Sunday, February 19, 2017

The bones may be dry, but not the writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, nature, essay collections

Once or twice over the years I stumbled upon an essay by Loren Eiseley. He always had a fresh take on a subject, and his writing has a lyrical quality unlike anyone else from the mid-Twentieth Century on. So when I came across his collected essays in two volumes, I couldn't resist!

I've just finished reading Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays, Vol. 1, edited by William Cronon. This volume and its companion are the 2016 offering of The Library of America Series. Volume 1 contains in three sections the three books The Immense Journey, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe, and a fourth section, Uncollected Prose.

In modern terms, Eiseley was primarily a hominin palaeontologist; he studied the bones and grave-related artifacts of ancient humans and their ancestors and related species such as the Australopithecines. He studied human and prehuman evolution. This is in contrast to an anthropologist who studies human artifacts as evidence of culture and technology. Gathering specimens of archaic humans has always been difficult and very few were known in the 1950's to 1970's when Eiseley was most active. As late as the 1990's you could fit all known specimens of non-sapiens hominids and hominins into a footlocker. A small one. In his day a largeish suitcase was probably sufficient.

When writing for scientific publication, he could write prose as concise and acerbic as any. When writing for the public—and it is clear that this is what he most enjoyed—he wrote with heart and imagination and great lyricism. I know no other like him. He could immerse himself in a different viewpoint and somehow the writing drags us in with him. For example, writing of a spider, that was spinning a web in the heat of a street light late into winter:
  "Good Lord," I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."
  I procured a ladder… There she was, the universe running down around her, warmly arranged among her guy ropes attached to the lamp supports—a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or stepladders. She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web. … a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star. (p 111)
He notes that the web was her entire universe, and that she paid attention to nothing that wasn't in direct contact with her web. Then he wonders what we are missing, thinking that all the universe we see is all the universe there is.

He had a kind of sideways take on natural selection. Clearly understanding evolution and evolutionary theory, he points out that the popular image of "survival of the fittest" is quite wrong-headed and actually back-to-front. More than once he described how little lungfish struggle from drying pond to, hopefully, wetter ones, and calls them "fish failures". The genetic pathway their ancestors took made them less fit as a fish, but more fit overall, allowing them to endure where "fishier fish" could not. A species of lungfish or something like it evolved into the earliest amphibian. Those lungfish that still exist aren't much in the way of being fishes, nor of being salamanders, but are a compromise of both.

In the same way, proto-human primates were small, became hairless and rather weak, adopting an upright posture before they had brain enough to be much of a toolmaker. Somehow this "failed ape" survived long enough to develop toolmaking, fire, and broader social groupings, all with a brain not much larger than a chimp's.

But at a later stage, language erupted. To this day we know less about the development of language skills than about the depths of the sea. In several of the essays Eiseley waxes lyrical about what this could have meant. Language effectively brought most physical evolution to a halt, substituting cultural evolution. Human culture effectively shields us from most strictures of natural selection. But as compared to the lungfish, are we closer to the salamander, or still only a little ways beyond the ape? Are we like the lungfish in truth, no more than halfway developed in a direction we cannot discern? Are we still "failed apes" and "not-quite amphibians"…let alone a true "land" animal along the track of that analogy? In one of the last essays in the book Eiseley wonders if, having grasped the fires of the universe, will we survive our own half-formedness and grow to be worthy of the powers to which we aspire?

Indeed. I can hardly wait to dig into the second volume!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Presenting CWWN v10 - The Present Testimony (3)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

With the "Overcomer Conferences" of 1929-32, which formed the subject of many earlier issues of The Present Testimony, Watchman Nee laid a solid foundation for Christian life and practice in our understanding of God's covenant and the reality of the indwelling Christ, who alone can carry out God's will in our lives and in the church.

Fifteen verses in the New Testament speak of "him who overcomes" or similar language; seven of these are in the conclusions of the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3. It is primarily due to Watchman Nee's written ministry that many Christians have come to know a phrase that arose about the time of his death in 1972, "An overcomer is a normal Christian."

The current volume, Volume 10 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, contains Issues 24 to 31 of The Present Testimony. Several subjects based on the earlier foundation are presented, and three issues (26 to 28) are devoted to the messages that became the book The Latent Power of the Soul. I'll hold comment on that book until I read its updated version in a later volume of CWWN.

Two messages were particularly helpful to me, to remind me of the balance in God's ways: "The Two Sides of the Truth—Objective and Subjective" from Issue 29 and "Faith and Obedience" from Issue 30. These two are really two treatments of the same subject. For example, the redemption of Christ, accomplished on the cross, is an objective fact, a historical fact with a tremendous spiritual meaning because it forms the foundation of our relationship with God. To such a fact, we can respond in one of two ways, to believe or to disbelieve. There is no "obedience" involved in gaining the benefits of redemption, because they are like a bank deposit and faith is the only key to open it.

The promise of the Holy Spirit, both internal for our life and external for our work—this is the difference between the Spirit received as "breath" by the disciples on the day Jesus was resurrected, and the Spirit poured out on the disciples praying in the upper room at Pentecost—, this promise is another fact, which we obtain by faith. But the working out of our living in spirit day by day is through obedience, and our carrying out the work to which God has called us is also through obedience.

Jesus spoke of some who would stand before the Lord to say, "Lord, Lord, we did many great things in Your name," but that He would refuse to recognize their work, calling it "lawless". Why? No obedience. Such workers do things they want to do "for God" without being at all clear what God actually wants them to do. But this has a more day-to-day aspect. When we pray, do we treat God like a "sugar daddy" or "magician" who exists to fulfill our desires? Or do we love and enjoy Him and seek His desire, trusting that we will be the most fully fulfilled in the daily tasks and life work that He has chosen?

Nee was concerned that many Christians get things backward. They ask God to do something for them that He has already done. In the extreme, some might ask Jesus to die again on their behalf! This cannot be, and forms a large subject in Hebrews. Seeing that we have been redeemed, we simply believe it, and this is the foundation of our obedience. But others try to obey "what the Bible says" without first having faith on the One who redeemed them. In effect, they want to walk about God's kingdom without first entering its gate. Had Israel never crossed the Jordan River, they could walk about all they wished, and never gain a single inch of Canaan. This is the sad condition of many "good" people, many "well behaved" people, who have sidestepped the cross of Christ but try to live a "Christian" life anyway.

It takes a certain exercise to partake of powerful ministry such as this book contains. If I read in a lazy way or let myself get in a querulous mood, I gain nothing. Watchman Nee had the gift to repeat a truth in several ways and from several angles, to get around our fleshly defenses, to induce us to wake up and actively take in spiritual truths with a spiritual mind. And to this end, a pair of messages on "The Renewing of the Mind", also from issues 29 and 30, are particularly helpful.

Russian spiders back on the web

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

It looks like two days ago the Russian spiders became active again, but in a more sporadic way than what I noticed in mid-December. This screen shot shows activity over the past week, and while the U.S. dominates, there is a darker tint than usual over Russia. Looking only at the past day, I find that while the U.S. is the source of the largest number of views to this blog, Russian activity is about 80% as great.

I can only say, Я надеюсь, что вы наслаждаетесь себя!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Political Math - Not so Clear-Cut

kw: politics, crime, population, economy, trends, charts

I have heard it claimed for years, by various "conservative" commentators, that the most crime-ridden American cities are led by Democratic administrations. I finally decided to gather some data and find out for myself.

The four pairs of charts presented below summarize data gathered from sources as reliable as I could manage to find. All were online. The basis was a table of crime statistics for 80 cities with population greater than 250,000. Based on data compiled by the FBI, it is found at this Wikipedia page. The population estimates are for 2009, and the crime statistics are mostly from 2014 (a few from 2013). Not perfect, but a usable start. U.S. population rose 4% from 2009 to 2014. Thus the numbers used are likely in error by no more then a few percent.

I also gathered the basic economic factor, GDP per capita, from the OpenData Network, where you can ask a question like "What is the GDP per capita for New York metro area?". The result is a map showing US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with the area highlighted that you asked for. But then you can move the map around and click on each area of interest to see a summary for it. These data are also for 2014 (mostly). The highest GDP/person is for Oakland, California, just over $100,000/yr.

I used information found in Wikipedia and various city and county web sites to determine the political environment for each of the 80 cities. This was the most time consuming. On occasion, it is pretty easy to get the party affiliation for the Mayor and the City Council, or its equivalent, but usually only the Mayor's affiliation can easily be found. So I relied instead on the voting records that are conveniently compiled in the Wikipedia page for every county, to determine the county's political leaning, and the combination of the Governor, Lt. Governor (if there is one), and the congressional delegations, to determine the state's political leaning. I used 0, ½, or 1 for Republican, Moderate/Independent/Mixed, or Democratic, for each case. Then I combined these numbers into a single factor in which the Mayor had the most weight and the county had a little more weight than the state. I bucketed these into these categories that are shown in each chart's legend:

  • Strong R (Red) – City, state, and county are represented by all or nearly all Republicans
  • Mod. R (Magenta) – Significantly more R than D, but R not totally dominant
  • Mixed (Purple) – Somewhere between 60/40 and 40/60
  • Mod. D (Light Blue) – Significantly more D than R, but D not totally dominant
  • Strong D (Dark Blue) – All three represented by all or nearly all Democrats

Now to the charts. First, Violent Crime in aggregate, normalized at incidents per 100,000 persons for the whole year:

You can click on this image to see it at full size (1672x519). Right away this seems to confirm the claims of the commentators I had heard. There is hardly anything but blue to be found above 1,000 violent crimes per 100,000 persons. However, the situation with the "Mixed" group is interesting. Crime is not in the lowest range, but the average range for these is the lowest of the five groups. And the situation for Democratically-controlled and -influenced cities is more nuanced. Many of the cities with the lowest crime also lean Democratic. For this category of crime, the safest city is Virginia Beach (Strong R), with 146, and the most dangerous is Detroit (Strong D), with 1,989.

The style of the Democratic politics clearly varies a lot, and this is worth looking into. Not that I am likely to do so any time soon. One thing I do happen to know: Two cities in Minnesota are right in the middle, Minneapolis with 1,012 and St. Paul with 663. A number of Strong R and Mod. R cities are also in this range. Democrats in Minnesota belong to a party called "Democrat-Farm-Labor", jokingly called "Democrat For Life". They are more conservative than "RINO" Republicans and even most of the so-called "Republican Establishment", while Minnesota Republicans are typically staunch conservatives, well to the right of the GOP Establishment.

I had thought that crime statistics might show some trend with city size, or with economy, but I see no clear trend here. Nonetheless, both parameters serve as a way of spreading out the data so that's how they'll be shown here and below.

Such nuances demand a deeper look than just one crime statistic. Knowing that homicide trends with violent crime in general, and is the crime that gets the most news play, I charted homicides:

Other than Chandler, Arizona (0.4 homicides per 100,000), the Strong R and Mod. R points all plot in the lower 2/3 of a bubble outlines by the other three categories, particularly Strong D. The upper part of the chart is dominated by blue markers. The "killingest" city in 2014 was Saint Louis (50 per 100K), not Chicago. I don't have current statistics to determine if this was still so in 2016, the year everyone is talking about. Thus, although details vary, this chart tells the same story as the prior one, that the Reds are a bit safer than the Blues, but the Purples are, by a small margin, the safest overall.

Let's look at crimes that are less violent. First, burglaries:

This is very interesting. Here, nobody "wins", at least no political party "wins". A handful of cities come off as very safe, led by, of all places, New York City, with 186 burglaries per 100,000. The place in which your home is most likely to be burgled is, by a small margin, Cleveland, with 1,788 burglaries per 100,000. But Toledo and Cincinnati are right up there with it (maybe there is something about Ohio…), and also Memphis. If there is any trend at all, it is that the Mixed category is still the safest in general, but only slightly.

Finally, let's look at auto theft. This is usually nonviolent, but I suspect carjacking was included in the statistic:

This resembles the first two charts a little bit more, in that Strong R and Mod. R cluster below Strong D and Mod. D. But, again, Mixed clusters below the average of all the others, though two such places crept above 500 thefts per 100,000: Bakersfield (621) and Dallas (524). The safest place to park your car is Virginia Beach (80) and the least safe is Oakland (1590).

These charts broadly support the contention that the most crime-ridden cities do tend to be led by Democrats, and in the few cases I looked into, the Democratic party has been entrenched there for decades. However, clearly not all Democrats are created equal! Several of the cities with overwhelming Democratic environments are among the safest cities in America.

I just had to devise one more chart. I normalized and combined the four statistics used above into one number. A dangerous generalization, to be sure, but here it is:

I know, I ought to have swapped the horizontal axis to put the R's on the right, but perhaps it is healthier for our mind to reverse such a convention once in a while. First, the five cities with the lowest Index scores:

  • Virginia Beach, Virginia (0.331): P.E. = 0.25, Mod. R
  • Plano, Texas (0.343): P.E. = 0.5, Mixed
  • Chandler, Arizona (0.369): P.E. = 0, Strong R
  • El Paso, Texas (0.465): P.E. = 0.55, Mixed
  • Chula Vista, California (0.503): P.E. = 1, Strong D

And the five cities that "top the chart" with the highest Index scores:

  • Detroit, Michigan (3.55): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • St. Louis, Missouri (3.22): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • Oakland, California (2.78): P.E. = 1, Strong D
  • Cleveland, Ohio (2.62): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • Memphis, Tennessee (2.57): P.E. = 0.65, Mod. D

Is there any point in drawing further conclusions?

Friday, January 27, 2017

A serendipitous friendship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, friendships, food, cooking

Isabel Vincent was nearing the end of a toxic marriage. Her friend Valerie had just lost her mother and was worried about her father Edward, a 90-year-old. She asked Isabel to "look in on him". Over the next few years, a friendship blossomed, and Ms Vincent's book Dinner With Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, is an intimate peek into it.

Just a touch of a spoiler: Though at the end of the book Edward is still living, at age 94 he is getting frail and has just hosted what he calls "the last supper". The eighteen chapters of the book focus on eighteen meals, most of which Edward cooked for Isabel or for her and a few others. Edward is an extraordinary man. Like many self-taught polymaths, he had a few careers, not just the usual one or two. Along the way he learned to cook very, very well.

Isabel and Edward each had a huge need. He was suddenly adrift, having been widowed after 68 years with an extraordinary woman. She was "going under for the third time" as her marriage dissolved around her. She needed his perspective, along with the comfort of a warm and exceptionally delicious meal, about weekly. He needed a focus outside himself, a way to divert his grief into caring for another.

In the end, each felt the other had rescued them. Need I say this was not a romance? Except in the way that every deep friendship forges a bond nearly as strong as a happy romance. Most folks know the Bible verse, "It is better to give than to receive." Both Isabel and Edward felt they were receiving something precious. Neither could fathom the value of what they were giving. That is the best kind of gift, the best kind of friendship.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Getting comfortable with some big numbers

kw: technical information, numbers, large numbers

When I was in college a classmate told me of something his Fourth-Grade teacher had done: She cut up about 20 sheets of "millimeter paper", the kind of graph paper with a millimeter grid that has 5- and 10-mm highlights, and taped them together into a 1,000x1,000 sheet, one meter square. This she hung on the wall with a sign above, "This is What a Million Looks Like."

I had occasion to remember this recently. It got me thinking. Most of us can't easily think of numbers such as a million or billion, or even several thousands. Yet we live in a world in which large numbers like that are bandied about: "93 million miles (or 150 million km) to the sun", "4 billion dollars" for such-and-such a system of highways, "7 billion people on Earth", "20 trillion dollar national debt", and so forth. What does a billion or a trillion even mean any more, when you can get a pocket-sized external hard drive with 1TB or 2TB of storage, or even more, for a hundred dollars or so? (Folks, a TB is a TeraByte, or a trillion 8-bit computer "characters").

Let's first be clear whose billion and trillion we mean. These days, even the English and other Europeans have pretty much surrendered to the American system of large numbers, in which a billion is 1,000 million, which is a 1 followed by 9 zeroes, and a trillion is a million million, or a 1 followed by 12 zeroes. But when I was young, the British and others still clung to an older system in which a billion had twelve zeroes and a trillion had eighteen. Some used the French term "milliard" for 1,000 million, the American billion. I remember reading a humorous article, "Why there will never be a British Billionaire", that made this vocabulary stick in my head.

Now we can start to think first of the humble Million. The King James Bible has 8/10 of a million words, or 783,137 if you don't count chapter headings and other auxiliary items. So consider the time it might take you to read the whole thing, add about 1/4, and that's the time you'd need to read a million words. I read novels at about 600 wpm, and nonfiction, if it is any good, at about half that speed. Thus I could read a million words of fiction in some 28 hours (so reading the Bible in a year isn't all that hard, no more than 4 minutes daily) and a million words of nonfiction in twice that time.

I once downloaded The Papers And Writings Of Abraham Lincoln, Complete from Project Gutenberg. In plain text (UTF-8) it comes to 3.1 MB, from which I infer about half a million words. That is Abraham Lincoln's lifetime out put of text. About half a million words, or some 64% of the King James Bible in volume. Now, you know how long reading that would take, but imagine writing those half million words longhand, with a quill pen. Writing with a good mechanical pencil I cannot exceed 20 wpm, and I am pretty sure that even a fast writer could seldom exceed half that using a quill. So Lincoln put a lot of time into his writing, perhaps the equivalent of a year or two of full time work. Several percent of all the minutes that he lived.

OK, let's talk about one billion. That teacher with her million tiny squares on the classroom wall would be hard put to show the children a billion tiny squares. All spread out, it would be larger than 30x30 meters. On some reasonable set of surfaces, such as a long stretch of 8-foot (2.4 m) wall, the paper would extend more than 415 meters, just a bit over a quarter mile. A stack of 1,000 1x1m sheets, had she the patience to make them, would be compact enough, about 10 cm thick (4 inches).

So let's consider something a bit easier to put in a bucket, such as sand. I have on hand some sand from Imperial Beach, California, that I collected about a year ago when I was visiting family there. It is from the southern end of the beach, near the Mexican border, where they don't dump a lot of dredged sand to replenish the beach; thus, it is the "natural" sand from that beach. After some examination with a low-power microscope, and counting the grains in a few milligrams of sand, I found that the average grain diameter is 1/3 millimeter and a gram of the sand would contain about 26,500 grains. That means that a billion grains would weigh 37.7 kilograms (about 83 pounds). The volume comes to about 20 liters (porosity is about 40% because the sand is rather angular and poorly sorted), or 5.3 gallons. That's about two buckets of sand; our household buckets are just under 3 gallons' capacity.

How about something smaller? I'd like to have a billion of something I can conveniently, and without strain, hold in one hand. Considering a weight of a kilogram or less, let's start by assuming a specific gravity similar to water and work backwards. A billionth of a kilogram is then a mass of one microgram, and a cube of ice with such a weight would be 0.1 millimeters on a side. In this size realm, the micron (micrometer for purists) is a convenient dimension. A cube 100 microns on a side is about the size of a mammalian fat cell, so a kilogram of fat contains, very approximately, a billion cells. The volume of that kg of fat is one liter (just over a quart).

Fat cells are larger than average. Another familiar cell type is the buccal cell, those you can gather by the hundreds by lightly scraping the inside of your cheek with a soup spoon. Their diameter is about 25 microns and their mass about one-eighth that of a fat cell, so a billion of them would weigh 125 g and fill 1/8 of a liter (about 4 fluid ounces). That's about the size of a golf ball.

For a big step into smallness let's burrow inside. We all have within us trillions of microbes. Most of them make up our "intestinal flora". They are called "flora" because something like a century ago bacteria were thought to be some kind of plant life. Now we know they are a kingdom of their own. But the term remains. What size are they?

They come in quite a range of sizes, because there are thousands of species. But the most common, the now-familiar Escherichia coli ("E coli" in the Press), also known as "coliforms", have a cell volume close to 2 cubic microns, and with a density just a little greater than that of water, a mass of about 2 trillionths of a gram. Whoa! We've already entered a realm in which it isn't hard to imagine a trillion of something. Two grams of E. coli bacteria contain a trillion cells! The volume would be about that of a thimble.

Now, bacteria are small, but viruses are smaller yet. Let's pick the "familiar" influenza virus. They have a modest range of size, but average 100 nanometers (nm). That is 1/1000th the size of the fat cells we mentioned above. The virus particles are flexible enough to pack together with little porosity, if you can gather a large number of them. So one billion of them, packed together, would have the same volume as one fat cell. And a trillion of them would have the volume of 1,000 fat cells; if packed into a little cube it would be one millimeter on a side. That same volume would hold half a million cells of E. coli.

I don't know how much this might help anyone think about the quantities million, billion or trillion. The meter-square piece of "millimeter paper" is easy enough to imagine, and not too hard to make. You could try holding a golf ball and thinking, "A billion of the cells that line my cheek would just fill this ball". Then, pluck a thimble from the nearest sewing kit and, holding it like a cup, say to yourself, "Fill 'er up with E. coli, and that's a trillion." I can't think of any convenient artifact that would hold "only" a trillion influenza virus particles. One cubic millimeter is pretty small!

Well, this was fun to write, and satisfies a "wild hair" I had a couple of hours ago.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Keeping the pixies up to date

kw: book reviews, fiction, fairy tales, anthologies

I have mentioned before (elsewhere) the time that I realized, in a fairy tale, the subjective meaning that unfolds when we understand that most of the characters are within us: the knight in shining armor is me (I hope!), the damsel in distress is me, but so also I am the dragon! And sometimes, I am also a troll or ogre…or, more properly, these represent something in me that I need to overcome, and then I am also the billy goat Gruff or whatever. Other times, the troll or ogre or giant represent, not actually parents or other "big people" in a child's life, but external barriers and other retarding forces.

So what does it mean for a modern author to write a new fairy tale? How much of the author is revealed in the tale? How much of the reader? As with other fiction, the best tales allow the reader to explore self-discovery. If a story doesn't fit? Table it; maybe it will fit a later situation. Or maybe never. Or maybe you're being self-blind, and it is worth another look.

What I didn't know is that at least a few authors' organizations exist that are devoted to promoting authors of new fairy tales. I wonder how many we have room for? At least a few, it seems: Paula Guran had edited a new anthology containing eighteen new stories, titled once upon a time. The title (and the typeface) consciously reflect the ABC series by that name, in which familiar fairy tales (and made-up Disneyifications) are twisted, darkened, and reinvented.

Some of the stories are familiar settings told from the viewpoint of a different character, such as "The Spinning Wheel's Tale" by Jane Yolen and "Tales That Fairies Tell" by Richard Bowes. One tale is painfully touching, "Egg" by Priya Sharma, a tale of nurturing and letting go; it is hard to exaggerate what is already a strong, overwhelming, even rending experience for us all, but Ms Sharma manages it. At least a couple of the stories I got no more than a page into, thought, "What could the editor possibly be thinking?!?", and skipped to the next story.

The last is the best, "Blanchefleur" by Theodora Goss, based on a less familiar story, and told with just enough hint of magic to transform it from an allegory of metamorphosis into a fairy tale of personal transformation. The stories we find ourselves loving inform us who we are.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Time catches up to Mr. Hitchens

kw: book reviews, collections, essays

I knew nothing of Christopher Hitchens besides his name when I obtained a collection of his essays titled and yet… I didn't know at the time that this was his final collection. There is no mention of an editor. Considering that the last five chapters didn't appear in print until after his death, I am forced to conclude that he prepared the book himself in his last months, with those last five essays awaiting publication in various journals, and that officers of his estate went ahead with the publication in 2015.

The book contains essays he wrote from 2004 until his death in 2011, with the exception of the first chapter, "Che Guevara: Goodbye to All That", from 1997. From the flyleaf I learned that he is one of the most prolific authors and essayists that I'd never heard of. I had heard of only one of his book, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I suppose when I heard or saw that book referenced somewhere it planted his name in my memory.

Reading the 48 essays in and yet…, I was quite impressed with the breadth of his reading and interests. He brings in more "thoughts from left field" (and right field and center and from over the park wall) than I typically see from even the best essayists I have read. And he seems able to look at almost anything from an angle nobody else thought of. Writing of "Arthur Schlesinger: The Courtier" (pp 197-202), he illuminates the tension  between Schlesinger's attempt to retain some measure of distance from the Kennedy "Camelot", while becoming in effect a courtier in that court. In "The Politicians We Deserve", he notes that "Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run" [for public office]. He closes that 2010 essay on demagoguery with, "How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see." It seems to me it would be well to keep collections of his essays handy, lest we lose that collective memory of the surge and sway of culture and politics. In an era growing more divisive by the day, it is well to remember that these things have indeed happened before, and had Hitchens lived into this end of the 20-teens, he'd surely have a lot to say about that.

I am not much concerned that he was anti-god. A person of faith recognizes that most religion is used to replace faith rather than uphold it, so that his analysis in god is Not Great is in part correct. 'Tis a pity he never brought himself to give the time of day to anyone of genuine faith so as to have the chance to see the difference. Yet, in the world in which he dwelt, Hitchens had clearer vision that that world has a right to expect.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Prevaricators' Paradise, or Victims' Vengeance?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, logic, lying, critical thinking

I'm sure you've heard the old chestnut about public figures who lie, that some lie when they must, and some lie constantly to stay in practice. Or that for some, that the way to tell they are lying is that their lips are moving. And then we have Mark Twain remarking on "Lies, damned lies, and statistics", which he attributed to Disraeli, but he was mistaken (or, perhaps, lying!). And we occasionally hear a paraphrase of "To err is human" into "To lie is human". Ah, the great benefits we seem to attain by lying, at such a little cost!

Is it safe to say that nearly anyone trying to advance a viewpoint (or sell a product or win an argument) is lying? Usually, I suppose. It is your best, first assumption. But when you want to know "the truth", where do you turn? Now that the biggest news story closing out the year 2016 is "Fake News", where do you get "Real News"?

We have to take what we can get, and verify it the best we can. This is the primary reason for learning to think critically. It is why right, right now is a great time for a book to appear with the title A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. To quote the opening paragraph of author Daniel J. Levitin,
"This is a book about how to spot problems with the facts you encounter, problems that may lead you to draw the wrong conclusion. Sometimes the people giving you the facts are hoping you'll draw the wrong conclusion; sometimes they don't know the difference themselves. Today, information is available nearly instantaneously, but it is becoming increasingly hard to tell what's true and what's not, to sift through the various claims we hear and to recognize when they contain misinformation, pseudo-facts, distortions and outright lies."
Dr. Levitin jumps right over "lies and damned lies" to statistics in the first third of the book, "Evaluating Numbers". It is a great place to start because we are so damnably bad at evaluating numbers. The brain is an unbeatable pattern recognition machine. It excels at finding similarities, and it is over-tuned: it finds patterns where none exist. Thus we see all kinds of animals and scenery in clouds; a highly educated astronomer such as Percival Lowell spent much of his career mapping the canals on Mars; and to my recollection there are at least three pieces of burnt toast being carefully stored in freezers because they bear a mark that looks sort of like Jesus, so they have become objects of worship. But we are woefully deficient in discerning the meaning of numerical quantities.

It is curious: Recognizing a face reliably is something we do thousands of times daily, and we are very, very seldom mistaken. We almost never mistake a not-face for a face. What we do easily our computing machines do slowly and rather poorly. I have made heavy use of the Picasa face-tagging system for several years, for organizing my photos. It is really, really good, but will on occasion put a hopeful "Who is this?" tag on what I see as some random blob, or on a hubcap or the "face" of a clock. And it misses about a tenth of the genuine faces in an average scene, particularly when there is quite a range of sizes, that is, distances to the subjects. The computing power needed for Picasa's algorithms to work has only been available for about ten years. It takes a few billion computations to locate a face in a scene, and more billions to match it with a similar one in the database of recognized faces in your photo collection. Every one of us can recognize a person with great reliability in a tiny fraction of the time. But very few of us can determine the product 347x94 in less than several seconds, and probably not at all without the help of a calculator or a pencil and paper. Yet a computer can perform millions or billions of similar calculations every second, and does so whenever you recalculate an Excel spreadsheet. We must face the fact that our brain is tuned to see the tiger in the grass so we don't get eaten. Prior to the ascent of "civilization", we had no need to count the tiger's stripes, and if we were interested in doing so (unlikely!), it was only after we'd ganged up on the tiger to kill and skin it.

Part Two is "Evaluating Words", and in just under 60 pages, is the briefest of treatments of logical fallacies. There are numerous volumes written about the few dozen fallacies of formal logic that philosophers study, and further volumes that cover the fallacies of informal logic, the "everyday fallacies" such as "50,000 dentists agree" or "All the Kardashians (or celebrity of your choice) love product X" or "only a fool would pass up this offer". Pet Advertising Peeve of the year: any ad containing the phrase "don't want you to know" is fallacious. Period. Trust your uncle Polymath (but, then, this is possibly another fallacy!).

The third part of the book, "Evaluating the World", presents an excellent review of the Scientific Method, which is an armory containing our best weapons to discover error and falsity and correct them. The scientific method is collaborative; it cannot be practiced in isolation. The great difficulties we encounter using the scientific method glaringly illustrate just how prone we are to being deceived and to deceiving ourselves. Thus, if the brain is a pattern-recognition engine, the scientific method harnesses many brains to sharpen the focus and more properly set the boundary between "perceived facts" and "true facts".

I hesitate to go further. A book like this presents a quandary. While it exposes a few hundred ways you could be lied to, it is also a kind of prevaricator's textbook. I am reminded of the dilemma faced by missionaries to Hawaii, as described in James A. Michener's enormous novel Hawaii: They wanted to put up a sign with the Ten Commandments, but there was a problem. The Hawaiians didn't understand them, particularly "Thou shalt not commit adultery?" What was adultery? The missionaries argued thus: If we try to describe adultery in general terms, some people will say, "Oh, that isn't what I am doing." But if we list all the different things that are adultery, others will read the list and say about one item or another, "Wow, that sounds like fun. I'll try it!" They were further troubled by the cultural requirement that the king of Hawaii must marry his sister. It took the missionaries about two generations to change Hawaiian culture enough to eliminate "that kind of adultery". Thus there is a risk that some will read the book to get ideas.

I suppose Dr. Levitin has thought the matter through, and judged that putting weapons into our hands is worth the risk that a few liars might become better liars as a result. I agree. Caveat emptor is still the best policy, and always will be. Let this book full of caveats arm you.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Presenting CWWN v09 - The Present Testimony (2)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

The present volume of the Collected Works of Watchman Nee contains Issues No. 19 – 36 of The Present Testimony, from the years 1931 and 1932. Issues 19 – 22 and a portion of Issue 23 concern a number of spiritual matters, and I find two of special note: "The Principle of the Second" (Issue 21) and "The Pattern on the Mountain" (Issue 22). The first shows how frequently God confers a better blessing on the second-born (Jacob over Esau) or the second-anointed (David over Saul). The second drives home the point that God does not permit human innovation regarding our carrying out of His service. Indeed, He must frequently hinder, stop, or even curse innovators. The great example of one whose service is pleasing to God is Moses, who "was faithful in all [God's] house" (Num 12:7; Heb 3:5). He oversaw production and construction of the tabernacle exactly according to the pattern he was shown on Mount Sinai. Those who have all kinds of "good ideas" for working for God are most likely to hear His rebuke at the Judgment Seat of Christ, "I didn't know [i.e. authorize] you; depart, you workers of iniquity".

From the tenth page of Issue 23 through the end of this volume we find the content of seven messages given at the Second Conference, which had been held in October, 1931, on the subject "The New Covenant". These 101 pages (as here printed) constitute the most thorough treatment to be found anywhere, of the meaning, purposes, contents, and consequences of God's new covenant.

Prior to becoming joined to a church that follows this ministry, I heard some preaching on the new covenant, and on the principles of God's covenants. I have heard preachers who claim to preach nothing but Covenant Theology. Some of what I heard was pretty good and quite encouraging. This volume could be a text for a doctoral-level course on the subject. The Covenant Theology preachers of my past are at best at grade school level by comparison.

From these messages I gleaned one item worth recalling (and I'll need to re-read to gain others equally precious): A covenant is not for God, it is for His people. He keeps the promises He makes, but we are weak and find it hard to consistently believe that He will do so. As He promised in foretelling the new covenant to Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), God writes His laws on the hearts and minds of His people, He becomes their God, and they become His people. Based on those three things are three more, that they will all know God and need no instruction to do so, that He will make propitiation for their unrighteousnesses, and that He will erase the record of their sins. By themselves these are promises. By making them a covenant, and even more, a testament (secured by the death of the testator, our savior Jesus), God has done all He can to ensure us that we need only claim the provisions of this covenant. We don't beg for forgiveness according to God's mercy; we claim forgiveness because, by believing Him, we fulfill the only requirement this covenant makes on us; all other provisions have been made by God and God guarantees them to us. We are saved by grace not according to mercy, but according to God's righteousness. When we see this, we will pray in a different way.

One may ask, why if I am presently partaking of ministry according to Watchman Nee and his co-workers, did I not already gain the point I make just above? These things are difficult to minister. Do not think the paragraph above is in any way a substitute for the several pages of Issues 35 and 36 where they are explained. Little by little over the years, much has been imparted to me. Reading this volume of CWWN is like taking a large and meaty meal. This is partly why it was so long since I wrote of the prior volume.

Those who wish to truly know the New Covenant must obtain this volume!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Figures kept in hiding no longer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, space program, computers, human computers, civil rights

If the USSR had not launched Sputnik I in 1957, would the civil rights movement in the USA have gone as far as it did in the following decade? This event and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr just over ten years later bookended a sea change in American race relations, and we'll return briefly to that below.

The period 1955-1965 marked a great scientific change also. Prior to the mid-1950's a "computer" wore a skirt and performed calculations on paper forms, though assisted by calculating machines with names like Monroe and Smith-Corona-Marchant. They followed in the proud tradition of "Pickering's Harem", the women who performed astronomical calculations for the Harvard astronomer beginning in the 1880's. At Langley Air Force Base, from the beginning of World War II, women computers did the calculations required to design aircraft that changed how the war was fought, and later, how air frames in general could be made more durable, faster, and more nimble. By 1965 most numerical calculations had been turned over to automatic calculating machines such as the IBM 7090. And the skirted computers? Some had retired or moved on, and many others were dispersed into various engineering groups around Langley.

The existence of these women—these hundreds of computers—is practically unknown. Even more, without the work of Margot Lee Shetterly, hardly anyone of this generation would know, or could know, that about fifty of them were black. An executive order by President Roosevelt opened the door to government employment of black Americans in 1943, and, because Langley AFB was hiring people by the hundreds and thousands for the war effort, many blacks obtained employment there, including black women who were working as underpaid teachers, tutors of mathematics, and in other fields. As Ms Shetterly tells it, in her book Hidden Figures, by the end of the War, it wasn't unusual for a group of white, male engineers to find that the computer assigned to work among them for a time, that small, quiet and unassuming black woman, was the smartest person in the room.

Just over a decade after the War ended, when John Glenn was preparing for his orbital flight in the Mercury "Friendship 7", he didn't wholly trust the mechanical computing equipment and asked for the figures to be checked by "the girl". That "girl" was Katherine G. Johnson, who wasn't just a whiz computer; she had written the definitive report on the calculations needed to plan both easterly- and westerly-launched orbital spacecraft. Once she had verified the calculations, Glenn was satisfied he would be safe enough aloft, and would likely survive the splashdown. She just says she was in the right place at the right time, that it might have been any of "the girls", but we know better.

The Hampton Roads area in which Langley AFB resides is a core population area of eastern Virginia, and Virginia was the core of segregationist attitudes in the Jim Crow south. Racial segregation was like the smell of garlic in a kitchen; it was a part of the atmosphere, and hardly any white person gave it a moment's notice. Any employer other than the US government would have ignored any effort by non-whites to obtain employment outside the few menial areas "allowed" to blacks. But times were changing and the Air Force was hiring. However, segregation still ruled to a great extent. Langley's computing pool was divided into East Computing, where all the women were white, and West Computing, where they were all black.

Hidden Figures chronicles the lives of several of the Langley West computers during the war years, and then the fortunate circumstances that kept many of them employed during the crucial years 1946-1957. At least, I suppose you could call the Cold War "fortunate" for those whose employment depended on military expansion. The arms race with the USSR was not only in the nuclear arena. Fighter and bomber aircraft were getting better and better on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And in America this was largely due to the ex-computers, now engineering assistants and engineers. Several of them became ace programmers, learning FORTRAN almost overnight.

The quantum jump in American attitudes toward science arrived in October, 1957, when the Russians orbited Sputnik I. America was caught flat-footed. And a racial sea change was in the works simultaneously. During and after World War II, as one after another former colony of former European empires established themselves as independent countries, they looked at the world around them and saw America as a stronghold of racial discrimination, particularly as compared with nearly everywhere else. Folks, that right there is at the root of the mostly anti-American stance of the United Nations. To many nations, composed of non-whites, the racial tension that remains in this country besmirches every good-will effort we make.

Simply put, in order to jump-start technical education in America, we simply had to get rid of official segregation. We couldn't afford to waste any brains, of any "color". Hidebound reactionaries like Senator Byrd couldn't see that, but most national leaders could. Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and other black leaders took advantage of both the rapidly rising groundswell of black longings, and the growing sympathy for their cause among primarily northern-based political leaders (and a growing minority of southern ones also). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the end of a long and terrible struggle, and marked the beginning of another, one that is still going on.

Margot Lee Shetterly was, like Katherine Johnson, in the right place at the right time. When the time was ready, it happened that her father knew a few of the retired black computers, and put her in touch with them. They led her to others. She interviewed and researched and chronicled a truly astonishing story of the real brains behind many of the triumphs of American aviation in the 1940's and 50's, and in the space program ever since. It is still true that you can sometimes find yourself in the presence of a quiet black woman who is the smartest person in the room.

As I write this on Christmas Eve, 2016, a movie based on the book is to be released to theaters tomorrow, on Christmas Day. I hope it does the book justice. Even more, I hope the book is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Great Pond Snail

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


This tray contains all but four of the lots of Lymnaea stagnalis (Linnaeus, 1758) that are currently in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. It is called the Great Pond Snail because it is the largest freshwater snail found in Great Britain ("Great" in this case meaning "large"). L. stagnalis is the type species of the genus Lymnaea, which is the type genus of the family Lymnaeidae. You'll notice one box contains only a pink label. That indicates the lot is a Topotype; it was collected in the location where Linnaeus's first-described specimen (the Holotype) was collected. The museum keeps types in a special cabinet. I'll get into more about types on another occasion.

The Latin prefix lymn- is equivalent to limn-, which refers to a lake. As a matter of fact, I am a bit puzzled that the family is not named Limnaeidae and the genus Limnaeus (but see below). The species was first named by Linnaeus as Helix stagnalis. He placed nearly all the spiral-shaped gastropods he knew of in the genus Helix, for obvious reasons. Later workers broke up the genus into quite a number of new genera so as to group the species more appropriately. For a time, subgenera had been created to group the species, and in fact, Lamarck renamed this species Lymnaea (Lymnaea) stagnalis in 1799, while placing several other former Helix species into that subgenus; the subgenus name is in parentheses. Later genus-splitters removed the subgenus designation. In 1875, Sandberg tried to rename the genus Limneus, considering it a justified spelling correction. Nearly everyone else disagreed because of priority rules, and so Lymnaea it remains.

Members of the family Lymnaeidae are lake snails almost exclusively, and some are also found in slow-moving streams, such as in deltas. This species in particular favors very quiet, shallow waters, even stagnant waters if the oxygen content is not too low. Thus the species name stagnalis.

I chose to photograph two of the lots. This first, catalog #60565, was collected in a shallow part of the Niagara River, on the New York side. These are the largest specimens of this species at DMNH. I neglected to put the scale in, but the museum label is 1" x 3", so the largest specimen's height is about 2.3" or 57 mm. The largest recorded specimen just exceeded 60 mm.

These shells, being nearly translucent and very light in weight, practically broadcast their environment: very quiet water and an absence of shell-crunching predators. However, they are hosts to several parasites, and intermediate hosts to at least six different flukes, including one that can severely affect humans. Thus, these are well studied because of their medical and economic impact.

They are "ubiquitously holarctic", meaning they are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, particularly at higher latitudes, though south of the permafrost line. They apparently hunker into the mud to over-winter in England, Scotland, across northern Europe including Russia, and across the northern U.S. and Canada.

The second lot shown, #119635, contains some of the smallest adult specimens in this collection. The longest is just over 0.8", or 21 mm. Although these were collected in 1926, this indicates that the river where they were found, in or near Detroit, Michigan, must have already been heavily polluted.

Note that both of these lots have subspecies designations on the collectors' labels; one was jugularis and the other, expensa. These are now deprecated; so far as I have determined, no subspecies of L. stagnalis are recognized at present.

The labels of the second lot also show its history, or most of it. Originally collected by L. F. Merrill, it came into the hands of Grace M. Seymour, and then G. M. MacCoy, who donated it to DMNH. Sometimes, collections are accompanied by letters and other documents that tell more of the story. I haven't dug into the library records for the MacCoy collection to see if there is more to the tale.

Shell collectors who are dedicated enough to identify and index and label their specimens are dubbed Shellers. By contrast, the designation Conchologist is reserved for those who also devote time to studying shells, and perhaps living mollusks, and professional Conchologists are called Malacologists. Mollusk enthusiasts and dealers Guido and Philippe Poppe have gathered information about more than 41,000 Shellers in their site Conchology Inc., from which they sell and trade shells, and curate a kind of online museum. It is one of a handful of online resources that I have found very useful to determine the full name of someone. Interestingly, however, none of these three Shellers is included. Neither is Esley Doremus, the donor of the lot from New York.

At least we have the initials for two of them and full names for the other two. In many cases I find a label that says nothing more than a species name, a location, and a surname followed by "leg." or "legit.", the usual Latin designations for a collector. The abbreviation "col." is also sometimes used, but "coll." usually means "from the collection of"; Shellers trade and buy shells so much that for many large collections, only a small percentage of the holdings were actually self-collected by the owner.

The 78 lots of this species held at DMNH allow researchers to study areal extent, presence through time at locations or in areas that were visited more than once, and changes in animal health. I occasionally find a note among the labels that specimens were collected from the bed of a dried-up pond, indicating at least local extinction. Rather poignant, that.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Multiple gulping spiders

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Nearly two months ago I posted about what appeared to be a periodic internet spider that seemed to be grabbing about 30 posts at a time in this blog, roughly every 4 hours. A few weeks later, such activity increased. Today I find that it has increased again. Have a look:

These are hourly hits for the past week. The prior increase was to roughly one 30-hit session each two hours. I think now there are several spiders at work, and it is hard to tell how many posts each one is getting. There is also a shift in the source of the activity. Prior to the past couple of weeks, most activity was based in the US. Now:

In this pair, the left side shows one day's activity (nearly 900 hits total), and the right side shows one week, the week shown above. Clearly, the US activity has held steady at around 210-220 daily hits, while Russia has ramped up to dominate my "audience" just in the past two or three days.

Does it strike you, as it strikes me, that the sudden boost in activity starting late on Dec. 16 coincides with the threats against Russia made by President Obama in his latest news conference? It looks like they are targeting a whole lot more than just political operatives! I mean, I am probably one of the lowest-rated bloggers out there, and I write at most one politically "interesting" post every year or two.

Thus, I wonder just who in all that immense country called Russia is really Hoovering up data from my blog. Fellow bloggers, if any of you happen across this post, check your stats, and their pattern since mid-year. I am sure I am not the only one. And I'd like to hear from you.

This activity doesn't concern me much. It isn't hacking. I have about 80 to 100 legitimate daily readers. Most of them stumble across the blog and seldom return; I have no more than a handful of followers. The only annoyance to me is, I don't any longer have a good handle on how many actual readers come to this blog. The spider activity swamps that signal almost out of existence. Oh, well. Maybe they'll get bored and go away.

I find it amusing to think that, just perhaps, the KGB has some poor analyst reading my posts (at the rate of a couple of hundred per day?) to find out what is interesting. Or maybe they have a really smart AI doing relevance searches. Has anything been passed along to Wikileaks? If any human is at the other end of one of these spiders' pipeline, I counsel you to get a more interesting hobby! It can't be my stellar writing style.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Valuable Volunteers at the Museum

kw: natural history, museums, volunteers

At least a few days per week, from my desk along the side wall of the mollusk collections room of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, when I look to my left, I see something like this. This day there are three volunteers on duty.

No museum—indeed, no nonprofit organization—can function without volunteers. I think museum volunteers have some of the best "jobs" going (but I am a science geek; what do I know?).

The Collections Manager at DMNH is also the Volunteer Manager. Of the daunting variety of tasks needed to care for a large seashell collection, he must prioritize and assign them, and also perform many himself (a couple of years ago there was a "herself"). At the moment, much work is being done on shells from a couple of new donations, and updating some existing material.

Here the woman sitting nearest me is labeling specimens. That little Coffee Bean Cowrie is just about the smallest shell that can be practically written on with a "00" nib India Ink pen. The first four digits of 121472 are already there, and she graciously paused long enough for a photo. (The number indicates this is some re-work on older material. New material is getting numbers above 240,000.)

The policy is, if a lot has 30 shells or fewer, and the shells are large enough, they are each numbered. Considering that the average size of a lot is seven shells, and that most shells are indeed larger than a fingernail, that comes to a lot of inking! Where they are too small or too numerous to number individually the shells are not put in an open box but into a lidded plastic container or vial.

This man is identifying shells, as is the other. We don't expect volunteers to be experts, but nearly anyone with good eyesight (and a magnifier or microscope if needed, and this fellow has one within arms' reach) and a good reference book can match a shell with a picture.

Online references are improving all the time, including WoRMS, the World Register of Marine Species, which he and the other man have up on their screens.

Most preliminary identification can be done by volunteers, and then the Collections Manager can verify their work. Sometimes, the species cannot be fully discerned at first, and the volunteer reports only the genus. In all cases, to make sure an identification is up to date, the literature is searched to see if a specialist has renamed a species or lumped it into another species. Then the identification (now called a determination once it is verified) is recorded for that lot.

The third volunteer of the day was working on a different donation, shells from Papua New Guinea, collected by a former ambassador. The standard reference to shells from that huge island's seas can be seen next to the specimen tray. Tropical shells are the most fun to work with. They are beautiful, incredibly varied, and species are usually easier to distinguish from one another, compared to the mud snails with which I have spent the past year!

Few museum volunteers work more than a day or two per week, and those are frequently short days of 4-5 hours. But their work adds up. The time spent by these three volunteers amounts to about 3/4 of a full-time person; and there are a few more volunteers who work on other days. Even more, as our lunchtime banter attests, having a few volunteers around makes the work a lot less lonely, compared to a couple of folks sharing a huge room with two million seashells.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

No bridge yet discovered

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, evolution, human origins

One popular conception of evolution is the giant leap: A rabbit wakes up one morning to find that it is a deer; a monkey goes to bed a monkey and wakes up an ape, or maybe a human. This was a popular view in the early Twentieth Century, and the occasional story appeared in which someone used radiation to "evolve" into a higher being with massive intelligence and penetrating wisdom. It lingers in genres such as the Fantastic Four or X-Men, and even Spider Man, in which some mysterious energy or chemical influence suddenly "evolves" ordinary folks into super beings. I don't pay as much attention to these stories as most folks, but it seems to me that the only "superhero" story that doesn't depend primarily on some kind of magical transformation of this type is Batman.

We do like our catastrophes, and we do like the solutions to disastrous problems to be simple, complete, and in particular, FAST. Need I belabor our addiction to the 30- and 60-minute TV episode formats, or two-hour (more or less) films? Emotionally, we need fast solutions, because if we don't solve the problem of "one death per person, no exceptions", in a matter of a few decades, we are all to be thrust into eternity, not even knowing if there is an eternity. Of course, as a Christian, I have a spiritual answer for that. But as a Humanist, I know that most folks don't really believe in an afterlife; instead they hope against hope that there really is one, and that it isn't Hell.

Humans are the longest-lived of the mammals, although perhaps some species of baleen whale might live longer. A few slower-living critters are known: A turtle that was collected while Darwin was living died last year; some species of clam were recently shown to have individuals aged as much as 500 years. But among animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror, only humans routinely live more than 60 years. But compared to evolutionary time or geologic time, this is very short and inevitably forces our mind into rather short-term thinking.

Can any of us, without great effort and practice, comprehend time spans much greater than 50 years? Aficionados of genealogy gradually come to comprehend spans of a few hundred years, perhaps a thousand or so: a few Europeans and Euro-Americans can trace their family tree to Charlemagne, some 1,200 years ago. A few cities (Damascus comes to mind) have been occupied more-or-less continuously for 3,000 years or more. How can any of us comprehend a million years or more? The "young earth" Evangelicals, who allow no more than 6,000 to 10,000 years for the entire age of the Earth, are onto something. That is the limit most people's minds can reach, and a span of 10,000 years is practically meaningless; how much more unfathomable a million or a billion?

The basic unit of the evolution of vertebrate species is one million years. That seems to be on the shorter side of the survival of a species of mammal, bird, or reptile. The longer side is three to five million years (I may discuss marine invertebrate species, some of which appear to survive for tens to hundreds of millions of years, on some another occasion). Interestingly, the survival of primate species seems to be inversely correlated with body size. Species of monkeys and small apes weighing less than around ten kilograms may go on for five to ten million years. Larger apes seem to speciate more frequently and vanish sooner. The human ancestral apes and proto-human species of genera such as Homo, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus and so forth seem to stay around between 100,000 and 500,000 years. Of course, the fierce competition among paleoantrhopologists to be remembered for naming new species and genera has resulted in some over-splitting, so future scientists will most likely lump together many putative species .

I also wonder: If there were equally huge prestige associated with naming each new species of fly or snail or nematode, would the number of named species multiply, and the duration of fossil species accordingly shorten? A side note: I spent the last year taking inventory of a few thousand specimen lots of river-and-pond snails of the family Pleuroceridae, at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. The collection includes about 300 names species in a dozen genera. This is a winnowing (i.e., lumping together) from about 1,000 named species described prior to 1980 or so, and more recent work using DNA methods is finding that many "species" are regional variations of more widespread species. A specialist in the field told me recently that there may actually be no more than five or six actual species in this family! To the point, though, evolution makes no sense in time frames much shorter than a million years, and significant levels of change can take much longer.

Well, to come to the matter in hand. About 20 fossil species have so far been named in the Hominid line—those creatures purportedly descended, on the human side of the tree, from the common ancestor of Homo sapiens (us) and the two Chimpanzee species of the genus Pan. There were most likely many more. The species that we find today in every genus or family represent, in metaphor, the tips of the twigs of a dense bush. In the case of the little branch that began with the proto-Chimp-Human, only three twig tips remain. In the six or seven million years that have elapsed since that primeval split, who knows how many twigs on the Chimp side, and how many on the Human side, really existed? Several proto-Chimps are known (or suspected), and, as I said, about 20 proto-Humans.

In a book published in 1998, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, author Ian Tattersall describes what is known of the major changes that arose among the five or six of those proto-Human species that are actually ancestral to Cro-Magnon, the earliest expression of Homo sapiens, which arose between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Dr. Tattersall set himself two challenges: to explain to a popular audience the actual bushiness of pre-Human evolution, and to describe and account for the qualitative differences between humans and the rest of the apes.

It has become fashionable in the past generation or so to "demote" humanity from the pedestal on which our cultural habits have placed us. In the author's mind, these demotions have gone too far (Am I becoming a curmudgeon? It seems to me that "going too far" is what people do best, and most frequently, and almost without exception!). Thus, he skates a careful line in this book. The origin of humanity has not been some unrelenting upward march. On the other hand, something very striking has indeed happened, that produced a species that isn't just a big-brained ape, but something new.

To cut to the chase (I'll leave it to you to read this very well written and thoroughly fascinating book), the Cro-Magnons and their cousins the Neanderthals had brains of about equal size. They co-existed, usually not in the same areas, for a few tens of thousands of years. Here is a point that struck me with particular force: Many, but not all, Neanderthal skulls have an arch in the skull base atop the vocal tract, something that is necessary for articulate speech. All Cro-Magnon skulls have it. Yet prior to about 40,000 or perhaps 50,000 years ago, neither species left fossil or archaeological remains that indicate they used symbolic thought. The Cro-Magnon remains of this period are usually termed "anatomically modern". Then, almost overnight, a dramatic cultural shift occurred. Some time in the "thirties" (a little before 30,000 years ago), art of all kinds began to be produced. Cave paintings are rightly famous, but personal artifacts became much more artful, both decorations on useful items and items that are purposely artistic but otherwise (probably) useless. In this period, the term used is "culturally modern."

It is hard to draw conclusions about what actually happened when we can't go back and interview them. We don't even have really good DNA from anybody who lived 30- to 50,000 years ago. Yes, we have enough Neanderthal DNA—all discovered since the book was written—to allow us to determine that various human populations carry between 1% and 6% of Neanderthal DNA. But, as the author describes, skills such as language arose only after the physical (including to the brain) changes needed had arisen for other reasons. These are called exaptations, a kind of adaptation that gets co-opted for another use. Personally, I find it hard to think that Broca's and Wernicke's areas in our left brain hemisphere could have arisen for purposes that we can't discern, and were then found to be just what was needed to support language. In any case, positing pre-existing exaptations, the further changes needed to produce language, symbolic reasoning, and art seem to have taken place quickly, without making any discernible changes in fossil remains. And that is where Dr. Tattersall has to leave it. We still don't know enough to say how such a significant cultural shift occurred.

In the last few pages, he allows himself to speculate on future evolution of Homo sapiens. He thinks not much will happen. I intended earlier to write of the tension between uniformitarianism and catastrophism, both in geology and in biology, but the writing took a life of its own. Let me instead briefly say, a mix of uniformitarian periods and catastrophic events have happened to mold the Earth we see today, and the styles of living species we discover all around us. He points out that species don't evolve much. They go on for millions of years unchanged. But when some circumstance isolates a smallish population of a species, the narrower gene pool available among them is more prone to genetic drift and to the fixation of new, beneficial (even though small) mutations that would be swamped and eliminated from a larger gene pool. Given enough time, usually at least tens to hundreds of thousands of years in the case of large primates, the small "drifted" population will have changed enough that interbreeding is no possible with the larger population from which they arose, should they come back into contact. They are a new species. If they are viable, and even more, better able to thrive in the same environment, they original species may die out in their favor.

Today, what opportunity is there for some small but viable population of humans—say, a few thousand—to remain isolated for 100 or 1,000 centuries? Zero, Zip, Nil, Nada. Small evolutionary changes will continue: maybe our descendants will have fewer back problems; maybe few or none will have wisdom teeth. Our inefficient retina will probably never be replaced with the more efficient squid retina, unless genetic engineering really, really takes off (but would there somehow be a tendency for these engineered folks to spit ink?). We are the first truly global species. That will last as long as we do, or until we experience, or even cause, a catastrophe that reduces humanity to a scattering of small tribes, no more than 100,000 people in groups seldom exceeding a few hundred. Then speciation is possible. Not before. You don't like catastrophes? Then take care of the things that remain. Also, look around. The sorts of people we see today are about what we can expect for the next thousand centuries or so.