Saturday, December 30, 2006

Famous last words: "I did it my way"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 29, 2006

Almost too small to work at all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

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

kw: travel notes, Mexico, impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 25, 2006

Bigger Ocean, Smaller Continents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Too many eyes, too little seeing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, history

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

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

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

Nonetheless, the broad outline is clear:

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2006

The good die young?

kw: musings, bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 14, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Her life is anything but still

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, personal growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2006

This job is so risky, you gotta love it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, firefighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Detective work as a cottage industry

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries, african setting

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 09, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Miracle isn't just unexplained, it is unexplainable

kw: opinion, miracles, supernatural phenomena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 04, 2006

Global warming means bad winters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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