Friday, February 05, 2016

Presenting CWWN v01 - The Christian Life and Warfare

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Watchman Nee was born November 4, 1903 and given the names Henry and Shu-Tsu. He received Christ in February 1920, under the preaching of Dora Yu. The biography by Angus Kinnear, Against the Tide, states that he came to Christ "in his eighteenth year" (p. 36), meaning before the age of 18, but this is by Chinese reckoning, which adds a year for the time spent in the womb; he was actually 16 years and 9 months old.

He understood that the Lord wanted to gain him in two ways, both to life and to service. He struggled with this for several weeks until late April, when he fully dedicated his life to service to Jesus Christ. He sought a more fitting name for a consecrated Christian. His mother suggested a name that seemed to strike the right balance: To-Sheng, meaning Watchman.

After finishing college he began to write. He began publishing a small Christian magazine, The Christian, in November 1925, about the time of his twenty-second birthday. This was no eight-page rag. The first issue contained fourteen articles taking up more than 60 pages. Two years later he selected nine of the articles he had written and ten items by other English writers that he had translated and published in The Christian, and published his first book, The Christian Life and Warfare. The contents of this book, plus certain apparatuses, form Volume 1 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee. His own writing has been translated to English, and writings that began in English are printed as found in their English versions as appendices. This frontispiece is from the June 1927 first printing.

It is said that, whatever income or support he received over the years, Nee spent a third of it on books, typically writing to booksellers in England with a "want list". The Christian Life and Warfare bears a strong influence from Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis of the Overcomer Literature Trust; she wrote seven of the articles he translated from English. The other three are by Charles Usher, Evan Roberts and S. D. Gordon.

The subject of the book is living a victorious Christian life, which requires spiritual warfare. It is a long exposition on Romans 6, primarily verses 11-13:
11 So also you, reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but living to God in Christ Jesus.
12 Do not let sin therefore reign in your mortal body so that you obey the body's lusts;
13 Neither present your members as weapons of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as alive from the dead, and your members as weapons of righteousness to God.
(The Bible translation I use is The Recovery Version, published by Living Stream Ministry*.) The first verb is central to Watchman Nee's understanding of Christian victory: Reckon. This word means more than just counting or calculating. It means fixing the will on the facts as presented by God in His Word, and acting accordingly.

To do so, we have to know where things are. Thus the book begins with a chapter explaining that we are tripartite, spirit, soul and body, as Paul wrote in I Thessalonians 5:23. The human spirit is our organ for contacting God and the things of God. Seeking God with body or with mind (part of the soul), is as foolish as trying to see with your ears. Fellowship between fellow believers must also be spiritual, not done in the soul, or it is vain. Thus, after exposing the folly of using fleshly and soulish means to carry out service to God, he turns to this word Reckon, in a chapter titled "Fact, Faith, and Experience".

Many have heard this kind of preaching: "First Facts, then Faith, and only then Feeling". The term "Experience" is more far-reaching than "Feeling". We may or may not have "feelings" while in our spirit. If we seek to have such feelings, we can be misled. The senses in our spirit are deeper and more delicate than our emotions, and in fact may contradict them. An experienced Christian knows what it is to be "in tears while obeying". The crucified flesh and "unemployed" soul might indeed evoke bitter tears, while the spirit, and shortly the whole person, rejoices in the Lord's burden and His strength to carry it out.

The Word of God contains certain facts, and for this passage, key facts include that we are "dead to sin", and "living to God". Later, in Romans 7, the example of a dead husband is used to show how death frees us from the bondage to the law. In Romans 6, death first frees us from bondage to sin, for the dead do not sin. Are we dead? Christ having died for us, we are reckoned dead to sin by God. Victory is that we also reckon ourselves as dead to sin, in Christ. How do the dead react to temptation? With indifference, with no reaction. For us, being dead to sin but alive to God, to react to sin with indifference requires that we lean on Him that His beauty draws us away from any temptation to sin. We really can be so enrapt with God that we don't notice temptations. Thus, we find that Satan desires to distract us from God's beauty, and we need to oppose such distraction.

Watchman Nee describes the kind of prayer that opposes Satan. It is refreshingly different from the kind of preaching I've heard from some, who seem to spend much time speaking to the evil one directly. According to the teaching here, we might indeed say, with the angel Michael, "The Lord rebuke thee, Satan", but that is the end of that, and we continue in fellowship with the Lord, persisting in our petition that He would do just that and rebuke the Devil. This is in accord with the poor widow of the parable, who spoke again and again to the unjust judge, but not to the opponent against whom her suit was brought.

I was also struck by a certain fact. When speaking of the hill of the crucifixion, Watchman Nee consistently uses the term Golgotha. In the ten articles by others that the editors of CWWN printed in their original form in English, those authors use the term Calvary. "Calvary" is from Latin, and occurs only once in the Authorized Version (KJV), in Luke 23:33. "Golgotha" is from Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew used in Judea during the life of Jesus, and this term is used everywhere else in the four Gospels. Luke wrote in Greek and used the Greek word for skull, "kranios". Who knows why the translators of the KJV didn't just write "skull"?

Verse 13 of the passage above is equally important, to all the authors of these articles. We are weapons. That is a fact of our being. To whom then should we present ourselves? To Sin in the service of sins, or to God in the service of righteousness? This can only be accomplished by applying the crucifixion of Christ to our subjective experience, to serve Him by His life and His power. All things of "the old man" must remain on the cross.

These are high and powerful truths to be found in a book published by a young prodigy, not quite 25 years old!
*Some have criticized the term "recovery version", joking that the Bible's text doesn't need to be recovered. The Bible itself has been with us a long time, but it is poorly understood, even by many prominent Christian "authorities". In particular, most are influenced by this or that denominational viewpoint or doctrinal system. Within a few years after Watchman Nee received Christ, he saw that Denominationalism is sinful because it divides Christians (My own proverb is, "Doctrines are a filter used to figure out whom to exclude from fellowship"). This understanding is a foundational teaching of the local churches worldwide that follow his teachings, and of the leaders of the Living Stream Ministry in its publishing and evangelistic work. LSM was set up by Watchman Nee's most prominent co-worker, Witness Lee, who used the term "recovery" to refer to the process begun with the Protestant Reformation, and continuing today, of "unlocking" the truths that have been ignored and neglected for two millennia. The text of The Recovery Version is a readable translation from Hebrew and Greek; it is the notes and cross-references—which seek to help believers understand the text, particularly the neglected portions—that constitute the "recovery" of lost truth.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A new series for the new year

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Many years ago I obtained a set of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, edited by and, for the most part, translated from Chinese by brothers who prefer to remain unnamed, and published by the Living Stream Ministry. Prior to this publication I had been reading books by Watchman Nee for nearly twenty years. A few of the earlier volumes are seen at lower right in this image, and next to them, single volumes from a paperback version, obtained prior to purchasing the whole set in hardback.

Most of the books published under Watchman Nee's name, including famous titles such as Sit, Walk, Stand and The Overcoming Life (formerly The Normal Christian Life), are translations of expanded conference notes originally taken in Chinese by a few of his early co-workers, most notably Stephen Kaung. His most controversial title, The Normal Christian Church Life (Chinese title Concerning Our Mission) was published first in Chinese and then translated by Nee into English for publication in England and the United States. In the years prior to 1939 and the outbreak of World War II he published a number of books in Chinese, but the greatest volume of his own writings was in the form of Christian newspapers that he published, most notably The Christian and The Present Testimony.

The Collected Works (CWWN) includes translations of the contents of his newspapers and the books that he published in Chinese; re-translations of other titles formerly published in English, but including source material from a wider array of conference notes; and the books and articles he translated into English himself. I once spoke to one of the translators, who told me they were guided in their work by his own translations into English. The set includes 62 volumes in three sub-sets of 20, 16 and 26 volumes, each covering a distinct phase of his ministry.

I have read parts of many of the volumes, a little here and a little there, but decided at the beginning of this year to read through them all. I plan to continue the wide variety of reading I have engaged in previously, but to alternate "other" titles with volumes from CWWN. I tag this series of posts "book summaries" because I am hardly qualified to "review" spiritual books at this level, and I hope the tidbits I am able to glean might encourage others who are less familiar with Watchman Nee's work to re-acquaint themselves with his ministry.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

A curious grid in China

kw: analysis, china, machine vision, imaging

I recently happened upon a series running on the Science Channel called "What on Earth?". In an episode from last year they speculated for a 15-minute segment about this image of a funny grid pattern seen in China, in the desert west of Mongolia:

The show reported it as being first seen in 2006, but this satellite image from Google Earth was acquired May 29, 2005. The grid is big, not on the scale of the Nazca lines, perhaps, but it is 1.0x1.8 km in size, and the lines are 20 m wide. This image is centered near 40°27' N, 93°44' E. The area looks quite different, now that ten years have passed (see below).

The show segment was all speculation about what it might be. They noted that it is about 300 km west of a missile base, and it does seem logical that it is a test target for machine vision. I thought of a possibility the show doesn't mention: target acquisition when GPS is not an option, such as in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, which would knock out GPS because of the massive EMP (electromagnetic pulse).

I noticed the disturbed area nearby on the left of the grid; here it is closer up:

The grid had apparently been recently finished, and not many buildings or vehicles remain in the area. Just six weeks earlier, it was a different story:

Here we see a lot more going on, with a pool of water near a pile of white stuff, probably chalk.

A wider view shows the partly-finished grid:

This image is from April 13, 2005. Seeing that they didn't just build the grid in a sweep from top to bottom or whatever makes me think of a further possibility. On the show they said analysts had been trying to match the pattern to street maps from various major cities. I think it possible that it actually combines sections of more than one city. It is equally possible that it is entirely made up, with various combinations of angles and spacings to test components of the vision system.

Regardless, here is how it looks today:

This image is about two years old, from March 27, 2014. It is the clearest and most complete image that Google Earth has to offer.

Rain is rare in this desert, but is being allowed to wash away the white lines. Whatever the reason is that the Chinese laid down this grid, it has clearly served its purpose.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Memoirs of a Meta-Author

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, writing, books, books about books

What is the difference between a columnist and a blogger? This isn't a trick question. The columnist usually gets paid by the publisher. Of course, some bloggers are earning money from their weblogs, but they are paid more directly by advertisers or by subscribers. There is also a difference of tone. Most bloggers, myself included, primarily write what pleases them, and if others like to read it also, so much the better. The tone of a columnist's writing can range from very personal to hortatory to documentary, but is more outwardly focused than the usual weblog.

Here, a book combines literary criticism with a weblog: Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, by Michael Dirda. The 52 chapters are weblog posts from a one-year assignment with American Scholar. The posts average about 1,000 words—similar in size to my posts in this weblog—which is about 2-3 times as long as is "recommended" in the various "advice for bloggers" pages. But if ever someone could merge column writing with blogging, it is he.

And if ever someone made a living out of writing about writing, Dr. Dirda is the prince of such meta-writers. His 1992 Pulitzer Prize was conferred upon his columns of book reviews. The columns/posts in Browsings are more personal than critical (in the positive sense of the word: evaluative). He loves books, and by his account reads such a great deal I am rather amazed he has time to write about it.

I couldn't really categorize the chapters into a coherent set of bunches. I thought I had wide-ranging interests, but reading this book put me in the presence of a mind of Galactic proportions (yes, that is a bit of a pun. He reads mostly fiction, including a large measure of science fiction). I can only systematize thus far: Some of the chapters are focused on lists of books or book sets, and some (the smaller quantity) are not.

For example, the chapter "Wonder Books" contains an annotated list of books be bought on a certain day at Wonder Books and Video in Frederick, MD. This is one of the shorter lists, 19 volumes, but 15 of the book titles are followed by a half-page mini-review. This is also the longest chapter, 11 pages (Yes, I counted them all from the table of contents. Two others approach 10 pages in length. And just FYI, early on the chapters average about 5 pages, but later they average 7).

The author describes himself as an "almost hoarder". He keeps shelves in several rooms full of books, but rotates them from piles and piles of boxes in the basement. In one chapter, "The Evidence in the (Book) Case", he lists the books at his bedside: at least 33 volumes, though some not mentioned as such might be multi-volume titles. I reckon that is enough to fill four feet of shelving, or two shelves of a substantial night stand.

Looking around, I am glad I learned to draw the line and limit my collecting of early books and "firsts" to a couple of dozen, the rest of my shelving being devoted to books my wife and I have found useful. In this "Cave", I have forty feet of shelving, very nearly filled. One four-foot shelf contains many years of Scientific American in box-sleeves and shorter runs of a few other magazines for which I keep only the past two or three years. Another three-foot shelf is mostly filled with our cook books, and the one just below it, with my wife's language-instruction volumes (she worked as a language tutor for many years). In an upstairs bedroom with built-in shelving, the "Library", another thirty feet are about 80% filled, sharing space with some knick-knacks and pictures in frames. That room's collections are primarily related to spiritual matters and Bible study.

Nearly all the books I've reviewed in this weblog the past ten years were borrowed from the local library. I don't feel the need to keep a copy of a book that I plan to read only once. About once yearly I like a book I've read well enough to go out and buy (or use Amazon to get it). Otherwise, my night stand contains, in addition to the one I'm currently reading, three or four volumes waiting in the wings, plus an omnibus volume of Shakerspeare's plays that I occasionally peruse, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen J Gould, from which I read a page or two at a time. I do intend to finish it…

One of the shortest chapters, "Grades", at four pages, is a personal musing about having to give grades to the students he teaches, and his own spotty grade record. He dislikes grades, though nobody has suggested a better way to efficiently evaluate learning, concluding, "People are individual, so how can you reduce them to an A, a B, or a C? Or even, sometimes, to a D – along with an invitation to stop by for a quiet chat with Dr. Calta, the high school principal?"

I have sometimes wondered what the bookish life is like. Reading Browsings has gone a long way toward satisfying that itch.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A "Roach Motel" for lost souls

kw: book reviews, horror, fiction, occult

The name Slade is distantly related to Glade, and refers to someone from a valley. But whereas a glade is pleasant, "slade" is too close to "slay" to seem nice at all. I don't know if there is a real Slade House in England somewhere—perhaps Cornwall, where the name originated—, but to the modern ear "Slade" sounds sinister. This makes it a good name to use in a horror novel.

Slade House by David Mitchell is of a genre I call Neo-Gothic Horror. You will not find the dreadly phrasings of a Stoker or a Lovecraft here, nor the heartbeat rhythm of Trochaic verse that Poe favored. Like much modern fiction, the writing here verges on being sprightly and upbeat, even when describing abysmal deeds such as soul-sucking.

This is cerebral horror. No blood and gore: only one stabbing, and that with a hat-pin. The soul vampires of Slade House use enchantments and guile to accomplish their ends. Simply put, they need to consume a soul periodically, and not just any soul: Their victim must be "engifted", what we often call a person with second sight. Ironically, such persons are uniquely qualified to detect and possibly counter occult spells. Thus the need for guile. I readily found parallels with the need for pure virgins and other innocent victims in older occult literature.

The word "orison" means a kind of prayer. In Slade House it refers to a bubble in reality, the occult version of "virtual reality", under the control of one or more soul-suckers. Thus the House can appear at a time of their choosing and vanish without a trace when not needed, as can sundry denizens of the temporary domain.

For a long time I've been unwilling to read horror, Gothic or Neo-Gothic, since being thoroughly spooked by Lovecraft some decades ago. Guess I'm more hard-shelled now. But I don't plan to make such books a steady diet. David Mitchell's book is a tour-de-force, and I suspect the book is a nearly unique pinnacle of the genre. I recommend it only if you are not inclined to connect with what you read in any visceral way, and can enjoy a yarn well-told while keeping your heart at a distance.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Making lemonade from the absence of a lemon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, neurology, neuroscience, autobiographies

I seldom show a book jacket, but this book's cover illustration tells the objective story. Nicole Cohen has a hole in her brain the size of a lemon. It is not in a random location, but represents most of her right parietal lobe.

As she tells us in Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders, this was not determined until she was in her early twenties and preparing to go to graduate school. She did not yet have a driver's license, but felt she really needed one at this point. Yet so far, she had been unable to pass a driving test. A long list of impairments finally convinced doctors to order MRI and other tests. Finally. Finally she knew she wasn't "just weird" or "not paying attention". A necessary bit of her brain was missing.

The parietal lobes integrate our sense for time and distance. They are necessary to form an accurate internal map of the world. We seldom realize that our ability to navigate the world requires us to sense the relationships of other objects to each other and to ourselves, both in space and time. If you can't judge how far an oncoming car is and how quickly it is approaching, you can't safely cross the street.

Children learn safe crossing by about age six or eight. Cole Cohen never has. She crosses with others, relying on their sense of time and space. While other children were learning to navigate the world safely, she learned how to rely on other people's abilities. Thus she could safely walk, but you can't drive that way.

Her writing is fluid and enjoyable to read; she is not "dumb". You don't need street-crossing skills to navigate your way to Bachelors' and Masters' degrees. She has learned to play well the hand she was dealt. As she writes, it hasn't been easy. Certain aspects of human relationships were as foreign to her as the distance to the nearest door. Touch is particularly problematic, probably because when she was quite young, touching something usually meant she'd misjudged where she was going and had just knocked something over. She learned to cope. She learned to thrive. A heartening story.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Blue is better

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, water

People are so incredibly variable that no generalization holds absolutely. An old riddle points this up: What is the average number of legs? The answer: A little bit less than two. And if you think about it, that's not just because of amputations.

But one thing is pretty close to universal. We like water. Not just to drink, that's a life requirement. But we like to be near it, or in or on or under water. Thus the title of a refreshing (pun intended) book by Wallace J. Nichols, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows how Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. And I do believe that's the longest subtitle in my experience.

The opening image in the most beloved Psalm, #23, is "He leads me beside the still waters; He restores my soul." I don't care what denomination you belong to, if you went to church as a child, you probably memorized Psalm 23. The placement of this Psalm between 22 and 24 indicates that God intended it to evoke the experience of Jesus between his crucifixion and his resurrection. If ever a soul needed a rest beside still waters, it was His, then and there! The green pasture and still water restoring the soul are an image of paradise.

Traditional "earth tones" are a bunch of browns. As this photo shows, those "earth tones" are really "desert tones". Only the Sahara at right center is any color besides blue, green or white. The browns that grade into red are the "dryest" colors of all.

Dr. Nichols, universally known as "J" to his friends, as CĂ©line Costeau writes in her introduction, sets out to back up with science what we know from experience. Being by the water is nicer. And that "nicer" is worth a lot even in monetary terms. As he tells us in his chapter "The Water Premium", a tiny bungalow on the oceanfront in Del Mar, California was priced at more than $6 million in 2003 and had risen to about $9 million ten years later.

I just looked up Del Mar on It is strung out along the coast north of Torrey Pines near San Diego. None of the town is further than a mile from the ocean, and none of the houses is valued at less than a million or so. But the ones on that last block next to the Pacific Ocean are priced twice as high as the others, and quite a few are $10-20 million. Out of curiosity I looked further up the coast, to Seal Beach southwest of Los Angeles. It is not quite as pricey as Del Mar, with homes a "mere" half million or so inland, but along the beach, most range around $2 million. The premium is definitely in effect there also.

Darn few of us can afford to live in view of the ocean, or even a lake, stream or river. And, as Hurricane Sandy showed us, that view comes with certain risks. I live a block from a nice little creek. The few houses that are right along it do tend to cost more than those a street back, by 30% or so. But they also pay rather incredible premiums for flood insurance, if they have it at all. But where we live, a close walk from the creek, it is easy for my wife and me to take a walk with the gurgle of the stream to backdrop our conversation, and views of the creek where it loops nearer the path.

The book contains a great deal of science, but told very readably. The results of MRI and other kinds of mind and brain tests are discussed, but J's writing is not off-putting like so many "science writers". And he tells of other findings that don't require big, noisy machines: how a picture of a mountain brook in a room where students take a test improves their scores; how teaching an autistic kid to surf can radically improve his communication skills; or how muted surf sounds really do make it easier for an insomniac to sleep (well known to merchants of "white noise" and "ocean noise" machines).

I don't recall anything in the book about the theory that we evolved from water apes, that is, apes that got lots of their sustenance by fishing and shelling. The various books and articles that make this contention are a further indication just how we are tied to water, not just to slake our thirst, but to slake the thirst of our souls for peace and comfort.

Now that my father lives near San Diego, and my brother has a condo a block from the beach, when I visit them, I make sure to spend some time beachcombing. Whether I keep the shells I find or not; whether I take any pictures or just enjoy the stroll, it makes the cross-country trip even more worth it. It really does restore my soul.

The author closes by telling us of his Blue Marbles. Some years ago, thinking about this photo of Earthrise from Apollo 8, often called the "Blue Marble Image", he handed out clear, blue marbles to everyone who came to one of his speaking engagements. At the end, he asked them all to look at the marble, to look through it, and to think about all the pleasant things about being with water. Then he asked them to give the marble to someone later on, with a similar explanation. Since then, the marbles have traveled everywhere, and others have obtained blue marbles on their own, and hand them out.

As I said at the beginning, people are incredibly variable. Some hate to swim, whether they can or not, and many refuse to learn. Some remain affected by some early trauma and cannot abide the sight of open water. I've known (and smelled) one or two folks who won't bathe or shower, and at best will just do a sponge bath every week or two. Aside from such rare cases, humans like water. Water we can walk beside, swim in, boat on, or just a good soak or shower to start or end the day. We didn't need science to tell us that. But it's interesting just how consistent the science findings are. Guess what my current screen saver slide show is? The fifty best waterfall pictures I could find.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Guys - It may not be your prostate

kw: opinion, medicine, prostate health, kidneys

Gross Alert: Frank medical terminology ahead.

I frequently get up at night to urinate. Not always, but sometimes for a week or more at at a time. Other times, weeks go by without it. Interestingly, my wife pays a nighttime visit to the bathroom almost as frequently as I do. We are both rapidly approaching 70 years old. Thus, I have been pondering the "overnight express" phenomenon in older people in general, not just men. I am about to explain that not all nighttime urination is because of your aging prostate. But we're going down a rather windy garden path here…

We are bombarded with advertisements about "prostate health", typically promoting one nostrum or another that is supposed to make things better (and, they say with a wink and a nod, it "could" make your love life better). It is well known that the male prostate gland gradually grows throughout life. However, some grow more quickly than others, and if the statistics are correct, about half of men who are over 80 years old also have prostate cancer.

The ads seldom say anything about cancer. They address the more "normal" growth that has a cute medical term, BPH or Benign Prostate Hypertrophy. Those three words literally mean "not dangerous", "prostate gland", and "getting bigger". What ads don't mention is that some men's prostate glands have a harder "shell", and some have a softer shell. For the "hard shell" gang, growth of the tissues inside increases pressure on the urethra (the tube from the urinary bladder to and through the penis). So even when you pee at 3AM you have to push to feel emptied. For the "soft shell" guys (I am one), the gland just grows larger. Mine started out larger than average, and is now the size of a Jonathan apple, nearly twice the diameter of a normal prostate. If I had a hard-shelled gland, I'd have needed the "roto-rooter" operation by now.

A few years ago, I had a new doctor perform my yearly physical exam. She is blessed with long fingers, so a digital rectal exam is pretty easy. (I got rid of a short-fingered doctor who had to push so hard to reach the prostate that it hurt. And I got the sneaking suspicion that he kinda liked that, also.) The new doctor was concerned about my prostate, particularly because it felt a little off-center to her. I asked whether it is possible to do ultrasound to visualize the entire gland. She sent me to a Urologist with instructions to ask him that question.

The Urologist had me get a bladder ultrasound, one for which you drink a quart of water, wait an hour (it gets agonizing), and have an ultrasound test of the bladder. Then you get to pee, and the tech does another ultrasound to measure any residual urine in the bladder. I noticed that the ultrasound screen showed red and blue colors at times. I asked about it. The machine uses a Doppler technique to see motion in the urine, which shows the kidney pumping. It was doing so about once a minute. Did you know the kidney is a muscular organ? I had never thought of it. The active kidney during the test is a critical piece of information here.

The upshot: The technician measured 50cc of "residual urine", that I supposedly had not "voided". Back at the Urologist's office, he decided to repeat the test himself. I wondered inwardly why he didn't just do it the first time and spare Medicare some expense. Anyway, he got the same result, a 50cc "residual". He put on a rubber glove and felt my prostate, and said that, though it was large, it was soft and didn't feel like it should be causing trouble. He then wanted to do two things, a cystoscopy to look inside the tubes and the bladder, and a "Urodyne" test, which I'll explain in gross detail in a moment.

Firstly, the cystoscopy felt weird, like peeing in reverse as the tube went in. The doctor declared my bladder shows no signs of overpressure, and that the prostate was not tightening down on the urethra. He still wanted to go ahead with a Urodyne test.

Secondly, I did a lot of searching at sites like Medline, and found that there is no cause for concern until the amount of "residual" urine in such a test exceeds 100cc. I almost canceled the test, but went ahead. It was instructive, if uncomfortable on several levels!

The Urodyne test involves a different kind of catheter, that can be attached to a pump. It starts with having a thorough pee, then the catheter is put in and any "residual" is emptied through it. There was no residual in my case (another clue!). Then the pump was attached, and I was told to announce when I first felt "something in there", then when it felt like I "ought to go", then when it felt really urgent, "as much as I could stand". The nurse took all this down. Then she disconnected the catheter from the pump, told me I could pee freely into a measuring flask next to me, and left the room. She had performed the test unsupervised, which led me to doubt the doctor's judgement.

Once I was decently clothed again, the doctor and I talked. He said I had voided completely after the test, so there seemed to be no problem with my prostate. And he asked, "What was your original complaint?" I said, "I didn't have one. My PP sent me to you because she felt my prostate was off center or malformed." He got a look on his face like, "Oh, Sh**, he's gonna sue me!", but I said, "I'm glad everything seems to be in working order," and he looked relieved. He had me make an appointment with the clerk to return in a year, which I did, but the next day I called from home to cancel it. Less drama than just refusing to make it in the first case.

So what is the upshot? There is one more piece of medical evidence: the way our kidneys work and how that changes with age. From the time we gain nighttime "bladder control" at some age between two and ten, our kidneys greatly reduce their output when we are asleep. They resume normal operation when the light increases, and if we are not already awake, we soon wake up to rush to the bathroom. Here is all the evidence in one list:

  • At the ultrasound tests, both of them, the time from getting to pee and the tech beginning the ultrasound measurements of urine in the bladder was 10-15 minutes. At the rate a kidney produces urine when you've had a lot to drink in the past hour or two, that is plenty of time to generate 50-100cc of urine. I think that is why 100cc is the threshold of concern for Medline.
  • The Urodyne test showed I am able to void completely.
  • The cystoscopy showed I have not been over-pushing to urinate against prostate back-pressure.
  • It also showed that there was no tightness where the urethra passes through the gland.
  • Normal, young kidneys slow down at night, then speed up about sunrise. This is probably mediated by Melatonin.

My conclusion? In older people, most if not all, the kidneys don't slow down at night. At least, they don't slow down as much as they did decades earlier.

Fellas, if you are over 50, whether your prostate is "tight" or not, you probably will be getting up to pee at some early-morning hour like 3AM. The crux of the matter is whether you have to push hard to feel like you're getting emptied out. The need to push is the main evidence of a possible prostate problem. If you can just relax and the bladder empties out and you feel quite OK, you're probably OK. And gals, if you are getting along in years and getting up at night to pee, of course you don't have a prostate to blame. It's just aging kidneys that don't take a rest like they used to.

If you talk to a doctor about this, there's half a chance he or she will look at you like you are from Mars. If that happens I suggest you print out this blog post, pass it along and say, "See if you can prove this guy is wrong, then." I'll be interested to learn of any professional feedback!

Friday, January 08, 2016

Skyborne Jewels

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, birds, hummingbirds, animal rescue, animal rehabilitation

Terry Masear rehabilitates distressed hummingbirds. She operates one of a handful of hummingbird rehabilitation "clinics" that is not run by the state of California. Her book Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood mingles powerful narrative with lyrical writing while taking us through a typical season.

Dr. Masear is a professor most of the year. By the middle of her Spring semester, baby hummingbirds begin being blown from nests, or they and their nests are inadvertently (or callously) cut out of trees during "spring cleanup", or adult birds amid full-tilt chick-raising duties bang into windows and cars and sustain other surprises. Various concerned folk bring them to her for care. Her home and its different levels of caged care, and a "graduating bird" aviary, fill up with as many as 50-100 birds at a time, as 150 or more pass through her routines of care on their way to full strength and release. At least, most of them do; a certain percentage are too badly injured or suffer radically improper "care" before desperate "rescuers" bring them to her as a last resort. Caring for hummingbirds is her summer "job", a costly one in terms of money and emotional stress and sheer physical labor.

Did you know that a growing baby hummingbird needs to eat at least 100 to 150 fruit flies daily to get adequate protein? The sugar water they get from backyard hummingbird feeders helps them keep up their energy levels for catching prey, as does the nectar they so avidly consume. Nectar, though, contains some protein and often has an extra amount from pollen that drops in. Sugar water? Nope. So they have to catch even more fruit flies. But the fast energy of sugar water has contributed to the booming population of these little jeweled flyers, particularly in temperate places like the Los Angeles basin.

The trouble comes when someone finds an injured bird and wants to help it get better, but feeds it only sugar water. It drinks it readily enough, but wastes away nonetheless. Or, possibly worse, someone who knows the bird needs protein tries to feed it house flies. They are too coarse and harsh. It'll snap them up, but its crop will fill up and get plugged, and without quick, expert action, it will starve to death. Only someone willing to buy browning bananas and let them rot and attract (and breed) fruit flies, and then lets the bird snatch them up, can hope to restore the bird's strength. Terry and her colleagues have a feeder mix with the right balance to feed them properly.

The bottom line? Call Terry or another specialized hummingbird shelter and take it there. I used the phrase "various concerned folk" above, and I do mean Various! The author has a chapter and more on her continual surprise at the people who bring her birds that need help…and some that won't. She spends at least as much time on the phone with people as she does with the birds in her care. Some people need to be talked through the best way to get a fallen or cut-off nest back to as nearly the same location where it was before. Others need to learn how to keep a bird alive overnight until they can bring it to her. Some need to be scolded for unconcern if they are too self-absorbed to do anything, saying, "Oh, well, maybe I'll just let nature take its course." Her retort, not always aloud, is "If you fell and broke a leg and were lying in the gutter, would you want every passer-by to "let nature take its course" until you died and were eaten by crows?"

The fact is, hummingbirds have hazards enough in their lives in places without people. They have a great many more hazards in our suburbs and cities. Why let "nature take its course" when the bird's need for help was not "natural" in the first place? Who cut the branch out of the tree? Who put up a house with large, almost invisible windows for birds to crash into? Wildlife of all kinds dies more often in our presence than in places we are not.

Near the end of the summer "distressed bird" season, the state-run bird shelters have a policy to take in no new fledglings. So Terry and the other private facilities get them all. A mixed blessing, just as she is getting ready to teach a new semester. But by late Fall, her cages have emptied and she can devote herself to her students.

I don't know what it is like to hold a two-ounce hummingbird in hand; by the author's account it is enthralling. The only bird I rescued was a seagull caught in fishing line, and that's a bird strong enough to do some damage if it doesn't agree with being handled. But people of all kinds, of all social strata and niches, seem to have a specially soft place in their heart for hummingbirds. They fall under the bird's spell, bring it to someone like Terry, and often get positively teary with thanks for her help. She wrote of getting a call from Pomona, and the guy said he'd "be right there". It is usually about an hour's drive. He got there in 20 minutes, roaring up her driveway in a big motorcycle. She asked how he came so fast, and he said, "Carpool lane," handed her a spark plug box with a tiny injured bird inside, and roared off.

Hummingbirds are spellbinding. So is Dr. Masear's writing. Excellence in action.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Don't let Peter Pan lead you astray

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, adulthood, personal growth

I was not expecting a book of philosophy. I selected Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, by Susan Neiman, as an end-of-year wildcard. Never have I so enjoyed reading a book of philosophy.

I confess that I have not read through the books of the "great philosophers". I never even finished The Republic by Plato. I have read quite a number of articles and even monographs, but always found the labor involved to decipher their turgid writing yielded little or nothing of use to me, so I eschewed their longer works. Instead, I have read various summaries, synopses, syntheses, and collections of extracts. I did read all of Who Needs Philosophy by Ayn Rand, and concluded, either Objectivism is no valid philosophy, or there is a genuine Objectivism out there that is quite different from her brutal scheme. I haven't found it, and I certainly don't consider I am capable to create it.

Come to think of it, I did read Dao De Jing by Lao Tzu, more than once. And if The Holy Bible is considered philosophical, or to contain philosophy, then that counts. Not much of a foundation, would you say? Yet one concept from Rand's book stuck with me: Note that her title does not include a question mark. It is instead a statement, that Everybody needs philosophy. I find this echoed in Dr. Neiman's book, though she might shudder at the thought. She does not come right out and say, "Philosophy is too great a matter to be left to the philosophers," but she comes close.

So the question remains, Why Grow Up? I would ask, Where do we see examples of genuine grownups to emulate and learn from? Are there some Adults out there, so we can see what adulthood is like? Has anybody grown up?

Step into any Men's restroom on the planet, and you'll be surrounded by evidence that few "men" were properly raised. Even in the Men's rooms of workplaces, where you wouldn't expect anyone under about 20 years old to enter the place.

So, our author asks, why indeed should we grow up? What's in it for us? A major theme, and perhaps the major theme, of philosophy is "How to grow up." The prerequisite to this is "How to think." Not what to think, but how, because very few ever learn how. People substitute almost everything for thought: their decisions are based on hunches, feelings, whatever their friends did or might do, what this or that "authority figure" says, and so forth.

I noticed when our son was in High School, that the program placed great emphasis on "critical thinking". But I realized, too late, that what he was really taught was how to avoid thinking critically, being rewarded only for regurgitating the thoughts of others who were the most "politically correct". Every attempt at genuinely critical thought was squelched, ridiculed, and rewarded with a low grade.

Fortunately, he found a refuge, for a time, in poetry. His main English teacher was "adult" enough to value her students' poetic efforts on their own merit, and our son wrote some very touching poems. The teacher called me once, to ask if our son was OK; one of his poems had made her "cry and cry". He wasn't suicidal or anything, was he? I asked her to read some of it to me, and then I asked, "Isn't this pretty ordinary teen angst? It is just more eloquently expressed than usual. I think that is a good thing." Hey, kids, do you want an A in English? Y'gotta know your teacher, but if she cries over your poetry, that's probably a good sign.

Why is it that the education system, with its stated mission of preparing valuable grownups, seems to do the opposite? Dr. Neiman points out something Immanuel Kant stated several times (and he probably had learned it from others): Governments prefer to govern dependent children, not independent adults. That goes for most teachers also. The more independent a student is, the harder she is to teach, and the more of a teacher's time she'll consume. So "teacher's pets" are the sweet, quiet, studious "tape-recorder" kids who do everything the teacher wants, and nothing the teacher doesn't want.

Some might quote Matthew 10:24: "The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master." (NIV) They may not realize that Jesus was talking about the level of persecution his disciples could expect; he was saying, "Don't expect to be treated better than I was, if you have learned well from me." He later told his disciples that they would do greater works than he had done. A wise professor who may never aspire to a Nobel Prize or Field Medal will be immensely gratified to have a student who is so honored.

Why Grow Up? reviews the writings on education of Kant, Rousseau and others, to conclude that, try as we might, we never really finish growing up. Yet that is no reason to abandon the effort. Learning begins when a tiny child first encounters frustration. A particularly diligent mother may be able to meet every need of her infant, but at some point there will arise a need that must be deferred or denied. It often comes with the first tooth, when the infant bites the nipple, only to have it withdrawn. Usually, a few repetitions of this will teach the child to withstand the temptation to bite until there is something else to bite; nipples are not to be bitten. Or the mother will switch to a bottle and let her sore breasts dry out.

To the infant's way of thinking, every need, even every faint desire, ought to be instantly fulfilled (many so-called grownups still think this). But the little one soon learns the word No, whether or not it is accompanied by corporal "consequences". These are the first lessons on the difference between "ought" and "is". Much of our learning, including our schooling, is devoted to learning the difference between "the way things ought to be" and "the way the world is." But the little frustrations behind the word "No" to a toddler will soon be superseded enormously by the major inequities of the world. Little children are bullied by big ones; the big ones may find themselves inwardly distraught that they are hated, but they usually respond with more bullying. Teachers do have "pets", who typically consume 1/3 or 1/4 of the available "A" grades, or even all of them in smaller classrooms. By High School graduation, many, many youngsters have heard, and may also say, "You can't win. You can't break even. You can't even get out of the game." In the quest for being loved and feeling useful, there is plenty of fodder for teen angst!

Thus, our author asks, "How do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?" (p. 75) We find a discussion of the tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes". Why is it that the child was wiser than the older folks (I dare not say, the grownups; they weren't)? It is not just that a child has no filter. An adult with no filter can be very unpleasant. The tale states this was a little child, one young enough to be indulged. Had a ten-year-old been the one exposing the emperor's dishabille, he'd have been shushed, dragged to the back of the crowd, and smacked. But a toddler? Just old enough to speak clearly, too young to be blamed for frankness, and just persistent enough to insist that he really does see an emperor in underclothes. These are qualities that Jesus also valued, and exhorted his disciples to become like such a child, if they were to have a place in his kingdom.

One of my favorite passages from the New Testament is in Ephesians 4, ending with verses 13 and 14: "…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming." Isn't this the perfect antidote to the deceitful tailors? This also answers, "What is in it for me?" Does avoiding being stolen from sound like a good thing? Does the wisdom to trip up scammers, phishing, and fast-talking, pushy salesmen appeal to you? Grow up!

Dr. Neiman gives us the best bits of Kant and others, without the drudgery of their badly written prose, to show that we need both reason and sense plus experience to attain good judgement. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was not meant to turn us to thoughtless bundles of feelings, but to drag people into some kind of balance, contrary to the philosophy of Hume and others. Drink too deeply of Hume, and a person may learn to analyze any situation to the tiniest atoms, without achieving the slightest insight into why they go together this way and not that, or what usefulness might result.

I like the proverb, "Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement." The beauty of human communication is that not all the bad judgement from which we gain experience has to be our own. When someone has a tale of woe, mark it well and learn from it. I'd add another proverb: "Learn all you can from others' mistakes. You don't have time to make all the mistakes yourself". That is the beginning of growing up.

I truly enjoy the way Susan Neiman writes. She brings us a heavy subject with a light touch.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

We are not dolphins and they are not us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cetaceans, dolphins, toothed whales, conservation, mythology

The direction of Susan Casey's life changed one day during a swim in Honolua Bay. She found herself amidst a pod of spinner dolphins, and their interactions with her over the next ten minutes convinced her that they were much more than "smart sea creatures". She felt a kinship. For many people, similar feelings of kinship motivate much of the "swim with dolphins" industry, although a great many folks do it mainly because it is "in". Perhaps this, too, shall pass (One can only hope!).

For Ms Casey, she found herself embarking on a series of projects, in a more-or-less picaresque way, to learn more about these small, toothed whales and even to get involved in their conservation and preservation. The result is Voices in the Sea: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.

Taking the events of the book out of order, we find that the earliest representations of dolphins, in Minoan frescoes and on pottery, has a worshipful air. From that day until this, various numbers of people have considered dolphins to be gods, or wise aliens, our hidden ancestors. The New Age movement abounds in "dolphin theology". But this is a rare, bright thread through the morass of human-dolphin interaction.

Dolphins and porpoises (the latter comprise seven or eight species of smaller toothed whales with shorter beaks or even rounded snouts; not nearly as "smiley" as the familiar Bottlenose Dolphin) are depicted as admirably peaceable, and perhaps they are. The largest dolphins, Orcas, or Killer Whales, have never been known to harm a human in the wild. The handful of cases in which an orca hurt or killed a person all occurred in "sea parks" such as Sea World, and the perpetrators are generally considered by experts to be insane from chronic mistreatment. Historical and modern stories abound of dolphins helping humans, sometimes even defending them from sharks. It appears that these creatures in general recognize their kinship with humans.

From the human side, darkness abounds. Those who consider us as descended from dolphins must consider most of us their evil twins. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of dolphins of all kinds are killed by humans every year. Certain places Ms Casey visited, such as Taiji Cove in Japan and a couple of villages in the Solomon Islands, specialize in capturing and killing dolphins for meat and other products. Sometimes they also capture the "prettiest" ones alive and sell them to "dolphin parks". Such parks continue to proliferate; these days all the new ones are outside the US in areas of new luxury such as the UAE. The trade needs to go on steadily to meet the demand, mostly because the average time a captive dolphin lives is about three years, and most expire in the first year. A few hardy ones may live much longer, but none approaches the 50-to-100-year life span of a wild dolphin.

I have thought a great deal about the intelligence of dolphins. They have huge brains, with Encephalization Quotients of about 4, compared to 7 or so for humans. But I calculated elsewhere that if you discount the layer of blubber, which can account for a quarter of a dolphin's weight, the EQ of a Bottlenose Dolphin is at least 6. However, sheer brain volume, even on an allometric scale such as EQ, is but part of the story.

About 6% of the human brain's cortex is devoted to decoding vision. Vision is a very efficient sense. The primary receptor is a pair of thin cellular films, our retinas, each of which would flatten out to cover about 2/3 of a business card. The rest of the non-brain ocular apparatus is a pair of "cameras", AKA our eyes, and the attached muscles and nerves. Another percent goes to hearing, and smaller proportions to our other senses. So we have about 90% of our cerebral cortex available for other functions. Dolphin brains have much larger auditory areas, presumably because of their echolocation skill. The areas of the brain devoted to their sonic senses are about 20 - 40 times as large as the entire human auditory cortex and related areas. That means about one-third of a dolphin brain is used for sonic decoding. It seems logical, then, that the "effective EQ" of a dolphin is much less than the simple calculation would imply, perhaps closer to 3. That puts a dolphin just above the top of the range for chimpanzees.

The above is but one illustration that a dolphin's world is radically different from ours. It also gives me a more satisfactory feeling about the seeming naiveté of dolphins. Just think, if they really were as smart as we are, and could communicate as effectively as we can, or as effectively as many people think they do, and further if they thought more like we think, could the slaughter continue? Maybe at some one time, a pod could be driven into Taiji Cove, taken captive and slaughtered there. There would be no second time. They would station lookouts and avoid entering the cove, or even counterattack and drag a bunch of the people to the depths to expire there. Instead, they behave in ways no human group would behave, and are thus "tricked" and caught and slaughtered year after year.

I don't have much stomach for going on. There are 36 or 37 species of dolphins and 7 or 8 of porpoises. Given the size of the oceans, that corresponds well to the 4 species of great apes and 17 species of lesser apes (Gibbons). Dolphins are not the "people of the sea", they are more analogous to oceanic Chimps and Orangutans. Think of Chimps with sonar…or radar.

But this doesn't make it moral to exploit them, or to wantonly cast them aside. Morality is not measured by whether you kill your enemies, but by how you treat the helpless. Every scripture of every religion demonstrates that we usually choose immorality or amorality over morality in nearly everything, and at best just "paper over our image" with a garnishing of philanthropy. Sometimes. Most folks forego the philanthropy part, except to toss a quarter into a Salvation Army bucket sometime during Christmas Week, or a similar token gesture in other cultures.

It is no surprise then, that dolphins and their kin remain a part of the Sixth Extinction that the human race is carrying out.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Brilliance by accident

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, savant syndrome

What is a savant? Historically, it is an exceptionally learned and intelligent person. Since the coining of the term "idiot savant" in about 1900 AD, the old meaning has been declining. "Idiot savant" originally referred to a severely impaired person with superior ability in a narrow field such as music performance or painting or drawing or memory skills. Many such persons were found to be autistic, so "autistic savant" was promoted starting about 1970, and particularly after the 1988 release of the film Rain Man. The character Raymond, the "rain man", was modeled on the talents of the autistic savant Kim Peek, now unfortunately deceased. But not all narrowly-focused savants are autistic, so the preferred term now is simply "Savant", usually capitalized, or, more cumbersomely, "person with savant syndrome."

Characteristic of Savants is that they attain or develop almost unbelievable skills with little or no practice. The prototype is someone who sits down at a piano for the first time and is able to play a symphonic piece he recently heard. Most savants are male, so I'll use male pronouns when avoiding pronouns altogether is too onerous. I have a friend, someone of greater than average intelligence, but no genius, and he plays piano really well. He can read music, sight-read, play by ear or from memory, and transpose to any key. He simply sat down one day and could do it. In that, he is a Savant, but he is certainly not autistic.

A very few people develop Savant skills in one area or another after a serious injury. Worldwide about thirty such people are known. They have "acquired savant syndrome", as opposed to being born a Savant. One such is Jason Padgett, whose new book, co-written with Maureen Seaberg, is Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel. Jason is apparently exceptional among Acquired Savants in having gained both extraordinary skills in certain areas of mathematics, and also synesthesia.

As he writes, he didn't care about math in school, and mostly didn't like it. When he was a little over thirty years old he was mugged as he left a Karaoke bar. He was struck severely in the head at least three times. The first blow, he remembers, was followed by a very low note, a kind of Bong as from a piano, but lower than a piano's lowest note. By the next day he began seeing things differently. Moving things now moved in rapid stop-action, and everything seemed to have lines radiating out. It was as though the construction lines of a detailed mechanical drawing had not been erased. (My insta-theory of this is that he was seeing what the vision system usually hides, the various shape detection circuits decoding all the objects in his visual field.)

Synesthesia is the mixing of senses. Some synesthetes see each letter of the alphabet, or each number, or certain words, in specific colors. 3 may be chartreuse (seldom a prosaic "green") and 5 tangerine orange. Or each may be accompanied by a unique musical sound. Or music may evoke colored visions, or smells. Jason sees numbers and other math symbols as collections of boxes stacked in ways that are meaningful to him, for one; other synesthetic reactions occur for him but I didn't get a clear idea of them.

An injured brain will try to heal. It takes time. Jason spent more than three years in self-imposed isolation, driven by agoraphobia, while his brain healed as well as it could. Just prior to that, however, he was very active, first trying to get justice against the muggers, and later searching for some understanding of why he now saw differently and thought differently, and also had much stronger empathetic emotions; he could read people better than most of us (It strikes me that this is a third Savant skill).

One thing that helped him greatly was to begin drawing what he saw or what he imagined about math concepts. This drawing (note his copyright information) represents wave-particle duality, a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics. Some of his drawings take months to complete. When he explains one to a professional mathematician, they recognize his insight.

This shape looks totally symmetrical at first, but there are subtle asymmetries that enhance its beauty, and convey the meaning. Even without an explanation of the mathematical underpinnings, the drawings are compelling artwork!

Learning how to cope with the negative effects of his injury took years, and healing is still going on. He was greatly helped once he was able to get MRI scans and other brain images that validated his study of what must have happened in his brain. He was also greatly helped by meeting, wooing and marrying his wife Elena. He is healing better than if he'd remained a loner.

Jason has found new communities, most particularly other synesthetes, to whom he doesn't seem weird at all. He has been studied by various experts, some of whom are studying techniques such as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TCMS), which can apparently induce temporary Savant-like abilities. Perhaps one day it will be possible to unleash a hidden skill that was buried in our "genetic memory" (whatever that means!)…without getting whacked by a mugger! Many skills will always need practice and refinement, but perhaps some are innate yet hidden, waiting for us to learn how to find them.

Jason's co-author Maureen Seaberg also experiences synesthesia and blogs about it. Jason has this website, and you can find Maureen on Twitter.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Real advice for real conundrums

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice, essay collections

Talk about making life's lemons into lemonade! Dan Ariely suffered catastrophic burns, spent three years in a hospital, and basically missed out entirely on being a teenager. Would he have studied social science without having had those experiences? There is no way to know, but he has become an adept observer of the human condition. Even more, he is an expert on irrationality and is a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

For all that humans are called "the rational animal", and though this rationality has led to high civilization and amazing technology, there is little evidence that humans in general lead rational lives. Quite the contrary: we spend most of our time on autopilot, repeating the habits we learned when very young.

Young children are learning machines. What a pity that the need to regiment our "education" is almost exactly designed to minimize true learning! Fortunately, there is time "after school" and "after homework". As my youngest brother told us at my parents' Fiftieth Anniversary party, growing up with three older brothers, "I got lots of education when I wasn't being schooled." But by age twelve or so, the inner compulsion to learn wanes, and pretty much ends by age twenty, for most of us.

Here is how I define neurosis: Neurosis is a defense mechanism that is seriously out of date. PTSD is an extreme version. Less extreme, but still troubling, is our tendency to react to the words and actions of others as though they came from people we hated or feared years and decades ago. I once lost a girlfriend because I keep a record of my gasoline purchases in my glove compartment. Her ex-husband also did that, and she couldn't abide the feelings that arose when she saw me write down the mileage and what I'd spent for gas.

People who were bit by a dog at a very early age may fear all dogs for the rest of their life. Woe to such a person who marries a dog lover! A woman we know grew up with a psychotic mother who would be walking across the room, and suddenly reach over and hit her from behind. Our friend is a skilled pianist, but cannot play a piano that faces the wall. She needs a wall at her back when playing, even though nobody has tried to hit her from behind for forty years!

We live with and continually exhibit milder irrationalities day to day, and when we notice them, we may be motivated to develop a new habit. Or maybe not. Some folks who read the Wall Street Journal send questions about such things to the Ask Ariely column, and the lucky ones get answered. The most recent questions answered (in Dan's unique way) include "Where should we seat those awful wedding guests?" and "Is 'First come, first served' really fair?".

Dan's column and other research have provided fodder for three previous books, and now this one, Irrationally Your: On Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Puzzles. Many of the items include more-or-less-relevant cartoons by William Haefeli:

This shows such a pairing, and I used an image of the page's text, mainly to avoid all the formatting and finding the right typefaces to roughly imitate it. This also shows a feature I haven't seen elsewhere (except in my own blog posts): keywords or index tags!

This isn't "Ask Abby" kind of advice, and I suspect the questions are ones Abby would not have deigned to answer. I picked a short answer above; most are about twice as long and some run a couple of pages.

Do you want to know why pickup lines, cheesy as they are, work at all? Boiling down two paragraphs of Dan's answer: People like to be complimented. Based on that, Dan says, "Compliments are free … why not just give more of them." Good advice to us all. Asked about the apparent multiplication of mismatched socks, Dan discusses our perceptions, and recommends going to the trouble of sorting all the socks; some of the "mismatched" ones will probably have matches that were "mismatched" earlier and are probably only inches from their mate. But he also ponders the chance that dryers might have "sock black holes."

Some of the correspondents have creative ideas of their own to share, such as the guy who glued quarters to his office stapler and a few other frequently-"borrowed" items. None went missing after that. Another asks whether setting a higher or somewhat low price for a house to be sold will yield the best final price; he guesses that a lower starting price might work better. Dan agrees, pointing out that if you have only one potential buyer, you are at a negotiating disadvantage, and may wind up accepting a low-ball offer; with several people competing, attracted by the lower initial price, you are more likely to get a better offer from at least one of them.

The overall message is, if we more clearly realize that the irrationality of "rational animal", that is, why people really do what they do, we're more likely to relate to others in a more satisfactory way, and more likely to get what we want out of life. I dimly realized some of these things long ago, leading to the first "commandment" of ten that I hung on my office wall: People don't want to be treated fairly. They want to be treated well. The work of Dan Ariely, Nobelist Daniel Kahneman and others can help us treat others well without treating ourselves badly.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Surviving a trip to the stars

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, starships

Here's a conundrum. You want several generations of people to live aboard a starship or space station; to remain healthy, they need gravitation, or the semblance of it via rotation. In a small vessel, Coriolis effects when people move about are downright disturbing, so you want the rotating diameter to be large, the larger the better. How large can you go?

In various SciFi stories I've read of can-shaped craft about 2 km in diameter, rotating on the long axis, and also of various kinds of ring-shaped craft. In Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, the starship has two rings with a common hub (the "spine"), so it is a nice double ring, and the diameter is 15.3 km. It rotates to provide 0.83g, to prepare the inhabitants for the gravity they will find on their target world in the Tau Ceti system. However, in the second half of the novel (spoiler alert), one of the rings and half the spine is detached and returns to the Solar System, and on the return journey the rotation is increased to provide 1.1g. This is a decision by the ship's AI systems, because of the expectation of great debility among the returnees, so they won't be wholly disabled by Earth's 1g field. A kind of suspended animation is used because food has run out, and they'll arrive weakened and starving.

What are the stresses holding a large, rotating ring together? I won't go into the whole analysis. Suffice it to say that the fiber stress increases linearly with diameter for a specific g force. This is because a ring twice the diameter will have twice the mass, but is held together with exactly the same cross-sectional area. I remember calculating years ago that a steel hull could be no larger than about 2 km in diameter, and just barely hold itself together. If you want to have dirt and people and buildings inside, you need to make it smaller so the steel can support the extra mass.

However, we have better materials. Kevlar is almost twice as strong as steel, and weighs a quarter as much. So a Kevlar hull with a diameter as great as 21 km could just barely hold together. Make it only half as large, and it can then support internal stuff equal to the mass of the hull. Then we have carbon fibers, which are more than 1.5 times as strong as Kevlar, though they are a little denser. A carbon-fiber hull could be as large as 27 km. I am told that carbon nanotubes are a great deal stronger than this, but nobody knows how to make them kilometers long, and the glue in a matrix holding a bunch of them in an overlapping configuration isn't strong enough to permit their full strength to be employed.

Maybe they will have solved that dilemma by the 25th or 26th Century, when the ship to Tau Ceti is sent out. If not, carbon fibers are a pretty good material, as long as they aren't degraded by space grit during a decades-long flight at 0.1c (some 67 million mph or 108 million kph). The way author Robinson gets around the abrasion conundrum is by having some sort of magnetic shielding field warding off anything smaller than a few millimeters, and radar and avoidance taking care of the rest.

Of much more interest to the author, and even readers as nerdy as I am, are the biological, chemical and social situations in an ecosystem that remains closed for, eventually, 170 years, and is later re-closed for a further 180+ years. A super-engineer named Devi worries constantly about the future of the colonists—and their animals—who are smaller and on average less capable than their ancestors of 6 generations previously. But no reason is given for why her daughter Freya becomes the tallest person aboard, at 2.02 m (6'-7.5"). Devi is also faced with the gradual unbalance of various nutrients and other elements in the ecosystem. Phosphorus, for example, is gradually getting bound into insoluble minerals from which it is increasingly costly to re-extract. Crop yields are falling. Late in the voyage, certain bacteria are found in hidden globs of water in low-and no-gravity spaces along the spine, where they are degrading various materials, threatening the physical integrity of the ship's systems, and maybe even of its hull.

Then we come to the people. No matter how committed, emotionally balanced, and perhaps politically uniform the original generation might have been, genes rearrange themselves with every generation, and there is no predicting what mix of traits might dominate after several generations.

The term "island biogeography" is used a few times. There is an important aspect of a small, isolated population that is worth exploring a little. Suppose you've managed to gather an extremely diverse collection of a 2-3 thousand people, such that the maximum variety of favorable alleles of the human gene set present in the founder population. They pair up and have two children per couple (allowing for accidents, the "replacement rate" is historically 2.1). Each child has a random assemblage of exactly half the alleles of each parent. The two children of each couple will carry forward close to 75% of the total genetic variation found in their parents. If the parents somehow had totally unmatched allele sets, then some 25% of these will be lost to future generations. The statistics get remarkably harder to determine with more realistic mixes of alleles. But some numerical experiments I've done, kind of a Monte Carlo simulation, indicate that after 4 generations the remaining gene set is about 67% of the original. Also, a few genes, quite at random, have increased their representation among that generation by a factor of 3 or 4, while a larger number are about twice as prevalent, and the rest are about as common as ever. Let's hope the genes growing towards dominance are going to make future generations more healthy. Since there is an artificial cap on conceptions and births, natural selection only appears in the form of miscarriages or stillbirths, though I suppose some children will be deemed too flawed to be allowed to reproduce, and a few "lucky" couples get to produce an extra child to compensate.

That "cap" produces the greatest source of suppressed resentment: you have to have a strict totalitarian system, rigidly enforced in certain areas, or the mission will fail. You can't run such a small, closed ecosystem as a democracy. Midway through the book political polarization leads to violence and warfare. Robinson is ready for one aspect of this: an earlier generation that experienced in-ship conflict wisely programmed all manufacturing systems that, if someone tries to produce a firearm or projectile weapon of any design whatever, it will explode and dismember or otherwise damage whoever tries to use it. So warfare is carried out by throwing things and making stabbing weapons and clubs.

One message of this book is that faraway planets could be more dangerous than we imagine. The toxic, high-energy chemicals in the soils of Mars, chemicals that cannot be produced in quantity on a living planet, are one example used to illustrate that "terraforming" an alien planet may be many hundreds of times more difficult than we'd like to think. Authors galore have imagined terraforming, carried out in a quasi-human time frame of 50-200 years, but Robinson's characters find themselves discussing the need to keep their ship working for several thousand years while their remote descendants turn the planet into something that won't kill on contact. That's why a third of them return to Earth.

Inorganic-chemical troubles are just the beginning. A kind of super-prion is the stated cause for the original planetary body to be abandoned. The place had been found to have lots of oxygen in its atmosphere, but this was considered "abiotic". A mistake, it seems. An oxidizing atmosphere is so out of balance it cannot arise inorganically. Better to go to a planet or moon with an atmosphere in near-equilibrium, so you can be sure no life has taken hold. Any life of any kind on an alien planet is likely to be much too toxic for us to survive there.

The discussion of the closing years of the return, when the ship must calculate all kinds of gravity-looping billiards through the solar system (the "catcher" laser system gets a late start and can't slow down the ship all the way), goes on for too long for my taste. It is dramatic, and I suppose Robinson had some kind of simulation software to set up the planetary passes…or maybe he just put it all together of whole cloth. It is a piece of great writing, quite gripping, but wore me out.

There is a curious oversight in a couple of places. In the midst of a discussion of river deltas and braided streams in one place, and the v-shaped formations seen in beach wash, a character muses that perhaps this is the origin of the term "delta-v". Anyone with a glancing acquaintance with physics knows that the "v" here refers to velocity, and delta-v means change in velocity. When you want to maneuver from asteroid to asteroid, for example, attaining the right delta-v while using minimum fuel (encapsulated in the term "specific impulse" for straight-line acceleration, but lots more complicated otherwise) is the most critical consideration. Such considerations led to the Apollo astronauts receiving training in jeeps they drove in circles in the New Mexico sands, learning the tricks of docking satellites without running out of fuel. In another place, the use of GPS navigation on the Tau Ceti planet's moon is mentioned, with no indication that a set of GPS satellites was deployed. I found that a bit jarring. As long as I'm in error-checking mode, there's one more: on p 443 the neap tide is stated as the larger. Not so, the larger tide is the spring tide, which occurs when sun and moon are either at conjunction (new moon) or opposition (full moon). Neap tides occur at the first and third quarters, and are much smaller.

Enough negative blather. It's a great tale. Robinson's writing is a tremendous pleasure to read. The book is full of interesting ideas and discusses a great many things we need to consider when planning to colonize any bit of "outer space". A very fun read!