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.