Monday, November 28, 2016

An apple-size apple snail

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

I am presently checking and correcting geographic information for the freshwater snails in the research collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Though I am not constantly using the lots in the cabinets, it sometimes happens that something I find in the database doesn't make sense, so I go to the lot in question to see what the collector, and perhaps later owners, have recorded. Today I happened to look up some "Apple Snails" of the genus Pila, and they are such nice-looking shells, and so much larger than many of those I've seen of late, that I just had to share a few of them here.

Firstly, here are two views of the largest specimen of Pila in the collection, and it ought to display at about 80% of actual size if your screen resolution is 100 dpi. The shell length, with the spire eroded, is about 5 inches, or 125 mm. The smaller item next to the scale is the operculum. Many snails have these; they are armored "doors" they can use to shut themselves into a shell when a predator threatens, or to avoid drying out during a dry season.

For the second view I turned over both shell and operculum. On this side of the operculum it is a little easier to see that it grew in a spiral pattern as the shell grew.

The original designation of this species was Ampullaria leopoldvillensis Putzeys, 1898. Sylvère Putzeys was a Belgian who collected in the Belgian Congo, as it was then called, and named this species for its type locality, which is now called Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which was also called Zaire from 1971-1997).

I tracked down this specimen to be sure of the spelling of Coquilhatville. Then I was able to determine that the town is now named Mbandaka. It is about 550 km upriver from Kinshasa, and while I haven't looked it up, I suspect that snails of this species are found throughout the Congo river system. I understand that just one of these makes a good meal for a child, and two or three are sufficient for a teen or adult.

While I was in that cabinet, from the same tray I picked out two other lots to photograph, to show specimens of a more "average" size for this genus. This next species seldom exceeds 2 inches, or 50 mm, but is of a very similar shape and has a lighter color:

Pila globosa Swainson, 1822 is primarily Asian, and these were collected from the Mekong River system. The abbreviation of Swainson's surname is quite common. The better-known, more prolific naturalists were all abbreviated in field notes and earlier museum labels. L. means Linnaeus (or Linné), Lam. means Lamarck, Pfr. means Pfeiffer, and so forth.

As the name implies, this species is very globular, almost spherical. It is a contender for being the original "Apple Snail", but there are several others. All members of the family Ampullariidae are called Apple Snails, though not all are quite so globular. For example, this final species has a more pronounced spire:

The scratching-out and overwriting on the museum label, printed in about 1990, shows that the species now called Pila polita (Deshayes, 1830) was originally placed (by some authorities) in the genus Ritena, of the family Neritidae. The Nerites are mostly marine snails, but many species in that family inhabit brackish estuaries and quite a number are fully fresh water-dwellers. Sometime since 1990 this species was re-examined and re-named to be among the Apple Snails, to which it bears an even better resemblance when the spire is eroded, as in the third specimen in the top row. It is a pity we don't know just where in Thailand these were found. The Apple Snail website records these from Thailand all across south Asia to the southern part of China.

It is interesting that the original collector identified these shells as Pila, while the curator or collections manager who accessioned them into the collection used a different reference work to identify them as Ritena. Later someone else changed it back. So it goes. When all we have to go on are physical characteristics of a dry shell, convergent evolution can make two species look very similar when they are actually only distantly related, and in other cases a species will look quite different from its closest cousins because of rapid adaptation to changing environments.

Now that DNA sequences are getting almost cheap, museums are beginning to go through their collections to figure out just what species certain specimens belong to. There is usually enough DNA within the shell material to use with modern techniques, though at present one must destroy one or more shells in the process. This will change. Even more exciting times are on the way!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Short Sci-Fi for the ultimate binge

kw: book reviews, science fiction, collections, compendia

Take 105 science fiction stories by 105 authors, culled from the past century or so, and you get 1,150 pages of really great reading: The BIG BOOK of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. I don't know yet if it is fair to call it the "best of the best", because I haven't finished reading it yet. I cannot fairly review either the book as a whole, nor any large portion of the stories on a story-by-story basis. I must simply introduce the book and let it go at that.

The editors do review the book as a whole, and in the context of the several eras and sub-genres of science fiction writing, in their 18-page introduction. That article is quite good reading in its own right. The Table of Contents consumes four pages. I checked through it and saw that I had read stories by 38 of the authors, and of the stories printed here, only 17. I had thought that I've read pretty thoroughly in this genre (or set of related genres), but they have gathered nearly 90 stories I have not read, and brought 67 authors to my attention, some of whom I am sure I will wish to pursue further.

One of the editors' aims was to bring a wide international focus to this collection, so a number of the stories are translations from, for example, Spanish and Chinese, and a few stories are by English-writing authors from outside the Anglo-American axis to which most readers of English-language science fiction—and editors of genre periodicals and books—confine themselves.

The editors also sought to dispel the myth that "early" science fiction, that of the "golden age" of the pulps and the pre-pulp era of Wells and his contemporaries, is somehow "primitive" or "naive". Nothing of the sort. A lot of it was, but not nearly all (Perhaps they consider Doc Smith and his Lensmen series to belong to a too-naive arm of early sci-fi, because they include nothing by Smith nor by most other early "space opera" authors).

Having read but 17 stories so far (3 were re-reads), I can say that, indeed, early Twentieth Century science fiction included stories of great scope and sophistication. But the Pulp Era was named that for a reason, and it wasn't only the the low quality of the paper. A great majority of the pulp fiction of the first third of the century really was junk, and set the stage for Sturgeon's Law that "90% of everything is crap." But as I recall, it was fun crap! The early stories included here are equally fun, though they tend to demand a bit more of a reader.

So, when I want sophistication, I can find it, and when I want mindless fun, there is plenty to be found. But you won't find much mindlessness in this volume. The Vandermeers have a higher purpose. And that's OK. I love the stories I have read so far. But rather than binge-read my way through the whole volume, I'll keep in on my nightstand for reading in between other books and journals.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A dual memoir full of unexpected things

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, mother and son

I remember hearing that Anderson Cooper's mother is Gloria Vanderbilt, but it didn't mean much to me. I knew the Vanderbilts were once immensely rich, and on a vacation, I've been to see Breakers, their 60-room "summer cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. I've watched A.C. 360 on CNN a time or two, and mainly thought of Mr. Cooper as a well-spoken commentator with whom I seldom agree. Having switched back from cable to antenna some months ago, the rare itch to watch CNN is no longer being scratched. But I couldn't pass up the chance to see how he and his mother pull back the curtain in their joint memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss.

The book's title is from a poem by Wordsworth, with a second stanza that reads:
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
The title? "Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood".

Ms Vanderbilt lost her father at age 15 months, was raised mainly by a nanny and one grandmother, was the subject of a celebrated custody battle at age 10, and thereafter was a ward of the court, though she lived with an aunt. Mr. Cooper enjoyed the company of both parents for his first ten years, when his father died, and has remained close to his mother. More or less close; all children must break away at some point, but it is lovely when they return to closeness as a secure adult.

The book is in the form of a long e-mail correspondence between them, with occasional explanatory notes by Cooper. We learn that, though they are mother and son, they responded in quite different ways to the sudden insecurity that comes when a parent is lost so young. The mother was, by her admission, quite a ditz for quite a while. She reveals herself, warts and all, to her son and to us. The son sought strength in forthright toil as a foreign correspondent, beginning with a solo trek across Africa during his last year of high school. He may not have had a press pass in his sights just then, but testing himself against such a journey was great preparation once he knew he liked to write and report.

But for them both, including later in life when the mother started several fashion businesses, including Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans, their drive came from early insecurity, and the way it knocked the pins from any hope of an ordinary life.

I would not have wanted to live most of the life that has been the lot of either of them. I am reminded of a slogan that is going around these days: "Be nice to everyone. That person across from you has struggles about which you know nothing." Frequently the word is "suffering" rather than "struggles". Fair enough. I've had my sufferings, my struggles. I count myself lucky by comparison to some stories I encounter, including those in the pages of this heart-searching memoir.

Each in their own way, Vanderbilt or Cooper, the mother and son retained a certain vulnerability, and do not shy away from the consequences. It is how life is lived, if it is to be lived at all. I am glad I read it.

P.S. As I write this, Gloria Vanderbilt is 92 and in remarkably good health. Her son is 49.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mussels and mother of pearl buttons

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

The Collections and Research Department of the Delaware Museum of Natural History recently hosted a class of conservators-in-training from nearby Winterthur Museum, for special instruction in conserving natural materials that might form part of a piece of clothing or artwork.

Some items that were brought out for display and discussion related to the mother-of-pearl button industry that flourished in Arkansas and other southern states from the 1880's to the 1940's. America's rivers are full of freshwater clams and mussels, and many species of the mussels in particular have thick shells composed mainly of mother of pearl. Mainly in the south, some species get quite large millions of shells were harvested for button manufacture.

The upper shell in this picture has been drilled for buttons. The lower shell is an undrilled one, so the students could compare. A shell drilled like this can still be a valid natural history research object, as long as its collecting locality and a date of collection—or harvest—are known. Even in this condition it provides a data point for the existence of this species at a certain time and place.

The conservators in training were quite surprised that the museum doesn't seem to care much about the appearance of specimens. They are taught to exercise extreme care with objects in their charge. A culture museum such as Winterthur has goals quite different from a research collection. They aim to stave off damage and decay as much as possible, frequently with the aim of showing beautiful objects to the visiting public. Natural history specimens don't need to be pretty, although we also work to minimize damage or decay. The data that accompanies the specimens is of equal value.

These two photos show other items that were on display. One is a sample card used by salesmen to show distributor-customers the range of button types a factory could produce. The other is a box of random unfinished buttons. Some have holes cut already, others not. Many have pink or black dopping wax still attached. The wax was used to affix a piece to a post in a polishing jig to flatten the opposite side and cut any pattern, such as a circular groove.

The study of natural history is not just about natural objects themselves, but also about what humans do with them. Though I spend my time in the mollusk ("sea" shell) side, the bird collection takes an equal amount of space. Think of the millions of feathers that were once used to decorate clothing. A Natural History museum collects and preserves specimens, and the field data about them, to support the study of their biology (or geology) through space and time. A cultural museum collects and preserves specimens primarily of human artifacts—which in the years before plastics manufacture, were made of natural materials including shells and feathers—to support the study of cultural trends through time and around the world. It is nice that we work together, each having knowledge to offer the other.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Major mathematical MEGO moments

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, mathematical games

Is it possible to be too enthusiastic about something? We might say, Yes, look at fanatics. I would say that Mathematics Professor Arthur Benjamin falls somewhere between an "ordinary" enthusiast and a fanatic, in his book The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring out Why.

Perhaps the title of this post is a bit hyped—I do love alliteration—but I can only describe the style of the book as Barrage. A barrage of facts, tricks, methods and tips along a spectrum that I call "ordinary" mathematics, the string of mathematical disciplines that most of us encounter if we were paying attention for some parts of all twelve grades of an El-Hi education. Plus a few side trips into less-well-known things such as Fibonacci Numbers and why (or how) π is irrational.

Now, I am a math enthusiast, and working as a scientific programmer for decades, I frequently corrected the algebra or calculus derivations of the scientists I worked with. So I was already familiar with many of the tips and tricks scattered throughout the book. Others were new, and some were beyond me. I remembered some advice once given to Stephen Hawking, which he reports in A Brief History of Time: Keep equations to a minimum, because each equation in a book cuts its potential audience in half. At the rate of several equations per page, the audience for Magic of Math could be tiny indeed!

A bit of math trickery to emphasize the point: ½ times ½ times ½ just ten times yields less than one in 1,000; 1/1024 to be exact. Can ten equations in a book really reduce the readership to a tenth of a percent? Possibly. But the word "half" above is a bit hyped. Let us instead suppose that, while a single equation might drive away half an audience, beyond that, you lose only 1% per equation. So what is 0.5x0.99x0.99 and so forth for a total of, for example, 20 equations? There is a neat little yx button on many calculators that lets me push 0.99 yx 19 x 0.5 and get 0.413… But this book has 300 pages. Let's be optimistic and suppose one per page (there are more): What is the effect of 300 equations? I do it again for 299 instead of 19, to get 0.0247 and some more digits. That's not the end of the world for a writer. It is about a fortieth of the original audience.

I am tempted to say that the twelve chapters of the book correspond to grades in school, but the subject of Chapter 2 is Algebra, which few of us encountered before Grade 6 (where I had it 55 years ago, but more recently it's a Middle School subject, and Common Core has now pushed it to Grade 9). The third chapter is about the number 9, including "casting out nines", which was once taught as a way to check the addition of a column of numbers. Our calculators and other machinery don't make mistakes in arithmetic, so it hasn't been taught for decades. What else could he possibly say about 9? Well, the chapter has 20 pages. He says a lot! For example, casting out nines is a type of checksum that is easy for humans to calculate. Similar schemes, some of which only a coder could love, are used for various reasons, including the checksum that is the last digit of the ISBN or ISBN-13 found in every book and many other publications. It is the remainder in a calculation using the prior 9 or 12 digits, to see if someone has phonied up an ISBN, or if in some human process digits were transposed in writing it down.

I know I sound like I am down on the book and the author, but his writing is really quite good and engaging. It just didn't all "reach" me, particularly Chapter 6 about Proofs. I don't have the right kind of mind for formally proving theorems, and getting my axioms (or propositions) in the right order. That is where My Eyes Glazed Over, big time. Yet the following chapter, on Geometry, has many interesting examples of the way we think geometrically, and the way we sometimes err consistently in certain ways. Again the proofs slid by me, but near the end of the chapter he shows how Geometry and Algebra are equivalent and can be used to check each other. I assure you, this will help students who might find one or the other more congenial, to bootstrap their understanding. Few teachers even know this.

I was amazed that Dr. Benjamin had the audacity to write a chapter on Calculus (#11). But if a mathophobe is capable of learning calculus, this chapter can get him or her started learning it. Its clear explanations show how calculus is a logical extension of simple algebra. In one lovely example, we find the shortest route from point A to point B, with point C to be chosen along some line to the side (say, you want to go by way of yon brook). One more step shows that it is the same as using the "brook" as a mirror and reflecting points A and B to A' and B'; drawing a line from A to B' shows that the shortest path is a mirror reflection, with equal angles on both sides.

This is not a book to sit down and read like a novel. Neither is it a textbook. It is somewhere between, and rewards a reader who reads it at a desk, with paper and pencil handy, to try out things as they are presented. If you are familiar with many of the items, you'll soon encounter something new, something that is probably both interesting and fun. Hey, maybe you'll even like proofs much better than I do! The world needs a few such folk. So the book still gets a big Like from me. Maybe one day I'll look back at Chapter 6, go more slowly, and learn a smidgen more about proofs, that has to date eluded me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Some confusing specimen labels

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

This post has two parts. Firstly, of several reasons that research collections wish to have multiple—even many—specimens of a species from a particular collecting location and time, with this first set of labels I wish to explore one that is not often thought of: Lot splitting for sharing. Sometimes a collector or museum desires specimens of a particular species, and also possesses multi-shell lots of a species desirable to others. Each can extract several shells from a larger lot to trade with the other.

These labels show one interesting consequence of this. The species Planorbis duryii Wetherby, 1879, now known as Planorbella duryi (Wetherby, 1879), is a moderately desirable snail of the Rams' Horn shape. But today the shell is not the story, the labels are. I don't know the protagonists here, so I will call them Collector 1, 2 and 3 (Coll1, Coll2, and Coll3).

Coll1 collected a largeish lot of this species, numbered it #1193, and later split the lot to share portions with two other collectors, Coll2 and Coll3. One of them, let's say Coll2, received both lots and wrote labels for them, giving one to his (or her) friend, Coll3. These were numbered No. 23 and No. 24. Notice that Coll2 did not care about the county they were found in, just the town and state.

Over time, the original lot and both splits made their way into one collection, which was donated to the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Judging from the catalog number, 153565, this occurred in the late 1980's. An alert collections manager, sorting through the donated material, naturally sorted them by species (if they weren't already sorted) and noticed that they were all from one originally collected lot. So they were combined and cataloged as one lot.

What makes their labels of further interest is the location information, and this brings up the second subject of this post. The location seems to be an unknown place! Survey, Florida is not found in the GeoNames geographic name database, nor in GNIS from which it originates. But these paragraphs in an online history of Bonita Springs unlock the mystery:
(1st paragraph) Bonita Springs had its beginnings when, some time in the 1870's, government surveyors in a remote part of Southwest Florida pitched camp near a medicinal spring which the local Indians believed could heal the sick. After the crew left, the site became know as Survey and the stream running from it, Surveyor's Creek.
(4th paragraph) In 1912, a Tennesseean named Ragsdale purchased 2400 acres around Survey. He and his associate, Dan Farnsworth, surveyed the area and laid out a small town with streets and avenues named for potential buyers. There was no church, but, in 1915, a Naples minister held the community's first non-denominational service in the school house. The developers decided that the name, Survey, lacked sales appeal, so the town was renamed Bonita Springs; Indian Spring Branch became Oak River; and Surveyor's Creek was upgraded to Imperial River
Without the Internet, it could have taken weeks to write letters or phone around to find someone who knows what happened to Survey. Name changes such as this are more common than one might suppose, leading to all kinds of interesting puzzles for researchers, and for errant database cleanup specialists such as myself. This is particularly a focus now that I am cleaning up the geographical information for the current project.

Just a month ago I finished taking inventory of the freshwater snails in the collection of the Museum. Now I am working on pinning down the collecting locations, correcting as needed—such as putting in Bonita Springs as the new name for Survey, Florida—and attaching or correcting county, state, and sometimes country. For example, one database record was attributed to Papua New Guinea, and a locality name of "Lake (Cape?) Palousa". I went to the specimens, and was able to puzzle out that the collector's handwritten label actually read "Cape Palmas", not mentioning a country. The species is an African endemic, which made it easy after that to determine that the country was Liberia. Cape Palmas is a prominent point near the southernmost part of the country. Here are some other interesting labels that I saw today; not all could be pinned down:

Lot #17002 is from the initial donation by John du Pont, used to set up the mollusk collection when the museum was chartered before 1970 (it opened to the public in 1972). As this label indicates, Mr. du Pont was the collector. This label replaced whatever label there might originally have been. More likely, the information was taken from a notebook when the label was written. (Note to collectors of all kinds. Never throw away an original label! Keep old notebooks also.)

It is curious that this label names the collecting locality as "Java, Singapore". The closest points of southern Singapore and northwest Java island are more than 500 miles (800 km) apart. I have taken this to mean the species is found in both places, but I wonder if the lot is a combined lot. Nerita lineata Chemnitz is a marine snail in a family that has many freshwater species. That is why it was included in a "freshwater gastropod" inventory. Being marine it could easily be represented all along the Malay peninsula and throughout Indonesia. The actual collecting locality remains a puzzle.

This collector's label for lot #90224 says, "Little Sur River Bridge Hwy 1 nth of Monterey Santa Cruz Calif", with the date and collector's initials. We think "nth" means "north." The bridge indicated is 10 miles south of Monterey, and more than 60 miles south of Santa Cruz. We have a "Verbatim Location" field in our database, and that is where the quoted text was put, while the "Locality" field for publication now reads, "Little Sur River bridge, Hwy 1, near Monterey", with the county (Monterey County) entered in its own field. I've driven the Big Sur highway, and crossed that bridge. Most of the highway is slow and curvy, but I would not expect actual confusion as to which direction one is traveling.

Finally, this label with older catalog numbers from two collections, and written in 1924, originally read, "Rio Hondo at S.P. Trestle". Much later someone  wrote "San Pedro Calif", which was entered into the museum ledger in about 1980 as "San Pedro Coll.". Ever since then, this has been assumed to refer to a college, but there is no such college. A look at the label showed me the real situation. The Rio Hondo wash splits off the Los Angeles river going northward between Lynwood and Compton, 16 miles or more north of San Pedro. The Southern Pacific trestle is a mile or so north of that, so the Locality field now reads "Compton" and I added the coordinates of the center of the trestle to our "Coords" field.

Fortunately, most of the geographic data is much easier to determine, and frequently can be vetted by a quick glance. A lot of data cleansing is routine and can be boring, but there is enough "detective work" involved to keep the boring times to a minimum.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Weaponizing science writing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, natural theology, philosophy, poetic naturalism, polemics

A few years ago it was fashionable to coin terms using the word "challenged" to euphemize various handicaps and other perceived drawbacks. For example, the words "moron", "idiot" and so forth were to be replaced by "mentally challenged" or "intellectually challenged", and criminals were to be described as "ethically challenged". Soon humorous neologisms arose such as "vertically challenged" for "short" and "financially challenged" for "underpaid" or even "poor". One day I said to someone, "Yeah, and Christians are Politically Challenged", by which I was referring to concerted efforts (that continue) to remove First Amendment rights from Bible believers.

About 3% of Americans claim to be Atheists. But the word has gained political overtones. A noisy contingent of American atheists are what I call "evangelical atheists", those who try to get all matters of faith driven underground. (Just as an aside: take a look at China and Russia, the two major nations to make atheism the official "religion".) But I have said, and continue to say, most "atheists" actually do believe in God, but they know that He disagrees with some major factor in their life, so they deny His existence to brush the conflict under the rug. I have met very few honest Nontheists, as I prefer to call them. These are the ones I actually respect.

Sean Carroll appears to be one such. A number of shriekingly polemical books have been written, if not to change the faith of the faithful, at least to keep most questioning folks from seeking for faith. Dr. Carroll (a physicist) is much more measured in his approach. I understand him as a gently evangelical nontheist. His recent book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I would call it the most effective gospel of nontheism I have yet to see. It is a big book, more than 440 pages, dense with meaning, and my slow and careful perusal is the primary reason I spent nearly a month reading it (Sorry for the long silence, followers of my blog!).

The fifty chapters make up six parts: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, and Caring. Boiled down into a near-criminal over-simplification, the author promotes Poetic Naturalism as a philosophy that can accept multiple levels of description, from the quantum-mechanical to the chemical to biological to psychological and even to the cosmic level. As he makes clear numerous times, language that is appropriate to various emergent phenomena is meaningless when it is applied at a different level. Even though we do that all the time!

For example, when my cousin was teaching basic electronics to a class of raw privates in the Army, he'd begin discussing semiconductor electronics thus: "See, N-type material is full of extra electrons, and P-type is full of holes, and they've all been eating eggs, so they want each other." With a bunch of guys "just off the farm" it would jump start their understanding of electromagnetic forces between charged particles.

In The Big Picture, Dr. Carroll had the unenviable task of using language with exceeding precision. Generally speaking, each Part of the book explains things at a different level, and each succeeding level is emergent from the one(s) before. He starts with the Core Theory, which used to be called the Standard Model of Physics. It bases everything on a handful of fermions (particles of matter) and bosons (particles that convey forces). The Higgs Boson that was finally detected in action last year at the Large Hadron Collider is the last of the expected boson particles, and completes the theory.

In order to make the Core Theory of physics intelligible, the author has to work through the concepts slowly. There are several of them. They obey the "rules" of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Even though those two theories seem to us to be incompatible, the fermions and bosons just go along doing their thing without distress (there I go, anthropomorphizing quarks and neutrinos!).

I looked up the Core Theory and found that it is a pretty new term (2014), that is more satisfying than Standard Model, which has always sounded somehow temporary. Now, to a Theist, whatever you call the theory, it is temporary, because we believe God is able to operate outside of physics as we know it. The author does his best to show that such a belief is contradictory. As a scientist who is also a theist, indeed a Christian, and a Christian mystic at that, I recognize the argument as an effective filter. How real is the faith in which you claim to believe? If this book can shake your faith, then it ought to be shaken. Someone who has experienced divine things cannot be argued out of those experiences. Someone who has been "argued into faith" can just as easily be argued out of it.

At the most basic level, all known physical effects are particle interactions according to the Core Theory. For example, you can look at Chemistry as a complicated set of rules for the multitude of ways atoms react to form or unform molecules. Or you can peek under the covers to see the particle interactions that dictate why Sodium can easily either release or share an electron, but that no known chemical reactions have extracted a second electron. But each level of description must use appropriate language to convey what is going on, or what is theorized to go on in many cases. The terms "ionization" and "covalent sharing" just don't go together with the wave-statistical language of the Schrödinger Equation that describes what the electron can do when a Sodium atom and an Oxygen molecule come into proximity…or, rather, what the relevant electrons in outer orbitals of the various atoms can or might "do". Even the word "do" gets problematic at a Core Theory level!

Jumping to the human level: Are our thoughts simply a bunch of electrochemically-mediated, deterministic activities that would run in exactly the same way if all the relevant atoms could be re-assembled into the same starting positions? In the case of a random cubic millimeter (one milligram) of brain tissue, that comes to about 600 billion trillion nucleons (neutrons plus protons) and about half as many electrons; or at three quarks per nucleon, and who knows how many gluons, you can multiply that by a factor of about ten. I suspect the average "thought" or "memory" seldom takes up more than a cubic millimeter, so you'd be faced with putting that many "things" in just the right places, to see if the same thought would recur in exactly the same way.

"Wait a minute! Just a darn minute! What about quantum mechanics?" you might ask. Well, yeah. There is a bit of a paradox there. To what extent is there an element of randomness in our thoughts, and do they constitute an element of what we call "free will." Every "explanation" I have encountered about that has eventually sidestepped the matter. We just don't know, and it may be that we can't know. This is as good a place as any to remind my readers of the three limits of science: Heisenberg Uncertainty, Schrödinger Undecidability (is the cat dead?), and Gödel Incompleteness.

It is also a good place to bring up a related matter I've been thinking of for a few years. If you wanted to put those billions of trillions of atoms back into place, assuming that their subcomponents would not misbehave so this can work, just how accurately do they have to be placed? What are the acceptable errors of placement? This is analogous to the placement accuracy of the Transporter in Star Trek. Get too large a percentage of the atoms out of place by too large a distance, and as Scotty said on one occasion, "I canna guarantee brain function." Let's assume an Ångstrom unit (0.1 nm) is the maximum allowable displacement. That means the device used to nudge each atom back into place—and all of them have to get into place in the same billionth or possibly trillionth of a second—needs to have Ångstrom-level precision. Laser "tweezers" are typically used to move single atoms about, such as nudging one after another into a Bose condensate. Light that can place an atom with that accuracy has to have a wavelength of no more than 2Å, which is a pretty hard X-ray, one with an energy of 6,200 eV. Thus, the minimum energy expenditure to re-align those atoms is a few times 6,200 eV per particle. OK, folks, 6,200 (eV to place an atom)×(roughly)1020 (atoms)÷6.2×1018 (eV per Joule) comes to 100,000 Joules…and actual energy needed is several times that much. The 100kJ is 23,900 calories, and the total energy needed is probably much, much more. It would heat that milligram of brain tissue to tens of thousands of degrees, exploding the poor head in which that brain resided.

This is why, even if we had the help of Laplace's Demon (who is responsible to know where the atoms were) and Maxwell's Demon (who is responsible for putting them into place), there is no hope of trying such an experiment. No wonder Hell is hot, of those demons can wield such energies so freely! By the way, Laplace's Demon needs to exercise similar levels of energy just to know those atomic positions. Just sayin'.

Another side thought, based on Chapter 42, "Are Photons Conscious?" If they are, it is wasted on them. Remember time dilation? Photons always zip along at exactly the speed of light, and so they experience no time whatever. A photon formed by some electronic transition may travel billions of light years before being absorbed and triggering an electronic transition. To the photon, were it conscious, its awakening would be simultaneous with its annihilation. No time even to think, "Oh, crap, here comes an atom to …" To photons, there is no time, no space, no nothing. We are the conscious ones. They exist for us! And that is where Poetic Naturalism leads. We speak in experiential terms because we experience things. At the level of human experience, of caring and feeling, the Core Theory is as remote as some distant galaxy. With four or five emergent levels between, we paraphrase Descartes, "I think and feel and love and hate and care about meaning and purpose…and therefore, I am." And is God also, who named himself "I AM"? One day we all will know, if we know anything at all.

As trying as the book was to read, it was enjoyable. The author writes very well, explains things with great clarity, and makes quite the air-tight case. In the face of such powerful arguments, how can I resist the siren call of Nontheism? I think of Isaiah 45:15, "Surely you are a God who hides himself…" To date, God has not submitted himself for scientific analysis. Why should he? In the Bible that he inspired, we read of a soul and spirit within us, and that our spirit can interact with the Holy Spirit. That is how he chooses to interact with us…with me.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Is a new Spider gulping up our blogs?

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Dear fellow Bloggers, particularly on Blogger.com,

A few months ago I noticed a sudden surge in the number of views of my blog. My blog is pretty specialized, so I don't get a lot of traffic, usually 80-100 daily views. In past years, when I posted daily, there were more, but seldom more than 200. So I know I don't compare to bloggers with thousands to millions of daily views and many followers.

The present rate averages 240 per day. That is nice, but I wonder if it is really more readers, or a periodic partial dump via a Spider app? Take a look at the Stats for the past few days (the Week view):
That's a little unusual, wouldn't you say? Previously, the line would jigger along in the range of 2-5 per hour. That kind of traffic still exists, but is overwhelmed by a 30-view spike roughly every four hours, with lots of variability. That 99-view spike and the two in the 60 range indicate a possible third factor. But let's concentrate on the 30's. In the Month view, they rock along in the 200-300 range (boring, so I didn't snag it), and I see this with the All Time view:
This begins in 2010 because that is when Google began recording stats; I've been blogging since 2005. But except for the heavy period in 2011 and 2012, readership has seldom breached 3,000 views per month. Then in June of this year, the spiking began. At first, it wavered, but September and October seem pretty consistent. One more chart, the Now view:

This is minute-by-minute for a 2-hour period. Someone or something dumped 30 posts at 5:04 PM today. This is why it can't be ordinary readership. Those single views rocking along there are the folks who are actually reading. Sometimes I will see two or three in the same minute.

So I am interested to find out if other bloggers have looked at their stats and seen an extra spike about six times per day. Feel free to comment. If you want to send an e-mail address for further contact, put it in a comment, along with a note whether you are OK to publish the comment or not. I moderate comments, so nothing will be published until I've had a look at it. Thanks for having a look!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing the manual as you go

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs

Picture it: a girl, a woman, growing up in a home with at least three heritages: Jordanian Arab Christian, Catholic, Muslim…where nobody knows what they want to be when they grow up! Life Without a Recipe is not the first memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber, but the second. In the confusion of a house truly divided against itself, yet filled with love (and food!), young Diana wrote to escape, wrote to focus her heart, wrote to create worlds that were hers and hers alone, not somebody else's.

I really don't know how to review a book such as this. She writes in bits and pieces—and perhaps this is witting—and just sort of drops the reader into the confusion of the life she experienced, as she experienced it. At least, in the first portion of the book, the necessary background (Even if one has written an earlier memoir, one cannot assume a reader has any inkling of its existence). The vignettes turn to more rounded and more extended pictures once the author has presented "life before baby".

For this is the story of Diana making her way, or perhaps, muddling her way through, to a marriage that works (her third), adopting a child in her forties (one presumes her husband is somewhere close to the same age), and, by the time little Gracie is four, losing both her father-in-law and her father to cancers.

It is also a story of the various food traditions she learned, from rather demanding cooks. I was appalled at the story of nine-year-old Diana making a special dish for her beloved grandmother Grace: upon the first taste, Grace wept, saying it wasn't the same.  Well, of course it wasn't; how could it be when Grace herself never made it the same as the time before? Diana soon learned it wasn't worth trying to please them, not her parents, not her grandmother, nor a gaggle of aunts, though she never overcame the urge to try.

Near the end of the last chapter, on making knafeh late into the night, almost to sunrise, her aunt Aya sums it up: "You learn food by feel, not on a paper." That reminded me immediately of a very aged family friend, famous for her chicken-and-dumplings. The proper making of the dumplings, according to my mother, depended on her instinct with her particular kitchen faucet, under which she would hold a fistful of flour and baking soda mix, and "turn the water on and right off again" before kneading up a perfect dumpling to throw in the boiling pot. I infer a succession of less-than-perfect dumplings in her past as she calibrated her twisting wrist.

And so it is with good cooks everywhere. Is it so with good lives everywhere? I suspect so. As a favorite proverb has it, "Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement." Diana the successful novelist and memoirist may have a closet full of imperfect "dumplings", but the ones that came out well are a joy to read, to feel, to experience, to taste.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A peek into physics

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physics, popular treatments

Physics is the intersection of mathematics with observations of nature. So a book that promised an entirely non-mathematical presentation of the deepest puzzles of physics was impossible for me to pass by. In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli aims not so much for non-physicists to understand the great theories of physics, but for them to become intrigued by them.

Optimistically enough, he begins with "The Most Beautiful of Theories", discussing Albert Einstein's two related theories of relativity, the Special Theory, which treats of the effects of relative motion on time and space, and the General Theory, which unifies space with gravity. He discusses the problems left unsolved by Newton's mechanics, and at least helps us get a glimpse of the way that these two theories resolve them, at least in part.

Many people think that Einstein's Nobel Prize was for one of this theories of relativity, but it was instead for his work on the Photoelectric Effect, with which he demonstrated that light is quantized, or made up of particles. Newton had thought this might be so, calling the particles "corpuscles", but had no way at the time to prove it one way or another. Albert Einstein did so, and then worked on quantum theory for many years. Today, many, at least many of those with some scientific training, are more or less comfortable with light's having both a wave nature and a particle nature. Not only that, but elementary particles such as protons are found to also have a wave nature, though it takes subtle apparatus to winkle out the evidence for it.

Eventually, Einstein was dissatisfied with quantum mechanics, not least because his theory of general relativity and the developing theory of quanta were in fundamental conflict. General relativity requires that space and time be continuous. All aspects of quantum theory require them to be "chunked". Is this just another duality we simply have to accept, like the particle-wave duality of light and even matter? Dr. Rovelli is clear: At the moment we don't know, and nobody is sure how to resolve the dilemma. I like that about him. He doesn't sweep the problems under the rug. They are just there, waiting for someone to hit upon the right approach to straighten them out.

Rather than discuss each of the following chapters, I think it best to leave folks with the following picture of the way light behaves as it enters our eyes and is perceived. Once light is on its way to us, either directly from a source such as the sun or an artificial lamp, or indirectly after bouncing off something, whether it travels as a wave or as a stream of particles is not important. But as it reaches the cornea of the eye, and before that the very thin film of tears on the cornea, it behaves as a wave and is refracted. There is no equation in quantum mechanics which can adequately describe refraction. This shows us that quantum theory is still not complete. During the tenth of a nanosecond that the light is traveling through the eyeball, it is refracted several times, as it passes from one thing to the next: the tear film, the cornea, and aqueous humor in the front of the eye, the crystalline lens behind the iris, the vitreous humor that fills the rest of the eye, and a very thin film of liquid between that and the retina. At the retina, all of a sudden, the light behaves like a stream of particles. The "color" of light depends on the kinetic energy of those particles, the photons, the quanta of light. The cone cells in our retina come in three varieties (for most of us). The cones that respond only to a range of higher energy photons stimulate the color "blue", those that respond best to lower-energy photons stimulate "red", and those with a medium energy preference stimulate the color "green". Thus the particular mix of variously-energetic photons in the beam of light striking a particular patch of cone cells stimulates a color response, which may differ quite a lot from the response of the next patch over, depending on the energy mix of photons that reach that spot.

An interesting side note is that the solution to a quantum mechanical event requires an "observer", and in a simple way, we humans are typically considered the observers. But if phenomena such as diffraction occur when none of us is watching, as we think is true, then the "observer" is actually the whole of the universe, which responds at some level (usually a very, very, very low level) to every quantum event. So we aren't really the "observers" of quantum theory, but those who have figured out that whatever happens in the universe seems to matter to all the universe. At that point physics begins to border on metaphysics. By definition, science gets left behind if we go further.

The other matters covered in the book, cosmology and the shape of space, the resolution of the "particle zoo" that first emerged from our early cyclotrons and synchrotrons, what black holes might really represent, and where we fit into all of this, are each treated succinctly. Dr. Rovelli revels in the beauties of natural science as studied by theorists. His little book is a "good college try" at helping some of the rest of us respond to that beauty.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Two semi-related snails

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

At the current stage of my inventory of the freshwater snails in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, I came across two species that  stretch the limits of the genus in which they have been classified. Indeed, as I shall discuss, they stretched those limits to the breaking point.

The first is Melanoides pantherina (von dem Busch, 1859). The genus Melanoides was created when a very large genus Melania was divided into several genera, and the family Melanoidea was broken into Thiara (to which these belong), Pleuroceridae, and several smaller families of genera.

"Melanoides" means "like Melania", and "Melania" means "dark". Snails in this genus are colored dark brown to nearly black.

This species was named "pantherina" because juvenile specimens are spotted. Faint spots in the smaller whorls of the specimen shown at right are still visible. At first, I thought the spots caused by their habit of laying their eggs on themselves were the reason for the name, but that habit is found in several related species.

Also note on the older label from Richardson's collection, that English and American conchologists tended to spell the author's name "Bush" instead of Busch. This arose during about a century of German-English conflict that culminated in two world wars.

The second species is presently named Melanoides Scabra (Müller), at least at Delaware, but many experts have renamed it Thiara scabra (Müller), and we plan to follow suit. The genus Thiara was created to gather the "Thumb snails", many of which really are about the size and shape of someone's thumb.

This species is a little smaller, but its lower spire indicates its affinity with other Thiara species. These species are also lighter in color than the typical specimen of Melania or Melanoides.

Both these species, and indeed, a great many of their relatives also, are river snails. Their shell shape and presence or absence of spines are clues to the energy of the rivers they inhabit, and the kind of predators they face. Larger, thick-shelled ones, for example, live in faster water and have little to fear from snail-eating fish, but are more likely to fall prey to boring predators such as smaller predatory snails.

The family to which they all belong, Thiaridae, is found throughout east Asia and the islands in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. They are found mainly in rivers and a few are found in brackish estuaries.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Presenting CWWN v08 - The Present Testimony (1)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Watchman Nee had published a few issues of a magazine entitled The Present Testimony from 1922 to 1925. It dealt with the deep things of God in the experience of His believers. Nee was then burdened to publish The Christian, which forms the content of volumes five through seven of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee. That magazine contained exposition on specific topics related to Revelation and related topics. By 1928 his burden in this regard was discharged, and he realized that God did not intend for him to devote his time to Bible exposition, but to encouragement of the children of God in their lives and living in and with Christ. Thus he resumed publishing The Present Testimony. Volumes eight through eleven contain the messages and letters he wrote for that magazine, and a few letters written on his behalf by Ruth Lee. This volume contains material from issues one through eighteen, and takes us up through November, 1931.

During the period 1928-1930, Watchman Nee suffered much with tuberculosis (private communication from co-workers of his that I knew), though the nature of his disease is not mentioned in the letters to his readers. Somehow, during such a time of intense suffering and weakness, he wrote at least one article for nearly every issue of The Present Testimony, and completed writing The Spiritual Man, to be found in the three volumes that follow these. In 1930 he experienced a sudden, divine healing of his disease, which he recounts in his own testimony of 1936. He had been given a terminal diagnosis by his doctor, but the doctor actually died first, in the 1930's. Nee lived until June of 1972.

The focus of The Present Testimony is to explain the things of the Life of Christ as experienced by the believer, particularly those that, Nee wrote, "ordinary believers cannot fully understand." He went on, "…the testimony of the Lord is so incomparably great that we cannot receive and teach it completely." His intention was to help believers in their spiritual life and warfare. Thus we find a great diversity of topics presented. A few of the articles' titles illustrate this:
What is Prayer
Knowing the Self
The Presenting of the Body
The War Between the New and the Old
The Overcoming Life (the longest in this volume, and a title for a later book)
God's Masterpiece
I am frequently amazed at his ability to wring every shred of meaning from a short passage or a few verses. For example, in "The War Between the New and the Old" he discusses, not the two testaments or covenants, but our experience of the conflict between our flesh and our spirit, spoken of in scripture as our "old man" and our "new man". One might think this matter could be dealt with very briefly. Paul wrote of putting off the old man and putting on the new man in four short passages, chiefly in Romans 6, and Jesus referred to the matter once, using a different metaphor, that of new wine in old wineskins. Although Jesus' words are typically considered to refer to the Christian faith bursting the "wineskin" of the Jewish religion, it refers equally to the struggle within a believer to overcome the habits of which the old religion is composed. Nee wrote six pages on the subject, pages of rather dense writing that must be read carefully, and calls it the briefest of treatments!

In "The Overcoming Life" he states that an "overcomer" is a "normal Christian". For this reason an early edition of a later book on the subject was published under the title, The Normal Christian Life. More recent editions are titled The Overcoming Life. The article runs sixteen pages. Nearly each page was expanded into a chapter of the later book.

Some might complain that Watchman Nee's view of the Christian life takes Olympic-level effort to pursue. For this reason, it is necessary to read again and again what he writes, that it is not in us—that is, in our natural life—to live this life. We have the life of Christ within. He lives His life in us, just as the thornbush that Moses saw, being full of flame, was not burned, because God did not use that bush for fuel for His testimony and work: God Himself supplied the "fuel". He intended for Moses to be the unburnt bush full of flame, and the Christian life is on the same principle. It is best to remember this matter as a proverb:
In our natural man, the things of the Christian life are impossible.
In our spirit, they are effortless.
Always read the writing of Watchman Nee with this in mind. We may be the "bush", but we are not the fuel for the consuming fire of God. We are just the visible "wick" holding the flame, and He supplies the fuel.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The human side of gravity science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, gravity, general theory of relativity, LIGO, scientists

Because I pay attention to the news, I knew the end from the beginning. So we'll start with the climax:


This is a screen clip from this YouTube video of the detection, just over a year ago, of gravitational waves, by the two facilities of the Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory, or LIGO. The video lasts just 12 seconds, and plays the sound as heard in each detector several times. The sonic spectra show that, when detected, the gravitational waves (GW's) indicate two black holes that are already very close to one another, revolving around one another about 30 times per second, and spiraling inward, in about one or two tenths of a second, whirling up to about 400 times per second before colliding and merging into a single black hole. So the subtle chirp is very quick. That's why those who made the video repeated the chirps so many times (4 times for each signal, in pairs).

As of this writing, three such black hole collisions have been detected, most recently this past June. You can read more about it here. What you will not find on that page, or hardly anywhere, is a chronicle of the LIGO project and the projects and people that led to it and its successes. For that, we must read Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space by Janna Levin. While I find the technical accomplishment quite fascinating, the people are enlightening in their own right.

The stereotype of the white-coated, impassive mega-brain does severe injustice to actual scientists. Just like the rest of us, they have their tastes, quirks, habits, obsessions, relationships, and loves and hates. The kind of brain power needed to detect such extremely faint signals, just a few days short of 100 years after Albert Einstein proposed their existence, practically guarantees a collection of very unusual people. It has been said that reasonable people don't make changes, because they are satisfied with the status quo. Thus all change, for better or for worse, is made by unreasonable people. Gravitational "astronomy" attracted some of the least reasonable people of the past generation or two, with the proviso that they are able to carry out useful work.

The singular characteristic of the most unreasonable people is that they are predisposed to be bad team members. They have to work really, really hard to work together. Some never learn the knack. In Dr. Levin's chronicle, chief among these are two exceptionally talented experimentalists, Joe Weber and Ron Drever. Joe Weber came along first, inventing the suspended-mass GW detector, consisting of a ton or more of aluminum in the form of a solid bar, that would ring in response to space distortions of a certain frequency. It was designed to ring out the "song" of an end-stage black hole collision. Dr. Weber claimed he detected all kinds of GW signals with his device. Nobody else ever could get one to work.

Kip Thorne, a cheerfully unconventional man, as unreasonable yet as personable as they come, somehow shepherded a herd of "cats" over a period of four decades, to achieve LIGO. Scientists came and went. Directors of the project came and went. One early "cat" was Ron Drever, famed for inducing almost any detector to have almost supernaturally low levels of noise, so as to winkle out the signal. He was equally famous for insisting on his own autonomy and total authority.

But what kind of signal are we talking about? If two black holes collided somewhere "nearby", say, within a couple of light years, the resulting gravity waves would hurt, and hurt bad. You'd hear them, feel them, and possibly suffer brain death as a result. Since no such event is known to have happened in historic times (I suppose a latter-day Velikovsky could re-interpret some Biblical event thusly), Dr. Thorne and others were able to set a probable lower limit on the likelihood of such collisions per cubic megaparsec. The reality was even more sparse. At LIGO's present level of sensitivity, based on three detections to date, it can detect about one event per 2-3 months within a volume of about 700 trillion trillion parsecs. Such a volume has a radius of 2 billion light years.

At that kind of distance, the gravity signal is very weak. The "arms" of the two LIGO instruments are 4 km long. Over that distance, the gravity signals that were detected caused a fluctuation in the scale of spacetime that measured about a twentieth the width of a proton. The laser beams in LIGO don't just go down to a mirror and return. They bounce back and forth thousands of times (I didn't learn the precise figure) to amplify the motion such that the phase shift in light of wavelength around 600 nm becomes detectable and even measurable in magnitude.

Kip Thorne, Rai Weiss and others had to convince the National Science Foundation to spend, initially about $200 million, and eventually around a billion dollars. The first director of the project, "Robbie" Vogt, shepherded just the right mix of congressmen and scientists to obtain the early funding and keep it flowing. But he, being one of the "unreasonables", got fired after a few years, and for a while, directors of LIGO came and went almost with the seasons.

It seems miraculous that a physics project of this scope could actually be brought to completion, given the anti-science bias among American politicians. It was canny to tout LIGO as a physics endeavor rather than astronomy (in spite of the word "Observatory" in the title); supercolliders such as LHC set a high expectation for physics funding, while astronomers typically get stubborn resistance to spending more than a few percent of such amounts (LHC's budget is about $1 billion yearly).

By the time the author had completed her manuscript of the book, LIGO was just barely running in test mode, and simultaneous runs of the two facilities had yet to be performed. Fortunately, she held off publication long enough to "enjoy" learning of the first detection in September, 2015. This story really needed a happy ending, and her Epilogue describes it. I found it interesting, and comforting, to get to peek under the covers of a science project of this magnitude.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

As usual, the aliens is us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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