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."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

So whattaya get for being nice?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, evolutionary theory, altruism

"...for scarcely for a righteous man will anyone die, though perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die." (Romans 5:7)

Would you die for another? Have you ever taken a risk for another's sake? Why would anyone in a right mind do so?

Altruism is defined a number of ways. To some, it means taking a risk, even risking death, for no apparent return or recompense. To others, it means working to benefit others at some cost to oneself, though in a social setting where "what goes around comes around." To others it is being good when you don't have to.

I've worked as a lifeguard. There is nothing like saving a life...what a rush! But, wait a minute!! Where does that rush come from? It's a chemical reaction in my brain, which means there are genes that produce proteins that give me this towering feeling when I do something heroic. Why would such genes ever evolve? What's in it for them?

What, indeed? It doesn't take much looking to find that most animals—at least the warm-blooded ones we can sort of understand—engage in caring behaviors, not only with family members and other kin, but with unrelated acquaintances. Caring for kin one can understand; it helps more of those carrying at least some genes that match yours have successful offspring. And, the social environment tends to help all members toward reproductive success.

But in social insects, we find the majority of members of species such as bees and ants perform all the grunt work for their colonies, with no hope of reproducing. How could such species evolve in the first place?

Darwin puzzled over this, and proposed only partial answers. Many, many others have done so since, and today we actually have a mathematical theory, part of which is expressed as "I'd die for two brothers or eight cousins." This reflects the fact that your siblings each contain half the same genes you have, and that a cousin shares one-eighth of them.

The 150-year saga of the theory of genetic altruism is ably presented in The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness by Lee Alan Dugatkin, a Biology professor in Louisville.

The author focused his investigation on the four primary British evolutionary scientists—Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, and W.D. Hamilton—, two Americans—Warder Allee and George Price—, and the Russian prince Petr Kropotkin.

Darwin made a strong case for altruism, and behavioral tendencies in general, being just as subject to natural selection as any other traits, though he frankly didn't know quite how to prove the point. Little did he know how long it would take.

Huxley and Kropotkin were exact opposites in viewpoint, largely because of their own formative experiences. Huxley, raised in crowded poverty, in a violent milieu, promoted "Nature red in tooth and claw", using the metaphor of gladitorial combat for the struggle for resources. Kropotkin, raised with more privilege, but experiencing Siberian living for many years, saw cooperation on every side, and promoted "mutual aid" as the way members of most species gained a greater share of resources; for him, the struggle was against the environment, not against one's fellows.

Haldane, Allee, and Price each added their piece to a mathematics of the tendency to help others, but it was left to Hamilton to develop the theory in full form. Now it is a commonplace that any of us shares almost exactly half of the genes of each parent, the same proportion with each sibling. Half-siblings share only a quarter, and so least in "outbred" populations. I'll consider inbreeding in a moment.

The basic equation is very simple: if c is the cost of an action, b is the benefit that accrues from it, and r the relatedness one has with the object of the (beneficial) action, then whenever br>c, the action is more likely to be performed. If there is a gene (or a gene complex) for altruism, this equation shows how it takes care of its own survival.

For example, it may be that swimming in icy water to save a sibling entails a risk of 1/10 that you will instead lose your life. The cost is 0.1. The benefit for a successful rescue is 1.0 to the rescued sibling. The relatedness is 0.5, because half of your genes will be preserved because of the life you save. Thus br=0.5, which is greater than 0.1. Should the risk (icier water, a longer swim, fast current) cause the cost to approach 0.5, you are more likely to have second thoughts.

The math required to actually determine r can be quite complex, particularly in inbred populations. For example, I have an ancestor who was born on Nantucket Island, then left for North Carolina in the 1700s. He was of the sixth generation from the founders. Nantucket was founded as a Quaker colony by ten families in the 1620s. A generation later, a few more families came, and their parents (in the Old Country) were of the same generation as the ten founding families.

This ancestor of mine, named Joe, had 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and so on, back to 32 ancestors of the founding generation. Of course, ten couples only provides twenty ancestors. As it turned out, he was descended from only seven of the founding families, or fourteen in that generation. He was also descended, in the fifth generation back, from three couples of the later comers, or six couples from the Old Country in the founding generation, for a total of 14+12 = 26 unique ancestors. Thus among his ancestors were a few sets of cousins who married.

As it happens, his parents were third cousins, his father's parents were second cousins, and one of his mother's ancestor-couples were first cousins. I haven't gone through the math, mainly because I haven't looked at Hamilton's work in detail to figure out how he would do it. But, I'd guess that, if 32 unique, unrelated ancestors produces a relatedness among two siblings of 0.5, then 26 ought to boost that to about 0.6. Thus, inbred populations will have larger r factors, and should exhibit increased altruism.

This is exactly what we see, in humans and animals both. At its most extreme among mammals, a naked mole rat is found to share 0.8 or more genes with any random colony mate, which is greater than the 0.75 found among the sterile workers in social insect species. So it is no surprise that these mammals have a social life more reminiscent of ants than of other mammals.

Well, all of these are fun facts. There is another side, thought, that the book scarcely mentions. Altruism toward strangers cannot be of the same source as kin-based altruism. Herewith, my own thoughts:

In old Western movies, we see everyone is really polite, because everyone is armed, and frequently, quick to take offense. Lack of niceness is likely to be answered with hot lead. Today, the situation is the same in many inner cities, but even in the suburbs, the chance that a random person who takes offense might take a poke at you is a pretty good reason to be at least polite, and better, helpful if requested.

Secondly, what goes around comes around. Those who are known for helpfulness are more often helped by others, even those less disposed to be helpful.

And thirdly, there must be some gene complex that produces variable amounts of altruistic-toward-strangers behavior, to account for the rush I felt whenever I saved someone's life or health. Some people have more—and thus are more likely to work in a "helping profession" like medicine, nursing, or the ministry. Others have less, and among these we find variously unpleasant people, the jerks we dread, for example, or the perennial moochers, and of course career criminals and psychopaths.

Just as the offspring of two tall parents are likely to be tall, but vary a lot in height anyway, the offspring of two "good" (or two "bad") parents may be similarly disposed, but will vary from one to another. A case in point, my own family:

First, height: Father 6 feet, mother, 5'6" (tallish). Four sons: 6 feet, 6'2", 5'8", 5'9" (not in birth order).

Second, "goodness": Both parents from ardently Christian families, raised to be helpful folks, and they really are. Four sons: all tend to be helpful, but they vary quite a lot (I will go no further...).

I suspect there is thus another factor in Hamilton's equation, call it t, for the tendency to be helpful. It ranges from zero to infinity. Then if tbr>c, an altruistic action is likely to be carried out, otherwise, unlikely. Where t is around 1.0, the "hamiltonian" situation ensues. Real jerks have t less than 0.5, while others have t of 2 or 3 or greater, so that "everyone is like a brother." Considering that r is never really zero (we're all descended from Noah, way back when!...or from a small pool of early humans), we all have at least a little tendency to help just about everyone.

And that's a good thing.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Weather: 56; Human Race: 0

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, weather, climatology, history, world events

A kiloton of TNT, the basic unit of nuclear explosion energy, is just over a million kilowatt-hours (1.16x106 KWH). The Megaton, about the energy of the smallest thermonuclear bomb, is a thousand kilotons, or about a billion KWH. These factors allow us to compare large amounts of solar and wind energy with the largest energies we are capable of directly wielding.

The atmosphere weighs about 11.6 quintillion pounds, or 5¼ quintillion kg. This mass is kept in motion by a small amount of the solar energy that strikes Earth, at a speed that averages a few meters per second. The earth intercepts 172 trillion KW of solar energy, mostly in the tropics and subtropics. Some fraction of this drives the atmosphere, and a (very roughly) similar fraction evaporates water from the oceans into the air. Condensation of water back out of the air drives those focused thermal energy systems we call storms, from summer showers to tornadoes and hurricanes.

Water vapor condensing to rainfall in a category 1 hurricane releases heat energy of about 14 trillion KWH per day. Divide that by the billion or so KWH in a kiloton bomb, and we see the energy equivalent of thousands of H-bombs, daily, in an "ordinary" hurricane. It took all the members of the Nuclear Club about sixty years to stockpile enough bombs to equal about two days' energy release by a "small" hurricane.

So where am I going with this? I just read Blame it on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History by Laura Lee. The book consists of 56 stories, in essay form, of the weather having a strong impact on human events. (Before I go further, I should mention that the stories we hear of a "nuclear winter" being caused by a nuclear war are overdone. We don't get a "hurricane winter" each time one of these storms roars through a tropical sea or pummells a coastline. Nor when a similarly-sized winter supercell (rarer, but just as energetic) covers the middle third of a continent and drops something like four feet of snow over a half million square miles. Such a supercell, a thousand miles wide, shut down all the airports from Oklahoma City to Chicago about thirty years ago...Winter ended on schedule anyway. And by the way, none of the numbers above are in the book. It's just my musings to get this essay rolling...)

One point of Ms Lee's book is that all human plans and powers need to take the powers of nature into account, or we are the losers. Among the essays are the four-part saga of various belligerent nations trying to defeat Russia, which is always well defended by "General January". Less well known is the spring mud that follows, the "rasputitsa". This "coroner" buries the dead the General kills...and most of the survivors as well.

Other stories include fog hiding armies, rain delaying battles until crucial reinforcements arrive, and winds helping or hindering, seemingly at random, our various schemes. One ill-timed wind gust ensured that the Wright brothers' first flight was not scooped by Langley. An extra-strong El NiƱo did away with Robert Scott in Antarctica, while aiding Amundsen's team to the first South Pole visit.

Mark Twain (or a co-author) wrote, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." We're a long way from doing so. So-called "weather modification" is typically "weather irritation", and the storm in questions tends to act like a flea-bit dog and scratch back. In 1972, west of Rapid City, SD, a small airplane flew up the front of a gathering storm and "seeded" it with silver iodide. This storm stopped in its tracks, blasted through to the stratosphere, and dumped a foot of rain into Rapid Valley, just below a flood-control dam. A quarter of Rapid City was washed downstream. This isn't in the book, either; most of the stories are about political and military events.

So don't go around singing "Don't rain on my parade." The weather just might take you up on it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Xanth x2

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, xanth series, puns

My son brought home a couple of Piers Anthony's books in the Xanth series recently. When he was done with them, I zipped through them: Geis of the Gargoyle and Zombie Lover.

To those not familiar with Mr. Anthony's Xanth books: each is a ride on a punnicular railway through a magical version of Florida, his home state. They are unlike anyone else's work, so I'll leave it to you to discover. I sometimes wonder why the author picked Xanth for his land's name. It means both "yellow" and "other"; probably the latter...and I guess he just likes the sound of it.

Each story is a multiple quest, typically in chiastic order. To be boringly dry, a chiasma is an anti-parallel structure, in which problems are posed in order—and typically each new main character introduced comes with one of the problems attached—then solved in reverse order. Those that are not chiastic tend to be parallel (solved in the order presented).

The quest by itself may be no great shakes; the narrative twists in the punny landscape will have you digging for the other meaning of something in almost every sentence.

A thread running through all the Xanth series is the Adult Conspiracy, which lets the author use all kinds of double entendres and allusions to sexual activity, thus avoiding explicit language, because of the grownup characters' requirement of keeping such things from children. The term "summoning the stork" is Anthony's cute euphemism for sex. The attitude is a slightly exaggerated version of 1950s-schoolyard taboos, where boys freak out if they see any girl's "undies".

Another thread is that new arrivals to Xanth from Mundania (Georgia, I guess) are not magical, but their offspring born in Xanth are. The implications for child rearing can get interesting.

Great narrative skills, on a very light level, so that hardly any mythical creature seems truly threatening. Great escape lit.