Thursday, March 26, 2015

Now you really are who they think you are

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, public relations, reputation

The Securities and Exchange Commission has an interesting provision to avoid market melt-downs caused by high-speed "robot trading"; when certain criteria are met, time delays are inserted between market orders and market fulfillment. There is no similar provision when a "reputation error" goes viral and someone's life is ruined in a matter of minutes. The old saw has it, "It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, and five minutes to ruin it." Way outdated. A rumor, true or mistaken, can circle the Earth in a second or less, and there's no getting all the toothpaste back in the tube.

Disclaimer on the author's part: Michael Fertik founded, so some might consider his new book to be an advertisement. Regardless, The Reputation Economy: How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation is Your Most Valuable Asset, written with his colleague David C. Thompson, is filled with useful information and advice.

Some folks are concerned about identity theft or identity fraud, and the banking and credit card industries are gradually learning how to forestall or recover from the most common kinds of such attacks. But not many of us are ready for the leap from "big data"—such as the records being kept of all phone calls, texts, IM messages and so forth—to "big analysis". Big Analysis has two parts. Firstly, computer programmers are getting more and more able to produce programs that extract meaningful correlations across huge masses of data. Secondly, the CPU's, the "brains" of computers, continue to get faster and multi-CPU clusters are being coupled with better and better sharing systems to break up large problems into smaller chunks for even more efficiency. This latter fact is the reason that weather forecasts have gone from the sort-of-iffy 3- or 4-day forecasts of the 1980s to remarkably competent 7- to 10-day forecasts today.

The time was, you could rely on "security by obscurity" to keep most of your activities below the radar, not only of law enforcement (if you had reason to fear them), but of businesses that could profit from intimate knowledge of your preferences and activities, such as insurance companies and potential employers.

Scenario: You apply for a job at Universal Widget Co. In the age of snail mail, your résumé would arrive the day after you mailed it, and if you were lucky, some HR manager would have only a dozen or so résumés to read, and would like yours well enough to phone you to come in for an interview. But today? Many companies don't accept paper résumés, but want either a PDF (machine-readable of course) or a file readable by MS Word or Word Perfect. And the HR department has received 200-1,000 résumés, so no human will have a first look. Keyword-checking software will weed out all that don't seem to meet minimum criteria, and those that pass this stage may be subject to further automated checking in the records of colleges you claim to have attended and former employers. At this point, 5 or 10 surviving résumés are probably read by a human, who may initiate further electronic searches, such as FaceBook, Twitter, and other social media sites. You get a positive score (P) for criteria met and other character traits that seem helpful, and a negative score (N) for anything they might not like, such as photos of yourself jamming it up in a bar scene, or perhaps skydiving or SCUBA caving. The N score is subtracted from the P score, and at most the top 3 candidates—if indeed anyone still has some P points left—get a call for an interview, in the order of their scores. To paraphrase one question the authors ask, do you have enough moxie, and luck, to satisfy both the machines that judge your résumé and the person who might eventually read it?

The above is a DAMM, a decision almost made by machine. Almost. Actually, for everyone but the 5-10 the HR person actually perused, it was a simple DMM; no "almost" about it.

The greatest lesson of the book for me is that absolutely everything we do that touches the systems of electronic watchdogs out there gets kept forever. Even if an error so blatant you could win a libel suit occurs, and you get some records deleted, somebody already has copies (hundreds of somebodies, most likely), you don't know who they are, and any fact from your past can crop up at any moment. Murphy's Law practically demands it will pop up at the worst possible moment.


  • Every search engine, not just Google or Yahoo!, keeps every search made along with a record of the IP address it came from. (I foretell a large increase in use of library computers) These get sold to anyone with sufficient cash, at a few cents per million. Google alone processes 3-4 billion searches daily.
  • Your cell phone is constantly "pinging" so it knows where the nearest cell tower is. About every 15 minutes, more or less, and it depends on which generation (2G, 3G, 4G) your phone is. In urban areas, your travels can be tracked with an accuracy of a few blocks. In rural areas, the tower spacing is a couple of miles. Of course, when you are on a call, or sending and receiving texts, a new fix is made on your location several times per second. And that is with the phone's GPS turned off!
  • Everything we write, every picture or video we post—or post a link to—is kept. Big Analysis can figure out not only your own proclivities, but those of your FB friends or Twitter followers, and it is human nature to resemble our friends. So if you, for example, work for a prison ministry, use a company FB account to "friend" the inmates! And make sure they know you by a handle that is hard to guess from your name. Many young adults in our son's generation use a pseudonym on FB, also. 
  • Cameras are everywhere. In London, probably at least one on every street corner. Other cities are catching up fast. A friend with a tiny hole-in-the-wall store has 9 cameras in it. It takes very sophisticated methods to confuse a person-recognition camera. Not just how your face looks, but the way you walk or turn your head.

That's just a few items. Do you have "loyalty cards" from stores you use a lot? I just checked my wallet. I carry 5: 2 from groceries, and one each from Sears, a sporting goods store, and a pharmacy. I have several more in a dresser drawer. But that puts me behind the times. Many folks carry 15, 20 or more. All those stores know something about what you like. Whoever has bought all their data (I am sure someone has done so) may know you better than you know yourself! And there are other bits at PayPal, eBay, Amazon, and so it goes.

The biggest piece of advice? Take charge of your reputation. Brag on yourself. Make creative use of Endorsements in LinkedIn and encourage your LI friends to Endorse you; it is no longer considered bad form to point out the strengths you'd most prefer to have Endorsed. If you just have to rant about something, or, most importantly, someone (such as a boss!), do so using an electronic venue that isn't linked to "the rest of you". Future employers are wary of people with anger management issues.

To live in the modern world, we must assume privacy is a thing of the past. So, like someone who might be a bit overweight but wants to look thinner, wear looser clothes, metaphorically speaking, and hang out with people just a little "thinner" than you are. That last seems counterintuitive, but remember this is about reputation. Sure, you'll look thinner if you hang out with fatter people, but someone looking on will expect you to change to be more like them. Substitute your "negative trait of choice" for "overweight" and "fat" above, and its counter-virtue for "thin".

We are still learning to live with TV poking into everything. Now everything can poke its nose into our affairs. We just need a little reputation jiu-jitsu, and this book has at least a few pointers on how to learn some. If I could get just one law passed, a good one might be to mandate a 5-minute delay between hitting "Send" and the delivery of a Twitter post or similar item. Maybe a bigger and bigger delay, the more people it is sent to. Think about it…

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Rescue Cat

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cats, homelessness, street life

There are dog people and cat people (and small numbers of a few other kinds). I am a cat people. Raised with them. Raised many. Not quite raised by a cat, but then, I didn't have a cat like Bob. I suspect he could have managed it.

Bob is the star of two books by James Bowen. I haven't seen the first one yet (A Street Cat Named Bob), but I'll get to it anon. I just finished reading The World According to Bob. Quite an amazing book. I wondered how someone like Mr. Bowen could write a book, but since a third of the second volume is about how the first volume came to be, I didn't have to wonder long.

James Bowen was a troubled young man who fell into drugs as a teen and was a heroin addict for about a decade. I presume his ascent from the depths of addiction is mainly covered in the first book. This one begins with him being on the mend for a further decade, and being weaned from Methadone treatment, and finally the follow-on remedy, Subutex. But he remains desperately poor, though he is eking out a bit of a life in a flat, the kind that you have to "top up" the heat and electricity meter almost daily. He has spent some years selling a street publication, then has to return to busking (he's a guitarist and singer), which he'd done so many years earlier.

Bob, a ginger tabby, has been his constant companion since 2007. People are suckers for a nice animal, so having Bob on hand helped James sell more of the magazines, more than offsetting the vet bills. But Bob has not been a passive cat, for viewing only. He plays to whatever audience comes by, and even does a "high 5" at times with James or someone else. It tends to stop people long enough to induce them to buy a magazine, or later on, to toss a quid or two into the hat.

One of the aims James has in both books is a frank portrayal of street life. People's habitual disgust at someone disheveled and dirty, and probably smelly, pushes them farther and farther into the margins of society. And many folk wish they could be pushed right out of all possible view.

Both James and Bob had to navigate a significant transition once the first book was published. Anywhere you may be, some folks are going to envy any break you might get. On the street, people tend to be less reserved about expressing an opinion, particularly when it is contrary. Fortunately, the publishing company folks have done more than just assign and interviewer to gather the stories and knock them into a narrative in James's voice, and market the book. He had help of many kinds along the way.

When a cat adopts you, perhaps in many cases it is just trying to secure a steady meal plan. But once in a while a cat is more like Bob, and becomes a partner in your life, even defending you and yours. One would-be mugger has a few rather large scars that prove that. The chapter titled "Doctor Bob" further shows this; our pets are keen to our welfare, and Bob sometimes seemed to know what had to be done about it. We don't often think that the life of a homeless or poor person is fraught with more illness and pain than is usual among "middle class" people. James benefited an amazing amount from Bob's presence and ministrations.

I am glad that one man at least has been helped to rise from the street, and is likewise helping others. He owes a lot of that to the cat named Bob. See where they are not at their blog.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Scrabble® training level zero

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, wordplay

I knew there were more 2-letter words than most folks think of, but I didn't know there are 101. According to Stephin Merritt's introduction to 101 Two-Letter Words, the official list of "acceptable" words you can use playing Scrabble® is 101.

Anyway, Merritt is a songwriter, and a fast hand with a rhyme, so when he found himself writing cute quatrains for various 2-letter words, he decided to do them all. With the help of Roz Chast, whose cartoons you might have seen in New Yorker and elsewhere, 202 pages were occupied with the rhymes such as this one for HO:

"Ho, ho, ho," says old Saint Nick,
But saint for what, exactly?
Mayhap for hopping round the world
and getting back intactly.

And here is Santa upon his return. I reckon you can see why I call the work of Ms Chast "charmingly ugly".

And I applaud them both for picking this meaning for HO in preference for another of more recent vintage.

It is interesting, of 676 possible 2-letter combinations, nearly 15% are considered words. I reckon that is the highest percentage going. But even a lower percentage for 3-letter words would still pile up to a lot, as there are 17,576 to start with, and nearly 1,300 (7.4%) that the Scrabble® folks count. That would make for a much bigger book.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The making of a man of God

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, christian faith, missionaries, learning the hard way

Those who heed God's call learn by experience that we are called to death and resurrection, not only in the future for our body, but in this life for our soul and spirit. One Christian writer wrote, to paraphrase a little, "At the Gate of heaven stands the Cross. Only what can pass through the Cross and arise is permitted to pass through the Gate and enter in."

The experiences of four men in the Bible illustrate this.
  • Firstly, Moses is the prototypical Man of God of the Old Testament. He was educated and prepared for 40 years according to the Egyptian way, though he had secret contact with his Hebrew family. Then, in Stephen's words "he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites" (Acts 7:23). Thinking to help them, he ended up killing an Egyptian and was soon an exile. We recognize the next 40 years as a time of God's preparation, but all the while he thought he would always be a shepherd in Midian. Then God called him openly, and so began the third 40 years in which he served God and God's people.
  • Secondly, David, the one God chose to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16), was at first modest and retiring, but once he tangled with the ambitions of king Saul, he was forced to flee to the surrounding lands, where he was hardened into the man of war needed to defend the kingdom after he was crowned. It seems he lived for some time as the leader of a gang of bandits. As a well-versed Jewish women told me once, "David was a scoundrel!" Indeed he was. But he was God's scoundrel, one who was always willing to repent once shown his fault (see Psalm 51).
  • In the New Testament, we will skip over the obvious choice of Jesus for the moment, and look at Saul of Tarsus. As a zealous young man he sought to serve God by imprisoning Christians and even voting in favor of their killing. Once God called him as he neared Damascus, his preaching at first caused lots of trouble. He had to be smuggled out of Damascus to save his life, and later had to be smuggled out of Jerusalem. We don't know how long he was in Tarsus, where he'd been taken. He wrote that he spent some time in Arabia, returned to Damascus, then spent 15 days with Peter in Jerusalem. Only after this, about three years later, did the Holy Spirit designate Barnabas and Saul to go out preaching as apostles.
  • Now we come to the case of Jesus, the prototype of a Man of God for New Testament believers. What happened right after his baptism? He spent not 40 years, but just 40 days in the wilderness, where he confronted Satan and overcame his temptations. The difference between Jesus and Moses? The indwelling Holy Spirit in Jesus, and his own divine nature, so that his human nature could be fully and quickly conformed to God's will. As we find it written to the Hebrews (vv 5:7-9), "During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."
Any who would serve God will spend time in a wilderness, one of God's choosing. Jesus "learned obedience", not just in the wilderness overcoming the Devil, but continually over time, so that at Gethsemane, just before he was arrested, he had already passed through death and resurrection in his heart and was made ready for what was to come next.

Though none living today can compare with Moses, David or Saul/Paul, let alone Jesus, yet even a minor servant of God such as myself cannot serve effectively until the elements of the natural life die with Jesus and we are then raised in Jesus into newness of life. In my own case, there came a time that I said, more than once over a period of months, "All my dreams have died." Eventually, I heard the tiny, quiet voice ("gentle whisper" in NIV) of the Spirit, "What about My dream?" A church I—with others—had raised up a few years before, that crashed and burned, became a "learning experience". Two churches raised up in subsequent years remain healthy.

Whatever is our concept of serving Jesus, it is OUR concept, and matches HIS concept very loosely, if at all. It is His business to correct us, and we are unlikely to enjoy the experience. This is a lesson young Jonathan Hollingsworth learned, as we all do, the hard way, as recorded in the book Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, co-written with his mother Amy Hollingsworth. In the case of young brother Jonathan, the lesson came harder than most, for God was dealing with a most deadly enemy within him, his Legalism. This he tells us clearly.

Jonathan had a few experiences that cemented his faith from an early age. By the time he finished high school he was quite enamored of a "radical obedience" model of putting faith into action. He decided to attend no more than two years of college before going to Africa to serve God among the people there. With the help of his family and some fellow believers, and later the leaders of the church he attended, he set off for Cameroon, under the aegis of a missionary organization led by a man known in the book only as Peter.

By day three he was in love with the Cameroonians. By day six he knew he was in trouble with the organization, but a slippery slope once stepped on has a way of sending you careening out of control as you watch, helpless. Within a couple of months he was, effectively, a slave to an organization that was legalistic in the extreme. A key word here is "organization"; we will return to it. Once he was able to admit to himself, and then to his parents, that he was in real trouble, on a road to destruction, it took his parents and some of their friends another couple of months to extricate him from Africa.

If anyone ever had a right to say, "My dreams have died", it is Jonathan. Everything he hoped to accomplish in Cameroon became impossible. The organization had its own agenda for him, and would brook no interference from his puny will. No contact with "the wrong kind of Christians," that is, anyone not of that organization's network of "churches", was permitted; hardly any contact with his family was allowed to go "unsupervised"; at one point, he took badly sick, but because a meeting was scheduled, he was dragged there, and not allowed to hold his head in his hands, but his hands were forcibly raised in "the African way" of worship. Only after that was he taken to a doctor. No matter what was really going on with him, everything about him had to look good, even triumphant.

He suffered "house arrest" and near-total isolation for more than two months. It is God's grace that he had any sanity remaining by the time he returned home. Yet this was not enough. The "senior pastor" (who deserves not the title) coerced silence of him, wishing to continue working with Peter, the Devil in disguise. Jonathan was victimized yet again. But two years have passed since then, plus a good part of another in which the therapeutic effect of co-authoring the book did its work. He realized God never left him, and worked in the background, to open his eyes to the judgmental, legalistic youth he had been, and showed him what Grace really means: you don't need to earn God's approval by working yourself to death, because you begin with God's approval. You do not attain holiness by working for it, but are made holy by the Holy Spirit, and then gradually learn to live in spirit until that holiness shows when others observe you.

A word about organizations. A watchword I have learned is, "the church is organic, but is not organized." An organization cannot tolerate someone who makes it look bad; by visiting a couple who were "the wrong kind of Christian," but whose medical outreach was more effective than that of Peter's organization, Jonathan shamed it and suffered dearly for it. By learning the deep hypocrisy of that organization, he threatened to embarrass his family "church" (it is not!), and so he was, for a time, silenced.

Learn this well. A local church is not an organization. If you find an organization, you have not found a church. No organization can be a genuine church, no matter what they put on the sign board. One brother with whom I've worked fruitfully speaks of "the kitchen church-life", meaning a hot, messy place, just the antithesis of organized and political bodies by whatever emptily holy name they might use. But it is a place of feeding. Kitchens are for preparing food.

I reckon Jonathan is 23 or 24 years old now. That is about the age at which I began to learn how to serve God, or so I thought. I was about 30 when my wife and I went out to join a few to establish a church, and 38 when I began to say, "All my dreams have died." Now 29 more years have passed, and I am still learning obedience, but I have learned to leave the dreaming to God! I think I am learning the lesson that Moses learned at the outset (but also over time): the Burning Bush.

Jonathan was a burning young brother, but what fuel was being burned? His own reserves. He burned out rather quickly, for which we thank God; how sorry a state would he be in if he were still struggling to heap materials onto his "strange fire" on God's behalf? Moses saw a thorn bush that was full of fire, but not consumed. God was saying to him, "You (and Israel) are just thorns, full of the curse upon Adam. Do not presume to help Me. I will use you to do My work, but I Myself will be the fuel for the fire." The words God spoke to him are even more telling: "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." (Exodus 3:5) God was saying, "Don't insulate yourself from My holiness. Get in contact with this holy ground and become holy."

And so God calls His servants today. Our own dreams must die, because they are not God's dream. We come to him an earthen vessel, but already full of "stuff" that God must remove so he can fill us with Himself. I will close with verses from two favorite hymns that express, to me, an excellent spirituality:
How much can we do for our Savior?
  How much for our dear fellow man?
The way to do more than we’re able
Is Jesus within to enable;
  Thus we can do more than we can.
—(v.1 of No. 906 at, where you can also hear the tune and see 3 more verses)
I take Thy promise, Lord, in all its length,
And breadth and fulness, as my daily strength;
Into life’s future fearless I may gaze,
For, Savior, Thou art with me all the days.

And all the other days that make my life,
Marked by no special joy or grief or strife,
Days filled with quiet duties, trivial care,
Burdens too small for other hearts to share.
—(vv. 1 and 5 of 6, of No. 575; we call this "The Days Song")

Monday, March 09, 2015

A challenging spiritual test

kw: book reviews, spiritual reading, faith healing, divine healing, sermons, exhortation

A friend loaned me a book to read, one that has become a test of certain beliefs I hold. It is Christ the Healer by F. F. Bosworth. First published in 1924, the book originally contained five chapters. During his lifetime (he died early in 1958, aged 81) he expanded later editions of the book, and his heirs posthumously expanded it further. I read the paperback edition of 1973.

I have been for more than forty years under a ministry that teaches thus:

  • The Exodus plus Wilderness period of Israel's history was characterized by miracles including numerous cases of miraculous healing.
  • Certain later prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha, performed miracles, but those were purposeful and selective.
  • There were a few, scarce miracles during the period between the testaments, particularly the miracle of the oil during the Maccabean restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. This event is commemorated with Hanukkah.
  • Jesus performed miracles throughout his ministry (Apocryphal stories of miracles he performed as a child are fairy tales at best). He healed all who came to him for healing and raised at least three dead persons, including Lazarus.
  • The apostles performed miracles, but more selectively as time went on. Paul in particular had a gift of healing which was with him throughout his ministry.
  • Not all divine healing is miraculous. Some of the healings Jesus performed were instant, and thus miraculous. Others occurred over a period of time. God strengthened the healing abilities of the natural body.
  • In Paul's later writings we find that he did not always heal the sick. Trophimus had to be left behind sick at one point, and Paul counseled Timothy to settle his sensitive stomach with wine.
  • The author of the book of Hebrews, whom we believe was Paul, mentions the "powers of the age to come" (6:5), which we take to mean we have only a "taste" of miraculous works and divine healing in this age.
  • God is purposeful, and is not to be treated as a magician that we can invoke for just anything.
  • Thus, we conclude that divine healing does occur, but is not frequent, and instant, miraculous healing is quite rare indeed, in this period called the Church Age.

Bosworth would vociferously decry our conclusions. He is an absolutist. The only tiny concession he would make in our favor is found in a chapter titled "Why Some Fail to Receive Healing From Christ", in which he discusses 22 causes of such failure. Number 10 reads:
Sickness and affliction are permitted to remain on some as a halter, with which God leads them into the center of His will, and when this has been done, He removes the halter.
The other items are variations on three themes:

  • The sick individual is at fault, either not believing rightly or not acting decisively upon the promise of healing.
  • The evangelist or pastor is at fault for teaching improperly regarding divine healing (such as our teaching outlined above, if it is indeed improper).
  • The "community", meaning a congregation or related group of congregations, is in a state of ignorance regarding God's will to heal all His children, thus hindering His work.

It is extremely clear from the sermons and testimonies in the book that Bosworth believed God's will is absolute, to bring to salvation every person who receives Him, and to totally heal every person who asks in faith for His healing. He bases both upon the Atonement of Jesus, making them equally inclusive promises, based on a number of Bible passages, most familiarly,
"Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:4-5, NIV). 
Matthew quoted the Septuagint translation of the first half of verse 4, so that the NIV has it, "He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases." Of course, Bosworth used the Authorized Version (KJV), which has "sicknesses" in Matthew, but "sorrows" in Isaiah. That last phrase, "by his wounds we are healed", is an article of faith to faith healers.

There is a contention among expositors, whether "healed" at the end of verse 5 refers to bodily healing, or healing of the soul from iniquity. I believe it refers to both, but with the proviso that God heals, or performs other miraculous actions, according to purpose.

I find it quite refreshing that Bosworth writes, on page 77, "Even Laymen May Pray for the Sick". In his era, there was no thought of any kind of church polity among Protestants and Pentecostals other than the pastoral system. Since I consider that system invalid, and as Martin Luther taught, we enjoy "priesthood of all believers", of course every child of God may pray for healing the sick. Yet we also see in 1 Corinthians that God has set some in the church with special gifts including gifts of miracles and gifts of healing. Bosworth also distinguishes healing from miracles, at least in most cases.

Bosworth's theology is also founded upon the special names of God that he calls "Redemptive Names":

  • Jehovah Shammah, the Lord who is Present
  • Jehovah Shalom, the Lord our Peace
  • Jehovah Ra-ah, the Lord the Shepherd
  • Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will Provide
  • Jehovah Nissi, the Lord our Banner (or Victor)
  • Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness
  • Jehovah Rapha, the Lord that Heals

He argues that the standing of the last name is equal to the other six, and is thus part of the promise of the Atonement of Christ. This is a strong argument, and if this were all the Bible, it would be unassailable. Yet what do we see of the attitude of Jesus of Nazareth towards miracle-seekers? John wrote,
"Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person." John 2:23-25
If we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by the new chapter that begins immediately after, we see how Jesus withdrew from those who were enamored of his signs (John always called the miracles and healings "signs"), but that he attended to the inquiry of Nicodemus, who saw beyond the signs to the One sent by God. And what are we to make of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in chapter 13, the "love chapter"? He begins with four examples of spiritual gifts, tongues, prophecies, faith to move mountains (miracle working), and almsgiving, and shows that they are nothing without love (the famous word agape that speaks of love that has God as its source). Then in verses 8-10 he says all things other than love will cease, using three examples, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. His word is inclusive, that the supernatural spiritual gifts were temporary. Indeed, in all his later epistles, he does not again mention the supernatural gifts, but instead writes of gifts that develop from growth in life, until the person is the gift to the church, under the titles Apostle, Evangelist, Prophet, Shepherd and Teacher, as seen in Ephesians chapter 4.

It is true, as Bosworth wrote, that healing is unlikely if we merely believe in God's ability to heal, or even if we merely hope in His healing. If we have, particularly with others, prayed a prayer of faith, and have an inner sense of God's affirmative answer, we must believe that we do have the healing already, even though symptoms may linger for a short time (days, not months). Bosworth uses the example of the fig tree that Jesus cursed. Nothing happened immediately, but the next morning the disciples saw that it had withered. It continued to appear the same at first. In the same way, after we sense that a prayer is answered, the symptoms may not disappear all at once. Testimonies in the last part of the book confirm such experiences. Some people experienced immediate and total healing. Others experienced a gradual release from symptoms.

Now, I have had a few experiences that make me wonder. Here are a few brief stories, three of them my own:

  • The year after I received Christ, that is, 1967, a girl, a young sister, was healed at a youth camp I attended. She had a dental deformity, and her teeth stuck out forward at an angle. This was even somewhat evident when she kept her lips tightly shut, and it caused her great embarrassment. The second evening, a few others our age took her for a walk after dinner, and asked her to pray with them for definite and immediate healing by the Lord. As she told us the following day, "After we had been praying a while my mouth began to feel very warm. At first I could not move my hand. When I could move it, it also could feel the warmth, and then, that my teeth now fit properly in my mouth!" I saw her teeth both before and after, and this was indeed a remarkable case of instant, miraculous healing.
  • Around 1970, a sister that we got to know a few years later contracted cancer. She was told she was terminal. Some sisters came to pray with her, and after a time they all felt that the Lord had given His promise to heal. Her symptoms abated over several days' time, and she is still alive and serving in a church in England.
  • In 1973 I got pneumonia. Brothers I lived with prayed with me, but we felt nothing particular from the Lord. The evening came for the church's prayer meeting (I lived next door). I had just been lying there feeling sorry for myself for a few days, but I was very sorry to miss that meeting. After my housemates went to the meeting, I sat up in bed and began to read the book of Matthew. I read the whole Gospel in less than an hour's time. Then I got out of bed and went to the meeting, fully whole. I told them there I'd been healed by taking in the Word of God.
  • One thing we disparaged quite a lot was a practice that became rather faddish before 1980 of "leg-lengthening". An elder with whom I was close had back pains, and was told by a Christian friend that these might be because he had legs of different lengths (I do, and we'll go there, momentarily). He was persuaded to go to a healing meeting. There, a healing evangelist had him stand and looked at him. Then, he had him sit, and the man just took the heel of his shorter leg and pulled gently while all prayed. This elder felt nothing, but when he stood again, his stance was different because his hips were now level. His back pain never returned.
  • That even made me wonder about my experience a decade or more earlier. I had polio at age 18 months, and one leg was twisted. I was made to wear leg braces in an attempt to straighten it for two years, with only partial success. I learned to compensate so that few knew how hard it was for me to walk with a mostly normal appearance. At age 14 I attended a youth camp and our last evening a child evangelist preached to us. I was very touched. I recall walking alone in the woods trying to talk to God. It may be that I received Christ then, rather than 5 years later. But as I look back, I see that that I had a determination arise over the next few months to straighten my leg as much as possible. I had to think about every step. Over about a year, the bones were reshaped, and although the leg is still half an inch shorter than the other, and the foot on that side is nearly two inches shorter, the leg is straight and I walk normally and without pain. It may be that my actual experience of salvation occupied a 5-year span!
  • Finally, in 2000, I had colon cancer. It was a rather late stage, but not metastasized beyond the perineum yet. A wizard of a surgeon replumbed me in a 5-hour operation. I also had an ordinary course of chemotherapy. I believe the biggest factor was that the whole church where we met (and still meet) prayed urgently for me. A few years later, the gastroenterologist who had made the initial diagnosis told me, "You are a trophy!" He had initially given me a 15% chance to live beyond one year, after the operation and chemo. Was divine healing involved? This particular case is unclear, but I give Glory to God nonetheless, for the love of fellow believers at the very, very least, and I take these past 14+ years as a sign that He is just not done with me yet!

Bosworth's book has led me to rethink everything I believe about divine healing. God may indeed strongly will for all His children to be kept in good health until He is ready to call them home. It is equally clear that, at least the "halter" mentioned by Bosworth is active in some cases. But there is a big gap between the level of healing advocated in the book, and the experience of most of God's children today. I am prayerfully considering these things, and it would be worth everyone's time to do so.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Math is a way of thinking

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, mathematical thinking, mathematical games

In the realm of the English and Americans being "divided by a common language" (widely attributed to Shaw, but author not known), the abbreviation for "mathematics" is "maths" in England and "math" in the U.S. The term itself can be colloquially translated "learnèd techniques". Note the accent; thus, mathematics are techniques of those who are learnèd.

Matt Parker wants to make math—he writes "maths", being British—enjoyable. For most people, "Math is hard," to quote the talking Barbie doll. The funny thing is, we use math all the time. To make us more aware of our penchant for mathematical thinking, and to show us some ways to play in a mathematical way, he has written Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension. He bills himself as a stand-up comic and mathematician. The book is subtitled "A Mathematical Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More".

Well, how can mathematics, which encompasses much more than mere number-work, be made enjoyable? Can it be FUN? In my case, Parker is preaching to the choir. I was the kind of geeky kid who did enormous long division problems for fun. The kind who angered a series of calculus instructors by correcting them during class (It took me decades to learn sufficient tact to brace a fellow with his errors in the privacy of his office).

To anyone who has survived the standard American curriculum and graduated from High School, we started with "four banger" arithmetic (add, subtract, multiply, divide), went on to just a bit of exponents and roots (in my day we learned to extract a square root with pencil and paper), then geometry and algebra (in either order), trigonometry, and, if you were a High School senior after about 1966, introductory calculus.

Once you'd been schooled in algebra and plane geometry, did anyone bother to tell you they are equivalent? that one can solve with straight edge and compass the same problems that are presented with X's and Y's and such? I thought not. Probably because they were taught by different teachers; the algebra teacher probably didn't know geometry all that well, and vice versa: nobody told them either!

OK, what's fun about math anyway? Do you remember π? That odd number a bit larger than 3 that has something to do with a circle? For everyday purposes we can use 3.14 or 3 1/7 or 22/7. If you get familiar with it, you can win bar bets and get the occasional free drink. Here's how. You make a bet with someone that the glass he or she is drinking from is bigger around than it is tall. Make sure to use the word "around" not "across". Most people will say, "No way!" If they take the bet, hand them a piece of string. Have the person wrap it around the glass, and mark the length, then hold it next to the glass. The mark will nearly always be above the rim. Why do I say, "nearly always"? Some drinking glasses are quite tall and thin, but not the kind you'll find beer in. So do this for preparation. Get some string and do the comparison using all the different kinds of drinking glasses you find around the house. It is likely that only a really skinny iced-tea glass will be taller than it is around. In a bar, just eyeball that the height is less than three times the width, and you'll be OK.

But fun with math is more than just bar bets. Parker's stand-up routine is based on math, and he writes of a number of card tricks that use mathematical methods. One well-used card trick bases its "clairvoyant" result on the fact that 27 is 3x3x3…and here you thought the deck a stage magician was using had all 52 cards in it! And there are the numbers for lovers (Parker calls them "amicable numbers"). The smallest "loving" pair is 220 and 284. All the factors of 220 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55, and 110. Add those 11 numbers: the sum is 284. All the factors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71, and 142. Add those 4, and the sum is 220. You can sometimes buy a little "puzzle heart", in two pieces with 220 on one half and 284 on the other. There are other (mostly much larger) pairs of amicable numbers, if you want a more geeky puzzle heart made to order.

And on the subject of amicability, or better, there is that "optimal dating algorithm" of the subtitle. An algorithm is a recipe, for cooking up the solution to a problem. In this case, the problem is finding a compatible spouse. In an early chapter, Parker refers us to a few gents (very few early mathematicians were female) who showed that the "optimal testing proportion" of a string of dates is the square root of the total number of dates (with different people) you are prepared to embark upon. Thus, if you plan to allow up to two years for the search, and have time for one date weekly (Friday or Saturday, your choice), that is about 100 maximum dates. The square root of 100 is 10, so you use the first 10 dates to gather information, make your lists, compile the strong and weak points, and determine which person you dated is the most compatible potential spouse. Then, you continue dating new people until someone comes along who is better than the best of the first 10. Stop your search and propose marriage. Suppose you get to the end of the two years, and nobody beat "good old #7"? You can't go back, #7 probably already married someone else. And the chances are about 5% that the 2-year search will fail, statistically. Now what? You can shrink the chance of such failure this way. After the next group of 10, you drop your standard a little, say to better than the second-best of the first 10. There's more statistics one can do, but you'll probably get swept off your feet by someone unexpected long before you reach the 100th date anyway!

Number tomfoolery and some mapping stuff (like the 4-color problem) take up 9 chapters, and then we get into higher dimensions. The 4th dimension is just the beginning. Though it takes a while, we eventually read of a conjecture that requires the use of a space with nearly 200,000 dimensions! The fact that we are alive is sufficient proof to me that no 4D space exists, at least not one that can contact our 3D space. An entity who lives in a 4D space could reach inside us and stop our heart, or remove it for our inspection, as Regina and Rumpel do in episodes of "Once Upon a Time". Doing so would be as easy for them as it is for us to touch the middle of a circle drawn on paper. There is a bigger reason, though, that he mentions as an aside. Orbital mechanics won't work in 4D, not even a little bit. You can't get a planet to orbit a star in any dimension higher than 3. And this is why I deny "string theory", which requires either 10 or 11 dimensions for the math to work.

A lot of the ground the book covers is in the field of topology. Mathematical I may be, but topology is an area I have shunned. The author did more to give me at least a glimmer of topological understanding, than shelves of math books by others. But not more than a glimmer. It really depends how your mind works.

Clearly, in dimensional and topological math, Parker is a genius compared to me. I do find that he comes up short in other areas, however. For one, he mentions at one point his computer idling along at 2.7 GHz, and follows with a parenthesis and a footnote:

The parenthesis: "(2.7 gigahertz is a measurement of how many times its logic gates can be run every second).*"

The footnote: * Actually, this is how many times the processor performs commands in a second, each of which could involve more than one calculation. So this is a low estimate for comparison. A more dedicated me would research how many actual calculations it does per second, aka FLOPS.

The italics in the footnote are mine, and point out an error. The original parenthesis is correct. 2.7 GHz is the rate at which the processor's clock runs, and the clock controls the logic gates. Some hardware operations (what he loosely calls "commands") take one clock tick to run, others take more than one, usually two to four, but perhaps even more. So the basic hardware instruction rate is slower than 2.7 GHz, and 2.7 GHz (for the CPU in his computer) is the highest rate, and thus is a high estimate, not a low one as he states. Furthermore, FLOPS refers to FLoating-point Operations Per Second, where floating-point refers to the calculation of numerical quantities. A 2.7 GHz processor includes a special floating-point processor, these days called a math unit, and it tops out at several hundred MFLOPS (millions of FLOPS).

Back to areas in which our author shines. He presents a geometric proof that an infinite series can have a finite sum, using one based on Zeno's Paradox (though he doesn't say so). Zeno asked, if a runner (he called him Achilles) has two miles to run, first he runs a mile, then a half mile, then a quarter mile, and so forth: does he ever arrive? Of course we know that the second mile is run in about the same time as the first. But it is stated as 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 and so forth, a series that goes on forever. We know in our gut that the sum is 2. Here is the geometry:

It is easy to see that you can continue dividing by 2 as long as your patience holds out. The little blue square holds all the pieces I didn't have patience to draw.

This is the most ancient (known) example of a converging series. Most series diverge, and the one that is right on the edge is the sum of all reciprocals: 1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 and so forth. The book has a very clear proof on page 289 that this sum grows without bound (I was careful not to use the word "infinity". That is for later).

For those who aren't afraid of exponents, the sum of reciprocal numbers to a power, where the exponent is close to one, has a finite sum as long as the exponent is greater than one, but grows without bound if it is one or less. Thus, 1/1ⁿ + 1/2ⁿ + 1/3ⁿ + 1/4ⁿ is finite even if n is 1.00000000001 (or add as many zeroes as you like, but keep that last 1 ).

OK, let's talk about infinity. A late chapter is called "To Infinity and Beyond" (nods to Buzz Lightyear). Do you recall the different kinds of numbers? For review:
  • Natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, etc. Also called Counting Numbers.
  • Integers: the Natural numbers plus zero and negatives of the Natural numbers.
  • Rational numbers: Ratios of any two integers such as 1/2, 19/14, 32768/4195.
  • Irrational numbers: All non-Integers that have unending, nonrepeating decimal parts. The most familiar examples are √2 and π, and most people remember at least 1.414 for the one and 3.1416 for the other.
As it happens, there are two kinds of Irrational numbers, but not everyone hears of them even in high school math classes. Firstly, Algebraic numbers are also called Computable numbers, because they are the solution to certain computations, primarily involving polynomials, such as square roots. Secondly, Transcendental numbers are a great deal trickier. Some of them such as π are found in trigonometric equations, and others such as e (2.71828...) in logarithmic and exponential expressions. But they are not "computable" the way square roots are.

With that under our belt, Algebraic irrational numbers are abundant and comparatively familiar. Transcendental numbers are difficult to deal with, and the ones that are known to be so are rather few. It is very difficult to prove that a certain quantity is a transcendental number. The odd thing is, it is not hard to prove that there are a lot of them lurking in the number line. In fact, the Transcendental numbers infinitely outnumber all the rest! A paradoxical phrase I learned in graduate school states:
Between any two transcendental numbers, there exists at least one algebraic number. Between any two algebraic numbers, there exists an infinite quantity of transcendental numbers.
Parker demonstrates this with an amusing analogy called the Hilbert Hotel, attributed to Georg Cantor (Hilbert and Cantor were math geniuses of roughly 120 years ago). Infinite busloads of several kinds of "guests", meaning several kinds of algebraic numbers, are accommodated in the hotel and can always be fit in. Then a bus with just the transcendental numbers between 0 and 1 shows up, and the hotel cannot hold them all. The proof is on page 413, and makes sense while I am reading it, but escapes me immediately thereafter!

This shows that there are at least two kinds of infinity, now called Aleph-0 (or -null) and Aleph-1. But it is not known if there is a different Aleph that is "larger" than Aleph-0 but "smaller" than Aleph-1.

I think Matt Parker genuinely believes that anyone could love and enjoy math, given the right approach. I'd agree only if we recognize that mathematical thinking of certain kinds may be universal among us humans, but that a great many branches of the math tree are forever beyond the reach of many people, no matter what kind of schooling or inducement is offered. Certain kinds of minds are required to do certain kinds of thinking. As I get older, I realize more and more the immense diversity of humankind. A political scientist, a journeyman carpenter, and a medical technician, all regularly think thoughts in realms that will forever be beyond my understanding. They can think thoughts I could never learn to think. That's OK. I think I have a few thoughts of my own that many other folks will never comprehend.

I'll go further. Look at your automobile. The days are long gone that a single person can design and build an entire auto, the way Carl Benz did in 1885. It takes about 8 different kinds of engineer to do so now. Even 40-50 years ago I could take out the motor and rebuild it (did so, 3 times). Now I couldn't get it out without a set of tools I can't afford.

But don't let my quibbles and quandaries discourage you from reading the book. Matt Parker writes delightfully, with a clarity that gets around the defenses we might have against allowing any more math to get into our overstuffed head. Reading this book is like looking through a microscope or telescope. It shows a new landscape, and you may not comprehend it all, but the view is worth it anyway.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sandwich Generation - the rubber hits the road

kw: book reviews, short fiction, short stories, poetry, caregiving

One of my earliest memories is of leading my grandfather by the hand to take a walk around the front yard of his winter house in the desert. I was about six years old. My last memory of him comes about six years later, shortly before he died; it is my only memory of him speaking. In those days it was called "hardening of the arteries." It was probably Alzheimer Syndrome. He was peaceable in his dotage and my grandmother cared for him until the end.

Take a look at this face. This is his grandmother Elizabeth when she was about sixty. This is an Alzheimer face. He wore a similar face much of the time: disconnected and vaguely unhappy. This woman's daughter, my great-grandmother, died in her fifties. From dementia? We don't know.

My mother and her sister inherited the syndrome. My aunt was more cheerful about the prospect, telling me (before she lost the power of speech), "If I'm going to go crazy, I intend to enjoy it!" My mother coped the best she could, and we felt fortunate she didn't stop speaking.

My last memories of my mother, just a month before her death, began when I walked into my parents' sitting room where her gurney-bed was: she looked up and called me by name. She hadn't spoken my name for five years or more. During that last visit, which lasted just four days, she called me by name a few more times. I am told this is common. In both her case and her father's case there was a rallying and greater clarity in the last month or two of life. Somehow I knew this without being told, and expected she would not long survive my visit. Six weeks later I crossed the country again to attend her funeral.

My father would tell a more arduous story. Until he was 80 he cared for her himself, but he had to hire a nurse to help during the last year or so. He got so burned out. So did the nurse. After Mom died she went into a different line of work.

Now I sometimes wonder whether I'll be next in line. It used to worry me a lot. Here is a poem I wrote to my mother (but never showed her) a few months before that last visit:
I held your father’s hand
When I was just a little boy.
He needed help to find his way around.
He was like a friendly puppy,
And he liked to be with me.
When I’d walk around the block, he’d come along.

The only time I heard him speak,
I was nearly 12.
I was asking for some tweezers for a thorn.
He spoke up, and said, “I have some!”
And he led me down the hall
To his tool bench at the back of the garage.

A retired piano tuner,
He had tools of every kind:
Wrenches, screwdrivers, a tuning hammer, saws.
The tweezers that he handed me
Were longer than my hand.
But I managed to pull out that thorn with them…

More than forty years have passed,
And as we walk around the block
I must hold your hand, so you can find your way.
This is something in our family,
They say it’s in the genes.
When it is my turn, who will hold my hand?
Had I known a certain volume was being prepared, I'd have submitted this, perhaps with some small chance it would be accepted. I've just read Living in the Land of Limbo, edited by Carol Levine. It is subtitled "Fiction and Poetry about Family Caregiving", and is one of the more touching and memorable volumes I've read.

Ms Levine has organized the book well, because "family" means relationships in all directions, up, down and sideways. I noticed that many of the writers are Chinese or other Easterners. The Western way seems to be to warehouse people when we get uncomfortable with them, and then feel virtuous if we happen to visit at least weekly. Folks seem to add it to their list of duties right on a par with "going to church". "OK, an hour for church on Sunday morning. Check. An hour with Dad (or Mom or Aunt Rose…) on Wednesday afternoon. Check." If you've never heard the song by Harry Chapin, "The Cat's in the Cradle", click and listen to it now.

I usually abhor "free verse", but the poems in this book are so touching I didn't mind. The various pieces got me to think about all my relationships. I am so glad I knew all my grandparents, and that our son got to know all four of his. I am glad for "immediate family" of course, but also for aunts (one still living) and uncles and cousins, and those second and even third cousins I've been privileged to meet. One good friend of ours helps out his cousin frequently. He wonders how she goes on, with so many ailments, and a husband in even worse shape! They are fortunate he is available to help out.

Well, it is clear a book like this is hard to write about. It is the best kind of book, one that triggers self-reflection and self-revelation. I have little fear of Alzheimer's Syndrome now. I seem to have inherited my father's brain (he is 93 and still pretty competent) rather than my mother's. And if I do succumb to dementia? It is in God's hands. A wonderful book like this shows we need not feel alone when we need to care for someone, or need care ourselves. We have plenty of company.

Now I must reveal my identity explicitly, which I haven't done before in this blog. The poem above, titled "Memory", is Copyright, 2004 by Larry J. Van Stone. Please contact me if you wish to use it, using a Comment to tell me your e-mail address; I monitor Comments, so the Comment will not appear unless I Publish it to the blog, which I would not do without your permission.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Water as the next fuel – for War

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, textbooks, water, hydrology

I have been saying since the 1980s that the wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water. Similar, and quite definite statements are found in the last chapter of a 634-page text, Groundwater for the 21st Century: A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth by John A. Conners. But water wars are not his focus, knowledge is. The aim of Dr. Conners is to educate the populace, the "Citizens" of his title. 'Tis a pity none can similarly educate national and business leaders whose focus is the next election or quarterly profit/loss statement.

Though the author claims the book was not written as a textbook, it is one. In fourteen chapters it covers the field of groundwater science quite thoroughly at a layman's level, if you don't mind an occasional equation and a little chemistry here and there. Though I spent the past week reading the book, I'd have taken twice as long had I not been able to skim much of the material.

What is groundwater? Simply put, it is all the water beneath our feet. In most parts of America, particularly the rainy East and Southeast, you can dig a foot or two down and see water seep into the hole. That is groundwater trickling out into view.

How much is there? A lot, but the rub is, there are a lot of us and we use a lot of water. At this point, I'll take a brief aside: Units are used quite inconsistently throughout the book. Sometimes we find square miles or cubic miles, and at others square or cubic kilometers. Sometimes a volume is in gallons, then in liters, and larger amounts may be in acre-feet or cubic whatever. Sometimes a conversion between Metric and (mainly) English units is given, sometimes not. Here I will use SI (the "official" Metric set of units, out of 3 flavors of Metric), and convert when necessary. So again, there is a lot of water, but there are billions of us, and the more affluent we are, the more water we use. On average, and American wastes an amount of water weekly that is equal to the entire water budget of a person in a Third World country, for a year.

How is it being used? From quite well to quite abominably. In the rich West we take it for granted unless it is our job to worry about it. This is not always wise. I once lived on a hill high above a flood plain. On this flood plain there were several mobile home communities. The typical setup was this: each trailer/manufactured home sat on about a half acre of ground. In the front yard near each house was a water well. On a flood plain the water table, which is the upper limit of groundwater connected to the nearby river, is at a depth of several feet, so the wells were shallow. Guess what was in every back yard? A septic tank and outflow field. The tank and piping were typically set shallower than the water table, meaning that whatever came out the pipes tricked down into the groundwater. I wonder if anyone living there ever considered that they were drinking their own slightly filtered toilet waste...and their neighbors'!

Most groundwater is extracted for agricultural use. At one point, we find that the minimum requirement of water needed to produce one day's food is about 3,000 liters. You only need a few liters to drink, and a few more to sponge bathe and to clean eating utensils. Depending on what we eat, our agricultural water use can be even higher. It takes 200 liters to produce one hen's egg, more than 15,000 l per kg of beef and 1/3 of that per kg of chicken meat. On the herbivory side, an apple tree consumes 125 l per apple, it takes more than 1,800 l to grow 1 kg of wheat, and once the wheat is milled and made into bread, each slice has 60 l of water use hidden within.

In addition to overt and semi-overt water consumption, a hidden "consumption" of water is contamination and pollution. To pollute water is to render it unusable, or at the very least, risky to use. I once heard a European water policy expert discuss laws—I don't know if they are on the books or only proposed—that mandate every manufacturing plant that wishes to release "used" water into a waterway, must put the outfall upstream of its own inlet. That supposedly gives them incentive to clean the water up before releasing it. But it doesn't address whether a company might do only partial cleanup of effluent, and more thorough cleanup of water it is using, only as needed on a process-by-process basis. A clever enough company might still pollute, but at lower cost than thoroughly cleaning their effluent. So I'd go further. I favor a law requiring that every executive and manager and salaried employee be required to live in a dwelling that has its water supply hooked up directly to the outflow from the plant: to drink the water, to cook with it, to shower or bathe with it, to wash their clothes and water their lawns and gardens with it.

OK, you say, "Dream on, dude!" Yeah, I know. The powerful always find ways to circumvent everything. That's why we need occasional revolutions.

Back to the book. In it we find that we are not using groundwater as fast as it is formed. The trouble is, groundwater varies in its purity and accessibility and in the cost to retrieve and transport it. The "cheapest" groundwater is mainly in underground formations, called aquifers, that are not being replenished very fast. In most of the world, we are extracting water that won't be replaced. It is called water mining. Only once it is gone will we turn to more costly water, and maybe one day we'll learn to use the water that is being replaced the most rapidly. But, give us time, and we'll find a way to outstrip even that supply. We need, not more water, but wiser water use. In the usual case, we do only what we are forced to do. This will most likely continue.

The book has no call to action. It is entirely educational. People need to understand what is actually out there, and what is actually going on. The learning itself will trigger action. That is the author's hope.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Some non-essentials are less essential than others

kw: book reviews, collections, literature

I like to read the occasional "Best of" or "Best American" collection, everything except poetry, since so little genuine poetry is being written at present. So when I came across The Best American Non-Essential Reading 2013, edited by Dave Eggers, I brought it home and dived right in. I was momentarily put off by the cover art by Camille Rose Garcia. She specializes in cartoonish illustrations that range from creepy to just plain ugly. This cover is exceptionally ugly. I soon obtained a clue to this.

I hadn't encountered this series before. In the introduction I found that the "editor" brings together a gaggle of high school students from all over the San Francisco bay area to read, debate, and select the pieces for each volume. To the way of thinking of most folks over 35 or so, kids that age prefer ugly stuff. Fortunately, that is not uniformly true. And it bears considering that when we were 16 or so, what we liked came across to our own parents as quite ugly.

Any literary collection strives to present a variety of reading experiences. This collection achieves that, and then some. Compared to this collection's range of voices and viewpoints, other collections are monochromatic. So even I found an item or two to like.

I suppose it is obligatory for me to complain that most of the fiction pieces are about losers who learn nothing. Much of the reportage is similarly lifeless. "All Due Respect" by Peter Hessler is an exception. It reads like fiction, but portrays Jake Adelstein and the Yakuza among whom he moved during more than a decade in Japan. It gets my vote as the best writing in the volume. The phrase "all due respect", as said by a Japanese in Japanese, has overtones of the "offer you can't refuse" of Godfather fame.

About a third of the fiction pieces I'd already read, in other "Best of" volumes. I recalled they hadn't thrilled me the first time around, so skipping them was no loss. One piece of "poetry" was the most non-poetic item I've encountered, "Crazy Horse Boulevard" by Sherman Alexie. A selection of 4 short poems inspired by Kurt Vonnegut ranged from moderately accessible free verse to non-verse (anti-verse?) of the most acidic sort. Free verse is almost exactly a century old. That is time for 3-4 generations to arise who have never read anything with both rhyme and meter, and it shows. You can write almost anything with odd pacing, perhaps break the lines in peculiar places, and call it a poem. I guess the market for rhyming dictionaries has essentially vanished.

One piece that I read all the way through, and shouldn't have, succeeded in disturbing my sleep: "Snake River Gorge" by Alexander Maksik. I think it is fictional. If it isn't, it sheds a very different light on those youngsters that show up on your doorstep selling magazine subscriptions, as a particularly heinous sort of human trafficking. Even if it is fiction, it'll still make whoever has read it get the willies when another kid rings the bell.

I reckon if you're a Millennial and don't know any better, you'll like many of these pieces. If you're a Boomer or an X-er, probably not so much.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Are psychopaths evil, or broken?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths, autobiographies, fmri

Psychopaths and psychopathy have been of growing interest for about thirty years. Amazon currently lists 96 hardbacks with "psychopath" (singular or plural) in the title, and more than 600 if paperbacks and Kindle editions are counted. Perhaps a quarter of these books delve into the science to some extent. The rest are more sensational treatments or contain advice about dealing with a troublesome boss, co-worker, lover, child or parent, who may or may not actually be psychopathic.

Of books on the subject with a more scientific or investigatory aim, I suspect most are at least partly based on the work of Kent Kiehl, who has just published The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience. Beginning with the work of Drs. Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare, and based very much on the PCL-R (Psychopathy Check List – Revised), he initiated the study of brain structure and function in psychopaths using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

While he was a graduate student Dr. Kiehl began working with prisoners convicted of the most violent crimes, learning to apply the PCL (I'll leave the R off; it is understood these days). To properly use the PCL, interviews lasting a few hours, conducted by a well trained clinician, are needed. The score ranges up to 40, with 30 being the cutoff. The average for all inmates in maximum-security prisons is 11. The average for the general population is 4. The average for serial killers is 35, but not all serial killers have been found to be psychopaths.

Throughout the book the chapters each begin with a mini-fact. The first is
One in four maximum-security inmates is a psychopath
So if you have a bunch of inmates whose average score is 11, but a quarter of them have an average score of about 32 (this assumes that higher scores are more scarce), then the rest will average 4, the same as the general population of the non-incarcerated!

Psychopathy is a primarily male affliction. While about one man in 150 is a psychopath, the rate for women is closer to one in 1500, so about 90% of psychopaths are male. If we confine our concern to those between the ages of 18 and 50, in the U.S. population about half a million men and 50,000 women are psychopaths, as measured by PCL-R.

I wondered about the 30-point cutoff. Its utility depends on the distribution of scores. For example, if someone is rated by a trained clinician, for whatever reason, and is scored a 29, is he considered "almost a psychopath" or a non-psychopath? Having dug around some, I didn't find much on score distributions, and nothing for the "general population". But I did find a few histograms compiled for psychiatric populations. They showed a bimodal distribution with a pronounced low region in the range 20-30. Curiously, among many articles that mention score distribution, most treat the scores as a normal (that is, Gaussian) distribution, which introduces serious errors if the true distribution is bimodal (think of a camel with two humps; the Gaussian curve has one hump only).

It is a terrible pity that so many scientists, psychologists in particular, try to shoehorn all distributions into the Gaussian model, when so few natural phenomena are truly Gaussian! Sure, height in males or females tends to be normally distributed ("normally" meaning "according to the Gaussian model"). So do a small number of other measurable things. But consider this question:
What is the average number of digits (fingers plus thumbs) possessed by persons the day of their birth...or death?
Neither question can be answered "exactly ten". On the day of birth, some babies are born deformed and have fewer than ten, and in rare cases, no digits or even hands at all. Also, ten is not the maximum number because some are born with twelve, and sometimes more. The internet abounds with pictures of babies born with 14 digits or more. And at the end of life, a significant number of folks have lost one digit or more to accident or disease. So while the mode (greatest frequency) of the distribution curve is right at ten, the number ranges from zero to at least 16, and is strongly skewed, numbers smaller than ten predominating. To analyze frequencies of digit quantity using Gaussian statistics would be a serious error.

The difficulty of labeling is also discussed. Young people can also display psychopathic tendencies, and there is a PCL for juveniles, but it is a breach to tell a youngster the result. In one case in the book, a young man with some emotional problems was told by a doctor that he was a psychopath, whereas it turned out later he was not one at all! But he believed the doctor and decided he'd live a life of crime, including killing.

Dr. Kiehl's work has been primarily with serious criminals. A significant focus of his work has been predicting rates of recidivism, or re-offending, after a prisoner is released. Psychopaths are six times as likely as others to re-offend. Does that mean that we ought to give the PCL to a freshly incarcerated person and, if he "fails", lock him up and throw away the key? Not so fast. The author spends a chapter discussing the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) in Wisconsin, where a different approach has been used to ameliorate the antisocial traits of the least-manageable juveniles, who are termed "callous and unemotional" to avoid labeling them "psychopaths" at too early an age.

Psychopaths in general do not learn from punishment or other negative consequences. They seem immune to correction, and many are proud of it. At MJTC, as I understand it, the juvenile offenders are trained in a way similar to performing animals. Every slightest "good behavior" is rewarded, and while serious misbehavior may be sanctioned for the safety of the staff, most misbehavior is simply ignored. Everyone there is trained in the method, from clinicians to cleaning staff. The results have been spectacular. For example, among juveniles not treated who were released at age 18, a certain number became adult criminals and several committed murder. Among an equal number of those who completed the MJTC program, fewer than half as many committed any crimes, and none were murders. Some went on to get more education and were able to hold jobs. Getting such results is neither quick nor cheap, but considering that crime in America costs at least a trillion dollars yearly, not doing anything is even more costly!

I find it interesting that Dr. James Fallon has studied psychopaths, using tools developed by Dr. Kiehl, and found that he is himself a psychopath, as are a number of people, such as Niel Armstrong, who are not in any way in trouble with the law. It seems one's fMRI scan can show the suppressed emotional brain activity characteristic of a psychopath, and one can score 30 or more on the PCL, while still having respect for law. Dr. Fallon believes such psychopaths outnumber the criminal ones. Let's hope so!

A "horse whisperer" is one who has a special rapport with horses and can train them quickly and effectively. The book's title points not so much to the author as to the originator of the program at MJTC. I hope the work there leads to follow-on programs that can take the fangs out of  the most dangerous young persons and, one might fondly hope, gradually depopulate our prisons. It is a national shame that America has such a large number of prisoners.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

One future diverting another

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, near-future, dystopias

Concerning time travel, one would have the same question that Enrico Fermi did about Martians or other aliens visiting Earth: "Where is everybody?" In The Peripheral, William Gibson finesses this in a milieu where contact across time is possible but difficult, and thus limited and easier to conceal. Here we find also a future, late 22nd Century so far as I can determine, with a much lower population, and a very, very small number who can afford to pursue cross-time contact as a hobby. Also, conveniently, early in the novel we read that the earliest date that can be contacted is some time in the 2020s. The mechanism is a new kind of virtual reality system, with a server "somewhere in China". More than this is left a mystery.

What is a "peripheral"? Computer-savvy folks think of printers, external hard drives, game controllers,…all the things you might attach to a computer (or tablet or phone, these days) except the external monitor. Somehow screens aren't thought of as peripherals. In the novel, "peripheral" is reserved for robots and (Gibson doesn't use the word) androids that someone can inhabit virtually, via a special brain-contact headset that wraps around at forehead level.

I have minimal interest in the plot. Suffice it to say that the protagonists are one Flynne Fisher, a young woman in about the year 2110, and Wilf Netherton, a middle-aged man living some 75± years later. In Flynne's era, there is something like an advanced Skype machine on wheels, like a Segway with a screen and cameras on a stalk at head level. Devices like this are currently called telepresence robots, and enable someone a certain limitedly mobile presence at a distance. Presumably they'll be a lot better by 2110 or so. After a further seven decades, the technology of choice is a genetically human animaloid with neither brain nor alimentary canal (they are fed intravenously). In place of a brain, there is an AI that can manage the body when not in use, and interface electronics for its use. For tasks needing great strength or small size, various "homunculi" are used similarly.

Thus, Flynne gets to visit the future by inhabiting a peripheral that is a fully-functional young woman who looks similar to her, but cannot eat (and doesn't eliminate either). Wilf gets to visit the past in a telepresence robot. As it happens, Flynne is very fortunate that her brother is a former Special Forces (or something similar) soldier, with lots and lots of friends who are very, very good with weapons; Wilf is well-connected with an English-born Russian gajillionaire and his "klept". Think of a klept as a crime family with ambitions to grow into a kleptocratic government.

The plot hinges on a murder that Flynne witnessed while monitoring what she thought was a video game. As the only witness, she is targeted by future assassins who can only work by offering millions to folks in her time who will kill her. The future folk who contact her include a mysterious police inspector of great age, and members of the klept, who finance the search for the original killer. Of course, the killer will be fingered and dealt with, along with certain other evil folk. Other than that, there is remarkably little killing.

William Gibson is a master of high-tech future dystopian world-building. With The Peripheral he has crafted two dystopias, with the worse one attempting to avert their own fate for the other. I ought to mention another time-contact concept: first contact between someone in, say, 2085 with someone in 2010 splits off a "stub", which is now affected by that contact and develops differently without changing the future that is doing the contacting. Believe me, this is less of a mental conundrum than we usually find in "time travel" literature! (Most of it seems to be written just to set up, then solve, such conundrums.) Thus, it is possible for Wilf and his group to help Flynne and her group avoid "the jackpot" that led to the world he inhabits.

This "jackpot" is one of the intriguing ideas in the book. It is described not as a single catastrophic event, but a decades-long tangle of co-synergistic "slow disasters" (only global warming is presented as an example) that end up reducing human population to around 10% of what it was before. This is sufficiently plausible to be chilling.

The univere-splitting function of cross-time contact is another. At one point someone muses whether the contact initiates a split, or if quantum universe splits occur frequently and the cross-time function can only occur between worlds on different world-lines. This is in accord with the popular "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory. The most extreme version has every quantum "choice", everywhere, triggering a split into two or more universes, depending on how many possible outcomes the quantum event could have. If Richard Feynman's "virtual particle sea" interpretation of quantum electrodynamics is true, and quantum universe-splitting is also true, then new universes are created at the rate of about 1024 per second per cubic femtometer of space. That is universe creation at a rate, per second, that is a number with roughly 500 digits. And people think this is more reasonable than my belief in God!!! "Stub" creation by intentional action is tons more reasonable than any "many worlds" theory I've read about. And Gibson nicely pushes off any such splitting into the future by a century or so. I found myself wondering whether the plot would twist into next-level contact, when someone from, say the middle 2200s contacts either Wilf or Flynne. Maybe it is something Gibson will take up later, except he is probably busy building another world instead just now.

I've already discussed the technology of "peripherals" a little. It is very reminiscent of the Avatar technology of the film Avatar. I kept wondering if this novel would end similarly, with Flynne's peripheral being replaced by one that can eat, and her getting stuck in it in the future, say because her body dies in her own time. Gibson had another idea, and a better one.

In the Flynne time frame, the technology of the day is "fabbing" using 3D printers of roughly a century in our future. In the Wilf time frame they use "assemblers", nanotechnology devices by the quadrillions. In one scene, a blocking wall just seems to appear. I had to step back and think about that. Where did the material come from? What about the energy? Even if this kind of "assembling" is not breaking and making chemical bonds, the particles being assembled will still be subject to van der Waals forces. vdW forces are what make glue work, and they facilitate the zipping and unzipping of DNA. But even assembly relying only on vdW forces requires energy. So much energy that, while the wall might be able to "arrive" in a second of time, its temperature would be a few thousand degrees. A different application of assembling, that brings a weapon into Flynne's hand through solid rock, would use at least as much energy as melting the rock. Her hand would be burnt off to the shoulder. This point in particular is why I added the tag "science fantasy" to the metadata.

No matter how hard or soft the science is in a science fiction novel, its enjoyment requires the suspension of disbelief. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Then, I enjoyed speculating on the ideas presented here just as much. I am not pointing out errors, but confronting the concepts with physics as we know it today. Many of our devices would seem magical to people of Ben Franklin's time. We know some physics that was not known then. The physics of 200 years to come could advance a similar amount. Maybe there's a way to shift a vdW bond, or even a covalent bond, using much less energy than the break-plus-make procedure we must use today. I love Gibson's writing. His dystopias are more hopeful than most.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Are we dumbing ourselves down?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, automation, surveys, critiques

Six years ago Historian George Dyson wrote on, "What if the cost of machines that think is people who don't?", summarizing an article by Nicholas Carr. Writing about 60 years earlier, in "The Feeling of Power" Isaac Asimov presented a future in which small calculating devices had so usurped arithmetical abilities, that a man who rediscovers paper-and-pencil methods of addition and subtraction is a phenomenon (Strangely, I haven't been able to find a date for this story).

Nicholas Carr has continued to think and write about automation and its effects on us. His recent book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us explores mainly the uglier side of current trends in technology. The best quote in the book is, "How far from the world do we want to retreat?" (p. 137)

Every person will have a unique answer to this question. For people like me, the answer would be, "Very far indeed, for long stretches of time, but with the option to return to full engagement at times and for durations of my choosing." For most of my life I have been more comfortable with machines than with people. Yet I need human contact…just not on the constant basis required by extroverts.

Technology is ancient and continuing: Stone tools as old as 3-4 million years; the successive technologies after Stone of Bronze, Iron, Steam and now Electronics; pocket computers we call "phones" for which making calls is now a minor function. The first time I saw a cell phone in use, some 15 years ago, there were two girls about 7 years old, running together through a park, each talking on a phone to someone else. (Note to self. Try making most calls while walking or jogging. Might be a good way to shed that next 5 pounds or so.) I recall predicting that during my lifetime, our "phone" would be installed in the mastoid bone at puberty and be entirely voice operated. Little wire to a microphone embedded in our jaw somewhere, and software filtering to subtract out the effects of flesh-to-bone conduction of our voice.

I am no slouch when it comes to computer use. I've been what was once called a Power User since the 1960s, when computers were too big to fit in most bedrooms. The motto of the Elephant Club: Don't Trust a Computer You Can See Over. Except today, a new club—the Power Tower Club?—might need a new motto: Don't Trust a Computer Smaller Than a Toaster Oven. Sure, my wife and I have a laptop, but my favorite workstation is a tower 18" tall (46 cm) with a pair of screens that gives me about a meter-wide view into cyberspace. For some of the work I do, that much screen real estate is essential. But do you know what one of my favorite activities is? A few times monthly I am a Historical Interpreter at Hagley Museum, in the Machine Shop, demonstrating machine tools (lathes, drill presses, mills, etc.) from the 1860s and 1870s, powered by a water mill in Brandywine Creek.

I wonder, though, if some machine workers of the early 1800s thought it was somehow "cheating" to use a power tool, when they were perfectly capable of making parts using hand tools. Probably not! Particularly for machine work, one needs a peculiar combination of intelligence and patience. I often point out to museum visitors that cutting the teeth on a medium-sized gear (5" thick and a foot in diameter; about 120 mm and 300+ mm) took a week in the 1870s. You set up a machine with eye and hand. You monitor the machine by ear; by the end of apprenticeship a machinist knows the changes in cutting sound that herald trouble on the way. So you need the brains to set the right index for a 17- or 19-tooth gear on a 40:1 indexing attachment, and the patience to listen for trouble for the next 60 working hours of your life…with resetting of the cut and rotation of the piece about 4 times per hour. Fast-forward to the modern era: Such a gear, if needed today, could be produced in a few minutes using electromachining, or in about an hour on a more conventional NC mill. Those old-time machinists would drool!

In many areas we are going through a transition, and Mr. Carr points out several of importance. The airline industry was among the first to automate wayfinding and autopilot aircraft control. If needed, any modern jetliner, and many smaller planes, are capable of taking off, flying themselves, and landing, without the pilot doing a thing. The trouble is, machines break, thunderstorms and solar flares disrupt communications and sometimes damage equipment, and because no program is totally bug-free, a rare combination of factors puts the autopilot's program into a confused state. In all these cases, the "fail safe" provisions immediately turn control over to the pilot. A few times, this has caused crashes, typically with the loss of everyone on board.

This brings to mind another principle that seems to be lost on modern engineers and programmers, "fail soft". Is it really appropriate for all the software to totally cut out so instantly? If the plane is at all still capable of level flight, the autopilot needs to alert the pilot(s) while keeping the plane on some standard course, giving the humans time to get their brain in gear. There may still be cases such as the "standard course" being straight into a mountainside (and I am reminded of the crash of a small plane in Malaysia in 1991, that effectively decapitated the Conoco corporation), but further development of "standard course" back-up routines ought to take care of that.

Such issues multiply when we come to the driverless car. It sounds seductive. Plot your course on a GPS navigator, press "GO" and take a nap, or play cards, or read or whatever. But the "lanes" in which an airplane "drives" are a few miles wide. Highways lanes are 12 feet (3.66 m) or less. For most of a plane flight, course corrections are few and may be hours apart. On the road, course corrections can occur minute-by-minute and even second-by-second. I have read a time or two about auto-driving "road trains", made up of dozens of autos on a superhighway at superspeed, inches apart to take advantage of drafting. Now suppose a solar magnetic storm disables half a dozen GPS satellites, the road-side "driving aid" equipment being relied upon by the cars, and perhaps some of the electronics in the cars. What is the "fail soft" scenario? Is one even possible??

We are in transition, all right. Casualties of all kinds are one price of progress. YouTube abounds with videos of people so engrossed in texting as they walk that they walk into fountains, manholes, lampposts and each other. We can expect the phones to become even smarter, so they would be on the lookout for such events. Maybe blare, "Look up, dope!", and make a red, flashing screen as such incidents approach. Smart phone technology is not yet complete, nor even appropriate for human use. It's why I use a flip phone that can call and make texts. Period.

In a late chapter Mr. Carr writes of the young Robert Frost and his poems about scythe work. The scythe is an extraordinary instrument. Using one creates muscle tone around your rib cage that no other exercise can match. Learn to use a scythe properly, and use it frequently, and you'll never have back problems. It exemplifies the kind of work that keeps a fellow close to the earth. Even as we try to re-educate America for a supposed post-manufacturing economy, there are huge numbers of jobs that remain very, very hands-on. A company may outsource its call center, computer programming, and database management to drones in India or China. You can't outsource construction, electrical work, plumbing and paving, nor landscaping or even repairing (and washing!) your car. Yeah, I know most New Yorkers just look puzzled when asked by a tourist where to buy gas…like they'd know! But deep in the bowels of the city are track workers and subway car maintenance folks that they'd suddenly feel a great need for if there were a month-long strike.

I have major mixed feelings about automated medicine, though. In certain cases, the Caduceus program has been able to make quick diagnoses where medical experts were baffled. But in others it has been embarrassingly off the mark. In medicine as in many other areas, the term "robotic" is being misused, most notably with the Da Vinci Robot for precision surgery. Let us reserve the term "robot" for autonomous devices such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner. The Da Vinci device is actually a tele-operated "Waldo" with vision magnification and down-scaled, feedback-enhanced motions so a surgeon can operate on something half an inch across while feeling like the object is the size of a basketball. I was once trained on a soldering Waldo used for attaching leads to integrated circuits. It worked at 25x, so a millimeter looked and felt like an inch. It greatly simplified the job. By the way, "Waldo" comes from an old story (1942!) by Robert Heinlein, where the concept was first made public.

Do I want a doctor to cede control in an operation to a robot? Probably not. Diagnosis? Not without human review. Only humans have a sense of what is sensible! How about prescribing? Ditto. I prefer the physician to not only make the decision, albeit aided by the computer system, but also to discuss it with me, because in teaching me how and why he chose a certain medication or treatment, he's rethinking it in a way that is useful to him and may cause him to realize something extra he might at first have missed (Feminists out there, I'd have used "she" and "her" if I had a female physician). "Thinking out loud" is often the most useful kind.

Artificial intelligence, once it gets on a par with us as a conversationalist, will still be quite different from us, so it could provide a very useful function: serving as a "straight man" to our musings, asking questions no human would think to ask, and adding a powerful level of synergy. A very neglected area of ergonomics has been to determine what tasks humans will always do better than machinery, and which tasks should be at the top of the list for turning over to machines. The various Zooniverse projects, citizen science at its best, primarily take advantage of our superior visual abilities. We can recognize the difference between spiral and elliptical galaxies at a glance; or different kinds of beetles; or see that a certain black-and-white blob is a rock and its shadow rather than a penguin.

Some might see The Glass Cage as a Luddite polemic. Not at all. Mr. Carr points out that we are a technological species. We can't live without it. Even the prototypical "cave man" was no naked savage killing prey with teeth and fingernails. The tool kit of Paleozoic people included dozens of tools that require skill to produce but reduce either the effort or the danger of doing the work. I, for one, am glad of today's technologies. I am equally glad that I can pick and choose which to use and which to ignore. Looking around the room I am writing in, I see several thousand objects, nearly all artifacts. Only the insect collection and a few shelves of mineral and fossil specimens are not technologically produced (though I used technology to mount and display them!).

Physically we are more "gracile" (that is, thinner and weaker) than the Cro-Magnons of just 20,000 years ago. They are called "modern" in an anthropological sense, but the technologies they inherited from their ancestors, and added to in following millennia, resulted in a modern civilization in which we don't need the great strength they required for day-to-day living. Our teeth are a little smaller, and as our jaws shorten, most of us need our wisdom teeth removed. All this results from technology. Will this age of intelligent machines cause our brains to atrophy? It's not likely. Our descendants will probably think differently than we do, just as we think differently than our grandparents who mostly grew up without radio, television, airplanes or automobiles.

I'm thinking of my own grandparents, here, all of whom were born in the late 1800s. I know most millennials are of an age to be my own grandchildren. We got our first television when I was 8 years old. Black and white, in a console the size of a divan. Our phone was on a party line. The most local of calls were made by clicking the button 1, 2, 3, or 4 times. "In-exchange" calls needed only 4 or 5 digits. All long distance calls went through an operator. So the change in the "thought world" of today's young adults is as different from mine as mine is from my own grandparents. It is another side of progress. So the book is more of a call to enter the future thoughtfully. We are creating it, after all.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chemistry for those who don't know any

kw: education, chemistry, basics

Think of a scientist and what do you see in your mind's eye? Probably someone in a white coat mixing chemicals. Chemistry is the bane of humanities majors everywhere, because you have to take Chem 1 with a (barely) passing grade to get on with your major. (Those with a sharp eye will note that the cylinder being poured from is about to dump all its contents at once!)

So let's knock out a few basic concepts to jump-start your education. First the ultra-quick version:
Chemistry studies how atoms share or exchange electrons. Of roughly 100 kinds of atoms, a few—twelve, to be exact—have one or two "loose" electrons that are easy to strip off, while another twelve have room for one or two more, and will easily plunder those loose electrons. Some others can either gain or lose three, four, or even five electrons. The rest typically share electrons. Chemistry is learning all the ways this can happen, and which elements behave in which fashion.
For more, read on. We begin with Electrons.


Electrons are particles that make up the outer "skin" and "flesh" of atoms. What we usually mean when we say "chemistry" is properly "electron chemistry". There is also nucleon chemistry, plus other subdisciplines such as crystal chemistry and organic chemistry. The odd thing is, you first have to know a little about nucleon chemistry to get a framework to learn electron chemistry.

Nucleons and Elements

Perhaps you have heard that there are 92 "natural" elements, or maybe, as I wrote above, that there are "about 100 elements". There are actually 90 elements called "naturally occurring". That is because, although the heaviest natural element is Uranium, #92, the elements numbered 43 and 61 are not found in nature, for reasons we'll soon get into.

Nucleons are the particles that make up the nucleus: Protons and Neutrons. The number of protons in a nucleus determine what element it belongs to. For a nucleus to be stable (and the "what for" about this is a major subject of nucleon chemistry) there need to be neutrons present also. Only one element has no neutrons in its nucleus, Hydrogen. An atom of hydrogen, the simplest and lightest element, has one proton and one electron, and nothing more. Every other kind of nucleus has at least one neutron, and with only one exception, the number of neutrons is at least as large as the number of protons.

The main item of nucleon chemistry that you must know is that the Atomic Number is the number of Protons. The term Atomic Number is used everywhere. It is also extremely useful to understand that radioactivity expresses the tendency for certain combinations of protons and neutrons to break apart in one way or another. A very few kinds of "unstable" nuclei are nearly stable and last for millions or billions of years. Uranium is one of these.

Nuclei of elements #43 (Technetium) and #61 (Promethium) are always unstable, in every variety, no matter how many or how few neutrons are in there with the protons. In this case, "unstable" means having a half-life short enough that every single atom of these elements that may have existed billions of years ago when Earth was formed, has decayed. Half-life is another very useful term, though mainly in nucleon chemistry. For a bunch of any specific, unstable kind of nucleus, the half-life is the time it takes for half of them to decay. Lots of uranium (originally produced when big stars blew up billions of years ago) is still here because its half-life is about 4.7 billion years.

The fundamental tool for understanding electron chemistry is a table in order of Atomic Number, that is arranged according to how electrons pack together in each kind of element: the Periodic Table.

Periodic Table

Get ready for it! I am about to explain this monstrosity:

The columns are arranged the way they are because elements in a column have similar chemical behavior. Down the left side, for example, the six elements Li, Na, K, Rb, Cs, and Fr all have similar chemical behavior because the outermost electron is "loose" and easily lost to more acquisitive elements. Hydrogen is special; though it can both lose and gain an electron, it also participates in a third kind of sharing bond we'll describe later.

Each row represents an electron shell, which fills from left to right. The rightmost column, topped by Helium (element #2) contains all the elements with a completely filled shell. This is the group of elements with the easiest chemistry: They don't participate in chemical reactions! But right next to them we find F, Cl, Br, I, At, and the "artificial" element currently called Uus (Un-Un-Septium, a fake Latin term for 117). They all have an outermost shell that is nearly filled, but is ready to grab an electron from another element that has a "loose" one available.

The rows are different lengths because the shells have different capacities. It takes some learning in quantum physics to comprehend what electrons are doing (as much as that may be possible!). Here is the simple explanation:
  • Electrons come in pairs.
  • The first shell is filled by a single pair, thus Helium has a filled shell. This filled shell is the core of all heavier elements.
  • The shells of all elements other than Hydrogen and Helium have sub-shells.
  • The sub-shells were discovered by spectroscopy, and are called, for historical reasons, s, p, d, and f.
  • Sub-shells increase by odd numbers of electron pairs:
    • p has 3, so s+p = 4 pairs or 8 electrons.
    • d has 5, so s+p+d = 9 pairs or 18 electrons.
    • f has 7, so s+p+d+f = 16 pairs or 32 electrons.
  • Shells 2 and 3 have s+p only; 4 and 5 also have d (thus the lower-middle block); and 6 and 7 also have f (shown as the extra stuff below the main table).
  • The placement of the rows shows that the d sub-shell fills before the p sub-shell, and the f sub-shell fills before d.
Note that the number of electron pairs in a completed shell is a square number: 1, 4, 9, 16. The next square would be 25, though no elements currently existing make any attack on that shell.

All the elements from 93 to 118 have been produced in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. With element #118, the seventh shell is filled, so once elements #119 and greater are produced, an eighth shell will begin to fill. This is expected to have a new sub-shell, usually called g. It can contain 9 electron pairs. It is likely that the g sub-shell will begin to be filled with element #121, but we will only know this for sure if element #121, or a heavier one, has a long enough half-life so the electron arrangement can be studied before the whole sample decays away.


When one atom takes control of the loose electron given up by a different atom, or when atoms share electrons, we talk of a chemical bond. To discuss this, a version of the Periodic Table with different highlighting will be helpful:

You know that term "alkali"? It refers to substances that neutralize acids. The two columns of elements at the left, in lavender and blue coloring, are called the Alkali Metals (lavender) and the Alkaline Earth Metals (blue). The ones with an odd atomic number have one loose electron, and the even ones have two loose electrons. They participate in compounds that tend to be alkaline; in some cases, the compounds are so caustic they will remove your skin.

Now, at the far right, as I mentioned above, the elements in the last column do not combine chemically with others. A few very extreme experiments have been done to force them into unstable chemical compounds. We call them the Noble Gases. They, and four other elements in which the lettering is dark green colored, are gases at "room temperature", defined for chemists as 25°C or 77°F.

The elements in the next column, with beige coloring, are called Halogens. "Halogen" is from the Latin word for "salt". They like to glom onto loose electrons. Any of these reacted with hydrogen will form a strong acid, but when paired with one of the Alkali Metals or an Alkali Earth Metal, they form stable salts. Two of them are usually gases, one is a liquid (Br, with dark blue letters), and the rest are solids. They are a major part of a group also called Non-Metals.

Hydrogen plus the other elements in orange coloring are the rest of the Non-Metals. In element form, solidified at low temperature in the case of Nitrogen and Oxygen, they are insulating solids that look like soft ceramics. While Oxygen and those below it tend to snatch two loose electrons whenever possible, they also participate in the sharing bond I mentioned earlier.

The elements with brown coloring are called Semi-Metals. In element form, they are semiconductors, and one in particular, Si or Silicon, forms the basis for most electronic circuits. The lime green colored elements are Metals that are either semiconductors by themselves, or form semiconductors when alloyed with Semi-Metals.

All the rest of the elements in the main part of the table are colored light yellow, and are Metals. The top row of them, from Scandium to Zinc, are the Transition Metals. "Transition" refers to their similar chemistry. They all have a filled s sub-shell and an empty p sub-shell, and from 1 to 10 electrons in the d sub-shell, which is "hidden" beneath the filled s sub-shell. However, those two outermost electrons can act as loose electrons to combine with Non-Metals or Oxygen, and frequently one of the d electrons will also do so. Thus, they have more complicated chemistry than those to the extreme right or left. The three pale yellow rows below behave a lot like the Transition Metals, but it is harder and harder to get them to react. In particular, Platinum and Gold (Pt and Au) are very resistant to participating in chemical activity, as are the elements directly beneath them, though those are radioactively unstable and are very short-lived.

The Transition Metals are useful to living things in various amounts, usually quite small amounts. Even Iron (Fe), the most abundant metal in our bodies, is present as 4-6 grams in an adult human, or less than 1/100 of a percent. The heavier metals are called "heavy metals", particularly in medicine, because they are all toxic. Lead (Pb) is the most familiar toxic metal.

Ionic Bonds

The shift of one or more electrons between strong "electron donors" such as Li or Ca, and "electron acceptors" such as Se or Cl, produces an Ionic Bond. This kind of bond is strong in the pure solid, but is pulled apart in water to dissolve salts such as LiCl, CaBr2, or MgSe. However, salts with S or Se are poorly soluble compared to salts with Halogen elements "on the right". In water solution, the elements that have lost electrons are + ions, and those that have accepted electrons are - ions.

Covalent Bonds

Electron sharing in which two atoms form a strong bond to fill their outermost shell produces mainly insoluble compounds held together by Covalent Bonds. The Non-Metals, when in elemental form, usually exist as paired atoms sharing one or more electrons. The simplest example is ordinary Hydrogen:

Here the electrons are shown as dots. The shared electrons satisfy the s sub-shell of both atoms.

Most elements can participate in covalent bonds. The most versatile is Carbon, which has 4 outer electrons, and thus room for 4 more. It prefers to share a covalent bond in 4 directions. This makes it the most versatile in its chemistry, and a huge discipline, Organic Chemistry, is the study of carbon chemistry. Where a chemist who studies inorganic chemistry will become familiar with thousands or tens of thousands of chemical compounds, the number of organic compounds so far known exceeds 50 million.

The Take-Away

So, what do you really need to know to be ready for Chem 1? Or, just to be at least glancingly familiar with the subject? Chemistry is about the ways atoms transfer or share electrons. The outer electron shell of an atom can have between 1 and 8 electrons. The more promiscuous atoms, mainly Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulfur and Oxygen, induce the other elements to form complex molecules. In the absence of these four, most compounds are simple and easier to study.