Friday, June 29, 2007

Further Black Swan Bashing

I previously vented some annoyance on The Black Swan (The Impact of the Highly Improbable), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but that was primarily an excuse to engage in a little pedantry on the Central Limit Theorem and statistical distributions in general. This one’s going to be a little more directly critical of Taleb and his status as a self-described “maverick” and “empiricist.” Actually, I think I’m going to have some fun.

Consider this passage:

If you want to see what I mean by the arbitrariness of categories, check the situation in polarized politics. The next time a Martian visits earth, try to explain to him why those who favor allowing the elimination of a fetus in the mother’s womb also oppose capital punishment. Or try to explain to him why those who accept abortion are supposd to be favorable to high taxation but against a strong military. Why do those who prefer sexual freedom need to be against individual economic liberty?

The first thing that leaps out, of course, is that the viewpoint taken is that sort of Movement Conservative Libertarianism that so pisses me off. Is there any doubt, for example, that Taleb is anti-abortion, anti-income tax, pro-military, and a “free marketeer?” I mean, could someone who wasn’t these things make such ridiculous arguments?

Take the first one, about how explaining a Pro-Choice, Anti-Death Penalty stance to a Martian. Is there any sentient creature, imaginary or otherwise, who could not tell that there are some pretty serious differences between a fetus and an adult human being? I mean, this isn’t a matter of ideology even; it’s a matter of basic perception. Adult human: quite large. Fetus: very small, at times even microscopic.

Moreover, it’s actually very hard to find even an anti-abortion proponent who behaves as if fetuses are equivalent to even newborn infants (to say nothing of adult humans). No one who believes the fetus=infant equation can possibly be in favor of rape/incest exemptions, given that no one claims that it’s okay to kill an infant who was the product of either. And of the people who are against such exemptions, the overlap with being against all forms of birth control is very large—again not supporting the fetus=infant argument very well, but doing a good job of supporting the keeping-women-in-their-place argument.

Part of what Taleb is doing here is “inverting” a liberal argument about the hypocrisy of being “Pro-Life” and in favor of the Death Penalty. But that’s always been a pretty weak pro-Choice argument. The real issue at stake is whether or not the state, through its agent of government, should have the power of life and death. The classic Liberal position is “No,” and holds that the state should not demand that a woman give birth against her wishes (making the granting of life a matter of state power), nor should it have the power to execute (putting death on the state’s control panel as well).

So although Taleb’s first example is both weird and silly, at least his logical inversion, can, with a lot of effort, be justified (although I seriously doubt that any anti-choice crusader would admit that they were actually after the Power of Life and Death, by projection, onto religion and subsequent devolution of religious authority to the state). But the next inversion is just stupid.

Even begging the question of whether liberals are for “high taxes” or, rather, for highly progressive taxes (Taleb, being wealthy, may have some difficulty understanding the difference), to believe that there is some contradiction or even “arbitrariness” between advocating high taxes and a weak military is to believe that you can think of nothing to spend taxes on except the military. Would Taleb’s hypothetical Martian have trouble comprehending say, Sweden? Not a very bright Martian, I think.

Again, this is an inversion problem. While one can, without logical contradiction, be in favor of high taxation without a strong military, one cannot really be in favor of a strong military without advocating high taxation. (I’m ignoring the case where the military is self-financing via tribute, since, first, the tribute is still a form of taxation, and second, no one has been able to make that work since the British Empire, as nearly as I can tell, and I’ve heard arguments against that one).

True, there are some people now who do, in fact, advocate a strong military and low income tax rates, but they are advocates of Supply-Side Economics. You know, morons.

But the last one is the real tell. Isn’t “individual economic liberty” a great phrase? I wonder what Taleb thinks it means.

I’d be willing to guess that he doesn’t mean the liberty to can your own produce, spin your own thread, make your own clothing, or even grow your own marijuana for personal use. Just a guess there. But usually, “economics” carries this notion of “trade” along with it, and it takes two to tango, as it were. And it takes a lot more than two to create a market. So why this “individual” modifier?

One possibility is that Taleb put the word “individual” in the phrase, because if he’d left it at “economic liberty” then it would have occurred to someone (maybe Taleb) that he was actually talking about the “liberty” of large organizations to exert massive economic advantages over individuals.

Of course it’s also possible, even likely, that by “individual economic liberty” he was talking about the “liberty” of single individuals to go into the Big Casino and place their bets. Come to think of it though, that’s rather the same thing, isn’t it? The gamblers always think of themselves as individualists, when actually they’re just appendages of The Game.

Taleb seems to have made a nice chunk of change in the trading of derivatives in the 1980s, and one might consider the possibility that his views reflect both his experiences and the general mind-set of those around him at the time, the trader as “rugged individual.” Taleb also says that he hates narratives (though his book is primarily a string of anecdotes) and dislikes being stereotyped. He seems to believe that he has escaped from his upbringing and the narratives of his own experience to achieve clear insight and a contrarian and skeptical worldview.

To quote Karl Hess: Spare me.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Battle Babes and Warrior Women

Which reminds me...

Emma Peel first appeared on The Avengers TV series in November, 1965, in the U.K. This was followed quickly by the series’ appearance on ABC television in the spring of 1966. 1965 also marked the appearance of the first Modesty Blaise novel, in both the U.K. and the U.S. The Modesty Blaise movie appeared soon afterwards (1966), but it was a severe disappointment to Modesty Blaise fans (and there were a lot of us, very quickly), because the movie played the whole thing for laughs.

You can stretch both the Modesty Blaise and The Avengers chronology of the “battle babe” back three years, to 1962, when the MB comic strip first appeared, and when Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), showed up in The Avengers. Honor Blackman, of course, later became Pussy Galore, in Goldfinger, first knocking 007 on his ass, then succumbing to some combination of judo and masculinity to give up her lesbian ways for some Bonded sex. Clearly something was going on in the adolescent male libido in the mid-1960s, that had been submerged in popular culture during the 1950s.

The transformation of Wonder Woman from the 1940s version to the 1950s version may hold a few clues on the submergence. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and consultant to D.C. comics. Marston instilled some overtly Freudian themes in the original Wonder Woman, including the trope that her wrist bands were needed to keep her from going berserk. The strong bondage elements in the 1940s Wonder Woman comics were an obvious target for Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent and the Kefauver hearings that made such effective use of Wertham’s work. The result was a drastic taming of the content of Wonder Woman, muting her dominance and amplifying her love of Steve Trevor to effectively become the reality that the previous bondage symbolism had only alluded to.

Supergirl appeared in 1959, and her initial fortunes are perhaps all-too-emblemic of the times. Here she was, the only other survivor of a destroyed world, and what does her cousin do to her? He sticks her in an orphanage and keeps her identity and very existence a secret. She also undergoes Superman’s trick-her-to-teach-her-a-lesson ordeal only slightly less often than Lois Lane. It’s not that surprising when she falls in love with her horse (who turns into a handsome man when a comet comes by). Who else does she have?

But something was obviously brewing underground, tamped down by the happy-suburban-housewife weight of the 50s, and the eruption found all sorts of vents in the 1960s. Sue Storm went from having just the power to make herself invisible to tossing around force field projectiles in only a couple of years. Modesty Blaise escapes from her prison camp, and Emma Peel takes up espionage as a hobby.

There’s a direct line of succession from Modesty Blaise to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In fact, the connection is through a single comics writer, Chris Claremont, writer of the X-Men for 16 years. Claremont set out to write strong female characters into the book, and one of his first actions was to model the origin of Ororo/Storm after that of Modesty Blaise. Kitty Pride also stands out as an exemplar of teenage supergirl, having the ability to walk through walls. In general, if the hallmark of pulp fiction is that, when the action shows you send a man through the door with a gun, Claremont would have the person be a woman, still with guns blazing, but maybe even coming through the wall, rather than through the door.

Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” has spoken of his lifelong love of comics, and credits Kitty Pride as a model for his strong teenage characters, as well as the Dark Phoenix saga for informing the “Dark Willow” arc in the sixth season of Buffy. In “Firefly”, the character of Zoe, a former soldier, is referred to by her husband as a “Warrior Woman,” (along with an indication as to how this makes her good in bed). Whedon is currently writing an X-Men comic for Marvel, and has been announced as doing a Wonder Woman movie.

The incidence of the battle babe in popular culture went from a nadir the 1950s, to the torrent seen in the last decade, but what do we make of it? On the one hand, it appears to be the male adolescent version of the “enforced seduction” archetype in gothic romances; a strong character of the opposite sex takes a great deal of anxiety out of the process. The reader/viewer can assume a passive role, while all of the initiative is taken by the strong Other.

The flip side is that one cannot really come on too strong with a battle babe. If she doesn’t like what you’re doing or saying, she’ll just kick your ass, without bothering with any legal stuff. If she does like what you’re doing, she’ll still kick your ass, but you’ll wind up having sex with her (“When did the building fall down?” asks Buffy after her first time with Spike). For confused men who claim to not knowing the difference between compliments and harassment, the simplicity of the arrangement is appealing.

Whatever the deeper reasons, it’s pretty obvious that “nice girls” don’t become warrior women, and that the adolescent male would rather have someone other than a “nice girl” to fantasize about. Given the popularity of many of these icons with adolescent females, it remains to be seen just how many of the boys will grow up to deal with the reality that the fantasies can create.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Neutron Dance

[Crossposted from We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party]

So I had this little essay entitled, “The Neutron Dance,” because I’m a fan of both neutrons and The Pointer Sisters (June Pointer RIP, 11 April, 2006) and I sent it to the Minister of Justice as part of the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party’s ongoing campaign for a Free Nuclear Zone.

Or something like that. And there’s the rub. Because the Minister of Justice responded by asking me to make some changes, give some context perhaps, add some background and “say a little something about where you’re going with it and why we should care.”

Fair enough, albeit with a soup├žon of “are you really sure you want to get me started?” Because I can go meta in six different directions before breakfast and twelve after lunch, to say nothing of ├╝bernerd posturing, name dropping, and doing my little Smartest Guy in the Room dance at the drop of a hat.

One tempting tangent is the fact that when I was a lad, the universe was protons, neutrons, and electrons to make stuff with, and photons to make it glow. Sure, there were these cool things called “neutrinos” that had been predicted in 1930 and not actually seen until 1955 and the discoverers were lucky they were young and long-lived, because they didn’t get their Nobels until 40 years later, a full 7 years after the later discovery of the mu neutrino, there’s no justice in the world, I’m just sayin’.

There were also, when I was a lad, these things called “mesons” which are pronounced meh-son, mee-son, or even may-son, provided you want to make puns like “meson jar” or “Meson-Dixon Line.” But those were primarily good for getting funding for particle accelerators and shooting down giant birds from outer space.

But soon the particle accelerator guys got enough money to create something called The Standard Model which they insist is close to a Theory of Everything, (ToE) if by “everything” you mean “a few dozen particles and physical constants.” I mean, I’ve checked, and there is not one word in String Theory, or any of the other proposed ToEs that explains who put the bop in the bop she bop, or even where babies come from.

That is how Fundamentalism works in science, but that is a different rant, and besides, not having a Fundamentalist explanation for where babies come from is a plus, not a minus, at least in my book.

The thing is, again when I was a lad, a scientist was someone in a white lab coat staring at a bunch of beakers and test tubes. There was a periodic table on the wall, we were up to about 100 elements, and it was pretty clear that there weren’t too many more on the way, because the ones above about 95-96 were so radioactive and short-lived that you had to get them from the particle accelerator to the chem lab by motorcycle, maybe with a police escort or something, and that was all very cool, too. And the whole damn periodic table was just protons, neutrons and electrons, as I said before. You also had your three kinds of nuclear radiation, alpha, beta, and gamma (the latter being good for turning your skin green and making you very strong when angry), though being precocious, I learned about weird things like k-capture, spontaneous fission, and positron emission before I was even a teenager, little did I know.

So scientific fundamentalism moved past the “merely” subatomic particles, but the big three, the p, n, and e, are still the basis for both chemistry and nuclear chemistry, and those are, in my estimation, a much bigger deal than quarks, gluons, color, charm, and super-symmetry. And for the nuclear stuff, it’s really all about the neutron, first created in the laboratory in 1930, then they had three years thinking it was some weird sort of gamma ray. Then in 1934 Enrico Fermi whammed some of them into uranium and nobody figured out what that did until 1938, when, on the run from the Nazis, Lise Meitner
convinced her nephew Otto Robert Frisch that the damn uranium was splitting into lighter elements, and releasing one godawful amount of energy in the process.

So there’s that. The sheer romance of the thing. Plus the whole tech thing is so wet dreamy; Freeman Dyson called the hydrogen bomb, the Super, “technically sweet,” but the fact is that the whole magilla is technically sweet, from the film badges to the nuclear power subs carrying nuclear tipped MIRVs. And just look at the last few minutes of Dr. Strangelove sometime and try to deny that the nukes aren’t beautiful. The Giant Nuclear Fireball is one mother set of headlights and you can’t blame any deer that’s caught in the tracks.

So I write about neutrons for the same reason any fan boy writes about whether The Hulk could beat Superman or whether he could survive a three-way with Modesty Blaise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s just what we do.

The Neutron Dance

There are two main natural sources of neutrons in the terrestrial environment, spallation by cosmic rays, and spontaneous fission, primarily of uranium238. In the former, a cosmic ray of sufficient energy kicks a neutron out of some atom it encounters, while with the latter, a U238 nucleus splits, rather than just emitting an alpha particle.

There are two main sources of the universe’s supply of neutrons. One is the proton-proton fusion reaction, a very slow reaction, since it is basically the inverse of beta decay, and is mediated by the weak force:

P + P -> D + positron + neutrino

This reaction takes place in the center of the sun; the deuterium produced fuses rapidly to helium through some intermediary reactions that sometimes have neutrons as products. However, any neutrons that are produced remain at the center of the sun, since they almost immediately combine with protons to form more deuterium (D). Besides, the core of the sun is too dense for anything but neutrinos to escape (what happens at the center of the sun stays at the center of the sun).

Neutrons are also produced in older stars by the Carbon/Nitrogen/Oxygen (CNO) cycle:

12C + 1H -> 13N

13N -> 13C + positron + neutrino

13C + 1H -> 14N

14N + 1H -> 15O

15O -> 15N + positron + neutrino

15N + 1H -> 12C + 4He

The neutrons so produced are always bound and never exist as free particles.

The Big Bang produced a certain amount of D and He (plus very small quantities of Li and Be), which implies that there is also a cosmic background of neutrinos, but the implied energy of those particles (about 2 Kelvin) is undetectable by current methods. The neutrons in all elements other than those formed in the Big Bang are created in stars, and all elements heavier than iron are formed in supernovae explosions. Nuclear power from fission is in essence a fossil fuel; it’s just that it’s a remnant of a supernova blast.

Neutrons have different effects on matter depending upon their energy. Most of the neutrons we have to work with are from nuclear fission, and start with a “fission spectrum” of energy. For uranium235, the fission spectrum median is about 1.5 Mev, and the mean is about 2 Mev, reflecting the skewed nature of the spectrum. (For plutonium239, these numbers are slightly higher). The spectrum peaks at about half an Mev (500 Kev) for both isotopes, and the highest energy neutrons are about 10 Mev.

An Mev is 1.6 millionth of an erg, and an erg is 1 ten millionth of a joule (a watt-sec). So an Mev is an extremely small packet of energy, except that in this case it’s associated with an even smaller amount of matter. Matter whose atoms have an average energy of 1 Mev has a temperature of 11 billion degrees.

The term “fast neutron” is pretty loose; often it is used to simply distinguish between slow, “thermal neutrons” and those that haven’t been thermalized (moderated to thermal energies). Even for thermal neutrons, however, there are plenty of quibbles and distinctions, since there are “cold” and “hot” thermal neutrons, and those with energies between 1 Kev and 1 Mev are sometimes called “intermediate.”

Even within the fission spectrum there are distinctions, since isotopes like U238 will fission if the neutron hitting it is fast enough. In fact, fast neutron fission has been observed all the way down into the stable isotope range (e.g. bismuth), albeit with _very_ fast neutrons (>100 Mev). A certain amount of power reactor fission is, in fact, fast fission of U238. However, U238 itself cannot sustain a chain reaction, because inelastic scattering by U238 slows neutrons, in competition with fast fission. The slowing (moderation) of neutrons puts them into resonance regions of the U238 capture spectrum, and they then get absorbed, forming U239, which decays to Np239, then to Pu239. This represents “breeding” and a significant portion of normal reactor power production does come from fission of the internally bred Pu239.

The easiest fusion reaction to initiate is the tritium-deuterium reaction, which produces a neutron of 14.6 Mev. A neutron of that energy will fission U238 at an almost 100% efficiency, leading to a fission event having an energy of around 200 Mev, an order of magnitude increase. Moreover, such fission events produce an enhancement of almost a factor of 2 in fission neutron production when compared to normal fission spectrum neutron fission, leading to a longer fission chain.

Any fusion technology will invariably work first on the T-D reaction, and such fusion will always have a higher energy output if used in a “fusion/fission” reactor, where the fast neutrons then are used to fission natural uranium. Moreover, the F/F reactor can be made sub-critical, since the fusion reactions supply the control factor that is usually accomplished by the delayed neutrons from fission. Such reactors can also be run at a higher breeding efficiency, because some of the control factors (such as the use of oxide fuel to assist the “Doppler broadening” of neutron resonance capture), could be dispensed with.

Similar arguments can be made for “accelerator driven” reactor technology, where a high-current, high-energy proton beam is used to spallate fast neutrons from lead or bismuth, also serving as a controlled neutron source.

Finally, most thermonuclear bombs use the fusion/fission effect to amplify yield. Since most of the energy in a thermonuclear fusion burn comes off as fast neutrons, the yield can be significantly boosted if one uses a uranium tamper and bomb casing. The amplification isn’t the order-of-magnitude increase implied by the above calculation, because some moderation occurs from the scattering that is enhanced by the extreme compression of a thermonuclear detonation, and also because 100% capture of the fast neutrons would require a prohibitively thick bomb casing.

The most powerful bomb ever detonated was roughly 50 megatons, testing in Siberia in 1961.

It was tested with a non-fissile tamper and bomb casing, so it did not use fissile materials to increase the yield; this made it one of the “cleanest” bombs ever tested.

If fissile materials had been used (and the bomb was designed for those as well), it would have exceeded 100 megatons in yield, with an enormous amount of fission product fallout.

Update: Pronoun Problems Leading to Further Speculations

"Aha! Pronoun problems. It's not `shoot you, shoot you', it's `shoot me, shoot me'. So, go ahead, shoot ME, shoot ME (BLAM)... You're Despicable" -- Daffy Duck

So I write about neutrons for the same reason any fan boy writes about whether The Hulk could beat Superman or whether he could survive a three-way with Modesty Blaise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s just what we do. – From the ex post facto Forward to the Neutron Dance, by James Killus

What I’d meant to say was that a fanboy such as myself might speculate as to whether he himself could survive a three-way with Blaise and Buffy. But we had ourselves an antecedent problem, in that it’s trivially easy to think that the “he” in the above quote referred to The Hulk. This led to some confusion in a conversation with The Wife, then enlightenment. We pick up the conversation in mid-stream, during enlightenment:

“But The Hulk could survive a Modesty and Buffy three-way?”

“Oh, sure. Even when Peter David had him back to being the Gray-Skinned Hulk for a while. He wasn’t as strong as the green-skinned guy, but he was still plenty strong. He also probably had more interest in sex during that phase of it, though from what I’ve heard, he’s lately gotten smarter and he had an alien lover who got killed, and well, that exhausts my vague knowledge of the matter. I haven’t been following the Marvel Universe for a long time.”

“How about Superman?”

“Survival wouldn’t be an issue. Getting him into a three-way would be the issue. He’s brave, strong, and pure, and he’s married to Lois still, I think. Fan boys like to imagine him with Wonder Woman, as I understand it. If Wonder Woman kept to Marston’s original conception, she’d be the one for the three-way, but they don’t writer her much like that anymore. She did have a fling with Batman, as I recall. Or maybe it was with Bruce Wayne. They’re sometimes hard to keep separate.”

“So could Batman survive Modesty and Buffy? Or Wonder Woman and Buffy?”

“I think it depends on whether or not he gets to keep his utility belt.”

“That makes sense. Like Iron Man could survive, but Tony Stark wouldn’t.”

“That’s sad, isn’t it?”

“How about Spiderman?”

“I’m pretty sure Spiderman could survive the three-way. It’s the explaining to Mary Jane afterwards that would do him in.”

"Ah, that’s Peter Parker in a nutshell, isn’t it?”

[note: some comments interpolated to the point of invention]

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Who Owns the Future?

There were two big dates in classic post-war science fiction, 1984 and 2001. When 1984 rolled around, I would tell people, “We’re living in the future, enjoy it while it lasts. When 2001 is over, the future will be in the past, so we’ll have to go back to living in the present.”

Sept. 11 “changed everything” as so many people have said. It looked to me like the mass fear that came afterward sent many people on a desperate search for a suitable past to retreat into. That left the future up for grabs.

The 19th century saw the rise of something big, but there is a lot of debate as to what it was. Some say it was “capitalism” and some say it was “the corporation.” Some say it was “colonialism” or “imperialism.” The “industrial revolution” was also in there as well, as was its twin, “Modern Science.”

Whatever you call it, the indisputable fact is that it involved transportation and communication and the large organizations that support those enabling technologies. The Lewis and Clarke expedition took approximately three years to cross the continent and return. One hundred years later, a rail crossing took less than a week.

It’s simply not possible to talk about the “accelerating pace of technological change,” in the face of such a statistic. That was a two order of magnitude reduction in transit time. A similar proportionate change would mean a cross-country trip in an hour; most people can’t even get to the airport in that time. And even if you could get from New York to San Francisco in an hour, so what? You’ve still only saved a week off the 1900 trip.

Transcontinental communications were even more dramatic. A message in 1800 went as fast as a messenger could carry it. In 1900, it went at the speed of light.

But the penetration of new technology did become far more widespread in the 20th Century. A 19th century farmer in the mid-west still trucked his goods by horse to the nearest railhead; then it went as far as Europe. But the farmer still had an outhouse on his farm, and, if he could read, he read by candlelight. Now he has a satellite dish, telephone, DVD player, and besides, his grandfather moved to the city long ago, and he works in an office anyway. Besides, the country (and the world) has so many more people in it now.

All these things require large organizations to support and political arguments tend to boil down to a) what sort of laws and regulations the large organizations should obey and b) what to call those large organizations. Oddly enough, b) seems to be the one that holds the most power. “Socialists” or “communists” were entirely willing to have huge, monopolistic organizations, so long as those organizations were part of “government,” while others, let’s call them “corporate capitalists” or even “corporate libertarians” accept any number of things from “private corporations” that they would never accept from “government.” In the 1930s, it looked to many people like Marx was right and American-style capitalism had failed. The big fight was between those who believed the state should own the means of production (socialists and communists) and those who believed the owners of the means of production should control the state (fascists and national socialists). The U.S. was groping perhaps for another way, but actually, an awful lot of “the American Way,” was either socialism or corporate capitalism run by Americans.

Nevertheless, American views of the future were different. Where European future visions seemed to be mired in architecture (endless vistas of The City of the Future), Americans liked gadgets, gimmicks, and new ways of living in new places to live. And, for a time, science fiction presented a shared view of the future, with alternate views nevertheless using the common vision as a springboard.

The common future of the 40’s and 50’s, typified in Campbell’s Astounding, but echoed everywhere, went like this. The future would see the colonization of first the Moon and the other planets in our solar system, then later the beginnings of a Galactic Empire. There would be telepaths and other psi-powered humans, intelligent machines and robots. There would be fantastic adventures available to anyone who cared to join in. The power for all this would be nuclear, and, while there might be a nuclear war on Earth, the despoliation of the planet would only serve as a further spur toward the conquest of space. Besides which, our extremely long lives (maybe even immortal ones) would create such population pressures that space colonization would be both inevitable and necessary.

Ultimately, each and every one of these things turned out to be more difficult and less inevitable than we thought (can’t say as I was looking forward to the nuclear war part). Then during the decades of increasing disappointment, from the fallowing of the space program to the realization that Rhine’s ESP experiments were bogus, science fiction and fantasy took over the mass imagination. The shared dream of the future became the basic story trope for movies, television, literature. As such, it embeds itself into every person who connects to mass entertainment, which is to say, everyone.

The 60s saw the expansion of the shared future to include sex and drugs. They’d been there before, of course, but the baby boomers were pretty clear on what we liked. So “Life Style Science Fiction” grew, and it’s maybe not a coincidence that a lot of women entered SF during that time. Cyberpunk was the next addition that really made an impact, and that particular male adolescent fantasy went from story to screen like Lewis and Clarke in a private railroad car.

I can’t think of any big shifts in the commons since cyberpunk; I might just be overlooking something. Maybe the real characteristic of the future is that it is the time when Everything Happens at Once. I hope so. I have a planetary colonization novel I’d like to sell. It would make a great movie.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Central Limit

My sister gave me a book titled, The Black Swan (The Impact of the Highly Improbable), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose previous book, Fooled by Randomness, was supposedly a bestseller. Taleb is a former Wall Street trader in derivatives, and he made a lot of money thereby, which, ironically enough, he claims is meaningless, a product of luck and a privileged position (and my readers would know that I agree with him on that one), but which nevertheless is almost certainly why he was given a book deal in the first place.

With similar irony, he spends substantial amounts of print in The Black Swan railing against the human tendency to substitute narrative for data, but, of course, the way he conveys his point is via life stories and anecdotes (some of which are fictional). He also insults the French a lot.

Well, golly, he certainly is "stimulating," by which I mean both wrongheaded and just plain wrong about many subjects that I find interesting. I'm not going to attempt a review of his book, because one simply does not try to swat flies in a barnyard, but I will use Mr. Taleb's book as an excuse to write about a few things that it reminds me to write about. One of them, (and god help you who are reading this) is the Central Limit Theorem (CLT).

Taleb writes quite a bit about statistics and their use and misuse, and I'd be there, dude, were it not for the part about his being severely wrong. Much of the time. Indeed, whenever I'm confronted with someone arguing about the use of statistics, I check to see if they have anything to say about the Central Limit Theorem, because that's were the muckup usually begins. Taleb, it's true, makes almost exactly the opposite error that's usually made, but it turns out that being against people who are wrong is not the perfect path to truth that one might hope it to be.

So here is what he says (note on page 325):

The notion of central limit: very misunderstood; it takes a long time to reach the central limit-so as we do not live in the asymptote, we've got problems. All various random variables (as we started [sic] in Chapter 16 [actually Chapter 15-JK] with a +1 or -1, which is called a Bernoulli draw) under summation (we did sum up the wins of the 40 tosses) become Gaussian. Summation is the key here, since we are considering the results of adding up the 40 steps, which is where the Gaussian, under the first and second central assumptions becomes what is called a "distribution." (A distribution tells you how you are likely to have your outcomes spread out, or distributed). However, they may get there at different speeds. This is called the central limit theorem; if you add random variables coming from these tame jumps, it will lead to the Gaussian.

Ah, where to begin. The example that Taleb refers to is a coin flipping sequence that is actually a "Binomial Distribution" that does indeed converge to a good replica of the Gaussian, but that has little to do with the Central Limit Theorem.

Taleb seems to have learned that the CLT has something to do with addition, and that it says that things tend toward a Gaussian (also called "normal") distribution. From there on it's pretty much (to adapt a phrase from Mel Brooks) "authentic techno-gibberish." It's the sort of thing that someone writes when they are trying to snow you.

Here's the deal. The Central Limit Theorem says that, for almost any distribution of numbers that can be produced (you are limited to finite numbers), if you take a large enough sample of those numbers, and average the samples together, the averages of the samples will form an approximately Gaussian distribution around the true mean of the original distribution.

Here's a quickie example, all pretty pictures generated from a spreadsheet. The original distribution is the some 2000 samples of the Rand() function, a random number from 0-1:

That's actually a pretty severe distribution, flat from zero to one, then zero outside of that range. That's called "discontinuous."

Now let's take another 2000 samples and average them 2 X 2 and plot out that result:

Obviously we're a lot less squared off here. The true mean of the Rand() function, incidentally, is 0.5, and the mean of our 4000 samples is 0.498, with a standard deviation (SD, or sigma) of 0.2.

Now let's do 4 sample averages:

Now the SD has dropped to 0.14, so the edges of the original distribution are over three sigma away from the mean. That's important because, by definition, it's impossible to get an averaged sample of a value greater than 1 or less than 0. It can't happen. So the smaller the standard deviation, the less likelihood that one of those sharp tails will bite us.

By the time we get to averages of six samples:

Sigma is down to 0.118, and the distribution will pass almost every test for normality.

Now maybe Taleb would say, "But that's my point! It passes tests for normality, but it isn't a true Gaussian distribution, so if you try to draw any conclusions from this based on assumptions about it's being Gaussian, you'll make serious mistakes out in the tails of the distribution. You'll misjudge the probabilities of improbable events! That's what my book is about!"

Perhaps, says I. But I'm not the guy drawing conclusions about Gaussian tails based on the Central Limit Theorem, because I know that the CLT isn't about the tails of the distribution. It's about the mean, and the finding of it. And it's about how most of the data from summed processes is going to look more than a little like it's normally distributed. And since most processes wind up having a lot of summation of one sort or another going on, you're going to see a lot of pretty-good-approximations-to-normally-distributed data coming from your instruments, or whatever else you use to gather data.

Good scientists and good statisticians know this. And when the tails of the distribution are at issue, then you see all sorts of arguments about whether or not you're "really" dealing with a Gaussian, or a Gamma, or a Weibull, or a log-normal, or any of a dozen other statistical distributions. That's if you're a statistician. If you're a scientist you try to understand the underlying process in order to assess such things as conditional probabilities, correlations, various discontinuities, non-linearities, and, my own personal favorite, the Something We Haven't Thought of Yet.

Which is to say, I don't think we're as ignorant and stupid as Nassim Nicholas Taleb seems to think we are.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Immortality for the Demographic

If we buy into my notion that the science fiction demographic consists of socially and economically mobile children of former working class families uprooted from their original support systems (immigrants to America, farmers moving to cities, etc.), the question to ask is “What do they get from science fiction?” What part of the former support systems does science fiction replace?

One obvious answer is religion, though that answer turns out to be not as simple and obvious on further inspection. Religion offers many things to people, a philosophy of life, a meeting place, a centralized organization for charitable and other works, an inspiration for art, a comfort to the sick, dying, or bereaved.

I have notions about how SF relates to all of those, but one aspect that I’d like to begin with is religion as a hope for immortality. Clearly it’s one of the things that many religions offer their believers, and just as clearly, science fiction also holds out that promise.

Again, there are many variations. The one I’d like to start with, I’ll call “Actuarial Immortality.”

I was on a convention panel a while back when one of the other panelists announced, “My life expectancy seems to be going up at a rate of about one year per year and I’d like to know what that means.” I said nothing at the time, partly because he’s older than I am and it’s rude to point out to people that you’re probably going to outlive them. Also, I was at a loss to explain to him just how many mistakes he’d made in the one short sentence.

The idea that rising life expectancies can hold out hope for immortality or even a fabulously long life is fairly common in SF circles. I’ve lost count of the number of writers and fans I’ve heard say, “By the time I get old, they’ll have a cure for aging,” or, ruefully, “I’m probably part of one of the last generations that will inevitably grow old and die.”

Average life expectancy did go up very rapidly during the 20th century, with a U.S. baby born in 1900 having a life expectancy of about 49, while one born in 2000 has a life expectancy of over 77. However, an awful lot of that increase was due to a reduction in infant and childhood mortality; life expectancy at age 65 went from about 12 years to about 18. That’s a similar proportionate increase, but much smaller in absolute terms. And “one year per year” requires an increase in absolute terms.

Assuming that my co-panelist was not delusional, I assume that what happened was that he’d checked his life expectancy near the times when the standard actuarial tables are updated, which happens once every ten years. If he got ten years worth of increase all in a year or two, it might look like the “one year per year” promise was being kept.

But you know, even “one year per year” isn’t nearly enough. Because even if you get that, you’re still playing Russian roulette.

Suppose that someone at age 65, with an 18 year life expectancy, suddenly gets “one year per year.” What does that mean? It means that he (or she) has a 50% chance of living past 18 years. The next 18 years also gets a 50% chance. Flip a coin every 18 years and if it comes up heads you die. Think you’ll live forever?

Actually, even that understates the problem. Look around at all your family and friends. Suppose that every 18 years, half of them are gone. How long before you are all alone?

I once said to my much younger niece, “If you live long enough, everyone you now know will be dead.”

“Thanks very much for sticking that image in my head,” she replied.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Kiss

A re-posting of an essay from elsewhere, because it came up in conversation.

The first interracial (i.e. black/white) kiss on American television was on Star Trek, with Kirk kissing Uhura while under the influence of telekinetic/telepathic control. The Wikipedia entry says that British television did not show that episode of ST until 1993, though for reasons of violence and not interracial making out.

I’m a little ambivalent about this incident in the history of science fiction and popular culture. On the one hand, the idea that such a simple thing as a kiss can be a matter of great taboo is ugly and repellant, so of course I’m glad that the taboo was broken. I’m glad that science fiction had a hand in it.

But on the other hand, what a timid thing it was. The background story says that, in fact, Shatner’s and Nichols’ lips never touched—as ordered by NBC. More importantly, the context was pretty lame; they were under psi control at the time, so it is, in the context of the story, something that the two individuals would never have done on their own, and it was supposed to be humiliating. Not really a blow for racial justice, was it?

I have a memory of another television show of around the same time, maybe a little before, that featured a love affair between a black doctor and a white woman (I think a nurse, but possibly a female physician). I can’t remember any physical demonstrations in the episode, but then, I was surprised to learn that the Star Trek kiss was the first interracial kiss on television, too. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention to that particular aspect of pop culture. In any case, in said TV episode (Ben Casey? Dr. Kildare?), the black man says at one point, “We’re both free, white, and over 21—except me.” The line obviously stuck in my head.

My point here is that, in the context of the show, as opposed to external events, the Star Trek situation had no connection to actual current day race relations whatsoever. In the Star Trek future, racial discrimination is supposed to be wholly absent, so within context the actual problem with The Kiss was that it was against their wills, and it was a superior kissing a subordinate (which also occasionally happened on ST:TOS, but usually Kirk was romancing the alien babes).

In the remembered medical story, however, present day race relations were the crux of things. In truth, that seems more daring, doesn’t it? Even without the physical kiss.

In many ways, science fiction had it very easy for a long time in matters of race. It’s not that hard to be on the right side of the debate on racial justice when the debate is about Jim Crow laws, de jure segregated schools, and matters of obvious and overt bigotry. Moreover, science fiction has the advantage of the distancing effect; we can write about societies where our notions of racial norms no longer hold, so the entire matter becomes as impersonal as an allegory. And there have been slews of science fiction allegories, too. All well and good, but they’re not that difficult either.

Then there is the matter of words vs pictures. Robert Heinlein played a lot of games with the race of his characters, making some of them black, for example, then leaving only the barest of clues as to that fact. Again, well and good, but it was awfully easy to miss those clues, or to ignore them, if you were of such a mind. But when those characters are then given real forms, as in motion pictures, typically Heinlein’s descriptions are ignored, and the characters revert to the white heroic norm.

I will not denigrate the freedom to create and write about societies that are ideal in that particular way, that racial injustice is gone, and multiculturalism flourishes. I’ve met plenty of people who found the Star Trek universe to be attractive for that very reason, that it gave them the hope that there could be a society like that, and that hope was enough to get them out into the world, where they found, if not the ideal community, at least one that was more suitable to them than where they started.

What science fiction does not provide, however, is the road map. How does one get to that desired state? And how does one deal with the present situation in a human and humane way? That is a much more difficult task.

For writers, the task is even more difficult. How does one create characters whose race or ethnicity isn’t ours? To what degree is that an extension of the more fundamental problem: how does one create characters rather than stereotypes? How does one create characters with stereotypical characteristics (because everyone has some stereotypical characteristics, that is how stereotypes occur), and still get across the idea that each one of them is the center of the universe, and each one is the protagonist of their very own plot?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Max Stirner and the Problem of Compassion

I remember an anecdote from, I think, a book called The Rothschilds. Lord Rothschild, on the British side of the family, noted that a gentleman in his position could not be seen to be callous toward the poor, or refrain from giving something to a street beggar. So he recommended giving a beggar a fiver. It’s very amusing, he said. The unfortunate fellow is not accustomed to receiving anything above a tuppence. When he sees the size of the alms, he assumes it must be a mistake. His eyes first go wide, then narrow, in hopes that he can benefit from the mistake. He immediately hides the bill, gives quick thanks, then disappears as fast as the can. Overall, said Lord Rothschild, I greatly recommend the giving of a fiver to a beggar.

One of the more amusing crosses that atheists must bear is the odd backhanded compliment. “If you don’t believe in God,” asks the local bible thumper, “What is to stop you from just doing whatever you want, murdering, stealing, raping, and heaven knows what else?”

Good point. If your belief in God is all that stops you from doing such things, I’m entirely in favor of your continuing your belief. I personally have other reasons for not murdering, raping, or stealing. For example, I’m pretty sure that somewhere in either the actions or the consequences lies something that I wouldn’t enjoy. But, hey, that’s just me. De gustibus non disputandem.

Speaking from pure self-interest, a heavenly afterlife is mighty appealing. I’m not entirely sure about the whole “eternal life” thing, (a billion years of reruns might well get pretty tedious), but life is too damn short as it stands. I’d sign on in a minute if the price was right and the deal guaranteed. Oh, but wait, you’re supposed to buy the whole thing on faith, and besides, the check is in the mail. Also, I would be doing it for the wrong reasons, since you’re not supposed to be doing it for selfish purposes. I haven’t found a Jehovah’s Witness yet who could explain how angling for eternal life was altruistic, but I haven’t met them all yet.

Still, the contradictions that can be found in the followers of religion is a fair match to the contradictions in those who purport to be philosophical egoists. The nature of those contradictions is likewise revealing.

Who purports to speak for “The Individual?” The phrase itself is a betrayal, a collective label as subversive to its target as a religious tract. Those who claim the throne of individualism are often labeled “Right Wing.” Libertarians, Nietzscheans, Randites, Social Darwinists, denizens of think tanks like the Cato Institute, authors of papers in Mankind Quarterly. They are tough-minded, almost to a man (including the women). Reading what is written by these individualists, what do we find? Endless arguments over what is the best way to set up an individualist society. In other words, endless prescriptions for how one’s fellows are to behave. Precious little about one’s own behavior, as nearly as I can tell.

But there are telling little slips. Once at a lecture given by Ayn Rand, someone asked during the Q&A: What would be done for the poor in an Objectivist society? Rand’s reply: If you wish to do something for them, you will not be stopped. Then came applause. Of course. That put the bleeding heart in his/her place.

Consider Stirner’s response to a similar question:

But is my work then really, as the Communists suppose, my sole competence? Or does not this consist rather in everything that I am competent for? And does not the workers' society itself have to concede this, in supporting also the sick, children, old men in short, those who are incapable of work? These are still competent for a good deal, for instance, to preserve their life instead of taking it. If they are competent to cause you to desire their continued existence, they have a power over you. To him who exercised utterly no power over you, you would vouchsafe nothing; he might perish. – Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

And there is the essence of the struggle, is it not? Children, the sick, the elderly, those who are incapable of work, those people may still have a power over you, to whatever extent you have compassion for them. And there are those who hate that power, the power to move through compassion. So they deny it. They attempt to rip it from themselves and to deny its rightful existence.

How is this not a diminution? Someone without compassion is a sociopath. Is a sociopath better than a compassionate man?

We applaud the painter, the musician, the playwright (if their work suits us, of course). The playwright and director move people about in such a fashion that we find the result pleasing. Why does not the philanthropist get at least the same praise? Why is putting a fiver in the hands of a beggar not considered a work of art? And lest anyone impugn the motives of the philanthropist, remember, Lord Rothschild’s beggar nevertheless got his fiver.

Color Blind Spot

On January 2, 2003, Allen Newsome, 17, attempted to rob what he thought was a pizza delivery man who had come to his apartment building in Harlem, New York City. He used what has been described in various reports as a “pellet gun,” a “BB gun,” or a “toy gun.” It looked, however, like a “real gun,” just as an undercover police officer apparently looked like a “real pizza delivery man.” Newsome was shot and killed.

The news reports on Newsome’s death were used by Brooklyn councilman Albert Vann, and Queens councilman David Weprin to garner support for a bill they had introduced to the NYC City Council to ban toy guns from the city. Obviously they weren’t prescient; they were basing their advocacy on previous cases, such as the August 1998 case of a 16-year-old New York boy bearing a submachine gun water pistol who was shot six times in the legs by polic or the 1994 case of another boy, this one 13, who was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook his toy gun for the real thing.

The Libertarian Party sprung into action. Sensing a threat to our constitutional rights to keep and bear toy guns, Jim Lesczynski, spokesman for the Manhattan Libertarian Party announced a “Guns for Tots” program, to collect and distribute toy guns to the kids of P.S. 72 in Harlem before the ban could take hold.

The Daily Show had a good chuckle. The “Guns for Tots” program itself was not very successful, given that the Principal of P.S. 72 told the students to keep away from those strange white men, and some parents came and denounced the Libertarians as racists.

I bought up the “Guns for Tots” matter to my Libertarian college buddy Jeff, as part of a conversation about the extent to which racism plays a part in Libertarian politics, and in the politics of “self-identified” libertarians. The latter group, to my certain knowledge and from direct observation, includes some outright bigots, and White Supremacists.

Jeff told me, “But I know Jim Lesczynski, and he’s not a racist. He was just making fun of some politicians that he thought were pushing a stupid idea.”

Let’s consider that proposition for a bit. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that somehow Jim Lesczynski has managed to grow up in America without a shred of racism in his entire being, a true example of what another Comedy Central guru, Stephen Colbert says: “I don’t see race. People tell me that I’m white.” Let’s, for the purposes of analysis, grant the hypothetical.

Even granting that extreme unlikelihood, how clueless do you have to be to not understand that, in the context of a discussion about how the police are mistaking toy guns for real guns and killing the holders thereof, that handing out toy guns to young children in Harlem is going to result in the perception that you are in favor of having the police kill young children in Harlem? And Harlem children are the very emblem of “not white.” They may not be all “black” any more, given immigration and such, but there aren’t very many of them who are going to be put in the same racial group as Stephen Colbert.

Moreover, this was a PR stunt. There are about a million issues that are more important to the cause of liberty, however you want to define that term, than whether or not children in a particular city get to have super-soakers. This entire thing was a media event attracting media moths, and the Libertarians went for the flame. And if you are going to go after publicity, if you are trying to make points for your cause, whatever that cause might be, it is up to you to make sure that the right message gets across. Whining about how people “misunderstood” just means that you’ve screwed up.

When I was researching this, my favorite argument against the toy gun ban was that “there aren’t many cases” where children had been killed by police who thought the gun was real. Not “none,” you understand. Just “not many.”

There is absolutely no cannibalism in this navy, and when I say absolutely none I mean there is a certain amount. - Monty Python

Enough hypotheticals. Do I think that Jim Lesczynski and the Manhattan Libertarian Party was being racist? Damn right I do. They could have made their point by handing out toy guns to white kids (and maybe made the point that white kids aren’t so much at risk of being shot by the police for holding a toy gun). They could have kept their mouths shut on this one and kept issuing press releases about medical marijuana and other issues where they’re on the side of the angels. But instead, I’ll bet anything that some of them chuckled and grinned at how “daring” and “politically incorrect” they were being, and how they could really make “liberals” fume, and how cool that made them.

I am also absolutely sure that the idea that they were being racist never entered their minds, because, like so many people, they think that you have to be a Nazi or a segregationist, or some other sort of obvious bigot to be a racist. The idea that there can be unconscious racism, that it can affect the way you perceive others or even yourself and your own actions, never enters their minds.

Libertarians, I think, and I’m thinking here of the real-deal Libertarians, the ones who believe in reason, and individual action and responsibility, and the entire philosophical hook, line, and sinker, are particularly vulnerable to this failing. The problem with a blind spot is not just that you can’t see what’s in it, but also because you can’t see the blind spot either.

Monday, June 18, 2007

My Time in the NFL

I occasionally joke that I’m in the USAF and I used to be in the NFL. Those would be the United States Aikido Federation and the National Forensic League.

The National Forensic League makes a sport of public speaking at the high school level. They hold both debate and public speaking tournaments, where participants get points for how well they do in the contests. We started a speech club at my high school (Donelson High School in the Nashville, TN school district), and worked toward qualifying for club membership in the NFL. I forget how many points it took, but we qualified in a remarkably short period of time, owing to having two powerhouses, my friend Phil Wright, and, well, me.

I have no idea if any high school students will read this, but I’ll give the advice anyway: if you have the opportunity to do some public speaking in high school or college, take it. You’d be amazed at how often it comes up in life, and how important just a bit of experience in not getting tongue-tied or otherwise loosing your cool in front of an audience can be.

For the life of me, I can’t remember what holiday it was, when the following took place. It wasn’t the 4th of July, because we were in school, but it was some occasion for patriotism, because I remember portions of others’ speeches referring to 1776, the flag, all the usual things. In any case, our club sponsor, Mr. Anderson, rounded us up and asked if we wanted to go to a speaking contest at an Elk’s Club in downtown Nashville. We’d go to a venue at the drop of a hat during that period. We were trying to rack up points and the old competitive juices were flowing (I know, I know, it was a nerd competition, but winning is winning, and besides, we were nerds). Moreover, we got the afternoon off from school.

So we all piled into Mr. Anderson’s car and headed downtown to the Elk’s Club.

Which turned out to be entirely Black. Nowadays, it would be African-American, but at the time, I think that Black was more correct, although, given the ages of most of the people there, Negro might even have been more proper, i.e. the terminology they would have applied to themselves. Some of them may even have been Colored.

They were dressed in business suits and fine dresses, and fully ready to hear some speeches. Our group had the only melanin-deprived skin in the place; the other contestants were more local to the neighborhood. But everyone smiled at everyone else, and we got to the business of speechifying.

One of the speakers was a black girl who had the cadence thing down to a “T” and who stood off to one side of the podium, hand resting lightly on it, except when she used both hands to gesture. It was a fine performance and as flowery as many of the hats in the audience. I assume I did my regular thing: voice-of-reason-with-just-a-soupcon-of-passion. It works in almost any venue, and I wasn’t about to mess with it. That I don’t remember all that much of it is symptomatic of competitive speaking; you’re paying less attention to what you’re saying than how the audience is responding, and how the other speakers are doing.

Then Phil spoke.

Phil has since become a preacher, or so I understand. I’m sure he still has the chops. Not to put too much weight on it, but he was really good. But about mid-way through, he froze. Just blanked. It happens to the best of us, and it’s one of the reasons for the speech training in the first place. To get it out of your system, to let you know it’s not the end of the world, and to train you to just take a deep breath, refuse to stammer, and wait for the words to return. After a long several seconds, the words did come back and he finished strong.

Later on, after first prize had been awarded to the black girl, second to me, and third to Phil, one of the judges whispered that Phil had been way out in front until his lapse. That may or may not have been true, since it’s always best for the local favorite to win one of those things, but I’m sure he would have beaten me.

Oh, and they handed us checks. We had no idea that there were cash prizes involved. We went home very pleased with how it had all turned out.

I took one other lesson away from the gig, a realization that I had looking out over the crowd, the little nods they gave, the obvious pleasure that each of them took with each mention of the flag, the country, its history and ideals. And that is this: there is no person on this continent more patriotic than a black man in a business suit.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Dead Sheep

I have another story about SDI, if I can manage to figure out how to tell it. Until then, to the song Angel, by Massive Attack:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Funny As a Heart Attack

Of the various stories I bring from my 35 year college reunion, none are funnier than the defibrillator story.

One of my college buddies had a heart attack a few years ago (see the laughs start coming right off the bat). It was a fairly major one, though he says that the lasting heart damage was not too great. He had total blockage in one of the coronary arteries, etc., and now he has a stent, plus some other stuff, including a personal defibrillator that he wears on chest.

But the story isn’t about him. Having had a heart attack, plus wearing a defib, makes my college chum a magnet for others’ stories about heart attacks and defibrillators, just like I now know a lot of cancer stories I wouldn’t have otherwise heard.

Anyway, this is a defibrillation story. The defib scene is now a staple of medical drama, what with the rising tone and the barked “Clear!” letting the EMT guys look and sound so cool and macho. Defibrillation is used essentially to “reboot” a cardiac control system that has gang agley, where an “arrhythmia” has become a “seizure.” This tends to happen most often in a rapidly beating heart, where, in fact, the heart is trying to beat so rapidly that it begins to lose pumping efficiency. In the extreme, the poor organ is just quivering, unable to deliver blood to the body, including itself, so it begins to die. The quicker defibrillation is applied, the better the outcome, hence personal, implantable defibs.

The personal devices constantly monitor a person’s heart rate, ready to apply the electric shock if the rate gets too high. The problem for the guy in this story was two-fold. First, he had a tendency for a runaway heart rate in the first place, some form of tachycardia, though I don’t know which kind. Second, his personal defibrillator had been set a little two low.

Ah, you can see this coming, can’t you?

It happened while he was playing softball, maybe not the best recreational activity for someone with a heart condition, but who am I to make that particular call? The way I heard the story was that there was a thunderstorm brewing, but you play until the rain begins, that’s part of the deal. Let’s say also that our protagonist was chasing a fly ball in the outfield under a darkening sky.

Then, suddenly, wham! He’s now flat on his back, his defibrillator having kicked in, its tiny little microchip brain sure that it was needed to save his life.

Now here’s the thing: being zapped with an electrical current to stop and restart your heart is not a window into sartori. No, it’s quite scary, and will do a good job of accelerating your heart rate. So our protagonist gets several seconds of an adrenal rush with a soundtrack of his own heartbeat in his ears, said heartbeat going faster and faster, then…wham! Yes, Our Friend the Defibrillator has come to the rescue once again.

Okay, now he’s both scared and angry, because this was not in the sales brochure. He struggles a bit, trying to maybe get up, or at least lift his head to call for help and wham! Another reboot.

So now he’s just stuck on his back, realizing he’s completely helpless, in the grip of a deranged robot that’s smaller than a pack of cigarettes, but it’s got a couple of electrodes jammed into his chest, and it’s gonna keep zapping him until help arrives, or it runs out of juice, whichever comes first. And maybe by now the lightning from the thunderstorm is beginning to light things up, and he is trying everything he can to CALM DOWN DAMMIT! But all he can do is listen to his own heartbeat accelerate, punctuated every now and then by another zap.

He went through the entire cycle maybe five or six times before the EMT guys got there and either switched off the defib or gave him something to calm down the tachychardia. What lets the whole thing be funny, of course, is that he lived to tell the tale. In fact, it’s probably the funniest story he knows, and he can probably dine out on it for the rest of his (and I do fervently wish it to be long) life.

You know, Dick Cheney has an implanted defibrillator. I’m absolutely sure you can’t hack one of those things, but still, it’s a funny thought.


On August 8, 1964, Sandy Koufax was took a lead off second base and barely managed to get back in time to beat a pick-off throw. In the sliding dive back to second, he jammed his pitching arm. Nevertheless, he pitched two more games in rotation, but after his 19th win of the season, he awoke the next morning to discover he couldn’t straighten his arm. He finished the ’64 season with a 19-5 record, and traumatic arthritis in his arm.

Koufax had already pitched 3 no-hitters in his career, and had triumphed in the 1963 World Series, winning two out of the four wins of the Dodger sweep of the Yankees. His record in 1963 was 25-5, and Yogi Berra famously remarked after game 1 of the World Series, "I can see how he won 25 games. What I don't understand is how he lost five."

But some of Koufax’s greatest achievements lay ahead of him, including a perfect game, a second World Series win for the Dodgers, and a second Cy Young award. He could have done none of it without drugs.

He took Empirin with codeine for pain, assisted by Butazolin an NSAID as both a painkiller and anti-inflammatory. But the real drug of necessity was cortisone, a corticosteroid.

Okay, corticosteroids aren’t the same as anabolic steroids. In some ways, they are more dangerous, since physical dependence comes quickly, with the body’s adrenal glands deciding that they can go to sleep for a while, it’s all covered, and then, when the cortisone is stopped, you get “adrenal insufficiency,” which means “die from trying to climb a flight of stairs.”

Any way you figure it, however, Koufax extended his career by using drugs that were unavailable in previous eras. There is no asterisk by any of his records, however. Nothing says, “Perfect game made possible only by the use of drugs.”

I saw a cartoon some while back, maybe in the New Yorker. It showed a young boy in a drug store asking, “Is this where you have the home run pills?” Again, he was inquiring about anabolic steroids, wasn’t he? It wouldn’t have been as funny if he’d been asking, “Is this where I get the fast bicycle shots?” but that would have been part of the zeitgeist as well, though EPO doesn’t have the same cachet as anabolic steroids, partly because you don’t get those really cool muscles.

How many baseball players have taken anabolic steroids. Hard to say, but the short answer is “very many.” How many of them hit over 70 home runs in a single season of professional baseball? One. But he doesn’t count, because he took drugs. Whenever drugs appear in the narrative, the narrative becomes about the drugs. It’s “cheating” to use drugs to enhance performance, even when, as is the case for anabolic steroids, major effort is required to actually achieve that enhancement. Anabolic steroids are an adjunct to weight training; without diligent effort, the gains are minimal. And without serious training, incorporating added muscle mass into a sport can cause a reduction in ability, rather than a gain.

But the narrative says that taking performance enhancing drugs is cheating. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Sandy Koufax benefits from a different, more powerful narrative. He was “playing hurt.” Then it’s okay to take the drugs. That’s not cheating; that’s “heroic.”

So we have contrasting morality plays. Anabolic steroids are bad, because they can hurt you (which is true, especially for adolescents). That argument would carry more weight were it not for the fact that so many sports can hurt you in and of themselves. Try watching a retired pro football player walk—or rather hobble—sometime. If preventing injury were the point of it, would we even allow the sport of boxing?

And the health and injury dangers of anabolic steroids pale in comparison to “play while hurt” or “work through the pain” commandments. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I knew more than one coach in my time who was a sadistic SOB. A lot of “sport” is about pain, the giving and receiving of it, with the sport itself a gloss upon the basic sadomasochistic dance. In any case, compare the number of professional athletes with the number who blew out their knee, or tore a rotator cup, or fill in the blank for yet another career ending injury before the career even happened.

And if you’re really worried about impressionable young athletes, why are you putting these drug stories on the front pages of the newspapers? Do you really think that you can teach a teenage boy that it’s okay to risk destroying his body on the playing field, and that playing through the pain is the highest achievement in sport, and then expect him to refrain from taking a performance enhancing drug just because it might hurt him, and besides, it’s against the rules, or at least it is if he gets caught?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Filmore East

I met my friend Al because we’d found a cheap print shop down in Poughkeepsie and I needed a ride. This would have been for the first issue I edited of Perspective a student magazine of politics and philosophy. I was only a freshman, which goes to show how thin on the ground were writer/editors at RPI in 1969.

It was a good trip; Al and I hit it off. So some time later, when he invited me down for a weekend visit to his home in New Jersey, I went along. I think that was the first time we went to the Fillmore East.

I never saw the Fillmore West. By the time I got to San Francisco, Bill Graham had moved his west coast venue to Winterland, a building that had been an ice skating rink, or so I’ve heard. But I saw the Fillmore East a lot. Al, Henry, (another RPI New Jerseyite), and I went down to the Fillmore East maybe as often as once a month for several years. Sometimes, we’d drive the three hours down, see the show, then drive directly back, because college students do that kind of thing. More often, though, we’d stay at either Al or Henry’s.

Here are some of the groups we saw, just off the top of my head: The Who, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, The Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, Lee Michaels, The Insect Trust, The Blues Project, Ten Wheel Drive, It’s a Beautiful Day, Country Joe MacDonald, The Flock, John Mayall, Procul Harum, Argent, Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young, Santana, Teagarden and van Winkle, Jethro Tull, Paul Butterfield, Quicksilver Messenger Service.

And the Mothers of Invention, the Flo and Eddie incarnation. I think we saw The Mothers more than any other band. Frank Zappa had a thing about guest artists at the time. Once it was Grace Slick. Another time it was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I particularly remember the one with Joni Mitchell. I’ve heard that she had severe stage fright, but she seemed very relaxed fronting a band and reciting profane poetry on stage impromptu. I’ve sometimes wondered if the experience with Zappa’s band influenced her later decision to get a band for touring. It’s a lot less scary out there if you have backup.

The Fillmore wasn’t the only place I went for music during that time period. I saw Poco, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Grand Funk Railroad in Nashville, Pink Floyd at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and The James Gang, Kiss, and Blue Oyster Cult in Indianapolis. RPI itself had some very savvy people running its Student Union Programs and Activities Committee, so I didn’t even have to leave campus to see Maria Muldaur, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chuck Mangione, and a slew of others. It was an excellent time to be a music freak.

I am not one of those people who thinks his coming-of-age music is the best that has ever been created, or who spends his time listening solely to that music for the rest of his life. If I had to rank them, I’d probably say that the best rock band I ever heard was Elvis Costello on his first few tours in the late 1970s, from “Watching the Detectives” to “Goon Squad.” I liked Disco, too, and the 1980s and 1990s spawned some magnificent music. Dr. Dre is a genius, Ice T isn’t just an actor, and the current tape running on my ancient auto tape deck is a history of boogie woogie. Sometime I’ll write about the Sunday afternoon Indian music show on WRPI that Bruce Barnett and I programmed back in the day, a show that slowly morphed into what would now be called “World Music,” but the term hadn’t been invented yet, unless maybe we invented it. So even now my ears prick when I hear a Gabonese vocal or an M’bira plink, as much as when Bach or the Beatles come into range.

Nevertheless, I’d be an idiot not to treasure the memories of the experiences of being a restless student at that particular time and place, having those friends, and such a wealth of opportunities to hear the music of the moment. It’s not worth ranking artists, so I won’t. Just say that an awful lot of what we heard was Mighty Damn Good.