Friday, October 31, 2014

The Stats are out to get you

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, statistics, logical fallacies

I reckon there are a few hundred books with subjects similar to the classic How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff. They are really self-help aimed at helping us resist arguments made using flawed, or fraudulent, statistics. Now I find a book aimed at those who might use statistics to make an argument, to avoid fooling themselves: Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie With Statistics by Gary Smith.

As I began to read, I remember thinking, "He ought to title it Nonstandard Deviations", but I soon realized that proper statistical thinking is so rare, even among scientific writers, that the deviations the book presents are indeed standard practice. It is trouble enough that cynical marketers and politicos are using statistics fraudulently to deceive us; the larger problem is how many different ways proponents can lie to themselves!

The key chapter is #2: "Garbage In, Gospel Out". Although there are 16 more chapters exposing at least as many errors of statistical logic, and a great summary titled "When to Be Persuaded and When to Be Skeptical", those 16 chapters show all the common ways of using numbers to create nonsense. Several are based on faulty assumptions about trends.

We live in a world with two kinds of time. We are embedded in the cycles of the seasons: days, weeks, months, years, decades and centuries. Every day the sun rises, crosses the sky, and sets (unless you live in the high Arctic or on Antarctica). Every year the seasons come and go in sequence. Our most basic, gut-level experience of time is cyclic. But we also have linear time. Plant a tree and it grows taller every year. Some trees keep that up for a thousand years or more. We see continual population growth in most countries and in the whole world (Germany, France and a few other countries have reducing populations, but we don't think about that much). We have ancestors in the past, going all the way back to Noah or Adam or whatever progenitor we believe in; we also expect to have descendants going pretty much forever into the future, or at least "until Kingdom come".

We are less familiar with linear time, though, and tend to think linear trends can continue without limit. The key to unlocking this quandary is to realize that time itself is linear, but things that happen in time have a beginning and an end, and typically rise and fall in between. An evangelical "young-Earth" Christian believes in a strictly limited span of time, beginning about 6,000 years ago, maybe as much as 10,000 years, and ending within the next hundred or so. A purely agnostic scientist who knows cosmology believes time, or at least the current phase of phenomena in time, began 13.8 billion years ago, but there are a few hundred competing theories about when or whether it will end. Nonetheless, the end of life on Earth is pretty well understood to be a billion years from now, because the Sun is slowly heating up, and the end of the Earth itself will follow 3-4 billion years later, when the planet is crisped and perhaps evaporated by the Sun's red giant phase.

A few billion years is plenty of time enough for some trends to go along and go along for a long, long time. The human population of Earth has been steadily increasing for at least the last 50,000-70,000 years. The hope of many "zero population growth" advocates is that human population will stabilize within the coming 50-100 years, and even begin to shrink. However, if you want to start a business that requires population growth to continue, and you're satisfied with a run of 20-40 years, go for it. It'll take at least that long for growth to slow to the point you'd have a hard time keeping the business going. But the usual business cycle is about 6 years. Plan on some kind of downturn in the next few years. If you survive that into the next cycle, you just might keep that business going until your kids are grown.

The author exhorts us, again and again, to think. The motto of IBM used to be "THINK". Statistical reasoning doesn't come naturally, even for statisticians. He uses humorous stories of "experts" who ran afoul of their own wishful thinking. It takes a lot of data to prove a statistical inference. A key concept of statistics is "significance". Scientific journals are filled with articles that employ statistical tests and declare that some finding is "significant to the x% level". That "x%" is typically 95%, which is frequently stated as 0.95. That means that there is at least a 95% chance that the "significant" finding is true. But there's a 5% chance that it is not true.

Let's suppose that every scientific experiment resulted in a publication telling the results. Further, let's suppose that only one in ten reported "significant" results. Think a minute: why do scientists use statistics? It is because they don't get a clear-cut result. If using widget A was always lots better than using widget B, statistics would not be needed. The article could be very short: "In 100 trials, widget A always did a better job than widget B". Then you'd question whether the scientist were sane: after about 10 trials, you can stop already! That depends on just how much A was better.

More typically, there is overlap. Suppose that some scoring method showed that A is better 64% of the time. If that was 64 out of 100, it is probably a significant result, but if it was 16 out of 25, you could be in trouble with the law of small numbers. This is analogous to flipping a coin 25 times to see if it is a fair coin. You get 16 heads. How likely is that? Many people think there ought to be a nearly exact even split, either 12 or 13 heads. Here is how to analyze it:

  • For 25 coin flips, there are 33,554,432 possible outcomes, from all heads to all tails, but in 33,554,430 out of 33,554,432 cases, it'll be some mix. 
  • An outcome of 12 heads occurs 5,200,300 different ways, as does an outcome of 13 heads. Together they total 30.1% of all outcomes. That is, intuition is correct less than 1/3 of the time!
  • An outcome of exactly 16 heads occurs 2,042,875 different ways. Thus, the chance you'll get 16 heads is 6.1%. 
  • There is thus a 6.1% probability that this outcome indicates there is no difference between the two widgets. The result is not sufficiently "significant".

This analysis was done using Pascal's Triangle, and there is plenty of software out there that can do such an analysis. You just have to know enough to set it up. By the way, if this were the result of 50 trials, with 32 heads, you'd have a different conclusion. Firstly, getting exactly 32 heads in 50 throws occurs 1.6% of the time. You could also say that getting at least 64% occurs 3.2% of the time by chance alone. Thus, the "significance level" is 96.8%, which is better than 95%, so there is support to say that widget A is actually better than widget B.

This is not a lock. Remember, I posited a world in which every result is published, whether favorable or unfavorable to the initial conjecture. Do you think negative results are published? Nearly never!! So in a world of "publish everything", if 1/10th report "significant" results, some of those are likely to be due to chance alone. Perhaps one in 20, or 2 of the original 100 articles. But in the real world, the proportion may be quite a bit higher. It is certain to be at least 1 in 20.

OK, that's a long-winded excursion into just one item that struck my fancy. As in most endeavors, there is a very short list of ways to do it right, and a near-infinite number of ways to go wrong. That's why we need to expose our ideas to a great variety of folks with different backgrounds and viewpoints. Many times, though, the proponent(s) of an idea will circulate only among those who think alike.

It is also shown that wanting a certain result is the most powerful enemy of truth. I recall an old story of someone seeking a simple answer, because he didn't know how to figure it for himself. He got a variety of answers from people he knew, until he asked a political lobbyist, who responded, "What do you want it to be?" Well, that joke may be more political than statistical, but it is sobering. No matter how much we may want this or that to be true, the actual case is the actual case, the truth is the truth, and will outlive you and your most heartfelt desire.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

We should ask John Lehr about this

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dieting, self help, paleo diet theory

I've read and heard snippets about a "Paleo Diet", so I figured it is time to look into it. I read Your Personal Paleo Code: The 3-Step Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Stay Fit and Healthy for Life, by Chris Kresser. The thesis of this diet and self help movement is that we evolved for a million years or so eating a certain way, but in the past 10,000 years or so the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution have changed the kinds of foods we eat, and we aren't well fitted to the "modern diet".

Perhaps you've heard of the "no white stuff" diet: no bread or dairy, but eat lots of meats, fowl and fish, and all the fruits and greens you can stand. It seems to be a spinoff of the low/no-carbohydrate Atkins Diet. That is largely where the first section of the book is going.

The author tells us that hunter-gatherer peoples are healthier than we are, and that our ancestors were healthier still. We read that the grain-based diet in all agricultural societies is to blame for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Thus we need to eat more like our pre-agriculture ancestors.

It isn't really that simple, because, he explains, there was no single all-encompassing diet in the paleolithic era, which ended about 12,000 years ago. Those dwelling inland would eat quite different foods than seacoast peoples—who ate much more fish and shellfish—and the Arctic diet was about 90% blubber, as it still is.

He does point out that life expectancy at birth was about 22 years in 10,000 BC, but goes on to say that it fell to about 19 years a few thousand years later, based on archaeological studies primarily in the "Fertile Crescent", or Mesopotamia. I personally attribute that to a great increase in violence as people lived in groups larger than the typical gatherer group of 50-150 souls.

This is a bigger evolutionary adjustment: For millions of years, few members of any species in the genus Homo encountered non-relatives on any frequent basis. If they did, a fight to the death was the ordinary result. This is still true in parts of Papua New Guinea and Amazonia. Once agriculture came along, people began to live in larger and larger groups, and reflexes that were appropriate on the savannas became a problem. We are still learning to get along with strangers, and we're probably evolving more "civil" attributes. In most of the "civilized world", people are able to go about their daily activities without attempting to kill every stranger they see, because that would mean attacking nearly everyone encountered! This is attested by the steadily declining murder rate, documented pretty well for at least 1,000 years. I have written before that in Shakespearean England the murder rate was at least 10 times what it is in modern cities, and 100 times the rate in more rural areas.

Mr. Kresser does write that certain evolutionary changes have occurred as a result of agriculture; things such as tolerance for lactose and gluten. I don't know how many Cro-Magnons would have suffered celiac symptoms from eating wheat (or proto-wheat), but among modern populations of European origin, the rate of gluten intolerance is about 0.75% (1 in 133). Even among Asians, who are famously lactose intolerant, about one in three can drink milk, my wife included.

We really don't know whether any elderly Cro-Magnons had heart attacks, strokes, or cancer. I suspect "old" was closer to 40 than to 70, so they didn't usually live long enough to get "chronic" conditions. As I have also written in earlier posts, human evolution continues at a good clip. Wisdom teeth are on their way out, and another century or two could see a precipitous drop in rates of celiac disease and lactose intolerance, and possibly diabetes as well.

Anyway, for those who'd like to eat Paleo, this book is probably the best resource. The author is quite an enthusiast, but I would not call him a nutcase or fanatic. He is reasonable and persuasive. The second part of the book is advice about learning the kinds of foods you tolerate well, and the third is about building a life around your new/old (very old!) diet. He takes better account of human nature than authors of self-help books typically do, so his advice will be better followed by comparison. He also strongly stresses the need for more motion by all of us who are not professional athletes. I think all that walking has more to do with hunter-gatherer health than more or less meat or starch in their diet.

If I wanted to try the Part 1 diet, I'd find it hard to give up the starches I love: whole wheat bread and pasta, for example (My wife and I can both cook up a mean pot of spaghetti sauce or Stroganoff, though we tend to use ground turkey instead of beef). But I'd probably enjoy adding more steak or roast into my diet, compared to our present diet of chicken and fish, with only occasional beef or pork. Oh, and cheese! A Sunday evening favorite just before, or during, a "couch potato session" beginning with America's Funniest Videos, is a couple slices of bread topped with 6mm of cheese and microwaved; and I put cheese in any meat sandwich. A little tinkering around with his advice about macronutrient balance shows that my best calorie balance is 50% carbohydrate, 20% protein, and 30% fat. That's close to the way I eat now (whew!).

I began reading in a skeptical frame of mind, and came away with quite an appreciation for the author's insights into diet and activity (it's a better-received word than "exercise"). It is particularly appropriate that we learn to eat things that make us feel better hours or a day or two later, in preference to what might taste the best at the moment.

P.S. John Lehr? My favorite among the Geico caveman actors.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stuff from old pipes

kw: home maintenance, do it yourself, diy, faucets, photographs

We are living in a house as old as we are, built before 1950. About a year after we moved in (when the house was a mere 50 years old) one of the faucets began failing. It took a lot of looking (there was no Amazon nor E-bay yet) to find a replacement. Nearly all modern faucets have a 4" (100 mm) spacing between the hot and cold inlets, but this was 8" (200 mm), and the sink is a style called Shelf Front. Now the Chicago Faucet Co. sells them on the Web, as this image from their online catalog shows.

The red arrow points to the metal, threaded ring that holds the aerator, upon which today's tale depends. An aerator is a bit more complex than most folks realize. It has a small orifice that limits the flow and a sinuous path for the water to follow to a screen. There is a tiny gap that lets air enter above the screen, and the air-water mix that exits the screen flows more gently than a purely water stream.

The orifice in the aerator's top is 1/16" (1.6 mm) in diameter and the innards have some holes even smaller, before you get to the 5-mesh screen, with 0.3 mm holes. As you may imagine, any sediment that gets into the water pipes will be screened out in the aerator, at least the larger particles. That is why it is made to be disassembled, but I wonder how many people ever take one apart to clean it. They are not costly, so I reckon most folks just replace an aerator that starts "acting funny".

"Acting funny" is indeed what we encountered this morning, when the sound changed and water began flowing out rather irregularly. So I grabbed a pair of pliers and began.

A pair of ordinary pliers is all you need for this. They have two settings, so use the wider setting. Grab the aerator ring and rotate clockwise. Once it is loosened, it ought to unscrew with fingertip pressure. This picture of the aerator in its ring, with the gasket still in place, was taken at a later stage in the process, which I'll get to soon. When I initially removed it, the large chunks were not there and the orifice was clear.

What I did after that was just turn on the water—not all the way, as it ran quite fast!—and hold the aerator, still in the ring, upside down and spray it. A lot of small bits of grit came out. This image shows them. I sprayed into the sink with the stopper closed, and wiped them out with a tissue after slowly draining the sink. Their brownish color shows they are composed mainly of iron minerals. These minerals form naturally inside the pipe, particularly on the hot side, if the water is somewhat hard.

A couple of bits, one dark and the other shiny, are magnetic, so they probably come from wear inside the faucet. The image has been scaled to match the magnification of the one just above. As you can see, the larger chunks could just barely fit through the 1.6 mm orifice.

After collecting the grit, I ran the water full blast from the hot side first. A lot of things came out, and in larger sizes. The faster flow without the restricting orifice mobilized junk that had been collecting for years, probably at a turn in the pipe. This image shows them.

I collected that grit, then ran the cold side, full on. A lot less grit came out, as this image shows. I thought I was finished, so I put the aerator back in. I tested by running the water, and after just a few seconds the aerator hiccuped and began spraying even more unevenly.

When I removed it again, the result was as you see in the large image above, with two large pieces of grit clogging the orifice, and I was sure, lots more inside. I guess I hadn't let the hot water run long enough.

This time I took the aerator out of the ring and took it apart. The next image shows it after cleaning. The little part on the right had grit in nearly all the little square holes along its edge. Its other side holds the blue plate with the 1.6 mm orifice. The body with the screen is the blue thing at top, and the black ring on the left is the seal gasket. A ring that holds in the inner piece is at bottom. The metal ring that holds all this and screws onto the faucet is not shown.

Getting these parts clean was the trickiest part, but just involved some fiddly work with a toothpick.

This is the final harvest of grit. The pieces that were stuck in the orifice are at the bottom.

The whole job took an hour, about as long as I've been writing this post! Is a little part like this worth an hour of my time? It would take at least an hour to go to a hardware or plumbing store and get one, and I'd be paying a couple dollars besides. I was brought up hearing a number of frugal New England proverbs, including
Use it Up
Wear it Out
Make it Do or
Do Without
By the way, here is my setup for taking photos of small items. For all but one photo I used a +10 Macro add-on lens (100 mm focal length). For the photo of the four parts together I used a +4 Closeup add-on lens (250 mm focal length). The camera that the lenses fit has a close focus distance of 1.2 m.

The background is a black paper divider from a notebook. The translucent plate is the lid of a small butter tub. The two blue light sources are "work lights" with 24 LED's each, that I got at Harbor Freight. They have a magnet on the back, so I store them on the side of the refrigerator. I used folded bits of paper to tilt them slightly for better light. For larger-scale work I'll make a sheet metal holder that can point them more robustly, but for now this works great.

Be a harder target

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self defense, hacking, stalking

I thought I was getting a book about defense against hacking, but found something quite different, and quite salutary. Cyber Self-Defense: Expert Advice to Avoid Online Predators, Identity Theft, and Cyberbullying, by Alexis Moore and Laurie J Edwards presents help to avoid or escape the ten most common kinds of predators, all of whom are prone to becoming stalkers, and these days, all of whom find it easier and easier to track their victims online.

I really don't want to give predators who may read this post any ideas, so let me just say that if you find yourself being abused or stalked by an abuser (all predators are also abusers), you need one of two things:

  1. If you can, make yourself an unattractive target. Predators get their kicks from getting a reaction, and failing to react, as excruciatingly hard as that may be, will often induce them to turn attention elsewhere. However, sometimes this enrages the person, and then you need to get out. Don't try to fight back, because you could get killed.
  2. Get professional help. Can't afford it? The book contains an appendix full of resources, many of them mostly subsidized or free, including Survivors in Action (SIA), which author Alexis Moore started after barely surviving an abusive relationship followed by years of cyberstalking and "remote control abuse".
The best defense is avoiding trouble in the first place. Don't present yourself online – or anywhere! – as the kind of person an abuser is looking for. You only think you can handle yourself. Overconfidence is as dangerous as acting the put-upon low-self-esteem victim. The old proverb, "Flattery will get you nowhere" is so untrue. A predator knows flattery opens nearly every door. It is so darn hard to be immune to flattery! That is why every society with any longevity favors either long courtships or arranged marriages (and the breakdown of such practices is the principal reason American society is on the wane, and might become extinct).

In every relationship, there is a pursuer, and a pursued one. If you are being pursued by a flattering, attentive suitor, it is so exciting! Try this, when asked to "meet privately": Suggest the person visit you and your parents and perhaps all your siblings, for a nice evening of conversation, over a favorite table game or jigsaw puzzle. You can learn a lot from someone by watching how they play cards or Scrabble or work a puzzle. You may also find that the person becomes noticeably cooler, and maybe cuts off or winds down the "relationship". That's OK, good riddance!

Of course, it may be that your abuser is a parent, sibling, grandparent or other close relative. If so, get the hell out. Go several states away. If there is no trustworthy friend or relative, call SIA or another service in the book for help. Change all your passwords and your phone number. Go, Go, GO! If possible, that part of your life must be over.

Bottom line: if you are the least bit attractive, paranoia is a very sane attitude. Oh, and if you have any passwords less than 10 characters long, or you let anyone look over your shoulder when you log in, you're asking for trouble.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A psychopath kisses and tells

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neuroscience, psychopaths, memoirs

I find, looking back over earlier reviews, that I have a certain fascination with psychopathy and abnormal psychology in general. My prior reviews on the subject:

When a little craziness helps
Sing like a nightingale, sting like a scorpion
A pet to one, a monster to another
Broken brain, maimed mind

So how could I pass up a book by an eminent brain scientist who has discovered that he is a psychopath? He could have kept his silence, but perhaps his grandiose sense of self-worth overcame caution, so he has published The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain. Just like the process of developing a relationship with a psychopath, I found that in the earlier parts of the book the author seemed normal enough. But as the narrative continued it became evident that Dr. James Fallon is far from normal.

Just nine years ago Dr. Fallon was comparing PET brain scans of incarcerated serial killers with scans of ordinary people. For the comparison he took PET scans of a set of "normal" people: his immediate family, including himself. It was pretty clear which scans belonged to the killers, as this image demonstrates.

Front is to the left, so the Prefrontal Cortex is seen to be comparatively silent in the brain of a psychopath. This area includes our "judgment center", and a lack of function here leads to poor judgment. There is also a total blank near the center of the brain, in an emotional center that is related to caring (As the author states late in the book, he realized that, while he could understand the pain some of his behavior had caused, he truly didn't care). After studying and comparing the brain scans, he was writing up his results when he realized that he seemed to have an extra scan. There was an extra killer's brain scan, or so he thought. He had already made his analysis on each coded scan, so he asked his fellow researcher to reveal the true name for the code on each scan. The extra "killer brain" was himself. As he tells us through the course of the book, he gradually came to know that he is truly a psychopath. Not a killer, but definitely a different sort of person than he had thought himself to be. A psychopath.

Somehow, he has had a successful academic career (he is now 66 and on the verge of retirement), has been married 44 years, and has raised three children (to tell the truth, his narrative makes clear that his faithful wife did most of their raising). He is well liked by colleagues, though he royally ticks some of them off at times.

This book is not about a psychopath, it is the memoir of a psychopath. He seems to have been extraordinarily lucky: his parents and close relatives loved him and cared for him. He eventually realized that they'd known he was somehow chilly inside, but resolved to love him the best they could anyway. It worked. Of four major areas in which a psychopath differs significantly from most folks, he is most "normal" in sociability. Where a criminal psychopath is antisocial and specifically hotheaded, delinquent, and prone to lawbreaking, he is more social, levelheaded, and generally prone to obey the law (though he tends to double park whenever he thinks he'll get away with it). He almost credits his family environment for keeping him from going totally off the rails, but not quite, probably because he lacks the mental machinery to credit environment in the first place.

For all his career he felt that our behavior and character are 80% genetic, or more, and at most 20% environmental. On the nature-nurture question, where most psychologists and neuroscientists favor close to a 50-50 mix, he was avidly pro-Nature. His journey of self-discovery amounted to a series of embarrassments to such a stance. Environment and experience has had a lot more to do with his development than he could admit at first, and he reluctantly acknowledges that later in the book. However, he also comes from a long line or two of fighters, having a few psychopathic killers in his ancestry (as detailed by two cousins devoted to genealogical study). He has the genes of a killer and the parents of a saint. The mix became extraordinary!

We read of his behavior after going to college, continuing almost to today, and find a certain persistent irresponsibility. It is almost a sure thing that, when he has a scheduled engagement, such as a funeral, conference meeting, marriage or graduation, there is a large chance that he won't go at all or will arrive late. Why? Because he got a better offer in the meantime. He doesn't seem to be a drunk, but prefers a rousing drinking party to any more sedate event, particularly if he has a chance to flirt. His family has simply become accustomed to this, and learned to work around it. Not so his colleagues, and after several had called him psychopathic to his face, he could no longer just blow it off and attribute it to their disappointment and anger. These are all respected scientists of the mind, after all. When such a one uses the word "psychopath", you'd do well to listen.

Listen he did, and thus this memoir. Yes, in many ways, his stellar upbringing must have made a dent in his irresponsible nature, and his wife is remarkably tolerant. But he can be a real jerk. What saves this narrative for me and enhances its value for us all, is that he doesn't descend into any "poor me" drivel. He does his best to tell his own story, warts and all, and to explain the best he knows how what it is like to be a psychopath among a population that he once thought he belonged to, but now knows differently. It is a remarkable tour de force.

I found two sections to be of particular value. A necessary fact is that in Western society 3% of men and 1% of women are psychopaths. Early on he discusses how certain populations might favor an increase in psychopathy. In a dangerous and chaotic environment, larger numbers of women will favor marriage, or at least partnering, with men who can protect them and their children. Psychopathic men thrive in such environments, and the genetic traits that favor psychopathy will thus increase the longer the troubles continue. Regions such as Kosovo and Somalia come to mind. Since young adult women outnumber men, a certain amount of polygamy, formal or not, will also result, but any women with psychopathic traits will also be more likely to survive and so the progeny of a smaller but still significant number of female psychopaths will also be retained in the gene pool.

Secondly, he also discusses whether there is a need for psychopaths even in a very civil society, and thus evolutionary pressure to produce them in some low proportion. We certainly have little "need" for murderous psychopaths. I suppose they make excellent executioners, but we put so few "death row" inmates to death these days, executioners are hardly needed.

One friend of mine is a policeman in Chester, Pennsylvania. The murder rate there is 0.1% yearly. That is 30 in a population of 30,000. Just to the south, Wilmington, Delaware has been called the most dangerous small city in America, yet its murder rate is one-third that in Chester, or about 0.036% yearly (26 out of 72,000). Why isn't Chester named the worst? It is too small! Less than 50,000 population.

The national average murder rate is 5 per 100,000, or 0.005%. Shakespearean London had twice that, and 4-5 centuries earlier, it was another two times higher at 0.02%. Thus, while Wilmington and Chester clearly are quite murderous, in the nation as a whole murder is only a fraction of the problem it was in Colonial times and earlier.

Progress requires a certain adventurousness, and also a feeling of self-rightness coupled with a lack of caring what others think. Perhaps in a younger America we needed psychopaths such as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Col. George Custer. The kind of psychopaths we need today are more like Dr. Fallon: bold and fearless, with plenty of initiative, but at least amicable and definitely not murderous.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A French Woman's advice for the rest of us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help, beauty, health, women

Did you ever wonder who is behind the Louis Vuitton brand? The former CEO of the luxury goods corporation, originally with Clicquot, is Mireille Guiliano, who has now taken up writing in what she calls Act 3.5. Her genre is self-help health and beauty for woman, her first book was French Women Don't Get Fat, and now her fourth is French Women Don't Get Facelifts: The Secret of Aging With Style & Attitude.

I had no idea what to expect when I began to read, but I figured it would be worth a peek into the author's mind, on the principle of Know Thine Enemy. I am not sure how to characterize the result: if one could say that my wife and I represent different planets (not necessarily Venus and Mars), here we have a voice from another galaxy.

Ms Guiliano deplores the term Aging Gracefully as a cop-out. She prefers her title phrase, Aging With Style and Attitude. Sort of a "Don't back down" or "Don't rain on my parade" approach to the passage of time. After a chapter on gravity, she tackles dress, skin and face care, grooming (both hair and skin), cosmetic use, exercise (she prefers it "invisible", not to break a sweat), and rest and play. Then we find three chapters on food and nutrition; her attitude towards supplements is, if you've been paying attention to this point, your diet needs no supplementation. Three more chapters wrap up matters not otherwise dealt with.

The writing is peppered with examples among her friends and acquaintances, of women not just "of a certain age" (from forty onward), but into their 70's to 90's, who live their lives a mere 60-year-old might envy. I was reminded of my grandmother, the original "Little Old Lady From Pasadena", who might have inspired the song "Go Granny Go", still getting stopped for speeding in her last year on Earth, and usually talking her way out of a ticket. Ms Guiliano closes with an honor roll of remarkable women, from Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren to Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.

I was amazed (perhaps I should not have been) at the list of self-care tasks she brings to a "normal" day or month. A woman following her suggestions needs a remarkable memory. I'd suggest that the first order of business is, "Pick the right parents". As an oil prospector might put it, "It is better to be lucky than good." Thus, my lovely wife uses no cosmetics, and in the last couple of decades, has declined attending the salon at all; she preferred teaching me to cut her hair into the longish bob she likes, which I do about monthly. She does have a couple of creams and moisturizers from Sesha and Nivea on hand, uses sunscreen on bright days, and that is it. She believes the best skin is clean skin. When I compare that with the string of daily tasks in the "Skin and Face" chapter of the book, I wonder when a French woman has time for anything else!

Gentlemen, here is the best beauty tip for the woman in your life, unless she is a rampant feminist (in which case, she probably already divorced you anyway): tell her she is lovely. Do so early and do it often. Uplift her spirits and it will uplift all else. Happiness begets loveliness. Oh, and to make her even happier? Do your share of the housework.

Reading the book didn't unlock the feminine mystique, but left me more mystified. That is OK. God didn't put men and women together to understand one another, but to love one another. Leave the understanding business to Him…and I am not sure He is much into that anyway.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Slow and steady also wins the investing race

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing

Sometimes all it takes is one good, good man. In the realm of investing, Jack Bogle is that man, and the Bogleheads are his disciples. Three of them, including the one Jack calls "Prince of the Bogleheads", have written the first book you need to read to learn about investing: The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing, by Mel Lindauer ("Prince"), Taylor Larimore, and Michael LeBoeuf. I read the second edition, just out (the first edition was in 2006).

In 2007 I wrote about what I call the "P07 Prosperity Index" or PPI (see it here). It is simply the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) divided by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the US Population. Neither DJIA nor CPI is perfect, but these are the best we have readily available. If you look at the general trend of the DJIA after the crash of 1929, you see a general, jittery rise, with big hiccups. But the PPI shows a different story. Here is my original chart showing 1928-2001:

After the 1929 crash, which lasted until 1933, we see 5 eras:

  • 1935-1954 - A generally flat, if wavy, trend.
  • 1954-1966 - The post-war boom got under way after all the men on the GI bill got out of college and established careers.
  • 1966-1982 - The "flat market": the DJI stayed near 1,000 but inflation and a growing population meant the true value of stock investments fell to 1/3 of their original value.
  • 1982-1998 - The boom of the "Reagan Years" followed by the Dot-Com Boom, AKA the Dot-Com Bubble.
  • After 1998 - Another flat market, with a modest rise in real terms (not shown here) after the crash of 2008-9 (remember, you must divide out both inflation and population growth).

The scary thing about the years since about 2000 is that there is no safe haven. Passbook savings at a 5% annual rate could be had during my formative years, and until I was 50 years old. Now, the best-performing CDs earn about 1%. So to stay ahead of inflation, one must invest. The trouble is, even though about half of American families now own investments such as mutual funds or stock accounts, few have the slightest investment intelligence. What to do?

Bogleheads to the rescue! Jack Bogle has a short list of mottoes. The two most basic are "Keep it Simple" and "Keep Costs Low". The first 16 chapters of the book cover all the basics of investing, beginning, with getting your own house in order. That means living within your income. Otherwise, you have nothing to invest. Close the book and take care of that first.

Consumer Debt is the biggest drag on a family's finances. Do you have a running balance on your credit card(s)? The highest-paying investment you can make is to pay consumer debt down until you pay it off. You are paying 15%-20% annually. For every $1,000 of your balance, you are paying $150-$200 per year. If you have the average (Average!!) of $8,200 credit card balance, you are paying between $100 and $135 every month in interest. What could you do with another $100 or so of income?

That's right. Invest it. If we could still get 5% passbook savings, and put the $100 monthly into that, it adds up over time. In a year, you'd have just over $1,200. That $1,200 would earn another $60 every year you leave it in savings. The next year's $1,200 would do so also. In 20 years you'd have saved $24,000, but your passbook balance would be nearly $40,000. Keep on for another 20 years: savings total $48,000, but your balance is now $145,000. Compound interest has added nearly $100,000 to your investment. Do you want to retire a millionaire? Starting at age 25, save $690 monthly for 40 years in an investment that earns 5%.

Getting 5% can be hard, but it is sure easier than getting the 10% or 20% that the radio personalities talk about (but you never meet anyone who actually earns that much!). The Bogleheads can show you how to earn 5%-7% with comparative safety. Nothing is totally safe. Even passbook savings during my youth might have been lost if a bank failed. FDIC insurance started in 1934, but the insured limit was pretty low until 1980, when it rose from $20,000 to $100,000 (it is now $250,000).

A tale of two families: My wife and I had some good friends in the early 1980s, and we had very similar incomes. Let's call them Bill and Jane Spender. My wife and I had two cars, and each had cost about $1,000. We had a house with a $30,000 mortgage. The Spenders also had two cars that hadn't cost much, and bought a house, winding up with a $45,000 mortgage. Then they traded in one of their cars and bought a minivan. Its payment was more than half as much as their mortgage. So right away, their debt service costs were 2.25 times as much as ours. Not long after buying the van and making a couple of payments, Jane complained to my wife that they were barely making ends meet. She replied, "It was your choice. Your old car still worked." As you might imagine, the relationship was rather strained for a while after that. We moved away a couple of years later, and after another 10 years, went to visit them. They were living in a trailer in the woods. They still had the van, but fortunately it was now paid off. They were actually beginning to save a little money. The difference? We learned to live within our income a decade and a half before they did.

That's a lot, just on the message of the first couple of chapters. But if you attain the discipline to live on less than you earn, and save regularly, you have what it takes to invest the slow, steady way they Bogleheads recommend.

Keeping it simple: Diversify the easy way with a small number of mutual funds. Specifically no-load funds such as the majority of funds at Vanguard and Fidelity, and others found, for example, at T. Rowe Price. A mutual fund is already diversified, so get a stock index fund, a bond index fund or total bond market fund, and perhaps a little of a global or international value index fund. Just to track the DJI you have to buy 30 stocks. And what does it cost per trade at E*Trade?

Keeping costs low: This means investing in instruments that have very small management fees. Way too many folks go to a "financial adviser" and agree to have their money managed for a yearly fee of "only" 1.5% (more or less) of their account value. By the way, try asking the adviser if he or she will waive the management fee in any year that the balance has gone down. Not bloody likely! If the person agrees, you may have found an honest adviser!!! Anyway, this adviser is probably also a broker, and will invest in either stocks and bonds directly (if you've agreed to that) or in mutual funds. Either way, there is nearly always a commission paid, to the broker/adviser. Brokers never deal in no-load funds. For stocks and bonds the commission ranges from 5% for small purchases down to about 0.5% for larger ones. For most mutual funds, it is about 4%. If you are lucky, the adviser will leave things mostly alone and only make changes about once or twice a year. Every such change has its cost. The upshot? Your adviser is making from 3%-6% of your money. You might make some, and you might lose some. Your adviser can't lose!

The problem is, over any span of a few years, the performance of most advisers and other kinds of fund managers is below that of a stock index such as the DJI or S&P 500. For the past 20-30 years, the indexes yield in the 6% range, plus or minus a point depending on which 10-year span you choose. If your adviser can gain only 6%, and is taking 3% or more, that is not good for you. If you could gain the same 6% and your expenses were less than 1%, that's a huge difference in the long term.

Consider the example above. Instead of 5%, you earn only 3%; or, rather, your account earns 6% but the adviser takes half of it each year. In 20 years you have some $32,000 and in 40 about $90,500. Between what you paid the adviser, and the 3% that didn't compound, you've lost $8,000 over the first 20 years and nearly $55,000 over 40 years.

By the way, if you want to pay this adviser 3% to take care of your money for 40 years, and still retire a millionaire, what monthly amount must you save? $1,105/month, or about 1.6 times as much, just to account for the advisory fees and commissions and lost compounding. So you may not think 3% is too much, until you realize it eventually adds up to $415/month.

Here we find a little selling in the book, but I think it justified. The authors are not employees or affiliates of The Vanguard Group, which Jack Bogle started in 1976 with the first index fund. It became the first among many index funds, and has very low management cost. Its expense ratio is below half a percent. The "Admiral" version, for larger investors, has expenses below 0.2%. While the authors present examples using general indices, they also show how certain specific Vanguard funds would fit in, and they recommend them. So do I; I have had Vanguard as my major investment company for 25 years.

In the second part of the book we find strategies to get investments on track and keep them there. The discussion of portfolio rebalancing in Ch 17, "Track Your Progress and Rebalance When Necessary", made so much sense I finally decided I'd better make rebalancing a habit. I made a simple model of two Vanguard index funds since their inception late in 2001. One tracks the S&P 500 and the other tracks the "Total Bond Market". The S&P has, like the DJI, gyrated all over the place. The Bond index is much more stable, though it has had periods of loss. Over the past 13 years the stock fund's average rate of return has been about 6%, and the bond fund's return has been 4%. That includes the market crash 6 years ago, when stocks fell by 40% and even bonds fell a little.

As you might expect, a 50:50 mix of bonds and stocks fell right in the middle, about 5%. It still gyrated a lot, but much less than stocks alone. But with rebalancing, things were a little different. The gyrations were a little less while the return rose. Specifically, using a starting investment of $10,000 (what fund prospectuses always use) and rebalancing every January except the first one in 2002, with or without rebalancing there was an early dip to about $8,650 in Fall of 2002. The crash of 2008-9 dropped the "no rebalance" portfolio from $13,513 to $10,085 and the rebalanced portfolio from $13,719 to $10,265. $10,000 in the S&P by itself would be well below this, at $7,341. The power of rebalancing occurred during the early long (4y) rise followed by a long fall that took 16 months. Rebalancing in January of 2008 and 2009 shifted money from bonds to stocks even as stocks grew cheaper while bonds continued rising. During the prior 4 rebalancings, money from rising stocks had been shifted to bonds. This captured a portion of the stocks' profits. By the rebalancing of January 2010, stocks were again outpacing bonds, and the shift back toward bonds resumed. As of August 2014, the now badly unbalanced portfolio (56% stocks and 44% bonds) totaled $19,195 while the yearly rebalanced one was $20,880. The difference is $1,685. In the past 2 months both portfolios have lost about $400. The effective yearly earnings come to 5.2% for the unbalanced portfolio, and 5.7% for the rebalanced one. I think it is worth my while to make simple rebalancing adjustments once yearly for the sake of $1,700 per $10,000 invested.

That is just one useful thing I learned from the book. I also find that their recommended asset allocation for someone like me in early retirement, with perhaps 20 years to live, is half stocks and half bonds, like the portfolio I modeled, with a dollop (10% of the total) of international stocks included. My own investments are a bit bond-heavy, so I might benefit from adjusting that also.

Being financially conservative, I've been right in line with many of their recommendations, but I believe many worried investors will find a great many helpful principles within these pages. Now if only I'd had the insight to start putting away $690/month at the age of 25!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

To regain a river

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, teaching novels, ecology, watersheds, citizen science

The Brandywine River Watershed encompasses 324 square miles (840 square km) and is home to a quarter million people. I am not one of them; I live just outside the watershed, though I am in the larger composite watershed of the Delaware River. (This image is from the Delaware Watersheds site maintained by the University of Delaware)

On a few occasions my family and I have joined with other families to take a canoe trip down a few miles of the river, from the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA to Thompson's Bridge in northern DE. We were advised to avoid ingesting any of the water, and to "do" this trip only once or twice yearly, because the river is polluted. South of Thompson's Bridge, I have seen signs warning anglers not to eat any fish they catch.

Some tributaries upstream of the lower main stem of the river are in even worse shape. How can this be? Another map, from the Red Streams Blue Program, gives a clue (the main stem quality is not shown). The tributaries with fair or good water quality presently outnumber those in the worst shape. It illustrates the adage, "The solution to pollution is dilution." But that can only go so far.

The lovely book Sweet Water Hunt by Connie Nye is the first novel I have seen with a Dewey Decimal number (577.64). Ms Nye used an adventure/detective narrative to create a text in water quality monitoring that is pitched at middle school students and their teachers and parents. Young Wyatt Nystrom, his cousin and some friends, and their parents, get involved with the colorful "Dr, Flo", a UD professor, to solve a mystery found in an old tennis ball Wyatt's dog finds in the Brandywine River.

The lesson of the book is clear. Every substance that falls to the ground within a watershed eventually flows into the river, unless it is diverted or converted to something else along the way. There is much in the book about the water treatment plants in various cities and towns, particularly Wilmington, DE, where Wyatt's father works. A few times there is mention that the treatment plants expel the treated water downstream of their host cities. I wonder what would result if they were required to expel it upstream? Would they invest in even better cleansing methods? (Some European countries have such laws.)

By the time Brandywine River water reaches Wilmington, it has a history, the history of everything that has happened upstream in the watershed. It sends this "experienced" water into the Christina River, and thence into the Delaware River. This is the story of every watershed, everywhere on Earth. If the people living in a watershed do nothing to treat their wastes, the river becomes an open sewer.

I recall living in Cleveland, OH in 1961, when the Cuyahoga River was capped with 4" (100mm) of oily sludge. A few years later the sludge caught on fire and destroyed a number of bridges. At the time, Cleveland's sewer system simply fed pipes that took the waste 5 miles out into Lake Erie. The west end of the lake was effectively dead, and it wasn't safe to swim if the wind was from the north. A great deal of cleaning up has happened since!

The Red Streams Blue Program aims to continue cleanup and treatment efforts in this one small watershed. The book shows how even young children can assess the water quality in a stream, using a census of macroinvertebrates. These are insect larvae, worms and mollusks big enough to identify without magnification. They vary in sensitivity to pollution, so a simple scoring method yields a numerical result. I had an enjoyable read, and I sorta wished our son was 12 again, so we could go try out the methods.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Will we all one day need tasters?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food safety, polemics

The word "polemic" has no negative connotation for me. It refers to an attack, and where such attack is justified, a polemic can be a good thing indeed. Thus, Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can't Keep Your Food Safe…and How You Can, by Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown, is a polemic in the best tradition.

Did you ever suffer a bout of "stomach flu", with a bit of fever, diarrhea, and perhaps an upchuck or two? Did you know there is no such thing as "stomach flu"? That was food poisoning, probably of the Salmonella variety. So the real question is this: Is there anyone who has never had it? Probably not. To my observation, here in America, nearly everyone has a bit of food poisoning nearly every year. Sometimes a few times yearly.

Authors Booth and Brown have split the book into two halves of 5 chapters each. The first describes the problem, which boils down to a simple fact: Food is too cheap. Americans eat between three or four and a few dozen different food items daily. That's billions of servings. In our home, just for the two of us, there are several dozen food items in the refrigerator at any one time, and a larger number of canned and dry goods in the pantry. What would it cost to test every item for purity, or at least wholesomeness, before cooking or serving?

Of course, we don't test in our homes. We leave the testing to government or industry testers, where bulk foods are tested in big batches. Now, we don't want to pay a great deal for our food, so we go to the stores with the best prices. Those stores buy from the wholesalers and producers with the best prices. That means, wherever the food might be tested, the least costly testing regimen is chosen, within the constraints of law…maybe! A number of instances are pointed out in the book of testing being bypassed entirely to "get product in motion." The producers get away with it most of the time, but when there is an outbreak, particularly when a few (or a few dozen!) people die, there is a flurry of activity, but, strangely, hardly anyone ever goes to jail or pays a fine that makes much of a dent in their company's economics.

Also, Congress is always cutting the budget for FDA and USDA testing, so no matter what good laws we may have, we cannot afford to enforce.

The result? We must assume our food is not safe, not ever, and take our own precautions. One culprit it fresh meat, particularly chicken. It is wisest to assume that, in the few days since slaughter, even in the low temperatures of the slaughterhouse storeroom, the cooler truck, the warehouse cooler, and the cooled meat racks in the store (and assuming all of these are cooling properly), I say, we must assume that bacteria have been growing the whole time, and we must deal with that ourselves. It is up to us to learn to wash it without letting it sit in the sink, where it can pick up even more bacteria.

Oh, I bet you think your sink is germ free. Really? I wonder what a swab test would show. An episode of Mythbusters a couple of years ago demonstrated that the kitchen sponge is hundreds of times more "germy" than a toilet seat, and the dishrag a close second. Unfortunately, they didn't do a swab test of the side or bottom of any kitchen sinks.

OK, your meat is swimming in germ juice. What do you do? Wash it well, without putting it on any surface but a cleaned cutting board and the cooking vessel, then cook it well. My wife has learned how to cook chicken so it is moist and delicious, while being thoroughly cooked. I tend to overcook a little, which is at least safe, if a bit leathery.

Another culprit is salad veggies, because they are eaten raw. No matter how many bacteria exist in your meat and cooked vegetable, at least you are killing everything at high temperature. Not so in lettuce, celery, spinach, tomatoes and so forth. So the washing is even more important. Here's what we do. We have one of those spinners, a bowl that holds a rotating colander and a geared top. Lettuce gets washed with cold running water, a few leaves at a time, which are then broken in half and dropped into the colander. When it is sufficiently loaded, one of us closes the top and spins it, removing most of the water. Then the leaf pieces are further torn or cut to size, right into the salad bowl for serving. Bulkier items like carrots, we scrub with a brush (the brush goes in the dishwasher periodically) before cutting or grating. The most important item? We do all of this, and put it in the refrigerator, before beginning with the meat and other components (such as potatoes) for the main dish. That way no droplet of germy juice can make its way into the salad.

The book has more lengthy advice on food preparation and storage. The authors also say it is important to refrain from getting too crazy, too paranoid. Diligence is helpful and healthful. Fanaticism just might do harm. Of course, some folks may be used to habits so lax that the practices I might consider sensible seem fanatical to them. Maybe so. I wonder which of us has more frequent bouts of "stomach flu"?