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.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Aliens on the Railroad

kw: book reviews, science fiction, alien empires, railroads

It takes a very skilled writer to make unearthly aliens that are convincing, sufficiently alien to reflect my humanness through unfamiliar eyes. So I must say at the outset, that Timothy Zahn's aliens are all too human. However, he spins a great tale, bringing new ideas to seem almost familiar.

Imagine a railroad to everywhere...that is, everywhere in the Galaxy. You just need to get an AU or two beyond Jupiter's orbit, and the rest of your trip, except for a short rocket ride from the station to your destination, is similar to a ride on the Cannonball from Wichita to Omaha. This is the background setting of Night Train to Rigel, Zahn's latest galactic opera. He is really good at this.

There isn't a lot I can say without giving away too much of the plot. Zahn is just getting going with the galactic railroad idea. He also brings us a hive-mind entity with really big aspirations, a look into how high high finance can get when you've got a few colony worlds under your belt (who will be the first multi-trillionaire?), and some rather interesting blending of human and other.

I often take care to note if a book's plot has a labyrinth hidden underneath. (Short course: the difference between a labyrinth and maze is, you can get lost in a maze. A labyrinth has a single path, however it may wind around.) The oldest labyrinth tradition generates paths with three, seven, eleven, or fifteen circlings of the goal before one reaches it. You can get a three-turn path into a short story or novella, a 7-turn path into most novellas or novels, but few writers try for more than seven turns. I think this book achieves eleven turns, but I didn't count. Suffice it to say, there is double-, triple-cross, and greater here, enough for the most devoted of mystery readers.

I did say this is a mystery, didn't I? I guess not. But I find that the best science fiction is also good mystery writing. Sci-fi is about problem solving, as is mystery writing. When they are combined, the result is very satisfying.

Lion Story: the 1960s Lion King [Zamba 1948-1966]

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, performing animals

If you went to a circus thirty or forty years ago, you saw the "lion tamer" with his whip, chair, and gun. He would have a few lions, or maybe tigers or both. They would sit on short platforms, perform simple tricks, roar or snarl or swipe on command. Have you been to a large cat show in the last fifteen years or so? Perhaps Sigfried and Roy (before the recent mauling), or a similar show? They men or women with their cats don't call themselves trainers any more. What has changed (besides the 90's-00's tendency for ever-more extreme effects and hype)?

In large part, Ralph Helfer and others like him happened. He was one of the first "animal workers" to use kindness, affection, and bonding to make the animals he works with his colleagues. Frequently, a show—whether with big cats, birds of prey, or a menagerie of furry and feathery performers—will begin with someone explaining that no cruelty or coercion was used to train the animals. This is the influence of those who have shown us we can get better, and safer, results if the animals are motivated by pride and affection rather than by fear.

Ralph Helfer has presented highlights of his career with large animals in a series of books, first the Beauty of the Beasts and Modoc, and now Zamba: The True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived. Zamba was a nearly-weaned cub when a friend of Helfer's brought him to him. The cub had probably been driven from his mother by a new pride-leader male, before he was found, dehydrated and starving, and brought to the States. Helfer doesn't say for sure that Zamba was brought to him in 1948, but we find that Zamba died in 1966, and Ralph frequently states they were together for eighteen years.

Together! What a freighted word. Zamba slept in Ralph's bed, which had to be rebuilt once the lion became a 300-pound adult. He grew to 500 pounds, some nine feet long. Big! And he remained affectionate with humans. After Helfer married, and he and Toni had a little girl, young Tana was raised with one of the biggest "house pets" ever! The cover picture is Tana at Seven with Zamba, probably already in his teens (the author is quite cagey with several key dates).

Prior to meeting Zamba, Helfer had a bit of a career as a supplier of performing animals going. Zamba became his greatest star. Others include Gentle Ben the bear and Modoc the elephant, subjects of his other books.

Though the book is filled with hair-raising advenures, including a year Ralph and Zamba spent in Kenya working to make the film "Lion", the theme is affection training. Ralph Helfer has been for decades a leading voice, advocating bonding with animals, so that, whether they are performers or working animals, they work with their handler because they like to, they like or love the person, and wish to please him or her.

From a philosophical viewpoint, the way we treat animals (and our children) reveals much about us. Those who use fear to motivate, are themselves fearful. One cannot call a person "loving" who uses coercion and cruelty to get his way. The proverb says, "to have a friend, be a friend." I say, "Amen," whether the friend you desire is human or not. Thank you, Ralph.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

From Web to 200 Years

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, information technology, history

Nearly forty years ago, working as a technician for a Xerox subsidiary, my colleagues and I had a need to gather data more rapidly. The lab had recently acquired a rather expensive digital voltmeter (DVM). Digging around in the manual, we found that it could do two things...wonderful things.

Firstly, it could scan as many as eight inputs, at a rate of one per second, or slower if so desired. Secondly, the digitized voltage was made available electronically at a bank of output plugs, in 5-level Teletype code.

We also had an 029 keypunch. It turned out to be able to take BCD or EBCDIC input, with some added circuitry to tell it when to punch the input or eject and start a new card. We only needed BCD for numbers, so we decided to build an interface. Transistors weren't exactly new, but the affordable ones were fragile. Integrated circuitry was still being invented. We chose to use a bank of telephone relays to effect the data conversion between 5-level and BCD, plus two EBCDIC codes for the period and minus signs.

All the circuitry was designed by my supervisor, the senior lab tech, and I did about half the wiring. We were testing experimental high-powered arc lamps, so we also built circuits to buffer the signals we wanted (lamp volts and amps, light meter reading, pulse power and frequency in pulse mode) to the DVM.

The contraption we made was a wonder to behold. Every couple of seconds the DVM's display would change, the relay board would rattle like a dozen loud knitters, then the 029 would punch a burst of four or five digits, with - and . as needed. Every set of readings went on one card. The date and run number were set up automaticlly using a drum card program.

Before long we had a lot of cards—dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. Though another of the techs could program, he was needed on another project most of the time, so the manager gave me an amazing book, FORTRAN for the IBM 1130: A Programmed Instruction Approach. In about two days I learned FORTRAN II, sat down at our other 029, and began punching my first real program. The 1130's operator showed me how to stack the FORTRAN compiler (a few hundred cards), my program deck, and the "executive" cards that told the 1130 what to do with them all, into a tray in the right order, and I was off.

I call Fortran my mother tongue. It seems to fit naturally into my brain. It was at least a month before I first saw an error message. I have seen more since, but I built a career on seeing very few of them in the first place. Fact is (cough) I am a Superprogrammer. Roughly fifty times as productive as the average 'professional' programmer.

Back to the knitting needles. The sound came back to me, very poignantly, when I read about the sight and sound of the Harvard Mark I in operation. Techno-historian James Essinger wrote in Jacquard's Web: How a hand loom led to the birth of the information age, about the Mark I, "In operation, the machine was described by one commentator as making the sound of 'a roomful of ladies knitting.'"

The thread that developed into IT runs something like this: Jacquard to Babbage & Lovelace to Hollerith to Aiken to the team that designed ENIAC. While Babbage's Difference Engine was never finished (by him), and his Analytical Engine wasn't begun (though Ada Lovelace wrote code that would have run on it), his ideas led directly from the card-programmed loom of Jacquard to the card-controlled Tabulators of Hollerith.

Had Babbage received the level of financial support from the British Government that Aiken did from Thomas Watson at IBM, he might have produced a genuine steam-driven, card-programmed and -controlled digital cogwheel computer in the 19th century. Without IBM support, and later US military support, it might have been another generation or two beyond until a practical computer was built.

Throughout Jacquard's Web Essinger presents capsule biographies of the major players. He weaves a fascinating web of his own, showing how the ideas leapt from mind to mind, enabled at each stage by the technology available. The ideas had to await the technology.

I wonder, if the Analytical Engine had been built, what the world might be like. With a hundred-year head start programming them, regardless of the technology that embodied them, programming today would likely be a much more robust craft than it is. When a major program such as Microsoft Excel can be considered "good" although it is know to have hundreds of thousands of coding errors (tens of thousands are found and corrected yearly), we realize that, though now the technology has grown mightily since 1940 (a billion times in processing speed, a trillion times in storage capacity), the ideas are little advanced. Information science has quite a ways to go to catch up to information technology.

An acquaintance once said, "If we built buildings with the same level of quality that we write computer programs, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization." That's a subject for a rant elsewhen.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The most contested land on the planet...for now

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural environment, rain forests

When I see "See it on PBS" on a book cover, I am wary. PBS has a definite agenda about the "natural world." I always ask, if humans aren't part of nature, where are we? Like it or not, this planet must support six billion of us, at present, and it will likely be called upon to support nine to twelve billion of us before we learn the trick of regulating our population globally. In my opinion, the long-term carrying capacity of Earth was surpassed about thirty years ago. One way or another, human population will return to about the four billion level, one way or another...if it does so in time not to crash all the way to zero. And I am a conservative!! More radical environmentalists prefer a human population of one billion or less.

That said, Deep Jungle by Fred Pearce, a portion of the Eden Project and subject of a PBS documentary, presents a wealth of information from numerous viewpoints, about the tropical rainforests found primarily in Latin America, East Asia, and Central Africa.

Here, for the first time, I found a well-researched discussion of the rather new understanding that there really are no "pristine, virgin" forests out there. I learned this about central Mexico because of the work of a relative of mine: Studying the ruins and the environment at Palenque, he asked the question, "What caused the drought that led to the collapse of Maya society in the 1400s?" While indications in areas not occupied by Mayans showed that there had been a climate change to drier conditions, the change was not severe, except in the areas inhabited by high populations.

His conclusion: Desertification, caused by the Mayan habit of insulating their buildings with a 20-25 cm layer of stucco. Stucco is produced with the help of charcoal, and huge areas of forest were cleared in order to make all that stucco. The rain patterns shifted, drought ensued, crops failed, and over a century or two the population migrated to areas where agriculture was more productive, even as increased starvation and disease reduced their numbers.

Today, in Mayan areas, the forest has grown back. If not for the ruins, we would think it primeval forest. Yet, indeed, much of it was not forested just 600 years ago.

Similar analyses elsewhere have shown that human populations have farmed nearly everywhere, and that no large areas of forest occur in the tropics that did not pass through at least one period in the past thousand years during which they were treeless, or at least devoid of the vast majority of trees; the farmers often kept certain very productive or popular species, while destroying most other species around them. For example, many Brazil nut trees are much older than the forest around them, because they were kept by the farmers through several cycles of forest clearing and regrowth.

This is but one surprise I found in the book. Clearly, it made the greatest impression on me. If this is so, then, why is there any problem with the forest clearing that is going on right now? Mainly, the clearing is taking place at a much higher rate, soils are being destroyed along with the forests they support, and the numbers of people involved is generally much greater. Prior forest-clearing by farmers was done in a way that preserved or increased soil fertility. "Black soil" in many forest areas is known as the most productive. It is always a human product. So is the sterile "Yellow soil" that results from modern, ignorant clearing methods. The lumberjack is not a steward of the soil; a farmer is.

These insights are a small part of a quality treatment of great breadth. A better book than I expected.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I opened a window, and influenza

kw: personal experience, flu, influenza, pandemics

The most-promoted news of the past day or so is that the Federal government has begun to pay attention to the possibility that a very virulent bird flu virus may become a worldwide scourge in the next few years. A sidebar story is the recent reconstruction of the DNA of the virus responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed perhaps 40 million people.

So far as I can determine, the virus itself has not been reconstructed; they have just produced the bare DNA. Even in a virus, in addition to its protein coat, the DNA is accompanied by a few proteins and other biochemicals needed to produce an active virion. I certainly hope they don't go so far as to restore active virions (I wonder if there is a Latin plural...).

Anyway, I have a tale to tell.

At least concerning influenza, I have a very effective immune system. I have seldom had a "flu" for more than 24 hours, and on a few occasions I have thrown off an infection in about six hours. As an adult, I have had no more than one bout of flu per decade. This may have saved my life.

I am a stamp collector. One prize of my collection was acquiring my Grandmother's collection and duplicates, from my Mother's attic. My Grandmother was a single woman until the early part of the Great War. Having been born in 1890, this made her a spinster, imposed upon by her married sisters to help with the sewing, and working as a schoolteacher in a 1-room school in Poteau, OK. She lived in Fort Smith, AR.

When the war started, she had been collecting in a desultory way, but the sudden depopulation of most men in the area meant she needed a hobby, badly. She used her wide circle of friends to gather a great many of the envelopes that arrived in Fort Smith and Poteau, particularly the foreign ones. In her duplicate box there resided two stock books, one packed with US stamps, and the other with foreign stamps, all from the 1930s and earlier, with a very great many from 1900-1920. There were hundreds of copies of certain common stamps.

Though she married late in 1915, to an older man who wasn't accepted for service, she collected assiduously until her children were well into high school. My Grandfather was a good provider, she had a good excuse to make her sisters do their own sewing, and she was an efficient housekeeper, so she had time for her stamps right up to 1939. My mother graduated high school in 1940, so I can imagine the last year of school was very busy for the whole family.

It came about that I spent quite a while with the "red one-cent Washington" issues. From 1908 to 1920, the stamps look the same, but there is always a little difference from issue to issue, sometimes more than one issue in a year. Though many of the stamps had been pulled or soaked off their envelopes, there was quite a pile of cuttings, squares cut from envelopes with the stamps still attached.

I soaked many of the cuttings to remove the stamps. On more than one occasion, I let them soak over night, beginning with warm water and letting it cool. I always intended to process them within an hour, but sometimes forgot or got sidetracked. My way is to soak a batch of stamps until each one will slide of the paper, then put them in fresh water to soak off the rest of the glue.

All told, by soaking off so many stamps, I was exposed to old, dried—and then remoistened—saliva from hundreds of people from all over the country, and many from worldwide locations. However it may have happened, I had a springtime flu that year. I had it bad, and it lasted three days. Very high fever, very bad malaise, heavy coughing but little production.

I wonder if I am the only person to catch the 1918 flu in 1998?

Sea Serpent Sandwich

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ocean zoology, cryptozoology

Everybody likes a gripping monster tale. Even more so when there is some chance the monster is real. Richard Ellis, in Monsters of the Sea: the truth about the Loch Ness Monster, the Giant Squid, Sea Serpents, Mermaids, and other Fantastic Creatures of the Deep, unravels a few mysteries, but quite a few are left to the Cryptozoologists, who work to determine which legends are based on real creatures.

My age-mates and I grew up thinking of the great squid as it is seen in the Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I have followed the scientific reports and the surrounding legends on and off all my life. I remember reading of 18-inch sucker scars on sperm whales, compared with the 6-inch suckers on the largest squid known, about 50 feet in length, and being left to draw the obvious conclusion. Though it turns out the 18-inch and 6-inch figures are both wildly inflated, it is still likely that squid larger than the 50-footer exist. However, given that most squids mate but once, then die, I wonder just how big a squid can get before it gives in to the urge to reproduce?

I also have read that, with about a million sperm whales about, whose diet is almost entirely of large squid, there really do need to be huge populations of Giant Squid (Architeuthis), Humboldt Squid, and other "big" squid to supply the demand.

Well, as it turns out, many stories of Sea Serpents are more likely squid sightings. Some few may be of extra-large octopi. In the chapter "Blobs and Globsters," Ellis describes a car-size chunk of tissue found in Florida in 1896, that quite likely represented the remains of a huge octopus. The chunk was likely a major portion of the "head" and the stumps of the arms, and weighed five to seven tons. If it was in proportion to most other species, its arms were about 100 feet long. Compare in bulk to the biggest whole squid found, at about 55 feet and less than a ton of weight. That squid's tentacles (the two very skinny "catching" appendages) were 37 feet long, the rest of the body 18 feet long, and the eight other arms about 16 feet long.

The author presents legends and, where possible, background facts, about all the creatures in the subtitle and more, including whales and sharks. It is clear he is most fascinated with the cephalopods. He has a special chapter each on the biology of giant squids and on octopi. Just based on the powerful creatures we know to exist, we find that in the sea, we are prey. In spite of our technological superiority, a few folk each year end up as some sea monster's meal.

The book is well worth the reading, a great synthesis of scholarship and storytelling.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Thoroughly Victorian Naturalist

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, naturalists, evolution

Imagine, if you will, that after nearly sixteen years of research and study, after groping for a synthesis of his studies of earthworms and domestic fowl, after ruminating over his observations of the ecology of the pampas and the finches of the Galapagos Islands, after beginning to prepare a final outline of a great, multi-volume survey of his theory of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin had one day been presented with a monograph describing natural selection, newly printed, describing every facet of the mechanism that drives evolutionary change, a mechanism he had elaborated on in detail in his outline.

This nearly happened! Though scientists in the Victorian era were generally no more or less venial and credit-hungry than those of today, there were two, at least, who behaved with nobility and commendable restraint, when it happened that they both deduced the same hypothesis. While Alfred Russel Wallace could have published his monograph—he was already a much-published and celebrated naturalist—he decided to send a copy of the manuscript to Darwin for review. Darwin was in a quandary!

The story of his handling of this delicate situation, with the help of some wiser, or at least bolder, friends, is told in numerous books, including the recent biography of Wallace, The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace, by Ross A. Slotten. A mainly friendly relationship between Wallace and Darwin ensued, which lasted until Darwin’s death, and which was recalled by Wallace with much fondness near the end of his own life in 1909.

The publication of Darwin’s and Wallace’s first papers on the theory of natural selection, presented simultaneously to the Linnean Society, marked a turning point in the lives of both men. But, while it was the beginning of ever-increasing celebrity for Darwin, it led to a rougher road for Wallace. He rode the crest for a time, but when he later began to investigate Spiritualism, becoming quite an apostle for the “new religion,” he lost favor and influence, and fell into a couple decades of eclipse. His passionate embrace of the anti-vaccination cause, and later of many “thoroughly unpopular” movements, made him far from a favorite of the drawing room. Only in his eighties did he become a “national treasure,” and gain the recognition for his earlier work on an appropriate scale.

Today he is remembered less for supplying the prod to Darwin to publish “a sketch” of his theory in The Origin of Species (short title), and more for Wallacea. This region in Indonesia began as Wallace’s Line, an apparent biological boundary between Asian faunas to the west and Australian faunas to the east. It originally ran from the strait between Bali and Lombok, north between Borneo and Celebes. Later investigations showed that there is a region of gradual decline in one fauna as another takes over, rather than the sharp line that Wallace posited. Today Wallace’s Line delineates the first appearance of a great number of Australian species and the last appearance of several important Asian ones, while to the east, Weber’s and Lyddeker’s Lines mark the last appearance of all key Asian avian and mammalian species.

The amount of material is massive. It is undoubtedly less so than Wallace’s own autobiography My Life, but it took me a good while to read. I employed a stratagem I use when I find a book to be, however interesting, quite a long slog: I read this at work during breaks while reading other books at home, mainly bedtime. Thus the prior two posts are for books I completed while making my way through Heretic. Slotten is a good writer, or I’d have not finished. Wallace’s life is a fascinating window into the Victorian world at the height of its colonial power. Regardless of the privations Wallace, Bates (of Batesian mimicry fame), Spruce and others endured, they were greatly lessened by the pervasive influence of British civilization to all but the most remote corners of the world. Author Slotten’s masterwork is a fascinating window into the lives of Wallace, Darwin, and other naturalists of the time.