The Deipnosophist

Where the science of investing becomes an art of living

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Location: Summerlin, Nevada, United States

A private investor for 20+ years, I manage private portfolios and write about investing. You can read my market musings on three different sites: 1) The Deipnosophist, dedicated to teaching the market's processes and mechanics; 2) Investment Poetry, a subscription site dedicated to real time investment recommendations; and 3) Seeking Alpha, a combination of the other two sites with a mix of reprints from this site and all-original content. See you here, there, or the other site!

31 March 2009

"... and then to die."

The topic of the article below is absolutely horrifying; every parent's nightmare, a malediction no person would wish on another.

Life is precious, and hangs by a thread; too easily lost.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist
Forgotten baby syndrome

Every year, at least a dozen children die in overheated cars in the U.S. because parents forgot they were there. Don’t assume, says The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, that it couldn’t happen to you.

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in his wooden chair, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, had been a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer—beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cell phone—he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in the blistering heat of July.

It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.

“Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just ... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer, and early fall. The season is almost upon us.

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child ... well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.

In Miles Harrison’s case, the judge ultimately decided there was no crime because there was no intent. Prosecutors, judges, and juries reach similar conclusions in many of these cases. But if Harrison’s failing is not manslaughter, what is it? An accident?

“That’s an imperfect word.”

This is Mark Warschauer, an expert in language learning. “The word ‘accident’ makes it sound like it can’t be prevented, but ‘incident’ makes it sound trivial. And it is not trivial.”

Warschauer is a professor at the University of California at Irvine. In the summer of 2003, he returned to his office from lunch to find a crowd surrounding a car in the parking lot. Police had smashed the window open with a crowbar. Only as he got closer did Warschauer realize it was his car. That was his first clue that he’d forgotten to drop his 10-month-old son, Mikey, at day care that morning. Mikey was dead.

Warschauer wasn’t charged with a crime, but for months afterward he contemplated suicide. Gradually, he says, the urge subsided, if not the grief and guilt.

“We lack a term for what this is,” Warschauer says. And also, he says, we need an understanding of why it happens to the people it happens to.

David Diamond is picking at his breakfast at a Washington, D.C., hotel, trying to explain.

“Memory is a machine,” he says, “and it is not flawless. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”

Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida. He’s in D.C. to give a conference speech about his research, which involves the intersection of emotion, stress, and memory. What he’s found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is—by a design as old as the dinosaur’s—pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.

Diamond recently forgot, while driving to a mall, that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of his car. He remembered, he said, only because his wife mentioned the baby. So he understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why.

The human brain, he says, is a jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top are the most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made, or the scenery you saw.

Ordinarily, says Diamond, this delegation of duty “works beautifully, like a symphony.” But sudden or chronic stress can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia. He’s seen that pattern in cases he’s followed involving infant deaths in cars.

“The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant,” he said. “The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep, and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted—such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back—it can entirely disappear.”

Diamond stops. “There is a case in Virginia where this is exactly what happened, the whole set of stress factors. I was consulted on it a couple of years ago. It was a woman named, ah ...”

He puts down his fork and shakes his head. He’s been stressing over his conference speech, he says, and his memory retrieval is shot. He can’t summon the name.

Lyn Balfour?

“Yeah, Lyn Balfour! The perfect storm.”
Raelyn Balfour is what is commonly called a type-A personality. The 37-year-old Army reservist is the first to admit that her inclination to take on multiple challenges at once contributed to the death of her son, Bryce, two years ago. It happened on March 30, 2007, the day she accidentally left the 9-month-old in the parking lot of the Charlottesville, Va., judge advocate general’s office, where she worked as a transportation administrator. The temperature that day was only in the 60s, but heat builds quickly in a closed vehicle in the sun. The temperature inside Balfour’s car that day topped 110 degrees.

Circumstances had conspired against Balfour. She had been up much of the night, first baby-sitting for a friend with a pet emergency, then caring for Bryce, who was cranky with a cold. Because the baby was still tired, he uncharacteristically dozed in the car, so he made no noise. Because Balfour was planning to bring Bryce’s usual car seat to the fire station to be professionally installed, Bryce was positioned in a different car seat that day, directly behind the driver, and thus less visible. Because of a phone conversation with a young relative in trouble, and another with her boss about a crisis at work, Balfour spent most of the trip on her cell, stressed, solving other people’s problems.

One more thing: Because the baby sitter had a new phone, it didn’t yet contain Balfour’s office phone number, only her cell number—so when the sitter phoned to wonder why Balfour hadn’t dropped Bryce off that morning, it rang unheard in Balfour’s pocketbook.

Balfour was charged with second-degree murder in Bryce’s death but was eventually acquitted. The key moment in her trial was when the defense attorney played for the jury a recording of a 911 call made by a passer-by in the first few seconds after Balfour discovered Bryce’s body. That tape is unendurable. Mostly, you hear the passer-by’s voice, tense but precise, explaining to a police dispatcher what she is seeing. Initially, there’s nothing in the background. Then Balfour howls at the top of her lungs, “OH, MY GOD, NOOOO!”

For a few seconds, there’s nothing. Then another deafening shriek: “NO, NO, PLEASE, NO!!!”

Unlike most parents who have suffered similar tragedies, Balfour now is willing to talk to the media, anytime. She works with a group called Kids and Cars, telling her story repeatedly. In public, she seldom seems in particular anguish. No one sees her cry. She has, she says, consciously crafted the face she shows. “People say I’m a strong woman, but I’m not. I would like to disappear, to move someplace where no one knows who I am and what I did. But I can’t. I’m the lady who killed her child, and I have to be that lady because I promised Bryce.”

Balfour has kept her promise in a way suited to her personality: She has become a modern, maternal version of the Ancient Mariner. When speaking to the media, her consistent message is that cars need safety devices to prevent similar tragedies. From time to time, though, she will simply belly up to strangers in, say, a Sam’s Club, and start a conversation about children, so she can tell them what she did to one of hers. Her message: This can happen to anyone.
From a longer story originally published in The Washington Post Magazine.
©2009 by The Washington Post Co.

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27 March 2009

Everything is possible (with training!)

An exciting, inspiring video...

-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


18 March 2009

Introducing Tom Burger

Tom Burger and I have known each other for approximately 10 years. You might recall Tom shared his review of Meltdown last month. Now Tom begins his own blog, which deserves your attention. From Tom's introduction (below)...
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist
I am sure the world doesn't need another blog, but to paraphrase what Scott Grannis said when he introduced his: I guess it won't hurt to add one more to the millions already out there.

Nobody who reads my circular posts will be surprised by my blog focus: I will be writing and posting articles on economic thinking applied to current events. I am calling the blog "Applying the Lessons of Free Market Economics" and I like my tag line: a quote from Ludwig von Mises:
"... economic history is a long record of government policies that failed because they were designed with a bold disregard for the laws of economics."
I believe that economists working in the so-called Austrian School tradition have done by far the best job of understanding and articulating those economic laws. Most often, therefore, my blog posts will highlight ideas from the great Austrian economists and relate those ideas to current events and economic developments.

In my opinion, this is not an unduly narrow focus. Consider, for example, that Mises and Hayek are on record as anticipating the Great Depression -- and most US economists seem to believe to this day that nobody anticipated it. In today's context, numerous Austrian economists and self-taught Austrian thinkers are on record as anticipating our present circumstances, explaining in detail why it would happen.

By contrast, when you look at recent statements made by people from elite economic circles, they all seemed convinced that the economy was strong - until it wasn't. They all said the banking sector was sound and solvent, until it wasn't. Now, the best these same people can do is to suggest that "capitalism" just suddenly went cuckoo for no particular reason.

I hope some of you will take a look, consider my thoughts, and offer your comments or criticism.

Thanks a lot. Here is the link to my blog.

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11 March 2009

Fault Line

In just a few years, and only a handful of books, Barry Eisler has risen to the top of the heap of thriller authors via his character, John Rain, half-Japanese, half-American, but all-assassin. Over the course of six books, readers were entertained, enlightened, even edified, as Barry shared his knowledge and expertise in matters ranging from spycraft to drinking tea.

But with his new novel, Fault Line, Barry ratchets up his game to an entirely new level. This novel represents a departure for Barry as he introduces all new characters. (No John Rain, although there is one playful remark.) Barry tells a tale of two brothers, estranged since their teenaged years when their sister died in an avoidable car accident. One brother, Alex, becomes an attorney in Silicon Valley while the other brother, Ben, becomes a "Military Liason Element" -- an assassin for the US military. (Ben is not in Rain's league of ability.) Enter the woman, Sarah Hosseini, who beguiles both brothers, and you have more than the stereotypical triangle...

Barry jump-starts the novel with a whiz-bang first chapter, as he deftly shares scene, setting, characters, risk, peril, death, and enough questions to cause readers to continue reading. Barry showcases his growing writing chops by a subtle change of perspective from 3rd person omniscient in the first chapter's opening paragraph to (almost-) first person in its final paragraph -- and for the same event. Brilliant!

Barry peppers the story with knowledge about many topics, current events included. Also included is Barry's penchant for delving deeply into the nature of identity, and especially of relationships (familial, collegial, community); for example, Ben, who 'profiles' for a living (literally and figuratively), seems unable to 'profile' the people closest to him, so he keeps them at a remove.

Fault Line, on sale now at all booksellers, is not Barry Eisler's best novel -- he improves with each new book -- but it is excellent fodder for reading at the beach or on the plane, and, thanks to the fascinating digressions, much more.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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06 March 2009


This blog is on hiatus due to personal matters.

Thank you for your understanding and patience.

-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


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