Thursday, January 5, 2017

RIP, Snow Crash

Snow Crash is taking a break.  My observations and analyses apparently cannot compete with the din of our post-factual politics nor with the deluge of Social Media that confronts us all.  I am very grateful to those who have continued to read my blog entries, but in the past year (particularly since July) the numbers have dropped to the point that it is hard for me to justify the amount of effort required to publish even one entry per month.

I doubt that 2017 will be any better, as the "news" of our soon-to-be-inaugurated president's activities and pronouncements and their consequences will very likely continue to dominate and degrade our national consciousness.  I wish I could offer an antidote but I can't.

Please be assured that Snow Crash is not yet dead, just resting.  I have plenty more to say......

In the meantime, please feel free to consult the archives of past posts, now organized by topic as well as date.

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Geezer's Advice To Young Travelers

Back in MY day we.......No, wait. Sorry, I got ahead of myself, which seems easy to do these days.

First, I should assure readers that I really don't expect you to follow the advice I'm about to give -- the best I can hope for is that you will consider the relevance and suitability of some of my observations distilled from 45 years (really, 45?) of international travel. Second, I should clarify that by "young" I don't mean children, but rather anyone old enough to travel on their own (that includes older "young-at-heart" types who haven't done much traveling but now have the time and inclination). Third, I want to pre-apologize to anyone I may offend with observations that seem to criticize the way you choose to travel. But hey, this is my blog, and of course, I'm right...

Okay, if anyone is still reading, here's a bit of background.  My wife and I have been traveling internationally since shortly after we got married. We were youngsters back then, and although neither of us had traveled much out of the country we made a joint decision that this was something we wanted to do very much. We were fortunate during our working years to have careers that allowed us time during the summer months to travel (we were both in education).  We didn't have children and this made it much easier to travel, especially in the early days. The only thing we didn't have was a lot of money, a factor that didn't stop us from traveling but certainly dictated how we did it.

Now a bit of history for context. Our travels began in what will seem to young'ns as the dark ages.  There was no WWW.  The internet existed, but just barely -- it began in 1969.  There were no cell phones. No laptops. In fact, no truly personal computers of any kind until the mid- to late 70's. Travel arrangements were made through somebody called a "Travel Agent" or done on the fly using guidebooks for recommendations or through a local tourist office in each foreign town or city who would help you find accommodations and give you information. Not many people in foreign countries spoke English so it was often necessary to learn a little of the local language so that you could ask for directions, inquire about an available room, find a toilet, avoid liver.  Airplane tickets were actually made of paper and had to be guarded very carefully because without them you couldn't even check in.  If they were lost or stolen replacing them was a time-consuming and onerous process.  Very few merchants accepted credit cards, and there were almost no ATMs. You traveled armed with a bunch of "traveler's checks," which you bought at a U.S. bank before leaving. To change money you had to go to a foreign bank or professional money changer and exchange them for local currency. If you ran out of money --- well, you ran out of money. There was no easy way to get more.
 
In short, these were the days when travel was truly an adventure. Over the years things have changed remarkably, and today travel is considerably easier.  That's not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, because when something is easy we all have a tendency to take it for granted and lose sight of its beneficial qualities. As you will now see, much of my advice is tempered by this conviction.

Here goes.

Do It NOW
 
I know, you're young and you'll have plenty of time to enjoy traveling later.  Plus, you're vigorous and invincible and will never develop physical ailments or mental impairments that will limit where you go and what you do. Please, please believe me when I tell you from experience that you are woefully ignoring reality -- see the 15 blogs in my Geezerhood series for documentation. In the blink of an eye you will find that your mind is willing but your body no longer seems to be listening to your brain.

In our travels my wife and I distinguish between two kinds of trips: those undertaken for relaxation and rejuvenation (aka slug-imitation sojourns), and those meant to truly explore a destination and to experience its culture, history, geology, art, architecture, etc.  A third type that we haven't done much ourselves but is growing in popularity is "sport" or "adventure travel."  The goal here isn't so much to appreciate culture or history as it is to enjoy the unique geology and geography of a destination while indulging in sports activities like golf, skiing, diving, trekking, or maybe hanging by your fingernails from a cliff. The first type is easy and can be done well into advanced Geezerhood. The second and third can be physically and mentally challenging, particularly in exotic locales where infrastructure requires daily sacrifices in comfort, food is sometimes unfriendly to an American's delicate system (see A Traveler's Tales of Tummy Troubles), and where many of the most magnificent and rewarding sights require considerable physical exertion and stamina. The usual accompaniments to Geezerhood -- bad joints, COPD, mental fuzziness, and issues of balance and flexibility -- can make these kinds of travel increasingly difficult. My wife and I have been trying to visit the most challenging destinations while we still can, and we strongly recommend you consider this "carpe diem" approach also. But no matter what your travel objective is, start now. You will acquire coping skills and a tolerant attitude that will serve you well later.

An additional reason for not procrastinating comes from our personal experience in a number of "currently-exotic-and-out-of-the-way-but-soon-to-be-overrun-with-hoards-of-tourists" places. If you wait too long the character and essential uniqueness of many destinations will be less than it is now, the inevitable result of mass tourism's influence on infrastructure, economy, and local attitudes toward visitors. A variant of this which we have also experienced is that natural disasters, political instability and religious extremism may suddenly make it impossible to visit certain places. For instance, we were in Syria just before the current turmoil there and it was one of the most interesting and enjoyable trips we have ever taken (see, "The Benefits of Dangerous Travel").  Now, however many of the fabulous archeological treasures in Syria and even some of the cities have been destroyed by violent conflict.  We feel fortunate and privileged to have experienced these things before this happened.

Do It OFTEN

There are a lot of places in the world worth exploring.
Life is too short to see them all.
Keep your butt moving if you want to enrich your life as much as you can in the time that you have.

Do It SLOOOOW

This may seem like a contradiction to what I just said, but it really isn't.  If you approach travel with the idea that you are going to do it often then it isn't necessary to plan a trip to see 30 countries in 2 weeks -- an exhausting, numbing experience that is pretty much a waste of time and money, IMHO. I remember sitting in a European restaurant where I overheard a dinner conversation among some American travelers on a blitzkrieg tour of all of Europe.  One was having trouble recalling a sight the group had visited the day before and had to ask his fellow travelers, "Now, what's the name of that country we were in yesterday?"  How enriching can travel be if you don't know where you've been?

My wife and I have tried to restrict our trips to fairly small geographic areas -- one country or a small region -- and we try to spend as much time as we can there. In our case we have been fortunate that our 9-month teaching contracts allowed us to devote a month or more to each trip. But even for those of you with less time to spend, our advice is to narrow your focus -- you will have a much deeper and more meaningful experience. As you go, pay attention to details that are often missed if you are zipping through on the way to the next thing on the itinerary.  By details I mean architectural features, artistic nuances, small aspects of flora and fauna, and especially details of the way locals are living their lives and interacting with each other and with you.

By the way, when we tell people we are going to spend a month in, say Laos or South Africa or Argentina, many seem amazed that we could stand traveling that long. Not only can we "stand" it, we have sometimes regretted the end of the trip and wish we had more time to spend.  I think this may be the result of our years of experience tolerating the inconveniences of travel, and finding that the inconveniences are a small price to pay for the privilege of enjoying experiences only travel can allow.

Do It With VARIETY

Okay, this is where I may step on some toes. The fact is that there are many ways to travel these days, and they differ markedly in the quality and depth of the experience they provide. I have pretty strong opinions about some of them, as you will see, but my overall advice is that if you are serious about travel for enrichment then you should employ a variety of travel methods not just stick with one.  Here are some thoughts:
  • Group Tours:  I really don't like group tours. Yet despite what I believe are significant shortcomings in this form of travel there have been about a dozen times (even recently) over my 45 years of traveling when this seemed the best approach, usually when the local infrastructure and social conditions would make it extremely difficult, uncomfortable, time-consuming, or perhaps unsafe to do otherwise.  However, I find that it is easy to greatly overestimate the difficulty and danger of non-group travel, so the decision to use a group tour requires careful consideration of why a tour is advisable in this particular instance -- something many travelers prefer not to do.  Indeed, the seeming advantage of tours is that all the planning and decision-making is done for you, and once you arrive everything is taken care of.  But this feature is also a flaw of group tours -- they require very little active involvement, cognitive investment, or problem solving.  This passivity can lead to a somewhat shallow and unmemorable experience of the destination and its culture (remember the case of the oblivious American group tourist I mentioned previously who didn't even know where he had been).  A second shortcoming of group tours in my opinion is another feature that I acknowledge many people find to be positive.  Groups invariably lead to social interaction focused within the group.  For example, I recall traveling in Vietnam with some very interesting and sociable fellow travelers.  One day our bus was going through a picturesque agricultural area where locals were busy planting rice, a fascinating and uniquely characteristic sight.  However, almost nobody on the bus was looking out at the scene because they were engrossed in conversations with each other.  To the extent that "groupiness" distracts travelers from appreciating the noteworthy qualities of the culture they are visiting, it is a negative feature of this form of travel, albeit enjoyable. Finally, while it is certainly true that group tours are efficient and you will see a lot, please consider that a jam-packed itinerary doesn't necessarily mean you will have an in-depth exposure to a culture and its people. The best tour companies try to counteract superficiality by deliberately including interactions with local people -- certainly a laudable effort.  But keep in mind that these encounters are hand-picked and structured by someone else and therefore aren't necessarily representative of what you would experience on your own. I have many other criticisms of group touring, but I'll stop with the advice that you not rely on it exclusively, but instead consider other modes of travel as well.  
  • Cruising: In certain circumstances cruise ships offer an excellent perspective from which to enjoy unique geography and geology, and a good way to visit places difficult to reach by other means (Antarctica, South Pacific, River passages, Greek Islands). They are certainly a convenient, comfortable, and fairly affordable way of traveling, especially for families, solo travelers, and those who are mobility challenged. I'm not convinced, however, that they are a good way to truly come into contact with a culture and its people. Most cruise ports are quite unrepresentative of a country, and a day in port seems unlikely to offer more than a quick superficial introduction. Staying onboard offers cushy accommodations and amenities that are, of course, the same for the entire trip -- a plus for cruise-lovers because they don't have to pack and unpack many times.  For me this is a real detraction, however, because over the years my wife and I have stayed in a wide range of wonderful small inns and hotels, often in extraordinarily picturesque places, that offer quite a bit more character and history than a ship's stateroom. They also afford the opportunity for casual interactions with local people that are missing on a cruise. A final objection is that when thousands of boat people descend on a particular destination, particularly a small one, it can greatly distort the true nature of the place. For example, my wife and I stayed several days on the Greek island of Santorini, having arrived there by regularly scheduled ferry service. This is a lovely place that people who visit by cruise ship usually rave about.  We watched each morning as several large ships would enter the harbor and disgorge thousands of people who then drifted shoulder-to-shoulder through the tiny cliff-side port town, shopping, photographing, and perhaps having lunch before returning in the late afternoon to their boats. As much as the passengers may have enjoyed Santorini, I can assure you it was far more pleasant after they were gone.  The merchants relaxed and were more friendly and less aggressive, the restaurants emptied out and offered spectacular sunset views of the departing ships, and the warm evenings were a delightful time to slowly explore the town.
  • Independent Travel:  This category includes three major variants.  All three have become easier to arrange in recent years thanks to the internet.  The first is the old familiar winging-it-on-your-own-as-you-go style that definitely requires a lot of effort, problem-solving, and a high tolerance for uncertainty.  I'm too old for that kind of travel anymore.  The second is more structured but still allows for flexibility and requires some degree of on-the-fly decision-making and coping with challenges.  In this case you plan an itinerary around your own interests and preferences by studying guidebooks, tour itineraries, and online discussion forums.  You then make your own arrangements online for accommodations, transportation, and even local tours (again, by consulting and vetting various sources of information).  This is by far our preferred mode of travel.  It requires considerable advanced effort, but as I've tried to suggest above, this active involvement in planning a trip makes it more meaningful and memorable.  The third kind of independent travel is increasingly available in recent years and is attractive if you want some degree of choice in making your own itinerary but would rather leave decisions about hotels, activities, transportation, etc. to a professional.  In many parts of the world this is not nearly as pricey as you might expect. Companies that specialize in this kind of travel consult with you online about your interests and preferences, then put together an itinerary for you which you can then modify further. The price depends on the level of accommodations you have chosen, the length of the trip, and the number of included activities. All three of these variations have the advantage of bringing you into maximum contact with local culture while also providing opportunities for appreciating the art, history, architecture, and natural attractions of a destination. 
Ok, that's it.  I have lots of other tips but I'm sure I've outstripped your patience already.  No matter what manner of travel you choose or what combinations you select, I truly hope you find travel as rewarding and enriching as I have. I think that seeing the world first-hand is far superior to experiencing it any other way, and provides a more balanced and complex view of the world than that which is filtered through other people's attitudes and agendas. Above all,  the personal encounters that travel can provide will very likely change you for the better.  And may even give you a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on other people's lives as well....

Happy travels!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

How To Kill An Oxfart

oxfart, n \'ox-fart\ : An anagram of "fox" and "rat," used frivolously by the author of Snow Crash to denote any creature that is perceived to be despicable and worthy of being killed.

The huge highway billboard depicted a snarling, mangy, furtive creature skulking through some bushes, obviously up to no damn good. The message below the photo urged the public to help control this dire threat to the environment, the economy, and to public health by all means necessary, and showed one of the packets of poison being distributed by government authorities for that purpose.

The photo was of a fox.

Oxfartus Foxus
The billboard was part of a 10-year fox eradication program carried out in Tasmania, Australia from 2006 to 2014. My wife and I were traveling there at the time, and were puzzled by the negative portrayal of an animal we generally regarded very positively. Red foxes were introduced into Australia during the 1800's by the British for sport hunting, but unfortunately the foxes, being hunters themselves, began to prey on many vulnerable native species and have driven a number of them to extinction (Wikipedia). This, of course, is yet another sad example of the negative consequences of human ignorance and arrogance in environmental and ecological matters (see The Curious Case of the Kona Coyote for more). 

As the billboard campaign in Tasmania illustrates, it is helpful to demonize another species in order to
provide psychological justification for killing its members and to motivate the public to take part or at least tolerate it. As history shows, when the targets are our fellow humans, additional techniques of dehumanization and dastardization (my term) can be included to make extermination, enslavement, exploitation, and abuse acceptable or even righteously called for as part of the natural order of things.
Cuteus Foxus

The fox is generally considered an attractive, resourceful, and intelligent animal that most of us don't perceive as particularly threatening or dangerous even if it occasionally becomes a nuisance or a pest (raiding the chicken coup, for instance). The Australians therefore had to work fairly hard to change its public image as part of the eradication and control campaign.
 
Rats, on the other hand have been demonized for centuries and no extra public media campaign is needed to make killing them seem justified. Perhaps going back to the days of the Black Plague or earlier, rats have had a very negative reputation despite (or perhaps because of) being our close urban
Oxfartus Ratus
companions for hundreds of years. Traits that have allowed rats to thrive in ecological and evolutionary terms are seen as revoltingly negative.  They are omnivorous, opportunistic scavengers, and they are not too picky in what they eat or where they eat it -- garbage dumps, trash cans, or pet-food bowls. They are very adept at staying near food supplies by utilizing any available shelter, including sewers, attics, and walls. And of course, rats breed prolifically, which increases their competition for food and makes them tenacious seekers of new food supplies. They can be very destructive in their quest for food and shelter -- gnawing through walls and screens and even chewing on automobile wires coated with new environmentally-friendly soy-based coverings (NBC News, 1/26/16)
.  All of these things lead to the same conclusion  -- like a fox in Tasmania, the only good one is a dead one.

Once demonized, methods of controlling varmints like rats and foxes (i.e., oxfarts) are evaluated primarily on practical and economic criteria rather than whether they are humane. After all, who cares if such a nasty creature suffers a little as long as it dies.  For example, in Tasmania the poison sodium fluoroacetate, or "1080" was widely used in the eradication campaign. This poison is especially lethal to mammals, including canines, rodents, and humans. Though effective, it would be hard to defend it as humane way to kill anything.  According to Wikipedia:
"In humans, the symptoms of poisoning normally appear between 30 minutes and three hours after exposure. Initial symptoms typically include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain; sweating, confusion, and agitation follow. In significant poisoning, cardiac abnormalities including tachycardia or bradycardia, hypotension, and ECG changes develop. Neurological effects include muscle twitching and seizures; consciousness becomes progressively impaired after a few hours leading to coma. Death is normally due to ventricular arrhythmias, progressive hypotension unresponsive to treatment, and secondary lung infections. Symptoms in domestic animals vary: dogs tend to show nervous system signs such as convulsions, vocalization, and uncontrollable running, whilst large herbivores such as cattle and sheep more predominantly show cardiac signs. Sub-lethal doses of sodium fluoroacetate may cause damage to tissues with high energy needs — in particular, the brain, gonads, heart, lungs, and fetus."  Wikipedia, "Sodium Fluoroacetate"
Sodium fluoracetate is tightly controlled in the U.S., restricted primarily to poison collars placed on sheep so that a predator who eats the sheep (usually a coyote or wolf, not a fox) will either die or develop a mutton aversion. This poison is no longer available in the U.S. as a method to kill rats, but there are a number of others that are, and selling them is BIG business. Worldwide an estimated $45 billion a year is spent on rodent control, about $1.4 billion in the U.S. alone.

According to the authoritative website, Rats in the Attic, here are the major poisons found in products you can buy, and how they work:
  • Anticoagulants: Includes warfarin, brodifacoum, flocoumafen, coumatetraly, difenacoum, and bromadiolone. Anticoagulants damage capillaries (the tiny blood vessels), and cause internal bleeding (hemorrhaging). This process takes a few days. Documented cases of human warfarin poisoning record severe pain from bleeding into muscles and joints. In the final phase, the animal dies of hypovolemic circulatory shock.
  • Bromethalin: Attacks the nervous system, and causes limb ataxia, extensor rigidity, opisthotonus, lateral recumbency hind limb hyper-reflexia, seizures, hyperthennia, and finally death after 36 hours or so.
  • Cholecalciferol: It produces hypercalcemia, which results in systemic calcification of soft tissue, leading to renal failure, cardiac abnormalities, hypertension, CNS depression, and leads to death in 24-36 hours.
  • Strychnine: causes muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia or sheer exhaustion.
  • Antifreeze - Ethylene glycol: The liver metabolizes ethylene glycol into glycolate and oxalate, which cause cellular damage in various tissues and organs, especially the kidneys. So after an initial stage of nausea and vomiting and muscle twitches, kidney, liver, even heart failure cause death, usually in about 24 hours.  (Source: Rats in the Attic: How to Poison Rats)
Surely only a true demon deserves to die by one of these poisons, and then only if there are no practical alternatives to protect us from its demonic presence.

A quick perusal of your local hardware or homestore's large section of pest control products will reveal a number of possible alternatives to poisons.  One that is more environmentally friendly but hardly more humane than poison is the glue trap, sold for controlling a number of pests, including rats and mice. These devices guarantee a long, lingering, and painful death by inhibiting the animal's movements so that dies from starvation, self-inflicted injury or from the stress and exhaustion of trying to free itself. At least one animal protection organization has called for a ban on glue traps -- not an unreasonable position it seems to me (see PETA's statement, for example).

Snap Trap
There are two devices that can kill rats humanely, and the first of these is strongly recommended by professional exterminators at Rats in the Attic. The simple snap trap, invented in the late 1800's, is still considered perhaps the most effective, reliable, environmentally friendly, safe, and humane way to deal with rodent demons (see Wikipedia for details).  The mechanism is straight-forward, though the result sounds a bit gruesome.  A spring-loaded wire bar is released when the rat touches the bait, descending with enough force to kill the animal almost instantly by crushing its skull, ribs, or spinal cord.  Death is usually very quick, so the animal's suffering is much less than with poison or glue traps. Fancier versions come with a lever that makes disposing of the body fast and clean.

Electronic Trap
The second device is more high-tech and costs a lot more, but is equally humane and has certain aesthetic advantages that I find appealing.  It is the method I've used successfully around my own
home when repelling and live-trapping have failed (note: for those who believe live-trapping and relocating are the most humane techniques you might consider assessments by both PETA and by Rats in the Attic which propose otherwise).  This battery-powered device delivers an electric shock to the rat that instantly renders it unconscious and kills it by stopping its heart. The current is high enough to cause cardiac arrest but not so high that it creates a rat-kebab.  To the extent you are willing to infer that the rat feels no pain while unconscious, this method is very humane.

Despite the appeal of killing things that we regard as pests, the best way to handle rats, foxes, and other oxfarts is to prevent them in the first place. As the example of the Tasmanian fox illustrates, the real cause of a pest problem may in fact be human behavior, not innately demonic characteristics of the pest. In Australia humans deliberately imported a non-native animal and released it so they could hunt it for sport. The extinction of animals the foxes preyed upon for food is very negative, of course, but it could be argued that humans are as much to blame for the extinctions as the foxes.

In the case of rodents, human behavior may also be a large part of the cause. The way we often provide open access to garbage around homes, restaurants and public spaces, for instance, produces an irresistible buffet for rats & mice, and an endless supply of delicious, nutritious food for them. Our buildings are often designed and maintained without regard to the fact that they provide excellent shelter in the form of unsealed nooks, crannies and hidden spaces. And in poor neighborhoods with substandard housing and minimal city services these conditions are even more prevalent.  If even a small portion of the $1.4 billion spent annually on poisons and traps went to better sanitation and waste-handling the population of rats would drop considerably.

But by far the most effective way to reduce the numbers of rats is to stop them from reproducing.  A very promising method to do this has recently been developed by the biotech company Senestech. When rats consume a patented liquid bait both the males and females become infertile. They live out the rest of their lives without side effects, though they may be puzzled as to why they aren't producing any little oxfarts. The natural lifespan of a typical urban rat is about 8-12 months, during which a mating pair can produce up to 15,000 pups. The math is pretty clear -- by preventing reproduction in a rat colony the number of rats will start to decline within a very short time.  In one test case in New York subways the decrease was 40% in just 3 months (The Guardian, 9/20/16).  The product is called ContraPest, and has recently won EPA registration so it will likely become commercially available soon.  Besides being effective and humane, ContraPest is environmentally friendly because the ingredients quickly break down, both within the rat's body and in water or soil.  Since it metabolized quickly, if the rat is eaten by another animal the sterilization effects are not likely to be transferred.  Sounds like a big win for everyone and everything -- except for the rats, of course.

Cuteus Ratus
Humans are unique in that we are the only animal that has invented new and creative methods of killing other creatures and even members of our own species. We are also the only animal that can deliberately choose which of those methods to use, when to use them, and whether to kill at all.  Hopefully our unique qualities as a species can include empathy, compassion, and sympathetic kindness in making those choices, even for oxfarts.

____________________
Sources and Resources:
"The Curious Case of the Kona Coyote:"  Snow Crash, 5/6/14
"Red Foxes in Australia:" Wikipedia
10-year fox eradication program: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service 
"Sodium Fluoroacetate:" Wikipedia
"How to Poison Rats Effectively:" Rats in the Attic
"Mousetrap:" Wikipedia 
"Trapping Mice & Rats:" PETA
"Humane Live Trapping:" Rats in the Attic
"Man v Rat: Could the Long War Soon Be Over?" The Guardian, 9/20/16
"Rodent Control: Our Product:"  Senestech

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Trump's Truthiness And Post-Factual Politics In A "Demon-Haunted World"

In 2005 humorist Stephen Colbert introduced the term "Truthiness" on his political satire show, "The Colbert Report."  Although the origin of the word goes back to the early 1800's to refer to truthfulness, Colbert used it to parody current political discourse, referring to the "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.  Colbert's explanation of the word that he gave a decade ago in a 2006 interview seems even more applicable to today's political scene, and in particular to current Presidential campaign rhetoric:
Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word ...
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love ... [insert D.T instead of then President G.W. Bush] because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country [emphasis added].  I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?...
Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality. (A.V. Club Interview, 2006)
Conservative columnist George Will uses the related but not nearly as humorous term "Post-factual Politics" to describe what he sees as an age in which political decisions and strategies often ignore demonstrable facts and instead follow a worldview largely uninformed by reality (see, for example, Will's 9/29/16 analysis of Trump's position on Ukraine ("Trump's Shallowness Runs Deep") and his 9/14/16 discussion of Putin's Orwellian rewriting of history in the service of "making Russia great again."

George Will's observations aren't as entertaining as Colbert's, but their implications are equally sobering and alarming. It is very disturbing to think we are heading for a society in which facts don't matter and truthiness is more important than truth.

A possible antidote to this trend is for citizens to make use of the several politically neutral fact-checking services that are available online, such as Politifact.Com, Factcheck.Org, or the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column. All three allow for degrees of factual distortion, from leaving out important contextual details, to over- or under-stating numerical data, to making totally unsubstantiated factual claims. The potential benefit of consulting such sources is that they allow current issues to be assessed more rationally, and though interpretations may differ as to what the facts imply for political action, at least these disagreements can begin with a common, realistic referent.

Unfortunately, the beneficial impact of fact-checking may be limited in the climate of extreme divisiveness we are now experiencing.  As Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post has noted,
...there are limits to what fact-checking can achieve. Those who have tried to measure the impact of fact-checking have found that there are many kinds of audiences, and that fact-checking affects each of them differently. All people are more likely to believe in “facts” that confirm their preexisting opinions and to dismiss those that don’t. But those with unusually strong opinions — those who are more partisan — are less likely to change their views, more likely to claim that fact-checkers themselves are “biased,” and even more likely to spread their views aggressively to their friends. This has always been the case, but social media now multiplies the phenomenon: In a world where people get most of their information from friends, fact-checking doesn’t reach those who need it most [emphasis added]. (Applebaum, 5/19/16)
For those at the political extremes (such as D.T.) truthiness wins because the truth reported by fact-checkers must be a lie if it contradicts what the extremists already believe and feel in their gut is correct: "What I say is right, and nothing anyone else says could possibly be true." The manifestations and consequences of truthiness and post-factual politics are far-reaching, dire and ironic -- at a time in history when astonishing discoveries are being made in medicine, biology, physics, space exploration, and other fields the world is simultaneously gripped by war, global political and economic instability, internal political discord, and ethnic conflict fueled by intransigent religious beliefs and extreme ideological intolerance.

The tendency to reject evidence-based reasoning extends beyond politics and includes a growing resistance to scientific approaches to knowledge and decision-making, as illustrated by controversies over climate change, evolution, and stem-cell research.  In many areas of life that could be usefully informed by the methods and findings of science, people instead seem willing to accept unfounded explanations of events and solutions to problems that rest on intuition, superstition, and pseudoscience. Add to this the growing tendency to deny scientific evidence because it doesn't fit our politicized beliefs.

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and tireless advocate of science education explored the extent and causes of this phenomenon in his 1996 book, The Demon-Haunted World.  He suggests that one reason for the rejection of scientific evidence -- and by extension the reliance on truthiness -- is a misperception of the self-correcting and probabilistic nature of science, two features which distinguish science from ideological approaches to determining truth.  By insisting on repeatable, objective evidence to support empirical claims, science builds on past knowledge by correcting and extending conclusions in light of the most recent reliable evidence.  Unfortunately this can lead to the false inference that truth is as malleable as opinion and therefore scientific evidence has no greater claim to validity than one's gut feeling.  Furthermore, since science explicitly acknowledges that any scientific conclusion is possibly false, some people believe this means any two explanatory claims (such as Darwinian Evolutionary Theory versus Creationism) have equal standing.  However, they have failed to appreciate that science carefully assesses the degree of certainty in any claim, and these can vary widely based on the amount and consistency of available evidence -- some explanations are far more credible than others.

A second possible reason for rejecting scientific evidence focuses more on the emotional basis of the phenomenon, and as a social psychologist I find it very compelling.  Sagan notes that superstitious and non-scientific reasoning are often appealing because they promise to remove the distress of uncertainty of everyday life in a world full of perceived threats. But this comes at a high price:
"Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly ignorance about ourselves.  I worry that ... pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive ....Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to our national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up all around us -- then habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls" [emphasis added].
The desire for certainty -- even if the certainty is an illusion created from the truthiness of post-factual political rhetoric -- is a powerful psychological motivation in times of social upheaval such as we are now experiencing.  But in contrast to the measured certainty of science, the illusory kind is not amenable to moderation by consideration of factual evidence.

Carl Sagan died in 1996, the same year he finished writing The Demon-Haunted World .  I am certain he would be thrilled by the scientific advances of the past 20 years.  But I think he might also be very disappointed and saddened to find so many demons still haunting us.....

 ___________
Sources & Resources:

"Truthiness,"  Wikipedia (Includes a transcript of the interview with Stephen Colbert)
George Will: "Trump's Shallowness Runs Deep," Washington Post 9/29/16,  "Putin Goes Full Orwell," Washington Post 9/14/16,
Anne Applebaum:  "Fact-Checking in a 'Post-Fact World'" Washington Post, 5/19/16
Carl Sagan:  The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996).  Ballantine Books.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

At Last! A Poop Museum!

Ok, we've examined my borderline-deranged fascination with poop before ( see "How About a Fecal Transplant?," "Fabulous, Synthetic Poop" and "Cleaning Up Poop In Paradise"), so you'll understand why I was so thrilled recently when I learned that somebody has at last created a fitting tribute to this stupendous substance in the form of a museum.  Yes, a museum dedicated to excrement!

It's on the Isle of Wright, U.K., where apparently people are as enlightened (or deranged) about poop as I am.  I learned about the museum recently while scanning one of my routine online news sources, BBC.Com. This story was in their Earth section, a collection of brilliantly-written science articles, many of which are not only informative but also very, very funny. The author of this one is Katie Silver, whose enthusiasm for the topic is quite clearly conveyed in her entertaining and informative writing style -- I highly recommend  that you read the entire article, "Five Surprising Uses of Poo."  [Note -- "Poo" is the British translation of "poop."  The two terms will be used interchangeably henceforth.]

Zoo Poo
The museum is in the local zoo, where the curators have displayed 20 samples of animal droppings from crows to lions. Only one is from a human -- a sample of baby's poop -- but I could offer some real eye-catchers if the museum wants to expand their collection.  The National Poo Museum, as it is ambitiously called, even has its own website, https://www.poomuseum.org/, which provides a number of interesting details about the zoo and even includes an animated rendition of its catchy theme song, "They've Got An Awful Lot Of Poo At The Zoo."  Take a listen -- it's very cute.

How, you might ask, does the museum actually display specimens that are so...ah, delicate and aromatic?
Encapsulated Pigeon Poop
The answer is their invention of a clever process of drying and encapsulating them in plastic resin:
"...the [drying] machine [is] a long pipe with ‘poo hammocks’ that go into a poo dryer. Depending on the size of the faeces it will stay in the dryer for anything from a day to a couple of weeks. It’s then covered in resin and encapsulated, with vacuum chambers used to remove the air bubbles. The end result looks a little like a crystal ball. Except it has a poo in the centre." (Silver, 2016)
Somehow I find the mental picture of "poo hammocks" quite amusing.

Anyway, there is a great deal of serious information that can be gleaned from poop. My wife and I are very familiar with this from spending many hours on African safaris and nature walks in other parts of the world, during which our guides/trackers gave us many poop lessons. For example we now know the difference between male versus female giraffe droppings (females are tapered), between white rhino and black rhino poop (the nature of the cuts on undigested twigs), what a hyena had for dinner (smell and nature of bone fragments), and why wombat do-dos are cubes (the wombat pats them into that shape so rivals can't roll them off the trail). A good tracker can tell the approximate age and health of the animal, how long ago the nugget was deposited, how fast the animal was traveling, and even where it might be headed next, based on various telltale signs. A poop-pile is an open book, so to speak.

Of course, from past blogs we know that it's not just what you see in poop that counts, but sometimes what you can't see -- i.e., the trillions of microbes that live in our gut and ultimately reside in our poop as well. The microbial signature of different species can provide useful information as to what kind of animal made a deposit even when other indicators are long lost.  For example, Katie Silver documents how microbial poop signatures have recently provided evidence of the exact route Hannibal's army took when crossing the Alps 2000 years ago, which up until now had been mainly conjecture.  Hannibal took with him some 15,000 horses, which are prodigious poopers.  Archeologists located one spot along the most likely route where that many animals might have been kept during the crossing. When then dug down to the 2000-year level they found a high concentration of both organic material and Clostridia bacteria, a microbe common to horse droppings. The magnitude of the deposit and its microbial signature provide solid evidence that this was the actual route.

Fossilized Dino Dropping
A preserved bit of horse droppings from Hannibal's campaign would make a great exhibit in the Poo Museum, but as far as I can tell there isn't one. Nor does the Museum have an example of the ultimate in preserved poop -- a coprolite, or fossilized dinosaur dropping. These dino nuggets can be up to two feet long and are highly prized by paleontologists for the information they provide about diet, feeding behavior, and even health of animals that are now extinct. A recent Smithsonian Magazine article reports on an even rarer find -- a 150 million-year-old pterosaur fossil that seems to show the contents of its digestive tract still inside. What an exhibit that would make!

Despite the shortcomings of not having specimens from Hannibal's Crossing or from any dinosaurs, the National Poo Museum is quite active in promoting beneficial educational programs. For example, the museum's website lists this year's events as:
  • Continuous Program, Summer, 2016:  "Poo At The Zoo" featuring the resin-sphere exhibits.
  • May 30-June 15, 2016:  "Love Your Poo Week," focusing on waste treatment and disposal.
  • July 6, 2016:  My personal favorite, "Brighton Turd Nerd Night" featuring expert speakers on topics such as "Tackling dog shit in postwar Paris" and "Dirty dogs, worms and the politics of shit in 1970s Britain." 
The last one sounds particularly interesting.  However, the connection between poop and politics seems a bit obvious, and not just in 1970's Britain......

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Is Your Phone Smarter Than You Are?

Mine is, but it didn't used to be. I think there are two reasons for this change.

First, Geezerhood has progressively robbed me of more and more brain cells so that relative to my phone I've become dumber. And although I still have a few cells left but they don't seem to want to work together as well as they used to.

But there is a second far more interesting reason. Up until a few years ago I had a cell phone that looked like a Star Trek communicator. Although I tried hard, I could never get Scotty to beam me up, nor would the phone do any of those other nifty things the communicators did.  I traded that old "flip" phone for a newer sleeker model, but still it was only a phone, dumb as a post.  Then I finally succumbed to the techno-bug and bought a "smart" phone that has been getting disquietlingly more and more capable of what seems like intelligent behavior.  In other words, it may be getting smarter and I'm...well, let's just say "not."

In my attempts to keep my remaining neurons firing I like to keep up on current developments in information technology and the internet.  This was a topic I used to teach about and I am still interested in it, especially as it impacts our daily lives and also our society. One of the hot topics lately is artificial intelligence, or AI. There have been some significant recent advances in this area that support my suspicions about my phone and all other interfaces to the internet -- they are getting smarter.

The notion that computer systems could become truly intelligent has been around a long time, and the idea has gone through several cycles of optimistic over-hype and pessimistic disparagement. AI was legitimized as a serious field of research in the 50's, led by an impressive array of mathematicians and computer programmers who made striking progress initially but then stalled when certain problems became intractable, either because of the limits of theoretical approaches available at the time or because existing computer power and storage were insufficient. However, today you have more computing power in your cell phone than existed in a room-sized computer in the early days of AI, and recent breakthroughs in how we think of what constitutes machine intelligence have led to real-world applications of AI that are all around us and growing rapidly in number and scope.

Wikipedia attributes the recent surge in AI successes to three factors:  Advanced statistical techniques (loosely known as deep learning), access to large amounts of data, and faster computers.
"[These have]...enabled advances in machine learning and perception. By the mid 2010s, machine learning applications were used throughout the world. In a Jeopardy! quiz show exhibition match, IBM's question answering system, Watson, defeated the two greatest Jeopardy champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, by a significant margin. The Kinect, which provides a 3D body–motion interface for the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One use algorithms that emerged from lengthy AI research as do intelligent personal assistants in smartphones [emphasis added]. (Wikipedia, "Artificial Intelligence")
One particularly instructive illustration of the power of current AI occurred in March of this year, when Google's AlphaGo program won 4 out of 5 games against champion GO player Lee Sedol. Computers have previously beaten humans at board games like checkers and chess, but they did so by brute force calculation of the potential outcome of each move. The complexity of GO, however, makes this nearly impossible, even with very fast computers -- it is said there are more possible positions in Go than there are atoms in the universe. Expert players have to rely more on an intuitive feel for the game at a higher intellectual level. As Demis Hassabis, one of AlphaGo's creators describes it, "Good positions look good. It seems to follow some kind of aesthetic. That’s why it has been such a fascinating game for thousands of years” (Wired, 5/16).  And it is also why designing an AI system that could play Go well has been such a challenge -- it would have to incorporate human intellectual qualities that go beyond mere calculation.

So one very important aspect of AlphaGo's success is that it functions more like human intelligence than previous attempts at AI.  A second is that AlphaGo doesn't just apply rules or logic, it "learns" by being exposed to massive amounts of data from which it "distills" knowledge. According to Cade Metz of Wired magazine, AlphaGo's development team:
"...fed 30 million human Go moves into a deep neural network, a network of hardware and software that loosely mimics the web of neurons in the human brain. Neural networks are actually pretty common; Facebook uses them to tag faces in photos. Google uses them to identify commands spoken into Android smartphones. If you feed a neural net enough photos of your mom, it can learn to recognize her. Feed it enough speech, it can learn to recognize what you say. Feed it 30 million Go moves, it can learn to play Go" (Metz, 5/16).
One particular move in the AlphaGo/Sedol match, #37 in game two, was particularly meaningful because it wasn't one of the moves AlphaGo had seen before and because the move was considered by many expert Go players to show an extraordinary level of "artificial insight" and mastery of the game.
"Move 37 wasn’t in that set of 30 million. So how did AlphaGo learn to play it? AlphaGo was making decisions based not on a set of rules its creators had encoded but on algorithms it had taught itself.AlphaGo knew—to the extent that it could “know” anything—that the move was a long shot. 'It knew that this was a move that professionals would not choose, and yet, as it started to search deeper and deeper, it was able to override that initial guide,' [developer] Silver says. AlphaGo had, in a sense, started to think on its own. It was making decisions based not on a set of rules its creators had encoded in its digital DNA but on algorithms it had taught itself. 'It really discovered this for itself, through its own process of introspection and analysis.' " (Metz, 5/16, my emphasis added.)
This ability to go beyond a rote set of programmed instructions is one of the most important and significant qualities of the recent advances in AI -- with both positive and negative potential implications. On the positive side, it greatly enhances the power of AI systems to do all kinds of complex tasks for us. The neural net/machine learning approach that was used to develop AlphaGo is being applied to many other areas as well, including search engines, facial recognition, biometric scanning, robotics, speech recognition, robotic navigation and manipulation, data mining, control systems for self-driving cars, managing complex scheduling operations, etc.

But there also may be a dark side, because this type of AI ceases to be understandable and predictable by its creators. As Jason Tanz of Wired puts it, "...With machine learning, the engineer never knows precisely how the computer accomplishes its tasks. The neural network’s operations are largely opaque and inscrutable...When engineers do peer into a deep neural network, what they see is an ocean of math: a massive, multilayer set of calculus problems that—by constantly deriving the relationship between billions of data points—generate guesses about the world." (Tanz, 2016).

This loss of control has led to some serious warnings about the potential for dire negative future outcomes.  For example, the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking cautions "One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand...Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all."  Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and many others share similar reservations, leading to a recent Open Letter in which they and over 100 other experts have drawn attention to this issue and have called for efforts to lessen the probability that the technology will go awry. "We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do" (my emphasis).

Hmmm.  Sounds good.  But I'm not sure my phone is doing what I want it do even NOW......

__________________________
Sources and Resources:

Artificial Intelligence, Wikipedia. 

AlphaGo, Deepmind

"What the AI behind AlphaGo can teach us about being human."  Cade Metz, Wired, May 2016.

"Soon we won't program computers. We'll train them like dogs." Jason Tanz, Wired, May 2016.

Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn About Artificial Intelligence, The Observer, 2015

Open Letter: Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence, Future of Life Institute

Friday, July 15, 2016

Cats: Unifiers Of The World

Maybe after my nap.....
Yeah, yeah,  I know.  All you dog lovers out there are thinking that dogs, not cats, are humanity's best friend.  But I didn't say anything about cats being our slobbering, leg-licking, obsequious friends -- I will make the case that cats are unifiers of the world, which is way different.  This will require some of my usual twisted logic, so be patient as you hear me out.

Anything I can do for you??
The first fun fact is that according to several surveys, there are many more people who identify as dog lovers than cat lovers. This certainly fits my informal observations that dog lovers seem to be a dime a dozen. For example, in one large-scale study by Gosling et. al. (2010) people were asked if they were a "dog person," a "cat person," "both," or "neither."  An important strength of this study is that it surveyed a wide range of people who weren't necessarily pet-owners to begin with, and therefore they were representative of a broader and more neutral population.  Forty-six percent of the respondents self-identified as a dog person, whereas only 12% identified as a cat person.  Twenty-eight percent said their were both a cat and a dog person, and 15% chose neither. 

Another interesting poll reported by Stanley Coren in Psychology Today focused on the intensity of people's feeling toward dogs and cats.  The results showed that 74% of the respondents said they liked dogs "a lot," whereas only 41% said the same of cats. You'll note that the two percentages add to more than 100, meaning that there are some people who a strong liking for both animals, but not many.  Dogs and cats also stimulate negative feelings to different degrees.  The same survey asked the respondents whether they disliked each type of animal "a lot."  Only 2% said they disliked dogs, but 15% said that of cats. My guess is that cats really don't care. Dogs on the other hand have that genetically programmed plaintive look designed to soften up even the 2% who reject them -- you know, head down on paws, big sad eyes looking up expectantly, often with an audible sigh....

The differences in preferences and feelings toward dogs and cats are undoubtedly tied to the ways each species behaves toward humans, with those behaviors rooted in the nature of the animal and how they each were domesticated.  According to Stanley Coren:

"In the wild, cats are usually solitary hunters and often are active mostly at night. In contrast, wild canines are usually sociable pack animals that work in groups and are active between dawn and dusk. Our domestic dogs retain this need for social interaction to the degree that without a master and a family, a dog seems unhappy--almost lost. Dogs will intrude on a person's ongoing activities if they are feeling lonely and want some company or play. Cats, on the other hand, are often invisible during the day, seeming only to appear in the evening, especially if that is when they are fed. Cats will occasionally engage in social activities or play with people, but their interest is limited." (Coren, 2010)
Because of the innate social nature of dogs they have been more intensely domesticated than cats, and the traits we find attractive have been intentionally encouraged.  The independent and solitary nature of cats, however, led to a different quality of domestication. As the BBC's Henry Nichols recently put it,

"We might expect that the process of domestication would root out that spirited independence. But cats were not domesticated in the same way as other animals, with humans carefully choosing which ones to breed from and which traits to encourage. Instead, cats were probably responsible for their own domestication. (Nicholls, 2015)
When cats first encountered human settlements, their wariness and instinct for self-preservation served them well. Sensing opportunity, they were drawn into an urban niche by an abundance of easy prey and an absence of big predators. As quoted by Nicholls, geneticist Carlos Driscoll at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that "All these animals had to do was become behaviorally adept at living with people" But importantly, "there was no selection against them hunting, or against them finding their own mates, or against them finding places to build their own nests in a rubbish heap."

The dramatically different behaviors of dogs and cats toward humans may make them attractive to different kinds of people, an idea that has been verified scientifically. The large scale study by Gosling et al, (2010) described earlier included a widely used and highly regarded measure of the major dimensions of personality, and the differences between the respondents identifying as dog versus cat people were assessed.  I should note before telling you the results that a danger in presenting personality differences between groups of people on measures like these is that the differences are often over-generalized -- it is incorrectly assumed that everyone in Group A is higher or lower on dimension X than those in Group B.  Not true. It's better to think of the differences in terms of trends, or tendencies.

Gosling et al. found that dog lovers were higher than cat lovers on the personality dimensions of Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.  Cat Lovers, on the other hand, were higher than Dog Lovers on the dimensions of Openness and Neuroticism.  Similar patterns have been found by Coren, (2010), who notes that the Openness dimension "involves a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People high on openness are more likely to hold unconventional beliefs while people with low scores on openness (dog people) tend to have more conventional, traditional interests."  This, along with cat people's higher neuroticism, suggests quirkiness and aloofness, both of which fit nicely with my thesis in the following admittedly convoluted way:  It's harder to tell on the surface a person is a cat lover, and so when you do find out they like cats you are likely to be surprised -- and pleased, if you are a fellow cat fancier. This common bond may transcend (or at least weaken) the existing social barriers between you, thus contributing to the unification of the world. Peace, harmony and utopian happiness are sure to follow.  (Ouch, I think I sprained my brain on that last one.)

My final piece of evidence is the surprising range of people who are cat people, covering a wide spectrum of political, religious, and cultural orientations. Consider these examples from a list of 45 Famous Cat Lovers compiled by Rachael Mulliss:  Mohammed...Cardinal Richelieu...Kim Kardashian...Sir Winston Churchill...Abraham Lincoln...Mark Twain...and Ricky Gervais. If there is any common ground among these folks then maybe there is still hope for the world...

I rest my case. 
_________
Sources & Resources:

Gosling, S. D., Sandy, C. J., & Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of self-identified “dog people” and “cat people.” Anthrozoƶs, 23, 213-222.

Stanley Coren, 2010:  Psychology Today.  Personality Differences Between Dog and Cat Owners. 

Henry Nicholls, BBC.Com, 2015:  Cats are Utterly, Irredeemably Selfish:  True or False?

45 Famous Cat Lovers:  Rachael Mulliss.