Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Changing Times, Aspen, and the Beta (β) Billionaires

Our story begins with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Influenced by the 1939 success of Finnish troops in warfare against invading Soviet units and by concern over escalating hostilities across Europe, the Army turned their attention to the status of military preparedness for winter warfare.

The US created the Mountain Training Center at Camp Carson, Colorado, but a national search for a suitable location for winter / mountain training led to the development of a site in the Rocky Mountains close to Leadville, Colorado. That became Camp Hale, and the 10th Mountain Division became the alpine combat arm of the US military.

These soldiers learned to fight on snow and were a part of the Infantry in World War II. These soldiers trained to fight and survive under the most brutal mountain conditions, fighting with skis and snowshoes, and sleeping in the snow without tents. After the war, many of these outdoor types returned to Colorado and the Ft. Hale area. The returning soldiers and skiers were instrumental in the development of the ski industry in the former mining towns of Aspen and Vail and elsewhere in Colorado.

Times were different back then. Skis were long and made of wood. Skiing was not the industry it is today, and the Denver airport was not clogged with winter ski enthusiasts from the first snowfall to the last.

Also, in the past, there were very rich people. In those days they were called “Millionaires,” but in today’s inflated economy they are better referred to as “Billionaires.” After all, it isn’t that hard to gather up over a million in assets in our inflated economy. Most upper-middle class members have that much in their homes and retirement plans.

But something else has changed in this rich class. You see the old time rich were very conservative. They typically got their money from businesses that created, built, mined, or manufactured something – or else they inherited it from parents who did that. Today’s rich are different. First they are more likely to have amassed their fortune in the financial markets, wheeling and dealing, but not really producing anything. Second, they are far from conservative. Now I’m not referring to their politics, but rather their spending habits.

In his book, “The High-Beta Rich,” Robert Frank, he explains that the term “beta” is a measurement used in stock investing. It is a measure of a stock’s price volatility relative to the market as a whole. That can be a good thing when the market goes up. But it is a bad thing when the market goes down. Investing in high beta stocks is risky. The rewards can be high, but the losses can be pretty high too.

For those who want to learn more about beta and other metrics used in wise investing, I recommend you check out “Value Line.” That is the stock market information source I use. By the way, the last two big downturns in stock values, when others were reporting losses of 20-40%, I did much better than that because my investment strategy is to go with low beta stocks. I did loose money at times, but typically made it back in a short time due to my conservative investment strategy. That greatly improved the long-term performance of my investments even during the last ten years of declining stocks, but that is another story for another day. Today I am using the concept in the same way Mr. Frank used it in his book. Modern day Billionaires, at least a lot of them, ride a roller coaster of risk.

Which brings me to Aspen. This tiny tony town tucked up in the Colorado Rockies is a favorite destination resort for the rich. Many of these beta billionaires have invested in Aspen purchasing large homes (although mansions is a much more descriptive name than the humble term “home”). We’re talking houses with swimming pools, movie theaters, even bowling alleys – and ten bedrooms and 14 baths!

This purchasing drove house prices in Aspen to stratospheric levels. The median price of a house in Aspen was around $6 million before the recent collapse in home values. Now remember what the term median means; half of the houses in Aspen cost over $6 million prior to 2008. Also realize that most of those homes were only occupied two to four weeks out of the year. These weren’t second homes; they were fourth or sixth or tenth homes!

This created an unusual dynamic in Aspen. Fur stores were as common as t-shirt stores in most resort communities. Imported wines and world-class chefs were found in a myriad of eateries. And the people that worked in those stores and restaurants? They had to live 50 to 100 miles away in Glenwood Springs or Rifle because they couldn’t afford rents in Aspen. On the positive side, there was considerable support for charities and non-profits from these rich visitors, and the local tax base was substantial. That paid for snowplows and libraries and concerts and more.

But all that changed when the housing market collapsed. The current median price for houses in Aspen is around $1 million, still pretty pricey; but a tremendous drop in home value, a much larger decline than what the rest of the US experienced. Maybe the billionaires can afford it, but the local shops and restaurants as well as non-profits and tax base have all suffered greatly due to this precipitous loss in value.

I like Aspen. I go there on occasion, and I’ve been involved with the Aspen Institute since the early ‘80’s when I was the chairman of the local library board and attended meetings on literacy. The annual International Design Conference attracted everyone from Eliot Noyes, design director at IBM to George Nelson, lead designer at Herman Miller to Apple founder Steve Jobs.

I’ve even skied there, but – truth be told – it is not my favorite ski resort. I much prefer Vail as a destination resort, or Copper or Breckenridge, or even Winter Park. And I’m much more likely to be found skiing at the non-resort Loveland or Eldora or, when it was around, the old Hidden Valley (later renamed Ski Estes Park) in RMNP.

It is fun to go to Aspen because it is good skiing, and you never know whom you might run into on the slopes. (In the case of my skiing ability, I mean “run into” literally.) But when the hamburgers went over $15 each at my favorite watering hole, I said the heck with Aspen. Besides, it was about the farthest to go ski, and I started skiing closer and closer to home. In fact, these days, I typically limit my skiing to sliding down our driveway while attempting to shovel it.

I am not crying for the poor billionaires who lost their shirt and extra pair of pants in the Aspen real estate market, but I think this little story is just another sign of our times. I don’t know for sure if the rich keep getting richer, but I guarantee that the poor are getting poorer. Trust me, a million dollars just doesn’t go as far today as it used to. Why, at this rate, I’m going to be forced to buy a USED Mercedes.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Calling

I believe everyone has a “calling,” something that completes their life, a mission, a joy, a place where they fit. It doesn’t have to have a religious connotation, although for some the calling is to the ministry. It isn’t just about a job, or a vocation, or a career, even an avocation — although it is a happy life when one’s calling is one’s vocation.

It is sort of the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always felt lucky that I knew the answer to that question at such an early age. Some keep asking it well into middle life — and that may be the cause of the infamous “mid-life crisis.” Some figure it out half way through a career, and the brave amongst those will change their life in accordance. (I think of a long ago friend, J.D. Thorne, and the story he told me about his father.)

I suppose there can be more than one calling in life. I also assume people can be very happy with a life-long job and pursue their calling more as a hobby or a sideline or even what they do upon retirement. But I really think it is a single, primary, focused thing in most people’s lives, and the happiest people are those that have heard their “calling” and responded.

At a very early age I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I changed minds over the years on just what kind of scientist going from astronomer to geologist to electronics engineer, and I have echoed that behavior throughout my career going from technician to engineer to scientist to programmer to tester to statistician. But I don’t think that is really my calling. As I explore my path in life I think my calling is to be a teacher.

I worked in that field in a formal manner during different parts of my career teaching in the Navy, at Electronics Technical Institute, and at Metropolitan State College. I spent 14 years as an instructor in IBM’s Technical Education organization. But, in addition to that, I’ve taught as a side-line, a “second job,” a hobby, and just a way to spend time. Now that I’ve retired, I even consider my writing as “teaching.” I think of all the other things I’ve learned and done were just information and experiences for me to share with others — to teach.

I have many priorities and hold many truths to be self-evident. I’m a believer in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. I believe in a Creator and that there is a plan for this world and my life. I believe in family and think that is the most important thing in life. To some, their calling is undoubtedly their family. I think this is especially true of mothers, and that is what makes them so special.

I think of a dear friend in New Orleans who has followed his calling in music, but also in his desire to care for others less fortunate. He shares my strong belief in our Savior. I think of my brother-in-law, also strong in the faith, who has raised a fine family of loving children with the help and support of his wife. Those children are a blessing to one another and all those that know them.

I think about my father whose love for his wife was epic in its width and depth — reminds me of lyrics to a song — and music is his love too. I think of my dear wife whose love of others drives her every day to give and care for others, even at the expense of herself.

I won’t go on listing the people in my life since it would be too long and I would forget someone.

Think about your life. Think about your family. Think about the path your life has taken. This is a time of year for all to recollect and recount their blessings, even those that don’t worship the Savior we celebrate. It is a natural and human and, I believe, God given thing to do at this time of year. God bless you all, and may your calling be clear and your path be straight. Some wander and some find their way. May you find your way and “God bless us all.” — Tiny Tim.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Mathematics of the Calendar

Here is a note from Facebook that a friend posted. I responded with the answer in two comments. I’m saving the entire “conversation” here in my Notes to keep it intact. I edited my response somewhat to make it more clear (hopefully) and more complete.

I’m constantly the teacher imparting new knowledge. Please enjoy this analysis.

Thanksgiving day on the 28th of November 1901-2126
by Chuck Short on Friday, November 25, 2011 at 7:39am
Things I need to know, please....

A: Days Thanksgiving (US) has been and will be on November 28

B: Why the 11 year cycle, why the 6 year cycle in contrast to the 11 year cycle, and why is the cycle 12 years in 2109?

C: This has only occurred 3 times in my lifetime, and won't happen again until 2013, and then again 6 years later in 2019..

D: How would leap years figure into these cycles?

Year Compared to year 2013 Since last
1895 118 years before

1901 112 years before + 6 years
1907 106 years before + 6 years
1918 95 years before + 11 years
1929 84 years before + 11 years
1935 78 years before + 6 years
1946 67 years before + 11 years
1957 56 years before + 11 years
1963 50 years before + 6 years
1974 39 years before + 11 years
1985 28 years before + 11 years
1991 22 years before + 6 years
2002 11 years before + 11 years
2013 selected year + 11 years 49
2019 6 years after + 6 years 55
2030 17 years after + 11 years 66
2041 28 years after + 11 years 77
2047 34 years after + 6 years 83
2058 45 years after + 11 years 94
2069 56 years after + 11 years 105
2075 62 years after + 6 years 111
2086 73 years after + 11 years
2097 84 years after + 11 years
2109 96 years after + 12 years
2115 102 years after + 6 years
2126 113 years after + 11 years

And I know that Thanksgiving didn't become the last Thursday in November until the 40s. and longevity or getting old jokes are simply not welcome, so don't do it, I will simply never speak to you again, no matter who you are. Period. Thanks!!!

OK. You asked!

Well, that question really takes me back: 1966, Montana School of Mines, my first programming class, IBM 1401 – programming with punch cards using FORTRAN IV.

The class assignment was to list all of the dates for Thanksgiving until the “turn of the century.” So that was all the Thanksgiving days from 1967 until 2000.

In those days you wrote a program on a “coding sheet” which looks like a crossword puzzle all full of lines of squares. Then the program is copied on a punch card machine producing the program on cards. You then submit the cards at the window in the computer center and they run it on the mainframe computer. An hour or so later you would pick up your output which was a giant “fan-folded” paper with green bar background and see what mistakes you had made. Repeat this process until program runs. It could take days if the program was complex. As I recall it took me two days to get the program to run correctly.

The mathematics involved is called “modulo arithmetic” or “clock arithmetic.” Since the days of the week repeat on a seven day cycle, it is much like a clock that goes from 1 to 12 and then starts over at 1. The concept of modulo arithmetic is tied to division and using the REMAINDER. In the case of clocks you divide by 12 and the remainder gives the “answer.” With the days of the week, you divide by 7 and use the remainder.

So, let’s start with an easier question, what day of the week does Christmas, Dec. 25, fall on in a given year. Let’s start with last year. In 2010, Christmas was on a Saturday. Now, take 365 days in a year and divide by 7. You get 52 and a remainder of 1. So add the 1 to Saturday and you get Sunday. Yes, Christmas, this year, will be on a Sunday.

(Mathematically we way 365 div 7 = 52 and 365 mod 7 = 1. See, “mod” is just the remainder [and “div” is the quotient part as a whole number]. )

So, what about next year? Will Christmas be on a Monday? Uhhhh … no! It will be on Tuesday. WHAT! You forgot, next year is a leap year and the number of days in 2012 will be 366. Divide that by 7 and you get remainder of 2. Add 2 days to Sunday and you get Tuesday. So the cycle of days of Christmas is a simple +1, +1, +1, +2, +1, +1, +1, +2, …

So let’s start this cycle and see how long it takes to repeat.

Start with 2012 when Christmas is on Tuesday:
So, in 2013, Wednesday (+1),
2014, Thursday (+1),
2015, Friday (+1),
2016, leap year, Sunday (+2),
2017, Monday (+1)
2018, Tuesday (+1) — aha, we’ve circled back to Tuesday where we started in 2012. But is this really the complete cycle?

NO. Keep going:
2019, Wednesday (+1),
2020, Friday (+2).

So the first cycle went Tue., Wed., Thur., Fri., Sun., Mon.; and the second cycle is starting out Tue., Wed., Fri.! Note the pattern is varying. In fact, the total pattern is 4 x 7 or 28 years in length.

So why are the patterns in your Thanksgiving calculation following cycles of 6 and 11 years. Well, Thanksgiving is a little more complicated than Christmas because the cycle “sort of” resets itself periodically because it must always be the FOURTH Thursday of the Month.

Now it is more complicated figuring a holiday like Thanksgiving which is the fourth Thursday of the month of November, but the math is similar. So, if you apply all the rules and modulo arithmetic, you get the crazy chart you noted. That is where the cycle you noted come from. As Thanksgiving “rolls” off the end of November in the 28 year cycle, it gets “reset” with a minus 7. The math for that is a little more complicated and I won’t repeat it here.

By the way, your calendar went past the next century, 2100, so you have to make the “skip the leap year” calculation. What is the “skip the leap year calculation?” you ask.

Leap year is skipped in any year even divisible by 100. That is every century year such as 1900 and 2100. Note that 100 is divisible by 4, so it should be a leap year, but the leap year is skipped every 100 years to keep the calendar in sync. Now comes the big kicker. What about 2000? I think it was a leap year! That’s right!!

2000 was evenly divisible by 100, yet it WAS a leap year. You don’t skip the leap year in any year evenly divisible by 400. Now, check if you’ve got this figured out: Add a day to the year every 4 years (since the earth takes about 365 ¼ days to orbit the sun). But, skip the leap year every 100 years, BUT don’t skip it every 400 years. Wheww, I’m out of breath.

Once you have conquered the calculations for Thanksgiving (or Memorial Day or Labor Day), you are ready to calculate Easter which has a seasonal variation too. I’ll save that as an exercise left for the reader.

So there you have it, using only fifth grade math.

Comment 2, EXERCISE:

Ok, here is the part left as an exercise for the reader. Why the 6 and 11 year cyclic patterns? Recall from my last comment that the effect of there being 365 days in a non-leap year is to “advance” the day of a week of a given date, such as Christmas, by one day a year. And that a leap year, occurring every four years, advances the day by two. You also may have noted the earlier series of “Tue., Wed., Thur., Fri., Sun., Mon.” has six terms. That is a powerful hint. But what about the eleven year cycle?

Start with the fact that Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. Let’s convert that to a given date like the Christmas example by focusing on Nov. 1. If Nov. 1 is a Friday, then the first Thursday of November is six days later, Nov. 7. And the second Thur. is Nov. 14, and the third Thursday is Nov. 21, and the fourth Thur. is the Nov. 28 you are focused on. Note that Nov. 28 is the latest that Thanksgiving can ever be.

For comparison, assume Nov. 1 was on Thur. Then the second Thur. of the month would be Nov. 8, the third Nov. 15, and the fourth would be Nov. 22 – the earliest date that Thanksgiving ever falls on.

Now, again, consider the “progression” over the years of a given date as to its day of the week which is the series 1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2, … Now assume in a particular Nov. is a leap year (and therefore Nov. is “after” the extra day in February). That means the progression would start at the first 1 (of the 1,1,1,2 repeating series). Further, assume that Nov. 1 is a Friday. As we already saw, that would mean that Nov. 28 would be Thanksgiving that year.

Now the following year Nov. 1 is Sat. The year after that it is a Sun. The year after that it is a Mon. The next year is a leap year so it jumps to Wed. The year after that it is a Thur. and the year after that it is back to a Friday. Count those up. It cycled through the days of the week of which there are seven, but it skipped one day in the cycle. There is your six day cycle.

The 11 day cycle occurs when the leap year causes a skip over the Nov. 1 = Friday part. So now it has to cycle through “two weeks” or fourteen days of the week, but during that period it goes through three leap years, so subtract 3 from 14 and you get 11. (If you write out the series you’ll note one leap year in the first few years, one leap year that skipped over the Nov. 1 = Friday, and one leap year in the series of six after that. To make that clear, and as an exercise left to the reader, which term of the series would you start on to “skip over” the Nov. 1 = Friday? Is it 1(1), 1(2), 1(3), or 2(4)?)

I explained that non-mathematically without formulas and words can be … well … sort of wordy, but I think you see what is driving the two repeat numbers of 6 and 11. By the way, the one time you got 12 for the cycle time was 2109 and that’s because that period or cycle included the non-leap year of 2100. There by losing one +2 in the series and so it took one more day.

By the way, the first step to analyzing these kinds of things mathematically is exactly what you did. Write out several terms of the series and look for patterns. This ability to recognize and analyze patterns that is so common in mathematics and with mathematicians is one reason so many mathematicians are also musicians. After all, music is all about the patterns too. The scales(major, minor, Devonian, etc.) and the chord structure (major, minor, diminished, seventh) and the chord rotation (I, IV, I, V,IV, I).

In fact, when I was teaching programming and training programmers, we always selected the musicians and the mathematicians because they had these basic gifts or skills that also made them good programmers.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

First Anniversary

Today is the day. This is the date. My first anniversary. Let’s celebrate! Bring on the cake and candles … well … candle. That’s right, it was on this date, one year ago, that I began counting. What am I talking about? Why I’m talking about cancer — the “C” word; Big “C”; scary; dangerous; deadly. Hopeless? I hope not.

Cancer is a disease where your own body’s cells run amok. All cancer patients know the date when those misbehaving cells were destroyed. Either removed or zapped with radiation or poisoned with chemicals. You are never really cured of cancer. All cancer patients are on the watch for “reoccurrence.” It can happen. Books full of statistics have calculated the ways and means. Life goes on, but for how long? That is the question. To be or not to be — it’s not just for Shakespeare any more. That’s why we celebrate each additional year of life. This is just like counting birthdays, only you celebrate a little more intensely. I’ve been cancer free for one year — I hope. Whoopee!

There are many different cancers, and there are many different causes. Some cancers, we know, are caused by a virus, some by environmental causes, some are hereditary, some go with old age, and some we just don’t know what causes them. My personal strain of the Big C is Prostate Cancer. This particular disease is found uniquely in men, since only men have prostates. It is a disease of aging. You gotta live long enough to get it. It is the most common cancer among men.

Prostate cancer is unknown before the age of 45 and over half the cases are in men over 55. (See the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results or SEER database for more factual tidbits.)

No-one is really certain what causes prostate cancer. I’ve been told that if we lived long enough, all men would get prostate cancer. Something about testosterone, the male hormone. Us men and our football-lovin’, beer-guzzlin’, girlie-learin’, testosterone-packin’ bodies, we have this to look forward to in our old age. Now I feel like that Home Improvement star, Tim Allen: more power, arr arr.

I’ve also heard that the prostate is a gland usually found in herbivores. It seems that carnivores have a different gland to perform the same function. Are humans the only species that eats meat AND has a prostate? I think so. So this is the fate I endure to pay for all those Big Macs? Could be.

Now I was just thinking that, in some ways, prostate cancer is complementary to women’s breast cancer. That’s “complementary” as in making up each other’s lack rather than “complimentary,” as in “you look good in that hat.” Prostate cancer seems like the brother to our sister’s common cancer concern, only no-one is marching for a cure, and I’m not sure what color our ribbon is. (Just a little joke there. Don’t take me too seriously.)

Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death for women. The average woman has one chance in eight (or about 12 percent) of developing breast cancer during her lifetime. It is the most common type of cancer among American women. So keep up those regular breast exams ladies Just thank Dr. Mickey for that wonderful thought.

So, this march for Prostate Cancer, what color ribbon do we get? Do I get a t-shirt? (Come on! I’m just joking.)

Most know that older men should get regular tests for prostate cancer. There is a digital exam, I mean literally a digit exam, and I don’t mean it involves one’s and zero’s. There is also a blood test for the Prostate Specific Antigen or PSA. A normal prostate produces a certain level of PSA in the blood, but an enlarged prostate will cause elevated levels. There are many reasons for a prostate gland to become enlarged, and not all of them are as dangerous as cancer.

Now, in my case, we had noticed an increase in my PSA a few years ago. My PSA was not over the level that doctors become concerned about, but the increase in itself, known as an “acceleration,” can also be a sign of cancer. After the first PSA that was elevated, I visited a specialist called a urologist, but his advice (and it was sound medical advise) was to wait and see. The increase was small and the next step would be to perform a needle biopsy to determine if the cause of the PSA increase was cancer. The doctor didn’t want me to have the uncomfortable procedure with such little evidence. I was quick to agree that I didn’t want the uncomfortable procedure either.

This wait and see is called “watchful waiting” in the cancer business. The slow growth rate of prostate cancer justifies some amount of just waiting around to see what develops. I repeated the blood test a year later and the PSA level actually declined. Good news. It was the third year that the test result was up again and over the minimum threshold too (earlier it was just the increase that was cause for concern), so my specialist decided I should have a needle biopsy. They take samples of the prostate tissue and examine them under a microscope.

This is a very routine procedure done in a doctor’s office. It is basically the same as an alien probe you heard about on The X-Files, only the aliens don’t have a nurse watching it all on the telly and the aliens don’t charge your medical insurance. This procedure was performed on me in March of 2010.

A week or so later I went back to the doctor’s office to get my results. They put me in one of those exam rooms with the little bed covered in paper and a couple of magazines from the last decade to read. Did you know that Barack Obama might defeat Hillary Clinton for the nomination? Good to keep up with the current events.

When the doctor came in, I noticed he had a brochure in his hand. “Now why would he need a brochure to tell me the test was negative,” I thought. “Mr. Cheatham. We have bad news. You have cancer.” Now that is a direct method of sharing. “Gulp,” said I.

“Now don’t worry,” he said. “Prostate cancer is very slow growing and we have caught it in time. There are several treatment options available, and I want you to think about them.” He gave me the brochure.

He went on to explain that my cancer was graded on the Gleason scale (which goes from 2 to 10) as a 6. That is pretty mild. Less than 6 and they would not do anything but watch. Of course, 10 is not good. The examination also indicated a large involvement with over 70% of my prostate “infected” and both sides of the gland were cancerous. That was a little surprising to the doctor. That level of infection is not typical at an early stage.

He went on to tell me that right after the biopsy the gland would need to heal up from the dozen needle pokes, and it would be about six months before we could schedule surgery. So I had lots of time to contemplate and decide on a course of treatment.

Now let me give you some background. I am and always have been a great Frank Zappa fan. His combination of musical talent, irreverence, and playful sense of humor really touched me. Also, I liked it when he chewed out a particular senator’s wife for being a nosy busybody. But I also knew he died of prostate cancer at a young age — well, younger than I am any way. I don’t know for sure, but I heard that he spent several years going to doctors trying to find out what was wrong, and by the time they determined it was prostate cancer, it was too late to treat.

So now the fact I didn’t have a biopsy two years earlier was poking me in my mind’s eye. I went immediately to the internet and read all I could find about prostate cancer. While on the internet I visited Amazon and ordered several scholarly medical texts about prostate cancer too. One of those, Dr. Patrick Walsh's, “Guide to Surviving Prostate Cancer,” proved to be especially useful in my decision making process.

It is good to have some time to make important decisions, and I used all of that time to explore options. I talked to my personal care physician, a trusted friend. I also spoke with Linda’s brother’s physician in Alaska — another trusted friend. I contacted one of the leading experts on prostate cancer at the University of California and made an appointment to get his informed opinion at $500 an hour.

If I don't confess that I canceled that appointment, they will suspend my artistic license.

I considered surgery, several kinds, radiation treatment, again several kinds, as well as exotic methods like cryosurgery and ultrasound, as well as hormonal and chemical treatments. Pretty much the gamut of choices that most cancer patients go through.

Finally I decided on the surgical option using a robot to perform the operation through several small incisions. I sought out the best robotic surgeon in Colorado. (Part of the advice was against surgery in another state, only to return home for recovery. If there are complications it is, well, … complicated.)

I chose surgery over radiation treatment for many reasons, not least of which was if radiation was needed later it was still an option. If you treat prostate cancer initially with radiation, then it can’t be used again. So surgery allows for a back-up plan B if plan A fails.

There were other treatments under consideration including “watchful waiting” which is based on the slow growth of this cancer and the usual age of patients. Prostate cancer in an 80 year old man will likely not be fatal because something else will probably happen sooner. However, since I was only 63, and hoped for another twenty years or more, I chose a more invasive method. Use your best James Cagney voice to say, "Let’s put a hit on this cancer and show him we mean business, yeah."

On October 8, 2010, I checked into the Medial Center of the Rockies, a new hospital located east of Loveland, although really a Ft. Collins facility. This state-of-the-art building housed an exceptional staff and equipment. The surgery went exceedingly well. In just two days I was home and never really suffered from any pain. I only took aspirin for what little discomfort I had, and it was as pleasant as such an experience can possibly be.

One reason I chose surgery is the removed prostate gland can be examined more thoroughly. With radiation, you can’t do that. They took the gland, froze it, sliced it into thin slices, and viewed it under the microscope.

Now for the bad news. This biopsy showed the cancer was much worse than the needle biopsy had indicated. They raised my Gleason score to 7, still not too bad. But the real bad news was that the cancer had spread beyond the prostate itself. They say it “penetrated the capsule.” This changed the classification of my disease from a lowly stage one cancer, highly curable, to stage three, not so highly curable.

There was good news. Since surgeons always take out more than just the prostate gland, they had removed the tissue around the gland too. That is called the “margins.” It appeared that they had removed all of the cancer. Whatever had escaped the prostate was in the margins and was removed — at least that is what we all hoped. As my doctor explained, cancer cells aren’t purple and don’t blink on and off, so you can’t really tell them from ordinary cells during the operation.

Because I was stage three and very prone to reoccurrence of cancer, my surgeon recommended I immediately undergo radiation treatments of the area where the prostate was removed. Again I sought more expert opinions. I found the leading cancer doctor in Colorado at the University Hospital and took my case to him. After several consultations he confirmed the biopsy and agreed with my surgeon that the best chance was immediate radiation treatment. However, he agreed that, considering the risks of radiation, including it causing a cancer by itself, I was not a complete nut to forego that treatment. At first my surgeon objected, but finally admitted that, if it was him, he would do the same thing.

You see folks, life is full of decisions (and medicines) that have good results and bad results. It is always a mixture. Every wonder drug has bad side effects. You have to do the entire “risk / benefit analysis.” I did that, and chose to take the slightly larger risk of watchful waiting before undertaking radiation treatments.

Now there are several good things about prostate cancer, if you can ever describe this disease with any positive comment. First is the fact it is typically very slow growing. It can take 10 to 15 years for untreated prostate cancer to actually kill you. Second, prostate cancer does not metastasize to another kind of cancer. Lung cancer can spread to your head and become brain cancer. Prostate cancer is always prostate cancer.

Now it can migrate to your bladder — and then you may have to have that removed — imagine life without a bladder — still it is life. Or it can spread to the large bones of the hip and legs. That is really difficult to treat. But, in any case, the continued PSA tests act as an early warning.

As a man who has no prostate, my PSA should be zero. If some of the cancerous cells escaped and start to grow, that would show up in a PSA test. Four times a year I take a sensitive version of that blood test, and for the last nine months the result has been a PSA of 0.00. And that folks, is the best grade I’ve ever gotten on a test.

On the other hand, I was warned by the expert at University of Colorado that, if my PSA starts to increase, don’t walk, run to the hospital for radiation treatments.

In August I had another PSA test. The result was 0.02. Uh, oh. Well, maybe not. That is considered practically zero and it may be what we engineers call “noise.” My family doctor recommended another PSA in one month just to be sure.

Last Thursday I had that blood test. I am waiting for the results. Wednesday I will meet with my surgeon and will learn my score. If the PSA is increasing, then I’ll pursue radiation treatments. The odds are that 70% of people with stage three prostate cancer have a reoccurrence in three years. So the statistics aren’t good. Plus, from some of the evidence it appears my prostate cancer may not be so slow growing. Everyone was surprised at the level of the cancer aggressiveness when the surgery was performed. Just my luck that my cancer would be atypical.

So there you have it. Today is the one year anniversary of my surgery. I hope to say that I am now one year cancer free. All cancer patients count the days. There is no cure. Only watchful waiting.

Some have been cured more than once. Some were given ten or more years of useful life by the actions of doctors. My hero and mentor, Richard Feynman, lasted ten years longer than the doctors predicted thanks to very drastic surgery that he had. His doctor said he liked to cut out tissue until he can see the operating bed underneath the patient. That drastic surgery was credited by the nobel prize winning physicist as giving him many more years of life.

Another hero, Steve Jobs, lost his life just this week after an eight year battle with pancreatic cancer. He even had a liver transplant in an attempt for a cure. He had a rare form of pancreatic cancer, and got the best treatment that money can buy. I’m sure it prolonged his life too. On the other hand, prostate cancer is not as dangerous or deadly as either pancreatic cancer or the intestinal cancer that Feynman had. So I hope for a better prognosis.

My plan is to continue seeking medical advice and treatment. My hope is for a healthy and long life with many anniversaries of the surgery finding me cancer free. I planned to write this a few months ago. I expected to write about a one year cancer free anniversary. Now I am not quite so sure. If I need further treatment, then that is what I’ll do.

If I’m anything, I’m a “glass half full” guy. I feel certain the results of the last blood test will show no reoccurrence of the cancer, but if it does, then radiation and chemical treatments will retard the cancer.

Wait, wait … I’ve got to tell this. I want to die in my sleep like grandpa. Not screaming and yelling like the other people in his car. Hardy, har, har.

So, what should you all do. Well, pray for me, and pray for Linda that being married to me will continue to be a positive adventure. (Our 35th wedding anniversary is later this year.) I always appreciate prayers and know first hand how effective they can be. But, if it is God’s plan that I join him sooner rather than later, that’s OK too. I’ve had close friends demonstrate for me how to face your end with the help of God’s grace. So I know how to do that. But I would much rather stick around here on this earthly orb for a few more years just enjoying all of your company and trying to accomplish a few more goals. Who knows, if I live long enough, people might actually start reading this.

I live to be a blessing to others and would like to continue that path. Meanwhile, nothing is wiping this smile off my face. After all, it makes people wonder what I’ve been up to. Now bring on the cake. I have a candle I need to blow out.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A $60 Billion Dollar Shell Game

I am neither a corporate basher nor one who complains that taxes are not high enough. I don’t think most corporations are evil. They’re not immoral, they’re amoral. On the other hand, I am not completely oblivious to the nefarious deeds of corporations whether it is influencing elections and politicians with large corporate war chests of money or filling the airwaves with advertisements at election time, nor do I necessarily think that corporations always protect the stockholders interests. Seems many decisions just benefit the executives and their bonus pay.

I also think that "tax the rich" is just another form of “tax the other guy.” But certainly, the well-to-do in the U.S. are getting off easy when you look at the marginal tax rates elsewhere in the world. Before the Republican tax cuts passed in 2000 and recently extended by the Democrats, the top marginal income tax rate was 39.5%. It is now 35%. I think people with incomes that high can afford the extra 4.5% as a payback to the great country where they made all those millions. Of course, some would have the rates go back to the 90% marginal rate we had under Eisenhower. I think that’s a little greedy of us who are not millionaires. I always look for a reasonable amount in the middle and don’t consider all rich people any more evil than the corporations. Taxes are not about morality, but paying for services we all enjoy.

I think it would make a lot of sense to simply go back to the marginal rates that were in place prior to Bush’s tax cuts on the highest tax bracket. I think the larger issue, when you look at our tax codes, is in the loop-holes and fine print of a law that has more pages than most library collections combined, and can only be understood by an Einstein. Let’s save the tax rate argument for another day. Instead, let’s talk about one of those loop-holes. Let’s talk about the U.S. Corporate Tax code as it is applied to multinational corporations.

Multinational Tax Laws

Now one reason I don’t worry a whole lot about corporate taxes is that I don’t believe corporations actually pay taxes; they just “pass them on.” Since I’m a customer of these big companies (for example, IBM, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Ford, Microsoft, General Motors, …), I don’t really want to pay any more for their goods and services just to fill the coffers of some government agency that I doubt is spending the money wisely. But we’re talking about multinational corporations. There are also small corporations that only do business in the U.S. These are those smaller companies that we all know provide most of the growth in jobs, and they are being taxed unfairly compared to the multinationals due to a little understood part of all nation’s tax codes called “income shifting.” That is where it becomes patently unfair that big multinationals have an advantage because they’ve got more lawyers to cut their expenses in ways the little company can’t match and their lobbyists make sure that the tax laws lean in their favor. That gives the giant companies an unfair advantage, and that I don’t agree with.

I’m talking about multinational corporations that both manufacture and sell in multiple countries, so all these different nations want their share of the tax revenue. If General Motors makes cars in China and sells them in China, who gets the corporate tax? Well, there is an international system made up of individual county’s laws that determine that. So, sit back, fasten your seat belt, and welcome to global tax law.

Transfer Pricing

The tactics of these international companies depend on “transfer pricing,” paper transactions among corporate subsidiaries that allow for allocating income to tax havens while attributing expenses to higher-tax countries. Such income shifting shell games costs the U.S. government as much as $60 billion in annual revenue, according to Kimberly A. Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Other economists estimate an even higher loss.

Lawyers refer to these delicious little fiscal maneuvers by cute nicknames such as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich.” Shall we examine how this little shell game is played?

Suppose you are the Google subsidiary in Ireland. Now Ireland is a good place to be, tax wise. They have lower corporate taxes than most of Europe and the U.S. Ireland charges 12.5 percent corporate income tax compared to the U.S. corporate income-tax rate of 35 percent and, in the U.K., it’s 28 percent.

Ireland's goal is to encourage corporations to locate there and hire there – JOBS. So you have an international company like Google, and they don’t really make anything, but they do have intellectual capital. It becomes very difficult to decide which country contributed what to the total worldwide revenue and profits. So what percentage of Google’s income do you assign to Ireland?

Guess who decides? Google. Google U.S. and Google Ireland sit down “at arm's length” (a requirement of the law) and decide what percentage of the profits were “earned” in Ireland. Then that is where it is taxed. And what motivates Google in these discussions? Lower taxes which equals lower costs which equals higher profits (and possibly lower charges for their goods and services).

Even better, Google can rent a post office box in Bermuda, and claim profits there – no corporate tax at all. The method takes advantage of Irish tax law to legally shuttle profits into and out of subsidiaries, largely escaping the country’s corporate income tax. After all, Ireland is mostly interested in the companies locating there and hiring local employees. It isn't the revenue from the corporate tax that they desire, so they are not really concerned if companies move the money elsewhere.

Double Irish

This legal tax dodge is called the "Dutch Sandwich" or the "Double Irish." Profits are sent to Ireland which has a low corporate tax rate. But, even better, Ireland doesn't tax some payments made to other EU states, so the money is sent to a shell in the Netherlands. The Dutch have very low tax laws, so this is a further savings. The money is then routed to an Irish-owned subsidiary in Bermuda which is why it is called Double Irish. Bermuda has a 0.0% corporate tax rate. The corporation has only paid about 0.2% of taxes in this process. Can you tell me which shell has the pea?

The earnings wind up in island havens that levy no corporate income taxes at all. Companies that use the Double Irish arrangement avoid taxes at home and abroad. Consider this at a time when the U.S. government struggles to close a projected $1.4 trillion budget gap and European Union countries face a collective projected deficit of 868 billion Euros. So what do these countries plan to do to balance their budgets? They plan to cut services.

I find this particularly egregious in the case of Google, whose slogan is “Do No Evil,” since the U.S. National Science Foundation funded the mid-1990s research at Stanford University that helped lead to Google’s creation. Taxpayers also paid for a scholarship for the company’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, while he worked on that research. Wouldn’t you think Google owes a little payback to those U.S. taxpayers and should not be sheltering their profits in foreign countries?

Google now has a stock market value of $194.2 billion. Google’s annual reports from 2007 to 2009 ascribe a cumulative $3.1 billion tax savings to the “foreign rate differential.” Such entries typically describe how much tax U.S. companies save from profits earned overseas. Ask yourself, whose pocket did that $3.1 billion come out of? A billion here. A billion there. It starts to add up. See where the $60 billion comes into play?

Again, I’m not arguing for higher taxes, but I am arguing for some degree of fairness, especially when it seems the intellectual capital that is the source of the profits of companies like Google was originally funded by the taxpayers of the U.S. who are then denied a share of the monetary benefit that Google enjoys. And it isn't just Google. Facebook is busy using the same schemes. Check out the hiring notices for international tax experts. It's a growth industry.

Deferred Taxes

Technically, multinationals that shift profits overseas are deferring U.S. income taxes, not avoiding them permanently. The deferral lasts until companies decide to bring the earnings back to the U.S. In practice, they rarely repatriate significant portions, thus avoiding the taxes indefinitely.

Along comes the great recession. Congress passes a law in 2004 to encourage business investment in the U.S. They declare a tax holiday and allow corporations that transfer money back to the U.S. for a limited time with reduced tax rates. That was to encourage investment and hiring.

So what happened? Well, a lot of money got transferred back. According to the Internal Revenue Service, $362 billion came back to the U.S., of which $312 billion was eligible for the reduced tax rate. The amount repatriated was 45 percent of the total held abroad at the end of 2004. Hewlett-Packard transferred the most. Did that create jobs? No, Hewlett-Packard, even as it was pulling its $14.5 billion home from abroad, announced plans in 2005 to reduce its workforce by 14,500.

U.S. policy makers, meanwhile, have taken halting steps to address concerns about transfer pricing. In 2009, the Treasury Department proposed levying taxes on certain payments between U.S. companies’ foreign subsidiaries recovering a small amount of the money lost. Treasury officials, who estimated the policy change would raise $86.5 billion in new revenue over the next decade, dropped it after Congress and Treasury were lobbied by companies, including manufacturing and media conglomerate General Electric Co., health-product maker Johnson & Johnson, and coffee giant Starbucks Corp.

This predicted $86.5 billion in ten years averages just $8.65 billion a year. A drop in the bucket compared to the $60 billion lost each year to these tricky accounting maneuvers. But even this small amount did not come to pass because of the undue influence of the very corporations benefiting from this situation.

And look for congress to consider another tax holiday. The lack of any positive results on the last round does not prevent businesses from encouraging congress to try again. After all, "it's the economy stupid" and it's all about the JOBS. No, it's all about the MONEY!

Where's the beef ... errr ... CASH?

Then what are these large corporations doing with all these savings and the money involved? They are sitting on it. Most corporations currently have very large cash reserves. Corporations have been piling up cash and they often use it to buy out smaller competitors and this leads to further layoffs as the small, competitive company is folded into the giant corporation's assets. Currently the top 20 firms in the U.S. are sitting on a record breaking $635 billion dollars in cash reserves. They are basically sitting on the sidelines and hoarding the cash.

Corporations are also using the cash to buy back their own stock, which does benefit stockholders since the price goes up and it helps a company if they offer new stock, but it is not investment and it is not hiring. Raising stock prices by the repurchase of existing stock primarily adds to the salary of the business executives since they are often rewarded with bonuses if the stock price increases. In the long term, I think the investors would benefit more from growth of a company through investment, construction, and hiring. Not the short-term jump from reducing the total number of shares on the market.

Once again, Uncle Sucker takes it in the shorts. Oh, did I mention that one estimate of the loss of U.S. taxes from these shenanigans is $60 billion a year. That would pay off some of this debt we hear so much about.

What' cha Gonna Do?

So what are we to do about it? I suggest we simplify, simplify, simplify. All this legislation to accomplish this small goal or that small goal by changing the tax code has too many unintended consequences. How many of those loop holes were purchased with campaign donations. Where does the loyalty of the U.S. based multinationals lie? Their goal is to maximize profit – at the expense of all else? I guess so.

I just finished doing my taxes for 2010. I use a computer, TurboTax, and 30 years experience in figuring out what goes where on what form. It changes every year. I never know if I did it right. Transparency means systems that are understandable and auditable. The Gordian knot of modern tax forms is not understood by anyone, least of all those bozos in Washington that are writing this stuff. Let's cut the knot!

To tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do about it. It would take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to understand international tax law. I’m just a lowly engineer. What about you? Are you even aware of this issue? Do we want Congress to fix the recession? Or are we safer if congress would just keep their hands off? I think the only honest person left is the bank robber. He shows his gun and takes the money. Better than being robbed with a fountain pen. I suggest we all keep one hand on our wallets and pick up a financial newspaper with the other hand and learn a little about this and other fancy but legal dealings that are going on under the noses of the best congress that corporate money can buy.

An informed electorate that votes based on real knowledge of the performance of the politicians and who vote for enlightened self interests rather than knee-jerk slogans and corporate interests is what is needed here. Knowledge is power and ignorance is bliss. We’re a bunch of happy lemmings marching over the cliff as the federal budget bleeds red ink and taxes that should rightfully be paid to the U.S. Treasury are being mailed to a post office box in the Caiman Islands.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Just thinkin’ about South by Southwest, the big spring music festival in Austin. I often consider Austin my second home, or maybe third home if you count Portland, OR. I spent a lot of time there starting in 1986 when I first taught a fifteen week long Programming Fundamentals class. I used to go there regularly teaching classes, attending meetings and conferences, and meet with colleagues. I was there in 1990 when Big Head Todd and the Monsters were the big hit and talk of the town.

I’ve been a BHTM fan for a lot of years. I think I first heard them play at Tulagi’s and maybe Cricket on the Hill -- don’t really recall. That was back in the 80’s. They had a few self produced and independent albums including “Midnight Radio” which contained an early version of “Bittersweet.” Todd Mohr was born the year I graduated from High School. Interesting to observe how his band has navigated the treacherous straights of the music business. It has changed a lot since the 60’s, and I’m happy to see local boys make good without becoming part of the machine.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters, named in honor of the jazz great Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, are a local Boulder band. (If you don’t like BHTM, they could have kept the original moniker, “T.J. and the Twist,” with Todd on sax. Ever wonder how being a sax player impacts your guitar style?)

Got to tell you, two of my favorite songs are “Bittersweet” and “Broken Hearted Savior.” I even wrote a fictional story that was based on those two songs. Maybe you read it?

One of the weaknesses of my Flex’s Sync voice command is that if I ask to “play track bittersweet,” it only plays one track, and always the same one. I’ve got at least six different versions of Bittersweet and about as many versions of BHS on the disk. So I made a playlist will all the versions I call “big head.” “Play playlist big head.” “Yes, master.” Every version of Bittersweet and Broken Hearted Savior I own. Takes about an hour to hear them all. I love repetition. I love repetition.

I was down in Austin in March of 1990 for a couple weeks of meetings and a conference that I was presenting at. (Orthogonal Defect Classification. It was a smash hit!) Big Head Todd was the talk of the town that week. I got to see them twice down on 6th street. A treat to see these local Boulder boys making it big.

A few years later, I very pleased to hear cuts from their new album “Sister Sweetly.” That is still my favorite album with excellent studio versions of my two favs, although I love the live versions too. Todd is always improvising. The new album was recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis with producer David Z. The boys were signed by Giant records and their career was on the appropriate trajectory. Poppa was so proud. (Ron: They even opened for Ziggy Marley!!)

Since then, I’ve seen them at Red Rocks and at Boulder Theater. Their career has been moving along. I don’t think they’re the next Cream, or even the next R.E.M. (Sad that I don’t know current music well enough to have an analogy band, but I’m stuck in the 60‘s.) They have a loyal following and I will always be a fan. They’ve added some nice additional players to their power trio, including keyboards and — on occasion — a steel. I’ve even bootlegged them at a concert in Breckenridge with my little digital recorder in my shirt pocket. Got more crowd noise than band, but it was a very laid-back concert and I had a blast.

I’m watchin’ for the next time they’re at the Ogden. I’ll be in the front row...as if I could get front row seats...make that the back row. Still the Ogden is sweet, even the back row is excellent!

Next year, I’m headed for Austin in March for SxSW. They’ve added film now, but I’ll be there for all the live shows. Sixth street is always hopping with the best live music West of New Orleans. Who knows, maybe I’ll discover another new band. I can’t keep listening to the Stones and the Who forever, although last night I was at my granddaughters concert and she sang both Eleanor Rigby with a fifteen piece string orchestra and another Beatles song that I can't even remember. Oh yea, I recorded that too. Once a bootlegger, always a bootlegger! (Albeit, an absent minded bootlegger!!)

Planning a trip down to Austin in May with Chuck and Dawn. Hope to take in the scene. So watch for us on Austin City Limits. You never know. Maybe Todd Mohr will be there.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tracks in the Dust

This is the home I grew up in. We did a little moving around while I was growing up in Lewistown, Montana, but we never left town and my dad never sold this house. I went from Kindergarten to graduating high school in this little central Montana town. We bought a motel, and lived there for a while. We also lived for some time in my grandparents home, but during all this my dad kept this house on Ridgelawn that he had built by himself back in 1950. I lived in this house the last few years in the ‘60’s, and moved out of it in 1966 to start new adventures. It was about this same time my parents started moving, first to Great Falls. My dad sold the house then. I was back in Lewistown a couple of years ago and met the lady who had bought the house. Her husband had recently passed. So it was a two owner house for the last 60 years. This picture is from 1952. The house is finished, but the white fence around the back that I remember so fondly had not been built yet.

This was a small home, only about 1200 square feet with a single car garage and three bedrooms. My brother and I had to share. It was on a large lot, actually a double lot although my dad sold ten feet to the neighbors so they could build a garage. It was on the corner and across from a giant park called Simms Park. Plenty of baseball games and other activities. In the winter (which you can see by this photo were pretty snowy back in the day) my dad would tie a sled to his old car and drive us around the road in Simms Park. Today he’d probably be arrested for child abuse!

It was in this house that I learned my basic values: love of family, love of music, love of nature, and love of God. My dad worked long hours at the grocery store that he and my grandfather owned. Later they partnered on the purchase of a motel. But we had plenty of picnics, either down at the city park with aunts and uncles or in the mountains around Lewistown. A couple of my favorites were the Belt Mountains or Forest Grove, a nice picnic area with a shallow stream through it. Montana meant lots of hunting and fishing, but I was not as into that as my dad or grandpa (or my friend Jack). My dad loved to bowl, and I went with him many a night. The local alley guy would win a bunch of games for me on the pinball machine, and I can recall playing pinball and drinking hot chocolate out of a vending machine. It was made with water — not milk — and I can taste it to this day.

It was an idyllic place to grow up, no crime, no traffic, just lots of fresh air and friends. I could walk from one end of town to the other, and walked to school and to work in my dad’s store. Our house was always full of music between my mom’s love of opera and my dad’s love of gospel singing. I took organ lessons from an early age. My mother was an excellent piano and organ player; she had learned to play as a child on a pipe organ. Over the years we had everything from a Steinway grand piano to a Hammond organ. My favorite was the old player piano at my grandparents. I would load a paper roll into the piano and pump like mad as I sang along to “Barney Google, with those goo, goo, goggley eyes.” Rock and roll came later.

My dad was a great singer, and I loved to go to Christmas concerts and hear him singing Handel’s Messiah. He had an accordion that he had played with a gospel quartet when he was young, and I would strap that giant keyboard onto my chest and play and play. I didn’t really know how, but I could make some music with that squeeze box.

In later years, after I had grown and left home, my parents had both an organ and a piano and they would play duets. My mom only read music and had no ear, while my dad was all ear and couldn’t read music. I guess they were as miss-matched as me and my bride. That may be the secret to both of our success. If you marry someone who is different from you, you end up filling in each other’s weak spots. It sure worked for them, and it has sure worked for us!

It seems like so many years ago since I left those happy times. I’ve traded the little town of Lewistown, population 8,000 for Longmont, population 80,000. I lived in Lewistown for about 16 years, from the age of 4 to the age of 20. I’ve lived in Longmont for about 37 years. Those two towns are my home. There were some stops along the way, most notably a few years in Norfolk, Virginia, in service to my country and some time in Spokane, Washington after I got out of the service. I also spent time in Great Falls, Bozeman, Livingston, White Sulphur Springs, and Libby — all Montana towns. By the time I graduated high school and had a year of college in Butte, my parents had sold the grocery store and the motel, and my dad worked for the FAA as an air traffic controller. I lived with them in Spokane when I got out of the Navy, and about the time I move to Colorado, my parents moved to Oregon. We’ve both lived in those respective states ever since.

I was around for the sixties. They say that those who can remember the sixties weren’t there. Well, I was. I spent the first half in Montana, and I wasn’t really part of the “revolution.” I spent the last half of the sixties wearing a uniform, and we couldn’t be part of the revolution, except maybe on weekends. I couldn’t really let my hair grow or wave my freak flag. But I was with it man! I just couldn’t show it!!

I missed Woodstock and Altamont, but I was there in spirit. At least I saw the movies! Now so many years have passed. I’m in the autumn of my life. Now I think of my life as vintage wine, from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs, yes it poured sweet and clear, it was a very good ye … wait, that’s Frank Sinatra.

One thing you realize as you grow older is how fast things happen. Seems like only yesterday that I was riding motorcycles to Nags Head with a bunch of Harley buddies, just a few hours ago that I got married and raised my kids, only minutes ago that my granddaughter was born, and only seconds ago that I was working — wait, that’s right, it was only seconds ago, but not for much longer.

Seriously, I am quite nostalgic for all the events of my life, my childhood, my Navy service, college years, courting and marriage, raising a family, teaching, working at IBM, playing guitar with old friends and new friends, recording and producing music, camping and picnicking, and all the family, vacations, the mountains, the church.

That is really the underlying purpose of all the writing I’ve done of late. I counted my essays (or blogs, or articles, or notes, or whatever you call them) posted in Facebook. This will be number 53, starting back in August of 2009. Some of the articles have been about science and engineering — I love to write text books and teach, and some have been about music or society and politics. But my favorites are the ones about family and my life. If I keep this up for a few more years, I should have quite a collection that could be combined into a memoir or biography. I don’t know if anyone will ever gather these together and read them, maybe my son or granddaughter, or great grand … who knows?

Where do we fit in the long history? I remember very well the bi-centennial of the US, which was the year we were married. So now we’re getting close to a 250 year birthday for the good old US. English history goes back even farther. And then there’s the Romans, the Greeks, the Israelites. If you assume the earth is over 4 billion years old, then even all of man’s time on this earth is just in the last few moments, and your and my life must be like microseconds. No wonder it passes so fast.

We’re here for just a short time. We leave tracks in the dust, but the wind will just blow them away eventually. One thing you have to ask yourself is, “what am I leaving as a legacy.” You have your children and their children, certainly that is a legacy. But I also wonder about my intellectual legacy. Will anyone read my words after I’m gone? Not very likely.

So the other night I was sitting around with some friends. We were enjoying a fine meal, the fire in the fireplace, some good wine, and conversation. We spoke about what had been and might have been, how we had changed, what we once thought were important and what we thought now. We spoke of the world, our country, service, charity, love, companionship. We pondered what was lost, what we regretted, what we would like to do again, and what we would do the same. We talked about politics and the situation in the Middle East and in India and China and in Mexico. I was browsing through the paper and saddened by the wars and rumors of wars. It went sort of like this:

Four of us were having dinner and I threw down the paper with a curse. My wife said, “Complaining doesn't get it. You got to do something or you can bet it will get worse.”

And my friend said, “You've been watching TV too much: and all that hippie hopefulness is just a crutch. But if thinkin' that way helps you to make it through the night, then who am I to say what's wrong and right. But I think we're passing through here kind of fast. Did you think these tracks in the dust would last?"

"So you think we should just sit here and have another glass of wine while the world goes to hell, which you know damn well it's going to do just down the line."

And his lady said, “I don't know how can you be so sure, I mean some things seem to get better. You know the hero still saves the damsel in distress, the villain doesn't get her.”

And I said, “Where have you been living? I mean they're selling death in the streets. Cheap! And the lying politicians are rolling in the profits they reap.”

And he said, “He's right honey, but I think it's always been that way.”

And he smiled kind of patiently, and I knew he was going to say:

“I think we're passing through here kind of fast. Did you think these tracks in the dust would last?”

“I think we're passing through here kind of fast. Did you think these tracks in the dust would last?”

“I think we're passing through here kind of fast.”

David Crosby
(c) 1988 Stay Straight Music (BMI)

Yeah, 64 years, “we’re passing through here kind of fast.”

This is that house on Ridgelawn today. Painted a new color, but still that same old home.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Note on Mathematics and the Importance of Gödel’s Theorem

There is a fundamental difference between mathematics and all the other branches of science. Besides the fact that it seems that all the other (or at least most of the other) sciences make use of the “Queen” of science, there is another big difference.

Theories in Physics

In other branches, such as physics, discoveries and theories are often expressed as formulas. When these new discoveries pass certain scientific tests, such as explaining current phenomenon and measurements, and typically predicting a new result that is then verified, the scientific theory is accepted. A good example is the “law” of gravity and the formulas developed by Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Using Newton’s equations the movement of the planets and moons were all analyzed and verified.

In fact, the formulas, when used to examine the orbit of Uranus, predicted the existence of another planet even further from the Sun. This planet was later discovered by telescope and name Neptune. Still the orbits didn’t exactly match Newton’s formulas, and Pluto was later found to better match the math. (Pluto is really a Mickey Mouse planet, and was lately demoted to an asteroid or break-away moon.)

Newton’s formulas also didn’t match Mercury's orbit, the inner most planet in the Solar System. Due to the success of the discovery of the new outer planets, some astronomers supposed a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury and even named it “Vulcan.” But it was never found. So, a little more than 200 years after Newton’s brilliant work, Einstein provided an adjustment to the formulas required in the case of massive gravity or high velocity. (As the closest planet, Mercury moves the fastest in its orbit and “relativistic corrections” have to be applied.)

So a scientific theory is just that, just a theory. Even the theories that are so well accepted they are called “laws.” They are subject to correction by future discoveries. Mathematical theories (or better termed theorems) are the result of “proofs” and barring an error in the proof, a later discovery will not change a current proof and they can not later be deemed inaccurate or wrong. That is a unique fact of mathematics based on the axiomatic nature of a mathematical proof.

Theorems in Mathematics

For example, an ancient math problem was to “square the circle.” That is, to create a square using only a straight edge and compass (the tools of plane geometry) that has the same area as a given circle. After centuries of attempts, mathematicians realized that pi (a mathematical constant used to calculate area of a circle) is irrational. That is, it can’t be expressed as a fraction of integers. Once that was know, it was clear that there is no way to “square the circle” using the standard geometric tools.

To this day, math journals receive proofs on squaring the circle. The editor throws them right in the trash. There is no way it can be done and that is PROVEN!! Little else in our lives can be so certain; no other area of science has that perfection and finality. So does that mean that mathematics has no limits?

Limits in Science

Realize that other sciences have limits. In physics there is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which limits the ability to measure atomic particles. It is not a weakness of our instruments or techniques, but a very real limit to what can be measured no matter how advanced science may become (assuming that Werner Heisenberg's (1901-1976) theory is correct). I always found that interesting, that there are known limits to atomic measurements, no matter how advanced the instruments. Even more interesting, it turns out that mathematics has a similar theoretical limit.

But how can that be? After all we create math out of pure thought stuff, and certainly there is no limit if we could just think hard enough. Yes, it is true that once a mathematical theorem is proven, that pretty much settles the issue in perpetuity, but it was recently discovered that math has its limits too. (Well, 1931, pretty recent compared to Euclid.)

Axiomatic Systems

Let's start at the begining. The early Greek philosophers began with basic axioms or postulates. That is what is behind Euclid’s “Elements” (300 B.C.). The ancients thought these axioms such as “all right angles are equal to each other” and “the whole is greater than the part” were intuitively obvious and true by their very nature. They then began constructing mathematics by creating proofs that built from these basic axioms and previously proven facts into the wonders of geometry and other maths.

Later a more nuanced interpretation developed that fundamental axioms and postulates are just statements and starting points. In fact, they are un-provable statements; they are not necessarily true. What mathematics entails are consistent and non contradictory structures. Whether they are true or actually represent the universe is not the point. The goal of mathematics has been to build logical and consistent structures on the foundation of a minimum of basic assumptions. These are called "axiomatic systems," and that is the basis of all “proofs” in mathematics.

Whether the basic assumptions are minimum is one of the questions mathematicians will ask. For example, let’s take Euclid’s Parallel Postulate: “That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.” Basically it defines parallel lines and says they never meet or cross. (Read it again!)

Euclid and others were always concerned that this postulate could be derived from the more basic statements, and many mathematicians tried to show that. Eventually Bernhard Riemann (1826-1866) and others attempted to derive the parallel postulate by assuming the parallel lines do cross. If that assumption turned out to be logically flawed, then that would be a step to deriving the basic assumption. Low and behold, this did not lead to an inconsistency, but a perfectly consistent mathematical structure different from Euclid's that we now call non-Euclidian geometry. (In point of fact it led to several non-Euclidean geometries.)

Non-Euclidian Geometry

If you assume the earth is a flat plane (it is actually the surface of a sphere) you will see the longitude lines all cross the equator at right angles which would make them parallel. Yet they meet at the poles. Therefore, treating the earth’s surface as a flat “map” is actually non-Euclidean geometry. We assumed that Euclid's system describes nature, and non-Euclidian were just mathematical odditities.

Later Einstein and his theory of curved space show that non-Euclidean geometry actually matches the natural universe better than the Greek’s classic work. Our three dimensional space is no more “flat” than the surface of the earth is flat. Of course, just as the surface of a sphere is three dimensions and the flat map is only two dimensions, so Einstein’s universe has four dimensions. It is a little more complicated than that, as the fourth dimension is time, but the analogy basically holds. Our three dimensional world has warps in the fourth dimension just as our two dimensional flat earth has warps in the third dimension.

In fact, a lot of modern physics including string theory holds the universe actually has 26 dimensions. Now that is really NON-Euclidean!!

So, math is just the development of a logically consistent system based on some basic ideas called axioms or postulates and the whole structure builds up from there. (Please note that the goal of mathematics is not necessarily to agree with nature and physics, but that math is a powerful tool for understanding nature and physics.)

Mathematical Paradox

Now what? Well, certain philosophers such as Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), found problems with that. These were the so called paradoxes. “Who shaves the barber in the town where the barber shaves everyone who does not shave themselves?” If the barber does it, then he shaves someone who does shave himself. If someone else does it, then the barber does not. It seems like there is no logical end to this conundrum.

I remember a Star Trek episode where they shut down the computer mind of these androids with such a paradox. (It is called the "lier's paradox.") One character said that Dr. McCoy always lied. McCoy then said he never tells the truth. So if he always lies then it is a lie that he always lies so he must tell the truth, but then … See the “strange loop” you get into following that paradox. Wait, strange loops … chaos theory … no, we don’t have time!

Incompleteness Theorem

Then along came Kurt Gödel, 1906 – 1970, and he proves that all logically consistent systems (including mathematical systems) contain at least one proposition that can’t be determined within the system. This is commonly called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. That means that all sets of rules, no matter how perfect and self-consistent, must contain concepts that can’t be identified as true or false within the system, and you have to move outside this system to a “meta-system” to evaluate. Of course, the meta-system will require a meta-meta- system and so on to infinity. For those curious, I suggest a little visit to Wikipedia and search on Gödel. It is really fun, and you don’t need a Master’s in Math, although it does help!

This has great impact in computer science on issues like computability and the Halting Theorem. (Yet another visit to Wikipedia.) I just take it as God having a little fun with us. We’re pretty smart, but not as smart as God. There are limits to everything we do, even mathematics.

Back in the seventies I read (and reread often) a great book by the Computer Scientist Douglas Hofstadter called “Gödel, Escher, and Bach – The Eternal Golden Braid.” No coincidence that I’m such a fan of Bach’s music (what mathematician isn’t) and Escher’s thought provoking drawings. Hofstadter even uses Greek classic dialog between Achilles and the Tortoise (from the Tortoise and the Hare) to explain the idea … but, again, I digress. (Hofstadter later took over the great “Scientific American” column, “Mathematical Games” from Martin Gardner. I own several books by both authors and they are all very thought provoking and recommended to the mathematician and non-mathematician alike.)

Math is Hard

I think you all know that algebra, in a sense, is just generalized arithmetic. That is, we take the operations from arithmetic, such as adding and multiplying, and their inverses, subtraction and division, and apply them to variables which basically represent “all numbers.” Well, what do you suppose generalized algebra would be? Now we take the operations of add and multiply and generalize them to any binary operations.

For example, there is clock math. Think about hours on a clock. They are never more than twelve. If you add four hours to ten o’clock, you don’t get fourteen o’clock, you get two o’clock. That is a consistent mathematical system.

Or take matrices and matrix math. (A matrix is a lot like a tic-tac-toe or crossword structure with rows and columns of numbers that are operated on as a whole, very important in physics.) One interesting aspect of Matrix math is that multiplication is not commutative. That is, A * B is not equal to B * A. So not all the rules from standard algebra apply.

I studied “abstract algebra” in graduate school and it was the first time that math made my head ache. I had to study very hard to understand how to extend basic algebra into the abstract, just as some have to work hard to understand regular algebra. That was a very meaningful point in my life that I tried hard to understand what seemed at the time to be the non-understandable. It really humbled me that the great “A” student would have a problem with anything in school.

The Library

That lead me to the local library seeking peace and quiet to concentrate (at the time Mike and Mark were young, and noisy boys), which led to my tenure on the local library board and ultimate election as Library Board President. In that position I was influential getting a new Longmont Library built, but that is another story for another time.

Since then I’ve been humbled many times, but still I’m arrogant. Obviously, regardless of my GPA, I’m a slow learner. Whenever I get too big for my britches and start telling people what I think as if that is the ultimate answer, I think of Gödel.

We could all use a little humility, especially those who are so quick to explain just how “you” are wrong and “they” are right. Know anyone like that?


I end with the mathematical conclusion that love = . Proof left to the reader.