Friday, April 30, 2010

How you got to be who you are - or didn't

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, analysis

The basic formula for success can be stated two ways. Most generally, we are told that it takes ten years of practice, whether at music, programming, or selling shirts, to become an expert. It helps to have talent in an area, but untrained talent is trumped by educated and/or trained persistence. A more specific way to state the principle is that one must practice for 10,000 hours. Then one is ready for life-altering opportunities (and it doesn't hurt to grab any that come a long sooner).

A work year of 40-hour weeks with a two-week vacation has 2,000 "clock" hours. If one is persistent and diligent, 10,000 hours of experience is gained in five to six years. This is why many offers of employment ask for five years' experience. I have a friend who is a music prodigy. She practiced piano up to eight hours daily beginning at age 13, so when she was 18 and entered college, she was winning contests and getting opportunities to play with symphony orchestras frequently.

I never practiced music eight hours a day, but I did practice for four hours most days, for several years, plus playing for an hour or two at frequent gigs, beginning age 14. I was well on my way to a career in music, but decided I didn't like working nights. More about me later.

The 10,000 hour rule is one of the basic elements discussed in Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. This book was not what I expected. I was expecting a Horatio Alger-like discussion of people with names like Gates, Forbes and Buffet, plus maybe Michael Jordan. Instead, I found a fascinating analysis of the facets of successful performance, which boil down to:
  • Become really good at something, or no more than two or three things.
  • Work hard and persistently at perfecting your chosen craft, for several years.
  • Jump at every opportunity to improve, whether it is job offers or free use of required equipment.
  • Take care of those who help you and they'll take care of you.
  • Repeat.
My back-door entry into computer programming is an example. Although I studied three sciences in college, a chance occurrence planted a crucial seed. As readers of this blog know, I am a voracious reader. During my freshman year, one of my roommates took a FORTRAN class. I came across his textbook on a boring day and read the first few chapters. It seemed very logical and simple to me. FORTRAN syntax can be learned at one sitting, and I did so.

Two years passed. I left college after my sophomore year to earn some money. Near the end of my first year of employment as a lab technician (optics and vacuum), I was asked if I had any interest in learning to use the computer: the IT department had a 2-year backlog getting new software written. My colleague had a book of programmed instruction in FORTRAN that I could use. He said, "Look it over for a couple days and tell me what you think." I went through the entire set of lessons in two days, and asked if I could punch in a program I wrote as an exercise for myself (on a card punch. This was 1968). I was shown how to use a card punch. I punched up about forty cards that made up my first computer program, was shown how to load it, and it ran. No errors. I worked there for two years after that, about half my time writing FORTRAN programs needed to do analysis of our lab data. All this while I was taking night classes.

When I left work (everyone was laid off during the 1970 recession), I returned to college full time, and got a science degree in 1972. No programming until the next year: I got a job as a machinist for a university Physics department, and did some programming on the side for the Physics department head. Two years of that, and I got a job at an engineering company, as a draftsman/designer. After a year of design, I worked my way into an estimating job, where I had access to a computer again. By then (1975), there were no card punches, but terminals. I had the first half of my 10,000 hours worked off and was getting rather proficient. Three years later, having done almost full time programming, I left the job to go to graduate school and dragged my wife to the frozen North, with more than 10,000 hours of FORTRAN experience tagging along for the ride.

Here is a key opportunity, one of the biggest. I visited the campus four months before classes started. One person I visited was director of the computer center. We talked shop for a while. It turned out I was using the same kind of mainframe and OS as the university used. He offered me a job on the spot, tutoring students in the main computer lab. So I was a science student, but quickly became an adjunct professor of computer science. I was there eight years, and had another 10,000 hours of scientific and technical programming, plus OS programming, under my belt by the time a large oil company headhunted me, not as a scientist, but as a scientific programmer. That was 24 years ago, and I continued to write scientific software until about ten years ago.

The key opportunity then came about because I have cultivated other skills, because the company, by fiat, quit using "ancient" languages such as FORTRAN at that time. Of course, I wasn't wedded to FORTRAN; programming itself is the skill, and it is easy to pick up specific language skills. So I have since programmed in Pascal, C, Basic and Perl, but I am not as fast in them as in FORTRAN. I took advantage of my classical education and a mind full of thousands of books, and became an Info Scientist, which I am now. I can knock out a program when I need one, but it isn't my core job any more.

I am, of course, not a success at the level of the people like Bill Gates (who began programming about the time I did, but got his 10,000 hours in several years earlier). But I've lived well enough, and continue to enjoy my work. Why retire (I could) when there's fun work to do? I am not quite being paid to read, and I'd probably find that a bit wearing. I find the best days include an hour or three of steady reading, no more. My work is more curatorial.

One chapter of Gladwell's book contrasts the rice-growing culture of Asia with the ranching culture of the West. To successfully grow rice in China, you have to work a 100 hour week. Ask a corn farmer what kind of work week he has: 60-80 is common. Rancher friends of mine work less than I do. Apply such cultural expectations to schoolwork. In Asian schools, the kids typically are in school 10-11 months per year, and have longer days. Compared to rice paddy work, they feel they are well off. Is it any surprise that when such youngsters attend a college in North America or Europe, they do very well?

My Japanese wife tells of abacus contests. Learning the abacus from an early age makes basic arithmetic easier. Get used to an abacus and it shows you the problem; soon your fingers work out the result almost without your thinking about it. After fifth grade, the abacus contests at my wife's schools were done without an abacus. Kids could visualize an abacus in their mind and work the virtual beads much faster than their fingers could fly over a real abacus. Lightning calculators are much more common in Asia than anywhere else as a result. Somebody with 10,000 hours on an abacus can outdo anybody on a 10-key adding machine by a large factor. Plus this instills in them the basic concept of mathematics: Operators. Once you realize that the + or the x represents an operator, a machine that takes two or more numbers and operates on them to produce another number, then the D operator of differential calculus is easy to figure out; it makes slopes into numbers. And the rest of math is equally transparent. It is all operators.

The standard joke about "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Practice, practice, practice – well, that is step one. As the author shows, opportunities arise all the time, but our ability to grasp them depends on timing and readiness. Very few kids had the chance to use a mainframe computer at age 19 like I did. Even fewer were using time-shared terminals at that very same time, as Bill Gates did. Sure, he had a certain business sense also, but it was his computer expertise that "let him into the room" to make a business deal with IBM, that got Microsoft off the ground.

This review is already long, so I'll end. Pardon my raving. I rarely find a nonfiction book that is a page-turner on a par with the best fiction. This book is an exception. I find in the author's bio that he used to write for the Washington Post. He's got his 10,000 hours in as a writer; must have something to do with it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A cousin and a half

kw: genealogy, puzzles

This interesting linkage showed up as I deciphered the relationship between my grandmother Liz and her favorite cousin "Billie". I have letters between them, and Will-Ella usually signed herself "Bill", sometimes "Billie", and only once by her given name, in a formal condolence letter when Liz'z father died.

With the help of a relative who has better records than I for this branch of the family, I found that these two cousins are doubly related. It hinges on the relationship between JGK's two wives. Mary was Jane's aunt, through her sister Marg.

That means that, while Ella and Kate were half-sisters, they were a little closer than that, but I haven't figured out how; perhaps they are also half-cousins.

But for sure, Liz and Billie are half cousins via their grandfather, but half cousins once removed via their grandmothers. I don't know if they ever thought about it. They didn't write about it. They were best of friends and frequent correspondents. That's what mattered to them.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The cost of self promotion

kw: observations, analysis, advertisements

The other day I noticed an airplane flying about with a banner. When it got closer I saw that it was advertising for a service company that we've used a few times. I remarked to my wife that if they could afford that, they must be charging too much. Let us just say that I've been less than enamored of their fee structure. I decided to look into it, and came away surprised.

I talked with the proprietor of an airplane-banner advertising company. The basic costs are:
  • Composing and printing a banner is just under $2 per square foot, up to 3000 square feet. A typical banner about half the maximum size is thus close to $2,800.
  • This area is fifty miles from the airport the company uses; the 100 mile round trip is $300 flat.
  • Thereafter, the rate is $580 per hour, three hours minimum.
That adds up to about $4,850 for the banner and the initial flight, but after that each flight is $2,040. Costly enough, all right, but it does reach lots of eyeballs, at a rate much cheaper than TV ads, even on local stations.

The other main form this company uses is to have a logo and picture of the proprietor painted on all their panel vans. A painted or vinyl logo can be had for $200 for both sides, but the large photo image requires a special process that is upwards of $1,000. Using a vinyl "tarp" instead of painting the van directly costs about 2/3 that. I don't know how many panel vans they have, but they could get several of them (5-8) painted or tarped for the price of that first airplane flight.

What about ongoing advertising? Radio and newspapers are the more traditional modes. A single 30-second spot on radio stations in this region is more than $350, but $700 will get you two repetitions daily for a week. Weekly rates are lower if you do it all year ($700x52 = $36,400 but a yearly package is less than $20,000) . Surprisingly, just one column inch of newspaper advertising is $160 in the local paper and $680 in nearby Philadelphia. A quarter page comes at a big discount on the per-inch rate, coming in close to $3,000 locally or $12,000 in the bigger paper. That is for a single ad.

At rates like that, perhaps the airplane method makes sense. For $12,000, a fella can get four airplane-for-3-hours flights and have money left over. So I conclude that the pictures on the vans are probably the cheapest mode of ongoing advertising, and the airplane is quite competitive for short runs. Once a banner is made, you can fly it weekly all summer for $24,500.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Knowing dogs

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, dogs, science journalism

I am not much of a dog person. The three dogs I owned all lived less than a year, each dying when struck by a car. By the time I was fifteen I was done with dogs. I had better luck with cats, keeping one for 18 years, but that is a subject for a different article.

Can you tell what this dog is feeling? Wouldn't you say he has guilt written all over him? I find it interesting that, seeing a furtive look on a friend, we might say he has guilt written all over his face, but of a dog, we generalize to the whole body. Dogs speak with their whole body, while human "body language" is largely confined to our faces.

Until recently, no scientist would agree that this dog is feeling guilt. That was considered unwarranted anthropomorphism. No animal was allowed to have feelings in any way mirroring human emotions, or thoughts of any sort. The paradigm in Animal Science courses of the 1960s was that animals didn't think, had only the most primitive emotions (left unnamed), and didn't genuinely feel pain (which allowed experimenters to inflict agony without feeling guilt themselves).

Jane Goodall changed all that, by naming the chimps she observed, and writing about them almost as though they were human. After terrific resistance, the scientific community began to shift. Now animal scientist Alexandra Horowitz can write Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, and escape excommunication from the scientific community. As she tells us, dogs do see, though differently; they do smell, and much better than we; and they certainly know things, but having much different interests they also know things we don't know, just as we know much that they won't ever know. The book's illustrations, like that above, are by the author.

It starts with size. Attach a video camera to your knee or even lower and go about your business while it is running. This is better than attaching it to your dog, who just may object to being "critter-cammed". How does the world look from about one foot above the ground? Even more so, how does it smell? Our noses are four to five feet above ground level, where the scents that waft upwards from ground-bound "things" are much diluted. A dog's nose is naturally carried less than a foot high, and can easily be lowered right to ground level. So even if a dog's eyes were identical to ours, and his nose identical to ours (a tragic thought), it is like real estate: Location, Location, Location!

But a dog's eyes are different from ours. They do see most colors, but not red (neither does that bull in the field see red; a red flag or cape looks black to him, making him think he is being challenged by a rival bull). A dog's vision is from greenish-yellow to violet. In addition, most dogs see horizontal motion much more keenly than we, the better to detect that rabbit starting to turn aside. Yet for many of the things we see well, dogs' eyes are less efficient. A dog's vision is used two ways: firstly, to spot things worth smelling or tasting, and secondly, to observe us and know us. They attend to us most persistently.

(I have heard preachers say that only humans have religion, because "you never see a dog making an idol to pray to." They don't have to. They live among their deities! Think about it. We feed and shelter them, heal their illnesses, and freely exercise the power of life or death with them. We are their gods. If you lived in your god's house, and could see your god, would you not be very, very attentive?!?)

But the eyes are secondary to the nose, the nose! Most dogs are a million times better at smelling than you or I. Not only do they have 10,000 times as many smell cells; they have anatomical flaps and spirals that do a much better job of getting those smells to the cells. Where "seeing is believing" for a person, dogs only believe what they smell. A person your size, disguised as you, might fool your dog for a moment, but as soon as the air shifts the imposter's scent the dog's way, he'll know right away! Thus, if you are walking your dog, don't drag him away from every smell. That is like making a friend you are walking with go blindfolded.

Dogs have co-evolved with humans for 15,000 years or longer, perhaps much longer. The original wolves who worked their way into human camps and, eventually, homes, were those who could tolerate human nearness and contact; those who were best able to respond socially to us social apes. Experiments with Siberian foxes, begun two generations ago, showed how quickly one could turn wild foxes into a doglike domestic animal, just by selecting those which were least fearful of humans for breeding, and the same with their offspring. In the time it takes a human baby to grow up, about fifteen fox generations, the experimenters had a bunch of foxes that liked human contact, barked instead of yipped, had softer ears and more curly tails, and higher foreheads. All these characteristics seem to come as a package, genetically. There's a PBS video on this; it is uncanny seeing foxes that look like dogs and act like dogs.

But what do dogs know? Can they know as we know? Have you ever watched a sleeping dog twitch during a dream? Maybe she yelps quietly and her legs kick. She is playing with a friend, or chasing something, in her dream. Now think about your own dreams. Do you speak and hear words in your dreams? I do. Do you ever smell anything in a dream? I never have. It seems dogs always do, as much as can be told from watching them and noting how they snuffle during a dream as during waking. We tend to think in a combination of sights and words. We know what we can describe. Dogs thinking has to be different, based on sounds and bodily feelings (for they do love the tactile sense). I, at least, am convinced that any animal (not just vertebrates) thinks and feels things; that is what brains are for. Dogs happen to be more compatible with humans than any other animal, partly because there is quite an overlap between our ways of feeling and thinking.

The book's title comes from a saying by Groucho Marx (or one of his writers): "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Dr. Horowitz spent more than a year observing, videoing, analyzing, and learning a bit more how to understand that postural language, Dog. After reading her book, inside of a dog, it is getting easier to read.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Swamped in stuff

kw: collecting

I spent way too much time at a collecting hobby this evening, and almost didn't leave time to write.
Hi, my name is Polymath07 and I am a collector. I come from a family of collectors (at least on my mother's side). One brother is a certified hoarder, currently undergoing de-cluttering therapy. I think I could have become one also, except that I got saved by getting good with a computer.
Tonight I was collecting ancestors (via Not that I only use the computer for this hobby. I have a large crate full of documents, organized in eight sections by great-grandparent. I have just about run out of ancestors on each of the eight lines, but I am now collecting cousins, the descendants of each of the four couples. For each person the Ancestry web site makes it easy to gather census records and birth/marriage/death records that they happen to have, and of course I pay a subscription for access. But it is the only hobby that is currently costing me money!

As a child I collected butterflies and the great variety of winged grasshoppers found in the fields around our Utah home. Later when we moved to Ohio the butterflies took the ascendancy, and I began collecting fossils also, but rock collecting didn't take center stage until later. I really got into rockhounding after my mother showed me her old rock collection, stored in the attic in a set of wooden trays. I was in high school, but there weren't too many good places to find fossils or minerals in northern Ohio. It takes a dry country to offer up a plethora of rock collecting outcrops. So I satisfied my collecting itch with stamp and coin collecting.

Midway through college I moved to California. I joined a lapidary society there. Now things got cooking. I spent lots and lots of time in the Mojave and Palm deserts. After about two years, when I moved out of one rental house, I left behind two tons of agate, marble, jasper, onyx and other stuff I couldn't move with me (I only took a half ton of the best material).

But something funny happened in the 1970s: I became a computer professional. For two decades program writing, and collecting algorithms, was both a passion and paycheck (making computers obey humans is still how I earn my keep). I have a large file cabinet in my office at work, with one drawer just for algorithm notes. I have even more total material in many Mbytes of program files, well-commented of course. One more thing that has saved me from turning into a total hoarder is that I have strong curatorial instincts. I classify everything. I also document my computer work, something most programming enthusiasts just don't do.

When my parents got old and began getting rid of stuff, I wound up with the family stamp and coin collections. By the time I moved to the East Coast (about 15y ago), I'd shed the half ton of rocks; I have only a hundred pounds of petrified wood, and 50# of jasper and agate, plus a few dozen specimens of fossils, minerals, and a few favorite polished agate and jasper pieces, specimens that I keep on display in a cabinet.

I spent about eight years collating all the stamp and coin "accumulations" into collections. I have kept three stamp collections, from my two grandmothers and my mother, intact, separate from my own. But I have given most of my collecting time the past six or seven years almost strictly to digital collections. Computer files take up so little space, after all. So the "virtual" collections include:
  • About a thousand ancestors and 50 or so collateral relatives (cousins of all ilk).
  • 2 Gby of wallpaper image files, classified into more than 20 categories.
  • 5 Gby of my own photography, about 7,000 pix so far.
  • 12 Gby of downloaded music, all public domain because they are old folk music, western, country, mainly pre-WW2.
  • Everything I've ever written, some in Word files, some in WordPerfect, some in older formats.
  • Thousands of old programs in FORTRAN, Pascal, Basic, and Perl, plus various assembly languages.
  • 1,200 TTF font files, classified in some detail. I particularly favor font families that include Normal, Bold, Italic/Slant and Bold-Italic/Slant versions. I like using specialty fonts for drop caps in documents for official purposes. (Too bad Blogger doesn't support drop caps)
Note that in the last case, it would have been easy to gather 10,000-20,000 font files, though getting them all classified would have been quite a chore! I am more selective, and choose each one with a purpose in mind (yes, I can keep track of 1,200 purposes).

I also, because of close to forty years of computer use, am paranoid about backing up. I actually do it. First to a large external hard drive (which has files from all the computers I use), and then to DVD's in case the big drive goes kerflooey. I have also decided on an economical scheme for more secure backup: Buy a fresh 250 Gby drive each year or two and copy everything to it. Keep one or two of the older ones, and erase those older than that and give them away. They'll still work. This is cheaper than paying the Carbonite subscription for the 30 Gby or so I need to archive. Even at the rate I collect things, it'll take me a while to fill a 250 Gby drive. I don't collect video files, and don't intend to, or I'd go for a full Tbyte!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pod feeding

kw: observations, musings, wildlife, whales

I watched the PBS Nature program on Humpback whales earlier this evening. I've been thinking ever since. In a segment on feeding behavior in Alaskan waters, their cooperative hunting technique was shown: about ten whales descend beneath a shoal of herring, and station themselves in a loose ring. One of them swims in a big circle blowing bubbles, which cause the herring to clump together and rise toward the surface. The whales communicate the whole time, and at some signal, all rise through the bubble net and swallow lots of herring. They do this over and over, eventually devouring almost the entire shoal, perhaps a few tons of little fish.

As a young person in the heyday of the "everything animals do is instinct" school of animal behavior, I was not satisfied with the reigning paradigm. I am even more convinced now that animals of all kinds learn from one another and from their environment. While it has been posited that some whales may exceed human intelligence, I don't think we can know, because their intelligence is of such a different kind than ours.

I have taken many IQ tests. All require the subject (me) to "do your own work". We need a different kind of intelligence test, in which the subject is required to obtain all answers from others, and the efficiency and speed of doing so determines the score. Oh, yeah, we have such a test; it is called being a middle manager or supervisor! Passing grades are rewarded with continued employment; superior grades garner promotions. Suffice it to say that I tried my hand as a supervisor, and asked to be relieved of such duty and return to "staff". I would not score very high on a networking-intelligence test, I suppose. (I am glad a big company is willing to pay me for what I can do!) Those whales, along with other cooperative hunters such as wolves, would score pretty high.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fun with polaroid shades

kw: observations, photographs

Many years ago I had a polarizing filter for the camera I had then, but I'd forgotten the interesting effects they have. I have also not worn any kind of sunglasses for at least thirty years, but recently got some at the insistence of my ophthalmologist. I saw a special on polarized clip-ons at the pharmacy and got a pair that fits my trifocals.

So today we were on a drive, and I noticed the stress patterns in the car windows. I just had to take a picture of them, so I held one lens of the shades in front of the camera lens and shot away. This first image is of the side window (my wife was driving).

My wife usually doesn't pay attention to such things, so I had to point it out to her, then she saw the patterns. We had a bit of a discussion of the way glass that has not been fully annealed has residual stresses in it that affect the polarization of light that passes through. Also that the light off the roadway was polarized because it was reflected. The combination produced this pattern when viewed through polarized sunglasses (which she was also wearing).

Then she mentioned that there was also a pattern on the back window. This image is a portion of that. Here the light from the sky is already polarized, as it is at most angles away from the Sun. The stress pattern in this window is quite different from the other.

She wanted to know why the windshield doesn't show any stress patterns. It is because there is no residual stress. The manufacturer takes great care to anneal windshield glass, which is one reason windshields cost so much.

Some other time I'll show her the colored effects you get from clear cellophane tape seen with polarized light (you have to put a polarizer on both sides of the tape, so it is easiest to stick it to a piece of glass first. Try overlapping pieces).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day #41

kw: national events, environmentalism

I was 22 on the first Earth Day. Now I am 62. My wife and I have done something from time to time to improve our energy efficiency: plant trees, install more efficient windows, replace most bulbs with CFL's, be more diligent about shutting things off, recycling… I thought of one thing I've done with my computers at home and at work that many people don't think of. While I tend to either turn off a laptop or hibernate it when I am about to step away from it, when I am using a desktop I leave it on all day. Here is how to reduce power use by taking advantage of the computer's power management features:

First, open the Display Properties dialog box. There are two ways to do this:
  1. Open the Control Panel from the Start menu, then double-click the Display icon.
  2. Right click out in the middle of the display, and select Properties.

Then open the Screen Saver tab as shown, and click the Power… button near the bottom of the dialog box. The Power Options dialog box will open:

A desktop computer will not have the "Running on batteries" column. Note that by default this computer will darken the monitor after 25 minutes. Set this to 15 minutes or less. On most laptops the monitor consumes 20-25 watts. Some stand-alone monitors consume 50-75 watts, though the best ones are 40w or less. But that is like having a small light bulb running all the time. Although shutting off the hard disk(s) doesn't save much power, it helps the disk drives last longer.

So tune your computer's power settings to save a little power, and perhaps also make the computer last longer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Earth as it might have been

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, astronomy, analysis

The book title asks the first question — What if the Earth Had Two Moons? And Nine Other Thought-Provoking Speculations on the Solar System, by Neil F. Comins. He is too modest in his title; these essays are not so much speculations as analyses, bringing 400 years of discoveries and knowledge to bear on ten "what if" subjects. In the title chapter, for example, he examines how a planet with a large moon could obtain a second large satellite, smaller but closer-in than the first moon, and the effects on tides, Earth-system history, evolution, and even the cosmology of sentient inhabitants. This question and some of the others require a bit of investigation into the cosmic billiards that might lead to capture of a moon into a specific orbit, and whether having a second moon around would keep the Moon from being in a phase-locked orbit.

Suppose the Moon rotated the opposite direction? or suppose Earth were a moon to a larger planet, say the size of Neptune? The consequences of each variation on the existing system are carefully examined. Some scenarios make it harder for life to get started, or to last long enough to become sentient, or even larger than germs. For example, if the Sun were smaller, Earth would have to be much closer to it to stay warm. This would almost certainly mean Earth would be phase-locked, with one side always facing its star. That would cause all the water to distill into ice on the forever dark side, away from the star, making one hemisphere a desert as dry as our Moon, and the other too ice locked for any liquid water to form. No water, no life. If, however, the orbit were more elliptical, and could stay that way long enough, the "wobble" of the planet could be enough to keep some water liquid, making life possible, just.

The last chapter asks, What if another galaxy collided with the Milky Way? This is actually less speculative, because this one is certain to happen. A small galaxy is currently being cannibalized by our Galaxy, and the Andromeda galaxy is scheduled to sideswipe us in, say, two billion years. Much of the analysis in this chapter concerns the chances that stars will collide. Only if the centers of the galaxies pass through one another, or if globular clusters collide, is there much chance for stars to actually collide. On a galactic scale, stars are tiny and the space between them is very large (although, the presence of one or two young-appearing blue stars in most globular clusters indicates that star mergers do occur in these dense environments. This is something I've known, which is not mentioned in the book).

This book is a follow-on to an earlier book, What if the Moon Didn't Exist?, which also asks the question, what if the Sun were larger and brighter? I'll have to get the volume to find out, as my own speculations are certain to be less informed than those of Dr. Comins. Fascinating reading.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bees and apple blossoms

kw: observations, bees

Thursday, April 15, was not only Tax Day, it was Pollination Day for my apple tree. It was warm, with little wind, and the wild bees were out in force. I also saw one honey bee, but just the one, in the half hour I spent watching and taking these photos.

I have scaled these to have the apple blossom size be about the same; on a 100 dpi monitor, each quarter of this pic is a little larger than life size.

Upper Left: A dark bee with yellow hairs, significantly smaller than a honey bee. Probably a sweat bee.

Upper Right: A bee with a bumble bee look, but the size of a honey bee.

Lower Left: A bumble bee.

Lower Right: A black mason bee. This one just got done mugging this bloom that was just opening. It spent about twenty seconds inside. It is honey bee size, or slightly smaller. You can see its large pollen baskets.

In addition to the four species shown here, there were two smaller species of dark-colored bee that were too quick to photograph. I didn't see any green colored bees, though I've seen them in past years.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Seeing a very different side

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, hunting, advocacy

When I was twelve, old enough to legally go hunting in Utah, my father took me on a hunting trip. It was with a half dozen business associates of his. I didn't carry a rifle, but he did. He and I walked together through the woods in our orange parkas, sometimes silent, sometimes talking quietly. After a few hours we heard a couple of shots. We went back to camp, where one of the men reported killing a bear that had charged him. The men field-dressed it and we packed out as much meat as we could carry, and the skin. The skin was used in a hunting calendar painting that I still have a copy of. The bear made the papers; at 7'-7" it was the largest black bear killed in Utah, up to that date anyway.

While I am at it, I have shot a gun on three occasions. The following summer at YMCA camp there was an afternoon of target shooting 22 rifles. I don't recall doing very well. But three years later my father took me to the Skeet range, and I hit every trap they pulled for me, with a straight 12-gauge. Then forty years later, at a company "team making exercise", I shot half a round of Skeet and hit about 30%. That's it.

I think it safe to say I don't understand hunting culture. So I read Hunting Booger Bottom: Life Lessons From the Field, by Michael Waddell with Mike Schoby, with plenty of interest, to see what I could learn about the allure of "sport" hunting. Michael is the host of the Realtree Road Trips and Bone Collector video series, and as he writes, "Hunting has been part of my life for as long as I can recall." That's understandable enough; you tend to enjoy what you've always enjoyed.

Then he writes, several times, that he loved killing. He makes no bones about it. While the camaraderie, the beauty of the outdoors, and the joy of honing survival skills all draw him, he hunts to kill, and possibly would not if he could not. So while he has become a skilled videographer, he just itches for a chance to put the camera down and go out with a gun or bow.

The first six chapters of the book outline his early life through becoming an established staff member with Realtree. The latter nine chapters range through his experiences all over North America and a few trips to Africa. With his co-author's help, he has produced a very readable book of advocacy. He tells of his time in a school for video production, his first exposure to anti-hunting "liberals", including vegans. Since that time he has had fire in his eye to present his side of the story.

In this country, with few exceptions, I agree that certain species need culling so it makes sense to license (and make a bit of money) from "sport hunting" for them. At the other end of the spectrum, on one hunt in Africa, he went with a partner who had a license to kill an elephant. There may be a few places in Africa where elephants have become weed species and need culling, but I think his report that they were destroying the landscape is just special pleading. Elephant-managed countryside has a certain look because of the way they feed, just as cattle-and-antelope-managed landscapes in the American West have their own special look.

But I take issue with the notion that hunting with gun or bow is any kind of sport. The animal has no long-range weapons. You want to be a sport hunter? Go out there with a knife and a backpack of rations, and kill your deer, turkey or antelope "up close and personal." That's sporting. For elk, moose, or even buffalo, a thrown spear is OK with me, but no Assagai or other muscle amplifying technology. Where there is a genuine need to kill for food (and I consider this very rare in America), I have a different attitude: Use any technology you can afford, but kill only what you actually need.

So to the author I say, I am no liberal. I vote almost straight-ticket Republican. I don't go for the NRA bull crap that the Second Amendment has anything to do with hunting; it is about a Militia, and a well-regulated one at that. But I support the right of anyone to kill for food, as long as they do it legally. I deplore trophy hunting. I don't count as friend any bloodthirsty brute with a wall full of antlers. The thought genuinely makes me ill. You made your case, and I think I got a better understanding of how you think. I view the culling of weed species like white-tailed deer as an awful job, and I am glad someone out there likes doing it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cats rool

kw: book reviews, collections, photographs, animals, humor

HOW TO TAKE OVER TEH WURLD: A LOLCAT GUIDE 2 WINNING isn't really for reading. It is for guffawing over the cute cat pictures and the captions. The credited author is Professor Happycat.

The book is composed of entries from the LOLcats website, and is a followup to I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?. Some of the entries are easily readable, as this one. My own late cat would agree: correct spelling and grammar is easier to follow.

The website has many entries asking "Add a caption". One may submit photos, and submit captions, or both. There is also a section for LOLdogs, and one for other kinds of amusing animal pictures, sometimes dubbed LOL*.

Most captions have deliberately "simplified" spelling and grammar. A few can't be read at all until you read them aloud. The spelling seems to be a cross of "phone-text-ese" and "badly translated instruction manual". I have yet to figure out what NOM (or NOMS) might mean, but it seems to be a kind of food.

The book doesn't take long to get through, but of course, it is meant to be browsed repeatedly. Much fun.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Turning point in a future history

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera

I've reviewed four short stories and a novel by Mike Resnick since beginning this blog. Prior to that, I read at least three of his Kirinyaga series of stories, and an unknown number of his other stories and books (because I kept no records). I don't know if I'd ever be able to read all of his work; how he ever wrote it all is a mystery! Many of his books, particularly in the past twenty years, take place in his Birthright Universe future history milieu. Starship: Flagship, the fifth of the Starship series, is a Birthright book that takes place almost 3,000 years into the future, according to a chronology in Appendix 3.

The Starship series concerns the fortunes of Wilson Cole, an aging military man who mutinied in the first book of the series. He has command of a former Navy starship, the Theodore Roosevelt, and in the current book he has come to be the leader of a force of about a thousand ships. With this ragtag bunch he takes on the Republic and its Navy of several million starships. Though one knows Cole will prevail, there is no anticipating how.

The tactics Cole uses must come from the later chapters of Lao Tzu's The Art of War, or perhaps a chapter or two he didn't get around to writing. His oft-stated aim is to win, if possible, without firing a shot. He shows admirable ability to get the enemies to fight among themselves, for example. But it is made clear that Cole does not consider the Navy men his enemies, but only their leaders, those who have made him an outlaw because of his integrity.

Well, I am a poor political commentator. The mechanisms make more sense to me than the hero's machinations. This wide-ranging space opera takes advantage of the idea of wormholes. Though they are not visible (and I don't know why not), there is an unmentioned detection technology so they can be found and even cataloged. They provide shortcuts all over the Galaxy, and are apparently numerous enough to provide a sort of celestial subway from star system to system.

In addition, there is an FTL technology that even fits in the lifeboats; the destruction of a certain super-weapon depends on the ability of a shuttle craft to swiftly reach light speed. Then, because of the ability to go a few light years within a few hours, even without a wormhole (they are used for longer jumps), humans and a number of alien races are variously trade partners and war adversaries.

Another notion I find amusingly interesting is the very rapid computer programming abilities of the technical crew. They frequently come up with powerful new applications in an hour or so; from my years (decades) as a professional programmer, one of the fastest on the planet if I do say so myself, I know that even modest applications take a few days or weeks to knock out with the most rapid prototyping methods known. I guess programming in the 3000's will also be FTL!

The book is also a morality play. One moral issue that permeates the book is one's attitude toward the foot soldiers (or navy men) who carry out the orders of one's real enemies. Another issue that takes just a short space but resonates deeply is how far an interrogator can go when a recalcitrant person holds the secret to saving or losing dozens of lives. In an epilogue the author states that this was motivated by recent events such as the waterboarding of "detainees". Is an "advanced interrogation method" torture if it leaves the victim physically unharmed? Yet how do you measure psychological harm?

This is the kind of book I like a lot. A ton of fun to read, with a scope as wide as one can imagine (well, only one Galaxy after all), and some food for thought in the bargain.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blame it on ForTran

kw: observations, musings, wordplay

People have been goofing around with alternative and aberrant spelling and capitalization of words in English (and in many other languages) for generations, but there seems to be a current rash of capitalization creativity over the past three or four decades. When I first learned FORTRAN II, its name was always written in all caps. Then about the time FORTRAN IV came out (1966), a kind of tipping point occurred, with newer models of many line printers being able to print both upper and lower case, and ForTran was briefly popular. That makes sense, as the name means Formula Translation. But pretty soon, Fortran was adopted as a secondary standard, and FORTRAN has remained the preferred name.

Jump forward a decade or so, with the spread of languages such as Pascal and C. Two programming styles arose, and still vie for dominance. In one, all text is in lower case, except quoted strings that are in sentence form. Constructs such as variable names are produced by using the underscore character (specific_gravity or cost_analysis). In the other, programmers are encouraged to write names that are capitalized, with constructs leaving out the underscore, and having each word capitalized (SpecificGravity or CostAnalysis). This latter convention, as much as any other influence, has led to millions of people thinking up alternative capitalizations.

So when a presentation package needed a name, somebody at Microsoft came up with PowerPoint. Now it has been joined by LeaseRite, JavaRanch, StateMaster, WikiNotes, FrontPage, etc. In transition to other forms, there are partial abbreviations such as RegEx (for regular expression, AKA regex); then a flurry of things like GEForce (or GeForce), GForge and OpenID.

An interesting side branch is the word with a single capital letter, but it is not the first: eBay or iPhone. Another is the fully mixed-case word: TaB, TeX, or LaTeX. This culminated in a logo I saw in an ad today: SKrAPr. While it is yet another of those "wait, there's more!" over-marketed gimcracks, it does have the most creative name to come along lately. I propose calling all of these, from ForTran to PowerPoint to TaB to SKrAPr by the new term MultiCaps. They have become a special class of proper noun.

I note that Blogger's spelling checker is complaining about nearly all of these, except for a few older ones. Spell checkers are always going to be a step behind. Then again, so are us fogies!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Put a stamp on it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, letters, collections

I have a large number of old family letters, and have had mixed feelings about trying to have some of them published. After reading Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon, my feelings are even more mixed. My father is still living, and has said I can use his and my mother's letters as I wish. My grandparents, however, are passed away long since. I like to think they'd be honored by my interest. But if I go for publication, am I just one more aging Boomer with a carton of V-Mail to decipher (to use Mallon's dismissive phrasing)?

A search for "letters of" in the books section yields more than 210,000 hits. Even considering multiple editions and paperback duplication, that's tens of thousands of collections of letters in print. Yours Ever differs from nearly all in this: it is a book about letter books, and about the phenomenon of letter writing. Each chapter has ten or so vignettes that discuss and quote the letters of a person or pair of correspondents, or contrast one writer with another.

For example, one contrast is between John Donne, who wrote prolifically, and John Milton who wrote very few letters, and that often in Latin. A pair I found fascinating was Winston and Clementine Churchill. Statesmen spend a lot of time away from home, so Churchill and his wife wrote a lot; the collection of their letters is one of the largest.

The nine chapters are titled, Absence, Friendship, Advice, Complaint, Love, Spirit, Confession, War, and Prison. In the last chapter, the author admits the considerable overlap of categories, particularly because many letters from prison would just as well fit in any of the others due to any "awayness" reason besides incarceration. But letters such as those of Dr. M.L. King from jail are specific to the genre. Prison letters are often the best thought out. A prisoner has more time to think.

Though there are many quotes, well more than half the text of the book is Mallon's. He provides a survey of each of these, I guess I'd call them case studies. He tells us that it took many years to write this book. Reading between the lines, I reckon that most of that time was spent reading the letters which he has condensed for us into mini-biographies of the writers. At the beginning of the chapter on Complaint letters, for example, we learn of Eudora Welty's heroine, "Sister", who lived in a post office, and indirectly led to the choice of "Eudora" to name a popular e-mail management program.

Letters are used to connect, to instruct, to woo, and to take a stand. Letters can be as revealing as a diary. When I kept a diary, I thought of it as letters to myself, and I suspect that is pretty common. My own letters are few, even of the electronic variety. I'm a phone caller. Besides, my wife doesn't like to read my handwriting (I seldom type personal letters). I am afraid I will leave nearly nothing for my own descendants to collect! This blog is my primary oeuvre.

But I think some of the letters I hold would fascinate my grandparents' and parents' other descendants. It was from his letters that I learned my great-grandfather was a sprightly, enthusiastic, deeply Christian gentleman who enjoyed exchanging short stories with one of his daughters, and traded jokes with the other, my grandmother. Now, however will I get two cubic feet of letters transcribed…?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The bees begin

kw: observations, photographs

The apple blossoms opened Saturday (April 10) and I began watching to see what bees would come. In mid-afternoon, in about a half hour of watching, I saw one bumblebee and quite a number of two sizes of small dark native bees. I had to look from place to place to see them at all. Looking at one set of flowers, I never saw any. I had to quickly look around, then follow a bee once I spotted it.

Bumblebees are very slow and deliberate, going from flower to flower in a cluster before flying to the next. The small bees, by contrast, are very quick, and spend less than a second on any flower. They don't go to the next flower, but each visit is to one at least a handspan or two away. To get a photo of one of them, I'll have to be lucky.

Sunday was too windy for the bees, while Monday I got home late and they were gone already. Today was rainy. The crab apple has also begun to bloom, so if tomorrow is more congenial, I'll have two places to watch.

We have a stand of Sundrops that will flower in another month or so. I've observed that bees of all sizes spend more time on them, probably because each bloom has much more pollen than an apple flower. I'll probably be more able to photograph bees on them. Also, once my sunflowers come up, they tend to cater to bees that wander about on the flower head.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hello, I am you

kw: book reviews, science fiction, time travel

Of the half-dozen or so broad genres of time travel novel, each has a characteristic way to deal with the "grandfather paradox": If a time traveler goes back and kills his grandfather as a young man, what happens? Does the time traveler vanish, die, or somehow get diverted and fail? Does time split? In Time Travelers Never Die author Jack McDevitt exercises a temporal censorship principle that causes various levels of misfortune; one intended paradoxer dies, another gets dropped into the ocean far from his intended goal.

This romp through space and time has two friends, Shel and Dave, long on education but perhaps short of common sense, bouncing about history, almost as a coming-of-age pursuit. When time travel devices are I-pod-like Q-pods (the anchor year is 2018), and they are in effect four-dimensional transporters (though they are called "converters" by their creator, Shel's father Michael), gadding about history is a matter of setting coordinates and pushing the GO button. Pushing GO again returns you.

Then again, most places and times you might GO, you'll be in for a series of surprises. A stranger is not very safe in most places, most of the time. You don't want to show up in 15th Century Italy wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, nor dungarees and a polo shirt. And even if you stay in your own country, you'll have an accent. I suspect most modern English speakers would have a rough go of it holding a conversation with Chaucer or Shakespeare. So you need to be a linguist. And if you're Chinese and want to visit the Ming period, good luck! "Mandarin" Chinese is a rather modern compromise of several Beijing-area dialects. And who knows what will happen to modern languages a few hundred years in the future?

Those Q-pods must be very competent devices, considering that there are four motions to account for: Rotation of the earth, earth's 30 km/s motion about the sun, the sun's 240 km/s motion in the Galaxy, and the Galaxy's "cluster streaming" motion of 600 km/s toward the "great attractor" in the Virgo cluster (Oh, is there a fifth? Rotation of the Local Cluster of galaxies, with a velocity I don't know offhand).

Anyway, those quibbles aside, consider your life as Shel. You have a friend, Dave, who is a linguistics professor; you and he are both history buffs; your father has vanished into Time with little notice, but has bequeathed you several Q-pods with instructions to destroy them; and you have plenty of time on your hands…even more so, as you learn to use the devices! By my estimation, during the calendar year that transpires in the book, Shel and Dave live about three or four years.

There can be funny moments, such as when Dave rescues himself from a predicament, which mightily confuses his friend Karen. There are scary moments, though probably fewer than one might expect, particularly when Dave and Shel face down one of the Borgias in about 1490. It is a good thing for them that people were more superstitious in that era.

Having a device at your disposal that gives you almost godlike perspective is bound to change a fellow's attitude. To an extent, the book reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day, in which a reporter is caught in a time loop. He tries various kinds of fun until that palls; he tries killing himself a number of ways; he learns piano; he learns of all the small tragedies in the town and intervenes in most of them; and he eventually accepts his rĂ´le, which leads to his exit from the time loop. Shel and Dave grow up and find peace, each in his own way.

But I do have to say, paraphrasing Enrico Fermi, if time travelers exist, where are they? Maybe they are in those "flying saucers" we keep hearing about, though I've never heard this theory on Late Night AM. I suspect, if travel through time is ever found to be possible, that it is too expensive and consumes too much energy; a personal time travel device is most likely no more probable than a personal starship. A staple rule of Science Fiction for at least the past 90 years is "Whatever technology can create, technology can duplicate". Once Moore's Law produces a personal music player or phone that can calculate a weather forecast (rather than just download it from NOAA), who knows? Maybe you can then download an app for time travel to your phone. My question "where are they?" really means, "I don't think that'll ever happen." But a book like this makes it fun to "what if" about it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cheating at crosswords

kw: observations, games, puzzles

Most days of the week, I work the puzzles in the newspaper. The main three, Sudoku, a Cryptogram, and a Crossword, increase in difficulty through the week. I can usually do the Cryptogram and the Sudoku any day of the week, though the techniques differ as the week progresses. I can usually do all the Crosswords except Saturday (I don't even try on Sunday, when they use an oversize NY Times puzzle), though in recent weeks I have often been able to complete a Saturday Crossword also.

Today I got halfway done with the Crossword and got stuck. All the key clues to the remaining sections were societal references that meant nothing to me. I guess I don't get out enough! This movie star, that 1965 Nobel prize winner, some composer. Well! I had the computer handy, so I looked a couple things up. Pretty soon, I'd gathered enough of the social clues to finish the puzzle. But, it just isn't as satisfying as finishing a puzzle by memory and wit alone.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Signs of Spring 6 - pollen

kw: observations, seasons

This morning my car, normally white, looked greenish, even chartreuse. Once I started it, I ran the windshield wipers. The oak and tulip trees at the end of my driveway strike again!

Jostle the right kind of tree, and you'll see a cloud of pollen. When we lived in South Dakota, downwind of the Black Hills, this time of year we could see yellow rivers of pollen in the air, and the black (really dark gray) asphalt streets turned a distinct yellow color, along with everything else.

People who are sensitive to pine pollen just shouldn't be near piney woods in April or May. Trees that depend on the wind (and other wind-pollinated plants such as corn / maize) produce huge amounts of pollen, as much as a kilogram for a large pine tree, or a gram or two from each cornstalk.

This is why so many plants "prefer" to be pollinated by insects. They put less total energy and substance into making flowers to attract pollinators than is used by wind-pollinated plants for their pollen burden.

The greenish color of this morning's pollen tells me it came mostly from the oak tree. Oak pollen is green, as this image shows. Tulip tree pollen is more distinctly yellow, and not quite as abundant. Thus I got a chartreuse mix. This image is from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Oak pollen follows one strategy that favors wind dispersal: the grains are very small. This image and the one below are at very similar magnifications.

Pine pollen follows another strategy: wings. Each grain has two "air bladders", hollow projections that decrease the average density and make it easier for wind to carry aloft. I found this image at the University of Hamburg Biology Department. The pollen grains have been stained with crystal violet.

This is the last of this year's Signs of Spring series. Yesterday the temperature got up to just below 90°F (32°C), throughout the Philadelphia area. That is the ultimate sign of Spring!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

More on fonts that save ink

kw: observations, typography, fonts, efficiency

I wrote a post last October in which I compared the "ink economy" of Ecofont with some standards, and a new extra-light font. Now has done an actual study using printers with different default typefaces and face sizes, as reported by CNet.

Their results shown here indicate that Century Gothic just outdoes Ecofont. However, the effective face width differs for different fonts.

For example, while a sample of Verdana may cover 4.55% of the paper, where the same text in Arial covers 4.97%, if the two are printed at the same face size, the Verdana sample will take up more total horizontal space than the Arial sample (I am assuming the baseline-to-baseline distance is set the same for the two faces). Thus, a large work such as a book chapter might require more pages in Verdana, at the same face size. A slightly smaller percentage of a larger number of pages might or might not actually save something.

It will take some fooling around to determine to what extent this latter factor might change the economic figures shown here. Don't hold your breath, but I expect that printing a book using 10pt Verdana will cost a bit more, using more pages and more ink, than printing it using Arial. Then again, I wouldn't print a book in a Sans Serif typeface, I'd use Times New Roman, which is more economical than Verdana or Arial, on both counts.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Look before you leap department

kw: observations, lessons

I have done a bit of spelunking in wild caves, and probably spent even more time reading about caving adventures. I read once of a small young woman who was about to enter a small passage, telling the group leader, "If I can get in, I can get out." The leader said, "Bruises swell. You'll get bigger if you get hurt, and there is nobody in the group small enough to go in after you."

By a bit of sideways thinking, it reminded me of the first time I got into something I couldn't get out of without help. I was twelve, and my father had taken me along on a business trip that happened to be scouting a piece of desert land where a company facility was planned. I wandered off and began climbing a cliff. It had looked sufficiently rough, and for the first twenty feet or so, had handholds and footholds galore. Then I got to a spot where I was out of new holds, and facing the cliff, I couldn't see to find the foothold I'd just left. I was too high to jump.

About this time my father looked around and spotted me. I don't know what he thought, but he didn't say anything until I called out to him. He gave me directions to footholds I could reach, and talked me down. It took a while. I don't recall anything he might have said after I got down, but perhaps he was wise enough to let the lesson teach itself.

Only once as an adult did I think I'd gotten into something too hard, in a cave called Lilburn's, a large cave in California. I had to pass a pullup/chin up test before the survey leader would let me go on the cave survey. That wasn't so hard in the morning, but after twelve hours clambering about in the cave, everyone was quite tired. It turned out, the only way out of the cave is the Corkscrew Chimney. You had to be 5'-9 or taller (I am six feet), and strong enough to lift yourself two feet by arm strength alone, just to get into this passage in the ceiling. It is a point of pride to exit Lilburn's without needing a boost from below.

Though many cavers have been in and out of this cave, I found a brand-new "portable handhold", a head-sized rock that dropped onto my helmet and sat me right down. I got my bearings and tried again, dragging myself up into the chimney with wildly quivering arms. I needed no help, but it was close.

This and similar experiences taught me some of my limitations. "A man's gotta know his limitations", which I recall being said by John Wayne. But I sum up this "Look before you leap" principle with a different proverb: Don't do something you can't undo. The only thing I've started since about age 25 that can't be undone is my marriage, which has so far lasted 35 years.

Monday, April 05, 2010

What price Jesus?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, devotional, exhortation, christian faith

Having reviewed nearly 600 books in this web log, it is rare that I encounter a new genre. A family friend has given me a book she wrote and self-published, which is a combination of devotional and exhortation, with the emphasis on exhortation. Is Jesus Your Pearl? by Karen Knoettner is published by Xulon Press, which helps new Christian authors print their first books. We know Karen because she taught piano to both our son and myself, beginning seven or eight years ago. She is a dear Christian woman about midway in age between numba-one-son and me.

First, let's get a doctrinal quibble out of the way. Matthew 13:44-46 reads (NIV), "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it."

Strictly speaking, in the context of this chapter on the Kingdom of Heaven, the treasure, composed primarily of gemstones, refers to the transformation of the people of God, even though they are living in the world (the field); the pearl refers to the church as the composition of redeemed persons. For the church, represented by these two valuable things, Christ gave his life (everything he had) and poured out His Spirit (on Pentecost).

There is, however, a significant interpretive principle, that those who follow Jesus walk in His footsteps and experience what He experienced. In particular, Paul wrote (Colossians 1:24, NIV), "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." Does this sound like heresy? What could be lacking of the afflictions of Christ? He was afflicted for our redemption, and we cannot share in that, but he was also afflicted for the sake of building the Body, and we do share in that. This is a strong aspect of our purchasing the Pearl of great price. That Pearl is not just Christ singly, but Christ corporately, Christ in His Body the church.

In her book, Mrs. Knoettner relates her own experiences of learning to hold Jesus as that most precious Pearl, her "first love." Near the end of the book, she recalls the second epistle to Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), in which the Lord complains that the church as lost her first love (for Him). This is very relevant for us today, as the author makes plain throughout the book.

I confess that the level of devotion she expresses made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of what I have gradually lost as I have "mellowed" with age. Oh, we are not supposed to age in our love for the Lord! My early Christian experience was among people who delighted to be "crazy lovers of Jesus". I am a quieter person now, and sometimes that's simply not good.

Though the book is not large, the author packs a lot in. Chapter 8, "Lessons from the Oyster ... A Pearl is Born!!", is particularly precious. A pearl grows because of an injury or irritant to the oyster (The irritant is often a small parasite, a point she doesn't mention, but it is telling!). The oyster uses nacre to overlay the irritant, layer after layer, very slowly. This represents, first, God's longsuffering, culminating in the cross to redeem His people; then, it represents our longsuffering as we "take up the cross", bearing all things for the sake of loving God and His people. Paradoxically, this brings us closer and closer to Jesus.

Yet, obtaining this Pearl is not all about suffering, by no means. Pearls are beautiful. We gain much grace from continual contact with God, and grace is enjoyable. Simply put, we enjoy God. I like to call grace, "God's anesthetic." When we enjoy God, day after day, many things that may once have seemed great sufferings pass almost unnoticed. Further, relations among fellow church members improve in measure, which pleases our Lord, who paid so much to obtain that church.

I do hope many of my Christian friends will enjoy this book as much as I did. Simply search for "knoettner pearl" to locate a source.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Dental drama

kw: observations, personal experiences

I spent a week eating on one side of my mouth after my root canal. Two days ago I had the next steps: a deep cleaning, the crown preparation of the bad tooth, and extraction of the wisdom tooth behind it, which was getting rather loose.

I don't really want to go into the 3½ hours at the dentist. The crown prep, in particular, was like hearing a jackhammer inside my head. Fortunately, the dentist did a stellar job of numbing everything. The extraction went very quickly, because the tooth was pretty ready to go.

All this happened Thursday. I wrote a book review that morning, then went to the dentist. I came home just before 1PM, and sat around reading until the Novocaine wore off. I was surprised that the empty socket wasn't painful. I'd heard such horror stories about post-extraction pain. Anyway, once I felt it safe to do so, I took a nap. I didn't eat until dinnertime Friday, though I worked about 2/3 of Friday.

Now it is Saturday. Things seem to be healing quickly. I got up late, and have eaten just soft stuff, until our pizza dinner. Still, I am eating primarily on the "good" side of my mouth. Wrap-up of the dental work will require two more visits, and be all done in mid-May. I'll be so used to eating one-sided by then, I wonder if it will be hard to switch back? Ha.

On another note, I mowed for the first time today. Then I fertilized. Lovely day for it, a little cooler than the weather people had predicted. It was nice to be outside. I figure an hour of pushing the mower around is equal to anything I do when I work out at the YMCA, so I suppose I caught up for not going yesterday. Some of my neighbors have azaleas blooming already, but none of mine are. Spring has fully sprung.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Fostering magical consciousness

kw: book reviews, short biographies, spiritualism

I have read the introduction and a few chapters of The Secret Life of Genius: How 24 Great Men and Women Were Touched by Spiritual Worlds by John Chambers. I won't be completing the book. The author presents 24 short biographies that focus on supernatural and spiritualistic experiences. Persons discussed include Ben Jonson, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Harry Houdini and Winston Churchill.

The introduction poses a question of what would have resulted if the sack of Prague in 1620 had been forestalled by a victory of Frederick V of Bohemia. Prague was a center of investigation into "alternate realities", a welter of alchemical, astrological, cabalistic and other occultist practices. In this and the mini-biographies, the author writes with the credulity of a true believer about the possibility that the modern world could have been a product, not of science and technology, but a "technology of magic".

There is no doubt that some of the people limned here reported extraordinary experiences. But none produced a new technology that has not been superseded by the products of the scientific method. As Churchill once wrote, "Even a fool is right once in a while." The phlogiston theory, for example, did explain many aspects of combustion, but it could not fully account for everything, while a proper chemical understanding of oxidation-reduction reactions shows that phlogiston was simply wrong.

It has been well known since I was small that Isaac Newton wrote in greater volume about Bible interpretation and alchemy than he did about science (which he called "natural philosophy"). Chambers pretends that this is some new discovery, and heavily freights his narrative with Newton's struggles to reconcile his supernatural and spiritual beliefs with the scientific method he was busily inventing, as though Newton expected some synthesis of alchemy and chemistry or astrology and physics. It is no surprise that Newton never achieved this reconciliation. Many today have yet to do so. Astrology may be nonsense, but it is charming nonsense, and the daily newspaper horoscope remains as popular as ever, in spite of the fact that there are many more personality types than astrology can account for!

I keep a pretty cluttered mental attic, but the spiritualist proclivities of sundry geniuses get the heave-ho.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Sometimes the fat boy wins

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies

From birth, Frank Bruni was the best eater in a family of big eaters. All his life he struggled to "just lose that extra five or ten pounds." But as he chronicles in Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, Frank was fighting a losing battle until he got a fresh look at himself, courtesy of a rude brother and a practical doctor.

Though he wasn't the oldest of the three boys, he was the biggest and tallest. And though he'd been called "fat" in school, family stuck up for family. A talent for swimming saved him in his school years. Years on the swim team, and winning meet after meet, made him both more popular and more slender than he expected. Not that he was ever skinny. But even though he was "just a bit wider than the rest of the team" he was fast off the blocks, fast on the turns, and such a powerful swimmer that he won, time after time. So during those years, he comforted himself that though he might be "a little overweight", he wasn't obese.

In his college years, swimming and running, along with episodes of bulimic purging and other desperate "dieting" measures, kept some of his demons at bay, but frequent splurges and binges eventually got the upper hand. Finally, in his early thirties, at a big family event, he and his brothers were teasing one another as boys of any age do. He made one quite telling dig at one of his brothers, who responded, "Yeah, but at least I'm not fat." The bomb had been dropped, the family's conspiracy of silence cracked.

Not long after that, he had to visit a doctor, for the first time in many years. At the scale he said, as he always did, "Don't tell me. I don't want to know." The doctor looked right at him and said, "It's 268 pounds." He could do the math. He'd weighed under 190 just ten years earlier. He didn't have a "five or ten" problem; he needed to lose more than seventy pounds! (Strange, though, he claims his pants size at the time was 42. He must not carry much around the waist; I wear 40's and 42's, and I weigh 220, and I am taller.)

Fortunately for him, he was making the kind of money that he could afford a good trainer. He was writing for the NY Times, on a political beat, and spent 3-4 weekly sessions with a trainer at $70 per hour, plus running, plus learning to eat more sensibly. But training, training, Training was the key for him. By the time he was sent to Italy to be Rome bureau chief, he was in much better shape.

Italy! The land of Food! How would he ever stay this side of 300 pounds? No longer hiding from himself, and not willing to accept his proclivities as fate, he observed the Italians. They ate such great food, yet they weren't fat. In fact, most of them were downright skinny. Portion control was the key. They would have one of something, where he'd been contemplating three or four. A few ounces of a pasta dish, not a few pounds. Smaller portions and continued training brought his weight nearly down to 200, and really bucked up his confidence.

He needed that confidence when the Times called to offer him a post as restaurant critic in New York city. Whatever will a born fatty do when he is being paid to, even required to, eat at the finest restaurants seven or eight times per week? So far, for the most part, he has done just fine. It takes a couple of trainers, one Pilates and one more traditional, plenty of running, and the discipline to eat just a bite here and there of the many dishes he must sample daily.

You know how, at a wine tasting, you take a sip, swirl it in your mouth, and spit it out? Well, he doesn't spit anything out, but most of any dish is left uneaten. He's hot hiding from himself any longer. He knows what he is, and he also knows what he has to do about it. His grandmother had a proverb, "Born round, you don't die square." I guess it is the Italian version of "round peg, square hole." He observes that it isn't fate. He sees how one of this brothers has changed over the years, and it heartens him as he continues to do what he must to stay in the "big, but not obese" category.

He is just over forty, having lived about half his life. Maybe in twenty years or so, he'll update us on his progress in the "middle years."