Sunday, December 15, 2013

Death: Fun with numbers

This is about one's chance of dying, a topic I would think is of interest to just about anyone.  The chances of death are measured in clever ways by the authors of The Norm Chronicles: Stories and numbers about danger, Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter, Brits.

Blastland and Spiegelhalter calculated the “micromort,” a one in a million chance of dying, for a wide variety of activities. Everything carries a little risk, they point out. The chance of getting hit by an asteroid is one in a million over a lifetime. That's one micromort. So might as well calculate the risks of things you can control, so you know what it costs before you take a flight in a small aircraft, base jump, or light up a cigarette. What’s it going to cost you. The risk of something horribly dramatic taking your life in a given day is about one in a million – that's one micromort.

Being a baby is risky business, it turns out. Over a lifetime we risk about one micromort a day but the first year it's 4,300, and that's in the U.K. This is as risky as riding a motorcycle around the world. It's worse in the first few weeks, worse for underweight babies, for boys, and for children of young mothers. And Britain is a relatively safe place; worldwide, infants risk an average 40,000 micromorts (ten times the U.K.’s value). In Sierra Leone DR Congo infant mortality three times higher still. At the same time, worldwide risk of birthing, for mothers, is about 2,100 micromorts, each time. For perspective, it's just 200 in the U.S. but 11,000 in Chad.

After the age of 1 things improve quickly and by 7 we enter our safest year, risking just 100 U.K. micromorts for the entire year. That’s equivalent to less than eight and a half days of risk for a British infant; less than a day’s risk for a baby in central Africa.

Life choices are interesting: a minute of take-off or landing on an airplane is worth an hour of flight, but the chance of an individual dying on a commercial airline flight is just 1 in 9 million. So each airline flight is about a tenth of a micromort, that is, unless it’s a small aircraft in which case risk is a full micromort every six minutes – and that's about as dangerous as walking or bicycling. Now if you choose to jump out of the plane, with a parachute, it will cost about 10 micromorts -- a bit less for novices, who don't take extra risks, Rock climb for 3; hang glide for 8 and a base jump will cost you 430 micromorts. Scuba diving costs 8. Walk or cycle 30 miles for 1 micromort, ride a motorcycle that distance for 4. Drive a car 333 miles or take a train 7,500 miles for one micromort, isn’t this fun? Run a marathon? Seven micromorts. Two hundred for catching measles in Britain, about the same if you want a CAT scan. Careful, having your heart valve replaced will cost 52,000 micromorts.

In the U.S., workers risk 4 micromorts a year just for being murdered at work. Worldwide the risk of a fatal work related accident is 160 per year. Coal mining costs 650 and commercial fishing is the worst in Britain, at 1,020 micromorts annually. These comparable figures make legislation quite interesting. What is the cost of a micromort? What are acceptable levels of risk? Gets practical, fast.

Remember the dangers of infancy? Old age is worse for a lot of things, and dramatically so when it comes to avoidable accidental deaths. The graph shows very few such deaths until 19 when it jumps to about 200 micromorts per year for males (vehicle accidents, mainly), then fairly steady on until 70 when it spikes sharply and doesn't stop: 500 by the late 70s, 1,000 a year by 85 and then 2,500 thereafter.

It reminds me of the joke about three senior citizens: “My vision is so bad I can’t see who I’m talking to, one says. “My neck has gotten so stiff I can’t turn my head,” another replies. “I get dizzy,” the third one said “It’s just terrible being old. But … at least we can still drive.”

Besides micromorts, the authors also calculated microlives, a millionth, more or less, of an adult life -- 30 minute packets. Spend them any way you choose. All things considered, one cigarette reduces life expectancy by an average of 15 minutes -- half a microlife. Get it? That’s not only eight bucks a pack, it’s also five hours of your life, thank you.

Alcohol, as we know, is good in small doses. The first drink of the evening will actually buy you an extra 33 minutes of life but then you pay 21 minutes for each drink thereafter. Every inch of waistline costs 30 minutes every day you carry it. Two hours of watching TV costs one microlife too. On the other hand you can gain microlives for good behavior: two and a half hours a week of light exercise means a 19 % reduction in risk of death, which would come to about an hour of the day. So a daily jog of 22 minutes will extend your life by an hour each time – that’s a pretty good deal, right? Run for an hour run a day and you get an hour and a half back. Hey, regular exercise doesn't cost anything, it's extra credit.

You get two extra hours a day just for being female, but anyone can get two hours for eating five servings of fruit or vegetables.

The book put quite a few things in a new perspective for me. I’d heard of it through The Economist so I shouldn’t have been too surprised that much of the data was for Britain. The authors tried to make it more interesting than numbers numbers numbers by adding a lot of dialogue between three fictitious characters: risk-taking Kelvin, regular-guy Norm and timid Prudence. Those parts -- about a third of the book -- were predictable and a little annoying. But it was really quite interesting to look at death this way.

I so happened to have on my desk a copy of the Center For Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics Reports, it’s an esoteric subscription I have that is also quite interesting if you take the time. This report, Vol 61:9 May 2013, was called “U.S. Life Tables Eliminating Certain Causes of Death 1999-2001.” What it does, for the most part, is extract from death data one cause of death, to see what happens.

There are some summary data, to be sure. In the U.S. generally 31% die of major heart disease, 22% of cancer, and 7% of stroke. Women live longer than men. But we already know that well enough from newspapers.

Honestly it’s the sort of thing Blastland and Spiegelhalter could base another book on but these data are for the U.S. Read the tables directly to put yourself to sleep: Ok, if we cure diabetes 3.3% of black women will die between the ages of 50-55. Compare to another table to learn it would be 3.4% otherwise.

With a little calculation, though, I came up with some pretty interesting things myself. If we discovered a cure for Alzheimer's, for example, white females would expect an additional 72 days of life expectancy at birth, black ones 44 days, white males would gain 33 days and blacks 18. That’s because women overall live 5 years 4 months longer than men and Caucasians live 5 years 8 months longer than African Americans. Older women get Alzheimer's because women get older. On the other hand if you could eliminate all homicide, white women would live an extra 26 days, black women 80 days, white men an extra 62 days on average and black men 360 days, that's almost a full year longer for life expectancy for every black male, without murder. Three hundred and forty three of these days involve firearms.

On the other hand suicide costs white men an average 157 days of their lives, black men just 80 days, and women of either race just 42. Why? I don't know and the NVSR doesn't come with commentary. All these data can be broken down by age, too, so while the prospect of motor vehicle accidents cost a newborn 204 days in life expectancy, it costs me at my age only 29 because my reckless years are over.

I recently watched a horrifying youtube compilation of parkour accidents. Every one in it was male. So if you take away unintentional injury it's not surprising that boys will live an extra 401 days on average. Girls would gain just 197 days.

That's the kind of thing you can get from the CDC if you read the tables carefully and do a little work with excel. See for all the tables I looked at, or go back a folder from there for other publications.  Or just go to and poke around. 

Be careful though. According to Norm every two hours in front of the screen will cost you a microlife. Get up and walk around every now and then and earn it back.

Friday, September 27, 2013

My Bedbug Story

Took a road trip to Montreal and upstate New York which included a day trip to the Big Apple and so Aidan unpacks his bag and comes up to me with a little bug on a sheet which he had taken on the trip and I agreed with him that it looked something like a deer tick which are common in New York, and they carry Lyme Disease, but when I put on my magnifying goggles and then verified it online, it was Insecta Hemiptera Cimicidae Cimex lectularius Linnaeus: bedbug. The sheet it was on had been unpacked for a little while so to be safe I looked his mattress over carefully and lo I found a little cluster of the bugs, various sizes, in a crease of the box spring near the head. I killed them all with a few steam puffs from a hot iron. They died so easily.

I lived with cockroaches for several years in Seattle and one summer I rented a ground floor apartment in Houston and they were three inches long. I've hated cockroaches and now I hate bedbugs too.

In 1996 Asian Longhorn Beetles -- another insect pest -- arrived in the U.S. in wooden pallets, just to Chicago and not more than a few blocks from my home; these big beetles kill hardwood trees and if left unchecked they would become epidemic. Fortunately Longhorn Beetles can't fly very far so they typically populate in tight clusters, that is, until someone moves some brush or firewood and then another cluster pops up more or less randomly and within 50 miles or so. Those beetles – big and pretty -- were easy to spot, stop, and kill and Chicago did just that with early detection, a prohibition on moving wood, inoculation of surrounding trees, and constant vigilance. They were all gone before I could even get a picture, a fact which I will always regret.

Photographing insects is a hobby of mine, I've been doing it for years. Arthropods are simply marvelous with their spiky jointed legs, brilliant colors and strangely imaginative features -- not to mention their horrific behavior. Anyone with a nice macro lens who's tried it is likely to agree. I once found a Mantispid, a sort of cross between a wasp and praying mantis, and it drew over 300 likes and 40 comments on the Entomology facebook page. Score. So, because I hoped and expected to never see another bedbug ever again, this time -- unlike with the Asian Beetles -- I did not miss my chance. I had already taped it shut, doors and outlets, but I crept into the infested room anyway and carefully pinched one from the bedspread, took it downstairs, flipped it on its back and plunged a pin through its belly. This is exactly the picture I wanted. So, you see, finding a bedbug was not all bad.

Everyone knows New York City has bedbugs but Chicago now has more, and according to a video loop in my hardware store Uptown (about 3 miles south of me) is the geographical apex. Along with Rogers Park. That’s where I live. Come to think of it, the building next to me recently had men in hazard suits going in and out, and lots of mattresses and couches were piled in the alley. No, we didn’t get these bugs from New York, I think we got them from next door. We called New York and Montreal anyway, to warn them, and to apologize. We also called an exterminator.

Adult bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed, and each of the five nymph stages is progressively smaller back to the egg which is still visible, white, like two grains of salt stuck together. With my flip-down jewelers glasses I could even see the little rings around the egg tube, and the hole in the end where one had emerged. The first nymphs are as small as the egg they came from and almost white when they're hungry -- red when they're not. The nymphs shed skin at every stage so there are casings, bugs, and plenty of black specks if you look carefully; the feces are the first and easiest thing to spot. It’s not pretty, but all they eat is blood, so that’s all they defecate as well. Little blood-poops that smear easily.

What I’ve learned about bedbugs is a bit disconcerting; we may be entering an era in which they are “around,” and we have to get used to them, like cockroaches. That's like it was before WWII, I've read, before DDT became a standard consumable. Everyone best be prepared.

And so, what's the deal? These bugs spend most of their time wedged in cracks, folds, or seams. They like porous surfaces and places where head and butt are both touching surfaces. They come out to eat, like once a week. Our friendly exterminator estimated they spend 99% of their time hiding.

The good news is that they are fairly easy to spot, they're predictable, and they don't jump onto pets and spread around the house that way. In fact they stay as close to their food source as possible, in other words by the head of your bed and that's right where I found them. Their droppings are plentiful, hardly discrete, and they smear, of course, blood red. My exterminator explained that not only do they poop blood, they also spit a little anticoagulant into you when they bite so you leak a little too when they're done. Unfortunately they also spit a little anesthetic so you don't even know it's happened till morning, or even for a day or two. They initially congregate at the head of beds but they expand out from there as their colony grows -- toward the foot of the bed and up the walls. It seems the females flee from the males because of what entomologists call “traumatic insemination.” He simply pierces her body and inseminates the whole cavity. Too much of that can kill you. And from our perspective, females fleeing is not not a good thing because by that time they are certainly pregnant.

Eventually I got thinking about how quickly they could spread, and I got out my calculator. Please someone check my math, given the assumptions this is what I get for one, two, four and six months’ worst-case scenario. Given that a female starts laying eggs at the adult stage 6, and each stage takes a week, then at 45 days she starts laying her 4 eggs a day. It takes a week to hatch and the gender ratio is indeed 1:1, as is typical for animals. So let's look only at females – say one pregnant female is in a suitcase you bring home. I’m guessing that like a queen bee she keeps sperm in long term storage so she stays fertilized even on her own. She lays eggs at the rate of about four a day, but we're only concerned with females, so 2(f) a day.  Soon there are a stable 14 female eggs at any time because after one week while two more are laid daily, two hatch. At day 46 there are suddenly 3 adult females as the first two eggs reach maturity, and every day then there are two more adult females and that goes on for six weeks. Each of these adults is impregnated of course, as males are born too, so the number of eggs rises during the next cycle, linearly but at twice the rate of adult females because each has two eggs f every day. But on day 53 the first four grandbabies hatch, along with two more from pioneer mom so that's six new females for a total of 95 -- then ten more on day 54, 14 more girls on day 55, then 18 more, 22 more, 26 more and so on each day, adding four more than had been added the day before.  These are feeding but not yet fertile.

Three months pass and we shift again as the first grandbabies become fecund. So now instead of a gentle exponential growth if you can call x+4f gentle), at 97 days -- three months plus a week for hatching -- it really gets exciting. You can see this in the charts. My take away point: pay attention. You have about 50 days to crush a little colony. In the second 50 days it gets much worse, and if you let it go five months, kiss
your world goodbye; people driving by your house will start scratching.  That's when your neighbors get some. My extermininator described going into an apartment: like a murder scene.  Granted, the graph describes full meals and no premature deaths, but just look at the big numbers on the y axis of the last chart.  Then double it; those are just the females.

It gets just a little worse; pack one away for awhile and the whole thing is delayed again because they can live a long time without eating -- probably seven months to a year, depending on the temperature. And if you import a batch of eggs instead (and unfortunately for us, they are indeed laid in clusters) the whole scenario is delayed a month and a half while those nymphs chew their way to adulthood. We can calculate the chance of at least one male and one female in a batch of eggs. With just two eggs, the chance is an even 50-50 that you'll have at least one of each gender. With five eggs it's a 93.75% probability.

What more? They feed at night and are drawn toward heat, moisture, and still pockets of carbon dioxide (that’s you, sleeping). They don’t like dog and cat fur, thankfully, because their wimpy legs are built for scurrying, not for clawing in like a dog tick does so they don’t immediately migrate around your whole house. On a flat surface they move about as fast as ants, and since they can't climb slippery surfaces your stuff in an open plastic bin is probably safe.

Predictability is apparently their weakness: they stay near the head of your bed if they can because every nymph must eat before molting and they molt five times before they can breed.

My advice: get a pair of jeweler’s flip-down goggles and keep a look-out. You'll see them all -- eggs, nymphs, feces, and casings; they're untidy, near your pillow, and easy to spot. They are supposed to smell like rotten raspberries, almonds, or bad B.O., depending on what you read, but I didn't smell anything. Dogs can be trained to sniff out even a tiny batch, every time. You can purchase hypoallergenic mattress covers that will keep them out (or in) but you have to keep it on for a year to kill any trapped inside.

A lot of people don’t react to the anticoagulant, so if you know someone who swells up with a mosquito bite you might invite them for a sleepover, but don't tell them why -- some will have a dramatic reaction -- big big swelling, and bites that leave permanent scars, especially if you scratch them off, as they're likely to do. They do make bed bug traps which will do the same thing without the itching but hey, the human bug-bait method was recommended by our exterminator so I thought I'd pass it on. Another fun fact: while the little critters just drink blood, they can't actually spread the blood diseases, not yet, I've read.

Heat makes them die faster. At 40 degrees they'll starve in a year, at room temperature it just takes 7 months with no food. At 104 degrees they last 24 hours, at 115 degrees just 60 minutes and at 125d, 60 seconds. When I hit them with steam, that's 212 degrees, they just fell right over. You can buy a "PackTight" which is basically an overpriced canvas box, with a zip top, rack, heater and a probe thermometer so you can tell how hot it is in the middle. It's like cooking a turkey. But be warned, you ruin a lot of stuff at 125 df.

I suppose it doesn't help to know that cockroaches eat bedbugs; so do centipedes and mites, I've read.  Mice, probably do, too, if that's of any use.

Chicago stopped the Asian Longhorn Beetle from spreading, stopped it cold.  But here's why I think that bedbugs are different such that the game is already lost. 1) they're furtive -- mobile only 1% of the time, mainly when you're sleeping. 2) they're hardy. They'll live up to a year without eating. 3) it's a chore to get rid of them. We had to heat all our things to 125 degrees and we've been living a month with our clothes in plastic bags. 4) It's expensive, too. 5) The bites just don’t bother some people much; some won't notice, or won't care. 6) they are transferred unpredictably -- in used furniture, backbacks, cuffs, books -- so you'll find them, well, wherever people go. 7) there's a social stigma that makes the problem more common than people will want to admit. (That's why I wrote this blog. Hey, we got 'em ... and you can too!) 8) the cost of eradication falls on homeowners, not taxpayers, and 9) here's the clincher: the reservoirs are mainly behind closed doors, and on private property.

Any epidemiologist will tell you that all you need is an R0 greater than one -- more infestations than eradications, and bedbugs are here to stay. I'm guessing it'll be more like 3:1. Or 5:1.  It's over.

So back to my personal story: We caught ours real early this time, thank goodness, and as it turned out I probably killed almost all of them with my iron -- it's all over but the phantom itching. And there's that one great thing I keep coming back to.

I got my picture.

Update: There may be hope for Chicago after all.  The City passed a Bed Bug Ordinance which goes into effect December 2013.  In any rental unit where infestation is found or suspected, the landlord must hire an exterminator until the bugs are gone.  Not only that, they must  also inspect the two adjacent units left and right as well as those above and below and treat them too, if necessary.  And if so, the peripheral inspection continues until all adjacent bugs are killed.  Landlords cant rent an infected unit and have to inform all new tenants on how to detect and treat bed bugs.  Anything infected has to be wrapped in plastic before going into the dumpster.  Second hand bedding has to be labeled as such.  All the paperwork for all of this has to be made available to City inspectors. 

Tenants will have legal responsibility too.  Here, excerpted from my alderman's summary of the bill: "A tenant shall notify the landlord in writing of any known or suspected bed bug infestation in the building, or any recurring or unexplained bites stings, irritation, or sores of the skin or body which the tenant suspects is caused by bed bugs." 

Tenants not only have to cooperate in the reporting and treatment -- by law -- there is one last sentence that may be the final screw.  "Any person who is found in violation of this article shall be fined not less than $300.00 nor more than $1.000.00 for each offense. Each day that a violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense to which a separate fine shall apply."

Right on!  Start issuing fines, to tenants too -- and it just might work.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Brain Bugs: a book review

When Dean Buonomano named his book Brain Bugs he associated the human mind with computer glitches, an unfortunate irony because one of the first points of the book was how different real thinking is from computation.  The subtitle is “How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives;" this book is an excellent companion to Dan Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise, and Steve Pinker’s How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought.  

I was once tricked briefly by a robotic “salesperson” on my home phone.  I thought I was talking to a human being but it was just a clever recording with pauses.  And who hasn’t been playful with the iphone’s Siri?  But while people can be nearly tricked into thinking a computer is human, the opposite is far from true.  It’s embarrassing how easy it would be to write a test to determine if something were truly a computer -- just ask me what 18 is raised to the power of 12.  Computers are excellent at digital calculation where we – through evolution – are masters at recognizing patterns; our brilliance is sensing the whole from the parts.  As Buonomano puts it, the organic brain is like a new computer containing both hardware and an operating system.  We’re all wired with the same drives and emotions. But since our bodies had to survive in a shifting environment the operating system emphasized the ability to learn.  “The result is not a fixed balance, but a set of rules that allowed nurture to modulate our nature.” (p 15)

The book’s core question is this: “to what extent is the neural operating system established by evolution well-tuned for the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special effects-filled, antiobiotic-laden, media saturated, densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves.”  The answer is “Not very well.”   We have false memories, weak numerical skills, a distorted sense of time, large blind spots, we are predisposed to certain fears, our opinions are easily manipulated and we are inclined to be satisfied with supernatural explanations. We can thank our genes for that, genes groomed when our world was very different -- and so were we;  most of the time we were a different species altogether.

When it’s supported with research (and this book is quite well footnoted), I really like a simple explanation with reach: one that explains a lot of things.  The mind, he said, is basically comprised of a network of associations.  When I think “dog” I easily recall my dog, cats, dogfood, doghair, the beach,, the vacuum, my first dog, her vet, my youth, and so on.  Some links are well connected and fire frequently, others have looser connections, and many are more or less out there on their own.  Buonomano's analogy is the Internet where it’s easy to map the connectivity of any node. If you search for “Chicago USA” you get 169m hits; “La Paz Bolivia” returns 3.1m and “Iringa Tanzania” returns just 151k.   This is not just an analogy, it is basically how the brain is strung – the neurons (nodes) store information and whenever they fire together the synapses associating them get a little stronger.   “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  Interestingly, the “read” operations and the “write” operations both strengthen the association so as you commit something to memory OR as you recall it, the associations become more fixed.

Look to advertisers or politicians for good examples of how this works.  A devious candidate may hurt a relatively unknown opponent with sheer fabrications:  A headline: “Is Mark Peters corrupt?” will tie corruption (and all its nasty connotations) with Peters in our synapses.  We may not even know this is happening.  Years ago a Bush campaign ad was discovered with a nearly-subliminal word “rats” flashed across his opponent’s picture.

There’s a whole lot in the memory chapter.  People remember that someone is a baker more easily than they will remember that their name is Baker – more images and connections simply come to mind with the occupation than the surname.  

Those who can recall strings of 1,000 numbers rely heavily on associations.  One elaborate system assigns a person, an action, and an object to each number 1 – 1,000 to take advantage of pattern separation.  “George Carlin swimming” is very different from “Martha Washington’s doberman.” The numbers 235,694 and 749,209 just feel a lot more similar. 

There is adrenaline-induced flashbulb memories, like a good scare can do.  There is drug-induced memory loss during the important period of consolidation.  Memories are often overwritten, so a witness may confidently identify the "best choice" from a lineup of innocent people, or might be influenced by suggestive questioning.  And we have no “memory delete” module; no effortful “forgetting.”  Yet, oddly, there is some evidence that activating an old memory can actually make it vulnerable to erasure or overwriting because the read/write operations are so closely associated.

There is a chapter on errors about our sense of body.  Minds are housed in the brain, so it’s interesting that we each have a sense of body as me.  Controlling the body is necessary to reproduce, but why is there body consciousness?  “Evolution has not only ensured that the brain has access to the information from our peripheral devices, but that it endowed us with conscious awareness of these devices.  As you lay awake in the dark your brain does not simply verbally report the position of your left arm it goes all out and generates a sense of ownership by projecting the feeling of your arm into the extracranial world.” (93)  We’ve all heard of the mind recreating a limb which has been amputated but, in a sense, all our limbs are phantom.

There is an auditory corollary in the ringing many people hear when they start to lose their hearing for the same pitch; it’s a phantom sound.  Neurologically, the body is laid out in the brain such that adjacent body parts correspond to adjacent brain parts, so when there is a deficit adjacent neighbor neurons and synapses can patch it over.

An excellent chapter on time discussed how we perceive and measure time, how we relate to sequence and delay, and how temporal discounting causes us to make poor choices between short and long term consequences.  We don’t have a sense of time like we do, say, temperature.  We know how hot feels, but how does 4 years feel?  Actually, it depends.  Time seems shorter when we are paying close attention to something, and may change in felt duration depending on whether it is in the future present or past.  For example a hectic day may just fly by, but then looking back it seemed like a long one, judging by how much occurred. 

A weird one, for me, was that when we observe something noisy in the distance the brain actually slows down the visual signal so it matches the sound, which travels more slowly.  Studies verify this, I’m told.

There’s more about time than I have time for and the next chapter, on fear, had a fascinating bit:  Some fears are innate; goslings fear hawks, humans fear angry faces.  Some are learned; we fear losing our jobs.  Others are something in between.   I’d known that chimpanzees are not innately afraid of snakes (babies will play with them), but by watching the reactions of other chimps they can easily catch a lifelong terror of them.  They can’t do the same for, say, rabbits or flowers.   The author speculates (with some support) that humans may have a similar predisposition to fear strangers -- not particular strangers, but those which we are taught to fear early on.  We’re born fearing strangers, we just need to have them pointed out to us.  I just find that depressing.   It’s not all bad though, because by creating an “other,” we create an “us,” and those within one’s own smaller community primates were able to benefit from mutual reciprocal altruism.  It was a very clever solution when we lived amongst murderous marauders. 

The chapter on unreasonable reasoning delves into the same territory Dan Kahneman covered: framing, anchoring, overconfidence, loss aversion, the availability bias, conjunction fallacy: all good stuff.  And then there is the problem of emotions.  Since the amygdala has more connections heading to the cortical area than the other way around, emotions (amygdala) easily overwhelm reason (cortex), leading to all sorts of irrational decisions.

Here is a fun little demonstration of our poor grasp of probabilities:  In Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall presented contestants with three rooms, one held a large prize and two had a goat.  The contestants were asked to choose a door, after which Hall opened one of the others, revealing a goat, and then he offered to let the contestant switch or hold.   Some switched, some held; why would switching even matter?  Many people had trouble figuring that out, even though a world cruise or new home was at stake.  As Buonomano put it “we are inept at making probability judgments.”
(answer: always, always switch).
His chapter on Advertising recounted how De Beers turned the flagging diamond industry around with the slogan “diamonds are forever,” thereby creating an expensive engagement essential.  And by associating them with personal, unending love, De Beers guaranteed a continued demand for NEW diamonds.  Very clever.   So by associating a product with something we already value, advertisers build the synapse connections, they take advantage of our natural tendency to imitate peers and those of higher status, and they activate our mirror neurons so we actually feel successful, like in the ad.  Advertisers use loss aversion with free trials, and the “money illusion” to make something appear more valuable by charging more.   So a sweater selling for $30 as “half off” makes it look like a great deal on a better sweater.  But it’s just a $30 sweater.

Another clever trick is using a “decoy,” a product that is much like another but just a little worse.  It could be less somehow, or may be overpriced.  Either way, the decoy will drive up sales for the other one.  For example, an overpriced shrimp dish on the menu will get more people to buy the regular shrimp meal.  If there are two identical cars on the lot except one comes with remote ignition, it will sell better than if the other car wasn’t there.  That’s pathetic, but it’s nice to know why it happens.  First, while it’s so difficult to compare apples and oranges that it can lead to terminal indecision, it’s easy to compare a bruised apple to a good one.  Clear choice, problem solved.  Second, “apple” becomes a more salient idea altogether; after all, you’ve just seen two of them, and only one orange.

The chapter on superstition, and the conclusion were shorter, thinner, a little disappointing, but I’d already  gotten well enough to be satisfied. 

Read this book, if you dare!
network image source:

Friday, July 19, 2013

An Urban Campus, Out-of-the-Box, Idea

The MOOCs threaten to do to higher education what online sharing has done to the music industry, what the internet has done to publishing, what Wikipedia has done to Encyclopedia Britannica, and what online services have done to news.  Massive Open Online Courses, which as I have seen can be quite impressive, threaten to take down brick and mortar institutions with enrollments in the tens of thousands, given their growing quality, appeal, and sophistication. 
One asset of my university which will not be threatened by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is its excellent location, in the center of the Chicago Metropolitan Area – all the more important because NEIU students are dispersed over 30 or more mile radius.  As part of a recent study I mapped 11,000 students by their street address, placing each dot within 50 feet of their front door.  Then I measured the distance of each one to campus, removed those over 50 miles (probably former addresses) and averaged the distances.  The average student at my institution lives just about 6 miles from campus.
When I mapped alumni -- 60,000 of them, I found them all over the country, of course, but mostly -- 81% to be exact -- saturating the Chicago Metropolitan Area.  You see, Northeastern Illinois University is a commuter campus -- we have no dorms.  Students are connected to their homes and home towns throughout college, and they tend to stay in this region for work.  Our students and alumni own the City of Chicago.  The MOOCS, coming out of Stanford, Duke, and the like ... can't have it.

If we geographically blanket the city, our campus certainly doesn't.  We have a peaceful little 67 acres, a postage stamp, nestled between a natural area, the river, and park, and a cemetery.   And surrounding our us are more than 300 municipal and county governments, hundreds of community organizations and non-profits, State and Federal government agencies, schools, libraries, businesses and a stream of events as robust as you could imagine.   It is here that our students do internships take field trips, and get jobs.  We attract interesting speakers and recruit adjunct faculty from professions in virtually every field.  

But as great as all that is, Chicago offers something more -- it has an infrastructure that would allow us to expand -- potentially to explode if we wanted to.

Let me explain.

One of the trends in higher education is toward an "inverted curriculum," in which students are first engaged in a vexing, nasty, "capacious" problem: Something real.  Take Asian Carp invading Lake Michigan, a community suffering from a local school closing, a farmers market hoping to expand, community gardens in a food desert, a failing after school program, participatory budgeting, lakefront restoration. The problems are endless in a city like this of 9 million.  Each problem could be a course, and one in which students first understand all angles of the problem, in the field, then drill down into academic disciplines to help solve it.  It would be an interdisciplinary effort, probably.  

This has been called "problem based learning..." excellent pedagogy, but hardly revolutionary.  The twist is that a course could actually be built around a problem in a geographical sense.  Because we can now map students we can identify, say, a ward trying to start participatory budgeting and email all the students in the ward.  Or we could contact students in a particular high school district, or those who live within a half mile of the river, or just Justice Studies students who are 15 miles from a proposed jail closing, everyone who does not have access to public transportation, or sociologists and psychologists in segregated neighborhoods, biologists near the lake, and so on. 

We can target market around a nasty problem, targeted based on the characteristics of the students, the location of the issue, and the nature of the capacious problem itself.  And if we work with an organization they will likely help with the recruitment.  The alderman can use her own mailing list to promote a for-credit class attacking on a local issue.  The Forest Preserve District can put out a call to their folk, addressing a vexing deer problem.  The problem itself may generate the students, perhaps students new to NEIU.  And once they see us, I think they will stay.

If that weren't enough, by identifying a public library near the site we may find an excellent free off-site classroom, complete with wifi for Google Chat or Skype -- perhaps done simultaneously, with several instructors, at several locations.  The class could meet periodically on campus as well, making it "hybrid" (which is supposed to be best of all) as well as "inverted."

Probably libraries would welcome the traffic -- after all they also have been hit by disruptive technologies and are looking to reinvent themselves.  Some will have comfortable rooms where groups can meet, or may reserve a seating area.   But if libraries aren't nice enough, there are also coffee shops -- certainly students will be snacking as they work, wouldn't they. 

These maps show how students may be assigned to their nearest center.  They are color coded depending on their nearest center.  The dispersed centers (libraries, scattered Starbucks) are each labeled with the numbers of students for whom that center is the nearest.  It would be a simple matter to establish two or more levels of meeting places (for example, libraries, and regional libraries) for different purposes (e.g., small groups and larger group meetings).  GIS will easily assign each student to both.

This would open classroom space on campus, particularly during the peak times 10-12 a.m. when classrooms are hard to find but when libraries and coffee shops are mostly empty.  Travel costs would be reduced for students, who would not only be working with peers (this is proved to be good pedagogy), but peers who are also neighbors (for good university-based social cohesion), on a project that affects them personally, of a real-world sort which underscores the relevance of their degree.  In the process Northeastern will gain visibility, establish a working relationship with a community group, contribute to the region, and garner appreciation.  And because of fewer trips to campus, the geographical reach of the University could expand, drawing on an new and untapped population.  It would also reduce NEIU’s carbon footprint and decrease congestion.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Good Books about Bad People

I just finished (in audio format biking) Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t.   He had fought with the publisher of Harvard Business Review, which published the seed article, to keep the word Asshole in the title.  That no doubt helped with sales, but there are other words for the same thing.  I looked up synonyms and found A jerk; an inappropriately or objectionably mean, inconsiderate, contemptible, obnoxious, intrusive, or rude person.
I think “mean-spirited” captures it nicely.  To be clear, Sutton points out, the “Chronic Assholes” are not people who are having a bad day -- these are nasty people by nature.  To be Chronic “they have to show a persistent pattern, to have a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves.”  They are mean to peers and especially to those beneath them but they often suck up to superiors.  These are kiss-up/kick down bitches and here is how they do what they do:
  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one's personal territory
  3. Uninvited personal contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering email flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible
Sutton gives quite a few examples of high-profile assholes -- often bosses, CEOs and business people I'd never heard of, but with chilling, despicable stories.  Steve Jobs and Bobby Knight come to mind, but he names lots of others. On the noble end of the spectrum find Men's Warehouse, Costco, Southwest Airlines, Ideo, and Google. 

Ironically, I suspect from little comments, anecdotes, and admissions, that Sutton can be a bit of one himself.  In a revealing interview after the audiobook he snickered a bit that a co-worker glares at his visitors for him so, they'll leave him alone but will still think favorably of him.  And get this: he advises all new Stanford faculty members to choose a few people to completely ignore.  If you're not pissing a few people off, he said, you're not doing your job!  And he seemed proud of that.  So this fun little book is authored by an expert, and here're some of his insights:
  • Why are there assholes in positions of power?
    • They may bully their way up, especially when they have redeeming qualities that are considered essential.   And then, if they can, they may hire or promote others like them.  
  • How do you determine if someone is Certifiable? 
    • We're all assholes sometimes, but if it's repeated, demeaning, and it mostly targets people with lower status, the person may be Certifiable.
  • What do they think of themselves?
    • Some are aware of it, some not.  Because their employees are often cowed, they often kowtow, leaving the person him/herself with an inflated self-image. 
  • What do their superiors think of them?
    • They may not know, because no one dare tell.  The jerk is often well-behaved upward, and by force and manner may appear to be smarter and more essential than they actually are.
  • How do you deal with a mean-spirited boss or coworker, or employee when you can’t just fire them?  
    • Avoid them; disengage, psychologically detach, and anticipate abuse even if punctuated with periods of niceness. Align with other victims for mutual support.  Interesting advice: care less about the organization. 
  • How do you weigh the value of a skilled employee who is also an asshole?
    • Within an organization being mean-spirited is incompetence. Usually that outweighs everything else.
  •  How does an asshole hurt witnesses and bystanders?
    • Those who intercede become targets, and intimidation drives good people out as well.  Morale and trust decline through the whole organization. 
  • When should you confront the behavior, when ignore it?
    • It may depend on how badly you need your job.  if the person is above you, drawing attention to the situation, even to peers, can be dangerous.     
  • How can you devastate an asshole?
    • Publicize their behavior in an external venue.  Pride and humiliation are powerful motivators.  This could be suicide, too.
  • What should you do if you have employed an asshole?
    • Get rid of them quickly, don't promote them, and if you can't dispose of them, make them a public example of what not to do.  
  • Where do you find assholes?
    • Look for the close associates of known assholes.  They find others like them, and then they stick together. 
  •  Why is it much better to not have a “no asshole rule” than to have one that is not enforced?
    • It draws attention to the toleration of mean-spirited people, and it parades institutional hypocrisy.
  •  Just how costly are they? 
    • Targets, bystanders and witnesses quit.  Those who remain become indifferent or hostile. Theft rates increase. Absenteeism increases, and so on.  The cost has been measured with a "TCA" analysis -- "Total Cost of Assholes"
  •  Are the advantages of acting like one? 
    • You do get attention, when you absolutely need it, and some assholes even manage to claw their way upward. 
  • What happens after an organization purges one?
    • There is a often palpable feeling of relief and a realization that they were not so valuable to the organization as they had appeared to be, after all.
One of the most disconcerting things I learned is how easily a "culture of mean-spiritedness" can develop.  For one thing, if they are on hiring committees they will tend to hire people like themselves.  Second, when they meet another asshole they adhere with a bond that is not easily broken.  Third, their behaviors and attitudes are infectious -- regular people are easily sucked into acting like jerks, too.  So, as Sutton put it, assholes breed assholes, and before you know it you have a veritable snakepit.  There is nothing like a "swarm of assholes," Sutton wrote, "to suck the life out of civility."

Negativity is powerful.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Dan Kahneman pointed out that people value positives much less than negatives; that is, if you find $50 it’s nice; if you lose $50 that's much worse ... and so it is for interactions. According to Sutton one negative interaction can offset five positive ones.  "It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with a single asshole."  
As practical as the Sutton book is, the next one I’ll mention is just plain unsettling.

Evil Genes, by Barbara Oakley, has a subtitle “Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.”  Machiavellian personalities, the “sinisterly successful,” she explains, are people with a particular mix of personality disorders which work together effectively – but not so well for other people.  Hitler, Mussolini, and Pol Pot had it.  Ceausescu, Somoza, Hussein, Amin, Mao and Satlin, too, and Oakley’s sister, apparently.  Oakley, an associate professor of engineering, a fellow of the American institute of Medical and Biological Engineers, and obviously a Renaissance Woman, is an excellent non-fiction author to boot.  Every time I pick this book up, I want to read it all. 

The Machiavellian has 1) personal charisma. 2) a keen ability to read people and 3) a profound lack of empathy.  They view others as objects to be manipulated, they are not bound by conventional morality, law, or social norms and so they can lie, cheat, steal and deceive without guilt or conscience.  They use aliases, they con others for pleasure or profit, they’re impulsive, irritable, aggressive, they have a disregard how others feel and don’t care about their safety either.  They lack responsibility and they lack remorse.  These are really, really Assholes with a capital A, to the core.  And here is her thesis: psychopathy of this kind is genetic.  According to twins studies, it’s 81% heritable -- just 19% is influenced by environmental conditions, such as a tortured childhood or traumatic experiences.
It is well known that genes affect personality; 30-60% of most personality traits are due to genetic code; twins studies are fairly conclusive.  Oakley goes some depth explaining how exactly this works, in the brain, with some technical but well-written detail: how genes affect serotonin transporters, for example, and how a deficit of these predispose one to anxiety, impulsivity, suicidal thoughts, instability, bulimia and binge drinking.  Genes affect the brain, which in turn influences memory, stability, mood, fear, the ability for abstract thought, trust, shame, resentment, forgiveness, empathy, moral reasoning, hostility, the ability to learning from punishment, and the ability to see the big picture.  It’s a competent, if dark, introduction to evolutionary psychology.  And why aren’t these maladies stripped from the genome by natural selection?  Because sometimes they do benefit the organism.  If the brain is wired just so, the person is almost psychic in their ability to read others, she said, with particular attention to their triggers and vulnerabilities.  And because they lack empathy there is no end to what they will do.  It’s a powerful mix, but a very bad one, for everyone else. 

Machiavellians have their own view of right and wrong.   They enjoy manipulating and humiliating others, they are often charismatic and superficially slick but prone to violence. Those with borderline personality disorder – highly associated with Machiavellianism -- have mood swings, are emotionally unstable, often have strong fears of abandonment, are impulsive and inconsistent, and they tend to flip between idealizing others and devaluing them.  This makes personal relationships, shall we say, unpredictable.

Oakley then  goes into fascinating detail about Slobodan Milosevic, Caligula, Stalin, Mao, Mugabe, Hitler, and Martha Stewart – each one a twisted story of power, cunning, and lack of empathy.  It’s a chilling thesis which I’ll characterize as “The Perfect Genetic Storm.”  But not every storm is perfect, and not every Machiavellian turns into a Hitler or Mao; the same story plays out, on a smaller scale, in organizations everywhere.
So how do you know if your school board or union president is Machiavellian?  Oakley recommended looking for inconsistencies between public and private life: a loveless marriage for power or wealth, small private scandals, cheating, plagiary, and so on.  She advises listening to what is being said behind backs, i.e. gossip.  “While a … hoodwinked supervisor may rave about the Machiavellian’s sincerity and talent coworkers, underlings, janitors, roommates, teammates, cellmates, or simple acquaintances may have a very different story – if you happen to get their confidence.” (337)  In other words, keep your ear to the ground.

However, she warned, the good ones are so crafty that finding them is like spotting a cat in a house of mirrors.  But it’s good to know they are out there.  Good to know.

Monday, May 13, 2013

This Explains Everything (a review)

This Explains Everything, edited by John Brockman, is a compilation of short answers to a question posed to the Reality Club, originally New York City intellectuals and now online at the Edge Foundation.  According to its website, the Foundation tries “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”

The question 148 people answered was this: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful
explanation?  I liked it enough to go back through a second time and extract tidbits and gems, so this has become more of a book report for myself than a book review, I’m afraid.

There were, as you can imagine, all sorts of answers.  Why the sky is blue (not as simple as I had remembered), the origin of money, Bayesian probability, empiricism, organic electricity, the importance of individuals, germ theory, sexual selection.  Why Greeks painted red figures on black pots, The scientific method. How languages change. A haiku poem.  Some were sweet and obvious.  One just wrote “keep it simple.
I found amongst them a lot of nice little take-aways: To learn how something works, first figure out how it got that way.  Information is the resolution of uncertainty. To have a good idea, stop having a bad one.   The brain's job is not to store or process information, it's to drive and control the actions of its large appendage, the body.  When it's clear that change is needed, it is often expensive, difficult, and time consuming; and when change is easy, the need for it is difficult to foresee.   Intervention in any complicated system usually causes unintended effects.   Epigenetics may be the “missing link” in the nature/nurture debate.  We can't perceive our environment accurately, or process it rationally.  Sometimes limiting one’s own choices can be a good idea.  Our skill at metarepresentations, like “Mary thinks John thinks it’s going to rain,” may be what distinguishes us as human.
Evolution figured in strongly, as I expected.  Gender ratio was used to explain the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (S. Abbas Raza).  Samuel Arbesman explained how natural camouflage occurs; if you mix specific chemicals they result in unique patterns depending on the size and shape of the canvas.  The same mix that makes spots on the cheetah body will form stripes on his tail.  Make a giraffe the size and shape of a cow and the spots change to Heifer. 
Dawkins explained how sight in animals saves bandwidth by mainly detecting edges of moving objects with “strangeness neurons.”  The brain assumes everything else has remained the same.  David Eagleman called the brain an “inelegant device” with enough redundancy to solve the problem many different ways.
Jennifer Jacquet explained why tit for tat is a simple solution to the iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma, and Robert Sapolsky showed how simple algorithms applied in quantity, as with ants, can lead to “swarm intelligence” of groups.

The ratio between the second and fourth finger length shows how much testosterone one received in the womb, which directly affects one’s personality and interests.
Memes got support, of sorts, from Clay Shirky.   Dan Dennett argued that when someone derides an evolutionary explanation as a “just so” story they usually have a political motive.   They aren't presenting evidence that the story is false, he said -- plenty end up true.  It only means perhaps the hypothesis hasn’t been adequately tested.   And they are incredulous.
I liked these two a lot:  “Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization – the only natural physical process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order” (John Tooby).   And Peter Atkins added that evolution is a device, like a water turbine, which harnesses entropy, and “thus, dispersal results in a local structure, even though, overall, the world has sunk a little more into disorder."  Regardless of how it may seem, everything is always getting worse!
Alison Gopniks explained that puberty comes much earlier now than in our evolutionary past, probably because of better nutrition.  What's more, common sense kicks in later than before, due to a more protective environment today: “It’s truer to say that our experience of controlling our impulses makes the prefrontal cortex develop than it is to say that prefrontal development makes us better at controlling our impulses.”  Result: a long period in adolescence where the engines are revved but neither steering nor brakes are ready.  Hence violence, accidents, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, etc.
Another nice if simple one, by Brian Eno – yes, that Brian Eno.  He pointed out the nature of intuition.  “[It] is not a quasi-mystical voice from outside ourselves speaking through us but a sort of quick-and-dirty processing of our prior experience.”
Barry Smith was one of several who focused on metaphor.  We’re full of “cross-modal correspondences," such that happy is high, sad is low, music is sharp or flat, lemons are fast and mangos are slow … and this is useful in communication and quite likely influences our aesthetic sense.
People who make more money feel more pressed for time.  Hence, someone suggested, by volunteering ones time, time itself is worth less, and so you feel you have more of it!   And that was Elizabeth Dunn; I think I once read something similar by Douglas Adams, in praise of misery.
I loved this one: Recursive abstraction by Douglas Rushkoff: “Land becomes territory; territory then becomes property that is owned.  Property itself can be represented by a deed, and the deed can be mortgaged.  The mortgage is itself an investment that can be bet against with a derivative, which can be secured with a credit default swap.”  There’s value, the representations of value, and eventually a disconnection from what has value.  The tragedy comes at the moment when we forget what the abstractions represent, and then we become vulnerable to fantasy, illusion, and abuse.  “Because once we’re living in a world of created symbols and simulations, whoever has control of the map has control of our reality.”  
Recipes worldwide are based on 300 ingredients, according to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, and the ingredients vary in several dimensions (sweet, sour, bitter, etc.). By categorizing ingredients and studying recipes researchers found that meals in the West are mostly coordinated (creamy with creamy, etc.) while easterners combine polar opposites.
Videos consist of sequential frames, so how do we perceive motion?  First, an object must move not too fast and not too far between frames.  Then, there is a persistence of vision itself which fills the short gap between them. Finally, movement creates a blur in each frame, which indicates what is moving, in what direction, and how fast.  Pixar makes animations that look so real by adding the little blur. 
Time Perspective Theory was pretty interesting: some people are oriented toward the past, present, or future and each of these has negative or positive spin.  So there are six “time zones” to choose from.  For example, past-oriented folks may be driven by regret, failure, abuse, or trauma – or by gratitude, success, or nostalgia.  Apparently past-negative is related to anxiety, depression, and anger “with correlations as robust as .75,” and others are correlated with particular afflictions too. 
One extraordinary claim was that a normal brain shows activity about a third of a second before the person is aware of the sensation or phenomenon. I've heard this before.  And Gerald Smallberg  said we simply erase confusing bits from our stream of consciousness to make our experiences more understandable -- it’s these gaps that are exploited by card sharks, hustlers, and magicians.  Eric Topol reported that researchers in Berkeley have used a brain image to reconstruct the youtube video the person was watching at the time. I looked it up on youtube and wow.  It’s uncanny.
A handful came across to me as misguided, mistaken, or wrong.  The process of natural selection was completely misrepresented, like here: “Nature, unlike risk engineers, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worst harm is possible.  If humans fight the last war, nature fights the next war.”   Someone else argued the opposite, also wrong: The Generalized Peter Principle: “in evolution, systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence.”  Someone made an argument on raw incredulity that consciousness can’t have evolved. One claimed that the Inverse Power Law is ubiquitous in natural systems, so that the thousandth largest stone on a beach is a thousandth the size of the largest one, and so on , and the same for everything else.  It is “inevitable as entropy or the law of gravity.”  I know some bell curves which would disagree. And here’s another: someone actually claimed déjà vu experiences happen every six months, like clockwork.  Every year, “Not one.  Not three. Two.”  And there was a blank slate claim that people discover who they are by observing their own behavior, and therefore personalities can be shaped by manipulating experiences.  Someone liked the Gaia Hypothesis.
But anything having to do with deep physics, I could not judge.  There were many, and they just went right over my head.  Higgs Boson.  Holographic pigeonhole, infinite universes, spiners. Fermi levels at a junction … words, just words. 
Now that I've given it some thought, I'll add a favorite of my own, an explanation I got from a course by Mohamed Noor, biology professor at Duke.  It explains why my lovely dog went deaf. 
Purebreds are known for hundreds of problems: everything from Arcalasia in the Finnish Spitz to
von Willebrand's Disease in Setters and Whippets.  Deafness, it turns out, is common in the following:  Australian Cattle Dog, Australian Terrier, Border Collie, Boston Terrier, Brussels Griffon, Bull Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Dalmatian, English Cocker Spaniel, English Setter, Finnish Spitz, Italian Greyhound, Manchester Terrier, Parson Russell Terrier, Smooth Fox Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Whippet, and Wire Fox Terrier.
It's inbreeding, of course.  Inbreeding is necessary, to some extent, to create the unique features of a breed.  But it can be too radical, especially when breeders cut corners.  The deeper explanation of inbreeding follows: 

Fact One: Problem genes are recessive
Mutations can be dominant or recessive, but most bad genes are recessive.  Why?  Because if they are dominant they have nowhere to hide.  Consider genes X and x at a particular location  If the dominant X carries deafness, dogs with either XX or Xx will be deaf.  Natural selection will gradually remove every X from the gene pool.  But if recessive x is the carrier, only xx dogs will be deaf, Xx will hear well and x remains in the gene pool.  Maybe rare, but persistent. 

Fact Two: Inbreeding removes heterozygotes
Inbreeding makes the double-recessive combination more common.  Imagine two clones (except for gender) having a baby.  At different places on the chromosome mom's XX comes against dad's XX, her Xx comes against his Xx, and xx comes against xx.  In the case of double dominant XX or double recessive xx  the result will be the same -- XX, or xx -- because there is nothing else to choose from.  But when Xx comes across Xx, you get 1/4 XX, 1/4 xx, and just one half Xx.  In the next generation there are more XX's and xx's and half as many Xx's.  Remember, the Xx's are healthy dogs.  But with each iteration 25% of these x alleles are delegated to double-recessive xx which may mean deafness, hip dysplasia, or another malady. 
That may not be beautiful, but it's a favorite, it's deep, and it's elegant and three out of four isn't bad.