Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Smart is That?

As the first significant snowfall of the season turns the local streets beyond my window into a bumper-cars arena, I once again question the sense living in a northern state. It’s the same question I’ve asked myself each winter for decades. I’ve yet to come up with a good answer, thereby giving credence to Claudette Colbert’s assertion in The Palm Beach Story (1942): “Anyway, men don't get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.

Whether our species as a whole is getting brighter as it ages is a question that vexes scientists. The popular science journals sometimes report one way and sometimes the other. Professor James Flynn, for one, believes that the increase in raw IQ test scores in the past 100 years indicates a change that is at least partly biological (see earlier post: All in All, I’d Rather Be Errol ), whether due to improved nutrition, epigenetic factors, or some other influence. Others dismiss the improved scores as an artifact of education; they argue that people today simply are more accustomed to taking standardized IQ-like tests, and so do better at them. True underlying intelligence, they say, is in long-term decline. In the latter camp are paleontologists David Geary and Drew Bailey who note that skeletal evidence shows that cranial capacity peaked 20 000 years ago (see earlier post The Incredible Shrinking Brain ); since then, brain size has shrunk, and by a significant amount. The biggest drop occurred between 15 000 and 10 000 years ago, but did not stop there.

This past week the “getting stupider” hypothesis was in the news again thanks to Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford University. In an article in the journal Trends in Genetics, Crabtree reiterates the physical evidence and adds, "A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly extreme selection is a thing of the past." In short, dunces aren’t culled out. He notes that, even without reverse selection, failure to weed out dimmer bulbs will result in a downward genetic drift due to normal mutation rates in the genetic code. If between 2000 and 5000 genes are involved in intelligence (the generally accepted range), each of us should be carrying two or more maladaptive mutations that arose with the past 3000 years: "If selection is only slightly relaxed, one would still conclude that nearly all of us are compromised compared to our ancient ancestors of 3,000 to 6,000 years ago."

Crabtree has evoked numerous rebuttals, mostly on the grounds that his article is speculative and that his arguments aren’t testable.

So which is it? Are we brainier than our great grandparents or are we halfway down the slide to the future portrayed in Idiocracy? Are the two mutually exclusive – which is to say, could we not, by training and education, be doing more with less? I tend to the “dumber but better educated” view based purely on personal observation, but I could be wrong.

I recommend re-visiting Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato before deciding whether we are brighter than our ancestors. If nothing else, those ancient Greeks were smart enough to live in a Mediterranean climate.

Perhaps Not All of Our Paleo Predecessors Were Brainiacs (double-click for full-screen)

Friday, November 23, 2012

An Old Fashioned Black Friday

As usual, my Thanksgiving table yesterday was attended by an eclectic mix of ages and characters. The only thing they all have in common is that all are single. That is, of course, the new normal. A year ago, for the first time, a majority of adults in the US were unmarried, and the number of singles continues to rise. Married people are now the ones pursuing an alternate lifestyle. Ad hoc table assemblages like mine soon may be the rule.

But that’s not the topic of this blog. (If I ramble, blame the effects of turkey overdose.)

Now the Day After T’Day progresses, and, as the afternoon transitions to evening, the aftereffects of yesterday’s overindulgence slowly wear off. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine trolling the malls the day after Thanksgiving. For me, no Black Friday deal can be that good. Plenty of people feel otherwise.

For more than 100 years, the Christmas shopping season has been regarded as beginning the day after Thanksgiving, which in 1939 FDR moved from the traditional last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday. (In 1939 the last Thursday was the 30th, so his change shifted it to the 23rd, which added an extra shopping week.) However, I don’t recall the term “Black Friday” being used for the day when I was a kid. A quick look at Wiki reveals that the term became general around 1975, having been local Philadelphia jargon for about 20 years prior. The folks in Philly used it to complain about the traffic and crowds. As the term spread, it took on another meaning: it is the moment in the year when most retailers’ balance sheets finally move from red to black.

It’s common for terms to have multiple origins. As a totally unrelated example, the name Jeep apparently came from GP, which was just an otherwise meaningless manufacturing designation painted on the Ford version of the vehicle (the most common version, built under license from Willy’s). However, it was a general purpose vehicle, and most soldiers assumed GP stood for general purpose, which helped spread the term. Willy’s smartly adopted Jeep as a trademark.  (The brand is now owned by Chrysler.)

The Black Friday I remember from my schooldays was September 24, 1869 (not from personal experience but from history class – I’m old but not that old) . The US went off the gold standard in 1862, and in 1869 the greenback currency had not yet returned to it. President Grant wanted to expedite the return. The first step toward that goal was to stabilize the price of gold through strategic sales and purchases by the Treasury. Grant’s desire for a convertible currency conflicted with the plans of big-time speculators Jay Gould and Jim Fisk who schemed to corner the gold market. They commanded enough resources and drew in enough banks into gold and gold-futures purchases to drive the price up from $125 per ounce to 165. One of their confederates, however, was Abel Corbin, who was married to Grant’s sister. On this occasion the connection did not serve him well. In the presence of Gould and Fisk, he asked President Grant not to intervene against the rise in the gold price. It was the wrong thing to ask. Grant understood what their game was, and on September 24 Secretary of the Treasury Boutwell dumped government gold on the market, which sent the price crashing from 165 to 138. A panic ensued as brokerages and banks closed down. Thousands of investors went bankrupt. Jay Gould, however, came out fine. He had sold on the crest of the market. Fisk seems not to have been harmed either. A Congressional Committee could find no smoking gun, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Gould got the word from someone in the Treasury about what was about to happen.

Much as I prefer a good price on gold to a good price on a TV set or winter coat, we’re probably better off with the modern version of Black Friday than the old one. Both have a way of emptying pockets though.

From the October 16, 1869, Harper's Weekly

Clip from Trading Places

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Late to the Party

I all but missed the mash-up of the intra-league Jerzey Derby Brigade roller derby in Morristown last night, which makes this entry shorter than usual. Personal obligations occupied me elsewhere until 8 PM, and then Morristown proved to be more than usually jam-packed with Saturday night partiers  and singles-bars cruisers. The nearest parking space to the rink (for those who know the town) was a healthy walk away at the public lot on the corner of Elm and Franklin. As I wandered into the rink in the final minutes, however, the outcome of the bout remained very much in doubt. Thanks to Richard (another Richard) for catching me up.

The Brigade divided itself into Red and Green teams, with additional skaters participating from Shore Points Roller Derby and Skyland Roller Girls. The division was done well, because the match was a close one throughout, characterized by alternating power jams and a see-saw scoreboard. #57 Heinz Catch-up in Green, skated and jammed well, as she always does. #1203 Hits Spaniola in Red also racked up points, as she did the October mash-up. # 6 River Slam was a hard-hitting blocker and Queen Guillotine was effective all-around.

As the clock ticked down, Green expanded on a small lead with Heinz adding final points. The score was 166-140 in favor of Green.

The mash-up surely helped further hone tactics and skills for when the Brigade takes on the State College Area Rollers in an inter-league bout on December 3. My intent is to see all of that one.

Friday, November 16, 2012

White Suit, Keen Eye, and Sharp Quill

In 1968, at the high-tide of the counterculture, I opened The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on a Friday and finished it over the weekend. Most probably (I no longer remember), I ignored assigned school reading on the same weekend. The book details the adventures of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Merry Pranksters on their cross-country tour in the psychedelic bus Further. The reviewer for The New York Times, Eliot Fremont Smith, commented at the time, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not simply the best book on the hippies, it is the essential book.” So it was, and is. Tom Wolfe brought his creative, exuberant, and off-beat style to his reportage, capturing images, dialogue, perspectives, fashions, and tone perfectly. Ever since that weekend, Tom Wolfe steadily has expanded his territory on my bookshelves.

Wolfe’s nonfiction (e.g The Right Stuff) reads very much like fiction; yet, not until he was 54 years old did he write a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Appropriately enough, The Bonfire of the Vanities reads very much like nonfiction. In this dark, cynical, but funny book, Wolfe captured the social milieu of ‘80s New York so well that he uncannily presaged the Bernie Goetz affair in his plot. The book, by the way, should not be judged by the 1990 movie, which was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actress, and Worst Screenplay. (For all that, the movie has acquired a cult cachet in recent years.) Wolfe’s next novel A Man in Full dissects the adolescent (or, more properly, primate) social jockeying of players in the debt-driven prosperity of the ‘90s, as they dance on the fence-top between opportunity and disaster, success and jail. I am Charlotte Simmons in 2004 was a spot-on depiction of prevailing values and youth culture on college campuses. In this novel, Wolfe once again was prophetic. At the fictional Dupont University (which bears striking similarities to Duke), a scandal in the novel involving the basketball team presaged the real 2006 Duke lacrosse team scandal.

In 2012 the octogenarian Wolfe shows he is not ready to hang up his keyboard. His latest novel, Back to Blood, is set in Miami, the most ethnically diverse city in an ever more diverse America. The blood of the title refers to bloodline, not blood spatter. (Tom leaves spatter to Jeff Lindsay and Dexter.) An underlying theme: despite (or because of) the intermingling of Haitians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Russians, African-Americans, Anglos, etc., ethnic and racial consciousness infuses everything – often subtly, but sometimes by megaphone – in politics, on the job, and in personal relations. Individuals are rarely just individuals. One character, a newspaper editor on the ever-more-irrelevant Miami Herald, mulls to himself about this: “Everybody…all of them…it’s back to blood! Religion is dying…but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable – you couldn’t stand it – to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random item inside a supercollider known as the universe. But believing in something by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it.” The  plot involves a pornography addiction therapist, a Russian billionaire who might have donated forged paintings to a museum, and a hero Cuban cop who is reviled by his own family because he rescued but then helped arrest a Cuban refugee off-shore (automatic asylum applies only to Cubans who first touch land). The portrait of Miami (and not just Miami) that emerges is detailed and convincing; the image is far from pleasant, but it is entertaining.

Upshot: a thumbs up for Back to Blood. One only can hope that this novel, too, is not prophetic.

Tom Has a Friend on YouTube

Posted by a fan

Sunday, November 11, 2012


My power clicked on over the weekend. I’m lucky. The road crews and utility crews have worked long and hard under unpleasant conditions. Of course, linemen usually work under unpleasant conditions. When else does power fail? Yet, for all their hard work, there still are thousands of customers who have received no promises of service before Thanksgiving. The available resources to throw at the problem are just too stretched.

While appreciative of the efforts at restoration after the hurricane, I can’t shrug off the feeling that we used to be better in the US at construction, reconstruction, and fixing what needs to be fixed, in both the private and public domains. Example: on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria (not the present one) which was demolished in 1929, excavation for the 102-story Empire State Building began on January 22, 1930; the Empire State Building opened for business on May 1, 1931. In 2012, work on the new 104-story 1 World Trade Center is in its eleventh year and remains ongoing. After losing most of its capital fleet on 12/7/41, a short four years later the US Navy was sailing an astonishing force of nearly 7000 ships including two dozen full size aircraft carriers and scores of smaller ones, a building program hard to imagine replicating today – the navy presently operates 288 ships. Having once produced lunar-capable Saturn V boosters, we no longer can launch our astronauts as far as low earth orbit.

Much of this is a matter of evolving regulation and management styles, which in their present form often seem purpose-designed to slow everything down. When my dad built houses back around 1960, he could submit a subdivision proposal to a local planning board on Friday, get approved that night (assuming the proposal asked for no exceptions to the zoning ordinance), and start work on Monday. Today, for a similar subdivision proposal, the process of review – not just by planning board(s) but the DEP and EPA – is likely to take (quite seriously) five years, with no certainty about what, if anything, will be approved. The change in large part explains why – to reference a recent political flap – "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as expected."

Perhaps I’m wrong in suspecting that, had an equivalent storm to Sandy hit the Northeast 50 years ago, the response would have been more “can do” than “we’re trying.” But I don’t think so. Oh, well. I personally am not as can-do as I used to be either. Maybe graying has something to do with both the individual and national cases: the median age in the US is at an all-time high of 37.1 and rising. We’re all getting a little creaky in the joints.

The great Northeast Blackout of 1965, covering much of Ontario, New York, New Jersey and New England, was caused by a cascade failure of relays. Since the lines remained intact and there was little damage to other hardware, power was back up in 12 hours. The New York Times the following year quoted doctors who reported a spike in births in the affected area. Actual birth records don’t show any such spike, but then 12 hours aren’t such a very long time to go without electrically powered recreation. Between 7 and 24 days are along time. If a spike proves real next July/August, I’ll take back the adjective “creaky.”

OK, It's Not This Bad

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Not So Hot

It’s another evening hunkered at my office. Power is still out at my home, which means there has been no light, heat, or water (I’m on a well) there since the 29th of October. Snow is falling tonight as is the temperature. This poses a threat to my pipes in which some water no doubt lingers. Though I’m NJ born and raised, I’m increasingly aware of the advantages of the Southern states – the sky high real estate taxes in NJ, which I paid today, are at this point just a secondary issue. Yet, long before central heating – even before property taxes –  NJ was a populated land. The Lenni-Lenape lived here. What were they thinking?

I suppose they were thinking that, on balance, it was worth shivering through a few months. By the time of the Dutch arrival, the Lenni-Lenape were not quite sedentists, nomads, farmers, or hunter-gathers. They were a mix of all four. They planted crops in the spring, traveled to the Jersey Shore in the summer for the fishing and clam bakes, returned to harvest in the fall, and then hunted through the winter. To outdoorsy types, this probably sounds pleasant. Even if I wanted to, though, I couldn’t really emulate their cold weather lifestyle by hunting the area around my abode (numerous though the deer are): the neighbors would complain.

The toughest part of their lifestyle surely was the planting and harvesting.  That they bothered to do it suggests their numbers already were taxing the environment. Anthropologist/historian Jared Diamond commented that settled agriculture was "the worst mistake in the history of the human race." The Lenni-Lenape were halfway to making it.

Why did Jared say that? Because hunter-gatherers have easier, healthier, and more relaxed lives. Most of the handful of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples live in extremely marginal environments. Yet even in the Kalahari Desert the !Kung spend between 12 and 19 hours per week collecting food. The Hazda nomads in East Africa spend 14. They have a two-day work week and can spend the rest of their time as they like. In temperate regions, rich with game and edible plants, the task would have been much easier. Hunter-gatherer diets are more varied and nutritious. So much so, that, based on skeletal evidence, between 14,000 BC and 3000 BC, as farmers superseded hunter-gatherers, average height fell by 6 inches (15cm) and life expectancy dropped by 7 years.

No one knows for sure why, despite the disadvantages, people settled down after so many thousands of years as nomads, but the most convincing hypothesis is “by accident.” The one advantage to farming is productivity: 25 people can live off 25 acres instead of 25,000 acres (or more). Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples are careful about their births since they have to carry everything with them, including small children. Still, such control is never perfect and numbers can grow. If population ticks up enough to overtax a reasonable foraging range (while neighboring tribes limit the option of moving), it makes sense to supplement wild foods with some planted crops. The resultant surplus then allows population to tick up some more. At some point it simply isn’t possible for all the people to live off the natural wildlife. They are dependent on the crops and have become sedentary farmers in spite of themselves. Oops.

As soon as there were full time farmers producing surpluses, there were full time politicians and their goons to take the surpluses away from them; the politicians then enhanced their own power by  re-gifting the food as though it were theirs to soldiers and other retainers. They never have stopped doing that. Toss in some bean-counters who figure out a way to scratch down records of the leaders’ swag, and we have civilization.

Now that I describe it, civilization isn’t sounding like a very good idea either… All the same, lacking the skills to live off the land in NJ (much less the Kalahari), I’ll be happier when my lights are back on.

(PS -- All I’ll say about the election is that I vote third party. To steal and remold a line from a more mainstream partisan, voting for major party candidates just encourages them.)

Steve McQueen in Papillon (1973). Papillon escapes from Devil’s Island and discovers the simple life. Why does he leave here again?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Not My First Troubles from a Sandy

“I need power!” complained a neighbor yesterday. Don’t we all?

She meant electric power specifically which has been out at my house since Monday (October 29) courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It will be out quite a bit longer by the looks of the dangling telephone wires, snapped poles, and trees hung up in electric lines along the surrounding roadways. Some local homes have generators, but these are sputtering to a halt as gasoline runs dry – few area stations have functioning fuel pumps, and those that do have long lines of cars stretching down the road. The power at my office, located on a main route, came back on last night, which offers me some private refuge from the cold and dark. At 946 millibars, Sandy tied the 1938 record for the most severe hurricane on record north of Cape Hatteras. Utility crews have lots of work.

My damage wasn’t severe in the way such things are measured. At the office, one tall pine tree came down in the parking lot, my sign blew down (two 6 x 6 inch posts snapped), and shingles stripped off the roof. At home, one pine hangs precariously over the garage and another one fell across the driveway. Otherwise the trees missed anything important, though fallen ones litter the yard. I've already cut up the trees in the driveway and parking lot.

Hurricanes, like earthquakes and other forces of nature, remind us of historian/philosopher Will Durant’s line: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Oh, we can prepare and fortify, and many of those efforts pay off, especially in more modest events. Sometimes they don’t. I remember an acquaintance in Lower Matecumbe Key in Florida who once had lost his furniture to flooding. So, when a hurricane was forecast he lashed his furniture to the ceiling; there was no flooding but the wind took off the roof. Ultimately, some things are bigger than we are. Sometimes all we can do is pick up the pieces as best we can afterward.

Much the same goes for many man-made disasters. Much as we like to believe that, in social matters at least, every problem must have a solution and that good intentions are all we need to find it, history provides us with no reassurance. Humans are full of their own forces of nature which run amok. Not all of the disasters involve bloodshed, though there are plenty of those types, too. Consider, instead, economic turmoil of the sort documented in This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Princeton economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. This was published soon after the 2008 financial crisis and is still one of the best analyses of that event and others like it. Their conclusion is that these crises are recurrent “equal opportunity” events that occur in all types of economies. One inevitably will happen again despite any measures we put in place, because “a financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics, and profits no matter how well regulated it seems to be.” Ultimately, there simply are limits to the human capacity for self-governance – limits which grow ever more evident as I grow older and more cynical – and sometimes there is little to do but pick up the pieces after our follies lead to smash-ups.

Nothing we do to ourselves, however, can match what Earth can do to us when she gets cranky. Let’s hope her mood is pleasant for a while.

Clip from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)