Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Humidity balance in older guitars

kw: essays, musical instruments, maintenance, humidification

I have a few vintage guitars. One, a Takamine that I bought new in 1973 in California, became so dried out it began to come apart by 1980, so I unstrung it and stored it and bought another (which is now also vintage!), a Sigma Anniversary Edition. By then I was living in South Dakota, which is even dryer than southern California. I later learned of humidifiers for acoustic guitars, such as the one shown here. I got one for the Sigma.

The sponge can hold 20cc of water. In a closed and latched hard case it can keep a guitar from drying out for a month in pretty dry weather. However, it doesn't regulate the humidity, it just raises it, sometimes close to saturation, which can make a guitar body "fat", raising its pitch; it gets sharp and the tone changes, getting "hollow". And then, if you leave it outside the case to dry out, it goes flat. It's hard to find a balance.

Before my Mom died she sent me her guitar, the one I'd learned on some 60 years ago. She didn't know what brand it was, and the paper label was missing. Her dad had bought it used when she was very young. It had suffered some damage over the years, so I loosened its strings and just stored it for a decade or so. Then in 2016 I decided to take it to a luthier to see if I could afford to have it repaired and set up for playing.

The price was a bit steep, but affordable, so I had him go ahead with it. He did all kinds of things to it, and was also able to determine, from penciled and stenciled notations inside, that it is a 1905 Gibson Artist. He talked to me a long time about proper care once I took it home. He said a humidifier like the one I was using on my Sigma could ruin it, and recommended a 2-way pack such as the Humidipak by D'Addario.

The kit comes with three packs that contain a special mix of salts (probably mostly magnesium nitrate) and a gel, in an osmotic membrane. They can both raise and reduce humidity whenever it strays from 48%. The optimum humidity for an acoustic guitar is 50%, but anything in the range 45%-55% will keep it "healthy".

Two of the packs go in a 2-pocket bag and are hung between the strings; the other one is put in the neck compartment of the case. The box says each pack can release as much as 26cc of water in dry conditions. There is no indication of how much they can absorb when the environment is humid.

The luthier recommended that I get a room-size humidifier to use in the wintertime, to raise the humidity, and a digital hygrometer. From the readings on our thermostat, I already knew that the house humidity gets as low as 30% in winter. We run a humidifier in the basement, set at 50%. It regulates the whole house in summer, keeping it below 55%. Without it, humidity gets into the seventies and stays there for at least a couple months.

The humidifier I got needed daily attention, and even putting it in a closed closet with all the guitars, in their hard shell cases (by this time I also had a Fender 12-string), it needed filling daily. We were worried that all the humidity was going into the walls and ceiling and floor, and could induce mold, even though my digital hygrometer reported the closet's humidity stayed below 60%.

After a year of that, I thought things through and made a big change. The luthier had said that the speed of the Humidipaks to dry out humid air was slower than when they were humidifying dry air. I decided to do in-the-case regeneration of the Humidpaks, using the humidifiers I already had, and a few more I bought.

I made record sheets like this one, one for each guitar. I have a digital kitchen scale with a sensitivity of 1g (the weight of 1cc of water). I figured that if the Humidipaks can release 26g each, it would be OK for them to absorb 10-20g from the humidifiers.

Last October I began. I usually checked about twice monthly to see how things progressed. I would decide each time whether to add water to the humidifiers ("restoration packs"). The "+20" or plus-whatever records how much water I added. I used distilled water.

I noticed that each time I added water, the guitar would get a little fat after a day or two, then dry back out in another day or two. I figure that is the time it takes for the Humidipaks to absorb most of the water in the humidifiers. I didn't want to interfere too much by weighing daily.

Perusing this record, I can see that I had to add a lot of water from December through March. Middle and late February was warmer and wetter, so I tried not adding water for about a month. The humidifiers released their water quite slowly, and the Humidipaks kept their weight or even gained just a bit.

The bottom line shows measurements I made today. I added no water over the summer, after the final summer record on August 1. I only took this guitar out to practice, usually daily, because I used the 12-string to lead church singing. I had been using the Takamine for that the prior year or two.

I was told that Humidipaks will last about three years if a guitar spends most of its time in a closet with a small-room humidifier. Rather than burning through a gallon of water almost daily, I used about ten ounces of water for the whole year. This kept the Humidipaks a little over-full and the guitars all keep their tuning when not in use, and they only needed a little tweaking after being used for an hour or two. I'll find out if these last longer than three years after another couple of years.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

This short story collection took me by surprise

kw: book reviews, fiction, short stories, collections

The local library finally wised up and began putting the collections of short stories in its New Books section all in one place. Their Dewey Decimal code is SS, after all. So this and the prior two books were easier to find, and allowed me to indulge my enjoyment of short stories, which I usually prefer to novels. The recent trends in science fiction novels are not to my liking.

The collection is The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction, edited by Larry Dark. I pay so little attention to mainstream fiction that I didn't know about the Story Prize until now. It is given to award books containing exceptional writing in short format. In the Introduction the editor waxes eloquent about the difficulty of the short format, and of how gratified he is to find many authors who still publish books full of short stories, even though "the money is in novels." After fifteen years of conferring the award, Mr. Dark gathered for this volume the best story of each year (minus one).

When I have dipped my toe into the mainstream I have usually come away dissatisfied. Many times I have stopped rather early on in an apparently aimless book or story, skipping to the ending "to see if it goes anywhere". If it does not, that's that, I am done with it. Sadly, this is more and more true of speculative fiction, particularly longer works of science fiction or fantasy (yes, I also enjoy well-written fantasy, but my standard is high, and no more than a few books per decade pass muster).

Most of the stories in The Story Prize were top-notch, to my way of thinking, so I can mention only a few. One, the longest in the volume (76 pp), is actually science fiction: "The Memory Wall", a novelette by Anthony Doerr; a way of recovering the experiences of memories has been developed, but it only helps dementia patients a little, and there is a dark side to the existence of memories outside the brain that made them. Another, "Saleema" by Daniyal Mueenudin, shows the nearly-universal experience of poor women world-wide, who have no currency but their own bodies, and does so without making the reader feel slimed. And finally, the last story, which initially seems to be going nowhere, about a man keeping a private epiphany a secret for decades; when in old age he heals an old rift with a neighbor, but also begins to harbor doubts and tells his wife, she is unsurprised, saying in effect, "Why not?"

Though a few stories were indeed "flyover country" to me, most were worth reading, and quite enjoyable. Even a couple that made me squirm (e.g. "Saleema") were stories I am glad I read.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

On the in-between state of matter

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, materials science, liquids

Mercury is the only element of ordinary experience that is a liquid. These days, though, now that electronic thermometers have replaced medical thermometers containing mercury, and fluorescent tubes have been mostly replaced by CFL's and LED's, it's hard for someone to obtain a large enough bit of mercury to play with. But mercury is not the only element that is liquid at "room temperature", if you count the temperature of a southern house in July without air conditioning:

  • Mercury, symbol Hg, melting point -40°C (-40°F). A silvery metal, all of whose compounds are toxic to varying degrees (methyl mercury is one of the worst).
  • Bromine, symbol Br, melting point -7°C (19°F). A brown liquid, hard to extract from its compounds, very toxic as an element. In a bromide salt it is used medically.
  • Gallium, symbol Ga, melting point 30°C (86°F). A silvery metal, solid at comfortable temperatures, but will melt when held in your hand. In compounds such as gallium arsenide it is the basis for LED's and certain very high speed semiconductors.
  • Cesium, symbol Cs, melting point 28°C (83°F). A slightly yellowish, shiny metal, it will also melt in your hand, but it would be dangerous to do so unless it is in a sealed glass vessel. Cesium will draw water from your skin and explode, much more violently than potassium or sodium do when dropped into water.
  • Francium, symbol Fr, melting point 27°C (81°F). A brown semi-metal, extremely radioactive (half life is 22 minutes), it can only be produced in quantities large enough to be seen and experimented with using a nuclear reactor.
  • NaK, an alloy of sodium (Na) and potassium (K), is liquid at or below 25°C (77°F) when the proportion of sodium is between 10% and 60%.

All other liquids with which we are familiar are compounds or mixtures of compounds. A baker's dozen (including Hg) are discussed in an enjoyable book, Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances that Flow Through Our Lives, by Mark Miodnownik. Dr. Miodnownik is a materials scientist, and while most materials science deals with solids such as metals and ceramics, liquids are definitely materials, and fascinating materials at that.

Other than mercury, the half-dozen liquids listed above are not discussed. They are outside ordinary experience. The author uses the framework of an airline flight from London to San Francisco to tell us of familiar liquids such as kerosene (jet fuel), water, alcohol, and a few near-solids such as tar (it flows about a million times more slowly than water) and the "rock" of Earth's mantle, which flows slowly (a few inches per year) in a convection pattern that pushes the continents around and creates earthquakes and volcanoes.

Discussing "alcohol", which for most of us is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, he tells how we use its moderate toxicity to fuddle our thinking to various degrees. He just touches on other chemicals that are also alcohols, such as methanol. I didn't know before that fermentation of grains produces both ethanol and a little methanol, and that the various post-processing steps used to prepare beer remove the methanol, making it safer to drink; also that distilling raw beer into whiskey has to be done properly to discard the methanol so we don't get "blind drunk" from methanol-laced moonshine. We are also a little familiar with rubbing alcohol, a mixture in water of a different, slightly larger molecule called isopropanol. A chemistry professor once talked of the toxicity curve of the alcohols, that methanol (with one carbon) being very toxic, ethanol (with two carbons) being less so, low enough for us to imbibe, propanol and isopropanol (3 carbons) being much more toxic, and that the toxicity continues to increase as the carbon chain gets longer, but then decreases. He speculated that a long enough "alcohol", maybe with 15 carbons, would be no more toxic than ethanol, and might provide the basis for a different kind of befuddling beverage. Since long-chain alcohols are rare in nature, it is unlikely that our bodies would have the right enzymes to dispose of them.

I could babble on, but it's better to leave it at that and encourage you to read the book. From ballpoint pen ink to saliva, and freon to ketchup, it is likely you'll learn something new in every chapter.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

SF - other planets heard from

kw: book reviews, science fiction, short stories, marginalized groups, anthologies

I need to preface a review of A People's Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and Joseph Adams, with a brief statistical excursion. I begin with a concept I first read about in "The Outsiders" by Grady Towers, who was writing about IQ and social acceptance. First, a look at the Normal Curve, a graphical representation of how much some quantity varies around an average called the Mean. It is also called the Gaussian Distribution:

The symbol µ ("mu") refers to the Mean, the arithmetical average, and σ ("sigma") refers to Standard Deviation, a calculated  measure of how spread out the distribution is.

The Normal Curve is an ideal frequency chart of any quantity that is composed of additive influences, such as adult height (either for males or females, but not both together).

Where σ is small, a distribution is tightly clustered. Thus, for example, in the U.S., including all the genetic diversity of various populations, µ and σ are 70" and 4", respectively, for men and 65" and 3.5", respectively, for women. Thus, out of 10,000 men, chosen by some randomizing method (many giant books in statistics discuss just what methods of randomization work best!), about 9,972 will be between 58" and 82" tall; out of a sample of 10,000 women, about 9,972 will be between 54.5" and 75.5" tall. For both men and women, a very tiny minority, roughly 14 at each end, will be taller than these maxima, or shorter than these minima. The smaller σ for women's heights indicates that the distribution is a little more tightly clustered.

Considering that 82" is "only" 6'-10", we see that men with heights of seven feet and greater are very rare. The NBA selects for these extreme ones!

When applied to IQ, the curve was standardized a century ago with µ and σ set at 100 and 15, respectively. Thus a "three-sigma" high IQ is 145, and only about 14 out of 10,000 persons have an IQ that high. Grady Towers investigated the results of social isolation on persons having IQ's ranging from 140 to 180. Only one person in a million has an IQ greater than 180. He added a sociological observation, which I'll paraphrase thus:
Two people whose IQ differs by more than 30 points (2σ) will have difficulty communicating, and will have different interests.
The central band in the chart above represents the 2/3 of everyone whom we might consider "normal folks". Someone with an IQ of 145 will just barely be able to hold a conversation with people at the smarter end of "normal", but with anyone further over toward the "low IQ" end, which is a total of about 84% of the human race, it is rather hard, and gets harder the greater the difference is. Similarly, someone with a very low IQ of 55 will also be just barely able to converse with more "normal" people.

Grady Towers generalized this to other areas. Along any spectrum of human experience or understanding, there are about seven "positions". Using a modified curve to illustrate:

Section C represents just over 2/3 of us, who could be considered "centrist", whether the issue is political opinion, employability, or attitudes toward the issues of the day. Sections B and D represent smaller cohorts with more one-sided views or experiences, but they are able to communicate or empathize with those in section C, and to some extent, each with the other. Sections A and E represent extremists, typically only a couple of percent each, and the Fringes, AA and EE, are the tiny number of those with extremely rare experiences or attitudes at either end of the spectrum. For example, if this is a spectrum of employability, I am not sure what EE might represent, but everyone from about the middle of section B through E and EE ought to be able to find work whenever the unemployment rate is less than 6%. That rate has to drop to about 2% before anyone in sections AA and A, the "chronically unemployable" will be able to find steady work.

Let's take a different example, a sadly practical one, abortion-on-demand. Where the spectrum is one of opinion, and the issue is contentious, sections AA and EE take on special meaning. Statements that represent views in each section might be (first for A through E):
A - "We must vigorously fight for a woman's right to an abortion for any reason."
B - "A woman has a right to get an abortion."
C - "I say, live and let live. I do/don't like it, but it ought not be legislated."
D - "There should be legal restrictions on abortions; they shouldn't be done for just any reason."
E - "We must vigorously fight for legislation banning abortion for any reason."
Concerning section E, I have recently read of a number of doctors who contend that abortion is "never medically necessary". That's a different wrinkle, and maybe those doctors are in the EE section. In A and E above, "fight" is seen as a combination of lobbying and protest for or against an issue. As we have witnessed in recent years, Fringes AA and EE are willing to kill to "support" their viewpoint. Interestingly, on this issue, I haven't heard of anyone willing to die for it.

A similar spectrum, not so clearly defined, was presented to me in a Civics class about 50 years ago, when the meanings of the following terms were not the same as they are today:

Radical - Liberal - Moderate - Conservative - Reactionary, with the fringes, again, being those willing to take action, including killing. Remember Congressman Steve Scalise, who was shot by James Hodgkinson a few years ago, simply because the Congressman supported "conservative" issues that the Mr. Hodgkinson was rabidly against.

Now, how does all this apply to People's Future of the U.S.? The scale above can also be applied to xenophobia and our attitudes toward various "marginalized groups." This is the era of the victim, and equally, the era of expressing outrage, in a way much sharper than the protests of "the 60's", which ran from 1967-1975. Occasional news pundits decry the "polarization" of America, but much of America is actually fragmented, and more closely resembles the Italian Parliament, with dozens of special-interest groups vying for the public ear and for votes: I count at least 55 political "parties" in Italy, with new ones popping up and others vanishing, almost weekly.

The writers of the stories in this anthology are primarily members of, or strongly sympathetic to, the "special interest groups" among the American public who produce or provoke the loudest voices against the status quo. Many of the stories express their fear of what the country might become in the next few years or so. One even bases its drama on a turn in legislation to revoke the 13th Amendment and resume slavery.

Those who have more-or-less recently received more official protection, particularly the variously gendered and some immigrant groups, are still fearful of losing the rights so recently gained. Thus, nearly all the stories are post-Apocalyptic dystopian tales, with varying amounts of optimism. A number of them posit a kind of right-wing takeover, reversing all the social changes of the past six or seven decades, from the sexual revolution to the legalization of various recreational drugs.

Two of the stories are extra-hopeful, "The Wall" by Liz Huerta and "Harmony" by Seanan McGuire. The first, with the background of the US-Mexican border being thoroughly walled-up, has people escaping repression to enter Mexico, and Mexican scientists working on countermeasures or an antidote to a new kind of chemically-induced brainwashing of US soldiers (by the Pentagon). They seek to, I would say, "de-monsterify" them. In the second, people who still find themselves subtly marginalized escape a "perfect" utopian paradise, manage to buy a defunct town, and start over with a whole lot less conformity. I detected shades of "And Then There Were None" by E.F. Russell.

Six stories aren't in a realm I'd call science fiction, but are wish-fulfillment fantasies. However, two of them—"Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death" by N.K. Jemisin and "What You Sow" by Kai Cheng Thom—involve dragons, from quite different points of view.

I have mentioned before that I read to learn what and how people think. I believe that far too few people who fall into the "C" section of most social, political, and societal spectra have even the slightest care about what the "non-C" sections experience or think. I admit that some of the stories made me uncomfortable, but I count that a good thing. Just so y'know: Politically I am in section D, close to the boundary with C. In most social realms I fit in about the same. If IQ has any meaning, I am in section EE, but I've worked hard to counteract the "Outsider Effect" of Grady Towers' monograph, so that I can relate to a broader range of people.

I exhort folks of all sorts: Read this collection. It may open a few eyes. Are the scenarios exaggerated? Sometimes, but so what? The pain from which they arose is real enough, real enough indeed.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

SF from the other end of the thru-planet tunnel

kw: book reviews, science fiction, short stories, chinese literature

When I was a kid, we "all knew" that if you dug a hole straight through the Earth, you would reach China. Only after we got a globe did we figure out that, antipodal from nearly all of North America, you'll find ocean, except a little bit that is opposite a section of Australia. To tunnel to somewhere in China, I would have to dig parallel to the plane of the equator, at an angle of about 50°, rather than 90° straight down.

Metaphorically, however, the U.S.A. and China really are poles apart. How does this affect science fiction written in China versus that written here? In a word, "dramatically". For one thing, SciFi was banned in the People's Republic of China (PRC) for about half of the Communist era there, roughly 1949 to the present. An essay in Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, outlines the repeated submergence and resurgence of the genre in China. As I read in "A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction and Fandom" by Regina Kanyu Wang, whenever the gate opens, the Chinese SciFi "horses" race off in every direction. This book, a follow-on and companion to Invisible Planets (issued about three years ago), opens a window upon that amazing scene for the English-language reader.

Whatever you might find in Western SciFi, you are likely to find in Chinese SciFi, from space opera to post-apocalyptic dystopias, from time travel to psycho-thrillers. One thing I missed was alien encounter stories, not that they are absent, but seem to be very rare. I suspect that the Chinese think that Westerners are alien enough, and frequently dwell on the consequences of that.

Just statistically, there are about 3½ times as many people in the PRC as in the USA, and nearly twice as many as in the USA and Europe combined. That means there are huge numbers of excellent writers, writing in Chinese, about which the English-language world knows nothing. It is beyond me to survey the field, so I'll just comment on a very few stories I particularly liked.

The title story, "Broken Stars" is by Tang Fei (an indivisible pseudonym), in a genre I can't quite place. A central artifact in the interplay between the narrator and a "pale woman" is an "astrolabe", a "star-taker". Historically, the astrolabe was a measuring instrument that was later developed into the sextant, and then the theodolite, for measuring star positions. This infinitely-unfoldable paper device shows the planets' positions instead, and is for astrology. When the narrator, losing patience with wildly erratic prediction, draws on it, events are changed; cause and effect are tangled up. Is it a parable of "taking charge of one's own life?" Other threads in the story don't back that up, and I was left with an ambiguous feeling.

"What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear", by Baoshu (also a pseudonym), could be said to take a page from "Benjamin Button", but for all of China. This quasi-history of US-China relations and events within the PRC starts with the massacre in Tiananmen Square and moves forward through Premier Deng's era to that of Mao, in the apparent present. It is nearly all in reverse order, limned by the lives of three characters who experience it all.

"The History of Future Illnesses", by Chen Quifan, begins with iPad Syndrome, and runs through variations that culminate in the destruction of language. To say more is to give too much away, but the story could be a taken as a cautionary tale.

I didn't read Invisible Planets, so I'll have to scare up a copy.

Spiders return to Russia

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Nearly a week ago there was a scattered flurry of hits to this blog, totaling about 200, and another 40 in a short time two days ago. As this overview shows, the excess above the "grass" is all Russia.


Saturday, September 07, 2019

Revoking permission to make us a victim

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self preservation, violence, terrorism, mass murder

Dr. Gary M. Jackson has worked in anti-terrorism more than 30 years. Over such a time, patterns become clear. He has distilled his expertise into a very useful reference book, Surviving Mass Victim Attacks: What to Do When the Unthinkable Happens.

If you read through the book, as I did, it develops in you a view of self-preservation as a solemn responsibility. Please do get the book, and read it through, even if some of the repetition gets tedious. Any good educator knows that repetition aids learning. After reading it keep it handy, and go back over sundry items as they come to mind, perhaps prompted by yet another outrage covered in breathless haste by the media.

The author wants us first to understand the commonalities behind mass attacks, from a "going postal" shooting incident to a bombing to a truck/knife attack. He boils down the motive to five categories:
  • International Terrorism (usually religion based)
  • Domestic Terrorism (religion based or anti-government)
  • Self-Radicalized Terrorism (also usually religion based)
  • Mental Health Issues
  • Hate and Bias
In the three Terrorism categories, the overwhelming majority of religion based incidents are motivated by Radical Islam (read my review of Muslim by Hank Hanegraaf to see why "radical Islam" is a redundancy). However, in all the categories above means and weapons used by the attackers fall into categories that help us better understand ways we can increase our chances of survival:

  • Firearms
  • Knives
  • Vehicles
  • Bombs

The news media focus primarily on mass shootings, but cars and trucks are being used more frequently, particularly based on urging by ISIS and al Qaeda, as are knives. Lately, crashing a truck into a crowd is followed by knifing that continues until the attacker is killed.

For the first three categories of attack, the first three rules of survival are:

  • Escape
  • ESCAPE
  • ESCAPE

OK, I know that in the book they are Escape, Hide, and Counter-attack. But the author takes pains to drill it into our brains, that a mass attacker intends to kill as many victims as possible, and seldom intends to leave the scene without either committing suicide or being killed by police or the crowd. Therefore, he stresses many times that we should have no thought except to escape, until it becomes clear that we cannot do so.

We have all likely heard of survivors who "played dead" and were passed over. But all too often, the attacker goes back and puts more bullets into all the prone bodies, to be sure his victims are truly dead. Also, for every report of someone who survived by hiding, there are many reports of a seemingly-good hiding place being found full of bodies later on. So, escape! Hiding and attacking the attacker are kind of Hail-Mary attempts when escape is impossible and you are practically nose-to-nose: dead if you stand still, so why not try something? If you must attack the attacker, do your best to use a weapon, either one you brought with you, or something improvised, like a broken bottle or table leg. The cardinal rule here: there is no such thing as a fair fight, and the mass attacker already has a big advantage.

Only in the case of a bombing is escape not the best. If you survive the blast, running could put you in the path of a second blast. Remember the Boston Marathon bombings; there were two bombs. Running would be a bad strategy. Tend to your wounds and keep hidden.

Later in the book we read how to formulate our own preparedness, so that we know how to get quickly out of a place if it is attacked. A quiet, small restaurant, for example, is unlikely to draw a mass attacker, who will instead look for a target with more potential victims. If we plan to be somewhere amongst a crowd, then, we need to check out all the alternative exits. Even in a mall, it's well to remember that all the bigger stores will have a back exit, but some of the smaller ones may not. That will inform our choice of escape routes if an attack happens while we are there.

There is a lot I could say, but I'll leave that to the book, which says it very well. It is well worth getting familiar with its contents.

A quick spider byte

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

So there were an extra 40 hits a couple of hours ago. The "Posts" view shows 20 of them. In the "by Countries" view, take away the 38 from Russia, and it looks like a pretty ordinary day.


Monday, September 02, 2019

Medicine is becoming chemistry

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, drugs, biotechnology

When I was taking a specialized Geochemistry course, "Crystal Chemistry", I realized that chemistry is mostly geometry. From a geochemical point of view, most of the crust of the earth is a gigantic oxygen crystal, with the oxygen atoms in or near a closest-packing arrangement, held together by covalent bonds with various metal ions.

In biology, the geometric view is even more relevant. For example, enzymes work either by making a lock-and-key attachment, or by making two or more such attachments and then shifting or bending the resulting complex so a different lock-and-key is facilitated. Most drugs that have been discovered, or engineered, are actually little geometric items that either promote or block a biochemical pathway in the body. A few are replacements for necessary molecules that are sometimes present in insufficient amounts, such as insulin, to treat Type I Diabetes.

Side effects of drugs result when the lock-and-key match is not perfect, and the matching part on the drug is also a partial match to a critical component of a different biochemical pathway. Side effects also occur when the waste-disposal systems of the body break down a drug molecule: some breakdown products have geometrical properties that interfere with other biochemical pathways.

In Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills have Shaped the History of Medicine, Thomas Hager discusses the discovery and development of ten families of medical molecules. The subtitle tells of three that could stand in for them all:

  • Plants – The first chapter tells us the history of Opium, derived from the sap of a particular species of poppy. It also discusses how researchers learned to refine opium to extract morphine, the primary molecule in the mix. Morphine was the first opiate to be discovered; opiates are derived from opium.
  • Powders – Heroin, prepared by chemically altering morphine, and opioids (not derived directly from opium or its components, but entirely synthetic) such as Fentanyl, bookend the discovery of painkilling medicines. Heroin came very early (1897), leading to many products, with varying amounts of pain-relieving properties, and all of them very addictive. Fentanyl came later (1959), and led to exceedingly powerful pain medications, which are also powerfully addictive.
  • Pills – "The Pill" refers to birth control medication, which changed sexual politics in America and much of the world, and upended social systems in its wake. It also may have triggered the "Feel bad? There's a pill for that" ethos we live in.

In the ninth chapter we find the convoluted story of Statins, the drugs that lower blood cholesterol, which are taken in an attempt to reduce fatalities from heart attack and stroke. For the worst cases of extra-high cholesterol, lowering it does indeed help. But it is still now known if taking statin drugs will actually save (that is, lengthen) the life of the vast majority of those who take them because their blood cholesterol is slightly higher than a threshold such as 200 mg/dl. That value is a nice, round number that is near the center of a broad distribution: Some people with low or even very low cholesterol get heart attacks, and most people with moderately high cholesterol live long, healthy lives. 200 is a kind of break-over point, "because you have to draw the line somewhere."

Let's look for a moment at breakdown products. Morphine, its derivatives, and related opioids, work by stimulating the endorphin system, which blocks pain. This system works naturally to reduce pain, but goes into hyperdrive when opiates and opioids are present. These chemicals also produce a high, the "endorphin rush". Opiates and opioids are broken down to release a small molecule called THIQ. Some of the THIQ avoids further breakdown to re-attach to the endorphin receptors, but then it never is removed. This is at least part of the mechanism of opiate tolerance. It takes a larger dose of the drug to get results. Eventually, the brain can become saturated, and no amount of drug will have a sufficient effect. At this point, some drug addicts die from overdose, and the rest stop using it because they aren't getting a high any more. If someone claims to have used heroin heavily for more than twenty years, they are probably lying. By 20 years, saturation has occurred.

The last chapter of the book discusses monoclonal antibodies, which are a recent innovation (1986). They are as close to a "magic bullet" as we have so far been able to produce. I learned that medicines with names ending in "-mab" are produced this way. These are large molecules, so none of them yet work on problems in the brain or central nervous system, because they are too big to pass the blood-brain barrier. Perhaps that will change, maybe by a means of removing most of the molecule and purifying the "bullet" part.

Where can medicine go from here? Most modern drugs are produced for chronic problems. The low-hanging fruit exemplified by antibiotics seem to be mostly exhausted. The Baby Boom generation now in their 60's and 70's have lots of chronic issues, and drug companies love finding drugs for those. For a strep throat, you take a ten-day course of antibiotics, and you're done. For high blood pressure, you're on a lifelong prescription plan. Pay, pay, pay all the way to the grave. So most of what "Big Pharma" produces is to feed the Boomers' need for more comfort in their dotage. Will this change; will some remaining big problems (malaria, Ebola) be effectively dealt with? The author is guardedly hopeful. But if vaccination for malaria winds up costing $100,000, how much help can that be, when billions of people need the vaccine?

Are there larger and larger numbers of pills and potions in our future? Or will better preventive medicine arrive? I guess we need to stay tuned.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Intelligence or intellect?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, intelligence, artificial intelligence, history

Short Definitions:
Intelligence – the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills
Intellect – the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively
The first tension that presents itself in Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains, by Catherine Malabou, is that between the use of "intelligence" where most philosophers would have preferred "intellect", in discussions of reasoning ability and its measurement, roughly a century ago. I suspect that the definitions she would use for these terms differ from those shown above. Personally, I care little which term is used.

It took me a good while to get used to the language of the book. It was translated from French by Carolyn Shread. I was not always sure if this or that infelicity of English usage was because of the original French idiom, or from word choices made by the translator, choices I might have made differently. I suspect the former; philosophers, particularly European philosophers, think in ways quite foreign to us hoi polloi. Such is the legacy of a century of Linguistic Analysis (both Ideal and Colloquial) and their sister, Logical Positivism: too much musing on "the meaning of meaning". Once I had my mind in gear, I found the book quite engaging.

The core of the book, explaining the title, surrounds three "metamorphoses" of "intelligence." I would perhaps have used either "manifestation" or even "aspect" rather than "metamorphosis". The three are, in brief:

  1. The view of Intelligence as a genetic endowment of learning and reasoning ability, that can be measured. It is what IQ tests purported to measure, and in the literature is called both IQ and g, g being the "general factor" as opposed to a seven (later eight) factor model promoted by Howard Gardner. "Mechanical brains" based on digital computers were the early attempts to simulate mental activity in mechanisms.
  2. The more nuanced understanding of epigenetic effects, both those which affect DNA expression and those which affect the "wiring" of neurons and synapses. Recent developments of "artificial neurons" such as the "neuro-synaptic processor" or TrueNorth chip (see Cassidy et al, 2016) make significant advances over traditional digital processing.
  3. Future developments are expected to result from "removal of the rigid frontiers between nature and artifice." In other words, the "power of automatism" is expected to yield a constructed system that is a brain in every meaningful sense of the term.

The TrueNorth chip, with upwards of 5 billion transistors, simulating the action of a million neurons connected by 250 million synapses, is intended to functionally simulate 250 cortical columns, of which the neocortex of a human brain has about four million. This is based on measurements made since 2009 that the neocortex contains 16 billion neurons, while the cerebellar cortex (which runs the automatic systems of the body) contains about 80 billion neurons. Clearly, the cerebellar neurons are much more locally connected; much of the greater mass and size of the neocortex results from the great number of longer-distance connections via larger-diameter axons.

Assuming that the constructed neurons in the TrueNorth chip can indeed replicate the full complexity of biological neurons, the construction of a full brain simulation would require 16,000 chips for its neocortex, quite a nest of wiring for the "white matter" that ties the neocortex together, and 80,000 chips for its cerebellum…connecting the cortex to what kind of body, I can't imagine just now. So let's look only at the 16,000 neocortical chips. According to the 2016 article, each chip consumes a mere 65 mw. Times 16,000, that comes to just over a kilowatt (1,040 watts). Not bad. That compares well with a computer system reported upon in a short article in Scientific American a few years ago, which was thought to have capabilities similar to a human brain, and required a 9,000,000 watt power plant.

I suppose we can at least estimate that something similar to Moore's Law applies to these systems, with a doubling of efficiency every two years. Your brain and mine each consume about 15 watts of chemical energy (transformed partly to electrical signals). The neocortex requires a third of this, about 5 watts. 1,040/5 = 208, which comes to 7.7 powers of two (doublings). Perhaps the contention of Ms Malabou is correct, and automatism will prevail. Will it do so in the span of 15.4 years, beginning in 2016? That would be some time in the middle of 2031. Maybe I'll find out, because I'll be 84 that year.

All this I push aside in favor of another thought, one not found in Morphing Intelligence: Of what use is a perfect simulation of the human brain? I am reminded of a story by Isaac Asimov, probably found in his collection The Rest of the Robots. Using science as it was known in about 1960, he describes the endeavors of researchers at U.S. Robotics to make a robot "more and more perfect", as directed by the company president. One day the researchers bring him a robot that he cannot distinguish from a "natural" man. Shortly after this, an alien spaceship lands, and in due time, a delegation visits U.S. Robotics. They are shown the new "perfect human" robot. The company president gushes about the huge amount of research and cost required to develop it. An alien responds, "So, what's the point?"

There is indeed a point. Once we understand brain activity and function sufficiently well that we can simulate it perfectly, we have the basis for producing a true AI that is equal to our NI (Natural Intelligence) in power, but different, in ways we can determine. We can produce variations on a theme, perhaps developing new ways of thinking, a mechanism (or a bunch of them) from which we can learn new ways of perceiving and learning and interacting with the universe. Now, that is interesting!

Monday, August 19, 2019

A wide-ranging writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sports writing, essays, memoirs

This was a wild card selection for me, found in the 080 section of the library, classified as "General Collections." That's what happens when a librarian is confronted with a book that is in two clearly distinct sections, but must apply one number. The latter 60% of The Patch by John McPhee is indeed about as general as can be, but the first 40% really needs to be cataloged 790, "Sports, Games & Entertainment", as it consists of essays scattered across that category. Considering McPhee's wide-ranging interests, with a few million words in print over his career of fifty-plus years, I suspect a similar amount of material could be gathered for any of several subjects.

Here is my high accolade: Although I pay nearly no attention to sports, I greatly enjoyed reading his perspectives on fishing, football, basketball, golf, baseball, tennis, lacrosse, and the people (particularly coaches) surrounding them. None of it made me want to take up this or that sporting activity, but then, there wasn't much on walking or hiking, at which I excel...and I excel at nothing else, sporting-wise!

He titled the second section of his book "An Album Quilt". It consists of excerpts from fifty or so pieces of his writing over all his years riding a typewriter. It opens with a mini-bio of Cary Grant, from his own perspective, paying particular attention to Grant's perfectionism. He limns Richard Burton, and takes up cudgels on his behalf, where so many deplored Burton for forsaking the stage for film. He wangled a visit to the gold repository beneath Manhattan, where just one of the larger rooms housed 50,000 bars of bullion, which took a year for three shifts of "stackers" to assemble; he was soon overwhelmed by the inanity of it all (gold having no stable value any more), and fled to the street. It soon dawns: in his 88+ years, this fellow has done a great many things that none of us have a hope of experiencing, and has written about all of them.

I wonder how many typewriters he's worn out?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Defeated by Density

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, neuroscience, homeostasis

Never before have I stopped reading a book because I just could not read it! Antonio Damasio, in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, clearly has something important to say, but I cannot discern more than the barest outline of what that might be. And I may have missed his point entirely.

I extracted this, I think, from reading the first half of the book: What drives life, evolution, growth, even motivation, and the development of culture, is the seeking for homeostasis. Definitions of homeostasis:
the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. (the definition proffered by Google)
the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus that would tend to disturb its normal condition or function. (Dictionary.com)
I gathered two of several definitions. I discern that the core meaning of homeostasis is "a seeking for at least local equilibrium in a dynamic system." Consider this: most feelings are detectors of non-equilibrium.

For example, hunger indicates that bodily fuel supplies are running low. The sensors in the body whose signals are gathered and combined into "hunger" detect the level of sugar in the blood, the distension (or lack of it) of the stomach, and several other items. If we eat "just enough", at an appropriate pace (most of us eat too fast), the sensation "hunger" subsides, and at best, we feel nothing. If we overeat, the distension sensors (no doubt aided by a few other kinds of sensor) send signals that make us feel "too full" or even "upset stomach".

In the early chapters of the book, the author explains the origin of life as the result of homeostasis-seeking by variously-enclosed "bags" of chemicals. The most successful of these eventually developed into prokaryotic cells (bacteria or archaea, we're not sure which came first).

Fast-forward to about a quarter of the way through the book: brains, and animal bodies to carry them around and act as their interface with everything "out there", developed as improved homeostatic controllers. The human brain may be the best so far, though that is debatable. Note that the portion of our brain of which we are most proud, the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, comprises 85% of the brain's mass, and contains about 20% of the total number of neurons in the brain. Whatever our consciousness is (Damasio has a chapter on that), it is in this portion, with strong support by the "limbic system", another percent or two at most. What of the rest? About 80% of the brain's neurons are found in the cerebellum ("little brain"), which weighs just 14% of the total. But the cerebellum and the rest of the hindbrain control and measure everything going on in our bodies.

Side note: though much is made of Artificial Intelligence, all such efforts and products to date seek to mimic or duplicate functions of the cerebrum. Until we know more about the cerebellum, so that AI can be properly embodied, all our AI products will be very fragile and prone to gross errors.

The chapter "Consciousness" occurs about 45% of the way through the book (p. 143). This is clearly not the author's goal, but a waystation as he approaches his subject, Culture. I didn't get much farther before I bogged down. In the first few chapters, I found reading it rough going, but I persevered. By the time I got to page 180, it became too tiring for me to extract meaning from the author's text.

I "Fogged" a few portions of the book, and compared to other texts. The "Fog Index" of Robert Gunning is one among many methods for determining the reading level of some text. It has the virtue of being calculable manually. The number so produced is roughly equal to the grade level in American schools of the 1940's. Thus a Fog Index (FI) of 12 indicates that one must graduate high school to have the skills to comfortably read the text. Sad to say, the average high school graduate of 2019 AD would struggle to read text with FI greater than 9. This underlies the low subscription rates of Scientific American, to which I have subscribed since the age of 14. Articles in this journal typically have FI of 12-13.

A "good" Fog Index requires about 100 words, or at least 80. I selected four paragraphs to "Fog", two (Fogged separately) on page 25, and one each on pages 145 and 224. The results? In order:
19.1, 16.4, 13.6, and 16.8
for an average of 16.

For comparison I chose two paragraphs chosen at random from the August 2019 issue of Scientific American, and two from the book Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. In order:
15.1 and 13.7, averaging 14.4
10.9 and 14.3, averaging 12.7
Whether these are all properly done (they all seem a bit high to me, by about +2), they are comparative. They show that the reading level of Strange Order is quite high, and is sometimes very high! However, this is not the whole story. I decline to give examples, but the writing is often clumsy, which distracts a reader from the point.

The fact that it has been 20 days since my last book review in only due 50% to these reading difficulties. From August 1-11 I was away and did not take the book. When I laid down the book on July 31, I was at page 175. Seven days of reading typically gets me about twice that far in any book. After my return two days ago, I managed five more pages before giving up.

I have this to say by way of conclusion: Dr. Damasio clearly has something significant to say, though I am not sure I fully agree with his thesis. He'd have done better to collaborate with someone who knows how to render text into greater readability. As to his thesis, I get an impression best summarized in the adage, "To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Homeostasis is significant, and can provide a unifying paradigm, but I think this author overdoes it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

And you thought your doctor was bad

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, podcasting, humor

When we need an operation, it helps to know a surgeon's success rate, not that you can easily find that out! Perhaps more importantly, for serious work, what is the surgeon's death rate (or survival rate)? Just to show how low the bar can be set, consider Dr. Robert Liston, who performed the first surgical operation under anesthesia in England in 1846. This was shortly after the miracle of ether was first demonstrated in the U.S. It was also just a year before he died. But prior to that, what was his death rate?

According to biographer Richard Gordon, quoted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy in The Sawbones Book, in one case, that rate was 300%! To quote (from p. 101 in Sawbones):
"…Liston amputated a leg in two-and-a-half minutes. The patient died in the hospital from gangrene, but that happened a lot in the days before antibiotics. …[during the operation] Liston also amputated four fingers of an assistant… [and] managed to nick a doctor observing the surgery…"
The observing doctor, fearing a mortal wound (some nick!), died of fright on the spot. The assistant caught gangrene from his wounds and also died. One surgical operation, three deaths. Has anybody else you know of had a bad day that bad? Not even your doctor, right?

The book's full title is The Sawbones Book: The Horrifying, Hilarious Road to Modern Medicine. It is based on material from the podcast Sawbones. Having listened to an episode, I find that the book's portions (hard to call them chapters) follow the style of the podcasts: Sydnee tells a story while Justin interjects humor, and draws some from her also. Five of the items are biographical vignettes in the "Misguided Medicine Hall of Fame"; witness a blurb from Pliny the Elder: treat bloodshot eyes with a woman's milk in combination with honey and a bit of daffodil or powdered frankincense. Yowza!

Even though most of the stories range from tragicomic to entirely tragic, there are a few bright spots. While surgeons such as Dr. Liston had to learn to operate very fast to minimize a patient's agony, they learned a lot of practical anatomy. And in fairness, most were more careful than Liston and had a death rate well below 100%. Rampant experimentation did turn up things that could help: honey was prescribed for just about everything you can imagine (and a few you'd do better not to imagine!), but is usually ineffective. However, it is effective as a drying agent and germ barrier for open wounds. Another supposed universal cure: Urine. It doesn't cure anything. But if you are healthy, it is a sterile fluid, and if you get a cut and have no other source of sterile water, you can safely pee on the wound to wash it out. It'll sting, of course; there's a little salt! (and if you're not healthy, you could make things worse…) Finally, the last item is about the development of polio vaccine, which was actually a competition between Dr's Salk and Sabin, and their different approaches. Both succeeded, and both vaccines are still in use and almost 100% effective. That's a good story.

Sawbones is good reading and great fun, if a bit gross at times (for instance, you learn how to quickly exhume that corpse Dr. Frankenstein needs for his experiments). So don't read it while having breakfast. Any other time ought to be fine.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A deep look at animal emotions

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animal behavior, human behavior, behavioral science

Dr. Franz de Waal has coined a powerful word: Anthropodenial. It aptly describes the quasi-religious conviction of behavioral "scientists" who dominated the study of animal and human behavior for at least a half century. We have them to thank for the still-common view of animals as strictly instinct-driven automatons, and even of young humans as nearly the same. So babies didn't smile, we were told, they were just reacting to "gas". Fish didn't feel pain when on the hook, they were struggling against the force of the fishing line pulling them in an unexpected direction. Every reaction that "the rest of us" might interpret as an emotional response, or even, "gasp!", as a feeling, was explained in some neutral way.

Even today, Dr. de Waal reports, it is rare to find a catalog of human emotions that includes love and attachment. Strict behaviorists claim that there is no "love face", as there is a face for anger, disgust, and so forth; in fact, they are generally lacking in their regard for positive emotions other than a generalized "happy face" and "play face". They might find it useful to learn from popular music, particularly the older stuff: A 200-year-old French "love" song (it's more about betrayal) that was written to a tune later used for "Twinkle Star" contains the lines, "Depuis que j'ai vu Silvandre / Me regarder d'un air tendre", which I translate, "Ever since I saw Silvandre / View me with a tender air" (I have a translation that rhymes, but loses some of the sense). What is this "tender air?" I'd claim it is the "love face", and we are so used to seeing it—I think of a bride glowing at her groom, for example—that we don't grasp its importance. A similar look is seen in a photo of my father holding our day-old son, and I see a loving look on my wife's face when she pulls our cat onto her lap. Perhaps dogmatic behaviorism has blinded its practitioners to our more positive affects.

The book is Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, a sequel or companion volume to Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, published in 2016. The prior paragraphs refer to items on pages 50 and 168 of the book.

"Mama" in the title was an elderly female chimpanzee. The opening chapter describes the last meeting between Mama and her human friend Jan van Hooff. To enter the cage of an adult chimp alone is tantamount to suicide. But Dr. van Hooff did so in this case, and Mama, in painful sleep, slowly awoke and was then thrilled to see him. She pulled him into a big hug, and patted him as if to say, "It's OK, I am really happy to see you!". Less than a month later she died. Can anyone doubt her love and joy? She was wearing a love face, even through her pain.

For the rest of the chapter the author introduces his learnings about animal emotions and feelings (emotions are visible to others, feelings are subjective and within), and he also stresses his viewpoint, that emotions are universal among animals, so far as he can determine. Can we deny that they have feelings to go along with them? Every animal that has been studied, from spiders almost to small to see to whales, responds to stimuli, whether painful or pleasurable, with similar actions, and similar biochemical shifts. All display either approach or avoidance behavior related to any anticipation of the same stimulus, depending on whether they liked it, or not. All have memories and all can plan.

The book's chapters take us through several aspects of our emotional lives, and the way that primates, mostly (the author's own field of study), have similar emotional lives. A proud primate, from human to ape to a tiny tamarin, stands taller with chest out and chin up. A sad one can hardly look you in the eye and tends to sit partly curled up. It may be that a mammalian brain, with its neocortex, is needed to laugh, although a differently-shaped structure in the brains of birds and lizards is probably their version of the neocortex. Maybe they can laugh also; when a parrot laughs maniacally, is it mimicking something or is it truly amused?

The last full chapter is titled "Sentience". Although it shifts to a discussion of the way we treat animals captive or not, and the ethics thereof, the author dwells much on the possible self-knowledge and consciousness of animals. A few mammals and birds respond to the "mirror test" in a way that shows they can recognize themselves, and thus that they know themselves as individuals. I think our house cat, though she could never "pass" the mirror test, knows who she is, and knows she is something other than an undersize, furry human. Will a scientific experiment one day be devised that can determine what she really thinks of herself, and of us? I guess we can only "stay tuned."

This book is the latest of several I have seen in the past few years, that fully backs up something I have long contended:
It is not anthropomorphic to say that animals are like us; the proper view is that we are like them, because we came from them.
A delightful book, and not only because the author agrees with me. He has had the opportunity and the skills to back up such a supposition with scientific data. I love it.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Biography of the Cat in the Hat

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, dr seuss, theodor geisel

When I was a very early reader, among numbers of "Little Golden Books" and other "early readers," two others stand out in my memory, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and McElligot's Pool, by Dr. Seuss. I read them again and again. Later, when we obtained more books by Dr. Seuss, I gave them the same treatment. I find ten books by Dr. Seuss on the shelf, though one is a newer reprint of McElligot's Pool so that my old, much-bedraggled copy doesn't get worn to nothing.

Fast-forward a lifetime: When our son was in high school, a decade after adding much wear and tear to my old books and his newer ones, his school put on Seussical, the Musical. He was lucky to be in a high school that doesn't just have a drama club, but also engages in one full-blown musical production yearly, for which they recruit younger siblings and a few parents to assist. For a special performance, they invited a local operatic Bass to sing the Grinch's, which he did with great delight (and ours also!).

The first thing I learned while reading Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, by Brian Jay Jones, is that "Seuss" is pronounced "soice", to rhyme with "voice"! Well, that may be the way Ted Geisel pronounced it as part of his name. As his pen name, however, millions (maybe over a billion!) of us know him as "Doctor Soose", and that's the way it will continue.

I had a tendency to feel a little sad, reading of the life of Ted Geisel. He literally agonized over every word and every picture of his books. He had a hard time when younger getting his work placed with publishers, of magazines or books alike, that would pay him more than a pittance, if they would pay him at all. He didn't achieve financial comfort until he was in his fifties. But I realized that he was doing what he loved, and that, agony and all, he'd have created his fantastical characters and animals whether they made him wealthy or not, or even paid the bills.

Indeed, for decades he paid the bills with advertising illustrations; he coined the phrase "Quick, Henry! The Flit!" (Flit was a bug spray brand he promoted with ads like the one shown here; image courtesy of the UCSD Mandevill Special Collections Library).

This is from 1927. These ads, with their humorous animals and fantastical creatures (the mosquito in particular) show where he honed his craft during the long years when his books didn't yet sell all that well. It took America a while to get used to him.

Get used to him we did! In the 1950's and early 1960's, a good year might see sales of one of his books approaching 10,000 copies. By the 1970's a new Dr. Seuss book might sell millions of copies in just a few years.

An aside I kinda regret: Biographer Jones dwells much too much in early chapters on the "failure" of Ted Geisel to meet the "sensitivity" standards of this generation. He bemoans an apparent bias against women; he repeats—a few too many times—a description of Japanese as caricatured by Geisel during World War II, as slit-eyed dwarves; and he has several other such quibbles. He could have made his point much more effectively with a glancing notice, and just gone on. This stuff detracts from the book. Furthermore, it is dramatically unfair to judge the actions of someone in the 1930's or 1950's by the standards of the 1990's or 2010's. How will our great-grandchildren of the 2060's look back at us, and our comparatively "primitive" behavior? And further-furthermore, today's "standards" are procrustean and overly censorious. I predict they will be the subject of future ridicule!

Considering that millions of words have already been written about Ted Geisel, and possibly about this biography, I think it best simply to say that, knowing his purported faults (heavy smoker, persistent social drinker), I loved the genius that was Dr. Seuss, and I still do. He had an imagination like no other. Younger writers of children's books who tried to emulate his style, and whom he frequently mentored, sometimes produced marvelous books of their own, but had to find their own voice to truly excel. His best-loved character, the Cat in the Hat, was his alter ego: impish, sly, subversive, and messy, but willing to clean things up once the fun was done. The Cat is his fitting companion in this statue at the Geisel Memorial Library on the campus of UCSD, La Jolla, in the town he made his home.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Three for the ash can

kw: rejected books, policy

It has been too long since my last post. In that time I have read major portions of three books, and in each case, stopped reading and decided not to review the book. In such cases I decline to give the author or title any exposure at all. I have a few reasons for not continuing to read a book, including writing too poor to hold my interest and subject matter that is explained too poorly to be of use (in my estimation); I'll reject a book most quickly when I determine that I don't want to take in what is being offered. It seems all three of these criteria "hit the fan," one after another. There are other reasons, but those three are chief.

So I have begun reading another book, a biography of Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). It's long, so at least another week must pass before I finish it and review it here. I can happily report that this book is one I am sure to finish, and with much enjoyment.