Friday, December 31, 2010

Hi Five

It is 5 hours EST until 2011, which is reason enough to mention that 5 is one of my favorite numbers. Yes, I have favorite numbers. Don’t you? I’m not alone on 5 either. The ancient Pythagoreans thought numbers were what the universe was all about, and 5 was a big deal for them. First of all, the number and the associated pentagram were symbols of health. Why?

AB/BC is the Golden Ratio, [(the square root of 5) + 1] divided by 2, or 1.61803… This ratio is also derivable from the Fibonacci sequence, which Fibonacci described in 1202 AD to explain the growth of rabbit populations – no kidding – and which includes the number 5 (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…). The ratio and sequence occur frequently in nature for reasons no one yet has figured out. They turn up in everything from leaf growth to sea shells, and the Greeks believed the ratio produced the most aesthetically pleasing physical objects. The long sides of the Parthenon are 1.618 times the short sides.
The Pythagoreans also associated 5 with marriage, but, hey, no number is perfect. (The mathematicians out there are shouting, “You're wrong! Any number that is the sum of its positive divisors excluding itself is ‘perfect.’” That is true, but you know what I mean.) Marriage comes into the picture because 5 is the sum of the first “female” number, 2, and the first ‘male’ number, 3 – they didn’t consider 1 to be a number since it is a unity.
There are 5 Platonic solids consisting of regular polygons around a central point: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron.
5 is the largest number most people instinctively recognize without pausing actually to count. So, if you simply glance at a shelf with no more than 5 books on it, you will be able to say instantly how many are there. Unless you are unusual, if there are more than 5 books, you (however briefly) will have to count. Most higher animals lose track at 3, but somehow it is hard to be proud about doing only 2 better. This is one reason counting by 5s is easy; the 5 digits on each hand help too, of course. 5 has a prominent place in many number systems, such as the Roman (V=5, L=50, D=500). Incidentally, the classical Romans almost never did subtractive notation. They did not write IV for 4 or XC for 90 as we do today; nearly always they wrote IIII or LXXXX; the subtractive notation became popular in Medieval times, perhaps to befuddle the peasantry further.
Finally, on a personal note, 5 is the number of truly serious inamoratas who have entered and left my life to date, and all were a handful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

To Dally in the Valley

I’ve seen only the trailers, but the movie Tron Legacy, still in theaters at this writing, has not impressed critics with anything other than its graphics, which are admitted to be excellent. These are enough to make the film notable, however, whether or not it is worth seeing as entertainment. In particular, a digitally created younger version of Jeff Bridges, playing opposite the actual older Jeff Bridges, is so well crafted that the animation isn’t perceptible. Virtual Jeff lives in the hills on the far side of the Uncanny Valley.
The existence of the Uncanny Valley was proposed in 1970 by roboticist Masahiro Mori. It refers to a peculiar variation in human emotional response to human-like images and figures. Mori notes that people generally respond positively to cartoon characters, robots, or dolls if the figures have some human features – think of Bugs Bunny, Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Teddy bears. Human response gets more and more positive as more anthropomorphic features are added to the figures, but only up to a certain point. Then something happens. Past that point, as the images continue to get closer to the appearance of authentic humans, human receptivity plunges. We think they are creepy. If the images continue to improve in realism, however, we reach another point where the creepiness starts to diminish. Human receptivity rises again. The zone of verisimilitude in which humans respond negatively to the images and figures is the Uncanny Valley. The trick for roboticists, dollmakers, and animators is to keep on this side of the valley or get all the way to the other side. Reaching the other side is so technically difficult that only in recent years has it even become possible. Examples of imagery that didn’t make it to the farther hills can be found in Polar Express (2005); the animation is very realistic, but off by just enough that critics dubbed this visually disturbing movie Zombie Express.

The most common explanation for our negative reaction to “close but no cigar” anthropic images is that they evoke our instinctive revulsion in the presence of sickness and death. The images look real but not healthy, and we don’t want to catch whatever is wrong with them.

CGI is now capable (barely) of creating images of people indistinguishable from live actors, and which therefore don’t creep us out. I’m an old fashioned guy, however, and stuff made only of electrons and photons doesn’t impress me nearly so much as stuff with plenty of nucleons, i.e. real solid objects, robots in particular. The future of android robots is visible, even if it is not yet here. The very best Disney animatronics jump the Uncanny Valley, but only within the context of their specific displays and rides. The Japanese firm Kokoro manufactures much more versatile “actroids” that, if not yet out of the valley, at least have reached the far foothills. Nevertheless, I suspect I still have a long wait before I can order my Cherry 2000 (see ).

Actroid Robot Manufactured by Kokoro

Monday, December 20, 2010

Virtually Wise

In the age of the Kindle and its clones, a personal library is an anachronism. Amazon offers 750,000 titles on its virtual bookshelves, and Google eBooks already has scanned some 15 million books, newspapers, and magazines into its records. A wafer-thin electronic pad costing less than $200 can access online not only more books than are in my personal library, but a couple orders of magnitude more than are in the county library. I started filling my wooden bookshelves long before there was an alternative to paper-and-ink, however, and I couldn’t afford 750,000 books. I own merely a few thousand. This isn’t enough to impress anyone greatly, but visitors to my house nonetheless sometimes ask, “So, have you read all these books?”

My response is always, “Yes. I should be a lot smarter than I am, shouldn’t I?”

This is meant as a joke, but actually it is true. The odd bits of information that have stuck with me from all those pages probably wouldn’t see me through Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Oh, I probably can pick out a line by Yeats from four possible answers, and I know who Basil the Bulgar Slayer was (beyond just some guy who slew Bulgars), but how likely is it anyone will ask those questions? I might well miss the Keats question and I’d have to look up who succeeded Basil.

Reading whole books, solid or virtual, is an old-fashioned way of acquiring information, and one that is fading. Nearly anything we need to know is a few clicks away on our computer screen or iPhone, so why try to pre-stuff our heads with data? Any D student with a laptop can answer in seconds obscure questions that stump his unaided professor.

Is it fair to say these new intellectual capabilities make us smarter? Wiser? Or are we actually getting dimmer as our microchips take over?

I once mentioned to a friend that pocket calculators had diminished basic math skills. I gave as an example the extraction of square roots, which we learn to do in grammar school (at least I assume this is still taught in grammar school). Few adults remember how to do it; the omnipresence of calculators makes it unnecessary. My friend answered, “If I saw an employee trying to extract a square root by hand, I’d fire him.” He had a point. In the modern world this skill is about as useful as flint knapping.

Is that D student with his laptop really smarter than his professor? Maybe, if you consider the student and his computer together as a unit. Still, I can’t help feeling uneasy about this answer.

If there is virtual intelligence, can there also be virtual wisdom? I suppose we first need to define wisdom before we can answer that question. Fortunately, at the University of Chicago there is in progress a $2,000,000 four-year project called Defining Wisdom. I’ll not comment on how wise a use of $2,000,000 that may be. The University of Chicago has competition, too. At Butler University in Indiana, the computer scientist Ankur Gupta takes a quantitative approach. "The goal is to try to use data compression as a mathematical measure of wisdom," he says. With or without a Kindle, I never would have thought of that.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Doing It Twice

Despite the evidence of a few recent posts, I’m really not stuck in the 60s. The decade simply has been getting underfoot lately. They tripped me again the other night when a friend, who is some 20 years younger than I am, commented on a TV commercial for HP ePrint. The ad shows a happy baby in a stroller tearing through the countryside and around city streets to the song Brand New Key.

“I like that commercial and that song,” she said. “Who sings it?”

As it happened, I knew the answer. “Melanie.”

“Melanie who?”

“Melanie Safka. I might even have it on vinyl.” (I do. It’s on the Gather Me album.)

“On vinyl? It’s that old? I don’t remember it.”

“It’s older than you are. Some radio stations wouldn’t play it back then.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s about a young girl exploring her sexuality.”

“You’re kidding. Then why are they using it for that ad?”

“I’m not kidding. Melanie was a little coy at the time, of course, since there was the issue with radio, but she didn’t deny it either. But that was 40 years ago. Hardly anyone remembers anything about it. Besides, it’s all metaphor. Lyrics are a lot more direct these days, so I doubt many people would read anything into it now.”

I also had to explain the literal lyrics: there were kids’ roller skates then that fitted over the top of sneakers or shoes and were tightened with a key. Perhaps these are still manufactured, but I haven’t seen any in a long time.

I remember Melanie well for a lot of reasons. The ultimate Flower Child performer, she was everything that was right about the 60s. You can’t get a better expression of the naïve but captivating counterculture world view than her song Beautiful People (  if you have the time). She also is associated in my mind, through no fault of her own, with what was wrong with the decade. The 60s were a kind of party, and every party comes with a hangover. They are inseparable. (The current economic malaise is a hangover from a decade-long house-buying party.) I won’t list all the types of hangovers from the era, though there were a lot and include some we haven’t yet shaken off. I will mention a literal one though.

In 1971 my head hung over the toilet bowl. You know why. We’ve all been there – OK, maybe there are some exceptions who haven’t ever assumed this position, but they can’t be numerous. As my body strained to eject whatever was left inside of me (though there had been nothing left for the past ten minutes), the thought that kept going through my head was, “Why would anyone ever do this twice?” (It was another decade before I became a near teetotaler though.) The song on the stereo couldn’t have been more appropriate. It was Melanie’s Leftover Wine. To this day, I can’t listen to it without feeling queasy. Too bad. It’s a good song.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Private Eyes

A side effect of the communications revolution – one missed by Marshall McLuhan – is the rise of the surveillance society. One may argue it was not entirely unanticipated; it is a central element of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), after all. However, Orwell conceived of video surveillance as an extension of secret police tactics already in use in the 40s – as an enhancement of the security state. That’s not quite the way it turned out.

To be sure, there are plenty of police and security applications of the technology. If you offer an alibi that, for example, you were driving to Manhattan at the time a crime occurred in Easton, police can check your EZ Pass statement and video footage from inside the Lincoln Tunnel to check your story. Yet, this is not quite the same thing as state authorities keeping a watchful eye on the masses. For the most part, we the people spy on each other. Surveillance isn’t centralized, but for that reason it is all the more pervasive. The security firm ADT, for example, currently runs a TV ad which depicts a parent at work using his laptop to check the camera in his home foyer; he smiles as he watches his teen daughter enter the front door after school. RFID tags originally intended to track pets are now marketed to track kids. Using a cell phone provides your GPS co-ordinates to the phone company. Scarcely a speck of ground is uncovered by the satellite imagery of (often accompanied by ground-level pics). A growing number of real time cameras mounted on buildings and lampposts are publically accessible on the net (a high angle view of Times Square: ), and more than once such images have been used to catch a philandering spouse. Even a minor event such as a spat between high schoolers is likely to be captured by someone’s cell phone camera and posted on Facebook. With very little more integration of these technologies, anyone who cares to do so will be able to track another individual’s movements 24/7. The remarkable thing, at least to many of my generation, is how little concern all this seems to generate, especially among the young who have grown up with it.

To the extent electronic eyes were meant to deter crime, they haven’t worked. There are so many cameras everywhere that watchers simply can’t monitor them all. A mugging directly in front of a street-cam most likely will go unnoticed. Drug deals and other street crimes are funneled into blind spots or completed inside cars where the exchanges can’t be recorded clearly. Working the night shift alone in a convenience store is no safer than it was 40 years ago. The cameras do help solve crimes after the fact, though, which is reason enough to expect their coverage to go on expanding.

This is so different from my childhood when – with no cell phone or beeper – I played either alone or with friends (often biking to the school playground or local shopping center) with no “supervision” or expectation of any. Today, I suppose this would be considered a case of negligent parenting, but at the time it was the norm; we made fun of kids whose parents hovered over them more than this. Well into my adulthood there was a simple assumption of privacy pretty much everywhere. It still catches me a little off guard when I notice a camera pointed my way when grocery-shopping or just strolling down a sidewalk.

This is one of those “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle” developments that does little good to bemoan. It is, however, a change significant enough to deserve more comment than the shrug it usually gets. An expectation of the lack of privacy is part of the shape of the modern world. We have met Big Brother, and we are he.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The 7th Revisited

Rather than a rehash of the subject in slightly different words, reprinted below is a blog I wrote back in 2007 about Pearl Harbor. I see no reason to change it.

Iowa on the Oder

Back around the time I was born, this complaint about the war of the day (Korea) was commonplace: "It's the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place against the wrong enemy." It was, too. The same can be said for every war fought by the US at least since 1898.

Pacifism? No, not really. I'm all for hitting back. I'm just not keen on seeking out wildcats and poking them with sticks.

I want to distinguish between context and blame, since the two are too often confused. In particular, any attempt to place 9/11 in geopolitical context is likely to evoke charges of “blaming the victims” when no such thing is intended.

So, in recognition of the day, let’s instead consider the context of an attack we can view with more detachment: the one of 12/7/41. The context of the attack was a series of deliberate provocations of Japan by the US, the most damaging of which was an embargo of strategic materials including oil. (Back in the day, the US was the leading oil producer and exporter.) The provocations were not mindless, but were in response to Japan’s ongoing war with China; all the same, most Americans, while sympathetic to China, felt the Sino-Japanese war was "not our business." The Roosevelt Administration knew full well the consequence of its actions would be war between Japan and the United States. This was, in fact, the idea. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote the following in his diary shortly before the attack:

"[Roosevelt] brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was…what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."(Source: The Pacific War by John Toland.)

Kido Butai, the Japanese carrier force, fired a more effective first shot than Stimson or Roosevelt anticipated.

It is important to understand this context. It does not excuse the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, nor does it blame the victims. The US provocations fell short of acts of war. Japan could have bought (or seized) the needed strategic materials in Southeast Asia without attacking the US, though its sea lanes would have been precariously exposed. A less warmongering government than the one in Tokyo at the time wouldn't have opted to attack. The ultimate blame therefore lay with Japan; after Pearl Harbor there was little left for the US to do but hit back. However, it is fair to ask if FDR should have poked this particular wildcat.

Similarly, more recent attacks on the US are not excused by the context, and the victims certainly are not to blame. Still it is fair to question the poking of wildcats.

Otto von Bismarck back in the 19th century predicted the next big war would be started by "some damn fool thing in the Balkans." He also said, "The whole of the Balkans is not worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier." He was prescient. After a damn fool thing in the Balkans in 1914, 18 million people died, including more than a few Pomeranian grenadiers.

Well, the whole of the Middle East and Central Asia is not worth the life of a single Iowan rifleman. The matter of oil complicates our approach to the region. It shouldn't. There are other sources and there are other fuels – all of which must be cheaper than the trillion dollars spent on the wars. Besides, regardless of the regime, what can any producer do with the stuff but sell it to the West?

Isolationism? Why not? More often than not, the isolationists have the better argument.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Velvet Mouse

Tom Wolfe once said that it never pays to be more than five minutes ahead of your time. A hippie in the 50s, a disco dancer in the 60s, and an Eminem-style rapper in the 70s all would have faced social scorn and ridicule. The innovative streamlined 1934 Chrysler Airflow failed not just because of the Depression but because the public wasn’t ready for the look. In the 1970s, Xerox developed an operating system that was essentially Windows, but home computers powerful enough to run it didn’t yet exist. The first generation of plate-size video discs appeared too soon, and was leapfrogged by later consumer electronics technology. F. Paul Wilson: “The late mouse gets the cheese.”

If you are one of those people more than two steps ahead, folks someday, when they look back, may point you out as a pioneer or trailblazer, but that doesn’t help your present bank account or land you a spot on The Tonight Show.

What brings all this to mind is the CD I randomly plucked out of the center console this morning while driving to work. It was The Best of the Velvet Underground. The original alternative rock group, Velvet Underground is often called the “most influential rock band of all time.” Yet, in the 60s and 70s it was not a commercial success, despite (because of?) its association with Andy Warhol and The Factory. The dark moody lyrics didn’t fit the 60s Zeitgeist, which was a blend of rebellion and Love; besides, the sound didn’t rock and you couldn’t dance to it. The total effect of the music was just weird in a way that connected only with a relative handful of enthusiasts. Thanks to Warhol, almost everyone at the time who was moderately conscious of contemporary music knew the group existed, but hardly anyone could identify one of its songs. The band didn’t get airtime on the most popular radio channels. Not one of my friends in high school (1966-70) owned a Velvet Underground album, and, for all the prevalent music talk among them, I don’t recall any of my classmates so much as mentioning the band. Velvet Underground was more than five minutes ahead of its time, and suffered for it.

Other musicians and lyricists noticed, even if most of the general public did not, and adapted their sounds accordingly. The Zeitgeist eventually caught up, and dark, moody weirdness went mainstream – more mainstream, anyway. The group’s albums sell far better now than they did when they were recorded in the 1960s, and veteran Lou Reed is better known and respected than ever.

I didn’t give the group a serious listen until 1974, nearly a decade late. The (sometimes literally) offbeat sound appealed to me then and still does today.

Tom’s point remains valid with regard to commercial success and social acceptance, but, all the same, there is something to be said for striking out into new territory – at least for those of us further back on the trail.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mars Day

Every now and then, Thanksgiving lands on my birthday. This isn’t one of those years, However, every day of the year is a holiday somewhere, and this Sunday, aside from being my birthday, is Mars Day – the planet, not the candy bar. So, I’ll make a double celebration with a slice of cake for me and a glass of wine – red, of course – for our celestial neighbor.

As the most earthlike of all the other planets of the solar system, Mars draws the eyes of 3rd Rock-lings, especially science fiction fans. This always has been so. Can one find a more archetypical scifi novel than War of the Worlds (1898) by H.G. Wells, in which tentacled Martian nasties attack the earth in tripod war machines armed with heat rays and poison gases? Edgar Rice Burroughs first sent John Carter off to the red planet in A Princess of Mars (1912), and his novels have stayed in print ever since. Ray Bradbury felt the gravitational pull of Mars as well, resulting in The Martian Chronicles (1950). In the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson published Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, all of which read more like terraformation manuals than like fiction. Despite all this intimidating competition, I couldn’t resist visiting Mars in one of my own short stories, “Little Green Women” in Double Dose (2005).

I’ve never seen a flying saucer, much less been abducted by aliens, but there is a distant and fleeting family history with Arean types. Grovers Mill, located of outside Princeton, NJ, is where the Martians landed in 1938, as reported by Orson Welles in his famous radio broadcast. Grovers Mill is about an hour away by car from Mendham, NJ, where my maternal grandparents lived – and where I live now. On October 30, 1938, they heard Welles’ broadcast and learned the Martians were on the move. “I guess it’s the end of the world,” my dairy farmer grandfather opined calmly while puffing on his pipe. My mom was much more put out. In her opinion, it was all well and good for the world to end for the old folks, but she was only 10; she was angry about this disruption to her plans. My grandparents took their kids outside in front of the porch to look at the night sky for signs of the interplanetary war and for more Martian spacecraft. My Aunt Diane, a few years younger than my mom, recalls the evening as a warm and fuzzy family moment. Anyway, the sky stayed dark, so after a while they went back inside. As we all know, the Martian invasion was thwarted, so my mom never got to meet any Martians face to face. Or perhaps it succeeded and the secret has been kept from us. Did Martians seize the Mercury Theater, take over Orson Welles’ body, and then pretend the invasion was a hoax?

(Link to the alarming portion of Welles’ broadcast:

As that may be, I think it’s high time we earthlings returned a courtesy call on Mars, and what better time to dedicate ourselves to that goal than Mars Day? Besides, according to the following documentary, there are some mighty attractive women up there – and they’re all twins.

Martian Chicks Cut a Rug in Just Imagine (1930)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jurassic Pork

The consensus among palaeontologists is that dinosaurs and birds are so closely related that the only real difference is a pair of wings. From this, I think we can conclude that dinos taste pretty much like turkey, making them a welcome alternative to the traditional Thanksgiving meal if you are expecting a large crowd for the holidays.

First, bag a dinosaur. The truly impressive drumsticks of tyrannosaurus make this the preferred genus. I’ll let you work out the time travel details for yourself, but there are some tips for the hunt itself in the video below. Actually, I think the theropod in the clip is an allosaurus (note the foreclaws), but the same principle applies. Just use a bigger spear.

A good-size tyrannosaur weighs 7.5 tons (6.8 metric), but, after it is field dressed in the same manner as a wild turkey, it is a more manageable 5.

Bring back the dressed tyrannosaur carcass to your backyard. Picnicking in the Cretaceous is not recommended; scavengers of the time are very large and aggressive, and so are apt to be annoying pests. Spitting a beast of this size over an open flame is not really practical, so pit roasting is the way to go. In order to accommodate the tail fully (which, like alligator, is the tastiest morsel), your pit will need to be an oblong 40 feet long by 20 feet wide and 16 deep (12m x 6m x 4.9m). Line with rocks. Start a blazing fire throughout the pit. Allow to burn down until the hot coals fill the pit halfway. Toss in another layer of stones. Push in the tyrannosaur. Cover meat with a mat to keep out dirt; fronds and palm leaves will work for your mat, but to save time you might want to use carpets. Do not use synthetic materials. Cover the matted tyrannosaur with dirt.

Turkeys usually cook 15 minutes per pound. This scales up to 104 days, but, fortunately, cooking times are nonlinear with weight. A whole steer takes only 24 hours, so 48 should be time enough for a dinosaur. Double check with meat thermometer to be sure it is done.

Dig up tyrannosaur and serve. Feeds 2500 guests.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hierocles Gets No Respect. He Gets No Respect at All

This past weekend I was in a somber mood (for reasons that are not good blog material), so in an effort to lighten things, I plucked Philolegos (“Laughter-Lover”) off the shelf. It is an ancient joke book.

Joke books go way back. In 4th century BC Athens, aspiring stand-ups called the Group of Sixty met in the temple of Heracles and traded punchlines. Philip of Macedon (Alexander’s dad) stopped to listen and was amused by their routines; I think we can assume none of the jokes were at his expense, at least not to his face. He ordered the jokesters to compile a book of their best knee-slappers. Unfortunately, no copies of this book exist today. Other similar anthologies are mentioned by ancient writers, but the earliest one still in existence is Philolegos. It was published in the late 4th or early 5th century AD though most of the jokes in it surely are far older.

The compilers of this anthology were Hierocles and Philagrius. About Philagrius we know nothing. For centuries, Hierocles was believed to be the Stoic philosopher Hierocles of Alexandria. Nowadays, it is fashionable for scholars to doubt this, but for no good reason that I can see other than the pleasure of being contrary. Not only was Hierocles of Alexandria in the right place at the right time, but he was publicly flogged in Constantinople for being a pagan, which at least proves he had a better sense of humor than the people who ordered the flogging.

Some of the jokes in Philolegos are puzzling to a modern reader. There are ones about public bathhouses that seem to make little sense, but they might be hilarious if we fully understood the Roman bathhouse experience. Lettuce, of all things, plainly had a sexual connotation of some kind; use your own imagination on that one. Yet, most of the jokes are perfectly comprehensible, and about half are funny, which isn’t a bad proportion. Many sound eerily familiar. Examples of parallels with more recent humorists:

Mark Twain:
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“I heard you were dead.”
“You see me alive.”
“The person who told me you were dead is more trustworthy than you.”

Groucho Marx:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
“Don’t do that.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“Doctor, I’m dizzy for half an hour after I wake up.”
“Don’t get up for half an hour.”

Monty Python:
“The parrot you sold me is dead!”
“He’s sleeping.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“The slave you sold me died!”
“He never did that when I owned him.”

“I slept with your wife.”
“My condolences.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“I slept with your wife.”
“Idiot! I have to sleep with her, you don’t.”

This is not an ancient treasure on the order of The Bacchae or The Aeneid, but it offers more smiles than the typical TV sitcom, for whatever recommendation that may be.

Actually, the plots of many TV sitcom scripts can be found in Plautus and Terence, but that is subject matter for another blog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


In August 1968, I was an insecure 15-year-old waiting for my junior year to begin at my suburban prep school. As a teen, I never was in the groove, as the cool kids of the day were wont to say (unaware the slang was 50 years old even then). Nonetheless, while I assumed I forever would remain outside the In Crowd’s innermost circle, I tried to keep at least aware of current music, movies, and pop culture trends so as not to be a hopeless square; the term “geek” had not been appropriated from carnie vocabulary yet. So, on the music side, I bought and played the vinyl of Cream’s Wheels of Fire with its signature hit “White Room,” Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (“White Rabbit) and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (“Mrs. Robinson”), among other albums. To my surprise, I liked most of them (certainly all three named), though I retained affection for Eric Burden’s already fading star. (Actually, I still like Eric, who continues to record.) I didn’t splurge on Jimi Hendrix until the next year, and then kicked myself for waiting.

In August ’68, however, I slipped a new vinyl album out of its jacket, which was covered with the artwork of Robert Crumb. The album had been getting some buzz. It was Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The lead singer was Janis Joplin, whose California notoriety had been given a national boost by articles in Time the previous April. I fitted the record onto the stereo turntable and watched the diamond needle drop. I wasn’t sure I liked what I was hearing in the first number, “Combination of the Two” – a peculiar psychedelic rocking-blues sound with mindless lyrics – but the second track, “I Need a Man to Love,” intrigued me, as did Janis’ rendition of “Summertime.” The fourth number, “Piece of My Heart,” which became her first big hit, blew me away. I flipped over the vinyl disc (literally and figuratively) and listened until the end of "Ball and Chain" when the Fillmore West staff can be heard dismissing the audience. It was rare then, as it is now, for me to sit through an album – I don’t mean as background music but as the center of attention – from start to finish without a break. I did with Cheap Thrills, and not for the last time.

Popular music in 2010 tends to be technically polished and very visual, typically with jaw-droppingly attractive singers and dancers; the elaborately choreographed imagery often is far more memorable than the sound or lyrics, which range from airy to cynical to downright brutal. This is so unlike the 1960s. It is certainly unlike the un-pretty yet appealing Janis, who, in frowzy attire, simply walked on stage and sang her heart out. She was rough, ragged, unpolished, and very effective. Most of her songs are about giving 100% to love and facing the pain when that goes wrong, as it almost always does. There is something about this romantic excess which appeals especially to adolescents – and to those who retain an adolescent spirit into later life. (In this context, I for once don’t use the term “adolescent” as an insult.) It appealed to me in 1968, and four of her cds are on my shelf today.

Janis belonged so much to her time that it is hard to see many teens today being able to relate to her. But could a similar rough-cut give-it-your-all blues singer of this generation find an audience alongside the highly produced likes of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga? I don’t know. Hey, I was playing catch-up in 1968, never mind 2010, but maybe the idea isn’t so outlandish.

The dark side to Janis – also very 1960s but not unique to them – was substance abuse, to which, regrettably, she also gave her all. She died, at the age of 27, in October 1970 from a lethal mix of Southern Comfort and heroin.

All this was brought to mind by a recent showing of Janis (1974) on the Ovation Channel, no doubt commemorating the 40th anniversary of her death. For fans of Janis Joplin, this is a wonderful film. It is just Janis in concert interspersed with some interviews. If you’re not yet a fan, this movie probably is too much for too long. Become a fan first. Start with Cheap Thrills, Pearl, or one of the collections such as The Essential Janis Joplin. Then, maybe, you’ll be ready for the movie.

So, tonight I’m toasting Janis (Southern Comfort without the mixer), to Kozmic Blues.

Janis singing "Get It While You Can" on the Dick Cavett Show in June 1970, four months before her death.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Over There

Thursday of this week is the holiday originally designated as Armistice Day, marking the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the guns stopped firing in the War to End War. To hardly anyone’s surprise – certainly not that of the veterans of the conflict – the war did not end war. So, in 1954 the day was expanded to recognize veterans of all wars, which is fair enough. The legacy of World War One, however, remains special.

Only one US veteran of WW1 is alive today: 109 year-old Frank Woodruff Buckles of West Virginia. He was sent to France in 1918 where he served with the Army's 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment, which was a medical unit, not, as one might think, a pretty laid-back bunch of guys. (Frank later survived 39 months in a Japanese prison camp, but that was another war and another time.) Frank is the last American – and one of the few people anywhere – to have witnessed WW1 first hand as a soldier, but the events of 1914-18 still matter to the rest of us.

It takes at least a century to get past a really big war. Consider the American Civil War. As late as the presidential election of 1968, a regional candidate won the electoral votes of five Southern States over issues unresolved in 1865. In a similar way, World War One has yet to release its grip in 2010. Referencing a catchy wartime slogan, a sour (and accurate) joke in the 1920s and 1930s was that the war made the world safe for fascism and communism. The struggles for and against those ideologies dominated the rest of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we are still embroiled in the aftermath of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by the victors of WW1. The Great War still matters.

None of the ongoing turmoil is the fault of the 61,526,000 soldiers mobilized by all belligerents in the war, 9,721,937 of whom (including 116,708 Americans), by official count, were killed – almost surely an undercount. Civilian deaths, not counting those from disease, only can be estimated, but are often put at 8,000,000. They deserved better from the politicians who squandered first their lives and then the peace. They still do, and so do we. If and when we finally wrap up World War One, perhaps we can turn our attention to finishing up World War Two.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Low Bow to High Brow

Mark Twain famously defined a classic as something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.

The same holds true for movies. As an experiment, George Loewenstein and Daniel Read handed out vouchers for free movie rentals. Some of the vouchers had to be used that very night while others were for the following week. Upon being handed a voucher, each person had to choose a film from either a high-brow category (such as Schindler's List) or a low-brow category (such as Austin Powers).

When the voucher was for next week, participants overwhelmingly picked high-brow films they thought they should see. When the vouchers were for that very night, they overwhelmingly picked low-brow films. In other words, when faced with the imminent prospect of actually having to watch a movie, they chose mindless entertainment. Perhaps they thought something like this: “I’m really highly cultured, you know, but I’m just in the mood for something light at this particular moment. By next week I’m sure I will be my usual weighty self.”

It is hard to begrudge such self-delusions. They cost little and help us feel better about ourselves in a world where most things cost plenty and where our self-esteem is battered at every turn. So, kindly leave unchallenged the cultured poses of our fellow humans. The kinder ones among them will keep mum for us, too.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Politics on the Brain

The impulse to call one's opponents not just wrong but stupid or crazy seems hard to resist, especially for people who should know better. We’ve grown to expect armchair bloggers (ahem) to carry on like this, but it doesn't take much of a search to find the same insults from publications and pundits with more respectable pretentions. Nor are they in any way one-sided. Try these.

From Scientific American:
"Positive personality traits associated with liberalism (self-reliant, resilient, dominating and energetic) and negative ones attributed to conservatism (easily victimized or offended, indecisive, fearful and rigid) appear as young as nursery school–age kids." Who exactly attributed those traits to each?


Dr. Lyle Rossiter, author of The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness:
"Like spoiled, angry children, they rebel against the normal responsibilities of adulthood and demand that a parental government meet their needs from cradle to grave…The roots of liberalism – and its associated madness – can be clearly identified by understanding how children develop from infancy to adulthood and how distorted development produces the irrational beliefs of the liberal mind." Whose minds in particular, Lyle?


Sarah as "Psychopath" by Deborah King in Psychology Today:
"Sarah Palin is a classic 'psychopath' as defined by Lowen psychodynamics, a system that analyzes the inner forces that affect behavior."


The pithy but highly debatable Irving Kristoll remark, “A neoconservative is someone who has been mugged by reality.”

It is safe to say there will be no surcease to this sort of silliness, but it is worth pointing out that none of it changes anyone's mind. It just makes the opposition angry. Perhaps that is the real idea. Plenty of people are stupid and a fair number are crazy, true enough, but, regrettably, no single political movement has a monopoly on them – or on brilliant people either. Political differences are philosophical, not pathological. One fundamental question, as an example, is “What is the proper legal relation of the individual to society?” There are brighter and saner (irony intended) ways to debate this and other questions than calling each other morons and psychos.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wormholes and Money Pits

I’m a science fiction fan. I write the stuff too. (Four paper-and-ink books are on Amazon, and a free online collection of stories at .) Accordingly, I’ve read or watched a lot of it, including the flawed but enjoyable movie Stargate (1994) and its spinoff TV series Stargate SG-1. In both presentations, the “stargate” is a device that opens traversable wormholes between planets.

When I recently spotted a passing reference in a science magazine to an actual Stargate Project, I couldn’t resist investigating further. Regrettably, the project had nothing to do with wormholes to distant planets. It was something scarcely more likely. The real Stargate Project was an investigation of military and intelligence applications of psychic phenomena. Conducted first by the Pentagon and then by the CIA from the 1970s through the 1990s, it produced nothing useful in all that time but paychecks for parapsychologists. Or at least that’s the cover story. How did ESP enthusiasts sell this idea to the Pentagon and CIA in the first place? The same way any enthusiast sells any kind of silly idea to anyone: by exploiting the listener’s desire to believe.

We all remember the plethora of TV gurus back in 2006 urging us to become “real estate millionaires” by purchasing properties “with no money down!” How many people took their advice (after buying the gurus’ how-to books and dvds) only in 2010 to owe 35% more than the value of those properties? The buyers who put 5%, 10%, or 20% down (as most, in fact, had to do) arguably fared even worse: their investments are gone and they still are underwater on the loans. You might think the gurus would be in hiding, but no. They are back. They never really went away. Now they are promoting buying foreclosed properties “for a fraction on the dollar!” (Just a mathematical note: 5/4 is just as much a fraction as 4/5.) They find eager listeners.

Actually, for all the concerns in the news this week raised by sloppy foreclosure paperwork at banks, there is a kernel of truth in this round of TV exhortations. Prices are down, interest rates are low, and there are opportunities in foreclosed properties. But a quick reality check is in order: there exists no handy list of foreclosed houses which buyers can snap up and then immediately resell at $200,000 profit apiece. Most of the new customers coming in my real estate office door these days are convinced by TV pep talks that such a list exists, and they are annoyed when I don’t produce it. You’ll have better luck finding this list using those unemployed Stargate psychics fired by the CIA. The banks that own foreclosed houses are the same banks that pick our pockets at every turn. They are the banks that charge $2 for using an ATM, $20 for letting a checking account fall below $2000, $10 for writing too few checks per month, $30 for writing too many, and $50 for being overdrawn. They do not then turn around and give away $200,000 to any passerby. They sell each foreclosed property for the highest price the market will bear. This is not much less than a private individual could get for it.

Once again, there are bargains to be found among foreclosures. Banks have no emotional stake in their ownership of these properties and they take rational account of future carrying costs if a house doesn’t sell. So, the opportunities for making a good deal are real, but I have yet to see anything like the sort of windfall on which so many customers have set their hearts. Heck, I’d buy it myself. The typical foreclosure opportunity is a distressed property which, after a year of repair and hard work, might net you $20,000 for your trouble. $20,000 is nothing at which to sneeze, and some people do make a living by buying and fixing one house after another, but it is no get-rich-quick scheme and there are no guarantees.

Think there is a winning infomercial in “the slow and hard way to modest profits?” I don’t think so either.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Germ

The typical human body contains about 100 trillion cells. Only 10 trillion or so are technically part of the body. The other 90 trillion are hitchhikers. A particularly cozy home for bacteria is provided by the intestinal tract, where most of the foreign residents do far more good than harm by aiding digestion and absorbing toxins.

In an age when almost every household and personal care product brags “kills germs!” it is worth noting that killing germs is not always a good idea. The anti-bacterials in our soaps and cleaning products overwhelmingly kill benign or harmless bugs while helping to breed chemical resistance in dangerous ones. What is more, many scientists blame our highly sanitized modern Western lifestyle for the ever growing numbers of children’s allergic disorders, which have doubled in the past ten years alone, and for the steady rise in asthma rates in the past thirty years. Christopher Lowry, professor of physiology ay the University of Colorado, remarks, “The hygiene hypothesis is widely accepted among immunologists. It suggests that we have less exposure to certain organisms in the soil and water than we used to.” Lowry believes this may not only make us wheeze but may increase depression and anxiety as well, since these are exacerbated by immune response inflammations. It seems if we don’t give our immune systems something useful to do, they will find something inappropriate to do. Joel Weinstock, chief of gastroenterology at Tufts University, even suggests that “deworming the population… is one factor that led to the rise in immunological diseases.” (He probably is right, but I plan to skip the worms and take my chances.)

No one is suggesting we ignore basic hygiene. There are, as we know, potentially lethal diseases that can be spread by improper sewage disposal or by unsafe drinking water. Washing your hands is still the best way to reduce the number of colds and infections you catch. As with anything, however, there can be too much of a good thing. Whether we like it or not, we are one tiny part of a biological world full of organic grime and microbes. We do ourselves no good by being overly fussy about it. As Ella Gudwin, director of strategic initiatives at AmeriCares, so charmingly puts it, "The whole world is covered in a small film of fecal matter. Just get used to it."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Barbie the Mammoth-Slayer

Fashions come and go in social sciences as in popular culture. Fashion is broadly cyclical, but is best pictured as a wheel in motion rather than as one spinning on an axle in a fixed location, because nothing ever returns to exactly the same spot it was before. Hemlines may rise and fall, lapels widen and narrow, hair lengthen and shorten, trouser leg bottoms balloon into bells and straighten to tight openings, but the total look is never quite identical to the earlier one.

In social sciences the cycle is largely between the ascendency of cultural determinists (nurture is everything) and of biological determinists (nature is everything). In truth, few people are entirely one or the other. Nearly all acknowledge that both nature and nurture are something. However, the mostly-nurturists and the mostly-naturists alternate in their dominance very much according to fashion. It is hard not to see a political dimension to the swings, though leftists and rightists can be found in each camp. Once again, the turns of the wheel never return us exactly to where we were, so social sciences do manage to evolve over time.

The mostly-nurturists, who argue the newborn human mind is largely a blank slate that can be acculturated in almost any imaginable way, have dominated academia for quite some time. In the past decade the mostly-naturists have made a comeback, at least in the published literature. This time around they call themselves evolutionary psychologists.

One of the pop stars of evolutionary psychology is Satoshi Kanazawa, who teaches at, of all places, The London School of Economics. He co-authored with Alan Miller the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters and blogs as The Scientific Fundamentalist. His basic point is that humans have instincts that evolved to suit our ancestors 10,000 years ago, and these continue to motivate us today, regardless of our particular cultural milieu. He calls it the Savanna Principle.

Much of what he has to say is not only obvious to an average reader, but blindingly obvious. For example, he tells us most men find attractive a woman who approximates a Barbie doll and most women would like to look like one. He tells us the economic burdens of parenthood, which now last for two or more decades instead of just one, often make people unhappy. He tells us men are motivated by sex. He tells us women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners and that they take social and economic status into account. (Zsa Zsa Gabor: “I want a man who’s kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”) This hardly is startling stuff. He stirs controversy when he attributes these preferences to evolution instead of childhood training.

Take Barbie dolls and the exaggerated muscular physiques of action figures, often criticized for indoctrinating kids to desire unrealistic body types. Kanazawa specifically argues that Barbie did not create an impossible ideal, but merely embodied an impossible ideal that existed long before Ruth Handler designed the doll for Mattel in 1959. The ideal came first and is rooted in instincts suitable for the reproductive success of cavepeople.

Momentum is currently on the naturist side, and Kanazawa and his colleagues definitely are worth a read. We can be sure, however, that the nurturists will be back. After all, once again, training may not be everything, but it certainly is something.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Toddler and the Ferrari

The decline in birth rates in advanced countries continues even though most women throughout the West tell pollsters they want to have more kids (quite a lot more) than they actually have. Pundits offer various theories to explain this “fertility gap,” but the family budget seems the most likely reason.

The Department of Agriculture reports that families earning between $46,000 and $77,000 spend over $200,000 per child from birth through high school (i.e. without college costs). The Wall Street Journal estimates that households earning over $118,000 spend an average of $800,000 per child through high school: "Add in luxuries like private school, a nanny and a flat screen TV set in a kid's bedroom, and the figure climbs to $1.6 million."

A person might tell a pollster he or she would like a Ferrari, while in practice considering the price prohibitive.

The ZPG (Zero Population Growth) people made their case to my satisfaction 40 years ago when they were louder than they are today. I think lower birthrates are an overall benefit to the world, even though they make for a bumpy demographic ride as the population pyramid alters shape. All the same, the costs of child-rearing are eyebrow-raising. It is amazing folks have as many kids as they do.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Borne to Be Wild

Horse activities are not usually regarded as an extreme sport, with a few obvious exceptions such as steeple chases, rodeos, and Olympic-level jumpers. Over-protective parents don’t hesitate to buy riding lessons for their 10-year-old daughters. Yet, they are, in fact, risky. According to research conducted at the University of Calgary, horseback riders are hospitalized at 350% the rate of motorcyclists. Most of those hurt are not neophytes but experienced riders. The typical victim has 27 or more years of riding experience.

By the early 90s, the diligence of civil suit lawyers was closing the doors of commercial riding stables pretty much everywhere in the nation. Liability insurance had become unaffordable. Other than by requiring boots and helmets, as nearly all stables did anyway, there was little that could make horseback-riding safer. Horses are live animals with minds and moods of their own. Ultimately, a 1000 pound animal will do what it damn well pleases, and that may include kicking, bucking, or running off for no apparent reason. Horses sometimes spook, trip, or fall down. People do not always walk away from encounters with horses. That is the nature of the sport.

Commercial stables were saved from extinction in the late 90s by specifically targeted tort reform. Liability was strictly limited in most states (including NJ) and stables posted warnings to that effect. The one in NJ is typical:


Efforts at a more general tort reform – especially in medicine – have stalled repeatedly at state and federal levels as trial lawyers warn us that civilization will collapse if reform succeeds. They are good at this. Making arguments is what they do, and they find a sympathetic audience among legislators, 60% of whom are fellow lawyers. Not only the continuing existence of civilization in less litigious Western nations, but our own domestic experience with the equine industry, hint that our current system may not be the last line of defense against barbarism after all. Riding is not any more dangerous today than it was before the reforms of 1997. If anything, riders today are motivated to be a bit more careful after seeing scary signs and signing scarier waivers. It’s just something to keep in mind.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Major and Minor Assumptions

Bear with me through a brief synopsis:

In the 1942 comedy classic The Major and the Minor, Major Kirby (Ray Milland), travels by train to Iowa where his fiancé’s father (his commanding officer) runs a military academy. Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers), a fed-up NYC masseuse, is on the same train. She is posing as a 12-year-old (no easy feat for Ginger Rogers) because she doesn’t have enough money for a full-price ticket. She blows her cover in front of a skeptical conductor, runs from him, and dodges into Major Kirby’s cabin. Kirby buys the 12-year-old act, and takes Susan under his protective wing. Kirby’s fiancé boards the train, catches a glimpse of Susan in Kirby’s cabin, and storms out. The major smoothes things over with her by bringing Susan to the academy. When his fiancé and her father see he merely (apparently) was helping out a kid rather than dallying with a floozy, all is forgiven. This is a rom-com, so more silliness ensues including Susan fending off underage boys on campus.

This pleasant movie is an unintended commentary – a sad one as it happens – on modern expectations of adults vs. those of nearly 7 decades ago. Today, it is unlikely that any fellow could get out of trouble with his fiancé by saying the girl in his cabin is 12 years old.

If the plot sounds familiar but the characters do not, it is likely because in the 1950s there was a gender-reversed remake of movie starring Jerry Lewis titled You're Never Too Young.

Were the assumptions of 1942 far too naïve? Probably. Are the assumptions of 2010 far too cynical? Yes, with a caveat. There always were and still are more Major Kirbys than Humbert Humberts. We tend to forget that these days, but there is no denying Humberts (and far worse) do exist. So let’s try to have enough old-fashioned generosity to assume the best of the people we meet, while we keep one eye open just in case.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

No Brainer

IQ tests have been in widespread use since World War One, when the US Army employed them to determine the aptitude of draftees and recruits. The tests are regularly "renormalized" so that the average score is always 100.

We all have heard people toss around their supposed results, and they always are phenomenally high.

"I'm 138."

"Mine is 142."

"Oh yeah, mine is 156."

All of these are very unlikely numbers, regardless of what scale is being used, but one should remember there is more than one scale. There are several well-known publishers of tests and many lesser known ones. Scorers fit the raw results of tests into a bell curve. The most common one has a standard deviation of 15, so that half the population falls between 85 and 115. Only 2% score above 130 on this scale. Scores of 140 or higher are truly rare. Some tests have standard deviations of 16 or 24. These are not preferred by most professionals, but they are very popular with test–takers who are just on the high side of average. After all, a test result of 124 simply looks better than one of 115, even though both may mean the exactly same thing when different scales are taken into account – and of course we’ll add the same number to this figure as the pounds we subtract from our weight when we mention the results in company. Tests typically found in magazines or on the net produce wildly exaggerated results in order to flatter subscribers, and ought not to be taken seriously.

IQ tests do tell us something, but they need to be treated with caution and skepticism. It is well to remember that motivated 95s often outperform lazy 125s academically and in life. High scores are no guarantee of happiness either. In Voltaire’s The Story of a Good Brahman, a Brahman and his intellectual friends conclude after much discussion that happiness is the proper goal in life. Yet, faced with proof that an ignorant cleaning woman is cheerier than any of them, none says he would opt to trade brains for happiness. Voltaire ends there and doesn't try to resolve the contradiction.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September Dirt

The “Drive Carefully, School’s Out” posters on the roadsides once again have been exchanged for “Drive Carefully, School’s Open” posters.

Pre-schools were a rarity in my day, so my first look inside a classroom was on the day I started Kindergarten, September 5, 1957. On October 4, the Soviets launched Sputnik. There was no connection between the events, but there was a connection to school experiences that followed. I recall standing in the driveway with my parents and sister as we watched the little twinkling light pass overhead.

Politicians at all levels pointed at the twinkling light and cried that the US had been left behind educationally. This was a conclusion for which Sputnik was dubious evidence, but political arguments seldom are strong on evidence and reason. They demanded and got sharp increases in spending on schools and a widespread reshaping of curricula. The results were as dubious as the original argument. NASA overtook the Soviet space program long before the changes in schools could have had anything to do with it. High school graduates in the 60s and 70s were not noticeably more knowledgeable than their predecessors. The most lasting legacy of the Sputnik shake-up, continuing to this day, is far larger school budgets, as my property tax bill attests.

It is hard to judge how well public schools do what they are intended to do. To the extent SAT scores are any indication, average scores barely have budged in decades. Yet, the tests have been made easier, so in real terms results have gone down. (Wiki claims 70 points should be added to your verbal and 30 points to your math if you took the test more than 30 years ago to compare your results properly with those of 2010.) Every politician, it seems, touts some plan for improving schools, always with more money. The NEA constantly calls for higher wages and benefits. It is not at all clear that any of the previous changes and spending increases have made much difference in the past 50 years.

An interesting experiment, in business since 1968, is the private day school Sudbury, which famously has no established curriculum at all. This unorthodox Massachusetts school provides educational resources for any student who cares to use them, but it lets students spend their time as they wish so long as they don’t prevent anyone else from studying. The school issues no grades. It allows students to hire and fire teachers by vote. Somehow, the school’s graduates do as well in college as do graduates of conventional high schools and prep schools – no better, perhaps, but no worse. Sudbury’s per pupil expenditures are half those of the local public high school. The school lends support to the old saw, “all education is self-education.” Interested students learn. Bored ones do not, regardless of how hard we try to force-feed them.

Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr. is one of the most frequently assigned books in high school. The movie October Sky (an anagram) was based on it. In 1957, young Homer was inspired by the same Sputnik that I stood in the driveway to see. He was in high school at the time. He and his buddies started a rocket club. In order to send their rockets higher and higher, they took a scientific approach to weights, fuel mixtures, and nozzle designs. Homer, previously an indifferent math student, chose to study trigonometry, chemistry, and calculus because he needed them for the rockets. One rocket climbed almost 6 miles.

The book assignment is intended to inspire students to emulate Homer. More likely it inspires them to Google the Spark Notes. A rocket club might inspire them better, but this is not 1957. Today a club would face real trouble from over-protective parents, insurance companies, and land use officials, among others.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Plato Tripped

Every now and then I’m seized by a sick desire to revisit my old schoolbooks. I gave into it and repaid Plato a visit, starting with The Republic, in which he describes the beauty of a proto-fascist state that has all the charm of a high security prison. Plato’s imagined Republic comes complete with its own selectively bred Guardian Class, for which Schutzstaffel (SS) is a pretty fair German translation.

There is much that is right about Plato, but what is wrong with him is evident even in his description of the gestation period for human beings:

"For the human creature the number is the first in which root and square multiplications comprising three dimensions and four limits of basic numbers, which make like and unlike, and which increase and decrease, produce a final result in completely commensurate terms."

Uh, yeah. If you are thinking this must be clearer in the original Greek, you are mistaken. It wasn't until a century ago that classicists figured out exactly what he was getting at, and then only by bothering colleagues in the Mathematics Department down the hall. The initial "number" has been determined to be 216, or 3 cubed plus 4 cubed plus 5 cubed. Then, 216 + [(3)(4)(5)] = 276 days. This is such a monumentally stupid way of saying "nine months" that only a man as brilliant as Plato could have come up with it. Much the same can be said about his entire Republic.

There is a totalitarian streak in many intellectuals from Plato’s day to our own. This stems from a belief that they are surrounded by fools, which no doubt is true, and that they themselves are not fools, which is very dubious indeed. Many find it impossible to resist the impulse to tell the rest of us what is good for us and then to try to ensure we get it good and hard. The results can be as minor as pettily annoying vice taxes or as catastrophic as the slaughter of millions by the social theorists of the Khmer Rouge.

Plato, in another dialogue, records Socrates' conclusion that he is the wisest man in Athens because he at least knows he is ignorant. Plato apparently forgot this when he wrote The Republic.

One fellow did challenge Plato’s pretensions during his lifetime. Dionysus of Syracuse, who provided Plato with accommodations and a cushy salary, grew tired of being lectured that a “wise man” could be happy either as a slave or as a king, so he sold Plato into slavery aboard a galley. Plato’s friends caught up with him in Aegina and purchased back his freedom. We are not told if Plato was still happy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

“Oedipus schmoedipus, a boy should love his mother”

A friend of mine is a gold mine of information on pop culture. He can rattle off the hit singles of The Marvelettes or the cast of the 80s horror flick Chopping Mall the way some other people can recite baseball stats. Yet, I often discover he hasn't seen, read, or heard the actual movie, book, or recording. He simply enjoys knowing about entertainment more than he enjoys experiencing the thing itself.

Most of us have a similar kind of acquaintance with weightier parts of the culture. We learn a Cliff Notes version (sometimes literally) of history, arts, and science in school with very little exposure to the original sources. We read some opinionated modern summary of the "real" causes of the South’s secession, for example, rather than read, say, the detailed 1861 farewell speech to the Senate by Jefferson Davis (D-MS). We read a paragraph about Nietzsche that describes him (inaccurately) as dark and dangerous. Sigmund Freud may get a whole page.

At the moment Freud is broadly unfashionable, though only a few percent of the people I meet have read a single one of his books. Why is he on the outs? For one thing, pharmacology and neurophysiology largely have elbowed aside psychoanalysis. Sigmund never disputed that the mind was physiological. He insisted on it. He simply argued that medical approaches were too blunt and systemic to effect the nuanced physical changes in the brain that could be achieved by analysis. Nowadays folks are not so sure.

Freud’s biggest image problem, however, is not medical but political. Freud didn’t flatter people in order to boost their self-esteem. Minds are unpleasant things, full of base and embarrassing motivations, and Freud didn’t hesitate to say so. He suggested some things about men, about women, about the sublimation of the libido, and about the social dominance of heterosexuality which don't blend well with contemporary political platitudes. To make matters worse, many self-styled “Freudians” who followed him were narrow-minded bigots who confused "this is the way it usually happens" with "this is the way it properly happens." They notoriously classified homosexuality until very recently as a disorder, for example. Freud himself, though, was surprisingly open-minded about this and about alternative sexuality in general:

"The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice." (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930)

The contents of the libraries of the world overwhelm us. We simply don’t have the time to check the original sources in every subject. We have little choice but to rely on the Cliff Notes versions most of the time. Nevertheless, we should treat these summaries with caution, and, at least sometimes, check the original sources, especially if something seems off. Whoever wrote the notes might have got it wrong.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pants on Fire

Bluntschli to Raina in Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw:

"You said you'd told only two lies in your whole life. Dear young lady: isn't that rather a short allowance? I'm quite a straightforward man myself; but it wouldn't last me a whole morning."

Most likely it wouldn't last ten minutes, at least according to the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology. Researchers taped ordinary conversations among subjects who were not told the point of the study. Some of the subjects knew each other, but most did not. Nearly all were convinced they had spoken honestly when questioned afterward, and said so. The subjects then were asked to review the tapes. All were surprised at how much they had fibbed. 60 percent of them had lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation; the average was "2.92 inaccurate things." There were no evident personal gains from any of the lies, other than minor status enhancements from social posturing. Men and women lied with equal frequency, though they lied somewhat differently. Men often bragged overtly while women tended to be more subtle, by flattering a potential ally for example. The subjects lied more often to strangers than to acquaintances, but perhaps it was just easier to fool strangers.

Said Twain (who credited Disraeli), "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics," and so I suspect "2.92," though pleasingly precise, underreports reality. After all, researchers had to rely on the subjects to admit their deceptions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Those Burgers Have a “Come Hither” Look

The old advertising mantra asserts "sex sells." Well, sort of.

According to the Journal of Consumer Behaviour, a study of 348 men, aged 17 to 39, demonstrated that when they watched videos of women in bikinis or when they fondled lingerie (presumably not their own), they were much more impatient to receive other stimuli, such as money, junk food, or soda.

"It seems that sexual appetite causes a greater urgency to consume anything rewarding," said the fun-loving Belgian authors Bram Van den Bergh, Siegfried DeWitte, and Luk Warlop.

I could be wrong, but I think the results say more about frustration than about stimulation. The guys were just diverting themselves from what they really wanted but (at that moment at least) couldn't have. Perhaps we should amend the old adage to read "thwarted sex sells."

By the way, I don’t know why women were left out of the study, nor would I hazard a guess as to what the results would be were they included.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Artists' Nectar

Absinthe, illegal in the US since 1912, is the notorious potion that provided inspiration and, occasionally, dissolution to scads of 19th and early 20th century artists and writers. The peculiar – sometimes hallucinogenic – effects commonly are ascribed to thujone, a substance claimed to be much like THC from the ingredient wormwood. According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, this is wrong. Surviving old bottles and newly concocted brews of absinthe were tested. Whatever the consequences to health of the various ingredients, the only one with any significant mind-altering characteristics is alcohol. There is a lot of that. Absinthe is 140 proof. Most modern hard liquors are 80 proof. It seems the old artistes were merely drunk. Their modern counterparts in the places where absinthe is illegal haven't been missing out. They just need to buy another round.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Something More for the Sales Pitch

Men, at least the majority without heartthrob good looks, no doubt were pleased by a Journal of Family Psychology article claiming that couples in which the wife is better looking than her husband are happier. Author McNulty suggests, "The husband who's less physically attractive than his wife is getting something more than maybe he can expect to get. He's getting something better than he's providing at that level. So he's going to work hard to maintain that relationship.” A man who believes, "I can do better," he concludes, conveys that opinion, intentionally or otherwise, and therefore is apt to make his spouse unhappy.

Of course, the average Joes have the challenge attracting those beauties in the first place. Easier said than done. I saw no photograph published of McNulty or his wife.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bad News Good News

Bad news: You're uglier than you think. A recent study employed modern graphics techniques with photos of generically ugly faces and of handsome/beautiful faces. Each participant was photographed and his or her facial image was morphed slowly from the generically ugly image, to his/her own real image, and then to the very attractive face. Participants then were asked to pick out their actual images from the series. Uniformly, they chose images morphed some distance toward the attractive face as being the accurate ones. This may explain why people typically dislike most photos of themselves. We are sure we look better than that. No, we don't.

Good News: Despite these self-flattering delusions, we still underestimate how attractive we are to other people. Subjects generally scored themselves on a 1-10 scale significantly lower than others scored them. Yes, I'm afraid I said "generally" this time rather than "uniformly." A few of us think we’re pretty hot.

I’m not one of those few. Why else would I just have updated my Photoshop?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rubens Blanched

Despite a theory that has gained currency in some circles, the ever-expanding waistlines of Americans are not the fault of Ronald McDonald. This is as silly as blaming La-Z-Boy for making sofas so soft and cushy that we sit on them too much. No one plants our butts in sofas but ourselves, and no one force-feeds us French fries either.

If we are looking for folks other than ourselves to blame, it makes more sense to point at our prehistoric ancestors for not being better hunter-gatherers. Until the past 100 years, calories have been in short supply for most of the people most of the time – there are still too many places where this is the case even today. Feast and famine were routine. In 27,000 BC it could be a very long stretch between bagging mammoths. The instinct to store up fat to carry us through hungry days was bred into us deeply. It remains bred into us, even though, for most First-Worlders, hungry days now are just an unpleasant choice.

We know that fat people are rare among modern hunter-gatherers – almost, if not quite, nonexistent. There is no reason to think it was different thousands of years ago. Yet, there are rather shocking statuettes from pre-agricultural times, such as the limestone Venus of Willendorf, which is about 26,000 years old.

This was not a one-off figurine. Others of similar proportions have turned up. It isn’t likely that this was a common look among real people, and perhaps that was the whole point. Archaeologists typically suggest “fertility symbols” when asked about the carvings. They probably are at least partly right in the interpretation, though the artists’ fantasies of being so well fed may have had more to do with the proportions than did caveman notions of female pulchritude. We’ll never really know.

Nowadays, “a lean and hungry look” is fashionable precisely because it is more difficult to achieve than the other kind. A “healthy appetite” is not a weakness but an inheritance. Scapegoating Ronald and his cohorts doesn’t help. Counting calories is a grim necessity, but, in truth, it beats the alternative.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Ursine Grunts

Except for a few years in my 40s, I've been a bachelor all my life, a fact probably deduced even by casual visitors to my house or office.

Rita Rudner: "Men don't live like human beings. They live like bears with furniture."

I'm not as bad as all that, but no one would mistake my home for Martha Stewart's.

I'm accustomed not only to rumpled attire and surroundings, but to privacy. My happiest romantic liaison was with a young lady who retained her own residence in Mineola. This is about 1.5 hours away, if traffic doesn't back up on the Cross Bronx Expressway. It was the right distance.

This is the new normal. Single households in the US are the majority of all ninety million households. Marriage – of any stripe – is now the “alternative” lifestyle. We’ll try to be tolerant.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Re-hab Nation and Carrie Nation

Substance abuse is nothing new. Despite what one might think from public handwringing by politicians and talk show guests, it isn’t even any more prevalent today than a century ago. Every attempt to eliminate the problem by attacking supplies has been as unsuccessful as was, in the end, Carrie Nation’s hatchet. There always are and will be people who can’t tolerate life without getting high. They will pay to accomplish it, and others will sell to them.

These days addiction is classified and treated as a disease, and this may be appropriate. However, there is a distinction between substance abuse and, say, heart disease or Parkinson’s. A sufferer of one of the latter cannot choose to stop the symptoms. Addicts can, and most eventually do.

In 1992 the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted a study known as the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Of the more than 4,500 interviewees were or had been dependent on alcohol, 27 percent sought some sort of formal treatment, whether AA or rehab. At the end of the study, one-quarter of those who never had any treatment, were still alcohol abusers; one third of those who received treatment were still abusing alcohol. Those without treatment actually had better recovery rates. The point is not that treatment is harmful – those in treatment may be harder cases – but that it isn’t the necessary element in ending abuse. The necessary element is personal choice; when a person finally chooses to be sober the rehabs and support groups may well help. Without that choice they don’t.

It is not an agreeable conclusion that we can’t do much to cure someone else’s addiction. However, a lot of conclusions are disagreeable and no less correct for that. All we can do is offer help, and we often make matters worse for them and for us when we try too hard to force the issue.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

AC/DC Marriage

Alongside ruder ones, there is a polite word for those who prefer their mates to be made of plastic and wires: technosexuals. (Calvin Klein already has trademarked “technosexual” for some unspecified future product.)

It’s not a new idea. Arguably, the Pygmalion and Galatea myth contains the seeds of it. The plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 scifi movie classic Metropolis hinges on a sexy robot. My Living Doll was an early ‘60s sitcom. The cult 1987 film Cherry 2000 takes it further. Making Mr. Right, also from 1987, gender-reverses the same idea. Full size dolls costing thousands of dollars (see are a present-day marketing success. Efforts to make true robots both sexually attractive and lifelike continue. Kokoro manufactures and markets some of the most successful (and disturbing) animatronic “actroids.” (See

According to Scientific American, artificial-intelligence researcher David Levy asked a crowd at the Museum of Sex in New York City “Why not marry a robot?” One of the visitors countered by asking if anyone who wanted to marry a robot was deluded. Levy’s response was, “If the alternative is that you are lonely and sad and miserable, is it not better to find a robot that claims to love you and acts like it loves you?”

I suppose I’ve heard less sound arguments for marriage. In both of the 1987 movies mentioned above, the protagonists have to decide between a biological partner and a mechanical one. The two films end opposite ways. In case you haven’t seen them, I’ll let you guess which is which.

There is little doubt that human/robot relationships (if that is the right word) will be part of the future. Whether it ever will cease to be awkward for a technosexual to announce his or her predilections to mom and dad is another question.

Monday, March 15, 2010


People are notoriously hopeless at judging risks and benefits, a fact which provides profits to insurers and windfalls to casinos. We fret over very small risks while blithely accepting big ones. More people are afraid of snakes than of cars, for instance, though only 10 Americans per year, on average, die of snake bites while 40,000 die in their cars. What about the safety of our kids? There never (as in “not ever”) has been a single death reported from marijuana overdose, while a dozen teenagers die on football fields in a typical year. What activity have we made illegal?

The “savanna principle” is probably at the bottom of this. Human brains are not hard-wired to understand anything that didn’t exist in the ancestral environment where they evolved. Cars didn’t exist 10,000 years ago, so, while we can grasp the dangers intellectually, we don’t feel them viscerally – not in the way we feel the dangers of poisonous snakes, which were plentiful. Viscerally is the way we make most of our decisions, despite the self-flattering “Sapiens” in Homo Sapiens.

Our poor risk assessments often counteract efforts to keep us safe. Again, cars offer a good example. When drivers know they have four-wheel drive or better brakes, they drive faster and less carefully even in bad weather conditions. Insurers in the UK once offered discounts to drivers of cars with safer brakes. ‘They don't anymore,’ says John Adams, a risk analyst and emeritus professor of geography at University College. There was no reduction is accidents.

There probably is no getting around our emotional responses to different types of risks and opportunities. However, our cortex is good for something, and it behooves us to double check those responses occasionally to see if they make any sense. It might save us some grief.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where We’re All Better-Looking at Closing Time

For any number of reasons, Australia is one of the world’s most enjoyable countries to visit. In addition to the more commonly noted attractions, there is a special appeal for single men, at least for those who rely heavily on impaired judgment in their prospective dates:

“SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two out of three Australian women binge drink, with some knocking back more than 11 alcoholic beverages in a single sitting, according to a survey.”

With that blood serum level, perhaps even Franky’s monster could find a bride at closing time without troubling Vic to sew more bodies together.

According to the UN World Drug Report, Aussies also smoke slightly more marijuana per capita than Americans. Unless the amorous traveler carries around a pocketful of snacks, though, this may not help much. Do Americans score high on any impairment chart? Regrettably, yes. More Americans than Australians use hard drugs, but no closing time is late enough to make that attractive.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Went Thataway

A recent TCM showing of Since You Went Away (1944) starring Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotton, caught and held my attention. The movie assuredly is wartime propaganda, but this is not a fault. Displaying a very 1940s mix of sophistication and innocence, the film centers on Anne Hilton (Colbert) and her two daughters getting on with life on the home front while Anne's husband is in the service. The strains intensify when he is reported MIA. This is a family as we would like it to be, made up of flawed but fundamentally decent individuals who are as we ourselves would like to be. It all seems so very much worth fighting for. The movie is another example of that special 40s knack for portraying common nobility without coming off as Pollyanna or preachy.

There is a long standing argument over whether drama should reflect an audience or elevate it. Very long standing. Aristotle complained about Euripides, saying, “Sophocles presents men as they ought to be, while Euripides portrays them as they are.” In truth, there was room for both dramatists in the Theater of Dionysus, and there is room in the multiplex for both sorts of movies today. There is even a place for other types of movies altogether, such as those that portray us as we're glad we're not (Hannibal Lector) or as we fantasize being (Spiderman).

Any type of portrayal, of course, is incidental to the real purpose of movie-making: selling tickets, DVDs, and downloads. Sam Goldwyn's dictum is still largely heeded in Hollywood: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." Since You Went Away sold tickets in 1944 because virtually every household had someone who went away. Our soldiers still go away, though not in such overwhelming numbers, so would a modern remake find a commercial audience? I don't know, but I suspect not. Audiences have changed a lot since 1944. To ensure ticket sales, the homebodies might need to be sexy martial artists with secret identities.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cat and Mouse

"I've been in love 10,000 times
All I have to do is remember my lines"
-- ZZ Top

The orders of magnitude in that lyric may be hyperbolic, but most single adults know the feeling.

The advantages to being single are innumerable. There are no negotiations about the ordinary business of life. Our idiosyncrasies have free rein. There is no need to explain why exactly we are getting up at 3:30 in the morning to watch a DVD of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There is no argument over whether to remodel the kitchen and, if so, how much to spend on it. The only obnoxious friends and relatives in the house are one's own. There is no discussion over what munchables to toss in the microwave (or whether to remove them from the box first). There is no struggle for a piece of the blanket at night. There is no question about the current checking account balance. There is simplicity and peace of mind. Add to this Mark Twain's grumble that love affairs end either of two ways, badly or tragically.

And yet… and yet… even the most curmudgeonly of us for some reason is sometimes tempted to complicate life, despite having been there and done that repeatedly. Some of this is hard-wiring, much the way a sated cat is hard-wired nevertheless to chase a mouse, without thought of what to do with it if caught. In the case of humans, what we catch almost invariably comes with baggage that no sane person actually wants. It may be worse if we are the mice.

Humans, unlike cats, have the option to ignore their hard-wiring – not easily, but we can do it. Then something eye-catching scurries by...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


According to a study funded in part by the NIH and published in Addiction, ninth graders who listen to songs that mention marijuana are significantly more likely to use marijuana.

Well OK, but just a thought regarding chickens and eggs: might not stoners be more inclined to choose songs about pot than non-stoners? Just askin’.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Martian Media

This final weekend of January 2010, we have enjoyed a so-called Wolf Moon. This occurs when the moon is at perigee – its closest approach to earth in its elliptical orbit – and is full at the same time. It usually happens once a year. Sometimes it happens twice. This weekend, Mars also is easier than usual to spot, since it shines brightly and ruddily just to the left of the moon.

Looking at the objects Friday reminded me of the Phoenix Lander, which NASA has been trying to wake up for a couple weeks. Phoenix sits near the north pole of Mars where it has conducted geologic (areologic?) studies for the past two earth years. With the arrival of the Martian winter 5 months ago, the lander’s operations were shut down. Phoenix wasn’t expected to survive the winter, and apparently it hasn’t. NASA will continue to send instructions for a while.

The craft did the field work for which it was designed. What is more, it took the opportunity to say “Hi” to the Martians. Yes really. On the photo of the lander, what is the object to the left of the little flag that looks like a DVD? It is a DVD. It contains science fiction stories and artwork with Martian themes, as well as the names of a quarter million humans (without their cell phone numbers, which seems to me an oversight.)

One only can guess what the Martians will make of their depiction in the Terran media. Let’s hope they’re more amused than insulted. Perhaps the next DVD we send (high def, of course) should be more about earth. I wouldn't advise including any cheesecake photos though. I saw Mars Needs Women (1967) and know what can happen.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Expired Futures

In every January of the twentieth century for which I was present, my casual awareness of the of the new year’s number was shaky. Accordingly, when paying bills, I often dated checks the previous year. Sometimes I would catch the error and try to re-tweak the date. Changing with a pen stroke 1985 to 1986, for example, was inelegant but possible. Changing a 6 to a 7, on the other hand was so much messier that in 1987 (and other 7 years) I tore up a lot of checks and started over. I have no idea how many misdated checks went out uncaught and unedited. None ever came back for that reason, so I presume banks make allowances for that error. By February I always was fully adjusted to the year.

Since the turn of the millennium, the annual transition has been much smoother, and my checks so far this year remain untweaked – yes, I still write them by hand rather than on some computer bookkeeping program. This is not because my day-to-day awareness has grown sharper in any way. Rather, it is because all twenty-first century dates seem equally unlikely to me. 2009 looked just as surreal to me as 2010. The former never looked quite right, so writing it never became a habit. I've hesitated before writing any date in the past 10 years. All of them seem to belong to a faraway future.

I remember sitting in a Boston theater watching 2001, A Space Odyssey during its first release; being 1968, the marquee outside actually said, "For Stoned Audiences." I didn't question the film's suppositions that by 2001 we would have true AI computers, passenger flights to moon bases, and manned flights to Jupiter. For all the hot wars, cold wars, and turmoil of the time, it was an optimistic era.

Visions of the future always say more about the time in which they are made than about the future itself. Take the classic film version of HG Wells' Things to Come (1936). The movie was right about upcoming global war, of course, though perhaps in 1936 one didn't need to be a science fiction writer to foresee that. The film’s postulated post-war (in the context of the movie, utopian) recovery, however, was disturbingly authoritarian, which was very much a 1930s way of looking at things. Try another Wells adaptation, The Time Machine (the 1960, not the 2002 version). The ambiguous anti-war message (ambiguous because Rod Taylor’s character takes on the Morlocks) is a little less disturbing, but still very 1960. The actual 1895 novel, of course, is not about war at all but about class cleavage, a theme reflecting the industrial politics of the day.

What does twenty-first century scifi say about us – The Matrix Reloaded, Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, et al -- other than that we expect the future to be rife with experts in martial arts? By and large, the visions are darker than in earlier years. Compare the 1970s Battlestar Galactica with the 2000s one. Perhaps it is reassuring that scifi dates quickly. Our gloom may yet prove to be as misplaced as the cheeriness of 1968.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Luck of Myshkin

I just tossed away yesterday’s losing Pick-6 ticket. Yes, I buy a state lottery ticket every week or so (though I often forget to do so) for no real reason other than that the fantasy of winning is worth a buck. It’s not worth more than a buck per week, however, because winning a lottery (to mix gaming metaphors) is not in my cards. Correction: in the draft lottery my first year of college, I scored “31,” which was a winning number that carried a prize of an all-expenses paid tour of Vietnam, but I opted to keep my student deferment rather than cash in on it immediately; by the time I graduated in 1974 the prize had expired. So, I’m not unlucky by any means. Things sometimes break my way. Yet, four leaf clovers don’t bloom in my yard either. I roll sevens exactly the percentage of times statistical theory predicts, and turn up snake eyes with equal fidelity to the odds. I’m the rule, rather than the exception, just as, by definition, most of us necessarily are. So, New Jersey collects an extra $50 from me per year, and the chance that lottery cash will flow the other way is less than getting struck by lightning.

Is there really such a thing as being born lucky? Yes, I think so. I don’t ascribe anything paranormal to it. The Bell Curve requires outliers in each direction. Purely randomly, some people just are just flukes.

You surely know someone like this. Let’s call him Lucky Chucky. His investments always are perfectly timed. He wins the best jobs and the best dates without apparent effort, just by being in the right place at the right time. He never gains weight during the holidays despite a voracious appetite. Even when his luck seems to desert him, it turns out for the best after all: the flight he misses because he is stuck in traffic has double engine failure on take-off and splashes in the Hudson; a bank error freezes his accounts for 48 hours, preventing him from buying the stocks he wants, the day before the market crashes; that sort of thing.

Then there are the Gloomy Glendas who seem hounded by fate. My favorite example is the winner of a Dubious Achievement Award by Esquire some years ago. The fellow drove off a road in Italy and was seriously injured, but he hung on by a slender thread. An ambulance picked him up, but hit another car on the way to the hospital. The patient hung on. A second ambulance took him, but drove off the road. The man survived. A police car showed up, put the man in the back, and sped off toward the hospital. The police car had an accident with another vehicle. That one killed him. Then there was a British mariner in World War One who had three ships sunk under him by U Boats in one hour, a record which holds to this day. The sailors who pulled him out of the drink the third time showed daring under the circumstances.

Lucky Chucky typically dismisses the awe of onlookers with the smug comment, “People make their own luck.” Annoyingly, there is some evidence of this. Belief that you are unlucky is deleterious. Friday the 13th, for example, really is hazardous for those who think it is. A nationwide Finnish study of hospital records by Simo Nayha covering accident fatalities between 1971 and 1997 showed significant spikes (from 5% to as high as 38%) on Fridays numbered 13 compared to other Fridays. This looks suspiciously like dangerous overcompensation, especially since it is purely a Western phenomenon. Among Chinese, not 13 but the number 4 is traditionally inauspicious. Sociologist David Phillips found a 7 percent higher mortality from cardiac arrest among Chinese Americans on the 4th day of each month; no such correlation exists among non-Asian Americans. The effect again probably involves stress and overcompensation. We all know how counterproductive it can be to try too hard to avoid a bad outcome; in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is so determined not to break his hostess’ vase that he accidentally smashes it.

It cuts both ways. In a study by Richard Wiseman, volunteers were asked to rate themselves as lucky or unlucky. They then were given a newspaper and were asked to count the photographs. Inside the paper was a half-page ad that read “Win 100 pounds by telling the experimenter you have seen this.” Far more of the self-described lucky people than unlucky ones spotted the ad. By focusing on counting photos – in other words, on not making a mistake -- the unlucky ones missed the opportunity.

There are limits to making your own luck, of course. No amount of positive attitude will alter the odds on a throw of the dice. There is not much to do about the truly random vagaries of fortune but bear with them. Jim Croce: “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” The universe is disinterested, but (unlike some people) it is not actually malicious, however much it sometimes seems to be. And yes, lottery results are covered by the limits to making your own luck – short of rigging the draw, that is. Self-described “lucky” and “unlucky” people show no statistical difference whatsoever in lottery results. They are equally unlikely to win.