Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Don't envy the bird its flight

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ornithology, natural history

Helen Macdonald wrote that, because a falcon has such "high-speed sensory and nervous systems ... their world moves about ten times faster than ours." I would turn that around. Events that seem very fast to us would seem much slower to a falcon. Very rapid senses characterize many birds. For example, our instruments show us that some bird songs which seem to us to contain just a few notes, really contain many very quick notes that we don't perceive, but other birds do. Where we hear a buzzy chirp, a fellow bird will hear a complex and perhaps beautiful melody.

Tim Birkhead has written Bird Sense: What It's Like to be a Bird to help us understand the sensory lives of birds. The speed of reaction noted above relates to at least sight and hearing, and possibly to touch. These are three of the seven sense areas that the book's seven chapters evoke: Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Magnetism, and Emotions.

About sight, there is little controversy. It is well known that many birds' vision is much sharper than ours, while others see in smaller time slices, and that many see ultraviolet light, which we do not (Actually, someone who has had their lenses removed can see UV, which was filtered out by the yellow lens. Our blue receptor can see quite a bit deeper into the UV if given the chance. But birds have a fourth, UV-sensitive receptor that we don't have). Is any of these "better" than human sight? No bird has the full Monte. Each is fitted for the life it leads.

The chemical senses, taste and smell, have been much more troublesome. For one thing, they are harder to test for. To most people a bird's beak or bill is little more than a specialized fingernail sort of thing, and they do not consider whether it can feel or taste anything. Actually, it is full of nerves and several types of receptors, including taste buds, though in a bird, the majority of taste buds are farther back in the mouth. But how else will a bird know, when just the tip of its beak begins to pierce a bad-tasting caterpillar, that it is inedible? Yet it does know, and typically releases the insect before injuring it much.

What would it be like to directly sense the Earth's magnetic field? To always know where North is (unless you live near one of the magnetic poles)? Something the book doesn't bring out is that the magnetic vector changes its vertical angle as you approach or recede from the pole. I do recall reading about a study that showed how many migrating birds know by the magnetic dip that they are far enough north to land and nest.

I should like to have seen a chapter on the body-kinesthetic sense of birds, and how it compares with ours (this is sometimes called proprioception). Their physical reactions are so swift we can't see, for example, how an owl actually closes its attack on a mouse unless we film it at high speed.

All this high speed stuff got me to thinking. The speed of nerve impulses in humans ranges from rather slow to 100 m/s or more. In the brain, 40 m/s is more common. Our brain is larger than that of any bird. The longest axons in the human brain are about 16 cm. It stands to reason that a brain with fibers no longer than 1-2 cm can complete a thought about ten times as fast. Come to think of it, most birds and animals are smallish. The reflex arc between your fingertip and the ganglion in your spine that signals "Ouch! Pull away!!" totals more than half a meter in length. At 100 m/s, you can't possibly pull away in less than 8-10 ms, and most of us react in about 20 ms. A robin's longest reflex arc is no more than 0.15 m, so it could conceivably react to a nip on a toe or wing tip in 2 ms or less.

And back to the (possibly) beautiful melody. Do birds have an aesthetic sense? I have learned to turn anthropomorphism around. Of course they do. We have emotions because our vertebrate ancestors had emotions. If we can sense beauty, it must have preceded us. I suspect that any brain big enough to register pleasure and fear and anger can also register beauty. That would include all mammals and birds, and octopodes/octopuses (which are known to play), and perhaps squids and cuttlefish.

These are just a scant few items I found interesting. Bird Sense is fascinating, full of great anecdotes (Dr. Birkhead has been many places most of us have never heard of) and the results of an immense volume of research. I'd have gobbled up a book twice the size.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Malice on the Moon

kw: book reviews, science fiction, astronomy

Many years ago I read the compilation Venus Equilateral, by George O. Smith. For the first time I felt a strong disconnect between the wonder of the technical ideas and the overdone social duality between the "good guys" and the "bad guy". The notion of using the L-4 and L-5 points in the orbit of Venus as communications relay stations was enthralling. But the badness of the bad guy, in particular, was too melodramatic and rung false. I may have been socially backward and awkward at age 22, but even I already knew that people are complex creatures, a mix of good and bad. However, it served a purpose for me: I began to consciously expand my social horizons, to grow out of my youthful nerdiness.

Reading Farside by Ben Bova, I felt a sense of déjà vu, a kind of "here we go again" feeling. In the midst of a wonderful setting—the creation of a large optical interferometer on the outward-facing side of the Moon—the human story is a jarring contradiction. As the drama of politics-of-revenge, fueled by sexual jealousy, played out, I felt it was just too much. There has to be a better human story for Bova to put in this setting. But I thought over his prior novels, and I realized it is the only kind of politics he uses, perhaps the only kind he understands. So let's put all that aside and glance at the interesting ideas:
  1. An astronomical puzzle: A planet has been found circling Sirius A, the Dog Star, a class A star about 8 light years distant. Single-instrument observations have yielded tantalizing hints of an atmosphere, and it is a twin of Earth in size, in the habitable zone about its central star. The puzzle? Sirius B, now a hot white dwarf, is known to have novaed in the last few thousand years. It ought to have stripped off any atmosphere from Sirius C, as the planet is being called. The "hints" come from observations of transits; the orbit of Sirius C is lined up so that it transits Sirius A, and the shadow disk has an unexpected fuzziness. More about this momentarily.
  2. An interferometer of three 100-m diameter telescopes placed at many km distance, in an equilateral triangle I presume, around Farside Station, located as exactly opposite Earth as possible.
  3. Traditional methods of mirror-building have produced one mirror as the story opens, but it has been damaged. The option is explored of using nanotechnology to either repair or replace this glass dish quickly. By the end of the book, nanotech has triumphed, and the observatory is in operation.
  4. Nanotech plays a bigger rôle than this, however. For the chief of the nanotech operations, nanomachines in her body are keeping her healthy, and a chief engineer who must spend much of his time outside, where radiation exposure is damaging, is offered the chance for nanotech repair. That he takes the offer could have become a more interesting story than what we have in this novel. Instead it becomes a red herring during detective work to uncover who is using nano-gobblers to sabotage the telescope-building operation.
  5. The goal of the interferometer is to image the planetary surface of Sirius C and get spectra of its atmosphere, to determine just how Earth-like it may be.
I just had to figure out what it takes to observe details on a planet that is 8 light years distant. Let's first remember that the moon's diameter is 3,476km, so an interferometer has to be smaller than that. A part of the story in which it takes about 30 hours to drive from Farside Station to one of the mirror locations in some kind of Moon buggy sets the scale at about half that, maybe more. One crater identified is Mendeleev, from which I conclude that the size is about 2,500 km, each telescope about 1,250 km from Farside Station. The triangle configuration makes the effective diameter closer to 2,000 km.

Eight light years is about 76 trillion km. A telescope that can see Sirius C (diameter close to 13,000 km) as something more than a 1-pixel dot at such a distance must be at least 3.3 km in diameter. There goes the hint about fuzziness during a transit, using a single telescope of more "ordinary" size such as 20-40m (what we might expect in a few decades). Also, the transits would be 10 years apart. Sirius A is a hot class A star, so the habitable zone is quite a distance away, 8-9 AU.

To see features as small as 10 km on Sirius C, the interferometer's effective diameter must be 4,160 km. With about 2,000 km, the smallest features visible would be a bit over 20 km across. If the full lunar circle were used, you could get below the 15 km range. That's it. It isn't too bad; it works out to a planetary image 600-800 pixels across. This image of Earth is about 800 px across, though this presentation is about half that; click on the image to see it full size.

That is actually an impressive amount of detail. If we could see detail like this on a planet 8 light years away, we'd have a good first impression of its habitability. The biggest clue would be the presence of water and oxygen, or perhaps a different indicator of an atmosphere strongly out of chemical equilibrium. Equilibrium equals sterility.

Just to be a squidge about it, though, we'd really like to see such images out to much greater distances. At 80 light years rather than 8, the earth would appear like this to the Farside observatory. At 800 light years, the image would be a mere 6-8 pixels across. Of course, farther out than about 20 light years, if we were to find a sister Earth, and it were inhabited, conversation with the inhabitants would be a decidedly long-term matter, with decades between "Hello, I am John of Earth" and "Hello, I am Rover, how are you?".

Bova's writing skills are great enough that the book is a quick read, in spite of my discomfort with the melodrama. I keep hoping we, or someone, will regain the gumption to return to the Moon and set up a more permanent presence there. Perhaps someday a Farside Station Observatory will become a reality.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Everything affects everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, quantum mechanics, quantum theory, entanglement

A couple of quotes are in order:
"Entanglement is not one but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics." —Erwin Schrödinger
"The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." —J.B.S. Haldane
Mathematics professor Amir D. Aczel, whose books illuminate the mysteries of science and mathematics for "the public", has tackled the fundamental scientific mystery in Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics. He has taken on the unenviable job to explain something nobody can understand to everybody else. This is truly to unscrew the inscrutable!

"Entanglement" has a specific meaning in physics. Certain processes, such as the mutual annihilation of an electron and a positron, or the two-photon cascade in the decay of "excited" states of many kinds of atoms, produce a pair of photons that have exactly opposite values of certain quantum properties such as spin or polarization. Then, if you measure the property of one of them, you know that the other one has the opposite property. This is most of the aforesaid meaning; to make it complete, two provisos are needed: firstly, that entanglement is possible between more than photons, but also electrons and any other kinds of particles that can be produced in such linked pairs (for example, the Cooper Pairs of electrons that make superconductivity possible); and secondly, that the actual values of the property to be measured exist in superposition on both particles, until a measurement is taken on one of them, and then in some way the other particle takes on the opposite property, instantly, with zero delay. This last proviso, the core of the Copenhagen Interpretation, is what so bothered Einstein, and he went to his grave believing it could not be so. He called it "spooky action at a distance".

Dr. Aczel uses twenty chapters filled with stories, mini-biographies, explanations, and an occasional formula, to tease out the development of the ideas and experiments that have led to the inescapable conclusion that entanglement really occurs, and that there are not some "hidden variables" that determine the values we will measure at the time of our choosing. This is a subtle point, and one I find hard to imagine, let alone describe.

However, superposition of states is not confined to entanglement. It is everywhere. It is the reason we cannot see with infinite clarity. We call it diffraction. Most people never encounter diffraction to any bothersome extent. But anyone who owns a microscope or telescope knows about it. However, you don't even need one of those. A pinhole will do.

Try this. Take three pieces of aluminum foil a few cm in size. For ease of handling, make suitable holes in cardboard and tape the foils over the holes. Pierce one with a 3-penny nail or a sharpened piece of 14-gauge wire. If carefully done, you get a 2mm hole (what works best for me is holding the foil against a piece of Styrofoam to pierce it). Pierce the second with the thinnest pin or needle you can find. With luck, you can make a hole in the range 1/2-3/4 mm in diameter. With the third, hold it against a piece of glass, and just barely poke it with the tip of your sharpest pin. You may need to twist the pin to get the point to just go through. With luck, you will get a hole 1/10 mm in diameter. In a darkened room, shine a flashlight through the largest hole, holding it about half a meter from the wall or a light-colored surface (such as a piece of paper taped to the wall). The light spot will be about the same size as the hole. Then shine the light through the middle-sized hole. The spot will be dimmer, but nearly the same size; definitely larger than the hole itself. Now shine the light through the third, tiny pinhole. You may not see much at first. Move the hole closer to the wall until you can see the spot. Even with it held rather close to the wall, the spot will be much larger than the pinhole, and may be as much as 5mm across.

It is a matter of ratio. The width of the spot divided by the distance between the hole and the wall is the same as the diameter of the hole divided by the wavelength of the light. A 1/10 mm hole is 100 microns. Yellow light has a wavelength of 0.6 microns, so the ratio is about 160:1. If the hole and light are held 500mm from the wall, the spot's size will be about 500/160 or 3mm. Now, why are tiny photons, with a wavelength of 0.6 microns, disturbed as they pass through a hole so much larger than they are? Amazingly, even the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting above the blurring atmosphere, with a mirror whose diameter is 2.4m, disturbs the photons entering its aperture such that it cannot see with infinite clarity, but has a "figure of merit" of about 1/25 arc second at visible wavelengths. It cannot record an image with details smaller than that. Thus, when it looks at a galaxy a billion light years distant, the smallest features seen in the images it records are nearly 200 light years across.

The quantum mechanical explanation for diffraction is that the photon (or any other moving particle) has a rather diffuse "edge". Though it's wavelength is less than a micron, it has an extension and can "feel" the size of a hole it is passing through. The full consequence of diffraction is that there is no limit to the size of the "hole" that a moving particle can "feel". This has also been confirmed with electrons. An electron microscope makes much sharper pictures, and thus can be used at much greater magnification, than an optical microscope. However, even electrons with a wavelength (called the de Broglie wavelength; it depends on mass and velocity) of 1/10,000 micron are diffracted as they pass through the aperture in the magnetic lens of an electron microscope, so it takes rather clever (and large) design to make an electron microscope that can directly see atoms. But this has been done.

Suppose there were no diffraction at all? Then, even a small telescope could see to the ends of the Universe. The Hubble, being above the atmosphere, would be able to see aliens walking on the surface of planets anywhere in the visible Universe, depending only on the cost of making lenses that could increase its angular magnification by a factor of a few million or billion. In fact, your 1/10 mm pinhole could be a telescopic camera. Just put film a meter or so away from the hole (in a dark box), put it on a stable mount (with a clock drive if you are looking at stars), and expose for a long, long time, because you are gathering so little light. No matter how far away you put the film from the pinhole, the spot would be 1/10 mm across, so for higher resolution, just go longer. But even a "pinhole telescope" one meter long would have an effective f/ratio of 10,000. It would take a very long exposure even to make an image of the sun! That's the main reason professional telescopes are wide, to gather more light.

Diffraction implies that every moving particle is affected by everything in the Universe! On page 127 of Entanglement, an illustration shows an electron passing by a closed cylinder. There is a magnetic field inside the cylinder, but not outside. Still, the electron's motion is affected by the magnetic field. Some part of the electron's wave nature still enters the cylinder, even though it may pass by some distance away (the distance used in the experiment is not stated, but is likely to be a few mm).

I think you can see from the above discussion that I view the essence of quantum mechanics to be non-locality. Every photon, every electron, every atom or molecule in an "atomic beam" experiment, even every Buckyball (C60 molecule) in an experiment Aczel describes on p24, is "spookily" connected to the entire Universe!! Entanglement is simply one rather puzzling embodiment of such connections.

OK, why doesn't a jogger's direction get "disturbed" while running between two buildings? The jogger's de Broglie wavelength is about 10-36m. The ratio is so huge, that the runner, aiming for the middle of the sidewalk half a block ahead, will only "miss" by a trillion-trillionth of a mm. Not enough to notice. And the jogger will take a few dozen steps in that same half block. The disturbance of each step, and ensuing corrections by the jogger, make the only effective difference.

There is another large-scale effect that shows why Star Trek teleportation is unlikely. Quantum entanglement makes it possible to "teleport" certain quantum properties, such as spin or polarization, from one particle to another, effectively making particle #2 identical to particle #1 (while destroying that property for #1), but in a different location. In effect, particle #1 jumps from the first location to the other, instantaneously. What about multi-particle systems, such as a human body? The number of protons and neutrons and electrons in a human body of, say 50kg mass (my wife's size), is about 6x1023 times 50,000, times 1.7 (for the electrons), or about 5x1028. That is, 50,000 trillion trillion particles. You have to measure not just spin or polarization, but identity (proton, neutron, or electron), location (to the nearest nanometer, or maybe to the nearest femtometer, I am not too sure), and velocity for each and every one of them, and take no more than about a millionth of a second to do so, then perform the quantum transportation to that number of particles at your target location. The measurement operation would effectively focus many quadrillions of quadrillions of watts of energy on that 50kg body, and vaporize it in much less than the millionth of a second it takes to make the measurement. It would be greater than a multi-megaton nuclear explosion. Neither the Enterprise nor the planet you were sending Captain Kirk to visit would survive intact.

The explanations in the book are clear, or as clear as possible for our limited mind to take in. To be sure, the experiments that confirm that entanglement really takes place do not give us any indication how or why it occurs, they just confirm that it does. Practically speaking, "why" is a theological question anyway. Science describes, and to some extent it can predict (that is what theories are for). And, to a lesser extent, it can enable technological achievements. Will a "quantum computer" or "quantum encryption" become practical, using equipment smaller than a battleship, or perhaps a kitchen stove? Possibly. Unlikely in my view.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Decline and fall of the last American hospital

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, hospitals

From the word hospital, derived from host, we get the word hospitality. Sadly, as shown in a recent Time article by Steve Brill on the Chargemaster system and hospital administration practices, there is precious little hospitality to be found at any American hospital. Put that together with a flood of anti-doctor and anti-medical-establishment books in the past ten years, and I find my attitude towards "health care" in America is pretty bleak. Thus, I was cheered to read about Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the last Almshouse operating in the U.S.…at least, I was cheered for the first third of the book God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Dr. Victoria Sweet.

Nearly every hospital throughout Europe and America began as an Almshouse, a charitable organization usually connected to a monastery or convent. (Side note: The Roman Catholic church canonized Mother Teresa a few years ago. During the late Twentieth Century she was nearly unique, but prior to about 1930, there were thousands of Mother Teresas in Almshouses around the world and across America.) And until recently, the 2/3 of hospitals that are private, non-profit entities were low-cost facilities where doctors could provide more specialized care for major conditions. They took advantage of economies of scale, sharing the cost of operating theaters and later intensive care wards.

Then two trends collided. Technology produced "imagers"—CT (formerly CAT) scanners, MRI (formerly NMR) scanners, PET scanners, EBT scanners (e.g. HeartCam) and other multi-million-dollar imaging machines—and then "Gamma knife", daVinci robotic surgery and an increasing number of high-tech "procedure" devices. And the number of tests that can be performed on a blood or urine sample continues to multiply. All are very costly. I also count the huge pharmaceutical industry as a segment of technology. No longer an enterprise devoted to finding natural chemicals that kill bacteria or amend hormone imbalances, the drug trade is now all about designer substances intended to increase the cost of treating a growing array of symptoms (many are now just "marketing illnesses" that were once considered normal variations), primarily for the benefit of their stockholders.

Perhaps starting a little before the technology trend that began in the 1920s, the "efficiency" trend promoted by Frederick Taylor and Frank Gilbreth gained sufficient steam by the 1970s to totally transform medical "care". Today, the "health care" establishment—both hospitals and insurance companies—primarily cares for continually increasing stockholder value. Doctors' time is squeezed, so that many feel pressured to see between four and six patients (increasingly called "clients") per hour. Nurses' time is squeezed, so that paradoxically, nurses are being laid off (and new nurses can't find jobs) at a time when the Baby Boomers' need for health care is rising rapidly.

As God's Hotel shows from its middle chapters on, a third trend, of "rights" for everybody except those who are supposed to know what they are doing (doctors and nurses), has collided with the other two, demanding ever increasing "services" while ignoring their costs.

Dr. Sweet began her career with a double ambition. Of course, she was a newly-minted M.D. with her residency completed, and wanted to practice medicine, brim-full of allopathic training. She had also experienced things that seemed to go beyond Twentieth Century medicine, and at a propitious time, encountered Hildegard of Bingen's Medicine, written in the Twelfth Century. This epitome of "premodern medicine" had an entirely different view of the human person, well or ill, than "modern medicine". It also described quite a variety of treatments known to be effective, many of which are still used. Think Aspirin for minor pain: you can make it yourself by extracting willow bark with vinegar, as people did for centuries. Think "eyeblink" diagnosis (also called Augenblick, from German): when you've seen a syndrome, you will recognize it again in an instant. See many and sundry sick people, and you'll "get an eye" for this. My uncle was a master at this, as was his father. Dr. Sweet was able to pursue a PhD in premodern medicine while carrying on medical duties at LHH. Her experiences there, and a 4-year pilgrimage she undertook with a friend, form the framework of the book.

Sometimes the "eyeblink" can take a little time. Thus the value of sitting with a patient. Late in the book, Dr. Sweet (called "Dr. S" by nearly everyone at the hospital) writes of being stumped by a very sick patient who took a turn for the worse, could not endure a touch without screaming, threw off the bedclothes and her gown, and lay writhing on the bed. So the doctor sat by her bedside and watched. Soon she realized the woman looked like she was trying to drive a poison out of her system, and pondered what the poison could be. Thinking through the long list of medications, she realized that many of them increased retention of Serotonin. She diagnosed Serotonin Syndrome and cut way back on those medications. The woman recovered, fortunately, because the syndrome is frequently fatal and is hard to detect with a blood test. The diagnosis relied on application of modern knowledge together with an ancient technique of simple observation. It took less than an hour, and used no blood tests, indeed no physical contact with the sick woman at all.

What is an hour of a physician's time worth? My family doctor charges $150 for a half hour's visit (he eschews the HMO limits of 10-15 minutes, thus cutting into his income, but providing better care, genuine care). He has rent and utilities to pay, staff to pay, and probably pays himself less than half that, but suppose he is "earning" $150 per hour. That works out to $300,000 per year for an 8-hour day, but I reckon he works longer hours. When I go for blood tests, a simple "metabolic panel" has a retail cost of $300, though the insurance company discounts that to $160. Just a blood count (hematocrit) is $100 or more. The venipuncture by the needle girl is $50. I don't know what kind of blood test can detect Serotonin Syndrome, but I bet it costs more than $150, and I am sure Dr. S was paid less than $150/hr in the year 2002 or so.

The book is full of examples that show how "efficiency" is far from efficient. The paperwork to buy shoes for one patient who had none was taking weeks and weeks, until one doctor bought a pair for $60 and gave them to the patient. He could then be discharged. How many days, at a few hundred dollars a day, would he have been kept in the hospital waiting for the "efficient" service to occur?

Laguna Honda treats (or treated) the poor, the really poor, many sent over from the County Hospital after they had run the course of "acute care" available there. They ranged from very ill to nearly dead. Many were drug addicts. Some had nearly no liver left from heavy drinking. Most were too sick to return home, ever. The Almshouse provided a synergistic mix of allopathic and pre-modern medical care. But, during Dr S's twenty years there, things changed. The Twentieth Century intervened, with its "efficiency", its technological gimmicks and gadgets, and its nannyish "rights" enthusiasts. It was somehow against the "privacy rights" of the patients to have open wards with 30 beds, even though 90% of them preferred the community spirit that resulted, and LHH had a few private rooms for those who really, really didn't like sleeping in an open ward (once they recovered enough to notice). But the nanny-state decreed otherwise.

A 10-year Justice Department review resulted in a scathing report that required either shutting LHH down and paying (by California and S.F. county, of course, not by the Feds) for some level of "care" in their "homes", usually skid row hotels. Even though a number of the patients had been kicked out of such hotels for infractions such as starting fires or having fights (imagine two people too sick to stand, having a fight)…or being replaced by a new, "modern" facility up to DoJ standards. Amazingly, the voters of San Francisco voted in favor of a bond issue to the tune of a third of a billion dollars, and the architectural review began, followed by construction, and finally, moving all the patients to the new place.

The book ends in a way that led me to infer Dr. S left LHH at that point, or soon after. There is no way the former standard of caring could be carried out in the new facility; it is devoted to "modern care", which we must remember, only cares for the bottom line. There is no "hospitality" left in American hospitals. All are mis-named. The book made me laugh a time or two. More often I breathed, "Oh, wow!". Sometimes I wept. During a few months living in Switzerland, Dr. S saw medicine practiced in a way more similar to LHH than to anything else in America. To get caring care, now Americans must travel abroad. Sic transit Miraculum.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

A Dyson hemisphere

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens, space travel

In their first collaboration, Larry Niven and Gregory Benford have come to lead that subgenre of Science Fiction that combines hard science, some blue-sky projections thereof, and believable sociology of both human and alien societies. In the case of Bowl of Heaven, the hard science keeps all speeds below that of light and accepts certain other known limitations of physics, the projections (or speculations) push engineering to the scale of a solar system and also posit a ramscoop that uses superconducting magnetic fields a few thousand times greater than any so far known, and the sociology involves a dozen or so humans confronted by not just one or a few quite alien species, but a profusion of them, in a colossal engineered ecosystem.

Most SciFi aficionados know the concept of a Dyson Sphere, the product of a society that captures all the radiation of a star as its energy source. Though Dyson first conceived of a hollow sphere, the concept was soon modified to encompass myriads of large, stellar-light-capturing orbital habitats in a thick shell about the star, sufficient to block all or nearly all of its light, and emitting waste heat primarily at wavelengths between 8 and 20µ (the human body's thermal radiation, at 310K, peaks at 10µ). So far, no deep-infrared stars suggestive of such structures have been observed. The orbital mechanics of such a system are formidable, and collisions might be so frequent as to make the scheme impracticable.

Niven's best-known foray into the partial Dyson Sphere arena has been the famous Ringworld series. Now we have an even more ambitious engineering project: Build a hemisphere centered on a flare star (a late K or early M star that tends to have a strong stellar wind), that supports many (quadrillions, I suppose) steerable mirror segments. Its radius is roughly an AU (150 million km). A wide ring at the equator supports a habitat with the area of many trillions of km², and the structure rotates to produce centrifugal "gravity" in the habitable ring. There is a hole at the center (the rotational axis of the hemisphere) with a special function. The mirrors reflect the star's light to focus on an area at the "rear" of the star (we can presume its axis of rotation), heating it and focusing its stellar wind into a jet that passes through the hole in the hemisphere. This begins to drive the star. Some sort of engines in the hemisphere counteract its orbital instability until the star begins to accelerate sufficiently to closely balance the tendency of the hemisphere to fall inwards. Then the job of the engines is quite a bit easier, or at least less energetic. Now you have a "ship" that is similar in size to the orbit of Earth or perhaps Mars, that can cross interstellar space over a span of millions of years.

This idea by itself could be fodder for a simple high-concept novel. For Niven and Benford it is mainly backdrop. Put it out there, make it a few tens of millions of years old, populate it with a cadre of large, birdlike alien species and an uncountable number of "adopted" alien species whose members they have plucked from star systems as they swung by in ages past. Then add US.

A ramscoop from Earth, bearing colonists heading for a star they've named Glory, catches up with this star-centered Bowl. Now, we all know that paying a visit to aliens who can engineer on such a scale is quite foolhardy. But it happens that the colonists, most of whom are in frozen sleep, have a problem. The small "awake" crew has discovered that the ship's top speed is a few percent low. Low enough that they can't keep a crew awake and alive long enough to get to Glory. They figure the Bowl might be able to supply them with materials they can use to replenish their stores, so they do pay the ill-advised visit, and of course the landing crew is partly taken captive and partly escapes to re-learn their Boy Scout skills as they flee hither and yon, evading capture while they learn what they can about the Bowl and the habitat.

I have wondered in the past just how big a spinning structure could be, to produce about 1g of apparent gravity. It turns out that the stress intensity for 1g of centripetal acceleration increases linearly with radius, such that the strongest known steel could not produce 1g when the radius is greater than a few hundred meters. Perhaps some kind of carbon nanotube assembly could hold together a structure of a km or so diameter. Both Ringworld and the Bowl would require materials with a tensile strength a few million times greater than any known. However, I was able to keep such considerations from marring my enjoyment of the book and its concepts, and I trust so can most SciFi readers.

A great deal goes on in this 400-page book, as we glean insights into the various cooperating "big bird" denizens and some of the Adopted species, and as one human group begins to learn to communicate with their "hosts" while the other searches for understanding and some kind of bargaining leverage. Here, the volume ends. I suppose a trilogy is planned (though the authors promise but one sequel, Shipstar).

The possibilities of quite distinct psychologies that the authors explore in the big birds are fascinating. Is our human Bicameral Mind going to be a handicap or a detriment, compared to their more unified psychology? It makes me wonder if the future volume(s) will explore the possibility that human psychology could become more unified, making our "unconscious" more consciously accessible.

There is a character, Fred, that I found myself identifying with. He is socially awkward but totally at ease with machines and computer code. In a conversation he describes his problem-solving technique, which takes advantage of sleep, and I was saying, "Yes! That's just what kept my programming career going for 4 decades!". I figure that either Niven or Benford must do this, or they know quite well someone who does and has described it. It is comparatively rare as an explicit technique, though many people have experienced waking up with a worrying problem solved.

Now I have my marching orders, to track the progress of the next volume, Shipstar, and any possible successor volumes. I can hardly wait.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Economics that is beyond me

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, politics, polemics

Tranche: Transaction documentation usually defines tranches as different "classes" of notes, each identified by letter (e.g. Class A, Class B, Class C securities) with different bond credit ratings. The equity ("first-loss") tranche absorbs initial losses, followed by the mezzanine tranches which absorb some additional losses, again followed by more senior tranches. Equity is riskier than mezzanine, and so forth.

A simple statement like that above (cribbed from a Wikipedia article), early in the book, would have saved me a lot of puzzlement when I was reading Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy is Wrong by Edward Conard. A glossary would have been even better, because those few terms bolded above are just the tip of the iceberg of specialized jargon Conard uses. It is really too bad. The back cover has six blurbs of high praise; all are from economists, who of course would understand the book without further education. For the rest of us, the book is quite inaccessible.

Of course, I have spent two weeks with this book, gradually unscrambling the inscrutable, so I can evaluate it better. In the main, I like the author's analysis, which was a relief to me: he is a former partner in Bain Capital and colleague of Mitt Romney, and I am also a financial and political conservative. Here is a synopsis of what I did understand. Bottom Line: The cause of the 2008 Financial Crisis was a classic bubble, in real estate rather than in banking as the media have stated (repeatedly!). The collapse of the bubble led to the collapse of major banks, and we'll get into that.

In the first of three sections, "What Went Right", he outlines the parts played in a national economy—on a global stage—by Investment, the Trade Deficit, and Incentives.
  • Investment: There are three things you can do with money that comes your way, consumption, savings, or investment. Here, "consumption" includes charity and any other use of money besides saving and investing, and "saving" means putting money into a bank account, money market account or CD. "Investment" means different things depending on your rôle. For most of us, it is trying to beat the bank rates by putting some money into mutual funds or stocks or bonds. It can also mean investing in more education. For a business owner, it means money spent towards innovation, to increase the competitiveness of the business, or even better to create new and lucrative products.
  • The Trade Deficit is seen as a positive, a way to export labor costs. This both drives consumption and reduces its costs. It's a nice idea to "Buy American", but it doesn't make economic sense for a poor or lower-middle-class family to purchase only products manufactured by workers who earn an average $17/hr, when available products of equivalent utility were manufactured for 75¢/hr: that's a labor cost of just 4.4%, effectively zero, so you can afford a lot of transportation cost and still pay much less. This is a major reason most American jobs are in the service sector. You can't export plumbing or auto repair to China. (By the way, make sure your college student also learns a trade; more likely to pay off.)
  • Incentives have two sides. A businessperson who invests is likely to compete better, and may get lucky with a blockbuster product. This will bring a great increase in income, and increased status. A businessperson who does not invest, or does so meagerly, will not do as well, and will also suffer a loss of status for failing to grow the business.
These three factors were working together and had led to the superior American economy leading up to 2007. European and Japanese firms invested less, some were protectionist, and they taxed successful businesses more heavily, so while America produced AOL, Google, FaceBook, Microsoft, Intel, and Apple, the rest of the West produced nothing of that scale.

Incentives in particular are misunderstood by most Americans, especially in the face of a steady drumbeat of Liberal propaganda that "the rich" are "oppressing" the poor and "taking advantage of the 99%". Let's be frank. Suppose the combined governments in the U.S. were to have a super-flat tax, meaning you can earn up to, say, $30,000 per year tax-free, and then the tax rate is 100% for every dollar above that point (divided somehow among Federal, state and local governments). Do you think Andy Grove or Bill Gates or Warren Buffet would have built their businesses, or even remained in the country? At a much, much lower level, I observed this: When one of my co-workers had been at a particular salary grade a few years, he or she would begin taking on more and harder projects, hoping to impress management and receive a promotion (with its extra 5-10% pay boost). If a promotion was not forthcoming within a year or two, the same person would get discouraged and begin slacking off, and perhaps even drop in productivity to a level lower than a few years before. It is a well known business proverb: you get what you incentivize.

Now, I get pretty bothered when a company executive attains a salary that works out to a few thousand dollars per hour. I don't think anybody is worth that kind of salary. However, when a business owner takes financial risks to grow the company, and happens to hit it big (like Bill Gates, everybody's first example), it may rankle folks that he becomes "worth" millions or billions of dollars, but he hasn't attained that by putting an inflated salary into the bank. What he is "worth" is the market value of that portion of the business that he owns.

I can use a friend of mine as an example. His family-owned business was worth a few million dollars when he took over its management in his 30s. He built the business, investing deeply but wisely, so that it grew a thousandfold. A few years ago he was said to be "worth" about $20 billion. The Financial Crisis has been worldwide. Although most of his company's assets are overseas, they were affected by the recession, and his current "worth" is about $2 billion. In all this time, though, he has been paid the same executive salary of a few hundred thousand, in terms of $US. And let's consider what would happen if Bill Gates or my friend were to attempt to cash out his holdings. There is hardly anybody who can afford to buy all of Bill Gates's stock in Microsoft, and probably no institution that is willing to do so. He'd have to sell the stock over time, and it would depress the market for that stock and possibly bankrupt the company, because the precipitous drop in its value would make capital purchases more difficult or impossible.

So as much as we may envy the rich, for the most part they are enjoying the rewards of their risk-taking luck. Incentives are a necessary part of a robust economy.

There was, of course, a fly in the ointment, long before 2007. As outlined in the second part, "What Went Wrong", regulators loosened regulations on the way banks write home mortgages, administration officials and lawmakers began to put pressure on banks to make mortgages more affordable to lower-income people, the credit rating agencies rated "tranches" of bundled mortgages (as defined above) more liberally than they should have, and banks and short-term investors soon got caught up in the speculative frenzy, driving up home prices.

Continually falling interest rates, led by the Federal Reserve, played a big rôle. If the homes in Suburb A all sell for $100,000, and mortgage interest drops from 8% to 4%, you can get a loan for just over half the payment. But the price won't stay put. Someone paying $587 monthly on a $80,000 mortgage finds he can get almost twice the money for the same payment. He figures, so can someone else with a cheaper house who wants to upgrade, so he puts his home on the market for $125,000, amplifying his $20,000 of equity into nearly $38,000 after paying his realtor. Now, since he can borrow more than $120,000, he buys a house for $160,000 (ignoring the fact that it was valued at $125,000 a few years earlier). Prices spiral upward.

There is a second effect. Banks got more confident in making "subprime" loans, which are loans with smaller or zero down payment, made to buyers who are near the bottom of the "qualified" credit-score window. In a price spiral, they knew that a $100,000 home, financed at full price, would gain in price (not necessarily value!), and be "worth" $150,000 in a few years. Once the homeowner has equity in the home (the $50,000 rise in price), the bank judges he is not likely to default, making the loan no longer subprime. But something happens the bank didn't expect. The homeowner got an equity loan for $50,000 and bought a boat, took a vacation, and paid some college tuition. Now the combined loans are subprime, equity is near zero, and the smallest dip in the market (they happen every few years), makes the homeowner "under water", owing more than the house is worth. This is a fragile situation. Anything even a little unfortunate—a medical bill, a falling tree that damages the roof—puts the homeowner in the position of skipping a mortgage payment so he can buy food or gas for the car. Skip a few payments and the bank forecloses. They don't really want to, because they are going to lose money auctioning off the home, but it is better than waiting to see if this particular homeowner gets back in the black. So they foreclose, the homeowner has to move, and if house prices are still down, is able to rent a home similar to the one he just left for less than he was paying earlier.

The housing market got overheated, and then cooled off, as they always do. Too many subprime loans collided with too many underwater loans, and foreclosures climbed. Some of the loans had balloon payments, leading to more foreclosures. On average, the housing market dropped 30% in value. Even a bank with a conservative loan portfolio (there were very few), meaning there was a 20% buffer of equity, found their entire portfolio at least 10% underwater, as evaluated by the short-term lenders they'd been relying on for capital. That includes people with their money in savings accounts. The short-term lenders bailed. There was a run on the banks. Banks became insolvent, and some went under.

Here is where it gets hard to follow. When I was watching this happen in 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced that we had to bail out the biggest banks to the tune of some $700 billion, because they were "too big to fail". The bailout couldn't save them all, and a few went under. The next year, with companies laying off workers due to a lack of capital—they couldn't borrow money enough to run at full capacity and cover cash flow variations—, a new administration proposed spending more than $800 billion on "shovel-ready" jobs in infrastructure repair, to stimulate the economy. They did it so badly the economy simply got worse, and it turned out nothing was shovel-ready anyway. But now such "stimulus" funds are a permanent part of federal expenditures (and just try to find out where the money is going!), making up more than half the Federal deficit every year since. It is a big reason the national debt went up by $6 trillion since 2008.

In the third section of the book, "What Comes Next", Conard outlines a great number of suggestions for improving the economy. This was hardest to follow, but the general tenor is, he is trying to get lawmakers to take a long-term view, something that is flatly impossible to do. Every one of his suggestions goes against human nature, particularly for a politician who must get elected. Now that roughly half the country's citizens obtain significant Federal support, there is a built-in majority who will never vote for a candidate who promises to make even the smallest dent in their own paycheck!

As much as I hate to say it, here is what we really need (and this is me talking, not the author): We need a Presidential Candidate who lies persistently, baldly, and totally, about "taking care" of "the people". One with sufficient charisma and inspirational power to bring a large number of lawmakers along on his coat-tails into office. He, or perhaps she, will have exactly one term, and perhaps only two years, to enact a flurry of actually intelligent legislation. The bills could be quite simple, of the order of
HB1234 and SB321, also known as The Stupid Ugly Fleece-the-Public Act, is revoked in its entirety. All expenditures authorized under the Act are to end immediately.
The trouble is, I suspect it would require jailing the entire cadre of lobbyists for lawmakers to do so. And here is another problem. Last year's $3.6 trillion federal payout supported about 15 million people plus 2 million military personnel. To cut it back to $2.2 trillion, and thus eliminate the deficit, would put about 6.6 million federal workers (probably including some military folk) out of work. So perhaps Conard's way will work better. He suggests returning to the laws and regulations of the late 1990s, in effect, with more conservative bank loan standards. He suggests limiting the "soak the rich" tenor of the country so business owners will find it worth taking investment risks to foster innovation.

This chart came late in the book, but could have done good service in Part 2. It shows that as median earnings increase, so do those of the poorest 20%. I dug into this chart. The trend line has an exponential slope of about 1.2, which is good news for the poor in a growing economy. It means that if median income goes up by factor X, the income of the poorest goes up by X1.2. For example, if median income doubles, (X=2), the income of the poorest 20% increases by a factor of 2.3; if X=10, the factor for the poorest is nearly 16! (P.S. I'd like to find out what country is represented by that dot above and to the right of the U.S.!)

Ronald Reagan was not the first to say, "A rising tide lifts all boats". This diagram illustrates that the smallest boats rise most, contrary to what you hear in the media. So to simplify Conard's point even more: The country that innovates the most will have the strongest economy. Investing for innovation is the best use of our money, even if it risks the occasional bubble.