Thursday, December 31, 2009

A pretty throw

kw: antiques

I just had to show this. While organizing the contents of some boxes from my mother's estate, I happened upon this, all rolled up. It is from her grandmother's effects, so is about 100 years old: a silk coffee table throw.
It uses embroidery that looks the same from both sides (except it is a mirror image). A fraying corner makes it evident it is machine made; there are two complete embroidered designs, that meet where the threads pass through one another using the fabric only for a holding template.

This is a closeup of the peacock at the center, with a little contrast stretching to partly restore the faded colors.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You can BFF but not LOL in hex

kw: observations, musings, wordplay

I happened to notice recently that the abbreviation BFF (best friends forever) showed up as part of one of those long URL's that contain strings of hex-codes. In case anyone is interested, the hexadecimal string BFF converts to decimal 3071.

I ran an exclusion search of my spelling dictionary and found 66 words formed only of the letters A through F:


Just a few of these require explanation: E is found in the Latin motto "E Pluribus Unum" on the dollar bill, and means "from"; ABACA and ABBE are names; and FA is the tone-name of the fourth musical note in the diatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do). The others all ought to be well known, though the adjective FACADED is getting obsolete.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Trying out one life after another

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, experimentation

I could say that A.J. Jacobs tries on lifestyles like suits of clothes, but that would be stretching things. I can try out a suit in about five minutes. He tries something for a month or a year at a time. His one-year experiments resulted in books: The Know-it-All, about reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in one year, and The Year of Living Biblically. A year or two of further experimentation with his own life has resulted in The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment.

Author Jacobs calls George Plimpton "one of my literary idols". He recalls Nellie Bly, who actually tried to circle the world in eighty days when Jules Verne's book was published, and had herself committed to an insane asylum to study and report on patient abuse (nearly lost her life on that one).

Experimenting with oneself is more commonly done for scientific purposes. Most recently, Barry Marshall infected himself with Helicobacter pylori to prove it causes ulcers, then cured himself with antibiotics to cement the proof. And what of Dr. Walter Reed, who died proving that yellow fever is carried by mosquitoes?

Being a compulsive sort, of course I will list the nine experiments that comprise the book:
  • My Life as a Beautiful Woman – The author and his wife employ a lovely, young nanny, who is shy about dating. A. J. offers to be a go-between on a dating web site. Score: 2 dates of ambiguous success, about sixty creeps of varying creepiness, and the nanny found herself a boyfriend elsewhere…but felt the experiment had raised her confidence.
  • My Outsourced Life – You can hire people to do stuff for you, such as write and answer mail, or buy birthday and anniversary gifts, or even read bedtime stories (over a speaker phone) to your children. The author calls this the best month of his life.
  • I Think You're Fat – Brad Blanton promotes Radical Honesty, in which you remove the filters and say whatever pops into your head. Blanton loves controversy and directness. The worst month of the author's life.
  • 240 Minutes of Fame – He happens to strongly resemble a shy celebrity who'd been invited to an awards event. He went in his place and found that being adulated really does cause mental derangement.
  • The Rationality Project – Our psychology is composed of System 1 (the emotional reptile mind) and System 2 (our inner Einstein). Tried to live a month by System 2 only. Came to appreciate what both Systems are for. Also tried out forty toothpaste brands to find the "most rational".
  • The Truth About Nakedness – During discussions with Mary-Louise Parker about an article she would write for Esquire, it was suggested she pose nude for the spread. She agreed, with the proviso that A. J. also pose nude. They did it, and he got another taste of how the other half feels.
  • What Would George Washington Do? – Depends on how old he was. The Father of our Country was a truly self-made man, nowhere more so than in his personality, which he strove to hone into the dignified, reserved icon he is remembered as. The 110 Rules of deportment Washington followed are reproduced in an appendix. Even professional Washington "interpreters" can't follow them all, but this very emotional aristocrat seems to have done so. Our author did less well, but learned a great deal.
  • The Unitasker – Heeding the warnings of some that multitasking actually makes us less efficient, A. J. tried to learn to focus on one thing at a time. This in a time when we stand in front of a microwave that's running for 30 seconds and say, "Hurry up!".
  • Whipped – The author catered to his wife's every whim for one month. He also let her write the concluding Coda to the chapter. Her greatest month, and not too bad for him, either.
These were not conducted one after another without a break, but span fifteen years, including the Biblical and Encyclopedic years. I think it is safe to say there are more experiments in the offing. Perhaps one is ongoing right now; read his blog to find out.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The absence of the creche

kw: personal beliefs, biblical interpretation

I seldom inflict my beliefs on this blog; this isn't what it is mainly about. But belonging to a church that mostly ignores Christmas, I found myself asked by someone, "Just how accurate are all these Nativity scenes? Is that what things really looked like the day after Jesus' birth?"

In a word, No.

In a typical nativity scene, we have, of course, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a barn or stable. So far, that is accurate. The baby is in a manger (a feeding trough) and there are animals about. Already getting dicey; the animals would have been in stalls. You don't let a donkey run about when an infant is present. Then there are some shepherds. Yes, in Luke chapter 2 the shepherds visited, sometime prior to the eighth day. What eighth day? The day to circumcise and name the child, as recorded in Luke 2:21; this was followed a month later by a visit to Jerusalem. By the way, if the shepherds were keeping their flocks in the field, there is no way this happened in December.

Who's missing so far? O, yeah, the wise men. A nativity scene typically has three Wise Men bearing gifts, and some kind of comet-shaped thing on a wire above it to represent "the Star". This is recorded in Matthew chapter 2. Funny thing is, the wise men (actually called Magoi or Magi—they were astrologers, but it is from this word we get words like "magic") were bearing at least three gifts, but their own number is never mentioned. Might have been just two of them, maybe five or eleven. We don't know. Funnier thing: Matt 2:11 says they "came into the house". Not a stable. No manger. Then there is a chronological note. After they left, warned to leave by a different route, Herod orders the children in Bethlehem to be killed, "from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men."

We know what happened next. Joseph was warned to flee to Egypt. The gifts given by the Magi financed that trip. Shortly after that, Herod died, and the family returned to Nazareth, Joseph's home town. Luke has given us a solid clue here that his account records what happened when young Jesus was about two years old. And by the time the Magi came, Mary and Joseph had obtained accommodations in a house.

All these allow us to pin down a few other things. Herod died early in the year 4 BC. The flight to Egypt probably took place in 5 BC, which means Jesus was born sometime in 6 or 7 BC, probably 7.

As long as I am myth-busting, I'll take on a couple more. The date of the crucifixion has been reliably determined to be in April of 32 AD. Jesus was then 38 or 39 years old. Luke 3:23 is often wrongly translated "Jesus began to be about thirty years old", when it should be, "When Jesus began [his work] he was past thirty years old." He was actually closer to 35, maybe 36. After just a couple of years on the road, he was mistaken for a man approaching 50, in John 8:57. The much-touted 33½ age had come and gone before he began to minister…unless the four Passovers in John are not all there were. Is it possible that Jesus ministered for nine years? Again, we can't know for sure, just from Bible verses.

Finally, we have no clue what the "Star of Bethlehem" was. Whatever it was, it lasted two years. It could not be a planetary conjunction therefore, and comets don't last nearly that long either. It might have been a long-lasting supernova, but there is no supernova remnant known that dates to around 7 BC. It must have been something unexpected, or the Magi could have predicted its coming, as they could predict eclipses and conjunctions. Then they would not have been two years late for His birth, and perhaps those familiar Nativity scenes would be accurate!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is this one less link gone missing?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, anthropology, paleontology, human origins

This little fossil monkey is changing some ideas about the way primates evolved. A juvenile female, she was dubbed "Ida" by scientist Jørn Hurum after his young daughter. Dr. Hurum arranged the purchase of the fossil from a dealer acting for a private collector, and assembled the first team to study and publish about this type specimen of the new species Darwinius masillae. "Massilae" honors the Messel quarry, where Ida was found.

In The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, by Colin Tudge (with substantial additions by Josh Young), I read with fascination the story, as well as we might know it, of Ida's discovery by a private collector 25 years ago, and the touch-and-go negotiations and dealings that had to occur for the specimen to be passed into the hands of the Oslo Museum of Natural History, there to be studied.

What is Ida's significance? Briefly, this "plate", together with its reverse, "plate B", form the most complete fossil primate ever recovered, and is particularly precious because of her age: 47 million years. Secondly, the fossil shows transitional features that indicate Darwinius masillae, or a species very like it, was the species ancestral to the Anthropoids, those primates that include Old World monkeys and all apes, including Homo sapiens.

Ida herself could not have been ancestral to anybody. Her teeth—about half her milk teeth were still in place, though adult teeth were right behind, soon to erupt—indicate she was less than a year old, comparable in development to a ten-year-old human or four-year-old chimp. Too young to give birth. But her species could well be the anthropoid "first ancestor" species, the one that forms the point of divergence with the Lemur group.

That is, if one believes that anthropoids and the lemurs are sister groups. There are other ways to interpret primate evolution, though the study of Ida is throwing most of them into doubt. As Dr. Hurum says, "Paleontology is the only science in which you can still shake up the whole field with a rock hammer." (I paraphrase)

Much of the book is a discussion of the Eocene and the Tertiary period of which it is an early section. Times were a bit different then. The planet was much warmer on average, due to much higher greenhouse gas amounts, and tropical forests reached almost to the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. Certain continents were connected that are separated today, so in substantially less than a million years, any slightly mobile species could spread to cover the globe. This is why, though much of primate evolution is thought to have occurred in Africa, particularly anthropoid evolution, a species such as Ida's could be found living in Germany.

If you look closely at the image above, you can see the brown outline around the bones. This is a "soft tissue" fossil, in which the skeleton is accompanied by cured and preserved flesh and hair. Even Ida's stomach content is visible (look at the dark mass just below her ribs), and shows she was mainly a fruit eater. The strength of her legs shows that she was a leaper, like the monkeys today that cling to branches and make spectacular leaps to nearby trees.

How did she wind up in a German oil shale quarry? Oil shale is formed in a specific way, in large lakes with deep oxygen-free water. Anything falling in and sinking will not decay, but be preserved in the thin mud that gradually accumulates. The pit at Messel has yielded spectacular fossils of many species, including more than a dozen specimens of small horses (the Eocene horse was a four-toed critter the size of a Spaniel) and two other primate species. Anoxic lakes have lots of carbon dioxide in their deep waters, often supplied from deeper magma bodies (Germany was a volcanic area in the Eocene), and the gas sometimes "burps", suffocating many creatures that happen to be nearby. Birds fall from the sky, animals taking a drink collapse and may fall into the water, and a monkey low in an overhanging tree can fall in also. This is apparently what happened to Ida.

I tried to locate a few cogent links, but the controversy following the publication is quite hot. A good survey can be found in this Wikipedia article. As the author predicted, some claim Ida is "just a Lemur", some that she in an Adapid (a completely extinct primate group), and there are few voices raised to support Drs. Hurum and Franzen and their coauthors. That is science for you. It takes years, and lots of heat before there is much light.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

HDR for real

kw: photography, photographs, digital darkroom

It didn't take long; my post yesterday about "faking" HDR by various means got a quick response from one correspondent. In essence, "Try easyHDR Basic, it's free." I have to admit, it is easy to use, and the result, shown below (click for a bigger version), is definitely better. When I have only one NEF (Nikon Raw) or JPEG file, the tricks can still help, but nothing beats genuine High Dynamic Range tone mapping software.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Partial HDR

kw: photography, photographs, digital darkroom

Christmas lights are up, and I decided to experiment a little, to get pictures of my neighbors' displays that looked better than my past efforts. The neighbor across the street has a modest but pleasing display. The image below is reduced from the "normal" JPEG file. All images were taken using Nikon's RAW format, NEF. The images behind the ones shown, obtainable with a click, are 1/4 the original size, 752x500 pixels.

So this image shows what one usually gets from the auto-exposure setting. I forced ASA 200 for smoothness even in the shadows, used Aperture priority set to maximum (f/4.2 at the 30mm zoom lens setting), and the camera used a shutter time of 1.8 seconds. Of course I had it on a tripod.
Because of the brightness of this display, mainly the "tree balls", some light shows on the house. Many photos of Christmas lights just show the lights with little hint that there is a house holding them up! The light on the snow bank is from a street light half a block away.

I have a variety of image processing software. For the work today I used Irfanview 4.2, Nikon ViewNX 1.2, and Picasa 3.0. Both Irfanview and Picasa can work with NEF files. I don't have high-dynamic-range (HDR) software, though I do have Gimp 2.0, which is able to produce HDR images, but with lots of operations. I decided to see what I could do to get "halfway to HDR".

The image that follows shows what Irfanview can do with this default exposure, using the NEF file as a basis. To "pull in" the highlights and shadows I cut the contrast by half (a setting of -64 in a range of -127 to 127). I applied sharpening of 0.2 (20 out of 99), which brightens up any edges, and saved the result as a JPEG file using a quality factor of 95%.
One of my goals was to bring out the colors of the globes in the tree. This image shows them slightly better than the one above it, but its main visible difference is that it brought up the light on the house and a hint of light in the sky.

In case I want to try real HDR processing, I made EV+2 and EV-2 images. This is the EV+2 image. The only difference from the first one above is the exposure time, about half a second. Now you can see mainly the lights, and the globes' colors are more distinct.
I used Irfanview again to cut the contrast in half, but added this: I raised the Gamma to 1.4, which increases effective exposure.
I think the colors are better, but there is a washed-out look. The hint of light in the sky is now just a scant hint, and quite grainy also.

Then I tried something analogous in ViewNX. Being tuned to Nikon files, I hoped it would make all the dynamic range of the NEF file available to being mapped into a JPEG file. JPEG files use 8 bits per pixel, while the NEF format for a D40 has 12 bits per pixel. That adds four stops (4 factors of 2, or 16x) to the lightness range.
ViewNX gives you control of both ends of the range, using "Protect highlights" and "Protect shadows" control sliders. I set both sliders to 100%. This is getting to be a pretty good image, though the sky is still quite grainy. This is about the best one can do with a single NEF file.

I had one more trick to try. I'd read that Picasa has a "poor man's HDR", in its "Make a Collage" section. One type of collage is a multiple exposure. I tried making a triple exposure with all three images, which was overpowered by the EV-2 one (7+ seconds): the globes were glaring white. So I made one just using the "normal" and EV+2. After saving the collage image, I used the Fill Light tuning option, setting the slider to halfway, and saved a copy.
While I am still not satisfied with the look of the globes, as a whole this is the best image. It looks much closer to what I recall seeing visually than any of the unprocessed images.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh, the gopher's connected to the cricket . . .

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, relationships

I learned a couple of new words:
  • Inquiline – an animal that lives in the occupied dwelling of another animal.
  • Phoresy – one species of animal riding on another species.
These are just two kinds of relationships presented in Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers & Other Unusual Relationships by Marty Crump. Inquilines aren't just the spiders, ants, and perhaps mice or roaches that infest our houses. The term refers also to camel crickets (and sixty other insect species) found in gopher burrows, the gobies that inhabit (and help guard) the burrows of certain shrimp, and the beetles—sometimes parasitic, sometimes commensal—that live in ant nests. And when we ride horses, it is just one sort of phoresy; the mites that flower-hop aboard the bills of hummingbirds were doing so long before people tamed horses.

And what is is about those orchids? They seem, as a class, to be bent on deceiving insects. Rather than offer bees or flies some nectar, though some kinds do, many orchids entice them with empty promises (smells or colors) only to trap them and slam pollen packets onto their backs, or they imitate sexy females and load amorous males with pollen, but leave them frustrated…and there are thousands of other modes of orchid chicanery.

These sample illustrations, from the book's dust jacket, drawn by the author's brother Alan Crump, touch on a few other relationships found in the book: A salamander using an antibiotic to keep her eggs free of fungus; a pair of penguins divorcing; a cicada-killer wasp and her prey; a monkey of one species known to use orange peel as a mosquito repellent; a crab of the sort that cleans sea lice from marine iguanas; and a cattle egret that follows the bovines to eat insects they flush up.

For simplicity's sake—you gotta organize the mess in some way!—the author, an accomplished naturalist, groups her essays into four sets:
  • Relationships among members of the same animal species, from pair-bonding and grooming to cannibalism;
  • Relationships between diverse species, such as cleaning, riding, and mutual defense…or mutual ingestion;
  • Animals relating to plants, with gall-dwelling ant nests and the orchids that fake it;
  • And the good, bad, and ugly things bacteria and fungi do for members of the animal world, from making bread dough rise to turning a beetle into a spore-dispersing corpse, to producing one of many kinds of "typhoid Mary"-type infection-spreaders.
The bottom-line message is that an ecology is defined by relationships. Think of Yellowstone (this is my example, not hers): more streamside vegetation grows there since wolves were returned to the ecosystem. Why? The partial answer is that the moose and elks are more vulnerable when eating near a stream, because there are fewer places to run. This is one of dozens of changes to the whole system that are thought to result from restoration of the natural top predator.

If there is a way two critters can interact, you can be sure that they have done so, and many of their most fascinating behaviors are found between the covers of this lovely book.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Calibrating for low power microscopy

kw: photographs, photomicrography

NOTE: This post has large (400px) images side-by-side, so is best viewed full screen.

I took advantage of the holiday sales to purchase a small digital camera suitable for taking photomicrographs by pointing it into a microscope eyepiece. It is a technique I've used with film cameras in the past, starting fifty years ago when I used my father's Argus 35mm camera with my little "kit" microscope. My current (now "main") digital camera, a Nikon D40, has a lens much too large for this use. The eye relief of the eyepieces of my microscopes ranges from 9mm to 14mm. A camera's lens has to be short enough that the eyepiece's focus point can be put in or near the center of the iris diaphragm, or the image will suffer vignetting. A Canon SD1200, with its 6.2-18.6mm zoom lens, seems well suited to this use, and the price was right. I had already learned (reported here) that my son's SD1100 was useful for this purpose.

Most cameras these days have a Macro setting, and the Canon's is pretty good. These photos show the practical range available. The first is the whole image of a portion of a post card and stamp. Reproduced this size, its magnification is 2x on a 100dpi monitor, or 2.3x on a 86dpi monitor. However, there are a lot of pixels in the original image. I have the camera set to 6Mpx (2816x2112) to match my DSLR's resolution. It also gives it better low-light performance. The second image (on the right if there is enough room) is a 400x400 pixel crop, and has a magnification of about 13x on a 100dpi monitor. A 6x4 inch print will have a magnification of 3x. Cropping out a 1200x800 section, a 200dpi print's magnification will be about 7x. That's a good working range for many purposes.

I proceeded to calibrate the camera with my stereo low-power microscope. Its visual magnifications are 7x, 15x, and 20x. I have a set of eyepieces that take the range to 30x, but the eye relief is smaller, making it harder to line up the camera. The third and fourth images are of the millimeter scale on a wooden ruler, using the 20x setting on the microscope and the camera's lens zoomed all the way "long". Direct scaling of the digital image yields a factor of 660 px/mm. The other image of the scale is an 800x800 crop, further reduced by Blogger to 400x400 (click to see the larger one).

Maximum displayed magnification is 168x, and maximum printed magnification is half that. Displaying the entire image at 400x300 pixel size has a magnification of 24x. Thus I have a set of factors to use if I need to report exact magnifications. Of course, as with a zoom lens, actual focal length is rarely reported, and for many microscopy purposes, reporting the original size of an object is often sufficient.

The fifth and sixth images show part of the butterfly on the stamp. First, the whole image at is shown at 24x, then a 400x400 crop that shows the halftone color dots making up the image, at 168x. This is the butterfly's eye.

Some part of the blurriness of the latter photo may be due to the camera optics, but I think most is the fuzzy edges of the dots themselves. I find it interesting that, as the ink dried on the shiny stamp paper, it migrated to the edge of each dot, forming a ring. I suspect it isn't really supposed to do that, and that the stamp would look better if the dots were solid.

I grabbed another test subject I had on hand: a bunch of insects cleaned out of a light fixture and kept in a plastic vial. Spreading them out with a needle, I first separated a small weevil. Using the 15x setting and the camera zoomed all the way, I got this image (#7), shown here at about 17x (the weevil's length is 4mm, exclusive of antennae).

The last image is more of a survey, meant to show the variety of critters the light had attracted, centered on a small wasp. The image's magnification is 8x. While that is in the range of the macro lens, I can crop a section of this photo to obtain 56x if needed, or 28x for a print.

All these photos were handheld. I have a small tripod, but it will take some fiddling to produce a setup in which the tripod-plus-camera can be quickly put into the right position. That will be more critical with my other, high-powered microscope, which doesn't let through nearly as much light. It may be some time before I am able to calibrate that setup.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snowfall sequence

kw: local events, photographs, observations

Being just southwest of Philadelphia, we were right in the sights of the northeaster that hit about 1:00 this morning. I could see we had about four inches (10cm) of snow by 7:00, so I had a quick breakfast and, just before heading out to shovel, I took the first picture in the image sequence below. The birdbath is in the back yard. The city lights were off already, and the early morning light was bluish.

After an hour and a half with the shovel, I had to remove snow ahead of myself getting back to the house; snow depth was 6" (15cm). The second photo was at 10 AM, an hour after I came in. The third is at 12:30, just before I had lunch.

I went out to shovel again at 4 PM, after taking the fourth pic. My wife helped this time, because our driveway had a two-foot drift (60cm) blown into it. We were done about 6 PM, when the last photo was taken. This time, I had the camera on a tripod, as it took a 1-second exposure by the light of the city shining on the clouds. The predominance of sodium street lights caused the brownish color. This image was also focused by hand, because the autofocusing couldn't work at this light level.

Ready for some Advil and some sleep! I expect another few inches by morning. The church has canceled its meetings, which mainly means I don't have to hurry to clear the driveway. The official start of winter is still two days away.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Memories times six

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs

Diana Athill published her first memoir in 1968, and has now written six. By age 89, a body has lived enough that one or two are just insufficient. Now she's 92; will there be a seventh? Let's give her a few years and see. In the meantime, I much appreciated reading Somewhere Towards the End, not so much for enjoyment, but for seeing how a very different person thinks.

Ms Athill was born in 1917, making her five years older than my father. While some of the anecdotes are timeless, some relate to a time I can hardly imagine, both her stories and my father's. Prior to WWII, the world on both sides of the Atlantic (Athill is British) was much different from the 1950s world I recall, though perhaps life in prewar London was more sophisticated and comfortable than life in most of the U.S. of the time.

Large Print editions typically have no jacket photo of the author, so I "had" to search one out. I see she has strong features with an intelligent look, even in old age. A formidable person, without doubt. The book makes that clear. She is a no-nonsense atheist who still enjoys many of the old Bible stories she heard as a child. She enjoys art for its own sake, written or visual, and whatever may have inspired it; the stronger the inspiration, even if religious, the more moving she finds the work to be.

She seems to have lucky genes. The women in her family all tend to live between 90 and 99 years. They also tend to be freethinkers, willing to truly think things through and even change their minds when it is warranted. For instance, she recalls at first disdaining free adult education opportunities, but later deciding to take a sewing class, which led to drawing classes, before the "free" part lost its government subsidy. She is little inclined to pay for a class that must support its instructor with tuition.

She also led a life I would call promiscuous, but which was perhaps only middle-of-the road for freethinkers of her generation. She freely chronicles her many lovers, most of them married, in three or four of the early chapters of the book. She never married.

I couldn't find a date for this picture, but I suppose it is sixty-some years ago. She had the same strong features as a young woman, though I would not call her pretty. Instead, she seems to have that strong-minded fascination that women such as Cleopatra put to good use. With the right kind of mind, a woman doesn't need more than "passable" looks. Thus, while not a great beauty, she was able to attract lovers over a more than fifty-year period of her life, until, as she puts it, "I just wasn't a sexual being any more." I learned much from her writing about what aging really has been like for her. It gives me much sympathy for my wife, some thirty years her junior, and what may lie in store for her.

This being a memoir so late in her life, the author writes much about death and dying, particularly her experiences during her mother's last days, at just about this age. As so many have said, it isn't death, but dying that is worth fearing. Dying, even if mercifully sudden, is no easy matter. Along the way she muses on what it is that is lost when one dies. She reasons this way: death is the payment for the blessings of life. Having outlived nearly all her generation, she finds herself paying the same coin as one whose years numbered too few, and counts herself lucky. I do not see here the aphorism, "It's the life in your years, not the years in your life"; perhaps it is too trite for her.

Among all the losses that accrue with age, what is gained? For one, people's expectations are lowered. It is almost like the joke about the dog that played poker. Nobody cared that he bid badly, they were so amazed he could play at all. I remember my own grandmother's great humor and wit, the year before she died. She could hold her own with any crowd, and many's the time someone would find himself wholly off balance, for she just did not think like people expect an old person to think. Why should she think "old"? She still knew everything the "younger her" had known, and more. And so it is with this author. While I might wish even a very old libertine could yet find the Redeemer, I take my hat off to an original thinker who has candidly and graciously offered these glimpses into her heart.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bambi's real family

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

I got to wondering some time ago, are there any herbivores that are asocial? Among carnivores, social species are less common than asocial ones, but we typically see cattle, antelopes, and deer in herds, and even rabbits and mice live in groups, though we less often see them in numbers because they stay so hidden. The only ungulate that seems to be solitary is the moose. The term "moose herd" seems off somehow, though moose are probably more like elephants, for whom the females herd together while the large males are more solitary. Large males, whether elephant or moose, have no natural enemies and don't need the security provided by a group.

Reading The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, I find that deer are indeed quite social, but their sociality has been overlooked by most, because of the primary focus on them as a hunted prey animal. The author notes that nearly all studies of deer "society" focus on aspects that a hunter can take advantage of, and that nothing she had read prepared her for observing the hierarchical rules the deer enforce.

The clearest example is feeding behavior with a limited resource. Ms Thomas had begun feeding turkeys in winter, a wintertime in which there were nearly no acorns (oaks do this periodically), to find that deer were also coming for the corn. She laid out more corn and began to observe, trying to discern individuals and their relationships. Because deer in winter are very hard to tell apart, except for size—and who can reliably gauge size when an animal is not right next to another?—she suddenly realized one day that their associations were a more reliable guide to identity.

Among the twenty to thirty deer that regularly visited her feeding area, she found there were at least four groups, each led by a mature female, presumably the mother and grandmother of the rest of the group. As in elephant society, the grown males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups, though these are much less cohesive than the female-plus-offspring groups. An animal seen alone was hard to identify, but when the group was together, the individuals could be easily distinguished.

She called four of the matrilineal groups she identified Alpha, Beta, Delta and Tau. Though this naming was in order of identification, it turned out to be an order by status also. The Alpha group always got the most food, and attempted to prevent all others from feeding if the amount was not sufficient for all. Astoundingly, to me, the other deer went along with this, to the point that, when the Alphas were done feeding and left the area, all the deer would leave, even some who might not have eaten at all. Only very late in winter, when the lower-status deer were getting desperate, would they return at an off time to scarf up some leftovers.

Throughout the book the author discusses the ethics of feeding. She found that she was one of about a hundred customers for winter corn at the mill (where she bought corn in hundred pound lots); the proprietor presumed that most of his customers were feeding deer. She looks at all creatures, even plants, as having the same needs for nourishment and reproduction.

Animals are capable of desire, while we think plants are not. Then she outlines the life history of the fungus Cordyceps, which actively invades an insect's body, eats only non-essential organs until they run out, then eats a portion of the insect's brain—apparently the self-preservation part—so that the insect climbs as high as it can on a twig or bush; the fungus then consumes the rest of the insect and sprouts from the shell, now in a high location from which its spores can travel far and wide. Is this purposive behavior? In a FUNGUS? Maybe we need to rethink whether non-animals have a brain, just of a different sort (and I once read an article that compared the tips of twigs to animals that had to move about by leaving a "trail" of lengthening branch behind, but observed on their own time scale, were quite active).

Finally, the author records an experience from the following winter. There were plenty of acorns, so she did not put out any corn. The first truly cold, blustery day, the flock of turkeys came, milled about the former feeding area, then stalked over to the house and looked at her through the window for a while. Later, two groups of deer did the same thing. They remembered her, and what she had done, and all seemed to be asking, "What will you do this winter?" Though herbivores are called small-brained, by comparison to carnivores, their brain is big enough!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An ephemeral crinkle

kw: observations, photographs, natural phenomena

Nearly every time I open a 2-liter bottle of soda, I notice a regular, but brief, pattern appear as the bottle shrinks beneath the label. Once air leaks between, the pattern vanishes. If you look carefully, you'll see that the pattern covers the whole visible label, though the lighting does not show it up equally everywhere. This regular crenelation is similar to the pattern of folds used to make a sheet that can respond to compressive stress by changing size.

I am familiar with the usual pattern of collapse when air is drawn from a thin-walled cylinder. It will usually form a three-lobed figure. Try sucking the air out of a plastic soda bottle; it will usually form first a triangle (in cross section) then upon further air withdrawal, a figure with a cross section more like a clover leaf.

But this pattern appears when the high pressure in a carbonated bottle is released. I believe the labels are attached to already-filled bottles, so when the pressure is released the bottle will shrink a little but the label is being drawn with it by external air pressure (external to the gap between the label and the bottle). Thus the label experiences biaxial (two-directional) compression and this pattern is the result.

This image, from the Center for Nonlinear Mechanics at the University of Bath, shows the theoretical analysis of a single row of alternate crenelations in a cylinder under uniaxial compression. Though it is not the same system, the pattern is suggestive of a real self-organizing compression pattern that develops before permanent deformation sets in.

This photo of a cylinder that crumpled in the way shown just above is from the article Buckling at the University of Western Australia, School of Mechanical Engineering. So far, I haven't found any reference to buckling in the style I photographed in articles on biaxial compression.

Monday, December 14, 2009

H2 reduce the pressure

kw: medicine, observations

My doctor tells me my blood pressure is too high. I've learned this much: when I am taking sufficient Omega-3 supplementation (three or four of a double-strength fish oil) and getting enough exercise, it tends to come in at about 130/80. When I don't, it is more like 150/90.

For years, the standard was that 140/80 was borderline high, but now "they" have a new standard of 120/70. It is my contention that this is a scam. My 105-lb (48 kg) wife's blood pressure is usually about 115/70, but I suspect it is nearly impossible for a man weighing more than 180 pounds (~80 kg) to get anywhere near the "standard" without medication. Blood pressure medications are selling for many billions yearly.

Nonetheless, I am under some pressure to consider medication, so I began to gather data. A quick check of a blood pressure drug list compiled in 2006 is, frankly, horrifying:
  • 55 single-component drugs and 16 mixtures (and the list states that, in the case of the diuretics at least, it is "partial").
  • 22 of the 55 are generic, so even twenty years ago there were at least two dozen drugs! Breaking things down a bit,
  • 6 of 11 Diuretics are generic.
  • 15 of 24 Adrenal Inhibitors are generic.
  • 1 of 20 Calcium Antagonists is generic. These are the newest class.
I plan to next check into side effects and reported effectiveness of a sampling from each category, before I let my doctor make any recommendations. I am pretty sure that he doesn't even know there are 71+ choices out there, so I need solid info from the get-go. It takes a good BS detector to cut through the haze of drug company representatives' influence in an office that has at least one rep-supplied poster on every wall of every room. And my doctor is one of those with the fewest "trinkets" from these guys!

I am gradually training him to understand that I am not a "patient", a passive consumer of medical services. I am a customer, and he is a consultant, and I expect an active role in medical decisions. That means I need to know a lot. That's OK; learning is what I do best. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

As the ocean goes, so go we

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, polemics

Dr. Earle in her element.

We know more about the moon or Mars than we do about the oceans that sustain us. That ignorance could well prove fatal, perhaps to the human species, and probably at least to our civilization. Do we really want to avoid becoming again "just" the most intelligent of the apes, living like high-class chimpanzees among the ruins of a civilization we can no longer sustain? Then we need to know much, much more about the oceans and how to care for them. Having gained the power to destroy, it is incumbent on us to use that power to sustain. This is the message I get from The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One by Sylvia A. Earle, Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society.

This is not a book one reads for enjoyment (The Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas, published last year, is much better for that). No, this book is a thorough survey of the ways our vision of Ocean as unlimited and infinitely resilient have led us to push the very real limits to the breaking point, in a very short time. Firstly, the human race has extincted a few species of whale, porpoise and seal, and driven nearly all the rest to populations no more than one-tenth of their previous levels. We have also done so with species after species of fish, both directly for those fish as food or "products", and indirectly as "bycatch" when the target is shrimp or other shellfish. Though there is no chapter on reptiles, every species of large sea turtle is also endangered. Finally, the seas are a dumping ground, to the point that huge portions of the central Pacific, Atlantic and other ocean gyres are filled with tiny plastic bits that outweigh all biomass by a factor of six or seven.

The oceans support the air we breathe. We make much of the forests and grasslands as producers of oxygen. Phytoplankton in the oceans produce 70% or more of all oxygen. At the very least, using the ocean for a garbage dump has begun to cut into their numbers. Is that what we want? On a personal note, I wonder when it will become a worldwide capital offense to spill one's trash at sea? Sure, it is expensive to pump out a ship's bilge into a holding tank, or to carry all trash back to port, but one day we will see it is cheaper than the alternative.

In an appendix, a list and two maps show protected areas of the sea. The first map shows the "no fishing" zones: almost invisible. The second shows "sanctuaries" and other areas of all levels of protection, which amount to 0.8% (1/125th) of the total ocean surface, and much, much less a proportion of its total mass. Many pages of the book are devoted to narratives of the political and diplomatic grunt work that have been necessary to achieve this. How much protection will be required before properly sustainable populations of whales, codfish, oysters and all other depleted species can be restored? One stated goal is to totally protect the waters beneath 30% of all the oceans. At the rate we are going, there is some chance this goal could be reached before 2100 A.D. But at the rate the current damage is growing, there may be little to save by then.

Though there is a section on global warming, this is less an oceanic danger than a terrestrial one. I occupy a middle-ground position in the climate debate, but I am no "denier". It is likely, in my view, that global temperatures over the next 100 years will be about 2°C (~4°F) higher than they would be without our added greenhouse gas production. While I don't expect all the dire consequences on land that Al Gore threatens, I do expect some. I believe we can adapt, but there are two consequences at least that we cannot avoid.

First, a two-degree warming that penetrates to ocean depths (this takes a long time) will cause thermal expansion of the water, making the ocean one or two meters deeper. Bye-bye Maldives. These and a few other oceanic islands will be 50%-90% inundated, compared to today.

Secondly, extra CO2 increases oceanic acidity. This hinders the ability of shelled creatures to make their shells. Note, however, that there are huge deposits of shell and coral fossils that were produced when the atmospheric CO2 level was four to eight times what it is today. The problem will be with how fast this happens. Geochemical shifts in the past took tens of thousands of years to occur. This one is a century old, and will take no more than another century to unfold. We are in the midst of a great evolutionary experiment, to see just how fast the clams and corals can evolve into species that do well with more carbonic acid in the ocean. They will eventually adapt, but we may not be there to see it.

And that is the message. What is the real danger here? What are we really doing? A million years from now, how many individual Homo sapiens will remain on Earth? Will there be more than one billion? That is unlikely. The rate at which we are eating up the fish and sea mammals, as our ancestors ate up the mammoths and saber-tooth cats (we ate more of them than they ate of ours), indicates that earth's true carrying capacity for 80-kg naked apes is about 100 million. What we do not accomplish with social and political means, nature will accomplish by means much less pleasant.

I use the label "polemics" in my categorization. That is not necessarily a negative word. Many of the Scripture books are polemical writing (whether Christian or not). Dr. Earle's book happens to be a polemic that I agree with.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I learn a bit of football history

kw: corrections, sports

In my prior post I complained (mildly) about the depiction of the football on the book's cover. In a friendly comment a correspondent pointed out that he played football (AKA soccer to us colonials) using just such a ball in the 1950s, and that Terry Pratchett would have used or encountered the same, as he was in school during that same era. I stand corrected. Apparently the hexagon-pentagon pattern ball is a much later innovation. Thank you, sir.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Frolicking wizards

kw: book reviews, fantasy, wizards

I very seldom reproduce the book jacket, but this time I felt I must, for I have a quibble with the artist, Scott McKowan. This clearly depicts a volleyball game (albeit with some rather strange players), and that orb is a volleyball. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, however, is entirely about football (soccer in the U.S.). Just in case there is any question, the illustration below shows the difference. The magically-invented football in the book is described as having pentagons on its cover.

By my count, this is the thirty-second of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (I've read six or seven of them, but only two since I began logging reviews). He also has a number of derived titles, and he has written more than a dozen other books. Clearly, Discworld is his "main squeeze".

Discworld is an imaginative invented world, based on the oldest myth of the world: a disk situated on four elephants riding on the back of a turtle. Contrary to the old joke (Inquirer: "What is the turtle standing on?" Sage: "It's turtles all the way down."), the turtle stands on nothing, but is "swimming" through the universe. In one of the early Discworld books, a spacecraft circles the assembly, zipping right under the turtle and back to the top. No mention is made of how gravity is made to work. It doesn't need to, as these books are about human nature.

Now, how can that be, one might wonder. Discworld and its chief city, Ankh-Morpork, are peopled not only by humans, but by trolls, dwarves (the mythical kind with pickaxes and battleaxes), werewolves, vampires, and in this book, at least one goblin…or is he something else? The real story of Unseen Academicals is the coming of age of the goblin and three friends of his, particularly Glenda the cook of the Night Kitchen at Unseen University. And the goblin and other non-humans? They represent facets of human nature that all of us strive to reconcile in our relationships and in ourselves.

This is the first of the books (that I have seen) that focuses on the goings-on in Unseen University, an academy run by and for wizards. Their ages range from late middle age to merely old to ancient, and at least a couple are dead, though they consider that a special sort of Emeritus status. These sleepy academics are induced/coerced into setting up a football team and challenging the best of the city to a match. With his customary combination of understatement and wild exaggeration, the author humorously drives the action to its conclusions; there are several, all wildly illogical. There are also three epilogues.

Any novel by Terry Pratchett is a romp. They are some of the best escape literature I've encountered. This one was a great relief after the long series of largely serious works I've read recently.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Mom I have is just fine, thanks

kw: observations, advertisements

In the past couple of days I've seen an ad in which some guy greets a "mom" enthusiastically, but the moment she puts veggies on his plate, he's out of there, and greets another, whom he abandons just as quickly for some other infraction. I suppose the sponsor's idea is to get across the idea of choices.

Am I the only one to find this ad vile and stupid?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Take the first left between the alphabet and the dictionary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, languages, creativity

Many years ago, buying gas at an Oklahoma truck stop, I bought this soda can holder/cooler. It has served me well ever since. It has also sparked comment from time to time, as people notice it and falter a bit, knowing that I am the kind of guy who owns two Toyota Camry sedans (one is 10 years old, the other 19). I am just not the bad boy type, and I have never gone to an event to see monster trucks crush "ordinary" vehicles, in between chain races and other sorts of vehicular mayhem (correction: at age 13, I went with a church youth group to a Demolition Derby, an activity that got the youth leader into a bit of hot water).

I am much more the techno-geek type, a lifelong computer programmer, one who can read the encyclopedia or a dictionary for pleasure. It makes me very, very akin to the kind of people who like the Klingon language. Myself, having once been fluent in French (I can still read it), and later flunking a German class or two, and further getting just enough of a smattering of Japanese from my wife to get me in conversational trouble, I have no more interest in acquiring a new language. If I did, it wouldn't be Klingon anyway; it really is a "monster truck" sort of language (I'd pick Esperanto).

Klingon, as created by Mark Okrand and codified by the Klingon Language Institute, is one of four invented languages that has become, to some extent, a living language, with a generous handful of fluent speakers and hundreds who've learned enough to earn a first-level pin. Though this graphic shows a script invented for the language, so far as I know everyone who writes Klingon uses Latinized transliteration: nuqneH = "what do you want?", the closest Klingon equivalent to "hello".

Arika Okrent has earned her first pin in Klingon. As she reports in her book In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, LogLan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language, she has also become conversant in Esperanto and managed to translate a sentence or two into LojBan (a semi-living "logical language" that spun off of LogLan).

This last is no mean feat. Consider ei do cusku le do se skudji. Though this is intended to translate "You should say what you mean" (as the March Hare told Alice), when translated literally back to English, it comes out "You are obliged to say the desired-to-be-said thing". Because of its hyper-logical structure, LojBan has dozens of words for "is" (Bill Clinton would have loved it). Nonetheless, it has a number of at least competent speakers/users.

The fourth invented language still in use is Blissymbolics, which was intended as a universal pictorial script, but has become of use as a "bridge" script for disabled children to help them learn to communicate in a written language. Preliterate children who cannot speak are not helped by facilitated communication when presented with a board covered with English (or French or whatever) words. If they are first taught the symbols for a few dozen meanings, and these are then presented along with written equivalents, they soon learn to make themselves understood, and in the process, learn the written words.

The Bliss text above means "I like to go to the cinema". Three of the symbols/symbol groups can be figured out by most people, while the fourth, once it is explained to be "house+seeing+showing or projecting", makes sense and is easily remembered. This shows also the concept behind many "logical" languages, in which a "small" (a few hundred) easily-remembered concepts are grouped to express all other concepts. Ideographic languages, primarily Chinese, have a similar basis, but one needs the spoken language to learn the symbols, which do have a phonetic basis.

How many invented languages are there? Prior to the Internet's ubiquity, at least 900 created languages were seriously touted in print after about 1150 A.D., when Hildegard von Bingen produced Lingua Ignota and proclaimed it a language that facilitated (Christian) spiritual communication. Though Ms Okrent writes of "900 languages in 900 years", all the languages after Lingua Ignota were published after about 1500 A.D., so it is more accurate to write "900 in 500". In an appendix to the book, the author lists 500 languages with their creators and publication dates, ranging to 2007.

Few invented languages have hit print since 2000 A.D.; it is so much cheaper to publish on the Internet. Also, the reasons for language creation have changed over time. Prior to about 1950, there was an about equal emphasis on Logicality and Internationality. Since about 1980, these impulses have been reduced to a dull rumble, and "conlangs" and "artlangs" have taken over. The former are languages constructed, as Klingon was, more for interest than for a purpose, and the latter are those created purely for creative reasons. Many of these have decades of work behind them, and there are hundreds of them.

Nearly all language creators are men, and most begin at a very young age. Two women of note are Fra von Bingen, as noted above, and Suzette Elgin, creator of Láadan, with its unique feminine perspective (six words for various experiences of menstruation, for example).

Other than the four mentioned, and a few conlangs or artlangs that have a current following, invented languages fail of their object. Only Esperanto has become a widespread communication medium. Translating Hamlet into Klingon, for example, does not emable Klingon aficionados to enjoy the Bard in Klingon; it is more of a "neat hack", like a computer program that can produce a workable concordance at a single whack (a task usually done with five or six utility programs).

It is no surprise to me that most invented languages fail. Who is willing to learn to parse, or spell, pretzpxn ljbztur frateriorpur ("The price of my brother's book" in "A Universal Language" by James Ruggles), let alone try to pronounce it? Usually, nobody except the lone fellow who invented it. But if the "Simple English" used in some Voice of America broadcasts were ever codified, it would rank as a usable invented language, bringing the total to five.

Among all these, including the few still in use, I have a bit of interest only Ludwig Zamenhof's Esperanto, created and developed in the 1870s and '80s, and published in 1887, when its creator was 28. Zamenhof grew up in an area of Eastern Europe in which you had to know three or four languages just to buy groceries, and also saw the mutual animosities among members of the various language groups. He was motivated to produce a language for everyone, in hopes to foster peace through better communication. Hundreds of others have had the same impulse; what did he do right?

Timing was a key element. An older "universal language" named Volapük was losing ground, stranding adherents who were sympathetic to its goals. Another element was the use of word roots that stood midway between several familiar languages, being derived from Indo-European roots. And a huge element of the success was the use of suffixes to add meanings to the relatively small corpus of root words. Thus while the frat- root denotes siblinghood, frato means "brother", fratino means "sister", and other words that require gender distinctions use the -o and -ino endings to make it. The basic use of the -o ending, however, is to denote "noun", as in vero, "truth". Other endings indicate that a word is a verb, adjective or adverb, with variations of the verb ending to indicate tenses. Esperanto is a very inflected language, but the inflection system is much simpler than that of, for example French, which I find to be endless.

The single most important factor is that Zamenhof was not thin-skinned. He didn't keep tight control of every aspect of the language; he did not treat it as his "inviolable offspring". Nearly every other language creator wound up exhausting himself fighting with those who wished to use the language, but had their own ideas (as absolutely everyone does) about this or that detail. Esperanto became living because its creator let it live and encouraged the creativity of those who could help it become more and more comfortable to speak.

Languages require a certain amount of ambiguity to work well. Our mind is extremely good at detecting nuance; we are good at resolving ambiguity. This puts less of a load on a language's speakers to speak with exactitude. This is the problem with LojBan; it is so exacting that absolutely nobody, even its most ardent speakers, can carry on a conversation without the help of a lexicon to remind them of the precise way to express some exact shade of meaning. Its grammar book masses six hundred pages. English grammar can be conveyed in twenty pages, and you really only need the first two or three pages of the summary you'll find at the end of a good dictionary. Esperanto grammar is even sparser, because the words carry word-type meanings in their suffixes and affixes.

As a lifelong amateur linguist, I am very beholden to Ms Okrent for this volume. It banished in me for good any notion of producing a language of my own or to try a hand at "reforming" English spelling. It also confirmed for me that artificial languages make sense primarily in artificial contexts. I am fluent in Fortran, Pascal and Basic, less so in Visual Basic, and can get by in Perl and C only with the book open constantly (kind of like a LojBan speaker). These are all "formal languages" that are used to direct the operations of computers. Music notation is also a formal language, one that cannot be spoken, only either written or performed. It is like a computer program with the musician acting as the computer. I read music pretty well, but not with the fluidity of a competent conductor.

A final note: the primary impulse driving language creators in the past decade or two has been artistic. J.R.R. Tolkien was an early "artlang" creator, the producer of Welsh-inspired "elven" languages, which he published in 1955; he said more than once that his books were a vehicle to provide a context for the languages, on which he had spent forty years. Have a look at the Omniglot Conlang pages and Artistic Languages in Wikipedia for an introduction to the field. Also, the author maintains a website based on the book that contains lists of languages with dates and creators, and added material about many of them.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

And the dog said woof

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, psychology

I once heard of a dog that could respond appropriately to about 200 spoken commands. Considering that no human has yet to understand what dogs' barking means (except maybe "Hey, there!"), who is the better linguist? From this I infer that, if a dog could be given the power of speech, it would probably have at least a few things to say; they can process speech, they just can't produce it.

In Soul of a Dog: Reflections on the Spirits of the Animals of Bedlam Farm, Jon Katz ruminates on a deeper question than speech: how and what do they think? His main conclusion is that animals think differently than we do, in ways we cannot imagine.

The book's title contains the modern confusion of soul with spirit. They are different things. Considered as psychological organs—and keeping only humans in view for the moment—, the Soul is our personality and includes the functions of thought, emotion, and decision, while the human Spirit has the functions related to God-consciousness and morality, including conscience, discernment and fellowship. In a God-believing person, soul and spirit work intimately together, which leads to the frequent confusion. The best reference on the mechanics of these "inner parts" is The Spiritual Man by Watchman Nee.

The Catholic doctrine of the soul, which also embodies the confusion of soul with spirit, considers the soul the entire immortal part of a person. The soul is described as that part which is taken upon death to heaven (for a believer) or to hell. What the Bible actually says is that at Christ's second coming, the believers will be raised from the grave. It says nothing about them being brought from heaven for this resurrection. Rather, at the end, the eternal City of God, AKA "new Jerusalem", is written to descend from the new heaven to the new earth, where it will be the dwelling of God and His people. Folks, we aren't going to heaven, we're going to a restored Earth. And plenty of Bible verses mention that animals will be there.

The whole of Soul of a Dog is stories of various animals the author has observed, and the extraordinary things he has seen among his dogs, sheep, goats, donkeys, cattle, and a cat. I can put these together with stories of, not just other mammals, but geese and other birds which are also among those creatures that, when you look at them, look right back and seem to have some opinion about you. They may think differently, but they do think.

In one chapter, a friend of the author's who is a preacher tries to disabuse him of the notion of animal souls, saying they can't choose to believe God and so can't "go to heaven". Then Katz wonders if they must go to hell. Jon, I can tell you, no. If the Bible is your authority, it tells us that when animals die, they die to nothingness: neither heaven nor hell. They just go out like a burnt-out light.

Along the way, though, they sure have behaviors more complex than most people would credit. The personalities of his three dogs are as different as the huge diversity of humans; we all know people who are "all work and no play", like his border collie Rose; some who exist only to love and be loved, like his Labrador Lenore; and some who can relate to, and cheer up, just about anybody, like his other border collie Izzy. Izzy is the one he takes to the hospice on a regular basis. One cannot imagine taking Rose.

Lenore has even befriended one of the rams, something that puzzles everyone else, dog and man (and sheep) alike. Even more befuddling, one of the hens, Henrietta, seems to have a lot more "on the ball" than the other hens, and has co-opted one of the donkeys for occasional transportation. Any other chicken would become a kick-smear, but not her.

The author devotes about half of all the stories to Rose. Though she is devoted to him, she lives to work. Not one for being petted or cuddled, she only seeks personal attention when she has a medical need. Otherwise, she just wants to herd sheep. She would herd the andirons around the fireplace if she could induce them to move. She has learned that donkeys and goats can't be herded, so they leave one another alone. She is able to help Katz control the cattle when needed. Her understanding of all that herding requires, and ability to get right to the requisite task, often amaze him.

It is a given that animals are not deep thinkers. The stories here show that they are not as shallow as is commonly believed. It is only in the recent generation or two that large numbers of people began to think of their pets as family members. Yet for many generations, those who kept animals that they didn't intend to promptly kill for food have usually come to respect them, even love them. I've seen the way a farmer of the old school and his plow horses greet one another daily. A Percheron weighs 10-15 times as much as the heaviest dog; imagine a Labrador's enthusiasm in a Volvo-sized animal!

Yet the love on their part is probably a result of the single great, unequal fact of the relationship: we feed them. Without their owner, the animals would not be fed. Yes, many animals can go feral and learn to fend for themselves. But they don't know this a priori. And this explains much of their social skill, and our lack of it. They—dogs most especially—really need to be able to read us. We have no such need, except in certain narrow areas related to mutual work. For example, a fowl hunter learns to recognize a Point by a pointer (said Point being an exaggeration of a posture that hunting dogs have used for ages to communicate with one another), and other hunters learn the different baying sounds of their out-of-sight hounds on the chase. But we aren't in danger of death for a social misstep; our animals are.

Not having read his other books (yet), I don't know just what prompted Jon Katz to buy a farm, save that it was a consequence of his knowing his first border collie, Orson. Wherever he is, he observes his animals and remembers. He has let us in on some of these fragrant memories.

Friday, December 04, 2009

This eye took all day

kw: local events, observations, photographs, medicine

Behold my dilated eye. If you look at your own eye in the mirror, close-up (this is easier if one has myopia, as I do), you'll see that the pupil is normally about one-third this size, or about 2mm. This was taken two hours after the dilation drops were put in, and at maximum the opening was 8mm; in this image it is about 6mm. Even in very dim light, for a man my age, the eye won't open more than 5mm or 5.5mm, though a young person's eye can open to 7mm. That is why "night vision" binoculars are designed to have an "exit pupil" opening of 7mm.

I saw a retina specialist to get an angiogram of the retina. I've had a dim spot, way off to the side, for a few months. I am prone to retinal hemorrhages, and I am used to them being absorbed and vanishing in less than one month. Because this one lasted so long, I sought a specialist's opinion.

This is the angiogram, on the left, with a "white light" image of the retina on the right. Though this is the "bad" eye, the doctor says it all looks very healthy (whew!). The spot, which is only partly in view to the lower right, below the yellow optic nerve, is indeed a hemorrhage, but is dissolving more slowly than they did in the past. At this point, it is mostly gone already. Fortunately, there is no apparent damage or separation of the retina.

A bit of geography. The center of the field is the macula, where vision is the keenest. It looks dim because there is some pigment there. In this eye, the optic nerve is to the right, on the side next to the nose. This is the "blind spot", where there is no retina. That is why it is brighter, because the retina is very dark red, so as to absorb the most light for keen vision: the most abundant visual pigment absorbs green and blue=green light, while the next one absorbs most of the red, but a little of that bounces back (thus "red-eye" in flash photos). The winding things are the blood supply to the retina. This is how they look in a normal eye. The gray areas at the edges are areas where the camera couldn't quite send enough light. This is a pretty wide-angle image, after all.

The way the angiogram was made was that a nurse injected fluorescein into a vein, then took a series of pictures using a blue-green flash. The camera had a yellow filter, because the dye fluoresces yellow-orange. That is what is behind the grayscale image above. It really shows the vein network.

So I am to be checked every couple of months to be sure this hemorrhage vanishes, but I also have to reduce my blood pressure, to help prevent future bleeds. Guess that'll help other things also. I spent the afternoon sleeping off the dilation, because I can't do much with the poor vision such dilation induces. What a way to spend my day off!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The people of air and sky

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, natural history, environmentalism

Crows are the most visible of the species that remain wild while clustering with humans. They thrive, not just on the edges of our neighborhoods (as coyotes do), but throughout. In congested city centers, they are outnumbered only by pigeons, which are morons by comparison. Crows are smart, smart enough to recognize death as a transition to be honored: stories abound of "crow funerals" and of small clusters of crows "being with" a dying crow, as though easing its passing like the family clustered around the bedside of a dying patriarch.

Many people consider crows and ravens pretty much the same. This image and the next show two of the clues one may use to distinguish them. First, the tail: In flight, a crow's tail ends in a smooth fan curve or nearly straight edge. A raven's tale is wedge-shaped or somewhat pointed (see below). Second, the head and beak: A raven's head is larger compared to its body, and the beak is correspondingly thick with a somewhat Roman-nose look.

A raven is also much larger than a crow, but this can be hard to detect in a bird at an unknown distance. Where a crow weighs scarcely a pound (0.45kg) and is half again as long as a robin, a raven is half again as long as a crow and weight 2.5-3 times as much. They also sound different, but a raven's croak is hard to describe, and as they are less vocal than crows, you might not get much of a clue anyway.

Because crows not only tolerate the human landscape but thrive in it, people in a newly-constructed neighborhood—that started out as a meadow or forest—sometimes note the shift as many songbirds vanish over time and crows move in to replace them. I feel fortunate to live in an area where there is a goodly patch of forest bordering most neighborhoods, so that, while we see plenty of crows, we also see robins, blackbirds, jays, goldfinches, cardinals, mockingbirds, magpies, a few kinds of hawk, vultures, and—in addition to the ubiquitous squirrels—raccoons, foxes, mice, voles and shrews…and an occasional deer. I have heard owls, but not seen them.

In Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, author Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes with two things in mind. Firstly, that the crow is a harbinger of our self-made doom, as we continue to produce a human landscape in which fewer and fewer nonhuman species can subsist. Secondly, that humans are, like crows, smart and adaptable, which sheds a glimmer of hope that we will restore balance by taking our place in nature, realizing that we are as much "natural" as any thrush or woodchuck, leaving "elbow room" for the rest of nature in our midst.

It is not just a matter of switching out our light bulbs for CFLs and turning down the thermostat a degree or two. It is fighting the tendency to jam new neighborhoods cheek-by-jowl; it is persuading planning boards to leave untouched some reasonable percentage of the land so that the animals are not totally displaced. We need to remember, also, that while the built-over landscape ranges around two percent of a nation like the United States, in city-states like Singapore that proportion is well over half and growing. In the U.S. we can well afford to set aside forested enclaves throughout our cities and suburbs, but not everywhere do they have that luxury.

The author tells stories of Louis Agassiz, who would give a prospective student something to "look at", such as a preserved fish or other animal. He would gently prod his victim to look and look again over a few days, hours daily, and finally learn to see deeply. I understood, better than every before, why naturalists draw so much. Agassiz called the pencil "the best set of eyes"; by observing closely enough to make a good sketch or drawing, one will see what went unseen before. Based upon this, Ms Haupt spent three days, seven hours daily, studying a preserved crow (she closed her study's drapes so the neighborhood crows would not be disturbed by the sight). It helped her see crows better in each daily encounter.

Thus, it happens that crows are a gift to us, a portion of non-human nature that won't hide, that makes the in-your-face statement that we share this world, and we'd do well to get used to that. It may be easy in the abstract to rejoice that wolves and cougars are returning to the wilderness. It is quite a bit harder when the new neighborhood fox eats your cat.

It may be unsettling to see a crow stripping down a roadkill squirrel, but it is better than if it stays there until it rots. No scavengers would mean the squirrel becomes a maggot pile in short order. Y'got any stomach for that? Me, if I get there before the crow does, I shovel up the body and toss it on my compost heap. The birds and the ants can share it, and any crow that visits won't become roadkill in turn.

Crows thus become a metaphor, a symbol of us, fellow omnivores, just making a living on this planet. When times get hard, crows drive out other species; so do we. Can we learn to prosper graciously, as crows will? Creeping climate change may melt the arctic. Other environmental insults we barely understand might make living quite a bit harder, even in the prosperous nations. The author closes with such musings, and I'd rephrase her ultimate question thus: will we ever learn to live as a part of nature rather than in opposition to an imagined "Nature"? and if we do, will we do so in time?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


kw: observations, natural history

Here in the Northeast, it is sunny and 50°F (10°C), quite balmy for December 1. We've had such a warm November, we've been calling it Indian Summer. I learned long ago that in Colonial times, a warm spell in late Fall was called Goose Summer, because it coincided with the sky being full of migrating geese. Such a sky is one of my favorite sights.

But I have another migration in mind just now. It also happens that several genera of spiders hatch in the Fall, and shortly after hatching the baby spiders go a-ballooning. Some wander to the top of something before taking off. Others were thoughtfully placed, as eggs, by the mother spider, near the top of a tree or bush. They raise their little abdomens to the wind and send out a few silk strands. When the breeze gusts, they let go and go aloft. They can sail for great distances, but most go perhaps a few dozen meters.

An image such as this (original found at everglobe's Flickr photostream), shows a few strands on the grass from spiders that landed and shed their silk. Sometimes they land in one spot in such numbers that the grass takes on a silky look. I have seen that in Oklahoma, but not here.

This image, by Marc Chappell, shows a host of baby spiders, with some of the uppermost sending out silken streamers. The long grass stems are covered with silk shed by those that didn't quite get off the first time they tried.

Whether at a takeoff or a landing spot, such concentrations of silk are called Gossamer, derived from Goose Summer, the time of year that they appear. I can't quite call this one of my favorite things. Having breathed in a baby spider or two, I have mixed feelings. But seeing the low afternoon sun shimmer across a lawn spattered with gossamer is a joy, particularly if I hear the cackle of a skein of geese flying overhead just then.