Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting around the long way

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, travel

Behold Steve Hely, who with (sort of) his friend Vali Chandresekaran circled the world. Their book The Ridiculous Race is subtitled, 26,000 miles. 2 guys. 1 globe. No airplanes. It didn't quite work out that way, and you'll find out why as you read the book.

Steve and Vali are writers for TV shows. So they write really well. They are single guys in their late 20s who dreamed up (they say, literally) the idea of racing one another around the world while using all forms of transportation other than airplanes. Ships, trains, autos, rickshaws, whatever, but no airplanes. They decided to race in opposite directions: Steve went West and Vali went East.

There are regular cruises that cross the Atlantic. Not so the Pacific. You just about have to go by container ship, unless you're going to drive to, like Attu, and wait for ice that you can walk or dogsled the 20 miles to Siberia upon. That has been done only once, so far as I've read. Fortunately, container ships will take passengers, so neither of our heroes took that long, icy walk.

Along the way, they also competed in an Awesomeness Contest, to gather memories and stories that would top the other. Both had visions of picking up a cosmopolitan collection of women. It didn't quite work out that way.

What they did pick up was an impressive array of means of transportation. In addition to container ship and cruise liner, they include various trains, jitneys, taxis in various states of repair, motorcycle-shaws (rickshaws with motor power), Segway (one way to see Paris). They also sampled a very impressive array of beverages. They seem to both belong to the "If I don't recall it, I must have had a good time" club.

Halfway through the roughly seven weeks they spent, they met in Moscow for a Truce Day, to see a few sights together. Most of the sights they saw together were the insides of a few bars and restaurants. They did better solo.

Both found they benefited from the kindness of strangers. There are lots of places where being foreign and ignorant of the local language can get you into lots of trouble. Being quite unlike the typical "ugly American" stereotype helped both of them. People everywhere were mostly kind, sometimes heroically kind.

Much of the funding for their trip was paid by the book publisher, Henry Holt, whose editors they sold on the idea before they left Los Angeles. After seeing a lot of the world from train windows and such, both were glad to return to American soil. Steve, in particular, thought about just how different the US is, and summed it up this way:
I got to thinking that America isn't like a bully, or a jock, or a cool kid. In the high school of the world, America is like one of those girls that's just effortlessly beautiful. So beautiful you can't even have a crush on her. A girl like that isn't deliberately mean, it's just that she can't possibly understand how lucky she is. And people always do what she wants, without her even realizing it, so she never bothers becoming smart, or savvy about the other kids in school. Just with her airhead remarks, she's always accidentally screwing up the whole order of things. She doesn't even realize it.

Now, when you have a girl like that, the other kinda-pretty girls sort of like her but sort of hate her. That's maybe Germany, or France. And the ugly girls talk about her in the locker room, but are still totally afraid of her. That's Venezuela and Iran. The regular-looking dudes can't help but be awed by her. Maybe they try to woo her with poems. That's Great Britain. And the real twisted kids develop unhealthy obsessions about destroying her, just because they're so infuriated at how unfair things are.
I may just posterize that for my office door.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

For the love of the rocks and mountains

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, italian history

I lived through two revolutions of geological thought. In fact, I was educated right through both of them. In 1965 when I started college, I was not a Geology major. I took an Earth Science course or two just before changing majors to Geology in 1969 (I worked my way through, so it took a few years extra). The earlier courses were based on the old "vertical motion" paradigm, in which mountains were thought to have been raised up on the surface of an Earth that was shrinking as it cooled. I remember the old Geosyncline model, and how unsatisfactory it seemed.

When I finally started taking Junior-level courses in 1970, we began to learn a new paradigm: sea-floor spreading plus continental drift, which now we call Plate Tectonics. The vertical motions are seen to be caused by much larger horizontal motions. For example, at one time India was a separate continent. Plate motions have caused it to collide with Asia, driving up the Himalayan and Tien Shan mountain ranges, which are still rising. The Alps, the Andes, the Rockies, and indeed all mountain ranges mark continental collisions of various ages. Even the lowly Appalachians, which were once at least as high as the Andes, mark an old collision between America and Africa. The Atlantic has opened up in the time since, and the mountains have been eroding away.

In 1978 I returned for graduate school. Plate tectonics was firmly established, but we were still in thrall to an old idea: Uniformitarianism, stated as "The present is the key to the past". While this is usually true, it is short-sighted. More things can happen in a million years than in a hundred, or a thousand. The profession of Geology is less than five hundred years old. It can fairly be said to originate with Nicolaus Steno in the mid-1600s. The Uniformitarian principle was established by Charles Lyell in the early 1800s. Evidence for events larger than those experienced personally by living geologists was forced into the mold of "gradualism".

Then in 1980 a classic, seminal document was published, and the extraordinary evidence that an asteroid had hit the earth and caused a catastrophic level of extinction—and wiped out the dinosaurs—changed geology forever. In a time period thousands of times longer than all of human civilization, things can happen that are thousands of times more severe than history records. As it turned out, a few small dinosaurs survived, to become today's birds. Another record of scarce survival emphasizes just how catastrophic the end-Cretaceous extinction really was.

On a hillside near Gubbio, Italy, there is a road cut where you can walk up to the sedimentary rocks that were laid down, at a very steady rate, right through the "Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary", or K-T boundary as it is called, 65 million years ago. The fossils in those fine-grained sediments tell quite a story. The critical "boundary" is marked by a thin, darker layer that happens to contain lots of extra heavy metals, particularly Iridium. Iridium means "extraterrestrial". It rode in on the asteroid. But the fossils tell of the effect on the living creatures of the time.

You won't find big shells there, just tiny "forams", less than a millimeter across. Magnified, they look like tiny snails, groups of soap bubbles, and decorated Christmas-tree ornaments. They are very distinctive. There are thousands of different kinds. They make up a large proportion of the sediment older than the K-T boundary. In the younger sediment, however, just adjacent to that iridium-rich, darker layer, there are just a few kinds of forams. Nearly all of the different kinds, perhaps 99 percent or more, simply don't exist in the younger sediments. The "few that made it through" are the ancestors of all later forams, including the ones living in today's oceans. This sudden disappearance of most of these tiny creatures makes it clear that catastrophes do sometimes occur.

The man who is most responsible for bringing about this second revolution is Walter Alvarez of UC Berkeley. He has spent so much time working in Italy over the past generation, that you could call Berkeley his vacation home. He wrote of the K-T extinction in 1997 in T. Rex and the Crater of Doom. In the years since, he has become involved in a third revolution. These three revolutions form the basis, more than the subject, of his newest book, The Mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the Geologic Events that Shaped our Earth. The early chapters of the book bring out what I hadn't known, that Dr. Alvarez and his co-workers in Italy provided some of the crucial evidence that led to the Plate Tectonic revolution that occurred just about the time I became a Geology major. The later chapters bring us to a third revolution, which I'll get to anon.

First, I, following our Author, need to introduce a few of the tools of the working geologist. Not the rock-hammer, backpack, or portable gravity meter, but the diagrams that guide our thinking. I'll show these using scans from the book, illustrations seen on pages 22, 53, 214, and 237. I've included the captions, though you may need to click on an image to see a larger version in which the caption is easily readable. The first intellectual tool is the Column.

The column shown here depicts not geology, but archaeology. Sometimes a column records the layers (the stratigraphy) found at one location. Others, such as this one, summarize information found over a larger area. Archaeologists do not draw diagrams such as this, but geologists do. This is geological thinking applied to the archaeology of Rome for the past 3,000 years. The primary column records historical events and evidence, and secondary columns show the water supply and human population. The time-scale, with "today" at the top, it the typical arrangement.

Geological columns show the sequence of rocks plus other indicators such as, for example, abundances of certain fossils, or a geochemical indicator such as salt content. But the rocks are primary, and are shown with various shadings or patterns. A collection of columns that follow a line through an area of interest can be drawn as a Section. A stratigraphic section is a kind of cartoon depicting what would be seen if you sliced through the earth along a line, whether straight or wandering.

This section, using information from outcrops and wells in a dozen or so locations, shows the rock layers, the stratigraphy, along a line that wraps through the southern half of the Capitoline Hill of Rome. The pale gray layer at the top labeled Archeology indicates the combination of buildings and accumulated debris that are the human contribution to the stratigraphy of this hill. Though the section is shown flat, the actual evidence was collected over a wandering line that wraps through the hill in a U shape. From bottom to top it shows the following, beginning with an ancient flood plain:
  • A layer of volcanic ash and "tuff" that filled the ancient Tiber valley
  • A cap of mudflows from reworking of the ash
  • Erosion that washed away material to the side more than the volcanics or mudflow remnants
  • An "ignimbrite", or fiery ashfall that covered the whole area to a rather uniform thickness
  • Erosion in some areas and lake sediments in others, followed by more erosion
  • Human occupation and construction
Where rocks don't conveniently crop out, and where wells don't reach, tools such as seismology are used to construct sections. Academic scientists can seldom afford costly tools such as seismology, which needs either lots of dynamite, or a fleet of "shaker trucks", to inject sonic signals into the rocks, plus long strings of "geophones", a type of microphone, to record the sounds that reflect from stuff "down there". But oil companies can afford it, and sometimes a state or nation will support such work. The composite of a lot of seismic information yielded the next section, which is early evidence for the third revolution going on:

The heavy black lines show thrust faults, which are one symptom of continental collision. If you push two blocky materials into one another, some stuff will ride up and over the top. But there are a few "normal" faults also shown, which came later and are in motion now. The indicate that things are being stretched instead of compressed. Now, we know that the Alps are still rising; Africa is still pushing Italy into the "belly" of Europe. Where could extension come from?

This map, which represents another great intellectual tool, is a summary of what is going on in and under Italy. During the first revolution in about 1970, the rocks and fossils of central Italy were used by Dr. Alvarez and his colleagues to pin down the timing of many crucial "magnetic reversals" that proved that the continents move. During the second, the scenario I outlined above, with iridium and forams, helped prove the asteroid impact at the K-T boundary. Now, the interesting configuration of the Apennine mountains themselves, the range that contains Dr. Alvarez's beloved "Mountains of St. Francis", is seen to be crossways to the trend of the Alps…with very good reason.

Not to spoil it all, I'll tell part of the story. When the Alps and early Apennines were thrust up, the crust thickened, not just above, but below. In fact, to push up a kilometer of mountains, one must push down, into Earth's viscous mantle, two or three kilometers of material. It is like an ice cube that floats only 20% above the surface, with the rest below. When deep crust is pushed more than forty kilometers or so into the mantle, its minerals are heated and squeezed into new minerals. Given the right composition, these new minerals are denser than the mantle is. In time, a big slab of these denser rocks will peel off the bottom of the crust and begin to sink toward the bottom of the mantle.

The lighter gray areas on this map show where such peeled-off slabs exist at depths as great as 600 km. They started out at a depth of less than 100 km. The sinking of such a slab causes horizontal motions in the mantle above it. This has led, in particular, to the extensional features that surround Rome and extend into Tuscany. These are the cause of the large normal (extensional) faults seen in the deep section above.

These ideas are a hint of what the book has to offer. The author takes us on several journeys, using his own career as one framework, and the geography and geology of Italy as another, to introduce all the great ideas that make up the profession of geology. Were I taking Geology now as a new student, I'd want this book to be the primary text for the course.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tales and tails of animal medicine

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, veterinary medicine, anthologies

Imagine the steadiness of hand needed to do eye surgery on a frog that would fit inside a human eye, the skills (& drills!) needed to perform a root canal for a hippopotamus, or the bravado of walking up to a fully awake one-ton crocodile to get scale scrapings and blood samples. In The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes: and Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients, edited by Lucy H. Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM, we find ourselves well beyond the cat/dog/horse/cow sort of veterinary medicine of James Herriot. In this volume, 28 zoological veterinarians record memorable stories of animals they've treated, both triumphs and failures, and the kind of innovative medicine that has frequently led to new methods for human medicine.

In the title account, a Sumatran white rhino had serious foot troubles. It turned out that the concrete and gravel paving of his zoo "home" was too harsh; he was used to swampy footing in which his entire broad foot carried his weight. The rough surface was wearing down his hooves. Now, a rhino has three hooves on each foot, analogous to horses' hooves, but where a horse has one hoofed toe per foot, the rhino has three. The vet's solution? With help of a farrier, they epoxied twelve custom-fitted horseshoes onto the critter's "toenails".

A zoological veterinarian might occasionally work on someone's pet, but that pet is more likely to be an iguana or goldfish than a housecat. Most often, they care for the animals held in zoos or in the wild, primarily wildlife reserves worldwide. In the wild, in particular, they are tasked with giving a medical "edge" to the most endangered species, delaying or averting their extinction.

Zoo vets get into some peculiar straits. When the dung beetles (scarabs) in a zoo exhibit got mites, it turned out the only way to help was to hand pick them (with little forceps) while holding the ungrateful beetles still. You can't use an insecticide to kill bugs on bugs! When a polar bear gets a hernia, of course you have to anesthetise him first, but then it takes a forklift to carry the limp patient to a specially-reinforced operating table. When an elephant has a wire snare caught on his leg, the easy part is getting it off; the hard part is tracking him for more than a week until you can get an anaesthetic dart into him.

While a most of the accounts tell us of successes, there were a few sadder stories. A lemur died, of causes still unknown. The tumor on a goldfish could not be totally excised, and chemotherapy was only partly successful, so it had to be returned to the owner with a less-than-happy prognosis, alive but not expected to live very long. When two sea dragons (like sea horses, but more decorative, and about a foot long) had their swim bladders damaged in transit to an aquarium, several innovative techniques failed to save their lives.

I couldn't help thinking that nearly all the suffering recorded here was due to the human arrogation of "managing" all the life on Earth. Several of the authors had similar thoughts. People tend to think they can just take over everything and "manage" it…and this is the best side of things! All too often, they don't think at all, just keep clearing land for more farms or factories. But it is like deciding to manage your own breathing. For a few seconds, to consciously breathe—in, out, in, out—might be exhilirating, but it would soon seem like the most deadly drudgery.

In the face of human "management", human arrogance, human greed and sometimes outright wickedness, zoo vets keep a few of the "collateral damage" victims healthier than they might have been.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alice in Pleistocene Park

kw: book reviews, science fiction, alternate history

How's this for a "what now?" moment: You're a filthy rich real estate deal maker, when you inherit the one truly unique estate on earth; it happens to be about eight times the size of Manhattan Island, and worth much more. Upkeep could make your fortune look like pocket change. Or how about: Eden isn't where you thought it was, it's still in existence, and the "angels" who guard it—a coterie of aging monks—have mostly traded in their swords for more up-to-date weaponry. Or this: Some of the immortal art and music of the great Masters just might have more of a foundation in fact than in the fantasy with which they are usually imputed. Have I given away too much?

Michael Tobias writes in a genre of his own. Hmmm. Perhaps it would be better to say, when he writes, he tends to create new genres on the spot. Chateau Beyond Time could be compared to The Da Vinci Code, with its ancient order of monks and skull-cracking puzzles, except these monks are the good guys…a whole lot "gooder" than you can imagine. It could also (partly for the puzzles) be compared to Ms Christie at her best. But the characteristic of the nonpareil is it really can't be fairly compared with anything.

I sort of expected a time travel novel. Sometimes I like those. Chateau isn't; call it more of a timeless persistency work. And timelessness is just what one wants in a refuge. This novel is about a Refuge with a capital R. There, that's enough.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tundra Tales

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, the arctic, autobiographies

In Shopping for Porcupine: Life in Arctic Alaska, Seth Kantner brings to us the Alaska he knew growing up, and the Alaska of today. They are two very different Alaskas, neither of which is familiar to vacationers. Seth was born and raised, and lives today, ten or more miles north of the Arctic Circle. That means, for a few weeks each year, the Sun doesn't rise, though the southern horizon glows orange for an hour or two even on Midwinter's Day. He calls those days Darkness, with a capital D. Sometimes, when it is hard to sleep around Midsummer's, when the Sun doesn't set, he longs for a bit of Darkness.

I thought at first that, Porcupine being the name of an Alaskan town, he'd be writing about provisioning his home there. But that town is never mentioned. Anyway, it is way, way too far south, being near Glacier Bay. No, he means "shopping" as in "hunting". Porcupines are good eating, and so slow that you don't waste a bullet on one, you just club it. But this comes later in the book.

The mainstay of people in the far north, those who live away from the sea, is the Caribou. When caribou aren't plentiful, for a few months in Winter, salmon and other fish one has netted and frozen away in early fall will tide over a family and their dogs. But caribou are the cattle of the northland. They thrive in conditions that are fatal to bovines. No wonder the Lapps "ranch" caribou, though they are called Reindeer in Lapland.

The book is filled with lore and landscapes. The author doesn't just love this mostly frozen land, he can't imagine living elsewhere. Now that he is a celebrated author, he has had to endure a few days here and there in places like Minneapolis or New York City. As he told a cabbie in New York, who said of Alaska, "I couldn't live like that," "People get used to different things."

And that is just the trouble. You get used to it, then it goes away. A full third of the chapters recount the ways Alaska has changed. There simply isn't a Subsistence way of life any more. The Eskimos, and those like Kantner who chose to live similarly, find it too easy to buy cotton-fleece-lined nylon windbreakers rather than sew a coat of animal hides with a wolverine ruff, though they need at least part-time jobs now, where before they didn't . The dogs are few, being replaced by snowmobiles, though some of the sleds they pull are still handmade.

The land itself is changing. Whether "global warming" is humanity's fault of not, it is a fact. The upper panel of this image was taken in 1965, by the author's mother. The lower panel in 2007, from nearly the same viewpoint, shows that warmer conditions allow shrubs and trees to grow tall, that were limited to a few inches before. In some places, the melting permafrost makes the land melt right out from under you.

The boy who grew up learning to drive dogs by age ten, helping catch the fish for overwintering, hunting almost everything that moved, living in a sod igloo (the ice ones are temporary shelters), and getting used to the nearest neighbors being miles away, now must work part time to buy things that replace what the land no longer yields, carries a cell phone (at least part of the time), and has learned to cope with his occasional visits to the Lower 48.

One who would seduce readers to dwell in his culture, at least in imagination, bears a heavy burden. Such a one must dwell enough in both worlds to know how to communicate with those who begin without the concepts to understand. Seth Kantner is just such a skilled translator, so that those of us who think sleety rain makes a cold day, can taste, just a bit, the land he loves best.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Updating Einstein

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cosmology

Prior to about ten years ago, there was a bit of trouble in cosmological circles…only a bit! About three-fourths of the matter of the Universe was "dark" or "unobserved". Then in 1998, the phenomenon that faraway exploding stars seemed to be too dim caused all hell to break loose: it seems that cosmic expansion is speeding up! Theorists have had a field day every since, and the current model accepted by a slight majority of cosmologists is that "dark energy" makes up 70% of the total mass-energy of the Universe, "dark matter" makes up 26%, and "ordinary matter" the stuff we can see with telescopes (visual, radio, x-ray, etc.), makes up just 4%.

The strange thing is, "dark energy" doesn't add to the gravitational pull on space that the matter, dark and otherwise, is exerting. Rather, it is counteracting it, and seems to have "recently" overcome it. But it isn't causing "local" gravity to reduce to any measurable extent.

This chart, cribbed from a homework assignment at Butler University, shows one piece of evidence for "dark matter". Retired professor John W. Moffat has devised a theory of gravity that doesn't need dark matter to explain the rotation function of our Galaxy, or any other. In his new book Reinventing Gravity: A Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein, he outlines his theory. His explanation is quite lucid without invoking any math. That's a good thing, because cosmological math is formidable.

I'll take it that he knows how to do his math. And he is not working alone. He has a number of collaborators, and together they've worked out a hypothesis he calls the Modification Of Gravity, or MOG. There are two parts to it. The first part makes the gravitational constant G not so constant; it depends on distance and total acceleration. The difference between the two curves above indicates that the dependence on distance must mean the effect is negligible over less than a few thousand parsecs (a parsec is 3.26 light years). Fortunately, the change is asymptotic, or over millions of light years it might grow sufficiently large to collapse the Universe in short order!

The second part of MOG is a fifth force, carried by a postulated new particle. Its dependence on distance is even more gradual, and it operates as a kind of antigravity to cause the universe's expansion to accelerate, as the supernova data indicate is happening. However, he will cheerfully drop this part of MOG if it is found that accelerated expansion is not really happening.

The first third of the book is a historical survey of cosmology and of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, or his Gravitational Relativity Theory. In particular, he dwells on the Copernican/Keplerian revolution that did away with the need to have Epicycles to explain the orbits of the planets. He thinks the proliferation of complex theories going on now are mostly "modern epicycles". I agree. A theory like "superstrings", that makes to testable predictions and can be formulated in an infinite number of ways, is no theory at all in my mind.

And I have my own question to ask about the supernova data. Type Ia supernovae are supposed to be "standard candles". They occur in a standard way: an aging star feeds mass to a companion white dwarf star, which finally collapses at a specific weight. This seems to be a function of the triggering mass and nothing else, but it is only assumed to be so. I have looked and looked, and have seen no report of a study to determine whether the brightness of Type Ia supernovae might depend on the metallicity of the aging star.

The very earliest stars were very pure H/He stars, and during their "main sequence" existence, they behaved differently than stars with larger amounts of heavier elements. Specifically, stars of any given mass that have more "metals" burn hotter. I wonder if, in the same way, the more "metallic" star stuff dumped on a white dwarf by a later-generation star might give its detonation more oomph, compared to the earliest-generation stars that we are seeing in these "accelerating universe" data. I don't believe Ia "standard candles" are all that "standard".

I am glad Dr. Moffat was able to get this book into print. So often, the "orthodox science" (what an oxymoron!) and its defenders keep dissenting views out of public view. This is too big (!) an issue to be kept under wraps. I don't understand Einstein or any of them in more than a "gut feel" way, but I am glad that bright people are laboring away to figure these things out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Memory lane on Hillside Lane

kw: musings, reminiscences

Today Google released a ton of new street-level imagery in their Google Maps application. It doubles the total coverage, and multiplies by eight or so the number of cities that have been significantly or fully imaged. They have spiffed up their interface, also, making the images easier to use.

This is the house I was living in fifty years ago. I lived here, on Hillside Lane in Salt Lake City, Utah, for five years prior to 1961, when we moved to Ohio. These were very formative years for me. My brothers and I won prizes in a couple of parades, we climbed all over the Wasatch Mountains that overshadow the area, we sat in cherry trees with an orchard owner's kids and ate ourselves silly every Summer, and we tied bedsheets to wagons and "sailed" up the street whenever there was a strong south wind. They were pretty good years. The orchard is gone now, all built over.

Our house was one of the first in the neighborhood, so we played in the brushy vacant lots, and sometimes in the partly-built houses on weekends. I was 13 when we moved away, and had just finished 8th grade, so my high school years were all in Ohio.

I looked, but the streets I lived on in Ohio haven't been visited by a Google photo-van yet. I'll look at them whenever they get added.

Monday, December 08, 2008

No wonder they wear dark glasses

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fashion, humor

Face it, if this guy had to look in the mirror without the shades on, he'd gag. That is the thesis of Daniel Billett, in Mistakes Men Make. As a sensible guy (just ask him), he looks all around him, and sees ample evidence that, no matter what our mothers told us, we weren't listening.

So he has produced a "Fashion 000001" manual for all those hopeless blokes who wear Speedos that are hard to find under the beer belly, or flowered shirts that make real flowers cringe, or mullets, or facial hair that a Chimp's own mother would bite right off his face, or bling that is meant to blind.

Wanna try on a Soul Spot just above your chin? Ty Pennington wears one sometimes. You got his looks? If so, go ahead. Otherwise, leave that idea somewhere West of the love beads you discarded twenty years ago (didn't you?).

You know who's going to read this book? All those guys that don't need it. Then their almost-best friends, who've peeked at a page here and there and said, "Oh, boy, John sure needs this!" will buy it for them, and hand it over in a colored bag from the dollar store saying, "Thought this might help." Then they'll go put on their Speedos and flip flops, load enough bling to half hide their man boobs, and go work on the wrong half of their tan.

To them, we are warm, walking fuel tanks

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, feeding habits

A word of caution: much of the book is not suitable for reading while you have your morning cereal. Sensitive souls may be subject to attacks of the heebie-jeebies.

Behold the visage of the Common Vampire Bat, by far the most common of the three bat species that consume only blood. Of more than 1,000 species, more than 2/3 eat only insects and most of the rest eat only fruit. Just three species consume blood, and they are among the smaller bats, weighing about two ounces (60 g).

Stories and natural history notes about vampire bats occupy the opening chapters of Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt. Graphics by Patricia J. Wynne complement the text. Once thought to be very similar, the three species are shown to be quite different. Whereas the Common Vampire Bat responds to handling by fighting and biting, the author reports that he has never been bitten by a White-Winged Vampire Bat. The Common species is the ground-walking species, the one that looks like a little creeping Dracula, complete with cape, when it walks over to a sleeping chicken or pig to commence feeding. Thus it is much more robust, and can leap almost a meter into the air if startled. The other species seldom walk on the ground, cannot leap, and usually attack birds in trees (feeding on their toes); so the latter are much less robust.

But the narrative is just getting going when the author bids farewell to bats and turns his attention to other blood feeders. The middle section of the book begins with a survey of vertebrate blood and the vertebrate blood system, and some comparisons to the hemolymph systems of arthropods (emphasizing lobsters over flies). He discusses the strange practice of bloodletting as practiced by doctors for two millennia (trivia question: what does the red stripe on a barber pole signify?) Then the narrative turns to leeches.

In one area leeches and vampire bats are similar: both have anti-clotting saliva, so that the victim loses much more blood after the feeder finishes, up to ten times. A chicken that has just "donated" an ounce of blood to a vampire bat may lose another five to ten ounces before the wound begins to heal. Chickens are big birds, but that's a lot of blood and not all survive the encounter.

Leeches are much easier to handle and maintain than bats, so when it is necessary to extract blood, they are still used medicinally. They are essential for certain kinds of surgery, such as reattachments, for which the enhanced blood flow they promote can ensure success. Leeches do have to be watched, however. There is at least one case of one creeping into the wound it was placed next to…you really don't want one of these left inside your body!

The book closes with shorter treatments of a variety of creepy "bugs", including bed bugs, ticks, and chiggers, and a short chapter on the candiru, a South American catfish the size of a small, narrow pencil. There is only one documented case of one "attacking" a urinating man and getting in where the sun won't shine, but one case (plus tons of folklore) is enough to make them a bit less popular than Piranhas.

There is no section on mosquitos, the blood-sucker with which suburban North Americans are most familiar. But they are mentioned here and there, throughout, including one note that someone dies of a mosquito-borne illness, usually malaria, every twelve seconds. The diseases "vectored" by blood-feeding animals is a giant subject in itself. About half of all entomologists worldwide are employed in public health related to diseases carried by blood-feeding insects. One-tenth of all childhood deaths, worldwide, are from malaria, and another tenth—or more—by other diseases primarily carried by biting insects.

A fascinating book. And, while I did read some of it over my breakfast, there was a time or two that I set it aside for reading later.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

It just makes a fella tired

kw: book reviews, short stories, rejects

I gave up in disgust after puzzling my way through one story, picking my way through two more, and playing hopscotch through the book looking for a story about someone who isn't a loser. These stories aren't just about losers, they are about banal, venal, sometimes-almost-criminal, too-apathetic-to-be-evil-but-they-would-if-they-could losers. I prefer to spend time with those who do better than that.

I can't say I learned nothing from this author: I learned I do have the gumption to discard a book rather than slavishly read every word regardless, which was my more youthful practice. I think I've grown.

Oh, by the way: Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Everthing is simple if you know the right answer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, complexity theory

Claudius Ptolemy was a genius. Observations of planetary motions were problematic. The common-sense view that Earth is fixed at the center of the Universe, coupled with the prejudice, left over from the Pythagoreans, that all motions in space depend on perfect circles, could not account for the occasional reversal of each planet's path. Ptolemy proclaimed that there was a major circle, the "deferent", which drove a smaller circle that the planet actually followed. This latter circle he called an "epicycle".

It seems strange that hardly anyone noticed that the epicycles seemed to be coupled somehow; that if two planets (e.g. Mars and Saturn) were in a similar quadrant of the sky, their back-loops occurred over the same period of time. A few who suggested that perhaps Earth was in motion about a center, so far unknown, or perhaps on an epicycle of its own, were ignored or silenced. The prevailing orthodoxy was not to be denied.

Soon this view ran into trouble. Better observations did not support steady motion on a deferent-plus-epicycle, so epicycles were added to the epicycles. By the time Tycho Brahe began to publish his great catalogs of stellar positions and planetary motions, it might take a stack of six or seven epicycles to account for the motion of Mars with an accuracy equal to the observations.

More than half a century before Brahe, Nicolaus Copernicus had proposed that Earth indeed moves, about the Sun, though he clung to perfect circular orbits for Earth and the planets. Thus, his scheme also required epicycles, though in lesser profusion. Based on Brahe's observations, Johannes Kepler determined that the basic form of planetary orbits is the ellipse, and the need for epicycles was almost eliminated.

Almost: If an ideal Earth orbits an ideal Sun in an otherwise empty Universe, the orbit is indeed an ellipse. But Earth's actual orbit is very slightly not an ellipse. Why? Perturbations. This is the modern word for "epicycle", you could say. The other planets, principally Venus, Mars and Jupiter, influence Earth's orbit, so orbital calculations are done by first using the current ellipse that Earth most closely follows, then adding these influences (these perturbations) to predict where Earth (or any body being calculated) will actually go.

However, the ellipse model is sufficiently accurate that many purposes are well served by using a pure ellipse, which predicts Earth's motion for several years into the future with remarkable accuracy (less than its own diameter).

The title premise of Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple), by Jeffrey Kluger, is not actually answered clearly within the book's pages. So I'll make short work of it: A simple thing that works "pretty well" can be made to work better by adding refinements. Refining beyond a certain point causes problems of its own. When a new principle is discovered, a new device can be produced that is both simpler and operates better than the prior device. Complications are eliminated…until the next time refinements are called for. Kluger demonstrates this with several good examples, so I won't fault him too much for the lack of a more succinct portrayal.

The first one, which hits home with me, is the Quark model of particle physics. In 1969 I quit studying Nuclear Physics and began to study Geology. I was tired of the "particle zoo" that numbered more than 100 by then, and there were fewer elements than that! I decided to follow a subject where I could go out and hit rocks. I've always liked hammers! Later that year, Murray Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize for Quarks, and about the time I got my degree in Geology, Physics departments everywhere were beginning to teach this new physics: six quarks plus six leptons interact via four (or five) bosons to make all other particles, only two of which are stable. This came too late for me. Anyway, I'd still rather mess around with rocks than with supercolliders.

The author introduces us to Gell-Mann and his quarks in a chapter on the stock market: "Why is the stock market so hard to predict?" The short answer to this question is the sociology of groups whose aversion to or tolerance of risk are not constant. We are short-term thinkers trying to live in a long-term civilization, and it'll be a long time before we evolve away from mob psychology. As a result, the stock market follows Cauchy statistics with amazing exactness. Of all probability distributions, the Cauchy distribution is wholly unpredictable. The average of past measurements affords you no (none, zero, zip, nada) information about the future trend.

He has a chapter on the lifetimes of mice, men and whales. Every chapter title is accompanied by a "confused by" sideline, and this one is "Confused by Scale". To compare accurately, you have to either compare captive mice and elephants to "civilized" humans, or compare wild mice and elephants to the most "primitive" tribal societies known. The simplifying parameter is heart rate. Wild mammals experience about a billion heartbeats, then die. "Civilized" mammals live about twice as long. Very elderly men and women are found to have lower-than-average heart rates.

This is the point the author has been leading to: The simplifying observation, such as the heart rate or the quark, or the ellipse. Then he begins to apply similar thoughts to cities, but I can't see that he completed the task. He applies Zipf's Law of word frequencies, a version of a power law distribution, to the sizes of cities and villages. Based on my own analysis (and the subject for a different post some time in the future), Zipf's Law does not hold for the entire distribution. A complete analysis leads me to the conclusion that word frequencies and city/village sizes are distributed according to lognormal statistics. The beginning of a lognormal distribution looks a lot like a power law distribution, which has misled many. But the point I was looking for, the lifetime of a city, was not addressed.

All in all, through ten chapters, the author probes various fields of knowledge and experience, and how each trips us up. Nature, for example, seems to produce very complex structures, but she does so by means of simple operations repeated again and again over a range of scales. Thus, a leafless tree is seen to resemble a small branch taken from that tree, except that the branch doesn't go into the same detail, stopping at the diameter of a twig.

This fractal property of many natural objects was first packaged and presented by Benoit Mandelbrot, who also discovered certain recursive mathematical procedures that can produce literally infinitely detailed structures, provided one has the leisure of letting one's computer crank away for infinite time! Self-similarity leads to many beautiful structures. It also accounts for the efficient way your lungs pack an air-filled structure with huge surface area into about a cubic foot, and, subject to a different space-filling principle, how your vascular system can bring blood to every cell in your body while only occupying three percent of its volume.

Finally, the eleventh chapter speeds the irresistible force (complexity theory) towards the immovable object (aesthetics). Why does one painting or photo move us deeply, while another, similar one does not, or even repels us? Why do we weep at one symphony and not another? A colleague once loaned me a music tape to listen to. When I returned it, I said I had enjoyed it and found it interesting. She said, "Interesting?! You are supposed to feel ecstasy!" All I could say was that I get my highs in a different genre. Can complexity theorists puzzle this one out? It is probably better that they don't try. Some things are better enjoyed than explained, like a good meal. A young cooking student was told by his chef/instructor, "I can make anything taste better." He asked, "How would you make salt taste better?" The reply: "By sprinkling it over a tender, medium-well steak!"

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

For love of creepy-crawlies

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, herpetology

An expert is someone who's gotten away with something risky a few times too many. D. Bruce Means is an expert on venomous snakes, someone lucky to be alive. He has been bitten twice by rattlesnakes, as he tells us in his recent book Stalking the Plumed Serpent and Other Adventures in Herpetology. He has also handled the two Taipan species that are the two most dangerous snakes in the world, with venom that is fifty and ninety times as potent as rattlesnake venom. Good thing he avoided their bites!

The book is a series of disjoint episodes drawn from the last thirty or more years of his explorations, scientific and otherwise. While the focus of his expertise is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, he is fascinated by "herps" of all kinds. Herpetology is the study of both reptiles and amphibians, and the chapters give almost as much space to frogs and salamanders as they to to snakes, lizards and turtles. One short chapter presents the Cotton Rat, the main prey species, not just of eastern rattlers, but of hawks and owls, skunks and opossums, and every kind of snake big enough to engulf one.

The title chapter concerns his trek through Maya country in southern Mexico in search of the Tzabcan rattler, the snake that he thinks is the model for the "feathered serpent" or Quetzalcoatl / Kukulcan. In some inscriptions, the feathered serpent has a rattle and diamond markings, and some Mayan artwork has a diamond background pattern that probably harks back to the snake's markings. There are other rattler species found in southern Mexico, but the Tzabcan is the most impressive.

If you get "out there" enough, you're going to discover something. Dr. Means's discoveries are indeed significant. Many years ago he determined that a population of king snakes in Florida was distinct from others, and the Apalichicola Lowlands King Snake was subsequently named for him: Lampropeltis getula meansi. He was the first to document, in Queensland, Australia, cases of tree frogs that eat young bats…bats usually are the eaters of small frogs. And he discovered the biodiversity hotspots atop tepuis (very high mesa-like prominences) in South America. These are hard to get to, hard to document, and at the moment, equally hard to persuade anybody like National Geographic or the Discovery Channel to film. (By the way, tepuis provided the model for Doyle's The Lost World, which in no way resembles later writing by Mike Crichton).

He also determined the source of the "aggressive" reputation of the Cottonmouth, which many people claims will chase right after you. If you get between one of these snakes and its water hole, it will threaten you, then head right for its hideaway. If you back off, it will seem to follow you. But if you jump to the side, it will continue straight to safety. If you manage to stand your ground (be sure to wear thick knee boots!), it will crawl right over or past your feet to get to its safe spot. Other snakes exhibit the same behavior. I suppose they expect you to be momentarily frozen.

Late in the book, where he is writing about his adventures in Australia, the author gets rather boastful. Some of his adventures were as boneheaded as anything I have read. I can't imagine someone of his experience, having barely survived two rattler bites, going unaccompanied to handle—by hand!—the Fiercey. It beggars belief! Every three or four years I read of an experienced herpetologist getting a fatal bite, sometimes right in the zoo where he works (I've not read of any female herpetologists getting killed thus). If you've read the book of Proverbs, you know that it uses the word "fool" about a hundred times. Ninety of those, the Hebrew word really meand "over-confident". Bruce, you dear fool, take a friend along, OK?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black holes and bursters and flares, Oh my!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, futuristics

The Sun is a middle-aged, normal star. It is about halfway through a long existence as a "yellow-white" star. Some day, sunrise on Earth or Mars will look something like this [Image credit, Dirk Terrell].

There are a number of astronomical events that could end civilization or even all of life on Earth. Some of them could happen at any time. This one is certain to happen, at a time about six billion years in the future.

All of the plausible means by which the uncaring Universe could wipe us out are canvassed by astronomer Philip Plait in Death From the Skies! : These are the Ways the World Will End. His thesis? The world will most definitely end. When? It could be a very long time…but it might not. How? There are a number of candidates.

Long gone are the days of a cozy little Universe benevolently designed for our comfort and edification. When it behaves itself, Earth is still a rather cozy little planet that has managed to hang on to its biosphere for about four billion years. This in spite of the steady warming of the Sun, which is 40% hotter now than it was when life began. Also in spite of an early crisis or two, when plants first sucked most of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, precipitating a disastrous cooling that led to a million years or more of "snowball Earth", which ended only when heat built up under the global glacier and a lot of volcanoes popped together, putting back lots of CO2.

But Dr. Plait's interest is not in what Earth might do to itself, or even what we, its most dangerous occupants, might do to ourselves and our Earth. He sets his sights on everything else, the 99.9999999999 percent of the Universe that is not Earth (You know, I think I need another dozen nines there).

In a methodical way, the author surveys things from the smallest astronomical threats to the largest and longest-enduring:
  • Asteroids: Now that we know about half of the Earth-crossing asteroids, we are likely to have a year of more to anticipate the fall of one that we find is on a collision course. We just have to decide what we'll do when that happens. This is one threat we could do something about, though it is unlikely we'll muster up the political will to do so.
  • Comets: A harder issue, because the ones most likely to be a threat appear once, with no regularity. The great comet of 1996, Hale-Bopp, has a nucleus four times the diameter (probably 50 times the mass) of the asteroid or comet that did in the dinosaurs. It came rather close, which is why we could see it so well. Great, spectacular comets are close-passing comets.
  • Things the Sun could do: flares and coronal mass ejections top the list. Every eleven years we pass through a risky period—three or four years—during which solar shenanigans damage a few satellites, and cause postponement of space flights so astronauts won't be fried. Even near-Earth orbit is a risky place to be when the Sun is active.
  • Supernovas: There are two kinds, the largest stars at the end of their "ordinary" development, and binary giants that become gamma-ray bursters. The first kind are dangerous to earth if one goes off closer than fifty light-years. The book includes an Appendix that lists the 24 stars that will become supernovas some day, that are within 1,000 light-years. None is closer than 260 light-years. But the second kind, watch out. Because their energy is focused into a beam, one could blast life right off of Earth from a distance as great as several thousand light-years.
  • Black Holes: Every galaxy has one, a million Suns' mass or more, at its center. We are comfortably far away (25,000 light years) from the Milky Way's central black hole. Some supernovas also produce black holes, with masses of three Suns to about ten. The thing to remember about "stellar" black hole: its gravity is the same as the star that created it. But it can get lots closer to you, so the close-in gravity is much more intense. Fall into one that comes dead-center , and all of us, plus Earth, will be spaghettified by the tidal forces of that intensified central gravity. But the chances of any star passing close to the Solar system are very, very small. Black holes are thought to be fewer in number, perhaps a thousandth of a percent, of all stars.
  • Aliens: The history of "alien" invasions, in which peoples such as the "civilized" Europeans located new peoples, makes me pessimistic about how nice and kind any space aliens will be. Most likely they'll want to exterminate us, preferably without any communication at all. The fact that we are still here indicates there aren't any close neighbors out there.
  • The death of the Sun: This event, depicted above, is discussed in step-by-step manner. It will unfold beginning several billion years in the future, by which time any intelligent folk still around might have developed a technology that can move Earth, or at least themselves, out of harm's way. The Sun probably won't swallow Earth, but will simply heat it to the melting point.
  • Galactic collision: The nearest big spiral galaxy, Andromeda, will get close enough to cause trouble in a half billion years or so. Stars won't likely collide, but gas clouds will, leading to lots of new star formation and a flurry of supernovas. A lot depends on whether a near-miss by large stars changes the galactic orbit of the Solar system.
  • Deep, deep time and the end of everything: Let's leave that for the kicker.
I do have one point to bring up about the "end of everything". The author's analysis depends on the accelerating expansion of the Universe. I happen to think that the effect of metallicity on Type 1a supernovas has been underestimated. I do hope some astronomers are working on this aspect, which is a simple explanation for the evidence presented, compared to positing a kind of "dark energy" that makes up 75% of the Universe but is not observable. Extraordinary theories require extraordinary evidence, and we just don't have it.

But we do have eight categories of things, some of which might happen, at almost any time, and several of which are sure to happen, just not yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Riders that create their own storm

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, subcultures, motorcycle clubs

The book's appendix consists of a couple of poems of tribute and a list of "The Fallen Brothers", 51 of them. Considering that 22 of the 51 were murdered since 2000 began, we might say that it is getting riskier to be a Mongol. But as the book chronicles, there has been a great surge in membership since Doc Cavazos got involved. Perhaps they are safer than ever before…

Honor Few, Fear None: The Life & Times of a Mongol, by Ruben "Doc" Cavazos, is the apologia of the club's International President, an explanation to the world of what being a member of the Mongols Motorcycle Club is really about. He makes no bones that they are an outlaw club. But that term means different things to different people.

Doc starts with a short autobiography of his early life becoming a gangbanger in East Los Angeles and thereabouts. That environment is unimaginable to most middle class Americans, so reading his first-hand account leads to a better understanding of the exaggerated need for "respect" that is the lifeblood of young Latinos. Having lived in Highland Park (where Doc spent only the first month or so of his high school years), dwelling on a property that was a triple-corner, and so a frequent location of turf battles, I sometimes wonder how I got out alive.

But while he lived a truly criminal younger life, the author was striving for something better; a rare man with a vision. While lying low in Mexico with relatives, he became a qualified Radiography technician, a profession at which he continues today. He encountered the Mongols almost by accident. Few Latinos care about motorcycles; fast, shiny cars are their thing.

The Mongols had a similar "respect"-based ethos, but were a small, dwindling club when he joined. They never knew what hit them. Within about four years, he'd become National President, increased membership by a factor of five or ten, and steered many of the members away from overtly outlaw ways.

To many people, "outlaw" means, "mean, anti-social SOB". To Doc, "outlaw" means the club members do not expect any protection by "the law" and its officers, so they are prepared to defend themselves. To the American and Canadian registering bodies, it means a club that isn't registered with them. To the police and FBI, there are four main Outlaw Clubs, not including the Mongols, which are said to carry out organized crime activities such as extortion and the drug trade. California authorities add the Mongols to the list. At one time, this was probably true of them. If what Doc writes is true, it is no longer true.

If that is so, he still has a huge history to live down. The Mongols were once the most-feared MC (Motorcycle Club), prone to abusing the public and indeed deeply involved in drugs, extortion, and theft. They are, so far as I can find out, the only MC to face down the Hell's Angels and survive. The rash of murders, on both sides, since Doc took over is not a good sign. People who are attracted to the outlaw lifestyle are hypersensitive about any sign of "disrespect", and the most innocent acts can lead to a deadly confrontation.

Starting a new chapter of the club always leads to a confrontation, because the Hell's Angels still claim to "own" all of California. One such confrontation, in Nevada in 2002, became a crisis that is still ringing in their ears. Two Angels and one Mongol died, and one-third of all Mongols who have died are more recently slain.

The author acknowledges at one point that the life he lives would be considered a nightmare existence by most folks. To him it is just normal. Normal to carry a weapon at all times, with the expectation that he'll need to use it from time to time. Normal to get an occasional warning from an ATF agent about the latest contract against his life, by this or that chapter of Hell's Angels or some other MC. Normal to keep the things he really values somewhere besides his home, because he expects to get raided every year or two, and lots of stuff gets permanently "confiscated". Normal to have two dozen friends murdered in the past ten years.

He can have it. I don't need "respect" nearly that bad.

Monday, November 24, 2008

An amplified autobio

kw: book reviews, fiction, mystery

I've never watched Law & Order, so the face on the cover meant nothing to me. But the title was intriguing. I am Not a Cop! is by Richard Belzer, who plays a detective on the TV show, "with Michael Black", Belzer's co-author and a seasoned policeman.

As the author makes clear in his Epilogue, the story and all characters are fictional, except that he lent his name and something of his personality to the lead character. That character is well-read, and often quotes an old book or movie…kinda reminds me of Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek, who also had an apt quote or two per episode.

The caper starts off with a missing friend, a Russian emigré who is at the point of retiring from being Medical Examiner. There is a surprising plot twist (one of the few I didn't see coming) regarding the missing man, so I'll take this in another direction. The story involves the involvement of the Russian mafiya in the diamond trade, and the very down-on-the-street aspect of the international shenanigans involved in laundering "conflict diamonds".

The Belzer character is something of a martial-arts expert, so there is a bit of rough-and-tumble every couple of chapters. There are also humorous scenes at the dojoun or school where he works out. The aging former movie star in old Kung Fu flicks, the proprietor's grandfather, has the part of the wise master…with a dash of John Wayne thrown in.

While it is the stock understanding that a smaller man can vanquish a larger one using martial arts, it is not so well known that this is only true if the larger man is entirely ignorant of fighting. Otherwise, a back-room rule applies: twenty pounds of muscle is worth two belts. That is, the bigger man will still win. The fight scenes lack versimilitude because of too much explainery. Anyone in a real fight who has to think it through that much, will lose. Fighting successfully is a matter of reaction, not analysis.

Every amateur detective needs a sidekick, preferably an attractive young woman. This one is Kali, a smart black woman with an attitude, who has been assigned by the studio to keep Belzer from getting into too much real-life trouble when he's off playing amateur cop as he tries to find his friend. She is soon recruited to take an equal part in the troublemaking. Just for spice, a similarly lovely Russian woman gets involved. It appears the missing M.E. has a long-lost daughter who also hopes to find him.

Flaws aside, the book is a page-turner, and for me, a welcome reprieve from the recent steady diet of nonfiction.

Friday, November 21, 2008

When feelings and thoughts collide

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, intelligence

In Hawaiian and classical Egyptian cultures, a king was required to marry his sister. It was unheard-of for either party of the couple to disagree. In contemporary Western culture, a highly distasteful act is said to be "like kissing your sister." There's the old proverb that "one man's meat is another man's poison", and it clearly refers to more than just foodstuffs. How are we to understand the visceral reactions people have to one or the other circumstance? I am sure old Pharaoh would be appalled at our attitude towards his marriage. Some moral choices really are culturally derived. Others less so. I won't say more than that, however.

On a milder note, the next time you watch a baseball game, pay attention to the way the fielders go after a high fly ball. Many times, one will simply trot over, almost unconcernedly, and catch the fly without breaking stride. Other times, one will run desperately for the back fence, only to watch the ball fly just overhead. How does the first player know where the ball will land, and how does the second know it is beyond catching?

It turns out that fielders in baseball take advantage of a principle of calculus that needs no calculation: If you gauge your running speed so that the angle to the ball remains constant, you'll get to the ball just when it comes within reach. There is a way to prove this with calculus, but we know the ball players aren't using any calculus, and very likely none of them know of the intersecting tangent principle anyway.

The first player sees, after the ball stops climbing, that it appears to be drifting in one direction. He trots or runs until the drift apparently stops. Then he knows he can catch the ball. The second player sees that, no matter how fast he goes, the ball's angle keeps getting ahead of him. He hopes he'll be able to jump for it at the wall. The faster that angle is changing, the less chance he has.

Nobody taught this to the players. They learned it by experience. They don't think about it. If you ask one, they usually can't say what they are doing. They "just know" how fast to run to intercept the ball. They don't have to know where the ball is going to land. They just know, if they keep the angle constant, the ball itself will lead them to its landing point…if they think about it at all.

Life is full of heuristics like this. Without them we could hardly function. We seem to be hardwired for grammar, for example. How else to explain that we all use grammar with a measure of correctness (regional and dialect differences aside) that no machine can match, but very few of us could explain the "rules" of the grammar we use with such near-perfection all day long.

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has written Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, in which he pries into a number of these heuristics. The book rewards careful reading (which is why this post is a couple days late). He investigates many of the choices we make, and how they are made. Consider the Chain Store Paradox.
You own a chain of widget shops. A competitor plans to open similar shops, one by one, in all the areas in which your shops are found. How do you respond?
A logical process called backward chaining reasons thus:
I have twenty shops. If the competitor sets up nineteen shops, then it makes little difference if a twentieth is set up, so I ought to share the trade. By the same token, the difference between the eighteenth and nineteenth shops is similarly negligible. And so on, to the first shop. Therefore it makes little sense to engage in a price war.
However, is this what happens? No, you would most likely try, with the first opening, to drive it back out of existence, even selling your widgets at a loss for a time. The simpler evaluation is, "Every competitive shop will cut into my business, so I need to protect my business." Period.

The message of this book? Simple evaluations often outperform more complex ones. For example, suppose you are asked, which is the larger city, Omaha or Philadelphia? How many people know that Philadelphia is four times as large as Omaha? "Only four?" some may ask. Why? Because we hear of Philadelphia so much the more. To most people, Omaha is where "Prudential of Omaha" is from, and that's about it. Go overseas, and you'd be hard-pressed to find people who've heard of both cities; most know Philadephia, very few know Omaha. And the heuristic does work out, that the more well-known a city is, the larger it tends to be.

If you give people a test, to tell among twenty pairs of city names, which is largest, those who recognize about half the names do the best. Those who don't recognize any of the names just guess. They don't have any knowledge to help them. Those who are very familiar with geography and know nearly all the names, but few details, also do badly, because the "recognition heuristic" doesn't help them. But when you know only about half the cities on a list, it is likely that most of the ones you know are larger than the ones you don't know. This turns out to be true about 80% of the time.

Have you ever flipped a coin to decide between two seemingly identical choices, only to find you "didn't like" the coin's result? The coin forced your unconscious intelligence to assert itself. Our mind is able to make sense of incomplete data. It excels at that. This is where our hunches come from. As the author shows, many of our hunches are smarter than more complex ways of deciding. And that is a good thing, because doctors are so pressed for time, they have to diagnose your condition based on rather vague clues; some of us are still living because many of them get quite good at such "hunch" diagnoses. When this or that guru recommends, "Trust your gut", it is often good advice.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The death of faith has been greatly exaggerated

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, sociology

It will take President-elect Obama a while to live down his statement about "bitter people … who cling to religion …". But who is truly bitter? To quote Rodney Stark in What Americans Really Believe", "…the most virulent and common form of religious intolerance still to be found in America is that held by the irreligious toward the religious." (p 28) There is a popular evangelical camp song with the lines,

They can talk about us just as much as they please.
We'll talk about them, down on our knees.

That kind of love drives those who do not love God simply crazy.

I am immensely glad to have read this book. I have been hearing the persistent myths all my life, sometimes even from the pulpit: that church attendance is dropping, that young people are leaving the churches, that religion is threatened with extinction. None of these is true.

The book consists of 80 annotated/narrated tables in 23 chapters, covering every aspect of religious expression in the United States, based on surveys taken by the author and his colleagues, forty years apart, and other data collected for various reasons going back more than sixty years. This recent major survey was conducted on behalf of Baylor University by the George Gallup organization. With well-formulated questions and the professional analysis services Gallup provides, little needs to be inferred. The numbers speak for themselves.

Among findings that are of interest to me, one alone shows a time trend, a trend which has a simple explanation: prior to 1969, those who attended a religious service at least weekly amounted to 44-45% of the population. After 1969, the number has ranged between 32 and 38% (usually 35-36%), with no particular pattern of variation (p 9). What happened in 1969? An encyclical from the Vatican II Council that removed the "mortal sin" stricture for missing weekly Mass, for Catholics. Now that Catholics no longer fear going to hell for missing Mass, they attend services with about the same frequency as Protestants, who have ticked along pretty steadily at about 35% for a century or more.

What about young people dropping out? Interestingly, both in the 1960s and in 2006, the number of young adults who never attend church has been the same: 28%. The number of those over 40 who never attend? In both eras, 20%. What is happening here? There is a trend by age but not by time! That means, with every generation, a certain proportion of newly independent young adults experiment with living "churchless", but return when they have children of their own (pp 10-11).

And what of the extinction of religion, or of faith? One would think that atheists are multiplying like rabbits. What do the data show? From 1944 to the present, atheists have made up from 3-4% of the population, with a single excursion to 6% about 1947, which can be explained as some blowback from the end of a world war.

One recent change in the atheism equation: recent, surprisingly nasty anti-religious books by a few talented atheistic authors. They agree that all world evils are to be attributed to evangelical Christianity, forgetting that the 20th Century was the bloodiest in history because of Hitler, Stalin and Mao (p 116). Stalin and his successors did everything in their power (which was a lot) to eliminate religion from the Eastern European peoples. The result? There are fewer atheists in the former Soviet bloc than there are in America! (pp 118-119). Mao's atheistic success was a bit better: today 14% of Chinese claim atheism, but that is actually fewer than the numbers that followed the non-god-believing folk religions that prevailed in China in the 1940s. From friends in China, I know that Christian faith is booming there.

How about education? It is true that some people seem to get educated right out of the church, but the actual trend is regional: the industrialized East and West are less religious than the rest of the nation, but no better educated overall. Churchgoing shows no significant trend with educational level. But there is a trend of interest: The more often a family goes to church together during the formative years of the children, the more likely the girls are to complete college. Specifically, among those who attend services one a year or less, including never, fewer than 20% of the girls complete college. Among those who attend monthly or oftener, at least a third of the girls complete college, with the highest rates (interesting, this) being for those whose family attends just about every week, but not oftener (pp 187-188). There is a lot of variation, but no discernible trend, in college completion rates for boys.

Hmmm…the really, really religious families don't quite have the highest rates of educated women. This point may be a symptom that a "homebody is best" attitude really is present in those denominations that are the most church-active. But in my experience, I've attended numerous meetings and services at churches that might fit people's stereotype of the over-churched, where all the girls and women wear floor-length skirts, all have long hair, never curled or permed (they look very Victorian), and nearly every family is to be found at every one of the three or four weekly church events. Every family I've known expected all the girls to finish college (and all the boys). They aren't afraid of them getting "secularized". They expect faith to be tested, and figure the intense church life they've been in ought to be enough to keep most of them faithful.

Now, there is one significant trend, which the author and his contributors deal with quite thoroughly in the early chapters of the book. It is widely thought that church attendance is falling everywhere. In reality, attendance is falling only about half of everywhere. In the large, liberal denominations that tend to be more connected to the universities, particularly universities that host liberal theologians (you know, the kind that almost don't believe in God any more), numbers are dropping rapidly, and have been for decades. But in the more conservative groups, which tend to fall below university radar—yet are actually now larger—attendance is growing rapidly.

It happens that the denominations that expect more from their members, get more. There is more of a sense of community, members are more likely to bring friends or relatives, or even witness to strangers. Members of conservative churches become friends and like getting together, so there are lots of "side meetings" like home fellowships and Bible studies, that provide a more satisfying social outlet than viewing the latest slasher flick from Hollywood. Conservative churches may have rules against seeing slasher flicks anyway, but the people have plenty to do, and don't feel deprived of anything. The conservative Christian experience is more satisfying than the loose, "liberal churchianity" experience from which people are flocking.

Because such churches are less connected to universities, the theologians only see that the congregations with which they are familiar are losing members. They don't notice that the people aren't dropping out of religion, but exchanging a boring one for a vibrant one. I did so nearly forty years ago, so I understand completely.

This is not just trading one superstition for another. A further criticism of the irreligious is that God is just some imaginary, supernatural entity that science has disproved. The survey looked into this also. What do people believe who don't believe in the God of the Bible (either Testament) or the Koran? Much, much larger numbers believe in the vague "spirituality" of New Age, in UFOs, in a rather over-sweet conception of Angels, in Spiritualist communication with the dead, and/or in Bigfoot, LochNess, Atlantis and so forth.

Few Bible believers care about any of this stuff. But here is what is interesting: There is a gap between the 3% of Americans who are real Atheists and those who believe in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic conception of God. That gap is partly filled with Buddhists, who aren't expected to believe in God but who aren't Atheists either, and the rest are those who, to a Christian, really are the Superstitious, believing in Atlantis, or Dianetics, or whatever.

There really is a difference between faith and superstition, and faith is alive and well. Some scholars whom I highly admire have displayed this for all to see.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A little goes a long way

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, blogging, politics, polemics

We need our fanatics. The extremes of any distribution have more to do with defining what is "average" or "normal" than the mass in the middle. The power of the American experiment is the diversity of its peoples, which is a diversity of cultures, backgrounds, and especially ways of thinking.

Much is made of the "polarization" of modern society, and I sometimes also indulge in nostalgia for a more "homogeneous" America. But what I remember never was. The America I lived in all those decades ago was only locally homogeneous…and I was a not a part of it! My formative years were spent in Utah, a member of a "gentile" family among Mormons, at a time (1950s) that few non-Mormons lived in suburban Salt Lake City. Had I grown up in Tokyo instead, I'd have distinctly different ideas about what is "normal".

Anyway, America is not more polarized than ever. Think of the Civil War / War Between the States, the bloodiest war, in proportion to population, in American history. The country was really polarized then! But today, better means of spreading information tend to bring diverse views to larger numbers, making people less comfortable in their locally homogeneous niche. It reminds me of the opening scene in an old silent movie: A woman brings some poor children to the playground of the rich, which leads one rich young man to question his good fortune (Wish I could remember the movie's title).

Political blogging, and other opinion blogging, has sped up the spread of news and information a thousand-fold, compared to just one lifetime ago, and a million-fold compared to the 1860s. Traditional TV and Radio news are sufficiently rapid to get more news to us than we can possibly digest, and they are now the slowest media! But they don't carry all the news. They couldn't anyway. Nobody could carry in a newspaper with all the news, nor afford to buy one, nor read it before the next edition arrived. There are more than twenty news-only Cable channels, and they don't cover it all, and nobody can listen/watch more than one at at time anyway.

Amid this flood of news, opinion, discussion, and backlash, lots of hot issues get aired. The seeming polarization we see, on so many topics, is a phenomenon of greater coverage: now we can see the whole breadth of an issue, where before, we only knew a small part, and heard faint rumors of less-well-known opinions.

I have observed that there are typically about seven way-stations along any spectrum of point-of-view. For example, consider "global warming" AKA "climate change" AKA "greenhouse effect" AKA "CO2 pollution". Looking at the "moderate" positions first, we have the largest "station", the people who say, "I don't know if the science is right or not, but I worry a little…only a little." To one side are those who say, "It's probably mainly natural cycles", and to the other, those who say, "It's probably our doing, but how bad can it be? I'm not too worried". Note that I haven't labeled either of these as politically Right or Left, though the political wings have claimed territory, but mainly further along this spectrum in one direction or another.

So, you have the "Probably not" group followed by those who say, "There is no 'scientific consensus'. It is mostly or totally natural cycles. We might just as easily have an ice age soon," followed by "There is no such thing. Those people who say differently ought to just shut up."

And you have the "Probably so" group followed by those who say, "There is a strong scientific consensus. Natural cycles are being swamped by our activities," followed by "We're destroying the planet. Those people who say differently ought to just shut up."

It is clear that people at the two ends of this spectrum simply can't communicate. Neither wants the other to have the right to voice an opinion. It is less clear, but true in my experience, that any two people whose positions differ by more than two "stations" can't communicate. So the middle three stations consist of people who cover about a third of the spectrum, who may differ a little but can still get along. But the people who are way out in the wings just can't.

So let me throw around a few labels. The middle three stations are Centrists or Moderates. The next station in one direction is the Deniers, and the next in the other is the Promoters. These two stations are also the ones I call Fanatics. They tend to be much more vocal, and they battle over influencing the Centrists. Then the outermost two stations? They are the nut jobs, the Insanely Committed. I do not argue that they ought to be committed. But they are fortunately few in number, with positions sufficiently extreme that they interest few if any of the Centrist persuasion. The fringiest edge of either IC group are those most likely to take up arms or become a Unabomber.

Having just read Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, by Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, I am considering how I'd classify him and his blog, The Daily Kos? He began blogging six years ago with the words, "I am progressive. I am liberal. I make no apologies." So his politics are unabashedly Left wing. I am myself Center-Right. Thus I found it hard to read his book all the way through. We differ just enough, on almost everything, that it is uncomfortable reading. I suspect, were we to meet, we'd wind up talking past each other on many points. I classify him in the Fanatic category on most of his opinions. But I do not think him Insanely Committed…he isn't that scary.

The book is a survey and instruction manual for Web activism. Through examples and explanations he shows the power of the new democratization the Internet has thrust upon us. The cat is really out of the bag, and no government has been able to get even a few cat hairs back into the bag.

An aside: it is common knowledge among police that if you get less than 85% compliance with a law, it becomes unenforceable. That is why, though the speed limit is 65 mph on most of highway 95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore, the average speed of traffic, is upwards of 75. You have to go at least 70 to avoid a tailgate accident. Same thing on the New Jersey Turnpike and most other highways in the US. Few patrollers will stop a car until it is going more than 80, because that is the 85% compliance point.

By the same reasoning, there is little likelihood that any "Digital Framework" or other law will make much change in how the Internet is used. Too many people will ignore it, and too many have the expertise to get around it. The Chinese have temporarily cowed Yahoo and Google into submitting to a few censorship provisions, but people are finding ways to operate that make the restrictions meaningless.

In this climate, Web-driven political action is becoming most effective. Trent Lott found out you can't apologize your way out of a corner if you have touched the Racism button. If it were based on a single incident, his gaffe at Strom Thurmond's birthday party, he could have ridden it out. But it didn't take much digging for bloggers, the new investigative reporters, to expose a pattern of racism that spanned his life, and he was a goner. Others found you cannot ignore your way out either. President Bush got away with ignoring Cindy Sheehan. There just wasn't the same kind of 'handle' there. Others, like James Webb's political opponents in 2006, found themselves losing elections they were expected to win, when he organized right around them…or rather, his fans on the Internet organized right around the entire political establishment of Virginia.

Moulitsas covers the territory of political battles, however waged, in the following steps: Mobilize, Set the Narrative, Reinvent the Protest, Feed the Backlash, Ignore the Hype, and Fight Small/Win Big. A particularly cogent point: Don't forget to be entertaining. People can't remain committed to a cause that bores them. No matter how much the Left hates Rush Limbaugh, he is unstoppable as long as he remembers—and he says this himself—he is an entertainer, and his job is to entice more and more people to listen to his show. Similarly, no matter how much the Right may hate Markos Moulitsas, he is also a consummate entertainer. Read The Daily Kos and see for yourself. Whether you agree with him or not, he'll pique your interest.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Necessary unpleasantness

kw: medical tests

More than 50,000 people died of colon cancer in 2007. Most of these were in their 60s or older. But a 60-year-old who is found to have a bowel cancer could have been spared if that bowel had been checked ten years earlier.

Are you fifty or older? If not, is someone you love over fifty, and never has had the colon checked? Please read this, or have that person read it. I'll tell you about my own experiences with the unique test that can prevent colon cancer.

There is only one: Colonoscopy. That means full-length viewing of the colon with a flexible fiber scope. Only full-length colonoscopy can find every pre-cancerous polyp ("polyp" means "tumor", whether cancerous or not). I have had five colonoscopies, beginning with the one that saved my life.

I was unlucky, in a way. I was found to have a large colon cancer at the age of 53, much younger than usual. To keep it short, let's just say I began to have abdominal pain in mid-2000, and after a few false leads, went for a colonoscopy in November. A few days later a tumor the size of my fist was removed, along with half my colon. I had six months of chemotherapy to begin 2001. What made this tumor particularly dangerous was that it was in the cecum, the large pouch (with appendix attached) that begins the colon, low on the right side. There is a lot of room there for a cancer to grow without causing any symptoms, not even "occult" bleeding.

Because of my responsible position at work, I had had yearly tests for "fecal occult blood" since the age of forty. None ever showed any blood. Only during the last month before my surgery was there any blood in my stool.

I was told by one doctor that this cancer was ten to fifteen years old. Had I been tested by colonoscopy at age fifty, a much smaller cancer or polyp would have been found, removable by colonoscope without the large abdominal operation (five hours) that I underwent.

I was like a lot of people: In denial, and "putting it off" after I passed my fiftieth birthday. I need not have worried. Let me walk you through a typical procedure. It really isn't that bad. Do you know what is the worst part? Getting the intravenous (IV) put in! Really.

Eight years ago, the worst part was the "prep". I was given a prescription for a gallon of Colyte, which I had to drink within about four hours. It tastes vile. Luckily, things have changed. Here is a time line:

Prep Day, 24-36 hours before the procedure

The "prep" is now pills, either Senna (OTC) or a prescription substance in pill form. On this day, eat no solid foods: just clear liquids and lime, lemon or orange Jell-O. About midday take half the prep with a couple glasses of water. Within 2-4 hours you'll want to stay close to the bathroom!

About the time your bowel quiets down, say 9:00 PM (your doctor's instructions will have an exact time, depending on which prep is used), take the other half of the prep with a couple glasses of water…or maybe three or four. You'll be cleaned out by midnight.

Midnight at the end of Prep Day

Nothing more to eat or drink until the procedure is over. Go to sleep.

Procedure Day

Arrive at the clinic, probably an ambulatory surgery center, and sign in. I've had early morning procedures and mid-afternoon ones. The earlier your schedule, the more likely it is to be on time. The actual procedure takes 15-30 minutes, unless the doctor finds a polyp large enough to make him slow down and remove it carefully. This can add a half hour to things. Guess what; the patient just before you will take an extra hour.

You have to have someone with you to take you home. The anesthesia they usually use is just a little Pentothal and Demeral, or something equivalent. No gases. But they don't want you driving yourself home. Some people can't think clearly for half a day or more afterwards.

Soon you'll be taken into a room to undress and put on a robe. The anesthesiologist will come to put in the IV. Did I mention this is the worst part? Tell him or her if you are so scared of needles that you want benzocaine rubbed on the skin first so you won't feel the catheter being put in. I've never done that, but they will if you ask.

So, the IV goes in, a slow saline drip is started, and soon the nurse comes to walk you to the procedure room (it is NOT an operating room).

In the Procedure Room

There are at least three people with you: the doctor, the anesthesiologist, and one or more nurses. There is also a "tower" with the equipment, which includes a TV monitor and the fiberscope itself. You can ask for an explanation if you like. Whatever the fiberscope sees is shown on the monitor.

The anesthesiologist attaches a syringe to the IV and squirts something in. In five seconds you're out. With no transition, you open your eyes and greet the nurse and the person who came with you. At least for me, Demerol prevents memory formation, so from the time it hits until it wears off (about half an hour) is like it never happened.

In the Recovery Room

After waking, it takes a few minutes before you can sit up or get off the gurney. As soon as you can, the nurse helps you to a comfortable chair and brings you some apple juice or soda. Your first calories in hours and hours! Lovely.

At home

If there were no delays, within about two hours after arriving at the clinic you are on your way home. Did I mention that someone else is driving?

You are to take it easy the rest of the day, but you can probably eat normally. Don't dive into a giant meal, but start with a small meal or snack, then more a couple hours later. There are lingering effects of the Pentothal that help me get a very good sleep. By morning, I am ready to return to work, if I haven't scheduled the procedure for a Friday. You'll feel pretty good, too.

The exception was my first colonoscopy. I awoke to be told I had a large cancer, and was taken in for a CT scan about an hour later. That showed several enlarged lymph nodes nearby. I was admitted for surgery a few days later. Let's hope in your case, you'll have a clean colon and be told, "Return in five years."

I have had five colonoscopies in eight years, because I am now at higher risk, and indeed, two of those times, new polyps were removed. This time, just last week, it had been three years since the prior one. I had a polyp that was getting pretty big (close to an inch). I expect I'll be on a 2-year schedule from now on.

The upside is, I've had eight years of life that I might have lost, and I could live another thirty years. I am grateful.