Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Another name for multi-hued.

kw: places, ghost towns

Look carefully near the upper-right corner of this image. Folks on the way from Southern California to Las Vegas, about seven miles after leaving Barstow, can look to the left and see "CALICO" near the top of a nearby, small mountain.

I've seldom gone as far as Las Vegas. I usually got no farther than Calico Ghost Town. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a small cluster of old buildings containing a couple gift shops and the entrance to a "mine walk". For a couple dollars we'd be led through an underground exhibit of mining as it was in the 1890s.

These hills are visible from Lavic, one of my favorite collecting localities. There are probably a dozen interesting places to either collect agate and jasper, or to see desert wildlife, in the vicinity (a few miles in any direction you like).

This aerial view from Google Earth shows Calico as seen today, from a virtual altitude of a mile or so. The old place is quite built up now, with more buildings, the setting for a number of fun mini-dramas. Take a peek at some of it at Calico Town.

I haven't visited since the place was turned into a mini-theme park, but I ought to. Admission is still in the single digits. Those who have exemplary resistance to trinket shopping ought to find it an affordable, fun place. Now that I've gathered all the Mojave Desert rocks I can ever hope to grind and polish, I'll make my next trip a sightseeing one.

Monday, April 28, 2008

After the helix - definitely not elementary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, genetics, autobiographies

You're 34, a Harvard professor, and you've just received the Nobel Prize for work done before you were 25. Now what? For Dr. James D. Watson, "Now what?" happens midway through his new book Avoid Boring People: and Other Lessons from a Life in Science. (Though this is an autobiography, it is classified 572 (DD): "Life Sciences, Human Races" and QH3 (LCCN): "Natural History, General". The LCCN is at least close to the mark; the DD is wildly inaccurate. I'd have expected to find the book under BIO.)

Jim Watson in an odd duck. He clearly displays that unique mix of intellectual brilliance with social ineptitude that I find common among polymaths. As is also common to the breed, he learned human relations by calculation rather than innately. That which comes naturally for most must be learned by some, hence the book's subtitle.

Yet the brainy are typically the most playful. The book's title exemplifies this. At first it seems an elitist comment, until one notices the extra word "other" that appears only in certain light.

It is also characteristic of a polymath to make up the rules as one goes along. While the narrative is straightforward (which Watson attributes to helpers and editors), the book's structure is particularly focused on the "Lessons". Each chapter title begins with the word "Manners": "Manners Picked up in Graduate School" or "Manners Appropriate for a Nobel Prize". Each chapters ends with an explication of a handful of lessons, including "Avoid Boring People" after Ch 5, about avoiding people who are boring, and "Avoid Boring People" after Ch 15, about not being a bore. That fifteenth chapter ends with his resignation from Harvard in 1976, and while his epilogue skims the years through 2007, one can't help expecting another volume to follow.

Throughout, the author focuses on the science of genetics that is his passion. Whether working with phages (a kind of virus), bacteria, or molecular models, he has wanted to understand how genes make proteins which regulate genes to make other proteins...and so on. He doesn't scrimp for his reader, speaking of galactosidase or ribosomes as one expecting the reader's full comprehension. Be prepared to look stuff up as you read, if you're not already familiar with the field.

I could not avoid noticing that Watson's second focus, after science, is women. He pursued them relentlessly, but didn't really "catch" one until nearly age forty. He first mentions Elizabeth Lewis 80% of the way through the book, and, tellingly, once he is safely married to her, hardly mentions any woman thereafter...a sign of genuine love and fulfillment (and perhaps some of her watching eye).

Jim Watson has lived a life full of accomplishment and honors. For some, winning a Nobel Prize culminates a career. For him, it was the beginning. The Nobel came midway through a couple of decades as a Harvard professor. Having recently completed forty years guiding Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the first thirty years as its director, and its Chancellor since, he has been a guiding force in American and international genetics research for fully half the 20th Century, and now for a twelfth (so far) of the 21st. He's eighty and going strong. You gotta wish him well!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Four hands make great music

kw: performance review, pianists, education

Last evening (Saturday April 26) we enjoyed four-hand piano by the Bradshaw-Martin duo. They performed in the dance studio of the Darlington Arts Center in Boothwyn, PA. I am part-time faculty there, teaching a few music lessons. Chris lives of his music, teaching full time and fulfilling a busy performing schedule. He and Martin perform four-hand (one piano) and piano duo concerts worldwide, enchanting audiences with this unique genre since 1992.

One would think the repertoire for four-hand piano to be limited, but my colleague Chris is an inveterate collector with a nose for good material. He told a particularly charming anecdote before the final suite of the concert, about a four-hand rendering of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" that had been found in a closet at St. Paul's, where Holst had taught. It has since been published, and we enjoyed four of the movements that the Duo chose to cap the evening.

Prior to an intermission, they had performed Mozart's "Jupiter" (Sympony #41 in C) and Edward MacDowell's "Moon Pictures", evocative renderings from stories by Hans Christian Anderson. Notes in the program explained the Moon stories, from Anderson's Picturebook Without Pictures.

Darlington is one of the smaller venues for a Bradshaw-Martin performance. Only forty were in attendance. The true Classical genre occupies a small niche. But I enjoy it infinitely more than the more popular genres heard on Top 40 stations. This was an evening we will long remember fondly.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Green and purple people

kw: musings, photosynthesis, poverty

On a walk together recently, my wife, who had been gardening earlier in the day, remarked on how aggressive the plants were to shade one another out. This early Spring season we see new leaves frantically (on their time scale) striving for every bit of light. Our discussion led to my remembering a couple stories I've read, that included the concept of people becoming photosynthetic so as to reduce or eliminate the need to eat anything other than a few mineral nutrients.

I noted also that most plants are only about one percent efficient at turning photon energy into calories of sugar energy. So we discussed just how much food could be displaced by light, if people had chloroplasts or something similar in their skin. Here are some of the numbers:

The people at the University of Prince Edward Island have an analysis of green plant photosynthetic efficiency here. Basically, starting with a photon efficiency of just under 30%, other factors such as wavelength dependency reduce the total system efficiency to 6.6% or less. Measured productivity figures I've found range from 0.25%-1% for most trees to 3%-5% for sugar cane. I've also read somewhere that purple bacteria start with a photon efficiency more nearly 90%, so perhaps their total system efficiency ranges to 15%.

Thus the range of solar energy in to calories out ranges from 0.25% to 15%.

Next, the solar constant averages 1,366 w/sq.m above the atmosphere, but only 60% of the energy gets to the surface, or ~820 w/sq.m.

Finally, basic metabolism ranges from 1200 kcal/day for a small, elderly woman to about twice that for a large young man. Those with very strenuous physical jobs (e.g. lumberjacks) can require 4000-6000 kcal/day of food.

But lets look at 1200 and 2400. A kcal is 4184 watt-sec, or 1162 watt-hr (1.162 kwh), so those metabolic rates come to about 1.4 and 2.8 kwh per day.

Somebody who has the time might have the patience to face the Sun for 6 hours daily, striving for unobstructed solar access. Each square meter of photosynthetic surface would intercept 820x6 = 4920 watt-hr or 4.92 kwh.

We can grind all the figures together to determine, if photosynthesis could be produced at 100% efficiency, 1200 kcal/day, or 1.4 kwh/day, requires 0.285 sq.m of exposed surface, and 2400 kcal/day needs double that, 0.57 sq.m. For the various efficiencies, we get this table of the square meters of sunlight one must collect:

Efficiency1200 kcal/d2400 kcal/d
0.15 (purple)1.93.8
0.05 (cane)5.711.4
0.01 (shrub)28.557
0.0025 (tree)114228

All figures below the third line conjure visions of people with great sail-like appendages they can unfurl to the sun. Even spreading 11 square meters (the size of a barn door) per person, is a daunting prospect. A naked human of ordinary size, with a mirror behind to shine light on the otherwise shadowed side, could capture only about 1.5 square meters of sunlight.

Assuming then that a method could be devised to insert the purple bacterial photosystem into human skin cells, there would remain the need to engineer winglike extensions of the body, or be limited to gaining at most a quarter to half one's calories by spending half one's time basking above a mirror. No wonder that photosynthesis in motile creatures is limited to the protozoa!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Global Warmists

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, climate change

I don't know if I can fairly review the recent volume edited by Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, titled Climate Change: What it Means for Us, our Children, and our Grandchildren. By the time I'd read half the volume (four of the eight essays) I had marked eight places where I had serious objections, beginning with an unsupported cheap shot at Michael Crichton. I decided on another approach.

If you are sufficiently motivated, please read Cold Facts on Global Warming by T. J. Nelson. Of most significance to me, he demonstrates:
  • A doubling of CO2 from its current value of 0.0368% to 0.0736% will cause at most 1.76°C (3.17°F), with an uncertainty of ¼°C (½°F). Contrast this figure with some of the numbers being published.
  • Taking a straight-line trend through the measured CO2 values for the past forty years indicates that such doubling will take nearly 250 years, not the "50-100 years" we hear about.
  • Doubling CO2 requires much more than doubling the global use of fossil fuels (more like octupling), in the proportions being consumed today. This is extremely unlikely.
  • CO2 is already absorbing most of the radiation of which it is capable.
Let us also remember that water vapor is a much more capable greenhouse gas than is CO2, and that water's longest-wave absorption band competes with CO2's. Water vapor takes part in a negative-feedback mechanism: warmer Earth => more clouds => more solar heat reflected => cooling and rainfall...and so forth.

A word on coastal flooding: Heating the oceans by 1.76°C (in much longer than the next 2.5 centuries) will deepen the oceans by at most a meter. Neither can such a level of heating make much of a dent in the continental ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica. Added rainfall may actually thicken them. This may account for the fact that the expected flooding of the Maldives and similar island nations just isn't happening "on schedule."

This volume is worth reading as an example of the peak of the current "fashionable fear" phase of the global warming debate. The Sixth chapter, by journalist Andrew Revkin is the only essay that even approaches rationality. But little debate is now tolerated; scientists who wish to dissent are silenced or cowed, except for the Emeriti who, being retired, no longer have to scramble for grant money. Much of the dissent thus comes from them.

The volume also exemplifies the transition of the thesis into a belief system, a temporary religion I call "Global Warmism." Such temporary religions gain adherents for ten to thirty years, then fade away, until just a few gadflies remain. I predict that a new fashionable fear will occupy all the headlines and trigger a new cult by 2015 or so. Sic transit timor mundi, and no skin off my nose.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A night on the town with Dr. Seuss

kw: theater reviews, musicals

When our son was in high school, he played in the pit orchestra for the school's production of Seussical, the Musical. Now, in college, he's gotten involved with the Livingston Theater Company (affiliated with Rutgers University), which is putting on the same musical. Last evening we attended opening night.

It is interesting to contrast the very different interpretations of the directors. Both productions had cut scenes, but with quite different cutting. I suspect the entire performance, uncut, would run three hours; both HS and LTC versions run about two hours, excluding intermission. In the HS version, Jojo is introduced as a Who from the outset; for LTC he is a "bigger world" boy who thinks up the Who planet, then is thrust into Whoville by the Cat in the Hat.

The acting and directorial interpretation of the Cat differs the most. At the HS, a very energetic young woman played Cat as a very upbeat, optimistic, cheerful character. The LTC actor, a young man, played Cat as more sardonic, wisecracking, almost cynical.

The HS staging, on a large stage in a 1000-seat auditorium, with the pit orchestra between the audience and stage, was quite lush compared to LTC. The latter, on a floor-level stage in a 300-seat arena-shaped semicircular theater, was spare and static. The HS had room for an explicit Whoville set to be rolled in, and jungle environ props. LTC used evocation and lighting to suggest changes of locale. The size constraints also placed the orchestra backstage, which led to occasional timing faults. You just about have to have a video feed to the conductor to get away with that.

Having grown up on Dr. Seuss's books, and having read a great many of them to our son, I could have dwelt on the differences in the mashups (such as which character finds the lost clover), but chose instead to thoroughly enjoy both productions (a couple years apart) as presented.

The keys to a good Seussical are high-energy players and a very strong, focused Horton—he is more crucial than Cat is. Both productions excelled.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A thief in time saves...?

kw: book reviews, mysteries

This lawyer knows enough about burglary to make me nervous. Chris Ewan's first novel, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam follows classic tropes of the genre, including the masterful summing-up in the last two chapters, by the protagonist/thief. This thief, though, is a successful mystery writer, who claims to supplement his writing income by his "other work."

The trouble with reviewing a mystery novel is to avoid giving too much away. The first idea of interest to me here is the semi-underworld repository of ultra-secure safety deposit boxes. The second is the thief as detective; though it has been done before, seldom was it done this well. Mr. Ewan has produced a plot with only a bit of implausibility, with turns enough to satisfy the most exacting maze-following reader. Just ask yourself as you read: Who is the girl, really; who is the policeman, really; who is the real thief here?

Monday, April 14, 2008

The most popular, but unbirdlike, bird

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, natural history

Behold the most populous penguin! Half of the 50 million penguins on Earth are macaroni penguins. Their name is derived from their foppish appearance; in colonial times, "macaroni" meant overdressed in an Italian style that was common at the time (thus Yankee Doodle called his decorative feather, Macaroni).

Wayne Lynch's Penguins of the World, though a mini-coffee-table-size book, seems to small to hold all the information he conveys. Perhaps a quarter of the space is taken up with lovely photography of all species of penguin, doing any number of penguiny things.

In all, there are seventeen penguin species, ranging from the emperor penguin, the size of a preteen at 30kg or so, to the raven-size little penguin, which weighs about 1kg. But be warned: weight figures for a penguin are highly variable. Nearly all penguins endure one or two extended fasts each year, one during molting and the other during incubation of eggs. Many lose as much as half their body weight. That'd be like my weight fluctuating from 90kg to 45kg, every single year. Talk about a binge/diet cycle!

The most abundant penguin is not the most familiar. Honors for favorite "penguin look" go to young emperor penguins, and the classic "tuxedo" penguin look to their parents. All penguin young look quite a bit different from adults, probably to mute aggression and evoke caring behavior.

It is interesting that this most popular of birds should be so unbirdlike. Very few people have seen a penguin fly, because they only do so underwater. A few other birds can fly underwater, but they all fly in air also. Not penguins. Penguins have very short legs and waddle rather than walk, when they are not tobogganing (which uses ¼ the energy). Some penguins, mainly emperor and adelie penguins, never touch land, only "landing" on ice when they are not in the water.

Dr. Lynch's book covers the life cycle and natural history of penguins from end to end. They are amazing birds, and this is an amazing book, as beautiful as it is well written and comprehensive.

The images above are from the Wikipedia Commons, and originals can be found here and here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The missing continent

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, exploring

It would be quite convenient if there were an Arctic continent, it really would. Suppose the Asian landmass went right over the pole to attach to North America. Wouldn't that be nice? One could pass overland right from Winnipeg to Moscow or Novosibirsk. Of course, with the much different deep ocean currents that scenario would entail, both Winnipeg and Moscow might be under a mile or three of ice. Or they might be in the midst of great corn belts. How are we to know?

The truth is, we have no way to know (today) just what might eventuate. The climate models and ocean circulation models upon which our long-term projections are based are so poorly coupled together that such a large-scale simulation would be little better than guesswork.

Twenty-five years ago, I was given an assignment, along with a dozen fellow students in a Tectonics class, to write about the process by which I would go about determining if there had been plate tectonics (continental motions) in the earliest Precambrian, say a quarter billion years after the crust first formed. Being a Computer-oriented Geologist (or more of a Geology-oriented Computer scientist, truth be told), I proposed a simulation of earth dynamics to cover the first one or two billion years of planetary evolution. Should we posit half a dozen initial scenarios, and run the simulation for each, we'd have a good parameter space from which to draw conclusions about what is needed for plate tectonics to get going some 3.5 billion years ago. Of course I already had a sneaking suspicion that the continents and oceanic crust of that time, being warmer and with a higher water content, were fairly ripping along compared to their sedate pace at present.

I outlined the range of parameters—a billion-fold range of rock strength, an equally great range of fluid compositions, and perhaps an incompletely segregated core with the deep mantle still disgorging dollops of liquid iron downward. I outlined the number of layers and cells per layer needed to render the came to a few billion finite elements. Then it would have to run in steps of several millennia each, perhaps shorter, perhaps longer. Anyway, on the fastest supercomputer in existence (in 1982), running one of the six models would take several thousand years. I invoked Moore's Law and stated that in twenty years' time, such a model could be run in about a week, so I proposed we busy ourselves about other matters in the meantime. I got a poor grade.

What is the situation with global modeling today? The twenty years ended half a decade ago. Models of such a size and complexity can indeed be run in a week or two now. Do they tell us what we need to know? Not at all. And here is why: We don't know nearly enough, not even a hundredth of a percent of enough, about what is actually going on RIGHT NOW, as input to start the model, and to test its predictions. This is true whether we are modeling earth dynamics, ocean currents, or the climate. After twenty-five years, Geologists still debate whether the force that moves the continents around is "ridge push" more than "trench pull", or vice versa. And a case has been made that continental directions are significantly influenced by coriolis effects! As to the climate, we were more worried about another ice age in 1982 than about global warming, or whatever one wishes to call it.

We've just got to the point that we can predict the circulation of the ice in the North Polar cap with enough precision, so that Nansen could have known which piece of ice to attach the Fram to so as to cross within a mile or so of the Pole. In The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on The Arctic, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert, we read a portion of Nansen's account of coming within 3.75 degrees (about 260 miles or 420 km) of the Pole in the icebound Fram. But this was almost happenstance, it seemed, because for much of the journey they sidled southward, slipping northward somewhat as an afterthought.

The book is the in-volume, back-to-back companion of ...Finest Writing on the Antarctic, about which I posted a few days ago. The singular distinction between the two sets of writings is that the Arctic writings are almost exclusively about human interactions between explorers or scientists and the native Arctic peoples. There are no Southern natives, other than penguins. Curiously, much of the writing is about Greenlanders. Perhaps they were more hospitable, at least to folks who could write well...

The Arctic has been known to written (i.e. European) history for much longer than the Antarctic, so this volume covers more than 180 years, beginning with an excerpt from John Franklin's 1923 "The Extreme Misery of the Whole Party". Franklin and more than 120 others died the following year, and a significantly larger number died in later years while looking for survivors!

A theme I picked up, perhaps witting by the editor, is the great tendency of all "visitors" to northern lands to take great advantage of the skills of native guides, but to learn nearly nothing from them, until very recent times. A singular exception to this trend was Gontran De Poncins, who wrote Kabloona (Inuit for "white man") about his experiences living among the Inuit in their igloos in and after 1938. He consciously learned what he could of their culture and skills, and experienced a great shift of his own cultural orientation. He did not "go native", but did come to understand what lay beneath a veneer that Europeans (as he had) found quite repugnant.

The most recent few articles focus on changes in the Arctic realms because of climatic warming over the past couple of centuries. The climate has warmed steadily since the end of the "Little Ice Age" in about 1850, and continues to do so, perhaps abetted by the extra greenhouse gases our technological society produces. The warming is most evident in the far North, which is much easier to melt off than the far south: tens of feet of Northern ice cap compared to ten thousand feet in the South. As warming (and the invention of fertilizer and tractors) has produced increased farm productivity in temperate climes, the productivity in the far North, at least that available to humans, has decreased. This plus well-meant but misguided Missionary practices has led to a near-total disappearance of Northern cultures. They all have snowmobiles and rifles now, but are catching fewer seals, whales, and bears.

This book, and its companion, both end on an ambiguous note. We don't know what we don't know, and we know the Polar regions less than the rest, and little enough of that, at best.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The buried continent

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, exploring

It's a two-ended book, with an anomaly I'll come to presently. The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on The Antarctic, edited by Francis Spufford, is half of a volume whose other half's title ends with "...The Arctic". The second half is separately edited and will be reviewed in a later post.

The publishers used an old pulp-double-volume method to put the sections of the book back-to-back, so one turns it over after reaching the end of either part, to read the other. Each half is about 200 pages plus apparatus.

I chose to begin with the Antarctic. Imagine my surprise to find a flyleaf map of the Arctic, and a flyleaf entitled "The Arctic". I turned the volume over, so the cover was reading "The Arctic" and found the flyleaf map and flyleaf, and the writing within, all referring to the Antarctic. It seems the cover is on the wrong way. That's much easier to do with a B2B book. I wonder how many volumes went out this way...

The human history of the Antarctic covers little more than a century, and the first piece of writing in the book is a selection from Frederick Cook's Into the Night of 1900. Ironically, one of the longer items is the ten-page introduction by the Editor.

The writing of the earlier, pre-Radio era, usually considered the Heroic era, consists of expanded diary entries. The writers are clearly struggling to put what they see into words. Nowhere else could they have seen sights to provide a context for Antarctic vistas.

By the time Richard Byrd wrote Alone (1938), from which the 11th Chapter, "The Blow" came, he wasn't all that alone, having radio contact with more northerly friends. Curiously, Byrd's excerpt is the next-to-last piece of narrative in the collection, the last being Diane Ackerman's "White Lanterns", which tends a bit toward the romantic but retains narrative force (All the writing is evocative, of course, that being the only context the writers could supply). The seven other more recent pieces are either fiction or romantic idealism. It's a curious mix.

After the first half-page, I skipped right over a bit by H.P. Lovecraft. I don't like his Chthulu writing, and I could see this was more of the same: horror that in the end says nothing but infers everything.

Considering the historical flow of the pieces themselves, each is consistent with the generation from which it came. It is only fitting for Nicholas Johnson's "Blue Collar" to sound like a NPR bulletin; that is obviously what the writer was raised on.

From first to last, the writers are doing their best to express the inexpressible, whether describing the many colors of penguin heads' decorations (only the head shows above water, so why should evolution decorate the rest of the animal?), to the many-arced sundogs visible only there, to the unearthly blue of crevasse and iceberg, to the bone-crushing weariness of living in perpetually frozen clothing. Evocative the writing has to be. None of us could understand emotionless narrative.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Who's watching the mint?

kw: opinion, oversight

This cartoon by RJ Matson appeared a couple days ago nationally, and today in my local paper. It neatly expresses the problem with long-term bureaucratic service: the powerful put their greatest efforts into escaping constraints and oversight of their doings. In my opinion, every government job above clerk level should have a term limit not to exceed two senatorial terms (12 years), and every word to come out of the word processors of the "high and mighty" should be immediately posted, blog style.

Am I spitting against the wind, here or what? HA!! As a stockholder in several major corporations, I see a proposal every single year, for every single firm, to limit CEO compensation, and almost every time, one to do simple, common-sense things like require the CEO and Board Chair to be different persons. Such measures never have a snowflake's hope of passing, do they? But I think the continual din of such complaints must have at least a tiny salutary effect. The powers-that-be really NEED gadflies to keep them from going to hell in a handbasket even faster.

Friday, April 04, 2008

When Eastern knighthood was in flower

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, japan

In downtown Tokyo, not far from the Emperor's palace, surrounded by office buildings, sits a little shrine, the Kubizuka. Few foreigners visit. It is a business area, with few nearby shops. As real estate, it may be worth millions. It is scrupulously cared for, because it is believed to house a vengeful spirit. It is the grave of "the most famous samurai you've never heard of" in the words of Karl Friday.

In The First Samurai: The Life and Legend of the Warrior Rebel Taira Masakado Dr. Friday presents to us a Japanese warrior whose local reputation is scarcely different from that of Lancelot among Westerners, and who has the benefit of being an actual historical figure. Yet, as is common for ancient heroes and villains, the legend has far outgrown the person, so that the mythical Taira-no-Masakado is no more real than is Lancelot.

Just so you know, Japanese names are presented surname first, so Taira is the family name. There were six clans named Taira; the clan of which Masakado was a part descended from Emperor Kammu. Emperors "de-noble-ized" excess descendants by giving them a surname, thus thrusting them out of the line of succession. Japanese emperors have no surname. (Akihito is the only name of the present Emperor; Heisei is the name he chose for the era of his administration, just has his father Hirohito chose Showa for the 52-year period which he oversaw. Regnal years begin with the naming of the era; 1989 was 1 Heisei, and this is 20 Heisei already.)

Masakado, born around 900 AD, was in the fifth generation from Kashiwabara, or Emperor Kammu. He was a hereditary aristocrat, and a powerful figure, though he had not succeeded in gaining much favor in the court at Kyoto. This is not explained in the histories, simply that his time attending the imperial court was unfruitful. Later events indicate he was probably a bit too honest and frank to make a good politician.

He was a warrior, a leader of warriors. Samurai were mercenaries, self-trained and self-supporting. No poor man could afford to become one. They fought on horseback, primarily as archers. The sword or swords they carried were for hand combat should it occur, or for removing the head of an already slain enemy. The times being what they were, both in West and East, an average knight or samurai of the Tenth Century seldom passed half a year without committing a killing or two.

What made Masakado famous was an almost accidental insurrection. He was forced into a life of warfare by the enmity of two uncles. No fighting man is without enemies, and all too often they are near relatives. Masakado was a superior tactician and strategist, so he won, time and again, over a five-year span. However, once it went to his head he overreached, taking over eight provinces to the east of Kyoto, in the area that later became Tokyo and its environs.

He didn't start out to take over anything, but when he rode into old Hitachi province with a large band of warriors, intending to settle a quarrel for another, he took on a bit too much, and had to either conquer the province or be driven off in defeat. That'll get you every time: getting into someone else's fight. This act made him an outlaw.

Calculating it better to make a strong showing in hopes of negotiation his way out of outlaw status, he took over seven more provinces. However, the Kyoto court was in an extra-paranoid condition, being in the midst of a pirate insurrection led by one Fujiwara Sumitomo, to the West of Kyoto. Feeling pinched, and having no sense of humor, the government issued warrants of arrest against Masakado to three of his bitterest enemies. The rest is a spiral of tragedy that led in 940 to a parade led by a rider with Masakado's head on a pike.

Legend has it that the head of Masakado hung on a tree near the city for three months, complaining of being removed from its body, until a passing man rebuked it, pointing out why it was there. It fell silent, and soon flew off to find its body. Various accounts converge on the burial of the head near Masakado's eastern home, and to erection of a large plaque to mark the Kubizuka, "tomb of the head." A marked proclivity for people to die on or near this spot, for a thousand-year span, led people to the present stance of taking excellent care of the monument, replacing the inscription as it became worn or broken and frequently placing new flowers and offerings upon it.

Masakado is the sort of enigmatic figure who is famous not so much for what he did, but for what he represented. As Dr. Friday writes, "The warriors of medieval Japan embraced Masakado as one of their own, the first samurai to rear up and challenge the court-centered polity." Reformers who succeed become the next government. Those who fail become rebels, in the eyes of history. Reforms perhaps intended by Masakado came hundreds of years later, once his legend grew to inspire Japanese warriors with a vision greater than themselves.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Spiky Edge Polyhedron Origami Module

kw: instructions, origami

This is the most colorful of the shapes in my new mobile. It is made of sixty origami modules in several colors. I was taught how to make the modules by a young friend. I have not seen this type of module on any modular origami web sites (and there are many), so I'll show how it is made here. A later post will show how to assemble modules into polyhedral shapes.

I use colored paper, rather than "origami paper", because this module totally hides one surface of the paper, so the bicolored stuff doesn't matter. For the purposes of this lesson, however, I use colored squares I made on a laser printer, so it will be easier to show which side we are working on and how the original edge gradually disappears inside. I'll use four pieces: the red one to show the basic module, and the other colors to show variations needed to get different angles, which is important because certain shapes need modules with a narrower or wider connection angle.

Image 1. You may have heard the terms "mountain fold" and "valley fold." These are defined in a few different ways. Here we will use the terms according to how they look at the time we will use the piece. A valley fold has its crease at the bottom of a "V", and a mountain fold is the opposite. This shows the result of folding the paper, color side up, corner to corner to make a valley fold. Do this in both diagonal directions.

Image 2. Then open the paper, turn it over, and fold opposite edges over one another. Fold one way, then the other. These square folds are in the opposite sense of the diagonal folds.

Image 3. Now open the paper so that the diagonal folds are mountain folds, and the square folds are valley folds. If you are using one-sided paper, the colored side should be down at this point. This is now the "basic fold" with which many, many origami figures begin. Talented practitioners can make this fold in just two operations. I can't!

Image 4. Next, with the paper in the orientation above, fold one corner almost to the center and crease it. This will be the result. Also fold over the opposite corner.

Image 5. Then fold the paper in half so the valley fold showing on top of the colored corners is reversed. This shows the paper held in that position.

Image 6. Now turn the paper so you can bring those two corners inside, and also press in the two other corners that you didn't fold back. It will look like this when lain down.

Image 7. Bring newly-formed corners together, without making any new folds, so the paper is in this shape. The corners you folded are now inside.

Image 8. Now we introduce the asymmetry needed to make the modules attach to one another in sequence. The open tip becomes the vertex of a new fold on one side only. The fold I made here is for "right handed" modules. All the modules to make one shape have to have the same handedness. So fold the outer edge of one side to the center fold as shown. This is one kind of "lily fold" or "petal fold." Turn the piece over and repeat. Do just two, not four. We are not making petals.

Image 9. This shows how the piece looks when opened to show the internal folds. We have to reverse two of the three folds made in each of the two operations, when we did the two petal folds.

Image 10. This shows just the two inner folds of one petal fold reversed.

Image 11. Same orientation as Image 8, showing how the fold is now inverted. Do both petal folds.

Image 12. Turn both petal folds so that the formerly partly hidden surfaces are revealed. Now we are ready to make the locking folds that hold it all together, form the pockets for the tabs, and expose the tabs.

Image 13. The tip of the petal is folded back to the corner that is the center of the paper and creased. Here one side is done. Do both.

Image 14. The piece is opened to show the inside from the "bottom." The newly folded parts will be tucked into the space shown to lock everything together. The corner below will tuck in and hold the "wiggle" on the left, which is part of the petal fold on that side. The corner above will tuck in and hold the "wiggle" on the right.

Image 15. Fold one corner back around the whole piece as shown, so it is prepared to be tucked inside.

Image 16. This shows the corner tucked in, holding one "wiggle", with the other "wiggle" showing.

Image 17. I fold over, then curl the second corner a little to make it easier to tuck in. Here it is shown half tucked in.

Image 18. Almost done. Note that you can see the pocket for one tab. The other is on the opposite side.

Image 19. Fold back the tabs away from the pockets. This is a finished piece.

The "pole angle" for this piece is 112.5 degrees (with a degree or two of slop, depending on carefulness of technique. Paper is forgiving). The variations I'll now show allow us to vary the "pole angle" from 108° to more than 130°. Shapes with many modules tend to need smaller "pole angles." Now to define it: the pole angle is the angle between a polyhedron's edge and an imaginary pole protruding from the center of the polyhedron, through the join between one edge and the next.

The polyhedron at the top of this post is shown looking almost right down one pole. Four edges meet at the vertex through which that pole protrudes. This particular shape has ten modules going around a great circle of the inscribed sphere, so each sits at a 36° angle to the next. This leads to a pole angle of 90°+18° = 108°, which is far enough from the 112.5° pole angle of the "original module" to cause trouble.

Image 20. These pieces are shown in the basic fold, colored side up so the diagonal folds show as valley folds and the square folds show as mountain folds. You'll begin by working on the non-color side, as before.

Image 21. Here all three are ready to make the petal folds. At this point they are all the same.

Image 22. The petal folds make the difference. For the orange piece, the fold was made across the center line such that the folded edge and the folding edge have the same angle at the outer corner. This will make a module with pole angles of 108°. The green piece is folded only halfway to the center, getting ready for pole angles of almost 124°. The blue piece is folded on-fourth of the way to the center, preparing for pole angles of just over 129°. This is the largest practicable pole angle. The absolute limit is 135°, at which point the tab size is zero.

You may also use two-thirds or one-third the way to the center for pole angles of 120° and 127.5°.

Image 23. Here the inner folds have been inverted. These are ready for turning. The orange piece in particular, must be turned carefully so the inside corner of the petal fold doesn't get crumpled.

Image 24. The three pieces ready for locking folds.

Image 25. The first locking fold on each has been made.

Image 26. The four modules finished, showing how the four angles appear. I turned them to emphasize the tab pockets with shadows.

Once several modules of the same angle are completed, and the tabs bent back, you can begin to see how they fit together to make the polyhedral shapes. This will be covered in a later may be a while, it takes a lot of modules to make most shapes.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

kw: opinion, global warming, deep time

Reading State of Fear recently prompted me to order my thinking about climate change, the greenhouse effect, and human effects on the atmosphere. My thoughts about the book itself are found in the prior post, or here. I tend to look at the largest possible picture first, and here is what I see:
  • We don't know much at all. We can barely detect a possible human-caused "warming" amid the noise of the global long-term climatic cycles caused by continental configurations, orbital changes, the sunspot cycle, and oceanic cycles such as ENSO ("El NiƱo"-Southern Oscillation).
  • Averaged over the past two centuries, the level of CO2 is lower than it has been for at least the prior 700 million years, and about 8x lower than was typical of the first three billion years of the existence of Earth.
  • The Sun is 40% brighter (hotter) now than it was four billion years ago and 15% brighter (hotter) than it was 1.5 billion years ago when the first animals evolved.
  • Higher Carbon Dioxide, faster rotation (leading to stronger weather systems), and a more pronounced solar cycle were all factors in keeping the oceans from freezing solid in the distant past.
  • Most plant species use C3 photosynthesis, which works best when CO2 is above 2,000 ppm (0.2 percent), and works poorly when it is less than 250 ppm.
  • Only during ice ages has the CO2 level been as low as 200-250 ppm.
  • Prior to the Miocene, its level was always more than 1,000 ppm.
  • C4 photosynthesis became widespread in the Miocene.
  • C4 photosynthesis plants, mainly grasses, can use CO2 levels as low as 40 ppm, and large grasslands tend to drive down CO2.
  • The present configuration of the continents together with low CO2 levels seem to have triggered two million years of ~20 ice ages. We are presently in an "interglacial" period between ice ages.
  • I envision: Lotsa grass, down goes CO2. Ice spreads. Glaciers flatten temperate grasslands. CO2 goes up. Climate warms. Ice recedes. Grasses begin to recover. Repeat.
  • I have no doubt that humans are contributing a hundred ppm or so of CO2 that would not be there, by burning fossil fuels. We're also staving off the next ice age.
  • Soon enough, we'll run out of fossil fuels. Here comes the ice!
  • It is well reported that higher CO2 helps plants grow better. Greenhouse growers add CO2 to the air in their greenhouses to get plants to market size sooner.
  • My last point. Yeah, we're having some warming effect on the climate, but I think it is helpful more than harmful.