Thursday, May 29, 2014

You are a city

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, neuroscience, surveys

When we say, "I am of two minds about it," we are speaking more truly than we imagine. It might be more accurate to say we are of two dozen minds about any subject, and perhaps more. In Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman likens our mental life to a Parliament. Like many a parliament, including republican sorts of governments, the activity behind the scenes, that we so casually designate "the unconscious", is a jostling for position and advantage among competing views in which, typically, the loudest "voice" wins. We are like Lincoln's cabinet, a team of rivals.

We all have the experience. We are uncertain, often to the point of insecurity, about just what we want. We crave that second piece of chocolate cake even as we dread the number the scale will show; we hunger to get closer to "that special someone" even as we furtively plan ways to keep from getting caught by a spouse or "partner"; we may subscribe to this and that and the other magazine or cable movie plan, and then suffer buyer's remorse when the bills come. We make deals with ourselves, but who is making a deal with whom?

Are we truly conscious actors? The author tells us that, whatever we may call "myself", we do not so much control our actions and thoughts as receive a headline summary of the more important thoughts and of actions already decided upon. An unsettling experiment by Benjamin Libet, 50 years ago, reveals this principle. People were connected to a kind of EEG machine and asked to do the following: from time to time, to lift a finger. While doing so, they were to watch a high-resolution timer (like a stop watch) and report when they had actually decided to lift the finger. They all reported that their decision came about a quarter second before the finger actually moved. The EEG machine, however, noted that a distinct shift in electrical activity in the brain happened a full second earlier. "Something in there" made the decision, which "the conscious mind" became aware of about a second later, and the finger lifted only after that, by another quarter second. Who or what made the decision? If we say we exercise our free will, where is it located? Eagleman states that "Who?" is the wrong question, and that "free will" is not the answer anyway.

We all feel that there is an "I" which makes decisions, conducts our thought life, and controls our behavior. So far, no experiment has been able to tease out this "I" from a large collection of competing constituencies. We all know, at least a little, that unconscious brain mechanisms take care of breathing, heart rate, digestion, peristalsis in our bowels, endocrine hormone "squirts", and even the details of walking, reaching and nearly all bodily actions. While it is possible to consciously regulate our breathing, whether as part of a Yoga exercise or for laMaze birthing, to control every breath even for a full minute will wear us out. The "hardware breath control" does a fine job and is best left alone most of the time. Imagine that you could not properly assimilate your food unless you deliberately turned on and off acid production, bile secretion, churning of the stomach and later the intestines, and literally thousands of other events that need to be properly times and coordinated. What a great method of weight loss! By the time you figured it out, you'd be worn to a frazzle and in danger of starving to death, while your anus excreted chewed but otherwise barely modified stuff you'd eaten. Heck, we rarely even take care of the chewing; if it didn't run mostly on autopilot, we'd be bolting our food like wolves.

I was once asked by a very young friend why I didn't have an iPad or spend much time listening to music. I said, "I listen to music to learn it. The rest of the time, I have a sound track going in my head all the time." With a moment's reflection, it is easy to realize that, while I may not multitask so well in a conscious way, a lot is going on, even of things that impinge on my awareness. As I write, a scanner is making copies of old 35mm slides, and the various sounds it makes clue me in to when I need to do something like swap out a set; I have a favorite song running in the background of my head, "Sounds of Silence"; seemingly stray thoughts come and go as I write, such as the next time I'll volunteer at a certain museum or what we might make for lunch in a little while. According to Eagleman, much of this is "headlines", highlights of what is going on inside, the reports by various internal agents of their activities.

Years ago typing took lots of thought. Not any more; I type upwards of 50wpm. I think about what I want to say and the words appear on the screen. The fingers "know" what to do. Before that I learned a succession of instruments: ukulele, banjo and guitar. I went through a transition, and I help my music students make the same transition, from playing the instrument to playing the music. Not everyone types or plays music, but very nearly all of us walk, climb stairs, and perhaps run or jog, without thinking of the hundreds of muscles that coordinate together to do it. This illustrates the interaction of conscious and unconscious in the other direction. Learning takes effort, but the goal is for the learned skill to become effortless. We use a lot of brain power to learn a skill, but once it is, so to speak, "burned into a circuit", MRI scans show that the skill is performed without making much of a dent in our mental activity.

My uncle was a doctor named Stucky, and his father was also a doctor. The older Dr. Stucky had the skill of augenblick, or eye-blink diagnosis. From the time a patient entered the room until asking a first question, the doctor observed, and usually knew the diagnosis before the question was asked. This was the fruit of many hours of learning and observation, plus a certain talent for close "observation of trifles", as Sherlock Holmes might term it.

So what is really going on inside us? Are we some kind of quantum computer? It is certain that we don't work like our desktop computers, nor even like the supercomputer Watson. They follow a chain or web of evidence to produce a single "answer". In the real world there is no one "right answer" in most cases. When Martha Washington asked, "Does this skirt make me look fat?", I suspect the man who'd said, when he was a boy, "I cannot tell a lie", told a lie. Or, perhaps he was diplomatically silent; or maybe he had the skill to deflect the question. Martha was, after all, somewhat fat, skirt or no skirt. A lot would depend on his knowledge of Martha's temperament…that is, if he had been paying attention all those years.

We are composed of conflicting parts, and the results of their wrestling matches bubble up to us as "our" thoughts and "our"decisions. Who is the "I"? Maybe we really are just meat machines. Or maybe there really is a Soul in the Catholic sense, but to say that simply kicks the can down the road: Where is the volition in the Soul to be found? Is there something in our cortex that can be the "I"? Reptiles have no cortex, yet their behavior is more complex than we can figure out. At the end, the author quotes an old jest, "If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand them."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Timely wisdom for the entitled

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, addresses, sociology, advice

A couple of years ago David McCullough, Jr. spoke at the high school commencement of Wellesley, near Boston, Massachusetts. A repeated phrase from that speech became a theme that sent a video of it viral and evoked a demand for "more of the same". His answer is the new book You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements. (Emphasis is from the book jacket)

A proverb of mine has long been, "People don't want to be treated fairly, they want to be treated well." It seems a useful corollary might be, "…but they don't deserve special treatment and ought not expect it."

The author's original admonition was primarily to the students, with an aside or two to parents and teachers. A transcript is found in an Afterword, and takes up 8½ pages. The book is about 300 pages and contains more detail not only for the students but for parents and teachers and others that comprise a teen's world. His audience is children of privilege and their families, and the teachers in their schools. He taught at Punahou School in Hawaii (Alma Mater of a certain Barry Obama) and Wellesley High School near Boston, MA. It will require a person of very different background to address the concerns, both those that are similar and those that are very, very different, of the children of an urban or even ghetto background.

I marked only one selection to be quoted. Writing about education in several different ways, he stresses again and again the value of learning to think, as opposed to learning only to obey, to "do good work", and other supposed benefits of education. Whether the goals of the teachers, the administration and the school board are beneficial to the students is left for them to determine later, but think they must, as must we all. He writes, "You think, therefore you are. If you don't, you're not." To emphasize, if you think not, you are not.

There has been constant tension, some might call it eternal tension, between generations. The funny thing is, most kids turn into people much like their parents, even into people they'd have once hated. Thus in this same chapter, "Know Thyself", young people are urged to look more broadly, to realize that we don't get a do-over, as though life were a video game in which "death" is temporary and just loses you some points. He remarks that it would sure be nice if we got to rewind our lives to the start, just before our death arrives, to have a chance to do it all again with the benefit of our accumulated wisdom. I don't know about you, but the thought of an infant with the "wisdom" of an 80-year-old strikes me as somewhere between creepy and terrifying. So, we live once, whether we screw up few times or many. Short or long, the life we have won't be repeated. We can little afford to pass the time unreflected.

Much of what he writes can be summed up in a phrase I didn't find, a family proverb when I grew up, "Never assume anything." He does write "don't assume" this or that, and it is worth emphasizing. It is natural to assume that the environment in which you find yourself is normal and will not change. Thus we go into shock and cry when we are born (for most of us, the biggest trauma we'll ever experience), when we must relocate, when we leave one school for the next, and particularly if the family's economic circumstances take a sudden nosedive. "The only constant is change" is a proverb honored only in the breach.

The author has quite a lot to say to and about parents. "Helicopter parents" are but one of many detrimental varieties. Way too many adopt the "My kid couldn't be wrong, no matter what" attitude. Where's the notion I grew up with, that if the teacher punished me, my parents assumed I deserved it, and might add to it? A word to kids with more balanced parents, kids who were expected to learn from their mistakes and make them right, who were supported just the right amount. Count yourself lucky; you are going into the world much better prepared than the over-protected whiners the book was written for. You'll compete the hell out of them, at least until (if ever) they wise up!

The word "special" has two meanings. In formal educational circles, it is a euphemism for retarded or otherwise learning disabled. It refers to youngsters who need much greater care just to learn anything at all. In a less formal context, it refers to the assumption many have that they deserve to be coddled, to get "special treatment". They, or more tragically their parents, go to the teacher to contest every B+ that "should really" be an A or at least A–; they go into conniptions if their chances of getting into Brown or Harvard are at risk of being "ruined" because the grade in Chem or Trig or Civics is a C or, perish forbid, a D!

An aside: as a young Comp Sci professor some 35 years ago, I had a young woman show up at my office. She'd earned a midterm grade of A–. With a question or two I found it was the first non-A of her life. I explained that it had been well known from the beginning what was needed to earn an A or B or whatever. She offered me the use of her body. I was too naive to hide my shock, and she fled. Rather than suffer the "indignity" of a non-A, even on a midterm transcript, she withdrew and took the course again later, with another instructor. I hope she got her A, and got it honestly.

I also must report my 0.500 batting average for "attitude adjustment". Over several years I had two "F" students. They were very similar in their determination to fail. One came to every class, slept from bell to bell, turned in no homework, got a zero on most quizzes and well below 20% on the tests. I gave him an F at midterm, which evicted him from the class. It turned out he was attending on some kind of Social Security benefit because his mother was disabled. He had to keep a certain GPA or lose benefits. He barely scraped by. He re-took the class, again with me, stayed awake, did his work, and earned a solid B. The other F student came to class only when there was a quiz, presumably informed by her friends, failed every one, turned in no homework, and was also evicted at midterm with an F. She dropped out of school and I didn't hear of her since. By contrast, I can attest that the most wonderful sound to any teacher's ears, is from the back of the room, a quiet, "Oh!"

Back to the book. The author is not much enamored of current trends in education. He is also quite skeptical that going to an Ivy is much of a benefit over a solid State university, unless a student's ambition is to hit the top of a profession where a Harvard diploma is step one that particular ladder of success. I guess it depends on what success means. One student I know did it this way: Got into Wharton Business College at U Penn, borrowed about $150,000 by graduation time, then went to Singapore where he earned enough to pay off the loan in 2 years. Within 5 more years he had saved enough to get a much less demanding job, enough to live pretty well while his untouched investments earned enough for him to retire by age 45 or so. He's 35 and it looks like he'll make it. Another's: an athlete good enough to get a free ride at the school of his choice, then get a pro assignment for few years. Retired at age 30; now what does he do with his life? The lucky ones, and the author mentions a few, remake themselves for a career tolerant of their extra aches and pains.

I was tempted to title this post "advice for the second 1%", because the children of the top million or so richest families in America are beyond this author's reach. But the next 1% are probably also too rich. The third and fourth percents, from families earning between $250,000 and twice that or so, are probably the constituency of the two schools at which he's had experience. However, it is not far off to consider that any youngster whose parents can afford SAT tutoring at $150/hr or more, a different kind of $100 sneakers for each sport, an iPhone for each sibling (though more than 2 kids is a rare family in this earnings range), and cable TV with 500-1,000 channels, including every premium movie channel; such a child can be expected to feel entitled to things and treatment that most don't get. The message to them is, "No, you are NOT special, just lucky. Lucky won't cut it with a displeased boss or customer." Although I am disdainful of Eckankar and similar new-agey movements, the "haircut" administered by the Eck folk is at least salutary: "Don't expect to be thanked for doing what you are supposed to do. You get special thanks only when you surprise us with superior results, and you'll get well and thoroughly reamed for sub-par performance of your duties. Now get back to work."

I'd love to give a copy of this book to our son (late 20s), but I suspect he would not read it. His generation don't read much. Maybe if a version comes out as a smart phone app…

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Failure of the Editors

kw: proofreading, solecisms, grammar, usage

Not to overly embarrass the author of the book in the prior post, I decided to put my complaints about a number of textual errors in a separate post. An author may be forgiven for occasional errors in a book's text, but the editor ought to have caught them. I suppose it is too much to ask that book publishers employ proofreaders. Most do not any more, trusting a computer spell checker and even the grammar package to catch most errors. The following baker's dozen items would not have been found by the software. The "misspelled" words are correctly spelled "wrong words", and certain punctuation errors might raise a flag in a grammar software, but the correction might be as bad as the original mistake. So here we go:
  • About using apples in bird feeders: "…it helps to peal away a bit of the skin…". The proper word is "peel". To peal is to ring a bell. (p18)
  • "Well-manicured lawns are basically green desserts to birds." Here is a homonym with exactly the opposite meaning of "deserts", the proper word to use. (p24)
  • About small prey impaled on thorns: "This is also known as a shrike, larder, or cache." The comma highlighted in red is misplaced, misleading and must be removed. A shrike is a bird; the string of impaled bugs or small critters is a shrike larder or shrike cache. The comma after larder is not really needed either, but is permissible. (p38)
  • "…the female lays her eggs on the branch and raised her young there." This is a tense error caused by hitting a "d" instead of an "s". It is a frequent error, the letters are adjacent. The word ought to be "raises". (p56)
  • "…a hairy woodpecker has set its sites on your home…". The proper word is "sights". This is an idiom from shooting; you aim through the sights on the gun. (p103)
  • Concerning cryptic coloration, the bird can "…stay hidden in plain site…". No, it is "in plain sight". (p128)
  • "…out of site, out of mind…". Yikes! Everyone should know it is "out of sight, out of mind"! (p188)
  • "Not all birds are so cutthroat in the nest, some birds actually raise their young in family groups, …" These are not clauses, but independent sentences. The highlighted comma must be either a semicolon or a period. (p191)
  • "If food is plentiful, some of the siblings will survive, if food is scarce, only the cowbird chick will survive." Another run-on sentence. The comma after "survive" must be replaced by either a semicolon (that's what I'd prefer) or a period. (p193)
  • Another run-on sentence: "Some field guides may call them northern orioles and others will call them Baltimore orioles, it's confusing and will only get more so in the future." Here, a period would be best, but a semicolon is also acceptable. A comma is not. (p206)
  • "…it can be tagged on to a visit to Disney World…". The appropriate synonym for "attached" is "tacked". (p215)
  • "Because of it's location, …". One of the most common pronoun errors. The literal reading of this phrase is "Because of it is location, …". "Its" is the possessive neuter pronoun, while "it's" is a contraction for "it is". Just remember "his, hers, ours, its, yours, theirs". (p215)
  • "…for people who plan to go out at all hours of the day and want to see as many birds as possible; these scopes are worth every penny." This is a breakage error. The last six words are a dependent clause, thus there is no need for a semicolon. A comma is perfect. (p222)
This may seem like nit picking to many. Yet I have read many a book without encountering even a single error of spelling, word usage or punctuation. The editor at Running Press, if there even is one, is overpaid. Considering that good spelling, good punctuation and good proofreading have become foreign to many American schools, I fear that errors of this magnitude and greater will only increase. Perhaps, one day, a few nit-pickers might persuade Microsoft and others to substantially beef up the grammar checking capabilities of word processing software. Yet no matter how "smart" such software becomes, we will still need a remnant of properly educated people to check it.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

So you think you know birding

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birding, tips

Here is fodder for many sessions of "Did you know?": 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know: Tips and Trivia for the Backyard and Beyond, by Sharon "Birdchick" Stiteler. This is no compendium of facts and figures, no dry encyclopedia of orhithologica, but an entertaining, well-illustrated guide.

Here we read that it is better not to take a Field Guide into the field. Instead, at whatever level of skill you might have, draw what you see and take it up with the book later. How many birds will you miss while paging through? If you can, back up your drawing with a photo, though few cameras will show a bird snapped at 30 feet as more than a tiny dot. Holding your cell phone camera to the binocular eyepiece may actually get you a more usable picture.

A note to the photo-happy: Most DSLR's cannot take a picture through a binocular or spotting scope. The focal length is much too long. Your eye has a focal length of 16-18 mm, so a little camera with a 3x zoom, say 7-21mm, is much better. Wanna use the DSLR in the field? Invest in a 400mm telephoto and use a tripod or monopod. If you try to get close enough to most birds for a "normal" focal length to work well, you'll just flush it.

We find that a mother bird will not abandon a nest if you have seen it or even touched it, but there is a significant chance that you could either scare a chick to death, or lead a watching predator to it. I once learned the hard way that a mostly fledged-out blue jay chick doesn't need to be returned to the nest. The parents are nearby, ready to help, which they did by taking a few solid pecks to the top of my head. The young bird wasn't quite ready to fly but had left the nest on purpose, and would be flying in a week or less. It was learning to feed itself while the parents showed it how and stood by to fend off creatures such as myself. I'd have learned these things in a less painful way by reading Chapter 7, "Baby Birds".

Throughout the book we find ideas of places to go to see larger numbers of birds, and greater variety, places like Hawk Mountain near Allentown, PA, or South Padre Island in Texas, or Costa Rica, or even Antarctica if you wish to add penguins to your life list. Numerous myths are debunked, such as that you have to get up before sunrise for the best birding. It really depends on the birds' schedule, and some are better found in midday or evening. One factoid is, sadly, true, that Audobon shot many birds. In a time without photography or even good quality binoculars, he had to get the bird in hand to be able to produce a good painting of it. So he'd shoot several specimens, skin them and study the pelts, and paint them in lifelike poses, as well as his memory allowed. Prior to the middle of the Twentieth Century, birding was primarily accomplished by shooting.

Birding can be done solo, but is a very enjoyable social activity. Indeed, I have very seldom gone afield alone with my binoculars. I much prefer a few compatible friends. Bird clubs abound, and ideas for finding them can be found scattered throughout the book, along with lists of bird festivals such as the one in Yakutat, Alaska for tern-watching or numerous migration festivals, where it is common to see tens of thousands to millions of birds fly over, sometimes at head height or below. The migrators are on a mission, and hardly notice you standing atop the ridge they are barely skimming.

I am not much of a birder, more of a casual birdwatcher, when it fits in with sightseeing for other reasons. An accomplished birder might find it entertaining to read through this book to find whether he or she has missed anything worth knowing. I'd say, having read it, that it is all worth knowing, but certain sections are worth a re-read just prior to a focused outing to refresh the ol' memory. I think the hardest thing for Birdchick to accomplish was to winnow down the neat things to know about birds, to only 1,001.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Playright or polymath?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, science, renaissance

The Amazon web site lists more than 104,000 books by and about William Shakespeare. One of the most recently published—issued in April 2014—is The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe by Dan Falk. The book is a fascinating ramble through the changing understanding of nature known as the "scientific revolution". We look back and see a revolution, but it took a couple of centuries to play itself out, and in some ways it is still going on: While we can safely discount a few folks who believe that Earth is either flat or hollow, and even those who continue to deny the solar system model of Copernicus and Kepler, millions of Americans and significant numbers throughout the West still believe creation better describes biology than evolution and that our planet, of not all the Universe, is no more than several thousand years old. It is also well to remember that more than half of humanity has yet to experience the fruits of the scientific revolution. Missionaries, religious and otherwise, may have visited nearly everywhere, but in many places the main effect has been to induce the people to wear more clothing.

I had not realized that there exists a subculture of those who worry themselves about hints of the new philosophies in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Bardolators at one end attribute to him magical powers and the energy of a village filled with brilliant savants. Others are perhaps more balanced, but still search diligently for statements, references, or at least allegorical allusions to Copernican cosmology or new medical knowledge. It is safe to say that almost anyone living prior to the introduction of gaslight street lights (about 1800 AD) would know the night sky much better than anyone in the West today except for amateur and professional astronomers. Secondly, because there was little a physician could do, general knowledge of medicinal herbs was widespread. I think it likely that most "modern folk" know at most 10% of what would be common knowledge to nearly anyone of Shakespeare's day.

William Shakespeare was a working playwright, and a businessman with a theater to run. Highly intelligent, he'd have been fascinated by hearing and reading of new developments in natural science. But such knowledge was not his top priority. Entertainment was. He needed to reach people by the thousands to pay his bills. His plays spoke to deep currents of the human condition, and set them in familiar terms. Even his less familiar settings, such as Prospero's island, were decked with familiar trappings, the source of many much-bemoaned anachronisms. Rule one for a playwright: Don't puzzle your audience unless you are going to solve the puzzle later on (with a nod to the exception, Waiting for Godot).

We know so little about Shakespeare's person, it is easy to take his life as a near-tabula rasa and read all kinds of attributes into it. I prefer to take a step back to see that he was one of several extraordinary guys; he rose to become the best known, partly merited and partly through the contingencies of history. Not only did he write a lot, but a lot was preserved. Dan Falk keeps us on an even keel while leading us on a tour through the science of the day, mainly astronomical and medical, and letting us observe the breadth of understanding among Shakespeare scholars. He relies a lot on Peter Usher, an "outsider" among those scholars, who attributes a great deal more understanding of the new science to Shakespeare, as compared to most scholars. But it could be said he has scooped them, because most of them weren't even looking. So caught up in word counting and other data-driven internal-evidence studies, most of them know very little about the world Shakespeare inhabited beyond a circle of playwrights and poets. Maybe this book and Usher's work will remedy that. Old Will may not have been the superman some think he was, but he was better rounded than most give him credit for.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Don't let the Ripper go for your throat

kw: book reviews, fictional status uncertain, autobiographies, murders, murderers

The first famous serial killer was Jack the Ripper. He was not the most prolific, with "only" six confirmed kills. He was not the most creative; his murders were hack jobs, followed by crude dissections in five of the six cases. The "surgical precision" often reported relates more to the use of a scalpel or equally sharp instrument rather than to great skill in its use. So why so famous? Mainly because he got away with it.

My wild card choice this season is The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac. In the Dewey Decimal system the book is classified 364.1523, "Murders". But it is really about the murderer. James Carnac claims to be that murderer. We find a brief physical description: 5 ft 7 in, slight, sallow complexion, round face, and longish black hair. And we find either a possible solution to a popular mystery, or a forest of new mysteries.

The volume consists of the following:
  • A map of the Whitechapel area as it was in 1888, with principal locations marked.
  • A preface by Alan Hicken, a museum-keeper into whose hands the typescript came in 2007.
  • An introduction by Paul Begg, the most authoritative author and investigator of Jack the Ripper.
  • The text of the Autobiography in three parts plus an "Explanatory Remarks" and an Epilogue. The Epilogue purports to be a report of a coroner's inquest into the death of James Carnac in a fire.
  • Three Appendices: a detailed analysis of the typescript by Paul Begg, Facsimiles of a few pages of the typescript (everywhere called a manuscript, but it was not handwritten), and a list of the six known victims.
  • "About the Contributors"
  • Index
The typescript, according to Paul Begg, was prepared on three different typewriters. Parts 1 and 2 on one, Part 3 on another, and the Epilogue on a third. His opinion is that Part 3 is the least credible and that the Epilogue is a true wild card, as no other record of the inquest is known.

The Autobiography itself is remarkably well written, and hurries a reader along. Written in a Victorian-era style, and thus wordy, it is nonetheless quite readable. Have you ever noted that writers of that era used more commas and semicolons than one finds today, and that they help a reader track where a long sentence is going?

Carnac, if he existed, claims to be descended from a long line of executioners and official torturers, including the executioner of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Thus a taste for blood and observing death is his heritage. He knows what he is doing is wrong, and only partially self-justifies his actions. He chose victims so degraded—aging and elderly prostitutes—whose lives, in his estimation, had become worthless. I have read autobiographies of several killers, including a couple of professional "hit men" and Monster Cody. These all have a very high self-regard and try to convince the reader that they are really good. If by "good" one means skilled at extracting life from a person, they one must agree. This makes me a trifle suspicious of the veracity of the Autobiography's author. Though he arrogates to himself the right to judge the worth of these women's lives, his self-regard is quite low.

One key fact is brought out in the various apparatuses, and is evident in the writing: that Carnac claims to have killed simply because it was so enjoyable. He was driven to it by an obsession that grew throughout his young life until about the age of thirty, when he killed six times in a span of four months. He reports suffering a catastrophic accident the day after the sixth murder that prevented him from continuing the spree. This principle is supported by more modern research into the psychology of serial killers, who primarily kill for enjoyment.

What do we really know of the typescript behind this book? It was almost certainly written before 1930, passed through a few hands, and came into the possession of Mr. Hicken; he accomplished obtaining the research and publication. If it is genuine, it is valuable history. If it is a hoax, it is nonetheless a valuable historical study by someone who very well knew the Whitechapel area and the circumstances of the murders, and could skillfully get into the mind of a likely perpetrator.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Unexpected mathematics

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, mathematics, savants, savant syndrome

There once was a young man who learned Icelandic in a week. He was then interviewed, in Icelandic, on one of the national TV channels there. What most people remember best from that interview is that he could properly pronounce "Eyjafjallajokull", the volcano that so disrupted European air travel in 2010. The Icelandic J and double L are variations on the Y sound, which are hard for Anglophones to hear, let alone pronounce correctly.

This young man, Daniel Tammet, is sometimes called an Autistic Savant, and scientists who studied him some years back diagnosed "high-functioning autistic savant syndrome". Daniel describes himself as painfully shy and hypersensitive. Seeing him interviewed, it is also evident that he is friendly and open, and very, very focused.

It is a pity that someone such as he would be called "autistic" in any measure. Even the term Asperger's Syndrome for the "high-functioning" end of the "autistic spectrum" can be a bit derogatory. Where does that spectrum end and simple, introverted shyness begin? If there is a scale from 0 (bold as brass) to 1,000 (essentially nonfunctional autism), do you start calling someone abnormal at, say, 600? What about a person who would measure 599?

I am sensitive to such considerations because of psychotherapy I endured about age 12, when I was diagnosed as "withdrawn", and urged by the therapist (a charming Austrian woman my parents' age) to "break out of my shell." Over time, I learned instead to build a doorway so I can come and go as I please. At times I still need my shell. I describe the process as very deliberately allocating about 10 IQ points to constructing a more pleasant and personable personality. The IQ I have left was measured at 160 on the Skyscraper test a couple decades ago, so I feel lucky to have had some brain power to spare.

Mr. Tammet is not only a linguistic genius, he is also a mathematical whiz and a synesthete. He sees numbers as having different colors. He introduces his brand of numerical thinking to us in Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning and Math. The 25 essays therein reveal that we all think mathematically more than we might imagine.

Early essays plumb the cultural use of number as revealed in language. Perhaps you've heard of certain tribes who count, "One, Two, Many" and no further. He describes a language that has no numerical terms at all, for a people who also live without consciousness of either history or future. But he dwells more on the way adjectives are added to numbers, such as the way we always say "four pairs of pants". Were someone to say "four pants" we might consider for a moment he is talking about heavy breathing. The Icelandic and Japanese languages reveal a near obsession with such terms, so in Japanese one does not say "four dinner plates" but "four flat things of dinner plates", which is just 3 words in Japanese.

Another essay grapples with the concept of numbers so large they lose meaning, even for him. These are not just numbers that would be tedious to count, but which are so large that there are more digits than the number of atoms in the visible Universe. It used to be, people would talk about "astronomical numbers", because astronomers bandy about millions and billions of light years as though describing a walk to the corner store. The numbers in "On Big Numbers" are, if anything, hyper-astronomical, requiring a hyper-universe for their quantities to make sense.

We are social creatures, even the extra-shy among us. That means we are in the business of prediction. To learn to cope with a parent, friend or lover, we need to create an interior model of their behavior. How many times has a misbehaving boy said, "If I tell my Mom, she'll KILL me!", exaggerating the trouble he knows he is in already. An entirely nonsocial creature would have no idea whether Mom objects or not. In "A Model Mother" we learn just how mathematical this model-construction behavior really is. We also learn the frailties of such models, because a person's will is more complex than any model. Heck, I can't tell from one moment to the next whether my house cat will enjoy a stroke or run away.

Think of it: your brain uses most of its capacity just running your own personality, which it "knows from the inside". It has much less capacity available to model another person, and since we all have from a dozen to a hundred or so people that we see frequently, we can't take up too much territory with any one model.

Light bulb alert: right in that last pair of sentences you can see the primary reason we have stereotypes. We group people because we must, to save room in our overcrowded brains! To pigeonhole someone into a group, and them remember that person as "Group R plus traits X and Y", simply ties up fewer resources.

In recent years Checkers has become a known game, meaning that every possible play has been enumerated and a strategy for either winning, or forcing a draw, can be computed for any starting configuration. Thus a computer Checkers player can never be beaten by a fallible human. Not so for chess. The essay "Talking Chess" makes it clear that to totally enumerate the game of Chess would produce a database that won't fit in the Universe. So while a mechanism such as Deep Blue may beat a human grandmaster from time to time, there will always be room for a heuristic mind such as ours to jigger a way around the algorithmic mind of a computer.

Another side point: we are very far from understanding the heuristic mind, and thus equally far from "artificial intelligence". I just gotta harp on that point. My wife watched "Transformers" on ABC last evening. Having seen it once, I declined a second viewing, because it is charmless without the surprises of the first viewing, and I know enough physics to be irritated by the repeated impossibilities. Those robots were way too human to have come to Earth from elsewhere, even the evil one.

I was particularly taken by a discussion of "income inequality" as it is currently called in political circles, as illuminated by the Pareto distribution. One version of the Pareto principle is sometimes called the 80-20 rule, meaning 80% of everything is owned (or earned) by 20% of the people. If you square the numbers, you find that 0.8x0.8 = 0.64 and 0.2x0.2 = 0.04, meaning that 64% is owned by 4%. Go to the next power, the cube, and 0.8% owns just over half of everything. That is the "one percent" of the Occupy Protest movement, those who own half of everything.

The author doesn't go into it, but to investigate the poor end of the scale requires taking roots, which most people don't understand. But your calculator can do it. Taking square roots I get 0.894 and 0.447 (rounded off). We need to subtract from 1.0 when going in this direction, so that we find 10.6% is owned by just over half of us. Cube roots? 0.928 and 0.585, or that 7.7% of stuff is owned by the bottom 41.5%. Not much different than the square root, so lets take the tenth root: 0.978 and 0.851, meaning that 2.2% is owned by just under 15%, and that is about the poverty threshold. Put real numbers on that. Assuming the 80-20 rule holds for the U.S., and everything in the country is valued at about 100 trillion dollars. 2.2% of that is $2.2 trillion, but divided among 15% of 320 million of us, it comes to about $46,000. That is an average for 48 million people. It would require yet higher math to figure out the expected net worth of the bottom 1%. Considering the real wealth distribution, 80-20 is probably a bit too egalitarian.

If we change the rule to a 90-10 rule (which changes an exponent in the actual Pareto equation), where 10% own 90%, we find that 1% own 81%, and that may be closer to the truth. Taking tenth roots to examine the poor end, we find 0.9895 and 0.7943, or 20.67% owning 0.0105%, for a net worth near $16,000, the value of a halfway decent car…that is average for the poorest 1/5 of us. Yeah, that is America today, I reckon.

The final chapter is about art. Mathematics is not really all humorless rigor. Mathematicians judge a proof or method by its beauty. My brother offered this analogy: in college where he double-majored in math and art history he had two friends that I'll call Bob and John. "We enter a room, one by one. There is a large mechanism there, and a very evident gear on one side. Bob goes in first, and finds that by pushing the gear with his shoulder he can make the mechanism work. Then I go in, and rummaging around, I find a crank. It fits into the gear, making it much easier to turn. John goes in last, pokes around some more, and finds a plug and a switch. Plug in and switch on, and the machine runs." Three ways of doing math. Can you guess which you'll find described in most journals on the subject? Finding that plug seems to be rather elusive! Those who find the plug and switch get Nobel prizes.

It is a delight to read the unexpected places Mr. Tammet's mathematical mind can take us. If you think you are bad at math, read this book. You'll find that you do more math than you realized, and that the writing of a gifted explainer can illuminate corners of the subject most of us never knew were there.