Friday, October 31, 2008

Hands-on, and hands-in, animal care

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, veterinary medicine

I'm always ready for another animal book. Not only have I read all the "James Herriot" classics, but other "Country Vet" type books like Fields and Pastures by John McCormack, all of the "Cat Who" mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun, and about a dozen books that are reviewed in this blog, which covers about three-and-a-half years now. First-person accounts interest me most.

In Tell Me Where it Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon, Dr. Nick Trout has gathered sundry typical and not-so-typical incidents from 25 years in practice, to be the framework of a long day in his veterinary surgery. He is akin to a medical specialist. Just as we don't get much contact with a surgeon, at least while awake, Dr. Trout's encounters with pets and their 'parents' is typically brief.

I suspect that most days have fewer than the sixteen incidents he recalls here, and unless he is on 24-hour call (he states it is one week monthly), few days will begin at just before 3 AM and end at 10 PM.

The stories are all like Matryoshkas, nesting dolls that he opens one by one, then re-closes, as memory leads to memory. He has a tendency to philosophize about the lesson learned from each incident. For example, in the chapter "Long Shots and Underdogs", he begins and ends with a dog named Barron who is not at all pleased with him, and attempts mayhem. But Barron has a neurological problem (which is finally diagnosed much later in the book), and both Dr. Trout and the intern who brings Barron to him know these can be quite costly to both diagnose and to treat:
"The husband says he wants an answer but he would prefer not filing for personal bankruptcy or taking out a second mortgage".
This triggers a riff on the great disparity in actual costs of human and animal medicine, and the bigger, but reversed, disparity in perceived cost. Pet care insurance is rare in the US, so we pay full cost, up front, for the care of our animals. No $20 co-pay for the visit, no 90% discount off surgical fees. A $10,000 cancer resection costs you exactly that, though a better-endowed practice can offer timed payment plans. But no matter that the same surgery on your own body would cost $50,000, you'd pay at most $2,000, the 'ceiling' amount on your HMO or PPO policy. We hardly notice the lifetime cost of medical premiums (more than $40,000 so far in my case).

In the midst of a largely philosophical rant, the author brings in an anecdote of a dog who eats his leash, to the final tune of $35,000 in surgical bills. The young man who spent this amount later spent $32,000 for an engagement ring, so the doctor, at least, is clear on the priorities here! And this leads back to the rant, which closes with consideration of the very different prevalence of pet care insurance in the US versus the UK. The doctor does return to Barron to close the chapter, setting the scene for the later denouement.

Most of these Matryoshkas are no more than three deep, like this one. The engaging writing style keeps this repeated chiastic structure from becoming tiresome. The animals and people recorded here cover the spectrum. Perhaps in a few cases a man and his dog will resemble one another, but much more likely are we to find someone like the mainly sedentary fellow who owns a Jack Russel, a very, very active breed. The man tries a few techniques to control the dog, an accomplished escape artist. Finally, penultimately, he overfeeds him to near-catatonia. Later he backs off from using obesity as a control mechanism and gets out more with the dog. His own sedentary tendencies at least partly overcome, he finds his dog has become more obedient. Perhaps this is what the little Jack Russel was waiting for: "Get off your bum, you big dope!"

Another glimpse into the humanity of a pet's 'parents' is offered by a cat with an obstructed bowel. Thinking it might be string or dental floss, the couple agree to have surgical removal to save the animal's life. When the obstruction turns out to be a fishnet stocking, the action shifts from the animal to the marital dynamics of the couple. We may try to hide some things from our children, but how many of us remember that our pets are even keener observers, with agendas of their own?

The case of Barron turns out to be myasthenia gravis, an incurable condition that usually leads to an animal being euthanized. And such will be the case with this dog. You can't win them all, and the doctor's day is closing on this somber note. Yet there are triumphs aplenty. Most animal surgery is getting an animal out of troubles it gets into because of its association with humans. On the way home, he is musing over the need for an on-call surgeon to have a light bar for his car, so he, like an ambulance, can speed to the rescue. One more phone call comes, and with it the final case of the day, that ends in a success story. Like all of our lives: you lose a few, you win a few, and you spend lots of time holding your own.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Derring-do or derring-don't?

kw: book reviews, fantasy, psionics

Dee Dee Myers would love it. In the world Dave Duncan created, women really do rule. Upon the development of psychic powers, women gained the upper hand and took over. Now the "nobles" carefully breed for ever-increased powers. In Ill Met in the Arena, men's powers are in the realm of male interests: transportation (via porting) and the heavy lifting (hefting), with minds stronger than their bodies. Women have cornered the market on political acumen, and their powers are the trump cards: reading minds and projecting speech (conveying), so nobody can lie in their presence.

A woman can, with a touch, plumb the depths of a man's mind, and should she desire, change it, very literally. Women are responsible to, if needed, "improve" a man, from a minor attitude adjustment, to major personality overhaul, to lobotomy, to catatonia. In this world it is truly dangerous to touch a woman.

The Arena provides a place for the men to blow off steam. Psionic contests are frequently held, almost daily somewhere or other. But in the place of a small number of professional teams, these venues provide a structured means for any man of noble birth to show his mettle.

In all this, "ordinaries" live lives that are little better than slavery, though this issue is sidestepped in the book. It is a feudal society, but imagine the life of serfs who know that any man with even a smidgen of "noble" powers can kill instantly, from a moderate distance, and any noblewoman can, with a touch, "improve" a man beyond recognition.

Yet things are never so simple. Not all women are capable of or willing to enforce the rules and laws that hold their society together, and a family of psychopaths has hidden crimes that are gradually revealed, culminating in a mental contest between men that, had the right guy been "improved" a couple generations back, never would have been born.

The politics of the story are convoluted, but no more so than those found in any ingrown society from the Byzantines to the Amish. Side details—a completely different calendric system, the complexities of time under a double sun, and the logistics of very rapid transportation aided by porters—make for a fascinating milieu, a place I've enjoyed visiting.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

We know more than they think we do

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals

I generally eschew the encyclopedic genre, but this one had a title I couldn't ignore: The Book of Animal Ignorance, by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. The blurb says, "Everything you know is wrong", which is overhype if I've ever seen it.

The book consists of 100 two- to three-page articles. The authors took pains to include many familiar animals (dog, goat, octupus…) and mixed in quite a number of the less familiar ones (binturong, fossa, quoll…). Of course, with libraries aplenty available, it was not hard to come up with a good number of facts that are not generally known. The harder tasks was making it entertaining.

One strong element of interest is that mechanical knowledge about many of the animals is conveyed with diagrams such as this one, that explains the origin of a crane's ear-shattering voice (p. 57). Another is sprightly commentary, such as this tidbit:
"A single square foot of forest contains a million mites from more than two hundred species. Not that you have to go as far as the woods. As you read this, the follicle mite, Demodex folliculorum, is using its needle-shaped jaws to feast on the oil from the sebaceous glands at the base of your eyelashes. Demodex mites look like chubby toothbrushes…" (pp. 132-3)
Two zigs in three sentences! It's enough to get you dizzy.

Though I tend to read things in sequence, even true encyclopedias, this is really a book for dipping here and there as the fancy strikes. Fun.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A chimp Newton?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, chimpanzees, language

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human, by Elizabeth Hess, chronicles the life of the most remarkable of the "signing chimps", the ones who were taught to communicate using American Sign Language, or ASL. I was quite excited to see this book. I've read for years about the experiences of Washoe, the first chimp taught a lot of ASL by Roger Fouts and his family and friends. And I've read about Koko the signing gorilla, taught mainly by Penny Patterson, whose repertory (vocabulary?) totals more than 1,000 signs.

Nim was raised as nearly like a human as possible, by two families. He was, as his name indicates, intended to disprove the language theories of Noam Chomsky, who considers humans unique bearers of "true language." Eight years since Nim's death, the question is not settled, but I see it as a matter of definition…just how "true" do you mean?

Chimps grow up about five times as fast as human infants, at first, reaching adolescence about age six, then slowing down so that the females give birth beginning about age 12. The trouble is, a two-year-old chimp is not that much like a four-year-old human. A male in particular is, at 30-40 pounds, already stronger than almost any human male, and chimps are always much, much more excitable than humans. A childish tantrum in the home can result in the need to replace all the furniture.

In his first three years, the stresses of raising Nim broke up two marriages. Chimpanzee mothers remain in constant, 24/7 contact with their young for four years. Human mothers can't meet the expectations of chimp babies. Nim's fourth year was spent in a cage. He was already too strong, too aggressive, and too dangerous to be fully integrated into any human family. "You can take the ape out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the ape."

All together, about 25 people taught ASL to Nim. This chart shows his progress up to the age of four (Click for a larger, more readable chart, scanned from p166). His final repertory was about 150 signs, but he was much more fluent than other signing chimps, and much more at ease communicating with humans. Most signing chimps will sign back if someone makes ASL signs to them. Only Nim typically initiated communication.

This may have something to do with the more intensely "family" atmosphere that his first sponsor, Herbert Terrace, set up with the families that raised Nim. But I think it is also that Nim was an extraordinary chimpanzee. One of his nicknames was Houdini, for his persistent facility in breaking out of any kind of enclosure. All chimps try to figure out any kind of lock on their cage; Nim excelled above all in his success at escaping. Nim may not be an apish Newton, but he might be compared with David Copperfield! Yet, in the end, Dr. Terrace was not sure his communication could be called language.

This is worth a bit of philosophical thought: human tools, including language, suit human needs, and evolved with the species, beginning at least 100,000 years ago, and perhaps much, much earlier. In the past six million years or so, hominids evolved into humans, and pongids evolved into chimpanzees. The kinds of communication chimps employ suit their needs in their environment. The onus is on us to understand chimp "language", and so far we aren't doing that very well. The most complex animal "language" yet decoded is the dances of bees, used to tell other bees where to find food or the next nesting hole.

It is not a matter of brain size. African gray parrots can learn human spoken language, and they seem to understand what they are saying, to the point of making basic conversation. All this with a brain a tenth the size of a chimp brain. Koko, supposedly a smaller-brained ape (relative to body size), has seven times the repertory and even more fluency than Nim. Yet the experts continue to claim the matter is not settled.

I find it a bit arrogant for Chomsky to claim that human grammar is the only grammar there is. Deaf people who communicated with Nim might report a long sentence he made, when the others present who knew ASL would have seen only two or three signs. Prior to 20-30 years ago, ASL was uninflected. A movement to make ASL an "institutional" or "correct" language added signs to distinguish "have gone", "going", and "went" from "go", for example. So during the 1970s—Nim's heyday—a deaf person might intend to say, "I am going to the store to get eggs and milk", and use the signs GO STORE EGGS MILK. Sign language interpreters (including a couple we know well) routinely expanded such an utterance into a complete English sentence. Nim's signing YOGURT NIM EAT was perfectly grammatical to a "native" ASL signing deaf person of the time. Thus, the statement of one deaf woman upon meeting Koko: "I just spoke with a nonhuman in my native language."

Nim lived in a primarily caged environment from age four to age 24, when he died of a heart attack. The book doesn't say, but I suspect a combination of human foods and extreme stress weakened his heart. Nim never saw another chimpanzee until he was four. As one of his handlers noted, he was probably expecting to lose his hair and grow up into a human some day. He also spent periods of a year or two at a time in isolation, which is very, very hard on any chimp, but was doubly hard on Nim.

The author unblinkingly chronicles the casual cruelties of some of the keepers. Not those who cared for Nim directly, but the head of the Norman, OK facility where he was born and spent part of his adolescence, the owners of the medical facility he got briefly sent to, and two early farm managers at Black Beauty Ranch, where he spent the last 18 years of his life. Fortunately, a third manager brought in made things much better for Nim as an adult.

This is the dark side of all these studies. You have to distort the animal to learn anything about such things. I continue to support the work of those like Jane Goodall, those who study the chimps in their own place and on their own terms. I suspect Ms Goodall speaks Chimp better than even she realizes. We'll never get these animals to discuss the daily news with us; it is pretty much irrelevant to them. But I suspect they'd have a lot to say about the 150 different kinds of food they eat, the many kinds of trees that are better or worse for making their nests, and the sundry attractions of the opposite sex. We just have to learn their words.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chimp language?

kw: musings, animals, language, chimpanzees

I am halfway through a biography of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp whose language facility was supposed to disprove Noam Chomsky's theories of the human "grammar engine". On the surface, his theory seems nonsensical to me, because it posits the sudden development of a major mental ability that seems to have no precursor in the evolutionary past. It is the intellectual equivalent of a brief mutation sequence producing a new kind of limb upon the body, making us perhaps pentapods or hexapods (we are tetrapods).

The animal named Nim was the subject of H.S. Terrace's work. Two families raised him from an infant and they and others laboriously taught him ASL signs. Nim did learn to communicate using ASL, but there is little evidence that he said things using ASL that an unschooled Chimp could not communicate via other means. In 1979 H.S. Terrace wrote, "I could find no evidence of an ape’s grammatical competence, either in my data or those of others." (H. S. Terrace, “How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind,” Psychology Today, November 1979, Vol. 13, No. 6, p. 67)

Looked at in a larger context, researchers into whale and dolphin communication recognize that there must be some kind of grammar involved, but it is too different from our own and we can't figure it out. In the same way, all primates use a combination of sounds, postures and gestures to communicate according to their own social needs. What we find in the case of the numerous Chimps and a Gorilla or two that have been taught ASL signs, is that they seem to learn a vocabulary of signs equivalent to their "natural" vocabulary. It would be instructive to compare lists made by researchers in the animals' native habitats, of their "natural vocabulary" (as well as a human could figure it out), with the repertory of signs of these trained animals.

The last common ancestor between Human and Chimp lines was six or seven million years ago. Not only has the genus Homo developed and finally become "sapiens" since then, a similar level of change has occurred in the Chimp lineage, to produce Pan troglodytes and the Bonobo. They are as different from that common ancestor as we are. There is some kind of "grammar engine" in the brains of many mammals and birds. Our relatively gigantic brain simply has the extra power to support a much more intricate grammar, so I conclude that Dr. Terrace is only partially right. He sees no evidence of the Human level. But I see evidence of a Chimp-level grammar.

None of these primates has been trained much beyond the age of about four. By that age, they are, at 40 to 50 pounds, too large, aggressive and dangerous for intimate human contact. Did you know that nearly all the "media Chimps" are female? It is because they are less likely to suddenly kill their handlers, than are males. In Chimp society, all males are in a constant battle for status, and their "skirmishes" are at a level humans find lethal. The rare human who has achieved Alpha status with adult male chimps has to maintain it with the use of cattle prods and 2x4's. What is seen by some as cruelty and abuse is probably considered "barely adequate" social control by the Chimps.

It is sad that Nim and other "ASL-speaking" chimps had to spend all their life after the age of four in caged or zoo conditions. But there's no other way to keep the rest of the human world around them safe from them, or them safe from gun-toting vigilantes should they attempt free life "outside". All the better reason to leave them in the jungle where they know how to live, and to keep people (other than a tiny handful of researchers) strictly OUT.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

His life really is for the birds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birding, bird watching, conservation

During the years I studied Geology as an undergraduate, I had a travel friend, a fellow-student who did most of the driving on our many field trips. He always carried two sets of binoculars, because it was a sure thing that any drive we took, we'd be stopping at least a time or two to watch birds. We always planned an extra hour or so for any drive we took. While I enjoy watching birds, particularly with a knowledgeable companion, I was never hooked by the birding bug.

Luke Dempsey got hooked, and hooked hard, the first time a friend induced him to actually look at what a little bird was doing. It was a Common Yellowthroat, one of the warblers, and once he looked at it, really looked, it was love at first sight. Dempsey reports the event in the opening pages of A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All. He goes on to note, he was in love, "But I didn't really want this kind of love."

His premonition was correct, but futile. Though he doesn't come right out and say it, the flow of events he records made it clear that birding had a lot to do with the failure of his marriage. In the wake of that failure, with a bit more time on his hands, he gradually embarked on a quest to see many, most...perhaps all the birds that inhabit, pass through, or touch some corner of the United States. He's halfway there.

[Image and its larger original Copyright Fotosearch.] I wonder what might have been, had his wife become a bird watcher also. He graciously fails to reveal hardly anything about her. I imagine someone a bit like my son: it isn't hard to get him to peer through the binoculars at a bird for, say, ten seconds, whereupon he looks you in the eye saying, "Cool. Now what?"

He does the same when induced to look through my telescope at craters on the Moon, the rings of Saturn, or the Whirlpool Galaxy. Once he's seen it, he doesn't "need" to see it again...ever. Oh, well, he has turned into a much better poet than I am, and has a number of other virtues that I find quizzical, to say the least. We're even.

But we were talking about this author, and his travel and birding companions Don and Donna. In the Acknowledgments section I found that they are "mostly a product of [his] fevered imagination." There is another couple, Dave and Deb, with whom he also seems to have traveled. The "Don and Donna Graffiti" of the book are composite characters, with a large dollop of said imagination.

I rarely quote a jacket blurb, but I have to now. This is probably the product of Amy King, the designer: "3 obsessive friends, / 8 states, / 1 foreign country, / 129 towns, / 34 national parks, / 6 long-suffering rental cars, one rather alluring OnStar navigator, / 17 bed-and-breakfasts, too many alarming motel rooms, 1 real-life ark, / and more than 400 species of birds..."

It took me a while to get used to the author's style, a mixture of understated British humor (he hails from England) and over-the-top Stateside comedy. Learning curve aside, we read of the travails of compiling, in about three years, the life list of a solid beginner, with nearly 450 entries. This is a bit less than half the birds one might see in North America.

But he is not, he says a few times, a "lister"; he feels charged "with witnessing them all over again, while we can." It is one thing to see, at least once, an Elegant Trogon or Kirtland's Warbler. It is quite another to see a Yellowthroat, Robin, Chickadee or Blue Jay, over and over again and sustain one's relish at their lives and actions, the sheer alertness most birds continually convey. After all, though God may feed the sparrows, the sparrows do have to work at it themselves, for nearly every waking minute. It is not God but Human expansion that makes it harder and harder to gather a long life list of bird species. The book has a strong conservationist tone, and a bit of well-needed exhortation.

Listing, Birding, Bird Watching, or just the occasional stroll with binoculars in hand (to take them in descending order of fanaticism), all have their satisfactions. Choosing to travel about the country for birding's sake is as good an excuse as any. I'd like to see 34 national parks, for any reason!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Where wasted money goes

kw: opinion, finance

Nearly every day there is a headline somewhere, particularly on the Internet media, that proclaims in huge type how we're spending anywhere from four to twelve billion dollars monthly "in Iraq". People write about this as though there were deep, dark well in Iraq somewhere, down which dollars pour in an unending Niagara. Do you know how much money we are actually spending in Iraq? Nearly nothing!

We have about 150,000 troops there, whose salaries, benefits and other overhead total a quarter billion dollars monthly. Maybe a bit more, depending on ranking officers' salaries. Most of the rest is for consumable weaponry, fuel, medical and food supplies. We may actually purchase some of our supplies from the Iraqis, but it's tiny, tiny.

The vast majority of the money is spent…guess where?…In the U.S.A.! Let's assume four billion dollars change hands every month, related to the war. Nearly all of it goes to U.S. companies and U.S. workers. It circulates in the U.S. economy, not the Iraqi or any other nation's economy. Based on the ordinary leverage factors, that four billion bucks generates twelve to sixteen billion dollars of economic activity. In fact, no matter where the U.S. government spent that four billion dollars, it would generate exactly the same amount of economic activity, right here in the U.S.!

So where's the waste? You may disagree with what the money is being spent on, but please don't say it's "going" anywhere. It is all spent right here in the U.S. economy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Escape from the Promised Land

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, personal growth

On page one, line one, word one, Diane Wilson's prose takes off running, and keeps running headlong for 210 pages. Better run to keep up, or she'll get done before you do, and you'll end up wondering where you are and how you got there. I don't rightly know how that works, but it does. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I quite Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus is much like a Pentecostal gathering (I wouldn't use the term "service" since a Baptist or Methodist might think I mean something familiar): full blast, in-your-face, we'll be done when the Holy Ghost gets done…yet it is also a story of growing up in a small shrimping town in coastal Texas, a rather eccentric girl amid relatives and townsfolk who range from eccentric to downright looney.

Two kinds of people naturally gravitate to independent Pentecostal churches: the ones who need a fix of high-adrenaline-charged emotion on a regular basis, and the mental masochists who just don't feel right without a regular scolding by an overblown preacher. Pentecostal Christianity is a lot like flying fighter jets. You fly a dozen missions that are boring as beans, and come back from the next one having sweated a gallon or two. One of my favorite experiences was walking in on a meeting that, so I was told later, turned into "a real gully-washer". You just weren't ready to go home until the preacher, a man with a style like this pic, had given you a bit of face time that left your eyeballs bruised.

The bulk of the story occurred just before and after Diane, AKA Silver, turned ten years old. It was like growing up in a whirlwind. I don't know just when the author fulfilled the book's title's promise, but I suppose it has to do with becoming possessed by a demon who takes the name Anthony Perkins. As far as we know, she still is.

A shrimping town revolves around the shrimpers and their catch (Image copyright Mike Keegin). The book's story also revolves around a year-long (or more) feud between Silver's grandfather Chief and an overly aggressive game warden. The author seems to have been the kid who was easiest to cajole or coerce into helping "head" the shrimp with her Dad, Billy. We get about as much of shrimping lore as we do church stories. Billy has his own run-ins with the warden, but it is Chief that brings Silver along on a couple of occasions in attempts to retrieve another son's gun that the warden seems to have stolen after murdering the man…an affair the local sheriff declines to investigate.

The case doesn't break open until a man shows up who is a snake handler. He makes a sufficiently memorable entrance by bringing a box of rattlers, moccasins and coral snakes to church with him. Kicked out by an anti-snake evangelist, he starts a "handling" church in an abandoned boat shed. It turns out he is also the game warden's brother.

I dunno, with all that going on, I'd probably decide to take a back seat to Anthony Perkins myself. The experience seems to have stood the author in good stead. In an earlier book, An Unreasonable Woman, she chronicles her nearly single-handed activism to end horrific polluting of the area by a chemical company. She is Erin Brockovich, squared. If you've been taught about a Jesus who isn't averse to "machine gun" tactics, it stands to reason…

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Answering some of the other questions

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, engineering, estimating

In Middle School and High School, many American kids (my son included) partake of the Science Olympiad. One contest is "Fermi Questions", named for Enrico Fermi. They are questions you answer just by making successive deductions based on things you already know or can estimate. For example:

How many Jelly Beans will fit in a one-liter jar?
  1. 90
  2. 200
  3. 350
  4. 500

The students figure out an answer, and reply with the closest choice from the list. In this case, one might reason like this:
  • A typical jelly bean is 1.5 cm long and 1 cm in diameter.
  • Its "rectangular volume" is thus 1.5 cubic centimeters.
  • Jelly beans don't pack tightly in the jar, so they might fill only 80% of the space.
  • 1000 divided by 1.5 is 667.
  • 80% of that is 533.
  • Use answer #4: 500.
The two "facts you know" are that a liter contains 1000 cubic centimeters, and the size of jelly beans that you remember eating in the past. Of course, if the contest moderator actually shows a jar of jelly beans at the beginning, you might see that they are of a different size than the ones you've had before, so you have to adjust your figures.

These questions and the "back of the envelope" figuration used to solve them are based on Dr. Fermi's famous predilection for estimating things to see if a more rigorous calculation made sense, or just to find something out. In an anecdote I've read a number of times, the first atomic bomb test was attended by Dr. Fermi and others who were in an open-topped trench a mile away or so. Fermi spent his time prior to the blast by tearing a sheet of notebook paper into small pieces. When the blast went off (everyone was told to duck down just beforehand), he counted off a few seconds and threw the bits above the trench just as the shock wave passed over. Then he climbed up and observed the scattered paper bits, did a quick calculation, and announced the yield of the blast, how many kilotons it was (around ten as I recall).

Further from such shades of Armageddon, this sort of thing runs in my family. I remember we learned as kids to carry a small ruler on trips. We make lots of long car journeys, multi-state affairs, and with four boys in the car, my parents needed lots of creativity to keep us from going nuts. From time to time, Dad would say, "How far off is that bridge?" In our younger years, I (the oldest) and one or two of the younger ones (whoever was paying attention) would guess and guess. Dad would have noted the "question spot" on the odometer, so when we came to the bridge, he'd tell us the distance. It was typically a mile or two. Eventually we learned to hold up the ruler at arm's length and measure the apparent width of one lane (or measure all the lanes and divide), then reason like this:
  • I could hold a ruler 2 feet (24 inches) from my eye (it varied with my age).
  • A car lane on a highway is 20 feet wide.
  • Suppose I measure 1/4 inch. The ratio of 1/4 to 24 is 96.
  • 20 x 96 is just under 2,000...OK, it is 1,920 feet.
Of course, if the bridge is 2 miles away, that's 10,560 feet; divided by 20 is 528. 24 divided by 528 is 1/22 of an inch, which is why we needed to measure a 4-lane bridge to get any accuracy; its apparent width would be 4/22 or 0.18 inch. It is just too hard to "eyeball" a 22d of an inch!

Then one day, Dad asked, "How much water do you think is in that pond we're about to pass?" That is a story for another day. But it is just the kind of story with which Dr. Graham Tattersall opens Geekspeak: How Life + Mathematics = Happiness. With a background like mine, I found this one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time. The author's Dad was a lot like mine, but asked a broader range of questions, a tradition which he follows in asking, and answering, 26 interesting questions, and following each with a shorter, related one in a Geek Speak section.

For example, the first chapter introduces sampling statistics by asking the reader to open a dictionary to a few random pages, to first count all the defined words you know the meaning of without excessive memory-bludgeoning, then to count all the words defined on those pages. Suppose you know 60% of the words on a total of five pages. Somewhere in the introduction you'll find the "population" of the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary I just grabbed proudly states on the cover: "55,000 entries". If my "hit rate" in this test were 60%, then I could state that my total vocabulary is about 33,000 words.

(However, in this case it is 100%, because I've read the entire dictionary and used it as the basis of a computerized spelling dictionary of my own. I also added words found by scanning an old Funk & Wagnalls I have on hand. I'd have to go to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or one of the large "unabridged" volumes to find one in which I don't know all the words.)

Anyway, the "Speak Geek" tidbit that follows this chapter compares some statistics about word lengths found in books by Jane Austen and Ian McEwan. The general feeling many people have that Austen uses lots of long words is borne out: her average word length is ten letters, and there are plenty of 15- to 20-letter stumpers to be found in her writing. McEwan, by contrast, averages seven letters, and very few exceed 15 letters.

In an chapter about the "surprise content" of a message, he estimates the information content of the message "you are to die in a moment". Most of us would find that the surprise of our lives. Considering that the chances of a person under, say forty years of age, dying today, is one in a few million, the message is a one-in-several-million chance. For an older person, the odds change considerably, until you get to ages like ninety, at which the odds are one in a few thousand, or worse.

OK, compare that with the odds of winning one of the bigger lotteries. The known odds of being the sole winner of a PowerBall lottery in the Eastern U.S. are one in 81 million. If you are exactly forty, your chances of dying in the coming week are one in three million per day, divided by seven days, or one in 420,000. Rounding a bit, 80 million divided by 400 thousand is 200. You are 200 times more likely to die than win at PowerBall...unless you buy 200 tickets!

The "Speak Geek" section after this chapter notes that the text of the Holy Bible takes up just 1/150th of a data CD. There are, I happen to know, 26 commonly-used English translations of the Bible. A CD can store them all in less than one-fifth of its area. You might want that CD in case you'd prefer something better than the lottery to spend your money on.

The mathematical figuration is not confined to strictly numerical pursuits. The author analyzes lonely-hearts ads, compares the words used by those that seem to enjoy the most success, and comes up with the ultimate dating ad:
Tall, attractive professional fox, 49, intelligent, sociable and arts-loving, wishes to meet compatible vixen for friendship and relationship.
Geeks aren't only about numbers, you know.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The miracle you weren't looking for

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries, african setting

"Take me away, McCall, far, far away." The writing of Alexander McCall Smith reliably transports me to Botswana, at least the Botswana of his own mind, and puts me inside the heads of two warm, intelligent women who run a detective agency located in a car repair garage. The Miracle at Speedy Motors, the ninth in his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, brings the junior member, Grace Makutsi, a few steps closer to her wedding to Mr. Phuti Radiphuti even as her employer, Precious Ramotswe, grows in her own, somewhat new, marriage.

Mma Ramotswe and her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, have adopted a boy and girl from a nearby orphanage, and the husband is on the verge of mortgaging the garage to pay for medical work, and a possible operation, so the girl might walk. She is currently confined to a wheelchair. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency women are in the midst of finding the birth family of a woman whose adoptive parents died without disclosing anything about her past, and coping with the confusion they feel over a recent series of threatening letters.

In the midst of the story, I suddenly found myself wondering, how does one pronounce "Tlokweng"? Starting with the feel of my tongue in the midst of a word like "flintlock", I realized that Setswana must be one of the languages with click sounds. I have heard people speak !Kung, which is nearly all clicks (to my ear), and San, which is about half clicks and half sounds that are more English-like. So I go on, and return to musing over the full plate of mysteries facing the ladies of the Detective Agency.

I realized that there are ten characters in the whole novel, and a few bit players. With these as his palette, the author evokes a rich stew of African life. Whether the girl Motholeli walks is not the greatest miracle here, but the courage of the girl facing the unknown and unexpected hope that may yet be false hope; the unfounded fears of a young woman facing marriage; the new-found sibling for the client, who is suddenly found not to be a sibling, and how good that is. These exemplify the little miracles, the surprises of life.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Can America be restored? (Review #400)

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, polemics

In the DOD Annual Report for 2005 (the latest available), it is stated in Appendix B that American troop strength was 2.58 million, of which 1.16 million were "deployed". In the Fall of 2005 there were 152,000 troops in Iraq and 18,000 in Afghanistan. Numbers are similar today. It is said to be "hard" to add troops in Afghanistan without drawing down the number in Iraq, though this shift is occurring as the "surge" in Iraq is being wound down. If we have these millions of soldiers, where are they?

According to Ron Paul the U.S. maintains a military presence in 130 countries. This Wikipedia article details the 150 overseas countries to which 369,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed. It also states current total deployment as 1.4 million. Our largest deployments outside Iraq and Afghanistan are
  • Germany – 64,000
  • Japan – 49,000
  • South Korea – 26,500
  • Italy – 11,500
  • Great Britain – 11,000
Why do we need to occupy these five countries? What possible good can our troops be doing there? In The Revolution: A Manifesto Ron Paul asks, "For heaven's sake, what kind of debate is it in which all sides agree that America needs troops in 130 countries?" (p. 38)

This question illustrates the point the author makes in his opening chapter, that the American public is being faced with false choices. In the face of a 10 trillion dollar national debt, the economic debates we hear are over a few billion dollars in "earmarks". By the way, check out TreasuryDirect for the national debt, to the penny, for any day you choose to ask. The national debt ten years ago today was 5.5 trillion ($5,534,495,650,216.57). What else has doubled in ten years?!?

And that is Ron Paul's point. The government, just in my lifetime (60 years) has removed restraint after restraint once imposed by public oversight, and now operates 99% in the dark. In his chapter on the Constitution, he shows how nearly the entire mass of regulation and bureaucracy has been built up outside constitutional lines. Just as an example, the departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, and Justice are the only ones mandated by the Constitution, which relegates all other matters to the individual states. George Washington appointed a Cabinet member to oversee each of these four departments. Since then, cabinet members, and departments, have been added for Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, HHS, HUD, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veteran's Affairs, and Homeland Security. That's eleven things the U.S. government is "doing for us" that the Constitution does not tell it to do. A strict constructionist such as Justice Thomas would state that these should all be abolished, as does Ron Paul. That is the revolution he is talking about.

Here is an example of a department whose leaders need a new hobby. "In 2004," Paul writes, "a presidential initiative called the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health issued a report calling for forced mental health screening for all American children. beginning in preschool." So far the men in white coats have yet to invade you child's day care center, but they are working on it. Isn't that comforting? Who will this actually benefit? The makers of Ritalin, Abilify and other drugs that could keep school kids from bedeviling teachers, that's who.

The book states clear dangers, and ends in a discussion of what a President can do to turn back the tide. It does not have much that you or I could do to help. I am not satisfied that more informed voting will be much help; the problem is that nearly all the candidates offered for our vote will simply perpetuate the problem. The U.S. is currently structured, from Federal Reserve to Homeland Security, to favor the powerful at the expense of the powerless (the middle and lower classes). What we need is a ton of young non-lawyers to run for public office, and to do it outside the established party structure. This is what the Bill Clinton/G.W. Bush generation did starting in 1970, with success that is (sad to say) visible all around. How about a new generation of responsible young adults repeating the process?

As I read, reading a book composed months ago, it seemed the author was writing just today, when the stock market is in free fall, following a horde of mortgages into the dumpster of history. "The Fed" has just reduced interest a half point (bandaid on a broken leg) and Japan's market has lost 7% of its value overnight. Were I to sell my mutual funds, I'd be a big loser: 40% so far (I won't. I am young enough to ride it out, but I will probably have to delay retirement. A note to investors: if the whole world crashes, it won't matter where your money is, and if it doesn't, the investments you currently hold will recover in a few years, maybe only one or two years).

In the end, a healthy America requires an end to the American Empire overseas, genuine free trade (not the travesty we currently have), and a smaller, much smaller, government that governs within Constitutional bounds. Can this be achieved without widespread bloodshed? I hope so, but history does not offer me much comfort in that regard.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Keeping my signals clear

kw: technical information, digital infrastructure

Are you ready for February's Digital Diversion? These days, it seems everyone has cable TV, to the tune of $50 monthly or so. Not me, I'm too cheap. I have an antenna in the attic, the largest one that would fit in the end room, with good cable between it and the set. The set has all the tuners needed to receive both digital and analog broadcasts and converts everything to a 1080i image. So I've been watching as much digital TV as the broadcasters have been making available.

In the suburbs some twenty miles southwest of Philadelphia, that's a lot, actually. I get five reasonably good analog signals and a handful of snowy messes. Digital? I get eight pretty solid signals and two spotty ones. Several of those channels have two or more feeds, so I can receive a total of sixteen to eighteen digital feeds, on a clear day (rain absorbs signal, and several drop out in bad weather).

I recently learned how to estimate the situation that is coming in February next year. Go to and enter your address. If you can, put the height of your antenna (If it is set-top 'rabbit ears', put zero). You'll get a nice graphic like the one below. Click on the image for a full-size GIF.

What does this show you? The radar circle on the left shows where to point an antenna for the strongest groups of signals in your area. Each circle is about a factor of ten weaker in strength. The colors give a good hint about what kind of antenna can receive a signal:
  • Green = rabbit ears ought to be OK.
  • Yellow = An attic antenna (like mine) can get these.
  • Pink/Red = You need a roof-mounted antenna, the higher the better.
  • Gray = Forget it, unless you can afford a really tall antenna tower plus a preamp.
I didn't show the gray ones on the screen clip here. It is for illustration anyway. I made this image for an antenna at 20 feet, about eight feet higher than the one I have now, to see how things would improve if I move the antenna I have to the top of the roof. It gained me a factor of five to ten in signal strength for the "fringier" signals, which ought to bring in several stations I don't get now. This is a great planning aid!

The list on the right is more detailed. The most important figure is NM(dB) under Signal. This is the Noise Margin, and needs to be greater than zero for your set to show you a picture. This needs to be adjusted; for example, typical preamps give you 10 or 20 dB more signal, while the wall of a house or the roof of an attic can absorb 5 to 10 (or more) dB. On the list I made with my real antenna height of 12 feet, I can estimate other losses. For example, I get channel 17.1, which has NM around 38, but not 12.1, at 26. I know I am losing about 10 dB in my roof, so there is at least another 16 dB loss in the system, probably from (1) the cable from antenna to set and (2) lots of trees in my yard. If I add a 20 dB preamp, it might pull in 12.1.

Going to roof mount, I find that these two channels have 57 dB and 47 dB, respectively, which is good news: about 20 more dB from height alone, plus I won't have the losses through the roof. Sounds like it is worth doing!

One other column worth noting is the Path under Signal:
  • LOS = Line of Sight
  • 1Edge = Diffracted once (adds 10 dB loss or more)
  • 2Edge = Diffracted twice (adds 20-30 dB loss)
  • Tropo = Scattered off the air in the troposphere. Basically well below the horizon!
Only the strongest broadcast signals can overcome the losses of the latter two categories. You'll note that in this image, all the Green signals are in the first two categories. Since I'm not yet pulling in all these, they're my target goal. If I manage to scrounge up any Pink ones in the bargain, that's gravy.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The gears of home

kw: book reviews, fantasy, alternate history

In my earlier post Geared-up Universe I reviewed Jay Lake's first Tor novel Mainspring. At the time, his website had the provisional title of the sequel as Stemwinder, and having just finished reading it, I agree that that should have been the title. I don't know why it was changed to Escapement, the current title.

We are to imagine that one can literally see the Creator's handiwork in the heavens, as immense ring gears upon which the planets revolve about the Sun, and the Moon about Earth, and so forth. This alternate Earth is largely governed by Victoria, who has lived a bit longer than our Victoria did, and 1901 is fading into 1902. The primary rival to British hegemony is the Chinese Empire of Celestial Harmony. Both world powers use hydrogen-lofted airships as a major means of transport and projecting force afar, as the eyes aloft for their navies, and for expeditions not requiring heavy cargoes. In this new novel, the Chinese have also developed submarines, and one plays its part in the narrative.

The "albino toucan" is not the password here, being replaced by the avebianco. Of the three main clutches of characters followed here, the primary one follows a chiastic path from her home on The Wall that forms the Equator and holds Earth's geared ring, to Europe and back to The Wall. She is a new, magical Newton, an engineering genius who builds a large pocket watch, from scraps of brass given by an errant airman, using hand tools. Now, I've created replacement gears for a broke mantel clock using a lathe. Hand tools, indeed! In fact, she does so twice!!

The clocks she makes have four hands. Two follow the beat of Earth and Moon, one her own heart (a sort of Seconds hand), and the fourth can be tuned to any rhythm she can sense, then re-tune that rhythm. Her senses improve throughout.

She calls the first a Stemwinder, as the airshipman had called the pocket chronometer that was its model. Later it is called a Gleam by others, an apparently superstitious term. Our heroine uses this term for the rest of the narrative.

If the Solar System were really a great Orrery, in some way similar to the one pictured here, perhaps a Gleam would really have the powers of sympathetic magic. What is clear by the end of the book is that there is no limit to the power of the girl and her contrivance.

Lots of loose ends have been left for future books. The book opens with a British project to drill through The Wall using a pair of huge steam tunnel borers. These are left embattled at the book's midpoint, and the officer who goes for help is found at the end in Sumatra, bargaining for a way to convey his message of "help needed" to the seat of Empire. The "white bird" (avebianco) and a rival political faction are locked in a confrontation that threatens to embroil the world in warfare (imagine the Masons versus the Trilateral Commission and all those conspiracy theories coming true). And there are lots of clock parts and jargon to go through. I just wish the Escapement had not been wasted upon this one, which ought to have kept its Stemwinder label.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Deconstructing Glen Campbell

kw: musings, polemics, morality

My wife likes to watch the PBS reruns of old Lawrence Welk shows, produced by OETA. A few days back, we watched one from 1971 that, early on, featured Norma Zimmer singing a lovely, if a bit overdone, anthem of getting help from God. The next selection was a guitar trio performing "Gentle on My Mind". I was aghast, and wondered if Mr. Welk ever really listened to the words.

In verse 1, the singer says he will "leave my sleepin' bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch", meaning, "I'll be sleeping in your bed tonite, Babe." Any chance that this might be a committed couple vanishes with the next thought, that they're "not shackled by forgotten words and bonds, and the ink stains that have dried upon some line." No wonder his lady friend inhabits the "back roads" of his mind! There is no highway in his life. No, in verse 2 he's planning to be back walking along railroad tracks. No "columns" or "ivy" for him.

And verse 3 finds him bragging to this love about forsaking another one, or so he plans, in the very near future. It is no surprise that in verse 4 his appearance is less than savory: "My beard a rustlin' coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face" as he settles into a hobo camp for the night.

What could possibly be romantic about this picture? This man is a serial seducer, a sexual predator, a collector of broken hearts, particularly the one he is breaking by singing of it to her. He is a bum who can't stay put. Not someone I'd ever be willing to call a friend. What was Welk thinking?