Thursday, September 28, 2006

A difficult threesome

kw: book reviews, omnibus review, science fiction, fantasy

I was away four days, and spent seven hours each way on airplanes, plus at least two hours each way in airports. Little to do but read. Not only did I finish the Joe Haldeman book I'd begun when I reviewed the first half of Hoffmann's Katen Murr, but two other books:

A Separate War and Other Stories by Joe Haldeman
the chains that you refuse by Elizabeth Bear
Glasshouse by Charles Stross

To demur a little; I didn't quite read every word of all three. Each writer put way too much explicit sex into at least some of the stories or scenes, so I did some skipping. Although the fact of sex between various characters may advance a story, the sweaty, detailed, stroke-by-gasp narrative only detracts. Writers, take note: if you leave nothing to the imagination, imaginative readers will read someone else's work.

Joe Haldeman's title story gives us the denouement of The Forever War from Marygay Potter's perspective. In the classic novel, William Mandella and Marygay are lovers, as committed as any married couple. Early on, morale in troop starships is "balanced" by a sleeping rotation that puts every man and woman together over time. What a particular pair will do with/to one another overnight is up to them, but it is meant to keep couple attachment from leading to morale problems. Sort of enforced "open marriage" for those who aren't relentlessly unattached.

Thirty years ago, when it first appeared, Forever War thus explored the limits of separating love from sex that was being heralded as the natural result of widespread use of "the pill" that began a decade or so earlier.

After William and Marygay have gone through several interstellar trips, though still in their twenties, they have arrived at a time several centuries later than they began. The human race has changed, heterosexuality is either illegal or considered a barely legal perversion, depending where you are. The couple must separate, but finally, when the war ends, they find a creative way to re-unite. By this time, heterosexuality is at least tolerated. Marygay's story, written in 1998, fills gaps that Haldeman probably didn't realize he'd left open in 1974.

In the context of an interstellar war story, Haldeman has pushed the limits of what it means to be human, to be a sexual person, to love someone, and to live in a society.

The rest of the stories reveal that war, sex, and society only scratch the surface of his curiosity and creativity. To mention just a few: "Foreclosure" is a completely new take on the 'aliens who initially terraformed Earth now want it back' theme; "For White Hill", Haldeman's favorite, stretches one's heart strings beyond endurance, with a story of beauty, love, and sacrifice in a post-Earth, perhaps post-humanity universe; and "Memento Mori" explores some implications of a somatic/psychological/spiritual process that may be required to restore the aged and just-dead to youth and health.

I find Elizabeth Bear wholly enigmatic. I suspect that's exactly what she wants. Though her writing can be as relentlessly sexual as Haldeman's or Stross's, this is much less the point for her. Apparently not satisfied with the current breadth of the genres of fantasy, she has invented a few new ones. A few of the stories might give a taste.

"The Devil You Don't" mixes the old folk tale—told in many versions of songs titled "Stagolee" or "Stagger Lee"—of the murder of Bill Lyons, with the classic Liberty Valance revenge tale, but here Stagolee has become an unkillable bearer of vengeance against a man who killed his wife but framed Stagolee. The short poem "ee 'doc' cummings" renders an E.E. "Doc" Smith battle scene in ee cummings style. "One-eyed Jack and the Suicide King" engulfs the reader in an archetypical battle between the spirits that rule L.A. and those over Las Vegas, focused on Hoover Dam. And in "Stella Nova", Tycho Brahe's dying days are the backdrop for the torch's passing from him to Kepler, and thus from Aristotle to Copernicus. It contains a most cogent statement of the place of God in a scientific worldview, where the author has Tycho say (I haven't been able to determine if these are Tycho's own words):

God in His grace ensures serendipity. He gives us what we need to discover what we must. Do you understand? God shows us what He wants us to learn. Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit. [called or uncalled, God is present.]

I have often said, upon hearing some Luddite comment or other, "Just why do you think God had no hand in that? To Whom did the discoverer of Penicillin [or whatever] give credit?"

Charles Stross, formerly in Accelerando, and now in Glasshouse, plays on the meaning of identity and the problems of authentication that underlay the first great science fiction series, Doc Smith's "Lensman" novels. Smith's Aphorism, "What science can create, science can duplicate", repeatedly reminded the reader that being able to prove who you are can become an arms race.

The story hinges on the technology of T-gates and A-gates; T for transfer, A for assembler. The one moves anything from one point to another to which it is linked, through some kind of wormhole. The other can disassemble and assemble objects including living persons, and can be programmed to edit their body plan (including changing the DNA to maintain the new shape) and memories. Producing a living human from scratch (and presumably 50-100 kg of raw material) takes about a quarter hour.

I'll avoid rehashing the story, and muse instead on some implications of an Assembler. Its reading function requires extracting information on the location of ~1024 subatomic particles per gram of matter, with an accuracy in the picometer range. Just to determine whether there is a proton or neutron within a particular picometer-cubed volume of space requires expenditure of about 4Mev of energy. One must also determine the velocity of the particle, for a similar expenditure of energy. Per gram, it comes to about 1014 Joules (25+ million kwh), sufficient to raise the temperature of that gram of matter to several trillion degrees. Thus, "reading" an object rather forcibly disassembles it!

It's the assembly that presents the conundrum: it takes at least that much energy to push a particular particle into place, so you are left with the problem of quickly cooling a newly-assembled human body (or hammer, or ray gun) from trillions of degrees to "room temperature"...quickly, like a trillion-trillionth of a second, before everything flash-evaporates into a plasma much hotter than an H-bomb.

Then there's the editing conundrum. I suppose somatic editing isn't so extreme by comparison, but editing memories? One must find them first! It is well known by now that every brain has a unique code. Of course, the brain cells that participate in recognizing "come here" in the brain of a human or a dog may be similarly located, but the detailed pattern in my temporal lobe for "come here" just might mean "violet perfume" to you, or more likely, be among the trillions of trillions of trillions of patterns your brain hasn't assigned yet. This is why there is no telepathy. Oh, well, one must suspend disbelief to enjoy any SF story, and this one is more plausible than many!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Comment Policy

kw: policy, instructions, comments

This blog is not well known. Though the posts are open for moderated comments, few occur. I seldom reject a comment, but on occasion I do. Some guidelines will help:

  • Please keep comments short. I'll reject anything over two paragraphs.
  • It is OK to point to your own blog or web site in a comment. I'll check it out...and I usually accept the comment. Don't be surprised if I have an editorial statement about the pointed-to site. This is my blog, and I'll point out opinions with which I disagree.
  • Please be civil.

When I am on the fence, I check up on the commentor, if possible. I may try to contact the person, inviting a more suitable comment. However, if I can't figure out how to make contact, I will surely reject the comment.

My statement to those who send comments larger than my postings: "Please create your own blog."

They laughed until they cried ... in 1820.

kw: book reviews, fiction, humor, fantasy

Anybody got some old tapes of the Tonight show, when it was hosted by Johnny Carson? Say about 1974? Try playing them for a room full of high school or college kids, or even anyone under thirty. You'll hear things like "Watergate what?" and "Who's Ford?"

Did you ever wonder what made them roll in the aisles in Lincoln's day, or Jackson's? Chances are, for anyone who could read German, or could get a translated work, it was a book by ETA Hoffmann. Who was Hoffmann? I'd heard the phrase "Tales of Hoffmann", and recently learned it is the title of an 1881 opera based on his stories. He published numerous books from 1809 until his death in 1822, in the genres of fantasy and horror. The fantasies in particular were immensely popular, achingly humorous (so they say); they and his reviews of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven pretty much jump-started the Romantic movement of the 19th Century. You can learn more at this Wikipedia entry, and its links.

So what sort of person enjoys 200-year-old German humor? A 200-year-old German, I suppose. I obtained Hoffman's Katen Murr, the short title of The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper. The 1999 annotated translation by Anthea Bell is excellent. However, I made it through Volume 1 only, just over half the omnibus volume.

I knew I was in trouble when I determined that there are about 90 endnotes per section (Vols 1 & 2 have two sections each, and the proposed Vol 3 was not produced before Hoffmann's death). Fortunately, I read French, and can puzzle out enough Italian, Latin, and Spanish to get through the text without overmuch dependence on the notes. But the great mass of topical references just blew by me.

I can see the humor in the interleaved stories of the educated cat and the eccentric music-master (who is the protagonist of many a Hoffman book). But it is humor once removed; I understood, but I did not laugh much, not the way I do at a humorous fantasy by Piers Anthony or Harry Harrison.

The interleaving of two roughly similar stories, with (mostly) greatly different characters, may have heightened one's enjoyment in 1820, but I am a linear thinker when reading, and found myself skipping to the connecting piece, to complete a thought before turning to the alternate story. Maybe interleaving stories in shorter chunks would work for today's under-thirty folks, who get their TV fare that way.

Oh, well. I'm glad I read at least the first volume, but I turned with relief to an anthology by Joe Haldeman, which I'll probably review on the 28th, when I return from a trip.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

We all rot . . . some earlier than others

kw: book reviews, fantasy, self-discovery

I took a few days after reading to mull it over. Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer is like no other book I've read. Three people: an obsessed man, his sister, his lover; none really understanding the other, but frequently thinking they do. Their names: Duncan and Janice Shriek, and Mary Sabon.

The narrative is purveyed as the sister's memoirs, annotated by her brother. The three protagonists each reach prominence and fame, one after the other, the (ex-)lover last, eclipsing—yea, annihilating—the other two.

And what of the milieu? The city Ambergris: let that name roll around in your head, and grow into dread of what is to come. Rotted squid from whale stomachs? Verily, and Duncan is Jonah. His obsession is exploring, and gradually assimilating, his city's underworld.

Ambergris is a rotten, rotting city, underlain by vast caves filled with mysterious fungi tended by even-more mysterious aboriginals. In the book's denouement, an invisible city is seen to overlay the visible Ambergris, but in the end, only our three protagonists see it, to very different reactions. Duncan, who produces magic spectacles that enable seeing the unseen, expects to be transformed, not to die. Janice's fate is ambiguous, with a whisper of hope. Mary's is doom.

OK, what's going on here? To a genuine cynic, Duncan is Everyman: nobody sees what he sees, and when they seem to see, they misunderstand, often in a most destructuve way; all go through existence alone, and in the book's motto, "Nobody makes it out." Duncan's perspective is similar to Jeremiah's in his bible books: never wrong, never believed, dragged hither and thither by those more powerful (nearly everyone else). A more Pollyanna-ish perspective: things tend to work out, most people mean well most of the time, and the signs of rot seen all about us could well be only a temporary condition. This last is Janice's view, as the cynic's is Mary's.

Another view entirely: the visible fungus and mold throughout the story are simply the visible expression of the corrupt nature of all the people as depicted in their actions. No heroes are found, and even Duncan's expected transformation is to be accomplished by being overtaken and replaced by fungus. Taken to far, and this is an echo of Camus, who concluded that the noblest act is suicide. I say, nuts to that!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Where is Demosthenes when we need him?

kw: opinion, politics, campaigns

As Demosthenes went about with a lantern, seeking the honest man who wouldn't shy from the light, I think I embody a common attitude among the voting public. I care little for what promises a candidate might make, I care instead for personal and public integrity.

Just a week ago, there was a primary election in Delaware. I watched the run-up campaign closely, because three Republicans were vying for the chance to unseat Tom Carper in the Senate.

I have met Mr. Carper a few times, beginning when I sat next to him in a PTA meeting more than ten years ago; the Governor and I had sons in the same grade, who mostly went to the same schools. Six years ago, at a soccer game (the boys were on opposing teams that year), right after the primary election, I said to him, "Run a good race, Governor." Sad to say, he didn't.

Oh, he ran a very effective campaign, but it was far from good. Plain fact, it was evil. I heard very little of what Tom Carper would to, and very much about how bad Bill Roth had been. While it was plain at the debate that Bill Roth's day was over, I was wholly disgusted by his opponent. In the election, I voted for a third candidate.

In this primary campaign, I heard quite a bit about how bad this or that person was, but only Jan Ting refrained from attack ads (so far as I could find). I was gratified when he won. So now he is running against Tom Carper for Senate.

I won't copy here what I wrote to Mr. Ting. I told him he got my vote primarily for integrity and keeping to the high road. I warned him to beware of Mr. Carper's attempts to get him onto his own ground; he is a dangerous campaigner.

I don't hold out much hope for Jan Ting in November, but I sure hope he wins.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Churchill on Islam—1899

kw: historical notes, religion, extremism

In light of the continuing focus on "radical Islam", the following is pertinent, being a comment from a century ago:

"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.

"The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."

—Sir Winston Churchill, The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899).

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Take me for a ride on your . . . dragon?

kw: book reviews, fantasy, historical fiction

William Pitt the Younger is Prime Minister of England, Napoleon is gearing up for his assault at Austerlitz, and all the nations involved are striving to increase their respective armies, navies, and air corps. What? Redcoats aloft! Yes, and bluecoats plus a host of other liveries, including the Chinese, purportedly neutral.

In Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik and her other Temeraire novels (one published previously and one in the works) air transport need not wait on technology. Humans have domesticated native dragons, and most nations use them much as airborne horses, though some breeds are big enough to carry several horses. Dragons awake to intelligence in the egg, and hatch already knowing the rudiments of any language they have been hearing...or all of them.

The prior novel, which I plan to read soon, details the gift by the Chinese of a very special dragon egg to the French. The British capture the ship carrying the egg, and Captain Will Laurence is given custody. He soon has the onus of raising the hatchling, and they bond. Young Temeraire and his human crew have had much to do with saving the British forces during the battle of Dover, when this novel opens.

All is not well, however. A delegation from China has arrived bearing a demand from the Emperor in China for custody of Temeraire, now that the French cannot have him. However, a dragon-human bond once formed cannot be sundered, and Capt. Laurence is now in big trouble with his government for refusing to lie to Temeraire so as to coerce him to return with the Chinese. Eventually, both go to China, where the plot takes more turns than a dragon in aerial combat.

Of all the variety of dragon mythology I've encountered, Ms Novik's is the most original and entertaining by far. The story has an undercurrent of civil rights, particularly once Temeraire and Laurence see that in China dragons are citizens rather than property, and the various species dwell together in a complex dragon-human society. It raises the question, one I've had before, what if one or two—or several—other human species had survived to the present. In which society, if any, would all species capable of communication be equal citizens? That's a good question to ask someone who has conversed with Koko...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mix political power with faith, and lose both (or, "my god's better than your god...")

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, faith, politics, exhortation

I don't know what it is, but this is the third book by someone who describes himself as an evangelical Christian, that I've encountered in recent weeks. Perhaps the people of God are wising up, that society is changing in ways that will severely restrict the freedom of faith that we have enjoyed in the U.S. for 23 decades. Now that Russian totalitarianism has been greatly curtailed (not eliminated), and even Chinese totalitarianism is slowly waning, new kinds of totalitarianism are rapid gaining strength.

Regardless of the ideology behind them, those strains of religion called "fundamentalist" and those political movements at both far right and far left, all are totalitarian in nature. They cannot tolerate dissent, nor argue the merits of key ideas or issues, so their primary methods are coercive; ad hominem character assassination is the just the beginning.

If you get nothing else from this little essay, please remember this: totalistic ideologies are all based on paranoid insecurity. The "Iron Curtain" and the Berlin Wall expressed the insecurity of the USSR; they were terrified of their people voting with their feet and emigrating, or even visiting places where different ideas were to be found. Even more so, every kind of "fundamentalist" religion in history has been insecure at its root; hedging its people 'round because the leaders were terrified their charges' minds would be corrupted.

The true motive behind such insecurity is shown in John 11:48, where the religious leaders, deciding they now had to kill not only Jesus but Lazarus, said, "Of we let Him do so [raise the dead], all will believe into Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." They were afraid of losing their jobs and perquisites! Those most paranoid about protecting "their people" are those whose living depends on, or who have some vested interest in, the number of "their people."

Just so you know, I've been there, even done that. Maybe my conscience is extra-sharp, or maybe God just had mercy. I concluded long ago that people are more valuable than doctrines, and that caring for one another ("love your neighbor") really is what pleases God (see Mark 12:31-34).

I have observed the "moral majority" (which was neither moral nor a majority) and now the "religious right" (another oxymoron, however you pun "right") all my adult life. I don't like what I see. Among all the preachers with "high visibility," the only one I halfway trust is Billy Graham, and he's been 'way too cozy with corrupt politicians to suit me. Where is there a prophet like Nathan who will speak to the king, and say, "You are the [sinful] man!"

I do not have the energy, opportunity, nor the scholarship to chronicle the ills of American religious totalitarianism. Fortunately, someone does: Randall Balmer has written Thy Kingdom Come, an Evangelical's Lament (how the Religious Right distorts the faith and threatens America). Although Dr. Balmer's social orientation is quite liberal (in my view; to him, I suppose I'm much too conservative!), his spiritual compass is right on target.

His long exhortation is in five parts, five chapters.

He first shows how American evangelicalism began as a counterculture movement, but by 1980 some leaders and groups had gained the ear of prominent folk, and thus became a force within American culture. The key tool is "selective literalism," in which some Bible passages are insisted on, but many others ignored. Some folks make no bones about picking "hot button" issues to make hay and keep their constituents stirred up. The most profitable hot issues have been abortion and homosexuality. Balmer, quoting a few other clear thinkers, declares, "I have no interest in making abortion illegal, I would like to make it unthinkable." Later in the book, he frequently points out that those who can't bear the suffering of an aborted fetus think nothing of the suffering of the "post-born" poor and oppressed.

Then he shows more clearly how evangelical groups such as the Baptists once functioned as a corporate prophet, decrying the corruption and idolatry all around them. Now, those who bear the title "Baptist" have polar opposites, taking a comfortable seat amidst the powerful, seeking to establish their narrow faith for all. In the process, we note the spectacle of people praying before "Roy's Rock" in Montgomery, AL; idolatry, plain and simple. Real Baptists would never make the graven image in the first place. Remember the brass serpent that God commanded Moses to make and display for the healing of the snake-bit Israelites? Several generations later, it was being idolized, and Gideon had it destroyed. Thank God for Gideon!

It is strange that America is still the nation with the largest proportion of Christian believers. Every other Western nation, ostensibly Christian in origin, has a state-supported religion, such as the Lutheran church in Germany. All those nations have huge proportions of atheists, compared to a relatively small number in America. What do we have that they don't have? The Bill of Rights, specifically Amendment 1, part of which forbids Congress from establishing any religion. The phrase we hear, "separation of church and state," comes from a letter by Jefferson. Do you want the First Amendment abrogated? After a rather short, seemingly salutary period, there would soon follow an oppressive theocracy that would make the religious wars of the Reformation period look puny.

The third item is the assault on education. I've known many people who home-schooled their children. Some, who had only the control of their children's beliefs in view, were not successful. Those who taught to a higher academic standard than the public schools offered, and perhaps included spiritual education as well, produced superior scholars. Their goal was not to produce hothouse flowers, alwas to be "protected" from the world, but secure young people who could stand their own in spite of the anti-faith orientation of the world.

It's a fact: I have made sure my son, who is in public school, knows more about evolution than his fellows. More generally, I want him to know science equally as well as he knows faith, so he can tell the difference, and not confuse them. I see "intelligent design" as a most unintelligent scheme to corrupt science education. So does Balmer...and he explains it exceptionally well.

The fourth chapter goes into Creationism more deeply. The removal of the word "creation" and its kin from the title of this set of beliefs is deceptive. "Intelligent design" is simply one way to define creation. I see very few on either side of the debate who can explain their point clearly. Allow me...

There is no "Theory of Evolution." Evolution is a fact, a process we see going on all the time. We see that all species vary over time, and we can easily discern that some species are more closely related to one another than are others. In historical times, humans have, by selective breeding, produced many dog breeds from the ancestral wolf, many cat breeds from an ancestral wildcat, and so forth for many species people found useful. But what is the mechanism, the machinery that we can tinker with to breed wolves into both dachshunds and mastiffs? What operation(s) in nature might be able to allow some members of a species to prosper in certain circumstances, and eventually produce a species best adapted to those circumstances? Darwin's title for his theory was "The origin of species by natural selection."

This is the theory, natural selection. It is based on two hypotheses: first, that members of a species vary from one another; and second, that those bearing certain characteristics are better able to survive and reproduce. Repeat over time, and a species will get more and more adapted to its environment. In Darwin's day, nothing was known about the mechanism by which variation arose. The theory had great explanatory power, but lacked details. Now we know some of those details. Genes were discovered decades after Darwin wrote. Minor variations arise in all genes; each of us bears about a hundred such minor differences that neither of our parents bore; we've mutated, all of us. Some variations are not so "minor," and decrease viability, while some increase it.

Over time, the more deleterious mutations vanish, and the more beneficial accumulate. Artificial selection, such as dog breeding, is the "intelligent design" of a dog breed, according to the whims or needs of humans doing the breeding. It is faster than natural selection, because we can choose to destroy every offspring that isn't on the track we desire; natural selection is slower, because it more subtly tilts the balance in favor of one over another. So natural selection needs a lot of time to operate.

The "young earth" doctrine seeks to remove the time necessary for natural selection to operate. Proclaim that the earth is but six or eight thousand years old, and there isn't time enough. Of course, there isn't time enough to domesticate dogs, cats, pigeons, or cattle either; even artificial selection requires twenty to thirty thousand years to produce a greyhound from a wolf. But the Bible does not support a young earth, in spite of much preaching to the contrary. But I'll get into that another time. Sufficient to say that the earth shows every sign of being several billion years old, and the universe three or four times as old. I know what I'm talking about, folks!

Ok, what is left? The fifth item is environmentalism, or rather, Rightist anti-environmentalism. Here, I'll start with a few verses:

1 Cor 3:17, "If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him; for the temple of God is holy, and such are you."

1 Cor 6:19, "... your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit ..."

Rev 11:18, "... Your wrath came, and the time ... to destroy those who destroy the earth."

Author Balmer, and I, find very distressing the "dominion theology" being bruited about these days. The fact is, the only place that God gave man dominion is in Genesis 1:26-28. That was before the fall. After that, the word is not used in that way, rather to Noah (Gen 9:2-3), God declared that all creatures would fear us. They have plenty to fear! This is no license to make them fear. The verses above are clear enough. Because of sin, we are by nature destroyers, and those who do not rein in their destructive impulses will eventually be destroyed by God.

The book ends with a call to "[take] the country back". I don't see that we shall. As I've said before, I only reluctantly accept the label "evangelical Christian," and only to make a distinction when one is needed. I much prefer Christian, nothing more. Particularly now that "evangelical," which refers to gospel preaching, refers nearly exclusively to preaching the gospel of initial salvation and forgiveness of sins. If you look at all the uses of the words "gospel" and "preach" in the New Testament, you'll find that the gospel includes exhortation to repent and receive Christ's life and forgiveness, no doubt, but also sanctification, transformation, renewing of the mind, conformation to Christ, eventually glorification, and to receive all these in the context of fellowship; the Bible knows nothing of "individual Christians."

Also, the effort to stamp out variations in religious expression are bound to fail; God is against them. His letters to the seven churches, found in Rev 2-3, are prophetic of the entire course of church history. Again, I'll leave out details for now. We see three movements that have passed away (The primitive, or "Ephesian" type; the officially persecuted "Smyrna" type; and the Imperially sanctioned "Pergamos" type), and four that will be in existence until Christ returns. These four types, termed Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, are Catholic (Roman and Orthodox), Protestant denominational (including major pentecostal organizations), recovered local churches that "have but little power", and free groups, frequently charismatic or pentecostal in outlook. In all these four, Jesus speaks primarily to some who "overcome."

Regardless of their "tradition," in all Christian expressions there are some who love Him only. He does not do away with these groups or call his "overcomers" out, but shows that their fellowship is precious to Him because they love, they have been restored to the "first love" that the Ephesian expression lost.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why identical twins aren't

kw: commentary, genetics, randomness

Take a look at this picture, from the cover of Science (Aug 16, 2002). The caption states, "Bacterial cells simultaneously expressing two different fluorescent proteins (red and green) from identical promoters. Because of stochasticity ('noise') in the process of gene expression, even two nearly identical genes often produce unequal amounts of protein. The resulting color variation shows how noise fundamentally limits the accuracy of gene regulation."

The article on page 1183 of that issue, "Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell" by Michael B. Elowitz, Arnold J. Levine, Eric D. Siggia, and Peter S. Swain, reports on their experiments that show how random noise in and around the cellular machinery for gene expression causes variations in expression even when the genome is identical, or nearly so. The cover photo and links to the article are found at

I was looking for this picture when I posted More Variety Than a Field of Snowflakes, about "No Two Alike" by Judy Rich Harris. It is known that, although identical twins share nearly identical genomes (differences are due to tiny amounts of random mutations during embryo development), they can be remarkably different; and that variations in most characteristics that can be measured are about 50% genetic, and 50% unknown. Ms Harris focuses on environmental factors. Based on the above article, I also considered inherent randomness. There are three principal sources of stochastic difference in the genetics and gene expression between two cells that result from a single cell dividing by mitosis:

  1. Mutations that occur during DNA duplication (there are several varieties)
  2. Random variations in the molecular buffeting that the gene expression machinery undergoes (Brownian motion)
  3. Random variations in everything else going on in the cell at the time

All varieties of reaction to one's environment involve changes of gene expression. Also, any organism's behavior, determined by gene expression, will affect that environment; the environment reacts. Thus, any difference in expression will modify the environment, and its changes cause further reaction by the organism. This feedback may be positive (spiraling out of control) or negative (tending to a stable result little changed by the variation).

So why are twins different? Some randomness in reaction leads to positive feedback, increasing the difference between the twins.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tell a joke, hold a door, open a service business, and...go to jail?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, commentary

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Polish jokes were popular. This was when Ghoulardi spent half his show on WJW-TV in Cleveland (then on KFWB in Los Angelesjust after I moved there) joking about white socks and "Polacks". Early on, I had a Russian girlfriend, who had Russian and Polish relatives living near Cleveland, and they were proud of being Polacks, and had better jokes than anything you'd hear on the air. Later, a minister I knew, whenever someone told a Polack joke, would say, "You know, I'm Polish." By 1970, you couldn't get away with nearly any kind of ethnic joke. Someone would cast blame.

One story—sometimes presented as a joke—that I read several times in the 1980s concerns an older fellow who holds a door for a woman. She stops and angrily states, "You don't have to hold the door for me just because I am a lady." The man replies, "I'm not holding it because you're a lady, but because I am a gentleman."

Just a couple years ago, an enterprising student at Harvard began a dorm room cleaning service. He wanted to call it DorMaid. The administration refused to allow him to bring it on campus, and eventually threatened expulsion, unless he changed the name to remove the word "Maid". Somehow, he got them to accept DormAid. Turns out, that was good, because it opened up opportunities to offer plenty of services beyond room cleaning. But it's silly of the campus admin, don't you think?

So does Michael Smerconish. He has collected the details of the DorMaid/DormAid story and more than 25 others, to illustrate how "political correctness", or PC, is shredding American culture, and actually threatening our safety. The book is MUZZLED: From T-Ball to Terrorism—True Stories that Should be Fiction, and Chapter 27, "Still Flying Blind", shows how the continued failure of the FAA and NTSB to allow airline security personnel to make intelligent decisions simply hastens the next airline terrorist incident.

What do you call a taxi driver who sees his brother beating up a cop, jumps out of his taxi, and kills the policeman? If you called him Mumia Abu-Jamal, you are right. Currently, he has more press and celebrity support than our President and all his political opponents in the 2004 election. This is more than just political correctness; this is an insanity that infects the press and the celebrities who primarily are produced by a fawning press out of whole cloth.

And what do you call an 18th-Century merchant who briefly had a business interest in a ship that the British occasionally used to import slaves, who led the effort to abolish slavery in the Northeast prior to the American revolution (which he helped finance, and for which he smuggled materials), whose signature appears on three of the founding documents of the United States (the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution)? If you called him Robert Morris, you've uncovered the "slave connection" that was used to force Wachovia Bank to "apoligize" for its early connection with the slave trade...a connection that was tenuous at best.

This reminds me; on occasion I've run into a "kill Whitey" sort of black dude, who begins to rail on me about being a slaver. When I get the chance, I explain that on one side of my family I am descended from Quakers who operated safe houses along the Underground Railway in North Carolina; and that on the other side I am descended from Methodists who purchased slaves in Missouri and took them North or Northeast to freedom. I say, "Don't blame every white man for your problems. Without my family, you wouldn't have been born free. You take responsibility for your own life, like I have taken for mine."

I have a different word for PC: Institutionalized Irresponsibility. All these jerks out there blame everyone else for everything, but never take responsibility for their own actions; indeed they change laws and codes to make their own chosen lifestyles easier at the expense of others'. Jesus said about people like this, "And they bind burdens, heavy and hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger" (Matt. 23:4). If you haven't done so in a while (or ever) read the first seven verses of Matt. 23; we have more Pharisees among us than ever!

The one thing I wish Mr. Smerconish had included is a chapter with ideas to push back on today's Pharisees. You can't give them a witty rejoinder, for they have no sense of humor. In another book (I'll be reporting on it before long) I did read half a suggestion: Judge Roy "Ten Commandments" Moore wanted a 2-ton monument to the Decalogue bad enough to risk jail over it. The result of a court case was that it now sits in a closet. A more appropriate place for Roy's Rock would be his front yard. A case like this, where the Pharisee takes action rather than preventing others' action, offers a bit more room for rebuttal!

In our own lives, what to do? It takes forethought: speak out. Gather your own stories, and talk about them, speak in public if you're able. Write about them: Letters to Editors. When someone blames, hit right back. If someone objects to a How Many Does it Take or a Blonde joke, I (a bald man) say, "Oh, and when was the last time you told a Bald joke, or laughed at one?"

Keep your travel plans flexible: when you get on an airplane or train, look at every passenger; if someone gives you the creeps, get right back off and demand that "they go or I go!" Freedom requires the committed action of many citizens. Historically, a few percent is enough. Boycott the products of public figures who do and say stupid things...they only care about their pocketbook, so hit 'em there. And in that line, investigate very carefully every "charity" that you're inclined to support. If they promote PC causes, turn them down. Further in that line, buy Michael's book! Use its examples to shed light where it is desperately needed.