Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fire - judging and cleansing

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, magic

Coming of age can happen at any age. The term is mostly applied to the early teens. A later transitions is called "finding oneself" or a "midlife crisis". Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder is her third novel about Yelena, a Soulfinder, and all three have had such learning crises as their theme (I didn't read the first two, I located synopses).

I almost stopped in an early chapter. The book seemed to have a common Disney theme: horribly abused young person turns out to be someone really special who saves the day. I kept reading, though, and the novel soon left my expected formula behind. Ms Snyder is that rare writer who can animate more than one hero/heroine, and bring to life complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad. Yelena is the focal point of the book, but she is recipient of as much help as she lends to others.

As a Soulfinder, Yelena is feared, and expected to become a power-hungry magician. As the story unfolds, she gradually learns what she is actually good at, which isn't magic as it is typically known, other than an ability to heal very grave cases. But she can't start a fire, not even a little one, nor cause even a small object to move, by magical means.

Her soulfinding ability affords her a little protection from a powerful magician who wishes to destroy her; in a fight, she can attach the person's soul and, unless the magician disengages quickly, destroy it or drag it out of the body, killing her adversary. She is just a bit more ethical than the average bear, though, and doesn't resort to such killing until somewhat late in the story, when she learns that her primary skill is helping the soul of someone who has died find its way to the sky.

She also learns that the people's fear of Soulfinders is based on confusion with Soulstealers (I'd have used the word Soulthief), those who kill others to appropriate their magical powers. There is also an alternate way to steal magic that relies on a gruesome ritual, potentially making any person with magical gifts into a Soulstealer, effectively. Once Yelena knows the difference, she learns to liberate the souls enslaved by Soulstealers and send them to the sky, reducing the thieves' extraordinary powers.

She has four primary helpers: her lover Valek, her Story Weaver (kind of a magical psychiatrist) Moon Man, her horse Kiki, and an unnamed bat. Her adversaries are primarily two, the duplicitous Roze and an otherwise unnamed "Fire Weaver" who lives in the underworld. A gift Yelena learns, in a rather dramatic way, is how to pass through a fire into the underworld, and how to return.

But all these are metaphors. None of us matures without learning to confront our greatest fears. Living in denial means living a partial or crippled life. We may not be wise enough to choose the right helpers, but oftentimes our best helpers find us. We all have the opportunity to "entertain angels, all unawares". The best stories help us learn about ourselves.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Half a hedge - better than none?

kw: observations, photographs, local events

When we moved to our current house fifteen years ago, we obtained a hedge for the first time. I would not volunteer to own another hedge, but while we are here, we can't simply ignore it. At the beginning, I saw that it had been badly trimmed for a long time, and was overhanging quite a bit. Hedges need to be slightly narrower at the top, not quite straight up. This was twice as wide at the top, and lower branches had no leaves. I learned that Privet is very robust, so I cut it back to the shape I wanted, and we endured about a year of ugly hedge until it leafed out again.

Since then, no matter how frequently we trim it, it seems to gain on us, and while it has kept a good shape, it is quite a bit thicker than it was. In particular, a 110-foot (30m) stretch overhangs the sidewalk by at least half a meter. I decided to slim it down. I spent half a day at it today, and got half of it cut back. Here is how it looked by midafternoon, looking along the sidewalk to show how the uncut portion hangs over.

I had begun by using a hedge trimmer, but found that many of the branches I needed to cut were too thick for it. I made better headway by using a lopper. At first I was cutting everything upand bagging it, but we soon decided it was better to bundle the long twigs, and just bag small pieces.

I've already let my neighbors know my plans to uglify their view for half a year or so. Luckily, they don't mind. (As I type, the sore muscles and joints of my shoulders and arms reinforce my decision that, whenever we move again, there will be no more hedges! I still have half a day's work ahead of me to finish!!) The upside they all know is, now it will again be possible for two people to walk side by side down that sidewalk.

Here is a panorama of the hedge in its current state: half done.

Preview of coming attractions: This hedge is also troubled by Privet Rust Mites. I've sprayed for them a couple times, but it is quite hard to get to the back sides of the leaves. Come May, just as the leaves begin to grow, I'll be able to spray right through the hedge from the cut side and eliminate the mites.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The close of one long day

kw: book reviews, mysteries, fiction, continued review

So is it here, under Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, supposedly named for the "Rose Line" or meridian upon which it lies? The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, doesn't end in as big a cop-out as I was expecting, but… The attempt near the end to make Bishop Violet (Aringarosa) into a sort of good guy falls flat, and the long-lost missing family reunion was as expectable as an oncoming train.

I mean, it is sort of a nice note that what Langdon and Neveu really find at Rosslyn is a great treasure indeed. But in a turn as much out-of-the-blue as any hairbreadth, nick-of-time escape, it is just too much to have Langdon return to Paris for a "just maybe this is really it" moment.

Does the tip of the lower pyramid signal a bigger structure below? Does it matter? In the end, the author tries to make nice, stating that Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion were "innocent", just pawns of the real villain. The damage is done already.

I went to the Opus Dei website, where they discuss "mortification" as it is actually practiced. By the way, none of their members is a monk, though some are priests. Their discussion includes a paragraph beginning, "Penance and mortification are a small but essential part of the Christian life." The forty-day fast of Jesus is given as an example. I'll simply state this, according to my own study of the Bible: Jesus, John the Baptist and the Apostles called for Repentance. There is no "penance" in the New Testament. Penance means to pay for your own sins, which the NT writers all state is impossible. Secondly, fasting and early rising are the only "mortifications" found in the NT, and both are clearly seen to be for the purpose of closer fellowship with God, particularly when dealing with troubling events. In my experience, effective fasting occurs when you're too busy to eat.

Finally, I just have to present some symbolism that makes it a lot less likely that Constantine "chose" the four Gospels or any other Bible books. He'd called together Christian leaders from all over the Empire, who had been out of contact for long times because of persecution. The conference just ran away with itself, and the Emperor did little but moderate the louder disputes. And it was not at Nicea that the Canon was settled; that was a council at Chalcedon, about fifty years later.

Once artwork began to be added to the fancier Bibles of the early Middle Ages, the four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—had animal avatars added to icons of them. An angel or man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John. These were chosen, because they were the four faces of the Cherubim of the Old Testament, and of the "four living beasts" in Revelation 4. Interestingly, there is a rationale given for each of these choices in traditional theology, but explanations I have seen do not mention the real reason. In Ezekiel 1:10, the four faces of a Cherub are given in the order Man, Lion, Ox and Eagle. This is the real source of the medieval animal choices, and rationale was later applied to fit.

However, in Revelation 4:7 the four creatures (one face each) are, in order, Lion, Ox, Man and Eagle. This order better matches the character of the four Evangelists, in order:
  • Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, "son of Abraham, son of David". Matthew is written for Jews, proving that Jesus is their King. The appropriate symbol for a king is a Lion.
  • Mark has no genealogy. The book focuses on the things Jesus did, much more than on what he said. He is presented as the laboring servant of God. An Ox is appropriate here.
  • Luke includes a genealogy of Jesus, this one going through a different son of David, and continuing to Adam. The book focuses on Jesus's teachings, and contains the greatest amount of ethical instruction. Jesus, son of Man, is shown to be the prototype of an ethical man, so the Man is the best symbol here.
  • John presents a transcendent Jesus, the divine Jesus. Only in John do we read that Jesus said, "If you do not believe I am, you will die in your sins." Lion, ox and man are ground-bound. Not so the Eagle, the transcendent creature.
The book of Revelation was written late in the First Century, about 90-95 AD. Even the latest of late-daters dare not put its authorship later than 140 AD. In either case, it is not until 250-300 years later that this symbology even matters. There is no hint in the documents that survive that Revelation 4 had anything to do with the choice of four Gospels out of dozens.

By the way, I have translations of a couple of dozen early Gospels. Other than the four we find in the New Testament, they all read like stories from the Arabian Nights or like miracle-adventure stories. The language is overblown. None has the sparse, descriptive narrative we find in our received Evangelists. I see the hand of God, not just in the choice of the books of the New Testament, but in their order of presentation. The writer of Revelation had no idea that his vision of four beasts would have a connection to the Gospels that would be noticed only fifteen centuries later (you'll find much of what I have written above follows documents written after the Sixteenth Century).

And, even more finally, a big point is made that Jesus "could not" have remained single in First-Century Palestine. Every generation of every culture has had its confirmed bachelors. Paul was also single, only half a generation later. Where he catalogs the married apostles, he mentions "the brothers of the Lord" and Cephas (Peter), but leaves out Jesus (1 Cor 9:5). Since he was defending marriage, he'd have definitely mentioned Jesus had He been married.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of violets and mirrors

kw: book reviews, mysteries, fiction, continued review

I've now made it about 3/4 the way through The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. People claim to have read it in one sitting. The standard hardbound is 480 pages, and this large print edition is 737, so that represents quite a long "sitting"! At least eight hours, at my reading speed.

A central figure is Bishop Aringarosa. Did anyone else immediately think "Ring around the Rosie"? It is too bad that the nursery rhyme's connection with the Plague has been debunked, because Aringarosa is the prototype of a plague on humanity. Considering that so much is made of the Rose and its/her identity in the middle part of the novel, the "rosa" in his name makes me suspect more depth to his character than has so far been shown. The "posies" of the rhyme consist of whatever flowers a child may have at hand, frequently the common, weedy yard violet. I have come to think of the character as "Bishop Violet".

When I saw the graphic of the inscription at the beginning of Chapter 71, I immediately recognized it as mirror writing. While Da Vinci is famed for employing it to (slightly) obscure his documents, it has been used by many much less famous folks.

This image shows some of the text that appears below the Vitruvian Man illustration. I don't know what it says, because I can't read Italian, either reversed or direct. In the novel we find a couple pages of explanation as to why Saunière used English for the mirrored inscription. He was French, after all. Well, he is the creature of the author, so he can have whatever prejudices the author finds convenient.

For that matter, the Leonardo of this book is equally the author's creature. I've had a close look at high-resolution images of The Last Supper, and while the person to Christ's right does look a little too pretty to be a man, and has the longest hair in the scene, I am by no means convinced of its femaleness. Even if the real Leonardo wished to depict a woman, and was convinced that Mary Magdalene was at the Supper, that tells us more about him than about the event.

The scene in the fresco itself is ridiculous from a Biblical perspective. The twelve plus Jesus reclined; they did not sit on chairs. They may have sat around one central serving table, or perhaps there were two or more seating areas, for it was a "large upper room".

Here is the image from above, reversed. In this one it is much easier to recognize the letters. I found out decades ago that it is not hard to write in reverse. Simply use your opposite hand. For me that is the left hand. Once your handwriting using your dominant hand is well developed and well practiced, you can take advantage of a property of the nervous system: your right and left hands are "wired" to use complementary (i.e. mirror-image) motions.

Draw a quick circle with your ordinary writing hand. Then do so with your other hand. It will look best if you draw the circle in the opposite direction! With much less practice than you might imagine, you can learn to write backward with that hand, and the handwriting will be the same (in a mirror) as your major hand. This is easiest to do first on a chalk board, then work toward smaller and smaller script until both hands can write at the same size, just opposite directions.

Well, back to my reading. I have a growing suspicion of the butler, since a couple chapters ago the albino Silas is wishing for a miracle, and the hidden narrator tells us that one will occur a few hours later. That's a pretty big clue, Mr. Brown!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Whose code was it, anyway?

kw: book reviews, mysteries, fiction

This is 243 Lexington Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC, USA, the headquarters building for Opus Dei. The opening page of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown lists this address as one Fact upon which the novel is based. Though I am not pro-Catholic by any means, I recognized from the time the book was published that Mr. Brown is very likely doing quite a disservice to a Catholic service organization. The very secretiveness of Opus Dei does them a disservice, which is why I prefer "daylight in every corner". Secret societies are for mental children (including my grandfather, a Mason).

I didn't read the book in 2003 because I wanted the hype to die down. Most of it has. Now that it is out in a Large Print paperback, I decided to read it. This won't be a usual review; thousands of reviewers have flogged this one. Rather, I'll take a riff now and again as the book triggers them.

Early in the book it is stated that the pentagram, or five-pointed star, is not a symbol of devil worship but of goddess worship, being connected to Venus. Further, that the orbit of the planet Venus traces a perfect pentagram on the sky every four years. The pentagram isn't quite that perfect, but it is pretty good. Every eight years, beginning from an inferior conjunction (closest approach of Venus to Earth), there are five more inferior conjunctions spaced around the ecliptic (or Zodiac). The sixth occurs within two degrees of the first. Two degrees isn't much, but it is four times the width of the moon on the sky, so was easily discernible by the ancients. At the end of the Pentagram article in Wikipedia there is an educational image and explanation of this ecliptic pentagram.

While in the Louvre, Robert Langdon, apparent hero of this tale, has a flashback to a lecture about art, in which he describes the delights of PHI (or Φ), the Divine Proportion, or Golden Section. This number, an unending decimal that begins 1.618, has the property that dividing it into one yields 0.618, or Φ-1. One way to determine Φ to any precision desired is to construct the Fibonacci Series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.), in which each number is the sum of the two prior numbers.

Nature is full of these numbers. This sunflower head has seeds that spiral out from the center. If you trace clockwise spirals and counter-clockwise spirals you get 34 of the first and 55 of the second, assuming you use the most open spiral in each direction. These are the ninth and tenth Fibonacci Numbers. If, for example, you select a more steeply-sloping spiral in the counter-clockwise direction, you'll find there are 21, the eighth Fibonacci Number. 55/34= 1.6176 and 34/21 = 1.6190. Both are within 0.6% of Φ. Numbers further in the sequence get you closer.

In his lecture, Langdon states several ratios found in the human body that approximate Φ, though he uses the word "exact" a little too freely. I got out a tape measure to see just how precise these ratios are. I found the following:
  • My height divided by the height of my navel: 1.704, which is +5%.
  • Hip height divided by knee height (where on each joint one chooses can make this quite different): Left 1.656, Right 1.644. Both are about +2%.
  • Shoulder-to-fingertips divided by elbow-to-tips: Left 1.642, Right 1.616. The latter figure is very close; the other is 2% high.
  • The three joints in my Left middle finger: 2.4, 1.5, 1.1 (all inches), which produces the ratios 1.600 and 1.364. Again, where you choose the joint location can make a big difference. A "near-ideal" 5-inch finger would have joint lengths of 2.5, 1.55, 0.95.
I recall reading that swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps, being 76 inches (193 cm) tall, has the torso of a man four inches taller and the legs of a man four inches shorter. That is, compared to some "perfect" ratio, his navel is four inches too close to the floor (4" = 10 cm). His navel-height-to-tallness ratio is thus about 1.77.

Based on the apparent ubiquity of the Divine Proportion, much is made of the Vitruvian Man diagram, in which Leonardo inscribed a human male figure into a circle in two positions. This figure's proportions are all set to Φ, making it the Ideal Figure. It would be interesting to take a tape measure to a few thousand people at random and see if the average value for a number of these ratios really does come close enough to 1.618 to constitute evidence for the Divine.

By the way, 1618/1000 reduces to 809/500. The sixteenth and seventeenth Fibonacci Numbers are 987 and 1597; their ratio is 1.61803445 which is getting pretty close to 1.61803399 (and some change), a more exact value for Φ, and a great deal more accurate than 809/500.

Now, for my title. Being a quarter of the way through the book, it appears that the Code in question is not really by Da Vinci, but by Saunière, the murdered curator. Maybe I'm wrong…

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hunting the avid reader

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

The fifth story in Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks by Mike Resnick has a safari theme, following the first four. The four stories that follow it are on different aspects of the hunter theme.
  • The Lord of the Jungle is a Tarzan parody, with a lordly ape-man bringing socialism to the apes, though he finally succumbs to a very capitalist proposal.
  • Bwana, one of the author's "Kirinyaga" series, found also in his book by that name, explores the law of unintended consequences. In this case, it is in this form: "If you bring in a predator to deal with your problem, you now have to deal with a predator that is stronger than your original problem."
  • Stalking the Vampire is a parody of articles with titles such as "The Tiger on His Own Ground", found in "True Tales" sorts of rags.
  • The Soul Eater has been called a very different love story. Though this 125-page novella tells an all-too-familiar tale of using hate to hide a love one fears, it puts it in the context of a man and his relationship to an energy being the size of a planetoid. Like the Snark of the first story in the book (see prior day's post), the Starduster/Dreamwish Beast/Soul Eater is misunderstood at nearly every step. This story has a slightly happier ending, however.
  • Nicobar Lane – The Soul Eater's Story tells a brief version of the tale from the energy being's point of view. Now that's a stretch!
Mike Resnick's unique imagination quails at no challenge, and challenges our assumptions with such stories. A treat.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Safaris in a new light

kw: book reviews, story reviews, anthologies, science fiction

Mike Resnick sure likes a safari. Having been on several, he favors the hunter/safari genre, though he takes such stories in a few new directions. Fair warning: he also loves a parody.

His new collection Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks is sufficiently outré that it requires both an introduction and an editorial conclusion. For my part, I'm interested in the fresh ideas themselves.
  • Hunting the Snark deserves a review all its own. This 48-page mini-novella is unique on several fronts. Four filthy rich hunters are getting the first crack at the game on a new planet. In place of "native bearers", we have a baker's dozen alien beings including an expert tracker, plus a pilot and guide (the first person viewpoint), to shepherd the "guests". One member, being well-read, suggests the planet resembles one of Lewis Carroll's fantastic landscapes, from his poem "The Hunting of the Snark." The guide snaps up the name for a mysterious super-predator that has the local lions terrorized. The Snark of this tale is one answer to the question, if a jungle-man were more solitary, bigger than a bear but with all of a feral human's smarts, could "ordinary" hunters cope with him/it?
  • Stalking the Unicorn with Gun and Camera parodies a hunting magazine's review of a game species. These unicorns aren't your doe-eyed, submissive sorts, either.
  • Two Hunters in Manhattan pits an ancient vampire against one of the author's favorite "alternative history" figures, the younger Theodore Roosevelt, during a stint as NYC Commissioner of Police.
  • Safari: 2103 A.D., in the form of diary entries, reminds me of a story that ends, "We listened to the stuffed-up birdies sing." For all I know that is a Resnick story also. In 2103 A.D. any animal weighing over a pound is considered a rarity worth taking expensive safari tours to see and photograph.
That's as far as I've got in a day. More on the way. I note from the titles that at least some of the stories to come are something other than safari/hunting tales.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Colors of Fall, large and small

kw: photographs, autumn, seasons

About half the leaves have changed in my neighborhood. These trees that border a schoolyard are about as nice a view as I've seen this year. This is a stitch of four photos. Click on it to see a 1600-pixel-wide version.

A stump near the schoolyard has become covered with small shelf fungi (what the Japanese call "tree ears") over the past several years. The view on the right (or below, depending how your browser composites these images) is what we typically see, looking from above. For the one on the left (maybe above), I held the camera below the same spot. These are low to the ground, so recent rains have splashed a lot of dirt particles onto the lower surfaces.

The bush honeysuckle berries are about as nice as they are likely to get. These bushes abound along a path through the woods that we take to get to the schoolyard.

Later in the season, migrating birds will eat the berries, but I'm told they are not edible by people. I didn't try. I remember the Pyracantha berries that used to line the street where I lived in my grade school years. The orange berries were dry and tasteless, and could give you an upset stomach, but at certain times of year the birds devoured them. Thinking about it, I recall a number of berries, including some nearly black purple ones, that birds eat but people don't.

Of course, there are plenty of autumn fruits that people do eat. When we lived in South Dakota, we would gather chokecherries and serviceberries to make jam. One of my professors and I used to simply eat the chokecherries. At first, they are astringent, but you get used to it, then they are very tasty. But when you've had enough, your mouth puckers up nice and tight!

These little crab apples, on a new tree in my yard, are edible, just. They are pretty sour. I decided to leave them on the tree; they will cling until Spring, when migrating birds will strip them off the tree some fine afternoon. When the tree gets bigger I'll start harvesting some of them to make jelly.

On second thought, maybe I'll make them into a jam instead; just strain out the seeds. One of the hardest things about making any apple jelly is getting the juice out of the pulp. Other fruits can be strained through muslin and need just a little squeezing to yield the juice. Apples seem to have invented the super-absorbent gel and one loses most of the juice without using a mechanical press. I gave up on that years ago; now if I want to make apple jelly I buy a bottle of cider and start with that.

Here's one more tree I saw after taking the panorama. It illustrates the tendency of many maples to get redder where they've been colder, or where they were "nipped" first. The color gradation of this tree is very nice.

All this on a walk to the schoolyard to pick up black walnuts!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The lady detectives win another round

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries, african setting

In a little house in Botswana live Precious Ramotswe, her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and two foster children. For much of our time with Mma Ramotswe, we observe her in her little office, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, with her associate Grace Makutsi. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith, is the 11th in his "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series, one of four series in which he has published 24 novels.

This warm-hearted mystery centers on a winning football (i.e. soccer to Americans) team that has suddenly begun to lose consistently. The new owner, Rra Molofololo, has commissioned the Ladies to find a traiter who may be throwing the matches. Along the way, however, there are a few more mysteries to solve and life issues to unravel. Mma Makutsi's fiancé, Phuti Radiphuti, is being lured by a rival of hers, and another woman with a similar name has multiple husbands, and they are likely to meet one another soon.

The narrative and dialog have a special flavor that is unique to the series, with its roots in the author's years teaching in Botswana. Africans have their own ways of thinking, which are reflected in the way they speak, whether English or their own tongue. The occasional use of Setswana expressions and dialog hint that the characters speak English rather more than we might expect.

At the end of the book, not every problem could be solved, but the important ones are either satisfactorily concluded or at least more manageable. That is the way life often works out, isn't it? Key insights come from two of the children with which Mma Ramotswe converses, and the proverb "From the mouth of babes…" is invoked, though one clue turns out to be a red herring. Note: you can pre-solve the football mystery if you consider carefully, what is the most-used body part of a football player?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

These tales are full of tails

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, veterinary medicine, animals, memoirs

All the world loves animal stories. Alf Wight, who wrote as James Herriot, wasn't the first to take advantage of this, but he was one of the best. I was a bit disappointed, however, to learn that his stories were fictional, though based on real events in his life. A new veterinarian-writer has come along, writing in his own name, and I think the stories hew more closely to the truth. I know of a certainty only that I enjoyed them very much.

Thirty six touching anecdotes are gathered in All My Patients Have Tales: Favorite Stories From a Vet's Practice by Jeff Wells, DVM. He has previously written a handbook, the informative and humorous A Veterinarian's Handbook for Horse Husbands, for the man in the life of a horse-loving woman.

In Tales we follow Dr. Wells's career from his entry into Vet school up to about 2005, shortly before the first edition of the book appeared. We get his sense of place regarding eastern South Dakota, where he spent two years, then Colorado, where he's been ever since. We learn of a psychotic cat mascot who keeps order in the Vet clinic's waiting room, a roaming Lothario of a Basset hound who hates having his nails clipped, a cow getting a C-section in a pasture in the midst of a blizzard, and assorted horses. Dr. Wells has come to specialize in horse medicine in recent years.

Along the way we also learn of the Basset hound look-alike who owns the Lothario, a lady biker who faints dead away while her tiny dog's wounds are being cleaned, and assorted rural and suburban animal owners and their various attitudes towards both their animals and the Vet they've asked for help. A strong note throughout the book is that human psychology is a huge part of veterinary practice. It would be easier to figure out for young Vets if they were taught to think like a lawn mower repairman: the customer is the human, who is bringing you something to fix. Yes, you became a veterinarian because you love animals and want to help them, but you also have to help the owner. A kind word and a human touch can improve both owner's and animal's outcome.

The hardest thing for a Vet to do is put down an animal. The author notes that it never gets easier. One's mind knows it is best, but the heart hopes this step can somehow be bypassed, just this once. The owner may suffer more than the Vet, but both are strongly affected. Given that it is the lot of nearly every animal to die in agony, the Vets of the world reduce the load of pain, at least a little.

But most of the time, an animal needs a bit of a helping hand to recover, and recover they do, often amazingly. An animal is seldom as "macho" as some humans. When they feel bad, you know it. Yet, just as with humans, a great variety of very debilitating conditions can be helped by getting some fluids or food into the animal, even via IV sometimes, and many others by antibiotics. The author relates a goodly number of cases that began with an animal barely willing to look up, but up and eating within an hour or two. The will to live is strong and uncomplicated in animals.

The author ends his last chapter with the words, "…we have only scratched the surface", which gives me hope that more is on the way. I'd love reading any sequel Dr. Wells produces.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fonts and ink

kw: observations, typography, fonts, efficiency

I heard about this unique ink-saving font from a friend. As you can see, it preserves a "heavy" outline, based on the font Vera Sans, but uses "holes" to remove about 20% of the ink that would ordinarily be used to print. It is found here. At the moment, it has only a Regular version (at least in the free download), so converting a page to print using it will lose any bolding or italic emphasis.

That got me thinking. I've been collecting selected free fonts for years, so I looked through my archives. There are other ways of using less ink while maintaining a good, readable look.

While Verdana is heavily used for web pages, the slightly lighter Arial is used in many, many Windows documents for printing. It is the default in Microsoft Excel and in many PowerPoint templates, for example. However, it is still a bit of a heavyweight, with a large x-height and thick strokes.

I chose the letters e, t, and a to display because together they represent 30% of all letters used in English text. If you consider punctuation, the total proportion drops a couple of points. The caps are shown below the uncials to illustrate the normal leading (or ledding), the extra space added between the topmost ascender and lowermost descender. When Arial is used at 12 point size, default leading is 14.5 points from baseline to baseline.

Because of kerning, and variations from typeface to typeface in spacing standards, the measurements I report below are based on the ink width of the letters and include no between-letter spaces.

Times New Roman, the default font in Microsoft Word, is probably used the most. I once read that 90% if all keystrokes on all desktop computers go into word-processed documents.

The weighted strokes, with various amounts of each letter composed of hairlines, makes TNR a more ink-efficient font than Arial. In a moment, we'll see by how much.

The leading of TNR and Arial are the same, 14.5 points for 12-point type size. By the way, if you want to save paper also on a longer document, you can change the leading to 12 points, meaning that the descender on a "y" could potentially just touch the top of the "A". This is called Solid Setting. I haven't looked into it in detail, but there may be extra space built into the font definition to keep even solid set type from such "collisions".

Years ago I bought a four-face family named Zapf Humanist 601 BT. It has the kind of weighting that TNR uses, but is sans serif, so no ink is used making the little serifs on certain letters. I like it because it is, to me, the most beautiful of the sans serif fonts. At this size, you can see some of the styling and shaping of the strokes.

Whether by chance or by design, it has the same leading as both TNR and Arial. Just by looking at it, one may see that it will use less ink on a printed page than Arial.

This is the only font I've paid for. All others I look for in freeware sites. Similar fonts that are free include (names only, no links; you can look them up) Optimum and Optane. There is a free version of Optima out there also; it is the one the Zapf font is based on, but be careful. Bitstream sells their own version of Optima, and pirated copies abound.

A better comparison of the "e" glyphs from these three fonts can be seen on this gridded image. I digitized these glyphs to determine their ink loading percentages. This is the amount covered by the glyph divided by the rectangle defined by the the baseline-to-baseline distance at normal leading, and the ink-to-ink width of the glyph:
  • Arial = 22%
  • TNR = 16%
  • Zapf = 14.5%
The Zapf font uses (comparing percents to percents here; don't get lost) 66% of the ink that Arial does, and 91% of the ink that TNR uses. TNR uses 73% of the ink that Arial does. Some of this efficiency comes from smaller x-height, but much also comes from the more slender average strokes.

The same analysis for the "t" glyphs shows:
  • Arial = 25%
  • TNR = 17%
  • Zapf = 16%
The Zapf amounts for the "t" glyphs are 73% compared to Arial and 94% compared to TNR, while TNR uses 77% of the ink that Arial does.

The similarity of these figures indicates that the two weighted fonts are well balanced. Their look on the page is the best confirmation of this.

Now, there is yet another way to use less ink. Use the next smaller type size. One company I worked for, before issuing Microsoft Office software, had the default text size in MS Word changed from 12 point to 11 point. There is little visible difference on a printed page, to the eye, but the smaller size uses 84% as much ink. That alone is a 16% saving.

If you want a really thin, ink-efficient font, try this one. It is mid-page at's thin category. I have done no metrics on it, but it clearly will use very little ink. The problem is, there are no (as yet) italic and italic-bold versions, though there is a boldface that is still quite light.

If a body is determined to save printer ink or toner, perhaps some of these ideas will help.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dante would roll over

kw: book reviews, fantasy, monsters

It is the Hell of your childhood imagination, the Hell you grew up with. The Hell of demons that look like gargoyles (and worse), of sulfury smells and tentacles and pitchforks and bogeymen and things under your bed that'll get you if you set foot on the floor. It is, like Milton's Hell, a place where Satan rules, but this Hell is locked behind Gates, which keep the human world safe…at least for the time being. It is the Hell of The Gates by John Connolly, and the issue here is not whether you might go there, but whether Hell will come here.

The full title on the cover of the book is The Gates of Hell are About to Open: Want to Peek?. It is a genre new to me, that I call Supernatural Faux-Horror Comedy. There are two story lines here. One is the aforementioned part-Medieval part-childhood fantasy Hell and the desire of its denizens to come here and, well, ruin things. The other is the still-pending restart of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN and its possible power to create a small black hole or wormhole or … something…

The author begins with the beginning of the Universe, so he can explain the Singularity from which everything is supposed to have emerged. Actually (and as he explains), the Singularity becomes everything, not expanding into anything but being the everything that is expanding. Yes, that is a bit confusing to me also, and I've been a Physics major (not a very good one, perhaps). It also sets the tone for the book, a tone of classic British understated humor.

Thus the CERN/LHC thread begins with bored technicians playing Battleship while the collider gets cranking up, when something gets loose and goes zinging away. Then, as they watch, the computer system seems to rewrite its memory to cover evidence thereof. At the same time, just a time zone away in Biddlecombe, four half-serious students of the occult are met in a basement about a pentagram, attempting to contact the "other side". They do so, in spades, and the game is afoot.

Peeking through the window is young (age 11) Samuel Johnson and his dog Boswell. Samuel (and, we suppose, Boswell), sees the Portal open, and the Gates beyond, and the things that shortly transpire as the four are replaced by shape-shifting demons.

If this and the rest of the book were narrated in any straightforward manner, the result would be unendingly horrible. It is not; instead we are treated to a hilarious Keystone Kops-ish attempt by the demons to prepare for a takeover by "The Great Malevolence" (TGM), Satan himself, just as soon as enough power can be stolen from the LHC to melt away the Gates and open the Portal quite a bit wider. Samuel can't get anyone to believe his stories, and he has just four days (until November 1, which we know as All Saints' Day) to thwart TGM's plans.

I don't know if real demons, whatever they may be, are capable of being clobbered by rakes or cricket bats. But this is childhood fantasy writ large. The demons don't fare too well, except for a couple of unusually friendly ones. One of these, named Nurd (unless you pronounce it "Noord" it'll come out "nerd") actually befriends Samuel instead of eating him as instructed (or as it would have been instructed had TGM or his lieutenant though to inform it). This gives Samuel and a couple of his young friends a way to close the Portal, if they are in time (you know the answer to that "if" there, so why am I being coy?).

If only our real demons (existential or not) were so easy to overcome…

Sunday, October 18, 2009


kw: local events, observations


It happens to just about everyone, and now it has happened to us. Today was our son's 21st birthday. I found myself thinking, "How did that happen so fast?" When my wife said just that, I recalled a phone call I got, nearly 22 years ago.

My mother called, and said, "You have no right being 40! I am still telling people I'm in my 20s!" She was being jocular, of course, but there was a bit of genuine existential pain in her words. My mother was the stereotype of a woman who conceals her age. Fortunately, my wife and I make no bones about being 40+ years older than our son. Since I am, myself, a few days away from being 62, he's gotta be 21 now.

But it sure happened fast.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Everything else about food

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, agriculture, food, history

It is the first book about food that I have read which never mentions taste or eating. There are no recipes. Instead, An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage is devoted to food as the source of civilization, of industrialization, as a weapon, and as the determiner of humanity's future.

History is often seen as, to use Steven Jay Gould's term, a 'punctuated equilibrium': Long periods in which little happens separated by turning points that frequently change everything. In the more historical chapters of the book, the two biggest turning points are the development of agriculture—which brought about civilization by making cities possible—, and the replacement of 'traditional' power by fossil fuels—which made industrialization possible because fewer farmers were needed per acre of crop.

The six sections of the book are:
  • The Edible Foundation of Civilization
  • Food and Social Structure
  • Global Highways of Food
  • Food, Energy, and Industrialization
  • Food as a Weapon
  • Food, Population and Development
In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Malthus predicted that no technology could assure the human race of enough increase in food production to match the continuing geometrical increase in population. Yet it was precisely these two turning points that could free us from the consequences of his gloomy outlook.

The first turning point, agriculture itself, allowed great expansion of the population, but the fixed size of the Earth's cultivable surface set a limit on the total amount of food humanity could produce. The second turning point allowed a much greater expansion of population, and the invention of chemical fertilizers multiplied this potential. However, the cultivable surface has grown no bigger. We can at most double the amount of land now in cultivation…and then what?

A felicitous sociological principle could save us: wealth reduces fertility. The more prosperous a country, the lower its citizens' birth rate. The poor need to 'sire up field hands', and then hope they will have enough surviving offspring to care for them when they are old. Having many children is the only retirement plan available to them. A more prosperous person will at first dream of raising more children, but will soon realize that prosperity itself provides a better retirement plan. Everywhere that has become 'developed' the majority of people began to favor quality over quantity in their descendants. They put fewer eggs in the basket, but watched the basket better. Some developed nations actually have a negative population growth rate.

These sociological forces are expected to lead to an eventual reduction in population. But there is one caveat: sometime, perhaps while today's college kids are still around, fossil fuels will run low to the point we can no longer use them to support the level of industry and transportation that is now 'normal' in developed countries. Only if we develop sustainable energy technologies will our industrial present remain robust long into the future.

Were the human race to lose its ability to produce more energy than growing plants can provide, human population would of necessity drop to about one-third or less of today's level, perhaps two billions. We have become dependent on industrialization and high levels of energy use. While near-future wars could be fought over petroleum, it is more likely that the next war will be about water or food.

Much of the prior two paragraphs is my rumination, not what Mr. Standage writes. He is hopeful. Though there could be wars over food, he expects technology to pull through again, and give us a combination of tools to avert such a tragedy, from better conservation of water and land, to more efficient use of fertilizers, and genetic or crossbreeding products that improve total yields just a little bit more. Should civilization collapse, the Svalbard Seed Bank is the Noah's Ark of the next millennium, available when humanity returns to its senses.

Friday, October 16, 2009

An artful highlight to a poor day

kw: art, photographs

As I noted yesterday, Monday was the occasion of a very invasive, uncomfortable medical test. There was a bright spot to the day, however. The doctor's waiting room wall sports a large example of United Plates of America, a depiction of the map of the U.S. states using pieces cut from license plates from all fifty states. The artist is Alan Holcombe. He has a series of these he makes upon order, plus he'll make a single-state collage also.

I have been seeing this doctor for about a year, and this visit I remembered my camera. I am rather glad I was able to take this image without flash: handheld at 1/30 sec.

Others use license plates for similar artwork. This is a menu palette from Georgia's Crafts. I wonder who first produced a license plate collage in map format?

When I see certain works of art, I find myself wishing we had words for "more unique" and "most unique", but "unique" is a superlative all by itself! Originating in the Latin epithet for a one-horse town, it refers to something that stands alone. Whatever level of uniqueness this collage may possess, it lifted my spirits on a day I'd otherwise prefer to forget.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

So many doctors, so little time

kw: local events, observations, medicine

To my younger readers: don't get old. Do gain experience, do grow wiser, but if you can bypass that getting older stuff…! It has not been a good week, so far. Grossness alert: I'll try to be discreet, but there's no hiding some things.

Monday, a double invasion: A male has two places a catheter may be inserted. My urologist had convinced me to get a Urodyne test. It determines if the bladder pressure during and just before urination poses a risk to the kidneys. A bladder catheter is used to fill it with saline while back pressure is monitored. The patient/victim reports on how it feels from time to time. A rectal catheter is used to get electrodes where they can measure the myoelectric signals and a second kind of back pressure. A few other electrodes are attached to "nearby areas". I've had cystoscopy before, and that is uncomfortable enough. This time catheter insertion simply hurt. I think a blunter end would have been better. Bottom line: My kidneys are not at risk. But I have to take a few days of antibiotics, as a preventive measure.

Tuesday, seeing things: I've had retinal hemorrhages a few times in the past forty years. They typically dissolve and vanish in about three weeks. This time I had a large one, fortunately off-center, but it wasn't going away on schedule, so I'd gotten a Tuesday AM slot to let my ophthalmologist have a look. The good news: It is indeed a hemorrhage, not some tumor or other fearful thing. The bad news: there is a little separation of layers in the middle of it, so I'll be seeing a retinal specialist in a few days to see if it needs attention. "Attention" usually means doing something with a laser, either to reattach a layer or to prevent further unzipping. I tried going back to work in the afternoon, but my eyes were still dilated and I couldn't read the computer screen well enough to do any work.

Wednesday, a nip and a tuck: I had my annual complete physical exam, and with the prior two days' events, had plenty to report. I also showed my doctor something on my arm, and said I'd thought it a wart and tried to freeze it off. It came right back. "That's not a wart." A little while later, in comes a nurse with needles and scalpels and things, and I had it removed, definitively. Nice chat with doc and nurse while numbing occurs. Pathologist will soon report whether they need to go back to remove more "margin". Now I have a few stitches to shepherd for the coming week. To top it off, there was no record of recent inoculations, so I got a TDaP, which is the updated version of DPT (Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus) vaccines. Any shot with the "T" component gets sore, so I can't sleep on that side for a night or two.

Other than a niggling little concern about the retinal bubble, I have a lot fewer worries than I had on Sunday. I'm pretty much good to go for another year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Here there be Humans

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries

I have a gaggle of cousins who have been very active in SCA, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, nearly from its beginning. It started out as a bunch of people curious about pre-industrial technologies, particularly weapons, such as catapults, swords and chain mail. It has developed into a motley association of societies whose most public face is seen at Renaissance Faires, presided over by a local "king" and usually a "queen", featuring mostly medieval foodstuffs and playacting battles and jousting. However, it is not limited to the medieval European milieu, and one fellow I once knew specialized in Neandertal portrayal. The phenomenon is primarily American.

A Renaissance Faire held in England, in the Cotswolds, is the backdrop for Aunt Dimity Slays the Dragon, a delightful mystery by Nancy Atherton. This is her fourteenth Aunt Dimity mystery. To one such as I, new to the series, it soon becomes evident that Aunt Dimity is dead, but certainly not inactive. She has bequeathed to Lori, the series' protagonist, a magical journal that is a bit like the self-writing newspapers in the Harry Potter books. Aunt Dimity responds to Lori by conversing in blue lettering with a fine Copperplate hand. She is part confidante, part conscience, and part mentor to Lori, a woman in early middle age with an active imagination and a penchant for getting caught up in the midst of the action.

In Dragon, the little village of Finch becomes the half-willing host to a gaggle of tourists when a Ren Faire is set up on a nearby farmer's land. The farmer's nephew Calvin, as Good King Wilfred, funds and manages the Faire for several summer weekends. The first day of the event, while a success for Calvin and his troupe, is a disaster for Finch. Tourists always include a number of hooligans, and the town is ill-used. However, the Good King has anticipated this, and sends over a clean-up crew composed of most of his "army", and regains some favor with the townsfolk.

The day at the Faire was not all good, however. Two serious accidents have threatened Wilfred/Calvin's life, though he brushes them off as harmless mishaps. Lori sees evidence of sabotage in both. She soon discerns a love triangle and a disgruntled worker at the Faire, and determines to keep the king from harm. First Aunt Dimity, then her husband Bill, confirm her suspicions. However, where the magical book encourages her to learn more, her husband points out that authorities are already involved and she must calm down and refrain from interference.

Well, all her suspicions prove true, but she has some of the players wrong. The twists in the plot turn out a story of disgrace and forgiveness. Happily, nobody gets killed, though when Calvin turns over the kinging duties to a hired hand, the "courtiers" all cheer, "The King is dead, long live the King!"

I find it hard to locate mysteries that do not center on murder. I prefer clever thefts and other kinds of malfeasance. Happily, here is one more author who caters to tastes such as mine. Oh, and the Dragon? As Aunt Dimity knows, our dragons reside within.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ranching small stock

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, natural history, livestock

This isn't quite "the Coal Miner's Daughter", but The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter by Holly Robinson is indeed a book of the author's life and hard times. Halfway through a Navy career, Holly's father Donald Robinson, Jr. began to plan for post-Navy life. As much out of curiosity as anything, he purchased four breeding pairs of gerbils, or "Mongolian pocket kangaroos" as his wife Sally called them. It didn't take long for eight little rodents to become 200, by which time the garage was filled with cages.

The book is a double biography, half on the author and half on her father, and one could say, half on the charming critters. It soon becomes clear that a lot of the charm vanishes when you must 1) care for fifty or more cages full of gerbils, 2) cope with the smells, and 3) carry this out in utmost secrecy. Don Robinson had a mortal fear that, should his side enterprise be discovered by "the Brass", he'd be cashiered.

This image and lots of information, in both Dutch and English, can be found at The Mongolian Gerbil by Peter Maas. On his "Appearance" page, he refers us to The Gerbils Color Palette, where the image below provides a clickable entree to a great many varieties.

Holly has a natural affinity for animals, though her great love is horses. She was her father's chosen successor, but declined. She spent her growing-up years caring for gerbils. The "gerbil farm" had to be sold out and re-established twice, as the family was moved by the Navy to Kansas (!) and then Massachusetts, where Don's Navy career could be safely concluded. There he developed the gerbil business in earnest. He'd already had book published, and scientific articles about their propensity for seizures.

At its height, Tumblebrook Farm housed about 9,000 gerbils. Even after retiring from the Navy, the proprietor maintained secrecy, partly from habit and partly because of the rising influence of those sympathetic to small animals; he had become a major supplier to medical testing laboratories. Better to have rumors of "rat ranching" get about than have PETA or someone raise a ruckus about "cute, sweet gerbils" being sent to labs to be subject to "cruel experimentation".

Holly deftly weaves her own coming-of-age narrative into the stories of her parents and brothers, how she and the boys each rebelled in characteristic ways. Particularly touching is Holly's collusion with an employee to "save" a run of pale-colored "sports" from euthanasia; the other girl would take them home to raise for the pet trade. I'd like to have known whether this originated one of the paler varieties, but there is silence on that.

Once Don had become the largest supplier of lab gerbils, he began to think of retirement; he'd raised rodents for 25 years, and his kids were all independent. He sold the business to another large supplier who had a much smaller gerbil line, but who was the largest supplier of several other small rodent breeds, particularly germ-free animals. Thus the last large family rodent ranch vanished into corporate-scale operations.

Holly became a writer—and what else can you do with her kind of background? She'd at first majored in Biology, with thoughts of becoming a physician, but a few months working for one of her professors convinced her to focus on her more artistic leanings. The book's Author blurb states that she and her husband are in the midst of raising their five children. I guess after caring for a few thousand gerbils, and helping her mother care for a stable-full of rescued horses of similar total mass, having five kids is the easy part!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vermin - hard to live with, but you can't live without them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, invertebrates

The word "vermin" come from the Latin word for "worm". Few people distinguish between worms and maggots, so the habit of calling maggots "worms" led to the general habit of calling disgusting creepy-crawlies in general "vermin". This, then underlies the grossly delicious children's rhyme,
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play Pinochle on your snout.
Your eyes fall in, your teeth fall out,
Your brain turns into old sauerkraut.
NB: This comes in a lot of varieties; the one here is the one I learned, and one of two versions found in the book I'm introducing.

I've always been one for whom fascination usually overcomes disgust when it comes to "critters". Just today, the first few Autumn ants showed up in our kitchen. As I was disposing of them, I began to marvel at the intricacy of their bodies: not just six legs, three body segments and a dozen sections to each antenna, but the hundreds of tiny muscles, with a nerve fiber to each one, in a body no more than three or four millimeters long. That's a bunch of working parts per cubic millimeter! (And lest you think larger animals are slouches in this regard, every hair on a mammal's body, including yours, is manipulated by six tiny muscles)

In Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales From the Invertebrate World by Richard Conniff, the focus is not so much the insides of the creatures' bodies, but on their behaviors. The author grabs our attention at the outset with his introduction, "The Joy of Formication". Check that "M" there. "Formica" is the Latin word for "ant", and formication is the sensation of having ants crawling about on your skin. Not so joyful after all!

The book treats, in order, flies, leeches, fire ants, squid, dragonflies (and damselflies), tarantulas, fleas, a few kinds of beetle, earthworms, mosquitoes (the most dangerous insects), moths, and slime eels. The last mentioned are the least known, so they deserve an early mention. Also known as hagfish, they are the ultimate clean-up squad of the ocean. Anything dead that reaches the ocean floor, at nearly any depth, will soon be devoured entire by a wriggling mass of pink, eely, slimy hagfish. And they really are the slimiest creature ever. I think of them as "non-vegetable Okra". But they aren't really eels, because they don't have a skeleton, though they do have a skull of sorts. They are Nature's first, halfway step towards vertebrates, and have managed to hang around for several hundred million years, with only incremental changes if any.

The rest of the critters mentioned are true invertebrates, though squids and cuttlefish do have a single internal bone that takes on a few of the spine's functions. The next time you look in the cage of a parrot of parakeet, look at the flattened, white, oval "beak scratcher". It came from a cuttlefish.

The creature that seems to evoke the greatest fear and loathing, though, is the tarantula. It must be that, in the dim past, maybe when our ancestors weighed just a few pounds, and dragonflies were the size of robins, there were some really big spiders, which made a habit of dining on young primates. But if you are in Texas or Oklahoma or a nearby state in "spider migration season" (early Fall), and you see a tarantula crossing the road, resist the impulse to make a spider pancake. Instead, pity the poor, male tarantula; he is just one year old. He has just a few days to find a female who is willing to mate. When he finds her, and gets her "in the mood", he holds onto her fangs while they mate, then if he is lucky, he can take advantage of a moment of calm to make his escape. She, who may be eight or ten years old, is quite likely to grab him and chow down, to get extra protein to make lots and lots of eggs.

Well, the tarantula is just one kind of spider (there are a few hundred species of them). The most numerous inhabitants of your backyard are not spiders, but their prey, either ants or moths. There may be twenty to fifty species of ant in your yard. There are probably at least four hundred species of moth, if you live in a temperate area, and many, many more in tropical realms.

Most moths are tiny, gray fluttering things we seldom see. But they are pollinators second in importance only to honeybees (maybe!). They are also food for every kind of predator, of every size. In Yellowstone, a seasonal moth is an important part of the diet of Grizzly bears! And did you ever see a ballooning spider land, and wonder what a spider with a body somewhat smaller than a pinhead will find to eat? Rest assured, there are a dozen kinds of moth that are smaller yet. At the other end of the scale, the Atlas moth is about twice the size of the largest butterfly; its wings will hide most dinner plates.

As I mentioned, mosquitoes are the most dangerous of vermin. Malaria still kills three million people yearly, the most deadly single disease. Many other diseases, some also deadly such as yellow fever or encephalitis, are carried and inserted into us by these living hypodermics. Yet we are not nearly so fearful of mosquitoes as we are of a spider of equal size. We ought to be.

This book is of a genre I call "survey", and I can read them without end. There are always more neat things to know about nearly anything.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

You can't outwait the aliens

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, astronomy, space aliens

The August 24 Newsweek just crossed my desk, passed on by a colleague. In it I read "What you need to know NOW", actually a collection of 25 mini-articles. The very first is "Aliens Exist" by Andrew Romano and Fred Guterl. Amidst the typical sort of "well, of course, they must, there are so many stars…" sort of reasoning, they mentioned the Kepler Space Telescope, which is even now scanning a "promising" portion of the sky for earth-type planets in habitable zones about their stars. It will do so for 42 months.

I found reading the article fortuitous, as I'd just finished reading Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe by Joel Achenbach. The book is a dual biography, first of Carl Sagan's career, then of the search for non-Earth life. It opens with Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, in 1975, using the Arecibo radio telescope to search for signals from the Andromeda galaxy, and ends with the death of Carl Sagan, still hoping to obtain definitive proof of alien life.

Sagan and Drake represented the scientific aspect, the "respectable" aspect, of the belief that there must be other civilizations "out there". Much of the book is taken up with the author's investigations of alien-seekers who range from respectable to downright loony. He attended many, many conferences—one thing nearly all alien aficionados do is hold conferences. The odder ones tend to cluster around Las Vegas, Nevada and nearby Roswell. The looniest of all, though, don't hold conferences, having "encounter meetings" instead, as they believe that they are themselves aliens, or possessed by aliens.

Sagan's most famous maxim is, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." The closest thing to scientific proof we have of life elsewhere is the "worms" from Mars (see my post Magnetic Martians). Once the Kepler telescope does its work, there'll be some "targets" for a larger space telescope to scrutinize with a spectroscope, for water, methane, and whatever else might signal "biosphere over here".

For the time being, those of us of a robustly scientific frame of mind must be contented with Drake's Equation, which I'll state here in a form that I prefer:
N = Ns Nhp fl fi fc L W
The first N is the number of civilizations in the Galaxy. The other factors, all multiplied togather, are as follows, with my "±σ sideboard" estimates for each value [in brackets]:
  • The number of stars in the Galaxy, or the number of a certain type, such as "G class" for stars like our Sun [F+G+K: 109-1011].
  • The number of habitable planets per star (or star of the chosen class) [0.1-0.5].
  • The fraction of habitable planets on which Life develops [0.2-0.9].
  • The fraction of planets harboring life on which Intelligent life evolves [0.001-0.01].
  • The fraction of intelligent species that develop a civilization that can Communicate via radio (or other chosen detection method) [0.5-1.0].
  • The effective Lifetime of such communication, here expressed as a fraction of the time that Communication persists, relative to the length of time the planet remains habitable [10-6-10-3].
  • The Willingness of the civilization to purposely communicate, such as with a stronger signal than "TV leakage" [0.1-1]
Carl Sagan supplied values to a version of this equation that yielded a figure of one million. Surely out of a hundred billion stars in our Galaxy, a million might harbor an intelligent, communicating species.

My own range of possibilities, using the numbers above, combining them statistically, yields a median value of 21, with a "scatter" factor (±σ, or one log standard deviation) of 100, which in this case is a multiplier. One extreme, 0.21, means our single planet had a one-in-five chance to produce a communicating species at all, so we ought to pat ourselves on our collective back. The other extreme comes to 2,100. In a galaxy spanning 100,000 light years, that is not very much. Ignoring the thickness of the spiral arms, the average spacing between such civilizations would be 2,200 light-years.

I spent a few years running SETI@home on my computer. I'd keep doing it, but my computer is now eight years old, and I figure nearly everyone else running SETI@home has tons more power; my drop in the bucket is no longer big enough. And then I found that the targeted stars are all within 1,000 light years. Even if my more optimistic estimate were correct, we aren't reaching them! But if Sagan was right, the average spacing is only 100 light years, and the continuing lack of SETI success is a puzzle.

Several times the author recalls Fermi's question, "Where are they?" If interstellar travel is possible, and numerous alien civilizations exist, at least one of them ought to have visited us by now. But in spite of tens and hundreds of thousands of "sightings" of unidentified "things", particularly since 1947, no aliens or alien artifacts have been scientifically studied and been shown to be genuine (this isn't just Achenbach speaking, this is me also). To me, there is a two-pronged conclusion: If aliens are possible, interstellar travel is not possible; if interstellar travel is possible, there are no aliens.

I like to think that other planets have intelligent life, so I lean toward believing the stars are just too hard to reach. I hope Kepler finds a passel of "exo-Earths".

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Big bug and memories

kw: musings, insects, photographs

We found this large Praying Mantis, about 10-11cm, perched on a window frame. They are fearless; this one let my camera get less than a foot (30cm) away, and did nothing more than cock her head a little.

The species in Ohio, where I lived from age 12 to 18, is all green, wings and everything. I caught one about this size at age 12, attached a string to her elongated thorax and took her home. She was good at catching flies, so I tied the string to my bedpost for the night. Hearing a fly in the room after dark assures I won't sleep.

She didn't do much, there were no flies this night, and I did fall asleep. But sometime later I awoke and sat up. This startled her enough that she took off flying, hit the end of the string, and came zooming back right into my face! There was just enough moonlight for me to glimpse her coming just before she banged into my forehead (I think she was aiming for my hair but was weighed down by the string).

That scared me thoroughly awake! You ain't seen anything until you've seen an adult mantis with wings and clawed "arms" outspread flying right into your face. I took her outside, untied the string and let her go. Even a five-gram insect is too wild a pet to keep indoors.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Looking East at Sunset

kw: photographs, sky

Camp Crockett, near Woodstown, NJ, was the site of a barbecue I attended, part of the Moon Festival celebration I attended, as I noted in this earlier post. Just before we left the park, a few students and I were watching the clouds over the lake next to the camp, as sunset began to color the sky.

These clouds and their reflection were just a bit too tall for my camera's widest angle setting, so I took two horizontal images, one above the other, and stitched them using the Panorama tool in Windows Live Photo Gallery.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Magnetic Martians

kw: astrobiology, musings

Fourteen years have passed since images like these were proclaimed as possible fossils from Mars. The controversy has quieted down, but not gone away. It took me a while to locate an image with a scale bar on it. The first objection to these was, if they are remnants of cells, they are much too small.

During the hot part of the public discussion, every article that mentioned these "worms" implied that they are composed of calcite. I was not paying enough attention at the time to look further into it. Recently, I happened to read a more detailed analysis that stated they are a mix of iron oxides, including magnetite. Now that got my attention. Then an even better article showed up: "Chains of magnetite crystals in the meteorite ALH84001: Evidence of biological origin" by E. Imre Friedmann, Jacek Wierzchos, Carmen Ascaso, and Michael Winklhofer; PNAS, January 2001. I don't know how I missed it at the time.

If the apparent lumpiness of these chains represents cells, they are roughly 150nm in diameter, which is small even for nanobacteria, and apparently too small for protein synthesis machinery to function (assuming Martian bacteria used proteins). But if each of these items was a chain of mineral grains in a single cell, the size problem vanishes.

Most of this image is taken up by a single bacterial cell. Within it is a chain of magnetite particles, which it uses to detect and orient with the Earth's magnetic field. Allowing for the differing scales of the two images, this chain is the same size as the chains of grains from Mars.

But, it is objected, Mars has no magnetic field. That doesn't mean it never had one. Its core is frozen now, but must have been molten at an earlier time, simply from the cosmology of planet formation. Early in Mars's history, it did have a magnetic field, it is likely to have had an atmosphere and liquid water; lots of physiographic features on its surface show this.

If life got a start on Mars as soon as it did on Earth, there may have been a period as long as a billion years for it to evolve and flourish, before the loss of water and atmosphere made everything extinct. In the late 1990s, the trend of the debate was decidedly anti-Martian life. Now, the pendulum is back the other way.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Adventures in night photography

photographs, observations

We were at a friend's farm for the Chinese Moon Festival. Late in the evening, fog began to roll in, and the view toward the outbuildings was very fetching. I decided to try an available-light shot. With my camera (a Nikon D40) on no-flash Auto, I braced the camera against a chair and shot. The light behind me is from a large yard light that was turned on for some barbecuing. The camera made a two second exposure, and people I showed it to said it looked like a daylight picture:

ISO 1600, f/4.5, 1.8sec, 31mm (50mm equiv).

The camera is programmed to gather light until the scene is "normally exposed", so I expected the image to look fully lit. However, it had not looked like this to the eye. I reduced the Gamma and blue-shifted it a little to get this rendering, which is much more like I recall it looking:

Then people began coming back from a moonlit walk in a mowed field, telling how pretty the fog looked. I went, and agreed, and using a table for a stand, found the camera did not want to take a picture. It could not focus. I switched it to Manual focus, and focused on the moon before setting the camera down to take this picture:

ISO 1600, f/5, 10sec, 38mm (61mm equiv).

The lighted vine and grass in the foreground are lit by the yard light. The field beyond is moonlit. This doesn't look quite like a daylight image, but is brighter than what the eye sees. So I processed it to reduce the Gamma and blue-shift it, to get this image:

Here the fog is more visible over the field, because it scatters blue light better, so cutting some red enhanced it.

When the light is this dim, the eye doesn't see colors well. Moonlight is just bright enough to stimulate pseudocolor. That is, the most sensitive color pigment, green, works with the night vision pigment, which sees in the blue, to yield a blue-green sort of vision. The blue and green color pigments don't function at all.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Passing one (mostly) by

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries

The nine-tailed fox is a powerful figure in Asian folklore, appearing in some form in Chinese, Japanese and Korean myths. When I saw the title 9Tail Fox by Jon Courteny Grimwood, I thought it worth finding out how what sort of tail he'd launch with that. There's both good and bad here, and the bad is enough that I skipped over 3/4 of it to check that the denouement matched my deductions; I was only partly right.

The book states on its cover, "A novel of science fiction." There is no SciFi here at all; it is a supernatural fantasy. It didn't take long to determine that, once the protagonist, a cop named Bobby Zha, is killed and then restored temporarily to life in the body of a coma victim, he'd not just get the girl, he'd get every girl he encountered, frequently in several pages of detail. Then, the author has an equal obsession with the kind of detailed, sadistic descriptions of violence one finds in Ian Fleming's writing, and the writing becomes "blood porn". Sorry, dude; not the kind of thing I wish to inhabit my psyche. So I passed.