Nov 16

Carbon Sequestration: Our Only Hope?

I am a big fan of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing. I’ve read just about everything she’s written in the past few years, and I also attended a talk she gave at a local college (she lives not too far from me). The most recent (November 20, 2017) issue of The New Yorker published a piece by her on the subject of stopping (and even reversing) the practice of adding carbon dioxide to our atmosphere.The article makes several important points, and I highly recommend it if you’d like to understand the necessity of this process, as well as the daunting challenges we face in making it a reality.

The United Nations has said,

In order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, carbon dioxide removal is likely a necessary step.

Yet, there is no easy path forward. The technology is in its infancy, and it’s not clear how well it will scale up.

There are many moving parts, here, of course: technological, economic, and political.

The focus to date has been on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This has led to an emphasis on renewable fuels, but the implementation in some areas leaves a lot to be desired. The production of ethanol, for example, creates large amounts of CO2 which is released into the atmosphere. Similarly, the burning of biofuels undoes the natural carbon sequestration that occurs when plants grow.

Part of the problem here is that there is no economic incentive to capture COemissions. Kolbert argues that we have made a mistake by treating carbon dioxide as an evil presence, rather than a waste product that, like sewage and trash, needs to be dealt with. She points out that it is unlikely the world will reduce, much less eliminate, carbon dioxide emissions anytime soon. The only path the stopping things from getting worse, in terms of the concentration of the gas in the atmosphere, is to capture it at its source of production and store it away safely in some form. Beyond that, it is necessary to remove some of the overabundant supply already in our air, which is creating climate change, and will continue to do so, almost no matter what we do now.

This is not a very upbeat article, because it starkly points out how bad things are at present, but at least it does offer a possible path forward, and that’s better than having no hope at all.

Nov 15

Before the Days of Dial Phones

In doing some research at the Stockbridge Library, my brother came across an article (reproduced below) that appeared in the Berkshire Eagle in 1958, five years after the events he described in his recent article. A related picture appeared the next day.

Notice the phone numbers given. I think dial phones came to Stockbridge in 1960. When they did, every number in town belonged to a single exchange, so in order to dial a number within Stockbridge, it was only necessary to dial the last four digits. Our number on South Lee Road was 3557. That replaced our old number of 246-J. The “J” indicated it was a party line, and we would answer only if we heard the correct number of rings.

Prior to dial phones, an operator directed the calls. As a small child, I lived on Park Street, where our number was 266. One day, when I came home from school, my mother was not around. I’m not sure that had ever happened before, and I didn’t quite know what to do. In those days, she worked at the church from time to time (she was the church secretary), and I decided to call there to see if she was there. I had not used the phone very much, but I did know that if you picked up the receiver, the voice of the operator would say, “Number, please” and you could tell her who you wanted to call. I didn’t know the number of the church, but I figured she would.

So I picked up the phone, and instead of what I expected, I heard “Operator” — I was dumbstruck, not knowing how to respond. What did she mean? Being flustered, I just hung up the receiver. I thought about it for a minute, and decided to try again. It had probably been a mistake, and if I tried again, I would get the expected “Number, please.” So I picked up the phone again, and again I heard “Operator.” Now I was totally at a loss, so I just stood there with my mouth open, not knowing what to say.

“Hello, can I help you?” I heard coming from the phone. Oh, yes, that was something I understood. “I want to call my mother at the church,” I said.

“Your mother is no longer at the church. She is visiting your grandmother at the library, and she will be home soon.”

“Okay, thank you.”

That is my earliest memory of being flummoxed by the disembodied voices that flow out of telephones. I have never been comfortable speaking on the phone, and to this day I pretty much don’t.

The grandmother just mentioned appears in the photograph below. I am seated in the front row, wearing my Little League uniform. I must have arrived from a game. I am sitting between Bob Chassell, on my right, and Dan Rinsma, two good friends of mine from those long-ago days. Many stories for another day.

The handwriting on the Eagle clippings is clearly recognizable as my grandmother’s.

 

Nov 12

Guest Blog: Historic Preservation in Stockbridge

My interest here is in the family connection, as well as my own memories of Stockbridge in the 1950s. I have reproduced here, without further comment, an article written by my brother that appeared in the Berkshire Edge recently.


The former Laurel Cottage, built around 1740, was a historically significant building in the town of Stockbridge.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1953, the Berkshire Evening Eagle published an op-ed article penned by Grace Bidwell Wilcox, titled “The Ghosts of Laurel Cottage.” As curator of the Stockbridge Library’s historical room and a Bidwell family member, it appeared to be a last-ditch effort on my grandmother’s part to herald the historical value of the house and diplomatically bemoan the lack of enthusiasm for its preservation. David Wood – a teacher, author of local history and later director of the Norman Rockwell Museum at the Old Corner House – joined in the effort, writing a piece for the St. Paul’s Church newsletter. The house and land, just east of the current town offices – then owned by Helen Bidwell Lukeman, wife of sculptor Augustus Lukeman – was being taken by eminent domain for school and town use as a playground and park.

Laurel Cottage in Stockbridge

A sampling of the many ghosts of Laurel Cottage should include the builder of the original house, Joseph Woodbridge, who constructed it in 1740. Woodbridge, brother of schoolmaster Timothy Woodbridge, was the head of one of the four families invited to settle in Stockbridge to assist the missionary Rev. John Sergeant and Timothy Woodbridge by providing an example of Christian living for the Stockbridge Mohicans. Joseph, with his family, came to Stockbridge in 1739.

A who’s who of 19th century American authors rented or visited Laurel Cottage including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the English poet Matthew Arnold. St. Paul’s Church was organized there in 1834. By 1841 David D. Field Jr. had acquired the house, which Field’s daughter Lady Musgrave later inherited. She, in turn, sold the property to her cousin Charles A. Bidwell for one dollar and other valuable considerations, which turned out to be the shipping of some of Laurel Cottage’s furniture to England.

Laurel Cottage, minus the Victorian gothic projections off front and back, provided an excellent example of Queen Anne, late Stuart or Baroque architecture, a style that is best viewed by conjuring up an image of the current Mission House on Main Street, which itself was likely remodeled from a saltbox by Dr. Erastus Sergeant in the 1760s. During the razing of Laurel Cottage, evidence was found indicating the original structure had been built in 1740.

John Sergeant- Jonathan Edwards house which was at 23 Main Street.

The John Sergeant-Jonathan Edwards house rested at what is now 23 Main St., built c. 1737 for Rev. John Sergeant, missionary to the Stockbridge Indians. Based on dendrochronology, it is believed that Sergeant constructed the so-called Mission House, his second house, on Prospect Hill around 1743, although some histories place it as late as 1747. As a result of land surveys done during the creation of the 1750 Indian Proprietorship, two Stockbridge Mohicans – Jonas Etowaukaum and James Chanequin, sons of Aaron Umpachenee aka Sonkenewenaukheek – acquired the Main Street house and barn with 8 acres. They sold the property to the Rev. Jonathan Edwards in October of 1751.

Later occupiers included Asa Bement, Jahleel Woodbridge, Judge Theodore Sedgwick and General Silas Pepoon. The house and property today are more commonly remembered as having housed the Edwards Place School from 1855 to 1874, which attracted a number of well-known and near-famous either attending or supporting the school. For a time it was a boarding house before being acquired by John Cadwell from Ferdinand Hoffman in 1900. Cadwell had the house razed and had a “cottage” built further back from the road, which was later purchased by Austen Fox Riggs and called the Foundation Inn.

John Sergeant- Jonathan Edwards house which was at 23 Main Street.

It is not without some irony that the town of Stockbridge, which harbors such an incredible history peopled with the famous and near-famous – one that is matched by few towns of its size in New England – has failed on so many occasions to preserve the symbols of that history. The home of Rev. John Sergeant and Rev. Jonathan Edwards and Laurel Cottage, arguably two of the most historically important houses in Stockbridge, were victims of the wrecking ball. While a sundial memorializes the Sergeant-Edwards house, the two tennis courts on Bidwell Park hold no memories of Laurel Cottage. Those symbols of the past were a part of the historical fabric of the town, which provided insight into the town’s personality and character and, possibly more importantly, they would now help to give roots to an ever increasingly transient population that now call Stockbridge home.

In 1990, CATS magazine writer Phil Maggitti penned a tongue-in-cheek article about Stockbridge’s Cat and Dog Fountain, quoting from a 1980 Springfield Republican newspaper article that read, “A 128-year-old landmark stone statue of a cat hissing at a dog, meant to symbolize ‘progress versus preservation,’ was taken out of storage and set back on the corner of Main Street and Route 7 last week.” When asked which animal represented progress and which animal represented preservation, well-known cat lover Mary V. Flynn replied, “Why isn’t preservation progress?”

Hopefully, the fate of the Fitzpatrick Park with the Cat and Dog Fountain will be a balance of preservation and progress after much thoughtful and healthy debate.

Nov 07

Guns Do Not Stop Crimes

Vigilante Justice

I’ve abbreviated the more awkward title of a Scientific American (SciAm) article that, in full, reads More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows. It appears to me that the full article is publicly available, not behind a paywall, which would be a praiseworthy public service, although I’m a SciAm subscriber so I can’t tell for sure.

When I recently read the hardcopy version, I skimmed through it quite rapidly, because the article conforms to my beliefs, so I didn’t really need any reinforcement.

Then came yet another mass shooting (this one in Texas, though it’s hard to keep up with them these days), and the resulting press coverage. As usual, when the shooter is a white male, “mental illness” was cited by many as the “cause” of the mayhem.

What really bothered me, though, about this incident, was the characterization of a couple of local men who pulled out their guns and wounded the shooter, then engaged in a high-speed car chase that ended in his death. These vigilantes were almost universally called “heroes” by the press. This made me shudder. As far as I can tell, these two men acted outside the law and caused the death of a man. Has it come to this, that private citizens can take the law into their own hands and conduct what amounts to an extrajudicial execution, and be praised for it?

In any case, the publicity surrounding this latest gun rampage made me turn back to the recently-read article for confirmation that this sort of behavior should not be held up as the standard we wish to achieve.

Guns Don’t Make Us Safe

The majority of people who buy guns do so for self-defense.

In a June 2017 study, researchers surveyed American gun owners about why they owned handguns, reporting that 88 percent bought them for self-defense; many felt they were likely to become targets of violent crime at some point.

In a recent year (2015), 36,000 lives in the US were lost to guns. This number is staggering, and exceeds the number of deaths attributable to a wide range of other causes, including automobile accidents. Yet, the number also indicates that only 1 in about 10,000 Americans is killed by a gun in a given year. And the majority of these deaths are suicides.

Numerous surveys and studies cited in this article conclude that households with guns are much more likely to experience gun violence than households without guns. And the use of guns for self-defense is relatively trivial (1 to 22) compared with accidental shootings, criminal assaults, and suicide attempts.

There are plenty of such statistics and conclusions in the article, if you need facts to counter some of the myths we commonly hear. The author’s final observation centers around the role of guns as arbiters of passions.

People, all of us, lead complicated lives, misinterpret situations, get angry, make mistakes. And when a mistake involves pulling a trigger, the damage can’t be undone… life is not target practice.

Oct 09

“Schizophrenia’s Unyielding Mysteries”

Schizophrenia’s Unyielding Mysteries” is the title of an article published in the May 2107 issue of Scientific American magazine. Quotations in this blog post are from that article unless otherwise specified.

Schizophrenia and Autism: Similarities and Differences

I’m interested in schizophrenia because it is so closely associated with autism. At one time, autism was labeled “childhood schizophrenia” because {1} autism was (mistakenly) thought to appear only in children, and {2} it was generally held (mostly correctly) that schizophrenia appeared only during adolescence or later in life. The general view these days is that the two are different neurological conditions that share many outward signs (at least in the early stages of schizophrenia), and in some individuals may overlap (i.e. both may be present).

Until the 1970s, many clinicians used ‘autism’ and ‘childhood-onset schizophrenia’ interchangeably. Today these conditions are recognized as separate, but there are similarities. For instance, the social difficulties present in autism can resemble the social withdrawal seen in schizophrenia.

[from an online article “Do Schizophrenia and Autism Share the Same Root?“]

Current terminology identifies a condition (completely distinct from autism) known as childhood schizophrenia, said to be “an uncommon but severe mental disorder in which children interpret reality abnormally.”

Hans Asperger was aware of the potential confusion, and took care to distinguish between autism and schizophrenia, pointing out that autism is a stable personality type, whereas schizophrenia is a degenerative condition. Leo Kanner, from what I can gather, did not share this view, believing that autism in children was, in fact, the precursor of schizophrenia. Current thinking supports Asperger’s viewpoint.

Both Kanner and Asperger referred to Eugen Bleuler’s concept of autism with the former considering infantile autism as a form of early schizophrenia and the latter as a form of psychopathic personality. Interestingly, Bleuler considered autism not only as a core symptom of schizophrenia but also as a dimension spanning across a wide range of non-schizophrenic conditions including superstition and pseudoscience. Similarly, Asperger seemed to suggest a spectrum perspective while pointing out that the capacity to withdraw into an inner world of one’s own special interests is available in a greater or lesser measure to all human beings. Moreover, he emphasized that this ability has to be present to a marked extent in those who are creative artists or scientists.

[taken from the article “From Asperger’s Autistischen Psychopathen to DSM-5 Autism Spectrum Disorder and Beyond: A Subthreshold Autism Spectrum Model” — this article also points out the problems of overlapping diagnostic criteria, among other key observations]

The prevalence of autism is generally given these days at around 2% of the population, although some studies have estimated it to be as high as 4%. I have seen numbers for schizophrenia at around 1%. I suspect all of these estimates are on the low side, because of increasing awareness of and the broadening of diagnostic criteria, particularly with regard to autism.

Genetic or Environmental?

The SciAm article’s subtitle begins “Gene studies were supposed to reveal the disorder’s root. That didn’t happen.” The same thing could have been written about autism. Millions of research dollars have been spent in recent years looking for “autism genes” — in the same manner, researchers hoped to find simple explanations for schizophrenia as well as for many other so-called “disorders.” Neurology, it turns out, is a lot more complicated than that, and the chimera refused to be found.

Since the advent of large-scale genetic studies just more than a decade ago … studies have yet to deliver [new insights] for schizophrenia, as well as depression and obsessive-compulsive and bipolar [behaviors].

Similarly, searches for neurological characterizations of sex/gender differences have found that people are better described as having a “mosaic” of characteristics rather than lying on a “spectrum” (continuum) of them. In other words, there is no simple on/off switch that makes a person autistic or female or schizophrenic or any number of other categorizations.

A big part of the problem here is that there are no objective tests that will identify the label being studied. If there were commonly-accepted brain scans, say, or blood tests or DNA markers that could identify autism or schizophrenia, we would be using them as diagnostic tools. Instead, we find ourselves using subjective diagnoses to see if we can find associated biomarkers.

In the US, clinicians rely on the APA’s DSM; elsewhere they often use the WHO’s ICD.

In the criteria set out in both volumes, patients can have markedly different symptoms, … and still be diagnosed with a case of schizophrenia.

In any DNA study, a control group is compared with another group of people who have been identified with the condition for which the study is trying to find commonalities. Yet, if that study group is itself heterogeneous, united only by a common (and possibly flawed) set of diagnoses, it is not clear what will (or can) be learned about their common biology.

Another issue that is raised in this article is that of environmental influences. Although schizophrenia (like autism and many other similar conditions) are commonly thought to be highly “heritable” it is clear that lineage alone is not a reliable predictor, as shown by twin studies and other family comparisons.

In the early days of DNA decoding (i.e. more than 10 years ago), almost exclusive attention was given to the protein-coding portion of the human genome. The other 99% of genes were dubbed “junk DNA” — a characterization which struck me as ludicrous, since the logic of evolution would not tolerate Mother Nature passing along a bunch of energy-absorbing material that had no function. It is now understood that this “junk” contains (among other things) the instructions needed for when and where to build which kinds of proteins.

Very little is understood about what triggers the body to build the variants it chooses from among the enormous set of possibilities. Even identical twins, who, by definition, share nearly identical DNA, can develop very differently.

… when one member of a pair of identical twins is diagnosed with schizophrenia, the other twin is affected … only about half of the time…

Why is this? The jury is still out, of course, and we don’t know how much variability to attribute to external environmental influences versus random genetic variation. In any case, it appears (as with autism) that it will be impossible to find a direct link between a person’s genetic inheritance and the chances of developing the condition.

Are Interventions Possible?

What implication does all of this have for potential therapies? The grand hope of early DNA studies was that a small number of genes (perhaps even one) could be identified as “causing” schizophrenia. This would open up the possibility of developing drugs or other biological treatments that could alter the condition. Although some scientists continue this search, it is obvious that potential results are a long way off, and the current state of our understanding does not provide the key to developing such interventions.

A number of recent clinical trials, meanwhile, suggest that psychosocial therapies, especially CBT [cognitive-behavioral therapy] can help lessen both symptoms and suffering in schizophrenia patients.

I don’t know enough about schizophrenia to know whether schizophrenics “suffer” from their condition. That word is all too often used in connection with autism and other disabilities. In many cases, those of us who are disabled suffer not from our disability but from the mistreatment and misunderstanding that we receive from the world at large.

Parallels With Autism

The similarities will be quite obvious to those who have been following the course of autism research over the past few years. Far too much attention and money have been spent on genetic research, and far too little on alternatives. Interventions such as CBT and life-skills coaching have been proven to be effective, but precious little effort has gone into investigating which of these (or other) techniques are most useful, and how they are most effectively employed.

I’m a big believer in basic research. In fact, I’ve participated in many brain studies and have donated my DNA for analysis. I hope that research into genetics, as well as new brain imaging and other techniques, will result in a better understanding of what are the essential differences between the autistic brain and the neurotypical brain.

Yet, based on personal experience, I know that the most effective therapies are those that involve behavior modification. These include CBT, talk therapies, meditation and other mindfulness techniques, support groups, life-coaching, and many other variations. We know how to do these things; we need to learn how to do them better.

For those of us who are autistic, a greater understanding of autism will help smooth our path. Self-knowledge can lead us to be more comfortable in our differences, and also to a better understanding of how to communicate with those who don’t inhabit our dimension. A wider public understanding will, we can hope, lead to more acceptance.

Being autistic is different. Not better. Not Worse. Different. Understanding and Acceptance of this difference by all will help us unleash our potential. Diversity is a good thing. The world will be a better place.

Oct 09

A 5-Mile Ride Through the Alford Valley

A recent day (October 2) was an absolutely spectacular autumn day for a long ride on the trails near my house.

Alice (on Spot) and I (on Stewart) headed north (as we usually do) and wandered through the sun-dappled forest, seeking out some trails we hadn’t traveled for a while. There are so many trails that it would be foolhardy to try to traverse them all in one outing, so we tried to skirt the periphery of the network. We nearly succeeded, though there were two or three trails we avoided for various reasons (one, for example, goes to the summit of the ridge between East and West Roads, but is too uneven and rocky for the horses).

Here is a picture of our route:

(as with all graphics in my posts, you can see a larger version by clicking on the image, and then return to the post with the “back” function in your browser)

 

 

The map to the left does not include the town boundaries shown here, so you can eyeball our route to see that we stayed within Alford.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The app that produces These maps is wonderful fun, but sometimes it does odd things. Its altitude profile, for example, starts us out at 1,004 feet and ends with us being at 904 feet. I doubt that my paddock subsided that much while we were gone, so it clearly took a while for the app to get its bearings. The ending reading is probably accurate. Also, it shows us detouring out to East Road just after we started — that never happened. Once it got through the first half mile or so, however, it appears to be working properly.

We didn’t snap any pictures along the way, but here’s one shot of Stewart and me that Alice took on a recent ride:

We’re hoping there will be many more such days in the weeks ahead before the freezing weather sets in.

 

Sep 29

In Search of Doctor Beebe

I hardly know where to begin this story, because its roots stretch back a long way before my time. It centers around an old foundation, abandoned more than 100 years ago, that is now in the middle of the woods, but in its day was at the center of much activity.

I first encountered this remnant of an old homestead while horseback riding, more than 20 years ago. It is only in recent months that I have discovered it was the homesite of a Dr. Richard Beebe, and I’ve set myself on a mission to learn more about him. Some of what I’ve learned is listed at the bottom of this post. First, I will tell you how I came to be interested in this enigmatic ruin.

For the past 30 years, I have owned a house in Alford Massachusetts. In the early days, it was a part-time dwelling. When I bought the house, my primary residence was in Manhattan, where I worked for Morgan Stanley as a research analyst. After about five years, I took a job as a portfolio manager and product developer for State Street Bank, and I moved to Boston. So the Alford house was still a weekend address.

I named my “estate” Thyme Hill, for both descriptive and sentimental reasons. The sun-drenched hillside to the south of the house was (and still is) covered with wild thyme, in the spirit of most New England lawns, which are often composed more of weeds and wildflowers than they are of grass. The sentimental connection was to another property named Thyme Hill that had been a favorite place of mine during my youth.

I grew up in Stockbridge (Alford does not border that town, but is directly south of West Stockbridge), and for a week or two of every summer, I would stay with my Aunt Belle (actually my grandaunt, as she was quick to point out, since she was my grandmother’s sister) and her husband, my Uncle John (Weiss). They had built a house in Monterey, a town to the southeast of Stockbridge, and named it Thyme Hill because of the wild thyme growing on the hillside below their house. My grandmother (and, of course, her sister) was a Bidwell, a name that had been in Monterey since 1750, when the area was part of Housatonic Township #1. A story for another time.

Map of Berkshire County, with its western border on New York state

Aunt Belle had left this world before I bought the Alford property, and I was glad to have a sign at the top of my driveway to honor her and keep alive the wonderful memories I have of time spent with her and Uncle John. After living in Boston for about five years, I moved to Alford full time, having left State Street to start my own business.

Oftentimes, I teasingly refer to my place as my estate, or my farm (I keep two horses on my property), but the truth is that my holdings are tiny; a small corner carved out of a 200-acre farm, on the site of an old marble quarry. When I’m standing in my yard, however, I feel a connection with the wider world around me, looking south many miles down the Alford Valley, with a spectacular view of Mount Everett.

Looking due south from my yard in the winter light, mid-January 2017, with Mount Everett in the center distance

Another view of Mount Everett, from my deck, in early November 2016

To the north and east are mostly woods, and to the west I have another grand view of a ridgeline atop the steeply-rising Taconic mountain range that runs on a nearly true south-to-north line, intersecting and crossing the New York state boundary line, which tilts slightly eastward as it moves north.

My horse Stewart, with a view to the southwest behind him, showing part of the western mountain ridge

Looking directly west from my house, August 2016

Early October 2014, Spot and Stewart await their dinner, with a view of the Alford Springs property behind them

The story of Doctor Bebee (ah, yes, remember him? the subject of this post?), for me, is connected to the property visible behind the horses in that last picture. Years ago, I spent a lot of time alone, being quite depressed about how my life was going at the time. One of the things that would get me out of my funk was to take some hand tools and take a walk on that mountain, clearing riding trails. In those days, I did not have my own horse, but rode with my friend Amy Shinerock, who lived in the shadow of that mountain.

At least once a week, I would drive over to Amy’s house (five miles on the roads of Alford, though only about a mile as the crow flies). We would ride up the hill in the back of her house, and, without ever crossing a paved road, we could ride for as long as we wished (often two hours or more).

After many months of riding, trail-clearing, and walking off my depression in solitude, inside the comfort of a thick forest, I got to know that mountain like the back of my hand, as the expression goes. I became quite possessive of the trails I had created, and the stream crossings I had improved, for the sake of easier passage by the horses. In fact, I came to feel quite proprietary about the mountainside, but of course I didn’t actually own it.

At that time, the land was owned by a fellow named Reed Rubin. I was fairly new in town at the time, so I didn’t really know the story of the property, but I had heard rumors that he had won 600 acres in a poker game. This sounded preposterous to me, a story out of the Alford Book of Legends, akin to the tale of a murder at the gold mine further north on the same mountain. In all of my wanderings, I never came across anything that looked like a mine of any kind. Plenty of charcoal pits, to be sure, (or “charcoal hearths” as some would call them, since they were leveled places in the forest used in the creation of charcoal, to feed the iron furnaces operating in nearby towns).

The poker game story, though, was of more recent origins, so I asked around. Several of the locals confirmed that it did in fact happen, though I never talked with anyone who had actually witnessed the game. In any case, after a period of time in which I had been acting as self-appointed caretaker of his property (unbeknownst to him), Mr. Rubin evidently decided it was time to log the forest. Many large pieces of equipment showed up, and began to “improve” the old woods roads we had been using as horse trails.

The loggers made quite a mess of it, tossing aside the treetops and any brush that was in their way. It was also distressing to see the forest thin out, and the ground get chewed up by large bulldozers and trucks. Amy and I made the best of it, riding on weekends when they weren’t around. We even found one stretch of road that was so smooth we could race our horses up the hill without worrying about obstacles or holes. The horses were delighted.

And I must say, now that 20 years have passed, it is hard to see any evidence of what seemed like total destruction at the time. Mother Nature has a way of healing itself, given enough time.

What with all the activity and disruption, Amy and I had to find other places to ride. So we went to the south and to the west, finding networks of old roads that had been used for farming, for logging, or even for transportation, in days long ago. Some of the roads showed signs of recent use, but many of them had trees growing in them that were large enough to suggest they hadn’t been used for dozens of years. I’ve discovered the same thing in my hiking in this area — it’s amazing what an extensive network of roads once existed back a hundred years ago or more, when this was primarily an agricultural area. There is an aerial photo of Alford in the Town Offices that shows the town as it was about a hundred years ago, and at least 80% of the land was open space. Today, the situation is reversed, and probably the same percentage is now wooded.

In our wanderings to the south of the Rubin property, we encountered a small network of old roads and wide trails that had obviously been well cared-for in recent years. Amy thought she knew who owned the property, so we rode down to the nearest house, where we were warmly greeted by an elderly Mrs. Andrews, who came out to see and pet the horses, and tell us stories of how, in years gone by, she had ridden on the same trails.

In recent weeks, through conversations with the Andrews (extended) family, and some online research, I’ve come to know more about the history of the property. My interest in the foundation was rekindled when a large chunk of the land was given to BNRC, and they took over maintaining the trails and meadows on the now-extended Alford Springs property. The original 600-acre poker game property became the origins of what is now an 884-acre preserve with improved trails and viewpoints. (The photo in the document just linked, btw, was obviously taken just to the south of my house, across the Valley from Alford Springs.) There were, as I understand it, a couple of ~200-acre  chunks given to, or acquired by, BNRC since that original acquisition in 2002.

I’ve hiked the BNRC trails in Alford Springs many times over the past few years, sometimes alone, sometimes with my step-dogs, sometimes with a group of friends. If I was with others when passing the foundation, I would point it out, but couldn’t tell much at all about it. After last year’s Thanksgiving snowstorm, my friend Bess and I took the dogs for a long walk from my house, across the Valley, and up the slopes to the top of the ridge. We saw an astounding amount of storm damage along the trails, with some of the woods roads being totally blocked by large fallen trees.

Clearly, the trails were, at least temporarily, not suitable for passage by skiers, horses, or vehicles. This brought out my trail-clearing instincts, and I volunteered to help with the clean-up. One thing led to another, and recently I’ve been cleaning up storm damage and new growth around the foundation. I’ll show “before and after” photos of the clean-up effort in a later post.

I asked the BNRC folks if they had any information about the history of the foundation, beyond what they told me they knew (that it was the home of a Dr. Beebe). They admitted to having “something around somewhere” but to date nothing has surfaced.

Meanwhile, Bess did some web searching and came up with lots of intriguing tidbits. We will continue to follow these leads and talk to people who might have connections to the Andrews property or the Beebe family. I enjoy doing this partly out of general curiosity, and also because I like to try to picture what it was like to live in my town before the days of electricity and automobiles.

What I refer to as the Andrews property evidently came into the hands of that family around 100 years ago. I have talked with the current owners of part of that property (Bob and Ann Snell), and will follow up to be sure I have it right. As I understand it, the property came on the market after the Titanic sank (in 1912), since the land was owned by someone who was lost in that event. Ann’s mother was the Mrs. Andrews I referred to earlier. Ann’s sister (yes, Joe, I guess they were the Andrews sisters!) came to own the part of the property on which the Beebe foundation sits, and she is the one who sold that land to BNRC. Ann and her husband Bob came to own the portion of the land that contains the original house where Ann grew up. I believe there is a third sibling (Tom) who lived for a time on another section of the original Andrews property.

Ann told me that, as long as she can remember, the Beebe foundation was in pretty good shape (still true today), but there was no evidence of the long-lost structures. Bob Snell (her husband) told me that for 40 years he had maintained the roads and trails, and that when he first started doing that, the foundation was totally in the woods. He had cleared an area around it to make a meadow, leaving only some old apple trees (which Ann said he kept pruned, hoping to appeal to the deer, since he is a hunter).

Years ago, Amy and I had asked Bob for permission to ride on those trails, which he readily granted, subject to the provisos that we not ride during hunting season (which would scare off the game), nor during mud season (which would tear up the trails). We agreed, and thanked him for his generosity.

If I learn more, my faithful readers will be among the first to know.

Sep 03

Georging

For the past few (4+) years, I have been a “Georger” — a person who uses the website http://www.wheresgeorge.com/ to track the movement of US currency that passes through my hands.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this in future posts, I just wanted to start the conversation here with an observation about an article that appeared in the latest (September 4, 2017) New Yorker.

One of the things that fascinates me about the WheresGeorge hobby (and, yes, there is a connection with my thoughts about the autistic personality) is learning facts about currency production and circulation. There is a tie-in, too, with my lifelong interest in money as a concept — how it works, how it was invented, and other aspects of “the coin of the realm.” My career, after all, was in finance, and I have degrees in Economics.

As an aside, the coin of the realm, in the original phrase, was the English penny. We Americans often talk as though we have a penny, but in fact what we have is a one-cent piece. There has been much speculation about phasing out the Lincoln cent (in production since 1909), since it is often treated as more of a nuisance than a piece of value. Back in the day when the penny was indeed the coin of the realm, it was so valuable that it was not even the smallest coin issued. That honor belonged to the farthing, which was worth a quarter of a penny (the word itself is a corruption of “fourthing”), and Ceylon (which at the time was part of the British Empire) issued a coin worth half a farthing. But I digress.

The New Yorker article, by Adam Davidson, is titled “Smart Money” in the print edition, and “How the Dollar Stays Dominant” online. It starts out with a description of Crane Currency (aka Crane & Company or Crane Paper), which makes all the paper used in US currency, and is located in the same Massachusetts County where I was born and now live. Berkshire County, as I understand it, was where American papermaking got its start. Prior to 1844, paper was made from cloth rags. In that year, two different inventors, one in Canada and one in Germany, came up with the idea of using wood.

Rags were probably in fairly short supply in the Berkshires, but there were plenty of trees. Despite the demand for wood in the charcoaling (ironmaking) industry, and the need for lumber (tall white pines were highly prized as ships’ masts), trees were mostly a nuisance to farmers who needed clearcut land.

When I was growing up, in the 1950s, there were many mills along the Housatonic River engaged in the manufacture of paper, though by then most of the raw material was imported from farther north.

My father worked, for most of my childhood, at Eaton Paper Company, in Pittsfield. He was the foreman of the cutting room, where they produced envelopes and stationery. Our house was filled with scraps of paper he brought home — remnants of the cutting process; a multicolored collection of odd shapes left over after trimming large sheets. Eaton Paper did not manufacture paper, but took the local product and packaged it for end users.

We lived in Stockbridge, never far from the Housatonic River. As kids, we would often play down by the river, oblivious to the PCBs that flowed from the GE plant in Pittsfield. We always knew what color of paper was being produced that day, because the river would flow by in the various hues of the rainbow; pink one day, green the next. My mother (wisely) told us to stay out of the water (which also contained more than a little sewage), although she recounted her memories of the days in her youth when the river ran clear and clean, and she could swim in it.

Davidson’s article points out that Crane still uses cotton and linen to make the paper for our currency. This is just one of the features that makes it difficult to counterfeit the various denominations of dollar bills. The article highlights other technologies now in use:

The hundred-dollar bill, for example, is embedded with a micro-optic security ribbon—a blue line, next to Benjamin Franklin’s face, patterned with alternating images of the Liberty Bell and the number “100” which, when the bill is tilted, move up and down, left and right.

I remember the first time I saw one of these elaborately-designed bills, several months before they first went into production in February of 2010. It was at a political fundraiser in Pittsfield (the city next door to Dalton, where Crane is located). An employee of Crane had obtained permission to bring a prototype to the gathering, and it was enclosed in a heavy plastic sleeve on a chain that was handcuffed to his wrist. He was proud to show it around, but no one was allowed to touch even the plastic container. It struck me at the time that this kind of “security” was a bit of overkill amidst a group of people who were unlikely to become counterfeiters.

As a matter of fact, as the article makes clear, counterfeiting is not much of a problem at all. In a typical year, the Secret Service finds only a few million dollars’ worth of fake bills, not even a nat on the elephant of the trillion dollars that is in circulation.

Larry Felix, the former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, told me that anti-counterfeit measures “don’t make much sense from a direct financial perspective,” since the cost of preventing counterfeiting is much greater than the infinitesimal loss caused by fake bills. But these measures have a broader, psychological purpose. “Banknotes depend on confidence,” Felix told me. (Our paper bills are called banknotes because they are, technically, promissory notes—formal I.O.U.s—issued by the Federal Reserve.) “You accept a banknote because you figure the person you will hand it to will also accept it.” This is the essential circular mystery of money: its value comes from each of us believing that everybody else will continue to believe in its value. The physical bill reinforces this bit of theatre, with the feel of the cotton-and-linen paper reminding us that dollars are long-trusted, and the ever-upgraded magical effects reassuring us that they will hold value far into the future.

In the Georging world, there is much discussion about counterfeiting (and how silly it is for cashiers to examine small-denomination bills with the bleach pen that is designed to detect wood-based paper). There is also a lot of worry about how debit cards are undermining the hobby because people will be using less cash than they used to. So far, though, that doesn’t seem to be a problem, since the Treasury prints more banknotes every year, even adjusted for things like inflation and population growth.

The tie-in with autism will be obvious to those who know how detail-oriented we autistics are. I’m not suggesting that everyone who enjoys the hobby is autistic, but Georging provides a playground for those who thrill at the likes of finding unusual patterns in serial numbers, or collecting counties in the US where their bills have been found. And, perhaps most importantly for many, Georging provides a wonderful social aspect: no need for small talk, no need to even meet the people you are dealing with. Although we do have many in-person Gatherings.

All of this deserves more commentary, as I continue my search to define what it means to be autistic. Stay tuned.

Addendum on September 22, after the passage through the Caribbean of Hurricanes Irma and Maria:

One of my $2 bills was hit this afternoon in the Netherlands Antilles (the old name of an entity which no longer exists). Specifically, the entry was made in Kralendijk, which is the capital city of Bonaire, an island which itself is a special municipality within the Netherlands. I was at first surprised when I saw the entry, because I thought all of those islands had been devastated by one or both of the hurricanes. My sense of the geography in that part of the world is a bit fuzzy, despite having been to many of the islands. I was once, for example, in Curaçao for a week, which is not far from Bonaire, so I should have realized those islands are far to the south of the paths of those storms.

I offer this as an example of why hobbies like this one (or stamp collecting) can be so fascinating to those of us who love to dig into details. When I see something like this that provokes my interest, I research it, and learn new things. I did this as a young stamp collector, long before the days of the internet. I think this is one autistic characteristic that is probably nearly universal: a keen lifelong interest in learning how the world works.

In the Georging world, there are many discussion forums devoted to (what may seem like to outsiders) arcane topics. One that I have enjoyed is the challenge to find cities (a generic label that includes towns and other local municipal units), that have not been identified by an earlier Georger, in which a bill is hit, that are named after a person or a group of people (fictional, mythical, or actual).

Again, you don’t have to be autistic to enjoy hobbies like stamp collecting or Georging, but I’m sure it helps!

Jul 24

Swarm Intelligence: I

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about swarm intelligence.

The basic insights have been around for at least 30 years, and, since then, the ideas have percolated into awareness and are now appreciated outside the scientific community.

One excellent summary can be found in Len Fisher’s 2009 book, The Perfect Swarm. I read this a while ago, and took notes, meaning to share my thoughts here, so stay tuned!

I am interested in many of the ideas associated with the study of collective behavior, because they tie in with other concepts that I find fascinating. A key theme in this work is self-organization, which has been used to explain subjects as diverse as crystal growth, sand piles, evolution, and human social organizations.

And, oddly enough, gambling. Or, perhaps, more kindly put, investing. I’ve been interested in both aspects of risk-taking for about as long as I can remember, and they are identical in one important aspect: trying to understand the risk associated with an uncertain outcome, and deciding if the price on offer is a fair one.

A couple of years before Fisher’s book was published, the National Geographic Magazine published an article entitled Swarm Theory that outlined the basic ideas in the field. They did get one thing terribly wrong, however.

It appears they may have lifted this example from The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki (which I have not read, presuming that I understood all the points he made in the book, from what I’ve read about it). If so, then they repeated his error, but wrong is wrong…

My friend Bill Ziemba studied (back in the 1980s) racetrack betting, with an eye to discovering whether parimutuel odds were unbiased in their prediction of a horse’s chances of winning a race. He found, perhaps surprisingly, that they were. I read his book, and he sent me several academic articles (both published and unpublished) on the topic, as well as some large data sets and computer code. One thing he had discovered was that, although win odds were efficient (i.e. unbiased), show odds were not; and therein lay a profit opportunity.

We’ve not been in touch for some time, but I do notice on his website (the link just given) that he is in the process of updating his work, this time for exotic bets. I’ll be interested in seeing his results.

It may be that Surowiecki used Ziemba’s work in describing the behavior of horse race bettors, but in any case, the National Geographic description was dead wrong.

Why are [bettors at a horse race] so accurate in predicting the outcome of a race? At the moment the horses leave the starting gate, the odds posted on the pari-mutuel board, which are calculated from all bets put down, almost always predict the race’s outcome: Horses with the lowest odds normally finish first, those with the second lowest odds finish second, and so on.

Wrong.Wrong.Wrong.

This is not what Ziemba found, and the statement contradicts simple statistical evidence, as well as anecdotal observation by anyone who has ever paid attention at a race track.

The favorite, or “chalk” in each race (the horse with the lowest odds) will win less than half the time. They do not “normally finish first”! The odds against the outcome described in the quote here are long indeed; in all the years I’ve been betting on horses, I don’t remember it happening even once, except perhaps in a race with very few runners.

What Ziemba found, as stated above, is that parimutuel odds are “efficient” — which simply means that you cannot use the odds as a single piece of information to make money. A fair coin has 1 to 1 odds of coming up heads when it is flipped. These are efficient (fair) odds, and you cannot make money by betting for heads or tails, over time. You might win several times in a row, but over enough trials, you will break even.

Similarly, a horse that goes off at 10-1 might win, and you would get back your original bet and an additional sum of 10 times what you bet. But if you bet on 10-1 horses over a long string of races, you should expect them to win only once in every 11 bets, and you would break even. (Except, of course, that the track deducts a fee from the parimutuel pool before computing the odds, so you will be out that fee of 15% or whatever is being deducted.)

Such are the complexities of emergent behavior arising from complex, self-organizing systems. Care must be taken not to view the system as having a central intelligence. Adam Smith had it right when he said there was an “invisible hand” at work, although his conclusions were not always correct interpretations. When people talk about “the market” they are describing the properties of an emergent behavior arising from the actions of individuals. A subject for another essay.

Jun 07

Anxiety: Who? Me?

I’m participating in a panel on Friday (June 9) at Northeastern University on Anxiety, as part of the CHATTER event.

Of course, I’m quite nervous about this.

As part of my preparation (which helps to reduce anxiety), I have been reviewing my past talks and writings on the subject. I discovered that my blog does not contain a copy of a talk I gave in 2010 on the subject. So, here it is! Although I would change some of the wording if I were to rewrite it, the thoughts expressed are still pretty much on the mark.

In addition, here are a couple of my blog entries that are relevant to the topic of anxiety:

  1. The Healing Power of Depression (2013)
  2. Growing Old Disgracefully (2014)

One common topic that comes up in these writings is medication. I’ll plan to say some words about that at the event on Friday. Related topics are mindfulness and alcohol use. Given that I’ll have only a few minutes to speak before we launch into an open conversation, I’ll have to think of some pithy things to say.

Older posts «