Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sandwich Generation - the rubber hits the road

kw: book reviews, short fiction, short stories, poetry, caregiving

One of my earliest memories is of leading my grandfather by the hand to take a walk around the front yard of his winter house in the desert. I was about six years old. My last memory of him comes about six years later, shortly before he died; it is my only memory of him speaking. In those days it was called "hardening of the arteries." It was probably Alzheimer Syndrome. He was peaceable in his dotage and my grandmother cared for him until the end.

Take a look at this face. This is his grandmother Elizabeth when she was about sixty. This is an Alzheimer face. He wore a similar face much of the time: disconnected and vaguely unhappy. This woman's daughter, my great-grandmother, died in her fifties. From dementia? We don't know.

My mother and her sister inherited the syndrome. My aunt was more cheerful about the prospect, telling me (before she lost the power of speech), "If I'm going to go crazy, I intend to enjoy it!" My mother coped the best she could, and we felt fortunate she didn't stop speaking.

My last memories of my mother, just a month before her death, began when I walked into my parents' sitting room where her gurney-bed was: she looked up and called me by name. She hadn't spoken my name for five years or more. During that last visit, which lasted just four days, she called me by name a few more times. I am told this is common. In both her case and her father's case there was a rallying and greater clarity in the last month or two of life. Somehow I knew this without being told, and expected she would not long survive my visit. Six weeks later I crossed the country again to attend her funeral.

My father would tell a more arduous story. Until he was 80 he cared for her himself, but he had to hire a nurse to help during the last year or so. He got so burned out. So did the nurse. After Mom died she went into a different line of work.

Now I sometimes wonder whether I'll be next in line. It used to worry me a lot. Here is a poem I wrote to my mother (but never showed her) a few months before that last visit:
I held your father’s hand
When I was just a little boy.
He needed help to find his way around.
He was like a friendly puppy,
And he liked to be with me.
When I’d walk around the block, he’d come along.

The only time I heard him speak,
I was nearly 12.
I was asking for some tweezers for a thorn.
He spoke up, and said, “I have some!”
And he led me down the hall
To his tool bench at the back of the garage.

A retired piano tuner,
He had tools of every kind:
Wrenches, screwdrivers, a tuning hammer, saws.
The tweezers that he handed me
Were longer than my hand.
But I managed to pull out that thorn with them…

More than forty years have passed,
And as we walk around the block
I must hold your hand, so you can find your way.
This is something in our family,
They say it’s in the genes.
When it is my turn, who will hold my hand?
Had I known a certain volume was being prepared, I'd have submitted this, perhaps with some small chance it would be accepted. I've just read Living in the Land of Limbo, edited by Carol Levine. It is subtitled "Fiction and Poetry about Family Caregiving", and is one of the more touching and memorable volumes I've read.

Ms Levine has organized the book well, because "family" means relationships in all directions, up, down and sideways. I noticed that many of the writers are Chinese or other Easterners. The Western way seems to be to warehouse people when we get uncomfortable with them, and then feel virtuous if we happen to visit at least weekly. Folks seem to add it to their list of duties right on a par with "going to church". "OK, an hour for church on Sunday morning. Check. An hour with Dad (or Mom or Aunt Rose…) on Wednesday afternoon. Check." If you've never heard the song by Harry Chapin, "The Cat's in the Cradle", click and listen to it now.

I usually abhor "free verse", but the poems in this book are so touching I didn't mind. The various pieces got me to think about all my relationships. I am so glad I knew all my grandparents, and that our son got to know all four of his. I am glad for "immediate family" of course, but also for aunts (one still living) and uncles and cousins, and those second and even third cousins I've been privileged to meet. One good friend of ours helps out his cousin frequently. He wonders how she goes on, with so many ailments, and a husband in even worse shape! They are fortunate he is available to help out.

Well, it is clear a book like this is hard to write about. It is the best kind of book, one that triggers self-reflection and self-revelation. I have little fear of Alzheimer's Syndrome now. I seem to have inherited my father's brain (he is 93 and still pretty competent) rather than my mother's. And if I do succumb to dementia? It is in God's hands. A wonderful book like this shows we need not feel alone when we need to care for someone, or need care ourselves. We have plenty of company.

Now I must reveal my identity explicitly, which I haven't done before in this blog. The poem above, titled "Memory", is Copyright, 2004 by Larry J. Van Stone. Please contact me if you wish to use it, using a Comment to tell me your e-mail address; I monitor Comments, so the Comment will not appear unless I Publish it to the blog, which I would not do without your permission.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Water as the next fuel – for War

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, textbooks, water, hydrology

I have been saying since the 1980s that the wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water. Similar, and quite definite statements are found in the last chapter of a 634-page text, Groundwater for the 21st Century: A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth by John A. Conners. But water wars are not his focus, knowledge is. The aim of Dr. Conners is to educate the populace, the "Citizens" of his title. 'Tis a pity none can similarly educate national and business leaders whose focus is the next election or quarterly profit/loss statement.

Though the author claims the book was not written as a textbook, it is one. In fourteen chapters it covers the field of groundwater science quite thoroughly at a layman's level, if you don't mind an occasional equation and a little chemistry here and there. Though I spent the past week reading the book, I'd have taken twice as long had I not been able to skim much of the material.

What is groundwater? Simply put, it is all the water beneath our feet. In most parts of America, particularly the rainy East and Southeast, you can dig a foot or two down and see water seep into the hole. That is groundwater trickling out into view.

How much is there? A lot, but the rub is, there are a lot of us and we use a lot of water. At this point, I'll take a brief aside: Units are used quite inconsistently throughout the book. Sometimes we find square miles or cubic miles, and at others square or cubic kilometers. Sometimes a volume is in gallons, then in liters, and larger amounts may be in acre-feet or cubic whatever. Sometimes a conversion between Metric and (mainly) English units is given, sometimes not. Here I will use SI (the "official" Metric set of units, out of 3 flavors of Metric), and convert when necessary. So again, there is a lot of water, but there are billions of us, and the more affluent we are, the more water we use. On average, and American wastes an amount of water weekly that is equal to the entire water budget of a person in a Third World country, for a year.

How is it being used? From quite well to quite abominably. In the rich West we take it for granted unless it is our job to worry about it. This is not always wise. I once lived on a hill high above a flood plain. On this flood plain there were several mobile home communities. The typical setup was this: each trailer/manufactured home sat on about a half acre of ground. In the front yard near each house was a water well. On a flood plain the water table, which is the upper limit of groundwater connected to the nearby river, is at a depth of several feet, so the wells were shallow. Guess what was in every back yard? A septic tank and outflow field. The tank and piping were typically set shallower than the water table, meaning that whatever came out the pipes tricked down into the groundwater. I wonder if anyone living there ever considered that they were drinking their own slightly filtered toilet waste...and their neighbors'!

Most groundwater is extracted for agricultural use. At one point, we find that the minimum requirement of water needed to produce one day's food is about 3,000 liters. You only need a few liters to drink, and a few more to sponge bathe and to clean eating utensils. Depending on what we eat, our agricultural water use can be even higher. It takes 200 liters to produce one hen's egg, more than 15,000 l per kg of beef and 1/3 of that per kg of chicken meat. On the herbivory side, an apple tree consumes 125 l per apple, it takes more than 1,800 l to grow 1 kg of wheat, and once the wheat is milled and made into bread, each slice has 60 l of water use hidden within.

In addition to overt and semi-overt water consumption, a hidden "consumption" of water is contamination and pollution. To pollute water is to render it unusable, or at the very least, risky to use. I once heard a European water policy expert discuss laws—I don't know if they are on the books or only proposed—that mandate every manufacturing plant that wishes to release "used" water into a waterway, must put the outfall upstream of its own inlet. That supposedly gives them incentive to clean the water up before releasing it. But it doesn't address whether a company might do only partial cleanup of effluent, and more thorough cleanup of water it is using, only as needed on a process-by-process basis. A clever enough company might still pollute, but at lower cost than thoroughly cleaning their effluent. So I'd go further. I favor a law requiring that every executive and manager and salaried employee be required to live in a dwelling that has its water supply hooked up directly to the outflow from the plant: to drink the water, to cook with it, to shower or bathe with it, to wash their clothes and water their lawns and gardens with it.

OK, you say, "Dream on, dude!" Yeah, I know. The powerful always find ways to circumvent everything. That's why we need occasional revolutions.

Back to the book. In it we find that we are not using groundwater as fast as it is formed. The trouble is, groundwater varies in its purity and accessibility and in the cost to retrieve and transport it. The "cheapest" groundwater is mainly in underground formations, called aquifers, that are not being replenished very fast. In most of the world, we are extracting water that won't be replaced. It is called water mining. Only once it is gone will we turn to more costly water, and maybe one day we'll learn to use the water that is being replaced the most rapidly. But, give us time, and we'll find a way to outstrip even that supply. We need, not more water, but wiser water use. In the usual case, we do only what we are forced to do. This will most likely continue.

The book has no call to action. It is entirely educational. People need to understand what is actually out there, and what is actually going on. The learning itself will trigger action. That is the author's hope.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Some non-essentials are less essential than others

kw: book reviews, collections, literature

I like to read the occasional "Best of" or "Best American" collection, everything except poetry, since so little genuine poetry is being written at present. So when I came across The Best American Non-Essential Reading 2013, edited by Dave Eggers, I brought it home and dived right in. I was momentarily put off by the cover art by Camille Rose Garcia. She specializes in cartoonish illustrations that range from creepy to just plain ugly. This cover is exceptionally ugly. I soon obtained a clue to this.

I hadn't encountered this series before. In the introduction I found that the "editor" brings together a gaggle of high school students from all over the San Francisco bay area to read, debate, and select the pieces for each volume. To the way of thinking of most folks over 35 or so, kids that age prefer ugly stuff. Fortunately, that is not uniformly true. And it bears considering that when we were 16 or so, what we liked came across to our own parents as quite ugly.

Any literary collection strives to present a variety of reading experiences. This collection achieves that, and then some. Compared to this collection's range of voices and viewpoints, other collections are monochromatic. So even I found an item or two to like.

I suppose it is obligatory for me to complain that most of the fiction pieces are about losers who learn nothing. Much of the reportage is similarly lifeless. "All Due Respect" by Peter Hessler is an exception. It reads like fiction, but portrays Jake Adelstein and the Yakuza among whom he moved during more than a decade in Japan. It gets my vote as the best writing in the volume. The phrase "all due respect", as said by a Japanese in Japanese, has overtones of the "offer you can't refuse" of Godfather fame.

About a third of the fiction pieces I'd already read, in other "Best of" volumes. I recalled they hadn't thrilled me the first time around, so skipping them was no loss. One piece of "poetry" was the most non-poetic item I've encountered, "Crazy Horse Boulevard" by Sherman Alexie. A selection of 4 short poems inspired by Kurt Vonnegut ranged from moderately accessible free verse to non-verse (anti-verse?) of the most acidic sort. Free verse is almost exactly a century old. That is time for 3-4 generations to arise who have never read anything with both rhyme and meter, and it shows. You can write almost anything with odd pacing, perhaps break the lines in peculiar places, and call it a poem. I guess the market for rhyming dictionaries has essentially vanished.

One piece that I read all the way through, and shouldn't have, succeeded in disturbing my sleep: "Snake River Gorge" by Alexander Maksik. I think it is fictional. If it isn't, it sheds a very different light on those youngsters that show up on your doorstep selling magazine subscriptions, as a particularly heinous sort of human trafficking. Even if it is fiction, it'll still make whoever has read it get the willies when another kid rings the bell.

I reckon if you're a Millennial and don't know any better, you'll like many of these pieces. If you're a Boomer or an X-er, probably not so much.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Are psychopaths evil, or broken?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths, autobiographies, fmri

Psychopaths and psychopathy have been of growing interest for about thirty years. Amazon currently lists 96 hardbacks with "psychopath" (singular or plural) in the title, and more than 600 if paperbacks and Kindle editions are counted. Perhaps a quarter of these books delve into the science to some extent. The rest are more sensational treatments or contain advice about dealing with a troublesome boss, co-worker, lover, child or parent, who may or may not actually be psychopathic.

Of books on the subject with a more scientific or investigatory aim, I suspect most are at least partly based on the work of Kent Kiehl, who has just published The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience. Beginning with the work of Drs. Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare, and based very much on the PCL-R (Psychopathy Check List – Revised), he initiated the study of brain structure and function in psychopaths using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

While he was a graduate student Dr. Kiehl began working with prisoners convicted of the most violent crimes, learning to apply the PCL (I'll leave the R off; it is understood these days). To properly use the PCL, interviews lasting a few hours, conducted by a well trained clinician, are needed. The score ranges up to 40, with 30 being the cutoff. The average for all inmates in maximum-security prisons is 11. The average for the general population is 4. The average for serial killers is 35, but not all serial killers have been found to be psychopaths.

Throughout the book the chapters each begin with a mini-fact. The first is
One in four maximum-security inmates is a psychopath
So if you have a bunch of inmates whose average score is 11, but a quarter of them have an average score of about 32 (this assumes that higher scores are more scarce), then the rest will average 4, the same as the general population of the non-incarcerated!

Psychopathy is a primarily male affliction. While about one man in 150 is a psychopath, the rate for women is closer to one in 1500, so about 90% of psychopaths are male. If we confine our concern to those between the ages of 18 and 50, in the U.S. population about half a million men and 50,000 women are psychopaths, as measured by PCL-R.

I wondered about the 30-point cutoff. Its utility depends on the distribution of scores. For example, if someone is rated by a trained clinician, for whatever reason, and is scored a 29, is he considered "almost a psychopath" or a non-psychopath? Having dug around some, I didn't find much on score distributions, and nothing for the "general population". But I did find a few histograms compiled for psychiatric populations. They showed a bimodal distribution with a pronounced low region in the range 20-30. Curiously, among many articles that mention score distribution, most treat the scores as a normal (that is, Gaussian) distribution, which introduces serious errors if the true distribution is bimodal (think of a camel with two humps; the Gaussian curve has one hump only).

It is a terrible pity that so many scientists, psychologists in particular, try to shoehorn all distributions into the Gaussian model, when so few natural phenomena are truly Gaussian! Sure, height in males or females tends to be normally distributed ("normally" meaning "according to the Gaussian model"). So do a small number of other measurable things. But consider this question:
What is the average number of digits (fingers plus thumbs) possessed by persons the day of their birth...or death?
Neither question can be answered "exactly ten". On the day of birth, some babies are born deformed and have fewer than ten, and in rare cases, no digits or even hands at all. Also, ten is not the maximum number because some are born with twelve, and sometimes more. The internet abounds with pictures of babies born with 14 digits or more. And at the end of life, a significant number of folks have lost one digit or more to accident or disease. So while the mode (greatest frequency) of the distribution curve is right at ten, the number ranges from zero to at least 16, and is strongly skewed, numbers smaller than ten predominating. To analyze frequencies of digit quantity using Gaussian statistics would be a serious error.

The difficulty of labeling is also discussed. Young people can also display psychopathic tendencies, and there is a PCL for juveniles, but it is a breach to tell a youngster the result. In one case in the book, a young man with some emotional problems was told by a doctor that he was a psychopath, whereas it turned out later he was not one at all! But he believed the doctor and decided he'd live a life of crime, including killing.

Dr. Kiehl's work has been primarily with serious criminals. A significant focus of his work has been predicting rates of recidivism, or re-offending, after a prisoner is released. Psychopaths are six times as likely as others to re-offend. Does that mean that we ought to give the PCL to a freshly incarcerated person and, if he "fails", lock him up and throw away the key? Not so fast. The author spends a chapter discussing the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) in Wisconsin, where a different approach has been used to ameliorate the antisocial traits of the least-manageable juveniles, who are termed "callous and unemotional" to avoid labeling them "psychopaths" at too early an age.

Psychopaths in general do not learn from punishment or other negative consequences. They seem immune to correction, and many are proud of it. At MJTC, as I understand it, the juvenile offenders are trained in a way similar to performing animals. Every slightest "good behavior" is rewarded, and while serious misbehavior may be sanctioned for the safety of the staff, most misbehavior is simply ignored. Everyone there is trained in the method, from clinicians to cleaning staff. The results have been spectacular. For example, among juveniles not treated who were released at age 18, a certain number became adult criminals and several committed murder. Among an equal number of those who completed the MJTC program, fewer than half as many committed any crimes, and none were murders. Some went on to get more education and were able to hold jobs. Getting such results is neither quick nor cheap, but considering that crime in America costs at least a trillion dollars yearly, not doing anything is even more costly!

I find it interesting that Dr. James Fallon has studied psychopaths, using tools developed by Dr. Kiehl, and found that he is himself a psychopath, as are a number of people, such as Niel Armstrong, who are not in any way in trouble with the law. It seems one's fMRI scan can show the suppressed emotional brain activity characteristic of a psychopath, and one can score 30 or more on the PCL, while still having respect for law. Dr. Fallon believes such psychopaths outnumber the criminal ones. Let's hope so!

A "horse whisperer" is one who has a special rapport with horses and can train them quickly and effectively. The book's title points not so much to the author as to the originator of the program at MJTC. I hope the work there leads to follow-on programs that can take the fangs out of  the most dangerous young persons and, one might fondly hope, gradually depopulate our prisons. It is a national shame that America has such a large number of prisoners.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

One future diverting another

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, near-future, dystopias

Concerning time travel, one would have the same question that Enrico Fermi did about Martians or other aliens visiting Earth: "Where is everybody?" In The Peripheral, William Gibson finesses this in a milieu where contact across time is possible but difficult, and thus limited and easier to conceal. Here we find also a future, late 22nd Century so far as I can determine, with a much lower population, and a very, very small number who can afford to pursue cross-time contact as a hobby. Also, conveniently, early in the novel we read that the earliest date that can be contacted is some time in the 2020s. The mechanism is a new kind of virtual reality system, with a server "somewhere in China". More than this is left a mystery.

What is a "peripheral"? Computer-savvy folks think of printers, external hard drives, game controllers,…all the things you might attach to a computer (or tablet or phone, these days) except the external monitor. Somehow screens aren't thought of as peripherals. In the novel, "peripheral" is reserved for robots and (Gibson doesn't use the word) androids that someone can inhabit virtually, via a special brain-contact headset that wraps around at forehead level.

I have minimal interest in the plot. Suffice it to say that the protagonists are one Flynne Fisher, a young woman in about the year 2110, and Wilf Netherton, a middle-aged man living some 75± years later. In Flynne's era, there is something like an advanced Skype machine on wheels, like a Segway with a screen and cameras on a stalk at head level. Devices like this are currently called telepresence robots, and enable someone a certain limitedly mobile presence at a distance. Presumably they'll be a lot better by 2110 or so. After a further seven decades, the technology of choice is a genetically human animaloid with neither brain nor alimentary canal (they are fed intravenously). In place of a brain, there is an AI that can manage the body when not in use, and interface electronics for its use. For tasks needing great strength or small size, various "homunculi" are used similarly.

Thus, Flynne gets to visit the future by inhabiting a peripheral that is a fully-functional young woman who looks similar to her, but cannot eat (and doesn't eliminate either). Wilf gets to visit the past in a telepresence robot. As it happens, Flynne is very fortunate that her brother is a former Special Forces (or something similar) soldier, with lots and lots of friends who are very, very good with weapons; Wilf is well-connected with an English-born Russian gajillionaire and his "klept". Think of a klept as a crime family with ambitions to grow into a kleptocratic government.

The plot hinges on a murder that Flynne witnessed while monitoring what she thought was a video game. As the only witness, she is targeted by future assassins who can only work by offering millions to folks in her time who will kill her. The future folk who contact her include a mysterious police inspector of great age, and members of the klept, who finance the search for the original killer. Of course, the killer will be fingered and dealt with, along with certain other evil folk. Other than that, there is remarkably little killing.

William Gibson is a master of high-tech future dystopian world-building. With The Peripheral he has crafted two dystopias, with the worse one attempting to avert their own fate for the other. I ought to mention another time-contact concept: first contact between someone in, say, 2085 with someone in 2010 splits off a "stub", which is now affected by that contact and develops differently without changing the future that is doing the contacting. Believe me, this is less of a mental conundrum than we usually find in "time travel" literature! (Most of it seems to be written just to set up, then solve, such conundrums.) Thus, it is possible for Wilf and his group to help Flynne and her group avoid "the jackpot" that led to the world he inhabits.

This "jackpot" is one of the intriguing ideas in the book. It is described not as a single catastrophic event, but a decades-long tangle of co-synergistic "slow disasters" (only global warming is presented as an example) that end up reducing human population to around 10% of what it was before. This is sufficiently plausible to be chilling.

The univere-splitting function of cross-time contact is another. At one point someone muses whether the contact initiates a split, or if quantum universe splits occur frequently and the cross-time function can only occur between worlds on different world-lines. This is in accord with the popular "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory. The most extreme version has every quantum "choice", everywhere, triggering a split into two or more universes, depending on how many possible outcomes the quantum event could have. If Richard Feynman's "virtual particle sea" interpretation of quantum electrodynamics is true, and quantum universe-splitting is also true, then new universes are created at the rate of about 1024 per second per cubic femtometer of space. That is universe creation at a rate, per second, that is a number with roughly 500 digits. And people think this is more reasonable than my belief in God!!! "Stub" creation by intentional action is tons more reasonable than any "many worlds" theory I've read about. And Gibson nicely pushes off any such splitting into the future by a century or so. I found myself wondering whether the plot would twist into next-level contact, when someone from, say the middle 2200s contacts either Wilf or Flynne. Maybe it is something Gibson will take up later, except he is probably busy building another world instead just now.

I've already discussed the technology of "peripherals" a little. It is very reminiscent of the Avatar technology of the film Avatar. I kept wondering if this novel would end similarly, with Flynne's peripheral being replaced by one that can eat, and her getting stuck in it in the future, say because her body dies in her own time. Gibson had another idea, and a better one.

In the Flynne time frame, the technology of the day is "fabbing" using 3D printers of roughly a century in our future. In the Wilf time frame they use "assemblers", nanotechnology devices by the quadrillions. In one scene, a blocking wall just seems to appear. I had to step back and think about that. Where did the material come from? What about the energy? Even if this kind of "assembling" is not breaking and making chemical bonds, the particles being assembled will still be subject to van der Waals forces. vdW forces are what make glue work, and they facilitate the zipping and unzipping of DNA. But even assembly relying only on vdW forces requires energy. So much energy that, while the wall might be able to "arrive" in a second of time, its temperature would be a few thousand degrees. A different application of assembling, that brings a weapon into Flynne's hand through solid rock, would use at least as much energy as melting the rock. Her hand would be burnt off to the shoulder. This point in particular is why I added the tag "science fantasy" to the metadata.

No matter how hard or soft the science is in a science fiction novel, its enjoyment requires the suspension of disbelief. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Then, I enjoyed speculating on the ideas presented here just as much. I am not pointing out errors, but confronting the concepts with physics as we know it today. Many of our devices would seem magical to people of Ben Franklin's time. We know some physics that was not known then. The physics of 200 years to come could advance a similar amount. Maybe there's a way to shift a vdW bond, or even a covalent bond, using much less energy than the break-plus-make procedure we must use today. I love Gibson's writing. His dystopias are more hopeful than most.