Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The other half of the apostolic commission

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, history

What is an apostle? To condense the first two chapters of The Normal Christian Church Life by Watchman Nee:

  • Jesus, the "apostle and high priest whom we confess" (Heb 3:1) is the unique Apostle sent by the Father.
  • Jesus appointed twelve of his disciples and called them apostles (Matt 10:2, Mark 3:13, Luke 6:13). These were the apostles of the Son; later Judas was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26).
  • Beginning with Saul of Tarsus and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4; 14:14), the Holy Spirit chose apostles. Others include Silas who replaced Barnabas as Paul's companion (1 Thes 1:1; 2:7) and Timothy (same verses), and Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7).
  • The term apostle is also used of those sent by churches for more specific missions, such as Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), sent by the church in Philippi with supplies and support for Paul in prison.
  • The apostles of the Son are a closed group of twelve, now including Matthias.
  • The Spirit continues appointing and sending apostles, though the common practice is now to call them missionaries. The Latinate term missionary is simply a translation from the Greek word apostolos.

The first time I read through the New Testament I noticed Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16:7, and simply concluded they were a husband-and-wife team that worked with Paul, as did Prisca and Aquila. I took quite literally that "there is no more...male nor female" (Gal 3:28) as far as God's work us concerned. Later I was for a time tainted with the "conservative" (reactionary, to tell the truth) notion that women ought not teach. Two things happened.

I had gotten into the habit of thinking, and occasionally saying, that the Bible allowed women to work in any way except as an elder or apostle. Later I realized that Prisca and her husband did apostles' work, and she was seemingly in the lead; maybe teaching while he made the tents. Then I saw Romans 16:7 more clearly, that Andronicus and Junia were "outstanding among the apostles", that is, outstanding apostles...both of them. Luckily I didn't first read the NIV or another corrupted version that "male-ifies" her name to Junias. I was reading the AV (KJV), and fortunately that, the "21st Century KJV" and the Recovery Version all have it right: Junia.

Secondly, in the early 1990s many friends went to Russia and Eastern Europe after the break up of the USSR, as missionaries. Both male and female, married couples and singles, all ages (25 and older). One woman I'd known many years, still single in her early 40s, went to the Ukraine, learned the language, and planted herself there in a suburb of Kiev. In 1999 I met her at a church conference, with several Ukrainian women, for whom she was interpreting. Sometimes spiritual senses take over our natural senses: she smelled holy. I knew I was in the presence of an apostle, and perhaps one or more of her companions were apostles in training...or in fact.

As a side note, God graciously, over the same period of time, put my wife and me in contact with a church consisting only of women. One of them stayed at our home a few days. Most were married, but none of their husbands was willing to attend meetings or otherwise be involved in the church life. Several were unbelievers. Later, some of the men began attending, and other families were added, but the women who'd been caring for the church during more than a decade already were not about to cede leadership to the less-experienced, and formerly uncaring, men. Few of my fellow believers are happy to see female elders, but I for one am not bothered, rather I am happy.

Imagine my joy to find a book that sheds a welcome light on Junia: The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia by Rena Pederson. The author, a committed Christian but professional skeptic (a journalist), devoted much of her time and quite a bit of cash over several years to strip away the layers of historical obscurity and male revisionism, to find the real Junia.

Early in her book, Ms Pederson quotes Jill Briscoe: "Men of quality are not threatened by women of equality". She herself follows to say that it "may be easier to say than to do." (p. 82) This cuts to the root of the matter. Had Paul written "Andronicus and Junia, who are outstanding servants of God", nobody would be bothered that Junia is female. Any who thinks she might have worked as an apostle would be free to do so, and those who preferred to think of her as an outstanding children's meeting teacher could content themselves with that (puerile) idea. Ambiguous words like "servant" allow such mental laxity. But because she and Andronicus are clearly designated apostles, and outstanding ones at that, once reactionary conservatism took over the church, eventually (by the 13th Century) she was written out of existence.

More than half of the English translations of the Bible still in print have "Junias", a male name. This in spite of the fact that no man in all the corpus of contemporary Greek writing was ever named Junias, while Junia is rather common. It is a first-name version of the family name Junius, sort of like Lindsey as a first name (I have Lindsey ancestors, and a close friend of my younger years was a girl named Lindsey).

Why would it be so "unimaginable" for a woman to be an apostle? Blame it on the way Christendom developed. The strong Greek element that gradually took over the philosophically-minded clerics, once a hierarchy had built up, was quite misgynistic. Pederson writes, "The Greeks saw female sexuality as a threat that had to be controlled, subordinated, and restricted. The Roman Christians carried on that viewpoint." (p. 147)

I might add that the pagan "mysteries" were mainly involved with sexuality rituals, which had two purposes: to ritually ensure fertility of crops and livestock, and to introduce sex in a social setting that reduced its power over the "young and impressionable". Modern engagement and marriage rituals, including the sexually-charged play (garters, thrown flowers, etc.) at "receptions", are a holdover of pagan fertility rituals intended to strengthen family cohesion.

Why do we carry such misogyny with us, still in the 21st Century? In a word, men are afraid of women, or more accurately, they are afraid of their reactions to women. I'll admit it; I am afraid of my reactions. Until last year, I was supervised by a bubbly, voluptuous blonde half my age. You can bet I had to struggle to remain calm in her presence. It is easier now, working for a nice young man just a year or two older than the blonde; I have no sexual attraction to him whatever (oh, man what would I do if I were bisexual?!?). We are sexual beings. It colors every aspect of our lives. I've known but one man who seemingly had no sexual feelings for male or female, and it may be he is just a good actor. Misogyny may be one way to reduce the danger of sex in public life, but it is a particularly damaging one. Clear-headed self-control is ever so much better.

The author visited Italy several times, to see historical sites contemporary with Junia's Rome and learn what life might have been like for her as a church leader in 65 AD...and how she might have been martyred, for it is likely that she was. She visited and interviewed religious leaders and teachers, finding a surprising level of acceptance of Junia as a female apostle. There was considerable discussion of the Romans verse and early writings.

In the process, she found herself up against the problem of origins. The oldest manuscripts we have were copied from older—now lost—manuscripts, 250-300 years after Paul wrote Romans. She realized as she hadn't been before how troublesome it can be to determine what Paul, Mark, Luke or anyone actually wrote. Among the 5,600 New Testament manuscripts we have older than 14th Century, there are a third of a million "variants", places where one manuscript differs from others on a word, a phrase, or perhaps just an accent.

I have at my side a wonderful volume, "A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament" by Bruce M. Metzger. It lists all the important variants. Most are innocuous, such as a half dozen manuscripts that in Stephen's testimony in Acts 7, have him say "your fathers" rather than "our fathers", referring to the Patriarchs (Acts 7:39). More serious are cases like the verses after Mark 16:8 that do not appear in our oldest manuscripts.

She concludes in her chapter "Which Bible Can You Believe" that "You can believe that scripture, overall, is inspired by God, as I do, but leave room for the possibility that translators and printers make mistakes." (p. 171) The situation is particularly clear when you have multiple versions of an event, such as the healing of the blind man near Jericho.

In Matthew's account (20:29-34), it occurs as Jesus is leaving Jericho, and he heals two blind men. Mark (10:46-52) also has Jesus leaving Jericho, and one blind man named Bartimaeus is healed. Luke (18:35-43) reports that as Jesus was approaching Jericho, he heals one blind man. He follows with the story of Zacchaeus, which the other Gospels do not have.

There are two seeming contradictions to clear up: when did this occur, and how many were healed? The latter point is easier. Matthew was an accountant, the kind of person to notice the second blind man, who was otherwise overshadowed by his more vocal companion. The "when" could be a bit more of a problem, but let us consider this difference in the persons: Matthew and Peter (reported by Mark) were both eye-witnesses, who noticed different things, but knew when an event happened in the flow of events. Luke gained his knowledge by interviewing witnesses, years later. He probably didn't have a complete copy of Mark's Gospel to help. It is likely that he got the stories of the blind man and of Zacchaeus from the same person on two occasions, someone who didn't recall, didn't mention, which came first, so Luke recorded them in the order he received them.

Ms Pederson presents a fascinating analysis of the winding path that Junia/Junias has followed through the ages, until today, nearly all of the most recent translations have Junia, following the universal testimony of Greek manuscripts and of all commentators of the first eight or ten centuries of the Christian era.

Near the end of her pilgrimage, the author visited, on three occasions, the little church named for Prisca, in Rome. On her final visit, she arrived an hour early for the Mass (daylight savings time fooled her). When the people arrived, she sat among a living congregation of families, with altar boys and altar girls, with mothers and fathers herding their children together, and found that, in seeking for Junia, Junia had found her.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Readers in a FOG

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, philosophy of science

Let us briefly discuss the Gunning Fog Index. It measures the level of education one needs to fully comprehend a document. Beginning with a sample of at least 100 words (200-300 is better), one counts three things: the number of words, the number of "hard" words, and the number of sentences. "Hard" words are words of three or more syllables except proper names and words whose third syllable is an inflection such as the "-ly" in "vividly" or "-er" in "reformer".

From the three counts, calculate (1) Number of words per sentence (Sw), and (2) percent of hard words (Hw). For example, we might find 187 words, 19 hard words, and 12 sentences. Sw = 187/12 = 15.6; Hw = 100*19/187 = 10.2. Then calculate 0.4*(Sw+Hw); for the example Fog = 0.4*(15.6+10.2) = 10.3. This means someone who finished the 10th grade ought to have no trouble reading the document...or at least that sample.

Few popular texts have a Fog Index greater than 10. Most "newspaperese" is found to be in the range 7-9, though online technical news such as I read from CNet and Yahoo can range from 12 to 16. Comic book captions (there is little other text) fall in the range 3 to 6 (Just for the record, my first paragraph above has a Fog Index of 8.5; if "vividly" and "reformer" are counted as "hard" words, it is instead 9.5).

What does a number like 16 mean? On the face of it, it means you'd find it hard to read unless you've completed a BA or BS in college. However, an interested amateur with a high school education and several years work or hobby experience will be able to read "tougher" text than just education might indicate.

Now, imagine getting a book in hand, and finding that the Fog Index is more than 30! When I began to (attempt to) read Exceeding Our Grasp: Science History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives by P. Kyle Stanford, I found myself quite in a fog. I checked a few paragraphs in the first couple of chapters. Their Fog Indices ranged from 27 to 39!

Guess what...I ain't reading this book! I have fourteen years of college and graduate school. Peter Gunning would tell me I ought to be able to handle text that "fogs out" at 26. What does it take for text to attain a Fog Index of 39? About 300 words in four sentences (Sw = 75), and almost 25% hard words (that's more than 70 words such as "unrepresentative", "idiosyncrasy", "underdetermination", and "nonskeptical"). I find nearly every sentence to be sufficiently difficult to parse (I can't recall the antecendent when I get to the end of a 90-word sentence) that I simply don't have enough years left in my life to devote to comprehend the text in full. My opinion is that this is the worst-written technical treatise I've ever encountered.

With a little hopping around and puzzling out sections here and there, I can summarize the thesis thus: "Underdetermination of Theories" means that the evidence does not admit of any single, comprehensive theory, of anything. Many philosophers of science posit that, for any accepted theory, such as General Relativity, Quantum Electrodynamics, or Darwinian Natural Selection, another theory could be found that explains all known phenomena and makes the same predictions. They just don't say how hard it will be to find that new theory.

The enormous body work that Einstein, Lorentz, and others did to produce first Special Relativity then General Relativity, to replace Newtonian Mechanics, indicates that "how hard" is often "almost impossible". Regardless, Dr. Stanford is a leader among the anti-Realists in scientific philosophy. He points out that Maxwell's equations were produced based on the Ether model of electromagnetic propagation. He neglects to say that the genius of Maxwell was to produce a theory sufficiently robust that the overturning of Ether didn't invalidate his work. Just to say this at a Fog Index of 1: I don't believe him. Should he reply that I don't understand, I'd reply the onus is on him to write readable text.

I foresee primarily libraries obtaining the book, and few individuals. People who succeed in reading it will be those who are already conversant in the field. The opaque diction will minimize the number of non-philosophers whom he could reach were he a better writer.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Biblical snake oil...on both sides

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, eschatology, polemics

When I saw the book's title, The New Brothers Grimm and their Left Behind Fairy Tales, I thought at first the subject was literary and historical, perhaps something to do with lost or lesser known tales by the Grimms. Then I saw the cover illustration, a cut from "Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Dürer.

David T. Morgan, a retired professor of history with a religious bent, is the latest to take on the Left Behind mythology of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. For any who don't know, the series is a fictional portrayal of the last seven years of this age, based on "premillenial dispensationalism", the belief system that this age (this "dispensation") will end with a 7-year period of terrible judgments, followed by a thousand-year earthly kingdom under Christ (the "millenium").

There is pretty good support in the Bible for this as a general view, but the details are rather fuzzy. Dr. Morgan takes the view that the theological system itself, and the specific predictions made on that basis, are "spiritual snake oil". He is at least partly right.

I wish he were a better expositor. He is a good historian, but less adept as a theologian. Dispensational theology is clearly the best way to understand the Bible, but there are numerous versions, and many overdo the point. For example, the Scofield system, with seven "dispensations", is useful but overly-detailed. One must stretch to make one's point. The simplest way to divide up history is based on Romans 5:14a and 17b: "Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life".

Focus on "death reigned from Adam to Moses" and "those [with] grace...reign in life". The first phrase refers to the time before the Law, the second to the time since the Cross, which brought in Grace. There is thus a third period of time, from Moses until Christ. We can call these the Age before Law, the Age of Law, and the Age of Grace. If the promise of a thousand-year kingdom is literal, that is a fourth age, the Age of the Kingdom. Thus, four time periods.

The term "dispensation" is one way to translate a Greek word usually translated "economy". It refers to the definition of the word: "to dispense scarce resources". Dispensing of resources. That is Economy. The roots of the word mean "law of the home" or "...of the household", so God's economy is how God runs his "house".

What is God's house today? It is the church. What was it from Moses' time to the coming of Christ? The nation of Israel, focused on the temple. What was it prior to Moses? It was those people who desired to serve God, such as Adam, Noah, and Abraham. God spent four hundred years producing a corporate "people of God" from the descendants of Abraham's grandson Jacob/Israel, but prior to their production of the tabernacle, God's house was Moses' tent.

Such a view helps one when choosing how to apply the Bible, and how to understand how it applies to today's people of God, both Jews and Christians.

Dr. Morgan clearly thinks any sort of dispensational view is hogwash. He appears to follow Protestant theology, which makes no useful distinction between Old and New Testament truth. I guess he's never read Hebrews, for that is its primary subject. He also frequently protests against God's judgments, often in very disparaging language. I agree that the authors of Left Behind are much too bloodthirsty, but we must remember, when God is loving, He is very loving, but when He is severe, He is very severe. Morgan's view of God is based on unmingled sentimentality.

The book is marred throughout by a sarcastic, derisive tone. Harsh irony seems to be the gentlest weapon in the authors's arsenal. He exposes many clear errors made by "the New Brothers Grimm" as he calls LaHaye and Jenkins. He is right that the books are more fantasy than anything else. However, I am embarrassed by him as an purported expositor of Christian faith.

It is a pity. We need clear analysis of Left Behind and its errors, both theological, historical, and moral. Dr. Morgan's diatribe doesn't cut it.

Coda: A few things come to mind, as I consider Left Behind series, which I've read in its entirety.

  • The "taking away", too often called "the Rapture", and wrongly so, must be understood according to Jesus's word, "I come as a thief." Couple this with God's righteousness: there will be no "unmanned vehicles", no pilotless aircraft, no surgeons snatched from the operating table. Christ will gather His precious ones in secret. I expect Him to take his time, stealing His lovers away like an elopement, not some magical vanishing act. There is no manifested, visible "coming of the Lord" until much later. And as to timing, it will occur primarily "at the last trump", the seventh trumpet near the end of the "tribulation" period, however that transpires. Some are promised to be "taken from the hour of trial." This most likely refers to an early "taking".
  • Subpoint: harvesting in biblical times was in stages; firstfruits, general harvest, and gleaning. The Revelation uses harvesting terms, so it is logical that the taking away occurs in stages. Certainly the two witnesses that die in Jerusalem, lie rotting for three days, then arise and ascend, are taken away at a different time from others.
  • The word Rapture comes from Latin raptus, meaning theft or kidnapping (it was used for both). Its meaning has been mightily changes since the early Brethren coined the term in the 1820s. By the way, the leading expositors were JN Darby and BW Newton; both were part right, part wrong. The two disagreed, and excommunicated one another, but a proper understanding is a synthesis of both their teachings.
  • The Beast of Revelation is nowhere called Antichrist. Those who teach that Jesus is not divine, or that he is inferior to God, are called antichrists, but only by John in his Epistles. You'd think, if he wanted to use that word for the Beast, he'd have done so, since he coined the word. That Beast is some kind of Caesar, and is probably the one called "the man of sin" by Paul, writing to the Thessalonians.
  • The frequent use of 216 in Left Behind books is never explained by their authors, nor by Morgan. It is the cube of six, that is, 6x6x6. Clever, but too clever by half.
  • The Left Behind books contain much too much derring-do, more than I could stomach. God doesn't need this kind of trashy behavior from His children.
  • The "kingdom of the Beast" is described in a way that points to Europe, or Europe plus Palestine and North Africa, as the limits of its sovereignty. It is never stated that the Beast rules the whole earth. Rather, he pursues continual warfare with nations that remain outside his kingdom.
  • It is a very difficult puzzle to determine which prophetic passages in Daniel, Zechariah, and other Old Testament books refer to events found in Revelation. In particular, which verses might refer to the Beast, such as whether he is also the "little horn"; and which refer to Antiochus IV; which to Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and was later Titus Caesar; and which to other wicked kings God addresses with symbolic language. It is likely that all commentators have at least a few mistaken attributions.
  • Is there anyone out there willing to allow God the right to surprise you? It was Darby who first wrote clearly that "prophecy is given, not so that we may prophesy, but that we may recognize events prophesied when they transpire, and act according to their warnings." (My paraphrase; I don't recall the exact quote.)
  • Do you think you have it right, cover to cover? I regard doctrinal fixity to be a deadly disease. God pity us!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

All too often, the Ocean wins

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, waves, ship design

I know nearly nothing about sailing or cruising, and have only a very amateurish body-surfer's acquaintance with waves. I don't think I've ever been more than a mile from shore, except on one ferry ride from Kobe to Tokushima, Japan. Thus, I was quite interested to read Extreme Waves by Craig B. Smith.

A lifelong sailor and student of the sea, a highly respected engineer, particularly of marine engineering, Smith has not just the experience, but the access to professional and governmental sources, to present a highly readable and informative account of the four kinds of extra-large waves, and the conditions that spawn them.

Large storms on large seas produce large waves. Statistically, a few of these will be two or three times as large (with as much as ten times the energy) as the "significant wave height", defined as the average of the largest one-third of waves in a Rayleigh distribution. Thus, a storm with winds of 50 knots (58 mph) will, over a time of two or three days, if it has a long "fetch" of a thousand miles or more, produce waves whose significant height is 50 feet or more. The "expected maximum" height, exceeded by fewer than one percent of the waves, is 99 feet, but a very few waves over 100 feet can be expected to occur. Note that this is quite a bit less than the winds of a hurricane, which exceed 64 knots (74 mph).

Tsunami were suddenly much in the news since the day after Christmas, 2004, when a series of huge tsunami took nearly 300,000 lives in the Sumatra-Thailand area of the Indian ocean. These waves are triggered when an undersea earthquake or landslide causes a sudden shift of a few cubic miles of seawater. The Sumatra earthquake of 2004 ruptured along a thrust fault 170 miles long, suddenly lifting a large area as much as twenty feet. A long swell raced outward at 300+ knots, and its interaction with sloping beaches pushed up waves that ran up 200 feet above sea level in some places, and carried objects far inland, over ridges and structures fifty and more feet high. One hotel situated on a "safe" ledge fifty feet above high tide was demolished.

Confused seas result from the interaction of storm waves. Two storms within a few hundred miles of one another, each producing waves whose significant height is forty feet or so, will interact at distances of a thousand miles or more to produce a confused sea, with waves from two directions leading to a choppy sea. Some waves will cancel each other out, while others will add together, producing waves of eighty or more feet...perhaps under a blue sky!

Finally, rogue waves can arise out of nowhere, it seems; actually they also result from the interaction of multiple wave trains. Modern radar measurements from satellites show that these are more numerous than once thought.

From all these sources, there are just a handful of reports of actual measurements of waves exceeding 100 feet, and one "post-mortem" measurement, based on a run-up of 1,700 feet (!) that indicates the wave(s) responsible exceeded 500 feet...this was in 1958, in Alaska.

The second message of the book is the human and economic toll of such waves. I was surprised to learn that several large ships are lost every week! Of tens of thousands of cargo ships in use, it seems we need to build about a thousand new ones every year, just to keep up with founderings and sinkings.

The author has numerous descriptions of the ways large waves overturn, break up, or swamp ships, even supertankers and 'super Panamax' ships, those too big to go through the Panama Canal, which must then traverse the most dangerous waters north of Antarctica, to get around South America. He ends the book with a call for better design, in a time of increasing "false economics" of shaving ship design. Deep-sea sailing is seen to be riskier than coal mining or warfare, often thought to be the most dangerous professions. Sadly, it is getting riskier, not less, because of too great a focus on the 'bottom line' in this global economy. We're consuming the blood of sailors to buy our fruit from Argentina and our shoes from Malaysia.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Junk politics getting junkier, a small example

kw: opinion, news, politics

I just saw this blurb on an online news article:
Top Democratics and Republicans say they prefer oversight, rather than repealing part of Patriot Act used by FBI for illegal monitoring.

Let's think about that. If it is illegal, there is no law that allows it. If the Patriot Act is law (it is), and specifies that it may be done, it isn't illegal. It's legal until that law is repealed. The blurb is an oxymoron.

My big dog can outrun your little dog

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biology, scaling

Item: A nice 4-m yacht, under full sail across a brisk wind, leaps along, dashing merrily amidst the spume. It's really fast! But should it run parallel to a 300-passenger liner, the big ship will steadily, grandly leave it in the spray.

Item: A mouse can live four to five years. In that time its heart beats at most two billion times. A medium-sized pet dog can live fifteen to eighteen years, and its heart beats a billion to 1.3 billion times. Humans are said to experience two billion heartbeats, seldom more; at 80 beats per minute, or 42 million per year, that's only 48 years, so the two billion limit is obviously off by a factor of about two, even for folks with a slower heart. But the funny thing is, how can the longevity of a mouse's heart, in total beats, be anywhere close to that of a human's, when the human is sixty times as long and weighs 2,000 to 3,000 times as much?

Item: The walking speed, for animals that walk, and the running speed, for animals that run, depends on only two things: whether two or four legs (four is faster), and how long it is from hip or shoulder to toe. Interestingly, the variation in walking speeds is much greater than the variation in running speed.

A most interesting Item: The attribute that correlates most closely to life span is the weight of the brain. A tiny shrew with a 1-gram brain lives 2-3 years; an small wildcat with a 50-gram brain lives about fifteen years (in a zoo, much less in the wild); and an elephant with a 7-kg (7000-gram) brain lives at least sixty years, and we don't know how long one could live if its teeth didn't wear out at that age. Oddly, a human with brain weight of 1.2 to 1.6 kg, is above the trend, living 80-110 years (the trend predicts 40-50). The shrew-wildcat-elephant trend, appropriately crunched, yields an allometric exponent near 0.4; Yrs Wbrain0.4, which means the brain has to be more than five times heavier for a doubling of life span. A good rough guide.

Where'd all this come from? John Tyler Bonner, Professor Emeritus at Princeton, has studied scaling in plants and animals all his life, and recently written Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to......Blue Whales. I distilled the Items from his book, all except the first, which I threw in to illustrate that scaling affects everything, not just living creatures.

The book is built around five "size rules":

  • Strength varies with size.
  • Rates of gas and food ingestion vary with size, because of lung and digestive membrane scaling.
  • Complexity varies with size.
  • Metabolism and other life process rates vary with size.
  • Abundance of individuals varies with size.

Dr. Bonner's key message is that all these trends are governed by the principle of allometry, that changes in size are accompanied by changes in proportion. Thus, a baby's head is about a third of its body length, while a typical adult's head is one-seventh or one-eighth the total height (fashion models are selected from rare cases of extra-small heads, as small as one-tenth the total height, as long as their other proportions are pleasing).

A less-obvious allometric trend is that very tall persons have thicker limbs, in proportion to their size, than very small, yet otherwise "normal-looking" midgets. If you take a photo of a basketball player and a non-dwarfed stage midget, the midget looks skinnier, with twiggy arms and legs. That's because weight increases as the cube of length, but strength (muscle or bone cross-sectional area) increases only as the square of length:

Suppose a five-foot-tall young girl weighs 90 pounds, a normal weight for that height. If every proportion is increased by 6/5 so she is six feet tall, the cube of 6/5 is 1.728, so she'd weigh 155 pounds. That's thin enough to be almost unhealthy; a more normal weight for a six-foot young woman is 175 pounds. Let's consider their relative strength, by looking at the leg just above the ankle, where it is thinnest. Suppose at five feet, the cross section is about three square inches (the leg diameter is close to two inches). Then at six feet, the diameter is just under 2.35 inches, and the cross sectional area is 4.32 sq. in. That's 1.44 times the 3 sq. in. from before, because the square of 6/5 is 1.44.

Here is the important fact here: when standing on one leg, the 90-pound 5-footer is putting a stress of 30 pounds per sq. in. (psi) on that part of the leg. When the 155-pound 6-footer stands on one leg, the stress is 36 psi. The extra factor of 6/5 showed up as extra stress. This isn't much difference, but suppose we "blow up" the poor girl to thirty feet tall, with all the same proportions. Then the stress would be 180 psi, which is nearly enough to break the leg bone.

Going back to the six-footer: I wrote above that a more normal weight would be 175 pounds. She needs stronger legs to bear her weight with the same safety factor, so we want a stress of 30 psi. That requires 5.8 sq. in., or a diameter of 2.73 inches. This is 1.4 times the ankle diameter for the five-foot girl, which explains why taller people must be extra-wide.

That's just one of the five size rules. The author develops each one, in much simpler terms than I(!), making this a very informative and enjoyable book.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Still lost? (yawn)

kw: book reviews, essays, collections, popular series

I watch so little TV that I don't think I've seen more than one episode of any of the popular series, and few enough even then. I watch AFV when I can—it's my laugh therapy—, a little news, and an occasional sports event with my son. I avoid dramas and dramatic series: I don't like having my emotions messed with. They are sufficiently messed up already! (I wonder if other Bipolar folks watch less TV than ordinary.)

So, Getting Lost was my wildcard book, when I saw it on the "new" shelf at the library. I haven't seen a single episode. The full title is Getting Lost: Survival, Baggage, and Starting Over in J. J. Abram's Lost, and it is edited by Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite writers of SF (In this case, that means Social Fiction: group and personal psychology in a future or fantasy setting), even though his themes come from Mormon history and Mormon mythology (Alvin Maker is just Joseph Smith redux).

Reading the essays, I realized, "These folks are really into it!" I didn't read the final chapter, one-third of the volume, which is a detailed glossary and character study of the series. Are you into Lost? Get the book for that chapter alone.

The essays bring up some fascinating insights: TV Series as replacements for the serial novels that made Dickens and Doyle famous; Lost in particular as a modern Canterbury Tales (quite a good insight, really); explorations of leadership, a kind of beyond-Secrets-of-Attilla manual. Well!

I remember having the insight (and perhaps I wrote about it, I don't recall) that TV nearly killed of live attendance at race tracks, and that TV plus legal off-track betting will almost surely do so. TV is also killing off many kinds of reading. Why buy Analog or Omni when you can watch the SciFi channel? Simply apply Sturgeon's law (90% of everything is junk) as a filter, and you'll come across an idea worth thinking about every day or so. Well...YOU could. I won't! I am a reader.

Anyway, I am much less enamored of this book than a dedicated Lost watcher is likely to be. The writing is superb, and the ideas are stimulating.

The glove on the gearshift

kw: experiences, ideas

One consequence of my hand operation is wearing a brace at least part of the time, during my convalescence. I find that could be months. This leads to curious circumstances.

This cold morning, the first day I got to drive myself to work in 18 days, I found the <20°F steering wheel and gearshift too cold to hold without gloves. But with the brace on, I couldn't put a glove on my right hand. I've long since got used to keeping my right hand in my lap and steering with the left, after two years of pain and therapy that led up to the surgery. But my car is stick shift, five-on-the-floor (my wife's car also). I can't do all that shifting with my left hand (ever tried?).

It didn't take me long to realize the glove for my right hand could still work, on the gearshift lever! So that's how I drove to work. It's good to know the old neurons can still think outside the box on occasion.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Do you dare eat mindfully?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food, farming, hunting, gathering, cooking, industrial agriculture, organic agriculture, polemics

When I can't easily categorize a book, I know I am on to something good. The library classification is (DD) 394.12: Culture:Food:History, which goes to show how much they know.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan is chronicle, psychological journal, history, exposé, and thanksgiving paean all in one.

What is the omnivore's dilemma? In two parts: "What shall I eat (given I can eat almost anything)?" and "What must I avoid eating?" A large chunk of our overlarge brains is devoted to the latter question: a powerful recognition and memory organ. Once that question is answered, the first is easy: "Whatever yields the most nutrition for the least effort."

In a sense, you could make a decision tree: Fruits first (fast calories), then fat (dense calories), then starch (calories to store plus protein), finally meat (protein plus fat). Why fruit before fat? Fat has twice the calories per gram. However, fat is slower and usually a small proportion of a food, whether you're eating it from plant, fish, fowl, or mammal.

The dilemma today is, in the West and America in particular, there's so much food the farmers are going broke because we can't eat it all, so prices are low, lower than the cost of farming. Thus, Pollan pursues the matter in three stages: the Industrial Agriculture establishment, the "beyond organic" end of the "organic foods" spectrum, and the hunter-gatherer opportunities that still exist on the margins of Western society.

Most foods eaten by most Americans are produced from corn grown on mega-farms. Much of this (2/3 or more) is fed to cattle—which don't do well on a corn diet, thus the need for humongous amounts of antibiotics and supplements. Of the rest, a little actually is found in the produce section of your local grocery, or in cans in the canned foods section. Most is "refined" and "processed" to make corn syrup, "high fructose" corn syrup (HFCS, that gets into almost everything in some amount), and tens of thousands of "additives" such as xanthan gum (a thickener) and the wax that makes apples shiny. A small amount is made into ethanol, for fuel or for tippling, or as a chemical feedstock. Chapter 1 tells the story: "Corn's Conquest".

The author's growing disgust with this phenomenon is clear in the seven chapters devoted to it. I recalled the summer I worked at a slaughterhouse. I was a night worker, one who gathered scraps and bones for the hasher. The "hash" was rendered into a food supplement to be fed back to cattle in the corn-driven feedlots. This is the source of Mad Cow Disease, though nobody knew that thirty years ago.

One night, I got there early, and wandered over to the killing floor. Things have changed since, and the modern process is well described in Pollan's book. What I saw was this: animal after animal brought into the squeezer through a door that dropped behind him or her. A Killer (that's the title) with an air-powered stunner (8" rod, 3/4" diameter) "stuns" each animal, right between the eyes. It drops, a Hooker loops a metal chain about a rear ankle, and the animal is hoisted overhead. A Slitter takes a long knife and cuts the top of the aorta, releasing the blood, which sluices into a floor drain. The blood empties in seconds, and the overhead conveyor swings the animal to be skinned, and so on through the process. In ten minutes, two new "sides" are in the cooler, any desired bits of offal (mainly heart and tongue) are packaged for their particular use, and the rest goes into a hash hopper: head, guts, tail, hooves, and extra fat.

One animal didn't drop right away. The Killer had missed. A backup Killer shot the animal with a .30-cal rifle, but only after a third backup fellow had hit it a couple times with an electric prod to shock it to momentary stillness. I didn't eat beef again until a few weeks after I left that job.

Since it began thirty years ago or so, the "organic" movement has become industrialized also. A few farms have resisted becoming quasi-"inorganic", and are showing the way one may build a farm economy on grass rather than corn. Few people realize that mixed grazing grasses yield quite a bit more calories per acre for animal feed than corn does. But you need to manage it differently. One place that is doing so, in the East at least is Polyface Farm in virginia.

The author really throws himself into his subject. In the first section, he bought a calf and paid for it to be fed, first on a grass farm, then in a feedlot in Kansas. He visited it in the feedlot, and did his best to track the various branches of the river of corn that the beef, pork, and chicken industries rely on. Company secrecy prevented that.

For the second part, he worked a week at Polyface Farm, and learned what he could in that time of their ways. The grass there is part of a rotation that feeds cattle, fowl, and swine, so that each animal plays its part in both eating, feeding (with its manure), and cleaning up the pastures (by eating pests, for example). Sure, a Polyface chicken, egg, or steak costs more, but the author finds it is worth it.

It made me wonder: do we have farm-loving manpower enough to run a large portion of our agriculture that way? I feel lucky to live near a "farmer's market" that contains many booths with Amish providers and workers. I can visit an Amish farm and see how the animals and crops are grown.

For each section, he prepared—and served to himself and others—a meal based on that "industry". For the first, the "preparation" consisted of hitting a McDonald's with his family. For the second, he cooked "industrial-organic" foods for one meal, and grass-fed Polyface chicken, eggs, and beef for another. They were, he relates, both superior to even good restaurant food from the Corn-based agricultural industry.

For the third section, Pollan had to learn to shoot and hunt. He was determined to prepare a meal that contained (nearly) nothing he'd bought. In monetary terms, this probably cost him the most. Not a penny to a Wal-Mart, Safeway, or even a farmer's market. But guns aren't cheap, and neither is the 16-week course you must take to obtain a hunting license in California. Neither is the travel to this mountain range to hunt morels on a "burn", nor to another to hunt boar. And, he reports, the emotional costs to this formerly non-hunter, almost anti-gun fellow.

In his "hunter-gatherer" persona, he reminded me a bit of Blanche duBois, who reported she "benefited from the kindness of strangers." He was much blessed to garner the expertise of several infinitely patient mentors in the art of usufruct, of taking what the land freely offers, including a cherry tree overhanging a relative's fence.

I remember fondly the days my wife and I could wander the Black Hills, gathering fruit: chokecherries, "sarvis"berries, and wild plums for jelly or jam; and dolgo crab or feral Jonathan apples for pies and cobblers. To this day, there's nothing like chokecherry jelly. And I am happy to have a pippin apple tree (grown from a root sucker that overtook a "name" variety), source of pies and apple butter aplenty. The local supermarket planted serviceberry bushes in their parking lot one year. With their permission, I gathered fruit and made jelly. Inferior: too much pollution, I suppose. Now the fruit does little more than stain the parking lot and make wasps drunk.

In the early part of the third section, the author relates how the arguments to be found in some pro-Animal books temporarily converted him to vegetarianism. But he came to his senses. The entire argument founders on one salient fact: rights were invented by people, for people. "Animal rights" is an oxymoron.

To be moral, we must be as civil as we can to the animals we kill to eat. Industrial agriculture is founded on the cruelty of indifference...if you think you have become "just a number," consider yourself lucky to be at least accorded some small measure of freedom, particularly to choose some of what you eat, and where to walk. "Beyond organic" methods are based on growing crops and stock according to their nature—and remember, the modern Cow or Pig or Chicken is no more a "natural" creature than you are; they would not exist without many centuries of human breeding and culture. They are as much an artifact as is a brick. As brick to stone, so Pig to Boar...and so forth.

There is much to think of in this book.

Wrist wrangling

kw: experience, medicine, surgery

Two weeks ago today I had a "tendon-release" operation on my wrist. While Carpal Tunnel problems are well known, I found that there are six more tunnels, one for each tendon on the back of the hand (two from the thumb).

One of these thumb tendons got inflamed, and physical therapy, cortisone, ice packs, and ibuprofen could only do so much. My hand doctor finally said I really had to get the tunnel "opened up." What that means is, the ligament is cut, and gradually grows back, looser than before. Thus, less potential to squeeze the swelling tendon.

Doctors are funny. You'd think they were better observers. This one said I'd miss "a couple days" of work. His prognosis was based on the speed with which a 30-year-old heals. I'm about twice that old, and I was out a week, and worked half days the next week. While I can stay at the office a full day now, I need a rest when I get home.

The inventory: an inch-long incision on the side of my wrist, just below the spur of the Radius bone; seven stitches were removed four days ago. There's a numb area along the upper inside of my thumb. Its boundary is "hot", hypersensitive and prone to searing pain when brushed. The nerve had to be pushed aside during surgery, and is supposed to recover over the next few weeks. We'll see.

I wear a wrapped towel at night so I won't flex the wrist too much in my sleep. I don't know when (or if) I'll be able to resume teaching music. Until I can strum a guitar, I won't be able to show a student how to do it. Finger style I can do, but the wrist-flexing strum is out for now.

Like Mark Twain's king Arthur in Connecticut Yankee, doctor's should experience what they inflict before they are conferred the right to talk about it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

First you count cows, then days...pretty soon you're doing quadratic equations

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, history

Did Pythagoras re-invent the "Pythagorean Theorem" on his own, or did he get it from the Babylonians (whom he visited), who'd already been using it for ten centuries? Do the Mayans use a "defective" base-20 arithmetic (20 alternating with 18), as most textbooks have it, or do their day counts mean "X years, Y months (of 20 days), Z days"? Did writing begin when the shapes of divers clay tokens, used for counting various commodities, were reproduced in wet clay?

You'll get probable answers to the first two questions in How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years by Peter S. Rudman. The answer to the third is in a book my brother is writing, but the issue is tangentially skimmed in Rudman's book.

Rudman is a lucid and engaging writer, and he has a lot to say. He makes it clear that his survey stops just prior to the Christian Era, to avoid getting into higher math than most people are comfortable with. So a more accurate subtitle, though less interesting, might be From 50,000 to 2,000 years BP.

Actually, considering that the Babylonians and others could solve quadratic equations using algebraic geometry, their scribes were well ahead of many modern high school graduates. When did mathematics proceed beyond simple "4-banger" arithmetic (add, subtract, multiply, divide) needed by animal herders and landowners? It isn't clear, though the author makes a good case that it occurred almost coincident with writing, which goes back six thousand years (and perhaps longer on perishable media).

Of particular interest is the evolution of numbering systems, that began with counting, then added replacement (a bigger pebble meaning 5 or 10 or whatever, and bigger or differently-shaped pebbles for bigger replacements—what we call "carries" in arithmetic). Some number systems developed a zero place-holder and a point (our "decimal point" separates digits that refer to whole things from those that refer to less-than-whole, like half an apple or a quarter-acre). This allowed units to be re-used once positional notation was invented. The Egyptians went partway to positional notation, but never developed either a zero or a point. Thus a number such as 24 needed a different "2", because the leftmost symbol still had to carry the meaning of "20".

Suppose we used 1-9 for singles, A-I for tens, and a-i for hundreds. Then 365 would be written cF5, and could be written 5Fc or even c5F, with no loss of meaning, but a little longer thinking process to recognize and understand the quantity. Roman numerals have this property (365 = CCCLXV), and though they are conventionally written large-left-small-right...they don't have to be. This property plus the lack of a point makes hieroglyphic numbers tricky to decode, because if the text elsewhere says the scribe is interested in tens of sheep, cF5 might refer to 3,650 sheep!

Mathematics before the Greeks got pretty sophisticated. What the Greeks added was the rigorous proof. In about 400 BC Hippasus proved that the square root of two was not a rational number (you couldn't write it as a/b where a and b are integers). Legend has it the Pythagoreans drowned him, as their philosophy required all numbers to be rational. When they were confronted with an irrational number, they became irrational philosophers!

Prior to proof, the Babylonians and Egyptians (and others) could construct or derive many powerful results, but such derivations did not always suffice for proof. With the Greek development, Mathematics got the final foundation stone for the great range of math techniques in use today.

Different doesn't mean bad

kw: book reviews, asperger's syndrome, asperger syndrome, autism, references

Tony Attwood is a clinical psychologist, who works with many persons who have Asperger's syndrome. His book The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome is both a text and a reference, written for a more general audience than his earlier book Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.

I found the book of interest because I am closely associated with four such persons, one at work, two students, and a fellow church member. I also have had some contact with autistic persons, and two characteristics are easy to spot: someone with Asperger's syndrome can maintain eye contact, at least for a short while, but an autistic person will very rarely glance at your face; and it is usually possible to hold a conversation with the one, but almost never with the other. Also, when stressed sufficiently, almost anyone will rock back and forth or from side to side; this is much more frequent for someone with Asperger's, and is often constant for an autistic person. It is often called "autistic rocking", and is the symptom that most directly leads one to conclude that autism may be largely a phenomenon of over-sensitivity to stressors. I recall reading that many autistic people recover more control of themselves after they have been trained to block out or ignore noise, or given dark glasses that they then wear almost constantly.

There was a time that I was working as an operating systems analyst. The top practitioners of OS programming in assembly codes are truly wizards of the craft. Typically, they are also either autistic or have Asperger's, or at least social anxiety disorder (which I have to some extent). We used to joke that certain programmers were "kept in the forest and fed raw meat." Actually, some of them are maintained in luxurious isolation of their choice, and work by telecommuting. It takes a special sort of manager to supervise their work. On occasion, when they desire human contact, I've met one or another. They are clearly weird, yet relish human contact in measured doses. I've learned to modulate things by working with my door closed as needed.

Note that I haven't used the word "disorder" with Asperger's syndrome (AS hereafter). While some put it on the "autistic disorder spectrum", I think it more useful to maintain, as did Hans Asperger, and also Tony Attwood, that AS is a phenomenon in which several traits seen in everyone are present in more extreme form. In that regard, AS is no "worse" than being seven feet tall (particularly if you have B-ball skills!) or four feet six (like "Mini-Me", Verne Troyer). There are about as many AS individuals as there are 7-footers and 4.5-footers combined...

My contact with AS folks in the working world shows that they can be very valuable employees, particularly because they are exceptionally able (sometimes boringly so) able to maintain focus.

Dr. Attwood's book begins with a general "What is it" chapter, followed by one that details the diagnostic criteria. The following twelve chapters each focus on a clinical (e.g. cognitive ability) or environmental (e.g. teasing) dimension of the live of someone with AS, particularly as a child. It ends with a FAQ chapter, and a full apparatus of references and resources.

The question can be asked, "Is it OK for someone with AS to know it?" I think it is. The ones I've talked to, who know they display AS, can talk about it frankly, and then go on about any subject of mutual I have many interests, it isn't hard for me to enjoy talking about their interest.

This isn't a book you just read, it is a reference book in itself. I read parts that interested me, and found them quite valuable.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The second annus mirabilis

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, physics, relativity, quantum theory

In his famous 1926 protest, Albert Einstein wrote,

"Quantum mechanics is certianly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the "Old One." I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing dice."
From this comes the title of a valuable, but flawed, book.

Reading Secrets of the Old One: Einstein, 1905 by Jeremy Bernstein was frustrating. I have a pretty good understanding of special relativity (very little, thought, of general relativity, but it wasn't in view here), the photoelectric effect, and statsitical mechanics. The author attempts to make the almost unbelievable work that Albert Einstein did in 1905 accessible to a lay audience. I don't find it illuminating.

The value that Dr. Bernstein brings to this mini-biography—of the 1905 work, not so much the man—is his direct connection to the people involved, his review of the discoveries that did and didn't influence Einstein, and the milieu in which Einstein's work was received. The illustration shows many of those whose work I remember studying decades ago.

After a chapter outlining the history of physics, particularly electrodynamics and mechanics, the three articles Einstein submitted in mid-1905 are discussed, first the paper on Special Relativity (the third in order submitted) plus a small fourth paper that first elucidates E = mc2; second the paper on Brownian Movement, in which he demonstrated the appropriate statistics to show that atomic rather than continuous matter best explained the phenomenon; and third the paper on Blackbody Radiation and the Photoelectric Effect, which won him the 1921 Nobel prize.

A minor frustration with the book is that it was poorly proofread. Both Bernstein and his editor (was there one?) seem to think that the past and past participle of "lead" is "lead", rather than "led". This mistake is quite consistent. Comma misuse and sentence fragmentation is rampant. I corrected very few items; in most books I read, I correct all; the volume was too distracting.

The major frustration is a great tendency to assert results with little or no justification. For example, in several pages of explanation of the simultaneity versus non-simultaneity experienced between to systems in relative motion, the reasons for the difference in perception are only sketchily described, where a simple statement that, for example, "For the signals from two events to be perceived as simultaneous in System 2, they would have had to occur at equal distances from the receiver. The geometry as seen from System 1 shows that they occur at different distances." Throughout that chapter, the rotation of axes that causes geometry and time to influence one another is poorly explained.

Thus, whereas I began hoping to learn more of Einstein's thought, I instead learned more of his social circle, which is not in itself a bad thing.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Got a used star drive frammiswidget spacer handy?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, parodies, satire

One TV show I usually watch is "America's Funniest Videos". It is my laugh therapy (there's no other source of clean comedy on TV). I wondered once what it would be like to see several shows in a row. After watching a 2-hour special, I realized there is a limit to it; it just wasn't as funny by late in the second hour. I guess there are only so many ways for someone to get "minorly hurt", and great video shorts that don't involve accidents are rare.

I remembered this while reading plumage from pegasus by Paul Di Filippo. The author is a satirist and parodist, one of the best, and his target is Science Fiction. I found it is best to have another book I'm reading, while going through this one. It just doesn't do justice to the 43 pieces in the book to read one after another after another.

I don't look to parody or satire for new ideas. This was comic relief, and I enjoyed it as such.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Psychic kitty in the background

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries, cats

Sometimes I've ruminated on the kind of female characters found in male-written stories, particularly if the woman is the lead. It seems to me that women write of men better than the converse. There are now 28 books in Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who series, with a male lead. How does he stack up? I'd say he's less realistic than most; he is more of a woman's mind in a male body, or perhaps a man who suits Ms Braun's idea of what a man should be.

In the earlier Cat Who books, mustachioed James Qwilleran was portrayed better; he began as a journalist down on his luck, swept by events into a new kind of life. Each novel has had a murder or two for him and his cat Koko to solve. The other cat, Yum Yum, has pretty much been along for the ride, at most providing symmetry. But the books had drama enough to keep one going, providing Mr. Q. with adventures and scrapes enough to give us our occasional guilty thrill.

The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers continues a trend found in the most recent four or five books towards a more hands-off approach. About the only contact Qwill now has with the crimes is hearing Koko's "death howl", by which he knows the death that occurred just then was a murder. The narratives are so much more concerned with six or seven sub-plots, in which Qwill and his "K Fund" solve this or that problem, that the murder mystery in each has been pushed into the background, and serves nearly no dramatic purpose.

Time to re-name the series, perhaps A Mustache and his Money.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

From Cautionary Tale to Folk Hero to Superhero

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, post-civil war, folk songs, archetypes

Almost everyone knows the first verse:

John Henry was a little baby
Sittin' on his Mammy's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel.
Said, "Hammer's gonna be the death of me (Lord, Lord)
Hammer's gonna be the death of me."

This block print by Frank W. Long is the cover art for Steel Drivin' Man—John Henry—The Untold Story of an American Legend. Scott Reynolds Nelson, of the College of William and Mary, has done his detective work and produced a very readable account of John Henry, his life and times in post-Civil War Virginia and West Virginia, the songs that followed his memory, and the icon he has become, to a greater variety of causes than any one man.

Most people know that John Henry was black, a hammer man for the C&O Railroad, who died on the job. Whether he was in a race with a steam drill at the time is debatable, even after we peruse the documentary and anecdotal evidence. But who knew he was from New Jersey, or that he was just an inch over five feet tall? Actually, his small stature ensured his place in the tunnels; he was just the right size.

The story of his life isn't pretty. Convicted of theft, sentenced to ten years—a death sentence, effectively. As Virginia reeled under the economic disaster of Radical Reconstruction, John Henry and hundreds like him were sent to work as convict labor on the railroads. The free miners could strike and demand better working conditions. Convicts couldn't. Those that didn't die of overwork died of silicosis, particularly in the Lewis Tunnel, where John Henry died, probably in 1873.

The railroad was trying to cut costs, and brought in various steam drills. These early drills were inefficient and slow. The convicts regularly out-drilled them. But working alongside a steam drill was worse than working with another crew; the steam drills made much more sandy dust. Lewis Tunnel had the sandiest rock, and few hammer men lived a year before their lungs just gave out.

After John Henry died, his fate was like that of hundreds of others:

They took John Henry to the white house
And buried him in the sand
And every locomotive come roarin' by
Says, "There lays that steel-drivin' man (Oh, Lord)
There lays that steel-drivin' man."

Click on this image of an old postcard (from page 36 of the book) to see it larger. The "white house" was the white structure behind the water tower. Late-20th-Century excavations found the remains of at least 300 anonymous convicts in a large sandy plot alongside the "white house".

This brings us to the halfway point in the book. What has happened to John Henry since 1874? Plenty! His story was incomporated into "hammer songs", used by the workers to synchronize a team's work, and to keep them from working too fast. Even their foremen knew it was a false economy to work too fast and burn out before day's end.

Matter of fact, all that literature we grew up with, talking of "happy darkies singing as they work" is nonsense. Like sea chanties, work songs in general are sad, even depressing, filled with resentment of "the man", and intended to keep the work at a steady pace, not to cheer anyone up. They are the source of the Blues, and why real Blues tunes are slow. Their message is, "Don't kill yourself. Slow down."

First Carl Sandburg, then a series of "progressive" (read, socialist) performers turned John Henry into a muscular icon of the sanctified proletarian. Early comics illustrated bowdlerized versions of his life and others. Through the 1930s, the muscular heroes lost their color and morphed into Superman and Captain America.

John Henry remains the subject of more folk songs than anyone else. We owe a debt to author Nelson, to remember John Henry as he was, and let him symbolize the convict labor, sent under "black laws" to die for the building of the railroads.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Karl becomes Great Charles

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, medieval history, empires

After he finished his MA in History, my brother was not admitted to the PhD program, for reasons that sounded ambiguous. A friend in the department told him it was because he was already a popular writer, and his writing style put the faculty's writing to shame.

Fortunately, his work for and with members of the Archaeology department made him welcome there, so he became a Mayan Archaeologist. Equally fortunately, not all historians write badly. Jeff Sypeck of the U. of MD writes very well indeed, and his recent book Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 is very readable and informative.

Though I am descended from Charlemagne, I knew little beyond that he was crowned emperor in 800. I thought it had occurred in Aachen, and I didn't know the name of the pope. By the way, nearly everyone of European descent is descended from Charlemagne; I happen to be one who can show it, all 39 generations.

This illustration, from page 139, a mosaic at the Triclineo Leoniano, shows St. Peter blessing Pope Leo III, on the left, and Karl, king of the Franks, on the right. Click on the image for a clearer view. I'll have a further word about the illustrations at the end of this post.

Dr. Sypeck focuses on the four years preceding Karl's imperial coronation by Leo III in Rome, on the coronation, and on the events that followed which eventually produced the "Holy Roman Empire". I found it fascinating to learn of the condition and interactions of the thriving Eastern and crumbled Western Roman empires (centered in Rome and Constantinople), the Abbasid realm of Harun Al-Rashid (the Caliph in the 1001 Nights), and the "new Rome" pretensions of Karl in Aachen. In my opinion, providing this kind of comprehensive view, showing what was really going on, is one major thing that historians are for.

Even in his own day, Karl stood so large that his sons and heirs were mere appendages. His stature assured that they were little remembered by the late 800s. Though Karl intended to be great, he could little imagine the iconic status he has achieved. Dr. Sypeck's excellent synthesis helps us understand how it happened.

One of the jacket blurbs calls the book "An impressive exercise of historical imagination." I think this assessment is more slight than praise. Where the author has had to imaginatively fill in, he makes it clear that he is doing so. This book is a triumph of synthesis, not imagination.

I promised a word on the illustrations. There are about a dozen, and about half are clear and helpful. However, some are obscure at best, due to a lack on the part of the publisher, I believe.

This image, for example, appears on page 132. It shows a pictorial calendar drafted in Salzburg in 818. It is shown here at about the size it is in the book. After scanning it, I removed the halftone and lightened it. Click on this image to see the cleaned-up scan at full size.

The printed image is darker and harder to interpret. It would have been a minor task for the publisher to produce an image that printed better and more clearly, with better contrast.

A little looking on the Internet yielded a website having links to images of the same manuscript in larger sizes. While a color image in the same size would be easier to understand (see below), a rendering of the image with more contrast and a lighter background would be a great improvement.

The image you'll see when you click on this one is from the German Wikipedia article Monatsbilder . "Monatsbilder" means "daily pictures", and in this case, the article is about pictorial calendars.

The program I use to edit images is IrfanView, which can be found here. I find it does all I need, and its cost is very low. Though you can install it free, I sent the creator $20. Compare that to the cost of PhotoShop!

When I scan a printed photo, I scan it at 400-480 dpi, depending on the pitch of the halftone (typically 100-120 dots/inch). I set the blur factor to 0.99 and blur twice. Then I reduce the image size to a half or a quarter. This removes the halftone dots. Sometimes I sharpen at that point, using a factor of 0.25 at most.

Of course, for this downloaded color scan, there is no halftone to remove, and the archivist has done any sharpening required. The images that follow, from page 199, show even better how increasing contrast and lightness improve an illustration.

The image on the left is as scanned, after halftone removal. On the right, I increased both brightness and contrast, making the image much more clear. Click on either image to see them at the scanned resolution. These problems with some of the illustrations are the only drawbacks to Dr. Sypeck's excellent book.

Friday, March 02, 2007

It's all just a game

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, game theory, statistics, mechanics, physics

Tom Siegfried opens the preface to his new book by pointing out the Al Qaeda (however one spells it) not only means "foundation" or "fundament", but that the first book Isaac Asimov's most famous series, Foundation, is titled al-Qaeda in Arabic translation. Perhaps the jihadists are trying to tell us something...whoever has an ear, let him hear.

The backbone of the Foundation series is psychohistory, a future science that makes accurate long-term social predictions, by treating human actions statistically, as if people were gas molecules in a large volume of gas with a temperature and pressure. Mr. Siegfried refers continually to Foundation and its psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, in A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature.

He refers at least as much to John Nash, the schizophrenic mathematician depicted in the movie A Beautiful Mind. The film barely touches on the math magic that yielded a Nobel Prize for Nash in 1994. This author seeks to remedy that deficit. What was it that Nash did, that was so great? We find in the movie that all the work he is shown performing, whether at Rand corporation or in his much-cluttered office, was imaginary or based on imaginary requests by imaginary agents. So what did he DO?

What he did was lay the foundation for psychohistory. Probably Asimov knew that. Though Nash's Prize was in Economics, the "equilibrium" method for creating an optimum "game theory" strategy is applicable everywhere that human needs and human decisions coincide. To help us understand all this, Siegfried covers a lot of ground, from Adam Smith (who knew Smith's work was based on game theory, though the term was not yet coined) to Von Neumann, to Freud, Quetelet, and Pascal; finally to Von Neumann again, for his work puts Pascal's wager (wagering against God has infinite possible consequences, so always wager FOR God) in context.

In the end, game theory and statistical mechanics are seen to share the same math formulations, so the tools of physics are now available to probe social and economic behavior.

Will game theorists be able to develop a true psychohistory? The answer will hinge on the extent that we can know enough about people's culture, or perhaps on a proof that culture can be viewed in a way that eliminates its influence. Right now, we're in a position of trying to predict the distance a ball will fly, hearing only the crack of the bat, echoing off nearby buildings. A robust tool, given not just the sound but the positions, shapes, and compositions of the echoing buildings and grassland between, could do so.

The implications are fascinating. I find it analogous to "artificial" intelligence. Post-human computer power has been predicted, with uniform failure, since before Babbage drew up the plans for his Difference Engine. The more we learn, both of computing methods and of neurology and neuropsychology, the more we learn that the average human brain is more complex than the entire universe would be if there were no humans (or aliens, should there be any). We have a ways to go. The road is interesting, a journey perhaps worth more than the arriving.