Saturday, May 31, 2008

Half a Galaxy is better than none

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens

Under the covers of the social and political infighting needed to get a space program going during a time of global navel-watching (an echo of the post-Apollo years, including today), there are plenty of ideas in Chauldron to keep me busy for a while. Hard, realistic science fiction, including space fiction, is my favorite genre, and Jack mcDevitt is presently its best practitioner.

The setting of Chauldron is satisfyingly middle-of-the-road. In the 22d and 23d Centuries, a "superluminal" starship drive, based on some kind of hyperspace, is in use. This makes it possible to go a few light years in a day or so, and a few hundred in a few weeks. A smattering of planets with life have been visited, but no civilizations have been found. One signal, received for a few weeks, that then abruptly stops, which has been translated, has been the total yield of 15 decades of the original search program of SETI. Public indifference is reflected in the reordering of political priorities and the space program is dying the slow death of an uneconomic white elephant.

At such a juncture, nothing can restore public interest in space except a much easier, cheaper, faster star drive. Given a Galaxy that is 100,000 light years across, whose nearest similarly-sized neighbor is two million light years away, a few-light-year-per-day velocity is Model T stuff. So, of course, the author kicks off the book's plot with a new star drive, using a different kind of hyperspace or folded space or whatever, that is thirty times faster.

Naturally, given sudden public interest, surging donations to a space flight society, and offerings of corporate backing, the protagonists decide to equip two ships to explore a spot near the center of the Galaxy, some 30,000 light years away, but only a few months' ship time for transit. This spot, called the Cauldron or the Mordecai Zone, is the apparent source of lightning-spewing "omega" clouds that have a penchant for incinerating anything with right angles...such as cities on planetary surfaces.

The ideas with which the author weaves his tale include:
  • Complex life and civilization only arise when a suitable planet has a single large moon.
  • Civilization is fragile, and technology overruns common sense within a thousand years of the invention of printing using movable type.
  • The attainment of potential immortality by the conquest of aging leads to social stagnation, a civilization that endures with no heart, a planetary zombie.
  • A living plasma being, perhaps the size of Mercury's orbit, might arise in areas of great turmoil and radiant intensity, such as near the Galactic core.
The lovely thing about fiction like mcDevitt's is that only one or two suspensions of disbelief are needed to really get into the tale. He can even make you almost feel a caring pity for the plasma being.

The book is the sixth of a loosely-connected series, one that raises the ante enough that the author should be able to produce several more in the new territory he has opened up.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A recursive hunt

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens

The three authors of Hunter's Run explore the concept of identity from a new direction. George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham, accomplished authors and editors with many awards and honors to their credit, have crafted a galactic and planetary setting for one man's journey into himself, with the help of a very alien companion.

Ramón Espejo is a most unlikely philosopher. Indeed, by the end of his voyage of self-discovery, all unwilling, he has moved but a minim or two in the direction of self-knowledge. Tough, volatile, a misanthropic, ne'er-do-well prospector with no settled home when "in town", searching for a lucky strike on a planet just a generation into a lackadaisical colonization, Ramón stumbles across a hidden enclave of aliens, and finds himself coerced into hunting for "the other man" who'd also spotted them.

Did I say "coerced"? Think of a leash with teeth, the other end "held" by (or holding?) a 2-meter alien of only vaguely humanoid shape; a leash that can punish or kill as required to keep a captive in line. When the privations of the journey weaken the alien, who can use the leash to "read" the intentions of the captive, the mind-reading begins to go both ways, and Ramón learns why the aliens are so timid, fearing to become known to humans and their more powerful alien patrons.

The man is as close to worthless scum as the authors can portray, yet just as proud of himself (a "tough hombre") as any prince. He has recently murdered, so is none to keen on being driven closer to the "civilization" from which he's on the lam. Of course, his quarry is also far out in the sticks, but is apparently fleeing the aliens, back toward town.

Then he discovers he has somehow been produced from a fragment of his quarry's flesh, not a clone, but as the alien says, a "recapitulation". He is very similar to the "real" himself, and gaining memories, and old bodily scars, by the day. (Aside: Now that is an unlikely technology, to take an ounce of flesh and reproduce not just a body but a mind and memories from it!).

One question the alien asks him several times, "Why does a man kill?", worms its way into Ramón's mind and works a sort of transformation from within. My own experience with conversion experiences led me to spot this as greatly oversimplified, but the authors only had about 300 pages to work with. It is actually quite well done. When Ramón finally meets himself, the ensuing changes in them both make him ready, at the end, to meet aliens on a more level playing field. Other surprises along the way, I'll leave for the authors to tell.

Monday, May 26, 2008

From eyeglasses to cybernetic eyes, and beyond

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science journalism, technology

People's ideas of robots is most recently influenced by the Wil Smith film, I, Robot. Though the title is from Isaac Asimov, the theme is due more to Jack Williamson, who foresaw robots becoming our nannies, to a pathological extreme, in his story "With Folded Hands". Really, though, where is robo-technology going?

"The future promises a wealth of humanlike machines and machinelike humans," declare Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre in Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs. The viewpoint is that robotic and cyborganic technologies are tools, with more "smarts" built into them, perhaps, but no more innately good or evil than are eyeglasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, or titanium knee replacement joints.

The authors survey the spectrum, beginning with "Man Plus", which indeed includes eyeglasses and not just hearing aids but lens- and cochlear implants, and trends inevitably toward, perhaps, the brain getting either a "body transplant" or a mechanical body, à la Robocop. Is there a line somewhere beyond which the person ceases to exist? Or is it somewhere between Robocop and the "downloaded personality", in which the brain also is an artifact? Or is there no line? They make their position clear that a bodiless brain/mind has no meaning; our bodily functions and emotions are essential to our mental functioning, even though at times they may seem to hinder it.

They then survey the field of "Robots Plus", the spectrum from industrial welding robots, in use by the thousands, to humanoid, or rather "mammaloid", types, including Honda's Asimo and various robotic pet dogs. There is quite a bit of sociological musing here, with the conclusion that while it is necessary that some robots appear to be human, there is the danger of people imputing too much humanity where it isn't deserved. We're all to willing to lean 'way over backward to "help" a mechanism seem to pass the Turing Test.

I am reminded of a simple computer program I wrote, based on a story I read. It answers questions with Yes or No, implying a 20-questions game. After the fifth Yes answer, it asks "Is that it?" If the user enters Yes, it goes on to "Start Over?" People who play it express amazement at the database that must underlie its ability to guess their hidden thought, when they actually supply nearly everything themselves. One version of the game simply answers Yes every time the last letter is an E; others use a slightly more complex calculation (number of vowels, perhaps). But those who use it find themselves thinking it has great abilities.

The third part of Beyond Human explores the middle ground, a meeting place as it were between mechanism and human. At this point I began to do some calculations. All who viewed I, Robot were impressed with the power and speed of the malicious robots, even though it was found that most of their brain power was at the other end of a radio link. Just how quick and strong can a robot be?

The heavy welding arms in factories are known to be dangerous. They don't sense their surroundings, and a few techs have been injured or killed when one swept an arm through a space that is ordinarily free of human obstructions. But they are attached to and driven by heavy machinery "below deck", and the entire mechanism is the size of an auto. What are the physical limits of an autonomous robot?

A human athlete weighing 75 kg has a basal metabolism of about 75 watts, or 1550 Kcal/day (the nutrition "calorie" is a Kilocalorie). During heavy stress, such as a bicycle race, or lumberjacking, a trained person can exert 700 kcal/hr (about 800 watts, or one horsepower) for extended periods. An athlete in training can carbo-load before a major event such as a marathon, to gain a "quick reserve" of 8,000 kcal or more. The athlete's fat reserves total another 30,000 to 50,000 kcal. The entire energy system uses about 60% of one's body weight, or 45 kg for this athlete. To put these into electrical terms, 8,000 kcal = 9,300 watt-hours, and a 40,000 kcal reserve equals 46,500 w-h.

The two best battery technologies available, Li-ion and Li-thio-chloride (LTC), can store 128 and 700 w-h per kg, respectively, though the latter cannot sustain rapid discharge. An experimental technology by Nanoexa exhibits storage density of 3,000 w-h per kg, using nanotechnology to increase the efficiency. This last implies that a 3 kg battery could store the energy found in a fit person's fat reserves. If Li-ion is needed for faster discharge, however, the mass requirement is 360 kg. Even the "carbo-load" reserve requires 75 kg of Li-ion batteries. More to the point, just keeping a human body alive for a day uses the energy found in 15 kg of Li-ion batteries.

Perhaps we need to think of other types of animals. A 75-kg American Alligator has only 1/25 the resting energy need of a human (about 3 watts). That is why they can stay underwater for so long, while we can barely stand to hold our breath for one minute. Having a small heart, and modest short-term reserves of glycogen, Alligators work best when they can work in short spurts, so they are ambush predators. Not for them the Cheetah's run or the Bear's charge. A mechanical alligator could do short spurts of energetic work, but would need a powered umbilical for sustained effort, an option people don't have.

But the power-to-weight ratios of smaller bodies are even more unfavorable. Much is made of "robotic insects" for surveillance. A crawler and wall-climber might work out, but a flying robo-bug simply can't carry enough energy to stay aloft more than a second or two. It makes more sense to use an ultra-small "critter cam" attached to a Cicada or large fly.

Finally, the authors bring out a point that few science fiction writers ever consider: The marketplace will decide what sells. The technologies available forty years from now will be those that pass the market and utility tests. Robots for sale in 2048 will be robots people like, and enhanced humans cannot be too obvious, or they will suffer from the "green monkey" syndrome and be shunned.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Running aground in mid-lake

kw: musings, observations, geography

When I was living in Ohio, almost right on Lake Erie, one of my high school teachers told this tale: He was an avid SCUBA diver, and went to tropical oceans whenever he could afford it. He practiced in various locations in western Lake Erie, usually west of the islands between Sandusky and Point Pelee, Ontario. There is a lot of small-to-medium boat traffic between the islands themselves, but little where he usually goes.

One day, he was no more than twenty feet down (about as deep as one can go in the area) when he heard quite a crunch. He surfaced quickly, to find a rather impressive yacht no more than two hundred yards away, not far from where his own boat was anchored. It was stuck on a "reef", actually a shallow rock outcrop. He swam over to offer help. It didn't take long to rock the boat off the reef.

He showed us a newspaper article that appeared a couple days later, in which the president of the Rocky River Yacht Club (RR is a little West of Cleveland) thanked an unnamed diver for helping him "after his yacht struck an underwater object". "If he'd looked at a chart, he'd have seen that the area was full of shallow reefs, no more than four feet down. The 'underwater object' was the bottom of Lake Erie!" he told us.

I happened to remember this story recently when using Google Maps to look for aerial views of places I've lived. In this view of western Lake Erie, you can see the shallow section, all of the lake west of Point Pelee (the "thorn" of the north shore). The average depth in the greenish area is six feet (less than 2m). A few areas (more bluish) go as deep as twenty feet; the orangey colored area is the "reef" complex where the yacht ran aground.

I have fond memories of living near Lake Erie. I worked a few summers at Cedar Point (almost invisible at this scale, but due south of the largest island shown). In the early-to-mid 1960s it was just getting safe to swim in the lake, after the old sewer outlets were replaced by 2- and 3-stage sewer systems starting about 1960. Raw sewage was formerly "disposed" directly into the lake five miles offshore, particularly by Cleveland. The lake is in much better shape now.

But the water is still too shallow to go yachting in much of western Lake Erie!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Convocation of eaters

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, carnivores

Fair warning: I'll keep the review tamer than the book, but I don't recommend reading either one over lunch. I pretty much knew what I was in for, and hoped I'd get some natural history in the mix. That I did, with some compelling narrative, some of it rather more compelling than I'm comfortable with!

Editor Michael Tougias has gathered a triple-dozen, and then some, pieces of adventure writing with one theme: animals eating people, or trying their darnedest to do so. The book is When Man is the Pray: True Stories of Animals Attacking Humans. The cover art, front and back, leaves one with no illusions.

The table of contents made it evident that this is written for a very Euro-American audience. Well over a third of the book is devoted to bears, the major remaining carnivore in the developed world. Were this written for a more Afro-Asian audience, crocodiles would hold center stage, closely followed by tigers.

I found the following of interest (from British Columbia, their Vital Statistics Agency): In BC, Canada, over the 29 years 1969-1997, bears killed 19 people and cougars (pumas) killed 5. That's it for the land carnivores. Other animals killed another 99 people, including horses (47), moose (19), bees and wasps (16), cattle (11), and deer (5); none of these could have had carnivorous intent. There was one Orca death in that time, but no sharks (California is where most Western shark attacks occur). Did'ya notice that moose are as dangerous as bears?

After bears, the animal eaters chronicled in When Man is Prey are big cats, sharks, crocodiles, a hippo or two, and a miscellany of wolves, monkeys (mainly baboons), and swine. Yeah, that's right. Earlier generations (and a few moderns) recognize that a 400-lb (180 kg) boar is as dangerous as an aroused bear of similar mass, including propensity to consume you after the fight.

A few of the articles/stories were told in an exaggerated bravado mode that I find distasteful, so I didn't read past their first page. One very short piece seemed a total fiction. If it is true, it needs to be better written. For me, it violated the "Some do and some talk; those who do don't talk much, and those that talk the boldest don't do much" rule. Other than those few, the writing is well done with strong narrative.

I looked in particular for trends. I've noted a couple above. Also of note, that Africans and Asians who live in crocodile country, perhaps handicapped by a fatalistic worldview, are as likely to be eaten by a crocodile as the average American is to die in an auto accident. Both numbers are in the mind-boggling range, if you look at them honestly. Actually, looked at backwards: "Americans, perhaps handicapped by an unwonted feeling of invincibility, are as likely to be killed on the road as a Zambian is to be eaten by a crocodile." Yet as horrible as carnivorous death sounds, the numbers are comparatively small compared to death caused by encounters with bees, wasps, and domestic animals!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Big country, big mouth

kw: book reviews, food, united states, history

Where else but in America can a guy named Kobayashi win a prize for eating 54 hot dogs (including buns) in something like twelve minutes? In A Short History of the American Stomach, Frederick Kaufman contends that the history of the USA is a history of unlimited appetite. Written in the brisk, racetrack style of a pulp space opera, the book starts with a couple of food records (a half-ton taco), a quick survey of the reasons we don't really use the recipes in our many cookbooks (a quick search in Amazon got almost 77,000 hits), leaps back to the early 1500s, and fast-forwards through the American obsession with EATS.

The earliest European explorers, finding a mostly unpeopled continent and plenty of game, began eating their way across the continent. Continuing into colonial times (portly Ben Franklin is his generation's exemplar), this gustatory enterprise continued until about the time of the Great War, when we finally had something else worth thinking about. With minor interruptions for WW2 and VietNam, the national diet has continued to increase, until now one of the biggest business segments is dieting to stave off (seldom reduce) the effects of an average intake of 3000 Calories daily.

Something the author doesn't mention, but should have: where else would you find millions watching a TV show titled "The Biggest Loser"? I am not sure the show is having the desired effect. True, a few lucky folks with massive support from the show's producers manage to lose about half their body weight, but the effort and suffering needed to do so are all to evident. I expect most folks to turn from the remote to the fridge, concluding life is meant for more enjoyment than that.

A chapter on the unusual fast-and-feast habits of the Puritans shows that both food and anti-food fads didn't originate in "this" generation (pick a group born since 1920 or so...). Until it was proved that the brain is the locus of thought, the gut was the pick of folklorists for centuries. It seems the belly does have a large nerve center, and emotions are more bodily-based. That's why Biblical writers like Paul talk about compassion arising from the bowels, even using the term "bowels of mercy".

Kaufman doesn't go too far into the Why of the American appetite. Perhaps that is because it is so obvious: as the richest society to arise on earth, we eat everything in sight simply because we can.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Beyond Frankenstein

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, synthetic life

The recent book by Ed Regis, What is Life? Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, may be considered the third of a series. In 1945, Edwin Schrodinger, of the "Schrodinger Equation" that can (with strenuous labor) calculate the properties of any atom's electron cloud, and whose eponymous Cat defines the dilemma of quantum phenomena in a macroscopic world, wrote What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, in which he did not answer the title question, but explored life phenomena from a strictly chemical and physical aspect. He predicted crucial aspects of the genetic code a decade or two in advance of their discovery. Then in 1995 Lynn Margulis brought certain of the same themes more up to date in What is Life?, shortly thereafter revised and reprinted with her son Dorian Sagan as co-author. As Ed Regis reports, Margulis and Sagan answered the question in so many ways that it is not answered at all.

Author Regis begins his book with a look at the formation of a four-way consortium in 2002, with the aim of specifically creating a living cell not based on previously living matter. To date, the effort has not succeeded, but as Edison would have said, they are learning a great number of things that don't work...and a few that offer tantalizing clues to what might work. So much so, that the government is now interested, as evidenced by the Los Alamos Protocells web site and its link to, a jumping-off place to a handful of major efforts in the Synthetic Life arena.

Regis does home in on an answer, a minimalist definition that life is "embodied metabolism". A few caveats are needed, such as a measure of autonomy and of self-repair, for example: An automobile consumes fuel and moves about, but does not direct its own motions nor maintain itself, while a portion of the metabolism of living cells goes to structural regeneration and growth. And "embodied" is needed to distinguish living matter from open flames.

More generally speaking, living things not only metabolize, they also reproduce and evolve. Not every individual will do so, but all can do so. And, specifically for all life that we know, all life processes are directed by coded instructions. DNA carries the instructions, while RNA plus proteins carry them out. Synthetic cells could be based on DNA, RNA and proteins, or it could instead use different chemistry, perhaps not even based on carbon. But whenever a wholly synthetic "embodied metabolism" gets cranked up, performing as cells perform, I suppose we'll have to dub it "living".

This is quite a step beyond our fearsome archetype, the Frankenstein monster. That creature was supposedly produced by re-animating a sewn-together collection of bits of corpses. Certain partial successes in the synthetic life area have been analogous to this. But the goal is to create living cells from chemicals, not from various bits taken from other cells.

The rub comes if the creators of synthetic life endow it with the ability to reproduce; the ability to evolve will come along as baggage immediately. At that point, no matter what precautions they may take, SynLife (not my term: Google yields 3,770 hits) will most certainly escape into "our" environment, evolve so as to take advantage of it, and then we'll really learn what it is like to live with invasive alien species! Sparrows, multiflora roses, and zebra mussels will probably pale by comparison.

I suggest that, really early on, SynLife cells be presented as a challenge to a large variety of prokaryotes, so they'll have a chance to develop resistance mechanisms and chemicals that we can later exploit when we need AntiSynBiotics!!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Drinking a cup o'friendship

kw: book reviews, anthologies, friendship

There is a series of TV and radio ads in which one man visits another who is ailing, and they converse without saying anything intelligible. Men really do have little to say, or little to articulate, about friendship and caring. It probably really is genetic: "guy" genes cancel out "talk about feelings" genes.

So it is no surprise that out of 44 stories, only a handful are by men in A Cup of Comfort for Friends: Stories that celebrate the special people in our lives, edited by Colleen Sell. This is the fifth in the Cup of Comfort series, which along with the Chicken Soup series belong to a recently fashionable genre I call "Emotional Chic". That title isn't meant to be a put-down, but a signal that, while stories and advice about emotional matters have been with us for a long time, the recent emphasis on them will carry on for a while, then return to normality. There is a cycle to such things.

These stories are all touching. I shed a tear or two over many, even over the few that are clearly fictional (I think most are genuine memoirs). Their common theme, more so than that of the title, is "A friend in need is a friend indeed." Though the needs spanned from near-trivial to beyond traumatic, they all represented genuine distress, which was alleviated by friendships, often unlikely ones.

It seems to be true more of friendship than of marriage that "opposites attract." Perhaps the Editor selected her material for this, but many of the stories were of the strongest bonds between opposites: poor with privileged, minority with WASP, a society belle with someone from the "wrong side of the tracks". A few stories celebrated very short-term friendships that made a significant impact, others friends whose daily contact over half a century enriched both lives.

The book was mostly easy reading at a time it was most welcome. I don't always get my best enjoyment from reading heavy science...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Soul-searching on my part

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, medicine

"How can it be that my uncle believes I am less important than that tiny bit of tissue you just took out of me?" This question, by a teenage girl being shown the fetus in its tiny amniotic sac after her abortion, frames the debate over elective abortion in the plainest terms.

I've just finished reading the new book by Dr. Susan Wicklund, This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor. Her memoir is amazing, and I find it ultimately chilling, though not about her, but about the low level to which the debate has been carried. The core question, is, "What is of greatest importance to you?"

I've been pro-life ever since I first understood what abortion is, and I've subscribed to the "hate the sin, love the sinner" philosophy of dealing with people of differing moral standards than mine. But truly, I have not been able to find it in myself to hate at all. I take a pragmatic approach to the issue, one consistent with my scientific (that is, evolutionary) convictions: If there is anything genetic that makes some people more prone to either getting or "needing" an abortion, such people are likely leaving fewer offspring than others, and the trait will naturally reduce itself in the human population.

My stance toward moral issues in general has morphed over the years, as I've come to realize that, as I often now teach, "People are more important than doctrines." I've come to see religious doctrines as largely a kind of filter: They simplify our choice of whom to discount and ignore. Doctrines make it easier to decide not to love somebody. So I've been discarding them. My ethics may be based on an absolute, Divine standard, but my treatment of the immoral must itself still be moral.

Dr. Wicklund has been providing full-service "women's services" for about twenty years, including, as she demonstrates with her stories, talking wavering women out of abortions, or making them wait until they are certain it's what they, and they alone, have decided is best. Nonetheless, she has performed thousands of abortions.

The account showed me fascinating insight into the thinking of someone who, so far as I could tell, has no religious convictions whatever. That does not mean she has no conscience. Rather, her conscience is informed by morals which have their source in her own reason and experiences, basically on a humanistic version of the golden rule, though she never mentions such a thing.

Her foundational experience is the abortion she chose to have in her early twenties, one that was carried out in a most impersonal, inhumane way, though at a legal clinic. That and a few other shocks she suffered as an intern on a difficult-to-attain "abortion rotation" led her to a few simple rules: the woman getting the abortion alone can make the choice; everything will be explained to her; she will be treated with gentleness and respect; and to perform no abortions later than the first trimester.

She points out that, among the most dangerous abortion protesters, the great majority are men, the kind of men who in other circumstances are said to have "control issues." I have observed the same thing myself, as a more distant but quite interested observer. I've also observed that the visible manifestation of those who publicly protest at abortion clinics is primarily hatred. The occasional arson, bombing or murder reinforces my conclusion.

I find it amazing that such people call themselves Christians. Several verses in John's Epistles make it clear that a person who is capable of hatred toward another does not yet possess eternal life. It is not possible for those with hate in their faces to be genuine Christians. Abortion may be repugnant to those of us who love God, but there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to express that repugnance.

Ultimately, her first rule most strongly affected me, and my current stance is that, only a person who has a uterus has a right to an opinion about abortion.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Old bones by the ton

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, palaeontology

Thomas Jefferson had some; Ben Franklin handled a few; Georges Cuvier and Charles Lyell (important names in early Geology) studied and described them...the big bones from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. In Big Bone Lick: the Cradle of American Paleontology Stanley Hedeen takes us on a rapid time-and-space tour of the late Pleistocene to early Holocene Midwest.

When I first saw the book, being ignorant of the Lick, I thought its subject might be the dinosaur wars of the desert West. But I was in for a treat. There appears to be little in the history of northern Kentucky's premier fossil locality of the hatred and rivalry that marked the Cope-versus-Marsh collecting binges of the late 1800s. The earliest visits to the area by Europeans were in the 1750s, and a great deal of collecting went on for a hundred years before Cope or Marsh ever heard the word "Dinosaur".

The "favorite fossil" of Big Bone Lick is the American Mastodon, which was at first thought to be a huge bison, or a giant human. The bones were mostly in pretty poor shape. Salt Licks get trampled, over and over again, as herbivores visit them almost as frequently as they would a watering hole in the desert. From a salt-requirement point of view, a well-vegetated field is a desert. Herbivores don't get nearly enough salt from plants, so they will travel far to a source of salt.

Where many animals congregate, many die; some of predation, more of drowning by crowding. The soft muck through which the briny waters rise facilitates rapid burial of the dead and soon-to-be-dead unwary.

Big Bone Lick was the first place the Mastodon and other species were found, and its mute evidence eventually led Jefferson and others to conclude that extinction was possible, overthrowing the Platonic (not really Christian, but widely thought to be) idea that the species of the earth are static, neither going extinct nor new species arising.

The Lick is also still the largest and most prolific deposit of fossils for the period 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is still a source of collections being studied. The current roster of extinct species of large mammal stands at seven. Thirteen other more recent remains, from bison to dogs, have been found there. The Big Bone Lick State Park web site has details of the modern museum and trails.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Eight Belles and all is not well

kw: opinion, animals, racing

Delaware racing fans are mourning the death of the local favorite Eight Belles, who had to be euthanized after two ankles broke. As I heard it, the filly's ankles broke just after she ran in the Kentucky Derby this last weekend. One commentator said, "...her muscles were so shredded she was standing on skeleton, and her bones gave out." Shadows of Barbaro's more protracted demise still linger in the area. That youngster broke a leg early in the Derby just a year ago.

The unfortunate breed "Thoroughbred" is such an over-bred creature, it's amazing they don't break bones just standing still. Soon that may be the case. Each ankle of a more generalized animal such as Human can support ten times the body weight. When you breed an animal for speed alone, continually increasing the power-to-weight ratio, things get distorted. A Thoroughbred's ankles are scarcely larger than a human's, on an animal weighing ten times as much.

There's too much money in horse racing to realistically imagine the "sport" being outlawed, but that's what I'd do if I could...along with a few other abusive forms of "entertainment."

Friday, May 02, 2008

Caring doesn't have to destroy

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, terminal care

If you are going to help somebody, it's best if your "help" is really helpful. Ann Harleman writes of a wife who visits here husband in a hospice to feed him, though that is the nurses' job, "An admirable wife. But I have seen her husband's trapped look as she pushes the spoon against his tightly closed lips, and her own lips curving in triumph when she wins." This in her essay, "my other husband" in an uncertain inheritance: writers on caring for family, edited by Nell Casey.

Stephen Yadzinski in the closing lines of "called them vitamins": "For a while, I was there to help him get through. I was a tool, like his scooter. And then I was finished. Anyone would have done what I did." We all know, "anyone" probably wouldn't.

And in "the vital role" Amanda Fortini writes, "Nothing makes a person feel out of control—and illness is by definition loss of control—like having to cede it to another person."

Is it really possible to care for someone without emphasizing one's control? In recent days, the "Golden Rule" (do unto others as you want others to do to you) has been supplemented by the "Silver Rule" (don't do to others what you don't want done to you) and the "Platinum Rule" (do unto others what they'd want done), and my own, "Diamond Rule" (ask, and believe the answer).

In the hospital once, at a time I was to weak even to speak, or I would have, I heard the nurses wrestling with a loudly protesting man in his 80s, who was confused upon awaking from surgery with tubes everywhere, including a urinary catheter. They patronized him until I thought I was screaming inside (but I could only wheeze), forced him back into bed, strapped him down to put all the tubes back in, ignoring his screams, talking baby talk. He had a heart attack an hour later, and spent the next few hours, until his death, in the ICU. A little more caring in the "care", and he'd have lived another year or two. What's the harm to let him sit there for an hour or two while his memory recovers from anaesthesia? Too few nurses understand the length of time elderly folks need to regain their wits... Neither nurse asked a single question.

Well, I read an uncertain inheritance to find a spark of commonality with others caring for dying parents, and in similar circumstances. But the book covers a spectrum of caring scenarios, from a 5-year-old dying of a fulminating strep infection ("in the land of little girls" by Ann Hood) to cases of terminal Alzheimer's ("death in slow motion" by Eleanor Cooney). This latter essay mirrors my father's experience as my mother was slowly de-personed by the disease.

I admit I have a slightly morbid interest in the subject, because I expect to go there myself. My mother, her sister, their father, and one of their grandmothers (and who knows who else...) suffered this dementia. This version (Alzheimer's comes in a few varieties) appears to be genetically dominant. Thus, this poem I wrote during my mother's last days:

I held your father’s hand
   When I was just a little boy.
He needed help to find his way around.
He was like a friendly puppy,
   And he liked to be with me.
When I’d walk around the block, he’d come along.

The only time I heard him speak,
   I was nearly 12.
I was asking for some tweezers for a thorn.
He spoke up, & said, “I have some!”
   And he led me down the hall
To his tool bench at the back of the garage.

A retired piano tuner,
   He had tools of every kind:
Wrenches, screwdrivers, a tuning hammer, saws.
The tweezers that he handed me
   Were longer than my hand.
But I managed to pull out that thorn with them…

More than forty years have passed,
   And as we walk around the block
I must hold your hand, so you can find your way.
This is something in our family,
   They say it’s in the genes.
When it is my turn, who will hold my hand?