Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Six ways to experience time

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, self help, time perspective

Self-help books have a certain format: Faith-building; Establishing the authors' authority; Setting the stage, via historical or global summary; and Offering help. For some books, the last step is mostly urging the reader to buy a product. For the better ones, real help is offered. The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life, by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, is of the latter sort. But be warned, the subtitle ought to read "With this new psychology of time, you can change your life." You can, indeed, but it will take work.

Fairly early in the book (pp 53ff), one is offered the ZTPI (Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory) and TFTPI (Transcendental Future TPI) questionnaires, and urged to complete and score them before continuing. I did so and had my wife do so. I chose a Radar plot to display our results:

What does this show? Each of us has an attitude toward the past, toward the present, and toward the future. Each attitude can be negative or positive, or some mix. Looking at the charts now, I probably should have re-cast them with the indicators in a different order, but they are still not hard to read: Both my wife and I tend to regret a lot of the past, and have relatively fewer happy memories. We both have a strong Future (meaning future positive, I could infer later) orientation, but an even stronger Transcendental-Future orientation. The latter item is logical for Christians. Where we differ (only a little, thankfully) is that she tends to be a little fatalistic about things ("I can't change that anyway") and less inclined to just enjoy life, while I am (moderately) the opposite.

I look at our chart as showing we are pretty well balanced, with a somewhat depressive tendency rooted in our negative outlook on the past, but an equally strong spiritual attitude. Now let us look at the information supplied by the authors about themselves, on a similar chart:

This shows two very compatible guys, who share a strong Future outlook (save for a rainy day; delay gratification), who have lots of happy memories, and who love enjoying life—put these together, and you have "work hard, play hard". They are distinctly not spiritual, and while they do not state it, are probably not religious at all.

It should come as no surprise that the authors promote this kind of profile as near-ideal. They spend quite a bit of space outlining the consequences of being too one-dimensional in any of the six traits.

Having established such a framework, they could present their answer to "What is the Time Paradox?" in extended form. The short answer is, we descended from apes that needed to find food, strove to avoid becoming food, and spent plenty of time either mating or fighting over mates and food. The most natural orientation was Past Negative (quicker reactions to danger), Present Hedonistic stronger than Fatalistic, and little need to plan for the Future. The world we live in today (in the First World at least), requires stronger Future skills than our distant ancestors had. In fact, for many of us, the world requires a time orientation that is the opposite of what we were born with.

The authors show how schools and other institutions are "Made for Futures", and frustrate those with a stronger Present or Past orientation. They show that too-strong a Transcendental orientation makes terrorism a perfectly logical response to oppressive environments that would induce Fatalism in others: Thus, suicide bombers aren't insane, but they are very differently oriented.

When it comes to helping oneself, the authors have plenty to offer. They have exercises throughout the book, such as the "Who am I?" worksheet: the question is repeated twenty times, and you are to reply differently to each one. There are similar worksheets that are more time-based (What was I?, What will I be?, etc.), and a gratitude exercise, for example. The kind of people who will find such changes the hardest to make are the Presents, both Fatalist and Hedonist. To them, the future is a nearly meaningless concept. It doesn't "fit in their heads."

A side note: I have an acquaintance with an addictive personality, the epitome of a Hedonist. It takes a real jackhammer experience to get him to pay attention to future needs, and then only for a short time. One would think that, after having his car stolen out from under him twice, having stared down the barrel of a gun, having been beat up by a drug dealer, he'd never return "there" again. But he is precisely what the Bible calls a "dog that returns to its own vomit." Sadly, I expect him to die young.

Which sparks a sort of proverb: Self Help is only for those with a Self to Help. Some folks don't have enough of a Self. But for most of us, simple skills like the Gratitude exercise (Quick, think of five things you're thankful for. Write 'em down. Repeat tomorrow and every day. Try not to do the same five every day.) can gradually adjust our Time orientation to make us a bit better than we were. Even if I have a different "ideal profile" in mind, it is an ideal the authors' tools can help me approach.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Picturing the third dimension

kw: photography, photomicrography, new technologies

In 2000, Noel T. Goldsmith wrote "Deep Focus; a digital image processing technique to produce improved focal depth in light microscopy" (Image Anal Stereol 2000; v19; pp163-167 and this PDF). The article outlines and demonstrates how software can detect the most in-focus parts of multiple photographs of the same subject and stack them together to produce one image that is in focus throughout. It is the 'through-focus' analog of panoroma stitching.

It only took a year or two for the first commercial products to appear, and by 2003 there were several. One that seems popular is Helicon Focus. The three images that follow are from a review of Helicon Focus at Digital Photo Pro. They suffice to show the principles.

This is the first of ten images in a "stack" taken over the wide focal range of this sunflower field.

This image, the tenth in the stack, is close to what you'd get by focusing near the far end of the field, and letting the closest flowers go out of focus.

With the software, the whole field appears in focus. The original paper by Goldsmith was applied to microscopy, and that is still its most useful arena, for depth-of-field problems are the greatest there.

This image, from Concept 2 Innovation, could not be taken any other way. It is actually a stitched mosaic (panorama) of several through-focus stacks processed by Helicon Focus. Of course, this is quite a bit smaller than the research photograph, which shows great detail over and throughout the entire fly. It think of such a photo as a kind of gigapixel image with three dimensions. Producing two such images at an angular difference of 10° will yield a stereo pair of fully focused images. Heaven for a microscopist!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Will the valley ever return?

kw: observations, musings, nature

Last evening we watched the new PBS show on national parks, "America's Best Idea". It is the first of six two-hour weekly shows.

In a long segment on Yosemite, the first piece of land set aside, when they mentioned the 1890 legislation setting aside the larger Park, they mentioned that the Hetch Hetchy Valley was included, but didn't go into the later battle over damming up the latter valley.

This is about half the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and its dam in 2006, clipped from Google Maps. At that time, the water depth was about 230 feet. There are two nearby reservoirs ("nearby" means they are roughly as far away as the size of the reservoirs), Lake Eleanor, also inside the Yosemite Reservation, and Cherry Lake, just outside. I wonder if they also drowned beautiful valleys.

From an economic standpoint, it is easy to see why Hetch Hetchy was chosen for a dam. It has the narrowest neck of the local valleys. Of the three sister reservoirs, Hetch Hetchy has by far the greatest ratio of water to dam. It was dammed in 1913, Eleanor in 1918, and Cherry Lake in 1956. The last of these has a dam with about ten times the volume of the others.

There is an ongoing effort by the Sierra Club and others to restore Hetch Hetchy. I would like to see that, but I don't expect it to happen. Growing populations need ever-larger amounts of water; increasing prosperity (yes, it is still increasing) requires more water per person. More people keep moving to California; not many people think as I do, that it is too crowded for comfort (I call L.A. County "the anthill").

I wasn't in favor of the much more recent formation of Lake Mead, but I'll say this for it. Getting around by boat, and visiting some pretty spectacular side valleys, is a lot easier now than it was before, by car on bad roads. I'll have to visit HH Reservoir in my circuit of National Park visits, and see what beauties still remain for someone boating around.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neighborhood Art

kw: photographs, folk art

I saw this house in passing, and got permission from the owner/artist to take photographs. He said he had a lot more inside, but didn't invite me in. He was just leaving. That made it easier to get this photo, as his vehicle wasn't in the driveway.

The young man decries the "poor" art scene in the area. That's funny, as I make it a point to view new work at a couple nearby galleries, and he lives not two miles from Arden, Delaware, a well-known art colony. Then again, just as I don't consider Rap to be music, he must not consider a lot of displayed material to be art. I declined to mention my own penchant for making mobiles.

This is my favorite of the pieces he displays outside.

Art made from found objects is one of the larger subgenres; a quick Google search for "found object" nets a third of a million hits, although +"found object" +sculpture (the pluses force both search strings to be present) yields less than 100,000.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dawn sequence

kw: observations, photographs, dawn

I went out shortly after 6:00 am to get the paper and see the sky. Dawn colors were just beginning to show, so I got my camera and tripod. I got set up up the block from my house, at the edge of the street (and I still picked up a wire!) about 6:30 (daylight time; 5:30 standard) and took 19 images as morning clouds developed and the sunlight played across them. There were three cloud layers, not all visible at once. All images were shot at 32mm focal length (41mm equivalent for 35mm std).

6:34 am, ISO 800, f/11, 1.3 seconds, shutter priority. The lower level of scattered clouds is not illuminated, but the "mackerel" stratocumulus clouds are getting very pink already.

6:37 am, ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/6 second, shutter priority. The lower clouds are beginning to pick up some red light.

6:48 am, ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/40 second, automatic with flash locked off. The stratocirrus have thickened, and their brightness almost swamps the pink color of the lower clouds.

6:52 am, ISO 400, f/5, 1/100 second, automatic with flash locked off. An upper deck of cirrus clouds can be seen forming at the top of the image. A small lower deck cloud, which looks dark with just a hint of pink, is seen between the trees. The stratocirrus are mostly yellow now. The street lamp to the left went off just before this image was taken.

6:57 am, ISO 400, f/5, 1/100 second, automatic with flash locked off. Nearly all the reddish colors are gone. To my eye, this seemed to be a daylit scene, but were the sun fully up, the exposure would have been f/11 and 1/400 second at this ISO. Though the house at the right is getting visible to the camera, the amount of light is still just 1/20 of daylight.

So why am I posting this twelve hours later? Right after breakfast I began to dig up a corner of the yard that was infested with Nimblewill, a weedy grass that could take over the lawn. I dug and sifted soil from roots for five hours, spread out and tamped the sifted soil, planted new seed and set up a stick-and-string barrier. Then I had a late lunch and napped for a couple hours, loaded to the gills with Ibuprofen, to let the cramps in my back loosen up. A ton of work for 30 square feet, about 400 pounds of dirt. Now I am full of a nice dinner and have leisure to get at my computer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A hole in time, or in the head?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, time travel, dinosaurs

In Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is a baby-eating witch who lives in a cabin that runs around on huge chicken legs. In Primeval: Extinction Event by Dan Abnett, which largely takes place in Siberia, tyrannosaurs get loose in the 21st century, and the Russians who encounter them—and survive—call them Baba Yaga.

The book is based on the Primeval TV series (ITV, Britain), in which "anomalies" that link older times with the present allow all sorts of ancient animals to get loose in places like London. The series takes advantage of the continuing public fascination with "people versus dinosaurs", a phenomenon that dates back to the discovery of dinosaur fossils in the early 1800s. One of my first books was of the "All About Dinosaurs" genre, and our family had a coffee-table book with historical artwork including swamps filled with brontosaurs and a couple dozen other dinosaur species, with a few kinds of pterosaurs in the sky.

As I've grown older I've sometimes wondered at this public fascination. Do we really need bigger and meaner things that could eat us, to populate our nightmares? Is getting stepped on by a Diplodocus any more final than having an elephant crunch you flat?

Anyway, in this novel the scientist Cutter and two of his assistants, the team that is at the forefront of Anomaly research, get kidnapped and taken to Siberia, where a much larger and longer-lasting anomaly has turned a large area into a misplaced section of the Cretaceous age, complete with tyrannosaurs, large sauropods and hadrosaurs, ceratopsians, and even packs of wolf-size Troodons.

Here is my own fascination with the vagaries of time and survival. Had there been no Chicxulub asteroid to bring the Age of Reptiles to an end, mammals today would probably still be Spaniel-size and smaller, and some descendant of Troodon would be a (formerly, perhaps) scaly primate with space travel and atom bombs.

In Cretaceous Siberia, both tyrannosaurs and troodons are equally deadly, the scientists are surrounded with FSB (former KGB) agents who have no humor whatever, and it takes a highly unlikely sort of hacking session for Connor to use a Russian military satellite's EMP beam to close the big anomaly. Just there, the biggest cop-out of the book occurs. The author has shown plenty of imagination up to this point, but the critical button push ends a chapter, while the next one begins with an "after it is all over" sort of wrapping up. It is kind of like a half-hour speech being concluded with a single bland sentence. C'mon, Dan, give us one more chapter of our heroes, and a villain or two, barely surviving the attack of the killer satellite!

Oh, well, there was plenty of willing suspension of disbelief needed already. I suppose I can imagine my own dramatic "blow out all the radios and cell phones and laptops" scenario. I just hope the aging general in charge doesn't have a pacemaker!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The popularity of big reptiles

kw: observations, popular culture, dinosaurs, lists

I'm reading yet another book based on a spin-off of Jurassic Park, which I'll be reviewing in a day or two. It got me thinking about the staying power of the human-dinosaur connection.

I did a little searching on the web, and herewith, some of the most popular J.P. spin-offs:
  1. Veloci-Mates on YouTube
  2. Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis for Xbox
  3. Warpath: Jurassic Park
  4. Primeval TV series (which has spin-offs of its own)
  5. Primeval film, which is about a crocodile, not a dinosaur
  6. King Kong (2005), with its extended sequences of dinosaur stampedes and fights
  7. Dinotopia books and films

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Of apes and the women who love them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural science, scientists

Last evening I watched a short item on ABC's Primetime about pet chimpanzees, and the great dangers that result. It was stated that a mature male chimp weighs 200 pounds (95 kg) and has seven times the strength of a human male. I believe it is more accurate to say that a male chimp who is not obese might weigh 150 pounds (70 kg), and while the animal may be seven times as strong as I am (or any other sedentary office worker), it is more likely that the figure is three times, compared to a fit man in his prime. Considering the poor impulse control of primates in general, keeping such an animal at home rates right up there with hanging hand grenades from your belt by their pins. Chimps really don't belong in our bedrooms.

It is quite another thing to put oneself into their bedrooms. Yet this is indeed what Jane Goodall did in 1960, and has continued to do for 39 years since. She is the first of Louis Leakey's "Ape Girls", and as Sy Montgomery tells us, still the best known. Second in order, and in recognition, is Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas from 1967 until her murder in 1985; and the third, least known in the West, but a power in her own right in Indonesia, is Biruté Galdikas, who has been studying orangutans since 1971. These womens' lives and work are limned (there is too much material for any one book to comprehensively cover) in Ms Montgomery's 1991 book Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas, which has recently been reissued in paperback.

The book reveals three aspects of each woman's life: as the Nurturer who gained the apes' confidence and, perhaps, respect; as the Scientist who revealed the animals' lives to the rest of us; and as the Warrior who championed the preservation of the apes and their homes. While the opening section shows the similarity of these three women's approach to their subjects, the third shows their differences most starkly.

We could consider the work of each of them as a two-step drama. Each spent a number of years gaining information (one could hardly call it data) and becoming as habituated to the apes as the apes did to them. At the same time, each strove to earn the credit they expected to need in the world around, though each saw that world in very different terms. Subsequently, each became an advocate for the animals, and here they differ starkly.

Jane Goodall has become a globe-trotting diplomat, deftly working the politics of the powerful Western countries to build support for the preservation of chimp habitat and for severe restriction of their "taking" for purposes such as being laboratory animals, circus/zoo entertainers, or pets.

Dian Fossey took a more direct, vigilante approach. She recruited a private army and attacked poachers and the cattle of encroaching ranchers. She paid little regard to national or international politics, taking the slogan "politics is local" about as far as it can be taken. Her murder was inevitable.

Biruté Galdikas became totally conversant in Indonesian cultures and political habits, and has gained recognition, at least in Asia, as a highly respected authority, one who, as she quotes Prince Charles, has "no power, but plenty of influence." She is gaining, and has largely gained already, the favor and regard of the people who matter most to the orangutans' survival, the people and the governmental leaders of Indonesia.

The book closes with an epilogue subtitled "Shamans", an author's musing about the women's becoming one with their subjects. It is not surprising at all, considering how similar many people become to their favorite pets! And in spite of the fact that "the apes don't need us [socially]," which all three of them say, the apes have gained something also. One incident is related of a chimp who has learned to understand and respond to spoken English, though no effort was made to teach her. That isn't surprising at all. Nearly any dog is a better linguist than his owner; the dog learns to respond well to many spoken words, while few humans ever learn a single word of Dog!

The cover of the book shows two orangutans, mother and infant. The infant, chewing on a leaf, bears an open look of not-quite-curiosity. The mother's look is far from friendly, not quite a glower. Will the foreboding her face seems to bear come to pass with her species' extinction? The history of human greed does not allow me much confidence that the apes will survive into my grandchildren's generation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A prettier seed

kw: observations, photographs, trees

My neighbor told us she doesn't like her Dwarf Dogwood. This year in particular she is upset because it is dropping many of these seed pods on her driveway.

The tree stands on a strip of grass between our driveways. It needs to be a dwarf tree for the space is small. We've been here fifteen years, and the tree hasn't grown. It is about twelve feet tall.

But I really like the seed pods. They are pretty. The regular Dogwood seeds are nice enough, but this geodesic-dome look really catches my eye.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The folk singer's folk singer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, folk singers

I learned my first folk songs from my family, but the first book of folk songs I obtained, as a gift, was The Weavers' Songbook. I still have my old orangeish copy. I was taught guitar by my parents, but learned banjo from How to Play the 5-String Banjo by Pete Seeger, the ostensible leader (really, the soul) of the Weavers. I sang a few of his songs over the years, though I've been more inclined towards "love and family" ballads than pro-union protest. I love his "fun songs" (e.g. Kisses Sweeter than Wine) the best. I was surprised to read this last May of the celebration of his 90th birthday; I'd though him long gone.

When Alec Wilkinson approached Seeger about writing a new biography (at 28 years old, an earlier biography by David King Dunaway is getting dated), Seeger said he wanted a smaller book, one that could be read in one sitting. The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger is just that. With about 40,000 words, it takes less than two hours to read.

What one finds inside is a rather breathless rush through a long, long life, one that matches Seeger's frenetic pace when performing, though his personal style at home is more contemplative. Seeger's parents were musical, particularly his father, an award-winning composer and performer. His half-siblings Peggy and Mike are renowned folk singers also. I still sing a song that Peggy and her husband Ewan MacColl wrote, "Springhill".

Because of a youthful stint in the Communist Party, Seeger had trouble in "Red Scare" America for decades. Yet as he testified to HUAC in 1955, he would sing for anybody, anywhere. He didn't pay particular attention to Communism, having become disillusioned rather quickly. He is more of a progressive, basing his activism on an aggressive belief that all men (and women) really are created equal, and deserve equal respect and dignity. I can get behind that: I have written elsewhere that the very act of thinking oneself intrinsically better than another creates (or exposes) evil in you.

Seeger's approach to music-making shows the source of his politics. Based on a written philosophical statement by his father, it is inclusive and participatory. He prefers sing-along to performing, regardless that it seldom pays. Where Tip O'Neill has said, "All politics is local", Seeger would say, "All politics is personal." He seemed incapable of considering the viewpoint of the power elites; he always sang to/with and exhorted the grassroots. Around the head of his banjo is the aphorism, "This Machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

There is a deep humility in him. He didn't let fame get to him. He and Toshi have been married since 1944, a solid five years longer than I have been alive. They lived for years in a house he built, and still live nearby. Somehow bypassing the addiction and "poor impulse control" that plagued his friend Woody Guthrie, he has for seventy years remained the premier example of what a folk singer really is.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Don't pass up the Pluots

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fruits

First, the word Pluot is pronounced "ploo-ott". In the past year or two, most such fruits have been termed Plumicot instead.

Second, the stone fruits—peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots and cherries—are like dogs. All dogs are the same species, and all can interbreed, although a chihuahua-mastiff cross is a bit hard to either conceive or carry to term. So, although there are quite a number of species names for the trees, they can all interbreed, though some crosses are also harder than others (and in the whole book I didn't read of a single cross involving a cherry; a quick search of the Web located a few).

I don't recall seeing any fruit with a Pluot sticker on it before last year. It took me a bit to figure it out. Like Chip Brantley, I at first thought it was French and so pronounced "ploo-oh". He has his own funny story about that in the book: The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot. It is a quirky memoir that primarily relates the author's journey through a year of visiting fruit growers in California's Central Valley, where the majority of the country's stone fruits are grown.

Along the way we find there are hundreds of kinds of plums, and about 200 that make it to store shelves through the year. When you look at the produce tables, you see typically three bins for plums: Red, Black and either Purple or Green. Maybe there's a fourth bin for a specialty variety at a higher price. Each of the three actually contains three or four varieties that look alike but taste a little different. Every week, the varieties are different because the harvest of any variety is very short. So you see three bins, but over the four or five months they carry plums, each will have presented fifty to seventy different varieties.

For years, looks trumped taste. I've had many a plum that was no sweeter than a bad watermelon. Growers call them "cardboard". But there is a strengthening movement toward taste. If you buy a variety plum the day it goes on the shelf, it'll induce you to go back for more.

Brantley writes in lyrical terms about tasting plums. We all know what a wine tasting event is like: swirl a glass, smell it, take a bit of a sip, swirl it over the tongue, then spit it out. Repeat with next glass. When the growers visit a plum/apricot/whatever breeder, the drill is similar. Seldom does one swallow the bite. If you are going to taste thirty varieties in a forenoon, you can't keep them all down! You save the swallowing experience for the taste that makes you write lyrical prose. Based on such tasting events, growers decide which new varieties to buy and plant. Many new varieties appear every year.

The stone fruit business is brutal. Particularly in recent years, the huge stores like Wal-Mart have tended to buy at a certain rate regardless of the harvest. In a "perfect" year like 2007—perfect for the trees, that is—only a third of the crop got to the stores. There was so much fruit, of such wonderful quality, that they could not sell it all, prices fell, and most growers let half or more of their harvest fall off the trees unpicked.

I recall that year, the first time I saw a Pluot. We bought some that were on sale. They weren't just good, they were Wow-Good! But my wife buys by price. Not on sale? No sale. I don't recall the Summer of 2008, but this past Summer, just ending, we bought plums a few times, and they were very good. I don't know how things looked from the growers' end, though.

That is the problem. People don't buy plums regularly. They are still thought of as a specialty fruit. I eat an apple every day, and usually a banana also; an orange or two or three weekly, and pears almost daily when they are in season. Stone fruits of all kinds, perhaps two or three one week, then three weeks before we buy more. Somehow, the old saw "An Apple a day keeps the doctor away" has really stuck with people. I do have to add a word here: an apple almost never drips on my pants, while I have to eat stone fruits over a paper towel. Call me a klutz.

There is one trend that may push plums and plum crosses (Plumicots, etc.) a little deeper into the national consciousness. The red-fleshed ones in particular are good for the heart. They have as much as four times the antioxidant power of a glass of red wine. The growers and marketers are trying to capitalize on this, and if they can keep up the taste, they could have a winner.

Although taste (actually flavor) is more than sweetness, the sugar content is what holds the experience together. Sugar content is measured as "degrees Brix" or °Bx. A fruit whose juice measures 10°Bx ("ten bricks") contains ten percent sugar. Such a plum would be called cardboard. Ten to twenty years ago, "good" plums "bricked out" at 14-16. This year's Pluot (a patented name by the way) or Plumicot could have 20-24°Bx. Then there's the acid level. It needs to be low, but not zero. So-called "eating lemons" can have 18°Bx but the acid covers the sweetness. A plum without acid may as well be a mouthful of sugar water.

Though the Pluot was patented in the 1990s, the name seems to be on the way out, in favor of Plumicot (not patented), and a host of crosses that growers, tiring of the name game, are just calling Plums. Whatever they're called, now that growers are chasing flavor, they're bound to be good.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sublimity before sunrise

kw: observations, astronomy, photographs

I went out before breakfast to get the newspaper and saw Venus and the Moon in the dawn sky. There was a bit of Earthshine visible on the moon also. Sublime! I particularly like it when Venus is the Morning Star (3 years out of 8).

By the time I got my camera, the Earthshine was almost swamped by the dawn light, so in this image and the next, it is very hard to see. For that matter, it takes a moment to find Venus, near mid-image and to the left. This image is cropped from a horizontal one shot at 26mm f.l. (DX; equivalent to 42mm), f/4, 1/25 Sec, ISO 800. The cropping makes it about 40mm (64mm equiv).

Before Venus got swamped out also, I looked with binoculars, and could see its crescent shape, quite a bit narrower than the Moon's crescent. Some sharp-eyed people in pre-telescope times wrote that Venus seemed to have 'horns', but once even a 5x telescope became available, anyone could see the planet's phases, which convinced some (not all!) that Venus is closer to the Sun than Earth is.

This image was taken at 55mm (88mm equiv.), f/5.6, 1/15 sec, handheld, and cropped just a little. I tried setting the shutter to 1/60 sec, but could not get an image that shows Venus. The Earthshine is still barely visible.

An hour later when I left for work I looked for Venus, hoping with the Moon to guide me I could see Venus as a daylight object. But a very thin layer of cirrus clouds had moved in, a precursor to tomorrow's overcast (and expected rain). I've seen it before, but not this time. I could barely make out the Moon.

Both these images are resized to 600x800, which you can see if you click on either one.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fred wasn't only about machines

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, retrospectives

I wish I'd known that Fred Saberhagen was about much more than Berserkers and the odd alternate history. From time to time I've read one of his Berserker series books, but I am seldom in the mood for these robots that emphatically do not obey Asimov's three laws. And I am usually quite averse to alternative histories. I am of too practical a frame of mind: If it didn't happen that way, it probably couldn't. I don't willingly suspend disbelief in such cases. But there are a lot of ways to be "alternative".

Fred Saberhagen, who died in 2007, is honored in the volume Of Berserkers, Swords & Vampires: A Saberhagen Retrospective, collected and introduced by his wife Joan, who knows his work best. The book's six sections show well the breadth of his imagination. Though there are but thirteen stories and excerpts in the book, a comprehensive review is beyond me. I'll simply discuss my favorites.

My favorite by far is "Volume PAA-PYX", a moving story of power and the lust for power. This is where the word "Possemania" was coined. It is too bad the word never made it into general circulation. Perhaps the world's possemaniacs are behind that…

I believe it was Lord Acton who wrote, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." I say it thus: "The very thought that you have the right to decide for another creates evil in you." In the story, society has developed a way to divert the energies of those who most lust for power, and to cure some proportion of them. The problem is, following Acton, that the affliction is universal. "Who watches the watchers?" But it presents a touching ideal.

Saberhagen was a master of remaking a classic character his own, whether the Minotaur or Dracula. In "White Bull", the Minotaur is an interstellar educator, Theseus an unwilling student, and the Labyrinth an academy. What unwilling student does not fear being eaten alive by professors? And Daedalus shows up also, perhaps the most unwilling, though with no murder in mind. In "Box Number Fifty" the Count is seen as a decent sort. He is even rather caring to some youngsters who find themselves depending on him, when he's not out sucking someone dry.

Finally, in one of the most recent Berserker stories, "The Bad Machines", we are confronted with the choice of two evils, one cloaked as "helpers". I used to play on the latter archetype by showing up to do a consult wearing all white, including a white hat with a big yellow star. I'd say, "Greetings! I am from Star Consultants, and I am here to help you!!" After a bit of nervous laughter on my victims' part, I'd doff the hat, roll up my sleeves, and ask what they really needed; certainly not an arrogant know-it-all! When the real demons look more like angels, how are we to decide?

This just tastes the breadth of the author's reimagining old stories, older myths, and archetypes, to make us think new thoughts about them. Truly the mark of a master storyteller.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mister Ed inside your head

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, esp

I call it the Disney formula: a uniquely disadvantaged and abused youngster is removed, or escapes, to a place of relative luxury, or at least decent treatment, and is found to be exceptional in some way. In Foundation by Mercedes Lackey, young Mags, nearly sixteen, is a slave to a mine owner. He is removed from the mine by a Herald, one of a particularly privileged Gild (guild), because a Companion, a telepathic horse, has detected his Gift, and Chosen him. Among other things, Mags is a telepath, though his Gift has just begun to develop.

Most of the book consists of Mags's growth as a Herald Trainee in the Collegium, a newly founded training organization for the Gifted youngsters of the kingdom of Valdemar. Their Gifts pertain to three Gilds: Bards, Healers and Heralds. Based on a timeline in the front of the book, this volume is a "mid-quel", a sequel to certain of Ms Lackey's Herald series, and a prequel to others.

Mag, trained by his Companion, and taught by Gild trainers, is brought into a bit of intrigue: the King has not only his courtiers and counselors, but a second tier of information-gatherers (a more reliable one) in certain loyal families and their teenaged children, led by a trusted few Heralds. Mags is uniquely qualified to aid these youngsters.

They have troubles aplenty to occupy them, given three sources of conflict. A significant number of the Heralds are not happy that the older apprenticeship system is being replaced by the Collegium. A visiting embassage is found to be up to no good, but it is thought best to intimidate them into a more agreeable frame of mind rather than expose and embarrass them. And a psychotic killer shows up, but his demise leaves most questions unanswered, leaving plenty of room for the author to write further stories aimed at the early Collegium years.

It took me longer than I expected to read the book. Ms Lackey's prose rewards close reading; no skimming tricks will do. In her hands, a novel is a series of tapestries, full of detail that one does well not to miss.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Is there a doctor in the galaxy?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, mysteries

One could make a career out of reading Doctor Who novels. In the past twenty years, according to data at the Tardis Library, 973 editions of a couple hundred titles have been published. Just in the past year 123 editions have been published, all based on the BBC program that ran from the 1960s to 1989, and has been running again since 1997. The ability of "the Doctor" to return in a new body from time to time gives the show quite a lot of latitude to introduce a new lead actor from time to time.

Published in April 2009 by BBC Books (which traces back to Random House), Judgement of the Judoon, written by Colin Brake, has probably already been followed by more than twenty newer volumes. There appear to be scores of authors willing to write under the guidance of the series editors and consultants…and many more who write "unofficial" volumes.

Based only on reading this one volume, I find a refreshing return of space opera, with its hyperdrive ships, giant spaceports, comely villains, homely heroes, and picaresque plotlines. In this case—as in most of the volumes—the Doctor has a mystery to solve> he also has an unlikely pair of co-sleuths: a rhinoceroid Judoon police commander and a teenaged human private eye. A series of apparent thefts, and now a mysterious murder, have crippled operations at a new spaceport terminal, and the Doctor has just one day to trace a mysterious "Invisible Assassin".

As the three work their way towards a solution, they get to know one another. A plot subthread is their growing regard for each other. There's plenty of comic potential in the antics of a quarter-ton humanoid with a rhino's head who is used to getting (or making) his own way. In between life-endangering events, though, understated humor flies all directions. The climactic tragedy aside, the book's tone is light-hearted.

I'll have to look up an episode or two to watch, to see how the show's tone matches the book's (or vice versa). And when I come across any of the companion volumes, I'll see what else the many authors are cooking up to confront the Doctor. Not that I want to make a career of that, now…

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Dave never was there

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies, comedians

I first heard "Dave's not here" by Cheech and Chong when it became popular as a radio bit in 1971. It was mildly funny, but because I knew enough potheads to see its truth, it seemed more tragic to me. That's the same year I was first at a party where weed was being smoked, and I had a bad allergic reaction to the smoke. I was thus rescued from any risk of becoming a pothead myself.

Cheech and Chong comedy bits became wildly popular, but I noticed at the time that a lot of people just didn't get it. I was kind of in the middle, and didn't find them all that funny, just sometimes. Now, more than thirty years later, I came across Cheech & Chong, the Unauthorized Autobiography, and took the chance to read how their career developed. I braced myself for the reading, expecting grossness overload, and that is pretty much what the author delivers.

Both Tommy Chong and Richard "Cheech" Marin started out as musicians, and each was good enough to become quite popular in Vancouver, where they met in 1968. Both, by that point, were expanding into comedy and improv acting.

Their collaboration lasted about fifteen years, but the legend lives on among the stoner community; see The two had a brief reunion in 2008. In thirty years they'd had time to recover from their breakup.

The book weaves together a few threads. One is a long apologia in favor of legalized marijuana. Here's one thing I noticed about that: in a late chapter the author relates an incident in which Cheech was stopped by Malibu police for speeding and unsteady driving, after which they shepherded him home. Not two pages later he states that smoking pot makes you a better driver. Izzat so? Then I'd hate to be on the road with a weedless Cheech! My observations of stoners convince me that they are much the worse off. Cheech and Chong were wildly successful, yes, because they happened to be good at something they could do while stoned. If someone happens to be good at computer programming, they can't do productive work while stoned. I've seen it tried.

Another thread is the lifestyle. I thank God I got out of the popular music business before it plunged me into the world of hoods, pimps, whores, conmen, and shysters that Tommy Chong considers his normal milieu! As part of this lifestyle, he fathered a child with one woman while courting another, married the latter and had a child by her, then almost immediately took on a mistress, had a child by her, and later married her. That marriage finally stuck. It isn't quite the optimal way to locate one's soul mate.

The third thread is the style of their humor. Simply put: if you want to be degraded, go for it. Toward the end of the book I realized what was happening when I first heard their material. You have to be stoned to appreciate it. If you have your head on straight, their bits take too long and seem to go nowhere. If you are stoned, your thinking is slow enough that it all seems brilliant…and you don't want it to go anywhere anyway.

Had Cheech and Chong come along a generation or two earlier, they'd have gone nowhere. It took the Boomer generation, specifically those Boomers who prefer having their brains stewed in weed, to make the duo rich.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

How to be who you are

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, guides to life

I missed it the first time around. Now that Robin Roberts's book From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live by is out is paperback, it is already a second edition with a new chapter and a revised title: From the Heart: Eight Rules to Live by. Shortly after finishing the book, Ms Roberts found she had breast cancer, and the new chapter with its new rule, "Make Your Mess Your Message", springs from her experiences as a cancer survivor.

The book is incredibly warm and warmhearted. Though her passion is journalism—first sportscasting and now anchoring Good Morning America—, her foundations are Faith, Family and Friends, in that order. And like Will Rogers, she seems ready to make absolutely everyone into a friend.

Her life epitomizes two of my favorite proverbs: "We generally get what we try for" and "People mostly meet our expectations for them." She has story after story of being treated well by those who could have quashed her aspirations. She makes it clear, it is not because of special talent on her part, but because, in each case, of the kind of person each of them is. But let's set the modesty aside for a moment. Ms Roberts is a formidably talented person. She is particularly talented in asking for what she wants. She knows, if you don't ask, the answer is "no", better than anyone.

She has great native gifts, plenty of intelligence and athleticism. To this, her upbringing added the stellar training of her remarkable parents, in a home that was a "no whine zone." Now many mothers, on hearing that a daughter has been called a blackbitch begin a response by remarking, "First, 'black' and 'bitch' are two words."? Her siblings and their offspring are all leading productive, remarkable lives.

I mentioned one rule, but I'm not going to name the other seven. This book is too much worth the reading for me to spoil that discovery for you. And because, at the end, she tell us that, now we've learned the rules, we need to go out and break them; we need to become who we are and learn our own rules. Amen.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Are dogs worth more than people?

kw: observations, forgiveness

I am not much of a sports fan, but I made a point of watching some of yesterday's Eagles game. I live near Philadelphia, so they are "my" team. They are also the target of lots of ill will because they hired Michael Vick.

I won't beat around the bush. I've forgiven Mike Vick. A lot of people haven't. It doesn't matter much to them that, from his arrest to the day he was released from prison, more two years had been cut out of his life. Just a few days ago some people from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) "met" with Eagles representatives, protesting Mike being put on the field. If it were up to them, he'd never play ball again.

So I watched him play. He's lost a little timing and speed, being away for two years, but he clearly has plenty of talent left. This really is what he does best.

It is not just for the two year penalty that I forgive him. His behavior makes it clear that his attitude has changed. He has grown. A new attitude is what it is all about. For that, he deserves forgiveness.

In the light of that, I must conclude that those who wish more, more, and more unending punishment for Mike Vick, simply have shown that they are more evil than he was.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A graphic book indeed

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, drawings

I am not sure why I finished the book. It was easier to skip to "safe" material, because it is all in color drawings. Halfway through The Imposter's Daughter: A True Memoir by Laurie Sandell, it became clear that she has no qualms about drawing herself nude, and even in flagrante. She declares in her closing section that producing the book was therapy for her. I'll grant her that: she got just about everything out of her system.

At an average four drawings per page, the nearly 250 pages contain 1,000 drawings. A picture must not be worth 1,000 words after all, because it doesn't seem like a million words' worth. But Ms Sandell certainly has quite a story to tell.

Her father was an enthralling figure, with stories of Vietnam, of governmental dealings, of a very high education at stellar institutions, of teaching at Stanford, of a youthful duel, and (genuinely) several years of teaching at a small college…before he began spending his time making "deals" that all seemed to fall through.

When Laurie found out she had no credit rating because of quite a cloud of bad debts, she found her father was the culprit. This crack in the façade opened up a can of worms that she spent a decade unraveling. Was everything he'd told her a lie? Yup, seems so.

When your world's foundations vanish, sometimes you just have to hide. Like many, she hid in addictions and unsavory relationships. How she ever afforded the weeks she spent in rehab, she doesn't say. Forced by her growing resolve to find out who she is, Laurie remade herself, became grounded in faith, and jettisoned a few relationships.

I certainly hope she has grown well beyond the portrayal of herself in most of the book. But I think she has a bit of growing yet to do: the jacket photo shows that she is quite a bit prettier than any of her drawings of herself.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Books are heavy enough…

kw: observations

I finished one book, and picked up the next one I planned to read. It seemed twice as heavy, but only little larger. The latter book is all in color drawings, a kind of graphic novel. This piqued my interest, so I weighed the books: 485g and 890g, nearly twice the weight, after all.

Other parameters (oh, this is getting obsessive) included dimensions of the paper stacks and of the covers. The raw density of the heavier book is 1.4x the lighter one. Then I did more figuring to compensate for covers (assumed the same density as the lighter book), and I find the density of the paper stack in the heavier book is 0.92 g/cc, versus 0.61 g/cc, or 1.5x.

The calendering process that makes paper take up printing inks on their surface rather than having it seep through adds clay to the paper. Clay is dense, ergo calendered paper is also dense, and now I know by how much. I suspect that super-calendered paper used in shiny coffee-table picture books is even denser. I don't have one handy to measure. But this also illustrates the incredible mass of a large collection of photo-journals such as National Geographic.

Global warming, global everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, climate change, polemics

About 14,700 years ago the most recent Ice Age ended with a staged warming that totaled 18°C. Then a sudden cooling of about half this amount occurred, starting a period known as the Younger Dryas (named for an Alpine flower that became common at low elevations), about 12,900 years ago. This cooling lasted until 11,630 years ago (9620 BC), and ended with an abrupt warming by 10.5°C. Another half degree was all it took to bring on the Medieval Climatic Optimum, which lasted from 800-1300 AD. Gradual cooling by half a degree, then a sharp drop of another half, led to the Little Ice Age (1650-1880 AD). Warming by a degree led to the modern era (post-WW I), and another half degree of warming has occurred since.

I wonder whether the American Revolution would have been less successful, or even more so, had it not occurred during such a cold period. More to the point, if further climatic warming by another degree-and-a-half occurs, what will be the consequences? During the presidency of George Washington, New York and Boston experienced seasons that today are found in Halifax and Ottawa. The simple conclusion is that Halifax could be more like New York is today. Skipping down the coast a similar amount, New York might become more like Charleston, Charleston like Atlanta, and Atlanta like Miami.

My former home on the West coast, Anaheim, could become more like Mexico City (or at least Acapulco), San Francisco like Anaheim, and Seattle like San Francisco. Other parts of the globe can make similar interpolations, except those already within the Tropics, who are likely to experience weather unlike anything recorded historically.

This could happen in my lifetime: My father is still alive and vigorous, and is 25 years older than I. I had at least three great-grandparents who lived to be 88-92. What will life be like in 2030-2040? …for me??

But warming is only part of what is going on. Whether human generation of carbon dioxide is causing it or not, the climate is warming. But at least three other elements are causing global troubles, and their increase is of undoubted human origin. Fertilization is the culprit in two cases: Phosphorus from fertilizer runoff is being released into the oceans at FIVE times the natural rate, and fixed (oxidized) Nitrogen from both runoff and vaporization, plus auto exhaust, is DOUBLED. Then, burning and refining of fossil fuels releases Sulfur oxides into the atmosphere at THREE times the normal rate. Compare these with the Carbon Dioxide release: we add about ONE PERCENT to the natural carbon cycle.

All the facts above underlie Dianne Dumanoski's presentation in The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth. The ice age timing with which this post started just underscores the author's main point: We live in a time of unusual stability. Our ancestors didn't have it this good. Our descendants may not either.

Consider the evolution of hominid/hominin species since the line split off from a chimplike ancestor five million years ago (5Mya). Between 5Mya and 2Mya, during most of the Pliocene era, precursors of the ice ages occurred about every 40-70,000 years. They were less severe than the later Pleistocene ice ages, and in Africa in particular, led to a breakup of the continent-wide forest into broken forest/savanna landscape. Hominins such as Australopithecus became bipedal and walked upright into these open spaces, while the other apes stayed in the forests.

Starting just before 2Mya, the Pleistocene Ice Ages came around, each cold-warm cycle lasting about 100,000 years. The four most recent were the most severe, and have been named for type localities such as Wisconsin. Each of these latest four seems to coincide with a doubling in brain volume in the line that led to the genus Homo. Hominins, having embarked on a generalist/omnivorous life style, multiplied their reliance on culture, particularly its educational aspects, to rapidly adapt to rapidly changing climate: an Ice Age isn't just a square wave, in which a block of ice arrives, stays for 90,000 years, then vanishes. It is a series of abrupt pulses between merely awful cold and really bitter "here comes the glacier again!" chilling. Those groups of fire-using apes that were smartest and took best advantage of changing conditions prospered, and the most prosperous ones led to Homo sapiens.

Some time near the end of the most recent ice age, the last cousin species, the Neandertals, died out, and by the end of the Younger Dryas, the remarkably stable Holocene period began and continues today. This period began with the dawn of agriculture, which quickly spread and is the support for all but a few human groups.

Human population has grown about a thousandfold in 11.6 thousand years. Just the need to feed 6.6 billion of us has made us a geological force. But another factor, really an attitude, is Ms Dumanoski's second point: Both the developed and the developing world have embraced the paradigm of increasing economy as the greatest good. And by "increasing" they mean "per capita". Thus, while global population grows two percent yearly, today's leaders of nearly every political stripe expect growing prosperity to cause the global economy to grow at least twice that fast, typically about 5%. Five percent for 100 years means a factor of more than 130. Will the global economy in 2110 be 130 times the size of today's? Where will we get the resources?

Here the long view comes in handy. Consider that, entirely without our help, temperatures during the Pleistocene have been both 20 degrees cooler and 10 degrees warmer than they are today. Entirely without our help, sea level has fallen by as much as 100m, and risen by 50m, compared to today's levels. Volcanic eruptions larger than Tambora (which may have caused the Little Ice Age) could occur at any time, leading to a few years of acid rain, and perhaps decades of bitter cold again. Or a large melt of permafrost could release enough methane to warm the Arctic by 10°C in just a few years; it would take 20-30 years for that methane to oxidize to CO2, and then the warming would back off to "only" 2°C.

Thus the third point is this: Earth has lots of tricks left up her sleeves. Civilization is like an organism that requires very, very stable conditions. Start to shake things up, and do so rapidly, and it could end. Just in my son's lifetime, "just in time" inventory practices have become so widespread that most manufacturing would end within a day or two of a supply disruption. So would food supplies. "Single sourcing" is the norm now, a further risk. These are just two of several warning flags the author raises.

We've had a 12-millennium Long Summer in which Mother Nature has been playing nice. The Little Ice Age was just a two-century "blip", a playful swat on the behind. If Mother Nature is in a conciliatory mood, another such swat might occur to prod us to revamp Civilization into a more robust model. Perhaps a swat with the other hand, say Greenland suddenly melts and Boston and New York and London and S.F. and Tokyo go half underwater (and most Micronesian islands vanish). And that is just attention-getting.

Finally, small stimuli can have large effects. Recall that we "only" increased the volume of carbon emissions by a percent. The Ozone hole scare of a decade ago was caused by chemicals we released that never rose to even one part per billion of the stratospheric gas. But high-altitude polar ice clouds conferred on each Chlorine atom the ability to catalyze the destruction of 10,000 Ozone molecules. Recent calculations show that Bromine is a thousand times as potent. Aren't we lucky that bromine costs a lot more than chlorine? Otherwise "freons" might have been BFC's instead of CFC's, and we'd all need SPF 50 sunscreen just to walk across the street. Of course, we'd also be having a hard time breathing, because oceanic algae would have died out by now. And although the scare has passed, the ozone hole now forms every year, and will do so for 30-50 years.

It is really a pity we don't have a spare planet to try stuff with. But we don't, and we've already started down the garden path with C, N, P, and S enrichment, plus Cl high in the sky. If we were to stop releasing them entirely TODAY, it would take decades for their effects to decrease significantly. You might say, we've already jumped off a cliff, and we're falling. We just don't know how long until we hit bottom, or how hard we'll hit. We just don't know.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The big eye - hanging in there

kw: observations, photographs, telescopes

The Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, California advanced north and west overnight, but did not move much in the directions that threaten Mount Wilson. This image from the Solar Telescope webcam was taken at 7:25 AM Pacific time (10:25 EDT), and shows smoke near the mountaintop but no fire…so far.

This image has been contrast-stretched to show the distinction between the smoke on the right (North) and the clouds to the West and South. The half-dozen dim gray circles persist from image to image, and must be debris on the camera's window.

Almost every time I visit the L.A. area, I drive up to Mount Wilson. I've hiked all over the mountain. The section where the telescopes are housed is now fenced off and only opened on public visitation days, which are thankfully frequent. A telescope (other than the Solar variety) isn't much use during the day!

The road the large mirrors were driven up (by mule team) in 1908 and 1917 is still in existence, and one may walk up from Pasadena. It is only a little matter of eleven miles, and a 4,500-foot (1.4 km) vertical ascent. I've hiked the four miles to Henniger Flat several times, and gone a few miles further, but not gone all the way up. One must get back, of course, although the return trip is mostly downhill.

I pray for the survival of the instruments (and radio/TV/cell towers). I also hope those in charge of the area institute a policy of brush clearing and periodic burning to reduce the risk in future wildfire seasons.