Saturday, July 28, 2007

Inorganic person to the rescue

kw: book reviews, science fiction, cyborgs

On the surface, Breakaway by Joel Shepherd is a thrill-a-minute action novel, with an oversexed cyborg/robot superheroine.

Cassandra "Sandy" Kresnov calls herself an "artificial human", created not born, known in the novel as a GI. the acronym is not explained anywhere that I recall; perhaps it means "Government Issue", just like 20th Century soldiers. Her muscles are not flesh but "myomer", and can stop small-caliber bullets—at some cost to the target—; her bones not apatite-collagen like ours but some kind of "ferrocement" stuff many times tougher. She has vision that can shift to IR or UV as needed, hearing keen enough to count the heartbeats in a room, reflexes that allow her to drill a dozen targets with a dozen bullets in a half second or so, and the ability to run at highway speeds. Yet on top of all that, she eats ordinary food, so there must be some carbon somewhere in her construction. The author doesn't explain.

What the author does rather is present a many-layered tale of politics, conflict, warfare, acceptance and rejection, love, hate, reason and unreason. Sandy is a complex person, just as you or I. She is a newer model of GI, less wooden (but only slightly quicker) than older models. She finds out in the course of the action that a few others at her own level have been produced. One, by turns an opponent and an ally, hints at further models to be developed.

The underlying story is one of love and acceptance. This is most clear during portrayals of Sandy's interior dialog. In her former environment, portrayed in the precursor novel Crossover, she was loved and accepted, but only among GIs; "straights" considered GIs a tool, little more, and her creators didn't reckon on the depth of her perceptions or feelings. In a new environment she has found, amid the many "straights" who fear, hate, or abhor her existence, some who take her at face value, and value her accordingly.

I do wish a different word could be found for non-GI persons than "straight". That word is too thoroughly bound up in Gay and Drug associations. It took half the book before I got over a cognitive jerk upon reading it.

What does it mean to be human? Sandy clearly passes the Turing Test, but it is noted that artificial minds of the more sedentary type (mainframe computer-based) had done so a couple of centuries before GIs were developed. So in a changing world, and a changing human race, what qualities really matter when defining humanity?

The author verges on the heavy-handed in voting firmly for moral quality rather than physical origin to answer this question.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cyborgs in Tinseltown

kw: book reviews, science fiction, hollywood

Hmm, there are three terms I didn't ever expect to find together. Actually, Rude Mechanicals isn't the first SciFi to be written with Hollywood as the backdrop, but it is more intimately worked into Hollywood's Golden Age milieu than any other.

In Kage Baker's "Company" stories a variable number of immortal cyborgs, a few tens of thousands of years old, do the bidding of Zeus, Inc., a 25th Century corporation that has time travel and other advanced skills, but no direct market for them; it is presumably the cost. I dunno, though. Now that billionaires pay US$20 million or so to spend a week in orbit, you'd think time travel would be a thrill worth paying for by somebody.

Anyway, it seems the history of the Hope Diamond was faked a couple hundred years ago, and the real precursor stone is hidden under a tree near the Hollywood Bowl. It is 1934. One of the immortals is Max Reinhart's right-hand man (The Company wants his manuscripts when his boffo production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" is over). Another cadges a job on the stage crew so he can get at the hidden diamond.

Of course, things go wrong (so there'll be the story), and any number of people, each thinking the big (90+ carats) lavender stone is stage jewelry, lead our cyborgs a fanciful chase until it is retrieved.

The beauty of the book is in re-creating the atmosphere of Reinhart's creation of a mystical wood in Hollywood Bowl for his production.

This is a short novel, and I read it almost at a sitting, in about two hours.

History: the view from ten thousand miles

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, world history

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (GGS) is ten years old now, and a quick Google of the string '+"jared diamond" +germs and steel" +review' netted more than 110,000 hits. It doesn't look like a thorough review by me will add much. However, as a lifelong history lover I did have a few thoughts, which I can't resist inflicting on innocent readers.

The full title is Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond has worked with the people of New Guinea on and off for thirty years. The book is the beginnings of an answer to "Yali's Question", Yali being a prominent man who nonetheless lives more poorly than the least affluent whites in New Guinea: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

The question, and Diamond's answer, simply re-inflamed both historical/hysterical racists and the PC crowd, so most of those hundred thousand reviews are negative, one way or the other. Professional historians don't want the question to be asked. Racists have a pat answer.

Diamond contends that on average, New Guinea natives are smarter than Eurasians (mainly Europeans and Euro-Americans), for the following reasons (my summary):
  • New Guinea is a large island, historically isolated, with few natural resources.
  • It has very few plant and no animal species amenable to domestication.
  • Limited farming is only possible in the uplands, which are fragmented by rocky mountains.
  • The rest of the island barely sustains a relatively small number of hunter/gatherers.
  • Just surviving under these conditions takes more cleverness and diligence, a better memory, and a more supple imagination than what we see in Western "couch potato" culture.

Secondarily, this fragmented island has (or had) one-sixth of the world's languages. Low-level warfare between tribes and bands was continuous. A foolish warrior is soon a dead warrior, and in New Guinea, that means he is someone's lunch. This is no canard. My father's cousin was a missionary there in the 1950s; he and his fellows witnessed after-battle feasts. Prior to the introduction of pigs by Indonesians a few hundred years ago, the largest-bodied animal was the human. Easier eating than a bird of paradise or songbird.

But Diamond's larger thesis is really quite simple. In order of size, the continents are Eurasia, the Americas (counted together), Africa, Australia. I would personally separate the Americas into two continents each somewhat smaller than Africa. Antarctica was never populated, and Greenland only sparsely, being tillable only over an area comparable to Iceland.

Another crucial factor is the number of species that can be domesticated. In Eurasia these include wheat, rice, barley, millet, and peas (the "founder crops"), and of livestock, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most of these were domesticated by 8500BC. In North America (mainly Mesoamerica), the founder crops were corn, beans, and squash, by about 3500BC. The largest animal that allowed limited domestication was the turkey. South America didn't have the Northern founder crops, instead using potatos and manioc, but they did have llamas and alpaca. The guinea pig was a source of small meat on a par with European rabbits.

This is just one of a number of comparisons. Basically, there were few plants and nearly no animals that people in Africa or Australia (including New Guinea and Tasmania), or across Indonesia, could take advantage of. Perhaps because of its great size, the Eurasian continent simply had 90% of the species we still rely on for the world's food. It was not because of inability that Africans or New Guineans didn't domesticate local species. They had no trouble farming and ranching once appropriate species were introduced by Eurasians.

I've worked (briefly!) in a meat packing plant in South Dakota. I saw how placidly most cattle stroll into the killing pen. By contrast, the plant "processes" about fifteen bison once yearly, for the "buffalo burger" trade at Wall and Rapid City tourist stops. Why is a bisonburger twice the cost of a beefburger? Because bison aren't placid. They can smell the death ahead, and do thousands of dollars in damage to the chutes. It takes about three days of off time for the packing plant to "recover" from taking the lives of fifteen bison. Imagine hunting such animals (the size of a small rhino) with out horses, as Plains Americans did for a few thousand years. No way could they be domesticated.

I have a (now deceased) friend in the Black Hills, who spent seventy years cross breeding bison and other cattle animals, trying for a better burger. He had, of course, beefaloes, but also yakaloes, yakabeef, and brahma-bisons. They were all nasty, quick-tempered beasts. Beasts with a capital B!

OK, so what has happened? Why Diamond's title? Especially Germs?!? Modern kids grow up without getting measles, mumps, chicken pox, and polio, all of which I had in my first five years of life. Fortunately, I had polio at under a year of age, so it only made one leg and foot a bit smaller than the other (shoe sizes 9.5 and 11.5). I did get immunized for diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever, and rubella ("German measles"). My parents only for smallpox. Nearly nobody (in America) of my generation has died of cholera, typhoid, or tetanus. Yet the reason Sandusky, Ohio is a small town while Cleveland is a major port is because of three cholera epidemics in Sandusky from 1849-1854.

Where did these diseases come from? They were unknown in America, for instance, prior to the arrival of Europeans, and in just over a century, destroyed 95% or more of native Americans. Read 1491 by Charles C. Mann for details: the hunter-gatherer "culture" seen by the 17th Century pilgrims and puritans was a blasted remnant of an agricultural people who were suddenly too few in number to maintain their former lifestyle.

The diseases came from livestock. Every epidemic disease that Europeans brought to other continents originated from the cattle, sheep, goats, and birds they brought into their farms, and frequently into their homes. An animal disease that can infect humans is called a zoonosis. Bacteria and viruses mutate rapidly, and a "generation" can be an hour or less. A mutation that allows a germ to more easily infect humans and to spread from person to person will rapidly establish itself as an epidemic disease. That is the fear we currently have about the H5N1 strain of "bird flu". It is 50%-80% fatal once you catch it, but so far it is hard to catch, and has not evolved to be easily transmitted between people. If it ever does, Watch Out!

So, Eurasia is big, it has lots of agricultural riches, food production allows for a non-food-producer population to increase, so more people have the opportunity to develop better technologies, and once iron and steel can be produced (a costly proposition and impossible without advanced high-temperature technology), you have lots and lots of people who can make lots and lots of weapons. Steel-wielding Europeans invaded an America and and Australia peopled with stone age cultures. It was no contest.

It seems I find the thesis interesting enough to repeat it anyway. But I found another trend very interesting in what it may tell of our future. In the late middle ages, say 1450 or so, Eurasia probably held 60% or more of the human race. They had inherited quite a legacy, 10,000 years of agriculture and settled life. Yet in the distant past, each new crop, each new domestic animal, and each new innovation was produced in a small area, and spread to the rest, usually in a few generations. Europe in particular seems to have founded nearly none of these new things. But they were experts at adopting new things, from the Mideast ("fertile crescent") and Far East.

Who, today, is considered the most adept "adopter and adapter" of new technology? The Japanese. They are closely followed in this by the "Asian Tigers", principally Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. In the latter three areas, the main entrepreneurs are the "overseas Chinese". Diamond makes a point in his book, that some cultures are more open to receiving and adopting innovations, others less so. The latter either change or vanish.

I could see some of this before I read the book. For years, when asked my opinion, I've recommended that students learn an Asian language, preferably Chinese or Japanese. I have even more reason for doing so.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Now we are the only humans

kw: book reviews, human origins, evolution

Imagine for a moment that the legends and myths of "little people", Yeti, "bigfoot", and others were all true; that several species of "alternate humans" were found to exist, not just one here or one there, but by the hundreds, in bands or villages in many places. What would result?

Take a look at the right side of this chart (click to enlarge); focus on the rightmost quarter-inch or less. Between 30,000 and 200,000 years ago, there might have been as many as four to six "human" species alive on Earth at once. The symbols show only the youngest age of each species' known range in time. They existed for 500,000 to a million years or so, some much less (so far as we know).

The data on which this chart is based were gleaned from The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-two Species of Extinct Humans, created and edited by G.J. Sawyer and Viktor Deak—who performed reconstructions and artwork—with contributions by Esteban Sarmiento, Richard Milner, Donald C. Johanson, Meave Leakey, and Ian Tattersall.

The book is divided into sections by major land areas through time, beginning about seven million years ago in Africa, with three species of three genera (or perhaps two genera), one of which may have been the human-ape ancestor species. All six non-Homo genera presented were at least partly bipedal, to a greater extent than that seen in Chimpanzees, Bonobos, or Gorillas.

The number 22 in the book's title is a bit flexible. It is uncertain whether all the names species are actually distinct, or whether a few of them might represent more than one actual species. Because of this, there are more than 22 dots on the graph, as I split out probable multiples, considering them to be clines, whether in space or time.

To me, the non-Homo genera shown on the graph show a gradual change in brain size, of at most 50% over six million years. Skeletal features other than brain size are used to distinguish them, particularly the size and placement of the face, the shape of the tooth "arch" in the jaw, and the proportions of limbs. The gradual trend toward larger body parallels the larger brains, so no great increase in intelligence is indicated among them; a bigger body needs a bigger brain.

The first Homo specimen, H. rudolfensis 1.8 million years ago, indicates a step change. While other skeletal features clinch the Homo genus, the sudden jump in brain size is remarkable. Interestingly, there were both larger and smaller brains produced in the genus over the next half million years, showing the division between robust and gracile trends...but it is the gracile ones that had larger brains. "Brain versus brawn" meant a lot more in the early Pleistocene than it does in the modern locker room!

By one million years ago, both gracile and robust humans had large brains (nearly a liter, or more). After about 200,000 years ago, four species are known: Neanderthals, H. erectus in Java (probably the third species in a chronocline), H. Floresiensis ("Hobbit" on Flores island, with a 400-cc, or chimp-size, brain), and pre-modern H. sapiens, the immediate precursor to Cro-Magnon.

Homo rudolfensis deep in thoughtThe introduction to each species' "data sheets"—actually very concise, yet comprehensive mini-monographs on each—is an evocative scene "a day in the life of...", and several indicate the writer's favored hypothesis, that H. sapiens not only out-competed the other three species, but ate some of them. Considering that the reconstructions show that two of the three looked more simian than human, this is likely; at least half of Chimp and Gorilla deaths each year are for "bush meat".

Further, given copious historical evidence that hominids take poorly to competition, and that relatively minor differences are taken as sufficient excuse for genocide nearly worldwide, today, it is sometimes amazing that we have still five "races", or geographical somatotypes, as I prefer to state it (Actually, using skeletal evidence alone, there are four non-African body types, and at least eight African ones).

The authors make it clear that, except in a few cases, it is unlikely that any species is definitely ancestral to any later one. Even the 14-16 Homo genera do not form a chain or ladder; rather most are "twigs at the ends of branches", members of small populations that persisted long enough for a few bodies to get partly fossilized and preserved for us to find, thousands or millions of years later. Were the complete history known, and supposing that Earth has until recently had room for four or more simultaneous hominid species and twice as many "near-human" genera such as Australopithecus, and knowing that a species persists only half a million to a million years before evolving beyond recognition into a descendant species (as H rudolfensis probably evolved into H neanderthalensis): I expect fifty to eighty pre-hominid, peri-hominid, and Homo species, at least.

Some forty years ago and more, there was much talk I remember about the search for "missing links". I realize some folks will not be satisfied until a fossil example of every generation from the chimp-human or ape-hominid split is dug up...but that's probably at least a third of a million generations! However, this book lets us learn about, and get a speculative look at a couple dozen links that are no longer missing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The double whammy of a hot climate

kw: musings, climatology, tropics

In the former post I reviewed Under a Green Sky by Peter D. Ward. He makes a distressing point or two about living on a tropical planet.

The human species evolved primarily during ice ages, particularly the 100,000 years since "anatomically modern" humans arose. The tropics (the 30% of Earth's surface between 23°S and 23°N) were more temperate than now, perhaps by 8-10°C (14-18°F). Dr. Ward writes
"We who live in the more comfortable climes seem to think that just because the human tribes who lave long inhabited the equatorial zone have evolved through many generations living in constant heat, night and day, that somehow these people no longer feel the heat and humidity, that unlike us, they are not made uncomfortable by the horrible climate. Not so."
Maybe we've all read or heard of people in the tropics who seem able to work in the heat without sweating much. It is never stated that they have a secret. Nearly everyone who lives in the tropics without air conditioning uses one or another of the legal drugs so abundantly supplied in tropical plants.

Remember, most plants are trying to avoid being eaten by herbivores and omnivores. Woodiness helps; even many leaves (such as elm—ever chewed one?) are woody and unpalatable. Grasses and sedges incorporate silica crystals in their tissues to make them harder to chew. But most plants use chemical defenses, hence their bitter taste. The taste isn't just a sensory deterrent, it usually indicates the plant is poisonous.

Some plant poisons that kill or weaken insects and other small animals don't harm people nearly as easily. The common substance Caffeine is an insecticide, and deters some small mammals, but office workers worldwide consume a half gram or more daily "just to keep going." By chewing coffee beans and camellia leaves (tea leaves), people for centuries used Caffeine as a stimulant and mild really does help you cope with heat.

Caffeine is just about the only "heat helper" that doesn't hinder mental acuity. Around the world people use Kava (Polynesia), Betel (Indochina), Marijuana (almost anywhere, often used with one of the others), Khat (India to East Africa & Turkey), and Coca plus Cacao and Coffee (South America).

With or without drugs that can numb the mind, tropical heat is so enervating that one cannot sustain critical thinking. It is well known that few great mental achievements arose in the tropics. This is not because the people living there are less smart, but that the climate makes them work extra hard to have any thoughts at all.

I've worked with people who were born in hot places, now living in temperate America. They are formidably intelligent, whether from Uganda, Colombia, or Vietnam. But now we're coming to a subject covered in more detail by another book I'll review soon. Just a point from issues that overlap that book and this one:

Drop a typical urban or suburban Westerner into the Congo, New Guinea, or the Amazon, with an overnight bag and a knife. Set up a betting pool on when he or she will die. It'll be a matter of days. Now drop a typical native of the Congo, New Guinea, or the Amazon into New York City, London, or Paris, with an overnight bag and a knife. His or her grandchildren are likely to own the building your grandchildren work in. So who is smarter?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Did the Climate do it?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, extinction, polemics

We've gone from "All mass extinctions are gradual, with many causes" to "All are asteroidal and sudden" to "Maybe some were volcanic (e.g. the Siberian Flood Basalts)", and now to "All but K-T (which we now know was an asteroid) were greenhouse-induced anoxic-ocean transitions".

Peter D. Ward is making his name as a contrarian. He first came to my attention when he and Donald Brownlee published Rare Earth several years ago. I have also read a number of his articles in both scientific and popular organs. In Rare Earth the authors contend that, while microbial life might be common in the Universe, multicellular life, such as the familiar plants and animals we typically mean when we say "life", may be exceedingly rare. In an article in Scientific American a couple years later, they argued that most of the Galaxy (Milky Way) is inimical to life of any kind, and that only a narrow zone, in which our solar system resides, can have life of any kind. I tend to believe that life in high-metal zones of the Galaxy will be more tolerant of "heavy metal toxicity" than we are, and the converse.

In part I agree with the Rare Earth arguments, though one part of the scenario had a big lack. They state that it was primarily a gradually descending CO2 content in the atmosphere that allowed Earth to remain "friendly" as the sun gradually warmed, by as much as 30% over 4 billion years. I wrote them pointing out that radiogenic heating of Earth was six to seven times as large 4 billion years ago, primarily due to K-40 decay (its half life is about 1.3 billion years; U and Th have much longer half lives). I didn't get a reply. However, my point is relatively minor. I like Dr. Ward's writing, and he brings up issues about which we must think deeply.

In his new book Under a Green Sky: GLOBAL WARMING, the Mass Extinctions of the Past and What They Tell Us About Our Future (emphasis author's), Dr. Ward examines the evidence for mass extinctions, and draws conclusions stated in the title, and in my last blurb above. I could say, one point is that extinctions are typically a series of pulses, what one could call "punctuated equilibrium" if S.J. Gould had not already appropriated the term.

The basic scenario is this: We live with much lower CO2 than has been usual in the past. Just since the Cambrian, it has been as high as 6,000 ppm (today it is 370 ppm or parts per million). Even during the Ice Ages, it was seldom as low as this. In fact, the longest spell of 400 ppm or less was a 70-million-year period just prior to the great Permian extinction, 251 million years ago. Geologic evidence shows it as a period of ice ages more severe than the more recent ones we're in the midst of. Just prior to that big extinction, CO2 climbed to 3,000 ppm, probably due to the enormous volcanism going on in Siberia.

OK, so the CO2 causes warming, which eventually leads to an Earth that is tropical from pole to pole. Reduced contrast between equator and poles leads to reduced storminess except right in the "tropics" (Equator plus and minus 20 degrees). The mixing of the oceans grinds to a halt, O2-poor water gathers in the deep, then O2-free water, and most oceanic life vanishes. Bacteria that produce H2S proliferate, and the gas poisons much life on land. The sky gets greenish (hence the book's title).

The CO2 doesn't drop until reactions of carbonic acids with rocks begins to deplete it. In the meantime, remaining living creatures are adapting to the new chemistry and begin to use larger amounts of CO2, and together these eventually cool things down. Oceanic mixing is restored, and thing rock on for another few million or tens of millions of years.

A careful look at the rocks around the ten or so biggest extinctions shows that they tend to occur in pulses (the K-T one excepted) over a few hundred thousand years to a few million. Thus my "punctuated equilibrium" comment above. Also, I am convinced that the proposed mechanism is plausible for a number of the mass extinctions, though not for all.

The author's conclusion is that people are raising CO2 to the point that endangers the system of ocean mixing. Should things get to that point, we could see a huge extinction, and a great reduction (probably not elimination) of human numbers.

Throughout the book, Dr. Ward uses the term "global warming" for the phenomena caused by elevated CO2 and other greenhouse gases, mainly methane. While this is scientifically appropriate, in today's political climate it is a loaded term, with the connotation of "human-caused climatic warming". This reveals the polemical intent throughout, and the concluding chapter makes it clear. Dr. Ward thinks we will probably rock right along until it is too late, and that our descendants are in for a really bad century or five...or more.

He may be right. Remember Rachel Carson, and Silent Spring? As it turned out, she may not have been totally right, but she was "right enough" that it soon became apparent her warning was justified, and governments reacted, banning DDT in most places. (Though in the tropics we need more DDT to combat malaria, which is a much greater danger).

Dr. Ward is the first to make this warning this strongly and this convincingly in a public forum. Will we react to his warning?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


kw: book reviews, nonfiction, espionage

I have a low tolerance for high drama. I'm the one that cries at weddings, even those that I conduct. So I began reading Spy Wars: moles, mysteries and deadly games by Tennent H. Bagley, but soon set it aside. I skipped around a bit, then passed quickly over to the conclusion. I won't spoil that.

It's not that the book isn't well written. Bagley is brilliant, was a brilliant agent, and is a fine writer. He is mortally disturbed at the poor condition of our intelligence services. Much of this comes out in the book. But the book centers on one man.

Bagley is the agent who greeted Yuri Nosenko in 1964 when the latter defected...perhaps. Nobody is yet satisfied with any of the explanation and speculations surrounding Nosenko, who is the primary source of information about Lee Harvey Oswald's apparent Russian interlude.

Thirty years later, in retirement, Bagley found himself drawn to post-USSR Russia to interview former (and some probably current) KGB agents regarding the Nosenko case. There is still considerable US-Russian tension among these old adversaries; this was no "old boys' club" affair.

As you might suspect, Nosenko was a deceiver, but it is not at all obvious what kind of deceiver he was.

Shaken by the first Limit to the reach of Science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, history

The unanswered question lingers yet: When an object's position is measured, thereby disturbing its momentum, or its speed (momentum is mass times velocity) is measured, thereby disturbing its position, did those quantities have very exact values prior to the measurement, or were they uncertain to begin with? This is the biggest question that everyone tries to answer, all without satisfactory success, regarding what we call the "Heisenberg Uncertainty principle."

The development of quantum mechanics, based on experimental results and a growing body of theory that Werner Heisenberg summed up by "his" principle, are traced from the late 19th Century nearly to the present by David Lindley in Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science.

Lindley has dug deep to trace the lives of all the players in the physics revolution of the "grand" era of physics from the 1870s through the 1950s, and the remaining conundrums that were only partially addressed by Bohr's formulation called the Copenhagen Convention. Considering Bohr's expertise at obfuscation, it is not surprising that most physicists let him have his way. Few could puzzle out more than a sentence or two of his musings anyway. But many agreed that there was some use to having some way to move smoothly between quantum strangeness for tiny particles and the apparent continuity of measured quantities on larger scales.

Along the way, he traces the migration of the center of scientific ferment from England, then Germany and Denmark, to the U.S. as Germany's primarily Jewish scientific establishment fled the Reich's madness in the 1930s.

The most obvious challenge to the Copenhagen Convention is "Schrödinger's cat" (Given a cat in a sealed box with a poison gas vial that has a 50% chance of being broken open, as controlled by a quantum event such as a radioactive decay during the coming hour. One hour later you open the box to see if the cat is alive or dead. But during that hour, is the cat alive or dead? Without you there to observe, how can it be known?)

The conundrum focuses on the concept of an "observer". The following thoughts are mine. An observation is, or implies, an interaction. Reversing the syllogism (sorry, Aristotle), it can be said that every interaction is an observation. For example, a common demonstration of quantum uncertainty is to shine light through a small hole onto a screen. The smaller the hole, the larger the angle the light beam is scattered through, and the larger the spot on the screen. So answer this: does the spot change size if you are not looking at it? No, because the hole itself is influencing the light.

Further, the quantum mathematics of this diffraction effect tell you that some photons that "ought" to hit the screen somehow go through the hole anyway, and that some photons that are "aimed" at the hole will instead hit the screen.

So the hole is the observer. Furthermore, because the Schrödinger Wave Equation has finite values everywhere (though very, very small most places), every particle interacts with every other particle, all the time, from the creation of any particle until its destruction...and perhaps beyond in either direction.

The whole universe is an interaction. We'll never have the math...

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A Small Town of the Mind

kw: book reviews, fiction, short stories, collaborative narratives

The book has ten authors. The town is Mossy Creek, with the motto, "Ain't goin nowhere and don't want to." This little, unmapped spot in Georgia is billed as "The kind of town where everyone wishes they could live."

Reunion at Mossy Creek was written by Deborah Smith, Sandra Chastain, Debra Dixon, Virginia Ellis, Martha Shields, Nancy Knight, Carolyn McSparren, Dee Sterling, Carmen Green, and Sharon Sala. Among them, they have evoked the voices of twenty "Creekites". This is the second Mossy Creek book; the first had fewer authors. I suppose I'll have to look it up. I like the writing, and the kind of people the authors present to us (mostly).

The story, told as serial stream-of-consciousness short chapters with a few letters interspersed, recalls the big town mystery: the burning of Mossy Creek High School, twenty years before. Along the way, a few adjunct mysteries are taken up, a missing elephant and a ten-cent carnival Gypsy mechanism among them. Along the way, a modern Sasquatch makes an appearance (and gets the girl), and a smattering of corrupt politicos get a comeuppance.

Mossy Creek is a archetypal small town of which a friend once told this story:
A traveling salesman stopped to ask a man, "What's the next town like? Are the people friendly?" The man asked back, "What was the last town like?" "Oh, it was really good. My stuff sold well, and I think I made a friend or two. The people were very cooperative." The fellow said, "I reckon you'll find the town up ahead is much the same." Perhaps you can guess the rest. When another salesman asked the man the same questions, and was asked "What was the last town like?", he replied, "Oh, I had a rough time there. They people were suspicious and uncooperative. I barely sold anything." The fellow said, "I reckon you'll find the town up ahead is much the same."
The difference in these authors' Mossy Creek is that they don't let the unpleasant folks stay unpleasant, if they can at all help it. It is unrealistic, I know, but it does make for an enjoyable book.

One of the authors, Sharon Sala, who "voiced" Orville Gene Simple, is a humorist to challenge Mark Twain. Her Orville Gene chapter pits man versus beaver in the funniest "just when you thought it couldn't get worse" story I've read in decades. It requires an act of God (or of Thor) to conclude matters short of Orville's demise.

This book came out in 2003, and is the second in the series. The first Mossy Creek book had five authors; the third is Summer in Mossy Creek, with twelve authors; the fourth, A Day in Mossy Creek has ten authors(not all the same as this book); the fifth, Blessings of Mossy Creek, has the four "base authors": Sandra Chastain, Debra Dixon, Virginia Ellis, Martha Shields, "and others"; and the sixth, out this year, is At Home in Mossy Creek, with six authors. The authors call their work "collective novels." Worth the reading.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Nightmares packaged to order

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, commentary, syntheses, surveys

I just had to show you the cover of this one (from Amazon's sales page). This has to be one of the best "bug-eyed monster" paintings from Sci-Fi's golden age. I don't know the original provenance of this cover art, but the copyright is now held by the Wood River Gallery (the 2006 date makes me think the rights cover the entire layout, and that the BEM artwork is old enough to be public).

OK, so what scares you? I grew up being taught how to grab my knees under my school desk so I could kiss my ass goodbye for a nuclear attack. What formula did all the pulp SF mags use? It was mainly Campbell's Dictum: "Pose a problem, then fix it. Do it in 5,000 words or less." For a novel, the author was allowed no more than two sub-problems and 40,000 words.

There were problems aplenty for the writers of 1950s SF to mine: nuclear, germ, and chemical warfare; the grandson of Eniac that would run your life; the Red and Yellow perils—indeed, rampant xenophobia of all sorts—; "big Brother"; renegade robots. Prior to the 1940s, there was plenty of writing about "ultimate weapons", but few guessed such a weapon would be atomic or thermonuclear. A few who did were investigated, as far back as 1935. The nuclear warhead became the enfant terrible of Sci-Fi once the first nuclear attack actually happened. The Cold War was fueled by MAD fears, and our fiction followed right along.

Along the way, we also scared ourselves with alien abduction, giant insects and lizards, mutant superheros and supervillains, and various vague plagues. Today we have a host of new things to fear: AIDS, SARS, West Nile, and Ebola among the plagues; a rapidly-growing list of smaller nations that are developing or have developed "the bomb", or that plan to; Frankenfoods and other genetic experiments that we expect to go awry...and it is certain that some of our experiments will go awry.

All this and more Heather Urbanski covers in this, her expanded PhD thesis, Plagues, Apocalypses, and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares. She proposes the Nightmare Model to provide structure to her work. While much speculative fiction, from "hard" science fiction to the SF-Fantasy mixes that are most popular today (e.g. Star Wars), to sword-and-sorcery that seems to fill a good third of the "science fiction" shelves at my local library...while much of it is escapist and oriented positively, well more than half deals with a threat that must be averted.

The biggest threats in Jules Verne's work were either technological challenges that were risky in themselves, or overwhelming natural forces, or a few disgruntled villains. By contrast, today's threats tend to be unforeseen results of our good intentions. The Nightmare Model covers these in particular, under three heads and seven major areas:
  • Science and Technology: Nuclear War; Information Technology; and Biology
  • Power: Power of the Individual and Power of the State
  • The Unknown: Monsters, Aliens, and "Other Beings"; and Progress
Cautionary tales regarding each of these have saturated print, film, and small screen media. Consider these seven terms:
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Colossus
  • Andromeda Strain
  • Darth Vader
  • Big Brother
  • Alien
  • Modern Times
Each is the title of a book, film, or TV episode (or all 3) that relates to the seven nightmares, in order. Consider just one, Colossus. I don't remember the name of the movie made from the book, but the title character is a computer system that really does take over the US, while its Russian counterpart takes over Europe (the Far East is ignored). I've worked with computers since 1968. In 1986 my uncle asked me, "Do you think computers could take over the world?" I replied, "They already have. Most people can't do simple addition now, without their calculator. Soon we will all wear small computers that do so much for us, we'll die if the battery runs out." Today this statement is nearly true.

Colossus is dated and obsolete. We have new fears, and are justifiably concerned that the next gadget after the iPhone will have more brains than most of us do.

It is sad but true that writing about our favorite stories is less compelling than the stories themselves. Nonetheless, Ms Urbanski's thesis bears consideration and if we might say, "So what?" about the Nightmare Model, it is simply because the model is right, particularly in its added provision: being entertained into thinking about our fears goes a long way toward dispelling them.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The critters come and go, but the niche remains the same

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural science, oceanography, evolution

The more things change, the more they stay the same! The common canard is, "Evolution is random", and certain elements of evolution are random, but the Selection aspect is definitely not random: a creature that is well suited to its environment will prosper, and one that isn't won't.

The largest environment on the planet, the ocean, has room for very large browsing animals. In fact, it has room for a whole range of browsing animals, just as the continental surfaces do. So we find on land that browsers range from elephants, rhinos and giraffes through horses, deer and antelopes, to woodchucks, rabbits and mice...and that's just the mammals. There are also browsing birds such as geese and emus.

In the water, which reduces the struggle against gravity and makes long-distance travel cheaper, the biggest browsers can be much bigger than elephants, so we have the whales. There are many varieties ranging from the huge Blues (30m and 100T) to the Minke and Pygmy Right whales (7m and 3T—The largest elephants reach 3T weight but are less than 3m in length). Baleen whales aren't the only browsers, of course. There are also sirenians (dugongs and manatees) and smaller browsers, both mammals and fish, and even a browsing lizard, the Galapagos marine iguana.

Pacific Gray Whales are the most frequently seen baleen whales, because their migration path follows the California coast, where they can better avoid Orca attacks. The Gray is a nice, middle-sized whale, 16m and 35T.

If you were to slip back in time millions of years, how would the California coast look? Would there be whales? What filled the "whale" niche fifty million or 100 million years ago?

David Rains Wallace has done his best to portray the changing, yet self-similar West Coast of the United States through time, at least Phanerozoic time (from just before Trilobites to today), in Neptune's Ark: from Ichthyosaurs to Orcas. Clearly, from the title, he leans more toward the carnivores. Both on land and sea, the largest carnivores are a fraction of the size of the largest herbivores, however, so I found myself speculating about them instead.

It seems baleen whales have been around only since the mid-Miocene (perhaps 15 million years). So the large-scale browsing of krill and other zooplankton didn't begin until about that time. Earlier browsers fed on eel grass and other near-shore plants and were much smaller. Thus, the "biggest animal in the sea" title goes to carnivores, by default, for most earlier times.

Thus, this Janjucetus hunderi, smaller than an Orca (5m or less, 1-2T) lived much like an Orca who hasn't any baleen whales to pursue. This image is very similar to a recent news account of a 9m Orca seen to snatch a 2m juvenile Great White Shark for lunch. Janjucetus lived in the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago. It was one of many early whales, and not the biggest.

Standing on a cliff over the California coast (actually somewhere in mid-California; the coast was still accreting in the Oligocene), you might see an early whale like this one, and smaller animals nearer the shore, some browsing on grasses or kelp, others hunting shellfish or fish. Seen in detail (you did remember your binoculars, hmmm?), there would be differences aplenty. But just look, perhaps rather lazily, and it would appear much the same as today.

Let's go back farther. 100-200 million years ago, Mosasaurs like this rather generic one ranged up to 15m and perhaps 20T. They filled the predator-whale niche that is today filled by Orcas and Sperm whales (18m and 50T). Again, while the coastal view would differ in many details from today, the general view would be similar.

If I properly understand both Wallace and other information I've read, since at least the late Triassic, the largest-animal niches in the sea were air-breathers, first reptiles, then (post-Cretaceous) mammals. I hadn't really paid as much attention to the ocean before, but now it's clear that the "Age of Reptiles" and the "Age of Mammals", at least as regards the large-bodied ecological niches, apply to both land and sea...of course, by total biomass, it has been the Age of Insects since the mid-Devonian or so.

But prior to the Permian, the largest sea creatures were Orca-sized fish. The Devonian ones were armored monsters, and later ones had shed their armor in favor of speed and maneuverability. It would be harder to observe these from a sea cliff, because they didn't need to surface to breathe.

The title of Wallace's book implies that some portion of the US West Coast has preserved creatures from the past. I am not sure this is what he meant. He surveys evolutionary trends beginning in the late Precambrian—when everything was smaller than a breadbasket—and traces the evolution of whales, sirenians, seals and sea lions, plus "sea bears" and purported "sea apes" and a number of other now-extinct families.

The ecology of coastal margins off Eastern North America was affected by large agricultural populations for at least the past several thousand years. Though humans came to the Americas from the West, they appear to have sparsely settled the West Coast, compared to the East, so perhaps Ark refers to the relatively pristine character of West Coast ecologies. Certainly today, one must go far offshore or deep into the abyss to find places with only a lightly human touch.

As he brings the story up to the present, Wallace unflinchingly portrays the naturalist-exploiters who first described the Steller's Sea Cow or the Dall Porpoise, and the ravages that followed. Only recently has our collective conscience brought about sufficient conservationist efforts that some ecologies can be preserved or allowed to rebuild. For this reason, one may go to Point Reyes, California or Cape Lookout, Oregon, and see oceanic life that still bears some semblance to the view seen by those who first crossed Beringia a dozen millennia ago, or more.