Thursday, August 28, 2014

A better collection I wish I'd found earlier

kw: book reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

Hmmm. I see that a week has passed. I typically finish a book quicker than that, but a 550+ page tome takes me a bit longer, even when I skip certain items. The 2014 Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses contains 70 pieces, just over half of them poetry. It was edited by Bill Henderson, who gives editorial credit to more than 200 others.

Solomon warned in Ecclesiastes, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." The wise old king would be astonished to find that the number of publishers today exceeds the number of books that existed in the 11th Century BCE. Indeed, it seems unlikely that one thousand books existed even ten centuries later, when his most famous descendant was preaching in Galilee.

Year by year I look for short story collections to be published. There are a great many, so perhaps it is not unusual that I did not earlier encounter the Pushcart collections. As I have written year after year, the quality of thought in Western literature has been on a long decline. It has gotten so I can barely tolerate five of the selections in my earlier favorite, the O. Henry Prize Stories series. This is not to say that writing skill is in decline. The collections all select skillfully written material. I frequently admire the way this or that writer can string words together, even as I deplore the item's vapidity and vacuity.

In general, I did not find this so with the Pushcart Prize volume. A welcome relief! That's why it took me a week to read. Bill Henderson and his collaborators not only gathered the most skillful writers, they found those with something to say. I reckon I read at least 400 of the nearly 560 pages of literature presented. I even read many of the poems. I am quite put off by most "free verse" (that is, non-verse), and seldom read past the first dozen lines or so. There is more genuine poetry in the best prose than in most of what passes for poetry these days. The free verse in this volume did not impress me.

Do you know the phrase, "It has no rhyme or reason"? The original proverb said "rhyme or rhythm". To break up overly-condensed prose into lines at about mid-page is not to produce poetry. It is usually to produce boredom. The only poem in this volume that has both rhyme and meter is a translation of Ballade des Pendus, originally written about 1462 by François Villon. The translation by Richard Wilbur is well crafted and very touching. While not as literal as other translations, I think it better renders Villon's thought into English idiom.

Now to the prose, the bulk of the volume, but less than half the chapters. Much is essay or reportage, and while I didn't enumerate the fiction pieces, as I recall there are about ten, and I read through half of them, including "Teen Culture" by Elizabeth Ellen. A woman and her daughter, spending time together with the daughter's friends: How can this turn out well? Somehow it does. Sort of. I've learned that, if I sit at a meal with a table of youngsters who know me, after a while I am forgotten and, as Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." This is the mom's MO, mostly, and makes for an entertaining story. I imagine it is more than a little autobiographical.

The nonfiction pieces are by their nature bits of memoir. You may remember Eric Fair, the much-reviled whistle-blower about the torture carried out by "contractors" in Middle Eastern prisons. His piece "Consequence" is flat reporting, interleaving bits of the hate mail he's received, and a few morsels of support, with his experiences at Princeton Theological Seminary. It isn't clear at the end if he finished his degree in ministry.

I made a more personal connection with "Writing & Publishing a Memoir: What the Hell Have I Done?" by Andre Dubus III. I've been urged by my brother, who has a few published books under his belt, to write an autobiography or memoir (or several), but I've hesitated. Mr. Dubus explains why. If you change names "to protect the guilty", somebody's going to recognize themselves and they may hate you for it. If you keep real names you can get sued for libel. Furthermore, I have tried longer forms of writing than these blog essays, and I find I have little endurance to maintain a story line for many pages. Even if it is my story. But another item seems to have the solution.

In "Corn Maze" by Pam Houston, we find that Pam likes things in twelves. Urged by a fellow writer to put 100 of her short pieces together as a book, she recalls thinking, "No, not a hundred, but possibly a hundred and forty-four." She also tells us that her standard answer when asked how much of her writing is autobiography is, "82%"…whether she's writing nonfiction or fiction. No matter. In a book of 300 pages, around 100 items comes out to about 3 pages each, and I think I can manage that.

Let's see. Of the 60 years I remember, I can surely come up with five or six or even seven things I'd like to record for each. When I like a book my blog post is about three pages, so I'm already tuned up to write at that level. Will it be a piece of cake? No. Some things I have to say will cause me to relive certain episodes of sturm und drang. Some folks will indeed wish I'd forgotten them. I can't let that hold me back.

There, you see, from at least one writer I learned something new about myself, something that will help me. This is why I read. The time spent getting partway through a piece and then possibly skipping the rest, time after time, is well invested when I can also come across such a gem. There's more, but I'll leave it to the lucky reader.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A burr under the PC blanket

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, sociology, behavior

To date, Nicholas Wade has written three seminal books, which I have read in reverse order. I first read his most recent, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which I reviewed July 30, then The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, reviewed August 12. Now I have in hand Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, published in 2006. His books in general criticize or expose academic mischief. These three take a more nuanced approach. While Wade is openly critical of the anti-recent-evolution stance of nearly all scientists who study human history and prehistory, he primarily presents data, draws logical conclusions, and engages the reader to think it through.

The premise underlying all three books is that human evolution continues apace. Anthropologists and others have from the beginning operated under the conceit that human evolution stopped about 50,000 years ago with the worldwide spread of "behaviorally modern humans", often called Cro-Magnon, but these days usually called Archaic Humans. This in spite of the facts that a typical archaic human was more heavily built than most moderns, and that the AH's were foragers (like chimps and bonobos are today), not even having the social organization of modern hunter-gatherers, let alone using settled dwellings. If there exist any AH's today, no matter how "behaviorally modern" they may be, they are probably being kept in prisons or hospitals for the criminally insane.

We are more gracile—having more slender bones and less muscle—than AH's. It took them, both in Africa and in the wider world a few hundred of them invaded around 50,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years to become hunter-gatherers, and another 5,000-10,000 years to begin to live in at least semi-permanent settlements. Only then, perhaps by accident, did cultivation of grains and domestication of certain animals produce an agricultural economy. I had not read before that people began to live in settlements several millennia before the agricultural revolution that began about 9,500 years ago. Only in the Americas was the order apparently reversed, with the domestication of maize preceding city-building, and that some 5,000 years later than in Eurasia and Africa.

Chapter 12, "Evolution", summarizes points made earlier in the book and adds a few pieces of evidence that we continue to evolve at about the same clip as large animals in general. These items include:

  • Defenses against malaria, including sickle cell anemia and thalassemia and a few other independently evolved modifications of hemoglobin, plus metabolic chain modifications such as G6PD, all of which evolved in the last 5,000 years or so.
  • The change from light skin, as in chimps and bonobos, to dark skin presumably came about when humans lost most hair hundreds of thousands of years ago. After a small group left Africa, most entered more northerly climes, and had less need for sun protection, plus in the most northerly, the need to make more vitamin D from what sun there was. This led to lighter skins. The situation is complicated by the last cold phases of the ice age between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago, when pale-skinned northerners would have been forced southward, only to return northward about the start of the Holocene, variously put somewhere around 10,000-11,500 years ago. The genes that favor pale skin in Eurasians are different from those in the Chinese and other East Asians.
  • Genes that affect brain size, one protective from microcephaly and another that affects the style of neural connections, arose 37,000 and 6,000 years ago, respectively.
  • Adult lactose tolerance arose about 5,000 years ago, in at least three different ways in different places.
  • Very few AH's got impacted wisdom teeth. Compare the situation today! The average modern male Euro-American lower jaw is a centimeter shorter than the average male AH lower jaw.

Such conclusions have led to criticism from academia. Curiously, having dipped into the literature some eight years after the fact, I find nearly no countering factual arguments, and mostly ad hominem attacks and circular reasoning. But things like malaria or light skin or wisdom teeth are one thing. The way we think and behave is sacred ground! Wade storms in where angels might fear to tread. But he is no fool.

It is becoming ever more clear that the human brain is no tabula rasa, on which culture can be written freely regardless of one's ancestry. Noam Chomsky and others have shown that infants have a "grammar engine" that enables them to learn language very easily. This definitely evolved well prior to 50,000 years ago, and improved communication may have been the salient factor that allowed a small band to invade eastward against probably opposition by Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. Other newly found innate skills are reported frequently. Wade contends that the modern ability to trust strangers rather than kill them on sight (or slink away to prepare an ambush) required genetic changes to our brains. Trusting was totally outside the scope of AH's. Trade is not seen between bands of apes, and is not yet universal among modern hunter gatherer tribes.

The mental adaptations needed to survive or thrive in settlements that have social order rather than total egalitarian organization are at least partly genetic. The puzzle to me is, wherever such mutations first arose, how did they spread throughout the human species? Wade mentions parallel, convergent evolution, but I am not so sure.

Bands of foragers and later, hunter gatherers, were and are so warlike that 30% of males die by the spear. That may work out to a yearly death rate due to fighting in the 1% range, but consider if the city of Philadelphia had a 1% murder rate: 15,000 per year (of half that if only males frequently kill). Compare that to around 200 yearly over the past decade. But a less murderous people are unlikely to spread into the territory of their violent cousins. This puzzle remains, but the modern fact of very low (comparative) violence.

The human species not only domesticated wolves, goats and other critters, they domesticated themselves. I am reminded of a scene from Demolition Man (1993), in which Wesley Snipes commits a bit of mayhem, and a dazed police officer says, "We're policemen. We aren't used to this level of violence". The actors other than Stallone and Snipes were chosen to be slender and inoffensive, as if they'd evolved further along the track of gracilization that has been going on for 50,000 years.

In a telling statement, Wade writes
There is no reason to suppose that human nature ceased to evolve at some finishing post in the distant past or to assume, as do some evolutionary psychologists, that people are struggling to function in modern societies with Stone Age minds. Genomes adapt to current circumstances or perish; the human genome is unlikely to be an exception. (p. 278)
I find a curious dichotomy in the past decade's debate over our failed nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most pundits predicted failure, stating that the region's peoples didn't think in terms favorable to American-style capitalism and representative democracy. "They are tribal peoples, it doesn't make sense to them." They were right. Some commentators even implied that peoples such as the Afghans can't think in these terms. Though this further implies that their brains work differently, they'd be aghast if this were pointed out. But if our genetics reflects our heritage, including adaptations to all of the past environment including culture, then it follows that the kinds of thoughts we are able to think is affected, if not delimited, by our ancestry.

Had Wade written only Before the Dawn he'd have been in sufficient hot water with academia. But he took Chapter 9, "Race", and part of Chapter 8, "Sociality", particularly the section on Evolution of Religion, and expanded them into the two later books. Now he is being attacked not only by evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists, but also the Civil Rights establishment—and the PC world in general—and many Christians (Jews, Moslems and most others mainly greeted The Faith Instinct with a yawn).

Face it, folks. There is no dichotomy between "man" and "nature". We are part of nature. We continue to evolve, both in body and in mind. Isn't it now a tenet of psychology that we are not body plus mind, but a body-mind, that the mind is a product of the body? The brain is part of the body, and evolves also. It must have required a significant change in how human brains work in order to allow people to settle down in communities larger than about 150, and a further, equally significant change to yield a 100-fold reduction in lethal violence over the past 20,000 years or so. Even the infamous Yanomamo of Brazil, murderous as they are, have a lower violent death rate than the typical group of AH's. Isn't that a good thing?

Is there a family anywhere that is composed of adoptees from radically different cultural heritages, but all were adopted as infants? This would constitute a small, natural experiment. To what extent would the infants, once grown to adolescence and adulthood, become comfortable in their adopted culture? I mean totally comfortable. Were such a family in suburban Minnesota, for example, would they all become productive taxpayers and voters? Would things such as the rule of law ("…a nation of laws and not of men.") make for them the kind of visceral sense it does to Euro-Americans? Maybe and maybe not. If Wade's thesis is correct, there would be a differing response to Western institutions depending on genetic heritage.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The modern shamans

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, alternative medicine

TMTOWTDI – There's more than one way to do it – is the mantra of computer programmers and engineers. It applies to most things in life. We can call this "Principle 1", or P1.

There are few ways to succeed but many ways to fail. Let's call this "Principle 2", or P2.

But, a big but, TOOBWTDI – There's only one best way to do it. The trouble is, folks disagree on that one way. I'd like to call this "Principle 3" (P3), and the caveat, "3a" (P3a).

Thus we come to that nice, stealthy word "alternative". If P1 applies, you have alternatives. Therefore, suppose someone complains to you of pain. Anything from a paper cut to diabetic neuropathy to bone cancer. What are the alternatives?

  1. OTC painkillers such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, or Naproxen.
  2. Prescription painkillers such as Hydrocodone, Morphine, or (in Europe) Heroin.
  3. The age-old remedy of a quart of whiskey.
  4. A stiff bonk on the head.
  5. Death.
All these have their uses and all have side effects. Alternative #1 helps only low-level pain. For #3, a second quart may be needed to induce total unconsciousness. #5 is unethical and usually illegal, unless you are Dr. Kevorkian. #4 is also unethical, and the ensuing concussion causes pain of its own later on.

Depending on whom you ask, there are further alternatives, including acupuncture and distraction such as the "laugh therapy" that helped Norm Cousins, and me, endure chemotherapy. There are also homeopathy, coffee enemas and other kinds of "detox" procedures, and a really incredible list of nostrums promoted by everyone from your Aunt Tillie to the quack-of-the-month using back-page ads.

In America and the West generally, doctors are no longer the knights in shining armor we imagined right after WW2. Like all science, medical knowledge grows by stages, so it is necessarily limited. We are a long way from Dr. McCoy and his Tricorder, curing almost anything putting the Tricorder next to someone's forehead or over their chest and calling their name. When a doctor must admit helplessness, patients don't like it. Particularly the Boomer generation. This pampered, overindulged, self-indulgent generation simply won't take NO for an answer, so they look for "alternatives".

Practitioners of "Alternative Medicine" have stepped into the gap. In fact, they have opened the gap and driven through in a locomotive. They rely on P1 and say they have P3, but there are so many different ones, we come up against P3a. Thus the new book by Paul A. Offit, MD: Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. He doesn't start with a definition, but gets there eventually, so I'll save you the suspense:
If a medical treatment is effective it is Medicine. If a so-called alternative—something not being done by MD's—is effective, it is also Medicine. If it is not effective, it is not medicine, alternative or otherwise. Thus there is no "alternative medicine". If it works, it is medicine.
Do note that the book's subtitle says, "Sense and Nonsense". In Chapter 4, "Fifty-One Thousand New Supplements", a number of popular treatments are discussed:
  • Ginkgo for dementia.
  • St. John's Wort for depression.
  • Garlic to lower cholesterol.
  • Saw Palmetto for enlarged prostate.
  • Milk Thistle for liver problems.
  • †Chondroitin and Glucosamine for joint pain.
  • Echinacea for colds.
† I take these, and I'll discuss it a bit later.

None of these 7 is effective. All have been tested and none stood up. Four more items were mentioned that do have some benefit:
  • Omega-3 supplements do improve heart and vascular health, and perhaps brain health. However, too much is not better, and can lead to prolonged bleeding from minor injuries, or even stroke. (†I have to find out how much "too much" is).
  • Calcium for bone health in older women, and probably older men.
  • Vitamin D (specifically D3) works with Calcium for bone health. Here also, too much is harmful, more than 3,000 units or so.
  • Folic Acid (Vitamin B9) prevents many birth defects during pregnancy.
Medical testing is either A-B or A-P. An A-B test compares a new substance "A" against the standard substance "B". For example, a new painkiller might be tested against aspirin if its target use is headaches or sprain soreness, or against morphine if its target use is postoperative pain or terminal cancer pain management. A-P tests compare a substance to a placebo, a "sugar pill". This brings up an interesting matter, discussed in Chapter 11, "The Remarkably Powerful, Highly Underrated Placebo Response".

Placebos! The name comes from a Latin phrase meaning "I please you". Doctors and their shamanic forebears have been handing out pills or potions "to please the patient" for at least 5,000 years. They well know that if a doctor at least does something, a patient will feel better for that reason alone. This was thought to be a purely psychological trick until endorphins were discovered. The first endorphin was so named because it was called "endogenous morphine". These chemicals, produced in the brain, bind to receptors that reduce the feeling of pain, and can nearly eliminate it. Morphine binds to the same receptor, hence it reduces pain.

If you trust and like your doctor, being given a pill will in itself prime you for an endorphin release whenever you take the pill, and it will reduce pain, sometimes by quite a lot. Thus, to say that this or that "alternative remedy" is no better than a placebo can mean one of two things. Firstly, it may simply be another placebo, one that may have been a little more complicated to make than the standard coated sugar pill. Secondly, it may actually be effective, whether or not the placebo response is involved.

Medical test results are stated in a form such as "Caused a 50% reduction in symptoms for 75% of patients." If it is being compared to a placebo, and it is further stated, "…no more effective than the placebo", that means for the condition being tested (Migraine, perhaps), a placebo also had a significant effect for 75%, and not for the other 25%. At the risk of doubling testing costs, and they are already staggeringly high!, I'd recommend an A-P-P-A test, where during a second period of time, the patients were switched, and the differences noted for each patient. Then you focus on those patients who did not respond to the placebo, but did respond to the test substance. You may have found something that is genuinely effective for some 25% of the population, and it may be worth finding out why these but not the others were helped.

Not everyone is the same. Optometrists have always known this. My glasses would not work for your eyes. In Optometry, nearly every prescription differs from the others. (Actually, given the granularity in correction parameters, there are probably only about 50,000 unique eyeglass prescriptions, per eye.)

†So now I'll tell you why I still take Glucosamine and Chondroitin. I had a rotator cuff injury nearly 25 years ago. This runs in my family. My father has had both cuffs put back together with nylon straps. I decided to avoid surgery, and just babied the shoulder. Within a few months it was mostly better, but a lingering soreness remained for about 10 years. Then I began to take G+C. The response was slow. After 3 months the soreness began to get better and after a year it was much better. I tried stopping the supplement, and soreness began to return, so I returned to using it, and still do. I judge that is much too slow to be a classic placebo response. Something is doing me good.

Now for the other † symbol. I take a lot of Omega-3 supplement. Years ago a doctor prescribed Lovaza, and recommended I take at least 2 pills daily, primarily for heart health. I have very low cholesterol, around 120 for total, but also very low HDL, typically about 32. The doctor had first prescribed Tricor to raise HDL, and after a couple of years, it reached 38. I also gained 20 pounds in those years. He wanted me to reach an HDL of 40 at the very least, and 50 if possible (my wife's HDL is 60). One better thing the Tricor had done was lower my blood fats from 300 to below 150. So, the Lovaza is supposed to to keep them down also. It did, but it is very expensive. I found that I could get the same DHA and EPA found in 2 Lovaza pills by taking 5 of the 1.2g pills from Walgreen's or BJ's. That is what I do. It costs a lot less, and I don't mind occasional fishy aftertaste. Also, after I stopped taking Tricor I lost 15 pounds.

By the way, I was briefly involved with a project at DuPont to produce EPA from yeast. They market the stuff now. I'm waiting for a similar supplement for DHA. Anyway, they had some highly purified EPA. It has a strong fishy smell all by itself. If you're taking Omega-3 supplements that include EPA (and they'd better, it is the truly essential one), the fishy smell can't be removed, no matter what the manufacturer says. And if they put an "enteric coating" on it so it won't dissolve in the stomach, the pill is very likely to run right through your system unchanged, and you'll see it after a bowel movement, if you care to look. I use pills without special coatings, just ordinary gelatin. Five per day, or 6 grams.

I've skipped over a lot that the book discusses. There is a very enlightening history of quackery and medicine growing together in America. Then the history of regulation including creation of the FDA shows how certain loopholes have been built into the laws because of intense lobbying by people who make a killing from "alternative" treatments. As I wrote above, medicine is medicine, and if something is effective, doctors ought to use it. If it is not, they ought to say why.

All this quackery goes on because people won't accept limits to our knowledge. The medical profession is a work in progress. I am alive today because of 21st Century medicine, including being poisoned with 5FU, a nerve gas from WW1 that happens to be a great chemotherapy agent against colon cancer. And, in my experience, 5FU is the most effective anti-depressant I've ever had (I don't take any AD's now, but I've tried a few). By the way, if you're ever tempted to use Laetrile, the effective agent, if there is one, is the cyanide found in the pits of all stone fruits and in other fruit seeds also. When I eat an apple, core and all, chewing the seeds, I get a bit of cyanide. There is more to "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" than just the anti-constipation properties of apple peel! But Laetrile is concentrated to the point that many folks who take it are damaged by the larger amount of cyanide. You'd do better and be safer eating a peach or apricot, cracking open the seed (use pliers not your teeth), and eating the soft pit inside. No more than one or two per day! But really, if you have cancer, see an oncologist. They aren't out to purposely harm you, really truly!

Dr. Offit's presentation is the most balanced and clear I've seen. His approach is common-sense and sensible. Whether the person who recommends a nostrum is a doctor, a "practitioner" of some alternative or other, or your cousin Joe, ask, "How do you know?" They need to know because you need to know. Had this book cited a study showing harm caused by the G+C I'm taking, I'd stop using them. We all ought to remember that MD's and DO's at least take the Hippocratic Oath, and promise to "do no harm." The purveyors of "alternatives" have not taken that oath.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Genetic religion?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, religion, faith, sociology

After reading Nicholas Wade's most recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, two weeks ago, I decided to read a couple of his earlier books. The first to come to hand is The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, published in 2009. I have quite mixed feelings about the former book, and as an ardent Christian, I find this book even more unsettling, but I expected that. Regardless, it discusses matters of which we dare not be ignorant.

When I was very young, I recall my mother saying that the beginning of the second verse in Genesis wasn't connected to the end of the first verse, leaving a gap for geology to happen. She was a rock hound, and knew enough geology to understand that the Earth must be much, much older than the 6,000 years deduced by Ussher and others from adding up the "begats" in the Old Testament. I've done a similar exercise out of curiosity, and it is rather tricky to string the right genealogies together. Interestingly, Paul wrote that we shouldn't waste time studying "endless genealogies" (1 Tim 1:4, and a similar statement in Titus 3:9). I reckon he was on to something.

Thus, I have long held that the Bible is not intended as a text in natural history. As Cardinal Baronius said to Galileo, "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." But even among Christians who accept the conclusions of science, and biology in particular, and even if they accept evolution, they are uncomfortable with human evolution. Even more so, that the brain continues to evolve, and rare is the scholar of Humanities or Anthropology who willingly accepts that some proportion of human behavior is genetic. Theist or atheist, scholars almost uniformly deny that any substantial level of evolution is now going on, particularly as relates to human behavior.

Our deepest and most powerful impulses are the spiritual. Gospel preachers sometimes say that no animal has religion, "only we do". They say you never find a dog worshiping—to which some wags respond, dogs don't believe in supernatural gods because they live with their gods: Us. Every culture and every civilization has a characteristic religious practice. In The Faith Instinct, Wade traces the genetic tendency to practice religion to something that must have developed prior to the expansion of physically modern humans out of Africa some 50,000 years ago (most anthropologists would say, 70,000). This is because religious practice is universal.

Sure, among the most affluent nations we find rising numbers of atheists and agnostics, and in the last 2-3 generations a growing level of "evangelical atheism" (I find it laughable that these "hot" atheists are so extremely religious in their atheism! They are as touchy and insecure as the most priggish Puritan.). Less affluent countries don't have atheists. If only for naturalistic reasons, when life is bad, people need something beyond themselves to keep going on going on.

The basic thesis is simple. Early human groups endured frequent warfare (there never were any "noble savages). Groups of early people who danced and sang together were more socially cohesive, and more likely to win the next battle. We see in tribal groups today pre-battle dances. I liken them to pre-game pep rallies at schools and colleges. People who think they are so sophisticated go to an arena for a ball game and behave like a warrior tribe roaring themselves into a frenzy. The post-game rioting and looting that sometimes occur stand in for the battles among tribal folk.

Social cohesion may not be enough to regulate an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society between battles. Revered ancestors that morphed over time into various kinds of gods provided a supernatural check on misbehavior. If you think a god is watching, you are less likely to sin. This instinct is so ingrained that many stores take advantage of it by having lots of mirrors on the walls, and pictures of smiling faces in places you might not expect, such as in or near changing rooms in the clothing department. Experiments have shown that just having pictures showing eyes near the communal coffee urn in an office break room reduces the amount of coffee taken without plunking the expected couple of quarters into the nearby jar. Such an instinct would favor a group that didn't have to kill so many miscreants, because most people were behaving well due to fear of the gods.

Where did the modern, more cerebral religions of the developed world come from? Wade writes that agriculture and village life, then city life, required something different from tribal dance- and song-fests. Just as an economic hierarchy developed to regulate trade and distribution of goods, so a religious hierarchy developed, a priesthood that gradually monopolized religious practice. The development of writing that paralleled agriculture also facilitated religion, allowing the commandments and rituals to be codified.

Near the end of the book, Wade discusses the work of Samuel Huntington, who wrote articles and a book titled The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington identifies seven world civilizations of the present day:
  • Western, including Europe and the USA
  • Confucian, in China
  • Japanese, though some would argue Japan is merging into the West
  • Islamic
  • Hindu, in India primarily
  • Slavic-Orthodox, in Russia and parts of former SSR's
  • Latin America
Huntington wrote, "The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations." (I contend that WW3 began in 1992, and is sort of sputtering along at present.) Huntington analyzed these seven, and for Western civilization he lists eight defining characteristics:
  • Greek and Roman legacy
  • Western Christianity in two branches, Roman Catholic and Protestant
  • Languages derived from Latin, German and Greek
  • Separation of church and state
  • Rule of law
  • Social pluralism
  • Representative governing bodies
  • Tradition of individual rights and liberties
(These lists are on page 272) Why, in particular, do the Russians seem so similar to Westerners, yet are so at odds with the West (particularly with Putin in charge, but don't blame it all on him)? Of these 8, only a deep historical legacy is familiar, but theirs came through Byzantium, not Rome and Athens. Their Orthodox religion has been split, most vehemently, from Roman Catholicism for over 950 years. Then there is Islam, for which the church IS the state, and shar'ia law is considered divinely inspired, not legislated; they have none of the other 7 characteristics either.

Here Wade enters into deeper waters than just religions and their differences. To belong to a civilization is to have a certain kind of identity. One's comfort or discomfort with one's civilization affects one's progeny, and thus is a factor in natural selection. These matters led to the later book I refer to above.

How is a Christian to think of all this? Is there a genuine God? Is the Old Testament really the cobbled-together scheming of a self-appointed priesthood among the Hebrews in Babylon? Wade refers to this conclusion of the "higher critics" of the early 1800s rather uncritically. Most of their "findings" have since been discredited. For example, in the 1820s they could disparage references to the Hittites, but a generation later, the Hittites were found to be real. These critics claimed that the Hebrews didn't conquer Canaan, but were home-grown in Canaan. Yet there are historical records of somebody coming to Egypt for a couple of generations, then leaving under mysterious circumstances. The Egyptians themselves destroyed most records of the matter, possibly from embarrassment.

And is the New Testament as late-dated as higher critics suppose? For example, were the first 3 Gospels written before or after 70AD? Christian scholarship places Mark first, as a collection of Peter's sermons, released before 60AD, then both Matthew and Luke just a few years later. Only John came after 70AD, possibly as late as 95AD. And was the theology attributed to Paul a distortion of the message of Jesus? He could not have been warmly received by the church in Jerusalem if that were so. His differences with James were not about Jesus's message, but about whether a Jew should continue to practice the Jewish religion after converting to Christ.

To a Christian, the choice is stark. Either the Bible is divinely inspired, or it is nonsense. Evidence of editing is no problem: copyists make errors, and God can guide a later scribe to reverse the error. The Spirit's inspiration took place at many levels. Certain sentences uttered by Satan are included, one chapter of Daniel was written by Nebuchadnezzar, and the whole book of Ecclesiastes is the maundering of an aging Solomon in a time of deep depression. In particular, it is not wise to use any verse of Ecclesiastes as a proof text. You have to compare it to Song of Songs to see why God allowed it into His Word.

To a Christian who understands and accepts evolution, human life and nature show traces of divine intervention, even in our genetics. Why should God not intervene in a delicate way, to steer human development towards His own ends? No matter how many books are written on the subject, atheists will say man created gods in our image, and theists will say the gods or God made us in the divine image. Faith is deeper than just religious practice. It really depends, do you believe what you believe because of what you were taught to practice, or do you do what you do because of your faith?

Nicholas Wade takes a relentlessly biological view of human affairs. For that, he does a great service. Like it or not, he reaches logical conclusions from the available evidence.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

I am almost ready to hire this guy

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investing, retirement planning

Ric Edelman is heard on the local radio station, sometimes advertising and sometimes hosting a talk show about investing. His advice and approach seem sensible to me, so I was glad to run across his book The Truth About Retirement Plans and IRAs. His advice compares well with that from Peter Lynch in a book he wrote just after retiring from managing the Magellan Fund. Both make the point that long-term, stocks perform better than any other investment (except perhaps high-end real estate, if you have billions to invest).

Based on the Lynch book, I invested heavily in stock funds while I had a 401(k) available, then reallocated as I neared retirement. It turns out, I'd have done the same had this book been available 30 years ago! The difference is, Ric Edelman advises investing in everything available to the small investor. Here is an asset allocation model generated by the "GPS" tool at

Count 'em up: 18 asset classes, plus Cash. I ran the tool several times, for both myself and my father, in his 90s. This model is for someone about 10 years before retirement with a pretty good tolerance for risk. If you add the international bonds to the "International" category, which is for stocks, global exposure is 18%, a surprisingly aggressive stance. And although he mentions gold or precious metals a few times in passing, I see none in this model, nor any discussion in the book. I suspect that is due to their double risk: gold went from $1,800/ozT a couple of years ago to $1,200 early this year, and is creeping back up at best. In real terms gold has yet to reach values it had during the Reagan presidency. Such fluctuations are risk type 1. The second type of risk is, you either pay for a custodian to guard it, or you take custody and risk being robbed. If anyone is paying attention (someone usually is), you are vulnerable when it is in your possession, before you get to your safe deposit box.

Back to the model. Non-bond non-cash totals 65%, about right for someone about 55. There is a joke hidden in the GPS. To answer one question, you have to choose one of 5 levels of risk, from zero to a scary graphic of zigging up and zagging down. If you choose the zero-risk tab, you are admonished that risk is never zero, and if you really have no tolerance for risk, you're on the wrong planet (that's how I'd word it; Edelman's webmaster is more tactful). So there are really 4 levels of risk tolerance. Then there is another question that evaluates the same trait in a different way, a few about objectives, your age and how much you'll be allocating, and you get your model.

The book has three parts. The first 7 chapters discuss retirement plans in all their variety, with frequent exhortations to take full advantage of any plan you're offered. In fact, if you don't at least have a 401(k) with some amount of company matching (AKA free money), he recommends changing employers. Of course it is also a good idea to fund your IRA every year also. Chapter 5 is titled "How to Save for Retirement When You Think You Can't Afford it". In a sidebar he mentions a study that found people making less than $13,000/yr spend about 9% of their income on lottery tickets. That's more than $90/month. For everyone who didn't win the lottery, it is lost money. If you have a way to put $90 into a passive stock fund, that is, an index fund tied to S&P 500 for example, after 40 years you'll have invested more than $43,000 and it'll be worth $200,000 to $300,000. That is the slow way to win the lottery!

He writes a lot about compound earnings. A halfway decent bond fund earns 4%/yr. Depending on market fluctuation, the index stock fund will gain 7%-10%. Let's pick 7% to be conservative. The first $90 you invest will grow to $1,350 in 40 years. Ninety dollars invested for 20 years will grow to $348. Each $90 investment grows for a different period, but they all add up to more than $260,000 over the total 40 years. Compare that to the lottery. One in 1,000 tickets wins a few hundred bucks in a "pick 3", one in 10,000 wins a few thousand dollars in a "pick 4", and one ticket in 100 million (or more) wins the millions at Powerball or a similar game. Everyone else has simply put a few bucks into a piece of paper they can throw away. This is why the lottery is called "a tax on people who can't do math."

The second section of the book consists of 5 chapters that discuss all the investment options (but as I wrote above, precious metals are not discussed only mentioned in passing). The 18 asset classes in the GPS model are all mutual funds or ETF's. Edelman doesn't recommend buying individual stocks or directly owning T-bills or other bonds. He has unearthed a marvelous principle for picking a fund: go for the lowest Expense Ratio, and of course, one with no "loads" (A load is the commission paid to the broker who sells you the fund. It is typically 4%, and some funds add another load when you sell, though it is a lower percent). The expense ratio is a management fee for choosing and trading the stocks or bonds or whatever. A study by Morningstar found that the performance of a mutual fund was better, the lower its expense ratio. Actively managed stock funds have ER's of 1% or more, averaging 1.4%. Bond funds may be lower, but usually exceed 0.7%. If a stock fund's basic performance is 8%, but you pay the manager 1.4%, your real performance is 6.6%. A passively managed (index) fund typically has an ER of 0.15% or less. One of those I own is at 0.05%. That is because these are easy to manage, and the fund company doesn't have to hire a highly-hyped "power manager". And they perform better. Even if my fund were to earn "only" 7.5% (it earns more), if I only pay 0.05%, the rest, 7.45%, is mine, and grows compounded!

Ah, compounding. It has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Over 40 years, $1,000 that earns 6.6% will become $12,891. But at 7.45%, it will become $17,711. That active, "higher returns" fund actually costs $4,820 per $1,000 you originally invested!!

OK, once you get to the third section, you have the meat of the book, 14 "best way" chapters that cover every situation leading up to retirement, living in retirement, how to (financially) handle life events such as divorce, and the best way to care for your heirs, should you see fit to leave something for them. I touched on a few items he covers in the discussion above, so I won't belabor. The 14 "best ways" are truly comprehensive, and of course, he advises seeking his services to get into more detail about your particular situation.

If you have no other book of such advice, or even if you have several, be sure to get this one and read it all. Even if you think you know everything in the first two parts, read them anyway, for the grounding, and to get used to the author's writing style: breezy, cheerful, and relentlessly right on the money!

Friday, August 01, 2014

The quest to know the unknowable

kw: book reviews, mysteries, history, conspiracies

A certain style of "documentary", be it in video or print, is exemplified by NASA's Unexplained Files on the Science Channel. The commentator gravely reports a series of observations and raises questions, interspersed with comments in sound bites from various scientists and other investigators. I'll give them a little credit: sometimes the last word goes to someone with a credible explanation that mostly removes excessive mystery. But we are usually left with a series of possibly unrelated facts and suppositions, all intended to indicate alien involvement.

I took up Brad Meltzer's latest book with a bit of trepidation, expecting something similar, but I was intrigued. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, written with Keith Ferrell. Barring the first chapter, the reporting is balanced and the author offers a common-sense appraisal of the evidence. I haven't seen the show Brad Meltzer's Decoded on the History Channel, but it might be worth a look.

The book starts with a chapter about John Wilkes Booth, and whether he actually survived into the early 1900s after a look-alike was killed by Union soldiers. This story has more bizarre twists than Byzantine history, and ends with a mummy that might have been Booth, put on display for a few decades, then disappearing in the 1970s.

The last chapter is a separate top-10 rundown regarding the assassination of John Kennedy. It must have been hard to pick 10 items to cover. A quick look in Amazon shows nearly 8,000 books on the subject, with a current publication rate of about one new book every day. If you read as fast as I do, you'd have to spend 3-4 hours daily just to read the newest books as fast as they are printed! If someone has a comprehensive "Kennedy Assassination" library, just the books cost about a quarter million dollars. The chapter closes with an insightful comment that what this all primarily reveals is the depth of our anxieties.

That is true of conspiracies in general. You know the sacrilegious joke on Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil…because I'm the toughest, meanest SOB in the valley." Unless you are Rambo, a certain amount of paranoia is justified, because "everybody" may not be out to get you, but there is a good chance that somebody is! Particularly now that thousands of new computer viruses appear weekly and the hard-core crackers have hardware that can decode 350 billion passwords every second. It is amazing that most of us are still sane. Our biggest fear? An amorphous "THEY", a combination of "The Government" (all governments from a town council right up to the Fed) and "Big Business", including the company you work for. Even Google, with its slogan "Don't Be Evil" is suspected these days.

The ten subjects of the book:

  • John Wilkes Booth's possible survival
  • Confederate gold "mislaid" in 1865
  • The Georgia Guidestones: warning or threat?
  • Who was Dan Cooper (AKA DB Cooper)?
  • The missing cornerstones of the White House and the Capitol Building (spoiler: The author thinks they are in place, with later construction concealing them from view)
  • The spear that pierced Jesus; any of 3
  • Was Leonardo Da Vinci a prophet?
  • Does any gold remain in Fort Knox?
  • UFO's, Roswell, and Area 51
  • JFK Assassination: is there truth among the hype?
They are numbered in countdown order, from 10 to 1. Each chapter includes a dossier of replica documents intended to lend credence to the discussion.

Number 8 intrigues me. The Georgia Guidestones are a small Stonehenge bearing inscriptions in 8 languages, built in 1980 at a cost of a half million dollars. The first of ten statements is "Maintain humanity under 500 million in perpetual balance with nature." The rest are comparatively innocuous.

This map shows areas that will be "safe" in an expected cataclysm. Atlanta, Georgia is in the middle of the eastern safe zone. The map legend states that the purple areas will mostly be submerged. They happen to contain about 80% of America's population. When one finds out that the stones were designed and paid for by a Rosicrucian, people's antennae go up. The "500 million" statement is considered a threat. But to me (the author doesn't mention it this way), the word "maintain" is the key: after the disaster, the population of Earth will be half a billion or less, and people would do well to maintain it at that level.

Most of the chapter explores what the author and his team can find out about Rosicrucians. You'll still see advertisements touting "secret knowledge" in the backs of some cheap magazines, and that's about all most people know. As it happens, there is little to know. People like secrets, and some are drawn to "secret societies" such as the Freemasons or the Rose-and-Cross. Their "studies" bear a lot of resemblance to the Unexplained Files shows. Raising lots of questions about occult possibilities, but offering no answers.

I was also interested in item #4, about Leonardo. It all hinges on an insert missing from page 1,033 of a collection of his writings called the Codex Atlanticus. That insert has been found to be this portrait, apparently a self-portrait. From an artist's point of view, he had to use two mirrors to see himself from this angle, with the benefit that it would not be a "mirror image" of the left side of his head because of the second reflection. This is facetiously called a portrait of the artist as a young man. Young enough to have little or no white hair, perhaps, but I see a man of 40-50 years of age here.

So are Leonardo's writings in that Codex a prophecy, or worried speculations? Much is made of his many "inventions", ideas he sketched out but very seldom tried to actually build. Many have sparked further work by others and led to actual devices, such as the anemometer, parachute and helicopter (after a lot of further work!). Others, such as what some call his SCUBA, would not have worked. The SCUBA was actually an over-designed snorkel; the leather air bladder was a flotation device, not a pressurized breathing tank.

Like all "natural philosophers" of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Europe, such as Newton a century or so later, Leonardo speculated about religion and philosophy as much as about science and technology. The Codex Atlanticus is more about such humanities studies than about science, and its frequently gloomy tone reflects his pessimism about human nature, a pessimism that led him to "cripple" most of his weapon designs so that contemporary engineers would be unable to build a working prototype. So his message to all generations is simple: Don't be afraid to dream big dreams, but be careful to whom you confide them.

P.S. About Leonardo's mirror writing. He was left-handed, but that wasn't much the point. Try this with a chalk board or whiteboard: take a writing instrument in each hand, and write with both hands, outward from a center point if you are right-handed, towards it if left-handed. You'll find it rather easy to write backwards with your opposite hand! With practice, if you are right-handed, you can write backwards with pencil or pen on paper with your left hand, in a mirror image of your usual handwriting style (or lack of it). A left-handed person will be able to write backwards with the right hand. That's probably what he did.

The book was fun and interesting to read. In a few chapters, such as the one about the "Spear of Destiny", we read that the real problem isn't whether some artifact has magical powers, but that unscrupulous people are diligently striving to find it and take advantage of the power. This team is genuinely interested in the truth, and the speculations are always wrapped up for a final analysis that makes more sense than I'd expected. I was intrigued that Meltzer includes blurbs and pictures of his team members but not of himself. Here is an image from his web site.