Monday, November 12, 2018

The warmest and fuzziest -- with big claws!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, pets, wildlife

It takes extraordinary experiences to set the stage for a wild animal to become bonded to a person. In the case of a bobcat, soon to be named Trooper, these experiences included being the only survivor of his family's massacre by coyotes and getting stuck in a patch of cholla; for Johnson, they included a life that led to particular love for wild places and wildlife, and a temperament that just matched the bob-kitten's need. Basically, Johnson found the dying kitten, extracted him from the cholla (a most dangerous cactus), and took him to a veterinarian who was able to meet his medical needs and, even more, knew just how to prepare the kitten and Johnson for a life together in and around the home Johnson and his wife had created. Thus begins Trooper: The Bobcat Who Came in from the Wild by Forrest Bryant Johnson.

Years later, when a self-styled animal activist accused Johnson of "imprisoning" the cat, he was able to show her that Trooper came and went as he pleased and was never caged except when he needed to be taken to see the vet. Trooper loved the vet, just not the car ride. He also preferred to sleep snuggled against Johnson's arm.

At the risk of spoiling, although Trooper was a gentle companion and friendly to people, he kept enough of his wild nature to kill a coyote that began to stalk him and other animals around the Johnson mini-ranch. It was a collaboration: Johnson and neighbors first killed all the coyotes but one of a small pack that "moved into the neighborhood" and began preying on pets and even stalking children. Trooper finished off the last one.

In the years between, Trooper and Johnson learned from each other. Johnson ruminates, somewhat ruefully, that he knew Trooper thought of him as a rather inept cat. Not for Trooper the notion of being a "person". The book is full of stories of cat and man, and the man's wife, grown daughter and other family members. Of the time his wife good-naturedly tried to hire a "home-call" grooming service to "bathe" Trooper, and the way Trooper so thoroughly intimidated the groomer, without harming him in the slightest, that the groomer simply turned and left. Of the time a great horned owl knocked itself silly against a window, and Trooper brought it inside, not to eat, but perhaps hoping for a new kind of playmate; it was a job and a half getting the irate owl back out the door! Of the time the alarm service kept phoning Johnson that there was an intruder tripping the light beam in the house's hallway, but nobody was ever found. What was found? Trooper and another (ordinary) cat that had come to live there, jumping off furniture and interrupting the beam; the alarm company removed that particular sensor.

There are still many people who say animals are totally instinctual and cannot think, or plan, or feel pain. Such people have never owned a pet, never watched it plan, perhaps for days, how to attack a particular kind of prey or enemy. They've never thought through the fact that animals seem to easily learn a number of our spoken words, but we learn hardly any of theirs, or none at all. Even the most inbred, bred-for-looks-not-for-smarts Pomeranian pup or Persian cat shows these attributes. Johnson found that a bobcat, that must live by its wits, had quite a lot going on in that big, fuzzy head of his.

This book gets my Heart-Warming, Heartstring-Tugging, Drippy-Nose Award for the year!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Our data are doomed

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, internet, internet security

I have read the Schneier on Security blog on and off almost since I began this blog. As far as gurus of internet security go, he is IT. So when I ran across Schneier's latest book, I nabbed it, in part to see whether it would be a collection of blog posts (it isn't). His writing is great, his ideas are spot-on, and the subject is rather depressing.

Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World, by Bruce Schneier, is scary as hell, and the author isn't selling anything…not to us at least. He is indeed trying to "sell" policy ideas to the U.S. government, and in part this book is aimed at getting us to put pressure on our representatives to pay more attention to this issue.

The Internet is rapidly becoming the Internet of Things (IoT), in which to say, everything in the home that would have been bought after a certain date is not just a toaster, light bulb, or easy chair, but a computer that cooks toast and Pop-Tarts (and remembers), a computer that talks to the light switch and learns your schedule and can set mood lighting at your request, or a computer that offers you a comfy seat and records your weight and heartbeat and maybe massages you (it may also inform your doctor of your day-to-day state of health). Almost any new car is not just a computer, but a collection of computers that control a transportation machine, more or less at your demand, keep track of its own maintenance schedule, record where you go and your driving habits; in the future it will know your mood, not only from your driving habits but from your temperature, smell, and perhaps level of noise you make (do you yell at other drivers when they annoy you...or at the radio?).

What the car, light bulb, and chair may know about us is one thing. Because they all connect via the Internet, or the coming, enhanced Internet that he calls Internet+, anybody with a modicum of hacking skills can know what they know. Your phone already knows your buying habits and perhaps banking habits. Who else would you be just tickled about if they knew also? Nobody? I thought so. Well, what will you do about it? What CAN you do about it?

If you believe the book's current explanation of the state of Internet security, the answer is, "Nearly nothing." Firstly, most people will be unwilling to go to the least trouble to "do something about it." Secondly, for those few who would be willing, there is precious little they can do. And that, my friends, is the message of Click Here.

The title is intended as click bait, but its message is not entirely hype. The book begins with three scenarios, and returns to them from time to time.

  1. Control of an auto from ten miles away, via an Internet-connected laptop. This was first done in 2015.
  2. Shutdown of a power plant in  Kiev, presumably by Russian hackers, in 2016.
  3. A hacker took control of 150,000 printers on insecure networks in 2017, and had them print taunting messages. This is a 'near-white-hat' attack. I wonder how many of the printers' owners took steps to secure their equipment?

Now consider item #3. Suppose someone hacks into a 3D printer, and has it print a booby trap to injure or kill the owner, when next he/she turns on the light in the room where it is kept? Suppose a 3D bio-printer is hacked to produce a super-flu like the 1918 bug that killed about 4% of the human population that year? How about every insecure 3D bio-printer? This extended scenario is behind the title of the book.

The author thinks only government can deal with this effectively. No other entity has the scope to do so. But at the moment, every powerful player in the Cyber arena has a vested interest in an Internet that is not too secure:

  • The NSA and other agencies want access to anything, anywhere, with little fuss.
  • Businesses would rather spend to make new products than to add security to existing ones. Neither do they have incentive to design security into their new products.
  • To the biggest presences on the Internet, from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Instagram, Alibaba, Dianping..., all have as their primary product YOU, the user, and the information you post or reveal by your posting habits. They want to sell this stuff, not secure it.

Not only that, the Internet is the most prolific espionage tool to be developed since the microdot camera. When new vulnerabilities in common software are discovered, say by someone at NSA, they don't inform the software company. No, they add the knowledge to their "virtual arms locker", as a took to be used offensively, until someone more civic-minded or someone at the company stumbles across it and it gets fixed.

So, nobody with any power has much interest in better security. Tools to help make security better have languished on the shelf for decades, unused. Schneier explains why.

If you want your own end-to-end encryption, perhaps you can get Tor, but be aware that all the world's governments keep tabs on Tor users because so many of them are criminals. That in itself argues that we all ought to have such tools available by default. In the U.S., the Second Amendment assures that, if we want to own a gun for our protection, we can do so. That way, it is not presently so that "only criminals and cops have guns." But on the Internet, and even more, the nascent Internet+, you can't find a gun anyway, so only the criminals have guns, and most of the cops have at best rather inferior ones.

Will this get better? The author thinks so. He is optimistic enough to think it can get better in just a decade or two. Maybe. It probably won't get better, at least from a governmental intervention standpoint, until a Scenario #3 leads to a few dozen, or thousand, or even million, deaths. That's what it takes to get major policies created or changed. Good luck, y'all…keep your head low.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Spiders around the world

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Oh, this is cute:

The one-hour spike on 11/1/18 is 99 hits; the one a half day later is 37 hits. The former, just before midnight my time, is probably from Turkey, and the other from Ukraine.

The low hump on 11/3/18 mostly represents interest in a post on making pumpkins pies. It got a lot of hits over several hours' time. It is a pity I don't get stats on locations hitting particular posts. I'd be interested to see if the pie-making post was checked out by anyone overseas. I took pains to include Celsius temperatures, but I didn't convert cups to ml. Oh, well. My cup measures have both fl.oz. and ml scales, and I suspect people everywhere will know how to convert. But I don't think pumpkin pie is of much interest outside the U.S. But whatever pie someone might want to make, the pie crust recipe and instructions produce a crust that is without peer.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Pumpkin Pie Season at my place

kw: photo essays, pies, pie crust, how to

Grab a cuppa, this is long…

Above are the ingredients and equipment needed to make two pumpkin pies, using the crust recipe from the 1962 edition of Betty Crocker's New Good and Easy Cookbook, published by Golden Press. It is the one my Mom used to teach me to cook and bake; also the recipe from the side of a can of "Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin". I have ground up my own pumpkin in the past, but it is a lot of trouble, when a good commercial product is so affordable.

The crust recipe for "1-2-3 Pastries" has these ingredients, per single-crust pie:
  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp. unbleached flour (2 tbsp. = 1 fl. oz.)
  •  cup vegetable oil (I use canola oil)
  • 2 tbsp cold water
The recipe includes a bit of salt but I leave that out. I double these amounts for two pies (2c+2oz flour, c oil, 2 oz water).

I put the flour in a glass bowl and shape a hollow in it using a fork:

Pour the oil in the hollow and fold in:

When fully mixed it will be a little crumbly:

Sprinkle the water over the mix and fold in thoroughly. Press the dough together and let it sit to homogenize while preparing to roll the crusts.

The crusts are rolled between sheets of waxed paper. To make the lower sheet of waxed paper stick to the table, get it very clean and then moisten it well:

Put a piece of waxed paper on the wet table, shiny side up (it'll curl upward). Take half of the dough and shape it into a ball in your hands, and then press it onto the waxed paper.

Put a second piece of waxed paper on top, shiny side down, and press with your hand (at this point I wipe my hands with a paper towel). Then roll it. I roll it in all directions to get it as round as possible.

Here it is, ready to be put in the pan:

Slowly peel off the top sheet of waxed paper. Dry all around with a paper towel, then lift the front edge partway and dry underneath.

Slip the pie pan in there and gently lift the pie crust. Then invert it onto the pan:

This process is just a fiddly bit of gradually pulling the edges up and getting nearly all the air out fron under the crust. I got the wrong camera angle; near my left hand is a bit of crust pulled up to let air out as I maneuver the rest into place:

Gather the overlapping stuff around the edge into a rim that you press into a raised rim. The pie recipe will not fit inside without this step:

While rolling the second crust I got a photo of a useful step: rolling around the edge with the end of the roller on the table, to give it a slight taper. You can leave this step out, for a little more thickness at the rim.

 Here are the two crusts ready for filling:

Here is the filling recipe:
These cans for two pies used to have 30 ounces of pumpkin. That made pies that were just a bit deeper, but somewhat harder to carry over to the oven. The finished filling is very goopy and slops out of the crust if you wiggle even a little. So you'll have the ingredients in text form, in the order I use:

  • 4 large eggs, beaten in a big bowl
  • 1 can (29 oz.) pumpkin
  • 1½ cups sugar with spices mixed in:
    • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
    • 1 tsp ground ginger
    • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • 2 cans Evaporated Milk

This shows the 4 eggs ready to beat (not whip! this isn't an omelette), and the spices sitting on the sugar ready to stir in. I stir them in and then add after I add the pumpkin and mix it with the eggs. Before any of that I heat the oven to 425°F (~220°C).

Here I am stirring the eggs.

In goes the pumpkin:

After stirring in the sugar-spice mix, I add the evaporated milk, half a can at a time:

I use a big plastic ladle to spoon alternately into the two pie shells. At the end, I eyeball what is half and drag that into one shell, then use a rubber spatula to get the rest into the other.

Two pie shells, loaded and ready to cook. I first move them to the countertop next to the oven.

Then I put them in the oven. I hold them so that when I put the pie on the oven grate I don't get a burn.

The recipe says to lower the temperature after 15 minutes, but with two pies I use 20 minutes. I kept the oven open longer, so it takes longer to re-heat. So I lower it to 350°F (175°C) and cook for 45 minutes. Then I check it, which is what I am doing here, by poking the tip of a knife into the center. If nothing sticks to the knife, they are done. If only a tiny bit sticks, I give then another 5 minutes, otherwise I give them another 10 minutes and re-check.

Here they are, all done, pulled out of the oven, sitting on racks. You can see that they began to crack around the edge, which is a good sign that the filling is cooked and properly stiff.

I support cookie sheets with whatever is handy (pill bottles, cup cozies…) to keep dust off while they cool for an hour or so, no more than two hours. They'll still be warm if you serve them right away. Otherwise, refrigerate them.

I cover them to put in the refrigerator. The first layer is waxed paper. I cut a piece a little longer than the width of the pie, and fold it in half, then half again, then fold a triangle as shown here. One more fold is coming.

Here is the piece, folded four times so the arc is 1/16th. I am holding it where I plan to cut. I cut a slight arc that crosses both edges of the triangle at a right angle.

Unfolded, that yields a circle. Put this on top of the pie so it won't stick to plastic wrap.

Both pies are covered (one cover is not pressed on yet), ready to wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

The Libby's recipe makes a great-tasting pie, better than if you use "pumpkin pie spice", and this kind of crust is the flakiest I've ever encountered. It is also much lighter than a crust made with lard or another solid fat. Enjoy!

Learning of life as never before

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, geological history, life, evolution

Hmm, let's see, will this do?

Probably not. The little blob represents an amoeba. When did amoebas first appear on Earth? Probably around 800 million years ago. Amoebas are quite advanced. Life began with pre-bacteria (or pre-archaea) cells some time between 3,500 and 4,200 million years ago, so eons of evolutionary progress occurred before protozoans such as amoebas came into being. On the scale of this diagram, there would be another 35-40 things strung out to the left, for about two feet, all looking a lot like the period at the end of this sentence, or maybe a tiny oval of similar size.

So, just how has life progressed since it first appeared on earth? To find out, read a wonderful new book by Dr. Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries About the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth. Geology has not stood still since I studied it in the 1970's and early 1980's. Neither has biology, nor genetics. In fact, our understanding of DNA and genetics has advanced more in the past decade than in all of prior history…and we realize that we still know something like 1% (or a lot less) of what we thought we would know by now.

Geological history and biological history go together. Only the first era of Earth, called the Hadean, during which there were no solid rocks, was without life. A period called Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) ended the Hadean Eon and partially overlapped the first appearance of living cells. Life may have arisen a few times, only to be melted out of existence when a rocky body about the size of Texas would cause most of the crust to melt, again. So what we call "the origin of Earthly life" actually began just after the last successful total extinction event. The remaining history of Earth and of Earthly biology is divided into eras marked by partial extinction events. Five (plus one, shown below, in my accounting) are major, in that more than 50% of all living species were eliminated. Others caused many more extinctions in a short time than the background rate, but less than 50% at a blow.

To be clear: "Event" is a comparative term. When referring to geological time, anything that happens in less than a million years, if it is more than 50-100 million years in the past, can be called an event. So let us set a time scale, primarily of these extinction "events", based on what is currently known:
  • 4,570 ma ("ma" means "millions of years ago") - Completion of Earth's accretion, and beginning of the Hadean Eon, during which the entire planet was molten, and which ended when solid crustal rocks began to form.
  • 4,100 to 3,600 ma - Late Heavy Bombardment, when most of the craters on the Moon, Mercury and Mars were formed. One relic on Earth is possibly the Nastapoka Arc in Hudson's Bay in Canada. Anything smaller has been eroded away. The first glimmers of life, and earliest putative fossils, date from the end of this era. There are also chemical signals in rocks aged 3,800 ma, that indicate photosynthetic life existed at that time. The Archean Eon is considered to have begun 4,000 ma. The Last Total Extinction.
  • 2,450 ma - Oxidation Catastrophe. During the Archean Eon life originated and soon became photosynthetic. For a billion years or more oxygen was immediately taken up by reduced minerals such green iron oxide (Ferrous Oxide, FeO2) and pyrite (FeS2), which produced red iron oxide (Ferric Oxide, Fe03) and iron sulfates such as FeSO4 and Fe2(SO4)3. Once all the reduced minerals had been oxidized, oxygen began to accumulate in the atmosphere, killing nearly everything. Those living things that evolved the ability to survive in the presence of oxygen, and later, to even use oxygen for producing cellular energy through respiration, took over the earth during the ensuing Proterozoic Eon. This was probably the nearest thing to a total extinction since the series of total extinctions at the end of the Hadean Eon. Great Extinction #1.
  • 2,400-2,100 ma - Huronian Glaciation, probably the first "snowball earth" period, unless it was "only" a near-snowball, a "slushball" with a narrow equatorial unfrozen belt. A Significant Extinction Event.
  • ~1,650 ma (maybe 2,000 ma) - Origin of Eukaryotes, large, complex cells and later on multicellular life composed of such cells; to be discussed later.
  • 780 (720?)-635 ma - Three better-studied Snowball Earth extinctions of the Cryogenian Era, in the late Proterozoic Eon. Each would have made most of Earth unlivable for all but the hardiest creatures. Three Extinction Events, each lasting several million years.
  • 542 ma - End-Ediacaran Extinction, A Significant Extinction Event. Early soft-bodied, multicellular creatures, and a few with hard parts, abruptly vanished. Possibly caused when predators arose that could eat the Ediacaran animals. The period that followed is the Cambrian Period, the first period of the Paleozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon, which is still going on.
The appearance of hard-shelled fossils just before the Cambrian Period makes it easier to distinguish changes in the fauna, particularly extinction events.

  • 488 ma - late Cambrian Extinction Event (AKA SPICE, for Steptoean Positive Carbon Isotope Excursion, a technical designation indicating a dramatic chemical change in the atmosphere and ocean).
  • 450-440 ma - Ordovician-Silurian events, a series of global cooling events, possibly ice ages, that wiped out 70% of species. Great Extinction #2.
  • 375-360 ma - Late Devonian volcanism. Over a few million years, half of all animal and plant genera became extinct, and perhaps 75% or more of all species. Great Extinction #3.
  • 252 ma - End Permian Mass Extinction, the greatest of the "Big 5", which actually starts with #2 in this list. A confluence of several causes, including inconceivably enormous amounts of lava that erupted to form the Siberian Traps ("trap" is a kind of volcanic rock). At least 90% of all species wiped out. Great Extinction #4.
  • 201 ma - End Triassic Mass Extinction, triggered when a less intense extinction caused by trap volcanism was augmented by an asteroid impact. At least 50% of species became extinct. Great Extinction #5.
  • 65 ma - End Cretaceous Mass Extinction, primarily caused by an asteroid impact, but trap volcanism was also occurring around this time in India (Deccan Traps). Wiped out most of the dinosaurs, leaving only birds, and also the pterosaurs and marine reptiles such as the plesiosaurs. The most famous of the "Big 4", Great Extinction #6.
  • 2.5-0 ma - The ongoing Pleistocene-Holocene Mass Extinction. Initially a result of the ice ages that began when North and South America became connected at the isthmus of Panama, it is not yet clear whether this is, or will, rank with the "Big 5". What was begun by continental glaciation is apparently continuing due to human interference with the biosphere, possibly including causing a big boost in carbon dioxide. A Significant Extinction Event. If we outdo ourselves, it could become #7.
This is the framework within which life on Earth has developed and evolved. According to this Wikipedia analysis, these are the most significant of at least 25 extinction events. While Earth nurtures life, and may be a nearly unique planet in doing so, it is still a dangerous place. Just ask the more than 99% of all species that are no longer living here. In spite of that, there are between 5 million and 15 million species of Eukaryotic life in existence, and anywhere between a few million and a billion kinds (the word "species" is harder to apply) of Prokaryotic life.

Now it is time for terminology about the kinds of living cells.

  • Prokaryote is meant to convey "prior to the nucleus", where "kary" refers to the nucleus in cells that have them. There are two major domains:
    • Archaea, which until recently were considered to be bacteria. But they have an odd mix of primitive and advanced features that bacteria don't have at all. For example, their ribosomes, which translate DNA codes into proteins, are complex and very similar to those of Eukaryotes. Bacteria have simpler ones.
    • Bacteria include all other prokaryotes, including all known pathogenic prokaryotes. Some (including me) consider Bacteria a younger offshoot of Archaea, and others consider it the other way around.
  • Eukaryote means "good nucleus". The cells are much larger, and contain mitochondria, which are prokaryote-sized energy-producing organelles that are considered to be descended from prokaryotes that were engulfed by a larger one but, rather than being digested, kept, "enslaved", and eventually became an internal part of all eukaryotic cells. Alternatively, the smaller prokaryote may have begun as an endoparasite to a larger species, that developed into an endosymbiont. Anyway, every cell in your body (except red blood cells) contains from hundreds to thousands of these little organelles, and you'd die in a matter of seconds if they were somehow killed off.

The authors draw on new discoveries in every area of geological and biological sciences imaginable. The various eons, eras, periods and so forth, delineated in the outline above, had an array of living creatures, both plant, animal, fungal, and prokaryotic, that differed significantly from those in any other. For example, before about 120 ma, were you to visit in your pocket time machine, you could not go about smelling the flowers because the few that had existed for the prior 30-40 million years didn't have nectar or perfume yet. There weren't any bees to attract. Jump back to the middle Cambrian, say, 520 ma, and there was nothing living on land except some bacterial crusts here and there. The main sea-bottom creatures were scuttling shrimp-like and isopod-like things including trilobites, also mollusks and clam-like brachiopods. Tentacled things such as ammonites weren't yet present, but there were numerous creatures we would probably not recognize, scuttling and swimming about.

The kinds of living things that existed, and the transitions from one kind of biosphere to another afforded by the various cataclysms, form the main subject of the book. I am overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information the authors packed into some 360 pages. Even many of the end notes,  those that weren't just strings of references, made fascinating reading.

To pick one significant learning from the book as a whole: several of the extinction events are classified as "greenhouse events". Certain periods were characterized by temperatures beyond tropical. Given that the Sun was several percent less bright half a billion years ago, and 40% dimmer around 3,000 ma, carbon dioxide alone could not produce global temperatures that would have exceeded 35°C (95°F) nearly everywhere, day and night. Methane eruptions, possibly from warming of methane clathrates in the shallower seabeds, were involved.

Certain geologic cycles, such as the formation or breakup of a supercontinent such as Pangaea or Rhodinia, cause large excursions in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While that level was around 280 ppm a century or so ago, and is 400 ppm today, it was 1000 ppm or higher, sometimes much higher, during much of prehistory. A period of warming when carbon dioxide rises can trigger methane release. Methane doesn't last more than a few years in the atmosphere, because it can be oxidized. But sometimes, oxygen has been low at the same time as high carbon dioxide and methane, and then the methane lasts much longer and accumulates. The Triassic contained one such ultra-hot period.

And a fun fact: The present oxygen content of the atmosphere is 21%. At certain earlier times it was as high as 35%, which had several effects: the amount of nitrogen was the same as ever, so air pressure was ~15% higher; the extra oxygen provided extra energy to animals, and could in particular penetrate more deeply into the semi-passive respiratory systems of insects; and these two things led to some insects getting very large, such as a dragonfly with a meter-wide wingspan. The atmosphere was smokier, though, because of great forest fires. But the oxygen level was kept high by the rapid burial of organic debris that didn't get much chance to rot during that period. So...a dragonfly as big as a crow. Wow!

You don't have to specialize in geology or biology to enjoy this book. It is intended for us all, and the authors are very good at explaining what their jargon means.

(I won't go into detail about a few copy-editing errors I ran across. That's for a private letter. But I must comment that good proofreading and copy-editing are becoming less common. Authors out there, and editors, you can't just rely on a spell-checker. How else to account for the word "Cambria" where "cambium" was meant? The former is the historic name of Wales, and the latter is the living tissue in a tree.)

Friday, October 19, 2018

Must we get ready for a bee-free diet?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, bees, native bees, pollinators, pollination

Do you like melons, including watermelon? Do you use pumpkin, zucchini, or other squashes? Maybe you like to eat more exotic produce, such as kiwi fruit or passion fruit, or nuts such as Brazil nuts and macadamias. For all of these, pollination by bees is essential. If there were no bees, the yield per acre of these crops, if they could be commercially grown at all, would be 1/10 or even only 1/100 of what it is at present.

Maybe you like apricots, blueberries, loquats, peaches, plums or cherries; or how about almonds or cashews; maybe pears, apples, or raspberries. My wife, along with many, adores cucumbers and eggplant. All of these also need bees to bear well. These crops and many others are listed as having "great" need for bees to pollinate them in resources such as this Wikipedia page. Overall, bee pollination is responsible for about one-third of our food supply.

I have not yet specifically mentioned honeybees. Honeybees can and do pollinate all these crops and many more. For some of them, only honeybees seem to do an economical job of it. But there are 20,000 species of bees so far known worldwide, and 4,000 of them are found in North America. Most of them are pollinators also.

The honeybee is a little larger than average. This one is shown sharing a flower with a sugar bee (AKA bush bee) in Australia; they are smaller than average (Picture credit, in NSW, Australia). When I watch the bees that come to my chives in late summer, I typically see a few honeybees, and many more small ones that are similar to a bush bee. Here in the U.S. many of the littler bees are mason bees, which live in holes in the ground or in wood. In fact, other than honey bees (which are a European import) or several species of bumble bees and carpenter bees, most bees are "little dark things" about the size of a grain of rice.

I won't go into Colony Collapse Disorder or other ills that are presently wiping out so many colonies of honeybees. Rather, with such problems as a background, we need to be thinking about what we will do if the principal species of honeybee soon become extinct. Knowing that there are so many thousands of species of native bees, and knowing that most native bees are also pollinators, we need to ask, can they do the job if honeybees fail?

In Our Native Bees: North America's Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them, Paige Embry takes aim at this question. As the title makes clear, many of the native bees are suffering declines along with honeybees, for a variety of reasons. Some of them are prone to the same diseases and mite infestations that are part of the problems honeybees are having. Others are being wiped out just because they are "little dark things" that we don't notice when we decide to monocrop a field that was once part of a more traditional (multi cropped) farm; or to spray a new (or old!) insecticide that hasn't been tested for native bee safety; or to either drain a pond or create a new one.

Bee diversity is a big theme of the book. The book is richly illustrated, with photos of many bee species. Many of those photos were taken by Sam Droege of USGS, who produced this montage (I got his photo from the Jones lab at Bowdoin). The great diversity of bees and other insects prone to pollinating has led to an equal diversity of flowers that need pollination. So much so that not all flowers can even be pollinated by honeybees.

One such is the tomato. Ms Embry got interested in bees when she discovered that only bumble bees can do "buzz pollination" that tomato flowers need to release their pollen. Honeybees aren't strong enough. Other flowers are too long or deep. In the picture above, the two bees at the left of the second row are shown with their mouth parts extended. They can pollinate flowers that honeybees cannot reach into. The green one is a kind of sweat bee, so-called because it will also extend that long "tongue" to lick sweat off your body on a hot day. The sweat bees I knew as a child were brownish yellow and looked more like a half-size honeybee. But the ones here on the Atlantic coast of the U.S. are shiny green or green-and-yellow. Sweat bees can sting, not nearly as painfully as a honeybee, but most bees smaller than that don't sting.

A significant few chapters of the book are about BOB's, the Blue Orchard Bees. They are one kind of mason bee that scientists are experimenting with, to see if they can be produced and cultivated to compete with honeybees in, for example, the huge almond and cherry orchards of central California. One benefit of BOB's is that they are much more efficient workers than honeybees, by a factor of about 10! Thus, if you need a hive of 30,000 honeybees to pollinate an orchard (that would be a small orchard), a box of "tube cards" containing only 3,000 BOB's could do as well.

One great problem of beekeeping, whatever sort of bees one keeps, is keeping them alive when the flowers aren't blooming. BOB's don't make honey to tide themselves over the winter the way honeybees do.

As an aside, when I lived next door to a commercial beekeeper, he told me that he and his employees would make sugar syrup, which is much cheaper than honey, to feed his bees over the winter. I wonder how healthy those bees were come spring. The syrup doesn't have all the micronutrients that honey has.

BOB's store pollen instead of honey, and their young winter over in the tubes the mother bee fills with pollen pellets (I am oversimplifying). When they emerge in the spring, they need to find sources of pollen right away. Thus in other portions of the book we read of places such as golf courses that work with initiatives such as Operation Pollinator. Instead of managing the "rough" in a golf course as just another grassy field, the groundskeepers can mix in a variety of blooming plants. Not only do bees do better, but many golfers like the "wilder" (though still managed) appearance of the rough alongside the fairways.

This can also work in our yards. Many suburban yards have flower beds and borders. Most bees are not too picky, so even if we like to plant a lot of non-native flowers, they'll draw bees of many species. But we can also make sure to have something blooming all through the spring, summer and autumn. Even the grassy areas can have some flowers: my yard, for example, has a lot of white clover, which is beloved of many bees. I have a front yard and side yard (the back yard is too shady to support clover). I mow then on different schedules so that there is always some clover in flower somewhere in my yard all summer long. But I have a variety of non-grass areas where I can add more bee favorites.

The author tells us a little of the Great Sunflower Project, which has a few parallel initiatives to collect information about native bees (and honeybees if they are seen). I grew Lemon Queen sunflowers for three summers and reported my sightings to the Project. However, summer is hot and sticky here, and standing around for 15-30 minutes at a time during a heat wave was more than I wanted to bear any more. But I did learn a little about the local native bees. I also got to see goldfinches, which love the sunflower seeds.

This is one of my pictures of a bee on the bloom (the central part of the flower is about 2 inches across). I understand this green-and-yellow bee is also a sweat bee (I am no expert). The most common visiting bees were bumble bees.

I am optimistic that, even if there are many fewer honeybees on the job in the future, native bees can pick up a lot of the slack. All of it? Probably not. It may be that our diets will change somewhat. Meantime, understanding bees better can only help, and this book is a big help.

Spiders going more global

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

A few days ago I noticed a big spike in views of this blog, preceded by some smaller spikes. Here is the audience analysis for the past week. Keep in mind that in a more usual week, 75 views is about average for the U.S., and no other country exceeds 25-30 views. Some time I'd like to hear from the owner of the Russian spider scanner, what they are seeking. The U.A.E. is a new one, and Vietnam scarcely rises into the top ten.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Enjoying whale science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, whales, science, paleontology, natural history

Almost a year ago, I went with several colleagues from the Delaware Museum of Natural History (DNMH) to look at the skeleton of a humpback whale on the shore of Delaware Bay. It had been a juvenile whale, about 35 feet long, that washed ashore dead near a popular fishing pier. It was towed by the state Department of Natural Resources to a more sheltered spot on a wildlife refuge, to rot in peace. Here are some of the crew having a look. The skull is to the right.

We were mainly there just to see it. The director and a curator were along, though, and they decided to see if the museum could get permission to collect at least the skull. Early this year they applied for the appropriate permit, which was approved. They decided to bring the skull, several vertebrae, and a flipper if they could excavate it from the sand. A large shed was put up in the museum's back yard.

Just about a month ago a few folks went to gather it. The skull weighed about 250 pounds, so it took a few people to lift it onto a flatbed truck. Anyway, they got it safely retrieved, along with several vertebrae and the flipper they could get to. The skull was put in the shed, where I took this picture. You can see that the remaining skin, seen in the photo above, had been eroded and eaten away, leaving just the not-too-smelly bones.

This isn't stamp collecting. This skull is about as big an object as the museum is capable of storing and preparing for exhibit…and exhibiting. A new plan for the exhibit halls is in the works anyway, so they'll tinker with it to find a way to include this, possibly as a touchable piece. It will need a bit of degreasing before it is fit to touch, though! Whale bones such as these are full of fats and oils, even after more than a year in an exposed location.

Reading Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson, I learned that the Smithsonian Museum's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) has a series of warehouses on the outskirts of Washington, DC, where research collections and other materials not on exhibit are kept. That includes thousands of whale specimens, including hundreds of skulls.

The DMNH skull is rather small compared to some. The skull of a mature blue whale can be more than 25 feet long, and each lower jaw bone weighs about a ton. It takes a lot of muscle to hold such a pair of jaw bones in place during lunge feeding, but a 100-to-150-ton animal has the muscle to do it.

Dr. Pyenson is a paleontologist at NMNH, specializing in fossil marine mammals. To understand the past of whales, he has spent a lot of time with people who work with living (or recently living, in the case of whalers) whales. He is the kind of scientist I like most, one who gets out of his stovepipe and works with others in allied, and not-so-allied, fields.

True to the title of the book, it is in thirds, for past, present and future. Whales as we know them arose rather recently, roughly 5 million years ago. Fully aquatic whales, similar in shape to modern species but smaller ("only" the size of a minivan or school bus), have been around for something like 35-45 million years. Earlier semi-aquatic "whale ancestors" date to 45-55 million years ago. The earliest "whale", called Pakicetus, was kind of like a big dog that could wade and swim. A significant portion of the author's study is aimed at finding how whales grew to the awesome sizes of the largest ones that exist today. A few species regularly exceed 80 feet in length (24m), topped by the blue whale; the largest blue whale ever measured was 109 feet (33m) long.

A tentative scenario for producing really enormous whales is the combination of a globe-girdling Southern Ocean, but a closure of the Atlantic-Pacific communication that existed until 4-5 million years ago, until the uplift of Panama. Currents and wind patterns cause localized upwellings of nutrients, which in turn cause stupendous accumulations of small prey animals such as krill and herring. Large whales migrate long distances to feed on these bountiful feasts in their seasons. A really big whale has to eat a lot. Being big, though, it can travel more efficiently than a smaller animal, so crossing the Earth to get between areas for feeding and breeding is more possible. There are other factors the author enumerates.

The author's life is at the extreme end of being a naturalist, for which he has to (gets to) travel as far as the whales do, and to all the places where whale fossils or whale remains can be found. He tells amazing stories of field seasons in Chile and Norway and Alaska. He got to try his hand at putting a suction-cup tag on a whale in Alaska. Live and learn: he broke the tagging pole, but got the tag on. Such tags stay on for just a few hours or for a few days, then slip off. Then begins the fun of locating the tag, which fortunately is sending "Here I am!" radio signals. Only then can the scientists download the data and pictures the tag has accumulated, to see what the whale has been doing. He also tells of the astonishing find of a series of four strandings that happened a few million years ago, probably caused by red tide or a similar toxic phenomenon. Dozens of complete whale skeletons were found it a special place in Chile, of sizes ranging up to 30+ feet (9+m). That is as large as whales became at that time. But a single, complete skeleton is usually the find of a lifetime. He and his colleagues were blown away to find acres and acres of them!

Whales today exist as about 80 species, from smaller dolphins and porpoises—roughly human size—through the "usual" 40-70-foot sizes we associate with sperm whales, humpback whales and gray whales, to the really big blue and finback whales. About 8-10 times as many fossil species are known.

What of the future of whales? A generation ago their future was in doubt. Already by the early 1900's, it is thought that 90% of all whales had already been caught and killed, but the catch continued until the 1970's, when a series of international laws were enacted. Some whaling still occurs (and it gave the author a chance to dissect some very fragile portions of whale anatomy). But the chapter "Shifting Baselines" reveals a great problem when a trend goes on longer than a human lifetime. The "good old days" that senior whalers now living remember actually represent a much-depleted ocean. Nobody living remembers a time like the 1600's when whales outnumbered ocean-going ships.

I remember when I was trying to get a multi-level marketing business going, and two women came to one of my presentations, apparently drawn by the "anti pollution" portion of my advertising. But they didn't want to sell my products. They really wanted to "Save the Whales." Considering that this was 1970 or so, the whales they wanted to save consisted of about 3% of the whales that once roamed the seas.

Today a few species have rebounded, but there are still probably no more than 10,000 (some say 20,000) blue whales remaining, and there may be more than one million sperm whales. As Captain Ahab could attest, they are harder to catch than a blue whale. But there were probably at least half a million blue whales 200 years ago, and several million to perhaps 10 million sperm whales. Those are just two of around 80 species.

How will climate change affect the whales? It seems that in recent years some Pacific gray whales (the only remaining gray whale species) have made their way through the Northwest Passage to the Atlantic, something not possible for the past 2-3 million years. However, human shipping is starting to take advantage of the same passage, and ship-whale collisions usually go very badly for the whale.

I could rhapsodize on and on. I really enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

A different take on robots and cyborgs

kw: book reviews, science fiction, robots, cyborgs

Murderbot is a cyborg with a conscience. Strangely, the transport-controlling "bot" he calls ART (for Asshole Research Transport) seems to have one also. Maybe ART is part human, as is Murderbot, which is what he calls himself, in preference to an Alphanumeric designation that is never stated. He also uses the term "murderbot" more generically, to refer to all SecUnits; the term isn't explained in Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, but it's pretty clear that it means Security Unit.

Unless I missed something, there are three levels of mechanical and part-mechanical entities in Artificial Condition, in addition to non-mechanical humans:

  • Bots, which are probably wholly mechanical, though this isn't always clear in the book. They have various amounts of AI. ART, in particular, is an extremely capable and extremely powerful entity, built into the Research Transport (something like a self-driving Space Shuttle). ART may be part human; that is left ambiguous.
  • SecUnits and their ilk, that exist for specific tasks. They are very dangerous, and have "Governor" units built in to keep them from "going rogue". They have a minor but important human component, including brain, face, and some other portions.
  • Augmented humans, more human, less mechanical, but typically stronger and faster and more capable in chosen ways, than they were before augmentation.
Certain entities may be more like the SecUnit, such as ComfortUnits, AKA SexBots. A ComfortUnit that plays in the story has a Governer circuit also. I guess you'd want a mechanical sex partner that was stronger than you are (so you couldn't hurt it) to be "governed" from hurting you.

As for the plot, I'll just provide a glance at the setup. Murderbot is rogue, having hacked his Governor circuitry, and is thus operating on his own. He is trying to find out if he was truly the SecUnit that "went rogue" some years earlier and killed a lot of people, or, indeed, if the deaths were even due to a rogue SecUnit at all. Parts of his memory were "wiped" so he has to do on-the-spot research. As cover, he poses as an augmented human and has himself hired by a trio of scientists who want to go to the same moon, to retrieve data that was stolen from them. He is to be a bodyguard. ART runs the Research transport vehicle that takes him to a waystation near that moon.

With the help of ART, he takes better care of the scientists than they expected. He and ART have a fraught but useful relationship.

I was most fascinated by the interior life of Murderbot (of course, as imagined by the author). Though this is a small book, it takes an important step in a direction that Isaac Asimov was going with his Robot stories. Does the inclusion of a human brain in a massively powerful cyborg endow it with a conscience? In at least this case, perhaps it does. I don't know if Ms Wells plans more little books (150pp, more or less), to become a Murderbot series. I'd welcome it.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Striking a balance between error and perfection

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, heredity, inheritance

"Heredity" and "inheritance" were once near-synonyms. Both referred to the physical goods an heir would receive upon the death of his (rarely her) parents or other testator. Carl Zimmer begins She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by teasing out the history of these words, how they have changed through time. He takes off from there, producing the most amazing book I have read so far this year.

This book is quite a tome, at 600+ pages, and only the author's skill in writing terse, yet gripping prose, kept it from being twice as long. It is more than a review of genes, genetics and their history. We get a behind-the-scenes look at many of the players in the developments that became the modern cluster of "genetic sciences." I was particularly intrigued to learn that Gregor Mendel didn't just grow peas as a hobby, and then keep a diligent diary about it. Throughout Europe there had been "in the air" a rapidly growing interest in selective breeding, and he and his abbot decided on a research program to determine ways of improving the practice.

In five parts, the book draws together nearly twenty big themes, and how each was discovered and, effectively, turned into an engineering discipline. "Genetic engineering" has gone on since the first farmers selected only the grains that were biggest and most easily grown for their seed stock, and since the aurochs was gradually transformed into domestic cattle in a similar, but slower, fashion.

I remember reading a couple of years ago that we pass on to our descendants between 50 and 100 mutations, variations from the genetic baggage we received from our parents. Zimmer brings out something I had not taken thought to calculate: Each of our germ cells—ova for females, sperm for males—has some mutations that differ from every other germ cell. They share many, but each has some unique ones that arose when the individual germ cell was produced from the stem cell. Throughout our body, the total number of mutations may be dozens of quadrillions!

That means that we are all mosaics. A tortoiseshell or calico cat (such as my cat shown here) is a visible mosaic. Each colored patch grew from a single cell in the embryo. In a calico cat, with large patches, the differentiation occurred early, when there were comparatively few cells to develop into the entire cat's coat. In a tortoiseshell cat, with smaller patches, which also tend to be more stripey, it occurred later. A "brindle" cat can be thought of as a tortoiseshell cat whose coat colors are much more finely divided, perhaps just a few hairs each.

"Coat" (skin) color in humans is sometimes visibly mosaicked; a friend of my son in college looked like she had been splattered with gray-brown paint. But in every multi-celled creature, every time a new cell is formed by cell division, either during early development or from a stem cell, there is an opportunity for a DNA copy error of some kind to occur. When that occurs the new cell is genetically a little different from its "sister cells". But, the production of the stem cells also produces variants, so that all the descendants of such stem cells have the new variation. I have a number of brown spots on my skin (on average, people have 25 over their bodies, some less, some more, and some much more). Each grew from a single cell with a different expression of melanin. A key point of this section: Cancer is a mosaic expression.

We are all mosaics, of numerous characteristics, nearly all of them invisible. I find this astounding. Yet it shows the balance between perfect copying and occasional errors that characterize growth and development. For the DNA in a cell to be copied perfectly requires a stupendous level of accuracy, a level not seen outside computer technology. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs, meaning that when the DNA is "unzipped" for copying, there are 6 billion bases to be copied.

In a business context, you may have heard of Six Sigma Methodology (6σ), which aims to produce products and services with no more than 3.2 defects per million. There is a dirty secret to 6σ: a "process deviation" of 1.5σ is allowed, so the stated defect rate is actually 4.5σ. True 6σ is actually about one defect per billion. DNA copying, to be perfect "most of the time", requires less than one defect per 6 billion, or a production-perfection level of at least 6.28σ…with no "process deviation".

The perfection of copying computer files is about at this level, but only because of parity bits added to 8-bit bytes, which are actually stored as 10 bits, and checksums for larger chunks, which allow a lot of error correction, and detection of many errors that could not be corrected, so the software doing the copying can try again. Did you know that, when you get a hard disk failure, it is only reported to you after the software has tried 50 times without success to make a copy that passed all the checksum tests and other error-detection codes? Programs like CHKDSK look for portions of the hard disk that cannot yield perfect copies and marks them so the software will no longer try to store data there. The cellular mechanisms for DNA copying include methods that are similar in philosophy, though much different in implementation.

So, more often than not, when one of your cells (or a cell in a cat, horse, tree or blade of grass) divides, the result is a perfect copy. Some percent of the time, a small copy error occurs. Some smaller percent of the time, a larger error occurs, like getting a snippet of DNA turned around or copied twice…and there are other kinds of errors. Some errors are bad enough that the new cell cannot function and so it dies.

But there is another level of "error tolerance", in the DNA-to-protein code. Each amino acid has more than one code associated with it. Some important ones have as many as six, among the 64 3-letter codes that represent the 20 amino acids plus START and STOP. So certain small errors make no difference at all in the protein produced. Such "silent mutations" accumulate, and form the "DNA clock" used to determine how closely related one species is from another, and how long ago the two species split from a common ancestor.

Once in a while a mutation that is not silent actually makes the cell or the organism function better. Such beneficial mutations also accumulate, and over time can lead to new species. Non-silent mutations that are not beneficial may lead the cell or the organism to die, and are thus instantly weeded out, or they may handicap it to some extent, making it less likely to reproduce. This combination of a steady, but low, error rate, and an environmental filter on what is and is not beneficial, is the mechanism of natural selection.

So, back to the thesis of the book, at least in its earlier parts, we find that genetics includes a certain tension between near-perfect copying and the weeding out of most, but not all, copying errors. If copying were perfect, nothing would change (this is the Creationist view). But if copying had been perfect from the first dog, the first apple tree, or the first human, every member of each "kind" would be exactly the same, without variation. You and I would look identical (unless you're female, then you and every other woman would look identical). There would be no moles or other kinds of pigmented spots on our bodies. There would be no mosaicking.

On the other hand, if copying were too sloppy, a large fraction of pregnancies would terminate early in miscarriage, a huge load of birth defects would occur, and everything would die out. Actually, with a little luck, natural selection would drive the surviving creatures in the direction of more perfect copying, until a balance, such as the present balance, were achieved.

The later parts of the book present the several stages of "genetic engineering", including stories of the triumphs and disasters along the way. We are friends of a family named Gelsinger, and a cousin of theirs was Jesse Gelsinger, the young man who died at age 19 of a huge allergic response to the virus that was being used in an experimental genetic therapy for his chronic condition. That particular kind of "gene therapy" came to an end then and there.

Now there is Cas9/CRISPR, and some allied methods (some natural) called "Gene Drives" (only one of them makes use of CRISPR). If these methods fulfill their promise, DNA will become as editable as a Microsoft Word document. Carl Zimmer is guardedly optimistic about the possibilities, but this is the source of the word "Perversions" in the book's title. The genie is already out of the bottle. Not everyone who works with these new technologies is righteous. None is wise enough to think through the implications. After all, less than a generation has passed since Jesse Gelsinger died, and he died primarily because the researchers had not expected allergies to be a problem. Well, Duh! A good friend of mine is most likely to die of taking a breath at the wrong time, in the presence of people eating peanuts. A woman we knew well some years ago came into our house after we had sprayed an insecticide in a back bedroom. She almost collapsed, and had to be half-carried out of the house to fresher air. We could visit her, but not the reverse, thereafter.

Will the new genetic tools somehow "get out" and wind up blasting the biosphere with the biological equivalent of that (so far imaginary) nemesis of nanotechnology, Gray Goo? Maybe. It cannot be ruled out! However, the hope I see, and I think that our author sees, is that there is so much variety in nature, so much variation in the 7 billion of us also, that any biological Gray Goo will not affect everyone. One of his correspondents told him that there have been gene drives unleashed in natural ways in the past, but that the biosphere has eventually deactivated them all.

I have just skated on the surface of a couple of the ideas in Her Mother's Laugh. This book contains more ideas per column-inch than I know what to do with. A tour de force.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The purported enemy we cannot live without

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business, debunking, polemics

Whether you are reading this on a laptop or desktop computer, or on a tablet or a phone, that "device" is probably a cornerstone of your life, and it probably cost between two and twenty times the amount of pay you receive for an hour's work. The iPhone 10 or iPhone X currently retails for $999, about twice as much as a pretty good laptop computer, which is close to 40 times the hourly pay for someone with median income in the U.S. Most of the 200+ million iPhones sold in the past year cost between $500 and $800. The amount of money that changed hands was roughly $150 billion.

Why do people pay so much for an item the size of an open wallet? In a word: Value. These "devices" do, not just something people want, but a very great many things most people want, and they want it very much. So they pay.

Now look around the room you are in. If you were to count, from paper clips to furniture, the room you are in probably contains hundreds to thousands of items. Every one of those items was bought at some time, either by you or a housemate or family member, or by someone who gave it to you. In the basement room I am sitting in to write this, I have many books. Probably more than 1,000. There are nearly 30 cookbooks, for example. This computer is accompanied by two printers, a couple of scanners, several reams of paper, a big desk, and a router. A closet holds an oscilloscope and other electronics I use less frequently. On a bench behind me there are two microscopes and a great many things needed to use them effectively. Every one of these things was bought, mostly by me, at some time. The only things in the room that I did not buy is the mineral specimens on a display shelf, minerals I collected. Of course, I bought a lot of gasoline for those rock collecting trips, and I bought rock hammers and chisels, bags, etc., etc.

Every one of those purchased items, except for a very few "loss leaders", yielded a profit to the seller. Why was there a profit? Simply put, incentive. The chance to make a profit is the reason for the existence of any and every business.

Ask yourself this: If you were to go into business selling left-handed fribble widgets, and the materials to make them cost $10 each, but people are only willing to pay $8 each, why would you run such a business? You need a lot of cash to back you up, so you could effectively pay $2 each for people to take a widget off your hands! But if people were willing to buy them for $12, and no matter how many you make, you'd have a never-ending clientele willing to pay $12 each, and then you could really do business. Each widget you sell, you have a 20% capital profit. Assuming they don't take long to manufacture, so there is little time cost, that's pretty good.

But really, why do you need profit? Why not sell them for $10? The biggest reason is, you need to pay yourself for your work. You need the income to buy food, clothing, other things you want, and perhaps pay a mortgage and car payment. You have bills to pay for electricity, water and so forth. There might be a machine you could buy that helps you make widgets faster (though the materials still cost the same). Making more widgets in less time, you can earn more money, but you'll need some of that to pay off the loan you have to take out to buy the widget making machine. So, for a while you have to operate on a thin margin. Maybe net profit for a while is only 5%. But later, you'll have more income each day. Then you can get better clothing and eat out more often.

That is why there is business. To make money for people so they can buy things they don't make for themselves. Now consider, what if instead of widgets you want to make jumbo jets, and compete with the companies that make the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A380. It takes thousands of workers to run such a company. It is not just business, it is Big Business.

Does all business need to be Big Business? No. For every big company there are thousands of small ones. But many people are suspicious of Big Business. Folks complain about all kinds of things, from the high pay of executives to the "cookie cutter" nature of many products that seem like all the others. When my father ran a manufacturing company, he said the profit margin was close to zero; less than 1%. That is long term net profit, after materials, salaries, dividend payments on stock, taxes and utility bills, plus upkeep of machinery. The upkeep was the biggest uncertainty. In most years, there was a profit figure more like 4%, but the company saved it all, because every few years a big, expensive machine would need repair or restoration or replacement, and it would use up most of those savings. The profit figure in such a year might be negative 15%, but they amortized it (spread the cost out over all the years since the last time) to avoid panicking the stockholders. This company was on the boundary between small and big, with about 500 employees. It didn't need to grow any bigger; it fit its market pretty well.

If a company wants to grow, it needs a bigger profit margin. Growing companies have to get the money to grow from somewhere, and there is ultimately nowhere to get it but from current sales. You may borrow to invest in the needed equipment or facilities, but you have to pay it back…with money from current sales. I came across a good quote about profit:
"Any business arrangement that is not profitable to the other person will in the end prove unprofitable for you. The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated." —B. C. Forbes
Considering that everything you own was sold at a profit, it is odd that so many people are so down on business. In recent years (30+) there has been an increasing attitude that big business is bad in almost every way. Article after article, and many books, are published on this theme, that big business is a big problem.

Well, no doubt some problems are there. But some of the things we hear about and read about are not quite so dire. In 2009 Michael Medved published The 5 Big Lies about American Business: Combating Smears Against the Free-market Economy in an attempt to set the record straight. I recently heard about this book, and bought the e-book. The quote above is from that book.

For me this was an experiment. I wanted to know how much different reading an e-book might be from the paper books I love, my exclusive fare before this. It was actually a great convenience. Since I always have my phone with me (a $150 t-Mobile REVVL, not an iPhone), I could open the book and read whenever I had free time. I have been reading another book at the same time (not finished yet), but that book stays at home, usually by my bedside, and it is big. In another few days I'll finish that book and review it then.

What are the big lies? Putting them more briefly than the author:

  1. The current downturn means capitalism is dying
  2. When the rich get richer the poor get poorer
  3. Executives are overpaid and corrupt
  4. Big business is bad, small business is good
  5. Government is more fair and reliable than business

Let me state at the outset: If you believe #5 is true, stop reading now and go start a business. You might learn something. You can't possibly have had any meaningful experience of either government or business. The Law of Government Spending is, "Nobody spends someone else's money as carefully as they spend their own."

I don't intend to rehash these 5 points. It is well worth reading the book to get the appropriate impact. I do want to address #2. In some cases, the rich really are corrupt and wasteful. But most of the rich got that way by making value where there was none. They did indeed gather a lot of riches, but the people that worked for their companies, the supplier companies they paid for intermediate products or materials, and the people who were able to pay less for their product than the competing one they had been buying before, all were richer than before.

Key learning: Business is not just about moving money around, from one set of pockets to another. Business is about creating or adding value. There is a centuries-old debate about the source of value. People say, "Oh, Gold has value intrinsically. It is valuable just because it is gold." Others say, "Gold has value because people want it." Both are right. Gold is useful and so has intrinsic value. It is also beautiful, so people want it as an ornament. There is a third reason: "Gold has a certain intrinsic value, but when it is in the ground, it isn't worth much because it takes a lot of work to mine it and refine it, and it takes more work to make things out of gold that people will pay for, such as jewelry, or special kinds of wire for electronics, or coins and medallions. Most 'value' comes from labor." This is also right. Much of the value of gold, or anything else "of value" is from the labor of those who mined, refined, produced, or manufactured it. Business creates value.

I'll also touch on #3. Is "income disparity" a bad thing? Some kinds of work, anyone can do. The classic is "digging ditches". When I was a kid, parents would say, "Get a good education. You don't want to become a ditch digger." I never saw anyone digging a ditch by hand (yes, there were backhoes in the 1950's). But we got the point. "Minimum wage" jobs are those that need little or no skill. I made my living for more than half my life as a software coder. That is a skill that is less common, and really good coders (Ahem! Yes, I was really good) are well paid because a lot of code needs to be written, it has to be high in quality, and there are not nearly as many coders as there are unskilled workers. My dad was a business executive. He was paid more per hour or month or whatever than I ever was. He had skills that were less common than mine. Not only that, a good executive or manager doesn't just do work, but facilitates the work of others so they are productive and more work gets done.

Side note: I often eat fast food, including Wendy's. The Wendy's nearest us recently went out of business and was closed. A Starbucks came in a few weeks later. There are other Wendy's places I can go to, and do you know what? I went to the nearby one because it was convenient, and it was "good enough". But compared to the others, the servers were second-rate and slow, and the parking lot was in serious disrepair. At least it was clean; one can always look into the kitchen to see that, and I'd also check the tables and floors. But it didn't do enough business to stay in business. The other Wendy's places I go to now are busier than it ever was. The difference? Management.

Back to #3. Why did the president of DuPont (Mrs. Kuhlman) earn a million dollars per month during my last few years there? Even assuming that she worked a 60-hour week (maybe she worked more), was her time worth upwards of $3,500 per hour? Could she really produce more "value" for DuPont in one hour than I could in a month? The board of directors evidently thought she could. I do know that the company was better run under her, and more profitable, than it had been under the prior two presidents (those between the legendary Mr. Woolard and her). But really, here is who I think is worth $3,500 per hour: the guy who goes in with a screwdriver and disarms a terrorist's bomb. Anybody else, I wouldn't pay more than about a tenth of that, company presidents included. But Medved's writing on this point had me about half convinced that CEO's really are worth their pay. Let's call it a draw.

And…I'll leave it all right there. Do you fear, suspect, or loathe business, especially Big Business? Remember the jumbo jets. You aren't going overseas on your vacation without one. Small business can do a lot, but it can't do everything. There's a place for businesses of all sizes. And that's as it should be. The book is a great read.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Fun with the fishes

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fish, ichthyology

These two little fish, a lanternfish above and a bristlemouth below, may be the most abundant animals on earth. They live about a kilometer deep in the sea, and there are probably a few million billion (that is, about 5,000,000,000,000,000) of each in the sea. That is, around a million of each of these little fish per living human. That is about equal to the total number of termites on (and in) land. This picture shows them around half size, so they are much larger than termites. If there are 1,000 pounds of termites per person, there are close to 1,000 tons of just these two fish, per person. According to this article, one genus of bristlemouth is the most abundant, edging out the lanternfish.

Other fish aren't quite so abundant. Oh, there are a lot of fish in the sea, but not nearly as many as there were before industrial fishing began in the 1800's. Small, bony, bad-tasting fish like bristlemouths haven't been affected, but many, many other kinds of (tasty) fish are only about 1/10th as abundant as they were 100-200 years ago. Further, many kinds of less-tasty ones are destroyed as bycatch, caught in the nets and trawls and discarded dying or dead.

This Gulper Eel is in the running as "ugliest fish", but I think it rather charming. It's a sure bet that Gulper Eels like each other, at least around breeding time, no matter what we might think of them. Fish in general are fascinating. While I like going to a zoo to see the mammals and birds, I adore aquariums. They are just a bit more scarce, and cost more to run, yet are incredibly popular in spite of higher admission fees.

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher's Guide to Life, the Ocean, and Everything, by Helen Scales, just touches the surface of the huge variety of fish stories that could be told. She tells us a bit about how many major groups of fish there are and what they are like, and discusses ten fish-related subjects, in an enjoyable, readable way. And I must mention the illustrator, Aaron John Gregory.

Ask anyone, "What does a fish look like?", and you'll probably get a description that is pretty much like this yellow perch. You can catch these lovely, pan-size fish in many lakes and streams throughout North America. You could make a checklist: Longish oval shape, a fin or two on top and bottom and sides, scales, forked tail, and so forth. Ninety percent of all species of fish are kind of like that, and are called Teleosts ("perfect bone") or "ray-finned" fish.

But some fish don't have bones. Think sharks, skates, and rays. Their skeleton is composed of cartilage, like the easily broken stuff that gives your nose its shape. Some don't have scales, such as eels (well, actually, they have very tiny scales) and adult swordfish. Some fish, though they have bones, don't have jaws. Lampreys and hagfish are the best known (but maybe you never heard of them). Some fish have few bones; a spine but little else, such as puffer fish.

And by the way, fishes of the most common genus of puffer fish, Tetraodon, contain extremely poisonous tetrodotoxin in parts of their bodies, making them the most dangerous fish to eat. Even with strict licensing of sashimi chefs in Japan, every year a few people die from eating puffer fish called fugu that weren't quite prepared right.

For most of us, our main exposure to fish outside of a public aquarium is in the kitchen or restaurant. Most people enjoy eating fish, and the local grocery store usually has a fish counter where you can buy salmon, perch, tilapia, and perhaps trout, bream, and maybe catfish…plus various non-fish such as clams, shrimp and mussels. About 3/4 of the world's people get most of their protein from fish, which is why so many species of popular fish are seriously overfished.

There is a chapter near the end of the book that discusses this problem, and the lack of any useful solutions. Fish farming can make a certain amount of difference, but probably not enough. Along with all the other dangers we cause because of the sheer number of people on Earth, we are eating our way to eventual starvation for many.

I can't end this without one more picture, this time of the biggest fish it is safe to approach, the Mola Mola sunfish. This one is a "mere" 10 feet "tall" (fin tip to fin tip); they get as large as 14 feet and weigh up to 2.5 tons. Ocean sunfish are curious about people and not aggressive.

With some 20,000 species, fish are the most abundant vertebrates. This book just whets the appetite for learning more and more about them.