Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On the boundary between cyborg and human

kw: book reviews, science fiction, far future fiction, space opera, cyborgs, golems, androids, terraforming

Chris Moriarty is prone to leaving as much as he can to a reader's imagination and inference. For me, it is on the boundary between refreshing and irritating. Usually, when I can't figure out what his novel's characters just figured out, I get it within a page or two, sometimes because Moriarty explains, sometimes because my slow brain catches on.

Spin Control follows his successful novel "Spin State" with an equally readable, even more idea-packed story. The genre is hard science, far enough in the future that it verges on fantasy, but Moriarty has done his homework, and the technicalities are not-too-wild extrapolations of current trends and speculations.

Some four centuries hence, the human race has taken charge of its own evolution, and taken computing close to quantum limits, to produce a number of "near relatives" with various amounts of integrated machinery, from AIs of several kinds, to Golems (cyborgs with no childhood), to the all-biological but engineered products of several "syndicates", and at least one "Emergent AI" who has "lived" on the delicate edge of growth and destruction for a few centuries, partly due to its being "shunted" to a series of rented human bodies. Other AIs, that control groups of shunted human "volunteers" such as military squads, are found to be most stable when kept ignorant of what they are really doing, by being deceived that they are playing an elaborate game with really good virtuality; once one of these figures out what it is really doing, it promptly suicides...or is that self-destructs?

While many recent books have scene shifts nearly every page, thus resembling episodes of modern TV soap operas, each chapter in Spin Control has a venue and a cast, usually all centered on Arkady, the protagonist here. The chapters' scenes hang together better than those in most novels. Arkady is an A-level clone produced by the Rostov Syndicate. He is more victim than protagonist, only finding out what he was really sent to do in the closing pages of the novel.

Arkady begins by defecting from the Ring (space colonies in the synchronous orbit) to Earth. He'd previously been on a terraforming team to the well-kept-secret planet Novalis. Early survey and seeding probes had visited, and ten clones form four syndicates were sent to see how well the process is going. Seems it was going much too well, and some trouble ensued that Arkady doesn't know how to parse...yet. One result was a new kind of virus that enhances fertility, if that's all it does. Earth really needs that, because the population has crashed to the point that most people are walking ghosts—infertile and unlikely ever to reproduce.

Of course, there is more to it than that, and Arkady becomes a much coveted, much abused pawn in a high-stakes bidding war. It takes the long-lived Emergent AI Cohen and an old memory in a young commando to bring about the denouement: one really nasty character is eliminated, and the long-deceived military AIs learn not only what they are doing, but enough of what has kept Cohen alive, to take appropriate control of their own fates.

I like a hopeful ending...even if it is a setup for more sequels!

Monday, January 29, 2007

New myths from old

kw: book reviews, fantasy, mythology, essays, history, anthologies

When a writer has overleapt all the boundaries, I refrain from categorizing. Minsoo Kang, a historian of the West who is of Korean extraction, has published in of tales and enigmas a collection of new myths in old myths' clothing, and a couple of essays.

Three sections, five pieces each. The stories in the first section, Talse From a Lost History, seem entirely a product of the imagination. Yet their grounding reflects the author's Korean origin. The fourth piece, "The Beautiful and Useful Machine", seems a parable of the progression of Western theology from 1900 until now. The sentence "Mechano-rejectionism lost the war on the battlefield, but it triumphed as Mechano-finitism in the halls of universities" neatly sums up the liberalizing of Western campuses after 1970, if the Mechano- terms are replaced with Socialism and Social Liberalism.

The second section, Fables of the Dream World, reflects in five ways the dilemma of solipsism and the meaning of our dreams. The fourth of these, "The Dilemma of the King and the Beggar," takes a new tack on "The Prince and the Pauper", reaching an equally just, and less contrived, solution. The question remains, am I dreaming you, or are you dreaming me?

As I know exactly nothing about Korea's history, I have to take it for granted that the two historical essays in the third section are not more myth-making. The author seems to take scrupulous care, including a radical change of voice, to indicate where he is synthesizing sources. The other three items are ghost stories with a twist quite unlike any Western story.

Among the publisher's early blurbs, one states, "...Kang makes a bid here to become the Borges of the 21st Century." Just as Borges both exposed Hispanic culture to ignorant Anglos and simultaneously mythologized it, so Kang has begun to do for Korea with this collection. His craft is not yet up to Borges' level, but he's getting there.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Space Opera for the eXtreme generation

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, aliens, first contact

Here is everyone's blackest nightmare "first contact" story. Mysterious aliens have been contacted over a number of years by robotic and AI spacecraft of The Polity, an AI-ruled space empire. No image of the aliens' likeness, or of their spacecraft, has so far been permitted to return, only a few sparse records and distant views of a technological civilization on some of their outlying worlds.

Finally, a meeting is arranged. The docking bay specified by the Prador is unnervingly huge, big enough for them to be animate locomotives. They are, instead, big crabs. Very big crabs with very tough shells, nearly irresistible weapons, unthinkable hostility, and a taste for human flesh. They are looking for slaves and food, and we seem to fit the bill.

In Prador Moon, Neal Asher pulls out every stop on this old nightmare. Of course, humans just have to win, even at a terrible cost. It takes the confluence of an entirely fanatical warrior who has seen his lover wantonly destroyed and macerated, a couple of AIs with their own mysterious ways—using human or humanoid bodies—, and a woman with a mysteriously enhanced computer implant, a few million times more capable than the implants most folks wear; all these combine to drive off the alien attack. But there's plenty of grist for sequels...and The Polity has already been the subject of a few of Asher's books.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A sad tale of sad lives

kw: book reviews, fiction, world fiction, spanish literature

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende has become a classic of world literature. As such, it became the subject of several months' intense attention in my son's High School Literature class. Once he finished the book, he lent it me to read. It is a classic, all right, but I question its use in a class of 17- and 18-year-olds, even a class of the smartest of the honor students. Honors-level brains do not guarantee the emotional security of a 30-year-old, and that is what it takes to survive an encounter with the Trueba family.

Even in the English translation by Magda Bogin, the book is a stylistic masterpiece. Ms Allende is justly popular in many countries. Her characterizations are clear, compelling, and ultimately devastating. The genre is a mixture of studied caricature and magical realism.

The central figure, Esteban Trueba, is not just a product of his time, early 1900s South American culture, he is an exaggeration of it. Proud to a fault, to a very big fault; incapable of thinking he could be wrong about anything, at least prior to his 80s; ultra-conservative (he makes John Birch seem akin to John Kerry); hot-tempered and viciously violent; he lives a largely sad and tragic life, driven by fear and rage.

The girl who grows up to become Trueba's wife, Clara del Valle, embodies the magical element in the book. In the US we'd call he a poltergeist, or the channeler of one. She moves the salt shaker about the table with her mind as a child, and plays the piano with its keys covered as an adult; she goes into trances and levitates with her easy chair; she predicts earthquakes and many other events with perfect precision. Her husband calls her Clara the clairvoyant.

A story that spans eighty or ninety years is complex, and a large cast of characters--several of them Trueba's bastard offspring--is tricky to follow. That it can be followed at all attests to the author's skill, providing sufficient backstory as needed in later chapters.

I can't say I enjoyed reading the book. I prefer stories in which at least someone learns something, or grows a little; stories of growth or transformation. Clara seems to need no learning, learning all from the spirits she hosts. Their children and granddaughter—the narrative viewpoint of most of the book—live in Trueba's shadow. He is rescued from seeming a total monster only by his horrific grandson, son of his first bastard child...and Trueba does reconcile with an enemy at the very end.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fit today, maybe fit yesterday, but fit tomorrow...?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, biology, evolution, natural selection

A Creationist would view the appeal of the book as, "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly." It won't convince many. That is a pity, because Sean B. Carroll's new book is an outstanding presentation of the best material that shows how evolution by natural selection is such a powerful theory.

The book is The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution. Dr. Carroll believes in "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em." The opening chapter explains the purpose and structure of the book, and the closing two chapters, which he coyly calls "an after-dinner conversation", reiterate the main points and emphasize that "fittest" is a moving target.

It is a pity that so many use the phrase "survival of the fittest" without giving it much thought. If "the fittest" meant what we commonly mean, there would be but one superorganism on Earth, consuming inorganic material as it grows, subject only to the limits the planet can sustain. But with a little thought we realize that "the fittest" refers to a population of organisms that take best advantage of the resources offered by a particular ecological niche in one restricted ecology or other...or a limited set thereof. (Generalists like H. sap. can thrive in a large number of ecologies, but by no means all).

A knowledgeable person means a lot by the term "natural selection". Selection by itself just narrows the range of variation within successive generations of a population. Should the characterisics of the niche that population is adapted to change too much, it will die out. Selection implies that something supplies a range of possibilities from which to select. That "something" is mutation, a catch-all term for several mechanisms that change DNA. In brief, single "letters" (bases we label A C G or T) in the long "text" of a genome may be exchanged for other letters; one or more letters may be deleted; one or a few letters may be inserted; and bigger blocks may be duplicated.

The last item on the list is facilitated by certain sequences that say "cut here", which happen to occur about every 10,000 bases. "Restriction" (i.e. DNA-cutting) enzymes—used by viruses that need to insert their DNA into ours—cut apart DNA at such points, and other enzymes re-seal the cuts. Such a mechanism can copy a gene right next to itself. Then you have two copies, and further, smaller, mutations followed by selection (i.e. death of offspring for which a mutation is deleterious) will change one of these copies over many generations. New functions, new proteins, and perhaps new physiology arise by this mechanism.

One consequence of this cut-and-copy activity is that a copied gene is typically accompanied by some extra stuff that surrounded its original. Pieces of noncoding DNA (often called "junk") are also often copied to new places. These are called "interspersed elements", or INEs; long and short ones are called LINEs and SINEs, respectively. SINEs that precede genes can be easily extracted from DNA, and their presence in various organisms give us a good idea how closely they are related. They are easy to tell apart because they differ in length if their original source is different. Also, because they do not affect one's life or that of one's offspring, there is no selection pressure on them; they stay put over long stretches of time, slowly degrading as smaller mutations occur, but very rarely eliminated.

One of Carroll's illustrations (Fig. 4.3, p 100), shows the SINEs associated with three genes common to eight primates: Human, Bonobo, Chimp, Gorilla, Orangutan, Siamang, Green Monkey, and Owl Monkey. The SINEs for one gene are just over 500 bases long in Humans, 200 in all other apes, and quite a bit longer for the two monkeys (too long to show in the illustration; not present visibly). Another SINE of length ~750 bases is common to Humans, Chimps and Bonobos, ~450 for other apes, and again not shown for the monkeys. A third is ~475 bases long for all apes, and ~125 for the two monkeys.

Let's call these three SINE varieties alex, barb, and chip; and use -long to denote the longer version of each. Alex-long is found only in humans, so the gene in question was greatly modified in humans, but not in other apes. Barb-long must have been inherited by humans, chimps, and bonobos from their common ancestor, and chip-long from the common ancestor of all apes. The copy of some noncoding DNA that produced alex-long happened only after humans split off from the chimp-bonobo line. And so forth.

The SINEs and LINEs that we all carry, by the thousands, last lots longer than some genes. However, the longest-lasting features of our genome are seemingly immortal genes, the subject of Chapter 3. There is a protein called "elongation factor 1-alpha" that is used in every cell of every living creature yet studied. The DNA that produces it is one of about 500 immortal genes that are almost identical in every living being. Here is a portion of the amino acid (AA) sequence of this 1-alpha protein (we use capital letters for the twenty amino acids in proteins), for five very different organisms:

D-PGH-D--KNMITG--Q-D---L-- "Immortal" letters

Those that differ from the Human sequence are bolded (Although there is an A that doesn't change here, it does change for other organisms not shown. The "immortal" ones never do). The KNMITG is particularly interesting. These six AAs fold into a shape that is critical to the operation of the protein. Any change to any of them is invariably fatal. Thus, natural selection has preserved them, because every cell in which any of them was changed by a mutation has died straight off.

I will touch but one other area, one I find fascinating: color vision. The author presents it in detail in Chapter 4, and returns to it frequently in later chapters. First, a study of color vision throughout the animal kingdom indicates that early animals had at least five different color receptors; the lamprey and other very primitive animals have five. Most birds and many fish and reptiles have four, primates either two (New World monkeys) or three (apes and Old World monkeys), and most other mammals and many more primitive animals (but not the most primitive) have two.

Humans actually have a fourth receptor, the "night vision" rods, which do not produce color vision. However, there is a twilight region of near-dark for which the rods begin to work, and the "green" (medium wave) cone still works, though the "red" (long wave) and "blue" (short wave) have quit working. Under a quarter moon, objects that are brightly colored by day take on deep blue-to-yellow/brown hues. It takes near-total darkness to produce entirely monochromatic rod vision. But by day our vision is trichromatic, because of three color receptors...for most of us. For about one man in fifty (but very few women), either the long or the medium cones are missing. It takes both to distinguish colors in the red-yellow-green area of the spectrum. So such men are red-green color blind. They can still distinguish "yellow" from blue.

However, there are three sites in the opsin pigment protein sequence that make most of the difference between the long and the medium (red and green) cones. When all three are one way, we have the green variety, and the other way, the red variety. More than 90% of us have "green" pigment that is "really green" and "red" pigment that is "really red." But for some people, there is a mixed case. One of these sites in particular makes half the wavelength difference in a pigment's peak sensitivity. Mix it wrong, and half of one's color discrimination is gone. For most people with such "anomalous color vision" there is no problem. They are still able to see all the colors, the experience is just less intense.

Now, WHY do we and our closer primate relatives need to tell red from green? Most mammals get along with two colors (dogs and cats included). Why, because we eat fruit. It is a major part of the diet, and ripe fruit is usually red. A dog can't tell a ripe raspberry from a green one, and doesn't need to, because dogs don't eat raspberries...and house pets that have learned to like them can tell more from the smell than the color anyway. Primates have poor noses! (That is another story...)

Old World primates with 3-color vision descended from 2-color ancestors. How? By duplication of an opsin gene, and a gradual shift of one copy to detect redder things, compared to the other. We can tell which came from which by comparing sequences with the long wave opsin in 2-color vision primates. Areas that don't determine color vision, that are primarily structural, are more similar in the more closely related genes. There's lots more here, but that's enough for now.

The author's principal aim is to prove, as closely as one can come to proof, that natural selection is a correct theory. While we know that theories are really only falsifiable, never totally provable, a sufficient mass of favorable evidence coupled with an absence of contrary evidence is as close as one can come. A theory is considered strong, not because it explains phenomena known at the time of its inception, but when it makes correct predictions of observations yet to be made, and even more if unexpected findings are found to fall under its explanatory umbrella. Very few theories currently reign as Very Strong Theories: Quantum Electrodynamics, Special Relativity, General Relativity, and Evolution by Natural Selection are the top four.

His secondary aim it to show that "intelligent design", the latest offshoot of creationism, is not a scientific theory. He actually expends little effort to this end, because ID is an unwitting straw man very easy to demolish, and because Christians have already done a good job of it. Here is part of a statement by Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, as quoted on p. 242: "The theory of evolution, far from undermining faith, deepens it. This was quickly seen by Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that God doesn't just make the world, he does something more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. ... biblical literalism brings not only the Bible but Christianity itself into disrepute." The simple fact is that ID makes no statement that can be scientifically tested, so it isn't science, it is just a myth, not even a biblical one.

This reminds me of a joke I first heard as jibing certain fundamental baptists, but here:

A devout Episcopal appears at the gate of heaven and Peter admits him. He is assigned an angel to show him around. The angel tells him there is just one place he must avoid, and shows him a walled compound, without windows, and a fence far from the wall, guarded by armed angels. "Who is in there?" the gentleman asks. The angel replies, "The creationists. They think they're the only ones here!"

Friday, January 19, 2007

Bearing a piece of Feynman's mantle

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, collections, science, philosophy, rereadable

Freeman Dyson blows me away. Many have heard of a Dyson Sphere, based on a statement of his in 1960, that a technological culture a few thousand years old can be expected to expand its ecosphere so as to completely surround the parent star and capture all of its radiant energy; he proposed looking for infrared stars with peak energy near 10 microns, the heat-leaked signature of such envelopes. But how many have heard of the Dyson Tree? He proposes genetically modified trees to live on the surface of a comet; wood is strong enough to support a tree many kilometers "high" from the surface of a body a few kilometers in diameter. An appropriately seeded comet would become a fuzzy green globe the size of the moon, the trees sending oxygen and glucose to a human society living among the roots inside the comet.

A renowned physicist and mathematician, mentored by Richard Feynman, he leapt to fame when he published a demonstration that the theory-driven formulations of Julian Schwinger and Sin-Ichiro Tomonage were equivalent to the diagram-derived equations invented by Feynman. These three went on to receive the Nobel Prize in 1965 for these developments. (It'll take a bit more than the aforenamed synthesis for Dyson go gain the Prize).

Dyson's new book, The Scientist as Rebel is built around a collection of book reviews he did for the New York Review. However, beyond the title essay and four other pieces, the subject is not so much rebellion or revolution, but scientists themselves, and how the person shapes the work. In a great many cases, Dyson had at least met the author of book he reviews, and he frequently knew them well. Being very well read (I wonder when he has time to do physics?), he is able to draw on earlier works by an author and on similar works by others in evaluating a book or an idea.

A stellar example of this is a 1972 lecture-review-essay based on Desmond Bernal's book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. He dwells on Bernal's thesis at length, then discusses the prospect of scattering humankind among the comets—one of Bernal's suggestions for overcoming World—, introducing the concept of the Dyson tree, which seems to date from this lecture. In the process, he refers to other writers on the theme, including William Bradford, who described the Pilgrims' experience in On Plymoth Plantation, written beginning in 1630. Bradford's difficulties getting the enterprise funded and retaining the allegiance of the wavering pilgrims makes Bernal's case for him.

But Dyson has much to say about many things. He lauds the diligence of amateurs, reminding us of the limitations of "big science", particularly its narrow focus—of necessity due to the great cost of its tools. It takes a huge amount of very costly equipment, for example, to halfway keep up with thousands of comet-seeking amateur astronomers. Most of the valuable data on variable stars was gathered by members of AAVSO, the American Association of Variable Star Observers. (In my own field, Geology, for every bounty-hunting fossil freak, there are hundreds or thousands of rockhounds who honor and respect the rarity of great finds and bring scientists in to appropriately record and study them. Many are better field workers than the professors they work with, and become adjuncts-without-credential to honored institutions).

In addition to twenty-league trees, Freeman is full of ideas such as a descendant of CAD-CAM he calls CAS-CAR (computer aided selection/computer aided reproduction), for generating custom pets by genetic engineering. Blue kittens, anyone? The question isn't how or why, but only when. He is an early proponent of bypassing nanotech by instead engineering microbes to do our dirty work, taking care to make them cannibalistic so they clean up after themselves when they run out of "feedstock" (My own worry is that they'd mutate and become predatory instead, which is a similar theme to that in Michael Crichton's Prey, which Dyson reviews in chapter 4. We'd do well to remember "Life will find a way" from Jurassic Park).

Early in reading the book, I thought to list ideas and make this a point-by-point review, such as I often do for anthologies. It didn't take long to realize the list would be much too long. Like Feynman, Freeman Dyson is a polymath, master of a number of trades. Writing is one of them. Idea generation is another. An anthology of fiction typically has one strong idea per story. Dyson's writing has at least one idea per page...and this book has 350 pages. I'll just have to keep it around, and read it again every couple of years.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What a tangled web we weave, when time itself we must deceive

kw: book reviews, science fiction, time travel

Time travel fiction can get confusing. In the hands of Kage Baker, it is downright pathological. Her "Company" series of novels now numbers seven with The Machine's Child. Their story line plays right into any conspiracy theorist's most elaborate nightmare.

The corporately immortal Dr. Zeus has a near-monopoly on time travel. The principals of The Company are either immortal themselves, or near-immortal cyborgs. They have free access to all time prior to 2355 AD, which is a dreaded deadline that none can fathom.

Two individuals claim time travel, thus breaking the monopoly. The immortal woman Mendoza is a Crome, apparently able to move forward through time, where all machine methods only allow visits to, and return from, the past. Most frequently, she sometimes affects time in her vicinity. A mortal, but cyborged, man, her lover Alec, is immeasurably rich (aren't these heroes all filthy rich!), and owns a yacht, actually a dreadnought, which embodies the largest of the time machines.

This novel lays the seeds for the climactic events of 2355 that must—mustn't they?—break the hold of Dr. Zeus on his enslaved immortals and cyborgs. It takes Alec and Mendoza a number of visits to storage caches located all along the past time stream, and a greater number thereof to plant booby traps that will go off on the known date that begins The Silence. Presumably, later novels will unravel the mystery further.

In the meantime, Alec, and two alternate personalities that belonged to clones of his, their mental programming recovered from the distant past, wend their very neurotic (three kinds of neuroticism!) way towards some kind of mental rapprochement, while an immortal cyborg hunts him/them down. By the end of this novel, Mendoza, who had loved each clone in turn, over the past millenium, is sufficiently amnesiac that she hasn't yet realized there are three personalities in one body, making love to her in turn (not always politely).

I think I must have read one of the other Company books some years back, prior to beginning this blog. If it was as confusing as this one, I can understand why I waited for the memory to fade before tasting at the Baker fount again.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The REAL bird man of the entire 20th Century

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, painting, writing, collections

Roger Tory Peter with his painting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which he knew from firsthand experience. (Photo by Virginia M. Peterson, on p.120 of All Things Reconsidered)

I grew up with a succession of the "Peterson Field Guides" either in my room or in the family book room down the hall. Though not an avid bird watcher, I have enjoyed occasional rambles through this field, desert, or mountainside with an appropriate field guide and binoculars in hand, usually with one friend, seldom more than one, and seldom alone.

I did not pay much attention to who Mr. Peterson was. I was clear he knew more about birds than anyone I was likely to meet. I was just happy for his clear method of quick identification, as I am far from a careful observer, and cannot sketch at all. I just look, that's about it.

How happy I was to find a book with forty-two of his essays from The Bird Watcher's Digest, edited by the journal's editor, Bill Thompson III: All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures. Therein I found that Peterson was not just a field guide designer and illustrator for some sixty years, but an excellent painter of larger works, an avid (he says "obsessive") photographer, and a lucid, engaging writer. He has as well carried much of the heavy freight for the cause of conservation from the 1930s until he passed away in 1996.

The picture shown above is from the chapter titled "Finding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker" (the chapters are not numbered). He is one of a very few field guide illustrators to have seen and heard ivory-bills.

An inkling of the range of his interests is the prior chapter, "Orgy on Delaware Bay", about the mass egg-laying of horseshoe crabs and the great variety of birds and other creatures that feed on the eggs. That chapter ends with his advice to pay a visit to Moore's Landing on the full moon in May (June will work also), to see the spectacle, "this mystical conjunction of planetary and biological forces."

The world came close to losing him many years ago, when he visited a guano rock offshore of Argentina, to see the bird rookery there. Getting there, in a hired rowboat, was easy. An offshore wind that continually strengthens during the day, a foehn off the Andes, made the return nearly impossible! He closes that chapter, "High Seas in a Rowboat", "To take a chance once in a while and to get away with it is to feel alive."

Two other favorites chapters: "Memories of Manhattan", a lyrical evocation of the great hordes of migratory birds that visited Central Park in pre-WW2 times—though reduced, the spectacle is frequently similar today—; and "Long After Columbus", in which he asserts that the Endangered Species Act has done more harm than good (developers get a window of opportunity between "study" and "listing", which they all too often take tragic advantage of), and that while a few species have been lost, many more are benefited by human activities. Still, he acknowledges that we must keep watch, for not all activities are beneficial, and he is justly proud of his part in getting DDT banned in the 1960s.

Peterson the Polymath reveals himself to us in these wonderful columns. This book is a treasure.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Over-selected critters

kw: opinion, artificial selection, entertainment

One of the first "real" books I read, at age 6 or so, was about a cocker spaniel named Champion Tom [some name I don't recall]. The story of this genius among dogs was a real inspiration. During my grade school years, several friends and neighbors had cockers, and they were bright, affectionate, eager companions.

By contrast, cocker spaniels today are a bit cuter, with better "conformation", but slaverish and dumber than stones. I read a comment in a column about a dog show that spaniel "lovers" had "bred all the brains" out of the breed, in the interest of a certain physical template called "conformation".

Today, the horse Barbaro is much in the news again. This poor colt is still spending lots of time in a sling, as the vets and trainers help him recover from the laminitis that's been plaguing him for months now. "Signs are hopeful," says one commentator.

Does anyone else think, as I do, that Barbaro is a prime example of an over-bred horse? One bred for so much speed that he is too, too fragile? Would the owner of any costly mare really be willing to breed her with Barbaro? Such a match is most likely to produce foals that might run fast, but be truly useless and worthless as a "real horse", overly likely to break a leg.

We recently visited relatives in Arcadia, California. When we drove past the Santa Anita raceway, we saw that they are preparing to convert another big chunk of the parking lot into an addition to the gigantic Westfield Mall that takes up half the lot already. I remarked to my wife that the advent of color television in the late 1950s had led to a great reduction in attendance to "live" events such as horse and auto racing.

The reduction is still going on. The cash flow in horse racing leveled off decades ago and is decreasing. Why are we still over-breeding the animals? Do aficionados really think they can get billions of couch potatoes to sit in a real arena and watch horses run from hundreds of yards away, when they can see it on TV for so much less bother, with a hugely better view?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Myth Mixers

kw: book reviews, fantasy, mythology

There is but one constant about John C. Wright's characters: nobody is quite who they seem. We're not talking about wolves in sheep's clothing, or philosophers masquerading as longshoremen. No, no; here we have the pupils, faculty, and staff of a very odd boarding school-cum-orphanage, who are all disguised demigods and monsters from an eclectic collection of archetypes and myths. Some of those encountered "outside" are weirder yet.

Take Jove and Hera, Grendel, Jehovah, and their attendant deities and demons, and mix well. On one level, Fugitives of Chaos, the second of a trilogy in progress, is a teenage rebellion saga. But these teens, in one place called "the kids who don't get older", are ageless (but not immortal) monsters from other dimensions. The focus of a supernatural war, they have been held for...who knows how an odd school in a place that really isn't there, once you get off the grounds. Their keepers are gods themselves, with powers barely capable of restraining the youngsters.

Wrights's kind of fantasy pits four or five kinds of magical tradition against one another, with combinations that oughtn't coexist, but in fiction, hey, sure they can! The story is a romp, deeper meanings are where you find them (within oneself, in other words), and the more you know of Beowulf and Hamilton's Mythology, the better. Guess I'll have to track down Orphans of Chaos...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Another for the circular file

kw: book reviews, fantasy, rejects

The book is Killing With the Edge of the Moon, by A. A. Attanasio. I guess I should have known better. It was too long since the last time I tried to read from this author. After reading partway through the Prelude, I flipped to the back cover to see the publisher's review (I seldom look at them). Once I saw the term "demonic fairy tale" I put the book aside.

Darkness inside me, I have a-plenty. I don't need a dose of someone else's.

Venus as we wish it to be

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, alternate history, interplanetary travel

S. M. Stirling is a new author to me, one who adopts a recent trend against having an author's photo on the book jacket, or any revealing VITA. The blurb does state he writes both SciFi and Fantasy. The Sky People is a bit of both.

Imagine that Edgar Rice Burroughs was right, that there are people like us on both Mars and Venus, and that the robot probes of the 1950s and 1960s showed them to us. I imagine that by the 1980s there would have been several visits to each, and a number of residents, not yet colonists.

The premise of the book is that the life on Venus seems to be a jumble of everything from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic, and a fossil record that begins abruptly, with nothing preceding, about 200 million years ago. Not only so, the Venerian creatures' DNA and proteins are compatible with the Terran, so that things from either planet can eat each other. This considerably lightens the load one must carry to Venus for a prolonged stay. It also leads to much risk, because the predators include huge wolves, saber-tooth cats, and allosaurs...and Neandertals.

The Human and Neandertal species are at war, and visiting, Terran, humans naturally get involved. DNA compatibility is subsequently proven.

Hints of an alien, or at least other-worldly, presence appear early, and lead to an interesting conclusion. A connection with the Martian ecology that appears late in the narrative opens plenty of room for sequels.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Home is where the heart wishes to be

kw: book reviews, science fiction, interstellar travel, aliens, trilogies

Alan Dean Foster writes one of the best known SciFi series, a light-hearted collection now numbering twelve novels, "Flinx of the Commonwealth". The "Founding of the Commonwealth" trilogy followed and is interwoven with these. Foster has a host of other series and stand-alone novels numbering more than one hundred. I don't know if he writes nonfiction also, but his fiction output rivals that of Isaac Asimov.

The Candle of Distant Earth completes his most recent "Taken" trilogy, begun in 2004. Volumes 1 and 2 are Lost and Found and The Light-Years Beneath My Feet. The trilogy's premise: Marc Walker is captured by aliens and finds himself a captive on a ship bearing numerous captives from many alien races. They are to be sold to zoos and collectors of alien "pets".

The first volume is concerned with Walker's gradual acceptance of interaction with some very different beings, their alliance, escape, and rescue by a more powerful alien civilization. The second covers the adventures of Walker and his alien friends as they gain the confidence and allegiance of a race that agrees to help them find their way home. In the third, they find their home planets, though they have all changed a great deal; homecoming isn't as expected, in each case. Along the way, their original captors occasionally intervene, trying to recover "lost inventory", or at least restore their "honor" by killing the escapees.

Hmmm. That's a pretty succinct story line. But it is more involved than a High Concept premise. The theme is really coming of age, a genre I heartily enjoy.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The ultimate war classic

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, war, diplomacy, duplicity, translations, classics, chinese literature

I once spoke with a retired U.S. Army Colonel. He'd just given a speech about the need for strength, at a time (late Vietnam war era) the military was much hated. He said, "Peace means you have no living enemies." That sounds pretty strong, but he went on to say the first resort is to win over someone, to make an opponent an ally; war is the last.

Having just read The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, I see where he was coming from. A quick look for references indicates that this must be the second-most studied book in history, after only the Bible.

The edition currently in print in paperback, translated by the late General Samuel B. Griffith, is being touted as a guide to managers, not just for military readers. While I like the emphasis on gaining allies, the classic Thirteen Chapters is much more about deceit and duplicity. When war is necessary, deception is necessary, but to consider commerce and business to be "war on another field" as some have termed it, makes this a very risky proposition. Just consider Enron...

More than half the volume is apparatus. The translation is but 68 pages, and a third of that is translated commentary, a tiny fragment of the 23 centuries of Chinese scholarship of Sun Tzu. The first, 18-page, appendix is mostly composed of a translation of a similar treatise by Wu Ch'i. In another appendix we find this volume is the seventh English translation.

My own favorite quote is from the chapter "Offensive Strategy": "...those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations."

This brings to mind the conclusion of the Cold War. President Reagan set the stage with his "Evil Empire" speech, showed his willingness to go to war with a couple small operations such as Grenada, then stood at the Berlin Wall and said, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The Soviet Premier could do little but watch as the German people and many of their Russian guards did just that. I remember it was my birthday, November 9, 1989, and I was driving to work when the news bulletin came on the radio. I pulled over to weep, and was half an hour late to work. Such is the benefit of appropriate strategy.

Grinch of the Year 2006: What does your favorite charity do with your money?

kw: opinion, investigative reporting, charities, fund raising

I am on every "Don't Call" list I've been able to find. Of course, registered charities don't have to abide by such lists, so I still get a few calls. Typically, I interrupt the caller's opening remarks by saying, "I don't do phone charities", and I hang up. In mid-December, I took the time to listen to the spiel on behalf of National Association of Disabled Police Officers, which began with, "Thank you for contributing last year; can we count on you this year?" Although I didn't remember contributing to them, I agreed to let them send me a pledge form, with tentative agreement to send them $50.

When I got the pledge form, I still couldn't remember, and figured the caller was lying (most do), so I checked them out. I went to GuideStar and looked them up. I recommend you register with GuideStar. The free registration gives you access to everything most of us need, including recent Form 990 submissions for many of them. What is a Form 990? It is analagous to the Form 1040 most of us send to the IRS every year; it is the "tax form" for charities. Of its 18 pages (and there are often other attachments), only the first two typically concern us, and page 2 is of most interest to me.

What did I find on the NADPO's Form 990? The last few lines of page 1 were a big red flag:

  • Line 12, total revenue: $546,357
  • Line 15, fundraising: $464,405 -- that's 85% folks!

Page 2 has a bigger red flag. Of the $81,952 that didn't go to fundraising, guess how much actually got to disabled policemen?

  • Line 22, grants and allocations: $1,000 (a cash grant).
  • The rest went to various forms of management and operating expenses.

And, I am not sure the $1,000 actually got to anybody, because "assistance to individuals" is Line 23!

So, a half-million-dollar budget, of which 85% is passed on directly to three professional fundraising phone banks, and only 0.18% actually gets used for the organization's stated purpose! You get right down to it, this is a couple guys in a garage, feeling good about passing close to half a million a year to phone banks, taking in about $33,000 between them, and frittering the rest away in a couple dozen kinds of operating expense...oh, yeah, they gave somebody $1,000 in cash, probably another, similar organization.

The National Association of Disabled Police Officers gets my Grinch of the Year award.

On the more general subject of charities, the best ones are pretty transparent, and their Form 990's are easy to follow.

The very best, in my view, is the Salvation Army. Their Form 990 for 2004 shows us the following:

  • Total revenue: $12,179,596
  • Total management expenses: $319,819 (2.6%; $197,394 was salaries and benefits)
  • Total program services: $12,426,943 (they overspent by a half million, and took it from assets of around $7 million)
  • Salaries & benefits in program services: $953,074 (7.8%)
  • Grants and Assistance (Lines 22 & 23): $8,667,284 (71%)

Lots of the rest went to conventions and educational programs. Look it up for yourself. They are a model of a well-run charity that doesn't pay anyone a huge salary to "manage" it, and they didn't pay anyone else a penny for "professional fundraising". In fact, they claim zero total expense for fundraising, though some of their overhead is for advertising (you see or hear rare media ads).

The bottom line: Of $12.4 million spent, 9% went to salaries and benefits for officers and others, 20% to other overhead, and 71% to the stated purpose of the group.

Here's how a couple of big non-religious charities stack up.

The American Heart Association in FY 2004 received $593 million and spent $519 million. Of the amount spent, $156 million (30%) went to salaries and benefits, $80 million (15%) to fundraising, and $285 million (55%, and half of that in the form of research grants) to other program services. They state $399 million (77%) as total program services, but a third of that is salaries & benefits included above. They are "pretty good".

The National Home Office of the American Cancer Society in FY 2004 received $360 million and spent $298 million. Of that amount, $64 million (22%) went to salaries and benefits, $38 million (13%) to fundraising, and $196 million (65%, and well over half that went to fund research) to other program services. They are better than AHA. FYI, for the past six years, I've walked the "survivor walk" at several ACS "Relay For Life" events, and usually stayed there most of the night to chaperone the students hosting the walk.

It takes a bit of work on page 2 to total up the salaries and benefits (lines 26-29, columns B and C). Less than 25% of total spending for the year is good. Less than 10% (like Salvation Army) is long as fundraising is also low! It ought to be less than the salary+benefit figure.

A number of years ago, I expressed my admiration for Billy Graham to my dad, who was a Methodist elder at the time. He retorted that the Billy Graham organization and the United Methodist churches of the U.S. had similar budgets, about $60 million that year. He said that the UM church supported a couple thousand pastors and hundreds of hospitals and retirement homes, plus foreign missions. He said, "Compared to all that, what does Billy Graham do?" Good question.

It would be arduous to compile the Methodist church's finances, for there are nearly 3,000 tax-exempt organizations with "United Methodist" in their name or affiliation. However, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a single entity, with a single Form 990. Their income in FY 2003 was $110 million. I downloaded the entire 990 to check detail; some items on Page 2 refer to attached schedules. Out of those millions, there were grants of about $1 million. However, the analysis comparable to ACS and AHA above is: $38 million (34%) to salaries & benefits, $4.6 million (4%) to fundraising (none by "professional" contractors), and the remaining $67 million (62%) to other program services. Not bad, though that's a hefty salary budget.

Here is where the added information comes in handy. The top five officers earned between $145,600 and $150,300, and with expense accounts and benefits, the top compensation was $235,000. A little one-line note indicates that 258 employees earned $50,000 or more. One appended schedule lists the fourteen organizations that received the $1 million in grants. In the next-to-last schedule we find the salaries of all the "Directors and Key Employees", including Billy Graham himself, who was paid $199,561 that year, and received $38,861 (pretty ordinary) in benefits, and also had $181,842 expense account. While that sounds like a lot, it is tiny compared to the CEO of nearly any $100 million commercial corporation. However, I live very comfortably on a quarter of Dr. Graham's cash flow!

My bottom line: the reporting is at least straightforward, and I still think Dr. Graham preaches the purest gospel of the "public" evangelists.

Most churches and religious organizations are not so forthcoming. I perused the Form 990's for several church congregations of the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations. Although the "Compensation of officers" and "Other salaries" items are typically half of a church's budget (with wide variation!), in only one case did the "attached schedules" or other items provide the actual salaries! Rather, the form preparer entered zero next to the name of everyone listed. The sole exception is a large congregation in Georgia, with a $4 million budget, which paid its pastor $151,000, but lists over $1 million in total salaries, otherwise unaccounted for. The IRS must not read most of the 990's it receives...

Back to police organizations. I decided to see if any of these are worth supporting. Eight thousand "hits" come back from a GuideStar search on the word "Police". Places like Athletic Leagues, Widow & Orphan Benefit funds, and Boys' or Girls' Clubs, usually have a Form 990 on file, and it is pretty ordinary. They pay a director and a couple other employees, maybe manage a facility, and disburse funds in a pretty (to Very!) respectable way. For example, the New York Police and Fire Widows' & Children's Benefit Fund" does even better than the Salvation Army, percentage-wise: 98% of their cash flow goes right to the widows and children (2004 Form 990).

But the one I usually get calls from is one or another "Fraternal Order of Police". You know the guys that offer you a sticker for a contribution, and hint that police are less likely to ticket a vehicle with such a sticker. Red flag! However, on checking a couple of Form 990's for local FOP lodges, I found that at least they don't pay any salaries. One spends half its budget on legal fees, and both spend quite a bit on "Conferences, conventions, etc.", and "various programs", whatever that is. Don't bother supporting FOP; they're just spinning their wheels.

If you want to support police, support a Widow & Orphan fund, or send the station house a cash donation, with instructions to distribute it equally. If you don't trust them to do so, don't bother.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Getting it there, in ways we don't consider

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, transportation, commerce

Of the ways goods get to market, the most familiar that John McPhee describes is via "semi" or "18-wheeler". His book "Uncommon Carriers" begins and ends with notes on his travels with a long-haul trucker who is a bit unusual: Don Ainsworth owns his own truck, a non-foods chemical tanker, both tractor and trailer. A bigtruck driver who covers 100,000 or more miles yearly is not unusual, compared to his fellows, but lives a life few of us can conceive.

In an earlier post (Romance of the Open Road, revividus), I wrote of one man's story, learning to drive the big rigs. Here, an established driver, probably a veteran of two million miles, or more, offers us—through the author—a peek into his life.

We see big trucks all the time, and most places, most any time, by looking up we'll see at least one jet aircraft, or at least the contrails. Some of those big jets up there are carrying only freight; in one chapter, McPhee describes UPS Airline's Louisville sorting facility, some four million square feet (nearly 400,000 sq m) in size, having a plethora of automation and a minimum human presence. He traces the progress of live lobsters from Nova Scotia, express freighted almost everywhere, but all passing through "the sort".

Whether truck or jet, barge or train, I found most striking the very different thought patterns needed by those who perform these jobs. To retrain a coal train driver ("engineer" is falling out of use) as a towboat operator, or vice versa, would be an arduous undertaking. There is not only a new jargon to learn, but a new way of thinking, of planning, of deciding just how to get from point A to point B.

In one lyrical chapter, McPhee and a series of friends and relatives retrace by canoe a river-and-canal passage described in H.D. Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The canal system southeast of the Great Lakes is no longer used, and much broken up. In the early 1800s, through at least the early 1900s, it was heavily used. The economics of canal transport are similar to barge transport (platforms of 15-50 wired-together barges pushed by a "towboat") on major rivers today: one-third the cost of railroad, one-fifteenth the cost of trucking, and much, much less than air freight. The constraint is time. Time is money, more so in transport than any other endeavor.

Yet in his ride on a coal train, the author finds that technology also is just gotta get over the sunk costs. In 2005, a million BTUs of heat cost $9 for fuel oil (such as I burn in my home), $6 for natural gas, $1.85 for coal, and $0.50 for nuclear. Current fears about nuclear energy (unreasonable, in my view) force the startup cost and lead time for nuclear power plant construction into infeasible regions; otherwise, we could replace a heap of coal the size of the Great Pyramid in Egypt with a ton or so of nuclear fuel...and the U.S. has lots and lots of Uranium.

Finally, the book made me feel a little like a scout on a field trip, or several field trips. The culture of each of the "common carrier" systems is largely unique, and as foreign to my life as a Persian bazaar.