Monday, June 30, 2008

Echoes of the greatest generation

kw: musings, war, letters, poetry

I've been going through old family letters, putting them in protective sheets and binders. I hope some family historian will have the energy to transcribe them. It is a fascinating exercise. I've come to the wartime letters between my parents. The image just below is a V-MAIL letter my father wrote (I've obscured all but their first names; my mother's address no longer exists).

V-MAIL was a way of saving weight and space in the 1940s, when we didn't have that many airplanes yet; these standardized sheets were photographed onto microfilm and the undeveloped rolls were flown to the U.S. from overseas. One mail bag full of film could carry as much as 35-40 bags of "unshrunk" mail.

The film was developed and printed onto 3"x4" sheets—still readable if the soldier followed instructions and didn't write too small. The image above is probably that size on your monitor. These sheets were mailed to the recipient, who typically got a week's letters all at once. My father's letters indicate he would get 1-2 weeks' worth from his fiancée at once...but her letters were originals, not filmed.

This particular piece of V-MAIL had gotten wet, so it couldn't be filmed, as it wasn't clear enough. It was sent entire. The microfilmer's note is shown along with the standard instructions to the writer in this image. This image and the one above can be seen in a larger version by clicking on them.

A few weeks after this letter was sent, Dad(-to-be) realized he could not get home for Christmas. He was in the South Pacific, where he remained until early 1946. So he sent the following poem on Nov 18, 1943:

I'm many miles from Department Stores
There's nothing here to buy.
It makes be blue as I can be
But darling I'll not lie,
I must be frank and let you know
I'll not be sly or foxy.
I can't do my Christmas shopping
So - your gift I'll buy by proxy.

(He had asked his mother to buy a gift for her.) My son and I write occasional poetry. I guess it is one more thing we "come by naturally"...that is a family proverb. When one of my brothers, or I, would do something my Mom knew she or Dad once did, particularly the mischief, she'd say, "Well, you came by that naturally."

I wonder if any Americans today would tolerate the wartime restrictions that my parents learned to consider as routine. Some of the V-MAIL letters have a word or two blacked out by the censor (whose stamp appears upper-left in the first image above). Other mail was sometimes clipped—the offending word(s) cut out with a blade. One of the censor's clips looks like it started with a pinking wheel, then the slits were connected by razor cuts.

My dad's first half year of letters are written on one side of heavy foolscap. Whenever my Mom or his mother would send him onion skin, he could get more pages into a 6 cent Air Mail envelope...but many of the envelopes have postage due stamps on them. Later, all the foolscap letters are written on both sides, but the onion skin ones are still one-sided; the paper is so thin the ink shows through and writing on two sides is impractical. However, onion skin weighed 1/3 as much, so it was worth it.

The letters mention gas stamps and food rationing back home. There is a lot that they didn't talk about much. My parents weren't the type to berate us with how hard they'd had it. Their reason for urging restraint would not be "I had to wait THIS long for food coupons", but "It isn't right to be wasteful." They trained our consciences, for which I am thankful.

A lonely G.I. can write a lot. I am not yet through the first year, and I have four fat binders full of Dad's letters...and two-plus years to go! I get about two months per binder. Amazing.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Skimming along the edges of English

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, historical linguistics

Ever hear of a pruning hook? This is what one looks like; it is about three feet long. Though its inner edge is sharpened, its main utility is pulling down dead branches.

There was a law regarding the King's trees in royal forests in medieval England: nobody could cut them down. But people were allowed to pull down any dead wood that was within reach of a pruning hook or a shepherd's crook. The latter had the advantage, being twice as long. Through the process of time, this gave rise to that practical expression, "by hook or by crook."

Linguist David Crystal has written a few books on language. While traveling along the English/Welsh borderlands on behalf of a BBC project titled "Voices," he compiled private notes on the fascinating array of accents and dialects to be found there. He has gathered these into a nearly stream-of-consciousness memoir of the journey, By Hook or By Crook: A Journey in Search of English.

It is axiomatic that we learn most about the limits of a subject by examining its borders. This is true of language most of all. You'll have to click on this image to read the name of this train station, and its interpretation, in a larger image. It is considered the longest name of a town in the English language: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It is the only "word" with four L's in a row, though in many renditions, there is a hyphen between "...drobwll" and "llanty...".

This "English" word was composed in the Anglo-Saxon—that is, Germanic—way of jamming a phrase together, in this case a long phrase in Welsh, to make one word. People who live in this lovely Anglesey village don't go around saying the whole name, but get by with calling their home "Llanfairpwll", approximately pronounced, "hlan-fire-pool". This long name, its origin and meaning, and plenty of musing about long words and long names in general, forms much of the first chapter, which begins and ends with the discussion of "by hook or by crook".

The midlands of England and Wales typify a locale in which you can tell someone's birthplace within a mile or two, or sometimes which block of which street, by the accent. Parts of New York and New Jersey are like that, but for most of the United States, accents cover much broader regions. There are only about four Texas accents, for example, and so far as I can tell, one lovely one does for both North and South Carolina (Carolinians may differ with me here!).

I do recall, during the time I lived in Oklahoma, and frequently visited Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, that "y'all" has regional meanings. It is the only form of "you" you're likely to hear in much of Louisiana, while in Texas "y'all" and "you-all" mean you, singular, while "all-y'all" is plural. Arkansans and most Okies use "you" and "y'all" for singular and plural, with a fair measure of consistency.

These are mainly dialect differences, as they concern word usage. It is the different ways that "y'all" and "you-all" are pronounced that constitute accents. I am less capable of making a regional deduction based only on accent, but I suspect Dr. Crystal could do so. At least, he can certainly do so among the various accents that populate the British Isles.

On page 143 he writes, "English has always been a vacuum-cleaner of a language, sucking in new words form whatever languages it happens to make contact with," noting that English words derive from at least 350 languages, and only about 20% of current English usage is derived from Anglo-Saxon. In terms a professional linguist would use, much of English is thus composed of loan words. Of course, they are not on loan, as Crystal observes: we have appropriated them and often morphed them almost beyond recognition, but many we simply swallowed whole. He has a delightful riff on computer, a French word, but now so thoroughly identified with English that the French disdain it in favor of ordinateur!

A language has boundaries not only in space but in time. Do try to read this inscription (click for a larger image if needed): it is only 400 years old or so: it is the epitaph of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Should you be so fortunate to be in the presence of one of his "first folios" or a good facsimile, or a first edition of the King James Bible (Authorized Version) of 1611, take a flying try at reading it. You'll be surprised how our language has changed in about fifteen generations.

The fact that you can read it at all is a tribute primarily to Shakespeare himself. His writings and plays are so beloved, and the English Bible produced by his contemporaries in Elizabeth's court being of equal influence, that these two oeuvres have anchored the language and kept it to roots that many other languages have lost.

I couldn't resist tracking down this image; the monochrome version in the book is not nearly so dramatic. It is in the Great Garden in Stratford, Shakespeare's town. One of several works inspired by his plays, it is titled A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Author Crystal calculates that Shakespeare's poetic output totals more than 80,000 lines. One would think it a record, but it is not. A more recent, rather obsessive poet, one John Bradburne, whose known (and growing) body of work totals more than 170,000 lines...most of it produced in but ten years. And it's good poetry, too. He died in 1979, as a Christian martyr, having stood up for residents of the Mutemwa leper colony in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Otherwise he could still be with us, and who knows how much poetry he'd have produced!

Back to spatial edges for a moment. The largest number of English speakers in the world are in India, 350 million of them. This number is growing fast. Because of the dozens of household languages in that polyglot nation, new loan words are being gathered at a great rate. I figure, between "teen text" and India, it's rather a tie who is having the greatest effect on English for the coming generation. I find it amazing that there are so many ways English is spoken, that manage to be comprehensible to the majority of us.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are we killing ourselves by degrees?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, global warming, polemics

See my post on June 23 for background about my contention that climatic heating greater than 4°C due to CO2 emission is implausible. I've just finished reading Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas, an environmental activist who writes for National Geographic Explorer.

The book is well planned and well composed. Lynas has gathered all the effects we might expect at each degree C, from one to six, with a chapter for each degree. If we take the 1950s as a baseline (the author doesn't state his zero point), we're living in a "one degree world" already. The natural progress of the current cycle as outlined by Gerald Bond, that is, the "Bond Event" that began about 500 years ago with the start of the Little Ice Age, and that will run another 500 to 800 years, with a warmer middle (or at least a drier one), is likely to produce another degree of warming entirely without our help. Remember also the brief (decade or so) cooling of the 1960s and '70s. The best (not most frequent) estimate of the "human signal" in all this is half a degree or less.

Thirty-plus years ago I remember straight-line extrapolations made by scientists that warned us the year 2000 could be one or two (some said five) degrees cooler than the 1950s, and that we were in danger of continental glaciation getting started. Those fears are pretty much forgotten now. Today's fears are less likely to be forgotten, because we appear to be augmenting a natural warming cycle.

I don't want to discuss the matter, point by point. This is but one of many new books on the subject, though it happens to be the most conveniently arranged. I'll just make a few more observations as an observer with a geologic worldview.
  • In my post linked above I state that the PETM some 55 million years ago was a two degree excursion. Lynas and many others state it was six degrees, and others pick various figures in between. It may have been more than two degrees, but remember it began at a point ten degrees hotter than now. The key element seems to have been release of a lot of methane from the seabed. The rate of release, during each of two thousand-year-long periods, was slightly smaller (in terms of carbon per year) than the current human output, which is growing. Methane is about twenty times as effective a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide, and takes a few years to be oxidized to CO2. Thus most of the heating was due to Methane. To me, it seems like a good idea to gather seabed methane "ice" and convert it to CO2 before it erupts on its own...and we'd get lots of energy out of the bargain.
  • More CO2 means more acid in the oceans, making it harder for shelly creatures to make their shells, or so it is claimed. Its actual effect is to make the lysocline shallower; the lysocline—the depth below which carbonate shells dissolve—is presently 4km. In the Cretaceous, when the temperature was 15-20 degrees warmer and CO2 was four or five times as abundant as today, the lysocline was closer to 1km depth, and shelly creatures abounded, since most of them live in water shallower than this anyway.
  • Curiously, nobody talks about the "vent clams" and giant tube worms found in the deep ocean around the mid0cean ridges and their hot-water vents. They were there in the Cretaceous, too, and somehow made lots of shells even at depths below the lysocline. Just as diamonds are not stable at the surface, but slowly (millions of years) are reverting to graphite, so if you take a clam shell to a deep part of the ocean (the deepest trenches are 11km) it won't dissolve for many years. In fact, shelly creatures live in the deepest trenches today. The things that do dissolve with seeming rapidity are shells of microscopic foraminifera and radiolarians, which start out less than a millimeter across. But they don't vanish on the way down; they sink to the bottom and very slowly dissolve there.
  • I keep reading about how living creatures "can't adapt" to this or that change. Yes, evolution is rather slow, but in short-lived creatures (most of our furry and feathery friends reproduce yearly or oftener) it can proceed with stunning rapidity. Let us remember that, the greater percentage of a generation gets killed, the greater the likelihood that the next generation will be substantially different from their ancestors. That is the essence of Punctuated Equilibrium, for which see the writings of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. Bottom line: Ten years is ten generations for a songbird or rodent. That's plenty of time for the critters to move half a continent away if needed. Only a few offspring with wanderlust need survive for a species to make a large move.
Author Lynas is rather pessimistic about people's willingness to sacrifice for the next generation. I tend to agree. I expect the human race of five hundred years from now will primarily be using sustainable energy, because the cheap and easy stuff we use now will be gone, and for no other reason. In part, that's also enough time for evolution to have worked on the human psyche, but in which direction I dare not hazard a guess! BUT: The larger the number of people living then, the less evolutionary change there will have been. That's a simple statistical fact.

I am in substantial agreement with about half of the conclusions in the first three chapters, and a much smaller proportion of the rest. Knowing the tendency of both living and nonliving, complex systems to "do what they want," I expect the next generation or two will live in a world about which not one of the current authors has written.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

They're making more of it, Will

kw: observations, musings, real estate

Will Rogers is famous for saying, "Invest in real estate. Nobody is making any more of it." Of course, the Dutch had been reclaiming land from the North Sea for generations already, but what you see in this image is new land on a new scale.

These are two of three Palm Islands just offshore near Dubai City (Forgive me for linking to a real estate developer's site, there). A third, larger "island" is off the image to the north, and the seemingly amorphous clump if islands near the top of the image is "The World", still under construction.

These images are screen captures from Google Earth, and copyrighted by Google. Other copyright information is included with the images. Click on either one for a 1,000-pixel-wide version.

I just have to mention: Google Earth gives you the elevation of the spot under your cursor, and I found that all this new land is within three meters of mean high tide. These folks obviously don't give much credence to predictions that CO2-induced warming will raise sea levels much in the next 99 years, the typical length of a Dubai land lease. Interestingly, just five years ago the current ruler of Dubai introduced a new law authorizing international "freehold" land purchases. So you can get your lot and villa for more than 99 years!

This is a closeup of the smaller Palm, where the "trunk" splits into "fronds". At the time these satellite images were taken, probably a year ago, things looked about half-finished. I only became aware of these Palm Islands recently, though they've been a-building since 2001. It seems a string of large installations, probably luxury hotels and resorts, occupy the trunk of the palm at lower right. Residences populate the fronds, to top and left. Nowhere do I see the greenery shown in advertising images of this Palm.

Ah, well. For those with a spare half-million or so, a waterfront villa can be your getaway. Dubai is determined to be the "go-to place" for the world, when the world wants to play. I am not advertising for these folks. I just find their ambition fascinating, even as I read book after book warning that everything this close to sea level will be swept away within my lifetime (and I'm over 60 already).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Global warming and cooling - the view from 50-plus million years

kw: opinion, global warming

Body of a Letter to my Dad: All my brothers are politically liberal, and one in particular apparently believes "Global Warming is All Our Fault". My Dad and I are more conservative. I am probably more moderate, because I believe human activity is responsible for between one-quarter and one-half of the rise in global temperatures since the 1950s. However, I do not give much credence to the gloomy predictions found in an increasing number of books and "journalism" related to the subject.

I have gathered four charts found in the Wikipedia Commons, a great resource for materials that can be used freely, as long as their source is referenced. Click on any of these images to see a larger version, typically 600-700 pixels wide.

The first chart shows a composite summary of Holocene temperatures, a weighted average of many proxies, some of which are shown in various colors, to illustrate the uncertainty of such a record. A proxy is something we can measure today, such as Oxygen isotope ratios in tree rings or clam shells, that have a known relationship to global temperature. The Holocene period, also called "Recent", is the past 11,000 years, since the end of the most recent Ice Age.

As far as I can find out, the zero-temperature-difference line is pegged to the 1980 global temperature, about a quarter degree C (half a degree F) warmer than that in 1950. First pay attention to the inset, which covers the Christian Era. This began with a bit of cooling about 100AD, then warmed toward the Medieval Optimum which ended with the Little Ice Age (LIA) that ran from the 1400s to about 1880.

On a longer scale we find that, since just over 10,000 years ago, the Holocene has been both warmer and cooler than today, but overall it has been remarkably stable, within half a degree C of the 1980s value. On a particular day of the week, a degree or two is too small to notice, but the amount of energy in a one-degree shift in global average temperature is quite significant.

The period from 4,000 to 8,000 years ago, marked "Climatic Optimum?", marks the period when agriculture and citified civilization became widespread. All of the modern grains and other major crops were domesticated during this period. Funny thing...for the past 4,000 years, these crops have been "thriving" in a somewhat cooler world than that to which they are best adapted. It may be that the "2004" temperature suits them better!

This chart's scale is too small to show the "hockey stick" graph we often see, showing just the past 2,000 years, which were extra-stable (even including LIA), followed by a one-degree uptick beginning less than 100 years ago. Interestingly, that uptick almost matches the one that occurred 8,200 years ago. One human lifetime is such a short interval...

Let's expand the scale by a factor of forty, and look at the entire "Ice Ages" record, as it was thought of until recently. These proxy temperatures are from two ice cores extracted in Antarctica; the EPICA core goes back nearly one million years. I'd hate to be the guy that counted 850,000+ dust bands!

Concentrate first on the blue line. Four glacial periods, and the end of an earlier, fifth one, plus five interglacial periods, are evident. Both the black line and the blue line show that the modern interglacial period, the Holocene, is the coolest of the far. We'll get back to this later on. The most recent prior interglacial period is called the Eemian, and it began with a pulse that got as warm as five degrees C (9°F) above the 1950s zero line, for a thousand or two thousand years. The key element here is the roughly 100,000-year cycle of ice ages. Earlier on, they were more frequent, as shown in the next chart.

This chart is composed of data from several ice cores and a number of other proxies. It goes back halfway to the most recent glaciation of Antarctica, which was 12 million years ago. The primarily 100,000-year ice cycle began just over a million years ago. Prior to that, it was closer to 40,000 years. The gradually-increasing amplitude of icing events beginning 3 million years ago, late in the Pliocene era, is probably associated with the irruption of Panama cutting off the equatorial Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and their gradual adjustment to being connected only via the Southern Ocean.

The 2.5 million years prior to the Holocene comprise the Pleistocene, which began geologically when temperate-latitude soil profiles began to be interrupted by periodic glaciation. Prior to that, the Pliocene was almost always warmer than today. Now let's take one more scale expansion, to look at climate since the large Dinosaurs were wiped out and the smaller ones began to evolve into birds.

The whole prior chart fits into the blue rectangle at lower left. The bright blue scale shows that, prior to ten million years ago, the climate was, with one short exception, warmer than three degrees C (five or six deg. F) warmer than the 1950 zero line. Prior to the late Eocene, or prior to 34 million years ago, the warming, compared to today, was four to twelve (!) degrees C, or 7-22 degrees F.

Let's look briefly at the spike called PETM, in the yellowish area. This is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. It was apparently caused by a sudden gush of carbonic gases into the atmosphere when volcanoes began to erupt in a new area of the seabed, releasing billions of tons of methane clathrates. Methane gas oxidizes in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide, on a scale of a few decades. But here, for more than a thousand years, these two gases were put into the atmosphere at a rate that roughly equals the human-caused influx of today. So, a thousand years of excess carbonic gases caused a sudden temperature excursion of about two degrees C. That's it. And when the volcanoes cooled down, so did the planet...just as fast.

Based on all the forgoing, we can ask a few questions:
  • Predictions are being made that the globe will warm as much as six degrees C (11 °F) by the year 2100AD, or around 150 years of human emission of carbonic gases. How do such predictions square with the PETM of two °C after ten centuries?
  • Recent coral bleaching events have led to predictions that another degree or two of warming will cause the extinction of corals. Corals of all ages are found, including those that thrived during the "Eocene Optimum" when even polar oceans were bathtub-warm. Have corals become so fragile?
  • Antarctica froze over for the first time 34 million years ago, them melted off suddenly 24 million years ago. All without benefit of people burning coal. What happened?
  • It is known that many crops grow best when carbon dioxide is five times as abundant as it is today. Such levels were common in earlier times. Why would a rise in CO2 today be such a threat?
  • CO2 levels during the Pleistocene have been lower than in any earlier time. This is probably due to C4 photosynthesis evolving in the Pliocene or Miocene. If there were no C4 photosynthesis, isn't it likely that Carbon Dioxide would remain at a much higher level than today?
  • Based on the former questions, doesn't it make sense to talk about growing grass rather than trees to sequester the gas? Trees don't grow very efficiently at the low modern concentration of CO2 gas!
  • There are many claims of extinction, perhaps of a quarter to a half of all species. (Note, "all animal and plant species" is meant. Bacteria have much wider tolerance for thermal swings) Neither the PETM nor the sudden Antarctic melting prior the Miocene caused such levels of extinction. Why the hype?
  • A closer look at the second chart shows smaller wiggles that seem to cover 1,000-3,000 years each, with a height of a degree or less, mainly during the cooler, icy phases. These are harder to trace in the interglacial periods. However, Gerald Bond and his colleagues discerned eight "Bond events" since 11,000 years ago, the most recent of which is the LIA. We are in a warming phase betwen Bond events. How does this affect global warming predictions? This last is why I say our gases may be responsible for no more than one-quarter of the recent warming.
I am no "global warming denier", but neither am I an uncritical believer. As a Geologist, I am accustomed to thinking in tens to hundreds of millions of years. On such a scale, researchers (whether humans or super-roaches) of the distant future are likely to look upon our period as a mini-PETM at worst. We're going to run out of fossil fuels before we can spit out as much gas as the PETM event did. And it was a two-degree anomaly. We have no clue to what caused the ten degrees C of warming that it sat on top of!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Virus versus anti-virus

kw: book reviews, science fiction, medicine

When I read Orson Scott Card's short story "Malpractice" years ago, I was unhappy with the ending, though I understood why it ended as it did. However, I also could see that it was really a beginning, and had explained little. In particular, there was little more than a bit of hand-waving to explain how a transplanted organ could not only take over someone's body, but the mind as well.

I am glad that Card got the chance to expand the story into a novel, now titled Invasive Procedures. In his collaboration with screenwriter Aaron Johnston, the story has been fleshed out, complete with a new government agency, a sinister religious conspiracy of "healers", genetic engineering on a near-implausible level, and plenty of derring-do and cliff-hanger rescues.

The concept question that runs down the center of the narrative is, a brilliant but amoral medical researcher concocts a way to live on—and multiply himself—by performing "stealth cloning", using transplanted organs, a specially-engineered virus containing all the "snips" that make up his own uniqueness, and a high-density memory biochip with circuitry to take over a victim's brain.

The notion that a virus that was engineered to cure a particular person of a particular disease, such as sickle-cell for example, will kill anyone else...well, that strains credulity. The shocking death of Jesse Gelsinger several years ago made the public fearful that some such thing may be true. However, young Gelsinger's death came about not due to an improperly-tuned virus; he died of his own immune reaction the virus in such a massive dose. Adenoviruses cause us to "catch cold" when we inhale a few dozen or a few hundred, and the bodily load we carry when we feel ill numbers in the millions. He was dosed with billions...a milligram or so.

A side note here: we all harbor as many as fifty viruses that seem to stay "below the radar" of our immune system. It makes more sense to extract one of these, modify it, and use it for a gene-carrier. Of course, that solves but ONE problem...

Putting aside such considerations, it is a story with enough "might be true" elements to keep it exciting right through. A fun read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Exorcising the Devil he knew

kw: book reviews, stories, essays, fiction

Reading Kurt Vonnegut, I have to struggle to slow down so I don't miss things. His writing carries me on at breakneck speed. So, in spite of my best efforts to stretch out the experience, I read Armageddon in Retrospect (edited by his son Mark Vonnegut) in two sittings.

After an introduction by Mark V., the book opens with the letter Kurt sent to his family May 29, 1945, after his release from POW camp. The letter itself hints at the harrowing experiences he'd undergone, including being one of the few to survive the bombing of Dresden. The second chapter, the text of his last speech (written April 27, 2007), is the last bit of nonfiction in the book...except that the stories are at least partially autobiographical, and seem to tell the truth better than nonfiction could do.

Most of the stories are based on his experiences as a POW (He uses the term P.W.). Others, such as "Great Day", are set in other times, with his unique, sardonic take on what other times might bring.

Each story is preceded by one of his drawings. This is a typical example, though it is not used in the book; it is found with many others at the Kurt Vonnegut web site. Be sure to click on the "confetti" link also.

Vonnegut was almost rabidly anti-war. His war stories are morality plays. In "Spoils" a soldier's conscience keeps him from "liberating" more than a bent saber, but only in "The Unicorn Trap" do we find the wish-fulfillment dream that the guy who needs killing most is actually killed.

Vonnegut's experiences in Germany and the Sudetenland (Western Czechoslovakia) filled him with memories he dredged for the passion behind his writing, and the stories here seem intended to drive out the demons that must have haunted him. Many of them clearly convey the grinding hopelessness of a POW who is suffering the practical effects of the Geneva Convention. While this law may prevent the worst abuses, it allows many to fluorish. Men who are too tired and hungry to dream about women, whose most voluptuous fantasies revolve around food, are in an unusual state indeed.

The title story is about an attempt to trap the real Devil, to cage Satan and so remove evil from the earth. It is couched as a fund-raising letter: if funds to keep the Devil caged run out, evil will re-enter the human race.

It is a parable for our time. Indifference is infinitely more evil than hatred. Love of money may be "a root of all kinds of evil", to quote Paul accurately, but the love of ease that underlies the indifference of the vast majority of us is a deeper root of greater evils. Of course the Devil is going to get loose again; nobody cares enough for it to be otherwise.

This drawing, titled "One-Liner #1" has nothing to do with Armageddon or Satan, so far as I know. It is just one that I like. I kept the image small to stay within Fair Use guidelines, because large prints of this are for sale at the web site linked above.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

He wants to fix warming

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, global warming

I have been hearing about the "greenhouse effect", now usually called "global warming", quite literally all my life. It was one of the first scientific concepts that was explained to me in a way I could understand, about the age of seven or eight. I have always understood that "greenhouse gases" such as CO2 trap more heat in the atmosphere.

It is really simple: light of all colors, visible and invisible, but heavily weighted around a peak in the yellow-green part of the visible spectrum (between 0.5 and 0.6 micrometer wavelength), passes through the atmosphere to strike the earth or the clouds above it. A lot of the light just bounces off and goes back into space; the rest raises the temperature of the ground. That warm ground, primarily within 50° North and South of the Equator, radiates infrared upward. This radiation covers a very broad band centered around the "far infrared" wavelength of 12 micrometers (your somewhat warmer body naturally radiates nearer to 11.5 micrometers). The Sun doesn't send much radiation in these wavelength ranges downwards.

Now, suppose you put a big filter in the sky that blocks radiation between 9 and 15 micrometers, just reflects it right back to the ground, but lets all others pass. The same amount of sunlight (minus a tiny bit of far infrared) comes down, but less infrared goes up. To restore the balance, the ground has to heat up until the amount going back up, now only in the ranges shorter than 9 and longer than 15. The concept is simple. The math is not so simple: Svante Arrhenius calculated in the 1890s (no computers to help—it took him a year) that raising CO2 a certain amount—enough to effectively "shut the window"—would boost the earth's average temperature by four or five °C (7-9°F).

Simple, but with a proviso: heat transfer is energy transfer. Adding energy to the earth's near-surface systems adds energy to all of them, mainly winds, ocean currents and storms. The more energy that goes into the "motion systems", the less goes into raw temperature. And nobody has figured out what the balance is between faster currents, bigger windstorms, and temperature.

There are sure a lot of educated guesses out there, though. Collect the best of the guesses and add them to the things we do know with some confidence, and a talented scholar like Wallace S. Broecker can produce Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat and How to Counter It. Dr. Broecker and co-author Robert Kunzig present a solid synthesis of the best pro-"warming is a threat" thinking, and add a few chapters of "what can we do about it?".

Take a good look at this chart, a record of the four ice ages of the past 400,000 years, measured from the ice core drilled above Lake Vostok in Antarctica. The dates are pretty reliable, because you can count yearly dust bands.

The blue line is relative global temperature, measured by ratios of Oxygen isotopes. see the book for how these work. I find the jaggedness of these curves to be of great interest; there is a large variation on a scale of one to two thousand years evident during the cold periods. During the warmer "interglacial" periods, warm/dry and cool/wet swings on a similar time scale also occur; the most recent cooling was the "Little Ice Age" (LIA) that ended in the late 1800s. Valley Forge was an awful place in the winter of 1775, just ask George Washington. It is relatively pleasant today. But it was even nicer 1,000 years ago, though you'll have to find a long-lived Iroquois to ask.

The green line is measured Carbon Dioxide abundance; on the scale given, the modern amount of 380 ppm is literally an inch of so off the chart. The red line is dust. It is no surprise that the coldest periods were the dustiest.

I don't have a chart to show the eight "Bond Events" that have occurred in the past 11,000 years, but some of them included cold worse than the LIA and heat greater than the present time of "record heat waves". Broecker and Kunzig don't mention Bond Events.

That doesn't mean they are wrong, though. I think human releases of CO2 really are adding to the heat load of Earth's surface, atmosphere and oceans. I just don't think it is all bad news. I have on hand a report, the Global Agro-ecological Assessment for Agriculture in the 21st Century by Fischer, Shah, Velthuizen and Nachtergaele. In its section on cultivable land (p13), we find that only Asia is using all the land available to it for food. The two areas with the most potential for expanded farming are Africa and South America; a distant third and fourth are Europe plus Russia and North America.

There is no comparable chart for the expected changes with a warmer climate, but there is a table on p23 with some estimates. Basically, because rainfall will increase in most areas, even though certain major desert areas will expand, they predict that global agriculture will be slightly more favorable, with these extrema:
  • For Europe, Russia, and North America, the warmer the better.
  • South America will experience the greatest decrease of cultivable land (10% to 20%).
  • Africa will experience a modest decrease.
  • Asia and Oceania will be little affected.
What nobody says enough about is which crops will be favored or disfavored. All crops do better with more CO2 in the air, but Rice does the best. Farmers who are well enough off feed the gas to rice paddies, where it is found that ten to twelve times the "ordinary" amount of ambient CO2 gives bumper rice crops. Maize and sugarcane are little affected, because they use C4 photosynthesis, which can make effective use of even one-fifth the "ordinary" amount of CO2. (In my opinion, C4 photosynthesis is the prime driver of glacial cycles, since such plants became widespread in the Pliocene: more grass = more ice.)

Dr. Broecker's analysis in the last few chapters of the book is most captivating. He discusses, and eliminates, nearly all "alternative energy" as a short-term solution. He settles on Carbon Dioxide Sequestration for both long- and short-term potential, though he holds out little hope that Americans will have the political will to do much about it.

He makes one stunning comparison: Firstly, the amount of CO2 we must gather yearly for "total offset", if liquefied, would cover Manhattan Island almost a quarter mile deep. However, and secondly, the amount of wastewater we treat in the US every year would cover Manhattan twice that deep. The infrastructure to treat that water was all built in the past forty years. So the infrastructure to "do a job" on the sky is but half as grand. It is quite doable. This is the kind of image I'd like to see made much more of, publicly. It is likely that we'll want to do something to counter our gassing-up of the atmosphere, at some point. It is doable.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Index to a Cathedral of scholarship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, china, history of science

One could read the book from front to back, like many another book. One could... but the book is really a mini-encyclopedia. It is suitable for dipping into, here and there, enjoying this morsel and that. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery & Invention by Robert Temple is actually a popular-market product based on the massive, in-progress Science and Civilization in China series begun by Joseph Needham in 1954, and continuing since his death in 1995 under the direction of the Needham Research Institute. The project is roughly halfway complete.

Genius is happily complete, a large volume containing one hundred short articles, richly illustrated, in eleven subject areas. Author Temple had a number of aims, one being to show Chinese discoveries and inventions that long preceded their discovery or introduction in Europe. The following few give a taste of the whole:
  • Seismograph – Second Century. Of special interest to me with my Geological background. I knew of this one long ago: the inverted pendulum in a jar that jostled a ball from a dragon's mouth so it would fall into that of a frog below. The noise provided an alert to a distant quake, and the particular ball that fell gave an idea of its direction. The replica pictured above is in the Ancient Observatory in Beijing, and the balls are not in place.
  • Equal Temperament in Music – Sixteenth Century. J.S. Bach strongly promoted this idea, which makes the modern piano or organ possible, in the early 1700s, about 180 years after the principle's discovery in China and its almost immediate transmittal to the West (unlike many Chinese learnings). Few people can hear well enough to tell the difference between an instrument tuned in even temperament and one that is modally tuned, so modern (300 years modern) musicians get away with all sorts of musical shenanigans that you can't do in a "mean tuned" piano or a modal lute. [Personal note: Sawmill tuning on the 5-string banjo, and a number of other tunings used in Bluegrass music, and also shape-note singing practiced in some church congregations, are modal and sound quite unlike anything possible using even tuning!]
  • Masts and Sailing – Second Century. Westerners prior to the Twentieth Century, even those who saw Chinese junks, never did figure out how to stagger-mount the masts of sailing ships so the aft sails would not becalm the foresails. I don't know much about sailing, but a single photo of a junk, taken from directly aft, has been enough to let me see the principle.
  • Deep Drilling for Natural Gas – First Century BC. Another Geological first...prior to the birth of Christ, the Chinese developed techniques that allowed them to drill nearly to 1.5 kilometer depth for methane. The first "oilman" wore silk, not cowboy boots!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Getting it off the tip of your tongue

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memory training

The key to remembering stuff is to pay attention. As it happens, most of us find it really, really hard to pay attention very frequently, or for very long. Those who we say have "a good memory", actually have a better-than-ordinary ability to pay attention.

Paying attention is like exercise; it takes effort. We naturally prefer a life free of effort. I don't like to exercise, but I do so. When I was little, my mother used to drive my brothers and me to do some calisthenics, most days. We all got to busy by the time I was ten or so, and I didn't do much deliberate exercise until recently. One thing that helped was that I could get a little free "personal trainer" time from people at the YMCA, who showed me now to exercise more effectively, how to get the most benefit from my time there. I still don't like it much, but I sure like the results, so I keep it up.

Harry Lorayne is a personal trainer for our memory. He is also pretty good at self-promotion, as you can see at his web site. He's an olympic-level memory athlete, and he's a good enough explainer that thousands and thousands of folks can actually learn his techniques.

He has written several books, including The Memory Book, which was a best-seller for about a year. His latest is Ageless Memory: Simple Secrets for Keeping Your Brain Young. This appealed to me; I have memory concerns in three areas. Firstly, I am from a family prone to Alzheimer's Disease, yet I've read about the Nun study and other work that shows even severe Alzheimer's can be partly overcome in someone with a rich mental life. Secondly, I got big holes in my memory as a result of chemotherapy in 2001. It happens less now, but I still sometimes go completely blank about "where I was going" in the middle of a sentence. Thirdly, I am over sixty, and thoughts of the hereafter (like "what did I come in here after?") are growing.

I like Lorayne's writing style. He keeps it interesting, and the useful facts keep right on rolling along. His 29 chapters are based on three main ideas, developed to suit more than twenty kinds of things you might wish to remember.

Each chapter ends with a short "mind-power exercise". My favorite is (in my own words):
You have five bags of fifteen coins each. One bag contains counterfeit coins, the others are all genuine. A genuine coin weighs 30 grams, and a counterfeit coin is one gram lighter. Having an accurate digital scale, how would you make a SINGLE weighing to determine which bag has the counterfeit coins?
This was one I worked out myself, thus:
  • Mark each bag with a number, 1 through 5.
  • Take one coin from bag 1 and mark it with a 1 (use a wax pencil; it can be washed off).
  • Take two coins from bag 2, and mark them with a 2; do the same for all bags.
  • You'll wind up with fifteen marked coins. Weigh them all at once.
  • 15 x 30 = 450 grams (almost a pound). The actual weight will be between one and five grams less, depending on how many counterfeit coins are in the group being weighed. The number of grams deficit is the number of the bag of counterfeit coins. All done!
Now, the three ideas are simple to state, but you'll find that the author's explanations make it easier to apply them. Each is a method for paying attention of a particular kind.
  1. Linking Exaggerated Images. Turn each item you want to remember, into something you can visualize.
  2. Pegging. He has assembled 100 words to go with the numbers from 1 to 100, that each convey a visual thought. Link an image related to a memory, to a peg, to get a list you can recall in any order, just by first thinking of the number. This is great for meeting agendas.
  3. Digit and Letter Translation. The Digit part of this is particularly useful for remembering numbers by converting them phonetically to words. My work phone number translates into "must chop like Samuel", which is actually easier to remember, at first, until a few uses of the translated phrase move the number itself into long-term memory.
The ideas are powerful in combination: you meet me, notice I'm tall and bald, hear my name, and my phone number. Rather than write it down, you could conjure up a silly image to go with my appearance (I won't mind; this goes on inside your head, so what do I know?), another surprising word or two for my name, link them together, and attach them to the phrase for my phone number. This sounds like a lot, but the author states it can be done in less than a second, once one has had some practice.

I learned the first two techniques when I took the Dale Carnegie Course years ago. The first was called Stacking, but is the same in principle as Linking. Carnegie uses a different set of Pegging words, and only has 21 of them, but that has been enough for my uses. I seldom use more than five pegs.

A word to those who find the idea of mental exercise daunting: Even a little is better than none. We need to realize that Harry Lorayne is prone to this, so he has an intimidating amount of ability. I remember taking "Seven Habits" training from the Stephen Covey Institute (now Franklin Covey). I learned the habits, pretty well. In Dr. Covey's book about the seventh Habit, "Sharpen the Saw", he writes of taking a bike ride to a nice park, where he sat down with his planner to dig out an item or two of his own Habits that he could improve. I thought, "Good grief! He actually likes this stuff!!" It just didn't fit in with my idea of spending time in a park. I suspect Lorayne is similar. I don't expect to become like him, but it is good to learn a little from him. I've noted down the Digit Translations and intend to learn it. What more can he ask?

Monday, June 09, 2008

The biggest historic blast, a century later

kw: observations, musings, science, meteors

In 1908, January 30th was a Thursday. This year it will be a Monday, the centennial of the mighty blast that flattened more than 2,000 square km of a Siberian forest north of Tunguska.

The air blast, at a height of (roughly) 8km, was most likely made by a body of low competence (a comet or a loose aggregate of rocky material) about the size of a suburban house. Had the Richter scale been in use, and calibrated seismometers, it would have registered as about a Richter 5 event.

A study in 1961 (reported here) found only magnetite-bearing particles scattered over the area and to the northwest. No larger items have been found. Lake Cheko, 7 km to the northwest, may be a crater from the impact of a portion of the exploding body. If so, it could harbor a meter-sized chunk, which would be well worth recovering.

A recent article in Scientific American kindly provided a sidebar with the coordinates of the blast's epicenter (60°55'N, 101°57'E), and of Lake Cheko (60°57'50"N, 101°51'36"E [corrected]). The yellow dot (a Google Earth pushpin) on the globe in this image shows the epicenter's location.

I've wondered why there was no crater. This is apparently a problem for the scientists also, as rocky bodies in the several-meter size range have plenty of stuff left to make a crater with after passing through the atmosphere, while icy comets tend to explode at heights in the 30-40 km range.

I have seen several bolides, large fireballs that come in at a low angle. Two of them exploded, though one exploded only partially, only to continue for another second or so before exploding again, and completely. The others faded out, and apparently skipped right out of the atmosphere again. All were greenish-blue, and so were most likely cometary. I've seen the same color in the haloes of gassy comets such as Hyakutake. The gas tail of dusty comets is more bluish and very faint.

Regardless, the body is considered anomalous; too hard for a comet, and too soft for an asteroid.

In this image, seen as if from an elevation of 12 km, Lake Cheko is in the upper left corner, and the epicenter is just south of the comma-shaped feature near the opposite corner (The pushpin was objectionably large at this scale, so I left it out; look a little left of Google's Copyright notice). Sometime in July or August, workers who visited Lake Cheko last year plan to visit again to make a detailed study and attempt to recover any impactor. I sure hope they can do so!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

This life is a sideshow

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, photography

On the rare occasions when, as a child, I saw a circus or sideshow, I would gape and gawk along with the rest, but since my teen years, I find I watch the audience more than the show. To be sure, I am certain to get an eyeful of the show, but the faces of those watching are the real entertainment. Here, fascination; there, disgust; this one is calm; that one is excited; and do I catch a whiff of envy on a face or two?

The "permanent" sideshow became a fixture of American life even before the opening of P.T. Barnum's Museum in 1841 (he bought out another "museum" operator). Nearly 85 years later, in 1925, the Hecklers began to operate a flea circus at Hubert's Museum, which had just opened on 42d Street in Manhattan.

After the mid-1950s, the museum was operated by Charlie Lucas, who'd been performing there with his wife for several years. Both Lucases used a variety of stage names and personas, and Charlie became the "talker", the person who walked and talked groups of patrons through the exhibits, inducing them to part with yet another quarter or dime to see the extra-cost shows.

About this time, photographer Diane Arbus began to visit Hubert's, and gained the confidence of Charlie and other performers. It is rare for a sideshow operator to allow photography, but Mrs. Arbus proved to be the exception that tests the rule. During a significant portion of the decade that defines her legacy, she photographed the performers, both "normal" and freakish, including Charlie (whether as himself or as Woo-Foo) and his wife Virginia (Woogie, Sahloo, and sundry other names). The Hubert's Museum pages at ShowHistory, and links found there, bring out some of this history, but not all is accurate.

Charlie Lucas, shown here with a sword box, was given a packet of photos by Diane Arbus around or after 1960. These and his diaries and other artifacts wound up in a trunk that was sold, with other Hubert's Museum memorabilia, to a dealer in rare books and photographs, Philadelphian Bob Langmuir, in 2003. (Note: both photos are altered. I increased the gamma so details in the shadows are more clearly seen.)

These threads, the Museum, Charlie, Arbus, and Langmuir, are skilfully woven together by Gregory Gibson in Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus. Both the blurb-writers and the author call it "stranger than fiction", and they are right. Nobody could make this up!

Roughly half the book is a biographical psychodrama of the life of Robert C. Langmuir. Restless, by turns dynamic and uncertain, Bob is seen to be his own worst enemy. Only late in his life did he come to terms with this fact: he is a great opener, but a lousy closer. He really, really knows how to buy, but he needs expert help to sell. I sympathize. In my work, I've had to learn to work with good closers to actually complete's a good thing that such people exist, for Bob's sake even more than for mine! When one is negotiating the minefield of high-dollar art—photographic prints that sell for $50,000 or more, and you have a dozen or more—the sharks outnumber the minnows, including the lawyers on both sides of his pending (at the time) divorce. Bob is lucky to still have a complete skin.

At one point, Bob felt both Charlie and Diane had taken up residence in him, that he was some spiritual focus of both their lives. This eventually settled into a conviction that the entire corpus of Hubert's Museum material needs to be kept together, having more value, particularly cultural value, as the documents, diaries, and photos interacted with one another in the mind of a diligent student.

Greg Gibson knows how to close, though he'd have done better to wait just a few more months. In his closing chapter, the settlement of the collection had been placed in the hands of Phillips de Pury in New York, for auction as a unit. The auction was scheduled for April 2008, but This notice indicates that a private sale is pending and the auction was cancelled. It is likely that this is the last the public will ever hear of the collection.

Because of the excessive protectiveness of the Diane Arbus estate, I have not reproduced any photos known to be hers, so look to this gallery to see some of them. A Google search on her name yields more than 930,000 hits.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

When is a sphere not a sphere?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics

I have been reading a rather difficult book. Though George G. Szpiro vowed to eschew equations in his book, I don't think of Topology as a subject that needs equations as I understand them. Anyway, I can handle equations, lots of them, but I have yet to wrap my mind around Topology beyond the "coffee-cup-equals-donut" stage.

The subject of Poincaré's Prize: The Hundred-Year Quest to Solve One of Math's Greatest Puzzles is Topology. Necessarily, in order to help a reader understand the point of Poincaré's Conjecture, now Poincaré's Theorem, author Szpiro needed to present oodles of topological concepts. It is a tribute to his skill that on occasion, I almost thought I understood what he was writing about.

To a mathematician of sufficient skill, the math itself is beautiful and fascinating. I am a working mathematician, but not at that level. I found greater interest in the many mini-biographies and the stories of the squabbling that surrounded the successive discoveries that were eventually used by Grigori Perelman to solve the Conjecture, just six or seven years ago now.

One aspect came through clearly: Perelman's final breakthrough combined Topology with the Differential Equations devised by Richard Hamilton (150 years after the more-familiar "Hamiltonian mechanics" were propounded by a different Hamilton). As my own best work has come about from combining seemingly contradictory techniques, I find Perelman and Hamilton a refreshing boost compared to the overly-narrow work of most practitioners.

I found it surprising how many mathematicians have caught "Poincaritis" over the years. They number in the hundreds, of whom dozens are limned by Szpiro . I reckon, though, that they do not outnumber those who still fall prey to "Riemannitis" and "Goldbachitis", to mention but two of some twenty major mathematical conjectures still to be proved or disproved (or proven unprovable), including at least twelve of Hilbert's list of 23, proposed in 1900, that have driven much of 20th Century mathematical progress. The Poincaré result is the first of these to be resolved in the 21st Century.

The great collection of mini-biographies in the book shows that mathematicians are a varied as the rest of us; they are not all ivory-tower dwellers with their nose in the air. In fact, few fit that bill. They range from playboys to surfers to family men to recluses. Of the latter category, Grigori Perelman is typical. He finds contention for priority so distasteful, and the "messy, human" mathematicians so prone to unethical behavior that, after posting his proof and explaining it to numerous workers who sought to verify it, he resigned his post and retreated to St. Petersburg. He declined to accept a Field Medal (the Math equivalent of the Nobel Prize), and will likely decline the million-dollar Millennium Prize that is likely to be (attempted to be) conferred.

I really can't state Poincaré's Conjecture, nor understand the statements thereof found in the book. It seems to require equating things to spheres (as generalized into any number of dimensions), and makes some case for the way to tell spheres from non-spheres with less work. If that sounds abstruse, the author notes that one worker became famous for proving that a circle divides a plane into two regions, an inside and an outside...famous for realizing this seemingly obvious result needed to be proved, rather than for devising the proof itself!

Considering that we still don't have a result for the number of hyperspheres (spheres of four dimensions) that can closest-pack a single hypersphere, there is lots of interesting math waiting to be done, by those who can understand the statements of the puzzles!