Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black holes and bursters and flares, Oh my!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, futuristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Riders that create their own storm

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, subcultures, motorcycle clubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

An amplified autobio

kw: book reviews, fiction, mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

When feelings and thoughts collide

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

The death of faith has been greatly exaggerated

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, sociology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A little goes a long way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Necessary unpleasantness

kw: medical tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prep Day, 24-36 hours before the procedure

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

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

Midnight at the end of Prep Day

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

Procedure Day

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

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

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

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

In the Procedure Room

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

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

In the Recovery Room

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

At home

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Flying flowers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, photographs, butterflies

When I was a child, I was told some story of the prettiest flowers taking wing and becoming butterflies. This isn't hard to imagine when you are little, and the hordes of butterflies that were common in the 1950s would burst from a flowerbed upon my approach. But no matter how carefully I watched, I never saw an actual flower take wing.

This image, from page 147 of Butterfly by Thomas Marent, shows the common swallowtail we called the Tiger Swallowtail where I grew up. It occurs throughout the Northern hemisphere. It was not a very common sight fifty years ago, but is now one of the more commonly seen butterflies, one of the survivors of the habitat and toxin assault that has decimated butterfly populations.

Butterfly is a coffee-table book, and I couldn't resist it, in spite of its size (my place is cluttered enough already). I scanned a few images from the book that show how the author presents all life stages of butterflies and moths. I am not sure how your browser will group the next three images, so I present them in a clump. First the egg, not of the swallowtail but of a ringlet (p 78); then the head of a swallowtail larva (p 87); finally a swallowtail pupa, or chrysalis (p 135). A section of the book covers metamorphosis, including some larvae that change appearance with each molt.

The author also presents a few montages of common elements, such as toxic and venemous spines on caterpillars or the variations of the "88" and "89" butterflies, or these eyespots shown here (p 236). This is just a portion of the montage. My scanner isn't big enough for even one whole page of the book, let alone a 2-page spread! Anyway, taking too big an image would violate at least the spirit of Fair Use. If you enjoy these few tidbits, you'll love the whole book.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sporting sciences

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sports, science

Yes, folks, the results are in: a curveball really curves...a little. The fact is, most pitches curve, in direct proportion to the rate of rotation. The wonder is that there was ever any controversy over baseballs that don't follow purely ballistic paths. They really do interact with the air.

Anyone who has ever watched a game of ping-pong in which two good players put lots of "English" on the ball, knows that a spinning ball curves in the direction that the spin is "backward". In other words, if you slice a ping-pong ball on the right side, so its spin as viewed from above is counter-clockwise, its will curve to your left. The only ball that might not curve would be a "gyroball", with a spiral spin like a well-thrown football...except proponents of the gyboball claim it curves more than all the others. Maybe.

In Why a Curveball Curves: the Incredible Science of Sports, editor Frank Vizard and the writers of Popular Mechanics magazine demystify and elaborate the science behind phenomena in fourteen sports, from baseball, football (both kinds) and golf to swimming, skiing and boxing. Want to know why a hockey puck is called a "puck"? It just may have something to do with Shakespeare. Does "heading" a soccer ball scramble a player's brains? Not nearly as much as "heading" an opponent's head! There just might be helmets in soccer's future...

In the opening chapter on Training, the focus turns to doping, including a section outlining the ten greatest illegal doping scandals. The oldest is still the most famous: The East Germans proved that if you give a woman enough steroids, you turn her into a man with a uterus (as far as sports performance is concerned).

If you give it a little thought, it is no surprise to find that the greatest asset of a hockey goalie is the Eyes. You can't stop the puck if you can't see it, and when you can't see it, you do see what the other players are doing, and can anticipate it anyway. On further thought, I find myself surprised that more attention wasn't given to sight. But it is kinda like air. How many sports can be performed blindfolded or in total darkness? Only mano-a-mano grappling, judo and wrestling for example, come to mind. Of course, there could be no "spectators" then, could there?

A major section of the Swimming chapter is devoted to the newer suits, whether caps help or not, and other innovations aimed at putting more water behind a swimmer, ever faster. We find that the old attitude of keeping the head up to "hydroplane" would not be effective until a speed of 35 mph (~55 kph), so keeping the head down and the hips up is the better strategy...until a swimmer of the future achieves true hydroplane speed!

And what about that famous gyroball? To date, only two hurlers claim to be able to throw one. Whether it curves in a flat plane (rather than a sinking one), as advertised, isn't yet established. But to my mind, it ought to "carry" the way a spiral throw in football does, having less effective drag and being more stable in flight.

To some folks, all this extra knowledge might ruin things. But being a science nut, I find it helps. I am much less of a sports fan than the average guy, so knowing more about how things work just might help me enjoy sports-watching more.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The cathedral and the dome

kw: musings, cultural evolution

An image from last night's dream sticks with me: a cathedral in the distance, receding into mist, and a large geodesic dome in the foreground. This image is my feeble attempt to reproduce this juxtaposition.

The two structures exemplify the very different cultures of nostalgia and "modern X". Actually, the geodesic dome is getting a bit passé, and is little embraced by the X and Y generations. But consider for a minute the interweaving of technology and art embodied in a cathedral. The technology of the cathedral is a solution to the enclosing of the largest space possible, so as to uplift the spirit. The details of the many spires surrounding the large twin spires, the little spines and spikes on the spires' outlines, the carven details of every surface, and the overwhelming internal artwork, are not technology but art, to focus the attention of worshipers.

It is hard to understand today the extent to which worship formed the structure of people's lives in medieval Europe. In many of the "quieter" places, away from large cities, this is still true. Worship has two sides, as breathing has two aspects: inspiration and expiration, or expression. Handicrafts did not only produce useful tools and furniture, but added beauty. The art of everyday things was intended to aid the worship of any who viewed them, to inspire them.

Today's technology of enclosing space follows the mantra of efficiency and "continuous improvement": faster, better, cheaper. If art is considered at all, it is added later, such as putting an abstract steel sculpture in the courtyard of an aseptic office building. Seldom is beauty built in to the design. If it is, it is an intended beauty of austerity, not the lush beauty of recursive detail we see in the carvings on a cathedral's spire.

Benoit Mandelbrot was onto something when he brought fractals to our attention. Not only do many natural things develop by recursion of common shapes, but whenever anyone takes time to decorate something, and yields the time to contemplate and add beauty to beauty, the result has a fractal quality. The winter tree at the right side of the image is a fractal construction of nature, that contains more detail than does the cathedral. I think if trees were more like children's simple "green blob on a stick", they would not resonate in our souls.

I see hopeful signs in the productions of younger architects, artists, and craftspeople. The austerity of the "modern" design of the 1920s to the 1960s is giving way to a more detailed, more contemplative style, or really, to a great many of them. In this image, copyright David Fisher, we see that people aren't satisfied with blocky architecture. These designs, intended for the "Palms" of Dubai, can change shape and get more detailed-looking. They are a step back toward the cathedral spires. In fact, consider the Petronas Towers in Malaysia: they look a lot like a twin-spire cathedral. (Go to Google Images and search "Petronas").

We may not see again a time in which the handle of a shovel would be carved with bas-relief roses, even though it could then be better gripped. But I think people need inspiration from the things in their daily lives and their surroundings. That is, we all benefit from an environment that is conducive to worship.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Family history census mystery

kw: discoveries, genealogy, census records

The name "McKown" is one of the most frequently misspelled names in US Census history. Here we have two brothers, recorded in the 1860 census, whose surname is given as "McKowan". Not too bad, compared to McGowan, McCoun, McKeon and McCowen (see below).

The elder brother, John D McKown, is my great-great grandfather. He it is who received the old family fiddle sometime after 1840. [11/9/08: generational note, found to be inaccurate, removed]

Here we see John, aged 41, and his 27-year-old brother, living next door to one another in Marshall, MO, working as Plasterers. But my focus here is on the whereabouts of John D McKown ten years earlier. He was rather hard to find in the 1850 census. I dug, and dug, and finally found him...twice!

Here is John's family in 1850. His name is recorded as "McCowen" and no middle initial is given. His age looks like 37, but he was 31 at the time. The census taker seems to have dragged into his "1" making it look more like his usual "7". His occupation is states as Bellowsmaker. I guess that was a skill of sufficient demand to be one's main occupation. It is also a clue to the veracity of a second record.

This record is from Ward 4, St. Louis, MO, where the family lived before moving to Marshall. While the violin was obtained in St. Louis, in Marshall the daughter Margaret (spelled "Margarette" here) met J.G. Nye, my great-grandfather.

I found this record after a bit of a search. It took a lot more digging than the 1860 one, but the fact that McKown was misspelled in the 1860 record kept me looking at all the variations. A "soundex" search of an Internet index helped a lot.

A few days ago I took another look at the record I'd found for John's parents, James B and Bethia (or Bertha in some records). Here the surname is spelled McKeon. There John D was, aged 31, with his 17-year-old brother James and three other siblings. Both he and his father are listed as Bellowsmakers (that squiggle is an 1850 "ditto" mark: "Do"). This record is from Ward 3 of St. Louis.

I don't yet know the exact addresses, but I suspect the wards were not very large, and John and his father may have been in business together and lived quite nearby. The census taker happened to come by when father and son were at the father's home, so he got recorded as part of that household on Sept. 16, 1850. The record of John in his own home was made on Sept. 20.

I wonder how many people got recorded in the census? This is the only case I've heard of.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The fine art of fuddlement

kw: book reviews, fiction, short stories, social malaise

A couple of decades ago, when my mother still had her wits about her (she has since passed on), I took her to Fort Smith to locate the graves of her grandparents. We also drove down the street, and found the house, where she was born—yes, right on its kitchen table. A lovely elderly lady answered her knock and offered to show her the house. Afterward she said, a bit too brightly, "They didn't change much." But then she had a faraway look. It wasn't really the same house, not any more. I've had that look, too, because I've passed by former places of my own. You really can't ever go back.

The stories in The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam are mostly about time passing people by. The opening, title piece has three retired judges, old friends/adversaries who once practiced law with and against one another, attending a dinner party and quietly coping with three or four new generations of their friends' friends' descendants. A subtext regarding a faux monk and a passel of umbrellas lends humor.

This is the general tenor of many of the stories. People who haven't necessarily moved far from home, find that "home"has been moved out from under them. We may not journey, but time makes us travelers.

Some of the stories are about cultural disorientation, such as "Learning to Fly", in which a protective mother visiting an island paradise is disconcerted by the child-rearing attitude of a strong young woman she meets. The themes are all familiar. From these stories I didn't learn any new things, but I was reminded of important things I've been learning all along.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Can you even see the center from over there?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, eccentrics

A portion of the cover illustration, intended to represent someone's brain, took a second look. I finally realized it is the pilot/thermostat module from a gas furnace. If you are old enough (or your furnace is), you know the drill: twist a red knob and hold for a few seconds while holding a lit match in the pilot hole…then "pop", it's lit, and when you release your twist, the furnace starts with a whoosh.

This is a fitting analogy to an eccentric's mind: a little old-fashioned, a bit particular (or peculiar), and very, very effective. When a self-acknowledged eccentric writes about eccentrics, the reader realizes right off that it truly takes one to know one. Pagan Kennedy, raised with the maxim "Eccentricity is more efficient", brings us a collection of vignettes into the lives of a variety of people who exemplify Richard Feynman's favorite ad slogan: "Think different".

The title story in The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories tracks the life of Dr. Alex Comfort, a mini-biography "in 17 positions." Dr. Comfort tried to single-handedly eliminate monogamy, but found that he'd bit off much more than he could handle. Though we now find that about half of all marriages end before "death do us part", the other half survive. Monogamy is still the most effective way two people can remain intimately related for decades; it has by far the best track record going.

Ms Kennedy's "Introduction" is one of the longest pieces in the book, a micro-autobiography of her writing career, of how she came to embrace journalism written with fiction-writing techniques. Psst: That's a long way of saying "story-telling". She is a story-teller. The stories she tells, with occasional bite-sized epilogues, take us into the realms inhabited by some very different, very engaging, very driven people.

One is not even human. Alex the Gray Parrot has achieved star status by attaining a spoken vocabulary of several hundred words of English, and can (or could) converse with people at a level you'd expect from a youngster who hasn't quite learned sentence syntax...say age 18 months. That's pretty good, from a bird who weighed less than the brain of an 18-month-old. Sadly, Alex has passed away, so we have to wait for someone to train up another parrot to see if this level of performance can be surpassed.

Cheryl Haworth, a women who excels in the formerly "male" sport of weightlifting, dominated the female version of the sport and made a lot of young women feel better about being "big and strong". For a time she was billed as "the strongest woman on earth." The piece was written not long before the 2004 Olympics, and in the postscript we find that Ms Haworth came in 6th in Atlanta. Post-postscript, I find that she also was sixth in 2008 in Beijing, with a combined lift of 259 kg. That means two lifts, by different methods, each around 300 pounds.

Among my favorites is Saul Griffith, in "How to make (almost) anything". He leads a movement to bring cheap, effective designs to many areas that are over-teched. The way the US "made the desert bloom" in the mid-20th Century cannot be repeated in most of the world. They can't afford it. It could take a national economy in some countries to install a set of the pumps needed to run an American irrigation system. But I found myself most enamored of a device Griffith created that produces prescription eyeglasses on-the-spot, quite a bit quicker than a one-hour photo machine, and for tons less money. This is the kind of thinking that reminds me there is still much good in this world.

The last few essays are autobiographical. "Boston Marriage" is most instructive. I'd not heard the term, but I understand the concept: two women living under one roof, with many of the accouterments of marriage, and they may have a gay relationship, or they may not. Her four-year Boston Marriage, to a woman as straight as herself, was very convenient during the time they wished to date their favorite men but not move in with them, or marry them. Eventually, each attained a more intimate male-female relationship that led them to part, at least from under the same roof.

I guess women can do that. My relationships with the roommates I've had during my single years (now several decades past) were not in any way similar to relationships that seem normal to women. Men and women really, really do think differently, and feel differently. At least for a wholly straight man such as I am, no matter how deeply I may love a man, the expression has at most a veneer of affection, compared to the deep affection women so easily express.

I wonder if Ms Kennedy is really so much more of a thinker than women in general, or if it is simply that she managed to convey her thoughtfulness to me better than others before. These essay/stories (or story/essays) induce the reader to think, making them some of the best writing of our time.