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")

Monday, March 09, 2015

A challenging spiritual test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Math is a way of thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sandwich Generation - the rubber hits the road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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