Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Three for a reason

kw: omnibus review, book reviews, nonfiction, science fiction, space fiction, naturalists, apes, politics, polemics

Even reviewing three books I'll have to keep it short. The injury in my fingertip is slow to fully recover. In order to type I put a pressure bandage over it; that reduces edema.

These are three quite disparate books! First, interstellar fiction at its best:

A lovely bit of space opera: Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. Niven has made his name with epic stories of immense space mysteries, in settings where starships are a bit like clipper ships: costly but in frequent use; and alien constructions of incredible size are discovered and explored.

Several years ago in Bowl of Heaven these authors introduced something even more huge than the Ringworld of Niven's "Known Space" books. The Bowl is somewhat wider than Earth's orbit, and its technology uses a captive K-class star for illumination and propulsion. Having a surface area a few million times that of a typical planet, all in perpetual daylight, such a world can support trillions or quadrillions of beings.

The story is a drama of interactions between the humans who have arrived at the Bowl and the various species they encounter there, particularly the elephantine, birdlike "Astronomers" who are nominally in charge. As the story reached its climax I remembered a 1967 episode of Star Trek, "The Squire of Gothos", in which an all-powerful being turns out to be a misbehaving child once his parents intervene at the end. As always in work by both Niven and Benford (and collaborations), we find a bracing panoply of alien minds and cultures.

The Bowl itself is of more interest to me. Several times the characters discuss its dynamic equilibrium. Rather tricky that, holding a star with the Bowl's gravity while inducing it to form a jet—similar in principle to the nucleus of an active galaxy, just star-sized—to propel both Bowl and star across the galaxy. The jet's forces counteract the gravity that would draw star and Bowl together. What I didn't see discussed is how they make it turn around to slow down. The stability of the system turns out to depend on plasma-beings called the Diaphanous. One one hand, I first thought this a copout, but it also emphasizes Niven's determination to imagine some kind of intelligent life for every possible environment. The centers of stars and the surfaces of neutron stars await…but not the interiors of black holes; that's been done.

Second, encounters of a quite different sort underlie Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection by Sheri Speede. This remarkable woman first became a veterinarian, but yearned for something more worthwhile than spaying pets and treating heartworm. An opportunity to visit Cameroon opened up a new world to her, and at the age of forty, she jumped in with both feet.

There are several threads in the book, including lots of autobiography. I'll leave it to her to describe the twists and turns of her own life. She had been blessed with an upbringing and early experiences that helped her cope with the very difficult lifestyle in rural Cameroon. Her passion has been to set up and maintain a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued chimps. Now you can learn of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center here.

The book opens with, and later develops the background story leading to, the death of Dorothy, among the first of the rescued apes. Dorothy became a kind of tribal matriarch to the sanctuary chimpanzees. When she died, Dr. Speede had to perform an autopsy, but afterward, wheeled her covered body by the compound for the other apes to view her. The clear grief on their faces was captured in a photograph that has done more to crack open the anthropological community, and the world at large, to the understanding that chimpanzees have emotions very much like ours. No longer can anyone get away with claiming that "they don't feel in ways we can relate to" or "they don't really feel pain" and so forth.

Creating and running a nonprofit of any kind, particularly an ape rescue enterprise in Africa, takes an incredible amount of fundraising and much time-consuming political effort. The author was favored with a network of support that built up quickly, and the time was ripe for a logging company and numerous regional and tribal chiefs to encourage and support the work. Still, there was a level of effort and commitment that would have deterred her had she had any idea what she was getting into. Those who do great things are often blessed by this kind of holy ignorance. They do the impossible simply because they don't yet know it is impossible.

I wept often while reading, sometimes in joy, sometimes in pain. I suspect, so will you.  I would hope better of my fellow humans, some of whom are degraded to the extent we see in rampant animal cruelty. I am also encouraged by those who express the best of humanity by, in any way, helping what they can help. I recall telling someone of a similar, small effort, and he responded, "That is just a drop in the bucket." I replied, "Yes, so where is your drop?"

Third, something to rile the blood, whether your political slant is left or right or neither: a set of Lou Dobbs chalk talks in book form, Upheaval. Lou Dobbs is unabashedly conservative. We need more like him. These days, the public face of conservatism is, at best, shamefaced. Conservative "leaders" are embarrassed to be conservative, except for a few who claim they are conservative but are actually somewhat left-leaning moderates…they are conservative only by comparison to the rampant collectivists who run this administration and the Senate.

Lou Dobbs wants to do something about that. His weapon is facts, well-researched and well-presented facts. In that, he is more effective than Ross Perot was around 20 years ago, with his flip chart campaign ads. The trouble is, most Americans either don't care enough to realize that the scandal of the month really will affect them, or they are all, "Don't confuse me with facts. My mind is made up." American politics is "American Idol" set on a larger stage. The one who can sing best and get the audience whooping gets the most votes. Nobody even listens to the words of the song.

For me, an unabashed science nerd, I find the following a most telling symptom of our malaise (my bullet points, not his):

  • American astronauts have to rely on getting a ride with Russian cosmonauts to get to and from the International Space Station. I'll bet that ends if we do more than weakly, squeakily protest the current Russian "adventure" in Ukraine.
  • The next visit to the Moon will be by the Chinese. They have said so. They began orbital flights in April of 1970 and intend to send Chinese astronauts to the Moon by about 2020. The next six years ought to be interesting. I wonder if they will bring back the American flag from Tranquility Basin as a souvenir.
  • The latest three countries to launch orbital rockets were Iran, North Korea and South Korea, all since 2009.
Hell, if North Korea, "the dark spot on the map of the Earth at night" can afford a space program, anybody can! We spend more on dog food than on NASA.

Quite frankly, the most fundamental of fundamental problems in this country is risk aversion. America was not started by the risk averse, but now it has been taken over by them.

Do you know why I do not get more politically involved? Too imaginative, too emotional, and I don't want to die of apoplexy. I had to read the book in spurts and starts. A steady diet of polemic, even polemic I agree with and as well presented as this, makes me too upset to sleep well. Lou Dobbs is right much more than he's wrong. I hope someone is listening.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Solving a 3-generation mystery

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, archaeology, linguistics, decipherment

Consider preparing for a monumental task, a life's work, for which no training program exists, no college courses address. When Alice Kober (1906-1950) rose to such a challenge she began by learning a host of ancient languages and scripts (languages are spoken, scripts are written). She was already a professor of ancient Greek and Latin, to which she added Etruscan, Syriac and perhaps a dozen others. She also studied, on her own, archaeology, physics, statistics, linguistics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics. A true autodidact has little time to attend "courses", and learns much quicker from books and a mentor or two.

What kind of task required such a decade of preparation? It was the decipherment of a script that had not been used for more than 3,000 years, and determining the language it encoded. As we read in The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox, Alice Kober, with her exceptional brilliance and unparalleled persistence, became the central figure without whose work the script would have taken a great deal more time to solve.

Expecting to spend the rest of her life at the task, she undertook her decade of study beginning in 1935, and then began working to decipher Linear B, the Minoan script used from about 1450 BCE to about 1200 BCE. During just five years, 1945 through 1949, she solved several problems that had dogged earlier decipherers, beginning with Arthur Evans (1951-1941), who had discovered the first cache of tablets at Knossos on Crete in 1900. She began to ail in 1949 and died of cancer in 1950, on the verge of completely deciphering the script.

It fell to young Michael Ventris (1922-1956)—whom Kober thought little of but shared her findings with—to add his own efforts to her work and to Evans's, and to publish a decipherment in 1952. His final breakthrough was probably delayed by a year because he had early on formed the conviction that the language of Linear B was Etruscan. Only when he had proved that was impossible was he open to think of other languages of the region. He finally determined that Linear B was the first script used to write early Greek, 650 years before the time of Homer and the alphabetic script that became "Greek".

The book is a partial biography of Dr. Kober, whom Ms Fox terms "the Detective", and of Evans and Ventris, whom she terms "the Digger" and "The Architect", respectively. But even more, it is a great primer in the art of decipherment. Drawing on the notes of, particularly Kober and Ventris, the author helps a reader understand the myriad problems one has to solve when confronted with a doubly unknown script. Linear B was harder to crack than Egyptian hieroglyphs, there being no Rosetta stone to help out.

This shows an example of Linear B, a tablet from Pylos on the Greek mainland. The image is the principal illustration from the Wikipedia article. In all, Arthur Evans unearthed about 2,000 tablets. A few hundred more were found on the Greek mainland by others.

Ironically, the tablets were preserved because in about 1200 BCE Knossos was burned, as were Pylos and other locations, in the Late Bronze Age Collapse. All the tablets preserved had been written during the last year before the fall of the city, because the scribes had a practice not of baking their clay tablets, but of re-dissolving them and making a fresh set every year. They recorded ephemeral things such as inventories and transactions. There was no Minoan literature, at least not on clay tablets.

When confronted by an unknown script, it is helpful if there are related scripts with which to compare. In this case, the only related script is Linear A, as shown here. The collection of tablets with Linear A is much smaller, and it has not been deciphered. Only a few comparative things are known. The number of signs used by each script is different, but roughly similar. Some signs are the same or similar, but others are unique to the script. The statistics of sign frequencies are different, and while Linear B encoded an inflected language, Linear A probably did not.

Ah, Inflection, the bane of English language-learners. English does it only a little, mostly in the formation of plurals (dog, dogs; man, men; child, children) and with a few irregular verbs (I am, you are, it is and so forth). Languages such as Latin are strongly inflected. Word endings that confer case, number and tense can really shorten an expression: qui morituri te salutatum means "We who are about to die salute you". This phrase was the standard greeting by the gladiators before every duel. The stem mor- conveys the concept of dying. The rest of the word conveys "plural", "future tense" and an invocative mood.

Now, why is the script called Linear? Because the glyphs are drawn as a series of lines (glyphs in philology are the physical shapes of the signs, and can differ in various ways from the ideal, conceptual sign). The Latin script used for English and all European languages is a linear script. Cuneiform, as shown here, is produced by pressing a wedge-tipped stylus into clay. A quick scribe could made a letter or word glyph by tapping rapidly. A glyph in a linear script is drawn. The third method of writing, used only on hard surfaces or paper, is brushing, as traditional Chinese or Mayan (Mayan carvings are intended to resemble glyphs brushed on paper).

Initially, everything depended on counting signs. This is not always easy. Are two similar glyphs really different, or are they orthographic variations? The Greek σ (sigma), at the end of a word, looks like ς. Both versions of the sigma are considered one sign. Many older printed books in English use run-together letters such as æ or various combinations of f with l or i. These give OCR software fits! Early on, however, it was clear that Linear B had about 80-90 signs used with great frequency, and another 100 or so used like we use special signs or abbreviations; think of a smiley face or the & for "and". These last were probably logograms that stood for whole words.

Alphabetic scripts seldom have more than 40 signs, and include the Latin script used for English (26), the Hebrew script (22) and Cyrillic for Russian (36). Totally logographic scripts such as Chinese require thousands of signs. In between are syllabaries. They typically have between about 60 and a few hundred signs. The Ethiopian language uses the Amharic script with its 283 signs, and the phonetic kana that can be used to write all Japanese has 72 signs. We'll say more about Japanese in a moment.

Linear B was considered "probably" a syllabary by Evans, and this was proved by Kober. Some languages are well suited to syllabaries. English is not. We use such a forest of run-together consonant sounds ("strengths" or "inkstand", for example) that a syllabary might wind up using more signs than we use letters to write a sentence, or become too clumsy; Amharic, for example, is on the verge of fatal clumsiness. This is because in all syllabaries nearly every sign includes both a consonant and a vowel, and rarely a c-v-c combination. All include 4 or more vowel-only signs, but not more than a very few consonant-only signs. Thus a language which has lots of words ending in consonant sounds is also ill suited to using a syllabary.

Let us consider Japanese. The only ending consonant used in the language is the -n, so their kana syllabaries (there are two, just to complicate matters) include a "n" sign. Young Japanese children first learn only the hiragana, the kana syllabary used only for Japanese words. Later they learn the katakana, used for foreign words. Soon they begin learning the logograms borrowed from Chinese, called kanji. About 7,000 kanji are in common use, though by government decree only about 2,400 can be used for newspaper publication and official documents. Traditional Chinese used more than 70,000 logograms.

The Japanese had no written language (that we know of) prior to adopting Chinese logograms a few hundred years ago. The kana were developed by simplifying kanji that had appropriate sound values. They are particularly important for adding the inflections, because spoken Japanese is inflected, while Chinese is not. Chinese doesn't even have an irregular "to be" verb, as nearly every other language does. The Chinese "conjugation" of "to be" would be translated "I be, you be, he be, we be, they be", and tense is indicated by adding a time noun if needed. So to say you are going somewhere, you say, "I go", but for future or past, you say, "I go tomorrow" or "I go yesterday", or whatever day or time is appropriate. The Japanese for "understand" is wakaru, "I understand" is wakarimasu, and "I understood" is wakarimashita. They write these using the logogram for wakaru followed by kana as needed to add the inflection.

Thus, Japanese have a difficult script because the Chinese script is so ill-suited to the way their language works. When Alice Kober and later Michael Ventris began learning how to assign sound values to signs in Linear B, it became clear that a similar case existed. Finally, Ventris realized that the strongly inflected Greek language was being written at Knossos, Pylos and elsewhere with a syllabary, based on Linear A, that had been originally derived to suit a noninflected, or lightly inflected, language. If perchance Linear A is ever deciphered, we will learn what that language sounded like.

In a way, then, Linear B had a history with some relation to the way written Japanese developed, except the Greeks never used the logograms in sentences, but only as symbols of commodities being enumerated or transacted. Also, while Japanese scholars went to the Chinese to learn writing, the Greeks were conquerors of Crete, and decided to spiff up their act by adopting the writing system in use there.

Riddle is a highly readable, incredibly informative portrayal of the amazing labors that went into unlocking Linear B, and in addition, a delightful window into the lives of the three very, very different people who did so.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The population un-bomb

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, demographics, sociology

Disaster sells. When Paul and Anne Ehrlich published The Population Bomb just over 45 years ago they predicted imminent disaster if population continued to increase. I read that book then, and others by either Ehrlich since, and picked up the feeling that they knew they were overstating their case, but felt they had to because otherwise nobody would listen. I don't know if many really were listening, but in fact fertility has fallen in America, and even more in most of Europe. Consider these two figures, from a report by Mark Mather:

Mr. Mather's thesis is the effect of a falling economy on fertility. The data can be interpreted a number of ways, however. For example, the 1960-80 period saw a great increase in American females entering and graduating from universities, chemical birth control (actually conception prevention) was introduced in the mid-60s, and abortion was legalized in 1973; also, the pre-1930 fertility decrease began about 1921, long prior to the great market crash. A careful look at the right third of the upper graph reveals that fertility has been below 2.1 births per woman, considered the replacement level, since 1970. The second chart shows ethnic data. As of the 2010 estimate (that's what the asterisk means) only Hispanics have remained above 2.1 bpw.

On a side note, I have yet to see a good explanation why 2.1 rather than 2.0 is "replacement rate". It is usually said that this accounts for the 5% who do not reproduce, but the figure already includes them in the calculation. I surmise, without formal proof, that the 2.1 figure is related to economic estimates that a small population increase results in the stablest economy, and this has somehow been laundered of this association and been promoted instead as "replacement", when it is actually replacement plus 5%. Spread that 5% over a typical 30-year fertility period, and you get an annual population increase of just over 0.15%. Yet American population is currently growing at 0.7% yearly. World population growth is 1.14%.

The Ehrlich's were right that unfettered population growth is a problem. They were wrong about the timing, but the key element is compounded growth. At its most basic, we need to realize that any rate of growth above zero, carried on long enough, will exceed any criterion you might set. For example, if world population were to continue growing at 1.14% yearly until 2100 (another 86 years), the total growth factor is 1.011486 or 2.65. Today's population, estimated to be 7,156,000,000, would become 18,969,000,000. Nearly 19 billion. The US might fare a little better (unless a few billions decide to relocate here): 1.007086 is "only" 1.82; in 2100 its population could become 571,400,000.

One last point before getting to the book on hand. What if we slow down population growth, say by a factor of 10? That just defers the inevitable, assuming any growth at all. A simple calculation shows that there will still be 19 billion folks on earth at some point, but in 860 years rather than 86. And go the other way. Could Earth support a trillion of us? Posit a 0.1% growth rate: the factor needed is 139.74. Working the math backwards (it requires using logarithms) yields a mere 4,942 years.

Now here is someone who must hope that the planet could support an unbounded number, perhaps trillions or more. Jonathan V. Last has issued What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster. He shows from history that every time a nation has experienced declining population it has fallen. He calls The Population Bomb "one of the most spectacularly foolish books ever published" (p. 7), primarily for historical reasons.

The book provides a fascinating survey of all the factors behind the current trend toward one-child and no-child families, though I hesitate to call a couple who marry with the expectation to remain childless a 'family'. It stretches the definition. Then again, from a Christian perspective, if they want to stay together, marriage is better than shacking up. Note that this lifestyle is only possible—barring medical reasons for infertility—since effective contraception was developed about two generations ago.

One big factor in the West is the rise of hedonism and "positive self esteem" as values in themselves. If you value your pleasure above all else and feel so good about yourself that you lack nothing, in a personal sense, then why have a child? Raising a child costs lots of money, swallows up your time, and induces you to forgo nearly all pleasures. That is, if you are not the kind of monster who refuses to change even a little bit to accommodate the new arrival(s). It may also, under most governmental systems, induce you to marry in case you hadn't already, because of the substantial benefits that accrue to married couples and parents.

However, there are certain benefits to marriage and child-raising, besides those that governments can provide. I have had occasion to counsel young married folks who are having problems. The chief problem is communication (men don't talk and women don't listen – stereotypes that are too true to be funny). I always make sure they know that by marrying they have each entered into a lifelong negotiation. It is impossible for any two people to agree or have the same opinion about absolutely everything. At least in America, if one partner is the "My way or the highway" sort of negotiator, that one will soon be single again. Learning to collaborate and do some horse-trading is a huge factor in what we call maturity.

Then, when children come along, a new set of growth opportunities arises. If you had no self control before, you'll soon learn some, or your child will be short-lived. And you learn the joys of filling a little head full of mush with your own values, hobbies and mannerisms. I remember with the fondness only time can bring, the late nights of carrying a cranky baby in the "colic hold" that soothed him, but only if carried on for long enough. The dogged experimenting with method after method of inducing a 1-year-old who could climb out of his crib to stay put; I finally settled on putting him in and just sitting there to watch.  He would watch back, and gradually his little eyes would droop closed and he'd tip over, fast asleep. This led to some talk, then to story time and later to precious times of reading to each other. I wouldn't give that up for ten centuries of "living the single high life".

But it seems the better educated a population becomes, fewer and fewer are those who are willing to have and raise children. Learning is a more effective method of birth control than a boatload of condoms and a trainload of pills or IUD's. I happen to think this is a good thing, but I'll get more into that anon.

Apparently, in all of history, only one nation has rebounded from a long-term falling population: Georgia in Eastern Europe. The secret of their success is the beloved patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II. He announced in 2007 that he would "personally baptize any child born to parents who already had two or more children" (p. 159). Births increased 20% the following year and continued to surge. America has no Patriarch. We're too fractious for that.

In the end, Jon Last tries his best not to sound like a doomsayer. He wants to remain optimistic. He has suggestions, tailored to the American situation, that he hopes would improve things—that is, raise the fertility rate.
  1. Social Security "distorts the 'market value' of children and forces fertility rates down" (p. 162). He passes along a suggestion by Phillip Longman to dramatically reduce the SSI tax the more children a family has, until the last one reaches age 18. (I suggest the subsequent increase be phased in to avoid sticker shock when the last kid leaves home!) He also briefly surveys related suggestions by others.
  2. College costs make anxious parents more anxious, and strongly deter many from childbearing. The system is out of whack. What about eliminating the need for college, for many jobs. Is it really useful for an employer to require a BA degree when what you really want is to know of someone is bright and has good work habits? Yeah, the degree sort of proves that (not always!), but so would admittance testing. IQ tests by employers were banned in 1971 on the grounds of racial discrimination, but schools use them (SAT and ACT are IQ tests). So companies foist off the job on the schools, but students then have to go into debt to the tune of $30,000-$100,000 and get "the sheepskin". A few wise companies just want to know if an 18-year-old was offered admission to a good school. The author proposes a federal degree-granting body that certifies any student who passes certain tests. I guess you could spend a year or so watching and studying using Khan Academy videos, for example, and pass a bunch of tests. You know, I like that idea, even if I loathe the notion of yet another federal agency.
  3. "The Dirt Gap" reflects the much greater cost of real estate wherever the jobs are. When people go to a workplace they either must live close by, or commute. I endured 9 years of a 40-mile commute each way. Luckily I can read in a moving vehicle, so I pooled with others and used those 1.5 to 2 hours daily (when I wasn't the driver) more productively as a result. I remember living in Los Angeles. For one job, I rode my bicycle, because I could get there quicker: 9 miles in 20 minutes versus 30 minutes by car. During rush hour in major cities, even the freeways average 10 mph (16 kph). Years ago I could trot along about that fast, on foot! One solution is a huge increase in telecommuting. Any job that primarily uses computer skills can be done anywhere on the planet with high-speed Internet service. The last several years before I retired, half my colleagues were in Gurgaon, India. We didn't need much face-to-face, but we video conferenced every couple of weeks. 7AM here was 6PM there, and those guys would work a late day for the purpose, while we stateside folks started early that day (I usually began close to 6AM anyway).
  4. Immigration…we just think the "illegals" are a problem. Though there is a lot of variation, immigrants and their children tend to be harder working and more innovative than "people who have always lived there" (that is, four or more generations). American has been lucky to assimilate most immigrants within a generation or two. And I learned long ago that moving to a new place just within my own country is a great boost to well-being. There is some kind of value to being the kind of person who can "up sticks and go". A close relative greatly hindered his career because he allowed his wife to persuade him to stay within driving distance of her parents.
  5. Church. It is falling out of favor with the liberal elite. Yet it is strange: people in America attend church at rates much higher than in any other Western country, and at the same time, our demographics and economy are healthier. The author's concluding paragraph of this section is telling:
"…there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby (curiosity, vanity and naïveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there's only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to."

As the author demonstrates, history shows that reducing population means trouble. But I think the reason is different than he states. Our economic system is designed for a growing population. Growing companies cannot cope with shrinking customer bases, and there is not a single executive in all the countries on Earth who has been trained to guide a company properly when the market for its widgets gradually and steadily decreases. This phenomenon needs study. I must agree in part with Paul Ehrlich that unbounded population growth cannot be sustained. At some point, population must decrease, or nature will, quite impersonally, force it to decrease in numerous unpleasant ways. I am of the opinion that 7+ billion is already too many, particularly so if we have the heart to wish them all a standard of living that is something above subsistence poverty.

Let's consider Costa Rica, a constitutional republic with a GDP per person of about $13,000. That is pretty good for South and Central America. It is about 1/4 of the figure for the U.S. About 80% of Earthlings live on less. To raise them all to this level would require more than doubling global GDP; perhaps tripling it (purchasing power parity calculations are notoriously difficult and error-prone). Either way, there isn't enough planet to do so. My estimate is that grinding poverty cannot be eliminated until the population is about half what it is at present. Thus I must disagree with Mr. Last. Growing the population might be good under the current economic system, but we won't be able to afford the current economic system very much longer.

A new economic system must be devised, one that allows persons and companies to survive and even thrive as population resettles itself to a level that Earth can sustain for the very long term. I would hope this author and others would bend their considerable skills to determining the key factors that make our economies collapse when population takes even the smallest of downturns, and to inventing a new kind of economics for an Earth in a steady state, and during the population reduction that leads to it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Getting ahead - a Tiger's manual

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, cultural evolution

This is not a Bible study, but I will begin with a few items from the Bible:
Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” —Deuteronomy 4:10

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. —Deut. 6: 6-9

When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” —Deut. 32:45-47
In these passages, among several others in Deuteronomy, we see that the LORD God commanded his people to universal literacy. I have always taken it to be a foundation of the success of Jews in any country with sufficient freedom for them to live in comparative peace. From what has arisen so much antisemitism over the years and centuries? All to frequently, from envy.

In the far East, in many countries we find anti-Chinese sentiment (Malaysia and Indonesia come to mind) and even official discrimination against "overseas Chinese". Also due in large part to envy. Ethnic Chinese seem to wind up owning everything and running all the best businesses.

With that as a world context, now we can take a look at America, where both the Jews and Chinese (and most Asians in general) are doing quite well. You'll find a partial explanation for this differential success in Amy Chua's book of a few years ago, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But now with co-author Jed Rubenfeld we find a more comprehensive study of the phenomenon, in The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Let us not forget that Ms Chua is a law professor at Yale, as is Mt. Rubenfeld. (I suppose the possession of a JD degree and a professorship entitles them to the title Dr., but we never call lawyers "Doctor", do we?)

As in all good business writing, the authors do not keep us waiting for their conclusions. They state their theses at the outset, then defend and elaborate them. Note first that they write primarily about groups, not individuals. The "Triple Package" consists of three values that have become practically anathema in modern America:
  1. Superiority – the acculturated feeling that your group is superior to most or all other groups. The Jews are God's Chosen, and have been for 3,500 years. Now the Mormons are taking over that designation, in their own minds at least. The Chinese have the longest cultural history (and didn't die away like the Egyptians). The Puritans who founded American prosperity 400 years ago had the biggest "My God is better than your god" complex in history. But the success of American Lebanese, and American Nigerians, comes not from religious roots, but cultural.
  2. Insecurity – Tiger Mothers (whether Chinese or Jewish or whatever) foster this by a "never quite good enough" mentality, the "guilt syndrome" that is fodder for multitudes of Jewish comedians. Companies also foster this by slogans such as "Continuous Improvement" and by the dreaded yearly progress review. It is even more the undercurrent of though among persecuted minorities, except a few, such as American Indians, who've been more slyly persecuted into "learned helplessness."
  3. Impulse Control – also known as self control; it is the ability to defer gratification in pursuit of a future goal. Not only do religious groups promote self control, even asceticism at times, but businesses also. In business, it can be more subtle. Many companies seem to allow considerable freedom, but it is a kind of intelligence test. Those who fail it find promotions forever out of reach, or may be pushed out. Not for nothing does the Bible say, "When you eat with a king put a knife to your throat." Those who succeed profit at the expense of those with less self control, as is seen most starkly in the illegal drug trade: the upper echelons don't use the drugs.
The central three chapters of the book discuss each trait in detail, with examples from a number of groups. There are also counterexamples, such as the Amish. They excel in impulse control, but promote humility rather than superiority, and also promote a feeling of security both in the community and in God's favor. They don't care for the material success that motivates the rest of America, but in many ways, and by their own standards, they are succeeding very well indeed. I suspect the average Amish elder sleeps better at night than most titans of American industry. Thus I suspect they also fit the model, on their own terms. They have the hope of God's eternal blessing, and do not expect any others to reap it, and they are a somewhat persecuted minority, who have had to defend their practices and particularly their anti-military-service stance frequently.

In an overview chapter, the authors specifically set aside Education as a part of the package. It is easy to see why, as the nation is full of educated fools. But I'd argue that love of literacy, if not schooling, is a requisite. A genius who grew up without learning to read well is not likely to succeed nearly as well as a well-read person of somewhat lesser gifts. Getting educated, whether schooled or self-taught, is a hallmark of self control.

The authors also discuss the pathology of the over-driven. If all your life you could never be good enough, then when you earn your millions, you may not enjoy them much. In one segment of Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor limned a man and his son. The man was coach of a town baseball team. He was incapable of giving praise. One day, the oldest son performed some spectacular play on the field. Then he walked over and stood in front of his father, just looking at him. The old man didn't even look at him. After about a minute, the son walked off and was not seen again. So we are left with the question, what price success? No answer, but I suspect the Amish might have one, in their laconic way.

The book's title mentions not just rise, but also fall. There is the proverb, "It is three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves." The English who built this country are now disparaged as "Anglos" by strengthening minority groups such as certain Latino groups. The Jews may even have reached their zenith and are moving to the background. We'll see if the Chinese and other Asians carry on for another decade, or longer, but they also will inevitably lose their edge.

The aim of the book emerges in the last chapter. America itself began as a Triple Package culture, and succeeded incredibly, for two centuries. This was initially a general phenomenon. Then the unprecedented freedom of the American system allowed group after group to enter and prosper, even as formerly prominent groups declined. Thus America as a whole continued to boom.

This is still going on, as we see in the growing success of Asians, for example. But other groups have begun to fade. Had such a book been written a century ago, much would have been said about the success of the English, still strong and riding high on Puritan prosperity. Not so much today. I recently saw a special about the space program, and noted the predominance of Italian names among the astronauts, who were mostly in their 40s and 50s. The prior generation had been Armstrong, Shepard and Glenn, and the next, now in their 20s and 30s, tend to be almost anything except English, or even Euro-American.

Well, the pendulum swings, both ways. The overly prim Victorian period was followed by the permissive Roaring Twenties, then the Depression and the "good life" years that followed WW2, during which frugality was the rule…until another permissive swing that began in the late 1960s. This latter swing has about run its course. Can there fail to be a backlash against the incredible problems which have emerged after 2008? President Obama is not to blame for them all, but will get the blame in many people's minds, particularly during the 2016 election cycle. And, I believe many Americans who still value "American exceptionalism", a sense that one could always do better, and are willing to study more and save more and borrow less or not at all, will prevail. Will the post-Millennial generation be more like Victorians, or more like the Flappers? Time will tell, and America's prominence, or lack thereof, will follow.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The largest commonplace book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, compendia, miscellanies

This post's title refers not to the book but to its source. Do you know what a commonplace book is? The term first appeared in print about 1750, and is still in use, but is primarily found in historical diaries. Starting during the Enlightenment in Europe, nearly every literate person (usually male) had a book of blank pages that he carried with him. When reading, he would copy into the book any interesting or clever or apt item. I've read references to their use in the biographies of Newton, Franklin and Faraday, among others. Keeping a commonplace book is a particularly effective means of self-education, and was the only education Michael Faraday had – and he became the premier scientist of his day. (This blog serves as one part of my own commonplace book)

John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, and James Harkin took up the practice years ago, and brought it into the modern era by putting everything into a computer database. Their compendium, accessible at qi.com, is enormous, by their own report, but they don't say just how big. They host a show in Britain called Quite Interesting, where their factoids are used in a variety of ways. Now they have a book, 1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off.

The rationale for selecting 1,227 items seems to derive from the first in the book:

is called Geranium

Well, why not? It is one of the more fetching names to have been bestowed on an asteroid.

At the QI website, you can get background information to verify the items, which are as condensed as the writers could make them and still be meaningful and intelligible. As I read, I picked 7 that I'll comment on, for various reasons. From p. 53:

Fidel Castro
estimated that he saved
ten working days a year
by not bothering to shave.

That's likely. You can reckon the figure two ways:
  1. A working day is 8 hours. 80 hours is 4,800 minutes. Castro's time to shave is then 4,800/365 = 13.15 minutes.
  2. Also possible: 10 full days of 1,440 minutes each. That comes to three times as long, or 39.5 minutes.
Fidel Castro must have been a rather slow shaver, or perhaps he shaved twice a day until he quit doing it. I shave in 5-7 minutes. As I've gotten older, my beard growth has slowed, so I seldom shave more than 3-4 times a week. That comes to about 1,100 minutes yearly, just under 2.3 working days.

By the way, slower beard growth is from reduced testosterone production as I enter my late 60s. Considering the troubles I had in younger days, "low-T" is a blessing! I still produce enough testosterone to keep my head bald (loss of all "T" would allow my hair to grow luxuriantly).

A pair of items from p. 102, that I'll count as one:

Neutrinos are 100,000 times
smaller than electrons,
but there are so many of them
that they may outweigh
all the visible matter in the universe.

If an atom were the size
of the Solar System,
a neutrino would be the size
of a golf ball.

I at first thought that the word "smaller" ought to be "lighter", because the electron is considered to be a point mass with zero radius. But the neutrino has a rest mass no greater than 0.14 eV, while the electron's rest mass is 512,000 eV, or some 3.6 million times greater. So let us suppose size really is meant. Of course, the electron does have to have a nonzero radius. The classical (non-quantum) radius is related to the ratio of its mass and charge, and comes to 2.82 fm (femtometers). However, quantum electrodynamic calculations indicate it can have a radius no greater than about 1/58,000 of this. It requires a quantum law not yet discovered to keep the charge confined to this volume (or less) without either a catastrophic collapse or a catastrophic explosion. At any rate, I found references that place the maximum radius of a neutrino all over the map, from about 3/4 that of the electron to 1/154. Accepting the latter figure, a maximum neutrino radius might be about 0.00000032 fm.

Now, an atom of neutral iron has a radius of 126,000 fm, so the ratio is very near 4x1012. Picking Neptune's orbit at 4.5 billion km the neutrino's maximum size would be 0.0011 km, or about 1.1 meters. That's about 26 times the size of a golf ball, so the QI reference must be positing a neutrino "size" in a range close to a billionth of a femtometer. Maybe.

This one appeals to the geologist in me (p. 119):

There is no known scientific way
of predicting earthquakes.
The most reliable method is
to count the number of missing cats
in the local paper: if it trebles,
an earthquake is imminent.

This method is pretty good in countries where cats are kept as pets. In more than half the world, cats are eaten, and it is more likely that unrest among elephants or other sensitive domestic creatures is a better measure.

I've seen this with alligators (p. 142):

A hammerhead shark
can be rendered completely immobile
for 15 minutes by turning it over
and tickling its tummy.

A caveat here: The alligator wrestlers I talked to say not to try it with a gator heavier than half your weight, and only if you are exceptionally well muscled. I suspect that goes for the shark also. Adult hammerheads weigh half a ton or more. How do you turn one over???

Sad but true (p. 163):

The US has only 5%
of the world's population,
but almost 25%
of its prison population.

Kinda puts a dent in the whole notion of "Land of the free"…

This is one you can have all kinds of mathematical fun with (p. 212):

Crime, disease, and average
walking speed increase by 15%
as a city doubles in size.

This must refer to measurements of a single city over time. Otherwise, consider cities such as Rapid City, SD (currently, about 70,000) and Chicago (2,700,000+). I sidestepped NYC because one could argue that each borough ought to be treated separately. Those two population points represent about 5.25 doublings. Let's just use 5. The fifth power of 1.15 is very close to 2.0. I can readily believe that crime and disease rates in Chicago might be twice what they are on Rapid City (where I've lived), but walking speed? Even a country mosey is some 2.5 mph or about 4 kph. Is it really possible that Chicagoans zip along the sidewalks at 5 mph / 8 kph? Not hardly. I've been there also, and they don't.

And last, but by no means least (p. 305):

Wars kill more civilians
than soldiers: in a war,
the safest place to be
is usually in the army.

Here, context is everything. Where is the war and which set of civilians are we talking about? A nation's active military force is typically less than 1% of its population. It may be true that the number of civilian deaths is greater than the number of military deaths, in any particular war. But the death rate? Not hardly!! The only major war fought on US soil was the Civil War in the 1860s. Close to half a million civilians died. There were about 200,000 combat deaths of soldiers. Even in this, our bloodiest war in terms of American civilian casualties, it was way, way safer to be a civilian.

That's what I like about a book like this. I suppose I am a rather rare sort, who can get great enjoyment from dictionaries, encyclopediae, and factoid collections such as this one. The material is so thought-provoking! Great job, QI guys! (and all your elves and other helpers)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

15 internal revelations

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays

My wildcard book this time is Sister Mother Husband Dog by Delia Ephron. I thought the surname looked familiar. Ms Ephron's sister is Nora Ephron, the screenwriter for When Harry Met Sally and a number of other films. Delia Ephron wrote the script for You've God Mail and a number of others, and the sisters collaborated a few times, most notably with the stage play Love, Loss, and What I Wore.

But Delia, in particular, writes books also and this is her latest. She opens with a sweet-sad rumination on the death of her sister Nora two years ago. In the other 14 essays, she does indeed write about her husband and dog, but when it comes to Mother, well, she writes about how hard it is to write about her mother, given that the relationship was so very difficult, and she is shy of speaking too ill of the dead (but found it hard to speak well of her).

For me, her joy at living in Manhattan came through many of the pieces, and nudged me a bit from my loathing for the place. I don't like cities in the first place—a few years in Los Angeles, the city not a suburb thereof, made sure of that—and while I like to visit NYC or LA or Philly or DC on occasion, I am quite happy living in suburban or rural locales, thank you.

She is a particularly apt chaser of linked ideas (I call it "chasing rabbits"). In "Bakeries" she muses on the notion of having it all, and how we can't, no matter how we define "All". This leads her to what "All" might mean, say, to an urban schoolgirl in the Mideast, where avoiding rape or stoning on the way home from school is having it all.

Having opened with an ode to Nora, she closes with "Collaboration", with its core the co-development of Love, Loss, and What I Wore over a span of 13 years, surrounded by a flurry of vignettes about other collaborations, not all with Nora. In all the essays, she is not afraid for us to see a flawed person who has struggled to rise above early errors and current phobias. Her example may help many of us outgrow our useless neuroses.

P.S. All caught up on my reviews. Stitches removed a few days ago, finger still sore, but I can type with all 10 again. Just gotta keep it short for a while yet.

Converting a cancer to a treatable chronic condition

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, cancer, genetics

In 2001 a new cancer drug, the first genetically-informed, targeted therapy agent, was approved in the US, Gleevec (or Glivec overseas). It was initially created to turn CML, Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, from a certain sentence of death into either a curable condition or one that a patient could live with. The substance has proven useful for several leukemia varieties and four or five other cancer syndromes. It works by deactivating a kinase (an energy transfer protein) that runs wild due to a specific genetic error. To date, it is the only targeted therapy substance that is anywhere near so effective. Patients who can tolerate the side effects (hey, if death is the alternative, I could tolerate a lot!) are not cured, but can live with the cancer for many, many years.

The chain of circumstance that led to Gleevec is exceptionally complex and convoluted, and the story is well told in The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level by Jessica Wapner. The Philadelphia chromosome was first seen in 1959. This refers to a shortened chromosome 22, and later it was found that the missing piece gets moved to the end of chromosome 9. The result is that two genes (or more accurately, protein coding regions) get jammed together and produce a very oversized kinase that ramps up cell energy use and turns it into a malignant cancer. Gleevec plugs the active site of the kinase, effectively silencing it. Cells that contain the mutation soon die.

I did not count, but many, many people were involved during the 42 years from the discovery of the abnormality until a clinical substance was produced and accepted for treatment by the FDA. I got this impression: something like 200 talented people putting together a 100,000 piece puzzle, where they first have to scour the countryside to find the pieces. And during final stages of the clinical trials, about a metric ton of the agent had to be produced to treat hundreds, then thousands, of patients for several months.

It is a good thing that Gleevec is useful for several conditions. The initial market for it was just a few thousand people. It was really hard for the researchers to get company buy-in to test the drug because it seemed they'd never recoup the research costs (say, a quarter billion dollars). As it is, staying alive with CML and its sister conditions costs more than $90,000 per year. This is the epitome of something Lewis Thomas once wrote about, that prevention is dirt cheap, most cures range from kinda cheap to affordable, but chronic care will break the bank.

Ms Wapner writes that the story has more characters than a Russian novel. That may be an understatement. I suspect Gleevec is the low-hanging fruit of genetic therapies, however. It involves a mutation you can see in a light microscope, and a protein that is comparatively easy to plug up. Cancer is proving a very tough, and costly!, nut to crack.

Writing is getting better again

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collections, magazine writing

In past years I've read the O. Henry Awards collections of "best stories", but this year I couldn't find one. I did find The Best American Magazine Writing 2012, edited by Sid Holt, and that will have to do. The volume features 27 pieces by 19 writers from a broad selection of American literary magazines.

Several of the longer pieces are investigative-journalistic in nature. An example is "The Apostate" by Lawrence Wright. Nearly all the articles are, to various degrees, journalism. I was pleased to see that these articles have very little editorial content or tone, compared to much of today's "journalism" (Editors of newspapers and news journals have mostly ceded editorializing to their writers, and very little true journalism is to be found). Only one piece is fictional, "The Hox River Window" by Karen Russell. As all the best fiction does, it puts you into a place and time, in this instance, the sod-hut culture of the homesteading era.

I had a bit of trepidation embarking on this volume. I have been severely put off by literary writing in the past few decades, finding it either boring or shrill. I hardly read literary journals any more. I suspect most of the writing is still the same, but Mr. Holt and his fellows have gathered examples of writing that makes a fellow glad he read them.