Monday, August 31, 2009

RIP 100 inch?

kw: musings, history, telescopes

I've been to see the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson twice. Time was, during the day it was OK to walk right up to the dome and have a look inside, through a window provided for the purpose. The view wasn't quite as good as this, being from a lower angle. But I would gaze at the 30-foot long monster scope and dream.
As I write this, news reports from Los Angeles come in every 10-15 minutes; the eastern front of the Station Fire is currently holding still about half a mile from the mountaintop, which houses not just this wonderful instrument, founded in 1904, but more than 20 transmitting towers. L.A. could find itself without much communications capacity tonight!

There is even more at stake. The 150-foot Solar telescope, a 60-inch telescope, and several others take advantage of the location. Fire fighters have dumped a few hundred tons of fire suppressant in a ring around the mountaintop. Let's hope it is enough.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cat 1, us 0

kw: local events, home

It is a bit bittersweet. About five weeks ago, our son brought home a cat and pretty much browbeat us into letting him keep her. Actually, Sasha is a nice female domestic shorthair, about two years old, and had been someone's cat before she got lost or abandoned. She was starving when found by a friend of his, because she'd been declawed and could not reliably catch food.

Nice as she is, she would not stay housebroken at our place. The saga is rather painful, for us, not so much for Sasha, because we know better than to punish a cat for "going" in all the wrong places. We finally decided she is just too lazy to go the litter box when the urge comes. We like her calm personality, but perhaps she is too calm!

We gave our son an ultimatum: find a home for her by Sept 1 or she goes to the SPCA. He did so, and we delivered her today. We drove a couple hours to the new family's place (near the campus our son attends). We were relieved that they are a very nice family, have had cats before, know the risks, and have a daughter just the right age to care for Sasha (about 14). So we gave them all the veterinarian records and supplies we had, said "goodbye" and went home.

When we dropped off our son, he was a little down, as I expected. My wife and I aren't totally thrilled either, because we like Sasha. But we aren't up to the strain of retraining a very lazy, mis-trained cat. A pity. Sasha, we wish you well.

Friday, August 28, 2009

An Ender to end all...but it won't

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, sociology

Orson Scott Card is chief among a handful of authors who can make me weep, even when I can see the crux coming. He is a master at making a reader care about all his characters, even the unpleasant ones.

Ender in Exile is the tenth Ender volume. There is no need for me to review it in detail, for Card has a huge and devoted following, and the Google query +review +"ender in exile" yields more than 1.5 million hits.

Focusing on an idea, rather, I found the concept of the Formics' star drive quite fascinating: point it where you want to go (and be sure you are not too near a solid body larger than your ship), activate it, and it takes matter from in front of you, annihilates it either wholly or in part (it isn't too clear which), and ejects energy (& matter?) on your opposite side, providing thrust, 2-3 G of it. In some unmentioned way, antigravity is part of the package so the passengers aren't squashed by a few years at several G's.

Much of the story occurs in a starship carrying upwards of 4,000 colonists, most of them in "stasis" of some sort. The trip is about forty light-years, but subjective ship time is about two years. That ship is about like rolling up the town of Boothwyn, PA and shooting it off into space, or perhaps it is more like taking off with a couple of the dormitories at UPenn: room for most of the denizens to be "sleeping", and only a small number to be awake, studying things they hope will make them useful on the colony world. The more folks in stasis, the less food you need to carry.

It takes a lot of energy to push a body to relativistic speed. That 2-years-for-40 ratio means the kinetic energy of the loaded ship is about four times its rest mass. That means, during the main acceleration phase (7-12 months), the ship has to intercept at least four times its mass for the Formic drive to work on. Basically, if you can see your target in a telescope, there isn't that much mass density along the flight path.

Oh, and a side issue I've never seen anyone address: When plotting a flight path to a star you can see, you need to project the proper motions of any stars that are visibly "close" to that path, to make sure none is on a collision course. I can see how not seeing an intercepting body can provide a surprise for a story line.

I guess I can't get away without a discussing the characters a little. Ender is Card's ultimate altruist: able to make nearly any enemy into a friend, even at some cost to himself (and the cost is very high in this volume); and bearing the burden not only for exterminating the Formics (AKA Buggers in Ender's Game; the new name means "ant like") but all the others who died because of his actions and decisions.

In this book the story of his finding the hive queen is told in more detail. She it is who provides Ender with a meaning beyond himself, and the other eight Ender books work out how Ender redeems himself in his own mind by finding her a home.

I always thought it clever that Card produced children who are so bright that he could write dialogue and e-mails for them in fully adult voices, and didn't have to make his children sound like kids. Writing dialogue for an ordinary gradeschooler can only be done well when your own kids are small and you can crib from them!

Well, Mr. Card, you've done it again. You made me weep, not only for Ender but for Achilles (Jr).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A flap-flap here and a zoom-zoom there

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, aeronautics, flight

Just about the time I began to drive, I had plans to build a ground-effect "flying" car, vaguely based around a chainsaw engine or two. I was enamored of the one-man "flying jeep" then being touted in Popular Mechanics and other hobbyist journals. Then two things happened. I found that engines with sufficient power to lift me plus a 150-lb (70kg) machine, and appropriate propellors, were as costly as a decent used car; and my Dad pointed out that an auto doesn't need to spend all its energy staying off the ground, that the wheels took care of that. I got an old VW bug for $350, and that was that.

Funny thing is, I'd already "flown", just a tiny bit. My Dad and his business buddy Bill used Bill's small plane (a 4-seater) to make short business trips, and on two or three occasions invited me along—it wasn't hard to get a 10-year-old out of a day of school in the 1950s. One time, Bill invited me to try my hand at the co-pilot's controls. I found out later that he had it on autopilot with those controls "out of the circuit". But for ten minutes, I felt like I was really flying that plane.

My interest in flight was never exceptional, however; I've just had an ordinary person's passing curiosity about the way, and the different ways, that birds and planes fly. Reading Why Don't Jumbo Jets Flap Their Wings: Flying Animals, Flying Machines, and How They are Different by David E. Alexander has answered a great many questions, including many I never thought to ask.

The title question comes first, and in the book it also comes last, in the Epilogue. In short, producing thrust by rotating a propellor or the turbine-compressor of a jet engine is at least twice as efficient as the alternating motion of a flapped wing. Evolution has not produced the wheel-and-axle in any multicellular creatures, so flapping is the only viable alternative for an animal. Yet it is sufficiently capable of being evolved that it did so four times, for insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats.

Beyond that, the primary differences between muscle-powered and mechanically-powered flight are based on the environments in which they must operate. Airplanes need lots of infrastructure, including at the very least a system of runways, and the modern aviation system includes a large team of flight controllers and an intricate communications system, mainly to keep collisions to a minimum. Helicopters can do without runways, but can't take off or land in confined spaces with contrary, gusty wind.

Flying animals, however, evolved in a world without runways, with variable winds, frequent aerial hazards such as trees and cliffs, and the need to avoid ground- and air-worthy predators. Most of them, if needed, can take off straight up, something only the most costly of aircraft can be engineered to perform.

In eight of the ten chapters, the author goes step by step through the various flight systems and environments, to show where mechanical and natural fliers are similar or different. For example, turning is accomplished differently—ailerons plus a yaw-countering rudder for airplanes, versus twisting wings and banking for a bird. But basic instrumentation can be very similar—all fliers need to see well, so good eyes are a must, and birds or bats can tell changes in elevation by feeling pressure on the middle ear, in a way similar to the variometer used in sailplanes and small "sport" craft. It can be said that the bats' echolocation is similar to radar, but its range is so much smaller that the analogy is pretty weak.

I found the tenth chapter most enlightening, in its historical overviews of human-powered flight and of ornithopters (mechanical flapping fliers). Whereas the Wright brothers produced a working engine-powered airplane in 1903, the first genuine flights by human muscle power (using the human as an engine) were in the 1960s, and the flight of the first ornithopter to successfully lift off, carrying a human, was in 2006, a 103-year lag. That 2:1 efficiency deficit is really severe!

Other topics, including predation (hawking in animals, dogfighting for aircraft), soaring, and vertical flight, fill out the volume. Like many a topic, once you get into it, there's a great deal that one wouldn't have discovered without some digging. I'm always thankful for authors who've dug it out for us.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The worms'll getcha if you don't watch out

kw: observations, natural science, parasites

In a recent conversation with a colleague, these quotes arose:
The Vermin only teaze and pinch
Their Foes superior by an Inch.
So Nat'ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller Fleas to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
[1733, Jonathan Swift, Poems II. 651]
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
[1872, Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes 377]

I recalled reading, at least twice (but can't recall which books or journals), that every species has at least one parasitic species, and in one of those places, the term was "one obligate species", meaning a host-specific parasite.

Now, let's think about that a moment. The latter statement would really proceed ad infinitum! I just had to look into it a bit. A quick search in Google Books yielded the following:
The average number of host species per parasite species (14.0) was considerably higher than the average number of prey species per predator species (6.7)…
[2006 Sharon K. Collinge and Chris Ray, Disease ecology: community structure and pathogen dynamics, p127]
The authors are discussing a food web compiled from observations in a salt marsh. Among 134 species in the parasite-host subweb, 87 hosted 47 parasites. I can't tell if they considered parasites of parasites, though with 615 parasite-host links, it seems likely. [From those numbers I get 13 not 14.]

The singular feature here is that obligate host-species relationships are very rare. The average parasite has fourteen hosts, and some have many more (think of mosquitos, which bite any mammal; even if certain ones have a preference, they are not specific).

A couple of other snippets confirm the point. There are lots of ways for "every species to have at least one species of parasite" without requiring an infinite variety of parasites. From Swift's or De Morgan's point of view, the regression proceeded to the invisible, and we now know that the ultimate parasites of all species are bacterial and viral pathogens. These last might well outnumber (in diversity) all the rest.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Steamed over a dehumidifier

kw: home maintenance, dehumidifiers

We have a Frigidaire dehumidifier, the 50 pint-per-day model, in our basement. It is about a year old. It has a "convenience feature" of a connection for a hose for continuous draining so you don't have to empty the drip bucket. However, on two prior occasions I've had to clean gunk out of the hose, some kind of mold or bacterial stuff that gradually builds up.

Just before midnight last evening I heard its "bucket full" alarm ring. I thought it strange, because I just cleaned the hose and drain connection a few weeks ago. I decided to "bite the bullet" and took the mechanism apart. Then it was clear what was happening.

Because of the hose connection, there is a drip pan below the coils, and this pan was full of mold, which was blocking the outlet to the hose. The mold feeds on dust that gradually collects from air passing through the unit. The coils had some dust buildup, not much, because there is a pre-filter that gets most of it, and we keep that clean.

The outcome: it took about an hour and a half for my wife and I to get all the mold out of there. Though in general the unit is well engineered, there is no provision for cleaning mold out of the drip pan without removing the side panels, which is no simple task. In fact, it is clear that mold buildup was never thought of when the unit was designed. It required a lot of fishing with a bent wire to get chunks of mold that were under the coils. The drip pan is less than a half inch below the coils.

Just putting this pan one inch lower would have made the unit much easier to clean, and for added convenience, some tubing and wires that block part of one side could be re-routed. A side panel that opens, even if it unscrews, would make it simpler to get inside for cleaning. And it ought to be possible to make the pan removable by sliding out when the side panel is removed.

Hey, Frigidaire engineers, just a word to the wise, OK?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The germs continue to win - Hollywood style

kw: observations, films

My wife and I just finished watching the 2005 movie, War of the Worlds on ABC. Great special effects, decent plot, but a bit overacted. I guess they had to put in a lot of "family dynamics" to turn the 1898 short story by H.G. Wells into a two-hour film. The viewing public demands a lot these days…

I think the most effective portrayal is still the 1938 radio play produced by Orson Welles, which caused genuine panic. It still holds that no special effect can outdo our imaginations!

In Wells's story, the "tripods" arrive in ballistic cylinders. Now that we know more about physics, it is clear no mechanism would survive such a "landing", so the screenwriters have the machines erupt from the ground, where they'd been cached for some long period of time. Their riders/controllers are somehow inserted by strange lightning bolts. Get over that conceptual hump, and the rest follows. The aliens are felled, as Wells wrote, by an Earth disease (or perhaps many), but in the film it is not named. Its identity doesn't matter, but it is made to resemble Ebola.

I seldom watch films. This one was at least worth the time spent.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ciencia Ficción

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies, spanish literature

Ask a fan of science fiction to name a non-English-language SF author, and most can recall Jules Verne, who wrote in French. A few may know of Cyrano (Italian), but I wonder if any know of Juan Nepomuceno Adorno or Nilo Maria Fabra, who wrote in Spanish in the 1860s and 1890s, respectively. In keeping with the level of SF development of the times, their stories explore technological or social developments from an external viewpoint, with the humans involved simply recipients or spectators.

These two Spanish authors open the festivities in the amazing volume Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain, edited, and in part translated, by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán. The volume makes the rich Hispanic SF oeuvre accessible to the English public.

Usually when I read an anthology, it contains a story or two I have read before, or work by at least one or two familiar authors. Everything in this volume was totally new to me (and I have read a few Spanish-language SF works, in translation).

The book's four sections could be used as an outline for the genre in general: "In the Beginning: The Visionaries", "Speculating on a New Genre: SF from 1900 through the 1950s", "The First Wave: The 1960s to the Mid-1980s", and "Riding the Crest: The Late 1980s into the New Millennium". This is largely because writers in all languages were reading one another, and an innovation anywhere quickly spread.

The Spanish literature has one area that differs from most language traditions: the literature of oppression, or rather, counter-oppression. Writers everywhere write dystopic or subversive literature, but the large number of Spanish-language dictatorships has resulted in a Spanish language literature of the oppressed that is more keenly felt. I find few similarly touching stories in this line outside Soviet Russia. Writers from Cuba, Chile, and Franco-era Spain, in particular, had to hew to a fine line, to write their hatred of oppression without triggering arrest and disappearance.

As there are nearly thirty pieces in this volume, I decided to pick just two to discuss, from the fourth era. Firstly, "Stuntmind" by Braulio Tavares of Brazil, stunningly evokes the aftermath of the mind-shattering ordeal of melding with a truly alien mind. People with a special, and rare, affinity are able to meld mind-to-mind with Outsiders, in which process they gain incredible gifts of technology and social progress from them, but largely lose their humanness. The Outsiders are not just being altruistic, however. They crave the experience of human feelings and emotions. They are so advanced they have evolved beyond the semi-reptilian state we dwell in.

Secondly, in "The Day We Went Through the Transition", authors Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero produce a truly unique time-travel story. The setup of time police keeping "reality" from being subverted is just the setting. It is coupled with a many-worlds milieu. Upon this backdrop, two people, occasional lovers, reconnect again and again across the timelines, in which each creates the other but no paradox is involved. A masterpiece.

These ideas, along with powerful evocations of overdone technological "enhancement", or coming-of-age rituals, or private-eye romances (with a twist), demonstrate the richness of the Hispanic gift to all SF readers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Castles, not quite home on the range

kw: photographs, architecture

Disclosure: I didn't take these pictures. I haven't been to either of these places, though I have visited similar structures in both countries.

Not long ago, I gathered a bunch of new images for the slide show I use as my "screen saver", which is really a "work hider" for my office computer. Based on some wild notion, I went hog-wild and got more than fifty 2mpx and bigger images of castles in a number of countries. I variously cropped and resized them to 1600x1200 to fit my monitor.

What is it about castles, anyway? Any kind of daydreaming is called "building castles in the air" and we say, "a man's home is his castle". The mystery is not so deep when one looks at some of the really old castles. A typical one is a boxy Keep inside a walled compound.

Castles are really forts. The more attractive ones are simply fortified palaces. This one is the most famous:
Castle Neuschwanstein is probably the most-photographed building in the world. It is the inspiration for the castles at Disney theme parks. It was built in the 1870s and 1880s as an homage to Richard Wagner's "Swan Lake" and "Ring" music, by king Leopold II of Bavaria. Clearly, he considered the kingdom secure and fortification took a distant second place to decoration. He was deposed and died just before construction was completed in 1886, so his kingdom needed more than a castle to secure it!

Himeji Castle of central Japan, completed in 1346, was much more secure, yet its original builder, Akamatsu Sadanori, was overthrown within a few years. It was expanded in the early 1600s. As with Ludwig, Akamatsu was felled by guile, not by force of arms, and Himeji's intricate defenses were never tested in battle.

Besides defense, what needs does such monumental architecture fulfill? Initially, the size of a fortress was determined by the number of people who needed to be sheltered inside during a siege. Later, when castles were more showpieces, they housed the "royal family" and their numerous staff members, and were intended to both impress and intimidate.

Hardly anyone lives in castles anymore. Just heating one is a formidable undertaking, so, for example, Balmoral Castle in Scotland is only used during the warmer months by the British royalty, who spend Winters in the "warmer" climes closer to London. I visited a few Scottish castles some years back, including one that was inhabited. The docent said the family stayed in only a few rooms and left the others for tourists to look through. They'd modernized and air-conditioned maybe five percent of the structure.

My grandmother was a Lindsey, descended from a Lindsay who changed his name a little. The Lindsays were once heirs to Crawford Castle, a ruin in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Even were it in good repair, it's unlikely anyone of us would care to live there. I've sometimes thought that a castle would make an interesting venue for a Summer camp, if it were affordable (that's unlikely).

So now castles are archetypes on which we hang daydreams, and reminders of a very different past. We haven't outgrown the need for strong security measures, but we've learned that stone walls are the least secure.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Candlelit evening

kw: observations, storms

And here I am, reading by candlelight…

Last evening, with vague thoughts of what I might like to post running through my mind, I was putting my dinner dishes in the sink when the lights went out. They came back on briefly, then went out and stayed out. We had finished dinner as a thunderstorm raged outside, the kind with lightning at least every second.

We have FIOS, which has a half-day battery backup. However, with no power to run the router, no Internet. So we lit candles—we have a system worked out from past incidents—and talked and read for an hour or so. I set up the camera on a tripod and held still while my wife shot this image: f/4 and 1 sec, ISO 800.

After a half hour (most outages are less than that), I called in a trouble ticket to the power company. They estimated power would be restored at 10 PM. It actually came back up at 10:42. By then I had opened the windows, put out all the candles and gone to bed.

During about two hours in the (relative) dark, I found that my "emergency candles", from a tin I'd bought for the purpose, each lasted about an hour. The per-candle cost is a half dollar. We also have regular white tapers, twice as tall, that burn for four hours and cost somewhat just a bit more, maybe 60¢ each. They're a better deal. Either kind is bright enough to read by, or to navigate a room.

But candle lighting is actually quite expensive. The smallest compact fluorescent lamps (CFL's) are seven watts, brighter than several candles, and at 12¢ per kwh, make light for twelve hours for a penny. I have a few LCD night lights that are also at least as bright as a candle, that are a fraction of a watt. Maybe some day I'll figure out the economics of lighting with my LCD flashlight, which is at least as bright as a seven watt CFL, but battery power is much higher than utility electricity.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lost soul in transit

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, parental responsibility

In one way, and mainly just this one, Catherine Goldhammer and I are alike: neither of us knows what we want to be when we grow up. This takes a bit of reading between the lines, but it is there in her book Winging It: Dispatches from an (Almost) Empty Nest. She begins and ends the book at almost the same place: her daughter Harper is a year from finishing High School and leaving for college.

In the midst, time is a fluid thing, as the author ruminates over her own life and her "misspent youth" (it was), her life with this young woman she bore and now admires, her marriage to Thomas, who remains a good friend in divorce. She makes much of her own uncertainty about who she really is, about just how to "get on with life" as her daughter leaves home.

A child's leave-taking isn't some simple event, a now-here-now-gone. They begin to leave when they begin to walk, when they won't take "No" for an answer but expect us to, the first time they stay with a friend, or go on an overnight class trip, or attend a multi-week summer symposium. By the time a child actually takes up residence elsewhere (you can take it from me), it is a relief to see them just go and be done with it.

Our own son, a week away from starting his Junior year at a college a couple hours away, has so far not left for more than two months at a time. He was home all last summer and half of this one. He plans to take enough summer coursework this coming year to be gone all but a week or two. My wife and I are getting used to being "just a couple" again, with chaotic interludes.

For Ms Goldhammer, much of this is still ahead; Harper is accepted at her first-choice university but hasn't yet moved when the book winds down. The author also is still in an uncertain state, but is more at home with it. Having been herself tested, she is more certain of her place in her chosen home and town. She has gained the rootedness her child needs, so she can leave it behind, by further stages, until she is an "away" person who visits, rather than a "here" person who leaves from time to time. Little birds fly off one day and do not return. People are not birds.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This agent always gets his ghoul

kw: book reviews, fantasy, mystery, spies

It has been nearly fifty years since I read through my mother's collection of James Bond books. I guess that is time enough to warrant various parodies and other takeoffs of Ian Fleming's superspy. Simon R. Green's favored genre is supernatural horror with mystery mixed in, so his latest series, as yet untitled, places erstwhile members of the Bond family in such a setting. The Spy Who Haunted Me is the third in this series, which has titles that echo Fleming's.

Green borrows other tropes, including the name of his protagonist, Edwin Drood, from Charles Dickens's last, unfinished novel. The earlier Drood is the victim of a rather inept murder plot. This Drood is a force to be reckoned with. His cover name, Shaman Bond, and references to his famous "uncle James", establish the other connections.

The setting: Six secret agents, including Drood/Bond, are enticed into a sort of scavenger hunt through five seemingly unsolved mysteries, including Loch Ness and Roswell, New Mexico. The prize? The secrets of the most famous Independent Agent of them all, Alexander King, a failing nonagenarian.

In the world of this series, humankind is at risk from all the fantastic dream creatures we've imagined over the millennia, and more, including 53 kinds of space aliens (until a 54th shows up). The Droods, a large clan either gifted with second Sight, or so endowed by courtesy of a torc, a special amulet and necklace they wear, take on the challenge of protecting humanity from all of them. Magic has its place alongside science, and its facile use is a requirement for the Droods and several other classes of protective agent, even some CIA operatives.

It is really hard to say more without giving away too much. Half a century ago, I found Ian Fleming too enamored of sadism and graphic sex; reading him was less enjoyable than it might have been. Simon Green has fewer flaws, and is a better writer, with some rather cool ideas, even if many of them are treated like a magician's rabbits, pulled one after another out of a hat with little logic to hold them together. Fun escape literature.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Keystone predators run the ecology

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, predators, extinction

Prior to about 1965, when we visited California we would always spend one day at the tide pools near Newport Beach or Laguna. We typically collected some of the empty shells, and one time we took home a few starfish, killing and preserving them with salt. The common starfish Pisaster ochraceous is a big, strong sea star, up to a foot across. We learned not to bother the ones that were humped up over a mussel; such a one was busy pulling the shellfish open to eat it.

After 1967, when I moved to California, I found that most of the tide pools had been closed to collecting. A few years later, many of them were closed to all foot traffic. They were being "loved to death" by too many visitors. The amount of collecting had messed up the ecology, and later just the things killed by being walked on continued to mess it up.

Unbeknownst to me, Robert T. Paine had already established that the removal of starfish from tidal rocks and pools seriously damages the entire ecology. By removing all the stars from one pool and leaving the one next to it alone, he found that the mussels in the pool without starfish spread to take over the whole pool, driving out every other species. A healthy pool that includes starfish has dozens of species of animals and algae. While it may seem that Pisaster is a disaster for mussels, it is necessary for a balanced ecology in the intertidal zone.

Thirty years later in Yellowstone National Park, wolves were returned to the Park in 1995 after nearly seventy years of exile (the last Yellowstone wolves were trapped in 1926). During those seven decades the Park's population of elk increased by a factor of between ten and 100, and other changes occurred in synchrony: streams became muddy, aspen and willow stands shrank, and large areas took on a clipped aspect.

The return of wolf predation didn't do much to change elk numbers, not at first. But it sure changed elk behavior. Willow and aspen began to grow again at stream margins, particularly at the inside of bends, because these were places where an elk is less likely to be able to fight off or outrun a pack of wolves. The elk quickly learned to avoid such traps, even though their favorite foods began to grow there in abundance.

All this and more is described by William Stoltzenburg in Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators. The premise of the book is simple: the keystone species of nearly every ecological habitat is a scarce predator, whether starfish, wolf, orca, eagle or lion. If too many of these predators are removed, the ecology rebalances, typically by some formerly intermediate species increasing and most others vanishing.

This is strongly expressed by the example in the chapter titled "Little Monsters' Ball". A typical American suburb is dominated by "mesopredators" such as raccoons, rats, foxes and "outdoor" cats and dogs. Just house cats are thought to destroy a billion small mammals (mice, voles, and moles, for example) and half a billion songbirds each year across the U.S. For every "trophy" your cat brings to your door, one or two might have been eaten and one or two others were left to rot or left dying when the cat got tired of playing with it. Multiply by fifty million cats.

By contrast, in areas patrolled by coyotes, the cats (and dogs and rats and raccoons) spend more of their time staying out of the way of the "song dogs". In one study, 20% of coyote scat samples contained house cat remains. As a result, not only are there more small mammals and songbirds—five times as many—but there are also more butterflies and a wider variety of plants.

At one time, the American continent had a full measure of larger predators: pumas (AKA panthers), wolves, lynxes, bears, eagles and falcons. There were plenty of mesopredators such as raccoons, and large herds of grazers such as deer, but fewer of either than we see today. And there were lots of the littlest animals. At an even earlier time, there were a few of the largest predators: a larger lion, cave bears twelve feet tall, and saber-tooth cats, preying on even larger prey such as mammoths and giant sloths.

All the largest denizens of North America disappeared in suspicious synchrony with the invasion of the continent by Siberians more than 13,000 years ago. The "primeval" America reported by the Spanish and others after 1492 was actually impoverished compared to the America seen by those Siberians, who went on to become Cherokees, Apaches, Arapahoes, Navajos and others we used to call "Indians".

There is a move afoot to "rewild" America, to re-introduce elephants into the wilderness, and to restore many more former populations of wolves, mountain lions (puma or panther) and grizzlies. This doesn't go down well with Homo suburbica. The vast majority of Americans get just about all the "nature" they can handle from the occasional bee sting and spreading deer repellent around their gardens. They are actively hostile to the idea that they might one day have to be on guard for large predators roaming the woods right next to their neighborhoods.

A few years ago, there was a puma loose in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania. A few people got a thrill out of the idea. I remember seeing the tracks in the snow around a building near the one I work at, a building that housed laboratory animals. The big cat could smell the lab rats, but couldn't find a way in to get at them. The cat resided for a few days at a YMCA camp near Wilmington, but it was winter so no events were scheduled. I wonder what people would have done if a mountain lion strolled through during the peak of swimming and soccer season! The cat eventually strolled over into Maryland, and I haven't heard whether it is still on the loose.

The author notes that it is probably too late to recover America's lost ecological glory. With care, a couple hundred wolves can be tolerated at Yellowstone, a few dozen pumas in park areas outside San Diego, but the first time somebody's kid is eaten, all kinds of crap will hit the fan, and I suspect that a number of policies of the EPA will wind up in tatters. I don't see much chance for rewilding.

But we must take responsibility for what we have wrought. The single biggest ecological problem in America now is the huge herds of deer, that have no lions or wolves to regulate their numbers. I propose that it is the patriotic duty of Americans to lobby for full-year deer season and for $1 maximum for a deer license, to get licensed, and, with borrowed artillery if you don't own any, take at least one deer home every month and put it in the freezer. Only sworn vegetarians would be exempted from this duty. Venison is quite a bit healthier eating than beef.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The best laid plans and all that

kw: surprises

A couple hours ago I was just finishing a book and planning how to review it, when our son called. He'd lost his wallet. He called the "I lost it" numbers to get his debit and credit cards canceled. I called DMV, where they have a nice computer that tells you procedures, to find out what is needed to get a replacement driver's license. Then the fun began…he does everything electronically, and they want three forms of hard copy identification. Well, we scared up a few things, such as his old high school ID card, one of the few things he wasn't carrying in his wallet.

This is funny, it is almost like an extended Twitter post, but I don't use Twitter. Anyway, the book review will have to wait. I'm crashing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pushing more limits

kw: book reviews, fantasy, science fiction, anthologies, continued review

As I thought overnight about the stories I reviewed yesterday, I realized that "Special Economics" is indeed science fiction. The factory where the oppressed young women work is making bio-batteries and bio-computers, and a quirk in one of the batteries is a fulcrum of the plot. Having read the rest of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I find one other that I would so label, and a couple that are close, but to take things in order:
  • The Goosle by Margo Lanagan –It didn't take more than a page or two to realize this is a story about buggery; not just using it as a main element, but about it. I opted out.
  • Shira by Lavie Tidbar –To start with, imagine Jerusalem is gone, just flat wiped out. Then how will the Mideast evolve?
  • The Passion of Azazel by Barry N. Malzberg –Here the "goat for Azazel", that is, the scape-goat, has a chance to speak for himself. Kabbala is a fruitful source of mystical elements in Jewish-inspired fiction, and here even more so.
  • The Lagerstätte by Laird Barron –The word means "resting place". Grief that leads to obsession is nothing new, and lying to one's analyst is probably universal, but is this woman suicidal, or simply murderous?
  • Gladiolus Exposed by Anna Tambour –A very different kind of obsession. Does the author really expect the reader to become sympathetic to this nut? (And would it give too much away to call him a bonehead?!)
  • Daltharee by Jeffrey Ford –Science fiction emerging into fantasy; the shrinking ray posited here obviously violates all quantum principles, particularly by shrinking atoms in proportion. Energy has to go up when size goes down.
  • Jimmy by Pat Cadigan – Stripped of story: a young boy is being "made to know" things by some alien influence, but it makes him automatically hated by almost everyone. Is How we know as important as What we know?
  • Prisoners of the Action by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman – Solid science fiction, and the second-best story in the book. A seeming alien attack has led to capture of the "aliens", if the things captured really are the actual aliens…
I could naively say that the preponderance of more fantastical fiction indicates that it makes fewer demands upon an author, but I reckon that really isn't so, just different demands. The greater reason seems to be societal: fantasy is more popular now than ever, and the market for stories with a strong technological element is shrinking. Anthologies such as this one must reflect what the journal editors are buying, after all.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Find a limit and push it

kw: book reviews, fantasy, science fiction, anthologies

In her introduction, editor Ellen Datlow writes of the new worlds created by the writers in the volume, "I hope you enjoy your excursion into some of those following." That "some of" is crucial, as if she knows not all of them are enjoyable. What I mean will become clear in due time.

The sixteen stories in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy do indeed explore new worlds, with writers both new and established pushing the limits of their imaginations. I read the first half of the volume at a sitting, so to the story ideas:
  • The Elephant Ironclads by Jason Stoddard – An Alternate History in which the Diné (Navajo) comprise an independent nation in the desert Southwest. Their power base is some of the elephants sent by the King of Siam to President Lincoln (never mind that it was Mongkut's father who offered to send elephants to Benjamin Harrison a generation earlier, a fact got wrong in "The King and I"). In this setting, two boys struggle to come of age as contrasting cultures vie for their attention. The author's skill here is to foment a growing sense of dread.
  • Ardent Clouds by Lucy Sussex – The title mis-translates the Geological expression nueés ardentes, "glowing clouds", which refers to the superheated clouds of ash that burst from stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens or Vesuvius. The first-person "powdermonkey" reminds me of my uncle, a geologist who tithed into a "volcano account", and would dash half across the planet for a first-hand look at any new eruption. I think he disappointed himself by dying in bed. This powdermonkey does not die on the volcano either, much to her surprise, I think.
  • Gather by Christopher Rowe – Another alternate history, of Kentucky as a theocracy with a very real God, and two people who decide to visit the deity.
  • Sonny Liston Takes the Fall by Elizabeth Bear – Maybe this is alternate history, and maybe not. It is a paean to Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, played as a riff on Liston's ties with the Mob.
  • North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud – A fantasy around a sticky, glowing something that washes ashore. The three people who encounter it are the real monsters (yes, all three. Read to see why).
  • All Washed Up While Looking for a Better World by Carol Emshwiller – I guess Ms Emshwiller is trying out something radical. The story is circular, and nobody learns anything. It does make one think about whether our pets understand our speech…
  • Special Economics by Maureen F. McHugh – Though this is speculative fiction, it is likely based on very real reality. Feudalism is the first resort of unwatched, incompetent entrepreneurs. Remember the lyrics to "Sixteen Tons": "I owe my soul to the company store."
  • Aka St. Mark's Place by Richard Bowes – Coming of age, in stages, where it is the seemingly more sophisticated one who needs to grow the most. Set in a virtual neighborhood in Manhattan, and in the minds of the characters. The only fantastical element is a bit of mind-reading and prognostication.
Is it just me, or did nearly all these authors value form over function? The first story is the closest to science fiction, and yet it is of the alternative history type, so is really speculative fiction. Its thrust is political rather than technical. "Special Economics" is the most satisfying of the lot. I'll soon know if the rest of the volume contains any genuine SciFi.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

It takes more than writing to write

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, writers

I have had all kinds of advice about writing, but the one proverb that rang most true was, "Write what you enjoy reading." I passed this on to a young friend today, one who is pondering going on for a PhD, who said, "…but I can't write." I also shared Heinlein's Dictum about short story writing, "Write one every week. After a year, pick at least one to submit for publication. Nobody can write 52 bad stories in a row." That can apply to any kind of writing, but I find it applies particularly to essays. With luck, a PhD dissertation can be composed of the best half dozen out of 52 discourses. It worked for me, anyway.

I test my own material, such as blog posts, by reading for my own enjoyment before hitting the "Publish" button. If I can't say, "I liked that!", I either rewrite or scrap it and start over. But I can tell that my own work is also subject to Sturgeon's Law: "90% of everything is junk." Anyway, if I like it, there's some chance that a few people out there will think enough like me to like it also.

I enjoyed reading Floyd Skloot's third memoir, The Wink of the Zenith. The author suffered a brain-damaging infection twenty-one years ago. His first two memoirs record his struggle to recover some amount of function as he reassembled his shattered memory and personality. He had written quite a bit of poetry and fiction, including three novels. After his illness, he found he needed the flat reality that autobiography provided, to work through his affliction, to have some hope of a return to productive function. This memoir focuses not on his illness, though it is mentioned, but on the experiences that formed him as a writer.

Three things in particular grasped my attention: performance, Faulkner, and home life. Though he loved his mother, if ever a mother deserved hating, it was Floyd's mother: capricious, violent, hateful, and vain, she had little going for her. One wonders how the parents ever got together long enough to produce two boys; by the time the author was old enough to remember, the two were uniformly hostile to one another.

She had had a brief fling at fame as a singer and radio host in the 1930s, and never let anyone forget it. Both before and after her husband's death in Floyd's teenage years, she had to be the center of attention…or else! She was one remarkably self-blind woman. After the death of Floyd's father, she seemed to be in shock for a good part of a year. But thereafter, she embarked on a husband hunt in a relentless way that left little time for her boys (I don't recall now whether the older boy got married and moved out during this time, or earlier; he was about eight years older).

In sporadic efforts to recover a performing career, the mother had coerced her young boys to perform with her at various events. All the family members were good singers. First the older boy, Philip, then Floyd, found the courage to refuse these outings. Sports provided Floyd's outlet, though his small size and slender skills eventually convinced him he'd never be a great player at basketball, football, or even baseball, his favorite.

It was only later in life that he returned to the stage, acting in a few plays. Over a few years, he realized he wouldn't become a leading light as an actor either. However, learning lines, performing on stage and becoming the character taught him a lot about voice, mood, and how to project to an audience. While his home life may have provided some material, or a foundation for his writing, it was the performing from which he learned how to convey it.

In his college years, as he was dithering among this major and that, he was employed as a reader for a blind professor. In those days before Books on Tape, he recorded material for the professor to listen to. This mentor chose selections for Floyd's needs as much as for his own, and one day handed him a copy of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Just reading a few pages of the book makes huge demands on a reader. Imagine reading it aloud with some semblance of meaning!! Between recording this book and producing a large article about Thomas Hardy ("not a good writer, but a great writer"), Floyd learned how these writers could get characters under your skin and make you care about them.

There is more, much more of course, but these influences have been key ones that made Floyd Skloot the writer he was prior to 1988, and have stayed with him as he recovered into the writer he is today.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Disappointment on the Brandywine

kw: sightseeing, photographs, travel notes

Just east of famed Longwood Gardens is a rather minor attraction, Brandywine Battlefield Park. We made it a quick trip, to plan a longer visit later. I composed a framing shot of the Visitors' Center and found that my camera's battery didn't have enough charge left to focus the shot. This turned into an even briefer trip. We took a quick look at the Ring and Gilpin houses and headed home.

This is the Benjamin Ring house (photo from a friend), Washington's headquarters during that part of September 1777. He was hoping to forestall a British advance on Philadelphia, and chose this farmhouse with its overlook of Chadd's Ford.

Washington's forces were defeated September 11, 1777 (the original 9/11), and the British forces went on to ravage Philadelphia about two weeks later.

There is a re-enactment of portions of the battle over Labor Day weekend, just a month from now, an event I hope to attend. I'll make sure my camera's battery is fully charged!

Friday, August 07, 2009

A partial analysis?

kw: analysis, puzzles

I have played Sudoku for years without really considering just how many such puzzles can be formed. I did a quick search and found quite a variety of "answers" to the question, "how many Sudoku puzzles?". They range from a few trillion to about 1050, all confidently asserted. So here is my 2¢ worth. I don't have all the analytical tools to do a complete statistical analysis, but I'll do what I can.

There are three constraints:
  1. All the digits from 1-9 must appear in each row. This implies that no digit can be repeated in any row.
  2. The same goes for any column.
  3. All the digits from 1-9 must appear in each of nine blocks formed by breaking up the 9x9 grid into a tic-tac-toe board. This also implies that no digit may be repeated in a block.
The following block of digits is the trivial Sudoku solution:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3
7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1
5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4
8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2
6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5
9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Now let us constrain the solution. First, there are 9! ways, or 362,880, to make a single row of nine digits. If we were totally free to make the rows, without constraints 2 and 3, the total number of arrangements would be (9!)9 or 1.09x1050.

We are not so totally free, however. Given any particular top row, the second row is constrained, so that the number of possibilities is 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1x1 = 8!. Looking at the other end of the problem, we find that once eight rows are completed, the ninth has a unique solution, so the number of its possibilities is 1 or 1!. If there are two rows left, they can come in either order, but are otherwise completely constrained, so the number of possibilities for the seventh row is 2 or 2!. Thus I infer that the number of row-column solutions, not constrained by the blocks, is 9!x8!x7!...1! = 1.84x1021.

The block constraint will further limit the total number. My stab at it is to reason thus: The solution given above is a rearrangement of:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2
4 5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3
5 6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4
6 7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5
7 8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6
8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

This is a row-column solution, but not a block solution. This particular collection of rows can be rearranged 9! ways, but not all of them are block solutions. The true solution given previously can be considered as three sets of three rows. Each such set can be rearranged 3! or 6 ways, and the three sets can be rearranged 3! or 6 ways, giving (3!)4 ways in total, or 1,296. Thus we take the number of row-column solutions, divide by 9! and multiply by 1,296, which yields:


I do believe that is the total number of Sudoku puzzles. If I have left something out, I am sure I will hear from someone…

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The polymath that inspired Jefferson

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, scientists

Joseph Priestley was very fortunate to have a very sunny, optimistic disposition. Few men could have borne becoming the most hated man in England, then in exile a target of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and remained sane. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America by Steven Johnson is a biography not just of "Dynamite Joe" (from a quote falsely attributed to him at the time), but of the progressive view of science, religion and politics that he embraced and its effect on three of the most famous figures of the late 18th Century: Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson, and John Adams, all of whom Priestley counted as dear friends.

For these four men, the conceptual barriers we experience today—because of which a politician can get away with putting his scientific views and his faith in compartments and claiming they'll have no bearing on his public service—did not exist and would be considered both ludicrous and criminally counterproductive.

Thus, Priestley was not "just a natural philosopher", an inspiration to both Franklin and Lavoisier, but an ordained minister who helped found Unitarianism as a denomination, and a first-rate writer of political tracts. As a proto-scientist, he is best known for discovering "dephlogisticated air", which Lavoisier determined was a positive, not a negative, quantity and named Oxygen. Yet prior to this he was one of the foremost "electricians", as electrical experimenters were then known, second only to Franklin, and the first to produce soda water.

But it is as a dissenting preacher that he experienced the most severe life changes. Firstly, his deconstruction of all supernatural elements in the Bible, and of Jesus's divinity, in his book An History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which convinced Jefferson that he himself was indeed a Christian, led to public fury throughout England, the burning of his house, and his eventual flight to the new republic "across the pond".

Secondly, once in America, during a breakfast with President John Adams, Priestley enthusiastically (he did everything enthusiastically) discoursed on his millennial views of world politics and America's place in it, something that thoroughly alarmed Adams. While Adams claimed in later letters to Jefferson (a decade after Priestley's death) that he did not have the old dissenter in mind when enacting the Alien and Sedition Acts—his real target was French spies—, the fact remains that Priestley had good reason to expect a second exile should his protection by Vice President Jefferson ever fail.

One other stellar quantity he had: he never kept a secret. He (enthusiastically) shared the results of all his experiments immediately, to his current correspondents and often in tracts or books for the public. He might have been richer had he kept a trade secret here or there (such as for his invention of seltzer water), but he thought the benefit of openness, and avoiding the damage that secrecy does to scientific advancement, was worth the "trivial" loss he might have incurred. He and his openness thrived in the coffee-house culture that nourished so many scientists and philosophers of the time, and brought so many diverse minds together to cross-pollinate one another.

He wrote copiously on scientific experiments, religion, philosophy, education and politics. The sum total of his published writings is probably exceeded by none except possibly Isaac Asimov (However, Asimov's nonfiction was largely explaining or repackaging the work of others, while Priestley nearly always wrote from personal experience).

Looking back more than 200 years, the author takes what he calls a "long zoom" approach, placing the cultural history of two great English-speaking nations in a context not just of centuries, but millions of years, as he fits the British Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution eras into the emerging, ever (so far) increasing concentration of energy, both chemical and social, that an individual could muster.

Consider that today, the mayor of a medium-sized city such as Oklahoma City (half a million) wields more political power than the emperor of the Akkadians did in 1000 BC, or that the average teenager has more raw power at his disposal (100-400 horsepower) when he borrows the family car, than entire societies did before the invention of the steam engine. Rewind history to just before 1800 AD, and you can just about take the square root of either quantity, for an assessment of available energy and influence.

Priestley was a great genius, there is no doubt, and it is equally true that he rode the ascending cusp of a wave of innovation powered by both coal and a rising urbanization of society. And, there was so much to discover! It is a bit too late for any of us to discover new elements using a few beakers and a laundry tub.

Priestley's influence can be seen most clearly, however, in the famous spate of letters written between Adams and Jefferson after 1812. References to Priestley greatly outnumber references to either Washington or Franklin! His political writings, his dissenting faith and writings, and his scientific inspiration had shaped their world most of all.

The great gulf between the two old Presidents encompasses today's political pendulum swings. If today's US President could exchange letters with Ronald Reagan, I suspect the polarization would not quite reach that between Jefferson and Adams (And it is largely due to that polarization that the "second-place becomes Vice President" provision was changed to make it a "candidate plus running mate" race). Their common link, the factor that allowed the aging statesmen to communicate at all, was a cheerful, brilliant Englishman who embodied the best of America at least as much as the two of them.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Climb to nowhere

kw: dreams, musings, climbing

Though short of sleep, I had a week's worth of very vivid dreams last night. The most memorable, and possibly meaningful sequence was of climbing, in three stretches, and No, I did not reach the top.

The first climb began after some colossal game of tag that was taking place in a large office building. When one guy pulled out a rifle, I fled up some kind of ramp, then climbed a cloth-covered slope to a window that I could not get through. However, the next stretch above the window seemed climbable, so I went on up. By this time I was alone, struggling up a rather soft-sided incline that became a vertical with ledges. It took all my strength to get to one ledge, but that led to a meadow or yard. I walked alongside someone for just a short way, then was alone again. I circled the upper part of the building I'd been in, which I now saw was mostly underground.

I was walking along, marveling at a junkyard of truly unusable stuff, when I came to another slope, with the conviction that I had to either traverse it or surmount it. It soon seemed like a giant trash bag full of leaves, and the plastic stretched and rippled, making the climbing almost fruitless. Finally, when I got to a concrete lip that I could grasp—and by this time I had two men climbing with me, plus there was a third atop the lip—the lip turned out to be a loose slab that fell back on us, at which time I awoke.

How to interpret such a thing? Climbing in dreams often indicates worry over obstacles. Two out of three ain't bad, but I remember feeling quite surprised when the slab would not support me. I guess I am anticipating a betrayal. Now I just have to figure out whether it will be related to home, work, or something else. I do remember thinking soon after I woke up that I have a very strong disinclination to turn back from any path once chosen. This reminds me of a side story.

When I lived in Pasadena, California, I owned a decrepit VW bug. It's an important detail that the boot around the gearshift was badly cracked and split. I enjoyed driving around in the San Gabriel mountains. Once I did so after some rain, and I found myself splashing through puddles in the dirt track, scarcely a road. I pancaked my way through one large puddle, and muddy water splashed up alongside the gear shift lever and got on the headliner (and on me). I said to myself, "Well, I'm glad I don't need to come back this way." I knew the track I was on was a loop. Less than a minute later I came to a "swimming pool" of a puddle. So I actually did turn back, right back through that other puddle, and got more mud on the headliner (and on me). I got home safe! 'Swhat counts.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Three steps to English

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, english language

How often do you say or hear, "Long time, no see", or "Where to?", or even "Look-see"? All three have made their way into "common" English via Chinese-English Pidgin, an incipient Creole spoken by tens of thousands of traders and businesspeople throughout oceanic Asia, from the South China Sea through Indonesia and Malaysia. The crucial insight into how this Pidgin works is that the expressions use English words but Chinese and Malay grammar.

This kind of Pidgin arises when a more numerous people learn the words of the language of less numerous, but economically powerful, neighbors or invaders. A few expressions (e.g. kowtow, gung ho, typhoon) make their way in the other direction, but it is typically incumbent on the poorer people to learn how to speak to the more powerful.

A Pidgin is a second (or third or …) language for all parties involved. When large numbers of people begin to speak it as a first language, the result is called a Creole. Give it a few generations, with a bit of linguistic drift, and it becomes simply another language.

Another way a Creole can arise is among immigrants who learn a language as adults, including some of its grammar, and speak it "broken". When the number of immigrants is large, and when they in turn influence the language of the next generation for both their own children and those of the host country, large grammatical changes can occur. Depending on the extent of mongrelization of the languages, the result can be a Creole, or it may just cause the aggregation of lots of new terms and maybe a grammatical nicety or two from the immigrants' language into the host language. "Spanglish" is a Creole spoken in large areas of the U.S., particularly the Southwest states (more accurately, there are a few dialects of Spanglish already). But "Janglish" in Japan is, at this point, just a cute reference to the large number of English loan words the Japanese young people have picked up. "Franglish" is similar.

I found it fascinating, but altogether not surprising, that English has been Creolized at least twice, and its forbear language, Proto-Germanic, has had at least a strong influence from a Semitic language, possibly Phoenician. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, John McWhorter outlines his reasoning for this series of processes.

The author first demonstrates how Anglo-Saxon, brought to England in the Fifth Century A.D. by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and which we tend to call Old English, morphed into Middle English over half a millennium or so. In the process, its Germanic grammatical constructions were nearly all replaced by a grammar that is seen to be Celtic, resembling Welsh and Cornish, including in particular our tendency to use "do" as a "helper verb": "Do you want to go?" or "I didn't take it!" have replaced "Want you to go?" and "I took it not!". The former are Celtic constructions, the latter, Old English but with modern spelling.

A second "Celtic marker" is our peculiar "-ing" present tense: "I'm running" for "I run". Every language uses "I run", except for English and—you got it—the Celtic languages. Thus Middle English has its roots in a Creole between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tongues.

A second major shift occurred that was not driven by Celtic influences, and came later. Thousands of Vikings, many of them weary of raiding and hoping to take up farming in "fair Britannia", took over large portions of the island. The areas in which the largest numbers of them lived were the first to drop many of the case endings and verb declensions that we find in documents written elsewhere. "Broken" English became the norm. Thus while Anglo-Saxon had five or six noun cases, Middle English shifted rapidly from having four to having two (usually, add "s" to make a possessive), and from a larger number of verb tenses to only three: I sing, I sang, I have sung before. We handle the future by adding "will" or "going to".

Thus, among twelve Germanic languages in use today, only English has the "do" helper verb (which McWhorter calls "meaningless do"); only English uses present progressive with "-ing", and only English has shed nearly all inflections of nouns and much more than half the verbal apparatus. Oh, yeah: English also doesn't "sex" things like books and tables, as all other European languages do. This is why English speakers have a tougher time learning those languages. The extra frills that English has shed must be learned, and are very seldom learned with any perfection, while the Europeans are already familiar with them and just need to learn the words and the differences in how those frills work in a new language.

The other major difference between Old English and Middle English is the large number of French loan words that resulted from 150 years of Norman domination. The Norman elite were quite small in number, and their grammar didn't influence their English servants very much, but the words they required them to use made their way into English as a parallel vocabulary, which is why we have a larger number of synonyms than most languages.

But wait, there's more! The Proto-Germanic language that became Anglo-Saxon, reconstructed from a comparison of all the Germanic languages, was quite a bit different from proto-Indo-European. It actually had only about half the grammatical apparatus of its parent. It had already shed some of the cases and declensions. It also had about a third of its vocabulary derived from a non-Indo-European source. The author deduces that this source was a Semitic language, and he favors Phoenician, because they were the most avid seafaring people of the mid-First Millennium BC. It cannot yet be proven, but I agree with his reasoning, that Proto-Germanic began as a Creole, or as heavy loan-word borrowing from a Semitic language.

So, there you have it. Three mongrelizations that produced first the Germanic family of languages, including Old English, then Middle English, then Modern English. Based on this history, why is anyone concerned that English continues to change, not only its vocabulary, but its grammar also? Remember, "'Ain't' ain't a word, 'cause it ain't in the dictionary."? It is now. Remember the prohibitions against splitting infinitives, or against ending a sentence with a preposition? They were based on Latin grammar, and are no longer followed. What will change next? I don't know. Hang on for the ride!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Patenting's past

kw: photographs, sightseeing, science, inventions

Friday, July 31 was the last day this year that DuPont employees could get free admission to the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. We walked around for an hour in the powder yards, then went specifically to the Patent Models exhibit.

Beginning in 1790, America's original patent law required a working model of a new invention as part of the patent application. This exhibit contains more than 120 of the original working models, covering the whole period up to 1880, after which models were no longer required. As these two cabinets' labels show, the display is arranged according to functional areas.

This Paddle Wheel – only a portion was shown, to display the innovative construction – and Life Boat were submitted in 1892 and 1873, respectively. The kayak behind them is of similar vintage.

The Screw Auger, the main feature of this little case, is a much earlier invention, submitted in 1809. It is identical to one I used to use with a brace-and-bit belonging to my father, in the 1950s. Some things are hard to improve on. Some time I'll get some decent photos of the Machine Shop, which contains lathes, shapers, mills, drill presses and other equipment from the early and middle 1800s. Again, when I worked as a machinist in the 1970s, I used equipment which was little different from a hundred years earlier, except it ran by electric motor power rather than off a water-wheel-driven leather belt.

Other inventions don't fare so well. You may know that Thomas Edison received more than 1,000 patents. Of all his inventions, the only one still in use is the incandescent bulb, and that will soon be extinct. There are proposed laws making them illegal (!) in favor of compact fluorescent lamps, and I expect those to be superseded in a few more years by high-power LED lamps. I already use LED night lights and flashlights, and plenty of my neighbors use LED Christmas lights.