Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A book few will like but cannot refute

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, population genetics, racism, cultural evolution

The suffix "-ism" has taken on a connotation of misuse of power, primarily in the words ageism, sexism, and most particularly, racism. We need a new suffix to denote recognition of differences without making a value judgment. The "feminist revolution" went as far as it could on the fable that male-female differences were negligible. To some extent, women were enabled to enter and succeed in formerly male-only or male-dominated trades and professions. There is still a ways to go. However, today I observe greater sex distinctions than were seen 50 years ago. Sexism in the workplace has diminished but not vanished. Perhaps one day it shall. But, may it never be that we lose, vive la différence!

I'll forego discussing ageism and get right to the point of the book on review: Races exist, not just because of skin color, but as seen in skeletal and soft-tissue anatomy and even in social attitudes. The book is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade. He is, apparently, not beholden to an academic institution, so he has little to lose by exploring a subject no professional academic dares to touch. He writes, "Social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value." (p9)

I have said for many years that I am no racist, but that I am a culturist. I may need to find a new term, because by "culturism" I mean the understanding that some cultures or subcultures are better adapted than others to their social and economic environment. I do not mean that particular cultures are of lower intrinsic value, but I do mean that cultural practices that worked well in one milieu will be detrimental in another. In particular, about half the land area of Earth is dominated by so-called "Western culture", based in technology, entrepreneurship, and high education. Members of a culture that does not highly value education and the rule of law will not thrive in the West, even though they might live quite well in another place.

The social sciences are dominated by the notion that human evolution stopped somewhere between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. Wade has gathered evidence that, as he puts it, "…human evolution has been recent, copious and regional."

  • Recent: Wisdom teeth and lower backs. Articles on the history of wisdom teeth speak in terms of millions of years, but in fact, a jawbone 1,000 years old is more likely to have room for the third molars than most modern jawbones, at least among Europeans. I still have my wisdom teeth, but the proportion of Euro-Americans that need them removed increases with every generation. Further, we are still gradually evolving our ability to get through life without permanent damage to our spines. We are in general more lightly constructed than an ancestor of 5,000 years ago. This is called the "Gracilization" of modern humans. It certainly isn't cultural!
  • Copious: Genome studies. Some 12% of our genes show evidence of evolution in the past millennium, and some in the past few generations. By adulthood every one of us carries 50-100 mutations that did not originate with our parents. About a thousandth of our body is gonadal tissue, so every 10-20 generations a random mutation will be passed on to our offspring. Looked at another way, about one in 10-20 children born carries a mutation from a parent, not found in that parent's parents, and about one child in a few hundred inherits mutations that occurred in both parents. This is an important factor in genetic drift, as these new genetic changes spread through a population.
  • Regional: Reproductive limitations. In spite of strenuous efforts by anti-racists, interracial marriage is still rare. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, I myself and another friend, both of us Caucasian men, are married to Asian women. Another couple is an African-born married to an African-American of mixed ancestry. Everyone else is married strictly within their own race. A low level of intermarriage means that genetic drift moves in different directions in different populations, simply by chance.
Here is the crux of the matter: Do the genetic variations among human populations, so long isolated from one another and not much blended even in this modern, cosmopolitan generation, affect psychology, specifically mental abilities and attitudes? In the past few decades various studies that showed differences between races in IQ were subject to vilification from everyone except a few supremacist crazies. Standard IQ tests such as Stanford-Binet, and the SAT when normed as an IQ test, are normed to Euro-Americans with the average (mean) defined as 100 and a standard deviation (a factor of variation) as 15. On such IQ tests, the group average for Asians is 105-110, and for Africans and African-Americans it is about 90. This makes me wonder, what if a group of scholars in Kenya and Nigeria and other major African countries produced and normed an aptitude test based on their peoples' practices and ways of living? Would it then be the Euros who would score around 90…or lower? Where would Asians score?

Here is where racial origin has a practical effect. The IQ tests used in the West measure one's ability to handle Western technological concepts and, to a certain extent, social concepts. There is a subculture in America called "poor white trash", which denigrates "extra" education beyond "the three R's". These are the kids that beat up and harass the "teacher's pets" and other "nerdy" kids that get good grades. I have seen no IQ results focused on members of this subculture. I'll predict a group IQ in the 80s, if such a study is ever done. Does that mean I think them genetically inferior? No, they do well in a culture in which I would do badly! If they cared to produce a "TQ" test, how would middle-class Euro-Americans score?

Because of the touchy nature of race in America, half of Wade's book explores history and genetics to pin down an appropriate understanding of race in a genetic context. One study to which he refers, by Gregory Clark, shows homicide rates in England from about 1200 AD to the modern era. A Medieval male was 30 times as likely to be murdered as a Renaissance male, and the homicide rate dropped another factor of 10 between 1800 AD and today. News media in Philadelphia decry an "Epidemic of Homicide", citing about 200 yearly murders in a city of 1.5 million. Imagine if the year were 1800 AD and there were 2,000, or in 1300 AD, if there were 40,000-50,000 murders each year! I did not know of this before, and I find it amazing.

These levels of violence all occurred in settled environments, what we'd call "civilization". In purely tribal societies murderous violence is the norm upon meeting a stranger. Such a meeting may result in an immediate fight to the death, but if the two men speak dialects of a common language, they may first discuss their relatives, to determine if they are related and thus not obligated to kill each other. In tribal cultures that still exist, homicide rates are in the 10% range! It is hard for a young man to grow old enough to raise children.

Wade follows Clark and others to describe four factors that enable Western society with its large cities: trust (leading to nonviolence), literacy, thrift, and patience. He explores to what extent these have a genetic basis. Certain enzymes and hormones they produce can greatly affect trust and the propensity to violence, for example. The trust-demoting and violence-promoting version of the underlying genes are found with greater frequency among violent offenders in prisons, and also among those few members of tribal cultures that have been studied. There is the famous "marshmallow test" that determines the level of self-control young children have: They are promised more marshmallows in 15 minutes if they can let one marshmallow sit untouched in their presence while left alone. Follow-up studies show that the kids who wait for the bigger treat do better in school and in their occupations in later life.

Where would the opposite tendency be a benefit? In a starvation economy such as the one described by Malthus in the early 1800s, that so influenced Charles Darwin as he pondered natural selection. When times are good, small differences in many traits make little difference. But when the grain runs out before the next harvest, very small differences in endurance mean that some will live and some will die, and the tiny differences that allowed survival will be amplified in the next generation(s). In such an environment, characteristic of much of humanity prior to the Industrial Revolution (and still the rule in much of the "developing world"), deferring gratification may kill you. The fact that high levels of deferred gratification are possible indicates a genetic shift in just 200-300 years, at least in the West.

Are genes destiny? The visible differences among the five major races (Caucasian, African, East Asian, Australian, and Native American) are not caused by single genes "for" skin color, for example. Each characteristic is underlain by several to several tens of genes, and a small difference in all of them is needed to make skin a radically different color or shape the skull in a way an anatomist can recognize. Greater or lesser levels of trust also result from multiple genes. So too do at least some of the social attitudes that hold Western democracies together.

The increasing prevalence of foreign adoptions by American couples is setting up a natural experiment. The U.S. spent about a trillion dollars to drive certain tribal groups out of power in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried to install Western-style democracies. Such nation-building efforts were wasted. Will children born of Iraqi or Afghan parents, adopted and raised in America, understand the institutions of our Republic, and thrive here? A few days ago I met two Kurdish men who now live in America, and run a small limousine service. I wonder how Kurdish-born Americans would do in a company like Sears or DuPont or Chase Bank? These men came here as adults. Would young Kurds brought here as infants and raised here have the same propensity to run a small company rather than work for a boss? Is it possible that they simply cannot understand a non-Tribal economy and polity?

That is the tough point for people to swallow. Our brains are part of our bodies. If our bodies are evolving, so also are our brains, meaning that the way we think is an evolutionary product. Culture cannot go beyond the thoughts that the brain finds possible. By further analogy: I happen to think mathematically. Most people don't. Thus I thrived as a computer programmer, a scarce profession. This is not some fluke: one of my brothers has worked as a programmer for NASA, and another is a mechanical engineer, requiring formidable computer skills. Both our parents had engineering skills. All us boys can think mathematically. Most people can't. The book raises the question, what social thoughts can various people think, or not?

Genes are not destiny, but certain combinations of many genes may open some doors and, if not shut others outright, at least hold them half-closed such that extra effort is required to pass through. Ask all the white guys who have fought Mike Tyson or George Foreman, and a string of other black heavyweight boxers, if there isn't something special about certain kinds of big black guys!

Then we find those perennial super-achievers, the Jews. One person in 500 is Jewish. In the first decade of this Century, one in 3 Nobel Prize winners is Jewish. How can this be? Is the newborn brain truly a blank slate? Other cultural groups have hectoring mothers, and strongly push their kids' education. Tiger Mothers come to mind, but how many Tiger Cubs have Nobel Prizes? There is a clue in the Bible: God demanded universal literacy of the people of Israel. They were to read the Torah to their children daily, and raise the children to read it to their offspring. No other people on earth came close to full literacy prior to about 200 years ago. This had to have affected the genetic makeup of the Jews, particularly in those genes that make literacy easier. As Wade points out, Jewish kids who couldn't make the grade tended to leave for Gentile cultures where their literacy was still advantageous, making them bigger frogs in little ponds. Over millennia, this focused scholarship abilities into the remaining Jewish population.

One can not escape a crucial conclusion: "Rich countries have non-tribal, trust-based economies and favorable institutions [principally that even rulers are subject to law —my note]. Poor countries are those that have not fully escaped from tribalism and labor under extractive institutions that reflect their limited radius of trust." (p 196) The "escape" of the West from tribalism was not foreordained. A fortuitous rise in population coincided with great increases in productivity due to the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, beginning about 300 years ago. Europe including England already had a long history of settled life, though it was sidelined by feudalism for hundreds of years, yet at the same time this fostered a culture of rule-keeping, which I consider an amalgam of the self-control-mediated traits above (principally patience and trust).

To definitively prove the genetic contribution to such trends would take generations, if indeed such studies are ever undertaken—they would be violently opposed by the liberal establishment. I find it strange that the atheistic, amoral establishment agrees wholeheartedly with most Evangelical Christian leaders who proclaim that human evolution is not going on. They differ only in whether they believe it occurred in the distant past. No matter. The migrations of humanity that began 50-70,000 years ago led to five mutually isolated populations. Prior to the Age of Exploration that began a mere 500 years ago, each developed institutions that bear certain resemblances, but also striking differences. European Caucasians, by the luck of the draw, had the right mental equipment to take advantage of a shift in climate and a series of technical breakthroughs. In spite of centuries of trade between Caucasians and Asians, European technology is readily adopted by Chinese and others in the East, yet they add to it only slightly. Perhaps this is the cause of the intense efforts by the Chinese government to hack into Western computer systems and steal industrial secrets.

Humans continue to evolve, including our brains. Perhaps it will take a really pervasive spate of intermarriage to produce the non-racial species that sociologists fantasize already exists.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A good reference for safely getting over the hill

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, aging gracefully, elder care

My father, now in his nineties, says from time to time, "Don't get old." Only once have I replied, "It beats the alternative." And I notice he is not interested in the alternative, though he is hardheaded enough to plan well for his demise, whenever it may come. He lives in an "Independent Living Hotel", where he has a small suite and all meals and weekly housekeeping, for a set fee. In particular, he also has a Living Will and Advance Directive. I've heard from a few sources that these documents need to be revisited every few years. At age 70, someone might say, "Oh, I'd never want to live 'that way'", referring to some adverse condition of aging, particularly at a great age. At 75 or 80, they may have a different take on it, and at 90, it is surprising what someone will live with, just to keep on living.

I am not my father's primary caretaker, though I'm willing. He lives clear across the country, and the last time I went there, total travel time, door to door, was 14 hours. Not conducive to a pop-in visit to help him balance his checkbook or roust him out for a quick lunch together. Fortunately, he is a church-goer, and has a social network there (though they aren't much for the quick lunch), and he has occasional hired help for a few things; the list is expected to grow with time. Organizations such as Visiting Angels are a good first step for finding such help.

With these things in mind, I was eager to read a recent book by a couple who specialize in elder care matters: How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement by Mary A. Languirand and Robert F. Bornstein (both append PhD). I was not disappointed. Drs. Languirand and Bornstein are about ten years younger than I, some 5-10 years short of retirement themselves, though if they are vigorous, they could follow many who delay retirement by a decade or so. They have sufficient experience that they cover literally all the bases. The book has two sections, "Making it Work" and "Making it Count", each of five chapters, though by page count, the second section is about 25% longer.

It all begins with "Money Matters", as it ought to. While it can be said that the three requirements for retiring successfully are money, money and money, the actual key is one's attitude towards money. Actor and comic Jackie Gleason is famous for saying, "Those who say money can't buy happiness don't know where to shop." Sadly, he didn't either, and you could describe his life as a long misery punctuated by brief pleasure binges. A more normal life is one of general contentment, with both happy and unhappy times, with the resilience to recover from the bad and savor the good. But this is nearly impossible if you're broke.

Here is my secret to having enough money in retirement: Knowing that a company pension plus Social Security usually total about half of one's earnings at career's end, my wife and I lived on half our income. After paying taxes, we saved the rest, mainly in 401k and IRA. Thus, the 50% drop in income after retirement was no shock, and when inflation eats into the buying power, we'll begin needing the deferred accounts, but they are likely to last…unless we both live to 120!

I realize that many folks are living on the edge already and cutting back to half their income is not feasible. All I can say is, save what you can. Maybe you only save "for a rainy day", or to afford "something special". Just consider this: once you retire, the rainy days have arrived, and you're now "special". Save what you can. Many larger companies have eliminated pension plans but the better ones have instituted an "enhanced 401k" to ease the pain. Take full advantage of that!

Well, money matters indeed, but the second chapter introduces the authors' framework of Access, Opportunities, and Services. Access: take a look at your home. If you were confined to a wheelchair or scooter, could you get out the door and to the driveway? If not, perhaps you've heard the old term "shut-in", referring to an oldster who can't get out. Now you'd be one of them. Opportunities refer to, if you can get out, what can you do, particularly after you quit driving? Suburban life is elder-unfriendly, once you lose your drivers' license. My father gave up driving about 6 years ago, in his late 80s. He misses driving more than anything else! Whenever I visit, we're out all the time; he has a lot of pent-up "out there" to satisfy. Services really come to this: if you can afford it, you can have full assisted living or even skilled nursing care in your home. If not, it is well to live in an area where such services are most affordable or are subsidized.

Thus we come to an interesting point: to "age in place" you may need a different place. It need not be an elder facility or nursing home, and in fact this book is about avoiding those. But your "place" needs to be somewhere with available and affordable opportunities and services. My father once analyzed hotel living. An independent living facility can cost from $60-$120/day ($1,800-$3,600/month), meals included, depending on location. A hotel with a good free breakfast—one like La Quinta with a short-order cook on hand in the morning—costs about $100/day, and a canny individual can take a bagel or two along to put in the mini-fridge for lunch, leaving only dinner to be bought. Further, a long-term resident can usually negotiate a lower daily rate, getting total costs down below $3,000/month.

The other three chapters in this section deal with home safety, transportation and health needs. The second section is equally practical, but deals with the elements of happiness. This begins with health, of mind, body and spirit. My mother and her father were afflicted with Alzheimer's Dementia, as were other ancestors including a great-great grandmother whose photo has the "Alzheimer's look". My mother took it badly, and was frequently depressed. Her younger sister chose a better way, saying, "If I'm going to go crazy, I may as well enjoy it!", and she did. There is a cleverness about even deeply demented people that allows them to mess with your mind if they like, and to get joy out of life, even if they have forgotten why this or that sibling or child is special to them.

The body's aging changes are equally variable. I've learned that most people, in America at least, in this age of antibiotics and other amazing medicines, have a "health span" that falls short of their life span by as much as a decade. Setting aside those who die untimely, physical ability can be maintained at quite a high level until one begins a declining period of a few years' length. Even more, our intellectual and mental health, in the absence of dementia, can continue to improve until nearly the end. There are a number of studies of IQ versus age. They all seem to show a decline after age 40 or 50. However, if the data are refigured for years until death rather than simple age, a different picture emerges: IQ usually increases up until the physical decline of one's last 3-10 years. It is best, then, to take steps ahead of time to push the health span out and minimize the length of the decline. Another book I read many years ago, Biomarkers by Evans et al, has useful advice in this regard.

Unlike contemporary and pop psychology, these authors recognize the reality of the human spirit, and the chapter "Healthy Spirit" addresses our need for faith. It is a simple fact that people of faith tend to have longer and happier lives. Whether you think it is simply the extra social dimension, or intervention by God, it lends weight to "statistical theology". I recall reading that in the U.S. Census of 1940 (maybe 1930), there was a "bump", an unusual number of men over age 80. Someone studied the data, and reported that the "extras" were retired Protestant evangelists who'd been active during a "Great Awakening" revival period of the late 19th Century. God takes care of those who take care of His interests. But for us more ordinary folk, churchgoing adds more good years to life than the time spent in church, making it a great investment.

The last two chapters are the most social in nature. As our abilities wane, it is important to increase our social network. Also, as long as we are able, helping others will improve our well-being, and if we are financially able, it is worthwhile to consider charities or causes to support. The Apostle Paul wrote that it is better to give than to receive. I can say from experience, it is definitely better to be in a position to give, and not need to receive. It can be embarrassing to receive! But near the very end, receiving with grace is a skill it is well to learn. We'll feel better about it if we feel the balance is strongly in our favor already.

The appendices include resources, worksheets and checklists. This is a good reference to have on hand.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mao, recycled

kw: book reviews, science fiction, environmentalism, political fiction

Many, many years ago I read Dune by Frank Herbert. I think I read part of another one, perhaps Children of Dune. I ignored all the rest of the series, whether by the original author or by his son Brian and a couple of co-authors. I liked the sweeping saga of Dune but I didn't care for the sequels.

Brian Herbert is at least as accomplished as his father, and has in recent years branched beyond the Dune realm, first with the Hellhole trilogy, written with Kevin J. Anderson, and now on his own with The Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma. Where Hellhole can be thought of as a sideways extension of the Dune milieu, Little Green Book breaks new ground. Set about 50 years in the future, it posits an Earth quite different from what we know, but based on certain trends.

Of course, Chairman Rahma is a conscious mirror of Chairman Mao, as the two little books are mirror images. Where most consider Mao Zedong to be unequivocally evil, Herbert goes to some length to present Rahma as a man with a conscience, striving to "save the planet", and in a position with the power to do it. As I have written many times, the Devil doesn't know he is evil, and neither did Mao. Little Green Book lays bare the soul of an unknowingly evil man trying his mightiest to do good. Another similarity is the incessant womanizing that characterized Mao, and drives certain plot lines of this book.

Herbert writes of compellingly complex characters. Even the "good guy", Joss Stuart, is a rounded person, not a flat smiley face who cannot fail. The ending gets rather saccharine, but I can tell where the author is trying to go.

An anti-corporate revolution in the 2040s brought Rahma Popol to power in North and South America, where he as instituted a Green Revolution. Now, two decades down the road, most Americans of both continents have been gathered in Human Reservations and land not needed for agriculture to support a primarily vegan populace is being restored to some semblance of its natural condition. A substantial reduction in population because of civil war has "helped" in this regard, as have further reductions from "recycling" of millions of dissidents, or even tens of millions.

Here is where it gets interesting. The technology of recycling now-unused cities and industrial sites is based on "dark energy". Let's be clear, this bears no resemblance to the dark energy of cosmology, which theorists claim is causing acceleration of cosmic expansion. Herbert's dark energy powers cannon-like machines called Splitters, that break most or all chemical bonds in materials, yielding a blackish goo. Then a different kind of machine can re-form this into a basic soil in which seeds are sown to quickly regenerate a landscape. In later parts of the book, dark energy looks like a ropy or thready substance that emits darkness the way a glowing or fluorescent substance emits light.

Mention is also made of "gravity generators", with no particular technology stated, but dark energy is implied. It reminds me of a novel I read decades ago in which gravity was harnessed much as magnetism and electricity, yielding electro-gravitic and magneto-gravitic tools, with seemingly magical powers. Other technologies and some kind of super-battery are hinted at but not explained. That's OK, Herbert's aim is to follow the emotional progress of Joss Stuart and Rahma Popol (We are told his name is a pseudonym at one point, but never told who he was before), particularly after Joss is transformed by an accident with dark energy into some kind of triple hybrid. Thereafter he can use dark energy directly.

One very interesting application of splitter and re-former technology is machines called voleers that create "vanishing tunnels". They can travel through solid rock at speeds in the 400 mph (700 kph) range, and have obvious military applications. But a great many possible story lines are cut short by a technological disaster that leads to the unusual ending I mentioned. It seems Joss-type hybrids are to be the new humans. I won't spoil things further. I had to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than usual, and greatly enjoyed the story as a result.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

If not us, then who?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, national politics, conservatism

Here are a few facts, well known to social and behavioral scientists:
  • Children from two-parent families who live in communities where the two-parent family is the norm have a much higher chance of succeeding. [34]
  • Three factors of success: graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and wait until you are married to have children. Only 8% of those who do all three end up in poverty. [66]
  • Strong families are churchgoing families; families of faith have stronger marriages and healthier families, and family members experience much lower levels of crime, addiction and depression. [102]
The numbers in brackets are page numbers where these matters are discussed, and referenced in endnotes, in the book Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works by Rick Santorum. All three of the factors listed above are related to self control. I would add a fourth factor, not mentioned explicitly by Senator Santorum: although the national divorce rate is about 50% for first marriages, the majority of those unstable marriages are for couples whose "courtship" was unusual from the perspective of American families of the 1950s. That is, if a couple marries too quickly, or begins a sexual relationship before marriage, or even before getting to know one another well at all, the chance of divorce exceeds 80%.

Self control. It means a lot. During 50 years in the workforce, I worked for several major corporations. One would think, since the "sexual revolution" of the 1970s ("the 60s" began in 1968), that companies would not care any more about the extracurricular activities of their employees. To a certain extent, major companies pay less attention to people's living arrangements and dating habits than in the past. But if a couple (gay or straight) has so little self control that they carry on an affair in the office, both are summarily fired. This is true in every company I've worked for, even today, in our "ultra-modern" 21st Century. Why is this? Company leaders know that people with poor self control are poor employees. Furthermore, affairs carried on at work typically involve at least one person who is married to someone else, and such affairs very frequently result in messy divorces that distract everyone involved for months. They simply aren't worth their pay.

But Rick Santorum's concern is more far-reaching than how companies deal with employee misbehavior. The political leaders of the United States of America have taken the national polity far to the left, and in a social direction that makes both Democrats and Republicans uneasy. Genuine conservatism has all but vanished on the political scene. To my observation, the leadership of the Republican party is now to the left of the politics and policies of John F. Kennedy, who was considered a leftist radical by the Republican party of the 1960s.

Senator Santorum ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012, eventually losing to Mitt Romney. Although Romney was greatly favored by party leaders, he could not inspire the conservative populace. If "Santorum Republicans" and a few others who sat out the election had voted, Romney would have won. I gritted my teeth and voted for Romney, feeling he could not be as bad as Obama. I also recall the 2008 election, where I also gritted my teeth and voted for McCain. Both elections were not won by the Democrats; they were lost by the Republicans. I felt like I had, years ago in the classroom, trying mightily to induce certain students to pass the course. Those to whom I finally "awarded" an F grade had made it clear that that was what they wanted more than anything else…so that is what they got. I have wondered if Republican party leaders threw those elections on purpose.

In the meantime, success and happiness have been redefined. The White House loudly brags of a "recovery" that sure doesn't feel like a recovery to most people. Beginning in 2008, a few million jobs were lost. Since then, a few million jobs have been created. These numbers are said to match, but there are just a couple little things: Firstly, in 2008 there were 304 million Americans, and today there are 318 million. At least 2/3 of the added 14 million, some 9 million or more, are eligible to work. Those added folks who got jobs are matched by others who formerly had jobs, lost them and haven't found another. Secondly, what kinds of jobs? Few of the jobs added since 2008 can support a family, or even half of what a family needs, and many, perhaps most, are part-time. The true measure of recovery is the inflation-and-population-adjusted salary budget increase of companies over the past 6 years. By that measure, we have a less than half a recovery.

The most conservative commentators, such as the "Big 3" of radio, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, state that President Obama and those working with him are consciously making America into a totally government-dependent society. If that is actually true, these statists are the most evil of their generation. But I am not sure it is so conscious; as with other similar matters, I ask, "Does the Devil know that he is evil?" The Devil of the Christian Bible disagrees with Almighty God about how the Universe ought to be run. He thinks he is a pretty good guy, certainly better able to whip things into shape than "the other guy" who happened to create it all.

But, whatever the intent, or conscious plan, I have learned a few important things about "controlling" people, whether abusive husbands or boss-zillas or statist politicians:

  • Some people firmly believe that they cannot be wrong. Such people never sincerely apologize for anything (many are unable to apologize: never, ever).
  • Such people usually believe that others cannot know what is good for them, and cannot be trusted to decide for themselves what kind of work to do, what kind of friends to have, or what might make them happy.
  • Such people see nothing wrong with coercion, as long as they do the coercing.

This is the definition of an evil person. By these criteria, nearly every person holding national public office is evil. But look within: we all have the impulse to control others. Do we have the self control to allow others to make their own choices? Only when the choices of others will result in imminent damage should we intervene.

Back to re-definition. The founding documents of the USA seek to promote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Today, when people hear "happiness" they think "pleasure". There is quite a difference. Happiness is the enjoyment of good, and requires a moral context. Happiness is a long-term condition of those who seek it rightly. The normal condition of a successful human is long-term happiness punctuated by short-term pleasure or displeasure in response to immediate events. Pleasure is a temporary emotion brought on by doing something enjoyable, however that might be defined, including immoral or amoral things. Pleasure in immorality cannot result in happiness, because the conscience is defiled.

The words "morality" and "values" are denigrated in today's society. This has greatly damaged our society. Poor self control, undermined morality, and lack of values make people weak, and make a nation weak. Senator Santorum's message is that, in spite of so many damaging trends, this country is still filled with people who strive to do good work, to have a good family, to earn an honest living and raise successful children. Regardless of party membership, these are America's conservatives. If America is to recover from its present malaise, these are the people who will raise it up. They will raise up America by how they work, how they vote, and how they worship. These are the people he is writing about and writing to.

God bless America…nobody else can.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A manager's manager

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business management, creativity, film industry

I had quite a variety of supervisors and managers in nearly 50 years on the job. A very few were both incompetent and unlikable, but most were at least sufficiently likable to be tolerable, while a very few were excellent in both ways. The big puzzle is those who were very enjoyable as friends, but quite out of their depth as managers. Fortunately I outlasted all of them, and my last manager was one of the best: just as technically skilled as I, very likable, and very skilled with people. (And to those who say "a manager is a manager" and think someone with no technical skills can manage technical people, I say a big "B***SH**!!")

A prime function of managers is to be an umbrella. All too often they are instead the primary source of the "rainfall" that stifles those who work for them. I was once given a few people to supervise, to see if I had management potential. It didn't take long for me to find I was quite poor at all those things I wished a manager or supervisor to do well, so I backed out of that track and returned to a purely technical career. I did, however, learn to manage my managers, a necessary skill for most technical people.

Over the years I have read a number of "leadership" books. A quick look at my bookshelf reveals The Peter Principle by Peter and Hull; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey; Who Moved My Cheese? by Johnson; Leading the Revolution by Hamel; Managing From the Heart by Bracey, Rosenblum, Sanford and Trueblood; Where Have All the Woolly Mammoths Gone by Frost, and Mitchell's translation of Tao Te Ching.

Better than all of them by far is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. While Ed Catmull has formidable technical expertise, he shines as a leader. He is presently president of three studios, Pixar Animation, Disney Animation, and DisneyToon. That's three pretty big hats for a man pushing 70.

He writes that the book is not a memoir, nor a history of Pixar and his career, but a travelogue of his development as a manager who continually strove to manage creative people in a way that unleashed their potential. In the introduction he concludes, "…managers must loosen controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust…clear the path…and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear." (p. xvi)

It hasn't been easy. The book is organized around the four stages of his own growth, with the titles

  • Getting Started
  • Protecting the New
  • Building and Sustaining
  • Testing What We Know
A key understanding is that what is working today may not work in the future; not all measures that incorporate a small group into a powerful working unit are effective in a larger setting—but some are!; and that something that works well may still be better replaced by something that works even better.

All my career, particularly at the company from which I retired after about 30 years, I heard the slogan "Continuous Improvement". Usually, that is what it remained, a slogan. Only in rare instances could a "leader" accept a suggestion for something that might truly be an improvement. Idea after idea died a-borning. Whether the idea killer was "Not Invented Here" syndrome or simply the blazing glare of early scrutiny, the usual reactions to new ideas strongly dissuaded creative people from expressing themselves.

As you might guess, I most strongly identify with the second principle. You know the expression, "A face only a mother could love"? (It goes for fathers also.) This is our son two days after he was born. He already looked a lot better than he had the first day. But this is nothing like he looks now!! This illustrates what Catmull calls the Ugly Baby principle.

A new idea may not need 15-20 years of feeding, cleaning and training, but in the film industry at least, it takes a couple of years to work out a lot of "ugly" and create beauty in its place. As I read, I was astonished at the changes that were made to some iconic Pixar films, such as Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. If the descriptions of these projects in their early stages are at all accurate, a too-early production of any of them would have been truly ugly. Or, at the least, simply bombed in the box office, leaving puzzled and disgruntled audiences wondering why they paid to see it.

From the time Steve Jobs bought Pixar in 1985 until he died in 2011, Pixar Animation Studios grew from less than 50 employees to more than 1,100. A theme that runs through the book could be called "growing pains." It is the focus of the third section, which opens with the chapter "Broadening our View". Just as a skyscraper needs a wider foundation than a bungalow, the large enterprise of the new Century needed to extend its breadth of experience. Among 8 lessons described in this chapter, "Learning to See" impressed me most. At a certain point, Catmull and his team decided to train all new hires—not just animators—to use the Pixar software. Thus was born Pixar University, which really took off once they began to teach art.

Contrary to folklore, we really do use all of our brain, we just use various parts at different times (full engagement of every neuron might produce a meltdown under the 500 watts produced). We use our visual cortex, 30% of the entire cortex, every instant that our eyes are open. Still, we do not see everything. Have you seen the basketball-gorilla video? Asked to count how many times people in white jerseys throw a basketball amongst a group of 10, very few notice when someone in a gorilla suit passes through the midst. Further, Catmull notes research that shows more than half of what we "see" is constructed in our brain by hints picked up in our peripheral vision while we are looking at any scene.

A recently popular video shows a rocky forest trail with signs that warn, "Beware of Migrating Snakes", bearing a picture of a coiled rattlesnake. Hidden cameras show most people jumping or backing away from random pieces of branch on or near the path. Had they not been prompted by the warning sign, they'd have seen the branches for what they were immediately.

Drawing requires the artist to set aside the brain's filling-in so as to draw what is really there. Interestingly, people in Pixar who did well in the drawing classes became better at their work, whatever it was.

Regardless of the size of a creative enterprise, the prime enemy is fear. Catmull and his co-leaders have given huge amounts of energy, thought and time to producing an environment that can "uncouple fear and failure" (p. 123). All our lives we are punished for failure, so of course we fear to fail. Only the most stubborn among us can overcome fear and endure a series of failures on the way to a success. Abe Lincoln failed in business four times, and Colonel Sanders went broke seven times. Aren't we all glad they tried one more time? Pixar leadership recognized that they could not rely on a tiny few stubborn people to have all the ideas and push them to fruition. They needed a culture of embracing (but not encouraging!) failure as a necessary part of the process of creation.

Back to the Ugly Baby. A newborn may look ugly to some, and it will be years before its habits are socially acceptable. But that is no reason to destroy the baby. Just as a human child is a learning machine, a properly constituted team can be a creation machine. I think of Ed de Bono's "thinking hats" methods. He also recognized that at the early stages the Black Hat (criticism) had to be excluded from discussions of new ideas. A Pixar film is typically a 4-year project. It may be 3 of those years before the beauty begins to overtake the ugliness.

Film-making is storytelling. Viewers need to identify with the key character(s), or no amount of technical brilliance will help. A skilled cabinet maker uses various tools such as saws and sanders. In my hands, saw cuts are at best "sorta straight" and I have to be careful with the sander, not to sand right through the veneer. But in the hands of a true craftsman, various bits of material are transformed into a beautiful piece of furniture. Yet the piece must be properly designed. A friend recently had his kitchen remodeled. A measurement error led to a space the refrigerator would not fit into. It is a beautiful kitchen, but a big section needed re-work, which cost less than scrapping the fridge and buying a new one.

In any creative enterprise something analogous to such a "measurement error" is all to frequent. In cabinetmaking, the usual waste ratio is around 50%. In film-making, it may exceed 90%. We need to expect similar levels of "waste" in human affairs also. Management, like creation, is full of hidden and unknown factors. In one place, Catmull writes, "If you don't try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead" (p. 169), and "A large portion of what we manage can't be measured, and not realizing this has unintended consequences" (p. 219, his emphasis). In the latter quote he is reacting to the popular phrase, "You can't manage what you can't measure". It is a damaging falsehood. Measurement is engineering. Human affairs are not engineering problems to be solved with a computer (I almost wrote "slide rule". Showing my age). That's why we call business leaders "managers" not "engineers". You can't engineer something that has a heart.

Ed Catmull has a heart. A big one. He had heart enough to manage his long-term boss, Steve Jobs. He may be second only to Steve Job's wife Lauren in his years of contact with him. In the closing chapter of the book he seeks to portray a Steve Jobs freed from the pages of popular journalism, where he is either lauded as a peerless genius or vilified as an inhumane jerk. Yes, he was a genius. He was also a jerk. But he was not only these things. He could grow, and he did. The tasty stories of Steve Jobs berating others in public are from 'way back. To his end, he could be challenging; he was prone to toss out an outrageous notion so he could gauge people's reactions. If you were thin-skinned, it was best to stay under his radar, or go elsewhere. While in the early Pixar days, Ed Catmull mandated that Steve Jobs not attend some creative meetings, years later he was a more welcome presence, not because he had "mellowed", but because he'd grown to see the value of the principles under which Pixar operated, and learned the tolerance for ambiguity and failure that underlay its success.

If I could go back and do it all again, I'd demand to take with me the memory of this book so I could seek out and work for people like Ed Catmull.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Hard boiled, curry flavored

kw: book reviews, mystery, short stories, asian theme

I thought a bit before I started reading Singapore Noir, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. I like a well-written mystery, and this collection promised good writing, but just as a hammer can be used either to build or to destroy, good writing alone is no guarantee of a worthwhile reading experience.

Of the 14 stories, 11 are murder mysteries, although one is from the point of view of the victim and thus is no "mystery" at all, just noir drama. One is ambiguous, probably involves a murder, but is more about a curse based on native magic and another relates a disappearance that just might have been a killing. The one that is clearly not about murder searingly exposes class envy and cross-cultural love (or something like it, to use the Editor's phrase). Is it a surprise that I skimmed many of these, preferring not to have my nose rubbed in the grime of ugly things?

The last story of the collection deserves mention, the one story that made me unreservedly glad I'd read it. "Murder on Orchard Road" by Nury Vittachi does involve a murder, a very ingenious one. A chronically overworked Feng Shui master finds himself juggling overlapping events amidst high drama while solving the murder almost as an afterthought. Very clever and very well done.

Singapore is an odd place, sometimes called "Disneyland with a death penalty." If the vision of these authors is clear, one can see why.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Paranoia is more justified than ever

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, privacy, data mining, cyber crime, surveillance

Whom do you fear the most? The criminals or the police? For most people it will depend on where they live. For me, living on the liberal coastlands of America, criminals are the bigger threat. However, that may not always be true.

George Orwell's 1984, which he thought was set comfortably some 36 years in his future, is now set 30 years into our past, and will be set 36 years into the past in 2020. By then its forecasts may prove all too true. The newest models of "smart televisions" and some set-top cable boxes have cameras and microphones. Many owners never turn on the devices, and most forget they are there. But these are only the tip of the iceberg of the surveillance society in which we live.

Prior to about 40 years ago, the most skilled safecracker or most wily train robber could snatch a payroll in cash. A few skilled embezzlers working at banks used "bologna slicing" methods to skim a few cents here and there from thousands of bank accounts. But as recent data-theft cases from companies such as Target show, the ubiquitous Network ("The Net", formerly called "the Internet") facilitates much broader-scale thievery, of the identities and buying (or other) habits of tens of millions at a time.

Suppose that you could be assured you'd never lose a penny to fraud or theft of any kind, yet your every move would be known and your every word recorded, even in your most intimate moments? Growing numbers of people are paying $100 or more yearly for "ID theft protection" services such as LifeLock. What would you pay to be sure neither Big Brother nor the neighborhood felon, nor even your brother-in-law, could ever see into your toilet, bedroom, or clothes closet?

It's funny. Privacy in America is a big issue in some areas, such as Abortion ("privacy" is THE core of the Roe vs Wade decision), yet is no issue at all in others, such as what you eat, whom you love, what your doctor says, or where you go on vacation. The countries of Europe have strong constitutional or legislative protections for privacy, usually giving you ownership of everything that can be recorded about you. Not so in the good ol' USA.

Privacy! Do you forget the smart phone in your pocket, with its camera and microphone that can be controlled remotely? The cameras, not only the ones in the store with all those little black hemispheres in the ceiling (or simply sitting in the open), nor the ones at red-light-violation intersections, but in places you might never think to look. All are recording 24/7, attached to near-infinite data storage devices. When was the last time you saw a news report about some crime or disaster somewhere that didn't show a few seconds of surveillance footage? And just the other day on a walk my wife and I saw one of our neighbors learning how to use a quad copter in the park down the street. Today, he is satisfied to zoom it around and do acrobatics. Does it have a camera? Probably. How long will it be before I hear it humming overhead as I work in the yard? or outside my window?

A note to the handy: a search for "homemade herf" yielded 100,000 hits just now. Might be worth a look. The device will be the size of a trash can, but can zap a drone out of the sky. Careful, though, a side lobe can zap your PC in the house and the phone in your pocket.

All this is leading up to a very handy reference book: Privacy in the Age of Big Data: Recognizing Threats, Defending Your Rights, and Protecting Your Family by Theresa M. Payton and Theodore Claypoole. Their premise is simple: technology allows ever more intrusion into our private lives, and we are doing it to ourselves. Particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, now 13 years ago, at least half of Americans feel trading away some of their rights is worth getting increased protection. The trouble is, we are getting a pig in a poke. We don't know if we are getting what we pay for, and the pig is accompanied by a wolf: what the government can see can also be seen by criminals.

I was present at some of the meetings in 1980 between Control Data Corp. and data managers for the Mormon Church, who were planning to install a 1TB data store for genealogy records. Its projected cost was $1.2 million. Considering that a big disk in those days was 500 MB, and the drive cabinet was half the size of a washing machine, the building to house the 2,000 disk drives and their A/C equipment was going to cost another quarter million. I recently got a backup disk, 2 TB for $99. The current million-dollar system would be around a tenth of an exabyte, or 100 PB (petabytes). An exabyte is a million TB.

Do you know just how big a Terabyte is? One minute of good quality MP3 audio produces about a 1MB file. 1,000 minutes (16.7 hours) takes up 1GB, and 16,700 hours of audio would fill 1TB. But lower quality audio, such as a phone call recording, can be 1/3 the size, or smaller, so a 1TB disk could hold more than 50,000 hours of telephone conversation, or 3 million minutes. That is 5.7 years of non-stop talk. Even a dedicated motormouth would be hard put to use the phone more than 2,000 minutes per month, so the disk could hold 125 years of phone use for that one person. On the other hand, uncompressed text is quite compact, and compressed text is even smaller. If you type at a "standard" rate of 40 wpm, that's 14.4 KB per hour or about 1/70 of a MB. 1TB is a million MB. That's why it is so easy to copy and store billions of e-mail messages.

In 1980, at one of the meetings mentioned above, someone from CDC joked, "If we invent a disk with infinite capacity—call it the God Disk—the Government will buy two of them." One of the Mormons deadpanned, "So would we." But a big disk is nothing without software to sort and collate it. Now that any $500 laptop can sift through huge amounts of data in a few seconds, all kinds of records become useful.

"All kinds" is amazingly comprehensive to Payton and Claypoole. Nearly everything we buy, from groceries to clothes to knickknacks to more personal items, is recorded, usually along with our identity. To keep from having a purchase tagged to you, you'd need to pay cash at the point of sale, and be among the lucky ones to buy from a store that doesn't have face recognition software running on its security cameras. Retailers love data about buying habits. So do criminals; they want to know who just bought anything expensive and comparatively portable. Government usually doesn't care, except for certain kinds of purchases. I suspect an order for 500 decks of cards, not from a casino, might get scrutiny for two reasons. Firstly, the possibility of an underground high-stakes card game. Secondly, the plastic in certain card brands can be chemically altered into a cheap plastic explosive.

How soon will it be that the store's computer system knows who you are, and your tastes, by the time you walk in the door? Maybe it knows who you are from your phone, or maybe from cameras. The rest is online and they're already tied in to it. Think you can fool the cameras with a wig or hat and dark glasses? They way you walk and other bodily motions you habitually make are harder to disguise (a one-time fakeout can be had by putting some duct tape across your back or a pebble in your shoe).

Planning to travel abroad? The authors advise, most particularly for repressive countries, that you leave your usual phone at home and take a cheap throwaway phone. Also, make no purchases using the phone! Some global companies have their expat executives take "vacations" to safer climes when they need to arrange sensitive deals or discuss important matters with HQ. If you need to carry your phone, keep it in a metal case, and turned off, when not in use, along with those credit cards and their convenient microchip. An easy alternative is an aluminized Mylar balloon, deflated and just wrapped around your electronics. Then the phone can't communicate with cell towers and the chips can't be read by someone walking by using a RFID reader. In one chilling section, though, the authors report on gadgets to read brain waves from a modest distance, say a foot or so. Will I need a foil-lined hat? Better yet would be a phony brain wave generator in my hat, a kind of jammer.

How do we use social media? I never tell my FB "friends" where I am going, only where I have been…usually! Many online retailers want to use us for free advertisements, and urge us to "share" on FB or somewhere. Some have six or more "share" options! Even if you don't share, you'll start seeing more ads for the thing you just bought, or only researched. If you do share, those ads will multiply. That's your "payment" for your "help".

Things will only progress. There is no going back. The authors close with a chapter on legislation. Here we learn that America, where "privacy" was so important to winning the abortion decision, does the least to protect privacy among so-called Democratic nations. Levels of black-market activity are lower in America than nearly anywhere else, which indicates more trust in government here. But I am not worried so much about the government of today in America. I am worried about future governments here and around the world, with a more and more nannyish attitude, or worse yet, with Sharia laws and the technology to enforce them in absolutely every case.

The trusting American people are embracing cars that know more and more about them, and report on them to the car dealer and insurance company; electronic medical records with poor security; smarter and smarter pocket computers that have phones attached, along with multiple cameras and microphones and geolocators and accelerometers and whatever is next; and cameras, cameras everywhere. The members of the freest society ever to arise are forging their own chains.