Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Where hydrogen is consumed

kw: observations, solar physics

Immediately after reviewing the prior book this morning, I began reading 2132 by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is big, more than 560 pages, so it will take a while, even at my normal breakneck reading pace. Right on page three, I saw this lovely bit of prose, describing the view from Mercury:
"[…look] at the sun's photosphere, and even magnify your view of it, until the burning tops of the convection cells are revealed in their squiggling thousands, each a thunderhead of fire burning furiously, all together torching five million tons of hydrogen a second—at which rate the star will burn another four billion years."
I really like Robinson's writing, and this is a nice image, but not entirely correct. The solar spicules do look like flames, but the "torching" is going on almost 700,000 km deeper, where the temperature is some 15 million K and the pressure is unimaginable. The convection cells simply bring the heat up from below to a level from which it can radiate into space.

Mercury intercepts about 440 trillionths of this energy on average, and at perihelion its subsolar point can reach 700 K (about 430°C or 800°F). Earth actually intercepts slightly more solar energy, on average, but spreads it out over a body having nearly 7 times the surface area. If Earth were airless like the moon, its subsolar point would reach 390 K (about 115°C or 240°F).

To some, it is just a million-dollar bill

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, art, crime, organized crime

There is an awful lot of art out there. Some we handle frequently: stamps and coins and currency. In the developed world at least, stamp and coin collecting are the two top hobbies. The things we are more likely to call "art"—paintings, sculptures, various tchotchkes, and better grades of furniture or clocks—are nearly universal. Every home I have been in has at least a picture or two on the wall that are something besides family photos, or maybe a small sculpture. Families have "grandpa's dining set" or "great-grandma's quilt". And it is fascinating to watch NPR's Antiques Roadshow, to see what people have inherited, or bought at a garage sale, or picked up on a trip abroad "because it was pretty", that is found to have collectible value.

On Antiques Roadshow, I have noticed that at least half the time the owner of a valuable piece is told its "insurance value". This is a hint: Now that it is known you have something worth $10,000 or $40,000, you'd better have it insured, because you are now a target for thieves. A note to any thieves who might think they know who I am: The only piece in my house worth more than a few bucks is a 100-year-old piano. It might be worth $2,000 because it is a major brand that holds up well (most pianos are no good after 50 years). But be cautious, it weighs twice as much as the usual parlor piano. That is why it still holds its tuning. For $2,000, you can fence a stolen Thomas Kincaid landscape that weighs only a pound or so, even less if removed from its frame.

We have seven levels of currency, $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. In the art world, the Kincaid is a $2 bill. It isn't on the lowest rung, and its popularity is in a similar mental space to a $2 bill, a quirky taste. The $1 bills in art are seen on the walls of small galleries, local artists hoping to make a buck here or there, with their paintings priced in the $200 range, or their ceramics priced less than $100. Local art fairs are composed of booths that are full of this kind of art. And much of it is surprisingly good.

But a few contemporary artists "make it". I live in Wyeth country. Paintings by any of the three living Wyeths command prices in the $10,000-plus range (sometimes, a lot plus!). These are the $10 and $20 bills of the art world. And just like the real $20 that is the most frequently counterfeited, artworks in this price range are a popular currency of crime worldwide. And the hugely-priced "old Masters" and other works, with inflated "values" equal to the GDP of Mali? These $100 bills are called, by the real pros of art theft, "Headache Art". They get national or international attention if they are stolen, and then where can you sell them?

This concept of art as currency is the core around which Joshua Knelman built his book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art. He didn't start out with this concept. He almost stumbled on his subject, being asked to report on an art theft in Toronto for a local news outlet. If I count right, there are no more than twenty people employed most- or full-time investigating art theft for the FBI, Interpol, and a very few national or city police departments. That is good news for thieves. Another thing thieves like is the handshake-trust nature or art transactions. Who would buy a $5 million Lear Jet without paperwork?

I don't have a count for the number of artworks out there, of course, or even for those whose whereabouts are unknown to their original owners, one database lists more than 200,000. Just in the Headache Art category, there are hundreds of missing Picassos, Van Goghs, Monets and Rembrandts. The bulk of the listings are the "small bills", and it may be that most of these are used as vehicles to launder money from other black market operations such as drugs or prostitution or illegal gambling. That makes art theft and "re-marketing" the fourth largest black market on the planet.

The book skips around, just as its author did, gathering a list of people he could interview and learn from. One key resource was Bonnie Czegledi, now with Interpol, but at the time an investigator whose phone list cracked open the field of art theft investigation, and helped him achieve access few have been granted. Another was the mysterious "Turbo Paul", a former middleman, one who commissioned thefts to order and passed them along into the gray margin of small "don't ask don't tell" galleries and auction houses.

My advice to someone who likes to own art. Buy from the artist. If you want older art, and you have to go to an auction or gallery, it is strictly buyer beware. You'd better know how to authenticate the piece, because oftentimes the gallery owner or auctioneer won't know for sure...and all too frequently, won't care. It's all about the money. The insane inflation in art prices has been good for everyone except the collector.

A second piece of advice is, if someone comes to your door asking to buy your "old junk", don't let the person in. They just want to case the place while paying half what the family silver is worth. The visit will almost certainly be followed up by a break-in. It is the way Turbo Paul started in the business, and it is still going on, in neighborhoods just enough upscale that $5,000 pieces are to be found, but don't think suburbia is exempt.

With very rare exceptions, the police are not on your side if your artworks are burgled. They don't care, even though in Los Angeles, from 1993 to 2008, two art theft detectives recovered $77 million in stolen art, while the rest of the force of 90 detectives recovered $64 million of other kinds of stolen property. It takes a certain kind of detective to work the art field, and they are so rare you can count them all if you take off your shoes.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Unable to let go

kw: sociology, hoarding

Social awareness of hoarding comes and goes. I noticed a few recent magazine articles and newspaper articles about hoarding and in particular, how to tell if your child might become a hoarder. The key clue is this: a hoarder will report that losing a possession causes physical pain. They say things like, "I felt like I lost my arm," or, "It hits me in the gut."

I have a family member who is a hoarder. Contrary to the usual image of a "cat lady" or someone with a house piled with old food wrappers, this one hoards valuable books and antiques. Unable to fit everything in the condo any more, "Lin" has at least three rental units piled to the ceiling with boxes of primarily books and similar paper goods, though one also has furniture, clocks, and sundry antiquities. Several years of therapy are beginning to make a dent.

The collecting/hoarding instinct is apparently a spectrum. The guys who run "Got Junk" services seem to have not a sentimental bone in their bodies. They seem not to care whether the truck is filled with "classical hoarder junk", the contents of file cabinets, a formerly treasured collection of stuffed animals, or antique furniture (though they might hint that you could sell some of the stuff). They haul it to the dump all the same.

At the more acquisitive end of the spectrum, the ones that bother me are those who collect living persons. The film The Collector comes to mind, but the much more usual case is a man or woman who cannot bear separation from a "significant other", and will threaten either suicide or murder if the other wishes to break off the relationship. Such people show the symptoms of pain, even agony, seen in a cat hoarder forced to watch as the SPCA or the police cart off the animals. It is tragic to see similar symptoms when a "junk" hoarder is forced to part with a candy wrapper, but it is chilling to see it in a "person hoarder." The most dangerous of such people are those with a multi-person "collection". Having alternatives to fall back upon, they feel little compunction about killing one who gets too independent. One thing they cannot stand is the thought that anyone else might one day "possess" a member of their "collection".

Others seem to collect offspring, such as the former husband of a friend who now lives in another country; he uses a traveling salesman lifestyle to cover a serious level of polygamy, having no more than one child by any of his wives. Once the expenses of caring for a child grew too much, he just got a divorce; there were a few other wives to take care of anyway.

I don't mind people who clutter their lives until they ruin their health. It is a kind of self-selecting Darwinism. I do mind, very much, those who cling too powerfully to a relationship and cannot allow another person to stray from the role they have imagined for them. I know that when a married couple divorces, it is very painful, but for someone who is "overly attached", the pain of separation is somehow enhanced and they feel the need to "do something about it." Too many of them become murderers of those they claim to love. That is a kind of "hoarding" we need to eliminate from the human genome.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The howl of the true believer

kw: tv shows, cryptozoology

Last evening, once we got tired of all the Weather Channel stuff, we watched an episode of Finding Bigfoot on the Discovery Channel. We've watched a few of these, curious to see if there is any scientific content. I suppose there is a little. At least, one of the four on the team is an actual biologist (Ranae).

The three men, Bobo, Cliff and Matt, are clearly true believers in the Sasquatch, or "Squatch", or Bigfoot, so-named for its large footprints. As an episode goes along, they pass along a large fund of lore about Bigfoot behavior, particularly the sounds they are supposed to make. They hoot or howl, they knock on trees with sticks, and throw stones, so it is said. The truest of the true is Bobo, who seems to end every episode by declaring whatever piece of forest they have visited, "Squatchy as hell."

A crucial bit of footage ran in this most recent episode. Cliff was spending the night trying to get some kind of response from the local Sasquatches in western Rhode Island, when there arose a sporadic series of hoots, howls and screams. He took the chance to inform us that these sounds were made by the Saw-Whet Owl, which is the most vocally versatile owl. This owl's repertory clearly includes every sound supposedly made by a Bigfoot. How did Cliff know the difference? I suppose it was because the owl made a few calls that are not considered Bigfoot noises.

I looked up a map of the distribution of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Guess what? It coincides almost exactly with the distribution of "sound" encounters with Bigfoot. The burden of proof is on the team to determine which encounter is not of someone hearing an owl.

By the bye, we live between Philadelphia and Wilmington, closer to Wilmington. The eye of hurricane Sandy passed just to the south of Wilmington about an hour ago. It is big enough that we are included, and have had an hour or so of calm, which is just now coming to an end as rain and wind are getting going again (Mark: 10:30 PM EDT). I am very relieved and thankful that we still have power and none of our trees fell. It isn't over yet, but I think the worst is over, in this area at least.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Will India pull ahead?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nations, India, modernization

After reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and 1491 by Charles Mann (reviewed here in 2007 and here in 2006, respectively), I started to wonder what North America would be like if the successive epidemics that resulted from European "discovery" had not happened. Could the waves of immigration that started in 1607 have happened if the "indigenous population" numbered not a few millions but perhaps 150 million? Would there be a United States of America today? If there were a united nation on this continent, it is quite unlikely that the grab-bag ethnicity "white" would constitute more than 70% of the population, as is now the case.

Looking around at my workplace recently, and recalling conversations with my colleagues, I realized that North America might look a lot more like India, with its 20+ cultures and hundreds of languages. In a rather small work group, I have four colleagues from different parts of India, who speak four different "home" languages, plus Hindi and English. They converse in English, which they claim to speak better than Hindi, but of course I sometimes hear their home languages when they speak on the telephone. Just at such a fortuitous time I came across India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India by Akash Kapur.

The author is a man of two countries, and of mixed parentage. He was raised in his father's region, in Tamil Nadu State near Pondicherry (AKA Puducherry to be more faithful to its Tamil name). At age sixteen he moved to the United States, his mother's country, where he expected to get a better education. In 2003, after about ten years in the U.S., he returned to Pondicherry, to the intentional community of Auroville, in which he grew up. As he built a new life there, married and began raising children, he began to study the changes taking place around him.

India in 2003 was already much different from the place he had left. A whole generation had arisen who were ambitious, technologically adept, and contemptuous of tradition. Most of the people he visited with, many of them repeatedly, were along the Chennai-Bangalore axis (Chennai is northeast of Pondicherry, and Bangalore is further west, just outside Tamil Nadu on its north side). He also spent some time in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) far up India's west coast, and a bit of time in a few other places. Thus his geographical focus is rather narrow, but his cultural conclusions do represent changes happening throughout the nation.

The stories of two men illustrate the tension of a changing India. Sathy, a farmer and the scion of powerful feudal lords, sees not just his aristocratic way of life collapsing, but agriculture with it. Though more than 70% of Indians are rural, as opposed to 2% in America, for example, this is changing fast. Hari, a young tech worker, is struggling rather unsuccessfully with the strains and temptations of sudden prosperity, and with his own desire to come out as gay to his family. On every side, tradition and galloping prosperity collide. Beginning in 2009, both men, and many others Kapur interviewed, began to suffer further shocks as India was drawn into the global recession triggered by the American crises in subprime lending and banking fraud. By the way, American status worldwide has fallen to a level similar to that of Nigeria, because of the simple fact that so few bankers (count 'em on one hand) and congressmen (zero, last I checked) were jailed.

The fate of the land itself is equally poignant. Who speaks for the dirt? If I were king, it would be a capital offense to "develop" land on which crops can be grown. The spread of "development" throughout rural India (and China for that matter) is an ecological offense of the highest order. In America it is lesser only because there are so many fewer of us.

Unless I missed something major, India is blessed with a larger proportion agricultural land, and a larger absolute amount, than any other nation. More than half of India's land area is arable, or is growing permanent crops such as orchards. That amounts to nearly 1.8 million square kilometers, 5% more than the U.S., which has three times the total land area, and 15% more than China, which has 11% more people and is just slightly smaller than the U.S. My authority for these figures is the CIA World Factbook. Now, if we say that America and India have a similar amount of land for farming, but India has four times the population, we can see that India is much closer to agricultural saturation. She cannot afford to lose farm land. But I am not king, and there seems to be no sentiment in New Delhi to retain agriculture. Maybe they think they will buy food from the West, with no limit.

Change is always bittersweet. It is more so, when someone like Mr. Kapur grows to understand both sides of the equation, the losses equally with the gains. In the end, he is optimistic for the future of India. At the moment, India is lagging behind China, but this may not last. Indians have the advantage of speaking English, and there is a thriving industry in "accent reduction", so those help center calls you make will be with someone you can understand. I speak on the phone with them from time to time, and the experience continues to improve. It is equally bittersweet for me to realize that these two mega-nations are likely to divide up the technosphere, and thus both could economically pass up American, possibly in my lifetime.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Not just where the bodies are buried but how they got there

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, conspiracies, murders

I grew up during the Eisenhower years, and my parents were very much fans of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. During the 1960 campaign, they grew increasingly worried as John Kennedy's popularity grew, and of course I was carried along by their emotions. So much so, that when the election results were announced, I said about Kennedy, "I hope someone shoots him." The look on both my parents' faces was pure horror. My mother found her voice and said, "Oh, no, that would be much worse. Then Johnson would be President!" It was only much later that I found out what a twelve-year old could not be told in 1960, that LBJ was possibly the most vicious and corrupt politician in America at the time. However, I have never been one to delve into such things.

It comes as no surprise to me to read the accusations against LBJ in particular, found in Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country's Most Controversial Cover-Ups by Richard Belzer and David Wayne. These authors implicate him as the one who ordered the "hit" on both JFK and his brother Bobby, and they list seven murders (including JFK's) that Billy Sol Estes claimed he could pin on LBJ's hired gun Mac Wallace, in a statement through his lawyer in 1984.

The killings of the Kennedy brothers are but two of ten murders investigated in the book. Two others are high profile and very well known: those of Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King. The authors implicate the mafia in Marilyn Monroe's death, and don't quite go so far as to implicate LBJ in King's death, but lean heavily on the fact that King was harassed by the FBI from December, 1963 (right after LBJ was sworn in) until his assassination in 1968.

The four cases mentioned above constitute over 60% of the content of the book. Of the other six, the only one I had heard of was the supposed suicide of Vince Foster. It came out at the time of Foster's death that the bullet that killed him did not come from the gun found with him, so I think most of America rightly concluded he was murdered. Yet the official story remains that Foster killed himself with the gun found at the scene. In his case, as in all ten, the authors' focus is on two things: establishing that the official story is impossible, and uncovering as much as possible about the cover-up that followed. In every case, the "officials" behind the "official story" must have been involved, if not in the actual murder, then in the cover-up that ensued.

Is all of this true? Much of it is plausible, usually more plausible than the official story. In every case, I judge that the authors have made their "impossibility" case. However, contrary to Sherlock Holmes's dictum, they have not always eliminated every impossible explanation. A few of the chapters end with a series of possible ways to point the finger, and while the authors have a preference, the case cannot be clearly made. It is often not even clear who was behind the cover-up, let alone the murder itself.

I confess I did not read every word of the book. The proverb for public speakers is, "Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them." In a book it isn't needed; readers can go back over what they might have missed. But, no, we find things being told three, four, or five times, so I found it sufficient to read the opening few pages of a chapter, and skim the rest for unfamiliar names or locations, to find the few extra facts that might pop up. To actually read every little bit would be quite tiresome!

A little spelunking around the Internet is sufficient to reveal that all these cases (but especially the Big Four) have ardent followings, and numerous competing explanations offered by literally thousands of folks. Considering that eight of the ten cases occurred, and were officially concluded, prior to the advent of personal computers or the Internet, it is most likely that enough documentary evidence has been destroyed that the truth of every one of these cases will go to the grave locked in the brains of the few people who knew it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Piercing the (medical) gloom

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, policy

I have read at least a dozen books about the medical profession in the last several years, all warning about various risks or decrying doctors' greed or incompetence. At last, a physician has taken up the cudgels from the other side to argue that medicine in the United States is not nearly so bad as all that. The book is In Excellent Health: Setting the Record Straight on America's Health Care by Scott W. Atlas, MD.

Dr. Atlas is a member of the Hoover Institution's Working Group on Health Care Policy. He aims to overcome certain myths about the quality of medical care in America, and to propose appropriate policy, particularly with a better and less intrusive focus as compared to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), popularly known as Obamacare. (My own view: The PPACA should be called Less Patient Protection with Barely Affordable Care, and I am being generous. In contrast to most legislators, I have read major portions of it).

An opening caveat: This is a fact-filled book, meaning it is dense reading, with 44 pages of endnotes. In spite of that, I found it well worth paying attention. Of the book's seven chapters, the first six deal with six myths or misconceptions that the author wishes to correct. The seventh chapter presents his policy suggestions.

The first chapter tackles the World Health Report 2000, by WHO, that ranked nearly 200 nations' medical systems. America's showing was reported to be rather dismal. The report has been discredited time and again ever since, yet it is still treated by many as gospel truth, and is the basis for most of the arguments put forward as the "need" for passing the PPACA. Of a great many weaknesses in the WHO report, the most singular is that the yardsticks used to measure each nation's performance varied from nation to nation. In many cases, there was so little data that a particular "metric" was simply someone's estimate.

In the following five chapters, Dr. Atlas has picked apart the ways that medical metrics are determined, particularly life expectancy, infant mortality, overall quality, ease of access, and specialty care. Consider "overall quality". This is so complex, we need a way to brush aside the clutter. Just ask, when rich and powerful people leave their country to get medical care, which country are they most likely to go to? It's funny, I have never heard of foreign officials traveling to Canada or Norway for a heart transplant or cancer treatment.

In certain ways, America is different from other countries, in ways that underlie the seemingly poor statistics gathered for the WHO report. First and foremost, this country has unequaled diversity. Look beyond the WASP image; The U.S. has large contingents of African Americans and Latinos, of all kinds of Asians (where I work I am outnumbered by Chinese and Indians), and of Native Americans. Secondly, as a very prosperous nation, in spite of a temporarily faltering economy, there are lifestyle issues here that play a great role in our overall health. Just as being too poor can take years off your life, so can being too rich. Although the rich can afford the best of the best medical care, too many are like Diamond Jim Brady, who ate himself to death at the age of 61. What other country needs a TV show like Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition?

Our very prosperity has thus pushed us "over the top" of the health curve as measured from both ends of life. So-called Life Expectancy is impacted by more than just the quality of medical care. It strongly depends on overweight or obesity, on diabetes, and on other risky behavior such as the use of recreational drugs. And the attitude of doing something just because we can has led to American doctors turning millions of miscarriages into "live births", of infants that weigh a pound or less (.45 kilo), even though 70% or more die within a few days. In most nations, they don't even try to "save" infants under two kilos (4.4 lbs). So if you measure infant mortality for each cohort by weight, the American rate of infant death is better than everybody else's for each weight class, and in the lower weights, so few even try that it is little use making the comparison. Then as to life expectancy, if the ranking is done, not starting on day one (even for a 9-oz, or .34 kilo, baby), but from age one month, the U.S. is nearly at the top. A very few nations, such as Japan, would still rank higher, because Japan is so homogeneous; they don't have any enthnicities that tend to have shorter lives, but we have plenty. And on the matter of "access"? Whatever you need, you can get quicker here, hands down, compared to every country with a "centralized" system.

Dr. Atlas contends that the PPACA is misdirected, and in its place, has three recommendations: new tax policies that are really helpful where they are needed most (the opposite is now true); keeping the government out of the health insurance business (in contrast to PPACA which will gradually make the government the only game in town); and something similar to the labeling requirements for food, forcing transparency of price and quality.

I will close by summarizing the book's 5-point critique of the PPACA:
  • It imposes centralized controls that resemble those in nations that are, even now, trying to privatize controls so as to increase competition, shorten access times, and reduce costs;
  • It would increase the number on Medicaid by about 25%, breaking the back of a system that is already failing;
  • It sets up "exchanges" that restrict plans and require coverages that most don't need, adding unneeded expense;
  • It increases taxes on technological innovation, just as we are on the verge of breakthroughs in molecular biology converging with medicine;
  • It greatly reduces funding for specialist care, expecting your family doctor to be your cardiologist, urologist, etc., unless you want to wait months or years to see the specialist.
I would add, it makes the IRS the collector of insurance premiums; how crazy is that? We can do better. Will we?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Just running on a couple cylinders

kw: illness

To avoid TMI, I'll keep this short. I finished a book, and would ordinarily review it, but I noticed in doing the daily puzzles that I blew the Sudoku and took twice as long as usual on the cryptogram and the crossword. So I'll defer until I feel better, and the old thinkerator is working better.

It seems to be food poisoning, probably with Salmonella. I am all emptied out, and my fever is still 99.8 F. It began about 20 hours ago, and I am about to return to bed and hope the fever breaks by morning. This isn't flu, which is respiratory, not abdominal. Not that I ever get a flu shot anyway. G'night.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Each candidate got what he wanted - mostly

kw: politics, debates

Mitt Romney knew you don't go head-to-head against a sitting President on foreign policy; Barack Obama has carried out foreign policy, and he hasn't. While he was able to claim a little territory by showing those aspects that have failed, and the President didn't have an effective counter-argument to that, the Governor simply performed verbal jiu-jitsu, over and over again, by agreeing with the policy where it has been correct (in his view). Then he steered the discussion to the weakness which has been pointed out by Iran's President Ahmadinejad, that the U.S. national debt would cripple us to the point we could be safely defied. I think it is getting pretty obvious to the American public that we need more tax revenues, and the best way to raise them is to raise the national private-sector payroll. Romney is by far more likely to be able to do that.

The President was on the attack, to the point of rudeness at times. He had to be. He also had to present himself as a successful "leader of the free world". That's what he set out to do, and for the most part, he was able to do it.

The Governor had a dual strategy, to fend off the attacks while making a few of his own, primarily on the economy, and to avoid any gaffe that would slow the momentum he attained in the first two debates. He was able to do that. He wisely avoided another set-to over Libya, knowing that we all know the President lied in the prior debate.

My wife and I listened to the first 20 minutes or so of the ABC commentary. I don't recall who said it, but I agree with the statement I heard that this will be a very close race, and is by no means decided yet. None of the commentators last night mentioned it (strangely), but some of the callers to the morning talk show on WPHT (1210 AM) this morning said that Mr. Romney's closing statement was inspiring and uplifting, setting a tone that Mr. Obama could not match. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How super the computer?

kw: computers, supercomputers, speed records, trends

In June, the biennial "speed contest" to crown the world's fastest supercomputer gave the honors to "Sequoia", made by IBM for the U.S. Department of Energy. The benchmark? 16.32 petaflops, or over 16 quadrillion numerical calculations per second. See this article for details. I thought back over the history of supercomputers, and dug out enough data for this chart:

The first machine to be called a supercomputer, a CDC 6600 installed in 1964, had a speed of 1 megaflop (Mflop), or 1 million calculations per second.

On this logarithmic scale, it takes a moment to realize that maximum computing speed has risen meteorically. This year's benchmark is more than 16 billion times the speed of the 6600, 48 years ago. That is a doubling of speed about every 17 months, or a factor of more than 130 every ten years. At that rate, we can expect a machine to exceed 1 exaflop (1 quintillion or 1018) in less than 8.5 years.

How far can the trend go? Pretty soon it will have to depend on new materials, or perhaps on quantum computing. Silicon seems to be tapped out at 10 Mflops per core, with cycle times of 5-10 GHz and subtle interleaving schemes. These huge speeds are attained by running a million or more CPU cores in parallel. Calculations that do not parallelize wind up running in a single core, at a millionth the speed of the total array. Of course, you can run millions of such problems at one time, but you can't speed up any one of them.

Semiconductors of the III-V variety, GaAs for example, can run 1,000 times as fast as silicon, but are incredibly costly. There are only about 200 tons of gallium produced yearly, and it is getting harder to find already. We use 400,000 tons of silicon yearly of at least "solar panel" purity. A few thousand tons of that is further refined to "chip grade" for making computer chips and associated circuitry.

I am pessimistic about quantum computing. The promises made by proponents are as wild as those of the artificial intelligence crowd, who have so far been consistently wrong for sixty years.

So can we continue to make millions, or billions, or trillions of CPUs run in parallel? For perspective, Sequoia takes up 4,500 square feet and consumes 8 megawatts of electrical power, running 1.6 million CPU cores. It has roughly the computing capacity of three or four human brains, and perhaps 100 times the memory capacity. A brain runs on the caloric equivalent of 20 watts. The brain is not a quantum computer, but it is massively parallel: a neuron is roughly equivalent to the original IBM PC running at 4 MHz (but it took many cycles to make one calculation), and there are 10 billion of neurons packed into our little skulls!

My realistic expectation is that supercomputer benchmarks based on silicon technology will top out in the 1-10 exaflop range. But a lot of very bright people are trying all kinds of new materials and technologies all the time. There is a good chance of a surprise in a decade or two.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

One set of cards we are dealt

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics

I've been away for a few days, incommunicado, but I'm back, and with an immensely exciting book: DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes. I had expected a "big data" study, with huge numbers of genomic analyses. Instead I found an intimate portrait limned by just a couple dozen "chromosome paintings", upon the background of genetic characterizations of the past decade or so.

One genetic portrait of the U.S., prepared according to the "ethnicity" reported in the 2000 Census, shows the ancestry that is most common in each of the counties of the U.S. and Puerto Rico:
This will be barely readable in this presentation. Click on it to see a much larger version. I was interested to see that the county in which my father and two generations of his ancestors lived is colored light blue, for German, and indeed he is some 25% German, while the county of my mother's origin is colored pale yellow, for "American" (meaning those who didn't claim a particular ancestry, but are presumably white Euro-Americans). Actually, for both my parents, a recent survey of known immigrants in our family tree reveals a slight plurality for English ancestry, but plenty of other countries of origin are mixed in.

The book is in three sections, though the third is brief. The background section describes the developments leading up to the present ability to do complete genome sequences, the meaning of the mDNA (mitochondrial DNA from mother lines only) and the Y chromosome (from father lines only), and, more pertinent to most of us, the ability to prepare a "chromosome painting" that shows the major elements of our ancestry in significant detail. A pair of chapters explains the very different reception certain people have given to genetic searching. In particular, Native Americans are very resistant to genetic studies, for both religious reasons and because they were very early exploited genetically, and are suspicious of the motives behind any such project.

The second section chronicles the expedition of Dr. Sykes with his son and wife, as they crossed the nation twice. Both directions they traveled by train; east to west it was Sykes and his son, and west to east, his son having gone off to start university studies, Sykes traveled with his wife. Over the course of the trip they collected saliva samples (about 15 ml in size) from more than twenty people, whose chromosome paintings are presented in the book's color plates. They also collected the stories of these people, many of whom had quite detailed knowledge about their family trees. Two of these volunteers were Native Americans, and the rest were evenly divided among Euro-Americans and African-Americans.

Chromosome painting is a service offered by 23andMe. It is based on half a million genetic markers, which keeps the price quite a bit lower than a total sequence would cost. While ancestry discovery is one popular service, they also provide a long list of genetic risks to which you might be subject, such as greater or lesser tolerance for lactose, or a susceptibility to certain cancers.

A chromosome painting (called an Ancestry Painting at the web site, I found), shows the positions of genetic markers of three types: European, African, and Asian. In the US, among most who are not of recent Chinese or Indian or Japanese (etc.) origin, "Asian" usually means Native American, because of their origin in Asia more than 15,000 years ago. This last point bothers many tribes, who hold the opinion that they have always been here, and some can get rather belligerent about it.

This chromosome painting, from the 23andMe web site, shows a portrait that is probably pretty close to my own: Mostly European (dark blue), with a few percent Asian (orange, and in this case representing Native American; it would be Cherokee in my case), and a smaller percentage of African (green). That is supposing that a certain great-great grandfather is who I think he is! The gray portions of the image are sequences that, for various reasons, cannot be pinned to any origin.

If my son's DNA were painted, it would be solid orange along the upper half of each bar, representing his Japanese mother. The lower halves would resemble a random decimation from my own painting: mostly blue, with a snippet of green and orange at most.

Interestingly, the ten or so Euro-Americans that were tested for this project were divided among New Englanders and Southerners. Most of the paintings for the Northerners were boring, solid dark blue. One had a tiny snippet of Asian DNA showing, and another had a bit of African. The author, being English, also has a single bit of Asian DNA, probably an actual Asian rather than a Native American somewhere in his family tree, but no more than eight or ten generations back. Then there were the Southerners. All had dribs and drabs of both green and orange in the dark blue. At least one found this distressing. The author wondered upon the outcome of testing a KKK member, and finding, say, 3% or so African ancestry, and a similar amount of "Asian".

There is an old joke about a man who claimed to be 1/3 Irish. When asked, "Isn't that impossible?", he said, "No, my dad is 2/3 Irish and my mom is all English." If you were to find that you were 2.77% Asian, what would that really mean? It is less than 1/32 but more than 1/64, but the way chromosomes cross over during the development of gametes isn't exact anyway. That 2.77% might be from a single Asian or Native American among your great-great grandparents, or it might be a little bit here, a little bit there, and so forth, among ancestors further back in time. A chromosome painting cannot ferret out such distinctions. For that you still need genuine genealogical study. However, if your family tree doesn't yet contain any Chinese or Cherokees, it indicates more digging is needed.

The book contains an appendix, with a brief summary of the "core mutations" of the mDNA clusters among Asian, African and European "founding mother" progeny. More details are presented in an earlier book, The Seven Faces of Eve. Guess what is next on my want list?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lying by covering all bases

kw: politics, debates, lies

Transcripts of President Obama's short speech in the Rose Garden on Sept 12, 2012 are being posted everywhere, by commentators all over the political spectrum, because of one exchange in last evening's debate. The President said he had called the attack an act of terror during that speech, which Mr. Romney disputed, but the moderator broke in to "confirm" that the President was correct, then cut off Mr. Romney by forging ahead with the next question. (In my post yesterday, I said the moderator seemed to cut both off equally. By a more careful count, the cut-offs were 28 against Romney and 9 against Obama.)

The 9/12/12 speech was short, just over 800 words in 13 paragraphs (as parsed in the transcript released to the media). In the fourth paragraph, the second sentence reads, "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." This is a reference to the video that supposedly induced an enraged crowd to attack the embassy. Everything the Obama administration said for the next two weeks was based on the supposition that there was an uprising because of the video. Only after two weeks did the State Department and a White House spokesperson acknowledge that there was no crowd, but rather a coordinated attack by heavily armed persons, in an assault that had clearly been planned long in advance.

The eleventh paragraph opens with these words: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,…". This is the sentence that the President and the moderator were referring to. Of course, had there been a spontaneous demonstration that led to a crowd overwhelming the embassy and attacking the staff, it would have been an act of terror, though one of a general nature. But this sentence is much different from what would have been said if the true nature of the attack had been known to the President on 9/12/12. You could say that Obama was lucky he, almost accidentally, said these words. I think it more likely he said this, and a number of other quite general statements, so he could pick any tidbits he needed from the speech later, which is precisely what he did last evening.

Further, in the VP debate a week ago, Joe Biden was very vehement that he and Obama didn't know, that they had "poor intelligence". The President last evening was trying to say that he did know, the very next day. Either he was lying, or Biden was. They are both inveterate liars, so does it matter?

It matters a lot. The President has been hugely embarrassed by this, and he's trying to wriggle out of trouble. He cannot. First the administration, from Obama to Clinton and on down, were totally blind-sided. They had already declined to send extra security to the embassy when asked. Then the attack happened, and they were blind, intelligence-wise. It took them two weeks to figure it out! This is foreign policy by amateurs. Now he is trying to lie his way out of trouble. I certainly hope that at least 51% of voters decide that, this time, he cannot be allowed to do so.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A better debate

kw: politics, debates

The second Presidential debate finished a few minutes ago. I didn't stay on after the candidates finished, not wanting to hear the ABC commentators.

It was clear that both candidates were better prepared than they had been for their first debate. I am sure many will be saying the President "won" this one, because he did so much better than before. But the Governor also improved. There was a more even give-and-take.

While both candidates continued their attempts to frame their opponent, both had more to say about what they would do. As I expected, specifics were quite scarce. Mr. Romney spoke of his 5-point plan, and I suspect people are learning the points. Mr. Obama spoke of things he considers positive about his first term, and vowed to continue. He had little to say about the areas his opponent attacked, and that may be a strength; let the negatives just die away.

Both men were more combative than before, but the moderator, Candy Crowley, was much tougher than Jim Lehrer had been. I was expecting her to be more prone to cutting off Romney than Obama, but I found her pretty even handed.

I liked the questions coming from the audience members. There is no team of "preparers" who can do better than six dozen thoughtful citizens, often helped by their friends beforehand (as one questioner explicitly mentioned).

Whichever candidate you favored before, I expect you will still favor. Both did well. I wrote of the first debate that I thought it was pretty even. Lots of Democrats were shocked that the President didn't wipe the floor with the Governor, which is why there was so much buzz that Obama "lost". It was clear he would try to do so this time, but the Governor was ready for it. No floor-wiping this time, folks. Both men made points, and both absorbed a few blows. I eagerly anticipate the third and final debate in just six days.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The worst virus

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, viruses

What ancient disease is 100% fatal without treatment? For that matter, even more "modern" diseases such as Ebola and Marburg are not 100% fatal. This image shows the face of the most-feared disease in history.

These look like hollow-point bullets, but they are far worse. This is the rabies virus. It is rare enough in the First World that many doctors have never seen a case of human rabies. In the U.S., about 3 cases (fatalities) occur yearly, in spite of the existence of an effective treatment. However, worldwide, the death toll is about 55,000. Sad to say, that still makes it a "rare" disease, and in many countries there is little incentive to spend money to vaccinate all the dogs, or keep on hand sufficient amounts of the post-exposure vaccine to treat more than a fraction of the human cases.

The husband-wife team of Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy have written Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus. While there is medical information aplenty, the emphasis is on the effect of Rabies and other zoonoses on human society during at least the past 4,000 years. Rabies not only has a folklore all its own, the peculiar way the disease progresses has also spawned two major cultural threads: vampires and werewolves. I'll leave the details to your imagination.

The folk horrors are not based on human cases of Rabies, but on observations of dogs. The Mad Dog phenomenon is well known. Humans infected with the virus, once it reaches the brain, exhibit hydrophobia, but very rarely bite or attack others. Also, the saliva of human cases contains little of the virus. Humans are dead-end hosts. The two hosts most responsible for spreading the disease are dogs and bats, although the virus can infect any mammal, and any mammal can catch it from any infected mammal, although I suspect a mouse or shrew would have a hard time piercing the skin of an elephant or rhino and infecting it.

The course of infection is unusual, and fortuitously led to a way to produce a post-exposure vaccine for humans, developed by Louis Pasteur in 1880-85. A bite, whether by dog, bat, raccoon or skunk (the most common hosts), deposits virus-laden saliva in the wound. Immediate cauterization is known to destroy the contagion, and this is the only historical remedy that has any chance of working. It is still used in the Third World. Within a day or so, however, the virus particles have found their way to a nerve and are making their way toward the brain. They travel at a rate of about 2 cm per day, so a bite on the hand or food could be dealt with by amputation, but this seems to be very rare. Once the viruses reach the brain, death is certain, in an average of four days.

The Milwaukee Protocol, developed by Dr. Rodney Willoughby in 2004, offers only a smidgen of hope. That is the year a girl survived brain infection with Rabies, while a medically induced coma and intensive supportive therapy kept her alive as her body developed an immune response strong enough to drive out the virus. Since that time about 8% of patients given this therapy have survived. A 92% death rate is marginally better than a 100% death rate.

The Pasteur vaccine and more recent (and less painful) vaccines develop the body's immune response during the time of nerve transmission, preventing the virus from reaching the brain. These vaccines, and the preventive vaccine given to most dogs in the West, are responsible for the very low Rabies death rate here. If 70% of dogs worldwide could be vaccinated, and human vaccines were made globally available, the world incidence of Rabies death would be about 70. To reduce it further would require some kind of vaccination program for raccoons and skunks and bats. How would you vaccinate billions of bats?

Rabies is but one of many zoonoses, or human diseases that originated in animals. I suspect all human diseases actually began as zoonoses. The ones most anciently associated with us began when we were another species! They evolved along with us. The most familiar zoonosis is influenza. Many kinds of flu virus circulate among birds and swine, in particular, but also among other animals. Most years, the Northern winter season leads to a sweep of flu across the globe and claims as many as half a million lives worldwide. The 1918 "Spanish flu" (that originated in swine) was unusually virulent and killed 40 million worldwide. For a sense of scale, malaria kills between 700,000 and 1.2 million yearly, depending on which "authority" you believe. The most famous recent zoonosis is AIDS, which seems to have jumped the ape-human barrier several times in the early 1900s, and now kills about 2 million yearly, having outstripped malaria since the 1980s.

In the book's closing chapter, the authors introduce an interesting twist. Knowing that the Rabies virus crosses the blood-brain barrier, how does it do it? Diseases such as meningitis, once they get into the brain, are usually fatal, and brain infections in general are intractable because none of our antibiotics can get into the brain except by direct injection. Who wants to have a hole bored in their skull? (I do, if it will save my life!). Pieces of the Rabies virus envelope can apparently hitchhike into the brain on "trusted" proteins. Thus this most fearsome of diseases may soon be harnessed to help us conquer other brain infections.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The wings stabilize the center

kw: sociology, extremism

My father's friend Henry was probably the most brilliant doctor I've known. He was a radiation oncologist who practiced in the 1940s to 1990s. I got to see his "cobalt bomb", which was the state of the art in radiation sources in the late 1950s; I was probably 11. But Henry had a fatal flaw, and I mean this literally. He allowed himself to hate. In my father's opinion, it shortened his life. At the very least, it blighted his waning years. From the day the 2000 Presidential campaign began until his own death, Henry hated George W. Bush. He hated him even after Barack Obama was elected, frequently ranting that all the nation's problems were "Bush's fault." Dad tried to tell him, "Henry, you are saddening yourself without reason. Do you think all your anger bothers Mr. Bush? Not a bit. It just makes you waste your days in fruitless worry and fury."

A few days ago I was at lunch with some people in Washington, and one person mentioned he'd met Sean Hannity. One woman, a prominent scientist, practically jumped, "Oh, now you have ruined my lunch!" A few people snickered, but I saw the mingled fury and disgust on her face. I decided I'd wait for a better opportunity to tell her about Henry. It would be a pity for her to burn her energy in the politics of hate.

If I wanted to, I could hate a few people. Some years ago, I knew Tom Daschle when he was a Senator from South Dakota. A true snake, who believes all the "excess" money should be taken from the rich and spread around (of course, not any of his excess money). Then there is the quite un-Revered Al Sharpton, chief exponent of the politics of revenge. Another Tom, this one Carper, a vicious in-fighter for every cause I detest. I don't know the names of any of the environmentalist wackos who think "humans are the problem" and that animals are superior. Anyone who has a dog knows that dogs know much more about unconditional love than any human, but no dog will ever invent penicillin or the telephone (wired or not). I could almost muster up some hate for those wackos, but I realize they are shortening their own lives with their own hatred of humanity, so I just leave 'em to it.

But we need them. We need wackos of all persuasions. They have the energy, and many are willing to spend their own resources, to ferret out abuses by whatever "other side" they are against. So they tend to keep the rest of us honest (but Congress is beyond even their powers). We need our vocal radicals, and vocal reactionaries, and vocal whatever they may be. It is all part of the political Bell Curve, also called the Gaussian Distribution, discovered by Carl F. Gauss in 1809.

It is an amazing bit of mathematics that so many phenomena really are distributed in this way, symmetrically distributed about an average value, with 68% of cases inside a boundary called "one sigma", and 95% within "two sigma" ("Sigma" is statistician's shorthand for Standard Deviation). Ah, but in political sociology it is that other 5% that I am talking about. Half make up the extreme Left Wing, and half make up the extreme Right Wing. Henry was one of those 2.5% on the far Left, so far Left that he thought centrist GW Bush was equivalent to John Birch or Sean Hannity.

The middle 68% are the Moderates, from mildly Left to mildly Right. Further to the Left and Right, but inside "two sigma", are the Liberal Base and the Conservative Base. I am Conservative, but pretty close to the "one sigma" point on the Right. Two of my brothers are pretty close to the "one sigma" point on the Left. That means we often disagree, but can argue without rancor. My youngest brother, a small business owner, is probably a bit to the Right of me. He once said to me, "I can't afford to be anything but conservative if I want to keep my business afloat."

The political "conversation" in this country has become dominated by people near and beyond the "two sigma" points at either end. These are people who cannot imagine how any opinion of their opposite number could be correct. They do not even allow for Churchill's Maxim: "Even a fool is right once in a while." Fortunately, the "wingers" seldom have what it takes to gain sufficient popularity to be elected to anything. To those who think Ronald Reagan was a Fascist, I place him near "1.5 sigma" on the Right. Fascism is at "three sigma"; Hitler and Mussolini were at or beyond that point. To those who think President Obama is a Socialist, I place him near "1.5 sigma" on the Left. True Socialism is at "three sigma" and beyond; that is where Lenin and Mao were. By the way, Communism is Socialism with cynical leaders.

The United States of America as defined in the Constitution is Centrist. The separation of powers articles contain provisions that keep extremists from getting many of their pet projects approved. The bicameral legislature keeps both populist and elitist elements from dominating for long periods of time. The two-party system that has arisen is actually more stable than the multi-party Parliaments of most European nations, and it provides further balance. The Constitutional Commission of 1787 didn't foresee a two-party system, but I suspect that most of them would grudgingly approve. Even the more, they would approve of the continued power of the First Amendment to allow gadflies of all persuasions to vex and goad the rest of us into noticing abuses that perhaps we'd rather ignore. The examples of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and other totalitarian states shows us the brilliance of a system that has (so far) not allowed the gadflies to get any power, but has not stifled them, either.

Let us rejoice in our gadflies. Let us continue to permit them their forums. When one occasionally draws blood, it shows where something needs to be corrected. That is a good thing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The LoC gets the word

kw: mayan history, eschatology, lectures

In Washington, D.C. yesterday, near noontime I made my way to the Madison Building of the Library of Congress for a lecture by Professor Mark Van Stone about the Maya and the alleged 2012 apocalypse. He has published a book and an iBook (not an eBook; it is only for iPad at present) on the matter. The event was a part of Hispanic Heritage Month at the LoC, and Dr. V was introduced by the Director, Barbara Tenenbaum.

Until recently, only one Mayan inscription had anything to say about the "13th Baktun", the year in their calendar. The Mayas counted by twenties, so 13x20x20x20x20 = 2,080,000 days or nearly 5,695 years. The prior instance of a calendar reset would then have been some time in 3,684 BC (remember there is no year 0 between BC and AD). According to that single inscription, the two readable characters after the date tell us that a certain god is going to dress in a ceremonial costume. What ceremony? No data.

In June, a second monument was found, equally enigmatic. Considering that other Maya inscriptions discuss events they expected some 3,000 years further in the future—and perhaps much further—, at the very least we understand that they did not expect time to end, nor their civilization. However, their status as prophets is a bit suspect, for they did not foretell the end of their own dominance in the 900s, nor the Spanish conquest of the 1490s.

Anyway, once December 21, 2012 (or maybe the 23d or 24th; some scholars calculate differently) has come and gone, there is always the end of the Aztec calendar in 2027 to worry about, if you are a worry wart…except that the Aztecs also predicted some kind of dire event for the year 2039 (I'll be 92 by then, if I am still around).

Does the apparent path of the Sun crossing the Galactic equator have any significance? It happens that, on or near December 21, the Sun will appear to pass the center of the Galaxy—well, within about three degrees. Some folks state that precession of the equinoxes means this only happens every 22,000 years (4 sets of 13 Baktuns is 22,780 years). Actually, the Sun's crossing near the Galactic center has been going on for millions of years, every single year. This year is not even the closest pass, as the Earth's orbit slowly shifts. The date of this passage drifts around the calendar on the 22,000 year cycle. But it is a kind of "so what" sort of fact.

A good occasion and a very enjoyable lecture. A number of other prominent Mayanists were there, including at least a couple of folks who appear in videos inside the iBook, titled Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. I guess Dr. V will have to get as much book selling done as he can in the next ten weeks. By Christmastime, there won't be any market for his book, whether time stops or not!

Precisely what did Joe win?

kw: politics, debates

I had a long day in D.C. yesterday (more about that in another post), so I'd pre-recorded the Vice-Presidential debate and watched it late. That got me to bed pretty late, and I'm squeezing in a long coffee break at work to make a belated comment.

There is a funny old film in which a seasoned swordsman displays all kinds of exaggerated techniques and fancy footwork. Meanwhile, his opponent either parries or stands back to watch the show, before stepping in to behead him.

There is no doubt that Joe Biden is a seasoned debater. He is also a bully and a clown, but as Delawareans like to say, "Yeah, he's a buffoon, but he's our buffoon." And for close to forty years they have been voting for him over candidates who had the temerity to display a smidgen of intelligence.

In the few post-debate minutes that I watched, the ABC folk were all saying, "Oh, yeah, Biden won hands down." Really? If this had been a debate rated according to the rules of Toastmasters International, I suppose you could say he out-pointed Paul Ryan, in the narrow sense of asking more questions, but with Ms Raddatz continually cutting Ryan short, a wise debate judge would have replaced her in the first quarter hour with an unbiased moderator.

Then there was all the grinning and grimacing. Does Joe really think we fall for his hamming it up? Paul Ryan mostly ignored Joe Biden's antics, concentrating on making the points he could, but occasionally just "let Joe be Joe", before snipping off his head. The moderator complained that Ryan was short of specifics, but he actually did have some specifics, while Biden had none. And Ryan pointed out repeatedly that Biden was using empty attacks to cover a total absence of reason.

In the next-to-last exchange, Paul Ryan did miss an opportunity. Joe Biden made five quick complaints against Romney and Ryan. Ryan's best answer would have been, "You just heard five bald-faced lies", but perhaps he'd decided not to call Joe a liar outright. If you count blows thrown (ignoring that they all missed), sure you could say that Biden "won". He left the stage with a trophy in his hand, and his head on the floor.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Everything is a disease or deficiency

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food, drugs, polemics

It has been only 15 years since drug companies began directly marketing their products to consumers. My wife and I recently made the strategic decision to not use any medicine seen in a TV ad. I have sat there with a stop watch; in a 30-second ad, at least 15 seconds are taken up with the (fortunately) mandatory warning messages, and often there is little time for any "positive" message. Many ads have to be a full minute to have time for all the warnings! In nearly every ad, particularly for medications for asthma and cholesterol, one of the "side effects" is "sudden death".

Now we are wondering if the situation with foodstuffs is equally dire. We have been using chicken and turkey products in preference to beef for decades, primarily because of levels of saturated fat in "red meat". We'd read about the controversy over growth hormones, and recently began getting our milk from Trader Joe's, which has this notice, along with a quisling statement required by the FDA, that claims recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) doesn't make a difference and can't be detected anyway. Both parts of that statement are false. In particular, rBST is detectable, but the test isn't cheap. As they say, do you want cheap milk or not? Well, as it happens, Trader Joe's milk costs less than all the alternatives at ordinary supermarkets, except when they have a sale. No need to test if the stuff won't be there in the first place.

A couple of times we bought eggs from Eggland's Best, but I decided to look into it. At the Egg Scorecard at, I found that they refuse to allow anyone to "score" their eggs, and other less official sources rate them poorly in the hygiene and humaneness of their operation. One of the best egg producers from an organic and humane treatment perspective is the Vital Farms brand sold at Whole Foods stores. Fortunately a WF store recently opened nearby.

Our experiences square pretty well with information found in a curious new book, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks (sic), Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health by Martha Rosenberg. Concerning the subtitle: the word is Flacks. Flak is antiaircraft fire, or opposition from a heckler at a speech, by analogy; it is never pluralized. The character string "flaks" never appears elsewhere except in dictionaries as a phonetic hint as to how to pronounce "flacks".

Ms Rosenberg is also a cartoonist, and this item, from p.144, shows her rather clumsy style. I suppose some folks call it "endearing". Fortunately, the writing is anything but clumsy. It is polemical, but without the strident, fanatical edge of most polemics.

For "Big Pharma" and "Big Food", polemics are richly deserved. Big Pharma has been coasting on its "miracle drug" laurels since all the easy pickings of the 1940s and 1950s. The result has become thousands of branded drugs, most of which do very little good, and sometimes a lot of harm. Numerous other books detail that most "research" supporting new drugs is falsified. Then there is AgriBiz: less than 1% of Americans are now farmers, producing our food on just under 20% of the U.S. land area.

When I was a child, one tenth of working Americans were farmers. Prior to WWII, farmers were 18% of the work force. 1880 was the first year that fewer than half of American workers were farmers. In 1790, they made up 90%. From 90% to under 1%. Wow. Another 1% live on farms but aren't farming (their underage kids, in other words; from age 7 or so, even the kids work on the farm). Ironically, the number of hunters in the US is about 4% of the population, and we can assume that another couple of percent—spouse or children—help dress the game. But that means more than 90% of Americans never see where their meat comes from, never see an animal killed so they can eat, and most do not even cut meat any more, because you can buy it pre-cubed or pre-sliced or even, as the chicken breast cutlets we ate last evening, pre-spiced and ready to bake.

I guess I am one of the lucky few committed carnivores who does know. I've worked in a slaughterhouse; I was even there when they ran a truckload of bison through. We have usually lived in rural areas, so I have had neighbors show up with a brace of freshly shot rabbits or pheasants, which we then dressed out on the kitchen counter; we have helped friends butcher deer and hogs.

But back to the book. It is extensively researched (80 pages of notes and references). The Pharma section dwells primarily on four kinds of drugs: Antipsychotics that are now used for "depression" because "ordinary" antidepressives don't work very well, anti-menopausal drugs of several kinds, PTSD and the deadly drugs (including the antipsychotics) used to "treat" it, and the new bisphosphonates used for "bone health" but which frequently lead to even more fractures or bone death in the jaw. The Food section dwells on beastly treatment of animals throughout, whether the topic is milk, eggs, meat and the hormones in it, mad cow disease, or food labeling (or the lack thereof).

The biggest lack: Any "what to do about it" information. On one hand, it is a relief that the author isn't selling a product. However, spending 300 pages to raise a dozen kinds of alarms, without offering any remedies, does no service. Am I better off for being made even more paranoid? Let's see, we've already decided to eschew advertized drugs. We've done a few things to eat better, and with a little effort we can do more, because we live only an hour's drive from a cluster of Amish farms. Big Pharma and Big Food have woven themselves into society to the point that everything imaginable is either a disease or a deficiency.

My generation, the Baby Boomers, has aided and abetted BP-n-BF at every stage. Ms Rosenberg names a number of FDA and USDA officials who have allowed or even helped corporations bypass what few regulations exist. They are all Boomers. To a Boomer, aging is a disease; menopause is a disease; feeling even slightly bad is a disease; a passing mood is due to some deficiency; being too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, too sociable or too lonely are "challenges" to be met with this new drug or that tastier food or a more concentrated food supplement. Plastic surgery is booming (wrinkles and wattles and various sagging places are a disease). To millions, Western medicine is inadequate, so alternative medical treatments abound.

The sad truth is, there is no "cure" for decline and death. The death rate remains stubbornly at one per person, no more and no less. "Convenience" is the name of the game. Faster fast food, the tastier the better (too bad fat tastes so good); bigger portions; more variety on the buffet—and a Tums or "purple pill" to keep it all from waking you at midnight.

I realize we are in the midst of an evolutionary experiment. There is a significant chance that the tendency to get the most out of an exaggerated Western lifestyle is based on inherited tendencies that will soon become mostly extinct. When our kids get too fat to reproduce, they won't leave descendants. When they get too zoned out on mood drugs, they also leave fewer offspring. How many generations will it be until the majority of Americans and wannabe Americans actually exercise self control and responsibility? The future is theirs.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Care before clicking

kw: worms, malware

There probably isn't any communications software that is totally secure. The current warning is about Skype Instant Messaging. See this CNET article. Just in case you are wary, that link is supposed to contain

The upshot is this: A worm is being spread by a link contained in a Skype IM text. It installes "ransomware" on your computer, and you soon get a demand for a few hundred dollars to "unlock" your files, or they will be erased.

I don't know about you, but I use Skype only for video chatting with family members and a very few friends in distant places. My family and I never use its IM feature. Now it sounds like a convenience that is a bit too risky anyway!

The Skype people are recommending that we all get the most recent version. That is easy to do: with Skype running, open Help and click Check for Updates. Then follow directions.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The lonely path of righteous refusal

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dissension, dissenters, sociology, short biographies

I didn't take me long to read Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press. However, it did take a while to think it over. We all like to think we would help others who were being oppressed, or at least refuse to actively harm them, but is it true? In the vast majority of cases, it has not proven true.

The book is built around the stories of four persons: a border official in Switzerland in 1938 who allowed hundreds of Jews to enter illegally; a Serbian in 1991 who falsely identified dozens of Croats as Serbs during an exercise in "ethnic cleansing", saving their lives; an Israeli soldier in an elite unit who, in 2003, joined a dozen of his fellows to sign a letter detailing why they would no longer enforce immoral laws against Palestinians being harassed by Jewish authorities; and a Hispanic-American financial adviser who in 2003 blew the whistle on a major Ponzi scheme in Houston, one that was second in size only to Bernie Madoff's.

Four people, very different from one another. Three men and a woman. Three of the four lost their jobs; the fellow in Serbia had had no job to lose, but he was lucky not to lose his life. The border officer in 1938 could well have lost his life, even in "neutral" Switzerland. In all four cases, the person did not truly stand alone, though in three cases they were "locally alone", unaware of others who were also acting out of conscience rather than taking orders. And even for the Israeli soldier, with his dozen fellows, social isolation and obloquy followed and haunted them thereafter.

Compared to these people's stories, the one I am about to mention is very minor, but it illustrates the pressures one must endure to break ranks with the momentum of a popular effort. I worked for three years developing specifications and some of the software for a major project, but I became concerned that the overall design was faulty and the programming, being done by a consulting firm, was flimsy and filled with bugs. Near the end of the three years, once we had filed for a patent on a key component (yes, you can patent a computer program), the group leader announced that we must quickly get the product ready for general use. I protested that it was still more of a prototype, quite far from being ready. I was quite disturbed, and I'd been growing more uncomfortable for the prior year, because all the others were very gung-ho, in spite of many very damaging flaws in the program's operation. My concerns were brushed aside. I argued privately with the other programmers and designers, one by one, to no avail.

I continued my work, wondering what to do, when nature took a hand. I discovered I was dying of cancer. On the last two days before taking a few extra days off before Thanksgiving, I carefully crafted a three-page letter. My primary goal was to stop the program going into production until the specific weaknesses I identified could be corrected, a process I estimated (underestimated it turned out) would take at least two more years. I did not send anything by e-mail. I printed three copies, dated and signed them, and hand delivered them to the offices of the supervisor, the manager, and the general manager. I told myself, if I wasn't dying, I'd have to prepare to be fired. I went home. We went away for the holiday weekend; I figured I ought to enjoy myself as much as possible in spite of the pain. Upon our return, I went into the hospital, expecting to die on the operating table.

As it happened, the surgeon is an expert and tracked down every little bit of cancer. Thus, six days later my supervisor arrived at my hospital bedside to visit me. He assured me that the "flap" over my letter hadn't lasted long, and the software team had been ordered to prepare specifications for a "version 2.0" with a nearly complete redesign to avoid the weaknesses I had identified. He and I agreed that I would probably have a six month convalescence, and if I did any work in that period, it needed to be lower-stress than such a hot project. I was relieved. I still had a job. I was a bit sad that it effectively ended a thirty-year career in software design and programming. Once I was ready for full time work again, I'd be in a different division. Looking back over the twelve years that have passed since then, I realize how very lucky I am. I could have been fired or forced out in any number of ways, the sympathy due to my illness notwithstanding. I liked the programmers and designers I worked with on that project. I haven't seen any of them since.

Some acts of conscience save lives. Some just save a little money. Some save reputations. None is easy. I recall the story of Elijah, who is not quite so fearless and heroic as he is made out. He was very emotional, and probably had to work himself up to his signature deed: challenging the prophets of Baal and eventually leading the slaughter of 400 of them. Shortly, he received a letter from Queen Jezebel, a very credible death threat. He fled into the desert. God sent him an angel. He asked the angel to take his life so Jezebel would not have the pleasure of doing so. The angel led him on a long walk—40 days—to meet God. He again requested to die, complaining that he stood alone. Boy, was he depressed! God replied, "I have reserved to myself 7,000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." God sent him to Elisha, so he would have a companion and a successor.

We need others. We need them so badly that we can commit almost any act, or overlook almost any crime, if the alternative is standing alone. I marvel at the aloneness of Jesus. Though he had 11 faithful followers (and a thief) in his entourage, and though they were supported by a number of rich women, the Gospels make clear that before he was resurrected, only one of all of them understood what he was doing, Mary of Bethany, who anointed him. Particularly in John's Gospel, his frustration is evident time and again, at their dullness. Eventually, praying for the strength to undergo Golgotha, he was literally sweating blood. Christians believe he is God. The better term is God-Man. And that man was stressed to the limit!

Yes, we need others. Even where conscientious objectors are treated humanely, there will be many who call them traitors. They find it hard to get work, unless they move to a place where they are not known. Even where a whistle-blower is well treated, the incident is certain to precipitate a major career change, if not end it altogether. And there will usually be some who call you a betrayer. Yet I am heartened by taking another look at the work of Stanley Milgram, who performed the "electrocution" experiment in which students were asked, and then demanded, to push a switch to "shock" an actor who was faking his pain, in a "learning" experiment. Much is made of the fact that in the initial experiment 70% of the students complied right up to the highest "shock" level, which had the actor faking a fainting swoon. I am frankly amazed that 30% mustered the gumption at some point to refuse to go further. I am further amazed that nobody tried to knock Milgram's block off (or if anyone did, he didn't report it).

There is a middle ground there. Those who refused to go further didn't attack the experimenter, they simply refused to continue. As Milgram reported, a few did stalk out angrily, but most who refused were shaking and sweating, yet held their ground. In declining to harm (or seem to) the actor, they also refrained from harming anybody. Some may dream about being like Rambo and cleaning things up with guns blazing. Real life isn't like that. As the Swiss border official and the Serbian villager found, a bit of studied deception was much more effective. And as the Israeli soldier and the American whistle-blower found, open refusal requires persistence, but can finally be effective. Mr. Press doesn't state this, but I suspect the exposing of the 2003 Ponzi scheme made the later exposing of the Madoff affair go a little more quickly, once a few concerned folks began to raise the alarm. Yes, it still took years. But it might have taken years longer, and the loss could have been 2-3 times greater. Who knows, it might still be going on!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Disenfranchised by caution

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, personality, introversion, extroversion

Once in a while a book comes along that simply reminds me who I am. Such a book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. From one aspect, the book constitutes a long protest against the deification of extroversion (the "academic" spelling is "extraversion") in the United States. From another, it is a powerful affirmation of the value of introversion in society, particularly American society.

This graphic, from an article in The Journal of Research in Personalty by Robert McCrae, shows the level of extroversion in many countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. The criterion is the E score on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory scale (MBTI). Had the study included the New World, the U.S. would be in the darkest red category, right up there with Turkey, Spain and Sweden. On this map, lack of any color means no data.

Seeing that China is in the next-to-lowest E range, and Taiwan and India are in the lowest, reminds me of an incident when I was in graduate school. It is a stereotype, yet true, that introverts study more persistently than extroverts. I was visiting a friend, a student from Taiwan, who told me that a recent influx of students from India was scaring them all. Formerly the Taiwanese got most of the A grades. Now, the Indians were dominating the highest rankings. "Those guys study day and night," my friend said, "I wonder if they ever sleep!"

A word about MBTI. Based on the ideas of Carl Jung, it ranks people on four scales based on preferences expressed on a self-administered test. The scales are:
  • Introversion versus Extroversion
  • Sensing versus iNtuition
  • Thinking versus Feeling
  • Judging versus Perception
The data for this table were drawn from a page kept by the Ancona family, using data for Americans. The largest cohorts for both men and women are highlighted in red: ISTJ and ESTJ for men, ISFT and ESFJ for women. That also matches a common stereotype. Whether extroverted or introverted, women tend to "feel" and men tend to "think". Overall, Sensors outnumber intuitives about 3-to-1.

The smallest cohorts are highlighted in green: INFJ and ENFJ for men, INTJ and ENTJ for women. My own type is INTP (see the tan highlight), a rather uncommon type, but not the rarest. I am Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Perceptive. If the characteristics were exactly evenly distributed, all the figures would be 6.25%. Although my wife has not taken the MBTI, I estimate that she is ISFJ or ISFP. Curiously, I am pretty sure our son is ESFJ, the exact opposite of my type. More on that later.

According to some scholars, the number of introverts is America is about 30%. The table above indicates it is almost exactly 50%, within the margin of uncertainty. Whatever the true figure is, there are a lot of us. Furthermore, according to study after study, introverts get better grades, are awarded more patents, and attain more Nobel Prizes. Yet the ideal of the extroverted, glad-handing life-of-the-party has forced many introverts to masquerade as extroverts to get or keep their jobs.

In the first section of the book, Ms Cain traces the rise of the "Mighty likeable fellow" to the influence of Dale Carnegie. The Dale Carnegie Course is still offered, and when I attended, I found it a great help. But not everything they teach suits what I can do. Other social trends that followed were not so helpful. Group brainstorming, for example, which relies on hyper-extroverted give-and-take, turns out to be just about the worst way to generate creative ideas. More measured approaches, such as the facilitated Thinking Hats method of Edward deBono, produce more copious and better results, while a combination of individual and group effort, properly facilitated and proctored, works the best; this last requires a facilitator who knows how to draw out the thoughts of all the members, whether quiet or outgoing.

A second section covers the contributions of Nature and Nurture. About 20% of infants are "high reactive", and typically grow into cautious, thoughtful adults. About 40% are "low reactive", apparently fearless, and usually become stereotypical party animals. That leaves 40% who were not discussed, but I reckon that there is actually a spectrum of reactivity and sensitivity, such that roughly half of Americans (at least) are able to behave in both extroverted and introverted ways, as the situation demands.

Yet even the most introverted of us—and by that I do not mean autistic or Asperger people, who are afflicted with a disorder, but I mean those who prefer their inner life over outward activity—are able to learn to speak in public, to assert ourselves, and to socialize and mingle as needed, as long as we get enough downtime to recover.

The book's third section of a single chapter contrasts Asian with Western culture. There may be a significant genetic component at work here, but both Chinese and Indian cultures, for example (picking the two with which I am most familiar), strongly stress the good of the group over the individual, and each has a version of the proverb, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Among my colleagues and friends who are Asian, the extroverts (there are plenty!) are less likely to steamroll over a quieter person than an American extrovert. These cultures have a greater respect for teachers and scholars than is true in the West (although the result of two generations of Federal meddling in education in America has led to a great increase in poor teachers; many many of the good ones have left the system).

The last section of the book is like an extended advice column: how to act more extroverted when you need to (and how to carve out "me time" to recover); how to communicate with an opposite personality type (the burden is on the introvert); and how to raise an introverted child, particularly for extroverted parents. The glaring thing that is missing here is how introverted parents can raise an extroverted child. I'd have really appreciated some help there over the past 20+ years! Some may think a young extrovert can take care of him/herself. Not so. A child still needs guidance. What kind of example and guidance can be offered to a child when everything around leads him to despise the quietness and caution of his parents?

Personal Notes

If you have been itching to know more about me, read on. Otherwise, skip to the closing heading. I am the most introverted of the four boys my extroverted parents raised. Yet, as I only learned about 15 years ago, I am also bipolar, so there were periods of much more intense sociality and activity. I am a rapid cycler, with about ten cycles yearly (3-4 is more usual).

At the age of 12, my parents had a psychoanalyst spend some time with me, because I was "withdrawn" and "in a shell". To this day, my favorite comic page characters are Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes and Snoopy of Peanuts, both of whom live rich internal lives. It is pretty clear that these two characters exemplify their creators Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz.

My parents and teachers gradually learned that I did best with smaller numbers of people around. Yet, there are a few famous incidents, such as the day I led a group of children to play Santa Clause down the chimney of a large barbecue on school grounds, after which we all tracked ashes into the classroom. Everybody just scratched their heads, "He is usually so quiet." This was an early incident of bipolar mania.

Once I learned about my MBTI scale, and then later was diagnosed Bipolar 2 (milder than the flaming "1" version), I began to study the phenomena. I learned that the old designation Manic-Depressive is quite inaccurate. I learned to think of my moods as Expansive or Contractile. I am Expansive about a quarter of the time, Contractile about half, and in transition the rest. In my Contractile phase, I am more prone to depression, but for me at least, depression is a choice. I am able to embrace the need for quiet and reduced stimulation as needed. In such a phase, if I need to perform in a more Expansive way, I am able to do so, but I know there are consequences, so I schedule time for an extra nap, or a longer time reading a cerebral book. At such times I avoid the TV; it is too "hot". Even in an Expansive mood, I am still an introvert, albeit one who is much more able to bear intensely social situations such as large dinner parties.

I was lucky to stumble on computer programming as a profession, starting in the late 1960s. It exactly suits my need for long periods of focused work. I wrote scientific software for nearly forty years. For the past several years, I have taken advantage of my classical education (bless St. John's Lutheran School in Salt Lake City!) and worked in Knowledge Management. I get plenty of quiet keyboard time!

When I have time to plan, I am able to prepare my mood for an Expansive stretch when it is necessary to do something like make an important speech or meet a room full of customers or vendors. I was an active Toastmaster for more than ten years. It was interesting, being socially involved on a weekly basis, and on the bubble to do a Table Topic or lead a portion of the meeting upon demand. I learned to perform well regardless of my mood. On a particularly contractile day, I could promise the part of me that wanted to cower in a cave that "we" would be back in the office in just half an hour, and could even lie down if needed (I keep a pillow in my office, though now it is a cubicle, but I still take a short "flat" break if I need to).

I have mentioned before that I have started a few churches, and currently lead one that has gradually grown to a membership of about 40. What few of the congregants know is that I take a 2-hour nap right after I get home on a Sunday afternoon. Any church leader will tell you that the congregation reflects its elders. This congregation is probably 70% introverts. Since we practice a participatory style of meeting, that makes it harder than usual to get people to participate. I may go into what I do to make that work some other time. I know most of them think I am extroverted. Some day I'll give instructions on how to be an outspoken introvert, again (it has been a long time. Hmmm. Maybe sooner than later).

As mentioned above, my wife and I have one child, a son, who is very outgoing. We were 42 when he was born. I would have been totally out of my depth at age 22 or 24! When he brought his 8th grade yearbook home, I looked through it. He had nearly half the pictures circled, so I asked him why. He said, "Those are my friends." I decided not to tell him that in any grade, I never had more than three people I'd have called a friend! He was nice enough to let me be a Facebook friend. I have just over 100 FB friends. He has more than 1,000. Curiously, he has enough of a studious streak to endure five years of a rather monastic existence in College and get two degrees, with honors. I suspect he does something analogous, but opposite, to what I do: he can make himself do the quiet work when needed, and recover by partying! I guess that is the normal extrovert way.

I recently checked the keyword statistics on this blog. I have reviewed more than 830 books in seven years, since June of 2005. That averages a book every 3.2 days (It doesn't count a dozen or so books I didn't review because they were so bad I didn't want to give the author any publicity, even to pan the book). You could say I am bookish! Bottom line: I have learned to take advantage of my unique personality, and even to thrive.


Are American introverts victims? Making almost everybody out to be some kind of victim is a popular political game these days. Over the past half century or so, the pendulum has swung to favor the E's. But let us not forget that Einstein and Milton and Bill Gates are introverts. So is a billionaire I once went to school with; he and Gates each make more money in a year than Michael Jordan or Tom Hanks made in their entire careers, so I guess introverts can succeed. They just need to know who they are and keep their center. Famously extroverted Oprah just might catch them, though.

But introverts are less likely to value money over their pursuit of excellence. We like to live well, but not ostentatiously. I think of an article in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic, which showed some of the palaces rich Roma (formerly called Gypsies) have built since the fall of Communism in Romania. Or the huge homes built by emigrants from Hong Kong to southern California prior to the 1997 PRC takeover. An introvert who does very well is likely to get a better house and car, but would think a palace was overdoing it.

There is a reason evolution has kept a wide spectrum of personality types in all animals. In every animal so far studied (a hundred species or so), from mammals and birds to fish to insects, some members of every litter are explorative and outgoing, and others are cautious and observant. It makes sense. Sometimes, the outgoing ones get eaten sooner by waiting predators, and the quieter ones survive; other times there are fewer predators because of declining conditions, and the outgoing ones explore farther and are more likely to found new populations where conditions are better. Back and forth it goes, and all different personality styles are favored in turn.

We need to learn the wisdom of diversity, not only in "ethnicity" but in thinking and feeling of all kinds. It takes all types, it really does!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A debate that promised more

kw: politics, debates

I have vacillated for most of the day over whether to write about last evening's Presidential Debate, the first meeting between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. I have read and heard a variety of opinions, including a headline "Romney Wins!", and a diatribe by former PA Governor Ed Rendell about how badly the President did. I judge that people of both political persuasions wanted to see blood run across the stage, and they didn't see it.

Firstly, the debate itself was much closer to a real debate than many I have seen in the 52 years since the original Kennedy-Nixon debate. I am partial to Gov. Romney, and I think he did well. I also recognize that the President did equally well, and I think Ed Rendell's comments are misguided. The President has two key advantages. He is a sitting President, and has experience being Commander in Chief. This played little part in this debate, but I expect it will come out in the future two debates. He also has a better poker face, an ability to appear unfazed no matter what his opponent says. This is something the Governor would do well to work on, if he can avoid looking stiff. However, he has his own advantage, an ability to make his points more succinctly, so he can get more said.

A key moment came after the debate (which I watched on ABC; I am not sure every network kept the cameras going as long). Michelle joined Barack on stage, and quite a gaggle of Romneys came up with Ann to greet Mitt. I could hear a commentator saying, "Mr. Obama requested that as many Romneys were welcome as he liked." I watched the whole group mingle. Mr. Romney introduced quite a number of his offspring to the Obamas, and I could see they all were relaxed and enjoying themselves. I can't read lips, but I wonder if either candidate said, "Boy, was that fun!" These men do not dislike each other the way some pairs of opponents we have seen in the past.

People, if you want to see blood, wait for a future debate (2016 or beyond). This is rightly turning into a battleground of ideas (finally!), and both candidates are working on presenting clear ideas to the American public, and particularly those who still can't make up their minds. They also both know that some who answered polls one way or another are likely to change their mind in the next few weeks.

I expect this election will be a squeaker, whoever wins. The next President is very unlikely to have the kind of mandate that Mr. Obama had four years ago. That's a good thing. He doesn't collaborate across the aisle as well as he claims to, so if he becomes a Lame Duck President, I think we are in for some surprises; he may become a better collaborator than before. And unless there is a strong mandate that sweeps Mr. Romney into office with a "turned" legislature behind him, he will be in for a first term very different from what he might expect. He'll need a heck of a mandate to be able to overturn "Obamacare" (which name the President now claims he likes), for example.

Do I expect more of the same for the coming debates? Only partly. The Vice-Presidential debate next week could be a very different affair. I don't yet have a feeling for whether Messrs. Ryan and Biden like or dislike one another. The coming two Presidential debates could be sharper and stronger, but I don't expect a "Mondale Moment" (when Ronald Reagan's one-liner about Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience" cracked up Mondale, and effectively blew him out of the race). I do expect a heady set of comparisons between the ideas of two men who have quite different views of the direction America ought to go.