Tuesday, September 20, 2016

As usual, the aliens is us

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, speculative fiction, short stories, collections, essays

I note upon looking back through my records that I have previously read only two books by David Brin. I reckon it is time to remedy that. His recent book Insistence of Vision gathers stories and a couple of excerpts from throughout his writing career, together with brief story notes and two essays on the craft of fiction writing and his views on its value (positive, naturally, but the key is why it is valuable). The first essay is titled "The Heresy of Science Fiction" and the second, "Waging War With Reality".

One core idea from the first essay is worth abstracting: The message underlying much speculative fiction is one of two moods, either "give up and give in" or "try harder and push forward". Brin is of the latter persuasion, concluding, "…we are the rebels. We who think change might (possibly) bring good." The following 21 stories (including a novelette) and the closing essay illustrate his optimism.

Even in a rather dark story such as the title one, "Insistence of Vision", in which the punishment for certain crimes is blinding (apparently reversible) of the natural eyes, and forcible reliance on virtual reality jacked right into the brain, which is not operative in certain "free zones"; in such a story the actual message is that sanctions more humane than those now practiced might be possible, and even effective.

Here is a basic formula: Discern a trend in society, technology, fashion, or whatever, and extrapolate it to a logical conclusion…or an illogical one! It seems simple enough, and one might think it would lead to one-dimensional fiction. Most certainly it can. But the dimensions available are as numerous as human personal variation allows, and the possibilities are endless. That is just one tool of speculative fiction. Consider a visit by Martians or some similar aliens who out-Spock Mr. Spock. Emotionless, logical to a severe extreme, and they have a grievance against certain persons here on Earth (One thinks of a space probes crash-landing and injuring someone powerful. Kind of like Dorothy and her Kansas house, dropped on the Wicked Witch of the East). How might those beings take vengeance? "Mars Opposition" provides one possible scenario. The plot twist upon the narrator is a "Brin Special", the kind of eye-opening surprise he is noted for.

What makes David Brin special is the believableness of his space aliens. That rests in the glimmer of familiarity. No matter how alien, you find yourself thinking, "I know someone like that" or "that's what I'd do!".

Looking the stories over, I find I must either summarize them all or stop here. I'd better leave more room for a reader's delight. Get this book, and do restrain yourself, so that it lasts more than a single sitting!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Tiphobia horei and photo testing

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs, photography

This post is only incidentally about Tiphobia horei E.A. Smith, 1880, and more about the process of getting good photographs and making images that are both attractive and useful. T. horei is a freshwater snail that is endemic to Lake Tanganyika, which forms a major portion of the boundary between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (called Zaire for a couple of decades) and Tanzania; it also extends to the DRC's boundaries with Zambia and Burundi. The Delaware Museum of Natural History has two lots of this species, both collected in the mid-Twentieth Century. The lot shown below consists of two shells; the other lot has but one.


This image shows six presentations, obtained thus:

  • The background for the column on the left is a black t-shirt I happen to have, though it has a giant Dupont company logo on the front.
  • The background for the column on the right is a piece of commercial black felt. Closely looking at all the original images, I decided the felt is the better choice.
  • The top pair of exposures is the normal exposure the camera's light meter indicated.
  • The second pair was taken with a -1EV setting, and the third pair with -2EV. This was to be sure I obtained exposures that didn't have washed-out highlights on the shell. I needn't have worried.

I use Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program; GNU is a freeware consortium), a free alternative to Photoshop. The first priority here is to stretch the contrast to get the most out of the subtle hues of the shells, and push the background to black and the white on the scale card to fully white.

Here we have a lot of stuff in one image. On the left is the Adjust Color Levels dialog for one of the normal-exposure pictures. On the right is a crop of just its histogram, plus crops of histograms for the other two exposures. We can see how reducing the exposure just shifts all the tones toward black.

Three regions of interest appear in all three histograms. The peak on the left shows the range of dark grays from the background and the black part of the scale card. The peak at far right shows the near-white hues from the scale card. The bumpy peak near it shows the hues from the shells. The very low peak just left of center in the top histogram is from the penny. The clear separations make it easy to push the contrast as I desire. In the Levels dialog one just moves the little triangles at the bottom of the histogram to set the limits and adjust the gamma curve (which initially is 1.0). The following image is the upper right one from the montage above, just cropped to a tight square but otherwise unprocessed.


Here we can see, in addition to the shells and labels, the texture of the felt background. I used a stack of pennies to hold the tip of one shell up so the aperture is in the right orientation. By the way, the lower label indicates "40 m depth", but in the log book it says "40 mm depth". I suspect 40 meters is correct; this species is found anywhere from the surface to 100 m depth but is not common in shallow water. To obtain the next photo I set the contrast limits to 64 and 240 on the Adjust Color Levels dialog. I left the gamma at 1.0.


Now the entire background is solid black, the white of the ruler is at full brightness, and the color variations on the shells are much more distinct. Had I used a lower limit of 128 instead of 64, the pennies would also have become almost entirely black and the range of shell tones would be very strong, but it would look overdone. There is a lot to be said for working with the discriminatory powers of the human eye and brain, and not seeking to overwhelm them. For most purposes this image is a fine illustration of the shells and their labels. At times, such as for identifying shells that are more subtly similar to others, it is useful to increase the visible detail, thus I used one more processing step to emphasize the decorations and markings on the shells:


For this image I used a little bit of Unsharp Masking. It would usually not be a good idea to use this for a published illustration. The masking, a type of sharpening, emphasizes the fine details while lowering overall contrast. Unsharp Masking is one type of High Dynamic Range processing, and works even better when used with a Raw image. But a JPG image has 8 bits of color dynamic range, which comes to a 256:1 range, much greater than the typical 25:1 of a color print or magazine illustration or the 50:1 (at best) of a well made color slide. Thus we can often "pull out" details that would be lost if we just lowered the contrast overall.

Unsharp masking was developed decades ago for film processing, by astronomers who wanted to bring out details in photos of nebulas and galaxies, which have a very high contrast range. It consisted of making an out-of-focus copy of the negative, of the size you are going to make your print. That is the Mask. Then by printing through the mask, much of the large-scale dynamic range is suppressed, and the finer details are emphasized. It takes some experimentation to figure out how far out-of-focus you need to go to make the mask, and which level of contrast in the mask will appropriately render the image you want (when I was doing darkroom work I had five levels of contrast available in the printing and large-format negative films). It is time-consuming and expensive. The Unsharp Masking filter in Gimp and Photoshop and similar software emulates this process using computer code. One may tweak the controls on a dialog and see instant feedback.

As the label above also shows, these two shells were used to illustrate this species in the book "Best of Nautilus". It was a bit of an honor to handle them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

From lab girl to lab woman

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, scientists, botany, autobiographies, memoirs

The stereotype of a career scientist is of someone rather dour, square, dispassionate, and driven; one who cannot be deterred; someone who knew what he (rarely she) wanted in a career and thus majored in a chosen field, obtained degrees (at least two or three), excelled at research, obtained a university position, published (and published and published), obtained tenure, and eventually has come to rule a scientific domain as an éminence grise (best translation: "grizzled crag"). A straight line from birth to near-godhood.

Ha! Not in my experience!! The few grizzled crags I've known were either really harsh SOB's who attained eminence while leaving behind a trail of shattered foes, or (much better!) perpetual children who still aren't sure just what they want to be when they grow up, but have mightily enjoyed the ride along the way. The best scientists breathe curiosity, emit questions with every breath, and seldom take anything for granted. They know that great discoveries frequently began when someone said, "That's funny! What IS that?"

But the one adjective above that is accurate is "driven". Driven to know, driven to find out what and how and perhaps even why. Driven to learn endlessly and hoping, if not to find ultimate truth, to carve a new step or two along the path. Sometimes they know this for what it is. Sometimes not. Either way, a scientist worth knowing seems always to have a twinkle in his or her eye.

Getting to know Hope Jahren through her memoir/odyssey Lab Girl, it seemed at first that her dour Minnesota Scandanavian upbringing might have squashed all the twinkle out of her. She remembers her mother as unendingly stern and undemonstrative, and nearly always angry. But as we learn of her own nearly catastrophic level of bipolarity, and that she hints how it ran in her family, a more sympathetic picture emerges: that her mother kept herself under supremely strict control, not liking it but seeing no other way. The twinkle was suppressed in order to conform to the stultifying reserve inherent in the Minnesotans. Too bad they didn't run into Garrison Keillor very early on! He showed the fun under the stiff collar. Clearly, Dr. Jahren had twinkle enough left in her to have a stellar scientific career. But it came slowly, laboriously.

Lab Girl is half memoir and half an introduction to the botany of trees. At first, a chapter on herself and her life alternates with one on the growth of a seed, a sprout, a sapling. By the end of the book, the segments begin to mix. Dr. Jahren has become the tree she writes about, having survived stage by stage of growth, succeeding in spreading her canopy to take in enough sun to thrive.

We look on human life as though success were a right, a given; that "infant mortality" were an aberration; that poverty of body and soul ought to be rare. The mathematics of reproduction in a forest are grim: A tree produces millions of seeds yearly, and at the end of a life that may be no more than 25 years for a Mimosa or as long as hundreds to thousands of years for oaks and redwoods, if two of those seeds have sprouted, grown, and become mature trees, that counts as reproductive success. We count it unusual for a baby or child to die. But even in this most "enlightened" part of Western culture, we pay little attention when dreams die, when millions labor at nearly useless "work", when the bad (i.e. paranoid) kind of "grizzled crag" crushes the hopes of one perceived opponent after another, whether in science, business, art, governance, or industry.

For much of Dr. Jahren's career she was frequently, almost constantly, in danger of being crushed by more established fellow scientists. Like a sapling in a forest, frequently overshadowed and starved of sunlight, she had to struggle to make her way. But make it she did. And I don't think she is at the peak of her career. Perhaps writing this book indicates that she has a nagging suspicion that she has indeed peaked. Not likely. She has too much drive, too much spunk.

Her blog is hopejahrensurecanwrite.com, and I agree, she sure can write! She writes so well, it might actually be a negative in the eyes of some. My younger brother, now an established professor, was denied admission to a History department's PhD program largely because of jealousy: he was already a published author with a very readable writing style, and history professors are well known for writing either badly or abominably. His "judges" felt diminished in his presence. So he got into an Archaeology school instead and the rest is (giggle) history! However, as Hope Jahren tells us, early on she became proficient at writing "a language few read and nobody speaks", the dry, ultra-precise prose of the scientific article or monograph. Rather than let it stultify her popular writing, she learned to use the lessons of scientific writing to sharpen and brighten it. Thus, when she isn't trying to impress a granting agency, she writes sparkling, need I say, twinkling, prose. I think she has another book or few in her. I hope so.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Real pirates don't hoard treasure

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, pirates, diving, salvage, discoveries

Prior to 2009 only one sunken pirate ship of the "Golden age of (Atlantic) Piracy" (1650-1720) had been found and positively identified, the Whydah, found in 1984 off Cape Cod. Barry Clifford and the others who found the Whydah had a map to go by, though it had been misinterpreted before his discovery. When John Chatterton and John Mattera, ably assisted by Heiko Kreschmer and Howard Ehrenberg, and partly bankrolled by Tracy Bowden, went out to find the Golden Fleece twenty years later, they didn't even have that. They had a smattering of resources including diary entries, old ships' logs, and letters between the Governors of Hispaniola and the English Crown.

They started with what they had, including a strong hunch by Bowden, based on some written speculations, that the wreck would be found near Cayo Levantado in Samana Bay on the north side of the Dominican Republic, which now occupies the eastern 2/3 of the island Hispaniola. "Levantado" means "raised up" or even "levered up", and refers to the island's suitability for careening a ship. Careening is partly beaching a ship and heeling it over so the sailors can scrape barnacles from the hull and do other maintenance a sailing ship periodically needs . Contemporary accounts of a battle between two British frigates and the pirates aboard the Golden Fleece, captained by Joseph Bannister, state that the frigates came while the ship was careened, and that she was partly re-floated but then sunk in 4 fathoms (24 feet) of water.

Chatterton and Mattera, extremely experienced divers and treasure hunters, were enticed and employed by Bowden to search for the Golden Fleece, and once it had been found, they told their story to Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers, about the salvage of a WW2 German submarine near New Jersey in 1991. His new book is Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsessions, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship.

Chatterton's and Mattera's search has as many twists and turns as the life of any pirate of the Golden Age. Their quarry was not really the ship so much as her captain, Joseph Bannister, who began as a very successful merchant captain. But one day he sailed his ship off without lading cargo and went pirate. In the two years that followed, he and his crew robbed many ships and foiled attempts to corral him again and again. But it was the battle with the two frigates that made his name. He won. It appears that, knowing he had to careen the ship to reduce drag and keep her speed up, he careened in a place that he could defend adequately. He had the ship's cannons, including it seems quite a number taken from other ships and kept in the hold, brought ashore in two batteries, where he also stationed a large number of men with muskets. They held off the British until the frigates were out of shot and powder and had to retreat.

The book tells, not just the story of the search and salvage work, but the stories of Chatterton and Mattera, of Bannister as it was gradually unearthed by Mattera's research, and of the work of the deep divers who test the limits of endurance of humans and the equipment to which they entrust their lives. It tells of the relationships, by turns collegial and fractious, among the men who reach the top of their obsessive profession.

It has been said, "An expert is someone who has gotten away with risking his life a few more times than you have." This is most true of salvage diving. The work requires an unusual combination of intelligence and perseverance and patience. Those usually don't go together, and they very seldom go together well. The divers searched every possible area around Cayo Levantado, dived every magnetometer "hit" (and this magnetometer cost the same as a Cadillac, or more), and came up dry. They found lots of "modern trash". No lost ship. Library work, and learning to think more like Bannister, led both Chatterton and Mattera to believe that the island was not well suited to planning a battle against the British navy. They became sure it must have been a different island, and found one nearby that seemed ideal. They couldn't get their backer Bowden to agree, however, and to dive the new area could be considered a kind of mutiny.

Eventually, Mattera decided to look for evidence of the battle on land, and found it. About that time, they obtained a "map" of their own, a drawing of the battle by an eyewitness in 1686, in the "Taylor manuscript", republished in 2008. The layout shown in the drawing matched the new location, and the finding of British cannonballs of the right vintage, deep in the island's soil, clinched the deal. Bowden agreed to a spell of diving and the Golden Fleece was found.

I'll leave it to you to learn the aftermath in the Epilogue. Big egos seldom get the kind of happy ending they are looking for. But we also learn fascinating tidbits about the lives of the "pirates of the Caribbean". For one thing, they were amazingly democratic in their own "government". Ship after ship had drawn up articles of their polity, in which the captain could not have the kind of absolute mastery of a vessel that was the rule in the British Navy. These men had had enough of the evils absolute power can engender! The captain's word was law only during pitched battle. Otherwise, he had one vote like all the crew. It is likely that these democratic ideals, and the chance to make a famous name, attracted Bannister more than the prospect of riches; he was well-to-do already.

Also, the notion that pirates amassed great wealth and stashed it on lonely islands all over the place is a Hollywood myth. Knowing that their life expectancy was likely a matter of months (Bannister lasted about 30 months in the pirate life until he was caught and hanged), they spent their takings, almost to the last piece-of-eight, in carousing ashore between voyages of plunder. Only a captain with considerable foresight could keep back enough plunder to buy provisions for the next voyage. Many with less foresight went into debt to provision a ship, and had to pay the debt upon return, or forfeit the ship.

They were tolerated in Port Royal, Jamaica, a center of their operations, because they at first mainly plundered the Spanish, and the British liked that. They also enriched the merchants there with their carousing. But later they became more eclectic in their takings, so when merchant trade had increased a great deal, by 1680 or so they were discouraged, then forbidden, then outlawed and hunted by the navy. By 1720 the "Golden Age" was over. And now, a golden age for salvagers may be over. Maritime countries around the world are passing laws to reclaim their "heritage" from treasure finders and salvagers, and archaeology is being favored in place of the derring-do of men like Chatterton and Mattera.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Noble Hornsnail

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs


The image above shows all the specimens held by the Delaware Museum of Natural History for the species Pleurocera nobilis (I. Lea, 1845). From the lot-by-lot pictures below, you can see that two lots were originally identified as P. moniliferum (Lea, 1862). That species is now considered a synonym of P. nobilis. This species is found throughout the Tennessee River watershed, but particularly in and near that stretch of the Tennessee River running a hundred miles on both sides of the Tennessee-Alabama border, and into its tributaries.

When Isaac Lea named the species moniliferum, he was referring to a necklace, monile in Latin. With a length of at most 3 cm, this is hardly an impressive river snail. But compared to the rest of the genus Pleurocera it is larger and a little prettier.

Pleurocera means "ribbed horn", referring to the rib or ribs running along the whorls. In this species the rib is rather subtle. This lot of two shells was collected in or near the Holston River in Tennessee north of Knoxville, possibly quite far north, as that river is 160 miles long.

I took pictures for earlier posts on various backgrounds. Someone had said perhaps a standard gray would work, but I found that anything other than black or white tends to make the specimens harder to see. Today I used an enameled black surface, a background for one of the inspection microscopes. It worked pretty well but is rather reflective, so I guess it is time to spring for some black velveteen. I put paperclips under the specimens so I could orient them appropriately.
This lot and the next show how we occasionally run across misspellings and other errors on labels from collectors. "Bridgepark" actually refers to Bridgeport, a small Alabama city on the Tennessee River just south of the state border.

These were collected in 1877, as handwritten on the museum label, which was learned from Richardson's notes. He did not put collector or collecting information on his own labels, but fortunately had notes about many of the specimens he sold to the museum.

Being from a quieter part of the river system than the first lot, or the one that follows, these shells are a little larger and cleaner, not quite so banged up near the tip of the spire. If you'd spent a few weeks looking at other species in this genus, as I have, you would realize that when Isaac Lea named this species nobilis, he really meant it. Most of the pleurocerids are horn-shaped, but are usually rather small, and seldom undamaged. These seem "noble" by comparison.

This lot of three is also from the Holston River, though the original collector misspelled the river name. John D Parker, who gave these to the museum, didn't add his own label, so the volunteer on duty the day this was cataloged just used the spelling from the collector's label.


I included this fourth lot because when I saw it I thought, "It looks just like P. nobilis." These were found near Knoxville, probably at or near the confluence of the Holston and Tennessee rivers. Here is where habitat notes, so rarely made by a collector, might have helped us distinguish what species it really is.

Also, I could find no reference to a Pleurocera species named nodulatum, nor any variation such as nodatum, authored by Say or anyone else, and I don't know who identified it for Richardson or the person he might have obtained it from. There is nothing about that in Richardson's notes. But rather than re-classify it just now, I've put a note in the database that it may be P. nobilis, and to ask the next specialist in pleurocerids who visits to take a look at it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Don't give up on your neighborhood library just yet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, libraries, librarians, digital libraries

Clever geeks have been trying to replace people with mechanisms for a long, long time. "Artificial intelligence" didn't begin with Eniac in the 1940's. It didn't even begin with "The Turk", a chess playing automaton that was exhibited from about 1770 onwards, for more than 80 years. Even after it was revealed that a chess master hidden inside its cabinet was actually moving the hands, it remained a popular attraction. The earliest legend of a manufactured intelligent creature may be that of the Golem; the legends long predate the story of Rabbi Loew in the 1500's.

I have watched the hype intensify for the fifty years I have been involved with electronic computers. Marvin Minsky, in particular, made numerous predictions of things that computers would be able to do "in 20 years", "in 50 years", whatever. He was wildly optimistic. Eventually, though, humans have been bested at certain tasks we tend to associate with "intelligence," by computer systems: Chess, Go, Checkers and Jeopardy. That last, by the Watson system, required tens of thousands of hours of laborious work by more than a hundred computer scientists and database experts, and cost at least a couple of billion dollars (IBM has been coy about revealing the amount). Watson did indeed glean the highest score, but made a few silly mistakes.

During my last ten years working at Dupont, I worked with the Indexing group, spending part of my time reading technical reports—usually very quickly—and applying index labels to their metadata; and part of my time improving the computer interface used by the professional indexers. During those years, we were dogged by questions such as, "Why can't something like Google do this instead, for a lot less money?" Fifteen years earlier I had helped the Indexing group test and review software that was intended to produce the indexing labels automatically. There are a lot of "keyword generators" out there, but only one "Summarizer" seemed to produce any shadow of appropriate key terms lists. It was by far the best piece of software, but it seldom scored better than 50%, when compared to the lists of terms produced by the human indexers. I heard that, a year or so after I retired, most indexing was indeed handed over to software, and though the results are rather poor, they are indeed cost-effective, if one only thinks in the short term. Sigh.

Later, working as an indexer, I experimented with using the Summarizer: After I had gathered my own set of key terms, I would run it and it occasionally came up with a term or two that made me pause, and then add them to my own term list. With practice, and some improvements of the interface, I reckoned that an indexer might be able to save time by having the software display its list automatically after the human list was first created, because it takes no more than a few seconds to discern if any of the machine-derived terms make sense. We might have been able to save some time and also produced a little better results. But with software alone, there is no such hope, and there will not be for at least one or two (or three or more) generations.

This effort was part of the Library and Information Sciences division of the Research department. Librarians have long (thousands of years) been the keepers of the flame of knowledge. Now that "the Web" has become a ubiquitous choice for finding stuff, an index into a world-spanning online library, people are wondering, why keep our physical libraries around? Here is why. The PageRank algorithms used by Google, though they are being continually improved, actually leverage human intelligence! The largest factor in the PR ranking is still the number of pages that link to a page of interest, as a measure of how many people have found it useful.

I built a career in computer programming and information science spanning, so far, 48 years (I still work part time), based primarily on taking proper advantage of both human and machine abilities. I like to call it the Synergy of Mind and Mechanism. Some (benighted) people may think that "the internet" can replace all the functions of the 120,000 libraries across America, and the 350,000 or more worldwide. Actually, with the current flood of new information being generated, mostly by non-professionals and non-experts, the need for librarians is increasing.

All that being said, I find now a book that reaches a similar conclusion, from someone we might call a "partial insider." Though John Palfrey is not a degreed librarian, he was made head of the Harvard Law School Library, where he updated its workflows, reformed it mightily, and kept the best of its traditional "analog" character while adding great digital resources. His status as a "feral"—the librarians' derogatory term for "layman librarian"—has made many librarians look askance at his work, even though it is intended to save their jobs and even increase their numbers! His book is Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (for non-francophones, bibliothèque is French for "library").

The book is not nearly as polemical as I expected. The ten chapters outline nine areas in which this digital age we are entering (we've only just begun) is a complement to the "analog age", not a replacement for it. Just because something is "old" doesn't make it "obsolete" or outdated. We are surrounded by "old" things that continue to function well and may never be replaced.

So it is with libraries. Documents were collected, not because people just like to collect (as indeed they do), but because there was value in having a place where every authorized academic or student could find the key documents needed to do his work. The primary innovation in libraries was not one or another technical improvement, but the opening of formerly closed collections to the public, which began no more than 150 years ago! Libraries and the networked communications of librarians were fundamental to the development of democracy.

I believe it is still true that most of us have a liking for the local library (some 16,700 branch libraries in towns and cities in the U.S. and nearly 100,000 in our schools). But Dr. Palfrey warns that nostalgia can only go so far. To date, nostalgia has not prevented the budgets for public and school libraries, in particular, from being reduced to half of what they were a generation ago, in real terms.

Call me a Luddite: I visit the local branch library at least monthly, and usually more frequently. I still prefer reading books printed on paper. I find that I can read from a computer screen, even the most "retina"-sharp, even the latest paper-white Kindle, no more than 10-15 minutes at a stretch. I can read a paper book for a practically unlimited amount of time. Sure, the under-30 crowd can focus on their screen the whole day long, but I suspect that nearly none of them spends long stretches of time reading an e-book. They scatter their attention, "multitasking". The "eye-unfriendly" nature of every kind of screen so far invented probably has something to do with that!

Libraries and librarians do their best work in a network. This has always been so, although there is a strong tendency toward hoarding within any "collecting" profession, including museum collections as well as libraries. I would never have finished graduate school without free InterLibrary Loan (ILL) facilities. Any book I could learn the title and author for, a reference librarian could find somewhere, and have it shipped to the library or even to me, within a week. The spread of digital technologies makes networking easier than ever. For those who like e-books, ILL can now take no more than a few minutes to find and deliver a document or book…for those items that are still lendable. Chapter 9 on Law warns that digital works are frequently hard or impossible for a library to loan out. The licensing contracts called "Digital Rights Management" trump copyright law, with its specific "second sale" provisions that favor library lending. Lending a hardcopy book is practically free. Lending an e-book often costs some small licensing fee for each loan, and those can add up in a hurry. So while  a $25 hardbound book may seem costly compared to the $12 license fee for an e-book (you never BUY an e-book, you license it), the residual lending-licensing fees can make an e-book much, much more costly than the hardback.

Though this book has less of a "go do this" character than I expected, it does provide great resources for librarians and those who love libraries, and great ammunition to use at those public meetings where town and county budgets are discussed. The librarians are our friends, and they need our help. Has a library near you closed recently, or is one under threat? Get two copies of this book, one for yourself and one for your friendly local librarian, and then go together to budget discussions and enter into the fray of democracy, not just as a voter but as a participant. Perhaps a future generation will look back and thank us for keeping "physical libraries" from going the way of the Dodo.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Presenting CWWN v48 - Messages for Building Up New Believers (1)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Several months ago the small group meeting in our home began using Watchman Nee's "Messages for Building Up New Believers", which comprise volumes 48, 49 and 50 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee. Now that we have used the first seventeen lessons, I thought it good to present volume 48 now, out of the sequence I have been following, because these things are fresh in my mind.

The first of these three volumes contains the first seventeen lessons, with the following titles:

  • Baptism
  • Terminating the Past
  • Consecration
  • Confession With the Mouth
  • Separation From the World
  • Joining the Church
  • The Laying on of Hands
  • Abolishing All Distinctions
  • Reading the Bible
  • Prayer
  • Early Rising
  • Meeting
  • Various Kinds of Meetings
  • The Lord's Day
  • Hymn Singing
  • Praising
  • Bread-Breaking

These are preceded by the transcript of Nee's sharing to his co-workers in July, 1950, regarding the meetings for new believers. He strongly believed the churches need to provide thorough instruction to new believers, based on what Jesus said in Matthew 18:3, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you shall by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens." It is best for a new Christian to assume that everything he or she has done for the past twenty, thirty, forty years or more is totally contrary to God's ways. Thus, all old ways must be dropped and new ways learned. We cannot simply add Jesus to our bag of tricks, as though all we need is a little reformation. When Jesus comes in, the whole bag must be discarded.

In my experience, the lack of specific instruction for new believers will, in a generation, lead to a church composed almost entirely of soulish and fleshly persons, who believe the occasional flash of actual spiritual joy or insight to be a special blessing from God. This was my condition before I came this way. I was soon disabused of that notion, when I realized that, as I said to myself, "Living in spirit is what these people do all day!" My former "golden moments" were spiritual pocket change, analogous to the silver that was despised in the days of Solomon because all the vessels were gold.

I can testify that these lessons are quite challenging. Firstly, they average fourteen pages in length. There is too much material to cover thoroughly in a one-hour meeting. Beginning with Lesson 18 in the second volume (v49 of CWWN), we plan to spend two meetings on each lesson. As one brother remarked in a footnote to an earlier, somewhat abridged translation published by CFP in 1972, "There are quite a number of 'first things' that Brother Nee wished new believers to learn!". In churches that faithfully follow the pattern he laid out, new believers who miss one of the lessons can expect a visit from an elder or two who are prepared to present the lesson personally.

Watchman Nee's particular approach is evident throughout: Our techniques and abilities hardly matter at all; what matters is the source of the work, that is the Holy Spirit of God. Brother Nee sometimes also comes at you from the side, as in "Joining the Church", in which he soon tells us that the true church is one you cannot join. A believer is BORN into the house of God, and we can no more "join" God's house than we "joined" the household of our parents! I remember my joy upon reading, with newly-opened eyes, in 1 Peter 1:3, that God has "begotten us again". My understanding that Jesus is the "only begotten of the Father" was outdated! It referred only to the human life of Jesus, from his birth until he was resurrected. In that same resurrection, we also have become begotten sons and daughters of God. The lesson continues by showing that our life in God is a corporate life. We need fellow believers and even companions in the pursuit of Christ to make adequate headway against the opposition of Satan and the world. We are warned in the letter to the Hebrews, "…not abandoning our own assembling together…" (10:25).

Watchman Nee stresses that it is this life of God in us that must grow and become the source of all that we do. Thus these lessons are guidelines for what to expect from the divine life within us, rather than lists of rules to follow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shells ready for data entry

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

One volunteer has been working with the Collection Manager of Mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History to get some recently-acquired shells ready to be cataloged and put away. "Recently acquired" in a museum collection typically means "in the lifetime of the current curator". The shells in the tray shown below were donated to the museum in 2014, so that is "really recent"!


The details below show that each lot has been identified, and one label has the location, date and donor information, which is the same for them all; all were collected on San Salvador Island in The Bahamas. The first detail image shows a slightly unusual item, a shell attached to a sea pen. The shell is the bivalve Chama radians (Lamarck, 1819), one of the Jewel Box Clams. They are called that because of the detailed decoration of their shells. Other items nearby include some chitins (little known 8-shelled mollusks), mussels, ark shells, various clams and some turban snails.

I took these pictures about 9:00 AM today. The volunteers arrive at 9:30, so "someone" spent this morning entering the data for these boxes of shells into the database. The blue tag in with the location and collecting information gives the Accession Number: 2014.MOL.009. This decodes to "the ninth accession of mollusks in 2014". A thank-you letter was duly sent shortly after the shells were delivered to the museum. A lot goes on between "stuff" arriving on a museum's doorstep, and its full incorporation into a research or display collection.

A reminder for potential donors to a museum: Museum research thrives on data. The donor of these shells gave us pretty good information, but it would be even more helpful to have the actual location on San Salvador Island. It is small, only 15 miles long, but has several micro-ecologies that would interest a researcher. Also, the actual date is best. These are dated "Nov 1978". In the Bahamas, not much changes during a month, but in other locations, it could make quite a difference for some species. Gee, aren't we picky!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dancing to the beat of a different accordion

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, humor, autobiographies, commentary

My father said, "Don't put yourself down. The world is full of people who will do that for you." To make this proverb universally applicable, one must add, "…unless you can make a living from it." Think of Rodney Dangerfield ("I get no respect"). Then think of Alexandra Petri as a younger, brasher Rodney Dangerfield, with a greater range.

How great is that range? One could make a useful estimate from the chapter titles of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences. After chapter 1, "How Not to be Awkward", states, in its entirety,

  1. I have no idea.
  2. Well, how about this? Don't do any of the following.

there follow 23 chapters ranging from "Flopper" (2) to "Tuesdays with Hitler" (6) to "How to Join a Cult, by Mistake, on a Tuesday, in Fifty-Seven Easy Steps" (8) and "Under the Dome" (20 - her father was a Congressman) to "Self-Defense Tips for Fairy-Tale Girls" (21). Don't consider these the extrema, as though they were the points on a starfish. NOr is it even a starfish with 23 points; it is more of a 23-dimensional space. And it implies there are a whole lot more dimensions out there!

In today's paper, the Crossword Puzzle's first and last "across" clues were (1) "Parent of 63 across" and (63) "Child of 1 across". They turned out to be "Baby Boomer" and "Millennial". That is not generally true. My wife and I happen to be Boomers, and parents of a Millennial, only because we were in our mid-40's when he was born. My wife went right out of labor into hot flashes. Most children of Boomers are members of the "X Generation", and most Millennials are their children. Ms Petri, being no more than a few months older than our son, is definitely a Millennial, and between us and her there is a double Generation Gap.

Anyone out there remember the Generation Gap? It was the one between the Boomers and our parents, who were the "Great Depression Generation" and also the "Greatest Generation". They had lived through the two most significant eras of the Twentieth Century, but to us it was all "history", as in our classic dismissal, "Oh, that's history, man!" They said, "Waste not, want not," and we said, "But I want it NOW". They said, "An apple doesn't fall far from the tree," but we were apples with legs, and ran half across the planet. They built "The Good Life" and first we trashed it, then turned anti-trashing sentiment into the Enviro-Nazi movement that drives half of Liberal politics; we soft-heartedly (and soft-headedly) tried to "Save the World" (usually from them!), and Liberal politics (the other half) turned this into the Universal Nanny State (look up "Cowboy after OSHA" to see what I mean).

So it's understandable that it took me a while to warm to Ms Petri's style of humor, and to learn to parse when she was actually being serious. I have observed among Millennials, including our son, that "to think is to do." They lack a filter. In the chapter "Internet Bitch", about the time Rush Limbaugh called her a Bitch, she muses on two collections of words: those that cause a gut reaction, such as the F-bomb and the S-bomb, and those that used to, but don't any more, such as "Zounds!", a contraction of "God's Wounds!"—it could get you burned at the stake in the 1500's. There is a coda. to listen to nearly anyone under 35 speak, the "bombs" and a half-dozen other "four letter words" don't seem to give any of them a kick in the gut, the way they seem to affect Boomers. Fortunately, while not averse to the occasional bombing run, Ms Petri is much cleaner of mouth (of pen? of keyboard?) than most of her generation.

As a journalist (the profession she wraps around all her escapades), she gets backstage for events most of us never hear of. She went to the National Pun contest, entered it on a lark, and did so well that the next year she returned, and won! She applied, and appeared, on Jeopardy; was ahead for a while but then lost. She can't return while Alex Trebek is alive, so she awaits his demise: only then can she return to her "tribe", the trivia-obsessed She did pretty well in a whistling contest. These and other adventures hark back to Chapter 2, "Flopper", in which she shows that, if you can become immune to the shame of being a flop, there are a lot of fun things waiting out there for you to try. You might actually be sorta good at a few of them.

Her humor style is varied, but much relies on the sly exaggeration. She could have almost learned that kind of humor from many of the great humorists of the generation before mine, from Red Skelton to Jack Benny. It would be interesting to see her do a stand-up routine à la Jack Benny. He could draw out more laughs with a slow, turning gaze than a whole monologue by Jay Leno; I bet she could come close.

But her book is about awkwardness, after all. The 23 chapters aren't really about the awkward silences themselves, but about what led up to them…a great many of them. And growing up seems to be the most awkward of all. She sums up the notion that she has become, greatly to her surprise, an adult, this way:
"Everyone sees this competent-looking thing walking around, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, while for the purposes of this metaphor under the iceberg is not more ice but instead a crowd of really nervous penguins frantically trying to hold the ice in place and feeling that they aren't quite up to the task."
So really, why else would she have shown up at the airport to pick up a friend, playing a Polka on her accordion?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Genus at a glance

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

In my work for the Delaware Museum of Natural History I have finished a side project that I began in April and returned to the inventory of the freshwater snails. I came across a genus that has very few species, and our holdings include just one lot each of the three most populous, a total of seven shells.

The genus Paramelania was originally named as a subgenus of Tiphobia by Edgar A. Smith in 1881. Although Paramelania has since been elevated to be a genus, Smith is the acknowledged author of the genus description, based on his work with the type species, Paramelania damoni (E.A. Smith, 1881). For this species the author reference is in parentheses because the genus name was changed by the elevation. Smith's original designation was Tiphobia (Paramelania) damoni. Our lot is shown on the left here, and in the following photo in a bit more detail.


A word about assigning scientific names. At the time Smith was working on African freshwater snails, the genus Tiphobia was considered a large genus with several subgenera. Smith had become familiar with exemplars of many of them. When he described the species damoni in 1881 he considered it distinct enough that he created a new subgenus for it within the genus Tiphobia. In 1898 John E. S. Moore described iridescens, and assigned it to the same subgenus. I have not determined which of two Boettger men (Caesar R. or his uncle Oskar) named Paramelania paucicostata, nor whether the elevation of Paramelania had already occurred. The author was probably C. R. Boettger, who spent time in Africa in 1914. Oskar was primarily a herpetologist, though he did describe several mollusk species.

The genus Paramelania, the genus Tiphobia from which it was extracted, and at least fifteen other genera are endemic to Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Lake Tanganyika is the largest of the African Great Lakes, being the second, by volume, in the world (Lake Baikal in Russia is the largest). At 676 km (420 mi) long and on average 50 km (31 mi) wide, and an average 570 m (1,870 ft) in depth, it is a huge lake, spanning more than five degrees of latitude. Imagine a long, very deep, skinny lake spanning the entire eastern boundary of Nevada! Lake Superior is three times as wide, only 80% as long, and not nearly as deep; its volume is less than 2/3 that of Lake Tanganyika, which hosts numerous habitats for numerous species.

This lot and the next were purchased by the museum from New Jersey shell collector Clarence L. Richardson in 1973, during the early days of the museum.

Here we can see that P. damoni has a rather heavy shell with modest ornamentation. Lake Tanganyika abounds with cichlids and other small- to medium-sized fish, and some of them eat snails. Snails that live in shallow water among the vegetation there need to be heavy-shelled to resist the bite of the fish. These two shells give only a hint of the variation found in this species. The aperture, in particular, frequently has a bit of a "wing" at the top, which we see in the next species.

P. iridescens is shinier and has a higher spire, but is otherwise nearly as heavily built as P. damoni. I have not read any ecology studies of these snails, so I can only speculate that this species inhabits slightly deeper water. The ornamentation is less, but the closely-spaced ribs add strength without adding excessive weight. Even for a small snail living in water, the weight of the shell is an important matter.

These two species are the only ones considered "approved" by the author(s) of the Wikipedia article Paramelania. However, the aggregating site Discover Life lists seven species in the genus, including our third exemplar:

P. paucicostata was named by Boettger for having "small ribs". These snails are very similar to P. damoni, although about 2/3 the length and 1/3 the weight. They probably inhabit either shallower waters, or a region more southerly than P. damoni, and the two species may never come into contact.

This lot was a gift of John H. Alexander, a few years before the Richardson purchase. These two men are among the big names on the earliest collections that laid the foundation for the 240,000-lot research collection at the museum.

We have few examples of an entire genus that fits in a shoe box, though a number of genera do contain but a single species. If we were to obtain specimens of the other four species that the contributors to Discover Life list in the genus Paramelania, our holdings would still fit in a shoe box!

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Quintessential Intellectual

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collections, essays, science, society, opinion

As much Physics as I studied, and as much as I have studied and pondered Relativity, both the Special and General theories, I realized I had never read more than a few lines by Einstein himself. When I saw Ideas and Opinions, a collection of essays and letters by Albert Einstein, I just had to snatch it up. The book is based on Mein Weltbild (My Worldview), edited by Carl Seelig, with a great deal of other material Einstein wrote after that book was published in 1934. Most of the material written before 1935 was in German and appears here in translation, mostly by Sonja Bargmann.

The greatest number of portions of My Worldview are found in the first two sections, about 2/5 of the book, titled "Ideas and Opinions" and "On Politics, Government, and Pacifism". The first section shows him to be a rather typical European intellectual, viewing America from a European standpoint. For example, he observes that an American is more goal-directed but a little less rigidly individualistic than a typical European. That is something with which some Americans might take issue! In his day he might have been the most visible proponent of total intellectual freedom among scientists, only modifying this view somewhat under threat from the possibility that the Nazis might develop atomic power and atomic weapons.

But I found most fascinating his extreme pacifism. In the second section he argues, strongly and repeatedly, for total disarmament, for all nations to eschew the use of force, most particularly armed warfare, and this to be enforced by a global authority which alone would be tasked to enforce the security of all. Here we find the highly brilliant Einstein as the poster child for Ivory Tower idealism. My answer to pacifism is, "As long as there exists the possibility for evil persons to attain coercive power, at any level, all others must be sufficiently armed and have the will to effectively resist, at any level." This demolishes pacifism in all its forms. You can quote me on that, and on this: Human nature must change dramatically before pacifism is practicable.

The third section, "On the Jewish People," contains ten items from My Worldview and four that were written or delivered between 1938 and 1950. Only the last item, "The Jews of Israel", was written (and delivered by radio broadcast) after the formation of Israel in the former territory of Palestine. Better than anyone else I have read from, he makes a clear case that the Jews cannot assimilate into any nation, because they are a nation already, though they were a nation without territory from 70 AD until 1948 AD; and that this fact is the singular source of Antisemitism.

The fourth and shortest section, "On Germany", primarily consists of letters between Einstein and the scientific academies from which he resigned after 1933, but concludes with a paean, "To the Heroes of the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto." These sentences, written in 1944, make his standing clear:
"The Germans as an entire people are responsible for these mass murders and must be punished as a people if there is justice in the world and if the consciousness of collective responsibility in the nations is not to perish from the earth entirely. Behind the Nazi party stands the German people, who elected Hitler after he had in his book and in his speeches made his shameful intentions clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding."
The fifth and longest section, about 45% of the whole, is "Contributions to Science." Here he explained his work to a variety of audiences, primarily his Special and General Theories of Relativity, but also his later work toward a Unified Field Theory. Here his fundamental approach is most clearly displayed, encapsulated in the proverb (not found in this book, because it is a paraphrase), "Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Here we find Einstein as a master explainer. He shows that Newton felt compelled to introduce, almost against his will, the concepts of absolute space and absolute time, to make his mechanics and his gravitational theory work. Later physicists—Einstein mentions Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz and Mach, among others—labored to resolve inconsistencies in subtle experiments that test the limits of classical mechanics, as the Newtonian system has come to be called. Lorentz formulated a transformation based on the constancy of the speed of light, implied in the equations of Maxwell and observed by Michelson and Morley. Upon all this work did Einstein erect first Special Relativity, and a decade later, General Relativity.

I note that he gives rather short shrift to Quantum Theory. Indeed, it is well known that his view was quite at odds with that of Niels Bohr and what is now called the Copenhagen Interpretation. Now, since Einstein's death, three of the four known fundamental forces—Electromagnetism, Strong, and Weak—have been unified into one quantum-based theory, but Gravitation remains stubbornly on its own. Theories abound aimed at reconciling Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity, so far to no avail. The situation is analogous, but more confused, than the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between Newton and Lorentz, but so far no super-Einstein has arisen to resolve it.

It takes a lot of study and deep thinking to become comfortable with the fact that light is both a wave and a particle stream. I became used to working with photon streams long ago. (Here is my favorite illustration: In whichever way light arrives at your eye, it is refracted in the cornea and lens as a wave, but stimulates the cells in the retina as a particle stream.) Photons mediate the electromagnetic field and electromagnetic forces. So is there a Graviton that mediates gravity? Will physics students one day labor to become comfortable with both gravitational waves that obey General Relativity, and gravity as streams of gravitons according to a highly amped-up Quantum Theory?

To those working on this conundrum, I ask these things, for they truly puzzle me:
If gravity is mediated by gravitons, what emits them and where are they absorbed? Specifically, if black holes are real, from what are the gravitons that "reach out" to surrounding bodies emitted? Do gravitons indeed travel at the same speed as light, which implies that they have no "rest mass"? Or are they massive, and if so, how much "slower" than light do they travel (we know that neutrinos with their tiny masses seldom travel slower than about 0.999c)? And if gravitons are massive and thus sub-c, is there a possible violation of conservation of energy or of momentum in orbital motions, particularly on gravitational (or larger) scales? Could this account for the "cosmological constant" that is currently attributed to "dark energy"?
Back to Einstein. Reading his writings about science, one feels one can almost follow in his footsteps. Yet his subtlety and extreme power as a scientific thinker are shown when, upon looking away from the page, we find that we must take many, many tiny steps just to cross from one of his footprints to the next.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Presenting CWWN v07 - The Christian (5)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume 7 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee is subtitled The Christian (5). This final volume of the 1925-1927 issues of The Christian contains all the smaller items needed to round out the contents of a magazine.

The first section, of one chapter, is titled "Stories"; the anecdotes are either instructive items or short gospel stories suitable to be reprinted as tracts. The third of these, titled "The Body of Christ", is a brief recounting of the story of miss M.E. Barber (shown here with her younger coworker ML Ballord), a spiritual mentor to Watchman Nee in his younger years. Its message powerfully illustrates the need for, and value of, fully trusting the Lord Jesus to properly care for His own body (the believers).

The second section, titled "The Signs of the Times", contains in ten chapters the column he wrote titled "Current Events in the Light of the Scriptures". Looking back, some items may seem over-enthusiastic, but they are rather subdued compared to the excited and even extreme predictions made by those today who seem prone to twist every major event into a sign of the end and many a world figure into a the Beast of Revelation (typically, and wrongly, titled "The Antichrist"). Nee was indeed enthusiastic for the return of Christ, but measured and thoughtful in his analysis. Of course, now that some ninety years have passed, we wonder if any of the "signs" bore fruit. He frequently reported on developments among the Jews of Europe and America, and their work toward attaining a homeland in Palestine: It is now nearly seventy years since the nation of Israel was restored, and almost fifty years since they regained control of Jerusalem. Times that seem long to us are short to God.

Ten of the issues contained "The Question and Answer Box", which forms the third section. Here he answered, sometimes very briefly and sometimes more at length, questions sent in by subscribers. The last names of most questioners, and their location, are included, and thus I recognized three or four questions sent in by his future co-worker (and my mentor) Witness Lee. I found it interesting that one of the longest answers concerns the "Two Swords" mentioned in Luke 22:36-38. Nee's answer takes up four pages, whereas most items take up half a page or less. To make his brief exposition even more brief: Nee points out that literal swords were meant, by comparison with other items the apostles ought to purchase; these were not for fighting, but along with the purse and bag, were ordinary needs for travel along robber-infested highways; in their earlier travels Jesus had told them to take nothing extra and this is because they were protected by His authority, but this authority would vanish upon his arrest (He starts the passage with the words, "But now"); Jesus elsewhere said that "those who take up the sword will perish by the sword," so he was not condoning the idea of "Christ-soldiers"; He said, "It is enough" to indicate he was done talking because they weren't understanding Him…as usual.

I have long had four little volumes titled "Twelve Baskets Full", published in the early 1970's in English. The fourth section of this book has about one-third of those items (the rest were gathered from later works of his), that made up a column he wrote for five issues of The Christian.

Four issues contained a column, "Notes from My Bible", brief insights he received from specific passages. These are the fifth section.

The sixth section, of one chapter titled "Fillers", contains small items, usually a sentence or two, that were inserted between other material in seven of the issues.

Fourteen of the twenty-four issues contained "Editorials" and "Announcements", and they make up the seventh section.

Six issues contained one or more "Book Reviews". Whenever he could, Nee would bring out the value of a book, but he didn't hesitate to pan, in a specific way, significant errors or to rebuke heretical works. These comprise section eight.

The last part of the volume is "A List of the Table of Contents for The Christian". This is useful for determining how each item in the five volumes fits in among the rest.

The Christian was revived in later years, and those portions written by brother Nee are included in later volumes of CWWN.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Nicobar Spindle

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

The Spindle shells are lovely examples of marine snails that have very tall spires and extended apertures. This gives them a shape reminiscent of a spindle from a spinning wheel.

I came across these specimens when researching a geographic conundrum, which I will discuss shortly. These are of the species Marmarofusus nicobaricus (Röding, 1798), the Nicobar Spindle. This lot of three was given to the Delaware Museum of Natural History by John Dyas Parker in 1979, but it is unknown from whom he obtained them.

The Nicobar Islands are a small archipelago in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 170 km northwest of the tip of Sumatra Island. This is where this species was first collected, but it is known from around the Indian Ocean and a little beyond.

I have been producing correlation and translation tables between the geographic entity lists that are included in the new database, called Specify, that the museum has recently begun to use. Among the "country" names in our existing database I found the name Hirama Island. Google and other search engines are ignorant of such a place, so I went looking for the specimen. Let's take a closer look at the original label:

The lovely handwriting indicates that the original collector was educated before 1940, and most likely before 1900. Today, nobody writes like this except calligraphers, a nearly dying breed! The collector knew this as Fusus nicobaricus, and I interpret the second line, Chemitz, as referring to an author, who would have been Johann Hieronymus Chemnitz.

J.H. Chemnitz described a great many new species in the 8 volumes he contributed to the monumental late-18th-Century work Neues systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet, or New Systematic Cabinet of Conches, to which he contributed until 1795. However, the description of this species is attributed to Röding in 1798. Apparently, this was not known to whoever wrote this label.

The number 3480 on the label is J.D. Parker's catalog number, and written by him. But the line of greatest interest to me for the present investigation is the third. I can see how an the person who cataloged this thought it said "Hirama Island", but the abbreviation "Is" means "Islands", or an archipelago; the abbreviation for "Island" is "Id". And the first word is much more likely Itirama. Except…Neither Itirama or Hirama exists in any gazetteer that I have located!

 For the present, this is the "official" label for this lot, until we get a new label printed with the current designation. During a reorganization of the family Fasciolariidae in the 1970's, many species in the genus Fusus were reclassified to the genus Fusinis. "Fusus" is from fusum, meaning "spindle" in Latin. "Fusinis" is the same word in a different grammatical case.

Quite recently, the Nicobar Spindle, owing mostly to its markings, was reclassified again, into the new genus Marmarofusus, meaning "mottled spindle". However, as I looked through the entire cabinet, containing specimens of the genera Fusus and Fusinis, I could see that the mottling on this species is not unique in this family, though it seems to be strongest and most definite in this species. I anticipate a certain possibility that the species nicobaricus might be returned to either Fusus or Fusinis by a future systematist.

The islands in and around the Indian Ocean are typically remote. Thus this spindle shell is seldom collected. This tray contains all of the 26 lots of this species in the DMNH collection (The existing database lists 25 of these; when we get to this family in the slow, ongoing inventory, we'll catalog the 26th lot).

This lot, #174594, is at left center in this photo. I am fascinated that the coloration of these is so variable. Two shells are nearly unmarked, and a few have more "fidgety" markings than the ones I have so far focused upon.

Perhaps I'll return to this tray to see if coloration correlates with location. These are mostly from the eastern Indian Ocean and far western Pacific, from New Caledonia to the Philippines and Japan, but a few are from farther west. Some were also collected from the eastern Pacific, presumably as invasive or transplanted species.

That's what is fun about a museum. There is no end of interesting things to take up one's time! Meantime, I'll just have to include a note in the new database that the Itirama Islands have yet to be located, though it is probably safe to use Asia as the relevant continent.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

An open-style memoir

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, aging, death and dying

Abigail Thomas is just a year or two beyond the age of the oldest Baby Boomers, so her third memoir, written during her years approaching age 70, and upon reaching 71, make her a pioneer for those just a bit younger. What Comes Next and How to Like It explores her life as she copes with the deaths of a few loved ones, including her late husband, Rich, whose declining years she chronicled in her prior memoir, A Three Dog Life; and with the beginnings of her own decline.

I prefer not to go into what she writes about . Many prior reviewers have covered that territory very well. I was struck by the form, format and style of this book. Ms Thomas writes with painful honesty and frequently with great grace. I do need to mention a singular image. A "chapter" of six lines, in which she describes her decision to volunteer at a hospice, is summed up thus, "I want to make Death a member of the family. I don't want it to arrive as a stranger."

Many memoirs are narrative biographies that could have been written in the third person with little loss of meaning or content. Not this one. It reads like a series of blog posts or diary entries, with lengths that vary from a sentence or two to three or four pages. Though each piece is titled, it is hard to call them chapters. They are more like excerpts from longer chapters, as though she could have written much more but preferred to leave something for a reader's imagination to work on.

This kind of writing strongly appeals to me, as a useful example. My own attempts to write stories or other long forms have been frustrating. I am an essayist and storyteller, but the pieces need to be rather brief. I can usually say all I wish to say in 1,500 words or less. What the publishing trade calls a "short story" tends to require a narrative arc that sustains itself through at least 3,000 words. Chapters in typical nonfiction books are of a similar length.

I just had to do a brief experiment, taking three books at random from my shelf:

  • The Peter Principle by Peter and Hull. Chapters range from 5 to 22 pages, averaging 10.7. Accounting for illustrations, the chapters are on the shorter side, ranging from about 1,300 to 6,500 words, averaging 3,400 or so.
  • Smart Kids With School Problems by Priscilla L. Vail. Chapters range from 16 to 28 pages, averaging 23. Lengths in words: just over 6,000 to 10,500, averaging 8,700.
  • O. Henry's Short Stories, a Magnum paperback. Stories range from 7 to 39 pages, averaging 15.5. Lengths in words: nearly 3,000 to 16,200, averaging 6,500.

Emulating any of these writers would put me way out of my league! I am comforted by an author whose attention span is closer to mine. Such a string of vignettes gradually paints a vivid picture.