Sunday, December 27, 2015

We are not dolphins and they are not us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cetaceans, dolphins, toothed whales, conservation, mythology

The direction of Susan Casey's life changed one day during a swim in Honolua Bay. She found herself amidst a pod of spinner dolphins, and their interactions with her over the next ten minutes convinced her that they were much more than "smart sea creatures". She felt a kinship. For many people, similar feelings of kinship motivate much of the "swim with dolphins" industry, although a great many folks do it mainly because it is "in". Perhaps this, too, shall pass (One can only hope!).

For Ms Casey, she found herself embarking on a series of projects, in a more-or-less picaresque way, to learn more about these small, toothed whales and even to get involved in their conservation and preservation. The result is Voices in the Sea: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.

Taking the events of the book out of order, we find that the earliest representations of dolphins, in Minoan frescoes and on pottery, has a worshipful air. From that day until this, various numbers of people have considered dolphins to be gods, or wise aliens, our hidden ancestors. The New Age movement abounds in "dolphin theology". But this is a rare, bright thread through the morass of human-dolphin interaction.

Dolphins and porpoises (the latter comprise seven or eight species of smaller toothed whales with shorter beaks or even rounded snouts; not nearly as "smiley" as the familiar Bottlenose Dolphin) are depicted as admirably peaceable, and perhaps they are. The largest dolphins, Orcas, or Killer Whales, have never been known to harm a human in the wild. The handful of cases in which an orca hurt or killed a person all occurred in "sea parks" such as Sea World, and the perpetrators are generally considered by experts to be insane from chronic mistreatment. Historical and modern stories abound of dolphins helping humans, sometimes even defending them from sharks. It appears that these creatures in general recognize their kinship with humans.

From the human side, darkness abounds. Those who consider us as descended from dolphins must consider most of us their evil twins. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of dolphins of all kinds are killed by humans every year. Certain places Ms Casey visited, such as Taiji Cove in Japan and a couple of villages in the Solomon Islands, specialize in capturing and killing dolphins for meat and other products. Sometimes they also capture the "prettiest" ones alive and sell them to "dolphin parks". Such parks continue to proliferate; these days all the new ones are outside the US in areas of new luxury such as the UAE. The trade needs to go on steadily to meet the demand, mostly because the average time a captive dolphin lives is about three years, and most expire in the first year. A few hardy ones may live much longer, but none approaches the 50-to-100-year life span of a wild dolphin.

I have thought a great deal about the intelligence of dolphins. They have huge brains, with Encephalization Quotients of about 4, compared to 7 or so for humans. But I calculated elsewhere that if you discount the layer of blubber, which can account for a quarter of a dolphin's weight, the EQ of a Bottlenose Dolphin is at least 6. However, sheer brain volume, even on an allometric scale such as EQ, is but part of the story.

About 6% of the human brain's cortex is devoted to decoding vision. Vision is a very efficient sense. The primary receptor is a pair of thin cellular films, our retinas, each of which would flatten out to cover about 2/3 of a business card. The rest of the non-brain ocular apparatus is a pair of "cameras", AKA our eyes, and the attached muscles and nerves. Another percent goes to hearing, and smaller proportions to our other senses. So we have about 90% of our cerebral cortex available for other functions. Dolphin brains have much larger auditory areas, presumably because of their echolocation skill. The areas of the brain devoted to their sonic senses are about 20 - 40 times as large as the entire human auditory cortex and related areas. That means about one-third of a dolphin brain is used for sonic decoding. It seems logical, then, that the "effective EQ" of a dolphin is much less than the simple calculation would imply, perhaps closer to 3. That puts a dolphin just above the top of the range for chimpanzees.

The above is but one illustration that a dolphin's world is radically different from ours. It also gives me a more satisfactory feeling about the seeming naiveté of dolphins. Just think, if they really were as smart as we are, and could communicate as effectively as we can, or as effectively as many people think they do, and further if they thought more like we think, could the slaughter continue? Maybe at some one time, a pod could be driven into Taiji Cove, taken captive and slaughtered there. There would be no second time. They would station lookouts and avoid entering the cove, or even counterattack and drag a bunch of the people to the depths to expire there. Instead, they behave in ways no human group would behave, and are thus "tricked" and caught and slaughtered year after year.

I don't have much stomach for going on. There are 36 or 37 species of dolphins and 7 or 8 of porpoises. Given the size of the oceans, that corresponds well to the 4 species of great apes and 17 species of lesser apes (Gibbons). Dolphins are not the "people of the sea", they are more analogous to oceanic Chimps and Orangutans. Think of Chimps with sonar…or radar.

But this doesn't make it moral to exploit them, or to wantonly cast them aside. Morality is not measured by whether you kill your enemies, but by how you treat the helpless. Every scripture of every religion demonstrates that we usually choose immorality or amorality over morality in nearly everything, and at best just "paper over our image" with a garnishing of philanthropy. Sometimes. Most folks forego the philanthropy part, except to toss a quarter into a Salvation Army bucket sometime during Christmas Week, or a similar token gesture in other cultures.

It is no surprise then, that dolphins and their kin remain a part of the Sixth Extinction that the human race is carrying out.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Brilliance by accident

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, savant syndrome

What is a savant? Historically, it is an exceptionally learned and intelligent person. Since the coining of the term "idiot savant" in about 1900 AD, the old meaning has been declining. "Idiot savant" originally referred to a severely impaired person with superior ability in a narrow field such as music performance or painting or drawing or memory skills. Many such persons were found to be autistic, so "autistic savant" was promoted starting about 1970, and particularly after the 1988 release of the film Rain Man. The character Raymond, the "rain man", was modeled on the talents of the autistic savant Kim Peek, now unfortunately deceased. But not all narrowly-focused savants are autistic, so the preferred term now is simply "Savant", usually capitalized, or, more cumbersomely, "person with savant syndrome."

Characteristic of Savants is that they attain or develop almost unbelievable skills with little or no practice. The prototype is someone who sits down at a piano for the first time and is able to play a symphonic piece he recently heard. Most savants are male, so I'll use male pronouns when avoiding pronouns altogether is too onerous. I have a friend, someone of greater than average intelligence, but no genius, and he plays piano really well. He can read music, sight-read, play by ear or from memory, and transpose to any key. He simply sat down one day and could do it. In that, he is a Savant, but he is certainly not autistic.

A very few people develop Savant skills in one area or another after a serious injury. Worldwide about thirty such people are known. They have "acquired savant syndrome", as opposed to being born a Savant. One such is Jason Padgett, whose new book, co-written with Maureen Seaberg, is Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel. Jason is apparently exceptional among Acquired Savants in having gained both extraordinary skills in certain areas of mathematics, and also synesthesia.

As he writes, he didn't care about math in school, and mostly didn't like it. When he was a little over thirty years old he was mugged as he left a Karaoke bar. He was struck severely in the head at least three times. The first blow, he remembers, was followed by a very low note, a kind of Bong as from a piano, but lower than a piano's lowest note. By the next day he began seeing things differently. Moving things now moved in rapid stop-action, and everything seemed to have lines radiating out. It was as though the construction lines of a detailed mechanical drawing had not been erased. (My insta-theory of this is that he was seeing what the vision system usually hides, the various shape detection circuits decoding all the objects in his visual field.)

Synesthesia is the mixing of senses. Some synesthetes see each letter of the alphabet, or each number, or certain words, in specific colors. 3 may be chartreuse (seldom a prosaic "green") and 5 tangerine orange. Or each may be accompanied by a unique musical sound. Or music may evoke colored visions, or smells. Jason sees numbers and other math symbols as collections of boxes stacked in ways that are meaningful to him, for one; other synesthetic reactions occur for him but I didn't get a clear idea of them.

An injured brain will try to heal. It takes time. Jason spent more than three years in self-imposed isolation, driven by agoraphobia, while his brain healed as well as it could. Just prior to that, however, he was very active, first trying to get justice against the muggers, and later searching for some understanding of why he now saw differently and thought differently, and also had much stronger empathetic emotions; he could read people better than most of us (It strikes me that this is a third Savant skill).

One thing that helped him greatly was to begin drawing what he saw or what he imagined about math concepts. This drawing (note his copyright information) represents wave-particle duality, a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics. Some of his drawings take months to complete. When he explains one to a professional mathematician, they recognize his insight.

This shape looks totally symmetrical at first, but there are subtle asymmetries that enhance its beauty, and convey the meaning. Even without an explanation of the mathematical underpinnings, the drawings are compelling artwork!

Learning how to cope with the negative effects of his injury took years, and healing is still going on. He was greatly helped once he was able to get MRI scans and other brain images that validated his study of what must have happened in his brain. He was also greatly helped by meeting, wooing and marrying his wife Elena. He is healing better than if he'd remained a loner.

Jason has found new communities, most particularly other synesthetes, to whom he doesn't seem weird at all. He has been studied by various experts, some of whom are studying techniques such as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TCMS), which can apparently induce temporary Savant-like abilities. Perhaps one day it will be possible to unleash a hidden skill that was buried in our "genetic memory" (whatever that means!)…without getting whacked by a mugger! Many skills will always need practice and refinement, but perhaps some are innate yet hidden, waiting for us to learn how to find them.

Jason's co-author Maureen Seaberg also experiences synesthesia and blogs about it. Jason has this website, and you can find Maureen on Twitter.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Real advice for real conundrums

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice, essay collections

Talk about making life's lemons into lemonade! Dan Ariely suffered catastrophic burns, spent three years in a hospital, and basically missed out entirely on being a teenager. Would he have studied social science without having had those experiences? There is no way to know, but he has become an adept observer of the human condition. Even more, he is an expert on irrationality and is a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

For all that humans are called "the rational animal", and though this rationality has led to high civilization and amazing technology, there is little evidence that humans in general lead rational lives. Quite the contrary: we spend most of our time on autopilot, repeating the habits we learned when very young.

Young children are learning machines. What a pity that the need to regiment our "education" is almost exactly designed to minimize true learning! Fortunately, there is time "after school" and "after homework". As my youngest brother told us at my parents' Fiftieth Anniversary party, growing up with three older brothers, "I got lots of education when I wasn't being schooled." But by age twelve or so, the inner compulsion to learn wanes, and pretty much ends by age twenty, for most of us.

Here is how I define neurosis: Neurosis is a defense mechanism that is seriously out of date. PTSD is an extreme version. Less extreme, but still troubling, is our tendency to react to the words and actions of others as though they came from people we hated or feared years and decades ago. I once lost a girlfriend because I keep a record of my gasoline purchases in my glove compartment. Her ex-husband also did that, and she couldn't abide the feelings that arose when she saw me write down the mileage and what I'd spent for gas.

People who were bit by a dog at a very early age may fear all dogs for the rest of their life. Woe to such a person who marries a dog lover! A woman we know grew up with a psychotic mother who would be walking across the room, and suddenly reach over and hit her from behind. Our friend is a skilled pianist, but cannot play a piano that faces the wall. She needs a wall at her back when playing, even though nobody has tried to hit her from behind for forty years!

We live with and continually exhibit milder irrationalities day to day, and when we notice them, we may be motivated to develop a new habit. Or maybe not. Some folks who read the Wall Street Journal send questions about such things to the Ask Ariely column, and the lucky ones get answered. The most recent questions answered (in Dan's unique way) include "Where should we seat those awful wedding guests?" and "Is 'First come, first served' really fair?".

Dan's column and other research have provided fodder for three previous books, and now this one, Irrationally Your: On Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Puzzles. Many of the items include more-or-less-relevant cartoons by William Haefeli:

This shows such a pairing, and I used an image of the page's text, mainly to avoid all the formatting and finding the right typefaces to roughly imitate it. This also shows a feature I haven't seen elsewhere (except in my own blog posts): keywords or index tags!

This isn't "Ask Abby" kind of advice, and I suspect the questions are ones Abby would not have deigned to answer. I picked a short answer above; most are about twice as long and some run a couple of pages.

Do you want to know why pickup lines, cheesy as they are, work at all? Boiling down two paragraphs of Dan's answer: People like to be complimented. Based on that, Dan says, "Compliments are free … why not just give more of them." Good advice to us all. Asked about the apparent multiplication of mismatched socks, Dan discusses our perceptions, and recommends going to the trouble of sorting all the socks; some of the "mismatched" ones will probably have matches that were "mismatched" earlier and are probably only inches from their mate. But he also ponders the chance that dryers might have "sock black holes."

Some of the correspondents have creative ideas of their own to share, such as the guy who glued quarters to his office stapler and a few other frequently-"borrowed" items. None went missing after that. Another asks whether setting a higher or somewhat low price for a house to be sold will yield the best final price; he guesses that a lower starting price might work better. Dan agrees, pointing out that if you have only one potential buyer, you are at a negotiating disadvantage, and may wind up accepting a low-ball offer; with several people competing, attracted by the lower initial price, you are more likely to get a better offer from at least one of them.

The overall message is, if we more clearly realize that the irrationality of "rational animal", that is, why people really do what they do, we're more likely to relate to others in a more satisfactory way, and more likely to get what we want out of life. I dimly realized some of these things long ago, leading to the first "commandment" of ten that I hung on my office wall: People don't want to be treated fairly. They want to be treated well. The work of Dan Ariely, Nobelist Daniel Kahneman and others can help us treat others well without treating ourselves badly.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Surviving a trip to the stars

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, starships

Here's a conundrum. You want several generations of people to live aboard a starship or space station; to remain healthy, they need gravitation, or the semblance of it via rotation. In a small vessel, Coriolis effects when people move about are downright disturbing, so you want the rotating diameter to be large, the larger the better. How large can you go?

In various SciFi stories I've read of can-shaped craft about 2 km in diameter, rotating on the long axis, and also of various kinds of ring-shaped craft. In Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, the starship has two rings with a common hub (the "spine"), so it is a nice double ring, and the diameter is 15.3 km. It rotates to provide 0.83g, to prepare the inhabitants for the gravity they will find on their target world in the Tau Ceti system. However, in the second half of the novel (spoiler alert), one of the rings and half the spine is detached and returns to the Solar System, and on the return journey the rotation is increased to provide 1.1g. This is a decision by the ship's AI systems, because of the expectation of great debility among the returnees, so they won't be wholly disabled by Earth's 1g field. A kind of suspended animation is used because food has run out, and they'll arrive weakened and starving.

What are the stresses holding a large, rotating ring together? I won't go into the whole analysis. Suffice it to say that the fiber stress increases linearly with diameter for a specific g force. This is because a ring twice the diameter will have twice the mass, but is held together with exactly the same cross-sectional area. I remember calculating years ago that a steel hull could be no larger than about 2 km in diameter, and just barely hold itself together. If you want to have dirt and people and buildings inside, you need to make it smaller so the steel can support the extra mass.

However, we have better materials. Kevlar is almost twice as strong as steel, and weighs a quarter as much. So a Kevlar hull with a diameter as great as 21 km could just barely hold together. Make it only half as large, and it can then support internal stuff equal to the mass of the hull. Then we have carbon fibers, which are more than 1.5 times as strong as Kevlar, though they are a little denser. A carbon-fiber hull could be as large as 27 km. I am told that carbon nanotubes are a great deal stronger than this, but nobody knows how to make them kilometers long, and the glue in a matrix holding a bunch of them in an overlapping configuration isn't strong enough to permit their full strength to be employed.

Maybe they will have solved that dilemma by the 25th or 26th Century, when the ship to Tau Ceti is sent out. If not, carbon fibers are a pretty good material, as long as they aren't degraded by space grit during a decades-long flight at 0.1c (some 67 million mph or 108 million kph). The way author Robinson gets around the abrasion conundrum is by having some sort of magnetic shielding field warding off anything smaller than a few millimeters, and radar and avoidance taking care of the rest.

Of much more interest to the author, and even readers as nerdy as I am, are the biological, chemical and social situations in an ecosystem that remains closed for, eventually, 170 years, and is later re-closed for a further 180+ years. A super-engineer named Devi worries constantly about the future of the colonists—and their animals—who are smaller and on average less capable than their ancestors of 6 generations previously. But no reason is given for why her daughter Freya becomes the tallest person aboard, at 2.02 m (6'-7.5"). Devi is also faced with the gradual unbalance of various nutrients and other elements in the ecosystem. Phosphorus, for example, is gradually getting bound into insoluble minerals from which it is increasingly costly to re-extract. Crop yields are falling. Late in the voyage, certain bacteria are found in hidden globs of water in low-and no-gravity spaces along the spine, where they are degrading various materials, threatening the physical integrity of the ship's systems, and maybe even of its hull.

Then we come to the people. No matter how committed, emotionally balanced, and perhaps politically uniform the original generation might have been, genes rearrange themselves with every generation, and there is no predicting what mix of traits might dominate after several generations.

The term "island biogeography" is used a few times. There is an important aspect of a small, isolated population that is worth exploring a little. Suppose you've managed to gather an extremely diverse collection of a 2-3 thousand people, such that the maximum variety of favorable alleles of the human gene set present in the founder population. They pair up and have two children per couple (allowing for accidents, the "replacement rate" is historically 2.1). Each child has a random assemblage of exactly half the alleles of each parent. The two children of each couple will carry forward close to 75% of the total genetic variation found in their parents. If the parents somehow had totally unmatched allele sets, then some 25% of these will be lost to future generations. The statistics get remarkably harder to determine with more realistic mixes of alleles. But some numerical experiments I've done, kind of a Monte Carlo simulation, indicate that after 4 generations the remaining gene set is about 67% of the original. Also, a few genes, quite at random, have increased their representation among that generation by a factor of 3 or 4, while a larger number are about twice as prevalent, and the rest are about as common as ever. Let's hope the genes growing towards dominance are going to make future generations more healthy. Since there is an artificial cap on conceptions and births, natural selection only appears in the form of miscarriages or stillbirths, though I suppose some children will be deemed too flawed to be allowed to reproduce, and a few "lucky" couples get to produce an extra child to compensate.

That "cap" produces the greatest source of suppressed resentment: you have to have a strict totalitarian system, rigidly enforced in certain areas, or the mission will fail. You can't run such a small, closed ecosystem as a democracy. Midway through the book political polarization leads to violence and warfare. Robinson is ready for one aspect of this: an earlier generation that experienced in-ship conflict wisely programmed all manufacturing systems that, if someone tries to produce a firearm or projectile weapon of any design whatever, it will explode and dismember or otherwise damage whoever tries to use it. So warfare is carried out by throwing things and making stabbing weapons and clubs.

One message of this book is that faraway planets could be more dangerous than we imagine. The toxic, high-energy chemicals in the soils of Mars, chemicals that cannot be produced in quantity on a living planet, are one example used to illustrate that "terraforming" an alien planet may be many hundreds of times more difficult than we'd like to think. Authors galore have imagined terraforming, carried out in a quasi-human time frame of 50-200 years, but Robinson's characters find themselves discussing the need to keep their ship working for several thousand years while their remote descendants turn the planet into something that won't kill on contact. That's why a third of them return to Earth.

Inorganic-chemical troubles are just the beginning. A kind of super-prion is the stated cause for the original planetary body to be abandoned. The place had been found to have lots of oxygen in its atmosphere, but this was considered "abiotic". A mistake, it seems. An oxidizing atmosphere is so out of balance it cannot arise inorganically. Better to go to a planet or moon with an atmosphere in near-equilibrium, so you can be sure no life has taken hold. Any life of any kind on an alien planet is likely to be much too toxic for us to survive there.

The discussion of the closing years of the return, when the ship must calculate all kinds of gravity-looping billiards through the solar system (the "catcher" laser system gets a late start and can't slow down the ship all the way), goes on for too long for my taste. It is dramatic, and I suppose Robinson had some kind of simulation software to set up the planetary passes…or maybe he just put it all together of whole cloth. It is a piece of great writing, quite gripping, but wore me out.

There is a curious oversight in a couple of places. In the midst of a discussion of river deltas and braided streams in one place, and the v-shaped formations seen in beach wash, a character muses that perhaps this is the origin of the term "delta-v". Anyone with a glancing acquaintance with physics knows that the "v" here refers to velocity, and delta-v means change in velocity. When you want to maneuver from asteroid to asteroid, for example, attaining the right delta-v while using minimum fuel (encapsulated in the term "specific impulse" for straight-line acceleration, but lots more complicated otherwise) is the most critical consideration. Such considerations led to the Apollo astronauts receiving training in jeeps they drove in circles in the New Mexico sands, learning the tricks of docking satellites without running out of fuel. In another place, the use of GPS navigation on the Tau Ceti planet's moon is mentioned, with no indication that a set of GPS satellites was deployed. I found that a bit jarring. As long as I'm in error-checking mode, there's one more: on p 443 the neap tide is stated as the larger. Not so, the larger tide is the spring tide, which occurs when sun and moon are either at conjunction (new moon) or opposition (full moon). Neap tides occur at the first and third quarters, and are much smaller.

Enough negative blather. It's a great tale. Robinson's writing is a tremendous pleasure to read. The book is full of interesting ideas and discusses a great many things we need to consider when planning to colonize any bit of "outer space". A very fun read!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Their own special brand of creativity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, creativity, human behavior

E. W. Marland, founder of the Conoco Oil Company, and a Governor of Oklahoma, once wrote, "Who knows why people do what they do? I spent money like water on my town and my people, and they thrived and prospered." So during the Great Depression, at least Ponca City, Oklahoma had a thriving economy. But if you aren't an oil billionaire, how do you make life better, for at least some people? Better yet, how do you figure out what is keeping them from thriving, and induce them to better themselves?

Those questions came to me from time to time as I read Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. As they make clear in all their "Freak" books, Economics is not really about money. It is about incentive. Economics seeks to answer, in all ways possible, Marland's question, of why people do what they do.

We all respond to our given environment by adjusting our behavior to maximize our own advantage. Thus, in earlier books by these authors we learn why most drug dealers have to live with their Moms, and why it makes sense for the highest-ranking Sumo wrestlers to occasionally throw a match against a lesser opponent. We find the possible link between the Roe vs Wade decision of 1973 and the dramatic drop in crime rates that began a decade or two later. In this book we learn of a toddler who, offered M&M's as a bribe for more consistent toileting "performance", quickly attained exemplary bladder control, using it to extract maximum candy for minimum excretion; and why advertising executives dared not perform a simple experiment to determine which advertisements were more effective…or whether any of them had any effect at all!

If you're paying attention as you read—and why wouldn't you?—you'll gather new ways to think about many things. For example, the first sentence in the prior paragraph is the word "advantage." We might react to that sentence with, "What is the 'advantage' of self-destructive behavior? Not just taking drugs (the incredible 'high' is incentive enough for an addict), but things like cutting, or like pulling out, not just a hair or two but nearly all of it?"

That last behavior, sometimes called Trichotillomania, afflicted a woman my wife and I knew when we lived in California. She was so embarrassed by her baldness that she always wore a scarf, yet whenever she wasn't paying attention, she'd pull out a few hairs at a time, over and over, clearing a square inch or two in a matter of minutes. She didn't dare to read for pleasure, lest she get lost in the story and find herself with a lap full of pulled hair half an hour later. Unfortunately, we moved away and never learned if she found any clue to this absent-minded impulse or a way to change it. But you can be sure it was fulfilling some kind of internal need. Humans do nothing that doesn't fulfill a need. Call it Freak Rule 1.

Cutters are usually more transparent. A cutter may be extra-sensitive to begin with, but is typically a shy person in a situation of learned helplessness, where nobody "in authority", no parent nor teacher nor minister nor school counselor, and also no friend, pays attention to any kind of request for attention or understanding, overt or otherwise. Such a person feels that nothing can possibly make things better. While cutting causes a little pain, it also brings an odd kind of relief, "At least there's something I can do that has an effect." If the way typically impervious parents react to finding blood on their child's clothes is to go into full panic mode and "get help", it sets up a feedback mechanism: "This kind of attention is better than none at all." It can spiral into unintended suicide.

But more prosaically, why didn't the ad executives dare to suggest an experiment such as stopping all ads in, say, 20% of their market regions? All they could think of was some board member retorting, "What?? Do you propose cutting company revenue by 20%????" Worse, if they were to get backing for the experiment, and revenues were unaffected, then what? You got it: The same board member, now shrieking, "What?? We've been spending millions on you jerks and it makes no difference at all????" NO, No no, the devil you know is ever so much better than the devil you don't know! They may not have been happy with the status quo, but could think of no better alternative.

A Freak is not just an economist. An Economist is ideally data-driven; a Freak is data-obsessed. And, late in the book we learn the most valuable Freakish lesson. Know when to quit. Yup. Got a good thing going? Do you expect it to run on autopilot, like, forever? Even if you watch it like a hawk, can you deal with everything that comes along? When times change, do you?

I retired from DuPont Co. several years ago. It's be nice if their pension lasts longer than I do. What are the chances that it won't? Actually, large enough to worry me a little. The company brass is under attack by Nathan Peltz, for one, and I have little confidence that the kind of people he wants on the board of directors will fully fund the pension fund. But even more to the point, the company is 213 years old. In a year, perhaps less, it may be no more. My brother texted me yesterday, "I hope you have a lot of DuPont stock…" This was just after the news broke that DuPont and Dow are talking "merger". The stock's recent price has been about $66.50. Yesterday it jumped to $74 and has stayed in that neighborhood. That's an 11% hop, which ain't bad if I want to cash in on some profit taking.

But in case you didn't notice, there is no DuPont Chemical Co. any more. They spun off the rest of the "hot" chemical products (those made the old way, using strong agents like acids) into Chemours earlier this year, and are fully invested now in a mix of agricultural and bio-engineered products, talking of "plants as plants", meaning to make stuff by putting the genes for the "stuff" into a plant and just harvesting it. I envision a future "DuPont/Dow Bioproducts Corp." (or Dow/DuPont...). Give it 5-10 years, and both the Dow and DuPont names are likely to vanish in favor of some acronym like DDB. Who remembers that AT&T used to be called American Telephone and Telegraph? The acronym remains, decades after the telegraph vanished from everywhere but the local museum.

So, things change. You can't predict the future, so you adapt when the future throws you curve balls. I have a term for what happens next: Psychological Hysteresis. Hysteresis, as an engineering term, is the tendency of a magnetic material to resist being re-magnetized in a different direction. As the applied magnetic field increases, the induced field lags behind, until at some threshold, it suddenly switches, and almost totally matches it. As you may imagine, there is some energy released when this happens. Now imagine a magnet in a continually reversing field. If the field peaks out strong enough, this switching pulse will occur at both ends of every cycle. Metals used for power transformers in AC power circuits are chosen to have very high switching thresholds, and the smallest possible lag, and the transformer is designed so that the threshold is not approached in normal operation. Otherwise, the transformer core will heat up rapidly, and can explode. As it is, power transformers run rather warm anyway, from the unavoidable level of hysteresis (lagging) even below the threshold. Psychologically, we find that we have a similar resistance to change, but if the stress is too great, we "break". Even when we don't, changing takes energy, emotional and physical energy. Continual change also makes the psyche "run hot".

Now, here you are, livin' your life, doin' pretty good. Things change. You don't, at least not right away. What has worked well for you for a long time, doesn't work as well. Do you:
A) Try harder?
B) Panic?
C) Call your best friend "who's always so together"?
D) All of the above?
Maybe it is best to think like a Freak and
E) Experiment.
If you try a little harder, does it help? If not, think about what might help. Do a little test. One that won't be catastrophic if it fails. And if it does fail? Do you have the guts to quit on that one, think some more, and try something yet different? Thomas Edison once said he and his lab helpers tried more than 1,000 substances before they found one that worked in his first practical light bulb. Someone asked, "How can you endure such a string of failures?" He said, "Failure? Not at all. I learned of 1,000 things that aren't good for making light bulbs!"

Here's an example a lot closer to home. The infertility business makes a lot of doctors rich. Desperate couples, mainly the unfortunate women, undergo many difficult, painful, and expensive "procedures" that the doctor recommends to determine the cause of infertility. One test is almost never done at the behest of an infertility clinic: Thyroid hormone levels, a set of 3 or 4 blood tests that involves no more than a needle stick and costs $100 or $200. More than 1/3 of infertile women have a low thyroid hormone level. Taking a daily hormone supplement that costs a few cents daily will result in fertility for nearly all of those women. For the other 2/3? Very many of them would benefit from getting a suite of endocrine hormone level blood tests in addition to thyroid. Treating endocrine imbalance is also not too costly. Then the greater effort could be focused on the smaller number who need more dramatic intervention to get pregnant.

In my wife's case, her thyroid problem was discovered almost by accident, and the hormone supplement led to pregnancy within a few months. But she was already 42. We have a healthy son, thank God, who is now 27. But it was too late to have any more children. That inexpensive blood test could've been done when she was 30 or 32…

If I wanted to do a truly Freaky analysis of infertility "treatment" in America, I'd gather lots of data on which tests are done and in what order. Whattaya bet the ones that bring the most bucks to the doctors are being done first?

All kinds of situations are amenable to Freaky analysis. I once heard of a law that was passed in a few European countries. The usual suite of environmental legislation is well known to be rather ineffective. The new law did not fill a 2,000 page tome. It simply stated, "An enterprise that takes fresh water from any natural source must emit any and all wastewater from all its processes at a point upstream of all its water inlets." It is a slightly nicer way of saying, you'd better clean up your wastewater, because you're going to be drinking it. Now, I can think of a way to get around this. If the outfall is pretty far upstream, even raw waste could get diluted, so that a smaller waste-amelioration plant next to the inlets might make that water usable for the company's processes. There's probably some optimum, where a little "treatment" of effluent, and further "treatment" of influx, would be the cheapest. So now that practice would have to be outlawed. I can imagine pitched battles in government courts over how much "influent treatment" is justifiable and how much is "effluent cleanup avoidance". And so it goes.

Experimentation is all in knowing how far to go and when to quit. Got a good conclusion? Is it well defensible? Good enough. Find another system to study.

One Freak's rule is that we all remember bad stuff longer and more vividly than good stuff. Forget all the fables about nostalgia and the "good old days". For every "good old day" there was an enemy or two who done you wrong. It took a concerted effort for me to take myself to the Fiftieth anniversary party at my high school. I made a plan, because I'd actually gotten along much better with the teachers than with most of the students (these days it is called terminal Nerdism). I went to the event that some of the teachers would attend. Two of my favorites did attend, but one was too demented to hold a conversation. The other, only six or seven years older than I, was a delight to re-connect with, and was very gratified that his teaching had borne fruit, at least in me (and I am sure in many others. He was very good). And you know what? The enemy or two that I remembered with the most dread didn't show. Things often work out that way! But think of this as the "it all averages out" principle. Not all the good was as good as you remember, and not all the bad was all that bad. And over time, things average out. But a Freak knows that nearly everyone around is driven more by fears than by anticipation, and learns to adjust for that.

It is a basic law of human nature. You get the behavior that you reward. A Freak will figure out, by experiment if needed, what different people actually consider to be a "reward." Then you'll know how to get the behavior you want. And even if you're not so much into actually setting policy and changing behaviors, thinking like a Freak can be quite entertaining. I mean, it would be very hard to change the system of Sumo rankings, but it is sure fun to figure out each wrestler's "thrown match" ratio.

And sometimes you can approach something with suspicion and be happily surprised. We seem to fear dying in a plane crash much more than dying in a car crash. That is in spite of the fact that 30,000+ Americans (and many more elsewhere, about a million) die in car crashes every single year. But the total number who have died in plane crashes, worldwide, since 1918 (end of WWI) is about 125,000, or four years of American auto crashes. But the Freak's mind is churning, "How about we check those death rates by the mile, or the hour?" Here are some facts I've been able to dig up on short notice:

  • 1,088 airplane deaths in 2014 worldwide, and an average of around 1,000 yearly since 2000.
  • 1,300,000 auto accident deaths in 2013 worldwide.
  • In 2006, 2 billion air passengers made 28 million flights. 
  • Air travel grows 5% yearly.
  • 3 trillion miles driven on all roads yearly (3.15 trillion in 2014).

We have to boil these down to some useful averages, however rough:

  • Relatively few roads permit high speed driving. Most of those 3 trillion miles were at speeds averaging 30 mph.
  • Most commercial travel is by jets averaging more than 500 mph.
  • I have no figures for the average flight length, so I'll analyze for 1,000 and 5,000 miles. The real amount is almost certainly somewhere between.
  • 3 trillion mi. ÷ 30 mph = 100 billion hours of driving.
  • 100 billion hrs ÷ 1,300,000 deaths = 77,000 hours per auto death.
  • 3 trillion mi. ÷ 1,300,000 deaths = 2.3 million miles per auto death.
  • 1,000 mi. × 28 million flights = 28 billion miles flying. (for high estimates)
  • 5,000 mi. × 28 million flights = 140 billion miles flying. (for low estimates)
  • 28 or 140 billion mi. ÷ 500 mph = 56 or 280 million hours flying.
  • 28 billion mi. ÷ 1,000 deaths = 28 million miles per airplane death. High estimate.
  • 56 million hrs ÷ 1,000 deaths = 56,000 hours per airplane death. High estimate.
  • 140 billion mi. ÷ 1,000 deaths = 140 million miles per airplane death. Low estimate.
  • 280 million hrs ÷ 1,000 deaths = 280,000 hours per airplane death. Low estimate.

We can now turn these figures upside down, and conclude:

  • Per billion miles of driving, 435 people die.
  • Per million hours of driving, about 13 people die.
  • Per billion miles of flying, between 7 and 35 people die. This is much lower than for driving.
  • Per million hours of flying, between 4 and 18 people die. A figure surprisingly close to that for driving.

What do we conclude? Since "between 4 and 18" probably means something like 8 or 9, it is almost certainly safer to fly than to drive, even calculating on an hourly basis rather than miles covered. But not by as much as we might have thought at first! I trust you can do your own analysis for U.S. domestic flying (zero flying deaths for about five years except two in 2013).

Trust the data. Oh, by the way. This book is required reading for anyone with pretensions of actually thinking.

Monday, December 07, 2015

A satisfactory collection of journalism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

During the past week or so, my reading fare has been a pleasant, and bracing, succession of articles under the title The Best American Magazine Writing 2014, edited by Sid Holt. I like collections of essays and articles, but I approach each new collection with mixed feelings, including a large measure of trepidation that yet one more editor's choices might be significant more for promoting a political ideology than for presenting good writing about interesting subjects. Fortunately, the editorial instincts of Mr. Holt and this volume's panel of judges are firmly based on quality of thought and writing skill. Both his preface and the entertaining Introduction by Mark Jannot of the National Audobon Society stress that they collected good journalism. After all, the Librarian's term for a "magazine" is Journal.

In most cases, I finished each selection feeling glad I'd read it. For two pieces, I read far enough to determine that, however well crafted, the subject didn't hold my interest, and so not being persuaded to add a new interest to my quiver, I skipped out and began reading the next item.

This is not to say that these were all "pleasant" pieces; I am not all puppies-and-unicorns, after all. Journalism must open eyes to be useful at all. "The Dream Boat" by Luke Mogelson and "Jahar's World" by Janet Reitman are stellar examples of deep-diving journalism into unpleasant and even risky subjects. For the former, Mr. Mogelson and a friend impersonated Georgian refugees and took passage across a choppy piece of the Indian Ocean, to live the experience of modern "boat people" trying to reach Christmas Island and ultimately the Australian mainland. This came with a significant risk of dying at sea. For the latter there was less risk, but great interviewing skill was necessary to unravel the background of the Tsarnaev family as Ms Reitman attempted to discern the twisted threads that led to the Boston bombing. And the personal essay "Sliver of Sky" by Barry Lopez, in which he tells of being abused over years by a trusted family friend, and of the decades-long consequences for him and his family, was very uncomfortable to read, but should be necessary reading by parents and all others who genuinely care for the welfare of children.

Two long essays required the writer to spend repeated and extended time with the subject. Wright Thompson had to resist the alluring pull that surrounds great celebrity, almost like orbiting a black hole, to prepare "Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building". And for "Dangerous", Joshua Davis spent much time, always on edge, sometimes appalled, and occasionally terrified, with John McAfee as the former king of anti-virus software spiraled into paranoia in Belize. Mr. McAfee epitomizes the difference between "immoral" and "amoral", being a poster child for the latter.

One more in particular: "Bret, Unbroken" by Steve Friedman puts the reader inside the experience of a young man who suffered a terrible injury, whose partial recovery was miraculous enough, yet who will never fully recover, and the ironically handicapping response of nearly all others to his impaired self. His subject, Bret Dunlop, found a tiny island of acceptance in the running community. I think the writing style,
"You wanted to be more than a bartender. You applied for jobs around town, but the people hiring said you should be able to type. Of course you could type. But you couldn't do it fast enough."
is the only vehicle with any hope of helping us understand this uniquely intelligent man and the crushing frustration that dogs nearly every minute of every day. "Unbroken" indeed!

This book will test your limits, as good journalism ought to do.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mental structures that lead us astray

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, economics, errors, systems 1 and 2

On a recent episode of Star Talk, the latest offering by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic Channel, he discussed his interview with Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. At one point Penn presented this scenario:
Suppose you're a 3-foot hominid such as Lucy, and you hear a rustling in the grass. If you think about it, there are two causes: the wind, or an approaching predator. If you assume it is a predator and run, but it really was the wind, you have lost little but some energy and sweat. But if you assume it is the wind and it is a predator, you're lunch. So it is safer to assume it is a predator, because even if you are wrong, you are alive.
I would add, if you take the time to think about it and weigh the "wind or predator" question, you are probably lunch also. That is why our defensive mechanisms work so fast, moving us out of harm's way before we have thought about it.

So we have two ways of thinking, fast and slow. The fast, reactive system is tuned to keeping us alive. The slow, contemplative system is tuned to revising our model of the world and to informing the faster system how to work more accurately, in a way that keeps us up-to-date more efficiently than waiting for evolution to re-tune our reactions. Daniel Kahneman calls these System 1 and System 2 in his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Though Dr. Kahneman is a psychologist, his Nobel Prize is in Economics.

This is a good spot to emphasize that economics is about how people make choices, not just about how we use money. At several points in the book, the author mentions how psychology and economics, as disciplines, can each inform the other, though historically they are "stovepiped", with too little cross-communication.

The handful of folks who actually "follow" this blog may have wondered where I've been for more than two weeks. I have been reading this book with more than usual care. It is a big book, with the main text totaling 418 pages, but two large appendices (reprints of the seminal articles he and Adam Tversky wrote) and extensive end notes stretch that to 481. A book this big will naturally take me a while to finish. A book this good takes even longer! It has more fine ideas per pound than any other I've read in the past few years. The book is structured around three big ideas, and a host of subsidiary ideas are thus engendered. I really have space only to summarize the Big Three.

Idea 1: System 1 and System 2. These are our Reactive System and our Contemplative (or Calculative) System. System 1 in action: during our courtship, my future bride and I were walking in a park and strolled over to sit on some monkey bars. Such seating is none too secure, and I said, "Don't push me." She did push me, before I finished the sentence, and I grabbed a couple of handholds during the word "me". Her S1 was operating to focus my attention, and my S1 instantly kept me from falling. This was followed by some S2 activity: She grinned to emphasize her playful mood, and I took that in and boosted my "how lovable she is" score a notch. Human courtship, operating as it has for millennia.

  • Our S1 does the things no computer does well: recognize who or what is around us, evaluate each on a hazard/help axis, and frequently prompt us to action, all within one or two tenths of a second. 
  • Our S2 struggles to do things a computer does well: put together the puzzle of our existence and map the world around us, carry out calculations (Quick! What is 27x17?), and feed new insights back to S1. If you could do that "simple" multiplication (partial sums: 340 and 119; add to 459) in less than five seconds, your "horseback arithmetic" skills are at expert level.

I had a conversation a few years ago with a professor of philosophy. He talked a bit about his work on "formal errors of logic", such as broken syllogisms (look it up; it'll save time). I said at one point that I was quite interested in errors of informal logic. He snapped, "That isn't real philosophy," rather pettishly, I thought. His expertise was threatened by the chance the conversation would turn to an unfamiliar area, and his S1 snapped to attention to maintain dominance over me. I retained my integrity by walking off to find a more congenial conversationalist. My S2 intervened just quickly enough to prevent my S1 from answering rashly.

I was fascinated by Dr. Kahneman's reports of ways our body and mind work together. In one experiment, students were asked to work a page of simple arithmetic problems, all the while holding a pencil in their teeth so it stuck out both sides of the mouth. Another group did the same problems, but held the pencil by its eraser with their lips, so it pointed out the mouth. The first group, forced by the pencil to smile, did the problem sheet much faster and more accurately than the other group, forced by the pencil to frown. This gives credence to the adage, "Fake it 'til you make it." We smile, not only to reassure others we are with of our good intentions, but to reassure ourselves that all is, or soon will be, well. This is just one example of many.

Idea 2: Econs and Humans. Much of the theory of Economics is based on the notion of a Rational Actor. People are expected to make choices rationally, unaffected by emotional considerations. The work of Dr. Kahneman and others demonstrates that this is probably the unlikeliest foundation upon which to found a theory.  Our grandmothers knew we act without thinking, and we think—with some modicum of rationality—only when forced, even backed into a corner. Most of us pass most of the day without having one rational thought pass through our head. It is how you get to work, or back home, "on autopilot", particularly when you intended to run an errand on the way home, but arrived at your door wondering what it was you forgot.

Behavioral economist Richard Thaler calls the mythical Rational Agent an Econ, in contrast to the real agent that we all are, a Human. Econs do automatically what Humans typically cannot. I considered this analogy, which I make to distinguish faith from religion: A Religion is a checklist that you can hang on your wall. A robot could perform it all perfectly; you cannot. A Jewish friend told me of his study, in his youth, of the 611 laws in Leviticus, and how he sorted them into, "No problem", "Oh, maybe this is a bit sketchy", and "Who in his right mind would think this is possible?!?" In the wholly secular world, we are often told to "Count to ten first," but we find we've done something we can't undo before getting from one to two. A certain policeman is in the news these days, for shooting a youngster 16 times in 15 seconds, while six or seven of his colleagues were content to watch the young fellow from a step or two away and persuade him to put his little knife down and have a nice chat. Guess who belongs in quite a different line of work? And guess whose emotions take over some 10 to 100 times as quickly as more ordinary folk?

It seems every time someone designs an experiment to ferret out our rational and emotional responses to a situation, the rational mind is pretty hard to find. Later in the book, the author tells of ways to set up a situation so that we are more likely to give ourselves time for rationality, but he acknowledges that they are far from perfect. And he's been studying these things for 30+ years! What hope have we of any bit of rational behavior? Well, some hope, anyway, for we are Human after all, not Econ, and it is in our nature to hope, to try again, and sometimes to succeed a little.

Idea 3: Two Selves. Our memory, called here our Remembering Self, draws different conclusions from our experiences than our Experiencing Self does. The experiment here could not be more clear. Water colder than about 60°F hurts a little, and below 50°F it can hurt a lot, and quickly. A basin of water held at 57°F was provided, and students (nearly all experiments are done on college students! They come cheap) were asked to hold their hand in the water for 60 seconds. Then they reported how painful it was on the familiar ten point scale. After time to warm up, they were asked to repeat the experiment, but to hold their hand in the water for 90 seconds. After 60 seconds, water that was a few degrees warmer was let into the basin. Rather than report on a 1-to-10 scale, they were asked which experience was more painful. Nearly all reported that the first, shorter experience was more painful, even though they had endured a longer period of "torture" in the second experiment (It takes a few seconds for the warmer water to "take over"). The Experiencing Self may be queried during an experience and give you an accurate read on what things feel like "Right Now", but after the fact, the Remembering Self primarily remembers the last part of the experience more than all the rest. It's why we are advised to "go out with a bang"…as long as it is a favorable "bang"!

I suspect if the experiment were repeated in reverse, there would be a different outcome. I'd try this: Session 1, 60 seconds at 55°F. Session 2, 45 seconds at 60°F followed by 15 seconds as 52°F water is added. Maybe the exact temperatures would have to be tuned a little, but I am sure the Remembering Self would report the second session as more painful, even though the sum-total-torture was less. By the way, some experiments done for the Mythbusters TV program were done using a basin in which ice was floating, to hold the temperature at 32°F, and the duration was "as long as you can hold it", with a maximum of three minutes (180 sec.). Some participants held out the full three minutes, and lifted out their hand with ice sticking to the skin. So you can see that temperatures in the 50-60°F range will do no damage.

We think we are better at planning than we really are. All three of these things come together when we commit the Planning Fallacy. Chapter 23 of the book is entirely devoted to it. It is most evident in corporations that are having trouble. A new CEO will call together a team to "plan", and perhaps the plan will even be carried out to some extent. Do profits rise? Wonderful. The CEO gets a bonus. Does business remain "flat"? What a pity, the employees are defective and didn't carry out the plan as intended. Does business go down? Oh, my, "external factors" such as shifting currency ratios or a new and unexpected competitor must be to blame. Does the company tank? The CEO's "golden parachute" is activated, (s)he is booted out with a $10 million handshake, and a new CEO is brought in to repeat the process. As Yogi Berra said, "Predicting is hard, especially about the future." And Donald Rumsfeld warned us of the "Unknown unknowns", for which he was reviled, and then forgotten. Do you know anybody anywhere who strives to ferret out what "unknown unknowns" might become a factor, so as to deal with them?

One clear message of the book is that System 2 is lazy, pathologically lazy. It (we) typically accepts whatever "explanation" or "solution" is offered up in the instant that System 1 takes to perform its heuristic evaluation. Thinking is work, and we'd rather do almost anything else. And we typically do. My, it is a wonder that anything gets done!

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Rain - the most needed and least understood

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rain, natural history, cultural history

Whew! Eleven days since I last posted. It scarcely ever takes me that long to read a book. I had high hopes from Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett, and they were fulfilled in part, but it was simply tough sledding to get through it all. I suppose I am not one who ought to criticize, given the length of some of my posts, and I remember the apocryphal story of the king telling Mozart, "There were too many notes." Mozart, puzzled, replied, "Majesty, which ones should I have left out?" Nonetheless, for the number of ideas conveyed, there were too many words.

An idea new to me, that stuck with me, is that significant shifts in rainfall—climate patterns—and the rise or fall of ancient empires happened in synchrony. Too many of these coincident trends have occurred for them to be "mere coincidences". Sustained drought destroys empires. The equable climate of the past 12,000 years has been a little longer than average for the era of Pleistocene Ice Ages. On average, warm periods are about 1/8 to 1/5 as long as cold periods, and only one other Interglacial Period of the last five, over the past half million years, was as long as this one.

Stepping back a thousandfold, we find that there has been no comparably cold period as the Plio-Pleistocene (the last 5+ million year) in the last 500 million years or so. The "average" climate of the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras was tropical warmth between the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, and ice-free poles. Ms Barnett takes us back another factor of eight, to the time four billion years ago, after the "Late Bombardment", when Earth's crust had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to exist on the surface, when it is supposed that great rains continued for a few million years to fill the oceans. The Bombardment itself probably supplied a lot of the water in the form of comets, which exploded to vapor upon impact, and whose vapor hung suspended in a thick atmosphere while the molten-rock surface gradually cooled. As an aside, I suspect the great amount of atmospheric water vapor acted as a thermal blanket and kept the surface quite hot, indeed, for a much longer time than a gas-free planet would have experienced. Venus shows us what happens if it never cools off, and when the water is replaced by carbon dioxide as a thermal blanket.

Well, back to civilizations. Cities are typically found along rivers. Rivers are fed by runoff from rain in the uplands and throughout the river's watershed. Up to a point, the river nourishes the city. But many of our cities have overgrown their rivers, and overuse them to the point that the polluted river turns around like the tiger, tired of its rider, to kill the city riding atop it. Think Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River. When our family moved to Cleveland in 1961, we took a sightseeing cruise on the river, where we were told the oil atop the river was four inches thick. When it caught fire in 1969, destroying many of the variously openable bridges, that was not even the worst of its fires. Before Cleveland's "city fathers" finally got up the gumption to clean up the river and do some proper sewage control, the river had burned 13 times since the 1890's.

You could say our civilization is in the midst of either learning to preserve the natural resources on which we depend, or collapsing to a level, both population and economically, that the tiger stops biting. But in this case, the tiger includes not just the rivers, but the atmosphere and the rain it produces, the great "river of wet air" that sustains us all. The last couple of chapters dwell firmly upon our contribution to climate change.

Rain is not what we think it is. We say, "Pure as the new-fallen snow". I could not find a similar proverb about rainwater, but we think of it as very pure. It's distilled, after all. But let us not forget the atmosphere through which it falls. Air is about 0.04% carbon dioxide (now, that is; it was 0.03% when I was a child). That is enough to shift its pH from 7 (ultra-pure water) to 5.6 (very mildly acidic). What else is in the air? It depends on where it has been. These days, most places on earth are downwind of some company's smokestacks. About half of those are putting sulfur or nitrogen oxides—or both—up into the air. Add moisture to them and you have acids a lot stronger than carbon dioxide. Some of the resulting acid rain has a pH in the 2-3 range. Strong enough to wipe the lettering from marble tombstones and statues over a few decades. Strong enough to kill all fish and frogs in thousands of lakes. Acid rain led to the Clean Air act in the USA in 1970, and to similar legislation in a few other countries. The pH now is mostly in the 3-4 range, at worst. That's not good enough, though.

But sometimes rain picks up other stuff. A chapter reports on the obsession of Charles Fort with odd rainfalls. Rains colored, red, brown, green or even black. Rains of frogs or fishes. Waterspouts can explain some of these. A red rain consisting of red-colored cells or cell-like spheres sometimes fall in Kottoyam, India. Then there's yellow rain: is it "agent orange" or a mixture of pollen and bee feces? The jury is still out on that one.

There are chapters on rainmaking and forecasting. Making rain only seems to work when you don't want it to work that well: in the few instances that it seemed to work well it caused devastation, such as in Rapid City, SD in 1972. We can forecast pretty well when it comes to temperature and wind direction, but not so much for rainfall. I recall a Meteorology professor telling about getting a call from someone saying, "Hey, Doc, I have about ten inches of your 'partly cloudy' lying in my front yard."

Ms Barnett visited various places famous for lots of rain, or for very little. In North America, the extremes are Death Valley and northwestern Washington; average yearly rainfall in the one is about 4 inches, and in the other, about 130. But worldwide, it's another story. Less than a tenth of an inch in some places in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and 450-500 inches in a very few spots, such as a mountaintop in Hawaii and a few towns in northeast India, including Cherrapunji. That town once received more than 1,000 inches of rain in a single 12-month period. Of course, Ms Barnett had to go there, and was rewarded with five days of fair weather! This in the middle of the Monsoon season.

So, there was a lot of fun to be had reading the book. I got bogged down in some long stretches, and I am too compulsive a reader to skim and skip. On the whole I am glad I read it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The bird, the crab, the eggs, the blood, and the ends of the earth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, horseshoe crabs, red knots, migration, ecology, environment

For anyone who lives along Delaware Bay or the Delaware River, there are two main choices for a day at the beach or shore. The local terms are "Delaware beach" and "Jersey shore". Having sampled both, I found I love the northern beaches of Delaware the best. Beach towns and parks from Rehoboth Beach down to Fenwick Island, and on to Ocean City, MD, are great fun, but we enjoy Cape Henlopen, Delaware's northernmost Atlantic beach, the most.

Those who visit the Cape in late Spring, near the full moon in May or earliest June, can witness an amazing spectacle right out of the geologic past: the spawning of the horseshoe crabs. These trilobite-like critters, bigger than dinner plates, and little changed in bodily form for 400 million years, crawl ashore by the thousands to mate and lay eggs in the sand. Right along with them, running among them, little sandpipers called Red Knots pick and probe in the sand for the nourishing eggs. Knots are not the only egg-eating shorebirds, but at times they are the most numerous, as this photo shows.

At both Cape Henlopen and Cape May, NJ, and at many sandy beaches that line Delaware Bay, crabs lay eggs and shorebirds feed frantically. The Knots are particularly frantic. They've just crossed the western Atlantic from northeastern South America, and they have several thousand more miles to go to their Arctic breeding grounds. They have an amazing weight-gain and muscle-building metabolism that allows them to eat half their weight daily, and to double their weight, mainly by adding flight muscle and a layer of fat, in just a couple of weeks. They will lose most of that added weight flying 3,000 or more miles north by mid-June.

The Western Atlantic Flyway for Red Knots begins at Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the "uttermost part of the Earth" at the southern tip of South America. It ends at the other "uttermost part of the Earth" in northern Canada. That is, in the March-to-July time frame. Six months later, it is the same route in reverse.

Think of it: little birds that weigh only a couple of ounces, fueled by a few ounces of shellfish (on South American coasts) and horseshoe crab eggs (on North American coasts), make a journey that we bulky humans find harrowing and quite expensive (at current Coach rates, flying from Punta Arenas, Chile to Iqaluit, Canada costs $2,625 one way, with four stops to change planes). The birds do this twice yearly.

Deborah Cramer, as she writes in The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, made that trip just once, to see the Red Knot in all its habitats. The airline fares were the least of the expenses. There are no hotels near Bahia Lomas, and it takes almost as long to go that last 80 miles (130 km) from Punta Arenas by truck and boat, as it took to get to Punta Arenas from Massachusetts. She had to depend on an invitation from scientists who take advantage of an oil company's camp. Similar "camp-out" style dwellings awaited her on Southampton Island, in northern Hudson Bay, Canada. I presume she had hotels to stay in along the Delaware Bay and other mid-journey stopovers.

The book's entertaining travelogue provides one level of reading pleasure. But most importantly, it shows the interlocking lives of creatures of air and sea that actually affect human health throughout the world. Horseshoe crabs, it turns out, are a bountiful source of several benefits, and the most important is safeguarding our medicines.

Several generations ago, horseshoe crabs were harvested by the millions for bait and fertilizer. Better sources of fertilizer since the mid-1900's reduced the carnage somewhat, but by then their population was probably no more than 5% of what it had been. Their spawning runs were once legendary, with their little green eggs feeding tens to hundreds of millions of shorebirds, and still lying in heaps along the beaches. The shore birds now, seemingly abundant to our impoverished eyes, number less than a percent what they once did. Not only are there fewer crabs, they lay fewer eggs, ultimately because of a curious property of their blue blood.

Horseshoe crabs, and large arthropods in general, do not have as sophisticated an immune system as we and all mammals have. But horseshoe crabs in particular have a very sensitive clotting factor that engulfs certain bacteria, called gram negative bacilli, and deactivates the toxins they release. The metabolic products of gram negative bacteria are toxic to us, and cause fevers in even very small amounts. Their presence indicates bacterial contamination of medical products, so it is important that every IV kit, every serum, vaccine and other injectable medication be tested. Once there was a "rabbit test", but now the clotting factor in the blood of horseshoe crabs is used; it works ten times better.

Horseshoe crabs are captured, bled of about 1/3 of their blood, and returned to their native waters. A product called LAL is isolated from the blood, which is blue because rather than the iron in our kind of blood, theirs contains copper. Every time you've had a needle stuck in you for any reason, somewhere along the way the IV or hypo kit, and probably the medication also, were tested with LAL. Without it, about a third of the time the treatment itself would cause a fever lasting a day or two, and possibly a deadly reaction.

Female horseshoe crabs are bigger than their mates, so you can get more blood from them. But a crab that has been bled will be disoriented for days or weeks when she is returned to the sea, and will usually produce fewer eggs that year. A certain number are known to die before they are returned. Even more must be dying after return. A century ago, the usual sight was that each female crab was accompanied by one or sometimes two males as she came ashore to lay her eggs. Now it is common to see four to six males surrounding each female.

States such as North Carolina have banned the taking of horseshoe crabs for any reason other than this medical one. Nobody really needs them for bait any more, but some fishermen find it\\they are easier to gather than other bait fish, so there is legislative resistance to similar bans elsewhere. Researchers have devised several ways to use LAL that are from four to twenty times more efficient. But until the FDA (and similar bodies in other nations) rules upon the new tests, it is illegal to use them.

We soon may have no choice. Horseshoe crabs' numbers continue to decrease throughout the western Atlantic. A similar Asian crab species apparently cannot be used to produce LAL because of other toxins in its blood. And the birds? They are of no use to the crab. But they are of use to us. Their abundance, or scarcity, is a signal we had best not ignore. As the population of crabs declines, so does that of many species of shore bird, not just the Knots. And other populations are also affected. Large fish and seals that eat horseshoe crabs have turned in desperation to other prey, such as the famed Delaware Blue Crab. The price of Blue Crabs is increasing as a result. So it the price of your medicine, as it gets harder to gather enough crabs to meet an ever increasing demand for LAL, particularly as China Westernizes its economy and culture.

Doing something the cheapest way is not always, or even usually, the right way. Horseshoe crabs may be OK as a bait fish, but there are numerous alternatives. When the health of every human depends on them, is it permissible to use them for bait? Researchers find it hard to synthesize LAL, but it ought not be impossible. Sure, it'll cost a few millions to produce the first gram of synthetic LAL, but once the method is known, the price will drop and drop until it is cheaper than drawing blue blood from crabs. But will that price cutoff be reached because technology improves, or because crab capture and bleeding become so costly that natural LAL drives the cost of an IV kit to $1,000 and a flu shot is not $35 but $350?

And what of the birds? Will the loss of the Red Knot matter? Did the loss of the Passenger Pigeon matter? After 1914, when Martha the pigeon died, this marvelous bird species was lost forever. What else happened? At one time, they ate so many acorns and other forest nuts that there were fewer mice and other seed-eating small mammals. Now instead of millions of pigeons, we have billions more mice. One critter that inhabits mice is the "deer tick". So there are many, many more of them. Young ticks feast on mouse blood. Then they drop off and molt a time or two. Next they look for a larger host. They usually find deer, but a human will do. Then what happens? Lyme disease! Lyme disease was almost unknown before 1970. That shows that the burgeoning mouse numbers are only part of the equation. More and more suburbs being built into forests is another.

We don't know what other links are in the chain that includes Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs. It is more of a mesh, anyway, like chain mail. Life is an unending Tetris game. Blocks drop and we fend them off. So does every other species. Eventually the stack fills the box and it is "Game Over". For many species, we are part of that Tetris game, not only adding extra falling blocks, but throwing them down faster and faster. Every species lost is irretrievable. You may not see the beauty in the horseshoe crab, but to the right kind of eye, the crab and the bird have equal beauty, and they are both of great value.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

They thought they knew China - NOT

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business, business practices, entrepreneurs, memoirs

I have about all the entrepreneurial talent of a house cat. I've been in business a couple of times and managed to come away with my skin intact, but not much else. From time to time I like to read of remarkable business success. I suppose I'm looking for some secret or effective method. But I must confess, so far the value of such books to me is almost purely as entertainment.

I had a supervisor many years ago who would often speak of having a "business reason" for doing something. One day I asked her, "What is a 'business reason'?" She said, "It is something people are willing to pay you to do." Though her emphasis was on the word "something", I realize that my own business troubles arose more from the "you" part, that is, the "me" part. Maybe they'd pay "someone" to do that something, but somehow, rare it was to find someone who would pay "me" to do it. Simply put, I couldn't attract customers.

I've just read Alibaba's World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business by Porter Erisman, who was an executive with the company from 2000 to 2008. Clearly, Jack Ma, the English teacher who founded Alibaba, knows how to attract customers. His key to attracting the largest number of online customers in the world's most populous country, starting before most of them were online, has been his knowledge of the Chinese way of thinking and of doing business.

Just to give one example that I think I understand a little. Midway in the rise of Alibaba, Inc. to dominance in China's e-commerce scene, Jack Ma very deliberately took on eBay. Part of it was psychological jousting, which induced the eBay CEO, Meg Whitman, to publicly react and back the company into a corner. That also garnered lots of free publicity. But a bigger part was that eBay had simply cloned its US-based business as a China-facing portal, presumably with translated text (the book doesn't happen to mention so, but it is a logical assumption). They got some business because they were the only game in town. But Americans and Chinese think differently (I've learned that first-hand, having been very active in a church that is home to many Chinese-born Americans and their children). In particular, Americans are not just comfortable doing business at arms' length, so to speak; they practically demand it. But the Chinese want to get to know their opposite number and establish a relationship of trust before they will do business. So the Alibaba B2B sales portal made communication between buyer and seller easy, including a chat feature and easy ways of getting into face-to-face contact if they wished.

Actually, eBay does allow a buyer to contact the seller, such as for asking a question, and I've taken advantage of that. But because it isn't obvious, most people don't know it is possible. And Chat? No way, still. Considering that Alibaba is a bit over 20 years old, I think I can detect their influence in the American online marketplace. Many e-commerce sites have chat and contact features that are not just right up front, sometimes they can be pushy.

Alibaba is now bigger than eBay and Amazon combined. How big will it grow? The Chinese economy has stumbled since the book went to press, but with 1,300 million people, all rapidly climbing the learning curve of capitalist markets, China has the potential to dominate global trade. Jack Ma declares he crafted Alibaba to last 80 years, and later revised that to 102 years, so it would have a presence in three centuries. Long-term thinking is required for long-term results. He is also a creator, less of an overt competitor. He knows you cannot win a race while looking over your shoulder.

The book isn't a how-to manual. If you want to do what Jack Ma did, you have to be Jack Ma. But with most of the world's commerce passing through small (and smallish) businesses at some point or other, lots of folks have come up with a way that works for them, enough of the time, to keep them solvent. Few grow so large. Few need to. Alibaba's World is a glimpse at some of the turns in the road that led to one company that got very big, and not as fast as you might think, but fast enough.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Emily Post with a sidearm and an attitude

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice, etiquette, humor

In their efforts to avoid this or that social faux pas, our grandmothers could rely on the advice of Emily Post (and see the EP Institute), our mothers on Amy Vanderbilt, and a more recent generation on Miss Manners (the MM website). I write from the perspective of a Baby Boomer. If you are a Millennial or Gen-Xer, add a generation or two to the above. Also, even Miss Manners is getting dated; if your favorite band is more recent than Foo Fighters, where do you turn for etiquette advice?

There is a whole lot more to etiquette than table manners. And about half the country feels left out anyway: The Posts and Vanderbilts seem to be all about how to tell the salad fork from the shrimp fork, whether to wear black or white tie, and when a typed thank-you note is OK rather than a handwritten note (using a fountain pen on scented stationery). You know, stuff for effete, elitist northerners and their California wannabees. What about the real people in the real country, and especially, the South?

Hardly anybody drove in Emily Post's day. She had scant advice for chauffeurs. Advice about courtesy on-the-road has ticked along at a low level since about 1950, but nobody heard of road rage until the middle 1990's. Then, dress standards are so different now, I've never been to an event where black tie or white tie would have been de rigeur. When the DuPont Co. began allowing "casual Fridays" in the early 1990's, someone asked the boss, "Are blue jeans OK?" He said, "Yeah, as long as you wear the ones you'd wear to the barn dance, not the ones you wear in the barnyard."

Fast-forward another thirty years. Is a tie needed at a funeral? Are flip-flops OK going through TSA at the airport, or is it better to wear slip-ons? What constitutes PDA these days: hand-holding used to be verboten, but now walking along with a hand down each other's behind is almost expected. What do you say when the boss at work practically shouts all kinds of private matters into his telephone, with the door open? (I've had that one) Can you get away with unfriending someone who posts about a zillion dirty jokes every day, with the Visibility set to Public, so your friends, and their friends, see them on your news feed? Because, you know, can't people tell when they've been unfriended? (Only by looking to see if you are still on their friend list. All better?)

Celia Rivenbark to the rescue! Being a Carolinian, she has a perspective a bit different from your average Bostonian or San Franciscan. A bit? Who am I kidding? Her book is titled rude bitches make me tired; slightly profane and entirely logical answers to modern etiquette dilemmas. Does that give you a clue? I'd say the word "slightly" is an understatement.

Her answer about avoiding road rage is entirely logical. Don't engage. When your Mom warns that the other guy may have a gun (and the other gal may have one also), Ms Rivenbark writes, "In the South, because we are all, frankly, packin', this is not an entirely baseless fear…" So in her chapter on driving, she advocates courtesy in all directions: to the jerk who cut you off, or to the idiot who swoops by on the right shoulder when you have your right blinker clicking for a turn; to someone going too slow, because they may have missed a turn and are looking for a way to recover (and don't have GPS); and particularly to the police. She advocates obsequious (but not obnoxious), sweet courtesy to the police. It's gotten her a warning when a citation was what she'd earned. Courtesy in general isn't just to make things go smoother. It can extend your life.

You could put a lot of the advice in a capsule titled, "Suck it up and don't be a weenie." Some people really are rude, but more are simply clueless. Learn to tell them apart; to the one you can be rude right back and walk away, while the other may benefit from gentle, frank instruction. Most life situations shouldn't be contests. The only sure thing you'll get from engaging in a pissing contest is a lot of pee going places it shouldn't.

One thing this author is not: PC. PC is prissy. She ain't prissy. PC is for the timid. What does timidity get you? Heartburn. How about dilemmas like, "Let's all split the check evenly", when you know George is going to have a steak-and-lobster, Annette will have Chateaubriand, and you just wanted a shrimp salad and a cola. Or maybe everyone is having wine and you are a teetotaler. You need to think ahead. Be prepared to say, "I know my entree and drink will total $12, and I'll throw in a couple of bucks for the tip. Here's my $14 right now." Set it beside your plate, and when it's time to leave, leave: "Gotta go. Great lunch. The McFarland contract is awaiting my attention." Do you really need friends who can't handle that? I don't!

My favorite Q/A in the whole book comes on page 105, which I'll reproduce in its entirety. It deals with two irksome issues at once:
Question: A couple of moms in our play group have said they have no intention of immunizing their children, because they believe this can lead to all sorts of problems. What do you think?

I think your play group needs to not tell these moms where y'all are meeting next time. If they get pissy about it, just say you've renamed your little group from Mothers' Morning Out to something more catchy, some think like the Our Kids Don't Need Your Nineteenth-Century Deadly Diseases group.

If they act offended, tell them that while you respect their decision to subject their children to whooping cough, measles, and other long-dormant delights, you prefer to live in a safer, saner world where these diseases have very nearly been eradicated.
Fresh from North Carolina, where the phrase "You need a slap upside the head" was probably coined, advice that is tailor made for today's folks and today's dilemmas. Tons'o fun, too.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hedwig would approve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, owls, natural history, memoirs

I don't really know much about owls, but I know more than I did a few days ago. I just finished reading The House of Owls by Tony Angell, a fascinating mini-memoir about living with owls nesting in the yard, and a great explanation of the lives of owls in all their variety. About half the book is narrative descriptions and anecdotes about the 19 species of owl found in the United States.

Tony Angell is a premier sculptor, painter and sketcher of animals and birds, particularly owls. The book includes about 100 of his drawings. During a long career that included much work in wildlife rehabilitation, it seems he has had in hand one or more owls of every one of the 19 American species.

To many people, owls are scary, and some think they are dangerous or in competition with us for some resource or other. Not at all. Few people know that only the two or three largest owls are capable of catching your pet cat or dog, and those live in pretty remote places. The ordinary "hoot owl" you hear in the woods probably weighs no more than half a pound. The world's largest, the female Eurasian Eagle-Owl, can weigh as much as 10 lb (4.5 kg), while the largest American owl weighs no more than half that. Among large owls, males, who do most of the hunting, weigh about 70% as much as their mates. No bird can fly while carrying more than about 1/3 of its weight, so no owl is going to fly off with Fluffy or Spot in its talons.

I was fascinated with the little insect-eating owls, primarily the Elf Owl of the American southwest and western Mexico. They are about the size of a Chickadee, and weigh just over an ounce, perhaps 33 grams. These little cactus-dwellers eat mainly insects and other "bugs", including scorpions. They are one of a handful of owl species that can pounce on a scorpion and nip off its stinger before being stung. Scorpions are big and meaty, so they make a good meal, particularly if you're only about twice their size. One just has to know how to handle the prey. Imagine, you or me tackling a scorpion the size of a Chessie or a Collie!

The diet of most owls consists mainly of small mammals, such as mice, voles, and shrews for Barn Owls and others of similar size, and rats, squirrels, and young rabbits for some of the bigger owls. A wise farmer or rural gardener will encourage owls on their property. A Barn Owl or Screech Owl (Western or Eastern) needs to eat one or two mouse-size critters daily. When an owl couple has a female on the nest, the male must catch one for him, one for her, for the first 25-30 days, then add at least one per hatchling for the next 30-60 days, until the young are independent. So, during the season that the little pests are multiplying even faster than rabbits, the owls are reaping the bounty, to the tune of 10-20 daily, for a month or two, per owl family. And by late summer, however many of those young owls are still alive (many, many die before the snow flies), every owl in the neighborhood is devouring 30-60 pesky little critters monthly.

If nothing is eating the mice in your neighborhood, then what? You need to buy lots and lots of mouse traps! I don't know about you, but I don't re-use a mouse trap. You can't clean the odor of freshly-dead mouse from a snap trap, so, according to the package directions, I toss trap and mouse (or vole) into the trash. And set a new trap, because another critter will be along soon. Can you guess that no owls live in the nearby patch of woods? I've never heard them in the neighborhood.

Owls that live near our towns are all threatened or endangered. Most use cavities, usually last year's woodpecker nest, to nest in and raise their chicks. Woodpeckers don't excavate nests in living trees, only in "snags". So don't clean out all the "dead wood" from that nearby forest lot. It is far from dead, until it falls over of itself. The chapters that discuss the natural history of the 19 American owls tell what kinds of threats they face, and tell a little about how to make a more favorable space for them. Some owls will take to nest boxes, if you make the entry hole the right size. I've found, when caring for bluebird and swallow boxes on a wildlife project, that some birds will peck the opening larger. Starlings are famous for that. Sometimes squirrels will do so also. So we either replaced the front of the box every couple of years, or added a metal front to the box, thick enough metal so a squirrel or starling couldn't open up the hole any larger.

Tony Angell has such eclectic talents, drawing so well, and writing equally well, that I really envy him. The House of Owls is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The best time to read a book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, philosophy, blogs

It didn't occur to me that Freakonomics authors Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner would be writing a blog. Duh! Everyone has a blog!! So I've lost out on several years of fun and intelligent daily reading.

I got sort-of caught up by reading When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. If the title count is accurate, and they've been contributing to the blog at least a couple times weekly over ten years' time, the 132 items in this book make up about one-tenth of their blog over its history. According to Sturgeon's Principle, 90% of everything is crud (his word). So it makes sense to glean the top tenth and present that to the world. Of course, having perused the Freakonomics blog before starting this review, I'd have to say that the other 90% is pretty good crud!

So, what have we here? Without giving a total spoiler, I have to say that the blog post of the book's title is a trick. What kind of trick? Read the post, on pages 248-251. One thing too cute to conceal: robbing a bank early in the day will yield more cash, but very few banks get robbed in the morning (that tells you when it is the safest to visit your local branch). Dubner wrote in this post, "Maybe if they were able to wake up earlier and go to work, they wouldn't have to rob banks?" But that doesn't answer the title question.

As in the Freakonomics books, the authors look at things differently from most of us. An economist doesn't guess (not a good one anyway), an economist uses data and lest the conclusions draw themselves. But having presented the data, sometimes it is both fun and instructive to consider the Why of it. For example, they looked into the dangers of recreational horse riding. Not much research was required, because a report by the CDC tells us, "The rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is estimated to be higher for horseback riders than for motorcyclists and automobile racers." So possible reasons why are considered. The one that makes the most sense to me is the one they list first, that most horse riding accidents occur on private property, not on the public streets, and typically only the rider is injured. Motorcycle and drag-racing accidents are just so much more public.

Another post asks, "Is Cheating Good for Sports?" It seems so, and not only does the public simply lap up stories about doping, about taping opponents' supposedly private practices, or about balls that were under-inflated, the sports-fan public goes totally gaga over sports stars who have done wrong and 'fessed up and followed up with a lot of kiss-and-tell stories about who else is cheating. Even folks who seldom watch any games will pay attention when the news is about this or that cheating star or coach, and what happened next. We do love our soap operas.

Sometimes they post a question, and one question, "Why are we eating so much shrimp?" garnered more than a thousand responses. They then analyzed the responses to see how many people focused on the demand for shrimp and how many on the supply. An economist thinks of supply factors, such as the falling price of shrimp now that shrimp farmers have gotten a handle on their trade. Most everyone else looked at greater demand such as people getting more conscious of their health. As the post closes, there is a follow-up question: Tuna consumption is falling; is that due to changes in supply or demand? I'd have answered, "Mercury". I suppose that is a supply answer.

A troubling subject has the title, "Is the Endangered Species Act Bad for Endangered Species?" The short answer: usually Yes. Because of the public review provisions of the Act, if the EPA publishes its intention to consider listing a species, those who own the piece of forest or stream or whatever are likely to hurry up and do what they were planning to do, before the listing is effected. Thus, the potentially endangered species is more likely to become an extinct species before the EPA finishes its review.

The study of human motivation yields a never-ending fund of surprising insights. I predict that these fellows will be in business for a long while yet.