Friday, June 29, 2012

Statistics wars

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, statistics, history

It is curious. As long as there have been formal, mathematical methods, they have been seen as the epitome of intelligence. This, in spite of the fact that modern amounts of computer power have helped us see that machinery can easily do what our own "wetware" struggles with, yet things we take for granted are usually what our computer machinery has yet to do well.

Nobody could ever get a BS degree in Walking to the Corner Store to Buy Milk. Yet, millions of hours of effort and billions of dollars have been spent to develop a robotic device with the ability to perform this simple task, so far without clear success. On the other hand, you might have a BS or even MS in mathematics, and find that you need to check your work using Mathematica, to be certain you haven't dropped a minus sign or parenthesis somewhere.

I had six years of college- and grad-school-level math (calculus, differential equations, advanced physics analytics, and statistics). I recall that every math professor said, hundreds of times, after showing us how to set up a system of equations, "Now it is all just turning the crank." Maybe so, but "turning the crank" was something even the most obsessive of us—frequently me, yet I didn't always get an A—could not reliably do. It might take all night, also, but even on a generic IBM PC AT-class machine running in Turbo mode at 10 MHz (that is 1/300 the speed of today's processors), with the first edition of Mathematica, we could set up those same equations and get the crank turned for us in ten seconds or less.

That branch of mathematics called statistics is, today, a double enterprise. The more familiar discipline of hypothesis testing is based on gathering enough data to make a standard test such as the t-test or F-test produce a result with a range narrow enough to reject an alternative hypothesis, usually the Null hypothesis. Maybe you take the next twelve light bulbs from the factory floor, put them in sockets, and turn them on. You set up some kind of machinery to record when each one burns out. With incandescent, 100-watt bulbs, this could take several months; with CFL's or LED's it could take years. Regardless, once the last bulb burns out, you can calculate a distribution function, figure its average value, and state with a certain measure of confidence that most of the bulbs will burn for, say, 1000 hours. By the time this information makes it to the retail package, it simply reads, "Lasts 1000 hours!"

Here is another kind of statistics. You have kept track of many such tests over many years. The tests are now a quality control exercise. You know pretty well what kind of distribution function there is. For light bulbs, this function is rather broad, so a "1000 hour" bulb has a 10% chance of burning out after only 500 hours or less, and a 10% chance of lasting at least 1350 hours. A few bulbs have been known to hang in there for more than 2000 hours, which is why a complete test usually takes almost three months.

But you know the shape of the function. With this knowledge, you take twelve bulbs as usual, and start the test. After one month (720 hours), three of them have burned out, and you know the times. You probably have enough information to decide whether the current batch of bulbs is worthy of the "1000 hours!" designation. In some cases, you might have to wait for a fourth bulb to burn out to be sure. You now have a QC test that gives you the result you need in 4-6 weeks rather than 10-12. And you have some leftover bulbs with some life in them.

That is one kind of Bayesian analysis. Another is this. You or your significant other, being of appropriate age (over 40, or 50, depending on whom you believe) go to the breast center for a mammogram. Suppose three days later a phone call comes, "There is a suspicious shadow. Please consult your physician." What are the odds that you actually have cancer?

Analyze it this way.
  • The test catches 80% of cases of genuine cancer.
  • Of 10,000 women who have mammograms, 40 have cancer.
  • Thus 32 of those 40 will receive that daunting phone call.
  • The test has a "suspicious shadow" or other indication that might indicate cancer just over 10% of the time, whether there is cancer or not.
  • The actual number is 1,028 per 10,000. The 32 real cancers are among them (Remember, 8 cancers have been missed).
  • That leaves 996 women who do not have cancer, but can't be sure. They got the same phone call.
  • 32/1,028 = 0.031. That is 3.1%.
It is up to you to decide if you want to do nothing and hope you are among the 97% who have no cancer. Many women opt to undergo further testing and further expense. But for every genuine case of cancer caught, 31 women who were perfectly well were subjected to fear, and probably pain (biopsies).

This mammography example is presented in greater detail in an appendix to The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines & Emerged Triumphant From Two Centuries of Controversy, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. The light bulb analysis is not; I got it from experiences in a prior career.

Bayes' Rule is simple. When you update your initial belief with current information, you get a new and improved belief. In other words, it is a statistical method that incorporates feedback.

Here is an example from my father. Though he was in Corps of Engineers for most of WWII, he was a gunnery officer for part of a year. Suppose you have a mortar squad with a dozen mortars, and your task is to demolish an enemy bunker a mile or two distant. Mortars are fired above a 45° angle, so they go a mile or more up on their way to the target. You don't know the winds "up there". How do you determine your "windage", and its variability? One way is to fire all 12 mortars using the range sighted in by your spotter, at the visual azimuth angle, and see how much you miss. The center of your impact pattern gives you the average windage, and the scatter gives you the gustiness figure. That'll work, but you can do it with three shells.

You aim all three "on target", but fire them a couple of seconds apart. A second round of three, if needed, and adjusted for the average "miss", should allow you to correct for average windage. The scatter tells you how variable the winds are, and you compensate by adding some divergence to your aiming when you fire all 12, which will ensure that some of the mortar rounds strike in the most effective locations. The bottom line is, this will get the job done with the smallest number of mortar rounds.

The book is a delightful history of Bayes' Rule and the people who used it. A presentation of the Rule got into print only after Thomas Bayes died, and became much better known years later due to publications by Pierre Simon Laplace. There are some who think the Rule should be named for Laplace, but there is already a large collection of methods called Laplacians that are used to simplify the solution of differential equations. We can let Bayes have this one.

The singular fact is the nearly two centuries of determined opposition Bayesian methods endured. For about six generations, "frequentists" (roughly, those who rely only on methods that require no prior estimates) made the name Bayes into a dirty word, in professional statistical circles at least. Yet among those with real jobs to do, making an informed guess and then refining it was the only way to solve their problems. In a sense, there was the ivory tower, denigrating the methods that almost everyone else was using to great effect!

This was particularly the case in military circles. Code-breaking and decipherment is a Bayesian process. The "Enigma" machines used by the Germans and others for encoding messages were based on a pre-war commercial product. So the English and others were able to build machines that duplicated them, and then "try stuff". Encoding and decoding was laborious, even with the machines' help, so they worked with snippets. When a trial turned a snippet into something nearly intelligible, they could tweak and tweak until they were ready to decode the entire message the snippet came from. It must be said that the laziness of signals officers made their job easier; it seems that shifting an encoding wheel just one position makes a whole new code, but of course that is the first thing a decoder is going to try.

The manifold uses of Bayes' Rule unfold in story after story, of hunts for lost submarines (on which The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy is based), of figuring out how big the critical mass is for an atomic bomb, and of weather forecasting—all in the days before computers. Once computers became ubiquitous, and especially after 1980 or so, software that made Bayesian inference practical for larger and larger problems suddenly brought the Rule into the limelight. Coupled with Markov chaining and Monte Carlo methods, it is the only practical way to solve many kinds of problems.

Have you ever built and used a Decision Tree? That is a Bayesian process. You have to have at least a guess about the values of a number of things, and their chance (probability) of occurrence. Once you populate the tree, you just "turn the crank", there are programs that can do this for you. Here is one example of a decision tree worked out by hand:

Once the numbers have been calculated, the largest composite value on the right will indicate which decisions must be taken to achieve this optimal result.

A most exciting area, still in early days, is machine learning. Bayesian learning is behind the self-driving vehicles that recently won DARPA prizes for driving in the desert and driving in a city; it is behind the data store, and particularly the data relationships it contained, that enabled the Watson supercomputer to win at Jeopardy. It is also behind Google Translate and the "you might also like" suggestions Amazon makes when you search for a particular book.

Finally, think how you learn something new. You were not born knowing that the letter "B" is pronounced "bee" and is made by a certain way of grunting as you pop your lips apart. As an infant, you heard it again and again, and played around with your mouth until you got a sound that matched "pretty well" what you heard. Meanwhile, inside, to avoid tying up too much valuable gray matter, your brain was remembering motions that "satisfied" you more and forgetting those that didn't. Before long, it could prune away the experience of learning (and you have indeed forgotten it), and just keep a tiny bit of brain machinery that is very good at pronouncing a "B". Bayesian inference is the way we learn.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Will meat eating go out of style?

kw: food, meats, carnivorousness, vegetarianism

I have been thinking about future food supplies. Not long ago I re-read portions of E. O. Wilson's 2002 book The Future of Life. He wrote,
"If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares would support about 10 billion people."
 A number of authorities report that world "arable land" totaled 1.38 billion hectares in 2008. This article, which I consider most reliable, reports 1.365 billion as of 2005. This is less than the land under cultivation, however, because "arable" counts only land that doesn't need irrigation. All cultivated land totaled 1.73 billion hectares in 2005. Still, all the figures are in a range that is unlikely to change much unless huge breakthroughs are made in land usage effectiveness.

Just over 30% of the cultivated land is used for livestock, about 0.52 billion hectares. This includes land that grows crops which are fed to livestock. It leaves 1.2 billion hectares to produce all the vegetable foods for the world population of seven billion persons. That resource produces:
  • 57 million metric tons (MTm) of beef
  • 104 MTm of pork, ham and other swine meats
  • 87 MTm of chicken meat
  • 13 MTm of other fowl
  • 700 MTm of milk (all kinds)
  • 64 MTm of eggs
The sum of the meats is 261 MTm. The "Western" diet utilizes about 115 kg of meats per person. Just in the US and Europe, then (1.05 billion), total meat consumption amounts to 121 MTm yearly, or nearly half the world total (46%).

As world prosperity rises, larger numbers will want better diets. Suppose meat consumption in the West could be reduced by 20%, and four billion people in Asia and Africa were to demand an increase of meat availability to that level (90 kg per person per year), could we produce it?

Five billion times 90 kg = 450 MTm per year. 450/261 = 1.72, a 72% increase. If we assume an equivalent increase in the demand for milk and eggs (less likely for reasons we will get to soon), it would require either a 72% increase in land devoted to livestock production—from 0.52 billion Ha to 0.89 billion Ha—or an equivalent increase in livestock productivity per hectare. Neither is likely.

By 2025, just 13 years from now, there are expected to be eight billion of us. Just to feed that extra billion, assuming the current distribution of diet, will require either a 14% increase in average productivity, or a 14% increase in cultivated acreage. This is also unlikely.

Several factors complicate such an analysis. Firstly, few adult Asians can drink cow or buffalo milk because of lactose intolerance. Their "milk" of choice is soy milk. The leftover soy roughage is fed to livestock, though it needs to be mixed in with more palatable fare, or the animals won't eat it. Secondly, increasing amounts of "cultivated" land are being turned over to ethanol production for motor fuel. This will simply have to come to an end within the next couple of decades, or riots will ensue. Thirdly (and finally for this discussion), it takes 2-3 kg of vegetable feed to produce one kg of chicken meat, but 10-12 kg to produce a kg of beef. Pork is in the middle at 3.5-4. I foresee a continuing trend away from cattle to other animals. Beef will become a rare "premium" treat.

I didn't mention seafood anywhere above. While a there is a little on-land aquaculture, most fish- and prawn-farming is done at sea, so it doesn't impact the amount of arable or cultivable land, and is presently a small portion of total seafood consumption; most seafood is wild caught. But this is as good a time as any to state that fish catches have been decreasing for years, and are likely to drop by half in the next 10-20 years. That will increase the pressure on meats and on sea- and land-based aquaculture.

This brings me back to the Wilson quote. Sometime between 2050 and 2100 AD, world population could rise to nine billion, then ten billion. There is a lot of hope, with little justification, that population will level off between nine and 9.5 billion prior to 2100. Suppose it does: there will still be no way to afford using so much land for livestock.

There will always be marginal grasslands where grazing animals are the best way to turn sunlight into calories, and there will be byproducts like extracted soy meal that people won't eat. The conclusion I must draw from my rough calculations is that everyone except a few of the wealthiest individuals will be eating much less animal food than at present. Fashionable item in future trousseaux: a vegetarian cookbook.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remember "Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way"?

kw: leadership

Tipped off by a friend, I read an article titled Few follow the leader these days, by David Brooks. He writes of "just authority", and the quandaries surrounding it. His closing words are:
I don't know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don't trust their institutions. That's not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It's mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.
In his memoir, "At Ease," Eisenhower delivered the following advice: "Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you." Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.
To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.

His premises are questionable. In 1925, national leadership, both political and commercial, was becoming increasingly corrupt, which led to the crash of 1929 and the Depression. The people's trust had been ill-founded. Hoover's bungling then led to a level of cynicism very similar to what we see today. President F.D. Roosevelt had to first re-establish trustworthy leadership before he was able to lead effectively. He was a patrician, but was willing to interact directly with the populace in a way prior presidents had seldom done, with his "fireside chats" for example. In the 1950s, D.D. Eisenhower began his presidency with sufficient moral authority to remake this country, and as a result, American leadership did indeed perform better than the political gridlock that has characterized the 1990s and early 2000s, and through today.

Secondly, President Eisenhower's advice is well taken, but doesn't match the attitude of Mr. Brooks, who clearly thinks us stupid people ought to just follow our "betters". Considering the weaseling related to the current quarrel between a House committee and Eric Holder, there is no way I would consider Mr. Holder or his boss as one of my "betters."

Finally, good leaders, such as either of the Roosevelts, or Eisenhower, emulate good and honest leadership, so that the populace can clearly recognize their qualities and admire them. Joseph de Maistre wrote, "In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve." Considering how close most national elections are, this is actually only half true; about 51% get the leaders they thought they wanted and the other 49% feel put-upon, unless the elected leader can win over the people by being the good and just leader he or she claimed to be during the campaign.

But when the President's "approval rating" drops below 40% and that of Congress drops to 20% or less, the fault does not lie with the "followers." The great majority of the national "leaders" currently "serving" think of themselves as an elite, and mostly have no way to connect to their constituents with the humility that FDR displayed.

America has a followership problem because it has a leadership problem. If you want to know why, just ask Ed Rendell, author of A Nation of Wusses.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stripping the myths of meaning

kw: book reviews, mythology

I have come to realize I am at best an average writer. I am most comfortable with the essay format, so this blog is well suited to my slender skills. When I have had to write longer works, such as a thesis or dissertation, the greatest task was the narrative and transitions, because without them my writing resembles a strung-together list of bullet points.

As part of my early education, I read Edith Hamilton's Mythology. It remains the classic work on the primary myths, and her other nine books, for those interested, bring out many of the tales left out of that volume, plus they introduce certain of the early Hebrew and Christian stories.

In a new volume, scholar Philip Freeman brings together summaries of most of the Greek and Roman myths, rewritten for a modern audience: Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths. While he clearly loves the classic stories, I think he has misread the audience. While it is true that modern readers have little patience, they clearly appreciate well crafted narrative and characterization; witness the Harry Potter phenomenon or the marathon of reading required by the twelve volumes of the Left Behind series.

Oh My Gods would probably work better as a multi-volume work (five at least). What we have is writing pretty much as I would probably produce: a series of strung together bullet points, almost like reading a bunch of PowerPoint presentations. The emotional power is wrung out of the stories by the brisk point-by-point style. It's a pity. These ancient archetypes reveal a lot about how our insides work, if told well. While it is perhaps unfair to match Freeman with Hamilton, that's what he is up against. Many of Hamilton's books are still in print. Just get them.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Do you say Yuck when you mean Grrr?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, emotions

"Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm going out and eat worms," my mother used to sing to me when I was peevish. When I was little, it shocked me into silence. Later, I secretly liked it. Eventually, I ignored it. I have never knowingly eaten worms. I have eaten dog. In my mid twenties, one of my housemates was Cuban. He made us a delicious stew one day, then announced it was dog meat. We were a tough bunch of guys, I guess. Nobody hurled. We were mainly curious, where did he get it? From a black-market Vietnamese market in downtown Los Angeles, he told us.

Try this as an experiment. Clean your sink out real well beforehand, then make sure others are watching as you wash some grapes. Let one drop into the sink, seemingly by accident, then pick it out and eat it. How do they react? (This is assuming that you are capable of nonchalantly popping a grape into your mouth that you have just plucked from the sink.) What is it about a kitchen sink that immediately transforms food into toxic waste?

Did you ever stumble across a couple making love in a public place, like a little-frequented corner of a park? How did you react? Some people might stay and watch, but most folks tend to flee in confusion. It's strange, because some large number of Americans are paying a total of $15 billion yearly to watch sex videos online. That's quite a bit more than the total take of Hollywood movies! But the really curious point is that so many people would describe public sex as "disgusting." Really? Does it really engender the same feelings as if you were told you'd just eaten dog meat, or earthworm crunchies? or were offered the grape just plucked from the sink?

All this and more are discussed in entertaining and enlightening fashion in That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, by Rachel Herz. As I did above, Ms Herz begins by discussing food. One of her examples is natto, a slimy fermented soy paste that the Japanese (my wife included) just love. To me it is the only thing more disgusting than okra, except when the okra is in a good gumbo. I think gumbo was invented in self-defense, as a way to make okra useful in some fashion.

But food is only the beginning. I recall a cartoon showing a woman gardening, when a wisp of her hair is blown into her mouth. She uses a dirt-covered hand to get the hair out. Is hair really more dangerous to your health than garden soil? I have seen both girls and boys (who had long enough hair) chew on the end of a lock of hair, contemplatively, while reading. Then there are smells. If I tell you that the smell of Gorgonzola cheese is produced by the same bacteria that make feet smelly, can you still eat it? How do you react to the sudden smell of a long-unwashed person (maybe just returned from a camping trip)? Context is everything. In one context, the smell of a used undershirt is horrid, but in another it is a real turn-on, particularly if you are in love with the wearer of the shirt.

For four years, we have had continual news of the problems in the banking and mortgage sectors that brought about the current recession (Oh, you thought it was over?). One highlight was the downfall of Bernie Madoff, who made off with a ton of other people's money. What do people say? Frequently, it is "How disgusting!" Really, disgusting? Are the antics of Madoff or of two larcenous Treasury secretaries and a gaggle of felonious bankers really going to make you vomit? I doubt it. More likely, you have entertained fantasies of joining NRA and ferreting out their addresses…

What is genuine disgust really for? When you taste something bitter, you make a certain face as you spit it out. When you smell old gym socks, you make the same face, of you are older than about six. Perhaps when you surprise a loving couple in the park, you also make the same face as you flee. And seeing a baby eat a fly on America's Funniest Home Videos? Same face.

As the author informs us, only our reaction to bitter tastes is innate. Children react to bitter tastes, but as the video of the fly-eating baby shows us, other kinds of disgust have to be learned. We learn from those around us as we grow up. Disgust is part of our cultural equipment. The innate disgust reactions keep us from ingesting poisons. The learned reactions keep us from ingesting a wider array of potentially damaging substances.

Early in the book we find a Disgust Scale questionnaire. The average score is 40, and I scored a 46. I don't know the variance of the scoring, so I may be pretty close to ordinary, or I may be flamingly sensitive, but "ordinary" is more likely. The author states that our sensitivity to disgust usually decreases with age. I am pretty sure that is true for me. In one particular, though, I know I haven't changed. I still can't watch when I get an injection or have blood drawn. I am just too squeamish and afraid I might faint. But is that really disgust?

Of the six emotional expressions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust), only disgust is primarily a learned response. Bitter tastes elicit it, but all other "disgust triggers" are culturally learned. Much work on brain activity has shown that disgust is closely allied to both anger and fear. However, certain people, notably those with Huntington's Disease, cannot experience disgust, though they react appropriately to fear- or anger-inducing stimuli. Further, because we react with disgust to disgust in others, it is closely related to empathy. The author writes, "I have come to believe that disgust is about empathizing with yourself."

The root of disgust is an aversion to disease or damage. Perhaps it is the most recently evolved addition to our immune system. When we empathetically wrinkle our nose upon hearing "Yuck!" or seeing someone jerk away from a bad taste or smell, we are learning to avoid things that others have found dangerous. Disgust is a rather slow reaction. It takes processing, whether conscious or not. Fear is quick. Anything that looks vaguely like an attacking predator makes us jump right now! But we have to think a bit before using Purell or washing off the vegetables.

The author writes about desensitization to fear triggers such as spiders and harmless snakes. A similar process seems at work in "learned tastes" such as smelly cheeses or the more "pissy" beers (all beers disgust me, but then I don't drink alcohol any more), or even natto. It turns out that there is a large gray area in every cultural tradition. Some things are very taboo here but permitted there; others are eagerly sought out in one culture but cause disgust in another. It seems, beyond our innate aversion to bitterness (which we can also overcome to some extent), that there is almost nothing that is always a disgust trigger for every culture.

I think I'll take a step beyond the author, and conclude that disgust is more political than hygienic. There is a second way to learn disgust: to have first learned to hate "them," and then to find out what "they" eat or do that is "different." Do they eat the Frobjus fruit? Then we must never eat it! It must be truly awful or evil, just because "they" like it. Recall the big-endian and little-endian wars of Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians. Egg eating habits were a proxy for their ethnic prejudices. Think over how many characteristics of a "different" ethnic group you may find disgusting, at least a little bit. Maybe some kinds of food, maybe a smell (based on food), maybe a music preference. What is their basis? Usually, it is a codified preference that arose simply from cultural drift or from the necessity of using what a certain part of the world had to offer.

For example, lots of people in the culture I grew up in prefer a beef-and-potatoes diet. In some tropical areas, the staples are pork and taro; elsewhere, chicken and cornmeal. Nearly every culture has a preferred meat and a preferred starch. My wife's seaside cousins grew up eating fish and tofu with rice; tofu is the preferred protein source in Japan when you can't afford animal protein. I am surprised how many of my Western acquaintances profess to "hate" tofu, even while it is becoming more popular in the West. I happen to relish tofu. A further observation is that disdain for tofu seems to accompany a poorly-hidden dislike of Asians. I won't get into how being a couple of mixed race has narrowed our circle of potential friends…

Look in the mirror. What disgusts you? Are your reactions sensible? In many cases they are. In others, they could be holding you back from fulfilling experiences.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

JCP gets it right

kw: observations, apparel

Two and a half years ago I posted about a printed label inside undershirts, that got scratchy with use. For reference, here is the closeup image of the thick, cracked ink in one of my shirts after being worn about 100 times:

The ink shows obvious cracks, and it is thick and rubbery. When it cracks, it curls a little, making lots of sharp edges. As I wrote, I responded by wearing these shirts inside out. They are under a dress shirt anyway, so they don't show.

I did not report at the time, but the shirt is from J.C. Penney. I didn't want to embarrass them. But I am happy to note the name now, because a year or so later, they changed the ink in this brand of shirt. I have been wearing the new ones right side out (label side in), with no irritation.

In the image below, also after about 100 wearings, though the ink is noticeably wearing, it is rubbing off rather than cracking. It is much thinner than the old ink, and I can't feel it on the shirt.

I don't know whether the changed location of manufacture (Canada instead of the UAE) had anything to do with the change in ink formulation. I hope the primary reason was that JCP folks were wearing their own products and noticed the shortcoming.

Regardless how it came about, bravo to J.C. Penney.

Friday, June 22, 2012

High but not the highest

kw: sports

I don't watch sports much, except for the Olympics. But, having lived in Oklahoma prior to moving to the East Coast, I had to watch last night's NBA finals game. Of course, I was rooting for the Thunder, but in the past, I've been for the Heat, even over the 76ers (I don't dare tell my neighbors).

This game was a defenseman's nightmare, an almost pure offensive duel. And I have to hand it to Miami, they played with a steady level of intensity that shows in the scores. As I recall, by quarters, they went 30-59-90-121. This overwhelmed Oklahoma, which had about four points less per quarter, with the final score 121-106.

Ordinarily, particularly at the playoffs level, a score of 106 is a winning score. Not this time. I say, though, hats off to the Thunder, for scoring 106 against the Heat! I wondered, how close was this to a playoff record? It didn't take long to find out, not close at all. The highest combined score was in 1992, when Portland beat Phoenix, 153-151. I makes me wonder how many miles the players ran, back and forth!

Curiously, I recall from my childhood hearing on the radio about a basketball game that was the first in which a team scored above 100. I've tried to find out more about it, but no Google search I have been able to craft has gotten me past the thousands of sites that tout Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point individual effort in 1962. Oh, well. This is the first game I've watched in which a team scored more than 120.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is there reality to near death experiences?

kw: musings, near-death experiences, beliefs

Getting ready to review the book Heaven is for Real, which I reviewed yesterday, I did a lot of extra reading about NDE's. As you might imagine, there is a very wide spectrum of beliefs about what these extraordinary events might mean, or perhaps several spectra. One spectrum is from complete credulity ("They have to be real") to total rejection ("They are all hallucinations"). Another is based on one's own belief system, from "They support my faith" or "They strengthen my faith" to "They are meaningless" or even "They are a delusion by wicked spirits".

Strangely, reading NDE accounts, I didn't find any people who said, in effect, "Yeah, I saw this and heard that and so forth, but it doesn't mean anything to me." Also, quite a number of folks said it wasn't like dreaming, but seemed a much more concrete experience that led to vivid memories.

There are various lists of the common elements of NDE's. The core experience seems to consist of these few elements:
  1. Transport to a different place, sometimes "taken" by other persons or entities, sometimes more "automatic", like involuntary flight.
  2. Some kind of life review, perhaps having one's life events shown on a screen, or read from a book, or being questioned by an entity who may or may not be sympathetic.
  3. A turn in the action, often a kind of interruption, with the understanding that return to the former existence is required.
  4. Transport back and reviving.
The transport in item 1 is most often flight through a kind of tunnel, perhaps with a light at the end, among Westerners, while Asians and many Africans more often report passing over some kind of landscape. The transport in item 4 is usually more abrupt, and may be a simple thrusting "downward" or "back".

Many, particularly in the West, report meeting deceased relatives or acquaintances. Others report that all the entities they met were "angels" or some other nonhuman beings. Here interpretation is most prevalent; a person's cultural background determines what the accompanying beings will be called.

The life review might be long or short, comforting or frightening, and seems to have little to do with one's religion. A guilty-feeling Christian or Hindu or whatever is more likely to have an unpleasant experience than a more secure believer. I sought out accounts from a variety of cultures and religions. There is little to generalize, but I did discern a few trends:
  1. Christians are most likely to report that they visited "heaven" or "paradise".
  2. Jews from a strictly conservative background tend to report the most detailed life reviews, and one case that I read was long and detailed and very unpleasant and scary.
  3. Jews from more mystical backgrounds are more likely to report a "garden of Eden" experience.
  4. Hindus and Buddhists seldom report a heavenly experience, because the life review takes place before admission to a place they can see nearby. They usually report being sent back before they get a look inside. Buddhist NDE's appear to be quite rare.
  5. Muslims almost uniformly consider NDE's as hallucinations, stating, "If you revived, you weren't dead, and only the dead can go to paradise, so you didn't go to paradise." However, there are a few reports of Muslims who had a very strong, heavenly and pleasant experience, who converted to Christianity after reviving.
  6. I did not find any reports from people whose background was Shinto or Bah'ai.
I looked and looked, but did not find any records of people changing religions after an NDE, except for those few Muslim reports. Rather, people who had been weakly religious before became more pious in their own religion as a result, while those who were already quite diligent were more likely to exhort others than before.

So do NDE's actually have anything to do with God? I tend to think that NDE's are primarily hallucinatory. A few cases, such as that of Colton Burpo, have aspects that make them seem more genuine, just as there are a few cases of visions or revelatory dreams that seem more genuine (as opposed to a great many reported visions and dreams that are most likely theologically meaningless or even deceptive). As a believer in God, of necessity I believe in divine revelation. But I also believe that genuine revelation is very rare. If all NDE's are given by God for His purpose, it would make sense that they contain a consistent message. Generally, they don't.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wondering about heaven

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, faith, heaven, near-death experiences

A friend loaned me a book and asked me what I think of it: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. I am quite puzzled how to evaluate the book and the story. I have read about NDEs (near-death experiences), and had reached the conclusion that they primarily reflect a person's interpretation of hallucinations experienced by a brain under extreme stress.

I also have a view of the Bible's teaching concerning what happens when we die. In brief, that a body is required to enter God's heaven, and the glorified body of a saved person is not conferred until the day of resurrection. As Paul wrote, "The dead shall be raised incorruptible." (1Cor 15:52) From where do they rise? From the pleasant section of the "waiting place", called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. That pleasant section is probably what is referred to as Paradise in the New Testament, and as the Garden of Eden (distinct from the one in Genesis chapters 1-3) by some Jews. OK, that has been my doctrine.

Prior to learning these things, even though I was raised Christian, I was unsatisfied with the cartoon image of "heaven" as a bunch of clouds on which people in white robes played harps when they weren't flying around with their wings. Many Christians accept the Swedenborgian teaching that the dead become angels, though I understand from the Bible that angels and humans are different creations of God, and not to be confused. When I heard from some that in God's kingdom there is work to do, which had nothing to do with harps or wings, it seemed right to me.

Heaven is for Real narrates the story of Colton Burpo, who was just four years old when he nearly died of a ruptured appendix. At various times in the weeks following his recovery, called "miraculous" by doctors and nurses who had not expected him to live, he said things that surprised his parents a little, but they did not immediately take them into account. Then one day, as they drove past the hospital, Colton was asked, "Do you remember this place?" He answered, "That is where the angels sang to me." Now his parents took notice. Some of his experiences, which came out gradually over a period of months—his parents took care not to "lead" him with their questions—include:
  • He saw his father in one room "praying" (Todd was actually angrily demanding of God why his son was being taken from him).
  • He saw his mother in another room, also praying.
  • He went to a place "full of colors".
  • He not only saw Jesus, he sat in His lap.
  • Part of the time he was there, Jesus was teaching many children, and Colton did homework along with them.
  • He met his great-grandfather, "Pop",who had passed away 27 years earlier.
  • Colton said Pop had really big wings. His own were very small, which disappointed him.
  • He met his sister, who had died before birth. She didn't have a name, because Todd and his wife had not named her ("yet").
I was astounded by many of the things I read, and cried often. I was particularly struck by a few of these things:
  • When Colton was shown a picture of Pop, taken at age 61, he said, "He doesn't look like that!" Later Todd got from his sister a picture of Pop as a young man. Colton recognized it right away as the man he had met in heaven.
  • Homework, and the teaching of children. Now that makes sense to me!
  • Colton's parents had not mentioned the miscarriage his mother suffered a year before he was born. They didn't even know the lost baby was female.
Did Colton really experience heaven? I will not try to shoehorn these things into my own belief system. I must assume that Colton and his parents are not trying to deceive anyone.  Some might say all this was some kind of devilish deception. I am certain it is not.

Prior to reading this book, I had been thinking about heaven and paradise, and wondering if there are any "holes" in my understanding about them. Of course, I dare not assume I have complete knowledge of anything, particularly matters such as these about which the Bible leaves a lot of things unwritten. When Paul wrote of an experience of the "third heaven", he stated that it was not possible to speak about many things seen there. (2Cor. 12:1-4)

In particular, I remember reading several times the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, where John saw "the holy city, coming down from God out of heaven." (Rev. 21:2) From this and related passages, I have understood that God's eternal kingdom will be on earth, centered on this holy city. There are also passages such as 1Pet. 2:5, "You also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house", and particularly Eph. 2:19-22, "You are no more strangers and sojourners but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in Whom all the building, fitly framed, grows together into a holy temple in the Lord, out from Whom you also are built together into a habitation of God in spirit." These passages have led many good expositors to conclude that the many-colored precious stones that adorn the holy city represent the transformed and glorified people of God. That the city is not just resided in by God's people, but composed of them, "built up together". Thus Jesus said, "I will build My church", meaning the people.

If this is in any way true, the constituents of the holy city are in heaven before the built up city descends to the Earth in the end times. I conclude that neither I nor others have definitive proof of the doctrines I have held about heaven and paradise. Some folks think they are now the same (and a few have very detailed doctrines about this), others think they remain different until some time in the future.It certainly seems that at least some saved folks who have passed away are in heaven, and maybe it is nearly all or all of them.

Perhaps Colton saw paradise, and interpreted it as heaven. He never says he was told he was in heaven, but he did see Jesus there (most emphatically). As to how much of what Colton reported is true and how much is interpreted, God knows, and I do not. I must leave it there.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

ET: We are gone, sorry we missed you

kw: book reviews, humor

I didn't tag either "fiction" or "nonfiction", because there is a little of both in Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race by Jon Stewart and about sixteen of the writers at The Daily Show. It purports to be a guide for visiting space aliens who may come across Earth after the demise of humanity.

The book's 244 pages are largely photo-collages with blurbs that range from hilarious to puzzling to downright depraved. Come to think of it, that's a pretty fair depiction of the human race. I reckon that, if the book survives after we are gone, it will provide a better introduction to who we were than the typical encyclopedia; shorter, too.

There are even a few items of unflinching honesty, such as this, from one of the pages of FAQ's:
Q: Were scientists the most esteemed members of your civilization?
A: Absolutely. The only people more renowned than scientists were actors, musicians, athletes, politicians, game-show hosts, heiresses, religious leaders, cartoonists, plumbers, serial killers, celebrity chefs and women who looked good in swimsuits.
Other than a few like that, though, everything is gauged to evoke a laugh, a guffaw, a giggle, or at least an uneasy snigger. So, 'nuff said. Finish your dinner first, then read it yourself.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

US is science ignorant - what did we expect?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, education, polemics, pseudoscience

It did not make me happy to read Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War Against Reality by John Grant. Not happy, no; but sadly, I'm right there with him. I did a little searching (it took no more than ten minutes, on today's Internet, a product of the technology so many malign), to find the following:
  • 40% of Americans believe evolution.
  • 40% believe creationism, including "intelligent design", and most of those believe Earth's age is between 6,000 and 10,000 years.
  • 48% of Americans think that warnings about Anthropogenic (human caused) Global Warming (AGW) are exaggerated.
  • 39% of American parents now either refuse to vaccinate their children or delay most vaccinations.
Then there are the beliefs in "phenomena that science can't explain":
  • 34% believe in UFOs.
  • 34% believe in ghosts.
  • 31% believe in Astrology.
  • 73% believe in ESP and other Paranormal phenomena (including ghosts and astrology). 
Finally, there are the more political items, of which I'll just mention two:
  • 90% of Americans believe the US government is covering up some or all of the "real" 9/11 story.
  • 34% believe the government "did it".
 Now, let's contrast that with some figures for education in America:
  • 87.6% finish High School (but only 78% in the state where I live).
  • 30.4% attain a BS or BA college degree.
  • 40.5% of college graduates studied Business or Management.
  • 39.5% studied a STEM discipline (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics). 39.5 times 30.4 = just 12% of Americans who understand science at the Bachelor of Science level (and half of those squeaked by with C's).
  • 20.0% studied a Humanities subject such as English, History or Philosophy.
So about 40% of college graduates liked science enough to finish a degree in it. Is it safe to assume that about 40% of high school graduates who didn't go to college are "science friendly"? Probably not, particularly when you see that figure of 73% who believe in the paranormal. One must assume that most of the science majors have stopped believing in paranormal stuff.

A side note: Many science majors, myself included, retain a belief in God, and do not consider Him to be "paranormal". Like many, I have had inner experiences that convince me of God's reality, yet I accept science as by far the best way to understand how the natural world works. We need to be careful how we use the word "believe". At my dissertation defense, once I had presented my conclusions, one of the first questions was, "Do you really believe that?" (clearly, the questioner did not). I replied, "I do not use the word believe in that way. I believe in God. This scientific stuff cannot save my soul, but God can. I understand and defend my hypothesis as the best explanation for the phenomena I have been studying."

Though Denying Science has 19 chapters, there are really four subjects: Vaccination, AIDS, Evolution, and Global Warming. A full third of the book is devoted to those who deny AGW. The author really, really did his homework, so there is a lot of detail. For me, it made for fast reading, because I already knew a lot of it, on all four subjects.

Rather than go into detail myself, I prefer to buttress the main point behind all four subjects. People stand to make a lot of money if the majority of us are persuaded that the science is wrong. When politicians or journalists seem to act irrationally, just follow the money. Almost a full page is devoted to a list of the names of anti-AGW organizations that are supported by Exxon-Mobil. There are 58, and it is a partial list, because lots of organizations are layered or decline to report their sponsors. Another half page lists 34 organizations known to be funded by the Koch brothers, as of 2008. They are also anti-AGW, and anti-science in a variety of other ways (even though their company sells Lycra and other products of science).

If you want someone killed, you can get it done for less than $100 in some neighborhoods. In "better neighborhoods", a great many people would "do a hit" for $50,000 or more. Once the stakes go into the millions, people of conscience get harder and harder to find. The world's biggest corporations do huge amounts of business. Four, Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, WalMart and BP, each have revenues that exceed $1 Billion per day. When business proceeds of a third or a half a trillion dollars a year is at stake, you're in a realm where ordinary human concerns simply go out the window.

Subject by subject:
  • Vaccination: side effects of early vaccines led some parents to question the requirement to vaccinate. Once there had been some lawsuits, more lawyers got involved, then sellers of "alternate" nostrums, and now the anti-vaccination hordes are a source of lots of revenue. The result: a few thousand unfortunate deaths per year, that vaccines could have prevented.
  • AIDS is more politicized and less a financial football, primarily because of the paranoia of certain dictators (who are justified in having a certain level of paranoia!). However, lawyers and sellers of "alternative" treatments are making hay while they can, millions of dollars' worth. The toll, perhaps a third of a million deaths per year, maybe more.
  • The Evolution versus Creationism debate hasn't led to any deaths that I know of (unless it is true that William Jennings Bryan died of embarrassment). But it certainly has led to millions of dollars spent on "textbooks" such as Of Pandas and People, and more millions, perhaps a few billions, on creationist "museums". I've seen a couple of these, and viewed a couple of well-produced anti-evolution or pro-young-earth videos. The science is various kinds of bad, bad, bad.
  • Global Warming denial is where the big money is. At stake: trillions of dollars. First, three of those four mega-corporations I listed above will make trillions from fossil fuels. Once sea levels have risen by a meter or so, companies like Bechtel and Halliburton will make trillions by relocating seaport facilities to higher ground (at present the three largest construction companies, all in China, combined make about a half billion dollars daily). Oh, there will be lots of ways to make money as the reality of AGW hits home with the population of Earth. Just funding the arms buildup for "water wars" is going to be a huge business. What will be the death toll? Estimates range from a few millions to the majority of the human population.
The "almighty dollar" is indeed almighty, particularly among those who deny the Almighty. It reminds me of a joke by Johnny Hart in The Wizard of Id comic. The knight asks the king, "Why do ballplayers get such huge salaries and scientists don't?" The king replies, "Would you pay to watch a scientist?"

Friday, June 15, 2012

Crossing by wire

kw: international events, stunts

I just finished watching Nik Wallenda wire-walk across the Horseshoe Falls of Niagara, from the American to the Canadian side. ABC's news team had a live audio feed from him and his father the whole time. I was particularly touched to hear him pray frequently, and thank the Lord, as he was crossing. Though every precaution had been taken, and he was wearing a safety harness for the first time in his life, he knew he needed God's help to remain focused and to endure the physical labor it took to walk those 1,500 feet.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Quicksilver queries

kw: medicine, alternative medicine, toxins

I saw another news article about mercury in vaccines, and was stunned to read that people are still trying to link autism in. Of course, mercury isn't the first target of anti-vaccine crusaders, it is at least the third. First it was thought that there were measles viruses in the vaccine, and they were causing blood clots that got in the brain and damaged it. When that was shown to be entirely false, the next target was "bad proteins" caused by bodily reactions to the vaccine. When no reactions other than rare allergies actually turned up, mercury, in the form of thimerosal (about 50% mercury as ethylmercury), was claimed to cause autism.

As it happens, there are only two or three vaccines that still contain thimerosal. It has been eliminated from the others (see this table from Johns Hopkins) over the past 20-30 years. Yet all that time, autism rates have continued to go up. Also, among those who decline to vaccinate their children, the autism rate is identical to the rest of the population.

In the aforementioned table from Johns Hopkins, we find that the mercury content in a dose of vaccine (only the ones for tetanus, influenza, and meningitis, and that only from certain suppliers) is 25 micrograms. So if you get a flu shot every year, and the vaccine does contain thimerosal, your mercury exposure is 25 micrograms yearly.

Digging around, I found that my own primary mercury exposure is fish. While we cook fish once in a while, we eat tuna sandwiches a bit more, perhaps every couple of weeks. In a report by Consumer Reports, there were two kinds of tuna tested, several brands each. For white tuna, the mercury content ranged from 0.2 ppm to 0.8 ppm (ppm = parts per million). For light tuna, it was 0.02 ppm to 0.2 ppm. Those sound like small numbers. But how much is a part per million?

One "serving" of canned tuna is shown on the package as 2.5 oz, which is about 70 grams. Thus one part per million would be 70 micrograms. For white tuna, the kind we get, our mercury exposure per serving is thus somewhere between 14 and 56 micrograms. At the high end, it is like getting two vaccinations in one tuna sandwich! Not only that, but 2.5 ounces is a pretty thin sandwich. I typically use about twice that much (go ahead, work out the numbers).

Things are actually better when we cook fish, because we usually have either salmon, whitefish, or tilapia. All these have mercury levels below 0.02 ppm, or 2.8 micrograms per 5-ounce serving. But if we eat cooked fish nine times yearly, our annual mercury exposure would be 25 micrograms, the same as a flu shot. We actually eat fish more often than that, perhaps twice a month.

Let's regroup. I really started talking about autism, which shows up in infants or toddlers. "Ordinary" autism is evident in a newborn. "Late" autism shows up by the third year, sometimes later, but is much less frequent. Few one- or two-year-olds have eaten a lot of tuna sandwiches, and with today's vaccines, they have had zero exposure to thimerosal. If mercury, whether injected or ingested, is causing neurological damage, it's something other than autism, but nobody has put their finger on anything it might be! At the levels mercury is getting into us, it is a cause looking for an effect that has yet to be found.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A fungus was among - me

kw: alternative medicine, cancer, fungi

A relative loaned me a DVD, a documentary about nine treatments that are purported to cure cancers. I watched it a few weeks ago, and from time to time I wonder about some of them. But there is one that I am sure is not so.

An Italian doctor claims that cancers all begin as fungus infections, and are largely composed of fungus. He has written a book about it with the title Cancer is a Fungus. I just Googled "cancer is a fungus" (including the quotation marks), and got nearly 500,000 hits. The treatment recommended is baking soda. Of course, you have to deliver the soda to the physical cancer, which is hard to do for internal tumors. But it is based on the known fact that baking soda does more damage to fungi than to our bodily tissues. How much more? Nobody is saying.

There is an easy way to test the premise. If most of the bulk of a cancerous tumor is fungus, a systemic antifungal such as Lamisil (terbinafine) or Nizoral (kenocotazole) ought to eliminate it. Fact of the matter is, lots of people take antifungals for things like toenail fungus. Some of them die of cancer. I was almost one of them.

I was treated for a nail fungus several times between 1990 and 1999. In 2000 I was found to have a large tumor in the colon. It was called a "fulminating tumor" by the pathologist, meaning it was growing fast. After an operation and a half year of chemotherapy, I was OK, and have been a "cancer survivor" now nearly twelve years. The antifungal medicines did nothing to prevent my cancer from developing or growing. The surgery and chemo did.

Furthermore, I have a good friend who is a pathologist. A few weeks after the operation I borrowed the slides from the hospital pathologist and took them to my friend. He and I went to his lab, where he had a two-headed microscope, one used for teaching. We looked over them in quite a bit of detail. Now, you need to know that I have a good microscope at home also. Cost me a pretty penny (but his is much better). Microbiology is a hobby of mine. I've looked at lots of things, including mushrooms, molds and other fungi. The cancerous tissues in my pathology slides were definitely abnormal colon tissues, but they were just as definitely nothing like fungal tissues. My friend has seen slides of tissues invaded by fungi, and he was equally clear that there was no trace of fungus in these slides.

Why did I ask him about fungus? Because I saw photos of the tumor taken by the doctor who did my colonoscopy. It was very pale, almost totally white. I said, "It looks more like a mushroom," as compared to the normal colon tissue surrounding it, which was deep pink. Yet I also saw one photo taken right after the doctor took a sample through the colonoscope. The tumor was bleeding profusely. And what I saw through the slides showed that all the tissue was well filled with normal capillaries, except in some areas where the tumor had grown too fast and outrun its blood supply, and was dying. But dying cells still don't look like fungal cells. At any rate, my pathologist friend said I had been pretty sick, but I didn't have a fungus.

Pathologists know these things, folks. Why not ask your doctor? Every doctor knows at least one pathologist. Some will give you their phone numbers and you can call to ask, "Did you ever see any fungal cells in a surgically removed cancer?"

I really, really wish something as simple as baking soda, or a round of antifungal medicine, would cure cancer. I do not know of any case in which it has.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

But you have to die to get it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, funerals

There is a lovely and useful web site for recording details about the location and facts for a deceased loved one, A few years ago, I created a memorial to my mother there. It is the only one she will ever have, because my parents joined the Neptune Society. After the coroner was finished with her remains, she was cremated and the ashes dropped into the ocean off Los Angeles. My father is still living, but has prepaid for similar treatment. Assuming he passes before I do, I'll create a virtual memorial to him also. Future family genealogists will at least have their virtual records and can leave virtual flowers.

My wife's parents have also been cremated, but their ashes are kept under memorial stones in a Japanese graveyard. Those who do not wish to have (or cannot afford) the half-square-meter plot required have their names carved into a wooden pole, and Japanese cemeteries have large urns filled with these poles. I don't know what is done with the ashes. Unless you are a member of the emperor's family, cremation is required for all Japanese. There just isn't room to bury everyone in a two square meter plot, as is done throughout the West.

I've visited the graves of quite a number of my ancestors, as part of my genealogical hobby. Most are buried in the "Western traditional" way, although some have large stones—one family plot in Missouri has a huge plotstone with the family name in foot-tall letters—while others have just a brass plate attached to an underground block, to facilitate mowing.

In America, at least, there is a strong tradition of embalming and burying the remains, and families usually like to be buried together. My father remembers the event in 1933 when the embalmed body of his grandmother arrived on a train from California, to be buried beside her husband. In 1965 his maiden aunt's body was brought and she is actually buried between her parents, if the stones are in the right places.

Compared to funerary practices around the world, we Americans are a pretty boring lot. In Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre – How we Dignify the Dead, author Sarah Murray describes a variety of practices she witnessed while traveling around the world after her father's death. Her atheist father decreed that no ceremony be held, and his "organic matter" be cremated and discarded…but then requested that the ashes be discarded in a particular churchyard in Dorset, where his best friends were buried.

The book's title is really an understatement. The "magnificent" practices include those in Bali, where people are buried temporarily until an auspicious day, such as the death of an important person, then everyone is exhumed and sent off with a huge communal celebration in which the bodies, plus specially built and decorated towers, oversize animal shaped coffins (bulls are favored), and an amazing array of gifts are all burned in a huge pyre. In southern Mexico on the "day of the dead" (el dia del muerte), the dead are celebrated yearly with candy or paper skeletons and skulls and a great clean-up day at the cemeteries.

More macabre practices include the stacking and restacking of bones in various catacombs and ossuaries. The most spectacular is a chapel in the Czech Republic in which bones have been arranged into chandeliers, wall sconces, and a fantastic variety of decorative displays, and there are still four huge pyramids of bones (so far) unused. Such collections resulted from the large surplus of bodies caused by the Black Death of the late Middle Ages.

The author's round-the-world tour was a cause for reflection on her part, as she thought through what her own attitude ought to be toward what comes after her own demise, hopefully in the far future. She had a spectacular coffin made for her in Ghana, a wildly decorated replica of the Empire State Building (the artist replicated the look of her favorite painting across its facade). Having seen bodies in a remarkable variety of stages of decay, she decided against in-the-ground burial, so the coffin will go unused. She settled on an alternative to cremation called resomation, and the last chapter of the book details the variety of ways and places she wishes the ashes to be disposed of.

Reading, I realized my wife and I need to rewrite our wills. They still provide for a family to raise our son, but now he's 24 and doesn't need any more raising! But how will we choose to have our remains dealt with? Do we want to leave a physical memorial somewhere, whether it holds our corrupted remains or ashes? I don't like the idea of embalming, but that necessitates speed (or a long spell in the coroner's freezer). No longer do most Christians feel the body has to somehow be kept together for resurrection. We expect God to take care of such details, considering how many of His people were burned at the stake during various periods of persecution.

I also realized that, as diverse as the world's cultures are, they are perhaps the most variable when it comes to dealing with our dead. As long as the death rate remains one hundred percent, this will be true.

Monday, June 11, 2012

She cannot leave well enough alone

kw: books, religion, false prophets

A friend loaned me a book asking for my opinion: Mary K. Baxter's A Divine Revelation of Hell, originally published in 1993; this was a recent paperback edition.

I read the book through very quickly. There was no need to peruse it in detail. This is not a review, but an assessment: The book is false. Period. The author is a false prophet. She has ten titles in print, most beginning with A Divine Revelation… All are products of an overactive imagination.

The book about hell owes more to Dante Alighieri and John Milton than to the Bible. A majority of those individuals that the author "interviewed" (actually, what she recorded are imagined dialogs between various lost souls and Jesus), are backslidden Christians of various kinds. Nobody depicted in the book seems to come from a non-Christian tradition or religion.

There is a simple matter of faith being attacked here: whether a genuine child of God could perish. Jesus declared not so, "Nobody can take them out of My hands." A disobedient child is still a child. Nobody who has been born again can become "unborn". God has a way to deal with disobedient children, and it is not Hell. Warning passages about God's discipline of His children are frequently mis-applied; none of them actually refers to Hell. Hell is for Satan and his angels; any human souls who wind up there chose to follow sin and Satan and reject God.

A book like this works against those who teach an accurate understanding of Hell. There really is a Satan, and there really is a Hell, but neither the devil, nor demons, nor Hell are anything like the gross distortions found in this book. The best course of action for God's people is still the old formula: teach what the Bible teaches, and where the Bible is silent, be silent.

Friday, June 08, 2012

History from the widest possible perspective

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, geological history

A History of Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries, by Douglas Palmer, is the most formulaic book I have seen in a long time…but in this case it is a good thing. Each chapter is a three-page essay fronted by a full page photo or image. The discipline imposed by the format probably kept the book from bloating to a thousand-page tome. There are plenty of resources available on any of the topics, whenever something piques your interest.

Among a number of ways to group the chapters, I found this useful:
  • 1-26 – Formation of Earth and all the factors of tectonic and geological processes.
  • 27-72 – The prehistory of life on Earth.
  • 73-79 – The evolution of the genus Homo and of Homo sapiens.
  • 80-97 – What humans have done and are doing to the planet.
  • 98-100 – The distant future.
There was nothing here that I read and thought, "Oh, I didn't know that!" Rather, I found the essays a useful review of major subjects of geological and ecological history. But then, I am a geology junkie, so I've read nearly everything already. The book would be a great introduction to the breadth of geological and geophysical and geomorphological understanding, for someone who is not in the field already. Each essay is introduced by a note regarding the discovery and the breakthrough that elucidated the point.

The fourth section of 18 chapters gets a bit polemical. It remains to be seen whether the human race will have the collective wisdom to stop fouling our own nest, or even to avoid our own extinction. In the last chapter, the author raises the possibility that Homo sapiens, rather than becoming extinct by total elimination, may give rise to a successor species. Given historical rates of evolution in primates, it should take no more than 100,000-200,000 years. Our immediate task is to survive the next half century or so.

A mere couple of hundred thousand years is tiny compared to the experience of a biosphere that already survived the Great Dying in the Permian, 250 million years ago, and the end-Cretaceous asteroid strike, 65 million years ago. Reading the various essays, and realizing the immense sweeps of time that many of the Earth processes encompass, I understood that, though we are having a profound effect on the biosphere (and even perhaps the geosphere) at present, it will be short-lived.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The real jobs picture

kw: employment

Many years ago, when the "official" level of unemployment was around 6%, I heard someone say, "Well, that means that 94% of people who want a job have one." An angry reply bounced back, "That number doesn't count those who have quit looking." I stayed out of the discussion. Both were right, but the second point was more telling.

There are six "unemployment" figures kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, labeled U1 through U6. The only one you hear about is U3, which counts those actively seeking full time work, and nearly all of them are receiving "unemployment insurance" benefits. It doesn't count those who have stopped receiving benefits because their time ran out, and I have been unable to find out if it counts recent college graduates who are looking for work but are ineligible for benefits because they have not yet worked full time.

U6 counts everybody who would work if they could, including those who can't afford to send any more résumés, those working less than half time but who wish they could find full time work, and so forth. This is how the numbers look since they began to be collected in 1994. It is not a pretty picture! Prior to the recession of 2008-2010 (or so), U6 was usually 2-3% above U3. For most of the Obama presidency, however, U6 has consistently run 6% or greater above U3. Today's U3 figure is 8.2%, while U6 is 14.4%, a 6.2% difference.

That is discouraging. It is why I think the recession is still with us, and will remain with us until U6 falls below 10%. You can see an interactive chart for all the U-numbers at

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Missing the transit

kw: astronomy, planets

Wouldn't you know it. I alerted friends via e-mail and FaceBook to yesterday's transit of Venus. The Sun was out here until just about ten minutes before it started, then it clouded up. Over the next several hours, I got a few calls from people all around the country telling me they were watching it in various ways (welding lenses, projection through binoculars, whatever). By then it was raining. I saw nothing. Bummer!

The next transit of Venus will be Dec 11, 2117. If I can hang on until I am 170 years old, perhaps I'll get a chance to see that one.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Kitchen conspiracy

kw: remodeling, home maintenance

Our house was built in 1952. The first owner remodeled the kitchen in 1976. That's 36 years ago. The appliances are on their last legs. Now, wouldn't you know it, we find we can't get away with just replacing the appliances.

Item: The 17-cu-ft refrigerator is 66.5 inches tall, 32 wide and 28 deep (including handles). The nearest sized unit is 29.5 wide and 33.5 deep, and is 18 cu-ft. To get a unit less than 32 inches deep we'd have to go to a 10 cu-ft refrig. it would look silly in the space. We've almost decided to get the 18 cu-ft unit and take off the handles. Then it'll only stick out 3.5 inches more than the current one. I think we can live with that. It won't quite block the kitchen door.

Item: The counters and other appliances are 24 inches deep. The kicker is the stove. It is 29 inches wide, which was the standard in the 1970s. All new stoves are 30 inches wide (except for a few that are 24 wide), and it is also hard to find one only 24 inches deep. The current trend is 26 inches or more.

So, do I go for a half remodel, with new lower cabinets and counters? It'll come to some $20,000 in this area, appliances included. If they'd kept the same standards as before, I could replace the appliances for a couple thousand. Instead, I have to spend ten times as much. It's a conspiracy, I tell ya!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Not just another questionnaire

kw: values, safety

Today a "safety perception survey" was initiated at my company. Though we were given three weeks to do it, I filled it out right away, to counteract my tendency to procrastinate.

I work for one of the safest companies in the world, and though I'd like to tout it, I have a principle of keeping its name out of this blog. The company shares a few best practices with the handful of companies that get named "safest in the world" in their industry or sector.

First and foremost, managers and executives have their bonuses tied to the safety performance of their units, as a multiplier, not an additive item. Poor enough safety performance can eliminate the "variable" from someone's "variable compensation". This does not stand alone, and indeed, could easily lead to many abuses if the company did not also have strong standards of ethics and of people treatment, with 360° feedback for both.

Secondly, there is frequent training and "safety meeting" feedback for all employees. Not only is every incident publicized, many near-misses are included. For example, if a piece of equipment malfunctions and there is a leak, whether of water of of something less innocuous, the reason(s) for the fault are studied with a view towards eliminating that kind of failure in the future. A stumble in the parking lot, that leads to a sprained ankle, may not lead to a loss of working time or production, but it is the health of the person, rather than productivity, that is the focus of concern. This is a lot better climate than the kind of thing we sometimes hear about, where somebody gets hurt and has a sudden need for some "vacation", so the time off doesn't count against company lost work time statistics.

Thirdly, we are encouraged to take care of one another, not in a nannyish way, but as colleagues who are also friends. Thus, if I am carrying too many things on the staircase, where a colleague might ask, "How will you hold the handrail?", I am more likely to get an offer of help carrying it, so we both have a hand free. I admit it takes time and practice to get used to this, but one comes to appreciate it.

A fine balance has to be kept. Too much paranoia about safety can impact productivity more than "permitting" a certain level of harm. But if there is this attitude, the "permission" will grow to unacceptable levels. Thus, the safety goal is always proclaimed to be "zero incidents", and we frequently hear, "We don't believe anyone should go home hurt." An attitude of watchfulness rather than fear is encouraged. It works.

Nobody is perfect, and the world is not perfect. With such a safety culture in place, however, we find that the most dangerous thing any of us does is to travel to and from the workplace. And that is also being worked upon…

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Making chumps of us all

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, intelligence

How many people do you maintain relationships with? I just checked a few places. I have:
  • 91 Facebook "friends"
  • 109 LinkedIn "contacts"
  • 340 Named "face albums" in Picasa
 I don't use Twitter and I am just getting started with GooglePlus. My son has 983 Facebook "friends" and his girlfriend has 173. If you know about the Dunbar Number, which is 150, and understand its significance, you'd say I may be overdoing it, and my son is definitely overconfident in his social abilities.

Robin Dunbar studied social networks in a range of primates, including humans. Our brain's neocortex is primarily responsible for keeping our social network in order: where we are on the status ladder, whom we owe favors to, who owes us, and so forth. The human neocortex is about five times the volume of a chimp's. Chimpanzee social networks tend to top out at 30, the largest size of a stable troop. Apes and monkeys with smaller brains have smaller social networks.

Do I have an exceptional memory, to be able to put names to 340 faces from my photo archive? Not really. The Dunbar Number doesn't express the size of my lifetime "Rolodex", but the largest number of people the average human can afford to spend time maintaining a relationship with. I don't read every post that shows up in my Facebook news feed. There are about 40 FB "friends" that I actively keep track of. When I am not at my computer, my social network breaks down this way: 
  • 45 church members, all of whom I contact frequently
  • 16 people at work, in two work groups
  • 15 close relatives and in-laws
  • 10 next-door, back-door, or across-the-street neighbors
That is an active social network of 86 persons. I suspect that, among my son's 983 "friends", there is a much smaller number with which he actively keeps up. But I know he is more actively social than I am, so perhaps he just represents the next step in human mental evolution!

All this rumination was triggered when I learned of the Dunbar Number in Chapter 26 of David McRaney's new book, You are Not so Smart. The cover blurbs declare, "Why you have too many friends on FaceBook, why your memory is mostly fiction, and 46 other ways you are deluding yourself". True to the promise, the book consists of 48 chapters about the various mental fallacies we all fall prey to. The Dunbar Number is not so much a fallacy as a way to check whether we've perhaps been too greedy in collecting FB friends or Twitter feeds to follow. (By the way, feel free to "follow" this blog. I don't Tweet).

And speaking of blogs, the book is a published embodiment of McRaney's blog. Curiously, when I looked at his list of "all posts", there were 29 items, so he has done some research outside the confines of what he has posted. It also means, you won't actually find everything on the blog, you gotta get the book! Clever dude.

A number of the items he discusses are things we tend to mistake when we don't take time to think. For example, Chapter 25 is titled "The Affect Heuristic", and an example runs like this: Suppose you are offered the chance to get cash for picking red beans out of one of two bowls. Bowl A is huge, with hundreds of beans, many of which are red, while bowl B is much smaller, containing, you are told, a total of 50 beans. The odds are also given: 7% red in the big bowl, and 10% red in the small bowl. You will be given a dollar for each red bean you pick. Most people instinctively select the larger bowl, which the author declares is a fallacy because the odds are against you. But there are two questions I would ask before agreeing to take the challenge. Firstly, how many times can I pick?, and secondly, can I look while I pick? The resulting analysis goes this way:
  • One or a few picks (ten or less), and you can't look. Choose the smaller bowl.
  • As many picks as you like (or at least 25), whether you can look or not. Choose the larger bowl.
Look again at the smaller bowl, B. 10% of 50 is 5. There are 5 red beans. If you pick a red bean the first time, the odds for the next pick are 4/49 = 8.1%. And the most you can ever earn with bowl B is $5.  I suspect you aren't given the option to look while you pick beans, but if you can pick many times, by the time you have picked out 70 beans or so, you probably have 5 already. Go ahead, pick a hundred times if they will let you! For many of the fallacies and other mental mishaps, it pays to hesitate and ask a telling question.

For others, it seems we are hard-wired a certain way, and quite unlikely to beat the wiring. For instance, there is the Anchoring Effect (Chapter 39). You see something you'd really like, but the price is too high. You wait for a sale. The sale day comes, and you go to have a look. It is marked down by half, but you were hoping for an even lower price. When you begin to leave, an alert clerk offers you another $5 off, and you take it. Did you get a good deal? If it was a Louis Vuitton purse or a leather bomber jacket, initially priced at $800, then marked down to $400, was $395 a good deal? Only if you are accustomed to that lifestyle. Even if you know the price of production is $75, the status may be worth it to you. That's what the premium brand retailers count on. The $800 was an "anchor" to set your expectation, so that $395 seems like a bargain. You can get a great purse that will last you for years and looks good at an outlet store for $60 or less. Ditto a bomber jacket. It just won't have the premium label (unless you buy a counterfeit label online and sew it on yourself). You can take advantage of anchoring, whenever you initiate a negotiation. Start with an unreasonably extreme position, and put the other person in the position of bargaining with you.

The book is full of revealing essays, and nearly all spend a bit of time discussing psychological research that underlines the point. Why do we fall prey to so many fallacies? We are more complex than we think. We have a strong emotional life, which evolved long before the "intellectual" part of the brain. For millions of years, quick recognition, snap judgments, and rapid heuristics saved the lives of our ancestors so they could have descendants. If you had to calculate the weight of that tiger (let's see, nine feet long and two feet wide, so he's a cylinder, and the formula is pi r squared times length, times 64 pounds per cubic foot) before deciding to jump, you'd be tiger food every time. Maybe Spock could tell you how heavy the tiger is, while both of you are running for your lives. I still haven't got it figured out (my calculator just told me: 1,809 pounds. Oh, well; real tigers weigh 500-700 pounds). Our logical, intellectual life is only useful when we have leisure to take advantage of it. Anchoring may be a useful trait when choosing which of two cliffs to jump off; you'll always choose the lower one, and you'll be right. It just doesn't translate well into a retail setting, unless you are the retailer!

It takes a bit of humility to read this book, but that won't hurt. Many of our follies are undergirded by the tendency we all have to overestimate ourselves. Something like 80% of drivers say they drive better than average. The definition of average guarantees that only 50% (minus 1) can be above average. And before someone asks, "That's only true if 'average' means 'median'!", I agree. Because that is what I meant. Driving skill can be ranked but not quantitatively scored, so median is the only average that is possible.

I learned a few things that may help me. Chances are I'll forget most of it, though. I pride myself on a good memory, but 48 informal fallacies? Beyond me. It was a fun read, though.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Looking for trouble, he found it

kw: religion, biblical interpretation

A pastor named Mack Wolford died Wednesday after a snake bit him on his thigh. He'd been "handling" the timber rattler, a practice he claims proves your faith in a passage in the Gospel of Mark that reads, 
"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mk 16:17-18, KJV)
The central phrase is often misquoted as, "They shall take up serpents, and suffer no harm." It doesn't say that. People also point to the case of Paul, when he was shipwrecked on Malta. While gathering wood for a fire, he was bitten by a viper. He suffered no ill effects.

No passage of Scripture stands alone. We find in Luke 4 the story of Jesus, tempted by the devil, being challenged to throw himself down from the top of the temple, because Psalm 91:11-12 declares that the angels would bear him up and prevent any harm. Jesus answered with Isaiah 7:12, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God."

This shows the difference between what happened to Paul and what happened, not only to Mack Wolford, but also to his father 29 years ago, and to quite a number of other "snake handlers". Paul didn't seek out the snake, and would not have picked it up if he had seen it beforehand. He almost certainly knew what Jesus had said about snakes, and poisoned drinks, and so forth. But he also knew, if you put God to the test, God may just leave you to suffer the consequences of your folly.

It occurs to me that the passage in Mark is much stronger regarding drinking poison. It does indeed declare, "If they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." Where is the church of the rat-poison drinkers? Care for a battery acid cocktail? Any takers?