lot to who and what has gone before. Those who still believe Karl Marx was right about abolishing private property (even my toothbrush?) may number in the single digits (most of them named either Castro or Kim), but the sharpness of ideas that contradict Marx has been honed by reaction to his writings.

Economics is presented as a science. I would say, "Not yet." Certain scientific skills are used and various equations are created to explain economic activity at all levels. But that also goes for some really crackpot notions, such as that today we were supposed to get wiped out by an asteroid or volcano or something. Fortunately, economics is not crackpot (though some economists clearly were). At its root, it is the study of incentives and how humans react to them. This is most clearly brought out by Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics books. The clearest message of those books and of this one is that we are individuals, and different people react differently to the same incentive. However, as long as we react independently (a huge assumption), certain average behaviors emerge. Modern economics is just beginning to get a handle on some of the ways we actually react, dependently and co-dependently and so forth.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

More on Theory of Breakage

kw: analysis, lognormal, power law, statistical distributions

I wrote about the statistical distribution of stellar masses nearly four years ago. The Theory of Breakage, as it is classically derived, indicates that random processes which divide an object or area or substance into many parts will tend to produce "pieces" that have a lognormal distribution of the "size" parameter, whether length or volume or mass. Some scholars, following Benoit Mandelbrot, instead posit that random breakage will produce a distribution of "size" that obeys a power law. Here I apply it to a large collection of computer files.

As I close out a 44-year career in the computer sciences, I need to determine which computer files to pass on to my colleagues, and which can be allowed to vanish. I have had some kind of personal computer on my desk for 32 years, and I have certain files from my mainframe days going back another 12 years. As a long-time member of the Elephant Club (Motto: Do not trust a computer you can see over), I share the computer geek's vice of never throwing anything away. I long ago learned that magnetic disk technology was producing file space much faster than anyone could fill it. So I am a kind of hoarder. My house is not cluttered, but my disk drive certainly is!

I used a DOS command (how few folks even know how to do so!) to gather a complete file and folder listing for the Work disk. The entire corpus came to 35,309 files with an aggregate size of 18 Gbytes. Of this, the Project data consists of 8,297 files that total 8 Gbytes. This Project data are those files directly related to paid work. The rest is support materials and other files kept for historical reasons, such as a great many FORTRAN, Pascal and Perl program source code files that I call my "algorithm collection", presentation files in PowerPoint and older formats such as Framework (by Lotus), spreadsheets (Excel, 1-2-3 and Quattro), flow charts and other drawings in Visio and older tools, plus images, videos and sound files.

With a little bit of fiddling around, I produced two lists of file sizes, and analyzed them two ways. This first chart is a Power Law analysis:

Keep in mind that the "Proj. Files" are included in "All Files". The strongly curved shape of these distributions is diagnostic that they do not follow a Power Law, but are more likely to follow a Lognormal distribution. If you simply project the slope of the upper quarter or third, to the "1" line, you see that it would require trillions of files to extend the line (I estimate 20 trillion for the blue line). By contrast, here is a Lognormal analysis:

In this presentation, it is evident that the distribution is very nearly lognormal. I have no explanation for the few departures from linearity, and they don't really need "explaining", anyway. I simply find it fascinating that these thousands of items, some written, others downloaded or generated by many methods and processes over four decades, should result in such a distribution.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A verbal quibble

kw: words, pronunciation

My colleagues are all highly educated. When they consistently mispronounce a word, something is going on! It has been years since I heard this word pronounced correctly:
Decadence, noun, pronounced d-KAY-dnce (you can think of the D's as being followed by nearly unpronounced "u" sounds). The word's origin is decay. Thus the A is hard, and is given the emphasis. The word is not pronounced DECK-a-dense!
I consulted some dictionaries:
  • I have on online copy of the 1913 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. It has only this pronunciation (which they show as de-ca'-dence, the ' meaning emphasis).
  • The 1975 edition of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary already has "dek'-ed-ents" as the primary sounding, with the other as secondary. However, it does indicate that the word's origin is "decay".
  • The 1976 Funk & Wagnall's Standard Desk Dictionary has it the "right" way: "di-kayd'ns" primary and the other secondary, but then it switches them around for the adjective "decadent"!
  • The 1979 Webster's New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary (by Collins, not Merrian-Webster), and based on the 1940 edition, has things the "right" way, by my lights.
  • Alas, has things the other way around, though at least it offers the "correct" pronunciation as an alternative.
Languages change with time and usage. I suppose I'll eventually switch.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A bit of folk actuary

kw: analysis, life span, economists

I am reading a book about economics that includes mini-biographies of about 100 economists whose work made a difference. I decided to use some of them to analyze the life span of "productive people", because economics is one discipline in which someone can be productive for many years. This chart is based on the lives of 54 economists from the early 1500s on, who have died. For those still living, I don't have a crystal ball to determine their life span!

The black trend line is only marginally useful. There are too few data prior to 1700, and the 80-year life of François Quesnay (1694-1774) may not be as exceptional as it seems. However, it is interesting to speculate that the steep trend of the upper envelope for those born in 1775 and later might be meaningful. It coincides with the industrial and economic revolutions that have transformed Western society since the 1770s. It may be that surprisingly large numbers of those born in 1950 or thereabouts (my generation) could live until 2050 or later. Some studies indicate that centenarians are the fastest-growing segment of the population, in proportion to earlier times.

Life is a Tetris game. You fend off dangers for decade after decade, until something "gets" you. From one viewpoint, death is a rare event: there is only one per person! Productive people seem to live the longest, so having a vocation is one way to lengthen the Tetris game. In the 1930s, Social Security was set up on the premise that an average 65-year-old had 3-4 years to live. These days, the average is closer to 20 years. Plus, many folks prefer to retire between 55 and 62. Totally retiring is a great way to lose at Tetris sooner, but those who embark on a further productive phase of their lives might live in "retirement" for 30-40 years or more. Do plan accordingly.

Move the school, make a memorial

kw: tragedy, memorials

The greatest sorrow is for a parent to bury a child, or even a grandchild. This is the tragedy faced by the parents and grandparents of 20 six- and seven-year-olds, and the parents (and grandparents?) of 6 teachers, aides and administrators, all slaughtered in Newtown, CT on Friday.

There is talk of when or whether to re-open the school. The wounds will be fresh for a long time. I favor building a new school with a new name at some distance away, out of sight, certainly; then, demolishing all the structures and transforming the lands into a memorial park. This is the least we can do.

At time like this, people say, "Always remember". We all know that, a few generations hence, nearly all will forget. But those alive today will not forget. When life seems overwhelming, when the pain is too keen, a consecrated place to remember, to be free to feel, to be perhaps comforted that others cared enough to create such a place: for this generation at least, it will serve.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Is it time to tear down Lady Liberty?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, immigration, policy, polemics

Just 32 years ago my wife and I were in a courtroom. I have served on juries, and even stood before a judge to plead guilty on a traffic ticket, so I am no stranger to courtrooms. This occasion was different. The room was nearly full, little children were fidgeting or playing, and the judge was smiling. After a very short ceremony, my wife and about thirty others were sworn in as naturalized citizens of the United States of America. She had been in this country for nine years, and we had been married five years.

There was a time that any person who could demonstrate, via pay stubs and utility bills, five years of residency in this country, could be naturalized with very little paperwork. Prior to 1946, the Alien Registration card (the "green card") didn't even exist. The multitudes who arrived via Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 mostly didn't have passports or visas. They were issued immigration documents upon arrival, and at least until the 1930s, those documents and a few pay stubs or rental receipts were sufficient proof of residency to be used five years later to be naturalized. Now, you must hold the "green card" for five years (three years if married to a citizen), but it can take ten years or more to get the card in the first place.

The church we attend is multi-ethnic, and the local churches with which we are affiliated, worldwide, are probably the most multi-ethnic that there are. We have hymnals and Bibles for sale in four languages; larger churches nearby have as many as eight. A couple of years ago, our home bible study included people from "here" (me and one other), Japan (my wife), China, Taiwan, Nigeria, South Korea and India. People come and go, particularly in a college town, so at present "only" four ethnicities are represented.

Over the years, we have lived in a lot of places, in seven states. We have sometimes rented rooms to students. At least a few times, a student has turned out to be either "undocumented" or to have overstayed a visa, or to be working even though on a supposedly non-work student visa. Y'know how it is said, "politics is local"? It is strange, I long held rather restrictive, nativist views about "illegal immigration" in general, even as I harbored one "illegal immigrant" or another at times. But the more and deeper I look at the situation, the less sure I am what is right.

Einstein is quoted as saying, "Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler." Politicians violate this statement in both possible ways. The modern debate over "illegal immigration" or "undocumented immigrants" has been at an unusually high pitch for about twenty years, even higher than before President Reagan signed a mis-called "amnesty" bill into law in 1986. The law legalized 3 million immigrants. The country did not fall apart. Anti-immigrant fears died down for 6 or 7 years. Then, as documented by Pilar Marrero in Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation, nativist rhetoric began heating up again, and has become partly enbodied in policy, such that at least 300,000 "illegals" have been deported yearly during each of the four years of President Obama's first administration. This in spite of Obama's promise during the 2008 campaign to pass a comprehensive immigration law during his first year.

On the campaign trail, candidates oversimplify the "immigration problem". In the chambers of government, legislators and the bureaucracy over-complicate it. Before discussing policy, it is helpful to assess a few facts.
  • Seasonal workers in agriculture, many of them "pickers", number about 5 million.
  • 3/4 are Mexican or of Mexican descent. Another 14-15% are of other minorities.
  • Only 11% are "white".
There are 11-12 million "undocumented" persons in the U.S., even after nearly a million have "self deported" because of the recession. Some 40% are children, so that leaves about 7 million working ones. Less than half of these do farm work. The other 3-4 million can be found grooming horses at racetracks; working for lawn mowing and landscaping companies; in construction, particularly roofing (dominated by Eastern Europeans and Russians, who seem fearless of heights); and working as hairdressers, nannies, and house or office cleaners.

Suppose the dream of certain folks were to come true, and all 12 million "illegals" vanished (including about 2 million kids who are natural-born citizens). Who would do the 7 million jobs they leave behind? What wages would they demand? Face it: the fruit and veggies you buy are cheap because most farm laborers earn less than minimum wage, and if they are "undocumented", even less, much less. Are you ready for produce prices to double or triple? Actually, I would be very willing to pay more for food, under these conditions:
  • Every farm worker has a documented right to be here.
  • A "guest worker" program allowed several million seasonal laborers to freely travel to and from their home, whether in Mexico, Canada, other U.S. states, or wherever.
  • All farm workers were paid minimum wage, or more, and also had health insurance provided.
  • They were provided with SSN and other identification as needed.
In the same way, I would be willing to pay more for my roof to be shingled if I were assured that the Russians on my rooftop were documented and were paid well. I actually looked hard for a company that met such objectives when I had my roof replaced a few years ago. I'll be having some tree work done soon. I don't know if the sawyers are all "legal", but as long as they are treated well and paid well, I am satisfied. The company owner knows of my feelings.

If such conditions were met, much of the "immigrant problem" would vanish. That includes a problem many people never think of. Now that so many restrictive laws can lead to someone being deported after any kind of contact with the police, recent immigrants, even legal ones, won't call 911 even when they are the victim of a crime. From their point of view, they'll just become the victim of a second crime: being jailed until they can prove their "right" to be here, or deportation if they can't. The police find it harder to solve crimes when entire neighborhoods won't talk to them.

Well, I was going to discuss more about policy, but this is getting long. Ms Marrero has quite a good section on policy, well worth the reading. I think another item is well worth reading:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lighting, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
(Emma Lazarus, 1883)
This is the entirety of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The greatness of America was built by those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free", by other lands' "wretched refuse" and "homeless". Something happens to someone who picks up and moves. They usually do better, much better. Do we really wish to cut off the supply of ambitious, creative, usually young, hard-working people who want something better? Let's take those 12 million "illegals" and turn them into fully productive members of society, and if they wish, citizens! If we can't do that, we ought to be honest enough to blow up the "Mother of Exiles" and wall out the world.

Friday, December 14, 2012

12-plus pluralizations

kw: words, grammar

At a time I can no longer recall, I developed a love for words, as words. One fruit of this is a collection of lists of words by parts of speech. Not only so, I have classified those words that change with use. In this post I will get on record the pluralization of nouns, and the various patterns used. The table shows my analysis of 31,619 nouns. An explanation follows.

  • Adding an "s": three-fifths of nouns work this way. It is the first spelling rule most children learn. Dog → dogs and cloud → clouds and shoe → shoes and monkey → monkeys work this way.
  • Nouns that have no plural, or are their own plural: This plus the "add s" group make up 89% of all nouns. If you think of "water" as two words, one of them adds s, the other has no plural. That is, "waters" as a reference to numerous bodies of water is a +s plural. "Water" as a substance has no plural. "Lore" is another example; it is a kind of virtual substance also. Chemical terms (listed separately below) are also not pluralized: A word like "oxygens" is meaningless except to chemists using shorthand for "oxygen atoms" in a chemical structure.
  • Changing final "y" to "ies": This is for -y words that have a consonant before the "y", such as curry → curries and ruby → rubies. I find it interesting that these outnumber the -es plurals.
  • Adding "es": In singular form most of these nouns end in a sibilant sound. Examples are wish → wishes and paradox → paradoxes. A smaller number end in "o": potato → potatoes, although an increasing number of writers—currently 0.1%—add only "s".
  • Changing final "man" to "men": The 205 words in this category are all compounds with -men, such as "spokesman" or "workman". Many of these are being superseded by words ending in "person".
  • Irregular plurals: The 141 I have collected are a pretty comprehensive list. It includes child → children and beau → beaux and foot → feet. The "x" ones are from French, and the others came to English from a variety of languages.
  • Changing final "um" to "a": This is one of those famous Latin rules. Certain common words are now almost unknown in singular form, such as agendum → agenda and datum → data. Few people know that "agenda" and "data" are plural. More people know cranium → crania and spectrum → spectra, though you do find "craniums" and "spectrums" in print these days.
  • Changing final "us" to "i": Who doesn't know octopus → octopi? This is the best known Latin rule. Other examples are bacillus → bacilli and cactus → cacti and stimulus → stimuli.
  • Adding a final "e": Another Latin rule, only for nouns with female gender in Latin, such as larva → larvae and nebula → nebulae.
  • Changing final "is" to "es": A more obscure Latin rule. Examples are crisis → crises and analysis → analyses. The knowledge of oasis → oases and neurosis → neuroses persists mainly because other attempts to form a plural are so clumsy.
  • Changing final "f" or "fe" to "ves": An example of the first is wolf → wolves; of the second, life → lives.
  • Changing final "is" or "ex" to "ices": Examples of the first case are helix → helices and matrix → matrices; of the second, index → indices and codex → codices. However, a lot of "add es after the x" is being done, and these forms are likely to die out.
  • The last two cases, with a total of five words among them, ought actually to be included in the irregular verbs. Pluralizing the rare noun "do" to "do's" is probably not done any more, while using "go's" as a noun plural for "go" (think, "Let's have a go at it" – could you logically pluralize that?) is so rare I have seen it only once (and not in my own writing!). Finally, the consonant doubling rule applies only to quiz → quizzes and whiz → whizzes.
If you didn't know I was a nerd before, you know it now! I know only a couple of people who know more than five of these rules. Hardly anybody cares. Lists of such facts are primarily useful for people making software to recognize and process "natural language", particularly if they need to parse older texts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The housing roller coaster continues

kw: real estate, market distributions

This morning I decided to check back to places we've lived, to see what real estate values have been doing in all those places. In nearly 40 years of marriage, we have owned six houses in four states. Zillow, one of my favorite web sites, has a ten-year price history for a house and its town or zip code (or both). That, plus my memory of what I sold a house for, is instructive.

We have been in our current house 17½ years, and its purported value has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride. Its present "Zestimate" value is 75% above the price we paid for it. However, in 2005 it was up 105%, while in 2009 it was up only 55%. Here is the Zillow history chart for a nearby home that happens to be for sale:

The current Zestimate is about $220,000, but the home is for sale at $290,000. Who knows, maybe they will get it. This particular neighborhood has been a little more stable than ours, and the downturn occurred later. However, compared to 15-20-year old prices, the current Zestimate is similarly some 70% higher, though the asking price is almost exactly double. The highest Zestimate has been near $265,000 and the recent low, in September, was just under $205,000. But now compare the first house we owned, in Anaheim:

Now, that's a roller coaster ride! Can you believe we first bought this house for $45,000? Of course, that was more than 35 years ago; we sold it two years later for $60,000, and prices in the area skyrocketed for years thereafter. The peak in 2005 was more than $600,000, which crashed in 2008 to $270,000. Its present Zestimate is $304,000, still more than five times what we sold for "way back when".

We moved from California to South Dakota before 1980. Zillow doesn't seem to have price histories for houses there, but the current Zestimate for both houses we owned while we lived there are also 75% above the prices we got when we sold them. We moved from SD to Oklahoma in the mid 1980s, and lived briefly in Ponca City before buying a home out of town. Here is a chart for a home up the block from the one we rented:

This home, currently valued near $127,000, is actually a better house than the one in Anaheim, larger and better built. It just happens to be half a mile north of the ConocoPhillips refinery, where you can often enjoy "the smell of money". In Ponca City, location is more important than national economic ups and downs. This home's price has stayed between $110,000 and $135,000 for these ten years, and was close to $100,000 even 20 years ago. The smaller homes closer to the refinery are all priced in the $30,000-40,000 range, and those prices have been exceedingly stable.

The two houses we owned, quite a bit farther from the refinery, were priced at $65,000 and $95,000 in the early and mid 1980s, but have risen in value, slid back, and are again on the upswing, being valued at $120,000 and $190,000 at present. That's another "location" factor. They are still in Oklahoma, and it is just not as pricey as the Philly area. The second house is similar in size and amenities to our present house, but for 65% the price. Of course, the Oklahoma homes are not colonials, they are ranch style. That design is quite scarce in this area.

We have wondered whether to move again after I retire. That'll be in the next couple of years. If we want lower home prices, Oklahoma would be good. We enjoyed South Dakota, but we are less tolerant of polar cold now. Or we may just stay here. Inertia and all that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

As siblings get scarcer...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, family relations, autobiographies

Sometimes I wonder if I ought to pity our son (I don't, but sometimes I wonder), an only child. I have brothers, and he has none. He has uncles and aunts, but any kids he has will not have, at least on his side of the family. At a family gathering for Christmas when he was little, our youngest girl cousin brought her boyfriend. He was an only child, and his parents were onlies also. He marveled, and said to me, "I never considered I might be missing something, having no brothers or sisters or cousins. There are 19 of you here, and everybody gets along!

I have heard it said that men with brothers become better negotiators. That doesn't seem to have handicapped our son. He is a real tiger when it comes to bargaining or manipulating or cajoling, or just negotiating. How did he get more skilled at these things than I, who grew up with brothers after the age of 3½?

Growing up with brothers does change a man, but it is sometimes hard to say just how. George Howe Colt takes a powerful stab at it in Brothers, just out from Scribner. The book is subtitled "George Howe Colt on His Brothers and Brothers in History". History, indeed; he interweaves his fraternal autobiography with mini-biographies starting with jealous Cain bumping off his brother Abel, who gets replaced by Seth (and his name means "appointed" meaning he is appointed the replacement rather explicitly). Late in the book, a reprise on Seth and the whole phenomenon of a later boy replacing a deceased older brother fills half a chapter.

In keeping with the strongest contrast among brothers, that between the firstborn and the next, Colt limns the "good boy bad boy" phenomenon using the Booth brothers, Edwin and John (Lincoln's assassin). Everybody loved Edwin Booth, the darling of the stage in pre-Civil War America. John was a good actor also, and got raves of his own, but was more the Rodney Dangerfield of his family: he got no respect compared to Edwin, to his other brother Junius, or even his father, who could bring a whole room to tears with his sonorous rendition of the Lord's Prayer. The Booth family exemplifies a gaggle of siblings who seem more different from one another than a random collection of people.

Not every pair of eldest brothers are opposites. The Wright brothers were almost like twins in many ways, completing one another's thoughts, and though they often argued and debated, they found it great fun and did so without rancor. They learned from each other. Two boys our son practically grew up with, nine and ten years his senior, were born eleven months apart, and were inseparable as youngsters. They now have challenging professions: one a surgeon, the other a federal agent. They were too old to be quasi-brothers to our son, but were more like kindly uncles. They remain close to each other, though they presently live in different states.

Then there are brothers who cannot get along, such as the Kelloggs (one being the corn flake king). They spent the last couple decades of their lives in a series of lawsuits against one another. The elder, John Harvey Kellogg, pretty much made his younger brother Will (W.K.) his footstool, until Will simply had to break away and exert his independence. Being an even better businessman than his brother, he soon got rich making breakfast cereals, which irked John no end. John's attempts to duplicate (plagiarize) his brother's products and overtake him triggered the legalities over who had the right to use the family name as a trademark, at least for starters.

George Colt was the second of four brothers, and seems to have become the best known (authors at least become known to their readers, who can number in the many thousands). Similarly, while I am the eldest of four brothers, it is #2 who is the best known, the only one of us to publish a couple of books, with more on the way. He has been interviewed on the Discovery Channel, something beyond my imagination. George and his brothers each carved out a niche for himself: the oldest, Harry, a doctor, George a writer, #3 Ned an international correspondent (who was kidnapped for a few days in Iraq), and the youngest, Mark, administering a nonprofit organization for the blind.

One reason history is so full of brotherly examples is because in former generations nearly everybody had a few. In Colonial America, having 8-12 children was the norm. I once wondered how the 72 members of Jacob's descendants (who comprised 12 families) entered Egypt and grew in only four generations to number a million or more (there were more than 600,000 males 20 and older after the Exodus). It didn't take long to determine that an average couple had to have about 20 children! That's with total inbreeding; probably lots of the second and third generation had Egyptian spouses. Whenever there has been large-scale migration, such as the Europeanization of America, many of the immigrants are younger sons who don't expect much inheritance. Once "they get theirs" they breed like crazy. I share with the author a little concern for the present generation of young mainland Chinese, most of whom are only children, by national fiat.

I wonder whether having only one brother is better or worse than having either none or having several. In most of Western society, the average number of children, at least among Caucasians, is less than two. A growing number of couples remain childless, a great many have just one child, and few have more than two. Of those with just one sibling, only a third of the males have a brother (I know, you expected it to be half, but the combinations are B+B, B+S, S+B and S+S). A research project in the making!

George and his brothers are very similar in age to my brothers and me. Like the Colts, we have grown closer as we aged. Once a fellow is secure in his own life, there is less fear of brotherly usurpation. I often read in rags like the AARP Bulletin of studies that show how so many older people are happier than when they were younger. I guess if your younger days were filled with sibling rivalry and continual battling for parental favor, you're happier once a lot of that falls by the wayside.

George Colt's insight triggered a lot more memories I don't have space to go into here (and it is unlikely you would care about them). I am sure glad that, like him, I've become better and better friends with my brothers as we work our way through middle age. I'd hate to be like W.K. Kellogg, spending huge amounts of time and money fighting a baleful brother. Brotherhood can sure be good!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Setting up a general Sudoku solution

kw: puzzles, analysis

I have been addicted to solving the daily Sudoku puzzle since I first saw them a few years ago. I've gradually learned a number of strategies, so that I can usually "do" the ones with up to three stars of "difficulty" with minimal writing. Sometimes I can solve a 4-star puzzle without writing much, but today I saw that there were no easy hits, so I set up the General Solution method that I can use to solve almost any Sudoku.

As you can see in this first image, it involves writing in each empty square all the numbers that it could possibly contain, in a pattern that makes recognition easy. In this puzzle with 24 clues, there are actually three "low hanging fruit" that the setup reveals, which the three arrows point out. I cannot yet "see" such solution squares without writing the setup. Now look in particular at the top center block. The arrow points inside to a lone 6. Once I erase the little 6 and write it in full size, I erase all the 6's in that block, row and column. Now you can see that the 5 at the top is by itself, so it is the next square solved. Then the one below that will have only an 8, and that one is also solved.

The other two arrows point to 1's. "Doing" them and erasing all 1's that they eliminate, we'll find some more singletons. At the very least, to the right of the 5 at the center of the third row up, the 7 will be next.

Here is the puzzle about half done. Getting this far was easy. We are still in a realm of one-solution-leads-to-another. The two arrows show a 3 and a 9 that are next, and it is easy to see that a 4 will be found next to the 3, and a 1 just below the 9. In addition, the squares in that same row are both solved: a 5 on the left and a 2 in the middle. The 5 is also a case of only-one-in-the-row. You need to be on the lookout for such items.

We are starting to see "completion groups" show up, such as the two squares with only 3 and 7, at the lower left. I notice that I haven't yet erased a 1 below a 4 and 3 at top center; that leaves a 9...nor a 3 in the bottom square (that I should not have written in the first place!), so that block is solved already.

Then look at the top center block. The three unsolved squares contain 1 2, 2 9 and 1 9. This is a "completion group" of three squares. If any square is "picked off" by a solution elsewhere, all three are solved immediately.

Here we are near end stage, and the going gets a little harder. No more lone numbers appear, but with a little checking, we can see that the two circled 1's are next (they are both next to the central block). Firstly, the 1 at the left is the only one in that block. Then, the 1 on the right will be the only one in its block.

The upper row with a circled 1 will then have a 7 near the right end to solve next. Also the block to left center has an 8 only in its center square, so that is solved. And so forth.
Here is the solved puzzle. Although I made a couple mistakes during setup, they were easily caught. That is not always so, and I sometimes find I've misled myself. Once I catch a contradiction, I just mark the puzzle "not solved" and wait for the next day's version. I am not going to go back and erase everything and start over!

Something I see in some 5-star puzzles is the pathological situation where you wind up with five or six (or maybe more) completion groups, and none appears solvable. What I do in such a case is study the puzzle to find where I can make a fruitful guess. I'll lightly draw a square around my guess, then circle (lightly) the solutions to which it leads. Sometimes this solves the whole rest of the puzzle. Half the time, it won't, and will lead to a contradiction. But I have a record of my chain of logic. One thing I know is, my initial guess was wrong. I erase that number, carefully erase the light circles, and make a different guess. Because I nearly always make my first guess as one of two, that other "guess" is actually a certain solution of that square, and the solutions to which it leads will usually solve the rest of the puzzle. I have only seen one case in which a chain of logic "dried up", and I had to make a second guess.

If you've never tried such a general solution, and just tend to space off tougher puzzles, give this method a try.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Fading memory - PHD plus 71

kw: remembrances

A touching cartoon by Jeff Parker appeared in many local papers today (it will be online at Florida Today, tomorrow). It shows a puzzled young couple watching an elderly man, in polo shirt, but with military cap and medals, tossing a wreath off the deck of a ship, titled "Pearl Harbor Today - Never Forget". But the man is fading away.

My father, aged 90, enlisted in the Army in November 1942. He was 20. He served more than three years in the War of the Pacific. He stayed behind for the "plus six months, at the discretion of the President" that appears on his enlistment papers, which delayed my parents' marriage until springtime in 1946. The youngest veterans of World War II, who enlisted late in the war at age 18 (or 17 and a half with permission) are now 85. There aren't many left.

Another man, now deceased, enlisted a few months earlier in the Japanese navy. He served about as long, on a supply ship, so he saw little action, according to his brother (the brother was considerably more talkative about the War). He is my wife's father. I wish the two former adversaries could have met, but old "papa-San" died at age 86, about ten years ago.

The young people of the USA and Japan (and equally of Europe and Russia), if they even know WW2 happened, consider it ancient history, in nearly the same category as the fall of Rome or Troy. Once another generation passes, and the last veteran of the war passes on at some age like 105, will "Pearl Harbor Day" even appear on calendars any more? "V-E Day" and "V-J Day" were dropped years ago...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Scattering planets like billiards

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, space fantasy, space aliens, interstellar politics

The book is billed as "The explosive finale to the 'Ringworld' and the 'Fleet of Worlds' series": Fate of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner. This is the latest, and allegedly the last, of twelve books in these two intertwined "Known Worlds" series, half of them published by Tor Books.

Exploding planets and vanishing stellar systems are "explosive" enough. So far Niven has not introduced an exploding galaxy. Such events take far too long for a human-scale story, anyway. Even when "human scale" has been expanded in the "Known Worlds" books to a few hundred years beyond the traditional three score and ten. Niven didn't invent "boosterspice" but he makes great use of it.

The whole series encompasses events between 630 and 880 years in the future, more or less depending on relativistic effects, such as for the fleeing Fleet of Worlds, six planets driven toward galactic north at 0.8c, for which Tw = 0.6To (calendar coordination is hard enough when your year is as long as mine!).

Where a typical novel has 3-5 important characters, this one has 25 or more (depending on how many downloads of Jeeves you count), 21 of them "natural" individuals, the rest being AI's. The core characters are Nessus, of a vaguely equine alien species called Puppeteers, and the humans Louis Wu and Sigmund Ausfaller.

The Ringworld is Niven's most famous idea, a detailed construct probably inspired by the notion of a Dyson Sphere. Ringworld circles its primary star at a distance of about 100 million miles, or 160 million km, filling the orbit. Its length is thus more than 600 million miles or 1000 million km; its width is a million miles or 1.6 mkm. Its mass is similar to that of Jupiter, or more than 800 times Earth's mass. In one of the novels it is shown that such a ring's orbit is unstable, so it has engines along its rim (with its multi-mile-high walls to hold an atmosphere) that periodically correct the orbit. It is home to tens of trillions of "sentients" who belong to an unknown number of nonhuman species, most of whom know nothing of any of the others. There is a lot of room in 1.6 quadrillion square km, even when a substantial percent is shallow oceans: Earth's area is 510 million sq km, counting oceans. Inward from the ring is a smaller, segmented one, that revolves on a different schedule, producing days and nights on the Ring. This one is also driven as needed.

Among a ton of interesting ideas, one that seems unique to Niven is the Protector: A post-sexual development of a sentient species, when fed an appropriate diet, a protector is hyper-intelligent and pathologically paranoid. A protector's mission is preservation of the species from all imaginable dangers, and they have incredible imaginations. As gadgeteers, they are super-Tom Swifts, super-Edisons.

Another is the Gw'oth, starfishlike aliens that can link nervous systems via sockets in the ends of their five "arms" (tubercles in the story), to meld into group minds. A 16-fold meld in a hypercubical configuration is formidable indeed. One such group mind is found to be the power behind the "power behind the throne" of the Puppeteer planets.

The book weaves together numerous strands left hanging by all those that came before, returning not only Wu, Ausfaller and Nessus, but a number of other protagonists to a place of stability, if not honor. Considering that they all have used variously dishonorable means to accomplish their prior feats, that is no mean bit of writing! The drama begins when Ringworld vanishes, leaving a hyperspace- and gravitational ripple which rocks detectors for a considerable distance. It ends when a few planets also either explode or take flight; it seems someone has cracked a conundrum of hyperphysics relating to the behavior of a "spacecraft" deep in a gravitational well. There is a little fodder here for Niven and Lerner to continue the series should they so desire. I wouldn't mind.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Women in combat

kw: opinion, observations, military service

A purportedly legal case is wending its way through the courts, and there is a strangely muted debate going on, regarding women in combat. I have instinctively rejected the thought of women serving in active combat, but have wondered how to explain it. Science Fiction writer Robert Heinlein supplied the right words, some forty years ago. As found in this PDF file, Heinlein, a naval officer, delivered the James Forrestal Memorial Lecture to the Brigade of Midshipmen in April 1973. The first half of his remarks concern how to write fiction and get paid for it. Then he went on to ask the audience, "Why are you here?"

In 1973, patriotism was unpopular. It is even less popular today. Heinlein described how to find a troop of baboons on the African veldt: don't look on the ground, but look for a lone baboon up a tree. That is the sentinel of a troop, invariably a young male. Why is he there? He is a lookout for predators, primarily leopards. His role is patriotic. Should he spot a leopard he can warn the others in time for them to take to the trees, where they have a chance of avoiding or fighting off a leopard. Every couple of hours a different young male is sent up the tree to relieve the first, who can then forage for food.

Heinlein discussed the morality of fighting. If you are attacked, you fight for your life. If you aren't willing to defend yourself, you are a detriment to the species. You will soon die and your "morality" in other regards will not matter at all. The attacker is immoral; the defender is moral. Then, at the next level, will you defend your family members? To do so is moral. To fail to do so leads to extinction of your family. To cut this discursion short: will you fight for your city, state or nation? To do so is moral. Heinlein then recalls the Navy's basic motto of patriotism: "Save women and children first."

Why is this more moral than other possible choices? Men are expendable. Women and children are not, if there is to be a future for the group, whether it is a family or a nation or a species, including Homo sapiens. In the ultimate "Adam" fantasy, one man can impregnate a nearly unlimited number of women. But one woman cannot bear any great number of children. Simply compare two scenarios:
  • A terrible disaster has left one man alive, and 100 women.
  • A terrible disaster has left one woman alive, and 100 men.
With which scenario can the population be most rapidly rebuilt to a viable level? We all know that the second scenario will result in fighting among the men until one, or just a few (and all but one will be very subservient!) will be left living. With only one woman, the next generation will number no more than twenty, and probably fewer than that.

This is not to say that women are poor fighters. I know a number of women who are stronger, faster and smarter than I am, and I am no weak man. But they can bear children, and I cannot. However, let me quote Heinlein's key sentence: "Every human culture is based on 'Women and children first'—and any attempt to do it any other way leads quickly to extinction." For this reason, and this reason alone, allowing women in combat is a morally repugnant idea and ought to be rejected in the most definite manner.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Delaying crunch time

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, insects, natural selection

We once lived near a field that had much milkweed. One day in early spring I noticed some chrysalises of Monarch butterflies hanging on milkweed stems. I went out the next day with a box and gathered more than twenty of them, by cutting a substantial part of the plant so they would stand upright in the box. I left the box on the front porch, which was enclosed but was nearly as cold as outside. When a warm day came, I took the box out into the sun. Soon I could hear rustling from inside it. I opened the lid and watched as the butterflies struggled out of their pupa cases and stretched their wings. They all rested there, drying and moving slowly. Then they all took flight at once. For a minute or two I was surrounded by their beauty. We saw Monarch butterflies in the area for several weeks before they migrated out. I suppose at least some of them made it to Mexico. Near the end of that time, I saw a few orange butterflies that were a little smaller. I netted one, and thus made the acquaintance of the Viceroy butterfly. My "bug book" informed me it is a Batesian mimic of the Monarch.

Why does the Viceroy look like a Monarch? The Monarch tastes bad to birds, so a bird that has tried to eat one will avoid them. I don't know if birds learn from each other, but even if they don't, there are many more butterflies than there are birds. Once each bird has had a taste of Monarch, both Monarchs, and the Viceroys, that so resemble them, are pretty safe from being eaten.

Later I learned about another kind of mimicry. Many whole genera of tropical butterflies are inedible (or at least taste very bad), and look so much alike that naturalists have a hard time determining which species a particular specimen belongs to. Not only so, but other species, also inedible, look very similar to them. This is Müllerian mimicry. A bird that eats any of these species will avoid them all. By the way, this goes for mice, toads, snakes and other insectivores, as does the former principle.

The fate of nearly all insects is to be eaten. They aren't going to live very long in any case. Even in the tropics, adult insects seldom live a year, and in temperate climates, most overwinter as eggs or pupae. But the most insectivores prey on adults or larvae. For a species to survive, then, at least some individuals need to avoid, hide from, outrun or otherwise fend off predators long enough to reproduce. It must be hard to be a fly or moth in southern New Mexico. The millions of bats that live in the Carlsbad Caverns are estimated to eat a few tons of insects every single night.

Naturalist Gilbert Waldbauer relates the various ways that insects put off the inevitable in How Not to be Eaten: The Insects Fight Back, a highly informative and entertaining book. Of course, the author discusses mimicry of both kinds, and a few others lesser known. He also tells us of the ongoing debates about just how effective mimicry is. It turns out that trying to prove such a thing is close to impossible. How do you catch, mark, release, and re-capture hundreds of insects, so you can figure out how many are left? A few very clever experiments have been performed, with ambiguous results so far. In my view, the existence of mimicry, plus the known mechanism of natural selection, prove that it is effective.

The bulk of the book relates a number of other strategies insects use: hiding, fleeing fast, mimicking twigs and bird droppings and flower parts, using noxious chemicals either in their tissues or as sprays, making startle displays, and even literally fighting back. This last is not just the province of stinging insects, the ants, wasps and bees. One anecdote describes a fight between a sparrow and a praying mantis. The mantis put up a good fight, but was eventually killed and eaten.

Then there is the other side. A great many insectivores are insects. Robber flies consume bees; dragonflies captures bees, flies and moths; and fireflies eat mosquitoes (so don't let your kids catch them all to make light jars!). If a new kind of fly evolves that is twice as fast as the fastest dragonfly, it will multiply until most flies can outrun their predators. Dragonflies will be hard pressed to survive unless they evolve greater speed in return, and perhaps get more crafty also. Certain tropical mantises resemble orchids, only partly to fool birds, but even more to fool pollinating insects that they eat. Some species of moth and other bat pray have ears, not to hear one another but to hear a bat's sonar clicks so they can hide or fly erratically to avoid the bat. If the moths get better at this, the bats have to improve also, or die out. It has been called an arms race.

Of course, the primary reproductive strategy of most insects is to lay many, many eggs. They attempt to overwhelm the opposition. If an average female moth lays enough eggs so that two offspring survive to reproduce (one to replace her and one to replace her mate), the species will live on. If they somehow were to average three surviving offspring each, the population would explode, increasing by 50% per generation. For some insects, the population could easily increase by a factor of ten or more in a single season. Then, they'd be likely to outgrow their food supply, and many would starve. Starving insects are easier prey than healthy ones, so keeping the balance is also a way "not to be eaten."

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sensibility and sensibilism

kw: philosophy, sensibility

We are variously blessed and plagued by the richness of vocabulary. Yet there are notable gaps. I have been seeking a word to encapsulate the way I tend to think of things; not exactly a philosophy, I suppose, but that is itself of a higher level. I used to call myself a Pragmatist, but pragmatism in practice is rather harsh. I liken this to the way I once answered the question, by a supervisor, "Do you think I am fair?" I said, "Fairness can come across as harshness, as equally harsh to all. We like some mercy with our justice." He liked that. Then after more thought I said, "People don't only want to be treated fairly, they want to be treated well." Fortunately, he liked that also.

I have found these days that I often answer questions about dilemmas by asking, "What would make sense?" or "What would be the sensible thing to do?" It occurred to me to find out if Sensibilism is a recognized philosophy, and if so, what it is. I soon came across Sensibilism as defined by B. Russell (later rejected by him), but—what a disappointment!—saw that it is entirely related to the perceptions of our senses (and how we think about such perceptions). It traces back to the conundrum, "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Now you have to define "sound" and decide whether sensing the vibrations in the air is required. This kind of recursive reasoning is why philosophy was taken over by "linguistic analysis" a couple of generations ago, and is still largely fixated on meanings of words rather than the pursuit and classification of ideas.

The primary antonyms of "sensible" are "senseless", "unrealistic", and "unreasonable". Even as I think about this, I realize that what is sensible or reasonable to me is going to seem senseless or unreasonable to someone else…and vice versa. "One man's meat is another man's poison." Thus even a redefined Sensibilism, based on reasonableness rather than sense-perception, is unlikely to avoid a death spiral into linguistic analysis and similar conceits.

Nonetheless, I do like the notion of basing my decisions on, "What would make sense?" Without making an implied promise, I expect to consider these things, so don't be surprised if I post some ideas on a "What would be sensible?" theme in the future.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The first cracks in ancient Egypt's facade

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, egyptology, hieroglyphics, decipherment

Prior to 1822, a document such as this papyrus of the scribe Ani was wholly opaque. Avid students of Egypt had been laboring for decades to decipher hieroglyphic script, and Thomas Young had determined that at least a few symbols were phonetic when used for a non-Egyptian name such as Ptolemy or Cleopatra (both were Greek). Until the breakthroughs by Jean-François Champollion that he began publishing in 1824, however, scholarly theories and speculations greatly outweighed known facts.

Hieroglyphic writing appears to be a pictographic system, and many think it is similar to Chinese. But while the Chinese use 70,000 or more ideographs, there were only about 800 unique hieroglyphic symbols (with recognizable variations) in use during any period*. That seems too many for an alphabet, but it is much too few for a conceptual script such as Chinese. It is also too many for a convenient syllabary.

* Hieroglyphs were in use for some 3,000 years. Numerous signs came into use, and others fell out of use, leading to a total corpus of some 5,000 signs used over the centuries.

The Amharic language of Ethiopia is written with signs that represent syllables, and by my count, uses 282 symbols. The Japanese kana, used for phonetic spelling, number 72 (Japanese also use several thousand kanji, derived from Chinese). Languages such as English that are written with purely alphabetic scripts tend to develop larger numbers of spoken syllables, and thus an English syllabary might need 5,000-10,000 symbols.

The complexities of hieroglyphic script, and the hieratic script that was derived from it, were teased out by a number of workers over many years, beginning with the aforementioned Thomas Young, but the key breakthrough by Champollion was realizing that the script is primarily phonetic in a way similar to Semitic scripts, and that the larger-than-expected number of symbols (linguists call them glyphs) resulted from several factors:
  • Like Semitic scripts such as Hebrew, nearly all the phonetic symbols denote consonants.
  • Hebrew and many other Semitic scripts use "points" below or within a symbol to indicate the vowel sound that follows the consonant, or an aspiration. Hieroglyphs used a more complex system of determinants, within or above or below a symbol, for a similar purpose.
  • More than half the symbols used are indeed ideographs, and denoted whole words. The English ampersand or the +, both used to mean "and", are examples, and we use ¢ instead of writing "cents", £ for "pound Sterling", and ∞ for "infinity".
  • Other kinds of determinants were used, in ways I don't understand, but some may have had grammatical meaning such as the "particles" or postpositions in Japanese.
If the complexities of Egyptian writing only were the subject of Andrew Robinson's book, it would be interesting enough, but perhaps rather dry reading. However, Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion reveals the life of a singularly interesting genius. He was an interesting man living in interesting times. Born in 1790 during the Terror, his lifetime included the founding of the first French republic, the rise and reign of Napoleon (twice), and the restoration of the monarchy under Louis XVIII. While he and his family were republican in sympathies, Champollion's career after 1815 was dependent on royal favor and sponsorship.

I find it interesting that we Anglicize his surname, but not the given names: Champollion wrote his name "Champoléon", as seen by this inscription, probably in his own hand, made in 1829 in Thebes. It took another 100 years or more for archaeologists to (mostly) get over the impulse to vandalize monuments. The name means "field of lions".

J-F Champollion was a difficult man. Without the protection of his older brother Jacques-Joseph, and other influential men he managed to befriend, he'd have become a forgotten footnote of history. Their father was a book seller, and both boys were bookish. Both became librarians. The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt, when J-F was 11 years old, resulted in an "Egyptian frenzy" in French society. Family friendships with some of the scientists who'd been on that expedition resulted in opportunities to see materials returned to French museums and academic institutions, and ignited this frenzy in young J-F, called Champollion jeune  ("the younger") in writings of his time, as his brother became known as Champollion-Figeac, after their birth city.

His labors to decipher the Egyptian scripts were based on his knowledge of Coptic, taught him by a priest who'd been sheltered in the Champollion house during the Republic, when priests were persecuted. This was both a help and a hindrance, because while Coptic has many cognates with ancient Egyptian, there are many false cognates and other words that are simply different. Words in two related languages have a cognate relationship if they are spelled and/or pronounced similarly and have very similar meanings, such as "wine" in English and its Italian cognate "vino"; in Old English, AKA Anglo-Saxon, the "W" was pronounced as a "V". False cognates are words that seem similar but aren't. Thus in French, "assister" does not mean to assist or help, but to "attend", such as going to a symposium. Because I know French, I can sometimes read a sentence or two of the related language Spanish, but usually find Spanish mostly unreadable, and I cannot understand hardly any spoken Spanish.

We must also remember that the Egyptian spoken language of 3000 BCE was probably quite different from that of 196 BCE, the time that the Rosetta Stone was made. This, and the nearly universal opinion in the early 1800s that Hieroglyphic was almost entirely conceptual (ideographic like Chinese), led Champollion down numerous blind alleys during the two decades (1802-1822) prior to his breakthrough.

The publication of a system that allowed a scholar to read most hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions led to a burst of activity, and fame for Champollion. He obtained sponsorship for a joint French-Italian expedition to Egypt in 1828-9, and was made the first Professor of Egyptology upon his return. Sadly, the sickly J-F had not long to live. He died early in 1832. The enemies he had made in his life continued their attacks after his death, and delayed acceptance of his system. But once scholars began to test it and found it useful, much work went on to expand it, and to correct a few matters, leading to the ability to read nearly all (but not quite all) hieroglyphic papyri and inscriptions.

An interesting result of Champollion's work, and an area where even he had the wisdom to tread lightly, was his discovery that the early Egyptian dynasties dated to several hundred years prior to the accepted date of the Biblical Flood. Modern Biblical chronologies still place the Flood in either 2268 BCE, or less frequently a range of dates reaching to about 2500 BCE. The 280 kings, in 31 dynasties of Egypt, prior to 332 BCE when Alexander took over, reach back to about 3050 BCE when you add up the years that each reigned. Also, a number of earlier documents discuss "legendary" events described as 2000 to 3000 years earlier than the First Dynasty, indicating times that predated the accepted date of Adam's creation in about 4000 BCE by many centuries. In the 1820s, to claim such things might be fact was to put oneself in mortal danger.

The book details the life, the work, and the people surrounding Champollion and makes the times live again for us. Linguistic progress since that time has even led to toys such as this "Hieroglyphic Alphabet" that you can use online to create a cartouche with your name in Egyptian. It is rather bogus (compare O and U), but amusing. Champollion might even have been amused, but knowing a bit about his personality, I suspect he would chide the web site's creator about the anachronistic mix of ages selected for this "alphabet". A postscript to the text briefly discusses the contrasting styles of Young, who provided the first clues, and Champollion, who truly deciphered much of the hieroglyphic system. The one was a polymath, and triumphed in many areas, where the other had a singular focus, almost tunnel vision. It took the talents of both men, each in his own area, to make it possible to read Egyptian, but the bulk of the work was indeed Champollion's.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can liberalism save the poor?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, poverty, policy

Jesus told his disciples, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt. 26:11 and Mark 14:7), and some think this means God favors some amount of poverty. Instead, we must understand that this phrase expresses God's sad understanding of human nature. It is not to be taken as a prophecy that must be fulfilled. The Old Testament contains frequent admonitions to relieve the poor, and specific provisions for their debts to be forgiven, such as the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee. In the New Testament we find that, when Judas went out to betray Jesus, the other apostles thought he might be going to give alms, and this tells us that Jesus would send Judas (the group treasurer) to do so from time to time.

Today, what do we find? In the richest nation on Earth (for the present), poverty continues to increase, not just in number, but in proportion. This in spite of the famed "war on poverty" launched by President Johnson nearly 50 years ago. Poverty, as defined by the government, had been decreasing already in the mid 1960s; it had been over 18% (8 million) of families in 1962, and continued to a low of 8.7% (4.8 million) families in 1973. After some gradual swings up and down, the figure currently stands at 11.8% (9.5 million) families. There is a defined threshold for each family size; for a family of 3, it is about $18,000 yearly. Folks, that isn't much!

Curiously, in Washington, DC public schools, spending per student is nearly $19,000, yet the education received is better in "mid-continent" schools (in the Central time zone), where yearly spending is $6,000-9,000. Hang onto this thought.

A few years ago, two prominent liberal activists, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, launched "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience", a bus tour of 18 cities in 8 states. They write of their experiences and findings in The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. The recession of the past four years has pushed many in the middle class toward the poverty threshold, without necessarily taking them right across it. By grouping the near-poor with those defined as poor, the authors can state that the numbers of struggling Americans is 150 million, "the greatest number in five decades".

After presenting a "Portrait of Poverty", which focuses on poverty as a fact (the lack of sufficient money, and nothing more) the authors present five aspects of poverty: Opportunity, Affirmation, Courage, Compassion, and Imagination (or, in particular, the lacks thereof). Poverty of Affirmation is a particularly insidious difficulty. The (still) well-off have a nearly overwhelming tendency to think that the poor "deserve it". However, one's politics affect this outlook. People with a more liberal attitude expect government to solve problems, and have low rates of charitable donation. People with a more conservative attitude do not expect government to help in a sufficient or useful way, so they give on average four times as much to charity as liberals.

Let's back up to some of the figures above. What would it cost to raise the effective income of those families below the poverty line to, say, $30,000? With no knowledge of the income distribution, I can guess that it doesn't exceed $10,000 on average, for those 9.5 million families. So that is $20,000 times 9.5 million. That comes to $190 billion. Then, for those above the line, but making less than $30,000, we can roughly estimate another 50% added, for a total of about $285 billion. That is substantial, but it is one-third of the money wasted on the TARP programs, just in 2009. However, total charitable giving in 2011 was nearly $300 billion. While most of this went to church programs, some amount was given to organizations such as "missions" that help the poor directly, and many churches pass on funds that come to them to support such efforts.

Government spending on about 50 "war on poverty" programs totaled more than $475 billion last year. Clearly, that hasn't resulted in America's poor living at a $30,000+ level (per family of 3). By far the greatest part of it stays in the pockets of the huge army of civil "servants" who administer and carry out the programs.

The book hardly touches on figures like this. The authors call for more spending. I'd think the focus ought to be on "right spending". I'd prefer a manifesto, a demand, for a simple criterion: that governmental organizations be required to have at least 75% efficiency. Thus, three fourths of every dollar that passes through the hands of every such agency must go directly into the pocket of a poor person, either as direct cash, or as whatever kind of "food stamp" is currently in fashion, or as some other kind of voucher to cover living expenses. But be sure to make welfare frauds such as amassing vouchers for multiple dead persons, punishable by death.

A great effort is also needed to improve education, primarily by doing away with most of the administrators and other non-teachers. In the 1950s, my grade school, with 600 students, had about 20 teachers (class size was about 30), plus a principal, an assistant principal, a secretary, and the janitorial staff. There was no cafeteria staff, as we all brought our lunches. However, in schools that had food programs for poor students, it was handled by the teachers. The grade school our son went to in the 1990s had so many "junk" administrators, that only 40% of the roster was teachers, and their rate of pay was less (adjusted for inflation) than a teacher's salary in 1955. I shudder to think what the situation is now, after another 15 years. I do know this: while a number of my son's teachers, in most years, were very good, there were also a distressing number of "bottom of the barrel", tenured fools in the classroom. We need to get rid of all the vice-assistant-this and that, and apply the money to the salary budget for teachers, and apply realistic accountability for teachers to keep their jobs.

The lowest rate of publication spending is $6,000 per student. Times 20, that is $120,000 per classroom. Suppose we paid 60% of that directly to the teacher? Do you think we could attract some higher-quality teachers? There are other significant problems with public education, but I'll leave them for a different rant.

Here is my greatest area of agreement with Smiley and West: Predatory CEO's make way too much. It seems de rigueur now for a company head to receive at least $1 million per month, and often much more, just in base salary, plus they usually get stock options that can earn them even more than their salary (and how is this not insider trading?). How much is a million a month? Of course, they don't work a 40-hour week. Many are workaholics that stay at their desks 70-80 hours. So, a typical working month might contain 325 hours. That comes to more than $3,000 per hour. Quite frankly, I don't think anybody's time is worth more than about $300-400 per hour, no matter what they do (except maybe a bomb squad guy who saves a few thousand lives—he deserves an extra large bonus). I once walked into a law office to ask about their terms. This was no hotshot agency, just a small practice of four lawyers. There was no free first consultation. The first visit would require a $3,600 retainer, and their rate was $550 per hour. I didn't even smile as I walked out. I found a lawyer who did a fine job at less than half the rate, and the first visit was free.

I used to subscribe to Utne Reader. I don't know if it is still true, but Eric Utne once wrote that they followed a company principle, that the highest paid person could make no more than seven times as much the lowest paid full time worker. I am on the board of a nonprofit organization, that pays its director about $75,000. That's plenty for a good director; it is in the top 20% of national salaries. The receptionist gets something like the mid-$20s, so the place would qualify as a "good" organization by the Utne rule even if the director were paid twice as much.

The book's title is mainly there as a provocation. The only discussion of the rich is similar to the prior two paragraphs, plus a call to prosecute the predatory bankers and congresspersons who actually caused the recent recession. This shows that politics don't matter to a President, only money matters. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have protected the guilty at every turn.

A lot is made these days about "choice", whether related to abortion ("it's a choice that must be protected") or homosexuality ("it isn't a choice, it is genetic, and must be protected"), or another half dozen areas. More and more of us must realize that poverty is not a choice (except for a few ascetics). The Bible uses the words "oppress", "oppressed" and "oppression" more than 120 times, most frequently in the sense of a rich person taking advantage of a poor person. This is something God particularly hates. This is the core of the problem that Smiley and West are discussing. We have a system that protects the oppressors and oppresses their victims. They suggest 12 points to deal with this. You and I know that none of the 12 points has a breath of a chance of passing Congress or being signed by any President, of whatever party. It will take a renewed civil rights movement to, at the very least, force governments to allow people to escape the direst forms of such oppression, such as by re-occupying foreclosed dwellings that are left vacant by the banks. I just don't know whether such a renewed movement can go forward with as little violence (on the part of the protesters) as was seen 40-50 years ago.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Third time is the charm, ain't it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dictionaries, short biographies, lexicography

When I was a kid, we'd sometimes poke fun at someone's diction by chanting, "'Ain't' ain't a word 'cause it ain't in the dictionary." Then in my sophomore year, the high school library obtained a copy of the latest "big dictionary," Webster's Third International (to use its short title). Some smart aleck or other looked in it right away, and came running out to say, "Hey, now 'ain't' is in the dictionary!" We all had to run in to see. Sure enough, big as life:

I crept back in later and checked in a few other dictionaries, something I had not considered doing before. Surprise! "Ain't" was in each and every one!! The new dictionary was remarkable only in what it left out: a notification that "ain't" was colloquial, or substandard, or "to be deprecated", and though it did say "disapproved by many", it seemed to approve, noting its use by "many cultivated speakers". As a much-abused nerdy kid, I knew well enough to keep that discovery to myself.

Unbeknownst to all of us kids, the publication of Webster's Third (W3) by the Merriam Co. triggered a controversy that is still not quite over. A debate or dispute is a short-term affair, but a controversy can go on and on, particularly when it touches on matters of tradition. Then, like the centuries-long arguments about the Trinity, the self-worth of touchy intellectuals gets called into question, and the fray outlasts the original participants.

The scope of the W3 controversy is ably canvassed by David Skinner in The Story of Ain't: America, its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. It is no spoiler to mention that anti-W3 material has been published as recently as 2011, a full fifty years after the dictionary was issued. This book is neither pro- nor anti-W3, but is rather a history of the making of the volume, and the story of the principal characters surrounding it.

About the first half of the book's 40 chapters consist of mini-biographies of more than twenty men, and a woman or two. The central figures in the drama are Philip Gove, editor of W3, and Dwight Macdonald, who wrote the most damning (and still quoted) attack upon it. Equally important are William A. Nielson, who edited the predecessor volume (W2) that was issued in 1934, and Charles C. Fries, a pioneer of scientific linguistics. Ordinarily, I am quite put off by biography (I very seldom read one), but Skinner has woven the little biographies together in a most readable way. I still found that it took me a few extra days to read.

Scientific Linguistics remains a difficult issue, partly because no two linguists agree on just what it is. Some years ago a friend of mine was working towards a PhD in linguistics, under a professor who is a structuralist, and claims that as the most scientific approach. C.C. Fries would have damned him for ignoring empirical data about current usage in favor of theories about "generation" of language as promoted by Noam Chomsky. Philip Gove followed Fries's lead (by the way, grammarians are an equally contentious breed, and some would condemn me for that apostrophe-s, claiming the proper possessive is Fries'), basing his instructions to contributors on empiricism.

Where earlier dictionaries, particularly W2, sought to be normative or even prescriptive, Gove in W3 sought instead to embody competent reportage of the English language as American's speak it. This led to a bit of clumsiness because all the illustrative examples are from written, even published, material. But how else can one obtain historical usage? Unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, which traced each word to its earliest use, W3 used history as a springboard to the present, emphasizing current (as of 1960) American English.

In the later chapters that report on the controversy that erupted in 1961, we find that most of those complaining about it compared W3 to an imaginary W2, not having checked to see that most of their bugaboos were right there in W2 also! Yet W3 is definitely not some slightly-altered clone of W2. It is quite different. W2 was not only prescriptive, it also resembled a one-volume encyclopedia, whereas W3 stuck to defining words, not discoursing at length on the item a word "meant". This was by design, and controversy or no, it has influenced dictionary making ever since. I find that the Collins (also called a Webster's) Unabridged on my desk, published in 1979, owes much to Gove's approach, and defines by reporting.

The way we learn language is by imitation. A dictionary doesn't need to prescribe to influence. We who use them do so to learn what is not just normal or normative, but what is ordinary, because only by using a word in its ordinary sense(s) can we be understood, at least in expository prose. In more creative work, it can be salutary to stretch the meaning of a word, but most of what I write is instructional, and being understood is primary. New words and new meanings arise from children and poets; once they are established, the rest of us can use them for the everyday purpose of communication.