Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The waxy snails

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

In the course of time I have come to a cabinet-and-a-half containing a couple of thousand lots of a family of snails (gastropods) named Cerionidae. Though there are four genera in the family, the Delaware Museum of Natural History holds members only of the type genus Cerion. The family was split out from a large family, Urocoptidae, by Henry A. Pilsbry in 1901. "Harry" Pilsbry spent much of his career at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he described hundreds (thousands?) of new species.

This first photo is of the type species (of the type genus of the family Urocoptidae), Urocoptis cylindrus (Dillwyn, 1817). Lewis Dillwyn originally named this species Turbo cylindrus, using a genus name created by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, when he single-handedly invented biologic nomenclature. At the time these specimens were collected the species was considered of the genus Cylindrella, then was shifted again to the genus Urocoptis when the family Urocoptidae was set up. The family Urocoptidae contains many genera, and while many of the species are similar to this one, being cigar-shaped with a flaring aperture, they vary a lot around this gestalt.

The genus Cerion, pronounced "kerion" or "Syrian", from the Latin word cerea, meaning "waxy", was named by Peter Röding in 1798, based on his renaming of Turbo uva as Cerion uva (Linnaeus, 1758). The genus has just a handful of fully accepted species, but the DMNH collection contains representatives of more than 200 species, which have varying levels of acceptance among workers carrying on a decades-long reworking of land snail families. This photo shows two characteristics of many Cerion species: the off-white waxy color and the ribbing along the entire shell. The flared aperture is less pronounced than it is in most of the Urocoptidae. The following photos showcase three more Cerion species, chosen to illustrate the range of variation in the genus.

The photo below shows Cerion weinlandi (von Martens, 1860); Edward von Martens originally placed it in the genus Pupa. It does look like a pupa! I chose this species to illustrate the extreme of nearly absent ribbing. Also, while the background color tends to be waxy off-white, this species is one of many with color banding and mottling also.

Though this lot is labeled Ceriod dalli Maynard—publication date is probably 1889—it was renamed and included in the species Cerion rubicundum (Menke, 1829). I don't know what name Karl Menke originally gave it. The species name means "ruddy", and when the shells are fresh and moist, the brown markings are reddish-brown. I chose this species for its narrow ribbing.

Finally, Cerion marielinum Pilsbry, 1927 (the museum curator attributed the species to Carlos de la Torre, who had edited the journal in which Pilsbry published the description) is so named for its occurrence mainly near Mariel, Cuba. This species shows wider, more robust ribbing, and also has a ruddy background with the waxy white being confined to the tops of the ribs.

I chose the scale for these photos so that they would show the shells close to life-size on a 17-inch monitor. On my 22-inch monitor they are about 25% larger than life. Comparing the four Cerion species with Urocoptis cylindrus, there is certainly a resemblance. It is easy to see why the genus was originally put in the same family. However, details of their morphology, including not only the more pronounced ribbing, but also the smaller aperture and the small teeth inside the aperture, distinguish Cerionidae from Urocoptidae…at least for now! Biological naming is always a tug-of-war between "splitters" and "lumpers". In some mollusk families, large numbers of species have in recent years been combined into a relative handful of species, and this may soon result in the few hundred species of Cerion being lumped into a smaller number of species that are recognized as being rather variable.

Genetic studies and breeding studies are going on in parallel, and revealing more and more about the species and inter-species relationships of many animals, not just snails. But, you know, I just like opening a drawer full of shells once in a while to simply admire them.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The mistake collector

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neurology, errors, consciousness

Oliver Sack's fifteenth, and last, book is The River of Consciousness. He died just two weeks after completing the design of the book, composed of his essays in various medical and popular publications. I first came across his books three years ago; this is the third of his that I've read and reviewed in that time. He may be best known to the public for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which I have yet to read…but it is on my short list.

As any good clinical "brain worker", he collected mistakes. Freud with his "slips" may be the one we know the best for elucidating the shortcuts our mind and brain use, from certain mistakes that we make. I find Dr. Sacks to be the best at explaining the usefulness of the categories of our errors to us.

Not all the chapters in the book are explicitly about "useful errors". The chapter "Speed", for example, attacks questions such as, "Just how fast can we think?" and "What is it like to think a hundred times faster, or slower?" We all have heard of phenomena such as having one's life flash by in a moment during severe emergencies, or of becoming so absorbed in minutiae that hours can pass with hardly a ripple on our thoughts. Sundry drugs can affect our time sense: I once began to take a prescription drug for systemic fungus, and on the fourth day managed to work up enough ambition to phone my doctor to say, "I just realized that the wallpaper texture in my office is so interesting that I've been looking at it for four hours." He recommended that I stop taking it, and dropping by for a different prescription!

The chapter "The Creative Self" dwells much on the apparently unconscious problem-solving abilities we have (you can call it "right brain" but it is more involved than that). For much of my career as a systems programmer, I relied on it: Near the end of a work day I would often set up a structure in my mind, of the current algorithmic problem I faced, and sort of give it a mental push. I could usually expect to awaken at 3:00 AM with a flowchart "sitting there," ready for me to spool out into working code. From the dancing flames that Kekulé was watching when the structure of Benzene suddenly sprang to mind, to the introduction to Das Rheingold that Wagner had been struggling with, and which erupted into his consciousness while he took a hike to take a break, creative "flashes", while not too common, are well enough known to us all. They do not really denote lightning inspiration, but rather, they culminate a long and laborious fitting and re-fitting of ideas that goes on in the background; it seems almost independent of our conscious problem-solving, and usually quite linear, processes.

I was also quite taken with the chapter "Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science." The author digs into the lore of "ideas born before their time." It is usually the case that such ideas enter an arena that is already full of competing theories, and in particular, they usually incite the ire of numerous and powerful figures whose work is threatened thereby. My father used to say, "Really good ideas often have to take Moses's way: 40 years in the wilderness for a generation to die off." Sometimes it is more like a century or two! The most extreme example is that Archimedes seems to have invented calculus nearly 19 centuries before Liebnitz and Newton (re)formulated it.

Rather than comment on every chapter, I'll leave it to the reader to enjoy the book.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Biography of a friendship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, celebrities, actors, friendships

This was a wildcard selection for me; I seldom read biographies. Hank & Jim, by Scott Eyman, was too alluring to pass up. It chronicles 50 years of friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart.

Henry Fonda and James Stewart were opposites in some important ways: politically left vs right; Fonda marrying five times (and finally getting it right) and Stewart taking his time and hitting a home run on the first try; Fonda never giving up his first love of live theater but Steward gravitating almost exclusively to film, where together they dominated for decades.

Their similarities were sufficient to sustain a friendship in which they didn't need to talk about what was different. In fact, they were both introverted and "lived inside" much of the time and could spend tons of time together with little said, if anything. They both got their start in The University Players, though at different times and didn't meet until later. They soon became roomies, along with a few other close friends, during their "starving artist" years. They loved model airplanes (these were not the punch-out-and-glue kits, but the sort that yielded a room full of balsa wood shavings and could make you dizzy with glue fumes). They both enlisted during WWII, Fonda in the Navy and Stewart in the Army Air Corps; both were considered war heroes, they weren't just pretty faces that hung around the base. Stewart, in particular, remained active in the Reserves for years thereafter, retiring as a Brigadier General.

The book is really a triple biography, one for each man, and one for their bond. They spent years apart but always stayed in communication. Stewart was particularly solicitous during Fonda's last days, though he wasn't present for his final moments. Trying to think of a way to encapsulate the impression the book made on me, I find myself tongue-tied (metaphorically; "finger-tangled?"). It is a bittersweet book.

I find a further similarity they shared: they managed to keep at least some of their private lives out of the limelight. I am not sure how possible that would be today, now that the paparazzi are so much more aggressive (and deadly at times!), and are getting drones. But perhaps a couple of expert radio-control airplane aficionados could playfully engage in homemade anti-drone warfare!

The book is far from the fare I typically favor, but was quite enjoyable anyway. Like trying a new and very different restaurant, I got a nice surprise.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Can rewilding rescue the permafrost?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, cloning, DNA, woolly mammoths, rewilding

All the people in Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures are real, as are all the events prior to the last two chapters. Author Ben Mezrich used interviews and published materials to produce a narrative that recounts events over the past half century or so—though mostly over the past twenty-odd years—leading into a concerted effort to produce the DNA needed to revive the species Mammuthus primigenius, the Woolly Mammoth.

The main protagonist is Dr. George Church, a very active and productive genetic researcher. If you've heard his name at all, it is probably in connection with the Human Genome Project. Dr. Church is somewhat self-effacing compared to others who "got famous". Famous or not, he is a prime problem-solver, and gathers problem-solvers around him. That's what you need to tackle a project like this.

I was most intrigued by a side theme of the book, the rewilding of Siberia and possibly northern Canada, with the aim of restoring the permafrost. This entails gathering not just extinct pachyderms, but a number of living cold-adapted herbivores such as Musk Oxen. As I understand it, the large mammals of the Pleistocene fauna could churn the upper surface of the ground, which tends to allow the winter chill to make new permafrost in wintertime but blocks solar heating in summertime. The idea is to keep the huge carbon stores of the permafrost from being oxidized and thus adding many-fold to the greenhouse heating being caused by extra carbon dioxide already released by our burning of fossil fuels. That idea alone was enough to push Dr. Church over the threshold from "We can revive the Mammoth, but should we?" to "We can and we should!"

The larger key idea of the book is the concept, not of simply "finding" mammoth DNA, but learning enough from the DNA sequence to determine the key differences between mammoth DNA and Asian elephant DNA, so as to rewrite critical sections of an elephant genome and thus produce a viable mammoth ovum.

The book ends with a scene of the first mammoth returned to Siberia, perhaps as early as about 2020. However, in an epilogue by Dr. Church, he considers a more realistic figure to be 15-20 years from now. Considering the number of breakthroughs already made, a living mammoth might appear sooner than that. Producing a herd of them will take longer, but a herd is needed to have a useful effect on Siberian (or Canadian) permafrost.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Courage and maturity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, celebrities, depression

Major depression isn't just one thing. A collection of influences that quiet, or stifle, or crush the soul will manifest one way for some and another way for others. Ginger Zee writes of being suddenly transported into a small, strange, dark room, frequently with scolding voices shrieking her worthlessness. This is depression with just enough delusion that it almost managed to finish her off on a couple of occasions.

The overarching purpose of Ginger Zee's memoir Natural Disaster: I Cover Them; I am One is to chronicle her gradual triumph over that dark room and to offer hope for others similarly afflicted. She is a little young for memoir-writing (about 35 when she was writing the book), but she had already packed an amazing mass of life experience into this half-a-lifetime.

I have to mention while I think of it: The dark room with its scolding voices worked its way into reality with a "boyfriend" named John, a serious abuser, who actually became the expression of that inner domain, keeping her effectively locked up while accusing, scolding, shrieking her worthlessness, and forcing her to reveal passwords to all her accounts, until she managed to find the strength to flee and call 911 for help. In the book it isn't clear if she made this connection.

Ginger Zuidgeest grew up in a chaotic family and came to epitomize the need for chaos in her life to feel "normal". She wasn't abused as a child, nor neglected, but life had its way of providing a whole lot more twists and turns for her than is the usual fare. Her mother was capable of the most amazing conniption fits. I suppose that gave her just enough thick skin to answer brightly and even compassionately the trolls who complained to her via Twitter or email once she became a TV personality. Along the way the trickiness of her hyper-Dutch name was troubling enough to colleagues who had to say in on the air that they soon began calling her "Ginger Z.", and then a friend suggested she simply use the stage name Zee. It was a great idea.

She chronicles the story of her climb to becoming ABC's Chief Meteorologist, but there's little use in my re-hashing it for you. She was driven. So driven that my armchair psychologist hat practically forced itself onto my head, to declare from time to time, "Ms Zee, you aren't just the occasional depressive, you are bipolar ("manic depressive"), someone who is lucky enough that you spend a lot more time with that manic energy than in the dark room." She has, for years, endured a work schedule that would exhaust nearly anyone. She thrives on it. She even managed to wangle a series of assignments that included very high-flying paragliding, swimming in Jellyfish Lake in Palau (where she discovered she was pregnant), and a descent into the amazing Hang Son Doong cave in Vietnam (while pregnant).

Her "escape" from becoming overwhelmed by depression swings around two foci. The first is fleeing from John, the second is checking herself into a mental hospital for a week of special therapy, ten days prior to starting to work for ABC. Her description of that week shows the value of finding a truly competent therapist. In my experience there are many more who are at best marginally competent, and I wonder if my experience is ordinary or not, that more than half belong "in the bottom of the barrel." Actually, I had only one truly good psychiatrist since being diagnosed as bipolar, fortunately, at a less extreme level than most. Dr. Wilson proved to be a supremely good therapist for her, and helped her develop the tools she needed to become the person she needed to be.

Ginger Zee makes it clear that not all who experience depression will experience it "her way", but that no matter how it manifests itself, it can be overcome, and the first step is usually being willing to hold up a hand to say, "You know, I am really NOT OK." She states something we all need to keep in mind: we all have someone, usually several someones, who love us enough to be willing to help, even if it costs them time and energy.

She ends the book with a hint that the coming years may not be any less chaotic, but they will have a clearer focus, her husband Ben and their little son. She is experiencing a core of stability she feared she would never reach. Good on ya, girl!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Animals are like us because we are like them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

A few minutes ago I saw a video on Facebook, in which a mother pit bull brings her newborn pups, one by one, to her owner to hold, until the young woman's lap is full of puppies. Then the dog rests her head in the woman's lap also, enjoying the cooing and cuddling, apparently showing utter trust in her. "Trust?" Can a dog feel trust? Why not? If we humans can (even when we find it hard to define the word), it must have come from somewhere.

The first sentence of the epilogue of The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and Compassion, by Peter Wohlleben, reads,
When I look at animals, I like to make analogies to people, because I cannot imagine that animals feel so very differently from us, and there's a good chance I'm right. (p. 244)
This is the author's second published book, the first being The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate-Discoveries from a Secret World … guess what is the next book I'll look for?

In the meantime, I have had a delightful read of the lucid translation from the German, by Jane Billinghurst. Mr. Wohlleben manages a municipal forest near Hümmel, Germany. He has ample opportunity to witness animal behaviors across the spectrum of woodland habitats, from weevils in the leaf litter to the rodents, deer, and other mammals and birds that abound there. His book's 41 chapters are part essay, part story, and part lyrical musing.

Did you ever have the thought to consider happiness in an insect? Is such a thing possible? In the chapter "Alien Worlds", one animal he writes of is a weevil barely 2mm long (0.08") that feeds on fallen leaves. Having no wings, and being slow, weevils have predators aplenty. Their only defense is to be still; they are well camouflaged, looking like a bit of broken leaf stem. So they must know fear. Perhaps they feel happy when they are not fearful.

The more that scientists delve into animal communications, the more they realize that they have rather rich vocabularies, so, as mentioned in various ways in several chapters, we can have a pretty good idea that, when a horse or cat or dog greets us, they really are happy to see us (or not!). The scientists have finally figured out what most of us already knew.

Many animals raise their young, in larger numbers than was known when I was first learning Biology 50+ years ago. While many things do seem to be innate, a matter of "instinct" (one of the least-understood words out there), many things do need to be learned: bird songs, the best paths to take, the kind of nesting material to use, the most effective way to gather or kill one's next meal.

I am particularly taken with bird songs. I can recognize just a few—the "cheerio! cheerio!" of a territorial Robin or the "chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee" of a Chickadee—but even the Robin has dozens of other calls (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has quite a library of them). We all know that mockingbirds and catbirds and others such as the Brown Thrasher mimic the songs of many other birds. They learn them; they aren't born with them. But many birds have hundreds to thousands of songs and song variations. The ones we usually notice are the territorial defense calls, the equivalent of "This is MY tree!" We pay less attention to the little "chip chip" sounds that are actually more frequent. Those are the warning sounds the birds make to each other because we are there. People have paid attention to bird warning sounds. The birds' calls differ depending on whether the intruder is a hawk, snake, or cat, for example. There are also calls for different kinds of food, for keeping in contact when relatives are out of each other's sight, and other "relationship" sounds.

But there is much, much more. For example, animals (furred or feathered) of all sorts deceive one another. When you are watching a squirrel busily digging to bury acorns in the yard, and you are visible to it, it will make hole after hole, but few of those holes contain an acorn! Most are decoys, to frustrate you if you are planning to steal the acorn. They also use decoy holes when being observed by other squirrels, perhaps even the more: they don't know whether you'll steal acorns, but they know a rival squirrel will! Both deceiving and thieving are problem-solving behaviors, that is, cognitive thinking.

In this book you'll find example after example of animals that exhibit reasoning and emotions…I almost wrote, "just like ours." But really, our reasoning and emotions are like theirs. Perhaps some of our thinking is deeper and so forth, but it is similar in principle. As the author writes in "Artificial Environments", our own emotions and senses are somewhat blunted because of the built environment in which most of us live. It is hard to enjoy a starry sky when you may never see one (lifelong residents of mega-cities can go a lifetime and never see a star, not one). Few of us understand Napoleon's love letter to Josephine, telling her he expected to return home the following day, asking her, "Don't bathe!". Our noses are so overwhelmed with artificial perfumes, air "fresheners" (contaminants, I call them), and such, that we have lost the ability to detect smells that could provide warning, or enhance a joyful reunion, and many other things.

I have had a good dose of animal stories, in this book and the last. Very gratifying. Knowing the depth of feeling that even a barnyard chicken has, however, is not likely to make me into a vegan. Rather, it gives me pause, that perhaps it would be well to follow the example of some Native Americans of earlier generations, that thanked a deer for offering itself to feed his family, or a grouse for the same, even thanking a netful of fish. We may think "more" than other animals (at least some of us do), but it is not certain that we think "better". Time will tell.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A turning point in psychozoology

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

Those who care enough to read the keyword list will note the term "animal psychology". Not so many years ago this was considered a serous error. No biologist would admit that animals could think or feel pain, and one must never, ever impute emotions to them. Thankfully, that is changing, and the new book Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, by researchers Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, celebrates this sea change in the "professional" understanding of what animals feel and think…or even that they do feel and think.

I hope we never again are subjected to cries of "Anthropomorphism!" when describing a pet, domestic animal, or any animal in the wild as "wanting", "loving", or even "planning". As the authors note, even paramecia (single celled, rather largish protozoa) can remember and plan. To recall a motto from an earlier post of mine:
We are like Them because We came from Them
The supposed "sin" of Anthropomorphism is to consider an animal as being in some way like a human. That takes it backwards. Everything in our psychology is based on animal psychology, and even to some extent on protozoan psychology.

The 54 essays in the book range across the Kingdom Animalia, though I don't think they managed to touch on every one of the 9 animal phyla. The majority of the stories are of vertebrates (Phylum Vertebrata, animals with an internal, bony skeleton), the next largest number are of octopuses (formerly octopi or octopodes), which are mollusks (Phylum Mollusca and class Cephalopoda). If playfulness is a sign of high intellegence, compared to creatures that don't play, the ordinary octopus is as playful as a cat or dog (or deer or horse or otter). One section does delve into other invertebrate phyla, with stories of slugs (also Mollusca), worms (Phylum Annelida), bumble bees (Phylum Arthropoda), and water bears (Phylum Tardigrada), plus the vertebrates known as amphibians, mainly frogs.

Can a bumble bee feel cheerful or downcast? Indeed it can, based on some clever research using sugar water, colored signs, and a chemical that blocks dopamine, the "happy" neurochemical. Charles Darwin wrote, "Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy and love." Biologists pooh-poohed this for 150 years. You might say that "human chauvinism" held back psychozoology by more than a century!

Of course, we are more prone to expect sorta-human responses from "charismatic megafauna" such as horses, tigers and elephants, and "charismatic mesofauna" such as typical house pets and other animals of a size that we can pick up, if they are tame enough to permit it (my cat hates being picked up and held; how tame is she?). What about chickens? One of the essays, titled "Chicken Indestructible", chronicles the day a beloved but elderly hen went missing. When she showed up a few days later, after much worry on Ms Montgomery's part about the many predators and other dangers she might have succumbed to, a little detective work showed that on a suddenly squally day, the intrepid hen had taken refuge in a hayloft until the stormy weather passed, happily eating whatever bugs were to be found there.

Wonderful stories abound in this enjoyable book, and I won't ruin any more of them by repeating them here. It's worth anybody's while to curl up with this one and devour it from end to end.

Stats - Russians more discreet this month

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

I always look at my stats as soon as I open Blogger. This month, March 2018, has begun in an interesting way. The heavy spider activity I've noted a few times in the past has not resumed, but a lower level of extra activity centered around Russia is evident. Compare the past month with the past week:

The darker tone on Russia in the map for the past week tells the story. The near-doubling of activity, from 40-45 daily to 70-80 (most days), seen in the left half, is mostly due to Russian views or downloads of blog posts. The graph on the right shows that much of the activity is on a roughly daily schedule, but not steady. Other, more scattered clumps are also seen.

For the past day, week, and month, I gathered the actual numbers:

For the past month, the ratio (Russ+Ukr)/USA = 0.48; for the past week, it is 0.75, and for the past day it is 0.81.

I don't pretend to discern motives. These are at present simply curious facts.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Poems are her bread and butter

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, poetry

The title was enough: Poetry Will Save Your Life, by Joan Bialosky. I like poetry, though more in a now-and-then kind of way. Breading her memoir, we find that for Ms Bialosky, poems are her life. Not only is she a poet and author, someone who manages to craft a living from her craft; she finds sustenance and guidance in the poems she has gathered.

I imagine that she has collected a great many of others' poems over the past five or six decades. How she culled 43 special ones around which to weave her own coming of age story, only she knows. She likes poems that rhyme and those that don't; poems with rhythmic structure and poems that seem structureless (maybe she sees structure I cannot fathom). Her taste is wide-ranging, from the famous (such as Robert Frost or R.L. Stevenson) to the scarcely known (Li-Young Lee or Yehuda Amichai), at least to me.

I don't know what to say beyond that. I have a very few, very special poems that I treasure, but I'll keep them to myself here. Did they save my life? I don't know; we all have our own elixir, can we but find it. Simply this: I enjoyed the book.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

We can't lie to Google

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, data mining, data analysis, big data

There is a very interesting and useful tool available from Google, Google Trends. It provides a taste of Big Data (or Data Mining) to all of us. It tracks search terms (all of them) that have been entered in the Google search box for the last 14 years. It charts their relative popularity. Here is an example:

This is just the top of a page of charts related to these searches. There are breakouts by region and certain subtopics or related searches. Just from this chart we can see three things:
  1. While on average the Grand Canyon is the most popular of the three, the relative popularity of these three National Parks varies over time (this chart shows 5 years).
  2. All three parks' popularity varies with the season. I presume that in springtime and early summer, people are planning vacations.
  3. Each park had a spike of interest in a narrow time frame. I'll leave it to you to figure out which event triggered which spike. (Hint: high wire; seismicity; sesquicentennial)
Here is a clue to the value of meta-analysis made available by a tool like this: people search for what interest or concerns them, and there is nothing to be gained by lying about it. They really want to know. Thus, a result like this is more telling:

Here, seasonality of weight loss searches is quite evident. My impulsive analysis: a big spike in January is related to this most common New Year's Resolution, followed by sustained interest until mid-summer, then a slacking off as people enter first vacation season and then the holiday season, and have other things on their minds. Also, it is clear that many more people are worried about their weight than about smoking (and I may not have used the most common search term about this; GTrends is very literal and there are lots of ways people ask questions. But I could have searched for Topics instead).

Just out of curiosity I removed the weight loss portion. This amplified the remaining "stop smoking" result, and it is had no seasonality.

The little arrow at center-right in the diagrams shows that you can download the data (I haven't tried it) for analysis using Excel. This allows you to compare a great many search terms or topics, to winkle out all the variations, and sum them up for a general picture, or parse them by country or region or whatever. Note that if you mix topics and search terms, they are measured on different scales, because a topic gathers many search terms.

I'll refrain from going on and on, for this is a book review, after all. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, introduces the new things that are being done because we have enormous data sets available, and even the more because certain of them (such as Google searches) give more truthful information than "traditional" methods of social study such as surveys.

Have you ever lied to a survey taker, or on an online survey? Many folks do. Voter polls are notorious for inaccuracies, particularly during hotly-contested elections, such as the recent circus featuring Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Nearly every poll was dramatically wrong, nearly every time. Why? This is more than just bad poll question design (which is all too frequently done on purpose), this is a case that many of those who were going to vote one way either said, "I don't know for sure" or flat-out lied to the pollster. Consider someone who answers the telephone at work, and it is a poll taker. They aren't supposed to call workplaces, but they frequently do anyway (where else you gonna find people at midday? And with so many folks declining to even answer a phone at dinner time...). The office worker agrees to a "quick poll", and soon enough the big question comes, "Who do you prefer in the Presidential election?" This person is a closet Republican in New York City or San Francisco, and knows she'll be overheard by co-workers, with whom she never, ever talks politics. How do you expect her to answer? In those cities, you can lose your job over your Presidential preference.

The author of Everybody Lies shows a number of ways that he and others gather data from Google searches (he calls them his favorite data set), from Facebook likes, and a from number of other data collections about our behavior online. He also places emphasis on what he calls New Data, data we didn't have available before. Online behavior traces are one kind of New Data, but the concept is not new. For example, in 1854 Doctor John Snow mapped every death from cholera for the year in the Soho area of London, hundreds of them. That counts as Big Data for the 1850's! His dot map, shown here, helped him pinpoint a specific water pump as the source of the cholera epidemic; it was a pump on Broad Street, just above and right of center in this map (the dark bar there shows nearly 20 deaths in a single multi-family house). This was both Big Data and New Data for the time.

Getting back to November 2017: People who didn't get nearly as much press as the daily pollsters, but who were looking at "sentiment analysis" of internet searches, were saying, "Not so fast..." but were generally ignored. But it was they who were right. That is because, while we can lie to Google,
we don't because what is the point? We search for what we really want to know. And if someone wanted to mess with Google's search results database, and skew what it reports, it would take a huge effort, even by spambot standards. Even bot-masters have better things to do with their time!

There are some arenas in which we do lie, even to our computers. Facebook is an example. We post mostly positive stuff. We also primarily like to see positive stuff. In fact, when we see too much negative material in our newsfeeds, many of us either block or unfriend the purveyor thereof. So we tell our Facebook "friends" about what is going well with us, and we ask Google about what bothers us.

A number of fascinating and unexpected results show up. For example, would you expect a larger proportion of sports stars to come from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds, or from poor or working-poor backgrounds? Many people think that desperation to escape the ghetto drives talented kids to excel so they can actually get out. Analysis of the history of every professional sports figure counters that expectation. Most successful professionals in baseball, basketball, etc. come from middle-class backgrounds. One major factor: There are a whole lot more middle-class people than poor people in America. But even in proportion, the percentage of middle-class youngsters who excel in sports is greater than the percentage of poorer kids. We could go into a lot of possible reasons why, but it's a side point here. Truly great players like LeBron James, who was raised by a poor single mother, are the exception.

Late in the book the ethics of data mining arise. Many people are a little creeped out to learn that a trend analysis can reveal so much about them. Meanwhile, CEO's of retail companies are drooling over the same data, trying to figure out how best to induce us to part with our cash. One aspect is A/B testing. It isn't hard for the programmers at Google or Facebook to write code that, for example, puts a bluer "click here" button on an ad sent to everyone from a certain set of web servers, and a purpler button to everyone else. Which one gets a greater proportion of clicks? Do the words "click here" or "try it" or "join up" work best? When billions of ads are being shown, a 1% advantage comes to thousands or millions of potential sales. Ethical or not, that cat is out of the bag. There is no putting it back. We simply need to stiffen our own backbone of ad resistance if we wish to avoid being manipulated.

A fun side note. I am learning to use Incognito Mode and Duck Duck Go searching when I want to research something to buy. Otherwise Google and Facebook and just about everyone else spends the next month or three sending me ads related to something I already bought (or decided not to buy). When they get better connected to the retailers, so they know I bought it and probably won't buy another, and when they get better connected to Amazon's database of "people who bought this also bought these", it is likely that my ad resistance will become a lot harder to maintain! They'll have a pretty good idea what I want next, before I know I want it.

That is the world we live in. Teach your children well. Maybe they'll become more canny and cautious Web users than we have been.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Investing - what Buffett can do and you cannot

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing, short biographies, letters

Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, is legendary for parlaying a modest fortune into billions, primarily by investing. He is considered a genius at stock picking. Warren Buffet's Ground Rules: Words of Wisdom from the Partnership Letters of the World's Greatest Investor, by Jeremy C. Miller, tells the real story, at least about the first 13 years, the BPL years.

Probably the impression most people have is that Buffett was somehow prescient, and could time the market. The reality is much more prosaic. Ground Rules is about half large extracts from the Partnership Letters that Buffett wrote to his partners (initially three family members), from 1956 to 1969; and about half Miller's analysis, a valuable asset in its own right.

Buffett's style of active investment management bore (and bears) no resemblance to that of the managers of the roughly 2,000 funds of the "Growth" variety, and even of most of the 1,500 or so "Value" funds, let alone all the other categories. He was an early Value investor, but Value has a different meaning nowadays.

After working in the investment field on his own and for Benjamin Graham, the "father of Value investing", he set up Buffett Partnership Ltd., with his own money and that of a few relatives. When Graham retired, Buffett already had savings of about $175,000 (more than $1.5 million in today's dollars). BPL was set up with about $100,000, having the stated goal to beat the performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 10% yearly. In those 13 years he never had a down year, and usually beat the Dow by much more than 10%. He had parlayed the $100,000, plus other funds added as partners were added, into about $50 million (in 1970 dollars; more than $300 million in today's dollars). How?

Buffett had learned deep value investing from Ben Graham. His motto was, "You don't buy stock, you buy the business." That is, even owning one share, you should think like someone running the business. He developed his own ideas upon that foundation, so that he soon had three kinds of investments in the BPL partnerships:

  • General – Graham-style value stocks: with much research, companies were found whose total stock value was less than the raw asset value of liquidating the company. Stock of companies with management who had a reasonable chance of keeping the business from foundering could be purchased with almost total certainty that the stock value would increase, probably by a great amount. Such "low hanging fruit" are very rarely to be found today, nor at nearly any time since about 1970. Buffett liked a stock to not grow fast, at first, giving him time to buy a lot of it, a little at a time so as not to stir up market activity around it. Later he split this category into two based on size, particularly once BPL had much greater funding. Most General stocks represent small companies, and a million-dollar investment could buy the whole company, or totally skew the market for it.
  • Workouts – Arbitrage opportunities in today's lingo: companies in trouble, or with more cash and idle capital assets on hand than the value of all shares of stock. He would obtain a large amount (10-20%) of a small company's stock, giving him leverage (and often a seat on the Board), so that he could influence company operations. He would influence, or force, company management to get rid of unprofitable operations and concentrate capital where it could do more good, both in a business sense and a financial sense. Sometimes he was vilified in the press, much as T. Boone Pickens was a generation ago, and Nelson Peltz has been in recent years. With no more than a couple of exceptions, he avoided eliminating jobs in large numbers, even at the cost of a few more percentage points in a stock's value. I don't think either Pickens or Peltz ever cared one whit how many jobs they eliminated.
  • Controls – Ownership of more than 40%, and of course more than 50%, of a company's stock would give Buffett total control of operations. His last Control was Berkshire Hathaway, which he still controls. 

Does any of this sound like "timing the market"? Buffett repeatedly expressed his disdain for the very thought, and claimed he had no interest in market timing. He preferred stocks that were independent of market movements, and chose Generals in particular for this characteristic. This took a lot of research, in an era without electronic research tools.

So, whichever sort of investment one plans to make (most of us will find Workouts and Controls out of our reach!), these simple steps must be adhered to:

  • Set a goal toward which you are willing to work, hard.
  • Research, research, and research some more to locate publicly-traded companies that offer a great chance to meet that goal. This minimizes risk.
  • Follow a disciplined plan to obtain an appropriate amount of the stock (this can take months or even years).
  • When the goal is met, sell, perhaps as gradually as you bought in. The whole process is likely to take several years. Buffett didn't care for any time horizon shorter than 3-5 years.

Doing so sounds simple, but is emotionally impossible for more than about one person in a million. Buffett had an emotional detachment from the decisions he made that just might be unique. He also had the business acumen to successfully arbitrage or control a company he had bought. It is one thing to understand what he did. It is another to do any part of it. That is why there are so few investment billionaires.

This reminds me, in a sideways way, of something Art Linkletter said when he was interviewed late in his life. He was asked how he had such success interviewing children for his show "Art Linkletter's House Party" (I was in the audience once, at age 8, but wasn't called up on stage to talk with him). He said, "I can tell you my secret, but you can't do it. The kids have to know you are at the same mental level." Ground Rules tells you Buffett's secrets. Bet you can't do it.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Free money for all — Not!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, socialism, welfare

It was reported in passing in a National Geographic article that people in some Third World country were being paid an ordinary daily wage for working to clear the way for a road. The work was being funded privately, and the on-site managers decided to "do their bit" to improve the lot of the local people. They raised their daily pay by 35%. Four days later hardly anyone showed up to work. It took a lot of questioning to find out the reason: The workers had been very pleased and surprised to get about another third of a day's pay every day. At the end of three days, they had the money they used to earn in four days. Their daily needs had not changed, so they took the day off! The few who had showed up to work were mostly the local drunks who had used their extra cash to go an a roaring bender and needed the ready money.

This story came to mind the minute I saw the title of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. In a book of 247 pages plus an enormous number of notes (another 74 pages), they seek to convince a primarily American audience of the necessity for, efficacy of, and liberty to result from implementation of an unconditional national income, to be distributed by dividing around one quarter of a country's GDP amongst all the citizens and legal residents of this country. It would be paid for by eliminating nearly all social welfare programs, which it would replace.

Here's the nuts and bolts for Americans. U.S. GDP per capita in 2016 was about $52,200, so a quarter of that is $13,050 or a little under $1,100 monthly, to be paid to everyone from babies to billionaires. The total U.S. GDP was $18.7 Trillion that year. Non-"entitlement" social programs cost about $1 Trillion (both Federal and state spending); Social Security was slightly less, nearly $900 Billion; and Medicare spending is pushing $750 Billion. These total more than $2.6 Trillion, or 14% of GDP. On the face of it, if all three segments of the U.S. "social safety net" were replaced by a basic income program, the total cost would be $4.6 Trillion, and we'd need an increase in taxes sufficient to generate another 9% of the GDP.

The math gets a little trickier at this point, because the basic income would not be taxed. If that is all you received, you would pay no income taxes. But all earned income anyone received would need to be taxed at about 12% above whatever is needed to fund other programs such as the military, infrastructure projects, the running of government itself, and so forth. Some savings would be realized because of one huge fact: There would be no means test. That is, everyone would get a check for about $1,100 monthly, from the homeless woman sleeping under the bridge to Warren Buffet, tax free. Then, whoever earned "their own money" above that would pay taxes on it. Perhaps some progressive taxation method would be used, but to be clear, some kind of tax would be needed to gather the required $4.7 Trillion. But—here is the savings item—there would be no need to employ some large number of people to check if people are working, or are looking for work, and to run all the other intrusive mechanisms needed to run programs such as Unemployment Insurance or AFDC. I wonder how many officers they'll need to employ to make sure people don't keep getting checks after they die! The authors hardly mention the impact of fraud, nor how to make a person's basic income unstealable.

The authors do their best to tout the added freedom experienced by someone who has a guaranteed, if modest, stipend. Someone working a dead-end job could afford to find more congenial work, even if it pays less. Many other examples are described. But here is the question to ask yourself: Would you keep working if you could afford to "live the leisure life"? How many would prefer to spend their days fishing, surfing, hunting, beach combing, painting, sculpting, composing, and other pastimes that many wage earners dream of doing full time if they could? Would enough people desire to work, at jobs sufficiently well compensated, to support all the "preferentially unemployed"?

Were such a program initiated tomorrow, I suspect that people now in the early-to-middle years of a career, who are used to working and who have developed a kind of identification with their work, would tend to keep working because that is what they know how to do. What would their children do? The story in the first paragraph is my guess. It is not without reason that one passage in the Bible exhorts, "If anyone is unwilling to work, let him not eat." We are not as "good" as we'd like to think we are.

I don't remember the author, nor an exact quote, but I recall reading that once a large segment of the population figures out how to extract largesse from the public purse, the downfall of the republic is unavoidable. In the U.S.A., that point was probably reached during the Johnson administration with the "War on Poverty", and for 50 years the downhill slide has continued almost unabated. The authors of Basic Income have a European viewpoint, and are accustomed to a lot more Socialism than U.S. citizens in general. I think we ought to just sit back and wait for some country or group of nations actually implements a basic income program, then give it a generation and see in what form the collapse comes…but be sure, collapse is certain.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Getting well plus cabin fever equals fixing a chair

kw: photo essays, home maintenance, repairs, diy

I was sick with a bad cough and recurring fever for about a week, the longest bout of "cold" I can remember. I needed lots of "horizontal time" in bed. A visit to the doctor three days ago brought the cheery news that I had a sinus infection and middle ear infection tagging along, which bought me antibiotics and steroids. Oh Joy! By yesterday morning I had too much energy to sleep all day, but I was still coughing too much for public consumption, so I took apart a wobbly dining room chair and re-glued it. Just for fun, here is the process.

Disclaimer: I am no pro, as you'll easily see. But I've done this enough over the years to be able to get it done in a couple of hours (of my work time, not total time) instead of several days. The glue I use is Titebond II Premium Wood Glue. All these photos are either 800 or 1024 pixels in the long dimension. Click on a photo to see it that size. (There are two pairs that I montaged.)

1) The seat (bottom right, upside down) attaches with 4 screws. The corners of the main frame have 8 more screws holding 4 corner braces. I started by removing all those.

2) Then I used the tip of a chisel to pry open joints that were loose, starting at the front of the chair.

All the pegs holding the joints were firmly glued at one end and loose at the other, except for the two holding the lower brace (the "H" shape at upper right), which was solidly together. At top left are the two front legs; below them the sides and front of the seat support frame. The three bits scattered inside the "H" are corner braces. One corner brace was very firmly attached on one side and I left it alone.

3) This closeup shows that the first gluing needs to be done to close cracks in the structural members. I started by applying some force to open the cracks a little more and then taking a finger-ful of glue and rubbing it into each crack. Then it is ready to clamp and wipe clean.
This shows a joint in the clamp, with glue being squeezed out, ready to wipe up. If the clamp must press onto a crack that will leak glue, I pre-squeeze it by hand and wipe what I can, and use wax paper between the piece and the clamp. The next two photos show various clamps and a vise holding these pieces while they dry. It takes about an hour. With the metal C-clamp I use pine wood blocks to protect the work piece.

4) Once all three seat frame were solid, I assembled the two side supports to the chair back, and also added the "H" strut. This entailed putting glue on all the pieces for one side at a time. In the case of the glue for the corner braces, I was careful not to get glue in the screw holes, so in the future the screws can be removed. After spreading the glue, I tightened the screws and those were set. I looked along them from the side to be sure they were lined up.

For the "H" brace, I just spread glue on the mating surfaces and the pins and pressed them into place, also sighting to get it square.
5) I assembled the front next, the front legs and the front seat support. There was a little wrinkle in getting the legs on, which I'll get into in a moment. But first, I was clamping them with a furniture clamp when one of the legs twisted and cracks opened in its top. So I put glue in the cracks and used the vise to hold that while all the joints dried. I made sure the legs were parallel. Note the blocks of wood in the vise, holding the leg being clamped. Pine blocks are softer than oak so they won't bruise the wood or mar the finish (though that is pretty beat up already from decades of use).
6) Once the front assembly was set, I put glue on all remaining joints and pressed it into place. Then I put the chair on the floor and used a furniture clamp to clamp the seat support, and a rope, looped four times, to clamp at the bottom to hold the "H" brace and provide added support while everything dried. I used a section of floor that I already know is flat so I could press down the chair every-which-way so it would not rock when it was finished.

7) Now to the wrinkle I mentioned. In one end of the front assembly there was glue at the bottom of the holes the pegs go into, that held them back from seating fully. Yeah, I know they came out of there, but wood can subtly shift, and in the two pictures below the one on the left shows a gap that I could not close. Trying to close it caused the cracks in the leg I mentioned in step 5.

I made thin shims by splitting veneer from scraps of paneling and glued them into place all around to fill the gaps and strengthen the joint.

8) Finally, I glued the corner braces and screwed them into place. And now, voila! The finished chair, ready for the seat to be screwed on.

Another week of Russian spider activity

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Just for the record: somebody/ies in Russia has kicked up blog scanning for about a week now.

Friday, February 09, 2018

I guess it is boring in Russia just now

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

The net spiders sourced in Russia have been quite for about a year. Over the past day or so, they've ramped up again. During the calm, this blog had few readers, 40 or so daily. Now I see that just in the 7:00 am hour today (7:00 pm in Novisibirsk), there were 90 hits. It's too bad this doesn't indicate actual popularity.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Some random members of family Orthalicidae

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

I have been in the midst of inventory of terrestrial snails of a large family that is popular with shell collectors, the Orthalicidae. The family is named for the genus Orthalicus, but the family contains numerous species in many genera. In recent years taxonomy professionals have split certain genera out into new families. But we tend to call all these species "Orthalicids". Today I just present a few that I ran across recently, showing some of the breadth of attractive shell forms in these families. Each image is followed by a caption.
These are two species in the genus Placostylus, P. scarabus (Albers, 1854) and P. seemani (Dohrn, 1861). They are found on the islands of the south Pacific: the former in New Caledonia and the latter in Fiji. These island nations are about 850 miles apart (~1,350 km), so there is little natural opportunity for these species to encounter one another. The Fijian shells are visibly narrower than the Caledonian.
These are two more species of Placostylus, P. strangei (Pfeiffer, 1858) and P. stutchburyi (Pfeiffer, 1860). Both are found on the Solomon Islands. The third row consists of five lots of shells that have been identified as Placostylus, but no species is yet assigned. I am particularly intrigued by the one shell with aperture showing, that is bright orange inside.

This closeup shows one lot of P. scarabus. I purposely turned one shell to show the aperture, which shows a pale orange inside, less prominent than the one in the former picture. This also shows the variety of coloration to be seen in a single species, from quite mottled and brownish to smoothly creamy.

I turned two of these shells, of the more distantly related species Auris melastoma (Swainson, 1820), to show the nearly black interior. "Melastoma" means "black mouth". These inhabit Brazil.

Finally, this is a closeup into the plastic box containing one lot of Berendtia taylori (Pfeiffer, 1861). These are from a little closer to home, for us Americans at least: on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. I wanted a closeup of these, to show the fine ridges that cover the shells. You can also see a relic of museum practice in three of the shells: Munroe Walton had written his own number inside the apertures, and these have been crossed out and the DMNH catalog number written there.