Saturday, May 23, 2015

The specialness of islands

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, islands, cycads

Perception may not be reality, but it certainly feels that way. We go through life contentedly thinking other people are a lot like us. The growth from naivete to sophistication is largely involved in learning the ways we differ from others, and how to effectively cope with that. When we say someone "sees things differently", we usually mean understanding, not a different kind of physical vision. But among people who are not entirely blind, one man in twelve, and one woman in about 250, sees the world around as having different colors than those seen by most of us.

This illustration from 1895 is an attempt to show people with "normal" color vision the effects of a few kinds of color blindness. A truer depiction would have both flags II and III with brown stripes, just of differing contrast, and flags IV and V would be blurrier, because the blue-blind and total monochromats have much lower acuity of vision. Note that in flag IV the star field is black rather than blue.

I once studied color vision for 50 of my colleagues using printed color wheels, asking them to name the colors at certain angles, marked around the margin of the wheel. I tracked down a few folks who were color blind also, because the aim was to produce color maps for geologists that everyone could use with equal ease, and many geologists are color blind. As it happened, the results were somewhat confounded by the printing process, which used three colored inks. These are easier to distinguish from one another even by people with the usual, red-green, kinds of color blindness. Thus, we had  more flexibility using map colors than we'd originally expected.

What do we mean by red-green color blindness? It is actually of two varieties. The formal terms are protanopia and deuteranopia, based on the numbers 1 and 2. "1" refers to the red-sensitive cone cell (R cone), and "2" refers to the green-sensitive cone cell (G cone). However, the sensitivity curves of these two kinds of cells overlap quite a lot.

As seen in this diagram, the R cone and G cone have very similar sensitivity curves, just shifted from one another. It is somewhat surprising that the B cone has such a low sensitivity. In normal daylight, there is a lot of blue light, so it doesn't need a lot of sensitivity. In low light, such as the light of a full moon, for humans at least, the rod cells begin to work as the cones lose effectiveness. Rods are also blue-sensitive, though sort of between G cones and B cones. This is why moonlit scenes appear bluish. The most sensitive vision cells active under moonlight are blue-sensitive.

If either the R cones or G cones are missing or inactive, red, yellow and green shades can be distinguished from blues, but not from each other. The main difference is that the deepest reds appear totally dark to a protanope, while there is a blue-green region of the spectrum that is hard for a deuteranope to see. But because both conditions make the person unable to distinguish red from green, both are called red-green color blindness.

If none of the cones are present, or are not active, a person has only "night vision", with only the rods working. This is the primary type of achromatopsia, or total color blindness. The word is composed of "achromat", meaning "no color" and "opsia", referring to the eye. According to an old estimate, about one person in 30,000 has this condition, and it occurs in more men much more than women. Apparently, all kinds of color anomaly and color blindness are X-linked, so it is quite rare for a woman to have the same anomalous gene on both X chromosomes.

Because the "day vision" system isn't working, and rod cells typically bleach out entirely in bright light and stop working, achromatopes are day-blind or very sensitive to bright light, and cannot function in daylight without strong filters over their eyes. There are other unfortunate characteristics of the syndrome, such as nystagmus (rapid and unusual movement of the eyes), which may be side effects of the day-blindness.

Oliver Sacks, a polymath who almost incidentally is a neurologist, became fascinated upon learning of a pair of islands in the south Pacific, where more than 5% of the people are achromatopes. In the local language the condition is called maskun, meaning "not see", because of their day-blindness. They can function well enough in lower light, so they can do certain kinds of work. They are well accepted in their communities. Dr. Sacks and two others, one a scientist named Knut Nordby who is an achromatope, visited Pingelap and Pohnpei to study the phenomenon, and to bring dark glasses and other vision aids to people that have been coping without them. Their travels and work are described in a delightful way in Sacks's book The Island of the Colorblind, bound together with Cycad Island in the volume I read.

Both books explore the way island populations tend to concentrate certain characteristics. When you have a small population that has little or no contact with others, the statistics of gene-shuffling through the generations can exaggerate some conditions. In the case of Pingelap, a disastrous typhoon and following famine killed all but 20 people residing there, and fear of disease kept people from neighboring islands from visiting for more than a generation. One of those 20 carried the gene for achromatopsia, and inbreeding brought it into expression, as mentioned, to an incidence of about 5%. The numbers of those with maskun would be greater if it were not hard for them to find marriage partners.

The presence of Dr. Nordby was crucial to getting the people to talk willingly about their condition, and to help the research team gather useful genealogical data. The largest nearby island, Pohnpei, has a valley populated by immigrants from Pingelap, and a similar incidence of maskun. The team also went there to help those they could, and study the condition further.

Color blindness of this kind is trouble enough, but it doesn't kill you. A different medical condition is found on Guam, as Dr. Sacks tells us in Cycad Island. A slow, progressive disease called lytico-bodig in the local language has been endemic there for several generations. In the lytico form it resembles ALS, most famously afflicting Dr. Stephen Hawking, and earlier called Lou Gehrig's Disease, for that ballplayer died from it. The bodig form is more like Parkinson's Disease, leading to rigidity and paralysis, and is often accompanied by dementia. One sufferer cheerfully told Dr. Sacks, "Come back soon. I won't remember you, so I'll have the pleasure of getting to know you all over again."

Much of the latter book details a series of frustrated efforts over the years to determine what causes lytico-bodig. No final conclusion is offered, but the language strongly hints that the best hypothesis is poisoning of people who are genetically susceptible, in two different ways, to certain chemicals in the resin of cycads. The residents of Guam enjoy certain foods they prepare from cycad seed pods and other parts of the plant. They go to great lengths to detoxify them, because untreated, a small amount can kill. It seems to be like Japanese fugu, the puffer-fish, which an expert chef can prepare so it is safe to eat, if a bit "tingly", but several people are badly injured or killed each year from eating fugu. On Guam, cycad preparation is carried out with various levels of diligence. Also, a local fruit bat eats cycad fruits, and something that concentrates in its flesh can be damaging to the people, who enjoy bat meals.

It is stated that nobody born after 1952 suffers from lytico-bodig. This is probably because of changes in diet. Cycads are eaten much less now, and the fruit bat is seldom eaten because it is getting very scarce. Thus, a resident scientist named John Steele, who has studied the disease and befriended its sufferers for half his life, may find that the disease vanishes before he is able to prove its source. This is scientifically frustrating, but socially, it is a great relief.

Dr. Sacks's interests are wide-ranging, and I find he has five other books in print. Guess I'll track them down.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A well loved river in these parts

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rivers, americana, culture, history, north american history

A friend thought it might be time that I learned more about the loveliest river in this area, so he gave me The Brandywine by Henry Seidel Canby, a book in the series "Rivers of America", edited primarily by Stephen Vincent Benét. The book was originally published in 1941; I read a paperback edition of 1969. The pen illustrations within are by Andrew Wyeth, and include sketch versions of paintings I've seen in the Brandywine River Museum and the Sanderson Museum. I live within a couple of miles of the Brandywine River, and I cross it via one bridge or another several times weekly. I also spend hours at a time along its banks in the gunpowder yards, so I guess it is high time!

Dr. Canby was born along the Brandywine in 1878, and though he spent many years as a professor at Yale, he returned to Wilmington frequently. We see through him this small, though significant river as it was between 75 and 130 years ago. Through both personal knowledge and wide reading he can trace the history and culture of the area as none other. In his childhood, though mills for making flour, textiles and gunpowder abounded, much of the Brandywine was still in a rather unspoiled state.

The forbidding geology had a lot to do with this; it was easier to build roads around the middle gorge than to try to cross it. If I recall correctly, Canby wrote that there were seven bridges crossing the river between Forks of the Brandywine in Pennsylvania and its confluence with the Christina River in Wilmington, a linear distance of about 14.5 miles, but more than 20 river miles. In that distance it descends more than 210 feet, a slope that averages roughly 10 feet per mile, but in the middle reaches it drops 33-34 feet per mile, making it one of the most favorable mill streams in the middle Atlantic region. It also means that what Canby calls "the gorge of the Brandywine" has some of the steepest terrain in northern Delaware and southern Chester County, Pennsylvania.

The author writes of the river as a lover of his beloved. He quotes other writers at some length, sometimes deploring their over-sentimentality, though he reflects it himself, just in the more restrained manner of a Yalie in all his dignity. It is a river worthy of much sentiment! During the days on which I volunteer in the yards at the Hagley Museum, situated in the steepest part of the gorge, I find the idle times are anything but onerous, being filled with visual delights backdropped by the rustle and grumble of the river.

It would not do justice to the book to simply catalog its 14 chapters. They are quite comprehensive. Rather, three items struck my fancy. Firstly, that the iconic "log cabin" was introduced by settlers along the Brandywine in the late 1600's, but did not spread beyond the area until nearly 1800. Elsewhere, and earlier here also, the vertical-log palisade was used where defense was needed, and various sorts of European structures otherwise, though they were usually quite unsuitable, particularly when badly constructed (the usual case). A log cabin is much easier for non-professionals to build into a sound and minimally drafty dwelling. Had Abraham Lincoln been born 5 or 10 years earlier, he would not have been born in a log cabin!

Secondly, there were no "Indian wars" along the river. Violent relations with native peoples were practically unknown here, and the great wars of legend took place many miles to the west and mainly after the Civil War. The Lenape and other "Delaware Indians" did find themselves exploited, but tended to complain through legal channels, and when they'd had enough most of them moved elsewhere of their own accord, primarily because of failure of the shad runs rather than violence. Nobody at the time understood clearly that all the mill dams were choking off the migration of the shad.

Thirdly, as already mentioned, in 1940 there were but 7 bridges along the lower Brandywine, and much of the river was comparatively unspoiled. Today fishermen are advised not to eat fish caught in the Brandywine anywhere south of the Forks, and by my count the bridges number 23: 17 road bridges, 3 foot bridges (one half collapsed) and 3 railroad trestles. There are also 9 mill dams still in existence, though only the 3 at Hagley are still in use to keep millraces filled. Compared to many mid-Atlantic rivers, though, the Brandywine still has significant unspoiled stretches. The existence of Brandywine Creek State Park protects one stretch of nearly 5 miles, and Hagley has kept another mile or so in a condition similar to that of 1921 when the mills closed.

I didn't yet  mention the Battle of the Brandywine, George Washington's failed attempt to keep the British from taking Philadelphia. Several good books about the battle had been published by 1940, so Canby gives a well-attested sketch of the engagements, but designedly leaves the details to others. The view from miles above: neither commander knew the area, nor had anyone with good local knowledge on staff; the farmers thereabouts were Quakers and were determined to help neither side of the conflict; scouts sent hither and yon brought conflicting reports; and the British were luckier in finding fords north of the Forks about which Washington was ignorant (as they also had been a day earlier), so they could flank the Colonials and get ahead of them. Thus, the British wintered in Philadelphia and the Colonial army in Valley Forge.

There is much, much more to the book, though it is less than 300 pages. To learn more of the river's geography, history of settlement, business growth, literature and art, and its role in American industrialization, you'll find this book a valuable and very entertaining resource.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The folly of evangelical anti-theism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemics, science, religion, faith, pseudoscience

The human ape is a religious animal. It is part of our evolutionary heritage and we cannot escape it. Given that we must, by our nature, dedicate ourselves to something, what shall that something be?

To be religious does not require belief in God or a god or gods. Buddhism, for example, says nothing about the existence of any deity. Taoism at best only hints that some kind of god may be behind the scenes; that "Tao" might be personalized.

Mathematician Amir D. Aczel writes about a book a year, and his offering for 2014 is Why Science Does Not Disprove God. Several debates and discussions about science and religion in which he participated provided the initial fodder for writing the book. While he makes it clear he does not believe in the Lord God described by a literalist reading of the Bible, he is sympathetic to religion and even favorable.

The thesis of the book is simple: It is a misuse of science and scientific methods when the New Atheists use them to claim, not only that there is no God, but that there cannot be any kind of god. Who are the New Atheists? In order according to noise level, chiefly Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence M. Krauss, Christopher Hitchens (deceased), and Sam Harris. While atheism has long been with us, what is comparatively new is the evangelical tone of at least these five (although evangelical atheism is not particularly new, as an apparent conflict in the 1760's between Leonard Euler and Denis Diderot illustrates).

Even more to the point: The past couple of decades have been marred by increasingly shrill denouncements of Western and Judaeo-Christian institutions by extremist Islamic clerics. Over the same period, Dawkins and others have become equally shrill in their anti-religious campaign. The language of Dawkins in particular is just as inflammatory as any fatwa by a shrieking Imam. (BTW, this is me speaking; Dr. Aczel is too gentlemanly to point this out.)

Anti-theist claims are many and complex. The book tackles the most serious abuses of science by these "scientific" atheists in twelve chapters; three other chapters limn the history of the relationship of religion and science, and deal with more general matters. Along the way, Dr. Aczel shows how the New Atheists have grossly misused archaeology, cosmology, mathematics, probability, evolutionary theory, and the philosophy of science. Put it all together, and what do you have? A new religion based on pseudo-science, whose adherents are just as fervent, even rabid, as the most bigoted Bible-thumper (and, sad to say, there are all to many of those).

Scientists tend to overstate the power of science. The best scientists are humble and humbly grateful that science works as well as it does in so many realms. Unfortunately, they are a minority; most are simply "science workers", getting results and publishing as often as possible without giving much thought to the philosophy of science. Even more unfortunately, those "best" are outnumbered by those who arrogate divine powers to science, expecting all questions to be answered, if only we gather enough evidence, theorize deeply enough, and perhaps one day craft a "Theory of Everything."

Dr. Aczel demonstrates that such claims are overblown. He invokes the following:

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle demonstrates that it is impossible to know with perfect accuracy both the position and the energy of a particle. Accuracy can be very, very good, but there are limits beyond which it will forever be impossible to measure. Even more, the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics states that even in the absence of measurement, the precise path a particle will take has an irreducible amount of uncertainty. Diffraction in optical systems is evidence of this.
  • Chaos Theory describes nonlinear systems (those in which the ongoing process influences itself) that are hypersensitive to initial conditions. In practical terms, when such systems are described mathematically, the equations cannot be solved in what we call "closed form". The simplest such system is the gravitational Three-Body Problem. Certain special cases have been mathematically solved, but it has been proven (in the mathematical sense) that the general case cannot be solved. Numerical (computer) simulations can be crafted over a limited span of time and space, but they are always dogged by the accumulation of rounding errors, until those dominate the result, and you are no longer simulating the system you began with. Even in "linear" systems (those with no feedback), successive iterations of a computer simulation still accumulate rounding errors, and special methods must be used if you need to test the magnitude of those accumulated errors. That greatly increases the computational cost of such simulations. And wouldn't you know it: Nature presents very few linear systems.
  • The Schrödinger Wave Equation and other work by Edwin Schrödinger show that "things can go where you think they can't", and the poor cat of his paradox, being both dead and alive, actually illustrates our inability to know in detail the fate of any quantum event. By the way, I count the cat as an observer: it knows whether the cyanide got released, before the "official observer" opens the box to look.
  • The Incompleteness Theorem of Kurt Gödel shows that it is possible to ask questions that cannot be answered using the mathematical (or "formal") system in which the question was asked. For example, formal logic is full of paradoxes that require one to step outside the system to elucidate. A famous example is the Barber of Seville: He shaves all men in Seville who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the Barber? Of course, the question has no answer in the system as set up. But if we bring the matter into the real world, we find that, of course, the Barber is bearded and is not shaved at all. The false premise of the paradox is that all men in Seville are clean-shaven.

The anti-Theists have formed a new church. You could call it a religion without any of the benefits. Of course, I agree that religious motivations have led to great abuses. For political reasons, couched as religion but really in a land grab, a Medieval Pope wrote a death warrant for the entire population of a province (or was it 3 provinces?) in France. Some 3 million persons were to be slaughtered. This was not carried out. Anti-Theists invoke the Crusades. Again, the motives were a mixture of religion and politics; for political gain the leaders incited religious fervor in ignorant knights and peasants. In fact, the terrible abuses of the history of Christianity in Europe and the Near East can just as well be invoked to prove that politics are evil…and they are!

But let us not forget the greatest slaughters of history. Do the names Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong mean anything to you? Atheists one and all, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions or, in the case of Mao, more than 100 million. Compared to any of these four (and a couple of others), the Pope mentioned above was a piker, even had his order been carried out.

But we must remember that today's New Atheists claim the mantle science. Dr. Aczel has shown that at best they skew their science, and more frequently they abuse it all out of recognition. To put it baldly, the New Atheists, today's anti-Theists, are charlatans.

What does God think of this? The first six verses of Psalm 2 provide a clue:

Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

First Contact - bugs versus gods?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, first contact, china, cultural revolution

What could induce someone to such deep hatred for humanity, as to wish our total destruction? A good place to begin might be the Chinese "Great Leap Forward", known in the West as the Cultural Revolution (hereafter, CR). This great leap backward set China back about a century, and it was only because of a massive shift in political attitudes—facilitated by Mao's untimely death in 1976—that the nation has been able to (nearly) grow into a 21st Century superpower. Make no mistake, China's leaders are still committed Communists, but their social mind-control is only a whisker of what existed prior to the 1970's.

In The Three-Body Problem author Liu Cixin, using evocative and shocking prose, begins by setting the stage upon the background of the CR and a handful of persons so traumatized by it that they abandon hope that humanity can become upright and beneficent. One in particular, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie, determines a possible way to send a powerful signal to nearby stars using the Sun as an amplifier. When she gets a response more than 8 years later, a key element is in place. She devises a plan and eventually becomes titular leader of a group devoted to inviting the aliens to invade, and promising to collaborate with them in either reforming or destroying human society and perhaps the human race. As that sentence hints, there are factions within her organization, upon which much drama later in the book depends.

The star system thus contacted is commonly called Alpha Centauri, a 3-star system that is the "nearest star" to our solar system. Any planets of such a system are likely to have chaotic orbits, or at best alternating between stable and unstable orbits and thus climates. Thus the book's title. These aliens have strong motivation to move to a planet with a billions-of-years history of climatic stability, at least relative to theirs. They are called Trisolarians, for their three suns, and in late chapters are seen to have a considerable technological advantage over humans. I find that paradoxical; few of their hundreds of civilizations lasted longer than several generations, so how could they advance so far?

The book's translator, Ken Liu, writes in an afterword of the responsibility to provide not just a word-by-word translation (our different grammars don't really allow that anyway), but one that evokes emotions and illustrates concepts in such a way that the reader can partake of the author's thinking. (The author and translator are probably not closely related; Liu is the fourth most common Chinese surname.) For me, the writing is more straightforward than most modern English prose, which I found refreshing. It harked back to the fiction of my youth, when at least science fiction writers had fewer literary pretensions.

This is book one of a trilogy. All three have been translated, so I intend to track down the other two so I can see where the author is going, after closing with the foolishly arrogant message from the Trisolarians, "You're bugs!". However, their fleet will take four centuries to arrive. Can humanity achieve enough progress in that time to avert species-wide disaster? That is no settled matter, and curious Trisolarian AI's called Sophons may make it moot. I guess we must stay tuned.

For a Chinese writer to produce such a novel, in China, strongly indicates just how far that nation's leaders have moved from Maoist super-totalitarianism.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

All your little bitty bits

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, atoms, popular treatments

I weigh a bit over 200 pounds, about 91 kg. Dry me out, and the residue would weigh about 85 lbs or 38+ kg. One could then (someone with a sufficiently strong stomach) divide up the dry mass into bone and muscle and so forth. But what is my atomic composition? If you also have that question, you'll find out in Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe by Curt Stager.

You can also get an answer of sorts from this table, but what fun is a table? In Your Atomic Self we find out, not just the amounts of the major chemical elements in us, but something about where they came from, how long they spend as a part of us, (not as long as you think!), and where they go when they leave us, or, ultimately, when each of "us" leaves our body behind.

For example, you and I are 2/3 oxygen, by weight. Most of that is in the water that makes up roughly 50-60% of our total weight (depending on bone/muscle/fat ratios). Where did all that oxygen come from? Surprisingly, the water we drink doesn't all become body water. Much of it is dissociated by various processes and some exits the body, rather soon, in our breath as carbon dioxide. The foods we eat all contain lots of oxygen, so some of that winds up in our body water, some in our tissues (fats and bone contain lots of oxygen), and some also gets breathed out as CO2.

Though our lungs may have a capacity of half a gallon to a gallon (2-4 liters), we seldom breathe this deeply; less than one liter (1 quart) per breath is typical when we are at rest, which is nearly all the time for sedentary Westerners. About 20% of the air we breathe is oxygen, and all but 1% of the rest is nitrogen, which contributes to air pressure, but is not chemically active in this form—for which we ought to be very grateful! We use about 1/3 of the oxygen we breathe in and exhale the rest (which is why mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is effective). But at 20 breaths per minute, we allow nearly 30,000 liters of air in and out of our lungs daily, including about 5,800 liters of oxygen, of which about 2,000 liters enters our blood stream, and an equivalent amount, attached to carbon, exits as some 2,000 liters of CO2.

Did you ever realize that a liter of CO2 weighs 37.5% more than a liter of O2? You'd lose a lot of weight if you did nothing but breathe all day! (Not really a lot; about a kilogram.) But as the author writes, there is more to the story than that, and it is not only the amount of water you take in and excrete.

Not all molecules of oxygen, and not all molecules of CO2, are the same. Most oxygen is the isotope O-16, but a small amount (0.2%) is a heavier isotope, O-18 (there's a tiny amount of O-17 also). Then, most carbon is C-12, but ~1% is C-13 and about one atom of carbon in a trillion is C-14, a radioactive isotope produced mainly by cosmic rays. So while most O2 molecules weigh 32 AMU (atomic mass units) and most CO2 molecules weigh 44 AMU, the weight of stable O2 can range up to 36, and that of stable CO2 can range up to 49, while rare C-14·O2 molecules can weigh between 46 and 50 AMU.

Why should that matter? The proportions of different molecular masses of these two substances can reveal the source of your diet and the air you've been breathing. Similar mass differences in water exist not only because of oxygen isotopes, but also hydrogen isotopes H-2 (deuterium) and H-3 (tritium). Physical processes such as evaporation tend to leave behind heavier molecules, and chemical processes, including photosynthesis in plants, prefer one isotope over another. This preference is not absolute, but it is enough that some kinds of foods have less O-18·O-16 in them compared to others, and so forth.

We also learn that each element connects us to the stars and to all life, each in its own way. Most hydrogen is primeval, created in the Big Bang, but some very small amount arises by spalling from processes such as cosmic ray collisions with atmospheric atoms. No elements heavier than lithium are primeval, but were created in extra-large stars that later exploded as supernovae, scattering them into the universe. So the hydrogen in you is billions of years older than your other elements…although a very few H atoms might be just a few days old! And all that oxygen and CO2 that you've breathed out? Something or someone else (a great many "else's") are breathing it in, at least some of it, right now.

Each chapter of the book discusses primarily one element, or sometimes two. So, while we are sometimes told most life is composed of CHON (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen), the chapter on sodium and potassium reveals why your nerves wouldn't work without them, nor without calcium (the chapter after). Calcium isn't just about bones, and sodium isn't just about food tasting good. They are essential to second-by-second life processes. As it happens, one of the most essential is phosphorus. So much so, that this element may determine just how many humans Earth can support. It is really rather rare for an element that must make up 1% of your body's weight! That is more than ten times its abundance in the Earth's crust in general, but thousands of times as abundant as the 'available P' in the biosphere. Hmmm. I've predicted that coming wars will be over water. Perhaps later wars will be waged for access to phosphorus bearing minerals…if indeed those come later.

Though the book discusses 9 elements (I didn't mention iron above), that leaves a couple dozen "useful" elements in our makeup, so another book is not out of the question. I'd like that. I really enjoyed Your Atomic Self.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Maps are visual thinking

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, maps, mapping, diagrams

For much of my childhood my parents took us on numerous road trips, frequently of the night-on-the-road variety. Dad or Mom would often pick up a current road map of the state or states we were passing through; gas stations used to hand them out free. We wound up with boxes of them. When I was a teen there was a large shed in the back yard we used for various kinds of "club house", including a place for my folk band to practice. We hung up some of the old maps for decoration, and were thinking of papering all its walls with them, but never did so. As a geology student, maps became ever more important to me, and I learned a great variety of concepts I could tag to geography.

Imagine my surprise upon encountering the first map in an "Alternative Atlas", in which the Unites States and some other countries have gone missing! Titled Surrealist Map of the World and attributed to Paul Eluard, I suppose it shows what was important to him in 1929 when the Left everywhere had such hopes for Communism and Socialism (Alaska was part of Russia at the time).

This map is found on page 8 in the introduction to Mapping it Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographers, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist. While many of the diagrams in the book, in its near-coffee-table format, are based on geography or some distortion thereof, not all are. However, a great many of the "artistic" items are so abstract they have meaning only for the artist. Thus, I'll do my usual blather about a few that I could at least comprehend.

Here, from page 29, is a political map of the USA by James Croak, showing the relative clout of Senators relative to the population of their home states. Each state has 2 Senators, regardless of population. I detect a somewhat different political agenda, however. Mr. Croak seems to be trying to mobilize the Democrats or even to scare them, by squeezing them into the corners. Why else make Delaware, which has a population no more than double that of Wyoming, appear around 1/100th that state's size? By the rules he set up, it ought to be closer to half the size shown for Wyoming. Also, California and New York, with 70 and 40 times Wyoming's population respectively, should appear as tiny is Delaware is shown. Of course, those are blue states, so it's hard to discern what's really going on. Maybe he factored in the years of experience of the Senators? or their clout on important committees?

Here is another geographical map, also with political intent, that is much better conceived and executed. From page 45, it is an educational diagram by Kai Krause, showing that Africa is a lot larger than most of us realize. Of course, the area of Asia is 50% greater than Africa, but half of that is the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Try this out for your next bar bet: "The land area of Africa is about equal to that of the USA, Europe, China, and India, combined." Be sure to scope out the actual figures beforehand and have them handy! A good wi-fi connection in the bar will also help.

The era of Big Data has enabled scientists and artists and everyone alike to gather and collate and chart almost anything, whether related to geography or on any other basis. I particularly liked a map of the U.S. and nearby parts in North America, created by Aaron Koblin, found on page 110, showing the density of air traffic based on public data on daily flights.

The editor writes that this shows something about working life in America. It also shows how most of the country west of the 97th Meridian is "flyover country". Leave out the big hubs in Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, and there are nearly no landings in that half of the country until you get to California.

I sometimes wonder what a map would look like based not in physical distance but on travel time, using the database found in a GPS navigator. Let's gather the parameters for making such a map. I live on a street about 0.4 mile long that connects to a 6-lane road at its west end and a "2-lane blacktop" suburban road at the other, one that is crossed by a road-ditch for rainwater at each intersection. My road and 8 others run east-west between the two. These 9 roads have a speed limit of 25 mph and speed bumps that slow most cars to 20 mph. The road to the east is hard to traverse at greater than 25 mph. The big road to west has a 45 mph speed limit but most traffic goes at least 50 mph. There is also a north-south road that crosses all 9 east-west roads about midway along with stop signs at every intersection, some 2-way, some 4-way. Practical travel along it seldom exceeds 15 mph. The N-S length of the three roads in that direction is about 0.5 mile.

Nest, turn these numbers upside-down, using a unit of tenths of a minute (6 sec) per mile:
  • Big road to the west: 600/50 = 12
  • 2-lane east-side road: 600/25 = 24
  • Road up the middle: 600/15 = 40
  • 9 E-W roads: 600/20 = 30
Those are the numbers to multiply by the length of each road segment. A time map for getting around in this neighborhood would be 6 units high on the left, 12 units high on the right, and a puffy 20 units high down the middle. The right-left size would be 12 units. In this illustration, the upper time map shows an attempt to use straight lines as much as possible. The wiggly sections at top and bottom became necessary when straight lines could no longer connect properly. That gave me an idea, which I sketched out as seen below. I set the middle road a little longer in total extent compared to the one on the right, but used wiggly lines to show that each block is really even longer. They also convey the start-stop feel of that road.

The geographic neighborhood is quite close to being a rectangle, but either of these time maps gives a better feel for what it is like to navigate. With all of this buried in the database of my GPS, it can determine the fastest route between two points. The upper map in particular shows how it is almost equally fast to go from the top center intersection to the bottom center intersection, whether you go "straight down" the middle road, or go first to the highway, then down, then back in! The only wild card is how long it takes to make the two left turns in the latter case. But going the other direction, those are right turns, and the physically longer way is probably the fastest.

In a more conceptual section of the book, some of the map creators brought in more dimensions. This example by Toyo Ito, from page 202, is an attempt to give a feel for the many-layered structure of a city's infrastructure. To me it resembles the solid substrate of bone, with its many voids in which separate systems for blood, lymph and nerves can pass with minimal interference. Whichever metaphor pleases you, it is a powerful concept.

If we generalize the concept "dimension" into the physicist's term "degree of freedom", we can use conceptual maps to show several variables together. A favorite example of mine is the chromaticity diagram, which represents human color vision, at least for most folks. Various kinds of color blindness require very different charts, as do the rare cases of female tetrachromaticity (4-color vision).

The chromaticity diagram shows "color coordinates" of the colors a normal human eye can see. The outer edge of the horseshoe shape follows the pure, or saturated, colors of the rainbow. The numbers around the shape are the wavelength in nanometers (nm). All colors inside the shape, and along the flat base, are produced by mixing two or more spectral colors.

The creator of this version of the diagram has superimposed generic color names on various regions of the color space. The central sort-of-oval part encompasses colors typically called "white" and "off-white".

The curved line from near the "600" point on the edge at the right, through the middle, is called the "black body locus", and represents the colors of anything hot enough to glow. Point "A" near the "yellow" area is the nearly-white color of an incandescent light bulb. Letters "B" through "E" show other standard light sources originally produced by filtering out some of the red and orange colors of an incandescent lamp. Black body colors closely match the colors of stars of different temperatures. The noontime Sun has a color at point "D". Cooler stars have redder colors toward the right, and hotter stars are bluer. The tip of the black body locus is the limit of incandescent blueness for a nearly infinitely hot star.

Thus, I would generalize: any diagram is a map of some kind. The book helps to broaden our understanding of mapping from a more-or-less explicit exercise, to a conceptual and recreational activity in which we all engage. Though "cartography" as a discipline began with geography, we can also map not only color but all the senses, plus relationships, processes, functional planning and, really, anything we can think of. To Think is to Map.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Nearly zero times nearly infinity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biology, evolution, biogeography

I learned a new word: vicariance. Although the related word vicarious means "on behalf of another" or even "second hand", the emphasis on this word's coinage is the separation of a biological population into two or more parts by some change in environment, leading to new species. The principal connotation, however, is on the "second hand" experience of members of the population that are thus separated from and even carried away from their fellows and thus physically prevented from breeding across the new barrier. And, AND, the principal emphasis of "vicariance biogeography" has been upon describing the distributions of related species and genera in terms of relict populations from the separation of continents that began about 200 million years ago with the breakup of Pangaea and then Gondwana.

Pangaea was the most recent supercontinent (there have been at least 5 over some 3 billion years or so), comprising just about all the land surface of Earth, that formed some 300 million years ago when earlier, separated continents were driven together. It first split in two, forming Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south, then these each split further. The rift that became the Atlantic Ocean began forming in the north about 140 ma ("ma" is the abbreviation for "million years ago"), but the southern half did not begin to open until something like 70 ma or so. The closest distance across the Atlantic is currently 1,800 miles (2,900 km), but it was half that roughly 35 ma, a fact to which we will return.

I was a geology undergraduate in the 1960s, just as the old "shrunken apple" explanation of mountain building I'd learned as a child was being thoroughly replaced by the new paradigm of plate tectonics. It was an exciting time to learn geology. I had the most interest in paleontology (fossils), and much was made of the correspondences of late Paleozoic and early Cenozoic fossils across the Atlantic between the facing continents of South America and Africa. This naturally led the few biogeographers of the time to describe the distribution of nearly all living things as being a consequence of continental motions.

As described in The Monkey's Journey: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life, by Alan de Queiroz, for some this concept became dogma. "Nearly all" became "all" in their minds. When new evidence showed that continental breakups do not explain everything about the distribution of species, they were, and in some cases still are, unable to assimilate the new information.

As it happens, the last rift in Gondwana opened about the time of the dinosaurs' demise; it is now obligatory to add, "except some of the flying dinosaurs, that we now call birds". To the point: major speciation by continental separations ended about 70 ma. Lesser events, such as desertification of formerly temperate regions, re-routing of rivers, or mountain chain development, must be called upon for any later splitting of gene pools due to vicariance. Of course, strictly speaking, vicariance refers to anything that divides a population, even the removal of several members to a different island or continent, but "vicariance biogeography" discounts "dispersal" mechanisms.

The Monkey's Journey describes the rise and fall of vicariance biogeography as the principal theory of species distributions. Prior to the new paradigm of plate tectonics, several competing theories about the dispersal of plants and animals competed for academic attention. Charles Darwin had done much work to understand how chance dispersal across oceans and other significant barriers could take place. Plate tectonic knowledge was more than a century in his future, and he didn't want to just posit "land bridges" rising and falling wherever it would be convenient. So then, just how did some similar kinds of living things come to populate far-flung continents? It is easy to see that, once continental motions were known, they were grasped upon like a holy grail, to explain absolutely everything about both geography and biogeography.

Of course, that "bio-" part is a problem. Rocks can't walk, swim, burrow, fly, or crawl. Animals can, and plant seeds and even certain plants can either do some of these things, or be carried along when animals do so. So it stands to reason that purely mechanical motions of continents and other landforms cannot explain everything when it comes to creatures with volition.

By the 1980s, significant evidence had accumulated to call into question many "of course" assumptions of the vicariance crowd (nearly all the biogeographers). Hawaii is a case in point. None of the Hawaiian islands was ever even close to any continent. Neither were any of their precursors, including the Emperor seamounts that used to be islands. Every species on any island of Hawaii that was not brought there by the Polynesians or later humans somehow crossed a few hundred miles of ocean, or is descended from a species that did so. The Galapagos islands are similar: perpetually oceanic. There are other examples. Pangaea didn't include absolutely all the land on Earth.

DNA sequencing, begun in the late 1980s, seemed to provide a way of confirming the various species-splitting events, and it was expected to confirm vicariance theories. However, the early "molecular clock" techniques were a bit of a joke. The various "clocks" were notoriously inaccurate and unsteady. Depending on the bit of DNA used, the "tick" could vary over a range of thousands to one. But time marches on, and scientific progress with it. Molecular biochemists have learned a few things in the 30+ years since, including ensemble methods to have a group of "molecular clocks" correct for each others' instabilities. Nobody can yet pin down any event millions of years in the past to the nearest hundred or thousand years, but the difference between 20 million and 200 million years is readily discernible, and that between 20 and 50 million can be cleanly determined.

Considering just animals, island ecosystems typically show a range of species diversity that matches ease of travel by different kinds of animals: many kinds of birds and flying insects, fewer kinds of endemic mammals and reptiles, and very few amphibians or even none. But there are some astonishing cases of animals you'd never expect could cross an ocean, living on oceanic islands. The most astonishing case is that of the monkeys, but this is not about islands. Unless you recall that, until 3 ma, South America was an island, just a very big one, and it became an island nearly 70 ma.

Three million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean was almost as wide as it is today, and the Pacific was much, much wider than that. So vicariance biogeographers have been very diligent to find a way to get primates between Africa and South America, without leaving a single fossil in North America, at some time before 70 ma. The plausible explanation was that monkeys could simply walk west out of future Africa to future South America. The trouble came after molecular dating showed that New World monkeys and Old World monkeys and apes did not split from one another until some time between 20 and 40 ma, with the most likely date close to 35 ma.

At that time, the closest bit of African land was 900 miles (more than 1,400 km) from the closest bit of South American land. So the new explanation came to this: posit land bridge (a proto-Panama) about that time, and some similar connection between northern Africa or Europe and North America, plus a long period of warming so monkeys would be willing to go to, say, Spain, to get to America. Then somehow they walked south to South America, leaving not a single monkey fossil behind. Considering the thousands of fossils of Eocene and Miocene horses, tapirs, and sloths found throughout North America, the absence of monkey fossils is telling. Yes, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", but such a case as this is pretty close, pretty close. Monkey fossils, later than 35 ma, are abundant throughout South America…

So somehow, a major "floating island" sort of raft got ejected by an African river and made its way to South America before all the animals on it died. Every chapter of the book ends with an anecdote, and here is a relevant one from the end of chapter 4:
In July 1892, a natural floating island was spotted off the northeastern US coast, at about the latitude of Philadelphia and some 300 miles from the nearest land. The island was roughly 9,000 square feet in area, contained living trees 30 feet tall, and is said to have been visible from 7 miles away. The same island was again seen in September, by which time the Gulf Stream had pushed it more than 1,200 miles northeast of its previous position. (Powers, Sidney, 1911, Floating Islands, Popular Science Monthly 79, 313-307)
Let's see, 1,200 miles in two months. Had a similar island become caught up in the equatorial current between Africa and Brazil after being ejected by a proto-Senegal River, it might have made the crossing in 5-6 weeks. It would have brought, not just monkeys, but dozens or hundreds of species of all kinds, plant and animal. Not all would survive as colonists, but some would. It only had to happen once, once over a span of millions of years.

The vicariance diehards pooh-pooh such explanations, as much too unlikely. Well, so was the origin of life. But that also had to happen only once, and considering how early it happened, it was only "moderately unlikely". So was this. People tend to think of things that are very unlikely as "miracles" if they occur anyway. The "once in a million chance" is a venerable staple of storytelling, and the classic example is a hole-in-one in golf. Few golfers have seen one, fewer still have done one. Jack Nicklaus did one a couple of weeks ago, at age 75. Of course, he has done 20 of them, in competition, but then, he has probably hit several million drives that were not holes-in-one! But even if the monkey-bearing raft is not just one in a million, but one in a billion, a lot can happen in the 70 million years that South America was an island.

A major point of the book is, that the biota of nearly everywhere is much more a product of long-distance dispersals across all kinds of barriers, more than we had thought of. So much so that relict Gondwanan species pairs, or genus pairs, are actually rather hard to find! But that's not the only point. The author brings to life for us many of the principal players in biogeography, details the steps of study and reasoning that were key to the shifting winds of understanding over the century-and-a-half that have elapsed since Darwin released The Origin of Species in which he also discussed species dispersal mechanisms. "Dispersalism" is proclaimed as the resulting paradigm. Of course, there are a few pesky Gondwana relicts around, and other evidence that dispersal on all scales, over all time scales, has gone on. Scarce, chance travels by unlikely travelers have led to Earth's lands becoming a story of "everybody came from everywhere". The proper answer to any question, "Which way did these plants and animals get here" is, "All of the above". Leave dogma to the world religions where it belongs. Science is about discovering what is, and to some extent, how it came to be, based on evidence.

So THE major point of the book, that bears repeating endlessly (especially to certain mis-named "scientists" I know) is this: Evidence must drive theory, not the other way around.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

American anti-science, unlikely to improve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, evolution, creationism, religious prejudice

Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") claims to be cheerful and optimistic. I sure hope so, because the goal of his new book is unlikely to be realized. He rushes into the creation/evolution debate that underlies American resistance to science education, somewhat reminiscent of the old "fools/angels" proverb. But he's no fool.

Bill Nye, with coauthor/editor Corey S Powell, opens Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation with an account of his debate against Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, early last year. The core "sound bite" is this: both Nye and Ham were asked, "What would it take for you to reconsider your position". Bill Nye answered that it would take only a single piece of evidence that favors "creation science", and that stood up to scientific scrutiny. Ken Ham said that such a thing is not possible, because he has "the book" (meaning The Holy Bible) and will not give credence to anything not found in it.

Nye acknowledges that any possible battle has already been lost, for the allegiance of evangelical Christians who follow Mr. Ham's way of thinking. But he has hope that well-taught science in our schools can still reach their children. I'll explain just how slender that hope is shortly.

But with this hope in mind, the 37 chapters of Undeniable describe 37 aspects of evolution, evolutionary theory, and how an evolutionary understanding of biology affects our daily life. Just for instance, if you've ever had to switch antibiotics because the bug you had is resistant to the first medicine, you're a victim of evolution in action. And if your grandfather did any moth collecting in England in the early-to-mid-Twentieth Century, the Peppered Moth provided evidence in hand of natural selection in action: Prior to laws that greatly reduced air pollution, and thus to light-colored tree bark being seen again as the grime washed off, most members of this moth species were dark colored, but in the years since, the light colored varieties have again become more common, almost to the exclusion of the darker ones.

Also in England, specifically London in this case, an annoying species of Culex mosquito has diverged into two species, with the new one inhabiting subways only. About 60 years were enough for physical near-isolation to become reproductive isolation. Culex pipien was the native species in the area prior to 1940, but then "budded" a new species, Culex molestus, by around 2000. WWII is the culprit. Londoners used the subways as bomb shelters in the early 1940s, which attracted lots of Culex pipien mosquitoes underground. This near-24-hour occupation of the subway tunnels by humans and their pets meant the little biters had no reason to return above ground. They stayed, they bred, and in 50-60 generations they diverged enough to become the new species.

The book abounds with examples of contingency in evolutionary development. How else to explain a nerve in a giraffe's neck that loops down, up and down again, except by comparing it to the path of the same nerve in short-necked ungulates to which giraffes are related? Then we see that, as the neck elongated, a nerve that follows a straight path between two blood vessels when necks are short has to loop around now that they have become further and further apart. Apparently, an innocent choice of nerve routing 50 million years ago has led to a rather unusual path for that nerve today. There is a similar loopiness in the male human urethra, which can be puzzled out by comparing with the very small primates that probably most resemble the first primates. Nye doesn't mention this one; after all, he's writing for youngsters.

There is a powerful argument in Chapter 21: "good enough". There is a lot of talk in creationist circles about the "perfection" of the human form. It is manifest that we are far from perfect, in form or in any other way. The standard riposte is that Adam was perfect, and we have degenerated. I wonder: did his urethra loop around in the same nonsensical way as ours? What we see throughout the biosphere is creatures that are good enough to thrive in their environment, but no better. Why should they be better than they have to be? It isn't cost-effective.

Tropical climes have abundant species of all kinds because, all year, it is Summertime, and the Livin' is Easy. It is just easier for all sorts of critters to make a living there. Go to a high mountaintop or into the high Arctic or Antarctic, and only a small number of species are found. Life is harder, and few species have the adaptations needed to survive there.

I just recalled that Krill, the tiny shrimplike critters that most baleen whales eat, do best in water very near 40°F (4.5°C), and die of overheating at 50°F (10°C). From time to time some are carried too far from the pole by shifting currents and perish as the water warms. I suppose a Krill would me "more perfect" if it could survive higher temperatures, but making the extra chemicals to do so would cost something, using more energy and resources. The cost-benefit balance that evolution has struck works well for the species. They are good enough.

So, our bodies and minds are good enough for us to earn some kind of living (usually), reproduce (usually), and raise our children (usually) until they can fend for themselves (usually) and also reproduce (usually). That is five "usually"s, because there are no guarantees. Think of this: Abraham Lincoln had four children. He has no living descendants. Every descending line died out by the late Twentieth Century. Whatever benefit the genes of Honest Abe might have had for humanity, all are lost except those few that survive in the descendants of a few of his cousins.

But none of the 37 items in this book will convince someone who has been taught that evolution is anti-Bible. And just how does one reach the children of Evangelical Christians (in whose ranks most anti-evolution folks reside)? Many entire congregations seem to exist for no other reason than to support the Ken Hams of the world and propagate that message. Though I think it "another Gospel" and thus anathema, they don't see it that way.

I see both sides. I am an Evangelical Christian, meaning that I favor gospel preaching and take a rather literal view of The Holy Bible. But I am also a scientist, with degrees in Geology and Geological Engineering. I excelled at paleontology as an undergraduate, and I still like to collect the odd fossil now and again. But even though I am "fluent" in both "languages", the scientific and the theological, there's no convincing most of my fellow believers that evolution is no threat to their faith. They have been taught an interpretation of the Bible that is in error. They would think me a heretic.

The fact is, most people, religious or not, are insecure. It seems the only people who are totally secure in their self-image are psychopaths. To be insecure and religious is to be in near-constant fear of "damaging" your faith somehow. This simple fact underlies every form of religious extremism. It is also well known that, no matter what religion, about a third of the children defect, at least inwardly, during their teen years, and no more than a third of those return to the faith. Christian churches in particular nearly all have special classes for parents trying to "win their children back to the faith." Those parents don't need one more reason for paranoia.

The more fearful among them place their children in private schools or get supplementary religion-sanctioned instruction, if they can afford it. Actually, most American Christians aren't sufficiently afraid of evolution nor of science in general to worry what their children might be learning in any school, private or public. But the terrified, noisy anti-science bunch have a disproportionate effect in the churches. It is they who drive out any pastor who doesn't toe the line of hyper-Creationism. It is they who have the energy to undertake ecclesiastical and public politics. They who vote in, and campaign in, school board elections. And thus they control science education where they can, and influence it everywhere.

Bill Nye calls his arguments "undeniable", and they are, to anyone capable of scientific thought. The terror-stricken Evangelical Creationists cannot think scientifically, and do their best to ensure their children will mirror them. Poor "Science Guy". You're up against a behemoth, and only the tiniest of victories is possible for at least the next couple of generations. I hope humanity survives.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Neoteny as a business value

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business practices

The way Mickey Mouse was drawn in 1927 is rather different from what we see in Disney cartoons of the 1930s and later. Even "Steamboat Willie" of late 1928 bore more resemblance to later versions than to the version just half a year earlier. The "first MM" was already quite different from a real mouse, and the later versions were even "cuter", and look younger, even childlike. The features we call "cute" are characteristic of infants and juveniles. Biological development that retains such features is called neoteny. You might say that humans are the most juvenile-like of the apes. Adult humans resemble very young chimpanzees and gorillas, more than they do adult apes.

What is it that makes most workplaces so unpleasant? Isn't it the very "adultness" of the place? I feel very fortunate that I usually had the freedom to leave a job for a different one, and could keep looking until I found a place to work that was, if not quite "pleasant", at least less unpleasant than usual. The last few years of my career I usually enjoyed my work and my surroundings. The part-time work I have now, while in the seemingly sterile environment of a lone desk along a hallway among Museum cabinets, actually gives me great access to colleagues as needed, even better access to the specimens I need to study, and the freedom to set up my workspace as I like it. The greatest "perk" of the job is the opportunity to do work that matters, at least to a gaggle of very picky researchers!

Can all workplaces be made enjoyable? Perhaps not, but they can be made "less unpleasant". What is the source of the unpleasantness? Mainly, that "adults are in charge." Think of the classic film, "Nine to Five", in which the women who "sequestered" the boss ran the company better than he had. It wasn't just that he was a king of sexual harassment, but that he was too "grown up" for the job, and the women's sense of enjoying working well made the company run better.

I think it must be great fun to work for Google. Not just because of the nearly unique amenities (free meals, and abundant play areas and conversation spaces, for example), but because of the challenge of extraordinarily meaningful work, and the freedom to pursue nearly anything you find useful and meaningful with your "20% time". I did have "10% time" at my prior employer, but we were told, "It had better be work-related"; they didn't understand that we had our minds full of our work, and could hardly do anything that would not be somehow useful to the company, perhaps just not right, right now. Once I learned to "manage my managers", I built a very productive career upon doing things sundry supervisors didn't want me to do, but my customers sure did!

Thomas Edison was famous for, as one wag put it, "throwing almost anything up against the wall to see if it sticks." After several hundred things didn't make a good light bulb, one thing did. It took "modern technology" more than a century to supersede it, a process not yet complete (and one of the first run of Edison bulbs, 135 years old, is still ceremonially lit for a few minutes from time to time. Your iPhone should last so long!). Edison couldn't always pay well, but his workers were quite loyal. They had enjoyable work that mattered.

Three significant Googlers, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, have written How Google Works, meaning the company, not the search engine. In brief, it works like Edison's Menlo Park, amped up to 21st Century velocity. A phrase they use a lot is Internet Century, which I suppose started about 1995 when the Mosaic browser made it easy for anyone to "browse the web". Another is "smart creatives", meaning bright, internally-motivated people. Reading between the lines, I gather that a gaggle of smart creatives can accomplish just about anything as long as the adults are kept at bay. That is the vision of Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

While you do need someone to set the course of a company or work group, the members will know best how to accomplish it…or at worst, they'll know best how to figure out how best to accomplish it! And Internet Century speed requires getting a product out there fast, then improving it, equally fast. Modern tools and processes allow the use of early versions as probes to find out what does and doesn't work well, then making things better before your customer base flocks elsewhere.

The reason it takes 8 chapters and 270 pages to explain Google's magic is that most non-Googlers simply don't believe it. Thus the authors spent 3 years writing the book, gathering all the best stories of good people doing good work in a good environment. I reckon if one person in 20 who reads the book "gets it", it could transform, at the very least, the American technical workplace. It might also transform companies you'd think were less than fun: manufacturing centers, construction (think of all the pranking that goes on at blue-collar job sites—wise foremen tolerate it because it promotes worker joy, and thus worker productivity), and all kinds of "office work".

While the book is full of stories, I'll repeat just one. A decade ago, Google Earth had been released a couple of months when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The geography team, still winding down from the hard work of getting the product running and updated, plowed a lot of personal time, on their own initiative, into obtaining and releasing thousands of current NOAA satellite images so that rescue workers could see before-and-after views of ravaged parts of the city. How else will you find a street that has been washed away? This is touted by the authors as a stellar example of a "20% project", but it is more, it shows how meeting a need with the joyful abandon of knowing you can do it better than anyone else, is reward enough. Give employees a chance to make an impact like that, and do you think they'll turn around and leave for "greener pastures"? The pastures don't get greener than that!

Juvenile animals tend to be fearless. Witness teenage behavior; they think they're going to live forever. The main driver of much "adult" human behavior is fear. Remove the fear, and what is the result? Better almost everything. If you didn't fear your boss, but liked her, what kind of memos or e-mails would you write? In a staff meeting, if you thought her opinion wrong, would you say so? If your lack of fear had good reason, how would she respond if you did challenge an opinion she'd voiced? To what extent would you pilfer office supplies?

Jesus said, "Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God" (my paraphrase). A bit of childlike (not childish!) attitude can improve earthly "kingdoms" as well.

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 Reputation.com, 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.

Consider:

  • 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 hymnal.net, 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")