Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A flock of one-minute reads

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collections, short essays

There are a number of ways to have a chance at getting some of your writing into print. Most cost a few bucks, such as various "poetry projects". I've just run across one that specializes in short essays and in what the editors call "Six-Word Memoirs": Smith Magazine. With free registration, you can enter your own brief memoir, or a 2-word one-liner, where it is made available online, and may just be published in one of their books.

I haven't seen the earlier book on the 6-word pieces (it must contain hundreds), but just finished reading The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories From 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure, edited by Larry Smith.

The book is composed of 125 short essays in which the writers describe a moment that changed their lives, in 100-500 words, sometimes a bit more. A few of the writers are artists who submitted drawn pieces or cartoon panels. When you are going to capture a meaningful event in a page or two, brevity is pure gold. The best pieces have an arresting first line, as this page shows.

Here we read of the tension between being a journalist and being a feeling human ("Checkpoints" by Alaa Majeed); of turning points such as a murder conviction ("The Verdict" by Byron Case) or seeing in your infant's eyes a choice to turn away from your own failures so she'll have a chance at her own successes ("Trusting Eyes" by Jami Kempen); of a career changed by hearing a new kind of music ("Maiden Days" by Judy Collins); and the devastating effects of being raped (the first half of "Forgiven" by Jennifer Thompson).

Right in the middle, we learn where the "war on drugs" really came from. Quoting John Ehrlichman in 1992: "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar Left, and black people. … We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did." ("Truth, Lies, and Audiotape" by Dan Baum). This is the single biggest reason for more than half of the 2 million or more people who now inhabit American prisons. It is time this fact was more widely known. Call this my moment, from reading the book. I have been against the "war on drugs" from the beginning, but now I have a more concrete reason (and I am quite aware that there was an earlier drug war, with its signature piece the wildly overdone film Reefer Madness).

Just to whet our appetite for the earlier book, a few pages such as this one contain some of the 6-word items. The web site must have thousands of these. They are the original concept upon which the e-mag was based. Larry Smith calls them "American Haiku". They are even briefer than haiku, which contain 17 syllables; these have from 6 to 12, typically.

Two of my own, topical of course:

I write so I can read.

I read so I can write.

They go together, and readers of my blog will know why. Y'wanna write your own story? Go to Smith.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Going the way of all flesh

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, aging

I phoned my father on his sixtieth birthday and asked, "What is it like?" He said, "I feel a lot like I did when I was twenty, but everything takes longer." Five years ago, I passed that milestone myself, and I have to agree. Not much has changed, yet everything has changed. And, nearly everything does indeed take longer. I expect to have some time yet for things to take even longer. Dad is still ticking along at age 90.

Though Mom passed away at 81, she had the potential for a longer life, had she not fallen afoul of a deadly cancer. As it happened, she also fell afoul of creeping dementia, starting before age 60, so when it came, her death from cancer was counted a blessing. Which side of the family will I be more like? I've already had cancer, and I show no signs of dementia (you reading this can judge for yourselves – be kind!), so perhaps I have 20-30 years to go. I hope they are fruitful years.

I live by my wits, and in particular I need a robust memory to thrive in the knowledge management business. If I start "losing it", I won't last long. But I have had colleagues who retired at 58 and 60, while others retired at 75 or even older, and I have a valued colleague who is 78 (I think; he is a bit cagey about it). This last fellow retired, then came back as a consultant. I figure, as long as the work is fun and interesting, having that paycheck is also lots of fun, so why not keep going? My father retired at 75.

Professor William Ian Miller may be one of those who is ready for retirement closer to his sixties than his seventies or later. The title of his book says it all: Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain, Which He Flatters Himself Formerly Did Him Noble Service – A Plaint, Tragi-comical, Historical, Vengeful, Sometimes Satirical and Thankful in Six Parts, if His Memory Does Yet Serve. Ka-boing! He gets the award for longest title!! Dr. Miller is 65, probably no more than a month or two older than I am, and his writing indicates he is still in possession of most of his wits. However, upon introspection, he feels he has lost a lot. One of the six parts of the book is titled "Complaining", but he doesn't confine his own complaining to that section. By the finish, I had to say, with Shakespeare, "Methinks thou protesteth too much", to slightly misquote Gertrude in Hamlet, Act III.

However, the book is not entirely a complaint. I would not have read through 265 pages of pure kvetching. It is, rather, a very entertaining survey of old age, its ills, and the ways a range of societies (mostly Norse) have treated the old through history. The good professor studies a cluster of ancient literature genres centered on the Icelandic Eddas and Norse epic poetry in general. Many of his illustrations derive from these. Thus, he dwells for quite a spell upon the characters in Egil's Saga: Egil, his son Skallagrim and grandson Kveld-Ulf. Each grew old in turn during the time covered by the saga, and they had quite similar personalities. In particular, in their old age, they each responded to grief by taking to bed and staying there for long periods. This is a common ploy of those who think they are old enough to get away with it. However, in one instance, the old codger's son shames him into arising and taking the field in vengeance, where he dies, though only after killing a dozen or so enemies. Perhaps old Icelanders are made of sterner stuff.

Isn't that how we all hope we can go out, in a blaze of glory? Well, maybe some of us. I confess to being more cowardly than that, and hoping my heart just quietly stops beating some night while I lie sleeping. In particular, with my family history, I have zero risk of death by heart attack or stroke, and a recent Heart Cam scan (my doctor insisted) shows my heart is as clean as a healthy teenager's. So I expect, sooner or later, another bout with cancer, and that's typically a rather painful way to go. Maybe if I am lucky, something critical will just wear out first. I'd rather wink out than blaze out.

Before getting to complaining, the author discusses the horror of finding yourself old, to the point of not easily recognizing your face in a mirror. I still have my high school picture. I showed it to some college students recently, because one asked about it. A girl blurted out, "Oh, you used to be so handsome!" Clearly, things have changed. I really don't look like I did then, though I really can recognize myself in recent pictures or mirror views. Looking at my father, I can see about how I'll look in 25 years, God willing. And by the way, Dr. Miller writes about recently visiting his mother, aged 89, so he probably has 20-25 years to go himself. Get used to it, Bill!

The shortest section of the book is about "Wisdom", and the various rather unfounded myths about getting older and wiser. Older and more stubborn is more like it. I rather like what Elihu said to Job and his "friends" (as if you could have such good enemies): "I said, 'Let age speak, and let the multitude of years make wisdom known.' But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives them understanding. It is not the great who are wise, nor the old who understand justice." (Job 32:7-9) A succinct proverb says it all, "There is no fool like an old fool".

So the fourth section is about how we might wrap things up, and is titled "Retirement, Revenge, and Taking it With You". The retirement picture, at least in the West, is where the rubber really meets the road. Having lots of kids was the traditional retirement plan; you just hoped at least one would have sufficient gratitude to take care of you when you got feeble. The condition of one Neandertal skeleton, of a man who was aged at the time of death, but was apparently being fed and cared for by someone, shows that the plan can work, though cases abound of the young giving the very old a bit of help to embark on "the next journey". Now we have pensions and IRA's and so forth.

We need them! In 1900, 4% of Americans were 65 or older, and the average retiree lived on about five more years. By 1936, when Social Security was enacted, those 65+ amounted to 5%. By 2000, it became 12.5%, and is expected to hit about 16% in eight more years (2020, when I'll be 73). Living on a fixed income these days is just a death sentence by inflation. Costs go up, and old folks begin to starve. Some people put their aged relatives in a nursing home. Nursing home neglect is becoming an epidemic, and is part of a larger picture of "the home" just being another means of "helping" someone reach the final exit sooner. Particularly if the aged person in question has a substantial IRA or other wealth. Is it any wonder some oldsters get vengeful, and even plan how to "take it with them", if only by spending down their assets. Can you say "Senior Citizen Cruise"? In Egil's Saga, old Egil gets out of bed long enough to take a couple of chests of silver to a bog, where he throws them in, with the help of two slaves. He is still strong enough to kill the slaves so they can't be asked which bog.

The section titled "Sentiments" made more sense to me. My wife finds it a bit amusing how easily I shed a tear. It gets easier as the years go by. It is getting risky to invite me to a wedding or funeral. I'll be the one trying to weep silently, and failing. Was Dylan Thomas's father a sentimental type, that the son wrote "Rage, rage against the dying of the light"? What is the use of all that rage? The stress will just kick off your ticker that much sooner. The sixth section explores this a little more. But I have to remark on another item that I found quite bracing.

Throughout the book, the author disparages "Positive Psychology" and its Pollyanna-ish tendencies. I agree with him. Life can be tough, and it does no good to over-optimize, or to over-pessimize about it. If some think the very old are happier than others, there are several explanations. One is that happier folks might live longer. Another is that "ignorance is bliss" and that an increasing number of the very old are too demented to know if they are sad or not. I suspect some of it is just the error of averaging apples with oranges with bananas with orangutans. Anyway, I wonder how many old folks simply lied about how happy they were. I just got interrupted by a phone call, one of those automated political surveys. I hung up on it. If I had taken it, I would probably have lied, because I usually do, on purpose. Think about that, pundits out there with your surveys and smoke-and-mirrors predictions!

I was able once to recalculate the statistics from an article that reported on a study of IQ and aging. The authors claimed that IQ dropped with age after 40 or so. But if you recast the numbers so that you count back from the age at death, IQ actually rose until a final decline that typically began about five years before death. So if your "natural death" is going to come at age 80, you can expect to get smarter until age 75. Maybe there is something to this wisdom of age bit!

How does that square with the fact that brain scans show brains shrinking with age? Size isn't everything. Einstein's brain has been preserved, and its volume is 1,230 cc. The average 76-year-old man's brain is about 1,250 cc. The "normal" range for middle aged men is 1,050-1,450 cc. Einstein worked on the "grand unified theory" right up to the end.

So, like many, I may occasionally find a word that I ought to know, on the tip of my tongue, but glued there so I can't get it out; I may mislay my keys (though I have strict habits to forestall this); I never could put a name to a face until I'd been with someone three or four times, so that's not a consideration; I have different eating habits than I used to; the way my wife and I relate to one another has changed; the way my brothers and father and I relate to one another has also changed; and I think I am less likely to try to intimidate my younger colleagues with superior knowledge – I'd rather collaborate on a more equal basis than I used to.

I don't know if Dr. Miller is really "losing it", any more than I am. If we are, I think there is still a very great much left to lose. There are also a few things to gain. For example, I can play a greater variety of parts now: curmudgeon when it suits me, or kindly grandfatherly ball of fluff when that is better. And so forth. Back to lying on surveys: the old become better actors. Another reason to watch out!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

UV paper

kw: observations, fluorescence

I got a check in the mail yesterday, one of those rather official looking ones. On the back, in barely-visible blue ink, where you are supposed to endorse it, it states that security features include a diamond pattern visible when viewed at a low angle, and "invisible fibers". I tried looking at a low angle, and I could indeed just barely see some letters in a diamond pattern. The text also warns not to accept a check that lacks these features. I reckoned that the bank needs to have a way to see the "invisible fibers", so they must be fluorescent, visible by ultraviolet illumination.

Of course, being a rock hound, I have a short wave UV light. Sure enough, as this image shows, the words "Original Document" are there, as are scattered fibers that glow bright blue. Those must be the "invisible fibers".

A note about UV wavelengths. Until recently, all UV sources were mercury vapor tubes with filters. An ordinary "black light" tube such as those used in rock concerts is long wave UV, at a wavelength of 365nm, one of the strong "lines" in the mercury spectrum.

Visible light is officially in the range 400-700nm, though most people can see a little beyond these limits if the source is bright enough. In particular, the purple glow you see when you look at a black light tube is the 365nm line, plus fluorescence in the range 360-380nm due to a phosphor that converts short wave to long wave, to make the tube more efficient. Don't look too long, it promotes cataract development. Rock hound long wave UV lights do not usually have the extra fluorescence, just using the 365nm line through a filter. The more recently-developed UV LED flashlights use a wavelength of 375nm, though this is likely to change as technology continues.

Short wave UV, for rock hounding purposes, is 254nm, a much more energetic light. It can also damage your eyes a lot faster. Glass blocks it, so the special filters used on such light sources use quartz with a filter that blocks visible and long wave UV. Short wave UV makes some substances fluoresce that long wave will not affect, and will also make most (but not all) long-wave-fluorescent substances glow. It sure did the trick for the security features in the check.

After I took the photo above, I just had to check some "security paper" that we all carry: currency. sure enough, as you can see, the 5 and the 20 have certain fluorescent features, while the 1 is basically unresponsive. Take note of the green stripe at the left end of the 20. That and the general blue appearance of the 5 (plus some details near Lincoln's head) are readily visible with a UV LED light, and all the banks and many merchants have them. I didn't have a 10 at the time, but you can be sure the 10, 50 and 100 have similar features. Such features make the bills a lot harder to counterfeit.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The bugs we breathe

kw: bacteria, air quality

According to Jessica Green of BioBE (Biology and the Built Environment) at University of Oregon, a cubic meter of indoor air can contain up to 10 million bacteria. Other sources state "one million or more" or "a few million" microbes per cubic meter. This has a few interesting implications.

A cubic meter is 1,000 liters. A healthy adult has a lung capacity of about 4 (female) or 6 (male) liters, but we typically "process" about half a liter per breath, and take some 15 breaths per minute when resting. Thus it takes about 133 minutes, or more than two hours, to inhale (and exhale) a cubic meter of air. In that time, between one and 10 million bacterial cells get in, but few return except when we sneeze. How much mass is that?

Bacteria differ greatly in size. A few examples:
  • E. coli: 0.6-0.7 fL (femtoliters)
  • Staphylococcus: ~0.11 fL
  • Streptococcus: ~0.14 fL
  • Salmonella and Vibrio: ~2 fL
If there is a lot of Salmonella or Vibrio in the air, you're in trouble, so for the more usual microbes, we can expect an average volume of perhaps 0.3 fL. A femtoliter is one cubic micrometer, so it takes one billion fL to equal one cubic millimeter, and one trillion to equal one cubic centimeter (cc). Thus a million times 0.3 fL is 300,000/1 billion or 0.0003 cubic mm or 0.0000003 cc. More heavily occupied air, with 10 million/cu m, would then have 0.003 cubic mm or 0.000003 cc. One cc of water weighs a gram, and the specific gravity of bacterial cells is only a little greater than 1, so a cc of bacteria would weigh 1.0-1.1g.

OK, so in 2¼ hours of quiet breathing you take in between 0.3 and 3 micrograms of bacterial cells. In a day you take in ten times that. So those millions of bacteria don't amount to much, and our body pretty easily deals with them. Usually.

This doesn't take any account of viruses. They probably outnumber the bacteria ten to one; I haven't found any useful estimates. However, their mass would be much smaller.

Houses, at least in the suburbs, are a lot cleaner than they used to be. I remember as a child that when sunlight came through a window, we'd see a pretty strong sunbeam from the dust in the air. In recent years, I am more likely to see a few scattered dust motes, but no beam. Bacteria are too small to reflect enough light to see, even in full sunlight shining through an otherwise darkened room. I was wondering, could a simple filtration test determine what is in the air?

We'd want to separate larger particles (skin flakes, fibers shed form our clothes, and mineral dust) from bacteria, so it would take two filters, one with pores in the range of 10 microns, the other with submicron pores. With the two filters fitted into an appropriate fixture, one could then drag a cubic meter of air through them. Supposing each filter is a few cm across, this could take a while. But then you could examine the filters under a microscope.

Let's see, if each filter's area is 10 cm², the finer one ought to contain between 100,000 and 1 million cells per cm² or from 1,000 to 10,000 per mm². On average, the cells would be from 10-30 microns apart. Since they are in the range of a micron in size, it ought to be pretty easy to see them, right on the filter, with a SEM or even an optical microscope. Optical searching would be easier, though, if you used a stain that doesn't affect the filter paper.

If you were to wash them off and centrifuge the wash liquid, you'd have a mass of cells that would be easy to plate onto a slide and look at, whether stained or not. 1000X, even 400X, is enough to spot them. You could get an assay by weighing the dried residue. It just takes a scale that has good precision when weighing 0.3-3 micrograms! The cheapest one I can find online is a bit over $20,000. An optical microscope capable of looking at the filter paper at 1000X is less than $1,000.

Ten million, even one million, "germs" per cubic meter sounded like a lot when I first began to research this. Reduced to actual mass, though, it doesn't amount to much.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Battling proverbs

kw: wordplay, proverbs, collections

Over time I have gathered a number of pairs of proverbs that have opposite meanings. A quick search of the web scared up a few more. In no particular order, here are 31 such sets. In a few cases, one proverb is contradicted by two or more others.

A silent man is a wise one.
A man without words is a man without thoughts.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Don't beat your head against a stone wall.

Don't cross that bridge until you come to it.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. / Forewarned is forearmed. / If you fail to plan, plan to fail.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

Two heads are better than one.
Paddle your own canoe.

Time waits for no man.
Haste makes waste.

He who hesitates is lost.
Look before you leap. / Act in haste, repent at leisure.

You're never too old to learn.
You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

It is better to be safe than sorry.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Nice guys finish last.

Hitch your wagon to a star.
Don't bite off more that you can chew.

The best things in life are free.
You get what you pay for. / There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Many hands make light work.

Clothes make the man.
Don't judge a book by its cover. / Appearances are deceiving.

Do it well, or not at all.
Half a loaf is better than none.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Silence is golden.

Familiarity breeds contempt.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

Great minds think alike.
Idiots seldom differ.

Birds of a feather flock together.
Opposites attract.

Winners never quit.
Quit while you're ahead.

Look before you leap.
You don't know what you can do until you try.

The bigger, the better.
Good things come in small packages.

The more, the merrier.
Two's company; three's a crowd.

Above all, to thine own self be true.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander.
One man's meat is another man's poison.

Actions speak louder than words.
The pen is mightier than the sword.

Never change horses in the middle of a stream.
Variety is the spice of life.

Practice makes perfect.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

A penny saved is a penny earned.
The love of money is the root of all evil.

Hold fast to the words of your ancestors.
Wise men make proverbs and fools repeat them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Guitar forever

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, music, learning

"Is it nature, is it nurture?
I don't know. Should I care?"

These are lines from the chorus of a song I wrote in 1995, the first song I ever wrote that satisfied me. It only took about forty years to write. Some musician I am! But it didn't take me long at all to learn to play music. The current wisdom is that attaining expertise in a skill like playing a musical instrument, or speaking a language, or programming computers, takes 10,000 hours of practice. That comes to nearly three hours of daily practice (7 days a week) for about ten years. This is what is behind "five years of relevant experience" in job postings: 40 hours/week = 2,000 hours per year with a two week vacation.

Well, I must modestly say that I was getting paying gigs within about a year of learning guitar. That first year, I did practice 3-4 hours a day, most days, which must come to around 1,000-1,200 hours. But it took much more than ten years to attain 10,000 hours of practice. A lot of that was jamming with a variety of musicians so I could learn from them. I never "took lessons".

Fast forward about fifty years. Now I teach guitar one evening weekly. I have half a dozen students. It is my "fun job", and I don't care that it pays much less hourly than my day job. But how to encourage my students, most of whom are beginners? Boy, do I have the book for them: Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary Marcus.

Dr. Marcus is a professor of Psychology, a specialist in the philosophy of learning. In his mid thirties, he decided to overcome a life of frustrated music yearning and learn rock guitar. He was soon told by a friend who'd offered him "a lesson or two" that he is "congenitally arrhythmic", meaning he can't keep a beat. He also confesses to difficulty carrying a tune, though he can hear them well enough. Some folks can't recognize tunes, and perhaps one person in 30 or so is "amusical", unable to tell "Twinkle Little Star" from "Adeste Fideles" if they can't hear the words. Marcus is not that afflicted, fortunately. And, his rhythm and "ear" are much better now.

The book seems to proceed in half-year chunks. At the six-month mark, the author reports he could play a few chords in tempo, making the changes fast enough to keep up with some songs. My students typically get to this point after about eight lessons, with 2-3 chords, easy ones like A and E, plus maybe a D. Though I introduce F, the nemesis of beginners, early on, I tell them to take time getting it to work (My Mom showed me F the first day, and it took me a couple of frustrating months to get it to sound right).

Early on, he recommends a book that helped him a lot: David Mead's Acoustic Guitar: Crash Course. I will recommend it to my students. He also recommends helping beginners learn some 2-chord songs first (which I do), and explains the easiest 2-chord song he knows: Horse With No Name. It has just these chords:

The E minor (Em) starts every line in the song. The other "chord" arrives in the middle of every line. The tune is the most boring tune that ever became popular. The words make it. That second "chord" configuration is given its weird name because the sheet music publisher has to call it something. But it sure is easy to play.

Marcus has access to a plethora of great musicians most of us will never meet. He was able to get help with many of his problems, so he could practice more effectively. Throughout the book he drums in this important principle: practice is not just lazily playing what you already can play well, it is challenging your abilities with skills you haven't fully learned, and correcting mistakes as soon as you can recognize them.

In language learning there is a similar principle. Learning French, I recall getting to the point that I could read books like Le Petit Prince with ease, and converse about them with some facility, but I hit a plateau until the teacher said, "OK, quit the kiddie books and read Paris Match every week, and get your family to vacation in Canada or France, where you can talk to people who have a bigger vocabulary than I do." That was a huge help.

The author discusses the influence of talent. Musicians who rise to the top of the field need talent. Talent saves a lot of time, but it must be honed by practice. The Beatles were making waves in England and Germany quite soon after they got together, but it was a few years before they were ready for the Ed Sullivan Show. Most garage bands have to practice ten times as much to get a paying gig or two. If they ever do.

At the end of about two years, the author knew he had grown a lot, and not only as a musician. He tells a touching story about writing a song that helped him connect with his uncle—and all his family—in a new and most powerful way. Even when you are not making music, knowing music affects how you communicate. For me, someone who is rather emotionally impaired, music healed some of that and helped me develop a more rounded personality.

Dr. Marcus set a high goal. I don't know if he knew it, but rock guitar is probably the second most difficult style; Flamenco is insanely difficult, and I put rock and classical styles tied for second. Basic folk music is quite a bit easier, although the various "roots" styles I have learned over the years are quite a bit more challenging…but not like well played rock. His success is a tonic for us all. Trite as it sounds, "if he can do it, so can (almost) anybody".

Monday, July 23, 2012

Demobbing our colleges

kw: sports, corruption

All day I've heard conversations up and down the hall where I work, people arguing over whether the NCAA sanctions on Penn State's football program were too tough, or not enough. I stayed out of it. I am no fan of "big money" school sports programs. They have become the tail wagging the dog (for decades already).

A lot of what is wrong with college sports programs could be solved with a single Federal statute: Admission tickets price capped at $5, and 75% of the money thus generated to go toward well focused scholarships. Oh, yeah: and make ticket scalping a capital offense.

In my college years (which were scattered throughout my 20s and 30s), every school I went to had a football program that begged money from the college almost every year, to upgrade or replace a stadium, or to increase salaries. They had the same arguments every time, about how much the alumni "demanded" it, and how much some of them gave, and how much money the program generated. But in every single damn case, the money that flowed into the sports program stayed there, and none ever flowed back out. The program was just a black hole-money sink.

I recently learned just how highly Mr. Paterno was paid. As great a coach as he was, his pay was obscene! Nobody is worth that kind of money. The amount of money that flows around college sports (I won't even get into pro sports!) simply invites corruption, begs for it, and almost demands it. The corruption comes. When the janitors at PSU knew what was going on, for years, but were afraid they'd lose their jobs if they told the police, you know evil is afoot at the highest levels. And I have no confidence that the new university administrators and sports staff are any better. Give 'em time…

And let's not hear any moaning about how many minority kids might not get a chance at an education if they don't get a sports scholarship. Only about a tenth of them even finish, at most schools. They get to play a year or two, then either slow down, or get hurt, or flunk a class because the coaches won't let them have sufficient study time. A very few youngsters get recruited by professional teams. Most of the rest are discarded. These sorts of practices are a subtle form of racism that needs to be exposed.

There are a very few schools that boast they actually graduate 80% or 90% or more of their athletes. Any school where athletes graduate at a rate less than the school average, ought to have the number of sports scholarships it offers slashed or eliminated.

To all my friends who are PSU alumni: I am sorry for you. You have been needlessly shamed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A force most familiar

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, gravity, science

In my musing about the Higgs particle on Monday, I considered the odd case of the graviton. If there is such a thing, it has proved mighty hard to find. Particle accelerators of higher and higher energy don't seem the right approach, because it would have no mass anyway. I recall a science fiction novel from many years ago (50 or more) in which control of gravity was attained, and forces were developed called "electrogravitic" and "gravitomagnetic" and so forth. All kinds of magical effects were found.

So far, though, the only way to produce gravity waves, if they do exist, is to shake something very massive, and the only way to detect them is with a long, massive "antenna". The longest "antenna" yet produced has yet to detect anything, even though we expect things like the collision of two neutron stars, or of two black holes, to occur from time to time. Such events ought to radiate copious amounts of gravity waves. We have only indirect evidence that gravity waves might exist: A pair of neutron stars that orbit one another with a period of about 8 hours. The period is getting shorter, which indicates that the orbit is getting smaller. It is inferred that gravity waves are leaking away some amount of energy. But who knows? Maybe there is a thin gas dragging on them.

So what is gravity? If you put the question to Brian Clegg, author of Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped our Lives, he'll most likely quote Richard Feynman, who urged us not to fear not knowing. In other words, we have mathematical descriptions of how gravity acts, but what it is? Nobody knows. Fortunately for the full employment of physicists, not knowing is a spur towards finding out!

Gravity as a concept seems to have begun with Galileo, and was first described mathematically by Newton. In earlier times, at least in the West, people thought things moved because angels pushed them, and heavy stuff moved downward because it was their purpose to do so, a completely teleological explanation. The "elements" were understood to be earth, air, fire and water. Earth received heavy, "earthy" things, and water, having a lesser downward purpose, stayed upon the earth but above it. Fire's purpose was to rise, and air's was to rest upon water or earth, having a neutral purpose (It didn't occur to people that they needed air to breathe. The function of the lungs was discerned quite late).

The focus of the book is the development of the general theory of relativity by Albert Einstein. He first thought of the equivalence principle, that acceleration and gravity mimic one another, in 1907, but it took him until 1915 to learn and apply the mathematics needed to describe the warping of space that is its most useful feature. Having this theory, which has been verified to great accuracy by a number of methods in the following century, it drive physicists crazy that it cannot be reconciled with quantum physics, which describes everything else!

Thus the hunt for gravity waves and the graviton. The ideas getting the most attention all relate to "string theory", which has been sardonically called, "a theory of everything, because everything can happen". I read in another book that there are at least 10500 versions of string theory that are possible, and so far there is no way to determine if any of them is more correct than any other. It sounds like it'll be a long search. But string theories are not the only choice. A number of alternative theories are being studied, including some that would sever time from space, thus scrapping relativity altogether. Both theories of relativity rely on unified spacetime. It is thought that the effects of special and general relativity might be better described by a better meta-theory.

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Theories based on strings, for example, get complicated fast, and they remind me of the epicycles used prior to Kepler's work to describe planetary orbits. Even Copernicus needed epicycles to make his earth-centered cosmology work, because he thought the orbits were based on circles. Kepler showed they are ellipses, and later work showed that the ellipses are "perturbed" by the gravitational effects of all the other planets. Maybe someday an über-Kepler will discover the hyper-elliptical math required to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics, or maybe it will be a different approach entirely.

I was hoping for an extended discussion of the graviton. I puzzle over whether it will itself feel gravitational effects. I tentatively conclude, probably not—or not very much—or they could never escape from black holes. Instead, in the discussion of general relativity I learned that one term describes the self-energy of gravitation, which amounts to the same thing. It is an enfeebled effect, lest gravity's self-energy cause it to collapse into itself (and stay inside black holes). It is kind of like the self-energy of the electron, which classically becomes infinite at zero radius. Thus, the electron cannot be a point particle (and this might be a hint that space is actually quantized, in support of one of the alternative theories).

I have also wondered whether gravity's effects, or gravitons, necessarily move at the speed of light. Gravity is not light. The common understanding that information cannot travel faster than c (repeated on p 224), may have a spurious basis. We derive c from Maxwell's equations, based on the strength of interaction between electrical and magnetic energy. Gravity seems to stand alone. Why should it be subject to Maxwell? Besides, g may be less than c! If so, could that explain the seeming orbital anomalies in galaxies that led to the theory of dark matter?

The book entire is a masterful and accessible survey of the field. I find that I have read another book by Brian Clegg, and that another one is near the bottom of my current pile of reading material, so I'll get to it in a week or two. This book's frontispiece lists ten books, so this is his eleventh. It looks like he has caught the bug to explain everything. I like that.

I do have to point out a few signs of hurried production. In general, I find numerous indications that publishers tend to scrimp on proofreading. This book is much better than most. However:
  • At the bottom of p 130, concerning a star that appears near the limb of the sun during an eclipse, we find, "…the star should appear shifted slightly toward the Sun…"; the bending of the light is toward the sun, so the star should appear shifted away from the Sun. Draw a picture to see what I mean.
  • On p 143 the GPS satellites are described as moving "around 87,000 miles (14,000 kilometers) per hour". The actual mph speed is 8,700. A good item to remember is that escape velocity from Earth is about 25,000 mph or 40,000 kph.
  • This is a more picky point: In the middle of p 215 the term "vast difference" ought to be "vast distance", describing whether light is refracted by the quantum nature of empty space. It takes a lot of distance to see a difference. An easy slip by a fast typist.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The conundrum of shrinking government

kw: government spending, politics

I have occasional discussions and debates with my brother about politics. He is more left-leaning, and I am more right-leaning. I don't know about him, but I'm dissatisfied with every positional label, and no longer call myself conservative, nor am I quite a libertarian.

I am in favor of smaller government, though, but making government smaller presents a conundrum. In today's economy, with about 20 million people in need of jobs, and no more than about 100,000 new jobs opening up each month, does it make sense to shrink the federal payroll.

Wal-Mart is often touted as the largest employer in the world, with 2.2 million employees worldwide and 1.2 million in the U.S. Hold onto your hat: The U.S. federal government employs 2.9 million non-military and 1.5 million military personnel, for a total of 4.4 million. Also, 20% of the budget goes to contractors. That money supports about another million people, or perhaps as many as 1.5 million. Thus the total federal payroll is in the range of 5.5-6 million. I am not even counting federal retirees and people on social security, here…

If a budget cut of 10% were implemented "across the board", that means about half a million people would lose their jobs. Various pundits have "recommended" cuts in the 20-30% range, and some even more. A million out of work, million and a half, or more?

I do think we need to wind back the size of the federal government, but we need to do it sensibly. Trying to end the recession with ill-considered federal cutbacks would just make it worse. The economy is a tangled mess, and there are no simple solutions.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Of ferrets and flu

kw: medicine, influenza, articles

In the May 2012 issue of Discover, a short article by Wendy Orent asks, "Can stuffing germs up ferrets unleash a human pandemic?" It briefly reports two sets of experiments that produced a virus derived from the avian pandemic virus, which became transmissible among ferrets. One of the experiments involved mixing the avian virus with a human virus and squirting it into a ferret's nose. Then taking snot from the ferret a few days later and squirting it in another ferret's nose. This was done ten times. At that point a sneezing ferret could infect other ferrets.

The conclusion: The procedure resembles a procedure used to produce vaccines, and is more likely to produce a flu vaccine than an infective influenza virus. Then the statement was made, "To make a deadly human flu, you would need to passage the strain among humans, not ferrets—a difficult and ethically impossible experiment."

Ethically impossible? For who?? As ethically impossible as piloting an aircraft into the WTC? or as puffing nerve gas into a Japanese subway air system? I suspect a clutch of fanatics would gladly "catch the flu" from a chicken, then from each other, in an effort to produce a deadly germ.

Of course, the perennial trouble with germ warfare, or germ terrorism, is that the "agent" will have a tendency to wander off-target, and infect people well beyond the bounds of the original infection. That is how pandemics are. It is also quite possible that a few folks in the targeted area, figuring out what is happening, would hop aboard the next airplane to the probable source country, in an act of reverse terrorism: "If I gotta die of this flu, I'll do it in , and take a few of them down with me!"

So, you terrorists out there, don't think you are the only fanatics on the planet…

Cities where no city should be

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, activism, city planning

About seven years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I wrote to the governor of Louisiana, suggesting that the funds being earmarked for rebuilding New Orleans would be better spent relocating the population to higher ground, possibly north of Lake Pontchartrain. I never heard back, directly, but I did hear her in a press conference two days later, very angrily dismissing suggestions that the current site of New Orleans ought to be abandoned. Thus the power of tradition over common sense.

I have similar concerns for Phoenix, Arizona, which has nearly five times the population of New Orleans, and the greater Phoenix area has about 12 times the population, or more than four million people. I have visited Phoenix a few times (rather unwillingly after the first visit). I don't understand why it is there.

I am not the only one. The title of the book yields a clue: Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross. Folks may quibble whether Phoenix is really the least sustainable. But the idea of locating 4+ millions in an area in which nature provides for no more than 40,000 is insane. However, that is not the central thesis of the book.

Prior to 1860, between 10,000 and 20,000 Pima (or Akimel O'odham) people lived a genuinely sustainable, agricultural life along the Gila and Salt rivers. Their life was probably similar to that of the Hohokam culture that once flourished in the area, and may be a continuation of it. Then in 1861 Anglos set up a city where Phoenix is today, atop the ruins of abandoned Hohokam canals. A generation or two later, once the Anglo population began to grow rapidly, they dammed up and siphoned off the waters upstream of the Pima, and essentially drove them into dependency by artificial drought.

Now Phoenix is one of the nation's largest cities. What has been behind the huge increase in population? First, huge chunks of the "military-industrial complex" about which Eisenhower warned us, taking advantage of cheap land and a measure of insulation from the more populated (and thus more watched) areas in the Northeast. Secondly, rampant and short-sighted boosterism coupled with an extreme frontier "don't tell me what to do with my land" mentality. And, most telling, Colorado and California and Nevada let them get away with appropriating out-of-state water supplies such as about one-third of the Colorado River's flow, as "defined" during an exceptionally wet period.

In Arizona, more than any other state, regional politics is dominated by real estate speculation. A significant dent has been made in this picture during the past five years, but the mentality remains (See yesterday's post: former half-million-dollar homes are now hard to sell for $200,000). Plans are still being discussed to develop 275 square miles in the foothills of the Supersition Mountains; there is some chance a more reasonable plan than the "sprawl" that surrounds the area will prevail, primarily because there is a recession going on! Arizona has the highest proportion of people with "underwater" mortgages in the nation.

The author interviewed hundreds of people for this book, and the nearly uniform symptom was that any troubles were somebody else's fault. Those in charge of water policy cannot imagine why anyone should object to central Arizona's demanding increasing allocations of water from elsewhere. Those supposedly watching over the environment just throw up their hands about the fact that most of the groundwater under the county is too polluted to use (courtesy of those military-industrial plants, now mostly closed down). Hardly anyone in authority is willing to listen to any plan that doesn't include nearly doubling the population in the next 50-80 years. They just bemoan the "white flight" elsewhere that has led to a rapidly increasing proportion of Latinos, even though many Latinos are leaving also.

Is it really true that capitalism requires a growing economy to work? I certainly hope not, because sooner or later every economy is certain to contract, no matter what the population is. There is only so much water, only so much coal or oil, only so much land to farm or to live on. The Phoenix area is a look into a future we all face as the various amounts of resources we depend on become more and more scarce. One subchapter is titled, "Building homes for the home builders." The "plan" of eternal growth is actually a Ponzi scheme. It is just most evident in Arizona.

I have a friend in New Jersey who tried to make a living as a farmer with a 25-acre farm. He has since said he really needed 100 acres to make a proper go of it. The yearly rainfall in the area is about 40 inches (one meter). Prior to moving East, we lived nearly a decade in Oklahoma. The smallest viable farms and ranches there are in the 500-1,000 acre range. Yearly rainfall is a bit over 25 inches (0.65 m). Prior to that, we lived in South Dakota. My next-door neighbor was one of the few successful ranchers. Another friend had a mixed farm and ranch a couple hours' drive away. Both had spreads larger than 10,000 acres. I remember getting a detailed dissertation from my neighbor about why it required 50+ acres of prairie grass to support each cow, and how he had to grow a certain amount of alfalfa for hay to be stored against the occasional drought. A 10-15 year accumulation of hay could be devoured in one bad season. The rainfall on Table Mesa in South Dakota is 12 inches yearly (0.3 m).

Central Arizona gets 8 inches (0.2 m) of rain yearly, as averaged since the 1980s. Recent years have seen less rain, and climate warming is likely to keep the rainfall in the six-inch (0.15 m) range in coming years. Even in a good year, Arizona is below the threshold of widespread agriculture. A cow can't walk far enough to find the food it needs, and will starve, except along the few rivers. The relatively small numbers of the Hohokam and later the Pima were all the land could support, and then only within a few miles of those rivers.

In the Mojave Desert, as a Geology student I learned that a swimming pool will evaporate five feet (1.5 m) of water yearly. In central Arizona and the rest of the Sonora Desert to the south, evaporation exceeds 6.5 feet (2 m). Damming up a river to make a reservoir just reduces the total usable water from that river.

Mr. Ross hopes some of the efforts now under way in Arizona will show the way for improving the sustainability of other cities. One hopeful sign is the recent culmination of an 80-year legal battle that gave restored water rights to the Pima people. Some of them still know how to make good use of that water for something besides a Kentucky bluegrass lawn or a swimming pool (There are a lot of swimming pools in northern Phoenix). But I say there's not much wrong with Phoenix that an out-migration of several million people would not cure.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Unequal land value swings

kw: real estate, speculation

Triggered by ideas in a book I've been reading, I did a little digging around in Zillow (a great site if you've never used it). One of the charts that is usually available for any house is one like this one, that shows a ten-year history of approximate values for the house, its immediate area, and the town.

This chart is for a somewhat random house in Media, PA, an area I know rather well. The upper dashed line is the average price for the zip code, the solid line is for the house, and the greenish dotted line is for Media as a whole. This is an area not too much affected by the real estate crash of four years ago.

Another area I know pretty well is Moore, OK. This house has been sold twice in recent years, as shown by the green dots. Its value has been all over the map, more because of the weather than the recession: Moore has in recent years "hosted" two of the largest tornadoes in history.

The Zip code and the city are coterminous, so there is not a third chart line. I suspect that the averaged line is less realistic, and ought to have more gyrations, in keeping with this individual house's value estimates. I chose this house for its most recent Zestimate (Zillow estimate), to be near that of the house in Media, and I did the same for the following example.

The first two homes' value histories compare quite well to the chart for a random house in northern Phoenix, Arizona. This house, recently valued about $215,000, is down from a value that was twice as high five years ago. The lines for the Camelback neighborhoods and for Phoenix as a whole were more than twice as high five years ago.

This exemplifies the kind of bubble that accompanies an area with a policy of unrestrained growth. It is much more vulnerable to recessionary forces. Even in a recession, this neighborhood is pricey, primarily because the southern half of Phoenix is a "low rent district", with much, much lower home values. It is a classic "other side of the tracks" area. And the unrestrained growth? It is not a viable policy for the current economic situation. More on such things later.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Higgs slipped right past me

kw: particle physics, science

I typically keep abreast of the news from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), but this one slipped past me: On July 4, 2012, via a number of media, scientists at CERN announced they are 99% certain that the Higgs Boson has been found, based on two experiments that tested two methods they had hoped would discover it. Both methods had "worked".

How did I learn about it? More than a week later in Time! Since reading that article, I've perused news and science blogs about it. This morning, the query "Higgs" in Google yielded almost 2 million hits from July 4 until now. The same search in Google News produced 115,000 hits.

In the Time article in the July 23 edition (delivered the July 12), author Jeffrey Kluger's opening blurb states, "The elusive Higgs boson is at last found—and the universe gets a little less mysterious." I wonder about that.

The Higgs particle is being called a boson. According to the Standard Model of particle physics, everything we know about is composed of either bosons or fermions. Matter is made up of fermions, which are said to obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. A key characteristic of fermions is that they can collide, because no two of them can occupy the same space at the same time. Familiar fermions are electrons, protons and neutrons. Bosons mediate the interactions of fermions. Bosons are said to obey Bose-Einstein statistics, and they do not collide with one another, only with fermions. Any number of bosons can pass through the same location simultaneously, which is why light can be focused without limit, for example.

Light (including visible light, radio, x-rays and so forth) is composed of those bosons called photons. They mediate the electromagnetic interaction and are massless. There are three other interactions:
  • The "strong" interaction, mediated by "gluons" that bind together the quarks inside nucleons (protons and neutrons) and mesons and all the "resonance" particles derived from them. Gluons are massive, so their interactions are short-range.
  • The "weak" interaction by which protons and neutrons exchange identities, mediated by massive particles called W and Z.
  • Gravity, which may or may not be mediated by a theoretical boson called a "graviton". If it exists, the graviton will also be massless, because gravity has no distance limit. Gravity is, to date, not included in the Standard Model.
That last point seems strange. Gravity is not part of the Standard Model, but the Higgs boson is, and the Higgs is considered to mediate (or create?) mass. This exposes a duality in the universe, a continuing mystery. Mass is one thing, and weight is another. Mass, properly speaking, is the inertial resistance of any item to acceleration. If a particle has no mass, such as a photon, then it cannot exist "at rest", and can only exist by moving at the speed of light, c. The energy of its creation is entirely contained in its instant acceleration to
c. Thus a photon has momentum, so a "solar sail" would work by transferring momentum from the photon stream to the sail material.

Weight is the resistance to acceleration caused by gravity. Interestingly, though massless particles cannot have weight, they do respond to gravitation. Their energy content, as defined by Einstein's Equation, E=mc², is equated to a theoretical mass that responds to gravity. This is why I question whether the graviton exists, or might be a boson. No other boson-boson interactions are known…except that between the Higgs and the gluons and W and Z, that produces their mass!

Do you see how tangled this is getting? So what is the Higgs particle, really? It appears to have mass itself, about 152 times as much mass as a proton. Thus the Higgs must interact with itself! So far, the explanations I have read are quite unsatisfying. Higgs particles are described as mediating a Universe-filling "Higgs field" (even though this implies they ought to be without mass). Particles have a greater or lesser tendency to suffer "drag" as they move through this field, and this drag is their mass. Photons zip through without any drag. This kind of explanation may be a roughly useful analogy, but it sounds pretty peculiar to me.

On the other hand, if there are gravitons, they do "drag" on the photons, because the gravitation of a black hole can trap photons and even reverse their direction. Anywhere outside the event horizon, photons travel at speed c, but their wavelength lengthens as they make their escape up the gravitational well. Right at the event horizon, photons are stationary, somehow! Inside the event horizon, they seem to be dragged backward by, so I have read, an inflow of space that exceeds c. No wonder Einstein didn't like the notion of black holes, even though his general theory of relativity predicts their existence and certain of their properties.

Perhaps the Universe has gotten "a little less mysterious", but numerous mysteries remain. Thinking about the reported "mass" of the Higgs particle, I must conclude that the mass is a temporary resonance, required to hold the particle together when it is teased into view by the enormous energy of the collision that extracted it from wherever it was hiding. In its "native" state, the Higgs must be massless. Further, it is likely that it is not affected by gravity. Otherwise the Higgs field would be as clumpy as the visible Universe, and the mass of any particular particle type (such as a proton) would not be a constant quantity. I suspect that experiments to determine such things will require an instrument quite a bit more powerful than the $10 billion LHC. It is too bad that the SSC in Texas was scuttled.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Connections in the sky

kw: observations, nature, insects, birds

We just returned from a walk in a nearby schoolyard. It rained this morning, and the air is humid. When we walk there we sometimes see a few dragonflies zooming over the grass, catching small insects we usually don't see. This time, at one end, we saw dozens of dragonflies canvassing a small area of a couple of hundred square feet. As we made our rounds, we watched them. Then, we saw that there were many small flies, brown and a little larger than fruit flies. They were probably having a mating flight, triggered by the rain, and they were the prey of the dragonflies. At one point, my wife saw a dragonfly snag one of the little flies right in front of her.

On our last go-round, we looked up to see that there were actually a couple of hundred dragonflies filling the air, to a height of thirty or forty feet. In the top reaches of this insect abundance, three or four swifts were zooming back and forth, taking the occasional dragonfly. There we had it, three links of the food chain on display.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Maybe worse than impossible

kw: programming, computer science

A couple of decades ago I was working on a program to simulate the way oil fills up a "reservoir", really an impermeable surface with some shape that could trap oil as it trickled upward. A colleague and I tried out scheme after scheme, mainly based on how hard each one was to write into computer code. Of course the easiest one to write elicited my colleagues comment, "Boy, that is pretty bogus." He meant that whether it worked or not, it was a very inefficient way to proceed. We eventually found a pretty efficient method. Other projects throughout the years have been, sometimes a search for efficiency, and sometimes a frantic scramble to avoid too much bogosity.

Definition: Bogosity in computer programming is the inverse of efficiency. Where "bogus" usually means "fake", to a programmer it means a bad way to do something, one that will make the computer take too long. But we need to see just how bad "bad" can be. The standard programmer's example is sorting, so I'll use it.

Sorting data has received huge amounts of attention from thousands of bright people because it is needed so frequently, and is very slow unless clever methods are employed. Sorting bogosity is easy. The (almost) easiest method is one you can do by hand, and it matches the way people typically operate when sorting a small number of things, such as lining up a dozen rocks from smallest to largest. This easy method is called the Bubble Sort:
  • Line up the rocks and look through them for the largest. Put it at the end of the line.
  • Look for the largest among those that remain. Put it next to the other one.
  • Repeat.
We can do this rather quickly because we can compare several items at once by eye. But in a computer, it must be done by comparing them pairwise. So a computer would have to use a few extra steps:
  • Load numbers representing the "size" of the rocks (such as weight. That means weigh them first).
  • Compare the first two numbers. If the first is bigger than the second, swap them.
  • Compare the next two numbers, and so forth, swapping as needed, until you get to the end of the list.
  • At that point, the last storage location contains the largest number.
  • Start over, but stop one short of the end. Now you have two numbers in order.
  • Repeat until you have made 11 passes through an ever-shortening list of numbers.
For 12 rocks, the program made 11 comparisons, then 10, and so forth, for a total of 66. That's OK for a dozen items, but what about sorting a deck of 52 cards? Once you determine which order the suits go in (whether to sort by suits or by numbers within suits), you have to make 1,326 comparisons. That is a lot for a human, though it is pretty quick for a computer. But computer programs need to do a good job even if sorting tens of thousands of items. For 10,000 items, the bubble sort takes almost 50 million comparisons.

A different kind of sort works better. I'll describe one variation of the Shell Sort. It takes fewer comparisons, but uses some extra space. First, for 12 rocks:
  • Line up the rocks as before.
  • Compare the first two. In a nearby space put the smaller one on the left and the larger one on the right.
  • Compare the next two from the original line. Put them in order nearby.
  • Continue until you have 6 sorted pairs.
  • Now take the leftmost rock from the first pair and compare it to the leftmost rock from the second pair. Put the smaller rock at the left end of a new line. It is the smallest rock of the four.
  • From whichever pair that smaller rock came from, pick up the other rock. Compare it with the one you are still holding.
  • Put the smaller one next to the first, smallest rock.
  • Pick up the fourth rock.
  • Compare it with the one you are still holding. Put these two rocks in order next to the first two. Now you have four sorted rocks.
  • Continue with the next pair of pairs.
  • Continue with the third pair of pairs. Now you have three lines of four sorted rocks.
  • These were merge operations. Perform a merge operation on the first two lines of four. This results in a line of eight sorted rocks, and the other line of four is still there.
  • Merge the line of 8 and the line of 4.
If you were counting comparisons, there were 33. You went through the rocks four times instead of 11. Half the effort, at the cost of a little more complexity of planning. To sort 52 cards this way, you'd wind up making 253 comparisons. That is about 19% of the original effort to sort the deck. The general formula for comparisons is N Log/2(N), so sorting 10,000 items takes about 133,000 comparisons, or 1/376th the effort!

There are clever variations of the shell sort that reduce overhead a little, but that is basically the most efficient sort method. But we were talking about bogosity here. The bubble sort is quite "bogus" compared to the shell sort, which is what my friend meant. Is more bogosity possible?

Certainly. For example, if you play Klondike solitaire with the cards, you are only going to win about one time in four if you don't cheat, so each game you play will have some number of comparisons that is less than 1,326, unless you win, but the comparisons are accompanied by "overhead": stack moves and dealing and so forth that greatly lengthen the time to produce a sorted deck even if you win the first game. A typical "sort" might take four games of average length about 700 or nearly 3,000 total comparisons.

Let's declare that the bubble sort has a bogosity of 1. Then a series of games of Klondike
that leads to a win would have a bogosity of 2. Other solitaire games will also be 2's, though they vary a little in how frequently you win without cheating.

This is not nearly as bogus as it gets: I don't know what number to give it, maybe 100, but there is a "sort" that has maximum bogosity, so far as I know. We can call it the Bogo Sort:
  • Throw the cards across the room.
  • Pick them up and flip the face-down ones face up.
  • Look through the deck to see if they are in order.
  • If not, repeat. (Even if only one card is out of place! No cheating by moving it)
The average number of times you'd have to repeat this operation to achieve a sorted deck is a number with 68 digits (roughly 4E+67). If you could "throw-pick up-check" once per minute, it would take about 1E+62 years (That is a hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion or so). Now that is real bogosity.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The first big scientific collaboration

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, astronomy, planets

During the early decades of the Eighteenth Century, several factors came together. The philosophical and scientific ideals of the European Enlightenment were loosening the nationalistic and political ties that "natural philosophers" felt toward their countries, even as political tensions mounted; the great empires of England, France, and Russia were settling down (though squabbling) and global transportation was now possible; advances in astronomical calculations had led to a great ability (with much laborious paperwork) to predict the positions of the planets and moons of the solar system; the achromatic telescope objective, invented in 1730, became affordable in useful sizes (up to about 50 cm diameter); and a hortatory essay by Edmond Halley, published in 1716, was being circulated.

That essay predicted the first of a pair of transits of Venus across the Sun on June 6, 1761, and called upon astronomers everywhere to observe it from as many places as possible around the globe, so as to obtain measurements that would permit more accurate determination of the scale of the solar system. Thus, the few years prior to 1761 saw a series of discussions, proposals, and requests by scientists for funding (from their various governments and other patrons), that led to astronomical expeditions from South Africa to Newfoundland, and from Siberia to India.

The events that led up to the heroic expeditions in 1761 and 1769 (for the second transit of the pair), the observations themselves, and the aftermath, are ably chronicled for us in Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, by Andrea Wulf. The men who "chased Venus" to all corners of the Earth were up against incredible odds. Not all succeeded. Some died. Some managed to transport half a ton or a ton of instruments to their remote targets, only to be clouded in and miss the entire transit.

In the First World, we think nothing of hopping in the car and driving several miles in a few minutes to buy groceries, or perhaps dozens of miles in an hour or less to try out a new restaurant. With a little more preparation, we travel by jet to "civilized" locales on six continents (getting to Antarctica is still a bit of an ordeal). Some years ago, I found that returning from my in-laws' home in Japan, to our own home in Oklahoma, took just under 24 hours, and we thought of that as a difficult trip.

During the heyday of the British Empire, a fast sailing ship could travel between 40 and 60 miles per day. If you were lucky enough to sail straight through without encountering any storms, you could cross the Atlantic in about two months. Land travel in areas without good roads (nearly anywhere outside a major city) was slower than that; 5-10 miles daily was typical. Getting from France to Tobolsk, in Siberia, took an astronomer named Chappe about a year in 1761; getting to California in 1769 took even longer, and he died there after making his observations.

I was quite interested to find that one pair of observers, who observed the 1761 transit from the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, was Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. They observed the 1769 transit also, but from different locations. In between, they spent a few years in America surveying the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, now called the Mason-Dixon line.

What makes a transit of Venus so special? It is one of the rarest of predictable phenomena. A pair of transits will occur eight years apart, minus about 3 days, but the next pair will occur more than a century later. The period from pair to pair alternates between 113.5 years and 129.5 years, for a total cycle of 243 years. A transit is also an excellent opportunity to take measurements to establish the solar parallax. This parameter is the difference in angle (properly, the half angle) between observations of the Sun from exactly opposite edges of the Earth; knowing the size of the Earth, one can then compute the Sun's distance.

Why aren't the transits more frequent? The orbit of Venus is at an angle of about 3.4° to that of Earth. Eight Earth years are just slightly longer than 13 Venus years. Thus, when the Earth crosses the plane of Venus's orbit, Venus usually isn't anywhere nearby. These crossings aren't exactly opposite one another because Earth's orbit is a little bit elliptical (The orbit of Venus is the most nearly circular of all the planets). So while conjunctions occur a couple times yearly, they are usually not transits.

In 1761 Europe was in the midst of the Seven Years' War. The astronomers sailed across the earth at the risk of their lives. Amazingly, none were lost to hostilities. In 1769, that war was over, but tensions remained. Getting Chappe to Baja California was a political nightmare for the French Academy…and for him. He had to travel under guard on a Spanish ship. Those who traveled to the frozen North, whether in Siberia or northern Scandinavia, had to go when travel was physically possible, in winter when the rivers were iced over. It is amazing that plump, well-fed astronomers did so, and generally prevailed. In the south, in 1769, Tahiti was the target of an expedition led by James Cook, who became the first European to visit Hawaii in 1778. The entire trip took three years. Southern observations in general were hampered by the lack of land in the southern Pacific Ocean.

It was necessary to observe the transit, and time it accurately, from locations as far-flung as possible, so that many partial parallaxes could be combined into a composite, theoretical equatorial parallax. This required measuring the longitude, and the exact moment of local (not statutory) noon, using tall case clocks and observations of the position of the Moon against reference stars, and doing hours and hours of calculations.

From this amazing body of work, the results in 1761 were a little disappointing. One of the biggest problems was that Venus has an atmosphere, which refracted sunlight, making it very tricky to determine exactly when a transit began or ended. One had to time the first moment of ingress, then the first moment light could be seen between the rear edge of Venus and the outer edge of the Sun a few minutes later; then the reverse sequence as the planet approached the other edge of the Sun and slid off the disk six hours later. Venus's atmosphere led to confusing phenomena such as the black drop effect, and to variations in the timing by ten seconds or more, sometimes much more, from observer to observer. As a result, the scatter of calculated values for the parallax ranged from 8.28 to 10.6 arc seconds. That led to a distance range of 77 to 99 million miles. Not very accurate.

1761 had been a practice run, many decided. They would do better in 1769. They did, with three times as many observers in about twice as many places. Although the weather was cloudier than it had been eight years before, larger numbers of better observations were performed. The "best value" as judged by the most competent astronomers was 8.78 arc seconds, which compares well with the value we accept today of 8.794. That, and a less accurate value for Earth's size, led to a distance about 1% too long, a tremendous achievement for the time.

The cosecant of 8.78 arc seconds is 23492.6; multiplying by the radius of Earth (3,960 miles) we get just over 93 million; the average distance to the Sun that we accept these days is 92.96 million miles. The distance calculated in 1769 was actually 93.73 million, based on a slightly larger value for the Earth's radius. So the angular measurement of the Solar parallax was actually in error by only 0.15%.

By 1772, most of the scientists had returned home, the results had been published, and life was settling back to normal. But a seed had been planted. Ms Wulf traces modern "big science" such as the Large Hadron Collider and the great observatories, both on Earth and in orbit, to this first global collaboration between scientists from a number of countries. One could say, though nations may war, among scientists peace prevails, as it must for civilization to continue.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Convergent thinking monogram

kw: places

Many years ago I created a few logos for various purposes. One was an interlaced L and V, to be used as a monogram. Imagine my surprise when I happened to visit Lee Vining, California on my way to Tioga Pass (the back way to Yosemite) – there on the hillside above the town was an LV monogram in just the same configuration!

That was some years back. I looked the place up in Google Earth and found the monogram is still there. It gives me a bit of extra fondness for Lee Vining, and for the unknown person who had an idea similar to mine, though I never found out if they "got there" first.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A preeminent teacher of teachers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, missionaries, biographies

How much can we do for our Savior?
  How much for our dear fellow man?
The way to do more than we're able
Is Jesus within to enable;
  Thus we can do more than we can.

This lovely hymn by Albert B. Simpson expresses an amazing fact. With God's help, we can surpass the limits we place upon ourselves, and do "more than we can". I wonder if it is possible to do more than what Dr. Glenn W. Geelhoed has done in more than forty years of medical missions. One thing he knew he could not do, he could not condense tens of thousands of pages of his notes and diaries into a compact book without taking a huge amount of time away from his passion, which is serving "any patients, anywhere, as long as they are unable to pay." So he got a co-author.

Dr. Geelhoed and Patricia Edmonds are co-authors of Gifts From the Poor: What the World's Patients Taught One Doctor About Healing. It is a good collaboration. I read through the book almost as rapidly as I do a good novel, but learned much more than I could from any novel.

In contrast to many medical missionaries who focus their efforts on a single country, or region, or place—often living there for years or decades—, Dr. G, as he is often called, goes everywhere that few others go: South Sudan, central Congo, Ecuador, remote provinces in the Philippines, or the Himalayas, for example. He doesn't go alone. He takes along other physicians, medical students, and people who might like to be medical students…and warns one and all that they will be expected to live among the people they serve, not in a fancy compound with running water and reliable electricity. Those who will assist in (or learn) surgery are advised to bring a battery powered headlamp. When you are halfway through a hernia repair and the lights go out, you can't stop and wait for them to go back on.

For a man who has single-handedly accomplished more than the average large clinic, we might presume he has the right to a certain feeling of pride or self-worth. While he does have a stubborn streak (part of his professional equipment, in my estimation!), his singular characteristic is humility. Thus the title of the book. From his patients he has learned more than he could ever teach: thriving amidst deprivation, strength through suffering, communication where there is no shared language, and a multitude of clever ways around the barriers we usually permit to thwart us.

Whenever he arrives in a place, his entourage quickly multiplies. Around the bed or table or operating platform, to those he has brought along will be added a few local people who are learning how to carry on when he has gone. He disdains the notion of dropping from the sky, performing opaque miracles, and vanishing without a trace. The world's "bottom billion" have seen too much of that already. He prefers to leave behind a cadre of folks who know how to suture a wound, perform a lumbar puncture (if anesthetics are available), fix a hernia or goiter, and deliver a baby by C-section; people who know not just that this or that antibiotic may help, but why, and how much to use; doctors (if possible) or trained helpers who can continue to improve the lives of their fellows.

This he does with the 30-40% of his time that is spent "on the road". What of the rest? He is on faculty at George Washington University, a position not without responsibilities. He lectures, both at GWU and increasingly elsewhere. He stays in shape (he has run marathons on all seven continents, Antarctica included). He hunts, though usually "on location" to help feed the people. Much time is spent planning and arranging the next trip (or the next three or four). And he does devote time to family.

Nobody is good at everything. As it turned out, "family man" was pretty low on his list of skills. His marriage failed when his two sons were young, and he raised one while having only limited access to the other. Now that they are grown (and in their 40s) he is closer to them both, and to his grandchildren. But at age seventy he has yet to slow down, though running a marathon takes an hour or two longer than it used to. What he is best at is teaching. Not just teaching skills, but teaching attitudes, and above all, teaching teaching. This Bible reference ought to be in the book, because it describes him exactly:
The things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. –2 Timothy 2:2, ASV
Except, he teaches both men and women. He practices transformative teaching. You must get out of your comfort zone to learn. He'll get people so far out of their comfort zone they learn as they learn how to learn even faster and better!

He has received a number of awards, and he is rightly proud of them, but he is proudest of the people he has met around the world, particularly among those "bottom billion", who have given him the gifts from the poor, the gift of receiving and trusting him before they knew he could be trusted; the gift of hospitality in their poverty; the gift of remembering well what they were shown; and most of all the gift of loving and smiling in spite of their deprivation and loss.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Food fads: true, false and two kinds of maybe

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nutrition

Finally, a genuinely useful book about nutrition, with a kind of "Mythbusters" approach to the subject: Coffee is Good for You: From Vitamin C and Organic Foods to Low-Carb and Detox Diets, the Truth About Diet and Nutrition Claims by Robert J. Davis, PhD. Dr. Davis is well equipped to tackle nutrition beliefs, as a science journalist and author of The Healthy Skeptic. By the way, coffee is good for you, in moderation, of course.

The book has 65 small chapters of a few pages each, in 10 sections. At the head of each we find a title, and a little icon displays where the title belief fits on the Truth Scale: Yes, No, Half True or Inconclusive. In an introductory section he explains several levels of supporting evidence, with the blinded clinical trial being the "gold standard", with the caveat that one must determine who paid for the clinical trial. "Studies" that embody a conflict of interest have no more weight than raw anecdotes, and perhaps less. He is careful to explain the level of support that exists for each of the 65 items.

The one I found most surprising was "Milk is Necessary for Strong Bones", with the icon "No" attached. As I read, I understood. Outside the Euro-American West, more than 2/3 of people over the age of five cannot drink milk. Lactose intolerance is the normal condition of juvenile and adult humans. I knew this, and I have a Japanese wife, one of about 30% of those Asians who can drink milk, and she does, daily. But my in-laws had never drunk milk since they were weaned. It is not the Japanese habit. What was their source of calcium and Vitamin D? Calcium came from tofu and frequent fish meals, where they usually eat the bones (Japanese eat smaller fish than Americans usually do). Vitamin D came from sun exposure. Sunscreen is practically unknown in Japan, at least prior to 2000 or so. They walked almost everywhere, so they got plenty of sunlight. Even in their mid-80s, they had strong bones. Other cultures outside the West have a variety of sources of Ca and D. And those "studies" that support milk drinking, such as the "Got Milk" ads? All funded by the dairy industry.

A number of the beliefs that got a "Yes" were really more in a "Yes, but" category. For example, Vitamin C really can affect how frequently you get a cold and how long it lasts. The catch is, too much C will loosen your stools (not always a bad thing) or cause indigestion (uncomfortable but seldom a danger). And it takes "too much" to reduce the number of colds you catch; also, the shortening is by a day at most. Not worth it for most of us.

Probably the most controversial area, whichever side you might be on, is diets, either for better health or for weight loss. The Mediterranean Diet gets a definite "Good for you", but detoxifying diets get a resounding "No." In fact, they usually do more harm than good. The irony is, the Med Diet should really be called "The Diet of Mediterranean Residents Fifty Years Ago." Most southern Europeans now eat a more American diet, and are experiencing increased obesity, diabetes type 2, and heart disease.

Probably the best advice about keeping yourself healthy and trim is something I heard last night from Chris on ABC's Extreme Makeover, Weight Loss Edition: Vary your workouts, because once your body is used to your current workout, the workout gets less effective; and something I was told by a friend who is a personal trainer: No diet plan works twice, because your body learns to cope with it and defeats you if you try it again. So the best plan is no plan, except the "table push" exercise, which is to take a small serving and to push yourself away from the table before you finish it. Period.

The funniest item is about the Caveman Diet. The author puts it in the Half True category, but warns that nobody really knows what our distant ancestors ate (He doesn't go on to say, the best evidence we have is from the "last meal" found in Ötzi the Ice Man's stomach, several dozen kinds of plant foods and just a little meat). He also recounts a cartoon from the New Yorker in which one cave man tells another, "Our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty."

This is a useful book to keep as a reference, particularly to re-check in coming years as medicine and nutritional science march on. It is also a good read, to read right through, and take note of the particular food habits that might help you improve your own well being.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Declared dead, or made dead?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, organ transplants, ethics

There were 28,114 organ transplant operations in the US in 2010. In that year, the gross income of the "organ transplant industry" was about $20 billion. That is more than $700,000 per transplant. In 2011, 6,669 people died who were waiting for a transplant. Had organs been available for every one of them, it would have generated an additional $4.7 billion in revenue. When that kind of change is on the line, many people's ethical compass can become quite skewed. For a bit more detail, see note 29 on page 328 of The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers—How Medicine is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death by Dick Teresi.

This book is a splash of fresh-off-the-glacier ice water in the face of anyone considering being an organ donor. Did you ever watch the 1978 movie Coma, or read the book (1973)? At the time, it was fiction. Very little of it is fiction any more. Only one of the book's premises is still not fulfilled: there is no widespread practice of over-anesthetizing people into a coma to make their bodies available for "harvest". Note that I wrote "widespread"; there have been a few such cases, but they went nearly unreported. There is increasing sentiment among transplant proponents to make this also come true!

Actually, anesthesiologists are a major group that works for more restraint in organ harvesting practices. Author Teresi interviewed a number of them who told of being ordered not to apply anesthetic to "brain dead" patients, even though they were showing signs of agony as they were dissected and their organs removed. It is widely thought by transplant doctors that anesthetic will damage the organs in some way, making them less likely to "take" in their new hosts. This has not been shown to be true, but evidence is very scanty, precisely because so few transplant harvesting dissections have been done with anesthesia!

The book is very thorough, and thoroughly researched. It took over a decade. On a subject of this importance, you don't want to hurry. The author is reporting the facts as they have been presented to him. He is not anti-transplant, but some doctors evidently think he is. He has garnered rather furious reactions from a few. He has been accused of homicide by proxy, for any people he might discourage from being an organ donor. And it is a fact that when someone who could donate dies without having any organs "used", three or four people will probably die as a result. But they will die anyway, just perhaps a little later.

The opening section of the book covers this matter at length. The death rate hasn't changed in thousands of years: one per person. Medicine has two parts. One is improving wellness so that the years you have are better years. The other is attempts to delay death. A life "saved" is actually a death postponed. Death-postponing medicine is a Tetris game. You might zap block after block for a long time, but sooner or later one is going to make it to the bottom row, and "Bing!", the game is over.

A friend of mine had a kidney transplant about ten years ago. He was told that a kidney lasts ten to twenty years, but sooner or later the anti-rejection drugs can't keep up with the immune system and the kidney is rejected and dies. Then it is back on dialysis while awaiting another kidney that "matches". Actually, modern drugs can make just about any organ "match". You just go to the back of the line and wait until your name comes to the top. It takes 7-10 years, unless you are somebody important enough to get preferred treatment, but that's beyond our scope here.

Do you know what "brain dead" means? If you do, please let everybody know, because you are the only one! The laws that (very badly) regulate a doctor who will declare someone dead have been changed again and again, primarily to make it easier and quicker to change the legal status of a person from "living" to "dead" and get the body into the hands of the transplant team. The situation is so confusing that the studies which have been done to determine whether guidelines are being properly followed have found that the "compliance rate" is only 35%. Nearly two-thirds of death declarations are made prematurely or on the basis of insufficient testing. At one point the author wrote, "Whether you are judged to be living or dead depends on which doctor gets to you first." (p 45) He goes on, "I had hoped to write about the science of death determination. But the denial of death affects scientists, too…" There is no science of death determination!

The author relates visiting his father, who was in the ICU. He had a brief conversation with him. His father asked a question and responded clearly to the answer. A young doctor came in, interrupted, and took the author into the hall, to tell him not to be fooled by random noises, "Your father is in a coma and will not recover." As he stood, aghast, an older doctor came over and told him that is how young neurologists are trained. Guess which doctor I would have immediately ordered barred from further contact with the patient? The author doesn't say what he did about it.

The first big change came in 1968, when thirteen Harvard men gathered behind closed doors and hashed out a definition of "brain death" that has since superseded the old definition of death as "heart stopped, can't reliably restart it". Be it known that simpler (easier to apply) definitions have been implemented since then, step by step. Nowadays, the doctors want the heart to be in good working order, and they want it to keep the organs in good, transplantable condition. So when a patient has sufficient brain injury that they are unresponsive to the four or five typical tests (such as squirting ice water on your eardrum; if you have any awareness at all, you'll jerk and shout), your death is "pronounced" and the transplant team is notified. If the heart is having difficulty breathing, machinery is used to keep it going. Usually within minutes, unless your family very, very strenuously intervenes, your "operation" begins.

Do you think determining brain death ought to require some kind of objective test, such as monitoring blood flow to the cortex, or using an EEG? So does almost everybody except the transplant team. Where some wise person has forced an EEG to be used, about ten percent of the time the brain was active. There was just some problem with the brain stem. Past experience has shown that such persons can gradually recover, at least to some extent, and usually don't wish to die just yet.

Then there are NDEs, near-death experiences. There are thousands of such cases. In some, there was no EEG for many minutes, but after recovery the patient reported seeing or hearing things that happened during the "flat line" time. They were "brain dead", but clearly it was not a permanent condition, and they were somehow aware in spite of being legally dead. There are mysteries here that the doctors are very far from plumbing.

Laws are still being changed. In Washington, D.C. and a few other places, a declaration of "terminally ill" is enough to get you at least partially dissected, before your family is notified. And, more and more ICU's are effectively becoming places where early attempts at restoration are followed by "warehousing" until death can be pronounced. Frequently, most medical treatment is withheld at this stage, to quote: "In 1988, 51% of ICU patients died because medical treatment was withheld. By 1993, that number had shot up to 90%." (p242) If you take more than four or five days to recover in the ICU, you, too, could be the target of this kind of medical murder. Sure, some folks get "terminal enough" that it makes sense to pull the plug, but the difference between 51% and 90%, in just five years, is mostly related to a increasing pressure to find transplant donors.

A few bad apples spoil things for everyone. It seems the transplant industry has succeeded in attracting more than its share of bad apples. Doctors have angrily told the author that people are going to die because of his book. People may tell me the same thing over this review. I look at it this way, why should I support continued bad behavior? Put your house in order, and I'll support you. I am philosophically in favor of organ donation, but the current medical climate has turned the philosophy on its ear.

My driver's license indicates that I am a donor; I don't recall whether I actually said Yes or No or if I was even asked. I think the same applies to many of you. When you are getting a driver's license, if they ask about organ donation at all, it is done quickly, usually when you are distracted signing your name or filling in a form. Do you remember giving consent? Neither does my wife. She and I will probably get new licenses that say "No", very soon. Changes must be made in the organ transplant system before I will agree to be involved in any way.

Do you know which doctors get the highest pay? Transplant surgeons. $400,000 per year or more (that is their net, after they have paid their staff and so forth). Nurses, hospitals, and a host of others are paid large amounts for their participation. But it is illegal for the organ donor or the heirs to receive any money. They usually get stuck with large hospital bills for any unsuccessful attempts that were made to save the person's life! A week in the ICU can cost $100,000. I suggest the following:
  • Mandate the use of both EEG and blood flow monitors to determine if the cortex is living or dead. Current tests only check certain brain stem functions, and poorly at that.
  • Do not allow any member of the transplant team access to the patient until after the attending physician has pronounced death. That includes a "transplant team friendly" nurse, a frequent occurrence that ought to stop.
  • Reduce the amount paid for transplant surgery to about 25% of current amounts.
  • Require the donor's estate to be paid the same amount as the transplant surgeon(s), for the total of all operations involving this person's organs.
  • Wipe off the books all medical costs accrued by the patient. Charge them to someone else if you must.
The monetary provisions above are controversial. While they may lead to conflict of interest within your family, they will greatly reduce conflict of interest among the doctors and hospitals. Who do you trust more, your kids or your doctor? If you don't trust your kids, you need help beyond the scope of this essay.

Meantime, what can we do?
  • Make a living will, or advance directive, or whatever it is called where you live. Carefully think through every provision. This is not a one-hour job! Make sure all your relatives have a copy (even the faraway ones; you may get sick on a visit), and, of course, every doctor you are employing. Carry a copy when you travel.
  • If you wish to be a donor, you would do well to get politically involved and work towards getting the five provisions above enacted into law. You don't want to be the one who isn't quite as dead as they thought you were, when the knife goes in. More importantly, get your spouse, parents, children and other relatives on the same page with you, so they will defend you adequately if needed, to prevent premature harvest.
  • If you prefer not to donate, make sure there is no "red heart" or other indication on your driver's license that you are a donor. Have you ever looked? If it is there, get a new license, and state specifically that you DO NOT want to be a donor. It also might be a good idea to get a tattoo, preferably in the middle of the chest, in inch-high red letters, "NOT an Organ Donor!!". Show it to your relatives. Show it to your doctors. Make sure they all understand that your relatives will sue the butt off anyone who dissects you anyway.
I sure wish life were simpler.