Monday, October 31, 2011

More ways to take charge of your health

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, self help

I long ago realized I'd have to be a very active participant in my own medical care and health, as I have written in several previous blog posts. My latest concern is about my wife's heart condition, or rather her lack of a condition. She has slightly high total blood cholesterol (TBC), around 230. A few years ago she was asked by the doctor to get a HeartCam test (see Philly HeartCam for the one out here). The test showed a few tiny spots of calcification in two coronary arteries, on the low side of "normal" for her age and sex. But based on that, the doctor prescribed a daily dose of 10 mg of Crestor. She doesn't like being medicated, and because this amount lowered her cholesterol quite a bit, she demanded to be prescribed a lower dose, so he prescribed 5 mg, a little grumpily. As it turns out, for Crestor specifically, the recommended starting dose is 5 mg for persons who are hypothyroid, over 65, or Asian. My wife is all three! Very recently, she began cutting the pills in half, so as to take 2.5 mg. Take it or leave it, Doc.

The literature makes it pretty clear: Crestor does increase life span for people with active, symptomatic heart disease, but it does not do so for people with no symptoms of disease. I discussed this matter with a friend who is a doctor, and he agreed, she has no symptoms; the HeartCam test indicates a very early stage in a process that proceeds slowly and she is likely to live into her 80s or 90s with no heart symptoms. We may decide to drop the Crestor entirely. And last year there was a study reported in Age and Aging, reported on page 151 in the book I'm reviewing, that states in older people, an optimum level of TBC is about 230! It seems my wife may be best left alone!!

The book is Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them by Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon, a husband-and-wife team that has worked with hospitals for decades to improve patient safety. I read it at an uneven pace. I find it a bit of a downer to read so much bad news all at once, even though I learned a lot. For example, there is also a link between Crestor and its statin relatives and cataracts. My wife's family is already prone to cataracts, so perhaps it is best to avoid that added factor.

In Introduction is followed by twelve substantive chapters, each built around a Top Ten list. While there are many more possible items on each list, a list of ten major items will get you past the worst errors that are likely to be made. This is not a book that slams doctors. A few doctors deserve slamming, but most are at least conscientious. They are just overwhelmed. For example, there are more than 13,600 diagnoses in their arsenal, if any individual could manage to remember them all. My doctor friend confirmed that, even with computer help, it is hard to diagnose many conditions, or even to ask the right questions. Many doctors are too proud to look up stuff in a patient's presence, so we have to prod them to do so.

A key section of the book is a chapter detailing how the situation has changed regarding generic drugs. The authors were early promoters of generic medicines, but now that they are big business, and now that there are thousands of overseas labs making most of them, it is less certain that they are always the right idea. The FDA does not have the resources to monitor them, to be sure that the generic drug is medically identical to the branded drug or that it meets purity standards. Many times, "medically identical" does not mean "chemically identical", and the odd term "bioequivalent" used in FDA literature is even more troubling.

For example, if I want pain relief, I usually use Ibuprofen (branded as Advil or Motrin). The generic, Ibuprofen, is chemically identical to the branded products. But I can get the same level of pain relief if I take twice as much aspirin. The aspirin dose, by FDA rules, would be called bioequivalent. This in spite of the fact that it causes much more stomach bleeding than the Ibuprofen, and may cause dizziness at a high dosage.

There is a secondary problem. A certain substance may be off patent (such as Wellbutrin), but a timed-release version may be still under patent (as Wellbutrin XL). A generic using a different timed-release method may be released differently, causing more side effects, sometimes quite damaging side effects that the branded timed-release drug will not cause.

The authors contend that untimely death due to diagnostic errors, prescription errors, dosing errors, and unrecognized drug interactions may together reach at least 600,000 yearly in the U.S., making doctor-caused death the second leading cause of death. There is reason to believe the number is twice this, making doctors the leading cause of untimely death. Thus the reason for the book. Several doctors are quoted as saying or writing that there is on average one error committed per day per patient in U.S. hospitals.

If you are in the hospital, the best thing you can do for your own well-being is to have an alert helper with you as much of the time as possible, to double-check everything that is done to you while you are there. The helper(s) should not fear offending doctors or anyone else. They may be the only barrier between you and damaging or deadly errors.

The book contains several helpful resources. All the Top Ten lists are repeated in an appendix, and well explained in their respective chapters. There is a two-page listing of Dr. Beers' List of "bad drugs" on pp. 154-5. A Drug Safety Questionnaire is found on page 85. And there is another list of anticholinergic drugs (p. 164), because these are so ubiquitous and can interact with so many other medications.

An odd omission is an appendix listing web resources, so here are the major ones the authors mention:

The Cochrane Collaboration - Health experts evaluate what works, and what does not.
SkinSight - Insight from experts about treating and caring for your skin. It includes a self-help diagnostic tool.
American Geriatric Society - Includes a referral service to those rare geriatric specialists.
PubMed - A government sponsored resource for research documentation.
ConsumerLab.com - Independent evaluation of products, particularly OTC.

I probably used the book inappropriately by reading it all. It is a great resource, and is better used for looking stuff up.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

This antique is obsolete

kw: antiques, observations

Here is a bit of an antique, still in use but not quite as it was intended, because it has become obsolete! I can't even buy a toothbrush with a handle small enough for the slots in this toothbrush holder. Nor can I dispose of it or change it without remodeling the bathroom because it is cemented to the wall.

I wonder if they even make a ceramic, wall-mounted toothbrush holder that a modern toothbrush will fit into. I am sure a tiler would be just tickled to put one in if it could be found.

But it occurs to me that there is a certain lack of sanitation when you hang a toothbrush in one of these. The bottom bristles spend nearly all their time in contact with the porcelain, and unless you keep it quite clean and dry, there is a little germ factory there. The way it is being used now is probably safer all around.

Friday, October 28, 2011

If it is older than you are that is a start

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, biographies, collecting, antiques

I thought I was getting a book strictly about flea markets, but wound up with a biography of a mystery antique dealer and a comprehensive survey of antique dealing and collecting in the U.S., from flea markets to auctions to eBay to comics to Antiques Roadshow. Whew! Great stuff!!

The book is Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America by Maureen Stanton. Her mentor throughout her journey into the multifarious world of antiques is a man she calls Curt Avery, whose name tops a list of 37 pseudonyms used in the book. Antiques dealers are typically secretive. As I have noted at stamp and coin auctions, if you know a dealer wants something, that is a good clue that it is more valuable than things the dealers are ignoring, so most dealers try to operate without public recognition. At an estate auction I once picked up a crate of great petrified wood "rough" at a good price because the main dealer who had been buying all the pet-wood had to go to the restroom. (In the Lapidary world, "rough" means a gemstone material that has not been cut yet, though a piece may have a corner sawn off to see what quality lies within.) As Ms Stanton tells it, Avery is willing to suffer greatly to avoid bathroom breaks at crucial points in an auction!

He is willing to suffer even more just due to his nomadic lifestyle, getting to every venue early, dashing among the tables and booths to "pick" items he might turn around and sell the same day, unloading and setting up, reloading with what didn't sell, and camping out to avoid motel costs. He resists the temptation to deal more through eBay, though he uses it. He points out one portly friend and whispers "Body by eBay". His lifestyle keeps him trim.

Every antique collector and dealer has a narrow range of specialization. There is simply too wide a variety for someone to become an expert in everything. That is why, for example, Antiques Roadshow has about eighty expert appraisers on hand, each with one or a few specialties. Avery's special love is colonial-era wooden items such as blanket chests. But like many, he has become quite an expert in an eclectic range of items, such as perfume bottles or old fabrics.

The key to profiting in the antiques trade is knowledge. You have to know how to determine that an item is genuine, when it was made (at least approximately), and not only where it was made but where it has been since. A nondescript bowl could gain a lot of value if it is provable that Napoleon once owned it. You get an eye for things, and learn to look for the little clues that the wear on an old item is from use, not from someone dragging it through the sand to simulate natural wear.

Each chapter of the book records a journey, to an auction, to a multi-dealer show, to a museum so as to determine a key object's characteristics, or to pick the brain of one's chosen mentor. The tales are fascinating. They helped me realize just how ignorant I am. The only antiques I know to be true are those that were handed down to me directly. And if I were to try to sell, for example, my great-great grandfather's spectacles, I'd have to convince a buyer of their genuineness, because anything can be faked. It just depends how much time and money someone is willing to spend to make a knock-off, which depends on the ultimate profit from fooling a buyer. And the antiques collecting world has such frequent fads and trends that, at any one time, most of the genuine stuff may be un-sellable at any price. At the shows and auctions the dealers are looking for the freshest stuff, that which has most recently made its way out of the clutches of the original family members who've been handing it down for a generation or few.

Whew! It makes a fellow's head spin. The key take-away message is, if you want something old, do your research, then do more research. I have to tell the story of one old object. I was not looking for an antique, but for a binocular microscope. I found a good one on eBay that had no bids because it was old, and messaged the owner about his reserve amount. I bid above the $200 reserve, was the only bidder, and got it for $200 plus $10 shipping. When it came, its optics were in poor shape. I dismantled it and cleaned everything (there was mold on the lenses and prisms). Then, it worked great. When I messaged the seller later to tell him how well it worked, he replied, "You mean you are going to use it? It is a museum piece! 100 years old!!" Yes, and I still use it. I know optics, and it has very fine optics, much better than most modern microscopes.

Whether you plan to "use" an antique or display it, knowledge is everything. Having a willing mentor such as Curt Avery, whoever he really is, is extremely valuable.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Real Estate market distribution analysis

kw: real estate, analysis, statistical distributions, market distributions

Real estate values at "best places to live" kinds of web sites are typically stated only as median values. It is of great value to know the distribution of the real estate market in an area, particularly to determine if the market is distorted by excess or insufficient valuation in a portion of the market range. While I sometimes perform a detailed analysis for a small market, we'll also look at a powerful tool for quickly analyzing any size market.

1. Detailed Analysis


Keep in mind what any Realtor will tell you: "Location, Location, Location," but also note that every location has a context. This analysis is appropriate in a small market, such as a single Zip Code or small city, that contains no more than 150 homes for sale.

I pre-draw a grid such as that shown here. Number of Bedrooms runs vertically, and number of Bathrooms runs horizontally. At Realtor.com a bath-and-a-quarter or bath-and-powder room is counted as 2. When you actually look at individual homes, you'll pay attention to quarter and half baths, but for this analysis, a room is a room is a room.

These figures are for Zip 74075, the northern half of Stillwater, OK, an area in which I lived for a number of years so I am familiar with the market. The numbers are in thousands, rounded ($198,500 to $199,499 become 199). You can see that 3BR 2Ba is by far the most popular, and I ran out of room and stole some space from the 3+3 category. This is an economical market, with a total range in value of single-family homes from $46,000 to $499,000. I gathered the data October 25, 2011.

This Zip Code contained 125 single-family homes for sale. Just the 3+2 category contained 76, or 60% of the entire market. That indicates a homogeneous market. These two data sets are charted along with analyses of two markets closer to home, Ridley Park, PA (54 homes) and the Zip Code 19803 in northern Delaware, where I have friends.

I used Minitab to analyze these on Lognormal coordinates. The straight line for 19803 indicates it is a very homogeneous market, a set of similar bedroom communities. The two plot-lines for 74075 have a zig and a zag at the ends, indicating the market is not as homogeneous; there is at least one "ritzy" area that breaks the trend, and I suspect the low-end zag represents trailer houses on land on the edge of town.

Ridley Park shows up as quite homogeneous, but there is a wiggle in mid-line that indicates a depressed market for the middle-of-the-road homes there, a depressed median. This illustrates why you have to know more than the median to understand a market; if you wanted a home in the top or bottom of the range, you'd find yourself spending more than you expected.

This is a closer look at the four lines. Recall: 74075 = blue triangles, the same Zip with only 3BR+2Ba homes included = black circles, Ridley Park = red squares, and 19803 = green diamonds.

Recall from the handwritten grid that the three highest-priced homes in 74075 are 495, 495 and 499. They are the three triangles surrounding a black dot at the top. The black dot is the single 3+2 house among them, in its own distribution.

The tendency of home prices in a market to approximately follow a lognormal trend indicates that near the median is where you will find the largest number of homes on the market. As you move far from the median, there is not going to be much for sale.

2. Quick Analysis (7-Point Charting)

To understand this method, look at the image above. See how the 1 and 99 points are rather far from the 10 and 90 points, and that these distances are quite similar to the distance between 10 and 25 or 75 and 90. Of course, the 50 point is the exact center, the median value. So we want to pick the values from the home listings that represent 1%, 10%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 90%, and 99%. For a 100-home distribution, this is just the first, tenth, 25th and so forth. If a distribution has fewer than 50 homes, don't bother with the 1 and 99 points.

This table shows just these seven values for the three areas outlined above; I didn't bother with the 3+2 homes in 74075. To figure which homes to use, multiply the total number by the seven numbers, add ½ to each, and round the result.

For a 125-home market, the key numbers are 1.25, 12.5, 31.25, 62.5, 93.75, 112.5 and 123.75. Add ½: 1.75, 13, 31.75, 63, 94.25, 113 and 124.25. These round to 2, 13, 32, 63, 94, 113 and 124. We will discuss in a moment how to locate these items.

The "50" points are in slant type; these are the medians in each market. I also calculate the geometric midpoint, or virtual median, based on the 25 and 75 values, and 10 and 90 values. The calculation is, for example, SQRT(260*400) = 322.49, which rounds to 322, the 25-75 Median for Zip 19803. If both of these are close to the median, the market is balanced. If there is a strong trend, it reveals imbalance. Of course, the charts above show the imbalance in Ridley Park by the bent line, but here the numbers reveal it just as clearly. And, these can be plotted, as shown next.

There is a very subtle scoop in the 19803 line, and the numbers 315, 322, 331 show the same thing. 331/315 = 1.051. A 5% shift is insignificant. More significant is the very visible dip in the middle of Ridley Park, and the numbers show it: 150, 172, 187 and 187/150 = 1.247. A 25% shift is quite large. It indicates that the middle-priced houses are underpriced. A buyer's market!

The Stillwater Zip Code shows very good flatness in the middle range, with a zig and a zag, as mentioned, at the extremes of the range. The middle 80% of this market is balanced and homogeneous.

Now let us look at larger markets. This is useful to determine a price range that is appropriate for most "middle class" folks to buy homes, and how balanced the regional prices are. For three of the four analyses below, I selected only single-family homes; for Philadelphia I added condo/townhomes, which comprise 80% of the total market.

This shows a calculation table selecting the numbers for each market from the total number of homes on sale. Now, how do you find home #38 or #3,242?

By default, at the Realtor.com web site, there are ten houses listed at a time. At the bottom of the page you can click the "Next" button to get the next ten. When you do so, you'll see in the URL field (which starts "http"), near the end, "pg-2" (you may have to scan in the field). Change the "2" to the number of the page you want to go to. Now think about this; home #40 is at the end of page 4, so home #38 is the eighth listing on page 4. Similarly, to find listing #3,242, go to page 325, where it is the second listing (the page ends in #3,250). You have to count, because the web page doesn't put numbers on the listings.

Here are the 7 numbers collected for each of the four markets. I picked OK City because of familiarity, Columbus at random, San Jose because I knew it would be high, and Philadelphia because that's home these days (actually, I live in a suburb outside city limits).

A quick look shows that all these markets are well balanced. Dividing 517/490 = 1.055 indicates that San Jose may be slightly out of balance. By the way, prior to the 2008 crash, when I found an unbalanced region, it was more likely that the 10-90 median was lower than the actual median; high priced homes were undervalued, or conversely, the middle class, fueled by over-liberal lending policies, was overpricing mid-range homes. Let's look at the chart.

As expected, San Jose is high priced. Surprisingly, though Philadelphia is in the "rich" Northeast, its values are only slightly higher than the West and Midwest.

I was, frankly, quite surprised to find the distribution for Columbus as low as it is, lower than OKC. A number of years ago this was not so.

Seven-point analysis is the quickest way I know to learn so many things about markets of any size. It is the precursor to more specific analyses, helping you narrow your interest to price ranges which will have large numbers of listings.

Note: While I used Minitab for the first chart, there is a way to get a very similar chart using Excel or the Excel clone in the OpenOffice suite (it is called Calc). If a few folks rattle my cage about it, I might post a tutorial on making normal and lognormal plots using Excel. (Just to set expectations, there is no way to get the axis labeling the same. My method just produces a line with the right scaling and labels the probability axis in Standard Deviation units.)

A final tip. Choosing 3+ for the Bathrooms in Realtor.com nearly guarantees a recently built home, at least in the Northeast. In most areas of the country, only the largest houses had more than two bathrooms until the building boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One more Real Estate tool

kw: real estate, online tools

You really will need to click on the image to see what is there; this reduced view is too small.

This is a view of the new "Recent Sales" tool on Realtor.Com, which makes data available that you once needed to call a Realtor to obtain…if you had a forthcoming agent. This screen clip shows the first few listings, sorted low-high, for the nearby city of West Chester, PA. The top prices ranged up to $1.1 million.

The listings are filtered for 3+ Bedrooms, 3+ Bathrooms, and 2000+ Square Feet, Single Family homes only. I believe "Recent" means the past 12 months; there were 98 sales in that time that fit my criteria: Homes similar to ours.

As I approach retirement, my wife and I sometimes speculate on where we might like to live, assuming we get any great urge to move. Having lived in six states, we know places that have primarily ranch homes, a boon to older folks who are getting unsteady on the stairs. Ranch homes are rare in the Northeast, and this area is rather pricey. We have less of a need for "night life" than most, so we're not that interested in busy (and costly) city life. We like small-to-medium sized, rather quiet places.

This "recently sold" tool gives us an idea of the comps on our property, and on any neighborhood we might look at as a move target. Will we move? Hard to tell. There is a lot to like right here, and we are far enough from city center that it is almost as quiet as a rural area.

Not much of a driver

kw: observations, photographs, driving

Prior to moving out east, I had a 40-mile (1-way) commute. That came to about 16,000 miles yearly just getting to work and back. Now my commute is less than five miles, and it has taken me twelve years to put 111,111 miles on my car.

When the car was less than five years old, we also used it for a few road trips, but since then, we rent a car for anything more than a day trip. Another cause for the mileage to be only 9,000 miles yearly. It is even less for my wife's car, which is 21 years old and has 140,000 miles.

Our first reason for renting cars for big-miles trips was to have a newer, more reliable car on a road trip. Then I realized it is also economical. A weekly rental costs $300-$400 total, including fuel. The costs of owning a car, including insurance and ongoing maintenance and repairs (I just spent $515 for a plugged smog valve) comes to close to $1 per mile. If I can spend $400 for a car to go 1,000 miles, I've effectively saved $600.

There is a third reason for renting. We request various models when we rent a car, which makes for an extended test drive. With 12- and a 21-year old cars, we are always looking for a car to replace one of them when we decide maintenance is eating us up.

Monday, October 24, 2011

2010 Census and lognormal statistics

kw: census records, statistics, statistical distributions, analysis

Some time ago I wrote briefly about the US state population distribution in the 2010 Census, but the County data were not yet released. County data were released a couple months ago, and I just had the chance to review them.

This shows the county populations analyzed in Lognormal coordinates. While the fit is not perfect, a lognormal fit is better than any other that Minitab can analyze.

The lognormal distribution is appropriate for collections of parameters that divide up a fixed quantity using several criteria. The more "reasons" there are for division, the closer to a lognormal distribution the data will be, according to the logarithmic form of the Central Limit Theorem (CLT).

This repeats the US state information I plotted before, showing the goodness of fit within a lognormal model.

As I was thinking about this, I began to wonder why people choose to live in one place or another. In my own case, I made one choice based on the school I wanted for my graduate studies, and a few other moves based on job opportunities. One move was arranged to avoid a certain climate.

There are so many reasons, it is likely the CLT is well-satisfied. This does appear to be the case for these state and county data. I sought another level of analysis in order to see if I could tease out a few of the big factors.

This chart shows one factor and gives hints at one or two more. For each state, it plots average yearly rainfall horizontally and population density vertically. The state abbreviations help us discern part of what is going on.

With the exception of Alaska, there appears to be an upward-trending lower bound, anchored on the left by the cold, dry north-central states and on the lower right by the hot Gulf Coast states. The odd combination of NE, OR and ME fills in the middle. Moving upward from this line, I think I see two trends. One is that the states that were the original thirteen Colonies have high population densities, capped by New Jersey. Three states, CA, FL and HI, are "great climate" states. The remaining states tend to line up with warmth being an upward indicator, though there is lots of scatter.

This just scratches the surface of such an analysis. I suspect parameters such as the unemployment index and state taxation laws have their own influence; for example, I would expect Oregon to have a density closer to that of Delaware, as both have no sales tax, and they have similarly mild climates. Clearly, other factors come into play (like half of Oregon being mountainous and thus rather unlivable unless you are Jeremiah Johnson). For the moment, I've gone as far as I can without dragging together lots more data.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Maybe they really care

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals

The cynic says, "Yes, the lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep." Yet there is a story in which a young lioness cared for a young oryx for a week or two. As told in Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories From the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland, the lioness adopted the orphaned oryx and cared for it the way a pre-teen girl might care for any orphaned animal baby. The confused oryx accepted the mothering and even tried to suckle, though the cat had no milk.

In this case, the pairing could not go on for long. The lioness was not hunting, so neither animal was getting any nourishment. In fact, when watching people threw meat to her, she would ignore it. When another lion came along and ate the oryx, the lioness snapped out of it and accepted meat, then went back to hunting.

Everyone who has a houseful of pets of multiple species knows that dogs and cats can learn to get along. From time to time, quite unusual pairings and caring examples occur. In one of the stories in the book, when a dog became blinded by cataracts, the family cat began leading her around and watching out for her. The cat was quite solicitous, and very specific, ignoring the other dog in the house.

Most of the stories are about young animals, usually very young orphaned ones. Animals and birds have strong social needs, particularly when young, and will fulfill them in unusual was if the usual is not possible. Thus a lion cub and two caracal cubs (another kind of wild cat) played together as siblings until they grew up, a cage full of baby orangutans and tiger cubs happily played together during their infancies, and a just-hatched kookaburra and duckling kept each other company while they were little.

Many stories are about fostering, which stretches the bounds of friendship; I don't think my wife and son think of one another as friends, though they love one another. A number of fostering stories are of deliberate pairings on the part of zookeepers or game wardens or rescue workers, confronted with an orphan that needs care but having no mother of the same species who is willing or able to care for it. Thus the opening story of the book pairs a mature sheep (a male in this case) with an orphaned baby elephant. The sheep was a usually willing participant, while the elephant, being very needy, took all the comfort he could from their cohabitation. This pairing was undertaken after the staff had successfully paired sheep with a number of bereft baby rhinos.

More genuine friendships between adult animals of diverse species are less common, and the more awe-inspiring. In the book's second story, a black cat went into the enclosure where an Asiatic black bear was kept at the Berlin Zoo and befriended the bear. The cat comes and goes, but the two have spent plenty of time together for more than ten years already, and are visibly comforted by being together.

I don't know the story of this raccoon and skunk. It may be an accidental meeting in which both behaved well, or a longer-term pairing. Both are carnivores, and being of similar size, would find it wisest to treat each other well. Other longer-term pairings, such as a cat and a cockatoo or a donkey and a farm dog, occur in domestic settings.

Two quite unusual events, both short-term, involved SCUBA divers, one who was visited by a young manta and another who was probably the object of fostering when a half-ton leopard seal began "helping" him the way she would a seal calf. Both divers were enthralled by the attention of such different animals.

The stories are enjoyable reading, but it is the photos that make the book. Animals are clearly not the robotic eat-defecate-mate-sleep-repeat machines that some psychologists might insist. They have great social needs, and when circumstances get unusual, their social expressions can get unusual also. And it is not just mammals and birds; in one case a house cat and a large iguana paired up and seem to be getting along famously. Even lizards need love, it seems.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Valley Forge - a reminder

kw: history, historic sites

Valley Forge is less than an hour up the road. We visited today with several friends, a group of 14 all told. Most were not born in this country, so we did a lot of explaining about what the Continental Army was doing here in the winter of 1777-8, and why July 4, 1776 had been the beginning, not the end, of the war for independence.

The highlight for me was visiting the headquarters building that George Washington used over that winter. It is the building in the right half of the panorama below. Though he and a few officers were better housed than the soldiers under their command, the quarters were cramped and quite spartan. We have heard much of the sufferings of the soldiers at Valley Forge. Most of them were poorly supplied by their home colonies (not yet states), and subsisted by raiding supply trains meant for the British. Though no pitched battle was waged here, there were continual skirmishes all winter long, some triggered by supply raids, and others just probing of defenses. The army was actually fortunate that the winter was comparatively moderate, not the norm for the "Little Ice Age" that was just beginning to loose its grip but lasted until the 1840s.


An equally moving, but sadder view was the arch erected in 1901 to honor the men who suffered here.

This plaque inside the arch is particularly poignant, because the liberties for which these men fought are being eroded daily under the present administration. Will the coming generation look upon this plaque with reverence, awe and gratitude for the freedoms so sorely gained, or with puzzlement and incomprehension? For those who have trouble reading the photo:

And here in this place of sacrifice
In this vale of humiliation
In this valley of the shadow of that death
Out of which the life of America rose regenerate and free
Let us believe with an abiding faith
That to them Union will seem as dear
And Liberty as sweet and progress as glorious
As they were to our fathers
And are to you and me
And that the institutions which have made us happy
Preserved by the virtue of our children
Shall bless the remotest generation
Of the time to come [Henry Arnett Brown]

To which I say, "Amen!"

Friday, October 21, 2011

When they were a penny

kw: reminiscences, history, post cards

A friend directed me to the GenWeb Penny Post Card Archives, where I snagged a couple of images from my own past.

I spent half of my formative years in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. We visited the Capitol Building once.

Even earlier, I was born in Pasadena, California, and we lived in the area until I was about six. My wife and my brother and I visited the old City Hall just a couple of years ago. Still as beautiful as ever.

I remember penny post cards, but vaguely. I also remember when a regular letter was two cents, but about the time we moved to SLC the price went to three cents.

It may be radio, but is it active?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, physics, radioactivity, history

Click on this image to see the details more clearly. In ultra-brief form it embodies knowledge that led to a couple dozen Nobel prizes from 1901 to the 1930s.

In each small chart, the horizontal axis is the Proton number (the Atomic Number), Z, and the vertical axis is the Neutron number, N. Atomic Mass, A, is Z+N. Therefore, in the lower left Uranium Series, The starting point is U238: Z=92, N=146 and A=238.

A careful look reveals that three of the four series begin with or pass through a Uranium isotope, and all four begin with or pass through a Thorium isotope. All pass through at least Radium, Radon, Polonium, and Lead isotopes, as well as a few others. Three end at the stable isotopes of Lead, 206, 207 and 208, while the fourth ends at Thallium 205. In an alpha-beta decay scheme, one of those four isotopes must be the end result.

These are the end result. Where did we learn all this? That is the subject of Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science by Marjorie C. Malley. Beginning with the discovery of "Uranium rays" that affected photo emulsions in 1896, scientists labored to learn, step by step, of the different "rays" and "emanations" of uranium, thorium and their decay products, which were initially given names like "Uranium X" and "Mesothorium".

A marvelous feature of the book is to immerse us in the time, using the terms current as the discoveries were being made. As the various radioactive "rays" were discovered, there were periods of years during which, for example, the alpha "ray" was misunderstood because, while its bending by a magnet could not at first be discerned, it was stopped by paper, unlike the x-rays to which it was being compared. Eventually the trichotomy was discerned: alpha equals fast-moving He++, beta equals electron, and gamma equals extra-powerful x-ray. Then the fun began! If heavy atoms "radiated" by emitting helium, the helium particle (this was before the neutron was known) must be a building block of atomic nuclei. Only much later were protons and neutrons found.

Before isotopes were discerned (I hesitate to say, discovered), confusion reigned. We now know that "Radium" referred to Ra226, while Actinium X, Mesothorium I and Thorium X referred to other isotopes of Radium. They could not be chemically separated, and it was only by measuring the atomic mass of radioactively-produced substances that they could be told apart until the invention of the mass spectrograph in 1919.

Radioactivity discoveries helped elucidate quantum theory. For example, the energy of emitted alpha particles was related to total intensity, or inversely related to half life. For uranium, for example, we find that isotopes with half lives of a minute or a few minutes have alpha energies near 7MeV, half lives of a few days go with energies near 6MeV, half-lives of years to thousands of years go with energies near 5MeV, and half-lives in the millions- to billions of years imply alpha energies of 4.5 MeV or less. The phenomenon of quantum tunneling and exponential statistics, coupled with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, eventually explained such patterns.

Throughout the book, we learn of the persons who worked all this out, of their labors, theories, missteps and discoveries. Of course, the Curies are the most famous, and Roentgen and Becquerel and Rutherford not far behind. The roll call of famous pre-1920 physicists and chemists numbers in the dozens, and many received Nobel Prizes. Marie and Irène Curie stand out as the only mother and daughter to both receive a Nobel Prize, while the two William Braggs, father and son, received a joint Prize in 1915.

The dangers of handling radioactive materials were slow to be realized. Several persons induced radium burns in their skin, but longer-term effects went unknown for decades. As late as 1960 children touring uranium-producing facilities were given vials or capsules containing yellowcake, or pure U3O8. Both my mother and I received such souvenirs. In my case, I carried the capsule in my pocket for a few weeks before putting it in a dresser drawer. Later I gave it to a geology professor for use as a standard material in his radiation lab (by 1971 it was almost impossible to obtain uranium compounds). I don't know if carrying a strong gamma-emitter like that had anything to do with the cancer I had forty years later; it occurred at a location in my colon next to the pocket in which I carried the capsule at age 12.

By the time the Manhattan Project and similar European efforts were undertaken, the decay chains illustrated above were well known, and Radioactivity as a discipline had been subsumed into Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics. The focus of study turned to those few isotopes that could be stimulated to fission, the basis of nuclear power plants and atomic bombs. In the public mind these overshadow other advances such as nuclear medicine and radionuclide imaging and therapy, and even the tiny speck of an alpha-emitter in a smoke detector (It is a tiny enough amount that even if you dug it out and ate it, you'd suffer little harm).

We live in the post-Atomic age. Nuclear power plants are on the wane, particularly after a few melt-downs in recent years and the disaster last year in Japan. Yet much of modern life would be unthinkable without the discoveries of more than a century ago, when the understanding of how atoms worked was turned upside down, starting with a few pieces of photographic film fogged by proximity to uranium ore.

Last words of a tyrant

kw: world events, coups, assassinations

One way to spell his name is Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi. He was usually called Gaddafi or Kadhafi. Now he is dead, and the world breathes a sigh of relief. While some deplore that he was killed without a trial, can you imagine the circus that would have resulted from bringing him to trial?

It is reported that his last words were, "What did I ever do to you?" What appalling self-blindness! I can imagine him asking the same thing of the thousands who were killed at his order, or the tens of thousands who were tortured. He takes his place among the genuinely evil, alongside Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Ceauşescu and Amin.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fumblemouth strikes again (almost literally)

kw: politics, public figures

It's all over some of the news: Joe Biden stuck his finger in a reporter's chest and said, "Don't you screw with me." The reporter for Human Events had asked if he "regretted" the "rape" comment he made in a speech the prior day. At that time and since, good ol' Joe denied the comment, stood behind it, and managed to prevaricate, speaking out of at least three sides of his mouth. I didn't know he had it in him. He is definitely not known for clear speaking, but this is superlative!

About a quarter of news outlets are carrying the story. For the rest, it seems it never happened. Care to guess how the biases of these outlets pan out?

None of my Delaware friends is willing to talk about him any more. For decades, he has been considered a bit of a fumbling fool, but, as you might say, "He is our fool". It is no secret that he's also a bully, but he's been careful in the past to keep it out of the news. Well, it is still not in 3/4 of the news. At least a few remnants of a free press remain in this country.

Just by the way, the substance of what Joe was trying to get across in his speech was that the "jobs" in the "jobs bill" were not temporary. Just proves he hasn't read the bill. Every job explicitly promised by the bill is a one-year project with no follow-on promised. Pity the poor fool that believes anything Mr. Fumblemouth has to say.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mormon - so what?

kw: politics, faith

Much was made for a time at last evening's Republican candidates' debate about Mitt Romney's Mormon religion. In 1960 much was made of Jack Kennedy's Catholic religion. I think either point is moot. President Kennedy wasn't much of a Catholic. So far as I can find out, Candidate Romney is a serious Mormon. But what does that have to do with running the national executive office?

Sure, Evangelical Christians don't accept Mormons as Christians. I've lived in Salt Lake City—admittedly, before the age of 15—and spent time there since. To my observation, Mormons are about as "good" and "faithful" to their faith as Christians of more traditional stripe. It is who you are and what you do, not the church building you are found in on weekends, that determines your usefulness to society and fitness for high office.

I wonder what foofaraw people will raise the first time an avowed Muslim runs for President…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Things possible and impossible

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, cosmology

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." ——Alice in Wonderland.

Judging from The Universe Next Door: The Making of Tomorrow's Science by Marcus Chown, a great many physicists are accustomed to believing impossible things not just before breakfast, but all day and night. The strange thing is, some of these impossible things become not just possible, but the products of our technological society. Consider ultrasensitive magnetometers called SQUIDs, for Superconducting QUantum Interference Device. They depend on the ability of an electron to pass through two apertures simultaneously and interfere with itself. A tiny magnetic field biases how many electrons actually self-interfere and how many pass through just one aperture and thus fail to interfere, producing a signal boost.

Others remain stubbornly impossible. It is estimated that about one-third of the brain energy of cosmologists has been consumed with string theory for the past few decades, and to date, every "result" must be firmly labeled speculative. So far, not one testable hypothesis has emerged from the field.

Still others seem fantastic, but plausible upon reconsideration. The last chapter of the book, titled "Alien Garbage", discusses the proposal by Alexey Arkhipov that there could be a few thousand artifacts on earth that are "space junk" from alien civilizations. Consider: In 54 years of the "space age", we have produced tens of thousands of items in orbit, most of them pieces of satellites or debris from their launching, plus at least two large space probes deliberately sent beyond the confines of the solar system. Consider a century hence, at which time we might have begun to make use of the asteroid belt. Over time, we might convert some fraction of a percent of its mass into artifacts of all sizes. Some of these will inevitably be lost to interstellar space. Using a calculation similar to the Drake Equation used for SETI predictions, Dr. Arkhipov estimated that about 4,000 pieces of alien space junk could have found their way to the Earth's surface in the past few billion years, assuming aliens have been around that long. This is considered a reasonable estimate, and, remarkably, you'd have to reduce the estimate by a factor of a few thousand in an "unreasonably pessimistic" direction, to claim that there are one or fewer alien artifacts that could have impacted Earth.

In between, the author has gathered quite an entertaining variety of speculations about the nature of the universe (or universes), of reality itself, and of life. Can it be that every time a choice must be made, the universe splits into a sufficient number such that every possible choice actually occurs, somewhere? Think of how many decisions you make daily, and multiply by seven billion; or better, multiply by the half trillion or so vertebrate brains on the planet; or even better, multiply by every option a quantum is faced with each and every nanosecond, and split universes accordingly. Now there is an impossible thing to consume with your breakfast! And I contend that this speculation is, indeed, impossible in the very most literal sense of the word. This is a consequence of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, which states that a quantum event does not actually eventuate until an observation is made that "forces" the previously "mixed state" of the quantum or quanta involved to "choose" where to be and how fast to be moving. Such a "many-worlds" model is proposed as a way that all possible "choices" can be made simultaneously. A vastly simpler explanation is certain to arise.

At the other end of the scale, there is the existence of life itself. One life-bearing planet is proof that it is possible. But how likely? It is either very easy or very hard. Experiments in the lab have eliminated the easiest end of "very easy", but if you could carry on such experiments for a trifling million years or so, producing life might be found to be inevitable. Don't hold your breath. The blackness of the comets so far visited indicates that they are also likely places for living cells to arise (again, given a million years or so when they are still warm from creation and from medium-duration isotopes such as Al26).

Then there is the fifth dimension. I understand the special and general theories of relativity well enough to be comfortable that spacetime is a four-dimensional continuum, with the proviso that motion along the t dimension is not manipulable in any way other than by changing either velocity or gravitational potential. Can t be reversed, or can there be portions of space in which t is traversed in the opposite direction? Further, can there be yet another dimension of space, or multiple time dimensions? There is lots of speculation, but no data. By the way, the author does not denote terms for the directions along a fourth space direction. I suppose he is unaware that theorists use the terms ana and kata to correspond to "toward" and "away" along this extra dimension/direction.

While I enjoy reading about such speculations, I am equally amused that they get more than passing notice. It really is easier to believe in God than in many of these speculative cosmologies. Amazingly, there is a whole chapter titled "Was the Universe Created by Angels?", which re-introduces creationism, but relegates it so "superior" beings, who are less than "supreme". This just puts off the question by a step; how did the specially-tuned Universe in which these "superior" beings arose get created? Reminds me of the old Hindu who was asked "What is the Earth?" He stated, "The rounded back of a huge turtle." Asked what holds up the turtle, he said, "Four elephants." Asked if the elephants are standing on anything, he replied, "A larger turtle." OK, but what was the turtle on? Exasperated, he replied, "From there, it is turtles all the way down," and he walked away to forestall any further questions.

Any question of origins inevitably results in, if we are honest, "I don't know," and if we are more honest, "Probably, we can never know." So far as I know, Fred Hoyle has never reneged from his belief in continuous creation. He has his own explanations for various phenomena offered as "proof" of the "big bang." At least, his cosmology cannot be challenged by the question, "What was there before the beginning?" since it is without beginning. And perhaps that is the best place from which to think: Do not try to imagine a beginning, or a "before" state. Science firstly seeks to answer "What is, and what has happened?", then, "How do things happen?". To ask "Why" is not scientific, but theological, and as S.J. Gould suggested, is a different Magisterium, into which science simply cannot probe.

That won't stop scientists from speculating, of course. Nor should it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pie night

kw: cooking, recipes

I made an apple pie this afternoon, part of getting ready for a potluck lunch tomorrow. Our apple tree is bearing heavily this year, and its apples are just tart enough to make great pies. Second to good apples, the key to a great pie is the crust.

I learned how to make pies from the old (1967) Betty Crocker's Good-n-Easy Cookbook. Here is the recipe for a two-crust apple pie, as I make it.

(1) The filling
  • About six apples of a sweet-tart variety such as Jonathan, McIntosh, or Winesap. Enough that when cut up they measure 5-6 cups, loosely piled. If you use Delicious or another sweet-only variety, add a tsp of lemon juice when you mix the sugar with the apples below.
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2-3 Tbsp cornstarch
Peel, core and cut the apples into pieces not more than 1/2 inch thick (1.3 cm). Pile in a bowl. Mix the sugar, spice and starch well and pour over the apples. Set aside.

(2) The crusts
  • 1-3/4 cups flour
  • Half cup vegetable oil
  • 3 Tbsp cold water
  • 4 sheets wax paper, longer than the width
  • A ceramic, glass or metal pie dish that measures ten inches across the rim
Stir the oil into the flour with a fork until well mixed. Let it stand a minute or two then sprinkle the cold water over the mixture and stir again until well mixed. It should be easy to form into a ball. Split the ball into two.

Clean the tabletop. Wet with a nearly dripping wet dishrag and set a piece of wax paper, shiny side up, on the wet surface. Put one half the ball of dough on the paper and flatten a little with your hand. Top with a second piece of wax paper and roll it between them until it is a circle that just matches the width of the paper. Carefully strip off the upper wax paper. Lift the crust using the lower piece of wax paper and invert over the pie dish. Position the crust and peel the paper from the crust. Fit it into the dish so it overlaps all around. Fold up and raise the edge a little.

Now mix the apple-sugar-spice and pile into the crust in the pie dish. Set aside. I find it wise to put aluminum foil in the bottom of the oven to catch drips from the pie. Apple pies always drip. You can see three areas of overflow in the picture. Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Re-wet the table top. Roll out the second ball of dough like the first, strip off one paper, invert using the other piece of wax paper and position over the apples in the pie dish. Carefully strip off the wax paper. Seal all around the edge, either folding the top crust under the edge of the lower crust, or just smooshing them together. Flute if you like. Cut a few slits into the top crust for steam to escape. Otherwise the crust will balloon and burst. The apples will settle as they cook, so the crust needs to lower onto them.

(3) Cook and serve

Cook at 400 F on the middle rack for an hour. I check it at 50 minutes to see if the edge is getting too brown. The pie above is just exactly cooked right. A browner edge will have a burnt taste. The cook book specifies 425 F and using a curved strip of foil around the edge of the pie so it doesn't overcook. I've found a lower temperature and a full hour of cooking works best.

When you take out the pie, put it on a wooden board or pie rack to cool. It can be eaten in half an hour to an hour, once it is cooled enough not to burn the tongue. Hot, sugary apple juice is quite a bit hotter than boiling water!

Pie crust made with liquid oil is much tastier and flakier than crust made with lard or butter. Try it!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Brains of the sea, or dogs of the sea?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, whales, conservation

Diana Reiss is passionate about dolphins (AKA porpoises), and about toothed whales generally, and her passion makes it all the more enjoyable to read The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives. From time to time I have followed research on these small whales. Living in the Philadelphia area, the beaches that I can reach most easily are in southern New Jersey and Delaware. On many beach visits I have observed pods of porpoises passing by.

In the book, Dr. Reiss consistently uses the term Dolphin for these small toothed whales. I tend to prefer the term Porpoise, which is never applied to a fish, and I avoid Dolphin because of confusion with the dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi. However, the expected common name of the most familiar small whale is Bottlenose Dolphin, so I can go along with the author for the sake of this review.

Her premise is simple. The bulk of the book demonstrates that dolphins are unusually intelligent and that they share many characteristics that were once thought to be unique to humans, such as creating tools and toys, empathy and sympathy, and a theory of mind, even deception. Consider tools. How can a creature with no hands make a tool? It isn't easy, but it is possible. In areas with a coral bottom, rooting around in the bottom debris for fish that hide by self-burial is painful for a dolphin. Most of the dolphins in such an area get around this by breaking off a hollow sponge, and pushing the end of the snout (called the "rostrum") inside. They root around with the sponge, and when a fish flushes, quickly discard the sponge to snatch up the fish.

Then there are toys. Like all animals smarter than the average lizard (and maybe some of the lizards), dolphins play, even as adults. They play with the sponges when they've finished "fishing" with them, they play with shells and with floating debris, and they have been observed playing with bubble rings they blow with careful blasts from their blowholes.

They don't just make rings and watch them. They make multiple rings and manipulate them to merge or to pass through, a smaller through a larger. They drop a bit of fish or other debris into a ring, and the vortex will support it for a while.

In early experiments into creating a common language, Dr. Reiss built a simple keyboard with shapes the animals could easily discern, and created the association between one of the three keys and a bit of food, another with a toy, and the third with a rub or pat. The dolphins quickly learned, first, to come appropriately for one of these three things, and later to push the buttons to request one of them.

During training, when a dolphin acted inappropriately, such as by splashing, the trainer (usually the author) would give it a timeout by withdrawing or turning her back for a moment. After some days or weeks of training, she happened to offer a piece of food that one dolphin didn't like. The dolphin swam a short distance away then lifted half out of the water and looked at her; it gave her a timeout! Parents, if you use timeout with your kids, at what age will a kid who gets angry with you tell you that you need a timeout?

Then there is theory of mind. This is the researcher's term for a sense of self, and it is studied using a mirror. Your pet dog always thinks the image it sees in a mirror is a different dog. Dogs never recognize themselves. Great apes do recognize themselves, perhaps after several exposures to the mirror. Monkeys never do, but elephants and some birds do. So do dolphins and some larger whales.

This is first seen by a change of behavior. An animal (including very young humans) that thinks the image is a fellow being will first respond socially, perhaps by playing alongside, offering a toy, or trying to communicate. Once self-recognition occurs, things are quite different. Then it is a matter of turning this way and that, examining body parts not usually seen, and pirouetting while observing, "Boy, I look fine!" But scientists are reluctant to take this evidence as a sense of self. More is needed.

The Mark Test was devised to prove that chimps know they are looking at themselves. While playing with a chimp, or even under anesthesia, a mark is made, often on the forehead, using a harmless dye. When a marked chimp who is accustomed to mirrors sees his or her marked face, the response is immediate: touching the mark and even trying to rub it off.

How can an animal with no hands pass the Mark Test? Dolphins marked with waterproof dye react with clear surprise when they see it. In a few cases, a dolphin went to the side or bottom of the pool and rubbed the mark off against it, then returned to see that it was gone. Mission accomplished!

Just how intelligent are dolphins? This is still a very hard question. We can't yet communicate with them beyond the three or four keys on the keyboard the author used. We aren't ready to discuss whale philosophy or even ask how they structure their social groups. Many, many observed behaviors between dolphins indicate that they can communicate complex ideas, but we don't understand their whistled language…yes, I consider that they have genuine language.

A side note: once at Cape Henlopen, Delaware, a beach near Lewes, a pod of porpoises came by. I put my head underwater to listen to them. I could hear the clicks, creaks and rattles of their echolocation (sonar) as they used it to locate fish and obstacles. I could also hear whistles, swooping sounds and quite a variety of other noises they were making. It sure sounded like communication to me, particularly when similar sounds were made in different "voices", presumably by different animals.

So far the only "word" that Dr. Reiss has been able to clearly decode is the distress call made by a hurt dolphin. It is a descending glissando that sounds like the whistle of a bottle rocket. I find this ironic; dogs, cats and parrots at the very least have shown the ability to learn to understand dozens, even up to 200, human words. We've spent billions to learn three or four words of Dolphin. It would not surprise me if we one day find out that there are many dolphin languages, just as there are about 10,000 human languages.

Absent asking them, how do we determine how brainy they are? The Encephalization Quotient (EQ) is one estimate. A logarithmic formula is used to calculate how heavy the brain of any animal "ought" to be for its body mass. The ratio of actual brain to theoretical brain is the EQ. The human EQ ranges from 6.5 to nearly 8. Even a clinical imbecile with an IQ of 40 and a low EQ can learn to speak and converse. The datum for EQ is the house cat. Dogs, cats and horses all have an EQ near 1. Elephants, some birds, large whales and most monkeys come in near 2. Orcas and Chimps range to 3.5. Dolphins, and porpoises generally, have EQ's that range from 4.5 to 6. If dolphins had hands, would they show themselves brighter than chimpanzees? Probably.

Now we come to the crux of the book. We have established that dolphins are self aware and intelligent, and probably communicate with languages. How are we to treat them? Considering the history of contact between members of "advanced" and "primitive" civilizations, the prospect is not hopeful. Indeed, although we now do our best to buy only "dolphin safe" tuna, there are still places, such as Taiji, Japan, where pods of dolphins are herded into a bay and slaughtered like sheep. Or, I should say, worse than sheep, because we take care these days to kill a sheep quickly and humanely. The residents of Taiji and other places just go after them with knives and gaffs, and frequently eviscerate them before they have died. I refrained from adding a picture, because all the ones I found were simply too disturbing.

Dr. Reiss is passionate about ending the dolphin slaughter. If we can end, or nearly end, the slaughter of harp seals (with an EQ of 0.8), why not the second-most intelligent creature we know about?

Secondly, she is passionate about ending captivity for "performing" dolphins. In the US, at least, no wild-caught dolphins have been introduced to aquariums for about twenty years. Captive breeding ensures sufficient supply. The author thinks the number of captive whales ought to be allowed to reduce by attrition (as they die off, of age or disease), until none remain.

How, then, shall we continue doing research with dolphins? There are two facilities I know about where wild dolphins are encouraged to interact with researchers, yet spend most of their time going their own way. Research proceeds more slowly this way, but the dolphins are free collaborators, so the research results ought to be more robust and meaningful.

What is happening in captivity? It is little thought of, but what happens if a captive dolphin is, shall we say, refractory? Maybe a little too aggressive with "trainers", perhaps less cooperative. Such an animal is either released or euthanized. So we are selecting for tolerance and even affection for humans among our aquarium dolphins. Let us recall the fox studies in Russia. The researcher there selected for just one characteristic: tolerance for humans. Over just six generations, the foxes became a lot like dogs. Their ears got soft, their tails curled, and they began to bark and play more. Now it is a couple of dozen generations, and the Russian foxes are just dogs with pointy noses. We are producing dolphin dogs. They are to a wild dolphin as a dog is to a wolf. Possibly able to survive in a feral state, but much better adapted to life with human companions.

For this reason, I reckon the research we do on captive dolphins is being skewed as they become water dogs. Like it or not, we will soon need to conduct research in more open environments, collaborating with wild dolphins, to get any meaningful results at all. And I suspect that one of the first things we will learn about dolphin language is that each oceanic region will have its own language, or perhaps several. Language studies performed at Monterrey Bay may be completely meaningless when compared to work done in South Africa or in Spain.

If someone from a distant star system is watching us, what do they think of the way we treat the other brainy creatures around us? We have nearly extincted the Chimps. Killing off the dolphins would be harder, but we are certainly capable of doing so. I think if any animal can pass the mirror self-recognition test, it ought to be banned from the menu. There are plenty of dumber animals out there to eat, both on land and in the sea and air. Remember the old show titled "To Serve Man", where the handbook turned out to be a cookbook? If someone ever arms the whales, watch out!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Brainy

kw: observations, intelligence

This chart, available from many sources, shows the brain-versus-body size and the Encephalization Quotent (EQ) for a number vertebrates. These are averages, so you can imagine each dot to represent a small cloud of points. The bold line marked "Higher vertebrates" shows the trend for mammals and birds, while the one for "Lower vertebrates shows the trend for reptiles, amphibians and fish.

The bold lines have a slope of 2/3 (in logarithmic terms), and are the scaling axes for EQ as a rough measure of relative intelligence. The upper line is drawn such that a 4 kg house cat would fall on the line, and is defined as the EQ = 1.0 line. The lower line is the EQ = 0.1 line. By proportion, you can see that humans, whose dot is near top center, are somewhat less than EQ = 10, and in fact if you use the formula shown along the line, an average person would have an EQ of about 7 to 7.5.

Just to the right of that point, "Porpoise" represents the bottlenose dolphin, which has an EQ in the range 4-5, making it the "brainiest" sea creature. I read somewhere that an octopus, I don't know which species, has an EQ around 3 or 4, but their brain is so much differently organized than the vertebrate brain—for one thing, it is ring shaped—that the measure may not be a meaningful comparison.

I don't know whether EQ truly correlates well with "intelligence". For one thing, we don't yet have a good definition of intelligence. But it is known to correlate well with the amount of time young animals spend playing. Humans of all ages, dolphins of all ages, and the young of elephants, octopi, dogs, cats (and many adult dogs and cats), and many kinds of birds have been observed playing. Even mice play. I haven't read whether fish or reptiles play. Maybe somewhere around EQ = 0.25 is a threshold below which play is not found.

Apparently, somewhere near EQ = 0.05 is a threshold of the amount of brain needed to keep a vertebrate body from dying outright. A bigger brain than this has added abilities to modify the environment (such as by building a nest) and conduct social interactions. The more "extra" brain there is, the more capable such functions become. I suppose. I am still waiting for a more clear answer about the amount of brain, either absolute or relative to body size, needed to form a self-concept and self-consciousness. The early hints are that it is near EQ = 2, where Chimps are found. Once we learn more, lots more, about natural intelligence, I hope we'll also be able to produce machine intelligences, or at least to know what it would take (IBM's Watson is still a far cry from a robust machine intelligence, and it is a multi-million-dollar stack of computers and databases the size of a bedroom).

I suspect the threshold of language is near EQ = 3, maybe less, so our efforts to communicate with dolphins (so far with poor success) make it clear that, if SETI ever does detect the radio broadcasts of space alien civilizations, we'll be in for a long, long learning process to figure out how to understand what they are saying.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Human personal ecology

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biology, physiology, parasites, predators, symbiosis

Let's see, to be optimally healthy we need worms in our guts, germs on our skin (and inside also), and a better variety of foods to eat. In addition, our abilities including 3-color vision and startle reflexes, and our adrenaline flight-or-fight system, were honed by millions of years of being chased and eaten by predators large and small, and bitten by snakes.

The worm thing gets me. As Rob Dunn writes in The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, ingesting a dose of whipworm eggs, or contracting hookworm, three or four times yearly, can eliminate many "allergic" and "autoimmune" diseases such as Crohn's Disease. Humans and our ancestral primates, prior to the Twentieth Century, were universally infested with worms. Such diseases were unknown. In much of the world, most people are still full of parasitic worms, and don't get Crohn's Disease or a host of similar afflictions.

It seems to work like this: millions of years of byplay between worms and our immune system have resulted in a sort of draw. The worms trigger immune responses, but reply with "peacekeeper" molecules that calm down the immune response, thus allowing them to live in our bodies. The immune system is now used to having these peacekeeper molecules around, and overreacts when they are not, leading to allergic syndromes. I suppose if I had some really debilitating disease like Crohn's, I'd be willing to drink a worm cocktail, but the thought gives me the willies.

Then there are the germs. We are getting used to probiotics, which are germ cocktails, and yogurt with "active cultures", so we are just getting our feet wet, learning to manage our internal ecology. A chapter in the book addresses the appendix, which turns out to be a functioning organ. Millions of people have it removed every year, and seem to do well. But if you ever get Cholera, your appendix might save your life.

Cholera flushes nearly all the bacteria out of your intestines. If you can drink enough clean water while it is doing so, you'll live and come out the other side without the bacteria that produce about half the vitamins you need to survive. How will you repopulate your gut? Enter the appendix. It is filled with lymph tissue and a thick biofilm of essential symbiotic bacteria. After a bout of cholera or any other kind of heavy diarrhea, these stored bacteria repopulate the bowels and restore your internal ecology.

There are chapters about our fears and the predators that shaped them, and our color vision with its peculiar ability to detect a snake, and make you jump back, before your conscious mind notices it. The author asked his colleagues for stories about people they might know who'd been bitten by a venomous snake. To his surprise, about half of those colleagues had stories of their own. Among practicing biologists, with their worldwide travels (and tendency to pick up anything interesting), snakebite is a frequent occurrence! The reaction we have to snakes was determined when our ancestors were the size of housecats, or smaller. It takes learning to perceive a serpent as attractive.

And there is a long section about agriculture, with quite a different take on it than you'll find in most textbooks of ancient history. Rather than some triumph of ingenuity, agricultural practices, which arose many, many times and places (not just in Mesopotamia), were responses to food crises such as drought, famine or the exhausting of game reserves in an area. One group managed to subsist by drinking the milk of the Aurochs, the proto-cow; or, at least those who could tolerate the lactose in the milk survived and subsisted thereby. Others took advantage of one or another cereal grain and learned, from scratch, how to make some kind of bread, to replace whatever "gather" crop(s) had failed. Others sought out new root crops.

Imagine you live by fruits and a cold year comes along and freezes off the fruit before they are edible. You can roughly winnow barley by hand and eat it as is (I've done so). If you are an inefficient eater, and most are, some grains will scatter further from the stand of barley you found. The next year, the extra barley growing may not matter, but if several spring freezes in a row clobber the fruiting bushes, your little band of gatherers is likely to find barley is more reliable, and settle down to cultivate it. In addition to the "big four" (maize, wheat, rice and soy), there are dozens of sustenance crops worldwide, and each was probably first cultivated to stave off a food crisis. The foods that feed us well, and those that don't, will depend on which group out of several dozen or maybe several hundred, from which we are descended.

There is much more to the book. It is a fascinating read. Some of the things that might make our lives better may repel you, as the worms did me. But there is much to learn here. The kind of future we live in could well depend on those species that we welcome back into our lives.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Still rattled

kw: family events, deaths

I just got back from a week away, with my father, keeping watch with him while his second wife lay dying. She was only a few years older than I am, but was felled by squamous cell carcinoma of the bladder, which is quite rare, but is the second- or third-most aggressive cancer.

She first fell ill early this year, had surgery and chemotherapy, but just a few weeks ago a recurrence was discovered, already inoperable, plus "spots" in the lungs and elsewhere. She died this morning.

My first concern was my Dad, who lost his first wife, my mother, less than ten years ago, also to cancer. Now that he is in his late 80s, it is quite devastating to him. Various family members are kind of on rotation, taking care of him while he settles back down. That's really all I can say for now.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Would you choose the lash or the clink?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, prison reform

I truly don't know which I would choose. I have a strong aversion to pain. I also have a strong love of freedom. An attorney named Harvey Silverglate has written that Americans unknowingly commit three felonies per day. I'd have to read his book to figure out just how he is counting that. But let's assume that we do "break the law" from time to time, even the most upright or self-righteous among us, and a day comes that we are caught doing so. How will we fare? Very likely, not well at all. The laws are now written so tightly that police officers are required to make an arrest for any infraction. They ignore many infractions, otherwise they'd be constantly busy making arrests, which means our chances of being arrested are wholly arbitrary. But should that day come, and we are arrested, now what? What if the one arrested is not an amorphous "we" but you?

The prospect is not pretty. If the alleged offense for which you were brought in is at all serious, it could take a year for "the state" just to prepare to prosecute you. Just getting to an arraignment, at which you can plead Guilty or Not Guilty, can take weeks or months. During this time, if you cannot make bail, you will be jailed. Suppose you did do something illegal, even without realizing it at the time, but you know you did it, the police know it, and your guilt is clear. If you plead Guilty, now what? Most likely, more time incarcerated will follow, this time in a prison facility, not just the county jail.

Months or years later, you leave the prison, probably at 2AM, possibly having been transported to some standard drop-off point, with a "free" pass to two subway rides in your pocket and little else. If you are lucky, someone who cares about you will pick you up and whisk you away to continue your life. Unless you are very rich, though, you need a job. You'll never get back the job you had before. You'll never get a job nearly as good. Your income will probably be half what it was before if you do find a job. Big if; unemployment among convicted felons is about 50%.

The bottom line is this: A bad brush with the law and a bit of prison time are certain to shorten your life. You'll be poorer. You'll have worse medical care, or none at all that you can afford. You are now "known to the authorities" and are more likely to be arrested again for offenses such as "driving while ex-con".

Suppose there were an alternative. Upon your arrest, an advocate tells you, "If you want to try to beat this charge, go ahead. But if you know you did it, you have another choice. The typical sentence for conviction is five years. If you sign this form right here, you will instead be flogged, ten lashes. After that you will be free. No conviction or arrest record. No prison time. Return to your life, with a couple days off to heal until you can sit down. What do you say?" Indeed, what do you say?

This is the opening premise of In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. This is a thought experiment, with unsurprising results. Most people would answer, after some thought, that they'd prefer the quicker, painful choice. Among those who have experienced incarceration, nearly 100% would choose a few lashes over a return to prison.

The author is not proposing that we re-institute flogging, which was used in the U.S. as recently as 1957. He is instead trying to induce us to look unflinchingly at the "corrections" system we have, to see that it is irredeemably broken, and perhaps to convince us to change it.

Fact: Fifty years ago about a third of a million Americans were in prisons, or 100 per 100,000.

Fact: Today there are 2.3 million, or 750 per 100,000. This is the highest in the world, higher than China (180/100,000 including political prisoners), Cuba (530/100,000) or Iran (220). Cuba is fourth; second and third are Russia (630) and Rwanda (605). Is that the company we like to keep? Shouldn't we instead become more like Japan, with 60/100,000? Or the European nations, which average about 100? If we have 2.3 million in prison, why do we have such a huge murder rate? Didn't we already lock up all the murderers?

Actually, no. In America, because of "no snitch" culture in the more crime-ridden neighborhoods, most murderers are never caught. Most of the two million added since 1970 are the spinoffs of the War on Drugs and a series of "get tough" laws that have led to huge increases in incarceration for "nonviolent offenders".

The bulk of the book is an unblinking look at the origins, growth and failures of the prison system. Prisons don't rehabilitate. They punish. And they are institutions of advanced criminal theory and practice. Whenever state and local governments have to cut budgets, they tend to cut programs that might help ex-cons. When several prisoners were told it costs an average %46,000 yearly to keep one person imprisoned, they all said, "Hell, I'd go straight if I had even half that kind of income."

Hmmm. 2.3 million times $46,000 is $105.8 billion. There are about 40 million poor in the U.S. in some 15 million families. A hundred billion spread out to those 15 million families comes to $7,000 each. That would raise many of them above the "poverty line", and greatly help the rest. I wonder how many kids with no hope today would see some hope in that? Maybe a lot of them would not choose to be drug dealers, often the only "job" opening in poor neighborhoods.

The author, being a former policeman, doesn't discuss legalizing drugs, except for a sentence or two, but I see clearly that the war on drugs has done much more harm than good, just as Prohibition did 80 years ago. It is time to repeal the war on drugs. Expand the age limit on alcohol to be an age limit on all recreational substances, and impose taxes on their use as we do for alcoholic and nicotinic substances.

What if we released all nonviolent offenders and imposed different punishments for such offenses? We could close 2/3 or more of our prisons. There would be some social disruption, always a problem during a recession. So, re-educate former prison guards to be job training counselors for the former prisoners. (But choose carefully; some of the former guards are actually vicious, violent bastards who managed to channel their sadism into the quasilegal arena of prisoner abuse. They belong in the slimmed-down prison system along with the genuinely violent, evil people we will still need to incarcerate.)

Why do we need to incarcerate anybody? Some people are, simply put, evil and can never be allowed to circulate freely in society. I think of not just the murderers, but persons such as the evil pediatrician in Delaware to videotaped himself raping 3-year-old girls as they screamed and fought. He has at least 100 known victims. He must never be allowed human contact again; I would advise capital punishment for such crimes. Since that is unlikely, prison is the sad, but better, alternative, infinitely preferable to release. But why put a kid who is caught with a couple ounces of pot into the same prison? It makes no sense.

Prisons destroy lives. We use them to brush under the rug millions of people we don't want to deal with. Some lives need to be destroyed. The "best" countries demonstrate that the number is in the range of 60-80 per 100,000. That would be less than 250,000 in the U.S. Whether we re-institute flogging as an alternative to prison, we must change things so as to reduce our incarceration rate to 1/5 or 1/10 what it is today.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The other Leonardo

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, mathematicians

Three hundred years before Da Vinci, there was Pisano, Leonardo of Pisa, who lived from about 1175 to at least 1240. He became a legend in his own time, then was nearly forgotten except for a peculiar story about rabbits that became attached to his nickname. Through great struggles modern scholars have pieced together the depth and breadth of his influence, which led directly to the changeover throughout Europe from Roman Numerals and the cumbersome methods of calculation they required, to the Hindu-Arabic Digits, modern arithmetic, and algebraic methods that, once symbolic operations were devised to make them more easily understood, continued and advanced to the present day. Yet, because of a nickname based on a few instances in which he signed himself filis Bonacci, or "offspring of Bonacci", he is known today primarily as the originator of the Fibonacci Series, based on the multiplication of hypothetical rabbits.

The amazing biography of Leonardo of Pisa, The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution, by Keith Devlin, brings together in a rather small book everything we know about Leonardo, which is, surprisingly, rather little. Nearly everything known with certainty is based on a handful of statements he made about himself: how he was brought by his father to an African trade center, where he learned the Hindu-Arabic system, his travels to learn more from its expert practitioners, and his determination upon returning to Pisa to publicize the methods throughout Italy and beyond.

Much more is inferred from his works themselves: Liber Abbaci (frequently and wrongly spelled Liber Abaci) and De Practica Geometrie in particular. The former book, first released in 1202 and revised in 1228, brings together all the streams of number and calculation that he had researched and learned and devised on his own, into a scholarly text that is in itself a great education in arithmetic and basic algebra. The latter book did much the same for geometric methods. But it was Liber Abbaci that he himself revised into a simpler text (now lost), which was endlessly copied, frequently with some of the geometrical methods of the other book appended, and effected a revolution in, first, mercantile calculations, and later, mathematics in general.

A modern person conversant with algebra would find Liber Abaci to be tough sledding. I contains hundreds of examples, worked out for the reader, but every one is what we call a "word problem", and the solution is also in narrative format that takes a great deal of getting used to. It was not until a few generations after Leonardo's death that symbolic notation was developed into things like the dreaded 3x+4y=12, where in Leonardo's time one had to say, "Twelve are found of the first quantity tripled and four times the second quantity…", except I have used "quantity" to represent special words the mathematicians used for their unknowns. (Note: this is only half a problem. There would be a second set of quantities so one could use cancellation to solve the system.)

While such methods are cumbersome compared to modern algebra, they made things possible that were impossible with Roman numerals. Why, it is really quite difficult just to multiply XXVI by LIII (the answer is MCCCLXXVIII). The notion of putting a line above the I, V, X, L, C, D and M to multiply each by 1,000 came along centuries after Roman numerals fell out of use for everything except cornerstones, clock faces and movie credits. Thus, calculations that produced quantities greater than a few thousand were not attempted.

It was quite a feat of detective work that demonstrates how Leonardo was behind the revolution. Nearly half the book traces the threads that bind the story together. A great part of the problem was that there was little notion of plagiarism. It was commonplace for a new book to be written that consisted largely of extended quotes from other works, entirely without attribution. It is very rare to find a prior author mentioned or cited in a medieval manuscript. So Leonardo of Pisa was cited once or twice in his own lifetime, or just after, and no more than two or three times later, except for that persistent rabbit puzzle.

In case someone doesn't know this: Suppose you have a mated pair of young and fertile rabbits that can bear young once per month, and rabbits of age one month can mate for the first time, a month later to bear their own little rabbits. Suppose further that each litter is exactly two, a male and a female. How many rabbits, total, will you have after one, two, and up to thirty months? You start with 1 pair. A month later you have 2 pair, the original pair plus a newborn pair. The next month you have 3 pair: the original pair, the young pair now old enough to mate, and a pair of newborns from the original pair. And so it goes: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55,… each month's quantity is the sum of the prior two quantities. If you assume immortal rabbits, this goes on without end. This is the Fibonacci series, and I encourage those who find it a new thing to look it up. I'll not go into it here.

Today we live in a world of numbers. By the time we're grown, even if some of us "hated math", we find many kinds of simple calculations second nature. We check grocery receipts to make sure we got correct change; we can keep track of our own bowling scores; we buy gasoline and do a quick division to see how many miles per gallon we are getting. We are used to the numerals 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1, and would be practically crippled without them. It is not too much to say we owe more to this Leonardo, than to the better known one.