Friday, July 29, 2016

A Random Walk on Wall Street

Every now and then the universe seems to be telling you something. Carl Jung believed this enough to expound on synchronicity and the collective unconscious. I don’t buy it. I suspect the universe is all random events and that any “seems” comes from confirmation bias. Be that as it may, odd coincidences do catch our attention. Several times in recent months, for example, I’ve seen references to an obscure book by successful mutual fund manager Edgar Lawrence Smith, a fellow of whom I’d never before heard – or at least I don’t remember hearing of him. (The recurrence surely has to do with my choice of reading genres in those months.) The references to the book for the most part were snickering, and that was enough to prompt me to look up the original. The author of a well-received treatise on stock investing in the 1920s, Smith in 1939 published Tides and the Affairs of Men. The title, of course, derives from Julius Caesar.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune

Economic theory has gotten very mathematically complex in the past couple of decades. There is much insight inherent in the new analytical tools, and they allow for such things (among many others) as valuing arcane derivatives in ways other than guesswork. Yet, today’s economists are no better at forecasting the stock market than were their predecessors a hundred years ago. 2008 caught nearly everyone (the SEC most of all) by surprise. Accordingly, for a common investor writings from the last century are every bit as useful – and as useless – as anything new.

There are two main points in Smith’s book. One is the Decennial Cycle. Analyzing stock prices since 1880, he discerned a repeating ten year pattern in stock movements. The scale of price movement might vary but the general pattern persisted. He didn’t try to explain the pattern; he simply noted that it was there. (This pattern, if still valid, suggests 2017 will be a bad year.) The other point is weirder. He also claimed to see a correlation between stock prices and the weather. In this case I think his data points are selective to put it kindly. I would snicker if Smith hadn’t somehow managed to make money despite these views.

The fact that a fund manager could invest based on the weather and be successful at it brings to mind a point made long before Smith’s time. In 1863 Jules Regnault, who also was a successful broker/investor, wrote Calcul des Chances et Philosophie de la Bourse. In this treatise he tells us that stock prices already embody the average opinion of a multitude of investors with the result that your chances of winning or losing on any given stock pick are exactly 50:50. Prices follow a “random walk.” Actually, your odds are worse than a coin toss when you take account of transaction costs such as brokers’ fees. The only ways to make money in stocks are 1) to get lucky, 2) to have inside information, or 3) to be invested during a time of a general market price rise. (The hackneyed but useful modern phrase describing #3 is “a rising tide lifts all boats.”) Regnault preferred bonds with clearly defined rates of return over stocks, though of course one must diversify enough to survive the occasional default. That equity holdings should be diversified was centuries-old advice by 1863.

Here we have the key to Smith’s success – at least after the 1929 debacle. It didn’t really matter what wacky method he used to pick stocks so long as the general market trend was up and so long as he diversified his risks in the process.

The Random Walk is still taught in business schools as is the dartboard method of investing: throwing darts at The Wall Street Journal is as successful an investment strategy as any other. That doesn’t stop analysts from trying to beat the market. Some seem to do it, at least for a few years, but they are balanced by others who are just as smart yet lag the market. It is hard to see more than luck in either outcome.

Be warned again, though, that, if Smith was right, in 2017 there will be a change in the weather.

Barrett Strong - Money (That's What I Want) [1959]

Saturday, July 23, 2016


My parents moved from Whippany to Mendham NJ in the summer of 1959 when I was 6. For my mom this was a move back to Mendham where she had grown up. While the coincidence of the move with the turning of the decade was not perfect it was close. So, when I recall the 1950s I think of very young childhood and Whippany while the 1960s mean boyhood, tween, teen, and Mendham. I was already a scifi fan at the time of the move. I credit Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Now that I think about it, it is somewhat surprising my parents let me watch something with that title at that age.

I recall watching only a few scifi movies during the 50s. That’s not to say I didn’t see more, but I don’t remember them. They were 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Invaders from Mars, Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Mysterians. The first and last of those were at drive-ins (20,000 Leagues under the Sea must have been a re-release) and the middle three were on television. While I liked them all – and still do for that matter, though nowadays just for laughs in the case of The Mysterians – the least assuming of the bunch with the lowest budget had the biggest impact on me. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed in only 23 days. The only special effects that weren’t off-the-shelf were the big alien plant pods. I watched this for the first time at night with my sister. It scared the hell out of me and I loved every minute of it. I’ve enjoyed it on each subsequent view as well, including last night when it unexpectedly turned up on cable.

The movie has been remade several times – on at least one occasion with flair and merit – but I still like the original the best.  Naturally at age 5 or 6 (whichever it was) I didn’t have a very sophisticated take on the movie. The whole “Run! They’re going to get you!” element was enough. As I got older, recognizing the theme of the value of individuality amid conformist groupthink only made the viewing more enjoyable. It is sometimes said that this movie is Cold War propaganda. It is not. The movie does not target followers of any particular ideology: it targets mindless conformism of any kind. Groupthink occurs across the political spectrum and in all sorts of ways far beyond politics. There is emotional comfort in swallowing one prepackaged wisdom or another: to emphasize one set of facts and dismiss another set according to an accepted pattern while sycophantically exalting the appropriate heroes and vilifying the appropriate enemies. It is calming – at least for oneself. Said director Don Siegel, “I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them…There's regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions.... People are becoming vegetables. I don't know what the answer is except an awareness of it.” The message is every bit as contemporary as it was 60 years ago.

In the unlikely event the reader hasn’t seen this movie or one of the remakes, the plot is that big seed pods, presumably from space, have fallen on Santa Mira, a fictional California town though a dozen later scifi/horror films also were set there. Inside the pods grow copies of the town’s residents. When the real person falls asleep his or her consciousness transfers to the pod person who wakes up and disposes of the original. The pod people lack individuality and heart. They spread around more pods to expand their numbers and they actively try to destroy anyone who gets in the way.

*Spoiler alert.* The original script ended when Miles (Kevin McCarthy) discovers a truck full of pods on the highway, realizes it is already too late, and shouts to passing drivers, “You’re next!” This was a little too bleak for the studio which insisted on a prologue and epilogue that offered some hope. For once, studio interference probably helped. A happy ending would have been unsatisfying, but one in which there is at least a fighting chance works better, I think, than simple despair.

Perhaps I would have become an avid reader, viewer, and sometimes writer of scifi without this movie. But it surely influenced my sense of what constituted good scifi. Seeing it again last night was not just a nostalgia trip. Showing once again the primacy of script over fx, the movie is still scary.

I was pleased to get a chance to shake Kevin McCarthy’s hand at a Chiller Theater convention the year before he died. I didn’t tell him then how much his 1956 film had influenced me, but I suspect he knew. I doubt anyone at that convention sought him out because of his appearance on Murder, She Wrote. On the other hand his off-Broadway role in Happy Birthday Wanda June was also memorable, but that is perhaps a subject for another blog.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – greenhouse scene

Monday, July 18, 2016

House of the Setting Sun

My 1960s weren’t as free-spirited as they were for many from the Baby Boomers’ first cohort – those born 1946-50. They experienced a goodly piece of the ‘60s as legal adults. The next cohort (1951-57) caught at least a piece of the decade as teenagers, but unless they ran away from home or rebelled big-time their moment didn’t come fully until the ‘70s. Parental oversight and all that. I was in this second cohort. I didn’t turn 18 until near the end of 1970 and I wasn’t terribly rebellious. (The Crystals’ big hit was not written for me.) But I did have one advantage as far as the decade’s music was concerned: an older sister who filled the house with the sounds of Dylan, Clapton, Donovan, the Doors, et al. much sooner than I would have found them on my own. So, the mental soundtrack to my memories of the 1960s is pretty good. In 1965 one of the vinyl albums Sharon brought home was Animal Tracks by the Animals. (The US album has a different track list from the UK album of the same title, btw, but both are good.) She liked it, but not half so much as I did.

What on these shores was called the British Invasion was a reflection wave from young British musicians who were inspired by Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and other blues artists. Forming their own bands, they added their own flourishes.  Eric Burdon (b. May 11, 1941, in Newcastle upon Tyne) was in the right place at the right time with the right voice. He and Alan Price formed the Animals in 1962. They had their first hit a couple years later with House of the Rising Sun, which Eric said took only 15 minutes to record. They might not have been as prolific and inventive as the Beatles or Rolling Stones, but I liked their sound better back then. I still do. We Gotta Get Out of This Place was popular with troops in Vietnam for self-explanatory reasons. The Animals went through a few incarnations; in between two of them Eric joined up with the funk band War and had the hit Spill the Wine. At age 75 Eric is still performing and recording.

By the time Sharon went off to college I was picking my own album purchases. They were a mix of styles but continued to favor blues-based rock. Five years Eric’s junior, Edgar Winter (like his brother Johnny [d.2014]) from Beaumont Texas is a multi-instrumentalist who plays just that brand of music. Due largely to timing (I was in college by the time Edgar hit with Frankenstein and Free Ride), he didn’t have the formative effect on my tastes that Eric did, but I liked his sound. Hearing it today also can make me nostalgic, though for a different phase of life.

A few months ago when I noticed Eric Burdon and Edgar Winter were double-billed at a nearby venue for July 17 in Morristown, it took me fewer than ten minutes to score tickets. I went with someone I’ve known for decades, which seemed appropriate.

The concert was the best I’ve heard in years. While the old songs did evoke some memories, the joy of live music is that it is very much in the now. So overwhelmingly they (along with a few newer numbers) evoked the sensation that this was a very good evening in 2016.

I stood outside in the dark and quiet until a few minutes ago. It is a hot muggy night; though the haze is not thick enough to be visible directly, the heaviness to the air blocks the light from all but the brightest stars. It feels wonderful.

[I debated with myself whether to attach vintage or recent videos. I flipped a coin and went with vintage.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


As the Dow and S&P reach new highs the contrarian in me urges caution. The slacker in me needs little urging, so there is not much chance of my toe dipping any deeper into the market at present. This could change if a correction offers a special opportunity. (October is the most likely month for one of those – nobody knows why.) A correction is coming sometime, of course: a full-blown crash too, whether it happens this year, next, or a decade down the pike. They are always coming. They are a feature of any financial system and cannot be prevented, try as we might. Changing the mix of laws and rules means only that it will be triggered in some new and completely unexpected way.

This was the conclusion of Princeton economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their 2009 book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly which examined financial crises over the past 800 years. Their book was one of the earliest expert examinations of the 2006-2008 crisis and is still one of the best. Though they do say that regulatory policies can affect the speed and effectiveness with which we pick up the pieces afterwards, they emphasize that it is misguided to think crashes can be somehow outlawed: "a financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics, and profits no matter how well regulated it seems to be." Financial collapses happen in advanced economies, in emerging ones, in free market economies, in command economies, and in mixed ones. Every country has had them. They are "equal opportunity crises."

We even have records of ancient Roman crashes – on one occasion complete with a financial bailout. Like the 2008 crash that started in the US, the Roman crisis of 33 AD began with a decline in real estate values. Landowners soon were underwater with their mortgages, which were held mostly by members of the Senatorial class. Tacitus tells us “many were utterly ruined. The destruction of private wealth precipitated the fall of rank and reputation, till at last the emperor interposed his aid by distributing throughout the banks a hundred million sesterces.” The emperor was Tiberius who was a tyrannical old pervert, but also a budget hawk who had filled up the Roman treasury, thereby putting him in a position to help. The recovery was slow, but naturally Tiberius took credit for it. How much the bailout helped is, like that of 2008, a matter of debate. Skeptics might point to a similar earlier crisis also provoked by real estate price declines in 49 BC precipitated by uncertainty regarding Julius Caesar’s march on Rome. Julius was in no position to bail out anyone; the civil war had first call on cash. The Senate enacted some regulatory interventions such as a cap of 12% on interest and a law against hoarding of cash, but, since the crash already had happened, they had little effect. Finances recovered anyway in about the same time frame as under Tiberius.

It is not surprising that in all ages financiers tend to be unpopular, whether working for themselves, banks, brokerages, or quasi-governmental agencies such as the IMF. Even in good times they seem to average folks to profit unseemly well, and in bad they don’t seem to suffer enough. Yet, like them or not, the role they play is critical and always has been. In his book Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible, William Goetzmann argues that we owe the birth of urban civilization to their doings.

Urban civilization with written records began some 5000 years ago in Sumeria. Early contracts among traders and their financiers were clay balls with tokens inside representing sheep, cattle, linen, and whatever other goods were to be traded. Later, symbols derived from the shapes of these tokens were simply inscribed on clay tablets: commercial contracts were the first writing. They required basic mathematical ability and good accounting. The development of math and writing had profound consequences beyond just business. Very quickly the financial instruments with which we are still familiar developed: short term deposits, long term loans, compound interest, mortgages, limited partnerships, insurance, equity investments, paper profits (clay, actually), and more. By chance the records of a number of financiers have survived. Dumuzi-gamil in the city of Ur for example was a banker who took deposits and invested in a wide range of instruments including mortgages, shipping, and bakeries. He collected on short term loans at interest rates of up to 20% per month.
Real Estate Contract

There was political risk, of course, as there still is today. In 1788 BC, Rim-Sin, the local king of Ur, in a populist move declared all debts void. This wiped out Dumuzi-gamil and other financiers. While no doubt this was popular it is also the last we hear of Ur as a commercial and military center. Commerce (and the taxes for armies it generated) moved to Lagash.

Goetzmann makes a good case that money made civilization. Whether or not that was a bad move is debated by anthropologists.  The answer may depend on whether one is a creditor or debtor.

Money Makes the World Go 'Round

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Ladies Night

An evening followed by a sleepless night led to a pleasing trio of sights and sounds, all offered up by the gals.

** ** ** **

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

This adaptation of the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by former Chicago Tribune correspondent Kim Barker disappointed at the box office despite generally positive reviews. The reason isn’t hard to guess. The longest war in US history – still grimly ongoing – has wearied the public in this country and around the world to the point that any movie about it faces reticent audiences. The promoters of the film were aware of this, which is why the trailers misrepresented it as a comedy. It is really not. There is a fair amount of humor, true enough, but it is of the graveyard and ironic variety.  Mostly the movie is a story of a woman’s addiction: an addiction to the intensity and otherworldliness of war correspondence. The film is not political except to the extent any absurdist movie set in a war zone (M*A*S*H comes to mind) is bound to be.

Tina Fey stars as the barely fictionalized “Kim Baker,” a correspondent for an unnamed TV network. She arrives in Kabul clueless about either the local culture or the “Kabubble” subculture of rowdy bawdy foreign correspondents. She volunteered for the assignment in Afghanistan because she was dissatisfied with her desk job and her unexciting relationship with her boyfriend, an explanation that prompted a Kabubble denizen’s observation, “That is officially the most American-white-lady story I’ve ever heard.” Danger is real and pervasive whether she is with the troops, interviewing the locals, or walking on the street. She often is unaware of just how precarious are the situations in which she places herself and her translator/guide Fahim, sometimes just by unconsciously violating local customs. At other times firefights come to her, and the bombs, gunfire, and casualties make the situation all too clear. The adrenaline from being amid all this causes her to stretch her three month assignment to three years.

Thumbs Up, but not at all what one would expect from the trailers.

** ** ** **

Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

Angela Carter wrote fiction and nonfiction in several genres but is probably best known for her surreal and sensual science fiction. She is often called a feminist writer, and she is, albeit with a non-doctrinaire perspective: see her book The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), which is sympathetic both to Sade and porn.

Carter was intrigued by fairy tales: particularly the dark variety of the sort found in unexpurgated editions of Grimm. She published collections in her lifetime and was wrapping up this compilation from her earlier books at the time of her death in 1992 at age 51. A few of the tales are versions of familiar ones (e.g. “Little Red Riding Hood”) but most will be entirely new to the reader, not least because they include tales from around the world. There is, for example, a curious Inuit parallel of Pygmalion in which a young woman carves a boyfriend for herself out of blubber, a Japanese tale of a young girl who thinks she sees her dead mother’s face in a mirror thereby tearing the eyes of her father, and a North American tale (verging on urban legend) about a dangerous pet in a pet shop. Most fairy tales, deriving as they do from oral tradition, exist in multiple versions, but though Carter may select uncommon ones she denies rewriting them: “I have tried, as far as possible, to avoid stories that have been conspicuously ‘improved’ by collectors, or rendered ‘literary’, and I haven’t rewritten any myself no matter how great the temptation…” There is a theme of sorts: “All of these stories have only one thing in common – they all centre around a female protagonist; be she clever, brave, or good, or silly, or cruel, or sinister, or awesomely unfortunate, she is centre stage, as large as life – sometimes, like Sermerssuaq, larger.”

We often forget how recent widespread literacy is. For most of human history oral traditions were the way values, fears, hopes, and culture were communicated. Perrault, Grimm, and Andersen recognized this. So, too, does Angela Carter. They all recorded folk stories before they were lost forever. The tales inform us about ourselves about as well as any other literature.

Thumbs way Up.

** ** ** **

Dorothy – Rock Is Dead (2016)

Popular music from one's youth is notoriously dear to the heart. It is the soundtrack to so many formative “firsts” in our lives. Some people never move beyond it. I’m not immune to the impulse. While I like to sample new music, I’m still most easily drawn to the style that I liked back when – which is to say basic blues-based rock-and-roll and its variants. With the Boomer bands on Medicare and even the grunge bands turning grey-headed, it is fortunate some young bands still like and play those sounds. Among them is the Los Angeles band “Dorothy” whose debut album Rock Is Dead reached shelves in June.

Fronted by Dorothy Martin the band plays refreshingly raw rock in an era overwhelmed by overproduced electronic pop. Nor is it all one note. There is the bluesy “Dark Nights,” the hard rock “Whiskey Fever,” and the taste of Nashville in “Shelter.” Even some psychedelic licks creep in here and there. I’m pleased to see from live videos on YouTube that the audience is Millennials. But if Dorothy plays nearby, I don’t mind being outside the demographic.

Thumbs Up.

Dorothy (live club performance) – Dark Nights

Sunday, July 3, 2016

4 Summer Reads

Fear City by F. Paul Wilson

Recurring characters are bread and butter for popular authors: Sherlock Holmes (the archetype), Miss Marple, Mike Hammer, Jack Reacher, Dexter Morgan (more about him later), et al. One of the most enjoyable by a contemporary author is Repairman Jack, a creation of F. Paul Wilson. The 16 main Repairman Jack books read much like Dashiell Hammett blended with HP Lovecraft. Jack is an urban mercenary who repeatedly runs afoul of the nefarious schemes of a secret society that is actively seeking to bring about the end of the world as we know it. The novels are best read in order from The Tomb (1998) to Nightworld (2012). (The Tomb originally was published in 1984 [preceding The Equalizer TV series about an urban mercenary], but was extensively rewritten in 1998.) The books are readable, adventurous, and funny. They appeal to those who believe that maybe there really is a dark conspiracy afoot in the world and to those who wish this were true, because it at least would explain the otherwise inexplicable.

When a character reaches the end of his or her story arc, as Jack does in Nightworld, an author is faced with a decision to retire the character permanently or start a new storyline. Wilson chose a third path: prequels. There are three Young Adult Jack novels set in Jack’s tweens and three adult novels about a youthful (and sometimes fumbling) Jack learning his way. Fear City is the last of these, and perhaps the last of any kind. F. Paul Wilson: “After sixteen novels (counting Nightworld) in the main sequence plus three juveniles and three prequels, Jack needs a rest.” Fear City is great fun for existing fans of the series, but it is not for newcomers: too many inside jokes and references.

So, Thumbs Up, but only for existing fans of Repairman Jack. All others should start with The Tomb (1998).

** ** ** **

It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan

Psychosomatic illnesses get a bad rap, which is why today they more commonly are called conversion disorders or dissociative disorders. There is a widespread assumption among members of the general public that sufferers can and should just “snap out of it.” Even physicians, who ought to know better, are sometimes inclined to this judgment. Says neurologist Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan in her book It’s All in Your Head, “One of the greatest challenges for most doctors is the struggle to believe in the truly subconscious nature of their patients’ psychosomatic symptoms.” The situation is not helped by the fact that there is a small percentage of patients who deliberately fake symptoms for attention or monetary gain (e.g. disability payments or lawsuits). The large majority, however, do nothing of the kind. That symptoms can be entirely real despite the absence of an organic cause has been understood for 150 years.

In truth, we all experience psychogenic symptoms, as when your hands shake from nervousness, when your pulse rate jumps when you feel uneasy, or when you get sick to your stomach when emotionally distressed. What of teens who faint before rock idols? Most of them are neither overheated, dehydrated, nor faking – they are just worked up. We don’t think much about these involuntary events, because they are “normal.” So why is it so hard to believe that people can suffer chronic pain, convulsions, loss of vision, chronic fatigue, or paralysis for the same reasons – that the symptoms can be 100% real and yet psychogenic? The difference is merely one of degree.

Those most fiercely resistant to the diagnosis are the patients themselves. Dr. O’Sullivan’s practice includes treatment of epileptics and others with organic diseases, and she stresses the importance of thorough testing for organic causes. But because many patients are referred to her who already have been tested exhaustively with negative results, she encounters an outsized proportion of patients whom she ultimately diagnoses with dissociative disorders. She is accustomed to facing their wrath, for (oddly) people typically are less upset by a diagnosis of an incurable physical disease than of a curable psychogenic illness. Nowadays most patients come into her office armed with a file full of pages they have printed off the internet about diseases with symptoms like their own. (A common malady of medical students is a conviction they have diseases about which they are reading; in the 21st century the internet has spread this malady to others.) They usually reject what she says outright and counter her diagnosis with challenges such as “What percentage sure are you?” She answers this simply by repeating that she is sure, for if she falls into the trap of saying something like 99.5%, they will insist, “I’m one of the 0.5%.” Yet, she knows they are not being deliberately stubborn; their symptoms are very real and they just have a hard time accepting a nonorganic cause.

Such cases are far more common than generally acknowledged: “in 2011 a German study showed that twenty-two percent of people attending a primary care centre had a somatising disorder.” In the US and the UK “the prevalence of dissociative seizures in epilepsy clinics is thirty percent.” In most cases these are transient events brought on by stress with no lasting effects – patients commonly attribute them to “a bug” and get on with their lives. (People do get bugs, of course, so one shouldn’t be hasty in one’s conclusions one way or the other.) In a few cases, though, the symptoms can be debilitating for months, years, or a lifetime – especially if patients refuse the best chance at treatment, which is seeing a psychiatrist. At bottom psychogenic illnesses are biological too, of course. Even Freud acknowledged this. But they can be treated without recourse to medication or surgery.

O’Sullivan’s book is well-written, well-argued, and based on (suitably disguised) real experiences with her patients. Thumbs Up, but it will infuriate those who have received a “dissociative disorder” diagnosis and reject it. (A small percentage may be correct to do so.) This is evidenced in the reader ratings on Amazon, which are mostly 4 and 5-stars with a sprinkling of 1-stars from readers angry at having received just such a diagnosis.

** ** ** **
Dexter is Dead by Jeff Lindsay

Those who are familiar with Dexter Morgan – by day a blood-spatter expert with the Miami PD and by night a serial killer – only from the Showtime TV series know a very different character from the one in Jeff Lindsay’s novels. Showtime Dexter is a likable fellow who politely kills his victims before slicing and dicing them; his vigilante justice, however horrific, is recognizable as a form of justice. Not so the Dexter of the books. He is an out-and-out monster with a dark and wicked sense of humor, and he keeps his victims alive as he dismembers them, because their pain is fun. Novel Dexter does have a code (kill only vicious criminals), but it is not one he follows out of a sense of justice. It is merely a technique to reduce the odds he will get caught. He has no qualms per se about targeting an innocent person; he avoids doing so purely for practical reasons. For all that, Jeff Lindsay is funny in the same way that Edgar Allen Poe is funny.

Book seven in the series, Dexter’s Final Cut, ended with Dexter in jail on charges of murder (of his wife Rita among others) and pedophilia. Ironically he is innocent of these particular crimes, but he seems sure to be convicted of them. In book eight, Dexter is Dead (2015), Dexter’s brother Brian – also a serial killer but without a code – hires a celebrity attorney who springs Dexter. Dexter obtains evidence that provides good reasons to be optimistic about his case. Brian, however, has ulterior motives and soon Dexter is wondering if he would have been safer in jail. The bodies pile up and Dex isn’t even having fun. If you liked the previous Dexter books, you’ll like this one too. What of the title? Is Dexter really dead? Maybe.

Thumbs Up.

** ** ** **

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

An example is a blurb on the cover: “Over half a million copies sold – an Honest-to-Goodness Bestseller.” Well, yes. But since the book has been in print since 1954 one also could say that it sells about 8,000 copies per year, which is considerably less impressive.

Don’t let the publication date deter you. Precisely the same issues are discussed and elaborated in this book as are discussed in more recent titles on the subject – including scientific fraud, which became a fashionable topic only recently. Better yet, Huff, a statistician by trade, deals with them concisely and readably. There is nothing new in this book, but unfortunately nothing old either: all the methods of collecting and manipulating data to produce a misleading or desired result are still in use. It doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of them.

The methods include sample bias, shifting bases when listing percentages, selective use of “average” (average incomes, for example, with complete accuracy might be called either rising or falling depending on whether the average is the median or the mean), semiattached figures (“If you can’t prove what you want to prove, demonstrate something else and pretend it is the same thing”), showing correlations while letting the reader infer cause and effect, manipulating graphs by selecting scales and the type of graph, and so on. None of this is rocket science, but Huff demonstrates how easily we can mislead others, and, far more often and troublingly, ourselves.

Thumbs Up.

** ** ** **

Perhaps O’Sullivan would get a better response by referring patients to Melanie: Psychotherapy