Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Action Hero 101

kw: book reviews, martial arts

I've had just a smattering of martial arts instruction. Main useful thing: I know how to fall down without breaking my own bones. My favorite sparring partner in my Judo class when I was 15 was a friend, a football player, who weighed 300 pounds, just twice my weight. Even though he was letting me throw him, it was very satisfying to get him off the ground, over my back, and land him in a roll (not a thud; I didn't want to hurt him). He also had a couple of bigger guys to work with, so he could actually have a useful workout.

Years later, at least ten years since I'd had any instruction, my mother countered her "empty nest" by studying martial arts. One day I visited with a friend. He saw her certificate for the brown belts in karate, judo, and jujitsu. He asked, "What's the difference between judo and jujitsu?" She said, "Larry, come here." I obligingly let her domonstrate, "Judo is like this" "and jujitsu is like this" . For those with the same question, jujitsu makes use of the opponent's own body instead of one's own as the pivot of the throws. Done well, it can look like you picked a fellow up by the tips of your fingers, or even like you threw him without touching him. It also makes lots of use of submission grips and joint-jamming holds. At the time, Mom weighed 105, and I weighed 190. My friend was suitably impressed.

As you might imagine, I decided I'd better learn enough to counter her moves. Together with a friend—a policewoman exactly my size—I joined the dojo where Mom studied. I guess we worked out there for almost a year. This led to two more amusing incidents.

One evening, the woman dropped me off at my home, which I shared with several other college guys and recent graduates. One of them, a Puerto Rican, said, "What are the funny uniforms." We explained that they were judo gis (gi is pronounced with a hard G). Then we showed him a little. She took me over in a hip throw, and the fellow's eyes got big. Then I swung her over in a shoulder throw, and his eyes got bigger. In his Hispanic culture, a man just doesn't do that to a woman! Of course, she rolled right up with a grin and slapped him on the shoulder: "It's fun!"

Another time, a family man who lived nearby said he'd heard I was "doing karate." He bounced around like a boxer, and faked a kick at me. I caught his heel and upset him onto the grass. He got up and laughed it off, but I said, "Look, I'm pretty sure I can keep you from hurting me, but I am not sure I can do it without hurting you. I'm not quite that good yet."

By contrast, Chuck Norris, who has favored us with Against All Odds: My Story, once defeated 22 black belts in a row, forcing each in turn to tap his submission, without hurting any of them. Norris's co-author, Ken Abraham, has rendered his stories in a very readable, enjoyable account of his life.

I have long been interested in Chuck Norris's versatility. It is well known that, if a martial artist has studied mainly one discipline, someone familiar with that discipline, though of lesser skill, can still defend against it. The best practitioners have studied numerous styles and incorporated them into a fighting style that is impossible to anticipate.

I particularly appreciate Norris's unabashed expressions of faith. He presents his life frankly, the good with the bad. A Bible teacher will tell you that the Bible presents the "heroes of faith" to us "warts and all." Norris doesn't hide his warts, but does show how God has helped him rise above them and put his weaknesses behind him.

Even more, I appreciate that Norris has labored to educate children through the program now known as KickStart, which has had great success reducing the influence of gangs and drugs in many schools.

It is hard to realize that Chuck Norris is 65...but he tells us himself that he was born in 1940. He's had a fuller life than most, and had a better impact on the world around him.

Politics as Unusual

kw: book reviews, essays, politics

Do you remember who said, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert their children to Christianity."? Ann Coulter still says, so, and backs it up with reasons. Nobody yet—and it has been four years—has, in print, offered anything remotely resembling a reasoned contrary argument. I've looked and looked, and found emotionalism at best, but usually personal attacks of the vilest kind.

Ms Coulter would respond that her opponents' only weapon is character assassination. So she offers up her own brand of political polemic in her new book, How to Talk to a Liberal (if you must).

She presses her point in the title chapter. Thereafter, she offers up just over 100 essays expressing her conservative views with considerable wit and erudition. You may not like what she says, but you must admit she does her homework.

It took reading them all, then pondering, for me to realize that she refrains from going after those the media in general is attacking. She specializes in recounting the ignored stories, the underreported angles, the "elephants in the corner" that "the media" bypasses.

The author skewers the liberal and famous right and left. As she says, "They are such easy targets." For example, in the essay, "Checks and Balances, but Mostly Checks," she notes late in the essay that every major newspaper and news program reported how "Bush outspent Gore 4 to 1 on Florida recount." However, not one of them reported that 7/8 of Gore's fund was donated by just 84 persons, and that 2/3 came from 38 individual contributions averaging $55,000, and ranging from $25,000 to $500,000. By contrast, no donation to G.W. Bush exceeded $5,000, so that he raised his $13+ million from several thousand persons. So, which party caters to the rich???

As Bernard Baruch stated, "Every man has the right to an opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts." That goes for women, too. And I must here paraphrase Mark Twain, "Someone who will not think, has no advantage over someone who cannot think." Ann Coulter knows how to think, so put on your thinking cap before you enter the lists against her.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Plan Would Move African Animals to U.S.

kw: news, ecoidiocy

Plan Would Move African Animals to U.S. at Yahoo! News recounts the latest and most extreme piece of ecological idiocy so far proposed. Here is the basis: At the beginning of the Holocene, the "modern era" of about the last 12,000 years, most species in a diverse population of large mammals became extinct. It is likely that early people had a lot to do with this, though the radical climate change had to play a rĂ´le.

In addition to the several deer species (including moose), bovines (bison), gazelles (pronghorn), bears, pumas, wolves and coyotes, there were cousins of modern camels, rhinos, cheetahs and elephants. However, the 20,000-year-ago cheetah analog that chased pronghorns was actually in a different family of cats, and was not a cheetah, the mammoth and mastadon species were adapted to a cold climate, similar to Baffin Island today, and and the predator-prey mix had a balance similar to that now seen in the Yukon.

An African ecosystem overlaid on today's North American? Dumb.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

For these Ants, the Picnic is Your House

kw: book reviews, monographs, natural history

Have you ever seen an ant the size of a hornet? Chances are, if you did, you thought it was a hornet! Except it was black, and didn't fly very fast. The Eastern and Western "black carpenter ant" species have queens an inch long, and workers a half inch or larger in length. In northern areas too cold for most termites, they take over the job of reducing our houses to piles of sawdust. At least in North America, when you see a black ant that big, you are seeing one of these carpenter ants. However, if you see only one, it is probably a lone forager looking for water. When they are hunting, they stay more hidden. They don't eat wood, but insects that infest the trees they live in. They just prefer "digging" in wood to digging in dirt like more familiar ants.

Laurel D. Hansen and John H. Klotz have produced a book that is quite to the scientific side of the technical/popular spectrum: Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. The book is brief but comprehensive. The morphology chapter has numerous drawings and photos that show the internals...and you thought it was tricky to dissect a frog in BIO 101! There is enough new terminology here to keep you busy for a day or two adding new vocabulary.

Here I learned that the two big, black species are but two of 24 species of North American carpenter ants, though one is found only in Hawaii and one only in Florida. Eight of the 24 are found in the mid-Atlantic area where I live. Oh, joy! What I hadn't known was that the common species have three sizes of workers: the half-inch monsters, some a bit over a quarter inch, and some rather less than a quarter inch. It is the smaller ones you are likely to see tending aphids on your rose bush—their sugar farm—, while the bigger ones tackle moths and flies for protein. I thought they were different species.

A strenuous read, but rewarding.

Here, try my specs...

kw: book reviews, self help

This isn't original with me, nor with Stephen Covey, from whom I heard it: Do your eyes trouble you? Having a hard time seeing sometimes? Here, try my eyeglasses. I can see perfectly with them. What, don't they help you? Strange...

Not so strange. If my eyes and nearsighted and yours are farsighted, or if we simply have quite different amounts of astigmatism, there's no way my glasses will do you much good...and vice versa. Some things are like that. My eyes are not your eyes.

Some are not. If you have a bad Strep throat, there are several antibiotics that ought to nicely clear it up. Of course, these days, the germ in question may be resistant to most antibiotics, so it may take a trial or two to find the one (or some combination) that will do the job. But, if the one causing your strep throat is one you caught from me, the same combination that works for me will work for you. One cause, one solution.

Are the emotional and mental quirks that we all suffer in the category of "one cause, one solution" or "my neurosis is not like your neurosis"? Hard to tell. Every self-help book I've read claims that this or that method or procedure will certainly work; it is all in the diligence you bring to it. That simply turns into a game of "blame the victim" when it doesn't work for someone.

So it is with the patterned behavior we all experience. I recently finished reading Make the Leap: a Practical Guide to Breaking the Patterns that Hold You Back by Farrell Silverberg, PhD. He has written a helpful book, if patterns are your problem. But what is a pattern?

We live by patterns. Most of us have a way we get to work, or church, or the grocery. We almost always go the same way. Whether we walk, drive, take the bus or train, we can do it without noticing; we are on autopilot. It is a useful pattern.

One day I was on the way to the library. The first half the way is the same roads I take to my son's school. I was nearly to the school before I broke out of autopilot, cussed, and turned back to the library. I was trapped by a pattern, if briefly.

Here is another, one that I cringe to recall. Like most school age boys, I had a few fights growing up. On a couple of occasions I was ambushed while sitting down. Many years later, when my son was 4 or 5, he dashed over to my chair and jumped on me. I hollered and thrashed, and he was flung across the room. Well, that was the first and last time he joyfully sprang into my lap. I was trapped by a pattern that hadn't been used for decades.

Some patterns are mild, some very strong. A very outdated, maladaptive pattern is what we call a neurosis. It is based on behavior that once helped, but doesn't do so any more. Now it harms us.

I'm not going to go into detail about the book. Dr. Silverberg is a very good writer, with useful methods to teach, but he makes no bones that it takes a lot of work on your part to see, understand, and break a pattern. It then takes more, much more, work to push it into permanent limbo.

I didn't find a pair of glasses that fit. But perhaps the things I remember will help me see any patterns that show up later. I happen to like my routines. I worked hard to set up many of them. I have reached the curmudgeonly state where I'd rather a few folks broke a pattern here or there, and left mine alone.

Self-limiting Phenomena, part 2

kw: practical darwinism

Creating the former post, I thought of another hot-button topic that one may also consider in genetic terms. The modern litmus test for political correctness is "choice." By that is meant one's attitude toward "abortion rights."

Concerning my own position, I will not elaborate beyond saying that I believe abortion is not a moral form of birth control.

But here I take a darwinist perspective. Consider, of a number of women raised in similar environments and having similar beliefs, who become pregnant, in all cases surprised by it and not at all happy about it: some will abort, and some will not.

Perhaps if you dug deep enough into each woman's history, you would find some consistent environmental difference between the "aborters" and the "non-aborters." I think it unlikely. Rather, it is likely that there is a spectrum of attitudes, built into our brains, regarding the balance of convenience versus procreation. It is analogous to the spectrum of boldness-timidity, extraversion-introversion, and many others. Twin studies show there is a strong genetic component to all of these.

Here is the plain, evolutionary fact: women who are more likely to have an abortion for the sake of convenience will have fewer children than the others. Therefore, the tendency to abuse abortion is self-limiting, and will remain a minority of the population.

I imagine there are a number of other societal issues that have a Darwinian component...

Self-limiting Phenomena

kw: practical darwinism

I've recently read The Empress of Ireland by Christopher Robbins. I debated with myself about presenting a review, or even mentioning the title and author. The "Empress" in question was a well-known Irish filmmaker who happened to be gay, aged about eighty when the author, who is straight, met him. Robbins was in his late twenties at the time. The two had a friendship that revolved about a screenplay and autobiography, neither of which was completed. The narrative covers about two years, with a coda taking us to the old fellow's death at ninety-one.

Probably wittingly, Robbins presents a few items to fuel the nature-nurture debate: is homosexuality a choice? One may as well ask, is neurosis a choice? The latter answer is required to clear the ground for proper examination of the former. Not because gay people are particularly neurotic, but because many of them do report incidents in their youth that would turn any but the most determined of heterosexuals at least to celibacy.

And besides, I think we need a new word here: homophilia. It is one thing to prefer sex with persons of one's own gender; it is another to actually love one's sexual object(s). This distinction is quite clear among heterosexuals, particularly shown by abusive spouses toward their supposed "loved one." When an abuser uses the word "love," believe me, he (or less commonly, she) isn't using the same dictionary as the rest of us. To an abuser, love really means possession and control, and has no element of nurturing or cherishing.

So, let us consider, are gay men born or made? I recall a statement by Jesus, about those who don't marry. As an aside, the common English Bible uses the word Eunuch for perpetual bachelors, but the Greek word being translated does not refer to someone whose "family jewels" are missing. So for Eunuch I will substitute Celibate, the noun for a person who never has sex. Jesus said, "Some Celibates were born so, some were made Celibates by others, and some make themselves Celibates for the sake of the kingdom of God."

This can be paraphrased to refer to the way I think of homosexuals: some were born so, some were made so by others, and some make themselves homosexuals for the sake of maximal pleasure. All the reading I have done leads me to these conclusions:
  • "Some were born so": perhaps as many as two percent of men, regardless of environmental pressures, never care about sex with women, and are attracted only to men. At least some of these are probably genuine, genetic homophiliacs.
  • "Some were made so by others": There are two cases here. Some men who might otherwise live heterosexual lives were so traumatized, often by abuse at a woman's hands, that they cannot bear the thought of intimacy with a woman. If they are to have a sex life, it will be with men. The other case is those who were courted by a homosexual—rather than simply raped—into experimenting with male-male sex, and found it thrilling or enjoyable enough that it remains a part of their life. Such a man is likely to marry a woman and raise children, but if he cheats on his wife, it is more likely to be with men. These two categories may comprise five to ten percent of men.
  • "Some make themselves so...": This is the province of prisons and boarding schools, where about half, perhaps more than half, the inmates periodically gang-rape a chosen victim, or gang-bang a more willing victim. Their environment prevents association with women, so that proportion who prefer sodomy to celibacy use men as a surrogate. Returned to more normal society, most never seek solace with a man. And some, finding their own feelings ambiguous, do so only once in a while.

Putting all this together, it seems there is a genetic component, but it is a minor thing. Those with a strong anti-hetero proclivity simply won't reproduce, so there is a continual loss of these kind of genes. However, this isn't a case of blue eyes and brown eyes. There are likely a number of genes involved (if there are may not be so), and the wide spectrum of hetero-vs-homo activity tells me that, while perhaps half of men could find it within themselves to engage in male-male sex, only a small number find it preferable to male-female sex.

Thus, for genetic reasons, regardless of the attitude of society, homosexuality in the population is self-limiting. Note: This discussion is limited to male homosexuality, mainly because I know so very little about the female variety.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Minorities in Charge

kw: poverty, education, welfare

It was announced today that Texas has become the fourth state in which "minorities" are the majority of its population (See, for example, Yahoo! News). Four other states have at least 40% "minority" populations. Of course this is all based on the notion that "whites," meaning Euro-Americans of a range of shades, accents, and "western" ethnicities, and whose parents were born here, are the "majority."

Today's "majority" is composed of a gaggle of former "minorities." Let us take as a benchmark in time the Revolutionary War of the 1770s and 1780s. By that time "native Americans" (or whatever today's PC term may be) were probably a minority in the 13 Colonies, at least. The dominant group, the "majority" of the day, was composed of Protestant, English-speaking folk whose ancestors immigrated from England and Holland. The rather large numbers of German-speaking Anabaptists (whose descendants today include the Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and Hutterites) were largely ignored.

Over time, immigrants from Scotland, Scandanavia, France, Italy, Ireland...all were "minorities" for a time, then assimilated into the population over a few generations (My ancestors of the third wave of Scottish immigration, in the late 1800s, were better received, finding Scottish-majority enclaves throughout the Midwest). Today few people think of the Jews as a minority group. They are usually counted as part of the "white majority." Many people I know tend to think of them almost as just another denomination.

Today, when the word "minority" is used, people tend to think black, hispanic, or asian. The first word that comes to mind, though, depends on where one is. In the suburbs north of Los Angeles, California, there has been a great increase in mainly Chinese immigration over about the past thirty years. Some of those suburbs are now nearly all-asian. A lot of prejudice arose.

About twenty years ago, during the period of most rapid influx, my wife and I went with my parents to the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia. The parking lot was quite full. As we drifted slowly, looking for an empty space, an older man jumped out of a parked car, ran up to my father, who was driving, and offered him his parking space. As he turned to go back to his car, he said, "I've been waiting an hour for someone to give this space to that wasn't a damn Asian!" After he backed out, he passed us, and caught sight of my Asian wife in the back seat. He turned quite red and sped away.

I have observed over the decades that some folks have a harder time than others being assimilated into "American" life. Italians were once hated "dagoes" (sorry...), but few traces of the old prejudice remain. For a generation or two, an Irishman who couldn't get a job as a policeman had to start a business, because there were no other jobs available to them. Today, who cares? Everybody puts on something green for St. Pat's day.

When I lived in South Dakota, the mayor of Rapid City was of the Lakota tribe, though at that time many Lakotas were nearly at war with the US Government over the Black Hills (remember Russell Means?). I observed there was quite a difference between the "reservation Indians" and those I was in school with and others who had left the reservation. The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people I knew had not forsaken their culture. Most spoke a Sioux language, participated in traditional ceremonies, and gave much extra effort to learn and retain their cultural identity. Their dedication is similar to Scottish-ancestry cousins of mine who continue to study and speak Erse (Scottish Gaelic), attend Highland Games (some compete), and maintain their cultural identity. All within the context of modern American life.

Few "reservation Indians" had any education beyond mandatory public school, and many did little with their lives, preferring to squeak by on the entitlements provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I really came to admire those few who educated themselves further, but stayed on the reservation to provide leadership. Tribal leaders had a heartbreaking situation to oversee. I usually didn't care for their politics, but came to look on them as heroes.

And here is a side note, that adds to the point I wish to make. I have two good friends, and each farms a couple dozen square miles in west-central South Dakota, one near Rapid City, the other a hundred miles farther East. Compared to their neighbors, they are prosperous. They have never taken out any "govenment backed" loans. During bad years, they got jobs in town to keep body and soul together, and waited for a better year. During better years, they saved their excess, or bought more land, often from those who had such heavy loan payments to make they had to sell land.

Today we hear a term, "disadvantaged minorities." Wherever there is poverty in an inner city, there is usually a population there that is ethnically different from that in the surrounding, non-poor, parts of the city or the suburbs. Philadelphia is a mainly black city in a mainly white state. San Antonio is a mainly hispanic city in what was a white state. New York City has several "minority" enclaves, Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Little Italy, and Chinatown for example. To my observation, though, the style of poverty is different in each place.

In some such enclaves (some are called ghettos, though that word was once reserved for Jewish enclaves) we see multigenerational poverty as the rule, while in others, most young people tend to escape poverty. There are two differences that I see.

Firstly, some ethnic groups, no matter where you find them, emphasize education, and do so to a fanatical level. Most of their young people at least finish high school, and every family has the ambition that at least one child will go to college (First among these, through all ages, has been the Jews. I think this is mainly because the book of Deuteronomy requires 100% literacy, so every person can read the Torah. No other group has a commandment from God to be educated).

Other groups, no matter where they may be, give education little more than lip service. The parents may nag at their kids about getting educated, but their heart isn't in it. Just by the way, to my observation, it is not the blacks who I'm pointing a finger at here; there are a couple of other ethnicities that are far, far down the scale in this regard. But to what extent the shoe fits, just wear it...and take it as an exhortation to change.

Secondly, those ethnicities in the latter category above tend to rely much more on government support. They take whatever they can get, and if they find that the "gift" is reduced when they work, they choose not to work.

Let us take it as an axiom: the government is unable to fully support everybody. There have to be taxpayers (that is those who earn money that can be taxed), so that the government will have money to give out. The biggest part of the Federal budget is that grand, diverse collection of "programs" we group under the term "welfare." There are hundreds of components. In fact, more than half of the Social Security payout is a form of welfare to the 120-odd categories of people who obtain "benefits," but didn't put a penny into the program. I include farm subsidies, guaranteed agricultural loans, GNMA and FNMA mortgage loans.

Now, there will always be more need than there is supply. Always. People say, "Oh, in Sweden, medical and dental care is free. If you're poor, the government takes care of everything," and so on, blah, blah. Income taxes in Sweden take 60% of all earned income, and still there are poor people there. The Swedish welfare system takes care of a certain percentage of everything. Just enough to keep you from starving, in most cases.

I cannot here propose a way to end welfare, as any large or national effort. But to any individual getting any kind of welfare, I say, get work anyway. Earn your own money. Yes, you'll lose benefits, but you'll also lose the grinding destruction of your own self-worth. If you have to use a government program to get a better education, do so. Then let that be the last handout you take. Earn your way out of poverty. There is no other way.

What will become of Texas? Well, it'll be run in the future by hispanics. That's not bad. As long as they are well-educated hispanics with a sense of self-respect and self-worth.

Simpson's Rule and Beyond

kw: numerical integration, algorithms, derivations

On July 28 I posted a derivation of the (1-4-1)/6 method known as Simpson's Rule. It is based on projecting a parabola through three points to determine the area between the curve defined by those points and the X-axis. Simply put, the area under any portion of a parabola defined by three points (X0,Y0), (X1,Y1), and (X2,Y2), for which X1 is the midpoint of the interval (so X2-X1 = X1-X0), and h=X2-X0, is

As = h(Y0+4Y1+Y2)/6

I have also seen in the literature, again presented without proof, that performing a convergence acceleration on a Trapezoid rule integration using one, then two steps in an interval is equivalent to Simpson's rule. This is quite simple to prove.

The Trapezoid rule is based on using the area between a line segment and the X-axis to approximate the area under a curve that passes through the segment's end points. For a single segment, you multiply the width of the interval (h) by the average of the end-points. Formally, A = ½h•(Y0+Y1). If you add a third point at the center of the interval, making two segments, and call the Y at the midpoint Ym, the area is A = ¼h•(Y0+Y1+2Ym).

Now let us rename the points so we can derive the rule: Y0, Y1, Y2 in order. Let us sum areas for Y = 1/X, from X=1 to X=2, to show the convergence. First, we need the three points with which we'll work:

(X0,Y0) = (1,1)
(X1,Y1) = (1.5,0.6666667)
(X2,Y2) = (2,0.5)

Now, the 1-step area is

A1 = ½h•(Y0+Y2) = 0.5*1.5 = 0.75

and the 2-step area is

A2 = ¼h•(Y0+2Y1+Y2) = 0.25*2.833333 = 0.7083333

The actual area under the curve 1/X within X={1,2} is ln(2)=0.6931472.

The error in A1 is +0.0568528 and that in A2 is +0.0151861. We are gratified to find that there is indeed convergence; A2 is much smaller than A1. Now, A1/A2 = 3.74..., and if we were to pursue further analysis (such as by using four steps, 8 steps, etc.), we find that doubling the number of steps in an interval increases the accuracy by a factor of about four. This is second-order convergence, characteristic of the Trapezoid rule.

The second-order nature of the convergence means that we can combine these two areas to produce a third, better estimate:

Ae = (4•A2-A1)/3 = (4*0.7083333-0.75)/3 = 0.6944444, which has an error of 0.001297.

Firstly, note that the combined error is 1/44th of the error in A1. It would take a Trapezoid rule summation with sixteen steps in the same interval to achieve this level of accuracy. Now, let us use the formula for Ae, substituting back the Y values:

Ae = h(4•A2-A1)/3 = h(4•¼(Y0+2Y1+y2)-½(Y0+Y2))/3 = h(2Y0+4Y1+2Y2-Y0-Y2)/6 = h(Y0+4Y1+Y2)/6. This is Simpson's rule. QED

Clue to a later post: Simpson's rule also converges, at an even higher order...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Synthesis of Human Origins

kw: anthropology, paleontology, palaeontology, book reviews

Prior to about 1958, there was occasional talk about various "missing links," particularly once the "Piltdown Man" hoax was uncovered (1953). At the time, as a youngster, I was what I call a "general believer" in my faith, someone who accepted what I'd been taught, including a rather sketchy account of the creation, without much thought.

I do recall at an age before ten (we were attending a Congregational church) the pastor telling us that Genesis begins with two verses that skip over a vast period of time. Later, once I began taking my faith seriously, my studies led me to conclusions similar to those of G.H. Pember in Earth's Earliest Ages, that there is room for geologic ages of time in that "gap" (yes, I subscribe to the "gap theory"), and that specific wording in Isaiah, Job, and the Psalms requires assigning the "creation" in Genesis 1 and 2 to a relatively recent restoration after a destructive spiritual war in an older creation. I do not think I have it all exactly right, but I am certain that today's Intelligent Design Creationists have nearly everything wrong.

Pember disdained Darwin's hypotheses, but I do not. I greatly enjoy reading of progress in any science, including the study of human origins. I am a fan of Darwin, S.J. Gould, and others in between who promote evolutionary processes as the best explanation we have of the origin of the physical biosphere. The science says nothing of spiritual things—nor should it, and no text in the Hebrew-Christian Bible purports to be a geological or biological textbook—nor should it. Scripture is about divine-human relationships.

Thus I very much enjoyed reading The Complete World of Human Evolution by Chris Stringer and Peter Andrews. The title to me is tongue in cheek: today's complete is tomorrow's woefully inadequate. From the ad Thames & Hudson put in the back cover, they have a line of "The Complete..." books. Such hubris.

Back to missing links. Much more is heard of this matter today, even though quite a number of links have been found. Of course, no modern creationist will ever admit that any of the fossil species assigned to the genus Homo or the probable ancestor genus Australopithecus is a human ancestor anyway. But no matter what "link" may be found, they demand another between, saying the evidence is still too incomplete...and so on. Be that as it may, let those of us who give a bit of credence to the evidence of our senses continue the discussion.

Drs. Stringer and Andrews have compiled a tour de force, and they present it in a very readable fashion. I initially expected a rather long read, but there are few pages with more than 40% devoted to text. There are just too many things that need illustrating, and the authors have gathered the cream of the illustrators' crop.

The key concept in understanding paleontological discoveries is that there is no "great chain of being," leading inevitably to a supreme species. A joke I like shows a shrew, a monkey, an ape, a cave man, and a suited "salaryman" on successive steps. A lot of empty steps lead beyond, and the cave man says, "I wondered when you'd notice that there are a lot more steps." The better metaphor is a bush, a very bushy bush, with comparatively few living twigs, and the fossil record represented by the occasional bit of twig or branch; the great majority of the mass being beyond reach.

Thus, though a diagram early in the book shows about forty fossil species (and one living species, us!), the authors make clear that if the fossil record were truly comprehensive, there would likely be thousands of species. Considering that primate species seem to change into one or more daughter species as many as five times per million years, and that pre-ape-to-apes-plus-man history covers about twenty million years, the lineal ancestry of each living species (there are five, humans and four other apes) includes perhaps fifty species. In addition, there are a number of side branches that died out entirely, some after persisting for several million years, and most species in a genus had several sibling species.

Well, I could go on and on, but I'll briefly state that the book's contents are organized around introductory concepts & examples, discussions of the fossils, and interpretation. The illustrations, photos of fossils, maps, paintings of possible scenes, charts, and all are copious and well captioned. I particularly noted that the authors show species that lived later than about a million years ago as relatively hairless, as we are; and earlier species having perhaps less body hair than a gorilla, but a definite pelt nonetheless. I have long thought that the species that discovered fire was the first nearly hairless species. A combustible pelt is simply incompatible with the use of fire.

A lovely book, from which we can learn much.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Legislation and Morality

kw: laws, ethics

I began to hear something new starting in the 1960s. People began do oppose or disparage laws proposed or laws existing, by saying, "You can't legislate morality." My response is always, "Oh, really. Can you tell me anything we legislate that is not morality?" Where there is no moral issue, there is no need of law.

Every system of law is based on a moral code. Like it or not, the legal system of all Western societies is rooted in the second five of the Ten Commandments. At times, groups or nations have experimented with adding "theocratic" laws, those based on the commandments related to worship, idolatry, blasphemy, sabbath-keeping, and filial piety. All such experiments have failed, though a few lasted a generation or two. But the strictures that prohibit murder, theft, adultery, perjury, and greed are all upheld at some level by legislated statutes.

By making such laws, we as a society declare our minimum standard of moral behavior. We state that we will sanction behavior that falls below that standard (whether or not such sanctions are enforced consistently). While we may expect most people to live by a standard higher than "what's legal," we refrain from legal action until the line is crossed.

Let's take commandments in order. While not all killing is murder, the state reserves for itself (that is, to its agents) the right to kill for judicial purposes, or for conducting war. A few narrow areas are exempted, primarily for self defense. Even then, someone who kills another while defending herself is likely to suffer legal consequences nearly as great as someone convicted of lesser degrees of manslaughter. Few deny the government the power to decide the boundary between justified and unjustified killing. What is subject to current legislation (and court action) is the rather mobile location of that boundary. For example, killing a fetus was once defined as unjustified murder. Now it is is not.

Recently, a man was allowed by the court to finally accomplish a killing that it seems he began to perpetrate about fifteen years ago. When that happened, I said to my son, "It may happen in your lifetime that you will be asked to determine if my life should be ended for the sake of convenience."

Theft, we all know what that is, don't we? We all agree it is wrong, but we do not all agree on where the boundary lies between legal taking and illegal taking of another's property. Taxes are considered a legal taking (by most, anyway). Recently the boundary moved, in two areas. An airline company was allowed to deny pensions to many employees, even removing funds that some employees had "earned" in the pension plan. One could say that is a theft, but the courts ruled otherwise. Of course, now we are talking judicial action, not legislation. Congress is presently struggling with new laws to reverse this. They are unlikely to succeed.

Another case that has so far been decided only judicially is the vast expansion of eminent domain powers, so that a city can raze a neighborhood for the sake of replacing it with something like a mall, that will of course bring in more taxes than the residential properties could. This effectively eliminates the value of holding property, and I predict there will be vigilante action before the matter is sorted out. Dear reader, please note that I do not state actions I might take, but predict the actions of others.

Third, there are quite a number of laws still on the books in various places that disallow various sexual actions. Once "no-fault" divorce became the norm, the police in most places stopped enforcing them. Gay rights activism led to "de-enforcement" of quite a number of others. So far, nobody has persuaded the government of any U.S. state or county to de-criminalize sex between an adult and a minor. It could happen...

This is a hot topic these days, particularly now that Canada has enacted statues that allow and support "marriage" between two people of the same sex. Many U.S. states have laws, recent or not, that disallow such unions. These are being attacked by likening them to old miscegenation laws that disallowed unions between black and non-black. The issue isn't the same, for it requires re-defining the word "marriage," in a way that it has not been used, in any society, since there was human language.

Some Native American societies had a system in which a woman could take another woman as a "wife," but the union was not called a marriage. They had other words, in every known case.

Perjury, and deception. We have lots of laws about this. Not enough to keep your nest egg safe from the next con artist who rings your phone, but enough to keep things to a dull roar. We came close to convicting two Presidents of perjury (Nixon and Clinton). But the sanctions for most kinds of lying are pretty minor. Particularly when we enter the realm of "white-collar crime," we find that paying fines for committing deception is considered a cost of doing business...if you're caught.

Just think. If you cut off a carpenter's arm, you could get 20 years for battery, and be paroled in nine. Kill the same carpenter, and with a plea-bargain you'll still get about twice that. But if you cause an Enron crash, removing the livelihood of thousands of people, leading to hundreds of untimely deaths on the side, you get five-to-eight, if you get any time at all, and you can be paroled in a year.

Oh, well. My point here is not whether the laws are equitable, but that they are all moral. One more. Greed. The former four Commandments are all results of greed of one kind or another. We have very few laws addressing greed itself, and for good reason. It is hard to measure. Covetousness may lead to all kinds of other misbehavior, but the legal system waits for the misbehavior before taking action.

I suppose that's as it should be. Attempts at thought control have a more dismal record than theocracies. But, I hope you find yourself with a more clear response when someone says, "You can't legislate morality." We can so. We do so. And we must, if we are to have society at all.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Spell Checkers Can't

kw: homophones, homonyms, grammar, solecisms

I have for years collected instances in print, for which it is likely the author and editor both relied on spelling checkers but went no farther to establish a correct text. My favorite, seen at least every year or two in the daily paper, is often seen in a headline:

"New Store Draws a Hoard of Shoppers"

To which an evil voice in my head asks, "Oh, where were they cached? I hope they had enough cash!"

(Did I need to tell you the mot apropos is horde? Yes? Then please keep reading!)

Recent examples that set me off today:

  • In a marvelous book on anthropology that I'll soon review, one caption states, "Almost all living apes are restricted to living in tropical rainforest environments — accept the chimpanzee..." "Accept" is a verb meaning to tolerate or to admit into a group (among a dozen similar meanings), while "except," the word meant here, is a conjugation that means just the opposite: to exclude. The sentence as written loses its meaning entirely!
  • The recent issue of Scientific American, reporting the death of polymath Philip Morrison, stated that he was "a font of new ideas." No, not really. A font is a typeface, such as Roman or Arial. Dr. Morrison was genuinely a fount (think Fountain) of new ideas, and I am sad to see he is gone.
  • The newest Harry Potter book has a couple: "...the site of Mr. Fudge..." Really, now, it was the sight of Fudge that so discomfitted the P.M. And elsewhere "fug" is used rather than "fog," of a deposit on a cold windowpane. The former, incorrect word, refers to a gloomy, even perhaps a foggy, mood, but never to what you get by breathing against a cool window.

Now, we really have two kinds of errors here. "Accept" vs "except" are near-homophones. They sound much alike, though not exactly so. "Horde/hoard" and "cache/cash" are more exact homophones, as are "site/sight". (Many of us were taught that they are homonyms, but that word, meaning "same name," can mean either similar spelling or similar sound; homophone is more exact in this case) However, "font/fount" and "fug/fog" are more nearly look-alikes that sound roughly similar. I suppose they are more nearly what is meant by "homonyms."

I keep waiting for someone to put the smarts in a grammar checker (maybe the one in Microsoft Word?), so it can ask you whether the word you're using is really what you want, and offer a sound-alike that might carry the meaning you want. Meantime, there is still no substitute for a properly educated editor.