Friday, September 28, 2007

Why it is bad to be super

kw: book reviews, science fiction, mutants

In 1977 when I worked at an engineering company, my group manager was a German superman. He was a product of the German eugenics program: tall at 188cm (6'2"), very blond and handsome with startling blue eyes. He was nearly my father's age but appeared twenty years younger. Very strong and very healthy, he'd been training to be a fighter pilot when the war ended. He's probably still alive, aged about 82, if he hasn't killed himself...he was prone to depression—not over the WW2 loss, but seemingly causeless—and pined for work in forestry.

Make no mistake about it, selective breeding works quite well. The German experiments produced startling results in just three generations. However, as in animal breeding, by too rigorously selecting for certain desired traits, one is certain to concentrate plenty of unexpected baggage.

In 1940, author A.E. van Vogt published Slan, a significant warning about eugenics, presented as a novel of the future about "mutants", humans with special "tendrils" at the nape of the neck that made them telepathic; they were also exceptionally strong, smart, long-lived, and healed quickly from devastating woulds.

In Slan the "green monkey effect" takes over, and the Slans (named for their creator/developer, Samuel Lann) are persecuted and killed. Thousands of them flee and develop hidden colonies from which they launch an attempt to take over humanity. The ensuing Slan Wars show that 100,000 supermen cannot overcome a billion determined "ordinaries". This was the explicit warning to German ambitions, delivered on the eve of U.S. involvement in World War Two.

Fifty years later, van Vogt ("Van" to family and friends) was persuaded to revisit the topic and write the novel that has become Slan Hunter. He could not complete the work, as he was beginning to fail with Alzheimer's disease, but left plenty of text and a strong outline. It was finally finished by Kevin J. Anderson, a fine and prolific author with amazing ability to both collaborate with any competent author, and to write with another's voice if needed.

The Slan hunter himself turns out to be a bigoted jerk who blunders his way through the landscape, offending all and sundry before meeting a violent end; by that point one wishes his demise were more excruciatingly fitting. He is matched by an equally bigoted "tendrilless Slan", a member of a further mutation (today we'd say further genetic engineering, but van Vogt was living in the 1940s in his mind). There are three human varieties that finally have to either learn to get along or to exterminate one another.

Setting aside the deep misunderstanding of the way mutation and selection work, and considering that van Vogt worked on this sequel in the late 1990s, it seems the drive behind Slan is missing, and that this novel is a drawn-out means of getting Slan and human to work together; a mid-stage to a further sequel. However, as Kevin Anderson completed his own work on the book in the 2005-6 time frame, there is a distinct element of "How will you deal with a wholly unreasonable enemy that you can't easily distinguish?" That is, the problem posed by the Islamofascist attacks on Western society.

I wish Van had lived, mens sana in corpore sano, to finish the work himself. With one book he gave us a clear understanding of why the German experiment could not succeed, and with another he was well on his way to showing how today's Islamic experiment is equally doomed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Finally, some balance

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, evolutionary debate

I know Protestants are loath to hear a Catholic witness, but Augustine really did say it best:
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [the Earth, the heavens, the motion and orbit of the stars, the kinds of animals and shrubs]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation ... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

—Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis; parenthesis above supplied by Dr. Ayala to summarize the prior text; emphasis on the closing phrase in the original.
Francisco J. Ayala, a Professor of Biological Sciences at U.C. Irvine, and a well-schooled Catholic, found himself astonished by the extent of American Christians' opposition to the teaching of evolutionary biology. All during his education in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, the prevailing sentiment toward science and religion was collegial, based on Galileo's quip, "The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." He has distilled his experience and understanding into a marvelous volume, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion.

How is "Darwinism" a gift to religion? Simply put, it solves the problem posed by Theodicy, the problem of evil. There are many ways to state it, but Darwin made a clear Theodicean statement when he wrote, "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." (F. Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, v2, p105)

The attitude of nonbelievers about God, considering the existence of evil, is summed up thus: Is he unable to prevent evil? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but unwilling? Then he is malevolent. Otherwise, how could there be evil? Even more so, per Darwin's statement above, why would he create so many creatures, and have the vast majority of them be parasites? (Every animal species known has at least one specific parasite species, including the parasites!) Some literalists claim all this is "corruption of the creation because of sin," and there are verses that seem to support their idea. But millions of parasitic species is really going way too far! They ought to heed Augustine.

Dr. Ayala traces the history of 20th Century anti-Darwinism; though it has roots in the controversies of the 1870s and 1880s, it is unique. Modern anti-evolutionists are primarily strict literalists, who believe that every word means literally what it says. Particularly in Genesis, they state that a day is a 24-hour day, "Let there be light" produced light three days before the Sun or Moon came into being, the flood that lofted Noah and his Ark to a mountaintop covered every trace of land on Earth and "fifteen cubits more," and so forth.

Now, having lost several legal actions designed first to keep evolution off the public school curriculum, and then to force the teaching of "creationism" or "creation science", the literalists have introduced a new term, "intelligent design." I'll abbreviate it ID, as many others do. They have had to take up hypocrisy as a result, because they know they can get nowhere if they connect ID with Biblical creation beliefs. However, the lie is easy to discern, and it is evident that they have no allies among those of other faiths (not that they would want any).

The core chapter of Darwin's Gift makes it clear that the "designer" proclaimed by ID proponents must be pretty poor at his job. Do you have all your teeth? Most people who can afford it have their wisdom teeth removed these days. I am the only person in my workplace with 32 teeth in his mouth. Why have them out? The jaw of most people is too small for 32 teeth; 28 is a better fit. One of my son's teeth never developed, so he only had to have 3 removed, but his jaw was too small to leave them in (he got that from his mother's side). Some people need 8 teeth removed, having a 24-tooth-size jaw. This makes no design sense, but it makes perfect evolutionary sense; we don't need the huge ape jaw any more.

Maybe God is a Puritan, who re-uses everything. Only that would explain that the three arm bones, a 2-for-1 elbow joint, a rather awkward shoulder, and a 5-finger hand attached to the human arm are in the same arrangement found in dogs, whales, and early fossil horses (but not modern ones, which have but one finger per foreleg and one toe per hind leg)...even rats. A truly intelligent designer would not begin with a dog foreleg and morph it into a human arm; he would produce an appendage more suited to use for carrying, manipulation of tools, and throwing things, all of which the dog leg cannot do, and the human arm does well enough, but breaks down after a while. A really well designed throwing arm could fire 150-mph fastballs well into a pitcher's 60s. But the closer you look at the "design" of living beings, the more you realize they were designed quite a bit more blindly than intelligently.

I won't take space going into how natural selection accomplishes evolutionary change. Sufficient to say, it is not the "random process" set up as a straw man. It does not make large changes quickly, but over time the changes can be very great. The changes it makes are based on what exists; the mammalian forelimb is good enough for long enough, so it has not become what an engineer might produce from scratch.

Dr. Ayala does us even more of a service in two final chapters, wherein he clearly explains what Stephen Jay Gould called "non-overlapping magisteria". Science is one way of knowing. Some scientists say it is the only way to know anything, but science cannot explain aesthetic feelings, spirituality, or ethics. We need other ways of knowing, and faith is one of them. Most people of faith believe in God or gods; some do not (Buddhists, for example). But they all believe in a way of knowing that science cannot address. Faith does not operate upon scientific terms, so fair is fair: They do not overlap.

I once read a short article called "Non-Reproducible Phenomena". It averred that there is an activity in which nearly all people participate. Some do it more than others. Most who do so receive much pleasure, and most people react with pleasure to some, but not all, incidents of such activity. Some use various tools, some do not, to carry out this activity. One person may cause a number of others great pleasure, while another person, engaged it would seem very similarly does not do so. The article stated these things in such a way that it seemed to be discussing hypnosis or mind reading...but in the end it stated: the activity is music.

Some aspects of music are amenable to scientific study. Some are not. But the nonscientific aspects of music are what lend it all its charm. So with the things of the spirit.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

X-text for the X-attitude

kw: book reviews, science fiction, dystopias

The Y generation, today's 25-and under crowd, and some of the younger gen-Xers, are engaged in a cultural turnover I've begun to call X-Everything. It began with freestyle skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and motorcycle racing (formerly motocross). Guys like Tony Hawke and Mark Barnett built a whole new genre of "extreme" sports, now just called X. The current reigning scariest rollercoaster is Magic Mountains "X", which begins with a 200-foot faceplant freefall. My teenage son loves it.

In a generation of accelerating hype, arena football is gaining on NFL, IFL fighting on boxing and wrestling and kickboxing, and the X-games on the Olympics (which has begun to cave in by adding Freestyle Skiing to the Winter Games, and may soon add Supercross to the Summer Games).

Can fiction be far behind? Indeed not. I have seen a few efforts among the genres I read, so far unsatisfactory...until now. Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott, a very late Boomer or very early Xer, begins with the theft of a house (you know, leaving a hole in the landscape), continues with a series of abductions of the protagonist by a "limpet encyclopedia saleswoman", then four apocalyptically-monikered "Riders" (definite motocross roots, but an "ultracross" version), who sort of trade him back and forth. The penultimate climax occurs in a reproduction of a ruined cathedral, ruining it quite a bit more.

I confess I found it slow reading. The writing is excellent, and brimming with cool ideas, but the flash-bulbs-at-Paris-Hilton intensity of the scenes made for frequent overload. I couldn't hurry through any of it.

I do have to mention a few of the ideas. Everyone seems to be "chipped", identifiable and trackable at any distance. Quite a problem if you wish to escape from kidnappers and avoid recapture. The focal city is laid out in neighborhoods according to music genre (Classical, Chillout, Rap, Fusion, Easy Listening...). The central government has withered away from citizen apathy, being replaced by a dreadful duo: the record companies and the traffic police, both of which operate as unchallengeable oligarchies. The protagonist works as a Dream Architect, making virus-like material that will produce a dream along the lines you've chosen.

There is a denouemement that I simply dare not spoil. Be assured, the story doesn't end with "...and then I woke up." You'll almost wish it were that simple.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A bird in the hand just might draw blood

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, bird watching

I've had friends who were serious bird watchers, but never become one myself. When I'm with one, I enjoy the walking, looking, listening, talking. When I was a kid (9th grade, I think), and had a tape recorder, I sometimes recorded a half hour or so of the morning bird chorus. I wonder where the tapes are.

I've never tried putting out bird feeders or bird houses. Even though I suddenly know a lot more about both subjects, I probably still won't, but I see more now, that I've been told a few useful things to look for. We do have a shallow bird bath, which has water in it about half the time (shallow ones evaporate quickly). It is enough to see a variety of local birds from time to time, right outside the kitchen window.

Mike O'Connor owns the Bird Watchers General Store on Cape Cod, and writes a Q/A column in The Cape Codder. He has collected about ninety of the best entries for his new book Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches?: And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask.

There are about a dozen Q/A items in each of eight sections, answering questions with a cool combination of knowledge and edgy wit. Some excerpts from one:
Blue Jays are Smart and Handsome...and No One Likes Them
Dear Bird Folks:
Blue Jays are one of my favorite birds, yet many of my neighbors complain about them. The say that they are nothing but mean bullies. Could you please write something nice about them so I don't feel guilty about liking them?

Diana, Long Island, NY

Sure, Di,

I'll write something nice about Blue jays. I don't have trouble writing nice things about any bird. It's your neighbors I'd worry about. Talk about mean bullies. That's a pretty rough crowd out there on Long Island. You don't want to get near any of them before they've had thier morning latte.

Blue Jays are clearly one of the most fascinating and handsome of all our native birds. There are few birds in North America that can compare with their striking beauty. Yet other birds, including the dumpy little Eastern Bluebird, seem to receive most of the love while the Blue Jay draws the wrath. Apparently some birds have better PR agents than others.
In fact, for the most part, jays are vegetarians. Researchers who examined the contents of hundreds of jays' stomachs found only 25 percent contained insects and other animal matter. The other 75 percent contained nuts, acorns, seeds from you neighbors' feeders, and, or course, vegetarian-approved tofu.

I didn't check closely, but it seems every paragraph ends with a quip. He also tends to begin letters with an in-your-face attitude; in answer to a letter consisting of three short questions about cardinals:

You sure are asking for a lot of information. What do you think this is, Twenty Questions? You people from [--] sure are demanding. Below is probably more information than you really wanted to know about cardinals...

Anyway, he does answer the title question, near the end of the book, clearly and informatively. Simply put, woodpecker heads are well-suited to the hammering, with plenty of cushioning for a brain small and light enough that it won't get much abuse anyway.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A monstrous taxonomy

kw: book reviews, folklore, monsters

Stephen Krensky writes mainly for the children's market. Watchers in the Woods, part of his "Monster Chronicles" series that now numbers eleven slim volumes, wound up on the New Books table in the grownups' section of the library, and I couldn't pass it up.

The book's 48 pages share the format shown here, with plenty of sidebar material to supplement the explanatory text. The tone is matter-of-fact, and there is a substantial bibliography and index. This isn't a "monster book", but a book that explains the mythology of forest monsters and others, such as dwarves and gnomes, that watch us, or so we imagine. He explains not just the folkloric "watchers" of many cultures, but those found in more contemporary fare, including Disney films and the Harry Potter books.

I infer that the tone of the entire series is the same; probably intended to reduce a youngster's fears of whatever might dwell among the dust bunnies under the bed. An entertaining summary.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A writer, an editor, or something in between?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, writing, reviewing

I seldom read writing about writing. As I hope this blog gives evidence, the way to learn to write is to write (and considering the very few pieces that have been published, to say nothing of remuneration, it is clear I am not destined to rank among the pros).

However, seeing the dust jacket almost forced me to take the book—In Other Words by John Crowley—home to read. Dust jacket, endpiece, and at section heads, the book is illustrated with old etchings by Grandville and others, similar in tone to this one. Picking early 19th-Century illustrations does neatly avoid copyright dust-ups.

Author Crowley has quite a bit to say about writing, and quite well put. As it happens, after four essays in fifty pages, the rest of the book is book reviews. Giving it another look, three of the essays are reviews of a sort as well, but of a body of work rather than a single volume.

This is sort of like, "who watches the watcher?"...I am reviewing a book of reviews! It's a good thing they are smashing good reviews.

One section contains reviews of a few works each by the authors Robt. Louis Stevenson, Thos. M. Disch, T.H. White, Vladimir Nabokov, and Anthony Burgess. Having read at least one book by each of the five, I found myself nodding in agreement as he extracted something essential from each author. For example, though no single review brought this out, the several reviews of Burgess's work make clear his later torments, and how they showed in the quality of his later writing (rather bad with one stellar exception).

After that section, the reviews are mostly single, ranging over quite a bit of history, including Daisy Ashford's The Young Visitors, written at age nine in 1890 (first edition 1919); comic-book writing (and a bit on illustration) by Walt Kelly (Pogo series) and others; to a posthumous publication of Italo Calvino's unfinished autobiography, reviewed in 2003 but written and gathered over a few decades, and edited by the author's widow.

Considering the way our minds work, I can't help but be influenced by Crowley, but it will be without conscious intention. He thinks very differently...and that's very good.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Newer, weirder worlds

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

In the introduction to one story Cory Doctorow mentions that he is, at most, very distantly related to E.L. Doctorow. He certainly bears very little similarity as a writer...and that's fortunate. I have twice gotten no more than five pages into one of old E.L.'s books.

Cory's 2003 collection, A Place So Foreign and Eight More, comprises the much of his shorter work. His unique slant provides frequent surprises, and his skills make the stories a pleasure to read, even though he has his generation's penchant for casual vulgarity. These nine stories are about as mixed a bag as I've seen:
  • Craphound: An alien who's really into kitsch, which turns out to be humanity's test for galactic citizenship. The story introduces the "bugouts", aliens the author will use again.
  • A Place So Foreign: A coming of age story, in an era of time travel. Set in and near Salt Lake City of the 1890s and 1970s.
  • All Day Sucker: A satisfying riff on the notion that, once you've duplicated the expertise of a real expert, how do you find out what you might have forgotten to capture?
  • To Market, to Market: The Rebranding of Billy Bailey: Coming of age, Madison Avenue style. More would spoil...
  • Return to Pleasure Island: I don't remember earth sprites in the Pinocchio-on-Pleasure-Island story; one such is the protagonist here.
  • Shadow of the Mothaship: A combination of Haight-Asbury hippiedom and Harlan Ellison's Jester of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman". Return of the bugouts, as are the next two.
  • Home Again, Home Again: The bugouts have a unique method of dealing with insanity, which is both good and bad news for the normal son of an inmate.
  • The Super Man and the Bugout: Super Man's secret identity is a Toronto Jew, he's retired, and he encounters problems with his pension. He also encounters the bugouts, with amusing results.
  • 0wnz0red: I reviewed this story here (and another by this author here), and ranted about one premise of the story here. Hacking humanity...what can I say?

I need to poke around and see what he's done since June.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Professor Pope

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, lectures, commentary, religion, faith, violence, tolerance

The images flanking the first word of the book's title indicate the controversy it will provoke:

Having served on the faculty of Catholic Theology at Regensburg University in the 1970s, when Joseph Ratzinger visited the University in 2006 as Pope Benedict XVI, he nonetheless spoke as a lecturer, not ex cathedra as a reigning pontiff.

Taking the ground of a University as the unique forum for discourse (an ideal seldom approached), he introduced to discussion the question, "Whether violence is permitted to further religion." He bases his analysis on the discussion between Emperor Manuel II and a (Muslim) Persian in about 1391, on the eve of a Muslim attack near Ankara, Turkey. This pithy lecture is included as an appendix in The Regensburg Lecture by James V. Schall.

As I read the lecture—several times—then the book, I took many notes, intending a thorough analysis. However, the Lecture has received a mega-overkill of analysis in the past year, and Dr. Schall's book has added kerosene to the fire. The basic reaction is this: Catholics and many ecumenical-leaning Protestants applaud, while Muslims, almost to a man (nearly no Muslim women are allowed a voice) reject it with extreme obloquy. Is anyone surprised?

Muslims take the stance that "Nobody is allowed to discuss such a question who is not Muslim," making the premise that nobody can possibly think rightly who is not submissive to Allah. The flurry has demonstrated that the majority of Muslims do think religious violence is justified.

I wonder at the result, had the question been placed by an early Frank to a Fifth Century Pope, on the eve of one of the Catholic battles of European conquest. The warlike followers of the "Prince of peace" had but two or three centuries in which to spread Catholicism by the sword, before they were given a taste of their own medicine by Seventh-Century and later Jihadism.

Equally, I wonder if any of the Canaanites so questioned the Hebrew invaders in the 15th Century BCE? The only way I can accept the "Old Testament" is by taking the stated reason (some call it an excuse) that the Canaanites had become Nephilim, as had the people destroyed by the flood of Noah a millennium (or more) earlier. I'll defer discussion of Nephilim for another occasion. Meantime, you can look it up.

This points up the vast, enormously huge difference between faith and religion. It has been fairly said that religion's primary function is to justify governmental power. Every major religion has been spread, at some point (a centuries-long "point", typically) by coercive violence. All too frequently, the peoples' faith in any personal god or God has been seen as the primary enemy of the religion. Faith needs no priests or powers; religions require both to survive.

When Jesus came, he came for individuals. He typically hid from crowds, and spoke to them seldom, on a few well-reported occasions. When he set up his church, as the post-resurrection Spirit of Life, it was to gather individuals into a Body, whose mission was to express the "testimony of Jesus". Ambrose in the Fourth Century wrote, "It has not pleased God to win men through arguments." The apostles continually exhorted the disciples to gain peoples' trust by their conduct, so their witness would be received.

We are faced with a modern continuation of the Jihads of the Seventh through Twelfth Centuries. Islam has not changed. But the modern world is much different from Medieval the effect that modern leaders are almost wholly disarmed in its presence. We're in for a rough time of it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It could make a guy give up drinking...water

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, water supply, waterborne diseases

Ooh! A water main broke! Hey, kids, lets splash around in it before the grownups chase us off!! What fun!

Before the fun is over, someone will close a valve to shut off this section of pipe so it is safe to work on. One result will be contamination of the main. Oh, they'll flush the section for a while, but if they're smart, they will also issue a warning to people to boil their drinking water for a few days.

This image is from Dubuque, Iowa, in 2001, but a similar scenario is playing out in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania as I write. A warning went out to four places to boil water for the coming week, due to "loss of pressure".

In 1999, while laying fiber optic cable underground in Boulder, Colorado, workers broke a water main. The people made a joke of it.

Loss of pressure in a water system is no joke. The piping system under our streets, that we almost never see, is kept at a positive pressure, not just to keep it flowing, but to keep contamination out. Positive pressure is the last line of defense most of us have, keeping our tap water drinkable. It doesn't matter what measures the water supply company takes to filter, chlorinate, and/or ozonate water; once it gets into the "water system", which is often 100 years old or older, positive pressure is all that keeps stuff OUT of the pipes.

In my neighborhood, something happens to compromise the integrity of the water system about once a year. We typically noticed that the water is "brown", though on rare occasions a radio announcement will occur first. We run a tap at the farthest end of our house's piping system until it runs clear.

We also have a filter carafe for our drinking water. We used to have a tap-mounted filter, but when it began to break down, we got something easier to change filters in, and to replace if needed. I'm thinking to put a carafe—or a pitcher I fill from it—into each bathroom also, so we won't be using tap water even to brush our teeth.

Now that I've read The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink by Dr. Robert D. Morris, I've decided to get those pitchers today. The first paragraph of a long note with which he concludes his book reads
"Since this [his suggestion to put water filters in every home at government expense, or subsidized] is likely to be the most controversial suggestions, allow me to explain my thinking on POU [point of use] filters. Properly installed and maintained home filters provide an extra measure of protection, yield water that is superior to tap water, and are often safer than bottled water at one tenth the cost, with far less environmental impact. They can eliminate pathogens that our treatment plants fail to remove and can remove chemical contaminants including the by-products of chlorination that most water supplies leave in the water. They can also protect us against contaminants that enter through flaws in our aging distribution systems. Finally, if terrorists choose to attack our water supplies, home filters add an extra measure of protection."
Dr. Morris, a few may recall, stirred up the EPA and almost the entire water delivery industry with early studies linking chlorination by-products with cancer rates, in the early 1990s. He is at present a lonely voice promoting proactive remediation of the nation's water supplies.

Nearly all past improvements in public health and water supplies have been reactive. The cholera epidemics that raged in Europe throughout the 1800s (This cholera hospital is in Germany in the 1890s) gradually led to the recognition that cholera is waterborne, and at least in cities like London, water supplies began to be sourced upstream of the effluent outfalls. Prior to that, most "civilized" folk drank diluted sewage.

Almost half the book is devoted to this discovery, primarily the work of Dr. John Show in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s (he died in June 1858), and the discovery of the organism by Robert Koch in 1883.

Vibrio cholerae bacteria look like little commas. Once ingested, a few survive the stomach acid and enter the more alkaline intestine, where they multiply. As they do, they induce the gut to release bicarbonate, which induces massive diarrhea; that's how they spread themselves. Unless sewage is kept separate from water sources, you get a loop, and cholera spreads.

I went to High School in Sandusky, Ohio. I've been to the Cholera Cemetery there. In 1849, people fleeing a cholera epidemic in Cincinnati fled north. Cleveland was on a less convenient railway connection at the time, so many wound up in Sandusky and to the west. Cholera broke out, half the residents fled further west, and the town didn't recover for decades. Though it has the best natural harbor on Lake Erie, Sandusky is a tiny burg compared to Cleveland, just sixty miles away, primarily because of cholera almost years ago.

Just in case you're feeling complacently modern, cholera is endemic in India and other tropical places, where it can spread year-round. There is evidence that Vibrio cholerae is getting more resistant to chlorine...

What is this colorful critter? It is colorful only because of antibody-borne pigments; before they were first developed in the 1970s, the only way to see Cryptosporidium parvum was by putting a little India ink on a slide preparation; the cysts were the transparent spheres, the only objects on the slide that the ink doesn't stain.

This organism is prevalent in many watersheds, where many animals seem to carry it with little ill effect. It causes a diarrheal disease similar to cholera, which can be deadly to those with weaker immune systems (organ recipients, chemotherapy patients, AIDs patients, children, and the elderly). The cysts are unaffected by not only chlorinated water, but bleach. It became famous in Milwaukee in 1993, when it caused the largest outbreak of waterborne disease in US history. More than 400,000—about half the residents "served" by a contaminated water plant—were sickened and about 100 died.

The blurb reads:
"In 1995, the first outbreak of toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii) linked to a municipal drinking water supply occurred in British Columbia." (Source: National Water Research Institute of Canada)
We may have heard of toxoplasmosis as "cat scratch fever". It is a bit worse than a fever. In some people, it ravages the nervous system and other organs, and can kill. With more and more of my generation getting chemotherapy at some point in our lives, this prevalent parasite is a growing threat.

But the greatest threat is complacency. Dr. Morris explains how changing standards for pipe durability almost diabolically conspired to set up a system like Justice Holmes's "One-hoss Shay", that fell apart to sawdust one hundred years after its construction. The year 2000 marked the time limit for pipes laid in 1875 that were designed to last 125 years, those laid in 1900 with a 100-year design, and those laid in 1925 with—you guessed it—a 75-year design. Rapidly increasing pipe failures around the country simply hint at the situation.

Dr. Morris ends his book with a seven-point "Modest Proposal." Considering that political "leaders" seldom do anything proactive, responding only to disasters, I suggest you, dear reader, get some of your own filtering equipment, a filter carafe at least, and prepare to ride out the multi-trillion-dollar replacement of the water systems of everywhere, USA...and eventually, all the planet. When will we realize that the least expensive way to gain friends around the world is to give them a clean water supply that works? Compared to war, water is far.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Epistles from everywhere

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

I have read Daniel Keyes' moving, wonderful story "Flowers for Algernon" (basis of the film Charly) several times. It and Howard Fast's "The Trap" form the centerpiece of Space Mail, a 1980 publication edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph Olander. Space Mail is the second half of the omnibus volume Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Treasury, published in 2006. The "good doctor" has been dead a mere fifteen years, so his name still draws the gold.

I didn't re-read "Flowers" this time. I know it almost by heart. To a careful reader, it poses the question, "If you could be a genius for a year, but had to revert at the end, would it be worth it?" As someone in the early stages of Alzheimer's dementia, its point is a bit too pointed for me these days. I expect five to seven years more of sanity, but the days of raw genius that I've enjoyed are already behind me.

I read "The Trap" with more than usual care. Of the twenty stories in Space Mail, all of them in letter/memo/diary format, "The Trap" strikes most accurately at the heart of the question every story asks at some level: What makes us human?

On the face of it, I could complain at length of the profound misunderstanding of evolutionary processes exhibited therein, and in nearly all "developing superman" stories. Quite frankly, it took 50,000 to 100,000 years for an "anatomically modern but behaviorally archaic" Homo species to develop into Homo sapeins sapiens. There is little likelihood that the development of Homo successor will be any quicker.

Indeed, such development may be delayed because humans now altruistically keep alive, and almost force into reproduction, many, many who would formerly have been weeded out of the gene pool via natural selection. Just a century ago, in spite of the discovery of ether—so more patients could survive the agonies of surgery—a minority of those born survived to reproduce. Not all who "come of age" reproduce. The last living descendant of Abe Lincoln died in 1985. Though the Lincolns had four children, it was not enough to ensure perpetuity.

But what do we have here? What if we do gather a few dozen infants with a one-in-a-million level of intelligence (however measured) and raise them in a guarded enclave. The title "The Trap" indicates the author's concern: should they develop into a new, post-human species, the ancestor species would know precisely where they are. The story does end, inconclusively, with a Secretary of Defense claiming that to kill them all is really "the only way."

But could today's genius children be raised as post-humans? We don't do a good job of raising them as humans. The late Grady Towers (d. 2000) wrote a number of essays on the subject, including "Strangers", which I read in 1985. It opened my eyes to the life I'd been living. In "Strangers" he re-evaluated the data reported by Lewis M. Terman on the development of children with IQs of 140 and greater. Grady questioned Terman's conclusion that higher IQ almost automatically led to greater success.

Grady performed analyses Terman either neglected or did now know, to show that the difficulties many higher-IQ people experienced were best correlated with the kind of society to which they were exposed while growing up. Thus, one would expect a child with an IQ of 150 to be the only such child in a village of 1,000 persons, and in a rural city of 50,000, perhaps twenty peers to such a child might exist, if they could be located.

In the usual case, such a child grows up socially isolated, with at most a sibling of similar ability (such was my case). Social development is delayed or stalled, and it takes terrific struggles to achieve success in a world where one doesn't really fit. I remember deliberately studying human behavior so I could at least emulate what seemed so natural to others. Grady Towers was told, again and again by the beleagured brilliant, that they always felt like strangers. Thus the title of his essay. A later essay titled "The Outsiders" probed the mental pathologies of the most isolated geniuses, but I've read only a summary and cannot comment.

Those with IQs greater than 160 are quite rare, only one per 35,000. If one is lucky enough to grow up in a highly able family (such as a friend of mine, who claims of his immediate relatives, only one "black sheep" uncle has not achieved a PhD), the child's social skills are much greater, and lifelong success is much less of a struggle. Of the five people I know whose IQs are greater than 180, only one is not a total jerk.

"The Trap" bases its premise on accounts of "wolf children", lost children seemingly raised by animals, and later "returned to civilization". None gained the power of speech. These become a metaphor for the highly intelligent, perhaps post-human children, raised by "ordinary" humans. They are limited to the environment in which they grow up. Whether this is what Fast believes, the protagonist of the story certainly makes a wrenchingly passionate case.

Grady Towers' analysis shows that half of people with IQ 170 and greater have psychological problems requiring therapy. My own observation is that nearly all people with such "skyscraper" IQs achieve their greatest work during surges of high energy; their creativity seems to require hypomania or mania. I know mine does.

Well, that's quite a riff on just one story. But that's why I read 'em! I enjoyed this half of the omnibus volume more than the first half...but I enjoyed that quite a bit.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The cream of the questions

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

Originally published in 1980, The Future in Question, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph Olander forms half of a 2006 volume entitled Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Treasury.

The twenty stories in Question all have titles that are questions, except the twentieth, which is Asimov's classic "The Last Question". These stories, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, cover the range of writing styles and attitudes of the "golden age of sci-fi".

Why should there be such a "golden age"? Why such a variety of it seems? In a time of rapidly increasing scientific discovery, with a sense that knowledge and technology would grow without bound, and with a profound ignorance of the limitations future discoveries would place on both, one could imagine greatly with little fear that SF fans would know enough to disdain your ideas. How hard it is to read now of "cheap and effective" star travel, when we know the real cost of simply escaping the Sun's gravity well. What a shiver of disappointment accompanies a story line based on a "robot" that can't be distinguished from a human, when we know how little progress has been made in "artificial" intelligence.

The more one knows about science—genuine science, not the hugely oversimplified versions (by the dozen) portrayed by most SF authors—, the harder it becomes to willingly suspend disbelief in favor of star-hopping galactic civilizations, great discoveries made quickly, or machine minds. Yet in these stories, many of them the best of their genre, we find the non-credible elements fade away before the human element.

Thus, for example, "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell (the earliest story included) isn't so much about a shape-shifting space alien as it is about what it means to be human; "Who's There?" by Arthur C. Clarke at first appears to be about work in space and about ghosts—and how could they go together?!—but is about the power of imagination; and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr., a woman writing under a male pseudonym, uses time and space travel to explore the necessity of even having a male sex (and she makes the uncomfortable point that males are required to "protect" females...from other males, and that's about all).

Well, this is just half the omnibus volume. Stay tuned for the other half.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Incest opinion

kw: opinion, incest

I've been reading a collection of "early greats" among Sci-Fi short stories. But one really annoyed me. It is well known that Theodore Sturgeon's later work (after '50s editorial self-censorship gradually ended) all had the premise "Sex solves everything." I hadn't realized how far he was willing to go. His story "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" not only explores incest, it strongly defends it.

I'll be short: Sturgeon has a strong character, from a planet that is a pariah because the people there practice the freest of free sex, make a case that humans are the only animal with an incest taboo. Yet his only analogy is with farmed cattle. Yes, on a ranch, the solitary bull will cover every heifer in the field, whether they are his daughters, grand-daughters, or whatever. But that is an artificial situation.

In wild bovine herds, there is an even mix of male and female, not one male plus lots of females and lots of steers (eunuchs), which are usually kept separately. In wild herds, though the dominant males will have lots of mates, all the males have a chance at mating. Yet wherever it has been studied, incest has not been recorded. The heifers seek out unrelated bulls. And so it is with vertebrates in general.

The second point the character makes is to denigrate the idea of recessive problems with inbreeding. The fact is, his facts are wrong. Only in late 20th Century (and later) human society has sex become more recreational than procreational. Once sex becomes divorced in people's minds from pregnancy, only then are larger numbers of people likely to seek relationships that were formerly too risky (in a genetic sense).

There are plenty of references on the Web; I won't bother gathering links here. The fact is, this story reveals Sturgeon at his most ignorantly wrong ever.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Blindsided by our expectations

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, finance, philosophy

There is no closed system. Those who try to understand, or worse, forecast (predict), what is going on, all base their conclusions on closed-system thinking. Moreso, we all model the world around us (as we perceive it), simply so we can grab the tools we need to cope with it from our "kit" of experience: "This is like that, so I need to do thus..." The amazing thing is, it often works.

What to do when it doesn't? People today talk of "paradigm shifts." They happen more often than we realize. When I was a child, mountains were "explained" as wrinkles on the earth like those seen on the skin of an apple that is drying out; the earth was shrinking as it cooled. By the time I got to college, there was "The New View of the Earth" (a textbook title), based on continental drift and "plate tectonics".

The opening scene of The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable portrays the discovery of black swans in Australia more than a century ago. Before then, whiteness was part of the definition of "swan". Until one was seen, nobody dreamed swans could be non-white. The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, uses the Black Swan as a metaphor for a (comparatively) rare, unexpected event that changes everything. But in the course of the book, he brings out that these highly significant events are more common than we suppose.

In 1972 Rapid City, SD suffered a massive flood. One foot (30cm) of rain fell in half a day, just downstream from a "flood control" earthen dam. One side canyon to the Rapid Creek canyon had a bridge crossing a stream that is usually a half meter wide and about ankle deep. After the flood, engineers could see that rocky streambed sediment had been washed out and replaced. They dug down with a backhoe to see how deep the scouring had been. They never found out.

The bridge is (was?) supported by large pillars that had been placed on a footing dug 6 meters below the streambed. The engineers found, another meter deeper yet, a pickup truck in the sediment, washed in during the flood. They didn't dig much further. I remember the awe in their voices as their "gradualist" paradigm began falling apart. They realized that most of the sediment movement in streambeds occurs during large, rare floods. Hydrologic theory applied to the Rapid City flood of '72 indicated it was a 500-year flood. But historical evidence indicated it might not be quite such a scarce event.

Not twenty miles away, along the east side of the Black Hills, a fellow student of mine studied boulders ranging in size from a meter to four meters; masses from a tonne to 30 tonnes or more. They are fanned out on the plain below a narrow canyon that hosts a modest stream. By measuring the size of lichen patches (lichen grows very slowly), he was able to determine that there had been twenty events in the past 5,000 years that emplaced such boulders as much as two miles from the canyon mouth. They occurred about every 250 years.

After calculating the flow needed to move these boulders, he showed that such floods were in the realm of "1000-year floods", and that there "should" have been between four and seven such floods, not twenty. Historical climatology indicates the climate over the past 5,000 years has seen little change. Rare events are not quite so rare.

Dr. Taleb has worked primarily in financial markets. He has seen the surprises that occur, and what they can do. The entire industry had its past century of profits swallowed up in the foreign banking crisis of fifteen years ago. Everyone, absolutely everyone, was taken totally unawares. What gives?

He writes of "The triplet of opacity":
  • the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  • the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and
  • the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories—when they "Platonify."
He devotes a section of the book to each sort of error. But he devotes particular spleen (in part 3, but spilling over throughout) at the "normal" curve of error, usually called the Gaussian Distribution, the famous "bell curve". Things that can't vary a whole lot (people's heights: 3m or less; scatter of measurements with a meter stick: a few mm) often do follow mathematical rules based on the Gaussian.

But many, probably most, natural phenomena follow tendencies that have much greater variability (rainfall from a single storm: usually a cm or two, but can be meters; payoff from a new invention: usually little or none, but might be billions).

I have to tell him, there is a trace of good news out there. The risking methodology used in the oil industry is based on lognormal distributions. If the expected field area is between one and twenty sq km (not unusual), the oil-bearing layer thickness between 0.5 and 12 m, and the porosity expected to range from 10-60%, one multiplies the limits, applies a scaling factor to reset the "sideboards", and computes an expected production from 120,000 to 30 million barrels.

The "most likely" value is a bit under 2 million barrels, and if drilling the hole costs more than the profit from one million barrels, you have a 75% chance of losing money on the hole...but a 15% chance of making enough to drill ten or more "dry holes" (and the 10% left over is an "ordinary" level of profit). How many bankers would bet on odds like that?

Yet such risking strategies still assume a closed system. It takes another set of ideas (futures markets or political machinations, for example) to better assess the entire risk. Yet Taleb writes, " understand the future to the point of being able to predict it, you need to incorporate elements from this future itself." Simply: you have to know the future already to predict it. No can do. Thus the prevalence of hedging.

In such arenas, how can we even claim expertise? We are experts at sounding expert, but those who survive are actually lucky. Oil men have a cogent saying, "It is better to be lucky than good." Exxon, Shell, BP, Conoco and others were built more on luck. E.W. Marland, founder of Conoco, said in the 1930s, "We know how to find oil now. We have the right science, the right methods, the right engineering," not knowing he'd already found his last barrel of oil.

But we wish to believe in expertise: "We have a natural tendency to listen to the experts, even in a field where there may be no experts." And where are the loudest "experts" today? In finance and investing. I get a weekly update from Motley Fool, that I seldom read. They are but one contrarian voice among dozens, each with a totally different set of "hot tips." They are expert at sounding expert. Look at this chart; it is the distribution of the daily percent change of the NASDAQ over the past 35 years or so (~9,200 data points), analyzed as a Gaussian Distribution:

It is easy to see there is no meaningful "fit". Yes, about 98% of the days are rather close to the "fitting" line, but look at the top and bottom 1%. 9,200 points cover a range of a bit less than -4 to +4 sigmas. Yet, there are plenty of days (about a hundred!) that the excursion, either plus or minus, exceeded 5 or 6 sigmas. Such curves for single stocks are even wilder; 15- and 20-sigma excursions occur millions of times more frequently than a "Normal" bell curve would predict.

Being a compulsive analyst, I took a look at each side (the pluses and minuses) separately, and applied lognormal and power law analyses. Dr. Taleb likes fractal (power law) math, I like lognormal math. I have in thirty years seen only one trend that genuinely followed a power law rule. Even the chart on page 327 that shows two power law regimes, with a transition from one to the other is actually diagnostic of a single lognormal trend.

So I applied both kinds of statistic...close, but no cigar. Then I found a way to generate a "symmetrical" lognormal analysis. I applied the appropriate distortion to the numbers and let Minitab have a whack at the new values. The result is this chart:

That's much better! Minitab, of course, concentrates its fitting where most of the data are. A properly weighted analysis, putting higher relevancy to the outer realms, where you can get helped or hurt much more, would tilt the blue "fitting" line a little more shallowly, raising the "standard deviation", which is here actually a "root log variance".

In this analysis, the formerly "extreme" events are seen to be part of the expected distribution. Thus, a rise or fall of 20% is about a 3.5-sigma event, not a 15-sigma event. More to the point, about a dozen 10% (up or down) days occured in the 35-year period, so one ought to be prepared for such days in any portfolio, every few years, per equity holding.

I am just beginning to get Dr. Taleb's point. I don't plan to stop. I think his book is the best treatment of uncertainty (or whatever you might prefer to call it) to be had today.