Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yes, that purring cat is actually smiling

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal rights, emotions

I once saw the Lipizzaner Stallions perform. The announcer said a particular "Airs Above the Ground" maneuver was being performed by this particular horse for the first time in public. I noticed the horse, just before his jump, hesitate, sway slightly, then rear his head proudly and perform flawlessly. Tears came to my eyes. I could instantly sense the horse's anxiety and that he overcame it.

Five years earlier (1966), in some required Zoology class, we were told very sternly that to attribute to an animal the empathetic feelings we experienced while watching their behavior was "anthropomorphism," one of the greatest sins in science. At that time, even Jane Goodall was finding it difficult to get away with trying to print even weasel-worded statements like "Had we observed a child behave as little Jason behaved, we would say he was happy." When I wept in relief at the horse's triumph, I knew that professor was tragically wrong.

Thank God things have changed. When you scratch between your dog's ears, and he half-closes his eyes and whisper-moans; when you pet a kitten who then purrs; it is quite obvious they are enjoying happy emotions. Are they humanly happy? Of course not! They are dogly or catly happy!! But the emotions they feel are so similar to our own that we recognize them and respond to them.

This lovely image from The Africa Guide, and copyright by them, shows young elephants playing. Have you ever tried to play when you were sad? If you managed it, you weren't sad for long!

Today it is tolerated, and almost acceptable for a scientist to write of "the happy reunion" of a mother fox with her kits, or an "angry baboon", who feels he's been cheated...without using quote marks or weasel words.

Marc Bekoff is one of many whom we can thank for this salutary change. In The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter, Dr. Bekoff makes it clear that we have emotions because animals have emotions, including the animals from which our species descends. Perhaps because they think less richly than we do (at least, we think that is so...), their emotions are possibly richer and stronger than ours.

They are certainly more visible. Particularly in conservative cultures, we are taught to be reserved, to mask our feelings. As it turns out, many animals have been observed to mask feelings also, in order to deceive another or gain advantage. But they usually don't bother.

When a dog's caretaker says, "Let's go for a walk," There is no question of the dog's joy. Give a young pig a new toy, and watch out! Animals seldom have anything to hide. Their hearts really show on their...em...forelegs(!)

Dr. Bekoff and his preferred associates have brought the subject out of the closet. Animals love and hate, feel empathy or disdain, express fear, surprise, and grief pretty much the same way we do. He shows how studies of how brains work are showing that we (all vertebrates, to varying degrees) have specific brain equipment for recognizing and empathizing with the emotions of others, whatever the species. In fact, people without specific training are just as good, and often better, at recognizing an animal's emotion, compared to "professionals."

Dr. Bekoff is an ethologist, one who studies feelings. He specialized in canids (wolves, coyotes, dogs, foxes, and jackals). He and Jane Goodall have established Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or EETA. It is a professional-level organization with many of the same goals as PETA, on which I reported not long ago.

While reading, I realized something very weird: people who claim that only humans have emotions must be Creationists. They must believe our feelings are a "special creation". Otherwise, where did they come from? If 98% of our genes are Chimp genes, and 80+% are in common with all vertebrates, doesn't it stand to reason that our emotions are 80-to-90-plus percent the same as theirs?

Anyway, remember the dog that is happy to hear the word "walk"? He has learned some words of English, but his master knows not one word of Dog. Which one is really smarter?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

That was the day that was - 6 megahits

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sun, moon, earth

I just Googled "that was the day that was" and got 5.9 million hits (Yes, I used quotes. Without them, it's 1.1 Billion(!) hits). Raconteur Michael Sims spends a day with us in Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, and like all semi-fictional days, it is one packed day. Authors aplenty have written "day in the life of" novels and memoirs. This book is a day in the life of...a Day.

It is only recently, historically speaking, that people determined that the Sun is large and comparatively far away. How large? Its diameter is more than 100 times the Earth's, so its volume is greater than one million Earth volumes. How far? Whether you think in miles (93 million) or km (149 million), it is FAR: nearly 12,000 times Earth's diameter, or 3,700 times around, and around, and around...

But for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years, since we had a thinker to think with, the Sun was thought of as a powerful but familiar Presence, perhaps the size of the next big town down the road, hung on a big bowl of a sky held up by the distant hills or mountains.

By turns didactic, lyrical, bare-bones factual, yet always engaging and witty, Sims takes us, not hour by hour, but event by event, through one day: pre-dawn darkness, dawn, morning, midday, afternoon and "brillig", sunset, twilight, and night. Here both science and mythology have a place.

Every culture bases its religion or mythology on daily events and the dominant players, the Sun and Moon. It could hardly be otherwise. Suppose that one side of Earth faced the sun perpetually, as the Moon's visible hemisphere always faces Earth. There would be no notion of "reliable as the sunrise". The Moon, which circles Earth monthly, would be the primary mobile item in a fixed Heaven, and would likely be the dominant deity; the Sun is "just there all the time, and does nothing". Subtler events like the slow orbits of Mars and Saturn take a people with plenty of leisure to puzzle out.

Many in the West know the Biblical formulation, "The Sun to rule the day, and the Moon to rule the night." But have you noticed the Moon in the daytime? This image from a spacecraft on its way to the outer planets captures an amazing view: Not only is the Moon at First Quarter, so is the Earth.

Those in Earth's nighttime see the half-moon high in the sky at sunset, rapidly descending to set about midnight. But consider those on the late afternoon portion of Earth. The Moon is (barring overcast skies) visible as a white half-cookie pasted on a blue sky, about halfway around the sky from the Sun's position. About half the time, the Moon is a daylight object, and near New Moon, it hardly appears after dark.

And that blue color? It is the blue sky seen from above. The air scatters light; even very pure air containing no dust will scatter light. Blue scatters more than red, because the short wavelength of blue light is more closely matched to the size of the molecules that make up the air. When you look at a mountain range such as the Rockies, seen from forty or fifty miles away, the blue, hazy effect is the blueness of the air between. Air is visible. Even after dark, if the moon is up, the sky appears grayish, not black. If our color vision were more sensitive, we would see that moonlit skies are also blue. Maybe lemurs, with their huge eyes see blue nighttime skies. But they are dark to us.

Darkness. What is the reason? The existence of a dark sky is visible proof that the Universe is finite, either in time, in extent, or probably both. Sims takes us rapidly through the wranglings of Galileo, Kepler, Olbers, and finally Slipher, as the puzzle of the dark sky was gradually solved...well, as solved as it can be at present. We still don't know for sure whether the expansion following the Big Bang is slowing down or, as many now contend, speeding up (My take: slowing down. The apparent anomaly in supernova brightness at very great distances is related to elemental evolution. The stars billions of years ago, having very low "metals" abundance, got bigger, burned brighter, and blew up more energetically than is the rule now. Type Ia supernovae in the early universe were genuinely brighter.).

By the end of the book, I felt like I'd been sitting with a comfortable, knowledgeable companion through a long, pleasant day.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Real Estate glitches

kw: opinion, scams, real estate

I don't know if this is nationwide, but in the Philadelphia area, lots of advertising money is going into promoting seminars titled "real estate riches" (the term isn't someone's trademark; lots of people use it, including the titles of a few "books"). Most recently, they promise to show attendees how to make money in a falling market. They also claim money can be made "tax free."

No matter what kind of market, the way to make money is to sell something for more than you paid, or to rent/lease it for more than you are paying for a mortgage and other costs. Period.

No matter how you make a buck, you'll be taxed. The IRS has had more than ninety years to close every loophole. You'll find that "tax free" means "tax offset"; a loss to balance a gain. In other words, if you break even, you don't get taxed. IRS gets nothing, and you get nothing. Sometimes you can defer the loss, so it looks like you made tax-free money this year, but it just means when the loss must be paid, you'll still have nothing to show.

No doubt, some people have made money. But particularly in a falling market, it takes a lot of losers to support one winner. We just don't hear about the losers.

I read a story once, but don't recall title or author. Aliens arrived and began trading with everyone. You could sell them some trinket or idea or piece of "art" and get a cure for cancer or a space navigation instrument. They were busily helping the governments of Earth develop interstellar space programs and ships.

One person invited an alien on a duck hunting trip. Early on, they saw a few ducks flying in, and the man shot one. Then they came to a pond, with lots of ducks swimming around. The alien asked, "Why don't you shoot some?" The man replied, "We don't shoot sitting ducks." The alien muttered, "Neither do we."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Stripping the planetary gears

kw: musings, science fantasy

In a post in August (Geared-up Universe) I reviewed Jay Lake's novel Mainspring. Much action revolves around (giggle) the gear teeth at Earth's equator, and their meshing with a huge ring gear that forms Earth's orbit.

I couldn't resist doing the math. Earth's orbital velocity is more than 100,000 km/hr or nearly 2.6 million km/day, yet her equatorial circumference is 40,000 km (The meter was originally defined as 1/10,000th the distance from the pole to the equator at the longitude of Paris).

The disparity is a factor of more than 64:1. Thus in Jay Lake's universe, either the year has 23,500 very short days (22.4 minutes long, each), or the sun must be very dim, so Earth can reside a mere 2.3 million km away, rather than 150 million.

Now, consider dear Luna, which has a much longer day, and a much smaller orbit. Are they perhaps a better match?

The Moon's circumference is about 10,900 km. Her orbital circumference is 2.4 million km. Simple division yields just over 220; that is the number of days a ring gear would enforce. However, Luna revolves but once in traveling that distance. No ring gear is needed, just a simple arm to fix her distance, and keep her face pointed toward Earth. The day length disparity caused by the ring gear so visible in one scene of Mainspring causes a discrepancy of 220:1, then, greater than for Earth.

Well, that is what fantasy is about, making us, for a short time, believe the impossible. Readers of good fiction know what the Red Queen knew when she told Alice she was in the habit of believing seven impossible things before breakfast.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

For Latinas, it is Fifteen

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ethnology, folklore

When does a child become an adult? In Edo-period Japan and earlier, and only among nobles, a genpuku ceremony for boys was held at an age between 12 and 16; mogi for girls between 11 and 14. The precise age varied through the generations, and from place to place. In modern Japan, ceremony or no, young people become legal adults at age 20.

Among Jews, a bar mitzvah for boys is still held at the traditional time of the 13th birthday. The female version is the bat mitzvah, a more recent innovation. It is at this same age that Christians of various Baptist and Anabaptist persuasions consider a young person to be "morally responsible", and ready for baptism, though some sects prefer an age of 7 or 8.

In the Unites States, Euro-Americans tend to celebrate several rites of passage: Sweet Sixteen (mainly for girls, and because it is alliterative); "Voting Age", since it was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972 (just in time for a hotly-contested election); and "Drinking Age", or 21.

The US has a habit of making one large transition into a series of small steps. In martial arts, for example, whether Judo or Karate, a young Japanese was expected to practice and study hard for four to six years, and attain an age of 20, to get a Black Belt. Prior to that he (very rarely she) wore the White Belt of a Learner. Less than a century ago, American dojos began awarding a Brown Belt at the halfway mark; the Green Belt was invented when I was learning in the 1950s, and the 1960s and later saw a proliferation of belt colors. Most dojos, however, reserve solid Red for the 10th dan (Black Belt is 1st dan). Similarly, in school my only graduation ceremony was about age 18, for High School. My son had ceremonies after grades 3, 6, and 8, and of course 12.

In some, not all, Hispanic cultures, girls are ushered into womanhood at age 15, usually with the best party her family can afford. On the surface it resembles the Debutante Ball of the American South, though that is held at age 17 or 18. "Los quince" (not the small orange fruit) means "the 15", and a quinceañera is a "girl of 15 years". The quince bears the most resemblance to a marriage ceremony, with a (usually) white gown, many attendants, a dance with her Father, and plenty of food at a follow-up reception.

Fifteen Candles: 15 Tales of Taffeta, Hairspray, Drunk Uncles, and other Quinceañera Stories, edited by Adriana Lopez, gives a peek or two, not so much into the quince itself, but into the feelings, experiences, dreams, and disasters of the participants.

Consider how delicately balanced a marriage ceremony is, how prone to being "ruined" by the smallest misstep; "the 15" simple doubles the chances a young woman will have dramatic, traumatic memories to laugh or cry about decades later.

Ms Lopez has gathered 15 stories by 15 Hispanic writers, mostly women. A few of the events were happily memorable, some were more shockingly memorable, and the middle-of-the-road experience seems to be a tragicomic, frightening-when-it-wasn't-boring spectacle of uptight parents, misbehaving uncles, aunts, cousins, and siblings, and often, puzzled Anglo friends.

I am pretty sure at least a couple of the stories are quite exaggerated ... pretty sure. But as the 'one that got away' gets bigger as time passes, I suspect most of the authors were actually holding back a little. Human nature is stranger than we like to think.

In spite of the fact that most quince parties are more for the parents than for the girls, some of the girls were indeed strongly moved, have retained cherished memories, and look forward to offering the same chance to their own budding young daughters.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Women who run the Universe

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies, women

I read somewhere that as they age, men become more similar to women. Perhaps, and just perhaps, many more overly-macho men die younger, leaving the mild (meek or not) to inherit...along with a few crusty old SOBs who're too savage for the old Reaper to take easily.

Regardless, I find that I enjoy women's writing the most, the older I get. In many anthologies, I'll recognize one or two stories, seldom more. In A Woman's Liberation: A Choice of Futures By and About Women, I found I'd read more than half of them! Co-editors Connie Willis and Sheila Williams must have had an excruciating time choosing only ten longish short stories and novellas for this volume.

As always, the ideas are most important to me. In many cases, how the idea is presented is of equal importance. In my comments, the * prefix indicates a story I'd read before.

  • Inertia by Nancy Kress – On the surface, a simple conflict between fear of change and embracing change. Underneath, can a disfiguring disease leading to the permanent interning of millions also make them able to cohere socially, while world "outside" crumbles into anarchy? My counter-idea: The fact of being different and outcast, as those in shtetls, gulags, internment camps (1940s Japanese in America), concentration camps, and POW prisons, powerfully affects the attitudes and tendencies of many toward altruism.
  • *Even the Queen by Connie Willis – One of my all-time favorite stories. Menstruation is voluntary, a neo-nostalgic cult being the main volunteers. A table-full of strong women don't bother to debate the issue with a young idealist, but ignore her to swap stories. This wise yenta's technique takes the day.
  • Fool's Errand by Sarah Zettel – A story of camoflage, love (the agapé kind), and transformation. It won't do to reveal what really happens to out-of-control AIs.
  • *Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy – It takes an effort for me to suspend disbelief about a girl's mind being imprinted on a chimp brain. When I do, the basic premise is simple: who we are is what we think, not how we look. (There is a similar story by a male author, of a human-chimp hybrid, but I don't recall the title or author).
  • *Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand by Vonda N. McIntyre – I love this story, but couldn't bear to read it again. The healer's snakes are medicinal, their 'venom' only heals, and human ignorance is seen to be more dangerous than any illness.
  • The July Ward by S.N. Dyer – The side story of a physician avoiding gangland retribution aside, a doctor's undying memory of the first patient who dies of his or her a medical mistake is incarnated powerfully here. Trust only a doctor who is old enough to have outgrown youthful overconfidence—and that's a different age for each doctor!
  • The Kidnapping of Baroness 5 by Katherine MacLean – Prion diseases are presently rare. But the prion protein's ability to "corrupt" its properly-working fellows warns us that it can only increase, possibly without limit. Project the trend into the future: the propagation of specially-resistant traits is critical if humans are to have a future.
  • *Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler – I don't know what could cause nearly all adults to lose the power of speech. But a result would be persecution of those who retain it.
  • *The Ship Who Mourned by Anne McCaffrey – I think I've read all of the "Ship Who" books and stories. This is my favorite. When we mourn, we may need others' tears to release our own.
  • *A Woman's Liberation by Ursula K. Le Guin – In less than seventy pages, the author manages to expose nearly every bigotry to which we're subject, in a clear, actinic light no thoughtful reader can touch and stay unchanged.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Half a Superbunny autobio is better than none

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, activism, animal rights

For years, I've wondered, "Just what is PETA anyhow?" I happened to see the back of this book first, and once it caught my eye, it didn't take long to find that the Rabbit-Man is none other than Dan Mathews, a VP at PETA. The book is Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir.

Dan is a master of getting attention. Of course, since just about day one in school, it was usually attention of the unpleasant kind. His schoolmates had him pegged for a "fag" long before he adopted the label. Now he's almost as active in gay rights as he is for animal rights. But he took the lemon and made lemonade. He's had a couple decades to hone his craft, which now consists of three steps:
  1. Attempt a civil approach with a target person or organization, whether Calvin Klein or KFC. This is usually fruitless.
  2. Subject a number of said target's employees, including the CEO or other honcho when possible, to an amusing, outrageous slice of Hell for a short period (minutes, hours, sometimes days). This sometimes prompts a change of direction...or at least of things said about direction.
  3. In rare cases, someone like Calvin Klein will send a message, "Why didn't you just ask to see me?" and the answer is, "We really, really tried with [documented] results." The ensuing sit-down usually gets the best results.
Dan's earlier "work" was more heavily weighted on step 2, until he learned "that apathy and indifference are more easily conquered with charm than antagonism", as he writes on page 56.

However, institutions and important people are often very, very insulated. It can take a lot to get their attention. Getting attention is what Dan Mathews does best. Whether posing as a big rabbit, or carrot, or as a priest, in formal dress or none whatever, he gets attention.

I've been quite put off for years by the PETA tactics. Now I understand a little better. Almost by happenstance, PETA performed two "actions" on behalf of a Harvard class. First, they did a version of "I'd rather wear nothing than furs". That got Dan and one or two others arrested for indecent exposure. Then, taking one student's suggestion, they had a much more civil demonstration. The first event was seen by millions; the second, by scarcely a dozen. The students got the point.

It is a pity such tactics are required, just to get someone to sit still to hear a complaint. In the face of some real, and really dangerous, fanatics out there, PETA is actually rather innocuous. They are also useful. We need our gadflies, our finger-pointers, our loud 'voice of conscience' activists, to give civilization at least a ghost of a chance at being truly civil.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

are you sure this is the museum of surrealism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor

Perhaps you had to be there. Simon Rich, former president of Harvard Lampoon, is supposed to be a very funny bloke. After reading Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations in total impassiveness, I wonder...

This little book contains fifty-plus vignettes. The one that made the most sense, and one of the shortest, is "if life were like middle school":
JUDGE: In all my years on the bench, I have never seen a more despicable criminal. You robbed, assaulted, and tortured the victim simply for the thrill of it. Do you have anything to say in your defense before I sentence you?
JUDGE: In that case, I hereby sentence you to forty years in a maximum security prison. I also sentence the victim to forty years in prison.
VICTIM: Wait—what? That doesn't make any sense! He attacked me!
JUDGE: I don't care who started it.

At least this one makes sense. Most don't. The title piece is also comprehensible, containing this exchange between two of the ants:
—What kind of God would put us here, just to torture us? Sand to the left...sand to the right...
—It's a test, William. He's testing us.

The opening piece, a conversation between Abraham and Isaac during "the ride back to beersheba", has the father with definite second thoughts, and a son a few years older than the child in the Bible story.

Fortunately, as noted, this is a small book. I typically found myself puzzled as one incomprehensible piece gave way to the next. Maybe I'll wake up laughing tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

And you thought his Fiction was horrifying

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, commentary

I find a certain resemblance between Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Much of their writing is of technology gone horribly wrong. The emphasis for Crichton is on the technology and the escape therefrom; for King it is the horror and the lack of escape. Secondarily, King relies in various amounts on the supernatural, something Crichton avoids.

You could put King's genre in a 20-80 range. The terror in some of his books is 80% technological and only 20% supernatural, in others it's the other way 'round. This alone makes it tough to write about his "science", but Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg have done just that, in The Science of Stephen King: from 'Carrie' to 'Cell', the Terrifying Truth Behind the Horror Master's Fiction.

I confess I have read not one word of King. After a youthful brush with Lovecraft and his early 20th Century imitators, I foreswore supernatural horror. The reviews of Carrie in the 1970s made it clear that the title character was (or hosted) a malicious poltergeist. However, I was sufficiently intrigued by this book's title and cover to read through it.

In its nine chapters the authors discuss King's reliance on ESP, AI, Aliens, Plague, Higher Dimensions, Time Travel, Parallel Worlds, and Longevity, and finally discuss the philosophy of Evil, Obsession, and Fear, particularly as King uses them.

In particular, it became clear as I read that the vague, ending-without-really-ending nature of many of King's books simply multiplies their impact. Horror is, after all, a way of getting a reader to ask, "If I had the power to do that, would I do it better?" The evil and obsession are a part of all of us, and the fear is a fear of ourselves, if we have any trace of conscience.

The authors rely primarily on science fiction and its tropes to "explain" the science (loosely so-called) used by King. Stephen King was, after all, an English major. Science has provided him useful material for versimilitude (among scientifically illiterate readers, at least). The SciFi writers mentioned by Gresh and Weinberg frequently had less grounding in science than either King or themselves.

The authors were both Science majors, and they do a good job of outlining the science, as it is known—or not—about each chapter's topic. I reckon that King is less than impressed; he is a story teller, and clearly a superb one. You can't let facts get in the way of a good story.

The rule propounded by John Campbell, king of the Golden Age of SciFi Editors, was "Pose a thorny problem, then solve it." King is a master of its opposite: "Show why this problem will not be solved."

Sunday, October 14, 2007


kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, history, physics

No doubt many little boys have done what I did, to try to make a bow out of a green stick and a piece of postal twine, and tinkertoy arrows. We played endless games of "cowboy and indian". While we were warned by our parents not to use the bows in hot pursuit, we did try them out for target practice against the side of the house...if they would shoot that far.

But who, without ever seeing a bow, first thought to make one, and turn it into a hunting or warmaking weapon. Archery is so old, it may be pre-Cro-magnon. At least it predates written history by a few millennia. In the closing chapter of Ingenium: Five Machines that Changed the World, Mark Denny speculates on just this point, but the note is mainly romantic. Whether, for example, the fire-starting bow came first or not is a chicken-and-egg sort of speculation.

In the first chapter of the book, Dr. Denny outlines the history of arrow- and bow-making from the middle ages to the near-present. His interest in the book is to show first, the huge effect the bow and four other technologies had on the development of human civilization, and then to outline the physics of each mechanism to show how it can be a teaching tool with physics students. His explanations are clear enough that those without the math background are not left uninformed, but brought to at least a qualitative understanding of the physical and mechanical principles.

Mills powered by both water and wind are his second subject. Denny outlines the development of water power, beginning with undershot mills, then the more efficient overshot (as shown here), but then shows how a better analysis led to undershot mills with better vane design that are as efficient as overshot mills, and how both led to the turbine. Here and in two other chapters he gives us brief biographies of those responsible for key developments.

Because of the need for at least a little elevation difference, water mills led to the development of dams, sluices, gates, and other technologies, long prior to their need for water-retention purposes.

Windmills employ the same physics principles as water mills, with the proviso that the driving fluid is more compressible. The more fickle nature of wind adds requirements for steerability and variable-efficiency designs.

I know of mills that used both wind and water power, and could switch between them as the seasons dictated (you can use wind when the river is frozen, for example). But I couldn't find a usable picture of one to show here.

Interestingly, we all made little whirligigs and other wind-powered devices as children, but I don't know of anyone that made a working toy water mill. We did, however, dam up a lot of creeks, mainly to see how much water we could impound. We used the same "rule" used by beavers: add stuff where the trickling sound is the loudest.

I've made several small trebuchets. Firstly, to figure out how they work in the first place, later in collaboration with my son and a friend for Science Olympiad competitions. We always came in third in the state. We concluded we are good designers, but not great ones. Great fun, though. It gave the neighbors a start when we tested a machine smaller than a camp chair, that could throw a golf ball 25-30 meters.

I learned that "trebuchet" refers just to the counterweighted catapults that have a hinged counterweight. A similar device with a weight fixed to the throwing arm, whether on wheels or not, is "mangonel". I learned, first from earlier reading, and here in more detail from Denny, that the hinge or wheels are needed to increase efficiency by allowing the counterweight to fall in a nearly straight path; also that the sling greatly increases efficiency.

The word "Ingenium" was first applied to these siege engines. In English, it morphed in to "Engine", and the attendant "Ingeniers" into "Engineers."

At age nine or ten, I was given a defunct wind-up alarm clock by my father. It was one of these old monsters about six inches in diameter, with two springs so the alarm didn't run off the time spring. It didn't take me long to get it apart. Somehow, I had the foresight to take note of the way the gears and plates fit together, because I got it back together, and it ran!

Antique clocks became a minor obsession for Dad and us boys. By the time we all moved out, he had about thirty running antique clocks, many of them small mantel clocks, that sat in a special bookcase he'd built into the den, with extra-deep pockets so a clock sat in front of each shelf of books. It sounded amazingly wonderful at noon or midnight. He gave a clock or two to each of us, and some of us collected others. I have several, but only keep one running. I am the only Westminster Chime enthusiast in the house at present!

The secret to the steady running of all pre-electronic clocks is the Anchor escapement. It has been adapted both to pendulum clocks and to balance wheel "carriage" clocks and pocket watches, and of course to the navitational clocks that the British government commissioned from the 17th to the early 19th Centuries. It and its older sibling, the crown and verge escapement, are speed-governing devices that probably led to the high-powered deviced discussed last.

The principle behind the flyball governor is far from obvious, when you first see one. At first, it seems that the rising weights absorb some power, and so regulate engine speed. This would work only for the very weakest of steam engines.

What it really does is this: the rising balls pull a sleeve up the shaft, and the sleeve is attached to a valve that opens as the balls fall, and closes as the balls rise. It is the quintessential negative feedback device.

The physics discussion showed that the device is very nonlinear, and that this characteristic causes great difficulties in the control of more powerful engines that must respond quickly to changes in load. The key finding is that there must be a certain amount of friction in the governor assembly. This causes it to lag its feedback just a little, then overshoot, so it allows a bit of a jerk in speed, then damps it quickly and helps it settle quickly. Too little friction, and there it too little damping to get engine speed to settle down quickly. That delight of physics students, a friction-free world (which makes the math much, much simpler) is very hard to control!

Get several historians and scientists together, and you'll get any number of lists of the inventions that changed the world most. Prior to the 20th Century, at least, these five get my vote (and while I share the thought that Agriculture had the greatest influence of all, it isn't a device).

Friday, October 12, 2007


kw: book reviews, poetry

I suppose it is the autistic nerd buried (not so deeply) in me. I am most comfortable with structured poetry. Do you know the old cliché, "It has no rhyme nor reason"? Formerly, "reason" meant structure, or as we would say today, rhythm. The saying is a fair description of "free verse", an oxymoron.

Fortunately, Conversations: poems that talk to other poems, edited by Kurt Brown and Harold Schechter, has verse of all forms, from sonnets and "abba"- or "abab"-rhymed quatrains to blank verse (think Shakespeare soliloquies) and, yes, plenty of free verse. There are a few fence-sitters as well, such as El Hombre by William Carlos Williams:
It's a strange courage
you give me, ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!
Lines of broken anapests alternate with iambic trimeters, and part almost rhymes with star. Actually, it is most nearly a haiku, though the form does not explicitly appear.

The premise of the book is those poems that turn the one-way communication of publishing into a two-way communication (though the first speaker has typically fallen silent long since). The first long section begins Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", followed by eight replies, riffs, or variations.

Other sections have one or two replies each, by turns in accord, in anger, rebuking, and adoring, and a few humorous takeoffs, such as Ogden Nash's "Very Like a Whale" in answer to Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib". Nash begins,
One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.
and rather thoroughly unmasks every trope in the piece. It would be an outrage were it not so hilarious!

I seldom read a volume of poetry right through, but this was an exception.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Gems traversing the sky

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ornithology, migration, songbirds

Having lived for years in the Midwest and West, a favorite sight was the fall flocks of blackbirds. A grain field would seethe with small, black bodies, and suddenly the black mass would leap overhead, darkening the sky in what the Danes call Blacksun.

I knew that they would soon disappear, the next time a North wind arose, suddenly heading out at dusk toward Central or South America. Blackbirds are opportunists, and don't go farther than they must. Some stop in southern Texas, but in a dry year they'll all wend their way much farther, perhaps to Argentina.

The seemingly subtler migration of the more colorful, gemlike warblers and thrushes and finches often occurred without my notice, unless I happened to be out, perhaps walking after dark, or finding one more Messier object with my telescope.

On only one occasion while peering at the Moon did I see a barely-perceived, dark shape cross it. I realized later I'd seen a small bird, still small at 60x from two miles away, flicking across the quarter-degree-wide half-cookie of the moon in a second or less.

Mostly I just heard them; if I happened to listen stilly, I'd hear their faint twitters. It never occurred to me to try to record the sound. It has occured to others, and such recordings, computer-parsed and analyzed, are a powerful tool to discern songbird populations as they change from year to year. I like the idea. It's so much less intrusive than trapping a bird to glue a radio transmitter to the nape of the neck.

Miyoko Chu of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes of these and other methods for learning the hidden lives of migratory songbirds in Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds. But even more, she writes of the birds. How tiny half-ounce chickadees or one-ounce warblers will fly a few hundred miles overnight, losing a quarter or more of their body weight along the way. No wonder they descend on the fields like a ravenous horde...they are ravenous!

I hadn't read, anywhere before, that all migratory birds nest in the North and, though it is Summer in the South while they are there, do not nest there, and that the birds that do nest there do not migrate. I wonder if this is a purely Americas phenomenon; the book focuses on American species. Perhaps South African birds that nest near the Cape migrate north to have a European non-nesting sojourn.

Each of the book's four sections has a descriptive, evocative portion, focusing alternately on specific species and on the larger phenomena of the season. Each also has a closing section on times and places at which one may see great concentrations of migrating birds (two seasons), nesting birds (Summer), and overwintering birds, plus tips for observing and recording bird behavior in your yard or neighborhood.

The most fruitful tip: few birds fly far on still days, very few when it is very windy, and the largest numbers on seasonably windy days. Particularly, wind on a cooling Fall day is spiraling from a high, which means winds out of the North if it to your West; on clear days in Fall, migrants take advantage of the tailwind. Wind on a rainy day in Spring is running ahead of a warm front, blowing out of the South as stormy weather approaches from the West. Spring migrants will risk the storm to get a good tailwind. A sudden shift in either kind of weather will yield a bird-fall with or ahead of the rainfall. Great days to see birds, but you must recognize that they are fleeing disaster, and probably exhausted.

One clear purpose of the book is to gain more eyes and ears, gathering some of the mountains of data needed by the rather small community of professional Ornithologists. This is one area in which the help of "amateurs" is vital. See eBird if you wish to participate.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Will the real Messiah please arise

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, christian faith

The apostle Paul, speaking on Mars' Hill in Athens, was just warming to his subject: "...For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." (Acts 17:31-32)

Every message the Apostles spoke, as recorded in Acts, refers to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is a constant theme mentioned in nearly every Epistle, and the Gospels record that Jesus told his disciples beforehand, on at least three occasions, that he would die and be raised.

Many years ago, I shared many things with a classmate in graduate school, an atheist. We could discuss anything with relative equanimity, but when I spoke of the resurrection, his outraged response was, "Do you really believe that?!?" In time, he also believed, and is an active Christian to this day.

Nothing has changed in about 1,975 years. Huge amounts of energy are being spent, in the form of scholarship, publishing, public speaking and debates, in an effort to dissuade people from believing the Bible, or Jesus, or His resurrection. The resurrection gets the most attention, because, as Paul said, it is God's proof that Jesus is our redeemer and is to be our Judge.

Stripped down to essentials, the conclusion of the Gospel message is this: In yourself, you know you cannot afford the penalty for sin. You need a redeemer. Jesus is the redeemer. He died to pay the penalty for you. He resurrected to prove the power of His redemption. He is also the Judge, and his resurrection also indicates his appointment to judge all who have not accepted His redemption.

Some may think, if they stand before God one day, they can say, "You don't know how it is, being human. Life is hard. Temptation is strong. You can't hold me to your standard." But when they look at the Judge, they will see the Son of Man, with the wounds still visible in his hands, and know that He can say, "I am as human as you are. I was tempted in every way that you were, and more besides. These wounds paid for your sin, and bought you forgiveness, which you rejected. Now it it too late."

When it comes down to it, "atheists" are actually "anti-theists". They know that any righteous God will not agree with many things in their life; they know that morality is not relative, and that they are sinful (Those who have no such feeling are psychopaths). Preferring to run their own life, they deny the existence of any god. Their unbelief does not make God nonexistent, and the anger they exhibit when reminded of God shows that their conscience disagrees with their conclusion.

Lee Strobel was once an atheist. Educated in journalism and law, working as a journalist and legal editor, he embarked on an investigative journalism project, to determine what is the objective evidence for Jesus and His claims to be the Christ and the Redeemer. In 1981 he became a believer, and his studies eventually led to The Case for Christ.

Now, as a new tide of anti-Jesus publishing and rhetoric grows, he has investigated the worth of the attacks against Christian beliefs. In The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ, he focuses on six challenges to faith.

It should come as no surprise that he concludes these challenges are without merit. Given his character and educational background, however, he didn't simply set up straw men to be napalmed at leisure. Rather, he gathered the strongest and best arguments made in each area, and in interviews with the most renowned scholars in each area, he has challenged them with the anti-faith material and reported their responses. It is compelling reading, indeed.

The book closes with a summary, wrapping up the six facets of the case. I could cop out and copy those two pages here, but instead, I'll present a shorter summary. After all, it really is best that you read Strobel for yourself.
  • Challenge #1 Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels. Actually, I've read most of this "credible" material; it is incredible. The Gospels by Matthew and John were written by men who traveled with Jesus for more than three years and witnessed him in resurrection. Luke was written from interviews with eyewitnesses, and Mark was written from messages and stories told by Peter to Mark or in his presence. All the other "Gospels" (of Thomas or Mary or Judas) were written at least two or three generations later, and attributed falsely to people already dead for fifty to 150 years. If the attribution is a lie, what about the content?
  • Challenge #2 The Bible's portrait of Jesus can't be trusted because the church tampered with the text. I have on my desk A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger. This 775-page volume discusses every textual point of controversy encountered by those who produced the Third Edition of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament. I got it at the recommendation of Bart Ehrman, a "former evangelical", now an apostate. He claims there are hundreds of thousands of variations between New Testament manuscripts, a product of inflated attribution: If 500 manuscripts record "He said" and 400 record "He says", Bart counts 400 "differences", where a manuscript scholar would count one. Nearly all experts in Bible manuscripts, believer and skeptic alike, agree that all but a very few manuscript variations are minor and don't alter the sense of the passage. Not even the more major variations produce a text that denies the divinity of Jesus, His resurrection, or the effectiveness of His redemption. My own studies bear this out. The fact is, we have better manuscript support for the New Testament than we have for any of the Greek plays or biographies. We have documents produced by people who saw Jesus, alive, dead, and alive again. The oldest biography of Alexander the Great was written 300 years after he died (and stayed dead).
  • Challenge #3 New Explanations have refuted Jesus' resurrection. What explanations? If God exists, He is able to do things none of our science can account for. If He does not, then there could not have been a resurrection. There are five facts that go together on this subject, that are among the most well-established facts of history: Jesus died by crucifixion; his disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them (note, this belief is the historical fact here); Saul the persecutor of the church was converted and became Paul the apostle by encountering the risen Christ; Jesus' half brother James, initially a skeptic, was also converted by meeting Christ in resurrection; and all, friendly and hostile witness alike, attested that His tomb was empty (the religious leaders paid a high bribe to persuade the guards of the tomb to testify that they'd fallen asleep, which was a capital offense).
  • Challenge #4 Christianity's beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.It was shown a century ago that the pagan religions had no elements resembling the redemption and resurrection of Jesus, until the second Century AD or later; if anything, they were the plagiarists. Now that those books are out of print, ignorant scholars are reincarnating old, discredited news.
  • Challenge #5 Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the Messianic prophecies. This again hinges on the resurrection. If Jesus is still dead, he is a shameful failure. By rising from the dead, he turned a supposed failure into the greatest of triumphs, proving that He and He alone is the Redeemer and Judge. There are a couple hundred statements in the Old Testament that are considered to be Messianic prophecies by the Jewish scholars who wrote the Talmud. Of those which had to be fulfilled while the temple was in existence, every one is shown to be fulfilled by Jesus. A somewhat smaller number remain to be fulfilled, and much of the New Testament contains supporting predictions that they will be fulfilled when Jesus returns in a "second coming" to Christians, and as "the one whom they pierced" to the Jews.
  • Challenge #6 People should be fre to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus. This is as good a definition as any of syncretism, which I call "Adding a nicey-nice Jesus to your bag of tricks." Jesus in the Bible spoke of sin and judgment, and warned of hell, about as often as he spoke of love and compassion. He is no milquetoast! Yet it is quite strange that the "Jesus" believed in by syncretists would never do or say something so gauche. Moral relativism and historical revisionism have been around for thousands of years. I once said to someone who said sex should be 'totally free', "OK, will you send your little daughter to my house to spend the night? I'd like a 'comfort companion'." His reaction proved that morality isn't relative. I suspect he was equally uninterested in anyone taking "comfort" from his older, adult daughter, or his wife.
The multitudes that are taken in by the sloppy historical thinking embodied in these challenges simply points up the educational crisis. If people were simply educated—a single day would do it—in the basic criteria of historical credibility, they would be harder to deceive, whether by clever politicians or amoral apologists.

Lee Strobel is an effective apologist for Christian faith. See his web site for a video-rich perusal of these issues and more.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dewy Webs

kw: photos, spider webs, dew

The fog and dew this morning limned the spider webs most beautifully. I managed to get out to take a few photos before the dew vanished. This side-on view of an orb web was taken at the angle of maximum reflection on the web. The depth of field is a bit narrow because the overcast skies made too little light to really boost the f/stop.

Click on any of these images to see one about half the size of the original 6mpx image.
Same web, face-on view. It was hard to focus on the spider. This is the best of several tries. I boosted the contrast a little on both this and the pic above.

I have heard of people collecting webs. They carefully spray them with white spray paint, then lift a piece of black paper against them. I suppose you could laminate the result to make it longer-lasting. All you are really preserving is the painted pattern, because the web material is water-absorbent and soon rots away.

The third photo is of a funnel web. Some bushes had dozens of these. This is a more isolated one that shows the structure better.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The most-caught fish, but nobody eats it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, conservation

A poor metaphor: the primary herbivore of all the world's grasslands, prairies, and steppes is a gerbil-size creature we'll call a "wabbit". They weigh no more than a pound. There are no ungulates (deer, elk, antelope, sheep or goats), no horses, zebras, gnus, giraffes, eland, cattle, or large grazing animals of any kind. Just wabbits, eating grass, all grass, any grass. Larger herbivores such as swine are found only in forested land.

And the grass the wabbits are eating is super-grass, grass on steroids, grass with an attitude that makes crabgrass whine in a corner. Left to itself, it responds to spring rains by growing a couple inches daily, falling over once it gets a couple feet high (less than two weeks), the longer blades dying and decaying even as new growth pushes through, making an oxygen-poor stench that leaves the air nearly unbreathable.

Except for the wabbits. They eat it down to a nice, comfortable inch high. And their droppings are dry and powdery, nourishing the grass. Lots of wabbits mean short grass, clean yards, and fresh air.

Your "lawn", should you choose to cultivate one, presents a rather busy scene. A typical American front yard, 20x80 feet, is usually host to about thirty wabbits, munching away as they lollop here and there. It is all rather bucolic and peaceful. Except for the predators. Something has to eat the wabbits, because they multiply like, well, wabbits. Every dog, cat, wolf, crow, hawk, coyote, ferret, eagle, skunk, puma, raccoon and badger just loves the taste of wabbit. So every week or so there is a feeding frenzy as a half-dozen predators swoops into your yard, scattering wabbits everywhere as they manage to eat about a third of them.

Why not live on wabbit stew? As it happens, wabbits taste awful and the meat stinks; at its best it cooks up like leather, and it is drippily, slimily oily. Your housecat eats wabbit at every opportunity...but you can't stand the thought of eating one yourself.

Then it is found that ground-up wabbit is a great fertilizer on farmland, the oil is a great lubricant, and lightly-oiled "wabbit meal" is great for fattening up domestic hogs and other (non-herbivorous) meat animals, which do taste good.

Let a century pass. Wabbits are supporting a large industrial enterprise. Truck-mounted cannon-fired nets can snap up every wabbit on an acre of land in an hour's time. Smaller versions harvest your yard, with your permission, monthly.

Funny thing, though, you have had to buy a lawn mower. Didn't need one before. And you have to mow three or four times weekly, or your heavy-duty 12hp mulching mower clogs and stalls. Yards left unmown begin to stink up the neighborhood. Where you had thirty wabbits, now you have three, or five on a good day.

Your housecat seldom makes a catch any more. You have to buy cat food, made from wabbit meal. The wild predators you used to enjoy seeing seldom appear.

I could go on, but now let us circle back behind the metaphor.

This little fish, no more than a foot long, is the Gulf Menhaden, the most populous fish on the planet, and the object of the largest catches. Its nearly-extinct Atlantic cousin (which once outnumbered it 5:1) is still taken at a rate of 100,000 tons yearly.

Just like the "wabbit", the menhaden is practically inedible to humans. It is nourishing enough, but most people have to just about starve before they'll try one. It is the only fish which can be caught without any regulated "cap", by the "Menhaden reduction" industry, composed primarily of one company, Omega Protein.

As described by H. Bruce Franklin in The Most Important Fish in the Sea, Atlantic Menhaden were the fish the natives taught the 17th Century colonists to use to fertilize corn. They were so abundant prior to the 1800s that you could catch them with a basket. John Smith and his men tried catching them with frying pans, and caught a few. They soon learned better methods.

But it was their predators that really drew people's attention. Bluefish, weakfish, bass, tuna, led a huge and varied host of predatory fish to "harvest" menhaden almost continually. Menhaden won't take a hook, but bait a hook with a menhaden, or half of one, and almost any ocean fish will strike, and fast. In the analogy above, we'd be eating the dogs, cats, wolves, puma, etc. Just think, that can of tuna, were it from a land animal, would be a can of lion or tiger meat.

Menhaden are the animal at the bottom of the ocean's primary food chain. They eat planktonic algae (phytoplankton), where most other filter feeders such as cod or herring eat protozoa and other tiny animals (zooplankton). Zooplankton also eat phytoplankton, but are a minor competitor to the menhaden. Every Atlantic fish that can, eats menhaden; those that can't, eat the ones that eat menhaden.

Menhaden have been captured for use as fertilizer, industrial oil, and fish meal for two hundred years or more. Where they once seemed to literally fill the near-shore ocean from Maine to Florida, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, now about one percent remain...and they still support the largest fishery on the planet, in terms of tonnage.

But their lack is keenly felt. Occasional algal blooms and oxygen-starved "dead zones" have always occurred. But now they are a yearly phenomenon. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico now grows larger than Connecticut, every year. Imagine if the grass in your yard, if allowed to grow, poisoned your neighborhood: birds fell from the sky, your cat suffocated in the yard, and you had to flee to the desert for some fresh air...suppose this happened for a month or two every year.

It is ironic that Omega Protein, though a monopoly, is fighting for survival. Not because of opposition, but because their base is shrinking, and every one of their "products" has better alternatives. Their market is shrinking as fast as the remaining menhaden stock. I wonder which will go to zero first...

Author Franklin works steadily, inexorably. In a feat of good history and good journalism, he shows how Atlantic fishing has progressed from Colonial times until today, the commercial and political climate that has led to a completely unregulated industry, and the glints of hope that this "vacuum cleaner of the Atlantic" might be allowed to regain some of its stature, to the greater good of us all. Imagine, for example, a Chesapeake Bay that again hosts oysters, crabs in numbers 20x of today, and large fish by the millions, in clear waters. All these depend on the filtering of a couple billion menhaden...which don't exist in sufficient numbers today.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

This advice is for the birds – er, birders

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, bird watching, bird listing

I confess, I am not a birder lister, a birder, or much of a bird watcher. I simply carry binoculars when I remember to, and look at whatever I see, or look for whatever I hear. We have a somewhat bird-friendly yard with a shallow bird bath, so we see plenty of birds through the kitchen window.

Now, if I decide to spend more time with birds in my retirement (not quite imminent, but getting close), I know where to turn. Pete Dunne, current director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, has compiled Good Birders Don't Wear White: 50 Tips from North America's Top Birders. In addition to the fifty essays, Robert A. Braunfield has contributed 24 illustrations in the text plus one on the cover. They are informative and humorous by turns, as the one shown, from page 174.

The essays are grouped in fourteen topics, and cover the gamut of birding attitudes and activities. Bill Thompson III (current editor of Bird Watcher's Digest) describes in detail how to clean the lenses of your binoculars or spotting scope. Hint: Don't use your shirttail...you don't know what kind of grit it has picked up from the dust in the air and from the washing machine. You'll scratch the coating, and maybe the glass. In the title essay, Sheri Williamson (author of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America in the Peterson Field Guide series) explains how a moving patch of white mimics the alarm displays of many birds. Just how close do you imagine you'll get?

Kevin J. Cook (a writer-naturalist and columnist for The Coloradoan) urges us to shift "from birding to birds," taking time to learn not just the distinguishing marks, but the habits, ecology, preferred food (in different seasons), and nesting behavior; to get to know the living animal once you've filed the appropriate notch on your field guide. In a similar vein, Stephen Shunk (owner and operator of Paradise Birding shows how sighting birds, often in less "natural" locales, can lift our spirits.

And one more I can't help mentioning, Jon L. Dunn (a tour leader for WINGS and a prolific writer) encourages us all to think like a birder, for the welfare of the birds and of ourselves. That's just a hint at one tenth of the gems. Read up and dig out the rest!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The outer edge of the fantasy spectrum

kw: book reviews, fantasy

I used to be irritated to find Fantasy mixed into the Science Fiction section. However, I've learned to enjoy the differences among the various subgenres of Speculative Fiction. I really don't care for sword-n-sorcery, nor for the "sort of sciencey, sort of magicky, epic-in-a-gothic-envelope" stuff I can't otherwise classify. But that leaves plenty to enjoy.

I am also careful of social-fringe-thought-experiment work; this latter harks back to Guy de Maupassant and stories like "Boule de Suif", in which he goes to great lengths to get you to sympathize with a prostitute. Anyone who knows anything about prostitues will surely sympathize with them, a lot...doesn't mean one ought to patronize the business.

So how could I get any sort of enjoyment out of reading a pure sword-and-sorcery, all-magic-and-no-technology, gender-reversal, homoerotic-speculative novel? Water Logic by Laurie J. Marks is in a genre of its own. It happens to be astonishingly well written and carefully plotted, with characters just slightly exaggerated so they don't (quite) strain belief.

The book cover has a tiny subtitle, "An Elemental Logic Novel". It follows Fire Logic and Earth Logic into print, and Air Logic is sure to follow. If Ms Marks is quite, quite creative, perhaps Quintessential Logic will then ensue.

In the Logic sphere, most warriors are women and the cooks and "help" are men. According to their elemental "blood" nature, there are four kinds of witches, who appear to be in competition of a sort. But the warfare that must have dominated one or both earlier books is not between elementals; rather, it is within them. (It occurs to me that these "bloods" correlate with the historical "humors": sanguine, choleric, and so forth. It takes them all to make a society.)

In fact, magic dominates this sphere, with ravens replacing cell phones (at least for Earth witches), two levels of healers, and effects based not on spells, but on skill, talent, and desire. Few read, and there are two written languages, an apparently phonetic script that is hardly mentioned, and "glyphs", which seem to be richly illuminated Tarot-like icons; in simpler form the glyphs are a Chinese-like script with each glyph holding a word's meaning.

I am sufficiently cosmopolitan to put aside my distaste for a society in which the men all have husbands, the women all have wives, and male-female relations are limited to procreational needs; in fact many women adopt rather than bear. It was unclear whether the larger citizenry, nearly unseen, have a society we'd find more familiar.

I was looking for how people relate on all levels; how does this society work? When you have turned all the visible elements of a society on its head, can it still hang together?

The author's message is, a society is based on commitment and trust. Regardless of one's milieu, the one is required to earn the other, and a suspicious or notorious past requires one to go to extraordinary lengths to earn (or re-earn) trust. As the guy said in the movie "Family Man": "The Commitment Bank of Trust only takes deposits. Once you make a withdrawal, the account is closed."

And herein lies the joy of the author's writing. Ignoring the pronouns, love and commitment bind, envy and hate sunder, and the people who feel these things are seen to feel them in what they do. The words themselves seldom need mentioning.