Sunday, June 18, 2017

Wu Li: Circular reasoning to the max

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physics, cosmology, buddhism, copenhagen interpretation, quantum mechanics

From time to time I have heard about The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, by Gary Zukav, since it was published in 1979. I had never read it until now. As a student of all the sciences, particularly the "hard" sciences (those amenable to experimental verification), since before 1960, I have at least a reading familiarity with physics, which is a hard science, and cosmology, which is not. Now having read the book, I find it contains no surprises, at least, none of a scientific nature. Of course, a lot has happened in physics and cosmology in the past nearly forty years.

The author, an admitted outsider to the field of physics, conceived of the book while on a retreat at Esalen along with a real mixed bag of folks including numerous scientists and science hangers-on (some would consider me more of a hanger-on, though I am a working scientist, even in "retirement" from a career in the sciences). Al Huang, who was teaching T'ai Chi at Esalen when Zukav was there, introduced him to the concepts of Wu Li. That is concepts, plural.

I have a great many Chinese friends. The Chinese languages, primarily Mandarin, the principal written Chinese language, abounds in homophones, words that sound the same, at least to a Westerner. Most basic Chinese words consist of one syllable, and very few require more than two syllables. Spoken Chinese sounds to us like a long string of only a few syllables repeated various ways, with a "sing-song" quality that means nothing. What Westerners miss is that the "sing-song" variations in tone are meaningful and are part of the proper pronunciation of Chinese words. Thus, the syllable "MA", depending on the tone, and its context in a sentence, has at least these meanings:

  • Mother.
  • When doubled, an affectionate term for Mother, just as in English, at least when pronounced with two flat tones.
  • Horse, using a different tone.
  • The verb "ride", when the context demands a verb rather than a noun, and using still another tone.
  • The pronounced question mark that ends (nearly) all Chinese questions, spoken with a rising tone.

The familiar greeting "Ni Hao Ma" is a lot like the New Jersey, "How are ya?" The Chinese sentence, "Ma-ma ma ma ma", with the proper string of tones, means, "Is mother riding the horse?" (Chinese has no articles, so "the" is implied).

Depending on tone and context, "WU", pronounced "woo", has about 80 meanings, and "LI", pronounced "lee", has a great many, primarily focused on pattern. Different written Chinese characters (ideographs) are used for the various meanings of wu and li. In combination, the word wu li is the primary Chinese term for "physics". But when other combinations of ideographs with the same pronunciation (except for tones) are used, there are other meanings. In the context of this book, Al Huang gathered five. The literal meaning of the ideographs used for wu li meaning "physics" is "patterns of organic energy". The other four are "my way", "nonsense", "I clutch my ideas", and "enlightenment".

The book is structured around these five concepts, with each section containing two or three chapters. As I might have expected from a book inspired at Esalen, each chapter is numbered 1.

The "new physics" on which the book is centered is quantum mechanics and its relationship to Einstein's theories of relativity (special and general). The core message is the ambiguity of quantum phenomena—when any single "particle" is studied—coupled with the exactitude of the predictions the mathematical theories of quantum mechanics make regarding the statistics of interactions when many particles are subjected to the same set of conditions. The "scripture" of quantum mechanics is the Copenhagen Interpretation, that of Niels Bohr and his followers (I almost wrote "disciples").

Thus, for example, when light is shined through a pinhole, which spreads the beam by diffraction, and this beam is passed through a pair of narrow slits, an interference pattern emerges. This works best when monochromatic light is used, such as from a laser, but "near-mono" filtered light works well enough for visual purposes. The intensity in each part of the interference pattern can be exactly calculated by the Schrödinger wave equation, although the calculations are formidable; various simplifications of the wave equation yield very precise results with less arithmetical grinding.

I mentioned diffraction. This matter is first mentioned on pages 64-65 of the book. In the upper half of an illustration, a series of waves in a harbor are shown exiting a rather broad opening, and those that get through are shown going straight onward, with a sharp edge to their pattern. In the lower half, the opening of the harbor is smaller, and the waves exiting are shown as semicircular wave fronts spreading beyond the opening. There are two major errors here. Firstly, the upper pattern should show a little spreading at the edges of the "beam" of waves exiting the harbor (you can verify this using a wave tank, as I was shown decades ago in a Freshman physics class). In other words, diffraction occurs when waves pass through any opening of any width, not just very narrow ones. Secondly, for the lower wave pattern, the wavelength of the exiting waves is drawn as much shorter than the waves in the harbor.

In actuality, diffraction produces a nonzero probability of the waves at every angle. They seem to "go straight" through a larger opening only because the off-axis waves lose energy with angle very rapidly in such a case. When a wave front passes through an opening of a size similar to the wavelength, or smaller, there are significant amounts that are found at nearly every angle, making a much more divergent beam. Zukav seems to have been ignorant of this.

Interestingly, if a double-slit setup using extra-sensitive photographic film is set up, you can get a surprising result. The best photo film can record the capture of each photon, as long as the light is blue enough, meaning the photons are energetic enough. One silver halide grain is exposed by the capture of a single photon. If the light is dimmed enough that only a few photons per second pass through the apparatus, and you let it run for less than a minute before extracting the film and developing it, the developed film will have one or two hundred tiny exposed grains that are seemingly scattered at random over the film. If instead, you leave the film in place for an entire day, there will of course be many more exposed grains, tens of thousands of them. They will show a very clear interference pattern, identical in form to the one you could see when the light was shining brightly and tens of trillions of photons per second were passing through the apparatus.

Interference is a wave phenomenon. Photons are particles; each carries a specific amount of energy and has a specific momentum (these are all the same for monochromatic light). It took me and all my fellow students a long time to become comfortable with the fact that light has both wave and particle characteristics. Eventually we thought of a photon as a "wavicle", a small wave bundle, that could somehow "sense" that both slits were open and "interfere with itself", when passing through a two-slit apparatus. It seems that light behaves as a wave when wave "behavior" is demanded of it (the two slits), and as a particle when particle "behavior" is required (exposing a silver grain in the film).

Where does Gary Zukav take this, and several other experimental results of quantum mechanics, special relativity, and general relativity? Straight to the door of a Buddhist sanctuary. The language he uses is usually as ambiguous as the language physicists typically use to describe concepts like the "collapse" of a wave function when an "observation" is made. He compares some conclusions and statements of physicists to similar statements of Buddhist doctrine, though I could seldom recognize the resemblance. The core of the Copenhagen Interpretation, at least as it is explained in this book, is that the Observer is central. But, to date, nobody has adequately defined "Observer". That doesn't stop Zukav from equating the one-is-all-all-is-one that he believes the new physics is trending toward to Buddhist teachings of the pre-Christian era. I have a question or two about observers, or Observers.

Must an Observer have a self-aware mind? Can the photographic film described above be an observer, or has no observation been made until the film has been developed and a human (or other self-aware entity) has looked at it to see the pattern? If I understand the Gary Zukav presentation of the Copenhagen Interpretation, there is no "collapse" of the wave function into an actual "event" without an observer. It is as though, outside your peripheral vision, nothing exists until you pay attention to it. Taken to an extreme, it means there was no Universe until humans evolved to be the Observers to bring it into existence. This is the reason for the title of this post. If this is actually what Niels Bohr believed, I have to say to him and his disciples, as Governer Festus long ago said to the Apostle Paul, "Much learning has driven you insane!" Paul was not insane, but I think Zukav might be. More on this anon…

At the time The Dancing Wu Li Masters was being written, some "newer" new physics concepts were arising, such as the Quark/Gluon resolution of the Particle Zoo, and the theory of the Multiverse. To take up the former: It appears that the quark is truly fundamental. All the hadrons seem to be made up of various combinations of quarks and anti-quarks. However, it takes such enormous energies to generate interactions that give evidence of the existence of quarks—and they apparently cannot be brought into independent existence—that we may need to await a particle accelerate wrapped around the equator of the Earth to achieve energies sufficient to determine whether quarks do or do not have any substructure. Apparently, electrons have no substructure, so maybe they and quarks are as fundamental as it gets. But our experiments have reached "only" into the range of 10 to 100 TeV. What might be achieved with an energy a thousand times as great, or a million? Fears have been expressed already that the current experiments at CERN could trigger destruction of the Universe. Maybe the Multiverse is real, and we inhabit a surviving Universe that didn't get destroyed.

The notion of the Multiverse is simple. Rather than the wave function for a particle "collapsing" into some actual event, an entirely random outcome within the statistical framework described by the wave function, perhaps every possible outcome actually occurs, and a new Universe is spawned to contain each of those outcomes. This is simple enough if the "outcome" is that a particular photon passes through either the left slit or the right slit of a two-slit apparatus. Two universes result. I one of them, the photon passes to the left, and in the other, it passes to the right. But there is detail in the interference pattern, and when I have done the experiment with a laser pointer and a home-made pair of slits cut in aluminum foil, I could see more than twenty interference fringes. Now what? Did each photon create twenty or more universes to accompany each outcome? When the light is bright enough to see, trillions of photons per second are "in use"; the beam of my laser pointer emits 200 trillion photons or deep red light per second. Did I inadvertently create a few quadrillion new universes, just by shining my laser pointer through a pair of slits? Were new universes being created at the same rate even when I wasn't looking?

So what are the chances that the search for the Higgs boson at CERN caused the creation of truly enormous numbers of universes, nearly all of which were immediately destroyed, and we inhabit one of those that survived. I think you can see where such thinking can lead.

And some folks say that I am crazy to believe in God, a God who knows a level of physics (if it is called that) that can resolve this stuff, without the insanity of Multiverse speculations. I think it is fair to say that "modern physics" has reached a point of adding more and more epicycles to a group of theories that seem to produce very precise results, but that they are really analogous to pre-Copernican cosmology. Actually, Copernicus used epicycles also, because he thought orbits were based on circles. It took Kepler and others to work that part out.

Another item or two that have arisen in physics since 1979:

  • On page 119 we read, "No one, not one person has ever seen an atom." If you are talking about direct visual sight without the use of a microscope, you could say the same thing about bacteria or viruses. But we have microscopes of several kinds that can show us what they look like in rather amazing detail. Since about 1981, highly refined transmission electron microscopes have been able to show atoms directly, and since the invention in 1982 of the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope, we now have three methods for seeing where the atoms lie in a surface. Whatever point the author wished to make based on the above statement is now moot.
  • Beginning on page 292 we find an illustration using polarized light. Simply put, when light is passed through a polarizer (such as the special plastic in some sunglasses), the light that emerges is now all vibrating in the same plane (for convenience, we use the electric vector as the "direction" of polarization, though the magnetic vector could be used equally well, and is at 90° to the electric vector. Zukav does not mention this). When you place a second polarizer with its polarizing axis at 90° to the first, it blocks all the light. If you rotate it to various angles, some of the light gets through, in accordance with an elliptical formula. Now, if you set the two polarizers so their polarization axes are at precisely 90° so that no light is getting through, then put a third polarizer between them, with its axis oriented at 45° to the other two, quite a lot of light gets through! This goes on for several pages and is presented as quite a mystery. Strangely, elsewhere in the book we find the tools to solve this mystery (I didn't look up page numbers):
    • In a discussion of Feynman Diagrams and the S-Matrix (Scattering Matrix) we read that physicists consider every interaction to entail the destruction of all the impinging particles and the creation of new ones that exit the interaction locus at the appropriate angles with appropriate velocities. Thus, when a photon reflects off a mirror or any shiny surface, it is actually absorbed and a new photon is released at the appropriate angle. So they say. Refraction works similarly. Thus, the polarizer absorbs the incoming photons and releases a somewhat smaller number of photons, all with the appropriate polarization.
    • As I recall, a polarizer made of stretched plastic film passes 38% of the original light. A Nicol prism can actually split light into two beams with nearly no loss, so that 50% exits with horizontal polarization at one angle, and 50% with vertical polarization at a different angle. This would make no sense according to the "picket fence" analogy, because very, very little of the original light could get through any polarizer: only that which is already polarized the "right" way. Thus, a Nicol prism, in particular, "tests" each photon, and either twists its polarization to match the nearest direction (and shifting its exit angle according to the one or the other), or annihilates the photon and emits one of appropriate polarization and exit angle.
    • Polarizing plastic is less efficient, passing only light of one polarization, but obviously changing whatever the polarization was of most photons to match its orientation. Thus, what is happening with the 45° polarizer is this: it absorbs some photons entirely, and twists the polarization of the rest of them by 45°. Then when they reach the last polarizer, they are now subject to a further absorption or twisting, so that the "twisted ones" get through, with perhaps 5% of the original beam intensity. That is a lot more than the fraction of a percent that "sneaks through" the original set of crossed polarizers because plastic film polarizers are not perfect.
    • So polarizing devices do not just passively allow certain photons to pass and block all others, but they change the polarization of the photons that they allow to pass.
  • I cannot pass by the chance to mention circular polarization. A thin piece of calcite or quartz (or, indeed, any colorless crystalline material that does not have cubic molecular symmetry) rotates the polarization of the incoming light. What is more, if it is just the right thickness, it will produce circularly polarized light. This is sometimes thought of as two streams of photons that are related to one another. Think of a vertically polarized photon coupled with a horizontally polarized photon, and their "waves" are out of phase by a quarter of a wavelength. Then, in effect, their polarization will rotate as the go.

As interpreted by Gary Zukav, physics was becoming one with Buddhism. I wonder what he would make of today's situation, with the great popularity among physicists of cosmological string theories (at the moment, they can't decide which of the potential 10500 possible string theories to favor!), the supposed detection of increasing cosmological expansion that may lead to a "big rip" in which all things will be literally shredded to their composite quarks, and the theory of cosmological inflation (developed in the early 1980's) that supposes that the initial expansion of the big bang took off at several trillion trillion trillion times the speed of light for just a tiny fraction of a second, during which the Universe grew to a size somewhere between that of a grapefruit and a galaxy (nobody can pin that down too precisely).

In my view, coupling physics theorizing with Buddhism is tantamount to solipsism. Let us accept as a first premise that what exists, does indeed exist, and go from there. Then the extreme versions of "New Physics" simply vanish, like an unobserved photon.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The public versus science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, sociology, anti-science sentiment

Someone once described scientific law as "What always happens." They were referring to things like "the law of gravity", which is a colloquial way of saying that what goes up must come down.

There is a commonplace view that flying things such as birds "defeat" the law of gravity because they have a flying life, a "different law". Only when they die do they succumb to gravity. In reality, birds take advantage of gravity to fly. The way they fly requires the gravitational force to keep "the wind under their wings". A bird in a zero gee can't orient itself (see this video for an example). Given time, a bird might learn to compensate to some extent, but fast, directed flight requires gravity as one of the forces the bird is adapted to naturally balance.

This is one example of someone getting something partly right because of partial scientific knowledge. While we all take great advantage of technology—all the gadgets and appliances around us—most of us know little about what those things do. Decades ago Arthur Clark wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." For most folks, their phone or auto engine may as well work by magic.

A million years ago, advanced technology was the hand axe. Anyone could make one, though few could make them well. 150 years ago, advanced technology was an automobile. Few could make one, but many could repair them. I grew up learning to do my own oil changes and even did major engine work. My Dad and I rebuilt a VW engine once. I wonder how many backyard mechanics could rebuild the engine of a 2017 Honda Civic or Chevy Impala! The fuel injection system of a 2017 Impala has more moving parts than the entire assembly under the hood of that 1964 VW I had.

There are two fundamental barriers that impede the majority of people from learning science. First, science has proceeded in a stepwise manner, primarily for the past 500 years (with a few 2,500-year-old roots), and to truly comprehend (let alone understand), say, chemistry, geology, physics, botany, zoology, or microbiology (and let's not mention medicine!!) requires years of study to build the core structures in a person's mind that were discovered by hundreds of scholars and experimenters over the past half millennium.

The simplest example is mathematics. We are all able to use basic arithmetic. We learn that 2+2=4 by counting on our fingers, by lining up stones, and many other ways. Probably our first mental step is realizing that negative numbers and zero are useful. Then we learn about fractions, maybe decimals…but it is questionable whether most people ever grasp irrational numbers, even though the vast majority of actual quantities are irrational. And we haven't even got to algebra yet, which forms the foundation for all the disciplines of calculation needed for all engineering and science. Without a solid grasp of algebra, we cannot put useful amounts of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus into our mental toolbox. I thought I was pretty good at mathematics when I gained a solid (so I thought) facility with calculus. Then in graduate school I learned that calculus just opens the door to more dramatic realms of mathematics, which I would need to master to succeed as a geophysicist. I barely made it. I was still not anywhere more than halfway up the mathematical ladder, and did not proceed farther. Most of us never need to proceed anywhere near that far, but if we can't even handle basic algebra (most of us can't), most physical science remains a mystery to us.

The second barrier is that science requires thinking. Sustained thinking. Not the kind of quick figuration we all use to perform most paying jobs. We all start out as sprinters in that realm. It is like we are all born to be pretty good at the 50- or 100-meter dash. But to grasp science requires marathon-level mental performance. Fortunately, understanding the basic concepts of most fields of science is more like running a quarter or half mile; a bit of a stretch for a sprinter, but achievable. Of course, it is hard work. It makes you tired. Most folks aren't willing to put in the work. And so, lacking a tremendous level of effort by both teachers and parents, the vast majority of people grow up with only the haziest notion of the way things really work.

Take eyesight. What happens to make your eyes see? I understand from material presented in Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World are So Often Wrong, by Andrew Shtulman, that most of us think that our eyes work by sending some kind of ray outward, and receiving it back. Kind of like the comic book illustrations of Superman's X-ray vision, where the X-rays went out from his eyes so he could see through things. But if such a belief were true, you would be able to see in the dark. It would not matter whether or not the sun was up or a light was turned on. Just by turning out the light and thinking hard, we can usually figure out that "light", whatever that is, scatters off of things and gets to our eyes, which receive it and are then able to "see".

Andrew Shtulman is concerned that the level of science ignorance, particularly in America, is so great that very few of us can make proper decisions about most technical issues. For example: Do vaccinations cause autism? Certain influential people loudly proclaim that they do, to the extent that many people, not wishing to leave anything to chance, ignore the protestations of every single scientist who has actually studied that matter. If you never get it anywhere else, get this true knowledge right here: Autism is not caused by any of the chemicals or deactivated organisms in vaccines. The proportion of autistic children among those vaccinated is exactly the same as the proportion among those not vaccinated. Period.

Dr. Shtulman presents twelve kinds of knowledge in which we form "natural concepts" or what he calls "intuitive theories". They are all based on everyday experience. For example, when you throw a ball, what path does it follow? Does it rise gradually to a maximum height and then descend just as gradually? Or does it rise up, hang a while, and then fall straight down? Because of perspective, as the thrower, we see it appear to rise, hang, and drop. But have you ever carefully watched a ball thrown by someone else who is some distance away? For example, at a ball game, if you are in the seats either behind home plate or out beyond second base, watch a "clothesline peg" from the third baseman to the first baseman. It is called a "clothesline peg" because a ball thrown hard seems intuitively to go "straight" from hand to glove over a distance of about 125 feet. But if you watch carefully, you'll see that the ball rises at least 16 feet, in a smooth curve like a stretched circular arc (a parabola), and is highest when it passes over the pitcher's mound. It is actually thrown upward at an angle greater than 25°, and is descending at that same angle when it reaches the first baseman's glove.

One of the hardest concepts for most people to grasp is "deep time." I was lucky to have preparation from a young age, when my parents told me that the Earth and the Universe are very old. We were Bible-believing Christians, but one of the first things I was taught, probably from about age seven, is that there is a "gap" between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, between "God created" and "The earth became". Thus, when science teachers in middle school began talking about millions of years having passed, I was not ready to receive it.

We naturally think of most things happening on time scales that are familiar to us. When I first knew my grandfathers, born in 1885 and 1887, they were nearly 70 years old, and in the early 1950's, that was old! Growing up on Bible stories, I was familiar with stories of Jesus and his apostles, who lived nearly 2,000 years before, and Abraham, about 2,000 years before that. I remember as a sophomore in High School learning that when Caesar and Cleopatra went sightseeing along the Nile, the Pyramids were already about 2,500 years old and were considered "ancient history". Particularly in America, few of us know of any building older than 300 years, though some kids in Illinois grow up in sight of the Cahokia Mounds, which are between 600 and 1,200 years old. Even residents of Damascus and Jerusalem seldom see a building older than 3,000 years. So to our natural way of thinking 10,000 years is "really long".

Now imagine one hundred times ten thousand: 100x10,000. That is one million. A human generation is about 25 years. A million years is about 40,000 generations! I love science, but that took me some time to grasp. I had to think about it, and think about it, and think some more. Then there was the concept of a billion years, a length of time 1,000 times as great! Now I am comfortable with such quantities, but it took work. Most people I know are not comfortable with deep time. In particular, the majority of religious Americans firmly believe that the Earth is no more than 6,000 to at most 10,000 years old, and that the first humans were created within a few days from the creation of the universe.

By the end of the book it became clear that the author's heart was in the ignorance of and opposition to the theory of evolution, particularly the idea of human evolution or human origins as anything other than direct, instantaneous creation by God. Very few writers properly distinguish the fact of biological evolution—that it did happen, that life has changed through time—from the theory of natural selection, which is the mechanism of biological evolution. When we say "theory of evolution" we mean the theory of natural selection. It is likely that most scientists, along with nearly all the public, conflate the fact and the mechanism. Fortunately, Dr. Shtulman distinguishes them, though not as clearly as I might have hoped.

To "get" evolution, one must know a great many things, including that many species are now extinct, that all life on Earth is based on DNA, and that there has been life on Earth for many millions of years, even several (3.8-4) billions of years. Without that foundation, all talk of evolution is a castle built on air, and is fruitless. Then, to "get" natural selection, one must know several things further, in addition to the facts of evolution, primarily that the offspring of one pair of creatures differ a little from one another in small, random ways; that not all those offspring will have offspring of their own; and that small differences in the DNA of that set of offspring lead to differences in how well they can grow, thrive and reproduce. Further these small differences naturally occur and over many generations and great spans of time, small differences in the health and reproductive ability among creatures of the same species add up to significant differences in the range of characteristics to be found throughout the individuals of that species.

Very, very few people willingly do the work to learn all those things. In a very real sense, then, most people have no right to an opinion about evolution! They don't have the mental tools to form a valid judgment. Sad to say, many of American society's decision makers are so ill-informed about every single branch of science that they have no proper basis to form valid judgments. But they write legislation that the American public must follow, upon pain of legal sanctions such as fines or imprisonments!

Well, I've chased that rabbit far enough. The subject of Scienceblind is fascinating. Unfortunately, all too frequently the writing is rather dull and I had to slog through it. I didn't skip any, but believe me, I was tempted to!

There was a time in both Europe and America during which a very popular form of entertainment was to attend science lectures and demonstrations by noted scientists. Scholars such as Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy made much of their income from such lectures. It would do most folks a great deal of good to attend such lectures today. Those who are willing to watch programs such as Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and programs such as Nature and Nova get a little bit of what they need to "get" the underpinnings of modern science. But those whose eyes glaze over at such material have little hope of making valid decisions about topics, such as vaccination, that can lead to great consequences for them, their children, and for those around them.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The yellow-tipped little agate snail

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

Earlier this year I completed two major projects to prepare about 17,000 data records at the Delaware Museum of Natural History for all the freshwater species of bivalves (clams and mussels) and gastropods, and load them to a new database system from which they can be served up via the internet. The principal portal is iDigBio. A secondary portal, from which it is easier to dig into the records on a museum-by-museum basis, is InvertEBase. Each project took about a year.

That done, I have begun working through the museum's data for terrestrial gastropods (land and tree snails), which total about 38,000 records. We decided to take these a cabinet or two at a time, for the most part. I am basically tackling between 1,500 and 2,000 records per mini-project. A first project took about a month, so I expect the sum of about 20 projects to take a couple more years, maybe three or more.

I am in the midst of inventory for three related families, and the first is Achatinellidae. These snails were so-named because they resemble the large tree snails of the family Achatinidae. The prefix "achat-" means "agate" in Greek, and refers to the striped appearance of the most familiar species, the giant African tree snail, Achatina achatina (Linné, 1758), also called the tiger snail.

The one shown in this image may have a shell as long as 8" (20cm). The suffix "-ell" means "small"; the snails of family Achatinellidae are much smaller than the Achatinidae, but many have a similar striped look.

The type genus (the one the family's description is based upon) is Achatinella, and the type species is Achatinella apexfulva (Dixon, 1789). As I was taking inventory of the specimen lots of this species, I noticed that some had been collected by a major donor to the museum, Munroe L. Walton, when he was quite young, not more than eleven years old. In the three photos below, you can see they were collected in Hawaii in 1901; Walton was born in 1890. First, the photos, which mostly speak for themselves. Commentary continues following.




Around the year 1900 it was common to distinguish the many color variations of variable species by assigning subspecies names. The original labels for the first two lots reflect this. The third lot was originally attributed to a different species because many of the shells in certain parts of Oahu are left-handed, such as the one on the right in the third picture. These are now recognized as part of the species apexfulva. The suffix "-fulva" means "yellow", and shells of this species have a yellow tip. Specimens of this species grow to 1.5-1.9 cm (0.6-0.75 inch).

The second lot shown has an added label, written by Edward W. Thwing, who may have been the actual collector of that lot or part of it. He was 22 years older than Walton. The designations "New." and "Newc." on some of the labels refer to Wesley Newcomb, a physician who became a curator of mollusks at Cornell in the 1870's and until 1888. He described the first specimens of many species in the family Achatinellidae.

Although Achatinella apexfulva does not have a common name, I call it the "yellow-tipped little agate snail" as a direct translation of its scientific name. The Achatinellidae in general are colorful and attractive. Sadly, most, including A. apexfulva, are now extinct.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Multiple utopias

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

Has Western society already become a plutocracy? A passel of disappointed Democrats, decrying the country's first billionaire President, and further decrying the number of billionaires and near-billionaires he has installed in his cabinet and other executive posts, seem to think so. Of course, they conveniently ignore that their own plutocrat, who has managed to avoid "personally" amassing too many millions, has instead created a pay-for-play foundation with, to date, close to a half a billion dollars that "everyone knows" is to be used for political purposes, a "charitable" foundation that spends three or four times as much on said plutocrat's travel and hotel expenses as on the foundation's purposes as stated in its charter. At least the plutocrat who made it into office is honest about his great wealth and doesn't play poor-face.

In a true plutocracy, only the plutocrats own anything. How close is America to that?
  • The "one percent" of Americans own 38% of all wealth in the U.S.
  • The richest 10% own just over 75% (or, you could say, "the next 9%" own "the next 37%).
  • The poorest 50% own 1%.
  • The "middle class", the remaining 40%, own just under 24% of all wealth.

Thought that is not quite full-on plutocracy, it is pretty dramatic inequality. This "wealth inequality" is greater than "income inequality", because below the median income (around $50,000 per household in recent times), it is hard to accumulate wealth, while for "upper middle class and above" (about $200,000), most income can be socked away and add to accumulated wealth, and for a genuine plutocrat, tremendous luxury can be enjoyed while spending only a few percent of income as great wealth continues to multiply.

Let's look at that $200k threshold. For someone working a 40-hour week, it would be nearly $100 per hour. Someone with a modicum of prudence can live quite well on less than half of that, and save the rest, which after taxes exceeds $60,000 yearly. About every 16.7 years, even if investment income is nil, another million dollars accumulates. If investment income is instead in the 4% range, then during the second 16.7-year period, another million will accumulate from the compounding alone. Now, there are numerous "professionals" out there who demand fees of several hundred dollars an hour, and probably earn half a million to a million yearly. Then there are CEO's of top corporations who are routinely paid a million per month. I consider that excessive.

My own take on earnings that exceed one or two dollars (2017 dollars) per minute: The only guy to whom I will pay as much as $400 per hour (an average lawyer's fee in this area), without feeling resentful, is the dude who can go in with a screwdriver and side cutters and defuse a bomb. (Before you cry "sexism", I'd pay it to a similarly skilled gal with screwdriver and side cutters. Doesn't matter to me.)

I conclude that we are well on the way to plutocracy replacing democracy in America. Don't think the current President will make that go any faster, he won't. But had the Democrat won, she'd have pushed it in that direction much, much faster! America would have become "Godfather country" in pretty short order.

OK, so what will things be like in a full-blown plutocracy? Cory Doctorow thinks he knows, and it forms a society universally called "default" in Walkaway, a Sci-Fi novel of the sorta-near future. The hyper-rich who run everything are called "zottas" (I guess that is a combination of "zetta" and "yotta", the two largest prefixes in the metric number system. "Yotta" means a trillion-trillion, or 1024, and "zetta" is 1/1,000 the size , or 1021.) Either way, I suppose a zotta is rich enough to treat the odd billion dollars as pocket change.

In the face of zotta-controlled wage-slavery for those few who are ambitious enough to work, and a grinding welfare state for the rest, increasing numbers of people have been walking away, going to unoccupied areas and learning to live without "default society". They are not as badly off as things may seem. Technology has kept pace with the times, and nearly all human needs can be "fabbed" (an advanced form of 3D printing) from suitable feedstock. That goes not only for vehicles and houses and furniture but even more so for many foods and medicines, and also recreational drugs. Walkaway society is a society of abundance. No more zero-sum. If you take my sandwich, and I can throw leaves in a hopper and fab another in five minutes, why should I care? If I do feel a bit put out, I can make ten sandwiches and throw them at you…or ten darts, if I want to do something more than just shame you.

The political discourses that the author uses to point up the differences among default and walkaway philosophy make this a rather dialog-heavy book, sort of like the Foundation books by Asimov. Abundance philosophy has the potential to create genuine utopia, but human nature is not used to it, and there'll be tremendous growing pains. Part of the dramatic thrust of Walkaway is about such growing pains. Another big part is what we might call "World War W", as "default" tries to regain control of "walkaway".

This is intensified because the walkaways possess sufficient technology to be winning the race to produce effective scanning and simulation of a person, so that they can be reincarnated in software after dying. A lot gets glossed over about this, and that's OK, because there are significant questions to address, such as, "How will a person who wakes up in silico react to the knowledge of being dead?", and "Can the scan of a person become enslaved?". Two questions that I wondered about, that are barely touched upon: "How will the simulated person communicate; is there a need to emulate the signaling systems of the Occipital and Temporal lobes of the brain, and translate machine video and audio signals to and from appropriate optic and auditory nerve signals?", and "What will replace the endocrine signaling of the body with which the brain/mind was accustomed to relate?".

Such a book raises many questions and answers few. This one had the obligatory happy ending, but it didn't have to. The downfall of a plutocratic culture takes longer than a generation. They tend to leave little but scorched earth behind. The end of Walkaway has a continued coexistence, at arms' length, of the two cultures, with default becoming the secondary, left-behind one. I found that puzzling.

Those who know me may well wonder why I subjected myself to a book containing explicitly erotic scenes. There are but a handful, and I know how to skim past what I don't want to read. Whether you roll your eyes at this and say, "Yeah, sure," or not, you're entitled to believe what you wish.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

When governments peer down the wishing well

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, esp, research, government programs

Beginning in the 1940's (so far as we know) several U.S. military and government agencies studied phenomena typically called ESP or psychic, and actually made use of "Remote Viewing" and "Map Dowsing", for example. Although most official connection with such "enhanced skills" ended in the 1990's, not all such efforts have ended, and an unknown amount of work has likely "gone dark".

The title of the book introduces the whole subject: Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen. A few startling successes have been recorded, and were brought out by FOIA requests by the author:

  • In 1972 Ingo Swann affected the operation of a "quark detector", really an ultra-sensitive superconductive quantum interference device (SQUID). As scientists and graduate students watched, a chart recorder that was just drawing a slowly shifting line suddenly drew a wiggly line. Swann asked if that was "a result." Asked to do it again, he looked thoughtful a moment, and it did it again. The lead scientist concluded that he had influenced the detector, which was located a level below them in a shielded chamber. I consider it equally likely that he influenced the chart recorder itself; this possibility is not mentioned.
  • Beginning in 1973 several kinds of tests were performed with Uri Geller, the "spoon bender", who still entertains folks by bending spoons, tongs, or whatever, including items too strong to be bent sneakily, and by reading minds or putting thoughts into others' minds. He is credited with correctly reading the uppermost face of a die in a closed metal box, at least 8 times in a row. While living in Israel before this, he had been employed by Moshe Dayan as a map dowser, pointing out to Dayan the locations of archaeological sites and artifacts that had not yet been discovered.
  • Also in 1973 Ingo Swann and an even more talented remote viewer, Pat Price, were asked to describe that they "saw" at a set of geographical coordinates, provided by another researcher. They were the coordinates of his mountain cabin. But the two of them, also describing the weather (easy today, using Accuweather.com, not so much 40+ years ago), described a large installation, partly underground, with communications and listening equipment and many technicians. Puzzled, the project leader drove to the site, and then around the side of the mountain he came upon a military installation the cabin's owner had not known was there. Swann and Price said, of course they had seen the cabin, but thought the nearby listening post was the real target.
  • Skip a few: In 1981 Gary Langford, who was an active remote viewer, said, "A United States Pentagon official will be kidnapped by terrorists on the evening of 17 December 1981." On that date at 5:30 PM General James L. Dozier was kidnapped, and later killed. Remote viewers called in to locate him and check his welfare were certain he was alive for some time after his death, because, as it turned out, the killers kept his body on ice for months.

There are numerous other events that researchers called "8 martini results", because they'd need to go drink themselves blotto after witnessing such startling successes. These were military and CIA folks, not used to having their exceedingly rational world view challenged. But this last item above emphasizes a weakness of information provided by precognition and remote viewing. You can't do anything about it until it is too late. Had Gary Langford told the location of the kidnapping, perhaps something could have been done to prevent it. But he would likely then have also said it would be an attempted kidnapping that may or may not succeed.

A great many viewings by Angela Dellafiora, "the woman with the third eye", just drove the researchers wild. She was uncannily accurate. For many years the government officials had tried to separate these "extraordinary skills" from occultism. Ms Dellafiora made no bones about coming from a long line of women with "second sight", and she just wouldn't keep with protocol.

What are we to make of all this? The military, in particular, did their best to make remote viewing a trainable skill. All the evidence so far gathered points instead to what one skilled viewer said, "You have to be born. Not many folks will ever be able to do this."

Before going onto another tack altogether, I need to pick a nit or two with the author: On page 104 of the Little, Brown Large Print edition I read, she writes about the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that was constantly bombarded with microwaves in the 1950's and 1960's. She writes that the signal had "a power density between 2.5 and 4.0 Ghz". That describes a frequency, not power. This is nit 1. Also, it is never mentioned that years later this was found to be a bugging scheme, not an attempt to damage American consuls with microwaves: a decoration in a conference room was resonant at the frequency used, and had a thin metallic membrane on its outer surface. It would modulate and re-radiate the microwaves to a receiver outside the building. The Soviets were listening in on whatever went on in that room. Nit 2.

So, are there truly "paranormal" powers that are owned by a few "adepts"? More than half of us think so. This is a good opportunity to present a Christian perspective, or actually two of them. These are unlikely to be what you are thinking right now.

Firstly, some supposedly occult powers may actually be rare powers of the human soul. The premise of a book by Watchman Nee, The Latent Power of the Soul, is that great powers were to be found in Adam before the fall (whether "Adam" refers to one man or is a collective name for a number of humans who may have dwelt in Eden, makes no difference to the argument). Nee thought that Adam's managerial abilities alone might exceed our best executives by a million-fold or more. He also thought that some powers claimed by Yogis and other occult adepts might be soul power, and he considered that part of the curse of the fall was that most such soulish powers became imprisoned in the flesh; that this might be the reason Yogis and others must be such strict ascetics, so that they can subdue the body and release their soul power. Nee writes that this was God's doing, and without such restrictions, we would likely be too dangerous to one another, above and beyond the dangers we pose from physical means! Think of Darth Vader using "the Force" to kill at a distance.

Secondly, necromancy and other "information gathering" occult powers are typically performed with the help of a "familiar spirit." Shamans in many cultures have special spirits they call on. The Bible's point of view is that a familiar spirit is a demon, usually called an evil spirit in the Old Testament, and a demon in the New Testament. According to an analysis by G. H. Pember, there were men or manlike creatures before Adam, who remained loyal to the Archangel ("Lucifer") when that one rebelled against God. God's judgment on them was to be disembodied and sent to dwell in "the abyss", the deepest parts of the oceans. From time to time one or another will escape temporarily, and it wishes to re-enter a body. Susceptible persons, usually those already weakened in will by persistent and promiscuous sin, can thus be "possessed". I have seen a few startling things that convinced me that demons are real, they do possess certain persons, and that they can be expelled by a spiritual Christian. But on a different note, a witch or sorcerer is someone who has formed an allegiance with such a disembodied spirit, which does favors and proffers information in return for part-time possession of the person's body. Channeling is apparently something that takes place during such a temporary possession. Remote viewing and other information gathering activities may be carried out by demons so informing certain "sensitive" persons, for their own purposes. They can apparently, to a limited extent, foretell the future: perhaps Gary Langford was informed by a demon of a plot that was already planned by General Dozier's kidnappers. Pember wrote about these matters in the second part of his book Earth's Earliest Ages, in 1884. The first part of the book is about "the Gap", the eon's-long period between the first and second verses of Genesis.

Can we say for sure if any of these things are so? Not really, Isaiah sang, "Truly, You are a God who hides Himself" (45:15). God apparently actively prevents most demonic activity, preferring people to live earthly lives in which they will suffer enough anyway, from their own foolishness and from various unfortunate natural events. Such matters would be too time- and space-consuming to enter upon here.

The conclusion of Phenomena is that ESP sometimes happens, but is not very useful. There have been a few surprising successes, and far too many things that were shown to be accurate after the fact, but could not be of any help otherwise. And, of course, for every genuine adept who may exist, there are hundreds or thousands of charlatans and illusionists. A fascinating, if rather sad, book.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Have the spiders gone to sleep?

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Well, now looky here!

It looks to me like all the spiders, both US- and Russia-based, have shut down. Now I get to see the real readership of this blog. As you can see, I am not all that popular. Before the spiders began to confuse the issue, daily readership was in the 50-100 range. It seems to have dropped since then. I don't mind. I write for myself, and I know I am a rather unusual fellow. Not many folks share my interests. I like an honest metric, no matter what.

Interestingly, the spiders' focus was on a one year span, 5/10/2016 to 5/10/2017, with a peak hit rate in mid-February, 2017. I wonder if other Blogger users have noticed similar patterns of timed usage. I asked that before and heard nothing.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Inside the diagnosis

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, diagnostic procedures

It has been said that one human brain is more complex than all the rest of the universe…minus the other brains. Add a body to that brain, and the total human person is complex indeed. Thus, for a physician to correctly diagnose a troublesome condition is akin to a detective gathering clues in the mean streets of an immense, universal city. It is no coincidence that both the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the man who inspired Holmes, were doctors.

Some diseases are simple enough; red, puffy eyelids leaking pus clearly indicate conjunctivitis, or pink eye. That is one of a handful of diseases anybody can diagnose. Most others, not so much. As Stuart B. Mushlin, M.D. tells us in Playing the Ponies and Other Medical Mysteries Solved, a syndrome such as POEMS is indicated when five factors are all present: Polyneuropathy, Organomegaly, Endocrine abnormalities, Monoclonal protein abnormality, and Skin changes. It is a blood disorder that is, fortunately, treatable, but is fatal without treatment.

Dr. Mushlin enjoys a good tussle with the facts of a difficult case. That is a trait he shares with my uncle and his father, who were legendary diagnosticians. In the chapter "The CPC", he describes two cases brought before a Clinical Pathologic Conference. Here, a doctor is presented with all the facts of a case, one from the recent past, and must then discuss before the group his diagnosis and the thought processes that led to it, and suggest treatment. Then the pathologist will either praise or pillory the presenter while describing the actual history and final diagnosis and treatment. It is a great educational setting, in which doctors of all levels of experience learn in ways no textbook can convey.

In this book we learn the great humility a physician must have. Knowing how to listen is a greater asset than encyclopedic knowledge of all diseases (though that helps!). Being willing to take a step back and think again, looking for that evanescent "other factor", can be the key to discerning a subtle syndrome.

I enjoy reading books by doctors. They usually write well. In Dr. Mushlin's case, he clearly enjoys writing, and it came through in my own enjoyment of the reading. I love a joyful teacher. Oh, and the "ponies"? That's about what one of his patients did with the insurance payoff!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The new normal arrives about twice per generation

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, limnology, great lakes

My family moved to a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. One of the first things we did was ride a tour boat up the Cuyahoga River. The tour operator proudly showed how the thoroughly channeled, and very twisty, river had been scooped out here (and cemented in) and patched there (and cemented in) so that ore boats could just barely be eased around corners and bends that sometimes exceeded 180 degrees. He showed off more than 100 bridges across the Cuyahoga that had various ways of turning, tilting and lifting out of the way when a ship came through.

He also, almost casually, mentioned that the oily sludge atop the river was about four inches thick. We could smell it; it was the backdrop to the whole cruise. I remember Dad leaning over to us, sotto voce, "This could burn!" Eight years later it did burn. What none of us learned until much later was that the June,1969 Cuyahoga River fire, which motivated the legislation that became the Clean Water Act, was only the latest of thirteen fires over 101 years. Yes, the Cuyahoga River first caught fire in 1868.

The Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, are really a sort of "northern ocean". When I tell people I have lived on all four coasts of the U.S., it takes most of them a while to realize that the "third coast" is the Gulf Coast. Only one has thought it through and asked which of the Great Lakes I'd resided at.

In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan chronicles the repeated environmental insults that these "unassailable" lakes have endured. The century-long "fire season" was not the first. Canals linking the lakes to the sea were first constructed in 1783, 85 years before the first fire on the Cuyahoga. The most famous, the Erie Canal, links the Hudson River to the Niagara River above the falls, near Buffalo, New York. It allows barge traffic to bypass the rapid-strewn St. Lawrence River and Niagara Falls, to get to Lake Erie.

Prior to 1825, when the Erie Canal opened, the great lakes were ecologically isolated, mainly by gravity. The rapids along the St. Lawrence River prevent even mighty salmon from reaching Lake Ontario, and Niagara Falls effectively blockades upstream motion by downstream species. Once canal and lock systems were completed, allowing large ships to be lifted as much as 600 feet to reach Lake Superior, they could bring cargo in and out. Their unintended cargo was devastating to the lakes. Some creatures such as the sea lamprey could swim up the canals and through the locks on their own. Others, such as shellfish, traveled as larvae in the ballast water that all ships carry to keep their balance.

Take a close look at these museum specimens. The small shells are about 12-15 mm long, smaller than one of my thumbnails. They are Zebra Mussels, Dreissena polymorpha (Pallas, 1771). They are native to the Ukraine and southern Russia. Looking carefully you can see the stripes and zigzag lines that give them their name. The specimen on the right is attached to the shell of another, native freshwater bivalve.

In 1988, two zebra mussel shells were found in Lake St. Clair, between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Soon, they were to be found throughout the great lakes. At first, it was thought that they would not infest the deepest part of the lakes because they are not found deeper than about 30 meters. Then a second, related species the Quagga Mussel, Dreissena bugensis Andrusov, 1897, was found. They live deeper down, all the way to the bottom of the deepest part of Lake Superior, 406 m (1,332 ft). (A quagga is an extinct relative of the zebra.)

The portion of this museum tray outlined in blue shows the specimens of zebra mussel in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. The few older specimens are from Crimea. All the newer ones are from Europe and the U.S., primarily the great lakes.

The list of insults to the great lakes' ecology is long, and it is likely that Dan Egan hasn't covered each and every one. But he has covered all the critical ones:

  • After lampreys came, most of the lake trout died out. An effective poison was developed to "control" lamprey populations, but it was too late for the trout. An east coast herring had also sneaked in, and here they were called alewives. They had boom-bust cycles that left millions or billions dead on the beaches.
  • Two species of salmon were introduced purposely to prey on alewives and also to provide sport fishermen some excitement. Nothing fights like a salmon.
  • Zebra and quagga mussels are just two of the invasive shellfish. Others are less troublesome, but there are dozens of them. A fish from Russia, the roundhead goby, also made its way over, and they prey on these mussels.
  • Another species related to lake trout can prey on gobies. It has become established and, while it doesn't have the fight of a salmon, is a fun catch and good eating.
  • The aforementioned fires, and not only on the Cuyahoga River.
  • Prior to the introduction of second- and third-level sewage treatment, when we lived there, Cleveland's "sewage treatment system" consisted of a big pipe five miles long that discharged right into the lake. Cleveland was not alone. Only when there was an offshore breeze was it sort of safe to swim off the beaches of Cedar Point. Onshore breezes could bring undigested turds ashore.
  • The Chicago Ship Canal siphons some of Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River watershed, also carrying away Chicago's sewage. St. Louis fought several lawsuits before Chicago was forced to quite literally clean up its act.
  • Envious eyes are frequently cast on "all that water", particularly during droughts, which by definition, happen about half the time in any particular place! A city, county or state gets used to fully using the available water in good years, then goes crying for alternatives to fill the gap when things are more "normal". Climate change may make the great lakes even wetter, but the extremes from driest to wettest are likely to be greater than now, and it will just establish a new baseline.
  • Dredging and blasting for ship channels between Huron and Erie has led the level of Lake Huron to decrease by a couple of feet. The "new" channel bottom is softer than the old, and eroding fast. The drawdown will certainly increase.

As long as the stewardship of such resources is in the hands of people who have to run for election every two to four to six years, things can't get much better. Political decision makers have a short memory.

This book is as fascinating as any novel. Sometimes I found myself saying, "What??" Each generation finds a new way to make things worse. The lakes are resilient. They can recover, slowly, to a new ecological balance, if allowed to do so. But we don't have much capacity to leave things alone.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A hard read, but a necessary one

kw: book reviews, sociology, race relations, polemics

After I finished reading this book, I gave myself a couple of days to think it over. Professor and minister Michael Eric Dyson confronts whiteness and white privilege in a way nobody else has dared to do, in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. And, being about as white as they come, of course I knew it is directed at me. This is the only way to properly receive a sermon. If you are there to hear (or read) it, God has arranged it: It is for you.

So I thought it over. I remembered a few things.

I remembered a lovely young woman I took on just one date. This was in the Los Angeles area, in 1967, and I couldn't tell if she was Hispanic or what. When I picked her up, though, I saw that her father was black, though he stayed in another room, probably hoping he would not be seen. It didn't matter to me. She and I had a nice time. On the way to take her home in Altadena, it was raining a little and I was stopped for speeding. The policeman was matter-of-fact, I was very quietly polite, and he decided not to ticket me. As we drove off, though, I did notice she was looking at me like I was from Mars. The reason didn't occur to me until decades later…

What did occur to me was to wonder what might happen if I continued to date her and my parents met her. Mom from Arkansas. Dad from Missouri, whose sweet mother called Brazil nuts "Nigger toes". Sheesh! They had got all up in arms when I dated a Catholic girl. What about a "black" one (even if she didn't look particularly black)?

Twenty years later: I remembered living next door to a black family, a couple a few years older than we were, in Oklahoma. They were living "north of the tracks", in our neighborhood because they couldn't stomach the "black culture" at the other end of town. But it had a long reach. Their two boys, both in their twenties, were into gang culture, and their daughter was a cocaine addict who stole from us a couple of times. Still, we hung out with them once in a while, though some of our neighbors would kid us about eating too much watermelon.

I thought about other things, but it is better to think about Dr. Dyson and what he has to say. In plain fact, according to his own experience, and experiences of his family, all very well-educated people, America is still two nations, one white, one black. Hispanics and other "people of color" are largely ignored outside of their own enclaves, and don't seem to belong to either nation. But Black America is an occupied country. Plain and simple.

When I am stopped while driving, I always know what I did wrong. I stay in my car. The policeman is calm and matter-of-fact, and whether I get a ticket or not, the encounter lasts no more than ten minutes. When a visibly black person is stopped, it is a different world. The driver has seldom violated any law he or she knows about: more than half the time the stop is for DWB, "Driving While Black". The policeman is at best stern, usually loud, and issues sharp commands. The driver, and sometimes all the people in the car, is frequently told to get out of the car, hands up, and to "assume the position", with hands on the hood, legs spread. All too often, a ticket is issued for some trumped-up reason the driver knows is false. The car is frequently searched, and if even a trace of marijuana is found, everyone gets at the very least a night in jail. It easily escalates from there. All the car's occupants are praying, "Lord, let me go home alive." In about 250 cases in 2016, somebody whose only offense at the time was "being black while breathing" wound up dead. One is bad enough; five per week is appalling!

Dr. Dyson is a skilled preacher. He goes straight for the heart. It is the heart of America that is sick, particularly White America. We don't have to be racist to get racist results. We benefit from a system that was rigged in our favor generations ago, and the "civil rights movement" has hardly made a dent in that. Sure, in most places the "white sheets" are no longer seen, but the "white environment" still eases the way for the non-colored, and holds back all the rest, with varying degrees of rigor.

Where does the rubber hit the road? What is the bottom line? Dr. Dyson's book is in the form of a worship service, but I suspect you've never been to a service this soul-searching. But you ought to. It is like eating your vegetables; it is good for you. If you say you don't see "white privilege", it is just a kind of institutional blindness. Let the book open your eyes. But what to do? The "Benediction" part of the "church service" is subtitled "R.E.S.P.O.N.S.I.V.E." It would rankle you if I spell out these ten words. Read the book and see. These are actionable items, and they directly touch on the responsibility every so-called "white" person has for the state of our two-country national culture.

I'll keep to myself the things I can do or have done, because to do otherwise would be grandstanding. I am humbled by Dr. Dyson's honesty.

I use the term "polemic" in the keywords advisedly; a sermon is polemical. The "sermon" in this book is a polemic in the most positive sense.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Presenting CWWN v11 - The Present Testimony (4)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

This volume of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee contains the last part of the letters and articles by Watchman Nee published in The Present Testimony from October 1933 to August 1934. The articles include parts five through seven of "The New Covenant"; classic teaching by Nee such as "The Meekest Man", about the life and labors of Moses, "Living by Faith", about how God prepares us for a life that is steady in spite of circumstance, and "A Shallow Life", where he expounds the Parable of the Soils (which begins, "The sower went forth to sow") in a most searching and personal way.

A great portion of Watchman Nee's teaching is devoted to training young Christian workers, both those who might become elders and those who might engage in apostolic (missionary) work. After reading "Ministering to the House or to God?", a young and eager Christian might be forgiven for thinking he or she can never come up to the standard. And, of course, that is the point. Only Christ can minister to His church; our most pressing responsibility is to learn to "live Christ", based on Galatians 2:20, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me."

The closing portion of the book is "Questions Related to the Workers", not from The Present Testimony, but the contents of a talk delivered in January 1934. This was not a Q&A session, but is instead full answers to the ten most frequent and most crucial questions he had heard over and over from young workers. I consider this message an excellent "warm up" for reading his book, The Character of the Lord's Worker, published in 1948 and the subject of a (much) later portion of this series of posts.

The volume concludes with a Table of Contents for all 36 issues of The Present Testimony.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Russian spiders redux

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

When I was setting up a new post yesterday I noticed that someone(s) in Russia is/are at it again:

The new activity began about 10:00 AM EDT on May 7. That would be 5:00 PM Moscow time or (more likely) 9:00 PM in Novosibirsk…and also 2:00 AM on May 8 in Kamchatka. Hmm. The time zone where it was midnight is VLAT, in Vladivostok. It is entirely possible that a timed trigger was set for 0000 hours somewhere near there.

Last I checked, Russia is still my primary "customer". I expect them to subside again in a day or two. Oh, well. As I've said before, this is an annoyance, because with the (now usual) American spider logging about 200 hits per day, scattered throughout my blog, and the occasional Russian activity that reaches several hundred per day, I don't have much idea how many genuine readers this blog has. Even though I write primarily for my own enjoyment, it is still nice to be noticed.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A snail family and a photo experiment

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

A few weeks ago I finished a project to clean up the data for all of the specimen lots of freshwater snails at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. We loaded almost 10,000 data records to the new database product, and linked them to the InvertEBase site (the link opens the Collections page; we are #3). Then I began working my way through the land snails (called terrestrial gastropods in most literature, and they include tree snails). The Curator and I decided to work taxonomic family by family, or in groups of related families, working with about 1,000-2,000 records at a time.

The two great groups of terrestrial gastropods are the Pulmonates (infraclass Pulmonata of class Gastropoda) and the Operculates (in class Caenogastropoda along with many freshwater and marine species). "Pulmonate" means they have a lung; "Operculate" means they have a small, separate shell with which they can block the aperture of their main shell when they pull inside, and this allows them to survive periods of dryness and also blocks most predators.

The majority of land snail families are Pulmonates, so we began with the family Ellobiidae and two related families, Carychiidae and Amphibolidae. Digging into current taxonomic research, I found that the family Carychiidae is now a subfamily of Ellobiidae, and is now named Carychiinae. I also found that, while a few species in family Amphibolidae are terrestrial, most are marine, and our collection contained only marine species. Nonetheless, having extracted the records, I proceeded with both families, dealing with 75 lots of Amphibolidae and 1,236 lots of Ellobiidae.

It is instructive to survey the family Ellobiidae, which tend to have a certain appearance no matter what environment they inhabit. Some genera are all terrestrial, some are all marine, a few genera are estuarine (adapted to brackish water), and others contain species found in various habitats.

We'll first look at Ellobium chinense (Pfeiffer, 1856). Lawrence Pfeiffer originally described the species under the name Auricula chinense, thus the parentheses around his citation, indicating the reclassification of the genus.


These are medium-sized, up to 3 cm long and 1.4 cm wide, and rather ovate or cigar-shaped. In the closeup below notice the small lump on the inner lip of the aperture. The apertures of nearly all species in this family are variously decorated, probably depending on the kinds of predators these snails encounter.


The genus Ellobium is primarily Asian, and this species occurs in Japan.

Here we have another strictly terrestrial species, Pythia pantherina (A. Adams, 1851). Though the genus of this species has been changed to Pythia, I don't have information what its earlier name was. (Scarabus) on the older label indicates a subgenus, now no longer used.


Shells of this genus have the most elaborate dentition in the aperture, which indicates they have more severe predation at the aperture, probably by birds. Such a wiggly aperture allows the soft-bodied snail to emerge and crawl about, but prohibits entry to all but the slenderest of bird beaks. Other predators have other ways in: see the shell at lower left in the closeup, with two tiny pinholes in its lower left area (I didn't notice them until I looked at the closeup). They are from a predatory drilling snail, which uses its abrasive radula (sort of like a tongue with tiny teeth) to scrape a hole through the shell. It then injects a nerve poison. The animal inside relaxes, and enough of it extrudes through the wiggly aperture that the predator can either dismember it in place or pull it out to be consumed.


The genus Pythia is found throughout the Indo-Pacific region, typically on mangrove roots above the high tide line, and a little further inland. These specimens, six of the eleven in this lot, are from the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines.

The third species of interest is Auriculastra subula (Quoy & Gaimard, 1832); the genus was formerly Auricula. These are quite small, seldom exceeding 1 cm in length.


The closeup below shows a single tooth in the aperture on the inner lip, simlar to the Ellobium specimens above. This is an estuarine species, found on mangroves in tidal marshes. It is not fully marine and cannot tolerate ocean water for any length of time.


The genus Auriculastra occurs throughout the Indo-Pacific and South Pacific. These are from Fiji. They show more wear than the prior two species, indicating that they get roughed up in the sandy lagoons, probably during the frequent storms.

The fourth and final species is Ovatella algerica (Bourguignat, 1864), originally called Alexia algerica. These are very small, just a bit bigger than those called "minute", seldom exceeding 0.6 cm in length. Note, however that like the others they have the ovate/cigar shape characteristic of the family.


The closeup shows that they also have small teeth, in this case two of them, partially blocking the aperture. These are 8 of the 20 in this lot. The original label also shows a better example for future shell collectors than the other three: the town, the beach ("Quarry Beach" in Las Palmas), and the country, plus the month and year of collecting. Is lacks only the collector's name. I am not sure why an earlier version of the database placed these in Argentina, but I am glad it has been corrected ("Argentina" on the oldest label is in someone else's handwriting. The handwritten correction on the older DMNH label is from the 1990's.)


These species are found near-shore Europe and north Africa. Their habitats are fully marine to salt marsh. The Canary Islands are offshore from north-western Africa.

The photographic experiment I mention in the title is a matter of spacing for the sake of good focus. The typical way to photograph museum mollusk specimens is to arrange the specimens on black velvet, velveteen, or (as in 3 of the 4 cases above) on black felt, and then to arrange the labels and the scale indicator around them. But even the small shells of these Ovatella specimens have a significant thickness when being photographed close-up. One may either focus on the upper surface of one of the shells, or on the labels, with the consequence that the other will be a little out of focus. One way around that is to use a lens aperture of f/8 or f/11 for greater depth of field. I tried something different.

I cut a number of small pieces of corrugated cardboard, either 3/4" x 2" (2x5 cm) or 1/2" x 1.5" (1.3x3.5 cm). I put these under the labels to bring them up to a plane close to the tops of the shells. In the case of the Ellobium specimens above, it took three thicknesses of cardboard, and you can see the spacers under the smallest label in that photo and the first photo of the Pythia specimens. It worked very well! Everything I want to see is in good focus, using f/4 to f/5. I was also using a +2 closeup lens on my camera's 18-105 mm zoom lens.

With the camera back fixed at 24" (60 cm) above the table top, I used focal lengths of 36 mm and 105 mm. I used a spot focus just below the top of a central shell in each group for the autofocus to work with, and I am pleased with the results.

Each of the original images was cropped, and the color levels clipped to remove the grayness the camera allowed in the black background, and the gamma and saturation were adjusted so the colors in the image matched the colors of the shells. The images above are all re-sized to 1620x1080 pixels, so you can click on them to get images that fill most screens. I also used just a little bit of Unsharp Masking to emphasize the shell decorations, also to make the images look more "eyeball true". My Nikon camera under-sharpens its images, which I like. I usually prefer its usual, softer look, but when I want to sharpen back to "normal", UM is the most versatile way of doing so.

Finally, although felt is cheaper than velvet, the clean, smooth blackness of genuine velvet makes for much better final images, as can be seen by comparing the first two images with the other six.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Not a book for the squeamish

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, biology, microbiology, microbiome, microbes

Anyone who pays attention to at least a little news of science should know by now that 9/10 of the cells in our bodies are bacterial cells, primarily in the gut (intestines plus stomach). The human colon in particular is packed with them. They are tiny, but 80-100 trillion bacterial cells take up a volume of about one pint, or ½L, and weigh a pound or so (half a kilo). They comprise a significant percentage of our feces. They multiply rapidly enough that their numbers don't diminish.

But there are numerous bacteria on our skins also, in the millions. As Ed Yong writes near the end of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, shaking someone's hand is to exchange microbes with them. Certain germophobes who know this will not shake hands. One man I know keeps a bottle of Purell in his pocket and uses it frequently. But maybe the situation is not quite so dire as folks like him think it is.

Numerous experiments that produced germ-free mice, rats, and other animals have shown that the animals cannot develop normally, and have shorter lives, compared to their "dirtier" species-mates. Bacteria and viruses were around for something like two billion years before larger organisms arose, starting with protozoans ("protists" to most systematic biologists now). Symbiosis between critters of a whole range of sizes has been the rule for the ensuing 1.5-2 billion years.

When a human child is born "naturally", that is, through the vagina, it picks up a cocktail of symbiotic bacteria—hundreds to thousands of species—that immediately begin to cover the infant's skin and fill its innards. And this is good! The mother's milk contains hundreds of special compounds that the infant itself cannot digest, but that feed the bacteria within, ensuring that the baby's development will be normal and its immune system will operate properly. As long as the mother is not desperately infected during delivery, the "Mom germs" are good germs, and the immune system takes them for "our guys". Babies delivered by C-section and/or fed only "formula" (germ-free cocktails that rather badly imitate the nutritional composition of human milk) are not going to develop as they would have, nor have as robust an immune system.

This is ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. The "body" of any animal, from a nematode 1mm long to an elephant or whale, is covered and filled with enormous numbers of microbes, and most of those are at worst neutral, and usually beneficial. There are foods animals (us included) cannot digest without them. There are amino acids a vegetarian cannot get in sufficient abundance from food, but effective amounts are supplied by internal microbes. Microbes ensure the survival of pandas, which would otherwise starve on a bamboo-only diet.

There are five kinds of microbes:

  1. The smallest are viruses, and are typically a few tens to a few hundreds of nanometers in size. Most viruses in our environment, and in us, prey on bacteria, or form symbioses with them so they can be properly symbiotic with us. Such "bacteriophages" are probably mis-named. "Bacteriophage" means "bacteria eater", and while many of them do invade bacteria and destroy them, others live with the bacteria, within them, and cause them to produce biomolecules that are useful to the bacteria or to their animal hosts.
  2. Bacteria are the next largest, from half a micron to several microns in size. Now that genetic tools can be used to take a proper census, it is found that there are hundreds to thousands more species of bacteria than we ever thought, when we were confined to knowledge of those that could be cultured in the lab and peered at with microscopes. But the concept of "species" is a little slippery with bacteria. They have a "sideways sex" operation called conjugation, by which even rather widely unrelated kinds can exchange genetic material. This is how antibiotic resistance can spread not just through a population of, for example, Salmonella, but through the whole microbiome of which they are a part. Bacteria are also called "prokaryotes", meaning their genetic material is not found in a nucleus, but is spread throughout the cell.
  3. Archaea are similar in size range to bacteria but are a different kingdom, very different. Many of them are extremophiles, living best at temperatures near or even above the boiling point of water, or in very salty water. Their relationships and history with animals is very poorly known. These are also prokaryotes.
  4. Fungi range from the very tiny, slightly larger than bacteria, to enormous. The ones of interest in the context of this book are primarily single-celled for most of their life cycle, but they have a nucleated cell, and are thus called "eukaryotes". Nearly all life big enough to see without a microscope is composed of eukaryotic cells.
  5. Protists, or protozoa, are eukaryotes that used to be considered either one-celled plants if they had chlorophyll, or one-celled animals if they didn't. All can move about, so they seem to be on the boundary between plant and animal kingdoms, and are now considered a kingdom of their own. The critters that help both cattle and termites digest cellulose are protists. They could not live without them.

The book discusses numerous research programs aimed at finding out just how widespread these mutualisms are. Mutualism is often a better word then symbiosis, because the latter implies a more positive, almost meaningfully positive, relationship. A deeper look shows that animal bodies all have systems for keeping their "inner critters" where they will do good, and keeping them out of the circulatory system or the bodies of cells, where they are more likely to do harm. Indeed, septicemia is a serious failure of such systems, in which bacteria are allowed into tissues or blood, and can quickly lead to death. When we do die, whatever our cause of death, it results in these systems collapsing, and our bodies are invaded and devoured by our inner symbionts, unless we are soon embalmed.

As a result of much recent research, it is becoming apparent that pathological behavior is comparatively rare, and is usually short-lived (ending in either death or cure), while mutualistic relationships are life-long, numerous, and range from innocuous to very beneficial for us.

Some bacteria have become very general in application, across entire phyla. The best example is Wolbachia, which can strongly influence the reproductive behavior of insects. It also tailors their internal microbiome, allowing some microbes and disallowing others. It is found in specimens of more than half the species of insect in which it has been sought. It has the potential to be a great friend to us: research going on as we speak is aimed at using a strain of Wolbachia as a symbiont in Aedes mosquitos, making it impossible for them to harbor the dengue virus, while also giving Wolbachia-carrying female mosquitoes a reproductive edge. This incredibly painful disease infects millions annually. What a blessing if dengue could be wiped out! Early tests show that this might come to pass in as little as a decade or two. Research is also going on to work a similar miracle with mosquitoes that carry malaria.

Mr. Yong strove in his writing to avoid sounding like a pro-germ cheerleader. Our understanding is growing rapidly, and must remain balanced. We have for a century or so treated all bacteria as evil denizens to be extinguished at every opportunity. We need a more nuanced response. Widespread use of antibiotics can make the microbiome in many of us quite dysfunctional, leading to further problems, that we try to cure with more medicines. A fecal microbe transplant (FMT) might have done the job right the first time. So far, the only condition that FMT is known to usually cure is infection with Clostridium difficile (C-diff). And why does someone get C-diff to start with? Aggressive treatment with antibiotic, which cleans out the gut, allowing the C-diff bacteria a fertile field to colonize. As FMT and other probiotic methods become better understood, it may be that we will one day cure many of our ills by taking a microbe-laden pill that is designed to scoot through our stomach and release its payload in the intestine, where it might re-formulate the mix of critters in there to drive out the problem microbes and strengthen the immune system, all at once.

I have touched on just a tiny few of the matters raised in the book. It is well worth the read. Unless, of course, you are such a germophobe that the very idea gives you the willies! Then, maybe it would be best to make the book a gift for your physician, with strict instructions not to tell you what goes into your treatment in the future.

Friday, April 28, 2017

How (living) things move

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biomechanics

We take motion for granted. For most of our lives, from about the age of one until we are in our dotage, we walk, trot, jog, run, and jump; we also creep, crawl, sidle, and shimmy. Most of us dance in one way or another. Familiar pets also move about, as do animals in general. That is what defines animals: the ability to move with intention and comparative rapidity.

How many of us give any thought to how we move? Eadweard Muybridge was one who did more; he set up groups of cameras, either in a line or in a cluster, and set them to trigger in sequence while someone, or himself, walked or ran or performed some motion of interest.


This sequence of photos, from three different angles, of a woman performing an underhand serve in lawn tennis, was captured in 1887.

The word "biomechanics" has been around since the 1860's, possibly coined by Sir Norman Lockyer for a series of articles in Nature. But it remained a niche discipline for a century, until the late 1960's and the great expansion of cross-discipline work among scientists, the "breaking down of the stovepipes", so that physicists and mechanical engineers and biologists could collaborate more freely.

For the book Exploring Biomechanics: Animals in Motion, author R. McNeill Alexander could have taken various approaches. He chose a functional arrangement: beginning with a discussion of muscles and their mechanisms—and noting that non-muscular mechanisms of motion would be discussed as he came to them—he gathered his material into chapters on

  • Running and walking
  • Jumping, climbing and crawling
  • Gliding and soaring
  • Powered flight (such as flapping)
  • Floating (in water)
  • Swimming
  • Non-muscle motions, primarily of microbes and protozoans

I was particularly intrigued by "Floating". I had not thought of that as a biomechanical area. But it turns out there are several ways that sea creatures keep from sinking into the abyss, other than to just keep swimming (Of course, one way is to live in water shallow enough that one can safely rest on the bottom). I knew that bony fishes usually have gas-filled swim bladders, and I also knew that deep-sea squid such as the giant squid have lots of ammonia in their tissues to reduce their density (and that's why if you have a grilled giant squid steak at the Explorer's Club it will taste like soap!). There are several other passive flotation methods. None is perfect, but each serves a purpose for a certain group of animals. The most extreme to my mind is the semi-cohesive, fatty "jelly" of a jellyfish. I didn't realize that 95-99+% of a jellyfish is nonliving, low-density jelly, surrounded by a layer of living tissue only one or two cells thick!

A lot of biomechanics has to do with ratios. The ratio of limb length to body size tells a lot about lifestyle: short legs on a long body (think dachshund or mole) are good for tunnel running or tunnel digging; long legs and a flexible backbone are for speed (such as the ongoing contest between antelope and cheetah); long, slender wings are good for soaring but not so good for speed runs; the short, wide wings of a hawk give it speed and maneuverability; and on and on.

In an epilog "What we want to know next" the author emphasizes that most past study of animal flight was based on our understanding of airplanes. Helicopters and gyrocopters are a better model, because in birds, bats, and insects, the flight surfaces are dynamic elements, not static. The details of their dynamic motion allow greater efficiency than any static wing can hope to accomplish. But dynamic aerodynamics is an infant field. In fact, as much as we may know already, we are nearer the threshold of biomechanical studies than we are to the finish line.