Saturday, December 30, 2006

Famous last words: "I did it my way"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, tragedy, evolution

You'd think America ought to be a safe place. We have so much legislation and litigation, resulting in so many rules about things we can't or shouldn't do, it ought to be pretty hard to get yourself killed any more. I recently learned that Mexico has no tort laws. If you fall in you neighbor's yard and break a leg, don't bother suing for damages. No Mexican lawyer will take the case, no judge would admit the case anyway, and every potential jury member will tell you that you ought to keep an eye on where you are going.

Yet most of the stories in The Darwin Awards 4: Intelligent Design by Wendy Northcutt (with Cristopher M. Kelly) are from the good old US of A. Of course, it is only in America where natural selection gets both positive and negative reviews, so it is fitting that we get the most attention when we prove that natural selection is still working just fine, including with humans.

In 1993, Wendy Northcutt laid down the ground rules for people on whom she would confer the un-coveted Darwin Award, those who have done the human species a favor by rendering themselves either dead or unable to reproduce. You have to do it to yourself, but not by intential suicide; no killing of innocent bystanders; and you must be of age (no kiddie tragedies). She publishes three kinds of stories (see her web site). Darwin Awards go to those who either die or are rendered "non-reproductive". Honorable Mentions go to those who didn't die, but probably should have. Personal Accounts are recorded from eyewitnesses, either potential "honorees" or observers.

I sent in a Personal Account narrative, which she chose not to publish because we were all twelve at the time. It was in partial support of a story of someone who straddled a poplar while sawing its top off, that had become stuck under an eave due to a strong wind. The story claimed he was thrown a mile. Us "boy sprouts" used to fling one another up to forty feet into a pond, using a poplar that four or five of us could bend down, then release with only one boy holding on. We were clear from the start to let go before the tree was fully upright, so nobody got a face-plant on the dirt. But a mile? The tree doesn't exist that can throw a man more than a hundred feet or so.

This year's collection is subtitled Intelligent Design in honor of the current cover for creationist attacks on natural selection. The hundred or so stories in the volume show that it doesn't take much to render some people's IQ into the range of zero...permanently. Bravo, Wendy, keep 'em coming!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Almost too small to work at all

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, synergistics, psychology, MMPI

The funding totaled a quarter billion dollars. The dedication of the participants was extreme. They had everything going for them: cooperation from many eminent scientists, the good wishes and eager attention of millions, both liberal and conservative.

The project did produce useful scientific results...just not about anything on the agenda. The major result was psychological; prior experience in analogous environments gave plenty of warning, even forboding. Scientifically, Biosphere 2 was very useful, even unique (to date). Humanly, it was a tragic failure.

It seems so good. Trillions of words of science fiction have been written about closed environments: rocket ships, lunar or Martian colonies, satellite worlds, drilled-out asteroids; with populations from one to hundreds, thousands, even millions. One thing is for sure: in a space encompassing three acres, enclosing 170,000 cubic meters, eight people cannot get along.

As narrated by Jane Poynter in The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2, the eight "biospherians" and many other potential residents, plus many active supporters and the staff that ran "Mission Control" during the experiment, fragmented into warring camps that were hardly on speaking terms by the end.

The biospherians were, it turned out, a special breed. Trained aboard the concrete ship _Heraclitus_ and at Quanbun Downs in the Australian Outback, the people who first endured the regimen and then were picked for the two-year Closure shared a number of characteristics with "right stuff" astronauts and crews that over-winter in Antarctica.

As measured by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, they shared an Adventurer profile, always on guard, hyperactive, creative, optimistic, confident to a fault, and outgoing. It seems to me they are fortunate that they fragmented only into an Us and a Them (four on a side, inside Closure, rather more uneven in Mission Control). They only went halfway to, "What do you get when you lock up five type A folks for a year? Four dead type A's."

Comparing the biospherians' experience with that of crews of submarines, the Mir and ISA space stations, ships at sea, and mining camps, we find a singular fact: You need an authority structure or it all breaks down. The Eight had great egalitarian goals, which resulted in two Equal-Hate societies.

It is a lesson both navies and commercial shippers have known for centuries. The skipper and officers may not always be the best, but you have to have them, lest disaster result. Biosphere 2 was a disaster.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

It may not be "really Mexico", but it sure isn't the USA.

kw: travel notes, Mexico, impressions

I've lived in Southern California three times, including my birth in Pasadena. Here I am pushing sixty, living on the East Coast, and in all that time, I've never crossed the border to visit Mexico.

A visit to see my Brother in a little town south of San Diego afforded the opportunity, so we took along our passports and spent half a day in Tijuana. The first thing my brother warned me was that there is no tort law in Mexico. Half an hour later, in "the Cecut", a museum operated by Centro Cultural, he showed me an example, a concrete ramp that swept to the next floor, with nothing preventing me from a skull-cracking if I wasn't looking after turning from an exhibit nearby.

The museum is great, and all the taxi drivers at the border know how to get you there. The fee was US$5 (55 pesos, or MX$55, if you bothered to change currency). After a couple of hours there, we got lunch--a great lunch--and walked a mile back to the border.

I'd been told to expect a lot of beggars, and to have a pocket full of dimes. I did so. I gave most of them to children. At first, I thought the kids were four or five, until I caught sight of their mothers hovering nearby. Most of these women were scarcely five feet tall, and these kids were about ten. Anybody twelve and older has a job.

The kids don't really beg. They have some little thing to sell, chiclets, cheap necklaces, little cloth hankies. The kids come up to you with a handful or little box full of such items. Few are actually sold; most gringos give them a dime and a smile and pass on. The mother, nearby, has their supplies when they do sell a few. There were a few wheelchair-bound amputees. When I ran out of dimes, I gave one of them a quarter, and my last quarter to a nurse just at the border crossing, who was holding a can I didn't bother to read.

A very strange mall sits just inside San Ysidro, CA, a quarter mile or less from the border. It is a lot like an outlet mall near Lancaster, PA or Buellton, CA; but it is for Mexicans who want American goods. Are you bilingual? Easy to get a job there. As we were leaving, we found ourselves at the end of a very long line (we were on foot; we left the car in San Ysidro, in a $5 lot). It took 90 minutes to get to the border, have our passports blinked at by an INS clerk, and return to the US. The wait would have been much longer, in both directions, had we driven.

It was my first visit to a third world country, though I got scarcely a mile beyond the border. A friend later said I hadn't really been to Mexico. Well, it sure wasn't California!

I have had great sympathy for the Mexican people, and now I have more. They number 110 million, somewhat less than Japan, about one-third of the US total. Yet their economy is less than $200 billion, while ours is close to $100 trillion; 400-500 times as large.

The trickle of cash earned by "illegal immigrants" is as much as a quarter of the entire Mexican economy. Perhaps we ought to just annex the place and be done with it!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Bigger Ocean, Smaller Continents

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, global warming, coastlines, polemics

I found myself getting quite skeptical as I read Mike Tidwell's new book. I found it particularly galling that, no matter what the context in which he mentions President Bush, he resorts to vituperation. This is not the mark of a sober mind.

However, in dealing with unreasable people and inconcievable circumstances, it does not pay to be reasonable. So, I read The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities openly, with interest (usually), looking for the merit in Tidwell's work.

Merit aplenty there is. Few indeed are those who continue the blinkered claims that "we don't know for sure" or that "it isn't so", that our appetite for fossil fuel has begun to warm Earth's climate. It doesn't sound like much; one degree C (average) in the past 50-100 years. But what an average! The tropics have hardly warmed at all. Nearly all the warming has been in polar regions, northward of 45°N and southward of 45°S...four to five degrees. That's enough to kill a forest in Alaska the size of Connecticut, enough to melt 70% of the glaciers in Glacier National Park to extinction. In ten years or so, the park will need a new name!

And we are doing it to ourselves. Tidwell writes, "...this is not the first time a human society has consciously offed itself. History is littered with such cases, in fact, from the ancient Maya of Central America to the Greenland Vikings to the Polynesian society of Easter Island in the South Pacific." (p33) And he continues, "[Jared] Diamond [in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed] identifies five major 'interacting' factors that have brought societies low: hostile enemies, climate change, self-inflicted environmental degradation, adverse changes in trading partners, and, finally, a society's political, economic, and social responses to the aforementioned factors." (p34)

The human race spent 100,000 years as hunter-gatherers, which produces a very short-term focus, a kind of tunnel vision; events that unfold over a period longer than the next hunting season are forgotten. Contrary to the proverb, "Nothing good happens fast", for most people, nothing that DOESN't happen fast even happens.

The author has put his money where his mouth is. He is doing his best, in his suburb near Washington, DC, to set an example. Beginning in early 2001, he has implemented these changes:

  1. A higher-efficiency refrigerator (70% less energy than old one)
  2. All light bulbs replaced with compact flourescent bulbs (also 70% less)
  3. Power strips so he can turn off groups of "always-on" items such as VCRs with a flip of the switch (a trickle here and there added up to a few dozen watts, continuous; now eliminated)
  4. A corn-burning stove (net carbon budget: zero; and no fossil fuels for heating)
  5. A used solar hot-water system (produces about half his needs)
  6. A 1.5 KW photovoltaic system (produces about 40% of electricity he uses)

I like all these, except the corn-burning stove. Much better one that also burns the stalks, which make up more than 90% of the mass grown. The net carbon budget from burning field corn may be zero or better, but there is still 90% biomass waste! Nonetheless, he has shown that one can reduce one's carbon yield by 80-90% at moderate cost, then actually regain the cost over a few years' time. After that, one begins to save the difference.

Mike Tidwell deserves a voice in this, so I am glad he got published. We are in times that need fanatics, that need polemicists, because milder voices go unheeded.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Too many eyes, too little seeing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, history

This will be quite short. I truly don't know what to make of The One Percent Doctrine (subtitled Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11) by Ron Suskind. The book's thesis: In 2001 Vice President Cheney declared that if there is a one percent chance that a particular regime has or will soon have nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons, we must act as though it were a certainty. Years later, the present world condition is the result.

Though the book was written primarily in 2004, it was not completed until the following year, and published sometime in 2006; it was written from the viewpoint of a time prior to the 2004 election.

Suskind is a compelling writer, and his talents have been ghosted by others. In his Afterword, he mentions two years of research, with many helpers. Perhaps this explains why, time and again as I read, I would think, "He couldn't have been privy to that, even years later." Many, many conversational tidbits seem to me to be interpretive or fictional. While he was able to gather many facts, including having about 19,000 documents at his disposal, the face-on, conversational descriptions seem to be historical fiction rather than journalism.

Nonetheless, the broad outline is clear:

  • The stovepipes and firewalls between the various Intelligence services, some due to rivalry, some set up by overly-liberal administrations, were only partly breached after 9/11/2001.
  • The President and his closest advisers favor action over analysis.
  • America's enemies gradually learned how to communicate—both messages and finances—in a world of pervasive surveillance.

The US has not just the CIA, NSA, and FBI, but at least a dozen other intelligence-gathering bodies, and none communicates well with any of the others.

The author's opinion, or perhaps that of his most favored sources, is that the US hasn't been attacked directly since 2001 primarily because al-Qaeda has been focusing elsewhere, and is actually gratified that we are mired in Afghanistan and Iraq; that they'll get around to us later.

Maybe so. It is true that for every kid-bomber who blows up a taxi stand in Baghdad, two more willing recruits show up. However, we have captured or killed two-thirds of al-Qaeda's leadership, and driven the remaining ones into hiding in Pakistan. The head is not lopped off yet, but it is clearly impaired. Equally clear, the real work was all behind the scenes, done by "invisibles", while the visible notables took the credit or took a fall.

I expect further attacks on American soil. It is unlikely that anything less will fail to bring together the scattered agencies and offices who are presently checking tree after tree, and have yet to locate the forest.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The good die young?

kw: musings, bible

I have read through the Bible several times, so I know I've seen Isaiah 57 before. It is the chapter that ends with the old memory verse, "There is no peace," says my God, "for the wicked." (v21). But the first two verses caught my eye:

1 The righteous perish, / and no one ponders it in his heart; / devout men are taken away, / and no one understands / that the righteous are taken away / to be spared from evil.

2 Those who walk uprightly / enter into peace; / they find rest as they lie in death.

Amazing! "...the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil." How this verse would have comforted me in 1978! In that year I was sent to work with a brother who'd found himself single-handedly taking care of a fledgling church in a rural city. Before we arrived, that brother and all his family died in an accident. I arrived to a church in shambles, needing much care.

Soon it became evident that a steady hand was crucial, a strong hand with a guiding vision. This place was in fellowship with a larger church in a city a few hours' drive away, a place that was poised for trouble, as a political struggle erupted between established leaders and newly-arrived upstarts with a different view, a very different view. The troubles took years to overcome, and we were viewed by some as a satellite church, a pawn to be played at will or discarded...or destroyed.

I don't like conflict, and it was a very painful time, but we retained our Biblical vision. Much later, I realized that the brother who had died was an innocent, a righteous man who would have been overwhelmed. Though his vision was even more clear than mine, his ability to stand, and his persistence, were lacking. I wish he didn't have to die to be spared the storm, and I wish he'd been able to help me withstand it...but it is God's wisdom, not mine, and I realize he might not have been a help at all.

And what of those who, wave after wave over several years, sought to subvert the larger church? Scattered, at war still among themselves, "living in defiance of [their] brothers" according to the prophecy over the fleshly Ishmael. There truly is no peace to the wicked.

And, is it true that the good die young? Not really; the oldest people alive, the 80's and older, contain a surprising dearth of the truly bad. (In the 1940 census, an astonishing number of men over 80 were former Methodist evangelists, who'd been involved in the revivals of the late 19th Century. the Gospel is good for you!) The good don't necessarily die young, but they do die in peace.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Flinx, in a funk, finds more reasons he is invulnerable

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, space fantasy, pip and flinx series

So what else is new? Flinx, or Philip Lynx, telempath extraordinaire, super-enhanced person number 12-A, watched over by super-aliens who've also given him a spaceship and unimaginable riches, also watched over by a mini-dragon that senses emotions more reliably than he and spits really vicious venom to boot, on a mission to find a missing brown-dwarf-size weapon and persuade it not to annihilate all sentient life in the Galaxy (for starters), is feeling blue.

In Trouble Magnet, Alan Dean Foster's latest, Flinx can't decide if saving sentient life, particularly human life, is worth the trouble. Having grown up a thief (you gotta read the earliest books in the Pip and Flinx series), and now being pursued by quite an assortment of legal and illegal organizations, he understandably has a jaundiced view of human nature.

Not to worry. I infer that super-altruism is as much a part of his makeup as the ability to receive and project emotions (pretty good weapon, when it works). On the rottenest planet he can find, he finds a youngster who reminds him of himself, the unenhanced version. Finding himself taking care of a gang of teenage thugs, then taking on the baddest bad guys on the planet, he finally finds a spark or two of actual human decency. The novel ends in a sappy paragraph plus a teaser to set up the next novel's premise.

Earth to Flinx: Try looking somewhere besides among crooks! The nominally law-abiding people you find almost anywhere are typically decent, honest, caring folks. Just to focus on one aspect, how people do their jobs, General Schwarzkopf said, "Most people don't go to work every day planning to do a bad job." Look among them, buddy. The checker at the market, the bank teller, the plumber, the engineer.

Of course, the title Flinx and the Carpenters wouldn't sell a novel. These are enjoyable to read; I just have to get past the silly premise.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Her life is anything but still

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, personal growth

In younger days, any "plan" I concocted was long on goal, short on method. It took many years, multiple failures, and much learning (mostly the hard way) before I learned a modicum of process planning. The successes I did have were hard won, typically much more hardly won than necessary. This gives me much sympathy for Catherine Goldhammer.

In her lively account Still Life With Chickens: starting over in a house by the sea, Ms Goldhammer narrates her personal coming-of-age, at an age I'd guess is about forty. The story outline is simple enough: prodded by new singlehood and impending penury, woman seeks new digs, woman finds new digs that trigger her creative impulses (i.e., a fixer-upper), woman obtains said digs, transforms them, and herself in the process. And the chickens? They are the catalyst. A bribe to her pre-teen daughter, who will not otherwise consent to move—the specter of street living not having sunk in—the chickens with their constant needs drive these two lives rapidly forward.

Ms Goldhammer is good at covering her tracks. She names places suggestively, but obtusely, so at most one can determine that her new home is at the shoreward end of a peninsula in or near the Boston suburbs, facing the north coast thereof. That coast is rife with little peninsulas, including any number that might merit the moniker Six Mile Beach. Though it is not far from her former, tony neighborhood, it is culturally worlds away.

Like Blanche DuBois, but for different reasons, she has benefitted much from the kindness of strangers. Some did indeed become friends, while others, mainly carpenters, electricians and other contractors, went out of their way to help this clearly addled homeowner, who gets half the kitchen finished before even beginning to put in the big, big window over the sink; opening the wall reveals two electrical mains that must be re-routed.

I once helped my father remove a single mis-located kitchen window and insert two in better locations. Dad did something like that to every house he owned, including the ones he had designed himself and lead-contracted. The man can't leave well enough alone. Anyway, I've had a bit of experience of "go batter down that wall, we're going to make this room four feet longer." Thus in another way I sympathize with the author.

Through it all, the months of cooking on a hotplate and washing dishes in the bathroom, a winter that set 50-year records for miserability, her chickens needed attention, food, doctoring, cleaning up after. The complaint of a mostly absentee neighbor sent her on a round of permit-getting, which ended in her amazement at the practicality of a small town zoning board, compared to what she knew to expect from her former place. She got her livestock permit, her neighbor shook her hand, and that was that.

Yeah, I sympathize with her. She's found a place that suits her to a tee. She'll never leave. Her peninsular cottage has become a sacred refuge. I'm on the lookout for my own refuge. I have a pretty good idea where it is to be found, as long as it is still there when I am in a position to return. Will I retire in one year, or two, or three or more? Much depends on when I decide I've had exactly enough of it where I am, and resettle where I remember feeling truly at home. Why I left is a story for another time, but if it is ever possible to return, I'll find out...

Monday, December 11, 2006

This job is so risky, you gotta love it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, firefighters

There is a sad story in The Fireman's Wife, but that's only part of it. The sad story triggered the writing, but isn't the reason for the book. An author I read many years ago remarked, "Military officers marry the handsomest women." To my observation, so do all the hardest working public servants, particularly firemen. Susan Farren typifies the breed; more than pretty, a truly amazing woman, a former paramedic, way too competent to be "only" a stay-at-home mother of five.

She didn't intend to marry a fireman. Quite the opposite. Having been a paramedic for ten years, being on the front line of tragedy and disaster, rarely seeing the good outcomes of her good work...she wanted a tall, dark, handsome guy with a 9-5 job and money in the bank. The second time she saw Dan Farren, she fell in love, like a thunderbolt, with this short, blond, cheerful fireplug of a guy who would be a fireman or die trying. He was working as a paramedic at the time, and pining his heart out for a place in a firehouse. He'd been the rescue go-to guy for his friends since he could ride a trike, and it is all he ever wanted to do.

Dan didn't die trying. After applying for dozens, maybe a hundred slots, this incredibly talented, skilled fellow who was too white, too Irish, too everything that is politically disadvantaged these days, was hired into the probationary program in Petaluma, CA. Ten years later, he almost died anyway.

The book is the story, told warts and all, of the life of Susan and Dan, as the kids come—1, 2, 3, 4, 5—as this talented woman struggles with overwhelming childcare tasks and her talented man must spend half his "free time" working overtime for extra money. She learns the cameraderie of the men, and even more, of the firehouse families, who operate as an extended family.

She learns to live with worry about someone who runs in when others are running out; as he so frequently gets paged in the middle of every kind of outing; as one day her neighbor calls to say, "I got this number from your emergency numbers book." Her thought, "What is he doing in my house" is answered in mid-think by "Get over to the hospital. Dan's hurt."

All it took was a puff of smoke at the wrong time, and the man on the ladder with the big hose waved it the wrong way. Hit by a stream of water with the momentum of a truck, the ribs and other bones on Dan's left side were crushed as he was swept to the edge of the roof and caught there by his air pack.

Dan lived, but it took a year to recover. Susan hoped against hope that he'd have to retire from active duty. He would have none of it. In a near-miracle of mind over reluctant matter, Dan recovered, regained strength—his joy at the first "real push-up" is overwhelming—and returned to active duty.

Mrs. Farren is described as an inspirational speaker. Take it from me, she's certainly an inspirational writer.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Detective work as a cottage industry

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries, african setting

Some people like nothing better than to curl up with "a good murder mystery" and read half the night away. I prefer my mysteries without the murder, or at least those that downplay it. This makes Alexander McCall Smith an author I favor. I've read a few of his "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series with great enjoyment. His latest, Blue Shoes and Happiness, is as delightful as the rest.

Smith, a scotsman who grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), knows African culture, and African thinking and language habits, which gives his writing a unique charm. Not many writers have his skill to let us inside someone's skull without being either tedious or tawdry. Equally few can produce prose with so many compound sentences, prose which my Fog Index calculations peg at level 12, that is yet much more readable than the raw figures would predict. Bits of the Setswana language, such as the male and female honorifics Rra and Mma, make their way into the text, and become second nature as one reads.

The founder and proprieter of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Service, Precious Ramotswe, and her assistant, Grace Makutsi, carry out their work with persistence, humor, and the occasional minor scrap, amid the joys and fears of their everyday lives. They tend to use gentle nudges rather than direct conflict, though one confrontation that cannot be avoided is handled with great wisdom and fortitude.

Though the language is simple and direct, the characters in the novel are anything but simple. Their culture differs from my own, their language habits and thought habits even more, yet they are richly rounded, complex, believable people. Their good intentions often have unexpected results, as the man—another assistant detective—who takes action to alleviate a suspected curse, yet must allow an unusual animal to die as a result. Even the one really wicked person is seen in a primarily sympathetic light, yet is not let off the hook.

These novels are fun and heart-warming, wise and comforting. There are many mysteries in life. Here we find hope that a few people, here or there, can handle those puzzles that cause harm.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

ID: Not bad science, just not science at all, or, Worthy Minds being Wasted

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, book comparisons, evolution, faith, creationism, intelligent design, science, suasion, persuasion

Michael Shermer is a former evangelical Christian, now America's leading skeptic. Joan Roughgarden is a professor of Biology, an evolutionary biologist, who is also a devout Episcopal Christian. Both authors earned PhD degrees in evolutionary science.

Dr. Shermer has written the clearly polemical (to me this word is not negative, but indicative of forcible argumentation) Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, and Dr. Roughgarden the more conciliatory, but almost parallel in argumentation, Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist (What Jesus and Darwin Have in Common). The two books have the same aim: to show that, even ignoring its close affiliation with Biblical Creationism, even giving it the benefit of the doubt, even taking at face value the stated aim of finding signs of miraculous intervention in biological relationships: Intelligent Design (ID) is not science.

Here is the basic point, made in much the same way by both writers: science seeks entirely natural explanations for natural phenomena. By definition, it can have nothing to say about supernatural things. Thus the premise of ID is invalid. The endeavor is fatally flawed from square zero.

Isaiah declared, in a long passage about both God's creation and His directing Cyrus to allow Israel to be restored, "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel." (This same passage later states that God didn't create the Earth in the condition we find it in Genesis 1:2, a key verse to refute young-Earth creationists). One of the Proverbs states, "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings." If God is as great and powerful as we claim, is it not within His power, and consonant with His nature, to cover His tracks? God is not bold in His glory, He is rather shy. He is to be found, not in the earthquake or tornado, but in a whisper, as Elijah learned.

Both authors wish scientists, many of whom are believers, and believers, some of whom are also scientists, to make peace. Both, as do I, consider the great heat and fury being raised about "godless evolution" by some Christians is not only a tragic waste of talent best used elsewhere, but an actual benefit to enemies of God. Irate tirades drive more from the faith than they gain to it.

Sadly, neither author is likely to convince his or her intended audience. Even fence-sitting Christians will "consider the source" in the case of Mike Shermer, now (temporarily, in my view) an agnostic, and discount him without a fair hearing. I have to say that he is one of my favorite authors. I read his columns in Scientific American monthly, frequently with much delight. Whether it is the influence of his period of active evanglism, or general good nature (of course, I believe it is both), he is honest almost to a fault. His book contains much for the thoughtful Christian to ponder, a greater and grander vision of our God than most of us have considered. And while Joan Roughgarden is well known in her own circle, many skeptical scientists will discount her because of her great faith, while many Christians will consider her opinion suspect, a case of "where you stand depends on where you sit"; that is, 'She earns a living from evolution, so of course she'd defend it'.

I once got into an argument with a colleague who thought God was actually a "supertechnologist". He was persuaded by Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I could not persuade him that supernatural events would be different in kind from any possible technology. But this leads to Shermer's Last Law: "Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God." I say that is nonsense. Consider the intriguing goings-on whenever the Star Trek crew bumps into Q, the omnipotent being who isn't quite as omnipotent as some of his relatives, but can nonetheless do just about what he wants—including waiting until the end of the universe to escape from whatever prison his enemies put him in, then going back in time to break it open earlier than that. It makes you wonder, is there room in any universe or multiverse for more than one omnipotent being?

None of the Star Trek authors needs to explain how Q does what he does. He's omnipotent, so his supernaturality is taken for granted. But, not so fast: we must recall that Star Trek operates in an imaginary universe with a major fantasy element. Very advanced brains are assumed to become able to affect matter directly. ESP grows in direct proportion to intellect. This in spite of the very total failure of Rhine or anyone else to prove that there is any kind of ESP, let alone any correlation between ESP and brain power.

No super-technologist will ever raise a four-days-dead Lazarus. A quick cure for Hansen's Disease (leprosy) may one day be found. Prosthetic eyes may restore sight to some. But there is no natural method for stopping the Sun in the sky, simply because there is no technology that can remove the inertia of Earth, its atmosphere, and all the things on its surface so its rotation can be insensibly but instantly halted for some period, then restarted. Nor will there ever be. Besides, God may not have stopped Earth's rotation to benefit Joshua's battle with the Amalekites, anyway. He'd have found it easier to put a substitute Sun into geostationary orbit for a while, and blocked the real Sun in the meantime...or interrupted the flow of time locally...assuming words like "easier" are meaningful to God anyway!

Dr. Roughgarden makes one point that I can really identify with. I am a computer programmer with forty years experience. I've seen programs of all kinds, as I've make a bit of a cottage industry out of paring down fifty pages of bad code into two pages of good code, that usually works better. She points out the big difference between algorithms that are designed by a programmer, regardless of skill and those that are produced by "genetic programming" methods.

Genetic programming is artificial evolution running inside a computer. You have a well-defined problem to solve, that is difficult to program by conventional means. Typically, this is to simulate the behavior of something, such as traffic flow on a superhighway, or electricity in a thunderstorm. So you take small chunks of code in a special computer language (one designed for code chunks to be mixed & matched without things getting messed up), and generate a few dozen programs made from random collections of those chunks. Then you run these various programs with a test set of inputs, and see how they perform, compared to the natural system.

A supervisory program handles the details of running test after test and compositing the results. At the end of the first test, most of the randomly-mixed programs will have failed to run at all. Some will have run for some cases, and maybe a few will have at least produced some result for all test cases, with variously errant output. The ones that could complete the tasks are those you select for the next stage. Suppose there are five. You mix and match parts of these five (actually another supervisory program does this for you), producing perhaps a hundred "sexual" offspring. Run and test again. This time a larger number will complete the tests, and some will do better than others. Suppose you take the ten best, remix and continue. As added fuel for such digital evolution to work on, at each stage, small "mutations", random code changes and code duplications, are introduced into ten or twenty percent of the offspring.

In general five or six "generations" will yield a few programs that simulate the natural system rather well, and five or six more will produce a superstar or two that do very well indeed. Now, look at the code in them. Such code is very hard to follow. Things are done all out of order, it seems. Large chunks seem to do nothing, but if you remove one of them, the program is likely to fail entirely, or its errors greatly increase. It looks nothing like something any human programmer would design.

This is precisely what we find when we look at the DNA of natural creatures, from bacteria to fruit flies to humans. Comparing genomes we find that the insulin gene, for example, is a cobbled-up variation on something bacteria use to make a structural protein. Insulin wasn't created from nothing for its natural purpose, it was edited from something co-opted from another function. Not having the same structural needs as a bacterium we don't need that protein for its original use, but we do need its remixed descendant to digest glucose.

In all those animals that need insulin for digestion, it is very similar; once the cobbling-up happened, it was found too useful to discard, so we find that it is very, very similar among all mammals, though not exactly identical. Many diabetics' lives are saved by injections of pig insulin, though some (me included) are allergic to it (No, I am not a diabetic; there are other conditions that insulin can treat in short-term use). Pig insulin is the right SHAPE to work well in humans, even though a few amino acids are different between human and pig insulin, and biochemistry is all about shape; chemistry become geometry.

My conclusion of long ago, confirmed by Dr. Roughgarden: the DNA of all creatures shows clear evidence of evolutionary production, and none of any programmer's intervention.

As much as I love her writing, I must, however, protest one point this author makes. In part of her chapter on sexual variation, an area in which she thinks Darwin got it wrong (and I tend to agree), she engages in a passionate defense of homosexuality. Here, re-interpreting Lev. 18:22, she interprets the prohibition against a man who "lies with another man as one lies with a woman" as a matter of God defining what sexual positions are and are not permitted. This is the greatest mis-construction of a biblical interpretation I've ever encountered.

This chapter is mostly concerned with defining all the relationships in which sex is forbidden, listing a man's mother, stepmother, aunt, daughter, girlfriend's daughter, girlfriend's grandchildren, nieces, and several others (notice the man is the main perpetrator in all cases). This takes twenty verses. Verse 21 forbids offering one's children to Moloch, which by context probably includes a sexual act, then verse 22 forbids homosexual activity.

The idea that what is being forbidden is a certain sexual position two men may assume, while permitting others by silence, is ignorant in the extreme. The very next verse forbids sex with animals, by implication the only thing worse than man-man sex, and the chapter closes with more general exhortations and penalties.

The 20th chapter, not mentioned by Dr. Roughgarden, places sexual sins in a larger context. The first item is sacrificing children to Moloch, in verse 5 saying they are "prostituting themselves to Moloch." Verse 6 forbids mediums and spiritists, and 7-8 demands the people consecrate themselves instead to holiness.

From Lev. 20:9-21, many of the same sexual sins of chapter 18 are repeated, with man-man sex as the centerpiece in verse 13. "Fine", one might say, "two what?" There are six more, in which the King James version uses the word "Sodomites," but more modern versions like the NIV use "male shrine prostitues". They are detestable to God, and at least three of the kings of Israel exterminated or exiled them in bunches. These kings are praised for doing so.

Let us be clear, there may be evolutionary reasons for homosexual activity (male dominance rituals seen among apes, diversionary activities because of frustration in rejected reptiles and birds, and a number of others), just as there are evolutionary reasons for some cases of murder and infanticide (a father wolf will kill his own offspring if it is too abusive of its siblings). But a big part of the Biblical message is that God is raising morality to a higher standard, and sexual activity is one big portion thereof. Modern secular liberals don't like the idea, but it can't be denied. I find it instructive to ask them, "If you say gay relations shouldn't be considered sinful, how about sex with one's children or grandchildren, nieces and nephews? They are forbidden in the same section of the Bible. How will you react if your brother sleeps with your daughter?"

Finally, to close, it is clear to anyone who really knows science that Intelligent Design is not science, and equally clear that it is poor theology. ID, and the abusive creationism it came from, are defensive reactions of people so insecure in their faith, and so narrow in their misunderstanding of the Bible, that they make God too narrow for the Universe, boxing Him into it rather than glorifying Him for His transcendence over it. Their faith is not my faith, and their God is not my God, nor that of the Bible. They will never be convinced, except perhaps a few. A pity.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Miracle isn't just unexplained, it is unexplainable

kw: opinion, miracles, supernatural phenomena

The word miracle is almost never used properly. So also with supernatural. By the simple meaning of the word, something supernatural is not natural, not explainable by any appeal to the natural. And a miracle requires divine, or at least supernatural, intervention.

  • A million-to-one chance is not a miracle.
  • Just because you can't explain it, doesn't make it a miracle.
  • If it has a natural cause, it isn't a miracle.

There are six-plus billion people on this planet. Almost everything that happens to each them is a billion-to-one event. The popular show America's Funniest Home Videos shows all sorts of unusual events: throwing a basketball over a house, and swishing it; a wildly hit golf ball making a hole-in-one on the wrong green, or hitting someone 200 yards away in the crotch; a kid falling into a creek and coming up with a trout in her mouth. These are rare, but not miracles.

A miracle is something that just won't happen unless God does it. Spontaneous remission of a dangerous cancer isn't a miracle. A guy like Lazarus, four days dead and stinking, being raised to life...that's a miracle.

Venus and Mars, careening around the solar system like pinballs, bringing about the plagues Moses, with God's help, visited on Egypt, would not count as miracles (sorry, Mr. Velikovsky). Changing real water to real blood (not just water with red mud in it), or changing dust to fleas? Real miracles; and no planets had to zoom around while it happened.

Can miracles happen today? Many Bible believers think they are common. If I understand the Bible right, they were never common (Jesus said the only leper healed in Elisha's days was Naaman, for example), and this period of history is set aside as a time when they are to be very rare; the age is predicted to end with miracles aplenty, but most folks won't enjoy the experience.

Jesus avoided talking to folks who were too enamored of miracles. At the end of John 2 and the beginning of John 3, we see him hiding from a crowd drawn by his "signs" (John's word for them), but spending the night talking with Nicodemus, who came to be taught.

My definition of a miracle, as observed: A unique event that directly interferes with a natural process, demonstrates the power or compassion of God, and that will never be explained by natural causes or scientific discoveries.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

In his eyes, there's a big red target on Everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, debunking, polemics, myths

Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel—Why Everything You Know is Wrong...what a title! In twelve chapters containing 150 connected essays, John Stossel tackles—and usually hogties—150 myths many of us believe, or are persuaded by various "authorities" to believe. Given the large number, I'll do the random thing (I'm running the RAND function on my calculator as I write): OK, numbers I get are (sorted) 13, 46, 76, 106, and 128. The text below in the "Bottom Line" section is my paraphrase, not quoted from Stossel. And by the way, Stossel doesn't number the items; I am a numbering kind of guy, so I numbered my own copy.

#13 (from Chapter 1)
MYTH: We are running out of oil fast
TRUTH: Not so fast
Bottom Line: As prices rise, new resources become profitable; at current prices, we can afford to exploit oil and tar resources that will last 50-100 years, and some "alternative energy" technologies are getting competitive.

#46 (from Chapter 4)
MYTH: You know what taxes you pay
TRUTH: You don't have a clue
Bottom Line: Huge amounts of taxes are levied against corporations, which then must raise prices to stay afloat, so no matter what kind of tax there is, remember, only consumers actually pay all taxes. (Some fellow-students and I once tracked down all the ingredients in a loaf of bread, and all the taxes on their production and distribution. We found more than 120 taxes on 1978! Who pays them? The person who purchases the bread. Every penny).

#76 (from Chapter 6)
MYTH: Brand name gas is better
TRUTH: Brand name gas costs more
Bottom Line: The gas sold at Wal-Mart, 7-11, and all "non-brand" stations like Merit is refined by Chevron, Exxon, Conoco, or another brand. (I've been in the oil business, with Conoco. Jobbers buy oil from any refinery that will sell it to them, and the larger refiners, that is, brands, usually have the lowest prices to jobbers).

#108 (from Chapter 9)
MYTH: Red cars attract police attention and cost more to insure
TRUTH: It's an urban myth
Bottom Line: Try this. Call your insurance company (or one at random) and tell them you are looking at two cars, identically equipped, but you and your spouse are arguing over whether to get the red one or the white one. See what they say about pricing! They'll want to know about YOU and your record, not about the car's color.

#128 (from Chapter 10)
MYTH: Revenge is sweet
TRUTH: Forgiveness is sweeter
Bottom Line: Remember the "live by the sword, die by the sword" adage? People who hold grudges simply don't live as long or as well as those who forgive and get on with life.

John Stossel, of 20/20 on ABC, began his journalistic career as a "modern liberal", and was transformed by years of myth-busting into a "classical liberal". Nobody understands historical liberalism any more, so he calls himself, a bit reluctantly, a Libertarian, as his concluding chapter explains.

There is plenty in the book for both liberals and conservatives (both excruciatingly mis-named these days) to hate. But as Bernard Baruch said, "Every man has a right to his opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts." In nearly all 150 cases, Stossel has his facts right. The political extremes, and the masses of people who complacently follow one or the other, seldom have facts at their disposal.

So, there is plenty of hay to be made. A few "myths" turn out to be true. For example, prosperous people really are more happy than very poor people, as most of us would guess. However, the really rich aren't happier than the "middle class." It was Jackie Gleason who said, "People who say money doesn't buy happiness just don't know where to shop." His persistent sadness of-stage revealed this as empty bravado. It turns out that gradually rising prosperity is better at producing happiness than any constant state of wealth that doesn't change. Reduced circumstances erode happiness. The billionaires want another billion, and are unhappy if they drop back to "half-billionaire" status.

I'm going to add a fact or two to #16, the last in Chapter 1 (MYTH: The world is too crowded/TRUTH: That's garbage too). Is the world too crowded? The question is better restated, "Does the world have more people than it can comfortably support?" Many folks say it does, John Stossel says it doesn't, and he buttresses the argument by comparing starving Niger, with 9 people per square mile, to America (28/sq mi), the Netherlands (484) and other prosperous countries. He states, rightly, that famine and other shortagles are primarily political. However, I take issue with the Netherlands, which imports some of its food, and Japan which imports about half, as counter-examples.

Were the kleptocratic government of Niger miraculously replaced with the most benevolent of republics, they couldn't wrest sufficient food out of their land to feed their people. The CIA World Factbook entry for Niger states of the geography:

"landlocked; one of the hottest countries in the world; northern four-fifths is desert, southern one-fifth is savanna, suitable for livestock and limited agriculture"

The country has 12.5 million residents, the same as Illinois. Its land area is 14 times as great. 11.4% of Niger is arable, and most of that poorly, compared to 50% of Illinois, which is 20 degrees cooler and has much more total water. The U.S. as a whole has 15% of the land under cultivation; another 10% could be farmed. Worldwide, 20-25% of land is arable to varying degrees. The political situation in Niger accounts for the fact that less than 1% of its land is actually being farmed at present, but if all 11.4% were farmed, it would be a poor country still, as it has little groundwater.

However, we were talking about the whole earth. With 6.4 billions, is Earth too crowded? At the moment there is room for debate. At what point would everyone agree that "Enough is enough!"? Ten billion, twenty, a trillion? World population growth is currently two percent. If the death rate doesn't increase (that would be a political miracle), we'll have ten billion in 2029, twenty billion in 2064, and a trillion humans (surely that is crowded!) on Earth in 255 years, in 2262 or thereabouts.

OK, if that's my only quibble with Stossel, I'd say he has a very good book here, and he does! Read and learn!!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Global warming means bad winters

kw: book reviews, science fiction, global warming, climatology, near-future, alternate history, trilogies

I read Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain a few years ago, before beginning these reviews. The second book in the trilogy, Fifty Degrees Below, came out about a year ago, and Sixty Days and Counting is due out in a half year (Spring 2007).

Fifty Degrees Below continues Frank's assignment at NSF, working with Director Diane Chang. Frequently, the book goes on as a pure continuation of its forerunner, so much so that one can get a little lost if reading it without having read the other. A trilogy author has to balance the needs of readers who first encounter a sequel against those familiar with earlier work. I know too much explaining the "obvious" can get annoying to one's more faithful readers, but annoying new readers is also risky.

There are two stories here. The private story of Frank's love life is woven into a realistic portrayal of a major expected effect of polar warming: shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This portrait is well-researched and well-presented. It ought to be required reading by all policy makers, particularly those (sadly, mostly 'conservatives' who are bent on anything but conservation) who deny human-caused (or at least human-emphasized) warming.

Frank comes across as a neo-cave man. As the novel opens, he must move out of a borrowed apartment, and recent severe flooding in the DC area has driven housing costs very high. He winds up living in a "distributed" home: his office, the back of his van, a tree shelter, and a health club. A flood-damaged park near the National Zoo is his backyard. He hangs with homeless guys and begins running with a small band of compulsive Ultimate Frisbee players. They are portrayed like a neolithic hunting party in their camaraderie...rather apropos, I'd say.

The book ends with a massive effort to re-start the Gulf Stream with a half million tons of salt, and with Frank's love interest in hiding from her "blacker than black" spook of an ex-husband.

A subtext is electronic surveillance via "chips", poppy-seed-size microwave transponders, the offspring of the RFID chips retailers want to put in clothing (eventually all goods). A little physics knowledge is the spoiler here: The most efficient wavelength a single-wire antenna can transmit is four times its length. A millimeter-size chip, unless it's attached to a longer wire, works best at a 4-mm wavelength, or a frequency of 75 Ghz. Even at this resonant frequency, the received (and thus echoed) signal strength is proportional to the square of the antenna length, so you just can't get much of a signal into or out of such a little chip, even at its best frequency.

Passive RFID (no battery) works by bathing the chip in pulses of strong microwaves at its resonant frequency; the chip is briefly powered by each pulse to respond with a serial number modulating that frequency. So, some of the energy runs the little processor that encodes the number, and most of the rest can get re-emitted.

I'm a radio ham, and have fooled around with microwaves. RFID works pretty well at frequencies in the 1-3 Ghz range. Such devices require a 1- to 3-inch (25 to 75 mm) antenna. You only lose about half the energy if you coil the antenna up, as long as it is still the size of a dime, more or less. However, remember that the energy capture, and thus that available for re-radiation, drops as the square of the length of the antenna.

Inch-size chips work at ranges of a few inches, less than a foot even with a 3-inch straight antenna, unless you whack them with a large microwave pulse, large enough for someone to feel. Then their "echo" can be detected a few meters away. You need an expensive sniffer that can send a big pulse, then turn on a very sensitive receiver in a nanosecond or less to receive the return signal. Go from 75mm to 3mm in wavelength, and the signal drops by a factor of 625. You can receive it from a few meters away only if you have a meter-size dish pointed exactly at the little chip!

The rice-grain-size passive chips people now put in their dogs work at a range of about six inches. You have to sweep the reader over the dog's back at least that close. You're not going to drive down the street and pick up an echo from your dog's chip. Although I expect technology to improve a lot, I suspect chips cannot get any smaller than a sesame seed, and still be detected by a doorway-mounted device as you step through.

The use of tiny chips does lend a frisson of drama to the narrative. I just wish the author had thought, you don't need to destroy chips or even shed them to avoid detection. If you know a chip is in your sweater, just wrap your sweater in foil and drop it into a carry bag. The dark gray bags made of conductive plastic, that many electronic components come in, are ideal "chip shields." If someone should implant a chip in your arm, you can hide by wearing any long-sleeved shirt with a lot of metallic threads woven in. These aren't popular now, but I expect them to resurge...

There is a lovely scene in the book, a regatta at the North Pole. The sun is depicted as standing still in the sky on midsummer's day. Actually, it'll circle the sky at an elevation of 23 degrees. I wonder how many readers will catch that one.

However, pardon my quibbles; the book is a great read, and on a subject with which I have much sympathy. I'm awaiting Sixty Days and Counting.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A plea for ensuring human survival in a dangerous universe

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemics, space policy, NEAs, NEO's, near-earth objects, near-earth asteroids, cosmic risk, terrorism, superweapons

For at least 2,000 years, the moon and other heavenly bodies were considered perfect, the Earth (and Hell beneath) being the sole demesne of imperfection, sin, and suffering. Aristotle was probably not the first to promote such a view, but was certainly the most influential. Following his lead, the Catholic church built its theology on an Earth set but one step above Hell and Purgatory, with the Heavens (plural concentric abodes) above; the Earth being a place of testing to determine whether one became heavenly and arose, or hellish and sank.

Just under 400 years ago, Galileo first looked at the moon through a small telescope. He saw not the perfect sphere he'd imagined, but a ruined, fully cratered body. However, as late as the 1960s, a strong contingent of astronomers and othes contended that the craters were volcanic, taking a cue from Jefferson, who'd said, "I'd rather believe a Yankee professor would lie than believe stones fall from the sky". The underlying unease was at least partly religious.

Once we saw Mars and Mercury up close, with spacecraft, however, it could not be denied that something had banged them and the Moon about quite thoroughly. The current theory describes an early Earth having its entire outer portion (at least a few hundred kilometers deep) melted by impacts, more than once; even the moon is now seen as originally impact debris, ejected when the Earth was hit by something the size of Mars—this must have happened early enough for it to get quite beat up after such an origin. But the same theory puts an end to this "Hadean Era" at about 3.9 billion years ago.

I visited Barringer Crater near Winslow, Arizona once. It is quite impressive; nearly a mile across and 570 feet deep. The mini-asteroid that caused it came in about 50,000 years ago, and was perhaps 150 feet in diameter. This isn't the only recent or "nearly recent" meteorite impact crater. This set of lists in Wikipedia lists 36 well-known craters by size, then 182 (including a few clusters of craters as one item) in a continent-by-continent list.

Half of the craters listed exceed five miles (8 km) in diameter, and the two largest are over 300 miles across. The Chicxulub crater, scar of the impact that destroyed the dinosaurs, is just over 100 miles across; four of the known craters are larger than that, and one of these that is offshore of India is the same age, so maybe there were several dino-killers, perhaps a string of chunks like the broken comet that peppered Jupiter in 1994.

Some statistical points: The craters are clustered in age-size space. Craters older than 10 million years range upwards from about 1.3 km in size, with no visible trend. Younger craters show a size versus age trend, which is probably due to smaller craters being eroded quickly. Interestingly, the third-youngest crater listed is Mahuika crater, offshore of New Zealand, about 600 years old and 20 km in diameter. That's big enough to have multi-year weather effects, which may explain the century-long cooling after about 1420 AD.

This brings us to the major point of The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth by William E. Burrows, the reason he wrote the book. Several (about 4?) tons of meteoric dust settles on Earth's surface each day; a few pebble-size or larger meteorites land each month, somewhere; a chunk big enough to crash through a roof does so about every decade (if we count the oceans and uninhabited places, it could be several per year). What do we know about larger, more damaging objects?

Researchers such as Louis Frank state that a number of meter-scale to "house size" comets hit the Earth's atmosphere daily, depositing mainly water. Based on dust-gathering studies, these little comets must have very little solid content.

The crater lists I mention above give us a rough idea, which competent statisticians restate thus: the chance of another Barringer Crater object (50 meter size) coming in is about one per ten thousand years. At kilometer size, it is one per few million years. The dino-killer was probably about six kilometers in size, and arrived 65 million years ago. Two of nearly that size hit about 35 million years ago, and one about 2 km across hit some five million years ago, causing a 50-km (30 mile) crater.

We know how big a blast a particular asteroid will create: it is all physics, once you know its mass and velocity. Size isn't the only criterion, because asteroids that circle the sun in the "normal" direction (prograde orbits) can hit Earth with speeds mostly under 25 km/s, while those going the opposite way (retrograde orbits) can hit at a speed as high as 75 km/s, which means ten to twenty times the impact energy.

Author Burrows wishes to influence policy so that we'll create and maintain a permanent presence in space, with the aim of preserving human life in the face of the next big asteroid to come our way. However, his is no simple nor single goal, as he details throughly. We are at risk from a violent universe, it is true. We are also at risk from our own violence. To put his thesis simply, if human life is made extinct, there is a roughly equal chance that it will occur from our own use of superweapons as from external asteroids and other cosmic causes.

However our potential demise is figured, Burrows and others wish to have a backup strategy. First and foremost, he desires a human presence in multiple off-Earth locations, first the Moon, then one or more large orbiting colonies. This is getting some of our eggs out of the single basket in which they currently reside. A lunar colony would have as its main aim keeping a breeding population alive through any disaster Earth might suffer and keeping a record of all of earth's cultural, scientific, and artistic attainments. This is backing up your hard drive in a big way (and how many of us actually do so?).

With equally great threats from Earth (evil or stupid people with megaton bombs or bioweapons) and from space, there would be two other significant thrusts to a space endeavor, but probably physically located in other venues. One is detection and exposure of superweapon preparations by rogue states (he has a long discussion of North Korea), the other is detection and diversion of NEAs, near-earth asteroids. Pitifully little money is being supplied to the latter endeavor, but one day of the Pentagon's budget per year would make it a much more robust, and effective, enterprise.

Thus the book is a long polemic (positively speaking) toward these aims. Sadly, the writing is too scattered to easily grasp. The author appears to have a hop-toad mind, and the focus jumps accordingly. It is written on too high a level to hold the interest of the average congressman or senator. Also, just as very few of us, and even very few corporations, do a really good job of backing up our computer data, the human race is probably way, way to short-sighted to do much of anything before Rome or San Diego vanishes into the next crater.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

When did human evolution stop?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, paleoanthropology, archaeology, historical linguistics, primatology, social anthropology, evolutionary psychology, population genetics, human origins, natural selection

The simple answer to this post's title: It hasn't. Among those who accept evolution of the human animal, it is common to think that we've reached some kind of pinnacle, and no evolutionary change has taken place in the last ten or twenty thousand—or perhaps 100,000—years (For those who don't, of course no evolution has ever taken place). The book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade presents a synthesis of what is known and strongly inferred in the disciplines related to human origins. The picture is full of surprises.

Item: When did people begin to wear clothing? Fabrics are so rarely retained in "fossil" deposits, we can't begin to guess. Body lice provide the answer (yuck!). Head lice, equivalent to head-and-body lice in apes, live in the hair. Body lice live only in clothing, and move to the skin to feed, but lay eggs in clothing, because there is too little hair on most human bodies to reliably protect the nits. So when did body lice evolve? Genetic dating from modern head and body louse populations provides the surprising answer: about 70,000 years ago. Such dates currently suffer from large uncertainties, so the actual development of the body louse, shortly (a few thousand years) after clothing became common, occurred before 40,000 years ago, and most likely 80,000 or later.

Item: When did proto-humans lose their body hair? Both chimps and bonobos (once called "pygmy chimps") both have fair skin under that black hair. Only the face, hands and feet are dark, because of a permanent tan. Dark skin over the body probably arose as hair was lost, to protect the skin from the sun. "Black" Africans can be sunburned, but it takes a lot more sun exposure compared to lighter-skinned people. When did darker skin over the whole body evolve? Genetic dating again provides an answer, this time from the genes that produce skin pigments: about 1,200,000 years ago.

Strangely, I looked for information on the "first use of fire", but Wade doesn't mention it. A BBC News article of 22 March 2004 states that early African humans, possibly Homo erectus, seem to have had hearths as early as 1.5 million years ago. Another article, dated 29 April 2004, about H. erectus in Israel, has them using fire in sophisticated ways 790,000 years ago. It seems to me that nakedness arose primarily as a result of fire use. Other explanations, such as sexual selection, seem less compelling.

What is interesting, though, is the million or more years that passed between the loss of hair and the development of clothing. Production of textiles must require a change in thinking that didn't occur earlier. The Acheulian "toolkit" was used by at least three species of Homo from 1.7 million years ago until it was supplanted 250,000 years ago by Mousterian (H. Neanderthalensis in Europe) and Middle Paleolithic (H. Ergaster in Africa) technologies. These related technologies show two things: that there was contact between African and European species of Homo; and that one had attained sufficient brain power to greatly improve their use of stone tools, which the other quickly adopted (it takes less wit to copy than to invent). So, apparently, clothing other than cured skins was an invention later yet.

I've known the term "anatomically modern human" (AMH) for decades. I confess that I didn't think about it much. But later, the term "behaviorally modern human" (BMH) gave me pause. Is there a difference? Sure is, by tens of thousands of years. It seems AMH's, which arose in Africa 100,000 years ago, could pass for human today, as long as they didn't do anything. But they didn't live like BMH's, who lived like the hunter-gatherer groups of today, such as certain "primitive" tribes in South America or New Guinea. Evidence of BMH living appears just after 50,000 years ago in Africa, and about 45,000 years ago in Europe.

AMH living was by foraging and minor hunting. Family groups stayed together, in bands of related families that scattered and coalesced on a daily basis, numbering 50 or fewer. Few activities other than food gathering and preparation, procreation, and sleeping, occurred.

BMH living included much more hunting, of larger game, and specialized plant gathering. A great increase in the use of ornaments and artful trinkets arose. The stone toolkit, called Upper Paleolithic, was much more complex, with specific tools for specific uses, and complex tools made of bone, antler, and ivory. Musical instruments, such as bone flutes, are found for the first time in BMH leavings. The people ritualized burial. And they traded among groups, much more than AMH's, to obtain materials and products found far from their home ranges.

Add one item: About 50,000 years ago, BMH's from the "ancestral human population" (AHP) in Africa migrated beyond Africa, apparently for the first time since 1.8 million years ago, and established themselves eastward and northwestward to the limits of the Eurasian continent in a few thousand years. They seem to have supplanted and replaced Neandertals in Europe and "archaic Homo" people in Asia, in less than ten thousand years. During this time, some reached Australia, something the archaics didn't do.

When I saw all these together, I was convinced for the first time that the "multiregional" hypothesis, which requires persistent gene flow among the African, European, and Asian species of Homo, must be wrong. What was it that kept Africans from continuing to migrate to Eurasia, at least successfully, between 1.8 million and 50 thousand years ago? The most likely answer is that the land was occupied by Neandertals and archaics, who either drove out or destroyed invaders. In the same way, the AHP in Africa filled at least the Northeast part of that continent and kept the other species from invading.

Once the AHP developed BMH living, they could make better use of resources, had better weapons, and could stay together in larger groups, compared to the other species, and could successfully invade Eurasia. However, even with these advantages, it wasn't a simple walkover. The number of BMH's who became the ancestors of all non-African people was less than 500, and possibly as few as 150.

OK, so what happened since 50,000 years ago? Are we BMH's who have somehow adapted to settled life? Are today's remaining hunter-gatherer (H/G) groups BMH's? Not really. Although BMH's were anatomically very nearly the same as AMH's, there are differences between today's people, both in Africa and Eurasia, and the people of the African AHP. If you were to take a range of modern people, of all races, of various sizes and ages, and pair them up with AHP folks of similar size and age, you'd find the earlier people had thicker skulls and heavier bones at all ages. They were not as heavily built as Neandertals, but were definitely more like American Football players than like Soccer (European Football) players. The AHP's also stayed in smaller groups than members of modern H/G groups do.

The main reason is inter-group combat. There has been a strong tendency among anthropologists to understate the level of aggressiveness and prevalence of warfare among "innocent savages." An unbiased look at the record reveals that the greatest single danger to humans through all ages was and is other humans. Xenophobia is the natural state of the H/G mind, the BMH mind, and the AMH mind, as it was for all earlier species of Homo.

It is now known that groups of chimps engage in wars of extermination against neighboring groups, and that the leading cause of death among males is "chimpicide". Bonobos, with a female-dominated society, do not engage in such warfare...a good reason for turning over all politics to women!

The greatest single cause of both male and female death in most H/G groups is warfare and killing raids between groups. So, while trade arose at least 50,000 years ago, it probably occurred primarily among groups that couldn't exterminate one another, just as it does today among all the mutually warring tribes in New Guinea and South America, for example. "You aren't my brother or cousin, but unless I judge I can destroy you, I'll call you friend...for a while."

My father's cousin, while a missionary in New Guinea in the 1950s, saw frequent warfare and some cannibalism. Two groups of men might trade one day, and slaughter one another the next. A smaller village might have all its men killed, whereupon all their children would be killed, plus most of the women, and the rest taken as concubines.

Let's look at a few numbers. About a third of adult male chimps die in combat. The number is the same among the Yanomamo, a Brazilian tribe of H/G's. One study showed that a typical tribal society lost, on average, 0.5% of its population yearly to warfare (that's ~1% if the men and a smaller proportion of women; and among men, that's a 26% loss per thirty years). However, averages tend to hide incidents. Most inter-tribe warfare is carried out by small battles and raids a few times per year, or perhaps monthly. Pitched battles are much less frequent, but cause huge carnage: A 30% loss on both sides is typical. Modern societies prior to 1900 AD could produce similar death tolls: At the battle of Gettysburg, the Union side lost 21%, and the Confederates lost 30%.

However, the two World Wars of the 20th Century resulted in losses of less than 10% among the soldiery, and a percent or less of the engaged nations' total citizenry. Stalin's purges of the 1940s and '50s were actually worse than either World War in terms of pure carnage...they were wars of another sort. But in 2002, though a number of wars were in progress around the globe, including America's war in Afghanistan, 0.3% of deaths were due to warfare.

But these latter figures are comparing recent wars among settled societies, with wars among H/G societies, BMH societies...and apes! They are probably not entirely fair. Wade doesn't go into this, but by my own study, I find the following: History is full of war stories, from Troy to Sparta to Carthage and so on. But it seems the total toll of warfare among settled societies is typically about half that among H/G societies.

I wonder what is cause and what is effect? Did settlement and agriculture result in a preference for negotiation? Or did the development of more negotiation-prone people—perhaps first among those who profited most from trading—allow settlement to occur?

I'd say it is a coevolutionary change. Our skeletons reflect the fact that we have less reason to fear being bonked on the head some random night, compared to the AHP, and less need for face-to-face combat. Although today's H/G members live very similarly to the AHP, a Yanomamo or Dani person can be socialized to live in a city. I suspect a person brought in a time machine from 40,000 years ago would be unsocializable, or only partly so.

The brain has changed since that time. So far, two genetic changes that determine brain size, and probably size in specific areas, have been found and genetically dated. One occurred 37,000 years ago, the other 6,000 years ago. The people of 50,000 years ago were, from archaeological evidence, able to live in larger groups than earlier peoples. They were able to extend the idea of "kin" to a larger group than before. But each change to the brain seems to have increased the number of "others" a person could tolerate.

By 15,000 years ago, when settlement began, it seems people could tolerate even greater numbers, and additionally, accept direction from leaders. Both are required for a few hundred people to live in continuous close proximity. It seems strange that these first settlements were not primarily agricultural. They seem instead to have been "places to be" between hunting and collecting expeditions, and trade centers. Specialized skills proliferated; the best hunters got their spear and arrow points from the best stoneworkers, as the best clothing makers got needles and other tools from bone workers...and in turn traded clothing to those less skilled.

The later development of agriculture led to much larger settlements, about the time of the 6,000-year-ago bump in brain size. A larger brain adapts one to the need to remember a larger number of people. It was not much later than this that lactose tolerance evolved among those who kept herds of large mammals. To this day, lactose tolerance or intolerance indicates whether your ancestors were farmers or ranchers.

Now think, today an office worker can step out of an apartment and essentially vanish into a city of millions of strangers, and return safely hours later! Rather extraordinary, wouldn't you say?

What other genetic changes have arisen recently? Malaria resistance among those living in subtropical areas has evolved at least twice since 10,000 years ago (one such change causes sickle-cell disease). Our sense of smell is much reduced compared to just 15,000 years ago, because most of the olfactory gene set has become inactive. Whether this is because of the stench of early cities, of because of less need to smell out game, I forbear to speculate!

The changes to brain and body that occurred prior to 50,000 years ago are found in all humans. Those that arose later are found in larger or smaller numbers depending on where a mutation arose and how strong a benefit it ensured.

This leads us to the most visible differences among human populations, those that correlate best with the continent one's ancestors inhabited: we call them races. While skin color is often considered to be the main indicator of race, it is not really the best. The Caucasians in southern India are darker than some Africans; some Japanese (and I don't mean Ainu, which are very pale) are paler than most Caucasians; many Australians (aboriginals not Austro-Brits) are darker than most Africans or Indians. If you take almost anyone, and paint their skin white (or any solid color of your choice), most people can tell at a glance what continental type they typify, and often the subtype (pygmies and Inuit are quite distinctive, for example).

Regardless how extensive "racial" differences are, it seems they arose no more than 12,000 years ago. They reflect, as do many other indicators, that most people in history seldom moved far from the place they were born. The subtypes within continental groups emphasize this. So, rather than the "not politically correct" attitude toward any mention of racial genetics, it would be better to look upon the diversity of human types as a library of the history of humanity.

One thing is sure: We continue to evolve. We are more gracile than the AHP. Gracility may continue, but it has probably already reached it logical limit among East Asians. Even though Chinese fed a "Western" diet grow taller than their parents, they remain on average much slenderer than Europeans. The continually increasing complexity of modern life will, unless civilization collapses, lead to people with larger brains and more multitasking skills, first behaviorally, and over a few generations, genetically. We won't become the bare brains of science fiction, but we may become smaller, thinner, quicker, and less aggressive in the future. Should Homo sapiens survive another 50,000 years, no doubt our descendants will look back at us as quizzically as we look back at the people in Africa, 50,000 years ago, some of whom managed to escape that continent to colonize the rest of the planet.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A new generation of Space Opera

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, speculative sociology

Critics and others who write about Sci-fi may break up the past couple of centuries into several eras, but it seems most fondly cling to the notion of a Golden Age prior to about 1955, and everything since. Having read nearly everything older than 1970, and a pretty good amount of the stories (fewer of the novels) written since then, I think a major cognitive shift occurred in about 1960.

I recognized early on that much of the Sci-fi I enjoyed from the Jules-Verne-to-pulp period was about technology, with mostly one-dimensional human characters. However, the very best writing of the period employed the "futuristic" or "possibilistic" setting as a backdrop for more complex characters enacting very human dramas.

The cognitive shift, which took from about 1960 to 1975 to work itself out, produced much more complex personalities, and less emphasis on "explaining" how to go faster than light, travel through time, or live forever. The Space Opera was replaced by the Otherworldly Morality Play. Sci-fi writers mostly seem to be intimidated by, and thus trying to imitate, the overwhelming characterizations common in "mainstream" (that is, boring and usually pointless) fiction. Today there is very little science fiction that has its roots in genuine Space Opera, which is still my favorite sub-genre.

You have to know something about me: I am more akin to the one-dimensional characters in Doc Smith than to the overly-drawn semi-heroes of Orson Scott Card. I get along better with machines than with people. I like the Robot stories of Asimov because the people are neurotic and the robots aren't. I like the unflinchingly heroic Lensman Kimball Kinnison much better than the achingly altruistic Nafai. I need heroes who Get Things Done, because sometimes I can't and need encouragement. Blish's Mayor Amalfi may be something of a jerk, but he is an effective jerk. That I can handle. I've had bosses like that, and I like them the best.

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds takes me a big half-step back to space opera. The technology is mostly unexplained, because most of it is alien in origin, and the much of the rest is the product of post-human technology. But a few things, most particularly the Frost Angel technology for preserving a dead or near-dead person for later restoration, are based on solid science.

I enjoyed the human and alien characters the most...usually. The enmity between Bella and Svetlana is overdrawn, but otherwise, the people are comfortingly complex without being overwhelming. The two alien species presented are, it turns out, pretty much what they seem: incredibly advanced, both hoping to exploit the little group on their mini-planet (of alien manufacture) that have found themselves whisked across the galaxy; both deceptive, but the firstmuch more beneficent than the other. First Contact was a lucky one...but the story'd have gone nowhere if the really malicious aliens had shown up first, anyway.

John Campbell's "first law of sci-fi writing" was, "Pose a big problem, then solve it." Author Reynolds's people face problems that, one by one, they solve or are helped to solve. To me, that's what is best about Sci-fi.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Choosing proper spiritual leaders

kw: opinion, religion, priests, clergy, sexual abuse, leadership qualifications, biblical interpretation

A quote from SNAP's "What to Do When Your Priest is Accused of Abuse" list:

"...abuse, sadly, is quite common. It's far more widespread than any of us would like to believe. Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 9 boys will be molested in their lifetimes." I first assumed this means Catholic girls and boys, but the Network's opening statement shows they are referring to all kinds of "clergy": priests, ministers, bishops, deacons, nuns and others.

A more Catholic-focused website, Bishop Accountability , noted that dioceses had listed more than 1,300 abusive priests in 2004, but only 80 of 195 dioceses actually reported, and the largest ones were among the "missing". That means there are thousands of abusive priests, at least 3,500 and probably more than 10,000. This doesn't count priests who "abuse" adult parishioners (adulterers, literally).

Though I was raised a Methodist, I spent a couple years in College attending a Catholic parish. It didn't take long to determine that the lack of genuine devotion among priests was common, that those having a genuine vocation were so rare as to be remarkable. Every young man I met who had been an altar boy knew the priest he grew up serving subscribed to Playboy...every one! The priest of the parish I attended was famous for being able to rip through a Latin mass (this was pre-Vatican II) in about twenty minutes. When he had to prepare a Homily (sermon), he still kept the service under thirty minutes. Only the highest holy days ranked something approaching an hour.

By contrast, I have met at least two Catholic priests who, I would judge, are genuinely called and serve God with great devotion. I really don't know what proportion of priests is genuinely devoted to God. I hope it is greater than half, but fear it is not.

The situation in Protestantism is sadly similar. While there seems to be less sexual child abuse and adultery, visible lack of devotion is common. To many, being a preacher is just their job, and more Protestant ministers have degrees in Psychology than in Theology or Ministry. I once applied to attend Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. I found that, even at this rather conservative seminary, the largest single degree program was Psychology. Considering the amount of counseling a pastor has to do, I can understand a strong minor in Psych, but as a Major? Wow! I didn't go.

The Apostle Paul, in I Timothy and in Titus, describes the qualities a bishop must have. Combining these lists, we have without reproach, unreprovable as God's steward, married to one wife, temperate, not self-willed, sober-minded, not quick tempered, orderly, hospitable, a good teacher, not drinking to excess, not violent, not greedy for money, managing his own house well, having successfully raised proper children, and experienced enough not to be proud in their eldership. The list for a deacon is similar, including the wife and children. Paul even wrote, "...if one does not know how to manage his own house, how will he care for the church of God?"

This argues strongly against any practice of choosing a pastor or elder who is a new graduate from a seminary, though this is how most start out these days. Even more, it makes it clear that a spiritual leader must be married, and must have children who demonstrate his skill in child-rearing. The condition of the church will soon mirror the condition of his family, so take a careful look!

My own experiences leading churches in a few places prompt me to the following points: [dots from here]

  • No congregation should be led by only one elder/bishop (the terms refer to the same person; elder is the status, bishop, or "overseer", is the office or sphere of work). No one man or woman can be trusted with individual leadership.
  • The number of deacons/ministers (the second word is a translation of the first) should exceed the number of elders. They lead most of the practical work.
  • Every church leader must be married, with children, and the children must be of good deportment. The stereotypical image of rebellious "preacher's kids" indicates the leader isn't properly caring for the family.
  • No church leader can be trusted in a situation of being alone with any church member, of the same or the opposite sex, for any time exceeding a few minutes. If someone needs counseling, either the leader and spouse, or two leaders of the same sex as the one being counseled, must carry it out.

Any congregation that adheres to these points will have a very small risk of abuse.

So the Rabbi said to his driver...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, philosophy, talmud, kabbalah

The book is On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom by Arthur Kurzweil.

My conclusion: I knew I don't know much about Judaism; I just didn't realize how deep my ignorance is. Christians who know "judaism" primarily from reading the New Testament get a fragmentary, mainly unflattering, view of first-Century Judaism. Only three groups are presented in more than a cameo appearance: the Pharisees, the Saducees, and "Jews from Asia". Here is what I thought I knew:

Pharisees were conservative "fundamentalists". At least, they believed the Torah literally, believed in miracles, angels, demons, and a caring God. Sadducees were liberal "modernists". They were pragmatic, politically motivated, believing themselves too sophisticated to take the Torah literally, using religion for their ambitious purposes. The "Jews from Asia", Paul's persecutors, were conservative, defensive, hair-trigger activists, a small number from those who had heard Paul and his fellow workers preach; they considered Paul's preaching a threat to Judaism, just as Paul, when he was Saul, had considered the followers of Jesus a threat.

I also recall being told that today's Hasidim, the most visible group of conservative and ultra-conservative Jews, were the Pharisees. I've had a sympathetic view of the Pharisees. Among their number was the wise Gamaliel, who was inclined to trust God rather than fight against the "Jesus people." The convert Nicodemus was a Pharisee. They sympathized with Paul, a former Pharisee. They seemed to me suspicious but not overtly oppositional to Christian faith.

Now I find, that though some early Medieval, conservative Jews have been called Hasidim, today's Hasidic Judaism dates from the 1700s. Though the theology is primary very conservative, it is also very experiential and mystical. To Christians looking for a familiar analogy: the Pharisees were a lot like today's "free baptists", very literalistic, and often a bit cold; the Kabbalistic mystics prior to the mid-1700s were a lot like today's "charismatics", very experiential, but playing a bit fast and loose with scripture; the Hasidim are a melding of the two, and Christianity has yet to produce a large group of similar balance (though a few smaller groups of "mystical evangelicals" exist, and I number myself among them).

There are a hundred or so dynasties of Hasidic Jews, usually named for the locality of their founding. Each is led today by the fifth or sixth generation of lineal sons of their founding Rabbi. Possibly the largest is the Lubavitcher dynasty. Many believe the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died without issue in 1994, is the Messiah, mystically still living and preparing to lead his people in the final struggle.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is probably the Lubavitcher Rebbe's most prominent friend, and perhaps disciple. He is certainly the most prominent Rabbi promoting Talmud and Kabbalah studies today. He is in the process of translating the Babylonian Talmud into English. So far as I know, 38 volumes (of 46 expected) are finished and in print. The Rabbi is now 69 and kept busy with speaking engagements. May God grant him the strength, longevity, and grace to finish the work.

So who is Arthur Kurzweil? He is a publisher of Jewish literature, a writer and speaker...and a performer of a magic show called "Searching for God in a Magic Shop." In 1985, he did "something smart," calling the Aleph Society (managers of Rabbi Steinsaltz's travels and publishing) and offered to help, even as a volunteer. At one point, he said, "I'd even pick him up at the airport at 5 AM." The staffer said, "You would?" and a beautiful relationship soon began.

Throughout the following 25 years or so, Kurzweil was the Rabbi's usual driver whenever he visited New York City, about three times yearly, for a few weeks at a time. Sometimes, they had little chance to talk, but when the plane arrives at 5 AM, baggage and customs go quickly, and the first appointment is at 9 AM, you can usually count on an hour or so of "downtime," a perfect opportunity for the driver to probe the Rabbi's mind.

The book is a narrative of many of their conversations, and is also sprinkled with nuggets from the Rabbi's writings. For example, from "Opening the Tanya": "What is Hasidism? What is its innovation? Hasidism strives for consciousness of one's inner essence and simplicity—in relation to Torah, man, and divinity—and for this there are no adequate words or direct definitions. Because it deals with man's inner essence, Hasidism defies easy definition or description." Though it takes time and thought to understand this quote, it is the best explanation of Hasidism that can be made.

Now it is time for me to make enemies. What connection do today's Jews have with the nation of Israel as described in the Old Testament, particularly at its founding at Sinai? By the time the people of Israel crossed into Canaan, the Pentateuch (the Christian term) was finished. This is commonly called the Torah, the five books of Moses. However, Torah has a couple of other uses. It is also used somewhat loosely for the Tanakh, AKA the Old Testament, in recognition of the authority of the other nineteen (to a Jew; re-cast as another 34 in Christian Bibles) books. Finally, it is used to include both the written law and the oral law; the latter was written out as the first part of the Talmud, which also includes huge volumes of interpretation.

On at least a couple of occasions, Jesus said, "You have nullified the word of God by your tradition." He was referring to the oral law as it existed in 30 AD. What would he say of the Talmud? When you get right down to it, we have a situation here similar to Martin Luther protesting against the Patristic Writings, the Catholic tradition of the "church fathers." Just as Jewish tradition was 1400 years old by Jesus's time, Catholic tradition was 1400 years old in Luther's time. Now Jewish tradition is 3400 years old and in two supplementary written forms (the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds), Catholic tradition is 1900 years old, and both guide the majority of members of two world religions.

Neither tradition has much to do with the written Scriptures. Catholicism has nearly no trace of scriptural Christian faith in it, and Talmudic Judaism has nearly no trace of the Mosaic. This was made abundantly clear by my reading of Kurzweil's book. The religion of most people is almost pure sentimentality. The religion of some has bits of wisdom buried in sentimentality. The Judaism of Kurzweil and Steinsaltz has more wisdom than most, but its deeply scholarly tradition is firmly rooted in the sentimentalism of rabbis from many centuries ago, who didn't explain the Law, but explained it away.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Manhattan Project: the (not so secret) sequel

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, the pentagon, government advisors

Would you believe JASON stands for "July August September October November"? I didn't think so. Perhaps if some Pentagon figure hadn't first suggested the name Project Sunrise, prompting a chorus of gagging, no alternative would have been suggested. As it was, the name Jason was strongly suggested in its place, for its relation to the quest of the Argo in search of the golden fleece. The utility, and low profile, of the group is suggested by the fact that Senator Proxmire hasn't tried to award them one of his "golden fleece" anti-awards.

But who, or what, is Jason? It isn't really much of a secret. After the Manhattan Project was gradually disbanded, some in the government, and particularly the military, thought it would be useful to continue to sponsor a collaboration of scientists, at first all physicists, to study and advise them about the scientific and technical hurdles they faced. Though many projects and the ensuing reports have been classified Secret or Top Secret, the existence of the group hasn't been hidden, the way the Manhattan Project was hidden and disguised.

As it turned out, many of the first members, frequently called Jasons, had worked on the Manhattan Project, and several helped develop its successor the thermonuclear bomb. This made them heroes from the inception of the group in 1960 until the 1970s, when they were suddenly made the goats of the Vietnam War in the minds of many.

Science writer Ann Finkbeiner found out about Jason quite by happenstance, and became fascinated with it. She spent two years reading, learning, and interviewing many former and current Jasons. Considering the basic number of members, I suspect she has contacted well over half its total membership. Other than Dr. X and Prof. Y, those she interviewed agreed to have their names published in her book The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite.

The defining characteristic of Jason, she found, is collegiality. While the membership has increasingly included non-physicists, now amounting to about one-third, the members run their work like a grad-school seminar with numerous smaller discussion and work groups. Their value is working together, so many eyes see all the problems and have a whack at solving them.

Basically, if you take almost any technical problem, and present it to a massed IQ of 5,000 or so, embodied in no more than thirty people with hundreds of years of higher education and research experience among them, then let them have at it, you will at least get a large amount of very creative response, and usually one or more solutions ranging from baldly pragmatic to blue-sky, intergalactic wild.

Because of their long-time sponsorship by ARPA (now DARPA), and continuing funding by DDR&E, a lot of their work has been in weapons systems. But they are proudest in two areas: firstly, that they have stopped a lot of costly "lemons", such as an American SST (Concorde competitor); and secondly, that they got great technical advances such as Adaptive Optics declassified and in the hands of academic and practical scientists who can use it.

Along the way, they showed what would and would not work for ballistic missile defense and fusion power generation, and studied climate change, pointing the way to determine how CO2 we produce affects it, while doing much of the work to make such determinations themselves.

For the past couple of decades, primarily the presidencies of Bush, Clinton, and "W" Bush, Jason's influence has waned. These administrations don't like hearing "inconvenient truths." Perhaps that is why former VP Al Gore has stepped outside the establishment to produce his documentary about climate change and our role in it. Science is unpopular right now, almost as unpopular as it was in 1975.

The author's closing words are both an encouragement and a warning to all: "Good scientists make good advisers. Their methods of thinking about science are the most verifiable, falsifiable, and mutually understandable that humanity has ever come up with. ...since the whole enterprise of finding the truth depends on telling it, then about their clear and beautiful science...scientists tell the truth. When the country faces decisions about necessarily imprecise, shades-of-gray policies, it should have some truths at hand."