Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting around the long way

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, travel

Behold Steve Hely, who with (sort of) his friend Vali Chandresekaran circled the world. Their book The Ridiculous Race is subtitled, 26,000 miles. 2 guys. 1 globe. No airplanes. It didn't quite work out that way, and you'll find out why as you read the book.

Steve and Vali are writers for TV shows. So they write really well. They are single guys in their late 20s who dreamed up (they say, literally) the idea of racing one another around the world while using all forms of transportation other than airplanes. Ships, trains, autos, rickshaws, whatever, but no airplanes. They decided to race in opposite directions: Steve went West and Vali went East.

There are regular cruises that cross the Atlantic. Not so the Pacific. You just about have to go by container ship, unless you're going to drive to, like Attu, and wait for ice that you can walk or dogsled the 20 miles to Siberia upon. That has been done only once, so far as I've read. Fortunately, container ships will take passengers, so neither of our heroes took that long, icy walk.

Along the way, they also competed in an Awesomeness Contest, to gather memories and stories that would top the other. Both had visions of picking up a cosmopolitan collection of women. It didn't quite work out that way.

What they did pick up was an impressive array of means of transportation. In addition to container ship and cruise liner, they include various trains, jitneys, taxis in various states of repair, motorcycle-shaws (rickshaws with motor power), Segway (one way to see Paris). They also sampled a very impressive array of beverages. They seem to both belong to the "If I don't recall it, I must have had a good time" club.

Halfway through the roughly seven weeks they spent, they met in Moscow for a Truce Day, to see a few sights together. Most of the sights they saw together were the insides of a few bars and restaurants. They did better solo.

Both found they benefited from the kindness of strangers. There are lots of places where being foreign and ignorant of the local language can get you into lots of trouble. Being quite unlike the typical "ugly American" stereotype helped both of them. People everywhere were mostly kind, sometimes heroically kind.

Much of the funding for their trip was paid by the book publisher, Henry Holt, whose editors they sold on the idea before they left Los Angeles. After seeing a lot of the world from train windows and such, both were glad to return to American soil. Steve, in particular, thought about just how different the US is, and summed it up this way:
I got to thinking that America isn't like a bully, or a jock, or a cool kid. In the high school of the world, America is like one of those girls that's just effortlessly beautiful. So beautiful you can't even have a crush on her. A girl like that isn't deliberately mean, it's just that she can't possibly understand how lucky she is. And people always do what she wants, without her even realizing it, so she never bothers becoming smart, or savvy about the other kids in school. Just with her airhead remarks, she's always accidentally screwing up the whole order of things. She doesn't even realize it.

Now, when you have a girl like that, the other kinda-pretty girls sort of like her but sort of hate her. That's maybe Germany, or France. And the ugly girls talk about her in the locker room, but are still totally afraid of her. That's Venezuela and Iran. The regular-looking dudes can't help but be awed by her. Maybe they try to woo her with poems. That's Great Britain. And the real twisted kids develop unhealthy obsessions about destroying her, just because they're so infuriated at how unfair things are.
I may just posterize that for my office door.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

For the love of the rocks and mountains

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, italian history

I lived through two revolutions of geological thought. In fact, I was educated right through both of them. In 1965 when I started college, I was not a Geology major. I took an Earth Science course or two just before changing majors to Geology in 1969 (I worked my way through, so it took a few years extra). The earlier courses were based on the old "vertical motion" paradigm, in which mountains were thought to have been raised up on the surface of an Earth that was shrinking as it cooled. I remember the old Geosyncline model, and how unsatisfactory it seemed.

When I finally started taking Junior-level courses in 1970, we began to learn a new paradigm: sea-floor spreading plus continental drift, which now we call Plate Tectonics. The vertical motions are seen to be caused by much larger horizontal motions. For example, at one time India was a separate continent. Plate motions have caused it to collide with Asia, driving up the Himalayan and Tien Shan mountain ranges, which are still rising. The Alps, the Andes, the Rockies, and indeed all mountain ranges mark continental collisions of various ages. Even the lowly Appalachians, which were once at least as high as the Andes, mark an old collision between America and Africa. The Atlantic has opened up in the time since, and the mountains have been eroding away.

In 1978 I returned for graduate school. Plate tectonics was firmly established, but we were still in thrall to an old idea: Uniformitarianism, stated as "The present is the key to the past". While this is usually true, it is short-sighted. More things can happen in a million years than in a hundred, or a thousand. The profession of Geology is less than five hundred years old. It can fairly be said to originate with Nicolaus Steno in the mid-1600s. The Uniformitarian principle was established by Charles Lyell in the early 1800s. Evidence for events larger than those experienced personally by living geologists was forced into the mold of "gradualism".

Then in 1980 a classic, seminal document was published, and the extraordinary evidence that an asteroid had hit the earth and caused a catastrophic level of extinction—and wiped out the dinosaurs—changed geology forever. In a time period thousands of times longer than all of human civilization, things can happen that are thousands of times more severe than history records. As it turned out, a few small dinosaurs survived, to become today's birds. Another record of scarce survival emphasizes just how catastrophic the end-Cretaceous extinction really was.

On a hillside near Gubbio, Italy, there is a road cut where you can walk up to the sedimentary rocks that were laid down, at a very steady rate, right through the "Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary", or K-T boundary as it is called, 65 million years ago. The fossils in those fine-grained sediments tell quite a story. The critical "boundary" is marked by a thin, darker layer that happens to contain lots of extra heavy metals, particularly Iridium. Iridium means "extraterrestrial". It rode in on the asteroid. But the fossils tell of the effect on the living creatures of the time.

You won't find big shells there, just tiny "forams", less than a millimeter across. Magnified, they look like tiny snails, groups of soap bubbles, and decorated Christmas-tree ornaments. They are very distinctive. There are thousands of different kinds. They make up a large proportion of the sediment older than the K-T boundary. In the younger sediment, however, just adjacent to that iridium-rich, darker layer, there are just a few kinds of forams. Nearly all of the different kinds, perhaps 99 percent or more, simply don't exist in the younger sediments. The "few that made it through" are the ancestors of all later forams, including the ones living in today's oceans. This sudden disappearance of most of these tiny creatures makes it clear that catastrophes do sometimes occur.

The man who is most responsible for bringing about this second revolution is Walter Alvarez of UC Berkeley. He has spent so much time working in Italy over the past generation, that you could call Berkeley his vacation home. He wrote of the K-T extinction in 1997 in T. Rex and the Crater of Doom. In the years since, he has become involved in a third revolution. These three revolutions form the basis, more than the subject, of his newest book, The Mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the Geologic Events that Shaped our Earth. The early chapters of the book bring out what I hadn't known, that Dr. Alvarez and his co-workers in Italy provided some of the crucial evidence that led to the Plate Tectonic revolution that occurred just about the time I became a Geology major. The later chapters bring us to a third revolution, which I'll get to anon.

First, I, following our Author, need to introduce a few of the tools of the working geologist. Not the rock-hammer, backpack, or portable gravity meter, but the diagrams that guide our thinking. I'll show these using scans from the book, illustrations seen on pages 22, 53, 214, and 237. I've included the captions, though you may need to click on an image to see a larger version in which the caption is easily readable. The first intellectual tool is the Column.

The column shown here depicts not geology, but archaeology. Sometimes a column records the layers (the stratigraphy) found at one location. Others, such as this one, summarize information found over a larger area. Archaeologists do not draw diagrams such as this, but geologists do. This is geological thinking applied to the archaeology of Rome for the past 3,000 years. The primary column records historical events and evidence, and secondary columns show the water supply and human population. The time-scale, with "today" at the top, it the typical arrangement.

Geological columns show the sequence of rocks plus other indicators such as, for example, abundances of certain fossils, or a geochemical indicator such as salt content. But the rocks are primary, and are shown with various shadings or patterns. A collection of columns that follow a line through an area of interest can be drawn as a Section. A stratigraphic section is a kind of cartoon depicting what would be seen if you sliced through the earth along a line, whether straight or wandering.

This section, using information from outcrops and wells in a dozen or so locations, shows the rock layers, the stratigraphy, along a line that wraps through the southern half of the Capitoline Hill of Rome. The pale gray layer at the top labeled Archeology indicates the combination of buildings and accumulated debris that are the human contribution to the stratigraphy of this hill. Though the section is shown flat, the actual evidence was collected over a wandering line that wraps through the hill in a U shape. From bottom to top it shows the following, beginning with an ancient flood plain:
  • A layer of volcanic ash and "tuff" that filled the ancient Tiber valley
  • A cap of mudflows from reworking of the ash
  • Erosion that washed away material to the side more than the volcanics or mudflow remnants
  • An "ignimbrite", or fiery ashfall that covered the whole area to a rather uniform thickness
  • Erosion in some areas and lake sediments in others, followed by more erosion
  • Human occupation and construction
Where rocks don't conveniently crop out, and where wells don't reach, tools such as seismology are used to construct sections. Academic scientists can seldom afford costly tools such as seismology, which needs either lots of dynamite, or a fleet of "shaker trucks", to inject sonic signals into the rocks, plus long strings of "geophones", a type of microphone, to record the sounds that reflect from stuff "down there". But oil companies can afford it, and sometimes a state or nation will support such work. The composite of a lot of seismic information yielded the next section, which is early evidence for the third revolution going on:

The heavy black lines show thrust faults, which are one symptom of continental collision. If you push two blocky materials into one another, some stuff will ride up and over the top. But there are a few "normal" faults also shown, which came later and are in motion now. The indicate that things are being stretched instead of compressed. Now, we know that the Alps are still rising; Africa is still pushing Italy into the "belly" of Europe. Where could extension come from?

This map, which represents another great intellectual tool, is a summary of what is going on in and under Italy. During the first revolution in about 1970, the rocks and fossils of central Italy were used by Dr. Alvarez and his colleagues to pin down the timing of many crucial "magnetic reversals" that proved that the continents move. During the second, the scenario I outlined above, with iridium and forams, helped prove the asteroid impact at the K-T boundary. Now, the interesting configuration of the Apennine mountains themselves, the range that contains Dr. Alvarez's beloved "Mountains of St. Francis", is seen to be crossways to the trend of the Alps…with very good reason.

Not to spoil it all, I'll tell part of the story. When the Alps and early Apennines were thrust up, the crust thickened, not just above, but below. In fact, to push up a kilometer of mountains, one must push down, into Earth's viscous mantle, two or three kilometers of material. It is like an ice cube that floats only 20% above the surface, with the rest below. When deep crust is pushed more than forty kilometers or so into the mantle, its minerals are heated and squeezed into new minerals. Given the right composition, these new minerals are denser than the mantle is. In time, a big slab of these denser rocks will peel off the bottom of the crust and begin to sink toward the bottom of the mantle.

The lighter gray areas on this map show where such peeled-off slabs exist at depths as great as 600 km. They started out at a depth of less than 100 km. The sinking of such a slab causes horizontal motions in the mantle above it. This has led, in particular, to the extensional features that surround Rome and extend into Tuscany. These are the cause of the large normal (extensional) faults seen in the deep section above.

These ideas are a hint of what the book has to offer. The author takes us on several journeys, using his own career as one framework, and the geography and geology of Italy as another, to introduce all the great ideas that make up the profession of geology. Were I taking Geology now as a new student, I'd want this book to be the primary text for the course.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tales and tails of animal medicine

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, veterinary medicine, anthologies

Imagine the steadiness of hand needed to do eye surgery on a frog that would fit inside a human eye, the skills (& drills!) needed to perform a root canal for a hippopotamus, or the bravado of walking up to a fully awake one-ton crocodile to get scale scrapings and blood samples. In The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes: and Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients, edited by Lucy H. Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM, we find ourselves well beyond the cat/dog/horse/cow sort of veterinary medicine of James Herriot. In this volume, 28 zoological veterinarians record memorable stories of animals they've treated, both triumphs and failures, and the kind of innovative medicine that has frequently led to new methods for human medicine.

In the title account, a Sumatran white rhino had serious foot troubles. It turned out that the concrete and gravel paving of his zoo "home" was too harsh; he was used to swampy footing in which his entire broad foot carried his weight. The rough surface was wearing down his hooves. Now, a rhino has three hooves on each foot, analogous to horses' hooves, but where a horse has one hoofed toe per foot, the rhino has three. The vet's solution? With help of a farrier, they epoxied twelve custom-fitted horseshoes onto the critter's "toenails".

A zoological veterinarian might occasionally work on someone's pet, but that pet is more likely to be an iguana or goldfish than a housecat. Most often, they care for the animals held in zoos or in the wild, primarily wildlife reserves worldwide. In the wild, in particular, they are tasked with giving a medical "edge" to the most endangered species, delaying or averting their extinction.

Zoo vets get into some peculiar straits. When the dung beetles (scarabs) in a zoo exhibit got mites, it turned out the only way to help was to hand pick them (with little forceps) while holding the ungrateful beetles still. You can't use an insecticide to kill bugs on bugs! When a polar bear gets a hernia, of course you have to anesthetise him first, but then it takes a forklift to carry the limp patient to a specially-reinforced operating table. When an elephant has a wire snare caught on his leg, the easy part is getting it off; the hard part is tracking him for more than a week until you can get an anaesthetic dart into him.

While a most of the accounts tell us of successes, there were a few sadder stories. A lemur died, of causes still unknown. The tumor on a goldfish could not be totally excised, and chemotherapy was only partly successful, so it had to be returned to the owner with a less-than-happy prognosis, alive but not expected to live very long. When two sea dragons (like sea horses, but more decorative, and about a foot long) had their swim bladders damaged in transit to an aquarium, several innovative techniques failed to save their lives.

I couldn't help thinking that nearly all the suffering recorded here was due to the human arrogation of "managing" all the life on Earth. Several of the authors had similar thoughts. People tend to think they can just take over everything and "manage" it…and this is the best side of things! All too often, they don't think at all, just keep clearing land for more farms or factories. But it is like deciding to manage your own breathing. For a few seconds, to consciously breathe—in, out, in, out—might be exhilirating, but it would soon seem like the most deadly drudgery.

In the face of human "management", human arrogance, human greed and sometimes outright wickedness, zoo vets keep a few of the "collateral damage" victims healthier than they might have been.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alice in Pleistocene Park

kw: book reviews, science fiction, alternate history

How's this for a "what now?" moment: You're a filthy rich real estate deal maker, when you inherit the one truly unique estate on earth; it happens to be about eight times the size of Manhattan Island, and worth much more. Upkeep could make your fortune look like pocket change. Or how about: Eden isn't where you thought it was, it's still in existence, and the "angels" who guard it—a coterie of aging monks—have mostly traded in their swords for more up-to-date weaponry. Or this: Some of the immortal art and music of the great Masters just might have more of a foundation in fact than in the fantasy with which they are usually imputed. Have I given away too much?

Michael Tobias writes in a genre of his own. Hmmm. Perhaps it would be better to say, when he writes, he tends to create new genres on the spot. Chateau Beyond Time could be compared to The Da Vinci Code, with its ancient order of monks and skull-cracking puzzles, except these monks are the good guys…a whole lot "gooder" than you can imagine. It could also (partly for the puzzles) be compared to Ms Christie at her best. But the characteristic of the nonpareil is it really can't be fairly compared with anything.

I sort of expected a time travel novel. Sometimes I like those. Chateau isn't; call it more of a timeless persistency work. And timelessness is just what one wants in a refuge. This novel is about a Refuge with a capital R. There, that's enough.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tundra Tales

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, the arctic, autobiographies

In Shopping for Porcupine: Life in Arctic Alaska, Seth Kantner brings to us the Alaska he knew growing up, and the Alaska of today. They are two very different Alaskas, neither of which is familiar to vacationers. Seth was born and raised, and lives today, ten or more miles north of the Arctic Circle. That means, for a few weeks each year, the Sun doesn't rise, though the southern horizon glows orange for an hour or two even on Midwinter's Day. He calls those days Darkness, with a capital D. Sometimes, when it is hard to sleep around Midsummer's, when the Sun doesn't set, he longs for a bit of Darkness.

I thought at first that, Porcupine being the name of an Alaskan town, he'd be writing about provisioning his home there. But that town is never mentioned. Anyway, it is way, way too far south, being near Glacier Bay. No, he means "shopping" as in "hunting". Porcupines are good eating, and so slow that you don't waste a bullet on one, you just club it. But this comes later in the book.

The mainstay of people in the far north, those who live away from the sea, is the Caribou. When caribou aren't plentiful, for a few months in Winter, salmon and other fish one has netted and frozen away in early fall will tide over a family and their dogs. But caribou are the cattle of the northland. They thrive in conditions that are fatal to bovines. No wonder the Lapps "ranch" caribou, though they are called Reindeer in Lapland.

The book is filled with lore and landscapes. The author doesn't just love this mostly frozen land, he can't imagine living elsewhere. Now that he is a celebrated author, he has had to endure a few days here and there in places like Minneapolis or New York City. As he told a cabbie in New York, who said of Alaska, "I couldn't live like that," "People get used to different things."

And that is just the trouble. You get used to it, then it goes away. A full third of the chapters recount the ways Alaska has changed. There simply isn't a Subsistence way of life any more. The Eskimos, and those like Kantner who chose to live similarly, find it too easy to buy cotton-fleece-lined nylon windbreakers rather than sew a coat of animal hides with a wolverine ruff, though they need at least part-time jobs now, where before they didn't . The dogs are few, being replaced by snowmobiles, though some of the sleds they pull are still handmade.

The land itself is changing. Whether "global warming" is humanity's fault of not, it is a fact. The upper panel of this image was taken in 1965, by the author's mother. The lower panel in 2007, from nearly the same viewpoint, shows that warmer conditions allow shrubs and trees to grow tall, that were limited to a few inches before. In some places, the melting permafrost makes the land melt right out from under you.

The boy who grew up learning to drive dogs by age ten, helping catch the fish for overwintering, hunting almost everything that moved, living in a sod igloo (the ice ones are temporary shelters), and getting used to the nearest neighbors being miles away, now must work part time to buy things that replace what the land no longer yields, carries a cell phone (at least part of the time), and has learned to cope with his occasional visits to the Lower 48.

One who would seduce readers to dwell in his culture, at least in imagination, bears a heavy burden. Such a one must dwell enough in both worlds to know how to communicate with those who begin without the concepts to understand. Seth Kantner is just such a skilled translator, so that those of us who think sleety rain makes a cold day, can taste, just a bit, the land he loves best.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Updating Einstein

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cosmology

Prior to about ten years ago, there was a bit of trouble in cosmological circles…only a bit! About three-fourths of the matter of the Universe was "dark" or "unobserved". Then in 1998, the phenomenon that faraway exploding stars seemed to be too dim caused all hell to break loose: it seems that cosmic expansion is speeding up! Theorists have had a field day every since, and the current model accepted by a slight majority of cosmologists is that "dark energy" makes up 70% of the total mass-energy of the Universe, "dark matter" makes up 26%, and "ordinary matter" the stuff we can see with telescopes (visual, radio, x-ray, etc.), makes up just 4%.

The strange thing is, "dark energy" doesn't add to the gravitational pull on space that the matter, dark and otherwise, is exerting. Rather, it is counteracting it, and seems to have "recently" overcome it. But it isn't causing "local" gravity to reduce to any measurable extent.

This chart, cribbed from a homework assignment at Butler University, shows one piece of evidence for "dark matter". Retired professor John W. Moffat has devised a theory of gravity that doesn't need dark matter to explain the rotation function of our Galaxy, or any other. In his new book Reinventing Gravity: A Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein, he outlines his theory. His explanation is quite lucid without invoking any math. That's a good thing, because cosmological math is formidable.

I'll take it that he knows how to do his math. And he is not working alone. He has a number of collaborators, and together they've worked out a hypothesis he calls the Modification Of Gravity, or MOG. There are two parts to it. The first part makes the gravitational constant G not so constant; it depends on distance and total acceleration. The difference between the two curves above indicates that the dependence on distance must mean the effect is negligible over less than a few thousand parsecs (a parsec is 3.26 light years). Fortunately, the change is asymptotic, or over millions of light years it might grow sufficiently large to collapse the Universe in short order!

The second part of MOG is a fifth force, carried by a postulated new particle. Its dependence on distance is even more gradual, and it operates as a kind of antigravity to cause the universe's expansion to accelerate, as the supernova data indicate is happening. However, he will cheerfully drop this part of MOG if it is found that accelerated expansion is not really happening.

The first third of the book is a historical survey of cosmology and of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, or his Gravitational Relativity Theory. In particular, he dwells on the Copernican/Keplerian revolution that did away with the need to have Epicycles to explain the orbits of the planets. He thinks the proliferation of complex theories going on now are mostly "modern epicycles". I agree. A theory like "superstrings", that makes to testable predictions and can be formulated in an infinite number of ways, is no theory at all in my mind.

And I have my own question to ask about the supernova data. Type Ia supernovae are supposed to be "standard candles". They occur in a standard way: an aging star feeds mass to a companion white dwarf star, which finally collapses at a specific weight. This seems to be a function of the triggering mass and nothing else, but it is only assumed to be so. I have looked and looked, and have seen no report of a study to determine whether the brightness of Type Ia supernovae might depend on the metallicity of the aging star.

The very earliest stars were very pure H/He stars, and during their "main sequence" existence, they behaved differently than stars with larger amounts of heavier elements. Specifically, stars of any given mass that have more "metals" burn hotter. I wonder if, in the same way, the more "metallic" star stuff dumped on a white dwarf by a later-generation star might give its detonation more oomph, compared to the earliest-generation stars that we are seeing in these "accelerating universe" data. I don't believe Ia "standard candles" are all that "standard".

I am glad Dr. Moffat was able to get this book into print. So often, the "orthodox science" (what an oxymoron!) and its defenders keep dissenting views out of public view. This is too big (!) an issue to be kept under wraps. I don't understand Einstein or any of them in more than a "gut feel" way, but I am glad that bright people are laboring away to figure these things out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Memory lane on Hillside Lane

kw: musings, reminiscences

Today Google released a ton of new street-level imagery in their Google Maps application. It doubles the total coverage, and multiplies by eight or so the number of cities that have been significantly or fully imaged. They have spiffed up their interface, also, making the images easier to use.

This is the house I was living in fifty years ago. I lived here, on Hillside Lane in Salt Lake City, Utah, for five years prior to 1961, when we moved to Ohio. These were very formative years for me. My brothers and I won prizes in a couple of parades, we climbed all over the Wasatch Mountains that overshadow the area, we sat in cherry trees with an orchard owner's kids and ate ourselves silly every Summer, and we tied bedsheets to wagons and "sailed" up the street whenever there was a strong south wind. They were pretty good years. The orchard is gone now, all built over.

Our house was one of the first in the neighborhood, so we played in the brushy vacant lots, and sometimes in the partly-built houses on weekends. I was 13 when we moved away, and had just finished 8th grade, so my high school years were all in Ohio.

I looked, but the streets I lived on in Ohio haven't been visited by a Google photo-van yet. I'll look at them whenever they get added.

Monday, December 08, 2008

No wonder they wear dark glasses

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fashion, humor

Face it, if this guy had to look in the mirror without the shades on, he'd gag. That is the thesis of Daniel Billett, in Mistakes Men Make. As a sensible guy (just ask him), he looks all around him, and sees ample evidence that, no matter what our mothers told us, we weren't listening.

So he has produced a "Fashion 000001" manual for all those hopeless blokes who wear Speedos that are hard to find under the beer belly, or flowered shirts that make real flowers cringe, or mullets, or facial hair that a Chimp's own mother would bite right off his face, or bling that is meant to blind.

Wanna try on a Soul Spot just above your chin? Ty Pennington wears one sometimes. You got his looks? If so, go ahead. Otherwise, leave that idea somewhere West of the love beads you discarded twenty years ago (didn't you?).

You know who's going to read this book? All those guys that don't need it. Then their almost-best friends, who've peeked at a page here and there and said, "Oh, boy, John sure needs this!" will buy it for them, and hand it over in a colored bag from the dollar store saying, "Thought this might help." Then they'll go put on their Speedos and flip flops, load enough bling to half hide their man boobs, and go work on the wrong half of their tan.

To them, we are warm, walking fuel tanks

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, feeding habits

A word of caution: much of the book is not suitable for reading while you have your morning cereal. Sensitive souls may be subject to attacks of the heebie-jeebies.

Behold the visage of the Common Vampire Bat, by far the most common of the three bat species that consume only blood. Of more than 1,000 species, more than 2/3 eat only insects and most of the rest eat only fruit. Just three species consume blood, and they are among the smaller bats, weighing about two ounces (60 g).

Stories and natural history notes about vampire bats occupy the opening chapters of Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt. Graphics by Patricia J. Wynne complement the text. Once thought to be very similar, the three species are shown to be quite different. Whereas the Common Vampire Bat responds to handling by fighting and biting, the author reports that he has never been bitten by a White-Winged Vampire Bat. The Common species is the ground-walking species, the one that looks like a little creeping Dracula, complete with cape, when it walks over to a sleeping chicken or pig to commence feeding. Thus it is much more robust, and can leap almost a meter into the air if startled. The other species seldom walk on the ground, cannot leap, and usually attack birds in trees (feeding on their toes); so the latter are much less robust.

But the narrative is just getting going when the author bids farewell to bats and turns his attention to other blood feeders. The middle section of the book begins with a survey of vertebrate blood and the vertebrate blood system, and some comparisons to the hemolymph systems of arthropods (emphasizing lobsters over flies). He discusses the strange practice of bloodletting as practiced by doctors for two millennia (trivia question: what does the red stripe on a barber pole signify?) Then the narrative turns to leeches.

In one area leeches and vampire bats are similar: both have anti-clotting saliva, so that the victim loses much more blood after the feeder finishes, up to ten times. A chicken that has just "donated" an ounce of blood to a vampire bat may lose another five to ten ounces before the wound begins to heal. Chickens are big birds, but that's a lot of blood and not all survive the encounter.

Leeches are much easier to handle and maintain than bats, so when it is necessary to extract blood, they are still used medicinally. They are essential for certain kinds of surgery, such as reattachments, for which the enhanced blood flow they promote can ensure success. Leeches do have to be watched, however. There is at least one case of one creeping into the wound it was placed next to…you really don't want one of these left inside your body!

The book closes with shorter treatments of a variety of creepy "bugs", including bed bugs, ticks, and chiggers, and a short chapter on the candiru, a South American catfish the size of a small, narrow pencil. There is only one documented case of one "attacking" a urinating man and getting in where the sun won't shine, but one case (plus tons of folklore) is enough to make them a bit less popular than Piranhas.

There is no section on mosquitos, the blood-sucker with which suburban North Americans are most familiar. But they are mentioned here and there, throughout, including one note that someone dies of a mosquito-borne illness, usually malaria, every twelve seconds. The diseases "vectored" by blood-feeding animals is a giant subject in itself. About half of all entomologists worldwide are employed in public health related to diseases carried by blood-feeding insects. One-tenth of all childhood deaths, worldwide, are from malaria, and another tenth—or more—by other diseases primarily carried by biting insects.

A fascinating book. And, while I did read some of it over my breakfast, there was a time or two that I set it aside for reading later.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

It just makes a fella tired

kw: book reviews, short stories, rejects

I gave up in disgust after puzzling my way through one story, picking my way through two more, and playing hopscotch through the book looking for a story about someone who isn't a loser. These stories aren't just about losers, they are about banal, venal, sometimes-almost-criminal, too-apathetic-to-be-evil-but-they-would-if-they-could losers. I prefer to spend time with those who do better than that.

I can't say I learned nothing from this author: I learned I do have the gumption to discard a book rather than slavishly read every word regardless, which was my more youthful practice. I think I've grown.

Oh, by the way: Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Everthing is simple if you know the right answer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, complexity theory

Claudius Ptolemy was a genius. Observations of planetary motions were problematic. The common-sense view that Earth is fixed at the center of the Universe, coupled with the prejudice, left over from the Pythagoreans, that all motions in space depend on perfect circles, could not account for the occasional reversal of each planet's path. Ptolemy proclaimed that there was a major circle, the "deferent", which drove a smaller circle that the planet actually followed. This latter circle he called an "epicycle".

It seems strange that hardly anyone noticed that the epicycles seemed to be coupled somehow; that if two planets (e.g. Mars and Saturn) were in a similar quadrant of the sky, their back-loops occurred over the same period of time. A few who suggested that perhaps Earth was in motion about a center, so far unknown, or perhaps on an epicycle of its own, were ignored or silenced. The prevailing orthodoxy was not to be denied.

Soon this view ran into trouble. Better observations did not support steady motion on a deferent-plus-epicycle, so epicycles were added to the epicycles. By the time Tycho Brahe began to publish his great catalogs of stellar positions and planetary motions, it might take a stack of six or seven epicycles to account for the motion of Mars with an accuracy equal to the observations.

More than half a century before Brahe, Nicolaus Copernicus had proposed that Earth indeed moves, about the Sun, though he clung to perfect circular orbits for Earth and the planets. Thus, his scheme also required epicycles, though in lesser profusion. Based on Brahe's observations, Johannes Kepler determined that the basic form of planetary orbits is the ellipse, and the need for epicycles was almost eliminated.

Almost: If an ideal Earth orbits an ideal Sun in an otherwise empty Universe, the orbit is indeed an ellipse. But Earth's actual orbit is very slightly not an ellipse. Why? Perturbations. This is the modern word for "epicycle", you could say. The other planets, principally Venus, Mars and Jupiter, influence Earth's orbit, so orbital calculations are done by first using the current ellipse that Earth most closely follows, then adding these influences (these perturbations) to predict where Earth (or any body being calculated) will actually go.

However, the ellipse model is sufficiently accurate that many purposes are well served by using a pure ellipse, which predicts Earth's motion for several years into the future with remarkable accuracy (less than its own diameter).

The title premise of Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple), by Jeffrey Kluger, is not actually answered clearly within the book's pages. So I'll make short work of it: A simple thing that works "pretty well" can be made to work better by adding refinements. Refining beyond a certain point causes problems of its own. When a new principle is discovered, a new device can be produced that is both simpler and operates better than the prior device. Complications are eliminated…until the next time refinements are called for. Kluger demonstrates this with several good examples, so I won't fault him too much for the lack of a more succinct portrayal.

The first one, which hits home with me, is the Quark model of particle physics. In 1969 I quit studying Nuclear Physics and began to study Geology. I was tired of the "particle zoo" that numbered more than 100 by then, and there were fewer elements than that! I decided to follow a subject where I could go out and hit rocks. I've always liked hammers! Later that year, Murray Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize for Quarks, and about the time I got my degree in Geology, Physics departments everywhere were beginning to teach this new physics: six quarks plus six leptons interact via four (or five) bosons to make all other particles, only two of which are stable. This came too late for me. Anyway, I'd still rather mess around with rocks than with supercolliders.

The author introduces us to Gell-Mann and his quarks in a chapter on the stock market: "Why is the stock market so hard to predict?" The short answer to this question is the sociology of groups whose aversion to or tolerance of risk are not constant. We are short-term thinkers trying to live in a long-term civilization, and it'll be a long time before we evolve away from mob psychology. As a result, the stock market follows Cauchy statistics with amazing exactness. Of all probability distributions, the Cauchy distribution is wholly unpredictable. The average of past measurements affords you no (none, zero, zip, nada) information about the future trend.

He has a chapter on the lifetimes of mice, men and whales. Every chapter title is accompanied by a "confused by" sideline, and this one is "Confused by Scale". To compare accurately, you have to either compare captive mice and elephants to "civilized" humans, or compare wild mice and elephants to the most "primitive" tribal societies known. The simplifying parameter is heart rate. Wild mammals experience about a billion heartbeats, then die. "Civilized" mammals live about twice as long. Very elderly men and women are found to have lower-than-average heart rates.

This is the point the author has been leading to: The simplifying observation, such as the heart rate or the quark, or the ellipse. Then he begins to apply similar thoughts to cities, but I can't see that he completed the task. He applies Zipf's Law of word frequencies, a version of a power law distribution, to the sizes of cities and villages. Based on my own analysis (and the subject for a different post some time in the future), Zipf's Law does not hold for the entire distribution. A complete analysis leads me to the conclusion that word frequencies and city/village sizes are distributed according to lognormal statistics. The beginning of a lognormal distribution looks a lot like a power law distribution, which has misled many. But the point I was looking for, the lifetime of a city, was not addressed.

All in all, through ten chapters, the author probes various fields of knowledge and experience, and how each trips us up. Nature, for example, seems to produce very complex structures, but she does so by means of simple operations repeated again and again over a range of scales. Thus, a leafless tree is seen to resemble a small branch taken from that tree, except that the branch doesn't go into the same detail, stopping at the diameter of a twig.

This fractal property of many natural objects was first packaged and presented by Benoit Mandelbrot, who also discovered certain recursive mathematical procedures that can produce literally infinitely detailed structures, provided one has the leisure of letting one's computer crank away for infinite time! Self-similarity leads to many beautiful structures. It also accounts for the efficient way your lungs pack an air-filled structure with huge surface area into about a cubic foot, and, subject to a different space-filling principle, how your vascular system can bring blood to every cell in your body while only occupying three percent of its volume.

Finally, the eleventh chapter speeds the irresistible force (complexity theory) towards the immovable object (aesthetics). Why does one painting or photo move us deeply, while another, similar one does not, or even repels us? Why do we weep at one symphony and not another? A colleague once loaned me a music tape to listen to. When I returned it, I said I had enjoyed it and found it interesting. She said, "Interesting?! You are supposed to feel ecstasy!" All I could say was that I get my highs in a different genre. Can complexity theorists puzzle this one out? It is probably better that they don't try. Some things are better enjoyed than explained, like a good meal. A young cooking student was told by his chef/instructor, "I can make anything taste better." He asked, "How would you make salt taste better?" The reply: "By sprinkling it over a tender, medium-well steak!"

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

For love of creepy-crawlies

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, herpetology

An expert is someone who's gotten away with something risky a few times too many. D. Bruce Means is an expert on venomous snakes, someone lucky to be alive. He has been bitten twice by rattlesnakes, as he tells us in his recent book Stalking the Plumed Serpent and Other Adventures in Herpetology. He has also handled the two Taipan species that are the two most dangerous snakes in the world, with venom that is fifty and ninety times as potent as rattlesnake venom. Good thing he avoided their bites!

The book is a series of disjoint episodes drawn from the last thirty or more years of his explorations, scientific and otherwise. While the focus of his expertise is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, he is fascinated by "herps" of all kinds. Herpetology is the study of both reptiles and amphibians, and the chapters give almost as much space to frogs and salamanders as they to to snakes, lizards and turtles. One short chapter presents the Cotton Rat, the main prey species, not just of eastern rattlers, but of hawks and owls, skunks and opossums, and every kind of snake big enough to engulf one.

The title chapter concerns his trek through Maya country in southern Mexico in search of the Tzabcan rattler, the snake that he thinks is the model for the "feathered serpent" or Quetzalcoatl / Kukulcan. In some inscriptions, the feathered serpent has a rattle and diamond markings, and some Mayan artwork has a diamond background pattern that probably harks back to the snake's markings. There are other rattler species found in southern Mexico, but the Tzabcan is the most impressive.

If you get "out there" enough, you're going to discover something. Dr. Means's discoveries are indeed significant. Many years ago he determined that a population of king snakes in Florida was distinct from others, and the Apalichicola Lowlands King Snake was subsequently named for him: Lampropeltis getula meansi. He was the first to document, in Queensland, Australia, cases of tree frogs that eat young bats…bats usually are the eaters of small frogs. And he discovered the biodiversity hotspots atop tepuis (very high mesa-like prominences) in South America. These are hard to get to, hard to document, and at the moment, equally hard to persuade anybody like National Geographic or the Discovery Channel to film. (By the way, tepuis provided the model for Doyle's The Lost World, which in no way resembles later writing by Mike Crichton).

He also determined the source of the "aggressive" reputation of the Cottonmouth, which many people claims will chase right after you. If you get between one of these snakes and its water hole, it will threaten you, then head right for its hideaway. If you back off, it will seem to follow you. But if you jump to the side, it will continue straight to safety. If you manage to stand your ground (be sure to wear thick knee boots!), it will crawl right over or past your feet to get to its safe spot. Other snakes exhibit the same behavior. I suppose they expect you to be momentarily frozen.

Late in the book, where he is writing about his adventures in Australia, the author gets rather boastful. Some of his adventures were as boneheaded as anything I have read. I can't imagine someone of his experience, having barely survived two rattler bites, going unaccompanied to handle—by hand!—the Fiercey. It beggars belief! Every three or four years I read of an experienced herpetologist getting a fatal bite, sometimes right in the zoo where he works (I've not read of any female herpetologists getting killed thus). If you've read the book of Proverbs, you know that it uses the word "fool" about a hundred times. Ninety of those, the Hebrew word really meand "over-confident". Bruce, you dear fool, take a friend along, OK?