Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The alienness of self

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

In my short list of all-time favorites, Vernor Vinge has become my second-most-favorite SciFi author. As his writing career gets into its 45th year, he continues to write stories of space, time and aliens that probe our humanness and our understanding of reality more keenly than anyone else alive. The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, edited by himself, brings together stories from throughout his career, from 1965 to 2001, the date of publication.

Vinge's ideas range wide, and he seems to have a unique new idea for each story:
  • "Bookworm, Run!" – At a super-secret installation, a chimpanzee is coupled with computer hardware and a massive database, and becomes nearly superhuman. What will a human become, given the same treatment?
  • The Accomplice – Vinge correctly extrapolated Moore's Law for three decades into the future, leading to computer animation techniques much as we have them today, though a little different socially. Also anticipated that we'd all have the power of a supercomputer at our fingertips after ten or so more years…and we do.
  • The Peddler's Apprentice – Written with his wife Joan, this story partakes a bit of the "Highlander" theme, or "Brigadoon" writ small: a man skipping through time, experiencing a month or so in one millennium, then on to the next. But this time he has a huge, unexpected shift in the social system to cope with.
  • The Ungoverned – Can actual social anarchy work? A possible way to an affirmative answer.
  • Long Shot – To get to Alpha Centauri in 100,000 years, an average velocity of about 6 miles per second is required. Keeping a computing device operating over that time is a significant problem; keeping a biological payload viable even more so.
  • Apartness – Several of Vinge's stories are set in a post-Northern-apocalypse world. Here old hatreds take an interesting turn.
  • Conquest by Default – Aliens have arrived in this same world. The "assimilation" of the Cherokee provides the model, and an attempt to do things differently illuminates the "American ethnic cleansing" that took place. Told from the point of view of an alien anthropologist.
This is a little less than half the book, and has included stories as late as 1985.

Monday, June 29, 2009

If all myths die, what do we have left?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, theology

I must confess this one is simply too intellectual for me. I could not finish Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World by Vinoth Ramachandra with any expediency. In ten days of reading I got halfway through. I'll review what I did read, and finish the book at a more leisurely pace, reading others in parallel. I really don't want to miss any of it.

The first three of six chapters discuss myths of Terrorism, of Religious Violence, and of Human Rights. The basic question to ask about Terrorism is: "Why is the terrorist always the other guy?" In the author's eyes, "shock and awe" are simply terrorism writ large. After a discussion of the basis for war, and whether there can ever be a "just war" (No), the author points out that self defense is sometimes required, if suboptimal. But "national defense" always seems to be carried out as "the best defense is a strong offense". As my Dad taught me, "Never start a fight. Just be sure you finish it."

In the second chapter, as the author makes refreshingly clear (and why are so few saying this), while "religious" violence does occur, by far the most heinous acts of mass violence were perpetrated atheistically, and frequently against the religious. According to what I know of "church history", the great abuses of Medieval Catholicism were perpetrated for political, not religious motives, by Popes who mouthed religious slogans but were themselves atheistic. But their abuses pale against the three greatest mass murders of history, perpetrated by Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Not many know that the Christian holocaust in all three cases exceeded that of the Jews or any other identifiable group, or that half of Christian martyrdoms exceeding a million victims each occurred since the year 1900.

In the third, rights are seen to be rooted in the Biblical truth that humans bear God's image. Liberal language notwithstanding, without belief in God, there is no reason to suppose the rights of all ought to be equal. Indeed, attempts to skew or remove the rights of the poor come from both right and left wings of the political spectrum, those for whom their adherence to a political ideology exceeds their devotion to any faith.

In time, I hope to complete reviewing the rest of the book. Although I am more conservative than the author, I find myself powerfully affected by his strong, if difficultly worded, theological views.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Maybe aging can be stopped, if that is what you want

kw: observations, medicine, aging

This little girl is sixteen years old. I saw a TV special about her last evening. Brooke Greenberg is a wholly unique person, so far as is known. She hasn't aged significantly since shortly after birth. She weighs about 15 pounds (7kg) and has the physical and mental development of a 6- to 9-month old. An ordinary sixteen-year-old has learned to drive; Brooke cannot walk or speak.

There is a ton of material available about her, which I don't need to repeat here. On the TV show her father expressed the hope that something about her might unlock the secret of aging, and perhaps lead to a "fountain of youth." I find this most intriguing. If this is the fountain of youth, I am not sure it is worth having: to be unable to grow means to be unable to learn. I am sure if Brooke were capable of understanding things, she would prefer to be a more ordinary 16-year-old. Her family evidently agrees; a doctor they contacted tried dosing her with human growth hormone. The astonishing thing is that it had no effect at all.

That, by the way, may be the clue staring us in the face. If she lacks receptors for that hormone, then her body and brain just aren't getting the signal to develop further. A single defective gene or a small cluster of defective genes, needed to form the HGH receptor, could do the trick.

There is some evidence that HGH is part of the signaling network that forms memories. Cut the hormone off, and you may not age, but you won't remember anything new either. If that is the case, the price of "eternal youth" is too high.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

We are made of poison

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemics, chemistry, toxins

I would call The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being, by Nena Baker, required reading on a level with Silent Spring. We are no longer dependent on the "canaries in the coal mine" to indicate our risk; we are ourselves losing our "song".

The developed world has had a hundred-year love affair with chemical conveniences, and now we can see that they are false lovers. For a window into your own risk, go to CDC's biomonitoring project and download the Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, or its summary; both are free downloads in pdf format.

Ms Baker is wise enough to focus on just five bad actors that are currently found in the environments, and bodies, of nearly every American resident: atrazine (an herbicide), phthalates (plasticizers in cosmetics), PBDE's (fire retardants), Bisphenol A (main component of polycarbonate food containers), and perfluorinated chemicals (surfactants).

Her treatment is the same in the chapter devoted to each of these classes of chemical: a saga, that gets repetitive, of the attempt by scientists to publicize alarming, even scandalous results about the risks of a chemical material, and the heavy-handed lobbying effort by manufacturers to discredit them and persuade regulators that "Nothing is wrong; just trust us." Amazingly, regulators in the US do so with numbing regularity.

There is a ray of hope in Europe, which two years ago legislated REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemical substances). Other areas of the developed world are taking their cue from REACH, including Canada. The U.S. is suddenly the lagging black sheep! I wonder if even shame can reach the shameless at this point. Because the problem is, carrying out these regulations will make the prices of many things go up.

Let's take a quick look at two toxins we all carry. The average Western person has a "body burden" of about 20 parts per trillion (ppT) of a perfluorinated chemical called PFOS. It is found in the older version of ScotchGuard. This stuff has the chemical formula C8HF17O3S, and a molar mass of 500 (keep this number in mind). What does 20 ppT mean?

The number of somatic cells in a human body is between 100 trillion and 200 trillion. The average cell's mass is half a nanogram, or 5x10-10g. The number of nucleons (protons and neutrons) in a gram is just over 6x1023. Multiply these two, and the number of nucleons in an average human cell is about 3x1014, or 300 trillion. Thus one ppT of the human cell would be the mass of 300 nucleons. If a substance has a molar mass of 300, and exists in you at a level of one ppT, then on average each cell in the body contains one molecule of that substance. With me so far?

Now we can puzzle out PFOS: 20x300/500 = 12. Every cell in your body contains about twelve molecules of PFOS. That might sound like a lot, but it probably isn't doing much; there are millions of copies of many enzymes in each of your cells.

But let's look at another bad actor that the author doesn't mention: OCDD, the most common dioxin. Dioxins are the most toxic small molecules known. According to the Third National Report mentioned above, the amount of OCDD in the fat cells ("lipids") of Americans ranges from 1,000 to 1,600 ppT, or 1-1.6 parts per billion (ppB). OCDD has a molar mass of 460, so there are 655 molecules per fat cell, though many fewer in other kinds of cells.

I realize that even 650 molecules of a dioxin isn't really very much, but numbers like that are a tad uncomfortable. Though I work in the chemical field, I am all for my company and others finding alternatives for the worst chemicals in use today, alternatives that are less risky. What will drive up the cost is not the work to find the alternatives, but the work to test them. That's where we need national backing for REACH-type regulations in America.

In my indexing I use the term "polemic". A polemic is not necessarily bad; Silent Spring is a polemic also. Polemic language is intended to wake people up and stir them to action. The Body Toxic can do so, and I hope it does.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Don't dump old drives!

kw: observations, recycling, computer security

A local PBS station, WHYY in Philadelphia, had a segment on Frontline/World last evening about e-waste and electronics recycling. When old electronics go to a "recycler", they are likely to wind up in a place such as Ghana or southern China, where two main industries flourish on our waste.

Firstly, the metals are reclaimed. This is done by burning the plastics off the metals and reclaiming iron and copper. Magnets from old speakers are used to sift through debris for iron bits that would otherwise be missed. Circuit boards usually get special treatment: they are cooked to remove the chips, which often contain gold in their traces (internal wiring) or contacts.

Secondly, the disk drives are put up for sale. Some are used to upgrade local computers, but many are plundered for their remaining data. Even if the files have been "erased", their content is still sitting on the disk, and "file recovery" or "unerase" programs can reconnect the data with the file's header in the folder. There was a disturbing sequence showing how easy it was for a technician to read personal information from a discarded hard drive.

People, if you are going to discard an old computer, first go to fileshredder.org and download FileShredder. Run it against everything it will let you shred. Then it might be safe to discard the hardware. If you want to be really sure, remove the hard drive and either keep it or remove its top and pour in a spoonful of Comet® cleanser (abrasive)…or just smash the platters with a hammer.

These are some of the old disk drives I've kept. Their sizes are 40Mby, 511Mby, and 2.5Gby, from left to right. I took the top off the 511Mby one to show the platters and reading head. In the closeup below you ought to be able to see that this one has two platters. There are four heads to cover the four surfaces on which data goes.

Back when 40Mby was a lot of disk, I managed to fill the first one pretty full. I haven't opened it to see how many platters there are, but I suspect it is either three or two. I find it amazing that my son just bought, for less than $100, a disk drive that holds a Terabyte; that's 25,000 times the capacity. One drive I don't show is a disk pack from a CDC 6400, a removable pack that holds 50Mby; it is more than a foot in diameter and seven inches tall. I'm pretty safe with it; the drive needed to read it doesn't exist any more.

Before I stopped using each computer, I copied all the data to its replacement machine. We have one more old machine that we will discard, maybe soon. I've already copied the data to a newer machine's secondary drive. I've gotten smarter over the years, and now keep most data on an external drive. Whenever I move a block of files to it, I back them up to a DVD. That way I have all our documents since we began using home computers in the early 1980s. But I don't let copies of old data get out of doors! And neither should you!!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Let's get this epic over with

kw: book reviews, fantasy, anthologies

A cousin of mine calls it "Thud and Blunder", the genre of sword-and-sorcery, impossible quests, mighty heroes, and supernatural conquests. The most recent epic series is the Harry Potter novels. The very word "epic" makes me think of interminable narratives, plots that always have a new twist (that is, a new reason for putting off the ending), and a villain who just keeps getting worse.

A couple of clever editors, David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi, have turned all this on its head. Maybe we should blame the editors of Readers' Digest Condensed Books, or maybe those masters of parody who can produce a ten-page piece that skims through all the tropes of a well-known work and renders them in hilarious caricature (Bored of the Rings comes to mind). What if the skimming technique is wielded seriously (or half-)? You get my most recent curiosity pick, Twenty Epics, edited by Moles and Groppi.

The writers of these mini-epics (that's a new oxymoron, folks), not having the leisure of a few thousand pages, seek evoke the atmosphere of an epic fantasy in a handful of pages. Most succeed. Twenty "epics" in 363 pages (minus two pages per item, of title material) leaves about sixteen pages each. The actual pieces range from two to 32 pages in length.

Just one or two actually evoke the environment of a classic epic adventure. Some bring the genre up-to-date with crack-head heroes or microscope-wielding, only slightly magical scientists in place of wizards, and some take it into purported futures. I suppose this could be extended to the X-Files or Men in Black sort of popular series: semi-epics in alien spaces.

Why is there a market for mini-epic treatment of archetypical themes? I think it has to do with Western impatience, coupled with a philosophy recently reiterated by Bill Murray, "Baby steps, dude, baby steps." Just consider the modern versions of education, both academic and martial, compared to their predecessors.

There was a time, lasting centuries, that anyone who became highly educated had begun by learning the ABC's from his (rarely her) father, or sometimes from a hired tutor. Then, using whatever books were available, a long period of self-study would, with luck, culminate with a tenure of several years at some university, usually sponsored by a nobelman. Acceptance of one's thesis brought one the title of Doctor ("teacher"). To this day, acceptance at an institution such as Oxford means one is expected to study on one's own, attend lectures according to a self-chosen scheme, and present a dissertation at some ill-defined date. But in most of the West, we have the the following:
  • Primary or "grammar" school (6-7 years), sometimes broken up into K-3 & 4-6.
  • Secondary school, usually broken up into 7-9 & 10-12 or 7-8 & 9-12.
  • College, often pursued as Junior College leading to an AA, then "real" college leading to a BA or BS.
  • Graduate School, usually an MA or MS followed by a DSci or PhD (or MD or JD or LLD).
That is four to eight stages that have replaced a two- or three-stage process. Then, in Japan one used to study Karate or Judo for four to six years before getting the first belt, a first degree (ichidan) "Black Belt". Ichidan is still, in Japan, the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree. But when I studied Judo in the 1950s, a series of belts resulted: green (1-2 years), brown (1-2 more), then black (2-4 more). And now, one dojo I know has the series yellow, light blue, green, dark blue, orange, brown, purple, black. Also, one no longer needs to dwell at a belt level for a year; I know a couple of 11-year-old "black belts", but they are really no more than halfway to the skills required for a genuine Japanese black belt. In this case, the scale has been both sliced into baby steps and dumbed down.

A few of the Twenty Epics make imaginative demands on the reader. One of note is the opening piece, "Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms" by Christopher Rowe. Just two pages long, it evokes a mighty duel with an unexpected outcome, and leaves a tag for future mischief. I came away from reading the story with a growing feeling that I'd read something much longer and more detailed. Now that's great writing.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The doctor and the planet

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

The third novel in the omnibus volume Beginning Operations by James White, Major Operation, opens with a careful doctor suddenly becoming error-prone. This leads to the discovery that an instrument in the operating room is either illusory or malleable in shape. Eventually, a mind-malleable "tool" is found that in some way came with a patient, an explorer who'd briefly landed on an odd planet called Meatball.

One may think that this mystery has tested Dr. Conway to the limit; it has certainly tested the quality of his relationship with the psychologist, O'Mara…but everything seems to test that. But to the author, it is just a warming-up exercise. Soon Conway, his favorite nurse Murchison (whom, we find almost accidentally, he has married) and a collection of military pilots and aides are at Meatball, where two intelligent species are contacted, although "contact" is stretching the point when the sentient creature in question is the size of Florida or India.

The continental-scale creatures happen to be suffering from radiation poisoning caused by the new technology of the other species. They've been using atomic bombs to clear areas they wish to settle. The bulk of the book details the double effort to perform continental-scale surgery—taken up by a military force under Conway's orders—while Conway himself burrows into the creature to make more definite contact and elicit cooperation. I can't imagine what kind of challenge might top this one, but the author has a better imagination than I do: after this 1971 novel, he published nine more until his death in 1999.

Having gotten a grounding in the Sector General universe, I find several ideas that seem to be unique to James White. First is a well-worked out classification scheme for sentient species. It revolves around a four-letter code, and is explained at least once in each novel (of these three). The major elements are these:
  • The first letter denotes the physical evolution, such as oxygen-breathing (like terrestrial animal life), water-breathing (fishlike), chlorine-breathing, and several other classifications such as superheated steam-breathing, plus the "ESP" catch-all V, for telepathic species, whatever they breathe.
  • The second letter indicates the type, number and distribution of limbs (arms, legs, tentacles, wings, etc.).
  • The other two letters classify the diet/metabolism and gravity/pressure requirements.
On this scale, earth humans are DBDG, although so are red-furred, bearlike (though upright) folks; AUGL refers to brainy, armored fishes the size of whale sharks. A mosquitolike empath that could have been classified with the Ixxx series, instead is a VDLG.

Second is creative use of gravity. Many writers make use of a technology that creates artificial, tunable gravity, many use force fields for repelling asteroids and other space junk, and still more imagine "tractor beams" that can attract or attach. White makes all three the product of the same technology, and provides the Rattler, a technique for rapidly switching between attractive and repulsive forces, with intensities up to 100G. It can be used to tear pieces off an enemy ship, for example, or to shake the whole ship and rattle the brains of its occupants. It is also useful for mincing almost any material. For a while it seemed the rattler violated Newton's third law, but in a late scene, the mountings of a rattler installation are being damaged, indicating that the forces felt at the "end" of the "beam" are transmitted to its source. That means you have to be heavier and stronger than something you want to shake to pieces.

Finally, the Federation culture is whole-heartedly pacifist, and its many species seem to be trained in xenophilic ways, so that Dr. Conway and the others can work with big mosquitos, six-legged elephants, hallway-filling caterpillars, brainy squids, and many-legged, chlorine-breathing aliens that most authors would dub "horrors," but who are here called "colleagues". A most amusing sequence from the second novel (Star Surgeon) involves a prune-like telepath (also prune size), whose "space suit" bears quite a resemblance to a mayonnaise jar, who is attempting to evoke the latent telepathic and teleporting talents of a brontosaurian specimen of minimal IQ. Dr. Conway must cope with the itch in his head from the telepath's attempts to "encourage" his subject. Later he learns to dodge a teleporting brontosaur who is learning to control his new skills.

One detail I find odd: to get from one section of the hospital satellite to another, one might need to pass through various environments, donning various protective suits along the way. I think it would be cheaper to have sets of parallel corridors between like environments, so that a chlorine-breathing doctor need never leave a chlorine atmosphere until her services are needed in a non-chlorine environment. And so forth.

All of the individual Sector General novels are out of print. A quick look at Amazon shows that there are several omnibus volumes that cover most of the titles, and plenty of used copies for sale. For reference of the enthusiast, the twelve Sector General titles are: Hospital Station (1962), Star Surgeon (1963), Major Operation (1971), Ambulance Ship (1979), Sector General (1983), Star Healer (1985), Code Blue—Emergency (1992), The Genocidal Healer (1992), The Galactic Gourmet (1996), Final Diagnosis (1997), Mind Changer (1998), and Double Contact (1999).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A builder's success

kw: little mysteries, computers

A few days ago, building a new computer, my son and I had reached an impasse. The motherboard would only turn on the power supply when it was outside the case. To this point, diagnosis had proceeded by shorting various pins together. When installed in the case and connected up, nothing would happen.

We removed everything from the case, and I got out a multimeter and began checking, from the wall plug inward. I verified that the power cord is OK, then found that, when isolated from everything but one system fan, the power supply was operating. However, this time I noted that the fan ran slowly (before, we'd just been excited that it turned at all), and that an LED on the fan (a decorative item) lit up dimly. Inspecting the power supply, I found a red slide switch with "230" clearly displayed. I slid it over to display "115", re-checked, and the fan ran at a more normal speed, plus the LED shone brightly. We'd been testing with the voltage set wrong!

Then we found that the power-on/power LED connection to the motherboard was back-wired. Once we turned the plug around, the motherboard fired up and soon it beeped. It was booting up! Back in the case, though, it was inert.

We bought nylon screws and nuts and made insulating washers out of acrylic material (a viewgraph blank). Finally, with everything connected, including a monitor, we got the computer to boot up and request the system disk. Since then, things have gone smoothly, with only one glitch: Once Windows Vista was installed, and the video drivers loaded, Vista has a program for tuning the system and determining its "Experience Factor". The program stress tests the CPU, memory and video card. The power supply cut out in the middle of this test! We took a break at the local Five Guys and had a burger. That was my Father's Day dinner.

When we returned, we hit the start button, hopefully, and the machine booted. The power supply, as I hoped, has a thermal breaker, and had reset itself. We did the stress test while the power supply was still cold, and everything worked. This PS is 450 watts, and I did find literature on the Web that recommends using a 500W PS with this motherboard/CPU/video combination. If the power supply gets in the habit of cutting out, we'll replace the power supply with one that supplies 580 watts, the largest one compatible with the case.

  • Insulate the motherboard from the case.
  • Make sure plugs are the right way 'round. Most of the plugs only go one way, but the smaller ones can go either way, and polarization still matters. The documentation is not as clear as I'd like.
  • Verify the voltage setting on the power supply.
  • Make sure the motherboard-plus-CPU boots up before putting it in the case.
  • It is possible to straighten bent pins, but if the CPU won't simply fall into its socket, something is wrong, so check the socket (count pins to blanks if needed), and make sure all pins are straight from the get-go.
  • These components are amazingly robust. We made several serious mistakes, but wound up with a running computer.
  • Finally, there are no economies to building a computer. Dell, Gateway and others pay a lot less for components, so much less that they can build the computer to order and still charge less than you'd pay for components. But when you are done it is your machine!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Space doctor strikes again

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

In the second book in James White's Sector General series, Star Surgeon, the Conway and O'Mara show leads to war (See my earlier post for background information on the series). The 1963 novel begins with the well-established space hospital, Sector 12 General, fully functional, staffed by members of most of the eighty space-faring species of the Federation (I don't suppose the Federation found in the Star Trek universe is based on this one, but it may be).

The novel opens with a new patient, a new problem to be solved: an apparent criminal, who is suspected of killing and eating a companion, his ship's physician. But the patient is unconscious, or at least unresponsive, though an empath reports that somebody is definitely alert. The patient has some kind of skin condition, which eventually provides the clue to what is going on. Attempts to cure the condition, or to remove affected skin, are startlingly unsuccessful. Finding out the real situation is the key to curing this being's condition and determining that, far from having eaten his physician, he has assimilated him: his doctor, a collective being made of virus-sized particles, dwells inside him.

This patient, named Lonvellin, is of a very long-lived species whose members live singly, find planets with major problems, and solve those problems, though they do it with a long-term view to raising the planetary culture another notch or two, and do so very slowly so as not to disrupt things.

Lonvellin bites off more than he can chew. The planet he lands on is xenophobic in the extreme, and he is attacked. The residents are very much like Earth humans, so he asks for help from the Federation, and Conway in particular. Humans are able to make contact without violent repercussions, at first. The xenophobia turns out to be mainly related to imperial politics, and the Emperor, the real cause of the planet's problems, declares war on the Federation and sends a multi-planet space navy to attack Sector General.

The bulk of the novel follows the progress of the war, and of the efforts of Conway and his colleagues to restore casualties of many species to fighting health. His own sympathy for patients leads inadvertently to a diplomatic breakthrough that leads to a cease-fire and eventual end of hostilities. Sometimes, a man who can cry is the best kind.

This sort of very human SciFi story is the reason I became enamored of the genre nearly fifty years ago.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The doctor is most definitely in

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

James White aspired to study medicine, but circumstances prevented it. Instead, he wrote about it, from 1957 until his death in 1999. The first novel of his Sector General series was initially published as five short and not-so-short stories, then glued (edited) together and published as Hospital Station in 1962. A few years ago Hospital Station and two other books in the series were published in an omnibus volume. I'll review the three in separate posts.

Hospital Station opens with a certain O'Mara trying to babysit a gigantic alien infant. He gradually learns how to care for it, including rigging up a series of large weights he can drop on it so as to "pet" it and fulfill its need for loving contact. He feeds it with a paint sprayer…

O'Mara has a problem. He is built like a Mafia enforcer, and in spite of great intelligence, tends to get the rough construction jobs. In a roundabout way, he becomes a psychologist, which sets off his career and its most successful mentorship, grooming Conway into a useful physician and guiding his career.

The setting of the story is, at first, the construction site of a huge space station in a remote corner of the Galaxy, a station that will serve as a multi-species hospital. It takes the financial resources of more than eighty space-faring species to support it, and in this setting, Conway and his colleagues are faced with one unique medical puzzle after another. At one point, Conway treats a being who is considered a deity, not realizing that the alien has its personal physician resident within. It takes a while for the two doctors to "discover" one another and cooperate in curing the patient.

The image of a cooperative between alien species is a refreshing alternative to the usually xenophobic treatment of alien relations. The only prior work with such a positive outlook is the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith, upon which I cut my literary teeth. Where Smith has roughly an even mix of good and hostile aliens, White has few genuinely bad aliens. Even where a war occurs, it is the result more of a misunderstanding than of evil intent.

At the end of Hospital Station, Conway is a Senior Physician, well on his way to becoming an elite Diagnostician. In the meantime, he and O'Mara build an affectionate relationship founded on an equal mixture of charm and insult. It's a guy thing. Conway's favorite colleague, however, is an insectile alien named Prilicla, whose great value is its telempathy: it knows what those around it are feeling, even when they are semi-conscious and cannot respond in ordinary ways.

I was once told by a veterinarian that they ought to be paid more than doctors, saying, "An ordinary doctor has only one species to cope with!" The Sector General universe, as envisioned by James White, is veterinary medicine writ large.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A builder's trials

kw: little mysteries, computers

A process that typically takes two hours has so far not been completed over two weeks. This image shows one of two pins I bent when trying to insert a CPU into the wrong socket. I am allegedly helping my son build a computer. The part numbers of motherboards are frequently obscure, and we didn't buy the right one. We had to count pins to determine the incompatibility.

In the meantime, we had a possibly dead CPU. The pin at the center of the photo is actually almost straight, but has a bend in its middle. A couple of hours earlier, it was bent over against the neighboring pin to the left. Realizing the CPU could not be any deader, we decided to straighten the bent pins. In the meantime, we sent back the motherboard and purchased one with the right socket.

Fortunately, I have two sets of jewelers' screwdrivers. The smallest one was just the right size to get under the bent-over pins and pull them upright again. Then, using the smallest blade in each set like two-handed tweezers, my son and I took turns under the microscope gradually pressing the bend out of the middle of each bent pin. We finished up with a method we learned at Wikihow, sliding a credit card between rows of pins to get them all lined up and even again.

Once the replacement motherboard arrived, it took but a moment to mount the CPU in its socket. It literally dropped in, so we realized that "ZIF" really does mean "zero insertion force". Then we mounted all the components into the case, attached keyboard/mouse and monitor, and applied power.

Nothing. With the help of a technician we called, we determined that the power supply is OK, and that the motherboard and CPU are actually OK. They boot up when sitting on the table, just cabled to the power supply. We decided to insulate the bottom of the motherboard and remount it in the case.

Nothing. That is the point we are at. I'd hoped to report success, and have this be a posting about the robustness of a CPU, that straightening pins works. Well, I can report that, but we're crushed that somehow the motherboard is still shorting to the case and won't start up the power supply. It looks like I'll have to get the technician to clean up after us. We're stumped. What a sorry way to end a post!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Are we all just followers?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, social trends

There are many kinds of ant, and certain caterpillars, that follow pheromone trails. They can be found going from place to place, marching in lines. If you divert one member of the group from the trail, and quickly erase some of the trail ahead, wiping with a wet finger for example, you can sometimes coax the new "leader" to follow a circular path until it, and the members following, are going in a closed loop. As they go 'round and 'round, the pheromone trail gets stronger, for each member adds a bit as it goes. It has been said that such a loop will follow itself until they starve, but this is unlikely. Nonetheless, they will circle about for quite a long time. This has been proposed as a model of society. All following, but effectively leaderless. Most "leaders" that do rise up are found to be following things like polls, and are thus part of the leaderless circle themselves.

Put this thought together with chaos theory and its "butterfly effect" and you have the background for Bellwether, by Connie Willis. I found it a real page-turner, as is usual for her work. The title comes from a large section of the book in which researchers who cannot obtain monkeys for their research, substitute sheep. A clerk who was raised on a sheep farm tells them how the sheep will follow one that is a little bit hungrier and more aggressive, but only a little bit, and that this one is the bellwether. Lead it and you lead the flock.

Embedded in this environment, we find a number (at least two) talented researchers living in a ghastly, novel-length Dilbert cartoon, with a clueless boss labeled Management, colleagues who are either too self absorbed to get any work done (but quick with the TLA's – that's Three Letter Acronyms) or too predatory to spend time doing anything other than writing grant applications or figuring out how to write them more effectively.

Layered on top of that we find a love story with an amusing triangle situation, or maybe it is a quadrangle… plus a perverse guardian angel/demon and a host of lesser demons. And the top layer? Science progresses in as random a fashion as natural selection does. A researcher who is trying to track social trends (the author's First Person) finds that they are often sourceless, as hard to ascertain as the identity of the bellwether in a flock. Her colleague O'Reilly, a chaos theorist, is trying to teach a new skill to a sheep, and see if the others will learn it. He gets exactly nowhere, as you'd expect of sheep. Though when the bellwether finds out how to unlock the paddock, a seeming new force of nature is unleashed in the corporate halls.

The author is well read, and the novel abounds with literary allusions and historical references. This is a good thing (It was one element that made the original Star Trek series so entertaining: Kirk and a few others had a good education that showed). The corollary of "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" is "those who learn from others' mistakes are free to make new and improved mistakes." But all science progresses from an encounter with the unexpected, the surprise that prompts a "Now where did that come from?"

I just have to tell this, for it is so in keeping with the way this long Dilbert cartoon unfolds. I once produced a piece of mapping software that was as close as you can get to the ideal oil exploration manager's dream: a green blob that begs, "Drill Here!" I got to demo it at several exploration offices, and in one place, a fellow began to label the green blogs, saying, "OK, this one is the X field and that one is Y…but what is that?" I replied, "I don't know, but it probably means money." Can you guess the result? My company sold their interest in "that" and the other oil company made a pile of money from it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Judgment not deferred

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, eschatology, american future

More than 120 years ago, Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi of the shortening of the river's path over some 140 years. He joked that, were this trend to continue another couple of centuries, future generations would be able to walk between St Louis and New Orleans; they would become twin cities. And he calculated that "in the Old Oolitic Silurian, just two million years ago last January, the Mississippi must have stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a flyrod." (Quoted from memory; doubtless inexact) Thus he lampooned the common practice of making too much of a trend that appears linear. Yesterday's high in these parts was 81. Today's was barely 75. Give it a week, and we'll have snow! Most trends are in reality parts of cycles.

A human lifetime is too short for one person to experience an entire historical cycle. The 4-5 year "business cycle", which some claim has shortened by half lately, seems long to many. But the cycles of empires that rise and fall take several generations to work themselves out. The four "great empires" of ancient history, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, swept back and forth across the Mediterranean landscape over a period of nearly a thousand years.

When the Biblical prophets spoke of things happening in "the last days," they were looking at distant events whose relationships were necessarily distorted by their very distance. It is analogous to a New Yorker's view of the U.S., as portrayed in a cartoon I saw years ago (and couldn't find to reproduce here): The lower quarter of the image is Manhattan and the Hudson; another section is east-central New Jersey; then comes the Midwest and the rest of "flyover country"; and a thin rim at the top is California, with the main feature being Hollywood.

In these times, at the other end of history from men such as Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah, it is hard to understand the profound difference between their viewpoint and ours. Are we really very, very near the edge of this conceptual continent, or are we really in an early ripple of the Wasatch mountains of Utah, thinking we must be nearly to the Coast Ranges, when there are really four more mountain ranges in between.

One of the early Plymouth Brethren, perhaps J.N. Darby, wrote, "Prophecy was not given to enable us to predict the future, but for us to recognize the hand of God in events as they come to pass, and take warning." (Another near-quote from memory) With this in mind, let us consider Mark Hitchcock's recent book, The Late Great United States: What Bible Prophecy Reveals about America's Last Days. This is but one of several books to take advantage of Hal Lindsey and Carole Carlson's The Late Great Planet Earth.

The basic thesis is threefold. First, a series of long chapters dwell on the idea that the Americas, particularly the U.S., are too important on the world stage to have been ignored by Biblical prophecy. The author successively discharges one idea after another that has been put forward to fill this supposed lack, before stating the second thesis: The U.S. is not mentioned in end-time prophecy because it will not be a world power by the time these events come to pass.

The third thesis is that the judgment of God which will lead to the downfall of the U.S. has begun already, and could be accomplished very swiftly; however, the nation will not become totally impotent until the very, very end, because Israel is seen as a flourishing nation right up to Armegeddon, and that requires U.S. military support to continue.

It is fascinating that he connects the final downfall of North America and the U.S. with the "rapture", the "taking away" of the people of God. In his understanding of eschatology (the study of prophecy), that event shortly precedes a 7-year period called the Tribulation. Consider just this fact: the number of serious Christians in the U.S. is some 60 or 70 million. If all of these good people vanish one day, the economic and social fabric of the nation will unravel.

Whenever the "taking away" occurs, it will cause tremendous social upheaval, there is no doubt. While I expect a different time line, I agree with the basic thesis. And I agree that God's judgment on this nation has begun. His analysis of Romans 1, with God "giving them up" in more than one way, in succession, provides an outline of my generation and the one to follow. What was once too shameful to speak of has become mainstream, considered normal. This is not a cause of judgment, it is a symptom that judgment has begun.

But let us remember that the list of sins that follow God's judgment in Romans 1 is much longer than just the sexual sins: "filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, slanderers, hateful to God, insolent, arrogant, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, senseless, faithless, affectionless, merciless…" A society characterized in this way, such as ours, is already being judged, and these things are the evidence. The unjust punish one another.

I began this post intending to dwell on my own rather different timeline for the end times. I think it not necessary at this time. The details of the process are less important than the bigger view. The U.S. is well into a long period of decline, but will retain sufficient power and influence to continue to protect Israel until God sees fit to fulfill prophecies that "all nations", probably including the U.S., will turn against Israel and attack. But I think there is a certain role for the nation to play, which is hinted at in Revelation 12 (a passage Hitchcock does not mention):

To paraphrase, a universal and glorious woman, being pregnant, is being confronted by a dragon. When her son is born, he is immediately taken up to heaven. The angels of God fight against the angels of the dragon, and the dragon is cast to the earth. He attacks the woman, who is carried to "the wilderness" upon eagles' wings. She is preserved there for 3.5 years. The dragon first fights "the remnant of her seed." Then the dragon stands by "the Sea" and in the following chapter, the Beast's career is outlined. Interpreted:

  • The woman represents all of God's people, among whom a smaller, stronger portion is pressing toward birth. The dragon represents Satan.
  • This stronger portion, her son, is elsewhere called "the overcomers", which are taken up earlier than the rest.
  • The arrival of the overcomers in heaven triggers the celestial battle that leads to Satan being deprived of access to heaven.
  • Thrust to the earth, Satan attacks the people of God that remain. These are mostly able to escape to "the Wilderness", which I believe refers to America or the Americas. There, they are safe for the 3.5 year duration of the worst of the troubles.
  • The "remnant of her seed" then refers either to those left behind when the overcomers were taken up, or to those who could not escape the empire of the Beast to come.
  • The taking up and the resurrection of the majority of God's people occurs at the end of the 3.5 years. This is not detailed in Rev. 12, but in 1 Corinthians 15, where the general taking up is said to occur "at the last trumpet". This is the seventh trumpet that immediately precedes the fearful Bowl judgments that close the Tribulation period.
A few pieces of the alternate timeline that I prefer do show up above, but the point to gain is this: I think it most likely that the American hemisphere will provide a refuge for God's people during the times of distress that immediately precede the end. This is not a doctrine, and time will tell. God has plenty of surprises in store for us. Pray for the continued blessing on God's people, while prayer is possible to you.

DTV and me

kw: observations, television, photography

A broken TV at the right time got us ready for the transition to Digital TV (DTV). About a year and a half ago, our 19" television began breaking down. Repairs would cost as much as we had spent to buy it, so we shopped for a new TV. We eventually found a model that would receive everything, both analog and digital. Apparently, it has three or four kinds of tuners inside, and can select the appropriate one automatically.

We already had a large antenna in the attic (I am too wary of lightning to put it above the house), and we had been receiving about ten analog channels with it. When we ran a scan, we found we could get nine digital signals, and most of them had subchannels. And we still had the same collection of analog channels. However, several of the digital channels were marginal, and would cut in and out, particularly on a rainy day.

I'd installed twin-lead between the antenna and TV originally, with a 300-to-75 ohm converter, but I read that twin-lead loses a lot of signal. I bought a length of coaxial cable to replace it, and the signals came in much better. No impedance matching needed, either. After a few months I added a preamplifier at the antenna to boost the signal by a factor of ten. Since that time, things have been pretty good.

The image above shows the signal meter that my TV can display. After the DTV transition last Friday, I went through all the digital channels and recorded their strength. I did this a few times. Strangely, some DTV channels that we received just fine before were not found at all when we re-scanned. At the moment we have seven channels, and most of them have sub-channels. This table shows them, with number of subchannels in parentheses, and the range of signal strength (on a logarithmic scale, I assume):
  • 03 (1) - 85 to 92
  • 06 (3) - 53 to 58
  • 12 (3) - 100
  • 17 (2) - 61 to 70
  • 23 (3) - 45 to 48
  • 48 (5) - 23 to 32
  • 57 (1) - 40 to 50
According to infomation from TV Fool, I ought to be receiving channels 10, 29, and 35, but they don't get found on a scan. Strange. As it is, however, with subchannels, I am able to get eighteen signals, which is pretty good for a fringe area south of Philadelphia.

I also learned something while making screen photographs. You may have noticed the aliasing bands on the image above. The camera's grid of photosensors was close to being aligned with the TV's grid of pixels. In this situation, color banding is inevitable. So I tried changing the angle at which I was shooting. Rotating a screen by 30-35° is the technique used for color printing with halftone. If you don't rotate each screen relative to the others, terrible banding occurs.

This image was taken at an angle of 34°. I used an image editing program to rotate it back to horizontal, and cropped it. Since I've reduced both images to about 700x400 (you can click on them to see that size), I had pixels to waste. This image is much smoother, with hardly any aliasing visible.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

If everyone could teleport but you. . .

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

I know why I can't write fiction. The background of any story is answering a "What if?" question. I can come up with lots of what-if's, and even speculate upon the answers, but I can't wrap a plot line around the speculation. The mastery of writers who do just that over and over again is what keeps me digging for more and more well done sci-fi.

Vernor Vinge is a master at this art. His believable plot lines couple with great ideas and speculations. It was an unexpected pleasure to find a book of his I hadn't read, The Witling, written in 1976. The book is clearly a classic, for it isn't dated. For one thing, in 33 years we haven't progressed very far in the technology of landing on a planet, nor of basic communications and soldiering, so the artifacts are credible. But this isn't a story about improved technology, even though it is set about 14,000 years into the future.

On one level it is a story of exploration and romance, but on the level that interests me, it is a stab at answering, "What if we all were clairvoyant, and could all teleport objects, including ourselves, to or from distant locations?" Secondarily, as the title hints, "What if these abilities were really strong in a few, and really weak, even nonexistent, in an unfortunate few?" A witling is one who lacks wit, or has to fake it. In the book, a witling is one who lacks abilities a human calls extrasensory.

What would be the consequences of (nearly) universal mental powers? To an outsider from Earth, the planet's culture may look primitive…until you noticed that the buildings had no doorways. Transportation technology would be quite different, and the lack of roads quite puzzling. Then there is the physics of teleportation; first assume it is possible, then deal with the relative velocity of the teleported object and its new locale, or differences in elevation: would gravitational potential express itself as thermal differences, or as something else?

Human observers might not recognize what is going on until they found themselves sensed from a distance and suddenly captured, helpless before forces they can't recognize. The author throws in an interesting side issue here: given a planet a little heavier than Earth, might it have a much greater abundance of heavy metals? If so, what might be the consequences of eating a diet of native foods? The answers to this provide a bit of dramatic tension as the story reaches its climax.

The plot line itself I'll leave for the enjoyment of the reader. The possibility of the humans' rescue hinges on the goodwill of at least a few of the planet's natives. It helps that a human woman, considered homely by her fellows, is exotically beautiful to the natives. This might seem ludicrous at first, until you consider how beautiful we humans find some members of other species (though we often mask the feeling with an appellation of "cute"), and how easy it is to imagine alien beings who are more beautiful than a human could be. The great beauty of many ancient statues is based on exaggerating certain facial features beyond the human range.

One final consideration: If such mental powers were to develop, it must be that they would manifest themselves gradually. A baby born with the ability to kill upon a whim would either destroy all life it its vicinity and die unfed, or die of neglect once even its own parents were too fearful of coming close. Then consider how cruel children are. Only if the most damaging abilities developed gradually, with defense being stronger than offense—this is the way it is with our physical strength—could evolution proceed to hone the abilities to make them useful to the species generally. Thus it must be with any mutational advancement.

A glossary of the important mental powers, to jump-start your reading:
  • seng = sense, a gravitational super-sense
  • reng = teleport, by swapping matter at point A with an equal volume at point B
  • keng = kill, by twisting the brain or internal organs of an opponent or other victim
  • dgeng (pronounced "jeng"), unknown, used only once. This leaves room for a sequel.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Planet-saving profiteers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, organic agriculture, business, conservation

Let's see, the typical grain megafarmer's drill: plow the heck out of a field, add pre-emergent herbicide, let that degrade, add fertilizer and sow (maybe one operation, maybe two), spray for early pests, till for weeds the pre-emergent didn't prevent, spray for later pests, till some more, repeat a few more times, harvest, and haul to the grain elevator. Oh, and by the way, for some grains, make some attempt to wash off the pesticides, though this is risky because you have to dry the grain pretty quickly or it'll rot.

I must confess I don't know the procedures an farmer would use on a certified organic farm. And I understand that converting from "conventional" to organic takes a year or three and is costly. However, there is sufficient demand for certified organic foodstuffs that they command premium prices. This simple fact underlies the thesis of Stirring it Up: How to Make Money and Save the World by Gary Hirshberg, President and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm: organic and earth-saving businesses can make money, and frequently make more than their conventional competitors. Considering the number of field operations conventional farming requires, I find it surprising that organic farming doesn't cost less.

I came across this book indirectly. My son attended a seminar at Princeton at which Gary Hirshberg spoke. He got a copy of the book (signed by the author) and came home quite enamored of its message. It does resonate with something a friend said years ago, "I'd rather spend a bit more on safe foods now than pay it in medical bills later." If there were a way to quantify that assessment, we'd have some real ammunition to effect major changes in agricultural programs. Assuming, as I do, that this effect is real, it is a second way that ecological and conservative practices improve the bottom line.

Another focus of the book is climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Stonyfield is mainly in the yogurt business. That means its product depends on cows, which are notorious producers of methane, a greenhouse gas thirty times as potent as carbon dioxide. Interestingly, field-fed cows apparently produce less methane than corn-fed cows in feedlots. But the largest ways businesses like Stonyfield are reducing their gaseous carbon production is by switching to alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. While they presently use "offsets" paid to wind generation companies as one large resource shifter, Stonyfield is working toward as much energy independence as physics and economics will allow.

Throughout the book, to make his points stick, the author introduces us to other companies that are making things better while making money, companies such as Timberland Shoes, Wal-Mart (becoming a leader in reducing total energy use), and Terracycle. This last is most intriguing. Their main products are made from waste, such as a plant food made from worm poop (their term); the worms are fed garbage. Worm poop "tea" won't burn your plants, even if you water with it (you don't need to).

For a concentrated source of organic foods and products, Organic Valley is a good place to begin. It is a bit harder to find a central source for sustainable products, as the range of products is quite a bit wider. The author doesn't mention one, and a bit of Googling finds the hits for "sustainable products" dominated by an educational enterprise.

CE-Yo Hirshberg is an optimist, and closes his book with an account of what he hopes to see in just twenty years, if the ideas he and his friends are promoting become widespread. One item he glosses over is population. No matter how much we promote organic, eco-friendly, sustainable businesses in the West, we are still faced with a 9-billion-person planet forty years down the road. Food use has already begun to outstrip food supply in just the last two or three years, and that's with 6.5 billion to feed. Unless we learn to double the efficiency of food production, there will never be nine billion, because starvation will increase dramatically.

I am very favorable to the ideas found in Stirring it Up. To them we need to add a genuine motivation for people to stop having so many kids (widespread, free education can go a long way here. Educated people have smaller families). I just hope they can spread far enough, fast enough to rescue civilization before food wars and water wars sweep the planet nearly clean of human life. My son is my optimistic vote for the future of humanity. But I tremble for what he is likely to see before he is my age.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This day was for the birds, gladly

kw: observations, birds, wildlife

This is a house swallow sitting on a bluebird box, which is probably holding her eggs or babies. I belong to a volunteer program at work; a colleague and I make weekly checks of four bird boxes of the 25 or so that are scattered about the complex. The boxes are made with a hinged front so we can look inside. This is one of a number of projects that the company does under the aegis of the Wildlife Council.

When I joined the program two years ago, a number of us got a short session of training, and then we were assigned a few boxes per pair of us. Though these are called bluebird boxes, and bluebirds are the most desirable species we wish to encourage, there are three other species that we allow to use the boxes: house swallows and two species of wren.

We were told to specifically discourage invasive sparrows, which are not native to the U.S., by removing their nests and eggs. Fortunately, I have had to do this only once. It is a sad duty. Last year, I didn't have any bluebirds in any of the four boxes I (and my colleague) care for. Three pairs of swallows fledged from four to six young each, and one box was fought over by wrens and starlings, and nobody raised any young.

The hole on that last box was too big; starlings won't try to use a box with a bluebird-sized hole. We asked the facilities folks to make a front with a smaller hole. That worked. This year, that box has six pale brown wren eggs in it, and we saw one of the parents flitting about when we checked inside.

The swallows are running a couple weeks earlier than the wrens this year. We first saw white swallow eggs five weeks ago, six each in two boxes. Two weeks ago the eggs were still being sat upon. Last week we saw tiny baby birds. Today I took this picture in one of the boxes with babies. This youngster is just beginning to get big feathers on the wings (barely visible to the right), so it is about 10-12 days old.

We didn't open the other box of swallows; we could see the parents actively bringing food. We won't open either of these boxes until we don't observe any more feeding behavior. This year especially, things got started early enough that the swallows may raise a second brood. We hope to catch them re-lining the nest and laying a second clutch of eggs.

One of the boxes that had a successful family last year has so far produced nothing. At the beginning of the season we found a half-completed nest with a dead swallow inside. We cleaned it all out. Two weeks later a messy sparrow nest got built up, and when we saw eggs in it, and verified that they were being sat on by a sparrow, we removed nest and eggs. That was last week. This week there were a few straws in the box, but it doesn't look like the sparrows intend to finish the nest. Next week we'll know more.

So, this year so far, two boxes that started with six eggs each have several live babies that are about ten days old; one box has a clutch of five or six wren eggs; and one is probably not going to be used. Who'd have thought such drama goes on in these little boxes?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

My micrographic roots

kw: microscopy, photomicrography

I entered science fairs from sixth grade right through high school. For most of them I displayed my gradually increasing skills in photomicrography. At that time (1958-1964), I used a rangefinder 35mm camera on a tripod, adjusted to shoot through the eyepiece. The lens was fixed focus (zoom was extremely rare and costly), 38mm. I had to turn the camera away to set up each new shot, then reset it. The camera's focus would be set to infinity. I first learned lighting and exposure, then developed my skills in microtomy and specimen preparation. My junior year of high school, the science teacher actually paid me to take photos of many of his standard slides so he could show them to the students without using the cranky projection microscope the school had. The pictures I made in those days all looked similar to this first image, made with a point-and-shoot camera, handheld (!).

Canon SD1100 IS, f/2.8, 1/125 sec., 1x zoom. Microscope 20x.

I've wanted to get back involved with photomicrography for some time. When I had a working 35mm Yashica SLR, I had a T-mount adapter for it, and did some work with that setup. My digital Nikon SLR will not work with a T-mount adapter. I tried shooting through the lens, but the vignetting is too severe; there is no way to get the entrance pupil (diaphragm) of the camera lens anywhere close to the exit pupil of any of my microscopes.

My son took off for a couple days at school (he's taking a 2-day-per week class) and left his camera behind. It is a point-and-shoot, specification given above, with its 3x zoom lens working in the range 6.2-18.6mm. The focal distance of the 10x eyepieces on the inspection microscope is 25mm, and the eye relief (distance from lens housing to exit pupil) is 20mm, so this seemed ideal. It is!

The specimen is a rice beetle (more on this below). Directly scaled, its length is 2.7 mm. On my 100 dpi screen the image above has the critter's length as 27mm, so this is a 10x view. Click on the image to get a larger one that is quite close to 20x. The original image is 8Mpx, 3264x2448. I reduced it by 4x to 816x612 (the image you see by clicking), and this view is 400x300, set by the Blogger software.

This (click to see full size) is an 816x612 crop from the image above, to show the detail in an unreduced image. This is about 40x, and the full size is about 80x, on a 100 dpi screen.

There is reasonable depth of field. The ornamentation on the beetle's back (the elytra) is beautiful. Only one claw is in focus. The eye appears as a dark bulb, no detail visible.

This beetle is one of a few dozen that showed up when we boiled some old rice. My wife called me to the kitchen to ask what the little black specks swirling in the pan were. I scooped a few out with a spoon and went to the microscope. She was not too happy that they were beetles!

The beetles were floating, and the rice sank, so we swirled the water and scooped them out, several times, until we could find no more. They have sat under my microscope for a couple of months.

A nice thing about modern cameras is that so many now come with good zoom lens optics. The next two images show what is possible with this particular model.

Canon SD1100 IS, f/4.9, 1/79 sec., 3x zoom. Microscope 20x.

This image is very close to 30x. Click on it to see the 60x original. The Ramsden circle (image of the field-limiting diaphragm in the microscope eyepiece) has been zoomed out beyond the image area. Comparing this with the 40x image above, it is apparent that the depth of field here is a bit less. The elytrum ornamentation is still quite clear, but some details around the body are not as well delineated.

By the way, all of these have been color-adjusted for a white background. The automatic color balancing in both Canon and Nikon cameras does a poor job of compensating for incandescent light, and produces yellow-orange images. I know how to force better color balancing in my Nikon SLR, but I'll have to do some reading in the manual to find if this Canon can be "told" to compensate for incandescent light.

This (click for full size) is an 816x612 crop from the image above, showing details on the head. The eye lenses are visible, though not as distinct as I'd like. I suspect, using a tripod or other mounting, that I can force a lower ISO (It was using ISO 120) and slower shutter for less color jitter in the image.

The effective magnification of this image is 120x, and of the full size crop, 240x. That's pretty good for beginning with a 20x setting on an inspection microscope. For making prints, the effective magnification depends on the sort of cropping I do before printing. The kiosk printers at the local drug store print at 200 dpi. If I prepare 1200x800 images for printing at 6x4 inches, I'll get maximum resolution. Starting at the top, then, I would take the 3264x2448 original, which produces about 20x at 100dpi, crop the top and bottom to get 3264x2176 (for a 3:2 ratio) and reduce it to 1200x800 to get a 10x image on the paper print.

Cropping out a 1200x800 piece is the same as a 2.7x magnification, so I'd have a 27x print. The 3x zoom images would then print at 30x and 80x.

Now that I have seen what is possible, I'll investigate the optics of PnS cameras similar to this Canon, and get one for which I can make some kind of mounting (they have a 1/4-inch threaded tripod mount). Also, when pond water is the subject, there's something these cameras can do that 35mm can't: video!

New coinage, but not quite mine

kw: words, definitions

I didn't quite coin this word, or at least I am not the first to coin it, but I made it up on the fly and then looked to see if it exists. It is not found in any online dictionary I've searched, so I plan to add these entries to TheFreeDictionary as soon as I complete this post:
  • youthify, vt, Verb form of youth. To give something a younger appearance. past & ppt youthified, 3 pers sing youthifies.
  • youthification, n, from youthify. The action or process of making something appear newer or younger.
I produced the word when writing class materials for a short course in digital darkroom techniques. The blur operation, I wrote, is used "to reduce noise or to youthify a portrait."

I remember a photographer describing the enlarger (wet darkroom) technique of making a flattering portrait of an older person. One step is to hold a piece of thin muslin halfway between the enlarger lens and the print paper, moving it so no fabric grid will show. This softens the image, making the small wrinkles disappear. Judicious use of digital blurring has the same effect.

It also reminded me of a friend who began to get cataracts at the rather early age of 45. By age 55 he had to have them removed. This was about 25 years ago, soon after the new outpatient techniques were developed. He had the procedure, and new plastic lenses implanted, and went home. He looked at himself in the mirror and asked his wife (who told me), "Where did all these wrinkles come from?" She said they'd been there a while, but his vision had been too blurry to see them. His bad eyes youthified him!

A tuneful awakening

kw: observations, bird song

I was awakened this morning about 4 AM by a robin singing the familiar "Cheerio" song. Then he launched into variations. I considered closing the window, but then I got a sheet of paper and began writing graphics of the sounds. I'd read about making "hand sonograms" in Birdsong: A Natural History by Don Stap, which I reviewed in 2005.

The calls were quite varied, coming about 3 seconds apart, or twenty per minute, so the exercise was quite challenging. This image shows a nine-minute segment that I wrote just before getting up to start the day. I show only eighteen variations here. I didn't record multiples, and I missed a lot. It takes tons of practice to get anywhere close to writing everything down! Had I got all the calls, there'd be about 180.

The robin is not known as a versatile bird. I'd have thought this was a mockingbird, except that calls for other birds were not mixed in. We have a mockingbird that frequents our yard, and his calls are wildly varied.

A note on the scanning: I first put the notebook paper in my scanner and ran a preview. Marks from the other side were showing through. I put a piece of black paper on top and re-ran the preview. Now there was nothing showing through. I used a very steep custom contrast curve to make the pencil marks this distinct. The pencil marks are actually a light to medium gray.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The bugs will always win

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, insects, history

My brother Mark is probably the best writer among my brothers and me. After a twenty-year career as a working calligrapher and freelance historical lecturer, he returned to school to earn a Doctorate, the credential he needed to gain a position as a curator. Calligraphy, based as it is in the history of written language, is a necessarily historical enterprise. He achieved a Masters' degree in History without difficulty, but was blocked from entering the doctoral program by jealous professors of history. He was already a published author, and his writing style put them to shame. He lucked out in another way, though; he'd been illustrating books for a prominent archaeologist, and was asked to join the doctoral program in the archaeology department. He got his doctorate in that. He is a college professor now.

The fact remains that it is hard to find a historian who is a good writer. James E. McWilliams is a bit better than the middle of the pack in that regard. I managed to read all of American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT, but it was a bit of a slog most of the time. I picked up the following:
  • Prior to the American Civil War, farmers were the primary students of insect ecology and control. The methods were mainly those that are now called "sustainable": adjusting the timing of plowing to destroy insect larvae or pupae, and of planting to miss their hatching, rotating crops so no one set of pests gains a year-upon-year advantage, planting decoy crops, and fostering plant enemies such as birds and parasitic wasps. Professional entomologists were few and worked closely with the farmers, helping them spread new knowledge mainly via farming journals.
  • From the Civil War to the 1930s, mainly stemming from the influence of Thaddeus Harris, pesticidal chemicals became increasingly popular, and agricultural entomology became increasingly organized under government control. Professional journals began to replace farm journals. The chemicals of choice were mainly arsenates, and the deadliest was lead arsenate. Paris green, a copper arsenate, was a favorite, being moderately effective and slightly less poisonous to humans than lead arsenate.
  • DDT was discovered in 1939, and synthetic chemicals, mainly organochlorides, enjoyed a twenty-year heyday. DDT is much less harmful to vertebrates than the arsenates, in comparison to the harm it does to insects, so such chemicals are safer, but not safe enough. The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 brought together scientific knowledge and public concern at just the right time to cause a revolution in public and political sentiment toward chemical pesticides.
The story the author doesn't tell is the continuing trend toward pesticides that are safer to use and less harmful to vertebrates, including ourselves. But some of the difference is window dressing. I remember as a boy sitting in a cherry tree with the orchard owner's son, eating cherries on which we could see the film of DDT. We knew when we got a headache, that was enough. I am not sure it is safe to do that with any modern insecticide.

I read recently, as an unsupported statement, that for several years the world has produced less food than the amount eaten, that we are using up our reserves. If this is so (I intend to find out), we need to increase production, and at this point, the "green revolution" of super-grains that need super-fertilizers has just about ended. Now we need to reduce the depredations of insects, which still consume a third to half of all crops in most of the world. The use of pesticides is certain to increase as human population increases.

The author didn't make much mention of resistance. This is an increasing problem. Just in twenty years, flies developed sufficient resistance to DDT that they could almost live off the stuff. Fortunately, mosquitos are still susceptible, and it is DDT and related chemicals that are staving off mosquito-borne malaria in much of the world (Yes, Virginia, DDT is not banned everywhere). The tropical regions that are still plagued by malaria are too poor to afford even cheap DDT, which is almost free, but costs quite a bit to apply. How will anyone ever drain all the swamps of Africa? Particularly now that draining swamps is considered an ecological no-no?!?

The primary reason insects are such a problem is our reliance on monocropping. The author makes it clear that many formerly rather innocuous insects became monsters when they were enabled to spread over acre after acre, upon plants that they seldom would eat before, but the new abundance allowed quick evolution of critters that could take full advantage of the "amber waves of grain." Today's world requires monocropping.

The author makes no mention of Malabar Farm, which I remember visiting in about 1962. Louis Bromfield's visionary sustainable farm, begun in 1939, is still a model of agriculture carried out to build the soil instead of depete it, and of using crop rotation and multicropping and other measures to minimize insect damage without resort to pesticides. I just don't know if a world of Malabar Farms can feed nine billion people. By 2050 we may know.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

D-Day at the Antipodes

kw: family, war stories, correspondence

Sydney, Australia is very nearly the opposite side of the earth from Britain, the English Channel and Normandy. Sydney's time zone is GMT+10, so when 0000 hours, June 6, 1944 rolled around, it was 10 AM for my father, posted near Sydney.

On D-Day, 65 years ago today, not all the U.S. forces and allies were occupied with establishing a French beach head from which to attack the Germans. The War of the Pacific was in the midst of a brief lull, but was soon to heat up again, though the major bombing campaign against Tokyo was still nine months in the future.

My father had little to do that day. He and other recent OCS graduates were awaiting assignments. He went shopping, shipped his purchases home, then wrote this letter. It is a V-Mail that has suffered water damage and is stuck to its envelope. I photographed it with back light to decipher it. Here is the transcription:

Ruthy darling,

Goodmorning! yes for once
I got up before dinner — in fact I
was up at 6:30. — I expect to leave
in a day or so and am practising for
work, ha!

Yesterday I did some more shopping,
I bought you a little souvenir, couple
of ties I promised you pop, my pop
ties also —. I sent all this to mom. I hope
it arrives soon. I've been trying in Sydney
and here to get a suitable, nice gift for mom,
but it's very puzzling. I'll look again today.
My darling, how have you been?

I've been so anxious to hear from you, but
I probably won't for now until I get
"Up Top." You are now in summer there
aren't you? Bye bye — My deepest devotion

The major events that were happening on the other side of the globe covered sixteen hours:
  • 00:00 Hours — Airborne Landing Begins
  • 03:00 Hours — Heavy Bombing Raids
  • 04:00 Hours — Allied Invasion Fleet Arrives
  • 06:30 Hours — U.S. Landings Begin
  • 07:25 Hours — British and Canadian Landings Begin
  • 12:00 Hours — British and Canadian forces push inland
  • 16:00 Hours — Hitler Authorizes German Counter-Attack
Details of these events can be found at the WW2 D-Day Timeline site.

Dad liked writing letters right after supper when he could, so he was probably writing at 7 PM; subtract 10 hours and you get 0900, right in the middle of the most intense ground fighting and near-debacle on Omaha and Utah beaches. The forces involved in the Pacific war, having no "need to know", were totally unaware, and did not hear until they got letters from home, based on letters from Europe. It was at least a few weeks before Dad heard about it.

His letters during June and July 1944 are full of the mundane things he and his fellow graduates were doing while they awaited work. They didn't know that the attention of the entire General Staff was on France. On June 11, for example, a Sunday, Dad wrote about attending church, which he enjoyed, except for the sermon, which was by a "real radical" of a preacher, one who believed in "total annihilation," an exaggerated doctrine based on Methodist Arminianism. Two days later, he attended two rugby games and one American football game. He wrote three pages of humorous commentary on the brawl that is Australian Rules rugby: "If a man gets a free kick, and you can get within a few yards and block the ball, after the beating that follows, you get a free kick…if you are able."

Dad soon became a Captain in the Corps of Engineers. He spent the rest of the war either building airstrips on nameless islands, or demolishing them just ahead of fleeing a Japanese invasion of said island. He loved blowing things up. But after the war, expecting to go right home, he found he was assigned further work in the Pacific. His "Ruthie" waited an extra few months for him and they were married in March 1946. I suppose that explains why I was born in 1947 instead of 1946.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

It takes big eyes to see fine detail, part 4

kw: musings, physics, light, visibility

This continues a discussion I began here. I think the point is established that if you want to see fine detail, the solution is not a smaller "eye" but a larger one. But I have an error to correct.

In the prior post, I stated the Rayleigh criterion for the resolution of a diffraction-limited optical system, which is based on the Airy formula

x = 1.22 λl/d

where l/d is the focal ratio, such as 4:1 for an f/4 system.

I neglected to mention that this formula is only valid if the light path between the object and the viewing lens is vacuum (or air, to a close approximation). In the case of high-powered optical microscopes, the space between the object and the objective lens is filled with an oil that has the same index of refraction as the glass of the slide and of the lens, typically about 1.5. The symbol for refractive index is n, so in an optical microscope with an oil-immersion objective, the formula is

x = 1.22 λl/nd

This replacement of λ with λ/n resolves the difference I'd stated between the Rayleigh criterion and the Abbe limit: 0.866/1.5 = 0.58, which means that an oil-immersed lens with N.A. = 1.4 (f/0.71) will resolve details as small as 0.58λ, which is 0.35µ for incandescent light (effective λ = 0.6µ) and 0.28µ for daylight (effective λ = 0.48µ).

My calculations for ultraviolet viewing remain unchanged because immersion oils absorb UV light.

Now, before we consider even smaller wavelengths, there is a technology that can resolve very small details for certain objects, using visible light. That is Near-field Scanning Optical Microscopy, or NSOM.

A very (very!) smooth sample can be scanned with a narrow glass fiber tip, just a few nanometers across. As long as the fiber tip is within a few nm of the surface being scanned, the spot of light will effectively be very much smaller than a wavelength. In practice, resolutions of around 10nm have been achieved. This is fifty times as good as imaging with lens optics. This technology is not for the faint of heart or poverty of pocketbook. Just drawing a glass fiber so it necks down to 3-5 nm diameter is a challenging task. Handling it to mount it and use it without breaking it…tricky. If you don't need the optical response, electron microscopes are cheaper, both SEM and TEM.

The concept to grasp for what follows is that of disturbance. We don't think of it this way, but even using visible light to view an object disturbs the object. The way light is reflected requires disturbing the outer electrons of a substance, which either absorb or re-emit the photons that bang into them. Visible photon energies are low, however, and don't typically cause atoms to be shifted out of position. Even x-rays and electrons a thousand times as energetic as visible photons seldom force atoms to jump aside.

But the electron bombardment, in particular, cause a disturbance in electron orbits. When a high-powered electron microscope is used to image atoms, we are seeing them slightly distorted, because what we are seeing is an image of the threshold position of the electron cloud around each atom's nucleus, at some equilibrium position as blown by the "wind" of electrons we are viewing with.

Is viewing the atoms, or their outer electron clouds, the ultimate achievable? Not at all. Hitting a small enough sample with a sufficiently dense electron beam, we can strip off the outer electrons, ionizing the atoms in the sample, but the ions will quickly neutralize by grabbing electrons from a cloud that builds up around the sample. Ion imaging may have its place, but I haven't heard of it being used. Nonetheless, there may be a way to use such a technique to probe various electron orbitals. X-rays are more typically used to do that, however, and the technology is well understood. We won't go further with that here.

Another reason for disturbing atoms enough to ionize them is related to probing the mechanics of the structure of a single atom's electron cloud. In this small realm, the order and spacing of each electron's orbital cloud are governed by quantum mechanics. For such studies to be meaningful, the atoms need to be isolated, so charged gases and plasmas are used. Atoms so disturbed emit and absorb electromagnetic radiation of all kinds, so this is the realm of spectroscopy, which covers a vast range of energies, from quite low (medium infrared starting at about 3µ) through visible and ultraviolet to x-rays with wavelengths of less than 1nm and energies of 100 KeV or more.

The next barrier is the atomic nucleus. What does it take to disturb it enough to learn about its innards? Ernest Rutherford began to show the way by bombarding gold foil with alpha particles, which are totally ionized helium nuclei. He was throwing one kind of nucleus at another, though he didn't know it. The α particles had an energy near 4 MeV, and when one came close to a gold nucleus, it bounced right back, or to the side. So four million volts isn't enough to do more than get a rough fix on the location of a nucleus.

As it turns out, once the proton was discovered (it is a bare hydrogen nucleus), it was found to weigh about 1,800 times as much as an electron. It takes many MeV to do more than make a proton bounce around like a smacked ping pong ball. Today's particle physics, developed since the 1950s, is in the business of finding out how the components of protons work together. It takes millions of MeV to have much chance of cracking open a proton (AKA p+), and its energetic components are very shy, splitting into showers of other particles within 10-24 second.

The diameter of a nucleus is so small that, it has been often written, its size compared to the electron cloud is similar to a grain of sand hovering at the center of a cathedral or airplane hanger. An iron atom is about 10-10m in diameter, and its nucleus is a bit smaller than 10-13m, a thousand times smaller.

How big a machine is required to "see" details this small, and smaller? As it turns out, the finer the details you want to see, the bigger the machine it takes. Particle Accelerators are the tool we need to produce a probe that can see inside a proton. Accelerators are of two types: linear and circular. An ordinary TV set, and a small electron microscope, are both accelerators of the linear type, that accelerate electrons to energies of 30-50 KeV. Early accelerators that fit in a lab with a high ceiling, known as Cockcroft-Walton accelerators, could produce electrons with energies of a few MeV, and they are 4-5m tall. Both these kinds of accelerator are one-push types: make lots of volts and let electrons "fall" from one end to the other.

Higher energies are produced by letting the accelerated electrons fly through a hole and giving them another push with radio waves. The biggest of these, the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) imparts energies up to 50 GeV to electrons. But linear is a one-shot kind of technology. Once the electrons fly out the end, you're done with them. Much higher energies are had by running particles in circles, so you can push them over and over again, then divert them to hit your target.

The modern tool for this is the synchrotron. The old Cosmotron was 23m in diameter and imparted a bit more than 3 GeV to protons. The main synchrotron that accelerates electrons, the LEP, gives them the same energy as SLAC, but it can run beams in opposite directions so as to crash them head-on, for more energetic collisions. It can do the same with positrons, or with positrons one way and electrons the other. Lotsa possibilities! But protons, being 1,800 times as heavy, achieve much higher energies. The largest proton accelerator, the LHC (which operated briefly late last year, and is now being repaired!), should achieve 7 TeV (million MeV) per proton. But the LHC is designed to accelerate heavy nuclei containing many protons and neutrons, for purposes of learning more about how the quarks and gluons that make up a whole nucleus interact. The LHC is 8,500m in diameter, or 8km.

Putting the few figures I've given above with others, I produced this chart:

In the legend, p+ is for proton and e- is for electron. For electrons, getting to a certain energy takes about the same size machine, whether linear or circular. Circular machines have losses, however, because turning the electrons in a circle causes bursts of electromagnetic energy to leak away. This accounts for the somewhat different scale between the red and blue lines.

The green line shows proton energies in a few synchrotrons. The straightness of the line allows us to determine a formula, for gaining more energy if our investigations in the future require it:

Emax = 53.2 MeV x Diameter1.3, for Diameter in meters.

Though we are producing particles with TeV scale energies, more is always desired. The 10-24s time scale of quark-gluon interactions requires a wavelength of 3x10-16m, or a particle energy of 41 GeV. In practice, it takes many times this energy, most of which is used to create "resonance" particles that spall away, so some is left over to push a couple of quarks a few trillionths of a meter apart so you can get a reaction you can measure.

How much energy is "enough"? Some Cosmic rays are more energetic than the output of the biggest accelerator we could build on earth. Let us use the formula above to calculate the energy from an accelerator 14,700km in diameter: we get 1.1x1017 eV, or 110,000 TeV. The most powerful cosmic ray so far detected had an energy of 3x1018 eV, and an accelerator to produce such particles would need to be 4 million km in diameter.

Until new technologies allow more efficient circular accelerators, then, we are limited to some thousands of TeV. The wavelength of ~100,000 TeV particles is as short as 10-22m, and they can interact on time scales as brief as 10-30 second. And that's the finest resolution achievable from machines that fit onto the surface of the earth.