Saturday, December 31, 2005

Jurassic Park left out the Feathers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, paleontology, palaeontology, dinosaurs, birds

I grew up reading Roy Chapman Andrews's books on finding dinosaur fossils in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Those books and similar "science adventure" books had at least as much to do as my mother's influence (she was a rockhound) with making me into a geologist.

After reading Unearthing the Dragon I find its author, Mark Morell, has assumed Andrew's mantle. Here is a lavishly illustrated (thanks to his collaborator, illustrator and photographer Mick Ellison) and well written account of the fossil find of the turn of the century: the discovery first by Chinese scientists and then in collaboration with international colleagues, that many dinosaurs were feathered, and that birds are dinosaurs.

The subtitle of the book is "The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery". Its second title, shown here, puts a nuance on the title, where the "Unearthing" ideogram has the connotation of revealing, and those for "Dragon" refer to a living, rather than mythological, being. The real dragon being revealed here is the land and multifaceted cultures of China.

A word as to how creatures are grouped into families. As well as I understand it, the current controversy in cladistics—grouping like things into a hierarchical classification system—is about the definition of a clade. When a clade is defined, does it include or exclude those clades that arose from its own members? For example, the Vertebrates might be a clade to one scientist, but not to another, because it is understood to include five major groups: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, plus a few little critters like lanceolets that are hard to place.

I think most people have little trouble with this, or with the placing of Vertebrates and the many kinds of Invertebrates (clams, worms, insects, and many more) into the big, kingdom-size group Animals. Going smaller gets us into trouble. If the amphibians arose from one or more kinds of fish are they part of the Fish clade? More to the point, if birds arose from dinosaurs, are they dinosaurs? Dr. Norell has one heavy-duty chapter at the end, plus solid materials scattered throughout the book, that support his contention (with which I agree) that birds are dinosaurs. The main difference between a crow and some of the fossils from China are that the crow has no teeth but is better adapted to flying. Many of those fossil critters—even some that look less like birds—probably flew, also, but it is hard to prove just which ones could, and which could not.

One thing is sure, though. Nearly all the dinosaur fossils from Liaoning Province are feathered, wherever they are preserved well enough to show the feathers. This illustration, a bit enhanced compared to the book photo (p. 185), shows feathers with vanes just like modern bird feathers.

One thing has become abundantly clear. Feathers did not evolve to enable flight, but for insulation. Feathers provide better insulation than any kind of hairy pelt. Flight arose later, much later. Thus, the feathered dinosaurs must have been warm-blooded. Whether they were as stably so as modern birds and mammals is not known, but they would not need feathers if their metabolism was lizardlike.

Throughout the book, the author regales us with anecdotes of his and Mick's adventures in China, personal glimpsed of many fine Chinese scientists, and the surprising and amusing cultural differences a Westerner faces in China. The Chinese are not one people, but dozens. There is probably more ethnic and cultural diversity in China than in India, though the thousand languages of China are more closely related than the many Indian tongues.

The discovery of feathered dinosaurs, dinosaurs that might have flown, very early birds, and a number of links between Archaeopteryx and both modern birds and its own ancestors, including dinosaurs that probably did fly, has catapulted Chinese fossils, Chinese scientists, and Chinese science into the international limelight. There are still very few who have visited China, but riches abound for those who do. Now, in the fossil-prone areas, small regional museums like this one (p. 147) abound, showing not just large, "traditional" dinosaurs, but many new discoveries of the smaller, much more abundant (though less often fossilized), feathered dinosaurs that we lived through the Cretaceous extinction event to become today's birds.

The last chapter of the book is polemic. As with any new discovery, there are those who see it differently. The vocal crew that rallies around the moniker BAND (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs) prefer the view that birds evolved from something ancestral to both the feathered dinosaurs and the bird clade. Dr. Morell spends the whole chapter refuting their views. Time will provide its own refuation, should one be needed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Eleanor Rigby generation

kw: book reviews, fiction, anthologies

I occasionally pick up a title of "mainline fiction," particularly a short story collection. Each year I read the "O Henry Awards" collection, though the experience has been getting less and less enjoyable over the past twenty years. Nonetheless, I look from time to time to see if a positive trend is appearing.

Thus, I recently read Alice Munro's Runaway collection. Among eight stories, I found one arresting image: "Trespasses", which portrays an ever-more-entangled set of relationships, ends with a young woman whose pajama cuffs are covered with cockleburrs that she can't get off without she ends up waiting... The stories made me think, "Oh, look at all the lonely people; where do they all come from."

Maybe I just don't have the right kind of mind. That cockleburr image is as close to a story actually getting somewhere as is to be found in the collection. Munro's characters seldom make decisions; they do not act but react, or fail to react. They have no goals; they wander at random, not moving but moved. When they do act, they don't know their own motivations.

Perhaps this exemplifies the younger Boomers and the X and Y generations. Burned out by "ME generation" hype and the failed sexual revolution; jaded to everything. They have become one with Camus and his philosophy of emptiness.

This is the black backdrop behind my love for Science Fiction and some Fantasy, and my disdain for those insecure SF&F writers who try to bring "mainstream" elements into their stories. Legendary editor John Campbell gave some advice to a young author whose story consisted of lovingly detailed descriptions of imaginary technologies, but otherwise went nowhere: "Pose a problem, then solve it!"

Yes, I know that "people problems" are often not solvable. I know that politics often produces results that are worse than letting things happen at random. But stories are about results. I may not be able to figure out why this co-worker (or wife or child or neighbor) does something, or change his or her attitude. But I can learn to cope with it, and hopefully make some lemonade out of the lemons life served up.

One of my favorite stories is about the collapes of the Social Security system. After some false starts, the protagonist learns of the value of his elderly friends' memories. They make things better in their corner of the chaotic world around. Did they save the world? They saved a little. Like the guy throwing starfish back into the ocean after a storm. When asked, "What difference does it make?" he replied, "Lots of difference to this little guy," then threw another back.

In the past I've railed against writers (and artists in general) who thrive upon degrading their audience, and argued in favor of ennobling them instead. Much contemporary fiction doesn't either ennoble or degrade; it simply leaves you in an emotional desert. Where is it that God said, "I wish you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out."?

Ms Munro is a skilled writer. Too bad about her tepid imagination.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A gem here and there: exemplifying Sturgeon's Law

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

Rebounding from the familiar "The Pen is Mightier than the Sword," I sometimes speak under the title, "The Tongue is Mightier than the Pen." Yet something underlies them all, something without which the tongue is silent, the pen dries up, and the H-bomb is impotent, nay, does not exist: The IDEA.

I read because of ideas. I may read several books before encountering an idea worth remembering. Sometimes I find a gem.

Theodore Sturgeon (a famed SF writer) once took a friend to a conference on SF. After one talk, the friend turned to him to say, "This is 90% junk!" Sturgeon replied, "Ninety percent of everything is junk." Even the best ore yields only an ounce or two of gold to the ton.

So I wade through a lot of junk. Every reader does. I nearly didn't wade through The Cuckoo's Boys. Robert Reed's first story is an ugly, distasteful piece of crap about a guy getting away with murder. Yes, one could say I read it, but I really skimmed through, rather briskly! The rest of the collection, though rough around the edges, was at least tolerable.

In the tenth story of the twelve, a character muses on religion. The character, probably speaking in the author's voice, sees that people mostly get religious when they are in a lot of trouble: "Foxhole conversions". People don't take time to build seaworthy craft, but lash together any kind of raft to ride out a storm. Then she goes on to ask, "What would a genuinely seaworthy god look like, and sound like, and give back to true believers?"

Now that is a question worth considering. Of all I might say in response, I have one foundational thought: a real god exists independently—is not created by us—and would take the initiative to begin a relationship. Think your own thoughts on this...I'll be back.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Well, it is fortunate there are only about 10,000 known birds

kw: book reviews, natural history, ornithology, bird watching, bird listing, obsessions

After finishing To See Every Bird on Earth: a Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel, I spent a couple days thinking about it. So now it is late on Christmas day, and I still don't know what to think about someone who has seen a life total of nearly more than 7,500 birds (to date), yet cut himself almost wholly off from his family to do so.

Richard Keoppel, the author's father, is one of the top twelve "Big Listers." Sixty years mostly spent obsessively seeing and listing bird after bird, between periods of a year or two in which his shame kept him from going after any; sixty years of saying, "I'm done, I've seen enough," at 2,000, 3,000, 4,000...

To be a Big Lister means lots of travel. Just to get to the first thousand, one must travel overseas; there are 914 bird species in North America by the latest count. To see 70% or 80% of the species in any area, one must go a few times. At different times of the year. As you might imagine, a Big Lister doesn't have much time for anything else. Most are pretty much failures in the Family Life department.

It took the author decades to come to a kind of peace about bird watching, and listing. Then he could go with his father to Brazil, to witness the sighting of his 7,000th listed species. I find this is the rule; whatever someone's obsession, if you want to relate to that person, you must enter their world. They are unable to leave it.

Thirteen birds. The book's thirteen chapters each begin with an episode from Richard Koeppel's memory, about seeing the species, and the chapter content is woven about the time period in which that particular sighting occurred, usually a period of a few years. From the Brown Thrasher—which got young Richard started birding, and the first he recorded, though the 24th species he could recall seeing—to the Saw-Whet Owl—the smallest owl known, and his 726th—to the Harpy Eagle, #4,706; the tales tell the man.

Researching and writing the articles that make up the book, and taking the journeys that led to the culmination of the research, and the final healing of the relationship, the author developed a fondness for the birds, learned quite a bit of birding lore, met most of today's Big Listers, and came to grips with his own personality and development. Whatever may become of his father, Dan Koeppel has been bettered for it.

For myself, the question arises, "Do I have an obsession that is harming my family?" Being able just to ask the question is helpful.

Monday, December 19, 2005

...and what do you do with the Indians?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, interstellar colonization, space aliens

When Columbus discovered Hispaniola (today's Haiti and Dominican Republic), the indigenous people there seemed to be in a "state of nature," almost a pre-Eden condition. He wrote that they were "en Dios", "in God," apparently innocent and lacking any civilization that he could recognize. That didn't stop him from making plans to enslave them.

English-speakers, knowing he'd set out to find India, mistook his epithet and began to use the term "Indians" for indigenous Americans. Regardless of modern PC terms like "Native American" and "Amerind," at least a large minority of Euro-americans (myself included) tend to apply the term "Indians," at least in our thoughts. The fact that I am part Iroquois (1/32 or less) myself doesn't have much to do with my internal life; I was raised entirely Western.

Whatever people called them, the European colonists and their descendants didn't consider pre-European Americans fully human for several centuries...and some still don't.

Of all the interesting ideas in Allen Steele's Coyote series, the most touching, to me, is the status of the natives on the planet Coyote. I've just read Coyote Frontier, a space-opera twist on American Independence. Steele does his best to show that the earthling colonists are the real aliens here. Though they are the focus of the action—this is mainly a political book—the colonists' leaders in the end have just begun to acknowledge that the monkey-like chirreep might be people, too.

The earlier books, Coyote and Coyote Rising, dealt with the exploration of the new planet and the revolution needed to hold it. It pretty much covers a period similar to the Americas from 1491 to 1777, but compressed into a generation. The new book is analogous to the 1789-1815 period, the second war of independence, brought on when the new English mastery of the seas, and faster sailing craft, led them to try to assert sovereignty again in North America.

In Coyote Frontier, the second revolution is brought on by the invention of the Starbridge, which allows a starship to zip through a specially-created wormhole. Now that one can go between Earth and Coyote in days rather than decades, what is the outcome? Steele digs into this problem, producing a solution for Coyote that is still being worked out for America.

The ending takes a sidestep, and the future of the chirreep, for one, is left undetermined. There is plenty left for Steele to write about, should he wish to turn the trilogy into a longer series.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chipmunks and Groundhogs and Bugs, OH MY!!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, ecology

I have two microscopes. One is the kind you see in CSI or other shows portraying science labs: high-power (25x to 1600x), uses glass slides with thin slices of something (usually a crucial clue). So, I have an array of glass slides, cover slips, stains, razor and other blades for slicing stuff really thin, and various light-source accessories like filters and dark field attachments. I use it to look at pollen, slices of leaves & twigs, the critters in my birdbath water or nearby stream, and such. But it can be a bit of a pain to use.

The other is easier to use. It used to be called a Stereo Inspection Microscope. It is really two microscopes, one for each eye. It is low power, from about 5x to 30x, and you just put a light of some kind next to its tray and plop something there to look at. You'd be surprised at the features of a 2mm-size brown grease ant stuck to some flypaper, at 30x, in 3D. It looks over two inches long, and the little facets on its eyes are like jewels, there are hundreds of tiny hairs all over, and its jaws resemble a mini-bear trap.

So when I picked up Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes a few days ago, with its cover showing a big plastic toy ant facing down a lawnmower, I expected a lot of insect ecology. I've read Ms Holmes before, particularly The Secret Life of Dust, and I enjoy her writing. Based on reading Dust, I also expected a healthy dollop of environmentalism, and was not disappointed.

Holmes gives us a jaunty journal of her peregrinations through a 0.2-acre yard over a year's time. The extensive bibliography that closes the book shows she didn't spend the whole time bug- and bird-watching. She gets into things.

She also names things. Cheeky, the chipmunk that visited her all spring and half the summer (lured by sunflower seeds in a cup on her desk), Yawp the juvenile crow, Big Fat Mamma the ground hog (or wood chuck or whistle pig, depending where you live), and Stunky the skunk move purposefully through the narrative. I don't recall that she named any insects.

One might expect someone with a strong environmental bent to abstain from interspecies murder. That is a caricature; environmentalism is a cost-benefit-driven pursuit. In the interests of getting her house insulated, and retaining the insulation's integrity, she must eliminate a number of wasp nests and a family of wall-dwelling mice. Ms Holmes wishes to go on living, and with a modicum of comfort, at minimal environmental cost.

Insulating the walls is a big, big step. A 1917 house with a few inches of matted fiberglass in an attic, and wholly empty frame walls, probably requires twice the fuel, compared to the same house with blow-in filling the walls and a foot or so in the attic.

And she has her dislikes, mainly introduced species, which, she notes, comprise 3/4 of the species in her yard and neighborhood, from European and Asian grasses and weeds to starlings and English sparrows (really a little finch), to the Euro-Asian dogs most commonly chosen as pets. The "native American" dog is most like today's Carolina dog, which looks a lot like a Dingo.

The lives of critters fascinated me most. Crows don't just "caw", each has its own voice, with more or fewer syllables, tone and duration variations (caw-caw-caw ... caaaAAW ... 4 caws on a rising note, etc.). Squirrels and even wasps have their own personalities.

As I read through the book, it was evident that the content of natural history was decreasing as that of environmental exposition rose. The last three chapters are fully environmental. And it was here that I found something to chew on. She reports that Jeffrey S. Dukes, now of the University of Massachusetts, published an article in which he reports that for each gallon of petroleum we consume, ninety metric tons (98 short tons of the 2,000 lb. variety) of plant matter were initially buried in the earth (Dukes, J.S. 2003. Burning buried sunshine: human consumption of ancient solar energy. Climatic Change, 61(1-2): 31-44.). I found the article and had a look.

The conversion of buried plant matter to coal or petroleum has several stages. Coal production is more efficient: about 85% of the carbon gets back to the atmosphere as peat is formed, and another 4% as brown coal is formed. That means 11% remains. Then more is lost when brown coal is converted to anthracite, in which less than 7% remains. OK, a ton of coal started out as ten to fifteen tons of carbon in tree trunks and leaves, maybe thirty or forty tons of newly-buried trees. Remember, this is the more efficient process!

Most petroleum formed from algae and softer plants that grow in water, whether fresh or ocean (the sweetest crudes were from fresh-water algae). As best I can read the figure on the fifth page of the article (p 35 in Climatic Change v61), here is the breakdown: [this is a list; I have trouble making html tables]

  • Kerogen formation: 98% lost, 2% remains.
  • Kerogen to Petroleum: about 50% efficient, so a little over 1% remains.
  • Much escapes to the surface (85%) before being trapped, leaving 0.15%.
  • Only a third of liquid petroleum can be recovered, so we extract an amount equal to 0.05% of the original plant matter carbon (Dr. Dukes's illustration is less generous, showing only about 6% of trapped oil extracted, for an overall recovery of 0.0085%. I've worked for an oil company, and know the real figures).

So, a ton of carbon (eight or ten tons of buried, wet algae) eventually produces either 1 pound (my recovery calculation) or 0.17 pounds (Dr. Duke's calculation) of extracted petroleum. A gallon of liquid petroleum weighs from 7 to 8.5 pounds and is 86% carbon by weight, so let's say a gallon of light crude has 7 pounds (slightly heavy crude). That gallon started out as either seven tons of carbon in 70 tons of algae, or about 40 tons of carbon in about 400 tons of algae.

To compare with coal by the ton, a ton of C is the content of 286 gallons of crude.

OK, there you have the range. Clearly, we'd do better in the long run—20 to 120 times better!—finding and mining kerogen, and then cooking oil out of it. That is why the "oil" shale in Utah and Wyoming and the tar sands in southern Canada are such important resources. A gallon of oil extracted from oil shale is the remnant of only a couple of tons of initial plant matter, rather than 70-400 tons.

One side drawback to using the oil shale, from a rockhound's perspective. The Green River shale, one of the better kerogen sources, has the best fish fossils in the world. I'd hate to see them go up in smoke...

Back to the book. Hannah Holmes is a thoughtful, thought-provoking writer. My environmentalism is not quite so hair-trigger as hers (and I don't deify Amory Lovins as she does). Regardless, I greatly enjoy reading such well-researched and -written work.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


kw: capital punishment, death penalty, morality, responsibility

Before reading any further, ask yourself this question (and do your best to answer it to yourself): Does the Devil know he is evil?

Well, does he?

Be honest.




OK, here is my answer: The Devil (AKA Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, etc.) thinks he is a victim of bad press. He lost an epic battle with Elohim (AKA Jehovah, El, Almighty God, etc.). Elohim claims to have created Lucifer, to be His servant-of-all-servants, to lead all the angelic beings in their service and worship. He was the original Prophet, Priest, and King in service to God..."until iniquity was found in you," God tells us.

But make no mistake about it. Anyone with any spiritual experience knows, the Devil is all to real, and all too evil.

The press today is full of the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, founder of the Crips gang, convicter murderer of four (and probable murderer of dozens more), the baddest guy in San Quentin prison (more probable murders, and many, many assaults on prisoners and guards)...more recently the author (maybe also the writer) of a number of children's books. He died this morning, shortly after midnight, I assume by Pacific time. Did he deserve to die?

Wrong question.

The right question: What is the use to society of legal killing? For what reason(s) ought a civil society take someone's life?

Some folks say, NEVER. A few would refuse to kill Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin, were the decision in their power. They would grant clemency (with a life term, one supposes) to Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, and the Unabomber (Ted K...I can't spell his name). A couple hundred people at this end of the spectrum protested in the street near San Quentin prison over the last couple of days. Some have nominated TW for the Nobel Peace prize.

An equal number, right across the street, were at the opposite extreme, the "Nuke him 'til he glows" people being the edge of the edge. Among them, some wish we'd return to the Noose, the Chair, or the Gas Chamber, and do it in public. Twenty witnesses? HA!! Put it on FOX and CNN!!!!

Only a very few claim Tookie didn't kill anyone. Most anti-death-penalty folks have various sentimental arguments, about giving a guy a chance to reform, and so on. Just by the way, TW never, ever expressed regret for his crimes, or any kind of remorse. Nor did he take any responsibility.

In that I liken him to the Devil, described above. He just thinks he's had a bad press. He's really a good guy, underneath. He is like his friend "Monster" Kody, now called Sanyika Shakur, who, as you read his book "MONSTER", clearly just cannot get the idea that he is responsible for what he has done.

But to me, whether a killer has seemingly reformed or not makes little difference. Once a person has shown not just the ability but the willingness to murder, by actually doing so, and not just in self-defense, then he or she must be removed from this existence, permanently. It is the only action that can GUARANTEE the killing will not be repeated.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

"...the substantiation of things not seen"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, roadside attractions

I suppose we all know the parody, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," that ends with the lines:

Some folks say they don't believe in Santa.
But me and Grandpa, we believe.

Why did they believe? They saw something. "Seeing is believing," we are told; Missouri is the "Show Me" state. So what are we to make of it when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed." And a decade or so later, Paul writes, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the word of God."

Yet the God of the Bible is also a God of signs. The most stirring passages of the Bible are those that describe a strong image: the four winged creatures with four faces each, accompanied by four sets of "wheels within wheels" in the opening verses of Ezekiel; the "one like the Son of Man" standing among lampstands, with blazing white skin and hair, fiery eyes, and a sword coming from his mouth from Revelation; or the "Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven" with her gemstone foundations, gates of pearl, golden street (only one street), centered on God as her Light.

Somebody once told me, "A Christian is someone who has seen Jesus." So we see also in the Bible, criticisms of those who "see but do not perceive." It is one thing to have a certain view pass before your eyes. It is another to take in what you see, to be altered by it.

My Christian walk began with something I saw. This was five years before I ever prayed to "receive Jesus," so I was barely a teen. At a church camp, there was a "child evangelist." I remember only one thing from his message. Before he spoke, we had a communion service: bits of bread and little paper cups with grape juice. We were told to hold onto the cups. At some point in the man's message, he asked us to unfold the cups. The juice had stained them with a cross. I was really touched. Somehow, the "blood of the cross" was made real to me. Afterward, I wandered alone in the forest nearby, and began to try to talk with God. Though the feeling soon faded, I think without it I never would have received the Gospel five years later.

There is another experience I had, more years later. I was a member of a conservative Congregational church, and got discouraged. They really don't know how to nurture young believers. I'd become over-taxed, and seen some very sad things. I couldn't believe they were God's church, any more. I removed myself from Christian fellowship for several years, but would sometimes talk to God. When I felt a particular need, I'd "send up a flare," as I liked to call it. At a time that I was ready, I came into contact with some believers, with whom I remain in contact and fellowship, now 33 years later.

Timothy K. Beal, a professor of religion in Cleveland, has written Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. He chronicles in some detail ten places that one finds along America's highways, places created by believers who were driven from within—by God, they all believe(d)—to evangelize people who might come by. These ten have become tourist attractions, but one hopes that, among the tourists, some gain something real of God.

My latter experience is pertinent to my understanding of Professor Beal. He reveals much of himself as he writes. Indeed, in this conclusion, he has written, "This is not the book I thought I was is the book I needed to write." He and his wife grew up in conservative evangelical groups. His wife in a charismatic congregation, himself probably among the Brethren or a similar group.

Speaking for himself, he related how, on several occasions, he could really empathize with the people who were most affected by the display, yet felt himself at a remove. He is the perfect picture of someone who was once in a spiritual atmosphere, then at college picked up a very intellectualized belief, and finds himself longing to restore the spiritual contact he'd lost. His closing words, of how he prays, indicate he's begun the journey. For this I rejoice.

An aside, then a bit more about the book. Today's shrinks say we are a "mind-body," that there's nothing but meat up there, and a sort of conscious computer program that runs on our "meat computer." A couple of generations ago, dualism was the standard, body and mind. The Bible shows, and any mystic can relate by experience, that a person is a trinity, not a duality or a monism. We have a spirit, a soul, and a body. The soul consists of the mind, the emotion, and the will. These are our psychological organs.

The human spirit is not our soul. It is a spiritual organ, designed to contact God and the spirits of fellow believers. When we receive Jesus, our human spirit is enlivened with the Holy Spirit. This is once-for-all and permanent. When we speak of the "salvation of the soul," this is the lifelong process of spiritual growth, "being renewed in the spirit of the mind," leading to a spiritual adult, whose soul is subject to the spirit within. This gradual, daily salvation is conditional on our cooperation with God.

The final "hope of eternal salvation" is to gain a glorified body. This is God's doing, and will transpire in an instant, when we are ushered into glory.

Now, why do we seem to so need material reminders of spiritual things? We are hard of hearing, spiritually speaking. God will use any means to gain us. Some may scoff at a replica of Noah's Ark being build in Maryland with steel girders, or a mini-golf course with biblical themes (there are many), or a collection of rosaries, or any of the various Passion Plays conducted around the nation (my favorite is in Spearfish, SD).

Some may be horrified at a ten-acre expanse of crosses and old appliances with messages like "HELL HOT" and "SINNER HELL WAITS FOR YOU," and very few with "JESUS LOVES YOU." But that might be what it takes to open a few lost hearts. Only God knows.

Professor Beals visited these places, was variously touched, repelled, and finally drawn by the sincerity of the people who conduct such works. A theme finally comes out. They are all like Noah, whose Ark was his sermon to a lost world. Beals uses the term "outsider religion," for these kinds of expression. To me, at least some of them are the real insiders.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

...but I wouldn't want to live there.

kw: book reviews, anthologies, speculative fiction

My experience reading Michael Moorcock is variable. Some I like, some I don't, and some I don't understand. He edited the sf periodical New Worlds in the 1960s and 1970s. I read a 2004 reprint of New Worlds: an Anthology, originally printed in 1983. I have a firmer view now. I don't like the kind of fiction he likes, with very rare exceptions. I do like about half of the nonfiction (criticism, and interview, and review articles) he reprinted here.

Of thirty items in the anthology, twenty are fiction. Only two resemble (distantly) what I'd call science fiction. A few are fantasy, one or two are speculative fiction, and the rest either fantasy or unclassifiable. It is clear that Moorcock is proudest of the unclassifiable genre. He likes J.G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss, but only at their zaniest (though J.G.'s least zany is clearly ahead of anyone else's most zany).

The trouble is, many of the stories come from "the sixties", actually 1967-1975, when I quit reading sf entirely. At least half the "sixties" stories were extended wet dreams. This collection reinforced that view. I had to simply skip out after a few paragraphs on many of these. Many of the rest are varieties of pointless existentialism: obsession with detail, little or nothing that would reveal if any of the characters is actually conscious, and an ending that simply ends without conclusion. Most of my generation outgrew Camus and his "suicide is the best policy" ethic about the time President Carter invented the "miserability index".

New Worlds does try to present new worlds, all right. But I'd rather not live in any of them. There was a little to like, an interview with Tolkein that I enjoyed, a reprinting of "Traveler's Rest", which actually has a good idea—and which I'd read before with enjoyment—, and plenty that made me say, "Over all, I'm rather glad I skipped '60s sf."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Would Plato spin in his grave?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophers, short biographies

In The Republic Plato urged us to adopt a "Philosocracy", where a polis much like Athens is ruled by a philosopher-king. Naturally, being a philosopher, and thinking of himself that he was living what he preached, he expected a philosopher to rule most wisely. It doesn't take long, reading a biography of Plato, to realize that he was self-deceived. He strongly favored censorship of the popular press, for example, advocating a system similar to the Roman Catholic "Index" of allowed reading. Further, he had great disdain for the common folk, "hoi polloi", thinking that he, being wiser, ought not be subject to the laws which bound the many.

He also favored "Greek love", writing, "Wherever it has been established that it is shameful to be involved with sexual relationships with men, that is due to evil on the part of the rulers, and to cowardice on the part of the governed." As one may guess, I consider male-male sex to be perversion. I consider the current "untouchable" status of such behavior as evidence of cowardice on the part of modern society and her leaders.

The authority I accept, The Bible, has this to say: "Whoever cannot rule his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls." In a word: defenseless. Paul, writing about the leadership of the church, stated that both elders (presbyters) and deacons (ministers) must be family men who had proven their fitness to lead by raising successful and respectful children. I assert that the same ought to be true of public leaders.

(Aside: of the current crop of noisemakers in Washington, of both parties, only one has raised children who, while not mistake-free, are wise enough to have owned up to their mistakes and have since bettered their lives: the current President, Mr. GW Bush. Perhaps it is in some way related to the fact that only he shows any sign of having a backbone.)

There may be a few philosophers in history who actually practiced what they taught, but none come to mind. Two students of philosophy and history, Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson, have written Philosophers Behaving Badly, a study of eight prominent modern (post-Descartes) philosophers who are stellar examples of those whose lives were most opposite to their teachings. They are Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Russel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault.

One could say that the transition from traditional philosophies to Logical Positivist and other "modern" philosophical trends rests squarely on these eight men. It is also safe to say that none of these eight could be trusted with the heart or life of anyone; they all left a trail of broken lives in their wake. They were all exceptionally bad at conducting human relations. They were all compulsive practitioners of numerous vices. Though one has been called an ascetic, that regards only one facet of his life; otherwise, he was a rampant hedonist.

Is this the best that we can do? I know three practicing philosophers, and one former practitioner. One at least is a rather pleasant person...the former philosopher who is now an electrical engineer. The other three, I wouldn't trust on a wager.

The authors state, "Adultery does not disqualify a person from presenting good philosophy." I say, "Oh, yes it does." These eight philosophers are largely responsible for the development of the current of the present age, that is destructive of families, racist, elitist, and hedonistic to a greater degree than any former generation (yes, I know my history. There is nothing new under the sun, but there is certainly more of it these days).

Yet adultery is but one sin, and the book chronicles many. The authors state that these eight were chosen not for sexual excess—though six at least were excessive to excess!—but for a significant lack of integrity. Not only did they violate their own ideals, they showed no sign that they though they ought to conform in any slightest way to the ideals they taught others. They were, to a man, exemplars of the kind of men Jesus rebuked: "Whitewashed tombs, well decorated but full of corruption."

Human leadership is a job like other jobs. You don't qualify for it by being a convincing speaker or writer. You get a job at one level, and if you do it well, you get promoted. The ballot box ensures that, to at least some extent, promotion to national leadership is contingent on demonstrating successful leadership in prior "jobs."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Y'know that wandering generation?..still wandering.

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essay collections

When we were young, many of my generation—the '60s kids, the ME generation, the Boomers—embarked on a journey, one by one, to "find myself." What did we find? Most of us found something, and settled down. Now, we're the Establishment, the un-trustable over-30s, mainly the grand, moderate majority that both political wings claim as their turf. The ones that didn't really find much make up those wings.

Marion Winik is a writer, essayist, commentator on NPR since 1991, and, one might say, a pretty successful person. Her most recent essay collection, Above Us Only Sky, reveals the journey, still in progress, of a lost soul finding itself.

The book is sectioned as History ("Back"), Family ("Underfoot"), Introspection ("In the Mirror"), a special, formative Historical Vignette ("Back Again", comprised of the title essay), and Surroundings/Relationships ("Around").

Ms Winik shows us herself, warts and all. She doesn't flinch from showing us her self-contradictions. Atheistic to the point of anti-theism (the book's title expresses it: there's nothing up there but sky), she revels in remnants of her Jewish upbringing and her first husband's love of Christmas. Clinging tightly to her youngest daughter, trying to raise her well, yet she made this baby with a definitely risky man. She writes with her head (a very good brain in there, and excellent writing indeed) about a lifetime of following her heart (a very fickle heart at that, much of the time...but when she loves, she loves hard, long, and well).

She can be lyrical, and she can be crude, almost vulgar (it takes more than a couple f-words to make be stop a book early...I came close); she covers quite a spectrum of experience and reverie. As I am a right-leaning moderate, I found it interesting to read and try to get into the head of someone who actively campaigned that Reagan be impeached, who lives in a world in which "my kind of thinking" is considered akin to the average Martian.

Marion Winik hasn't really found herself yet. Her continued journey makes interesting reading.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Sing like a nightingale, sting like a scorpion

kw: book reviews, criminals, killers, psychopaths

Two young men of my acquaintance went wrong. One might be restored, the's quite unlikely. The latter is a psychopath, the former, a seemingly normal fellow who snapped one day. They are about the same age, but I knew them at different stages of their lives, and mine.

Just after finishing college, I lived for two years with a family in California. I was a roomer; I shared a bedroom with another single guy. We were all in the same church. The family had two boys, and the younger one was as heartless as the elder was generous. The younger one, who I know now is a psychopath, cared only for the thrill of shaking others up. From the ages of six to eight, while I lived there, I found him to be a thief, a vandal, and a pathological liar (you know, one who lies just to keep in practice). He could be as charming as anything, but only when it suited his purpose, to put something over on you. He was incorrigible. His parents, us roomers, church leaders, psychologists...nobody made a dent in him.

I got married and moved a few blocks away. The next year, we moved out of state. Shortly after that, so did that family. I didn't hear about them for more than twenty years. A few years ago, I met the father again, through a mutual friend, who knew we were both in the same town for a conference. A joyous reunion, except for the news about his younger son. He'd spent all but one of the past twenty years in jail or prison. Offenses of all kinds; the DA just tried him for those they could get a conviction, and so far, it had been enough. What conclusion? I have to conclude he was born that way. There was no difference in how the two boys were raised.

A number of years after leaving California, we were in yet a different state, and we knew one family with several kids; the oldest was a boy. They were also 'church friends' of ours. Ten years had passed. This oldest boy was a pre-teen then, so he is younger than the aforementioned psychopath.

At some time during our friendship with this family, things went sour. The mother developed a paranoid personality, and in the time it took us to realize she needed medical help, a lot of psychological damage was done. She didn't get so flagrant that she could be forced into a psychiatric hospital, but she really began to put unusual burdens on the rest of her family (I guess that's the best way to put it). We were all relieved when the oldest boy graduated from high school and went into the Navy. About that time, the parents' marriage broke up.

The young man was a good seaman, and kept a good relationship with his father. That caused him a lot of grief from his mother, who by this time hated her former husband. He was OK while in the Navy. Then, as I was told it, one day after one of her tirades, he took the car keys, drove off, and went several states away, to where an aunt lived. However, when he got there, he robbed a bank, was caught, and wound up in prison. I haven't heard the end of this story, because we haven't kept up contact. But I know the nature of this young man, now in his thirties. He has probably been released, and I expect he'll stay out of future legal trouble. I am certain, from my experience with him, that he is no psychopath, though he certainly has mental or emotional damage from his mother's behavior.

I have a lifelong interest, almost a fascination, with abnormal and near-normal psychology. In particular, I have read several books about or by psychotics and psychopaths. Most recently, I read Blood Relation by Eric Konigsberg. The author's great-uncle is Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg, a contract killer who has been imprisoned since 1963, first for an extortion conviction, then for murder. I'll use the given name and the nickname, respectively, to distinguish them.

Bottom line: Kayo is a classic psychopath. He can charm or intimidate almost anyone into almost anything. Where these don't work, he figures the person has lived long enough. In the 1960s, he tried (successfully) to get certain preferences and privileges while in prison by informing for the FBI, and he confessed to at least twenty murders (This is one meaning of "sing" in my title). Because of the agreement, the FBI kept the confession files secret. But one of these murders was solved by the police without FBI help, so he was tried and convicted just before his extortion sentence was about to end.

Most of the time, Kayo lived (from age 13 on) by a number of criminal rackets. He did little killing on his own behalf, reserving that "business" for his Mob clients. As a freelancer (He was Jewish, so the Italian Mafia wouldn't "make" him), he even "worked" at times for both sides in a power struggle. Though he was a very tough guy, he was also canny. So far as Eric has related, Kayo always did a killing with the help of two or three others. He wasn't the kind to kill from a distance, preferring strangulation or a lead pipe followed by a close-range bullet.

Eric didn't know he had a famous criminal in the family until he was in early middle age, on his own, living in the midwest. He got a phone call from his "uncle Harold", calling from Auburn penitentiary, and eventually conducted nine interviews with him over two years. He was, of course, drawn at least partway into Kayo's web. He said he was preparing material to write the story, and Kayo seemed to go along. Eric was at first fascinated, then repulsed, eventually reluctant to see Kayo any more. He could see clearly that Kayo was a real monster. Even as a 73-year-old fatso, he could be terrifying.

The tenth visit, which was in no way an interview, was the corker. Having some premonition, Eric chose to sit nearest the guards' table, rather than at the far end of the room as before. He told Kayo he was about to publish his article. In short order, he was threatened with at least six kinds of gruesome death. He was terrified, and when he realized he really might get attacked, right there, he left. However, he did publish the article, and updated it into Blood Relation.

How to explain a puzzle like Kayo? He was born into a closeknit Jewish family, devout and conservative. From a young child, he was different. If the stories he told on himself are right (or even sorta close), he was running a numbers game, and had chased off one extortioner at gunpoint, before he was fourteen.

In the nature-nurture debate, most of us probably are 50-50 cases. Here is a case where nurture made hardly a dent in an evil-born personality. Such a case adds credence to 'strong Calvinism,' with its doctrine of 'double predestination': those who are saved were pre-chosen to do so, and those who are not were pre-chosen to be lost. As one preacher puts it, "Some folks were created to be the fuel for the Lake of Fire." I find that rather harsh, but in a case like Kayo's I cannot rule it out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

No room for any gods in the legal dictionary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, law, sacred practices, tombstones, memorials

I picked up The Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, thinking it might be a discourse on conflicting religious traditions, or on the increasing persecution many religions are experiencing around the world. I found instead a narrowly-focused history of the civic and legal conflict between the city of Boca Raton, FL, and a number of citizens who had erected various memorials on their relatives' graves in the city cemetery. The memorials followed various traditions, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish among them.

Though the practice was variously tolerated, overlooked, and even abetted at times, over decades, the cemetery rules clearly stated that memorials were to be confined to brass plates set into the ground, that could be mowed over. The city officials eventually decided to enforce the regulations, and ordered that the "nonconforming" displays be removed; they set a deadline, announcing that the displays would be removed by the city thereafter.

The ACLU and about a dozen of the citizens brought suit. It is nearly the only case in which the ACLU has brought a suit that is favorable to religious practice. Their nickname around here is "Anti-Christian Legal Union". Dr. Sullivan was an expert witness in the case, hired by the plaintiff's attorneys. The plaintiffs lost the initial case in 1999, it has been appealed, and to date, the matter is not resolved.

I confess I skimmed much of the material. Ms Sullivan has both JD and PhD, is an academic, and writes too drily for my taste, though her style is among the more facile...which means most academics write abysmally. Sad, but true.

Short version: the five experts on religion, three for the plaintiffs and two for the defendants, have impressive credentials and experience. The conflict in the courtroom resolved to a decision based on "organized" versus "personal" or "folk" religion. It was made clear that "personal" religion is really where the rubber hits the road. Our faith is what we do in our daily life, not the local edifice we happen to visit weekly.

Yet, the author made it clear that the judge disregarded all the experts' testimony and based his decision on his own understanding of religion. That made the appeal a slam-dunk decision. The author's thesis then is that this kind of treatment is typical: only "organized" religion has legal standing.

However, in these days of "sensitivity" and "respect", it is possible to attain at least tolerance, even legal tolerance, of one's personal religious practice. In the 1980s, I was one of several that set up a nonprofit corporation on behalf of our church. We then went through the application process for nonprofit—section 503(c)(3)—status, formally recognized by the IRS.

The crux of the matter was a statement in our bylaws (you gotta have 'em to file), that the church would meet in a location or locations as decided by the officers. I spent an hour on the phone with an IRS official who wanted us to state the church's address in the bylaws. I said I couldn't do that, that the church was the people, and wherever they happened to gather, that was a meeting of the church. At one point, I said, "This is a matter of our religious freedom. It is very important to us. To us, the real church cannot have an address." At that point, the gentleman thanked me, hung up, and shortly our registration was approved.

Just an aside to those who are bent out of shape, on either side, about the "prayer in school" issue. While we practice vocal, group prayer, we also learn to "pray at all times," which is solitary, silent or nearly so, and carried out in the midst of our daily activities. We train our children so.

Prayer has nothing to do with whether you stand, sit, kneel, walk, lie down, or are swimming. It has to do with Someone with whom you are communicating all the time. Groups of our young people do sometimes gather together, usually just before school starts, for a quick prayer group session. They are rather quiet. (And if several of us work in one location, we pray together on occasion) But, whenever the issue arises, our attitude (stated by parents; we don't burden kids with adult burdens) is, "There is exactly one way to stop me or my child from praying at any time, in any place. Kill us. If you are unwilling to go to such lengths, you'd do best to ignore us."

Some other time I'll get around to how one can "pray at every time in spirit."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Their English may be funny, but it's better than my Japanese

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, tour guides, parodies

I made some attempt to learn Japanese after marrying a woman from Japan, I really did. But I was already almost thirty, and the ol' memory was just harder to train by then. Two events convinced me I'd always need an interpreter.

Once, in a Japanese restaurant with my parents, I signaled the waitress and asked for water: mizu-o kudasai. She replied, yombai ma. I looked up in confusion, and she held up four fingers. As I struggled to catch my mental breath, my wife said quietly, "She's asking if she should bring water for all four of us" (yon is 4). I blurted, Hai, domo (Yes, thanks), and stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the evening.

On our first visit to Japan to meet my in-laws, I just listened, or spoke through my wife's interpretation, for a few days. Then one day, standing up, I hit my head on the doorway. I don't recall exactly what I said to my mother-in-law, but my intention was to say, "I am too big." Instead, I said something like, "I'm way too much." She fell to the floor, laughing until she cried. If you've never seen a woman of nearly seventy years, in a kimono, rolling on the floor, you're fortunate.

With those experiences (and a few other groaners) in mind, I picked up Here Speeching American: a very strange guide to English as it is garbled around the world by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras, with some trepidation, I might add. The cover proudly proclaims, "Bestselling authors of The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said.'' I almost have to look that one up...

A book like this almost writes itself. The work is in quote-gathering. With friends and correspondents around the world, one saves a lot of travel. The breadth of coverage is impressive.We're all aware of things like the L/R confusion the Chinese and Japanese experience...they have no L or R in their languages, but a kind of rolled D that sounds like both. So things like "Lental Video", "Rens Creaner" and "Burgel with Flies" are to be expected. Word mixups are more interesting, such as the title quote, found in Mallorca, Spain. The quotes that are genuinely fun are the mixups between noun, verb, and adjective forms: "Pork with Spicy" (a restaurant in Taipei) or "Foot Wearing Prohibited" (a Buddhist temple in Burma...they meant "footwear").

There are malaprops and other misplaced words: "Before going to work, have a few lapses in our pool" (a Bangkok hotel), or "Compulsory Buffet Breakfast" (Vietnam). And the inevitable Spoonerism: "Traffic may be conges to subjection" (Hong Kong).

However, for the most part, I found it a bit unsettling, making fun of others' ignorance. I've made it a practice, when I see something that is clearly a bad translation, to rewrite it (if it is short) and send the copy, with my compliments, to the company, if they want the chance to republish correctly. I figure, most of the time, they don't; many such items are one-off runs and won't be repeated. But I sometimes wonder what kind of business I could build on quick, low-cost proofreading via Email.

Ignoring Walt

kw: poets, poetry, imposters

It has been brought to my attention that in my Nov 16 posting, I ignored a major thread in the book, the quotes from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Just FYI, I did so purposely. I don't consider "free verse" to be poetry, except in very rare cases. More so, while Whitman could be eloquent, his text is so ingrown that any meaning a reader might infer, is the reader's own and likely has little to do with ol' Walt. Finally, the book is frankly homoerotic and pederastic. Definitely not of interest to me. If he were alive today, Whitman would be a registered sex offender. I find it sadly hilarious that Philadelphia has seen fit to name a bridge for him.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Dinosaur Construction 101

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dinosaurs, DNA, genetic engineering

About twelve years ago, shortly after Jurassic Park hit the big screen, a colleague told me he was briefly famous for the first recovery of proteins from a fossil. In the '70s, when he got his PhD, he discovered a relationship between the normal body temperature of a mammal and the ratios of certain "structural" amino acids in their proteins.

Brief aside: The structure of a protein shifts with temperature. It won't work outside a certain range. About half the 20 amino acids (AAs) are mainly structural, forming the helices and sheets that form the shape of a protein. Biochemistry is mainly geometry. For a protein to work best at a different temperature, a shift in the proportions of certain AAs is required.

When my colleague published his results, a friend asked him if his method would work on the proteins from an extinct animal. He said, "Why not. But how would you get some?" The friend brought him some bones of Smilodon, the best-known sabre-tooth cat, from the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. When the animals died there, they were quickly dried by the tar, and the proteins in bone cavities were often preserved.

They were able to extract sufficient protein to work the method, and published a letter stating their findings. My colleague was at a conference in England when the letter was published. Suddenly, he got many calls from reporters, and a British paper published a cartoon of him, sneaking up on a huge Smilodon, and carrying a spear-sized rectal thermometer!

Now, the tar pits contain bones aged between 40,000 and 10,000 years. Hardly dinosaur-age stuff, which is between 65 million and 200 million years old. But impressive for 1970 or thereabouts.

It is a long way from body temperature to a dinosaur clone. A small measure of the difficulty is presented in Jurassic Park, both the movie and the book by Michael Crichton. A recent book makes it clear how much harder it actually is. Rob DeSalle and David Lindley, a working scientist and a highly expert science writer, in 1997 published The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, subtitled, Or, How to Build a Dinosaur.

Dr. DeSalle isolated the first dinosaur-age bit of DNA in 1992, from an insect in amber. It was insect DNA, though, not dinosaur DNA. Older bits have been found since, as old as 135 million years. So when he outlines how one might (just barely, maybe) retrieve dinosaur DNA and eventually produce a living dinosaur, he has it right.

He agrees that amber is a good place to begin looking, but he prefers amber from New Jersey, which is the right age, to Dominican amber, which is only 30 million years old. But what guarantee do we have, if we find a biting critter with a belly full of blood, that it was a dinosaur's blood?

I have recently read of the recovery of soft tissue from deep inside a Tyrannosaur hip bone. Perhaps we ought to be looking there, instead. Otherwise, you're more likely to find the blood of a proto-possum than a dinosaur, which is quite a bit harder to bite...we do have samples of dinosaur skin, so we know.

The authors go through, step by step, what is needed to do the task. They make clear the uncertainties at every step. For example, the DNA sequencing method called "shotgun sequencing" is probably most amenable to this, but it cannot tell you how many chromosomes there were. We only learn this when we sequence, say, a chicken, because we can look at living chicken cells and sequence them one chromosome at a time. If you have a DNA soup with the entire genome in little bits (say from 200 to 1000 bases per chunk, each broken out of a 2- to 3-billion base sequence), you can't really tell where the chromosomes ended. Telomeres (repeated sequences at the ends) are too variable from one animal to the next to prove anything; one critter's telomere might be another's internal repeat sequence.

Suffice it to say, the undertaking is too expensive for an ordinary billionaire. Given the rate that DNA work's price is dropping, however, I expect it might be possible in another decade or two, making initially one assumption: that we can actually recover large enough bits of 80-million-year-old DNA, in sufficient quantity, in the first place. That may be the biggest hurdle of all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Three apocalypses

kw: book reviews, speculative fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction

It took me a while to warm up to Michael Cunningham's writing. His new book Specimen Days is really three related novellas. One takes place about 1900, one about 2020, one about 2150. Each has as its main characters a woman (broadly speaking), a youngish man (sort of...), and a pre-teen boy. The woman's name in each case is a variant of Catherine. The man's is Simon, though in 21-whatever, he is more of an android. The boy's name varies. The novellas are titled "In the Machine," "The Children's Crusade," and "Like Beauty." The stories are linked also by being in, or beginning in, New York City, and by the presence of a rare ceramic bowl.

In the first, Simon is unfaithful, but dies before marrying the woman. The boy, his brother, carries on his job, finds himself hexed by Simon's voice in a stamping machine, and is himself injured by the machine. The woman's life is saved as a result, for when she leaves her workplace to tend to the boy, she isn't present when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 takes the lives of 147 seamstresses.

The woman is a forensic pathologist in the second, and Simon her lover. She works a police terrorist hotline (I suspect the job hardly exists at present), taking calls from those who wish to report mayhem before the fact. Two boys in succession call in, then go out to blow someone up. A third boy targets her. Though she talks him out of his pipe bomb, the life she knew ends, nonetheless, though in this case it could be a beginning.

Nobody is really "human" in "Like Beauty". Simon is an android. The woman is an alien refugee, a lizard-shaped mammal from a nearby stellar system. The boy, who appears halfway through, is a precocious survivor who leads them to their destiny with the man who created Simon. This Simon is faithful to the woman, though he finds she is a century older than he.

Cutting away the fluff, they are the same post-apocalyptic story. The Industrial Revolution was an apocalypse for rural families, though it took a few generations to work itself out. The near- and farther-future stories occur during drawn-out apocalypses of their own.

I confess I did not read all of "In the Machine." It is rougher, edgier, with a bit more vulgarity (we're talking more than dirty language here) than I care for. This is ugliness with a purpose, however, just as the ugliness in the political novels of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck were purposeful: the generation needed a thump in the head. So does ours. We are either active agents, or specimens...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


kw: book reviews, essays

Who showed us that we are the Books, we are Martians, we are the monster under the bed? Who can string together the greatest number of enthusiastic adjectives in one long, hollering breath? Who filled that big golf ball in Florida with sight, sound, acceleration?

The term "most unique" is a redundancy, except when it refers to Ray Bradbury. "Ordinary" uniqueness simple doesn't do him justice. Just when you thought you had a handle on him, via his fiction, his screenplays, his scoring of the Epcot center's narrative, and his TV stories on The Ray Bradbury Theater, he drops a book of essays into the pond.

I think the definition of "essay" has been forever changed by Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon From the Cave, Too Far From the Stars. The sub-subtitle is Essays on the Past, the Future, and Everything in Between. This is, I think, a publisher's hyperbole. We live in the collision of past and future, and the "in between" is too ephemeral to measure...the "Everything" is nothing. We really live in the future, for without anticipation we are not alive.

You either know Bradbury's style or you don't. If you don't, get one of his books, any of them, and read it all at a sitting. Only then will you be in a position to extract any substance from one of these essays. He writes about writing, about fiction, about people and places, but the undercurrent is, he is writing about your very soul. What is your makeup? Where have you come from and where go you now?

I have said before that all writers reveal themselves; some also reveal the real world to us; the best reveal ourselves. A very, very few lead us to become ourselves.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Wrath of Pat

kw: evolutionary debate, false prophets

It's much in the news today that Pat Robertson threatened Dover, PA with God's wrath because they voted out eight school board members who'd been in favor of introducing "intelligent design" into the curriculum.

Just so you know. I am a Christian. I beleve in God's creation. I also believe that my senses and my mind give me somewhat accurate information about the world around. All, and I mean ALL, the physical evidence we have supports the view that living creatures—bacteria, fungi, protozoa, plants, and animals—were produced by evolutionary processes over spans of time measured in billions of years. Concerning what the Bible says, I see that it leaves plenty of room for all that time and process.

Furthermore, a few verses in Isaiah explicitly state that the condition of the earth in Gen 1:2 was not a result of the initial creation, and this prophet calls God "The One who hideth himself." Isaiah, like many of us, would have preferred God to intervene in a more direct way, rather than "one word then another, a line here and another there, here a little, there a little." God left it to Bill Cosby to tell us the essence of it: when his comic Noah tells God, about an extra male hippo, "You change one of 'em!", God replies, "You know I don't work like that." Indeed.

Jesus said, "God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust." And when Jonah got angry when God changed his mind and didn't destroy Nineveh, God chided him for his lack of mercy, and indeed lack of logic.

I sadly charge my brother with two errors. Firstly, he denies that God left room in the universe for evolution to do its work. Secondly, he misunderstands the work of a prophet, who knows what God plans (because God told him) and reports it; Robertson presumes that God cannot glorify himself without bringing cataclysm on a rural town, mostly composed of Christians.

I guess he'd rather have God kill a bunch of Christians who disagree with his narrow (and I claim, incorrect) view of Creation, than show mercy as the God who says, "Let us reason together." None of the ardent "scientific creationists" or advocates of "intelligent design" that I have met is capable of reason.

They're following Winnie's advice

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, crime, police work, homicide

Winston Churchill is noted for saying (I must paraphrase), "Never give up. Never, never, give up." For New York Police Department's Cold Case Squad, just ten years old, this could be the motto. Stacy Horn, in The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad, has opened at least a keyhole into the (mostly) men whose job it is to crack the hardest cases.

Test pilots are famous for the saying, that their job is long periods of boredom spiced with brief moments of sheer terror. I suppose you could say this about detective work too, except that the terror is (fortunately) even more rare...but the boredom is, if anything, more mind-numbing.

In a typical TV show or film about police work, the ratio of "routine" detection—tracking down leads, talking to people who don't want to talk to you and mostly don't care if you drop dead, making endless phone calls, choking back your bile while negotiating with yet another even-more-bored bureaucrat—takes up no more than 40% of the screen time. The action has to be at least 60% or nobody will watch it, or recommend it to a friend.

Popular cop shows are full of lab "AHA" moments, DNA testing, forensic tricks, thrilling chases, and sensational arrests. Most of the fancy stuff isn't worth the time, most of the time. Today's sexy topic, DNA fingerprinting, is mostly too expensive.

In reality, action worth telling your grandkids is at most a percent, maybe 0.1%, of time spent. It takes a special kind of mind to survive a job like that. Stacy Horn introduces us to a big handful of such men—and no women, for good reason—and profiles four or five in some detail, while weaving into the narrative glimpses of the mini-worlds surrounding the Squad's realm: the case files and their endless stacks of DD5 forms; the evidence warehouses, where some small fraction of the evidence related to tens of thousands of murders (and maybe a couple million other crimes) is kept...and often lost; the labs they do use when they have evidence worth a professional look; and particularly, the neighborhoods they canvass over and over again, gleaning the tiniest of clues and fast-fading memories.

Why no women? Women and men think differently. I've had a couple of friends over the years who were policewomen; one was a detective. They bring different skills, and valuable ways of looking at evidence and personalities to police work. Both freely admitted they couldn't do the "street work" of homicide investigation. There are likely other reasons. If there are any women working Cold Case homicides, Horn doesn't mention any.

I got into a rant a few postings back, about crudity in public culture. While I have a few quibbles with the author's language when he is speaking for himself, I have none when he is quoting his subjects. Nor when he describes the crime scenes and mostly seedy settings where the great majority of murders take place. The subject doesn't lend itself to reading while eating, and I think the author uses no more ugliness than is warranted by the material.

For me, reading about some of the things done by the murderers mentioned in the book confirmed my support for capital 'punishment.' I use quotes, because putting a murderer to death is not really punishment. It is our only way to be totally sure he or she will not murder again.

There is little comfort in Cold Case work. It is an ugly necessity, if only to mitigate, at least a little, the proportion of evil persons. Horn makes it clear that few of these detectives are 'nice guys.' They are hard, tough, and aggressive. They have to be. If some of them are jerks, it's the price to be paid for bringing, if not quite justice, at least finality, to old crimes.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Turning nightmares into daymares: Trolls on patrol

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, police stories, mysteries

I enjoy reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series for straight escape with a thoughtful aroma, and plenty of smooth mystery writing. Thud! fills the bill.

Sam Vimes, a recently-minted Duke and Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (in the current few books) gets a conundrum dropped into his lap that goes back two millenia. While Vimes has integrated the City Watch, deputizing nearly all allegedly sentient species—even, reluctantly, a vampire—the City's trolls ("our esteemed Siliconic citizens") and dwarfs (Pratchett's spelling; heavily-bearded and -armed folk, male or female) are ready to rumble. It's almost like West Side Story (or Romeo and Juliet), but with Rock vs Iron. Or perhaps a Civil War battle re-enactment among the rednecks (both Northern and Southern) who don't like how it turned out.

When some "deep dwarfs" called Grags show up and begin preaching dwarf puritanism, and young trolls begin club training, all leading up to Koom Valley Day, which commemorates an ill-remembered battle at which each side thinks it became the victim. There is action aplenty for all the members of the Watch, not just humans, trolls, and dwarfs, but the newly recruited vampire, a werewolf, and a human who was raised as a dwarf, plus the imp in Vimes's GooseberryTM PDA.

But what really happened, 2,000 years ago? That would be telling.

Pratchett excels in semi-magical fantasy, mystery, and semi-hard SF. The Discword books are his forum for combining them all.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Out of the sidewalk jungle, into the maw of the behemoth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sharks, islands, natural history

What do you get when you keep a true-born thrill seeker cooped up in an Editor's job too long? You get a woman who gives a few years of her life, and a small fortune, to obtain short-term residence and proximity for a few months at the South Farallon Island.

Just twenty-seven miles west of the Golden Gate bridge, the Farallon Islands are uninhabited at present, except by a literal handful of researchers. A couple of these study the population of great white sharks that spend about half of their year in the surrounding waters, feeding mainly on the elephant seals, and other seals, that breed there. The islands are called the Devil's Teeth, for good reason, once you see the photos.

Were you ever told that a human in a wet suit looks a lot like a seal, and moves like one that is sick? That probably explains why very few knowledgeable SCUBA divers are willing to dive anywhere west of San Francisco. Even in the off season, there are great whites that pass by.

Susan Casey spent a couple of very short visits (a day trip and a few day-long "internship") on South Farallon. She managed to wangle the loan of a yacht to live on, anchored nearby, for a few months in 2003...until the ship broke its anchor chain and drifted off during a storm. She'd snuck onto the island to have one night in a stable bed, or she'd not be around to write the story. That story, Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks, is exactly as the title bills it.

The researchers she relied on, Scot and Peter, studied the white sharks for nearly twenty years. A few appeared every year of two throughout those years (Great whites seem to live upwards of thirty years). One group of males, called the Rat Pack, stay mostly to the south of the island. A group of females, called the Sisters, stay mostly to the northeast. I found the natural history fascinating. Mature females are bigger, mostly about 18 feet, up to 21 feet long. White sharks are bulky, and the larger ones are over eight feet wide and six feet deep. Mature males are in the 14-16 foot range. In either case, they are big, powerful predators. However, when a pod of Orcas show up—up to 30 feet long and 12 feet wide—the sharks vanish.

I am a quiet sort. I don't live for excitement and risk like Ms Casey does. In her narrative she pulls no punches about the privations she and others experienced. I am indebted to her for opening a window for me, onto a place, and a life, that I would certainly not experience voluntarily.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Lady in Red...Hat!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, women's society, human relations

I find it interesting on occasion to read a woman-oriented book. I grew up in a house full of boys. Mom complained that even the cats and goldfish were male. I had little chance to learn anything about women.

Sue Ellen Cooper, with the poem "Warning" (When I am old, I shall wear purple/And a red hat that doesn't go...) ringing in her memory, saw a red hat in a thrift store some seven years ago, and bought it. Later she got red hats for a few close friends, gave them the hats when they met for tea, and, somewhat whimsically, declared themselves the Red Hat Society, with Sue Ellen as the Queen. Mostly, they declare, "No Rules!", other than wearing red hats and purple clothes when they are least. The RHS is a way for women over 50 (and younger Pink Hatters) to get together, drop all seriousness, and have fun together, especially if it is a bit silly.

It has grown to become a phenomenon. There are 18 Red Hat chapters in Rapid City, SD, and 23 in one Philadelphia suburb. Sue Ellen's book The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship After Fifty, is warm and welcoming (like a good tea party), and very well written. Its contents confirmed my understanding that women relate to one another in a way men simply cannot, and shouldn't try. Girl thing - Guy thing: we really do think differently.

So, I enjoyed the book, very much the outsider. Beyond that, I think it the better part of valor to avoid further comment.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Snicker Factor

kw: entertainment, audience factors, vulgarity, rejections

I read portions of a book for which I decline to provide more information. It looked like it could be a fun book, billed as a humorous look at parenthood. I found it near-pornographic.

I have been an entertainer, sporadically and amateur, for more than forty years. Some time about 1970 I made a strategic decision: I will appeal to my audience's nobility. That is related to output. Then, approaching 1990, after we had our son, I decided that, to help him have a genuine childhood, not a pressure-filled 'miniature adulthood', we needed to strictly regulate his exposure to 'popular culture'. Furthermore, for the sake of consistency, and my own peace of mind, that if something was not appropriate for him, neither was it appropriate for me. That took care of input. No garbage in, no garbage out.

There was a recent newspaper article (it came off AP, so many papers carried it) that noted the recent 'G-Rated' movie "Chicken Little" is mis-rated. It has more violence than one would expect. We're in the middle of a ratings shift. In fact, based on what I've been told about some recent movies, the material in many R-Rated films would have earned them an X rating in the 1980s.

We know that kids need to learn what real life is like. However, most parents I know agree that they need to learn it SLOWLY. And there are many facets of "real life" that nobody really needs to learn in any subjective way; at most they need to be warned that certain things may be done by some people, but one hopes he or she never becomes acquainted with such a person.

Everyone who seeks to entertain others, whether by 1-on-1 wit to a friend or stand-up comedy; whether by performing, writing, creating artwork, or whatever; all must decide to what audience they wish to appeal. I am a singer and songwriter. I like some Country music. There are two basic streams to it: more common is the cry-in-your-beer about lost love, lost dogs, lost trucks, lost memory...the less common is about loving families, good friends, happy experiences, and successful relationships. I have chosen the latter path.

Of my more recent songs, one is about how similar I am to my father when he was this age, another about a formative experience my mother had as a pre-teen, another about raising a son young enough to be my grandson. People love them.

I perform for people who want something good in their lives. When I write humor, I aim for an honest belly laugh, not for an embarrased snicker. So when I read a book by a popular young woman that is filled with vulgarity and callous jests, it makes me sad that she finds an audience who wishes to be so debased and degraded. Of course I didn't finish the book! I don't need that kind of input.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

If you gave a mouse the equipment to speak, could he use it?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, quests

Fourth World by Kate Thompson is billed as science fiction, but the element of fantasy is rather strong in her writing. This is the first novel in a trilogy called "Missing Link". Danny, a seemingly handicapped boy, helped by his stepbrother Christy and some decidedly odd companions travel from Ireland to Scotland across a near-future Britain in the grip of energy-crisis rationing (forget £2-per-liter petrol; there is nearly none to be had at any price), in search of Danny's mother. Two of the companions are a dog and starling that can speak.

More than half the novel is taken up with their journey. When they arrive, they find a lot more speaking animals, including a pink, hairless mouse that befriends Christy. Now, with the starling I already drew the line. The mouse is a step way to far. Unless we have greatly misunderstood how brains work, there simply isn't enough gray matter in the brain of any small creature to manage the thinking that underlies speech. Perhaps the mouse looks like "The Brain" in the cartoon...

A second scientific quibble I have is with the notion that the Missing Link between humans and apes is defined by exactly one gene, that supposedly endows humans with the power of self-reflective thought and speech. The current understanding in Anthropology circles is that there are at least twenty known links between humans and the proto-hominid that is ancestral to both humans and chimpanzees. The genetic difference between people and chimps is a bit over two percent, meaning major differences in about five hundred of the 22,000 or so "genes" that define each species. Even in 2000, when this book was released, we knew that it takes a few hundred genes at least to differentiate humans from apes.

Oh, well. Thompson is a skilled writer. With a bit of struggle, I could at least set aside disbelief and enjoy the yarn. The twist at the end, revealing why Danny can hold his breath so long, is satisfying. I guess I'll hunt up the other two novels.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Highest pun-per-page rate going!

kw: book reviews, fantasy, humor, xanth series

I suppose you've heard of the court jester who was going to be hanged for punning on the king's name. He was offered clemency if he refrained from future puns. Upon his reply, "No noose is good news," he was promptly hanged.

For a graduate course in punmanship, read any of Piers Anthony's Xanth series novels. The current offering, Pet Peeve, is just a bit punnier, substantially racier, than the prior 20-odd Xanth books. In his postlude, Anthony relates that he can crank out a Xanth novel in about three months. With his very wide-ranging readership, all offering fresh meterial via his website, it's a surprise that it takes him that long...unless the first two months is weeding out the material.

Xanth is a Florida-shaped land full of elves, dwarves, goblins, ogres, were-creatures, and of course a smattering of humans. They all have a roughly third-grade sensibility when it comes to sexual matters. Males of any species "freak out" upon the sight of any female's panties. Of course, various females (human and near-human) go about bare-breasted or wholly bare at times, with little ill effect. It is all part of the Adult Conspiracy...and you'll just have to read about it because it just can't be described out of context.

In Pet Peeve, the Peeve is a Parody, a parrot-like bird that excels at the brutal art of mad-dog insult. The hero, the land's only gentle Goblin, is given the task of finding a home for the Peeve. On the way, an attempt to create a single nest-building construction robot goes awry when the robot's program—obtained from the Land of Robots on a mini-moon—is found to have no "stop" instruction. Robots are soon everywhere.

The plot plays distant second fiddle to the better-than-one-per-sentence pun rate that Anthony likes to maintain. This leaves one alternately tickled and irritated. But, then, that's what puns ought to do. They may be the "lowest form of humor," but they can hit you anywhere.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And you thought you knew what a frog is

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, amphibians

Did you ever hear Red Skelton parody of E.A. Poe's "Bells"?

Frogs-Frogs-Frogs! They are everywhere.
Frogs-Frogs-Frogs! Croaking fills the the air.
Louder-Louder-Louder! Is their blasted blare.
There's no silence through the night.

Croaks-Croaks-Croaks! Heard 3 miles away.
Five-Six-Seven...beyond that, they say.
Frogs-Frogs-Frogs-multiplying more each day.
There's no silence through the night.

What-What-What is their earthy reason?
When? When? When is wedlock out of season?
Is-Is-Is it the lack of indecision?
There's no silence through the night.

Don't-Don't-Don't try seeking them out.
Frogs-Frogs-Frogs! They're hiding all about.
Go-Go-Go mad until you shout:
There's no silence through the night!

("Madness of Frogs" from the giant coloring book "Red Skelton's Frog Follies" © 1976 Red Skelton, Gravette Pub. Co.)

Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World, by Ellin Beltz, is a quick read. Plenty of information, compactly presented, and lots of pictures. Here we find why Toad is not a taxonomic term. [Toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. Fine syllogism, that. The characteristics that mark a toad (warty, dry skin; more forward-looking eyes; shorter limbs; longer, more accurate tongue) arose in several families, so all toad groups are descended from frog ancestors, but their is no one Toad group.]

Dave Barry wrote, "If God had wanted us to be concerned for the plight of the toads, he would have made them cute and furry." Actually, most toads are better survivors than most frogs...and, the frogs are undeniably cuter (no fur, though). The ugliest of the toads is gradually eating all small non-toads in Australia. Its introduction, to eat a pesky beetle it actually prefers not to eat, has been one of the greater ecological disasters of well-meant 'alien species' introduction.

So, natural-historical lessons aside, we have quite a number of frog species in danger, mainly because they are much more sensitive to water-borne pollution than we are (imagine if all your skin were as sensitive as the front of your eye). And on the other side, some of the tougher frogs are putting our own livelihood in danger! Talk about a sandwich generation!

I enjoyed reading Frogs, but then, I was the kid that read dictionaries or encyclopedias for enjoyment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Jovian Swim Meet

kw: book reviews, science fiction, interplanetary politics

Not long ago (Thursday, 10/20/05) I mused on the the possibility for human-alien hybrids, just based on the likelihood that two independent DNA systems might be compatible. Shortly thereafter, I read a book based on a human-alien hybrid. At first, I thought panspermia within the solar system might offer a way for the DNA between Earth and Jupiter life systems to be compatible. But, it turns out, these Jovians are from elsewhere...just where, we don't find out, but the fact itself is a source of dramatic tension.

So, Timothy Zahn presents the discovery of life "swimming" in the Jovian atmosphere, intelligent life at that. Within twenty years, Human-Qanska communication is sufficiently advanced that between them, the two species work out a way for a paraplegic human to be merged with a Qanskan embryo, to be born and raised a Qanska. The book is Manta's Gift, and the gift in question turns out to be a sacrifice different from what you might expect. The genre is semi-hard SF, with a strong veneer of politics to provide the evil megalomaniac that SF novels routinely deliver.

The cultural re-awakening of a young human show-off and jerk (how d'ya think he became paraplegic?) who must become his race's ambassador to Jove is convincingly, if sketchily, told. The dynamics of swimming in an environment that is swooshing around the Jovian equator at several hundred km/hr has been thought through, as has the complication of a thousand-fold change in fluid density as one descends.

As it happens, the Qanskans are in the midst of an ecological crisis, and it takes problem-solvers, that is, humans, to figure it out for them. How an herbivorous species gained sufficient intelligence to be self-aware and have advanced communication skills and culture, without simultaneously developing strong problem-solving skills, is beyond me.

I have an even bigger issue, one involving physics. Much is made of the Qanskans feeling wind in the left or right ear when they turn north or south. This becomes the focus of a dramatic episode, which is a shame. If you are swimming in the thick atmosphere, it makes no difference whatever how fast it is moving; to you it is calm, absent local turbulence. A hot-air balloon or dirigible may be in still air, or in a rapid, steady wind, but the inhabitants will experience complete calm, as long as they don't blow too close to something that stirs up an eddy. The wind-in-the-ear stuff makes it seem that these air-swimmers are somehow anchored to the planet's surface, thousands of miles below. Can't be so.

These quibbles aside, Zahn has several new and interesting ideas, and a way with words that make this an enjoyable yarn.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Making Reality and its Perils

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, reality bending

Karl Schroeder joins a long list of authors whose speculative fiction explores our relationship with reality and our own perceptions. Lady of Mazes takes you deep into a society that is based on the ability to choose the reality in which you will live. Nanomachines in your body and garments, in communication with an ubiquitous net of powerful computer equipment, work together with your will to place you, experientially, in a "shared reality" of your own making.

Then what happens if the system on which this society is based begins to break down, or is attacked? What is the result of a post-human, machine-based species that sets up a portion of the planetary system as its own turf, keeping humans least most of them?

This satisfying meld of hard and soft SF is full of interesting ideas. The ability to be anywhere, virtually, in full-sensory experience becomes the ability to have a simulation of your personality running one or more agents that gather experience and interact with your acquaintances, much as you would, with the ability to replay their memories at high speed back into your own. Semisentient clothing could have the power to be doctor and protector, and even to become a temporary vacuum suit. Spinning cylinders, strung out along an orbit of their own, so oriented that an object released from the edge of one comes close enough to the next to provide an efficient means of intra-system transport.

In the end, technology produces virtual godhood for a few, who may or may not be in cahoots with the posthumans. They compete to save, or perhaps contain, the human societies. It's a little hard to tell.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A mysterious excuse for a biography of Roger Bacon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, unknown scripts, medieval scholarship

One of my favorite exercises at the end of a work day is to open the newspaper and solve the daily cipher. These are kept simple by not enciphering the blank, though they can be tricky because they are too short for statistical methods to be of much use. Perhaps you know that universal mystery spy, Etaoin Shrdlu, or his sidekick Etaison Hurdl: these are mnemonics for the order of most frequent letters in 20th- and 19th-century newspaper prose, respectively. However, many, many of the quotes I decipher are quite short of E's or T's, and may have none entirely.

There are many tricks the puzzle columnist can play. For example, a single loose character usually refers to I or A, and you can use the fact that I is rarely found at the end of words to help discern which, early on in a solution. However, I have seen this: "OZN B RNSNATOKLS", which solved to "the X generation".

The medieval scholar Roger Bacon, and his Elizabethan-era namesake Francis Bacon, were both intimately familiar with codes, ciphers, and other methods of steganography (covered writing or hidden writing). Roger Bacon wrote of "Seven Ways of Concealing Secrets." They were

  1. hiding a message "under characters and symbols," one kind of a Code;
  2. hiding it "in enigmatical and figurative expressions," another kind of Code;
  3. writing in a shorthand, such as leaving out vowels in a script like Hebrew that doesn't have them, a Shorthand Cipher;
  4. Ciphers, where invented symbols, or alphabetic symbols in a different order, are substituted for the original letters, and possibly punctuation;
  5. Ciphers with admixed characters, invented or borrowed, Null-padded Ciphers;
  6. complete artificial languages, which are more complex types of Codes;
  7. writing with even more brevity than an ordinary shorthand, possibly with lots of null material padding it. One could call this a Shared-Milieu Code, intelligible only between persons with a similar professional jargon.

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone have written a sort of mixed biography, partly a biography of Roger Bacon, and partly that of a remarkable document, today called the Voynich Manuscript. In The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World, the Goldstones present a brief history of cryptography, of the Manuscript, and of the man who is its most likely creator.

From his writings, it is known that Roger Bacon was very concerned with concealing some of his writings, because of the scrutiny of the medieval Church. In his days, the Church had the chance to adopt an attitude toward science that embraced experience and experimental evidence, embracing what we call scientific knowledge, while making it subservient to the knowledge obtained by Faith. Instead, the Pope and cardinals rejected this way, choosing instead to deify the atheist Aristotle, who perferred inductive reasoning from imagined premises to deduction from observation. I wonder what things would be like today, if scientific advancement began in the 1200s rather than the 1600s?

As it was, Roger Bacon, who is sometimes called "the father of the scientific method," was in danger, and for some time imprisoned, because of his support for an anti-Aristotelian philosophy. Thus, during his decades of obscurity (he lived eighty years), it is likely he had plenty of time to put together a nearly 300 page document, entirely enciphered (at least), with enigmatic illustrations that are likely also encoded, or at least allegorical. This illustration (trimmed from one of the scans in the Beinecke Library website) shows a portion of one page; the text is accompanied by an apparently botanical drawing, but of no plant known.

I find it quite fascinating that, while the document is attributed to Roger Bacon, and contains a seeming key in a different cipher that translates to a Latin message referring to him, it is by no means certain, either that he composed it, or indeed that it was composed in the Century or locale in which he lived. After much reasoning on both sides of that issue, researchers in favor of Bacon's authorship fall back on the view that there is no other viable candidate...except perhaps Francis Bacon, who lived five hundred years later. But where he could have got such a store of 400-year-old, unused (!) paper is a bigger puzzle.

Is it a hoax? If it is, it is clearly the most elaborate, embodying by far the greatest amount of labor and diligence, of all hoaxes in history. Yet its script has been attacked by the best cryptanalysts of four centuries. The most controversial proposed decipherment is that of William R. Newbold, in the 1920s.

He used a complicated scheme of cipher (I keep wanting to spell it cypher!) decoding, anagrams, and punning rhymes, to produce quite a lot of rather plausible material. His decipherments cannot be conclusively discounted, and nobody else has come close to anything better.

Analysis of character frequencies provides only a partial clue. Languages contain redundancy, to aid a reader in getting a clear meaning. This redundancy varies. Complex languages such as English and Russian have a lot more redundancy than some. The languages with the least redundancy are Polynesian tongues, and wholly artificial languages such as Esperanto. The Voynich script has a level of redundancy—at the character level—that is right on a par with a Polynesian language.

There are just about a dozen examples of wholly unknown scripts. Most supply too little material for a useful cryptographic or linguistic analysis, and most are probably actual language scripts, written in 'clear text' for those who knew the language at the time. The Voynich Manuscript is the largest sample of an unknown script that is known (or almost certain) to be enciphered. Will its code ever be cracked? Perhaps it was, by Newbold, and perhaps not; perhaps someday, perhaps never. That is the body of a good mystery.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Alien Hybrids?

kw: space aliens, DNA, central dogma of genetics, genetic code

Do you think Spock could really exist? Is a hybrid between humans (or any Earth species) and an interstellar alien possible? Alien-human hybrids figure prominently in some writers' stories...and they are the core fear driving the "alien abduction" folks. Could it happen???

The Central Dogma of genetics is that DNA is transcribed onto RNA, and the transcribed RNA is used to make Proteins. Most of these proteins are Enzymes, that is, peptide catalysts. That isn't all there is to it, because some RNAs are Rybozymes, behaving as Enzymes though they aren't proteins. It turns out that biochemistry is nearly all geometry, and you can form a desired shape from amino acids (proteins) or from RNA. Also, in trying to determine if "junk DNA" is really junk, we are finding that some DNA has a regulatory function within the nucleus, plus there are at least five or six levels of regulatory activity by various protein families.

So, DNA is Transcribed to RNA, and most RNA is Translated to Protein. The translation function of genetics is based on the Genetic Code, which determines how the 64 3-Base Codons are distributed among the 20 Amino Acids and the Start and Stop functions. As it happens, in most Earth creatures, some amino acids correspond to as many as six RNA codons, some to four, on to just three that correspond to a single codon each. There is a minor difference between the code for Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes, but 62 of the codons are used identically in all cells...on Earth.

It appears that many of the amino acids used in active sites have larger codon sets, while "backbone" AAs have smaller sets. AAs that are "important" have more codes than those that are have more "scaffolding" functions. This is not totally consistent, but it explains one source of robustness; many point mutations make no difference in the shape of the protein encoded.

Recently, we find that all parts of this system are malleable. It is possible to synthesize bases that could be used in place of any of the A, C, G, and T (or U in RNA) bases used in Earth DNA. It is also possible to synthesize a great variety of "extra" amino acids. In fact, there are a couple of "extra" AAs that seem to be used by certain bacteria, and some researchers claim that there are a dozen or so variants of the "Earth" genetic code, found among bacteria only.

Researchers have also created the pieces to get certain bacteria to synthesize and use, in proteins, an amino acid not normally found in nature. So, while nearly all Earth life uses the familiar four bases and twenty amino acids, there is no guarantee that life forms that arose on a distant planet do so.

Since we know that all 64 Codons are used, we can think of a few simple variations that would work equally well. If you have a string of three symbols, there are six ways you can arrange them. That means, if you were to perform the same rearrangement on every codon in the set, there are six "genetic codes" that work exactly as the Earth one does.

If instead you determine how many different ways 64 Codons can be distributed among 20 AAs, the number isn't just in the billions, or in the trillions: it is an immense number with more than seventy digits. If we just look at a near-even distribution, with 60 codons parceled out three at a time to 20 items (e.g., the 20 AAs), with the two remaining items getting two codons each, the value is 60!/[(2!)2(3!)20], which comes to 8.7x1072. There are many, many other ways to partition how many codons each AA gets.

Many of these will be less favorable, because certain 'sensitive' AAs don't get sufficient protection from mutation, but there are huge numbers of relatively 'good' codes that could be used, more than enough that each planet in the visible universe (assuming a billion or so per galaxy, and perhaps a trillion galaxies) can choose among billions of possibilities.

As a result, even if every star has a planet bearing life, the likelihood that two of them will have the same genetic code, or even remotely similar genetic codes, is effectively zero. We can determine how close to zero, by means of the "birthday paradox". You may know that, if you get 23 or more people in a room, there is a better-than-even chance that two of them will have the same birthday.

Similarly, if you assume that blondes have at most 100,000 hairs on their head, in any city with more than 100,000 blondes, there will be quite a few pairs with exactly the same number of hairs on their head. What is interesting is, if you have any group of at least 373 blondes, there is a better-than-50% chance that two of them will have the same number of hairs. Which to? You gotta count a lotta follicles!

Now, if the universe of possible DNA codes is of the order of 1072, what are the chances that there is an exact match between two codes, if the number of inhabited planets in our galaxy is ten billion...or in the universe, perhaps a quintillion (billion trillion)? Both are wild guesses, but plausible.

In the first case, the probability of a single match is 1-exp(-10-52), which has 52 zeroes before you get a nonzero digit. In the second case, the match probability is 1-exp(-10-30), which has 30 zeroes ahead of the first nonzero digit. Either way, it's way, way smaller than a chance in a million. Turning the question around, how many "viable codes" might there be, to assure that in the universe, or in our galaxy, the chance of at least one match is at least 50-50? For the galaxy, there must be fewer than 1021 actual DNA codes in use, and for the universe, fewer than 1043.

So, we start with a 72-digit number, and cut it down by 29 digits, just to make some chance that two life forms, that arose in different planets, could hybridize. Not a good bet.

Added note January 2007: There are currently seventeen "genetic codes" known, in use by Earth organisms (see the Wikipedia article Translation (genetics) ). The vast majority of cells use the "standard code", but there are many minor variants used by mitochondria, a couple used by plastids, and a few others used by certain eukaryotic microbes.