Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How to ruin a good speech

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, speeches, art, artists

In May 2012 author Neil Gaiman addressed graduating students. The transcript of his speech is published in a very small book, Make Good Art. The delivery took 19 minutes. The reading would take most of us about 8-10 minutes, but the goofy typography of Chip Kidd's design makes it take about an hour. I guess, to get a book out of it, Mr. Kidd had to mess around with it, stretching less than 2,000 words onto about 65 pages.

Mr. Gaiman's recipe for turning lemons into lemonade is, as the title suggests, "Make good art." Need I say more? I will, anyway. I have long contended that genuinely good art, whether fine art, writing, or performance, ennobles the reader/viewer/audience. If it doesn't, it isn't good art. Contrast the side-splitting but gentle humor of Red Skelton with a comic I saw on a cable TV show once: his entire act consisted of grinning and jumping and saying, over and over, with various inflections, "It's the S**t!!" And no, I don't know how long that act is, because I changed channels after about a minute.

C'mon folks, you know the difference between a true laugh and a snicker. You know the difference between delight and dismay, between an audience in transport and one hoping nobody sees them taking in the show. And those who claim that ugly art is somehow "great" or "beautiful" just enable their own degradation at "artists" who need a really, really serious attitude adjustment.

Now, Mr. Gaiman's books sell very well, so he must write well, and the speech is well written. I like his message, what I can glean from it, anyway. If the dark red/light cyan typography weren't so hard to read—there isn't a single letter in the book in black ink—I might have enjoyed it more, and gotten more out of it.

This post is also backdated to the day I actually read the book. Like my prior post says, it's been hectic.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Is friend support peer pressure?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, friendship

In my prior post, I noted that I have 127 FaceBook friends, well below the average among those same "friends". Growing up, I was usually relocated by a family move every 3-4 years. I think our stay at a house in south Salt Lake City was the longest spell during that period: 5 years. This kind of history predisposed me to shed my friends every few years and make my way as the "new kid" (again!). But since leaving South Dakota almost 28 years ago, we've lived in only three houses, the most recent, 19 years! So in late life I am finally learning to make more lasting friends.

It is funny. My wife, who left Japan 42 years ago, still has friends there that she went to middle- and high school with, and keeps up with them, mostly by snail mail. My parents, who moved as much as I did, hung on to friends after leaving a place, and there would be this or that trip to Europe or somewhere with "that bunch". So all the moving seems to have emphasized a quirk of my own personality, to keep my distance. There is nobody from any school or college that I attended, that I have stayed in touch with, and only one from the university. I do remember some of them, but am not in contact with any.

Now, though, we have been living near a set of neighbors for half our married life, and in the local church all that time, a full third of our lives in total, and they are some of our "oldest" friends! (They are nearly all younger than we are) Call me a late bloomer. Looking back on reading Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, by Carlin Flora, I wonder who influenced me the most. Was it Danny, my closest friend in high school drama club? or Jim and the other members of the Madras Minstrels/Willow Tree Singers, as we variously called our folk-n-country music band? (I still have one of the Madras shirts. Doesn't fit any more…) or perhaps that one college friend who became a church friend? Not that we talk a lot. About every 3-4 years, "whether we need to or not".

I have studied and followed the nature/nurture wars for decades. Indeed, a country ballad I wrote, based on a family saying, is called "What Comes Naturally" and has the line, "Part of me is what they made me, part of me I made myself", though I was referring to my parents, not to friends. But Ms Flora states that we are shaped more by friends than by family. This may be so, as a story from our son's childhood illustrates.

In our first meeting with a 7th grade teacher of his, we were told how nice and kind and helpful he was. My wife and I looked at one another wide-eyed, thinking "Is this our son she is talking about?" I hope (probably in vain) that she wasn't too disturbed when I turned back and said, "Well, he knows we won't kill him; he doesn't know that about you." And there you have an example of the tactlessness that has characterized my social life. But our son is a very, very different kid than either of us were. He ran with a pretty good crowd, and turned out a pretty good young man. He is a FB friend also, which is how I know he has over 1,000 FB friends, and keeps up with a great many of them.

In the 8 longish chapters of Friendfluence, the author covers the gamut: how we find and make friends…or how about half the time, others make us their friends; the friends we are glad to have and those we wish we could drop (moving works, but little else does); the effects of friendship on our health and longevity, usually positive but there is no guarantee; the way friendship is changing now that we can Skype or V-chat with anyone anywhere; and, seeing how influential friends are, making the most of it, while avoiding becoming a cynical "user".

On balance, we need friendship. I read of an experiment in which a rat was kept in isolation from all other animals, not just rats, but keepers and everybody. Food and water were delivered mechanically, and I don't know how the keepers managed to clean up without being seen. But it didn't last long anyway; the rat soon just lay down and died, pretty much on purpose, it seems. At the risk of making a cruel experiment more cruel, I wonder if rats differ in sociability as much as humans do. Some people really don't seem to need others. But even the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, at least had rare contact with his brother, which led to his being caught. And though I was considered a loner most of my life, I have always enjoyed social contact, even if I often need time alone to recharge (and that just makes me an ordinary introvert).

I think "No Man is an Island" is literally true. Even for that guy who spent 30 years in Alaska making all his own stuff, and filming it. The filming was a social act, and he had monthly air drops during most of the year. He needed to at least talk to the pilot when picking up his stuff and paying and delivering film to be sent for processing. He got along with a lot less human contact than most of us, but more than the PBS specials about him would lead you to believe.

There're a dozen more kinds of thoughts that crowd together as I consider this book. That makes it a great book in my estimation. PS, I am writing this about 3 days after finishing the reading. Year-end was busy, and very social! So I'm backdating the post.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A quick, mindful read

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology

The cover of the book features a drawing of a sectioned head with numbered pointers to brain features and other items. But A Very Short Tour of the Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain, by Michael C. Corballis, is about psychology, not physiology. In fact, the structures and features of the brain are scarcely mentioned. Rather, the 21 essays in this small book (scarcely 100 pages) feature the workings of minds, ordinary and not-so-ordinary, rather than the "hardware" in which they operate.

The author provides welcome relief from the nearly universal notion that our brain is some kind of computer and the mind is what it computes. The term "compute" cannot really apply to what the brain/mind does, but we have no other verb anyone likes, not even the slightly arty "cogitate". Come to recall, I don't remember seeing the word "compute" anywhere in the book. Nice!

So what word can we use for mental activity? "Think" is too narrow, and implies only conscious action. Most of what goes on inside is not willed. In fact, try to take over your breathing; breathing can be put under totally conscious control for short periods of time, but the least distraction results in an automatic system regaining control. We need a new word, and it is not likely a useful one will arise until we know a lot more about just what "mental activity" actually is. Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") was fine for Descartes in his day, but does that mean non-thinking items do not exist? He said that while kicking a rock…

OK, on to what Dr. Corballis writes. He writes of evidence that creatures other than ourselves think creatively and use language. "Not at our level, of course", is the mantra of human chauvinism. He discusses the Encephalization Quotient, a function of the 2/3 power of body mass. Naturally, the function yields its largest result for humans. However, the number for porpoises/dolphins (you know, those mini-whales like Flipper) is very close. I suspect if you discount body fat, the EQ for porpoises is higher than ours. Oceangoing mammals need a lot of insulation, and blubber fits the bill.

Hmm, let's do a riff on this. The expected weight of a brain, for a mammal, is discussed by Jim Moore in a 1999 article:

Ew(brain) = 0.12w(body)2/3

Reading this article, I find that all the data used were for female mammals. Presumably, this was done to reduce the effect of sexual dimorphism (males in species that compete for females are much larger). So, if a female monkey weighing 1 kg has a brain weighing 19 grams, is this greater or less than the expected brain weight (Ew)? In other words, is this monkey's EQ greater or less than 1? The steps:

  1. 10002/3 = 100.
  2. 0.12×100 = 12.
Thus Ew=12g, so the EQ for this monkey is 19/12 = 1.58. The table in this Wikipedia article lists the EQ for a Rhesus monkey as 2.1. It also uses the house cat as the standard, with an EQ of 1.00. An average cat weighs 3.3 kg. Ew is thus 26.5. Most cat brains weigh from 25 to 30 g, so the "standard" number must have been for a slightly large cat with a slightly small brain. My cat weighs 5 kg and is of a large-headed breed. Her Ew is 35 g. I suspect her brain is closer to 30 g, so her EQ is probably less than 1. Now, on to humans and porpoises.

A Euro-American female in optimal health, of average height (1.65 m), weighs about 60 kg (BMI=22). Her Ew is 184 g, but with the average female human brain weighing in near 1,400 g, her EQ is 7.6. Suppose instead her BMI were 18.6, like my wife? Now with a weight of 51 kg, her Ew is 165 leading to an EQ of 8.5! Is my wife a lot smarter than average? She's smart, but no genius (unless she's a great actor!). And what of an obese woman? Height of 1.65 m and BMI of 30 implies a weight of 81.5 kg. This leads to EQ of 6.2.

Now, the EQ for a Bottlenose Dolphin is listed as 4.14. It is hard to discern where this figure arose. These dolphins range from 2 to 4 m in length, but average size for populations near the U.S. east coast is 2.5 m, with weights in the 250 kg range. The Ew for a 250 kg dolphin is 476 g, so the brain weight used for the table must have been about 1,970 g. Now, suppose we discount the blubber? This is typically 20% of the total, or 50 kg for our example. Considering that this blubber is in addition to ordinary body fat, let's figure EQ for a 200 kg dolphin with a 1,970 g brain: it comes to 4.8. This is closer to the human range.

Now to my point. Do dolphins think? Well, of course they do, but do they think like humans do? Of course not. They "see" by sonar, a sense we don't have, and live in a more 3-dimensional world. But they have social lives and friends and enemies, just as we do.

OK, the book is about the human mind. A quite different measure of mental capacity is the breadth of one's circle of relationships. The Dunbar Number for humans is about 150. While troop size in baboons can be larger than this, stable groups that tend to hang together tend to number 20-30. Yet the naked mole rat, with a truly tiny brain, lives in colonies that average 75 individuals. Perhaps a rat's circle of good buddies is smaller than this.

We may have the capacity for 150 active relationships, but I think few of us take full advantage of it. I am probably more solitary than most. Prior to moving to the Philadelphia area 20 years ago, I seldom lived in any neighborhood longer than 5 years. This led to a habit of shedding relationships every few years. Most of our neighbors live near many relatives, and socialize mainly with them. But I'll just compare the social circles of myself and our son. We moved here when he was 6, so he spent all 12 years of schooling in one district. My high school yearbook has lots of signatures from classmates, but only a handful wrote more than their name. I don't recall signing very many yearbooks with more than my initials. The day our son brought home his middle school yearbook, I found him circling pictures. I inquired, and he said, "These are my friends." I checked later; it was about half the student body, more than 300. He has kept up with quite a number of them. Many are now his FaceBook friends.

OK, I have 127 FaceBook friends. My Friends page lists the number of friends they have, for nearly all of them (some folks hide this). Dropping the page into Excel and filtering a little, I find the range is from 3 to 4,979. This last number is for an evangelist, who has a strong interest in reaching people! But there are 8 others who have at least 1,000 FBF's, our son included. The mean of the numbers I have is 461 and the median is 319, so FB facilitates keeping at least a tenuous connection with large numbers of people, compared to village sociodynamics.

So does Picasa or other picture album applications. The number of People albums in my Picasa archive is just over 500. There are large "slush" albums of "HS Kid" and "Church Kid" and a few other collections, for faces that Picasa found among my photos, and I can recognize them but don't have a name I can recall, just an association.

Well, it will be a while before dolphins or any other creature comes up with something like FB. The human brain is remarkably powerful. Yet it is limited. Chapter 13 opens with words worth remembering: "Got a bad memory? It's actually much worse than you think, for the simple reason that you don't know how much you have forgotten." Truth to tell, when my wife and I have a "blast from the past" and remember someone, the stories she tells me, and the stories I tell her, are wholly different. Our memories overlap no more than 20%, for the same event and person(s)! Without the ability to forget, though, even the amazing memory capacity we have would get too cluttered for us to function. We remember what we find useful, freely edit many parts so our self-story is more pleasing, and skate most of the rest off to limbo.

Now, if a little 100-page book, in 12mo size, can trigger such a bunch of fun riffs, I say you gotta give it a read. It wasn't what I expected. It was a whole lot better!

Monday, December 23, 2013

We are all just tubes wrapped in muscle and bone

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, alimentary canal, physiology, lore

The squeamish may wish to avoid eating while reading Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach. But that goes for many of her books, particularly Stiff (about cadavers) and Bonk (about sex science). I do intend to hunt down a copy of Packing for Mars.

A large part of Gulp is debunking myths. Such as that the human bite is the most dangerous, in terms of causing infection. That's only likely to be true for the bite of someone accustomed to eating food so rotten it endangers his health. Otherwise the Komodo Dragon holds gets the prize for the riskiest bite. And how about the other end? A gastroenterologist of our acquaintance once said he can do all kinds of cutting inside someone's colon, and it'll heal without infection or even a scar. He said he seldom needs to prescribe antibiotics. I've seen the followup colonoscopies after having part of my colon removed, and the trimmed end fitted to re-attach to the ileum, which is something like one-third its diameter. The "fitting" section, called an anastomosis, is a smooth taper from big tube to small tube. My intestinal flora didn't cause any trouble during healing.

OK, that paragraph is about 20% upper GI, and 80% lower GI, just like the book. The mouth gets a couple of chapters, saliva one by itself, the stomach two, the ileum (small intestine) just one, and about 8 chapters dwell on the colon, rectum and anus, plus "gas". This is particularly because of the many uses to which our lower GI is put. You'll just love learning how cell phones get smuggled into prisons… or the recreational uses of the rectum and nearby parts.

Recreation aside, the book is very well researched. The author traveled and interviewed and studied. For the macabre end of things, she discusses some of the exhibits of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, including a "megacolon" 29 inches in circumference (over 9" diameter; a normal colon maxes out at about 3" diam at the cecum). This is caused by a nerve problem that prevents peristalsis, so the colon won't empty without extreme measures: lots of enemas. Most sufferers die young, Elvis included. She also visited the Restaurant of the Future at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. They study chewing. You know that business about chewing 32 times, to do a thorough job, or "Fletcherizing" (chewing each bite for several minutes; you spend all day chewing), to do a thoroughly obsessive job? Neither is needed for proper digestion. Chewing mixes sufficient saliva with the food so it'll go down. Experiments with barely moistened, swallowed chunks found they digested just fine. However, chewing is pleasurable for most of us, such that people who have esophagus damage and must eat by putting macerated food into a tube that enters the stomach through a fistula never feel they've eaten, and are continually famished, regardless how much they stuff through the tube!

Just as studies of "abnormal psychology" help us understand "normal psychology" (I prefer the terms less-usual and more-usual psychology), studies of pathology all along our bodily canal tend to focus on the unusual so as to illuminate the usual. The very few people who have literally eaten themselves to death had to overcome a series of bodily mechanisms that make it harder and harder to keep eating, long before we are in physical danger of bursting our innards. But it has been done, usually by first consuming barbiturates to numb the inner nerves. A clue to the unwary: don't go to a buffet line just after taking medicine that might numb your stomach's defense mechanisms! A paragraph or two on those performers who eat things like broken glass or a chopped-up piano would have been right at home in this chapter, but no go.

Among the major animal groups, we vertebrates are deuterostomes, a term meaning "two mouths". Ms Roach reminds us to be thankful we are not monostomatic like sea anemones, which must defecate back through their mouth, as their body cavity has only one opening. The same goes for all corals and jellyfish and similar critters. Our body plan is essentially a tube wrapped in muscle, enclosed in bone, with skin over all. Insects and relatives such as lobsters differ from vertebrates primarily in having no skin over their bones (it is just inside), and in being "upside down", with the main nerve chord (equal to our spinal chord) along their front side, and the alimentary canal more to the back.

Seeing as how I typically read if I am eating alone, I scheduled reading time away from the table, and read other things (such as Wired or Scientific American) at mealtimes. Much of the book is actually not icky at all, but you never know when turning the page might unleash a surprise. But Ms Roach's surprises are laced with gentle humor. Like a good meal, it left me wanting more.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Developing a voice others will hear

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, spirituality, women, environmentalism

A peek behind the scenes: I don't buy every book I review. Some, but not most. I haunt the new book sections of a few libraries. I look first at the Science Fiction section (inexplicably mingled with Fantasy in most libraries!), then at Science, then at everything else, but usually not biographies or "mainstream fiction". If I haven't found 3-5 books on a particular visit by that point, I peruse the new LP (large print) section.

I picked up When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations of Voice by Terry Tempest Williams because of the title, and because it was the first book I saw in the 500's (Science in DD system; it is classified 508: Natural History). While I would probably still have gotten it if it were in either 298 (Mormon Religion) or 305 (Women's Studies) where it belongs, perhaps that is less likely. At any rate, it was a very good read.

The author's mother died young, of cancer, as did many of her relatives, possibly because they lived downwind of the A-bomb test site in Nevada (I lived in the same area in the 1950s, and I have also had cancer, but I am a fortunate survivor). Her mother's legacy was a bookshelf of journals; Mormon women are instructed to keep a journal of family history. There was a journal for each year. Every page of every volume was blank.

The book is Ms Williams's autobiographical meditation on what her mother might have written. The 54 chapters are only loosely related to the 54 years of her mother's life; perhaps a bit more to the 54 years of her own age when she wrote. Not in time, but in substance. Assuming the subtitle was her choice alone (editors often arrogate that to themselves), we find a development of her own voice as influenced by the strong women in her family, her mother, both grandmothers, and a couple of aunts. In a key chapter toward the end, she learned to recruit other voices when she found her own voice being brushed aside.

"Voice" has several meanings. Perhaps someone reading this encountered it because to them the title meant gaining singing skills. To the author, "voice" is a political power. Persuasive voice. Voice of influence. The voice that gets things done. If possible, a voice with the power of the one that spoke "Let there be light." Because…then there was light. Thus a major theme of the book is to develop a voice of light in the midst of the voices of darkness and destruction. That is the environmental voice, in her case.

I find it interesting to read this right after Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Williams's writing is not as lyrical as Leopold's, but it is seen to be at least as effective. She did not persuade legislators directly, but by forming a coalition of voices more likely to be heard, at least one major piece of environmental legislation did get enacted, and another has been pending for a decade and may yet be passed.

Finally, I realized how she chose her title. She writes of songbirds scolding a raven that has seized a nestling. Ignoring them, it gulps down its prey. More and more small birds gather and scold. Then there is a sudden silence. And the small birds begin to sing, ignoring the raven. They rise above the incident, rise above the raven. They sing because they have voices to sing with. One nestling may have been lost, but others will survive, and life goes on. Regardless what voices there may be in the world, women who know who they are have voices of life.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A classic that will never go out of date

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, naturalists, advocacy

(For the record, I read most of a book on investing, and it was so poor I decided not to review it. Thus the delay for this book, which is shorter than most.)

I just finished reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In case anyone doesn't know, the volume includes Sketches Here and There plus The Upshot. I suppose it is a bit odd that I had not read it before, as I have read Thoreau's Walden and a couple of writings by John Muir. This book outclasses Walden by a large margin.

I suppose Sand County has been reviewed hundreds of times in the 66 years since it was published, so I feel little need to plow worn-out ground. But a few things struck me with sufficient force that they require comment.

In the essay "Prairie Birthday" he writes of the annual blooming of Silphium, seen here, in mid-July. In the
1940s he could find it only in one small abandoned graveyard, and at the end of the essay he notes that the graveyard has been "developed" and the plant is now probably extinct in Wisconsin. This image shows a low-growing planting; this perennial can reach two meters. From the comments at Rob's Plants, it is apparently still found in Vermont and environs. I was particularly struck by the plainness with which Leopold reported the demise of the plant and the yard in which it grew. His is not to castigate, but to unflinchingly report.

Later in the same essay he writes, "…it comes to pass that farms are good in proportion to the poverty of their floras." Having kept a record of the species he has seen blooming in two areas—one his farm and the other the campus where he taught—he noted that the former hosted 226 flowering species, the latter, but 120.

In the essay "Marshland Elegy" his penultimate paragraph reads, "Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value of these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondls, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish." This may be the truest and saddest ecological statement in print.

In the essay "Green Lagoons", one of the Sketches, he writes in a similar vein, more tersely, "Man always kills the things he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

I find it strange that land is being developed at a clip greater than the increase in population. Here are before-and-after satellite images (clipped from Google Earth), one just about 20 years ago, the other earlier this year:

The two neighborhoods thus constructed, not more than a few miles from where I live, quite overloaded the school seen at upper right in both images, so a couple of miles away a new one was built. I know, continued construction is good for the jobs market, but the number of unused homes in the US has reached more than 14 million (11% of the total), quite an incredible number! Having lived most of my life in rural areas, I consider it tantamount to a capital crime to put houses on land that can grow crops, or even worse, shelter wild things. It is even more criminal to do so when there are a few million acres of land under millions of homes that nobody lives in. Hey out there! Remodeling is construction work also.

A final note. I am so poor at both fishing and hunting that I never enjoyed either activity. Leopold excelled at both, and writes of them with lyrical fervor. It touched my heart. He deeply understood all the motives that a person could have toward the land and its denizens. I wonder if any of today's "environmentalists" either hunt or fish. Yet I am distrustful of most "sport" hunters and fishermen. I favor both activities only if you eat everything you kill. But I think it is not true "sport" unless you do all your sport hunting naked with only a knife in hand, and all your sport fishing with your bare hands. I suspect Leopold would be at least mildly supportive of such a view.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Spy life like you've never seen it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, espionage, spies, biographies

In 1998, Bill Powell caught a tiger by the tail, but he didn't know that at first. As a Newsweek reporter in Moscow, he had become accustomed to all sorts of cranks and hard-luck stories walking in and looking for help, or at least a friendly ear. When a fit, conservatively-dressed man of about 50 came to see him, he almost brushed him off. But this man claimed to have met Powell's predecessor while in a prison camp for treason. Powell was intrigued and let him talk, and continued to meet with him. The story took several years to play out.

The plotline of Slava Baronov's life was twisty and complex, but the core of the story was simple. He'd been a colonel in the GRU after serving as a military pilot; while in Bangladesh he grew sufficiently disenchanted with the pervasive lies of the USSR's leaders that he allowed himself to be recruited by the CIA; during the "courtship" prior to "signing on", information he provided about the black box aboard the KAL 007—its survival was never admitted by the USSR—became the only substantive work he ever did for them; soon afterward he found himself out of contact and effectively dangling in the wind. He was arrested by the KGB, tried for treason, but this was now the new Russia, the old USSR was gone, so he didn't get the customary bullet to the head but an actual trial. He concluded he'd been betrayed by someone in the CIA, and this was a few years after Aldrich Ames had been exposed, so what he wanted was twofold: to help the CIA and FBI find the mole, and to find out what really happened, why he was treated so badly.

Against the urging of his wife, and with only grudging permission of his Newsweek superiors, Powell got deeper and deeper into the matter, eventually becoming an intermediary between Baranov and the US government. Powell made it clear he planned to write the story once it had played out, which helps explain why he was not forced into becoming a CIA agent himself. The book that resulted is Treason: How a Russian Spy Led an American Journalist to a U.S. Double Agent by Bill Powell.

If I go further, I'll spoil it. You'll need to read to what extent Baranov was eventually vindicated, and how the CIA atoned. It is a fascinating book.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A utopia, in her eyes

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, places, technology

Did you ever talk to someone who was full of excitement about something that didn't excite you at all? That is how I felt during and after reading Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn From the Innovation Capital of the World by Deborah Perry Piscione. It is odd; Ms Piscione is a good writer, she is passionate about her subject, and Silicon Valley is truly a marvelous place and state of mind. I'm not sure why it leaves me underwhelmed (not cold, mind you, but not all warm-n-fuzzy either).

I scarcely remember my early childhood in California, but I do recall the decade or so I lived there as an adult. I spent most of that in Orange County, arguably the next-best utopia after Silicon Valley. But, not liking the crowds, and preferring not to spend half a million bucks for a bungalow, I left for less populated places. I suppose I'd have enjoyed going to Stanford rather than Cal Tech (where I worked but did not matriculate) or Cal State (where I did matriculate, and graduate). I have a ton of friends there, in San Jose and Los Altos and nearby places. But I have a bigger ton of friends now, here, in the southern and western suburbs of Philadelphia. Not exactly a Silicon anything, but it is where I've spent the longest stretch of my life yet, coming up on 20 years. I've retired here, so I reckon another 20 is in the works, God willing.

But we are supposed to be talking about Silicon Valley. The core of its appeal is twofold: Stanford University and nearly perfect weather. (Aside: depends on how you define 'perfect'. I prefer enough rainfall so water doesn't have to be imported.) The ideals set forth at the University's founding and further developed over the decades since have resulted in a nearly perfect climate for entrepreneurship. Somehow, the California legislature agreed, and onerous laws seen in other US states do not exist there. However, when you have a lot of money chasing the usual amount of goods, prices rise. Land along "Investors' Row" on Sand Hill row can cost up to $144 per square foot (the land, not the structures), or nearly $6.3 million per acre. And I thought land was high here, at a quarter million an acre! Imagine paying $750,000 for a 5,000 sq ft lot. And there is no house on it yet! (I live on a 16,000 sq ft lot, valued at $90,000, under a house of modest value, say twice that of the land.) Of course, Sand Hill is commercial, but commercial real estate in this area isn't much over 30% more than residential, for undeveloped land. I certainly hope residential land there is less than a million for a ¼ acre lot!

Well, I suppose if I'd become an internet millionaire, I wouldn't complain about such prices. The amenities are surely attractive. You really can water ski or surf in the morning and snow ski before nightfall. The eateries are nonpareil. There is usually enough gentle wind, in the right direction to keep SF smog going somewhere else. (Another aside. Traveling westward some years ago, as we descended to land in Salt Lake City, I saw it was smog-bound. Flying out westward an hour later, I saw that the smog was flowing through the mountain passes from the west. It covered all of that part of Nevada we flew over. Then I saw it coming over Cajon Pass and others as we approached LAX. It was LA smog, covering a third of the country! SF smog can get as dense, but is not nearly so voluminous.)

The key to Silicon Valley's success is the mind set. Based on the Stanford ethos – if the school wants a student, its huge endowment ensures they can attend for free, but if they don't want you, all the money in the world won't get you in – there is an egalitarian spirit there that ensures almost anyone with an idea to pitch can get some attention, however brief, from a venture capitalist or investment angel. Your idea better be good, but you won't get brushed off just because you don't have a PhD from, say, Georgetown or Harvard, which is what it takes to get to talk to a VC in DC or NYC.

It takes three kinds of people to make a venture a success: Openers, those with the good ideas and a fair notion of how they might be carried out; Closers, those who know how to complete a task once begun; and Producers, the ones you can hire who will hit the ground running and take the Opener's idea and ideals, and develop them to the point that the market-oriented Closers can induce folks to part with cash. A Silicon Valley culture brings these together in abundance, and provides the mental framework in which they can work together without mutual antagonism.

That last phrase is why Bill Gates is a hero of mine, and Steve Jobs is not. Jobs was a jerk, and managed to antagonize, or exile, everyone who didn't agree with him about nearly everything. Bill Gates knows that if two people agree on everything, one of them is redundant. He hired for variety as much as for talent. Though Microsoft is based in Seattle rather than San Jose or thereabouts, it has connections there, and it embodies the Silicon Valley ethos. It is nice to have the surf-n-ski climate and so forth, but it is the quality of mind and openness to the tremendous variety of human thought, that makes an enterprise successful.

Now, that excites me more than the rest, and deserves stronger billing in this book. So, underwhelmed I may be, but I declare it is a book well worth reading, particularly by anyone who might wind up in the Valley someday, or is there but directionless, or someone in one of the other places seeking to replicate its success.

Changing Gears

kw: authorship

I've invited a new author to this blog, known as Polymath77. Also a book lover, devoted to reviewing. But maybe someone who'll have a new take on things, and write posts on subjects I might have missed.

Changing Gears

kw: authorship

Times are a-changin', and so is authorship of this blog. Polymath70 is transitioning to Polymath77. It will still consist of mostly book reviews. Maybe I'll have time for more frequent posts than ol' 70. We'll probably both be posting for a while, we'll see.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Virtual Human

kw: musings, artificial intelligence, computers, supercomputers

In one of Isaac Asimov's early Robot stories, the president of U.S. Robotics keeps demanding a more and more perfect robot, until at great cost a robot is produced that cannot be distinguished from a human. At that point aliens arrive, and in the course of time visit U.S. Robotics, where they are shown the robot. One of them turns and says, "So what is the point?"

What, indeed? It was published earlier this year that the largest supercomputer complex currently in use has a storage capacity and parallel processing speed that exceeds that of the human brain. What is required to do this? The facility fills a room the size of a medium-size warehouse and uses a total of 7 million watts, both for processing and for cooling. Of course, we are told that Moore's Law ensures that all this will "soon" be scaled down to a much more manageable size and power requirement.

I wonder what "soon" means. A loose way to state Moore's Law is that circuit density doubles about every two years. The Watson supercomputer, which has considerably less capacity than the brain—but is really, really good at looking up trivia needed to score points in Jeopardy—fills a dozen racks and would barely fit in a large bedroom. The warehouse-sized machine mentioned above must occupy 20 to 50 times that volume. Let's say, 2,000 cubic m, or 2 billion cc. The brain's volume is less than 1,500 cc. The ratio is about 1.33 million. Dividing in half enough times, we find it'll take just over 40 years for the brain-sized supercomputer to be possible.

Is that really needed? Why do we want to replicate humans? It presently takes 15-20 years and anything from a few thousand to a quarter million $US to produce an adult human, depending on education level and the level of development of the country in which this person is born and raised. No, the real desire for producing "artificial intelligence", aside from the coolness factor (yawn), is to have a machine that can do jobs humans don't want to do, or cannot do, yet requires more intelligence than we find in waldo-sorta robots (actually teleoperated devices).

At present, even Watson and the larger supercomputers are horribly inefficient. What would it take to do brain things the brain way, using silicon chips and wires instead of neurons and their support systems? Signals along sensory and motor neurons in the body are rather quick, in the range from 20-100 m/s. But they have a larger diameter than brain neurons, so the latter are slower: 3-5 m/s. Thus, it takes a signal about 40-50 ms to go from one end of the brain to another, such as from the optic lobes to the prefrontal lobes. This may underlie the frequency of the Alpha wave, at around 10Hz (8-12). It is the highest frequency rhythm in which the brain can participate as a whole.

But if you use coaxial cables or optical fibers or other kinds of wire for signal transmission, what is needed to keep signal transmission below 50 ms? Signal speeds in wire or fiber are about 2/3 c, or 200,000,000 m/s. In 50 ms, a signal can traverse about 10 million m or 10,000 km. So a mechanical brain can be continent-sized, leaving plenty of room for the really massively parallel kind of computation that the real brain performs.

A neuron is not just some on/off switch. It does some nonlinear processing of its own, so it would take a small CPU to emulate its activity (We'll need to learn a lot more about the various ways neurons in the cortex, the hippocampus, the amygdala and so forth, react to incoming signals).

Well, the brain has 10 billion neurons and 100 billion supporting cells called glia (of several different kinds). We can consider the glia as infrastructure and focus on the neurons. The modern package of a CPU is the cell phone. A smart phone's volume is 80 cc. 10 billion of these comes to 800 billion cc, or about 40 of those warehouses mentioned above. If they are "rackified" outside their cases, and powered externally so they need no batteries, and the radio module replaced with a hard-wire fanout, the volume can be reduced by 10, but you do need to wire them together. Each neuron has from 1,000 to more than 10,000 connections to other neurons, so it'll require a lot of wire. Still, we are in the range of a warehouse with less than 10,000 cu. m, quite a lot smaller than the continent we could fill, and retain the speed we need.

A question might arise at this point: Why is this system so much larger than one which is already faster than a brain? It is because I chose a neuron analog with around 1/10th the volume of a cell phone. The big supercomputer does not use virtual neurons; it does processing by a method entirely different from neuronal activities. But if you want to emulate the brain's functions, you have to emulate the way it does them. That vaunted supercomputer is not nearly as effective as the average house cat at recognizing faces, or voices, or footstep rhythms.

OK, whether it needs a few thousand cubic meters, or ten times that much, it might be costly, but it is theoretically possible to build a system that does brain things in the brain's way. But such a mind would be insane from the outset. Our brain is part of a complex system that includes a body full of sensors and an endocrine system (the original brain) with at least a couple dozen signalling molecules, and a few ways of expressing itself to external beings. Unless a brain, natural or built, has lots and lots of input and stimulation, it "spins its wheels" into helpless catatonia. Of course, using wires or optical fibers allows fast reflexes across pretty large spaces, but you'd really want a body much more human sized, attached to a brain locked away somewhere, via a fast data link no more than a few dozen km in length. A world traveler this one could not be. Remember, motor and sensory neurons have transit speeds in the 30-100 m/s range, so a 2m axon is traversed in 10-40 ms, but the shorter ones (upper body) on the fastest reflex arcs can get a signal to or from the nearest ganglion in a couple of milliseconds.

That's enough for now. And I still await my own criterion for genuine artificial intelligence: A mechanism, unaided, does its own research and development and obtains a patent.