Sunday, June 29, 2014

Still the Man nobody knows

kw: book reviews, historical fiction, christianity, gospel story

Just ninety years ago Bruce Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows, an effort to make Jesus Christ known as a historical figure, relevant to the Roaring Twenties. The book was still popular 35 years later when I first read it. Barton overdid the historical aspect, making Jesus "too human", to the point of downplaying his divinity nearly to extinction. A new book repeats the error: Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. This book follows their somewhat fictionalized historical accounts Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. I haven't read them, but I expect they are very well done, based on solid scholarship and research.

Their research and scholarship are quite evident in this new book. They not only trace the outlines of the Gospel story, filling in historical context, they trace the history of principal players and their ancestors, such as the Herods and of course the Jews as pertains to the ancestry of the priests and the family of Jesus. There is, however, too great a tendency to overuse Latin and Hebrew terms, to a distracting point. For example, I don't care what a Roman legionnaire called his lunch in his own language.

By the middle of the book, plenty of context has been laid for the last few months of Jesus' life. Here it becomes more evident that the authors, though professed Roman Catholics, are taking a strictly historical approach, and obscuring or denying "supernatural" elements. They go to some length at one point to show off the three Hebrew words for powers, signs, and wonders, and their Greek equivalents, then mention in a note that the word "miracle" was applied to all of these sometime after the 1100s. So what? This totally misses the point. The Gospel authors were careful with their words, and meant something different when they used a different word. They make it clear that these happenings were not legends but that each had a place in the ministry of Jesus.

One item in particular is stated thus in Killing Jesus:
…a most amazing thing happens: the Roman military officer in charge of Capernaum declares himself to be a follower of Jesus.

Jesus is astonished. (p. 143)

Here is the Bible record, from Matthew 8:5-10 (NIV)
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
I have emphasized the key words in bold. The centurion recognized that Jesus is under authority, even as he was (a better translation has it "I also am a man under authority"). As such, he will be satisfied if Jesus simply issues an order for the servant's healing, and trusts that it will be carried out. Jesus does issue the command, and the man returns to find his servant healthy. His faith was great because it saw Jesus not just as a wonder-worker, but as one under God's authority to carry out God's work.

As long as I am on a tear, let us continue. On page 167 we find, regarding the Feast of Tabernacles, "The Jews commemorate forty years of wandering in the desert…", but this in a footnote: "Sukkot, as the festival is known in Hebrew, commemorates the years of nomadic dwelling while Moses searched for the Promised Land." The Torah, from late in Exodus until Deuteronomy, makes it clear that the people were kept in the wilderness from year 3 through year 40 because of unfaithfulness after they had already been on the border of Canaan, but were afraid to enter. They knew where it was the whole time, but would not be allowed to enter until all that generation had died with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who were the only ones not afraid to enter.

On page 176 a section begins, "Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy." Is there no end to special pleading? Jesus knew what he was doing, beginning at or before he was 12 years old. One might ask, "If he knew it then, why wait another 18 years?" Because of a strict principle in Leviticus that service to God is not welcome prior to the age of 30.

On page 198, relating the scene in Bethany prior to Passion Week, there is the puzzling sentence about Mary of Bethany: "She sits at his feet and sometimes shows her respect by anointing them with perfumed oil." She anointed him once, from the head down, on that occasion only, and Jesus declared to the disciples that it was to anoint him for his burial. She, and she alone, understood his statements that the Christ was destined to die as part of God's plan. She anointed him with a pound of costly oil. After his death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had to use 100 pounds of oils and spices to prepare his body for the tomb. It is better to be early!

That is quite enough. There is a lot that the authors did get right, when it comes to downright history. The book's chapters are all dated as accurately as they can ascertain, beginning with the Slaughter of the Innocents, as Catholics call it, in Bethlehem in 5 B.C. This was indeed a few months to a year prior to the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. Jesus was two years of age when the Magi came and informed Herod they had seen his star; when they found him it was "in the house". So the ubiquitous Nativity scenes, with the Magi and shepherds together in the stable with Jesus and his parents, cannot have happened.

They appear to have used a Catholic chronology of the Passion Week, placing it in the spring of 30 A.D. Sir John Robertson showed definitively in The Coming Prince that it was two years later, based on accurate use of the way new moon was determined by the Jews.

It cannot be emphasized enough that Jesus lived in an occupied country, where suspicion of treason was rampant and punished by incredibly brutal death. The authors bring this out admirably, that the title "Son of God" had been appropriated by the Caesars, and to so identify yourself was a terrible risk. Also, the religious leaders of Israel are quick to accuse "Blasphemy!" to anyone claiming divinity. Curiously, it is never mentioned that whenever Jesus confronted a demoniac, the demon would say something like, "I know who you are, Son of God!", a move calculated to get Jesus into trouble.

I'd call the last couple of chapters a verbal parallel to Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" in its incessant drumbeat of brutality. Glad I didn't try to read them at mealtime.

While the book is very well written, and well researched, the authors seem to have done little to understand the Gospel authors. John, in particular, wrote that his record was to show that Jesus is the Son of God. For this reason he used the word "sign" twice as much as Matthew or Luke. You can pair up each Gospel with a one-word theme, and with one of the faces of the Cherubim:
  1. Matthew - King - Lion
  2. Mark - Slave - Calf or Ox
  3. Luke - Man - Man
  4. John - God - Eagle
These four faces are mentioned, in this order, for the "four living creatures", which are a manifestation of the Cherubim, in Revelation 4:7. I liken the four Gospels to portraits of Jesus from four angles. Matthew and Luke, the right and left profiles, Luke the face full on, and John from the back, recalling when Moses asked to see God, being told he could not, but would see his back only (Exodus 33:22).

It is useful to dig out historical context for the life and times of Jesus and his apostles. However, it does a disservice to discount the divine nature that Jesus was careful to conceal from the prying eyes of enemies, but revealed to his disciples and to the twelve apostles in particular.

Friday, June 27, 2014

If it looks like love...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, friendship

Animals that grow up together seem to regard one another as siblings. At any age, when unusual circumstances bring diverse animals together, ordinary enmities and predator-prey relationships are set aside. This pair of photos came from the NBC slide show "Unlikely Friends". I wonder how the retriever would react if his cheetah friend were to prey on a dachshund?

About four years ago I reviewed Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland. Knowing a good thing when she sees it, and amid clamoring from fans for "More!", she has released Unlikely Loves: 43 Heartwarming True Stories From the Animal Kingdom. The cover image shows another retriever with a leopard, clearly showing affection.

Perusing images on the Web, I noted even solitary species such as orangutans and tigers in apparently affectionate relationships with quite disparate species. Of course, in infancy every mammal is social, with its mother and littermates. Thus a photo of a Labrador retriever nursing tiger cubs is not so surprising (I saw one just moments ago). I am not sure the momma dog and the grown tigers can be quite so close a couple years later.

Even as adults, few mammals are entirely solitary. The possibility of forming emotional bonds exists in all. I noticed that most of the stories in both books begin with at least one of the animals being orphaned or otherwise traumatized. Frequently, particularly in Unlikely Loves, the other animal cares for it in a motherly way, providing the persistent physical affection any traumatized animal needs to recover fully. Such caring impulses are hard-wired in mammals and birds.

Side note: otherwise sensible, intelligent young women who "fall for" criminal, druggie, abusive low-life guys have fallen prey to these impulses, often to the point of obsession. They are also the root of "white knight syndrome" among men.

I found it interesting that one of the animals Ms Holland describes is a turtle. What started out as a tortoise seeking warmth among a litter of ten Great Dane puppies led to her developing a special affection for one of them. The tortoise gets unhappy when separated from her favorite horse-sized dog for too long. We don't think of reptiles as having any capacity for affection, but owners of pet turtles and iguanas and boas know differently.

I'll repeat what I wrote earlier. We ought not fear anthropomorphism. Anthropologists are too fussy about this. Not only does emotional understanding help us interpret animal behavior, animal behavior informs our understanding of ourselves. It is not that they are like us: WE are like THEM. We can love because all our animal ancestors loved.

The book is truly heartwarming. Like in a Disney movie, the lives of many animals begins with unspeakable tragedy but can turn out very well. We all need a little love.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Click to prosper

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, trends, technology

The title of this post may better fit an earlier book by this author, but I haven't read that one yet.

When you hear "Word of mouth," what do you think of? Is it Advertising? If so, that's the association Marc Ostrofksy wants for his book titled Word of Mouse: 101+ Trends in How We Buy, Sell, Live, Learn, Work, and Play. The title is a near-table of contents. Just add two items: Communicate and Safeguard., though the last chapter is really subtitled "Cyber Crime".

The earlier book is Get Rick Click!, and this one follows the theme, being mostly business oriented. I wonder how quickly both titles will become obsolete, as we move from 30 years of mousing to using touch, gestures, voice and, perhaps quite soon, thought patterns, to direct our devices. Who'd like to set up a pool on the first day someone's grandkid asks, "What were mouses like?", not referring to tiny mammals.

The author is relentlessly cheerful, almost frisky. Sometimes I felt the book had been written by a juvenile Labrador Retriever. But there is no mistaking his message. It may be obvious to some, but not to all: we are on the verge of cyborgification. The smart cell phone is close to the logical conclusion to which computer technology has been leading for nearly 70 years.

I remember the first time I saw children using cell phones. My wife and I were taking a walk, and saw a woman following two young girls, no older than 6, who were dashing and skipping along while each chatted with a friend on a flip phone held to her ear. I said to my wife, "In a couple decades, puberty will be marked with the installation of a device the size of a pea in the bone behind the ear. There'll be a mic in your jawbone. You'll just say, 'Hey, phone, call Allison.'" A couple decades have passed, and we're not there yet, but I've recently read a couple news articles in which "installable phones" were mentioned.

I figure the built-in phone will be necessary because anything you carry can be stolen, but an installation will not be. I haven't heard of anyone stealing the pacemaker out of someone's body, even though they cost as much as a small auto. I hold out little hope for "kill switch" technology. The only drawback to an installed phone: It'll be harder to turn all the way off. Maybe you can just cover the area where its antenna lies with foil…

I do hold out a lot of hope for increasingly clever devices to help us do pretty much anything short of stirring the soup pot or flipping an omelet (though they can show you an instructional video on it), or pluck my guitar for me, but then what's the use of muscle memory? Hmmm, now if they find a way to instantly attain muscle memory, they might have something!

Well, I'll leave it to interested readers to peruse the book. I didn't find anything like "101+ trends" listed out. Each chapter peppers you with ideas, some being trends and others being less well defined. I did happen to pause to think when he was discussing personal branding. Since retirement I've toyed with the idea of getting some really creative cards made. I'm not limited to company format any more. But a Polymath has a lot of irons in the fire, and there is too much to fit on one card. It is like the time I entered college. Though I picked a major, I really wanted to major in all the sciences. I eventually majored in four, then synergized all of them into a career writing software. This'll take further thought. I need a holographic card, that can project about a wall size display! Or—the simpler solution—several cards.

The book was plenty of fun to read, so a drawback or two I've mentioned above shouldn't deter anyone from reading it. Particular if you're looking for ideas to better use the Gigahertz processors at your fingertips, you'll likely find plenty in its pages.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 140 page ad

kw: book reviews, advertisements, stock speculating, technical products

If you have a stock broker or money manager taking care of your investments, ask this question:
"If you have two clients that seem identical, in age, sex, life goals, income level and rick tolerance, do you make the same recommendations to both?"
Any answer but, "Of course!" is cause for suspicion. Here is why. Brokers tend to hedge their bets. Suppose in an extreme case the broker makes the same recommendation to every client, and is not just wrong, but expensively wrong. There go most of the clients! The business flounders. So of course, a smart agent will tailor investments to the characteristics of clients. But if a few clients are really very, very similar, they are still likely to get differing advice.

One of the oldest "advice" scams is an either-or tree. This works best if the advisor is very good at advertising, or can afford a top-notch advertising team. We'll analyze the action in exact powers of two for simplicity:

  • Tout yourself as an expert advisor and offer to answer as many as three yes/no questions at no cost.
  • The questions must be asked one at a time, perhaps by mail or e-mail. Answers will be delivered similarly.
  • If you really do have an area of expertise, you may be able to give knowledgeable answers. Otherwise, flip a coin.
  • Suppose you started with 1,024 people willing to ask you the first three questions. If you use coin flips (I know, your thumb will get tired), you will be right about half the time. If you are truly expert you may be right more than this, but we'll stick with half for now.
  • For 128 folks, you've been right three times. For 128, you've been wrong three times. You'll certainly lose those latter 128.
  • For the rest, you've been right twice for 448 and right only once for 448. You might lose all these as future, paying clients, but maybe not. Anyway, you have at least 128 people who are quite impressed with your "expertise". (Actual numbers will vary, for statistical reasons, but using exact math makes the analysis simpler.)
  • Let's assume all the 128 happy clients are willing to start paying for answers. You introduce a sliding scale, with enough flexibility that you can charge more later on, pretty much at your "discretion". But of course what you tell them is that you charge more if the question needs further "research".
  • Three more questions later, you have 16 clients for whom your score is perfect. You may have been able to keep some of the others as well, by arguing that a wrong answer here or there is to be expected.
  • But those 16 are now your bread and butter. They will pay a lot more for questions requiring more "research" (it takes you an extra day or two to flip the coin), and be more tolerant of finding you wrong something like half the time!
Of course, if you are truly an expert, and are wrong substantially less than half the time, you'll do even better than someone relying on coin flips. The danger is believing too much in your own infallibility. Successful advisors must be quite dispassionate. That is why the ones who rake in the big bucks are total psychopaths such as Bernie Madoff, who added a pyramid scheme to his coin-flipping.

Now for the phrase that pays: Technical Analysis for stock picking is a way of hiding the coin flip amidst double-talk and jargon. The fancier the computer screen on which the "analysis" is presented, the more one can charge for the "advice".

I've been in and around the US stock market for more than 50 years. I've analyzed things nine ways from Sunday. Much technical analysis assumes a normal (Gaussian) distribution of daily moves. It is easy to plot a couple years' data for any stock you like, and see that large moves are more common than the Gaussian distribution would predict. Some have claimed that the actual distribution is a Cauchy (AKA Pareto) distribution, most notably Nick Taleb in The Black Swan. This distribution is favored by the "you can't pick it" crowd because, while it has a central tendency, it has no mean and no moments, and extra-large moves are possible at any time, that can wipe out days' worth of gains in a stroke. But the actual distribution is not quite so extreme.

For those with statistical expertise, this will be a meaningful explanation: The Cauchy distribution is a two-tailed analog of the Scale-Free distribution (log-log straight line) so beloved of chaos theorists. The real distribution is the complex square root of a Lognormal distribution. It has no name yet, and I haven't thought of a good one. Don't anybody name it after me! Anyway, it has fat tails, just not as fat as the Cauchy. For this reason, it just might be very slightly predictable, but less so than if market moves actually had a Gaussian distribution.

It isn't hard to do a sequence analysis. Download daily closing prices from your site of choice (I like into an Excel sheet. Be careful to pick a time frame of at least a year, in which the first and last closing prices are very nearly the same.

Calculate the daily moves (a simple Excel formula subtracting today from yesterday and so forth), then copy (paste values) them to the next column with a 1-day shift. Plot them in a scatter plot, or calculate a correlation coefficient. I just did this with the closing prices for McDonald's, 3/4/2013 to 3/4/2014. The chart is immediately below, and the correlation coefficient between the two columns is -0.055, or -5.5%. It requires correlations greater than 50% or less than -50% for statistical methods to make you any money. That's your simple proof that technical analysis cannot work!

The first and last closing prices were 95.07 and 95.02. However, during this time, the stock returned a 3.3% dividend. So, you could beat your head against the wall trying to make money on daily trades when a stock is going nowhere, or just hold it for a year and collect the dividend.

Into this arena I find a new book, Advanced Charting Techniques for High Probability Trading, by Joseph R. Hooper, Aaron R. Zalewski and Edwin L. Watanabe. They claim to have licked the barriers to successful technical trading, AKA timing the market. I read about a quarter into the book, and gradually realized that they were long on claims ("Many clients earn 20% or more monthly") but short on meaningful specifics.

Oh, there are plenty of specifics, but they all relate to using a software product to which you subscribe for $80/month (I got this from their web site). Now, these fellows have two sets of methods. For about a decade they have promoted and taught an option technique called "covered calls and LEAPS". They claim it earns high returns in both up and down markets. I reckon the trick is finding speculators who will buy the options on terms favorable to you. Perhaps Barnum was right, that "There is a sucker born every minute", and you just need to find these suckers.

This book adds loosely-described charting techniques that are supposed to enhance the method. I am not sure if using them means you pay more for your subscription. I couldn't find out without revealing more about myself than I was willing to. However, given my deep suspicion of all charting techniques, no matter how fancy their names, I can't give any credence. Let them say all they want about creating millionaires; how many of their clients are non-millionaires? or even non-gainers?

It became clear as I read that this was mainly a confidence-building exercise, and that the book is an advertisement for the products. Maybe this really is the cat's meow. I have yet to be convinced. But I suspect the authors make a lot more from their products than from using their own methods.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What we didn't say

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, family relations, discussions

My father never had "the talk" with me. My mother did instead. When a guy is 12, and the "extra hair" has begun to grow, it's embarrassing and intimidating! The concept, delivered with almost clinical detachment, seemed unbearably gross…I was still about 10, emotionally. However, later the knowledge thus imparted did help counteract the incredible speculations of schoolyard buddies who had a little actual information and lots of rubbish with it. But really, the "Be-Bopper" ditty passed along all the information truly needed:
Down by the river where nobody goes,
I saw a lady standing without any clothes.
Along came a Be-Bopper, swingin' a chain:
Down came the zipper, and out it came!
Three months later, she was starting to swell.
Six months later, she was fatter than hell.
Nine months later, out it came:
Three little Be-Boppers, swingin' a chain!
Details such as foreplay and so forth would have to come later.

In some families, fathers and sons do get chances to talk together. My father and I spent more time together than was common in the 1950s and we talked a lot (I believe my brothers all could report the same). Late in my college years, a friend came home with me for dinner, and remarked afterward, "Your family's table talk is at a pretty high level!" We're all rather chatty, and not much was off-limits.

The Geist family discussions seem to have steered away from "the talk" and a number of other meaningful subjects. As Bill and Willie Geist tell it, they wouldn't have it any other way. Father and son play literate ping-pong in Good Talk, Dad: The Birds and the Bees…and other Conversation we Forgot to Have. The book is really a 16-chapter mini-memoir for the two of them, a kind of comparing notes on significant events and what they mostly didn't say about them: which sports they did or did not excel at (Willie mainly excelled, his dad, not so much); how they learned to love how they hated going fishing together; what really happened to outrage a teacher, to much merriment all around; and how Willie's way into the TV world was pretty foreordained, having grown up with the living room or kitchen being transformed into a TV studio every month or so.

You can't say that Willie Geist was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. More like a silver pen in hand, or at least silver keyboard. A writer friend confessed to Bill that he'd re-type a column of Bill's "just to find out what writing that well feels like." Reading them both alternately, I find there is a little difference in voice but fully equal skill. They both write extremely well. Nature and nurture conspired to pass along Bill's way with words to his son. With Willie's children still so young, it is a little early to tell if the gift will continue, but I'm optimistic.

I don't really want to reveal more about the book. Whether you are a father or a son, or the wife or sister or mother of one, this book will crack open a window on an interesting family, maybe similar to yours, but more likely not. We're all human, but that umbrella is gigantic. And guys, don't feel too bad if you feel shorted in the father-son-bonding-talk arena. It's more usual than you think.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Best foot forward and that is about it

kw: book reviews, short stories, fiction, story reviews, anthologies

It is a chemist's daydream, to determine exactly the composition of a major trade-secret product such as Coca-Cola. For some, the daydream extends to extorting large sums from the company in return for keeping the secret. Thus it was inevitable that a chemist, one from Stanford at that, should write a story on this theme, as we find in the title story of How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship by Carl Djerassi.

The story's protagonist has determined a precise mixture of 227 ingredients that exactly mimics Classic Coke. A humorous twist or two later, he and his lawyer-wife have settled with the company for a lifetime $1million income plus 24 times that to be delivered yearly to charities of their choice. It's a great read, an enjoyable "if only" sort of story.

The other 11 stories play on the theme of one-upmanship, and I confess I was, I suppose, one-upped by nearly all, one after another. The author intended each ending to be an obvious turn against a character who had it coming (with one exception). The trouble is, it is seldom evident which character is meant, and the ending is thus quite ambiguous, at least to me. By the tenth story, "The Futurist", I had figured out that one must gather clues as if the writer were Agatha Christie. Even then the ending was deflating. I could tell which character "won" the contest, but it was not clear that the other knew he had lost. There is such a thing as too much indirection.

The last story, "The Toyota Cantos", surpasses in erudition every other short story I've read. A scholar who seems to have memorized all of Dante's Divine Comedy prepares a present for his wife, who, he has found, knows it quite as well as he. Though he hadn't noticed earlier on. The ending is more satisfying, being a win-win.

Dr. Djerassi writes skillfully, and I suppose he'll think himself very clever indeed that his thought processes usually left me baffled.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shifting advantages

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, conflict analysis

There's an old children's gospel song about David killing Goliath. Its chorus begins, "And one little stone went in the sling, and the sling went round and round, and round and round and round and round…" I forget how many rounds. Out of curiosity I learned slinging about 45 years ago, and I learned that the sling goes around once or twice, and that's it.

The sling is used two ways. For distance, you swing it vertically, usually twice, and release it at an angle about 30°. Because of wind resistance, you don't go as high as the theoretical 45°. Instead, a slung or thrown ball goes farthest when its angle upon landing is 45°, and wind resistance makes the descending angle steeper than the ascending angle. It didn't take long before I could sling a stone more than 200 meters. In ancient armies, slingers were placed behind the archers because they had greater range! But stones slung for distance are not very accurate. Slingers in the early part of a battle are used to make the opposing forces wary and keep their distance, while the archers pick them off. When they get closer, the sling is used differently.

To sling for accuracy, at a distance of 50m or less (usually 20-30m), the action is more over the head, or around the head. I am right handed. I load the stone into the pocket with my left hand and toss it left and upward. I swing with my right around in the same direction until my hand is behind and above my right shoulder, then use a throwing motion almost the same as throwing the stone without a sling, and release just after a snap of the wrist forward. At 30m I was never accurate enough to reliably hit a basketball-sized object (better than 50%, though), but friends of mine could hit it on center, within an inch or two. A slung stone of about an inch (2.5cm), weighing 20g, could be slung through the siding on a barn.

With that in mind, Goliath had no chance. David was alive because he could either kill or harass away a lion or a wolf, and had apparently done so. Goliath may have been larger than a lion, but he was not stronger than one. His height is given as 6 cubits and a span. Now, I am big, and my cubit (elbow to finger tip) is 22", or 56cm. The Phoenician cubit was probably 17"-18", or 43cm-46cm. A span is 1/5 of a cubit, so if the account is true, Goliath stood at least 8.8 feet, or 2.7m. Impressive, particularly when the ordinary Hebrew or Philistine stood about 5.5 feet or 1.7m. And! David is frequently noted as "small and ruddy". A short kid with an Irish flush.

Now, it has been asked why David picked up five stones. Was he afraid of missing, and hoping he would be quick to reload? I think rather, we read later in the books of the Kings that Goliath had four brothers: David was preparing, if needed, to take on the whole family. Goliath was a big target. He was weighed down with a lot of armor and a huge javelin, so that he needed someone to carry his shield. He was slow. David won because he chose not to fight on Goliath's terms.

And that is the theme of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. If you have to fight a giant, make sure to pick your own battleground and fight by your own rules. If the giant picks the rules, you'll lose.

On a side note, Amarillo Slim, king of the proposition wager, wrote in his memoirs of making all kinds of wagers, but only, only after he already knew how he would win. On an even more distant note, a short TV series with Shaq O'Neal titled Superman featured a series of proposition wagers. Poor Shaq wasn't as canny a negotiator as Slim was, and lost most of the bets. It was great entertainment, though. I really enjoyed the shows.

Back to Gladwell's book. He used nine main stories and several lesser ones to illustrate the various ways "underdogs and misfits" have won the day in various arenas. But that is not all there is to tell. If you want to win against seemingly impossible odds, repeat this mantra frequently:
There is no such thing as a fair fight
Think about it. How likely is it that someone will offer to fight you if he isn't pretty sure of winning? As the saying goes, don't bring a knife to a gunfight. Unless, of course, you plan to use it to cut a rope and drop a ton of bricks on the other fellow before he sees you. This brings up an equally crucial principle: Plan Ahead, or as my favorite supervisor would put it,
Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part
The book has three chapters of examples on turning your disadvantages into advantages (and the opposite for your opponent), three on the things one can learn from a difficult early life, and three on "The Limits of Power". The last section opens up a bigger sociological issue: why so many laws aren't enforced. The short answer is, you can't afford it. I heard a police captain say in a speech about traffic laws that no law can be enforced unless "natural compliance" exceeds 85%.

Something like 100,000 cars travel a certain Interstate Highway near me every day. I don't know how many highway patrol cars are on the road, but it probably doesn't exceed 100, maybe not even 25. Are there enough officers to write 15,000 tickets every day, if somehow they could catch every speeder, and "only" 15% were speeding? In my experience it takes half an hour to flag a car down and issue a speeding ticket along with whatever exhortation the officer makes. Works out to 7,500 man-hours (don't fault me for sexist language. I've only seen one female patrol officer in 20 years out here). 8 hour shifts with a half hour lunch breaks means you need 1,000 officers on duty, or 333 per shift. Not even close. The local states can't afford to hire enough officers to cope with a 15% rate of speeders, and the actual rate is 80% or higher.

Heck, on Hwy 95 approaching Baltimore from the north, where the speed limit is 55mph nearly all the traffic exceeds 70, and if I have the temerity to drive at "only" 65, I soon pick up a tailgater who honks at me. In a stretch where the limit is 65mph they really cut loose! Even when the traffic is flowing smoothly at 70-75 mph, about one car in 20 will be weaving through the pack, attempting to average over 80.

The core story of the third section is the Irish rebellions by the IRA and other groups in the 1960s and later. They finally broke the power of the British forces because there is a second meaning to "can't afford it". If strong enforcement causes authority to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public, they can't even get away with trying to enforce anti-jaywalking laws. They lack the social currency.

In an endnote on page 292 there is a very revealing table, of the % of the economy of various countries that is concealed by citizens from their government. This is everything from garage sales to under-the-table cash payments to many service workers such as home handymen, to drug dealing and organized crime. The USA has the smallest "black market", at 7.8%. The other four countries with less than 10% are Switzerland, Austria, Japan and New Zealand. At the bottom of the scale we find Greece, at 25.2%. Only one other country exceeds 20%, Italy. Greece, in particular, has a notoriously corrupt government. In the USA, the principle of "a nation of laws and not of men" is still honored to the extent that most citizens are law-abiding. Americans expect equitable treatment to a greater extent than any other people. (The report cited studied only OECD nations.) You might ask, "So why do they speed?" Traffic laws lack legitimacy to most folks.

Thus another big lesson of the book is that if the giant in question is greatly resented, it is much weaker than it appears. You can beat city hall if it is well and roundly hated. You can "speak to power" more safely if the power in question is barely hanging on to authority.

A further lesson of the third section is that winning is sometimes losing. A detailed study is presented of the California law, copied in many other states, of "three strikes and you're in for life". At first it seemed to work well, but was later seen to be worse than allowing more judicial discretion. Nearly all such laws have been repealed. It is because of the inverted-U shape of "effectiveness" for many measures. It is like the Laffer Curve used by Reagan when he argued for lower income taxes. When taxes are low, increasing them a little will increase revenues. This can continue up to a point. But when taxes get too high, those with the most to lose will find ways to circumvent the law, and revenues will decrease.

In the same way, if there is little penalty for crime, there will be a lot of crime. Increase prison sentences, and crime will decrease, if only because criminals have fewer years in their lives in which they are free to do more crimes. But at some point there is no benefit, and perhaps a detriment. Criminals don't think about penalties when they are committing a crime. The worse the penalties are, the more planning most of them do to avoid getting caught. It gets harder and harder to bring them to justice.

The book covered a lot more ground than I was expecting. This made it a fascinating read. I've also read Outliers by Gladwell, and this is perhaps even more useful. Much worth reading.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The frog leapt from the pot

kw: continued review, short stories

This covers the story I actually finished among the last five in The Best American Short Stories 2013, edited by Elizabeth Strout.

"The Wilderness" is an interior monologue by a teacher navigating the changed culture of students not so much younger than herself, though she is becoming a veteran teacher. It is but 9 pages long. It does seem that a "generation" is rather a shorter time than in the past, doesn't it? The ending is ambiguous; is she seeking acceptance from another or from herself? But then, aren't we all? By getting me to ask that question of myself, this story moved into the top ranks.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A few more I could bear

kw: continued review, short stories

A couple days ago I wrote of one among the first seven stories in The Best American Short Stories 2013, edited by Elizabeth Strout. Here I have read eight more; I completed half of them, and two are worth mention:

  • "A Voice in the Night" by Steven Millhauser, written as trios of vignettes, offers the author's insights into the story of Samuel when he first heard the voice of God in the night, and uses them to trace the inner life of a young Jew, affected by the story, growing out of his faith as he ages.
  • "Philanthropy" by Suzanne Rivecca at first seemed just another ugly story of the mean streets, but draws a reader with its authentic voice into the heart of a reformed druggie now sheltering others who are reforming, or variously trying to, as she struggles to obtain financial support for her work.
As I read the first parts of some of these stories, I began to think of Hemingway. He was a pioneer of using a heady mixture of lyric writing and gritty realism. The stories I'm thinking of began with "The Indian Camp", where we are introduced to Nick Adams. It is a bit hard to stomach, but has something worthwhile to say about coming of age. But to my memory, the Nick Adams stories went downhill, as Nick became more of an anti-character and his life became pointless. The 24 stories don't depict 24 "comings of age", but a series of events that show Nick learning less and less from each "life lesson". The growing cloud of despair that hovers behind them seems to reflect a growing apathy or despair in Hemingway that led him to suicide.

It seems that many try to emulate Hemingway without understanding what he was doing at his best, nor the trap of following him off his private cliff. Such authors compete with one another in an anti-chic chicness of nihilism. The stories are skilfully written but have nothing useful to tell us. Thankfully, at least these two (above) of the eight (stories 8-15 in the collection) actually arrive somewhere useful.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The focus narrows

kw: book reviews, story reviews, anthologies, short stories

A short story collection that I sometimes look for was published recently: The Best American Short Stories 2013, edited by Elizabeth Strout (The series editor is Heidi Pitlor). Today I read, or partly read and partly skipped, the first 8 stories.

We used to feel very cynical and say of life, "You can't win, you can't break even, you can't even get out of the game." This is attributed to C.P. Snow, but is probably older than that, perhaps by centuries. Post-adolescent pre-adults in every generation tend to be terminally "cool" and clinically cynical. Seven of the first 8 stories in this collection go that one better, trying to outdo Camus, it seems, in their tragic absurdity.

Thus I'll write only of the third story, "Malaria", which came the closest to likability for me. It is, at least, a story of transformation. I suppose you could say that every story tells of some event(s) or other that left the character changed. But typically the changes are nearly undetectable. Here, Orlando has a girlfriend/lover who seems to good for him. I think any boy who isn't a psychopathic narcissist feels that way about a first real girlfriend. Her family is ordinary in some ways, unusual in others, and the family dynamic revolves around her brother George, who may or may not have malaria. George's dynamic with Orlando induces change and growth.

What is life about but transformation? Whether one has any kind of faith or not, growth and change make a life worth something, if anything does. The world is full of "grown-ups" who never truly grew up. They are the real tragedies of human life.

A quibble or two

kw: grammar, solecisms

The publisher of Octopus!, reviewed here yesterday, is Current, an imprint of Penguin. I noted 3 things that got past the editorial staff:

  1. p53, writing of one group of colleagues, "…a mix of born-and-bread Puerto Ricans…". The proper term is "born and bred", where "bred" means "raised". The hyphens are optional but not improper.
  2. p66, "A giant Pacific octopus, for example, can squeeze itself through anything smaller than its beak and braincase, …". The word "larger" should be used.
  3. p171, writing of someone "pouring over satellite images". One imagines this someone spilling his drink. The term is "poring over" meaning to study closely.
Errors like these were most likely in the author's text, received electronically. An editor is supposed to go over the text thoroughly, and even if most publishers still employ bespoke proofreaders, an educated editor ought to have caught these. In the past, the text would be received on paper, so one could then fault a typesetter for 1 and 3, but not 2. But in those days, a further proofreading would have been performed, which is now typically foregone.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

8 arms and no legs

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, octopuses

Invertebrates in general spend nearly their whole lives growing up, mate once, and die. This is true even for the most intelligent invertebrate, the octopus. Particularly for octopuses: after mating, they go downhill rapidly. The male will die very soon, while the female will lay dozens to myriads of eggs and care for them until they hatch; during this time she fasts and loses as much as half her body mass. Then she dies within days. Think about that the next time you have an octopus dish. A healthy near-adult octopus is one who has yet to reproduce. Few live more than two years, and most live less than a year, from being an egg to producing eggs.

About the first third of Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea by Katherine Harmon Courage relates to their edibility. A few recipes are proffered. The Japanese, which call the animal tako (pronounced the same as "taco"), serve bits of octopus arm in sushi, but have the sense to cook it. Some cultures serve octopus raw, which is a great way to pick up parasites. But the only way the Korean "crawling arm" salad can be served is raw. The short chunks of arm have their own nerves and ganglia and know how to grasp and wriggle about, long after being severed.

As we read in the "Brain Power" chapter, even the suckers have ganglia and can perform tasks we'd usually associate with fingers of a hand, with little feedback from the central brain. We think of "the brain" as a location in which all the smarts reside. Yet our knee-jerk and other reflexes demonstrate that certain actions can be taken without any input from "command central". For an octopus, perhaps half or more of their real brain is distributed throughout the body. Thus, the published Encephalization Quotient (EQ) of around 0.04 is too low by at least half.

I long thought that the plural of octopus was octopi, then learned that the proper Greek plural is octopodes. However, Ms Courage states that the proper plural is octopuses (The lack of a red squiggly from Google when I type that last term indicates that they agree). The word has become fully Anglicized.

Octopuses come in all sizes. This Giant Pacific Octopus is being introduced to school children in Seattle. I saw one at Marineland of the Pacific when they were still in operation, that was about as big as they get, with arms 10 feet long, so that it nearly filled a tank window that was 24 feet across. This species is either the largest or second largest; scholars are still debating over it.

This picture shows the smallest (so far) known octopus species. It doesn't have a common name. This is an adult with arms less than an inch long (about 2 cm). In between, the Common Octopus reaches a weight of 3-4 kg with arms that are half a meter or so when relaxed, but can double in length when the creature reaches for something.

A fascinating aspect of octopus arms is that the nerves run in a loose channel and are arranged in zig-zag form when the arm is relaxed. Nerve tissue cannot stretch, so this allows the arm to reach without damaging the nerves.

The only hard part of an octopus is the beak, which is rather small. Many, and perhaps all, octopuses have a venomous bite. The four species of Blue-Ringed Octopus have the most dangerous bite known for any creature. This specimen is shown a little larger than life size. The body is smaller than a golf ball. But it carries enough venom to kill several humans. The venom is ordinarily used to immobilize prey.

The small beak in an otherwise wholly flexible, nearly fluid, body means an octopus can crawl through a surprisingly small opening. Even the eyes and the brain, which is ring-shaped and surrounds the esophagus, are flexible so that a grown Common Octopus weighing 3kg can get through a hole about 1cm in diameter.

While the book contains many facts of the natural history of these cephalopods, I wouldn't call it a natural history text. It is more of a romp through many interesting facts about these creatures, with quite a focus on various ways they are caught and consumed. Perhaps it is not so surprising that octopuses are extra-smart for being related to slugs. They are both predator and prey. They have two kinds of critters to outwit, those that they eat (crabs are a favorite) and those that want to eat them (including us). Octopus! is quite a fun read. While the author enjoyed quite a variety of Octo-cuisine during her research, I pass on it. I've eaten some, and they do taste good. But a critter that can look you in the eye in a way no other animal below your dog or cat can do, really doesn't belong on my plate.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Managing the unmanageable wildernesses

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, endangered species, wildlife management

We might joke about our favorite oxymorons, such as Jumbo Shrimp, Objective Opinion, or Act Naturally (a wink and nod to Ringo), but the most tragic is Wildlife Management. Frankly, if it is managed, it isn't wild. A landscape designer can produce a "naturalistic garden" using a couple dozen species of trees, shrubs and low plants. It looks delightfully wild, yet is entirely designed. A half-acre woods near my home has at least 45 tree species that I can recognize—including at least six kinds each of oak and maple—, and many more species of shrub and undergrowth, from skunk cabbage to poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Nature is complex.

Compare these two polar bears:

I suppose I could claim they are the same bear at different times, but no, the one on the left is in Alaska, near the northern edge of North America, well fed in late Winter, and the other is in the area of Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay, near the southern limit of polar bear range, approaching starvation while waiting for ice to form in the Fall. If the current climate warming continues, and the Arctic becomes ice-free, in another decade or so the Alaskan bears will be in as much trouble as those of southern Hudson Bay.

Polar bears were the first of three species that Jon Mooallem followed and studied while preparing to write Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Three animals, a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. Three time scales of "management". For all the subspecies of polar bear, Ursus maritimus, the danger has been perceived only for a couple of decades. For the butterfly, Lange's Metalmark, Apodemia mormo langei, which is a subspecies of the Mormon metalmark, "management" of its habitat has been going on for decades. The bird, the whooping crane, Grus americana, neared extinction in the 1940s and has rebounded to nearly 300 birds.

The Churchill area polar bears have become quite a tourist attraction. I suppose early in the on-land season, when they come off the remnants of the ice well-fed and fat, they are good-looking bears. Then they must fast until the ice re-forms in Autumn, and many lose half their weight. As Spring thaw works its way earlier, and the Fall freeze later, the number that simply starve each Summer is increasing. This presents a quandary to conservationists. Should they feed the bears? If they do, are they wild any more? And will not the easier life, by dialing back natural selection, weaken the population as a whole?

Hah! Look at the human race. Most Westerners, living an easy life compared to the poor 2/3 of humanity, are clearly weaker and less "fit" in a Darwinian sense than their ancestors of just a couple centuries ago. I fear the result of something like a "limited nuclear exchange", which will result in the destruction of most of our electronic "crutches". If your house or apartment building lost all utilities for, say, five years, and your cell phone had burned out in the EMP, how would you fare?

We do need to do something about carbon emissions, and in my view, shifting toward using more natural gas (methane) and less coal, while we use those sources of energy to develop low- and non-carbon sources, makes the most sense. Here is the chemistry:
  • Coal burning: 2CH (average composition) + 1.5O2 → 2CO2 + H2O
  • Methane burning: CH4 + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O
Simply put, coal is about 7.5% hydrogen and methane is about 25% hydrogen. Burning that hydrogen produces lots of energy without adding any CO2 to the atmosphere. Methane is a "halfway there" energy source. It has been said that if we actually stopped burning all fossil fuels today, it would take a generation for the atmosphere to return to a pre-industrial level. This chart hints at a more optimistic prediction:

The yearly uptick in the Northern Hemisphere air mass is from Winter heating, including lots of coal burning. The downtick is from the relatively smaller Northern energy use during Summer. This rapid response (about 2%) strongly hints that any genuine reduction in carbon use would be quickly reflected in the CO2 level of the atmosphere. Thus, to whatever level our use of carbon fuels is affecting the current warming cycle, to that extent it could shift, and shift quickly.

But changing carbon use will take time. Solar power does not yet provide more than 1% of electricity generation, and wind is approaching 6%. It will take combined non-carbon sourcing to approach 33%, to make a significant shift in CO2 production, because energy use continues to climb.

The polar bear, as a truly wild species, may be doomed. Can we turn them into a managed species during a meltdown, and successfully restore them to truly wild status, in, say, 100-200 years? Maybe. In the meantime, the warming has also allowed northern grizzly bears to move into the southern parts of the polar bears' Summer range. Interbreeding has been recorded. I think the consensus term for resulting hybrid bears is pizzlies. By the time a managed white bear is ready to be returned to the wild, they may have to compete with a beige population of omnivorous bears that out-compete them in all seasons! Then what? Which bear will that generation "favor" over the other? And how will it be accomplished? Open hunting season on the disfavored bear?

On to the butterfly. This is a Lange's metalmark, feeding on its host plant the naked-stem buckwheat. The caterpillars will eat only this plant's leaves. This particular subspecies of the Mormon metalmark is one of a very few endangered species that are insects. This image is roughly life size (photo by Mike Kepka of the San Francisco Chronicle).

This poor little butterfly is known only from the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge, a 55-acre area on the San Joaquin River in California. The "dunes" exist no longer. A quirk of the wind had piled up a lovely landscape of shifting sand dunes in the area, and they have been mined for sand for at least 70 years. More recently, a gypsum wallboard plant was constructed right in the middle of the area, before it was designated a Refuge, taking up about a quarter of the area. This aerial image shows the scene:

The entire refuge is about 1,100 m long, from WNW to ESE, and less than 300 m across. The buckwheat does not do well in competition with plants that have been invading since the shifting sand was all removed. There has been a series of 1-day counts by teams of volunteers for many years. A couple of generations ago, Lange found thousands of the butterflies here. A generation ago, there were a few hundred, then later 100 or so. The last couple of years, the count has been about 25-35.

The author notes that the actual identity of this butterfly is troublesome. Members of another subspecies of the Mormon metalmark look almost identical and feed on the same host plant, yet genetic studies indicate they are not as closely related as a different subspecies that actually looks somewhat different and is lighter in color. The scientific identity and the political identity of the species are quite different.

Mooallem participated in one of the counts. He wonders how a group of amateurs, most of them first-timers with a short introduction to pictures of the butterfly, can accurately find and count them. I think he need not worry. I recall taking our son fossil hunting with a rock club when he was 4. The leader of the expedition took a moment at the entrance to the quarry to show us the kinds of fossils we might find. He pointed out a particular brachiopod shell, saying, "This one is pretty rare. We might find one or two today." Our son looked at it for a moment and trotted off. Within half an hour he brought back six of them. We all kidded that it was because his eyes were closer to the ground than the rest of us. But then, by the end of the day most of us had found at least one.

It may be that as I write an early count is taking place that will find no butterflies at all. Or they may find 40 or more. A recent news note states that the public will be allowed to enter the refuge for the first time in many years this Summer. Will this help or hinder conservation efforts? Opinions differ.

This is one major point the author brought out in all sections of the book. Opinions differ. Contentions abound among "the good guys", those who are trying to save each of these species. This was most evident in the third section, about the whooping crane.

The related sand hill crane, a popular subject of photographers visiting Nebraska, is a gregarious bird, doesn't seem much affected by moderate amounts of human contact, and migrates as a flock, in which the young follow all the flock to learn the way. Not so the whooper. They are typically edgier, stay farther apart most of the time, and the young will follow only their parents to learn a migration route. Thus an effort to introduce a new population of the birds, that live farther east and fly from Wisconsin to Florida, has been particularly hard.

In recent years a team has been raising crane chicks while wearing special suits—and never speaking near them—and training them to use the new migration path using ultralight airplanes, on which the chicks are imprinted when young. It was hard to tell, but the people seem to outnumber the birds. This "eastern flock" may be approaching 100 birds, but something the "crane people" haven't been able to teach them is how to care for an egg or raise a chick. If I read right, not one chick has been hatched, raised, shown the new migration route by its parents, and grown to adulthood. One and one only was raised and shown the migration, but died the same year.

The various groups that coordinate all this effort seem to spend half their effort disputing and working at cross-purposes. The same human nature that led some to endanger these birds in the first place is still present in the helpers. These folks may have a longer view when it comes to trying to gain a longer future for the birds, but they are as short-sighted as anyone else about fund raising and funds allocation and prioritizing all the needed tasks. The last ultralight armada may have already flown. When the book was written, there was very little optimism that the program would continue. I guess the success of the "eastern flock" of whooping cranes now depends on a small number of mated pairs figuring out how to raise chicks to maturity.

The whooping crane is a big, beautiful bird. These are in Texas. They may be more adaptable than people give them credit for. The book includes a number of stories of cranes that got "off program". After all the care the group went to, keeping them from human contact, some found their way to yards with bird feeders or to farms where crop remnants could be gleaned. In the eyes of some this "ruined" their wildness.

Gimme a break! The next door neighbor has a bird feeder. Cardinals we see in our yard sometimes eat there. I grew sunflowers for the Great Sunflower Project for a few years. I saw my first goldfinches when they came to my sunflowers. Are these birds damaged by getting within a couple meters of a human? More to the point, though, are such stories signs that the crane is more diverse than they thought, or is it that they are changing in the face of the changing conditions. Are they still the same bird that existed under this name 150 years ago?

There would be a problem if young cranes imprinted on humans. They'd have problems courting and mating, for example. Not realizing the beautiful crane nearby was the intended partner, one might have eyes only for other humans. But once they have grown past adolescence, they'd do well to get used to a world full of humans. We're everywhere. ("And that's the problem!" some anti-human eco-crazies shout. They rant about the need to "cull" the human race by some 50-90%. Well, the feeling is mutual. I want them dead as much as they want me dead. Watch your back, dude! There were no such eco-crazies recorded in Wild Ones.)

I find less reassurance than the author does. Einstein wrote, "The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them." That could be expanded to, unless we ourselves change, we will seldom see problems we've created and will be unable to solve those we do see.

Try this for one minute: Take out a watch that shows seconds. If you are at rest, you are probably taking a breath every 5 seconds, or 12 per minute. For the next 32 seconds, take a breath every 4 seconds exactly (that's 8 breaths), then for the following 28 seconds, a breath only every 7 seconds (that's 4 more). For that first minute, it is probably not too hard. Try another minute, then another. Nobody I know can make it to 5 minutes. You are still taking 12 breaths every minute, but you are actively managing your breathing rate. It also takes up all your attention and you will be unable to do anything else such as read or even converse with someone. This is analogous to trying to manage nature.

I once wrote a short-short, which I'll pare down even farther:
Young Tom is now enamored with power. He speaks of it all the time. He yammers while I look about and study, and consider. I must care for the needs of my people. While he speaks of this plan and that project, I beckon and lead him to the river bed, where I move a few stones. We leave. The next rain will be diverted, just a bit. In time, the river will shift its course.
When we have the wisdom to read a river's future in the lay of the stones, we'll be able to make the small changes that amount to the best way to make changes worth making.