Thursday, May 31, 2007

Struggling against the limit none surpass

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, horror, science fiction, anthologies

The Fate of Mice by Susan Palwick exemplifies the spirit of Ecclesiastes: it searches for the best response to meaningless life leading to nothingness. Each of the eleven stories takes a different approach, and in the end, the author is clearly not satisfied. Perhaps she needs a twelfth, based on Ecclesiastes 12:
1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
2 While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Ah, the KJV is the most resonant for such passages. This one ends thus:
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
To the godless, this is satisfies even less. Sobeit.

Each story is one answer to a question:
  • "The Fate of Mice": Remember Flowers for Algernon? What if the mouse doesn't die right away, and keeps his brains? When a mouse learns that all mice die, then what?
  • "Gestella": Does a werewolf live by dog years? The end of this story exposes the ultimate fantasy of men who feel trapped in outdated marriages.
  • "The Old World": In a genuine utopia, what do you do for those who just have to fight "the establishment"?
  • "Jo's Hair": When you give of yourself, what do you get in return?
  • "Going After Bobo": Why do we blind ourselves to what we really value?
  • "Beautiful Stuff": Suppose a corpse could be returned to life for a day; what really interests the dead? Why should they care about anything the living care about?
  • "Elephant": Neurosis is like a younger, damaged self stuck inside; to what extreme can you go to remove it?
  • "Ever After": What was the cost to Cinderella of all that magic? Spoiler: There's vampire tale in here, and a new vampire is produced only when one dies. How did there get to be more than one in the first place?
  • "Stormdusk": OK, Sorcerer, you've ensorceled the Frost Maiden and married what?
  • "Sorrel's Heart": Given the question, "Is life worth living for the seriously retarded or grossly handicapped?": grossly mutated or distorted physical features are a metaphor for the same query.
  • "GI Jesus": (GI doesn't mean what you think) When God can't use a "man of God", whom will He use..and how?
Some of the stories are hopeful, some tragedies, and some leave you hanging. A slice of life, after all.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

As though reading weren't hard enough already...

kw: opinion, color vision, alternative alphabets

Take a look at the Kromofons web site. Here we have a fellow who has worked on a color alphabet, consisting only of rectangles of 26 different colors. I have, so far as I know, perfect color vision, but I find some of the colors hard to distinguish. First of all, if this scheme is to fly, the colors need to be more evenly distributed in L*a*b* space (read this article for more info).

But take a look at this wikipedia entry to find out why one person in twelve will never be able to use the system.

Side thought: I wonder if using 26 or 52 tones (plus some extras to include punctuation), and an appropriate tone generator, one could learn to hear words as chords. Complications like repeated letters, and that anagrams all sound the same, could make it an interesting game, but probably of little use. Speech is so efficient already.

Hey! Where are the punctuation marks in Kromofons? You need ten more least!!!

Seeing the language's architecture

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philology, grammar

It is strange that a subject for which I once had the utmost horror became a figlio caro, that I might perpetrate it on my own offspring. Somehow, I did not...but I thought about it, time and again.

What is this fearful system? Sentence diagramming! I learned grammar readily enough, and I have also a mathematical mind, but this combination of parsing and geometry was wholly opaque to me. Having recently gone through—rather briskly, I admit—the sixty examples presented by Gene Moutoux, I think I now understand it better. Somehow, I've developed a fondness for diagramming, a paradoxical mellowing of my old phobia.

Let's be clear: I don't think "the good old days" were very good at all. But they did have their points...just, this wasn't one of them! Not then, anyway.

I could not resist snatching up Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog when I saw it. The full title adds ...:the quirky history and lost art of diagramming sentences. The author, Kitty Burns Florey, grew up loving grammar, sentence diagramming, and journaling. She's a writer and a professional copy editor. Now there's a picky-picky job for you! I ought to know; I am a pretty good proofreader, and I know how others react when I suddenly chase a grammatical rabbit like a Captain of the Grammar Police.

I can't resist showing a couple of examples. These are not from the book, which uses scanned handwritten examples, but a couple of GIFs cribbed from Gene Moutoux's site (linked above).

This first example shows both the diagram of the sentence "Several of her students speak with the confidence of Demosthenes," and an analysis of the parts of speech in each section of the diagram.

The second example shows how one handles a compound sentence. I believe the word order of this one is obvious.

So far as I know, diagramming is primarily an English language discipline. This must be because English amalgamates three major languages: Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic scion), Norman (pre-French), and Greek (primarily Byzantine); not only their words but their semantics and word order. Further, English borrows from dozens, perhaps hundreds of languages for even more ways to say things. It is the only major language that really needs a thesaurus.

Interestingly, diagramming began only in 1860, with S. W. Clark's system of balloon diagrams. These proved popular, but a bit confusing, and soon gave way to the system created in Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, in 1877. A craze truly began.

Sentence diagramming fell out of style, along with phonics, times tables, and other memory training, just about the time I finished High School. A few school systems are reviving the practice, but it is hard to find teachers who either know how or are willing to learn. Just like I haven't met a reading teacher since 1965 who knows genuine phonics; today "phonics" mainly means "sound out the first letter or two and guess the rest."

So, this discipline, and indeed discipline in general, is found mainly among home schoolers. See the Classical Christian Homeschooling site, for example (and enjoy the misspelling in their own page title).

I must admit, the aspect I enjoyed the most was the larger examples, including a few approaching (exceeding?) 100 words. The author mentions a poster, the diagram of a sentence some 950 words long. It takes a fanatic to puzzle through such a monster. But things could be worse.

I once helped a friend by proofreading some of his essays in linguisics. The diagrams now favored by that profession are more complete, but quite difficult to follow without great amounts of practice. They are very hard to produce.

Ms Florey admits that diagramming probably didn't help her become a better writer, and most friends that she asked agreed (a few thought it a detriment, some a minor benefit). Nothing can substitute for reading, reading, reading books, not always even the best books. I learn as much from struggling through a badly-written volume (or giving up partway through) as from enjoying the prose of master stylists. And I love a quote the author gained from Virginia Woolf:
"Style is a very simple matter: all rhythm. Once you get that you can't use the wrong words." (p. 151)
Kitty Florey certainly learned that principle quite well!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is "professional believer" an oxymoron?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, spirituality, christian mysticism

In an old book by James Taylor, Sr., a leader of the most exclusive branch of the Exclusive Brethren, he recounts the story of David, shortly after he was, for the second time, given an opportunity to kill King Saul, and had refrained. The king blessed David and prophesied his (David's) succession. What is David's response?

Then David said to himself, "Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines. Saul then will despair of searching for me anymore in all the territory of Israel, and I will escape from his hand." (1 Samuel 27:1; NASV)
Taylor noted how curious it is that a man who has just been so blessed and protected by God should suddenly quail. As he wrote, "David's heart failed him." He recalled something similar in Elijah's life: he single-handedly slaughtered 400 priests of Baal, but one threat by Jezebel sent him running into the desert, despairing of life.

Does not this show how prone we are to doubt? Even given recent, extraordinary evidence of God's care, we quickly succumb to fears.

I am also reminded of a line from that goofy movie they show every winter, "Peter and Paul". Saul of Tarsus (Paul) has just survived being stoned, and Barnabas thinks they should return to Antioch. Paul wishes to continue the journey, saying "I have not yet been tested beyond my capacity to endure." That sounds to me more like Nietzsche than like Paul. The Paul who wrote half the New Testament, whose biography forms half the book of Acts, was a big crybaby. He feared, he wept, he doubted; he mourned his miserable eyesight, his stuttering speech, and his failures.

That stoning in Lystra came about because he misused his gift. He'd realized over the prior few months that he could heal just about anybody. In Lystra, among a people who spoke little Greek and no Hebrew, he saw a paralytic, and without taking a moment to pray, made a big show of healing the guy. The people immediately thought he was a God, and prepared to sacrifice to the apostles on the spot. When Barnabas and Saul (he was called Paul later on) managed to convey that they refused the sacrifice, the townspeople were shocked and resentful. Some realized these guys must be mortal after all, so that it took little instigation by Jewish opponents to incite a crowd to stone Saul. Thereafter, he was more careful whom he healed, and when, and in what manner.

And what of Peter, to whom Jesus had said, "I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail." When Peter denied the Lord the third time, and Jesus looked at him, his torrent of tears shows his faith had not failed him, but he knew he had failed his own faith. This is a significant lesson for us all.

I could multiply examples, but let me instead present Patty Kirk, whose book Confessions of an Amateur Believer reveals a woman learning the hard way just how far faith will go when we cannot.

The easy faith of childhood must change mightily to be transformed into a mature walk with God. Nobody finds this easy, though I suspect the way is shorter (and rougher) for those who lost faith, or thought they did, and returned. Sister Patty (I cannot call her Ms Kirk or Mrs. Kirk) was pressed beyond endurance, by shock after shock. It took her a decade or more to realize God is still real.

In my own case, the first shock was being told by someone I respected, "You're not a Christian. You just follow what others have told you, without conviction. Be what you are." Though his intention was to bring me closer to Christ, the way was roundabout, racked by shocks I brought on myself as I tried to be a skillful sinner (Well, I wasn't a Christan, so why not?). Only as a failed sinner—it took me only a few years to learn this was so—did I cry out to God for salvation.

I appreciate Patty's struggles all the more for her willingness to disclose them. Wittingly or not, she has partaken of the spirit of wisdom and revelation, that inspired the prophets and apostles to write the stories of God's people, "warts and all." By the end of the book, regardless what warts may show, we find a woman of God who is showing us how we, too, can more quickly find Him in every situation.

God's people are real people. In total godlessness, any of us is complex enough, being both good and bad; each having the capacity to be both saint and slaughterer. Yet, except for those who have seared it, everyone has a conscience. We are often at conflict with our own selves.

This graphic shows the inward parts as elucidated from Biblical writings and the experience of believers. The spiritual function of Conscience is inborn, but the rest of the human spirit is numb (called "dead" in many scriptures) until faith enters. Receiving Christ is our first act of Fellowship. For much of our Christian life our Mind gradually learns to communicate with our spiritual Intuition.

The diagram shows the deeper, spiritul parts nearest the soulish functions they most affect. For example, Fellowship with God and with fellow believers is connected to Emotion, particularly to love.

Thus, a believer's experience is even more complex than before. Gaining Christ does not simplify your life!

Though her tradition differs from mine, Sister Patty has been gaining deep, powerful training in godliness. Of course, she probably doesn't think so. Yet the grace and blessing that is hers is written into every page of her book.

Feeling continual dissatisfaction with oneself is the perennial condition of a mystic. I am reminded of a day I has half an hour early for a meeting. I began to clean the whiteboard so I could use it. After a first cleaning with the dry eraser, many dimmer marks showed, so I used a damp rag. More marks I hadn't seen appeared, so I used a rag with alcohol "board cleaner". After a second going-over with alcohol (the fourth cleaning so far) I could still see faint marks, but it was time for the meeting. That board was really very clean by that time, yet I could still see how more could be done.

Our Christian life is like that. Patty Kirk knows it better than most, and explains it better than anyone else I've read.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The best products: Nature got there first

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, materials science, nanomaterials, biological materials

Self-cleaning glass and fabrics, wallet-size cards that unfold into brochures, nylon rope and protective Kevlar® vests, toy ornithopters...what do they all have in common? They were inspired by surfaces and structures found in plants and animals. After fifty years of "modern" and "post-modern" design trends that led to boxy buildings, shiny and uncomfortable furniture, and coffee pots that won't pour without dripping, a refreshing reversal of this denial of nature is leading to amenities that have been hidden on leaves, in spider webs, and atop insect wings all along.

On a visit to southern Louisiana some years ago, our little son was quite enamored of "glass lizards", whose nickname had a double meaning. They are semi-transparent geckos, so when one is on the window, you can see through it, is walking right up the glass! If you're lucky, you'll see one continue right across the ceiling. The mystery of the setae on a gecko's toes was solved and published in 2002 (see this article). This natural wonder of nanostructured material is the fitting emblem of Peter Forbes's book The Gecko's Foot: Bio-Inspiration—Engineering New Materials From Nature. Bio-inspiration is the term Peter Forbes prefers, to describe the wide range of principles and products derived from the study of natural phenomena, particularly in plants and animals.

About half the content of the book concerns nanostructures. The author is careful to point out that everything living is produced by nanostructural processes; that nature can only build in a bottom-up fashion. All the myriad tissues in a plant or animal are built, cell by cell, guided by chemical gradients under genetic control, and that the secret to many processes is the nanostructures thus produced.

For example, every living cell, whether of bacteria, fungus, plant, or animal, is studded with numerous tiny natural nanomotors. These are the "molecular pumps" that move ions and small molecules against osmosis into or out of cells. All life depends on them. They have a motor, an axle, and a "waterwheel" structure, all in a space about 8nm wide by 11nm in length; a typical cell in your body has a diameter of 10-30µm, or 10,000-30,000nm, so there is plenty of room for a few thousand of them on each cell.

Let us distinguish nanostructure from two other realms of nano-things: nanoparticles and nanobots. These both engender much fear, particularly based on sensational treatments such as Michael Chrichton's Prey and the idea that virus-sized robots will turn the whole world into "gray goo". Taking the last first: nanobots, if anyone ever produces any, are decades from production, particularly if they must be self-replicating. A much better likelihood is expressed by Eric Drexler (the inventor of the idea of "gray goo"):
"Nanotechnology-based fabrication systems can be thoroughly non-biological and safe: such systeme need have no ability to move about, use natural resources, or undergo incremental mutation. Moreover, self-replication is unnecessary; the development and use of highly productive systems of nanomachinery (nanofactories) need not involve the construction or autonomous self-replicating nano-machines." Eric Drexler and Chris Phoenix, "Report on the benefits and possible dangers of nanotechnology": The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of entineering, Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, 29 July 2004. Quoted by Forbes on page 25.
It is worthwhile to mention that viruses count as natural self-replicating nanobots. This wikipedia article, T4 bacteriophage, describes one of the best-studied large (90nm diameter by 200nm long) viruses.

Secondly, nanoparticles are all around us. We call them dust and smoke. Many people now buy filtering devices for their homes that filter out most particles larger than 300nm with a HEPA filter. Some purifiers can remove (many or most) particles as small as 100nm. That is still bigger than most viruses and smoke particles, though it will trap all known kinds pollen and most broken parts of dust mites. But the biggest component of nanoparticle dust on a dry, windy day is rock flour, tiny artefacts of rocks and sand being ground down by natural processes. Most clay grains are smaller than one micrometer (µm), making them nanosized.

The scary part about nanoparticles is that a few materials that seldom occur as nanoparticles take on entirely new properties when finely ground to sizes around 10-50nm. These are mostly elemental metals such as silver or chromium. In a very dry atmosphere, they can persist for some time, but they are so reactive, they are quickly oxidized and destroyed in more natural conditions. The principal nanoparticle material that is more resistant is the buckyball, the 2nm-diameter form of carbon found in some kinds of soot. These do pose a risk, as reported here.

However, nanostructures are fine details on larger objects. For example, the sacred Lotus, with leaves a meter in diameter, has a surface that sheds water like a glass plate sheds mercury drops. The Lotus effect is caused by tiny (50nm), waxy bumps. Many leaves have similar mechanisms for staying dry and clean, but the Lotus reigns supreme. The discovery has led to the commercial product Lotusan®, which can be added to paint or applied to windows to make them self-drying and self-cleaning. Self-cleaning fabrics such as Nano-Care® by Nano-tex rely on a similar technology...all based on the Lotus effect!

An opposite effect, due to a 20nm layer of a highly wettable and chemically active material, is responsible for Pilkington Activ™ glass.

I found most fascinating a chapter on optical effects of nanostructures. If the waxy bumps on a Lotus leaf were regularly arranged, I'd expect the leaf to be iridescent. Iridescence is based on regular arrays of nano-size structures, and is found not only in nature (e.g. Morpho butterflies) but also in some rocks, such as this opal. The next image shows what is inside: a regular array of silica spheres, about 250nm in diameter. Each sphere reflects light, and the iridescence is caused by the interference between the many reflections. Opal fire is a nano thing!

And this brings us to why natural nanostructuring was so little known until recently. The tiny spheres in an opal and even the bumps on a Lotus leaf (half the size), are at the large end of the nano-realm. Practically speaking, the smaller end is the 2nm diameter of a C60 buckyball; 2 million of them will fit in a single opal nano-sphere, and we can't even see the opal structure in our best optical microscopes. It took the invention of the electron microroscope to see these things...we've just begun, really. In fifty years, we've scratched the surface.

After six chapters on various aspects of nano-size things, we find some larger structures, three chapters' worth. In the first ("Insects Can't Fly"), the emphasis is, as always, on the practical. Understanding why insects can fly, and how, just might enable us to produce "spy wasps" such as are found in some SciFi stories. I personally think it better to develop a video transmitting device the size of a pinhead, and glue it to a real wasp or beetle which has been trained to fly toward certain smells, such as living humans (rescue imaging) or plastic explosives (WMD discovery). In certain venues, a grasshopper might make a better vehicle. Regardless, the military is sufficiently interested in the problem to fund development of wing-flapping micro air vehicles (MAVs).

There are two major keys to insect flight. First is the selective flexibility of the wing, which enables it to push on both strokes. Second is the resonance, so that the flight muscles supply the energy required for motion, without also thrashing the air. Resonance underlies the rapidity of insect wingbeats—and hummingbird wingbeats, for that matter. It allows a muscle that can twitch some fifty or so times per second to maintain wing motions in the 100-400 per second range.

One kind of wing action has often caused me to wonder: how does a two-cm beetle stow and unfold its four-cm wings? Natural origami going back half a billion years provides the answer. Not only beetles' wings under their elytra, but leaves in their buds, are folded in patterns elucidated in this paper on Miura-Ori in leaves. It shows how a leaf can unfurl from a much smaller bud prior to growing even larger.

A different origami pattern of astrophysicist Koryo Miura's is used to fold maps (Miura-Ori Map page at the British Origami Society website) and commercial Z-Cards, or Miura-Ori folded brochures. As a student of Geology, I really appreciate this folding method!

Finally, structures that incorporate Tensegrity, with continuous tension and discontinuous compression reflect certain natural structures, probably including the way living cells use compressive elements in a web of tensile elements to maintain their shape and extend pseudopodia. Though the word "tensegrity" was coined by Buckminster Fuller, the principal was developed by others, and his tendency to overhype it has led to confusion. This NASA article elucidates the link between tensegrity in engineered structures and in living cells.

I need to mention a picky point, probably the publisher's fault more than the author's. There are a few dozen hyphens embedded in the text. One example is "pat-terns" where "patterns" is expected. I suspect these derive from scanning a typescript that included line-end hyphens, and these were not caught in proofreading. Authors take note: if your publisher wants paper and intends to scan it, turn off all discretionary hyphenation in your word processor, and if you are using a typewriter, use no end-of-line hyphens!

Such a book is a pleasure to read, full of interesting and fun ideas. There are a few "you can do this in your kitchen" projects. I learned the Miura-ori ("ori" is Japanese for "fold") map technique in a few minutes, for example. It's a winner!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Eve

kw: memorial day

In 1942, my mother's brother, a pilot, was shot down over France. So far as I know, he is the only veteran of a "recent" war in my family to give his life. I never knew him, though I have copies of a number of old photos that include him. I have a portrait of him taken not long before he left for the war. He became one of "the greatest generation" that never returned.

He married and had a daughter before the war began. At one time I had a huge crush on my older girl cousin. As we didn't see the family frequently (the widow remarried, and had another daughter; a step-cousin, I suppose), of course it couldn't be sustained. We've had sporadic contact over the years.

My family has been luckier than many, perhaps than most. My father and grandfather, both veterans, of different World Wars. Dad still lives, and granddad lived a full life. A few cousins and one brother are veterans, and none have been casualties.

War is different than it was in the 1940s and earlier. Now, the American battlespace is a place few can least, few of our enemies. Even in guerrilla warfare, our soldiers are unsurpassed. This is primarily because they are the best-supported. It is a pity that the news media don't report casualty figures for the "other side" in the current war of attrition. To date, we have lost about as many soldiers, in five years, as during a typical week of WWI or WWII. The opposing losses are staggering by comparison.

Let us remember, as we approach another voting season, to vote for representatives who believe it is right for America to win wars. Otherwise, our losses will truly have been in vain.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Diseases caused by diseased bacteria

kw: illnesses, viruses, bacteria, pathogenesis

While researching another topic, I encoutered this article on Lysogeny, which refers to the life cycle of viruses that insert their genomes into host cells. Herpes is the best known example, with HIV a close second (how well known, not numbers infected).

I'd heard in the past that some diseases are caused by normally harmless bacteria being themselves infected by viruses. In some cases, the viruses carry the DNA for the disease toxin. These four lysogenic diseases are mentioned in the article:
  • diphtheria
  • cholera
  • botulism
  • scarlet fever
What a list!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Do electric sheep dream of androids?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fantasy, space aliens

Just so you'll know, to me science fiction crosses the line into fantasy once the imagined universe becomes peopled with a myriad of alien species; the author can just produce species at will, with any attributes desired. This is all-too-similar to the fantasy writers' tendency to throw in a new magic spell or magical creature to solve any narrative problem that comes along.

In this regard, John Scalzi's restraint in The Android's Dream is commendable. Only Takk, the tough-guy alien that eats by engulfing humans (et cetera) whole, who suddenly reveals a spiritual side, seems to smack of ad-hocracy. But I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt; maybe he designed Takk that way from the beginning.

Early in the novel, the book's title is seen to refer to a genetically-engineered sheep, with electric-blue wool, a breed named The Android's Dream. Since it is mentioned that the name is a literary reference (not otherwise explained), it becomes clear that the initial story idea is a riff on Philip K. Dick's 1968 robot-ethics masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

I need to develop a "creative index" for novels. Were I to do so, the aggregate of plot twists, fresh ideas and tangled relationships among the characters would put this near the top of the list. Just a few of the ideas:

  • Genetic engineering that goes beyond the mere production of a blue sheep, to hiding the sheep's genome in a person's DNA.
  • While a millennias-old multi-species galactic society is rather old hat, I think the Common Confederation is extremely well named. Other than a common court of adjudication for certain cases, it seems to keep its hands off, even allowing member species to war among themselves.
  • A bit of "new law" that allows one very specific individual to become a new "Nation"...based on a Talmudic puzzle.
  • A religion whose origin is very similar to that of Scientology, but with an interesting twist. The accepted poetic "scripture" is known to be nonsense, but devotees are enamored of its endearing style and determine to fulfill its seeming prophecies. Of course, the plot culminates on the fulfillment of a most unlikely prophecy.
  • A couple of true AI entities, based on brain scans, modeling real brains (You know I find this unlikely; a brain alone won't do. It needs the chemical environment of the body. The software must also simulate pituitary, adrenal, and all other hormones, plus perhaps the immune system).
I just have to comment that interaction with aliens may be very hazardous for biochemical reasons. My post Alien Hybrids? from October 20, 2005 outlines why hybridization between species that arose on different solar systems is very, very (about 70 veries) unlikely, just based on about 10^73 different DNA genetic codes. The fact that our proteins use only 20 of the several hundred known amino acids makes it even less likely that proteins will be compatible from species to species. Just as an indicator, an amino acid called BMAA is made by many species of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae, formerly); it is a nerve poison, and is the likely (not yet totally proven) cause of Alzheimers'-type dementias. That's just one amino acid. Suppose an alien species used BMAA as a framework residue, say, in place of Glutamine? Nobody could eat each other safely—I guess that's good news!

This is the author's seventh book, all written in the past three years. The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies is nonfiction; the rest are Sci-Fi and near Sci-Fi. His blog, The Whatever, is one of the longest-running weblogs, and a style-setter of the web log genre.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Those ain't love bites

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, vampires, history, legends, myths

It is with good reason that I eschew vampire stories and films. Rationalist I may be, and a Christian mystic as well, yet there is an irrational core in all of us; I find myself much too easily influenced by the sexual-occult realms of the undead.

Wayne Bartlett and Flavia Idriceanu, two researchers working in Romania, waded through a great mass of folklore, literature, and filmography to produce Legends of Blood: The Vampire in History and Myth, which chronicles he bloody archetype and its enduring allure. Vampire stories touch some of the deepest chords in our psyche. The idea of a vampire ignites images of the most intimate predation, something a huge step worse than mere rape.

Fairy tales and ghost stories all have archetypical messages: what would I do if I were the abused stepchild, or the damsel in distress, or a demon's prey; what would I do if I were a giant, a dragon, a stepmother, or a ghoul? Would I abuse power in the same way (probably); would I be as resourceful—or as lucky—as these victims (probably not)?

Every culture has its blood-sucking monster, from the Babylonian labartu to the ghoulish kasha of Japan and the seductive lamiae of the Romans. "The blood is the life" is not only a biblical pronouncement; it has its corollary in every language. For all animals, at least, from mosquitos to whales, when the blood is removed, the life ends. Whatever attacks our blood, by analogy, attacks our soul (this accounts for the particular resonance of AIDS, which gradually corrupts the blood within the body).

I read through the book as quickly as I could. I wished minimal influence, but to gain insight nonetheless. In thirteen (of course) chapters, the authors discuss the vampire history and its connections with other magical creatures, particularly the way a vampire combines aspects of the ghoul, the seducer, and the magus. We may have many folkloric monsters – the list of legendary creatures from any culture numbers a hundred or more – but the vampire brings elements of all the worst ones together, to become our most fearful adversary and predator.

While vampires appear in some ancient literature, it is just in the past 130 years that a vampire genre has appeared. The creature that Bram Stoker conjured with his novel Dracula partakes of the entire history of the European subconscious, mining psychogical depths common to us all, and either thrilling or terrifying us all. Nearly forty films (dramas, comedies, spoofs, deep horror, and a bit of porn) are based just on this one book; many, many more are based on about forty distinct vampiric traditions.

The second-largest vampire tradition after Stoker's is Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" books (12 to date) and films. Compared to Dracula, Rice's Lestat is even smoother, more cosmopolitan, and much more terrifyingly evil...and he is not the worst of them. In more modern stories, vampires don't inhabit gloomy castles in far-off forests. As Dracula felt he'd find better hunting in London, so more modern vampires flood to the cities, and in some story series, such as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, they are taking over the world.

The vampire is the ultimate bogeyman.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Between the lines in Matt 14

kw: insight, bible study

The "walking on water" story is so familiar, at least in the West, it has become a metaphor for exceptional ability. The story came up in passing this past Sunday, and I was something new (to me). It requires a bit of reading between the lines, but not by much. Here is the passage form Matthew 14, right after Jesus calls to them to "fear not":

28Peter said to Him, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water."
29And He said, "Come!" And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
30But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"
31Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
32When they got into the boat, the wind stopped.

In brief, Jesus called Peter, Peter got out of the boat and began to walk, then he was rattled by the wind and began to sink; he called to Jesus, who reached out and took him (with a mild rebuke)...then they got back in the boat. Now ask yourself, how far did Peter get? I think it was at least a few steps. So, between verse 31 and 32, what happened?

They walked back to the boat, together.

Answering a call from Jesus is one thing. Walking with Him is another, much better.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

English Regency Spelling

kw: book reviews, fantasy, magic, wizards

I had to look it up. The English Regency formally comprises 1811-1820, though colloquially "Regency" also refers to the cultural period between Georgian and Victorian (1800-1837).

Imagine the late Regency period, now nearly two centuries past. Travel by rail is just beginning, George IV has recently ascended the throne, Alexandrina Victoria is a child...and the Royal College of Magicians is about to discover just what holds jolly old England together.

Minnesota authors Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer have collaborated to produce The Mislaid Magician, or Ten Years After, writing as cousins Cecy and Kate, a pair of young duchesses, both magicians though of differing training and skill. Cecy, married to non-magical James, is quite adept, Kate less so...though she is formidable enough in her chosen spells! Kate's husband Thomas is a master wizard.

Their chosen style is letters between the women. "Ten Years After" harks back to an earlier pair of collaborations in the same style. There are a few exchanges between James and Thomas. Judging by writing styles, Patricia writes as Cece and Thomas, and Caroline as Kate and James. Both authors are quite adept at writing in a supposed young Duke's voice.

I have old letters between my grandmother and her sisters and cousins, from about 1900-1910. The newsy, burbling voice of women who thoroughly adore one another matches the writing voices found here.

So just who has been mislaid? At least in the milieu of the book, a magician has talent but little training compared to a wizard (no matching female word is used) who is extensively trained, licensed, and (this is a partial guess) accredited.

A German surveyor-magician has been hired by a newly-minted railway company to inspect is railbeds for geological and magical anomalies; there have been somewhat too many accidents. He has promptly gone missing, so Cece and James are commissioned to investigate, while their four children spend time with their second cousin at Kate and Thomas's manse.

Magical anomalies indeed abound, various people spend various amounts of "canine time" due to a gigantic spell going awry, and a plot to subvert English royalty is uncovered.

While I find too much "here's a new spell to solve this new dilemma" in most magical fantasy, these authors avoid such ad hocracy, write with a compelling consistency, and spin an enjoyable tale.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Dystopia and-a-Half

kw: book reviews, future fiction, fantasy

Jonathan Lethem writes across the boundaries claimed by numerous genres. How We Got Insipid contains two very different sorta-short stories (too short to be novellas—there goes another boundary).

"How We Got in Town and Out Again" chronicles a future sufficiently post-apocalyptic that the point-of-view character is illiterate, but folks are still looting the remains of civilization. The action: a tawdry "virtual reality" competition based on 1930s dance marathons. The surprise is, there are no surprises. People will still be banal once they get over the shock.

"The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom (Hommage Heinlein) recasts "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", complete with evil birds, but they come via TV screens, not mirrors. An artist hires a PI to find out what he is doing when blacked out. Things rapidly turn occult. The happy ending (for the PI) is a surprise; Heinlein's story ended on a mildly unhappy note.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Examining the new Pangloss

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, liberal philosophy, class, race, wealth, poverty, diversity

The book is The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Benn Michaels

I'll start with some Quotes:

The 3 goals of the book:
(1) " show how our current notion of cultural diversity—trumpeted as the repudiation of racism and biological essentialism—in fact grew out of and perpetuates the very concepts it congratulates itself on having escaped."
(2) " show how and why the American love affair with race—especially when you can dress up race as culture—has continued and even intensified."
(3) " shifting our focus from cultural diversity to economic equality—to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American intellectual life." (p 7)

Ch 1, "The Trouble With Race": "Learning how to rap doesn't make you a black person; it just makes you a rapper." (p 43)

Ch 2, "Our Favorite Victims": "The only inequalities we're prepared to do anything about are the ones that interfere with the free market." (p 78)

Ch 3, "Richer, Not Better": "...the politics of the neoliberal imagination involves [sic] respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth." (p 110)

Ch 4, "Just and Unjust Rewards": "...our efforts to solve the problem of not so much a contribution to justice as it is a way of accepting injustice." (p 116)
"...the rich people would like a broader experience of life, but they can't get it without having some poor people around." (p 120)
"...a world in which everyone was required to finish the race at the same time would be very different from a world in which everyone was required to start it at the same time." (p 134)

Ch 5, "Who Are We? Why Should We Care?": "...when we clash with others, it's usually because we think we're right, not because we're defending our identity." (p 157)

Ch 6, "Religion in Politics: The Good News": "The trouble with diversity, then, is not just that it won't solve the problem of economic inequality; it's that it makes it hard for us even to see the problem." (p 172)
Same page: "Of the 37 million poor people [in America] in 2004, almost 17 million (45.6% of the total) were white. These people are not the victims of discrimination past or present."
"We should be color-blind because color has nothing to do with beliefs. We shouldn't be religion-blind because religion has everything to do with beliefs." (p 179)
"...disputes about religion—understood as the pope [sic: Pope] understands them, as disputes about what is universally true—are indeed useful reminders that you can't exactly be for diversity of beliefs in the way that you can be for diversity of identities." (p 188)

Epilog, "Conclusion: About the Author": "The unfairness is not in people making fun of your choices; the unfairness is in your not getting to make those choices."

Vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker (not quoted in the book): "I've been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better."

When I first read the title, I thought "Identity" referred to the concept of making everyone identical, something like "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut...or perhaps "outcome-based education", as hijacked for social engineering purposes (OK, I'll stop there, I promise).

No, it refers to "cultural identity" or "ethnicity". When you get right down to it, in case the quotes above didn't make it clear, the author's thesis is simply "poverty isn't an ethnicity, it is a problem we must address, but 'diversity' has blinded us to it."

The author is an irritating fellow. That made the book hard for me to read, but it certainly makes him a valuable gadfly. So, it may be awful, but somebody has to do it. Yet, I found myself wondering, is it possible to make everyone happy. Here are a few reasons why not:

  • Some people are never happy with anything.
  • Some are chronically depressed—and some of them are unaffected by every antidepressant so far invented.
  • Some are simply cynical, and the happiest they get is when they see their cynicism is justified; sadly, the event always makes someone else unhappy.
  • Some are too inwardly focused to be helped. They may be unhappy, but they're "least unhappy" when left alone.
  • Some people are only made happy by winning a zero-sum game; someone else has to lose.
  • Some are only made happy by causing unhappiness, harm, or death.
  • Some are too angry, about everything, all the time, to have a happy thought.
  • Some cling to a "dearest wish" that will not, cannot, ever be satisfied.
Still, it is my observation that "the greatest good for the greatest number" arises from democracy and freedom.

The dilemma of Pascal's bargain

kw: musings, religion, philosophers

The famous bargain by Blaise Pascal: compare what you stand to gain and what you stand to lose, by either believing or not believing in God. Consider the results if God either does or does not exist.
  1. Believe — If God exists, you gain eternal (i.e. infinite) benefits. You lose only some small extra cost of trying to live according to the way "believers" ought to live. If God does not exist, you gain little, only the somewhat better self-opinion of the believer and the thanks of those you help because you believe; the cost is the same as the above.
  2. Do not believe — If God exists, you gain nothing. You lose big time, reaping eternal (i.e. infinite) pains. If God does not exist, you gain the same nothing, but you also lose nothing.

A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that believing is by far the better option if God exists, and it is probably a wash if no God exists. The weight is in favor of believing.

But do people do cost-benefit analyses about their beliefs? Nobody that I've heard of. You can reason it all you like, but believing that Pascal's bargain is in favor of God is not the same as believing in God. Pure factual believing gets one nowhere, as James wrote, "The demons also believe, and shudder," and we don't expect any demons in heaven.

NetNanny for cons?

kw: opinion, sex offenders, prisoners, civil rights

Take a look at this from CNET: Police Blotter: Imprisoned sex offenders demand PCs. Can you believe the arrogance of some people? Even worse, can you imagine the idiocy of anyone thinking that prisoners have anything remotely like such a "right"?

Prisons aren't meant to be luxury hotels. Inmates are separated from society, primarily to protect its citizens. They are also being punished, in some faint hope that they might undergo an attitude adjustment. Because of a more recent, to some extent enlightened, view of prisons as "correctional" facilities, inmates are supposed to be trained to do useful work. In reality, they train one another in "new and improved" criminality.

I say, let them have PCs (10-year-old Win95/98 recycles), with the strongest Net Nanny settings imaginable installed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The business side of blogging…or Blogging (& podcasting) for business

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, blogging, podcasting, business blogs, advice

Bloggers are advised to keep their posts short, 500 words or less (I smugly except book reviews. My past 15 posts range from 168 to 2,717 words, averaging 961). I bet Ted Demopoulos suffers from logorrhea like me; he has produced one of the longest book titles I've seen: [What No One Ever Tells You About…] Blogging and Podcasting: Real-Life Advice from 101 People Who Successfully Leverage the Power of the Blogosphere (24 words, and that's counting 101 as one word).

Fortunately, the 101 selections that make up the book are appropriately sized, being about 500 words each (1½ pages). The author, who just last year wrote with Shel Holtz, has a distinctly business focus. His business is blogs, as you'll find at Demopolous Associates.

Of particular interest to me is, firstly, the categories of blogs (The Three Types of Blogs — Item 5, page 10, hereafter 5:10), gleaned by Ted from Seth Godin: Cat Blogs, which record "dear diary"-like entries, often in gory detail; Boss Blogs (I prefer to call them Work Blogs), which pertain to one's work or business; and Viral Blogs, which are about ideas. Polymath at Large is a viral blog. I do it for fun, and I don't expect it to pay anything.

With this in mind, as I read through all the business advice, I looked for items that apply also to viral blogs. There are a few.
  • 6:13 — The Value of Blogging — Introduces ideas developed throughout: gaining expertise, writing well, recognition, expanding one's network, and profitability.
  • 16:29 — It's All an Experiment — These are early days. Try new things. Nobody can predict what will work next.
  • 18:34 — Using Blogging to Learn to Write Well — Quite a number of folks will write a blog anonymously for a year or two, until they are satisfied with their writing skills. It takes a couple hundred posts, at least, unless you already write for a living. Then they discard the practice blog, plan a "real" blog, and dive in with both feet.
  • 25:45 — Position Yourself as an Expert — Make sure you have good stuff, and you'll become a guru.
  • 42:73 — Five-Plus Tips to a Better Blog — In short: Keep the page-top stuff short so your text can be seen without scrolling; write 500 words or less per post; forget bright colors and bells/whistles that detract from your text; update daily or 2-3x per week; no music.
Other tips advise blogging with passion, focusing a blog, and really focusing each post (one idea per post; readers are flighty), and allow comments (but moderate them if you're writing highly opinionated posts).

I wonder what kind of book the author will be writing in five years, when blogging is twice its current age?!? He closes
"You need to pay attention, because whether you consider yourself part of the blogosphere or not, the rapidly changing technologies that are in use today do affect every corner of the business world."

More olive branch than slap

kw: author dialog, religion, science

In my post "An olive branch, or a slap in the face" I reviewed David Sloan Wilson's book Evolution for Everyone. I subsequently Emailed Dr. Wilson, and a brief exchange ensued. David is an enjoyable fellow, and I'm pleased to have made his acquaintance. His stance is relentlessly scientific, yet he is congenial and courteous, as you'll see in the text below. At his suggestion, I include nearly all our communication from a pair of Emails each in late April and early May, 2007. My name begins with L, so I'll shorten references to it thus: L—. Needless to say, Dr. Wilson and other correspondents know my name, but I obscure it in my blog.

From David to L— 4/30/2007:

Dear L—,

Thanks for your message and review on your blog. Here is a brief response, which you are welcome to print on your blog if you like.

1) First, I'm delighted that you like 90% of the book! Now let's get to that 10% that you don't like.

2) Your review is a nice complement to Natalie Angier's review in the New York Times. She also liked 90% but thought I was too soft on religion in the other 10%.

3) The parable of the prodigal son is not owned by Christians! It is found in other religious traditions and available to anyone who finds it metaphorically appropriate.

4) You say: "Religion and Darwinism enjoyed a century of amicable
relations, until the sudden resurgence of "biblical inerrancy" views seventy years ago. The earlier, more reasonable Evangelical viewpoint was that the Bible tells us what God wants us to know about relationships, both horizontal and vertical, and that poetic language is not intended to convey exact knowledge of the natural world." You're right that the creationists of Darwin's day were often not biblical literalists, but that doesn't mean that they were comfortable with evolutionary theory. Read Janet Browne's recent 2-volume biography of Darwin for details. First and foremost, almost everyone back then thought that God's existence could be proven scientifically by studying his creation. It turned out that creationist theories, even when they were not based strictly on the bible, failed again and again to explain the facts of the world, culminating in Darwin's theory. Creationists of all stripes were not happy about this.

5) You say: "David, to eliminate the "certian kinds of religious faith" that you wish people to abandon would remove every genuine Christian from the planet." I enjoy discussing these issues with religious believers of all sorts. I know many who call themselves Christians and who would disagree with you. Are you saying they are not "genuine" Christians?

6) I think that a religious believer who is also a committed scientist must take very seriously the fact that creationist theories have been abandoned for all aspects of the material world, from astronomy, to physics, to biology, to human psychology, sociology, and medicine. You are willing to do this for the fossil record, but you still hold out hope for the cosmos in your discussion of astronomy. I don't see any warrant for this, other than wishful thinking. You appear to be a smart person and a good scholar, so you are presumably familiar with the phrase "God of the gaps," which is a particularly weak theological position.

7) My "Prodigal Son" chapter explores what it means to think of ourselves as 100% a product of evolution. That is a perfectly fine conjecture and I don't insist that everyone goes along with it. For those who do, it requires abandoning the notion that special qualities were breathed into us by a higher power. That is like believing that the power of God accounts for 85% (such numerical precision!) of the universe. It just doesn't have a place in scientific inquiry, however central to some (but not other) religious belief systems.

8) In closing, I'd like to introduce you to Michael Dowd, a former
born-again Christian who now preaches about evolution in the Evangelical style. His evolutionary christianity website is Evolutionary Christianity

Michael, I wonder if you have time to comment on L—'s review of my book?



I wrote back the 27th, and he replied the 30th, including the substance of my message, so here is his full reply. He preceded his responses with **. I've entered a few editorial comments, italicized and in brackets.

Thank you for your measured and enlightening response. I must touch on the last point first. You describe Michael Dowd as a "former born-again Christian". This implies that evolutionary understanding and born-again faith are incompatible. They are not. I've been telling my overly-anxious fellows for a generation or more that by denying evolution they are committing intellectual suicide ("God gave you that mind, brother...Use it!"). I hope Michael is still born again, by which I mean, still thinks of himself thus. Any comment, Michael? [Michael replied separately, and is indeed still born again. Have a look at his web site, referenced above]
**I stand corrected.

I'll tackle several points by reiterating that I consider religion and faith as distinct. Religion is universally human. It is what we do, the emotional foundation of human hope. Emotion is bigger and more ancient than cognition (take time to think, and you'll get eaten).

Atheism and science are typically carried out by their most ardent practitioners as religious activities...though some would hotly deny this (those most guilty, typically). It is due to a religious, not a reasoned, reaction by my dissertation committee that I was denied a PhD in 1985. I sighed, and passed the work on to others, who being in more favorable environments, were able to get every one of my discoveries into print and eventually into "established Geology". That same work and its further development went on to "make" my career at Conoco for the following decade.
**As a veteran of 30 years of the group selection controversy, I can vouch for the religious character of science, complete with the use of terms such as "taboo", "heresy", "high priest," etc.

Most people's religion consists almost entirely of sentimentality. Faith is another matter entirely. I contend it is not natural, and thus not amenable to scientific study.
**I might disagree...let's see.

As you state in your reply, the province of science is "the material world." For those who think the material universe is "all there is," science is the only reasonable path to knowledge. A proper Christian view is that science is indeed "all there is" for understanding the material universe...all of it, including human bodies and minds (although mental and psychological "sciences" have so far proven a tragically inept tool; psychologic medicine is a bit better in certain cases). But if any of the Bible is to be taken as revelation, the material world is simply not everything there is. The human spirit, breathed into men (or the first man, for those who think Adam was singular, not corporate) by God, is our organ for contacting divine things.
**I, personally, find it implausible that this does not result in anything that can be measured.

[I wonder if it can be measured, when the only instrument currently known is the human person. On no more substantial foundation than human experience Psychology has been erected; why not Pneumatology also? One professor of Psychology—his name currently escapes me—has written that there must be a human spirit because of phenomena that show something in addition to mind, and internal conflicts of conscience that do not reflect dissociative disorders.]

OK, let me clear up my cosmological paragraph. I don't think God accounts for Dark Energy or Dark Matter. I was pointing out that some do think so. Perhaps my levity got the best of me. My bigger point was that we have yet to produce tools that can interact with 85% (Stephen Hawking's number, not mine, and others state you say, such precision!) of the universe. On one hand it is encouraging...there is a lot left to discover! That is exciting. On the other, let us remember to be humble. If we don't yet know even within a few orders of magnitude the mass of the hypothetical "Higgs Boson", let us consider that our understanding of human mental and emotional internals, studied by much coarser tools, is just a little too mysterious to make strong statements about the impossibility of certain experiences.
**I agree with you entirely about the need for scientists to be humble, as I hope I made clear in my book. However, this doesn't necessarily leads to an "anything goes" attitude about the likelihood of the various alternatives. .

Concerning "genuine Christians": how is a Christian defined? The pervasive corruption of the term by generations of writers, with all kinds of agendae (including someone who called Voltaire a Christian!!!), has made me reluctant to use the term for most of my life. I just follow Jesus. How do I know about him? Without the Bible, it is impossible. I don't claim I can always discern where the Bible is literal and where it is poetic, but the many times the apostolic writers wrote of things "we know", do seem to carry literal authority. A favorite passage states "the Spirit (i.e. God's Spirit) witnesses with our spirit (the human spirit) that we are children of God." Those who have this inner witness are "geniune Christians." Otherwise not. I was once one who thought himself a Christian, but knew nothing of my spirit. Something happens to some people, something many call "being born again." It activates a slumbering spirit. These are Christians. Those who follow a "Christian religion" may or may not be. As an old song says, "Ev'rybody talking' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there."
**The scientist in me wants to say--an intense psychological experience, that is impossible to ignore and completely re-orients one's life, can still have a purely naturalistic explanation--even a plausible adaptationist explanation, since many a culture has been founded maintained by such folks.

The "gap theory" of the first two verses of Genesis is quite different from the "God of the gaps." The latter is, as I think you properly understand, a last-ditch effort to put God into every gap in human knowledge. We do have an irritating habit of filling those pesky gaps!
**This is what I meant.

"The Gap" as first elaborated by Pember is rather the gap in the Biblical record that specifically leaves room for eons and eons of natural processes to bring about an earth that God spent a few days working on (many Biblical commentators write of the 6 days of restoration. There's a lot of theology attached!) prior to putting a spirit in a person, or some persons. Those persons already existed, for a long, long time. I think they were the product of evolution. God intervened to produce "living souls" in creatures that were previously simply smart apes with no divine yearnings.

Pember was offended by evolution, but he laid the groundwork for Bible believers to understand an ancient earth, and eventually, that even humans are evolved. The evolution-creation controversies of the 1870-1925 period were largely driven by a few oversensitive souls who mostly exposed their own insecurities. Most folks weren't much bothered, and were mainly amused if they thought of it at all.
**I haven't made a proper study of the history of creationism, although I would like to. Have you read "The Creationists" by Ronald Numbers? What else would you recommend? [I did not yet recommend a book. I intend to do so.]

As I wrote, I wonder if spiritual experiences could really be studied scientifically. It is experience one must tackle. You may think being born again is a sudden attack of insanity. My brother does, but he's usually too nice to say so in my presence. Those of us with this experience consider it an attack of sanity. Now what?
**I do not think of it as an attack of insanity. I do think that it can potentially be studied scientifically. At the beginning of your message, you correctly say that emotion is bigger and more ancient than cognition. When we study all forms of mentality in terms of what they cause people to do, conversion and "born again" experiences become intelligible scientifically, by enabling a wholesale change in behavior without requiring reason (I do not mean this disrespectfully). This intellectual description doesn't begin to describe the subjective experience, but that is also expected on the basis of the proximate-ultimate distinction described in Chapter 29. Similarly, the straightforward evolutionary explanation for falling in love does not remotely describe the subjective experience.

I reiterate: you ask for all the compromises to come from my side. I ask for just one: your willingness to take an agnostic rather than an anti-theistic stance.
**I think that I can make this concession, but I wonder if you judged what I say in my book too harshly to begin with. In my "Prodigal Son" chapter, I say that we will explore what it means to be 100% a product of evolution. I don't say that it is proven or insist that everyone agree--that makes me an agnostic. On p 261, I say: "I do not have an answer to my dilemma, much less one that can be validated scientifically, but slowly and after much thought I am gaining a conviction that I can have my cake and eat it too." That is a private opinion that I am not forcing on others. Other than having a personal commitment to a 100% science-based belief system, in what sense am I anti-theistic?

I might not always have time to continue this dialogue, but I have enjoyed it so far.

I replied briefly. I'll contact him again as I see the need. I do intend to find reference material for him.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Letting ourselves be found, revisited

kw: book reviews, science fiction, first contact, spacecraft, SETI

I reviewed James Gunn's The Listeners just a month back (enter Gunn in the search box above). He takes another whack at the subject in Gift from the Stars.

The prior novel concerned exchange of radio messages, which occurred over a ninety-year span. I wondered at the time how anyone could predict "answer day" with any accuracy, given the several-light-year uncertainty in the distance to the star. The message received was hidden within a replay of very old radio transmissions, so I supposed that the time lag could be calculated.

This novel has the message arriving by gravity waves, bearing plans for a working starcraft and antimatter energy conversion. An engineer has decoded the message from the first gravity wave detector, written a book containing the plans, hidden within an apparently crackpot UFO scenario, then gone insane with worry...he was unstable to begin with (a stereotype of the highly creative). Another engineer, someone who knows rocket science, finds the book.

The long and short of it is, the improbable happens; the engineer and a few friends republish the plans via the Internet, and later manage to wangle agreement to build a starship from the new planetary authority (the old was swept away by an economic revolution based on antimatter energy).

This story is more satisfying than the former, though a few things are infinitely more fantastic. However, I know the Corollary to Finagle's Law: everything is going to cost ten times as much and take twice as long as you thought. Constructing a ship to carry 200+ people for a few years, regardless of propulsion method, would bankrupt the entire planet. A pity.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Scientists that can write?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, collections

The book is The Best American Science Writing 2006, edited by Atul Gawande; series editor Jesse Cohen. I had hopes of finding, among the 21 chapters, at least ten or so scientists who write well. What did I find?

  • Four scientists, one Biologist and three Psychologists
  • Three professors of writing or journalism
  • Eight journalists and "correspondents" to a single outlet
  • Six free-lance writers and "correspondents" to numerous outlets
Details follow.

Chapter, Author (Bio): Subject

"Your Move", Tom Mueller (Free-lance Writer): Chess-playing Computers, as they gain more heuristic abilities, are making plays that the grandmasters learn from.

"My Bionic Quest for Boléro, Michael Chorost (Lecturer in Composition, Univ of SF): Most of the power of a cochlear implant is unused; the author gets upgrades until he can enjoy music.

"Earth Without People", Alan Weisman (Professor of Journalism, Univ of AZ): We can easily find the remnants of some past civilizations (Egypt, Babylon), but others are vanishing into the landscape (Maya, Zimbabwe); remove humans, and the biosphere will fill in pretty quickly.

"The Curse of Akkad", Elizabeth Kolbert (Writer, The New Yorker): Following the above, where did those civilizations go—and why? Nature is quite capable of driving us off the planet.

"Remembrance of Things Future: The Mystery of Time", Dennis Overbye (Correspondent, New York Times): Does the General Theory of Relativity really allow for time travel, at least into the past? [my answer: One-way only; if there isn't a way for the past to access the future, there won't be one if you go then, either. You can't take it with either direction!]

"Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic?", W. Wayt Gibbs (Writer & Editor, Scientific American): Good news, fatties! There's a lot of new fat around, but it isn't shortening your life as much as some folks are saying. Dieting stress is a greater risk than is overweight, for most.

"Nature's Bioterrorist", Michael Specter (Writer, The New Yorker): Bird flu is simply the most visible (to some) Damoclean Sword; more evidence that the biosphere doesn't care about us.

"On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research", Gardiner Harris (Journalist, New York Times) and Anahad O'Connor (Journalist, New York Times): Mercury in vaccines, how much of a danger? What a hot potato! A tuna sandwich contains a little Methyl-Mercury, and one dose of a vaccine contains a very similar amount, but of Ethyl-Mercury, which is supposedly safer. [However, you don't inject a tuna sandwich! I suspect the stomach and ileum do something to the Me-Hg that doesn't happen with injected Et-Hg.]

"What Makes People Gay?", Neil Swidey (Writer, Boston Globe Magazine): It seems the nature-nurture debate is over on this one. Genes play some part, but intra-uterine experiences must play a bigger part, because quite a number of identical twins have opposite sexual orientation. [I wonder if it could have anything to do with the mirror-image character of embryonic self-cloning? Further, regardless of sexual orientation, all people are capable of heterosex; those who truly don't enjoy it are a very tiny few. There are other alternate sexual orientations, which the people who experience them claim are just as innate: preference for many partners, or for the very young, for example. Some would say, 'you allow me to be a bigamist, and I'll allow gays to marry.']

"The Tangle", Jonathan Weiner (Professor of Journalism, Columbia U): A 3-generation detective story, that just may lead to a preventative, if not a cure, for ALS and Alzheimer's. [Who'd a thunk some of the oldest bacteria around (cyanobacteria) are making slow-acting neurotoxins (e.g. BMAA)? Then again, why not? We know so little about almost everything besides a few warm and fuzzy or feathery critters (and little enough about them).]

"Clone Your Troubles Away", David Quammen (Free-lance Writer): The operative image is the clone of a calico cat, a curious, friendly animal, but not calico. Clones are not copies [My post "Why identical twins aren't" addresses this]. So why clone?

"The Coming Death Shortage", Charles C. Mann (Correspondent, various): The approximate doubling of average life span since the 1880s might be the greatest single driver of 20th century economic change. What if it were to double again? The terms "generation gap" and "generation war" will take on new meaning [Shakespeare's tragedies and many "fairy tales" are based on troubles that arise when oldsters don't die on cue].

"Devolution", H. Allen Orr (Professor of Biology, Univ of Rochester): The key quote is, "intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics." [Actually, to me, ID, Creationism, and similar public wrangling smack of "tearing up the tares". Faith cannot change the world; its mission is to help people escape the world.]

"The Literary Darwinists", D. T. Max (Journalist, various): The term refers to a recent trend in literary criticism [It seems to me a back-to-front approach. Evolution even explains the way we think. So of course it explains the way we write, which is thinking out loud...even the way we edit our writing reveals the way we think].

"The Day Everything Died", Karen Wright (Free-lance Writer): The Permian extinction event [see my post "Nature's whack at the Dinosaurs' grandparents] is gradually being seen as a true event, a short-term affair. A generation or two ago, it was "common knowledge" that it took a few million years to transpire. Of course, you can't attack life so slowly and expect it to roll over and die. A few million years, or even one million, is enough for evolution to adapt species to any new conditions short of removal of the biosphere wholesale (and maybe even that!).

"Mighty White of You", Jack Hitt (Contributing Writer, various): A broader perspective of the debate over "Kennewick Man", who seemed to be more "caucasoid" than expected. "Race" is bound to be with us for a long while yet. The skeletal variations found within each "race" are broad enough to encompass every race. In other words, take off the skin, and you can't unambiguously sort a random collection of skeletons as to race. But some whites can't stand being scooped by Asian proto-Americans.

"Is God an Accident?", Paul Bloom (Professor of Psychology, Yale): The desire to worship something appears to be an unexpected side effect of other evolutionary trends in human development [Maybe so. Religion is rule-based, and most of us are more comfortable when we have rules to follow that mostly work, even if our explanation for the rules is mythological. Faith is person-based, so it relies on experience rather than evolution, and falls below the author's radar].

"Yawning", Robert Provine (Professor of Psychology, Univ of MD): Don't read this chapter! By the end you'll have aching jaws. [Yawning is so contagious I yawned several times just getting this much written. Did you yawn just now? Gotcha!]

"Ten Planets? Why Not Eleven?", Kenneth Chang (Journalist, New York Times): The discoveries by astronomer Michael Brown of several large "plutinos" including Sedna (larger than Ceres, the largest asteroid) and Eris (larger than Pluto). [Since this essay appeared in the New York Times, astronomers have mostly agreed to demote Pluto rather than open the door to perhaps dozens or hundreds of new planets that are expected to be lurking in the Kuiper belt.]

"Climbing the Redwoods", Richard Preston (Free-lance Writer): The author must have plenty of time to learn new things. Learning to climb trees which don't begin to branch below 200-250 feet...oh, man, I'd die! A 350-foot tree is an ecosystem unto itself, in which it is possible to get quite lost (as one climber has done, as reported here).

"We're All Machiavellians", Frans B. M. de Waal (Professor of Psychology, Emory U): What's the difference between you or me and the average Chimpanzee? Mainly, the chimp is less of a hypocrite. He or she is unabashedly interested in food, power, status and sex. We are abashed, but no less interested...nor any less determined!

Monday, May 07, 2007

The inverse of the multiple personality

kw: musings, collective identity

While reading the biography of HSM Coxeter, reviewed in the following post with the title "He could make anyone love geometry", I learned of the collective mathematician named Nicholas Bourbaki. A dozen or so mathematicians, mostly French, under a juvenile oath to "retire" from participation at age fifty, have carried on a virtual career for some three generations. Largely inactive now, the Bourbaki group is primarily responsible for "The New Math" that has made math education so hateful to nearly anyone under eighty years old.

However, as a collective "person", this French abomination reminded me of the other Armand Hammer. Perhaps you know of an American entrepreneur of that name, who died in 1990. "The other" one is a collective person, named for the Arm and Hammer brand of baking soda. This Hammer "person", as narrated by Ben Hamper in his autobiography Rivethead, was a fiction under which several auto workers shared one job in the 1970s.

I wonder if other "viable" collective persons are active out there?

He could make anyone love geometry

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, geometry, polyhedra

One of these times, I'll post a picture gallery of some of my mobiles. Although Calder is a favorite artist of mine, I don't make mobiles in the abstract way he made famous. As a lover of geometry, I make them very regular. I even have a spreadsheet with formulas for working out the length ratios for various kinds. For example, sometimes I use Fibonacci ratios for the lengthening support wires, sometimes a more pure geometric sequence. They also represent fractals, with a dimension in the range 1.4-1.7.

My favorite, which hangs in my office, is made with skeletal polyhedra. All the 5 "regular solids", of course, plus four other mixed-face shapes. Now, I find myself wondering why I never learned before of the king of polyhedra, Donald Coxeter. The recent biography, "King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry" by Siobhan Roberts, is shelved as a math book, but clearly belongs in the BIOG section of the library.

HSM Coxeter ("Donald" is from his third name, MacDonald) lived nearly the entire 20th Century, and three years into the 21st. By the time he was seventy, people that met him were astonished that this legend still lived. By the time he was 95, their children or grandchildren shared the experience. He lived 96 years, and just two days before he died, he put the finishing touches on his last monograph, titled "An Absolute Property of Four Mutually Tangent Circles," a breakthrough paper published in 2005.

Not for him, the usual "burn out young" mathematical career. He was productive for some eighty years...phenomenally productive. A classical geometer in an age of "new math" and "down with triangles", he is solely responsible for the resurgence of geometry that has revivified math, cosmology and physics since the 1970s. It is to "Coxeter groups" that we owe the efficiency of modems, and his masterwork "Regular Polytopes", published in 1948, underlies recent theories of the "shape" of the Universe.

What is a polytope? It is a generalization of a polyhedron into more than three dimensions. This image shows Coxeter with George W. Hart at a conference at which many polyhedral models, most inspired by his work, were displayed. A plane figure is a polygon (gon = side); a 3-D shape made of several or many polygons is a polyhedron (hedron = face). The suffix tope means place.

The five "regular solids" are the Tetrahedron, composed of four equilateral triangles, the Cube or Hexahedron, composed of six squares, the Octahedron, composed of eight equilateral triangles, the Dodecahedron, composed of twelve pentagons, and the Icosahedron, composed of twenty equilateral triangles.

This figure shows one way to represent a 4-D polytope called the 11-cell. It is a regular polytope whose eleven topes or cells are icosahedra. The colored square next to each of the eleven shapes shows which face it attaches to on the other ten, and the numbering is used to indicate orientation. You gotta think in four dimensions to figure it out, which I can't do. Click for a large view.

Somehow, Coxeter and others can think in almost any number of dimensions, and get useful results. His "Coxeter graphs" are a compact notation of the symmetry of a kaleidoscope in any number of dimensions, that would show some regular polytope (I'm really getting to the limit of my understanding here...).

The one called "The Coxeter Graph", however, as shown here in four different arrangements, has a use I really don't comprehend, but was a discovery that tickled him so much that he wrote of it under the title "My Graph".

Though I have mentioned a few uses of his work, he didn't care much for its usefulness. He was the epitome of a pure mathematician, and sometimes retorted rather sharply when a practical application of his work was described.

Although he was typically cordial, even affable, he bore fools not at all, and reading between the lines of the text, one finds that he could be a bit of a jerk. Or perhaps that term is too harsh. Perhaps he is more like a colleague of mine, who tends to roam the halls when thinking hard. He'll run right over you if you don't step quickly; he simply doesn't see you. Coxeter's geometric vision was vastly wide, but in the rest of life, his tunnel vision was legendary.

These scattered reflections sadly belie the quite comprehensive narrative that Ms Roberts has produced. A biography of Coxeter has been long overdue, and I am grateful to make his posthumous acquaintance.